I have one final post, even shorter, following up on my recent post of Brecht on Döblin. Brecht had quite a sharp tongue and the comments below regarding Horkheimer may not be nice, but they are interesting in terms of the social/financial pillars of the Frankfurt School. The source is a biography of Adorno that’s famously hostile and shallow and should not necessarily be read for substance (although I admit I am biased, as Adorno joins Wittgenstein, Bloch, Deleuze and Hume in my pantheon of philosophical heroes). The quote, however, is a nice footnote, and it fits the Brecht who wrote such a damning poem about Döblin’s conversion. (h/t Georg Klauda)
Powell, Padgett (2009), The Interrogative Mood: a Novel?, Ecco
When I heard about this book in bookblogs, I was skeptical. See, American bookbloggers have a tendency to elevate stern genre distinctions to fetishes, creating such a strong image of what a genre is supposed to be like, that they happen to hail a surprising number of recent and not-so-recent publications as major breakthroughs in the genre in question. From an “Alternative History” of the novel to Lydia Davis’ work, the unexciting string of ‘shocking’ breaks with convention is long and dire. So when Padgett Powell’s most recent book, The Interrogative Mood, was received along similar lines, lines that the subtitle “a novel?”, with the pointed question mark, only served to deepen and emphasize, I almost regretted getting it. I wrote down a few remarks for this review concentrating on the ludicrous straw men of some reviewers, tying in this book, without having read it. Yeah, I do that sometimes. As I got into it, however, I became genuinely excited about the book and its writer. It’s quite astonishing that Powell really manages to pull this off: an experimental book that does play intelligently with genre notions and conventions, that’s an engaging read, quite moving, frankly, yet also challenging and consistently interesting. Pick up this book. You will not be disappointed. And while you’re at it, pick up also his debut novel, Edisto (review forthcoming). Padgett Powell is one of the most genuinely exciting writers I’ve discovered in a while.
The Interrogative Mood is an interesting kind of novel (and why not run with it and call it that). On the surface, there is no plot, there are no characters, there are just questions. 164 pages of unceasing, unflagging questions, one after another. When I heard that the book consisted solely of questions, a few ideas came into my head about how a plot might be constructed through questions, but I didn’t expect this. The endless stream of questions appears to be a barrage of non-sequitur inquiries, some humorous, some not, some political, some not, many very silly, many not. The second question of the book is “Are your nerves adjustable?”, third question “How do you stand in relation to the potatoe?”, fourth question “Should it still be Constantinople?”, sixth question “In your view, do children smell good?”. And so on. The wealth of questions is quite overwhelming, but in a good way. When Powell set out to write a book composed solely of questions, this is exactly what he did, unlike other writers, he didn’t cloak a cheaply traditional, sentimental book with experimental cloth. He really wrote an experimental book that is truly unlike any book I’ve read so far. What makes it so unique is the fact that these questions appear to form an incoherent stream of impromptu ideas, a rambling book with, at best, novelty factor, but that in Powell’s hands, they acquire a subtle coherence, a voice, direction and meaning. The book is both coherent and rambling at once, depending upon the degree of care which one applies to the text. It’s a text glittering with subtleties.
It’s also an addictively readable book. The flow of questions is exhilarating, challenging and fascinating. Some questions provoke you to raise objections, some ask you to dig into your memories, still others, and those are a large portion of the whole, are goofy and funny, some of those more like cheap comedy quips, and some as finely wrought as a Dr. Seuss book. There will be questions that surprise you, questions that will touch upon some memory that’ll move you, make you rev up your memory. It’s hard to imagine a reader not swayed by the titular ‘moods’ of Powell’s book (I’ll mention other meanings of the title in awhile), at least to some extent. These questions are well crafted and it’s admirable that Powell is able to use them as he does. But on the whole, as you turn the pages, the questions lose importance and you answer fewer and fewer of the, just coasting along on the wave of words, as the small units of questions coalesce into something larger. Something, yes, that I would call a novel.
Definitions of the novel abound, and since, to riff on a phrase of Jarrell, a definition is a short text that has something wrong with it, I won’t try to define the novel here, it’s been done, with varying levels of success. Try your local library. It’s difficult to come up with a list of “must” elements in such a comprehensive and fluid genre like the novel, which isn’t defined in a non-ambiguous way through any element. There are novels in verse, brief as well as long novels, expansive historical novels and dense, action-packed novels. Novels can feature any kind or amount of characters and are composed in all kinds of structures. While it’s easy to determine if a book is ‘clearly’ a novel, the borderline cases are far harder to pinpoint. One such case is Padgett Powell’s fine book, which explicitly asks the reader to consider whether it’s a novel, and indeed it shares enough properties with the mainstream novel to justify calling it one, or at least considering it as one as a valid mode of reading the book (among others). The first, most basic properties are these: The Interrogative Mood has two characters (a very basic requirement) and a narrative. One of the characters is the narrator, the interrogator, the one asking the questions. He definitely experiences a change of character as the book progresses, and as we hear to him ramble, we notice that some questions are more personal than others.
There is an urgency in some questions, and some explicit biographical background worked into others. The very nature of the questions used suggests a personal spin. The kind of questions, their sequence and recurrence, among other factors, help map out a kind of personality. It’s actually quite remarkable how precise a writer Powell proves to be in this regard. For example, there are quizzes, i.e. detailed questions that are about general knowledge. The vast majority of these have to do with nature, which suggests a preeminent importance of the topic for the asker of questions. This fact is firmly impressed upon the reader, as names and images of animals and plants are threaded through his head as he tries to follow the book, keep up with its dodges and feints. These quiz questions are fair and open, and only revealing in terms of sheer quantity and focus of topic. There are also other questions, less fair, but also still more revealing ones. In personal and political matters, Powell’s narrator has the tendency to ask leading questions. He confronts his counterpart with false dichotomies, or he asks what is at best a rhetorical question. It is with these questions that he’s really tipping his hand. These questions, whether it’s his use of false dichotomies or of rhetorical questions, they tell us what the narrator believes or at least what he wants to make his counterpart think he believes. There is, however, no indication of subterfuge in the book, despite the tricky surface. The unnamed narrator appears to be quite earnest and straightforward, within the limitations of the form he has chosen, of course.
So when he gives his opinions away they don’t develop into a new game, they lend resonance to the book, imbuing it with a voice that is singular and unmistakable. As you read on, engrossed by the entertaining surface, you enter into a kind of intimacy with the narrator, listening for his voice, for personal issues even in perfectly innocent questions. This is a work that the book expects you to do. It relies firmly upon our instincts to look for and draw connections even between seemingly unconnected events and statements. By looking closely at the text, listening to it, we find that, far from random, the book is composed, and structured. While one reading wasn’t enough for me to puzzle out that structure, it’s worth noting that the narrator has a few subjects he’s obsessing about, subjects that keep recurring, often in different contexts. It’s not, from a first reading, obvious how these subjects and themes work, in what way they are stacked and repeated, but the enormous amount of them assures that we are made aware of structure, and together with the changes in tone and direction that we see in the personal questions, we have an immediate sense of narrative. Make no mistake, there is not an overt plot, a story that we can follow and retell. To claim that would be absurd. Yet it would be equally absurd to deny the fact of structure, hidden though it is in the folds of this complex book, structure that, indeed, amounts to what can meaningfully be called a narrative.
As for the counterpart, the listener to questions, the answerer of them, little is known about him. The interrogator addresses him in the second person singular, an address that is purposefully fuzzy. The reader naturally assumes that he or she is meant by the questions, and immediately starts formulating answers, thinking about the questions. Not until quite a few questions in, the interrogator refers to answers that he has received. Not from the reader obviously. How we read these references and asides hinges mostly upon the question of whether we are prepared at all to read this as a novel. If we’re not, the putative answers will only be seen as a rhetorical device to further engage “you”, i.e. the reader (who would be the prime suspect for the role of the “you”), in the book’s discussion. If on the other hand, we are open to seeing The Interrogative Mood as fiction, a listener, a counterpart emerges that could (or not) motivate the speaker to ask more and more personal questions. Reading the book with a hypothetical listener/answerer in mind, questions that are pointed and focused, questions that we thought referred to the interrogator and his situatedness, could be his way of riffing upon his counterpart. All these, while they may seem like idle speculations, are legitimate questions, and I think that from the subtitle to some of the details, Powell fuels this kind of debate.
It’s hard not to think that Powell is very aware of how our thinking about genre conventions in the arts has changed, from Wayne Booth’s groundbreaking work on the novel (there is a point to make about Booth’s treatment of James’ narrators and the way Powell’s narrator is set up) to Nelson Goodman’s astonishing distillations in the 1970s and 1980s. This isn’t, by the way, the only theoretical consideration that underlies the book. The title refers us to another one which I can but briefly sketch. “Interrogative Mood” is a grammatical term, referring to a way to express interrogativity in some language, though not in English. That is remarkable for a book written in English and suggests that the book is concerned with the wider modes of interrogativity. In semantics, interrogativity holds a special place. It’s a repository for doubt, a marker of ambiguity (ambiguity of reference, for example. Interrogatives are often highly dependent upon context to be clarified, yet it is this context that Powell, slyly, denies us), of epistemological uncertainty. It is a mode that doesn’t just raise questions, it also puts things into question. But in the case of The Interrogative Mood, this isn’t a coldly calculating questioning, not an intellectually bracing search. Powell’s narrator is clearly calling not just aspects of his knowledge of the world, and his interlocutor’s, into question, he puts himself up for discussion. The very form and shape of the book is designed to be elusive, to allow the narrator to hide in a mirror cabinet of questions. Questions seem to be propelled outward, demanding answers of people elsewhere, but we can, as I said earlier, follow these questions back to their source, Powell’s narrator.
When you come down to it, The Interrogative Mood is a very small and personal book, yet through its engagement with the reader (the ambiguity of reference is a big part of that), it’s also a very open book, open to the world without. Many definitions of the novel, especially German ones, have stressed that the novel is the one genre that contains the fullness of life, the smörgåsbord of the everyday, containing often disparate elements, from human psychology, to public events and the richness of bodily experience, in short, “life in its allness”, to quote from Lucács’ classic Theory of the Novel. And in the stupendous amount of kinds of questions and sectors of knowledge that Powell’s book draws on and uses, it does just that. It’s a slim book, a simply written book that is teeming with life. Yes, the two characters’ lives, but also ours. Powell introduces the book with a quote from Whitman’s Leaves of Grass. “Does the Daylight astonish?” Whitman asks. And the very first question that the book has for its reader is “Are your emotions pure?”. That wonderment, that tender sensitivity, the careful voice of the narrator expecting, no, hoping, for something beyond the fog that crawls all over us. Yes, the questions are a kind of fog themselves, but if we let them, they can clear some of the other fog away. Padgett Powell has written a wondrous book, a light, musical read, that is formally brave and beautiful in terms of its emotions. It’s not a generous book, but the heart of it is hardened by distress. Read The Interrogative Mood. You won’t be sorry.
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Herman Melville is among my very favorite writers. Everything about his work is subtle, fresh and interesting, whether we talk about the Great American Novel, Moby Dick, or the very early works: Typee or Omoo. I have spend quite some time thinking about Typee early in February, but as this blog shows, it didn’t amount to anything. After having had a few thoughts rumbling through my skull again after finishing my reread of Omoo today, and since I have nothing better to do, I’ll just bother you with them. As I said, Omoo was the second book Melville published. It was printed in 1947, a year after Typee. Within ten years he would go on to publish all of his other novels, among them marvels such as the aforementioned Moby Dick, The Confidence Man or the scintillating Pierre. One masterpiece per year. Since most of them are concerned with life at sea and since Moby Dick is the most famous novel about the sea and especially whaling, the preceding novels are seen as studies for the grand masterpiece.
It is, as many people have pointed out, a great injustice to read Typee and Omoo only as imperfect tryouts. They are both completely and utterly astonishing, and bear almost no direct resemblance to each other, since they treat different modes of travel. Omoo is the direct sequel to Typee, picking up the plot where Typee leaves off: the protagonist who has finally escaped Nukuhavi, which is one of the Marquesas Islands, has entered service on the ship that saved him, not that he had much of a choice there. That ship, the lovely Julia, is a breeding ground for unrest, which is a good indicator of many of the concerns in Omoo. Guy, the captain, is not a sailor, he is
in no wise competent. He was essentially a landsman, and though a man of education, no more meant for the sea than a hair-dresser.
He shows, time and again, that he does not understand the necessities of a sailor’s life. The captain is little more than a meek and weak figurehead, since he isn’t able to handle even the smallest technical decisions and the one he does handle leads to mutiny and him losing a large part of his crew.
The actual work of a captain is done by the chief mate, John Jermin. Jermin is a strong, smart and pugnacious man, able to make the crew obey his commands. As a member of the ruling caste, especially since he is the one who has to make tough decisions and has to ensure that the captain’s unpopular commands are carried out, he is constantly at odds with the crew. He looks and acts like one of the crew yet the mere fact of his being in power sets him apart. We encounter quite a different situation with the resident doctor, who only goes by the name of Doctor Long Ghost. He, who could be the third member of the ruling caste, is actually a jester of sorts. Although he is educated and could possibly wield power, he is too unruly, too much of a “wag”, for the captain to put up with him. In due course he has to set up camp amongst the sailors. As we all know, rulers and workers are clearly separated on a ship, so forcing Doctor Long John to literally change sides is highly significant. The physician, however, quickly accommodates himself to the new situation, becoming, in effect, one of the crew. As we see, the main difference here is not education: it’s both power and the line of work you’re in. This may seem uninteresting at this point, yet the novel dwells extensively upon the dynamics on board and rightly so, as we will see.
Upon coming to Tahiti, the captain gets off the ship, being friends with Consul Wilson, who is the British representative on the island. In the meantime, he expects the crew of the ship to stay on board. This, apparently, is viewed almost as an offense by the sailors, who subsequently contrive to get ashore despite the captain’s strict orders. The captain’s behavior is shown to be due to his not being a sailor, to his being a land man. A different captain, later on, is described as “a sailor, not a tyrant.” The contrast between sailors and people who live and work on land, is marked, and it’s not a simple difference either. The sailors show clear contempt for so-called “landlubbers”, as the character called “Rope Yarn” shows, who is not nearly as unlikeable as the captain, who is part of the crew, yet who is not suited to work on a ship; the crew is constantly making fun of him and harassing him at every turn. Among the crew, on the working-class end of the ship, there is a hierarchy as well, equally strict as the one I previously mentioned. The main difference, however, is that it is solely based upon merit.
In a way, although I referred to the sailors as “workers”, this word, with its modern connotations, is not quite fitting. The sailors are more like nomads, with a division of work as in a nomadic hunter-gatherer (and are whalers not, to an extent, hunter-gatherers?) society, which is usually based on merit and not entitlement or race or even gender. This strong focus upon the society aboard ship is a stark difference to Typee, which was largely concerned with a reflection upon a single village in a vale on Nukuhavi. I would argue that one of Omoo‘s main concerns is work, and, at that, work in different environments, and by people of different cultures. Our protagonist is going off board with the others, and due to a mishap, finds himself apprehended by the consul as one of the ring leaders.
This appellation is thoroughly undeserved, if we can trust the protagonist’s assurances, but he and we quickly see that it is due to his being an intellectual of sorts, who can write and reads books, that he is thought and assumed to be a ring leader. The captain expresses a deep dislike ans suspicion towards the readers/writers among the crew. Since the captain’s logic is not ship- but land logic, he thinks in terms of class. In his understanding of the world, a worker doesn’t read, he works. The dangers of being able to read and write are all too obvious: they lead to, or at least aid, mutiny, revolt, and similar distasteful incidents. In a way, it is hard to argue this point with the captain, since, after all, a mutiny has taken place and the two readers are involved. As readers we must never make the mistake of believing the protagonist’s testimony. He is the one whose voice has carried far enough for us to hear it, but must we not think of the sailors, too, as a silenced class, and of the protagonist’s narration as a colonization of sorts?
The concepts of speaking for someone else, of displacing a former way of reading and understanding the world with a new, alien form, is also a central concern of the novel, which dwells quite extensively upon the work of the missionaries. In Typee, which is a novelization of an ethnographer’s wet dreams, we found an almost untouched society, which dealt with the British and French intruders only at its borders. Tahiti and its surrounding islands, has been subjugated by the French and British and is accordingly much changed. Although the events take place at roughly the same time, a few weeks after Typee, the reader is under the impression of seeing the aftermath of aggression and proselytizing upon the society he came to know in Typee. And it has been a disaster which has led to a destruction of a culture and to the death of numerous individuals. Officially, the Tahitians are Christians now, although the narrator never tires of explaining why the Christian creed is ill fitted to the Polynesians:
An air of softness in their manners, great apparent ingenuousness and docility, at first misled; but these were the mere accompaniments of an indolence, bodily and mental; a constitutional voluptuousness; and an aversion to the least restraint; which, however fitted for the luxurious state of nature, in the tropics, are the greatest possible hindrances to the strict moralities of Christianity.
I will not go into details on the proselytizing of Tahiti, it’s an interesting topic in itself, but not the focus of these remarks.
However, the quote on the hindrances is interesting in other ways as well. Omoo expounds on the links between Christian religion and the Western economic system as evidenced by their interaction with the Tahitians. Both of these elements are not suited to the native culture in Tahiti, they are both built on an idea of discipline and sensual renunciation, whereas the Tahitians have parameters such as need, interest and passion. The re-invention of leisure time in the course of industrialization may be the Western countries’ valve to let off some of the steam generated by the need created by being so strict on the passions, but this has come from a state of oppression. The Tahitians are expected to give up their freedoms all at once and that they’re not prepared to do. They do not, however, resort to classical western ways of expressing their reluctance: when their interest abates, they just stop working, creating, to the uncomprehending Colonialists an impression of “sluggishness” or even plain laziness.
Several years ago, the cultivation of cotton was introduced; and, with their usual love of novelty, they went to work with great alacrity; but the interest excited quickly subsided, and now, not a pound of the article is raised.
I found this attitude to work and duty reminiscent of Melville’s slightly later short piece of greatness, “Bartleby the Scrivener”, and that story’s protagonist’s mantra “I’d prefer not to”. As Bartleby dies at the end, so the Tahitian civilization suffers from the fact that those who subjugated them failed to understand the culture of those they meant to rule. It is the old confusion of the man-made, culturally conditioned with the natural, that obfuscates issues to this day. This makes the progression from Typee to Omoo particularly salient: Typee focuses on seeing and reading a culture that is so very different from one’s own, while Omoo shows what happens when we actively rule a country without investing into our understanding what makes it what it is. We just assume, so often, that the basic reading of things is alright for everyone. The conditio humana is so often invoked in so idiotic contexts that it makes you, at times, despair. That’s just how we are? Please.
And Omoo, as most of Melville’s stupendous work, concentrates upon these issues. We find variations of people who live their lives according not to their individual creed (and isn’t, for example, the hypocritical celebration of the individual in American popular culture/criticism among the most depressingly inane ideologies?), but according as to how their culture understands life and work (take care: again, no false identifications: cultures do not equal nations, so don’t come complaining). The strongest characterization besides the British and the Tahitians are Zeke and his associate, the Yankees who believe in working hard and partying hard. After having been imprisoned and let free again, the protagonist and Doctor Long Ghost roam the island. The further they progress inland, the healthier and happier the natives become, at the same time, paradoxically, they are working more:
The next day we rambled about, and found a happy little community, comparatively free from many deplorable evils to which the rest of their countrymen are subject. Their time, too, was more occupied. To my surprise, the manufacture of tappa was going on in several buildings. European calicoes were seldom seen, and not many articles of foreign origin of any description.
Melville is all but shouting at his countrymen to stop calling the Tahitians lazy or deficient.
The most fascinating passage in Omoo, however, can be found in the last fifth, where he tells us about white travelers (“roving whites”) to the islands who are “generally domesticated in the family of the head chief or king” and become personal attendants, violinists, cupbearers or what Melville winking refers to as “commissioner of the arts and sciences”. These people are travelers, or rovers in more ways than one, the cultural contexts, the power relationships are shifting slightly, for these few individuals. I hope that the previous paragraphs have made it clear how magnificently Omoo shifts to and fro in terms of cultural preconceptions as related to work etc. and now we see how well Melville chose to pick the sailors as a ‘control group’. The sailors’ friction with the landlubber captain demonstrates their difference to the dominant culture on the islands; there are other, more obvious reasons why they don’t mesh with some of the other, the Polynesian cultures. On land, they have turned even more into hunterer-gatherers, hunting with Zeke and gathering food, shelter and goodwill from the Polynesians.
In the end, the protagonist returns to his own culture, signing on on a whaler once again. It is a completely different whaler from the two he’s been on before. In a way, experiencing that travel has changed something in both of the rovers. As I indicated earlier,these insipid remarks touch but upon one aspect, which is hard to separate from others, possibly more important ones, such as religion or race. Omoo, as any novel by Melville, is stacked with subtle and not so subtle ideas and criticism. Melville is always in need of being read. A grand, grand writer.
There is a risk to this: burdening a book or poem with the weight of a classic work of literature, especially if the work is as iconic as Shakespeare’s The Tempest. The shorter the book, the more frivolous, usually, the reference, in my experience. None of this is applicable to this novel, which wears the reference lightly and plays with it, with ease and joy. Rachel Ingalls is a writer unjustly neglected by the reading public, her work is largely out of print, including this novel, probably her most famous book. Mrs. Caliban was published in 1983, but not a single phrase or scene in it feels dated. Having just finished it, I find it hard to contain my enthusiasm, to put my pure and utter delight at reading this novel into words. Everything about this book fits, every word, every image seems perfectly calibrated. It’s intellectually rich, it’s use of intertextuality is fascinating and challenging, but above all else, it is a great read that races through a fantastic spiral of events, dragging the engrossed reader along. The book is frequently very funny, often rather sensual, but, au fond, as when we hear the protagonist say to her 6-foot lover, “Larry, you’re all I have”, it is a profoundly sad novel, a sadness that, lucky for us, never turns to bitterness.
As is to be expected, no one in the novel is actually called Mrs. Caliban. The protagonist is called Dorothy, which naturally recalls the Wizard of Oz. She is a housewife, whose life feels empty to her. Her husband, Fred, is frequently claiming to be working late, but Dorothy suspects him of actually having an affair; Fred has had affairs before and currently he is distancing himself again from his wife, not touching her more than necessary, moving the beds apart. This last distancing happened after, after an accident and a miscarriage, the pair suddenly found themselves childless. The accident had brought them together for a short period, but the miscarriage had driven them apart. As in so many cases, the husband, irrationally blamed the wife for what happened. Marriage is portrayed as an imbalanced relationship, where the wife is more of a servant than a sensual human being. It’s not just Fred. Estelle, Dorothy’s best friend, finds out that two men are proposing to her in order to acquire a housemaid, already seeking sexual satisfaction on the side with other, younger women. This strange piece of dialog illustrates Dorothy’s need well:
“Oh, Jesus Christ, Dot. You would go get some useless toy dog like that. Fat lot of good that would be if you turn the corner and bump into a gang of roughs who’d beat you up and rape you.”
“With my luck,” she had screamed, “they’d tie me to the railings and rape the dog instead.”
Up to now, Mrs. Caliban has intermittently shown signs of curiousness: the radio seems, for instance, at times to interact with Dorothy, when the radio program is interrupted by a speaker who imparts, sotto voce, soothing messages for her. One day, however, a strange (even stranger?) message, in a loud voice announces breaking news. A giant green sea monster, called “Aquarius the Monsterman”, has escaped from the “Jefferson Institute for Oceanographic Research”. Since her special messages so far had all been delivered in the same tone of voice, Dorothy decides that this has really happened. This broadcast starts off a novel which is preoccupied with a constant flickering of fantasy and reality, and Ingalls displays no interest in telling us what’s real and what isn’t. The fantastic events become more pronounced when “Aquarius the Monsterman” suddenly arrives on her doorstep, turns out to be called Larry and to speak English. Both name and language have been forced on him by the researchers at the Institute, who performed gruesome experiments on him, torturing the poor guy and even abusing him sexually. For the rest of the novel, however, we’ll only know him as Larry.
Larry is something of an antithesis to the world around Dorothy. In contrast to our pop-cultural expectations he does not have an unpronounceable foreign name, which the savvy researchers have shortened to Larry. He was given his name because in his home culture:
“We don’t give names… Everyone knows. We recognize each other.”
The whole culture seems far more intuitive, people do “the same things” and look the same., it seems less like a humanoid society and more like a tender, well-oiled machine, such as nature may appear to be at times. Larry is very tender, careful. Apart from webbed toes and frog eyes he appears to look like any (good looking) man. The fact that he is stark naked quickly awakens Dorothy’s desires, which lay dormant for a long time:
He sat down beside her. He said, looking at her, “I’ve never seen. Men, but not someone like you.”
“A woman,” she whispered, her throat beginning to close up.
He asked, “Are you frightened?”
“I’m not. I feel good. But it’s very strange.”
A lot more than strange, she thought. And then: no, it’s just the same. They rolled backwards together on the bed.
“Wait. Not like that,” she said.
“I’m a bit embarrassed.”
“What does that mean?”
She proceeds to have sex with him quite often, everywhere in the house. The novel never describes the sexual act, but shows its reflection in the changes in Dorothy, who becomes happy, relaxed, who suddenly starts to take an interest in life again. She learns what Larry is prepared to eat and what not, she learns about the way he was treated in the Institute. Automatically she assumes multiple roles. She is protective, as of a child, she caters to him as she caters to her husband and, most importantly, of course, she has taken him as her lover. At night he hides in the guest room or drives around town (she teaches him), and whenever her husband is gone, Larry comes out. Events spiral out of control when he kills five louts in self-defense, who attacked him with knives and broken bottles. The media immediately points to the dreaded monster; clearly, he’s no longer safe in her house, people will notice and tell on her. She must get him back to sea, which attempt leads to the cataclysmic finale.
Many of the references to “The Tempest” are obvious, I’d think, but there is a twist to it all. Larry is both Prospero, the man who comes over the sea and leaves again at the end, and Caliban, the native ‘alien’, who is taught the ‘civilized’ culture, who is perceived to be in need of teaching (incidentally, he does not only learn language. He watches a lot of TV and starts, suddenly, to imitate a dancer in a commercial. After learning the performance he asks Dorothy what it means. She replies that it’s just a dance performance and considers telling him about the cultural moorings of dance, but thinks better of it. After a while, twoscore pages later, Larry proclaims to have understood what it means. We are never told what Larry’s groundbreaking insight is, but clearly, using his limbs in the semiotically fraught way of dance is a language, as well, and Larry recognizes this immediately, and learns). Since Larry is, as I mentioned, a representative of the forces of nature (He seems, at times, as naïve and helpless as Prince Myshkin, but their naivety is rooted in completely different circumstances; indeed, it’s rather Dorothy who is a weathered, numbed descendant to the Prince, I think), one may see the world where humans built their cities as the island where Prospero’s rule has wrought many changes. Dorothy, the best candidate for ‘Mrs. Caliban’, supports such a reading. The very name “Mrs. Caliban” is ambiguous. Fred, her husband, is clearly in no shape to be the noble savage, but at the end, Larry and Fred, somehow, have merged in her racked mind: asked about her husband’s name, she produces the name “Larry”. This suggests that it is only at the end of the novel that she has become Mrs. Caliban.
This issue of naming and reference is fickle. Ingalls interrogates two large constructs, both concerned with power and disenfranchisement. There is gender and its intricacies, the relationships between men and women, the roles both automatically assume and the difficulties of breaking out of such a role. Both Dorothy and her best friend Estelle try, and both, in a way, fail at it and both are tragic failures, because we can see it coming. The depressing, claustrophobic domestic situation of Dorothy is emblematic for the world and society she lives in and it takes Larry for us to see that. I say: “for us”, because all the characters are restricted to their world, they are never afforded the opportunity to actually reflect upon their roles and relations. The second large construct is only hinted at, and it concerns the idea of enlightenment and progress. Larry and the Institute are two factors in this discourse, but the criticism does not only strike at blind belief in scientific progress: when a news report about the five dead teenagers moves Fred to rant about the ugly, giant monster, we get more than a whiff of the amount of prejudice and racism that is part of this society’s structure. The fact that the community appears to be completely ‘white’ only adds to the claustrophobia. In order to to this in the brevity she has chosen, however, Ingalls is forced to project very conventional, strangely unproblematic sense of corporeality. It questions many conventions, but bodies just exist and are all functional human bodies. I said ‘strangely unproblematic’ because, after all, we encounter a 6 foot sea monster which has never lived with humans, which doesn’t speak normally, which is irritated by the movements of dance, but this is all taken in stride. The strangest part about this is sexuality.
