(more in Mourner at the Door)
We tend to pathologize the ultimate no—suicide—as a shameful failure, the worst kind of failure. The shame of not having assimilated into normative culture, of not bootstrapping the self into a legible narrative of success. Of being merely unable. Melville’s Bartleby teaches us this lesson all too well. Those around Bartleby can’t read his preference to merely not be as such. They want to know why he doesn’t want to be a good bureaucrat. And they string him up for it. But saying no can be an assertion of power, freedom and will, as Bartelby teaches us. The choice to merely not be is simply that. It frustrates everyone around it because it defies the most naturalized assumption in existence: that consciousness is a gift, a privilege, a precious unit of time not to be squandered or frivolously wasted. We are urged to make good with life.
But this attitude comes with the privilege of choices. One who can say that things can be different, that one only need to work a bit harder, shift her perception, to “be the change she wishes to see in the world” doesn’t wake up on Skid Row every morning, is not black in Baltimore or Ferguson, does not live in a body policed by the law and popular culture. Moreover, this attitude assumes that whatever prevents this different life, where one doesn’t have to say no, is conquerable, fixable. Often, the sensation that things cannot be different appears insurmountable. Whatever is assaulting you cannot be removed with a simple shift in perception and attitude.
Such is the dilemma of Yeong-hye in Han Kang’s The Vegetarian. The flap copy describes Yeong-hye’s turn towards vegetarianism as a decision, as does her tyrannical husband and everyone around her, but Yeong-hye’s plant-like turn is only a decision in the most technical sense. Yes, she does decide to become a vegetarian, but not because of preference, or political/ethical commitment. Yeong-hye’s vegetarianism is vital; for her, vegetarianism is her only out from the violent misogyny that she has been born into. But to also say that she wants death and, in turn, that Kang’s novel is a reconfiguration of the normative narrative of suicide would be a double injustice. I know nothing of South Korean culture, and I can only speak confidently of the misogyny that frames The Vegetarian because it is terrifyingly normal in the mouths of its narrators; the first injustice is that I only know this misogyny through western narratives. The second, to assert that Yeong-hye wants death, falls into the trap of romanticizing suicide. None of Yeong-hye’s life is decision, or choice, or freedom, except her desire to become more plant-like—even that is a stretch to say it is a desire. For Yeong-hye, a plant-like existence approaches a state of supreme serenity and disaffection from her world – a position where she cannot be read as a sexual being and, in turn, under the hands of a violent culture. Vegetarianism hangs the human body and self between what we understand and project onto the outside world as life and death. Vegetarianism asymptotically kisses death.
I crammed my feet into my recently purchased shoes, which were too narrow and pinched uncomfortably, threw open the front door and ran out. I checked whether the lift was going to go all the way up to the top floor, and then dashed down three flights of stairs. Only once I’d managed to jump on the underground train as it was just about to leave did I have time to take in my appearance, reflected in the dark carriage window. I ran my fingers through my hair, did up my tie, and attempted to smooth out the creases in my shirt. My wife’s unnaturally serene face, her incongruously firm voice, surfaced in my mind.
I had a dream—she’d said that twice now. Beyond the window, in the dark tunnel, her face flitted by—her face, but unfamiliar, as though I was seeing it for the first time. However, as I had thirty minutes in which to concoct an excuse for my client that would justify my lateness, as well as putting together a draft proposal for today’s meeting, there was no time for mulling over the strange behavior of my even-stranger wife.
Having said that, I told myself that somehow or other I had to leave the office early today (never mind that in the several months since I’d switched to my new position there hadn’t been a single day where I’d got off before midnight), and steeled myself for a confrontation.
Dark woods. No people. The sharp-pointed leaves on the trees, my torn feet. This place, almost remembered, but I’m lost now. Frightened. Cold. Across the frozen ravine, a red barn-like building. Straw matting flapping limp across the door. Roll it up and I’m inside, it’s inside. A
long bamboo stick strung with great blood-red gashes of meat, blood still dripping down. Try to push past but the meat, there’s no end to the meat, and no exit. Blood in my mouth, blood-soaked clothes sucked onto my skin.
Somehow a way out. Running, running through the valley, then suddenly the woods open out. Trees thick with leaves, springtime’s green light. Families picnicking, little children running about, and that smell, that delicious smell. Almost painfully vivid. The babbling stream, people spreading out rush mats to sit on, snacking on kimbap. Barbecuing meat, the sounds of singing and happy laughter.
