Tuesday, November 3, 2015

The Novel, a survival skill by Tim Parks

[ To some degree he sets up a straw dog: ‘what literary criticism does’ that it doesn’t always.]

If reader reaction to writers are profoundly conditioned by their respective backgrounds, by where one is writing from and the other reading from, then any notion of establishing a definitive “judgment” on a book, or pecking order of writers, is swept away. But it could hardly be otherwise, and despite all the literary prizes and “authoritative” critics, really we already knew this. “He didn’t get it it at all,” “She bought into it at once” are expressions that suggest how readily we accept the idea of affinity or lack of it when we read a book; publishers and newspapers send novels to reviewers who they sense will be well-disposed to a certain style or content; relatives and friends give books they hope will be the right thing for the right person. Often the person receiving the book appreciates at once that a mistake has been made. It’s an experience I’m all to familiar with.

So this is common knowledge.  .  . Here I have proposed a model for narrative creativity that is not common knowledge and that has uncomfortable implications. It is widely believed that literary writing may come out of mental turbulence, disturbance, even pathological states of mind. Yet it is always assumed that the literature produced by these states of mind is beneficent. Why should this be? Is it perhaps that since we enjoy reading narrative it has become important for us to believe that the activity is intrinsically good; we exploit a cod Platonism absorbed since earliest infancy that tells us that if a thing can be described as beautiful it will somehow be morally good as well. A great thinker like Schopenhauer was convinced that novels were detrimental to mental and moral health. People were “deluded into an absolutely false view of life by reading novels.” Nobody takes on this accusation. Schopenhauer is a great thinker, except when inconvenient.

I have tried to give some shape and system to our intuition of the mental discomfort behind much literary creativity. I have not questioned whether Dickens, Hardy, Lawrence, Joyce, etc. write “good” novels or stories. What I wonder is whether the process of fiction writing offers resolution, greater ease, to the writer or the readers, or whether it is a way of rendering an unhappy situation chronic by allowing just sufficient consolation and reward from the expression of unhappiness to prevent us from making big changes. True, I have suggested, in my very title, that writing can be thought of as a survival skill, offering relief from internal conflict, but perhaps in some cases we could add, in lieu of some other more radical and practical course of action: if you are not willing, that is, to undertake the real life changes that might resolve a dilemma, or if such changes have been tried but proved impossible, unworkable, then write!

In this regard I recall a conversation with a German writer, locked into an unhappily complicated relationship with two women and writing rather brilliant books about men locked into unhappily complicated relationships with more than one woman. He was fairly young and over beers complained to me that he found himself doing things (with women) that he had promised himself he would not repeat. However, when I suggested he might want to see an analyst, he responded that he was afraid that if he solved his problem it would effect his writing. Perhaps he needed this messy life to write. Literature, or an income from literature, or the self esteem that accrues from producing literature, were more important than solving his unhappiness, or made unhappiness manageable.

The strategy rubs off on the reader. When we read Colm Toibin’s silvery prose, the fine cadences with which emotional suffering is described, it really does seem that art might somehow make up for, or almost make up for, a lost love, an empty life. Alice Munro is on the same wavelength: successful writing, sophisticated reading, sensibility, irony, deep perception, all invite us to feel at once pleasantly sad, yet complacent about lives described as failures. The reader of Hardy can feel gratified by his or her own rejection of destructive Victorian values, yet at the same time remain convinced of how dangerous it is to go against the social grain. And so on. Perhaps of all writers, Beckett, or at least his narrators in the trilogy, made the most hay with this, at once mocking the consolation to be found from writing- “there is a choice of images,” declares  Malone, having described his alter ego’s disorientation as a “thistledown plucked by the wind” – then finding consolation in this superior awareness that no consolation is to be had.

Let me return to Gregory Bateson’s Naven to frame the one deep question I meant this book to pose. Bateson described a drastically imbalanced society which found in an elaborate and bizarre series of rituals ay of allowing that imbalance to continue without society tearing itself apart. Whether this is precious stability or chronic unease is not an issue for the anthropologist, but it might well be for the individual members of that society. It might be that, becoming conscious of the mechanism, an individual in that society would want to drop the ritual and confront the imbalance. In general, then, is the effect of novels we read essentially a form of Naven, an elaborate mental ritual? Thus the virtual and virtuous intellectual life is sufficiently gratifying, one way or another, to permit us to continue with ugly realities, the satisfaction of feeling ourselves progressive, for example, is enough to go on being conservative. Arguing against arousing compassion in novels, Muriel Spark remarked that the sentiment merely allows the reader to “feel that their moral responsibilities are sufficiently fulfilled by the emotions they have been induced to feel.”

