Saturday, May 12, 2012

Week 16, Wole Soyinka's Death and the King's Horseman

Notes on Wole Soyinka’s Death and the King’s Horseman
This play deals in part with the inability or refusal of one culture to understand another that it has subordinated, but more importantly it deals with the reflection of a culture on its own traditions and values at a moment of crisis.

Briefly, we should note the joyous quality of this scene, the celebratory and processional quality of it.  This is what Eleshin has lived for: this day.  He and others around him know the significance of the day, and rejoice in the experience and understanding of it.  It’s reaffirmative of life and their entire culture, reaffirmative of the continuity between the living and the dead, and it will keep the world centered. 

3036-43. Sgt. Amusa is horrified when he sees Pilkings wearing a Yoruba mask. Amusa is supposed to have converted to Islam, but he is still astonished to see Pilkings disrespecting the culture from which he comes. It's obvious that the mask retains its power for him: "Sir, it is a matter of death. How can man talk against death to person in uniform of death? Is like talking against government to person in uniform of police." Much of this scene consists of Pilkings showing just how uncomprehending and insensitive he is regarding his colonial subjects. Amusa has collaborated in the repression of his people by helping to stamp out their customs, and Pilkings insults the man nonetheless. He also insults Joseph the servant, who is a Christian, on 3038. And on 3039, it seems that Joseph is the one who makes it clear precisely what may be going on in the Yoruba town: "You mean the chief who is going to kill himself?" This is news to Jane and Simon Pilkings. On 3041, Pilkings reveal something I find interesting about his attitude, and strangely, it turns out later that it would probably have been better for him to follow his own instincts rather than try to stop what's going on. He says, "I don't have to stop anything. If they want to throw themselves off the top of a cliff or poison themselves with the sake of some barbaric custom what is that to me? If it were ritual murder or something like that I'd be duty bound to do something." He sees the King and is Chieftain-servant as nuisances and doesn't really care what happens to them. All the while, the Brits are preparing for the evening's entertainment – a ceremonial ball in honor of his Royal Highness, who is visiting the colony.


3043-47. The first half of the scene is devoted to something like a ritual humiliation of Amusa, who is clearly doing the bidding of his Imperial superiors. It is he who has tipped off the Europeans about what is happening here in the market. The women make potent jokes about his manhood or lack thereof, and it stings him to the quick. We notice that under stress, his speech alters markedly from the limited but standard British that he must speak around his employers to the mixed dialect of his own people. The little girls in particular are fun to listen to while they parody the British manner of talking and acting. That is on 3045-46. The older women rejoice in this little performance, seeing in it a great deal of strength and intelligence.

3047-51. This half of the scene, by contrast to what has gone before, is a celebration of Eleshin's masculinity as he prepares for his end. He performs the act of generation with his bride, and then begins to dance and go into a trance with the assistance of the Praise-Singer. There is a question and answer session between those two as the women dance around them. This session seems to be meant to explain the true nature of what is happening and about to happen, and it attests to the readiness of Eleshin to carry out his final action. It is not difficult to catch the sense of connection between the members of this world and the next: the Praise-Singer's words about those who inhabit the other realm do not simply exalt them, but instead an implicit demand is made that they should treat Eleshin with honor.


3051-53. This scene opens with some British ceremony to contrast with the ritual preparation we have encountered in the first three scenes. The Resident shows himself to be a man of very little comprehension regarding Yoruba culture, even as an air of emergency is struck up at the very outset of the scene. All he can do is prattle on about how the natives like bright colors and hats.

3054-55. More interesting is the conversation between Jane Pilkings and Olunde, which is both painful and illuminating: Jane thinks that going to Oxbridge must by now have dashed out all of the ancient culture in this young Nigerian man, but it quickly becomes clear that she is mistaken. Olunde asks, "And that is the good cause for which you desecrate an ancestral mask?" And he goes on to say "I discovered that you have no respect for what you do not understand." This is on page 3054. This mask is itself an emblem for the power of the ancestors and the importance of a meaningful death in this culture. It is a culture in which the dead are not finally dead and their spirits may even be alive in the bodies of their descendents. The death mask is not a trivial cover for pleasantries but rather a conduit that links the living to the dead. Furthermore, when Jane tells him about the British man who blew himself up going down with the ship in the harbor, the anecdote only serves to show how differently the two cultures regard death. Olunde thinks the British Capt.'s actions were justified, but Jane is horrified by them. Much of this Jane seems to regard as arrogance, which is a typical charge leveled by colonial masters against their subjects.

3056-57. Olunde tries to explain what he has learned in Great Britain and from his own reflections as he matures. He tries to explain that his father Eleshin is "protected" by his own traditions and by what has already passed in the mind's eye. Apparently this is an important concept in Yoruba culture: Eleshin has already seen himself going through the ritual action he must perform; in his own eyes and in the eyes of others, he is already a dead man or rather he has passed on to another realm. He does not need protection from European authorities. Olunde's next point on 3056 is that what the white races are good at is survival, pure and simple. In other words, they can talk all they want about commerce, Christianity and civilization as did Dr. Livingston, but they are simply using others to survive. And a lot of their energy, he goes on to explain, is thrown into covering up this fundamental truth. White culture is a culture that thrives upon lying to itself about what it is up to. Olunde has learned the truth about European war from those who suffered through it in his studies as a medical student. We see that Olunde does not accept Europe's right to define his people in comparison to what the West offers as its own story.

3058-59. Olunde reveals that he himself thinks as his father does. He says to Jane, "and anyway, my father has been dead in my mind for nearly a month. Ever since I learnt of the King's death. I've lived with my bereavement so long now that I cannot think of him alive. On that journey on the boat, I kept my mind on my duties as the one who must perform the rites over his body. I went through it all again and again in my mind as he himself had taught me." What the both of them need to do goes beyond individual human will or weakness or grief – it is, as he says, an action to be taken for the welfare of his people.

3060-61. The confrontation between Olunde and his disgraced father is wrenching to contemplate. Olunde says only, "I have no father, eater of left-overs." The man he sees before him does not match the man he has come to contemplate and accept in his mind's eye. Neither does Eleshin think any better of himself. He has failed in what he has spent his entire life preparing to do, and that's all that matters to him now. Jane is at least sympathetic, though I don't think she really understands what's going on. This scene, which began with British pomp and pleasantry, now shows no trace of ceremony at all – just the stark confrontation between father and son.


3061-65. Eleshin tries to explain to Pilkings exactly what he has done by preventing the ritual sacrifice. It is not merely a personal tragedy, but the world is no longer able to sleep, it is not at peace. Eleshin says that there was a particular moment related to the location of the moon that was to be his sign to move on to the next realm. The spirits had given him notice to prepare and be on his way. Yoruba religion is not particularly hierarchical, with a transcendent God or set of gods, but instead relations between this world and the other are transactional and constant. In other words, the two realms communicate. I think that's the case with a lot of cultures – it certainly would be a good description of the way the Greeks regarded the realm of Hades, this world, and Mount Olympus above. Each realm has its own prerogatives but is in communication with the others. There is no more center or security now: Eleshin says, "The world is set adrift and its inhabitants are lost. Around them, there is nothing but emptiness." He sees Olunde as his avenger – the young man has learned the white man's ways, and will find some means to make things, if not right, then at least not so unbearable. On 3063, Pilkings attempts to wield Yoruba sayings against Eleshin, but fails.

3164-65. Even so, as Eleshin explains to his own bride, there is a sting in what Pilkings had said. He tells his bride, "You were the final gift of the living to their emissary to the land of the ancestors, and perhaps your warmth and youth brought new insights of this world to me and turned my feet leaden on this side of the abyss. For I confess to you, daughter, my weakness came not merely from the abomination of the white man who came violently into my fading presence, there was also a weight of longing on my earth-held limbs. This is something like a Garden of Gethsemane moment, wherein Jesus was tempted to let the cup pass, tempted to avoid the sacrifice he knew in his heart must be made. Except that Jesus passed that test – his humanity did not keep him from accepting the heroic burden. Eleshin is very hard on himself; he feels that he has utterly failed in his duty towards his people and his king. He does not use the white man Pilkings as a means of escaping this disgrace. On 3065, Iyaloja is allowed into Eleshin's presence, and humiliates him but at the same time explains accurately the consequences of his failure.

