Here’s DFW’s syllabus for a course he’s taught at Pomona college. God I wish I could have been in a course of his. The severity does put me off, but I’m naturally resistant against that sort of thing, I may have skipped his class on purpose possibly and regretted it for the rest of my life. Who knows.
Archive for September, 2008
In New Orleans today, McCain explained his opposition to the bill by claiming it “opens us up to lawsuits for all kinds of problems.” Later in Kentucky, he added that instead of legislation allowing women to fight for equal pay, they simply need “education and training“.
[translated from the Korean by Katrin Mensing, Young Lie and Matthias Augustin]
The well read among us are well acquainted with the presence of ghosts in literature, in good and bad books both. One of the best post 1945 novels employing that technique is Pedro Paramo. It’s this novel that Hwang Sok-yong’s novel reminded me most of, despite the numerous significant differences. I may be returning to this.
“The Guest” is about the time that Communism became the prevailing political ideology of North Korea, and about civil war like fights between fanatical Catholics and fanatical communists, both committing countless atrocities. The focus here is not, as usual and common in reports of atrocities committed by communists, on the evil reds. This tendency is so common in literature, especially with all the Gulag literature and the GDR literature, showing, iterating and reiterating ad nauseam just how unbearable life under socialism was, that I was irritated at the fact that it’s not the focus here, but ultimately positively surprised. Catholic fanatics. Well. What do you know.
The protagonist is an expat catholic priest, living in the US, who travels to Korea in his brother’s stead. His brother’s a catholic priest as well, apparently long tormented by guilt. He committed countless atrocities in his home country, murdering many communists in an attempt to seize control of their county before Communist backup arrived. The urgency of his youthful follies is apparent. The atheistic Communists, driven by an ideology that seemed imported from abroad, going against all traditions, political as well as religious, must have seemed an imminent danger to the priest-to-be.
The fact that they had large backers all across the country and abroad provided the urgency to do away with those in their home country once and for all. The same applies to the Communists, of course. After the brutal colonial rule of the Japanese, they looked to the north and east and saw new beginnings.They decided to make it new in their own country as well. And then the old retaliated, the old, politically as well as religious. Catholicism is so strict, so much of a ritual, that it’s the perfect fit for a religion that one sees as an obstacle, just like the Russian Orthodox Church was.
Both parties were in the wrong, so wrong it’s tough to find the right words for it, and yet one is tempted to refer to the atrociousness as “youthful folly”. Hwang Sok-yong found the perfect literary expression for this. There are so many problems with depicting the brutality en détail, not the least of which is the question whether a description will do justice to what happened, for the mind of the reader who is too young or too unkorean (yes, neologism) to remember. It’s like A.O. Scott’s musings on the American remake of Haneke’s classic “Funny Games”. The ghosts are the personified atrocities, they are the a Derridean trace (not really, I’m just joking), the personified lack. It shows to the reader who’s missing. Fathers, brothers, daughters, mothers. They are right there, looking him in the eye. And here’s where the author’s second brilliant move kicks in. He did not use the criminal brother as protagonists, even though he’s the one who originally saw the ghosts. He hands the reader a reader-like mirror, the brother who had nothing to do with it all.
For him, the ghosts help unravel the convoluted story, family tragedies, the tragedy of a country stumbling from one dark place to the next and then the following one. And they help us understand as well without trying to shock us with gratuitous violence. It’s not that I am not always up for copious amounts of violence, my deep adoration of Sarah Kane’s slim but brilliant oeuvre speaks for itself. But here this may be the wrong road to go down. Making the reader guess, look, see the lack and the aftermath has proven to be as effective a literary move as I’ve known, see for instance a work such as Semprun’s magisterial (ministerial) Le Grand Voyage. And it’s effective here. Read this book. While not as good as the abovementioned Pedro Paramo, which is absolutely mesmerizing, depicting a village tragedy as well, it’s something else. It’s necessary. Read it.
