sexta-feira, junho 30, 2000

Tossed Hither and Thither: "Michael Kohlhaas" by Heinrich von Kleist

(My own copy)

Just back from a long train journey, I took the opportunity to read Michael Kohlhaas in German. I can't imagine this text in English; it somehow seems simultaneously modern, and of the time in which the story is set. The actual language hardly intrudes at all, but there are particular words or phrases whose recurrence or juxtaposition hints at darker, hidden meaning; horrible things are described with equanimity, but there is always just a hint of deeper feeling beneath the surface. The foreword coins the phrase "anti-rhetoric"- a deliberate toning down of the descriptive passages, in order to focus attention on single moments, character's reactions, or a gesture.

Anyone who cannot find happiness on earth is unlikely to find it at the book fair either. If we imagine Heinrich von Kleist in one of the trade-fair halls, if only for a second, then that famous sentence comes to mind that Kleist wrote to his brother-in-law: „I ask God for death, and you I ask for money." There is no more concise and drastic a way of describing the drama of the artist twixt a wish for salvation and a fear of impoverishment, between transcendence and dull life in the here and now, the poet's soul tossed hither and thither.

Back in he day, I remember as many as three biographies attempting to shed light on the Kleist phenomenon. Brief, sound and with pointed quill, the effort by Herbert Kraft („Kleist". Live and Works, Aschendoff Verlag), while Jens Bisky declares Kleist with great passion and stylistic verve to be the „greatest German political poet" and tries to show in what delicate constellations the ideals of the Enlightenment and the French Revolution found their way into Kleist's life and works. Gerhard Schulz is interested more in the life than the work, („Kleist". A Biography, C. H. Beck), treating this and that enigma in the poet's biography, such as the nebulous trip to Würzburg, as mere balloons: Easily he deflates them. For all the cold logic as regards the details of Kleist's life, Gerhard Schulz preserves his respect for the secrets of poet's life as a whole.

domingo, junho 25, 2000

Homo Ludens: “Dimension of Miracles” by Robert Sheckley

Viva la dialecticacacaca! Anyway, on the unitary consciousness and death, here is a very nice excerpt from Robert Sheckley's Dimension of Miracles, in which the hero (Carmody) has a chat with a God (Melichrone):

"I abolished them," Melichrone said. "I did away with all life on my
planet, living and otherwise, and I also deleted the Hereafter.
Frankly, I needed time to think."

"Huh," Carmody said, shocked.

"In another sense, though, I didn't destroy anything or anyone,"
Melichrone said hastily. "I simply gathered the fragments of myself
back into myself." Melichrone grinned suddenly. "I had quite a number
of wild-eyed fellows who were always talking about attaining a oneness
with Me. They've attained it now, that's for sure!"

"Perhaps they like it that way," Carmody suggested.

"How can they know? Melichrone said. "Oneness with Me means Me; it
necessarily involves loss of the consciousness which examines one's
oneness. It is exactly the same as death, though it sounds much nicer."

I love all that Robert Sheckley kind of stuff.

Except I'd question why oneness with Melichrone would "necessarily" involve "loss of the consciousness which examines one's oneness", rather than the gaining of the consciousness that examines every one's onenesses in turn. There is no proof or evidence of the absolute loss of consciousness from one realm or form of being to another. There is merely the "feeling" or intuitively high "probability" that consciousness is inextricably tied to the only realm that one knows of at a given time. Common sense. Life experience. Observation of others. Nothing that anyone has ever said has _proved_ anything. It has all been assertions trying to support one or other intellectual viewpoint, sometimes with good-humour, sometimes without. Which is fine, as long as we recognise that beyond meeting our basic survival needs, human existence is nothing more than a game. We have intellects and we enjoy exercising them - some of us more than others. At heart we are all Homo Ludens, whether we're watching Celebrity Big Brother or discussing Ultimate Reality; it's all the same thing - looking for something to stimulate and interest us.

