Sitting in the wing chair, I reflected that I had pretended to be shocked by Joana’s suicide and pretended to accept the Auersbergers’ invitation to their artistic dinner. When I accepted it I was only pretending, I now thought, yet in spite of this I had acted upon it. The idea is nothing short of grotesque, I thought, yet at the same time it amused me. Actually I’ve always dissembled with the Auersbergers, I thought, sitting in the wing chair, and here I am again, sitting in their wing chair and dissembling once more: I’m not really here in their apartment in the Gentzgasse, I’m only pretending to be in the Gentzgasse, only pretending to be in their apartment, I said to myself. I’ve always pretended to them about everything—I’ve pretended to everybody about everything. My whole life has been a pretense, I told myself in the wing chair—the life I live isn’t real, it’s a simulated life, a simulated existence. My whole life, my whole existence has always been simulated—my life has always been pretense, never reality, I told myself. And I pursued this idea to the point at which I finally believed it. I drew a deep breath and said to myself, in such a way that the people in the music room were bound to hear it: You’ve always lived a life of pretense, not a real life—a simulated existence, not a genuine existence. Everything about you, everything you are, has always been pretense, never genuine, never real. But I must put an end to this fantasizing lest I go mad, I thought, sitting in the wing chair, and so I took a large gulp of champagne.
From Thomas, Bernhard’s novel 1984 Woodcutters; English translation by David McLinktock.
Collected after his death by his friend and literary executor Max Brod, here are more than two decades’ worth of Franz Kafka’s letters to the men and women with whom he maintained his closest personal relationships, from his years as a student in Prague in the early 1900s to his final months in the sanatorium near Vienna where he died in 1924.
Sometimes surprisingly humorous, sometimes wrenchingly sad, they include charming notes to school friends; fascinating accounts to Brod about his work in its various stages of publication; correspondence with his publisher, Kurt Wolff, about manuscripts in progress, suggested book titles, type design, and late royalty statements; revealing exchanges with other young writers of the day, including Martin Buber and Felix Weltsch, on life, literature, and girls; and heartbreaking reports to his parents, sisters, and friends on the declining state of his health in the last months of his life.
Franz Kafka met Felice Bauer in August 1912, at the home of his friend Max Brod. Energetic, down-to-earth, and life-affirming, the twenty-five-year-old secretary was everything Kafka was not, and he was instantly smitten. Because he was living in Prague and she in Berlin, his courtship was largely an epistolary one—passionate, self-deprecating, and anxious letters sent almost daily, sometimes even two or three times a day. But soon after their engagement was announced in 1914, Kafka began to worry that marriage would interfere with his writing and his need for solitude.
The more than five hundred letters Kafka wrote to Felice—through their breakup, a second engagement in 1917, and their final parting in the fall of that year, when Kafka began to feel the effects of the tuberculosis that would eventually claim his life—reveal the full measure of his inner turmoil as he tried, in vain, to balance his desire for human connection with what he felt were the solitary demands of his craft.
The fact that Germany had produced a Beethoven, Russia a Tolstoy, Italy a Verdi, or Spain a Cervantes, was wholly irrelevant to the fact that all these countries experienced brutal dictatorships in the twentieth century. High cultural achievements across the centuries did not render a descent into political barbarism more inexplicable than their absence would have done; culture and politics simply do not impinge on each other in so simple and direct a manner. If the experience of the Third Reich teaches us anything, it is that a love of great music, great art and great literature does not provide people with any kind of moral or political immunization against violence, atrocity, or subservience to dictatorship.
From: Richard J. Evans’s The Coming of the Third Reich (2003).
Today is Black Friday in America. I don’t think it’s necessary to remark at length on the bizarre disjunction between this exercise in consumerism-as-culture and the intended spirit of the Thanksgiving holiday that precedes it. Indeed, I think that the cognitive dissonance that underwrites Black Friday—the compulsion to suffer (and cause suffering), both physically and mentally, to “save” money on “consumer goods” (sorry for all the scare quotes, but these terms are euphemisms and must be placed under suspicion)—I think that this cognitive dissonance is nakedly apparent to all who choose to (or are forced to) actively engage in Black Friday. The name itself is dark, ominous, wonderfully satanic.
