It’s odd to talk about progress these days when everything seems backwards. We are given every reason to become pessimists and end up like Stefan Zweig. That these reasons are given by cultural pessimists might push us to withstand only because we want to deny them that victory too. Revenge, however, is their way so whatever victory that kind of resistance would lead to would not be really ours.
There is, then, no other option then to find a basis for our optimism in reason.
“(..) the whole (society) is prior to the part (the individual), not the part to the whole; and the part is explained in terms of the whole, not the whole in terms of the part or parts.” G.H. Mead, “Mind, Self & Society”, 1934, The University of Chicago Press, p. 7.
Society is the soil and the individuals are the flowers. The flowers are not there just to fertilize the soil but the soil isn’t something we can leave unfertilized either. Staying on-metaphor: language is the fertilizer. It’s allowing the soil to bring forth better flowers but takes, without coercion, from those flowers to make for an even better soil.
Nothing can be further removed from current opinion. If only because it is dynamic – and this world of now hates anything that is elusive; anything that can’t be decomposed in parts and reassembled in the whole we (think we) need. We live in anti-Darwinian times where we think we can make leaps without evolving.
But aren’t our cultural pessimists the ‘owners’ of the primacy of the whole (society)?
It is crucial, or so we are told, that we undertake things. In English, such undertaking can earn you the title of entrepreneur. It’s such a tongue-twistingly ugly word that it’s reserved for the successful few. Anybody can be an undertaker, but entrepreneurs, real entrepreneurs, are few and far between. It’s, by the way, characteristic of ugly nouns for ugly elite concepts to attract ‘real’ as adjective and contaminate it with the need for italicization. I confess I’m annoyed with the concept (which says little because I equally confess that I’m annoyed at being annoyed).
In my native Dutch language, the noun corresponding to ‘to undertake’ is not taken by the specific undertaking which is to take dead people to their underground destination. So we’re all supposed to undertake, ondernemen, and become true undertakers, ondernemers (for ‘true’, see ‘real’ above). As is adequately demonstrated by the time it takes me to come to the point, I ain’t no undertaker. Oddly enough this is also supported by the fact that the only corpse I plan to be associated with is my own whilst – in proverbial Dutch and The Apprentice – entrepreneurs have to handle corpses with the same ease as undertakers do.
Which brings me to why I’m no undertaker. Continue reading
It is popular to admit failure. Obviously those who report their failures do so after a subsequent success. If they weren’t in the end successful they wouldn’t have been newsworthy in the first place. I hate success. It’s such a subjective criterion. What we see is projected through the lens of success.
Me, I’m just flailing. Waving frantically, mostly without an audience. Failing probably but not failing fast as is the fashion of the moment. The best way to fail fast is not trying. The best way to not try is not dreaming. I never go for the best. Seconds is my thing and my seconds are not of fame.
Let me explain minutely. Continue reading
I confess that against my (and the doctor’s) better judgment, I went out for work yesterday. The result was that I achieved nothing significant and extended my illness over the week-end. So now I am alone and, for the first time in many months, writing to the few who happen to wander into this page.
Hello! You’re not the only ones to feel fucked over by the present life!
I confess making that remark mainly to get your attention. Not that I particularly want it, but it seems to be the honest thing to do. I at least have to try to get your attention. I’m not in fact fucked over. Far from it. It often feels that way just because I’m unable to cope with the absence of real bad luck in my life.
Let’s just all confess to it: we try too much. The drive for success is like a butt plug making us feel uneasy all of the time. Not that I know how a butt plug feels like; as I told you, I’m not in fact fucked over. Still, there’s an anal metaphor here. Society drills us to want to pick up the soap and the only break-through that is ever achieved that way … I’ll definitely say more. Continue reading
My wife dislikes … Kind of implies there’s more … Specifically more to do … Needing to guess what’s that … About.
I have been reading Juan Goytisolo’s Don Juliàn. He looks ferocious. The book is. It’s hard not to think this … Open, I guess. Open to the front, closed to the back. I don’t know. Just guessing. Writing words. I’ll need to get back at it. Find the thread. Use the needle. Knit a sock.
