Recently in The Great Themes Category
Throughout time, authors have found ways of challenging their audience, as if the egotism of authorship had caused writers to feel that the price paid for their books was insufficient to earn the entertainment gleaned from their pages.
Laurence Sterne, for example, intersperses the text of Tristram Shandy
with blank pages
. Samuel Beckett's Watt drags on interminably with redundant sentences
. Most people die without getting through all (or even any) of the volumes of Marcel Proust's Remembrance of Time Past
But no author, I believe, has ever posed a greater challenge to the reader than René Descartes. I do not refer to his extremely long sentences with extended use of subordinate clauses. I am talking about his demand, in Discourse 5 of Discourse on the Method of Properly Conducting One's Reason and of Seeking the Truth in the Sciences
, that readers do the following prior to perusing his description of the circulation of blood:
I would like those who are not versed in anatomy to take the trouble, before reading [further], to have cut open in front of them the heart of some large animal which has lungs, because it is, in all of them, similar enough to that of man, and to be shown its two ventricles or cavities.
The only other creator, in my awareness, who requires his audience to sacrifice animals in conjunction with the partaking of his words is God.
Then again, the man who wrote, "I have hardly ever encountered any critic of my opinions who did not seem either less exacting or less equitable than myself," has never, to my knowledge, been accused of modesty.
(Image of dissected cow heart from University of Utah
For the first time, I am reading two books together to experience the way they illuminate and duel with one another. The two books are Walter J. Ong's, Orality & Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word
Descarte's Discourse on the Method of Properly Conducting One's Reason and of Seeking the Truth in the Sciences
. The result of this experiment in parallel reading is interesting: the experience is like setting my brain on fire.
One aspect of Ong's book that reliably throws sparks is his overview of characteristics of people from primary oral cultures - that is, societies that don't write or know of writing. Ong explains:
[A]n oral culture simply does not deal in such items as . . . formally logical reasoning processes [or] . . . articulated
self-analysis . . . which derive not simply from thought itself but
from text-formed thought.
(p. 55.) In respect of articulated self-analysis, Ong elaborates:
[I]lliterates [have] difficulty in articulate self-analysis.
Self-analysis requires a certain demolition of situational thinking [typical to people from primary oral societies]. .
. . Externals [e.g., amount of land farmed, success of crops planted] command attention [in lieu of internal qualities]. . . . Self-evaluation [gets] modulated into
group evaluation ("we") and then handled in terms of expected reactions
from others [e.g., no one would respect our group if we were otherwise] . . . . Judgment bears in on the individual from outside,
not from within.
(p. 54-55.) Reading this passage, I immediately thought of Descartes, whose self-analysis as it pertains to the quality of his mind after it emerged from his education is one of the earliest important examples (second, possibly, to Montaigne) of the expansion of human capacities enabled by literacy. Here is Descartes describing his change in thinking about his education:
I was brought up from childhood on letters, and, because I had been led
to believe that by this means one could acquire clear and positive
knowledge of everything useful in life, I was extremely anxious to
learn them. But, as soon as I had completed this whole course of
study, at the end of which it is usual to be received into the ranks of
the learned, I completely changed my opinion. For I was assailed by so
many doubts and errors that the only profit I appeared to have drawn
from trying to become educated, was progressively to have discovered my
(p. 29.) In this short passage, Descartes illustrates the opposite of the characteristics Ong earmarks. Internals (ignorance vs. knowledgeability) matter. The self-evaluation is not modulated into a group assessment; on the contrary, Descartes distinguishes himself from the group and societal expectations: whereas "it is usual to be received into the ranks of
the learned," Descartes doesn't think he belongs there. Judgment doesn't bear in on Descartes from the outside (society would consider him "learned"), but from inside (he has discovered his own ignorance).
Formal logic, as much as self-analysis, is foreign to the consciousnesses of people in primary oral cultures. According to Ong,
[I]lliterate subjects seemed not to operate with formal deductive
procedures at all - which is not the same as to say that they could not
think or that their thinking was not governed by logic, but only that
they would not fit their thinking into pure logical forms, which they
seem to have found uninteresting.
. . .
A highly intelligent person from an oral . . . culture might be expected normally to react to [questions that require abstract thinking to answer, like syllogisms] . . . not by answering the seemingly mindless question itself but by trying to assess the total puzzling context . . . Is it a game? Of course it is a game, but the oral person is unfamiliar with the rules. The people who ask such questions have been living in a barrage of such questions from infancy and are not aware that they are using special rules.
