Jerry Pinto: Em and the Big Hoom

Pinto, Jerry (2012), Em and the Big Hoom, Viking
ISBN 9787-0-670-92358-8

Ah, man. I’ll just say it. I thought this novel was awfully mediocre, on a multitude of levels – but it comes with a big bag of praise. The book is covered in huge blurbs, by the likes of Rushdie, Ghosh and Kiran Desai (well ok). This is a supposedly “profoundly moving” book – so when I tell you it’s mostly annoying, trite and sometimes offensive, I may be in the minority of readers. There are indeed moments where the book comes close to being moving; they are all towards the end. The book is about a mother and her son (there’s a daughter too, but Jerry Pinto, in what is symptomatic for the whole book, includes her as a kind of afterthought, most of the time, as a plus one for the frankly unbearable narrator and protagonist. When the mother dies (it’s not really a big spoiler), Pinto’s narrator slips into a slightly different tone, offering a simulacrum of moving, elegiac narration. This fits, in turn the blurb by Kiran Desai, who made a career (and got a booker winning book) out of offering a pale simulacrum of specific tones and moods popular in English-language Indian fiction (I have some remarks on that genre here). Maybe I wasn’t in the right mood to read this, but at this point I feel as if I am merely picking reasons not to stick to my initial impression. Because, man. This book is lifeless, cold, with a tinge of misogyny and general awfulness. The prose isn’t that hot either. The dialogue is often interesting, with some intriguing touches involving the titular “Em” sometimes borrowing American turns of phrases, but the non-dialog prose moves from banal triteness to trying to engage that register of cleverness, that tradition that runs from G.V. Desani to Rushdie – a specific kind of linguistic playfulness. Yet, as we see in the latter half of Rushdie’s work, that kind of writing requires a special skill and literary alertness – neither of which Pinto appears to possess. With so many books in the world, I cannot come up with a single reason why anyone should pick up Em and the Big Hoom, and honestly, I am not entirely happy I did so myself.

To start at the beginning: Em and the Big Hoom is a novel about an Indian family – a mother, “Em,” a father, nicknamed “the Big Hoom,” and the two children, the male narrator and “Susan.” Em is mentally ill, or so the novel insists. She has some form of manic depression, and has had it for years and years. She has lived through a number of suicide attempts, but she also hears voices apparently, and God knows what else Jerry Pinto dug up in his grab bag of mental illness issues. The novel’s bulk is set in a hospital as the narrator questions his mother about her choices in life, why on earth she was such a bad, bad mother, but he also elicits stories from her about her past. This narrative set up is the reason why the novel, like Em’s mind, feels a bit unmoored, there’s no real present to hold on to, as Pinto doesn’t really offer broad descriptions of the ward and their interactions in it either. His focus is almost completely on the two elements: the reproachful dialogue and the many, many flashbacks. I think there’s a skill required for this kind of set-up to be convincing, and not come off dull, and Pinto doesn’t have it. Although, I will say, this is a debut novel, and many debut novels suffer from this ungrounded, overexcited kind of structure. That said, Pinto steers his novel onto well-trod paths, the excitement cannot come from covering new terrain. For example, Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping, though I do not hold her into the same esteem as many friends who think she should be winning the highest literary honors, is a small, fine book about the aftermath of maternal suicide. Robinson makes good use of the reality of nature, of objects, houses, things, in short, as a way to root and situate her characters. Loss and disorientation are given meaning by giving the reader a sense of direction within the novel itself. Pinto isn’t particularly interested in that, and so the book becomes a diatribe against the fictional mother. I think the only mother I remember being this sharply condemned is Evelyn Waugh’s Brenda Last whose “Thank God” upon learning of her son’s death has long since engraved itself in our memories.

In contrast to Waugh, Pinto isn’t interested in painting Em as a deceitful person. Em is merely selfish. Pinto described mental illness, but, underneath, what he’s really talking about, is selfishness. Em is painted as someone who indulges her whims, with her husband and children suffering. There’s an episode where the family finds out that Em has spent all the money in a savings account that was supposed to support the family in the case of the father’s death, and she explains how it is connected to trust, and to anxiety, but neither the narrator, nor the rest of the family can muster any sympathy or empathy for Em. This is nor per se a comment on Pinto’s skills. Indeed, part of what made the narrator so galling in this and other scenes is the clear depiction of the mother’s objections. He does not offer a caricatured crazy woman. This is no drunk Janice Angstrom drowning her daughter in a tub, as Updike, he of the misogynist streak, constructed her for his own protagonist, “Rabbit” Angstrom. At the same time, Em never gets her due, and if the reader isn’t entirely sure what the book’s own stance towards its narrator is, the kind, sometimes even moving, final portions of the book dealing with grief and the aftermath, quickly disabuse us of any notion that we are offered the son’s blindness critically. Neither son nor husband are interested in that woman that lives among them. There’s precious little talk of anything that resembles therapy – instead we hear a lot about various kinds of medication, culminating in a scarring electro-convulsive therapy treatment. This, incidentally, is how we have always talked about depression and similar mental illnesses, and the current movement to “finally” treat mental illnesses like “normal illnesses” and the open way to discuss medication, while usually painted as progressive, is, in actuality, like some other current social “progressive” movements, anything but. Instead what we are given is a family who doesn’t really care why their mother and wife does what she does, they pathologize her, criticize her, talk down to her, culminating in the son yelling at his wife “Shut up you disgusting bitch!”

That is worth looking at for a second. He apologizes, but it is a difficult apology because his mother won’t show him that she is hurt by it, implying that it is the hurt, not the substance of the insult that needs apologizing for. But what’s more, this outburst comes after the mother jokes about his work, or rather, about the money he makes and that he still lives at home. This declaration so mortally wounds his masculinity that he “could not remember ever being so violated and hurt.” That is quite something for an adult to say, who immediately insults his mother worse than she’d ever dream of insulting him – what’s more, her treatment at the hands of neighbors (who suspect her of stealing a child when she walks around daydreaming, holding her son), the police (who arrest her), the mental health professionals (take your pick), and her family. If condescending to someone is such a vicious insult, they all need to rethink their lives.  But this scene helps in other ways too. It highlights the strange masculine assumptions, the narcissistic ride that this narrator is on. Telling him he doesn’t make enough money to move out is a mortal insult, but in a later section, he very simply assumes the only reason his sister will move out is that she marries. And that’s not even the strangest instance of blindness in this scene.

Shortly after he insults his mother, she makes a sharp joke involving the insult: “can the disgusting bitch make you some tea?” She then writes a note of apology for what she said, and signs it, “the disgusting bitch.” From her son? Nothing but silence. The night after this, Em has a breakdown, has to be moved to the hospital, where she is again visited by her Gold Star son, and greets him with “I went mad, so you don’t have to be. You don’t have to do anything now that I am the disgusting bitch.” You’d think, huh, this is all pretty clear, but this is how the narrator reads the situation now: “I looked at her carefully. She was not letting me see what she was thinking. So I knew, immediately, that she had registered the thoughtless insult and that it had mattered. She was not going to give me proof so there was no way I could actually apologize. But I tried. ‘I’m sorry I said that.’” I mean this is special. Apart from the bad prose, it’s woth noting that THIS is when he knows, “immediately,” that his mother “registered” the insult. Not when she used it twice the previous day. Not when she wrote an embarrassing note of apology that she should not have written. Not when she had a mental breakdown immediately afterwards. No, now, the third time she mentions it, her son has an epiphany, but still, he can’t “actually” apologize because his mother won’t give him “proof” it hurt her. None of the things I listed count as proof. God knows what would be “proof” in his eyes. Tearful recriminations? This scene is an exception in some ways, but it does show, especially since there are continuities to the motherless time of grief towards the end, viz. Susan, for example, how the narrator – and in some sense the novel as a whole – conceive of women and mothers. I mean, if this novel was based on one or more real women (and some details in it tell me she is, or Pinto did some research), I can pinpoint pretty exactly how Em got to where she ended up. Em is a clever, independent, unusual woman with an unquiet mind, surrounded by people who like “quirky” women as background noise, not as a disruptive force. Em eventually commits suicide, and while you shouldn’t point a finger when it comes to suicide and mental illness, in this case you could at least raise an inquisitive eyebrow while looking at that son.

