By the time of “Bartleby the Scrivener: A Story of Wall-Street” (1853), acedia had lost the last of its religious reverberations and was now an offense against the economy. Right in the heart of robber-baron capitalism, the title character develops what proves to be terminal acedia. It is like one of those western tales where the desperado keeps making choices that only herd him closer to the one disagreeable finale. Bartleby just sits there in an office on Wall Street repeating, “I would prefer not to.” While his options go rapidly narrowing, his employer, a man of affairs and substance, is actually brought to question the assumptions of his own life by this miserable scrivener — this writer! — who, though among the lowest of the low in the bilges of capitalism, nevertheless refuses to go on interacting anymore with the daily order, thus bringing up the interesting question: who is more guilty of Sloth, a person who collaborates with the root of all evil, accepting things-as-they-are in return for a paycheck and a hassle-free life, or one who does nothing, finally, but persist in sorrow? “Bartleby” is the first great epic of modern Sloth, presently to be followed by work from the likes of Kafka, Hemingway, Proust, Sartre, Musil and others — take your own favorite list of writers after Melville and you’re bound sooner or later to run into a character bearing a sorrow recognizable as peculiarly of our own time.
In the cabinet of the Essex Historical Society, old portraits.–Governor Leverett; a dark mustachioed face, the figure two thirds length, clothed in a sort of frock-coat, buttoned, and a broad sword-belt girded round the waist, and fastened with a large steel buckle; the hilt of the sword steel,–altogether very striking. Sir William Pepperell, in English regimentals, coat, waistcoat, and breeches, all of redbroad-cloth, richly gold-embroidered; he holds a general’s truncheon in his right hand, and extends the left towards the batteries erected against Louisbourg, in the country near which he is standing. Endicott, Pyncheon, and others, in scarlet robes, bands, etc. Half a dozen or more family portraits of the Olivers, some in plain dresses, brown, crimson, or claret; others with gorgeous gold-embroidered waistcoats, descending almost to the knees, so as to form the most conspicuous article of dress. Ladies, with lace ruffles, the painting of which, in one of the pictures, cost five guineas. Peter Oliver, who was crazy, used to fight with these family pictures in the old Mansion House; and the face and breast of one lady bear cuts and stabs inflicted by him. Miniatures in oil, with the paint peeling off, of stern, old, yellow faces. Oliver Cromwell, apparently an old picture, half length, or one third, in an oval frame, probably painted for some New England partisan. Some pictures that had been partly obliterated by scrubbing with sand. The dresses, embroidery, laces of the Oliver family are generally better done than the faces. Governor Leverett’s gloves,–the glove part of coarse leather, but round the wrist a deep, three or four inch border of spangles and silver embroidery. Old drinking-glasses, with tall stalks. A black glass bottle, stamped with the name of Philip English, with a broad bottom. The baby-linen, etc., of Governor Bradford of Plymouth County. Old manuscript sermons, some written in short-hand, others in a hand that seems learnt from print.
I need to write a proper riff on William Friedkin’s astounding 1977 film Sorcerer—I’m pretty sure I didn’t see a better film this summer—nor have I seen anything that zapped me with that How the hell haven’t I seen this yet? feeling since Michael Mann’s Thief. But as the summer ebbs and a new year of a full teaching load approaches, I’m not sure if I’ve got a spare three hours to watch Sorcerer a third time any time soon (the third viewing was perfect, by the bye). It’s great though. It’s about four dudes, exiles, trying to move nitroglycerin in two old trucks across a mountain in an unnamed South American country.
I had scratched out some notes on the first viewing though, which I won’t bother to cobble together here in anything other than a silly list, which I hope to mine later in Something Bigger on Sorcerer:
Metaphors of postglobal cooperation in the cause of self-interest.
Multilingual, but postlingual: Film as language. Sorcerer as its own language.
Post-WWII; somehow hasn’t absorbed the Vietnam War.
Like Herzog, here is a depiction of nature that conveys the sublime while stripping from it the romance, leaving only the horror and awe.
Comments on its own engineering, its own technological processes (like Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo).
But also, its focus on engineering points backwards (The Bridge on the River Kwai) and forwards (uh, the Fast/Furious franchise? —but not fast here; no: slow).
(Clearly the double feature of Fitzcarraldo).
Postglobalism — terror, crime, religion, economics, class, “high” art, — all the shit that’s dealt with in the first 30 min — is subsumed into nature vs techne — a kind of nihilsm against nature pointing at the current century.
IT’S ALL ABOUT ENGINEERING!
Unself-concious postmodernism, before postmodernism is properly “postmodernism”: That Friedkin is perhaps working in Modernist idioms (all the noir touches, the irony, the hallucinations, the cuts, etc.), but produces something we might describe as “postmodern.”
That end — tragic, ironic, pathetic, bathetic—and a loop! (sort of)—Friedkin’s film ironizes the Romantic touches, the Bogart shadows.
2666 by Roberto Bolaño. English translation by Natasha Wimmer. First edition three-volume slip case edition from FS&G. Design by Charlotte Strick. The image on volume one is a detail from Gustave Moreau’s Jupiter and Semele; on volume two, Academy by Cy Twombly; on three, a detail of a page on sea sponges from Albert Seba’s Cabinet of Curiousities. I’ve posted the images below for reference.
As I come near the end of this year-long Three Books thing, I find that I can’t not include Roberto Bolaño’s novel 2666, which is probably my favorite novel of the last twenty years. I initially resisted including it in one of these Three Books posts simply because it is, sort of, one book—and this particular edition is in a more readable three-volume set. But it’s also, maybe, five books—five “parts” anyway, which work together intertextually to tell a grand epic of love murder terror war reading writing etc. Too big to pin down in this puny post. I seem to be always reading the thing, or always wanting to read it. In any case, I’m almost positive it’s the book I’ve written the most review for on this site. A lazy edit from the Biblioklept “Reviews” page:
(The intertextuality is probably the least bad of those reviews, maybe).
Normally I just scan the covers for these Three Books posts, but when I unshelved and unslipcased 2666, I found that it was more…fun? natural? (those aren’t the right words)…it seemed better to put the books next to each other. Intertextuality by osmosis.
I have a vivid memory of buying this book at Green Apple Books in San Francisco in December of 2008 and then starting it on the plane ride home and then just sort of, I don’t know, consuming it, sucking it down like candy poison wine (these are bad metaphors). I’ve read it in full a few times since and it’s like an infection, it’s under my skin. I want to read it again, of course.