3066-67. Iyaloja insists that Eleshin has revoked his own heroic status, and become a coward and slave to the European colonists. His life had been spent preparing for this moment of following the King as his loyal horseman, and because that was so he was treated royally, eating the best food, dressing in great style, and garnering tremendous respect from everyone around him. His whole life was a celebration in preparation for ceremonial death. He has now rendered his life meaningless. At the bottom of 3066, Eleshin again explains what he thinks is the source of the weakness that struck him down: "It is when the alien hand pollutes the source of will, when a stranger's force of violence shatters the mind's calm resolution, this is when a man is made to commit the awful treachery of relief, commit in his thought the unspeakable blasphemy of seeing the hand of the gods in this alien rupture of his world." He almost saw the intrusion of Pilkings as divine intervention. The question that Iyaloja asks Eleshin is filled with terrible import to him: "Whose trunk withers to give sap to the other? The parent shoot or the younger?" Iyaloja knows that Olunde will sacrifice himself because Eleshin has failed to do his duty. The younger man must lose his vigor and even his life to make up for what the father has done.

3068-71. The only thing left is for the death of Olunde to be attested. His body is the burden of which Iyaloja had spoken rather cryptically moments before. Eleshin must impart a secret message to the body of his son. There is no comfort for Eleshin in any of this, I suppose, for Iyaloja says to him, "The son has proved the father Eleshin, and there is nothing left in your mouth to gnash but infant gums." As Iyaloja explains directly after Eleshin strangles himself before anyone can stop him, even in the other realm, he will be treated as a lesser man than his son. There is no final redemption, no real relief at the point of death for this unhappy man. He has become the emblem of a disrespected culture. In the end, I believe Wole Soyinka is not writing only to protest imperial domination of his homeland, though that would by no means be an illegitimate thing to do. The tragedy that Eleshin suffers is indeed related to that domination, but it is not simply caused by it. His suffering and disgrace also have to do with Yoruba culture itself, for it is first and foremost within that culture that he has failed. And the weakness he describes is, I think it's fair to say, universal in its nature. It is the stuff that led Nikos Kazantzakis to write The Last Temptation of Christ. And what is that last temptation? Simply the desire to live one's life, not to be a hero, to give in to the attractions of this world. This is a harsh burden that many cultures, perhaps all of them, would impose upon the distinguished.

Week 15, Dadaists, Kafka, Borowski

Dadaism Notes
Tristan Tzara
Perhaps I should not reduce what Tzara says to something that makes sense too easily, but here goes anyway: abolition of everything that has gone before, including logic, reason, order.  It isn’t difficult to see how this movement can be distinguished from modernism –when the author calls for the “abolition of the prophets,” he is suggesting that spontaneity is far more important than knowing the future.  The point is that a prophetic speaker speaks from profound understanding of the past and is making a prediction about the future; this kind of speaker would have a firm grip on reality, one that reaffirms reality.  That is not what our author here is advocating.  There is also something of an attack upon meaning itself; perhaps we can generalize the author’s phrase “lively satisfaction of knowing that it doesn’t matter” to cover just about everything he says.  We might at first suppose that writing a manifesto of this sort and rejecting the past strips the present of any chance to become authentic, grounded on something stable, but that seems to be precisely the point.  Dadaism talks a lot about spontaneity, and in a sense it is an attack upon the very concept of “meaning.” it is not trying to establish a new set of permanent conventions, a new and stable order of representation.  Refer to Tristan Tzara’s “Proclamation Without Pretension”: he uses the word “BEAUTIFUL” to signify such a stable order.  It also seems that he keeps multiplying his definitions of Dadaism – that makes sense because simple new definitions must not emerge.

On the eve of the Second World War, Walter Benjamin wrote something in “The Work Of Art In The Age Of Mechanical Reproduction” that may be appropriate here: Benjamin was interested in the potential of modern technology to liberate art and its audiences from the shackles of the past.  Benjamin saw the problem with conventional museum art being that it tended to support the values of the period in which it was produced.  Conventional art is inherently conservative.  It ratifies the reality of which it speaks or that it presents visually.

When Dadaists conjure reality, they tend to use shocking images and dream sequences –there is a pronounced Freudian tendency in Tristan Tzara’s work and in Dadaism generally.  Liberation is to be achieved from anything that ties us to the given order of things and to the given ways of doing things.  Including art itself, which takes as its goal permanent defamiliarization.  In that sense, Dadaism is revolutionary: consider Leon Trotsky’s notion of permanent revolution rather than a one-time event.

Kurt Schwitters
In “Anna Blume,” the author plays with pronouns in an unconventional way to suggest something like union with the beloved, but the effect is whimsical rather than solemn as in more conventional poetry.  He makes an intimate association between the lady’s name and her qualities.  This poem is on the one hand sensuous and sensual and yet it refuses easy definition, makes it impossible to get an ordinary realistic sense of what the lady looks like: how else are we to understand a line such as “Blue is the color of your yellow hair”?  The poet does not want to capture his love object conceptually so that she is reduced to something ordinary and predictable, just another traditional, conventional Petrarchan lady.  This woman’s very name “drips like softest tallow,” which suggests on the poet’s part a desire to refuse even the conventional signification implied by a name.
Paul Élouard
I like “The Mirror Of A Moment” because it suggests something like what I was saying when addressing Tristan Tzara’s manifesto: I mean that it emphasizes the present but not in a way that allows it to become solid.  What do mirrors do?  Mirrors present or represent reality to us without alteration, seemingly fixing it in stone.  The point is to experience the present but not to solidify it and make it available for the future in some stale manner.  All descriptions, all definitions, in the Dadaist context –pardon the phrase –must be self-confounding.

André Breton
“Free Union.”  This is a descriptive and erotic poem that illustrates very well what I was just saying about Tzara’s manifesto and the brief poem by Élouard –we get a series of very descriptive and overlapping images, but those images do not add up to a coherent picture of the beloved.  They are not supposed to.  The body of the lover is generative rather than reducible to a solid set of qualities or shapes.

“Vigilance.” This poem has something like a narrative.  It suggests that the poet is on a quest of some sort involving reduction by fire, or purification, and then entering a ship of infinite possibilities.  Humanity is torn, unwoven, and everything is reduced to “a shell of lace in the perfect shape of a breast.”

Aimé Césaire
I gather from his selections a sense of the effect of wild nature on language and logic – it’s very much like automatic writing, as the Norton editors suggested.

Joyce Mansour
Counter-reduction might be the goal here – is often said that man objectify women, reduce them to what they want them to be.  Mansour does something like that to her imagined male object as well.

Notes on Franz Kafka

MetamorphosisThere is no shortage in literary history of strange transformations.  There is The Metamorphosis by Roman poet Ovid, and there is The Golden Ass by another Roman poet, Apuleius.  But in those texts, the strange transformations didn’t happen without a reason that the poet cared to explain –magic was involved, or the transformed person had been trying to escape from someone pursuing him or her, or was being punished for something done.  That is not the case with Kafka.  His protagonist has nothing but a disorderly dream as warning for his transformation.  The story, as the Norton editors point out, is not allegorical – it is not a tale in which we are to translate the concrete, material image of a creature into some abstract quality, as when we say a lion stands for courage, and so forth.  It is tempting to turn the entire story into an allegory that way, into a story that involves the coming-to-consciousness of the protagonist to his previous situation.  But the problem with doing that is that Kafka focuses so intently upon the present situation.  We are less concerned about the old person than we are about the current insect.  I am not even sure that this “insect” is allowed to reflect a great deal on the changes that come over the members of his family as they gradually reject him.  He does have powers of reflection, but obviously this is not a narrative from which he is going to emerge alive and a wiser man, or even a wiser insect.  The transformation creates an impossible situation which turns fatal, as we might have expected.

