About the arts and ideas - on my novels and literature, music, and art

A new book about Beethoven gathers together (and completely rewrites and supplements) my blog posts on Beethoven into a short introduction to the composer, Ways of Hearing Beethoven, which I hope to see published. My novel The Fall of the Berlin Wall, completed a year ago, is about musicians and particularly the intense, irrepressible daughter of the legendary pianist featured in my previous novel Hungry Generations, now fifteen years after those events. Five years ago, my 2015 novel, The Ash Tree, was published by West of West Books in conjunction with the April 24, 2015 centenary of the Armenian genocide; it's about an Armenian-American family and the sweep of their history in the twentieth century - particularly from the points of view of two women in the family.
There are three other novels of mine, which I would love to see published. One is Pathological States, about a physician's family in L.A. in 1962. Another is Hungry Generations, about a young composer's friendship in L.A. with the family of a virtuoso pianist, published on demand by iUniverse, which I think would be of value to a conventional publisher. A Burnt Offering - a fable (a full rewriting and expansion of my earlier Acts of Terror and Contrition - a nuclear fable) is my political novella about Israel and its reactions to the possibility of a war with Iran (with the fear that it will be a nuclear war).
[My blog posts are, of course, copyrighted.]

Saturday, July 30, 2011

Conrad's Under Western Eyes and Silence, continued (first section is an 11-2010 post):

Here's the continuation of the November 2010 post containing the start of my essay, which was published in Slavic and Eastern European Journal (issue 45:2, pp. 231-242).

The deepest terror exhibited and forecast by Under Western Eyes’ images of terrorism, autocracy, and the struggle to endure in Russian life is that, under circumstances of total simulation and dissimulation, truth disappears into silence, and reality undergoes an absolute erasure and substitution. Here we enter the region of Conrad's "néant," of negation. Conrad's readers are themselves made to experience a version of this negation, for the self-reflexive effect of the British professor's unreliable narration is to place them in the position of questioning the Western assumptions embedded in the text as a document written in English.

The resulting self-conscious and paradoxical perspectivism destabilizes our reading which depends on the Western professor's on-going narrative even when, for example, we realize that the compassion and perception he refuses to most of the Russians are what their struggle with erasure and suffering requires and embodies. "I suppose one must be a Russian to understand Russian simplicity, a terrible corroding simplicity in which mystic phrases clothe a naive and hopeless cynicism," he writes even about the Russian with whom he sympathizes the most, Natalia Haldin (76).

The concept of Russian cynicism helps us again to observe how a motif is made to break down in the novel, and reveal instability and negation. On one side is the Professor's condescension for Natalia's "naive and hopeless cynicism" - his snide "key-word" for his chronicle (49). On the other, we find the protagonist Razumov's paradoxical formulation, contorted by fear and despair, of Russian suffering: '''Stoicism! That's a pose ... We are Russians, that is - children; that is - sincere; that is - cynical, if you like. But that's not a pose!'" (147). Further, there is the revolutionary Sophia Antonovna's comment that "'women, children, and revolutionists hate irony, which is the negation of all saving instincts, of all faith, of all devotion, of all action'" (197). The novel's ironic questioning of irony is as brilliantly dislocating as it is compelling, for these carefully designed structural collisions and negations prompt readers to become as morally alert and delving as possible.

Found everywhere on this vertiginous landscape of dislocation is the primary mechanism of communication at work within a totalizing system and practiced even by Conrad's central, English narrator: that is, "interrogation" – detached, reductive, and imposing, for example, the Englishman's censure and sentimentality on the interrogated. Interrogation in his case is a metaphor to characterize the British professor's point of view on "things Russian," but in Conrad's vision of Russian life interrogation is more than metaphoric. It is at the core of experience itself, and most of the novel's key scenes involve acts of interrogation: the revolutionist Haldin's testing of Razumov and then the Intelligence bureaucrat Mikulin's questioning of both of them, the myriad interrogations of Razumov by the Geneva Russians - the Haldins, Sophia Antonovna, not to mention Peter Ivanovich - and finally Razumov's own self-interrogation in his Dostoyevskian journal.

