Diary

Tale of a nail

I have a new short story at The Airgonaut. I admire this venue most of all for its simplicity. Only text, no pictures, just the way my brain likes it.

This is an economic folk tale, the first of a cycle generated by a constraint system that’s formally simple, but involves a few more determiners for the content.

It’s been quite a hiatus on the diary; I’ve had to write a lot of short papers this semester, and the rest of my writing time has been devoted to executing this procedure.

Advertisements

Read in 2018

Some prose books, in alphabetical order.

A PORTRAIT OF THE ARTIST AS A YOUNG MAN by JAMES JOYCE. Read casually, staying in the surface language. But I kept in mind Moretti’s arguments in WAY OF THE WORLD of this novel as a structural failure, compromised between two roads for the bourgeois novel. The end of chapter 4 feels like the end of the work, but instead comes chapter 5, which is aggressively boring and taken up with multiple campus discussions on aesthetics.

BECKETT AND BADIOU: THE PATHOS OF INTERMITTENCY by ANDREW GIBSON. This was the best introduction to Badiou’s use of set theory I’ve read. I used to dislike Badiou’s math philosophy because I couldn’t understand it. But now I can say I dislike it because it is a sophisticated rejection of the vanguard party form. Badiou’s new book on cultural revolution, this interview suggests, will be walking the tightrope of arguing for masses struggling against power without falling into anarchism (how he can manage this, I do not know).

THE BOTTOM OF THE SKY by RODRIGO FRESAN. Really interesting because it works like INVENTED PART except it is really compact, which actually makes the background action easier to detect. My feeling now is that what I first read as a large perceptible gap between story and discourse is actually a switcheroo: the story (the background action which conventionally would be in the foreground) gives way to foregrounded discourse. I impatiently await translations of THE DREAMED PART and MANTRA.

COMPULSORY GAMES by ROBERT AICKMAN. Stories with blackouts, some of them non-alcoholic. Aickman is really curious: he writes Gothic and dark fantasy narratives like an Edwardian modernist. My feeling about the fantastic is that it’s taken on multiple historical functions (metaphors for colonial and domestic violence, romantic imagination, modernization–paradoxically), but I still don’t know what to make of weird tales, their particular mixture of content and style.

CONTINUITY AND RUPTURE by J. MOUFAWAD-PAUL. What I absolutely agree with in JMP’s historiographical presentation here is that Marxism-Leninism-Maoism is in one direction a continuity of revolutionary proletarian theory after Leninism (introducing concepts like “party as leading core of the whole people” and developing Leninist concepts like the masses and cultural revolution), and in the other direction a rupture from revisionist lines of thought that crop up after revolutionary gains. The nitty-gritty of the history itself is questionable. Needs re-reading.

DEATH IN SPRING by MERCE RODOREDA. An excellent way to start the reading year, and my first MR. This work, like WAR, SO MUCH WAR and unlike her more realism-driven texts from the 60s, is shapeless yet utterly compelling. A village seen through the eyes of a boy who grows up to be a father; ghastly ritual practices. So a defamiliarization of the adult world and perhaps Francoism, sure. But the parts are more important than the whole here.

FOX by DUBRAVKA UGRESIC. A great contemporary novel that on the surface works like a series of esoteric inquiries into marginal literary figures or the marginal aspects of the lives of central ones. But it parascopes, W.G. Sebald style, into nested narratives about the ultra right after Yugoslavia, the refugee crisis, the fate of art and global capitalism, unexploded ordinance…

LE GUIN novels: THE LATHE OF HEAVEN, ROCANNON’S WORLD, PLANET OF EXILE. The last two are early Hainish novels and they were all right stories with cool initial ideas, like a retelling of Icelandic Myth. LATHE is a classic, and the setting is wonderful; the eclecticism of Le Guin’s politics got in the way of my enjoyment.

TRISTRAM SHANDY by LAURENCE STERNE. A romance, not a novel, according to the narrator. And yet foregrounds with scientific thoroughness all of the formal problems of fictitious narrative. Which isn’t surprising because there are prose forms all through the 17th and 18th centuries that we’d call novels and stories no problem–it is the “novel” which has consumed all other discourses (Moretti in MODERN EPIC calls it the apex predator).

