Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Engineers of the Human Soul

The Noise of Time by Julian Barnes

"What sort of people do they wish to please? And what kind of actions are the means of their success? How quickly time will cover everything--and how much is covered already." Marcus Aurelius, VI, 59. 

The terror was unimaginable. Dmitri Shostakovitch, among the greatest composers of the twentieth century, stood night after night, valise in hand, (a change of underwear, clean socks, two packages of cigarettes) waiting for the arrival of the KGB goons who, he was certain, would drag him to Lubyanka Prison for interrogation, torture, and a bullet to the back of the head. Why? The Great Helmsman had hated Shostakovitch's opera "Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk," calling it a "muddle." One bad review in Pravada, one failed interrogation with Power, one "musicologist" intimating an association--however slight--with one of Stalin's rivals (with the doomed Marshall Tukhachevsky, Hero of the Soviet Union, "The Red Napoleon," Shostakovitch's patron, for example), one bitter rival...it didn't matter what the cause...and the victim was  pulled from bed in the middle of the night, "disappeared," wiped clean from the slate of history. Hence Shostakovitch's nightly vigils: better to be dressed and ready than torn from sleep.

And what of the "engineers of the soul"? Or, I suppose in the Soviet context, the "soul"?  With Barnes, I've been rereading my favorite book of wisdom, the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius. I was puzzling over the notorious notion of engineering a soul, the idea of it, the plausibility of doing it, thinking about the phrase itself, presumably first uttered, ironically I think, by Yuri Olesha, when I came upon this passage in Marcus Aurelius:

"If you set yourself to your present task along the path of true reason, with all determination, vigor, and good will: if you admit no distraction, but keep you own divinity pure and standing strong, as if you had to surrender it right now; if you grapple this to you, expecting nothing, shirking nothing, but self-content with each present action taken in accordance with nature and a heroic truthfulness in all that you say and mean--then you shall lead a good life. And nobody is able to stop you." [trans. Martin Hammond]

The key phrase, italicized above, is this: "...sed genium tuum purum integrumque servaveris, quasi illum statim esses redditturus...."  I have no wish to be pedantic, but what did Marcus mean by the "soul," and what did Olesha think was being "engineered" by Stalin and Beria and the rest of the Soviet machine of terror?  "Genium" is the accusative singular of "genius," and what Marcus wrote, literally, was that one must keep one's genius, or rather one's character pure in the face of life's vicissitudes. Is it a mistake to equate the soul with one's character, in the sense that character is a synonym for one's unique self? Elsewhere in Meditation III Marcus Aurelius mentions "the god within you," and here he is speaking unambiguously of the divine spirit that resides in each person, rather as a Quaker might talk of that of God within us. And of course, the divine spark cannot be engineered any more than it can be weighed or measured. What Stalin engineered was not the soul, but the external actions of those around him; fear motivated conformity, lies, and betrayals. It still does. Olesha was being ironic, and irony, as Shostakovitch understood, is the lingua franca of truth telling under tyranny.

The Noise of Time: incoherence, lies, arrogance, self-delusion--Shostakovitch lived in a world dominated by noise, a noise he tried to escape by creating music. His life, told by Barnes in brilliant, condensed vignettes, feels as if it were modeled on Marcus Aurelius; it has the same quality of self-examination, self-exhortation, as the does the great collection of thoughts written down by the Emperor in his campaign on the Danube in A.D. 168. Both men were disillusioned, both were melancholy by nature, solitaries even among wives and colleagues. Barnes hones the story of the great Soviet composer to a single point--how do we preserve our genius, our character, from the noise of time? How do we live with, and create, in the face of fear?  Shostakovitch used wit and irony to (sometimes) deflect the demands of Power, but he also capitulated--as, for example, when he denounced Igor Stravinsky, who was, in Shostakovitch's view, the greatest composer of the modern era.  While never an informer, Shostakovitch felt himself compromised at every turn: he wrote music that he hated to satisfy the fondness for the kitsch that appeals to tyrants; he compromised in his love life to please his domineering mother; he spoke in riddles when, more than anything, he wished to tell the truth.

