Posts tagged milan kundera

July 24th, 2012

Suspending moral judgment is not the immorality of the novel; it is its morality. The morality that stands against the ineradicable human habit of judging instantly, ceaselessly, and everyone; of judging before, and in the absence of, understanding. From the viewpoint of the novel’s wisdom, that fervid readiness to judge is the most detestable stupidity, the most pernicious evil. Not that the novelist utterly denies that moral judgment is legitimate, but that he refuses it a place in the novel. If you like, you can accuse Panurge of cowardice; accuse Emma Bovary, accuse Rastignac—that’s your business; the novelist has nothing to do with it.

Creating the imaginary terrain where moral judgment is suspended was a move of enormous significance: only there could novelistic characters develop—that is, individuals conceived not as a function of some preexistent truth, as examples of good or evil, or as representations of objective laws in conflict, but as autonomous beings grounded in their own morality, in their own laws. Western society habitually presents itself as the society of the rights of man, but before a man could have rights, he had to constitute himself as an individual, to consider himself such and to be considered such; that could not happen without the long experience of the European arts and particularly of the art of the novel, which teaches the reader to be curious about others and to try to comprehend truths that differ from his own. In this sense E. M. Cioran is right to call European society “the society of the novel” and to speak of Europeans as “the children of the novel.”

Milan Kundera, Testaments Betrayed
February 14th, 2012
"I think." Nietzsche cast doubt on this assertion dictated by a grammatical convention that every verb must have a subject. Actually, said he, "a thought comes when ‘it’ wants to, and not when ‘I’ want it to; so that it is falsifying the fact to say that the subject ‘I’ is necessary to the verb ‘think.’" A thought, comes to the philosopher "from outside, from above or below, like events or thunderbolts heading for him." It comes in a rush. For Nietzsche loves "a bold and exuberant intellectuality that runs presto," and he makes fun of the savants for whom thought seems "a slow, halting activity, something like drudgery, often enough worth the sweat of the hero-savants, but nothing like that light, divine thing that is such close kin to dance and to high-spirited gaiety." Elsewhere Nietzsche writes that the; philosopher "must not, through some false arrangement of deduction and dialectic, falsify the things and the ideas he arrived at by another route…. We should neither conceal nor corrupt the actual way our thoughts come to us. The most profound and inexhaustible books will surely always have something of the aphoristic, abrupt quality of Pascal’s ‘Pensées.’"

We should not “corrupt the actual way our thoughts come to us”: I find this injunction remarkable; and I notice that, beginning with ‘The Dawn,’ all the chapters in all his books are written in a single paragraph: this is so that a thought should be uttered in one single breath; so that it should be caught the way it appeared as it sped toward the philosopher, swift and dancing.

Milan Kundera in Testaments Betrayed, discussing the meaning of the various prose styles developed by Franz KafkaErnest Hemingway, and Friedrich Nietzsche, and how technical details like paragraph structure and the use of semicolons express deeper elements of an author’s thought and purpose.

Good writing is deliberated style as much as resonant content; there should be nothing automatic, nothing inherited, nothing thoughtless. Punctuation and typeface are not incidental; indentation- and sentence-length and paragraph rhythms all matter, and all ought to be the purposive stylistic expression of authorial intent.

For whatever reason, many seem to consider such things beyond the boundaries of artistic creativity in prose, as though we are obliged to adopt the happenstance syntax of our languages. We are not, but style is not merely a matter of some radical pose, refusing to use commas or arbitrarily violating grammatical rules in a demonstrative way. Rebellion is a crutch in art.

Good prose style is simpler and harder. We must be ruthless in interrogating everything about our writing: the plain honesty of its intentions, the truth of its substance, the value of the ideas it expresses, the novelty (or at least utility) of its existence, and all its tiniest details, all its small conformities to and violations of the rules of the language, all its periods and ellipses and dashes, all the choices we make about quotation marks and italicization, all the elements few readers consciously notice but all readers register.

February 4th, 2012

The Sense of Uncertainty

In Julian Barnes' novel The Sense of an Ending, a precocious schoolboy named Adrian Finn recites, from memory and in reply to a teacher, a definition of history:

History is that certainty produced at the point where the imperfections of memory meet the inadequacies of documentation.

It’s a marvelously provocative sentence. The book’s unreliable narrator, Anthony Webster, recalls the classroom scene in which it was uttered, recalls his friend Adrian’s easy brilliance, even recalls the historian Adrian cites as author of the definition: a Frenchman named Patrick Lagrange.

In their reviews, many critics mention Patrick Lagrange or quote his definition; in a sense, it seems to plainly assert the thesis, so to speak, of the novel. For The Sense of an Ending is concerned with the imperfections of memory —of its narrator’s memory in particular— and inadequate documentation and the illusory certainty we each have about our own history. Beneath this scarcely-interrogated certainty, Barnes posits, is an impenetrable morass of synthesized recollection and invention: experiences deliberately forgotten, lessons we cannot bear to learn, delusions we grasp tightly, fears we will not acknowledge, stories we repeat until we don’t remember the events they misrepresent. The Sense of an Ending explores how we compose the texts of our lives, and how as storytellers we lie to ourselves and others; how as historians we redact our perceptions and later our memories; how as academics we rationalize our behavior theoretically; and how as individuals we read our lives as inattentively and badly as we read novels.

