October 3, 2009 § Leave a comment
Now reading: The Manuscript Found in Saragossa.
That title may seem like a transparent attempt to drum up some misguided traffic (in the grand tradition of my previous posts “Blogging About Flogging” and “Tales of Ribaldry”), but it’s actually a fairly accurate representation of the key to the action in the framing narrative (really the largest frame within the frame about the manuscript’s later discovery — the first example of the play with time in the narrative, the looping back from the present/future into the past). There really are mysterious Muslim babes here, presented as such, if not in so many words. They’re exotically transgressive and objectified and, oh yeah, they may actually be part of a plot to convince our hero, Alphonse van Worden, to reject Christianity and accept Islam, or they may be succubi. Did I mention that these sisters, Emina and Zubeida, also claim to be van Worden’s cousins, of the famous Gomelez family, holders of the “secret of the Gomelez”? It all gets very weird and, for the 1810s, pretty racy (there’s definitely three-way sex going on here, or at least the illusion of such).
So all of that seems like it’s straight out of Orientalism 101, and it surely is, but Potocki also complicates the expected narrative in interesting ways. Though there are many apparently supernatural events in which the sisters are (apparently) involved which lead us, the readers, to believe they are demons, van Worden refuses to believe it. On the seventh day, the sisters are finally able to remove from van Worden’s neck the necklace holding a relic of the true cross; they then consummate their relationship and, in van Worden’s words, “my charming companions became my wives…. And I am led to conclude that my cousins played no real part in my dreams at the Venta Quemada.” After the consummation, the Muslim Sheikh of the Gomelez appears; but Emina says to van Worden, “… listen carefully to what I am now saying to you. Do not believe any ill that is spoken of us. Do not even believe the evidence of your eyes.”
Van Worden bases all of his self-worth in his honor; he has accepted the girls as his wives (granted, after irresistable seduction and some trickery); and so, even when it seems evident to the reader that he is, in fact, at the mercy of either demons or a convoluted plot to win his soul for Islam, he continues to believe Emina’s words. He believes they are his cousins. And, as I’ll talk about later, the battle between reason and faith that develops in the text also undermines our own belief in the supernatural events we’ve apparently witnessed.
There’s also Potocki’s very interesting handling of van Worden; he is a rather opaque character. We often do not receive from him the reactions to stories or events that we might expect; his morality is kept rather vague, except for its grounding in the maintenance of honor; in the middle of the book he retreats into the background, mostly just narrating the events between stories without comment. His impressions of Islam, especially, are ambiguous. Later introductions of Jewish, deistic, and other Islamic characters further muddy the waters: the question becomes, how are we the readers intended to react? There are certainly crude slurs on the Jews and Muslims here — but they are also presented telling their own stories, often quite empathetic stories, and presented as worthy of our attention and interest.
Spain, as a land of Romance and mystery at the time Potocki was writing, plays a part here. Reading a story set in Spain at the time Potocki was writing could alert the reader to the fact that the story would be fantastic and exotic — operating at a fictional level where some acceptance of and commerce with fictional Jews and Muslims could be permitted. Also important is Potocki’s shuffling of genre: he’s very self-conscious about playing with the already trite genres his characters sometimes work in, very self-conscious at times of reminding us that we’re reading a novel, an entertainment trying to titillate, intrigue, excite, and amuse us.
Anyway, I clearly have some criticism to read. In the meantime, the latest developments in my reading so far are the events of the 29th and 30th days. Van Worden, to prove his bravery to a bunch of people he doesn’t know, goes into the “kingdom of the gnomes” underground. Two “chthonic divinities” approach him in the dark, which turn out to be his cousins. They further tempt him to convert, then they have some sex, and then van Worden wakes up alone in the tunnels under a mountain. This turns out to be “the underground domain of the Cassar Gomelez,” where the secret is guarded by a “dervish” that van Worden meets. He gives his word not to reveal the secret, and so we are left in the dark; but we do see “a golden tree representing the genealogy of the Gomelez. The trunk split into two major branches, one of which, the Muslim Gomelez, seemed to unfold and flourish with all the force of a vigorous plant, while the other, representing the Christian Gomelez, was visibly withering and bristled with long and menacing pointed thorns.”
In this book of connections between stories and among different levels of stories, this episode reminded me of a story-within-a-story-within-a-story, the Principessa di Monte Salerno’s Story on the thirteenth day. The Principessa shows her guest underground vaults containing automata made of jewels and precious metals, incredible lost treasures from the history of art, and many other wonders; but it turns out that she is a demonic ghost who, when alive, “publicly declared that she possessed paradise on earth” and renounced Christianity, and now haunts the ruins of her former paradise. It was all an illusion. I wonder what this all means for the fabulous underground lair van Worden visits; and I wonder if he wonders about that story, which he heard, and whether he’s meant to connect it to what he appears to be experiencing.