Eventually, under duress, he joined the Party--in his own mind his worst betrayal. Barnes writes with great insight of what it feels like to betray oneself--that Shostakovitch speaks of himself in the third person heightens the sense of self-scrutiny:

"Those who knew him, knew him. Those who had ears could hear his music. But how did he seem to those who didn't know him, to the young who sought to understand how the world worked? How could they not judge him? And how would he now appear to his younger self, standing by the roadside as a haunted face in an official car swept past. Perhaps this was one of the tragedies life plots for us: it is our destiny to become in old age what in youth we would have most despised." (p. 176)

Julian Barnes has been writing brilliant novels since Flaubert's Parrot appeared in 1984--I don't know his earlier work. It felt to me as if The Noise of Time were a valedictory book, as if in speaking for Shostakovitch Barnes was also speaking for himself. Barnes hasn't lived under tyranny, but anyone born in 1946 knows well the folly of the world and the inevitable failures we must come to live with as we compromise our way through life. I loved this passage from the end of the novel:

"Just as he could not control his mind's rememberings, he could not prevent its constant, vain interrogations. The last questions of a man's life do not come with any answers, that is their nature. They merely wail in the head, factory sirens in F sharp. So: our talent lies beneath you like a swathe of peat. How much have you cut? How much remains uncut? Few artists cut only the best sections; or even, sometimes, recognise them as such. And in his own case, thirty years and more ago, they had erected a barbed-wire fence with a warning sign: DO NOT CROSS THIS POINT. Who knew what lay--what might have lain--beyond the wire?"


George Ovitt, Memorial Day, 2017

This link will take you to the Frankfort Symphony Orchestra's performance of Shostakovitch's Seventh ("Leningrad") Symphony., written 1939-1940. 

Saturday, May 20, 2017

Variations On What We Know

The Voice Imitator: 104 Stories by Thomas Bernhard

[one love affair]
[thirteen instances of lunacy]
[twenty surprises]
[four disappearances]
[twenty-six murders]
[two instances of libel]
[six painful deaths]
[three character attacks]
[five early deaths]
[one memory lapse]
[four cover-ups]
[eight suicides]

If you have never read the fiction of Thomas Bernhard, The Voice Imitator may be the perfect place for you to start. Comprised of 104 roughly paragraph-length stories that resonate with the dark profundity of parables, the collection captures—writ small—the very eye and obsessions of this grave and exacting writer (see George Ovitt’s earlier post: Climbing Mount Mordant). Best known for his novels, Correction and Extinction, each an ardent defense of the life of the mind, each a dazzling screed against the perennial scourges of bigotry, dogmatism, hypocrisy, and greed, as Bernard found them flourishing in his native Austria, a country out of which, in his fiction and plays, he fashioned a veritable gospel of loathing. In these novels (in which he is all but indistinguishable from his narrators) he is no Tartuffe, but raves like a prophet of old. 


And what he says will shake you. Of photography—that sacred cow of our age—the narrator of his ultimate novel, Extinction, declares brilliantly, outrageously:

Photography is a vulgar addiction that is gradually taking hold of the whole of humanity, which is not only enamored of such distortion and perversion but completely sold on them, and will in due course, given the proliferation of photography, take the distorted and perverted world of the photograph to be the only real one. Practitioners of photography are guilty of one of the worst crimes it is possible to commit—of turning nature into a grotesque. The people in their photographs are nothing but pathetic dolls, disfigured beyond recognition, staring in alarm into the pitiless lens, brainless and repellent. Photography is a base passion that has taken hold of every continent and every section of the population, a sickness that afflicts the whole of humanity and is no longer curable. The inventor of the photographic art was the inventor of the most inhumane of all arts. To him we owe the ultimate distortion of nature and the human beings who form part of it, the reduction of human beings to perverse caricatures—his and theirs. I have yet to see a photograph that shows a normal person, a true and genuine person, just as I have yet to see one that gives a true and genuine representation of nature. Photography is the greatest disaster of the twentieth century.*

His novels are like a purgative, like a ritual cleansing of the intellect and soul. Dark, relentless, seemingly unforgiving as reflections on the human race, his vision is ultimately anything but cynical, anything but unctuous or pedantic, shot through as it is with a mordant, bitter-black wit that not only saves the reader from drowning but sets him firmly on his feet again, then hands him a flower to sniff! It is almost a reflex for me now that, whenever I’m feeling depressed, whenever I feel I’ve lost my way in the world again, I read a few pages of Bernhard and grin. 

