Thursday, March 11, 2010

Fiction's Failure

I. Making Mistakes

The opposite of failure is success - but what's the opposite of a mistake? A success? And what is a success? The word belongs to that peculiar class of abstract English nouns we call "states", which you can travel into and out of without hassle or identification. But then you try to buy gas and the prices are different.

Mistakes, on the other hand, are local as furniture. They have no lexical antonym and are therefore free to roam through English unharassed. Their peculiar combination of flimsiness and power makes them interesting, unlike success - for success is the Velveeta cheese of human conditions: the same no matter where you slice it. All successful men are alike, to paraphrase Tolstoy. On the other hand, when a man tells us that he's made some mistakes, we want to know EXACTLY what they were.

"Everybody makes mistakes."

"Make one mistake and you're dead."

(Success may be something you achieve, but mistakes are made)

The most common uses of "mistake" imply recognition, which in turn point to two separate (-seeming) worldviews. Either 1) error is folded into life, which means success is a matter of overcoming one's errors, or 2) Success is achieved only through the strategic and near Herculian ability to avoid making mistakes.

"You had it all planned out - but you made one mistake" (sardonic, heavy-eyebrowed gangster-voice). In this sentence, as in the two quoted above, the sense of "downfall" is both heightened and strangely mitigated by the inherent domesticity of the "mistake" itself (which unpacks as something like "one little mistake"). The speaker is luxuriating, as choruses do, in the justice of the gods. The sentence creaks comfortably beneath him - for in the rumpus room of his thoughts, everything, even the juice stains on the carpet, contributes to a sense of ingenious inhabitation.

(and then isn't there also a sort of wonderful artistry about mistakes? Don't we appreciate them aesthetically - even when they're our own?)

II. Failure and Floating

To move into failure from this cozy realm is like being shot into deep space - for if mistakes are the most distinctive of nouns, then failure, I would argue, is the most nebulous. It's a "frozen verb": a linguistic/conceptual black hole ("frozen star" in Russian), whose location is fixed but whose axis pulses with mind-bending movement. Failure vibrates, like a fly on flypaper. It moves without moving. Next to the other "states" we occupy, it always seems to have been put into our box by mistake from some other puzzle.

Success is an endpoint, hence our dissatisfaction with its worldly version - for in achieving it, we inevitably discover that we have not achieved it. Being a failure on the other hand is like being stuck on one of the Snakes and Ladders snakes: you're not supposed to be there, but there's a luxuriant satisfaction in floating past the world's ankles with such impunity. You're moving. It's over, but it's not over - it is failure, which is similar to the pre-natal dream in that during it we feel both perfectly responsible and perfectly absolved. We are Jonah, delivered from the small whale of anxiety into the larger, more-predictable whale of God's will. This is the fall-as-rise of comedy - of Hrabal and Svevo and Flaubert and Tolstoy, among many others - which transfigures our inability to do what we want into precisely what God wanted all along.

III. The Mimic Plot

In fiction - from the hackneyed who-done-it to the lofty roman fleuve- the most persuasive mimesis of this transfiguration from mistake to failure to success is plot itself. What - you didn't see it coming? Well relax, and watch your anxiety transform alchemically into a faith that the confusing events of your life (which seemed so distinct at the time) really will, as James said, "hang together". Mistakes will turn out to be not just themselves, but part of some larger failure, which you couldn't see at the time you made them. Likewise this failure, so final-seeming when it fell, will turn out to be inside out.

This is why novels, as a genre, are so particularly powerful: not just because they contain mimeses (characters, settings, dialogue), but because they ARE mimeses. They're "graphs made up of graphs" as Guy Davenport puts it: collections of accurate particulars tilted against one another like dominos, so that the reader's attention might move through it Rube-Goldberg-style, losing - and yet somehow at the same time gaining - energy.

(So, when I hear people talk about difficult (read: "experimental") art pejoratively, I find myself strangely divided. On the one hand, I also hate art that lacks interest and attention. On the other hand, I feel that what these "traditionalists" are freqeuntly missing is the existence of this second-level mimesis. They want trees that look like trees: but the book itself looks like a tree)

A fictional plot, then, really is a sort of distilled failure: a strange-making, to use Shklovsky's phrase, which we live (..."in order to" wants to follow this somehow - but doesn't the Old Testament (that great book of plots) suggest the insignificance of a final clause? Order is in us, as we are in it. With a setup like that, there is no point in looking for a "point")

If the novel has a secret, particularly, it is how natural this plottedness is to it, and how, if we look back at the great novels of the past, we almost always find exactly what Sterne, Tolstoy, Shklovsky, Bolano say we're going to find. In saecula saeculorum, or as the KJB translates it, World without end. For how could we "succeed", in life or art? Likewise, how could a faithful mimesis fail to untie its own knots, no matter how convincingly it presented them? What would we think of its conscience?

IV. (close parenthesis)

(Finally, writing fiction, then, must be a matter both of being willing, and - MUCH more importantly - able to fail.

This is far more difficult than people realize)

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Rabbit or Duck?