Is this the way our western lifestyle perpetuates itself? With a structural hypocrisy that requires a very special mind set; receiving the Nobel Prize, the winner gives a ferociously anti-capitalist speech to a full-house of international capitalists who all applause warmly. Nothing will change. Such was the case when Jose Saramago took the award. “I can’t understand why the applauded,” remarks The Writer in Bernhard’s play Am Ziel, speaking about his own successful drama: “we are talking about a work that exposes every one of them and in the meanest way admittedly with humor, but nasty humor, if not with malice, true malice. And all of a sudden they applaud!” Art has become structural to our way of life, not a force for change, rather an opportunity to feel complacent about our sensibilities.

Not that I believe that all literature is necessarily of this kind. Of the writers we have looked at Lawrence is definitely of a different nature. Beckett is another writer determined to draw attention to the dangerous consolations of literature, to satirize the power of art to encourage us to imagine our sufferings noble.

But on the whole? Amid all the pieties that art is always worthy and above all worthy of funding, that the world needs stories, regardless of what kind of stories, let us stay focused on the real effect that reading and writing has upon us. Let us understand the malaise it came out of and the malaise we bring to it. Plato banished [poets from his republic. He felt they were noxious. Plato was no fool. I will not suggest we do the same, I love reading novels; but let us beware, or rather be aware. Dickens can be harmful. Hardy can be harmful. Joyce can be harmful. I admire them all. We must defend ourselves.

.   .   .   .   .  .


The critical reception of Jude, though it proved popular, was the breaking point for Thomas Hardy. Hardy had written openly of sexual problems  that people close to him knew were to do with his own marriage and frustrations. He had spoken explicitly of marriage as a trap. “Why can’t we agree to free each other?” begs Sue of her husband. Yet at the same time he was suggesting that the community’s principles were so internalized in his protagonists’ minds that there was no question of escaping them. “We must conform! . . .says Sue at the bitter climax of the novel. “I am, cowed into submission. I have no more fighting strength left; no more enterprise. I am beaten, beaten!” Victorian principles prevail, albeit as a decaying albatross round the necks of these would-be revolutionaries. And Hardy stayed in his gloomy Dorset home, adding an outside staircase so he could move between study and garden without meeting his wife Emma.

What broke in the end was not his way of life, but Hardy’s will to go on writing novels. If one function of his narrative pessimism had been to keep him in his marriage, despite his unhappiness, this “advantage” was now outweighed by the deeper bitterness the novel created in that marriage – his wife openly announcing her disgust with the book to dinner guests – and again the extreme hostility of a wide area of the press. Hardy, like Jude and Sue, was now cowed into submission, lost any will top go on struggling with his dilemma. Quite probably he accepted the situation with the same relief that Tess accepts her death, especially since the scandal of the book turned it into a considerable commercial success that now made him as independent financially a he was trapped domestically. From now on he would only write poetry, where, he claimed, the same strong opinions could be expressed without negative response, largely because the absence of narrative and the attraction of lyricism prevented the same ferocious engagement on the part of the reader. A disembodied idea is much less dangerous than an embodied one. In a letter in 1888 he remarked:

If there is anyway of getting a melancholy satisfaction out of life in dying, so to speak before one is out of the flesh; by which I mean putting on the manner of ghosts, wandering in their haunts, and taking their view of surrounding things. To think of life as passing away is a sadness, to think of it as past is at least tolerable. Hence even when I enter into a room to pay a simple morning call, I have unconsciously the habit of regarding the scene as if I were a spectre not solid enough to influence my environment.

The relation of such a wish to the fear/courage polarity in alkl of Hatrdy’ novels is evident, as equally there is a parallel between the desire to be beyond engagement and responsibility and Tess’s desire to forget her body in contemplation of the stars, or again Clym’s happiness submerging himself in vegetation and insect life. Hardy yearns for a place beyond fear, desire, and the need to muster courage. He gave up novel-writing, one might hazard, to look for that place and that ghostly place in poetry.

Here’s Afterwards:
When the Present has latched its postern behind my tremulous stay,
    And the May month flaps its glad green leaves like wings,
Delicate-filmed as new-spun silk, will the neighbors say,
    “He was a man that used to notice such things”?

If it be in the dusk when, like an eyelid’s soundless blink,
   The dewfall-hawk comes crossing the shades to alight
Upon the wind-warped upland thorn, a gazer might think,
    “To him this must have been a familiar sight.”

If I pass during some nocturnal blackness, mothy and warm,
    When the hedgehog travels furtively over the lawn,
One may say, “he strove that such innocent creatures should
    come to no harm,
But he could do little for them, and now he’s gone.”

If, when hearing that I have been stilled at last, they stand at the door,
    Watching the full-starred heavens that winter sees,
Will this thought rise on those who meet my face no more,

    “He was one who had an eye for such mysteries?”

And will any say when my bell of quittance is heard in the gloom,
    And a crossing breeze cuts a pause in its outrollings,
Till they rise again, as they were a new bell’s bloom,
  “He hears it not now, but used to notice such things”?

