Monday, February 25, 2013

Everybody’s Nowhere: Thoughts on Don DeLillo

“Capital burns the nuance off a culture.”- Don DeLillo, Underworld

“What terrorists gain, novelists lose…the danger they represent equals our own failure to be dangerous.” –DeLillo, Mao ii

I’ve been on a Don DeLillo kick the last few months; I read his novella Cosmopolis on a whim and was totally in awe of the way he both confronted and danced around political and philosophical incalcitrancies. Since then I’ve read a few other books of his, including “Mao ii” and the big postmodern doorstopper “Underworld”. Before I starting reading DeLillo, I had been reading a smattering of politically oriented texts ranging from Dostoevsky to David Harvey in an attempt to make sense of my own political disillusionment and societal dissatisfaction, and was beginning to get the sense that instead of gaining a greater or more realistic sense of the world around me, I was just loading my head with theories and in order to distance myself from the world. Like Dostoevsky in “Notes from Underground” and Saul Bellow in “Herzog”, one of Don DeLillo’s primary endeavors is to show how so-called “philosophical” thinking plays itself out in the real world. What makes his writing so interesting to me is that instead of offering a theoretical analysis of “the cultural leveling of late capitalism” or whatever, he shows (to paraphrase his own description of his work) the internal experience of people living through, and trying to make sense of, the upheavals of the late 20th and early 21st century.

In Mao ii, and less explicitly (although more profoundly) in Underworld, DeLillo seems to grapple with his own anxiety about the value of art in contemporary American culture. Mao ii revolves around a reclusive author named Bill Gray who has been writing and rewriting his magnum opus for years. The more he works on it, the more hesitant he becomes about publishing it: “The withheld work of art is the only form of eloquence left”. Gray refuses to publish his book because the more he writes, the more he feels that it reveals his own inadequacy as a novelist and the more convinced he is that publishing it, allowing it to be diffused in the outside world, will devalue it and render it unrecognizable.

Andy Warhol's portrait of Mao, which provided DeLillo with the title "Mao II"

Mao ii deals predominately with two binaries: the individual vs. the crowd and artists vs. terrorists. Bill Gray engages with both of these dualities; he agrees to be photographed for the first time in decades, and he agrees to travel to Beirut to speak out on behalf of a poet being held hostage by Islamic terrorists. He has an argument with a Maoist named George Haddad, an affiliate of the terrorist group, over drinks at the man’s comfortable home in suburban London; the irony of the comfortable location contrasted with gritty nature of the discussion doesn’t escape DeLillo. Light can be shed on the relevancy of intellectual discourse by describing where the actual conversation takes place-this idea is crucial to DeLillo’s writing. For instance, when Bill Gray and his agent are having lofty discussions amidst the sounds of grenades and car bombs in war torn Beirut, the eloquence of their discussion seems dependent on their ignoring the explosive tumult around them. Bill Gray and the aforementioned terrorist sympathizer discuss the similarity of novelists and terrorists. Do the novelist’s act of creation and the terrorist’s act of destruction spring from the same “secret life”, from the same “rage that underlies all obscurity and neglect”? Can art be dangerous to a society, can a novel be truly subversive, not being absorbed by the leveling processes of the system it seeks to criticize? Questions like these fuel both the tension and ambivalence that pervade the text. They aren’t definitively answered. During the argument, the Maoist says,

"There’s too much everything, more things and messages and meanings than we can use in ten                  thousand life times. Inertia-hysteria. Is history possible?…Who do we take seriously? Only the lethal believer, the person who kills and dies for faith. Everything else is absorbed. The artist is absorbed, the madman in the street is absorbed and processed and incorporated. Give him a dollar, put him in a TV commercial. Only the terrorist stands outside. The culture hasn’t figured out how to assimilate him. It’s confusing when they kill the innocent. But this is precisely the language of being noticed, the only language the West understands.”