Sure, over time we advance human knowledge and some of us benefit from that. But D'Espagnat is not saying that our consciousness survives, nor did Schrödinger. And the idea of a universal consciousness is meaningless without a convincing demonstration of what it is and how it operates. And I suspect that, like God, such proof will be a long time a'coming. And do we live in a dog-eat-dog world of survival of the fittest and individual greed? No, we don't. That's a caricature and not the society that most of us inhabit. Most of us just get on with our lives, working, falling in love, meeting friends and family. We sometimes make mistakes, but few of us are desperate to do down those around us; most of us don't think that we're constantly under attack by other people or The System, and while many of us consume too much, we do so by mistake rather than with greedy intent.

terça-feira, junho 20, 2000

Russian Big Brother: "We" by Yevgeny Zamyatin

Nineteen Eighty-Four” and “We”: both have constant surveillance of the individual, though through different means. Both have the protagonist discovering a class in society that is free, but powerless. Both have state control over passion, albeit in rather different ways. But “1984” (the new title) is rather turgid though. “We by contrast is actually a lot of fun, I rather prefer it of the two; it's not afraid in places to be a bit silly and it's vision of the future is somehow inspired, with their transparent dwellings and privacy granted only for your allotted hour of sex with your pre-selected partner. If one sees a figure jerking about, and one sees strings attached to its hands and feet and leading upward out of sight, one would "infer" a "manipulator" entirely internal to the figure's movements- a puppeteer. Likewise, if one saw an opinion-herd trotting this way and that, inferring that the beasts were being directed passively (even if the 'puppeteer' in this case were simply the other beasts) wouldn't be an extra "assumption", would it?

Dystopias like "Nineteen Eighty-Four", “We” and Brazil make me wonder: sure, my opinions of a book or movie or person or whatever, and my political and spiritual commitments, my romantic infatuations, and so on, feel like they're "according to my own lights, which provide an adequate explanation for my reactions". And what else does one have to go by? Well, one thing one has to go by is the capacity for critique, the ability, perhaps the fate, to see one's own 'freedom' as a paradox.

It feels as though some are merely rattling their sabres by criticising the minor flaws of a masterpiece, like complaining about the way the napkins are folded in an exquisite restaurant. Surely the stately style and sketchy characterisation perfectly suit the novel's vision of a grey, authoritarian world? Or am I simply crediting Zamyatin with more subtlety than he deserves? In any case, I think the content of “We” is sufficiently high enough to excuse any clumsiness of style. Granted, it's refreshing to re-evaluate even the greatest work of art, but why butcher a sacred cow just to have some gristle to chew over? Anyway, I must be off; the clocks are about to strike thirteen.

quinta-feira, junho 15, 2000

British Big Brother: "Nineteen Eighty-Four" by George Orwell

Do you think it matters greatly that Orwell may have plagearised a good portion of "Nineteen Eighty-Four" because of the significance of the novel? Funny how soon this novel has passed the 60 years mark and we're just now "finding this all out". In our world - the age of the internet, it seems these things are found out immediately.

I was always aware that "Nineteen Eighty-Four" was about Russia/Soviet Union given his experience fighting on the communist side during the Spanish Civil War and all that entailed. Due to the Stalinists executing the Trotskyites (the POUM) on whose side Orwell fought, he left Spain after almost being murdered himself disillusioned with Communism altogether. Then he wrote and published "Animal Farm" and "Nineteen Eighty-Four". In the US, students in the 1960s and 1970s always assumed "Nineteen Eighty-Four" was about us in Europe. It became popular and a part of our culture to think Orwell had Europe in mind as the state on which his novel was based. Big Brother indeed has been alive and well, along with all the conspiracy theories we hold so dear to our hearts here (grassy knolls abound all over the country).

Interesting that those authors who predict futures - Phillip K. Dick and J.G. Ballard are other examples - aren't the greatest of prose writers. The urgency to communicate their ideas must bypass the need to edit out the stodge/purple prose passages.

I find all Orwell's books have that same problem - great ideas and images but solidly written rather than inspiring and then I think if he's managed to plant those ideas and images into the imagination - does it really matter? I'm not suggesting for one moment that artistry isn't vital but you do remember Orwell for the images rather than his prose style. I think writers are motivated in two different ways mainly: one is to entertain, the other is to represent life as truthfully as possible. The latter sort are usually interested/driven by social conditions of the time and seek to put their concerns into the novel form; they rarely make great novels but they do make good interesting ones.