Rereading “The Subliminal Man,” I was struck by how presciently J.G. Ballard anticipated not only the contours of consumerist culture—urban sprawl, a debt-based economy, the mechanization of leisure, the illusion of freedom of choice—but also how closely he intuited the human, psychological responses to the consumerist society he saw on the horizon. Half a century after its publication, “The Subliminal Man” seems more relevant than ever.
The premise of the tale is fairly straightforward and fits neatly with the schema of many other early Ballard stories: Franklin, an overworked doctor, is approached by Hathaway, a “crazy beatnik,” who refuses to take part in the non-stop consumerism of contemporary society. Hathaway can “see” the subliminal messages sent through advertising. He asks for Franklin’s help in stopping the spread of these messages. Hathaway reasons that the messages are intended to enforce consumerist society:
Ultimately we’ll all be working and spending twenty–four hours a day, seven days a week. No one will dare refuse. Think what a slump would mean – millions of lay–offs, people with time on their hands and nothing to spend it on. Real leisure, not just time spent buying things . . .
The fear of a slump. You know the new economic dogmas. Unless output rises by a steady inflationary five per cent the economy is stagnating. Ten years ago increased efficiency alone would raise output, but the advantages there are minimal now and only one thing is left. More work. Subliminal advertising will provide the spur.
Franklin is unconvinced, even though he is already working Saturdays and Sunday mornings to payoff TVs, radios, and other electronic goods that he and his wife replace every few months. Soon, however, he realizes that something is wrong:
He began his inventory after hearing the newscast, and discovered that in the previous fortnight he and Judith had traded in their Car (previous model 2 months old) 2 TV sets (4 months) Power mower (7 months) Electric cooker (5 months) Hair dryer (4 months) Refrigerator (3 months) 2 radios (7 months) Record player (5 months) Cocktail bar (8 months)
Franklin finally sees the truth, but only after Hathaway takes to blowing up signs’ switch boxes (the word “terrorism” is of course not used in the text, although it surely would be today):
Then the flicker of lights cleared and steadied, blazing out continuously, and together the crowd looked up at the decks of brilliant letters. The phrases, and every combination of them possible, were entirely familiar, and Franklin knew that he had been reading them for weeks as he passed up and down the expressway.
BUY NOW BUY NOW BUY NOW BUY NOW BUY NEW CAR NOW NEW CAR NOW NEW CAR NOW
YES YES YES YES YES YES YES YES YES YES
Like many Ballard stories, “The Subliminal Man” ends on a pessimistic note, with Franklin choosing to ignore his brief enlightenment and give in. Ballard drives his criticism home in the final image of the story, with Franklin and his wife heading out to shop:
They walked out into the trim drive, the shadows of the signs swinging across the quiet neighbourhood as the day progressed, sweeping over the heads of the people on their way to the supermarket like the blades of enormous scythes.
“The Subliminal Man” offers a critique of consumerism that John Carpenter would make with more humor, violence, and force in his 1988 film They Live. In Carpenter’s film, the hero John Nada (played by Roddy Piper) finds a pair of sunglasses that allow him to see through the ads, billboards, and other commercials he’s exposed. What’s underneath? Naked consumerism:
The images here recall the opening lines of “The Subliminal Man”: ‘The signs, Doctor! Have you seen the signs?’ Like Ballard’s story, Carpenter’s film is about waking up, to seeing the controlling messages under the surface.
In his film The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology, Slavoj Žižek offers a compelling critique of just how painfulit is to wake up to these messages:
It’s worth pointing out that Carpenter offers a far more optimistic vision than Ballard. Ballard’s hero gives in—goes back to sleep, shuts his eyes. Carpenter’s hero Nada resists the subliminal messages—he actually takes up arms against them. This active resistance is possible because Carpenter allows his narrative an existential escape hatch: In They Live, there are real, genuine bad guys, body-snatching ugly-assed aliens—others that have imposed consumerism on humanity to enslave them. That’s the big trick to They Live: It’s not us, it’s them.
