Last week I was reading an article on theNation.com about a new generation of writers from Mexico (Jorge Volpi, Ignacio Padilla & Eloy Urroz) in the mid nineties, and it hit very close to home. They called themselves the “crackeros” but what interested me the most was their resistance to writing “Mexican literature.” Literary critics from America and Western Europe insisted that Mexicans writers must write about Mexican themes in order to be authentic. In other words, the crakeros‘ novels weren’t about Mexico, and therefore, the writers weren’t authentic. That implies that the “universal” is restricted to the Americans and Europeans. Commence severe eye-rolling. ↓ Read the rest of this entry…
Posts Tagged ‘literature’
In February, I submitted the dialogue, None The Wiser, to a collection of Deaf American Prose, in the hopes of being published. However, the professors helming that project had decided that my dialogue was not “deaf” enough to make the cut – even though in their call for submissions, they specified that the topic did not have to be “explicitly about deaf, Deaf, or hard of hearing American lives, but … the author [must be] deaf, Deaf, or hard of hearing.”
As a deaf author, I thought this project was not necessarily a collection of writings about deafness by deaf authors. But, given the politics behind the rejection, it appears that, in order for me to be published as a deaf person, I must write about deaf issues. I was mistaken in the naïve belief that being a deaf man who could write like a philosopher would be sufficient, and that I need not be defined by my deafness, but this is not the case. ↓ Read the rest of this entry…
Karl Kraus claimed that “an aphorism never coincides with the truth: it is either a half-truth or one-and-a-half truths.”
They often seem to issue from beyond language, say what cannot be said, or at least gesture towards the mystery. That could be why the most famous lines of Wittgenstein’s Tractatus are the final two aphorisms, which are themselves about aphorisms.
6.54 My propositions serve as elucidations in the following way: anyone who understands me recognizes them as nonsensical, when he has used them – as steps – to climb up beyond them. (He must, so to speak, throw away the ladder after he has climbed up it.) He must transcend these propositions and then he will see the world aright.
7. What we cannot speak about we must pass over in silence. (Tractatus)
Thus, aphorisms are not to be read as dictums. They give a sign, but the sign is not where the meaning is. Also, the aphoristic style reflects the concerns of perspectivism for writing in general. In Reading Nietzsche, Bernd Magnus claims that aphorisms, instead of providing “unity, connection, totality, and closure,” are intended to atomize, for they divide and mark-off. They demand the reader to supply the missing “connective tissue,” the logical ligature that “transforms glistening shards into a single organic whole which subtends them.”
The aphorism may look simple, but its gnomic quality is to stimulate the reader to participate, investigate, engage – stop what they’re doing and look carefully. Given the original Greek term ap-horeizen, i.e., to set a horizon or a boundary, the aphorism does set a new horizon that forces the reader to reconsider the old ones. We should not confuse the aphorism with maxims or epigrams, which are themselves ideal examples of brevity where wisdom is articulated into 1 or two sentences, and intended to apply generally. An aphorism instead tells the reader an experience of glancing at the new, distant horizon. It is also a mistake to think that the aphorism is merely a literary form.
The aphorism is but one of the various ways Nietzsche writes against tradition, where the standard procedure of philosophy has the author telling the reader the conclusion and how s/he will argue for it. Self-sufficient insights, epigrams, maxims, fragments, and notes are the other ways, and they all require the reader to provide the missing logical ligatures – the connective that unifies the grand narrative of the book. As a result, the reader’s invented ligature is actually a paradox that both successfully establish and dissolve authorial identity and intent. That is why all writings about Nietzsche is always somebody’s reading, i.e., Heidegger’s Nietzsche, Deleuze’s, Derrida’s, and etcetera.
A colleague of mine asked me the following question regarding my ongoing graphic novel project:
I wonder, though, whether Nietzsche’s aphorisms, or particularly Larochefoucauld’s, are the kind of stuff that you are making a use of for your graphic novel stories?