The worst failing here is the lack of introspection, the lack of real vulnerability. As I close this review, I’d like to point to another example. It’s from Ryunosuke Akutagawa’s autobiographical writings. I won’t pretend I found this myself – confounded by the praise (particularly Ghosh’s. I admire his fiction so much!) on the book cover, I looked for and found an appraisal of the (then unpublished) manuscript on Amitav Ghosh’s blog, where a user pointed to these stories in the comments to the blog post, which, as luck would have it, are contained in my volume of Akutagawa’s short fiction. Akutagawa’s appraisal of his own mad mother is also harsh and sharp. In “Death Register” he writes: “My mother was a madwoman. I never did feel close to her as a son should towards his mother.” When his mother, after wasting away for a while, opens her eyes on her deathbed to announce the end, “we couldn’t help giggling” despite feeling sad. The details chosen in the few remarks are exquisite. In another short prose piece he goes on and on about never being breastfed by his mother. Pinto’s narrator expresses anxiousness about whether his mother’s “madness” (I’m not super sure about that diagnosis) can be inherited. Akutagawa, on the other hand, is aware that he has. He jokes in other prose pieces about being unconcerned about the dangers of insomnia, after all, it’s “nothing new for the son of a madwoman.” As readers, we could take him being as cutting about his mother as Pinto’s narrator is because we are shown his own vulnerability, and unlike in Pinto’s novel, this is real, poetically expressed, artistically heightened, vulnerability.

I mean, I understand, there’s a chance all of these critiques are part of the text, and not brought to the text by me. Since there’s no outside voice, there’s a chance that Pinto created a misogynist protagonist who drives his mother into mental breakdowns on purpose. But there’s no textual evidence for that. What’s more likely is that Pinto shares this view of mental illness as this foreign country, with those afflicted by it outside of normal empathy and he shares this view of women, particularly since the Big Hoom isn’t much better, and as an author, he’s given Susan a marginal existence in the book. I mean, on the penultimate page of the book, he has Susan being fond of her tupperware, and telling the two men after the wake: “I’m going to clean up. You two go.” Because of course. Pinto has skills, many of them in the dialogue, but most of all, he’s given me a wish to know more about Em. For a novel with her in the title, we learn precious little about her. In my head I thought her voice could be a variant of the protagonist of Lydia Millet’s My Happy Life. I mean we don’t know. And that’s the problem. Well, there’s also the prose. There’s always the prose.

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tumblr_oh8286wvu11r0z5aoo1_540I’ve been rereading Hunter S Thompson because ‘tis the season.

“Let’s face it – the yo-yo president of the U.S.A. knows NOTHING. […] This is never an easy thing for the voters of this country to accept. No. Nonsense. The president cannot be a Fool. Not at this moment in time – when the last living vestiges of the American Dream are on the line. This is not the time to have a bogus rich kid in charge of the White House. […] Who does vote for these dishonest shitheads? Who among us can be happy and proud of having all this innocent blood on our hands? Who are these swine? […] They are the same ones who wanted to have Muhammad Ali locked up […]. They speak for all that is cruel and stupid and vicious in the American character. They are the racists and hate mongers among us. – they are the Ku Klux Klan. I piss down the throats of these Nazis.”

– Hunter S. Thompson (on GWB)

Schwörung, Entschwörung & Video

Ich habe vermehrt auf Daniel Kulla, seinen Blog und seine Bücher hingewiesen. Ein paar Jahre alt ist mittlerweile sein sehr lesenwertes, empfehlenswerter Essay Entschwörungstheorie. philipsteffan alias Philip Steffan hat nun einen der Vorträge zur Entschwörungstheorie mit dem Kulla Deutschland bereist. Enjoy! & then go buy the book.


Dana Spiotta: Eat the Document

Spiotta, Dana (2008), Eat the Document, Picador
ISBN 978-0-330-448229-1

One of James Merrill’s best and most affecting poems is “18 West 11th Street“, a poem where he mourns the destruction of the townhouse in New York where he once lived as a kid. His family moved away and eventually the house came to belong to a family called Wilkerson. Unfortunately for that family and the house, their daughter, Cathlyn Wilkerson, was a member of the Weather Underground (or just: Weathermen), an organization of the American radical left and used the house to gather and build bombs. The Weathermen specialized in bombing buildings and statues without harming people. On march 6, 1970, they accidentally blew up themselves; three of the Weathermen died. Reading scholarship on Merrill’s poetry can be quite amusing with regard to this specific poem, with eminent scholars such as Stephen Yenser misreading the text in order to extract a condemnation of the Weathermen from it. Yenser is such a profound reader of Merrill’s work, why the gaffe here? The simple answer is that left wing terrorism is still divisive, causing people to react strongly, revealing their convictions and biases in the process. And books dealing with the period are no exception. In Germany, the past year had seen a wave of contentious books about 1968, some praising, some damning the movements of the time. In English speaking countries, too, the amount of recent books consecrated to that time is remarkable. Three novels in particular stand out. Peter Carey’s His Illegal Self, which I’ve yet to read, Hari Kunzru’s remarkable My Revolutions and Dana Spiotta’s Eat the Document, which was nominated for the National Book Award in 2006.

This upfront: for much of the book I was thoroughly bored. The first fifth and the last are very readable, but the book is at least a hundred pages too long. That said, this is not a bad book. Eat the Document is the tale of two terrorists, Bobby and Mary, lovers, who, after a bombing designed to destroy an empty house kills someone, go underground, zigzag across the states, and finally assume new identities, living for years undisturbed. The bombing itself is not described until the end of the book, which is largely concerned with the aftermath of the revolutionary violence. Eat the Document is set in two distinct periods. One part of the book takes place in the present, which is 1998-2000, the other charts Mary’s getaway and her attempts at constructing a new identity for herself. These two building blocks are interlaced, so that actions and events in the present reflect on and are in turn illuminated by events and actions in the past. This structure means that the author does not need to directly comment upon the ideologies that led to the bombings and the destruction of the lives of the two terrorists, she can leave it to the events in the present. This sort of device recurs a few times in this novel which is too clever for its own sake. It frequently mistakes cleverness for smartness, without having a writer deft enough to make all the subterfuges and mirrors work. I may mention some of them subsequently. Some are subtle, some are more heavy handed; the two time levels is one of the latter.

In the chapters dealing with Mary’s odyssey through the 1970s and 1980s, Spiotta spreads before us a compelling portrait of a left underground that is rife with conflict, with jealousies, with hopes and fears. Fear, especially, seems to be a commanding factor. Since all this is channeled through a personal narrator which means, in this case, through Mary’s point of view, the fear could be Mary’s, but there’s no indication within the narrative that this would be the case. Instead, Spiotta delivers a few convincing, if slightly satiric characterizations of people active in different leftist communities, spinning the aura of fear from their personal anxieties. This has been done before and probably better. What’s really worth noting here is that this portrait is of a female left. It’s no accident that Spiotta has chosen to follow Mary rather than Bobby. The left project has always been one of emancipation, one of giving voice and lending power to the voice and powerless; it’s failures can often be charted on this exact point. The extent to which left movements have failed to live up to their intentions and ideals are numerous.

Spiotta spends quite some time showing us these ideals. She doesn’t explore anything, in-depth, since she drags her protagonist out of these situations soon enough but through the aforementioned juxtapositions and her miniature portraits she does manage to demonstrate to the reader a landscape of female utopias. What is most striking, and most damning about the communities depicted, is to what extent they are dominated by authoritarian figures and structures, nipping true equalities in the bud and reinforcing harmful tendencies of the larger society around them; also, the dependency on the monied establishment, by having much of it funded and supported by daughters with rich parents (Ms. Wilkerson comes to mind), undermines claims for autonomy and illustrates the dependency on the vilified US society. As standalone chapters, these parts of the book would read like harsh, and sometimes unfair criticism of what was, after all, a movement with enormous potential; unfair because it’s done with hindsight, it’s the typical criticism of the comfortable writer in the 00’s, looking back on a movement that failed in its larger designs, using that failure to attack the designs themselves.