All Hardy’s old anxieties are here, but so quietly  and beautifully expressed we hardly notice. The poet’s has been a “tremulous”, death is already behind him, aestheticized in the tolling bell; his concern about his reputation is presented modestly as he wonders whether people will remember how he observed the natural world that the poem the immerses itself in. A rapacious bird of prey becomes the “dewfall-hawk”; the fact that this bird of prey could be responsible for the death of the “furtive hedgehog” of the next stanza is discretely left unmentioned. Hardy “strove that such innocent creatures should come to no harm. But he could do little for them [or himself]; and now he is gone – so much for the possibility of positive action in the world. In the fourth stanza the starry heavens remain the “mystery” they always were. There is no God,. Finally, the bell of “quittance”  suggests “discharge from debt or obligation.” Hardy is relieved to be gone. All life’s passions have been elided, not just the fatal consummation, Bathsheba’s first kiss with Troy, Tess’s sex with Alec, but the whole damn narrative .The pessimism is so elegantly put that none one could possibly object. Above all there are no women.

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

The Myth of the Born Criminal by Karkko Jalava, Stephanie Griffiths and Michael Maraun

In "The Myth of the Born Criminal" Jarko Jalava and the other authors implicate Norman Mailer, his essay "The White Negro" initiating a cultural trend (not without historical antecedents), when he wrote " 'One is Hip or one is Square... one is a rebel or one conforms, one is a frontiersman in the Wild West of American night life, or else a Square cell ...doomed to conform if one is to succeed' For Mailer, there is only one true moral choice. Having witnessed ' the horrors of the concentration camps and the atom bomb - both the courtesy of vast scientific and bureaucratic operations -the modern individual could either fall into a ' slow death by conformity with every creative and rebellious instinct stifled or to 'accept the terms of death, to live with death as an immediate danger, to divorce oneself from society, to exist without roots, to set out that uncharted journey into the rebellious instincts of self...'" The authors also examine the iconography of the psychopath in popular culture such as the movie "Natural Born Killers" and "Silence of the Lambs' and many others incuding many crime shows on TV, as well as (in a rather conservative vein) 'the devaluation of concerns about intrinsic or ultimate meaning' in Postmodernism. He also refers to the work of cultural critic Richard Slotkin and the American mythology that came to see violence as natural and regenerative; what was necessary for early settler survival became the founding idea of the frontier spirit, again reflected in popular entertainment. The deterioration of the Social Contract in social and economic policy during the last thirty years and the tensions which they have aroused enhances this atavistic trend manifest most clearly, as in Palestine, among youth.  

The attributes of the social construct called psychopathy consist of a very broad range of moral judgments which, they were ever applied consistently would describe at least 14 million Americans. For example, the dissimulation or 'false face' said to characterize the supposed subspecies called psychopath,is a common aspect of many social arrangements of which most people avail themselves at one time or another, though said to be 'superficial' and lacking in transparency in many situations. Indifference to the sufferings of others, cold calculation are, of course approved in some circumstances but not others, and a matter of routine in the conduct of our foreign policy.

In order to address the problem of mass shootings and the iconography of the psychopath the authors suggest a more focused attention on the individual ' nexus of motives, intentions, beliefs, choices, internal conflicts, social conflicts, regrets, meaningful coincidences and so on: the stuff, in other words, of any well-written biography' and as embodied in the psychological work of William James. In that light, the attempt to totally erase the story of the shooter in the recent Oregon case, is quite disturbing.In that respect."

"Overlooking or minimizing the role of the environment in favor of the biogenetic explanation  by researchers has profound consequences when it comes to dealing with psychopathic behaviors. Norwegian psychologist Aina Gullhaugen and her co-author, psychiatristn Jim Nottestad, point out that because we assume psychopathy is biological, and becaisepsychopaths fail to show normal emotional responses, w assume that their emotional loves never were and never will be normal. But what if we are wrong? What if, they ask, early life experiences play an important role in shaping the batten emotional life of psychopaths? Gullhaugen and Nottestad reviewed all case studies of psychopaths published in the lat thirty years, and analysed childhood experiences n each case. In a July 2012 interview, Gullhaugen stated, "Without exception, these people have been injured in the company of their caregivers ... and many of the descriptions made it clear that their ruthlessness was an attempt to redress this damage, but in an inappropriate or bad way."

