Thursday, June 26, 2008

Checking in

I've been tired. . . busy. . . just a brief reading update.

I finished reading Time Regained the other day, thus coming to the end of In Search of Lost Time. What can I say? I won't get into too much just now, though it's funny: people--friends, co-workers--congratulate me on having finished it. Like it's an accomplishment. To be fair, I tell these people I've finished it. And I had, over the last several months, reported on my progress. Why? Is it simply a pointless boast? I'd like to think not! (Is it substantially different from blogging?) People are curious. They like to talk about what they read, too, and they've heard of Proust, see me with whichever volume I'm reading, want to know something about it. But what can I tell them? I like it? Will anything I say convey anything of interest about the book? Maybe. And, yeah, it's long. But, the thing is, Proust isn't difficult to read, not really, not in the manner of some writers. Blah blah blah. . . Anyway, it feels weird now, not having Proust to read. Granted, I wasn't reading the book exclusively--and there was quite a big gap of time between volumes 4 & 5--but there was always it to return to. I could just read it again, of course, but I'm not going to, not right now. I mentioned earlier that it felt wrong to read any other fiction while in the midst of In Search of Lost Time, and I meant it. Then I was having trouble getting started on The Captive (mostly because I was so often exhausted and having a hard time focusing on Proust's rhythm through the fog). Several passes at the opening got me nowhere, hence the big gap. But I felt the need for some narrative. I pulled books down from our shelves, looking for something worth breaking my self-imposed rule. Finally, Molloy was just the ticket to get me moving again. More on that experience, and the experience of reading Beckett's prose trilogy, in another post.

I made some noise about reading Blanchot's The Space of Literature. Naturally, since then I haven't made it much further into it. However, on recommendations from Mark and Steve, I picked up a copy of Heidegger's Poetry, Language, Thought and am, unexpectedly, finding it much easier going than Blanchot. Which is not to say it's an easy read. Far from it. But there's a lot to chew on, and I know I'll be having something to say about it here. (And, yes, I will be returning to my Blanchot reading and notes.)

Months ago, I packed up a lot of my books into storage in anticipation of the arrival of the baby, and more of them will be going into storage soon. I made a small pile of books that I thought were most likely to be read over the next several months. From this pile, I've begun reading Enrique Vila-Matas' Bartleby & Co. How many of us are bloggers of the No? (Not enough of us?) It turns out that this is the perfect time for me to be reading this book. I hope to be able to explore some of my thinking on it here. Time permitting. On the fiction reading horizon: Vila-Matas' Montano's Malady, of course, but then some women. I've noticed that every book I've read this year, fiction or not, was written by a man. Now, in fiction, with Proust and Beckett as my major projects for the year, that's understandable, but still. Anyway: perhaps some Virginia Woolf? I have not read Orlando (acquired years ago, after I read an enthusiastic passage or two on the novel by William H. Gass) or To the Lighthouse, both of which we have on hand, plus a re-read of Mrs. Dalloway may be in order. I expect I'll be reading a fair amount of Marguerite Duras, with six titles awaiting me. And Carole Maso. I've always liked Carole Maso, and it could finally be time for AVA.

But then, maybe I'll just scrap it all and read Capital along with David Harvey. . . if the introductory video is any indication, it's really worth it (link originally via From Despair to Where?, but also via ReadySteadyBlog... ). Which of course reminds me of all the political posts I haven't written (apparently there's some election campaign on), all the food- and oil- and war- and housing- and money-related articles I've meant to link to and write about, but haven't. . . (summary: things are mess)

