Tuesday, January 02, 2007

A long account of calamities

Finding my brain too dull and stuporous to make today the first real writing day I'd have had for some time (it will have to be tomorrow instead), I fell back as an alternative this afternoon on two books that I've just now finished reading in a kind of dozy haze, books I had never read before although they were both incipiently familiar to me in a dreamlike way (you know how you come to have a very clear idea of certain books, their arguments and their style, without having actually read them?!?).

They both seem to me centrally about the same thing, not perhaps a coincidence as they have been awaiting my attention on the pile of books loosely related to my nearly-finished academic project: power, knowledge and history in modernity, the nestled and argumentative complementarity of immanence and transcendence (more brutally described as a late twentieth-century archeology of ashes). They are written in curiously different vocabularies, to the point where I found myself thinking in alternate-universe kind of ways about which elements I find myself most drawn to: I will write, I think, in neither of these modes, and yet both books are compelling and important and the second in particular has given me a feeling I treasure, a yearning feeling of oh-now-I-see-the-book-I-need-to-write that is not actually very comfortable (it is as though I am digging my hands deep into my chest and cracking open the ribcage to show my heart like something in Brueghel or Bosch) especially as it cannot be acted upon for some time.

(I must make my writing time in the next few weeks count--I see it's closely analogous to a situation in which you can only have a certain number of athletic workouts due to injury-related or other constraints and have to make them really intelligently strenuous ones rather than blowing the time on mindless and insufficiently demanding repetition--it's less product-driven than process-, it is also true that I must finish this book before the end of the month but it is even more important that I should give myself the satisfaction of some really and truly high-quality writing sessions to tide me over until May when I'll have some months again for full-time writing.)

The first book, in any case, was Bruno Latour's We Have Never Been Modern. Interesting, intelligently brash, forceful, persuasive. More polemical than I'm inclined to be myself, and also written in a conceptual/abstract vocabulary that I find mildly inhospitable: yet I can see that for him as for others (Bourdieu?) it's the clearest and best way of saying what he's thinking. Here's a taste of where he gets to at the end, at any rate:

We have been modern. Very well. We can no longer be modern in the same way. When we amend the Constitution, we continue to believe in the sciences, but instead of taking in their objectivity, their truth, their coldness, their extraterritoriality--qualities they have never had, except after the arbitrary withdrawal of epistemology--we retain what has always been most interesting about them: their daring, their experimentation, their uncertainty, their warmth, their incongruous blend of hybrids, their crazy ability to reconsitute the social bond. We take away from them only the mystery of their birth and the danger their clandestineness posed to democracy.

Yes, we are indeed the heirs of the Enlightenment, whose asymmetrical rationality is just not broad enough for us. Boyle's descendants had defined a parliament of mutes, the laboratory, where scientists, mere intermediaries, spoke all by themselves in the name of things. What did these representatives say? Nothing but what the things would have said on their own, had they only been able to speak. Outside the laboratory, Hobbes's descendants had defined the Republic in which naked citizens, unable to speak all at once, arranged to have themselves represented by one of their number, the Sovereign, a simple intermediary and spokesperson. What did this representative say? Nothing but what the citizens would have said had they all been able to speak at the same time. But a doubt about the quality of that double translation crept in straight away. What if the scientists were talking about themselves instead of about things? And if the Sovereign were pursuing his own interests instead of reciting the script written for him by his constituents?

The other book was altogether more charming (I am ashamed of myself for not having read either of these sooner, it is an absurdity): W. G. Sebald's The Rings of Saturn. I sadly abandon any idea of borrowing techniques from Sebald for the conclusion to my academic book, I will have to wait and pillage him in future for a non-fiction book I'm currently lusting over but will not get to for a while, but the style is fascinating. I am particularly interested by the way he phases in and out of the first-person testimonies of people and books he's in conversation with, like changing from one radio station to another. It is a great book of Norfolk, I was reminded of Kazuo Ishiguro of course (here was my post on the Norfolk of Never Let Me Go) and the landscapes of Margery Allingham. I have never been to East Anglia, I would like to pay that county a visit.