Ballard understands that there is no them; indeed, even as the story skirts around the idea of a conspiracy to dupe consumers into cycles of nonstop buying, working, and disposing, it never pins that conspiracy on any individual or group. There’s no attack on corporations or government—there’s not even a nebulous “them” or “they” that appears to have controlling agency in “The Subliminal Man.” Rather, Ballard’s story posits ideology as the controlling force, with the only escape a kind of forced suicide.
I don’t think that those who engage in consumerism-as-sport, in shopping-as-a-feeling are as blind as Ballard or Carpenter represent. I think they are aware. Hell, they enjoy it. What I think Ballard and Carpenter (and others, of course) really point to is the deep dissatisfaction that many of us feel with this dominant mode of life. For Ballard, we have resistance in the form of the beatnik Hathaway, an artist, a creator, a person who can perceive what real leisure would mean. For Carpenter, Nada is the resister—an outsider, a loner, a weirdo too. It’s somehow far more satisfying to believe that those who engage in spectacle consumerism are brainwashed by aliens than it is to have to come to terms with the notion that these people are acting through their own agency, of their own will and volition. Happy shopping everyone!
Ed. note: Biblioklept published a version of this post a few years ago. It is offered again now in the spirit of Thanksgiving leftovers.
I 1 think that there is a terrible possibility now, in the World 2. We may not brush it away, we must look at it. It is possible that They 3 will not die. That it is now within the state of Their art to go on forever 4—though we, of course, will keep dying as we always have. Death 5 has been the source of Their power. It was easy enough for us to see that. If we are here once, only once 6, then clearly we are here to take what we can while we may 7. If They have taken much more, and taken not only from Earth but also from us 8 —well, why begrudge Them, when they’re just as doomed to die as we are? All in the same boat, all under the same shadow…yes…yes. But is that really true? Or is it the best, and the most carefully propagated, of all Their lies, known and unknown? 9
1 The speaker here is Father Rapier, a very minor character, one of Pynchon’s heroes of the Counterforce, the Preterite who rally (if that is the right verb, which it isn’t) around the unraveling spirit of Slothrop against the Elect.
Father Rapier is “a Jesuit . . . here to preach, like his colleague Teilhard de Chardin, against return. Here to say that critical mass cannot be ignored. Once the technical means of control have reached a certain size, a certain degree of being connected one to another, the chances for freedom are over for good.”
Rapier preaches his “Critical Mass” in a cottage in the bizarro-Limbo headquarters of the Counterforce; his shack is appropriately beshingled with the sign “DEVIL’S ADVOCATE.”
Pynchon’s Counterforce points to a coming community. Indeed, Gravity’s Rainbow might be seen as an imaginative study of postwar communities, of new forms of social organization (social organizations tellingly organized against the They): The Counterforce of disaffected rebels; the Sudwest Hereros assembling their 00001 rocket; the Argentine anarchists; the homosexuals liberated from Dora; the Anubis orgiasts (orgiers? orgy-goers? What’s the word for orgy participants?)—etc. Each of these coming communities attempts to synthesize the detritus of the War into Something New. And speaking of synthesis—
Rapier’s “colleague [Pierre] Teilhard de Chardin” (1881-1955) tried to synthesize science and spirituality in what he called an Omega Point, a spiritual/physical singularity, a condensation of spirit and mass into a “supreme consciousness”: Christ: God: Logos. Or, in Pynchon’s Rapier wit: Critical Mass.
Rapier rails against systems of control: The Elect will not fight the coming postWar Preterite communities directly, but rather enslave them via byzantine bureaucracies.
Cf. A.E. Waite’s The Pictorial Key to Tarot (1910), one of Pynchon’s sources for Gravity’s Rainbow. Some of the language here (which I’ve taken the liberty of highlighting) echoes Rapier’s Critical Mass/de Chardin’s Omega Point:
It represents also the perfection and end of the Cosmos, the secret which is within it, the rapture of the universe when it understands itself in God. It is further the state of the soul in the consciousness of Divine Vision, reflected from the self-knowing spirit. But these meanings are without prejudice to that which I have said concerning it on the material side. It has more than one message on the macrocosmic side and is, for example, the state of the restored world when the law of manifestation shall have been carried to the highest degree of natural perfection. But it is perhaps more especially a story of the past, referring to that day when all was declared to be good, when the morning stars sang together and all the Sons of God shouted for joy.
