Friday, February 26, 2010

Pincher Martin by William Golding (2)

In the post below I discussed Pincher Martin from a spiritual/philosophical viewpoint, but now I want to discuss it in terms of literature, because I think it is a finely written work.

A slight quibble first: I think it is padded and could have done with a damned good prune. I know it is poetic, and Golding’s poetic use of myth and metaphor is very good, but even so I think it is overdone here. In particular, the recurring references to a fire or a spark within Martin’s body, particularly during the early stages, are excessive and labour the message. Some judicious editing would have helped, as it would with the following infelicitous repetition:

For a moment and before he remembered how to use his sight the patches lay on the eyeballs as close as the darkness had been. p. 15

He remembered how eyes should be used and brought the two lines of sight together so that the patterns fused and made a distance. p. 25

In Golding’s interview with Baker, he makes the following observation:

If the story has any validity, any three-dimensional quality, then it must be susceptible to multiple interpretations. If it only had just one great message, why not write out the great message and not bother about writing the novel?

This is a fine observation, and yet to an extent it is something that Golding fell foul of. That isn’t to say that his work isn’t susceptible to multiple interpretation, as we shall see, but rather that he was often too didactic in describing it during interviews. He probably did himself a great disservice when he said of Pincher Martin, for example:

Christopher Hadley Martin had no belief in anything but the importance of his own life, no God. Because he was created in the image of God he had a freedom of choice which he used to centre the word on himself. He did not believe in purgatory and therefore when he died it was not presented to him in overtly theological terms. The greed for life which was the mainspring of his nature forced him to refuse the selfless act of dying. He continued to exist separately in a world composed of his own murderous nature. His drowned body lies rolling in the Atlantic but the ravenous ego invents a rock for him to endure on. It is the memory of an aching tooth. Ostensibly and rationally he is a survivor from a torpedoed destroyer: but deep down he knows the truth. He is not fighting for bodily survival but for his continuing identity in face of what will smash it and sweep it away-the black lightning, the compassion of God. For Christopher, the Christ-bearer, has become Pincher Martin who is little but greed. Just to be Pincher is purgatory; to be Pincher for eternity is hell.

This is too stark, too one-dimensional. In saying this, Golding strips away the mystery of his novel. He removes the possibilities for interpretation. In a sense, he was incapable of doing otherwise, for even within the fiction itself the author’s talent for didactism is inecapably present, and this is his greatest weakness as a writer. Golding is a thundering moralist and he cannot prevent himself from delivering his message. But for all that, such is his talent, there are moments of sheer brilliance. For me, the finest moment in the novel comes around half way through when Martin finally shakes off his indolence and goes about naming his environs:

“I call this place the Look-out. That is the Dwarf. The rock out there under the sun where I came swimming is Safety Rock. The palce where I get mussels and stuff is Food Cliff. Where I eat them is – The Red Lion. On the south side where the strap-weed is, I call Prospect Cliff. This cliff here to the west with the funnel in it is –


“I am netting down this rock with names and taming it. Some people would be incapable of understanding the importance of that. What is given a name is given a seal, a chain. If this rock tries to adapt me to its ways I will refuse and adapt it to mine.”

I think this is beautiful writing, and it is beautiful because it opens up the prospect of multiple interpretation. Remember, on the first reading of this novel you do not realise that Martin is already dead and in purgatory. You still believe this may be a story of human endeavour. And so his words here, his crazy and crazed attempt to give name to everything around him, can be interpreted two ways. Firstly, it may be the hubris of humanity: even in adversity, even when being conquered and defeated by nature, Christopher Martin feels compelled to try to claim dominion over it. This is, then, an act of hubristic folly, a classic example of flawed mankind.

Or, alternatively, it could be seen as a moment of human triumph, the victory of spirit over circumstance: here is a man reduced to terrible straits, but he attempts to maintain his humanity through the very human act of naming things, creating the comfort of familiarity out of the pain of shipwreck. It could be read as a tender moment of passage, a desperate attempt to survive, an example of the indomitability of the human spirit.

