I’ll Tell You About Another Novel That’s Even More Strange…

cosmos gombroSome time ago I had the chance to see an excellent theatrical adaptation of Cosmos by Witold Gombrowicz and so I’ve decided to scribble a few words about the novel by – undoubtedly – my favorite Polish writer of all time.

Gombrowicz’s style is hysterical. It’s dynamic, fast-paced, full of linguistic quirks and rich in philosophical themes. His characters are usually set in situations which make them consider their identities in relation with the surrounding world (society, culture, etc.) what was inspired by author’s own experiences.

Cosmos is his last novel and, I think, his most interesting one. A story about Witold and his friend Fuks who stay in a guesthouse in Zakopane is a surreal, postmodern and multi-dimensional tale about language, perception and – as always in case of Gombrowicz’s works – concealed perversion. To be honest, I don’t know why I’m forcing those crime story patterns everywhere but in case of Cosmos we have a very specific pattern of such kind, where both of the mentioned characters start to notice how different elements of their surroundings seem to have an unclear meaning which they try to uncover. Quite early we can infer that it’s not so easy, if not impossible:

I don’t know how to tell this . . . this story . . . because I’m telling it ex post. The arrow, for instance . . . The arrow, for instance . . . The arrow, at that time, at supper, was no more important than Leon’s chess, or the newspaper, or tea, everything—equally important, everything—was contributing to a given moment, a kind of consonance, the buzzing of a swarm. But today, ex post, I know it was the arrow that was the most important, so in telling this I move it to the forefront, from a myriad of undifferentiated facts I extract the configuration of the future. But how can one describe something except ex post? Can nothing be ever truly expressed, rendered in its anonymous becoming, can no one ever render the babbling of the nascent moment, how is it that, born out of chaos, we can never encounter it again, no sooner do we look than order . . . and form . . . are born under our very eyes?

A great deal of the plot is dedicated to those reflections about our understanding of reality, the way we give meaning to its elements and what relations there are between time, space, external objects, our imagination etc. There’s a lot to say about how it can be viewed from the perspective of ontology, individuality, relativism, philosophy of Heidegger, Husserl and so on, but I’m not here to write academic analyzes.

What I love about the novel as well as the entirety of Gombrowicz’s writings are those attempts to make a sense out of the surrounding world what is juxtaposed with an overwhelming absurd of it all. Since I’ve read Ferdydurke in high school I’ve been drawn to such theme quite strongly in literature – and not only. I cannot really imagine its full character without the way how Gombrowicz plays with Polish language and creates a very original style, however it doesn’t mean that nobody else cannot appreciate it in other languages. Translation of Cosmos by Danuta Borchardt (published in 2005 by Yale University Press) is excellent and though I’ve read only fragments by far, I can recommend it without any doubts.


The Importance of Pynchon

cryingoflot49As I’m practically finished with my MA thesis, it’s time to sum up what I’ve learned from that experience. Although beside Pynchon I wrote about DeLillo, the latter will be also the subject of my PhD dissertation and most probably I’ll be writing here more often about his works.

Studying science is not easy. Studying science and applying that to literary analysis is a real pain in the ass. Contrary to what a lot of people believe, the relationship between science and literature is not only concerned with science fiction (which sometimes has practically nothing to do with scientific concepts at all) or just some superficial metaphors and concrete representations through the elements of plot. A more or less in-depth understanding is obligatory in the study of the scientific background of a literary work; it’s rather obvious that in interdisciplinary approaches an understanding of a particular discipline is needed, but it’s far more easier to get a grasp of existentialism in the study of Dostoevsky than of quantum physics in Andrew Crumey’s works.

Pynchon’s entropic inspirations came from reading Henry Adams’ and Norbert Wiener’s writings. The first was a historian, who proposed a “theory of history” based on the second law of thermodynamics, whereas the latter was a scientist, who, beside creating the discipline of cybernetics, wrote about his reflections on our civilization and how it can be analyzed from the perspective of entropy known from physics and information theory.