Tadeusz Borowski

“Ladies and Gentlemen, to the Gas”

The worst thing about what the author describes is that it all points towards an “order of things,” not simple chaos or wild accident.  People do terrible things, crimes of passion and greed are committed, and so forth, but here in the Nazi death camps we have a well-machined, competently staffed system for dehumanizing people and destroying them in the most efficient manner.  And while the narrator mentions “pity” as a reason for trying to deceive the victims into thinking that they’re only going to be entering a new life instead of being marched to their deaths, I think that motive applies only to the prisoner-guards, not to the Nazis themselves: their inhumanity shows that their immediate motive for deception would have been crowd control.  They wanted doomed people to do as they were told, so they needed to convince those people that things were somehow on the path to normalcy.  Otherwise, chaos and unruly violence could have broken out.  But it gets worse – there are unmistakable signs of a diabolical “theater of cruelty” in the behavior and language of the Nazi Offiziere and Soldaten: they take sadistic delight in using the language and gestures of civility and then lashing out with barbarous vigor at their victims.  Why did they do that?  Well, at one level it may have been a desperate, successful attempt on their part to maintain distance from what they were doing: turn it into a highly efficient, often repeated bit of theater, and you’re just playing a role again and again, a role that doesn’t touch you.  Partly such theater seems intended to justify what’s being done, as when the Nazis invoked medical and legal language and procedure to condemn people and perform outrageous experiments on them – a show trial or a doctor’s stamp of approval allowed them to do anything they wanted.  Or maybe it’s still worse in the current case, in the camps and on the loading platforms – making “theater” of the whole affair might be said to deepen or heighten its reality: the stage has that effect, you know.  Children play-act to prolong the satisfaction of the     game, and adults sometimes do the same.  Borowski describes well how the guards banter pleasantly with one another even as they prepare to brutalize the poor souls who roll in with each train – you’d think they were on a picnic, the way they carry on amongst their peers.  Try watching The Wannsee Conference, a film that chronicles the matter-of-fact way in which key Nazi officials decided on the nuts and bolts details of the Endlösung der Judenfrage  (“Final Solution of the Jewish Question”) we know as the Shoah or Holocaust.

It isn’t hard to see the relevance of Kafka’s body of work here: we have an unapproachable order like the ones in his novels – an irrational and yet very efficiently managed bureaucracy against which a lone individual (or even a large group of individuals) is entirely powerless.  We also confront the issue of guilt, of complicity in one’s own oppression and the oppression of others: everything comes to resemble a human food chain, with each person doing what is necessary to survive.  What the Nazis announced in bold black and red was the death of the human spirit itself, or at least the death of all parts of it except what allows for the most sadistic and depraved acts imaginable. 

A number of representative acts are crammed into Borowski’s brief account about being a prisoner tasked with unloading and processing the human “cargo” that came rolling in on the railroad tracks regularly to be exploited and destroyed immediately or after an agonizing stint as industrial or agricultural slaves.  Guards tossing live disabled children onto a heap of corpses for immediate burning; mothers driven to abandon their children and then reproached for their “unnaturalness” in wanting to survive; crowds confined in cattle cars, gasping for air and crying for water.  It’s a hellish vision created entirely by Germans who have stomped the humanity out of themselves with their own jackboots, and forcibly perpetuated in the actions of some of their prisoners, who do what they must to survive.

Week 14, Garcia Lorca, Borges, Neruda

Notes on Federio Garcia Lorca
Lorca was a tragic figure – a Spanish Andalusian poet who was executed by General Francisco Franco's fascist squads at the beginning of the Spanish Civil War in 1936 (when Lorca was 38 years old), a war that Hitler used as a trial run for further violence, a training ground for his own army.  Franco put down the leftists in Spain and continued until the early 1970s as Spain's dictatorial ruler.  Truth and art are often casualties of war, and Garcia Lorca's bitter end proves it.

Still, he left behind a lot of writing, and what's included in our anthology is the "Lament for ISM."  Mejias was not only a bullfighter but a Renaissance man, learned and cultured.  That's the capacity in which FGL knew and mourned him.  A traditional elegy laments and memorializes a beloved person – consider Milton's "Lycidas" for his Cambridge University friend Edward King, or Tennyson's In Memoriam AHH for Arthur Henry Hallam, or Shelley's "Adonais," an elegy for John Keats.

Structurally, the poem is interesting, with its deep-song refrain of "at five o'clock in the afternoon."  That time is the point at which ISM's whole life comes together and ends.  He was gored by a bull and it took a while for him to die.  Gangrene was involved.  The first section concerns the events leading up to "five" when ISM passes away from his wounds.

In translation as in the original, there's a mixed quality to the poem.  The images are both starkly material and beautiful – the processes that lead to death aren't pretty, and FGL confronts that fact.  To get any lasting value from his friend's death, and properly pay his respects, he must regard death as a brute fact and acknowledging the dissolution of the body is part of that.  Near the poem's beginning, FGL covers the things one does in Spanish culture when a person is about to die.  A lot of what's recounted in this vein is not aesthetically pleasing, of course: death lays eggs in the wound, gangrene sets in, and so forth.  There is an element of realism here not entirely unlike Flaubert's description of Emma Bovary's death by arsenic poisoning.

In the second section, which begins with the speaker's perspective – "I will not see it" – we come to an attitude of defiant refusal, or denial.  He hasn't yet accepted the fact that ISM is dead; he must accept this w/o flowery rhetoric eventually.  At line 78, we get a sense of the perspective of ISM himself; that perspective is confusing, rendered in alienation: "he sought for his beautiful body and encountered his open wound."  He looks for what he was, but he has already been transfigured.  The body and its processes begin to open out into death itself, blood spurting on the ground and everywhere. 

Blood is mentioned often, and it spills out into the natural environs.  Natural dissolution has begun and must take its course.  See line 124: "Now he sleeps without end …. now his blood comes out singing …."  The second section ends with such references, and still the speaker says, "I will not see it."  Blood is life's source, but here exsanguination connects the human body with the natural environment.  Perhaps the need here is to face up to the stark reality, the eternity, of death itself.  Blood may connect us, but to say that isn't to say that the conscious self or ego survives the dissolution of the body.  Consciousness seems here to be extinguished utterly: ISM "sleeps without end" ().  Admitting this will be the precondition for paying a worthy tribute to the bullfighter. 

So if consciousness doesn't last, what does?  Sections 3 and 4 seem like they're going to continue the theme of dissolution: "We are here …" and "All is finished," etc.  But they are moving us forward along with the poet.  One of the striking things about confronting the body of a beloved person is that the body becomes stone-like in its coldness, a dead person becomes like stone.  ISM lies upon the stone as if he becomes one with it – the opposite of a soft, living body.  But the stone won't dissolve anytime soon, while the body will quickly perish and decay. 

In the last few sections, it's revealed that much of what we try to do by way of memorializing the dead winds up instead paying tribute to the obliteration of the beloved.  An old gravestone becomes a marker of forgetting rather than remembrance.  In ancient cemeteries, they used to dig up the bodies buried long before to make way for the newly dead.  Hamlet is a fine example of that: the sexton is digging up an already-occupied space (Yorick, among others) to make way for the body of Ophelia. 

In the last part of the poem, we are told that "the bull does not know you …" and that ISM has "died forever," which becomes the refrain.  But FGL sings of him and his great qualities, among them the willingness to confront the prospect of death.  "No te conosce nadie, pero yo te canto."  What is known, then, what is being sung?  Not you but about you.  FGL apparently agrees with the traditional claim that poetry can do something stone can't.  See Shakespeare's Sonnet 55 to the fair young man, which begins

Not marble, nor the gilded monuments
Of princes, shall outlive this powerful rhyme;
But you shall shine more bright in these contents
Than unswept stone besmear'd with sluttish time.

It isn't Mejias the bullfighter but an archetype of excellence that will be sung and that will survive.  But the poet only gets to that point by admitting that the living, breathing person is in fact gone.  Once that's achieved, he comes round to the task of properly memorializing him as an archetype of grace, excellence and courage.  Death is the absolute limit that must be confronted, which on the poet's part entails a rejection of sentimentality or flowery rhyme.

Notes on Jorge Luis Borges
Borges was Argentinian born, and spent much time in Europe.  He fared badly during the regime of Juan Peron since Borges was more closely allied with the Left than the Peronistas were willing to tolerate.  See page 2412: "In 1946 the Peron regime removed him from the librarian's post" and moved him over to the job of "chicken inspector."  Buck buck buck!!  But later on he fared much better.  In each life some chickens will cluck.  His amanuensis in later years, by the way, was Alberto Manguel, who wrote an interesting book called A History of Reading. 