It is fitting, then, that the French historian Patrick Lagrange is himself an invention, his remark a creation of uncertain provenance, his authority on the subjects of history and memory as questionable as our own. Among those reviewers who didn’t uncritically parrot his professorial assertion were some who seemed irritated by the false-flag fiction:

Quizzed by a master at school, Adrian comes up with a breathtaking aphorism: “History is that certainty produced at the point where the imperfections of memory meet the inadequacies of documentation.” It turns out Adrian is quoting a Frenchman, Patrick Lagrange. Proof that Barnes doesn’t have any ideas of his own! Except that Lagrange has been invented by Adrian (on the spur of the moment), and self-evidently by Barnes, which means he does have ideas of his own! But this then throws up a rudimentary technical problem, namely, that we are expected to believe that Adrian could have come up with a formulation — and an alleged source — not only implausibly beyond the capacities of even the most precocious adolescent but distinctly sharper than anything else his creator manages in the course of the book.

This is an astonishingly dim analysis in many respects; notably, there is no evidence whatsoever to suggest that Adrian concocted Lagrange; all we know is that the narrator Anthony Webster claims that he remembers Adrian defining history thusly and attributing the definition to a French historian named Patrick Lagrange. Did Adrian manufacture him? Did Webster remember him incorrectly? Did both occur? Did neither? Did Barnes mean for Patrick Lagrange to have been part of the fictional world of his characters? But in all other historical respects it is identical to our own!

With pristine irony, Barnes lightly enacts for us, for our experiential intellection, a moment of vertiginous epistemic uncertainty. We have not only a muddled and unreliable narrator, telling a story at some decades’ remove from the events which, at this point, can only be said to have “inspired” it; we have this narrator recalling words spoken by a friend to whose dark fate he may have contributed with an act he’s determined not to remember; and the words in question are, according to the friend, a quotation, that is, the friend’s recollection of the words of another; and he recalls that his friend recollects too the name of the author of the words: Lagrange.

There are too many potential points of failure along this chain of recollections and representations to count. Taken in its full context, it is a tidy, carefully-crafted satirization of the idea of epistemic authority, and it’s neither fussy nor demanding: read literally, it supports the novel’s themes; if one ponders the fact that the quotation is remembered, it supports the novel’s themes; if one digs and digs into it, and cross-references it with the world beyond the novel, one suddenly realizes that —as one of the book’s refrains has it— one didn’t understand, didn’t get it; and this supports the novel’s themes.

(That one clings to the authority of the definition, is attracted to its neatness, yet must accept that in its contextual totality it is self-subverting —approaching, from a distance, a sort of liar’s paradox— is delightful as well).

When authors attempt to enact some phenomenon, they must sometimes be clever, must use the structure of their novel or its relation to the outside world or some other element beyond its content to catalyze in readers something not described. This can be necessitated when an author’s themes concern aspects of the phenomenology of consciousness —how we experience deteriorating memory—, for example, or when our language is poorly suited to the task of describing a specific experience of the mind or world. An author may feel that the inner human experience of sorrow is something quite different from even a good description of sorrow, and so may attempt to make a reader feel sorrow deeply without talking at all about sadness, or, in some mysterious cases, anything sad directly (W.G. Sebald in particular excels at making one feel despair without being sure why). For some subjects, describing the experience with which the author is concerned would be to chase it away. To put it in another medium’s terms: you can make a movie about anxiety that shows people experiencing it, or you can make a movie in such a way that it produces anxiety in audiences.

In either case, there is a kind of knowledge being communicated. It could be disputed, by a particularly hard-nosed and reductive scientist, for example, that novels do not communicate knowledge of any real value, or at least none that would not be better-communicated, more clearly and without tricks, games, paradox, or play, by an essay. But this is not at all so. Beyond its capacity to entertain in ordinary senses —a crucial component of most wonderful art— the novel can communicate knowledge which an essay cannot, especially by manipulating the reader without his or her awareness, i.e., by enacting rather than portraying or describing.

The novel is a particularly superlative means for communicating experiential knowledge of an internal phenomenological sort; visualized narratives are too specific, perhaps, for us to inhabit the worlds they describe in the way we inhabit the worlds novels construct within us. We interiorize fiction as we do little else.  For Milan Kundera, this quality of fiction —that it constitutes a form of knowledge— is paramount, the novel’s real raison d’être: 

A novel that does not uncover a hitherto unknown segment of existence is immoral. Knowledge is the novel’s only morality.

The form in which knowledge is expressed is often as important as its content (when they can be distinguished at all); Tom Stoppard once noted of his work that “if I were to write an essay instead of a play about any of these subjects it wouldn’t be a profound essay.” But of course Brazil was profound, especially in its enactment of the hero’s narcissistic, universally-resonant determination to fantasize his private salvation, an enactment that exceeded any possible description by involving you in his self-deceit, in his childishly egotistic romanticism, so that you identify with him rather than judge him. Thus: you might perhaps learn not to judge when you might try instead to understand.

This power that fiction has to unfold inside of you such that you are inside of it, subject to its aims, permits The Sense of an Ending to very gently show you how impossible it is even to know a simple text. It is Barnes’ talent that not only permits him to wield this power but to do so delicately, without making a ruckus. The achievement is such that one does not conclude the novel asking "What really happened?" as one often does in works with unreliable narrators, but instead feels almost in awe of the vagaries of memory, the mysteries of selfhood, will, and morality, and the groundlessness of so much of what we think we are.