THE UNDERGROUND RAILROAD by COLSON WHITEHEAD. This is an amazing novel that literalizes a metaphor in order to ironize it. So the subway locomotives work not just spacially, but temporally, that is, as historical progress that is repeatedly questioned by the level of violence experienced in each southern state. What a great idea: multiple state governments on cotton economies, multiple planter capitalist dictatorships. South Carolina is a liberal welfare regime (with modernist structures that are banks and museums) that practices eugenics; and North Carolina is a fascist state that lynches white race traitors with no hesitation. It is a science fiction novel accepted as lit fic because of how Whitehead compresses space and time in his narration, and his willingness to not string us along by the plot.

Poetry books:

ELECTRIC ARCHES by EVE L. EWING

MY MOTHER WAS A FREEDOM FIGHTER by AJA MONET

ADVANCES IN EMBROIDERY by AHMAD AL-ASHQAR

By JOHN ASHBERY: SOME TREES, RIVERS AND MOUNTAINS, THE DOUBLE DREAM OF SPRING, THREE POEMS, THE VERMONT NOTEBOOKS, SELF-PORTRAIT IN A CONVEX MIRROR, HOUSEBOAT DAYS.

By PHILIP LARKIN: THE NORTH SHIP, THE LESS DECEIVED, THE WHITSUN WEDDINGS.

This was also the year I seriously studied classic texts by Lenin and Mao. Internalizing dialectical materialism has been a paradigm shift in terms of its liberating impact on one’s subjectivity. A way to perceptively work through all of the contradictions in life and society. I won’t go on.

Criticism and self-criticism

PRIDE AND PREJUDICE
Jane Austen
Oxford UP, 2008

Finished P&P Christmas morning, adored it, laughed from beginning to end.

I was struck by some lines by Elizabeth in volume 2. She’s invited by her aunt (and the Gardiners, while the least people according to the gentry hierarchy, since they are urban professionals, are the best human beings in the cast according to the text’s moral arguments) to take a trip to the Lakes, which is significant not only for its literary associations with Wordsworth and Coleridge. Picturesque tourism, the role of natural beauty in 18th century aesthetic discourse, is so well observed in Austen’s work, and is neatly worked into the rest of what the novel is about, an early but fully formed example of bildung, the cultivation of the self, the harmony of autonomy and socialization, for a rational basis for happiness.

Elizabeth answers the invite with raptures about how it will cheer her up after the disappointments regarding some marriage prospects. Then she says,

And when we do return, it shall not be like other travellers, without being able to give one accurate idea of any thing. We will know where we have gone — we will recollect what we have seen. Lakes, mountains, and rivers, shall not be jumbled together in our imaginations; nor, when we attempt to describe any particular scene, will we begin quarreling about its relative situation. Let our first effusions be less insupportable than those of the generality of travellers.

As a bit of characterization, Elizabeth acknowledges that gentry society is more often than not abominably boring and complacent and self-absorbed (reminding me of literary society in New York). But for her the issue is based on discourse. Other travelers don’t get their recollections of their tourism straight. She values good discourse, which in this case articulates how natural beauty confirms the rational sense making that is necessary to get by in this world, to accurately perceive people, and make correct choices.

Later on in the middle volume of course she reads Darcy’s letter, which contains the truth about that rake Mr. Wickam.

‘How despicably have I acted!’ she cried. — ‘I, who have prided myself on my discernment! — I, who have valued myself on my abilities! who have often disdained the generous candour of my sister, humiliating is this discovery! — Yet, how just a humiliation! — Had I been in love, I could not have been more wretchedly blind. But vanity, not love has been my folly. — Pleased with the preference of one, and offended by the neglect of the other, on the very beginning of our acquaintance, I have courted prepossession and ignorance, and driven reason away, where either were concerned. Till this moment, I never knew myself.’