Descartes, of course, was familiar with formal logic. He was also critical of it:
[R]egarding logic, its syllogisms and most of its other precepts serve more to explain to others what one already knows, or even . . . to speak without judgement [sic] of those things one does not know, than to learn anything new.
(p. 40.) Of course, Descartes' criticism is focused on the output of formal logic, not on the fact of its methodology. Descartes is in favor of such methodology: he has developed one himself that he hopes will replace the logical methodology of the ancients. Descartes goes on to eliminate all his received opinions in order to replace them with ones that were true, and not merely true, but
to include in my judgements [sic] nothing more than what presented itself so clearly and so distinctly to my mind that I might have no occasion to place it in doubt.
(p. 41.) But I went in a different direction.
My brain is not as airlessly sealed off from outside influences as Decartes, which no doubt explains why I wandered off track. These other influences include the Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek
, where research curator Jan Stubbe Østergaard recently showed me around the museum's impressive collection of Greek and Roman statues.
In discussing Roman copies of Greek statutes, Østergaard revealed that the Romans copied only the
heads. The Greeks didn't sculpt body-less heads; they believed that a head was not enough to reveal
the man. The Romans, on the other hand, prioritized the head (and the ideas within it) over
the body (and the viscera it encases).
I began to wonder if the prioritization of heads and ideas might parallel the literacy-related changes in consciousness between the Romans and Greeks. The Greeks, after all, transitioned from orality (in the time of Homer, 750 BC) to literacy (in the time of Plato 350 BC). The Romans were literate.
And then, because I've also been reading Jorge Luis Borges, I began to wonder about the connection between literacy, prioritizing ideas and immortality. Ong mentions a fascinating aspect of primary oral societies:
[They] live very much in a present which keeps itself in equilibrium or homeostasis by sloughing off memories which no longer have present relevance.(p. 46.) The written word, of course, makes sloughing off memories more difficult.
The potential for the eternal preservation of memory takes humans a step closer to immortality: our bodies may fade, but our ideas can live forever. No wonder prioritizing ideas over viscera seems appealing.
Indeed, in Jorge Luis Borges' short story, "The Immortal," the race of immortals make this same choice. (If it were me, and my body could endure eternally, I wouldn't be prioritizing thought over bodily pleasures - quite the opposite; nonetheless, in Borges' world, immortals aren't hedonists.)
The immortals were
to pity. . . . [A] man fell into the deepest of . . . pits; he could
not be hurt, could not die, and yet he burned with thirst; seventy
years passed before he was thrown a rope. Nor was he much interested
in his own fate. His body was a submissive domestic animal; all the
charity it required each month was a few hours' sleep, a little water,
and a scrap of meat. But let no one imagine that we were mere
ascetics. There is no more complex pleasure than thought, and it was to
thought that we delivered ourselves over.
(p. 14-15.) Taken to its logical extreme, delivering oneself to ideas extricates oneself from one's humanness. We cannot be separated from our bodies, however tempting the notion may be. And immortality fundamentally severs a human from her body.
Only after I followed my thoughts in the manner described above did I understand this passage from "The Immortal":
Rome, I spoke with philosophers who felt that to draw out the span of a
man's life was to draw out the agony of his dying and multiply the
number of his deaths.
(p. 5.) Contrast Borges' insight with Ong's description of the paradox inherent in "writing['s] . . . close association with death":
The paradox lies in the fact that the deadness of the text, its removal from the living human lifeworld, its rigid visual fixity, assures its endurance and its potential for being resurrected into limitless living contexts by a potentially infinite number of living readers.
Immortality is for the books.
(Image of Father Walter J. Ong, S.J. from Wikipedia
; image of René
Descartes from The Telegraph
In the last four days, I've seen Israeli videographer Yael Bartana's show
, "and Europe will be stunned," at the Moderna Museet Malmö in Sweden and Anselm Kiefer's self-titled show
at the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art in Denmark. Between those two exhibits, I've been taken with the impression that contemporary art privileges ideas over artistic skills to its detriment.
Yael Bartana has great ideas, but from a film-making perspective much of her work looks rough and amateurish. Anselm Kiefer also has great ideas (I laughed out loud at "Martin Heidegger," a book depicting a brain partially black with rot), but neither his drawing, sculpture, composition or use of color strikes me as particularly exemplary.
