Sunday, 20 October 2013

Imaginary Beings: Sartre and Schulz

In Sartre's War Dairies he reflects on the chief protagonists of his fictions Nausea and Age of Reason:

Why is it that Antoine and Roquentin and Mathieu, who are me, are indeed so gloomy? – whereas, Heavens!, life for me isn’t all that bad? I think it’s because they are homunculi. In reality, they are me, stripped of the living principle. The essential difference between Antoine Roquentin andme is that, for my part, I write the story of Antoine Roquentin [..]
I stripped my characters of my obsessive passion for writing, my pride, my faith in my destiny. My metaphysical optimism – and thereby provoked in them a gloomy pullulation. They are myself beheaded. And since one cannot touch a synthetic whole without causing it to die, those heroes are unviable. I hope they aren't entirely so as imaginary, fictional creatures; but they can exist only in the artificial milieu I've created around them to sustain them. Apart from the sadness of disintegration which I just mentioned, they have another still deeper kind: the sadness filled with bitterness and reproach of Homunculus in his jar. They know themselves to be unviable, sustained by artificial feeling – and insofar as the reader constitutes them with his time, he feels pervaded by the metaphysical sadness of prehistoric animals doomed to imminent extinction  by the inadequacy of their constitutions.
In one sense Sartre is talking about his fictions - Stendhal, he says, creates 'viable' characters. But in another sense, Sartre perhaps implies something about all fictional entities: they are deficient, lacking, 'isolated from the world', condemned endlessly to repeat the same fate, dependent on the 'generosity' of the actor or reader to breath into them a simulacrum of life. They are replicants. Of course, it is a background property of all fictional entities - objects or people - that they are incomplete, partially constitued. We can not ask of them the same rigrorous questions that real things can answer (how tall is Hamlet etc). They are coextensive with their description. But in Sartre, it is as if these background properties have corrupted or seeped into the very soul of his creatures. Or as if the beings of those worlds are dimly aware of their inviolable solitariness, their irreparable lost contact with the real world.

Something similar happens in Bruno Schulz. The partial and 'deficient' nature of fictional worlds becomes quite palpable, and surrounds everything with a kind of nimbus of melancholia:
We are not concerned with long-winded creations, with long term beings. Our creatures will not be heroes of romances in many volumes. Their roles will be short, concise; their characters- without a background. Sometimes, for one gesture, for one word alone, we shall make the effort to bring them to life. [..] Our creations will be temporary to serve for a single occasion. If they be human beings, we shall give them, for example, only one profile, one hand, one leg, the one limb needed for their role. It would be pedantic to bother with the other unnecessary leg. Their backs can be made of canvas or simply whitewashed. [..]
This is the Father's aesthetic manifesto. He speaks of creating a universe where beings would exist, would be conjured into life, only for the sake of a single gesture, act or pronouncement. But perhaps Schulz here places in the mouth of this mad aphasiac father his own aesthetic manifesto: the creation of uncanny puppets, monsters, dwarfs and cripples – one legged, bodiless, coming towards us out of the fog of the Possible before recoiling into silence.

But this is fiction as such. We read a description of a woman in a cafe, porceline skin, a black immaculate bob. Drawing in a sketch book. But the narration moves on elsewhere. She exists only as a brief profile without any other substance, subordinate to a scene into which she disappears as a gentle tributary element.

Modernism is constantly drawing attention to the fictionality of its stories. This can be clever, playful, cerebral, or political (Brecht). But there is also a tendency whereby the partiality of fictional beings is synonymous with a kind of pityful sadness. But there is a further move, whereby it is precisely on account of this, this incompleteness, this deficiency, that we identify with them, that they are the most fitting emblem of our own prediciment. [I hope to write about this a little more, with reference to Beckett].

Thursday, 17 October 2013

Before and after "I love you": Kafka and Betrand Russell

“It is incorrect to say that I have known the words “I love you”; I have known only the expectant stillness that should have been broken by my “I love you”, that is all I have known, nothing more.” Kafka

"It was late before the two guests left and Russell was alone with Lady Ottoline. They sat talking over the fire until four in the morning. Russell, recording the event a few days later, wrote, "I did not know I loved you till I heard myself telling you so--for one instant I thought 'Good God, what have I said?' and then I knew it was the truth." Ray Monk's Biography

The utterance “I love you” is in the second instance a kind of self-disclosure. You don’t know the truth of something until you say it, until it’s ‘out there’. The utterance (etymologically, the word is about making something ‘outer’) is both risk and clarification: you put yourself at stake in a form of words which is a kind of litmus test of the truth of what you are. The Word makes it actual and irreversible. Kafka, by contrast, suggests that he lives in a kind of pre-Word. He dwells in the preliminary moment before utterance precipitates you into the world, the world of consequence and realisation. The moment when the Word completes or actualises him never arrives.

