Tuesday, March 24, 2009
1928, 375 pp.
As Anthony Burgess once wrote, the real benefit of the repeal of the ban on Lady Chatterley's Lover is not so much a victory for free speech and free expression as a freedom from the obligation to defend what is not actually a very good book. Originally self-published in 1928, released in several different editions, and forbidden under obscenity legislation for decades, Lady Chatterley's Lover will forever be the one book which is automatically associated with the name of D.H. Lawrence. The trials, the bans, the lawsuits, and the protests have shrouded the book in more notoriety than it (and perhaps its author) really warrants. I imagine it has been disappointing lurid readers for generations.
The story concerns one Lady Constance Chatterley, who marries the alliterative Sir Clifford Chatterley, a bright, sensitive young writer who is promptly paralyzed in the First World War. They live together on his estate in the depressing industrial Midlands, where Connie quickly grows bored and stultified and after a few false starts finally begins an affair with Mellors, the groundskeeper. It all begins promisingly enough, with a few immediate bits of quite good prose: "intimate as two people who stand together on a sinking ship," and "the village trailed in utter hopeless ugliness for a long and gruesome mile," for instance. Lawrence swiftly establishes himself as skilled in the construction of a lovely phrase, but unfortunately seems to find them so lovely that he is not ashamed to repeat them in the next sentence, and the sentence after that. I forgave him the first time. I wondered if it was an artistic choice the second, third, and fourth times. By the fifth and sixth, I started to wonder if self-publishing meant there was no copy editor, and if in the hustle of different versions being banned by different governments, perhaps the prose got a bit muddy. By pages 110-111, when he uses "down-slipping" three times in as many sentences, I became officially annoyed. The repetition reaches some sort of lunatic nadir on page 167: "...the world of the mechanical greedy, greedy mechanism and mechanized greed..." How mechanical was it? Was it greedy at all? I think it was really, really super-greedy and mechanical, but it's kind of difficult to tell.
All of my various substantive objections to the book can be personified by the character of the groundskeeper. Much is made (both in the book and in its exegeses) about the controversy entailed in Lady Chatterley conducting an affair with a member of the lower class. I am all in favor of such arrangements in the abstract: the problem is the relative personalities involved in this particular case. Quite a lot of the book is dedicated to the opinions of various characters on the causes and process of Western civilization's decline and fall. Mellors' opinion is a rather distasteful bit of cultural fascism: "It's because th' men aren't men, that th' women have to be," he says. Men in his opinion have become too effeminate, what with their book-learning and disinterest in shooting owls. They have let themselves become subordinate to women, who have grown more strong and assertive than their natural position ought to be, leading to cultural degradation. He waxes euphoric on three occasions about the virile benefits of wearing red trousers, for reasons utterly lost on this reader. He also has the ability to switch between speaking a wild and inhospitable "vernacular" which is meant to sound like a Derbyshire accent, and speaking "proper English." Try though I might to work out the significance of this ability and why he uses one version or the other, I emerge defeated.
Lawrence sets up Sir Clifford as the foil to Mellors' earthy manliness. Sir Clifford is literally impotent, due to machine guns, and this failure is what leads poor, unsatisfied Connie to find Mellors, the ubermensch. Of course, looked at another way, she deserts her crippled husband who has done nothing but be kind to her and provide her with a lavish standard of living, and whose only fault (until he begins to notice that she is obviously cheating on him) is that he likes to read. This does not make Connie a particularly endearing character, nor Lawrence a particularly endearing author for advancing a thesis based on the integrity of these characters.
The infamous sex scenes don't finally start up until about page 150, and even then are less anatomically than emotionally explicit. Connie seems to spend a lot of time feeling like the ocean, with "mysteries of the phallus" in "her woman's heart." The naming of one another's genitalia, which provoked so much ire in trial proceedings, doesn't turn up until page 270, and then only three times. Instead, the obscenity comes in the form of a few sudden (and startlingly out of place) uses of profanity by Mellors, the forbidden four-letter words peering dubiously out of the apostrophed thickets of his incomprehensible vernacular. When on page 264 "the dog sighed with discomfort on the mat," I knew exactly how it felt. Some have argued that Lawrence's mistake was writing about good sex, which is inherently less interesting in a narrative than bad sex. It seems to me he did worse: he wrote about good sex badly. The turgid prose of the sex scenes brings the narrative to a dead halt, and I found them worse than obscene: I found them unconvincing, and embarrassingly so.
The central thesis of Lady Chatterley's Lover seems to be that if men are properly men and women properly women, according to some poorly articulated peasant code of social relations, the basic animal integrity of such a 'natural" relationship provides a sort of redemption which makes up for the degradation of a life spent in industrial wage-slavery, or rather, in the modern world. The trick, apparently, is to wear red pants, name your genitals, and feel like the ocean.
