Monthly Archives: January 2007

January 26, 2007

Only Problem With People

Been doing a lot of thinking about how to “fix” myself (as in correct, not immobilize) and have reached the conclusion that the only problem with me is the same as the only problem with all people; namely: that the time at which I undertake any action or react to any stimulus is the present, and the present is burdened by having the conscious self in it. Repeated “arguments” with various friends and girlfriends to the tune of “I suck / you don’t have to feel that way / now you’re telling me I’m wrong about that too” – that’s me in the middle voice – have convinced me that the conscious self is too much ITSELF to be persuaded or comforted by things that are not itself. Giving up the self seems worse than resenting it, to the self, since the only alternative is the void of non-self, to which none but the completely broken willingly submits. This is why nobody takes advice; advice is at best, potentially, a virus that regenerates within the self after being forcibly injected. But most selves have better immune systems than to allow that. Otherwise, one can either try to coax another’s self into doing something – which generally requires greater facility with it than either party will ever have – or simply wait for a random mutation in the right direction and then apply the environmental pressures that select for it.

But as I say, this is all a problem only at the point in time that is the present – the addict can plan to quit or regret failing to quit with full clarity because these take place external to the conscious self, the read-head of consciousness that is always present at the current point in time and no other.

Generally, people would do just what they ought to do if only they weren’t themselves. That is, their personalities are such that they would no doubt agree with you about what they ought to do. Of course, they might not at first approach, because their sense of self is so expansive that it will ooze along the timeline all the way to the time at which the issue is being discussed. In trying to change myself I have done the preliminary work of pruning and pruning this expanded sense of self until it exists only at the infinitesimal point in time that is the present. At least as regards the undesirable traits. The idea then, as with the addict, is to somehow stamp it out once it has been reduced to a point. But once holed up in an impenetrable temporal pinpoint of consciousness it is exceedingly resilient. Cockroach-like.

Seems to me this is the only real problem with people. Evil/immorality – and ignorance and whatever else you might throw at people – are just shortcomings inherent to the natural of the creature. It makes perfect sense that people would be a little moral, a little immoral, a little curious, a little incurious. Look around; it all makes sense and isn’t a problem once you know the rules. It can make trouble, sure, but I don’t feel my philosophical self banging and banging away at it with a shoe – it needs to be lived with and so can be. This self-protective infinitesimal non-entity that is the self, though, is a problem. Can’t live without it, obviously. But it’s a downright wrench in the works.

I have been convinced – by parties other than the self, no less! – that it does me no good to consider an audience, when I write here. It just slows me up and ruins everything I have to say. I think I have successfully written this one without consideration for you. Quickly, too, for a change. Gonna try to keep that up. Insufficiently like-minded comments, therefore, may have to be disregarded. Until I get a little more sturdy. Sorry. You’re still invited to respond as you wish but I may just move on rather than take you seriously, if it feels like that will be erosive to what I’m trying to cultivate internally here. I think I’ve put myself through a fair amount of erosion over the past year of doing this. That no doubt accounts for the drastically lower post volume. Let’s try again.

January 14, 2007

The Cossacks (1863)

by Lev Nikolayevich Tolstoy (1828-1910)

translation of Kazaki into English by Peter Constantine (Modern Library, 2006)

Third roll: 989 – lands me on “Tolstoy: Short Novels,” from whence I bounce back to the first unread Tolstoy on the list, which turns out to be the first Tolstoy on the list, I not having read anything by Tolstoy other than, I think, a short story or two long ago. The first Tolstoy on the list is The Cossacks. A new translation had just come out last year so I was immediately able to pick up a copy of it, again at the Strand Annex, for $6 or something like that. See above for visual aid.

This Modern Library edition dates it to 1862 but the internet consensus seems to be 1863. In any case it was in the works for 10 years or so, presumably started around the time in Tolstoy’s life that it surely represents. It’s a young man’s work about being a young man. A certain type of young man’s work about being a certain type of young man, in fact. To jump directly to my opinion: the book is clearly an effort to have a broader perspective on the foibles of this certain type of young man – the author wants to write as though he is able to look in from the outside and observe truths that just happen to be about who he is, or was. But I don’t think the author was as much more mature than his past-self protagonist as he must have thought. The perspective is lacking.