Here's the first passage I loved, describing the author's stay at a run-down hotel in Lowestoft staffed only, it seems, by an eye-contact-avoiding young woman dressed in the style of the Thirties:

That evening I was the sole guest in the huge dining room, and it was the same startled person who took my order and shortly afterwards brought me a fish that had doubtless lain entombed in the deep-freeze for years. The breadcrumb armour-plating of the fish had been partly singed by the grill, and the prongs of my fork bent on it. Indeed it was so difficult to penetrate what eventually proved to be nothing but an empty shell that my plate was a hideous mess once the operation was over. The tartare sauce that I had had to squeeze out of a plastic sachet was turned grey by the sooty breadcrumbs, and the fish itself, or what feigned to be fish, lay a sorry wreck among the grass-green peas and the remains of soggy chips that gleamed with fat.

Good, eh? There are all sorts of excellent touches: Sebald buying in a village shop an ice-cold can of Cherry Coke which he "drain[s] at a draught like a cup of hemlock," Sebald having a Learesque moment with choughs and cliffs.

Perhaps the book's most memorable image, for me, was of the child survivors of a Croatian cleansing operation carried out over fifty years earlier in a camp in Bosnia, later sent in cattle wagons to the capital of Croatia. "Many of those who were still alive were so hungry," says Sebald, "that they had eaten the cardboard identity tags they wore around their necks and thus in their extreme desperation had eradicated their own names." But there are all sorts of other striking things as well: Sebald in 1947 revisiting his native city, destroyed by British bombs, and coming upon a cleared site where the bricks retrieved from the ruins have been stacked "in long, precise rows, ten by ten, a thousand to every stacked cube, or rather nine hundred and ninety-nine, since the thousandth brick in every pile was stood upright on top, be it as a token of expiation or to facilitate the counting"; the idea of the great European art museums in many cases having been "endowed by the sugar dynasties" or otherwise connected to the sugar trade, with his interloctur telling him that at times it seems to him "as if all works of art were coated with a sugar glaze or indeed made completely of sugar, like the model of the battle of Esztergom created by a confectioner to the Viennese court, which Empress Maria Theresia, so it is said, devoured in one of her recurrent bouts of melancholy."

And here is a suitably grim image in closing:

Our spread over the earth was fuelled by reducing the higher species of vegetation to charcoal, by incessantly burning whatever would burn. From the first smouldering taper to the elegant lanterns whose light reverberated around eighteenth-century courtyards and from the mild radiance of these lanterns to the unearthly glow of the sodium lamps that line the Belgian motorways, it has all been combustion. Combustion is the hidden principle behind every artefact we create. The making of a fish-hook, manufacture of a china cup, or production of a television programme, all depend on the same process of combustion. Like our bodies and like our desires, the machines we have devised are possessed of a heart which is slowly reduced to embers. From the earliest times, human civilization has been no more than a strange luminescence growing more intense by the hour, of which no one can say when it will begin to wane and when it will fade away. For the time being, our cities still shine through the night, and the fires still spread.

Other light reading: I did finish rereading those last couple Susan Howatch novels while I was in Philadelphia, but they have rather spoiled me for anything else (except I did pluck from the shelves of the spare room I stayed in on the 26th, which is a kind of shrine to light reading, Lee Child's first Jack Reacher novel which I reread with considerable satisfaction on the train back from Philadelphia--interesting to see how much more violent and cold that voice was in the early books, it's much humanized and made elegant/stylized later on). An interesting running-related memoir, verging on too subdued but in some ways more satisfactory for its very low-key-ness than certain more melodramatic memoirs that come to mind, Chasing the Hawk: Looking for My Father, Finding Myself, by Andrew Sheehan, son of running guru George Sheehan. The first half of Chris Adrian's exceptional novel The Children's Hospital, but I'm not sure when I'm going to be able to finish it (it is quite magical, really something special, but perhaps too postapocalyptic--literally--for my current frame of mind).