Sunday, March 22, 2009
1997 (english translation 1999), 238 pp.
(Note: many of the quotes and summary points in this review will indeed be of a spoiler nature)
The overall incompleteness of book reviews is a daunting and foreboding anathema to reason. One is led to ask why would I want a only a summary of a book, why would I not rather indulge in the pleasure of reading a well crafted book and decide for myself whether it is good or bad? Perhaps one would venture to ask the reviewer why on earth are you writing 500 words at all; the author wrote thousands, what could you possibly add by way of a summary? It is my humble task to provide a definitive answer by showing how in fact Saramago’s “All the Names” is a work of extreme care, thoughtfulness, and sociological imagining that by doing so I hope to leave the reader of this review with a better understanding of certain aspects of society as Saramago sees them. Keeping this in mind, this review is ushered forth out of the Central Registry like the many papers that our protagonist Senhor José lifted from the archives, to copy down the lives of those he would never meet, and truly begin to enter his humanity documenting others. Within the spirit of the human unraveling and finding something to be passionate about after years buried under the paperwork and mind numbing bureaucracy of the Central Registry, we see that José Saramago has thought more deeply about more important issues of our time than fabricating a codex within a codex (heaven forbid the vinegar melt the horribly inept secret of the Rose!).
Any reader upon picking up a Saramago book will recognize the unorthodox style of his prose, to hell with grammar; he flings aside the conventions of writing and instead utilizes that of empirical reality. This use of grammar may be a problem for the professional critic of books, so use to the humdrum of a properly placed comma or period, that the slightest deviation from the way there 3rd grade teacher told them a paragraph should be constructed will send them into a spiral of “hard work” that will inhibit them from truly enjoying the brilliance from which comes a type of prose that reflects the way people actually think and talk. In a sentence that is actually rare in its brevity, the author could equally be talking about the professional critic, when he reveals that, “Imagining the head of the Central Registry doing overtime was rather like trying to imagine a square circle.” (156)
Robert Irwin, reviewer of this book for the NY Times tells us that there are hardly any names in “All the Names” (on this point there is no dispute only the protagonist and the woman eventually get names), his jaw presumably dropping at the cleverness of Saramago. However, for the sociologist this is hardly a twist of cleverness meriting the only analytical point a reviewer could make in addition to the summary. Indeed, Max Weber himself tells us of bureaucracy that it is a hierarchically structured inherently dehumanizing way of rationalizing an organization (indeed for Weber the best way thus far developed and thus intractable once put into place) whereby (increasingly) one person is the sole bearer of charismatic (read creative, innovative, entrepreneurial) authority and this Charismatic leader (indeed only him/her) can deviate from the mechanical rationality of the bureaucratic machine (otherwise nothing would get done as people would engage in petty disagreements like, “why should I put paper in the printer after its empty?”). Like Weber state’s names (the personal characteristics) are not important for bureaucracy, only your role and the work that you must complete; in this book the clerks answer to the higher clerks who answer to the second in commands before we reach the Registrar (Saramago utilizes the Capital letter to denote his authority). To get time off, to ask for a break, to do anything besides the work one is assigned this chain of command must be followed.
Irwin also states that this book is less human than “The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis”. To this I would rebut what is more human than a low-level clerk in the near total bureaucracy of the Central Registry, going on a journey of intrigue and speculation, as for humanity “Senhor José felt a pang of pleasure, almost enthusiasm, at the exercise of inventive abilities he had never imagined he had…” (128). He then goes onto to play the role of private investigator (like Nicholson in Chinatown), digging up clue after clue compulsively about a mysterious woman (“You wanted to see her, you wanted to know her, and that, whether you like or not, is love”), worried about getting caught or besmirching the good name of the almighty Central Registry and eventually the Registrar himself who begins to treat José with increasing kindness as if he is an equal of the charismatic sort that would need to be at the top, not the low-level of the bureaucracy.