Thursday, June 12, 2008

The possibility of being self-propelled

Back in March, at his Black Mirrors site, Lloyd Mintern posted a fascinating piece called “Bridle” in which he writes about Piaget and the necessary egocentrism of children. Here's just part of it, towards the end:
Everyone was a child. There is a universal. What the child does not understand at first is just how incomparable life is; that is what he has to learn, why he wants constant explanations. The big discovery is that he is a person on his own. He does not start with himself, but finds himself among the others. He does not start out with the idea that he [is] unique, and adapt to a disappointing reality in which he is only one among others, all equally downtrodden and dull. No, he starts out believing others are more real than him, totally interesting, knowledgeable, and he has to find himself among this group. He has to disassociate from the others, who are threatened, it seems, by dullness, for after all, what do they know? It is like they are all children! So they should, and must, cooperate with his exciting adventure of creating a self–it is vital that he, the discovered center of attention, thrive! He grows more and more vivid to himself and excited by the prospects of a unique existence. In fact the building of a self is the consummate unselfish activity. He is astonished if adults accuse him of being self-centered. In fact, he is doing it for them, and they should be pleased with his progress. The child sees the possibility of being self-propelled, but he does not arrive in life with it, he finds it in the world that is a novelty. Babies come into the world prepared from afar, supplied, they are not weak, they are not undeveloped, but they are vessels . . .
Earlier in the post, Lloyd writes that "the child is in the middle of something when he is born, not at the beginning". He's not really talking about the same thing, but this line reminds me of the Bernhard passage that gives this blog its name:
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. (The Loser, pp. 43-44)
It isn't necessary to hate our parents as Wertheimer did for us to recognize the truth of what is said here. We learn how to behave in the world, we learn what is "acceptable", how to be, through the actions and non-actions of our parents and the other adults in our lives. This much is obvious. But what does it mean? Maybe our parents were simply very busy and were unable to be attuned to our needs, moment-to-moment. Enough of this and perhaps we learn that no one will listen to us if we cry, so perhaps we learn not to cry. Or we learn some other way of avoiding the practice of allowing our true needs to become known. We might learn this about ourselves, that we tend to be emotionally distant, or that we tend to avoid expressing emotions. We might be able to take steps to overcome this in ourselves. Yet, still, when we have children of our own, how easy is it to fall back on what was done when we were children? And then to rationalize it away! ("This is what my parents did, and I turned out ok." Sure you did.)

It will come as no surprise that, along with the Proust and Beckett, Josipovici and Blanchot, I've been dipping into a variety of baby books and parenting books. (It may be more of a surprise when I say that I find the latter related to the former.) But before I get to a couple of those, let me talk a little about this matter of being born. We are born! What the hell! Where do we come from? There are the basic natural facts of it, of course, but then we have our own experiences and consciousness and we are here. Being. A calamity! A calamity? Why is this a calamity? This idea--that being born might be a calamity--is relatively new to me, on the face of it. And yet, when I identified something true in Bernhard's "existence machine", was I not to some extent recognizing this? I think so.

One of these books I've been reading is called Everyday Blessings: The Inner Work of Mindful Parenting by Myla and Jon Kabat-Zinn (Myla, incidentally, is Howard Zinn's daughter). (The idea of a parenting guide or book is an odd one. Parenting is hard enough as it is without having to hear from some strangers the right way to do something. This book isn't really like that, but the mere existence of such a book, as valuable as I'm finding it, somehow nags at me.) The argument is that the best way to approach things is through mindfulness--being mindful of our own responses to situations, mindful of the child's actual needs. Easier said than done, to be sure. One of the key concepts is "sovereignty"--recognizing the child as a sovereign being with his or her own "way". Anyway, they ask us to imagine what it is like for the child, from the beginning:
We might start by imagining what it is like in the uterus, in a place that is warm, wet, and protected, with constant, rhythmic sounds, a feeling of being contained, held, rocked . . . a world of undifferentiated wholeness, where there is nothing wanting, nothing missing. [...]

When we are born, we leave this harmonious world and emerge into a new and totally different one. There might be harsh light and cold air. We may hear loud, unpredictable noises and feel roughness or hardness against our skin. We feel hunger for the first time. All of this is occurring as raw, pure experience, with no filters of knowing anything. Imagine being thrust into this foreign environment, where you depend entirely on the inhabitants' ability to understand your language and to be sensitive and responsive to your whole being, and to what you may need in any given moment.
What might that be like? How do we, as parents, approach this situation? How are our possible approaches constrained by the amount of available time we have? How do we understand this other being? Given that we have problems of our own, how do we avoid perpetuating them through the child?

I imagined this post, as I unfortunately tend to imagine all posts, as a massive, wide-ranging one, in which I try to fit in everything on my mind touching the topic at hand. But that's not possible. There is much to say; there are implications. But I will close here by noting that, in my view, this basic situation--the fact of being born, of being (oh! how I throw this word around, as if I understood it!), and what that really entails for the child and the parents--this situation suggests a certain political response. And a literary one.