The World is what Pynchon and Gravity’s Rainbow are most interested in—both its past and its coming communities.
Significantly, The World is the final card in Captain Dominus Blicero Weissmann’s tarot (see page 746):
In his thorough physical description of the World tarot card, A.E. Waite describes the central figure surrounded by “an elliptic garland…a chain of flowers intended to symbolize all sensible things.” I cannot help but see in the card an impossible ouroboros; an ouroboros with four heads corresponding to the “four living creatures of the Apocalypse and Ezekiel’s vision, attributed to the evangelists in Christian symbolism” which we find in the card’s corners. The ouroboros is minor trope in Gravity’s Rainbow.
3 The Elect. The baddies.
4 Rapier will, a few lines later, compare Them to vampires.
Here—and elsewhere in Pynchon (most clearly and perhaps most cogently in Against the Day)—the Elect—the They—manipulate and monopolize the earth’s resources in order to prolong their dominance. Those resources include humans: The Preterite: the low: the feebs.
A.E. Waite again; again, I’ve highlighted in boldface phrases that suit my own purposes for this riff:
The veil or mask of life is perpetuated in change, transformation and passage from lower to higher, and this is more fitly represented in the rectified Tarot by one of the apocalyptic visions than by the crude notion of the reaping skeleton. Behind it lies the whole world of ascent in the spirit. The mysterious horseman moves slowly, bearing a black banner emblazoned with the Mystic Rose, which signifies life. Between two pillars on the verge of the horizon there shines the sun of immortality. The horseman carries no visible weapon, but king and child and maiden fall before him, while a prelate with clasped hands awaits his end. … The natural transit of man to the next stage of his being either is or may be one form of his progress, but the exotic and almost unknown entrance, while still in this life, into the state of mystical death is a change in the form of consciousness and the passage into a state to which ordinary death is neither the path nor gate. The existing occult explanations of the 13th card are, on the whole, better than usual, rebirth, creation, destination, renewal, and the rest.
6 If we are here once (only once), then eternal recurrence is a nonstarter.
The phrase clearly echoes lines from one of Pynchon’s major GR sources, Rainer Maria Rilke’s mystical Duino Elegies (1923). From “Ninth Elegy”:
Everyone once, once only. Just once and no more.
And we also once, Never again. But this having been once, although only once, to have been of the earth,
Once, only once, and once for all,
his precious life he gave;
before the cross in faith we fall,
and own it strong to save.
7 In “To the Virgins, to Make Much of Time, Robert Herrick (1591-1674) advised
Gather ye rosebuds while ye may,
Old Time is still a-flying;
And this same flower that smiles today
Tomorrow will be dying.
Seems like a Preterite Sermon.
8 Cf. note 4. Throughout GR, the exploitation of the earth’s natural resources is a persistent if minor theme. Gravity’s Rainbow’s ecological critiques are overlooked perhaps because it’s a given in Pynchon’s critique that They would use ecological capital and human capital without regard. Consider the Slothrop family, which made its non-fortune by milling trees into “Money, shit, and The Word” — papers the real value of which Pynchon invites us to interrogate.
9 Pynchon’s mouthpieces often hedge their bets in eithers and ors, zeroes and ones. We systems and They systems, in the parlance of the Counterforce. Are we all under the same shadow (of Death? of the falling rocket?) Are we all in the same boat?—which is to say, are we all working together toward the same coming community—are we rowing in the same direction?
I was looking for something else today—a book that might have been one of Pynchon’s sources for the Kabbalah stuff in Gravity’s Rainbow—when I came across this Penguin edition, Witchcraft and Sorcery, 1970, ed. Max Marwick. (I found a Pynchonian connection—easy to do, I know—when I opened the book to an essay entitled “Witchcraft amongst the Germanic and Slavonic Peoples”).
