“We are things that labor under the illusion of having a self” | A Riff on True Detective, HBO’s Philosophical Crime Show

HBO debuted the first episode of True Detective this weekend. The series will be an anthology, with its first eight-episode season exploring a ritualistic murder in the backwoods of Louisiana. Written by series creator Nic Pizzolatto and directed by Cary Fukunaga (who filmed a moody 2011 adaptation of Jane Eyre), True Detective stars Woody Harrelson and Matthew McConaughey as State murder police trying to solve the crime.

I loved the opening episode, “The Long Bright Dark.” There’s a heavy streak of Cormac McCarthy and James Ellroy here, not to mention a dose of The Wire, Michael Mann (and a pinch of David Lynch). Detractors of the show will likely single out its ponderous and cerebral dialogue, or maybe point out that, yeah, we’ve seen this story before. Such criticisms would be (will be) intertwined; those who want a murder mystery delivered with a nice neat bow on it are almost surely going to be disappointed—and most likely, will fault the show’s philosophical tone.

It’s easy—comforting, maybe—to ignore that philosophical tone, most of it delivered by McConaughey’s Rust Cohle. There’s even something of an audience surrogate in Cohle’s partner Marty Hart (Harrelson), who bristles uncomfortably at Cohle’s near-nihilism. I found this particular scene electrifying (uh, language NSFW):

The lines that stand out in particular come at about the 2 minute mark. Cohle:

I think human consciousness is a tragic misstep in evolution. We became too self aware. Nature created an aspect of nature separate from itself—we are creatures that should not exist by natural law . . . We are things that labor under the illusion of having a self, a secretion of sensory, experience, and feeling—programmed with total assurance that we are each somebody, when in fact everybody is nobody.

It’s easy to dismiss these lines, as Hart would like to—to not listen, to fail to attend to the meaning there—to pin Cohle’s outlook down as meaningless, dark gobbledygook—because the lines essentially attack “the illusion of having a self,” an illusion we all hold dear, an illusion that protects us. Cohle here echoes what Jacques Derrida called “auto-affection”—the that thinks/feels itself into being. This auto-affection stabilizes us, tells us our certitude is, y’know, certain. It authorizes us.

I’ve seen only the first episode, but my guess is that the murder that the series would seem to foreground is really its backdrop. Murder—figured here in the gruesome, abject corpse that we (to use Cohle’s term) “bear witness” to in the show’s opening moments—destabilizes the illusion of having a self. It tears down the borders between the illusion and the real.

The murder is not to be solved/resolved then. The murder instead functions to call attention to the problem that Cohle posits in the middle of this first episode: The illusion of having a self.

S.D. Chrostowska’s Novel Permission Deconstructs the Episotolary Form

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In trying to frame a review of S.D. Chrostowska’s novel Permission, I have repeatedly jammed myself against many of the conundrums that the book’s narrator describes, imposes, chews, digests, and synthesizes for her reader.

I have, for example, just now resisted the impulse to place the terms novelnarrator, and reader under radical suspicion. (I realize that the last sentence carries out the impulse even as it purports not to). Permission, thoroughly soaked in deconstruction, repeatedly places its own composition under radical suspicion.

This is maybe a bad start to a review.

Another description:

Permission pretends to be the emails that F.W. (later F. Wren, and even later, Fearn Wren) sends to an unnamed artist, a person she does not know, has never met, whom she contacts in a kind of affirmation of reciprocity tempered in the condition that her identity is “random and immaterial.” She aims to work out “an elementary philosophy of giving that is, by its very definition, anti-Western.” Her gift is the book she creates — “Permit me to write to you, today, beyond today,” the book begins.

Why?

What I want to measure—or, rather, what I want to obtain an impression of, since I do not claim exactitude of measurement for my results—is my own potential for creatio ad nihilum (creation fully within the limits of human ability, out of something and unto nothing). To rephrase my experimental question: can I give away what is inalienable from me (my utterance, myself) without the faintest expectation or hope of authority, solidarity, reciprocity?

F.W.’s project (Chrostowska’s project) here echoes Jacques Derrida’s deconstruction of giving, of the (im)possibility of authentic giving. F.W. wants to give, but she also deconstructs that impulse repeatedly. This is a novel (novel-essay, really) that cites Gilles Deleuze and Maurice Blanchot in its first twenty pages.

Her project is deconstruction; as she promises at the outset, her giving, her writing “is not solid, and does not lead to solidarity.” On the contrary,

it is solvent, and leads, through its progressive dissolution, towards the final solution of this writing (my work), which meanwhile becomes progressively less difficult, less obscure.