So, these lines rang kind of false for me in the same way the previous quote does; the thoughts are too well considered to be reported speech. They seem more like things Elizabeth would write in letters to a sister or confidante. Indeed, the earlier version of PRIDE, from the 1790s, was an epistolary novel, apparently.

“Generous candor.” Which here means not being honest but being sweet, diplomatic, unwilling to find fault. Elizabeth took secret pride in thinking herself more discerning and discriminating in her judgement than her sister Jane.

And “vanity.” That is the woman-specific version of pride, which Mr. Darcy also has. But actually the way pride works in the novel suggests that the gendered distinction, voiced by Mary at the very beginning, is not useful. Both Miss Bennet and Mr. Darcy have the wrong opinion about themselves and care too much about what other people think about them.

But it’s a remarkable self-criticism, and its climax brings out what is at stake for a bildungsroman: that to get the relationship between the self and the world wrong is to misapprehend the self entirely.

Here’s Mr. Darcy’s self-criticism, devastating for melancholy boys.

‘I cannot give you credit for any philosophy of the kind. Your retrospections must be so totally void of reproach, that the contentment arising from them, is not of philosophy, but what is much better, of innocence. But with me, it is not so. Painful recollections will intrude, which cannot, which ought not to be repelled. I have been a selfish being all my life, in practice, though not in principle. As a child I was taught what was right, but I was not taught to correct my temper. I was given good principles, but left to follow them in pride and conceit. Unfortunately an only son, (for many years an only child) I was spoilt by my parents, who though good themselves, (my father particularly, all that was benevolent and amiable,) allowed, encouraged, almost taught me to be selfish and overbearing, to care for none beyond my own family circle, to think meanly of all the rest of the world, to wish at least to think meanly of their sense and worth compared with my own. Such I was, from eight to eight and twenty; and such I might still have been but for you, dearest, loveliest Elizabeth! What do I not owe you! You taught me a lesson, hard indeed at first, but most advantageous. By you, I was properly humbled. I came to you without a doubt of my reception. You shewed me how insufficient were all my pretensions to please a woman worthy of being pleased.’

The bourgeoisie may not factor into this story world, but Austen is introducing its progressive values into it, values of merit. It’s accident of birth that gets you an aristocratic title, but one can always earn the title of gentleman or lady; that simply comes from how you’re willing to treat others.

And to do so, she introduced modern bourgeois narrative discourse seemingly at a stroke. The self-consciousness of the 18th century is replaced with confident realistic illusion crafting. This is a narrative that can’t really be relayed in letters to suspend disbelief. We have to be looking over Elizabeth’s shoulder as she goes on her reconnaissance missions at each party and estate visit, gathering reliable intelligence on what’s going on and who’s who. Limited third person simulates the sequence of human perception, the exercise of our inferential reasoning power (Kant’s term). And in the process we characterize not just Elizabeth but also that mysterious narrating entity, not Jane Austen herself, of course, but one of her images.

Another cheer for Don César

I regularly get preoccupied on Cesar Aira, go back through his interviews (especially the Spanish ones like this one for Lokunowo), dip through the New Directions translations (which I am compulsively collecting–I’m compelled to take in his whole translated body of work as it comes; the nature of his work seems to demand it).

Had a hard time getting into CONVERSATIONS, but today (Nov 23) I started a reread of GHOSTS, which I read way too fast and too distractedly the first time, because these opening pages are thrillingly gorgeous. Aira is linked with me right now to Magritte. I always liked Magritte, but sometimes I wonder if it’s kitsch. Only the paintings full of commodities, perhaps, but kitsch isn’t merely illustrative technique. Magritte was an ad illustrator for a living, and his surreal pictures have the same instant readability. So too with Aira and Gothic novels in general — opaque, materialist styles come from Modernism — no, the narrative is linguistically transparent, all the more to see the romantic, magical content.

In the long first paragraph, which feels very 19th century with its floor plan and set dressing and portraits of people coming and going on business, the actual first glimpse of the ghosts in the prime apartment building are slipped non-nonchalantly in a series of images.