Memory is as persistent an enigma as any, so integral to us as to be us yet almost always ungovernable and frequently treacherous. We do not remember as we think we do, as Kundera notes in Testaments Betrayed while remarking on the immense talent Hemingway had for dialogue:

Try to reconstruct a dialogue from your own life, the dialogue of a quarrel or a dialogue of love. The most precious, the most important situations are utterly gone. Their abstract sense remains (I took this point of view, he took that one, I was aggressive, he was defensive), perhaps a detail or two, but the acoustisovisual concreteness of the situation in all its continuity is lost.

And not only is it lost but we do not even wonder at this loss. We are resigned to losing the concreteness of the present. We immediately transform the present moment into its abstraction. We need only recount an episode we experienced a few hours ago: the dialogue contracts to a brief summary, the setting to a few general features. This applies to even the strongest memories, which affect the mind deeply, like a trauma: we are so dazzled by their potency that we don’t realize how schematic and meager their content is.

When we study, discuss, analyze a reality, we analyze it as it appears in our mind, in our memory. We know reality only in the past tense. We do not know it as it is in the present, in the moment when it’s happening, when it is. The present moment is unlike the memory of it. Remembering is not the negative of forgetting. Remembering is a form of forgetting.

Two aims, then, for a novelist to pursue: the first is the expression of the present moment in text with “the acousticovisual concreteness of the situation in all its continuity,” which, for a human, means a great quantity of internal mental processes and experiences in every instant. It was one of Joyce’s aims in writing Ulysses, and it required of him that he undertake significant formal innovations to describe what had never before been described.

The second: to show how one cobbles together from scraps of confused perceptions, bits of tattered abstractions, and naked invention an illusory sense of certainty about oneself and one’s history. Parts of this process are unconscious, parts unavoidable —inadequate documentation and all that— but parts are willed, the result of our nearly magical capacity for self-delusion and our deep need to feel secure, safe, decent.

If one were to write a review of The Sense of an Ending discussing some of these ideas, it wouldn’t be a particularly profound review, and it would stand in absurdly unwieldy contrast to the airy felicity of the novel itself. Barnes does not labor over machinations or belabor ideas; he tells a short, even plain story of a man whose memory has indeed been a forgetting, an array of errors and deliberately suppressed, dream-like visions, and whose present and future remain to him a complete and utter mystery. It is not clear whether he is a good man or a bad man, only that like all of us he had some difficulty seeing himself clearly, and difficulty even in understanding that.

When he was 23 years old, Tolstoy wrote that

[so] many memories of the past start up when your imagination endeavors to resurrect the features of a beloved one that through these memories, as through tears, you see them only vaguely. These are memory’s tears.

In its sentimentality it is clearly the work of his youth, but even then Tolstoy was thinking as Joyce, Barnes, Sebald, and others have about memory, about how even the face of one’s beloved mother can become vague in one’s mind, how this isn’t the negative of forgetting but merely a form of it, and sometimes a dangerously false one at that. One flaw of our invented memory that especially interested Tolstoy was its tendency to overemphasize the agency of the individual; Kundera’s summary of Tolstoy’s thought in War and Peace (again from Testaments Betrayed) and how it relates to the judgment of others, in this case, artists:

Tolstoy argues against the idea that history is made by the will and reason of great individuals. History makes itself, he says, obeying laws of its own, which remain obscure to man. Great individuals “all were the involuntary tools of history, carrying on a work that was concealed from them.” Later on: “Providence compelled all these men, each striving to attain personal aims, to combine in the accomplishment of a single stupendous result not one of them (neither Napoleon nor Alexander and still less anyone who did the actual fighting) in the least expected.” And again: “Man lives consciously for himself, but is unconsciously a tool in the attainment of the historic, general aims of mankind.” From which comes this tremendous conclusion: “History, that is, the unconscious, general herd-life of mankind…”

With this conception of history, Tolstoy lays out the metaphysical space in which his characters move. Knowing neither the meaning nor the future course of history, knowing not even the objective meaning of their own actions (by which they “involuntarily” participate in events whose meaning is “concealed from them”), they proceed through their lives as one proceeds in the fog. I say fog, not darkness. In the darkness, we see nothing, we are blind, we are defenseless, we are not free. In the fog, we are free, but it is the freedom of a person in fog: he sees fifty yards ahead of him, he can clearly make out the features of his interlocutor, can take pleasure in the beauty of the trees that line the path, and can even observe what is happening close by and react.

Man proceeds in the fog. But when he looks back to judge people of the past, he sees no fog on their path. From his present, which was their faraway future, their path looks perfectly clear to him, good visibility all the way. Looking back, he sees the path, he sees the people proceeding, he sees their mistakes, but not the fog. And yet all of them —Heidegger, Mayakovsky, Aragon, Ezra Pound, Gorky, Gottfried Benn, St.-John Perse, Giono— all were walking in fog, and one might wonder: who is more blind? Mayakovsky, who as he wrote his poem on Lenin did not know where Leninism would lead? Or we, who judge him decades later and do not see the fog that enveloped him?

Mayakovsky’s blindness is part of the eternal human condition. But for us not to see the fog on Mayakovsky’s path is to forget what man is, forget what we ourselves are.

Thus a moral purpose for the novelist concerned with memory: to stay our ignorantly un-empathetic judgment of the past (and therefore of the present) by summoning this fog, not by simply describing it but by calling it forth to envelop us. Long after finishing The Sense of an Ending it lingers, and it must be the source of the novel’s title: on our paths within this fog, conducting our fitful, unending investigations of memory, we will not know an ending, a conclusion, a clear terminus to our wandering or wondering; we remain to ourselves a mystery, and can have at best only the sense of an ending to our inquiries. This sense, of course, is as unreliable as our narrator; we can have little confidence in our detection of a ground, an end, a resolution; and our conclusions are liable to be exposed, again and again after we reach them, as illusory. We should judge one another accordingly.

