Recently in Articulating the inarticulable Category

Sisyphus was a writer

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Maya_Alexandri_in_a_cage_of_her_own_making.jpgP.G. Wodehouse repeated himself - jokes, similes, motivations, plots, quotes from poetry.  I love him so dearly that the repetitions don't bother me at all.  They're a quirk of a beloved - if soused - uncle, and if he didn't repeat himself, I'd ask him to, "Tell me the one about . . ."  

But I don't repeat myself, I thought.  I'm not writing in a genre, like Wodehouse (even if it is a genre of his own invention); each of my books is new and fresh and different and reflects the stupendous growth I've experienced since I finished my last book.

Well, ha.  Ha.  Ha.  And, for good measure, ha ha ha ha ha.  Rereading my second novel, The Swing of Beijing, this past week during the audio recording, I noted numerous instances of writing that I recognized - with a sigh and a resigned grimace - from later works, specifically my fourth novel, The Celebration Husband.  Certainly, the repetitions didn't rise to the P.G. Wodehouse level in either number or their verbatim quality, but I was plainly writing again, and around, and about, familiar themes.

In particular, a theme that manifested itself in similar terms in both books is the experience of feeling humbled before wonders, and how that humility is, in fact, empowering. 

I was interested to see this idea mentioned in Susan Neiman's recent NYT book review of Hubert Dreyfus and Sean Dorrance Kelly's All Things Shining: Reading the Western Classics to Find Meaning in a Secular Age.  According to Neiman, Dreyfus and Kelly argue that
 
reading great works of literature allows us to rediscover the reverence, gratitude and amazement that were available in Homeric times.  These qualities, [the authors] believe, can be cultivated to provide a bulwark against the nihilism they rightly view as threatening our ability to lead meaningful lives in the 21st century.
. . . .
The reason so many of us feel so miserable is that we can neither find meaning in ourselves alone nor give up the longing to find it somewhere else.
. . . .
[The authors discuss] the Greeks, who were less reflective than we are, and less convinced that they were in control of the world. This left them open to experience a world in which things shine as works of art do, to feel gratitude not only for the bounties of nature but for human excellence in all its forms, itself regarded as a gift.
This quest after meaning, and finding its satisfaction in experiences of "reverence, gratitude and amazement" is a major theme in my life (and, unsurprisingly, my writing).  I hadn't thought I was trendy, or part of zeitgeist, but - worse - a cliché, but turns out I'm not only repetitive, but also unoriginal.  I better hope I at least write pretty.

So here's the writing: judge for yourself.  This first quote is from The Swing of Beijing, when one of the main characters, Tyler, is in a club listening to a jazz singer, called the Marquise:

     The Marquise was now doing her delightful version of "Take Five," in which she scat sang the signature saxophone solo.  Tyler closed his eyes again, enjoying the gravel-tinged honey that was the Marquise's voice, sweet and rough, simultaneously coating and caressing, and jutting against and ricocheting off of, the rhythm.  She sang the way she lived, accepting the rhythm - however strict, however unexpected - as a non-negotiable and nonetheless not letting it get in her way.  And, although neither she nor the song were Chinese, the Marquise's "Take Five" embodied Beijing for Tyler, better than any summation he'd encountered in any medium.  In her interpretation of the song - with its bizarre time signature; its odd drafting of the piano to do the work normally assigned the drums; her willful, beautiful occupation of melody; and the unbelievable way it melded these non-conforming elements to roll over Tyler with a soft power that submerged his individual existence into the flow of music - "Take Five" distilled Beijing, a city that in its near millennium of history had defied lack of water resources and a profusion of invaders, had witnessed profound progress in dark ages and starveling stagnation in eras of modernity, and throughout had inspired big imaginations to draw on its leviathan depths of potential and recreate it.  Like the song, Beijing humbled Tyler with the evidence of his meagerness and uplifted Tyler with its grace in enfolding him anyway; but most of all, it impressed Tyler with its capacity for strange and boundary-less change, a flexibility to which Tyler felt distinctly unequal.
Now compare that paragraph to these passages from The Celebration Husband (and this is a selection; there are other passages I could've excerpted), where the provocation for the experience of uplifting humility is not music, but the landscape:

    Looking beyond the station, Tanya absorbed the Eastern Rift Valley: game-rich forest and fertile farmland punctuated by the voluptuous protrusion of the extinct volcano, Mount Longonot, to the west.  Verdant green after the rains and dusty yellow during the dry season, Mount Longonot hid from Tanya's view Lake Naivasha, a vast stretch of fresh water so well integrated into the landscape that it often deceived observers into thinking it was part of the sky.  Augmenting the Valley's grandeur were the clouds, transformed by moody and variable weather into actors in an epic drama, involving much darkening and glowing, rearing up, rolling about, thunder-and-lightning sound effects, and honey-cognac lighting.
    Pitched midway on the escarpment that descends into the Valley, Kijabe afforded Tanya a prime vantage point for this spectacle.  As her eye roamed the scene, grey and gold clouds floated at eye level, so that the capacious sky seemed to arch overhead and then drop below her into the Valley.  Tanya had never before known the sensation of sky beneath her.  Kijabe elevated her; Tanya felt that the scenery demanded that she present a better, more noble self.
. . . .
    Arduously, achingly, she angled herself on her knees so that she faced Mount Kilimanjaro.  On the corridor of plain stretching before her, round white butterflies fluttered, their wings beating like nuns' wimples in a breeze.  Looking on the mountainous sanctum in the distance, Tanya saw that a cloud mass had swept over the snowy peak.  Her view of the colossus now occluded, Tanya remembered von Lettow-Vorbeck's remarks about Kilimanjaro's ability to dwarf an event as monumental as battle.  The mountain was so miraculous that it could remove any vastness from her perspective, even itself. 
    As it is with the mountain, let it be with me, she thought.  Let Kilimanjaro be my cathedral, let my perspective be guided by the light it filters onto me.  If war itself vanishes into the maw of the mountain, let me cast my pain upon it, and let my sorrows dwindle in its immensity.
    Then, still kneeling, Tanya bent her torso forward until her forehead touched the prickly ground.  She had seen Hassan bow this way during prayer, and the action had puzzled her.  She didn't understand how Hassan could willingly adopt a posture of such abject submission.  Now she imitated him intuitively.  She'd had no expectations of the movement; she had prostrated herself unthinkingly.  And yet, with this motion, she gained a sense of power.  Bowing to the mountain, Tanya was blessed with the insight that triumph, too, can emerge from surrender.
Seeing this theme emerge in different stories, in various words, written over four years of my life, I can feel how deeply I want my characters to undergo the liberation of humility, and how persuaded I am of edifying effects of such experiences.  I just hope audiences can bear with me (that I can bear with myself) as I write the same damned thing over and over again, trying (vainly) to pin the ineffable on paper.

Uncle Wodehouse, can you tell me the one about the peak in Darien?

(Photo of Maya Alexandri in the art cage of her own making by Andrew McConnell)

The ghosts of the love that dare not speak its name

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Turn_of_the_Screw_opera.jpgAnd here I must come round to the confession that I have seriously exaggerated, or possibly distorted or overstated the case, such that an entire blog post is necessary for clarification.

In a prior post, I claimed that The Turn of the Screw didn't frighten me.  While it's true that the story didn't scare me the way, say, The Shining did (does), it is not true that I didn't detect an oppressive, fearful tension in The Turn of the Screw.  I did.

It just wasn't the ghosts.  It was the silence.

Prohibitions on speaking, both implicit and explicit, abound in The Turn of the Screw.  The story begins with a gag-order when the governess' employer forbids her to write to him for any reason: she must "only meet all questions herself, receive all moneys from his solicitor, take the whole thing over and let him alone."  (p. 7.)

Then Miles, the elder of the governess' charges, is expelled from school under circumstances unexplained by the headmaster.  In a bewildered state emerging from her inability to reconcile Miles' innocent appearance with this condemnation, the governess opts to remain silent on the topic - in response to the headmaster, to her employer, and with Miles himself - with the result that the subject of Miles' expulsion becomes a matter of "deep obscurity."  (p. 24.) 