Ultimately, the fate of Christopher Martin (not to mention his hideous backstory, which has barely surfaced thus far) would lead you to suspect the former explanation is the more valid. Indeed, it is possible, even probable, that Golding never remotely intended the second interpretation. But it is there, nonetheless. This is the genius of fiction, the way it can be moulded by the experience of the reader. Reading is always a two-way process, and the input of the reader is just as important as that of the writer. Perhaps William Golding genuinely saw or intended nothing redeemable in his literary creation, Christopher Martin. But in that single episode where he tried to define himself by naming everything around him, it was there for all to see.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Pincher Martin by William Golding

You are always changing. You may not realise it because it happens so slowly, but it is a truth, all the same. Who I was thirty years ago is not who I am today. I am no longer that person. In a sense, he no longer exists, other than in my memory; and even there he is not exactly as I was. He will be conflated with other mes, gathered together with memorial remnants from different periods of my life, fractured stages of my development. There is no way of recollecting exactly who I was or what I thought at any given time. No, once moments of existence are gone they can never be recovered. Time moves. Nothing stays. The only constant, as Heraclitus reminds us, is change.

I probably read Pincher Martin for the first time when I was fifteen or so. I read Lord of the Flies first, then The Inheritors, then Pincher Martin. Golding gave voice to the angst that was rising in my teenage mind. We were in a parlous state, humanity, and it was our own fault: hubris, violence, greed, ambition. Golding recorded our foibles with precision: the corrupted will to power, the solipsistic determination to shape the world according to our own needs, the casual disregard of others. He presented us with man the animal, howling its fury, barking towards its own destruction. In so doing he spoke to me – to the me that I was back then, the me that I remember but cannot - not truly - recall. Time moves. I re-read Pincher Martin now and Golding is saying something entirely different; or, at least, the me I am now is hearing something entirely different.

Golding’s belief, as explored throughout his fiction, is that man is a moral creature. He expounds on this in a lengthy interview with James R. Baker, in which he explains that a man who is in free fall ‘stumbles over his morals without knowing they are there. He exploits people and then finds that with this comes guilt.’ This matters because man is ‘a social being.’ I find nothing to argue with in this but, from here, he somehow manages to make the leap to suggest that this is evidence of original sin:

I've never been able to see how anybody can deny what stares us in the face – unless we control ourselves, we sin. Our nature is to want to grab something that belongs to somebody else, and we have either to be taught or teach ourselves that you've got to share, you can't grab the lot. And for God's sake, history is really no more than a chronicle of original sin, I would have thought.

That is a logical non-sequiteur. Certainly, there is a tendency in man to transgress against accepted morality – or, in Christian terms, to sin. But to say in the next breath that this is original sin is nonsense. Original sin refers not to the potential to transgress but to an innate weakness within humanity, a collective guilt, a general condition of sinfulness arising from that single moment of transgression in Eden, for which the whole of humanity, from Adam and Eve on into eternity, is held equally culpable. It presupposes that sin is inescapably present in each and every one of us. That is not at all the same thing as accepting that mankind has within him the capability of sin. Thus, while I could accept that history is a chronicle of sin (or moral transgression), I cannot accept that it is a history of original sin.

However, even although I disagree with Golding’s conception of original sin, I believe he does make an important distinction (in his interviews at least, if not necessarily in his fiction). When asked by Baker whether there is some sort of individual and collective primal arrogance in humanity, he demurs. ‘I think it’s a question of self-awareness, is it not?’ he replies. He remains pessimistic about the ability of mankind to learn to control its impulses, but does not completely completely dismiss the possibility. Although Golding is a frequent critic of rationalist optimism, there nonetheless remains a degree of hope in his world. The difficulty that is presented in his fiction, however, is that of how much self-awareness his characters are afforded. As we shall see, in Pincher Martin that is not very much.

It is Golding’s conception of life after death that I have most difficulty with. Pincher Martin is, as EC Bufkin describes it, a post mortem drama. The protagonist, Christopher Martin, drowns on page two and the remaining action, in which we are given to believe he survives and lands on a remote outcrop off the British Atlantic coast, is in fact his purgatorial struggle to accommodate his sins and accept God. He fails. He is left at the end with his hands clawed – pinched – in an attitude of defiant protection of his own self, his own psyche, and a denial of God. Golding’s explanation of the novel, in an interview with Archie Campbell, is that:

To achieve salvation, individuality – the persona – must be destroyed. But suppose the man is nothing but greed? His original spirit, God-given, the Scintillans Dei, is hopelessly obscured by his thirst for separate individual life. What can he do at death but refuse to be destroyed? Inhabit a world he invents from half-remembered scraps of physical life, a rock which is nothing but the memory of an aching toothache? To a man greedy for life, toothache is preferable to extinction, and that is the terrible secret of purgatory, it is all the world that the God-resisting soul cannot give up.