Saramago, moreso than any author I have read so far asks us to imagine the regular as spectacular. The ceiling (the thing above your head right now!) becomes a cliché spewing machine on page 132 and then on page 209 becomes a wise entity bestowing definitive answers about what to do next; indeed were it not for Saramago’s atheistic humor could we come to see the ceiling as “the eye of God”. Saramago utilizes the sociological imagination of C. Wright Mills (questioning the everyday object or social interaction to draw out its deeper sociological Facts and truths) when he writes, “For long hours he had walked through General Cemetery, he had passed through epochs, eras, dynasties, through kingdoms, empires and republics, through wars and epidemics, through infinite numbers of disparate deaths, beginning with the first sorrow felt by humanity and ending with this woman who committed suicide only a few days ago, Senhor José, therefore, knows all too well that there is nothing anyone can do about death.” (198)
Between the Central Registry and the General Cemetery the bureaucratizing of All the Names is complete and all those alive and dead are recorded, stored, and buried within the confines of an information card or hole in the ground. But as the woman on the ground floor apartment tells us, you know their names and years of birth, but you do not know that I her godmother slept with her father! You do not know how she laughs and how she cries! In a final stroke of genius Saramago continues the woman’s life by destroying the proof of her death. She becomes at once real, human; by becoming a deviation an aberration in the near perfect bureaucracy of the Central Registry (with the Registrar’s blessing no less). The dehumanization of bureaucracy is challenged and overcome, the strength of humanity is upheld, and Saramago “ties the end of the [Ariadne’s] thread around his ankle and set off into the darkness” to explore what humanity is capable of under even the most complete bureaucratic structuring of life.
Thursday, March 19, 2009
1992, 319 pp.
Nobody can agree about poor Abraham Lincoln. He seems to be all things to all people, including an object of pillory and condemnation for some. Fortunately, Lincoln at Gettysburg is not a reappraisal or yet another massive psycho-biography, but instead a meticulous in-depth textual analysis of the Gettysburg Address and an explanation of the circumstances which led to its composition and which surrounded its delivery. Wills analyzes the Address using the categories and tools of Greek oratory, and compares it line-by-line with Pericles' Funeral Oration, which of course is to be found in Book II of Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War. He makes a persuasive case for the central theme of rebirth through death, and the importance of the mid-nineteenth century intellectual pivot from Roman neo-classicism to Greek. He uses the simple principles expressed in the Address as a door into
Wills is probably
Of course an entire book about a speech of 272 words requires some stretching. There is a chapter about the architecture of cemeteries in nineteenth century
In sum, Lincoln at Gettysburg is a fascinating book and one which contributes greatly to our knowledge of Lincoln and the milieu of his intellectual development, though it would perhaps have worked better as a lengthy scholarly article and with less of the author’s presence.
Friday, March 13, 2009
1774, 127 pp.
Among the most famous novels ever written, certainly a fixture of literary knowledge during the nineteenth century, and the book which made Goethe the world's first international literary celebrity, The Sorrows of Young Werther has been so widely read and analyzed that it is difficult for the fresh reviewer to find anything new and productive to say. Werther kicked off the Sturm und Drang movement which gave the world Herder and Haydn and much of Schiller. The little novel had an integral role in the rise of the Romantic movement, and of course kicked off a round of copycat suicides across Europe. Napoleon apparently loved Werther, and complimented Goethe on it when they met in Weimar shortly after the Battle of Jena. Goethe didn't like it much, though, but did concede that every young man has a time in his life when he feels as though Werther were written exclusively for him.
The Sorrows of Young Werther is a mainly epistolary novel about a passionate young man who falls desperately and obsessively in love with Lotte, who is already engaged to a stolid chap named Albert. Werther tries to be friends, tries to escape and start a career, but eventually is overcome and kills himself.
And in spite of all the analysis and in spite of its reputation, it actually holds up extremely well. The latter quarter or so, when Werther has stopped sending his letters and "the editor" has taken over the story is still as moving and passionate as Napoleon found it. In the long recitation of Ossian at the end, Goethe has so improved on the original that any remaining doubts about Goethe's skills are utterly dispelled. Granted, at times Werther seems ridiculous and his continual outbursts about wanting to die wear about as thin as popular music sentiments, but since it was Werther who invented these cliches, it is the modern impostors who are the worse for the comparison. Ridiculous, yes, but young love is ridiculous, and so is being alive. With the benefit of existentialism and modern sensibilities, it is difficult not to read Werther as the story of a narcissist personality who, confronted with the meaninglessness of the world, and with only the hollow platitudes of religion and the social order of structured alienation to fall back upon, finds himself in a late Ingmar Bergman film where the only means of connection he has is to hurt the person he cares for most. Werther's final action is cruel and selfish and at least a little disingenuous, but it is a genuine cry of despair at the realization that the world will not organize itself to fulfill his wishes. There is a point in every life when this becomes apparent, and the individual manner of dealing with it is perhaps one of the most crucial steps in the development of a functioning adult; Werther is what happens when the passionate rather than the rational individual refuses to admit to his inherent subordination to the world.