Borges is the antithesis of a realist, though the present story reads clearly enough, and is rather like detective fiction: here's the official account, and here's the truth about how the info was obtained to bomb this little town.  He rejects the idea that art must copy life, must tie itself to a realistic representation of life in all its banality and ideological pushiness.  He's more of a philosophical artist, a postmodernist of sorts.  A realistic author like Jane Austen or Gustave Flaubert, after all, writes in the basic belief that life is intelligible and unified and that one can, therefore, represent it coherently and accurately, more or less in linear fashion, well-sketched and consistent characters, etc.  But maybe that's too tidy and excludes everything that doesn't add to the unity-and-coherence effect.  One ideological reason for this is that such an author may not really want things to change, though that's not entirely fair since you could say that first you have to recognize how things are in the first place.  Still, it's at least arguable that the realistic agenda ties one to or makes one complicit in the perpetuation of what is represented.  Borges as a man of the Left is interested in social and political change. 

Borges isn't describing a reality but many, but inventing new worlds upon worlds, promoting the free play of imagination.  That is a Surrealist thing to advocate in the name of change, and of course we often say that Borges inspired a great deal of Latin America's magical realism, itself a species of literary surrealism relying on the juxtaposition of alternate realities.  History, myth, any source of insight will be placed on the same level – a fact I believe the Norton editors refer to.  The productions of imagination are granted their own reality, probably because doing that encourages a brand of literature less tied to the way things supposedly "just are" and more allied with possibilities.

The story itself begins by referring to actual textbook history: "You will read that an attack … had to be postponed …"  But let Borges' narrator tell us what really happened.  This something that really happened sounds like it's scripted by the Freudian Unheimlich, the shock of recognition of something mysterious.  His own past is what causes this shock  -- his grandfather was writing a book about the constitution of time and eventuality.  He becomes a character in that book, at least by projection, as if the present had already been predicted.  Yu Tsun had no idea that he was going to find out about this secret of his ancestral past, but he finds out all the same.  He was in Staffordshire with Rudeberg and they are caught, pursued by the Irishman Madden, a detective who has been seeking them out.  Why has he done what he's done, acting as a spy?  "I wanted to prove to him that a yellow man could save his armies" (2415).  He possesses the name of the town that the Germans must bomb because it has an artillery park is Albert.  The only way to convey it is to kill a man named Stephen Albert since his last name matches.  Madden is looking for him, and Tsun knows he'll eventually be caught.  Can he get to Stephen Albert first?  That's the thing.  But Albert happens to be a sinologist.  Tsun can only get to the house by means of a maze, which is uncanny because that's what his grandfather's book was about.  Uncanny, and it all keeps coming back to the protagonists personally and to their own history, these great events of history.  See 2416 bottom.

What will we learn?  Well, we will learn why Tsun's grandfather wrote the book, why he made such a project of time.  The story's burden is to explain the alternate conception of reality and time that Tsun's grandfather had come up with.  It's Stephen Albert who enlightens Tsun about his own past.  I suppose the both of them are living out one version of reality.  The grandfather had, after all, been killed by the hand of another, just as Stephen Albert will be.  As it turns out, the book and the labyrinth are the same thing, and Albert has figured it out: an entirely different way of dealing with temporality, with narrative.  The garden was the "chaotic novel" (2419).  Well, as Yogi Berra says, "When you come to a fork in the road, take it."  In Borges-world, you can hardly do otherwise!  Or how about, "That place isn't popular anymore – everybody goes there"?  Many futures, infinite possibilities, and they all happen.  It's almost as if what the old man Pen' was on to was something like today's "string theory," which tries to bring together quantum mechanics and general relativity.

Notes on Pablo Neruda
As for politics, well, Neruda’s a Chilean.  As I’ve probably mentioned, America has a long and troubled history in central and south American politics.  We have generally supported the business and military interests that suit us, not necessarily the ones that would improve life for people in Chile, or Peru, or Costa Rica, or wherever in Latin America.  United Fruit was huge in central America, and in Chile, for instance, you had to reckon with Anaconda and its mining interests.  Such multinationals aren’t interested in nation-states except as a hindrance to the flow of capital where they – the companies – want it to go, a hindrance to how they want to deal with labor arrangements and standards, and so forth.  When Chile got its independence from Spain in the 1820’s, things may have looked promising, but then the Brits stepped in and got control of many of Chile’s resources, and of course the USA had interests of its own, so we tried to foil the Brits.  Anyway, it gets ugly and complicated, and the worst of it is probably our campaign to discredit Salvador Allende, Chile’s socialist but legitimately elected president, in 1973.  After that, Augusto Pinochet established a military dictatorship.  I don’t know that the CIA planned the coup itself, but it’s obvious that the US benefited from the change and that the militarists were encouraged by the money and effort we put into destabilizing Allende’s presidency.

Neruda became very much a “poet of the people.”  But that title seems to come in the course of his political development towards leftism.  He starts off as a love & nature poet, moves on to the impure/pure poetry debate, with the “impurists” being something like advocates for surrealist description of objects, not “ego-centered.”  That’s not the same thing as realism, of course: the point is rather, I think, to embrace the fully human and reject the too-well-arranged and centered self of the bourgeois ideologue, and to embrace heterogeneity of the object world.  See “Walking Around” for this influence (2443-44).  In André Breton’s 1924 Surrealist Manifesto, dreams and free imagination take precedence over waking, orderly reality and its prim associations between one thing and another.  In the visual arts, think Salvador Dalí.  Openness to contradiction is vital.  Neruda writes, 

"Let that be the poetry we search for: worn with the hand's obligations, as by acids, steeped in sweat and in smoke, smelling of lilies and urine, spattered diversely by the trades that we live by, inside the law or beyond it.

A poetry impure as the clothing we wear, or our bodies, soup-stained, soiled with our shameful behavior, our wrinkles and vigils and dreams, observations and prophesies, declarations of loathing and love, idylls and beasts, the shocks of encounter, political loyalties, denials and doubts, affirmations and taxes.

The holy canons of madrigal, the mandates of touch, smell, taste, sight, hearing, the passion for justice, sexual desire, the sea sounding, willfully rejecting and accepting nothing: the deep penetration of things in the transports of love, a consummate poetry soiled by the pigeon's claw, ice-marked and tooth-marked, bitten delicately with our sweatdrops and usage, perhaps. Till the instrument so restlessly played yields us the comfort of its surfaces, and the woods show the knottiest suavities shaped by the pride of the tool. Blossom and water and wheat kernel share one precious consistency: the sumptuous appeal of the tactile.

Source: "Toward an Impure Poetry,"  [date 1935] in Pablo Neruda, Five Decades: A Selection ( Poems: 1925-1970), translated by Ben Belitt (New York, Grove Press, 1974), pp. xxi-xxii.

But as he develops, Neruda’s belief in the material-reality-rendering possibilities of language really comes into full play: see “I’m explaining a few things” (2445-46).  Why is he rejecting flowery erotic or pastoral poesy?  Well, “Come and see the blood in the streets” of Spain during the Spanish Civil War of 1936-39.  That’s the imperative – to bring together the ordinary people against a fascist such as General Franco, whose rule, unfortunately, outlasted his allies Hitler and Mussolini right on through the early 1970s.

In the portion of Canto General that we have, the great Andes mountain, Macchu Picchu, at once seems to swallow up humanity and to become the symbol of its permanence, the permanence of Peruvian and indeed Latin American culture, in spite of what the Spaniards did to the Incas, Maya, Aztecs and other early civilizations.  “The Heights” and its imagery, as the editors point out, works against pure linearity as a principle of understanding history; the technique is instead to amalgamate or fuse many memories, many images, many periods into something like a unified vision founded on hope for the future.  This is a mainstay of Latin American literature, with its emphasis on what’s often called “magical realism.”  The past is never entirely lost; it haunts the present but also affords vision and opportunity to those who are willing to confront and embrace it rather than deny it.  All you need do is read Marquez’s Cento Años de Soledad to realize that.