A woman in violet was catching her breath on the stairs between the sixth and seventh floors. Others didn’t have to make an effort: they floated up and down, even through the concrete slabs. The owners were not bothered by the delay, partly because they didn’t have to make the last payment until they took possession, but also because they actually preferred to have a bit more time to organize the furnishings and fittings.

Another image, of two naked ghosts sitting on the TV dish, “a sharp metallic edge on which no bird would have dared to perch,” evokes a stillness that gets picked up with the young mortal workman balancing on a dumpster with an empty bucket.

The only unusual thing about him was that stillness, which is rare to see in a person at work, even for a brief spell. It was like stopping movement itself, but without really stopping it, because even in those instants of immobility he was earning wages. Similarly, a statue sculpted by a great master, still as it is, goes on increasing in value. It was a confirmation of the absurd lightness of everything.

Suppose that these elements, the workman in his pose with the bucket, the reflections on wage labor and the contemporary art market, are in fact dictated by chance as Aira claims with his flight forward method. Somehow we still get, at least here, a thematic progression. The class contradiction is taken up from here in the portrait of the architect Felix Tello. The narrator reflects on page 10 that Tello is caught between bourgeois and proletariat, and from his perspective they are almost two of a kind: neither hang on to their money, because they both need to seize whatever opportunities come their way — it actually makes  sense. This clarifies the class contradiction in one way, but the thought is also tethered to Aira’s dream world, a world of the id (defined against Tello’s ego), which is all expenditure, all ludic play, and no work.

And the bit that’s hard to forget, with the two proletarian ghosts. Naturally if there are ghosts in the story we want to know how they interact with matter. This passage answers with something whose plain cartoon otherness is just as easily mediated as that wonderful last construction, “the lowest string of a Japanese harp.” And the details of “naked” walls and paving.

A builder who happened to be passing by with a bucketful of rubble on the way to the skip stretched out his free hand and, without stopping, grasped the penis of one of the naked men and kept walking. The member stretched out to a length of two yards, then three, five, ten, all the way to the sidewalk. When he let it go, it slapped back into place with a noise whose weird harmonics went on echoing off the unplastered concrete walls and the stairs without marble paving, up and down the empty elevator shafts, like the lowest string of a Japanese harp.

Every Aira book lays bare the common device. We have a narrative that imitates a 19th century family chronicle; indeed, what we really have a version of the bourgeois interior that is the fuel for fine art. Laying it bare means creating this comical situation where it is still being produced (and the producers are still present).

Why communists abstain at the present moment

Casting any ballot in the United States, a white supremacist, settler, imperialist regime, is counterrevolutionary at the present moment.

Meaning it is directly against the political interests of a revolutionary project.

It is directly against the interests of the workers and masses.

Mind you, only at the present moment. The situation changes all the time. When revolutionary communism becomes a living politics as it was 50 years ago, when a genuine revolutionary vanguard party exists in this country, electoral strategies and bloc voting will be conceivable, as was done by historical communist parties.

We cannot support ruling class politicians, no matter how young, hip, non-white, non-male, and apparently woke they are.

The state is ruling class by its nature: it is merely the special mechanism of the repression of the masses. It is up to the exploiters to enjoy democracy while we vote in new beneficiaries to represent and repress us.

*

Political power must come before elections. Elections cannot cultivate this political power. Bullets before ballots. Before we can have any reasonable hope for class enemy politicians to represent the oppressed masses, there must be a core of advanced proletarian communists, around which is built a vanguard party, with a consolidated line, program, and armed wing; an independent mechanism to actually hold them accountable.

How will we hold Congresswoman Ocasio-Cortez accountable if and when she votes in favor of the next criminal, genocidal war on terror? We know she is an imperialist regarding Palestine; she would not have a bourgeois political career off the ground if she didn’t. The same goes to rest of the beloved challengers, at least one of whom formerly worked in the CIA (I’m aware of Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar; only time will tell).

It is an appealing thought that organizing around voting is a safe way to cultivate discipline for armed struggle, but it’s wrong.

*

Rebecca Solnit says somewhere that voting is a making a move in a game of chess, not writing a love letter. But even chess and love letters have a class character.