Charles Reader in Never Too Late To Mend did this and he seemed in doing it to be really a sociologist/philosopher who wanted to reach the mass audiences that were spellbound by Dickens. He produced a fair read revealing the inhumanity of the treadmill in a London prison, and the humiliations of the Australian gold rush. Social concern also is the driving force of Mary Barton, Elizabeth Gaskell's novel of the extreme pressures working class people were under in the throes of Industrial England. Not great literature but a most interesting read; a novelised pamphlet. Thackeray's Vanity Fair is a great work of literature because he manages to prioritise the aesthetics of plot and characterisation so that the social and political aspects don't come across as 'messages'.

Orwell was political through and through but not a great novelist; he was more interested in revealing the class system as an exploiter of humans to the extent of degrading humanity to a pathetic degree. Many readers see this as more a service done to the reader; one feels that the eyes are opened to life as it really is. I thought the Road to Wigan Pier was a good book, and Coming Up for Air showing that he could be very funny about social change as well as deeply serious. But “Nineteen Eighty-Four” is really frighteningly relevant to today and one feels that he got it wrong only temporarily; it is slowly happening.

'Plagiarism' is often used but seldom understood and it would be fairly impossible to 'plagiarise' a novel written in a different language since to plagiarise you would need to copy parts of the book word for word, which would be pointless if writing for an English readership. Happily, writers are free to use ideas they come across and make something of them in their own way but this isn't plagiarism. I think the only way this can be rectified in the future is to give both authors credit for having written “Nineteen Eighty-Four” with a portion of any royalties to Zamyatin's heirs if there be any.

sábado, junho 10, 2000

Anti-literary-flab: "War and Peace" by Leo Tolstoy

(My own copy)

I was standing at an airport lounge as a teenager many years ago, and suddenly realised I had no books to read for my family holiday. I was a SF geek at the time (still am, but I’m reading other stuff now), but had read everything that W.H. Smiths airport bookshelf could show me. In desperation and dread I turned to the classics... I'd read Frankenstein and other English literary classics by that point, and had found all of them tedious and obsessed with melancholy and/or an absurd idealistic idea of romance. Plots were contrived and you could see them coming a mile away. Of them all, only Dickens could make me smile and identify with his caricatures, but even he stopped short of fulfilling at times. If Victorian England had truly been like all of that that, then no wonder we were so repressed and messed up today. So in desperation and partly in arrogance I picked up this weighty book. None of my peers had read it, and it's size seemed to daunt many. I thought of the smugness I'd feel in saying I'd read it, even if it had been as dry and full of itself like so many others... The next two weeks were the best holiday read of my life thus far. From a stumbling start in the opening chapter and trying to work out who the hell everyone was, I slowly and surely found my way into one of the most beautiful and compelling novels I'd ever read... Tolstoy has a way of showing the inner spirit of everyone. From the bullying cavalry-man, to Napoleon himself and above all our principle characters. How I loved that bumbling, foolish and ungainly Pierre as he grew and flowered, and the impish Natasha who could melt your heart in the first paragraph you met her. Even thinking of it now, I am touched by tender thoughts and memories, interspersed with the grief of conflict and war and the nobleness of the human spirit.

But is it a perfect book? No book is perfect. War and Peace is a brilliant book that should be read and enjoyed at whatever age a person is. It truly is a book for every age and every person. Let yourself into a world that will enrapt you. And a little request: can we in 2000 stop using the phrase "is not perfect ..." when describing something. Nothing in life is perfect. No book, no movie, no age, no accomplishment, and so on. Consciously refuse to compare anything to perfection and instead just enjoy something for what it is. Comparing something to the unobtainable 'perfect' merely diminishes that something and our experience. Don't be put off by folk complaining about the philosophical bits. There isn't too much of that anyway.I reread War and Peace” recently, in no rush and over three weeks and was amazed by its richness and the development of character. Make no mistake, this is a Russian epic and you will find few books in a lifetime of reading which are as memorable.

