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WE WHO ARE ABOUT TO… BY JOANNA RUSS

We all die. I know. You don’t have to keep telling me. Like it’s new knowledge. Like I don’t know. You delight in it, wickedly, in the same way that people sometimes catch spiders and make to throw them in the face of the person who is cowering and clearly afraid. I am afraid, very afraid. Of course, you don’t understand it. Death, I mean. You tell it, but you don’t understand the words. Like you’re reciting a foreign language, a language unknown to you. You say: why are you afraid? And I say: because death is nothingness. And you say: but you won’t know you’re dead. And I say: that’s the point. You cannot grasp it, that if I could experience death then it wouldn’t frighten me. Because it wouldn’t be nothing. I say: when you die, everything dies. When you cease to be, everything ceases to be. You don’t believe this, of course. But I’m on it now, and I don’t care. So I say: you are the universe. You are everything. I am everything. So naturally the only death that concerns me is mine. Yours might make me sad, but, at the same time, I would be glad to be around to feel that sadness. Yours is sad, potentially, but not a tragedy. Only one’s own death is a tragedy. Unless you want to die. There are people who want to die. There are people who choose to die. And that is perhaps a tragedy too. But only for them, not for me. I should write about the book. Must remember to actually write about the book. Joanna Russ is the author. Was? I don’t know how I came to hear about her. She wasn’t recommended to me. I never listen to recommendations anyway. My heart is beating, still, and so I can write about Joanna Russ and the book she wrote while her heart beat, still. Maybe. Maybe she is alive somewhere. Joanna, can you hear me? I hope you are alive, but not with any great conviction or feeling. I’m too concerned about myself. We Who Are About To… was published in…I don’t know when it was published. Sometime in the 1970s, I think. I recall reading that it wasn’t very well received at the time of publication. Which is hardly a surprise. I hate it when people say happy birthday to the dead. Happy Birthday, George Eliot. As though death isn’t death. It’s not a surprise because it’s a bitter, pissy little book. Someone said there is hope in it. There’s no hope. Or if there is it’s a small black dot in the distance. Death is like that too. Only the black dot is growing, and getting closer, moving ever closer until one day it will swallow you up. And then: nothing. Not even darkness. The narrator of the book doesn’t have a name. Or if she does I have forgotten it. She is part of a small crew on board a ship, a spaceship, that lands on a [previously] uninhabited planet. The plan is to colonise it, to populate it. There is very little that is recognisably sci-fi. If sci-fi means alien beings and alien worlds. The crew might just as well be stranded on an island. On earth, I mean. Only I guess that this would suggest the possibility of rescue. Which would suggest hope. I smoke, by the way, despite my fear. My fear of death. Of nothingness. I don’t fear cancer, of course, because that is still something. Terrible, but something, still. I smoke because I’m stupid. Because my species is necessarily, relentlessly, heartrendingly, hilariously stupid. The others are awful people. By others I mean the people who are part of the spaceship’s crew who aren’t the narrator. They are awful in a way that is banal, familiar. It’s amusing in a way to be introduced to people who might be the founding-fathers, and mothers, of a new civilisation, to be there in the beginning. Important people, about whom legends may one day be told. It’s amusing because they are, in reality, a dull bunch. There is no greatness in them. There couldn’t be. There is no greatness in anyone, or anything, only death. They aren’t bad people, no more than any average person is bad. One, Alan-something, does beat a woman, and that is a bad act, of course, but he does so out of embarrassment, rather than cruelty or anything interesting like that. He does it because he is stupid. For the most part, they potter around, bicker, half-formulate plans, and generally give the impression of a ridiculous species of animal meandering towards extinction. Like pandas. The narrator is no more likeable either. She is human, after all. I did wonder whether she was meant to be slightly more sympathetic, in the sense that she is perhaps a mouthpiece for the author. Although I don’t really believe that. I’m simply filling space. Pushing up the word count. I must say something more meaningful about the narrator. Include quotations from the text. Be motivated. Look interested. Think about death. Wasn’t it Heidegger who wrote that one must always have death at the forefront of your mind. In order to live an authentic existence. In order to live, period. He wrote, I think, that you must believe in your mortality. It is easy to say the words. I will die. To say it, and know it, and yet not know it, truly. To know it and believe it, truly believe it, is to collapse. To cease to function. To become like me. Heidegger, I think, was wrong. The narrator is a bitter, pissy woman. She hates the others. She is critical of them. Understandably, I guess. She is sarcastic. Confrontational, although she says of herself that she wants to keep a low profile. What is interesting – if interesting is the right word, and I am sure it is not – is the relationship between the narrator and her crew-mates. By which I mean that they – in a meandering, hopeless fashion – want to continue, to live, to bring forth new life. While she wants to die. She is afraid, but not of death. She is afraid of life. She wants to be allowed to die, to not continue. Because to continue in such circumstances is absurd. Some might say that is the crux of the novel. Should you enforce life, especially for a greater good. Or someone’s idea of a greater good. Yet some might argue that one’s right to die, or any other individual right, is meaningless in the face of the extinction of the human race. Although I don’t really believe that, what I said about the crux of the novel. The book is about disappointment. Weariness. The drudgery of existence, with its small victories and small, yet still crushing, defeats. It strikes me that the narrator uses the situation, the planet, the threat to their survival as a crew, as a species – for they have become, in being cut adrift from the rest of the human race, their own species – as an excuse to end it all. She was, it strikes me, tired of life long before they arrived. I, of course, am not tired. Not of life, anyway. I don’t believe in a greater good either. I believe in me. There is only me. I am a solopsist who barely even tolerates himself. Still, I cherish my own awful self, my beating heart. Because something, this awful something that I am, is, and always will be – for me but not Joanna Russ, it seems – better than nothing.