“At least elections present some opportunity, some avenue to express your concerns. Is it not our responsibility to take it if we can?”

But what is this political channel if not a ruling class one, a channel that mediates, reflects, and cultivates ruling class ideas and perspectives?

So many dedicated people pounded the pavement to get Ocasio-Cortez through the primary, and she cast off her most left-leaning promises and supported Israel within weeks, and exploited the anti-intellectualism that is prevalent in the Left today as a cover for her right opportunism. This is the fruit of so much energy and organizing on the ground.

Elections are a steam valve. The energy and power that could go into the revolutionary project, still at the bottom of the hill, is siphoned off into bourgeois elections whose corrupt nature is not lost on any of its participants. But American political ideology insists that we can turn a blind eye, not only to the obvious corruption, but to the unspeakable horrors perpetrated by the US government through the world. Imperialism is a joint project between the parties, while the contest for the balance of power is blown up as an apparent contradiction.

To see the essence of the situation is to leave the mainland and go to Vietnam, Cambodia, the various fascist regimes in Latin America designed by Obama and Clinton. Here you see that the United States spreads capitalist influence with mere brute force. The US is in an antagonistic contradiction with the masses of the world. Not even the most ideal election in terms of turnout and infrastructure would change this situation.

The subjective experience of voting will have you internalizing the idea that this sick, ruthless, criminal government of racist domination is redeemable, worth your participation, and that ultimately America has the right to commit these atrocities, has the right to exist, to starve and blow Yemeni children to bits, to make entire nations subject to corporate interests, all the rest of it.

The Democrats, their ideological mouthpieces, their NGO groups, their big unions, are thirsting for war, either directly or indirectly against rival imperialist ruling classes, hence the antagonism and childish conspiracy theories regarding Russia and nations in its camp.

I made the mistake of reviewing the American imperialist invasion of Vietnam, the details of its naked violence, its sexual torture, the generational devastation of Agent Orange, the domestic support it had in the name of anti-communism. And in this churlish mood I hear about voters sticking it out in ridiculous long lines in appalling physical discomfort, yet full of joy, hope and camaraderie. I hear about this, and, painfully, can only see a celebration of genocides forgotten.

*

Can’t we vote now and make revolution later? After all, revolution is not even on the horizon, while these resources and tools to effect change of some kind are here. But they are only apparently here. Again, any electoralism that happens today actively staves off revolutionary action in the future. Participation eats away at class consciousness like acid. Erasing class consciousness is how one can overcome the cognitive dissonance of awareness of the situation and the purely ideological pressures of civic duty, having one’s voice heard, etc.

Voting now and making revolution later is an intuitive, comforting idea of the structure of historical change. Sadly, it is not correct. And it is not just liberals who are afraid of the ugly reality of revolutionary struggle. Evading and obscuring the necessity of revolution against capitalism is the motor for revisionism, for new forms of ruling class ideas that are draped in Marxist or socialist sounding language.

The Democratic Social Fascists of America have appropriated and diluted “socialism” to the extent that some of the most rapacious, pro-war imperialist voices on Twitter can identify with it. And they will not be challenged, because many of these voices belong to black women, and the most oppressed are always the most revolutionary with no exceptions, right?

*

Liberal capitalist democracy is a corpse. Bolsonaro in Brazil, Modi in India, the various parliamentary fascists in Europe, the incels and neofascists who only wish they could be the shock brigade of a rudderless GOP, the aforementioned fascist puppet states — in the decade since the Great Recession, fascism has been able to take power through the ballot box, without any conservative revolution as was done in the past.

A big reason why this is possible is because ruling class ideology prevents any meaningful, visionary change, as neoliberal policies bring more destitution and inequality. The Left offers nothing but paltry reform, and the Right becomes the loudest, most intriguing voice for the masses in their volatile situation.

Reform policies make everything worse later on, like too much credit card debt in one month.

As Stalin once wrote:

Hence, the transition from capitalism to socialism and the liberation of the working class from the yoke of capitalism cannot be effected by slow changes, by reforms, but only by a qualitative change of the capitalist system, by revolution.