Pretty much. The Maxims was the result of a conversation game between La Rochefoucauld and Madam de Sable and Esprit played in their drawing rooms. They wrote down sentences expressing ideas of morality and psychology in solitude and then debated them afterwards. Unlike preachers, there are no appeals to a superior moral authority, for their judgments that studied human nature and custom were ambiguous and performed at the level of man. Instead of the ponderous treatise or the prose of Cicero, or academic language, they chose short forms ( maximes, sententia) that deigned to provoke rather than instruct. And La Rochefoucauld played this game the best by turning the myth of Narcissus upside down with a spectacular demolition of heroism.
Where La Rochefoucauld says self esteem is invincible, all-pervasive, endlessly variable, Schopenhauer adds that self-deception is not an accidental state of mind but part of its normal function. Indeed, such insights of La Rochefoucauld and Nietzsche, among others (Stendhal, James) are part of the grand heuristic scheme of my intent to write stories, and they were absolutely essential for the profiling of the characters. Much like your plot devices, my heuristic scheme relies on a collection of wisdom from the greatest strategists (Sun-tzu, Clausewitz), statesmen (Bismark, Talleyrand) courtiers (Castiglione, Gracian) and seducers (Lou Salome, Benjamin Disraeli).
As you’ve put it in the past, stories are a great vehicle for culture, which passes along its tradition through mythology and practices. The stories in the majority of fiction are intended as didactic exercises, wherein a moral is taught. The the protagonist as hero does the right thing, indirectly teaching the reader what the right action is, and the reader understands this vicariously.
However, in comic books, the content of its stories depend for more on a visceral impact, the drawings, in which reduces the requirements of the instructive goals of the story to a simplistic good versus evil theme. Granted, the content has matured when writers began to emphasize the psychological perspective, particularly in the works of Miller with Daredevil in the early 80′s, and Batman shortly after. But despite his creative efforts, others in the industry misunderstood this revolution by revamping the characters with a grim theme, making them darker, more edgy, and thus more willing to utilize whatever means in order to bring about the same ends.
Generally, comic book characters are archetypes, but inferior writers cannot imagine them as anything other than mere mouthpieces of banal modern propaganda. These cardboard cutouts rely on the superficial appearances of our society: be civilized, decent, democratic, and fair. But woe to whoever tries to actually play by those rules of appearance, for they are crushed by others who are far less foolish. The game is complex, for some of the best players are those who deny the very existence of the game – they use strategies that conceal the nature of their manipulation.
So the psychological content remains premature, at best superficial, especially when compared with some of the transcendent examples in recent literature (Jude the Obscure, The Idiot, Beast in Jungle, etc). Thus the didactic goals haven’t progressed much further, and this is where I come in. There are rules of behavior that tend towards efficiency, in which are basically strategies for personal gain, and they’re far more instructive than the moral preacher’s cliched tale of Gallant and Goofus. Heh.
Balzac said “there are no principles; there are only events. There is no good and bad, there are only circumstances. The superior man espouses events & circumstances in order to guide them. If there were principles and fixed laws, nations would not change them as we change our shirts and a man cannot be expected to be wiser than a nation.”
This general project, the subordination of ethics to strategy, is very modern, especially when the rules of ethics are sacrificed when in order to achieve perfection, one must adapt to the circumstances. The strategies have a long history themselves, how people become successful (in military, society, politics, Hollywood, business, seduction) and most importantly, how they think and behave. There is a large chasm between ideas and experience, where our ideas are understood but not applied or put into practice, and our fertile experiences go unexamined and fail to inspire us with ideas, thus we ignore its lessons. The solution is strategy that links between the two, and they help deal with the greatest game of all: life. My intent is to show these rules or strategies by telling the story version with gods, immortals, and some mortals.
In my readings I came across a fascinating theory by Stephen Toulmin that concerned the relationship between modern philosophy and literature. Philosophy underwent a paradigm shift in the 17th century, a time that was torn by religious wars (only 30 years of European peace between 1560 and 1715). Thinkers who grew tired of the pettiness of their time urged for a theoretical approach that was atemporal, all-inclusive, and independent of context. They were convinced that a pure theory, a formal logic that was free of the taint of history or culture could issue forth truths that avoided the vicious reality of violence (war, punishment, etc.) and the practical wisdom of rhetoric.