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AN EPISODE IN THE LIFE OF A LANDSCAPE PAINTER BY CESAR AIRA

With each decision you make, with each action you engage in, you create a ripple effect consisting of counter-choices and counter-actions, and you create, for yourself and others, new realities, while simultaneously discarding an infinite number of potential realities. I hope that is clear, but if it isn’t an example would probably help. Imagine that you are walking down the street, and you could turn either left or right. In making your decision, whether left or right, you have created a reality that will have [perhaps good and perhaps bad, more likely both] consequences in terms of your life and the life of others, and you will have discarded a reality, or existence, which would have sprung up had you made a different choice. The conclusion one draws from this is rather banal, which is that life is unstable. This is not, however, the same as saying that it is chaos, because there is a sophisticated order involved in our relationships with each other and with the world, such that it is as though we are tied together with invisible string, not only to everything that exists in the present, but in the past also.

Cesar Aira’s An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter is, as the title suggests, concerned with a brief period in the life of an artist. That artist is the German ‘documentary painter’ Johann Moritz Rugendas, a real man who was born 29th March 1802 and died on 29th May 1858. Despite being under one hundred pages in length, Aira’s novel is decidedly complex. The Argentine author provides the reader with a sizeable amount of background information in relation to Rugendas, and he discusses at length his artistic process and aims, the most significant of which is the desire to capture the physiognomy of nature or, in other words, the characteristic traits of a certain place.

What this suggests to me, and in fact what all art suggests to me, is actually a desire to stabilise the world, to fix it, to explain it, to make it understandable, to impose order upon it. Indeed, more than once Rugendas asks himself whether he would be able to capture in a painting an event, a moment, such as, for example, a landscape being stripped bare by locusts. Therefore, even though he doesn’t say so, the artist is himself obviously aware of this stabilising urge, because he fears, he laments, that some things are so unstable that they may not successfully be reduced to an image on a canvas.

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While all this is fascinating stuff, what really excited me was how Aira uses the details of Rugendas’ life to further explore the notions of instability and order. At the beginning of the novel we are told about how one of his ancestors lost his right hand and so was forced to give up the family business of clockmaking. This man started to use his left hand, and took up painting instead, a profession subsequently taken up by following generations. Consider another example, due to Napoleon’s victories there was no call for painters of battle scenes, and so Johann was forced to paint other things, resulting in him becoming a landscape artist.

What we see here are those ties, those strings, and that sophisticated order that I was discussing in my introduction. Life is unstable, yes, but it is not chaotic. Towards the centre of the book Rugendas, while staying in a village in Mendoza, is asked whether he will ever return, and he says no, or that he might one day in the distant future. However, in no time at all, he is back in Mendoza, now a completely different man, as consequence of an apparently freak accident, which occurred due to a choice he made. In that moment, when he made his choice, he discarded a reality, and created a new one, a new life, a new Rugendas.