While emphasizing the needs of sexuality for Dorothy, the novel is less explicit about the effect this has on Larry, who has never had sexual intercourse before. In a way, Dorothy makes him into a man, but we never learn whether this effects any change in Larry. After all, we aren’t even sure Larry exists at all. The uncanny messages that we learn about on the very first page, introduce a sense of surreality. In the sense of Brian McHale’s excellent explication of postmodernism, this is a highly postmodern novel which at no point expresses an interest in finding out what’s real and what’s not. There are parts of the story that conform more to what we conventionally perceive to constitute ‘reality’ and parts that conform less to that, but Ingalls is constantly mixing up her elements. Certainty is not for us, and it’s neither for Dorothy who, in the final chapter, scrambles to hold everything together even as life and fantasy fall apart. In a way, Dorothy is caught up in a Cyclone but she can neither return to Kansas nor land in Oz, so she’s in a state of limbo. Thinking about this I was reminded of Salman Rushdie’s famous essay on the Wizard of Oz where he points out the difference between the Kansas of the book and the Kansas of the movie version. If I do not misremember him, he emphasizes the fact that the Kansas of the Wizard of Oz movie is not a realistic Kansas, as the one in L. Frank Baum’s book is. It is a curiously warped version. In Mrs. Caliban, Dorothy may be living in a country which is the dark twin of that Kansas.
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A debate at two blogs, among them Irene‘s wonderful blogeous ode to inebration, has centered on outrage against prescriptive modern feminists. What they, especially Sybarite (post one, post two), think of strident feminists is well described by the slur “Feminazi” that neither of them uses, but that people who take the exact same line, do use. And yes, it is no accident that their positions, especially Sybarite’s, can be summed up as using a slur coined by Rush Limbaugh. I started to write a comment at Sybarite’s blog but it became too convoluted so I thought I’d take it to my home turf.
Rereading their posts, I think they fail to see a major problem: what some feminists are saying is that you only THINK you are choosing for yourself, that your choice is, in fact, made for you, once you learn language, behavior and manners. The cultural imprint is so strong that it is an illusion to be able to chose for one’s self. And yes, it is a very dangerous balance, between liberating women and rhetorically restricting their behavior. A good case in point is judith butler’s work on feminist matters, which vacillates between severely pessimistic accounts and accounts of freedom. You can’t disprove Butler’s argument easily, especially not by saying: how can I not know myself and my own decisions? which makes it all a tightrope act. Where do you cross into tyranny, into paternalism? I especially feel extremely uncomfortable writing this because my kind have been silencing female voices for centuries, and am I not now engaging in a similar undertaking? That creeps me out, to be honest.
So I’ll keep things brief. One thing, neither of the two mentioned, is the sexualization of little girls, the Bratz dolls are a case in point (also, related, remember the recent scandal over the Sasha and Malia dolls?). The things some feminists are complaining about hurt our children first, there are issues such as bodily self-image, sexualization, plus, most recently, the American culture which has experienced a rollback in sexual morals (will post the study once I dig it out); to cut to pop culture: look at how girls describe their love and admiration for Stephenie Meyer’s inane Twilight books? To brush all this aside by a coquettish moue, saying: But I like it that way! is appalling, to me. The direction our societies are taking is clear, unmistakeable, and ugly.
To reiterate: your own decisions may not be your own decisions, especially since they reinforce cultural stereotypes, which are shown to be culturally specific, most certainly not biological, so if feminists point that out, i.e. the fact that you dress in what amounts to a garb of capitulation to the prevailing cultural misogyny, they may not be “replac[ing] a patriarchy with a matriarchy” (a misogynistic term if I ever saw one) but, on the contrary, point out the mire we’re all still in. still the same stereotypes, only this time we like ’em. the wide acceptance by the so-called “new feminism” of essentialist, hurtful images and ideas is frightening.
All this is rather vapid, empty blather, since I am reluctant to dish out. It is not my place to speak up here, it just isn’t. My position is best described by Katha Pollitt, an old-fashioned feminist, and an invigorating writer. IN her 2006 collection Virginity or Death! she writes the following:
Women have learned to describe everything they do, no matter how apparently conformist, submissive, self-destructive or humiliating, as a personal choice that cannot be criticized because personal choice is what feminism is all about.”
The bitterness of her words and the trap that she sees there, are both important and noteworthy.
Feminism is a complex issue, not easily resolved. There are very smart feminists as well as utter idiots (Camilla Paglia, anyone?). Arguments such as Sybarite’s, which miss several important points, succeed, because they attack a position by attacking the dimwits among the supporters of such a position. That’s too easy. Take it up with the smart ones.
[honkaku bō ibun, translated by Ursula Gräfe, not yet translated into English]
Inoue, Yasushi (2006), Das Jagdgewehr, Suhrkamp
[ryōjū, translated by Oskar Benl, translated into English as The Hunting Rifle]
Tanizaki, Jun’ichiro (1977), In Praise of Shadows, Leete’s Island Books
[Translated by T.J. Harper and E.G. Seidensticker]
These are two novellas by one of the most highly regarded Japanese prose writers in the second half of the 20th century. I am completely unread as far as critical writings on Japanese prose are concerned, which is not an understatement, so excuse all and any foolish comments that may be obvious and/or superfluous. The Hunting Rifle is Inoue’s first publication, published in 1949, the Death of a Tea Master’s one of his last publications, published in 1981.
Reading the first one puzzled me inordinately. The Hunting Rifle is a strangely seductive work of art. It is reduced to a few significant pieces of dialogue, a few episodes. I started to read it as a love story, but my expectations, schooled by reading countless works of genre literature, were soon disappointed by the way it was executed: it is not an actual love story, it’s a retelling of a love story at a distance, or rather: it is a story about love, if that makes any sense. The story which forms the framework is about a writer who turns an observation about a middle-aged man with a hunting rifle into a poem, published into a hunter’s magazine; the poem, which is extraordinarily beautiful, closes by saying that the rifle presses all its weight into the back and soul of the lonely man wearing it, and that it’s radiating a blood-specked beauty that never appears when the rifle’s targeting something living. Clearly, the poem is critical of hunting, and consequently the poet is astonished that a hunter’s magazine would print it. Shortly afterwards, a man writes him, sure of being the middle-aged man described in the poem, and sends him three letters, asking the narrator to read and then burn them.
The three letters, which the narrator then ‘presents’ to the reader, tell of a forbidden affair between Saiko and her cousin Joskuke, both of whom are married, an affair, which, as we learn soon, ends with Saiko’s suicide 13 years later. The letters are from Saiko’s daughter, who was handed a journal by her mother just before the mother kills herself, and writes a long letter to “Uncle Josuke”, which becomes more and more condemning. She condemns the affair as amoral and thus demonstrates the constraints of the society which led to the affair being covert and doomed; additionally, her righteous – and partly justified- indignation creates an atmosphere that helps the reader to better place the events which are more fully related by the two other letters. The second letter is from Josuke’s wife, Midori, who tells him, among other things, that she has long known about the affair and asks for a divorce. The third and final letter is written by Saiko, who thanks him for having loved her so much for 13 years, and expresses, at the same time, a deep and devastating loneliness; it is a passionate letter yet very composed and cold.
Between these three letters we find events described that have led to four people being lonely, cold, even when passionately in love. There is a deep yearning for love, for company, in each of these letters, although Saiko’s daughter’s in a different way. They are hunting, for love, for composure, for dignity. In an episode related in Midori’s letter, Josuke aims at her back while both sit on a porch. She says she noticed even though Josuke put the gun away quickly. The chaos and violence of life does not reach these characters, the things they do follow careful, pre-established lines. And Saiko’s suicide is an old, known way to end such an affair before it is troubled by violence; and yes, suicide is not violence, as in The Death of a Tea Master, suicide is shown to be an adult, well-considered decision to endow one’s life with a shape even to the end of it; or rather: especially at the end of it. That illicit affair brought disorder into their lives, even if it was just a little, and Saiko’s final action is shown as an attempt to-re-order it. Inoue finds beauty in the spare and in the darkness in people’s minds.
I was reminded of Jun’ichiro Tanizaki’s short but breathtakingly beautiful essay “In Praise of Shadows”, which praises traditional Japanese architecture, where simplicity rules. As he makes abundantly clear early on, this simplicity is a superficial one, it may and often does hide complexities, but the surface, inside and outside the houses, is clean and spare. It is not the cleanliness of modern glass-and-steel architecture, it’s an aesthetic that involves changing surfaces like wood, which glitter with age the older a house is. The shadows, which are praised, are those left in a room by the angle of the light falling in. Shadow and darkness are not the absence of light for Tanizaki, they are the most important element. It is in shadows that we can contemplate ourselves best, it is light that disturbs our inner order. Thinking and aesthetic meditation are described as almost incompatible with modern fixtures. This passage may illustrate what I mean:
On the far side of the screen, at the edge of the little circle of light, the darkness seemed to fall from the ceiling, lofty, intense, monolithic, the fragile light of the candle unable to pierce its thickness, turned back as from a black wall. I wonder if my readers know the color of that “darkness seen by candlelight.” It was different in quality from darkness on the road at night. It was a repletion, a pregnancy of tiny particles like fine ashes, each particle luminous as a rainbow. I blinked in spite of myself, as though to keep it out of my eyes.
Tanizaki mourns a style long gone, a style that cannot compete with the comfort central heating, electric lights and enamel toilets can provide. He feels an alienation of sorts towards that new world, he considers it a part of Western culture. If we Japanese, he says at one point, had invented these things, they would not be as corrosive to our culture as these Western objects are.
Maybe having read both of these books prepared me well for my second Inoue novella, “Death of a Tea Master”, maybe that’s why it did not irritate nor puzzle me at all. It is a beguiling, melancholy historical story retracing the mystery behind the self-inflicted death of a famous tea master, Sen no Rikyū, which soon turns out to be a meditation on the tea ceremony and those who take part in it. Maybe, however, it was different in the latter novella, since it wears its aesthetic heart on its sleeve, by following up both on the story as well as on the aesthetic background. When I closed its covers I found myself moved, entranced, and saddened. I felt the impulse to prepare a careful cup of tea, which is the strangest effect a book has ever had on me.
The Tea Master is a book that extends over a period of 32 years, from 1590 to 1622. It is a period of turmoil that sees the death of a generation of tea masters who appear to be the guardians of a certain culture, and their passing clearly signifies a change within that culture. The span of time encompasses the last throes of the Sengoku period, a time of upheavals and violent conflicts, which was ended by Toyotomi Hideyoshi, a powerful daimyo, as regional warlords were then called. Hideyoshi unified Japan by subjugating the other major clans or by entering into alliances with them. It was Hideyoshi who asked for Rikyū’s suicide by seppuku, the ritual suicide mostly undertaken by the retainers of defeated warlords, either voluntarily or not. This novel, which is supposed to be a modern edition of old, unedited journals of a 17th century monk by the name of Honkakubo, charts this monk’s attempts to find out why Rikyū killed himself. And surprisingly, ‘because Hideyoshi told him to’ is not the answer.
As the Hunting Rifle seemed to be a love story, the Death of the Tea Master appears to be a mystery yet applying our genre expectation to this novel would make for as disappointing a reading experience as did reading the Hunting Rifle as a love story for me. As the plot, which covers 32 years, extends over as little as 167 pages in my edition, there are huge gaps and jumps. Honkakubo does not search for the answer to the mystery, at least not in the world around him. His search does not necessarily involve an interrogation of people and evidence, what McHale, if I remember correctly, refers to as the epistemological quest, which distinguishes the modern from the postmodern. Honkakubo makes use of information if and when it comes and the use he makes of it is singular: as he is handed a document that belonged to the late tea master, asked for his expertise, he finds that the document contains thoughts on the tea ceremony and spends weeks, carefully copying it down, meditating. During the 32 years he is invited by a few other monks and tea masters because he used to be a student of the late Rikyū, and has a few elliptical talks with them about Rikyū and the tea ceremony in general. They are elliptical because Honkakubo is reticent, quiet, polite. Even when among people who may cast light upon the mystery, he does not pursue a line of questioning that may enlight him. These people he meets are far more inquisitive yet they must consider him a dissatisfying conversationalist, because he is reluctant to share his interpretations of events during the last years and months of Rikyū’s life.
Even as more and more facets of the great tea master’s life enter the picture, his death remains a mystery, because outside events cannot shed light on it. Only as Honkakubo immerses himself in meditation, praying at Rikyū’s shrine and contemplating the tea ceremony, he gains an idea of what happened. Generally, asking for someone’s suicide meant killing them as surely as would thrusting the tanto into their bowls with their own bare hands. There is, however, a major difference. It is, after all, a self-inflicted death; in this case, Honkakubo and others are additionally wondering why Rikyū did nothing to alter Hideyoshi’s opinion. As our rulers today, the daimyos of Rikyū’s time were prone to bouts of anger now and then. Asking for a retainer’s suicide apparently was often a rash act, and the retainer was expected to ask for forgiveness and mercy afterwards. Rikyū would, it transpires, almost certainly have been granted mercy. Instead, he went to his death without complaint.
The tea ceremony is offered as a possibility for understanding the reasons for this. Rikyū was one of the first important tea masters to practice the art of wabi-sabi, a philosophy of simplicity, intimacy and modesty. I briefly discussed Tanizaki’s essay on architectural aesthetics earlier and the culture the loss of which he laments, is basically one dominated by wabi-sabi. In one of the most intense scenes in the novella, the tea ceremony is described as an encounter with death, with the tea drinker submitting to the tea master’s power. Although the tea master, who grinds the tea leaves, boils the water, cooks and serves the tea, may seem like a servant, he is actually the one person who is in charge of a ceremony which is apparently of high spiritual importance, because drinking the tea is not important; one has to drink it in the right way. People bow their heads under the yoke of ceremony, of convention and their tea master’s actions. Seppuku, the ritual suicide, is, in a way, quite a similar procedure, only here the warlord or emperor calls the shots. It may be that by refusing to ask for mercy, Rykiyu is refusing his lord the power which seppuku usually grants him.
This, however is but a personal interpretation. The novella itself does not decide upon any single reading. Instead it tries to make the cultural and personal context, in which the novella’s characters move, as clear as possible. It is not asking the reader to follow up on its clues to find out who did it; on the contrary, it invites the reader to meditate upon death and power and may, in some perceptive readers, awake a sense of self which we may be alienated from by modern times. This corresponds to the Hunting Rifle in a curious way. Behind the sad and cold story that is offered to us, love, not necessarily reciprocal love, is presented as a way to awaken your self as well. The Death and the Tea Master never allows for us to construct dichotomies, oppositions, it asks for our thoughts on death and autonomy; similarly, The Hunting Rifle asks us to consider our attitude towards love. Saiko relates an episode from school, where girls in class distribute a sheet of paper with two questions on it: “do you want to be loved” and “do you want to love”. In a way, the book is about the characters’ own hypothetical answers to this question and about the effect this has on their lives. Both of the novellas seem very distant from us, culturally, yet that distance beckons us to step closer. Tanizaki writes, near the end of the essay, and he could well have been describing Inoue’s method:
I would call back at least for literature this world of shadows we are losing. In the mansion called literature I would have the eaves deep and the walls dark, I would push back into the shadows the things that come forward too clearly, I would strip away the useless decoration.
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“Varieties of Disturbance” is Davis’ sixth collection of short prose. Davis is one of the most honored and praised writers of her generation and a certified genius. She is also known as an accomplished translator, having translated Michel Leiris, Maurice Blanchot, and Marcel Proust, among others. Praise for her work seems to be ubiquitous, something I’ve only found out, strangely enough, once I started my reading of the “Varieties”. This book is advertised and praised as innovative, “rule-breaking” (back cover), with some, like Charles Baxter, claiming that Davis “is reinventing the short story in our time”. Ahem. Baxter is, I believe, mistaken (but it’s not his fault, we’ll come to that), since this book is nothing of the sort.
I have to admit that I have never before read a book like this. “The Varieties of Disturbance” is a good book, although the qualities of its stories is not consistent. Sometimes Davis heads for short time effect instead of letting her prose work out the ideas she has set them on, for example in the story called “Tropical Storm”:
Like a tropical storm
I, too, may one day become “better organized”
Or in a story called “The Busy Road”
I am so used to it by now
that when the traffic falls silent,
I think a storm is coming.
I will say this: The book is highly enjoyable and I don’t regret having read it. This is one of its two main strengths: the writing. Davis is an assured writer. She changes seamlessly from register to register, is in full control of her phrases’ cadences. This book is mostly extraordinarily well made; what’s more, Lydia Davis is an extraordinarily well read writer. She has dipped her quill deep into the inkwell of literary history, evoking writers and imitating different texts and styles. There are a few explicit references, chief among them a cutup/reworking of Kafka’s letters and a lame but, again, well-executed story that follows a traveler’s reading of Beckett on a road trip, but most of them aren’t. Davis is an ironist, however, and a true ‘postmodernist’, she rarely uses these styles, most of these stories are about the style they are written in. Thus, even when she writes in iambs or adopts the impish yet sharp tone of Lewis Carroll or Dr.Seuss, she never ‘stoops’ to their level of play, she keeps her distance, basically retelling a style as one would a story. A good example for this is the story “Jane and the Cane”.
The aforementioned story involving Beckett is, in part, symptomatic of a certain weakness of that collection: its strength rests on the power of Beckett’s words, not on Davis’ words and the best result of reading it is being sent back to yr own shelves to explore the grand Irishman’s words again . It consists of a complex interweaving of, for example, the trajectory of travel on the one hand and the trajectory of reading on the other. The story tells us how words and events are processed, how reading a text and reading a trip can be similar and what the givens in these two instances are. Contrary to what many critics seem to believe, however, ‘complex’ does not equal ‘good’. Just because a reader may feel he’s in over his head, the book isn’t suddenly a success. This effect is well known from critical reactions to so-called obscure writers. I have read more than one defense of Derrida that showed how little the defender understood of his subject (and I believe Derrida’s actually right); also, there are other writers in the postmodern section that I have not yet read that are praised by people who clearly have trouble understanding basic arguments, among them, most recently Ward Churchill.
Don’t get me wrong, the book is often intellectually tingling, quite like a crossword puzzle or a philosopher’s digest, There are short pieces that sound extremely deep and intellectually charged, I’ll quote two of them to illustrate the point made in the previous paragraph. The first one’s called “Index Entry” and touches upon all sorts of things, among them language in general and naming in special:
Christian, I am not a
The other one’s called “Suddenly Afraid”:
Because she couldn’t write the name of what she was: a wa wam owm owamn womn
Again, it’s almost a waste of breath to sum up its concerns, it’s all so plainly there. On the other hand, the simplicity and clarity is a merit of Davis’ work, I am just not sure how highly I would weigh that merit.
To sum up, Davis achieves sounding complex not by being a good thinker or good reader but by having read a large amount of good thinkers and writers. Her work draws from a huge bulk of sources and never shies away from flaunting this. Critics may erroneously declare her innovative, but the writer in these texts never pretends to make it new. Davis is postmodern in the best sense of the word. A similar effect is aimed at in a consummate story about a walk which a male critic and a female translator of Proust undertake. The critic is, we learn, dismissive of her work, preferring an older, less faithful but more poetic version. An episode on the walk these two take reminds the translator of an episode in Proust. She proceeds to quote the passage in both translations. Again, a similar set of questions and problems is raised as in the Beckett story, again pretty unsubtle, in a way that does not allow the reader to read it in a different manner. That happens because these stories are very spare, Davis unerringly going straight for the philosophical jugular of her pieces. She is rather disinterested in what is usually referred to as plot, if each story is taken on its own. However, over the course of the collection, things happen, people are described, interiors and exteriors are evoked, the works. “The Varieties of Disturbance” covers a large terrain, yet still keeps within the enamel confines of domestic life, roughly speaking. We find epigrams on the small humdrum tragedies of everyday life, as well as longer faux-academic studies of, for example, the letters a class of schoolchildren send a sick, hospitalized classmate. Davis’ writing which, while always competent, sometimes even dazzling, actually works best in sober contexts, like said study, or, in one of my favorite pieces, an account of the procession of maids passing through the household of a writer by the name of “Mrs. D.”. This is one of my favorite pieces because so much that is characteristic about the book is gathered here. Sobriety, pastiche, and subject. What subject? The domestic space. The titular disturbance is the disturbance of the private order, of our daily patterns. The title story dwells a little on the issue, I’ll quote the last third:
When I describe this conversation to my husband, I cause in him feelings of disturbance also, stronger than mine and different in kind from those in my mother, in my father, and respectively claimed and anticipated by them. My husband is disturbed by my mother’s refusing my brother’s help and thus causing disturbance in me greater, he says, than I realize, but also more generally by the disturbance caused more generically not only in my brother by her but also in me by her greater than I realize, and more often than I realize, and when he points this out, it causes in me yet another disturbance, different in kind and in degree from that caused in me by what my mother has told me, for this disturbance is not only for myself and my brother, and not only for my father in his anticipated and his present disturbance, but also and most of all for my mother herself, who has now, and has generally, caused so much disturbance, as my husband rightly says, but is herself disturbed by only a small part of it.
Make of that what you want. I think this part illustrates the merits and demerits of Davis’ work very well, although the writing is not typical, and from your reaction to it you may gauge the possible reaction you may have to the whole book.
I did say earlier that this book does not break new ground yet I also said that I have not read a book quite like this before. Where similar books concentrate on one or two sorts of adaptions, this one crawls with influence, we mentioned this earlier. At every single point the reader hears other writers. The most significant reference are probably works like Lichtenberg’s enormous Sudelbücher, his collection of aphorisms, essays and other texts. I know that the word aphorism is these days connected to all sorts of weak writing. Lichtenberg’s work, on the other hand, contains narrative episodes, thoughts and finished essays on literature and science. Lichtenberg was a true polymath, another word that has been applied to too much less worthy books these days, much as I love David Foster Wallace, he is often like a fish out of water when tackling science in non-fiction. Other writers and texts that come to mind reading Davis include Thomas Bernhard and books of his like “Der Stimmenimitator”, or short prose like Kafka’s, Beckett’s, Barthelme’s or Barth’s, it’s really a long list, and this is off the top of my head. “The Varieties of Disturbance” is unlike any of these books, because it resembles all of them, in part, without the original fire or brilliance. It’s a weaker collage of others’ styles, a weaker collage of others’ ideas, written by a very good writer. So how does the mistaken idea of innovation enter the picture? The publisher or the author printed the word “stories” on the cover of this book of short prose. As short prose, this is nothing new, as stories, this book does indeed break new ground. If I change the title of my inane master’s thesis and add the words “a novel” to it, I promise a novel the kind of which you have never before read. Distinguishing modes of reading from kinds of texts is not the worst idea, sometimes.
“The Varieties of Disturbance” is written in one voice, even when being punny, alliterative, iambic, this is the voice of one person. The book explores what I have called the enamel confines of domestic life. How children, maids and mothers shape our lives’ rhythms. This is the interesting part, the affecting part, the part that sets this book apart from similar texts. This it what makes it re-readable, watching the prose explore the nooks of this voice’s life, watching how babies, dogs, brothers cause little and big disturbances in her life. All the ideas about language and theory, none of them are new, nor particularly riveting. Yes, it’s fun, but that part of the book is like “Kill Bill”. New it ain’t. Read the book if you’re up for a bit of intellectual fun, do not read it if you want something special or new. Although your time is better spent with any writer named in this review, it’s not badly spent with Lydia Davis. Did I make sense?
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[Translation: Anne McLean]
There you go. It’s that time of drunk again, another review. This is the first half of what I wanted to be two joint reviews, one of Cercas’ novel and the other of Kertész’s novel Fiasko, because they are thematically related, just that one is great and the other’s decent. However, I mislaid my copy of Fiasko so I decided to shelve that miserable review and get on with this crapulicious piece.
So. I’ll start with the decent one, Javier Cercas’ novel Soldiers of Salamis, originally published in 2001. It is a nice novel, but not necessary reading. It’s short, light, entertaining and contains enough seriousness and originality to make up for the flaccid narration. This sounds harsher than intended, probably. It consists of three parts, chronicling the efforts of the protagonist to write an account of an incident in the Spanish Civil War. That protagonist is called Javier Cercas, and yes, this is a bad sign. It is an awkwardly postmodern construction, trying very hard to put a complex spin on the war, trying to exploit the complexities of memory and narration. I call it awkward, but it’s not bad. The parts are all there, lies, dead ends, conflicts between oral storytelling and written storytelling, distrust towards the written word, falsified evidence and a examination of what exactly authority in the telling of history constitutes. Plus, there are some nice touches. One endearing detail are the funny cameos, most prominently that of Roberto Bolano, recently deceased Chilean giant, who, in interviews in 2003 expressed his delight at being known more as a character in Cercas’ novel than as an actual writer. Bolano is similarly engaged in mixing fact and fiction yet his subtlety, so evident in The Savage Detectives, is nowhere near in evidence in Cercas novel.
The second thing is that the book can actually be forceful at times. It’s like a longer version of a passage from a far more mesmerizing Javier Marias novel in that it is powered by a strong interest in tracking down the historical truth about an incident that may seem isolated but is soon proving to be emblematic for the mire that the civil war and the ensuing dictatorship have created for Spain and its citizens, which, as the novel proves, has consequences for his country till today. And yet, Cercas manages never to overburden his novel with darkness and faux-serious historical signifying. Cercas manages his material well, he is confident in what he does, and the novel slowly unfolds like a well-laid plan. After finishing it, everything drops into place and whatever boredom may have forced you to spread the lecture of the novel over clearly too long a period, vanishes and is replaced with pleasure. Yes, pleasure.
And another positive aspect is that Cercas seems to be perfectly aware of his limitations as a writer, so much that the cameo of Roberto Bolano must be said to perfectly make up for a certain lack in his writing: humor. I said the tone is light but it’s not humorous, at least not in translation. The fact that it chronicles a dogged search for truth so so thoroughly done and expressed, and seems to require such an effort on the writer’s part that Cercas, needs to have recourse to someone else’s voice to make up for his lack. On the other hand, the fact that he is able to call on this voice and do it in such a satisfying way is indicative of his talents as a writer. The Bolano character steps up to the plate and boy does he smack the ball hard. The character is infinitely likeable, he’s nice, respectful, erudite, humorous and deeply serious at the same time. In fact he is the best drawn character in the whole book, the only one who jumps straight off the page. As a reader this is a strange experience, because it reminds you of all the flat characters, and that includes “Javier Cercas”.
The unevenness, however, is part of the novel’s technique, each section and each character serves a certain purpose (oh the banalities I write. Please do excuse me.), and after the first section, dealing with the hunt for truth, and the second section, consisting of an account of the events, the third section is what makes Soldiers of Salamis a novel, and a good one at that. On the surface, Bolano serves as a sauce thickener of sorts, by virtue of dispensing advice to “Cercas” who has trouble finishing the novel. On a different level, the character of Bolano itself does the same job, the warmth of the description and the elements that the voice of Bolano allows Cercas to add, cause the whole construct, which hitherto never felt more than just that: a construct, to finally gel.
Notice, I barely mentioned the whole postmodern novel-within-the-novel conceit, it’s because Cercas isn’t very good at that game and the less said, the better. It does demonstrate one important thing, though. As a historian you may end up with a straight tale, after years of research and digging for truth. This tale represented by the middle section of Soldiers of Salamis. The novel enveloping that section stresses, however, that history is hard to pin down, that it is always elusive, forming both all the straight tales to come, as well as influencing the interpretation of adjacent events and figures. This novel is not so much about history as it is about historiography. It provides insights into how historical accounts are written and it does that in a remarkably readable way.
If you are interested in the Spanish Civil War and want a good and moving read which is better than its component parts, get the book. I was glad to have read it, yet I am not the least curious about any of his other books. That may convey you this reader’s impression best, I think. In sum, a cautious recommendation. Maybe it’s the contrast with Kertész’s novel I finished a few days before starting the Cercas. Kertész (review forthcoming) wrote a necessary novel, moving, brutal, vivacious. Cercas didn’t. He wrote a good one, which is rare enough these days. More power to him.
[Original Publication: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1995]
Konfidenz. The title sounds German, the author’s name vaguely German as well, yet neither novel nor writer are. Ariel Dorfman is a Chilean writer living and teaching in the US. He is most famous for the play “Death and the Maiden” which was turned into a movie by no less a genius than Roman Polanski. Konfidenz is his 4th novel, published in 1995, written in English. And it’s strange, strange. I have read it once all the way through (well, it’s a short novel) and reread several portions of it, and I still fell unable to decide whether it’s a great or horrible novel. The writing is usually a good sign, but not here. I’ll return to why this is the case.