January 12th, 2012

Shirtless men converse on a stationary train, seen from ours as we passed through a station in southern China late at night. Why did I want so much to be on their train, as I want to be inside every living room or kitchen I spy through windows on city-walks in the evening? Milan Kundera in Testaments Betrayed on Kafka’s use of windows in The Trial:

[Kafka] created the extremely poetic image of an extremely nonpoetic world. By “extremely nonpoetic world” I mean: a world where there is no longer a place for individual freedom, for the uniqueness of the individual, where man is only the instrument of inhuman forces: of bureaucracy, technology, history. By “extremely poetic image” I mean: without changing its essence and its nonpoetic nature, Kafka has transformed, reshaped that world by his immense poetic imagination.

K. is completely absorbed by the predicament of this trial that has been imposed upon him; he hasn’t a moment to think about anything else. And yet, even in this no-way-out predicament, there are windows that open suddenly, for a brief instant. He cannot escape through these windows; they edge open and then shut instantly; but for a flash at least, he can see the poetry of the world outside, the poetry that, despite everything, exists as an ever-present possibility and sends a small silvery glint into his life as a hunted man.

Some such brief openings are K.’s glances, for instance: he reaches the suburban street where he has been called for his first interrogation. A moment before, he was still running to get there on time. Now he stops. Standing in the street, he forgets the trial for a few seconds and looks around: “Most of the windows were occupied, men in shirtsleeves were leaning there smoking or holding children carefully and tenderly on the windowsills. Other windows were piled high with bedding, above which the disheveled head of a woman would appear for a moment.” Then he enters the courtyard: “Near him, a barefooted man was sitting on a crate reading a newspaper. Two boys were see-sawing on a handcart. A frail young girl was standing at a pump in her nightdress and gazing at K. while she filled her jug with water.”

These sentences remind me of Flaubert’s descriptions: concice; visually rich; a sense of detail, none of which is clichéd. That power of description makes clear how thirsty K. is for reality, how avidly he drinks up the world that, just a moment earlier, was eclipsed by the trial. Alas, the pause is short; the next instant, K. no longer has eyes for the frail young girl…

As much as his sourceless, automatic shame and his thirst for reality, it is K.’s inability to keep such windows open that makes him a resonant, contemporary archetype; that Kafka writes "…K. no longer has eyes for the frail young girl" means that the closing of this window is at least in part a matter of agency, of will strangely and mysteriously subverted by inhuman forces, just as is the trial itself. K. wishes but does not wish to escape, fears and pursues and indeed forces his own destruction, and seems to know but not know that reality exists all around him, awaits him, can save him. He flees it.

K. behaves as a man on a train who has only a moment’s attention to spare for the landscape he passes, the lives he can see through the windows, as do we all; but there is no train; there is not even a path; we are obliged to attend only to what we will ourselves to attend to; yet despite knowing that the reality we seek is so near at hand, despite thirsting for this reality —apart from the pseudoreality of offices, online networks, the news— we turn back to our phones, drop our faces and lower our eyes to them, ignore even the windows which themselves only provide hints of what we crave.

December 19th, 2011
Reblogged from Grumblings
July 7th, 2011

Kundera on Friendship & Loyalty

"What shocked me most in the great Stalin trails was the cold approval with which these Communist statesmen accepted the execution of their friends. For they were all friends, by which I mean that they had known each other intimately, had lived together through rough times, emigration, persecution, a long political struggle. How is it that they were able to sacrifice their friendship, and in such a macabrely definitive way?

But was it friendship? There is a human relationship called soudruzstvi in Czech —from soudruh, comrade— meaning “the friendship of comrades or companions,” the fellow-feeling that binds those who engage in the same political struggle. When the common devotion to the cause disappears, the reason for the fellow-feeling disappears as well. But friendship subordinated to an interest considered superior to friendship has nothing to do with friendship.

In our time people have learned to subordinate friendship to what’s called "convictions." And even with a prideful tone of moral correctness. It does take great maturity to understand that the opinion we are arguing for is merely the hypothesis we favor, necessarily imperfect, probably transitory, which only very limited minds can declare to be a certainty or truth. Unlike the puerile loyalty to a conviction, loyalty to a friend is a virtue —perhaps the only virtue, the last remaining one.”

From Milan Kundera’s Encounter, an excellent collection of essays published in 2009.

May 24th, 2011
Despite Stravinsky’s denial that music expresses feeling, the naive listener cannot see it any other way. That is music’s curse, its mindless aspect. All it takes is a violinist playing the three long opening notes of a largo, and a sensitive listener will sigh, “Ah, how beautiful!” In those three notes that set off the emotional response, there is nothing, no invention, no creation, nothing at all: it’s the most ridiculous ‘sentimentality hoax.’ But no one is proof against that perception of music, or against the foolish sigh it stirs.