Why is the intrusion and inquisition of interrogation essential in a totalized society like the Russian autocracy? It is the tool that allows the Intelligence apparatus (the brain of a totalitarian body politic) to confront the silence - and shape the speech - of the totalized Russian society presented by Conrad. The passive, impervious, even moribund nature of this body politic informs the recurrent image of a body - drunk, dead, or asleep - suspended in a vast frozen waste, and this image of groundless suspension in a frozen blank white void applies above all to Razumov. Silence is the meaning of these many encompassing images of being frozen alive, and is the focus of Conrad's interrogation of Russia and, finally, of language itself. The haunted fatality of this vision is confirmed by its echoing of Adam Mickiewicz's classic Polish critique of Russia eighty years earlier, the "Digression" in Forefather's Eve of 1832; Czeslaw Milosz writes that Conrad "seems to repeat its contents line for line in . . . Under Western Eyes" (225)

Silence is a signal characteristic of the frozen Russian wastes here. The novel's images of suspended corpses are silent, and as well the holders of power - Prince K, Councilor Mikulin, etc. - mumble or are silent; the key words in their sentences are ellipses, erasures, silences. The "truths" of Razumov's story are silenced, and by the end of the novel his world is literally silence: his eardrums are shattered by the counterspy Nikita’s gun. This final silence of Razumov's world merely makes manifest its actual condition: all previous hearing and speech have been invalidated by lies, within himself and within the world he inhabited; both the official story or history and his personal version are compounded of falsifications. The brunt and import of the novel's interrogation, then, reveal that language capable of uttering meaning is silenced in the Geneva of the revolutionaries, the Petersburg of the autocracy, and indeed the Europe of modernity.

The interrogatory rhetoric - of the nearly mute aristocrats and of the strategically mumbling Intelligence chief in Russia - plays at a silence which invites the interrogated to fill the gaps, to accede to and participate in a totalized societal speech. What the society evokes is, then, not only passivity and imperviousness, but also a sort of participation taking the peculiar form, however, of confession. Though, as we saw, Conrad was highly critical of Dostoevsky, this novel has characters who echo Crime and Punishment; and of course Razumov's confessional journal represents a development of the novel genre modeled by Dostoevsky, not least in Notes from Underground. Mikulin's interrogation of Razumov draws from him what is desired, confession, collusion, and betrayal, but in a Dostoyevskian confessional form which the interrogating apparatus does not expect and cannot decipher. Against the interrogating rhetoric of the totalized Slavic society, this "Slavic" English novel pits an alternative equally characteristic of Slavic culture - a confessional rhetoric based in a sort of silence.

Totalitarian speech, in sum, ironically and unstably calls forth the upwelling confessional speech it requires, but in a hybrid form undecipherable to it. In a further irony, the opacity of Razumov's confession complicates and reinforces what we have noted is the ironic doubleness of his character, making him simultaneously a haunted Petersburg hero of Eastern genre and origin and a coldly "English" rational Western temperament, though the latter recedes by novel's end. Finally, the novel's narrative structure ironically juxtaposes Razumov's Dostoyevskian confession with the British professor's narration and "translation" of that narrative. A Slavic literary form, then, is paired against and interacts with a more traditional, conventionally Western version of the novel genre, and a mutually deconstructive tension results, measuring Eastern and Western rhetoric against each other.
I'll post the conclusion of this essay next week. 
Here are Amazon links to Conrad's novel and to Dostoyevsky's two works cited above: Under Western Eyes (Penguin Classics) and Crime and Punishment (Penguin Classics)  and Notes from Underground and The Double (Penguin Classics).

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Notes on the modern period -29 - Apocalypse and the modern imagination

During and after the First World War – with its ten million dead – modern writers contemplated the bearing on their time of the idea of apocalypse, its violent abnegation of life and its apparent rejection of all that is living and whole. The engagement of this idea resulted in part from having witnessed European civilization’s hurling itself into what seemed an abyss of self-destruction. I want to describe the illuminating parallel between two such visions of apocalypse, one by Walter Benjamin in his first book, written in 1925, The Origin of German Tragic Drama, and the other by D. H. Lawrence in his last book, written in 1929, Apocalypse. (Here's an Amazon link to the Lawrence: Apocalypse (The Cambridge Edition of the Works of D.H. Lawrence) .