(As a footnote: these two episodes are strong reminders of Victoria Nelson’s The Secret Life of Puppets, pretty much the most awesome work of criticism I’ve ever read, with its examination of grottoes, automata, speaking idols, and the submerged irrational in art, language, literature, culture. I know I’ve plugged it before; I’m doing it again now. Surprising she didn’t discuss this book, actually, although she does mention it once.)
February 19, 2009 § 4 Comments
Now reading: Memoirs of My Nervous Illness, by Daniel Paul Schreber.
Schreber’s book was introduced to me by Victoria Nelson’s The Secret Life of Puppets, probably the coolest piece of criticism I’ve ever read. It sounded wild at second hand; at first hand, it is wild indeed. The backstory is byzantine, as evidenced by the layers upon layers of commentary, addenda, notes, and postscripts in this edition (the New York Review of Books translation by Ida Macalpine and Richard A. Hunter); the memoirs themselves are mind-bogglingly complex, in a number of ways. One of these ways is the problem of figuring out the relationship of Schreber to his story and the state of his mind as he writes — which I hope to deal with in my next post.
Another is the more straightforward challenge of keeping up with the bizarre cosmology which was revealed to/invented by him during his stay at an asylum in the 1890s. It is a universe dazzling for its originality, its solipsism, its psychological and symbological insight, and its nightmarish detail. To inadequately summarize my incomplete comprehension of this universe: Schreber has come to realize that there is a crisis in the universe, based on God’s being trapped by a human soul, that of Schreber’s doctor, Dr. Flechsig. Schreber has come into contact both with the voice of God and with spirits of the dead (but also the living) in the form of “rays” which commune with his soul (which resides in the nerves which run throughout the human body). He’s come to understand that this crisis has led the rest of humankind to be replaced by phantasms, “fleeting-improvised-men” (in this translation) who exist solely to help him along in his, Schreber’s work: to repopulate the earth with actual humans by transforming into a woman.
Got that? Yes. Well. It is helpful (and incredible) to remember that this was not willfully invented as a fiction, in which case it surely would have been much less opaque, much less ornate, unless Schreber truly were a kind of extremely avant-garde science fiction writer, the preincarnation of Philip K. Dick: Schreber believed this, as a divine revelation he was continually receiving as he was recovered from a nervous breakdown (which was also related to this divine plan). Incidentally, the book is central to the woefully underrated film Dark City.
There are a zillion things to talk about in this highly evocative cosmology, but I’m fascinated by the God Schreber has created, which he is careful to point out bears little resemblance to the Judeo-Christian God except that he is the only God. Schreber’s God is marvelous: Chapters 2 and 5 contain a huge amount of detail on his complicated structure and place in the universe. God’s functioning in the world is intimately connected to — and limited by — something Schreber calls “The Order of the World”: in other words, the normal functioning of the universe, to which even God is subservient.
Chapter 5 contains a remarkable section in which Schreber discusses God’s lack of omniscience — his fallability, his incomplete knowledge, and the ability, in fact, to tempt him. As a theodicy, or explanation for the existence of evil, it is quite something. Schreber explains that, “…within the Order of the World, God did not really understand the living human being and had no need to understand him, because, according to the Order of the World, He dealt only with corpses.” (Italics Schreber’s.) This idea — that God may have started or even created the universe and life, but does not necessarily understand it — is quite compelling, I think. After all, how could God understand life? Having no beginning and no end, and his realms being those of the dead, how could he understand what it meant to be alive?
Because of this lack of understanding, Dr. Flechsig was somehow able to attract and trap God. And this leads to a remarkable, 4-page paragraph in which Schreber attempts to explain why God was, in fact, responsible for trying to “commit soul murder” on him. Because Flechsig has violated the Order of the World by trapping God with his seductive, living nerves, God is motivated by
“that instinct of self-preservation, as natural in God as in every other living being — an instinct which as mentioned in another context … forced God in special circumstances to contemplate the destruction not only of individual human beings, but perhaps of whole stars with all the created beings upon them…. wherever the Order of the World is broken, power alone counts, and the right of the stronger is decisive. In my case, moral obliquity lay in God placing Himself outside the Order of the World by which He Himself must be guided; although not exactly forced, He was nevertheless induced to do this by a temptation very difficult for souls to resist, which was brought about by the presence of Professor Flechsig’s impure (“tested”) soul in heaven.”
Schreber concludes that he has defeated the plans of God and Flechsig to murder his soul, because “the Order of the World is on my side.”
Impossible as it probably is to make any sense of out of context, it is a remarkable argument. God seduced by the vitality of a living human soul, unable to resist making contact with that dangerous “other”!
You can see Schreber, a respected scholar of the law before his mental illness, working out the moral ramifications of the universe imposed on him by the voices he hears in his head. Heartbreaking. And yet there’s a kernel of artistic greatness there, too. The God presented here reminds me an awful lot of the God in Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials books: a monster of self-interest, clinging to life and desperate to make the world believe in him and the unjust order he’s imposed on it. But Schreber is much more sympathetic to his God: incapable of understanding humans, even when he’s fallen just like them.