The fact is, however, that these are not standalone chapters, that they are interspersed with sections that deal with the present. The present is divvied up between four (later: five) persons, who alternate in telling their story. One of these characters is Nash, a left-over leftist from the 1970s, who heads an ‘alternative’ bookstore, where he allows and encourages local kids to hold rebellious or subversive meetings. In his chapters we get to know how the present day left scene works, how young rebels think and work in the present, and suddenly, the 1970s chapters begin to glow. Suddenly, the perseverance of many women portrayed in these sections becomes admirable, and suddenly, too, having coherent, forceful ideals is something that is valuable instead of ridiculous. All this is interesting yet it is all done rather heavy-handedly. These points are made through very simple parallelisms (which do make an interesting, further point about psychogeography, but I can’t go into that here). To Spiotta’s credit, she doesn’t usually smack her readers about the head with the points she makes. Frequently she hands him an interesting chunk of something and leaves him to draw conclusions. This is the case with Jason. Jason is the son of Louise (who is another of the contemporary voices), a suburban widow, who is calm, friendly and boring. Jason’s chapters are the only ones narrated in the first person singular; they are different in other ways, too, most significantly: they are sections from his journal. Expressly written accounts.

These chapters, headed “Jason’s Journal” represent the core of the book, in two ways. The most simple one is this: Jason starts to hunt down all knowledge he can get at of Bobby and Mary’s whereabouts. His frantic search brings about the eventful climax and finale of the book, he is the catalyst that helps bringing together the two time levels at the end. He is probably the least political person of the whole book, mostly what he represents most is a narrative device. Not just in terms of plot. The novel has not been called Eat the Document on a whim or because that phrase sounded so nice. “Eat the Document” is the name of a 1966 movie about Bob Dylan’s UK tour with the Hawks, shot by D.A. Pennebaker, capturing, as Pennebaker’s infinitely more famous “Don’t Look Back” movie does, a pivotal moment in Dylan’s career as Dylan moved from acoustic to electric guitar, from performing alone on the stage with his guitar, to being backed by a full band. “Eat the Document” is a rarity, a so-called bootleg, circulating among fans, without seeing official publication. Bootlegs are interesting, in that they are part of the knowledge created by a society, but the means of diffusion are different; bootlegs are usually deviations, that sometimes but not always or most of the time violate some important aesthetic or political norm. I think the central issue here is decentrality, deviation. Bootlegs circle the center of knowledge, I think, most of the time they do not contradict or attack the norm that structures or dominates the center, they rather reproduce it with slight variations. The deviation is important not because of the content, but because of what that means for the diffusion. A deviation opens up spaces for opposition, and underground channels of diffusion of knowledge, while not necessarily transporting oppositional content, open up the opportunity to do so, create space for voices where none before existed.

Jason is addicted to bootlegs, even those where the bootlegged music is redundant and worse than what was officially released. It’s the aura of bootlegged music and films that draws him in, and his desire to collect everything that can be collected of a given artist’s works. He’s a collector, and in a further sense, an archivist, who assembles a library of odds and ends; I said that bootlegs are not part of an alternative knowledge but that they are paraphernalia of the main body of knowledge, providing not a different lens but contributing to and refining the dominant lens. And true to this, it is Jason’s archive that helps him uncover the present identities of Mary Wittaker and Bobby Desoto, the terrorists. But Spiotta’s project goes further, I think. By presenting an American culture that functions as a set of iterations, of repetitions with subtle and not so subtle deviations, she textualizes her history, stressing textual mechanisms such as narrative. Thus, Spiotta emphasizes, I think, history both as something made and as something picked up, found on byways and in dark alleys. Like “Eat the Document”, Dylan’s slightly jarring movie, Eat the Document provides an account of a tour that catches a country and a culture as it changes, as it grows up, shedding illusions. This passage near the end is illustrative of how much has changed:

A commune and a corporate community are not all that different. A corporation is merely a commune with different vales. But like a commune, everything is organized around a collusion of interests. It creates an inside and an outside. And let’s not forget, all communities are exclusive. By definition you exclude all that is outside the community. A corporation has rights and privileges that are distinct from its individual owners’, just as a commune has collective interests that supersede each individual’s interests.

And there are many more mirrors and tricks in the book. There’s a discussion of cultural memory that runs through it, of Jungian ideas, of punishment and guilt. But you never get the feeling that Spiotta’s heart is in it, and her writing is not good enough to balance all that coldly clever structure. A blurb on the back of my book compares her to Delillo, but here’s where they differ. I hold Delillo to be a consummate writer, a bit too caught up in his obsessions, so that he falls into self-parody now and then, but generally, he has the language he needs to make his cleverness work, at least for me. Spiotta doesn’t, and what’s worse, in her attempts to lend feeling, authenticity and power to her book, she frequently lapses into sentimentality. As I said before, this book reminded me a lot of Hari Kunzru’s stunning 2008 novel My Revolutions (which I herewith recommend to any- and everyone). Kunzru gives his protagonist quite a lot of leeway to speak and worry, as well. It frequently borders on sentimentality, as well. But Kunzru focuses on commitments. Kunzru politicizes sentimentality, he points out how people can be driven to action, how one’s experience of a society, everyday, embodied experience, can rally a person, can make concepts make sense. Kunzru defends political action and political commitment. He does not accept anger and action as a given, he shows where that may come from, how it might work, and the sentimentality is instrumental here, in order not to lapse into cold analysis, into anatomy, which My Revolutions isn’t doing.

Dana Spiotta, however, is different. She cuts out the personal commitment, her discussion of revolutionary ideals stays on a general, anatomical level as outlined earlier. Basically, she de-politicizes the movement, using sentimentality as a way to just show human frailty (blah), human troubles, human hopes, dreams and fears. To do that she indulges in short phrases and sentences and effectual ends to chapters and paragraphs. As one, where an old man tells his younger lover-to-be: “Be careful”, goes on to mention a possible interpretation of that sentence and ends the paragraph like this: “But what he meant was be careful with me. Please. Please.” The italics are Spiotta’s. In a way, Spiotta is an archivist like Jason, she’s as removed from the revolutionary fervor powering groups like the Weathermen as he is from the experience of hearing “Pet Sounds” when it appeared. He listens to it as a curiosity, and this is how he treats his bootlegs, too. And the feelings are just odds and ends found in the archives, as well. It’s a bit like that poet (clearly meant to be Merrill) in a novel by Edmund White, who “forgets” to put some feeling in his poem, heads upstairs and then writes a truly moving passage. Only Spiotta does not have the chops to make this work. Frequently the book drags with dreary conventionality, and quite often it is slow-going, and this despite all the clever tricks of the book. It’s her writing that makes it so dull (see, like this review is dulled by my writing), which is a disappointment in a book that is clearly full of good thinking.

In the end, the simple act of choosing a name, that is part of the novel’s interest in texts and textual gadgets, may be one of the most significant acts of the book. Eat the Document is to a large extent about identity, and while not as committed, as My Revolutions, it takes its topic seriously. Whatever you think of Spiotta’s writing, her characters stand by their convictions and they say it aloud. Even when you’re in hiding, sometimes you just need to bare yourself, when you can’t bear the subterfuge any longer. Like you real name. This is one of the best passages in the book:

“Cheryl,” she said aloud. No, never. Orange soda. “Natalie.” You had to say them aloud, get your mouth to shape the sound and push breath through it. Every name sounded queer when she did this. “Sylvia.” A movie star name, too fake-sounding. Too unusual. People might actually hear it. Notice it, ask about it. “Agnes.” Too old. “Mary,” she said very quietly. But that was her real name, or her original name. She just needed to say it.

Iris Murdoch: The Book and the Brotherhood

Finishing a novel by Iris Murdoch always leaves me breathless, swooning with happiness. My first encounter with Dame Iris Murdoch was The Sea, The Sea and then The Book and the Brotherhood. I do not re-read books if, for one reason or another, I do not have to, but both novels are high on the list of novels I’ll reread given enough time. With both novels it’s hard to point to what exactly makes them so great. An obvious answer is that the mind at work in both books is a wonderful and brilliant one. Iris Murdoch isn’t content with writing one kind of novel, her books are always several things at once, and all of them fully formed, complete. But it’s strangely hard to pin down. Novels like The Book and the Brotherhood are hardly dazzling linguistically. The writing is good, of course, but more on the elegant side of things than anything else, it’s put into service by the story and the ideas. The writing does draw you in, her language is warm, direct, emotional yet at the same time almost arch, a controlled writing, but what keeps you reading are the stories. And fuck yeah what stories these are. And The Book and the Brotherhood contains several kinds of stories.