Goethe is rather considered the Shakespeare of Germany, and his works have filtered into the national consciousness to such a degree that they are inextricable from the German understanding of art and literature. The case has been made for Goethe being one of the greatest geniuses to have ever lived. While The Sorrows of Young Werther is a splendid work, and Goethe's Faust is fascinating, and I cannot dispute his influence, I have never been able to understand what ranks him among Shakespeare and Homer. It is true he was something of a polymath: for instance, he wanted to be remembered for his pioneering (though largely inaccurate) work on colors and optics. He wrote on plant morphology and mineralogy, and produced essays and criticism. It is easy to place him as a transitional figure into the phase of Romanticism, with his passions and emotions and introspection. He seems to have been rather counter-Enlightenment, though, with his emphasis on the essentialism of geography and culture, and rejection of laws based on reason alone. And his literary reputation seems largely based only on Werther and Faust, both of which are excellent, but are hardly thirty-seven plays and 154 sonnets. Instead he seems to have influenced the cohort of nineteenth century German thinkers who in turn largely molded the modern world. It is impossible to deny his importance, only to wonder if in Hegel's place (for instance), I would have been likewise influenced or if there is some component unique to the language which is lost in translation or unique to the zeitgeist which is lost in time and space that I do not grasp.
As a post-script, there are a few interesting moments which reveal details of life in Goethe's Weimar. Werther seems to be a wealthy young man with plenty of leisure time and servants and no shortage of money. He easily obtains a post at an embassy, but then he befriends a Count and arrives at the Count's home for lunch one day when the entire aristocracy seems to be visiting. The aristocrats object to the presence of someone of his lowly social station, so he is asked to leave. I hope that somewhere a sociologist has written a dissertation on what this reveals about class structure in pre-unification Germany.
2004, 463 pp.
Lament the state of the political novel. Like its introspective older brother, the novel of ideas, the political novel has been largely dormant the last sixty years, since the great times of Orwell and Koestler and Huxley. Pieces of its territory have been appropriated by the thriller writers and the spy novelists, and the rest has become desolate and overgrown thanks to the general public flight from anything which smells even faintly of cognitive activity. Orhan Pamuk's Snow is definitely a political novel, but a ramshackle one; held to the standards of its predecessors it is a clear sign that the genre is a shadow of its former self.
The plot is easy to summarize. A poet called Ka returns from political exile in Germany to Turkey. He travels to the isolated frontier city of Kars, ostensibly to investigate a series of girl-suicides, but actually to look up an old flame. While there, Kars is cut off by a blizzard, and a ridiculous, vaguely fascist actor leads a coup and attempts to repress the region's burgeoning Islamist movement.
Some obligatory preliminaries. Pamuk is something of a post-modernist and is fond of cyphers. "Ka" is an abbreviation of the character's full name, and could be an allusion to Kafka's "K." or "Kemal Ataturk," and it is certainly not an accident that "kar" is the Turkish word for "snow," and that the action of the book takes place in "Kars." Setting a political novel in an isolated, snowy, frontier town is certainly an allusion to Dostoevsky's Demons, and Kars is further useful to illustrate the conflicting emotions which are endemic in the forgotten strongholds of fallen empires. The setting and the atmosphere are the most convincing parts of the book: Pamuk effortlessly makes the dirt, the snow, the despair, and the resentment palpable, and indeed it is possible to find online a painstaking map of Ka's walks around the city. The reader soon becomes used to the presence of angry, unemployed men and post-imperial inferiority complexes. The New York Times summed it up well: "the mix of resentful entitlement (We ought to be powerful!), shame (What did we do wrong?), blame (Whose fault is it?) and anxiety about identity (Who are we really?)."
However, the actual politics is less successful, due mainly to Pamuk's apparent refusal to take a side. Ka engages in long discussions with various Islamists (one of whom is absurdly and distractingly named "Blue") about the existence of God and whether Ka is or is not an atheist. He continually protests he is not, though, and indeed there are no strong atheist characters, so this conflict falls flat and Pamuk deftly avoided acknowledging the old truism that the criticism of society in general is based on the criticism of religion in particular. As Ka gets wrapped up in the intrigue and plotting of the Islamists and secularists, he sometimes seems like a particularly placid rendition of Clint Eastwood in A Fistful of Dollars (or Toshiro Mifune in Yojimbo, if you like) or a bewildered Raymond Chandler character as he shuttles back and forth between the police, the Islamists, and the actor who led the coup. Ka himself is essentially devoid of actual politics, though: he mainly just wants to have sex with the woman he came to see. He witnesses executions, beatings, a violent coup, and meets with terrorists, but never shows much reaction. Instead, "perfect" poems come to him out of nowhere (in a way which strongly suggests they are sent by God) and he spends a lot of time moping over Ipek, the woman he wants but who won't sleep with him when her father is home.
