Thursday, August 22, 2013

A world without feeling

Twitter is an unreliable arena for literary debate because terms cannot be defined – What is an emotional novel? What is a real emotion? – and one can only misunderstand by assuming answers. Better to move away. Displacement is therefore precisely Twitter's value for literary debate. Lee's rightful distaste for button-pushing novels displaced me to remember a passage in Saul Bellow's More Die of Heartbreak in which the narrator recalls the existential troubles of his uncle Benn Crader, a botanist, an expert in arctic lichens:
Benn once told me that when he landed by helicopter on the slope of Mount Erebus to collect samples, he had felt that he was very near the end of the earth, the boundary of boundaries. "Of course, there's no such thing," he said, "but there's such a feeling."
A scientist, a rationalist, Benn appears to have been hoodwinked into distress by a combination of reality and illusion, and yet, while he knows this, the feeling haunts him. What does it mean that he can't dismiss this illusion? The question might be familiar to keen readers of novels. We are surrounded by such events teasing us with unwarranted emotion, and not just in novels. Beckett's unnamable has bitter fun at the construction of emotion:
They love each other, marry in order to love each other better, more conveniently, he goes to the wars, he dies at the wars, she weeps, with emotion, at having loved him, at having lost him, yep, marries again in order to love again, more conveniently again, they love each other, you love as many times as necessary, as necessary in order to be happy, he comes back, the other comes back, from the wars, he didn't die at the wars after all, she goes to the station, to meet him, he dies in the train, of emotion, at the thought of seeing her again, having her again, she weeps, weeps again, with emotion again, at having lost him again, yep, goes back to the house, he's dead, the other is dead, the mother-in-law takes him down, he hanged himself, with emotion, at the thought of losing her, she weeps, weeps louder, at having loved him, at having lost him, there's a story for you, that was to teach me the nature of emotion, that's called emotion, what emotion can do, given favourable conditions, what love can do, well well, so that's emotion, that's love, and trains, the nature of trains ...
Love and trains, mere mechanics. Beckett had begun writing in French in part to get away from the sentimentality of English, so this – even when translated back – and the headlong nature of the prose, begins to dismantle the mawkish tendency of storytelling. And yet the rough grains of narrative remain and so too the seeds of emotion. The fatal dangers are present in the title of Bellow's novel, taken from a passage in which Benn discusses a journalist questioning him over his botanical research and his sense of guilt over the death of a neighbour:
... he wanted a statement about plant life and the radiation level increasing. Also dioxin and other harmful wastes. He was challenging about it. Well – I agreed it was bad. But in the end I said, 'It's terribly serious, of course, but I think more people die of heartbreak than of radiation'.
Why do we embrace such narratives in which unhappiness is amplified? In his 1920 diary, Kafka wrote a series of entries in the third person, one of which presents a diagnosis:
The fact that there is fear, grief and desolation in the world is something he understands, but even this only in so far as these are vague, general feelings, just grazing the surface. All other feelings he denies; what we call by that name is for him mere illusion, fairy-tale, reflection of our knowledge and our memory. How could it be otherwise, he thinks, since after all our feelings can never catch up with the actual events, let alone overtake them. We experience the feelings only before and after the actual event, which flits by at an elemental, incomprehensible speed; they are dream-like fictions, restricted to ourselves alone. We live in the stillness of midnight, and experience sunrise and sunset by turning towards the east and the west.
The distance of "he" is Kafka's freezer next to Beckett's microwave and extends Lee's twitter statement to affirm that we experience 'real' emotion only by elective agency. We turn to books in order to have emotion in the first place. Otherwise the chimes of midnight are all that we hear.

This kind of existence is deeply unsettling – reading fiction to fabricate meaning, to provide a telos for the interminable, even if we are reading a novel like The Unnamable. As readers, we are like Benn later in More Die of Heartbreak when, stuck in an apartment away from his research, this self-proclaimed "plant visionary" seeks solace by contemplating an azalea and gains emotional stability for weeks communing with its plant nature, only to discover that it is a fake, made of silk from Japan. More comedy, more distress. Yet if we believe this reveals human gullibility, we are correct only to the extent that we too are hoodwinked, because this is only a story, made of silk from Chicago. Benn Crader is an invented character who never visited Mount Erebus, never had such a feeling and never mistook a silk plant for a real one. There is no such thing.

But there is such a story, and we condemn susceptibility in the act of succumbing. Modern writers might suggest that, once cleared of sentiment, the novel has the potential to be the ground of truth, of clinical analysis, a place in which we are no longer hoodwinked; a world without feeling. Except of course this is maintained on a contradiction: storytelling is the means to this world. Beckett's comedy confirms that even the most constricted, stripped-down story is emotional. Even the most overtly heartless, realistic novel relies on a certain kind of sentiment. Swooning under the gaze of its gritty beloved, it refuses the possibility of error or unknowing. Contemporary fiction's impatience with this paradox and its refusal to confront it in form and content actually constitutes the bulk of contemporary fiction, and might thereby trace the fate of humanism. Apparently free of heavenly abstraction, humankind still struggles to ground its story and still swims in a sea without shore, and so, to save itself, clings like Pincher Martin to one remaining outcrop, repressing its fate.

Can the novel let go? The question is the starting point of Vila-Matas' Montano's Malady with its epigraph: What will we do to disappear? The writer's block suffered by the title character suggests it is necessary. He must stop writing in order to write. The author of the epigraph has emphasised that there is nothing negative in 'not to write': "it is intensity without mastery, without sovereignty, the obsessiveness of the utterly passive". If letting go is then obsessive passivity, how might that be written?

Passivity is what's notable in Ágota Kristóf's The Notebook, a novel recently celebrated by Slavoj Žižek and soon to be reissued. What's notable in his description of the story and his wish to be like the "ethical monsters" whose words we read, the twin boys who behave with "blind spontaneity and reflexive distance" promising a world "in which sentimentality [is] replaced by a cold and cruel passion", is that he doesn't mention the form the novel takes: a notebook written by the twins in the first person plural and the present tense. It lacks both the usual ornaments of novelistic prose, has no psychological or emotional description and offers no relief or guidance from a third person. The twins state that the notebooks consist only what they know to be true: "We must describe what we see, what we hear, what we do". This means the writing does more than "tell the story" as Žižek says, it embodies their behaviour and becomes their passion, their obsession, their passivity. The question then becomes: what do we do with this illusion? 


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