My adventures in la-la land

I’ve been reading a lot lately, along with trying to pass my comps., drinking heavily and generally being gnawed by random anxiety about my future. Here are a few of the things that I’ve read in the last month or so:

Catch-22 by Joseph Heller: An astonishing book. In my view it might be the pinnacle of what we somewhat amorphously call “existential literature.” The intellectual framework is not as profound or awe-inspiring as Kafka’s works, but in terms of blending absurdist grotesquery with genuinely funny (yet insane) comedy in the way so prized by existential writiers I would say it easily surpasses them, and infinitely more so than Beckett and the other theater of the aburd writiers, who I am convinced are only regarded as humorous by literature grad. students. Until quite near the end the writing is so dense, with usually at least three inspired non-sequiters leaving off in three different directions per paragraph, that it almost seems to bristle on the page. I think implicit in what I have already said is that that quality of perfectly intricate yet completely arbitrary structure, which is what I mean by an “existentialist” style, goes way beyond simple anti-war satire. One has the impression that each character embodies some particular form of insanity that overlaps with and conflicts with all the others. It’s what I imagine Nietzsche had in mind when he talked about “das Krankenhaus der Welt” (the world is a sick-room). I don’t know why Heller hasn’t had a more prodigious career; it might be becaus of what Gary Shteyngart had in mind when he said something to the effect that the satire in Catch-22 was so thorough that in a sense everything else Heller wrote was redundant.

The Taming of the Shrew by William Shakespeare: a frustrating reading experience. This is the only nihilistic Shakespeare play that I have ever read (well, maybe Timon of Athens, but it’s been so long that I don’t remember it well). The set-up is a cynical stock scenario, as further evidenced by the generic title, and there is not a single genuinely sympathetic character. They are all casually brutal egotistists thinking only of their own emolument, and the conclusion offers a suitably callous lesson in dominance and submission. And my complaint goes beyond simple feminist issues: the wife who gets subjugated is just as disagreeable as her husband, and the outcome is no more inherently unjust than two dogs fighting over a bone. Feminists who dismiss Shakespeare as a typical 16th century misogynist are overlooking the vast differences between this play and the infinitely more sensitive later works. Shakespeare writing this play is probably somewhere in the nature of Robert De Niro appearing in Rocky and Bullwinkle, and I would guess that they were inspired by similar motives. Shakespeare in fact seems to resort to sabotaging the message of his own play with, for example, the bizarre frame device, which implies that the whole thing is just misleading entertainment for stupid oafs.

I Malavoglia (translated into English, for reasons that entirely escape me, as The House by the Medlar-Tree) by Giovanni Verga: the polar opposite of Catch-22, although equally tragic. As opposed to fantastically elaborate human-made contrivances of misfortune causing the misery, it re-captures all the sense of fatality and inevitability of Greek tragedy, but in a realistic manner, as it tragedy is brought about not by the gods but by elemental nature. Verga was the founder of what is called in Italy verismo, perhaps the most purely realistic of all the 19th century styles of realism. It shows everyday life not for aesthetic effect like Flaubert or in the spirit of pseudo-scientific experimentation like Zola, but simply in the nature of a kind of intimate journalism. The machinations of the scheming, selfish residents of a little village in Sicily flicker away in the foreground while in the background, related in an understated manner that barely mentions more than the facts, unfolds the enormous tragedy of a stoic, saintly family, the Malavoglias, who earn their living by fishing. More than half the family is wiped out one by one: lost at sea, killed by a cholera epidemic, arrested or degraded into prostitution. The family, however, as the title implies, due to gigantic sacrifice functions as a single unit, and thereby Verga conveys the communal nature of primitive human life. This is because he intended the novel to function as the first volume of a sort of symbolic history of humanity (which he never completed), showing its progressive individuation and refinement.

Apologia pro Vita Sua by John Henry Newman: a perplexing book. Cardinal Newman was probably the most notable convert from Anglicanism to Catholicism in 19th century Britain, and since previous to that he led the Oxford movement which sought to impose “high Anglicanism,” which was essentially identical to Catholicism except for in loyalty to the pope, on the Church of England, he not entirely unfairly fell under suspicion as the purety of his motives before conversion in trying to bring Anglicanism in line with Catholicism. This book is his attempt to refute the charge and prove his own honesty. I suppose that I was expecting a personal reflection on, as the back cover suggests, “the very nature of Christianity and its place in the modern age.” And it is…but only for the last 35 pages. The first two hundred treats the whole issue of loyalty to the Churches in question as a minor technical point, and goes about laying out the evidence for his changing attitude with the banal thoroughness of a legal brief. Then at the end, when he decides to defend the Catholic Church as a whole on ethical and social grounds, the narrative leaps to another level and becomes quite fascinating. The suppose the problem in the first part is the disquieting feeling one gets from theology in general, that sense of massive disproportion as he implies that his, and everyone else’s, immortal soul depend not (or at least not only) on moral conduct but on a correct opinion regarding some obscure and incomprehensible metaphysical point. But when he steps out away from the interminable and pointless academic debates and starts meditating on the real value of things he gets much more interesting and even his writing style becomes greatly more poetic and compelling.

One Response to “My adventures in la-la land”

  1. selling waves » Blog Archive » Does this make me a polymath? Says:

    […] In the spirit of Curt’s post from April and my own post from last November, here’s a rundown of a few of the things I’ve been reading the last few weeks: […]

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