The idea of progress (literary edition)

In an interview at The Believer (link via Condalmo), Tom McCarthy says:
Here’s the thing, right, Finnegans Wake—Joyce thought it was the last novel. He thought this was the novel in which the destiny of literature would realize itself. It was the event that we have been waiting for all of these years. And he literally thought it would be the last novel. It would be (a) unnecessary and (b) impossible to write a novel, I mean a proper novel, a serious novel, after Finnegans Wake. Now, in a way, if you have this linear-progressive view of literary or cultural history, then it is quite hard to see that he wasn’t right. But I have tried to argue, in the past, that he was exactly, I mean exactly, wrong—that Finnegans Wake is actually the first book. It is the source code of the novel. It contains everything from the picaresque Spanish, to the Anglo-Saxon novel, through Shakespeare and everything else. It eviscerates them and lays them open, but doesn’t resolve anything.

So, I don’t buy into the idea of progress, that we need to go beyond Joyce in terms of form. I think there are other things to do. Once we’ve observed the big bang in physics we don’t all just dissolve into space. We do other stuff that’s enabled by that. This goes back to what you were asking about Robbe-Grillet or Burroughs, who are writers I have a huge, huge admiration for. And you know, in my early twenties I used to copy passages of Burroughs out and make diagrams of sequences of Robbe-Grillet. But I don’t just want to imitate them or take what is most superficial about them and add one to that. I would rather do something that makes sense at a more intuitive level.
I like what McCarthy says here about literary progress. In my days of despair, when I looked on the literary milestones of the past, I assumed a progression of techniques. Certain writers would come up with new things, innovations, which would be incorporated into the literary playbook; or, successive generations of writers would go further and further in certain directions. From this view, the minimal fiction of Beckett (as I once imagined it, before I'd read any of it) appeared as one cul de sac, famously extreme allusiveness rendering Finnegans Wake yet another (to name just two examples I had in mind). So part of my despair, my confusion, was in wondering how later writers could possibly sufficiently "make it new" in the face of such monuments from the past. What was there left to do? My mistake, I've come to realize, lay, in part, in this area of progress, in advancement. And the notion I had of an ever-expanding literary playbook is similarly suspect. There is no playbook.

(See also Dan Green's two recent posts related to this topic: "Dead Systems" and "Incorporating the Old".)

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Notes on David Markson and the facts

The piece on anti-Semitism that I linked to in my last post reminded me that sometime last year I almost set out to write something similar, if less comprehensive, but my attention strayed to other things and I never got around to it (as happens to so many of my great unwritten posts). It was while I was in the midst of reading David Markson's Reader's Block. Something in the book troubled me. Reader's Block is the first in Markson's quartet of books following a similar form: an elderly writer sick unto death of making up stories, characters, plots, etc., but who writes anyway, bits of narrative emerging amidst short paragraphs, no more than a sentence or two usually, recounting facts, usually facts about artists, their lives, deaths, poverty, and so on. . .

In Reader's Block, the narrator seems especially obsessed with the Holocaust, and artists' and writers' ugly attitudes towards Jews over time. In this context we encounter many sentences that assert that x or y writer "was an anti-Semite". For example, from throughout the book:
"D.H. Lawrence was an anti-Semite."
"Saint Augustine was an anti-Semite."
"Erasmus was an anti-Semite."
"Henry Adams was an anti-Semite."
"James Baldwin was an anti-Semite."
"Seneca was an anti-Semite."
"Ezra Pound was an anti-Semite."
The accumulation of such sentences began to bother me. I began to fixate on them, to mouth the words, stare at them till they became nonsensical. What is an anti-Semite, after all? Markson clearly uses it to mean, simply, "hater of Jews" or "prejudiced against Jews", and, of course, this reflects the common use of the term today. But anti-Semitism, I thought while reading, is not mere bigotry or prejudice. Anti-Semitism was a political movement, with a historical context. So, while it makes perfect sense to write "Ezra Pound was an anti-Semite"--Pound specifically subscribed to a politics blaming Jewish "moneylenders" and financiers for the world's ills, and he did so in the midst of a very particular historical moment--it makes less sense to write "Seneca was an anti-Semite" for the very reasons described so well in Gabriel Ash's post at Jews sans frontieres.