Here’s a tasty bit from an older post over @ Helen DeWitt’s paperpools
Most fiction does nothing to make us aware of the gulf between cases where intution serves us well and those (surely far more common) where it does not. It does nothing to show where we should be wary, or how to think through tough cases. Most fiction is confined to the realm of false intuition; it offers us no viewpoint with a better understanding of chance. Which is simply to say that, because we live in a culture with a profound hostility to mathematics, the type of person who writes fiction is likely to be the type of person who shares that hostility and can rely on a large audience which also shares it. Among other things, this means that someone like my friend Rafe Donahue, a biostatistician at Vanderbilt, tends to be both underrepresented and misrepresented among fictional characters.
translated from the Portuguese by Stephen Henighan
What a novel. Ten pages in I hated it. There are some common literary mechanisms that I am getting tired of and this is one of the worst: a faux-naïve narrator, usually children or adolescents, describing his or her life in terrible circumstances, be it war or dictatorship or other regimes. Here it’s communist Angola, in the last year of a war that had lasted for several decades. A naïve boy is telling his tale. Simple style. I couldn’t decide whether it was the writer’s fault or the translator’s, but what I did know was that I regretted buying the book.
Ten pages later I was hooked. The style turned out to be more of a pose, it created a voice, a believable voice for the narrator and protagonist, the novel immediately started to cohere, and it stayed that way until the end of the book. When I had finished it, I felt I knew Ndalu, as the narrator/protagonist is called, on a personal level, even though he shared few personal details with us, the readers. This evocative power in so young a writer is impressive. This novel will not be the last of Ondjaki’s novels I’ll read.
The main power of the novel, however is found in its background. It’s set in Angola, a former Portuguese colony, which was torn apart by decades of war afterwards. One was the civil war, described @wiki like this:
The Angolan Civil War (1975 – 2002), one of the largest and deadliest Cold War conflicts, erupted shortly after and lasted 27 years, ravaging the economy, disturbing social order and disrupting social stability in the newly independent country. Over 500,000 people lost their lives, as the three main factions and several smaller ones struggled for supremacy. Millions of Angolan refugees suffered with the conflict and left the country or simply fled to other regions of Angola.
The other major war was between the Angolan forces, augmented by Cuban military and apartheid South Africa. The latter conflict ended when the Angolan/Cuban army defeated South Africa’s forces at the battle of Cuito Cuanavale. Good Morning Comrades‘ translator writes of this:
The battle of Cuito Cuanavale has been erased from history as it is taught in Western nations; yet this battle forced the Western world to accept Angola’s present boundaries, caused the fall from power of South African president P.W. Botha, and led to the independence of Namibia and the end of apartheid in South Africa. In many parts of the world, Cuban soldiers, rather than tepid sanctions by the Western nations, are credited with having dealt the apartheid system its death blow.
This ambivalence, between oppression and liberation, of communist dictatorship, which in the novel is presented as yet another kind of colonialism, with beaches just for the Soviets and Cuban teachers and inspectors, while not actively governing the country, are apparently in firm control of central infrastructural points, is important. So are others: now we get to the really tasty bits. The Cuban/Soviet colonialism is never reflected, but the former Portuguese is, in two different ways. One is an old man, Comrade Antonio, who is old enough to remember Portuguese rule and constantly insists on the fact that it hasn’t been that bad, in a way that reminded me of old GDR citizens, who remember the 40 yrs fondly.
The second way Portuguese colonialism reflected is trickier. A relative from Portugal visits. How is this important? Let me digress first: all of Ndalu’s description of Angola are refreshingly devoid of whining, describing his circumstances good-humoredly, without hidden judgment. Some things might seem strange or possibly oppressive to us, but not to Ndalu. It does raise the question whether judgment is valid at all, since it’s not part of the book, maybe it’s just our/my uptight anti-communism (not that I thought I harbored this sort of prejudice). However, and here’s where we return to the visit, we do get an outside view on this, which reveals the absurdity of many daily rituals Ndalu takes for granted.