Week 13, Kawabata Yasunari

I haven't found the time to type up my notes for a blog entry on this author.  I may do so in future.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Week 12, Thomas Mann's Death in Venice


Chapter  1 (1840-43)

Von Aschenbach is taking a walk through Munich when we first meet him, and ends up reading the headstones in stonemasons' shops.  His work, which is that of a writer, demands "particular discretion, caution, penetration, and precision of will" 1841).  He is a meticulous craftsman.  The sight of a foreign traveler, even if the man is hostile, provokes von Aschenbach into a state of imagination and wanderlust.  He envisions tropical landscapes, primitive wildernesses and so forth (1841).  He is left when this vision fades successfully attempting to rationalize his need to travel somewhere beyond the mountain "rustic country house" (1842) that has been his only retreat over the years.  He is aware of a "growing lassitude, about which no one could be allowed to know" (1842) and which must not be allowed to impact or diminish the value of his meticulous work as a writer.  He is a perfectionist, and for this quality, we are told, "he had curbed and cooled his emotions, because he knew that emotion inclines one to satisfaction with a comfortable approximation, a half of perfection" (1842 bottom).  He has attained mastery as a writer, but even he feels that his work lacks "those earmarks of a fiery, playful fancy" (1843) that his audience might appreciate even more than perfection.  So von Aschenbach decides to do some safe traveling for a month or so.  The stranger who prompted this decision is by now nowhere to be found.

Chapter 2 (1843, 48)

The picture that emerges of von Aschenbach is that of a bourgeois intellectual whose art has grown dignified and respectable with age, to the point where they're including him now in the German educational system's equivalent of standard textbooks.  He is the son of a civil servant and his mother was a Bohemian music director's daughter (1843 bottom-44 top).  The author describes von Aschenbach's literary ascendancy in ideal terms, so that he seems like the very pattern of success as a career or professional author.  He aims to please the general public as well as a younger and more challenging audience.  Again and again, the author sets forth the strong work ethic of this writer: "he was not so much born for constant exertion as he was called to it (1844 middle).  He plans to live a long life so that his writing me deal with all the phases of a long life.  What he possesses is not so much what we might call romantic genius as a Protestant work ethic imported into the realm of artistic creation (1845 top).  His own watchword, we are told, is that "nearly everything achieving greatness did so under the banner of 'Despite' – despite grief and suffering…" (1845 middle).  There is a kind of passiveness to his whole ethos, for which the author St. Sebastian the martyr.  To me, the most significant passage in this chapter is the following: "von Aschenbach was the poet of all those who work on the edge of exhaustion, of the overburdened, worn down moralists of achievement who nonetheless still stand tall, those who, stunted in growth and short of means, use ecstatic feats of will and clever management to extract from themselves at least for a period of time the effects of greatness" (1846 top).  It seems to me that this sort of description damns von Aschenbach with faint praise.  His sort of greatness so-called is the only sort recognized by the mass of people he aims to please.  Is the only sort recognized by his age, apparently.  That does not necessarily make it a genuine greatness.  This is extremely clear towards the end of the first paragraph on 1846.  What is one to say about an author whose career can be summed up as a "defiant rise to dignity, beyond any twinge of doubt and of irony that might have stood in his way" (1846 middle)?

Around the time we learn that he is appearing in anthologies, we learn that he married only to have his wife die young.  He also has a daughter (18 47 3/4).  At the end of the chapter, the author explains the difference between art and other kinds of experience: "Art offers a deeper happiness, but it consumes one more quickly.  It engraves upon the faces of its servants the traces of imaginary, mental adventures and… Engenders in them a nervous sensitivity, and over-refinement, a weariness and an inquisitiveness such as are scarcely ever produced by a life full of extravagant passions and pleasures" (1848 top).

Chapter 3 (1848-66)

Von Aschenbach decides upon a visit to Venice after he becomes disappointed with the Adriatic island he had originally fixed on (1848).  Venice is an exotic and ancient place, and easy enough to get to for any European.  An eminently logical decision on the part of the good professor.  But we are soon made aware that this trip is not going to be a three-week tour, to borrow a line from Gilligan's Island.  The eerie appearance of an old merrymaker unsettles von Aschenbach: "scarcely had Aschenbach gotten a closer look at him when he realized with something like horror that this youth was not genuine" (1849).  The merrymaker is an elderly man dressed up with the trappings of youth.  He is inappropriate, untimely.  Wouldn't everyone around him notice?  Asks von Aschenbach to himself.  "It seemed to him that things were starting to take a turn away from the ordinary, as if a dreamy estrangement, a bizarre distortion of the world were setting in…" (1850 top).  Approaching Venice from the sea is a remarkable sight, finds von Aschenbach, but with regard to that elderly merrymaker, things only get more unsettling: the old fellow has had too much to drink and can't hold his liquor, so he makes a perfect fool of himself with obscene gestures and inappropriate gregariousness (1851 middle), which culminates in some babbling about beloveds.  The affinity between this old reveler and von Aschenbach will, of course, become ruefully apparent as the novella develops.

Von Aschenbach wants to go to the steamer landing, but his squirrely gondolier is determined to take him to the Lido because the steamer will not accept luggage.  A contest of wills follows (1853-54).  As soon as von Aschenbach lands and the gondolier takes off without collecting his fee, we find out that he did not have a license.  Nothing is as it should be; everything is "odd" (1855 top).  The narrator makes an interesting remark about the difference between introspective people and ordinary people: "A lonely, quiet person has observations and experiences that are at once both more indistinct and more penetrating than those of one more gregarious; his thoughts are weightier, stranger, and never without a tinge of sadness.  Images and perceptions that others might shrug off with a glance, a laugh, or a brief conversation occupy him unduly, become profound in his silence, become significant, become experience, adventure, emotion" (1854 bottom-55 top).  This kind of distinction should clue us in to the way Thomas Mann is going to treat conceptual oppositions, neither simply approving nor condemning them.

Von Aschenbach soon takes his fateful first glance at the young Polish boy with whom he will soon become obsessed: "Aschenbach noted with astonishment that the boy was perfectly beautiful.  His face, pale and gracefully reserved, was framed by honey-colored curls.  He had a straight nose and a lovely mouth and wore an expression of exquisite, divine solemnity" (1855).  Already von Aschenbach is comparing him to Greek statues.  It is not entirely certain whether this boy is in poor health or simply pampered, but von Aschenbach, we are told, believes the second hypothesis: "There is inborn in every artistic disposition an indulgent and treacherous tendency to accept injustice when it produces beauty and to respond with complicity and even admiration when the aristocrats of this world get preferential treatment" (1856).  The immediate effect of this vision upon him is something like intellectual stimulation, and von Aschenbach initially dismisses the whole affair: he "ultimately concluded that his thoughts and discoveries resembled those inspirations that come in dreams: they seem wonderful at the time, but in the sober light of day they show up as utterly shallow and useless" (1857 middle).  Nonetheless, his dreams seem disturbed after this initial meeting.  It is at this point that we hear about the stultifying, sultry and stagnant atmosphere in Venice, a phenomenon with which von Aschenbach is familiar since he has been to Venice before and left the place on account of the unhealthy weather.

Soon, von Aschenbach is remarking upon "the truly godlike beauty possessed by this mortal child" (1858 middle), and deciding that he will stay longer in spite of the weather.  The narrator lets us in on the fact that von Aschenbach has always felt a love of the sea, thanks to its indistinct and vague qualities.  "It was a forbidden affinity, directly contrary to his calling, and seductive precisely for that reason" (1859).  That is, his cultivation of meticulous stylistic perfection as a writer contrasts with his love of the immeasurable void.  However, no sooner are we let in on this insight than the void is traversed by none other than Tadzio: "the horizontal line of the sea's edge was crossed by a human figure" (1859 middle).  It is evident that the boy can't stand the sight of a Russian family, which only adds to his attractiveness to von Aschenbach.  One of the child's playmates kisses him, which leads von Aschenbach to quote from Xenophon (1860 bottom).

This way of interpreting the boy's every move and appearance becomes more intense soon enough: "The sight of this lively adolescent figure, seductive and chaste, lovely as a tender young god, emerging from the depths of the sky and the sea with dripping locks and escaping the clutches of the elements – it all gave rise to mythic images" (1861 top).  At this point, what are we to make of language such as, "A paternal kindness, an emotional attachment filled and moved his heart, the attachment that someone who produces beauty at the cost of intellectual self-sacrifice feels toward someone who naturally possesses beauty" (1861 middle)?  This is still the language of Platonism, and has about it the air of a rationalization of erotic interest.  As the weather worsens, von Aschenbach decides that the sickness attending upon the weather is too great to bear (1862 middle).  He really must leave this place.  Von Aschenbach consumes his final meal at the hotel, and just as he finishes, Tadzio walks by, prompting the scholar to bless the boy under his breath (1863 bottom).  And he thinks that's the end of it.  But it really isn't since he finds unacceptable that he has now twice been forced by his body's limitations to abandon this place that seems so conducive to the formulation and flourishing of ideals and spirit (1864 middle).  But a problem with his luggage solves the greater problem with his anguish over having to leave Venice.  Back to the hotel he goes (1865 top).  Von Aschenbach is not entirely unaware that his difficulty in leaving had most of all to do with the young boy he has taken such an interest in: "He felt the excitement in his blood, the joy and pain in his soul, and recognized that it was because of Tadzio that his departure had been so difficult" (1866 top).

