Thursday, 26 February 2015

Ways of dying with Jacques Derrida

Full title: Learning to Live Finally. The Last Interview
Author: Jacques Derrida, translated by Pascal-Anne Brault
Genre: Fiction, Novel
Attributes: 100 pages, paperback
Publisher: Palgrave Macmillan (2007)
Between 0 and 1Zero (i.e. borrowed from local library)

This last interview took place when Derrida was sick, already accustomed to the idea of dying, already an expert in mourning and the delivery of funeral orations, but also prepared, as it seemed, for his own final withdrawal. Ominously published one year before his death in 2004, the short conversation opens the gates to a deluge of answers to the essential question, What is it to be dying?
Derrida, who didn’t shy away from mixing poetry with philosophy, has many things to say about death, and in many ways. The immediate effect of this thanatological eloquence is that the subject matter is no longer frightening; it no longer appears as a terror of the living subject.
Death, at the same time amorphous (almost like glass) and metamorphic (like a text or like a rock), flays the skin of a philosopher's mind-body to reveal the joints where life appears more clearly as a foreshadowing of the inevitable, possibly repetitive, coming into non-existence. In writing, we are told, there are traces of a death-to-come. With words and sentences published in a book, a part of the writer's life goes by, a part of him disappears. And with this, a host of thoughts, a multitude of anxieties: what’s going to happen after this death? How is this death of the writer going to be taken by the world? What will this death engender? What will it kill? These questions allow Derrida to revisit one of his most famous theories: the theory of the trace – of the thing that remains once everything has disappeared. In other words, the theory of the consequences of death.
"At the moment I leave 'my' book (to be published) – after all, no one forces me to do it – I become, appearing-disappearing, like that uneducable spectre who will have never learned how to live. The trace I leave signifies to me at once my death, either to come or already come upon me, and the hope that this trace survives me. This is not a striving for immortality; it's something structural. I leave a piece of paper behind, I go away, I die: it is impossible to escape this structure, it is the unchanging form of my life. Each time I let something go, each time some trace leaves me, 'proceeds' from me, unable to be reappropriated, I live my death in writing. It's the ultimate test: one expropriates oneself without knowing exactly who is being entrusted with what is left behind. Who is going to inherit, and how? Will there even be any heirs?"
But there’s another form of dying that Derrida needs to address, and which is more subtle and more effective than all the other forms of dying-while-alive: the death by progression. As living means going on through life, moving towards the moment when the biological ultimatum of the body becomes reality, every step ahead means further separation from everything that has already been lived. Put into fewer words: by living we are constantly dying. Or, in Derrida’s own words:
"[L]earning to live is always narcissistic [...]: one wants to live as much as possible, to save oneself, to persevere, and to cultivate all these things which, though infinitely greater and more powerful than oneself, nonetheless form a part of this little 'me' that they exceed on all sides. To ask me to renounce what formed me, what I've loved so much, what has been my law, is to ask me to die."
As above, Derrida is quotable every step of the way. Clipping off small bits of his responses feels very much like helping the creation of his aphorisms. A form of death, no doubt: a form of flaying the skin of his work. But that, of course, will not seem odd to the passionate reader of the father of Deconstruction. This reader will recognize the style of 'putting the problem,' so as to generate a moment of discontent wherein questions can be asked in the most impertinent ways.

Jacques Derrida (1930-2004) in the year of his death. Source: O Globo
Vestiges of this impertinent questioning are to be found, for instance, in his dealing with language: a very specific version of language (let’s call it French) which Derrida challenged and deformed, paradoxically, out of pure love.
“You don't just go and do anything with language; it preexists us and it survives us. When you introduce something into language, you have to do it in a refined manner, by respecting through disrespect its secret law. That's what might be called unfaithful fidelity: when I do violence to the French language, I do so with the refined respect of what I believe to be an injunction of this language, in its life and in its evolution.”
With language, as with life, one needs to sacrifice something in order to prolong existence. In other words, one needs to kill a specimen in order for the species to endure. Life lives through renunciations, insofar as what is renounced turns into an offering to that which is being sacrificed. It’s the very way Derrida himself has sur-vived (i.e. lived above and beyond his death).
To a certain extent, his last interview is his first manifestation of survival through another happy paradox: having survived while still alive.