All of this makes for a rather lily-livered political novel, without a central argument or conclusions. It is not without interest, though, since Pamuk adds another post-modern wrinkle. The narrator at first seems to be a standard third-person omniscient, then gradually takes on a personality and turns out to be a friend of Ka, who is named Orhan Pamuk and who has written a novel called The Black Book, and who eventually promises to write Snow. (Spoilers follow, so beware). This narrator lays on some heavy foreshadowing, then reveals halfway through the book that Ka is killed four years after the book's events and that he has been trying to reassemble what happened in Kars and why Ka was killed. The narrator gets a few chapters of his own and takes on an increasingly prominent role in the story, which was interesting, but also hinted at ways the book could have been better. Why not instead start with Ka's death, and more strongly feature the narrator's interesting and resourceful forensic reconstruction of his dead friend's life? That would have given the story more forward momentum and allowed more consideration and reflective conclusions. There is real pathos in the narrator's memories of his lost friend, but only meandering, slightly unconvincing melodrama in Ka's activities in Kars. Why not just transcribe Ka's notebooks instead of telling us what's going to happen? Why include the narrator at all, if his only purpose is to interrupt the story and add a sense of distance and detachment to an already anemic narrative?
The last half or so is a turgid mess of peculiar names and people explaining each other's plots to one another. This seems to take forever, and makes the book's three-day time span seem unconvincing. The final "human as snowflake" metaphor is almost unbelievably trite, and the dialogue the whole way through is stilted and flat. We never learn any of Ka's "perfect" poems, nor are we ever particularly clear as to why he was killed, and by whom, and who ended up with his lost poetry notebook.
Snow has its high points. A meeting of radicals accelerates into farce, the atmosphere is excellent, and the narrator subplot is strong. I am interested in reading his earlier work, which is apparently more Baroque, more concerned with scholars and texts, and more innovative. Snow is by no means bad, but is cruel enough to hint at how good it could have been.
Wednesday, March 11, 2009
2000, 236 pp.
"Abe Ravelstein was a large, eccentric man. He wrote a famous book and got rich and bought highly expensive things. Everyone loved him, except ridiculous left-wingers. Then he died of AIDS and I got really bad food poisoning."
I have now saved you the trouble of reading Ravelstein. Had Saul Bellow not actually lived it, there would have been no reason for this book to exist; even though he did live it, it still might not really have needed to exist. By now the real story is easy to follow: Abe Ravelstein is a barely-concealed mask for Allan Bloom, the vaguely-notorious right-wing University of Chicago political philosopher and author of The Closing of the American Mind. He and Bellow (who appears here in the guise of the narrator who is inexplicably named "Chick") were friends for decades. Bloom did indeed write a book that made him rich, and did indeed die of AIDS, and Bellow did indeed shortly thereafter come down with terrible food poisoning. Interestingly, Ravelstein is therefore a sort of Pyrrhic victory over the modern vogue for doorstopper psycho-biographies laden with meticulous (and irrelevant) details about every aspect of an individual's daily life, rather than critical engagement with that individual's thought or reflections on their impact. Instead this is a biography partly as memoir and partly as novel, devoid of actual plot, but linked together by disconnected anecdotes and character sketches.
The character of Ravelstein (and therefore of Allan Bloom) is the central piece of this book, and its central problem. The gist of Bloom's famous book is that the American mind has become closed because it's so damn open: Americans began reading silly books by brown people and neglecting Plato, and that is leading our civilization over a cliff, just like the fall of Rome and Germany and all the other great empires. Now people like that new-fangled rock music! It's a travesty, I tell you.
Bloom was a student of Leo Strauss, who was also the teacher and mentor of Paul Wolfowitz, Francis Fukuyama, and William Kristol, the last of which in turn gave us Dan Quayle. So thanks for that. Bloom seems to have been irrevocably traumatized by the 1969 occupation of Willard Straight Hall by gun-toting brown people while he was teaching at Cornell, and apparently he spent the rest of his academic career generally being paranoid about what in another place and another time would be called the denigration of the white race and the pure Greco-Roman heritage at the hands of the unwashed, melanin-coated masses. Perhaps I caricature, but Bloom's book is by now the subject of almost universal ridicule: Martha Nussbaum savaged Bloom's scholarship in the New York Review of Books, David Rieff lambasted him in the Times Literary Supplement, and one inspired commentator observed that Saul Bellow contributed the introduction and decided to pretend that The Closing of the American Mind was really a clever satire. At the time, Milton Friedman was busily destroying Chile, Leo Strauss was polluting his ugly little disciples, and Friedrich von Hayek was still at work raving about socialism and serfdom. The University of Chicago was at its zenith of influence, having spread right-wing zealots all over the United States, in almost every field of endeavor. As Alexander Nehamas wrote in the London Review of Books, "Bloom's book and its enthusiastic reception are a testament to the pervasive (but not yet sufficiently noticed) influence which a group of Chicago-based intellectuals have been having on American politics, economics, law and literature. We are in the process of seeing the emergence of a Midwestern philosophy." Allan Bloom styled himself a political philosopher and produced an eccentric translation of Plato's Republic, Rousseau's Emile, and some poor readings of Shakespeare. Bloom seems to have been a repugnant person, a petty tyrant, a bigot, and a boor, and it shows through in Ravelstein, though I do not much think that was Bellow's intention. We are repeatedly assured that Ravelstein is the most intelligent person alive--he even knows who Plato and Thucydides were! We are reminded again and again how many important students he has had, and how much they love him. All of this is revoltingly repetitive: I began amusing myself by tallying each time Bellow told me that to be Ravelstein's friend, I had to know Plato. I got to eleven tallies. Indeed, the entire book is extremely repetitive, and it gives the slightly unkind impression of a very old man repeating himself with very little actual material to use and no editor to speak of.