Milan Kundera, in Encounter. He borrows the phrase “sentimentality hoax” from Carl Jung, who wrote that we in the West “are involved in a sentimentality hoax of gigantic proportions… Sentimentality is the superstructure erected upon brutality.” Stravinsky, for his part, asserted that the “foolish sigh” of emotion in response to music was, essentially, bullshit:

"For I consider that music is, by its very nature, essentially powerless to express anything at all, whether a feeling, an attitude of mind, a psychological mood, a phenomenon of nature, etc. Expression has never been an inherent property of music. That is by no means the purpose of its existence. If, as is nearly always the case, music appears to express something, this is only an illusion and not a reality. It is simply an additional attribute which, by tacit and inveterate agreement, we have lent it, thrust upon it, as a label, a convention – in short, an aspect which, unconsciously or by force of habit, we have come to confuse with its essential being.”

That we react emotionally to music, to art in general, to nearly everything we encounter is a quality of our species with which we’re all familiar, against which we sometimes struggle but which we at other moments celebrate; Kundera elsewhere describes much of European civilization as being driven by “Homo Sentimentalis…the man who has raised feelings to a category of value,” which leads, in his view, to the falsification of feeling, tacitly competitive emoting, and other grotesqueries.

Whether one accepts Stravinsky’s argument, or Kundera’s rather more gentle variation, there is little doubt that part of developing one’s sense of an art is learning to disambiguate whatever feelings it provokes from its formal qualities; very bad art, after all, regularly precipitates tears, joy, fascination, amusement, longing.

The question remains, of course, whether good art can fail to do so. If art can succeed without any appeal to the intuitive faculties of an audience, it does so through referentiality, through some essentially essayistic commentary on the history of its medium or style or content; I have at times argued that what is essayistic, what requires an essay on a wall in a gallery to explain itself, its raison d’être, ought to have been an essay itself, as opposed to text encoded in the visual, structural, or musical. But I am unsure.

In any event, it is an arresting idea: that “music’s curse” is “its mindless aspect,” its capacity to move us without creative justification, to strike at us without any formal sophistication or even compositional intentionality. It is a curse because we respond emotionally to what is familiar, to what we’ve associatively learned to consider moving –”unconsciously or by force of habit”– and as such we favor what is clichéd in music, or what is only very slightly inventive: a new way of producing the 1-4-5 of rock, a new way to process the banal harmonies of the singer, etc. It is a curse because it rewards the derivative and repackaged and punishes the novel, the creative, the bold.

It is a curse, too, because it is a wonderful quality which only a composer like Stravinsky could deny, a quality which all other forms of art must envy; a real curse must also be a gift, because it then becomes impossible to abandon or combat; and thus: music remains the most affective of the arts, the most universal, the most beloved, the most dynamic, yet as often as not the most foolish, if not in its essence than in the sighs it cannot but seek to stir.

April 20th, 2011

Cathedrals of the Useless

In discussing posthumous criticism of Thomas Mann, Clive James notes, in a characteristically provocative aside, something of interest:

“…a modern cultural trend: mass therapy for the semi-cultivated, transmitted through supposedly edifying examples of the idol with the feet of clay.”

Mass-therapy for the semi-cultivated. It soothes one’s fragile ego, one’s tender disappointment at being so unremarkable -so bound by the happenstance configuration of one’s self and one’s circumstances-, to believe that none are any better. It is therefore a profitable mission of the democratic institution of journalism to edify one against despair by helping one to conclude that just as one is all foibles and clay, so too is every hero, every idol.

It is an inalienable imperative for the journalist, from the investigative reporter to the tabloid bloviator: expose, undermine, humiliate, bring low whomever one can. We hunger for more, so they bring more; they expand the scope of journalistic inquiry to include those accidentally made noteworthy by some misfortune, those momentarily elevated by some pop-culture episode, those whose claims to fame are tertiary, quaternary. The search for dirt is the search for clay; it appeases a public which cannot abide the idea of exceptionalism except in the narrowest, quantifiable fields, and even there insists that achievement be counterbalanced with hideous flaws.

(Indeed, the cleverest celebrities strategically cultivate and present their flaws as an orchestrated countermeasure against democratic contempt; they choose, so to speak, what sort of clay suits them and how it is to be photographed. This process is a trope to us now, a worn script; the confessional interviews, the stint -always a stint- in rehabilitation clinics, the book; and we find it harder and harder to tell real suffering from artificial suffering, desirable suffering, the sort of suffering which confers a moral aura and makes one culturally invincible).

We’ve inherited a culture in which idols, and many lesser sorts of elevated personages, are hunted, their private lives scoured for signs of imperfection; and technology is extending it such that we are all hunted, and all our lives are similarly scoured: the Internet is fecund territory for judges and critics; here we all are, together

In any event, I was reminded of an amusing scene in Milan Kundera’s Immortality, in which a character named Paul argues against the “metaphysical inequality” of great art:

We started to talk about all sorts of things. Avenarius referred a few more times to my novels, which he had not read, and so provoked Paul to make a remark whose rudeness astonished me: “I don’t read novels. Memoirs are much more amusing and instructive for me. Or biographies. Recently I’ve been reading books about Salinger, Rodin, and the loves of Franz Kafka. And a marvelous biography of Hemingway. What a fraud. What a liar. What a megalomaniac.” Paul laughed happily. “What an impotent. What a sadist. What a macho. What an erotomaniac. What a misogynist.”

"If you’re ready, as a lawyer, to defend even murderers, why don’t you come to the defense of writers who have committed no wrong except for writing books?" I asked.

"Because they get on my nerves," Paul retorted cheerfully, and poured some wine into the glass the waiter had just placed before him.