At the center of the novel is a telephone conversation between a woman in a Paris hotel room and an unknown man who watches her from across the street, unbeknownst to her. It starts off as a thriller, along the lines of a ‘cat-and-mouse’ game. The reader is never apprised of the solution to what appears to be a riddle. During the conversation details are revealed, by and by. We learn who the woman is and get told who the man is and whence he knows her. Apparently he is a forger, lending his services to a clandestine organization, writing fake letters, constructing alibies, like these new agencies constructing an alibis for cheaters. The last person’s alibi he constructed and buttressed by forged letters was the unknown woman’s husband’s. This means he knows all sorts of details, enough to warrant saying that he knows her.
This may sound pretty straightforward with a plot we’re used to from many other genre texts. It’s written in a plain language, unadorned to the point of becoming repetitive. These are not rhythmical repetitions or anything, they rather read like repetitions borne from a severely limited vocabulary. The language is functional, not the least musical and, as I said, very repetitive. The novel is ‘saved’ by several intriguing inserts, reminiscent of Paul Auster (who is a similarly ungifted stylist), with two men watching each other, One of them is the one having the telephone conversation, the other one is just spying on him. Clearly he knows his subject well. Is he from the resistance movement, too? Has he been at this long? He never undertakes action, and later, when his actions are required, he recuses himself from that responsibility.
Still, even with these inserts, the first half of the novel appears to be pretty simple, promising genre appropriate surprises or something along these lines. The reader is kept guessing. Who watches whom, what’s up with the woman and is something wrong with her husband? And then the novel just implodes. The french police breaks up the conversation, and grueling police questionings ensue. In a way this accelerates the process of revelation as explanations follow upon explanations. Now, however, the crux: they are contradicting each other. The conversation itself was already replete with non-sequiturs, and odd ideas and coincidents. Now we are up against completely different versions of the truth and we, the reader come to agree with a character who says:
You know – I couldn’t care less if you’re telling the truth or of this is all just a gigantic tall tale.
Or several tall tales. And the further the story progresses the more the reader seconds another character’s thought:
It’s useless … there’s nothing you can do. Nothing you can do, that is, but ask why.
Why all these stories? Why the confusion? The why is not to be found in the stories themselves. This is not a detective novel – remember McHale’s explication of the modern/postmodern divide? – the genre elements are a red herring. The key is found in the settings, 1930s France and a concentration camp. The Shoah is not an easy tale to tell, as we have known for quite a while. It’s not just Felman’s “crises of witnessing”, I’d say Dorfman’s novel takes its consequences from Levi’s “here there is no why” and what McHale correctly analyzed as a shift in literary sensibilities.
The detective caper and traditional narrative logic is at odds with what needs to be told. A synonym of the title is ‘trust’ and Konfidenz‘s suggestion is that maybe we should not put our trust in the usual, conventional stories. The forger protagonist, after all, constructed fake stories intended to fool close relatives, people who are hard to fool. The success of his forgery depended, yes, on his skill as an imitator of a person’s handwriting and writing style, but at least to an equal extent on the fact that people do not mistrust letters written by their husbands and wives. Letters as genres are allotted a certain amount of suspension of disbelief. There are things you do not expect from letters from people you know. Same goes for detective stories. The title just emphasizes the distrust towards conventional stories Dorfman says is needed.
Needed not just because of a general linguistic fraudulence we are beset by as a culture and as members of a society, but because the Shoah clearly showed us the limits of our old ways to tell a story. Writers like Semprun demonstrated how fragile ‘truth’ in this context can be, and that you may be well advised to approach this truth from several ‘untruths’ first. Truth may turn out to be the dark hole in the middle of the web of storytelling. Telling the truth in a straightforward manner may distort it, hide it behind the intricate folds of convention or fancy language (hence, maybe, the bare-bones language in the novel). Konfidenz is another novel that shows how to circumvent this, how to repair storytelling, how to restore its power. A power that’s needed in order to learn from the past so that what happened once will never, never happen again.
I’m very much looking forward to seeing the fruits of this call for papers.
If you’re a student of postmodern poetics or psycholinguistics, I post this note to save you some trouble, and to ask for a favor.
You’re a writer, a poet, or a student of language. You realize that contemporary poetry and poetics bear at least *some* resemblance to the speech of people who are institutionalized. I consider our friends who are institutionalized a rich trove of linguistic treasure that is ripe for appreciation, meditation, and analysis, and the study of which lies within ethical boundaries to boot.
But good luck finding transcriptions of schizophrenic speech online, or in print media, for that matter. Human subjects guidelines posted by federal funding agencies virtually guarantee that the raw content of interest to you is *absolutely and irrevocably inaccessible*. Trust me. I have tried.
But based on my (limited) experience, you will find a trove of data in articles about aphasia. I have had limited success (akin to the Bush/Cheney administration’s limited success in Iraq and Afghanistan [and where the f*** is Osama Bin Laden, BTW??]) in finding transcriptions of aphasic speech in print media, at least. The data I have been able to find has *enriched* my understanding of contemporary writing.
I humbly issue a call for submissions of data, summaries, abstracts, links, purged emails, conference papers, audio recordings, or papers, from linguists, psycholinguists, students of poetics, psychologists, psychiatrists, and neurologists. What data can you share that demonstrates a robust link between contemporary poetry and the thought patterns of our friends who are institutionalized?
Das ist ein Cutup. Keines der nachfolgenden Wörter stammt von mir. Ich schnitt die Wörter aus Texten (nachdem ich sie zuvor kopiert hatte), und zwar mal in Satzlänge, mal in längeren Abschnitten, jedoch überwiegen die einzelnen Sätze die Paragraphen bei weitem. Die Samples sind unter dem Text angegeben. Dann zog ich blind, in zufälliger Abfolge Schnipsel und tippte sie ab. Das Ergebnis liegt vor Ihnen:
But when I think “tomorrow” there is a gap in my head, a blank – as if I were falling through emptiness. Tomorrow never comes. We may be better off without those theories, particularly that kind. Die Debatte im Internet ist entgegen der dortigen Praxis, etwa der kollektiven Wissensproduktion in der Wikipedia, nicht auf die Überwindung der Verwertung gerichtet, sondern auf eine bloße Änderung des Rechts. Im Geiste der absolutistischen Alternativlosigkeit wird also nur ein anderes, modernisiertes Verwertungsrecht gefordert, obschon allein die Forderung zeigt, daß bereits das Fundament schwankt. Only now it is forced upon all thinking people, it is the only possible conception. Die Werbung übernimmt die Zurichtung des Einzelnen zum Konsumenten, indem sie ihm den Kauf bestimmter waren offensiv und überall nahe legt. Sie suggeriert einen unmittelbaren Tausch, der sich direkt in den stimulierten Sinnen abspielt. Sometimes the only thing that is amazing to me is my ability to disappoint myself. Only connect! That was the whole of her sermon. Teil des Problems, Teil der Lösung und Teil der Landschaft. Die Litaneien in den katholischen Kirchen anhören. Hör nicht drauf, wenn ich aufhören schreie, denn es ist nur mein Verstand der schreit. Kritische Theorie zersprengt die Begriffe von innen und beleuchtet die sozialen und ideologischen Vorraussetzungen. If the Tower is everywhere and the knight of deliverance no proof against its magic, what else? Sie wissen nicht, was, aber dieses ganze Gewäsch, das ihre Münder tagtäglich von sich geben, kann etwas Wertvolles enthalten, etwas ungeheuer Wertvolles für den Feind. Dafür / Freß ich Rotz / Und schlaf nicht. Next time I blow that wistle, it will be a real rape. Promise. Real rape. ein geruch breitet sich aus / der geruch einer maschine / die gas erzeugt. Der dicke Mann vor dem Tempodrom hat bestimmt noch Platz für ein 31. Buch im Regal. Nichts geschieht zufällig. Nichts ist wie es scheint. Alles ist miteinander verbunden. I’m just trying to be a better person. My name is Earl.
So hilfreich Kritische Theorie und Diskordianismus für das bessere Verständnis des Konspirationismus sind, so sehr drängt sich doch der Eindruck auf, daß wir der Entschwörung genau dort am nächsten kommen, wo sie praktisch bereits stattfindet. In a dark time, the eye begins to see. In beiden Fällen gibt es eine “ursprüngliche” Bedeutung des Symbols, die für den Symbologen hier auch explizit die wahre Bedeutung ist, während die verfälschte durch den jüdisch-christlichen Kontext entsteht. Wenn das polnische Fernsehen plump vor den Gefahren des Trampens warnt, die Bild-Zeitung reißerisch vor den Gefahren des Mitnehmens, wenn MTV seine Markenhaltung damit verknüpft, neben Trampern aggressiv durch Pfützen zu fahren und unzählige Videos und Filme Tramper als naive Opfer oder marodierende Gewalttäter darstellen, DANN BIN ICH DER SACHSEN- ANHALTER. Any non-entity who wants to feel himself remarkable and licensed to kill what he can’t understand is “against the bourgeoisie”. “You one of those right wing nut outfits?” inquired the diplomatic Metzger. Fallopian twinkled. “They accuse us of being paranoids.” “They?” inquired Metzger, twinkling also. “Us?” asked Oedipa. Mit “Snafu” bezeichnen die Diskordier den kaputten Normalzustand in einer Hierarchie, in der aus Angst von unten nach oben positiv ausgefiltert, also gelogen wird, so daß die oberen Teile dieser Hierarchie immer schlechter informiert sind und sich im Gegenzug zu Spionage veranlaßt sehen.
Nichts geschieht zufällig. Nichts ist wie es scheint. Alles ist miteinander verbunden. Aber ich diskutiere keine Verschwörungstheorien. People lie so, even we old men do. Though in a way, if there is art enough it doesn’t matter, since there’s another kind of truth in the arts. Kein Grund, das Denken einzustellen. Denke, das muß alles nicht so / und tanze es in mich hinein / und aus mir heraus. 11,9.1990 verkündet Bush sen. Neue Weltordung. Die Unterstellung von Verschwörungsdenken wird zum politischen Kampfmittel. “Is klar. Klar und kraß, Mann.” Der Frost frißt alles auf. Bashing ist eine elitäre Strategie, die der Funktion des Verschwörungsdenkens für die Selbstermächtigung ausgeschlossener Einzelner nicht gerecht wird und die implizit davon ausgeht, daß der Kampf längst gewonnen ist. All thought which is not pessimistic is now false. Welche Konsequenzen sind also aus der Identifizierung des Konspirationismus als politischer Gefahr zu ziehen? Ihr Tröpfe, ihr Flegel, ihr Atheisten, ihr Liederjahne, ihr Strauchritter, ihr Saujuden. Der Politikwissenschaftler Rainer Erb meinte zu dieser Vorgehensweise der faktischen Widerlegung am Einzelbeispiel, sie gliche dem Versuch, ein Meer “mit dem Löffel auszuschöpfen”. Die Arbeiter haben die Tuberkulose von dem Dreck, in dem sie herumgraben müssen. Wieder einmal kündet die Poesie von der Abwesenheit, von etwas oder jemandem, der nicht mehr da ist. Man schafft diesen Verdacht nicht aus der Welt, indem man seine Teilhaber als Spinner abtut und dann über die psychologischen und volkspädagogischen Vorraussetzungen des Verschwörungsbooms schwadroniert. Man kann einen erfrorenen Menschen wie ein Stück altes Brot auseinanderbrechen. All that is old hat, all those people are living in the nineteen thirties, it’s not new, it’s just the old emotions rigged out as thinking. They’ve seen Soviet socialism, but they can’t get rid of the idea that there’s something wonderful hidden away in the old package. We fear to move / because of old darknesses. Konspirationismus operiert nicht nur mit der “großen Geschichte”, sondern eben auch mit vielen kleinen, und je mehr alle anderen der Überzeugungskraft gut gebauter Erzählungen vertrauen und somit den blinden Glauben ans ästhetisch Reizvolle befördern, desto leichter haben es die “plausibel klingenden” Verschwörungserzählungen. They write for people who read with the surface of their minds, people with reading habits that make the smallest demands on them.
But there is learning – science. Any imbecile that has got an income believes in that. Barkun benennt Schnittstellen, die auf Glaubensbedürfnisse der Mehrheit hinweisen, etwa die Vorstellung, die Welt sei – vom Schöpfer oder von einer allmächtigen irdischen Instanz – willentlich gestaltet worden und kein Zufallsprodukt. Kaumann bricht in einen Paroxismus des Besitzes aus. Courage, endurance, truthfulness, these are the virtues. And to recognize that of all things we are the most miserable that creep between the earth and the sky. Schweig, und rette dich so. Man wird selbst zu einer Instanz, die Diskussionen über die eigene Wissenschaftlichkeit ersticken kann. Das Konzept der Verschwörung…reduziert alles zum beweis und vorbestimmten Hinweis. Es verbuchstäblicht Erfahrung, indem es in Zufällen, Glücksfällen und Unfällen Verbindungen ausmacht. Es befestigt Identität, verwandelt die Flüssigkeit postmoderner Theorie in vorgefertigte Verschwörungsplots. Es bestreitet oder vernachlässigt die Einzigartigkeit bestimmter Informationen und deutet sie als Teil einer größeren allegorischen Struktur. Die Kälte ist der scharfsinnigste Naturzustand. Auch sind die Zuckungen des Weibes beim Beischlaf so, als wäre es krank, denn wenn dieses Krankhafte auch Lust erzeugt, so ist es deswegen doch krank. He read State and Revolution at an impressionable age and then fell for the Frankfurt School. It’s for thrills. Die Staatsgewalt geht vom Volke aus. / – Aber wo geht sie hin? / – Ja, wo geht sie wohl hin / – Irgendwo geht sie doch hin! / – Der Polizist geht aus dem Haus. / – Aber wo geht er hin? / USW. Hüte deine Zunge, verbirg sie, schluck sie hinunter, auch wenn du daran erstickst, als sei sie dir abgefallen. You say the individual doesn’t exist – what about people who are starving in Africa -? So wie geistiges Eigentum organisiert ist, muß jeder einzelne Autor oder geisteswissenschaftliche Forscher – ob er diese Mechanismen nun gutheißt oder längst gedanklich überwunden zu haben meint – den Eindruck vermitteln, das Terrain zu beherrschen, muß sich zum Experten aufschwingen und dazu dick auftragen. Wann immer sich ein Wissenschaftler von einem Konspirationisten herausgefordert sieht, wird er dazu verleitet, das konspirationistische Spiel mitzuspielen, wie wir an der Geschichte der “Protokolle der Weisen von Zion” gesehen haben. And I am not a demigod, I cannot make it cohere. Du Fleck auf der Hose
Zeuge von Dummheit und Liebenswürdigkeit auf beiden Seiten. Dagegen setzt er eine in einem eher lutheranischen Sinn “menschlichere”, “sinnlichere” Religion, um die jüdisch-christliche Selbstkontrolle und Künstlichkeit wieder loszuwerden. Leser von Werken eines bestimmten Glaubenssystems finden die wichtigsten Motive wieder und behalten den Eindruck, die Welt noch zu verstehen. Anagramme gelten bereits als rätselhafte Codes. Irgendwas liegt doch im Kot. / Da liegt etwas, das ist mausetot. Für alles sind Nachweise und Beweise erforderlich; der Vorbehalt des Zweifels, so hat man das genannt, hat sich überall breit gemacht. The reality is in this head. Mine. I’m the projector at the planetarium, all the closed little universe visible in the circle of that stage is coming out of my mouth, eyes, and sometimes other orifices also. Seid nicht hochfahrend, Brüder / Sondern demütig und schlagt es tot. Bordcomputer kann nicht abgeschaltet werden, verhindert überstürzten Sinkflug. Es dauerte möglicherweise wirklich bis ins Mittelalter, als erst die Renaissance der alten Ideen und dann eine eigene, neuartige Wissenschaft und Naturphilosophie einen erneuten und selbst gemachten Aufschwung ermöglichten. Das allmähliche Lautwerden einer Betonmischmaschine nach dem Anschalten des Motors anhören. Most of what we think we know about our minds is pseudo-knowledge. Die Anfeuerungsrufe und die Schimpfchöre auf den Fußballplätzen anhören. Nichts geschieht zufällig. Nichts ist wie es scheint. Alles ist miteinander verbunden. Also, how I distrust neat designs of life that are drawn upon half-sheets of notepaper.
Unreflektiert und kurzschlußartig stand dieses “Wir sind die Guten” vor jeder weiteren Überlegung, sorgte für passenden Schlüsse aus egal welcher Ausgangsfrage heraus. Das Inswortfallen bei Debatten anhören. Schweigen erscheint als das in jeder Hinsicht klügste oder wird als solches dargestellt. Die aufdringlichen Einzelheiten schienen die Gestalten und die Umgebung, in die sie gehörten, zu beschmutzen und ganz zu entstellen. Man konnte sich wehren, indem man sie einzeln bezeichnete und die Bezeichnungen als Schimpfwörter gegen die Gestalten selber verwendete. Ebenso sollte auch die Suggestionskraft der Sprache, gerade der geisteswissenschaftlichen Jargons, stärker bewußt gemacht werden. Die zugleich geschehenen Einfahrten und Ausfahrten von Zügen anhören. Niemand sagt noch, sich zu sagen oder einzugestehen, daß er sieht, was er sieht und was oft da ist, vielleicht stumm oder sehr einsilbig, aber offenkundig. Genscher, die Nato, die reaktionären, imperialistischen Kräfte des Westens, denen der letzte sozialistische Staat auf Europas Boden ein Gräuel war. Vielleicht reden die Götter dann auch irgendwann wieder mit uns. The phrase itself is a pompous contradiction in terms. Die Verschwörungstheorie tritt zur Ersatzreligion Werbung hinzu. Beide bieten eine Auswahl aus dem jeweils nicht mehr überschaubaren Angebot und reduzieren so die relevante Informationsmenge für den Einzelnen beträchtlich. Die Verschwörungstheorie erzählt die Zeitgeschichte als griffigen Plot, in die das Schwarzweiß schon eingebaut ist. Learned people, intellectuals, have lost their confidence, their kind of protest is being esoteric. And at the other end it’s smashing things. There’s a gap where the theories ought to be, where the thinking ought to be. Der Staat ist nicht fertig. / Gestatte, daß wir ihn verändern / Nach den Bedingungen unseres Lebens. Ich bin das All-in-one-package.
‘Tell me’ von den Rolling Stones anhören. Kulturen mit freier Lust sind unanatastbar. The only thing I ever saw that came close to Objective Journalism was a closed-circuit TV setup that watched shoplifters in the General Store at Woody Creek, Colorado. Was Fakt ist, bestimmt die Theorie. Am wichtigsten dürfte jedoch bleiben, sich an der kollektiven Wissensproduktion im Internet zu beteiligen, die hilft, den Aberglauben zu überwinden, irgendwer müsse noch alles wissen, irgendein Autor wäre als Experte heilig. Insgesamt gilt es wohl, konspirationistischem Denken entgegenzutreten, zuallererst bei sich selbst, in den eigenen Überzeugungen, im eigenen Selbstbild oder dem Bild vom eigenen Kollektiv. Vorwürfen des Verschwörungsdenkens sollte nachgegangen werden, statt sie empört von sich zu weisen. Du Handtasche! “Fakten, Fakten, Fakten” To think so much and try so hard and get almost all the way there and then feel myself falling backwards to where I was before. Am wichtigsten bleibt jedoch die Unterscheidung zwischen Konspirationismus und einem ergebnisoffenen Verschwörungsdenken. Der postmoderne Diskurs tendierte dazu, verschwörungstheorien einzugemeinden und ihnen somit teilweise auf den Leim zu gehen. Wenn auch ein gemeinsames Element der ideologischen Hysterie das Verschwörungsdenken zu sein scheint, haben wir doch gesehen, daß Verschwörungstheorien selbst nicht das Problem sind. For two weeks afterwards, back in Colorado, I couldn’t even talk about it without starting to cry – for reasons I finally understand now, but still can’t explain. hört auf zu winseln / wehrt euch
Auf ein Symbol angesprochen, kann er verblüffend schnell sagen: “Das hat keine Bedeutung”. bang! something breaks. Then you have to stop and put the pieces together again. But you never can put them back together quite the same way. “Den Menschen muß man mit dem Stock kommen”, sagt Strauch, “mit dem Knüppel des Strafvollziehers.” Unvermeidlich wird jeder, der sich für Interessenvertretung und Abweichung ausspricht, von den Konspirationisten zum Teil der Verschwörung erklärt werden. Schwach sein ist menschlich und drum muß es aufhören. There are times when only pragmatism is honest. What they call opportunism. Ich hab einen Folterknecht engagiert. Und dann ist da das Misstrauen, an dem es mir auch in keiner Weise gefehlt hat. Laß dir die Ordnung gefallen, Ordner. Ich bin exekutionspflichtig geworden. dadurch, daß wir sie beschimpfen, werden Sie uns nicht mehr zuhören, Sie werden uns anhören. The earth curves more than we had dreamed. Well…shit, what can I say? Die sich unweigerlich bildende jüdische Verschwörung gegen die Tüchtigen und Ehrlichen muß also immer wieder zerschlagen werden. Oft wird diese “Utopie” als Sozialismus tituliert. Steh daneben und lächle. I tried to write Paradise. Ich habe mich geäußert durch Äußerungen. In wissenschaftlichen Debatten wiederum halte ich eine Hinwendung zu Geschichtskritik und Sprachkritik für wirksame Entschwörungsstrategien. J’ai lu tous les livres. In politischen Debatten wird es dem Verschwörungsdenken am ehesten abträglich sein, wenn individuelle und kollektive Interessen betont werden, auch und gerade je die eigenen.
Hauptquelle: Entschwörungstheorie von Daniel Kulla, sowie Weichkern AufSchnitt und der remix Warum schlug Marek seinen Kopf gegen die Mauer? vom selben Autor.
Samples: Fatzer von Brecht, Selbstbezichtigung, Die Angst des Torwarts vorm Elfmeter, Publikumsbeschimpfung von Peter Handke, The Book and the Brotherhood und The Sea, The Sea, von Iris Murdoch, Die Welt en gros und en detail von Claudio Magris, Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72 von Hunter S. Thompson, Dein Gesicht morgen: Fieber und Lanze von Javier Marias, Crying of Lot 49 von Pynchon, Frost von Thomas Bernhard, Howard’s End von E.M. Forster, The Recognitions von William Gaddis, Good Morning Midnight von Jean Rhys, The Secret Agent von Joseph Conrad
aus zwei My Name is Earl-Folgen, die ich beim Abtippen gesehen habe
und aus Gedichten von Brecht, Andersch, Ondaatje, Pound, Theodore Roethke und Jorie Graham
I have talked to people recently who extolled the virtues of disagreeing with academic opinion, regardless of the soundness of yr arguments against the old position. They appeared to be entirely unfazed by the fact that the argument in these books seems to rely entirely on common sense, not on thinking or careful reasoning (for example this book).
Last night it occurred to me that the funny thing about most of these ‘rebellious’ attacks against the academic establishment is that they only work for a reader who is rather roughly or not at all acquainted with the ‘facts’. While it is true that many of these ‘facts’ are created by academia (and I would be the very last person to defend something like ‘objective historical facts’, indeed I think that to posit the existence of knowable objective historical facts means almost always a shoddy methodological framework) and that there is a strong intolerance against alternative theories, the carefully reasoned book that would actually have an impact on the generally accepted theory is rare. The only thing it actually does is stir up the uneducated masses without educating them first. It’s pure demagoguery, and not in a nice way.
This is anti-intellectualism at its worst. It may not look like this sometimes but take a closer look at the premises and you’ll see it. And Common Sense, as the instrument of such arguments, appears to me sometimes to be downright evil. I am not very firm on English etymology, but the German equivalent, “gesunder Menschenverstand”, which, roughly, awkwardly, translates as “healthy human reasoning”, shows how Common Sense works. It attacks things which are outside of a given societal norm, which, of course, reflects strongly the dominant anti-emancipatory ideas of a given society. Small wonder then that, say, in the realm of philosophy, books, nay, pamphlets abound which are bashing Feminism and any strain of postmodern/poststructuralist thought that is not in agreement with the dominant norm. The sick elements of society, if you will, channeling Agamben and Foucault here.
Thus, Common Sense often surfaces in the most evil of contexts. Antisemitic, racist literature is built on a foundation of ‘common sense’. The whole insidious concept of political correctness is built on ‘common sense’ as well, the idea being that, if we were really honest, we would admit that what is perceived as ‘pc speech’ is really only pc mumbo-jumbo. There is, as to modern antisemitism, an aspect of down-to-earth, almost agrarian, simplicity to the whole thing. Small wonder that both concepts can often be found in nationalistic ‘Blut und Boden’-contexts and in anti-cosmopolitanist arguments. It does not, though, usually make an appearance in islamophobic contexts, as the stereotypes directed at that particular minority are others. Debauchery, decadence, yes, but Islam is so strongly identified with a particular ethnic group that the particular nexus described above is never really activated. Islamophobia is, currently, a rather obvious affair, and so widely and fundamentally accepted, that it has had no need to hide behind a rhetorical veil yet.
The strangest aspect of this, though, is that even intellectuals, and those who are very much in favor of emancipatory movements, tend to view ‘common sense’ and the gesture of rebellion as an acceptable ally in the battle against orthodoxy and then proceed to attack nilly-willy those who work within orthodoxy, who urge others to try to read and understand what you are criticizing before you go off on a 200page commonsensical rant (or at least to be open to arguments from orthodox academia). Happened to me once here and several times in person. And no, this is not about left-wing antisemitism (think anticapitalism, think usury). And no, I have no answer to this, really. It baffles me, honestly. Did I mention that they are all really, really smart, some of them way, way smarter than this blog’s dim-witted excuse for an author? They are. You see me throwing my hands up. I have no answer. Do you have one? I’d love to hear it. A book you can direct me to?
Have a great week, btw., folks.
In discussions of Postmodernism, three aspects in particular keep turning up which are of no or only of passing interest to the present text. One of these aspects is the one pursued in Jameson’s approach to the problem of the postmodern. Jameson claims that a purely literary approach to the postmodern cannot possibly work, as all the characteristics of postmodern literature were already present in certain modernist tendencies. The salient feature for a periodization is contained in the “gesellschaftliche Standort” (Jameson 48) of these branches of Post-/Modernism, which means that in order to distinguish the Postmodernism of two authors with similar styles we have to take into account the position of these within their respective society. Differences arise from changes and shifts within the society, in other words, the meaning of these styles changes.
Jameson’s theory is not useful for this text, because the break in Delmore Schwartz’s poetry took place when WW II as still ongoing and major changes in society had not yet taken place. It’s true that Schwartz lived and wrote for about twenty years in post-war America, but judging from the few published books of verse, there is no textual evidence for a break in his work after WW II which might be due to a Jamesonian phenomenon. There are breaks, as we will see, but they are due to other, personal rather than public, events.
The second aspect involves the postmodern as conceived of by McLuhan and the dawning of the “electric age” (Brown 7; cf. Brown 2ff.), it is unusable on account of Schwartz’s total disinterest in the new media. The third aspect distinguishes between various ‘waves’ of Postmodernism “auf einer historisch beschreibenden Ebene” (Huyssen 17), classifying different sorts of Postmodernisms as they emerged one by one. This approach is of no interest to us because Schwartz’s poetry belongs to a time when Postmodernism had not yet gone through more than one phase, when it was still Post-modernism (cf. n.3).
Moreover, there are certain aspects of Modernism which have been highlighted by late varieties of postmodern theory, such as queer (cf. Nelson 86) or gender studies (cf. 84), or studies concerned with race (cf. 87ff.). These are issues that would invite close readings of Schwartz’s texts and distract from the main issue in the present paper, which revolves around the problem of periodization.
This is not to say that we can entirely dispense with postmodernist readings of Modernism, as we should not forget that an approach to that period is not possible except through the -possibly distorted- lens of Postmodernism, as the former is inextricably “bound up with postmodernist wrangling” (Goldman 8, see also Pütz 56).
In order not to get too caught up in this ‘wrangling’, it might be helpful to consult some of the early post-war criticism: one of the most famous texts, The Continuity of American Poetry, posits the existence of “a series of basic poetic styles” (Pearce 12) and of a continuous “twin impulse” (6) in American poetry, torn between freedom and community (cf. 5f.). What, then, might the ‘basic poetic style’ of Modernism be? Even a cursory overview of the period will provide an idea of the difficulties posed by this question.
Not only are as disparate a group of poets as Eliot, Pound, Stevens and Yeats considered modernist poets, lately, emphasis has been put on the “short-lived […] avant-garde phase of Modernism” (Perloff, The “New” Poetics, 3). These groups are stylistically diverse and hard to combine under the banners of ‘freedom’and ‘community’[i]. Yet the basic styles are “given to a poet to […] accommodate to his sense of the possibilities […] for living life fully in his culture” (Pearce 13). We will see that there truly is a twin impulse in modernistic Amercan poetry, yet the two opposites have been accommodated to the culture of Modernism.