Thus, it is clear that we are dealing with transcendence. Christopher Martin is ruined by his own vanity and greed and hubris. Fair enough. I am not so starry-eyed a humanist as to pretend that such people do not exist and such ruination does not ensue. But what Golding does is to deny Martin any prospect of gnosis, spiritual or otherwise. His self-awareness is wholly compromised. Golding places him in a numinous world and suggests that, because of his failings, his purgatorial ruin is the inevitable result. This I cannot accept. Allied to the previous observation regarding Golding’s understanding of original sin, this begins to pick away, once more, at the conception of free will: as ever, of course, for the Christian writer free will is only ever a qualified state. And, similarly, poor, benighted man is never allowed the luxury of the last word. Golding’s numinous world is nothing but a chimera, a front with which to mask the impossibility of transcendence.

Golding clearly believed passionately in the noumenal. He talked of living in two worlds – the physical, which he describes as coherent, and the spiritual, which may be incoherent but is nonetheless a matter of experience. I have no difficulty with anyone believing such things – it is a matter of free choice – but in doing so, in Pincher Martin, Golding is leaving mankind in a state of limbo: for Christopher Martin, death is not death, because it is not allowed to be. Golding would argue that it is Martin who denies himself the possibility of death, but this is sophistic. A religious belief that allows such eternal torment is no belief at all: it is a capitulation to fear.

This is a pity because, in his fiction, Golding asks important questions. He once remarked: ‘Evil enters the world through humanity and through no other creature'. There is an uncomfortable degree of truth in that and it would serve humanists well to ponder the problem more deeply. Expanding on his theme, Golding concluded: ‘Good can look after itself. Evil is the problem'. But the trouble is, for writers like Golding or O’Connor or McCarthy, they ensure that whatever good can do, it assuredly cannot look after itself. The degree of pessimism in such writers is wearying. They may see life in eschatological terms, but on that journey they offer little or no prospect of change, no sense of development, discovery, in their own term, gnosis. But, as we know, time moves, nothing stays. Man always has the capacity to surprise.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Don DeLillo on the novel

From today's Sunday Times:

“It is the form that allows a writer the greatest opportunity to explore human experience,” he says. “For that reason, reading a novel is potentially a significant act. Because there are so many varieties of human experience, so many kinds of interaction between humans, and so many ways of creating patterns in the novel that can’t be created in a short story, a play, a poem or a movie. The novel, simply, offers more opportunities for a reader to understand the world better, including the world of artistic creation. That sounds pretty grand, but I think it’s true.”

One to discuss. I think he has a point. Short stories pinpoint moments, or define characters, or otherwise shine a light, a small light, on the human condition. Poems are too personal, I think. Plays too constrained by their limitations. Movies too short, too addicted to action.

It is the novel that allows the greatest scope for investigation.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

The Beetle Leg by John Hawkes

John Hawkes says of his writing that it is ‘not nearly so difficult as it's been made out to be.’ I beg to differ. The only thing more difficult than reading The Beetle Leg is writing about it. I mean, where do you begin? The plot, such as it is, is so opaque, its timeframes so unclear and unresolved, that the reader becomes quickly baffled. Characterisation has been deliberately flattened, giving nothing to latch on to. The words are beautiful, the descriptions vivid, but what is it they are describing? How is it possible to have something at once perfectly clear and utterly unfathomable? Flannery O’Connor said of his work: ‘The more fantastic the action the more precise the writing.’ Yes indeed, I take her point, and yet it remains difficult to establish exactly what is happening. The Beetle Leg present a most curious paradox. So where do you begin?

Hawkes said 'I have always though that my fictions, no matter how diabolical, were comic. I wanted to be very comic – but they have not been treated as comedy.' In that context, it is perhaps no surprise that his work was admired by Flannery O’Connor, another comedic grotesquer. And I can see what Hawkes means: there is something comic in the works, but by that I mean comic in the loosest sense, far removed from the belly-laugh inducing comedy we exalt today. Hawkes views the absurdity of existence trenchantly, and he refuses to be cowed by convention, or to allow his work to be swayed by common perceptions of normality, and to that extent The Beetle Leg is, indeed comic. Just don’t expect to laugh.