Reading The Voice Imitator is not nearly as demanding as reading his novels, yet still bears the unmistakable stamp of his intelligence and eye. Wry, quirky, provocatively understated, the simple stories set one’s eyes askew. Here—a favorite of mine—is the first from the collection:

Near Oslo we met a man of about sixty who told us more about the old people’s home than we already knew from reading Hamsun’s accounts of the last year of his life, because he had been working in the home at precisely the time  during which the greatest of Norwegian writers was living there. The man’s taciturnity had attracted our attention in the inn near Oslo—usually so noisy on a Friday evening—where we were staying for several nights. After we had sat down at his table and introduced ourselves, we learned that the man had originally been a philosophy student and had, among other things, spent four years studying at Göttingen.  We had taken him for  Norwegian ship’s captain and had come to his table to hear some more about seafaring, not about philosophy, from which, indeed, we had fled north from Central Europe. But the man didn’t bother us with philosophy and said he had actually given up philosophy overnight and put himself at the disposal of geriatrics at the age of twenty-seven. He said he did not regret his decision. He told us his first task had been to help an old man get out of bed, make the bed for him, and then put him back into it. The old man was Hamsun. He had looked after Hamsun every day for several months, had taken him out into the garden that lay behind the old people’s home, and had gone to the village for him to buy the pencils that Hamsun used to write his last book. He was, he said, the first person to see Hamsun dead. In the nature of things, he said, he was not yet certain who Hamsun was when he pulled the sheet up over his face.  

Here, in much the same tone, is another, this one called ‘Charity’:

An old lady who lived near us had gone too far in her charity, She had, as she thought, taken in a poor Turk, who at the outset was grateful that he no longer had to live in a hovel scheduled to be torn down but was now—through the charity of the old lady—allowed to live in her town house surrounded by a large garden. He had made himself useful to the old lady as a gardener and, as time went by, was not only completely re-outfitted with clothes by her but was actually pampered by her. One day the Turk appeared at the police station and reported that he had murdered the old lady who had, out of charity, taken him into her house. Strangled, as the officers of the court determined on the visit they immediately made to the scene of the crime. When the Turk was asked by the officers of the court why he had murdered the old lady by strangling her, he replied, out of charity.

Now ‘The Milkmaid’:

Last week we witnessed the spectacle of five cows running, one after the other, into the express train in which we had to return to Vienna and of seeing them all cut to pieces. After the track had been cleared by the train crew and even by the driver, who came along with a pick-ax, the train proceeded after a delay of about forty minutes. Looking out of the window I caught sight of the milkmaid as she ran screaming towards a farmyard in the dusk.

Finally, to conclude this post, a simple, haunting story called ‘Giant’:

In the cemetery in Elixhausen, some workmen who had been hired to build a crypt for the late owner of a cheese factory excavated, at a depth of about two feet, the skeleton of a man who must have been nine feet tall and who had apparently been buried 150 years ago. As far back as anyone can recall, only very short people are thought to have lived in Elixhausen.

* My apology for having quoted a part of this passage in an earlier post. I simply couldn’t resist.

Peter Adam Nash

Saturday, May 13, 2017

The Bottom of the World

Robert Lowell: Setting the River on Fire, Kay Redfield Jamison

Robert Lowell was a photogenic man--patrician, handsome, introspective and yet gregarious--there are hundreds of photos; this is among my favorites. The cigarette, the no-nonsense, black-framed glasses, thinning hair only serving to show off the high and brainy forehead. Lowell, it is reported, had read everything--they all had in those days--aside from drinking and teaching there were few things to keep the bookish from their books. Poets in the halcyon post-war (I and II) days were immersed in all of literature--they might have felt guilty about their obsession, but literature was worth living for, worth more than interest, worthy of devotion.

Do you feel it yourself sometimes, feel that great poems and plays and novels are enough, that all else seems measly, unworthy of your attention? And why not? Did Glenn Gould prattle on about politics, great chefs, ice hockey, or--heaven help us--pop culture? The great ones have been obsessives--Bobby Fisher with chess, Gould and recorded music, Heifetz and his fiddle, Einstein and his blackboard.  Nowadays we are enjoined to become "well-rounded," to "take an interest in many things," with an implied warning that not to do so will lead to "neurosis," the modern equivalent of Burton's melancholy, the malady of those who sit for too long, think too deeply, focus too much, care more than is seemly. Our mantra: "relax, enjoy yourself."