"My wife adores Mahler," he continued. "She told me that two weeks before the premiere of his Seventh Symphony he locked himself up in a noisy hotel room and spent the whole night rewriting the orchestration."

"Yes," I agreed, "it was in Prague, in 1906. The name of the hotel was the Blue Star."

"I visualize him sitting in the hotel room, surrounded by manuscript paper," Paul continued, refusing to let himself be interrupted. "He was convinced that his whole work would be ruined if the melody were played by a clarinet instead of an oboe during the second movement."

"That’s precisely so," I said, thinking of my novel.

Paul continued, “I wish that someday this symphony could be played before an audience consisting of the best musical experts, first with the corrections made in those last two weeks, and then without the corrections. I guarantee that nobody would be able to tell one version from the other. Don’t get me wrong: it is certainly remarkable that the motif played in the second movement by the violin is picked up in the last movement by the flute. Everything is worked through, thought through, felt through, nothing has been left to chance, but that enormous perfection overwhelms us, it surpasses the capacity of our memory, our ability to concentrate, so that even the most fanatically attentive listener will grasp no more than one-hundredth of the symphony, and certainly it will be this one-hundredth that Mahler cared about the least.”

His idea, so obviously correct, cheered him up, whereas I was becoming sadder and sadder: if a reader skips a single sentence of my novel he won’t be able to understand it, and yet where in the world will you find a reader who never skips a line? Am I not myself the greatest skipper of lines and pages?

"I don’t deny those symphonies their perfection," continued Paul. "I only deny the importance of that perfection. Those super-sublime symphonies are nothing but cathedrals of the useless. They are inaccessible to man. They are inhuman. We exaggerated their significance. They made us feel inferior. Europe reduced Europe to fifty works of genius that it never understood. Just think of this outrageous inequality: millions of Europeans signifying nothing, against fifty names signifying everything! Class inequality is but an insignificant shortcoming compared to this insulting metaphysical inequality, which turns some into grains of sand while endowing others with the meaning of being!"

The bottle was empty. I called the waiter to bring us another. This caused Paul to lose the thread.

"You spoke about biographies," I prompted him.

"Ah… yes," he recalled.

"You were happy that you can at last read the intimate correspondence of the dead."

"I know, I know," said Paul, as if he wanted to counter in advance any objections from the other side. "I assure you that rifling through someone’s intimate correspondence, interrogating his former mistresses, talking doctors into betraying professional confidences, that’s rotten. Authors of biographies are riffraff, and I would never sit at the same table with them as I do with you. Robespierre, too, would never have sat down with the riffraff that had collective orgasms at the spectacle of public executions. But he knew that he couldn’t do without them. The riffraff is an instrument of just revolutionary hatred."

"What is revolutionary about hatred for Hemingway?" I asked.

"I’m not talking about hatred for Hemingway! I’m talking about his work! I’m talking about their work! It was necessary to say out loud at last that reading about Hemingway is a thousand times more amusing and instructive than reading Hemingway. It was necessary to show that Hemingway’s work is but a coded form of Hemingway’s life and that this life was just as poor and meaningless as all our lives. It was necessary to cut Mahler’s symphony into little pieces and use it as background music for toilet-paper ads. It was necessary at last to end the terror of the immortals. To overthrow the arrogant power of the Ninth Symphonies and the Fausts!"

Drunk on his own words, he got up and raised his glass high: “I drink to the end of the old days!”

Art: cathedrals of the useless, coded biography. Tabloid journalism: an instrument of just revolutionary hatred, hatred of perfection, of the falsified ideal. The end of old days: the end of idols, the advent of the age of the crowd. Does Paul describe our world? Is it better that we never forget that all are clay, fallible, weak? Is this a gradual, undirected, democratic revolution against all forms of the elect, the exalted, and if so, what is given up, what is lost?

April 16th, 2011
But sitting here beside this girl as unknown to him now as outer space, waiting for whatever she might say to unfreeze him, now he felt like he could see the edge or outline of what a real vision of hell might be. It was of two great and terrible armies within himself, opposed and facing each other, silent. There would be battle but no victor. Or never a battle — the armies would stay like that, motionless, looking across at each other and seeing therein something so different and alien from themselves that they could not understand, they could not hear each other’s speech as even words or read anything from what their faces looked like, frozen like that, opposed and uncomprehending, for all human time. Two hearted, a hypocrite to yourself either way.

David Foster Wallace in The Pale King, which I’ve not read; this is from the “Good People” excerpt and was quoted by The Heavily Abridged Life & Times. The final line is quite good, better than many pyrotechnical turns of Wallace’s invention that will endure and define his style: the combination of vernacular rhythms with formal or even pedantic diction, for example, or the peppering of “which” into sentences, or the whole “brief interpolation” tic.

I believe Wallace’s fixation on the psychological spaces within lives of tedium, on the possibilities of beauty, freedom, heroism within the most ordinary lives imaginable, places him in the same literary milieu as Robert Musil, who also displayed ludicrous, encyclopedic polymathy in his pursuit of lost individual worlds: they were writers of the gaps, looking for agency and selfhood in the spaces left by triumphantly expansive bureaucracies of culture, politics, sciences, economics.

In his excellent Testaments Betrayed, Milan Kundera argues that the European novel (which includes most of the American tradition) has taken one approach to this task, while outside of Europe another has been pursued:

The tendency of the novel in the last stages of its modernism: in Europe, the ordinary pursued to its utomost; sophisticated analysis of gray on gray; outside Europe: accumulation of the most extraordinary coincidences; colors on colors. The dangers: in Europe, tedium of gray; outside Europe, monotony of the picturesque.