The present paper will take as its starting point the “preoccupation with ‘external reality'” (Dembo 1), the “awareness that stable patterning is absent from the external world” (Keller 10) which took different forms within Modernism. I will start out with Wallace Stevens and his quest for “The magnificent cause of being / The imagination, the one reality / In this imagined world” (Stevens 25). Even though Stevens wrote his share of long poems, his way to deal with the “exterior boundary between the world of the poem and reality” (McHale, “Postmodernist Lyric”, 26) only rarely extended to “structural organization [as] a way of knowing” (Bloom, American Poetry, 7), which makes him stand out in the company of his fellow modernists Pound, Stein or Eliot[ii].
Instead he resorted to a highly poetological poetry[iii], and endeavored to describe the difference between “things as they are” (Stevens 165) and what happens to them in the hands of the poet: “Things as they are are / Are changed upon the blue guitar.” (165) The important idea here is the distinction between reality and the imagination, and the difficulty of distinguishing the two, the imagination being “the one reality / In this imagined world” (25). If it is to cope with these difficulties, the modern poem has to be a “poem of the mind” (239), or, as Auden put it, a “painstaking adaption [from] Life to Art” (Auden 181). Poetry became “a cognitive tool” (McHale, “Postmodernist Lyric”, 24) for understanding reality.
Consequently, concepts arose of a ‘purification’ of reality, which could be achieved through the act of transcending subjectivity (cf. Dembo 3). The Objectivists in particular wanted “all associational or sentimental value [to] be dropped from verse” (Ruland and Bradbury 241). This, however, is not a concept that applies to all of Modernist poetry or even to most of it. Not only did Auden, one of the leading High Modernists, write lines such as “I thought that love would last forever: I was wrong” (Auden 141) but also within bulwarks of Modernism such as The Waste Land there are passages that are moving precisely because they seem to be intensely personal such as: “These fragments I have shored against my ruins” (Eliot 39, l. 430)[iv].
This is not, however, the only instance of Modernism presenting a very disparate image at one and the same time. The “brokenness of modernist poetry” (Keller 258) seems to extend to the period as a whole, one might call it symptomatic. In the present paragraph we will examine another major disagreement within the modernist canon, which is the attitude towards tradition and technique. Auden attacked the Sonnett and “viewed Romanticism as leading to fascism” (Perkins 9) and, at the same time, he wrote the “Sonnets from China” (cf. Auden 183-195). Pound “constantly advocated renewal of language” and at the same time he “returned frequently to […] forms [of the Past]” (both: Strand and Boland 41).
As to compositional technique: some Modernists tried to mirror the fragmentation of the world in a poetry of fragments (cf. Keller 258), but the same poets, Pound being one of them, turned to music for “a model for […] a non-material harmony and coherence” (Bucknell 1) and attempted to create “controlling patterns” (Keller 10), for example the structure of The Cantos or the structure of The Waste Land; or a mythical superstructure, suggesting “a mythic timelessness” (Bell 15), an instance of which might be Yeats’ “Sailing to Byzantium” (cf. Yeats 163f.).
Similarities, on the other hand, can be found in the modernist tendency of a “reification of poetic techniques” (Blasing 3), which means the belief of the correspondence between free verse and a free spirit or, conversely, a ‘reactionary’ form and a reactionary attitude. Even if modernist vers libre-writers take recurse to more traditional forms, these texts draw attention to them precisely because they are a rarity in these poets’ oeuvres. This heavy-handed attitude towards tradition seems to me a very characteristic attitude of Early and High Modernism[v].
Another similarity devolves from something that might be seen as another major disagreement within Modernism and concerns one of the two ontological dimensions of the poetic text, as outlined by McHale. He claims that “[p]oetry […] has a dual ontology, […] a two-world ontological organization” (McHale, “Postmodernist Lyric”, 22; his italics) one concerning the exterior boundary of the poem, between the poem and the world. The other one concerns the interior boundary, to which we will turn now, which runs between the opposing pair of textual surface and the “ideational structure of the text, its ‘meaning'” (22).
According to Perloff, avant-garde writers such as Gertrude Stein emphasize composition over representation (cf. Perloff, The “New” Poetics, 54) and thus “impel the reader to participate” (25f.), a poetics Perloff calls “literalism”. A closer look reveals, though, that Stein actually explicitly repudiates the concept of literalism (cf. Keller 8f.) and that literalism, as described by Perloff, can also be found in the conceptions of New Criticism, specifically in the concept of the “heresy of paraphrase” (Keller 9). This leads to what the modernists all have in common, that is the shelving of the question of interior ontology in favor of the epistemological function of poetry, which concerns the exterior boundary (cf. the discussion of Stevens earlier).
One might end here and state the difficulties of describing the “basic poetic style” (Pearce 12) of Modernism, as Modernism and modernist poets seem to be so divided over so many issues, with similarities turning up only rarely. Yet the major disagreements, between personalism and impersonalism and between tradition and the urge to Make It New, can be resolved without having to resort to some higher dominion such as ‘society’.
The question of tradition has been resolved to some extent by Harold Bloom[vi] by pointing out the problem of influence in the creative act, and the “desperate insistence” (13), ultimately futile, of the creative mind to be free of influence, which results in an anxiety. This tension perfectly describes the tension in modernist poetry. On the one hand, there is no denying the heavy influence of romantic poets such as Swinburne and Browning on the early poetry of Pound and Eliot (cf. Ruland and Bradbury 215), even less the massive influence of Whitman[vii] on vast parts of modernist poetry (cf. Trachtenberg 195). On the other hand, there is in early modernist poetry, equally undeniable, an impulse towards a new kind of writing, free from tradition. Taking our lead from Bloom, we can see that the urge towards the new, the “questing for fire” (Bloom, The Anxiety of Influence, 79) is eclipsed by the flood of tradition, which, in the end, is inescapable and accordingly turns up in the poetry of Modernism, too. This explains the long poems which amass references and quotations from the realm of tradition: they are an attempt to coerce the inevitable into new forms, an attempt at containing history, that which “they found in the post-bag” (Pound 41), in complicated structures such as The Cantos or The Waste Land, and thus overcoming influence[viii].
As to the question of subjectivity and impersonality, this time the solution devolves from the very principles employed by the modernist poets: it is true that much of Modernist poetry tends towards impersonality and towards “a certain neutrality of description” (Nelson 68). It is incontestable, too, that personal lines slip regularly in between the poetry. These two facts do not have to be incompatible, though, as both tendencies overlap in the area of the individual mind. The main thrust of Modernist poetry, as we saw, proposes a “poem of the mind” (239), which imposes order on a world without order. The focaliser for this process, in other words, is the individual mind, but for modern poetry, the individual mind is fraught with weaknesses, the poetry is “a tune beyond us as we are” (Stevens 167), therefore there exists an urge towards some higher ordering principle[ix], whether it be myth or the idea of an ‘impersonal subject’[x].
Thus, when writing ‘impersonally’, the modernist poets have not left the sphere of the individual mind yet, but split it into an objective, impersonal part, the ‘mind’, and a subjective part, which they declared superfluous. Yet the writing of poetry cannot be divorced from this subjective part, as it is us, who “choose to play / The imagined pine, the imagined jay” (184). Hence, the modern poem projects both aspects of the writing subject, yet it cannot own up to the coexistence of these two aspects. This results in a tension, a tension at least as intense as the tension between tradition and the new.
All these tensions practically ‘produced’ the poetry of Modernism, as every major development of that period can be seen as a way to cultivate a style capable of overcoming these difficulties. The major development was the ideology of the mot juste, of “the potential exactitude of words or metaphors” (Keller 255), the view of the “poetic language as incarnational” (Blasing 9). If language is exact, the question of how to separate the objective part of the mind from the subjective or tradition from the genuinely new basically become a question of penmanship. You only have to write it right in order to succeed. The major developments of modernist poetry follow logically from this approach, the structures being merely a special way of arranging words. The huge amount of innovative modernist poetry is due to the tensions, which made modernist writing so difficult on the writers.
1.3.3. The End
These tensions surely belong among the ” basic poetic styles” (Pierce 12) of Modernism. They are the “twin impulse[s]” (6) of modernist poetry and an impulse always implies a direction. Where postmodern poetry will have a multitude of impulses, which propel it in many directions at once, Modernism has two kinds of twin impulses, but they do not combine. Between the two opposites modernist poetry had to escape in the only direction possible: forward. It had to, in order to not get caught between Scylla and Charybdis. When one of the most perceptive readers of his period, Randall Jarrell, declared the end of Modernism, he wrote that Modernism had already “exhausted” its means (cf. Jarrell 259), an exhaustion the tensions and that curious dynamic obviously played a major role in.
Modernism yielded to its tensions, “all [the] romantic tendencies [were] exploited to their limits” (Jarrell 259). There came a point when this system of tensions which produced so many great poems did not produce more, because “Modernism is a limit” (259). A limit comprised by the two-dimensionality of its approach, which translated into a dynamic movement in one direction only, trying to be ‘more’: “more violent, more disorganized, more obscure, more -supply your own adjective-” (259). Until there was no ‘more’ to be had, and Modernism ended. Yet 1942, the year Jarrell wrote his essay, the New Criticism was fully under way.
1.4. The New Criticism
The New Criticism[xi], finally, is the last stage of Modernism. The New Critical poets strove to Make It Better, writing in a “densely structured [style], crammed with learned allusions, witty metaphors [and] verbal ambiguities” (Breslin 17). They were mainly influenced by Eliot, not by his style, but by his “set of attitudes and values” (15), his “wrestling to find the mot juste” (Perloff, 21st-Century Modernism, 159), which, as we saw earlier, had in some way been present throughout the whole of Modernism. In New Criticism, this notion resulted in the “well-wrought poem” (Keller 260).
Remembering the conclusions of the previous part, one might wonder how the New Criticism fits with the basic styles of Modernism, even whether it should be considered a modernist phase at all. After all, the theory of the New Criticism reigned over academic discourse on poetry until well into the 1970s, but most accounts of Modernism end at 1940 at the latest (cf. Goldman 21). However, it is hard to seriously indicate when the inception of Modernism takes place (cf. Riha 19), so why should it be different at the other end of the period[xii]?
If New Critical poetry ist to be modern in this paper’s reading of Modernism, it must display the same tensions as high-modernist poetry did, but the abovementioned allusions seem to be indicative of a freer relationship to tradition, as influence and predecessors become an integral part of poetry. New Critical poetry existed “[t]hroughout its whole career in an intellectual symbiosis with a school of critics” (Perkins 76). Through books on the ‘right’ way to read a poem, the New Critics both told the readers where and how to look for the allusions and imposed the allusions upon the writers. In this fashion, “a narrow orthodoxy had evolved” (Keller 260), a system far more closed than High Modernism.
This system, however, turns out to be just one more way to deal with the modernist tensions, as there is no freedom in the relation to tradition to be had: there is one proscribed way to deal with it and there are no alternatives allowed. Whereas the modernist ideal was a self-proscribed one, this one is imposed, more often than not, by an elite group of theoreticians on the large body of American poets, by usurping the categories of ‘good’ and ‘bad’. Furthermore, the New Critical ideology comes with a whole system of rewards and punishments: inclusion into the American Canon or total exclusion from the academia.
The New Critics were the first to provide a cogent definition of poetry in the “institutional history of English departments” (Golding 71), so even though the dawn of New Criticism broke slowly, in the end it conquered academia, as it had nearly no serious theoretical competition on university grounds all around the country (cf. Perkins 6). This meant that they were also the first to really establish a canon of American poetry accepted throughout the United States. In light of the fact that “criticism creates or preserves canons” (Golding 75), the New Criticism was well equipped to carve its canon out of the bulk of American poetry, and in doing so created the parameters that decide which future texts can be included and which cannot be (wertungskanon?), it also revised the past, that is tradition, by emphasizing those lines of influence that they deemed good and healthy.
This canon, revolving around the idea of the good, that is, well-crafted poem, has of course changed, since what we today see as the Canon (with a capital ‘c’) includes much that was not included by the New Critics, i.e. Pound and Sandburg. These were re-introduced by later generations, who revised the Canon by re-defining ‘well-crafted’ and in this way included several other strands of tradition. Either poets that were completely revived after the war, such as Pound, or alternative canons, which developed in little magazines, such as Olson’s “Origin” and were later canonized (cf. Golding 114), or the alternative canons of women’s writing as well as African-American literature. These inclusions, though, represent exceptions to the rule rather than a change of rule (cf. Matthews 13).
In the 1960’s, Postmodernism was suddenly there, unmistakably different from what was known as Modernism and it was “practically from the start, many things at once” (Bertens 4). As I have indicated at the beginning of the chapter on Modernism, it is not very helpful to talk about postmodern culture, as the results of such a discussion would not be readily applicable to Delmore Schwartz’s poetry. Instead, I will pursue certain lines of tradition and influence that show what Postmodernism was, which forms it took. In other words I will be talking about the actual poetry.
Following up the idea that “Postmodernism follows from Modernism […] more than it follows after Modernism” (McHale, Postmodernist Fiction, 5; italics are his) we can see that whatever forms post-modern poetry took in the 1950’s, it was nearly always a reaction to Modernism in its last incarnation, New Criticism. This style was dominating the idea of ‘literariness’ in poetry to such an extent that, in order to be able to work free from New Critical pressure, one of these new poets, Ginsberg had to deny his own literariness[xiii] on the one hand (cf. Breslin 55) and his immediate predecessors in poetry; he did the latter by constructing his heritage from prose modernists as Dos Passos and the ubiquitous Whitman[xiv] (cf. Ruland and Bradbury 327). Yet as many faces as Modernism had, Postmodernism has a similar amount of those. So many, in fact, that it is still uncertain which poet of the 1950’s is post-modern and which is merely late late modernist.
One group of poets that was nearly immediately recognized as postmodernist, once the theorization of Postmodernism was under way, were the experimental poets, Ashbery, O’Hara, the Black Mountain poets and others. Critics recognized that the new poetry “cho[se] to live on the frontiers of language” (Stepanchev 1), that it was “anti-symbolist” (207) and “presenting unmediated experience” (Breslin 55). Poets such as Ashbery “ha[ve] little of the modernists’ faith in the […] exactitude of words” (Keller 255), something that becomes clear when we compare Ashbery’s long, sometimes rambling poems with the tense exactitude of The Waste Land, or O’Hara’s detailed impressions that are not “exemplary and stable” (Keller 256) as are the details in modernist poetry. This new poetry celebrates “a world governed by randomness” (256): “arbitrariness is foregrounded” (McHale, “Postmodernis Lyric”, 29). Some strains of postmodernist poetry invents devices in order not to fall for the same tensions as modernist poetry, “textual machines” (26) for instance, which eliminate the subjective part of the mind completely and transfer the objective part to a machine-like device. They lead a “rebellion against form” (Bawer 127) and do not submit to “the commands of sense” (Perloff, The “New” Poetics, 164). This list could go on for pages.
The equation of postmodern poetry with experimental poetry has been so persistent that a book such as the Norton Anthology of Postmodern American Poetry features only experimental poets. Granted, it has to omit many poets due to the limits imposed by the criterion of size, but the omission of a whole branch of poetry is apparent: there is no poem at all included by Merrill, Lowell, Bishop, Berryman or Plath, all of whom are important American poets, all of whom are most certainly not avant-garde or experimental writers. Hoover, the editor of this book, admits his bias freely: “[a]s used here, ‘postmodern’ […] suggests an experimental approach to composition […]. Postmodernist poetry is the avant-garde poetry of our time” (Hoover xxv). He strikes out against tradition, especially against british influence (cf. xxvii) and traces its inheritance to the modernist avant-garde (cf. xxxix). Postmodern American poetry, according to him, needs “a home-grown idiom”[xv] (xxvii).
This last paragraph states a poetics that should sound oddly familiar to us, as it restates in slightly modified form several of Modernism’s claims. The basic ingredient is there, pronounced as clear as possible: renouncement of tradition and the urge to Make It New. Hoover polemicises against other anthologies which represent a different sort of canon, one which is “more traditional, formal and refined” (Hoover xxvii). If we project, as I suggest we can, Hoover’s position as the opposite to this canon, a picture of a poetry emerges that wants to be “more violent, more disorganized, more obscure” (Jarrell 259).
More modernist than the modernists, this experimentalist view of Postmodernism buys totally into “a modernist aesthetic ideology” (Blasing 2) and the “modernist reification of poetic techniques” (3) we mentioned earlier. With Hoover’s simplistic view of postmodern poetry, it becomes hard to distinguish one clearly from the other, so that to some critics, quite understandably “the modern/postmodern divide has emerged as more apparent than real” (Perloff, The “New” Poetics, 164). The very existence of postmodern poetry suddenly becomes doubtful[xvi]. If we want a clear picture of Postmodernism to surface, we need to extend our approach beyond avant-garde poetry.
The Middle Generation “consist[s] of Delmore Schwartz, Randall Jarrell, John Berryman and Lowell” (Bawer 3), sometimes Elizabeth Bishop is included whereas Schwartz is omitted (cf. Travisano). This group of poets are joined not for their formal similarities, but for their overall aesthetic approach, which can be described as a deviation from modernism. A deviation, however, not only from New Critical orthodoxy, but from the “basic poetic style” (Pearce 12) of the whole period. All of them started out as a very modernist breed of poets: “every line of poetry that they wrote during their early years was […] shaped by Eliot’s doctrines.” (Bawer 60) With Bishop and Jarrell this became not so obvious as both of them did not start to publish poetry until late in their careers when they had already crossed the line. The others, however, each published at least one modernist book of verse, until their poetry changed: Lowell published even two, Land of Unlikeliness (1944) and Lord Weary’s Castle (1946), Berryman published The Dispossessed (1948) and Schwartz In Dreams Begin Responsibilities (1938). Lowells second book as well as Berryman’s debut were not pitch-perfect modernist books, each carried the seed of Postmodernism within it. It was Lord Weary’s Castle which prompted Jarrell to exclaim that “Mr. Lowell’s poetry is a unique fusion of modernist and traditional poetry […]. [I]t is essentially a post- or anti-modernist poetry.” (Jarrell 213). And there, in a nutshell, are the characteristics of these early postmodernists.
Others, most notably James Merrill, have also written highly formalized poetry, leaning strongly on tradition, eschewing avant-garde aesthetics in favor of a free play with tradition and of the new aesthetic of the personal, as established by the Middle Generation (see below). They took part in the “movement from constriction to liberation” (Jarrell 211), they were able to take up different styles without having to gravely place themselves in a tradition (cf. Pordzik 28). Together with the Middle Generation poets they developed an openness that is all the clearer because they seem to be writing in closed forms. “Because [these poets] are not avant-garde writers, it is their participation in these trends that argues most persuasively for […] a genuine shift in attitudes” (Keller 14).
In the following two sections we will examine this shift in attitudes. The poets discussed in the preceding two sections created “one of the earliest and most persistent […] aesthetics” (Travisano 9) of post-modernism, an aesthetics that consisted, simply put, of an openness of content (cf. 9). Whereas modernist poetry had been a “cognitive tool” (McHale, “Postmodernist Lyric”, 24), and thus could not do without a determinate meaning, postmodernist poetry “undermines every sort of certitude” (Axelrod 265). Not only is there a “tolerance of uncertainty” (Keller 252), but also a whole process of active undermining of epistemological certainty is taking place in the postmodern text, clustered around two key strategies.
The first one could be called the attention/intention divide, stressing not the intention of the author but “the ‘attention’ that produced it” (Ashton 18). This development of “mak[ing] meaning a matter of someone’s experience […] rather than of someone’s intention” (13) is often traced to Ashbery (cf. 13ff.), yet I find that principle much clearer expressed in Lowell’s Life Studies (1959), where the protagonist of the poems[xvii] conveys line after line of experienced facts of his surroundings: “Screens as black-grained as drifting coal / Tockytock, tockytock / Clumped our Alpine, Edwardian cuckoo clock” (Lowell 163; italics his)[xviii]. There is none of that meticulous system of quotations as in The Waste Land, these are quotations, if you will, from life. Clearly, the world is something to be observed, but there is no longer a sharp demarcation between the world and the poem. The relationship of the two is no longer a central concern in this poetry. When in “To Delmore Schwartz” (cf. Lowell 157f.) Lowell misquotes Schwartz misquoting Coleridge (cf. Bawer 147), a strong unconcern with truth becomes obvious. He gives up, at least tentatively, his “personal control over the production of meaning” (Ashton 25).
This production of meaning is undercut as well by the strategy of erasure, as sketched out by McHale. Of the different levels this strategy can operate on, we will only pick one, “erasure at the level of language” (McHale, The Obligation toward the Difficult Whole, 252; italics his). This kind of erasure involves “self-cancellation […] whereby poems ‘unmake’ themselves as they go along” (252). This implies a system of self-contradictions that extends the simple New Critical method of paradox. This erasure “is not in the service of some higher truth” (McHale, “Postmodernist Lyric”, 42), quite the reverse, it leaves “a bitter impression of absence” (41)[xix]. This unmotivated erasure can be found particularly often in the poetry of Berryman. Meaning becomes hard to grasp in lines such as: ” […] where I am / we don’t know. It was dark and then / it isn’t.” (Berryman 32).
Apart from the question of indeterminacy, there are two other accomplishments of the postmodern aesthetic in the first two decades after WWII, the first of which touches the question of the personal/impersonal tension in Modernism. Postmodern poetry, as it is represented by the Middle Generation, “record[s] […] the soul under stress” (Gustavsson 123). One might argue that the brokenness of modernist poetry has exactly the same effect, but this would only mask the difference: the new poetry is more concerned with “individual psychology” (Keller 258). “[A]utobiographical energies play an increasing role” (117), something which hasALREADY been already implied in our discussion of the attention/intention divide, because it is not about the truth-value implicit in ‘true’ autobiography, it is more about the gesture of autobiography, the idea of ‘seen this, done that’. Through this leaning on the emotional part of the individual person, the modernist bias in favor of rationality has been dispensed with. This time it is about a “nonrational way of knowing” (Keller 115)[xx].
Postmodern poetry seems to be chiefly interested in feeling, yet the mind still has its uses in the new poetry. For instance when the question of tradition arises. The Middle Generation poets, as well as the other postmodern writers, recognized that it is impossible “to stand free of conventions” (Keller 12), they felt free to make use of tradition as they pleased because they were under no illusions concerning their capabilities of Making It New, so they appropriated whatever they deemed interesting and shed those parts of it that they considered boring. Against all expectations, however, this approach, as far as it related to past and contemporary styles, did not lead to the same kind of arbitrariness in form that dominated content (cf. McHale, “Postmodernist Lyric”, 29). Form became the major concern of postmodern poetry, as “the epistemological function [lost] its priority [and] the ontology was foregrounded” (26), interior ontology, that is.
The question is not any longer how best to describe reality, it has rather become a question on how to make a poem, which words, forms, sound to employ. This explains why, although the content of the poetry of Postmodernism seemed to be a whole lot more liberated from constraints than previous poetry was, the poetry itself was remarkably complex and finely crafted. This has lead some critics to claim “a return to artifice” (Perloff, Radical Artifice, 27). This artifice does not necessarily imply a highly formalized poetry in the cenventional sense of the term ‘form’. According to Jonathan Holden “postmodern poetic form is predominantly analogical” (Holden 8)[xxi]. He seems to be making a point similar to Jameson’s discussion of the pastiche (cf. Jameson 62f.), but Holden’s point is more subtle. He concurs with Perloff in that artifice involves a “recognition that a poem […] is a made thing” (Perloff, Radical Artifice, 28; italics hers), but he extends the notion of formal categories beyond those traditional forms that everyone includes, such as the villanelle or the sestina, to a different type of formal categories (cf. Holden 7f.). One of his categories would be the “‘conversation’ poem” (9) or the lyric (cf. 10f.).
Conventional styles are “mentioned rather than used” (McHale, The Obligation toward the Difficult Whole, 11)[xxii] in postmodern poetry, this implies that the making of the postmodern poem involves new categories. Holden’s taxonomy, sketchy though it may be, matches our approach to postmodernist content brilliantly. He orders the formal categories “along a scale […] of their degree of ‘personalization'”, which makes perfect sense in a poetry that is to such an extent dominated by the idea of the personal[xxiii].
Returning to the lack of arbitrariness in form in postmodern poetry, we need to recognize that one of the centerpieces of postmodern poetics is the playfulness of its forms (cf. Perloff, The Dance of the Intellect, 176). By relying upon assonances, rhymes and traditional forms on the one hand, and Holden’s new categories on the other hand, the language of the poem is favoured over its content. The textual movements, as they concern “the coercive power of a rhyme-scheme or other sound patterns” (McHale, “Postmodernist Lyric”, 28) , become “operations of some sort of machine” (29), the formal aspect of the poem being this machine . Of course, this does not necessarily make the form determinate, but it further undercuts the determinacy of meaning on the level of content. Thus, postmodern poetry becomes a poetry of the personal without ever succumbing to a poetics of intentionality because of the multitude of textual strategies undermining the truth-value of the poetry.
[i] Although, interestingly, you might contrast Eliot and Pound along the lines of community and freedom, respectively. This, however, is not the subject of the present paper.
[ii] Stevens found his mode of writing early, settled into it quickly and changed little over the years, as Jarrell perceived correctly, talking of “his later mold in which he cast himself” (Jarrell 120).
[iii] “[S]o-called ‘intellectual poetry'” (Gregory and Zaturenska, 328) PUNKT?
[iv] Compare that to the impersonalized reprise in The Cantos: “These fragments you have shelved (shored)” (Pound 28).
[v] The idea of a American tradition of a new writing which results from a re-reading of tradition, as “creative reading” (Herd 34), has been examined as a possible modernist strain but it has proven to be unhelpful to any useful categorization of poety, as the great modernists are very divided on this issue (cf. Herd 35). On differences between Eliot and Pound in respect to tradition, see Rabaté 214ff. He shows that both have a strained relationship to tradition and it shows how they cope with it. In Eliot’s concept of tradition, which strongly smells of Jungian psychology, the other modernist tension, too, is implicated via the “individual talent” (cf. Rabaté 215f.).
[vi] I do not, however, concur with the whole of his theory, especially not with his psychologically tinged emphasis on the mind of the individual, biographical author. His theory is of some use inasmuch as it clarifies some general structures of influence and the violence of the new (cf. Vendler).
[vii] The fact that Whitman’s influence was not blocked as the influence from Romanticism was, can be explained by considering the modernist textual strategy of the reification of poetic techniques, as outlined earlier. The Whitman they appropriated was not the whole Whitman, but only the idea of an American tradition, new and free. It suited their other ideas well. The whole Whitman was not revived until the advent of the Beat Poets (cf. Trachtenberg).
[viii] Little did they recognize that the very idea of the new long poem was itself part of their romantic heritage.
[ix] I concede that it may be not so felicitous to quote Stevens in this context, who never succumbed to the “rage for order” (Stevens 169); yet the question of the poet’s mind has in modernist American poetry
never been expressed in a better way than in the poetry of Stevens. Similar expressions can be found in Eliot’s or Pound’s essays yet I am reluctant to use both essays and poetry by the same poet, without accounting for the differences that are bound to arise. This, however, is far beyond the scope of this paper.
[x] Basically, this is a Kantian approach: Kant talks of man as a “sinnlich affiziertes Vernunftwesen” and wants to separate the “sinnlich affiziert” part from the “Vernunftwesen”.
[xi] The principles of style in this period are virtually indistiguishable from the principles of criticism at that time (cf. Perkins 75f.), that is why I will adopt the term “New Criticism” for both phenomena.
[xii] Especially if, as I will suggest, modernist poetry was still written in the 1970s and possibly still is.
[xiii] Note the postmodern tendency towards a non-literary culture described by Renner (cf. Renner 13).
[xiv] Whitman’s influence seems to have increased even more (cf. Garrett 232: “Everybody claims him”) in the early decades of Postmodernism.
[xv] It is interesting how selective his view of tradition and influence is, especially British influence. Compare Diggory’s account of the way that some influential British poets immersed themselves in the American tradition of Emerson and Whitman and how this influence seeped into American poetry later on (cf. Diggory 11-31 and elsewhere).
[xvi] Notice that I do not call into question the validity of the term postmodern, but ‘postmodern’ means something else for each cultural subcategory. Brown in particular has argued that postmodern poetry treads on paths that modernist prose has long been using (cf. 8).
[xvii] These are supposedly autobiographical poems and the dates and names match Lowell’s biographyKOMMA yet I am uneasy with this designation. Nevertheless, the poems in Part 4 of Life Studies are clearly narrated by the same character, which in my view amply warrants calling him the “protagonist” of these poems.
