“I’m so bored. I hate my life.” - Britney Spears

Das Langweilige ist interessant geworden, weil das Interessante angefangen hat langweilig zu werden. – Thomas Mann

"Never for money/always for love" - The Talking Heads

Friday, June 17, 2016

Neglected books Injury time

“I was reminded of the time a close friend visited my house ten minutes before the arrival of a gentleman caller.  I hinted it would be better if she left, but she said he wouldn’t notice she was there. To prove her point she plonked lumps of the children’s Plasticine in the middle of her forehead and chest, stuck darts in them, poured liberal quantities of tomato sauce down her person and lay flat on the sofa, groaning.
He won’t take it in, she said. Just wait and see.
Sure enough – he came in, glanced at her, sat down and complained that he’d had a devil of a day.” – Beryl Bainbridge, Diary

There’s a rather strange, hard to interpret story told in the Homeric hymn to Demeter. When Hades kidnapped the daughter of Demeter, Persephone, the goddess of harvests, wandered about the earth looking for her and refusing to do her job re the harvests. She came, starving and thirsty, to a hut in which an old woman named Baubo sat. Baubo tried to cheer the goddess up, but she remained wrapped in gloom, refusing to eat, until the old woman thought of a prank: she lifted up her skirts and flashed her private parts at the godddess, who then burst out laughing and accepted refreshment.
This story was preserved by the Christian apologists, notably Arnubius and Clement, who found the whole setup appalling. It is the type of humor that has long been considered appalling in the West, down to the present day, which is why it is generally an underground kind of humor.  The Christians certainly didn’t see anything funny about Baubo’s strip act; and indeed, the poet spends no time explaining what was so funny about the crone flashing her moneymaker. The joke is a sort of secret between Demeter and Baubo.
 I would put Beryl Bainbridge down as one of the holders of that secret. For Bainbridge, in some of her novels, particularly Injury Timen(1977), masters the difficult art of combining disasterous circumstances and sexual absurdity even unto rape and murder with the kind of laughter that wells up, in some, at funerals or solemn events – the laughter of embarrassed alienation I suppose you could call it. Or of an even more embarrassing recognition that the solemnity eerily recapitulates the serious play of children.  
Bainbridge is in rare company in this regard. In America, there are traits of the Baubo style in some of Dorothy Parker’s short stories; in the seventies, Iris Owens, after writing pornography under various pseudonyms, gave it a shot with After Claude, introducing, in Harriet, her narrator, one of the most unlikeable protagonists to ever rampage drunkly through a novel and refuse to leave the apartment of an ex boyfriend . The British sit com Absolutely Fabulous and the comedian Sarah Silverman have a bit of Baubo in them. Perhaps the writer who most explicitly explores the secret is Christina Stead, whose character Henny, in The Man who loved Children, coalesces her whole life around it, pitting this mystery against her hated husband Sam’s totalitarian optimism.
  … what a moral, highminded world their father saw! But for Henny there was a wonderful particular  world, and when they went with her they saw it: they saw the fish eyes, the crocodile grins, the hair like a birch broom, the mean men crawling with maggots, and the chilfren restless as an ell, that she saw. She did not often take them with her. She preferred to go out by herself and mooch to the bargain basements and ask the young man in the library what was good to read, and take tea in some obscure restaurant, and wander desolately about criticizing shopwindows and wondering if, in this street or that, she would yet, ‘old as I am looking like a black hag’,  meet her fate. Then she would come home, next to some girl “from a factory who looked like a lily and smelled like a skunk cabbage”, flirting with all the men and the men grinning back…”
Bainbridge died a revered novelist in England, but most of the reverence was for the historical novels she wrote after Young Adolf in 1978.
Historical fiction is an uncertain category which, on an expansive interpretation, encompasses everything from War and Peace to Gravity’s Rainbow; but on a narrower interpretation, concerns those fictions in which some past incident is re-enacted with an abundance of detailing, in response to a miniaturist’s compulsion to get the décor right. It reminds me of the compulsive pleasure some people find in building model boats in bottles. Toby Litt has suggested that historical novels are written and read in bad faith, vacillating between the transcendence of imaginative freedom and the facticity of information – those details! This doesn’t bother me so much. What does bother me is the sense of thwarted play, the sense that the writer is operating within some manufactured enclosure that limits her reach for reasons extrinsic to the aesthetic act – those details again.
Bainbridge’s career as a novelist neatly splits, then, between those first novels, with their Baubodian humor, and the novels of her last period, in which the world given was not so much Bainbridge’s as the period in which she placed her characters. The first novels troubled even those reviewers that conceded the brilliance of the style. The rapes, murders, psychotic children that formed the background against which totally self-involved characters worried about other things produced a laughter that the reader felt, vaguely, should be suppressed. In America, Injury Time was reviewed by Katha Pollitt with such incomprehension – Pollitt thought the novel was trying to make some op ed point about the awfulness of modern times – that I can only feel that some vast cultural gap lay between the writer and the reader.
In fact, the urban locale of Injury Time  with its obscene drunks sitting in rubbish by the side of the street, it casually criminal transvestites, its fat upper class men so confused by the ceaseless moral double accounting they keep in their head as to be totally vulnerable to the least glitch in practical life are things that I can look up and see, here,now, in Santa Monica, 2016. It is the world in which beggary has returned, symptomatic of a much deeper illness in capitalism. In that sense, far from writing in the style of the op ed, Bainbridge was seeing how the op ed mindset in the governing class was more and more detached from the reality of the street.
The odd couple at the center of the novel, Edward, an upper class accountant, and Binny, his “mistress” (as Edward tells others, since Binny hit him when he once called her that), a woman of no visible means of support living in a house in some outer fringe of London. In brief, the plot revolves around a dinner party that Binny holds for Edward, one of his clients, Simpson, and his client’s wife, Muriel. The dinner party is interrupted, and the house taken over, by a criminal gang that is being chased by the police. They remain in the house for perhaps a day, smashing it up, humiliating Edward and Simpson, and trying to find a way out of the police siege. In the course of the hostage taking, the leader of the gang, Ginger, rapes Binny.
This of course doesn’t’ sound like a laff riot. That it is funny owes everything to Bainbridge’s style. There are hints of the camp genius of Joe Orton in her dialogue (the characters throughout fail to communicate with each other on the simplest level, due to misunderstanding, drunkeness, panic, exhaustion, and their false assumptions one about the other), and partly her way of using the dramatist’s trick of shifting the spotlight from one character to the other as  they mull thoughts that are at utter variance with what the other characters are either thinking or trying to convey.  
Comedy is a soap bubble, and you can’t simply take out a slice of it and show it around, because it won’t be funny anymore.  Its all too pop-able. Everything in the novel is brilliantly timed – from the way we receive “information” (all recited facts suffer from terminal deformation as they are passed from Edward to Binny to Simpson to Muriel) to the way the confusion of the hostage taking is allowed to remain confusing, for different reasons, for each of the characters. That is a very difficult thing to do, since the authorial impulse is to clear up confusion, rather than let it play itself out. The latter seems, to the cautious author, to come  dangerously near to confusing the audience, and in the realistic paradigm of fiction, confusing the audiencce is a grave fault. But confusion is as much a part of the world as clouds. And all Bainbridge’s characters are as seriously confused as, well, I am, and you are, reader. Clarity is a rare thing.
Enough – I would like to quote at length, but I’ll forebear.   

