28 February 2021

Notes to an unfinished business


Restraint in fiction is a constraint, I suppose. One reads, say Coetzee, and one feels an Oulipian-like constraint, but a kind of constraint that is not devoid of feeling and passion. Said Max Weber: Nothing is humanly worth doing except what someone can do with passion. The emphasis was his.

A passion for reading is what may be propelling us to finish a book, let alone one short story or one short poem, even if we know that the work, the act of reading, will remain unfinished even if we arrive at the last word and the final punctuation. I find myself reading so many books at the same time, eager to start, or begin anew from where I left off, a new book. Whether on paper or on Kindle, the words and pages swim before me and I lose interest and open another one. 

I finished the Disenchantment part of Weber's twofer Charisma and Disenchantment (translated by Damion Searls) before being disenchanted with what he had to say about politics in the second half. But I finally got to have an inkling of what he really meant by disenchantment from the world. Something to do with the literal sense of the lack of enchantment or magic, the "mysterious incalculable forces intervening in our lives".

But instead all things, in theory, can be mastered through calculation. It means the disenchanting of the world. Unlike the savage for whom such mysterious forces existed, we no longer need to adopt magical means to control or pray to the spirits.

The house of the spirits was exorcised by the increasing rationality and intellectualization of the modern world. And yet the scholar (and the novelist) plod on with her work, leading Weber to theorize about the nature of unfinished business in scholarship (which can be extended to novel writing). Scholars and novelists do something that will never be finished, in face can't be finished. Which I will now extend to reading, if only to give myself the excuse of why I keep on starting and restarting books in the past few months and not blame the pandemic about it.

One book I finally got around to finishing was Sir Thomas Browne's Hydriotaphia. It seems as if I was reading a translation of a linguistically innovative and experimental poem about mortality. I did finish the thing but since it was part of his larger The Major Works, the book remains an unfinished business for me. I remember Kevin of Aquarium of Vulcan saying that Hydriotaphia or Urne-Buriall was only the first half of a diptych that ends logically wtih The Garden of Cyrus, that Browne intended for them to be a unified work. Just like The Seven Madmen was but half of a novel continued in The Flamethrowers, another novel I managed to crack open without getting the motivation to fully engage in Erdosain and the Astrologer's funk.

This unfinished business of reading made me think back on Coetzee's Jesus novels, which remain unfinished for me. I know that by the end of the third book, the death of young David is inevitable and announced by the book's title. This had a particular resonance for me reading The Schooldays of Jesus, the second novel in the trilogy. Every dialogue seemed now colored by what was about to happen.

Two more days, and the grape-picking is over; the truck has borne the last binfuls away.

'Who is going to eat all those grapes?' demands Davíd.

'They are not going to be eaten. They are going to be pressed in a wine press and the juice is going to be turned into wine.'

'I don't like wine,' says Davíd. 'It's sour.'

'Wine is an acquired taste. When we are young we don't like it, then when we are older we acquire a taste for it.'

'I am never going to acquire a taste for it.'

'That's what you say. Let's wait and see.'

Davíd is never going to acquire a taste for grape wine because he is going to die by the third book. His is an unfinished business of living. And if meaning is what escapes people all throughout their lives in this disenchanted world, how much more meaning in a life not fully lived. For the boy this is (now) predestined (by the novelist), for his adopted parents this unfinished business will be shattering. The Schooldays of Jesus is a book about parenthood. 

The imminent death of Davíd is almost a counterpoint to Ivan Ilyich's demise in Tolstoy's wondrous novella. "The Death of Ivan Ilyich" features a magistrate dying of a mysterious disease. Ivan Ilyich was in denial of his impending death, so he engaged in a moment-by-moment self-auditing of his life, and then finally accepting his finite existence rendered meaningless by suffering and death. The acceptance of the finiteness of life ultimately giving him release. Weber framed Tolstoy's work using the lens of disenchantment, locating an argument that was "fundamental to Tolstoy's art and [filled] all of his late novels".

[Tolstoy] was increasingly obsessed with the question of whether death had meaning or not. And for him, the answer was, No, not in our culture, because in the context of modern civilization, with its theoretically infinite "progress," an individual's life necessarily lacks any ultimate purpose. There is always another step to take on the path of progress; no one dies at the peak or end of his journey, because the path continues into infinity. Abraham, or indeed any farmer from a bygone age, died "in a good old age, and old man, and full of years" [Genesis 25:8] because he was part of an organic cycle of life; because as his day drew to a close, his life had given him whatever it had to offer, in terms of meaning too; because there was no riddle left to solve. Thus he could feel he had had "enough." A person in our culture, in contrast, in a civilization perpetually being enriched with ideas and information and problems, might become "tired of life" but can never be fulfilled by it, never be "full of" his years. Not only does he get wind of merely a tiny fraction of all the new ideas that intellectual life continuously produces, but even those ideas are merely provisional, never definitive. As a result, death is simply pointless for him. And so too is life as such in our culture, which in its meaningless "progression" stamps death with its own meaninglessness.

Weber's pessimism on the meaninglessness of life and death was tempered by his belief that the "truth of science and history and systematic knowledge of all kinds" could lead people into the light. He expounded on this by referencing Plato's allegory of the cave. Which led me to think that novelists like Coetzee, or Arlt, or Kafka were practitioners of cave and shadows approach to novel writing. I mean that they populate their novels with characters that flail about and try to reach out for something beyond their grasp. They will not for sure lead you directly to the light but blind you in the pitch darkness of the cave.

What Coetzee meant by childhood and schooldays was perhaps a teasing out of the meaning of what we are in life for. After all, a life taken prematurely, in fiction or not, was always a sad thought. But if the novelist had to take a character's life to prove a point that there's no point, then whatever. 

Whatever is the meaning of a "figurative death". Walter Benjamin, in "The Storyteller" (translated by Harry Zohn) said that "the nature of the character in a novel cannot be presented any better than" the statement that says that the “meaning” of [the character's] life is revealed only in [the character's] death. In observing this figurative death, the reader somehow dies with him.

But the reader of a novel actually does look for human beings from whom he derives the “meaning of life.” Therefore he must, no matter what, know in advance that he will share their experience of death: if need be their figurative death—the end of the novel—but preferably their actual one. How do the characters make him understand that death is already waiting for them—a very definite death and at a very definite place? That is the question which feeds the reader’s consuming interest in the events of the novel.

The death of the novel is its ending. The novel dies every time it ends. But the reader lives on his life as before (i.e., doing things other than reading) after this metaphorical death. But one can choose not to finish reading a book if only to defy the closure that is the end of the book.

Whether we have completed reading it or not, a book, if it is any good, remains unfinished because it continues to mystify us as we spend our short shrift of time on its pages. Maybe reading is just a way to buy some time, to delay the business of living: a morbid thought. Even so, reading books we deem worthy enough to spend time on ought to lengthen a short life by giving its waking life even just a "tiny fraction" of new ideas, even just a shred of something.