This is an idealized portrait of a terrorist. It seems elegant, but only serves to confirm the pathology of a dissatisfied artist: the transient, one-dimensional nature of the world around them sucks all the humanity and poignancy out of their work, their work is just too good to be disbursed into the inane outside world. If relevant non-violent expression is impossible, acts of terrorism are seen as morally respectable in a bleak sense. This argument is of course full of holes. “What terrorists gain, novelists lose…the danger they represent equals our own failure to be dangerous.” Is there really a one-to-one correspondence between the failure of a novelist to adequately represent herself, to describe the intangible quality of her anxieties, and the terrorist who blows up an office building? I’ll open up the discussion to the very pragmatic Mr. John Dewey; in “Human Nature and Conduct”, Dewey writes, “The poignancy of situations that evoke reflection lies in the fact that we really do not know the meaning of the tendencies that are pressing for action.” Reflection, however it is documented (as a work of philosophy, as a novel etc.) is “poignant” to the extent that it describes and engages the disparity between the novelist’s medium and the tendencies pressing him to write. Acts of terrorism certainly aren’t poignant. If the hollowness of culture and life’s diligent resistance to being described makes worthwhile novels more difficult to produce, that doesn’t mean that blowing up a school is going to fix anything—it is in fact a despicably meaningless act.

Towards the end of Mao ii, the woman who had previously been enlisted to be Bill Gray’s photographer is in Beirut on assignment to take a portrait of Abu Rashad, a revolutionary militant. While there, she sees that the city is plastered with posters for Hollywood movies that are never going to be shown; glossy signifiers for signifieds that for all intents and purposes don’t exist. To DeLillo, image has lost track of meaning. The gulf between tendency and action has widened. Disillusionment and alienation occur more frequently and they are harder to pin down. Bill Gray refuses to publish his book (which he imagines as a drippy gray monster that hulks around his house) because it represents his frustration at his inability to articulate the aforementioned Deweyian poignancy rather than the poignancy itself. That doesn’t mean that the poignancy isn’t there. The real sadness is that in a world of trite Obamaisms, where images (even images that profess meaning) are rarely related to any compelling truth or meaning; adequate work is harder to produce and once it is produced, who will it reach? How will it function? “I’ve written a few lines I halfway like, but what’s the actual point?” Gray asks.

DeLillo’s endings are always amazing, and the endings of Mao ii, Cosmopolis and Underworld are of a similar character. In Mao ii, DeLillo ends by linking terror and imagery. Brita, the photographer stationed in Beirut, stares out the window of her hotel room early in the morning and sees several bright flashes. She experiences a moment of confusion: are these flashes the first semi-automatic weapons fire of the day, or flash photography (photographing the dead city one last time, DeLillo says)? Terror and the image becoming more and more indiscernible. Those “hope” posters sure look nice, but what’s all this talk about drones? The handsome multiracial face of progress explaining away the evils of oligarchy. What’s left when images, spectacles and signifiers have lost their meanings? Human beings, trying to describe their lostness. DeLillo pursues this line of thought more vigorously in Cosmopolis. At the end of that novel, a billionaire hedge-fund manager and his would-be ideological assassin sit across from each other. While the gun shakes in the assassin’s hand, the wall-street whiz kid watches his own death whimsically play itself out on a tiny screen embedded in his watch; this symbolizes the death of his wealth, his possessions, his status. After watching his own coffin lowered into the ground on his top-of-the-line wristwatch, he returns his gaze to the trembling assassin. “He is dead,” DeLillo writes, “inside the crystal of his watch but still alive in original space, waiting for the shot to sound.”

Friday, February 8, 2013

The World Will Be Tlön: The Hobbit as Parallel Reality

There's some relevant background to this in my post on Star Trek and Doctor Who.

The vulgar modernist in me takes a very dim view of Tolkien's books. When Tolkien was born at the beginning of 1892; Virginia Woolf was nine years old, D.H. Lawrence was six and Siegfried Sassoon was five, T.S. Eliot was two, and Wilfred Owen would be conceived in a year and two months. 