Into these silences waft the ghosts.  The governess sees the ghosts of her charges' former companions, Peter Quint and Miss Jessel, and she believe that Miles and his sister, Flora, also see the ghosts.  But Miles and Flora never mention either their now-deceased companions or the ghosts, and the governess dares not be the first to speak:

I was confronted . . . with all the risk attached . . . to sounding my own horrid note. . . . [Miles] could do as he liked . . . so long as I should continue to defer to the old tradition of the criminality of those caretakers of the young who minister to superstitions and fears. . . . [W]ho would ever absolve me . . . if . . . I were the first to introduce into our intercourse an element so dire?

(p. 61.) 

Time and again, the governess has opportunities to confront Miles and Flora about the ghosts, and repeatedly the governess declines them.  She expresses her fear that, when confronted, the children will lie and deny seeing the ghosts (p. 42).  She alludes to the possibility that her sanity is vulnerable to question (p. 64).  And, of course, she is aware that she could be accused of polluting the children with foolish superstitions.

From this silence upon silence upon silence springs the horror of The Turn of the Screw: not the return of the dead, or the evil of the people who the ghosts had once been, but of the corruption to morality, conduct, sanity and even reality itself that arises from the unspeakable.  If we cannot speak of our lives, we create the conditions for horror.

I imagine Henry James knew intimately the risks of the unspeakable.  James may have been gay - celibate or otherwise, but definitely not "out" to his family (his letters to gay and bisexual men lend themselves to that interpretation).  Whatever the truth, James chose silence on the topic of the connection - if any - between his sexuality and his bachelerhood. 

Meanwhile, around him, those who spoke suffered.  James' contemporary, Oscar Wilde, was imprisoned; James' close friend, Constance Fenimore Woolson, who may have gone too far in expressing her love for him, committed suicide.  In his languid novel of Henry James' life, The Master, Colm Tóibín imagines Henry James remaining largely silent, and indignant, as well-intentioned people confront him about both these events. 

Whatever liability or incapacity prevented this most verbose of men from a verbal defense must have been most horrible.  However his silence warped his life was likely a defect he marked well . . . and possibly transmuted into The Turn of the Screw: a parable illustrating how the warping action of repressive silence costs one love, as well as life; a parable in which the ghosts that torment the governess are lovers who broke society's rules.

After gazing on such "dreadful - dreadfulness" (p. 2), the rest is silence. 

(Image of Crispin Lord as Miles and Anna Devin as the governess in Benjamin Britten's opera adaptation of The Turn of the Screw from The Independent)

Sonnet XX: WTF?

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Tilda_Swinton_as_Male_Orlando.jpgShakespeare's Sonnet XX confounds me.  It praises a person whose gorgeous face, heart and personality - with its absence of womanly faults - captures the narrator's passion . . . though this same person's cock checks the narrator's impulse for sexual consummation of his love.  Here's the poem:

A woman's face with nature's own hand painted,
Hast thou, the master mistress of my passion;
A woman's gentle heart, but not acquainted
With shifting change, as is false women's fashion:
An eye more bright than theirs, less false in rolling,
Gilding the object whereupon it gazeth;
A man in hue all hues in his controlling,
Which steals men's eyes and women's souls amazeth.
And for a woman wert thou first created;
Till Nature, as she wrought thee, fell a-doting,
And by addition me of thee defeated,
By adding one thing to my purpose nothing.
But since she prick'd thee out for women's pleasure,
Mine be thy love and thy love's use their treasure.

I first encountered Sonnet XX at a vulnerable moment, just before bed time, and I naturally assumed that in my exhaustion, I'd lost track of some critical explanatory phrase in the poem.  But an immediate reread suggested that the eyebrow-raising implications weren't a function of my readiness for slumberland.  Indeed, a basic Google search revealed countless others with raised eyebrows.  So provocative is Sonnet XX that Prince might have done well to set its verses to music instead of expending effort to write "Controversy."

Interestingly, more than one commentator seems to think that the poem is an admission of Shakespeare's homosexuality.  Personally, I find that theory absurd.  For starters, such speculation superimposes a patina of modern norms on Shakespeare's Elizabethan consciousness (e.g., that loving another man makes a man gay).  We barely understand how gender and sexually are socially constructed today; to project our incomplete understanding backwards 400 years is at best arrogant and at worst idiotic.

