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C.: Discuss Amongst Yourselves

So I thought that my computer was broken, and it turns out that only the charger was broken, which since it was only being held together by duck tape I already knew! Apple Stores in Mexico City sell chargers!  In capitalism, everybody (with a credit card) wins!

Ahem. I wanted to explain why I am only just now, 13 minutes before midnight, getting around to posting something about the first chunk of C., especially odd since (as you’ve discovered) so far it’s not the kind of book you need a Hard Book Reading Club to get through.

But as I was jotting my thoughts in a little Mexican notebook I realized that I had too many thoughts to write out in one post, and so these are the titles of the posts I would have written if i were writing three posts for our first chunk of reading.  But if you want to post on these topics instead of me, you get first crack, either in the comments to this or in your own posts.  Those three topics are:

Rewriting Edwardian England (a certain person who took a course on Forster, Woolf, and Proust in 1994 might find that topic particular interesting)

Signal and Noise (Paranoia and Reading)

Pageantry (I’m guessing this is not a theme that will be carried through the whole book, but I was interested in it)

Or of course you could post on whatever you like so far.  Gentlemen, start your engines–

July 3, 2015 - Posted by | C


  1. As I said above, I don’t really think “pageantry” will be a motif that runs through the entire novel. (I don’t quite know why I think that.) Here’s why it comes up in my mind on reading the first 73 pages of C.
    If you don’t know much about early 20th c. British culture, this may seem the craziest thing about the crazy Carrefax country house, maybe even crazier than the silk factory (after all, it makes money) or the school for the deaf or Carrefax’s obsession with wireless communication (both of which are underlined in the reader’s mind as What the Book Is About), or Mrs. Carrefax’s opium addiction (which I gather may also be What the Book Is About, insofar as I accidentally peeked at one of the pull quotes from the reviews –I am glad that I am now so in need of my bifocals that it is easier to ignore the summary on the back of the book, and I am trying to ignore the review blurbs included in the book too–), The first pageant, barely referred to, is the retelling of Cronos and Zeus, and the more elaborated second pageant is the story of Ceres and Proserpina/ Demeter and Persephone. The pageants are put on to show off to their parents how well the deaf children can speak (“elocute”?).
    Pageants are just a nifty way to see how aristocratic culture semi-democratized and also shifted from economic to cultural prestige over the course of the long Victorian era. (In the largest picture, the fact that both of these pageants have mythological motifs would be examples of what Jean Seznec called “the survival of the pagan gods,” how Christianity chose not to wipe out Greco-Roman beliefs but turned them into an aesthetic realm; a mid-century Victorian like Matthew Arnold would talk about “Hebraism versus Hellenism” to describe the moral versus the aesthetic/erotic approach to life, as the Victorians experienced it, and some of Edwardian culture, including the young E.M. Forster, was involved in neo-Pagan revivals, often using the catch-phrase “the great god Pan.” [I love Wikipedia: ]) If he was feeling civic, the local rural Victorian or Edwardian squire would organize a fair each year, and often also oversaw a Pageant. Depending on the local talent, it might have music, but it usually had a theme, and costumes, and it told a narrative, and it definitely had food at the end. I’d guess that it had the court masque as a direct descendant, but I don’t have the scholarship to back me up –I’m just following Walter Benjamin and other Marxists’ generalizations about the shift in art from the aristocracy to the bourgeoisie, the private painting collection to the public art museum, that sort of thing. The decline of such squirearchical local expenditures is part of Georges Bataille’s litany of complaints in The Notion of Expenditure. [I just put that in before Andreas had a chance to.]
    Some pageants were not based on mythology. Some probably were based directly on the Bible, although I don’t have any examples from literature. The one that I know from literature is not based on mythology either, but on English history itself: Virginia Woolf’s last unfinished novel Between the Acts (1941), a very disjointed, fragmented book, is set in a country house in the present (i.e., on the verge of war), and Woolf creates a meta-version of herself, an eccentric artist who has been invited to the house to create a pageant; everything looks to be about to go wrong; some things do go wrong; most things go right (as the Geoffrey Rush character says in Shakespeare in Love, “that’s the magic of the theater”); most of the audience has understood little, but are satisfied with the experience even though the artist is not. You can see why I thought of this pageant while reading the pageant in C., which also has little things go wrong, with performers who must barely be able to understand the words that they recite, and (as in the Woolf book) adultery of some sort is suggested in a private version of the pageant after the public version is over.
    Another sort-of-pageant in literature is the 1931 Noel Coward play Cavalcade; it is a family saga from 1900-1929, which liberally uses the popular songs of each decade, and had literally a cast of hundreds, and became a sort of rallying point for the Conservative Party in England in the 1930s (it was also made into a mega-hit-in-England movie). Wikipedia says that the play was the inspiration for the 1973 BBC series Upstairs Downstairs, which is the inspiration for Downton Abbey, and so here we are back to the revision of Edwardian England.
    Enough with the digressions, what about *this* pageant? All we get of the first pageant is that it’s the story of Cronos and Rhea and their children, including Zeus and Poseidon, and an all-purpose chorus called the Curetes (in the pageant, their job was apparently to make a lot of noise to muffle the sound of the infant Zeus’s cries, hidden in a cave either by his mother Rhea or by Gaia; the Wikipedia entry that covers this best is actually on the Korybantes: I bring up this function in case anyone is looking for more signal-to-noise thematics.) Well, of course you know that young Zeus will end up killing Cronos, in many versions castrating him first. You’ve already seen a bunch of castration images in this first part; the headless neck of the opera singer (p.21) is the funniest and most grisly of them. Curiously, there seems to be no Freudian dynamics in the Carrefax family: the father pretty much ignores his wife, who pretty much ignores her son (to the point of letting him almost drown, to be saved by the childless maid Maureen (31-32)); and Carrefax gives little Serge the little guillotine with which he cuts their cigars (59). In other words, we see little or none of the violence between generations that the Greek myth seems to be about.
    The second pageant is the more elaborated one. The rape of Persephone presses all the classical, Renaissance, Enlightenment, Romantic, Modernist, post-modernist buttons. “Entertainment and Instruction, suitable for all Classes” (62). If you haven’t gotten Mrs. Carrefax as an opium addict, the decision to start Amelia/Demeter off as strewing poppies with a languid look that reminds the audience of Mrs. C certainly underlines it. (In the earlier pageant, Carrefax wanted the extras to have “streams of nectar that must be gold and eleven feet long” (41), and here the extras strew “golden confetti which they toss in the air; it billows up and flashes brightly” (65). Will this repeated motif be used somehow later?) [All of the lines in verse from both pageants were apparently written by McCarthy himself –I can’t google any sources–. Hear hear and good for him! He’s been learning from A.S.Byatt’s Possession and Babel Tower! If you want to impress the professors, you have to write your own pastiches!] There is a lot of snickering from the audience and footnoting from Carrefax, which all sounds very 1911-appropriate to me, while the snickering also feels appropriate for “modern” audiences exposed to such an archaic form and ancient story. And then there’s Sophie’s intervention. if I had to guess, it’s supposed to be a foreboding of the use of mustard gas and nerve gas on the fields of World War I. But Sophie is a sign of modernity in so many ways in these first chapters, sex, science, cryptography, and an alliance, possibly erotic, with Widsun (As the woman in the audience says about her, Persephone is “not all that reluctant” (68) to be raped.) Moving on. Did Widsun signal to Sophie that she should tell Dis to crown Widsun instead of her own father? Is she giving Widsun permission to sleep with Mrs. C, preferring him for a father than Carrefax? That’s my reading. I think by now you can figure out that the way that the noise from Zeus’s lightning bolt machine makes it impossible to hear Hermes’s messages is part of the signal-and-noise thematics. Serge’s role as Ascalaphus, the snitch who is turned into an owl for betraying Persephone for eating the pomegranate seeds, is odd: as the son of the squire, even if he’s young he ought to have a more lordly role, so I expect that McCarthy wants to underline some other aspect of Serge’s future: is he supposed to be a witness of history? Is he going to betray his mother? Is he going to be more closely related to the gramophone? (The eyes of the owl costume are compared to gramophone disks, but so were the wheels of Dis’s chariot.) We’ll see. He certainly witness some kind of sex behind the sheet after the pageant is over. I’m guessing it’s Widsun and Mrs. C, but it certainly could be Widsun and Sophia. But he’s interrupted before he identifies the two, so Serge is hardly in the position to betray anyone yet. The last scene of the pageant that actually gets performed is Demeter’s rage, and the metamorphosis of everyone into birds. This is not in any of the versions of the myth that I know, and therefore I suspect it is of thematic importance: Cyan is turned into a swan who cannot speak properly; from the beginning of the novel there have been birds and/or noise overhead, “black birds whirr silently beneath a concave vault of sky” (2) and all the electric buzzing of Carrefax’s experiments with radio; so the chaos of the deaf children turned into birds, with costumes that prevent them from knowing when they are supposed to stop performing (Sophia’s cloud smoke was supposed to signal this to them, but she doesn’t produce it (74)) will almost certainly be used later.
    Well. You can see I love art that uses art, so I love this section as much as any section of what we’ve read so far. Besides literary allusions to at least Forster and Woolf, and besides what we might call the mini-sociology of a rural Edwardian parish, we get a half-dozen agents trying to take a Classical myth and make it mean what each of them wants it to mean, Carrefax, the kibitzers, Sophia, possibly even Mrs. C who does the costumes, are all interpreting the story to suit themselves. Unknown to Carrefax the main author of the pageant, although it is perhaps intuited by the politicized Widsun, the story of Persephone also intimates the end of the Edwardian idyll, the fields ruined, foul odors destroying the fields. His son –too young to actually be a soldier in three years’ time? I can’t tell– will be a witness to the events; his daughter will be complexly involved in the new sciences of war. This chapter was a great one for me to end our reading on, but I can’t wait to keep going.