Thursday, 19 February 2015

Amélie Nothomb and the size of things

Full title: Hygiene and the Assassin
Author: Amélie Nothomb, translated by Alison Anderson
Genre: Fiction, Novel
Attributes: 167 pages, paperback
Publisher: Europa (2010)
Between 0 and 1Zero (i.e. borrowed from local library)

Amélie Nothomb’s propensity for oversized characters was made apparent from her very first novel. Hygiene and the Assassin, published in French in 1992, is a novel where larger-than-life is the predominant size. It features an obese writer stuck in his bedroom with only months to live and a secret story to tell to the person who proves to be equipped with the best pair of ears to hear his message and the best pair of eyes to read through his work.
Something else is apparent in Nothomb’s very first exercise in fictional virtuosity: her talent in conducting dialogue. The novel, written almost entirely in the form of dialogues between the writer, Prétextat Tach, and four journalists who interview him, shows a unique ability to move from speech line to speech line without falling into trivialities or syncopated silence gaps. This too, one would say, is a feature of the novel’s larger-than-life-ness, whereby the spoken word is brought to bear on the issue of oral eloquence as well as on that of writing genius.
“Writing begins where speech leaves off, and a great mystery lies behind the passage from the unspeakable to the speakable. The writer word takes over where the spoken word leaves off, and they don’t overlap.”
Prétextat, who has given the world a wealth of novels for which the world has loved him back with passion, has been issued this unwriterly task of confessing a crime he committed when he was in that tricky period between childhood and puberty. He is made to perform his confession not in writing but through speech. The interviews representing the bulk of the novel (Prétextat’s exercises in oral persuasion) reveal him as a complex creature, one capable of causing both disgust and pity.

In France, the novel has been successfully adapted for the stage. Source: TV5Monde
Moreover, he’s authored a novel that describes, in an exquisitely veiled manner, the very crime mentioned earlier. This book is also Prétextat’s only unfinished work. Bearing the title of Nothomb’s actual novel, Hygiene and the Assassin, this incomplete text has been circulating through the world of devoted readers without any of them having seen beyond its façade.
“When I told you that people read me without reading me! I can allow myself to stray dangerously close to the truth, and all anyone will ever see is metaphors. There’s nothing surprising about that: the pseudo-reader, clad in his diving suit, can swim perfectly impermeably through my bloodiest sentences. From time to time he will exclaim with delight, ‘What a lovely symbol!’ That is what you can call clean reading. A marvelous invention, very pleasant to practice in bed before falling asleep; it calms the mind and doesn’t even dirty the sheets.”
His readers’ myopia justifies Prétextat’s cynicism and, at the same time, offers him the perfect place to put his crime at rest: hiding it in plain sight.
Prétextat is a writer, and as a consequence of his profession he looks for order in the chaos of life. Where this order cannot be found he creates it out of nothing, “playing the demiurge.” This discovery offers Nina, the last and only successful interviewer, the opportunity to give the constantly-irritated and irritating novelist a slap across the face when she figures out his fundamental feature, that of making up realities in the name of a fiction that’s entirely his:
“I have caught you flagrante delicto under the influence of your profession, monsieur. Like any self-reflecting obsessive writer, you cannot stand the thought that there is no mysterious correlation between your characters. Genuine novelists are basically genealogists at heart.”
This play with creation is, perhaps, the central theme of the novel. Prétextat, who has been hiding the crime his entire life, built up a whole textual wall around himself. His very name, I’m sure, is significant. Notwithstanding the existence, in the sixth century, of a real Saint Praetextatus, bishop of Rouen, the name evokes this event that started it all: the writer’s first and fundamental fiction, the text that preceded his entire career. At the age of near-adolescence, Prétextat, a wonderkid by all accounts, had devised an entire philosophy of purity (“Don’t you understand that girls die the day they begin puberty?”), which will be the end of her beloved cousin, Léopoldine. This (the pretext of his entire career as a writer), the pre-text that stood before all his subsequent fictions, is what Nina, the strangely disinterested journalist, finds out. The only person to have read Hygiene and the Assassin properly, Nina is also the one who puts an end to Prétextat’s insolent and often boorish, misanthropic and misogynistic attitude towards all who pass their mere opinions on his work. His readers’ lack of understanding is all the more significant since Prétextat’s writing is plain, unadorned. Indeed, he is an outspoken enemy of metaphors (a feature which could be equally said about Amélie Nothomb herself):
“If you could just see things as a whole, the way I see them at the moment, you would understand. Metaphors were invented to enable human beings to establish a coherence between the fragments in their vision. When this fragmentation disappears, metaphors no longer have any purpose.”
The size of Prétextat’s art is, therefore, equal to this totalizing gaze that makes figures of speech useless. He, the fat writer, has gotten to the point of totality where fragments disappear behind the curtain of perfection. And that, to him and to many like him, means being successful in the art of fiction. It means, if you like, acquiring genius. End of story.