But more importantly, Sonnet XX isn't so much homosexual as it is weird.  For gay men, the love object isn't womanly; a gay male pin-up is hot because he's masculine.  Sonnet XX, on the other hand, idolizes a man with a womanly appearance - or, at a minimum, an Orlando-style androgynous appearance that appeals to men and women ("Which steals men's eyes and women's souls amazeth"). 

Moreover, unlike a homosexual man, the narrator of Sonnet XX is decidedly against sex with his beloved: the narrator is "defeated" by his adored's prick; it brings the narrator's purpose "to nothing."  Instead, the narrator urges his beloved to make love with women, while giving his heart to the narrator. 

This model of love isn't homosexual; rather, it seems to lack a modern analogy.  Same-sex love affairs in modern society aren't typically sexless.  Nor do we usually idolize the looks of one gender when they appear on the other; quite the opposite, especially in the case of men.  From Boy George, to Michael Jackson, to Jaye Davidson (who played Dil in The Crying Game), men who look like women tend to make folks uncomfortable nowadays.

In fact, the very eagerness of modern readers to class Sonnet XX with homosexual literature reflects a variety of discomfort or insecurity with the prospect of a same-sex love relationship beyond our comprehension or experience.  But while the impulse to tame the scary, irrational potentialities of sex by naming, categorizing and analyzing is a positive one, we lose the chance to recognize, explore and appreciate the breadth of human experience if we insist on incorrect classification.

Human love is vaster, more capricious and more irrepressible than Harlequin romance.  And our capacities for loving in multi-faceted and bizarre ways is among our species' the most remarkable and admirable traits.  As G.W. Bowerstock observes in a New York Review of Books review of two books exploring Greek pederasty:

The sexual life of the ancient Greeks was as variegated and inventive as its resplendent culture. It was neither consistent nor uniform.  To this day it stubbornly resists all modern ideologies and prejudices, and yet it had its own principles of decency.  In sex, as in so much else, the ancient Greeks were unique.
Sonnet XX tantalizes with its glimpse of a variegated and inventive sexual life, one neither consistent nor uniform, one that resists modern ideologies and prejudices, for Shakespeare and his Elizabethan brethren.  We might consider to what extent their sexual openness made the Greeks and the Elizabethan not merely unique, but also great.

(Image of Tilda Swinton playing Orlando from Sally Potter's website)

Too real for pleasure, too impressive to deny

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Roberto_Bolaño.jpgRoberto Bolaño's 2666 is impressive beyond praise that can be offered in modern English.  Like Milan Kundera, Bolaño's achievement is utterly unique and un-replicable.

At 893 pages in the English edition (apparently over 1,000 in the original Spanish), Bolaño's feat in 2666 is perhaps beyond summarization.  But despite its heft and ambition, I think Bolaño's accomplishment is straightforward: he's modern literature's consummate realist.

Calling Bolaño a "realist" may strike those familiar with his work as odd.  Bolaño, after all, began his writing life as a poet and, as Franscisco Goldman asserts in his New York Review of Books piece, Bolaño seems to have considered himself fundamentally a poet despite his turn to fiction writing.  Indeed, reading 2666 (even in translation) evoked the active visceral engagement that usually only occurs with poetry: the book riled up my guts for irrational and inarticulable reasons, the way a poem might make me want to cry without knowing why.

Because of Bolaño's power to tap into the subliminal and the unconscious, he might readily be termed a stylist, in the model of Anne Enright, whose The Gathering operates similarly, or W.G. Sebold, whose The Emigrants has been reputed to have like power (though I found it merely boring when I read it six years ago).  And, unquestionably, Bolaño's writing classes him among the leading stylists of literature.

But Bolaño distinguishes himself from the poet-stylist set in a significant way.  Most poets and stylists transport the reader from reality: when their writing works, it grips the reader's viscera and pulls him or her into a realm that departs from the quotidian.  The point of such writing is not to depict life realistically, but to evoke (and provoke) feelings, sensations and engagement.