Chapter 4 (1866-74)

The narrator's language becomes more and more imbued with mythic quality to characterize the state of von Aschenbach's mind.  See the very beginning of the chapter.  Tadzio is now the almost constant object of his attentions (1867 middle).  Most of page 1868 is taken up with a detailed description of the child's appearance as if he were a Greek statue.  And then follows this effusion: "Image and mirror!  His eyes embraced the noble figure there on the edge of the blue, and in a transport of delight he thought his gaze was grasping beauty itself, the pure form of divine thought, the universal and pure perfection that lives in the spirit and which here, graceful and lovely, presented itself for worship in the form of a human likeness and exemplar" (1868 bottom).  See also what is said about the way the sun "turns our attention from intellectual to sensuous matters" (1868 bottom).

Will add notes on Chapter 5 if time permits....

Week 11, Pirandello's Six Characters in Search of an Author

Notes on Luigi Pirandello’s Six Characters in Search of an Author
Traditionally, theater has been theorized as providing distance from “real life” so as to afford us perspective and intelligibility.  Paradoxically, it achieves this distance by means of emotional intensity – dramatic illusion is actually part of the mechanics, I suppose, necessary to the moral and didactic aims of theater.  Aristotle (384-22 BCE) says that of the six elements of a play (plot, character, diction, thought, spectacle, and song), by far the most important is plot, or mythos.  That’s because the plot arranges the incidents of the drama to provide us with the pattern of a single coherent action that rivets our attention, eliciting pity (éleos) and fear or terror (phóbos); the process as a whole leads to catharsis (cleansing, purification, etc.) and, at least in the usual interpretation, teaches us something about ourselves and our relationship to other human beings and to the divine realms.

What Pirandello explores in the present play is not so much the erasure of the usual distinction between art and the rest of life, but rather an experimental alteration in the logic of dramatic illusion.  It has become characteristic of post-modern drama to break this illusion or do other strange things with it, but in Pirandello’s day that was still a novelty (even though you can find it at work in Shakespeare).  We are in fact watching quite a spectacle and we know that that’s what it is, of course – it’s pretty hard to get around Dr. Johnson’s C18 pronouncement, “The truth is, that the spectators are always in their senses, and know, from the first act to the last, that the stage is only a stage, and that the players are only players” and that “If there be any fallacy, it is not that we fancy the players, but that we fancy ourselves unhappy for a moment.”  Still, it seems possible at times to draw in the audience until they feel as if they are something more like participants in a “happening” (to borrow a sixties word) than mere spectators of a dry proceeding on a stage.  Pirandello’s way of doing this is by way of a species of mise en abîme, wherein we behold the preparations for a real play (that Pirandello himself wrote) interrupted and taken over by the realer-than-life imaginative projections of characters from an unfinished novel – these characters astonish and captivate the actors onstage, convince il produttore (who initially sees himself as pretty much what a producer is – not a creative agent like the regista or director but rather as a sort of glorified handyman seeing that everything comes off smoothly) to let things tumble on as they subsequently do: the characters generate chaos on the stage when they insist that their passionate melodrama must be acted out and expressed just as they know it has to go.  It’s their sole purpose in their fictive life, after all – they’re not just actors who have memorized lines that they then have to work up the feeling to speak.  It seems this author had failed them, had failed to round off the necessary actions and give the characters the relief of finality.

In a sense this is absurdist realism: it’s a trick of art to impose order and significance and comforting truisms on the events and emotions that make up life.  One of the most powerful views of art is that it’s a species of illusion or deception that lends clarity to other areas of life, opens up a space for reflection on them.  That view places art on the side of civilization and order, uses art as an instrument for the sake of these things.  The illusion created is usually smooth, even seamless.  But the modern sense of reality is permeated by complexity, incompatibilities of all kinds, and a strong dose of incoherence: in plain English, it’s messy, not an unbroken, polished surface.  In so far as there’s dramatic illusion in this Pirandello play, I suppose, it’s one that tugs us into this messy modern reality: what’s taking place on the stage is supposed to capture our attention and seem real to us or at least as compelling as if it were real, at least at times.  Isn’t that what Coleridge meant by “a willing suspension of disbelief”?  So the question may not have so much to do with illusion but rather with the nature of the reality that we are being led to experience and contemplate.  If the world beyond the play’s confines isn’t one in which people’s passions and actions are easily manageable and ordered to lead to a predictable outcome or a firm set of rules by which to live, perhaps art need not imply such a smooth and satisfying reality.  Modernity tends to construe grand concepts like “civilization” itself a species of pleasant illusion or even delusion.

Not that the play is particularly bleak in what it implies about “real life.”  The Father character insists that what he and the others want to put on is more real than real life or an ordinary play.  His point seems to be that in everyday life, we can squirrel out of being pinned to who we are and in fact we can change somewhat, so our notions about eternal verities always turn out to be premature.  By contrast, the situation he’s in is inescapable and eternal, almost a version of damnation: he must keep reliving his reality, while ours turns out to have been an illusion tomorrow.  At least we can move on.  And this eternal recurrence, to borrow a phrase from Nietzsche, isn’t one he or any of them can easily or finally embrace.  I’d say the relationship the play posits between life and art is uneasy, but not necessarily that its vision of life is hopeless.  The possibility of change cuts both ways: we may end up “the puppets of ourselves,” trapping ourselves into various harmful and inauthentic roles, but maybe it doesn’t have to be that way. 

Why do they need an author?  Well, they say they must be allowed to “write” their own actions and passions, but without an author (a figure for God?) there’s no finality, nothing beyond the framework of their “scenes” to give them their ultimate significance, put a cap on everything.  Indeed, asking the producer to become the writer might even be taken as a wish for the death or devaluation of the author, an act of resentment against the original author who abandoned them.

But if one comes to think of civilization itself as a species of illusion or lie, this view of art may be challenged.  Might it not be best to force your audience to participate in a confusing real-time “reality” that doesn’t so easily assert an orderly and coherent world beyond the play’s confines, one in which passions and actions are manageable and predictable?

Artists rearrange events and alter characters or “outline” them to bring out patterns of meaning for themselves and us, the audience.  So at one level, we’re being reminded that art really doesn’t “imitate” life, but only gives us a distanced version of it.  And all the stage references and critical commentary remind us of the fact that we are watching a play

At another level, though, what happens with these struggling “characters” is in fact acted on the stage for us, as a traditional play would do.  At that level, it becomes clear that raw, traumatic events can be conveyed with considerable effect.  After all, the whole thing’s a play put on for us, the audience.  It’s still dramatic illusionism, only with an extra bubble surrounding it.

Week 09, Dostoevsky's Notes from Underground

Part 1: "Underground"

Part 1, Chapter 1

The first thing we find out about the narrator is that he is spiteful and physically ill.  Moreover, he is very self-conscious, very aware of this spitefulness that belongs to him.  He explains that he was a rather badly behaved civil servant who took pleasure in causing distress to others who needed his help.  But he can't even really enter into his own spitefulness since as he tells us, it was all sort of an act: "not only was I not a spiteful man, I was not even an embittered one… (1307).  This narrator, it quickly becomes apparent, likes to make bold assertions and then take them back or at least modify them – he is obviously unreliable.  He speaks of "contradictory elements" (1308) in his nature, and these elements torment him.

 The inability to act is the next thing the narrator explains following upon his stated realization that he can't either embrace spitefulness or become good – he is always uncomfortably somewhere in between the hero and the rascal.  And here we are introduced to the notion that intelligence is more a curse than a blessing – a smart man can't do anything or become anything, while fools skate through life always certain of themselves.  To be intelligent is to have no character and therefore strangely unlimited and undelimited, while the man of action is limited.  He used to be a collegiate assessor, but a relative left him 6000 rubles, so he retired last year, and now lives in expensive St. Petersburg.  The first chapter ends with a tricky rejection of the discourse of "a decent man" – the decent man takes pleasure in talking about himself, and our narrator says, "I too will talk about myself" (1308).