The sky of U.S.A.’s desert was clotted with blue stars. Now it was deep at night. Only above the U.S.A. city was the sky blank of stars; its color was pearly and blank. Marathe shrugged. ‘Perhaps in you is the sense that citizens of Canada are not involved in the real root of the threat.’
Steeply shook the head in seeming annoyance. ‘What’s that supposed to mean?’ he said. The lurid wig of him slipped when he moved the head with any abrupt force.
The first way Marathe betrayed anything of emotion was to smooth rather too fussily at the blanket on his lap. ‘It is meaning that it will not of finality be Québecers making this kick to l’aine des Etats Unis. Look: the facts of the situation speak loudly. What is known. This is a U.S.A. production, this Entertainment cartridge. Made by an American man in the U.S.A. The appetite for the appeal of it: this also is U.S.A. The U.S.A. drive for spectation, which your culture teaches. This I was saying: this is why choosing is everything. When I say to you choose with great care in loving and you make ridicule it is why I look and say: can I believe this man is saying this thing of ridicule?’ Marathe leaned slightly forward on his stumps, leaving the machine pistol to use both his hands in saying. Steeply could tell this was important to Marathe; he really believed it.
Marathe made small emphatic circles and cuts in the air while he spoke: ‘These facts of situation, which speak so loudly of your Bureau’s fear of this samizdat: now is what has happened when a people choose nothing over themselves to love, each one. A U.S.A. that would die — and let its children die, each one — for the so-called perfect Entertainment, this film. Who would die for this chance to be fed this death of pleasure with spoons, in their warm homes, alone, unmoving: Hugh Steeply, in complete seriousness as a citizen of your neighbor I say to you: forget for a moment the Entertainment, and think instead about a U.S.A. where such a thing could be possible enough for your Office to fear: can such a U.S.A. hope to survive for a much longer time? To survive as a nation of peoples? To much less exercise dominion over other nations of other peoples? If these are other peoples who still know what it is to choose? who will die for something larger? who will sacrifice the warm home, the loved woman at home, their legs, their life even, for something more than their own wishes of sentiment? who would choose not to die for pleasure, alone?’
Let’s get a few things straight from the get-go: David Mazzuchelli’s graphic novel Asterios Polyp is a masterpiece, an unequivocal advancement of its medium, and an unqualified joy to read. It’s also not only one of the best books we’ve read this year, but also this decade. While such breathless enthusiasm might seem suspect, even a cursory look over Asterios Polyp will reveal that Mazzucchelli has produced a fully-realized work, one that fundamentally reimagines what a graphic novel is, and how it might be read.
Asterios Polyp is a boorish, solipsistic “paper architect” and tenured professor (none of his designs have ever actually been built) whose life goes to shambles after his sensitive wife Hana leaves him. The novel opens with a lightning strike that literally destroys everything that Asterios owns. He grabs three key items–his father’s old lighter, a magnetically-powered watch he bought as a child, and a Swiss Army knife he found on the beach–and hits the road, heading into the great, normal Midwest, where he takes a job as an auto mechanic (in a lovely scene, Asterios the autodidact, after accepting his new job, heads to the library to learn auto repair in an hour). Asterios’s kindly boss Stiff and his hippie wife Ursula take in the poor soul/arrogant prick. As the plot unfolds, Mazzucchelli contrasts Asterios’s past, full of faculty cocktail parties, affairs with grad students, and highbrow conversations, with his incremental rebirth into a more concrete world. “Be not simply good; be good for something,” said Henry David Thoreau–a lesson that Asterios slowly learns as he finally applies his skill and genius to real-world applications, like building a tree house for the couple’s son and creating a solar-powered Cadillac. Asterios’s emergence as a fully-realized human being contrasts sharply with hist past. Although he clearly loved his wife Hana, he was unable to appreciate her as anything other than a prop in relation to himself–how she complimented him, added to him, reflected on him. The flashback scenes with Hana are keenly realistic and loaded with genuine pathos. They are the heart of the novel. Continue reading “Sunday Comics”→
At the Uffizi, in Florence, is this odd painting by Titian. For a while, no one knew who the artist was. First the work was attributed to Leonardo and then to Sebastiano del Piombo. Though there’s still no absolute proof, today the critics are inclined to credit it to Titian. In the painting we see a man, still young, with long dark curly hair and a beard and mustache perhaps slightly tinged with red, who, as he poses, gazes off toward the right, probably toward a window that we can’t see, but still a window that somehow one imagines is closed, yet with curtains open or parted enough to allow a yellow light to filter into the room, a light that in time will become indistinguishable from the varnish on the painting.
