Immortality

"In 1951, (Cage) visited an anechoic chamber at Harvard University in order to hear silence. “I literally expected to hear nothing,” he said. Instead, he heard two sounds, one high and one low. He was told that the first was his nervous system and the other his blood circulating. .. "Try as we may to make a silence, we cannot… In India they say that music is continuous; it only stops when we turn away and stop paying attention." From: The Sounds of Silence

Listening to the recent broadcast of Cage’s 4.33 last night, it was quite noticeable how often it had been described as four minutes and thirty three seconds, whereas the more accurate description is that of an absence of intended sounds; and the presence of unintended sounds whether that of rain falling outside, passing traffic or the awkward shuffling and coughing of an audience (the ‘composition’ is therefore as aleatory as using the I Ching and the ‘performance’ is done as much by the audience as by the orchestra). As with Robert Rauschenberg’s paintings, the blank slate becomes a screen to project onto. One of the problems seemed to me to be with the similarity to the most notorious work of Marcel DuChamp; an ordinary urinal signed with his name and exhibited accordingly. DuChamp had a flair for satire and recognised that the incongruity of the object would provoke exactly the reaction he hoped. The incongruity of a silent orchestra equipped with blank music sheets has precisely the same effect; unfortunately not the effect Cage had in mind, seeming to view the act as being like meditating upon a zen koan (Tanizaki comments during In Praise of Shadows that Japanese music is more reliant on silences than Western music). Of the other pieces broadcast, I preferred Cage’s The Seasons and Ives’s Central Park in the Dark.

In terms of film, I’ve finally got round to watching October by Eisenstein. It’s an odd film, not least for its depiction of gender politics, portraying the women’s death battalion almost in terms of a Dickensian grotesque, while the sailors of the Aurora (as much as those of the Battleship Potempkin) are portrayed in terms of a cult of masculine heroism reminiscent of one of Umberto Eco’s characteristics of an ur-fascism, though it seems equally impossible to discount Eisenstein’s homosexuality in that context. Conversely, Alexander Nevsky has none of these peculiarities, but instead is made rather problematic by virtue of the attempts to reconcile a narrative based on one heroic aristocratic individualist figure with communist ideas. The problem is even more acute in Ivan the Terrible where the protagonist is no longer even a commoner, though much of the narrative initially dwells upon the displacement of the nobles in favour of commoners.

I’ve been reading Carter’s The Bloody Chamber and Black Venus, a set of interpretations of fairytales (typically lacking the vicious retribution typical of the Grimm versions), each of which was written and published separately but which are most interesting in this combination. For example, the revision of Bluebeard, The Bloody Chamber itself where the heroine is rescued by her mother rather than her brother, is counterbalanced by The Lady of the House of Love (a combination of Dracula and The Sleeping Beauty) wherein the virginal sacrificial victim is male. After all, Carter had written in The Sadeian Woman that "Justine marks the start of a kind of self-regarding female masochism, a woman with no place in the world, no status, the core of whose resistance has been eaten away by self-pity." Equally, the The Courtship of Mr Lyon is exactly in the vein of Cocteau’s La Belle et La Bette, while The Tiger’s Bride sees the heroine’s sexual awakening as beauty becomes a beast; human nature is envisaged as something mutable where male and female roles can easily be reversed. In some cases, such as Peter and the Wolf and The Fell River Axe Murders sexuality and aggression are seen as liberating forces, in others, such as The Kiss and Black Venus, as oppressive forces. The same applies to the film of The Company of Wolves, where the wolves are both a threat (killing Rosaline’s sister and grandmother) and liberating (reflecting Rosaline’s own transmogrification), something made possible by the role of conflicting stories in the film (the bride cursing her husband into becoming a werewolf and having to be saved from one by her huntsman husband).

I’ve also been reading Baudolino by Umberto Eco (perhaps better known as the semiotics of simony), a work that sees Eco almost pastiching his own work. The detective thread recalls The Name of the Rose, the forgery of history recalls Foucault’s Pendulum ("all the time that you were inventing, you invented things that were not true, but which became true.") and much of the rest of the text resembles a novelisation of Serendipities.