I can't help thinking, having recently been in Italy, that Renaissance painters and sculptors wouldn't have countenanced this divorce of concepts from skilled execution. Of course, during the Renaissance, the ideas animating the paintings were less varied (e.g
., mostly related to religion and patrons), and the importance of a human's artistic capacity was paramount: the glory of human capabilities was the point of the Renaissance.
Now, however, when photographs can render life more exactingly than a painter, and film can capture life even in movement and over time, viewing a human's artistic capacity as superfluous is tempting: why not use the technology? Similarly, now that art has been unshackled from religion and (for the most part) from private patronage, why not prize the ideas over the the execution?
The reason is that ideas without aesthetics aren't art. Art (when it's good) operates on an intellectual and visceral level simultaneously. It presents ideas that activate the mind, but it also - through aesthetics - engages the viscera. (The effectiveness with which Renaissance art accomplishes these twin
objectives contributes to its overwhelming beauty; contemporary art's
ignoring of the visceral is surely a cause of its often
This visceral engagement is neither fanciful nor a luxury: it is necessary. Without it, a work is not art, but argument. Without the visceral engagement, artworks communicate not intuitively, but rationally.
Moreover, much of the rational communication must be conveyed, not visually, but through verbal texts that explain the ideas undergirding the work. But explanatory texts, be they on the wall of museums, or published in exhibition catalogs, ought to be unnecessary. Works should speak for themselves.
Nonetheless, very little contemporary art speaks for itself. Without textual explanation, the circumstances of Bartana's works, "Summer Camp," and "Wild Seeds," are opaque. Kiefer takes the trouble to write words (often the title of the work) on his canvases; Louisiana provided a "Kiefer dictionary" to explain Kiefer's common references. Going to these contemporary art exhibitions requires an awful lot of reading; so much reading, in fact, that a visceral (that is to say, irrational) response is practically suppressed.
Moreover, the tone of the text is exhortatory: viewers will be questioned about . . .; viewers will confront . . . ; viewers are made to feel / think . . . . When I read what I'm supposed to be thinking and feeling, all I can think is: bullshit. The text is telling me what to think and feel because extracting that experience from the art itself is too difficult. Often, the work is too boring to hold my attention. I have to exert my will to stay and look at it. Aesthetically engaging work doesn't encounter this problem.
I am struck, as well, by the difference between contemporary visual art and literary art. While visual art seems to be losing its aesthetic capacities, literary art is refining them. In fiction and poetry, the way an idea is expressed is often more important than the idea. "Half of a Yellow Sun," Chimimanda Ngozi Adeche's novel
about the Biafra war, is hampered by dull ideas; but it's well written. Kay Ryan doesn't tell me anything I didn't know in her poem
, "Turtle"; but the poetry is transporting.
Good ideas presented in bad writing is only acceptable (and only unofficially so) in non-ficton (and explanatory texts for art exhibits); in the realm of fiction or poetry, scintillating ideas encased in bad writing isn't called art. It might be a guilty pleasure; it might be a commercial success; but it's not art.
I don't see anything wrong in expression of rational argument in broad varieties of media, be they films, performances or paintings. I'm not suggesting that Yael Bartana or Anselm Kiefer are unworthy of their audiences.
But humans need art as well as argument, aesthetics as well as ideas, visceral as well as cerebral engagement. The systematic preference for ideas to the detriment of aesthetics in contemporary art reflects a painful imbalance in our modern lives. While this message may correspond to reality, humankind has known eras when art was more than a cry for help.
(Image of Anselm Kiefer's statue, "Das Sonnenschiff," from White Cube
Today I went to Sweden. You should, too.
I went to the Moderna Museet
in Malmö, where I saw an exhibit of five films by the Israeli video artist, Yael Bartana
. The show is called, "and Europe will be stunned
." I was stunned, too.
One of the films, called "A Declaration," involves a man rowing out to Andromeda's rock, off the coast of Jaffa near Tel-Aviv, on which stands an Israeli flag. The man has an olive tree in his boat. He docks the boat by the rock, takes down the flag and replaces it with the olive tree.
The swap - plant for flag - is deeply moving, despite its apparent ambiguity. As curator Joa Ljungberg observes in the exhibition catalog,
To exchange the Israeli flag for an olive tree can mean to remove a national symbol in favor of a universal symbol of peace. But the olive tree is also closely associated with Palestinian nationalism and thus the gesture can mean to replace one national symbol with another. As an integral part of the Israeli national emblem, the olive tree could furthermore represent two nations, or two peoples in one nation.