[xviii] Certainly, in Ashton’s understanding, the experience is not communicated so plainly to the reader (cf. Ashton 24), but compared to the impersonal modernist poem, these are major developments; what’s more, Lowell’s progress is made in his poetry whereas Ashbery’s ideas are communicated in lectures and essays, in other words: outside of his poetry. The validity of poetological statements made in respect to one’s own works should be -and has been- severely questioned.
[xix] This, of course, does represent some higher truth as well. McHale tends to overlook these kinds of implications. Yet basically, his idea is sound. The point is, that the paradox, if that is the form the self-erasure takes, is not constructed so that it will yield some truth by being understood, as was the case with New Critical poetry which took its hints from the metaphysical poets such as John Donne (cf. Perkins 38). The postmodern paradox leaves the reader with a feeling about the world, but not with knowledge or even a semblance of such knowledge.
[xx] Compare Kristeva’s remarks on the ascendancy of a literature that partakes of “the asymbolicity peculiar to psychosis” (Kristeva 139). This stress on the value accorded to a major weakness of the mind fits well with our discussion.
[xxi] Holden recognizes the fact that there is an “analogical approach to form implicit in poetry of the High Modernist period” (Holden 16), but he resolves this problem by explaining the taxonomy of the postmodern variation of that approach, as we will see shortly.
[xxii] Cf. Jarrells observation that “‘The Quaker Graveyard’ is a baroque work […] yet all the extase of baroque has disappeared” (Jarrell 211; italics his).
[xxiii] So that even the impersonal becomes a category of potentially personal poetry.
A well reasoned mini-rant on the log attacking a common and tiresome position on feminism and how it destroys language.
[David Gelernter’s] claims are apocalyptic. Although English “used to belong to all its speakers and readers and writers” it has now been taken over by “arrogant ideologues” determined “to defend the borders of the New Feminist state.” A major “victory of propaganda over common sense” looms: “We have allowed ideologues to pocket a priceless property and walk away with it.” The language is on the brink of being lost, because although the “prime rule of writing is to keep it simple, concrete, concise”, today “virtually the whole educational establishment teaches the opposite”. This is the mild part. Soon he gets more seriously worked up, calling his opponents “style-smashers” and (I’m not kidding) “language rapists”, and claiming that “they were lying and knew it” when they did what they did.
What, then, is the terrible thing that the style-smashers have done? The following is (and I stress this) a complete list of all the facts about English usage he cites:
* Some writers now use either he or she, or singular they, or purportedly sex-neutral she, instead of purportedly sex-neutral he, to refer back to generic or quantified human antecedents that are not specifically marked as masculine.
* Some people recommend the words chairperson, humankind, and firefighter over chairman, mankind, and fireman.
* Some try to avoid using the phrases great man when speaking of a great person, or using brotherhood when making reference to fellow-feeling between human beings.
Gelernter insists on the beauty and clarity of “Shakespeare’s most perfect phrases”, calling them “miraculously simple and terse”; […]
Gelernter huffs and puffs a lot about the use of he or she, but this is only a prelude to something more serious: a furious condemnation of singular antecedents for they (“a student who lost their textbook”). In his telling of the story, the feminist language terrorists weren’t content with imposing he or she on us, a phrase that is merely clumsy; worse was to come when grammar itself “collapsed in a heap after agreement between subject and pronoun was declared to be optional”, i.e., they was permitted to have singular antecedents.
But his ignorance of the history of English literature on this point is breathtaking. It is quite clear that he has no idea Shakespeare used they with singular antecedents […]
Gelernter also specifically singles out Austen for praise: “The young Jane Austen is praised by her descendants for having written “pure simple English.” He obviously is not aware that Jane Austen is famous for her high frequency of use of of singular-anteceded they […].
Gelernter thinks singular they was invented by post-1970 feminist “ideologues”, rather than a use of pronouns having a continuous history going back as far as a thousand years. One might think it remarkable that someone this ignorant of the history and structure of English would nonetheless presume to pontificate, without having checked anything. But not if you read Language Log. We have noted many times the tendency to move straight to high dudgeon, skipping right over the stage where you check the reference books to make sure you have something to be in high dudgeon about. To take a random example, when Cullen Murphy accused three word-sense usages of being modern illiteratisms, Mark Liberman showed that in fact all three were the original meanings from long ago. And then a couple of months later Mark found John Powers had made an exactly analogous mistake with three other words. People just don’t look in reference books when it comes to language; they seem to think their status as writers combined with their emotion of anger gives them all the standing they need.
[I thought of doing an longish explanation of the Archbishop’s speech, but in the end I scrapped that post and decided to let his words mostly speak for themselves, with a slightly critical remark at the end]
The Archbishop of Canterbury held an interesting speech on February 7, 2008, which provoked an incredible backlash by the usual islamophobic suspects and many others. People, that’s my guess, largely didn’t read a transcript of the speech or at least listen to the damn thing at least once or twice before lashing out at his alleged endorsement of an introduction of Sharia (read: multiple wives, wivebeating, female genital mutilation, honour killings, ah, you know the drill) into British law.
As always, one should be wary reading such driveling assessments of vaguely pro-Islamic persons. Experience should teach one as much. But, upon reading the transcript, I was really shocked, because the Archbishop’s speech was considerate and thoughtful. Not only did he explain what he meant by Sharia:
something that has to be ‘actualized’, not a ready-made system. If shar’ designates the essence of the revealed Law, sharia is the practice of actualizing and applying it; […] there is no single code that can be identified as ‘the’ sharia
he also explained how in his and other theoreticians’ view, “law” as in “British law” should be understood, and what problems arise in connection with the current interpretation of it: “
If the law of the land takes no account of what might be for certain agents a proper rationale for behaviour […] it fails in a significant way to communicate with someone involved in the legal process (or indeed to receive their communication), and so, on at least one kind of legal theory […], fails in one of its purposes.
This is, in a nutshell, where he’s heading. The law should not exclude whole communities from public communication. There is a disadvantage that these communities have, as far as power or status is concerned, and secular courts, which do not consider some communities’ “rationale for behaviour” will alienate these communities further:
a communal/religious nomos, to borrow Shachar’s vocabulary, has to think through the risks of alienating its people by inflexible or over-restrictive applications of traditional law, and a universalist Enlightenment system has to weigh the possible consequences of ghettoising and effectively disenfranchising a minority, at real cost to overall social cohesion and creativity.
Look close. Here, as everywhere else in the lecture, he tells us that we as a society may have to choose between one and the other. Do we want to have “social cohesion” or do we want to eject these communities from our countries? Because that’s the choice really. A ghettoised minority is likely to become more and more radical. Here in Germany that’s remarkably obvious. Driving these communities out might be, in a few decades, the only choice left. Plus, it’s possible that the imbalance of power and status has had a hand in creating these communities in the first place. We know how these things happen, there are multiple studies showing how communities and images are created and dissolved, one of the most readable accounts being Roediger’s Wages of Whiteness
However, in discussions with friends I usually, at one point or other, hear the word “enlightenment” and the phrase “the law is the law”. That the uncritical use of both these terms can be problematic is adressed by Dr. Williams as well: “
So much of our thinking in the modern world, dominated by European assumptions about universal rights, rests, surely, on the basis that the law is the law; […] so that recognition of corporate identities or, more seriously, of supplementary jurisdictions is simply incoherent if we want to preserve the great political and social advances of Western legality.
There is a bit of a risk here in the way we sometimes talk about the universal vision of post-Enlightenment politics. The great protest of the Enlightenment was against authority that appealed only to tradition and refused to justify itself by other criteria […]. The most positive aspect of this moment in our cultural history was its focus on equal levels of accountability for all and equal levels of access for all to legal process. […] But this set of considerations alone is not adequate to deal with the realities of complex societies: […] Where this has been enforced, it has proved a weak vehicle for the life of a society and has often brought violent injustice in its wake.
So far we have only looked at Dr. Williams’ criticism of the jurisprudence as it is practiced and of the ideologies that support said practice. What, we might ask, about the dangers of introducing what he calls “supplementary jurisdiction”? He does see these dangers, especially
the effect of reinforcing […] some of the most repressive or retrograde elements.
He talks amply about the
risks of any model that ends up ‘franchising’ a non-state jurisdiction so as to reinforce its most problematic features and further disadvantage its weakest members.
He makes clear that however this supplementary jurisdiction might look like in practice, it cannot be allowed to become a “communal legal structure which can only be avoided by deciding to leave the community altogether”. The fact that he emphasizes what he calls “ground rules”, together with the fact that he continually speaks rather vaguely of the practicality of his propositions (“if”, “appears”, “seems”, see also the log’s take on this), may mean that the system he envisions may never see the light of day.
However, the practicality of Dr. Williams’ proposals presupposes the universal principle that he, by the way, explains thusly:
‘human dignity as such’ – a non-negotiable assumption that each agent (with his or her historical and social affiliations) could be expected to have a voice in the shaping of some common project for the well-being and order of a human group.
This presupposition hasn’t gone unnoticed by the Archbishop who goes on to write ”
if my analysis is right, the sort of foundation I have sketched for a universal principle of legal right requires both a certain valuation of the human as such and a conviction that the human subject is always endowed with some degree of freedom over against any and every actual system of human social life.
(something which I would deny emphatically), and concludes this thought by saying that
both of these things are historically rooted in Christian theology.
Indeed, indeed it is. It is fundamentally dishonest of muslim-bashing commentators to praise the judeochristian tradition and denounce the bishop because of his alleged break with it, when all he does is abide most closely by exactly that tradition.
Personally, I believe that this is exactly where his theory goes wrong. I think that, by giving communities as ideologically bound as religious communities usually are, the “freedom” to adhere to their religious/cultural principles, by giving them the freedom of choice, you take away or deny them the freedom to adhere to secular laws, especially the weaker parts of the community. I believe that a religious culture is like a dangerous trap. An insignificant example is Bavaria in Germany, where, even after the German supreme court has ordered the state to take down the crosses in classrooms if even a single student complains, few crosses have been taken down, because even those who feel uncomfortable are pressured into silence. And this is a small, small example. Nobody gets hurt. Can the government run the risk of intoducing legislation that leads to even a single person being severely disadvantaged just because he or she is caught in the religious trap? And we don’t even have to imply pressure from the community. Far from being in “a conscious relation with God”, as Dr. Williams asserts, devout people, in any religion, are, well, devout, which means that they are, as Merriam-Webster’s has it “ardently dedicated and loyal”. There is room for freedom there but not enough, possibly, to justify such a legislation.
Excuse me for indulging in my dislike for religion. That was highly polemic and even wrong. For one thing, secular ideologies don’t leave their own devout followers more wriggle room, as the maddening attacks on Dr. Williams (or Richard Dawkins’ or Christopher Hitchens’ recent writings, for that matter) demonstrated many times over. Second, in view of the fact that I approve of Dr. Williams’ analysis of the problem, my approach was not very constructive. He says, correctly, that “
the important springs of moral vision in a society will be in those areas which a systematic abstract universalism regards as ‘private’ – in religion […], but also in custom and habit.
No, I am with Nagel and his socks, I don’t think that being religious and being moral is correlated. But the fact remains that moral vision emerges from that which is private, and we as a society cannot afford to shut out sizable minorities and their private lives. The fact that religion plays a vastly more important role in these communities is something that we have to come to terms with. IF we want a harmonious society. If we want disadvantaged minorities to be given a voice. For as long as we silently suppose law to “of course” be just for everybody, we are effectively silencing those communities who have cultural loyalties which sometimes clash with their loyalties as citizens.
Coming to terms with that does not mean introducing “special legislation”. But these minorities are already seeking religious advice. Why not incorporate that into the practice of law we have. It is a dangerous and tough task but a necessary one. Turning away from these communities and denouncing them as a whole is not helpful, nor is turning away from them in a gesture of tolerance. As Dr. Williams said:
It is always easy to take refuge in some form of positivism
and indeed it is, especially so-called sceptics can be found in hiding whenever asked to engage with religion. Supplementary jurisdiction might not be the best way to solve our problems (if it is not, the Archbishop himself provides the reasons why it may not be, this cannot be stressed enough, as he tells us what the precondition to such a solution would be.) , but solve them we must. And we must be thankful for the likes of Dr. Williams for pointing them out the way he did.
Prompted by a new piece by Eboo Patel who tends to make mostly correct statements in ridiculously short postings in his portion of the great Washington Post On Faith blog (a treasure trove)on Islamofascism awareness week, this. First the quick definition of the wiki entry
Islamofascism is a controversial neologism suggesting an association of the ideological or operational characteristics of certain modern Islamist movements with European fascist movements of the early 20th century, neofascist movements, or totalitarianism.
The word is included in the New Oxford American Dictionary, defining it as “a controversial term equating some modern Islamic movements with the European fascist movements of the early twentieth century”. Critics of the term argue that associating the religion of Islam with fascism is offensive and inaccurate.
Second the relevant portion of Patels text
What would you think if I told you every high school kid in baggy pants was a drug dealer?
Or every woman wearing lipstick was a prostitute?
How about that every black man on the street was getting ready to rob you?
Or every Italian guy was a mobster?
Then you should be equally offended by IslamoFascism Awareness Week because it employs the same twisted logic as the revolting statements above and its objective is equally ugly: every time you see a Muslim, the organizers of IslamoFascism Awareness Week want you to think “terrorist”.
One of the founding fathers of my country, Thomas Jefferson, had enough respect for Islam and Muslims that he owned a copy of the Qur’an. Another one of my founding fathers, Benjamin Franklin, declared that the pulpit of a hall he helped build in Philadelphia would be open to a Muslim preacher.
The America that I love faces real threats from terrorists. Too many of those terrorists call themselves Muslims. Victory requires that we focus like a laser beam on these enemies.
Third, here’s a link to a good article against Islamofascism Awareness Week.
Finally, as the warped idea of Islamofascism seems to take hold mostly in the poor minds of those who think that nowadays it’s valid to equate Islam with Islamism I recommend READING. Books would help but they are often difficult to come by in dumbland, so the Internet can be of help as well. Daniel Pipes in particular, who has defended highly questionable ideas such as racial profiling, offers nice bits of counterargument against embracing the benighted idea of islam=islamism.
For instance here
“Moderate Unicorns,” huffed a reader, responding to my recent plea that Western states bolster moderate Muslims. Dismissing their existence as a myth, he notes that non-Muslims “are still waiting for moderates to stand and deliver, identifying and removing extremist thugs from their mosques and their communities.”
It’s a valid skepticism and a reasonable demand. Recent events in Pakistan and Turkey, however, prove that moderate Muslims are no myth.
In Pakistan, an estimated 100,000 people demonstrated on April 15 in Karachi, the country’s largest city, to protest the plans of a powerful mosque in Islamabad, the Lal Masjid, to establish a parallel court system based on Islamic law, the Shari‘a. “No to extremism,” roared the crowd. “We will strongly resist religious terrorism and religious extremism,” exhorted Altaf Hussain, leader of the Mutahida Qaumi Movement, at the rally.
Also, for those who can read french, it’s an option to consider Mohamed Sifaoui, writer, journalist, muslim and declared secularist who writes books against forms of radical Islam, who fought for Charlie Hebdo’s right to print the damn caricatures (I still think printing them in Germany was unconstitutional but well, trust German courts to uphold the flag of whiteness, er, free speech), but who’s a rather stupid man, well that doesn’t change much, does it.
Today, in a lucid review of The Long Struggle Against Islamofascism by Norman Podhoretz, Kakutani (whom I tend to criticise from time to time) wrote something which, as does Mr. Podhoretz’ book, relates to this posting’s topic
For that matter, Mr. Podhoretz lumps together Muslims opposed to the United States, a “two-headed beast” of “Islamofascism,” whose objective he says is “to murder as many of us as possible” and destroy “the freedoms we cherish and for which America stands.” Such characterizations not only try to draw parallels between radical Muslims and the Nazis, but also gloss over the many schisms and conflicts within Islam that have pitted Shiites against Sunnis, Iranians against Iraqis, religious fundamentalists against more secular Baathists.
Schwartz, “the genius of the old partisan group” (Atlas 378) left his mark on a whole generation of poets and it is sad that this aspect of his is even less recognized than his poetic prowess (He has at least a Bollingen Prize to show for that, which makes it somehow hard to deny altogether). Lowell, whom we pegged earlier as one of the pioneers of Postmodernism, observed in interviews that he had “never met anyone who has somehow as much seeped into me”, Berryman revealed in similar interviews that he thought Schwartz was “the most underrated poet of the twentieth century” (both quotations: Atlas 378). Also, “[m]any of the new writers looked back to Delmore Schwartz [who] was known […] as a writer’s writer” (Ruland and Bradbury 336). Kenneth Koch went to Princeton in order to become a student of Schwartz’s (cf. Atlas 268) and John Ashbery notes that
of all the […] poets who have influenced me […] Schwartz is the one whose work is least known today and therefore the one most in need of elucidating for the benefit of anyone […] who might be interested in my work. (Ashbery 3)
Indeed, many elements of Ashbery’s poetry can surely be found in Schwartz’s work, but the most influential aspect of Schwartz’s poetry might well be his unconcern with dogma, without being downright rebellious in the way that Ginsberg was. Early Ashbery poems such as “Glazunoviana” or “The Grapevine” sound so Schwartzian in their structure and (postmodern) form that its easy to see the correspondence.
The poet who was most influenced by Schwartz was John Berryman, whose Dream Songs are a landmark of postmodern literature. “[T]he gullible Berryman” (Atlas 209) so admired Schwartz that he “became inarticulated in his presence and […] relied on Delmore’s advice in literary matters” (209); Schwartz was probably the first one who saw in Berryman’s early derivative poetry the promise of considerable talent, as he “did everything he could to promote [Berryman’s] reputation” (210). Additionally, the influence of Schwartz on individual poems “crucial to [Berryman’s] development” (Matterson 1) has been demonstrated satisfactorily (cf. Matterson 1ff.).
This takes us to the point where we have to consider the reasons for Delmore Schwartz’s bad standing today. If he was as influential and innovative as I claim, why is he not more famous today? Why do critics claim that “his best poetry was behind him after 1939” (Bauer, “The Figure of the Film Critic as Virile Poet”, 118), when Genesis was unwritten, as was most of the brilliant later poetry? There are several reasons for this. A particularly simple explanation might be that the rejection of Schwartz’s later poetry might be due to a reactionary strain in post-war criticism which had also tried to muffle or outright silence the poetry of the Beat poets (cf. Thurley 210f.); this reactionary strain represents a continuity of New Criticism. But Schwartz was also rejected by his friends and even by his admirers. Even as perceptive a critic as Jarrell denied the worth of Schwartz’s post-1939 poetry (cf. Travisano 20). This cannot be explained away with snobbishness.
The real problem was twofold. At first, Schwartz’s postmodernism was not a case of slight or subtle variation, it was a full shift. For this shift, however, “the taste and critical vocabulary […] had not yet been invented” (Kirsch 223) when Schwartz initiated the demise of his reputation with Genesis in 1943. The literary system had not changed with him, and the function of his post-modern aestetic was not able to unfold properly (cf. Tynjanov 439ff.), as it would’ve had twenty years later. Elizabeth Bishop could not help but call the late poetry of Schwartz “really bad” (Travisano 19). New Critical ideals even noticeably influenced the negative attitude towards the late poetry by Schwartz’s own biographer, James Atlas (cf. Bawer 147). Certainly, there are poets who made their way despite being marginalized by the literay world. These are those poets who establish alternative canons, such as Olson and the Black Mountain poets or the budding New York School of poets, which stared to form in the 1940’s, whereas Schwartz was not able to detach himself from mainstream criticism.
After the Middle Generation poets on the one hand, and experimental postmodernists on the other hand, had established themselves during the 1970’s in academic discourse, the way for a reevaluation of Schwartz was clear, but it never happened. When his new style finally fitted the literary system, it was too late. The trias of Berryman, Bellow and Atlas had already destroyed the basis for an unbiased evaluation of Schwartz’s poetry. The emerging canon of postmodern literature was partly dominated by confessional poetry (Which was and is easier palatable than Schwartz’s pioneering efforts in the 1940’s, as his poetry of that time is burdened by a grave, complicated language, whereas the easy, flowing lines of the late Lowell or Sexton can be understood easier and faster), and partly by experimental poetry, as we saw earlier. Schwartz’s poetry fits neither category. When, finally, in the 1980’s (cf. Huyssen 17f.) political aspects were becoming important factors for inclusion into the canon, Schwartz’s way into the canon was closed once and for all, on account of his blatant ignorance of all things political.
All of this meant that he had never a chance to be recognized as a poet of Postmodernism.
The themes of Schwartz’s poetry “are chiefly […] awe and abyss” (Ozick 12; italics hers). He writes with an intensity which became rare in modern poetry since Swinburne had lost his spark. ‘Awe’ and ‘abyss’ are fine descriptions of his work, they show why he was exceptional. He was filled with ‘awe’ of his literary forebears. Ford in particular has meticulously shown how indebted Schwartz was to the French modernist poets and Schwartz’s correspondence with the great modernist poets such as Pound, Stevens, Eliot and Auden showcases his deep admiration of their faculties (cf. Atlas 178 and elsewhere). Yet he evinced the abyss, too, in his work, the pessimism, the doubt that what he believed to be true was really right. He was one of the first to explore the possibilities of a poetry that breaks with modernist ideals. His courage to write the kind of revolutionary poetry he wrote, should be admired. But he failed, and the body of verse he left us is contradictory and uneven. It is hard to come to terms with this poet.
There are more problems than simply prevailing critical opinion. There is also the confusion about a definition of Postmodernism, which seems to change every time someone writes a book about it. In postmodernist poetry, the case is even more complicated, as even McHale, the author of one of the clearest and finest definitions of postmodern novels, surrendered to the difficulties of such a definition,. He conceded that he had not “been able to identify any ‘umbrella’-model capable of accomodating the full range of postmodernist features” (McHale, The Obligation Toward the Difficult Whole, 251). The best accounts of postmodern poetry similarly shy away of ‘umbrella’-models, such as Lynn Kellers brilliant study. But this retreat into particulars just postpones the problem, in my understanding. However, the seeds of a theory of postmodern poetry have been planted in McHale’s approach to postmodern novels, where he uses a term of Jakobson, the change of dominant (cf. McHale, Postmodernist Fiction, 6ff.). It seems to me that this is a direction worth pursuing. A fellow Russian Formalist, Jurij Tynjanov, has proposed a theory of literary evolution, where the text, its elements and the literary system surrounding it form a cohesive unit. The question of how to evaluate literary evolution becomes a question of relation between the elements of the literary system.
To explain the changes from one set of relations in the literary system to another, you have to take into account not only stylistic changes, McHale’s échec demonstrated this sufficiently. You have to also take literary evaluations into account, not only criticism, but also the different types of canons and their functions within the system. You will have to be prepared to suspend the kind of schematic chronology inherent in the term ‘tradition’, so you can find changes and influences (See for instance Wilson’s account of the difficult relation between the work of Yeats and Delmore Schwartz, which defies critical wisdom on how tradition worked within Modernism) where you might not have expected them, for instance the autobiographically tinged poem of Schwartz’s in his first collection of poems. In such an approach one might demonstrate how the poetry of Wilbur, Olson or Creeley is, for all intents and porposes, modernist and the poetry of Schwartz postmodernist.
Thus, the gift of Delmore Schwartz to literature is threefold. One aspect are the texts themselves. The second aspect is the influence on many poets of Postmodernism, whereby he might have shaped the literary style we call postmodern. The third and last aspect is the potential gift of clarity: we might arrive at a better understanding of postmodernism and modernism if we try to understand Delmore Schwartz.
Do you hear, do you see? Do you understand me now, and how
The words for what is my heart do not exist? (Schwartz, Summer Knowledge, 228)
[Das Folgende habe ich in wenigen Tagen geschrieben, und es ist auch schon was älter. Wie immer verweise ich gerne darauf, daß es trotz seiner *hust* Schwächen durchaus informativ sein kann.]
Das Werk des österreichischen Autors Thomas Bernhard gibt seinen Interpreten auch nach Jahrzehnten ergiebiger Forschungsliteratur immer noch Rätsel auf. Zwischen den ‘Österreichbeschimpfungen’ und komplexen Auseinandersetzungen mit Philosophen von Schopenhauer bis Wittgenstein bietet es Ansatzmöglichkeiten für eine Vielzahl an Deutungen, “weil divergente […] Interpretationsinteressen daran herangetragen wurden”, auch im gesellschafts-theoretischen Bereich, in dem sich die vorliegende Arbeit bewegen wird.
Eine Nähe oder wenigstens eine poetische Korrespondenz zu Werken der Konservativen Revolution hat man Bernhard bislang nicht nachgewiesen. Zu überzogen schienen die apodiktischen Urteile von Bernhards Figuren, als daß sich dahinter eine “dezidiert politische” Meinung, die sich nicht auf einen Holocaustkommentar beschränkt oder sich lediglich in rüden Beschimpfungen erschöpft, verbergen könnte.
Genau diese Nähe jedoch wird die vorliegende Arbeit nachweisen. Es gilt zu zeigen, daß Bernhards Texten eine klare Position abzulesen ist, die mit dem schlichten Urteil ‘Kulturpessimismus’ nicht zu fassen ist. Vielmehr scheint diese Position, die sich im Laufe seines Werkes immer weiter verästelt und verfeinert, gut mit Kategorien der sogenannten Konservativen Revolution erklärbar zu sein.
Es wird der vorliegenden Arbeit mehr um eine Darstellung von Bernhards Text und seinen Argumenten zu tun sein, als um eine Diskussion des Begriffs ‘Konservative Revolution’. Aus diesem Grund wird auf lediglich zwei Texte dieser Bewegung Bezug genommen. Hofmannsthals “Das Schrifttum als geistiger Raum der Nation” sowie Borchardts “Schöpferische Restauration” dienen als programmatische Schriften für das, was im folgenden unter dem Begriff der Konservativen Revolution gefasst wird..
Nach einer kurzen Darstellung der beiden Texte folgt eine Untersuchung zweier Bernhardscher Romane unter den erarbeiteten Gesichtspunkten. Diese Texte sind sein erster Roman, Frost, und sein letzter, Auslöschung. Es wird sich zeigen, daß Bernhards Werk sich von einer umfassenden Kulturkritik hin zu einer Untersuchung der Möglichkeiten einer Restauration bewegt, die Visionen der Konservativen Revolution, wie sie Hofmannsthal und Borchardt verstanden, fest im Blick.
Hermann Rudolph schreibt:: “Der Begriff der Konservativen Revolution ist zwar nicht von Hofmannsthal geprägt worden, sein Plädoyer für ihn in der Rede ‘Das Schrifttum als geistiger Raum der Nation’ scheint aber nicht unwesentlich zu seiner Fixierung im Bewußtsein der Öffentlichkeit beigetragen zu haben”. Nun ist es nicht im Interesse der vorliegenden Arbeit, Definitionen des Begriffs der Konservativen Revolution gegeneinander abzuwägen, sich gar auf das Gebiet der soziologisch-politischen Untersuchung zu begeben. Hofmannsthals Rede scheint den Geist jener politischen Bewegung getroffen zu haben, dieser Umstand, sowie der hohe Grad an Erwähnungen dieses Textes im Rahmen von Diskussionen der Konservativen Revolution, sprechen für eine Verwendung der Rede.
Es ist jedoch nicht ausreichend, die Analyse Bernhardschen Konservativismus allein auf Hofmannsthals Rede zu stützen, schon aufgrund ihrer wenig spezifischen Diskussion des Kritisierten, ihre “formelhaften Wendungen ließen viele Möglichkeiten der Interpretation und der Realisierung offen”. Als eine Ergänzung bietet sich Rudolf Borchardts Rede zur “Schöpferischen Restauration” an, da ihre Kritik an der deutschen Gesellschaft weit konkreter ausfällt, Borchardt sich in ihr eindeutiger festlegt und sie somit hilfreicher im Rahmen der vorliegenden Untersuchung ist.
Die Borchardtsche Rede hat zwar nicht denselben Bekanntheitsgrad wie die Hofmannsthalsche, jedoch ist sie geeignet, um die vielen dunklen Ecken von Hofmannsthals poetisch überladenem Text auszuleuchten, da Borchardt sich auf Details des von Hofmannsthal skizzierten Programms “eine[r] konservative[n] Revolution von einem Umfange, wie die europäische Geschichte ihn nicht kennt”, einläßt. Im folgenden werden kurz zentrale Punkte der beiden Reden referiert, um den Boden für die Lektüre von Frost zu bereiten.
Diese Rede, “eine Art Zusammenfassung seines Weltbildes”, hielt Hofmannsthal zwei Jahre vor seinem Tod und ein Jahr vor Borchardts Rede. Wie später Borchardt das 18. Jahrhundert als Parallele zu seiner Gegenwart konstruiert, so beschäftigt sich Hofmannsthal in seiner Rede zunächst mit dem, was die französische Kultur der deutschen voraus hat.