One of these is a story about a group of academics and their involvement with Marxism. The story charts their youthful dreams and their subsequent falling-out with communism and communist doctrine. We don’t get many flashbacks, in a way what we see is how the story has been inscribed on the backs and faces and souls of the dozens of characters that populate the book. What we are not told, in Murdoch’s masterful dialogues (it needs to be said that Murdoch would’ve been an excellent playwright), we can infer from the obsessions and pathological problems of those we meet in the pages of The Book and the Brotherhood. And yes, most of what we glean of that story is negative; there isn’t a happy ending to that youthful enthusiasm for communism. In a way, it seems, at least initially, as if that particular storyline illustrated the infamous bonmot of George Bernard Shaw’s that “any man who is not a communist at the age of twenty is a fool. Any man who is still a communist at the age of thirty is an even bigger fool.” The surviving theorists are straight pessimists like Professor Levquist:

“All thought which is not pessimistic is now false.”
“But you would say it has always been?”
“Yes. Only now it is forced upon all thinking people, it is the only possible conception. 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 sky.”
“But this cheers you up, sir!” said Gerard.
Levquist smiled.

As usual with Iris Murdoch, the case is, naturally, less clear. The book turns out to be a complex meditation on the assumptions hiding behind sayings such as G.B. Shaw’s. I admit: I feel somewhat overwhelmed by the task to go into details on Murdoch’s treatment of its ideas. Murdoch does three things. She engages a handful of her characters in a direct discussion of pertinent topics and ideas. Throughout the book these characters meet and debate, directly, issues like Communism, the revolution, hope and the like. Many writers do that. They may even do the second thing she does, which is create a story that exemplifies certain elements of that debate. What they don’t manage, though, or very rarely, is create a story that works perfectly as a story. The condescension of many writers of novels of ideas, who try to cheat the readers out of a great stories by making ideas paramount and characters merely puppets, to use that old expression, in the hands of a writer who fancies himself far more than novelist: he’s a philosopher now, don’t you know. And the word philosopher is instrumental here.

This is not about creating a story, often allegorical, to support an idea, it’s about telling the reader, often, explicitly, in the most annoying manner often, what your philosophical ideas are and then slapping a story in between the breathing gaps, a story which doesn’t deserve that name. See, the explicit philosophical lecturing is important, because in those instances, the writer gives his game away. In the hands of such a writer, awareness often drops by the wayside. Novelists such as Paolo Giordano (review of The Solitude of Prime Numbers forthcoming) scrub their texts until the norm disappears, hides behind eccentric characters; often illness, as the Other of ‘normal’ health, exemplifies a pathological emotional state. Or women. There is a disregard for your fellow man hidden in many of these stories. Iris Murdoch’s work shows us how a story, the writing and construction of a story, can buffer this effect. Murdoch’s work is multi-layered, it’s constantly shifting, it’s basically a mechanism which creates awareness, although that last phrase may sound barmy. A story creates its own momentum, the deconstructionists were not the first to find out about this, and in Murdoch’s novels, even in as slim ones as A Severed Head, different kinds of these thrusts created by stories, are colliding, producing contradictory effects.

This deft handling of the stories endows Murdoch with the liberty to throw raw chunks of thinking at us, and these are different ones in each book. As to The Book and the Brotherhood, it’s about some of the grand questions of left thinking, questions that are, today, in mainstream literature, raised in an at best ironic tone, if not downright derisory. Incidentally, it’s this state of things that made Hari Kunzru’s My Revolutions (2007) such a pleasant, even delightful surprise. Kunzru’s sidesteps the defensive attitude of many old-school Marxists today, not engaging in that discourse, because it’s of course the wrong categories. Murdoch does something similar but in a more hidden way. She does present us figures of the defensive debate, tropes and phrases that have been and still are part of many attack/defense rituals. Ultimately, however, she presents (and answers?) other questions, non-defensive ones. How and why do we adjust to the regime? And we’re including democratic regimes here, I’m just stumped for a better word, we’re living in and why do we subscribe to opinions and attitudes we attacked ardently in our youth? How does society reassert its grip on our minds? Not if, but how. The right presuppositions are already in place.

Both the futility of theory and -at the same time- the necessity for it and both the entrancing beauty of serious thought and, oh, let’s just call it: inconvenience of said thought, these are all important in the narrative. Thought is merciless. Brutal. Conclusions are temporary, and likely, merely by virtue of being conclusions, wrong. Here are two particularly salient passages that relate to this issue:

“I don’t know whether Crimond is “really” a Marxist, or what that means now, they don’t know themselves. I suppose he’s a sort of maverick Marxist, as their best thinkers are. The only good Marxist is a mad Marxist. It’s not enough to be a revisionist, you’ve got to be a bit mad too – to be able to see the present world, to imagine the magnitude of what’s happening.”


“You think of yourself as an open-minded pluralist – but you’ve got a single compact little philosophy of life, all unified, all tied up comfortably together, a few soothing ideas which let you off thinking! But we must think – and that’s what’s such hell, philosophy is hell, it’s contrary to nature, it hurts so, one must make a shot at the whole thing and that means failing too, not really being able to connect, and not pretending that things fit when they don’t – and keeping hold of the things that don’t fit, keeping them whole and clear in their almost-fittingness – oh God, it’s so hard -”

Apropos of “God”, I should mention another thing: faith is another important and central topic. Murdoch is a deeply generous writer. You will not find her attacking, with a red face and hoarse lungs beliefs that other people may find important, not least because it’s clearly important for Murdoch to respect her characters and the strata of human life they stand for. There are people falling off the Christian faith, there are people entering it. As she did in The Sea, the Sea, Murdoch, although she’s clearly capable of scrutinizing all kinds of ideas and topics, places faith on the periphery of rational inquiry, perception. It’s never ludicrous, as so many cruel and stupid people would paint it. Instead, she creates two roles for it. One is faith as something mystical, something vaguely incomprehensible to the uninitiated, something that needs to be experienced in order to understand it. Murdoch doesn’t attempt, as a novelist, to follow Locke’s doomed example to demonstrate The Reasonableness of Religion. Instead, she shows us religion as mystical, as beyond the reductive grasp of anatomy and reason. In a way, she reads religion on its own terms, gives it breathing space on its own turf. The second role of faith is as an element of social cohesion, or private solace, as something that can provide some persons with strength, resolve (There is an extraordinary novella by A.L. Kennedy, Original Bliss, that explores a similar topic. Review up soon). Murdoch privileges neither role, and does not present either as exoticism. On the contrary, she frequently suggests that many of our preoccupations may tie in with faith, not just by association, even causally.

However, I did say earlier there were several kinds of stories. The other major strand, apart from the ideas just mentioned, is love (and death). This one, it’s melodrama. A group of friends, some in love with others, some becoming pregnant, some dying, some married, some divorcing. A smorgasbord of relationships. Like a soap-opera, honestly. The Book and the Brotherhood’s a long book, 600 pages, full of life. That part of it isn’t remarkable yet. What’s remarkable is the attention to small personal detail and the amazing gift Iris has for imbuing her characters with life. After a few dozen pages, these characters get into your head. Even now, thinking back on the book, it’s like a complex world I feel I could slip back into at any given time. That’s the strange thing. The story is so well done, so much developed through these complex characters that it feels real. Like a novelized documentary. I never got a feeling of getting fed a formula. Any addition felt like the writer honing the picture, knowing all the while where she needed to go. In a way that I have rarely read before. I haven’t read a novelist who is this interested in people in ages. Not people. Her brothers and sisters. We are all family, and Murdoch understands this, accords all of us the respect we deserve. The storytelling is always compassionate, engaging, and moving. Iris Murdoch is an amazing, amazing writer and one of my very favorite novelists. ISBN

(If parts of this review sound familiar to you, its because I based it on notes that I took for an older review that I posted more than a year ago, but which apparently got lost when I moved to wordpress. I was in no shape to write a new review today, but an update/rewrite, yep, that works. From how I remember the old review, this one’s a bit longer, and is more digressive. Sorry. That also explains the unevenness. Sorry, again. I was out drinking with a few friends.)