So, what Aira has done is give us a man whose profession involves an attempt to stabilise the world, an artist whose work is, moreover, easily comprehensible and possessed of a ‘simplicity of style,’ but whose life is absolutely unstable, while being simultaneously perfectly ordered. Ha! Outrageous. Does any of this make sense? Oh, I fear not. The upshot of all this is that An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter is itself like a work of art, like a painting. For the subject, Rugendas, living each moment, one to the next, everything is random, but the novel actually allows you – the reader – to step back and appreciate the totality, the whole, the patterns, etc.

“It was not really rain so much as a benign drizzle, enveloping the landscape in gentle tides of humidity all afternoon. The clouds came down so low they almost landed, but the slightest breeze would whisk them away… and produce others from bewildering corridors which seemed to give the sky access to the center of the earth. In the midst of these magical alterations, the artists were briefly granted dreamlike visions, each more sweeping than the last. Although their journey traced a zigzag on the map, they were heading straight as an arrow towards openness.”

I have devoted more of this review than I intended to discussing these ideas. Certainly, it is not all that the book has to offer. One could, of course, read it as a straightforward adventure story, and it works wonderfully as just that. It also, in ways that, as an Englishman, I don’t think I am qualified to fully understand, has something to say about Argentina, and the Argentinian landscape. We are told that Rugendas had a particular interest in the country, especially the mystical, vast emptiness to be found on the open plains. Only there, he thought, could he discover the other side of his art. Therefore, Argentina, and what is particular to that country, in terms of its physiognomy, is special, is a challenge. Indeed, there is much in the book – as noted in relation to the locusts – about failure of imagination or the limits of art. Rugendas, Aira suggests, wanted to break through those limits, and create a new kind of art, when in fact what he creates, as previously mentioned, is a new Rugendas.

One final thing, before concluding. In Balzac’s Lost Illusions, the rotund, coffee-loving Frenchman was at pains to stress how the world was involved in a process of cheapening, whereby everything that was once well-put together, well-made, expertly crafted, was becoming shoddy. He used examples of paper, of furniture, and so on. I have always been of the opinion that it also applied to literature. I associate modern fiction with badly constructed sentences, dull story-lines, awful, cliched imagery. Based on so many unfulfilling experiences, I now actively avoid newly published writers. So, it was something of a shock, or a pleasant surprise, to find that this book – published in the year 2000 – completely floored [flawed?] me, even though it has drawn from me one of my worst reviews. Sorry Cesar. I know what I wanted to say, but I ended up not saying it in far too many words.

COSMOS BY WITOLD GOMBROWICZ

Some time ago I was having a conversation with a friend of mine about women, specifically the art of figuring out which ones are interested in you, and he was saying that he never felt confident that he was reading the signs right; and that this lack of confidence, in a sense, paralysed him, so that he rarely approached them. He wanted to know how I managed it. How was it that I was always so sure? Well, I let him in on a little secret: stop worrying about signs, as you’ll only confuse yourself. A glance, a nod, a smile…did she wink?…something in her eye….scratch her nose…which means…did she sigh?…a touch…on the arm…it’s a kind of madness, all this. You can never be certain. Getting a telephone number, like a belief in God, requires a leap of faith. Oh, of course, she can say no…maybe she will say no, it’s entirely possible, but no is an answer, it is concrete, it is not a nod, a glance, a little something in the eye, perhaps. And, please, take the no as a no, don’t try and read the no, for God’s sake.

There is, with us, by which I mean human beings, an obsession, a mania, for signs, for interpretation, for creating narratives out of next to nothing. A girlfriend of mine once said to me, after the break-up, that I had, at a certain point in the relationship, given her a look of disgust, and that in that moment she had known that we were doomed. Doomed! Disgust! My face nearly always looks like that. What can you do? The truth is that I had never felt disgusted by her, of course not, but, ah, the look! And what about science? Holy science! Religion too! It’s all part of the same thing, the same madness: this need to explain, to decipher, to crack codes, to solve, to impose order and form on the world…like reading tealeaves or looking for Jesus on a taco.

“The world was indeed a kind of screen and did not manifest itself other than by passing me on and on—I was just the bouncing ball that objects played with!”