(p. 15.) I realize that "ambiguity" is the watch-word of today's pluralistic, multi-perspective, globalized society, but I think you have to place too-heavy emphasis on the conceptual to find ambiguity in "A Declaration." My own interpretation is rooted in the aesthetics of the film, which is visually gorgeous.
I was inspired by the arresting images of the man rowing an olive tree out to sea. A man, a boat, an olive plant: I saw Noah, as Noah might have been in a different narrative.
Say that, instead of landing on Mount Ararat, Noah had kept sailing. Naturally, others on the boat - like the animals in their two-by-twos and the other humans on board - objected, so Noah dropped them off and kept going: "Sorry guys," he said, "but I'm a sea dog by nature. This whole flood episode helped me find myself, and I can't give up this hard won self-knowledge just because some of the water is drying up."
So Noah keeps going, just him and the olive branch brought to him by the dove. And eventually the ark suffers some wear-and-tear, until it's reduced to a dingy. But Noah's unfazed; he just starts rowing. And the olive branch keeps growing because it's a hardy creature. And Noah's pleased; he's grateful for the company, even if it is a plant.
So Noah sails on - and since 6,000 years is a long time for anyone to live, even a Biblical character caught in a fanciful alternative narrative, let's have him sail through a time portal that transports him to the Med coast, off Israel, in 2006, in time for Yael Bartana's video shoot.
And so there he is: Noah, the last good man on earth, pre-flood, pre-Abraham, pre-Ishmael and pre-Isaac, pre-nation state politics. Noah is back-to-basics humanity, our common ancestor returned to remind us that what every inhospitable rock needs is a plant, not a flag.
Seems pretty straightforward to me.
(Still image from "A Declaration" from Artnet
If I am ever crafting a romantic male lead in a novel, I'll do well - both for character and for reader - to spare him the indignities of chronic constipation.
I don't get what Gabriel García Márquez was doing, in Love in the Time of Cholera
, when he saddled poor Florentino Ariza (as played by Javier Bardem in Mike Newell's movie version, pictured left) with this debility.
Granted, I recognize that the problem is common. Also, that people who suffer chronic constipation have just as much entitlement as the rest of us to passionate love affairs. Also, that they can screw a lot.
But I don't like to dwell on it. When García Márquez conflates constipation and screwing, as he does Florentino Ariza first meets Leona Cassiani, I cringed:
Florentino Ariza remembered a phrase from his childhood, something that the family doctor, his godfather, had said regarding his chronic constipation: "The world is divided into those who can shit and those who cannot." . . . But with what he had learned over the years, Florentino Ariza stated it another way: "The world is divided into those who screw and those who do not."
(p. 183). Please! Gabriel! Spare us!
Throughout, I had problems believing Florentino Ariza as "one who screws" because I just couldn't reconcile the openness required for sexual release with the closedness required for chronic constipation. And when one of Florentino Ariza's lover takes his enemas with him
, I found myself regretting the compassionate capacities of my gender: ladies, there are limits!
Later, when Leona Cassiani gives the aged Florentino Ariza his enemas, I had a hard time with the humiliation and emasculation that redounded to Florentino Ariza from this interaction. He's going to get up off the enema bed and go woo Fermina Daza? Really?
When it comes to enemas and a romantic male lead, my feeling is that there's too much realism and not enough magic.
(Image of Javier Bardem in the film version of Love in the Time of Cholera
from The Telegraph
I've already blogged
about how William Makepeace Thackeray's bitchiness to Becky Sharp fouls up his plotting in Vanity Fair
. But the more I think about his lack of compassion for Becky, the more compelled I am to take issue with his behavior simply as an affront to women and the poor.
Thackeray creates Becky as a creature of few advantages. Her mother dies when she's very young, and her father dies of delirium tremens
when she is a teenager. Moreover,
[Rebecca] had the dismal precocity of poverty. Many a dun she had talked to, and turned away from her father's door; many a tradesman she had coaxed and wheedled into good-humour, and into the granting of one meal more. She sate commonly with her father, who was very proud of her wit, and heard the talk of many of his wild companions - often but ill-suited for a girl to hear. But she never had been a girl, she said; she had been a woman since she was eight years old.
Thackeray bounces orphan Becky from one demeaning environment (Miss Pinkerton's School) to another (the Sedley house, Sir Pitt Crawley's house in Queen's Crawley, Miss Crawley's house in London), marries her to a gambler solider without a penny, promptly revokes the soldier's inheritance, and then gleefully watches Becky make do (dishonestly) in genteel society.