Prior to the 17th century, traditional philosophy dating back to Aristotle’s phronesis, esteemed practical wisdom a critical subject, where ethics was actually more about perceptive judgment than the logical deduction from a priori principles.
“Whereas young people become accomplished in geometry and mathematics, and wise within these limits, prudent young people do not seem to be found. The reason is that prudence is concerned with particulars as well as universals, and particulars become known from experience, but a young person lacks experience, since some length of time is needed to produce it.”
There was a confidence about this 17th century theoretical approach that supposed the complexity of life could be adequately captured and brought under control. Yet, this approach only shrunk philosophy to a mere academic discipline by expelling the tradition of practical wisdom from its court.
Luckily for us, this wisdom did not disappear, for it migrated to a new home in literature – the modern novel. Since the middle ages, casuistry (case-based reasoning, case by case basis) has unfairly degraded into a pejorative, no thanks to the relentless efforts of Pascal, but it is actually the secret method in literature that investigates moral judgment in concrete situations.
Early attempts are found in the works of Daniel Defoe and Jane Austen, where self-deception and honest introspection are devices of casuistry. For instance, Austen illustrates how the best judgment includes both the deep understanding of particulars and a healthy amount of doubt about one’s own perception that usually prevents the understanding of those particulars. This in effect demonstrates how theory based method in moral reasoning is doomed to failure. In Les Liaisons Dangereuses the socialite Marquise de Merteil proved the incompatibility between vanity and happiness through shrewd manipulations of her rival, the inveterate rake Vicomte Valmont. However, it isn’t until the Russian novelists does casuistry emerge explicitly, particularly in the works of Tolstoy and Dostoevsky.
Most philosophical novels consists of a protagonist advocating a philosophy that shrinks to an idee fixe, and attempts to live his life according to its letter. Usually, this effort is proven inadequate, for life’s complexity far exceeds such simplistic formulas, and the protagonist is defeated at the end of the novel. In The Brothers Karamazov, a protagonist is convinced that morality is mere social convention, but eventually loses his sanity due to guilt over a crime he never committed. This is but only one case where Dostoevsky showed how useless our intentions are. According to common sense, our actions depend on the determination of our will. However, in Crime and Punishment, Raskolnikov actually does not decide to off the old woman. He does plan for it, fantasize how it is to be carried out, but a strange turn of events transforms this hypothetical possibility to the actual reality of the murder. However, afterwards, Raskolnikov is unable to come up with any concrete explanation for the murder (he does advance phony ones from ideology, from utility, that he is the perfect homo sapiens, for justice, self-overcoming, and etc.), which means he did not truly “decide” his action. This effectively paints a case of the oversimplification of the common sense model of the mind, action and ethics.
The novel is a testbed of a though experiment, where reality and the idea square off, and those that succeed its inner aesthetic logic survive. If the experiment exceeds the conditions of realism, where the author attempts to create events that only happen to validate his theory, then the novel will fail in a cliched abortion of a mess. The characters’ actions end up contrived, their motivations thin and transparent. Dostoevsky’s most audacious experiment was The Idiot, where he attempted to place a Christ-like figure in late 19th century Russia aristocracy, but rendered by a master psychologist’s gift of insight. A simple Christian would’ve contrived to prove that the Christ-like figure would’ve overcome all the difficulties of human perversity and made other people better, but Dostoevsky knew better. In the end the Christ-like figure ended in utter destruction, for himself and others.
Fiction in literature, as a serious aesthetic experience, took a long time in coming. Many literary scholars have difficulty in determining the date of its emergence. Some of the possible dates are the sixteenth century in Spain, 17th century in France, and the 18th century in England.
The difficulty in determining the origin owes a lot to the difficulty a traditional culture, long under the yoke of revealed religion as the sole standard of truth, had in understanding fiction. The very establishment of “fiction” as an epistemological possibility between the traditional concepts of truth and falsehood is actually a huge accomplishment of a culture. The ability to appreciate fiction is an enormous cultural resource.