But even within these absurd rituals, there are again contrarian elements. Take this piece of dialogue. The aunt brings three different chocolate bars and Ndalu automatically assumes that she must have borrowed her neighbor’s ration cards. She denies that:
“I don’t have any sort of ration card. In Portugal we make our purchases without a card.”
“Without a card? But how do they keep track of people? How do they keep track, for example, of the fish you take home?” I didn’t even let her respond. “How do they know you didn’t take too much fish?”
“But I make the purchases I wish to make, provided that I have the money. Nobody tells me that I took too much fish or too little…”
“Nobody?” I was startled, but not overly so, because I was certain she was lying or jiking. “Isn’t there even a comrade in the fish market who stamps the cards when you buy fish on Wednesday?”
There you go. We all know that the phrase introduced by “provided…” isn’t as unimportant as it seems. And we all know that we here have excellent means of keeping track of our customers. These things crawl throughout the book including through an action- and suspense-packed episode at the center of the novel. I called the book simple but it’s deceptively simple. There is so much hidden in between the sparse details, that it results in the picture evoked in this short novel being incredibly rich. Additionally, the history it’s based on is intriguing, and I really like Ndalu.
The novel isn’t perfect, I am too much of a stickler for style to claim that, since Ondjaki or his translator isn’t interested in style at all. Yes, I said it works, but its accumulative. Pick any page, read it, it’s not a particular pleasure. read a whole chapter and the pleasure returns. It’s not my kind of book, but unquestionably good. On many levels. And he has four more novels already published in Portuguese, one of ‘em translated. Lots of great literature to look forward to.
Anti-Muslim and anti-Jewish feelings are rising in several major European countries, according to a worldwide survey released on Wednesday.
The Washington-based Pew Research Centre’s global attitude survey found 46 percent of Spanish, 36 percent of Poles and 34 percent of Russians view Jews unfavourably, while the same was true for 25 percent of Germans, and 20 percent of French. [...]
The figures are all higher than in comparable Pew surveys done in recent years, the report said, and “in a number of countries the increase has been especially notable between 2006 and 2008.”
Opinions of Muslims are also dimming compared to previous years with 52 percent in Spain, 50 percent in Germany, 46 percent in Poland and 38 percent in France having negative attitudes toward them. [...]
“There is a clear relationship between anti-Jewish and anti-Muslim attitudes,” the report said. “(Those) that view Jews unfavourably also tend to see Muslims in a negative light.”
Immer diese Moslems! Das hier in SPON
Wegen eines papstkritischen Liedes wird der evangelische Pfarrer und Liedermacher Clemens Bittlinger von katholischen Fundamentalisten mit Morddrohungen attackiert und im Internet wüst beschimpft. Die Polizei nimmt die Drohungen ernst.
In seinem Song “Mensch Benedikt” hält Bittlinger Benedikt XVI. unter anderem vor, durch die Ablehnung von Kondomen die Ausbreitung von Aids in Afrika zu fördern. Zudem kritisiert der Darmstädter Pfarrer und Liedermacher die Haltung des Papstes, keine andere Kirche neben der katholischen anzuerkennen. Seit Bittlinger seinen Song im Mai auf dem Osnabrücker Katholikentag aufführte, sind laut Informationen des SPIEGEL auf rechtskonservativen katholischen Internet-Seiten zornige Hinweise auf den Song erschienen.
Die Wutwelle habe ihn “vollkommen unerwartet” getroffen, sagt Bittlinger. In Drohschreiben wird der Songschreiber als “dreckige Protestantensau” bezeichnet, andere halten ihn für “vom Teufel besessen”, einen “Stinker” oder beklagen, keine “Aggressionen” gegen ihn “rauslassen” zu können. Die hessische Polizei nahm die Drohungen so ernst, dass sie ein Konzert unter Polizeischutz stellte und eine verdächtige Postsendung an ihn von einer Spezialeinheit öffnen ließ.