But the fear. My clothes still wet with blood. Hide, hide behind the trees. Crouch down, don’t let anybody see. My bloody hands. My bloody mouth. In that barn, what had I done? Pushed that red raw mass into my mouth, felt it squish against my gums, the roof of my mouth, slick with crimson blood.
Chewing on something that felt so real, but couldn’t have been, it couldn’t. My face, the look in my eyes . . . my face, undoubtedly, but never seen before. Or no, not mine, but so familiar . . . nothing makes sense. Familiar and yet not . . . that vivid, strange, horribly uncannyfeeling.
What does Slavoj Zizek mean when he says that the Lacanian Symoblic carries the “stain of the Real”? During a talk I once saw him deliver, we watched a clip from David Lean’s Brief Encounter. The plot is as follows: disaffected middle-class wife Celia Johnson falls in love with one Dr. Alec Harvey, both unhappily married with children, both finding in each other a means of escape from their droll realities. They can’t avoid running into people from their shared social circles, forcing them to lie, ultimately delivering us to the final scene. At the train station, the precipice of their final good-bye, Johnson and Harvey are interrupted not only by a nagging friend of the former, but the whistle of Harvey’s train, preventing a passionate farewell (note: they also have not consummated their affair).
The point is that there is a Symbolic laid over a Symbolic — the first are Johnson’s and Harvey’s individual marriages, the illusion that the ritual provides access to the Real of intimacy (the failure of this accomplishment is signed by the crushingly boring misery of their lives); the second are the lies that overlap the marriages, a futile attempt to circumvent the trap of middle-class marriage. The point to this point: Johnson’s friend, the whistle, and the progressive threat of discovery with each new lie are policemen of the Real. Even in the myth of love we are not truly connected; the stain of the Real interrupts to remind us that there is no signifier of the Real without the Symbolic.
Implicit in this construction is that there is no capital-T Truth, that the Symbolic always leaks the Real through its pores as it tries to envelop it. Such is the dilemma of Jon Michaels, the protagonist in Lee Rourke’s new novel Vulgar Things. Michaels, a mid-level editor at a small academic publisher, hungover from the funerary-celebratory bender of his recent sacking that shuttles against the wounds of a fresh divorce, is told by his perpetually unavailable brother Cal that their estranged Uncle Rey, lost to “‘wacky baccy and strange ways,'” has committed suicide in his caravan on Canvey Island, a tucked-away seatown in the Thames estuary in East London where people–mainly idealistic men–used to believe could restart their lives. Instead, it became a place to simply die. “I’ve always understood, deep down, beneath the laughter,” Jon says during his first few steps on Canvey, “why the locals refer to it as the island, deep down it’s always made perfect sense to me: to feel dislocated, to feel lost and forgotten.”
It’s my disadvantage that I’m not English and know nothing about the UK’s geography, the cultural codes built into words like Southend or Queensway. To know, however vaguely, centuries of history through the mediation of businesses coming and going, hundreds-year-old buildings crammed up against new condos. The beaten bricks giving way to municipal sidewalk-grade cement. The phasing out of regional accents, the arrival of RP and other posh accents (this is the extent of my knowledge of the UK) to the grimace and chagrin of the locals, who know all the stories and histories of Canvey. Because Vulgar Things is a text built on and from the echoes of these stories, and of stories in general, the highways and throughways of mediation.
Vulgar Things‘s plot is far from compelling. Jon has to go clean out a dead uncle’s Caravan, becomes obsessed with a woman he sees on the pier, discovers something reality-shattering about himself and Rey. For the first fifty pages or so, I was struggling to find something in this limp plot, in Rourke’s signature flat prose (which is what got me jazzed on him in his last novel, The Canal). At first it seemed to be nothing; I was worried, but Rourke’s deliberately unremarkable and at times sophomoric prose points us to something else entirely: the desire to have desire, the desire for agency within a plot, and the inherent failure at attaining truth. In Canvey, “the sea and sky above [him], everything else behind [him, it] makes immediate sense, [his] being here, to help decipher things, to tie up all the loose ends of Uncle Rey’s life.”
