Saturday, May 12, 2012

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.

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