But what is fictionality? It should not be confused with what is “true,” for that is the province of history, nor should it be labeled as manifestly false, for that is the province of legend or fable. Fiction helps us to perceive what is believable, without asking for our beliefs, and also, represents without referring to any real person or event. Hence, fiction is representative.
Since fiction does not refer to anyone in particular, it teaches us about everyone in general, up to and including ourselves. Reading fiction aids in identification, which is the greatest pleasure of reading that frees us from the moral obligation towards those about whom we read. Fiction also enables self-reflection, which is the most important virtue of reading.
Fiction allows the imagination to bloom magnificently, far surpassing the intellect yet it also integrates the intellect with feelings. In literature, fiction teaches us truths that are not factual or specific, but general and philosophical. In the older societies, this was called “wisdom.”
Regrettably, today in the age of information we have less and less use for both reading and fiction. Some of the causes is the attitude of scientism (the only worthwhile knowledge comes from scientific disciplines), the dominance of pop culture (reality programming and memoirs) and the transformation of education into simulation. These activities come at a cost: our ability to imagine, think and feel our way into other people’s experiences without pretending to be them. This is the ability to hold similarity and difference at the same time within the mind.
However, not all is lost. In Deaf culture, ASL has a unique role that can provide an escape hatchet from the hegemony of infotainment. A proficient ASL speaker can restore the luster to fictionality with his or her command of the language. The signer is capable of holding an audience’s attention with an intoxicating rhapsody, a beautiful rendition of Whitman’s poems, or a dramatic epic. Not being beholden to the fundamental rules of speech or text, perhaps ASL has a distinct quality that can express the best of both modes of languages, which in turn, preserves an enormous cultural resource for the community.
*A truly cynical witticism by La Rochefoucauld.
Hypocrisy, or “frontin,” is one of the least respected vices in modern society. Observe its impact when a politician is revealed as an hypocrite, where his behavior or speech is insincere, that he pretends to be what he is not. When his credibility is shot, his career no longer exists.
However, hypocrisy was much worse during the Victorian age, where its exaggerated concern for the external appearance of virtue led to insincerity and deception. This concept is brilliantly exemplified in The Red and the Black, a magnificent representative of 19th century French literature. Stendhal’s claim to immortality lies in his perceptive writing that balances social commentary with psychological insights of the main characters, the arrogant yet clueless Julien, the virtuous Madam de Renal, and the impulsive Mademoiselle Mathilde de la Mole.
What I found most interesting was the portrayal of “hypocrisy” according to the protagonist’s perception and as the overall characteristic of society during the Restoration period. The trouble is, Julien despises hypocrisy, but at the same time, he realizes that in order to acquire success he has to give in and be hypocritical. He holds a romantic view of Napoleon, but conservativism has forbidden such sentiments. Since the only possible route for the son of a bourgeois is the priesthood, Julien learns Latin in order to impress Chelan, the local priest, and this is only the first of a long series of insincere acts that helps him to get ahead. Authenticity is cheap.
Rousseau, one of Stendhal’s philosophy muses, claims the source of hypocrisy is society itself because it is artificial and its members develop deformed natures. Society is deemed artificial because it imposes inequality among its members, especially when inherited social rank and inherited rank have nothing to do with the innate abilities of the person. Also, the artificiality of language creates a gap between the ideals and behavior in the real world. These ideals such as beauty, freedom, happiness, are all impossible to actualize in the real world because they are indefinable. There is nothing in the real world to correspond to these abstract ideals. The pursuit of abstractions in a socially invented hierarchy of wealth and rank causes psychological damage to people. One cannot truly live in an artificial world and escape the charge of hypocrisy.
Stendhal carefully showed how hypocrisy could betray a secret truth of character, and more importantly how the phony emphasis on piety actually drained all passion from the interactions of people in Parisian society.
“In the beginning, there was the Word. But in the end there only is Cliché.” – Stanislaw Lem
Writing a book full of clichés must be somewhat similar to those “worst essay” writing contests often held in English Departments in Universities everywhere, but certainly it involves a whole different level of irony!