One, Two Step

Poet Linh Dinh, in an excellent brief essay at the NYTimes, relates to us, among many other things, this nugget:

Once, I washed windows after appearing at a community college as a guest poet. It would have been a hoot had one of the admiring students saw me vigorously wiping water before it could freeze on the window pane. “Yo, isn’t that the poet who came to our class yesterday?!”

The other Pirates

The defense in The Pirate Bay trial lost in the first instance.

All four defendants were accused of ‘assisting in making copyright content available’. Peter Sunde: Guilty. Fredrik Neij: Guilty. Gottfrid Svartholm: Guilty. Carl Lundström: Guilty. The four receive 1 year in jail each and fines totaling $3,620,000.

While only a few weeks ago, it seems like an eternity since the trial of The Pirate Bay Four ended and the court retired to consider its verdict. The prosecution claimed that the four defendants were ‘assisting in making copyright content available’ and demanded millions of dollars in damages. The defense did not agree, and all pleaded not guilty – backed up by the inimitable King Kong defense.

Appeals forthcoming. Press conference here. Pitchfork here. Some gloating at the NYT here. And here’s Cory Doctorow’s take.

Second Thoughts: Christa Wolf’s “Nachdenken über Christa T.”

Wolf, Christa (1999), Nachdenken über Christa T., Luchterhand
ISBN 3-630-62032-9
[Originally published in 1968]

This is Christa Wolf’s second novel, published in 1968, which established her as a major writer of the GDR, and made her world famous. Nachdenken über Christa T. has been translated into several languages, the most recent translation into English is Christopher Middleton’s, which is titled Quest for Christa T. (not a good title for various reasons. We’ll return to this later). Christa Wolf, born in 1929, is one of the best prose writers in the German language after WWII, and, at least in Germany, among the most popular, judging from the fact that all her books (for someone who has been writing with success for such a long time she has a surprisingly slim body of work, in more ways than one; she has not written awfully many books and the books she’s written are rather thin, for the most part) after the reunification have been bestsellers.

Her popularity is puzzling inasmuch as Wolf is one of the darkest and most disturbing of German writers, and clearly one of the most idiosyncratic. It’s not often that you could take any paragraph from someone’s work and be sure to be able to pin it on that writer. Christa Wolf’s voice is unmistakably strong in the face of an intense hurt. Her books are equal portions cerebral and emotional. She is an exceptional writer and Nachdenken über Christa T. is my favorite novel of hers, although Kindheitsmuster (Patterns of Childhood) comes close and some of her novellas are considerably more powerful. Together with Sarah Kirsch and Irmtraud Morgner she can be said to belong to a trias of visionary and effervescently original GDR writers (incidentally, in 1980, they came together to publish a collection of novellas (Geschlechtertausch) to which each contributed one; I can only recommend their work inasmuch as it has been translated and published in English (or French, as it is, dear Fausto)).

This is one of Wolf’s most conventional books. It basically traces a nameless narrator’s reminiscences of a woman named Christa T., who has died, at 35, of leukemia. The way this idea is realized in the novel is hinted at by the title, which would be translated as “Thinking about Christa T.”. It is a quest to find out about that elusive strange woman who died so early, but not in the way that a quest is supposed to work, hence the inappropriateness of Middleton’s choice for a title. The original title is more to the point: the novel traces the narrator’s process of thought. The novel may, on the surface, be about Christa T., and to a large extent, it is, but on a second, just as important level, it is about the narrator figuring out her world as she tries to make sense of Christa T.’s making sense of it. The most significant factor here is that the narrator has little personal memory of Christa T., so she’s not scouting the dark hallways and alleys of her memory: instead she’s thinking by writing.

Thus, the extent of our knowledge about Christa T. is subject to most of the known vicissitudes of biographical writing. We see the narrator trying to figure out Christa T’s thinking by reading her journals and stories: how reliable are written accounts? To her credit, the narrator doesn’t buy into a simple concept of knowledge. We don’t get a Dan-Brown-esque examination of records, no semiotic analysis. The narrator’s approach is more old-school, so to say. I’m talking hermeneutics here, the Schleiermacher approach. Reading a text and intuiting the intention. As Schleiermacher pointed out, predating modern reception theories by roughly 150 years, this is extremely dependent on the reader. Thus, following the traces of Christa T., we watch the narrator’s mind unfold. This way of reading does not only concern the written legacy of Christa T., it also concerns the narrator’s actual memories and her trying to make sense of those periods where she has neither actual memories not written testimony. She not only tries to fictionalize situations that were roughly related to her by Christa T., she also invents possible discussions she herself could have had with a classmate whom both of them had known, playing off her own opinion of Christa on what she thinks is a so-called outside opinion.

This unfolding of the narrator’s mind involves three parameters, roughly. The first is cultural: the book is as much informed by literary history and tradition as it is by original, personal thinking. Wolf’s great novel about WWII and the Third Reich, Kindheitsmuster (Patterns of Childhood) starts with a loose translation of Faulkner’s famous dictum “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” (from Requiem for a Nun, if I am not mistaken). Nachdenken über Christa T. frequently echoes other texts. Among many other references, we have a phrase echoing Melville’s “Call me Ishmael”. This, a classic reference for narrative unreliability, is one of many such references shaking our confidence in whatever truth the narrator’s search dredges up. It is typical of Wolf’s work that her references glitter through the different languages that make our understanding of literature. The second parameter is political, which is also typical of Wolf’s oeuvre in which everything personal is also, as the quip would have it, political.

Christa Wolf is highly sensitive to the extent that language, culture and other aspects of our lives are permeated by politics. Generally, sex and gender are one of her major preoccupations and on this field her work yields interesting and frequently apposite insights. This is not the case in this novel, however, which takes up a different topic. As I have frequently mentioned elsewhere, the greatest GDR novels are often torn between two extremes. There’s hope and enthusiasm on the one hand, which are fueled by a passion for a communist paradise. These passions are buttressed by visions from young minds who had no problem getting fired up about the idea of a country free from oppression. Small wonder the young GDR literature was so dominated by brilliant women such as Wolf, Morgner, or Reimann. After having lived through the Third Reich, which was, in a way, the apotheosis of oppression, they smelled spring, especially for the ongoing process of emancipation. It was clear, soon after the WWII, that West Germany, i.e. the BRD was not going to go the way of freedom, taking up many age-old tropes of repression (see how people were cheated when they were handed “anti-discrimination” for “emancipation”), but the GDR explicitly promised to provide a society free from oppression; then, within a few years, everything went sour on them.

This change is at the center of the novel which starts with childhood under the Nazi banner and ends with death in the early 1960s (not entirely sure. I’m bad with details), as most people’s dreams of a better society slowly died a sad death as well. Christa is teacher, first, who then turns into a student of German literature, who then returns to being a teacher. Her understanding of what it means to teach rests on a solid moral foundation that is informed by humanism and Marxism. As mentioned before, she has learned from the inhuman behavior of her fellow human beings during the dark decades. And she expects as much from the younger generation. So when she watches students from her class rob a bird’s nest and throw the young against a wall, or bite the head off a toad she is so shocked by this petty display of brutality that she sits down to cry. The revelation that human nature has not changed even in the young generation is terrible. How is a society to change if even the children are damaged?

As Christa T. grows older, the situation grows steadily worse as her environment starts to put increasing pressure on her to assimilate. To become one of the many. A turning point is reached when a former student of Christa’s reproaches her for having taught idealism to her students, for not having prepared her students sufficiently for “the real world”. This is eerie since it comes right on the heels of a discussion that Christa T. and friends had in West Germany, where they encounter the typical inane comments still rampant today when talk turns to Socialism and/or Communism. We see arrogant, well-fed, self-satisfied people talking about how the Socialist state has robbed its citizens of a desire for freedom and how cute its citizens’ idealism, considering how the real world is in need of real thinking. We are clearly told that this society is no alternative. Christa T. and the narrator are both aware of the fact that any change would have to come from within the system. This is the world’s pitch for a better life. And both Christa and the narrator sense that this project is not going well. Here’s where we enter into the third parameter: personal. What we watch is the narrator’s sense of a world imploding on itself.