Still another DFW obit. I am still sad. Found this great paragraph in an obit at DeWitt’s capricious blog:
Well, this is the world we live in, brothers and sisters. It’s a rum old place. Oblivion doesn’t strike me as a difficult, never mind uncompromisingly difficult, book. Plato can be difficult; the speeches in Thucydides drive strong men to drink; Kant is difficult, Wittgenstein is difficult, David Lewis is not for the faint of heart. But Oblivion? DFW had a ravishingly lovely gift for voice; he took the sort of pleasure in variety that we see in (say) Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition or Debussy’s Preludes. Why would a reader labour grumpily through the stories in search of hidden meanings? Let alone blame the profligate author for lack of generosity? I’ve no idea, but one thing is certain: in this world, here, now, there is no place for a Roger Federer among writers.
suicide is so close at hand, when you think about it, just walk into the middle of the street…or go to the kitchen grab a knife and cut long and deep into the veins lining your wrists. who hasn’t wished they had the courage to do these things. it is both cowardly and courageous. and for TRYING to commit suicide…if you want to do it, you do. if you want to kill yourself, you make sure you die. an attempt is something else entire…a subliminal ‘i actually love life, but i am tired right now’ scream starting in the deep creases of the brain/mind.
Here, from a wonderful obit by M. Majistral, is a beautiful, beautiful paragraph on the impact that DFW’s work had on people:
Je me souviens aussi de la conversation parisienne, un soir il y a deux semaines, dans un petit appart’ du XVIIIème avec l’ami Olivier et sa mie, on évoquait un peu le personnage, notre découverte de son travail, son esbroufe peut-être, sa stature surement, son immense talent à tous les coups. Sur le coup, il s’agissait juste de parler de gens qu’on aime, de gens qu’on admire, de gens comme on aimerait en lire plus et peut-être se disait-on « café du commerce », tu vois, ce n’est pas de la critique littéraire, ce sont des moments agréables et rien de profond n’est dit dans nos bavardages. C’est vrai. Mais aujourd’hui ça prend une autre couleur et c’est précisément le genre de moment qui nous font nous rendre compte de l’importance que tout ça peut avoir pour nous.
Here is another wonderful obit.
David Foster Wallace is dead. The prodigiously talented writer, quite possibly the best American writer of his generation and one of the best American writers alive, hung himself on Friday. He has published two novels, of which the more famous is the massive Infinite Jest which I haven’t yet finished, but am enjoying every page of, he has also written numerous stories and essays. He is one of the writers whose new books you await impatiently, gobble them up avidly, a writer you reread many times. The mind one encounters in his writing is so wonderful, and the writing is so singularly brilliant, that this…
no, I won’t elaborate. I am full of grief, and getting drunk, and if I give in and write about it, that post will become even crappier than it already is and that would be infelicitous in an obit to the great Mr. Wallace. So, I will close with a quote from DFW’s 2005 commencement speech at Kenyon college.
As I’m sure you guys know by now, it is extremely difficult to stay alert and attentive, instead of getting hypnotized by the constant monologue inside your own head (may be happening right now). Twenty years after my own graduation, I have come gradually to understand that the liberal arts cliché about teaching you how to think is actually shorthand for a much deeper, more serious idea: learning how to think really means learning how to exercise some control over how and what you think. It means being conscious and aware enough to choose what you pay attention to and to choose how you construct meaning from experience. Because if you cannot exercise this kind of choice in adult life, you will be totally hosed. Think of the old cliché about quote the mind being an excellent servant but a terrible master.
This, like many clichés, so lame and unexciting on the surface, actually expresses a great and terrible truth. It is not the least bit coincidental that adults who commit suicide with firearms almost always shoot themselves in: the head. They shoot the terrible master. And the truth is that most of these suicides are actually dead long before they pull the trigger.
The speech, amazingly, ends with these words:
It is unimaginably hard to [...] stay conscious and alive in the adult world day in and day out. Which means yet another grand cliché turns out to be true: your education really IS the job of a lifetime. And it commences: now.