Gass brought me to Goytisolo. After Don Quixote it is the first book in Spanish I want to finish. It’s a break from Finnegans Wake as well. Halfway through it, it kind of lost me (after the Russian revolution if I recall well). I’ll get back to it. I consider it a …
altivo, gerifalte Poeta, ayùdame : a luz màs cierta, sùbeme : la patria no es la tierra, el hombre no es el àrbol : ayùdame a vivir sin suelo y sin raìces : móvil, móvil : sin otro alimento y sustancia que tu rica palabra : palabra sin historia, orden verbal autónomo, engañoso delirio : poema
Juan Goytisolo, Don Juliàn, p. 118
This bloody keyboard doesn’t even let me put the accents in the right direction! Never mind. Let us stay a bit positive in this world which is fixed to its past and therefore closed to its future. Continue reading
Before I add another post to this weblog I want to thank Andreas for his great big post, and Josh for his many comments, and for everyone who has been reading along with us, especially since the book turned out to be a deeply solitary and lonely story, soaked in so many shades of black, as well as so many echoes and allusions to the great literary tradition, clustered I suppose around Joyce, that also so often preached a cold, clear eye in the face of death and meaninglessness. Continue reading
What a rich, panoramic, mythic, ambitious, sweeping novel. I loved the stuff Pat wrote about the pageant, and his initially brief comment about Serge as observer agreed perfectly with my own sense of his perspective as the narrative heart of C.
Having finished the story weeks ago, I will focus on a couple sweeping overviews. My strongest impression is a view of its mythic structure, what I see as McCarthy’s framing of the story in two myths of the underworld: the incredible pageant of the Persephone myth at the start and the Osiris-Isis phallic resurrection story at the end, both of them leading to elaborately narrated sex acts: at the start, Sophie (OF COURSE IT IS SOPHIE, not MRS C–what would all that coded sexting amount to if it didn’t lead to the fucking behind the curtain?) and Widsun after Persephone pageant & at the end, Serge with the Egyptologist woman in the maze of Egyptian tombs, both the fuck of his life and the incident that wounds and eventually kills him. Those sex acts seem to be then joined in Serge’s cosmic deathbed hallucination of his marriage to Sophie.
So those two myths are both about the regeneration of the world via underworld journeys through the world of the dead, and sex explodes in the wake of the narration/allusion to those stories. Taken together, they frame Serge’s observer’s tour of duty through the advent of modern history, which is at the same time the hastening, inevitable decline of the British empire.
SOME KEY MOMENTS IN THIS TOUR OF DUTY:
Radio Communication. One of my favorite passages was the lengthy and beautiful narration of Serge’s listening in on radio signals from Europe and the North Atlantic. What an awesome feeling this section gives of pulsing mysterious rising life from the signals as Serge raises the frequency to take in wider and wider sweeps of signals criss-crossing chaotically but also so intersectingly, such a network of relationships emerging from this brand new technology and the connections it makes possible. Again here Serge never really seems to participate or create action, he is always looking and/or listening in.
Serge’s (failed?) Water Cure. What a strange ailment, a bowel blockage that colors the world with a shadow of blackened vision. It seems that all of the attempted prescribed treatments fail, and only Serge’s weird sex with the strange massage woman finally clears his system and his vision. (QUESTION: Serge likes to fuck from behind, is it anal sex? Not sure if that matters, but Serge never seems to fall in love with any of his partners or even contemplate marriage, so there does seem to be a marked non-fertile, non-connective quality to his sex) This section provides vivid imagery of fin-de-siecle, turn of the century decadence and impending war.
Serge’s Observer Role in War. Serge’s unconnected drift through life and even mass death continues in his tour of duty as a pilot and observer in the British air corps of World War I. Not surprisingly, he ends up not flying a plane or killing anyone or operating weaponry himself, but instead surveys the battlefield from above and provides complex coded coordinates for artillery fire from elsewhere. Serge is so disconnected–all around him, the entire squadron is cycling through pilot after pilot, all of them killed either in training and practice or in the field of war (there is the funniest line of the novel for me where Serge wonders whether the war couldn’t simply allow its fighters in training to be killed one by one in accidents rather than involving enemy combatants actually shooting each other)–and yet Serge makes no friends feels no grief no fear no trauma. He is sky high on cocaine while he flies and does his job. Even in the rather splendid narration of his own plane’s getting shot from the sky, when he ends up crashed grounded and captured–nothing seems to affect him very much. He seems like a dead person, almost a ghost walking through history. His prisoner of war days involve little more dramatic than masturbation in the tunnel they are digging.
Serge’s Drug Days in London. Serge gets involved with an actress and with heroin in London. Perhaps his most aggressive intervention in the world happens when he cleverly wrecks the phony medium’s spiritualist performance. I suppose the spiritualist he ruins is another interesting variation on the theme of afterlife in C. But why does he take such an active role in that particular situation, when everywhere else he is so passive? That is weird. Again, he seems to drift along, get carried along through the drug dens and back stages and his architecture training in London–no connections, no friends, no love, no marriage, no children. Just sex and heroin.