Hence, in order not to err in policy, one must be a revolutionary, not a reformist.

Reforms are not the component parts of revolution. Reform and revolution are incommensurate. The former covers up, pastes over, sweeps contradictions under the rug; the latter precisely exposes these contradictions for the masses to see, and even develops them to their climax, if it is necessary to do so.

Further, if development proceeds by way of the disclosure of internal contradictions, by way of collisions between opposite forces on the basis of these contradictions and so as to overcome these contradictions, then it is clear that the class struggle of the proletariat is a quite natural and inevitable phenomenon.

Hence, we must not cover up the contradictions of the capitalist system, but disclose and unravel them; we must not try to check the class struggle but carry it to its conclusion.

*

A multiracial coalition of Democrats in state and federal legislatures can only be a multiracial coalition of brutal, bloody, imperialist warmongers, ready to give vocal and material support to the endless military adventures; their being multiracial is all the better a shield against criticism from the Left.

The justification for these strategies, that instead of revolutionary struggle or class warfare we must pursue coalitions in the electoral process, is actually an extremely bureaucratic and mechanical vision of how politics is done.

Shuja Hader had an interesting thought that liberals by and large look at elections as a relation of exchange. Voters are informed consumers purchasing the right commodities. The kernel of truth in this liberal fantasy is that your ballot does work like currency. But the voter is not an economic agent here, they are the just the money used by finance capitalists (the actual constituents of the Democrats) to gain power in the state, where the affairs of the ruling class are managed.

Voting at the present moment can only inflate the voting banks of two, yes, two fascist parties. The unified machine of oppression and death is fed with new blood, making all the more difficult to overthrow it and replace it with socialism in the future. Democrats understand this. They insist theirs is less bad than the other. They want me to see nuance that is painfully obvious in their perspective. But as a communist, I am divorced from their perspective, and try to take on the perspective of the oppressed masses who live under imperialism. They see only the same missiles, drones, and foreign soldiers, no matter who is in power.

*

Many of my friends are committed to this form of politics, and I can see that it is making them miserable. The despair and pessimism of the petty bourgeoisie is a reflection of their extinction as an economic class. This is a counter-intuitive thought, since the petty bourgeoisie (and labor aristocracy) in this country is still quite substantial and has its own internal contradictions. But globally, the small proprietor is disappearing as economic inequality continues to sharpen.

The proletarian ideology is a wellspring of optimism, even in these times, where fascism is in control of the most important rain forest system on earth. It is an alliance with what seems weak but is up and coming, and a force against that which seems dominant, but is on its way out.

*

From a statement by Maoist Communist Group and The New School Communist Student Group:

We want to transform the whole system. For that we require organizations completely different than those needed to resolve particular and local struggles between workers and bosses, which – no matter what we call them – are always trade unionist in essence. Trade unionism separates the working class from politics – that is, from the question of power and the state – confining workers to their workplace, preventing them from becoming the advanced detachment of their class and the leading core of the whole people. As for politics: to paraphrase Lenin, under bourgeois rule it is reduced to the right of the working masses to choose which representative of the exploiting class will represent and oppress them in parliament.

Against this miserable and narrow conception of politics, we must build organizations that will allow the proletariat to independently practice its own politics, with the aim of reconstituting our forces in the line of social revolution.

High and low

MADAME BOVARY
Gustave Flaubert, tr Margarate Mauldon

Oxford UP 2008

In scene 2 of THE ROBBERS (1781) by Schiller, the hero Charles says this:

CHARLES VON M. The glowing spark of Prometheus is burnt out, and now they substitute it for the flash of lycopodium, a stage-fire that will not so much as light a pipe. The present generation may be compared to rats crawling about the club of Hercules.

There’s a Romanticist yearning for the lost heroism of the past. Lycopodium was a species of moss they used for pyrotechnics: Prometheus of the old age has devolved into mass spectacle, of which theater is the emblem.

