Archive for the ‘auerbach’ Category
Very strange, and not at all sure what to do with this yet. Might just be a false echo… But as I’ve indicated on here before, I’ve long been fascinated by the final paragraph of Erich Auerbach’s Mimesis. Namely…
Beneath the conflicts, an economic and cultural levelling process is taking place. It is still a long way to a common life of mankind on earth, but the goal begins to be visible. And it is most concretely visible now in the unprejudiced, precise, interior and exterior representation of the random moment in the lives of different people. So the complicated process of dissolution which led to fragmentation of the exterior action, to reflection of consciousness, and to stratification of time seems to be tending toward a very simple solution. Perhaps it will be too simple to please those who, despite all its dangers and catastrophes, admire and love our epoch for the sake of its abundance of life and the incomparable historical vantage point which it affords. But they are few in number, and probably they will not live to see much more than the first forewarnings of the approaching unification and simplification.
I discuss it, for instance, in a (strange, wandering) post here. At any rate, I’ve been getting ready to give a lecture today on T.S. Eliot’s essays, and found the following in his 1921 piece The Metaphysical Poets.
We can only say that it appears likely that poets in our civilization, as it exists at present, must be difficult. Our civilization comprehends great variety and complexity, and this variety and complexity, playing upon a refined sensibility, must produce various and complex results. The poet must become more and more comprehensive, more allusive, more indirect, in order to force, to dislocate if necessary, language into his meaning.
The play of simplicity vs. difficulty (and the gap of a few very important decades) does make me wonder whether there’s a responsive echo going on in Auerbach. Something to look into… (If only there was a good Auerbach biography in English!) What makes it more interesting, perhaps, is that arch-small-c-conservative Eliot is in the midst of laying out his theory of the “dissociation of sensibility” that somehow happened after the seventeenth century (hmmm) while – if very obliquely – Auerbach seems to be suggesting a sort of “re-association of sensibility” in the aftermath of modernism…
More soon if I can find a way / get a chance to look into this further…
Usually when we think about the literature of the single day (think of high modernist texts like Ulysses or Mrs Dalloway) we tend to think of the formal gesture at play as one that materializes, at base, the progressive and secularizing side of modernism. At least I usually think about it this way. Framing a text around a single day in the life of relatively ordinary people seems to represent a secularization of literary time, a turn away from the theologically-inspired teleologies and rhythms that normally structure (or had normally structured) literary works. Whereas the novel that follows its characters over long durations is the stuff of dynastic succession or in its more modern guise family inheritane, the work focused on a single day pulls us back to the everyday life of the man or woman on the street. There’s less room for parents or pedigree, more room for the common experiences and practices of modern life.
I’m not alone in thinking this way. Remember the conclusion of Erich Auerbach’s chapter on Woolf in Mimesis? Now, the chapter focuses on To the Lighthouse not Dalloway, and the former isn’t a one day novel but a two-day-plus-a-longer-weirder-stretch-in-the-middle novel, but I think the point that he makes here is appropriate:
Beneath the conflicts, an economic and cultural leveling process is taking place. It is still a long way to a common life of mankind on earth, but the goal begins to be visible. And it is most concretely visible now in the unprejudiced, precise, interior and exterior representation of the random moment in the lives of different people. So the complicated process of dissolution which led to fragmentation of the exterior action, to reflection of consciousness, and to stratification of time seems to be tending toward a very simple solution. Perhaps it will be too simple to please those who, despite all its dangers and catastrophes, admire and love our epoch for the sake of its abundance of life and the incomparable historical vantage point which it affords. But they are few in number, and probably they will not live to see much more than the first forewarnings of the approaching unification and simplification.
There’s a lot to unpack here, of course, but I think you see why the quote interests me here. The “representation of the random moment in the lives of different people” seems to augur a coming “leveling,” the emergence of some sort of “common life of mankind on earth.” The equation seems to run, at least here, for Auerbach, that the focus on ordinary, random time (like the mostly random time of Joyce and Woolf’s novels) suggests a turn to a politics of ordinary commonality.
Again, this is how I usually see these things, talk and write about them, and teach them. And I teach them all the time…
But, on the other hand, I’ve been listening to a lot of Radiohead (hahaha) recently and tons of Lou Reed (forever). And of late, two songs – one from each – have crystallized into a little mutually reinforcing dyad in my mind. They somehow came together on a playlist that I made, and everyone knows that random playlist juxtapositioning represents one of the key dark arts of advanced literary criticism and analysis. So… Here are the songs.
I realize that these two songs focus not so much on an “ordinary day” but a “perfect day.” Reed’s seems pretty pointedly ordinary though, but, no, we have no idea what constitutes the day that TY references. (Given the songs that precede it on In Rainbows, it’s hard not to come up with better-than-usual adulterous sex, but really, who knows… I guess the more likely and much tamer reading is that somebody’s about to kick the bucket… But I like mine better…)
Anyway, why so melancholy, Lou and Thom? Why has thinking about time in terms of the “single day” become so menacingly depressive or depressively menacing? Or was it always this way, right from the start?