Der wichtigste Vorteil der Franzosen scheint nun nach Hofmannsthal zu sein, daß sie über eine “reine Sprache” verfügen, mit deren Hilfe sie den in der deutschen Kultur allgegenwärtigen “Riß […] zwischen Gebildeten und Ungebildeten” überwinden können. In der Sprache “redet Vergangenes zu uns, […] wir ahnen dahinter ein Etwas waltend”, nämlich “den Geist der Nationen”. Es handelt sich hierbei nicht um gesprochene Sprache, sondern um Schrifttum, “Aufzeichnungen aller Art”.
Die Deutschen sind zwar nach Hofmannsthal beherrscht von den sogenannten Bildungsphilistern, aber auch unter ihnen regt sich Widerstand. “Das geistige Gewissen der Nation”, sind die Suchenden, “Träger […] dieser produktiven Anarchie”, was die genaueste Beschreibung der Konservativen Revolution ist, die man im Text finden kann. Zentral in der Bewegung der Suchenden sind verschiedene Führergestalten, die außerhalb der gesellschaftlichen Ordnung stehen. Gleichwohl ist nicht Individualismus, sondern Einheit der Leitgedanke von Hofmannsthals Vision: “[a]lle Zweiteilungen […] sind im Geiste zu überwinden […]; alles im äußeren Zerklüftete muß […] dort in eines gedichtet werden, damit außen Einheit werde.”
“Hofmannsthal sagt nirgends klar und eindeutig, was er unter konservativer Revolution versteht.” Dafür muss erst Borchardt kommen, mit seiner Eloge auf die Romantik und seiner Verdammung des modernen Menschen in seiner Rede zur schöpferischen Restauration.
Borchardt entwickelte die Idee der schöpferischen Restauration als Teil einer Redekampagne. So hat sie auch, anders als die etwas zerfahrene Vorgängerrede Hugo von Hofmannsthals, eine ausgeklügelte rhetorische Struktur, die sich des Hauptstilmittels der Analogie bedient.
Ohne Umschweife erklärt Borchardt früh, wem seine Sympathien gehören und wen es anzugreifen gilt. Auf der einen Seite sind die “Schöpfer, Begeisterer und Former” der Romantik, und auf der anderen Seite sorgt das restliche 18. Jahrhundert für die “Unterjochung dessen, was noch Philosophie heißen kann”. In seine ausführliche, beißende Kritik an den Entartungen, die dieses Jahrhundert hervorgebracht habe, streut Borchardt wiederholt Analogien, so daß die Zuhörer seine Anmerkungen auf ihre eigene Zeit anwenden. Er macht klar, daß bloße Ideen diesen Zustand, damals wie heute, nicht ändern können, dazu wäre eine “Schöpfergestalt” vonnöten, ganz im Sinne von Hofmannsthals “Suchenden”.
Borchardt betont stärker als Hofmannsthal die herausragende Rolle der Romantiker im gemeinsamen Geschichtsbild. Seine Romantiker sind nicht nur Suchende, sie sind jene, die einst fanden, wonach heute gesucht wird. Sie haben erkannt, woran es der Welt mangelt, sie hatten Teil an “der klaren, der siegreichen, der seherischen Erkenntnis”. Jedoch, Erkenntnis ist nach Borchardt eine notwendige, nicht aber eine hinreichende Bedingung für den Wechsel.
Erst die “politische Katastrophe der Welt” habe damals die Welt in einen Zustand versetzt, in dem sie bereit für einen Wechsel gewesen sei. Aber die Welt habe ihre Chance nicht genutzt, trotz der Romantiker und ihres weltweiten Einflusses hätten sich entscheidende Entwicklungen “erst nach der Schicksalsstunde und schon in der Stunde verfallenden Rechtes” eingestellt.
Diese Analyse ist der entscheidende Teil der Rede. Was folgt, ist eine harte Kritik am modernen Massenmenschen: “[d]er historische Begriff des Volkes ist zersprungen [und] durch den der neuen Massen ersetzt”. Der moderne Mensch ist nun “auf der Pöbelstufe”. Borchardt bietet nun, da erneut ein Krieg die Weichen für eine Veränderung gestellt hat, seine Idee der schöpferischen Restauration an, und zwar “nicht als Reaktion […], sondern, wenn […] das Wort Revolution hier bedenklich klingt, als eine Reformation an Haupt und Gliedern”. Zu den Maßnahmen dieser Reform gehört eine Stärkung des Nationenbegriffs zuungunsten des Volksbegriffs und ein Aufspüren des Urdeutschen in dem, was heute noch deutsche Kultur und Sprache ist.
Thomas Bernhards Erstlingsroman Frost fasst bereits alle kritischen Einwände in Bernhards Werk gegen die Moderne zusammen, die sich später in anderen Formen in seinem übrigen Texten wiederfinden lassen. Der Protagonist, der Maler Strauch, sagt dem ihn beobachtenden Famulanten mit, wie dieser die Welt zu verstehen habe. Das Bild, das Strauch von der Welt zeichnet, ist düster. Wie viele der frühen Romane Bernhards ist auch Frost auf dem Land angesiedelt. Die Städte in Bernhards späterem Werk, darunter Salzburg, Wien und Rom, sind hier noch ferne Orte. Besonders deutlich wird dies in Frost, da keiner der beiden Protagonisten ursprünglich aus der Ortschaft Weng stammt, in welcher der Roman spielt. Mit dem Betreten von Weng betritt der junge Student gleichzeitig die dunkle Welt von Strauch, seine Aussage, Weng sei “der düsterste Ort” den er “jemals gesehen habe” (F 10), könnte sich genauso auf Strauchs Inneres beziehen, schließlich steht Strauchs sich stetig verschlimmernde Krankheit “in korrelativer Beziehung zu dem Auflösungsprozeß in Weng”.
Weng löst sich tatsächlich auf, und zwar ist nicht die Natur die Ursache, obwohl auch der Wald “von einer eigentümlichen Bedrohlichkeit gekennzeichnet ist”, vielmehr ist es die moderne Welt, die den Ort in Besitz genommen hat. Weng, das doch eigentlich in einer ländlichen Gegend liegt, ist bevölkert vom Proletariat, das “im Laufe von drei Jahrzehnten ins Tal hereingeschwemmt worden ist” (F 109). Die auf diese Weise neu zusammengesetzte Bevölkerung ist krank, “[d]as Tal ist berüchtigt wegen seiner Tuberkulosefälle” (F 149). “Die Bäuerlichen” (F 109) werden nach und nach verdrängt von dem Proletariat, das mit der modernen Industrie ins Tal kommt, welche die Krankheit mit sich bringt. Die Tuberkulose nämlich “scheint mit den Abwässern der Zellulosefabrik zusammenzuhängen” (F 149), eines der drei Industriemerkmale in der Gegend neben dem Kraftwerk (vgl. F 214f.) und der Eisenbahn.
In der Trennung, die zwischen den Bauern und dem Proletariat verläuft, befindet sich ein deutlicher Anklang an Borchardts Pöbel einerseits und seine Trauer um das verlorene “Volk der Romantik” andererseits. Die Macht des Pöbels nimmt in Weng zu, die Bauern, die mit dem Katholizismus identifiziert werden, haben “ausgespielt”, denn der “Kommunismus schreitet weit aus. In ein paar Jahren gibt es nur noch den Kommunismus. Und Bauerntum ist dann nur noch ein Traum.” (F 109)
Der eigentliche Traum aber hinter der gehässigen Wengbeschimpfung des Malers, die auch auf den Famulanten abfärbt, ist der einer “vorindustrielle[n] aristokratische[n] Utopie”, etwas, das überdeutlich wird, wenn Strauch von den “Herrenhäusern[n] und Schlösser[n]” (F 230) schwärmt. Diese sind nicht eindeutig als Nachtträume erkennbar, zumindest werden sie vom Maler als wahrhaftig beschrieben, jedoch geschieht dies in einem von Paradoxa übervollen Monolog. Zudem hat Gößling mit Recht darauf hingewiesen, daß die Mitteilungen des Malers, die nicht vom Protokoll führenden Famulanten überprüft sind, “den inhaltlich auf diesem lastenden Wahnverdacht” erhärten.
Träume schaffen im Träumenden eine zweite Wirklichkeit, was in Frost für Nachträume wie für Visionen gleichermaßen gilt, “[i]nnen ist jetzt der andere Schauplatz, und er stimmt mit dem Schauplatz draußen nicht überein”. In wenigen Bernhardschen Werken sind der Traum und der Wahnsinn so präsent wie in Frost und die Tatsache, daß sich Strauch diesen Dingen aussetzt, kann gelesen werden als “Resultat eines Denkens, das an das äußerst Mögliche gehen will […] im Interesse der Präzision”, wenn man das Hofmannsthalsche Diktum in Betracht zieht, daß “[a]lle Zweiteilungen […] im Geiste zu überwinden” sind. Strauchs Anspruch ist eben ein solcher Hofmannsthalscher, am Rand des Möglichen, ein Denken bzw. eine Sprache, in der es “keine Irrtümer” gibt und ” der Zufall und das Böse […] ausgeschlossen” sind (F 230). Es ist “alles unerfüllbar” (F 30) und doch muß man Strauchs Bemühungen lesen als ein Versuch, durch möglichst starke Verdichtung und Präzision, “bis in die höchsten Vorstellungen der Verfeinerung hinauf” (F 82), sein Ziel der inneren Einheit zu erreichen.
Ob Strauch nun aber wirklich ein “synthesesuchender Geist” im Sinne Hofmannsthals ist, ist nicht abschließend zu klären. Der Traum bietet eine alternative Lesart des Wahns und Antriebs der Figur Strauch an. Da der Traum, den Strauch versteht als “den Eintritt in das höhere Staunen” (F 269), bei Bernhard fungiert als “das subversive Potential, die anarchische Dimension”, schließt er sich nahtlos an Hofmannsthals Diskussion des geistigen Gewissens der Nation an, das “Spannungen und Beklemmungen hervorruft”. Strauch, obwohl er vielleicht nicht der ersehnte Führer ist, versucht doch, die innere und äußere Einigung zu erzwingen, die Entindividuation, die am Ende der Konservativen Revolution stehen soll. “Die erhoffte Entindividuation soll durch ein Höchstmaß […] an Individuation verwirklicht werden. Von dieser wird erwartet, daß sie auf eine mystische Art und Weise in jene umspringt”.
Die Individuation des Malers vollzieht sich in Frost mittels des Alleinseins, des “Eingeschlossenseins in sich selbst” (F 29). Er muß Mitteilungen aus sich lösen, “er reißt die Worte aus sich heraus wie aus einem Sumpfboden” (F 137). Dies ist gleichzeitig, neben einer Denkmethode, ein Selbstschutz gegen die feindliche Umwelt. Eine ähnliche Doppelfunktion findet sich auch in dem titelgebenden Frost. “Der Frost frißt alles auf” (F 247), “[p]lötzlich ist es so kalt, daß einem die Stirnhöhle einfrieren kann” (F 246) und andererseits ist die “Kälte […] der scharfsinnigste Zustand”, der “im Hirn den Verstandesklöppel anschlagen läßt” (F 247). Die Kälte, die auch sinnbildlich für ein versagendes, da bewegungsloses Gesellschaftssystem ist, das wir in der Ordnung von Wolfsegg wiederfinden werden.
Strauch scheitert, er findet keine Antwort, und wenn “der Geist keine Antwort zu finden vermag, übernimmt […] der Körper für den Menschen die Antwort”. Strauch versagt in seinem Vorhaben und sein Körper versagt mit ihm. Nicht, weil durch seinen Einsatz sich die Welt oder doch wenigstens Weng nicht verändert hätte, sondern weil er niemandem ein Führer, das heißt: Lehrer war. Gegen Ende formuliert er es so: “der Eintritt in das höhere Staunen, wissen Sie, und ganz allein” (F 269). Seinen Gesprächspartner, der sich in der Sprache wiederfindet als ‘Sie’, kann er nicht in seine Traumwelt mitnehmen.
Der Famulant schließt seinen Bericht mit den knappen Worten: “[a]m Abend des gleichen Tages beendete ich meine Famulatur und reiste zurück in die Hauptstadt, wo ich mein Studium fortsetzte.” (F 316). Als sei nichts gewesen, fährt der Student in seinem Tagewerk fort. Jedoch hat, still und heimlich, eine enorme Veränderung statt gefunden. Aus den Worten, dem “bloßen Verständigungsmittel” wurde durch des Famulanten Tagebuchaufzeichnungen, die, zusammen mit ein paar Briefen, den Roman Frost konstituieren, echtes Schrifttum. Wenn Kritiker wie Huntemann die Tagebuchform als “Reflex [einer] schreibskeptischen Einsicht” begreifen, so ist ihnen unbedingt zu wiedersprechen, drückt doch die Fixierung in Schrift Vertrauen in eben jene aus. Durch die Schrift kann der Famulant, der sich Strauch “ausgeliefert” (F 304) fühlt, genug Distanz aufbauen, um den Maler als “Wortfetzen und verschobene Satzgefüge” (F 214) begreifen zu können.
“Was fange ich mit seiner Sprache an?” (F 137) fragt sich der Famulant, weit entfernt davon, sich tatsächlich Strauchs “Herzmuskelsprache” (F 137) auszuliefern. Statt dessen bildet er von außen jenes Strauchsche Denken nach, das, wie hier bereits festgestellt, ein nach innen gekehrtes ist, mithilfe der Schrift als Ordnungssystem der Sprache. Sie als solche zu begreifen, bietet sich an in einem Text, in dem nicht die Zerstörung von Natur beklagt wird, sondern eben die Zerstörung von Kultur, von von Menschenhand geschaffener Ordnung, die von Strauch wiederholt als Utopie beschrieben wird: “ein Park […] der unendlich sei, […] eine Schönheit, ein kunstvoller Einfall reihe sich in diesem Park an den anderen.” (F 82). Wenn Hofmannsthal in bezug auf die Konservative Revolution verkündet, “[i]hr Ziel ist Form”, so kommt das den Strauchschen Vorstellungen schon sehr nahe. Aber anders als bei Hofmannsthal und Borchardt ist in Frost kein Prozeß über den sprachlichen hinaus zu sehen. “Der Maler redet und ich höre zu” (F 225), diese “Urszene der Bernhardschen Gesprächskunst” hat hier noch keine Auswirkung.
Sie hat aber wenigstens erkenntnisfördernde Funktion, denn durch die Sprache, die “der Konstruktion des Denkens, dem Ausdruck als Denksystem”dient, merkt der Student als Hörer dieser Sprache, daß die Sprache, aus dem tiefsten Innern “in die Welt, in die Menschen hinein” (F 137) führt und bestätigt somit das Ausmaß der Strauchschen Innerlichkeit. Die Sprache des Malers ist die komprimierte “Worttransfusion” (F 137), die für den in der Welt stehenden Famulanten zusammenhangslos scheint, aber auf den zweiten Blick “ungeheure Zusammenhänge” (F 137) hat, nur eben im Maler.
Der Sprachschwall, der nur in eine Richtung erfolgt, fordert den Famulanten heraus, der ihm zunächst keine Ordnung zu geben vermag. Erst später ist er imstande Bericht zu erstatten (vgl. F 309f.). Durch diesen ‘Erfolg’ wird in Frost eine Gegenüberstellung von redendem und schreibendem Subjekt konstruiert, mithilfe derer eine weitere Dimension des Strauchschen Versagens offenkundig wird, Strauch vermag eben gerade nicht, aufzuschreiben, Bericht zu erstatten, er muß stets aufhören “nach dem dritten oder vierten Wort” (F 316). Hofmannsthals Diktum, daß nur in der Schrift “[a]lles Höhere, des Merkens würdige” überliefert werde, hinterlässt seine Spuren im Versagen von Strauch. Der lehrende Protagonist der Auslöschung ist hingegen auch ein Schreiber.
Franz-Josef Murau, der Erbe von Wolfsegg, verschenkt diesen “gigantische[n] Besitzklumpen” (Aus 37), nach der Beerdigung seiner Eltern. Als Privatlehrer von Gambetti, einem jungen italienischen Mann aus gutsituierter Familie, verdient er gut, ließ sich aber immer finanziell von seinen Eltern unter die Arme greifen. Der Grund für sein Handeln kann also kaum finanzielle Unabhängigkeit sein. Einer der vielen möglichen Gründe liegt in der Konstitution von Wolfsegg. “Murau […] ist gleichzeitig ein Teil und ein Opfer von Wolfsegg. Er ist daher unfähig zu erben”. Wolfsegg, wie Weng in Frost, ist mehr als ein Ort, mehr als Wald, Schloß und Felder. Es ist eine “Kindheitslandschaft” (Aus 599), in der nicht nur die Kindheit Muraus abgebildet ist, sondern vielmehr auch die ‘Kindheit’ des modernen österreichischen Staates. Wolfsegg ist konstruiert aus verschiedenen widerstreitenden Elementen. Erstens die “sogenannte Kindervilla” (Aus 184), in der ein Kindertheater untergebracht ist, ihr Gegenstück ist das Haupthaus von Wolfsegg, der Ort der Erwachsenen, wo sich das Familienleben “mehr oder weniger abspielt” (Aus 183). In Nachbarschaft zur Kindervilla befinden sich die anderen beiden, einander als Gegensätze präsentierten Häuser, das Jägerhaus und das Gärtnerhaus.
“Die Jäger waren niemals meine Freunde gewesen” (Aus 185) schreibt Murau, und nicht zufällig klingt in diesem Satz ein kindlicher Ton nach. Denn nahezu alle Wolfseggerinnerungen Muraus verbindet dieser mit der Kindheit oder der frühen Jugend. Als Erwachsener erfährt Murau daß seine Eltern nach dem zweiten Weltkrieg “ihre nationalsozialistischen Gesinnungsgenossen”, Nationalsozialisten hohen Ranges, in eben der “geliebte[n] Kindervilla” (Aus 184) versteckt hatten. Die Jäger “waren die Faschisten” (Aus 192), sagt Murau später zu seinem Schüler Gambetti, aber es bleibt ungeklärt, wie in weiten Teilen des restlichen Romans, wieviel er tatsächlich erinnert und wieviel sich in seiner Erinnerung sich verändert hat, da eine objektivierende Instanz, wie sie der Famulant in Frost wenigstens ansatzweise darstellte, völlig entfällt.
Auf der anderen Seite stehen die Gärtner, die Murau, damals wie später, lobend unter die “einfachen und ungekünstelten” Menschen zählt. Als Kind ging er gerne und oft zu den Gärtnern, “die ich liebte” (Aus 257), wie Murau schreibt. Die Gärtner sind eng verbunden mit der Natur, mit einem restaurierenden natürlichen Kreislauf, nicht wie die Jäger, die auf alles schießen, das ihnen vor die Flinte kommt und seien es unbescholtene Bürger (vgl. Aus 192). “Die Gärtner in Wolfsegg” hingegen “hatten immer eine heilsame Wirkung ausgeübt” (Aus 334). So ist es im Rahmen der Konstruktion von Auslöschung nicht überraschend, daß Murau darauf besteht, daß wenigstens einer der drei Särge von den Gärtnern getragen werden soll (vgl. Aus 412f.).
Die Gärtner sind “die reinen Menschen” (Aus 334), eine Formulierung, die wirkt, als habe Murau in ihnen das Volk der Romantik wiedergefunden, und tatsächlich redet er, kaum daß er in Wolfsegg ankommt, zuerst mit diesen Gärtnern. Sie sind die “die natürlichsten” (Aus 399), in einer Umgebung, die von Ritualen und “eine[r] unerträgliche[n] Künstlichkeit” (Aus 108) dominiert ist. Während in Frost weite Teile des Romans im Wald stattfinden, bei Spaziergängen durch die steifgefrorene Natur, sind in der Auslöschung, soweit es Wolfsegg betrifft, die Räume entscheidend, die vier Häuser, die eben beschrieben wurden, aber “[d]er Raum zwingt zum Ritual […] Jeder Versuch, gegen diese Ordnung aufzubegehren, wird bestraft”. Murau, als Kind in Wolfsegg, steht unter Dauerbeobachtung in diesen Räumen, alles, was er seinen Eltern sagt, kann als mögliche Lüge aufgefasst werden, besonders schwierig scheinen die mit der Bibliothek zusammenhängenden Belange zu sein. Auch wenn Murau schwört, “zum Lesezweck” (Aus 259) in einer der fünf Bibliotheken gewesen zu sein, wird er der Lüge bezichtigt, man unterstellt ihm, er sei dort seinen “abwegigen Gedanken” (Aus 259) nachgegangen, ohne daß die Natur jener Gedanken je spezifiziert wird.
Gedanken, Bücher, Ideen sind gefährlich in Wolfsegg, es gibt dort Kästen, in denen “[d]ie Voltaire und Montaigne und Descartes […] ein für allemal versiegelt sein” (Aus 147) sollten, Kästen, die Muraus Onkel Georg, das enfant terrible der Familie, einmal geöffnet hatte und die nach Onkel Georgs Abreise und Umzug nach Cannes, “an dieser Teufelsküste” (Aus 148) wieder fest verschlossen wurden, “sie hatten dabei die Schlüssel nicht nur einmal, sondern gleich zwei- und dreimal umgedreht” (Aus 148f.). Denken scheint gefährlich zu sein, und “[d]as geheimgehaltene Denken ist das entscheidende” (Aus 161).
Dieser letzte Punkt scheint mir ein in der Bernhardforschung unterschätzter zu sein, das Denken muß nicht geheimgehalten werden, weil die Gedanken inhaltlich gefährlich sind, oder weil Denken überhaupt eine gefährliche Tätigkeit ist, deren Ausübung man dann natürlich verbergen müßte. Es geht im Gegenteil darum, nicht zu verraten, daß unser Kopf “vollkommen leer” (Aus 160) ist, das kommt ab und zu vor, und dann empfinden wir “einen solchen fürchterlichen Schmerz, daß wir nur fortwährend aufschreien müssten” (Aus 160), was man tunlichst vermeiden sollte, denn das würde “das Ende bedeuten” (Aus 160). Es ist also die Leere, die das geheime Denken darstellt, das Verzweifeln. Das macht auch Sinn im Zusammenhang mit den Attacken der Familie gegen Muraus Bibliotheksaufenthalte, denn nie wird er bestraft für das Lesen indizierter Bücher, man vermutet vielmehr dunkle Beweggründe. Diese könnten durchaus das Nichtdenken sein.
Eine weitere Verbindung ergibt sich hier zu Frost. Nachdem er seine Unfähigkeit erklärt hat, einen kohärenten Text zu Papier zu bringen, beschreibt der Maler Strauch einen “unvorstellbare[n] Schmerz” (F 316), der von seinem Kopf ausgeht. Es ist in der Auslöschung genau die umgekehrte Problemlage. Murau vermag sehr wohl zu schreiben, die auch in der Auslöschung vorhandenen Dialoge dienen zur Erzeugung einer “Mündlichkeitsfiktion, wie sie nur im Medium der Schrift möglich ist”. Durch die an den Anfang und an das Ende gesetzten “schreibt Murau” wird der Schriftcharakter der Murauschen Monologe weiter forciert. Wenn also Murau, der nirgends von derartigen Schmerzen an seinem eigenen Körper berichtet, einen ähnlichen Schmerz beschreibt wie Strauch, könnte man daraus, geht man von einem Werkkontinuum bei Bernhard aus, auf eine weitere Abwertung der Strauchschen Geistesleistung sprechen, denn das leere Blatt und der leere Kopf wiedersprechen sich womöglich nicht unbedingt.
Ganz so einfach aber sieht es nicht aus in der Auslöschung. Eva Marquard weist mit Recht darauf hin, daß der Text der Auslöschung gar nicht von Murau geschrieben ist, “sein schriftlich abgefasster Text mit dem Titel ‘Auslöschung’ wird lediglich mitgeteilt”, ohne daß es Informationen gibt, wer der Herausgeber, beziehungsweise der Erzähler ist, ob das Manuskript tatsächlich den Titel ‘Auslöschung’ trägt und welchen Umfang es tatsächlich hat, denn diesbezüglich gibt es weder Informationen noch Markierungen irgendeiner Art im Text. Das Projekt der Auslöschung, das Murau wiederholt ankündigt, wird so aus dem Text herausgetragen, auch durch den Trick, daß Murau Gambetti aufträgt, “Amras von Thomas Bernhard” (Aus 7f.) zu lesen, nun ist es aber “keine fiktive Tatsache, sondern eine tatsächliche, daß […] Bernhard diesen Text geschrieben hat, Auslöschung bezieht sich damit explizit auf die textexterne Wirklichkeit”. Das Projekt der Auslöschung bekommt damit auch Gewicht außerhalb der narrativen Struktur von Auslöschung, eine Voraussetzung, damit es als gesellschaftstheoretisches Konzept im Rahmen der Konservativen Revolution angemessen diskutiert werden kann.
Zunächst einmal bezeichnet Muraus Konzept der Auslöschung seine Rebellion gegen den “Herkunftskomplex” (Aus 201), gegen die lebenslängliche Auseinandersetzung mit den immergleichen Themen. Es ist ein autobiographisches Projekt, nur daß er in diesem Bericht, den er Auslöschung zu nennen gedenkt, “alles” auslöscht, seine “ganze Familie wird in ihm ausgelöscht ihre Zeit wird darin ausgelöscht, Wolfsegg wird ausgelöscht in meinem Bericht” (Aus 201).
Es ist hier nicht wörtlich seine Familie gemeint, oder ihre ‘Zeit’, es handelt sich mehr um das, was seine Familie repräsentiert, “die infame Provinzhölle” (Aus 295). Die Wolfsegger Ordnung ist starr, dort sitzen die Bildungsphilister, die kein Interesse an gesellschaftlicher Bewegung haben. Wenn also Murau behauptet, “Wolfsegg […] auseinanderzunehmen und zu zersetzen” (Aus 296), obwohl er eigentlich Wolfsegg für den Leser überhaupt erst erschafft, dann kann seine “Geistesarbeit” (Aus 613) sich nur gegen diese Ordnung, die “etablierten Strukturen” richten, die nicht eine überkommene ist, sondern nur eine zu starre. Die Wolfsegger sind nicht bereit, “in ihre fürchterlichen Geschichtsabgründe hinein und hinunter” (Aus 17) zu schauen, es mußte erst Onkel Georg kommen, um den jungen Murau “auf den Gegenweg” (Aus 147) zu bringen. Die Tatsache, daß es um eine Besinnung auf die alten, jahrhundertelang missachteten Bücher in den Bibliotheken geht, um eine rückwärtsgewandte Geschichtsbetrachtung, legt nahe, daß es sich beim Projekt der Auslöschung tatsächlich um ein Projekt im Geiste der Konservativen Revolution handelt. Murau blickt nicht in die Zukunft, ohne gleichzeitig in die Vergangenheit zu blicken.
Murau hat genaue Vorstellungen, was er in Wolfsegg erreichen will, als er dort ankommt. Im wesentlichen handelt es sich hierbei um zwei Dinge. “Es wird mein erstes sein, […] in Wolfsegg den eingesperrten bösen Geist [die eingesperrten Bücher; M.I.] auszulassen, […] und die Bücherkästentüren werde ich […] weit auflassen für immer” (Aus 150), ein Vorgang, bei dem Murau offenbar trachtet, Vergangenes wiederzubeleben, um damit wiederum die Gegenwart zu beleben, “die Geschichte des deutschen Geistes […] wieder erbau[en], bewahr[en]”. Diese Geschichte sucht er “in den alten Büchern, auf den alten Stichen” (Aus 115).
Sylvia Kaufmann hat überzeugend nachgewiesen, daß Muraus Buchpräferenz “reinstates the Romantic antagonism of artist and philistine”, so daß auch die verhandelten Bücher selber eine Verbindung zu Borchardts “seherischer Erkenntnis” herstellen. Den Ahnen, denen er nachspürt in den fünf Bibliotheken, fühlt er sich verbundener als den Philistern seiner Gegenwart, “sie hatten ein naturgemäßes Bedürfnis nach Geist und Denken” (Aus 263) lobt er und schwärmt: “Was waren das für Zeiten” (Aus 263). Nach einem ähnlichen Prinzip suchte er sich seinen Wohnort Rom aus: “für den Kopf des Altertums ist Rom die ideale Stadt gewesen, für den heutigen Kopf ist es wieder die ideale” (Aus 207). Seine Ahnenverehrung treibt er sogar soweit, daß er in einem obskuren Portrait den Familienphilosophen zu erkennen glaubt, an “diese[m] charakteristische[n] Descartesbart und [der] hochgezogene[n] Descartesbraue” (Aus 360), dessen Existenz nur gerüchteweise bestätigt ist.