In many of his stories, Wallace seems determined to use elements of the magical realist traditions to leaven, as it were, the “tedium of gray”; in “Mister Squishy”, from Oblivion, for example, unresolved, bizarre, side-stories contrast with a study of gray on gray, and the people trapped within all those layers of gray, between lifeless layers of accumulated bureaucratic detritus, the sediment of dead sentiments, the quantification of all desire and fear, par excellence.

Aside from literally magical or highly dramatic plots, Wallace sometimes relies on metaphorical flights to give affective depth to the crises of inaction, stagnation, and boredom which are hard to capture in their awesome profundity given their very nature: too dull to make meaningful, they remain the most meaningful themes of our lives.

The metaphor above is not unlike one Kafka might have used, but Kafka would have been as likely to write a parable-like short piece about the armies themselves as to place them within a larger narrative.

In any event, it is above all true: so often in your life, you are thusly torn, and you feel the heated shame of knowing that you’re “Two hearted, a hypocrite to yourself either way.” There is a dramatic range of feelings, fears, possibilities within the depreciated spaces left to the individual, though one must assume that even they will soon be conquered, taken over by expanding technologies and the markets they make of our private worlds.

November 19th, 2010
The usual reading of this scene: Wounded, Andrei sees his rival with his leg amputated; the sight fills him with immense pity for the man and for man in general. But Tolstoy knew that these sudden revelations are not due to causes so obvious and so logical. It was a curious fleeting image (the early-childhood memory of being undressed in the same way as the doctor’s assistant was doing it) that touched everything off -his new metamorphosis, his new vision of things. A few seconds later, this miraculous detail has certainly been forgotten by Andrei himself, just as it has probably been immediately forgotten by the majority of readers, who read novels as inattentively and badly as they “read” their own lives.

Milan Kundera on the scene at the Battle of Borodino in Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace. The point is simple, but worth remembering: what we think catalyzes our thoughts and actions rarely does; it is some slyly incidental detail -unnoticed or immediately forgotten, in all likelihood- which provokes us, prompts this or that momentous decision. We falsify our lives; we become bad fiction, bad television. We believe that what drives us is what drives the mannequins we watch: pop-psychology stories, idiotically-abused words like "closure" and “acting out” and “repressing,” the silly character-arcs that make everything seem purposeful and meaningful, the new diagnoses, the explanations which flatter us, the academic memes.

In War and Peace, what propels Tolstoy’s grand characters -they live largely atop the world, on the historical stage- may be trivial, but it tends at least to be poetic or quasi-heroic: Andrei’s tenderly narcissistic memories (in a field hospital full of moaning, butchered men!), Pierre’s ludicrous numerological pretenses to messianic importance.

In our lives, we are more likely to misread the grotesque, sublimated code described by Gombrowicz, insisting that we’ve chosen what has in fact been coerced by the similarly-unwilled behavior of others: we talk of “decisions” while locked in double-helixes of paired-reactions, unable to escape, determined by others who are determined by others. (This is to say nothing of propaganda and advertising, the archetypical view of which is that they do not affect us in our deliberative thinking and decisions while we accept that they affect almost all others. We are fooled! We believe in our own illusory agency! We fall for our our pretexts and rationalizations!).

Or perhaps not. At any rate: isn’t one of the most attractive ideas of psychotherapy that someone will “read” our life and explain themes not evident to us? What about you? Do you read your life (or your novels) inattentively and badly? (I do). Is your biography based on a template? From where have you borrowed your explanations? What have you forgotten?

October 31st, 2010
I’ve come to the conclusion that this has been the Great Dream of my generation: to position ourselves in such a way that we’re beyond mockery. To not look stupid. That’s the biggest crime of all —looking stupid.

Mark Ames, quoted by Britticisms. I doubt that this dream is unique to our generation; history is far too repetitive, generations generally too alike, humans too uniform, for me to suppose that this, as they say, defines us apart from our forbears.

It may be the case, however, that our interiorization of technology -"the way we look to the camera in slo-mo"- has amplified our terror of appearing stupid by convincing us we are more scrutinized than ever. After all: to look stupid, we must be seen by someone, and it is ever harder for us to imagine not being seen.

Even if we escape the effect of televisual media —which have for more than a decade proffered the idea of the ‘documentary’ film crew, the reality-show camera, the cast members talking in the kitchen while they narrate their own interactions— we must still accept that the Internet is always with us: either when we talk through it —alone in the city we address ourselves to Twitter or Tumblr— or when others represent its gaze —are they photographing us, will they comment on us, will they follow us online?

That is to say: the forms of narrative —journalistic and fictive— and communication which most inform our habits of perception all suggest an omnipresent audience waiting to judge, an audience for whom we perform in our most private moments, an audience whom we address with every act and utterance, meaning to or not. Being alone is no longer possible; looking stupid is always a risk.

Twice this weekend I’ve advanced to friends the idea that what most informed my adolescence, through college, was the following form of relation: if around a woman to whom I was attracted, I would imagine her suspecting me of being attracted to her, suspecting me of base and low motives for our interaction, and I would assume that this revolted and appalled her —being aware of my own absurd, awkward lumpishness; and so to prove that I was not ‘a typical guy,’ to prove that I was not some lecher pursuing her, to prove that I was exceptional or unique, I would strenuously avoid interacting with her, or would do so in a mannered way so as to insist by deed and sometimes speech that I was interested in her only as a friend, etc.