All these writers found productive, or at least articulate, methods of responding to the trauma of World War I, the pollution of England's countryside, the unstoppable expansion of its cities, and the unending sense of sickness, confusion and dread that accompanied full-fledged industrial modernization. It's a task so large that it's almost inconceivable today, to internalize a social change that devastating and reproduce the sensation of it in print, so maybe we shouldn't blame Tolkien from shirking from it, but we can't deny that he shirked.

Rather than face modernization, whether it was with Lawrence's fury, Woolf's hope or Eliot's despondency, the ready-made modernist narrative is that Tolkien ran from it, not only in his writing but in all areas of his life. He worked in a pseudo-aristocratic writing circle in the age of Yaddo and Gertrude Stein, taught philology while structural linguistics was on the ascent, and continued to smoke a pipe and wear tweed until his death in the 1970s. But his writing, obviously, is where this sense of retreat comes through the strongest. 

Even today, when there's a growing number of fantasy writers who make most of their living not with books at all, but rather with "campaign settings"—readymade worlds to set Dungeons and Dragons games in—Tolkien stands as an ideal so absolute and singleminded that he's almost grotesque. Middle-earth is both more expansive and more minutely detailed than any other fantasy world any writer has ever described, even into the successions of its kings and the geography of its sunken continents. More than anything, it's the languages that really make it compelling—the obsessively detailed lexicons and grammars that make it seem like Tolkien was just studying a world that the rest of us couldn't see.

And when we zero in on it, I think that's the basic axiom of The Lord of the Rings, and of most fantasy fiction. The rationalized modern world we live in is dull, bereft of any sense of adventure; the fantasy novelist has to compensate for that by being aggressively irrelevant, by creating a world that feels authentic on its own, without needing to lean on industrial modernity. What the Platonic fantasy novel would do, if it were realized, is immerse the reader in a parallel reality, a world so cohesive and complete that the reader wouldn't need the modern world anymore. Tolkien's books come closest to this ideal—they're falsehoods so rigorous that they get uncannily close to truth.

But Bazin saw the impulse to immerse as the basic project of Western art, culminating in the invention of film, which according to him is not so much a technology as it is a progress towards realism, and Borges memorably discussed fantasy's impending eclipse of reality, even predicting the language fetishism of Tolkien's fans in his discussion of Tlön's bizarre language. These are two of our most perceptive critics of emergent postwar culture; if they deigned to analyze him, I suspect both men would paint Tolkien not as a reactionary, but as a closet progressive, a progressive whose modernism is buried in his subconscious, untouched by his antiquarian style and conservative themes.

So if Tolkien is a modern in search of a modern style, a vocabulary to suit the modern world on the order of Woolf's or Lawrence's, then the true Tolkien is Peter Jackson. Reprocessed by the Jackson-Boyens-Walsh screenwriting team and a Hollywood editor, bereft of the Anglo-Saxon quirks of Tolkien's prose, the books can become what they're becoming—warm crevices of spectacle to crawl inside. The Hobbit, which is almost unrecognizable in film form, is clear proof of this. The entire movie is laced with so many references to the earlier movies, so much production-design glitz, that the mise-en-scene overpowers the plot completely. The shabby script and hyperactive editing immerse us in the world at every moment. Everybody in the movie drops hints; every shot flies through a cohesive space; every brooch and ring and braid jumps out at us.

So The Hobbit might be a terrible movie by classical standards—by reactionary standards—but as an experience it's superlative, as an experience that goes beyond the aesthetic and becomes a Wagnerian wet dream. Tolkien's project hasn't been bastardized, it's been liberated, freed from its quaint flower-power trappings and left to become the all-consuming juggernaut it always wanted to be. Until we learn to critique a world, movies like The Hobbit are always going to evade us—we might as well be critiquing the Holodeck.