Bellow might have gotten away with this were it not for the endless catalogues of brands and price tags. Ravelstein has a $5000 watch. Ravelstein spills coffee on his $4600 jacket. Ravelstein has his ties air-lifted to a silk-specialist in Paris. Ravelstein buys his gay lover a BMW to play with. Ravelstein wears Versace. Ravelstein stays at the most expensive hotel in Paris, where Michael Jackson stays. After a hundred and fifty pages, I wanted to shout "Just go down on him already!"
Apparently Bellow has something of a reputation for being an erudite, difficult read. Perhaps afficionados of the Oprah Book Club consider his stilted references to Plato to be some sort of Mensa crossword puzzle. Readers of Umberto Eco, however, will be alternately bored and annoyed. To someone who has actually read Plato and Thucydides, Bellow seems to have memorized a few names and buzzwords to drop in like an artillery barrage to cover up his retreat. The entire book reads like the rambling, self-aggrandizing nonsense spouted by a spoiled, overconfident lout in a freshmen philosophy survey course who thinks that since he can mispronounce "Xenophon" he is entitled to more sexual activity than he's actually getting. I was not impressed. Bellow also makes a few howling mistakes which someone somewhere really should have caught: if you are going declare someone the smartest person alive, you had better be sure that you know that General McAuliffe was at Bastogne, not Remagen, and that Athens lost their fleet at Aegospotami, not Salamis.
I should attempt to be fair. Sometimes Bellow's prose is splendid: "his blue alcoholic look," "taking a humanity bath," "he laughed like Picasso's wounded horse in Guernica," "everybody has something like a lawn of random knowledge." Of course, his sentence are too often too short and too declarative. By page six I was longing for a humble "and," let alone a debonair semicolon. Sometimes he doesn't even seem to be trying: "He made this super clear," for instance, wouldn't pass an English 100 class. The ending section which depicts Chick/Bellow's sickness has little to do with the rest of the book and is structurally awkward: it was included because it happened, not because it helped the book. The briefly interesting asides about the nature of remembrance, the impermanence of being, the attempt to craft a public persona are also weighted down with non-sequiturs about what it means to be Jewish in America, and whether anyone else Ravelstein and Chick meet are Jewish, like Jews, or hate Jews. It is a sagging, often unpleasant little book, and though Bellow may have been brilliant elsewhere, it is too rarely on display here.
Tuesday, March 3, 2009
1920, 90 pp.
This is a very slender book, and indeed could have stood to be even more slender. Beyond the Pleasure Principle is a fascinating thirty-page article trapped in a speculative 90-page book. There is an interminable section on cellular physiology and the idea that cells have a libido and exhibit narcissism which makes for a decent analogy, but unfortunately is meant as a serious hypothesis. The central argument, though, is critical: indeed, it has been said that any self-respecting intellectual of the 20th century has had to invent his own alternative to Freud's argument here, since the original satisfied nobody.
Everything we do is to increase our pleasure or decrease our pain, Freud argues. This is the pleasure-principle. The reality-principle persuades us to delay gratification for our own good, rather than engage constantly in unmitigated hedonism until, bloated with cheeseburgers and Glenfiddich, we burst well before our time. The ego serves the pleasure-principle by repressing the subconscious, the release of which would cause us pain. Thereon rests his theories of dreams, wish-fulfillment, and the like. So far so good. But we also have a "repetition-compulsion" instinct: a desire to return to a former (usually safer) state which had to be abandoned due to disturbing external forces. This is an analogue to inertia in organic life, and since the ultimate safe prior state is non-existence, the repetition-compulsion instinct is in fact a death-instinct. The death-instinct vies with the rather more progressive sex-instinct, which manifests itself as self-preservation based on the idea that the organism wants to die in its own way at its own time, not due to external forces. The dubious chapter on cells tries to combine and reconcile these concepts, without success.
