Thursday, April 13, 2006

Brain-twisters circa 1970

Actually I'm daunted just thinking about putting down my thoughts on Stanislaw Lem's collection of reviews of imaginary books, A Perfect Vacuum (the translation is by Michael Kandel). It wasn't quite what I expected, to tell the truth; it's coming out of the same time and intellectual milieu as that Georges Perec - Jacques Derrida kind of stuff I've been reading recently, but the feel and the heavyweightness is far closer to Derrida than to Perec, which I will (frivolously) admit was a bit of a disappointment. It felt a bit dated, too: that is to say, its concerns remain relevant to a segment of the American academy, or more broadly to intellectual readers who remain engaged with European critical theory of the 1960s and 1970s, but I wouldn't describe it as being of general interest. (Whereas Perec I'd recommend to anyone interested in writing--it's more writerly--this is more philosophical, and more pinned down to that particular time and place.)

However I read through most of the volume and found myself strikingly engaged here and there, although in the end I did not have the patience to read the final essay, "The New Cosmogony" (I seem to have had way too many conversations recently at the rather odd weekly required lunch thingy I've been going to this year about cosmogony, the word itself has become something of a turn-off). More generally I must comment that I felt chastised by the way this book does not reward start-to-finish reading, I am a person who basically (circumstances willing) likes to sit down with a book and polish it off in one or two sittings, and you will certainly not get the most out of this collection by reading it that way. I think I would have read it better or at least more sympathetically when I was a teenager starved for intellectual content--I mean, I went to a very good school and all that, but when you are fifteen or sixteen people just don't think that you want serious intellectual content, I always had to find it in (the hundreds of) novels (I read outside of school) but I would have devoured a book like this then with delight.

So: Lem as sympathetic summarizer-ventriloquizer of each book's arguments, in the best reviewing style, with occasional points of critique but more often an effusive and only slightly tongue-in-cheek inhabiting of the arguments of the book at hand. The one really indispensable review, I feel, is also much the funniest, a piece about Patrick Hannahan's Gigamesh (published in London by Transworld) that seriously must be read by anyone who is contemplating writing about the novels of James Joyce. Seriously! It is a very funny pastiche of a certain kind of Joyce scholarship, and will be cautionary to those who have any bent this way.

I was also amused by the account of the recommendations of one Joachim Fersengeld, whose Pericalypsis was published in Paris by Editions de Minuit:

There should be set up a Save the Human Race Foundation, as a sixteen-billion reserve on a gold standard, yielding an interest of four percent per annum. Out of this fund moneys should be dispensed to all creators--to inventors, scholars, engineers, painters, writers, poets, playwrights, philosophers, and designers--in the following way. He who writes nothing, designs nothing, paints nothing, neither patents nor proposes, is paid a stipend, for life, to the tune of thirty-six thousand dollars a year. He who does any of the afore-mentioned receives correspondingly less.

Not surprisingly, though, given my whole nature-nurture obsession, the review I found most thought-provoking was of Wilhelm Klopper's Die Kultur als Fehler (Universitas Verlag, Berlin; can you see the conceit getting ponderous?): Civilization as Mistake. This is actually the other must-read piece, I must xerox it and see if I can include it next time I'm teaching my graduate course on the idea of culture. I am too lazy to summarize, so I will just give a few of the meatier passages (I like the style here, too, better than that of some of the other essays, there seems to me more emotional engagement and more real humor and less of that rather heavy-handed form of playfulness that makes me--yes, I admit it--wonder why none of his imaginary books are written by women, there is a certain feeling of boy's-clubbishness....):

Thus culture is the mitigator of all the objections, indignations, grievances that man might address to natural evolution, to those physical characteristics haphazardly created, haphazardly fatal, which he--without being asked for his opinion or consent--has inherited from a billion-year process of ad hoc accommodations. To all that vile patrimony, to that ragtag-and-bobtail mob of infirmities and blemishes inserted into the cells themselves, knit into the bones, sewn into the sinews and the muscles--culture, wearing its picturesque toga of appointed public defender, attempts to reconcile us. It uses innumerable weasel words, it resorts to arguments that contradict themselves internally, that appeal now to the feelings, now to the reason, for any and all methods of persuasion are acceptable to culture, so long as it achieves its goal--the transformation of negative quantities into positive, of our wretchedness, our deformity, our frailty, into virtue, perfection, and manifest necessity.

That seems to me both quite telling and really reasonably funny (especially if you have read as many books about culture as I have in the last couple years). Or again, this is really very good:

Culture, that system of prostheses, must be discarded, so that we may entrust ourselves to the knowledge that will remake us, endow us with perfection; nor will the perfection be fictive, a thing we are talked into or sold, a thing educed from the sophistry of tortuous, self-contradictory establishings and dogmas. It will be purely material, factual, a perfectly objective perfection: existence itself will be perfect--not merely its exposition, not merely its interpretation! Culture, defender of Evolution's Causal Imbecilities, shifty pettifogger of a lost cause, shyster mouthpiece of primitivism and somatic slapdashery, must remove itself, since man's case is entering other, higher courts, since the wall of inviolable necessity, inviolable only hitherto, now crumbles. Technological development means the ruin of culture? It provides freedom where hitherto reigned the constraint of biology? But of course it does! And instead of shedding tears over the loss of our captivity, we should hasten our step to leave its dark house.

And one more bit (this one I especially like--I think I should quote it in my breeding book--but that was the general problem, that I felt this tipped rather more towards work than pleasure reading, not that all books have to be enjoyable in the same way but I felt I ended up being more resentful of than participatory in what was presumably Lem's own enjoyment):

Where the hook and crook of genes, where the adaptational opportunism decides existence, there is no mystery, there is only the Katzenjammer of the swindled, the awful hangover from the monkey ancestor, the climb skyward up that imaginary ladder from which you always end up falling, biology dragging you down by the seat of your pants, whether you tack onto yourself bird feathers, halos, or immaculate conceptions, or grit your teeth with homemade heroism.

"The awful hangover from the monkey ancestor": good, eh? I've got some more of Lem's books here, I feel I really must read a couple more now. (Jonathan recommends Imaginary Magnitude, and that does seem like the one I want to read next, only I didn't get it in that initial library foray and something is going to explode either in my apartment or just in my head if I take out any more non-work-related library books.)

1 comment:

  1. I know this is barely even parenthetical to your point here, but I must express my sympathy for the luncheon cosmogonies.