By monitoring Christa T.’s life and death, the narrator appears to try to hold the pieces of her disintegrating world together. She does this, paradoxically, by using a writing that is disintegrating itself, that is filled with insecurity about all sorts of truth and narrative. As the novel progresses, however, we feel the tension mount; as Christa T. slowly gives up on herself, becoming a veterinarian’s wife &c, the narrator is more and more forced to rely on her own means. Consequently, she tightens the narrative, trying to squeeze as much as she can from her subject. And at this point, all she has to turn to is Christa T.’s sickness and death.

Sickness is not a metaphor here, not in the way that it is the case in her weaker, late novella Leibhaftig (2002). Christa T. is actually sick, the novel involves Christa’s body in other ways as well. Christa succumbs to leukemia twice, bearing a child between recovering and falling sick again. It is frequently speculated that she may be guilty of her own death in the sense of precipitating it. This does not, however, make of the sickness a metaphor. She has the same sickness as everybody else, the sickness is not the nexus to her emotional state of well-being. It is her weakened resolve that leads to her ‘decision’ to drop out. The last section, which details her sickness is complex in that it allows for both of these readings at the same time. Make no mistake, I am not talking alternative readings here: both of these readings are equally important. Wolf makes sure that the sickness is always just that: a sickness, which is likely why it’s shuffled to the end as it is.

I have talked about many aspects of the novel so far, but it is a marvel. There’s infinitely more and as you will read it, as I urge everyone who read this to do, you will see how crude my summary is of this short but incredible novel. The title “Nachdenken über Christa T.” is ambiguous. On the one hand, as I said, it is a reflection of the way the book is constructed. On the other hand it is a description of what is wants its readers to do: think about Christa T. See, I have met a few guy online, who glibly talk about a “percentage” of the population that is “just bad”, and which it would be better to murder via devices such as the death penalty. If thinking about Christa T. can make you see the problems in such an assertion, much is achieved. It is a grand book. Read it.


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When Genius Goes Poof!

With High Castle, and Martian Time-Slip, I thought I had bridged the gap between the experimental mainstream novel and science fiction. Suddenly I’d found a way to do everything I wanted to do as a writer. I had in mind a whole series of books, a vision of a new kind of science fiction progressing from those two novels. Then Time-Slip was rejected by Putnam’s and every other hardcover publisher we sent it to. My vision collapsed. I was crushed. I had made a miscalculation somewhere, and I didn’t know where. The evaluation I had made of myself, of the marketplace, went poof! I reverted to a more primitive concept of my writing. The books that might have followed Time-Slip were gone.

Philip K. Dick in the Rolling Stone, 1975. (via, via)

Ghosts of our Youth: On Hwang Song-yong’s "The Guest"

Hwang, Sok-yong (2001), Der Gast, Deutscher Taschenbuch Verlag
ISBN 978-3-423-24563-0
[translated from the Korean by Katrin Mensing, Young Lie and Matthias Augustin]

The well read among us are well acquainted with the presence of ghosts in literature, in good and bad books both. One of the best post 1945 novels employing that technique is Pedro Paramo. It’s this novel that Hwang Sok-yong’s novel reminded me most of, despite the numerous significant differences. I may be returning to this.

“The Guest” is about the time that Communism became the prevailing political ideology of North Korea, and about civil war like fights between fanatical Catholics and fanatical communists, both committing countless atrocities. The focus here is not, as usual and common in reports of atrocities committed by communists, on the evil reds. This tendency is so common in literature, especially with all the Gulag literature and the GDR literature, showing, iterating and reiterating ad nauseam just how unbearable life under socialism was, that I was irritated at the fact that it’s not the focus here, but ultimately positively surprised. Catholic fanatics. Well. What do you know.

The protagonist is an expat catholic priest, living in the US, who travels to Korea in his brother’s stead. His brother’s a catholic priest as well, apparently long tormented by guilt. He committed countless atrocities in his home country, murdering many communists in an attempt to seize control of their county before Communist backup arrived. The urgency of his youthful follies is apparent. The atheistic Communists, driven by an ideology that seemed imported from abroad, going against all traditions, political as well as religious, must have seemed an imminent danger to the priest-to-be.

The fact that they had large backers all across the country and abroad provided the urgency to do away with those in their home country once and for all. The same applies to the Communists, of course. After the brutal colonial rule of the Japanese, they looked to the north and east and saw new beginnings.They decided to make it new in their own country as well. And then the old retaliated, the old, politically as well as religious. Catholicism is so strict, so much of a ritual, that it’s the perfect fit for a religion that one sees as an obstacle, just like the Russian Orthodox Church was.

Both parties were in the wrong, so wrong it’s tough to find the right words for it, and yet one is tempted to refer to the atrociousness as “youthful folly”. Hwang Sok-yong found the perfect literary expression for this. There are so many problems with depicting the brutality en détail, not the least of which is the question whether a description will do justice to what happened, for the mind of the reader who is too young or too unkorean (yes, neologism) to remember. It’s like A.O. Scott’s musings on the American remake of Haneke’s classic “Funny Games”. The ghosts are the personified atrocities, they are the a Derridean trace (not really, I’m just joking), the personified lack. It shows to the reader who’s missing. Fathers, brothers, daughters, mothers. They are right there, looking him in the eye. And here’s where the author’s second brilliant move kicks in. He did not use the criminal brother as protagonists, even though he’s the one who originally saw the ghosts. He hands the reader a reader-like mirror, the brother who had nothing to do with it all.

For him, the ghosts help unravel the convoluted story, family tragedies, the tragedy of a country stumbling from one dark place to the next and then the following one. And they help us understand as well without trying to shock us with gratuitous violence. It’s not that I am not always up for copious amounts of violence, my deep adoration of Sarah Kane’s slim but brilliant oeuvre speaks for itself. But here this may be the wrong road to go down. Making the reader guess, look, see the lack and the aftermath has proven to be as effective a literary move as I’ve known, see for instance a work such as Semprun’s magisterial (ministerial) Le Grand Voyage. And it’s effective here. Read this book. While not as good as the abovementioned Pedro Paramo, which is absolutely mesmerizing, depicting a village tragedy as well, it’s something else. It’s necessary. Read it.

On Revolution

Why don’t they know that this is impossible to do without, that this really must be accomplished, that it certainly will be – so that no one will ever be poor or unhappy again? Isn’t this what they’re all saying? No, they feel sorry, but they really think things will always stay just the way they are – maybe a little better, but still much the same. […] Yes, it’ll be wonderful when there are no more poor people, when no one can coerce anyone else.

– Nikolai Chernyshevsky, What Is to Be Done? (trans. Michael R. Katz)

Not Power, Just Business

William Gibson is interviewed at i09

Canada is set up to run on steady immigration. It feels like a twenty first century country to me because it’s not interested in power. It negotiates and does business. It gets along with other countries. The power part is very nineteenth century. 99 percent of ideology we have today is very nineteenth century. The twentieth century was about technology, and the nineteenth was ideology.

Communist Bookworms

Excellent idea over @ paperpools:

The odd thing about the people who specialise in decluttering people’s lives is that no one ever talks about the possibility of (shock horror) communal ownership. The alternatives offered are a) private ownership and b) divestment. So you have to choose between having a Greek-English Lexicon in the home, which you consult a few times a year, or not having access to one at all. The idea that you might be better off as a member of a group, so that you all paid once for a book you all might occasionally have use for, and all clubbed together to pay for a place to keep the collection… well, it’s not that it smacks of Communism. It’s not that it’s unAmerican. It’s so absolutely alien it’s not even considered as a possibility.


A fun story on Language Log

my granddaughter Opal’s recent writing of the word Embarcadero (the name of a street near where we were having breakfast at the time). She wanted to practice writing things, and she herself chose the word, for reasons I do not know. Her mother spoke the names of the letters one by one, and Opal wrote them down. As it happens, her pen was at the right edge of the page when she started writing, so she just went on from there, writing the letters in order from right to left, and writing each letter in reverse. Perfectly. We cheered this performance, but did tell her that it was backwards, and that other people might have trouble reading it unless they put it up to a mirror. She was somewhat offended by this. She almost always writes left to right, rarely reversing letters, but she seemed to be treating the direction of writing as a matter of stylistic choice.