I don't have a whole lot else to say at this point (since Ash said the rest of it), but I do recall Ellis Sharp's problem with This Is Not a Novel, the follow-up to Reader's Block. Ellis' post is titled "David Markson slanders Jean Genet". Here's Ellis:
As a body of writing it relies on the authenticity of the biographical materials it recycles. It rests on the assumption that the narrator knows far more than the reader and that the reader will find this new information interesting and entertaining. Everything is factual. Except that it isn't. Most of the material that Markson displays was new to me. I chuckled, I gasped, I thought: how ironic! But then I came up against a reference to an author whose biography I've recently read. And the alarm bells started ringing.
Then he encounters the following sentence: "Jean Genet was a paid informer for the Nazis in World War II." Which Ellis says is "simply not true". Ellis refers to Edmund White's massive biography Genet, which was published well before Markson's book, meaning, Ellis says, "there's not really any excuse for Markson getting it wrong". I appreciate the point Ellis is making in that post, though I think Markson's not really about getting it "right" or "wrong" in these pieces of trivia. At the time, I'd thought Matt Christie's idea that they are more like bits of cocktail party gossip was apt--Markson's novels are hardly reference books. But I think, more than gossip, they are the knowledge and trivia accumulated over a lifetime of reading, the preoccupations of an elderly writer. As they appear in the books, the "factual" statements do not give the air of someone having looked something up (and thus having gotten it right or wrong), but rather of things occurring to the writer as he avoids writing. So, in this context, that some of them are not factually true is beside the point. And yet those "wrong" ones nag, I can't deny it. (And of course the questions of fiction and historical fact, which I raised, for example, in my posts last December concerning Aharon Appelfeld, do not go away. . .)

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Jews sans frontieres on anti-Semitism

At Jews sans frontieres, Gabriel Ash has written a fantastic piece on anti-Semitism--what it is, what it isn't, the history and politics thereof, etc. It's a long post, but necessary reading. Here's a sample:
We have a host of words to describe abusive inter-communal attitudes: bigotry, prejudice, stereotyping, racism, xenophobia, etc. These words apply universally. To suggest that Jews need a special word that cover these meanings only when the target is Jewish is to dehistoricize and essentialize Jews. Bigotry against Jews is just bigotry. Racism against Jews is just racism. Jews don't need a special word for it. What is good for everyone else should be good enough for everyone.

Antisemitism is a unique, self-described and self-labeled modern tendency with a shady beginning, a horrible climax and an ignoble zombie afterlife. Other political tendencies have borrowed themes made popular by antisemitism. Zionists adopted the image of the "wandering Jew" as it was fashioned by antisemites. Some Arab nationalists repackaged the "Protocols of the Elders of Zion" as propaganda in the struggle against Israel. These borrowings reflect badly on their authors, but they do not make them into "antisemites." When Bush spoke of a "crusade" to bring democracy to Iraq, he did not become Pope Urban II, and the U.S. military did not become a column of horse-riding knights in dull armor. He was just borrowing and adapting a lousy historical theme. When John Edwards speaks of the two Americas, he is not being a communist, even if he briefly activates the communist imagery of class struggle.

If there is one true claimant to the title of antisemitism's heir today, it is "islamophobia". Islamohobia recycles images, visual themes, fears and fantasies that are recognizably drawn from the antisemitic repertoire: threatening immigration, contamination, secret bid for domination, even the crooked nose. But this is just the icing on the cake. Let's look at the more substantial similarities. Like antisemitism, islamophobia reconfigures religious bigotry in secular terms (but with "cultural" replacing biological determination.) Like antisemitism, it fuses together xenophobia against immigrants with resentments towards a small and rich comprador class--Arab oil Sheikhs replacing Jewish bankers. Like antisemitism, islamophobia is both mildly disreputable and highly serviceable to the dominant power in its capacity to fuse a marginal social group and a political threat (communism, islamism). Most importantly, islamophobia offers a comprehensive thesis about how to diagnose the body politic and how to cure it--"the clash of civilizations."

But also like antisemitism, islamophobia as a term essentializes and dehistoricizes its victims. Both antisemitism and islamophobia are coined words with a political agenda. Their very morphology puts the spotlight on the victims by center-staging the victim's identity rather than the politics of the perpetrators in the name itself. How we use words to divide the word into meaningful slices is not innocent of politics.