I’ve also read Kundera’s Book of Laughting and Forgetting, a novel that recalls Bakhtin in terms of its resistance to communism and foregrounding of carnival. The themes of laughter (resistance to official ideology though laughter is described as "an explosion that tears us away from the world and throws us back into our own cold solitude" and is counterpointed to love) and forgetting (oppression through revising reality, as with doctored Soviet photographs; "you begin to liquidate a people by taking away its memory," though for one of the characters the desire to retain memories of her husband are her means of resistance) are counterpointed, in a polyphonic manner (since one of Kundera’s main themes is the extent to individual viewpoints are irrevocably alienated from one another).

The same theme recurs in Slowness, where "our period is obsessed with the desire to forget", leading to a dance where the characters are thrown between the humiliation of the laughter of others ("can people move so easily from veneration to contempt") and the balm of forgetfulness ("Stop thinking about the laughter that wounded you – it no longer exists"). Here, forgetfulness is not so much an aspect of totalitarian revisionism but a capitalist equivalent "the situations history stages are floodlit only for the first few minutes… does Somalia still exist?.. a jumble of events that crossed the planet at a speed that made it impossible to see their features." This disconnection between the personal and the political informs the dialogic character of the novel (most evident in a digression where the narrator’s wife reproaches his lack of seriousness) where the carnivalesque theme of the body is very much in evidence; "we cannot choose the era we are born into… you’ll start protesting against cathedrals, as some modern barbarism..the only thing left for us is to revolt against the human condition we did not choose!" It’s this ambivalence that makes Kundera so much more interesting than Klima whose Three Lives reflects a simpler correspondence between the two where the state "forced people to profess what they did not believe."

I was so impressed with Book of Laughting and Forgetting and Ignorance (not having read Kundera for many years), I decided to follow on by reading Immortality, which must count as one of the most impressive books I have read since Earthly Powers. Aside from the existential dilemmas commonly explored by Kundera (typified in the rejection of solidarity with all others by Agnes, a refusal that can be viewed as a refusal to allow her identity to be defined), this can be described as a post-communist novel (or perhaps a depiction of what happens to carnival in a capitalist society); "the age of tragedy can only be removed by the revolt of frivolity. Nowadays people know longer know Beethoven’s Ninth from concerts but from four lines of the Hymn to Joy which they hear every day in the ad for perfume."

In either case, laughter has acquired an entirely different connotation to that held in Book of Laughting and Forgetting; "if our era, against the spirit of the great painters, has made laughter the privileged expression of the human race, it means that an absence of human will and reason has become the ideal human state," though elsewhere one of the characters contradicts this theme; "Diabolum is characterised by a total lack of a sense of humour… humour can only exist when people are still capable of recognising some border between the important and the unimportant." Immortality often sees the methodology of capitalism and communism as being essentially alike; "are you objecting that advertising and propaganda cannot be compared because one serves commerce and the other ideology…because the remnants of Marx no longer form a logical system but only a series of suggestive images… we can rightfully talk of a gradual transformation from ideology into imagology." However, the novel’s depiction of a post-historical society where meaning has lost all significance conflicts somewhat with this; "Marx tried, all the revolutionaries tried, and in the end Diabolum always managed to appropriate every organisation whose original goal was to destroy him." In one particularly dialogic section, two characters debate this point; "Beethoven and Stalin belong together.. war and culture, these are the poles of Europe.. if high culture is coming to an end, it is also the end of you and your paradoxical ideas, because paradox as such belongs to high culture."

As with the Book of Laughting and Forgetting the central theme of Immortality is resistance; "what is a man to do when he realises that no organised, sensible and effective fight against Diabolum is possible? .. keep on cultivating an inner need for revolt and from time to time give it expression." One of the most interesting aspects of the novel is how its structure reflects this with an episodic structure, on the one hand finding brief moments of significance in an apparently meaningless environment rather than using official narratives; "biography; sequences of events which we consider to be important… we accept as important whatever is accepted by others, for example by our employer." But on the other, such a structure denies any pattern; " world history, with its revolutions, utopias, hopes and despair had vanished from Europe."