“Will it?” I asked in the margin of my copy. It does, perhaps.

After an opening that deconstructs its own opening, Chrostowska’s F.W. turns her attention to more concrete matters. We get a brief tour of cemeteries, a snapshot of the F.W.’s father (as a child) at a child’s funeral, a recollection of her first clumsy foray into fiction writing, a miniature memoir of a failed painter, color theory, the sun, the moon. We get an overview of our F.W.’s most intimate library—The Hound of the Baskervilles, a samizdat copy of Listy y Bialoleki [Letters from Bialoleka Prison], 1984. We get an analysis of Philip Larkin’s most famous line. Prisons, lunatic asylums, schools. Indian masks. Hamlet. More cemeteries.

My favorite entry in the book is a longish take on the “thingness of books,” a passage that concretizes the problems of writing—even thinking—after others. I think here of Blanchot’s claim that, ” No sooner is something said than something else must be said to correct the tendency of all that is said to become final.”

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The most intriguing passages in Permission seem to pop out of nowhere, as Chrostowska turns her keen intellect to historical or aesthetic objects. These are often accompanied by black and white photographs (sometimes gloomy, even murky), recalling the works of W.G. Sebald, novel-essays that Permission follows in its form (and even tone). Teju Cole—who also clearly followed Sebald in his wonderful novel Open Cityprovides the blurb for Permission, comparing it to the work of Sebald’s predecessors, Thomas Browne and Robert Burton. There’s a pervasive melancholy here too. Permission, haunted by history, atrocity, memory, and writing itself, is often dour. The novel-essay is discursive but never freewheeling, and by constantly deconstructing itself, it ironically creates its own center, a decentered center, a center that initiates and then closes the work—dissolves the book.

Permission, often bleak and oblique, essentially plotless (a ridiculous statement this, plotless—this book is its own plot (I don’t know if that statement makes any sense; it makes sense to me, but I’ve read the book—the book is plotless in the conventional sense of plotedness, but there is a plot, a tapestry that refuses to yield one big picture because its threads must be unthreaded—dissolved to use Chrostowska’s metaphor)—where was I?—Yes, okay, Permission, as you undoubtedly have determined now, you dear, beautiful, bright thing, is Not For EveryoneHowever, readers intrigued by the spirit of (the spirit of) writing may appreciate and find much to consider in this deconstruction of the epistolary form.

Permission is new from The Dalkey Archive.

S.D. Chrostowska’s Permission (Book Acquired, 8.10.2013)

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Sylwia Chrostowska’s novel Permission—got it in the mail on Saturday. I’d been swimming in the river, in the relentless August sun, for most of the day, and when I got home I just wanted to watch a film and drink some wine and pass out.

But I started reading. And reading. And then I looked up and and I was like fifty pages in.

Here’s publisher Dalkey Archive’s blurb:

Composed of anonymous e-mail messages sent by the author to an acclaimed visual artist over the course of a year, Permission is the record of an experiment: an attempt to forge a connection with a stranger through the writing of a book. Part meditation, part narrative, part essay, it is presented to its addressee as a gift that asks for no thanks or acknowledgment—but what can be given in words, and what received?Permission not only updates the “epistolary novel” by embracing the permissiveness we associate with digital communication, it opens a new literary frontier.

And here’s novelist Teju Cole’s blurb, from the back of the book (for some reason not posted at Dalkey):

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Permission’s central premise (if such a work so soaked in deconstruction could be said to have a center) immediately recalled to me Jacques Derrida’s discussions of the paradox of giving:

To rephrase my experimental question: can I give away what is inalienable from me (my utterance, myself) without the faintest expectation or hope of authority, solidarity, reciprocity? Can my giving be unhinged from a sense of both investment and pointless expenditure?

The first few “chapters” — the narrator’s weekly missives to the unnamed artist — are thoroughly soaked in deconstruction and continental philosophy; this is a novel that cites Blanchot and Deleuze in its first twenty pages. However, the narrator promises that her book, “through its progressive dissolution, towards the final solution of this writing (my work) . . . becomes progressively less difficult, less obscure.”

This promise seems true, as subsequent passages flow into personal memory, reflection—storytelling. We get a brief tour of cemeteries, a snapshot of the narrator’s father (as a child) at a child’s funeral, a recollection of the narrator’s first clumsy foray into fiction writing, a miniature memoir of a failed painter, color theory, the sun, the moon.

Strange and lovely stuff. More when I finish.