Literature is humbug, art is where it’s at

April 26, 2012 § Leave a comment

Lukasiewicz also disappoints.

It is interesting to note that one could have divined this from the title — “How to be a great artist on the example of Thomas Mann” — which is gimmicky, indicating a kind of concept book, along the lines of “How to Live: Or A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer”.  I have never yet read a well done concept book.  Experience suggests that perhaps one simply cannot be done.  Let that be a lesson for the future.

(A man on a rampage in the world of culture has constantly to judge a work by its cover so as to avoid a bad one — the disappointment, the loss of time — and clutches for the strangest of clues to help him choose.  Weirdly, some very odd clues do work:  there is no reason to think that just because Kiarostami makes good films, and he is Iranian, another Iranian film maker might make good movies, too, yet this is precisely how I discovered Makhmalbaf.  Here is to irrational clues).

The truth is more prosaic:  the title lies.  It is attached not to a concept book (one written to answer the title’s challenge), but to a series of essays which had been written for a number of different occasions.  For republishing they may have been rewritten somewhat — a line added here another there — to make it seem that they are all about the process of creation (which is envisioned in the stolid, 19th century manner, complete with metaphors of birth and Genesis).  I say that these lines must have been inserted later because many essays do not add up to a sensible whole: and no surprise: it is impossible to transmute an essay about management of cod fisheries into an essay about the great inflation phase of the Big Bang by adding a sentence here or there.

Not, at any rate, coherently.

Which is perhaps why the title is a valid give away.  A haphazard book which does not hold together needs to rely on a good title to give it shape.  Bad books need good titles more than good ones.  Good ones can be titles anything.  Death in Venice, for instance.

Mainly, the book fails the purpose set forth in its introduction.  It starts by observing, truly, that

one reads the Buddenbrooks, one reads Death in Venice, The Magic Mountain, Doktor Faustus, not necessarily in that order, but one reads them.  A few, perhaps a dozen years later, one reads them again and it is, of course, a completely new reading.  Later, on some occasion, for instance when a quotation is needed, on reaches out for the book, leafs through, finds the passage, but in the meantime one has fallen for it again, and one reads it, all the way to the end.  And this repeats.  After the nth time, one would like to be able to answer for oneself the question just what it is that grips us in this manner when we read Thomas Mann.

But the observations that follow are sadly of the usual literary-critical sort:  a kind of game of free association: this reminds the author about Schoppenhauer and that about Goethe and that again about Hauptmann.  In chapter X of Y character Z says “good morning” which are, funnily enough, the same words spoken by character W in chapter V of T.  Etc.

Either Lukasiewicz mistakes what she likes about Mann; or what she likes about Mann — what “pulls her in” — is not what pulls me.  Because I freely associate no matter what I read or hear.  Ergo, what pulls me into Thomas Mann — literally sucks me in — cannot be my ability to free associate about it.

Indeed, the best I have been able to say about what sucks me into Thomas Mann is that it is written strongly — some of the most amazing passages in The Magic Mountain for me are the descriptions of the most ordinary things — meals — second breakfast the room is “white with milk”; covering oneself with a blanket; the taste of a Maria Mancini.  Mann can write about a man walking in the street, putting one foot after the other, and I will read it with burning cheeks.  The hackneyed answer is that the cause is style — but what about it?  If there is any point to aesthetics it is to try to identify the causes of why something works.  I am unable to think aesthetically about Mann.  I don’t understand how the style does it.

In the center of the book is a concept essay:  the Magic Mountain Alphabet, with 25 mini chapters with titles like “A as in Mr Albin” and “B as in bobsleys”.  A touching concept — a pseudo-systematization of knowledge, the very essence of play.

A similar dictionary has once been written about Slowacki with a entry “ladder” describing at length how Slowacki has once, while on holiday in Switzerland, snatched the love letter of a young girl and ran from her up a ladder, while she chased him threatening to tell what she had seen in the garden.  It ended in a blow away sentence:  “But none of this matters; what matters is this:  the ladder, Slowacki upon it, and before him, in all its glory, the shining mirror of Lake Leman.”  The whole story, in other words, was a head-fake, a set up.  So such concepts can work provided one does have 25 interesting things to say about the book.  As it is, Lukasiewicz has only four or five.