Part 1, Chapter 2

To be overly conscious is a disease (1309 top).  The more conscious the narrator became about the beautiful and the sublime, about the good, the less able he was to act, and thus he became bitter.  But finally, after much struggle, this bitterness becomes sweetness and finally pleasure (1310 top).  Is it the same for others?  He wants to know.  As for the pleasure he is talking about, we are told that it came from "the overly acute consciousness of one's own humiliation…" (1310).  You can't change, and you can't do anything, so why not be a scoundrel?  He declares his aim to be explaining the kind of pleasure he is talking about, the perverse pleasure in one's own humiliation and incapacity to do anything about it.

Part 1, Chapter 3

What do normal people do when they run into natural limits, into a brick wall imposed upon them by nature itself?  Well, normal, probably stupid people, according to our narrator, simply give up.  He calls these people "spontaneous" (1311), and says that the wall, for them, is definitive and meaningful, even "mystical" (1311).  It is not so for a mouse like our narrator – for that is what he calls himself.  This mouse has what the narrator calls "overly acute consciousness" (1311), meaning that he is highly self-conscious, self-aware.  This mouse cannot even work up and execute a plan for revenge the way the so-called "man of nature and truth" can; that is because the mouse knows that revenge is wrong, or at least that it makes no sense to call it justice.  So he cannot act, and seethes with resentment (1311).  This is the origin of spitefulness and resentment, an important quality to our narrator, even though as his reasoning progresses, he demonstrates a conviction that spitefulness, like other supposed reasons, is ultimately hollow because it requires an agent that the spiteful but intelligent man simply does not believe in. 

But here things become even more complicated because our mouse starts to take a certain pleasure in his own predicament, his own feeling of being done an injustice and yet not having the ability to do anything about it.  See page 1312 on this, and 1313 for the narrator's explanation: he doesn't care about the laws of nature or that 2+2 make 4; the thing is, he dislikes such laws and that is what matters most.  It is better, he thinks, to refuse reconciliation with the laws of nature, mathematics, natural science, and so forth, better to oppose them all so long as you can maintain a certain independence of thought and will.  Simply not to be an absolute dupe seems to be his goal, and to achieve it he sets himself against the cosmos and other men.  There is bitter pleasure in this.  The narrator is not asserting that he is in possession of any grand systematic truth.  Far from it.

Part 1, Chapter 4

The narrator insists further that even consciousness of pain can lead to a kind of voluptuous pleasure – it is precisely the fact that you know there's no one to blame for your toothache that you betray by moaning about it.  Nature can inflict all sorts of injuries and humiliations upon you and your body, even if you despise nature.  There's nothing you can do about it, and perhaps that is what eventually leads to this strange pleasurable sensation or enjoyment.  See page 1314 in particular: the enjoyment becomes downright voluptuous, says the narrator, when, say, the 19th-century man moaning about his toothache becomes fully aware that the moaning accomplishes nothing but to annoy everyone around him.  He knows he's just acting spitefully and maliciously, and that is what he takes such great pleasure in: it is a kind of knowledge, admirable or otherwise.  The narrator really drills home the point when he asks at the very end of the fourth chapter, "Can a man possessing consciousness ever really respect himself?"  To be self-conscious makes it impossible to have self-respect.  Apparently, only healthy, normal idiots respect themselves.  So why be normal?  To be normal is to live comfortably within one's petty performances, one's illusions, always to be surrounded by the paper bag of unalterable reality.

Part 1, Chapter 5

The narrator describes boredom as central to his consciousness – he has always found himself stirring up trouble, getting emotionally involved in things he doesn't really care about, and so forth, simply to escape this boredom for a moment.  The excess of consciousness that structures his being leads, as he says, to "inertia" (1315).  The normal, stupid person has little trouble finding a foundation or a secure basis for action in the world, but clever individuals understand that there is probably no such foundation, that there are most likely only "immediate and secondary causes" (1315), at least as far as we can know.  Justice would be a primary cause, but that is exactly the sort of thing our mouse can never find fully justified, cannot discover – there is only an infinite succession backwards of secondary causes.  You might think spite could stand in for a primary cause, but the problem is that it disintegrates pretty quickly, and you are left with nothing but contempt for yourself for having believed it could serve as a foundation for action.  Strong negative emotions, in other words, soon burn themselves out, and you can't really maintain them as the basis for sustained action.  So we are back to inertia again.  That is hardly surprising: the narrator can't set forth any of his claims in terms of the primary causality that makes it possible for "normal people" to act.  The underground man can never act, speak or write in perfect faith in the justice of his beliefs or words.

Part 1, Chapter 6

If only, says the narrator, he could pinpoint the reason for his inactivity as laziness.  But he cannot even do that.  A person can make a fine career out of laziness, and be well respected for it.  You could for example be a connoisseur or art critic who simply affirms what everybody else thinks constitutes "the beautiful and sublime" (1316).  That way, you become part of a social system revolving around groupthink, aesthetical or otherwise.  If you don't mind going along, it's very easy to get along and prosper.

Part 1, Chapter 7

Plato's notion that enlightenment is the key to the good society because people always act in their own self-interest seems ridiculous to our narrator, who insists that history proves quite otherwise.  What's the value in constructing utopias, in that case?  No value.  The greatest advantage of all, the one beyond any "rational, advantageous desire," is "independent desire" (1320).  To follow your own will, even if it takes you off the edge of a cliff – that, I think our narrator is saying, is the key to human existence and it annihilates all utopias from the time of Plato onwards.

Part 1, Chapter 8

But what if even free will, which are narrator has been so energetically promoting, turns out to be an illusion?  What if science destroys any possible belief in it?  What if desire itself is nothing but the slave of necessity?  Desire is irrational, and that is its chief virtue – the narrator says that reason is only one dimension of life and that desire is much more pervasive; it is "a manifestation of all life" (1321).  Another key statement: humanity is defined as "a creature that walks on two legs and is ungrateful" – but more particularly, perpetually badly behaved (1322).  We really do not act in our own best interests, either collectively or as individuals.  The key to this chapter appears towards its conclusion: even if we could predict and tabulate all the motions of human desire, even if we turned out to be piano keys played upon by the alleged laws of nature, we would go so far as to abandon sanity itself to escape determination and predictability.  Threatened with being the slave of necessity, or 2+2, so to speak, man will curse, cause disturbances, stir up trouble, defy and make those things the meaning of his existence.  What would be the point of desire if it were not unpredictable, if it were reducible to an algorithm of the laws of nature?  2+2 always make 4, even if your will has nothing to do with it, so why align yourself with the laws of mathematics and nature?

Part 1, Chapter 9

The narrator contrasts us with ants making their anthills.  The difference is that they keep doing the same thing and their purpose is completely utilitarian.  They're going to make good use of the anthills that they build and will keep doing so until there are no more ants.  But for us, achieving the goal of our constructions is the beginning of death, just as 2+2 make 4 is "the beginning of death" (1324).  Consciousness is a curse, but at the same time, we would not give it up, and it is "higher than two times two" (1325).

Part 1, Chapter 10

The Crystal Palace is really not as useful as a chicken coop, says the narrator, and at least the chicken coop isn't terrifying in its implications for free will and desire.  It is impossible to stick out one's tongue at such a palace (1325).  And in the end, this palace really is a chicken coop because it shelters us from the truth that we are nothing more than dupes, is just an illusion that we cherish, an illusion of purpose and perpetual progress.  The narrator concludes this chapter by recognizing just how dangerous his own brand of thinking is to everyone who is not like him (1326). 

Part 1, Chapter 11

In this final chapter of the first part, the narrator explains what to some degree he has meant all along by "the underground": he apparently means by this phrase in part thinking itself, but we should add that this thinking is dialogical, meaning that he imagines an audience in response to it.  To this audience he declares that "it's better to do nothing!  Conscious inertia is better!"  (1326) There is something of the back and forth of conversation going on in this so-called underground.  The underground is everything that healthy, normal people repress as they go about their waking lives and business – they have no need of such philosophizing and agonizing over things like purpose and free will.  It's what mustn't be uttered, perhaps even what shouldn't be thought, lest one suffer the psychological consequences.  The narrator insists that he will never print his words and share them with the public, which privacy-device creates a sense of intimacy as we read – it is as if we are not the reading public but rather individuals who have somehow come by this unpublished manuscript, which itself seems to be the effusion of a man who has been underground for his entire life.

