Whatever

It would probably be fair to say that while Minority Report is an entertaining film, it suffers from all of the flaws one would expect from a PK Dick story. Said flaws largely pertain to the proposition of a binary metaphysical dilemma (as to whether the characters are androids or not in Blade Runner like in the Turing test, or as in this case whether actions are predetermined or subject to free will) with much strained oscillation between the two possibilities. In this case, the film tentatively accepts the cause of free will (since knowledge of the prediction changes the circumstance as with Heisenberg) and acknolwedges the difficulty of prediction in an inherently indeterministic universe (since the precognitives are unable to always give consensus predictions). As it happens, the film might have been better if it had accepted determinism; since the predetermined tragedy wherein the protagonist is inexorably lead to his fate is aborted in favour of a rather more mundane conspiracy theory (much of which revolves around amazingly incompetent retinal scan security) traditional in films of this ilk. What tends to mainly stick in the mind from the film is the curious blurring of science and superstition promoted in the film; wherein genetic engineering is regarded as leading to premonition. The other thing is the film’s design; which looks of a piece with Lang’s Metropolis with its art-deco city of the future having bi-planes flying between the buildings. Somewhat depressingly both this and the recent Star Wars film view the city of the future as being the city of the present (apropos of nothing very much I’ve often wondered why films like this can’t be released showing nothing other than the lovingly depicted scenery, especially since directors seem to considerable antipathy towards actors talented enough to distract audiences from said scenery).

Currently reading Modern Nature by Derek Jarman and How the Dead Live by Will Self. I was more impressed with Whatever by Michel Houellebecq. In many ways the novel bears a certain resemblance to the sociological stereotyping practised by Douglas Coupland, and its accompanying sense of l’ennui d’etranger; "we need adventure and eroticism because we need to hear ouselves saying that life is marvellous and exciting… a fitting symbol of this vital exhaustion."

For Coupland, this alienation is almost a desirable product of rejection of the mores of a ferociously commercial society. Houellebecq shares this ("the society in which I live disgusts me; advertising sickens me."), but where Coupland’s characters embrace what is essentially a designer lifestyle, Houellebacq is more reactionary. When one of the novel’s characters speaks of using information technology to increase potential choice and thereby increasing degrees of freedom, the narrator retorts; "if human relations become progressively impossible this is due, precisely, to the multiplying of those degrees of freedom." To Houellebecq alienation is not a lifestyle; it is something determined by the fragmentation of social being; "just like unrestrained economic liberalism, and for similar reasons, sexual liberalism produces phenomena of absolute pauperisation."

Yet the most interesting fascination of Houellebecq is his dialogic approach to such matters. For example, he switches from Marxist studies of alienation ("of all the economic and social systems, capitalism is unquestionably the most natural. This already suffices to show that it is the worst") to Lacanian references to the mirror phase; "early on certain individuals … cannot bear to see thir own life before them… while day after day a mirror returns only the same desperate image, two parallel mirrors elaborate and edify a clear and dense system". in this analysis, certain individuals are exceptions to the laws of nature; and cannot reconcile themselves to the masculine-feminine dichotomy accounting for all aspects of human behaviour (returning us to Houellebecq’s raging against nature and advocacy of transhumanism).

One of the main features of the novel is what Bakhtin termed its dialogic complexity, which makes observing a philosopher novelist particularly interesting. In Sartre’s Age of Reason Mathieu is hardly what one would expect of an existentialist protagonist, with the title of the book coming from his bourgeois brother’s observation that Mathieu’s conception of freedom is essentially expressed as indecision, living what is essentially a conventional married life but refusing to marry. Similarly, the character of Daniel is in many ways a critique of Genet’s heroes, since his status as an outsider only creates a greater desire to conform, due, the novel suggests, to essence preceding essence; "all inverts are ashamed of being so, it’s part of their make-up."

Reading Nietzche’s Twilight of the Idols and The Anti-Christ I am struck (as always) by the sheer plurality of Nietzches; like Whitman, he contains multitudes (as Blanchot put it in The Infinite Conversation "Jaspers was the first to advise us of the principles that every interpretation of Nietzsche must respect…The essential movement of Nietzsche’s thought consists in self-contradiction; each time it affirms, the affirmation must be put in relation with the one opposing it: the decisive point of each of its certitudes passes through contestation, goes beyond it, and returns to it… In Nietzsche’s work there is nothing that might be called a centre."). The same writer who denounces equality as a product of slave morality and avers a preference for Prussian authoritarianism, is the same writer who denounces Germany as a crude state only capable of military power and lacking France’s cultural influence; to the extent that no-one in Germany is capable of understanding him. The same writer who castigates spirituality can also write (following Schopenhauer) that Buddhism is the only positivistic religion that has gone beyond good and evil; "to dominate barbrians, christianity had need of barbarous concepts and values… weakening is the christian recipe for taming." Similarly, Nietzche’s critique of christianity is only partly because of its tendency towards repression, but also its unholiness; "one does well to put gloves on when reading the new testament." Scepticism remains the mark of Nietzche’s philosophy, thereby avoiding the problem that predtermined description of the ubermensch would turn it into another form of herd morality.

