Monday, December 02, 2013

Masks excerpt from...
The End of the Road
by John Barth

"In life," he said, "there are no essentially major or minor characters.  To that extent, all fiction and biography, and most historiography, are a lie.  Everyone is necessarily the hero of his own life story.  Hamlet could be told from Polonius's point of view and called The Tragedy of Polonius, Lord Chamberlain of Denmark.  He didn't think he was a minor character in anything, I daresay.  Or suppose  you're an usher in a wedding.  From the groom's viewpoint he's the major character; the other's play support parts, even the bride.  From your viewpoint, though, the wedding is a minor episode in the very interesting history of your life, and the bride and groom both are minor figures.  What you've done is choose to play the part of a minor character: it can be pleasant for you to pretend to be less important than you know you are, as Odysseus does when he disguises as a swineherd.  And every member of the congregation at the wedding sees himself as the major character, condescending to witness the spectacle.  So in this sense fiction isn't a lie at all, but a true representation of the distortion that everyone makes of life.

"Now, not only are we the heroes of our own life stories--we're the ones who conceive of the story, and give other people the essences of minor characters.  But since no man's life story as a rule is ever one story with a coherent plot, we're always reconceiving just the sort of hero we are, and consequently just the sort of minor roles that other people are supposed to play.  This is generally true.  If any man displays almost the same character day in and day out, all day long, it's either because he has no imagination, like an actor who can play only one role, or because he has an imagination so comprehensive that he sees each particular situation of his life as an episode in some grand over-all plot, and can so distort the situations that the same type of hero can deal with them all.  But this is most unusual.

"This kind of role-assigning is myth-making, and when it's done consciously or unconsciously for the purpose of aggrandizing or protecting your ego--and it's probably done for this purpose all the time--it becomes Mythotherapy.  Here's the point: an immobility such as you experienced that time in Penn Station is possible only to a person who for some reason or other has ceased to participate in Mythotherapy.  At that time on the bench you were neither a major nor a minor character: you were no character at all.  It's because this happened once that it's necessary for me to explain to you something that comes quite naturally to everyone else.  It's like teaching a paralytic how to walk again.

"Now many crises in people's lives occur because the hero role that they've assumed for one situation or set of situations no longer applies to some new situation that comes up, or--the same thing in effect--because they haven't the imagination to distort the new situation to fit their old role.  This happens to parents, for instance, when their children grow older, and to the lovers when one of them begins to dislike the other.  If the new situation is too overpowering to ignore, and they can't find a mask to meet it with, they may become schizophrenic--a last-resort mask--or simply shattered.  All questions of integrity involve this consideration, because a man's integrity consists in being faithful to the script he has written for himself.

"I've said you're too unstable to play any one part all the time--you're also too unimaginative--so for you these crises had better be met by changing scripts as often as necessary.  This should come naturally to you; the important thing for you is to realize what your'e doing so you won't get caught without a script, or with the wrong script in a given situation.  You did quite well, for example, for a beginner, to walk in here so confidently and almost arrogantly a while ago, and assign me the role of a quack.  But you must be able to change masks at once if by some means or other I'm able to make the one you walked in with untenable.  Perhaps--I'm just suggesting an offhand possibility--you could change to thinking of me as The Sagacious Old Mentor, a kind of Machiavellian Nestor, say, and yourself as The Ingenuous But Promising Young Protege, a young Alexander, who someday will put all these teachings into practice and far outshine the master.  Do you get the idea? Or--this is repugnant, but it could be used as a last resort--The Silently Indignant Young Man, who tolerates the ravings of a Senile Crank but who will leave this house unsullied by them.  I call this repugnant because if you ever used it you'd cut yourself off from much that you haven't learned yet.

"It's extremely important that you learn to assume these masks wholeheartedly.  Don't think there's anything behind them: ego means I, and I means ego, and the ego by definition is a mask.  Where there's no ego--this is you on the bench--there's no I. If you sometimes have the feeling that your mask is insincere--impossible word!--it's only because one of your masks is incompatible with another.  You mustn't put on two at a time.  There's a source of conflict, and conflict between masks, like absence of masks, is a source of immobility.  The more sharply you can dramatize your situation, and define your own role and everybody else's role, the safer you'll be.  It doesn't matter in Mythotherapy for paralytics whether your role is major or minor, as long as it's clearly conceived, but in the nature of things it'll normally always be major.  Now say something."

I could not.

"Say something!" the Doctor ordered.  "Move!  Take a role!"

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

The discovery of fear, of animality, of intimacy excerpt from...
The Floating Opera
by John Barth

Well, this isn't a book about war experiences, though I could write a good long book about them, and it wouldn't resemble any war book you've ever read, either.  Except for a single incident--and I mean to tell you about it at once--my Army career was largely without influence on the rest of my life. This one incident, during the battle in the Argonne Forest, I find significant in two ways, at least: it in some manner cured the tendency described above [the narrator's disinterest in "doing correctly the small things that constitute the glorious whole"], and it provided me with the second of two unforgettable demonstrations of my own animality.

The Argonne fighting was well under way before my outfit was sent in to replace a rifle company that had been destroyed.  It was my first and only battle.  I was, of course, inadequate fighting material--what intelligent boy isn't?--but I was no more afraid as the lorries drove us to the front than were any of my fellows, and I've never been cowardly, to my knowledge, in matters of physical violence.  It was a late afternoon when we arrived, and the Germans were laying down an incredible barrage on our positions.  We hustled out of the lorries onto the ground, and it was much as I imagine jumping from an airplane would be:  relative calm, and then bang! horrible confusion.  We were all paralyzed.  None of us remembered anything, not anything that we'd been told.  Frightful!  Horrifying!  The air, I swear, was simply split with artillery.  The ground--you couldn't stand on it, no matter how loudly your officers shouted.  We all simply fell down: fortunately for us, I guess, I suppose most of you, if you are men of this century, have experienced the like, or worse.