The Beetle Leg is a ‘surrealistic western’. It is set in that inhospitable expanse of desert, that ‘lawless country’ that seems to stand in definition of something about the male American psyche, something untamed and untameable, vaguely malevolent, infinite. It centres on a settlement by a gradually shifting earth dam, during the construction of which Mulge Lampson was buried alive, an event which still resonates even many years later, although the shifts in time are unexplained and unexplored. The community is beset by a group of Red Devils on motorcycles, and a tourist and his family stop to fish in the nearby river, only for the son to be bitten by a snake. The Lampson family and the local sheriff, a prototype Ed Tom Bell with a penchant for nipping youthful carnality in the bud, feature prominently. Now this may strike the reader as a somewhat cursory synopsis of the plot and indeed it is, but it’s all your going to get. Make of it what you will. All the aforementioned inter-relationships occur against the baleful, uncontrollable backdrop of the American west and, thus, a thoroughly unsettling air is established throughout. You may not be exactly clear what is happening, but you sense it isn’t good.

So what is The Beetle Leg? Frederick Busch ascribes elements of American western, mythical and even biblical parody to it. I can certainly see it as an anti-western, but the biblical reference seems laboured. Lucy Frost, however, goes even further, reading it specifically in terms of the biblical myth of Adam’s fall. Well perhaps. I don’t begin to understand enough of this novel to give a comprehensive argument against her thesis, but there seems to be little in Hawkes’ make-up that would support it. Roy Flanagan notes:

He did not profess faith in any organized religion, preferring to emphasize the unpredictuability of fate. As he admitted in an interview, “I do not believe in any kind of god or any kind of afterlife… It seems to me necessary to live by creating our own contexts within the constant knowledge of the imminence of anihilation.”

In that, his work seems closer to say, James Purdy, than an experimentalist with a religious sensibility like Flannery O’Connor. Surely, also, the absurdity of the world he creates presupposes an absence of a meliorating God? Rather than looking to religion for a key to Hawkes’s work, I believe there is probably more merit in looking to psychology. Hawkes saw duty in the Second World War, working as a volunteer ambulance driver, and among his postings he was stationed in a mental institution in Belgium. It seems likely that, like Mervyn Peake, Vonnegut, Heller and others, this influenced his subsequent fiction. Certainly, his first novel, The Cannibal, published in 1949 and set in a mythical “Germany”, draws on his wartime experience and dwells in a nightmare world of the psyche. With Hawkes, it seems to me that we are dealing largely with the unconscious, and it is for this reason that there is little point in excavating his work for precise meaning. Hawkes himself wrote:

I write out of a series of picture that literally and actually do come to mind, but I’ve never seen them before. It is perfectly true that I don’t know what they mean, but I feel and know that they have meaning.

Thus, we are clearly moving into the territory of postmodernism. He also explained:

I began to write fiction on the assumption that the true enemies of the novel were plot, character, setting, and theme, and having once abandoned these familiar ways of thnking about fiction, totality of vision or structure was really all that remained. And structure – verbal and psychological coherence – is still my largest concern as a writer.

Earl Rovit develops this point. Describing Hawkes’s fiction as ‘controlled assaults against his readers’, he suggests:

The smooth sureties of cause and effect, characterization and behaviour, logos and the subordinate phenomena of the world’s ways are rejected so unobtrusively that the reader is not given a chance to rebel or protest. Rationality is neither discredited nor ridiculed: it is merely non-existent.

Well, I can’t agree with that. Certainly rationality is neither discredited nor ridiculed here, but the fact that it is not there does not negate the opportunity for the reader to rebel or protest. That is false logic. For a time, yes, the reader can be swept along in the tide of Hawkes’s imagining, but eventually there comes a time of reckoning: what is this about? What substance is there here? I am not suggesting for a second that there is no substance, but if the writer is going to go to such lengths to prevent the reader from discerning it, then the reader is justified in walking away and leaving the substance and its creator to their mental peregrinations. There is something engrossing about The Beetle Leg, and the reader is drawn into it, in search, I think, of some depth of meaning which is promised by the grandeur of the descriptions and the beauty of the language. But the further one penetrates the labyrinth of the text, the more one feels that it is a descent into nowhere. There are novels you want to like but can't. This is one of mine.