Also reading Against Nature by Huysmans (though against convention might have been another applicable title). One of the problems for this novel is that it seems reluctant to step outside the dialectic it sets itself. This is made quite explicit regarding the tension between the sacred and the profane in the novel; "since sacrilege depends on the existence of religion, it cannot be deliberately and effectively committed except by a believer." Accordingly Esseintes must "oscillate between sceptical ideas and sudden fits of faith," or compromise on a depraved form of mysticism. The same applies for nature and artifice, where one becomes exasperated with Huysmans in the same way as Nietzche grew irritable with Mill and Eliot,as Huysmans displays variations on rejecting nature in favour of artifice or transforming nature into artifice. But like Wilde, Huysmans is an aesthete and his notions of aritifice are founded of nature. Where Hardy saw railway stations as the new cathedrals (a notion later agreed on, though one wonders whether Self is right in predicting that the same fate will befall our motorways) and Auden spurned nature in favour of trips to the gasworks, Huysmans reacts in the same way as Wilde; "this terrifying world of commerce, immersed in this isolating fog… this ruthless machine."

J M Coetzee’s novel Disgrace is a somewhat oddly fatalistic affair, though lacking experience in much modern South African writing it is difficult to be precise regarding it. The fall following the narrator’s seduction of an inexperienced schoolgirl is presented as being due to uncontrolled sevititude to his own passions; "he doesn’t act on principle but on impulse, and the source of his impulses is dark to him." When asked to express his remorse, he refuses; "repentance is neither here nor there. Repentance belongs to another world, another universe of discourse." Like his mentor Wordsworth, the narrator is in search of revelatory moments of transcendence, and seeks to enrich himself through these relationships, which is why he will not govern his impulses or seek redemption. The purpose of the novel seems geared towards reconciliation to loss of the transcendental; "they are not going to lead me to a higher life, and the reason is, there is no higher life. This is the only life there is." Nonetheless, the terms of this reconcilation are disturbing to say the least; his daughter’s accomodation with the man who raped her (the novel both posits and denies an analogy between them), noted
in a passage where blame is described as a form of secular scapegoating,
of driving evil away.

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The Fall

Reading He Kills Coppers by Jake Arnott, I couldn’t help but notice that although the book was cast in the form of a social history, running from the sixties to the early eighties, it has very little sense of the movement of time; the characters do not seem to change (perhaps because, since they are all outsiders none of them change in the way the surrounding society does) and the hippies of the sixties seem to be little different to the dropouts of the eighties. Similarly, the differing narrators leave a similar impression to that in the even less restrained English Passengers by Matthew Kneale, that is leaving one wondering if the device serves any purpose other than to demonstrate the author’s technical proficiency.

In Rabelais and his World Bakhtin wrote of the role of ecclesiastical
parody in carnival literature, with its playful changing forms. To Bakhtin
the profane degredation of such discourse is always polyphonic, and The Virtues of the Solitary Bird by Juan Goytisolo serves as a peculiarly modern example of this. Here, the modern ideas of the unreliable narrator and the stream of consciousness meet the episodic traditions of carnival literature. The alternation between the disease wracked narrator and his delirious dreams of St John of the Cross lends itself well to Bakhtin’s notions of polyphony; "he chose to invent
starting with semantics a colossal imposture assigning an arbitrary meaning to the words… a gratuitioud pairing of the hieroglyphic signs and the Greek and demotic texts." To Goytisolo, this is something as subversive of oppression as it is for Bakhtin – in the latter case, Stalin’s Russia, in the narrator’s case the Spanish Inquisition; "the original has been replaced… orthodox doctrinal explanations … with material of very different, vulgar content."

I’ve also read Off-Message by Matthew Parris, a man who should be given a knighthood for disservices to politics. His irreverence has come as a considerable relief, given the emotional stalinism imposed by the death of the Queen Mother. I always dread the death of a member of the royal family; the emotional correctness demanded in the mass grieving and dignified hysteria invariably gives me a glimmering of it would be like to live in a one party state.

I’ve also finished reading The Fall and The Myth of Sisyphus by Albert Camus, the latter providing a particularly interesting treatise on the former. In The Myth of Sisyphus, Camus defines the types of the absurd man, he who makes no concessions to notions of the eternal; "assured of his temporally limited freedom, of his result devoid of future… he lives out his adventure within the span of his lifetime." Conversely, in The Fall, such existentalist notions are satirised; those that lack the mastery of god must choose another master, and most atheists are hypocrites.

For a man of the absurd, the narrator of the The Fall clearly is no Napoleon or Don Juan and one is left turning to the statement in The Myth of Sisyphus that; "these images do not propose moral codes and involve no judgements.. the lover, the actor plays the absurd. But equally well , if he wishes… the civil servant." The narrator certainly knows and masks nothing, but we are left wondering whether the more moral statement in The Artist and his Time does not also pertain; "against a romantic nihilism whether it be bourgeois or allegedly revolutionary." Considering Marxism to be merely an offshoot of christianity and the enlightenment ideal of progress, Camus nonetheless
remains a Marxist manqué in his attitudes to the bourgeoisie. As such, the portrayal of the eminently bourgeois narrator acquires a certain additional ambivalence; Camus remains wedded to romanticism in his portrayal of the rebel.