Monday, June 13, 2016

neglected books: skepticism and animal faith

George Santayana has always been the odd man out among the great American philosophers. The native genius of American philosophy sprang from a pragmatism shot through with Emerson’s transcendental occasions;  and Santayana, if we scan the  CV only, seems to have duly drank at this spring. He was the student of William James, after all, and during his heyday in the twenties and thirties, he played Atreus to Dewey’s Thyestes, or, more exactly, Dupin to Dewey’s Minister D… Dewey, in Santayana’s opinion, was too heady, too fumbling, and above all too liberal. Santayana, in Dewey’s opinion,  was too clever by half and too inclined to worship an order that gave him every privilege – a rentier philosopher.

The too clever reputation has stuck. Open Santayana and it is easy to see why. When we read Skepticism and Animal Faith, the first thing we are struck by is that, if he absorbed James’s pragmatism, he imbibed it with a writing style much more like James’s brother’s, Henry. And this stylistic choice was not an accident, but a methodological choice. Santayana thought that philosophy was not really best advanced, or, as he might put it,best  performed by  debate; the impress of this conviction lies behind a style unlike almost any other in American philosophy, presenting philosophical views that are less arguments than a sort of uncovering of ideational motives corresponding to the characteristics of philosophical figures (the skeptic, the Platonist, the naturalist, etc.)  in much the way James’s characters, in the latter novels, approach by indirection the betrayals that they are, to their retrospective horror, all too capable of.

In this vein, Santayana’s Skepticism and Animal Faith is one of the great frustrating books, advancing its themes less as deductions than as a sort of striptease in which the philosophical figures cavort on a stage to an audience of bloodless angels. Santayana, too, has that American philosophical allergy to the “myth of the given” , but his way of doing philosophy, after fully accounting for the insufficiency of the given to really account for any of the ‘facts’ of the world, is to take a tremendous detour back to a curious defense of essences. Santayana’s sense of essence has been radically converted by the skeptic’s questioning to one that has only a distant kinship with  essence as it appears in traditional theology, morality and cosmology. Plato, in one of his dialogues, asks whether it could be possible for such things as dirt and hair to have a correspondence in the ideas, and decides that they couldn’t – they are all too existentially connected to becoming. Santayana ignores this famous Platonic division and cheerfully welcomes dirt and hair and all other things into the realm of essence. For Santayana, essences are to the world what a book catalogue would be to Borges’s Library of Babel – “It [the realm of essence] is simply the unwritten catalgue, prosaic and infinite, of all the characters possessed by such things as happen to exist, together with the characters which all different things would possess if they existed.”