Thursday, September 24, 2015

The Gift by Vladimir Nabokov

Down the helical stairs of the bus that drew up came a pair of charming silk legs: we know of course that this has been worn threadbare  by the efforts of a thousand male writers, but nevertheless down they came, these legs – and deceived: the face was revolting. Fyodor climbed aboard, and the conductor, on the open top deck, smote its plated side with his palm to tell the driver he could move on. Along this side and along the toothpaste advertisement upon it swished the tips of soft maple twigs – and it would have been pleasant to look down from above on the gliding street ennobled by perspective, if it were not for the everlasting, chilly thought: there he is, a special, rare and as yet un-described and unnamed variant of man, and he is occupied by God knows what, rushing from lesson to lesson, wasting his youth on a boring and empty task, on the mediocre teaching of foreign languages – when he has his own language, out of which he can make anything he wants – a midge, a mammoth, a thousand different clouds. What he should be really teaching was that mysterious and refined thing  which he alone – out of ten thousand, a hundred thousand, perhaps even a million men –knew how to teach: for example – multilevel thinking: you look at a person and you see him as clearly as if he were fashioned of glass and you were a glass blower, while at the same time without in the  least impinging upon that clarity you notice some trifle on the side – such as the similarity of the telephone receiver’s shadow to a huge, slightly crushed ant, and (all this simultaneously) the convergence is joined by a third thought – the memory of a sunny evening at a Russian small railway station; i.e., images having no rational connection with the conversation you are carrying on while your mind runs around the outside of your own words and along the inside of those of your interlocutor. Or: a piercing pity – for the tin box in a waste spot, for the cigarette card for the series National Costumes trampled in the mud, for the poor, stray word repeated by the kind-hearted, weak, loving creature who has just been scolded for nothing – for all the trash of life which by means of a momentary alchemic distillation -  the “royal experiment” is turned into something valuable and eternal. Or else: the constant feeling that our days here are only pocket money, farthings clinking in the dark, and that somewhere is stocked the real wealth, from which life should know how to get dividends in the shape of dreams, tears of happiness, distant mountains. All this and much more (beginning with the very rare  and painful so-called “sense of the starry sky,” mentioned it seems in only one treatise (Parker’s Travels of the Spirit), and ending with professional subtleties in the sphere of serious literature), he would have been able to teach, and teach well, to anyone who wanted it, but no one wanted it – and no one could, but it was a pity, he would have charged a hundred marks an hour, the same as certain professors of music. And at the same time he found it amusing to refute himself : all this was nonsense, the shadows of nonsense, presumptuous dreams. I am simply a poor young Russian selling the surplus from a gentleman’s upbringing, while scribbling verses in my spare time, that’s the total of my little immortality. But even this shade of multifaceted thought, this play of the mind with its own self, had no prospective pupils. 

[ .  .  .  .]

.  .  . reviews poured. Professor Anuchin of Prague University (a well-know public figure, a man of shining moral purity and of great personal courage – the same Professor Anuchin who in 1922, not long before his deportation from Russia, when some leatherjackets had come to arrest him but became interested in his collection of ancient coins and were slow in taking him away, had calmly said, pointing to his watch: “Gentlemen, history does not wait.”) printed a detailed analysis of [my] Life of Chernyshevski in an émigré magazine appearing in Paris.

“Last year [he wrote], a remarkable book came out by Professor Otto Lederer of Bonn University, Three Despots  (Alexander the Misty, Nicholas the Chill, and Nicholas the Dull.) Motivated by a passionate love for the freedom of the human spirit and a burning hatred for its suppressors, Dr. Lederer  in certain of his appraisals was unjust – taking no account at all, for instance, of that national Russian fervor which so powerfully gave body to the symbol of the throne; but excessive zeal, and even blindness, in a process of exposing evil is always more understandable and forgivable than the least mockery – no matter how witty it may be -  of that which public opinion feels to be objectively good. However, it is precisely this second road, the road of eclectic mordancy, that has been chose by Mr. Godunov- Cherdyntsev in his interpretation of the life and works of N.G. Chernyshevski.”

“The author has undoubtedly acquainted himself thoroughly and in his own way conscientiously with his subject; undoubtedly, also, he has a talented pen – certain ideas he puts forward, and juxtapositions of ideas, are undoubtedly shrewd; but with all this his book is repellant. Let us try to examine calmly this impression.

“A certain epoch has been taken and one of its representatives chosen. But has the author assimilated the concept of “epoch’? No. First of all one senses in him absolutely no consciousness of that classification of time, without which history turns into an arbitrary gyration of multicolored spots, into some kind of impressionistic picture with a walking figure upside down against a green sky that does not exist in nature. But this device (which destroys, by the way, any scholarly value of the work in question, in spite of its swaggering erudition) does not, nevertheless, constitute the author’s chief fault. His chief fault is in the manner in which he portrays Chernyshevki.

“It is completely unimportant that Chernyshevski understood less about poetry than a young esthete today. It is completely unimportant that in his philosophical conceptions Chernyshevski kept aloof from those transcendental subtleties which please Mr. Godunov- Cherdyntsev. What is important is that, whatever Chernyshevski’s views may have been on art and science, they represented the Weltanschauug of the most progressive men of his era, and were moreover indissolubly linked to the development of social ideas, with their ardent, beneficial, activating force. It is in this aspect, in this sole true light, that Chernyshevski’s system of thought acquires a significance which far transcends the sense of those groundless arguments – unconnected in any way with the epochs of the sixties – which Mr. Godunov-Cherdyntsv uses venomously ridiculing his hero.