If you’re a fault-finder, you’ll look at what she wrote and say that this performance was almost entirely wrong. But in fact it was almost entirely right. The only mistake was in the direction of writing.

What kind of Anarchist are You?

What kind of Anarchist are you?
created with
You scored as Anarcha-Feminist

Anarcha-feminists put a strong emphasis on the importance of patriachy, arguing that all forms of hierachy can be traced back to man’s domination over woman. Although associated with the 1960s, the movement has its roots in the theories of Emma Goldman and Voltarine DeCleyre.









Christian Anarchist




Armer Adorno

Es ist doch schade, wenn man ein großer, vielleicht der größte deutschsprachige Denker nach dem zweiten Weltkrieg war, und dann so rezipiert wird. Es ist ja nicht einmal das Problem, daß nur eine kleine Zahl seiner Texte rezipiert werden das ist nun wirklich bei allen Philosophen so, daß die zugänglichsten Texte am stärksten rezipiert wurden, das ist kein Problem sondern der Lauf der (Lese-)Welt. Aber wenn man schon ein paar sehr gut lesbare, in der Aussage sehr klare und als Denkzeugnisse überaus überzeugende, treffende, genaue Texte schreibt, wie sie etwa Adornos Texte in seiner Frühphase, nicht zuletzt im Dauerbrenner Dialektik der Aufklärung, darstellen, daß man nicht einmal dann einigermaßen anständig rezipiert wird, das ist schon Mist. Daß Hegel es sich gefallen lassen muß, daß sein Werk von der Rechten auf abstruse Art gelobt und von der Linken auf ebenso abstruse Art, man muß schon sagen: gehaßt wird, das hat sich einer mit seinem Stil ja nun selbst zuzuschreiben.

Aber der gute alte Theodor? Am auffälligsten, weil sicherlich am häufigsten, ist der Fall des halbarschigen Lesens der Kulturindustrie (über die ich hier ein paar Worte verloren hab). Oder die völlige Unkenntnis des Textes, bei gleichzeitiger nervtötender Immerwiederverwendung des Begriffs nicht weniger blöde ist. Was auch immer etwa hier der Fall ist, hier oder hier, es geht mir irrationalerweise fürchterlich auf den Sack (aber die Person auf der ich herumhacke, findet ja auch Pirsig geistreich. *lach*) Da hat man etwas so gutes, passendes, schlaues, und dann baut man es in seine ungebildete Dummheit ein und verdirbt es.

So, das war mein Rant für heute, aber ich bin ein bißchen stolz auf mich (wennn man sonst keine Hobbies hat), daß ich mich hier nicht in die Tiefen eines Streits mehr herablasse. Nach meinem Ausstieg bei der Gruppe 4w werde ich mich nicht nochmal mit welchen aus der Anti-Nachdenkfraktion anlegen. Nönö, Mister.

Da ich diesen Post gestern abend schrieb, endete er mit: “Ich geh jetzt ein bißchen früher als sonst schlafen. Wer schläft, ärgert sich nicht.” Und so war es auch. Jetzt geh ich was trinken. Das ist auch gut.

Election and Feminism III

Interestingly the voters in affluent and more educated circles flocked to Obama, a vast majority of them, apparently, while blue-collar neighborhoods voted solidly for Clinton. This opens all kinds of possible interpretations about class divides. Gender, Class and Race, dammit, we don’t even need the Republicans this year to make this an intriguing election.

No Child Left Behind (on Doctorow’s Book of Daniel and Prison Break)

Whereas in Prison Break (see my 1st essay here) the escapee from the system has tattooed the system onto his body as a powerful trope of his inability to really escape it, the character of Paul Isaacson in E.L. Doctorow’s vivid novel The Book of Daniel has implanted the system into his thoughts: the belief in democracy assures his inability to understand what happens all around him. His son Daniel, who faithfully and thoroughly records his father’s failure, copies his bourgeois sexual morals and ‘improves’ upon them. However, as he gains insight in his father’s mental blocks, his own epistemological stability gives way, which accounts for the fractured narrative of Doctorow’s novel.

So how could either of them ever escape ‘the tyranny of what everyone knows’, to quote a BSF song? Were they to stage a violent revolution and destroy the system, would it not still cling to them? To a part of themselves they cannot access? [I will reread Marcuse and insert him later on, promise] Would Daniel’s both physical and mental abuse of his wife stop? Or, to cite an idea of Eske Bokelmann‘s which I have encountered only recently but which is certainly worth investigating, would he stop thinking in terms of value and evaluation? Would, for instance (and I am not suggesting that this is the correct way to go about it, it’s just an example), a rearrangement of the means of production have an effect like that?

There is, one could say, a certain development from The Book of Daniel to Prison Break. This development becomes obvious once we see the changed visibility of the mire these texts’ characters, hell, we all, are in. So how do we change that? Simplistic attitudes like Raymond Tallis‘ (I will review a preposterously stupid and disingenuous text of his when I return) don’t of course help, but skepticism of my sort doesn’t either. So what? Education? Sexual Education? Something like that. No Child Left Behind, that ill-conceived act of the Bush administration could nevertheless provide a slogan for the way one could go about it. But then again, how? What teachers? What schools?

In both texts there is an admirable honesty, one that I personally, with my limited reading, only know from Müller plays. The way, for example, a revolutionary in Zement tries to beat his wife into submission, or the cyclical, self-devouring vision of revolution in Mauser or Der Auftrag are kin to Michael Scofield’s tattoos or Paul Isaacson’s conversion to baseball in prison. In nuce, this is contained in one of the most famous statements by the probably most popular Founding Father, who demanded of each new generation to have its very own revolution. However what he probably meant wasn’t really revolution (for this, see Hannah Arendt’s enlightening essay On Revolution) in the sense that I (or Isaacson, for that matter) have been using it. With Jefferson, I get the impression, revolution is more like a catharsis or like a correcting instance. When I read that statement years ago, I was stunned by its cynicism. But of course it wasn’t cynicism. He probably thought it was a good thing. Maybe it is. Maybe this is the only reasonable way to look at it. It may well be the case that children get left behind, no matter how considerate a ‘complete’ revolution is carried out. But if we leave the children behind, and our minds are polluted with The Old, as Scofield’s body is, in what meaningful sense will the revoluted world be different from the Old?

Or maybe drowning is the only way to step out of the river. Maybe Paul Isaacson was lucky. Now that’s cynicism. And unjustified. Isaacson was tortured for having ideals. As a character in Doctorow’s novel says: revolution was harder in the old days. And it was. Will I get punished for writing such a whack essay as the present one? No. But maybe the development from the harder days to the easier, priviledged days of today is due to the fact that there isn’t any need to repress today’s mild revolutionaries as I am one. We, like Scofield, no longer have the same kind of distance to the system. It pervades every aspect of us. Yet didn’t Adorno teach us that all that the culture industry does is make these kind of bindings visible, bindings that were present all along?

Oh what a terrible essay this has been. More questions than answers and no structure to speak of. Yet that is my mind, currently. An ugly mess of ideas. I will rework this text when I’m back. Promise.

Today’s Quote (3)

Evidence, there was never enough evidence. He swam in it. That was it – physical training, it was the way he stayed in shape. That has to be it. You ate your heart out to keep the revolutionary tension. […] The implication of all the things he used to flaggelate himself was that American democracy wasn’t democratic enough. He continued to be astonished, insulted, outraged, that it wasn’t purer, freer, finer, more ideal. Finding proof of it over and over again […] like a guy looking for confirmation. How much confirmation did he need? Why did he expect so much of a system he knew by definition could never satisfy his standards of justice? […] And it was more than strategy […], it was passion.