Tuesday, 15 October 2013

Beginnings in Beckett

So often, Beckett is not someone who begins but instead somone who 'goes on', continues. There is a sense in which his works start 'in the middle', as if intercepting an always prior voice. "I Open" (Cascando)doesn't necessarily mean "I begin", but rather "I disclose..," i unstopper the voice. We have the sense of opening a portal behind which a voice was murmuring, or we remove the bin lid and the age-old speaking head pops up. But the Beginning, the decisive enunciation whereby an "I" rises up to speak, discloses itself, places itself at the origin of the sentence and of action... this seldom occurs.

Wednesday, 9 October 2013

Philosophical Fictions

"The primitive forms of our language: noun, adjective and verb, show the simple picture into whose forms language tries to force everything." Wittgenstein

"to language, then - to language alone - it is, that fictitious entities owe their existence, their impossible, yet indispensible existence." Jeremy Bentham.

Because language is the cause and underwriter of embedded fictions, because it has clamped reality into its shapes without us really noticing, the imperative for the philosopher is to create counter-fictions. Wittgenstein:
Nothing is more important than the construction of fictional concepts, which will teach us at last to understand our own.

We need to look at the problem afresh, as it were from a different angle. In fact, this is all that we need in philosophy; we do not need a new discovery...a new explanation...[or] a new theory; what we need is a new perspective, a new metaphor, a new picture.

This is not so far removed from literature’s starting point, as Proust defines it:
“If God the Father created things by naming them, it is by taking away their names or giving them others that the artist recreates them.”

The task is to make the world available in a new way, to take what is recognizable and disgorge from within it something radically unfamiliar, counter-intuitive, problematic.. but truer.

The writer, in creating something new, necessarily reinvents language. And to create is also to pervert or destroy the old forms. The philosopher, in thinking something new, must brush against the available linguistic forms in order to show the sleeping concepts folded inside them. Hence, in twentieth century philosophy, the proliferation of philosophical neologisms, the experimentation with aphoristic and parabolic means of expression. Or Wittgenstein’s insistence on the production of ‘fictional concepts’ that will also make visible those older concepts that have so saturated our thinking that they appear to be merely the map which the world has drawn of itself. More recently Daniel Dennett has tried to drag into the open the embedded figures - of the homunculus, the Cartesian Theatre etc which so profoundly steer our thinking about consciousness. 
This project of defamiliarisation, linguistic innovation and the production of fictions is perhaps a rather modern image not only of what literature is about but also of what philosophical activity is about. Plato wouldn’t have thought of himself doing this. And yet Plato’s Forms, from our point of view, are precisely such fictions, able to empty reality of its plenitude and create a frame through which certain problems can be seen as if for the first time – in Plato’s case, the problem of the particular and the universal, repetition, simulation etc. And contemporary philosophers still use the Platonic frame to gain first vantage on these problems.

Eventually, philosophical systems or ideas are emptied of their truth and their urgency. For nobody today is there a debate on whether there are Forms or Monads. Yet we can still marvel at the force of such fictions – they remain, precisely, fictional concepts, which will teach us at last to understand our own.

Tuesday, 8 October 2013

Deleuze on Blanchot

"Blanchot starts from the ‘I’ and the ‘you’, overtakes them toward ‘he’, overtakes the ‘he’ toward an irreducible ‘he’. Benveniste starts from the personal pronouns in general, detaches from them ‘I’ and ‘you’ and finally detaches from the ‘I’ an irreducible form.
In other words, in one case, Blanchot’s case, there is what I would call the language, a processing of the language which is subjected to a tension, I would almost say, to use a term of physics, a superficial tension, a surface tension. A superficial tension which carries it away to its periphery and which tends toward this mysterious ‘he’, this ‘he’ that is of no person anymore."