“But he makes fun, not only of his hero: he also makes fun of his reader. How else can one qualify the fact that among the well-known authorities of Chernyshevski a nonexistent authority is cited, to whom the author pretends to appeal? In a certain sense it would be possible if not to forgive then at least to understand scientifically scoffing at Chernyshevski, if Mr. Godunov-Cherdyntsev were a heated supporter of those whom Chernyshevski attacked. It would at least be a point of view, and reading the book the reader would make a constant adjustment for the author’s partisan approach, in that way arriving at the truth. But the pity is that with Mr. Godunov-Cherdyntsev there is nothing to adjust to and the point of view is ‘everywhere and nowhere’; not only that, but as soon as the reader, as he descends the course of a sentence, thinks he has at last sailed into a quiet backwater, into the realm of ideas which may be contrary to those of Chernyshevski but are apparently shared by the author – and therefore can serve as a basis for the reader’s judgment and guidance – the author gives him an unexpected fillip and knocks the imaginary prop from under him, so that he is once more unaware as to  whose side Mr. Godunov- Cherdyntsev is on in  his campaign against Chernyshevski – whether he is on the side of the advocates of art for art’s sake, or of the government,  of some other of Chernyshevski’s enemies who the reader does not know. As far as jeering at the hero himself is concerned, here the author passes all bounds. There is no detail too repulsive for him to distain. He will probably reply that all these details are to be found In the ‘Diary’  of the young Chernyshevski; but there they are in their place, in their proper environment, in the correct order and perspective, among many other thoughts and feelings which are much more valuable. But the author has fished out and put together precisely these, as if someone had tried to restore the image of the person by making an elaborate collection of his combings, fingernail pairings, and bodily excretions.

“In other words the author is sneering throughout the whole of his book at the personality of one of the purest and most valorous sons of liberal Russia – not to speak of the passing kicks with which he rewards other progressive Russian thinkers, a respect for whom is in our consciousness an immanent part of their historical essence. In his book, which lies absolutely outside the humanitarian tradition of Russian literature and therefore outside literature in general, there are no actual untruths (if one does not count the fictitious ‘Stannolyubski’ already mentioned, two or three doubtful details, and a few slips of the pen), but  that ‘truth’ which it contains is worse than the most prejudiced lie, for such truth goes indirect contradiction to that noble and chaste truth (the absence of which deprives history of what the great Greeks called ‘tropotos’) which is one of the inalienable treasures of Russian social thought. In our day, thank God, books are not burned by bonfire, but I must confess that if such a custom were still in existence, Mr. Godunov-Cherdyntsev’s book could justifiably be considered the first candidate for fueling the public square.”

After that Koncheyev had his say in the literary annual The Tower.  .  . 

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Pepperoni by Donald Barthelme

Financially, the paper is quite healthy. The paper’s timberlands, mining interests, pulp and paper operations, book, magazine, corrugated-box and greeting-card division, film, radio, television, and cable companies, and data- processing and satellite-communications group are all flourishing, with overall return on invested capital increasing at about eleven percent a year. Compensation of the three highest paid offices and directors last year was $399,500, $362,700, and $335,400 respectively, exclusive of profit-sharing and pension-plan accruals.

But top management is discouraged and saddened, and middle management is drinking too much. Morale in the newsroom is fair, because of recent raises, but the shining brows of the copy boys, traditional emblem of energy and hoe, have begun to display odd, unattractive lines.  At every level, even down into the depths of the pressroom, where the pressmen defiantly wear their  square dirty folded-paper caps, people want management to stop what it is doing before it is too late.

The new VDT machines have hurt the paper, no doubt about it. The people in the newsroom don’t like the machines. (A few say they like the machines but these are the same people who like the washrooms.) When the machines go down, as they do, not infrequently, the people in the newsroom laugh and cheer. The executive editor has installed one-way glass in his office door, and stands behind it looking over the newsroom, fretting and groaning. Recently the paper ran the same stock tables every day for a week. No one noticed, no one complained.

Middle management has implored top management to alter its course. Top management has responded with postdate guarantees, on a sliding scale. The Guild is off in a corner, whimpering. The pressmen are holding an unending series of birthday parties commemorating heroes of labor. Reporters file their stories as usual, but if they are certain kinds of stories they do not run. A small example: the paper did not run a Holiday Weekend Death Toll after Labor Day this year, the first time since 1926 no Holiday Weekend Death Toll story appeared after Labor Day (and the total, although not a record, a substantial one.)

Some elements of the staff are not depressed. The paper’s very creative real-estate editor ha been a fountain of ideas, and his sections, full of color pictures of desirable living arrangements, are choked with advertising and make the Sunday paper fat, fat, fat. More food writers have been hired, and more clothes writers, and more furniture writers, and more plant writers. The bridge, whist, skat, cribbage, domino and vingt-et-un columnists are very popular.