The book started with a brisk portrait of this kid, Olenin – philosophically curious and reasonably self-aware about how privileged and pampered his life is, but all the same, blindingly self-centered – and I was immediately excited at the prospect that it would have something to say to my generation. Possibly something chastening. Presumably something sturdier than whatever Indecision was saying (with its mouth full). But in the end – skipping to the end – it’s not clear that it was saying anything much. It’s not clear to me what Olenin should have or could have learned. It definitely comes across that Tolstoy, in living among the Cossacks as described in the book, felt that their spiritually and psychologically uncomplicated existences were a humiliating counter-example to his own personality, and that that felt like a significant life experience to him. But isn’t that itself a pretty self-centered way of seeing the world? Yes, and Tolstoy tries to acknowledge that by making the romantic significance that Olenin imparts to the Cossacks seem slightly ridiculous. Yet the book itself clearly believes that their straightforward rurality is indeed a thing of great and significant beauty – he saves his most attentive writing for descriptions of the dirt and the cows and the smells and sounds. In any case, making Olenin’s various philosophical passions out to be “naive” seemed to be the full extent of the higher authorial wisdom. The real intention here was, I believe, to record a setting and a frame of mind that were memorable and intense in the living. It was all right as a fictionalized memoir, limited but still interesting as a character study (and a cultural study), and frustrating as a novel (or novella, really – it’s quite short).

It could be argued that this is a book about a life-changing experience that intentionally leaves the life-changing for after the curtain has fallen. That wouldn’t be a bad idea for a book, and I could be convinced that this was that book. Whatever the intention, though, it doesn’t change the fact that I finished it feeling that it hadn’t given me enough thoughts to chew on about the action. Olenin’s plentiful thoughts don’t count – they are the action. And don’t try telling me that the book was an impartial rendering of events, offered up to us to interpret or not as we like. Please. If it was that, it was only that by default.

Despite its being, as stated, quite short, it still took me a long time to get through this because I was reading it aloud, which always slows things down drastically. We ended up doing this a chapter at a time, and it’s made up of many short little chapters. Peter Constantine did a perfectly fine job making the English readable, but I wouldn’t recommend giving this one that kind of slow and careful attention – the form is something less than taut and it would probably best be read quickly in one or two long gulps. The old Louise and Aylmer Maude translation, which I think was the only English version available prior to last year, seems, on skimming, perfectly acceptable. Yes, it’s a little 19th-century-cated, but so is Tolstoy.

I did come away with a more specific interest than previously in reading Tolstoy’s more mature, more famous works. There were a few ambitious scenes of philosophical revelation in The Cossacks that were intriguing and admirable when taken in isolation, and I got excited about the prospect of seeing the same sort of thing done with greater control. Next Tolstoy will be War and Peace. Whenever that comes up.

Oops, finished, but then I thought of this to say – one section of the book portrays Olenin going, nervously, in the throes of a wicked crush, to a party with a bunch of giggling girls, and then, after the evening plays out, returning home to muse on the fantastic, near-universal significance of everything that has happened. This scene, and others, I thought, were very successful at evoking high school. My dismay, then, was that nowhere in the book did we get to hear from the Daniel Stern voice, so to speak. Without that guy putting it in perspective, high school is just a big mess; we need that guide to help us differentiate our attitude toward high school gossip from the attitude of high school kids. If we don’t think Olenin’s love is as real as Olenin does, what do we think? It depends what happens to him when he grows up. I guess he grows up to be Tolstoy. That would have been an interesting book.

That is, in fact, what all of Proust’s big-ass book is – high school nonsense dissected endlessly from stratospherically high above it all. I loved that. This, by contrast, either had nothing to say yet or didn’t want to let us in on it, and what fun is that?

January 7, 2007

Tyranny of Things Being Themselves

Author’s note after finishing: This was going to be about my reading project but it veered away, to put it mildly.