I think this is the first time -and it’s about time- I direct yr attention to the language log’s heavy attacks on what they call “prescriptivist poppycock”, a side-product of which are the frequent attacks on the Strunk & White, just as this reviewish comment:
Jonathan Yardley in the Washington Post published a piece of pompous, sentimental mush yesterday. It’s all about a little book he learned about in college and still carries around to this day and will love till he dies (yadda yadda yadda; violins, please); and yes, you guessed it, the book is E. B. White’s disgusting and hypocritical revision of William Strunk’s little hodgepodge of bad grammar advice and stylistic banalities, The Elements of Style.
It’s all a load of fun, sensible, and highly recommended. The language log posts, I mean, not the Strunk & White.
Paul, ich möchte Deinen armen schönen Kopf nehmen und ihn schütteln und ihm klarmachen, dass ich sehr viel damit sage, viel zu viel für mich, denn du mußt doch noch wissen, wie schwer es mir fällt, ein Wort zu finden. Ich wünsche mir, dass Du alles aus meinen Zeilen herauslesen könntest, was dazwischen steht.
(aus einem Brief Bachmanns an Celan (aus: Herzzeit))
Es ist darüber hinaus bezeichnend, dass kaum ein Kommentator die Arbeitsdefinition des EUMC (European Monitoring Centre on Racism and Xenophobia) zum Antisemitismus heranzog, um Hecht-Galinskis Äußerungen und damit auch Broders Einschätzung zu beurteilen. Der Grund liegt auf der Hand: Nach dieser Definition, die den EU-Staaten eine offiziöse Richtschnur sein soll, werden unter anderem der Vergleich Israels mit dem Nationalsozialismus, die Dämonisierung des jüdischen Staates, der Vorwurf, Juden verhielten sich zu Israel loyaler als gegenüber den Staaten, in denen sie leben, sowie die Behauptung einer jüdischen Kontrolle der Medien und Politik als antisemitisch eingestuft – und damit fraglos auch Evelyn Hecht-Galinskis Statements. Als prominente jüdische Kronzeugin hätte sie also ausgedient. Und das wollen in Deutschland nur wenige – schließlich weiß selbst der Durchschnittsleser am besten, wer Antisemit ist. Und vor allem: wer nicht.
Schreibe mir bitte zuweilen. Schreibe mir nicht zu vag, erzähle ruhig, dass der Vorhang vor unserem Fenster schon wieder abgebrannt ist und uns die Leute zusehen von der Strasse.
(aus einem Brief Bachmanns an Celan (aus: Herzzeit))
All this saddens me. Literature moves civilizations forward, and Islam is no exception. There is in fact a tradition of historical fiction in Islam, including such works as “The Adventures of Amir Hamza,” an epic on the life of Muhammad’s uncle. Last year a 948-page English translation was published, ironically, by Random House. And, for all those who believe the life of the prophet Muhammad can’t include stories of lust, anger and doubt, we need only read the Quran (18:110) where, it’s said, God instructed Muhammad to tell others: “I am only a mortal like you.”
Here is a different piece of hers on hopes for future debates.
Defamer interviewed Cronenberg, here’s his stance on religion
People don’t pay enough attention to the body. My understanding of life is very existential. I think that we are our bodies. There’s nothing else, and when we die, that’s it. No afterlife. I’m very anti-religious because religion tends to disembody you. There’s an emphasis on your spirit, or where you’ll be when your body’s gone, and that’s misleading. I think the world would be a better place if it we admit that’s not the case.
and on the question “Who is weirder, you or David Lynch?”, he said “Oh, Lynch is way weirder than I am. That’s obvious.” Obvious.