The Editor’s Caucus has once again applied to middle management for relief, and has once again been promised it  (but middle management has Glenfiddich on its breath, even at breakfast). Top management’s polls say that sixty-five percent of readers “want movies,” and feasibility studies are being conducted. Top management acknowledges, over long lunches at good restaurants, that the readers are wrong to “want movies” but insists that morality cannot be legislated. The newsroom has been insulated(with products from the companies Echotex division) so that the people in the newsroom can no longer hear the sounds in the street.

The paper’s editorials have been subcontracted to Texas Instruments, and the obituaries to Nabisco, so that the staff will have “more time to think.” The foreign desk is turning out language lessons (“yo temo que Isabel no venga,” “I am afraid Isabel will not come”). There was an especially lively front page on Tuesday. The No.1 story was pepperoni – a useful and exhaustive guide. It ran right next to the slimming-your-troublesome-thighs story, with pictures.

Top management has vowed to stop what it is doing – not now but soon, soon. A chamber orchestra has been formed among the people in the newsroom, and we play Haydn until the sun comes up.

Saturday, September 19, 2015

Confessions of Zeno by Italo Svevo


See my childhood? Now that I am separated from it by many decades, my farsighted eyes might perhaps reach to it if the light were not obscured by so many obstacles. The years like impassable mountains rise between me and it, my past years and a few brief hours in my life.

The doctor told me not to obsess too much looking so far back. Recent events, he says, are equally valuable to him, and above all my fancies and dreams of the night before. But I like to do things in order; as soon as I left the doctor (who was going to be away from Trieste for some time) I bought and read a book on psychoanalysis, so that I might begin from the very beginning and make the doctor’s task easier.

It is not difficult to understand, but very boring.

I stretched myself out after lunch in an easy chair, pencil and paper in hand. All the lines disappeared from my forehead, my mind completely relaxed. I seemed to be able to see my thoughts as something quite apart from myself. I an watch them rising, falling, their only form of activity. I seize my pencil to remind my thoughts that it is their duty to manifest themselves. At once the wrinkles gather up on my brow as I think of the letters that make up every word. The present surges up dominating me; the past is blotted out.

Yesterday I tried to let myself go completely. The result was that I fell into a deep sleep, experiencing nothing but a great sense of refreshment, together with an odd sensation of having seen something important while I was asleep. But what it was I could not remember; it had gone forever.

Today, though, this pencil will prevent my going to sleep. I dimly see certain strange images that seem unrelated to with my past; an engine puffing up a steep incline dragging endless coaches after it. Where can it all come from? Where is it going? How did it get there at all?

In my half-waking trance I remember it is stated in my textbook that this system will enable one to recall one’s earliest childhood, even when one is in long clothes.

At once I see an infant in long clothes  but why should I assume it is me? It does not bear the faintest resemblance to me, and I think it is probably my sister-in-law’s baby, which was born a few weeks ago and displayed to us as such a miracle because of its tiny hands and enormous eyes. The poor child!

Yeah – remember my own infancy, indeed!

Why it is not even in my power to warn you, while you are still an infant, how important it is for your health and your intelligence that you should forget nothing. When, I wonder, will you learn that one ought to be able to call to mind every event of one’s life, even those you would rather forget?

Meanwhile, poor innocent, you go exploring your tiny body in search of pleasure; and the exquisite discoveries you make will bring you in the end disease and suffering, to which those who least wish it will contribute. What can one do? It is impossible to watch over your cradle.

Mysterious forces are at work within you, child, strange elements combine; each passing moment contributing its own reactive elements.

Not all this moments can be pure, with such numerous chances of infection. And then – you are of the same blood as some I know well. Perhaps the passing moments may be pure; not so the long centuries that went into your making.

But I have come a long way from the images that announce sleep. I must try again tomorrow.  .  .


When the doctor gets the last part of my manuscript, he will have to give me back the whole. I should be able to write it all over again with absolute certainty now; how was it possible for me to understand my life when I did not now what this last part was going to be? Possibly I only lived all those years in order to prepare for it!

I am not so naïve as to blame the doctor for regarding life itself as a result of disease. Life is a little like disease, with its crises and periods of quiescence, its daily improvements and setbacks. But unlike other diseases life is always mortal. It admits no cure. It would be like trying to plug up the orifices of our body, thinking them to be wounds. We should die of suffocation almost before we were cured.

Our life today is rotten to the root. Man has ousted the beasts and trees, has poisoned the air and filled up the open spaces. Worse things may happen. That melancholy and industrious animal – man- may discover new forces and harness them to his chariot. Some such danger is in the air.

The result will be a great abundance – of human beings!

Every square yard will be occupied by man. Who will be able then to cure us of the lack of air and space? The mere thought suffocates me.

But it is not only that: every effort to procure health is in vain. Health can only belong to the beasts, whose sole idea of progress lies in their own bodies. When the swallow realized that emigration was the only possible life for her, she enlarged the muscles that worked her wings, and which became by degrees the most important part of her body. The mole went underground, and its whole body adapted itself to the task. The horse grew bigger and changed the shape of his foot. We know nothing of the development of certain animals, but it must have existed, and can never have injured their health.