Not Lowell. He was a great obsessive, deeply conflicted for reasons that Kay Redfield Jamison teases out of his past--a Mayflower ancestry, a difficult childhood, Brahimhood, Harvard.  Lowell hated Harvard--he left for Kenyon and John Crowe Ransom, much to his parents' chagrin:

"'We are having trouble with our boy,'  Lowell's parents told [Boston psychiatrist Dr. Merrill] Moore. 'We don't know what to do. We want to see if psychiatry can help us.' His chief difficulties, they said, were his attitudes toward his parents, life in general, and Harvard.....'We tried to explain to him what we thought he should be like in order to live up to the expectations of what would be demanded of a member of our family, but he paid no attention." [my emphasis]

"What would be demanded." Such a strange and off-putting formulation--not "hoped" or even "expected," but demanded. Lowell's life-long rebellion against "what was demanded" explains a great deal about not only his bouts of depression and mania, but perhaps also a great deal about his art, his stripping bare of the self, his painful-to-regard private life made public, his self-flagellation.  Lowell wrote often about Jonathan Edwards, America's finest theologian during the age of the Great Awakening, and there is something Puritanical about Lowell, but only in the sense of his being deeply introspective--he wasn't a moral prig, nor did he find in himself the hopeless depravity that drove Edwards to think of himself as unredeemable.

"We drank and eyed / the chicken-hearted shadows of the world." No, Lowell wasn't a life-denier but a life-embracer--his lovely poems to Harriet, his late-in-life daughter, display a touching and deeply moving attachment, a gentleness and love. His tributes to the wide range of poets and public figures with whom he was intimate--from William Carlos Williams and Randall Jarrell to Eugene McCarthy and Robert Kennedy--demonstrate Lowell's compassion and capacity for friendship--"I love you so...." begins the sonnet he wrote to the anti-war, poet/Senator McCarthy. Jamison is brilliant in her depiction of Lowell's multiple sides, his kindness, his capacity--limitless--for friendship, his thoughtfulness. I loved reading the volume of his letters of Elizabeth Bishop earlier this year; they display sides of both poets we'd never come to know were it not for the richness of letter writing (now, alas lost to us forever).

"We were surprised to find that, though tall and powerfully built, he seemed the gentlest of mortals, clumsily anxious to please," wrote W.D. Snodgrass. "I always found him gentle, sweet, and considerate--if somewhat wild," was William Phillips' [of the Partisan Review] comment.

And yet he was ill. As Lowell put the case himself, his depression was a "formless time of irresolution, foregetfulness, inertia," "the bottom of the world." But, as Helen Vendler noted in her book on Lowell--and this seems both an obvious and profound point--Lowell used his art to impose order on his inner life, to lift himself out of the doldrums when he could, to shape a way to carry on living when living seemed pointless.

Lowell with Eugene McCarthy, 1967

On a deeper level, what can we say of madness and poetry? Was Lowell a great poet who was mad, or mad because America drives poets mad, or does poetry, more than paining or composing tend to unhinge its practitioners? That Lowell was periodically subject to debilitating bouts of mania, that he was hospitalized at regular intervals, that he was subject to blackouts and hallucinations, that he required regular administrations of ECT in order to function--all of this is well documented by Jamison, whose access to Lowell's medical records makes her book invaluable for the student of Lowell.

But I have no deeper insight into the relationship between mental illness and poetry after reading Robert Lowell: Setting the River on Fire than I had before I read it. This failure to understand isn't Jamison's fault--no, her accounting of Lowell's cycle of intense poetic creativity followed by headlong rushes into incapacity and institutionalization is meticulous and well-documented. It's simply that I can find no convincing causal relation between Lowell's creative life and his therapeutic history.  Delmore Schwartz, Randall Jarrell, John Berryman, James Wright--distinguished contemporaries of Lowell, poets and critics and teachers--all suffered from clinical depression, morbid alcoholism, and suicidal tendencies (or committed suicide). But then there's Wallace Stevens, arguably America's greatest poet, trudging off across a snowy park each morning in overcoat and galoshes to administer the Hartford Accident and Indemnity Company.

No, poetry and madness are not "near-allied*," except in the Romantic sense that the poet becomes a conduit for the gods, the "lamp" described by M.H. Abrams, rather than the "maker" of beauty, pure and simple. The daily struggle with language is like any other--concentration opens the world in both its beauty and terror, the strong-willed make art and survive; those who dive especially deeply, who are unable to feign detachment, might fail to come back from the bottom of the world.

