Sunday, March 05, 2006

Explaining "existence machine"...

I stole the phrase "the existence machine" from Thomas Bernhard's novel The Loser.

Last fall I'd decided I wanted to start a blog but choosing a name became a problem. Titles are not exactly my strong area (I expect my future post titles--unlike this one, naturally--to be fairly dull), but I wanted to find something that was interesting. In October I read the Bernhard book, in which I found this passage:

No one ever cast a more damaging light on his relatives than Wertheimer, described them into the dirt. Hated his father, mother, sister, reproached them all with his unhappiness. That he had to continue existing, constantly reminding them that they had thrown him up into that awful existence machine so that he would be spewed out below, a mangled pulp. His mother threw her child into this existence machine, all his life his father kept this existence machine running, which accurately hacked his son to pieces. Parents know very well that they perpetuate their own unhappiness in their children, they go about it cruelly by having children and throwing into the existence machine, he said, I thought.

This idea of the “existence machine” appealed to me. I’m not an unhappy person (especially now), and I certainly do not hate my parents, but I like the idea, think it captures some essential, if banal, truth about life. Life is inexorable. The existence machine churns and churns. Seems even more true with the weight of history, personal, but also national—how we can’t escape the everydayness of our lives. We’re thrown out there, even if we aren’t really unhappy, if we’re well supported, as I’ve been, life has a way of happening whether you're ready for it to or not. Utter banality, but true nonetheless…

There's no chance of my being able to write intelligently on all that crosses my path, there are so many conversations to be entered into, so many topics on which to have an opinion, to discuss, always new books to read, new music to listen to, new films to see, new political outrages to be appalled by, merely keeping up at the most superficial level is well-nigh impossible. It is for this reason, the ongoingness of life, that I have named my blog The Existence Machine. I will never keep up.

I liked the novel, incidentally. There’s something compulsive about Bernhard’s prose. His huge, repetitive, book-length paragraphs, the philosophical digressions, the rants. Everything seems to “happen”, if it happens at all, in the past, in the narrator’s weird remembrance of same. Also, there’s an annoying quality to his style—to the point of being amusing. Note the passage above—the “…he said, I thought.” The rhythm of the “I thoughts”, especially when he is recalling what Wertheimer or someone else said, and so “he said, I thought”—at times annoying, but also effective, and funny.

The only other Bernhard I've read is Concrete, which I learned about through reading Joseph Tabbi's afterward to William Gaddis' final, posthumous novel, Agapé Agape (which novel I still have not yet read, though I bought it as soon as it came out). I liked them both, but The Loser more. Steve Mitchelmore's many posts about Bernhard have interested me further. I look forward to his other works (I have Old Masters on hand).

Another early contender for the blog name came from early on in Henry Green's novel Concluding:

He did not dare ask whether he was to understand she had at last decided what she wanted of him. His experience with her had taught Birt that she took refuge in a vast quagmire of vagueness when at all pressed.

That’s it: “vast quagmire of vagueness”. I know this tendency. In the past I often tried to avoid revealing my actual thoughts or feelings when I felt unsure about their reception. To do so I would couch my statements in vague generalities, hinting at what I felt, trying to elicit a committed statement from the other, to which I would then feel more free to assent. Not surprisingly, this tactic rarely worked at all, and in certain key moments was spectacularly unsuccessful.

Anyway, I abandoned it as a name mainly because it's a bit ungainly.

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