Entropy is a very interesting concept which can be useful in analyzing the world around us; globalization, the development of mass media like internet, etc. In The Crying of Lot 49, however, Pynchon didn’t limit himself to writing only about various closed systems evolving into a state of disarray/dispersion.

The world of the novel is ruled by the forces of order and chaos, represented by different constituents, like Yoyodyne corporation or Tristero. The key to its interpretation is to abandon a stereotypical assumption that order = good and chaos = evil. On the one hand, Pynchon’s point concerns the fact that order may lead to some really bad shit, like fascism and stuff, and chaos may counterbalance this. However, it’s not simply the case of inverting some dichotomy. The most important thing is that order and chaos are complementing each other and this is pretty much what makes the world go round. If one force is temporarily breaking through the balance, destruction happens.

Such attitude towards order and chaos changed in Pynchon’s later works, like Gravity’s Rainbow, where extreme order is always pretty much evil and chaos is the winning superhero; or at least that’s what I’ve been taught, I haven’t had much time yet to delve into GR to such extent.

One way or another, Pynchon is an another author who taught me the importance of looking at world as a system, or even a system of systems (of systems of systems…). By faithfully sticking to simple binary oppositions, we are doomed to fail in this game. It’s not easy to be always aware of how complex our reality is (represented, i.a., by science) but by trying to, we move a little bit closer to the unattainable ideal of “truth,” whatever that would be.

So I’ve Read Atlas Shrugged and I Kinda Like It, I Guess

atlas-shruggedThere are different kinds of ideology in literary works. There’s the obviously evil, straightforward and widely acknowledged one, like in Mein Kampf; there’s the concealed one, but pretty easy to uncover, like in classical fairy tales (for a reference, think Angela Carter); there’s the complicated one, or a certain system of ideologies manipulated by the author himself, like in Pynchon’s early works (think order and chaos). And there’s Atlas Shrugged.

It’s dripping with ideology. From the beginning to the very last sentence (dollar sign as the new cross, seriously) it’s a wild trip across fluctuating, but nevertheless strikingly high levels of ideology. The novel exercises it to all the possible extents, even if that means spending around one hundred pages on just lecturing the reader about its philosophical system.

I’ve read many novels with such unabashedly ideological background but still, I feel that Atlas Shrugged is special in a way. Maybe it’s constructed in such a way as to guide an unsuspecting and innocent reader through a world of fast-panned action build on themes from various popular genres to successfully plant in him a seed of thought which will grow into a full commitment to its ideology. Maybe it’s the scope of that ideological commitment which makes it special. As Gore Vidal said, “nearly perfect in it’s immorality”, the book and its philosophy takes rebelling to a completely different level, and it rebels blindly, fully, in a manner of a stereotypical teenager with a slightly longer attention span (writing a one thousand page long novel is not an easy task, even if you take a lot of Benzedrine). Maybe it’s because I’m sick and my liberal tendencies are trying to fully subdue me. Maybe it’s Maybelline.

Or maybe it’s because I like trains? (I mean, seriously, like in a Sheldon-Cooper-ish way) So it was kinda cool to read about the construction of railway and stuff.

One way or another, I think it’s important to learn how to approach, deconstruct and try to look behind ideology so one may find some interesting things about themselves. And in that next Facebook feud with ancaps you’ll always have some concrete arguments against their beloved idols, so nothing goes down the drain.

Why You Should Stop Hating on Books

IMAG0751The New York Times Sunday Review published an article by Pamela Paul titled “Why You Should Read Books You Hate.” Paul argues that trying to force yourself to get through a piece of literature you despise may actually be beneficial for you, as it can enrich and develop your own opinions and stances:

As debaters know, sometimes you figure out your position only in opposition. All it takes is for me to read a book by Howard Zinn or Paul Johnson, each gleefully hate-worthy in its own polarizing way, to locate my own interpretation of history. This is what’s so invigorating about hate-reading. To actively grapple with your assumptions and defend your conclusions gives you a sense of purpose. You come to know where you stand, even if that means standing apart.