Thursday, 12 February 2015

The Underworld in the 1960s

Full title: Poem Strip. Including an Explanation of the Afterlife
Author: Dino Buzzati, translated by Marina Harss
Genre: Fiction, Graphic novel
Attributes: 224 pages, paperback
Publisher: New York Review of Books Classics (2009)
Between 0 and 1Zero (i.e. borrowed from local library)

At the height of his career, Dino Buzzati was the kind of writer you'd go for to find the quirky, the unexpected and the twisted. His stories were nothing if not delightful experiments in how to surprise the reader. Read the stories in Restless Nights or his opus magnus, the novel The Tartar Steppe, and you'll see that on full display.
But Dino Buzzati was also a very talented (and for some reason "talented" sounds so ill-equipped to describe him) artist. Take Poem Strip for evidence. A comic-strip venture where Buzzati features in a glorious one-man-show of booming proportions, as writer and illustrator. Not only are the drawings suggestive as hell (pun intended), they also come to support the story in dealing with its big questions.
As usual, Buzzati was not afraid of tackling topics seemingly overworked through centuries of literary practice. Poem Strip is a reworking of an idea dear to literate cultures of the Indo-European descent: the trip to the underworld. Take Ghilgamesh, take the Odyssey, take the Divine Comedy, take, if you wish, Paradise Lost. The topic has been the favourite of the founders of literature. Buzzati came to the feast of the genre in the late 1960s. You can guess the time from the atmosphere that defines it: a time of sexual liberation, where resplendent bodies show up on printed pages without the bashful pretence of puritan arts.
What’s more important, and also in line with the literary developments of the 1960s and ‘70s, is the poem’s alignment to the demands of generic literature. To put it briefly, Poem Strip reads like a good Noir: there's the whiskey bar feature, a general atmosphere of inebriated intelligence falling into the cauldrons of metaphysics. A mysterious lady is in the loop as well. She shows up like Dante's Beatrice to sort out an existential problem caused by loss. Add the artistic spin (a protagonist who's a musician by profession but a poet in the depths of his soul), make that protagonist work his way into the story like a detective, and give the narrative a sad, unavoidable ending. That's how you get the feel of that Noir I mentioned above: Noir as in the etymology: the darkness of a place where shadows reign supreme; Noir as in the way the story delves into human condition – not into its living part but into that part where you need a special vision to see the world of the Below.

Dino Buzzati (). Source: Andrea Pagani
But there’s more to this: the protagonist’s name is Orfi. Sounds familiar? Yes, Orpheus travelling to the Underworld in search for his beloved Eurydice. And in case you wondered what the girl’s name was in Buzzati’s version, well, she’s called… Eura. The reference requires no explication. Now we know why the protagonist is a musician and why the beloved never makes it back into the world of the living.
As in the original myth, Buzzati's vision is one where the Up and the Down are confused. Finding a way through the gates of the Otherworld, the protagonist also finds himself facing a reality he had imagined different. The dead are exactly like the living. No physical difference whatsoever.
“Everything is in working order. Bones veins nerves everything works. They move eat drink etcetera. They live, almost. Yes, they’re practically transparent, it’s true, plus they no longer have hope that most miraculous of torments they suffer no pain no hospitals, funerals, cemetaries, or graves. They’re lucky, wouldn’t you say?”
In this perfection, where further death is not a choice, the departed live a life of eternal repetition. The spleen that made the Europe of the late 1960s explode is apparent in these fragments, where the masses (of the living or of the dead – it matters not) take up the foregrounds and wander about, a proto-Zombie generation, to have their silent say about the most serious issues concerning life and death.
It’s plain from these passages that Buzzati didn’t just put forth a story about the experience of death. He aimed at offering another description of the Otherworld: a place where everything is identical yet entirely different. Time, the most prominent of figures, stands still to comply with this story of paradoxes:
“Here time stands still the clocks go on ticking but time stands still the rivers flow but time stands still it’s always the same day.”
The dead want to hear stories, because it’s stories of the Upperworld that they miss the most. But they’re very specific in their requests: they want to hear stories of dread and terror, stories of things that threaten and scare. In the world of eternity inhabited by them, the dead perceive everything as unchanging. Terribly, awfully, boringly unchanging.
“Oh the dread is gone, the nightmares, the anguish, the injustice here everyone is healthy, equal, content. Oh, sweet unhappiness!”
And so there, where immortality is achieved as a matter of fact, and where nothing spells out anything awful, souls long for depravity, for frights, for inhumanity. They long, in other words, for everything that was forbidden in life. This longing is formulated as a series of implacable no-more’s:
“No more throbbing languors wicked flesh no more exquisite cruel vice mouths that tomorrow… tender nothings as fleeting as flowers. Instead an inconquerable dullness sameness, predictability, boredom.”
And so, when it’s Orfi’s turn to bring his own news about the Earth, what he says doesn’t sound like news at all. What he tells the dead is a series of age-old stories of crimes, of infelicities – interrupted stories, stories without conclusions, stories of the night, of nightmares, of the sublunary watching the moon in dismay. With these stories, Dino Buzzati’s vision of the Underworld grows into a story of a special longing for the Evil, where “the dawn leaks through the blinds” with the same poetical force of a Paradise lost before inception, in the midst of an eternity where the poet’s voice “will climb over Himalayas of souls.”