Look, I know that this is, well, quite a literary historical leap that I’m trying to make, tracing a dynamic from a point marked Woolf and Joyce in the 1920s to Relatively Recent Music for Perpetually-Adolescent Depressives. I’m playing fast and loose, but I still think there’s something here. I could get all Benjaminian on you and take you down the Erlebnis / Erfahrung path. You know, the one that goes like this in the Baudelaire essay that’s in Illuminations:
The greater the shock factor in particular impressions, the more vigilant consciousness has to be in screening stimuli; the more efficiently it does so, the less these impressions enter long experience [Erfahrung] and the more they correspond to the concept of isolated experience [Erlebnis]. Perhaps the special achievement of shock defense is the way it assigns an incident a precise point in time in consciousness, at the cost of the integrity of the incident’s contents. This would be a peak achievement of the intellect; it would turn the incident into an isolated experience.
This stuff, by the way, goes perfectly with one of the general thematic concerns of Radiohead’s In Rainbows, which this very interesting post labels “data melancholy.” (Short version: the pathos in “Videotape” is as much a matter of storing the experience on a degradable and obsolete medium like a VHS tape as it is about, you know, leaving this perfect day behind. The act of preserving the single day (whether in a song or on tape or in a song about tape) reechoes the data loss that occurs due to the shock defense and its characteristic temporality in the first place.)
All that’s there, but I think there’s something else – something that definitely runs in parallel with this issue – that’s at once easier and harder to get at.What the songs underscore, both in their own way, is that the very act of framing time in terms of the single “perfect” day is itself a stress reaction, one that exposes not so much perfection of the day in question as the disastrous or even dystopian nature of the other days that surround it. While Benjamin is getting at the stress or shock on the level of perception or epistemology; Reed and Radiohead broaden the scope out to history, personal (explicitly) and extrapersonal (implicitly). How else to explain the apocalyptic overtone that sneaks back into both songs: the biblical sowing and reaping in Reed and portentous vagueness of “No matter what happens now” in “Videotape.” (Again, if you listen to the rest of the stuff on In Rainbows and the supplementary materials the band released with it, like for instance this, which itself is a song preoccupied with the relationship between time and disaster, you get a few ideas about just what might be happening now in the context of the song…)
The literary historical conclusion that we can get to out of all of this is a little pedestrian, but still worth saying. If the modernist single day texts are vaguely utopian in terms of their very temporality, these utopian temporalities themselves bear the marks of being stress reactions to a string of epistemological, existential, and historical crises that provoked them. This seems a bit obvious, and it is, but not to everyone. (I once got in a fight with a dickheaded senior prof in my old department about a question that I asked in a PhD exam about the role that the first world war plays in Ulysses. He argued that it, of course, plays no role because the work is set in 1904, and thus my question was unfair and illegitimate. I was on my way out of the department, so it was really tempting to explain to him what a fucking idiot he was, but I generally save my anger for my blog, so I didn’t…) With Woolf, it is relatively easy to see how the ordinariness of Clarissa’s single day concretizes itself against the impinging historico-political exterior, trying unsuccessfully to hold it away as it threatens her party etc. With Joyce, this is a bit tougher to see, but it starts to shed light on the relationship between the temporal cut of the book and Franco Moretti’s brilliant reading in Signs Taken For Wonders that Ulysses is a strange sort of science fiction dystopia, strange in the sense that it is a science fiction dystopia set twenty years since…
But there remains an even more interesting point that that. (I hope). The songs bring to the fore a more profound melancholy, a haunting disturbance of the everyday. There is something wrong with our everyday, with our every day. We second-guess, we cannot help but second-guess, ourselves as we attempt to shave small spaces out of this world where we can be happy, or where we can even simply be. There are many reasons why we second-guess ourselves when we do this. Many of them are political or economic. Maybe some of them aren’t. (Is that even possible?) What sort of single day novel would you write if you were to write one today? If I did one, it would be tremulous, afraid of its own shadow and the shadow of its chosen/assigned form. It would be empty – too empty even to register Septimus, to stage an event like the one that happens in Cyclops. I would feel like a hypocrite were I to attempt to allow the outside in. I wish I could put it more concretely than this. There’s been an erosion of the clifftop we call time. All of it has something to do with the necessary movement past Benjamin’s formulation – we now long for the shock factor, even. We’d take Erlebnis. Our Auerbachian “random moment in the lives of different people” has become laughable, commodified, the stuff of ad campaigns, the stuff of the media forms of civic reinforcement. It’s tricky to name, this thing. The everyday has become something that we reach for when we’re at our worse, when the clammy hands of bureaucracy have finally touched our hearts and we try to be gentle, try to fit in.
Christ, I’m not going to (be able to?) name it in a blogpost, am I?