In passing, though, I will suggest that if a young Cormac McCarthy did not gorge himself on the works of John Hawkes, then I’m a redheaded English ballerina called Joanna.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Cosmopolis by Don DeLillo

Eric Packer is a 28 year old currency trader, a driven genius whose command of the markets is total. He knows instinctively, immediately, what to do in any given situation. The situation which serves as the central conceit in Cosmopolis is not a straightforward one, but Packer’s response to it is. The city is completely gridlocked because of the convergence of three major events: a Presidential motorcade, a huge funeral for a rap singer and an anti-globalisation protest. Throw in a burst water main and it is a good day for staying at home but, instead, Packer decides he wants to cross town to get a haircut from the barber who has been cutting his hair since he was a child. And so, along with his armed bodyguard, that’s what he does, his armour-plated car crawling its way through the city streets, trapped in time, in an everlasting present. The novel thus becomes a picaresque story of that journey and this day, a day like no other, a day like anything else.

Cosmopolis is a novel about America, about what it is to live in America in the twenty-first century, what it is to be part of a society in which information has become the primary currency. Indeed, information is what creates ‘meaning in the world’: ‘time is a corporate asset’ and technology is changing what it means to be human, turning us into objects that ‘think in logic blocks’. Eric Packer’s slow journey to oblivion is interspersed with a series of encounters – a sexual liaison with his art dealer and mistress, lunch with a woman he consistently fails to recognise, who turns out to be his wife, a masochistic tryst with his female bodyguard, even a prostate probe by his doctor in the back of the limousine. Such is the degree of Packer’s solipsism, it is as though he is only vaguely present at these encounters, as though his consciousness is elsewhere, wrapped up in the technological sweep of information that is silently re-ordering the world. Indeed, he decides, early in the novel, that ‘When he died he would not end. The world would end.’ And so his progress across the city continues. His bodyguards warn him of a ‘credible threat’ against his life: he appears unconcerned. His financial strategy, betting heavily against the yen, is unraveling, costing him millions, potentially his entire fortune, possibly even destabilising the entire global currency market. He is caught up in the middle of the anti-globalisation riots, his car attacked by a mob, and he watches with disinterest as a protester sets himself alight: nothing, it seems, can penetrate this empty soul. It is a slow crawl into darkness.

DeLillo dedicates Cosmopolis to Paul Auster, and there is certainly a strong whiff of Auster about it, with its bleak disconnects and blank surreality. Nothing is certain, appearances are only surface, without depth or meaning. DeLillo continues with the device, used in his earlier The Body Artist, of explaining something and immediately stating its opposite. In The Body Artist, this often seemed arch, contrived, but in Cosmopolis he has perfected the technique. Thus, when we are told “I’ve been working in it, sleeping on it, not sleeping on it”, or “Look, I married you for your beauty but you don’t have to be beautiful”, or ‘The technology was imminent or not’, in the contex of the novel these apparent contradictions make sense. In a world of ‘stupendous and awful’ information, truth is opaque.

Michiko Kakutani, predictably enough, dislikes Cosmopolis. It is ‘a major dud’, ‘lugubrious and heavy-handed’, portraying a ‘hopelessly cliched’ portrait of the post 9/11 world. However, she completely misinterprets the theme of the novel, suggesting it is merely ‘that chaos and asymmetry will trump the search for order and patterns’. With such a lunk-headed understanding of the book it is no surprise she doesn’t like it. Cosmopolis is, indeed, a post-9/11 novel but, more than that, it is on the verge of being a post-human novel, or at least it is portraying a world in which humanity is being rendered obsolete by the progress of change. And that is what the novel is about: time, the relentless urge of mankind to control it, the advance of the moment, the soul-destroying, dehumanising battle for the present. Our very understanding of time is changing. We are beginning to live in a continuous present, where technology allows us to relive moments over and over in digital loops (think, for example, of the 9/11 footage). CCTV is on every street corner. The prospect of an event happening and simply passing into unrecorded history is increasingly unlikely. Indeed, in the brave new future, could such events even be said to have happened at all? With the crowding of the present in this way, there is a concomitant shift in our perspectives. “We used to know the past but not the future,” Packer’s wife tells him. “This is changing.” A new theory of time is required. The flaw of human rationality, she says, is that "It pretends not to see the horror and death at the end of the schemes it builds. This is a protest against the future. They want to hold off the future. They want to normalize it, keep it from overwhelming the present.”