(Bought in 1994)

Take Pierre for example who goes from being a young buffoon worshiping Napoleon to become someone with a much more critical view, hoping at one point for the chance of assassinating him. This development does not happen overnight! He learns from his experiences in prison and through his relationship with Platon Karateyev. At the end you are left thinking that the story is not yet over. Pierre and young Nikolai Bolkonsky, patriots both - are thinking critically about society. Exile to Siberia is definitely a possibility if they get involved in anything too radical. Pierre is just one major character in this glorious book. Start when you can but don't rush it. Literature of this quality needs time.

Reasonable defenders of War and Peace at (one of) its current length(s) might absolutely agree with being anti-literary-flab, and simply argue that this book isn't actually flabby. For example, the "side-track stories" are not "padding" or "excess", but rather constitute the "pacing" intrinsically needed by the "content" itself- so goes a point of view which I think is more care-filled than that of a "fanboy". Take a look at vol. II, pt. 5, ch. VI (it's only a couple of pages). Natasha has accepted Prince Andrei's proposal, and has returned to Moscow to meet the prince's father and get ready to get married. She meets Marya Dmitrievna, a society dowager, who intrusively 're-assures' Natasha about "old Prince Nikolai" and his resistance to his son's getting married. A tiny moment, particularly in that nothing in the plot changes as a result of this vignette, but we are shown: the social realities that Natasha is growing to recognize and understand; and the ego-centrism, diminishing, that's still the dominant tone in her character (she really sees this man whom she loves, but she thinks she can marry and 'have' him without marrying his family and being his socially positioned and positioning wife). You see my point? The story of the story doesn't change because of this little chapter, but our alertness to what Tolstoy is showing us is colored, or deepened, or enriched, or nourished (or whatever old-fashioned metaphor you like!) by this small facet.

Not sure what, in "War and Peace", some people mean by "cliff-hangers" and "many-a-time abrupt endings" as I’ve read elsewhere. I don't think "serialization" works as either a fault-generator or a mitigation; the book in your hands either holds together as you read it or it's de-coherently "over-long". Think of cricket. If you savor the pace of the game as it is, a five-day Test, or seven-game series, isn't 'too long'-- it unfolds at just the length it needs to. If you can't stand the sport, each batter's innings or team's at-bat is already an eternity of boring nonsense; forget about a match or game. Either way, it isn't the length itself that's guilty of generating one's antipathy. I can't see which 'thousand lines' of War and Peace one would 'blot'...

I have always been vehemently anti-literary-flab. The lack of an author's ability to distinguish what is essential and what isn't and to pare away the flab has always seemed in my eyes a weakness and not a virtue. It does not mean that I do not like long novels in and of themselves, I just find long swathes of them to be gratuitous flab (well written and brilliant though they might be). The Russian masterpieces act as a great case in point. Anna Karenina, War and Peace and The Brothers Karamazov (the three classic doorstops) were all written serially for the magazine The Russian Messenger. They were written in weekly installments by Tolstoy and Dostoevsky with word count and longevity of project strictly in mind (not that Tolstoy needed the money...). Now, the two authors knew that they were padding things out with side-track stories and story-telling devices, but we the modern readers know the books as they are and can't imagine any paragraph being cut (or in fact added to the end to smooth out the many-a-time abrupt endings, which are also legacies of the serialization). We like those novels for what they are and not for what they could theoretically be, but that doesn't mean that the modern author doesn't have the burden to perfect the pacing and content of his or her novel by removing the excess. There seems to exist nowadays a fanboy-like reaction to works even in cultured matters. People zealously defend endless novels, for some reason equating critique of length with critique of the total merit of the book. One can love a book and still critique its faults - we're not football ultras, we're readers.

Basically I say that a modern-day author has no excuses for writing over-long. It's a shame that some Modern (and some not so Modern) Fantasy writers can't manage to edit down their magnum opus.

Bottom-line: If you haven't read it, please do persevere past the first chapter and the strange names. It will reward you over and over in a way so few books do.