The young man’s face is beautiful and deeply thoughtful. He’s looking toward the window, if he’s looking anywhere, though probably all he sees is what’s happening inside his head. But he’s not contemplating escape. Perhaps Titian told him to turn like that, to turn his face into the light, and the young man is simply obeying him. At the same time, one might say that all the time in the world stretches out before him. By this I don’t mean that the young man thinks he’s immortal. On the contrary. The young man knows that life renews itself and that the art of renewal is often death. Intelligence is visible in his face and his eyes, and his lips are turned down in an expression of sadness, or maybe it’s something else, maybe apathy, none of which excludes the possibility that at some point he might feel himself to be master of all the time in the world, because true as it is that man is a creature of time, theoretically (or artistically, if I can put it that way) time is also a creature of man.
In fact, in this painting, time — sketched in invisible strokes — is a kitten perched on the young man’s hands, his gloved hands, or rather his gloved right hand which rests on a book: and this right hand is the perfect measure of the sick man, more than his coat with a fur collar, more than his loose shirt, perhaps of silk, more than his pose for the painter and for posterity (or fragile memory), which the book promises or sells. I don’t know where his left hand is.
How would a medieval painter have painted this sick man? How would a non-figurative artist of the twentieth century have painted this sick man? Probably howling or wailing in fear. Judged under the eye of an incomprehensible God or trapped in the labyrinth of an incomprehensible society. But Titian gives him to us, the spectators of the future, clothed in the garb of compassion and understanding. That young man might be God or he might be me. The laughter of a few drunks might be my laughter or my poem. That sweet Virgin is my friend. That sad-faced Virgin is the long march of my people. The boy who runs with his eyes closed through a lonely garden is us.
‘There’s something very interesting about civics and selfishness, and we get to ride the crest of it. Here in the US, we expect government and law to be our conscience. Our superego, you could say. It has something to do with liberal individualism, and something to do with capitalism, but I don’t understand much of the theoretical aspect—what I see is what I live in. Americans are in a way crazy. We infantilize ourselves. We don’t think of ourselves as citizens—parts of something larger to which we have profound responsibilities. We think of ourselves as citizens when it comes to our rights and privileges, but not our responsibilities. We abdicate our civic responsibilities to the government and expect the government, in effect, to legislate morality. I’m talking mostly about economics and business, because that’s my area.’
It’s easier to work from what’s outside of me lately, so I’ve been doing these Gravity’s Rainbow annotations; I “finished” (not the right verb) a third reading this weekend and then dipped back into it again—this time in the middle. I was thinking of doing a “how to read Gravity’s Rainbow” post but that seems fucking pretentious. I love the book though.
This stack looks big, but it’s not really—most of the other books there are slim volumes I worked into my reread of Gravity’s Rainbow. Little breaks, of a sort.
But not that big book at the bottom.
That big book at the bottom, Bottom’s Dream? Hm. Not sure about this guy. It’s too big to read. I mean physically. It’s unwieldy, uncomfortable, uncurlupwithable. I can’t get a rhythm going there.
Daniel Green’s Beyond the Blurb will also get a review, sort of, soon (the book is a critical survey of literary criticism, making a review of it especially difficult to me). I have n interview with Green in the works.
Not pictured here because it’s an e-book is Scott Esposito’s The Missing Books. Esposito’s book is a continuing project, a “curated directory of books that do not exist, but should.” I read it in one sitting and was frankly jealous that I hadn’t written it.