Reading several books in a row that all try to take on the big issues – that present a philosophical “take” on the world as seen through (or equated with) a particular aesthetic or emotional “take” on the world – it begins to be clear that none of them can actually be right because they all contradict each other. A sardonic, nihilistic novel and a mournful, spiritual novel can’t both be right.

So you say, “Two books are like two people, not like two arguments; there’s no question of whether a person is ‘right’.” This is absolutely true – worlds in literature are personalities, not realities. But in the course of reading a book that attempts to be a book of substance, don’t you get the feeling that you’re being coaxed and prodded and toyed with, all in relation to the end of believing something that the book believes? Even when the author is leaving us alone, in relation to the subject matter – free to make up our own minds, as they say, though of course we always are – it is still the case that the author is, significantly, leaving us alone, and doing this in relation to a belief. Even when the author does not necessarily believe what the book believes, or even when the author has intentionally crafted the book to believe something that cannot be readily flattened and put into words, nonetheless every book that touches on life seems to believe something about it, and in reading the book we are in negotiation with that belief.

But then, as I say, along comes another book with its own contradictory persona.

Maybe I am peculiar in this but I continue to believe that I am just peculiar in articulating it – I feel, if not intimidated, certainly challenged, implicated, somehow called upon to defend my own particular being, by the very presence of things that are particularly other than me and have any even remotely human qualities. For example – I’ve always thought that when I eventually write about this phenomenon, which seems to be now, I would write about – the ad-copy (really, all-purpose smarmy writer) phenomenon of punchy short sentences with smart-assed periods. Ever read one of those?

You just did.

Boo-yah! To me, the punch in these sentences isn’t just rhythmic, it’s something smug; it’s the intimation that the implicit persona behind the sentence (even when it’s saying “got milk?” or whatever and there’s no explicit persona at all) is… well, something that can’t be put into words because it’s sub-rational. But it plays on my sense of status and worth. I think that’s how it works for everyone.

I’ve just been searching and cannot find a name for the “drawing a zigzag from top to bottom while rocking my neck laterally like a bird” gesture – which at this point has just about transcended racial boundaries – but the intended effect of this nonsense is the “sass” equivalent of what a cat does when it arches its back. The fact that it “reads” at all is, I’m saying, evidence of our propensity to read art – in this case choreography – as persona, and then to feel cowed by it.

I get mad at all sorts of stuff – most often: ad campaigns, the decor in restaurants, people in public with attention-getting fashion choices – and then have to defend my annoyance to the people I’m with. The answer is always the same – that I have been implicitly called to the table by the very existence of these things; that in being, they are also saying “this is how one should be” and that I resent being forced to engage in argument with that. This sounds silly when I’m saying it but it’s the very same phenomenon that occurs with any coherent work of art – the work asserts a personality/worldview that in being perceived must be reckoned with. I talk about books “believing” things because these things are present in the aura of persona, of mind, that surrounds them despite their being ink and paper, and so far as I know there’s no correct way to talk about that aura, the “life of a book,” distinctly from the book itself. But it is distinct; it is the thing we actually encounter, and to me its nature is anthropomorphic and thus has a potential (and potentially antagonistic) social relation to me.

In books, though, the “you’ve made a mistake in not being this” challenge, which so offends me in restaurants, is generally made palatable by the perceivable distance between the maker and the work. If I can be assured that the author offers a book and its belief system as an artifact to be held in the hand and considered, then I feel safe with it. If, on the other hand, the author offers the book as an emanation of (or a conduit for) his own persona, then things become higher-stakes. This is exactly what rubbed me so thoroughly the wrong way about Everything Is Illuminated. And yet it’s still possible for a heartfelt “this is me and why isn’t it you” book to remain a pleasant encounter. All it has to do is be offering its differences rather than reveling in them.

Intolerant decor – there, I found a word for it, “intolerant” – intolerant decor, like intolerant ad copy, is inescapably rude because it has no apparent maker to distinguish from it.

Submitting to the actual experience of a work of art is submitting to the challenge of the essential nature of a thing that is not you. The essentially un-you nature of the thing. The potential consolation of art is that it is open to you despite not being you.