E. L. Doctorow, The Book of Daniel

Education III (Pink Floyd vs. The IT Crowd)

After having compared Pink Floyd and Dead Prez, and having then compared those two to the Wu-Tang Clan, there’s a third, and possibly final entry, in this quite nonsensical discussion of the merits and uses of education: the IT crowd.
In the opening lines of the episode The Red Door (s1e4) the following dialogue unfurls:

Roy (sings): …we don’t need no education…

Moss: Yes, you do. You’ve just used a double negative.

That sounds a lot like the final word on the issue, although we’ve now lost the revolutionary potential of the discussion to a good laugh. Which, come to think of it, is totally Kulturindustrie, eh? Great note to end this on. I’m going to get drunk now. Have a nice sunday.

Reading Prison Break (1)

(I have tried to keep this simple reading of Prison Break at a simple level. We all know which philosophies and theories one could reference and insert at every other line, I find particularly the connection between Agamben’s homo sacer and Prison Break’s characters a delicious one but this is not a academic paper. I might write of this again but not today. I have not seen season 3 either, this reading encompasses seasons 1 & 2)

As with a whole lot of other shows in the last couple of years, Prison Break, too, is, on the surface level, about conspiracies. The main conspiracy is a variation on the typical idea of a consortium of powerful companies and politicians ruling the world, an old image that has resurfaced in ugly ways, as in ideas of a Jewish World Conspiracy.

Here, the evildoers are called The Company and they are not just your shady powerful politicians, they really are in control of the world, though to what extent is never clarified, at least not in the first two seasons of the show. It starts off with a mistake: the weakest link in the conspiracy has snapped, a death has to be faked and an innocent man, a small time criminal, has to take the rap. The first season of the show narrates the story of that innocent man’s younger brother who fakes a bank robbery in order to get thrown into the same prison where his brother is awaiting the death penalty and to break his brother out.

Here’s where the show gets interesting. While gradually the conspiracy to kill Lincoln Burrows (the innocent man) is unveiled, Michael Scofield‘s (his brother) plans how to break Lincoln out are also unveiled. And Michael, being a bona fide genius, has assembled a complex plan of not only how to break out of prison but also how to escape afterwards. He’s planned alternative routes, complex schemes, involving inmates, mexican drug lords, graves, water pipes, all that shit. He is at the center of a highly complex conspiracy himself, which is absolutely necessary in order to prevail, because The Company has incredible resources.

This sort of genre always involves an opposition that indulges in a little counter conspiracy. However, contrary to what one might think upon reading these lines, Michael is not the stereotypical opposition to The Company, although the existence of such a stereotypical structure is playfully suggested by lines such as “let him be your Oswald”. There is a second enemy to The Company, another organization, wherein rebelling Senators, former members of the Company and all kinds of former agents combine their resources in order to bring The Company down.

Contrary to them, Michael represents the ‘human’ element. Well, he and his fellow escapees. The fact that its about humanism is driven home by an episode with Sucre, which is basically a 20th century take on the famous scene from Les Misérables where Jean Valjean steals the Bishop’s silver. This scene is strongly coupled with social criticism on the one hand and a theme of guilt and redemption.

Michael Scofield has helpers, but they don’t know all the details, they are just pawns in his ingenuous escape plan, which is quite literally written upon his body. The plans are tattooed on his beautiful body. He and his plans merge. Escaping becomes an integral part of himself, it is part of his body. There’s a second interesting thing about the tattoos: even if they represent his way to freedom, they also re-present the system. They depict water pipes, names, locations etc. which belong to the world which, in turn, is ruled by The Company. There are even times, when the system manages to read what Michael’s written on his body and it punishes him for it. And yes, I am carefully avoiding to shout Foucault! at this point. But even though the opposition to the system is inscribed on his body, he appears to be thinking, throughout season 2, that he’s only trying to escape the small conspiracy that has sent his brother to jail, not any larger one. He is content with being left alone. To this end he flees the country, but he has misunderstood the magnitude of the system. The discordian stepping out of the river is shown to be an illusion, because, it appears, everything is the river, and what appear to be banks are just temporary snags. I have not seen season 3 yet ( is down) but I suspect that Michael’s way of not attacking the system but trying to evade it will not work. He will have to confront The Company in order to find closure. He can’t possibly destroy it.

Prison Break, especially season 2, has been compared to The Fugitive, that hit show, where Dr. Kimble races across the country, trying to elude the police and find out who really committed the crime he was accused of. However, while looking similar on the surface, Prison Break provides a deeper level. It’s not about this country, nor about Lincoln Burrows, its about the fundamental question of what actions have to be taken once you recognize where you live, what system you live under, how deeply it has inscribed itself onto your body and how dangerous, in the end, it can be. Not for me maybe (white middle-class male) but for my friends, children, neighbors maybe who will have to be sacrificed in order to keep the system running smooth.

Well, still, you might point out to me, what about the mysterious boss and the faking of records and the wag-the-dog-style creation of news and misinforming the public and killing witnesses and convening in shadowy rooms or on boats blablabla. There’s a conspiracy, plainly, and while the fight against the system thing is nice, this fits in with most conspiracy thrillers, only those conspiracy shows who are really down with the system, such as Alias, don’t do that storyline.

The point is, on the one hand, you can’t separate the nation, country, take what you want, from the ‘conspiracy’ here. The conspiracy is total. You can pin it to certain people such as the current president of the US but ultimately, even she (yes) has to answer to The Company. Which makes it less a conspiracy but a total system fucking with all of us. Equally. If world and secret rule are inseparable, the distinction outlives its usefulness. As a journalist wrote recently: nobody rules the world. On the other hand, you they never tell you about the company’s deeds, even after 2 seasons the audience has not the slightest inkling of what the company does. Nobody’s interested in the big conspiracy, the only part of The Company’s misbehaving that concerns the company’s main protagonists is the mistake that put Lincoln Burrows in prison.

So, deep down, it’s not about conspiracies, it’s about freedom. At least the first 2 seasons were. You’ll never know what a show will turn out like after some seasons, after content has been adjusted to the ratings but for now it’s a great show.
Or am I overinterpreting?

Subversive brilliance

The language log has pointed to yet another instance of subversive brilliance in the daily comic strip Get Fuzzy. See the link to log for the 5 strips in question.

The creator of “Get Fuzzy,” Darby Conley, has become a master of obliqueness, since even indirect references to obscenity, drugs, or other “adult content” can get the strip banned from newspapers around the country. Most recently, “Get Fuzzy” was censored in September by the Tribune for a strip featuring a double entendre on the phrase “nut crunch.” And last January the Washington Post and other papers pulled a series of strips in which Bucky came up with campaign slogans inadvertently referring to marijuana use. Conley obviously enjoys using wordplay to test the boundaries of what is considered acceptable in “family” newspapers, so the blending gambit looks like his latest attempt to toy with the sensibilities of local editors. In Chicago, at least, suggestive blends have been deemed off-limits, a decision I would consider rather Satchel + Bucky.

Education II (Pink Floyd vs. Dead Prez vs. the Wu)

After having been my usual clever self and having contrasted portions of songs by Pink Floyd and Dead Prez here , I found this bit at the end of the Wu Tang Clan’s phenomenal Bells of War today:

I was telling Shorty like —
Yo Shorty, you don’t even gotta go to summer school
Pick up the Wu-Tang double CD
And you’ll get all the education you need this year
(Their poisoned minds can’t comprehend this shit)
Word man, it’s Wu-Tang Forever God
Niggaz can’t fuck with these lyrics God
YouknowhatI’msayin? Knahmean?

Education I (Pink Floyd vs. Dead Prez)

Two discussions of the same concept, two very similar gripes, two solutions. No need to explain. Dunno why but this just occured to me this night. I listened to both songs and it just struck me. Good stuff. If you noticed before, excuse my stupidity. This is Pink Floyd’s Another Brick in the Wall

We don’t need no education
We dont need no thought control
No dark sarcasm in the classroom
Teachers leave them kids alone
Hey! Teachers! Leave them kids alone!
All in all it’s just another brick in the wall.
All in all you’re just another brick in the wall.

and this is They Schools by the incomparable Dead Prez.

They schools cant teach us shit
My people need freedom, we tryin to get all we can get
All my high school teachers can suck my dick
Tellin me white man lies straight bullshit (echoes)
They schools aint teachin us, what we need to know to survive
(say what, say what)
They schools dont educate, all they teach the people is lies