The novel, then, is located at that juncture between the past and the present and the future, that impossibly fluid continuity which merges our exterior and interior worlds, action and reaction, infinity. As Packer’s world disintegrates he finds himself curiously detached from perceived reality. He reacts to events a fraction of a second before they actually happen, but he is not predicting them, exactly, so much as experiencing them in isolation, unconfined by those factors, emotional, communal, which help to define us: he is observing, not participating, in human endeavour. He is falling outside time. He is disconnected. ‘People think about who they are in the stillest hour of the night,’ DeLillo writes, echoing Nietzsche, and the answer in this novel becomes increasingly troublesome. ‘A specter is haunting the world', we are told. It may well be that this spectre is ourselves. Who are we? What are we doing?

Sunday, February 14, 2010

DeLillo and McCarthy

Don DeLillo interviews are as rare as Cormac McCarthy ones. There's a current one in the Wall Street Journal, to coincide with the publication of his new novella, Omega Point, and a very interesting read it is, too.

Mention of McCarthy is apposite, because there is much in the interview that is reminiscent of him. For example, DeLillo has set his new work in the California desert:

The desert landscape drove him, and his character Elster, to "think of time in a completely different way," Mr. DeLillo says. "It becomes enormous. It becomes geological time, and he thinks in terms of evolution and extinction."

This is true McCarthy territory, the size and scale of time, the smallness of humanity within it. Borrowing from Teilhard de Chardin, the focus of DeLillo's novelis on "the idea that human consciousness is reaching a point of exhaustion, and that what comes next may be either a paroxysm or something enormously sublime." Isn't that a summation of Ed Tom Bell's emotional paralysis at the end of No Country For Old Men?

There's no great surprise in this. McCarthy and DeLillo are both lapsed Catholics whose upbringing has strongly influenced their writing. DeLillo says: "It has an effect in ways I can't be specific about—the sense of ceremony, the sense of last things, and the sense of religion as almost at times an art." Again, that could almost be McCarthy speaking, couldn't it?

In terms of writing craft, there's an interesting observation:

Sometimes, Mr. DeLillo says, he will swap out a word for a more rhythmically appealing one, even if it alters the meaning of the sentence. He often types up a single paragraph at a time, using a clean sheet of paper for each paragraph, so that he can study the architecture of each passage in isolation.

Hmmm. One to discuss. I suspect Cormac would have no truck with anything so imprecise. Sure, the rhythms are important, but the words still have to say what they're meant to say. Changing the meaning to suit the rhythm is surely compromising the art. It is concentrating to too great a degree on the surface detail and not on the emotional depth.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Anthony Gormley on art

An interesting essay by Anthony Gormley in today's Guardian, in which he ponders the future of art. He writes:

What I am asking for is a reassessment of what art is and how it works. I am questioning the linear trajectory of art history as part of western development, recognising that all art exists in the sense of a continuous present. We are now in a position to acknowledge that those stages in an evolutionary past that would, in previous times, have been thought of as primitive, are coexisting in this era and are not superseded – and actually the use of the fetish and the totem as reference points for a model of art are enormously useful.

I agree with him, although I think art already has been seen in a sense of continuous presence since modernism at the turn of the twentieth century. I also believe that what he is talking about when he refers to the fetish and the totem has always existed in art, subconsciously. This is the mythos, that strange way of culturing our existence and explaining it through myth and allegory and story. It is this that first distinguished homo sapiens from other animals, this ability to think in an abstract way and allow the totem, fetish, story, whatever, to stand in for everyday reality. So, to that extent, I don't think Gormley is actually asking for anything at all that doesn't already exist.

What concerns me more about his essay is his bald statement that:

The carbon crisis calls for a re-­examination of our faith in the technological basis of western progress. A change in belief is a cultural change; art and artists are implicated. As Paul ­Ehrlich and others have pointed out, human evolution has been driven by cultural rather than biological change; our brain size, synaptic activity, physical characteristics have not changed much in the last million or so years. What has changed is the material culture that we have made and which has in turn made us, from stone tool-making, farming, printing, the industrial revolution, the information revolution and now, maybe, the most critical and difficult revolution of all: a complete reversal of many of the values that we have held dear. We can no longer assume that more is better. Technology that was in some senses made to make life better has now become the problem.

