Wednesday, August 31, 2011
Small Man Trapped In A Box, Says, YOUR GENIUS - wait for it - IS YOUR ERROR
But what about parody? In an interview with J. Alfred Appell (a name whose Nabokovishness a Russian teacher of mine once taught a whole class on), Vladimir Nabokov says, "Satire is a lesson. Parody is a game." The distinction may seem thin - good games always teach you something, after all - but I think I see his point. There is art that keeps you seated and art that invites you to get up, and for some reason parody seems to stand balanced like a sword between these two, with the potential to fall either way.
In Nab's underrated The Real Life of Sebastian Knight, the eponymous hero's breakthrough book, The Prismatic Bezel, is described like this:
As often was the way with Sebastian Knight he used parody as a kind of springboard for leaping into the highest region of serious emotion. J.L. Coleman has called it 'a clown developing wings, an angel mimicking a tumbler pigeon,' and the metaphor seems to me very apt. Based cunningly on a parody of certain tricks of the literary trade, The Prismatic Bevel soars skyward. With something akin to fanatical hate Sebastian Knight was ever hunting out the things which had once been fresh and bright but which were now worn to a thread, dead things among living ones; dead things shamming life, painted and repainted, continuing to be accepted by lazy minds serenely unaware of the fraud. The decayed idea might be in itself quite innocent and it may be argued that there is not much sin in continually exploiting this or that thoroughly woen subject or style if it still pleases and amuses. But for Sebastian Knight, the merest trifle, as, say, the adopted method of a detective story, became a bloated and malodorous corpse. He did not mind in the least 'penny dreadfuls' because he wasn't concerned with ordinary morals; what annoyed him invariably was the second rate, not the third or N-th rate, because here, at the readable stage, the shamming began, and this was, in an artistic sense, immoral. But The Prismatic Bezel is not only a rollicking parody of the setting of a detective tale it is also a wicked imitation of many other things... (The Real Life of Sebastian Knight p. 90)
The parody that Nabokov describes Sebastian using - whose humor bends into a "springboard for leaping into the highest region of serious emotion" - is one we see over and over again, both in Nab himself and in many other high-points of 20th century fiction (Flannery O'Connor, for example). For these writers, in order to be serious you have to first earn your reader's trust by showing him or her that you know how deeply unserious the majority of daily life is. The debatable assumption behind such a method - that more people experience their lives as absurd than tragic - feels like a natural product of a time in which ironically bitching actors are used to sell soda; but its origins go back much further than Nabokov. As literary critic Erich Auerbach describes in his book Mimesis, comedy and tragedy have always struggled against one another - to the point that, in classical literature, the concept of "realism" was itself held to be utterly comic and unserious:
In modern literature the technique of imitation can evolve a serious, problematic, and tragic conception of any character regardless of type and social standing, of any occurrence regardless of whether it be legendary, broadly political, or narrowly domestic; and in most cases it actually does so. Precisely that is completely impossible in antiquity...Everything commonly realistic, everything pertaining to everyday life, must not be treated on any level except the comic, which admits no problematic probing. A a result the boundaries of realism are narrow. (Mimesis, p.27)
For Auerbach, this division between serious-high and comic-low was a natural one in a world whose writers were almost exclusively upper class generals, politicians, statesman, or at least landholders. But with the rise of Christianity - a religon whose heroes come from all walks of life, including the working and peasant classes - this dynamic changes. Christ's speech both promises an inversion of earthly values in heaven (the rich will be poor and the meek inherit the earth, etc.) and demonstrates how this could happen in his stories, which treat their poor subjects with dignity. So a realm that was until that point seen as comic comes to be seen as secretly serious.
Parody is, in many ways, a literary version of this same switch. It attempts to find seriousness in places that have traditionally been seen as unserious: in genre-writing, for example, or television, or on the internet. A protean impulse, it has at its heart the democratic (and, dare I say it, Christian) idea that anything, no matter how unpromising it might appear, can be valuable - can be real - if it is loved.