Though I do agree with the text’s main idea, it has some striking fallacies which I’d like to discuss. For someone who works in literary studies, it’s obvious that reading is bound with a precise analysis to achieve a deep understanding of a text’s context, ideology, misconceptions; its problems in general. Although such “professional reading” must be objective, I believe that reading for your own pleasure can benefit greatly from adopting a similar perspective. What I find problematic in Paul’s article is her insistence on the word “hate.” She doesn’t abandon that rhetoric to the end of the text, and in the penultimate paragraph she even writes, “[y]et hate reading can actually bring readers together.”

I mean, seriously? What’s the point in holding on to such hostility? At one point Paul seems to agree that reading should be more about challenging your worldview but then it all goes down to assuring yourself in your beliefs. Behind every, even the most problematic and loathed piece of literature there’s a system of contextual and ideological aspects which contributed to such outlook. Reading such works should not result in maintaining our hostility towards them but it should allow us to understand why it made us feel that way and what conclusions can we draw from it.

All I’m saying is; less hate, more understanding. Studying literature is a great tool for making our society a little bit more humane and enlightened.

Paul mentioned reading Ayn Rand as an example; it happens that recently I’ve read Atlas Shrugged and there’s a lot I’d like to say about it. I guess it’s a topic for an another post which will probably appear here in the nearest future.

Five Times on Translation

small__ukasiewicz__Pi___razy___ok_adka_PLATONMy first post on this blog was about Fu wojny and some innovative ways of discussing translation theory and practice. Although I wrote that it’s nice to have works which are different from the usual, boring textbooks, it doesn’t mean that we cannot have interesting books about translation which are more down-to-earth than Bartnicki’s application of “ancient war strategies” to that field.

Karakter publishing house, a rather new one in Poland and already one of my favorites published a book of essays by renowned Polish translator Małorzata Łukasiewicz titled Pięć razy o przekładzie (“Five Times on Translation”). It concisely reflects on issues such as why we have literary translations, what problems does a translator encounter, what relations there are between different entities involved in translations etc. As we read on the back cover:

Referring to the history of literature, stories of other translators and her own experiences, the author talks about the dilemmas and paradoxes of translator’s work as well as how to read translations and what literature can be.

I’m not really keen on writing full blown reviews, so let me just point out some things which I especially liked and which sparked my thought. The second essay of the collection is connected directly with my earlier reflections on Fu wojny. It talks about the multitude of metaphors about translating. What’s most surprising is that they can be used both in more essayist, or informal as well as academic and defining contexts. It shows that when translation studies was a rather new discipline, we were looking for some means of defining what translation is by referring to everything around it. However, as the discipline was becoming more and more precise and well-grounded in theory, translation itself became a certain model or archetype (Łukasiewicz gives an example of gender studies and how it talks about the original work associated with masculinity and reproduction, rewriting with femininity).

Some interesting points are made on literature in general. When talking about literary translations we cannot avoid the topic of literary studies. The author writes:

There are books which does not satisfy you even after the second or the third reading. One would like to do something more with them. It can be a truly burning desire. Rewrite them, by hand, with the use of calligraphy and the most beautiful ink on a handmade paper? Learn it by heart? Tell it to someone with your own words? Find out why they puzzled and enchanted us so much? Analyze, interpret, dig out the underlying mechanisms? Is not that the source of literary studies, book clubs, literary criticism – and translation? In his title Gadamer claims: “Reading is a translation.” Gayatri Spivak inverts the subject with the predicate but binds them with the same strength: “Translation is the most intimate act of reading.”

Reading literature is an intellectual challenge which breeds a whole universe of ideas. Literary translation is one of the products of such process. Commercialization is one thing, but for the most part translating literature is and will always be a form of artistic and intellectual expression.

There’s much more to say about the book which only proves its merit. It mixes essayistic reflections with a pinch of theory (Nida, Derrida, Spivak and others). Such works are great for students as well as for all of those who are interested in literature from a more pragmatic perspective.

Watch the Words

pointomegaSo I still haven’t read all of DeLillo’s works but I feel like it’s appropriate to say that in his newer novels he gets more inclined to write with certain ambiguity, about the metaphysical sphere of nature and aesthetics. It’s not like his earlier writings don’t share any of such characteristics, though still, reading White Noise or Underworld is different than reading Zero K or Point Omega, and the latter is the one which I’ve just read.