With the sole exception of Yukio Mishima I’ve read very little Japanese literature, so I was quite interested to hear about Junichiro Tanizaki’s In Praise of Shadows, an essay on the difference between Oriental and Occidental aesthetics. Tanizaki suggests that Oriental aesthetics valued shadow above light, therefore preferring wood and lacquerware to tiles and ceramics. For example, a Tudor building like Hardwick Hall was constructed with much of its walls consisting of windows to cast light on the bright tapestries within and to overcome the darkness of the wood. Later, rococco buildings such as Versailles or Sanssouci were decorated in bright colours with  large windows on one side of a room and mirrors on the other. In each case, the goal was to banish shadow and darkness.

One of the problems of this thesis is that it can be better described as polemical than descriptive (after all dark woods were a favoured building material for much of Western history and ceramics were largely imported from the East. When Tanizaki attributes the importance of gold to being a reflector in subdued light that will not easily lose its lustre, he forgets that this is precisely why it was popular in the West as well). The polemic springs from a backlash against the Westernization of Japan that followed the 1867 Meiji restoration; much of the essay consists of invective against the unconscious Western assumptions in many modern conveniences, recalling Camille Paglia’s assertion that cinema had always been an implicit concept in the Western visual imagination (e.g. electric lighting where Tanizaki undermines some of his case by noting that the Japanese were more enthused by electric lighting than any other nation save the United States; in contrasting cultures it becomes clear that the cultures in question are far from being monolithic entities. Not to mention his own refusal to inhabit a house as uncomfortable as his aesthetics advocated) which veers between pleading for recognition of Japanese identity as being ‘separate but equal’ and denouncing Western civilisation as being tasteless and uncouth (since it is the origin and otherness of many of these conveniences which seems to trouble Tanizaki at least as much as the unwelcome nature of the changes). Much of this Orientalism seems rather uncomfortable today; after all, nineteen thirties Japan saw a great deal of discussion of how to overcome the modern where science and industry were seen as having fragmented the holistic nature of the essentially spiritual Japanese culture. In such cases much of what Tanizaki says represents a disturbing continuum with other aspects of Japanese culture of the time; this is after all written just after the end of the Taisho democratic and the beginning of Showa militarism.

Elsewhere, I’ve read Hesse’s The Glass Bead Game. I’d read Narziss und Goldmund a few years ago and had been impressed with the clarity of its allegory expressed in similar terms to The Birth of Tragedy. Here though, the chiastic opposition between differing principles is expressed in terms of a set of negotiations and an attempt to form a synthesis; the use of three allegorical stories at the end is a particularly interesting technique (since the stories alternately suggest the futility of the Ascetic/Apollonian and the Worldly/Dionysian) more reminiscent of Nabokov.

I’ve been listening to ‘The Further Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, a set of stories that take offhand references to people and cases from the Doyle stories (e.g. from the first paragraph of Thor Bridge) and to write a story from that. On the whole, the dramas pastiche Doyle really quite well, though I have to admit that my favourite (The Madness of Colonel Warburton) acquires that crown on the grounds that its depiction of fraudulent spiritualists would have really annoyed Doyle. It’s always interesting to consider Doyle stories from the point of view of the criminal; the murderer in The Boscombe Valley Mystery appears as a victim of fate or causality in much the same way as any Hardy character. The murderers in The Five orange Pips, on the other hand, are brought down by the hand of god. I’ve also been reading The New Adventures of Sherlock Holmes. Amongst the more creditable pastiches here Basil Copper’s Adventure of the Persecuted Painter (which introduces suitable tinges of the gothic), Zakaria Erzinclioglu’s Adventure of the Bulgarian Diplomat (a more political affair based on the possibility of a single incident relating to the Turkish occupation of Bulgaria sparking war in the same way as Franz Ferdinand’s assassination was to) and Michael Mooorcock’s Adventure of the Dorset Street Lodger, where the mystery hinges upon the gender of the criminal (Moorcock seems to be more challenged by writing in a realistic vein, I’ve noticed). Oddly enough, the most interesting story in the collection is Stephen Baxter’s Adventure of the Inertial Adjustor, which introduces a number of science fiction ideas relating to the HG Wells novel The First Men in the Moon.

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