Contemporary literature and visual art share a vague, background-level prejudice against/weakness for mimesis - that is, for works that blend, stick-insect-style, into the bewildering tree of the real. Personally, my view of this is Tolstoyan (in the novels, not the criticism) and therefore completely unrealistic: it's all a misunderstanding, a question of an original unity splitting itself through will and perversity into a series of schismatic offshoots, whereas if our wife was dying on the other side of the room we would find a way not just to forgive the lover that she had left us for, but actually to love him ourselves, and with all our hearts.

I mention this strange Russian garden of aesthetic peace because the British tradition of criticism, both literary and artistic, has always seemed to me to be fundamentally Tolstoyan. The desire is not to overcome an opponent's argument by amassing esoteric tautologies one on top of the other like a tower of spinning dishes, or to deconstruct relentlessly until everyone whimpers, but rather to ask, at every point, "What are we actually talking about here?" The appeal is twofold: towards "we" on the one hand (the shared reality of communication), and "what" on the other (the world under discussion). The overall tone is one of stern good will. It is all a misunderstanding, but we will make it through, you and I, these two men (women, children) of taste and understanding.

The sheer pleasantness, not to mention charm, of this kind of writing is obvious to anyone with an ear and heart; it's usefulness, unfortunately, is not. We want our aesthetics to be high tech and glistening, or folksy and hemp-smelling. Manners, we all agree, are boring.

They are not, of course: they are the heart of it, the backbone, the solution. We swim in manners. E.H. Gombrich's Art & Illusion even goes so far as to suggest that we are manners, or at least that any "original" act of seeing/reading is original only insofar as your decision to die your hair blue was original. It was, of course - but at the same time, it wasn't: it was a choice between existing possibilities, which you made either for or against the opinions of your peers - but still within the context of those opinions.

Multiply a choice like that times a thousand, Gombrich says, and you've got Van Gogh's decision to paint the skin in his self portrait using green paint. Was he painting from life? Or was he making his decision within a context of conventions so fine and expansive that spraying an aerosol can around his head would have revealed a veritable spider-web of ruby-red lines radiating out in every direction?

Freedom and meaning are incompatible: this is the tragedy of space and the reason why there will never be any great epics written by children who were raised by wolves - unless, of course, they are later taught by a French Catholic schoolmaster. Art is a continual process of debunking and rebunking, but in order to do either you've got to know, somehow, what you're doing. Not knowing leads to sterility and death, even if you manage to hit it once. So when you're out walking around town trying to see nature and dust and the soles of people's feet, take a copy of Whitman, or Rilke, or King, or something.

Gombrich's book is not just a history of art, but a plea for histories of art. If you want to know how to see better, it behoves you to learn how others saw in the past, and to think about the similarities and differences between their vision and yours. After doing this, you may be surprised to find that certain trends persist, for example, the desire to copy - to be, as Gombrich calls it, illusionist. You may find yourself either troubled or comforted by that, depending on how you fancy yourself.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

More Please

Watching Shrek in Tehran is a four part Believer essay by author/teacher Brian T. Edwards that trades particulars for a gloss that I, at least, found smoggy and vague. In the first section, the Alborz mountains disappear "shade by shade into the ever-increasing fog", as Edwards's "smart and dynamic" Iranian interlocutor Nahad (whom the orientalist will no doubt imagine in dark sunglasses and a mini- skirt) describes the national love of Shrek: "You know," she says, "It's not really the original Shrek we love so much here. It's really the dubbing. It's really more the Iranian Shrek that interests us." In the second section, Edwards abandons Shrek in order to introduce the mysterious "Ali", a 35 mm. film collector, whose illicit lending and projection of western films has earned him the nickname "The Iranian Henry Langlois." The sixty year old Ali wears "a plad shirt under a worn tweed jacket." No pun intended. "Everybody knows Ali, but nobody knows where his archive is." In the third section, a brief filmography of the renowned Iranian filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami contrasts with a description of two articles about said filmmaker: a laudatory, if inadvertedly political one by Deborah Solomon (in the New York Times magazine), and a more rhetorically savvy, if still naive one by SUNY Buffallo's Jean Copjec. Finally, a fourth section manages to touch on the recent political unrest by quoting lengthily from a pair of Guardian articles by young gun Iranian filmmaker Mosen Makhmalbaf.

All of this leaves us wanting more about the whole Shrek-dubbing phenomenon, which surely deserves its own article/monograph/career. The translation of American movies is apparently growing into its own as an art form. Like the melody in a jazz song, or the text in one of Maurice Sendak's "picture books", the film itself becomes a set of constraints that the audio track then plays with and against. Local details (stereotypes, characters, political critiques) are grafted onto mythological stock (much the same way that the American Shreks harness fairy tale themes to, um, Mike Myers's Scottish accent).


In Travelling Between Languages, the poet Chen Li asks "Is writing some kind of translation, travelling between languages"? More Hanks than Clooney, when it comes to air travel at least, he lingers in the terminals of his various poems like a short, nondescript man with dark sunglasses and a newspaper folded over his knee. That glow you feel radiating off of him is love: "Travelling in the family of poetry is the most substantial and warmest link on the lonesome journey in the universe," he says, which is sort of like what Mandelstam said. Actually, a lot of his poetry reads like Mandelstam to me, which would seem to be the most striking and improbable translation of all (except maybe not so improbable: after all, family members do tend to resemble one another...)