I seem to have wandered into the sort of loopily ungrounded art writing that really bugs me. Hopefully I’ve gotten here by enough degrees that it doesn’t feel loopily ungrounded to you THE READER but since it feels loopy to me THE WRITER then we’re probably in trouble.

To finish with the last bit of thought that needs to go in here somewhere – since people seem to be pleased to take the smirk (or eye-roll) that is readily theirs after I explain that I’m being whiny because I feel tyrannized by some period or other, I have been repeatedly told that this way of thinking is particular to me and should be shaken off. Nonetheless I must continue to think this is not true. I’m ready to concede oversensitivity to these sorts of things and, what’s far more pernicious, an over-willingness to indulge minor annoyances by expressing them – but I firmly believe that all these things I see are imbued with an animistic smugness not just for me but for my fellow man as well… because I see him everywhere climbing aboard, buying that T-shirt, telling people that restaurant is amazing and he loves it there, carrying that book around, preening like the people in that ad – people who never existed… but now they do, because of everyone who lost the argument with the voice of the ad the first time around. It’s like the practical joke that, once shamed by it, one is eager to play on someone else. And yes, it makes me angry when someone plays that joke on me. This is how you look at me, your fellow human being? For shame.

This stuff has been waiting for ten years to get expressed, and I’m doing it, now that I’m here, in part out of a sense of obligation to seize the opportunity now that it has spontaneously arisen. But I don’t really feel this way so much anymore. A good solution to the tyranny of things being themselves is to feel what I like to call “superior to everyone and everything,” which trumps all “but why would you be you?” arguments with a nice shiny “you wouldn’t understand.” I was avoiding this route for many years because I had learned that humility is preferable to arrogance, but in a smug society, humility just means a lot of wrangling with the ego of every damn period. Embracing a vague sense of ill-defined but untouchable superiority whenever possible gives one a nice sense of freedom, say, while walking around New York City, where every goddamn thing thinks it’s better than you.

January 4, 2007

Life is a Dream (pub. 1636)

by Pedro Calderón de la Barca (1600-1681)
translation of La vida es sueño into English by Roy Campbell (~1957)

Life is a Dream, and other Spanish Classics, edited by Eric Bentley (Applause, 1985)

My second spin gave the number 253, which landed me on The Doctor of His Own Honor by Pedro Calderón de la Barca. However, this being the fourth listed of four works by Calderón, I read the first instead: Life is a Dream. “Translated by Roy Campbell,” says Bloom. To my surprise, I found that very edition on my first bookstore attempt, at the Strand Annex, for I think $4. Not bad.

It’s one thing to chat out my thoughts about stuff as I’m reading it, but now, months after the fact, I have to either dig deep to fake some thoughts about something I’ve stopped thinking about, or be reduced to just “reviewing” it, which is a pretty dull business, for me. But better that I should try to catch up then be constantly owing this site thoughts that I no longer have; here then is a very brief review.

Ed. note after finishing: No it’s not! I should never announce things before I write them.

This was a very pleasant read and would probably make for a satisfying time at the theater, provided a suitably period-receptive attitude. I don’t have any particularly nuanced understanding of 17th century literature or drama, so naturally this reminds me of Shakespeare. It reminds me of Shakespeare not just in manner but also in theme and treatment and rhetorical style and wit and a lot of other things, such that despite my lack of knowledge I’m tempted to believe that the comparison isn’t a complete “well duh,” but I could be wrong. In doing some searching on Calderón, I see that it is common practice to say that Calderón’s greatest works are on par with Shakespeare and have comparable depth, but not exactly to say that they had similar techniques. Seemed to me that they did but what do I know. Life is a Dream moved a little faster than the mature Shakespeare works we all know, had a little more silly plot business and a few more sudden shifts of emphasis, but we all know that Shakespeare wasn’t above silly plot nonsense.

Hard to say what’s the style of an era and what’s the style of an individual, especially when the individual is seen as both the representative example and the exceptional example of that era. This is what Charles Rosen says at the beginning of The Classical Style.