Whereas Bolaño uses poetic-stylist techniques to depict reality.  Indeed, the reality that emerges from 2666 is more "real" than any other attempt at literary realism I have encountered.  As Benjamin Kunkel, writing in The London Review of Books, says of a Bolaño short story called "Enrique Martín":

You don't feel that Enrique Martín is a robust character inhabiting a well-made story; you feel - whether or not any real-life original ever existed - something perhaps more powerful and certainly, in fiction, more unusual: namely, that he is simply a person, and that instead of having a story he had a life.
Reading 2666, I didn't feel that I was inhabiting the world of a story: I felt that I caught in the sweep of 20th century history.  Common themes and characters abounded, yes, but plot was only what I imposed on the events, and indeterminacy was the only honest conclusion.   

Composed of five sub-novellas, 2666 can be read in any order.  I read it in the order in which the novellas were assembled in the English-language edition, but I'm going to read the book again in a different order.  The conviction intrinsic in 2666's construction is the same truth that informs the modern construction of consciousness: however one looks at the facts, doubt must temper clarity because story-lines are imposed, not organic.

To use literature as Bolaño does is a departure from the norm.  His approach cannot be described as "escapist."  My guess is that most people's realities are more escapist than Bolaño's literature.  Nor does Bolaño's technique generate pleasure reading.  The sub-novella, "The Part About the Crimes," in 2666 is almost unbearable to read - just as life is sometimes unbearable to endure.  By depicting reality so . . . realistically, Bolaño has in some sense made the ultimate argument against realism: it's too intense.

And yet, enjoyable or no, Bolaño's triumph is impossible not to admire or praise (however inadequate the English language is for the task).  In taking reality and wrestling it between the covers of a book, where it stays and performs at the command of the conjurer and the whim of the reader, Bolaño has assumed the mantle of a god.  A Greek god, perhaps - flawed and ambiguous and happy to muck around with humans - but the progenitor of one a hell of a branch of literature.

(Image of Roberto Bolaño from The New York Times book review)
Red_Strangers.jpgIn Richard Dawkins' Introduction to Elspeth Huxley's Red Strangers, he calls the novel "anthropologically illuminating," and that phrase struck me as the most insightful of the compliments he bestowed on the book ("epic," "gripping," "moving" and "humanistically mind-opening" among them).  

Red Strangers recounts the history of Kenya from 1890-1937 through the eyes of three generations of Kikuyu men: history, still written by the victor, but seen through the eyes of colonized, as that perspective is imagined by the colonizer.  

The ambition of Red Strangers is huge, and I have great admiration for the project.  With Red Strangers, Huxley courageously undertook an "experiment," as she put it in her Foreword, to record "the way of life that existed before the white men came" because "within a few years none will survive of those who remember" those days.  (Red Strangers was published in 1939.)  The experiment was unquestionably worthwhile, and the record she has created is of tremendous historical and anthropological interest. 

Nonetheless, Red Strangers suffers two serious flaws.  First, Huxley's storytelling is overshadowed by her agenda.  She wants to describe a bygone society and explain its reaction to the appearance of the colonists more than she wants to tell us a story.  As a result, events occur without narrative pay-off:  Muthengi seduces his adopted sister Ambui . . . but nothing happens as a result.  Matu runs away to live with the Athi people for some time . . . but we never find out why this matters for the plot.  A conflict erupts between the Kipsigis and the Kikuyu on Marafu's farm . . . that goes nowhere.  More disturbingly, the book has the "one thing and then another" feel of poorly-written historical treatises.  Events appear in the Red Strangers because they correspond to actual historical events that happened, not because they advance the plot.

Second, Huxley attempts to describe to a literate society a world that was preliterate, from the point of view of the preliterate.  I am not sure that this goal is achievable.  The thought processes and consciousnesses of preliterate peoples is different from that of literate, modern peoples, and I am not convinced that either methodology can be transmitted directly, that is, without an intervening process of interpretation.  As Huxley herself posits, "[t]he old Kikuyu . . . cannot present their point of view to us because they cannot express it in terms which we can understand."  To circumvent this problem, Huxley has chosen to depict "old Kikuyu" who express their point of view in terms we can understand; in other words, she has created a hybrid character who never existed: a Kikuyu from a preliterate, precolonial society who nonetheless communicates in a literate, post-colonial way.  Unsurprisingly, this character is unsatisfactory.  He (because all three generations of Kikuyu protagonists in Red Strangers are men) doesn't come across as resourceful, intelligent, reflective . . . or believable.  Rather, he's flat and two dimensional.