Walter Benjamin’s book is a study of the German baroque drama, but his argument ranges beyond the nature of baroque tragedy to the idea of “the state of emergency” and the quite modern antithesis between an encompassing “catastrophe” and the “restoration” of life. Lawrence’s book is a study of John of Patmos’ “Book of Revelations” in the New Testament, but his discussion also ranges beyond the Biblical idea of apocalypse to address the crucial modern tension between catastrophe the hope for restoration.
Benjamin describes the baroque yearning for a transcendent order designed to reign in and ultimately negate the vitality of the Renaissance and its restoration of Classical humanism and its “pagan glorification.” In the baroque era, the sought-for metaphysical order aims for a “complete stabilization” of “the worldly and despotic aspects of [the energy intrinsic to] the rich feeling for life characteristic of the Renaissance.” In fear of the recurrence and “restoration” of that “feeling for life,” the baroque develops a conception of the “state of emergency” as the last and terrible means to trap and regulate the vital chaos of life. Similarly, the baroque version of “heaven” becomes an antithetical instrument for fearful purgation and regulation, whereby the “hereafter is emptied of everything which contains the slightest breath of this world.” (Here's an Amazon link to Benjamin's book: The Origin of German Tragic Drama (Radical Thinkers).)

The modern version of the baroque apocalypse connects the eradication of life with the suicidal advances in the mechanization of war (not to mention the soulless mechanization of mass society). Both the baroque’s orderly purgation of life and the rationalized suicide of modern Europe’s wars yield the apocalyptic sensation of living in a world that “is being driven along to a cataract.” This world, headed for the abyss, is “haunted by the idea of catastrophe,” of life being wiped out.
In the baroque period, an elaborate, sometimes grotesque art results; such art “clings closely” to the smallest, most discarded things in life, which exist under the threat of the world’s eradication. As a result, baroque art, rather like modern art, “extracts a profusion of things which customarily escaped the grasp of artistic formulation and, at its high point, brings them violently into the light of day, in order to clear the way for an ultimate heaven, enabling it, as a vacuum, one day to destroy the world with catastrophic violence.” The “violence” of such art zeroes in on any signs of “pagan glorification” and reproduces them even as it distorts these signs of life’s vitality.

That paradox is embedded in the façade of the baroque Mexican cathedral dedicated to the Virgin of Guadalupe, with its unholy mix of Christian and native pagan iconography, just as it is at work in Benjamin’s portrait of the baroque German tragic drama, with its demented sovereigns and its apocalyptic final acts.
When we turn to modern art and literature, we can find a similar paradox whereby the gestures and images of ordinary life are estranged and often beautifully deformed – the nude body or  box of unsmoked Gauloises in a Matisse or Picasso painting, the mud-dripped church or the vacant streets of modern cities in a Gaudi building or an Eliot poem. To an extent, as Carlos Fuentes argues, America itself is a paradoxically baroque construct invented in the seventeenth century, and the modern manifestations of America reproduce – to an exaggerated extreme – the baroque conjunction of puritanism and paganism, of sun-desiccated metaphysics and darkly lush sensuality, of abstract ideals and the earthy vista of freedom.  In modernity as in the baroque, there is an unstable embrace of such contradictions, simultaneously contemplating the wiping away of the things of this world and their distorted “glorification.”

D. H. Lawrence developed a similar conception in his Studies in Classic American Literature (Classic, 20th-Century, Penguin)  and above all in his last work, Apocalypse. In the former work, America is seen as haunted by the apocalyptic death of the old world and the challenge of creating the new world; for example, in Lawrence’s view of Whitman and Melville, death surrounds the human being who must use his isolated will to transform the bare force of nature and construct himself and his ties to other humans from the encounter. But for our purposes, Lawrence’s last work is most relevant and illuminating.
In Apocalypse, Lawrence identifies the deadly danger of modernity, which impedes the affirmative contact with nature and the resulting potential for self-creation. His description of “The Book of Revelations” parallels Benjamin’s portrait of the baroque, even with regard to the two Christian visions of the state, for in “Revelations,” the worldly operations of the state, let alone of the body, are anathema and must be apocalyptically purged. Yet this “dark side,” this “resistance” to “the things that the human heart secretly yearns after,” is a refusal of “what man most passionately wants…his living wholeness and his living unison, not his own isolate salvation of the ‘soul.’” “By the very frenzy with which the Apocalypse destroys the sun and the stars, the world, and all kings and all rulers, all scarlet and purple and cinnamon, all harlots, finally all men altogether who are not ‘sealed,’ we can see how deeply the Apocalyptists are yearning for the sun and the stars and the earth” and the rest of life.