Santayana argues this position at more length than I am prepared to go in his three volume opus on the Realms of Being. One can allow the practicing philosopher to take up those tomes; Scepticism and Animal Faith, on the contrary, can be picked up by the merely curious reader, because, while it does not stint on technicalities, it is not enchained by them. It contains marvelous extended scenarios, some of the best in the philosophical literature. For instance, here is Santayana, doing justice to the solipsist’s position and putting it back into what he feels to be its natural position:

So far is solipsism of the present moment from being self-contradictory that it might, under other circumstances, be the normal and invincible attitude of the spirit; and I suspect it may be that of many animals. The difficulties I find in maintaining it consistently come from the social and laborious character of human life. A creature whose whole existence was passed under a hard shell, or was spent in a free flight, might find nothing paradoxical or acrobatic in solipsism; nor whouold he feel the anguish which men feel in doubt, because doubt leaves them defenceless and undecided in the presence of on-coming events. A creature whose actions were predetermined might have a clearer mind. He might keenly enjoy the momentary scene, never conceiving of himself as a separate body or as anything but the unity of that scene, nor his enjoyment as anything but its beauty: nor would he harbour the least suspicion that it would change or perish, nor any objection to its doing so if it chose. Solipsism wouod then be selflessness and scepticism simplicity. They would not be open to disruption from within. The ephemeral insect would accept the evidence of his ephemeral object, whatevver quality this might chance to have; he would not suppose, as Descartes did, that in thinking anything his own existence was involved. Being new-born himself, with only this one innate (and also experimental) idea, he would brign to his single experience no extraneous habits of interpretation or inference; and he would not be troubled by doubts, because he would believe nothing.”

This is magnificent, and even, given the ethology of the time, plausible. The standard of intelligence by which philosophers and their henchmen, the journalists or popular science writers, still judge animals is, comparatively, retarded. Intelligence is never judged for the animal – there is no novelistic transposition into what it is “like” to be such and such a beast. Of course, that novelistic leap is all too human, and the solipsism of the fly, such as it is described by Santayana, strikes me as strangely akin to that of the Wall Street stockbroker, of whose kind Santayana knew a few.

The price to be paid for Santayana’s kind of philosophy (a kind in which style is as intrinsic as the carapace is to a beetle) is not entrapment in an infinitity of technical questions of diminishing resonance (the fate of analytic philosophy), but a cold bloodedness that is all too freezing for my taste. Santayana was a very closeted gay man, who ended his life living as a tenant in a nunnery in Rome. His affections were always, so far as I can gather from the letters, frost-bitten. In SAF, this disposition is always just beneath the surface:

 “I myself have no passionate attachment to existence, and value this world for the intuitions it can suggest, rather than for the wilderness of facts that compose it. To turn away from it may be the deepest wisdom in the end. What better than to blow out the candle, and to bed! But at noon this pleasure is premature. I can always hold it in reserve, and perhaps nihilism is a system – the simplest of all – on which we shall all agree in the end.”

This accomodates our final end a bit too richly. It reminds us of the fascist slogan: viva la muerte!

This is perhaps no accident. Santayana’s politics was always inclined to fascism. In 1931, surveying the problematic modern scene (which he took in a wholly sub species aeternitas fashion – the Great Depression was a matter for intermittent notice in the letters, where he made the usual rentier complaints against FDR), he wrote that one of the great problems among the “Western” countries was:

… an inherited form of government, by organized parties
and elections, which was based on revolutionary
maxims, and has become irrelevant to the true work
of the modern world if not disastrous for it.

In 1951, a year before his death, he corresponded with Corliss Lamont, who wanted to enlist him as a “humanist”. In the course of so doing, Lamont defended Santayana from the charge of fascism. Santayana gently disabused him, writing that,, on the contrary,  he welcomed Mussolini (Santayana had been living in Italy by this time for around thirty years) and Franco, even if he agreed that Mussolini, at least, was a bad man. He at least, to paraphrase Santayana’s defense, made the trains run on time.   

Like other of the great modernists, Santayana’s authoritarian streak arose from a cancerous nostalgia for something other than modernity. Unlike Pound or Lewis or Eliot, though, Santayana fully accepted the nihilism that gnawed at the very core of the existentialist project. He’s perpetually the philosophical loner, which I accept as a genuine posture of thought. In that spirit, Skepticism and Animal Faith is a loner’s masterpiece.