Because even as I feared her revulsion —feared being rejected, looking stupid— I wanted her approval, her acceptance, and was willing to seek it through platonic means. That is: I sublimated any sexual longing into a longing for approval; I sought approval at the expense of the longing that inspired my seeking; I preferred to behave as though I wanted nothing in order not to be denied what I wanted.

Both friends to whom I mentioned this shared the experience, and both were, like me, amazed to recall it. Such complex deformations of desire and personality happening so automatically: that is youth. Reduced to its dominant themes, Witold Gombrowicz’s Ferdydurke is a novel about these mutations of self that occur in the presence of other selves, as our reckoning about those selves forces us into certain patterns of behavior we cannot escape but which hardly reflect our hopes.

As it happens, a character in Milan Kundera’s Immortality argues that the true desire of most is for the admiration and approval of their peers, of their community, of the world, such that real hedonism does not exist; hedonism, and our culture’s constant claims of desire —sexual desire, gustatory desire, experiential desire— are all desperate acts. As he puts it:

"Imagine that you are given the choice of two possibilities: to spend a night of love with a world-famous beauty, let’s say Brigitte Bardot or Greta Garbo, but on condition that nobody must know about it. Or to stroll down the main avenue of the city with your arm wrapped intimately around her shoulder, but on condition that you must never sleep with her… everyone, including the worst wretches, would maintain that they would rather sleep with her. Because all of them would want to appear to themselves, to their wives, and even to the bald official conducting the poll as hedonists. This, however, is a self-delusion. Their comedy act. Nowadays hedonists no longer exist… Except for me. No matter what they say, if they had a real choice to make, all of them, I repeat, all of them would prefer to stroll with her down the avenue. Because all of them are eager for admiration and not for pleasure. For appearance and not for reality. Reality no longer means anything to anyone. To anyone."

One might argue that he is wrong on one point alone: “reality” means something to us all still, but it no longer means our experience of the world; it means what it means when we speak of “reality television,” which is to say: a fundamentally performative reality which is dedicated to pretending it is not performative. 

"Reality" is that act which claims not to be an act, that private moment in which one is as deliberate and methodical and self-redacted as one would be in an interview, that moment in which one pretends to want sex so one can deny that one wants love, or pretends to want love in order to deny one wants sex, or pretends to be oneself so one can deny that one’s "self" is just the series of deformations wrought by all the other performing selves likewise deformed. Gombrowicz describes this as an endless mutual exchange of what he calls "pulled faces," all of which merely cover the ass: seeking to conceal what we find shameful, repress what we fear is stupid, deny what we worry is weakness or need.

Montaigne famously noted that however high our throne, we sit on our ass; every generation has a solution: one denies the ass, hides it beneath finery, pretends it isn’t there; another exposes the ass, claims to be at peace with it, to love it, but instead hides its shame, is ashamed of any shame, any weakness, any traditional sense of privacy.

Pulled faces, feigned hedonism, phony enthusiasms, a terror of looking stupid: much of what was awful about adolescence, and much of what remains, it seems, into one’s thirties!

Reblogged from BRITTICISMS
March 27th, 2010
There is nothing so absurd as not to have been said by one of the philosophers.

Cicero, quoted by super-heroic Superfluidity. One might have supposed that the tendency of scholars, intoxicated by their rarefied jargon as an adolescent is by feeling or a lecher by sex, to assert absurdities objectionable to anyone with common sense is a modern phenomenon. It is sometimes argued that the specialized lexicons which attach to areas of inquiry enable the nonsense of academe, that just as the mangled inanities of business-speak permit corporate mismanagement and malfeasance so does the baroque language of intellectualism —which I suspect is motivated mainly by a kind of arms-race among thinkers who want to prove their seriousness, their objectivity, the subtlety or novelty of their ideas— explain the habit the wise have of arguing the idiotic, defending the indefensible.

(Recounting the attempts made by leftist intellectuals to justify show trials, censorship, a single-party state, and state control of the press, the arts, and all discourse, Kundera noted that “Nothing requires a greater effort of thought than arguments to justify the rule of non-thought.” Intellectuals are drawn to the challenge of defending irrational and anti-rational causes like athletes to endurance sports).

But it’s nothing new! And so it has nothing to do with bureaucratically specializing, endlessly iterating discourse, or the freedom of the academy from any responsibility to civil society that inclines thinkers to go berserk; it’s been their habit since antiquity. It must be some innate extremism in the mind, some intrinsic desire to extend to their logical limits all patterns of analysis, all proposed paradigms. I imagine it relates to ascetism, or maybe to a deep biological urge to do whatever works to an ever-greater degree. Is it the same urge we seen in acquisitive, expansive social behavior, behind capitalism, behind imperialism, behind Hegelianism, utopianism? Perhaps it is the lonely instinct which drives the child to arrange toys just so, to make a Sim City with an obsessive, fascistic geometry.

Whatever it is, it is not new; nothing is"What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun. Is there anything of which one can say, "Look! This is something new"? It was here already, long ago; it was here before our time. There is no remembrance of men of old, and even those who are yet to come will not be remembered by those who follow."

Reblogged from superfluidity
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Hello! My name is Mills Baker. I write about art, culture, love, philosophy, memory, history, and more. Here are some relatively better posts. This site has been featured on Tumblr Tuesday and is listed in the Spotlight, but it pines for its youth as a coloring book. (Header lettering by the amazing Chirp).