It’s an impossible dream to be Charles Dickens — or maybe Thomas Pynchon — to write best sellers that are also of artistic merit. Can a narrative work be worth the money you spend on a book or admission ticket, as well has bear that elusive value of art, or beauty? Was Shakespeare the last instance? Balzac?

It’s one thing to signal the rise of mass culture and of the masses themselves in modernity, as Schiller’s play does, and another to view literary texts as various seizures of this high and low split at different moments. There was Balzac, but then there is a fork in the road, between Flaubert/Zola and Dumas.

MADAME BOVARY of course has high and low baked right into the texture. On one hand it’s a, or the 19th century adultery novel, along with SCARLET LETTER and ANNA KARENINA. On the other it is an autonomous work of sentence production. For the first time maybe the idea of the artistic writer is posed, and that what the writer does is not principally tell a gripping story, but offer good sentences. Those conspicuous details, young Charles’s cap being the most infamous example, seem to get lifted by the narrator into a realm of greater agency. So too with the thoughts of otherwise philistine characters, everything you’d hate about the bourgeois mentality. As Emma and Rodolphe carry on their affair, she offers, we’re told, all manner of protestations of love “You’re my king, I’m your concubine, etc.” And Rodolphe?

He had heard these things said to him so many times, that they no longer held any surprises for him. Emma was just like all his mistresses, and the charm of novelty, gradually falling away like a garment, laid bare the eternal monotony of passion, which never varies in its forms and its expression. He could not see — this man of such broad experience — the difference of feeling, beneath the similarity of expression.

And here, mid paragraph, the free indirect discourse breaks in, I take it.

Because wanton or venal lips had murmured the same words to him, he only half believed in the sincerity of those he was hearing now; to a large extent they should be disregarded, he believed, because such exaggerated language must surely mask commonplace feelings:

After the colon comes a beautiful sentence that works like a supplementary step in this argument, which has already excelled the expressive powers of Rodolphe, that bore, and now pushes back.

as if the soul in its fullness did not sometimes overflow into the most barren metaphors, since no one can ever tell the precise measure of his own needs, of his own ideas, of his own pain, and human language is like a cracked kettle on which we beat out tunes for bears to dance to, when what we long to do is make music that will move the stars to pity. (170)

What if stale language indicated not lack of feeling but the opposite? And the closing images focus on the high and low metaphor where I least expected it. The dancing bears are the mass spectacle (the kind that took place right outside the Globe theater), and the music for the stars that aspiration for aesthetic greatness. The latter, Flaubert suggests here, now entails a choice. Demotic or heiratic culture. Reach the masses, or an elite circle of asthetes.

I still agree with the part of my postmodernist rant that this split has transformed itself into expensive and cheap. I still don’t know what keeping the faith with radical modernism today actually entails.

Anal explosive

GRAVITY’S RAINBOW
Thomas Pynchon
Penguin, 2000

The title for part 2, “Un perm’ au Casino Hermann Goering,” is simple yet maybe untranslatable in the same way that Manet’s Le Dejuener sur l’herbe is. And like his radical paintings, the impossibility of the content’s structure launches Slothrop’s paranoia.

A breathless sentence captures Slothrop’s rescue of Katje from an attacking octopus that behaves like a dog. He impotently beats the animal with a bottle; visual data crams the action.

She reaches out a hand, soft-knuckled child’s hand with a man’s steel id bracelet on the wrist, and clutches Slothrop’s Hawaiian shirt, begins tightening her own grip there, and who was to know that among her last things would be vulgar-faced hula girls, ukeleles, and surfriders all in comic-book colors…oh God God please, the bottle thudding again and again wetly into octopus flesh, no fucking use, the octopus gazes at Slothrop, triumphant, while he, in the presence of certain death, can’t quit staring at her hand, cloth furrowing in tangents to her terror, a shirt button straining at a single last thread — he sees the name on the bracelet, scratched silver letters each one making no sense to him before the slimy gray stranglehold that goes tightening, liquid, stronger than he and she together, framing the poor hand its cruel tetanus is separating from Earth —

“Slothrop!” Here’s Bloat ten feet away offering him a large crab.

Ten feet away? And with a large crab ready to hand?