A book full of clichés is a species of kitsch, fake art. Some of the qualities of a kitsch book: it may contain disingenuous remarks and appear ostentatious, be simple enough for the unwashed masses and easily marketable.
Kitsch is the byproduct of the middle class, for it highlights the sheer boredom of their lives. Unlike the masterpieces in the works of the genius, kitsch does not possess elitist qualities or appeal to snobbery.In order to establish a book riddled with clichés, some formula needs to be followed:
Narration: stock phrases that don’t really mean anything. i.e., have a nice day)
Formulaic plot: very predictable story, often depending on a very well-known story arc
Character Archetypes: they must be one-dimensional lacking anything interesting, or well-defined motivation
Dialogue: consists of quotations (they cannot contain any insights, mere bromides or tired phrases often said by dullards)
And this, of course, calls for a clichéd quote:
“It is a cliché that most clichés are true, but then, like most clichés, that cliché is untrue.” – Stephen Fry
Bret Easton Ellis realized the apex of his writing genius within his third book, American Psycho, a truly bold attempt at a violent and shocking creation: a young American yuppie Patrick Bateman, whose solipsistic affliction cleverly exposes the putrid underbelly of consumerism. The narrative is limited to the first person, an intimate access to Patrick Bateman’s warped perspective and Ellis skillfully employs this technique to ratchet up the tension in order to convey a successful black comedy.
At surface, the book is essentially a sizzling satirical deconstruction of the zeitgeist of the predominant eighties ideology: greed. The morbid fascination of trash television, the irony of call waiting, and analytic interpretation of the contemporary music phenomenon all paint the bleak world Patrick Bateman lives in.
The protagonist Patrick Bateman’s narration is a constant vacillation between the obsessively detailed description of the mundane items of brand-name consumer society and the cynical and snobbish account of excruciatingly shallow and bland characters, which lack any semblance of humane depth or any distinguishing characteristics from one another.
The incessant identification of brand name attire is given a much richer description than the characters who wear them, so they are all essentially interchangeable. At least outside of Patrick Bateman’s inner circle, people constantly mistake one another for someone else. Is that Luis Carruthers? Bateman said “I think a lot of snowflakes are alike… and I think a lot of people are alike too…”
Their dialogues are either depressingly insipid and plain, or a complete rip off of excerpts from experts. During conversations with annoying characters, e.g. the fiancée Evelyn, Bateman’s narration drops verbs and pronouns altogether, and chooses to signify only the brand names.
Patrick Bateman is an “emotional vampire” who is incapable of transcending hedonistic values of his society. He lacks any impulse control whatsoever, any resistance to indulge his basest whims, and engages in escalating acts of abhorrent violence, which is always presented in explicit detail: “The ax hits him midsentence, straight in the face, its thick blade chopping sideways into his open mouth, shutting him up.”
There is no ethical principle expressed in the book, absent from the wholly existential, subjective motives that are promoted by the over-arching ideology of the wealthy class in the late eighties. However, the implicit principle of Bateman’s actions is the precise source of satire – a scathing critique of the self-centered livelihood of yuppiedom.
According to Bateman, respect is a materialistic phenomena; the prestige of handling top accounts, owning the best business card, the ability to get in exclusive places. Yet respect remains something altogether elusive for Patrick Bateman.
As the designated poster boy of Reagan’s ruling class, throughout the book Bateman inflicts various forms of violence against the victims of a bourgeois society – people of color, people of different social classes, minorities and women – and never had to pay for his actions, at least on the social level of justice.
However, there are several victims of Bateman’s murderous rampage who fall outside of that spic and span category – the ex-girlfriend who could get into the restaurant exclusively for the upper-crust, Dorsia and his archrival Paul Allen – so Bateman does not exactly discriminate in his killing binge. Thus, labels such as racist and misogynist do not apply here.
Most of the book is a disjointed, plotless, chaotic discourse about how “things fell apart and nobody paid much attention.” Once we move beyond the level of literary analysis into the vague realm of ontology and metaphysics, the book is understood as an aesthetical application of solipsistic boredom. It is solipsistic because the entire book is a soliloquy told from the first person by an unscrupulous psychopath.