Leon Forrest’s There Is a Tree More Ancient Than Eden is a novel I read in a blur, a kind of fever dream postmodern pastiche, a narrative unstuck in time and yet wholly about a specific time and place and past and consciousness. I need to read it again; like so many so-called “experimental” novels, a first reading is highly impressionistic but also confusing. Forrest throws you in the deep end. The prose is liquid, viscous, and you’re swimming around for edges, contours to grab onto. Just a marvelous strange read, and it deserves better than I’m giving it here—I mean, I think the novel deserves way more attention, and I’ll attend to it again.
Vítězslav Nezval’s 1937 poetry collection The Absolute Gravedigger is new in English translation by Stephan Delbos and Tereza Novická (Twisted Spoon Press). I hadn’t read Nezval before now, but I did see Jaromil Jireš’s film adaptation of his novel Valerie and Her Week of Wonders; if you know it, you’ll perhaps have an idea of some of Gravedigger’s rich dark weird flavor. There’s something of Bosch or Goya in the spare poems—somehow simultaneously bleak but vivid, morose but witty. The cityscapes, the entropy, the impressionistic details here all melded into my Pynchon-addled brain with the immediate post-War Zone of Gravity’s Rainbow: broken bits of civilization twitching into new combinations of reality.
Marian Engel’s Bear is this wonderfully lucid story of a bibliographer who goes to a remote island to document the contents (and library) of an old semi-famous house. Engel’s sentences are too good; there’s something fresh and restorative about the prose that echoes the plot, which is both simple and bizarre. Also, the bibliographer has a sexual relationship with a bear.
I read the first half of John Hawkes’s The Lime Twig over two short plane rides. I might have finished it, but I had to read every paragraph twice. I haven’t picked it up since the election on Tuesday. Maybe this post will motivate me to pick it up. Here’s Flannery O’Connor’s so very accurate blurb from the back cover:
You suffer The Lime Twig like a dream. It seems to be something that is happening to you, that you want to escape from but can’t. The reader even has that slight feeling of suffocation that you have when you can’t wake up and some evil is being worked on you.
In a corporate State 1, a place must be made for innocence, and its many uses 2. In developing an official version of innocence, the culture of childhood has proven invaluable 3 . Games, fairy-tales, legends from history, all the paraphernalia of make-believe 4 can be adapted and even embodied in a physical place, such as at Zwölfkinder 5. Over the years it had become a children’s resort, almost a spa. If you were an adult, you couldn’t get inside the city limits without a child escort. There was a child mayor 6, a child city council of twelve. Children picked up the papers, fruit peelings and bottles you left in the street, children gave you guided tours through the Tierpark 7, the Hoard of the Nibelungen 8, cautioning you to silence during the impressive re-enactment of Bismarck’s elevation, at the spring equinox of 1871, to prince and imperial chancellor 9,… child police reprimanded you if you were caught alone, without your child accompanying. Whoever carried on the real business of the town—it could not have been children—they were well hidden.10
From page 419 of Thomas Pynchon’s 1973 novel Gravity’s Rainbow.
1 Pynchon, as always, diagnoses not just the past and present, but the future. The state is corporate; They — the oligarchy et al. — run the show. And conceptualizing innocence is part of running that show.
2 Cf. William Blake’s Songs of Innocence and Experience (1789). In The Marriage of Heaven and Hell (1793), Blake wrote: “Without Contraries is no progression.” Without corruption there is no innocence; without abjection there is no purity; without an elect, there is no preterite.
Blake’s Songs share much in common with Pynchon’s big novel—both argue for the preterite, pointing out the ways in which industrial technologies exploit the most vulnerable among us; both are wildly, acidly vivid; both employ metaphors of fall and ascent; both foreground the utterly real humanity of their subjects.
Blake’s “The Chimney Sweeper” (from Experience) shows in simple language how the official version of innocence can be used to enforce the dominant and exploitative order. Consider the last stanza:
And because I am happy and dance and sing,
They think they have done me no injury,
And are gone to praise God and his Priest and King,
Who make up a heaven of our misery
Blake’s chimney sweeper asserts his right to happiness, to laughter and joy. The creative impulse is a Counterforce against Them—here, the Priest and King. Yet They co-opt the dancing and joy and convert it into signs of “the official version of innocence”: a lie to cover over the utter corruption of the dominant order.