I see Jock Tamson's baby being cast out of the window with the bath water. Gardyloo! The west is reaching a crisis, and instead of dealing with that crisis in a sensible fashion it is turning inward, turning against itself, losing its confidence, trying to change itself into something it cannot be. We are trying to do what Rousseau warned us was impossible - turn ourselves back into the noble savage. Note the way Gormley throws in, completely unexplained and unjustified, the loaded judgement that "We can no longer assume that more is better." Perhaps not, but who said we did? What has that to do with the technology he is warning against?

Thus, in arguing for an understanding of the coexistence of our mythical and technological modes of thinking, he is not looking forward, not being brave, but simply cowering into a safety that doesn't exist.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Timequake by Kurt Vonnegut

Timequake is a fascinating novel. Indeed, it is essentially an anti-novel, in that Vonnegut’s usually cavalier approach to the traditional elements of fiction – narrative, character etc – is even more pronounced than ever. Vonnegut establishes his plot – that a timequake affects the fabric of time causing the whole world to be shunted ten years into the past, so that for the ensuing decade time repeats itself exactly – but then, rather than exploring the implications of that through a straightforward narrative, he riffs on the writing of the first draft of the novel, the things that happened in it, why it failed as a literary endeavour and how this version isn’t much better, all the time regaling us with autobiographical snippets and humanistic musings, while his alter-ego Kilgore Trout offers sage (and not-so-sage) advice from the sidelines. It’s very Vonnegutian. If you didn’t know Vonnegut’s work you would conclude that it is a. demented; b. appalling; c. lazy; d. unfinished; or e. all of these. If you do know Vonnegut’s work you will realise that it is x. smart, humane and clever; y. richly textured; and z. precisely because he does not dwell on the implications of the timequake that he manages to make those implications feel that much more real.

Valerie Sayers calls Vonnegut a word cartoonist and I like that description. It sums him up perfectly. There is a simplistic beauty to his writing but, as with the best cartoons, the two-dimensionality artfully conceals depths and barbs for the unwary. In this novel, Vonnegut describes a timequake as a ‘sudden glitch in the space-time continuum’, the result of which is that ‘everybody and everything do exactly what they'd done during a past decade, for good or ill, a second time. It was deja vu that wouldn't quit for ten long years.’ Imagine that. Imagine the foreknowledge that comes with that – the car crash you are going to re-live, the death of a loved one you will have to re-endure, the stupid mistakes made again, the lost opportunities re-lost, the impotence, the driving, nihilistic sense of fate, damned fate, dogging your every step, attending your every waking moment, pre-destining your every simple thought or act or hope or fear. The prospect is simply terrifying.

After ten years of this the world becomes accustomed to it. Post-Timequake Apathy, or PTA becomes endemic. In Kilgore Trout’s words, people ‘stopped giving a shit what was going on, or what was liable to happen next.’ In the repeat world of the timequake, ‘the hiccuping Universe, not humanity, was responsible for any and all fatalities. People might look as though they were steering something, but they weren’t really steering. They couldn’t steer.’

Thus, when the ten year timequake has cycled back to the beginning and free will once more intrudes, there is chaos. People, unaccustomed to making any choices for themselves, fail to control their motor reflexes. They fall over, become helpless. There are ‘planes aloft on automatic pilot. Their crews and passengers, still gaga with untreated PTA, couldn’t care doodley what would happen when the fuel ran out. In ten minutes, or maybe an hour, or maybe three hours or whatever, their heavier-than-air-craft, often six miles up, would cash in the chips, would buy the farm, for all aboard.’ On the ground, civilisation crashes around a dishevelled and demotivated humanity. Only Kilgore Trout is unaffected. He offers the rallying cry: "You were sick, now you're better, there's work to be done." And thus we have the humanist heart which beats on through the pessimism of the story, offering that glimmer of hope at the end. Vonnegut may have been a pessimist – with what he saw in his life it is hard to imagine him otherwise – but it is a curious, uplifting sort of pessimism, a mood that transcends – in the humanist, not religious sense of the word – any short-term afflictions of doom: pessimistic, yes, but it’s humanity we’re talking about, and so, as Vonnegut puts it, ‘We serve as well as we can the highest abstraction of which we have some understanding, which is our community.’ And what an anthem for humanism that is.