The plot is – well, you can read it on Wikipedia or you can take it from me – that when the prince is born, there’s a prophesy that he will bring some kind of disaster to the country, so the king, attempting to beat the prophesy, has his son imprisoned in a cell off in the mountains and tells everyone he died. That’s the premise. During the action of the play, the king decides to test his grown captive son, just to see whether he’s really bad news or not. The prince has been raised by a jailer without knowing who he is or why he’s there, and because of his circumstances has grown up to be an amoral violent wildman. The king decides to test him by having him drugged and reawakened in the castle and told who is. If he behaves badly, they’ll drug him again and return him to his cell, where he’ll be told that it was all a dream. And that’s what happens: he behaves very badly and is returned to his former life and convinced he dreamed it all. In the final act, he ends up being freed again, but now, having mused on this experience, he learns his lesson: since everything could turn out to be merely a dream, he’d be better off behaving humbly and morally.

There’s a lot more plot to it. Though I wouldn’t exactly call it elegant, the additional plotting is well-crafted in that nearly all of it is informed by the themes of will vs. fate and dreams vs. reality.

It struck me then and it strikes me now, though, that the lesson the prince learns is exactly backward. If everything turns out to be a dream, then it doesn’t matter how one behaves oneself. In a dream, why not kill and rape? It’s in reality that one’s actions have consequences for other humans (and, presumably, have consequences in the eyes of God). The prince does not kill out of a lack of humility; he kills because he has finally been unshackled and that’s what his base instincts urge him to do. It seems to me that what he needs to learn is that life is not just a dream; that he is not morally alone in his own mind but is participating in a real world with other humans and with God.

So in practical reality the moral doesn’t work, for me. The only way I can make any sense of the play’s moral logic is to translate the message of “life is dream” into “you can’t take it with you” – when you awake, in this case. As the prince tells himself in Act III,

… Do not thus
Be puffed to pride by these uncertain plaudits
Which, when I wake, will turn to bitterness
In that I won them only to be lost.
The less I value them, the less I’ll miss them.

Which is a fair bit different from the overall message, the paradoxical “be on good behavior because it might not be real.”

The various elements of the play fit together to create a bit of a moral mindbender – the prince is only bad because his father abused him in attempt to avoid his becoming bad; he is only able to actually do evil in the world because his father feels remorse and gives him a chance at freedom; he then learns his lesson which is to be more humble and not feel entitled to freedom; he eventually achieves freedom thanks to rebels who oppose his father’s actions; in the end he wisely places himself at his father’s mercy rather than get revenge (as was the rebels’ plan). Certainly plenty of interesting stuff to think about in there, and much of it expressed in attractive, intelligent poetry. But all the same, kind of confused. This sort of thing always happens when you put prophesies in your plots, I think. Though there was something intriguing about reading these heady Shakespearean (Calderónian) monologues wherein philosophy has taken a turn into the surreal. If you give up on trying to learn anything in particular from it, there’s no question that the piece had a lot of dramatic life to it. The basic hook here – putting someone in a to-them-miraculous situation and then telling them it was all a dream – is very rich.

In this case, Bloom’s recommended translation was superb. I think I came away even more impressed with Roy Campbell than with Calderón. Everything falls very comfortably and fluidly into iambic pentameter, nothing is awkward or unclear, and all the color and imagery feels alive and unforced. The vocabulary was extremely well-chosen: there was no mannered attempt to place the English into the 17th century, but it never felt jarringly as though it belonged to any other time in particular. Both humor and pathos came through intact. I was truly impressed. I don’t think I’ve ever read a verse translation before that accomplished quite as much as this did. Maybe that’s not saying much.

There’s a public domain translation by Edward Fitzgerald but it actually seems to be a complete reworking, with almost no direct relationship to the original Spanish that I can see. So I don’t recommend that. Really, I can’t imagine there being a better version of this play than the one I read. The New York Times seems to agree – here they approve of the Campbell version, whereas this doesn’t sound any good. This sounds like it didn’t quite work, sorry Irene. On the other hand, what does the New York Times know?