But spectacled man invents implements outside his body, and if there was any health of nobility in the inventor, it will surely be absent in the user.

Implements are bought and sold or stolen, and man goes on getting weaker and more cunning. It is natural that his cunning should increase in proportion to his weakness.

The earliest tools only added to the length of his arm, and could not be employed except by the exercise of his own strength. But today a machine bears no relation to the body. The machine creates disease because it denies what has been the law of creation throughout the ages. The law of the strongest disappeared, and we have abandoned natural selection.

We need much more than psychoanalysis to help us.

Under the law of the greatest number of machines, disease will prosper and the diseased will grow ever more numerous.

 It’s possible, too that some incredible disaster caused by machines will lead us back to health.

When all the poison gases are exhausted, a man, an ordinary man of flesh and blood, will in the quiet of his room invent an explosive of such potency that all the explosives today in existence will seem like harmless toys beside it.

And another man, made in his image and in the image of al the rest, but a little weaker than them, will steal that explosive and crawl to the center of the earth with it, placing it just where he calculates it would have the maximum effect. There will be a tremendous explosion, but no one will hear it, causing the earth to return to its nebulous state and go wandering through the heavens, free at last from parasites and disease.

Day of the Dead by Malcolm Lowry

“Have you ever been to Canada?” he asked her.

“I’ve been to Niagara Falls.”

They rode on, Hugh still holding her bridle. “I’ve never been to Canada at all. But a Canuck in Spain, a fisherman pal of mine with Macs-Paps, used to keep telling me it was the most terrible place in the world. British Columbia, at any rate.”

“That’s what Geoffrey used to say too.”

“Well, Geoff’s liable to be vague on the subject. But here’s what McGoff told me. This man was a Pict. Suppose you had land in Vancouver, as seems reasonable. So far not so good. McGoff didn’t have much use for modern Vancouver. According to him it has a sort of Pango Pango quality mingled with sausage and mash and generally a rather Puritan atmosphere. Everyone fast asleep and when you prick them a Union Jack flows out of the hole. But no one in a certain sense lives there. They merely as it were pass through. Mine the country and quit. Blast the land to pieces, knock down the trees and send them rolling down Burrard Inlet.  .  . As for drinking, by the way, that is beset.” Hugh chuckled, “everywhere beset by perhaps favorable difficulties. No bars, only beer parlors so uncomfortable and cold that serve beer so weak no self-respecting drunkard would show his nose in them. You have to drink at home, and when you run short it’s too far to get another bottle –“

“But-“ They were both laughing.

“But wait a minute.” Hugh looked up at the sky of New Spain. It was a day like a good Joe Venuti record. He listened to the faint steady droning of the telegraph poles and wires above them that sang in his heart with his pint-and-a-half of beer. At this moment the best and easiest and most simple thing in the world seemed to be the happiness of these two people in a new country. And what counted seemed probably the swiftness with which they moved. He thought of the Ebro. Just as the long-planned offensive might be defeated in  its first few days by unconsidered potentialities, so a sudden desperate move might succeed precisely because of the number of potentialities it destroys in one fell swoop.  .  .

“The thing to do,” he went on, “is to get out of Vancouver as fast as possible. Go down to one of the inlets to some fishing village and buy a shack slap spang on the sea, with only foreshore rights, for, say a hundred dollars. Then live on it this winter for about sixty a month. No phone, no rent. No consulate. Be a squatter. Call on your pioneer ancestors. Water from the well. Chop your own wood. After all, Geoff’s as strong as a horse. And perhaps he’ll be able really to get down to his book and you can have your stars and the sense of the seasons again; though sometimes you can swim as late as November. And get to know the real people: the seine fisherman, the old boat-builders, the trappers, according to McGoff the last truly free people left in the world. Meantime you can get your island fixed up and find out about your farm, which previously you’ll have used as a decoy for all you’re worth, if you still want it by then – “

“Oh, Hugh, yes – “

She all but shook her horse with enthusiasm. “I can see your shack now. It’s between the forest and the sea and you’ve got a pier going down to the water over rough stones, you know, covered with barnacles and sea anemones and starfish. You’ll have to go through the woods to the store.” Hugh saw the store in his mind’s eyes. The woods will be wet. And occasionally a tree will come crashing down. And sometimes there will be fog and that fog will freeze. Then your whole forest will become a crystal forest. The ice crystals on twigs will grow like leaves. Then pretty soon you’ll be seeing the jack-in-the-pulpits and then it will be spring.

They were galloping.  .  . Bare level plain had taken the place of scrub and they’d been cantering briskly, the foals prancing delightedly ahead, when suddenly the dog was a shoulder-shrugging streaking fleece, and as their mares almost imperceptibly fell into the long untrammeled undulating strides, Hugh felt the sense of change, the keen elemental pleasure one experienced too on board a ship which, leaving the choppy waters of the estuary, gives way to the pitch and swing of the open sea. A faint carillon of bells sounded in the distance, rising and falling, sinking back as if into the very substance of the day. Judas had forgotten: nay, Judas had been, somehow, redeemed.