How can the great rush toward death be stopped? Can human beings restore their sense of life, of vital consciousness, and “what the old Greeks meant by…theos”? In a wonderful passage about the restoration of language itself from his 1929 book, Lawrence again parallels Benjamin, who in “On Language as Such and the Language of Man” asserts that in the act of “naming, the mental being of man communicates itself to God.” (Here is a link to the book containing Benjamin's essay - Reflections: Essays, Aphorisms, Autobiographical Writings). Lawrence describes the “old Greek” way of naming the water which overcomes thirst, of naming the cold of the water in one’s mouth, “whatever struck you was god.” If the water was cold “as you touched it: then another god came into being, ‘the cold.’” For Lawrence, the names themselves, the words, are sacramental “things themselves, realities, gods, theoi. And they did things,” they restored human consciousness and imagination to life in a way similar to what Lawrence hoped the language itself of his lyrical and incantatory poetry and fiction would achieve.
Let the language of Lawrence’s own conclusion end this post: “What we want is to destroy our false, inorganic connections, especially those related to money, and re-establish the living organic connections, with the cosmos, the sun and earth, with mankind and nation and family. Start with the sun, and the rest will slowly, slowly happen.”

Monday, July 4, 2011

Notes on the modern period - 28 - D. H. Lawrence's version of modernism

I want to explore here the contrast between Lawrence’s characters and those created by the other modern British novelists I admire – Conrad, Joyce, and Woolf. The characters created by the latter are presented with what I want to call a nurturing detachment; even as these characters intimately implicate their creators (Joyce’s Stephen and Bloom, or Conrad’s Marlow, or Woolf’s Mr. and Mrs. Ramsay), the sympathy – which infuses the presentation of each of these central characters – is inevitably accompanied by irony, shaping and sculpting the novels’ “reality.” The irony is sometimes structural, as in the stark and bracing transitions from chapter to chapter in Joyce’s Portrait; sometimes the ironies expose limits and contradictions, as in Marlow’s protesting that he has no gift for language; or at times, there are ironic collisions among points of view (as when Mr. Ramsay’s tortured self-importance is observed with sudden objectivity by another character, in the brilliant heartbreaking counterpoint of Woolf’s To the Lighthouse).
Modern novelists radically adapt the inheritance of nineteenth century realism, accentuating the sympathetic inward views and the detached irony essential to the novel form. About their intensified rendering of inwardness, there is modern novelists’ evocation of the inner stream of thought and feeling. About their radical irony, suffice it to say that these novelists observe their characters’ lives as part of a vision of collapse – of self, of society, of civilization itself.
Now, in these terms, Lawrence certainly qualifies as a “modernist.” His final book of prose is titled Apocalypse, his portrait of modern society is in a word satiric, and his rendering of the inner flow of feeling is lyrically intense. However, Lawrence’s version of the modern differs from Conrad’s, Joyce’s, and Woolf’s. His image-filled, incantatory lyricism renders or, better, embraces his characters as a life-or-death matter; his storytelling is continually an act of celebration or excoriation, of affirmation or admonishment – in short, a sometimes manic, even desperate sort of persuasion. It is not simply that there are passages in his novels which read as passionate persuasive essays (remember Woolf’s pages attacking “Proportion” and its murderous sister “Conversion” at the center of Mrs. Dalloway, and of course her prose is also highly lyrical). Lawrence’s difference from her and the other moderns is that all features of his fiction – narrative voice, structure, the feelings and actions of his characters – implore us to embrace or object to what we read; the fiction performs an act of advocacy, aiming to impel us to act, to feel actively – not to sympathize but to love, not to detach but to censure. This characterization is itself not meant as censure; it’s an indication of the mixed feelings Lawrence’s works stirs not only in me.