Canvey is a space in which Jon is underneath the atmosphere, the systems of reality that fix Jon’s life in apathy: his overpriced London apartment, the dissatisfaction he found in his work, a failed marriage. The messy task of deciphering and reassembling Rey’s life through his papers loses Jon between temporalities. For here is a man surrendered to aimlessness, wanting anything that can fix him to a desire and thus a meaning and thus a truth. Jon’s and Rey’s wanderings collide wonderfully when, like a good mystery, Jon finds amidst the detritus of Rey’s life a manuscript titled Vulgar Things, a reassemblage of Petrarch’s sonnets, the only poet, according to Rey, who got anything right. Rourke’s Vulgar Things becomes a palimpsest of Rey’s “Vulgar Things,” itself a palimpsest of Petrarch’s Rerum Vulgarium Fragmenta (Fragments of Common Things). The elevation of the banal is reflected in this mediation through the form of the book — the days of the week are built from ordinary phrases, seemingly forgetful perceptions: “such a long time”; “afternoon drinking”; “pointless”; “part of the furniture.” As if these are the forgettable shots in a film, the necessary moves that help get us from Point A to Point B. The limp conceit I mentioned above becomes a kind of mystery-thriller, not unlike the strange turns that Rourke’s last novel takes, when Jon becomes animated by Rey’s “Vulgar Things,” the secrets he points to in his strange video recordings. The startling coincidences of Laura throughout the three media (Petrarch, Rey and Jon).
Sort of unsure how to end this, much like how Jon is unsure how to integrate the revelations he has at the end of the book. He doesn’t keep anything; which is to say, we’re prevented an ending that Symbolically ties up the trajectories of desire that Vulgar Things elicits (perhaps solicits) from us. Again, this is much of the book’s thesis. We need language, but language is a medium, and these mediums are haunted by its linguistic and media forebears and continually fail at providing a truth beyond its Symbolic functions. Yet we are caught in desire, caught in language, and can do little else than to contend with that failure.
At last we found ourselves standing in front of one of the thousands of square marble plaques enclosed in concrete. On it was to be read, freshly incised, the name Isabella Fernandez. Anna Härdtl, with tears in her eyes, tried to fasten her husband’s photograph to the marble plaque, but was at first unable to do so. By chance I had in my pocket the end of a roll of adhesive tape and used this to stick the photograph to the marble. Anna had previous written the name of her husband, Hans Peter Härdtl, in pencil under that of Isabella Fernandez, and though partly obliterated by the rain, it could still be clearly read. Poor people, she said, or those who suddenly became victims of a misfortune such as she had suffered and could make themselves understood, were buried, when they died, the very same day in an above-ground concrete block like this, which is often meant not just for two, but for three bodies.
We are little critters who live in the black earth beneath the desert. The people on Mother Earth can’t imagine such a large expanse of fertile humus lying dozens of meters beneath the boundless desert. Our race has lived here for generations. We have neither eyes nor any olfactory sense. In this large nursery, such apparatus is useless. Our lives are simple, for we merely use our long beaks to dig the earth, eat the nutritious soil, and then excrete it. We live in happiness and harmony because we have abundant resources in our home town. Thus, we can all eat our fill without a dispute arising. At any rate, I’ve never heard of one.
In our spare time, we congregate to recall anecdotes of our forebears. We begin by remembering the oldest of our ancestors and then run through the others. The remembrances are pleasurable, filled with outlandish salty and sweet flavours, as well as some crispy amber – the immemorial turpentine. In our recollections, there is a blank passage that is difficult to describe. Broadly speaking, as one of our elders (the one with the longest beak) was digging the earth, he suddenly crossed the dividing line and vanished in the desert above. He never returned to us. Whenever we remembered this, we fell silent. I sensed that everyone was afraid.
“Amazon, the so-called bookseller Amazon” makes a grave mistake.
The easy possibility of writing letters–from a purely theoretical point of view–must have brought ruination to the souls of the world. Writing letters is actually communication with ghosts, not only with the ghost of the recipient, but also with one’s own ghost, which secretly evolves inside the letter one is writing or even in a whole series of letters where one letter corroborates another and can cite it is a witness. How did people ever get the idea they could communicate with one another by letter! One can think about someone far away and one can hold on to someone nearby; everything else is beyond human power. But writing letters means barring oneself to the ghosts, who are greedily awaiting that. Written kisses never arrive at their destination; the ghosts drink them up along the way. This ample nourishment enables them to multiply so enormously. Mankind senses this and struggles against it; in order to attain a natural communication and a tranquility of soul, and to switch off the ghostly dimension as far as possible, man invented trains, cars, airplanes, but nothing helps anymore. These are evidently inventions devised at the moment of crashing. The opposing side is so much calmer and stronger; after the postal system, the ghosts invented the telegraph, the telephone, the wireless. The ghosts will not starve, but we will parish.