It is perhaps inevitable that books about literature have to disappoint.  After all, their authors, one assumes, would rather write literature if they could; the fact that they do not betrays them as de minorum gentem.  This is perhaps why one of the most famous writers on earth today in private confesses that “literature is humbug, art is where it’s at”.


Except for that special, intense longing a child of the tropics experiences whenever he is exiled to a colder climate

September 30, 2011 § 2 Comments

I have reread the Mynheer chapters of The Magic Mountain three times in the last week and have concluded that I can’t make the prequel work:  I detect nothing remotely Indo about the man.

The Indonesian Dutch, known as Indos, were a creole population, descendants of (mostly) Dutch men and generations of local women.  At home they spoke Indonesian more often than they spoke Dutch (some spoke a version of Portuguese-derived patua) — indeed, Indonesian was their official language and they are responsible for having spread it across the archipelago.

Whether they married upper-class Javanese women, or washerwomen (probably both, though I can’t say which was more common), they would have been familiar, both through marriage and through their mothers, of things Javanese:  the concept of refinement, the ideal of emotional reserve, the cult of the high brow.  I see nothing of this in Mynheer Pepperkorn.

True, I see nothing of this in Max Havelaar; or in Country of Origin; but that’s why those novels have failed to interest me (except for that special, intense longing a child of the tropics experiences whenever he is exiled to a colder climate, and which was so well described in Country of Origin).

What I wanted to write about were some of the intense experiences of discovery which entering Indonesia more deeply affords:  the gamelan, and the puppet theater, and the royal ballet, and the more general sense of rubbing one’s shoulders at all times of day and night against powerful magical forces, living in the midst of an invisible kingdom of spirits.  But to ascribe such experiences to Pepperkorn who then goes on to be an ordinary fool, the way he appears in The Magic Mountain, promoting a kind of Hemingweyan romanticism (“you must make love to a woman as hard as you can, with all your heart and all your strength”, etc.), would be to deprecate these experiences; to say that they are not life-changing.

Yes, I suppose one can experience the Javanese royal ballet and go on being a fool.  No doubt, many people do, perhaps even most, but how does one become interested in such people?

How from such a stupid man such a marvelous work of art could spring

September 17, 2011 § 2 Comments

Your comments on Thomas Mann struck a chord — like you, I have always thought the man divine, largely like you — on the strength of The Magic Mountain, but also of Dr Faustus (the third chapter!  the third chapter!).  But then, also like you, when I came to read his diaries, I suffered a shock:  they were empty and stupid.  This has not stopped me from re-reading The Magic Mountain (as I constantly do), but it has made me wonder how from such a stupid man such a marvelous work of art could spring.

Do you suppose one could argue that it isn’t really a great work and only seems to us that way because of the cunning way in which the author has jumbled up certain topoi and themes?  Is it possible, do you reckon, that The Magic Mountain is, to use a metaphor, no more than a spread of tarot cards:  the motifs of the cards (the hanging man, death, sun, glass mountain, bottomless pit) juxtaposed will strike anyone looking at the spread as full of all sorts of hidden meanings while the person who lays them out can be any common fool?

And while I am at it, many thanks for your wonderful Castorp.  I read him with such intense, such unalloyed delight, that, having finished, I just flipped right back to the beginning and began all over again.  Somehow, I believe it will read even better on the Sopot quay:  I will make that my project next spring.

I myself am contemplating another Magic Mountain prequel, one taking as its hero Mynherr Pepperkorn, to be set in Indonesia and narrated by — who else? — Old Marlowe.  A cameo appearance by young Joseph Conrad would be de rigeur.

Indonesia is full of tarot topoi:  smoking volcanos and shady groves of ancient trees, shadow puppet theater (we are to gods like the puppets’ shadows are to them), the royal ballet (in which the only unmasked dancer, Rama, strives to achieve the wooden expression of a mask), spices and opium, Bugis pirates and Chinese triads, ancient stone temples in the jungle, sharks, and snow-white Indian bullocks.  Juxtaposed in any old way, they should make a great novel?

The problem, is, of course, that by the time he appears in Davos, Old Pepperkorn is a fool, not unlike perhaps Thomas Mann of the diaries himself; so it is hard to imagine him a hero of a thinking book; but he could be:  perhaps in his youth he was uncommonly intelligent, driven, and blessed by an acquiring mind; and only in time, drink, malaria, disappointment in love, and perhaps a stroke made him into a mere shadow of himself?

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