The title straightforwardly guides us to the so-called Omega Point, a concept developed by a Jesuit priest and an academic, Pierre de Chardin. It roughly refers to the unification of everything in the universe to a single, spiritual entity, a certain collective consciousness (entropy, huh?) In the novel, both Elster, an ex-war adviser who spends his retirement on a desert and Finley, a filmmaker intending to document his experience are concerned in different ways with the issue of passing time and the matter of consciousness. The plot starts and ends with 24 Hour Psycho, an art-piece showing Hitchcock’s movie slowed down to the period of twenty-four hours. As we read:

The film’s merciless pacing had no meaning without a corresponding watchfulness, the individual whose absolute alertness did not betray what was demanded. He stood and looked. In the time it took for Anthony Perkins to turn his head, there seemed to flow an array of ideas involving science and philosophy and nameless other things, or maybe he was seeing too much. But it was impossible to see to much. The less there was to see, the harder he looked, the more he saw. This was the point. To see what’s here, finally to look and to know you’re looking, to feel time passing, to be alive to what is happening in the smallest registers of motion.

This one nails it. To a great extent, Finley is concerned with alertness, with being conscious about your surroundings, the very subject of your interest, and looking at things as they are. This is actually the exact reason why the “post-Underworld” DeLillo really speaks to me. His later works are completely immersed in those highly cogitative subjects, focusing strongly on language, both in a textual and kind of meta-textual sense. I think it can be difficult for less experienced readers to get through it, however it’s fantastic how big is the extent to which we can interpret such prose and also how satisfying can be reading it if we look past the ambiguities and admire its aesthetic quality.

Inside the Mind of a Killer

51bFeD6U3yLI’ve always been fascinated by abstraction in writing. Obviously one of the masters of such thing would be Joyce, Finnegans Wake is the ultimate abstraction. However, letting your imagination, creativity and shitposting skills unfurl has many dimensions. 300.000.000 by Blake Butler is a story of Gravey, a serial killer and more or less involuntary cult leader and Flood, a police officer investigating his case. From the fragments of Scorch Atlas which I’ve read earlier, I knew already that this reading would be a rather extreme experience. Creepy, sick and highly addictive at the same time:

It was hard in the first hours under Darrel to figure out how to make the voice come out of my lungs the way the blood in those lungs meant to barf the syllables rejected from the vocabularies of common man. Gravey had not spoken so well in so long and I newly here inside him burned like burning books searching for the locks to keyless ways. I had to breathe way hard deep inside me like I was to be going under water; then I would close my eyes and listen hard, and through the phone over the rolling of the water I could hear the things we meant to verbalize in bone.

And that’s pretty much how the narrative works. It’s written in the form of notes or commentary; written by Gravey, Flood, other policemen or people involved in the crimes. It gets distorted a little bit in the later parts of the plot but I’m not going to delve too much into that.

Why do I find this book important? Writing in a maniacal, mystical and abstract way is not easy; pretentiousness is not very far away, IMHO Butler’s novel manages to avoid that thin border. We have fragments about sucking one’s eyeballs out, the spirit/ego/whatever-you-want-to-call-that leaving the body, police officer’s distressed reflections and many more. All of that seem to be interspersed in such a way that a certain atmospheric harmony is preserved.

Beside stylistics, the novel evokes a beautiful (if your sense of beauty is as fucked up as mine) image of apocalypse in America. The title refers to the rough number of people who live in the country and who are to be doomed. The closer the plot gets to the apocalypse, the more surreal/abstract it becomes. It also gets harder to get through the narration, that’s why ultimately I think it’s not a book for less experienced readers. The apocalypse is not the end though; I’m still struggling a little bit with interpreting the subsequent part. Nevertheless, it’s a book which left me in a weird, but kinda purgatory state. At the end of an interview from 2014 Butler was asked what is he working on now, to which he replied “I am trying to be calm.” So do I.