I’ve been a fan of the work of acclaimed Polish author Witold Gombrowicz for some time, having read and enjoyed his amusing philosophical novels Pornografia and Ferdydurke more than once. I had, however, never got around to having a go at Cosmos. It’s too impenetrable, too zany, too dated, was the impression I had been given from the small number of reviews I had encountered. Zany and impenetrable had been my thing at one stage, but I had drifted away from that in recent years, as I rested my feet in the clear and warm waters of nineteenth century literature. And maybe that break has done me good, because I came to Cosmos reenergised, fired up for exactly this kind of book. Zany! Impenetrable!

Cosmos is, on the surface, a detective story. Two students, one of whom is the narrator, are looking for a place to stay when they happen upon a bird that has been hung from a piece of wire. Out of this macabre and surreal discovery a mystery develops. First of all, the men ask themselves, ‘who hung the bird and why?’ It’s not the sort of thing you come across every day, of course. After taking lodgings with the Wojtyses family the men start to notice other unusual things [or potential clues!] – an arrow on the ceiling, a stick, a tree that appears to have been moved – which they believe to be linked, to each other and to the bird. As the narrative progresses they become more and more convinced that there is a meaning or rationale behind it all, a puzzle to be put together and solved, a bigger picture. Is someone playing a game with them? Or trying to tell them something? Or…

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[Hung Bird by Leonard Baskin]

Ah, and so we come full circle, the snake swallows its tail! All because of the ‘or.’ We must deal with that ‘or.’ Of course, someone could be messing around, or sending a message, with the bird, the stick, the tree, but what is far more likely is that Witold and Fuks [the two detectives] are simply seeing something in these random objects that isn’t actually there, or is there only because they have, in a sense, put it there themselves [‘the arrow’, the author suggests, could be merely a scratch that resembles an arrow]. They are imbuing these things with meaning, pumping significance into them; they are imposing order and form upon the world, which is, as noted, something that we, by which I mean human beings, do all the time and can, moreover, be done in relation to absolutely anything; this is, for example, how superstitions are created. As I was reading the book I was also put in mind of modern art, something like Kippenberger’s Wittgenstein, say, which is a shelving unit painted grey. An ordinary shelving unit! And yet people, including the artist himself of course, see something in that shelving unit, some kind of message or comment, some significance; they, yes, pump that grey shelving unit full of significance.

Now that we have come this far, the next question is ‘why?’ Why do we do this? You might argue that we impose meaning on the world because otherwise it would be too overwhelming, too chaotic, too frightening. The world is bigger than us, more powerful; and therefore we need to try and bring it to heel. What is interesting about Cosmos, however, is that Gombrowicz takes the opposing position, which is that an ordered world is overwhelming, that what is terrifying is relentless meaning. He likens this to a swarm. In all of his work he [or his narrator] is fixated on individual body parts – the mugs and pupas in Ferdydurke, for example – and I couldn’t ever quite grasp what he was getting at until I read this novel. It now strikes me that what Gombrowicz was doing was destroying form, destroying human order by breaking people down, pulling them apart. In Cosmos, Witold obsessively focusses on Lena’s hands and lips, and one can’t help but imagine these parts floating, disembodied, in space.

“Not surprisingly, because too much attention to one object leads to distraction, this one object conceals everything else, and when we focus on one point on the map we know that all other points are eluding us.”

I have only read Cosmos once, and so I would not suggest that I understand it completely or that this review has nailed all its themes and ideas. Indeed, I could have burdened you with many more paragraphs, as there are a number of other subjects I would like to explore – coincidence, threads and logical connections, madness and obsession, and  so on – but this review is long enough already, and there are still a couple of points I must briefly touch upon before I finish. First of all, Cosmos has been likened to the work of Samuel Beckett, and I can see why someone would make that comparison, but it is, for me, more like Beckett’s novels drunkenly carousing with Thomas Bernhard’s. I think Gombrowicz was a masterful writer, and stylist, but I will say that he is perhaps an acquired taste [and even I wasn’t keen on some of the Leon babble and nonsense]. Secondly, and most importantly of all, this is a serious contender for the funniest book I have ever read. The Lime Works, by the aforementioned Bernhard, would run it close, and I was greatly amused by both Platonov’s The Foundation Pit and Walser’s The Robber, but Cosmos had me cackling so loud and so frequently my cat is now suffering from PTSD. In fact, the Berg-Bemberg conversation between Witold and Leon [you have to read it, I can’t possibly do it justice here] brought me almost to the point of hysteria. Which, I feel, is something that the author would have approved of.