I love poetry. I have always read books yet come late-ish to poetry. I must have been 15 when I really dug poetry, having read batches of classics and contemporary novels, from all sorts of cultures, yet mostly in German with the few exceptions of the books I started to read in English at roughly the same time. My discovery of poetry happened when my self awareness really took off, when I was first really manhandled by depressions and desperate. I had, by that time, written hundreds of pages of prose, stories, mostly, parts of projected novels, this sort of stuff, (I burned all of this when I moved to East Germany at 22, because I didn’t want anyone else to read it and wasn’t able to lug the thick stacks of hard cover notebooks to east Germany. No place etc.), so I was familiar with expressing myself through artificially arranged words (yes, that phrase is questionable and imprecise at best, but that all you get for now), but at 15 or 16 I tried more compressed forms. At that time I started to act in our high school theatre, and the theatricality of a few well-placed words intrigued me, hence my early interest in writers like Reiner Kunze, Erich Fried and Said, anyone who knows them in German will probably know what I mean. I can’t stand them now, mostly, and I am embarrassed, even, having liked them so much at the time. The major shift, however, was my discovery (via this story) of Kafka, first (if any prose writer is close to being a poet as far as density and precision is concerned, it is surely ol’ Franz), then Hilde Domin/Rose Ausländer and then Ingeborg Bachmann. Bachmann was the writer who truly pushed me into writing and into poetry. Formal, passionate, humorous, enigmatic and clear at the same time, tender, wondrous and yet harsh and cold, within the same collection of poems, light and yet always at the edge of a strange darkness, if not subsumed by that darkness. Lowry’s explorer from Hell, that was Bachmann, for me. After her, Celan, and then English poets, such as Plath, Hughes and Berryman. These days, although, quantitatively, I read far more prose, fiction and ‘non-fiction’, than poetry, my poetry shelf boards are the core of my personal ‘library’. When I moved to Bonn, with only two bags, a friend’s address and the decision to study literature there instead of economics in Chemnitz, the only books I took in my bag were volumes of poetry. Music and poetry, to sustain myself. The importance of poetry to me cannot be overestimated, although, more and more, my own production of poetry has become at least as integral a part as my consumption of it. Writing poetry can sustain me as well as reading poetry, sometimes. I only notice that now I write it but it’s perfectly true. Strange, isn’t it? I provide my own sustenance. Is that like drinking yr own urine? Does that mean I have developed too enormous an ego?
Each Friday I wait impatiently for Jezebel to post the latest edition of Pot Psychology. It’s highly addictive and highly recommended. Really. Get to it. Watch it. Chop chop.
Here’s a reel w/ highlights but you should really follow the above link and watch all of the episodes.
Claudio Magris, author of the wondrous book that is Microcosms, writing this in an essay for AlmostIsland
Our identity is our way of looking at things. If I were asked to speak about myself, I would instinctively begin to speak about other people – my parents, my wife, my sons, people I love, friends of both sexes, teachers, landscapes, perhaps even animals – but certainly not about myself. I would relate stories of what has happened to others, but which are in some way integrated with my own. And through the way I spoke about other things and other people, one could perhaps understand something of my ability or inability to love, my courage, my fears, my obsessions, my beliefs, my disillusionments.
A hoax, after all, is a piece of theater. (Blackburn tells the story of an actor who gave a meaningless and nonsensical lecture on mathematical game theory and physical education to approving audiences made up of medical professionals and psychologists.) It’s like a magic trick: one hand does the misdirection, the other does the work behind the scene. Think of “Witness for the Prosecution,” “The Sting,” Clifford Irving’s “authorized” biography of Howard Hughes and the many successes of forgers, counterfeiters and imposters. If a hoax comes off, and there is praise to be bestowed, it should go to the ingenuity of the master illusionist who has set the whole thing up.
So high marks to Goldstein and Sokal for being able to construct a stage setting that produced a calculated effect; but no marks for any claim that what they were able to do had implications for anything beyond its own performance.
Spiegel online über die Übernahme der Dresdner Bank
Zum anderen haben die Chinesen nie auch nur andeutungsweise veröffentlicht, was genau sie denn mit der Dresdner Bank vorhaben, warum sie sie kaufen wollen. Eine solche Geheimnistuerei darf nicht belohnt werden. Und wie skrupellos Asiaten mit Zusagen umgehen, hat der Fall Siemens/BenQ unlängst bewiesen – auch wenn hier mit Taiwan Nationalchinesen verantwortlich waren.