That, though, is only a part of Timequake. Vonnegut himself described it as a ‘stew’. The matters of plot I have described, which Vonnegut suggests were explored fully (but badly) in the abortive first draft of the novel, Timequake One, are here referred to almost in passing, alongside Vonnegut’s reminiscences and observations, some of which are presumably autobiographical, some based on truth and some invented. In this way fact and fiction are melded, stewed, in that uncomfortable manner which is increasingly prevailing in modern life. Each of the stories and reminiscences deals with loss or disappointment or depression. Suicide features heavily. So does the constant feeling that we are not – cannot be – in charge of our own destinies. This, of course, mirrors the narrative of the failed Timequake One, giving a cohesion to what appears at first to be an artless jumble. Only a master craftsman could pull the strands together so well, and Vonnegut is certainly that.

This might sound as though the novel must be relentlessly downbeat but it isn’t. Vonnegut is also a master of humour, and he leavens this serious material with his trademark wisecracks and witticisms and homespun utterances, while the preponderance of exclamation marks identifies a high degree of irony at work and the liberal use of white space helps the novel to zip along at a furious pace.

And all of this, this ironic and formless ‘stew’, has a serious intent. Vonnegut understands tragedy and here, as always, he wrestles with the idea of free will, with the notion of the ordinary man in a callous world. There is something fitting that Vonnegut’s birthday was November 11, Armistice Day, that day set aside for the celebration of life and the remembrance of death and what has been wrought by man in the name of some mystifyingly misguided sense of progress. In Timequake, Vonnegut personalises this to devastating effect – the early death of his sister, the suicide of his mother – and at the same time uses the conceit of the timequake to depict a world at odds with itself and its own humanity.

Kurt Vonnegut: he's up in Heaven now.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Swoopers or bashers?

Kurt Vonnegut, from Timequake:

Tellers of stories with ink on paper, not that they matter anymore, hve been either swoopers or bashers. Swoopers write a story quickly, higgledy-piggledy, crinkum-crankum, any which way. Then they go over it again painstakingly, fixing everything that is just plain awful or doesn’t work. Basher go one sentence at a time, getting it exactly right before they go on to the next one. When they’re done they’re done.

I am a basher. Most men are bashers, and most women are swoopers. Somebody should look into this. It may be that wriers of either sex are born to be swoopers or bashers.

Okay, let's look into it. There are a few writers who frequent this blog, so are you a. male or female; and b. a swooper or a basher?

I'm corresponding to Vonnegut's stereotype: I'm definitely a swooper.

Wednesday, February 03, 2010

Wole Soyinka

There is a terrific interview with Wole Soyinka over on The Daily Beast. Writing of religious fundamentalist violence, he notes:

A virus has attacked the world of sense and sensibility, and it has spread to Nigeria, where it has taken on a sanguinary dimension. Roaming hordes of killers are entering homes and dragging out people of other faiths and hacking them to death. In my youth, you heard, side-by-side, the church bells ringing and the beautiful, sonorous call to prayer of the muezzin. But now, it's a disease. One doesn't really know how to handle it.

His superb, Vonnegutian solution is:
We should assemble all those who are pure and cannot abide other faiths, put them all in rockets, and fire them into space.


Nietzsche perceives a gnostic modernity

Why Atheism nowadays? "The father" in God is thoroughly refuted; equally so "the judge," "the rewarder." Also his "free will": he does not hear - and even if he did, he would not know how to help. The worst is that he seems incapable of communicating himself clearly; is he uncertain? - This is what I have made out (by questioning and listening at a variety of conversations) to be the cause of the decline of European theism; it appears to me that though the religious instinct is in vigorous growth, - it rejects the theistic satisfaction with profound distrust.
Beyond Good and Evil

It is interesting that Nietzsche's prognostication from the vigorous growth of religiosity in a secular environment is a move towards atheism. It wasn't so throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries and, despite the rise of the radical atheists like Dawkins and Hitchens, it isn't the case in this century. Which is a problem.