"We are poor passing facts,
Warned by that to give
each figure in the photograph
his living name."

*Of course Dryden's word was 'wit', but he would have no objection to 'poet.'

George Ovitt (5/13/2017)

Sunday, May 7, 2017

The First Czech in Space

Jaroslave Kalfar, Spaceman of Bohemia

Back in the aughts--they're looking pretty good these days--I thought it might be a good idea if I were to find a literary agent to represent my "work"--collections of short stories, several novels and novellas, a memoir, writings on history. All of it drivel, but still, it appeared from the acknowledgments pages of the books I read, no matter how bad, that every scribbler had an agent, "who first believed in my work," and, more to the point, sold it to a New York publisher for lots of money. One heard stories of fine writers who went it alone, but such writers were exceptional. An agent, I thought, would do what I could never do, namely get some editor to read what I wrote, a view as naive as, say, the view that hard work leads to success. I labored over proposals and then began the process of looking up agents, first in New York, then in increasingly smaller cities, hoping to make the kind of magical connection that David Foster Wallace made with Bonnie Nadell. Every day for six months I mailed or emailed submissions, query letters, synopses. Mostly I heard nothing; once in a great while I received a form rejection via email, usually along the lines of..."we receive far too more proposals..." "not of interest at the present time (suggesting, falsely, there would be such a time)"..."not marketable." What a waste of time!

This unhappy memory occurred to me as I finished Spaceman of Bohemia.  I was imagining the proposal that Kalfar might have written to countless Big Apple literary hustlers to describe his extraordinary and oddball novel:

Dear Agent:

My novel tells the story of a skinny Czech astrophysicist, son of a Communist-era torturer, who is launched into space in order to determine the chemical composition of a glowing cloud of space dust floating in proximity to the orbit of Venus...his spacecraft is infiltrated (not sure how) by a giant alien spider with red lips and thirty-five mouths who speaks Czech and every other human language, reads minds, and belongs to a tribe as old as the universe. The spider converses with the Skinny Human about love, death, and the origins of the world. They die, sort of, and come back to life. They float, untethered, through the cosmos, chatting (telepathically) while eating Nutella. One of them is rescued by a Russian space ship that happens to be in the vicinity. The Russian ship crash lands in a lake.....This isn't, by the way, a science fiction novel. Are you interested? 

A long shot, right? But mostly Kalfar pulls it off, and you have to hand it to his agent and to Little, Brown for taking a chance on such an odd duck of a novel. The first half of the book in particular is full of engaging details--life in space, life under communism, life with a spider-alien. Kalfar subtly invokes various space-travel parables and I kept thinking of Jules Verne and Tom Swift as I read about the routines and hazards of long-term weightlessness. There's also a little of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance in Spaceman--philosophical rambles on the subjects of fear, love, death, the mystery of being, and, of course, under the circumstances, God. Kalfar aims high, and mostly hits the mark. I couldn't get interested in the love story since Lenka, the earthbound wife, remains an idealized shadow--mysterious to the point of invisibility. But I loved the spider, and the whole notion of being utterly alone--so far beyond human concerns that one develops at secondhand the kind of thoughtful detachment and feeling of insignificance that I still get whenever I look through a telescope. My enjoyment of the vicarious sensation of solitude worried me a little: reading through long soliloquies on space and time--the bloody incredible distances!--I grew dreamy and imagined myself floating, likewise untethered, above it all. A sign of the times.

The earthbound sections in the last third of the novel felt a little contrived to me, as if Kalfar himself lost interest once he had to return his imagination to the mundane facts of life. But in the end I felt as if he had achieved something stunning: Kalfar's Spaceman of Bohemia reminds us of the extent to which we make up our own world and then do our best to live in it without becoming too lonely or too crazy. It's the Robinson Crusoe problem done up in post-modern guise--what passes as a habitable world, and how does any individual communicate the slippery reality of that world to another (alien) mind? Language isn't enough any longer; we've lost our faith in words. Admitting this is difficult for a novelist, but Kalfar finds a solution--his alien spider, a Being in direct contact with deeper truths, a sci-fi Friday, clears up all the mysteries, or at least translates the spaceman's incoherent yearnings into something resembling meaning.

                                                      Kalfar with astronaut interviewer

George Ovitt, written on May Day, 2017