Why not just recall it in his head, if he doesn't mean to publish?  The narrator doesn't give a solid answer to this question, but tells us that perhaps recalling old memories will provide some relief and allow him to get rid of those memories once and for all.  This is an ancient concept of writing, in which the act of writing cuts off a stream of thought from consciousness, alienating it forever from its producer.  That is more or less what Plato makes Socrates say in Phaedrus about the invention and act of writing.  And of course the narrator is simply bored, so setting down his tale will give him something to do: maybe in that sense it is an act of mischief, just as he said earlier about how we deal with boredom.  Does the tale that follows reinforce the philosophy that he has set down with such deliberate lack of systematic rigor?  That remains to be seen, but in general, it seems to back up the first part of the text.

Part 2: "Apropos of the Wet Snow"

Part 2,  Chapter 1

At the age of 24, the narrator was outwardly conventional; the unsettling thing that comes out here is how much of the "underground" was already within him, though it may have structured his life at that point more or less in the form of social awkwardness, the inability to meet the gaze of other people, etc.  Even the normal activities in which the young narrator engaged were already manifestations of his resentment and defiance of all things conventional.
The section in which the officer picks him up like a puffball and moves him aside is hilarious.  The big fellow is like a force of nature: there's no point in resisting him because he's a healthy, normal blockhead who probably wouldn't accepting a challenge from a resentful man-mouse like our narrator.  He didn't even seem to notice the actual bump that the narrator finally manages to give him after two years or so, in an attempt to turn the affair into something suitably romantic, suitably honorable and literary.  In other words, he's trying to transform his sordid, petty reality into something heroic, to creat a situation in which he would be the equal of the blockhead officer.  Along the way, there's the delicious, bitter pleasure of his own self-conscious state of humiliation: all those abortive attempts before the final impetuous one (1336).  If we can say there's a pattern of behavior in this second part, it's something like the following: self-reflection, resentment, boredom with it all, an attempt to get outside one's head, an action at last taken, followed by consequent withdrawal and return to inertia or some other escapist state of mind.

Part 2,  Chapter 2

The narrator withdraws into a fantasy world of romantic reveries about heroism.  He goes to see Setochkin and, more importantly for the rest of the narrative, visits Simonov, his old friend from school days.

Part 2,  Chapter 3

We learn quite a bit about the narrator's early years: he was sent to school by distant relatives, and felt abandoned.  Much of his present character stems from those school years – his contempt for his fellow students and yet his desire to be recognized by them, even to conquer them after a fashion.  He becomes studious because they aren't.  Even as he plans to attend the dinner for the shallow, handsome officer Zverkov, he senses the hollowness of the whole enterprise; that is, putting one over on his old "frenemies" by insisting on attending a dinner to which he hasn't been invited.  I love the fact that the friends already at Simonov's for the initial meeting, Ferfichkin and Trudolyubov, scarcely acknowledge his presence even though he hasn't seen them for years ().  All of these so-called friends, of course, and especially the as-yet absent Zverkov, represent stupid acceptance of reality and the limitedness of all that is healthy and normal.

Part 2,  Chapter 4

The narrator shows up early to dinner since he has not been told about the one-hour time change (1345).  The better part of the chapter centers on the humiliation of this and indeed of the whole evening.  Zverkov's infinitely stupid condescension figures heavily (1346), and so does the bickering of his other friends along with his own attempt to insult Zverkov, which is initially (1349) and then subsequently rebuffed (1351).  In the end, the narrator is ignored.  Although he wrangles six rubles to follow his frenemies to the brothel they have gone to, his request for reconciliation is refused by Zverkov (1351 top).

Part 2,  Chapter 5

The narrator keeps patterning his plans after great Russian literary works such as Masquerade by Lermontov (1353).  Life imitates art, or at least it would if the narrator had any courage.  His confrontation with so-called reality (1351) nets him not the opportunity to slap Zverkov but rather a chance meeting with Liza, a humble prostitute.  He will take out his anger and resentment on her since Zverkov is unavailable.

Part 2,  Chapter 6

The narrator's conversation with Liza begins here, with an inward realization of just how stupid his own debauchery is (1355 middle).  The conversation continues and the narrator's goal is to save Liza after the manner of a Russian hero (1357).  It seems that he has sexual relations with her in the course of this meeting (1358).  He sets before her the image of a happy family life, and paints for her the horrid prospect of continuing on in this lifestyle (1360-61).  At first he fails to understand that Liza's sarcasm is only a cover for genuine feeling.  He knows that his own rhetoric is what she says: something straight out of a book.  It's cheap talk, and hardly sincere.

Part 2,  Chapter 7

Liza continues to be subjected to the narrator's harangue, and the pitch reaches its sentimental crescendo (1364 top).  The narrator even finds that he responds to his own emotional words.  This rhetoric is effective with Liza since it seems to be what she needed to hear in her real-life context.  There is irony in the sense the narrator has so often tried to pattern his life, unsuccessfully enough, after literary texts.  Liza touchingly shows the narrator the letter she received from a gentleman caller who knows nothing of her sordid present (1365).  While leaving, the narrator realizes "the truth" about this whole encounter – as he will say in the next chapter, it has all been nothing but sentimentality, fundamentally insincere.

Part 2,  Chapter 8

The narrator writes to S and pays his debt with borrowed money.  But he is still tormented by thoughts about Liza, about her pathetic match-light smile, and obsesses over being found out in his cheap apartment.  He continues to spend absurd, romantic stories about himself (1368).  But as it turns out, the narrator can't even be in charge as a master, as we can see from his interactions with Apollon, his condescending and infuriating servant.  Liza enters just at the point where the narrator is arguing with Apollon over unpaid wages.  It is a humiliating moment for the narrator.

Part 2,  Chapter 9

Infuriated with Liza, the narrator mocks her in recalling their previous encounter, informing her that it was all just an act.  Why is he so angry at this unoffending young woman?  Probably because she has confronted him with the gap between his self-image and his actual identity.  The Hegelian Master/Servant dialectic may be a good thing to discuss here since for the German Idealist philosopher Georg Hegel, the self is founded upon confrontational moments—risk, contradiction, dread. The self is established by struggle for recognition and certainty, which entails withholding recognition from others, and Hegel's famous representation of the founding of self-consciousness involves a primal struggle to the death between two individuals, with the outcome being the lordship of one and the enslavement or subjugation of the other, and a consequent need for mediating their now-indirect relations through a relationship to and with objects.  But the Master/Servant dialectic can also be read, as Alexandre Kojève and others have done, as a continuing struggle that happens internally, inside the head of each individual rather than a physical struggle between two individuals: a battle for self-recognition, authenticity, personal autonomy.  I suggest that success in this endeavor would perhaps be constituted by an adequate fit between who one really is and who one thinks one is.  If that's the right way to put it, it's clear that the narrator is not succeeding.  Liza is not a blockheaded master-consciousness, and in fact the narrator says that the relative position between himself and this young woman had been reversed: just as she was in the subject-position at the brothel, the weeping nervous wreck of a narrator is now in precisely that position relative to her.  He takes her solicitude for pity, and that is unbearable to him.  She is a sensitive servant-consciousness who seems to be offering him the very recognition he craves but cannot abide.  The situation is intolerable.

Part 2,  Chapter 10
The narrator says that for him, love has always been a matter of dominating others, and it is the product of struggle.  But then, his hatred of real-life makes it impossible to deal with the "subjugated object" (1377).  Liza takes her leave, having rejected the crumpled five ruble note the narrator tried to give her as a token of his own spite, a symbol of his wish to see her as nothing more than a prostitute in spite of her genuine affection for him.  In the end, writing this entire story down seems to have been punishment rather than relief.  The narrator has throughout cast himself as the anti-hero, the man alienated from so-called real life.  The underground seems to be the place where an unquenchable desire to engage with real life battles an equally strong desire to escape from it and forget it altogether, to disappear into heroic fictions spun by others or by oneself.