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
I dreamt I checked The Weblog and saw that Adam had turned it into a cooking blog. The most recent post was about making a recipe from the Ottolenghi cookbook. The recipe was extremely simple, and appeared to consist of pan-frying four tiny chicken cutlets. The end.
Since Josh brought it up in comments and Pat gestured at it in his “my computer is in too weak 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 reading. (I’m sure none of us are so gauche as to require them, but I’ll suggest SPOILER ALERTS for any discussion ranging into the rest of the book.)
I don’t have anything quite so developed as an argument, but I’ll throw out some of the elements I’m tracking. First, a list of codes and cants:
- Sign language, which Carrefax deprecates in favor of speech (“Are you sure they’re not signing?… You have to make them speak. All the time!” (7)
- Ciphers in the Times’s personal notices
- The hand-motions that Widsun and Sophie exchange during the pageant
- Sophie’s wall
The first of these provides a backdrop for the story, but it’s not particularly germane. The second belongs primarily to Carrefax and Serge. The last four are implicated in Sophie’s fate.
Each of these codes is susceptible to corruption, accident, mis- or malignant use; none appears as simply a neutral field for the free play of meaning. There’s the spycraft that Widsun appears to be recruiting/seducing Sophie into, and the explosion yielded by Sophie and Serge’s experiment. You could also add Serge’s vibrant dyslexia to the pile, a corruption of the written word as its learned: “He keeps switching letters round… He see letters streaming through the air, whole blocks of them, borne on currents occupying a zone beneath the threshold of the comprehensible…” (38). (Mrs. K-sky reports experiencing a similar effect.) Does it seem that language and code as a field for power games and dreadful mistakes will be a running theme?
Some stray thoughts:
“—in the beginning, ladies and gentlemen, was the Word” (14). Carrefax goes onto pronounce that “speech is divine.” I’m not sure what role exactly Carrefax’s exalted logocentrism will play in the development of the above, but McCarty sure unfurls it boldly, and it seems as if he’s inviting us to get the reference and extrapolate from there. Maybe some of you professionals can better pick up what he’s putting down, here.
Josh, you mentioned Proust’s extended visual metaphors in McCarty’s approach to language — anything further to expand on that here? What about the rest of yinz? Pat, did I cover a tenth of what you were going to put in your Unwritten Blog Post?
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–
If there’s an -ist that applies to me it’s pensivist. Maybe I should go cold turkey on thinking. I confess that the strategy of doing it moderately doesn’t feel like the winning strategy. And what is a strategy if it is not winning. Isn’t it all about winning? It is. It is. It is. Therefore I am. Whether I like it or not. Nobody asked me. Except myself. Precisely nobody, that is.
I’m reading Finnegans Wake. I confess to ambivalence about it. It’s great but makes me feel little. What is the point?, is that the point? It is a snake; it is; it is; it is. But I was bitten long before. Now I’m just rattled. Ha. The beauty of it is: it is self-contained. I read it without trying to understand.
But let me think about the eternal recurrence of the eternal recurrence. I hate it but confess to loving those who seem to love it, or, at least, who love those who love those who seem to love it. The thing is that those who seem to love it are those who break the cycle and, methinks, Finnegans Wake breaks the cycle.
I’ve been a slouch on the first book, but I promise to step it up for Tom McCarty’s C, coming to summer book club at The Weblog soon.