Das zweite Projekt, das er sich in Angriff zu nehmen vornimmt, ist die Restaurierung der Kindervilla, die “vor rund zweihundert Jahren in der Art gebaut worden [ist] in der Art der florentinischen Villen” (Aus 184).. Dieser Bezug nach Italien ist gleichzeitig, im Kontext der antiken Figur Rom, wie oben dargestellt, zu lesen als zeitlicher Rückbezug. Zum einen in die Antike, und zum anderen, auf der expliziten Ebene, um 200 Jahre zurück, zur Zeit der Habsburger, kurz vor dem Verfall des KuK.
Zwar wird die glorreiche österreichische Vergangenheit selten explizit thematisiert in der Auslöschung, dennoch ist der Schatten des “habsburgischen Mythos'” immer zu spüren, nicht zuletzt durch den vielsagenden Vornamen des Protagonisten, Franz-Josef, der zwangläufig solche Assoziationen auslöst. “Der Untergang der Monarchie wirkt bis heute traumatisch nach” in der österreichischen Literatur und in Bernhards Werk besonders deutlich. Bei einer näheren Betrachtung ist die Angst vor dem dräuenden Kommunismus in Frost übersetzbar in die Angst vor einer der Monarchie radikal entgegengesetzten Gesellschaftsform.
Dennoch ist sich Murau in der Auslöschung nicht zu schade, eine wiederholte, mehrseitige Katholizismusbeschimpfung zu unternehmen, deren erste Beschimpfungswelle in der Behauptung gipfelt: “[w]ie kein anderes Volk hat sich das unsere von der katholischen Kirche ausnützen lassen” (Aus 146) und deren zweiter den Ausdruck “unser nationalsozialistisch-katholisches Volk” (Aus 444) enthält. Der Katholizismus ist aber in der Auslöschung nicht mit der habsburger Zeit assoziiert, sondern mit der starren faschistoiden Ordnung von Wolfsegg, denn “gegen den Katholizismus,” das “bedeutete […] gegen alles” (Aus 147.).
Zuletzt bleibt die Frage des Umgangs mit den literarischen Traditionen. In Hofmannsthals Rede wurde der schlechte Umgang mit dem “nationalen Besitz”, das heißt, Kulturbesitz beklagt. Man ehre “die wahren großen deutschen Epiker” nicht in ausreichendem Maße. Besonders auffällig sei es im Falle von Goethe, zu dessen Werk es keinen Konsens gebe. Scheinbar reiht sich auch Murau in jene von Hofmannsthal kritisierten ein, die Goethe nicht als Teil der Tradition begreifen oder sogar diese Tradition, und Goethe mit ihr schlicht verwerfen, Goethe, “den Gesteinsnumerierer, den Sterndeuter, den philosophischen Daumenlutscher der Deutschen, der ihre Seelenmarmelade abgefüllt hat in ihre Haushaltsgläser” (Aus 575).
Bei genauerem Hinsehen entpuppt sich jedoch diese Goethebeschimpfung als ein Angriff auf die Goethepietät des Bildungsphilisters im Sinne Hofmannsthals, der die “nicht ganz angenehme Goethevertraulichkeit der Philologen und [die] Goethepietät der Einzelnen” kritisierte. Die Attacke Muraus gilt nicht Goethe, dem großen Dichter, sondern Goethe, dem “philosophischen Kleinbürger”, der “den Kopf in den deutschen Schrebergarten gesteckt hat” (Aus 575). Nicht die Tradition wird angegriffen, sondern der falsche, starre, geistig unbewegliche Umgang mit ihr. Murau, der die Gedichte seiner Lieblingsdichterin Maria “immer geliebt hat” (Aus 511), erklärt, diese hätten “den Wert der Goetheschen Gedichte, die [er] am höchsten einschätzt” (Aus 512). Es geht um ein tieferes Verständnis von Literatur, das sich auch in seinem Selbstverständnis als Schriftsteller widerspiegelt: er sieht in sich “nur ein[en] Vermittler von Literatur”, “[e]ine Art literarischer Realitätenvermittler” (Aus 615).
“Das Werk ja, habe ich zu Gambetti gesagt, aber seinen Erzeuger, nein” (Aus 616), schreibt Murau und setzt damit eine wichtige Trennung. Der Text geht ein in die literarisch-kulturelle Tradition, sei der Autor auch noch so gefangen in seiner Gegenwart. Eine ähnliche Trennung in der Betrachtung findet statt, wenn Murau feststellt: “die deutschen Wörter hängen wie Bleigewichte an der deutschen Sprache […] und drücken […] den Geist auf eine diesem Geist schädliche Ebene” (Aus 8). Nation heißt für Borchardt “wie in Urzeiten und allen Zeiten mit seinesgleichen eins” sein. Im Rahmen dieses Konzeptes müssen auch die widersprüchlichen Kommentare Muraus zur deutschen Sprache und Literatur gelesen werden.
Die Trennung von der deutschen Gegenwart, sowie die heftige Romanophilie in der Auslöschung, die übrigens auch ihr Pendant in Hofmannsthals Rede hat, hat in Bernhards Text jedoch eine ganz besondere Dimension, die weder von Hofmannsthal noch von Borchardt vorhergesehen werden konnte, nämlich Auschwitz und die Möglichkeiten und Schwierigkeiten mit dem ‘Deutschen’ und der deutschen Sprache nach Auschwitz, findet sich doch der Nationalsozialismus, wie auch in dieser Arbeit mehrfach angeklungen ist, an prominenter Stelle im Herkunftskomplex der Auslöschung wieder.
Wie Borchardt erkennt Murau, daß es “einen weltweiten Verdummungsprozeß” (Aus 646) gibt und erklärt lakonisch, im Angesicht dieses unaufhaltsamen Prozesses gebe es nur die Möglichkeit, sich umzubringen. Dies schlägt zwar einen Bogen zu Muraus Auslöschungsfantasien, aber zeigt sich, im Rahmen der Konstruktion der Auslöschung, als rhetorische Figur. Murau ging, war er “unglücklicher als erträglich”, “[z]u den Gärtnern, […] nicht zu den Jägern” (Aus 191, Hervorhebung Bernhards). Auch in dem gerade beschriebenen Verzweiflungszustand ginge er, führte man diesen Denkvorgang fort, nicht zu den Jägern, die sich “durch ihre Vernichtungswut die Illusion verschaffen, Herren über Leben und Tod zu sein”, sondern zu den Gärtnern. Auslöschung bedeutet in der Auslöschung nicht Vernichtung, dafür gibt es kein Indiz. Am Ende des Romans verschenkt Murau Wolfsegg, ein folgerichtiges Ende in der Lesart der vorliegenden Arbeit, der Israelischen Kultusgemeinde in Wien (vgl. Aus 650f.). Es ist insofern folgerichtig, als daß Murau damit die starre Ordnung von Wolfsegg völlig auflöst, indem er sie abtrennt von dem Geschlecht und der Befehlsgewalt der alten Schlossherren, aber nicht zur Erreichung von Chaos oder Anarchie, sondern um Wolfsegg in eine andere Ordnung zu überführen, denn von der Schenkung ist ja nicht eine Privatperson betroffen, sondern eine ganze Gemeinde, die über ihre eigene Struktur und Ordnung verfügt. Ausgelöscht wird also nicht Wolfsegg im wörtlichen Sinne, sondern Wolfsegg im übertragenen Sinne, die Ordnung von Wolfsegg.
Analog zum Wolfsegger Vorgang vollzöge sich auch -in der Theorie- die Konservativen Revolution in der Welt. “[N]ur eine tatsächlich grundlegende, elementare Revolution […] kann die Rettung sein” (Aus 146) schreibt Murau, eine “Reformation an Haupt und Gliedern” gewissermaßen. Murau, der nicht ähnlichen kleinbürgerlichen Hemmnissen ausgesetzt ist wie Borchardt, hat keine Scheu vor dem Begriff der Revolution, und auch keine Scheu davor, zu erklären, man müsse, ehrlicherweise, “die Welt […] ganz und gar radikal zuerst zerstören, beinahe bis auf nichts vernichten, um sie dann auf die [Murau] erträglich erscheinende Weise wieder herzustellen” (Aus 209). Dies mag, an der Oberfläche, kollidieren mit dem Element der Restauration, bzw. mit dem “‘konservativen’ Aspekt der Konservativen Revolution. Jedoch, wie man bereits an der angekündigten Auslöschung und ihrer tatsächlichen Abwicklung gemerkt hat, geht es Murau nicht um Vernichtung.
Der wichtigste Aspekt scheint mithin das “wieder herzustellen” sein und die Zerstörung hat ihren Gegenpart in Borchardts Postulat einer “politische Katastrophe der Welt”. 1983 kann Murau sich allerdings nicht auf den 2. Weltkrieg als Katastrophe besinnen, restaurative Handlungen zu Muraus Gegenwart fänden “erst nach der Schicksalsstunde und schon in der Stunde verfallenden Rechtes” statt und wären somit, ganz im Sinne Borchardts, sinn- und wirkungslos.
Sowohl Borchardt als auch Hofmannsthal betonen die Rolle des Führers, beide haben gewisse Einwände in mögliche Führerfiguren, wie Hofmannsthal sie skizziert. Die Notwendigkeit einer solchen Figur jedoch steht für beide außer Frage. Wie in der Betrachtung von Frost festgestellt wurde, scheitert dort die Führerfigur Strauch und die Schülerfigur des Famulanten hat keine Entwicklung hin zu einer solchen Figur durchgemacht. Das Problem könnte in einer zu starren Ordnungsstruktur liegen, einer “geistigen Abhängigkeit” zwischen Lehrer und Schüler. Von einer vergleichbaren Abhängigkeit kann in Auslöschung jedoch nicht die Rede sein. Ganz im Sinne des eins seins mit Sprache und Tradition gibt es hier eine “Identitätskette”, in der die Beteiligten “einander ihr Denken beeinflussen”.
Im Fall der Auslöschung ist Gambetti der “kommende Philosoph und Revolutionär” (Aus 209). Der Ausblick auf die Zukunft ist wichtig, weil, Analog zu Borchardt, sich die Gleichgesinnten erst sammeln müssen, denn “[w]ir sind jetzt eine geschwächte, tatsächlich geistlose österreichische Menschheit […] der das Grundlegende und Elementare gar nicht möglich ist” (Aus 146). Es ist eine Krise des österreichischen Geistes, dieser ist in der stetigen Gefahr der Verdummung.
Murau versucht, als Lehrer Gambettis, bei diesem den Hebel umzulegen, ihn auf den “Gegenweg” (Aus 147) zu bringen. Deshalb füttert er ihn mit Literatur, mit Jean Paul, Broch, Schopenhauer. Während Murau seine Phantasien, etwa die Herrichtung der Kindervilla, nie umsetzt, ist Gambetti “nicht nur der geborene Phantasierer, er ist auch der geborene Ausführer seiner Phantasien” (Aus 544). In Gambetti lebt die Hoffnung auf eine Konservative Revolution, wie sie Muraus skizziert, weiter. Das ist die entscheidende Volte, die Bernhards Werk zwischen Frost und der Auslöschung vollzogen hat. Der Frost ist am Ende des gleichnamigen Romans immer noch da, Strauch ist gestorben und der Famulant hat das Weite gesucht, ohne irgend ein Interesse, die Lage zu ändern. Der Frost in der Auslöschung, in Form der starren Strukturen Wolfseggs, ist durch die Abschenkung beseitigt und die entsprechende Schieflage der Welt, die sich “augenblicklich in einem chaotischen Zustand befindet, während in Wolfsegg die Ordnung herrscht” (Aus 369), soll durch Gambetti bereinigt werden. Es ist eine Utopie, die am Ende der Auslöschung steht, deren Möglichkeit in den Raum gestellt wird, ohne Hinweis auf Gambettis Handlungen nach dem Ableben von Murau und ohne Untersuchung des Ausmaßes der möglichen Selbsttäuschung des Ich-Erzählers Murau.
“In welches Gespräch mischt sich dieser Monolog?” fragt Ingeborg Bachmann in einem unveröffentlichten Prosatext über das Frühwerk Thomas Bernhards. Die vorliegende Arbeit hat hoffentlich gezeigt, um welches Gespräch es sich, unter vielen anderen, Schopenhauer und Wittgenstein sind sicher die am häufigsten genannten Namen in der Forschungsliteratur, handeln könnte: ein Gespräch mit den Dichtern und Denkern der konservativen Revolution, insbesondere Hofmannsthal und Borchardt.
Mit Recht ist der Prozeß der Auslöschung und Zerstörung, der im Zentrum des komplexen letzten Romans steht, immer wieder auf Auschwitz bezogen worden, am prominentesten im Aufsatz von Irene Heidelberger-Leonard und umgekehrt Frost auf den Solipsismus in der literarischen Tradition, aber die vorliegende Arbeit hat hoffentlich eine weitere Lesart nahe gelegt, die man auch auf das restliche Werk Thomas Bernhards hätte ausdehnen können. Am Beispiel des ersten und letzten Romans jedoch konnte eine Entwicklung untersucht werden, die von Gesellschaftskritik in Frost, der dort noch keine positive Theorie entgegengesetzt werden konnte, hin zu einer voll entwickelten Auseinandersetzung mit der Konservativen Revolution in Auslöschung.
Die enorme Komplexität des Bernhardschen Werks bringt es jedoch mit sich, daß auch diese Lesart sehr selektiv vorging und das Thema eigentlich nach einer genaueren Studie verlangt, die hier aber, im beschränkten Rahmen der vorliegenden Arbeit nicht geleistet werden konnte.
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Mittermayer, Manfred: Ich werden. Versuch einer Thomas-Bernhard-Lektüre, Stuttgart 1988.
Prohl, Jürgen: Hugo von Hofmannsthal und Rudolf Borchardt. Studien über eine Dichterfreundschaft, Bremen 1973.
Rudolph, Hermann: Kulturkritik und konservative Revolution. Zum kulturell-politischen Denken Hofmannsthals und seinem problemgeschichtlichen Kontext, Tübingen 1971.
Ryu, Eun-Hee: Auflösung und Auslöschung. Genese von Thomas Bernhards Prosa im Hinblick auf die ‘Studie’, Frankfurt a.M. 1988.
Schmidt-Dengler, Wendelin: Der Übertreibungskünstler. Zu Thomas Bernhard, Wien 1986.
Schneider, Franz: Plötzlichkeit und Kombinatorik. Botho Strauß, Paul Celan, Thomas Bernhard, Brigitte Kronauer, Frankfurt a.M. 1993.
Steuer, Daniel: Thomas Bernhards Auslöschung. Ein Zerfall. Zum Verhältnis zwischen Geschichtsschreibung, Autobiographie und Roman, in: Reisende durch Zeit und Raum. Der deutschsprachige historische Roman, hrsg. v. Osman Durrani und Julian Preeze, Amsterdam 2001.
Süselbeck, Jan: Das Gelächter der Atheisten. Zeitkritik bei Arno Schmidt und Thomas Bernhard, Frankfurt a.M. und Basel 2006.
Postmoderne, hrsg. v. Wendelin Schmidt-Dengler, Adrian Stevens und Fred Wagner, Frankfurt a. M. 1997, 25-46.
Weinzierl, Ulrich: Bernhard als Erzieher. Thomas Bernhards Auslöschung, in: Spätmoderne und Postmoderne. Beiträge zur deutschsprachigen Gegenwartsliteratur, hrsg. v. Paul Michael Lützeler, Frankfurt a.M. 1997, 186-196.
Zimmermann, Peter: Der Bauernroman. Antifeudalismus – Konservativismus-Faschismus, Stuttgart 1975.
 König, “Nichts als ein Totenmaskenball”, S. 22.
 Abgesehen von einem Vergleich Höllers, der Bernhards Ordnungsbegriff mit dem Paul Landsbergs vergleicht. Vgl. Höller
 Weinzierl, Bernhard als Erzieher, S. 192.
 Zur Rolle des Holocausts bei Bernhard vgl. Süselbeck, Das Gelächter der Atheisten, bes. S. 448-531.
 Unklar ist, ob sie überhaupt als mehr oder weniger einhaltliche Bewegung zu bezeichnen ist. Vgl. Breuer, Anatomie der konservativen Revolution. Breuer unterschlägt allerdings sowohl Hofmannsthal als auch Borchardt in seiner Betrachtung, was im Rahmen der vorliegenden Arbeit umgekehrt einen Verzicht auf die konservativen Revolutionäre des neuen Nationalismus’ erleichtert.
 Rudolph, Kulturkritik und Konservative Revolution, S. 263f.
 Vgl. Rudolph, S. 266.
 Prohl, Hugo von Hofmannsthal und Rudolf Borchardt, S. 238.
 Borchardt, Reden, S. 230-253.
 Vgl. Prohl, ebda.
 Hofmannsthal, Prosa IV, S. 413.
 Kern, Zur Gedankenwelt des späten Hofmannsthal, S. 93.
 Hier ist der vielleicht deutlichste Bruch mit der von Breuer und anderen skizzierten nationalistischen Konservativen Revolution: “Nun ist aber ein Erkennungszeichen der ‘konservativen Revolution’ gerade die erbitterte Kritik an der französischen ‘Zivilisation’, die sie der tugendhaften deutschen ‘Kultur’ gegenüberstellt.” Le Rider, Hugo von Hofmannsthal, S. 273.
 Hofmannsthal, S. 391.
 Hofmannsthal, S. 390.
 Hofmannsthal, S. 399.
 Hofmannsthal, S. 400.
 Hofmannsthal, S. 411.
 Kern, S. 93.
 Vgl. Kauffmann, Rudolf Borchardt und der ‘Untergang der deutschen Nation’, S. 166-192.
 Borchardt, S. 230.
 Borchardt, S. 232.
 Angezeigt durch z.B. “ganz wie, mutatis mutandis, bei uns”, Borchardt, S. 234.
 Borchardt, S. 235.
 Hier ist übrigens anzumerken, daß eine Linie von dieser Rede zur Rede über “Führung” führt, deren Nähe zum Nationalsozialismus in der Aufnahme nach dem zweiten Weltkrieg, nach Auschwitz, die Rezeption dieses Elements der Rede stark einschränkt. Vgl. Kap. 4.4.3.
 Borchardt, S. 236.
 Borchardt, S. 237.
 Borchardt, S. 239.
 Borchardt, S. 241.
 Borchardt, S. 242.
 Borchardt, S. 252.
 vgl.: “Die Hinwendung zur Stadt ist die Hinwendung zu Ordnung und Künstlichkeit und zu den sublimen Tätigkeiten des Menschen wie Musizieren, Malen und Schreiben. Das Stadtleben ist ein Leben gegen die Natur und ein Leben für den Geist.” in: Eickhoff, Die Stufen der Disziplinierung, S. 158.
 Mittels der Siglen F für Frost und Aus für Auslöschung, sowie nachfolgender Seitenangabe werden Zitate der zu interpretierenden Romane im fortlaufenden Text nachgewiesen.
 Ryu, Auflösung und Auslöschung, S. 41.
 Jurdzinski, Leiden an der Natur, S. 99. Vgl. F 75.
 Borchardt, S. 247.
 Der “nationalsozialistisch-katholische” (Aus 292) Österreicher hat in Frost noch nicht die Bühne betreten.
 Höller, Kritik einer literarischen Form, S. 12.
 Dass etwa die Trauer um die Bauern nur zu Strauchs Vision gehört und im Text nicht als ‘objektiv’ wahr konstruiert wird, zeigt sich am Ekel des Famulanten vor den Dorfbewohnern (vgl. F 85). Sie ist allerdings nicht Teil eines Strauchschen Nachttraums, vielmehr treffen sich in der Welt des Wahns in Frost der Traum in der wörtlichen und übertragenen Bedeutung.
 Gößling, Thomas Bernhards frühe Prosakunst, S. 101.
 Bozzi, Der Traum als Wiederkehr des Körpers, S. 31.
 Schneider, Plötzlichkeit und Kombinatorik, S. 132.
 Hofmannsthal, S. 411.
 Hofmannsthal, S. 412.
 Bozzi, S. 31.
 Hofmannsthal, S. 399.
 Madel, Solipsismus in der Literatur des 20. Jahrhunderts, S. 57, vgl. auch S. 34.
 Vgl. Mittermayer, Ich werden, S. 40.
 Dazu passt auch die Episode mit dem totgefrorenen Schwein, das Strauch antreiben will, in das er aber statt dessen mit seinem Stock hineinsticht (Vgl. F 247).
 König, S. 195.
 Hofmannsthal, S. 390.
 Huntemann, Artistik und Rollenspiel, S. 69.
 Vgl. Gößling, S. 91.
 Hofmannsthal, S. 413.
 Vellusig, Thomas Bernhards Gesprächs-Kunst, S. 37.
 Jurgensen, Die Sprachpartituren des Thomas Bernhard, S. 110.
 Hofmannsthal, S. 390.
 Am Anfang und am Ende der Auslöschung steht “schreibt Murau”, ein deutlicher Verweis auf den Unterschied zu fast dem kompletten restlichen Werk, wo im Allgemeinen der Hörer schreibt und berichtet.
 Steuer, Thomas Bernhards Auslöschung. Ein Zerfall., S. 67.
 Vgl. Höller, Thomas Bernhards Auslöschung als Comédie humaine der österreichischen Geschichte, S. 48ff.
 Beachtenswert ist in diesem Zusammenhang die Beziehung, die Helms-Derfert zwischen der Kindheitsverklärung in der Auslöschung und romantischen Märchen zieht, vgl. Helms-Derfert, Die Last der Geschichte, S. 218ff. und der dort später angeführten Verbindung der Jäger zur modernen Entzauberung der Welt, die ja mit dem Kindheits- und Märchenmotiv interagiert, welches leider nicht Eingang finden kann in die vorliegende Untersuchung, vgl. Helms-Derfert, S. 225.
 Schmidt-Dengler, Der Übertreibungskünstler, S. 121.
 Kappes beschäftigt sich zwar mit dieser Phrase, zieht aber die falschen Schlüsse aus der Passage. Vgl. Kappes, Schreibgebärden, S. 60.
 Vellusig, S. 28.
 Marquard, Gegenrichtung, S. 58.
 Darauf deutet der Satz “[…] und wo ich diese Auslöschung geschrieben habe, […] schreibt Murau” (Aus 151) hin, nicht zuletzt aufgrund der kursiven Schreibweise des Wortes ‘Auslöschung’, das an die literaturwissenschaftliche Zitierweise von Monographien erinnert. Allerdings gibt es so viele kursive Worte in Bernhardschen Texten, auch in der Auslöschung, daß dies ein eher schwaches Indiz ist. Vgl. Jansen, Prinzip und Prozess Auslöschung, S. 110f.
 Steuer, S. 69.
 Es ist eine bittere Entdeckung, die Murau machen muß, daß seine Familie tatsächlich “ausgelöscht” wurde, wie es eine lokale Zeitung später verkündet (vgl. Aus 404).
 Vgl. Aus 76
 Hoffmann, Prosa des Absurden, S. 395.
 Zur Frage des deutschen, siehe 4.4.2.
 Borchardt, S. 249.
 Kaufmann, The Importance of Romantic Aesthetics for the Interpretation of Thomas Bernhard’s “Auslöschung. Ein Zerfall” and “Alte Meister. Komödie”, S. 72.
 Borchardt, S. 236.
 Greiner, Der Tod des Nachsommers, S. 53.
 Vgl.: “Hofmannsthal empfand sich als Erben der habsburgischen Tradition” (Curtius, Europäische Literatur und lateinisches Mittelalter, S. 153.)
 Vgl. Höller, S. 54.
 Greiner, S. 15.
 Es scheint dies übrigens auch eine von der Geschichtswissenschaft in letzter Zeit gemachte Verbindung zu sein, so daß sich Bernhard auch in dieser Hinsicht als scharfsichtig erwiesen hat. Vgl. Süselbeck 451f.
 Hofmannsthal, S. 396
 Vgl. Süselbeck, S. 299.
 Zur Verbindung der Auslöschung mit der Schriftstellerdiskussion, vgl. Ryu, S. 100.
 Borchardt, S. 249.
 Vgl. Borchardt, S. 242f.
 Hoffmann, S. 396.
 Borchardt, S. 252.
 Borchardt, S. 237.
 Borchardt, S. 239.
 Vgl. Prohl, S. 235.
 Ryu, S. 111.
 Achtung, es handelt sich nicht um ‘progressive’ Kritik, es ist nicht die Rede von überkommenen Strukturen, vgl. Aus 489.
 Bachmann, Watten und andere Prosa, S. 455.
 Vgl. Heidelberger-Leonard, Auschwitz als Pflichtfach für Schriftsteller.
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Kingsley Amis wrote in his treatise on Science Fiction that the motto „‘Idea as Hero‘ is the basis“ (137) for SF. In Babel-17, Samuel R. Delany’s sixth novel, the importance of language and linguistics is emphasized. It does both to an extent that is very unusual in a SF novel (cf. Aldiss and Wingrove 292) and its interest in language runs deeper than in the ordinary SF novel, where strange words abound or some new language or dialect is invented, as in Burgess‘ A Clockwork Orange. Evidently, language is this novel’s hero.
Babel-17’s interest in language and how it portrays the mechanisms behind language is the subject of this paper. It has the goal of mapping out the political and the epistemological consequences of the text’s treatment of language, which, as will be made clear, works in several ways. Some of the examiniation is done out in the open by Rydra Wong, a famous poet who is commissioned to decipher Babel-17, a code allegedly used by terrorists to coordinate their acts of sabotage, which soon turns out to be a language. In other parts, the examinition is provided by the character’s actions and emotions and by the events. Finally it will be pointed out, that the interest in language even informs the structure of the novel down to the generic markers it employs. It will be seen that SF is a kind of language itself which has to be understood by the reader of SF, because „knowing a genre is also knowing how to take it up“ (Broderick 39).
This is also the way most criticism has been reading the novel, but none of that criticism has noted, that it’s not just ‘about’ language, it is about understanding language as one of the basic givens of humanity. Its influence reaches deeply, into communication and thought. That is what the first two parts are trying to show. The last part amply demonstrates, that even when something in not language, is may be language-like, such as the genre SF.
SF is „What If Literature“ (Landon 6) and, as remains to be shown, Babel-17 poses some of the more powerful what if questions, trying to help people to recognize science’s „potentialities for social change“ (Asimov 162). This paper’s thesis is, that at the end of the trail that this reading of Babel-17 provides, one can see some possibilities of a brighter, more humane future, or a darker future. Babel-17 indicates the potentialities of communication and language that humanity has squandered for thousands of years and it poses some potent questions about free will and about the truth we take for granted. What questions these are, this paper will attempt to demonstrate.
Babel-17 is written in English and the characters that shape events, or are shaped by them, are speakers of English. One might be tempted to think that this impression only derives from the fact that the novel is written in English, just as an English novel about France would feature no, or not very much, French dialogue, even if all the characters were French. It becomes clear, though, that the first impression is correct once we note that comparisons to other languages always are comparisons of English to other languages (cf. Delany, Babel-17, 111). Also, the English-speaking characters never have to translate anything, everybody who takes part in this novel’s events speaks English and should be able to communicate perfectly with anybody else.
Although English is the predominant language, it is not the only one. The political background to the story is a war between the Alliance, part of which forms the earth , and the Invaders. Both probably consist of several nations, having several languages each (cf. 24). Of the Invader’s languages we encounter none. Eight earth languages are mentioned, other than English: Finnish, Sioux (as an example for North American Indian languages in general), French, Hungarian, Spanish (all five: cf. 111), Basque (cf. 77), Old Moorish (cf. 115) and an unnamed african language that is spoken in the „N’gonda province in Pan Africa“ (54, cf. 51f.). Sample words are not provided from Basque, Finnish, Hungarian or Sioux, only one word from Spanish and Old Moorish each, about five French words and generous eight sentences of the African language. These languages are not important to the story, they only demonstrate certain linguistic points, such as the grammatical differences between Sioux and and Finnish noun cases.
Thus, the main focus, of course, is on the mysterious language, Babel-17. Babel-17 is described as „the most analytically exact language imaginable“ (210). It does not know the words ‚you‘, ‚I‘ nor the words derived from them, such as ‚your‘ and ‚mine‘ (cf. 139) so speakers of it cannot even conceive of the principle of the subject. Also, Babel-17 „contains a preset program […] to become a criminal and saboteur“ (215). This means it curtails the range of options the speaker of Babel-17 has so severely, it even imposes a „schizoid personality into the mind of whoever learns it“ (215), which means that a second personality is programmed into the person that can even grab hold of all the willpower of this person. The speaker of Babel-17, who thinks only analytically and cannot talk or think in categories of subjectivity, is massively hindered in the choices his mind allows him to make, for example „thinking in Babel-17 [you might] try and destroy your own ship and then blot out the fact with self-hypnosis“ (215).
