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20th C history as descent into the underworld

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.

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July 28, 2015 - Posted by | boredom

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