3 You’ve read Freud, right? Like, those ideas on infantile sexuality that are downright icky, and yet nevertheless reaffirmed and reinforced by the Corporate State? (Oligarchial capitalism simultaneously infantilizes and sexualizes its subjects). Gravity’s Rainbow does a lot of stuff it’s easier (less queasier) to write off as abject than to actually like, think through. But GR also shows that They infantilize and sexualize childhood in the service of control, as a way of establishing (and blurring and “defiling”) official versions of innocence.
Consider Our Poor Hero Tyrone Slothrop, whose conditioning as an infant by Laszlo Jamf (involving the mysterious MacGuffin Imipolex G) leads to erections that predict rocket strikes. (I swear that sentence makes sense).
4 “Games, fairy-tales, legends from history, all the paraphernalia of make-believecan be adapted and even embodied in a physical places” — physical places like Gravity’s Rainbow. Well, okay. I mean, we get a condensation here of Pynchon’s process, his synthesis, his grab-bag of songs and japes and jibes and jokes and tales and etcetera.
But Pynchon’s pointing out other, perhaps more nefarious and venal and corporate uses for the same cultural material he’s massaging: A fucking theme park. Like, uh, Disneyland. Or Disneyworld. Etcetera, you get it—that we—did I just write We?!—I want to say They—that They colonize and corporatize the imagination; that They gobble up the cultural material and excrete it in smooth, digestible, sanitized (yet subtly sexualized)—and consumable, marketable!—segments that we take our kids to queue up to experience in their innocence.
“Twelve Children” – the name evokes Jacob’s twelve sons (and the daughter who is not one of the official twelve). This pattern is self-consciously repeated in the Grimms’ tale “The Twelve Brothers”, where the boys are to die if their mother gives birth to a girl.
The camp, which is also a quasi-town, may be modelled after Theresienstadt, the Jewish town/Lager set up by the Nazis in what is now the Czech Republic. This is suggested by themes like transit, phoney children’s paradise, as well as the large orchestra, or the number 60,000 (the number of those who “passed through” Zwölfkinder as well the population of Theresienstadt at its peak). It also recalls another totalitarian institution, that of the communist “children’s towns” (large, town-like, somewhat militarized holiday camps for Young Pioneers), whose prototype was Artek in the Soviet Union. (Deutsches Jungvolk also had its summer camps.)
Further, consider Argentina’s Republic of Children, a city proportioned for children, which was created under Juan Peron’s regime and opened in 1951.
The Oedipal plot of Grimms’ “The Twelve Children” repeats throughout Gravity’s Rainbow, and I invite you to look for it lurking in Disney.
“At the entrance to the town, barring their way, stands the Midget who played the lead in Freaks. The one with the German accent. He is the town sheriff. He is wearing an enormous gold star that nearly covers his chest.”
The little person referenced is Harry Earles who played Hans in Freaks (1932; dir. Tod Browning).
7 The zoo.
8 A vast treasure hoard, such as Scrooge McDuck might dive into, or Bilbo Baggins and his pals might play upon.
The Nibelungen Hoard, as I’m sure you know, is the treasure of the Nibelungen. (You know Wagner’s Ring Cycle, eh? Or you’ve read Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, right?—you get the idea. The titular Nibelung is the dwarf Alberich, by the way).
The tale of that same treasure might well your wonder raise;
’T was much as twelve huge wagons in four whole nights and days
Could carry from the mountain down to the salt-sea bay,
If to and fro each wagon thrice journeyed every day.
It was made up of nothing but precious stones and gold;
Were all the world bought from it, and down the value told,
Not a mark the less thereafter were left, than erst was scored.
Good reason sure had Hagan to covet such a hoard.
In the Nibelungenlied, Hagen murders the hero Siegfried and then steals and hides the Nibelung hoard.
9 Otto von Bismarck, 1815-1898, who unified Germany through technocracy and, uh, war.
10 “…they were well hidden”: A précis of Pynchonian paranoia, perhaps.