Social climbing (particularly in Becky's time and place), of course, is vulgar, and people who do it well are invariably insincere, insecure, shallow and vain. (Becky is all these things.)
And, yes, vanity is a sin. But one of the great innovations of Judeo-Christian ethics is proportionality: Inspector Javert, the policeman - not Jean Valjean, the thief - is the sinner in Les Misérables
because hounding a man for a lifetime is a disproportionate punishment for stealing a loaf of bread when a man is starving.
In the same way, casting vanity on par with murder and cannibalism is hardly in the enlightened Judeo-Christian spirit. Here, for example, is Thackeray giving an account of Becky after she's been ruined:
In describing this siren [Rebecca Sharp], singing and smiling, coaxing and cajoling, the author, with modest pride, asks his readers all round, has he once forgotten the laws of politeness, and showed the monster's hideous tail above water? No! Those who like may peep down under the waves that are pretty transparent, and see it writhing and twirling, diabolically hideous and slimy, flapping amongst bones, and curling round corpses; but above the water-line, I ask, has not everything been proper, agreeable, and decorous, and has any the most squeamish moralist in Vanity Fair a right to cry fie? When, however, the siren disappears and dives below, down among the dead men, the water of course grows turbid over her, and it is labour lost to look into it ever so curiously. They look pretty enough when they sit upon a rock, twanging their harps and combing their hair, and beckon to you to come and hold the looking glass; but when they sink into their native element, depend on it those mermaids are about no good, and we had best not examine the fiendish marine cannibals, revelling [sic] and feasting on their wretched pickled victims. And so, when Becky is out of the way, be sure that she is not particularly well employed, and that the less that is said about her doings is in fact the better.
(p. 620-21 (emphasis added).)
I bridle reading this indictment. Becky, without question, exploits those foolish enough to allow her to do so - her lady companion, Briggs, and her landlord, Raggles, in particular (both of whom she ruins financially). She's beastly to her husband, Rawdon Crawley, and utterly cruel to her son.
But, frankly, her crimes are the usual run-of-the-mill misdeeds of the impoverished. The fever pitch of Thackeray's accusations is unwarranted. (Besides which, his constant excuses that propriety prevents him from recounting her bloody - as opposed to economic and emotional - crimes is scarcely credible and makes the whole passage seem gratuitous.)
Thackeray's excessiveness surprises me because I believe he loves Becky Sharp (in contrast to Amelia Sedley, who I think Thackeray comes close to despising). I don't think Thackeray would've made Becky so beautiful, intelligent, witty and resourceful - nor would he have given her an adventure with so many men and opportunities - if he didn't adore her.
And yet, I feel that, in spite of himself - in spite of Thackeray's certainty that those of high birth and spotless reputation are as decrepit in their moral conduct as those of their opposites - Thackeray can't really accept a smart, resourceful, poor woman who isn't a monster. Cerebrally or ideologically, he knows that poor women aren't deserving of especial reprimand; but viscerally Thackeray connects them with terror. (As I discussed in another prior post
, I think Thackeray attributes too much power to women, which may relate to this fear he manifests in respect of Becky.)
Thackeray's treatment of Becky also put me in mind of another novel about a rapacious, social climbing woman, a woman who exploits and abuses everyone she can, a woman who comes from crushing poverty and who dies desperate and penniless. The book is The Bad Girl
by Mario Vargas Llosa.The Bad Girl
is based on Madame Bovary
, an ambitious book with which to compare one's work; and yet Vargas Llosa more than lives up to the company in which he places himself.
The reason is his compassion for his bad girl. Despite all her bad behavior, Vargas Llosa made me believe that poverty - not original sin or some other form of damnation - had tarnished her. With this tactic, Vargas Llosa is not simply being sentimental: he's making his story work. Although I never came to like the bad girl, I did feel emotionally engaged in her fate (and that of her steadfast lover) in a way that never happened with Vanity Fair
. I read The Bad Girl
in a matter of days (not a month, like Vanity Fair
), and the bad girl's scar of poverty has resonated with me for years after I finished the book.
Speculating about the sources of authorial limitations and strengths is always risky. Nonetheless, I'll hazard the following guess: Vargas Llosa has compassion for the bad girl because he's well-acquainted with his naughty side; Thackeray thought Becky a monster because she was too close to what he didn't want to know about himself.
(Image of Melusina from Wikicommons