The opposing side. The phrase reveals that his mythopoeic imagination had reached the next level. Although the recipient of this letter could not know it, Kafka had just written a novel about this opposing side. But in The Castle, the fiends (who work mainly at night) are no longer a chaotic mob but emissaries of a ststem, officials who are not free and are themselves subjugated to an unfathomable will. Somewhere inside the castle a highest authority lives; it is the castle of Count Westwest, without whose tacit approval not a creature can stir. This creature with the unearthly name is mentioned on page 20, only to disappear behind a smoke screen of endless chatter. And no one penetrates these walls by waiting patiently for them to become porous–as in Kafka’s “Before The Law” legend–or by the land surveyor’s challenge to a “fight.” The highest authority exists, but it remains unrelentingly remote, and thus the crucial question of whether it is hostile or even evil remains a matter of conjecture. Kafka himself was not clear on this. A few months before beginning the novel, he wrote:
The systematic destruction of myself over the years is astonishing, it was like a slowly widening breach in a dam, a purposeful action. The spirit that brought it about must now be celebrating triumphs; why doesn’t it let me take part in them? But perhaps it hasn’t yet completed its work and can therefore think of nothing else.
(trans. Shelley Frisch).
Douglas Robertson, who runs the blog The Philosophical Worldview Artist, has for some time been translating a selection of Thomas Bernhard’s interviews, reviews, and letters into English on his blog. A very welcome resource for English readers of Bernhard, as there is a giant dearth of this secondary material available. Have a look here.
Have I said it already? I am learning to see. Yes, I’m beginning. It is still going badly. But I want to make use of my time.
For instance, I never realized how many faces there are. There are lots of people but still more faces, for everyone has several. There are people who wear a face for years, of course it wears out, gets dirty, cracks in the folds, stretches like a glove one has worn on a journey. Those are thrifty, simple people: they don’t change it, they don’t even have it cleaned. It’s good enough, they maintain, and who can convince them otherwise? The question does arise, since they have several faces, what do they do with the others? They keep them in reserve. Their children will get to wear them. But it also happens that their dogs wear them when they go out. And why not? Face is face.
Other people put on their faces with uncanny rapidity, one after the other, and wear them out. At first it seems to them as if they have them forever, but they are barely forty and this one is already the last. That of course has its tragic side. They are not used to take care of faces, they run through the last one in a week, there are holes in it, in many places it is as thin as paper, and then slowly what’s underneath emerges, the not-face, and they walk around with that.
From The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge. Translated by Burton Pike.
In my last riff on Gerald Murnane, I wrote about his book Inland, and that he wanted to “craft a universally mutable and relational ‘I.'” And I started off with a quote. I’m going to do that now. This is a short passage from Ludwig Wittgenstein’s The Blue and Brown Notebooks.
The word “I” does not mean the same as “L.W.” even if I am L.W., nor does it mean the same as the expression “the person who is now speaking”. But that doesn’t mean: that “L.W.” and “I” mean different things. All it means is that these words are different instruments in our language.
Think of words as instruments characterized by their use, and then think of the use of a hammer, the use of a chisel, the use of a square, of a glue pot, and of the glue. (Also, all that we say here can be understood only if one understands that a great variety of games is played with the sentences of our language: Giving and obeying orders; asking questions and answering them; describing an event; telling a fictitious story; telling a joke; describing an immediate experience; making conjectures about events in the physical world; making scientific hypotheses and theories; greeting someone, etc., etc.) The mouth which says “I” or the hand which is raised to indicate that it is I who wish to speak, or I who have toothache, does not thereby point to anything. If, on the other hand, I wish to indicate the place of my pain, I point. And here again remember the difference between pointing to the painful spot without being led by the eye and on the other hand pointing to a sac on my body after looking for it. (“That’s where I was vaccinated”.)—The man who cries out with pain, or says that he has pain, doesn’t choose the mouth which says it (67-8).
The “I” in Barley Patch, as it is ostensibly used in the literary sense, merely implies the presence of the author. The “I” is as much of a fiction as the collection of words around it. Barley Patch is a strange, strange fiction. I’m honoring the narrator’s/implied author’s/personage’s/ghostly presence’s/reader’s/image-person’s wishes by not calling it a novel, an essay, a memoir, an autobiography. And though Barley Patch is all of these forms, often simultaneously, ultimately it is a “report,” to use the narrator’s term, of how a story becomes removed from itself. Some questions BP asks: How do I know that am I me? Am I the imagined personage of a writer in a “country on the far side of fiction?” How do I know where I am is really where I am?