It’s too overworked, the whole octopus production.

Slothrop realizes the White Visitation is still keeping tabs on him, and in ways I can’t keep up on are pushing him toward researching rocketry in preparation for a field mission. There is also They, an evil military industrial cabal whose power is above and beyond even the imperialist powers driving the war. Or They are just a placeholder for the unknown, maybe unknowable, or nonexistent organ holding the conspiracy together.

More hotel hijinx, Slothrop looses his uniform and identity, and so changes costume into a white zoot suit. We get a stronger clue about the link between the polymer Imipolex G, a rocket component, and Slothrop’s mysterious hardons. In the middle of an infodump based on Slothrop’s studying, a parenthetical opens up.

The target property most often seemed to be strength — first among Plasticity’s virtuous triad of Strength, Stability, and Whiteness (Kraft, Standfestigkeit, Weiße: how often these were taken for Nazi graffiti, and indeed how indistinguishable they commonly were on the rain-brightened walls, as the busses clashed gears in the next street over, and the trams creaked of metal, and the people were mostly silent in the rain, with the early evening darkened to the texture of smoke from a pipe, and the arms of young passerby not in the sleeves of their coats but inside somewhere, as if sheltering midgets, or ecstatically drifted away from the timetable into a tactile affair with linings more seductive even than the new nylon…).

Where did we end up? Who is perceiving this rainy day transit scene? Is it Jampf, the inventor, or maybe Slothrop’s imagination? This is hearsay, but those who know/knew Pynchon best say that he said he certainly wrote stretches of GR while high on heavier stuff, and that even he may not know the meaning of certain passages. If I had to guess, the places in the text where this may be the case are precisely these syntactic marathons of images and sounds. It’s a calculated decision to overwrite: it’s like a camera that can only be aimed and opened up, to exhaustively index everything in front of its aperture that the light registers. Like a black hole, the narration picks up everything in the scene, regardless of any character’s consciousness, with only ellipses to stop it. And that unmoored quality is I think what makes it feel exhausting. And most of the stuff the narrator catalogs is literally trash, like Slothrop’s desk at ACHTUNG.

It’s off to Zurich.

The War has been reconfiguring time and space into its own image. The track runs in different networks now. What appears to be destruction is really the shaping of railroad spaces to other purposes, intentions he can only, riding through it for the first time, begin to feel the leading edges of….

The indeterminate world of the book so far is precisely this sense of being on the cusp between the old and the new, with the new coming in at a stroke. Some lines from Semyavin (a rep for the forger Blodgett Waxwing, who met Slothrop in the party scene at Raoul’s and will procure Slothrop a new identity) on the same page develops one implication.

“Life was simple before the war. You wouldn’t remember. Drugs, sex, luxury items. Currency in those days was no more than a sideline, and the term ‘industrial espionage’ was unknown. But I’ve seen it change — oh, how it’s changed. The German inflation, that should’ve been my clue right there, zeros strung end to end from here to Berlin.

One word for this situation is reification. Information has been made real, into something as exchangeable as sex and drugs, and by the same token, into something opaque and divisible.

I liked this bit about cafes and exiles.

He finds that he has drifted as far as the Odeon, one of the great world cafes, whose specialty is not listed anywhere — indeed has never been pinned down. Lenin, Trotsky, James Joyce, Dr. Einstein all sat out at these tables. Whatever it was they all had in common: whatever they’d come to this vantage to score…perhaps it had to do with the people somehow, with pedestrian mortality, restless crisscrossing of needs or desperations in one fateful piece of street…dialectics, matrices, archetypes all need to connect, once in a while, back to some of that proletarian blood, to body odors and senseless screaming across a table, to cheating and last hopes, or else all is dusty Dracularity, the West’s ancient curse….

The rapid accumulation of sensuous, material detail that makes up so much of this book’s discourse may be defended in this thought, although literature is also represented in the cafe’s patrons. Literature is usually seen as the parasite taking material off of history and philosophy, but here the bustling life world itself is “proletarian blood,” (although what’s really important are the proletariat’s correct ideas!).