In trying to crack the structure, the grammar and vocabulary of Babel-17, Rydra Wong, the poet that turned linguist by virtue of her „total verbal recall“ (9), finds that it „scares“ (22) her. For a language that one does not understand, this, introduced at an early point in the narrative, is a novel idea. Everybody would agree that it is possible to be afraid from something said and understood or even by a menacing way of delivery that a language can have, but being afraid of the language itself must seem strange to the reader.
As we have seen, there are passages in Babel-17 that compare different languages to each other. This process, however, is never focused on. The comparisons are drawn to make points about the nature and the properties of language itself. The vocabulary that is often used to make these points is scientific vocabulary, stemming from linguistics, but the person doing the scientific work is not a scientist. Rydra Wong, as mentioned above, is an artist, a poet, whose linguistic explorations are more of a hobby or a vocation. There are many weighty passages treating issues of linguistics but they are counterbalanced by the epigraphs introducing the five chapters, taken from Marilyn Hacker‘s poetry.
The differences sketched here between science and art run deeper. The first thing that is learned about language is that it is not a code and that the two should not be confused. A code can simply be deciphered, but a language has to be understood in a more organic way (cf. 6ff.). Suddenly voices, circumstances, contexts become important. An artist‘s intuition becomes useful, her „knack“ (10). This intuitive approach is contrasted with the government scientists, who, „although they know a hell of a lot about codes, […] know nothing of the nature of language“ (8). This kind of disparagement has lead some to claim that, in this novel, language is part of the arts and not of science (cf. Weedman 136). This approach mistakens the pervasiveness of science. If in this text art is valued more highly, it is only because „today a person who learns the rules of art well is a little rarer than the person who learns the rules of science“ (48).
So, even if Rydra’s advantage might be her intuition, her art still has to confer to rules. More often than not, she uses linguistic terms to talk about these rules, in a word, she uses science. As Walter E. Meyers points out though, she misuses these terms often enough: „The uninformed reader of Babel-17 receives misinformation“, and the novel „is inaccurate at almost every turn“ (both: Aliens and Linguists 180). It seems as if all the linguistic terms that are heaped up (cf. Delany, Babel-17, 111) are nothing but words, or names. Outside the text the rules spread out in the pages with linguistic rambling might be scientific nonsense or inaccurate, but in this text, her rules lead Rydra Wong to an understanding of Babel-17.
The critic who tries to establish a rift between science and art in Babel-17‘s treatment of languages is mistaken because he does not understand that the novel’s discourse is concerned with language itself. Language is its own „ordering principle“ (Fox 97), not art or science. The two ways to approach the nature of language, art and science, do not preclude one another. It is important to note, that each takes part in solving the mystery of Babel-17. So cannot be about linguistics or poetry, it is about their object, language.
The most important fact is the all-pervasiveness of language. Early in the novel, a customs officer has some kind of sexual encounter and, trying to cope with the ensuing depression, he turns to the means of language. He tries to describe his loneliness in a way that perfectly describes one of the limits language imposes on its speakers, the emptiness of language (cf. 47). In the dense phrasing of structuralism: you „cannot ‚mean‘ and ‚be‘ simultaneously.“ (Eagleton 170), the thing you talk about is absent in the language, language is empty. Later Rydra, awakening from sleep, is caught between English and Babel-17 and thereby experiencing a kind of double consciousness (cf. Littlefield 223). She is not able to gather her thoughts, reflecting on the nature of language: „If there’s no word for it, how do you think about it?“ (Delany, Babel-17, 111). The nature of language, one learns from Babel-17, evidently is defined by the limits it imposes on us.
During a voyage through space we learn of ghost-like beings, called ‚Eye‘, ‚Ear‘ and ‚Nose‘, who are part of a space ship‘s crew, and who are responsible for sensual reconnaissance. They report how an approaching space port looks like to the captain of the ship who has no windows or anything to „see“ for herself (72f.). Through a helmet she can partake of the three sensory impartations, each of which can explain the whole situation as is witnessed by the simultaneous answers to the captain’s question of where to dock in the space port and for the verbal description of each the words seem deficient.
„In the sound of the E-minor triad.“
„In the hot oil you can smell bubbling to your left.“
„Home in on that white circle.“ (73)
This passage amply illustrates the point, that language is not enough, but everything recurs to language, in the end, you have to listen and make the best of it. Aristotle said man is a social being and society consequently depends on communication, or, to phrase it differently, on language.
Limited as we might be because of language, we might think, that we might possibly cope completely without language. The one area, though, where everybody might agree that language is essential, is communication. And it is communication that turns out to be one of the three most important aspects of language in Babel-17, the other two being the diversity of languages and language itself.
This novel is shock full of characters who try to communicate with others and fail or who don’t even try. The latter case is evident in the interplanetary war between the Invaders and the Alliance. In the whole novel there is not a single instance where the two parties communicate in any way. Until the last chapter, the Invaders are only twice encountered in person and then from a considerable distance, only as a red light on a radar screen (cf.124ff.). The unspoken question lingers in the text whether the war could have been evaded or, once under way, stopped by both parties communicating their differences. There are indications of both possibilities in the text. For one thing, both parties refer to the other party as the „one-who-has-invaded“ (215), which implies a misunderstanding . For another, as Rydra Wong sets out to put an stop to the war at the end, one of the first measures she takes, is to talk to the Invader’s Commander (cf. 218).
More interesting than the political misapprehensions are the numerous implications that aberrations in communication might be part of the conditio humana. The thought of the General: “Sequestered, how could this city exist?” (3) might well be applied to humans in general, as this same General, becoming infatuated with Rydra, mentally despairs of not being able to tell her his feelings, thinking: “My god […] all that inside of me and she doesn’t know! I didn’t communicate a thing!” (14), even though Rydra understands him perfectly through his non-verbal language, the “[b]reathing pattern, curls of hands in lap, carriage of shoulders” (197), also called “[m]eaningful motion [or] kinesics” (Meyers, Aliens and Linguistics, 59) in linguistics. This communication comes so naturally to humans that its total absence can cause “horrifying” (Delany, Babel-17, 197) shocks. The Butcher, as a speaker of Babel-17 loses the concept of ‚I‘, he is badly handicapped when it comes to communicating with others, but as he does not have the verbal means to efficiently communicate subjectivity the Butcher subconsciously resorts to non-verbal language (cf. 151), such as thumping his breast to express something that would be filled by speakers of English with the word ‚I‘ or ‚me‘ . Obviously, even if we do not talk we always use language or language-supplements such as a gesture to communicate.
Sometimes in Babel-17, communication takes place neither through speech nor through non-verbal language. Sometimes it takes place through telepathy, which is interesting, considering the interpretation of the General’s statement stated above: sequestered from other people, how can man exist? Telepathy is often seen as a way out of the solitariness of modern man (cf. Milner 298) and a way to cut the distance to others and to short-circuit communication if problems arise (cf. Bogdanoff 247). It is consequently of high importance that the person who solves the communication problems surrounding Babel-17, Rydra Wong , is telepathic (cf. Delany, Babel-17, 198).
Reading the thoughts of animals she comes up with pictures (cf. 205), but with humans the mind-reading always results in grammatically correct sentences. The difference between man and animal must clearly be language . Humans being „creatures whose choices are limited to killing or talking“ (Meyers, The Language and Languages of Science Fiction, 211), the emphasis on good communication in Babel-17 indicates a strong inclination to the latter, moreover it demonstrates a way to circumvent the former, if we bear in mind the political misapprehensions we talked about.
As we have seen, language has many uses in Babel-17, reaching from a comparison of different languages to an examination of the nature of language and, further still, to the necessity of communication. Communication has been the bottom line of all these implications of language. There is one other use of language, though, which concerns the practice of ‚naming‘ things.
The first kind of naming, using names as intertextual devices in a way that Bakhtin labeled „discourse“ (Eagleton 146), enables communication, not between the characters but between the reader and the text, as well as between this text and others. It is obvious at first glance that names are eminent for the construction of the text, as the five parts of Babel-17 are each named for one character, thereby signifying his or her importance for that particular part. Names, apparently, carry meaning in this text.
Most names in the text are invented, they seem like anagrams but there is no way to determine from the text itself where they point to, they might as well be part of the strange names of SF . The first of the three which are indeed decipherable is the name of the battleship on which Rydra encounters the Butcher, the only person really speaking Babel-17, though not uttering a single word of it in the text, and learns that language: Jebel Tarik. We are informed, that this means ‚Tarik’s mountain‘ in Old Moorish (cf. Delany, Babel-17, 115). It also is the Old Moorish name for the small peninsula called Gibraltar, one of the pillars of Herakles. What exactly this reference means we can only speculate upon. One way this can be construed is that it is indeed Herakles, the hero of greek myth, who is meant. This is indicated by the only openly mythical reference in the text (cf. 126), which also refers to greek myth and Herakles‘ quest , two parts of which took place on Gibraltar. As Babel-17‘s events ressemble a series of quests (cf. Barbour 26), calling the battle ship ‚Jebel Tarik‘ might be a move of the text placing the novel’s events square in ancient quest traditions.
The second name is the name of the novel as well as of the mysterious language: Babel-17, which is obviously a biblical reference to Babel, also known as Babylon. There are two significant biblical passages pertaining to Babel-17. The first is situated in and is concerned with God punishing Babylon for its arrogance. The punishment consists of „confound[ing] their language, that they may not understand one another’s speech.“ (Pinker 231) This passage may well be read as a mythical explanation for the diversity of languages, the origin of many misunderstandings that arise in human communication. The second one is found in , where the downfall of the Great Whore Babylon is described in detail. At first glance, this passage might seem a little weird, having nothing to do with language or communication at all. Maybe, on second glance, it describes the consequences of mis-using language, of failed communication, of using words for war-mongering. In this reading of Babel-17, could the accusation that „die auf Erden wohnen, sind betrunken geworden von dem Wein ihrer Hurerei“ () not be talking about humanity whose mind was clogged by misleading words? In short, clogged by the limitations of language, just as, in a more obvious way, the Butcher’s mind is clogged by Babel-17.
The last name is less complicated than the first two. It is the protagonist’s name: Rydra Wong, which, spoken aloud, sounds like „right or wrong“ and may be a play both on critical processes within a language and on sublime messages in otherwise inconspicuous speech. The first reference might have something to do with the fact that within Babel-17‘s structure everything that can be said seems logically correct and intrinsically right, including the criminal actions programmed into it. It takes Rydra Wong to detect the manipulation inherent in the language. SF-editor Hartwell claims that „the dream of SF is to control reality by creating it“ (95) and Babel-17 tries to do just that. It creates a world where all possible propositions are true, it pretends that that each and every possibility is exhausted. As Wittgenstein said: „Man kann [einen Satz] verstehen, ohne zu wissen, ob er wahr ist.“ (33). Babel-17 pretends that every proposition that can be understood is true. This pretension is questioned by Rydra, introducing external criterias for evaluating truth into the language.
Names are of a great value to the structure of Babel-17. This holds true, as we have seen, for some particular names. Also, as we have seen, the process of naming things, for instance naming chapters or naming the novel, is an important part of the process of developing Babel-17‘s themes. We get an idea of exactly how important the process of naming actually is if we read that „[w]ords are names for things.[…] But were words names for things, or was that just a bit of semantic confusion? Words were symbols for whole categories of things“ (Delany, Babel-17, 112; italics his).
What I mean by „process of naming“ is the process whereby someone or something gets assigned a name and, through the name, the person or thing suddenly can be categorized, be used as a thing one can finally be sure of. Naming is trying to rid yourself of issues of undecidabilities, trying to rid yourself from ambiguities inherent in the person, thing or idea. Naming is a continuous series of „attempts at ‚image control‘“ (Tucker 13). That process is nicely illustrated early in the text, when a customs officer sees something he has never seen before, he is intimidated accordingly, so he tries to name the thing. He starts by calling it „the Silver Dragon“ (35), a name, that is more like a title than a name. Its gender or sex is not specified yet, that happens in the next sentence, starting off with „[s]he“ (35). The naming is complete, relieved that he could assess the creature, the customs officer can now allow himself to be astounded and exclaims: „It‘s a woman!“ (35). The same reasoning leads him shortly afterwards to tag someone a „Pervert!“ (43). This quick tagging seems to be the easy way of handling complicated situations.
There are two more ways that naming is employed in the text. One is the use of euphemisms and codes. A euphemism occurs, for example, when the General talks about the terroristic sabotage as „accidents“ (12). Codes are used far more often and in these codes names are used as simple placeholders for the encoded words, for example in radio contact in a space fight (cf. 129) or, more simply in assigning a code name to the language which the terrorists use to communicate with each other, Babel-17.
The last crucial act of naming concerns the naming of one’s self. According to Jacques Lacan, we are least ourselves while we talk about ourselves (cf. Eagleton 170), yet the attempts to define one‘s self by talking or thinking about it crowd the text. Be it the elusive desire that one wants to seize by naming it (cf. Delany, Babel-17, 14) or one’s vague feelings that seem less vague once they are named: „I am amazed, surprised, bewildered.“ (5). This process is reflected in the text itself in a most interesting way: when Rydra is trying to teach the Butcher the concept of ‚I‘ and ‚you‘, he turns that same concept nearly on its head by turning ‚I‘ and ‚you‘ respectively into proper names.
The main concern of naming is finding the „real name“ (69) of things, and thereby their irrefutable meaning. Later Rydra asks herself „[i]f there‘s no word for it, how do you think about it?“ (111), how do you assess it? This question echoes the questions that arise from the posthumously published works of American linguist Benjamin Lee Whorf, his central claim being the following:
We are thus introduced to a new principle of relativity, which holds, that all observers are not
lead by the same physical evidence to the same picture of the universe, unless their linguistic
backgrounds are similar, or can in some way be calibrated. (Whorf 214)
The so-called principle of linguistic relativity states that fundamental differences in grammatical categories or in categories of words correspond to fundamental differences in thought. We cannot think independently of the language system we are part of, because „we cannot but ‚see and hear and otherwise experience‘ in terms of the categories and distinctions encoded in language“ (Lyons 304). This is the strong formulation of the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis, which is highly controversial.
The weak formulation ‚merely‘ states that „the structure of one’s language influences perception and recall“ (307), meaning that memory is selective and depending on the language systems it will recall different things in different language systems. Some hold, that, although Whorf might have been wrong in his strong hypothesis, the weak version ist too weak and they formulated their theory between these two versions, taking into account the culture as a whole of the society in question (cf. Gipper 225).
In respect to two different language systems, the last issue to be discussed is the difference between translation and understanding. Even if it were true that translation is impossible, because metaphors and connotations are seldom translatable and never without losing some of the connotation, this would not mean that understanding is impossible (cf. Lakoff 311). It is crucial to differentiate between two languages having a different „conceptual system“ (311), which is what makes translation difficult (cf. 311f.), and the „conceptualizing capacity“ (310), of which Lakoff assumes that it is shared in general by people. This capacity allows for understanding even in cases when the conceptual systems are radically different (cf. 311f.).
One need not go very far in looking for an example of the difficulties implied by the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis in Babel-17. The two most significant languages in the text, English and Babel-17, are not very similar to each other, their conceptual systems are fundamentally different. Babel-17 is “an exact analytical language” (Delany, Babel-17, 215), while English is claimed to be “analytically clumsy” (210). Speakers of Babel-17 seem to have an “angular brutality” as well as an “animal grace” (both: 131). The English language, by contrast, lends itself well to poetry, it is beautiful when it is polished, it is a very subjective language, expressing peoples thought and opinions (cf. 17f.), whereas in Babel-17’s conceptual system the grammatical category of subjectivity and self-reflexiveness is missing (cf. 139).
These conceptual differences make translation difficult, certainly. That is why the Butcher, the original speaker of Babel-17, who does not speak a single word of it within the text, has trouble communicating properly in English, he sounds harsh and brutal (cf. 146ff.). These difficulties do not, however, prevent him from learning in English the concepts of ‘I’ and ‘you’ that are missing in the conceptual system he operates with. His being able to understand Rydra’s teaching is the proof that the text offers for the validity of Lakoff’s distinction between understanding and translation.
The closest the text gets to simply restating Whorfian theory is when Rydra claims that “language is thought” (23, italics his) and the closest it gets to refuting the same theory is by saying that although “the original words were lost, the translation remained” (77). What may seem simply like a contradictory statement turns out to be, another one of the textual tactics of Babel-17, namely intrducing a contardiction to shake the readers grip on the meaning of the text and to leave him with questions. Similarly, the explanation of Babel-17’s function as programming its speaker “to become a criminal and a saboteur” (215) is so blatantly unscientific and implausible that it should quickly be realized that the text is not concerned with simple endeavors such as fictionally exploring Whorfian theory. On the contrary, it uses Whorf’s theory to make its own points.
Sometimes the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis is also called Sapir-Whorf-Korzybski Hypothesis, named after the founder of General Semantics, whose Motto is ‘The Map is not the Territory’ (cf. Eco 124f.), something we already encountered in Lacan’s thesis. Interestingly, this corresponds nicely with Broderick’s assertion that SF “maps utopia” (107). This connection should encourage us not to look for literalizations of utopias in works of SF, but to look instead for hints, absences, the “naturwissenschaftliche Wunderbare” (Todorov 54). Also, we should remember Moylan, who claimed, that we should not expect utopias in modern literature but only expressions of utopia (cf. Moylan 36). A cursory glance at Babel-17 reveals that there is no utopia in the narrow sense of the word. Still, there is a map of a certain, utopian change, as closer scrutiny will show. Babel-17 traces the contours of that change in the murky waters of language.
Naming things and using manipulated speech have been part of everyday language for several years now. The text shows just how manipulative everyday language can be by using the extreme example of the schizophrenia-inducing Babel-17 in several subtle ways. For instance it is pointed out that Babel-17 manipulates its speakers by using manipulative vocabulary: “the word for Alliance in Babel-17 translates literally into English as: one who has invaded.[…] It has all sorts of little diabolisms programmed into it.” (Delany, Babel-17, 215). This particular diabolism it shares with English, as we never get to know the word for the Invader’s home planets, they are just that: Invaders, meaning, those-who-have-invaded.
It is not easy to blame Babel-17 on the Invaders, as they used Babel-17 as a tool which only worked because it turned a weapon which was the Alliance’s all along, against the Alliance (see footnote 6). Babel-17 encourages us to look at language as an object, not as a given. “[T]he tool is not the weapon; rather the knowledge of how to use it” (213). This is where linguistic relativism comes into play. Some, among them Robert Anton Wilson, have claimed, that English is a highly manipulative language, with lots of possibilities to shroud the speaker’s intentions. That’s why they invented E-Prime, which appears to be sort of a new and improved English, wherin one is not allowed to use the verb ‘(to) be’ or any of its compound varieties (cf. Wilson 97-107). Changing the conceptual system changes minds, they claim. Exactly the same claim is made by Rydra Wong. After having uncovered every secret of Babel-17 and having stopped the sabotage she corrected Babel-17 “to build it towards truth” (Delany, Babel-17, 218).
Turning around what I said in the previous paragraph, I may also claim that its easy to blame Babel-17 on the Invaders, because the names suggest that. It is an „alien language“ (7) and the nameless Invaders wrought havoc with it (cf. 214f.). Sure, the Butcher was the Alliance’s tool, but it took the Invader’s cunning , the „knowledge how to use it“ (213) to make him a weapon. If it is that easy to change truths, how can Rydra believe herself to be able to make Babel-17 truthful?
Wittgenstein famously wrote: „Wovon man nicht sprechen kann, darüber muß man schweigen“ (Wittgenstein 111). Not to talk about something equals in this case not being able to say anything about that something that can have any claim to truth. Babel-17‘s status as a work of fiction and the loads of contradictions of which we have encountered several already, almost represent that Wittgensteinian silence. At the end of the day, what, really, has been said? What has been named? If „[a]ny given fiction reveals what it excludes“ (Broderick 133) the possibilities of what is revealed in Babel-17 are great, as it nearly never mentions the government, society, anything that borders on the issues of language is excluded from the text but not from the text’s discourse. Some kind of utopia is discernible in the text, but it’s precise shape is never named, which makes it all the more pervasive.
In Babel-17, we have earned, language is present in many ways, as language, linguistics, poetry and in the process of naming. There is one last aspect left, the one about the language-like qualities of SF. Samuel R. Delany encourages the reader of SF to think of it „as a language that must be learned or as a mode of writing as distinctive as poetry.“ (Landon 7). Each SF text is embedded in a „generic [SF] megatext“ (Broderick 59), which consists of all the other SF works that have been written and all the works that will be written. This means that every SF text has numerous references to numerous other SF texts which must be „not so much understood as simply recognized as proper names.“ (Broderick 57). Most importantly among those references figure certain stock terms that keep cropping up and the individual SF text is characterised by the way he takes up these stock terms and uses them in his own narrative.
This, of course, is nothing else but the notion of intertextuality that we already discussed. It is only now, however, that all the necessary elements for a sensible discussion of the dialogical functions of the SF megatext have been gathered. Babel-17 „showcas[es] the possibilities of SF’s invented languages“ (Malmgren 9) and a comparison with the SF megatext shows that Sfspeak is just another language in the bulk of the many already presented, but it is the process of naming that will become most important for the discussion of SF vocabulary.
Many SF texts play on the so-called „quest formula“ (Aldiss and Wingrove 393). These texts constitute a whole subgenre of SF: the space opera, which first appeared in the 1920s in pulp magazines such as Amazing and Astounding. (cf. Landon 72 ff.). Kingsley Amis remarks that what space operas resemble most are „horse operas“ (44) and Susan Sontag noticed, apropos of SF films, that their predictability remind her of Westerns (cf. 209). Space opera’s plots involve all the magic ingredients, space ships, black holes, hideous aliens, big guns and in a focal position: the heroic men who conquer the unknown universe (cf. Bogdanoff 82 f.). Space operas not only reinforce certain stereotypes, they also have social relevance in their advocacy of capitalism and colonialism (cf. Bogdanoff 85f.) They are propelled by a „missionary fervor and a sense of purpose“ (Landon 81). This crusade leads to frequent encounters with aliens. These encounters can be subsumed under the so-called first contact theme.
First Contacts are not restrained in their appearance nor are they more likely to appear in a space opera than in any other SF subgenre. They are first contacts with that which is alien, that which is the other. This theme is so pervasive that it has lead Broderick to say that SF both „writes the narrative of the other“ and „the narrative of the same, as other“ (51, italics his), which is a major insight, as C.G. Jung points out: „the alien is that which exists within humanity but which civilized humanity believes to have conquered“ (Golden 73). Also, according to C.G. Jung, the quest of the hero is a new myth (cf. 31) and corresponds with „the perennial human quest for meaning and wholeness“ (29). Fighting a war against an alien perceived as hideous would mean what the hero really fights is that within himself which he perceives as hideous. He finds himself a substitute enemy.
Turning to SF it soon is noticeable that the main problem in first contact scenarios is a failing of all kinds of communication, verbal as well as non-verbal (cf. Bogdanoff 244). In SF films the appearance of the alien usually is accompanied by silence (cf. Seeßlen 435), which in written SF texts is impossible to realize. As in the movies, however, the appearance of the alien has its importance. According to Bogdanoff communication works better the more human the alien appears. (cf. 230). This raises the question of what is really human: the humans, their shadow counterparts or both? What makes someone human ? It might well be language.
When talking about mythical references in the novel we already noticed the quest motive in Babel-17. Indeed, the novel has been derisively called a space opera often both by members of the academia (cf. Schulz 151) as well as by members of the SF ‚scene‘ (cf. Keim 503). It has been claimed that space opera’s underlying world view prevents any criticism of society or language (cf. Keim 514). In contrast, I would claim that the text „shows the need to understand codes and conventions“ (Samuelson 168) in order to work with them.
The stereotypes of space opera are conspicuously absent. The hero is a woman, who has weak moments (Delany, Babel-17, 15f.). She is a poet, not a warrior and although fights take place they have nothing to do with what turns out to be the hero’s victory. There’s none of the stereotypical male cocksureness in the events. It is poetry, science and Rydra and the Butcher‘s love that wins the day, not the big guns. The crew on Rydra‘s ship which is all the society the text permits us to see works in ways together that seem more like kibbutzim, working together as equals, work and love closely related. There is no trace of capitalism; colonialism, however, is hinted at, the headquarters of the Invaders are in a city called „Nueva-nueva York“ (218), a clear reference to New York and American colonial history. The missionary fervor, too, has its place in Babel-17, but it is a different fervor, a different purpose. In the end, Babel-17 is accorded no cultural value that could result in a cultural colonisation, it is assigned to other tools, it works as a go-between.
Speaking ‘SF’ means understanding the stereotypes and using them. Moylan wrote that he believed the productive powers of phantasy were situated in art (cf. Moylan 33). Using one’s phantasy to speak to the reader with the intent of swaying him to the cause, that aspect of Moylan’s belief are well taken care of by SF.
The key to the space opera motive in Babel-17 is found in Jung‘s observation as stated above: „the alien is that which exists within humanity but which civilized humanity believes to have conquered“ (Golden 73), a dark force within humanity. And language is exactly that, a manipulative force that we believe to have conquered through writings, through codes, through the disambiguation that we believe to occur in the process of naming. By transposing the palpable figure of the alien with something as vague as language, Babel-17 demonstrates what we should be afraid of: ourselves. „Who is this animal man“ is asked early on (Delany, Babel-17, 3). If we as human beings dump our fears of our shadowy side on the character of the Alien, this process assures that in the figure of that Alien can we ourselves be traced (cf. Golden 161). In language we can also be traced with all our arrogance in full display, all our weaknesses.
Language in space operas, we have found, mirrors the capitalist society from when they originated. Language mirrors our selves, but, as we learned, those same selves are absent in the language. Compared to other utopias, the traces of utopia visible in Babel-17 are not to do with enshrining a particular language or culture, as utopias generally have the tendency to do (Gordon 205). Languages, we learn, are deficient. English as well as the mysterious Babel-17. Communication also is deficient, personal as well as global, we have learned that, too. Maybe society, and we, too, who are mirrored in it are also deficient.
Language is mended as the events turn to a close (218f.). Another thing that is on the way to being mended is the political situation, meaning the interplanetary war, as Rydra and the Butcher are resolved to stop it. About earth society we receive nearly no information, we only encounter two earth people from the government, the General and a customs officer. Both are unhappy. The General, because he thinks that he cannot communicate with others. The customs officer seems to be unhappy with his whole life situation. He changes because he communicates with others, he changes his language system in parts: the process of naming is recognized as bad. This, actually is not portrayed in the novel, but when Rydra returns to earth the customs officer’s lifestyle resembles a lifestyle he claimed was perverted (cf. 191f.). Rydra’s quest, one might assume, mirrors the officer’s journey through his language in an allegorical way.
In his foreword to Delany’s seventh novel The Einstein Intersection, Neil Gaiman reviews some of the ways that particular novel has been read by all kinds of readers and interpreters. He closes that section of the foreword without passing judgement on the validity of these readings but instead he comments: „if that were all the book was, it would be a poor type of tale, with little resonance for now. Instead, it continues to resonate.“ (Gaiman ix). That holds equally true for Babel-17, which has been read as a black novel (cf. Weedman), as a gay novel and as an arrogant and trashy novel (cf. Keim)
SF, Delany says, is „a tool to help you think about the present […] in a way that allows you to question them as you read along in an interesting, moving and exciting story“ (Landon 35). This statement perfectly captures the effect of Babel-17, an exiting story about language and its mechanisms, questioning our sense of ourselves. Notions of free will and truth are under fire in this novel. That its narrative is open-ended is fitting. It leaves us with questions, not with answers. Questions that are about language, not about codes.
Languages have to be understood. When Rydra sits down with her tapes and transcriptions and works out all the grammar and vocabulary before passing judgment on Babel-17, maybe that is the text’s way of telling us to sit down likewise and consider the implications.Rydra’s understanding of herself and her understanding of the language happen at the same time. Babel-17 suggests, that it is always that way as understanding ourselves means understanding language first.
SF „shows human kind groaning in chains of its own construction, but nearly always with the qualification that those chains can be broken if people try hard enough“ (Amis 77) In Babel-17 these chains are language. Changing your life means changing your language. This is where mainstream criticism errs, which assumes that Babel-17 is about language and problems of language. They cannot see that it is about change. Trying hard enough not to succumb to the manipulations of language or to reflect the manipulation. These consequences are political as well as epistemological. Changing society also means changing yourself and your language, which is the lesson Wilson implemented when he started to advocate E-Prime.
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