Following the lead of Dawkins' "anthropologically illuminating" comment, I would guess that a better vehicle for the information Huxley wanted to convey would have been the long-form personal history, something like Marjorie Shostak's Nisa: The Life and Words of a !Kung Woman, a compelling page-turner about a Kalahari bushwoman.  Nisa is an anthropological text, and I suspect that Huxley - who disclaimed any anthropological rigor in Red Strangers - avoided that option because she didn't want to be accused of sloppy scholarship.  All the same, Nisa succeeds where Red Strangers fails.  Although Nisa came from a preliterate society, and although her story was being told through the agency of a literate academic, Nisa comes alive in her book in ways that Muthengi, Matu and Karanja never do in Red Strangers.  A novel, after all, must have a story; but a personal history must only have a life.

(Image of Red Strangers from Fantastic Fiction)     
Immediately after I wrote the post British authors mentally masturbate about physics, stories suffer, I read Peter Dizikes essay in The New York Times about C.P. Snow, the physicist and novelist who coined the term "the two cultures" to describe the rift between scientists and literary types -- and I knew I would have to write an addendum to my previous post.

According to Dizikes, Snow made three claims that are worth considering in light of Ian McEwan's The Child in Time and Michael Frayn's Copenhagen.  First, Snow laid the blame for the rift between these two cultures on the literati.  Plainly, that claim is untenable today.  With the advent of string theory, the mathematics required to understand physics has become so complicated that even other physicists, much less literary scholars, don't understand it.  (See, for example, this New Yorker article about Garrett Lisi, renegade physicist, or this review of a couple of books about string theory.) 

Moreover, the strenuous efforts at bridging this gap between the scientists and the poets is coming from the poets' side, with novels like McEwan's, plays like Frayn's, and countless other examples (Huxley's Brave New World, Ishiguro's Never Let Me Go, etc.)  Oliver Sacks alone cannot make up for the majority of scientists who are incapable of communicating with the rest of the world.

Second, Snow argued that science, not literature, is what safeguards the progressive betterment of society because scientists are more morally reliable that the literati.  This claim, also, is one that cannot be credited.  Science, as the history of scientific advances in the 20th century amply demonstrates (atom bomb anyone?), is amoral.  The job of scientists is to discover the truth, regardless of the outcome; the moral ramifications of the discoveries are someone else's job.

That "someone else" often, increasingly, is a writer.  McEwan has reached the stature of "England's national author" (in the words of New Yorker profile) because, in novels like The Child in Time, Amsterdam, Atonement, and Saturday, he undertakes the task of sorting the moral ramifications of technological and social developments.  Copenhagen, as well, is an attempt to parse the morality of working on an atom bomb in World War II, examining the question from multiple perspectives.  (Whatever might be said about the moral failings of Ezra Pound, Snow's example of a literary moral degenerate -- or P.G. Wodehouse, or Gertrude Stein, to name a couple of other literati who behaved abysmally during WWII -- none can approach the scale of damage done by physicist Werner Heisenberg who, in addition to being a Nazi, was also almost certainly developing an atomic weapon.)

Third, according to Dizikes, Snow maintained that "20th-century progress was being stymied by the indifference of poets and novelists."  This claim, of course, is risable.  To whatever extent 20th century progress has been stymied, governments, corporations and academic mismanagement have been vastly more responsible that poets and novelists -- who, as the novels and plays cited above demonstrate, have been anything but "indifferent" to 20th century progress.

That said, something can be salvaged from Snow, namely his prescription for a generalized education.  Specialized education, especially too early in life, narrows the mind and exacerbates the gap between "the two cultures."  Moreover, a broader educational platform might obviate the need for incorporating physics lessons into novels and plays, leading to better, more elegantly-told stories about these issues (the point I raised in my previous blog post).  After all, only when we're able to communicate easily across this divide will we be able effectively to bridge it.

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This page is an archive of recent entries in the Articulating the inarticulable category.

Art and transcendence is the previous category.

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