Perhaps it is the hovering Paracletean Silverhawk in me (to borrow, sort of, a Michel Tournier formulation) that encourages me to set this loving parody up against the hateful parody practiced by Sebastian Knight. Maybe I'm wrong here - maybe the two emotions are not so easily separable, and the key to successful animation is the strength of feeling in the animator (take as an example of this the savage parodist Nathaniel West, or another favorite of mine, Flannery O'Connor). But then what about Nabokov himself? Is there any other writer of the twentieth century whose love for and fascination with his objects of fun is so obviously, inescapably sincere?
The Energy of Delusion. Writing like that is powered, not by clinical detachment, but by an impulse: the probing feeling-your-way-through-a-dark-room that we get so powerfully in writers from Sterne to Kafka to Bolano. The Russian sweater-maker Osip Mandelstam describes this impulse when he says that There is no syntax: there is a magnetized impulse, a longing for the stern of a ship, a longing for a forage of worms, a longing for an unpromulgated law, a longing for Florence. (Conversation about Dante, p.41) Which I think brings us closer to what really happens at the center of the Proetus myth. You remember this myth, of course. Menelaus (who the Coen brothers bring back to life as Governor Menelaus "Pappy" O'Daniel) is told by the shape-shifter's daughter that if he hangs on long enough, he will get his answer. Wrestling in ancient literature is usually a one-way affair. In the Greek version of the myth, the God changes. In the Biblical version, the human being (in the case I'm thinking of, Jacob) is the one who steps away from the battle altered. But strangely enough, when I imagine these battles, I see both shapes shifting. The angel, who after all is defeated, must finish the fight with at least a little food for thought, in the same way that, when I think of Menelaus grappling, the thing that really interests me is what's going on inside him. Maybe this is the novelist in me speaking: for if any image encapsulates writing a novel, for me, it is wrestling. The thing changes under your hand; but you change too, perhaps just as dramatically. In fact, you might go so far as to say that the writing changes because you change: because there is a consistently-different person writing it, in the same way that Menelaus who's already wrestled Proteus the Lion and Proteus the Pig has a different set of tools to tackle Proteus the Tree or Lake or Flea.
Cinema, which after all depends as a genre on many successful transformations (of places, people, objects), understands the palaien nature of transformation at least as well as literature. There is a wonderful moment late in the recent movie The Trip, when Steve Coogan tries to imitate his frenemy Rob Bryden's "Small Man Trapped in a Box" routine. After a few unsuccessful attempts, Coogan gives up. "I don't care about silly voices," he squeaks bitterly. The moment is touching - especially so since it comes towards the end of a movie that has, up to this point, succeeded precisely because of Coogan & Brydon's encyclopedic (dazzling, frightening) ability to mimic whatever they want. More than touching, actually: it seems real. (Ironically, and puzzlingly, Coogan's failure simultaneously feels like the most fictional moment in the movie, since after an hour and a half of watching him become everyone under the sun, I have absolutely no doubt that he could mimic the shit out of "Small Man Trapped in a Box").
Like impression, parody is often seen as a soft, or minor genre. It is, mostly - but only because most parody is unsuccessful: a daliance instead of a possession. Or I could approach the problem from the opposite direction by saying that impression is undervalued in literature because the greatest parodies don't look like parodies at all. Seen this (come to think of it, is quite Nabokovian) way, parody is not a minor literary form at all, but rather one of writing's most integral mechanisms. Nabokov parodies Joyce who parodies Sterne, in the same way that, say, Marilynne Robinson parodies Melville parodying Milton. In each case, the attempt to rewrite one's favorite book results in a completely different one - but the spirit, the "magnetized impulse" is ferried over, changed and, ultimately, enriched.
Seth's uncle Deano draws the moral from this story in his documentary on the 80s punk band Recklessness:
(I always tell my students not to worry about originality; just ty to copy the manners and musics of the various, the more various the better, poetries you love: your originality will come from your inability to copy well: YOUR GENIUS IS YOUR ERROR.)
Deano's idea inverts Harold Bloom's famous idea that strong art comes from an attempt to escape the art we love: no, Dean says, not escape, but imitate. To become what we love, which we can't no matter how many books we've read or not read. The Law of Identity rules on earth as it does everywhere else in the universe, thank God, since it's exactly the differences between ourselves and our idols that provoke us to mimic them in the first place.