    Comment by poc2666 | July 4, 2015

  2. The thing I’m tracking so far is all the imagery having to do with encoding and decoding: turning the world into maps, symbols, Morse code, or other forms of representation and then turning those symbols back to reality. McCarthy is cleverly playing that alongside many representations of living turning into dead and then back again (the story of Persephone, the electrified cat leg). I’ve read on somewhat and the transitions between existence and representation, life and nonlife, only get more and more tangled and complicated as we go. In long scenes like these I find myself drawn to tracing those ideas particularly (see previous comment a couple of posts down).

    Comment by Joshua Malbin | July 4, 2015

  3. […] a state to write a post but is dandy for purposes of writing a New-Yorker-length comment” post, let’s have a post specifically about C‘s use of codes in the first week’s […]

    Pingback by Code, Language and Corruption « The Weblog | July 5, 2015

  4. Dude, I have no Edwardian England value to add. That course was subtitled “The Modernist Moment” so if there’s a place to drop in Bergson maybe I’ll do you proud.

    Comment by Josh K-sky | July 5, 2015

  5. Hello everybody, I actually finished listening to C by July 2 or 3. I will post a big full book reaction, but am really digging (and learning lots from) the posts you guys did along the way. I have been absorbed with family stuff for a few weeks, but am back with some time to catch up now.

    Comment by adkriefall | July 28, 2015

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