Sunday, 6 October 2013

A Thought on Thomas Bernhard (or, "It is not about something" ii)

Think of the ripples and circles that an erratic breeze traces on the surface of a pond. One could photograph these brief glassy shapes and try and read them as signs. Or one could recognise that they were the tracings of an invisible force. Kram Selwob

This piece of whimsy might apply to literature. The ‘lyrical imprecation’’ of Thomas Bernhard’s prose, for example, is first of all an unrelenting and vexing energy, a circling circuitous intensity, a rising madness.. and this vexing energy is extended completely through each word and comma, not something which is poured indifferently into that prose vessel or this. 

Of course, Bernhard’s prose may be ‘about’ Austria, the ‘mind-set of rural communities’, the “black woods and deafening hill streams of Carinthia”*, but these are perhaps less what the work is about and more materials that the Bernhard creative machine has ingested, metabolised.

Where there is an ‘intention’, where there is a ‘something’ that writer wants to ‘address’, these things are combustible too, they are confiscated and destroyed by the work itself, by a momentum which has arisen, in a sense, out of nothing, which exceeds and transforms ‘intentions’ and ‘subject matters’ according to immanent and unforeseeable demands. 
His sentences are oar strokes that would propel him forward if it weren’t for the powerful current. Sometimes he pauses, falls silent and listens, as though to check whether his present situation might not have been replaced by its successor.  (Frost, via here) 
Beginning with our earliest flickers of intelligence we have to explore intently our chances of making this world, that's been put on us like a worn, shabby suit of used clothes much too tight or much too large but in any case a shabby and torn and ragged and stinking outfit handed to us, as it were, off the world's rack, we must explore the whole surface of our world and its subsurface, and keep probing it deeper and deeper, so as to discover our chances of making this world which is not our world, our own after all, our entire existence is nothing but concentrating on such chances and on how, in what way, we're to change this world which is not ours, ultimately to change it, so Roithamer. And the moment of this change, such a moment is followed by the next and so forth, must always be the right moment, so Roithamer. So that we can say at last, at the end of our life, that we have lived at least for a time in our own world and not in the given world of our parents. But ninety percent of us die without ever having lived in a world of their own, only and always in a world that was ready-made, presented and adapted to them by their parents' generation, never, please note, in no way and never in their own world, they live and work out their lives in their parents' world, not their own. (Correction)

*See George Steiner's introduction to Correction.

Friday, 4 October 2013

"Pain is not a dolphin" -misunderstanding analogies.

Arguments using analogy or comparison very often meet with a ‘but x is not y’ response. “So if a torturer claimed that there was a culture of torture in his country, and therefore he was not fully responsible..” “But I’m not a torturer!” 

Daniel Dennett, in Consciousness Explained, compares his initial way of classifying the phenomena of consciousness to “a menagerie that puts the bats with the birds and the dolphins with the fish." The analogy just reinforces the point that his taxonomy is one of convenience rather than essence, while implying that the objects of Phenomenology - pains, perceptions, dreams etc – are very different kinds of thing, which a single ‘method’ (Phenomenology) won’t do justice to. This leads into his discussion of the emotions, pains, perceptions, dreams which are the usual object of phenomenology. 

Anyway, it would of course take a real obtuseness to respond with “but dreams are not like bats”, “pain is not a dolphin” or whatever. But most misunderstandings of analogy are not too far removed from this kind of error, too hung up on the actual content of the analogy to see that an analogy is a short cut to a concept or a set of relations, or general rule (etc), all of which are independent of the example-paths used to reach them.

Wednesday, 2 October 2013

The Fictional and the Possible.

The category of the Possible eclipses, to some extent, the importance of the real/ fictional distinction. There is a famous scene in Bunuel’s Phantom of Liberty, where people sit on toilets round a table, laughing and making conversation, occasionally excusing themselves to go the dining room and eat. Excretion is public, eating is private - the customary order is inverted. This is of course  a particular fictional world. But suppose we came across some cultural community that actually did arrange eating and excretion in this way? In terms of how it makes us reflect on our own assumptions, what difference would it make? Not much it seems to me. Whether it’s in the fictional world of Bunuel or an actual cultural practice, it stands before us as a Possible. For us, the real and the fictional examples are, equally, possible worlds. They are able to disclose, unsettle or reconfigure our existing world. And so whether something is a fictional or real world is to this extent unimoprtant.