Friday, February 28, 2014

Get 'Em in the Guts (IPoS,tHL Part 5)

Get 'Em in the Guts

Of the decisions made within the creation of a book, it is worth commenting on how a series of words can come to take on a shape and that shape may be perceptible, but latent. A novel's shape isn't necessarily apparent. It belongs most-frequently to the unspoken quotient of subtext that fills in the space between words, the area where the author and the reader are meant to interact.   The Recognitions, for instance, takes on the shape of a screw, following the lives of a circle of people and pulling the action in tighter and tighter until the final collapse. Infinite Jest (in printed, not e-reader format) becomes a piece of exercise equipment: problem and solution bound in one hefty volume. To take a different tack, or to apply an anachronistic empiricism to the written word, what appears on the page and what appears within a reader's mind as the words begin to aggregate are separate and almost unaccountable phenomena, unless of course you suffer from perfect comprehension (zero noise as Wiener might have put it).

Determining where exactly meaning appears within a text or parsing the meaningfulness of a text is both personal and contextual.  It's personal in that whatever is being written must flash against some existing question within a reader's head for it to gain priority over other text.  It's contextual in that more often than not, meaning is a product of the subtextual games an author has deployed to manipulate our attention and bring us to a point of focus. We can see these quotes and excisions dragged out and held to the light and at times find enough in it to think we agree or to empathize with its sentiments or if we've seen it before, we nod in recognition and see that someone else found value in a statement.

In Ben Marcus's The Flame Alphabet another problem is introduced.  The narrator lets us know that he can only speak of dead ideas, that, much like the light from stars, we are reading something cast off, something that may have once been precious, but has now been outgrown. I extend this idea in part to some of the decisions Marcus makes within the novel, some of the themes he pursues and the slanted pieces of his own identity on display within the work.  The novel itself is about a language virus, so we already have a level of alienation from the text, but to get more into the lower guts, Marcus has provided a context where-in he can produce a special language, an enriched syntax and a means of exploring the written word that is jarring in its novelty but applicable to the world which he creates, but the writing is another cast off and perhaps part of the problem inherent with the form of the novel, we will always be reading something dead. Whatever life we try to bring to it is a kind of revival or resurrection, secondhand pants that may or may not fit but may also be toxic.

In The Captive, we encounter what seems to be the central problem of modern rationality. The narrator, who Proust shruggingly allows us to call Proust in this volume, has arranged for his mistress (Albertine) to live as his cousin, in secret, to share his home.  Obsessed by what she does when she is not with him, Proust has her surveilled, prods and manipulates her into staying at home. Considering his navigation against the history of Swann's path in society, the ways in which he strains to glimpse into Albertine's secret nature provides a perfect picture of his limit. Proust wants to know at all costs, even if it breaks his heart and it drives him mad that he cannot see around this particular blind spot. In part, it reminded me of an updated Oedipus myth, one where Oedipus is ever vigilant against the fulfillment of his fate, but where as well the vigilance is the signal of his character's flaw (a flaw crafted from a great strength) to the point where whatever peace we allow ourselves in the shade of our ignorance is ruined in an attempt at comprehension of our own particular place within the world. The way in which his thinking is bent by this blind spot shows that there are things that rationality cannot process, that knowing only begets further suspicion.

Walter Faber and to an extent Oedipa Maas both extend this concept of the rationally tragic. Homo Faber, the novel by Max Frisch, borrows its name from a concept co-created by Hannah Arendt and Max Scheler (it means "gay pencil" "Man, the maker"). Faber's rationality is that of a survivor looking to recreate the world in the wake of WWII.  His rationality is built upon a movement away from history, his own personal history and its resonance with the war, and a genuine need to put the past behind oneself in order to continue living.  The mechanics of Faber's tragedy are all folded within the folly of that very real need on the part of Europeans to not look back, but we can also extend his brand of hubris to the engineer and scientist castes of the 50's and of the supposed rationality of the play between the super powers built upon the mountainous irrationality of thermonuclear war.  Oedipa Maas on the other hand inherits the tragedy of lost knowledge (oh the sweats expired in the mattress fire) in the face of mass of culture and communication (Rich Chocolatey Goodness) censorship and greed.

To take a brief side step, the themes of Homo Faber find a number of echoes in The Crying of Lot 49, but the two books are deeply divergent in terms of style. Frisch's cool, collected plotting and descriptions vary widely from Pynchon's discursive plunge through southern California in the mid-60's. One difference may be psychedelia and Pynchon's great co-author, the substance, but another may be best stated as James Joyce. The best counter to the sequence above in the Captive, where Proust obsesses over the unknown, may be that epiphanic moment near the end of Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, when Stephen Dedalus grasps the louse crawling near his neck and crushes it. It echoes back to the description of his mother's finger stained with louse blood through to his confrontation with the British soldiers in Ulysses. It may be safe to say that Joyce was much more comfortable with inference than Proust.  That Joyce's poverty, relative to Proust, provided him early on with a sense of the place people saw him in, so in Joyce instead we have the fight against that fate, toward greater artistic freedom. And while both authors are capable of investing a single sentence with several layers of resonance, in Proust I find most often the meaning is organic to the book, the shade of meaning and the precedents provided in the pages that came before, even external references to authors or art are contained within the construction of the novel to ensure its significance is rooted in the perceptions of the characters.  Joyce on the other hand is constantly sampling referencing outside works, either pulling the knowledgable reader further into the plot and characterization or sending the reader to the library or whizzing the references right past the reader's head. With Finnegan's Wake we see Joyce's language freed wholly from the waking world and subsumed through the unconscious. Here we have sentences that read aloud as if written phonetically in brogue, but reveal puns in multiple languages, the simultaneous collapse and extension of the syntax, the English language broken and freed and we can see that the unknown may be best handled obliquely


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