Absurdly the only thing I can think about--the absurdity comes from the fact that I have barely ridden a bike or swum a lap in the past twenty years--is how much I want to train for a triathlon! However I must take things one step at a time. Swimming lesson on Friday. Get a bike in the spring. Run my first marathon in the fall. Then the triathlon can be the project for 2008....


  1. I am so glad you like Sebald. Try Emigrants, I think.

  2. Something wrong with comments - half my previous message is gone. Try THE EMIGRANTS next, is what I essentially said; the rest unimportant.

  3. I'll be reading Sebald soon, I hope, and I'm so looking forward to it -- I have the feeling he'll be an author I love.

    And your training plan sounds wonderful ...

  4. Oh, yes, I'll definitely be reading some more Sebald in the nearish future...

    Dorothy, I was totally thinking of you as I was reading, it is a great walking book among other things!

  5. Ha! How on earth do you find so much time to read all that Jenny?

    It seems like you cram in multiple books a day! Don't you ever get the feeling that after a good novel, you should rest, say for a day or two, not for active reflection but just to have your mind at piece - to sort of marinate on what you've absorbed?

    I don't know. It's how my mind works. How about yours?

  6. Oh, and I accidentally forgot to mention another book I finished yesterday also--it is true, I do sometimes need some time for mental digestion, but only when I have read something like 5 books in a day (or when I have had a day at the British Library where I raced through my maximum daily limit of 15 books, of course many of these are just 50-page eighteenthce-century things that are more like pamphlets than books--that is really the only time I find myself not wanting to read in the evening, I think if I have taken in more than about 1200-1400 pages through the eye then my brain needs a little time to catch up before reading again seriously the next day). I realize this is a ludicrously large amount, but it is the way I am made, I think it is set like a thermostat...

  7. Indeed. A book a day is a feat in itself -- but 5????? 1400 pages?????? In my case, my attention is pulled in so many directions, that I simply can't muster the stamina or the focus to really slog through more than one a day -- and at that, I would be in absolute hurry, glossing over/skimming many sections. This is because with the internet, often times I come across some piece of information that intrigues in a book, and I will then pursue it online, mostly with wikipedia but with many other sources and it branches out from there. I know yesterday interested in the tri-glych/script structure of the Japanese language, I discovered through research that it was considered an agglutinative language, which is namely, a synthetic language not to be confused with a fusional languages whose cheif characteristic is the binding or morphemes by "squeezing" them together, often lobbing off a phoneme in the process. This also lead me to entry about the monogenic theory about the common origins of all Indo-European Languages - a proto or root language abbreviated with the acronym PIE. In that sense, I probably do read quite a bit, but the issue is, nothing is ever really to completion, I skip about, and consume in dribs and drabs.

  8. you are a freak of nature of the most fortunate variety! I practically have to mouth every word while I read, like remedial first-graders.

    you could do a massive Mitzvah by offering up your brain to detailed neurologic study. Functional MRI, perhaps-- hooked up to the magnet while you read the 1400 page tome. Or better yet, brain biopsy! I would sell my first born to get a look at your neurons under an electron microscope...

    Do you think you could teach somebody how to read faster? I will trade priceless running or biking tips....

  9. You know, it is funny, I am on a quest (it's sort of related to conjectural new book project) to track down neurologists who are interested in figuring out what happens in the brain during reading--I mean, I'm more interested to see what happens in general, but it would be interesting to see one's own brain reading too, wouldn't it? The thing that set me off on this was Victor Nell's insanely great "Lost In A Book," which is in part about the neuropsychology of reading for pleasure.

    While I mull over reading methods, I will look forward to getting priceless running and biking tips!

  10. I want to hear more about how you read too ...