Though his plots and men and women he creates may be Hardyesque, Lawrence’s novels are themselves like Dostoyevskian characters, insisting you listen to his upwelling narrative and intent on contacting your very soul. The intensity of the encounter can feel as vital as lived experience, as the “dialogic” contact we witness in scene after scene of a Dostoyevsky novel. But it can also fail to realize the potential power of such contact, of the living encounter, for Lawrence’s reader feels sometimes that she or he has been gripped by a needful imperious being, who requires acquiescence to his unitary vision and voice. Dostoyevsky’s primary allegiance is to pitting characters against each other in those scenes of contact that capture what is at risk in actual experience, and his genius is in the masterful polyphony which results. In these terms, Lawrence often falls short: he yearns to capture the very pith and essence of experience, yet what often emerges is another sort of power, a stream of lyric vision rather than the agon and process of experience in which characters are tested.
An example occurs in the compelling early chapter “Breadalby” in Women in Love. Here we find acidly satiric portraits of British intellectuals partying at an estate belonging to Hermione, who is about to part ways dramatically with her lover. He is Rupert, one of the four major protagonists in the novel. As the dramatic moment approaches, the dialogue between them is abstract rather than revealing, monologue-like rather than “dialogic.” Rupert rather rants: “I, myself, who am myself, what have I to do with equality with any other man or woman? In the spirit, I am as separate as one star is from another, as different in quality and quantity.” In response to this – her lover’s self-isolating abstractions – Hermione rather goes mad: “Her whole mind was a chaos, darkness breaking in upon it, and herself struggling to gain control with her will, as a swimmer struggles with the swirling water.” Such states of feeling eddy through and around the two characters, and their agonized struggle is evoked with effusive lyricism, but often without a compelling sense of what is motivating these two toward the following intense confrontation: “swiftly, in a flame that drenched down her body like fluid lightning and gave her a perfect, unutterable consummation, unutterable satisfaction, she brought down the ball of jewel [lapis] stone with all her force, crash on his head.”

The hurt, dazed Rupert walks out of Hermione’s mansion into the countryside; in a flight of poetic imagination, Lawrence imagines him taking off his clothes and making a sort of love to the flowers and grass, apparently without sexual arousal lying on his belly in the primrose and hyacinths and wet grass – “he seemed to saturate himself with their contact…and then to sting one’s thigh against the living dark bristles of the fir-boughs. Naked and almost blanked out, Rupert seems to be starting out from the beginning to rebuild a self and a consciousness, from almost perversely rudimentary elements of nature and experience. Soon bits of his previous rant return, but they are subordinate now to the sacramental effusion of the prose poetry: “he was weary of the old ethic, of the human being, and of humanity. He loved now the soft, delicate vegetation, that was so cool and perfect.” In the most searching passages of Women in Love, the narrative struggles to perform with lyrical, incantatory urgency a sacramental evocation of its characters’ deeply intimate states of feeling: “nothing else would satisfy, except this coolness and subtlety of vegetation travelling into one’s blood. How fortunate he was, that there was this lovely, subtle, responsive vegetation, waiting for him, as he waited for it.”
Throughout his literary career, Lawrence was a practicing poet, whose poetry was a constant accompaniment to his fiction writing. His pleasure in writing a poem is partly a matter of his faith that the poem itself becomes the heartbreaking music of the piano or the grandeur of the snake or the succulence of the fig: the poem’s voice becomes the font of beauty. It is meant to bring forth what he would call the god-like presence of realized beauty. In his poetic version of modern fiction, Lawrence aims to perform just this sacrament in his stories and novels; their repeated images become incantations – as if there, on the page, the miraculous birth of feeling is performed. His finest novels become an amalgam of that hallowing and of the characters who crave such sacrament, yet who struggle in confusion, searching and partial. It is Lawrence’s insight and insistence that even partial, modern human beings can yet begin to contact that miraculous font.

Sacramental transformation is the subject of the final pages of the prose work I mentioned earlier, Apocalypse (his last work, written in 1929). Since my previous post, I’ve been thinking about the similarities between the ideas in that late essay and the core ideas in Walter Benjamin’s first book, written in 1925, The Origin of German Tragic Drama. That will be the subject of my next post.
Here are links for you to examine some of the texts I mentioned above: Apocalypse (Penguin Twentieth-Century Classics), Women in Love (Penguin Popular Classics)