Thursday, 5 February 2015

The fictional epistles of Amélie Nothomb

Full title: Life Form
Author: Amélie Nothomb, translated by Alison Anderson
Genre: Fiction, Novel
Attributes: 144 pages, paperback
Publisher: Europa Editions (2013)
Between 0 and 1Zero (i.e. borrowed from local library)

Amélie Nothomb writes the kind of novels descriptive reviewers are ill at ease to write about. That’s not because of some insurmountable complexity but because the story line often takes abrupt and highly significant turns. Since these turns are essential to the understanding of her novels, one can’t just go on saying what’s happening there without committing the most terrible crime among book reviewers, the murder by spoiling. The fact is apparent in Life Form as well. I can’t say what happens in this book without giving away its most important events. So I better refrain and stick to the rich theoretical underlayer that forms the novel’s conceptual skeleton.
Life Form is a novel about reading and writing as much as it is a novel about fat people (one of Nothomb’s favourite character types) or a novel about war, deceit, and, why not, human condition at large. Structurally, it is a semi-epistolary text featuring a lot of anachronistic (let’s not forget we’re in the age of emails and social-media stunts!) hand-written letters. Amélie Nothomb is not only the author but also the narrator and the protagonist. That, in itself, would be enough to complicate things to a considerable extent. But wait, there’s more. In between letters and narrative episodes, Nothomb manages to plant reflective signposts that stop the text and the reader for a healthy bite of well-cooked theories of the business of writing. But because her prose is so self-referential and the universe she has constructed around herself as a writer and a literary persona so dynamic and intricate, it is often difficult to draw the line between what’s the author’s and what’s the character’s. At one point in the narrative, Amélie Nothomb, the protagonist, talks about her literary inceptions in the form of letter-writing.
“Already at the age of six I was forced by my parents to write one letter a week to my maternal grandfather, a stranger who lived in Belgium. My brother and my older sisters were subjected to the same regime. Each of us had to fill an entire letter-sized page addressed to this gentleman. He answered with one page per child. ‘Tell him what happened at school,’ my mother would suggest. ‘He won’t be interested,’ I retorted. ‘That depends on how you tell it,’ she explained.”

As the character makes clear a few lines further down, this was “the only period in my life when I have experienced the anxiety of the empty page.”

Amélie Nothomb. Source: Grazia
Knowing that Nothomb has been publishing one novel every year since the publication of her first, Hygiene and the Assassin (1992), this problem of the empty page (and the subsequent absence thereof) becomes, indeed, an autobiographical detail. But this is also a point where writing is regarded as an audience-orientated matter. The unknown reader who needs to be told the story well, the fixation on the task as painful but unavoidable – all this is, in a nutshell, what writing looks like from within, as well as from without. This is also a prelude to the love-story between Amélie Nothomb (the author and the protagonist) and the writing of letters. “Even when I like someone to the point of living with him,” she says a few pages later,

“I have to have him write to me, too: no connection seems complete unless it includes an element of correspondence.”

This trafficking of letters (of the alphabet) by means of letters (as epistles) is the central factor in Life Form. Without it, the plot would make no sense. Two characters writing to each other across continents, across worlds, and across mentalities, provide the perfect background for everything Amélie Nothomb has to say about scripts, inscriptions, and missives.
Making use of the topos of letter-writing, the novel also provokes some thoughts on the virtuality of writing in general. Amélie Nothomb and Melvin Mapple, the principal (and for the greatest part the only) characters are people hidden behind words. The protection offered by these words, however, is a feeble one. When they are peeled off and the characters show through as human beings, the virtual nature of their correspondence proves to have been a deceit, a fiction like all fictions. This is why Life Form reads so well as a mystery novel, where the reader finds surprises awaiting behind every corner: a text that deceives in the sense in which many works of fiction trick the reader into loving their promises.