Serge’s Journeys through Egypt. Whether it’s documenting sabotaged radio communication stations that seem already to have been documented, writing reports that no one seems to care about, learning arcana about Alexandria, catching stray impressions of Egyptian rebellion against British imperialism (the killed diplomat lying in the street with blood and spilled milk), being schooled in the world of intelligence and counter-intelligence, everybody watching each other and no one knowing or being able to tell the truth, traveling up the Nile to scout out pylon locations for future radio towers, or digging around in archeology excavations he has no real part of–Serge continues to the end without a relationship, mildly interested in something now and then, seducing a woman here and there, but never actually doing anything, always just seeing what is going on around him.
Serge’s deathbed hallucination. I have to listen to this climactic section again. It was pretty strange.
What does this mythic framing of declining empire and burgeoning history mean? Is Serge’s sleepwalk through incredibly frenetic, massively violent wars and spies and radio signals and historical change somehow a tour of the modern world as underworld, as a land of the dead that is somehow going to generate life again? In Serge’s world, nothing really works, nothing seems really to happen, nothing takes hold of him–the empire is just playing out a kind of after-life. I will leave this post with this big question: is the decline of the British empire and its peculiar deadness supposed to be a prelude to some new life? The fact that the story ends with a hallucination about an incestuous cosmic marriage between a suicide (Sophie) and a walking dead person (Serge) seems dark, seems like a dead end, although the narration is wild and colorful. What kind of comment on history is this? Why narrate the turn of the previous century, and what relevance does that have?
ALSO: WHY IS THIS NOVEL CALLED “C”? C Latin for 100, century? C for Carrefax? C as “see” for Serge’s observer role?
I did not get through every post from earlier this month and I apologize if some of these questions have been addressed. I will be coming back to the website in the next day or two. I look forward to your responses. Love you guys! What a treat to get some fresh tastes of Deep Springs intellectual excitement and dialogue.
I’m almost exactly a week behind schedule: we’d said we’d finish the book by tomorrow, but I finished last week’s material yesterday. Oh, well. It’s become clear what the four parts of the novel represent, and also clear that McCarthy sets out specific limits to his commitment to a realistic depiction of the life of a young man during the Great War. Due to those limits, I’m finding it easier to respect and admire this novel rather than be really moved by it. Continue reading
1. The War Artist that C. chats with, who complains that it is impossible to paint what you see in an airplane, grouses that “‘It all comes from that show.’/ ‘What show?’ Serge asks./ ‘The bloody show!’ Carlisle hisses. ‘Fry and his buddies.'”
Carlisle is referring to Roger Fry, sometimes painter and art critic (and professor at the Slade School, which Carlisle attended), and the show he’s referring to is described by Wikipedia, below”
In November 1910, Fry organised the exhibition Manet and the Post-Impressionists (a term which he coined) at the Grafton Galleries, London. This exhibition was the first to prominently feature Gauguin, Manet, Matisse, and Van Gogh in England and brought their art to the public. Virginia Woolf later said, “On or about December 1910 human character changed,” referring to the effect this exhibit had on the world.
(Fry was a personal friend of the Bloomsburyites and Woolf wrote his biography in 1940.)
2. Germany’s Romanticism was richer in philosophers than England’s, and of course it had the stunning polymath Goethe; but German Romantics weren’t all as sunny as Goethe and Hegel. Although I’ve never read his work seriously, the more tortured German Romantic poet is Hölderlin, who spent the last thirty years of his life in a hermit’s tower after his lover died before they could marry, and after a period in a mental institution: the entire Wikipedia piece about him is quite interesting, with perhaps the highlight being the sentence, “On 11 September  Hölderlin was delivered into the clinic at Tübingen run by Dr Ferdinand Autenrieth, inventor of a mask for the prevention of screaming in the mentally ill.” Here’s, first, a translation of, Patmos quoted in ch. 8, from a 2007 issue of Harper’s, as well as a quick commentary on it from the translator, especially its relation to Heidegger. Did any of you take Liz Goodstein’s Greeks and Germans class? The other poem is The Titans, translated here.
I’m caught up on the reading! My computer’s battery is working just fine! I’m back from Mexico City! But I’m still not quite ready to comment specifically on chs. 5-7, so let me just set out here what I meant by the parenthetical, in that suggested post title above. In a novel, what’s the signal, and what’s the noise? And what does it do to us if we try to read everything as signal? Continue reading