Freud himself concedes that all of this is pure speculation. Indeed, as with any of Freud's works, one feels slightly impolite about shuffling one's feet and muttering about "scientific rigor," "sample sizes," "empirical testing," or that filthy word "R-squared." Of course Freud is more interesting and useful as a philosophic thinker, but it is worth noting that he considered himself and his work to be terribly scientific, and was rather effective at convincing a lot of other people of the same thing. But obviously one can't draw sweeping conclusions from a sample size which consists of Freud and a baby he talked to at a friend's house this one time. Nothing in Beyond the Pleasure Principle can be tested or verified, nor is it always logically consistent. It is, however, thought-provoking. Freud himself never used the slightly crude "Eros vs. Thanatos" dichotomy, but that same idea which owes its origin to this essay has animated much productive thought over the past century. If for only that reason, Beyond the Pleasure Principle is certainly worth a read, especially if one wishes to be a self-respecting intellectual and begin the project of inventing a better theory. It is a very short book, and even shorter if one is willing to skip the rubbish about cells, and should provide the basis for a good and profitable discussion.
1905, 238 pp
Sigmund Freud must be the only human being ever to have composed entire books both on the subject of eel genitalia and on wisecracks overheard at Viennese dinner parties. Fortunately for us all, I am here reviewing the latter.
Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious begins with some ninety pages of really dreadful jokes crumbling under Freud's dissection. At first I considered this a failure of translation: humor is notoriously difficult to get through a language barrier. But then Freud explained a few American jokes, and they were desperate stuff. Freud himself explained that jokes depend on immediacy, but P.G. Wodehouse had no trouble being the funniest person who has ever lived in 1905, so eventually, after ninety painstaking pages, I reached the conclusion that Sigmund Freud would apparently laugh at anything.
Out of this dreadful business comes Freud's observation that jokes depend on a few basic principles: representation (as of one thing by another thing), unification of different things, displacement, and the replacement of a thing-association with a word-association. He draws a distinction between verbal and conceptual jokes, and directs his attention (and the reader's interest) to the latter, since they are a far more mysterious process.
The section which follows is certainly the most stimulating of the book. Freud's central argument is that purposeful, conceptual jokes are conducted to circumvent obstacles presented by civilization. In this sense, there are two general varieties: the sexual and the hostile. Frequent readers of Freud will be unsurprised by these designations. In both occasions, there is some obstacle (criticism, taboos against childish behavior, sexual repression, the protection of power, etc) which is restricting pleasure. This obstacle protects the object of the joke, so a third party is enlisted to get around it: the person to whom the joke is told. That person is essentially bribed with a discharge of their own repressed pleasure into being an ally of the joke-maker. Jokes further have the property of connecting a thought with a pleasurable impression, and of protecting thoughts from open criticism, both of which are essentially subversive acts. All of these purposes are (surprise!) a reflection of the desire to return to the infantile state, before pleasure was blocked off by civilized society, and when all things had economy of expenditure of energy. Therefore all aspects of the phenomenon of humor feature some sort of economy: jokes are the economy of expenditure on inhibitions, comic perception is economy of expenditure on ideation, and humor is economy of expenditure on feeling.
Of course, Freud builds his case in a methodical, patient manner which makes his conclusions much more logical and fully-formed than my crude summary. His ideas here are interesting and provocative, though the reader must go to a lot of trouble to find them. Freud tends to get lost in the vast, uninhabitable wilderness of his own bizarre phraseology, and the seventy pages which follow the second section are truly miserable. His lengthy ruminations on different weights of "psychical expenditure" and the course of "psychogenesis" probably seemed groundbreaking in 1905, but suffer from a century of scientific scrutiny and the development of clinical psychology and do not emerge the better. Instead his terms seem as opaque as they are fanciful and old-fashioned. They tend too often to obscure an important point or to distract the reader into puzzling out how on earth one peculiar thought is meant to follow logically from the last. Freud's initial examination of the technique of jokes is hardly exhaustive or (pardon the word) scientific, nor are his conclusions when he speaks about humor and the comic in general particularly convincing. But if all the abstruse form is stripped away, and the argument taken as a whole (as indeed it builds itself, step-by-step, into an interconnected whole) quite a few fascinating ideas emerge which are certainly worth consideration.
1986, 358 pp.