Monday, September 14, 2015

The World As I Found It by Bruce Duffy

Revisited (Lecture  in the spring of 1991)

A revealing question for me now is whether I would have written the novel – if there would have been the same reason to write it -  had there been a biography. No, I suspect not. But does this mean, then, that it was  my aim to write essentially a fictionalized biography?

Not at all. As I saw it, being “first”, if you will, put me in prime fictional territory. By leaving most of my readers no other single authority to turn to for the truth, the book would raise  a lot of difficulty. Difficulty in deciding what it was and difficulty in deciding what was true and what wasn’t.

While taking me to task for the “accountability of my sources,” one critic blunders onto this tension in the book. He writes: “It is difficult not to be distracted by the wealth of historical detail [Duffy] has incorporated to guarantee that his Wittgenstein will be confused with the real Wittgenstein.”

Ah! That liberating word confusion.

To further confuse things, I rejected the advice I was given several times, namely, to observe the wryly tactful tradition of roman a clef. I writer whom I greatly respect found my failure to do this a grievous aesthetic error.  So be it. In Shakespeare’s time to write plays about Julius Caesar or Prince Hamlet was not a bothersome thing, but today it is, I’m afraid. In an era of experts and unprecedented specialization – in a time when I should say we cripple ourselves by ceding far too much to the wisdom of experts – a book like mine is bothersome, for some to the point of being disorientating. For all our self-conscious poses, for all or irony and formal sophistication, not to mention our exposure to the strategies of modernism and postmodernism, many of us like our categories straight. We are greatly bothered by confusions f fact and fiction. We are bothered by a novel that, say, in its prologue adopts the seemingly trustworthy voice of biography only to monkey with the facts: This is unsportsmanlike, like impersonating a rightful officer of the law. Be more radical and experimental! Says one camp. Be more conventional! Says the other. When they rap my knuckles, critics seem to hold out these two shining alternatives, often seemingly at the same time. But again, their advice enshrines what too many naively expect nowadays. Straight categories. Fiction as some literary substitute for the old Classic Comics. Above all, the epic, churn-‘em-out complacency of that form I almost uniformly detest – “historical fiction.” These by now are old tactics that do not trouble anyone.

While we’re at it, why didn’t I use footnotes? Believe it or not, in an early crisis with the book, my publisher’s editorial board wanted me to fill the back of the book with them. Footnotes! I hit the roof! Does a general give away his battle plans? Does the heretic recant? To me, footnotes would have been a profound aesthetic error, not to mention an act of cowardice. Happily, though, I convinced my wonderful editor, and as a compromise, I added the preface.

But the came another crisis. Apparently a fact-checking copy editor called my editor almost in tears, exasperated to find pages covered with truths and errors .  .  .  and, yes, even the troublesome king of France. What a mess. Much like life, mais oui?

Look, I hope this doesn’t all sound too pat. For an author to say he always knew exactly what he was doing – now that’s a real fiction.

Of course I got it wrong. Still, some people feel that I got an uncanny amount right, an impression that frankly surprises me when I realize in many cases how little I knew and how much I made up. David Pinsent’s diaries. Wittgenstein’s father’s letters, and most of Wittgenstein’s letters, too. Wittgenstein’s family –his sisters, brothers, his father. Wittgenstein’s friend Max and the entire World War I  sequence. All this and more I made up. In fact, writing the book has taught me this: No one knows, not even those who knew Wittgenstein. Maybe especially those who knew Wittgenstein.  .  .

I don’t scorn the truth- or the biographer’s art. I respect the biographer’s great tact and judgment, probity and intuition. But, you see, my instincts are radically different: They tell me to mix up,  forget, bury and burn – to recombine and fuse disparate elements in perhaps was a more confused and deliberately irresponsible attempt to create a kind of universal life. By ‘universal life,” I man a life that finally goes beyond its seeming subjects. For me, you see, this is not finally a book “about” Wittgenstein or philosophers, but rather a creation story examining the very forms of like in this world as I found it. That is, the world that all of us have found – the world we found and doubtless will find again only in more disguised forms, as we end this dark century and begin the next.
.  .  .  .  .

Russell found himself beset by all sorts of crazy and not-so-crazy fears. The sensational premise of his article “Are Parents Bad for Children?” seemed almost diabolically prescient now. Late at night like this, especially when he was working, , it was sometimes painfully clear what would happen with Dora and the children. He could see it all very mathematically, as if their predicament were a sprawling and unwieldy theorem based on an immutable logic that only he was cold and abstruse enough to see. Still, the truth came to him slowly now. He was well past the age of being thunderstruck, or even wanting calamitous moments of vision. Rather, Russell now saw the truth by degrees, the light trickling  down like dust motes in the general disarray. The dust might be brushed away or tidied, but it was always accumulating.  .  .”