Boredom pervades the book because nothing truly excites Bateman, nothing ever moves him passionately. His frank admissions of his homicidal behavior to his colleagues completely fail to register anything whatsoever with them. One character exclaimed, “Bateman killing Owen and the escort girl? Oh that’s bloody marvelous!”
In existential philosophy, boredom is a unique state of being. According to Sartre’s novella, Nausea, boredom is related with existence and being, not with autonomy or transcendence. Only in certain emotions does Being manifest itself to us starkly, and these emotions are boredom, or nausea. As the naked access to existence, boredom is the immediate realization that there is something rather than nothing.
Bateman is not in despair, nor is he joyful, but on the other end in a deep protracted struggle with the commonplace nature of daily life so much that he no longer cares whether anything is or not.
So, the experience of a phenomenon of being drenches the book, thanks to the existential vacuum that lies at the heart of the protagonist. For Soren Kierkegaard, Patrick Bateman leads an aesthetic life, a life of a devotion to immediate experience, like materialists or hedonists, and is doomed to boredom. Their repetitive life of disconnected ‘nows’ is the very source of apathy, and this is precisely the case with Bateman. The closing attempt at self-criticism, “this confession has meant absolutely nothing,” presented within the final pages of the book, truly a divine resonance of a denouement, shows how deeply central Bateman’s boredom is.
Perhaps, if Albert Camus were alive today, he’d call Patrick Bateman a post-modern Sisyphus, a character who began the novel as clueless and ambiguous as he ended it. The phrase “ABANDON ALL HOPE YE WHO ENTER HERE,” an allusion to Dante’s Divina Commedia, is the first line of the book, graffiti on a wall. That prepares the reader for a mesmeric experience into a world where nothing is ever solved. Ellis closes the book with the words of a sign: “THIS IS NOT AN EXIT.”
Previously, I discussed the concept of metaphor here, and I thought a lot was left unsaid.
All philosophical concepts are interdependent; they depend on other concepts, which means they cannot be analyzed in isolation. There are no precise definitions for philosophical concepts, because they institute a new way of thinking. For instance, the concept of love does not refer to a particular example, but rather, it “enacts” or “creates” a new possibility or a new thought of love. Not only are dictionary definitions superficial and shallow, they are also restrictive, whereas the philosophical concept is open and expansive. Therefore, to understand a concept philosophically is to find the new connections and new possibilities they reveal.
For Nietzsche, when thoughts and concepts are superimposed on the flux of reality, they dissect it into convenient units. In other words, to think is to substitute a fixed image in the place of fluid reality. This leads to the conclusion that all thoughts are metaphorical.
We have been trained to understand a noun, say, the “pig,” must refer to the animal in the farm, gorging from the trough. When we choose to use that word metaphorically (He’s a pig! ) we are referring to someone who acts greedily, eats too much or noisily. Yet, the word ‘pig’ is arbitrary, whether it refers to an animal or something else. In both cases, in the face of infinitely different reality – each pig, razorback, Miss Piggy, Francis the Pig, Babe, Piglet – we affix some word that will apply in all cases. This practice inspires an illusion that there is a general type, a “pigness” and it refers to something; a fixed form for our labels of convenience.
Nonetheless: if language creates concepts, then, language, as well as thoughts, is metaphorical. I perceive a concrete and physical reality and refer to it with something else: the sign or the concept. However, the illusion that there is a “truth” behind language remains, and moreover, we also believe in the illusion that there are methods of speaking or writing that will escape metaphor and refer to the “true” world behind appearances. Nietzsche is consistent here – there is no “true world” but merely appearances behind appearances. It is interpretation all the way down!
This is problematic, though. If one truly grasp the implications, then despair looms because of convenient illusions, where we project a fictional “true world” beyond language and appearances, and this “promised land” always remains eternally unapproachable, unattainable. After such illusions are shattered and we finally give up our addiction to truth, we have no choice but be resigned to welcome nihilism as our final guest.