The trouble with reading several books by José Saramago in a row is that after prolonged exposure to his prose, every other author seems to be using training wheels. The previously sturdy hands of Amis or Rushdie now appear to be feebly gripping, white-knuckled on rubber handles which are perhaps adorned with little pink tassels, as they struggle, wobbling, to stay upright in the wild and frightening world of literature, while ahead of them, Saramago is breezing past, perhaps on a sort of prose motorcycle, the wind rippling his hair, his robust commas bearing him along at several hundred horsepower, almost certainly with a svelte, languid woman draped over his shoulders. After reading a lot of Saramago in one go, you find you cannot go home again to your previously favorite authors: like your childhood bedroom and your elementary school, they are much smaller, dingier, and more dilapidated than you remember. It is quite erroneous to speak in frantic tones about "the death of the novel," but there is some justification for despairing literary suicide. Saramago is better at what he does than the rest of us will ever be at anything.
The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis is even more spare and stripped-down than The History of the Siege of Lisbon. It has almost no plot to speak of: Ricardo Reis returns to Lisbon after sixteen years in Brazil. He stays at a hotel, has an affair with a maid, takes lots of walks, reads lots of newspapers, rents an apartment. The point of the novel is not in what Ricardo Reis does, but what and who he is. Ricardo Reis was one of several pseudonyms (or, to be perfectly accurate, heteronyms) invented by the Portuguese poet Fernando Pessoa. Pessoa wrote some brilliant poems and The Book of Disquiet under his closest persona; he created some 70-odd heteronyms to explore different kinds of poetry. His three most prolific were Alberto Caeiro, Alvaro de Campos, and Ricardo Reis, though he seems to have been an entire poetic community in and of himself: some of his heteronyms would review each other's works, translate or criticize each other's poems, even write jealous letters to each other's girlfriends. Caeiro was considered the master, to whom all the others (including Fernando Pessoa) looked up, wrote sensual poems stripped of metaphysics, while Reis was "the sad Epicurean" who wrote stark, reserved odes, and Alvaro de Campos was called "the jaded sensationist," with his hyperbolic, Whitman-esque fever and fixation on problems of identity.
So here the heteronym returns to Lisbon, drawn there by the real-life death of Fernando Pessoa, who soon appears as something between a ghost and a hallucination. He and Reis conduct the sort of meandering philosophical conversations which seem to be the hallmark of Saramago's thinking, and Pessoa explains that he has nine months in which he can visit the world until he forgets it entirely and disappears.
Yet the intertexuality goes deeper. Reis continually starts and fails to read a book called "The God of the Labyrinth," which is a fictional novel from Jorge Luis Borges' mock-catalogue of the works of a fictitious author called "Herbert Quain."
A few motifs run throughout. Reis continues to write his odes, and their first lines stand out in sharp, naked italics in the midst of Saramago's flow of words. They are often simple, declarative, and beautiful. He spends a lot of time reading newspapers, and since Fernando Pessoa died in December of 1936, Ricardo Reis reads about the world tearing itself apart. This theme starts with small, slightly comical lists of news items (Hitler's frequent declarations of his peace-loving intentions, for instance) and escalates as refugees pour over the border from disintegrating Spain, and as the fascist Salazar consolidates his control over every aspect of Portuguese life. As the order of the world dissolves, so too does the fabric of Ricardo Reis' life, and the astute reader, aware of Reis' identity, realizes that the heteronym cannot long outlive his creator.
Again the strongest passages concern Reis' relationships with women. He has a long-running affair with a wise, loyal, and empathetic chambermaid, and also falls for an austere, distant girl with a paralyzed left arm. The sharp gradations of his feelings for the two, and the way in which Saramago communicates the difference between affection for a real, specific woman and longing for a distant ideal is nothing short of brilliant. There is a passage between Reis and Lydia, the maid, on pages 305-307 which is literary perfection.
Saramago's irascible narrative voice is on full display in The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis, but with an interesting addition. The narrative voice occasionally refers to itself in the first-person plural, which suggests rather than one wise old storyteller by a fire, perhaps several. These narrators seem to take turns, and in the transitions they slip subtly between present and past tense narration. At first I thought this was a mistake, until I noticed the tense change is consistent within a scene, and increases as the book goes on, so it gives an impression of a general linear story full of digressions. It would be particularly interesting to learn if in the original Portuguese the narrators conjugate in male, female, singular, or plural tenses and which words they use in place of our maddening "we." I was reminded of Annie Hall, which begins around the beginning and ends at the end, but is by no means linear in between; so too are scenes a bit jumbled here, particularly as Ricardo Reis begins to unravel. This form innovation throws light on the content: this is a book about decay. The world around Reis is decaying, just as he is decaying from within. Fernando Pessoa the real poet is forgetting the actual external world, while Ricardo Reis the invention is forgetting the constructed world within himself.