I've no idea what we did.  Indeed, I've often wondered, if there were many soldiers like me, how the Allies won the war.  God knows how much the government had spent on my training, hurried as it was, and then I--all of us--simply collapsed.  No cowardice, no fear (not yet); we were simply robbed of muscle by the noise.

Just before dark, I remember, I found myself belly-down on a sort of ridge.  All around were splintered tree stumps, three feet high.  I had no idea what I was doing there.  The sun was almost down, and there was a great deal of smoke in the air.  A number of uniformed figures seemed to be attending to some business of theirs in a hollow below me.  The barrage, I think, had ceased, or else I was totally deaf.

"Why," I said to myself, rather drunkenly, "those men are German soldiers.  That is the enemy."

I could scarcely believe it.  For heaven's sake!  German soldiers!  It occurred to me that I was supposed to kill them.  I didn't even look around to see if the rest of the United States Army was with me; I simply fired my rifle any number of times at the men working in the hollow.  None of them dropped dead, or even seemed to notice their danger.  It seemed to me they should have counterattacked, or taken cover, or something.  No, sir.  I remember very carefully reloading and firing, reloading and firing, reloading and firing.  It was a hell of an easy war, but how in the world did you go about killing the enemy soldiers?  And where was everyone else?

The next thing that happened (for scenes changed in the battle as in dreams) happened in the dark.  Suddenly it had been nighttime for a while.  This time it was I who was in a hollow, on all fours in a shell hole half full of muddy water.  I still had my rifle, but it was empty, and if I owned any more ammunition I didn't remember how to put it in the rifle.  I was just there, on hands and knees, my head hanging down, staring at the water.  Everything was quiet again; only a few flares made a hissing noise as they drifted down through the air.  And now there came real fear, quickly but not suddenly, a purely physical sensation.  It swept over me in shuddering waves from my thighs and buttocks to my shoulders and jaws and back again, one shock after another, exactly as though rolls of flesh were undulating.  There was no cowardice involved; in fact, my mind wasn't engaged at all--either I was thinking of something else or, more probably, I was just stupefied.  Cowardice involves choice, but fear is independent of choice.  When the waves reached my hips and thighs I opened my sphincters; when they crossed my stomach and chest I retched and gasped; when they struck my face my jaw hung slack, my saliva ran, my eyes watered.  Then back they'd go again, and then return.  I've no way of knowing how long this lasted: perhaps only a minute.  But it was the purest and strongest emotion I've ever experienced.  I could actually, for a part of the time it lasted, regard myself objectively: a shocked, drooling animal in a mudhole.  It is one thing to agree intellectually to the proposition that man is a species of animal; quite another to realize, thoroughly and for good, your personal animality, to the extent that you are actually never able to oppose the words man and animal, even in casual speech; never able to regard your fellow creatures except as more or less intelligent, more or less healthy, more or less dangerous, more or less adequate fauna; never able to regard their accomplishments except as the tricks of more or less well-trained beasts.  In my case this has been true since that night, and no one--not my father, nor Jane, nor myself--have I been able even for a moment to regard differently.

The other part of the incident followed immediately.  Both armies returned from wherever they'd been hiding, and I was aware for the first time that a battle was really in progress.  A great deal of machine-gun fire rattled across the hollow from both sides; men in ones and twos and threes stalked or crawled or ran all around, occasionally peering into my shell hold; the flares blazed more frequently, and there was much shooting, shouting, screaming, and cursing.  This must have lasted for hours.  With a part of my mind I was perfectly willing to join in the fighting, though I was confused; if someone had shouted orders at me, I'm certain I'd have obeyed them.  But I was left entirely alone, and alone my body couldn't move.  The waves of fear were gone, but they'd left me exhausted, still in the same position.

Finally the artillery opened up again, apparently laying their fire exactly in the hollow, where the hand-to-hand fighting was in progress.  Perhaps both sides had resolved to clean up that untidy squabble with high-explosive shells and begin again.  Most of the explosions seemed to be within a few hundred feet of my hole, and the fear returned.  There was no question in my mind but that I'd be killed; what I feared was the knowledge that my dying could very well be protracted and painful, and that it must be suffered alone.  The only thing I was able to wish for was someone to keep me company while I went through with it.

Sentimental?  It certainly is, and I've thought so ever since.  But that's what the feeling was, and it was tremendously strong, and I'd not be honest if I didn't speak of it.  It was such a strong feeling that when from nowhere a man jumped into the mudhole beside me, I fell on him instantly and embraced him as hard as I could.  Very sensibly he assumed I was attacking him, and with some cry of alarm he wrenched away.  I fell on him again, before he could raise his rifle, but he managed, in our tussling, to run the point of his bayonet into the calf of my left leg, not very deeply.  I shouted in his ear that I didn't want to fight with him; that I loved him; and at the same time--since I was larger and apparently stronger than he--I got behind him and pinioned his arms and legs.  He struggled for a long time, and in German, so that I knew him to be an enemy soldier.  How could I make everything clear to him?  Even if I were able to talk to him and explain my intentions, he would certainly think me either a coward or a lunatic, and kill me anyway.  He had to understand everything at once.

Of course, I could have killed him, and I'm sure he understood that fact; he was helpless.  What I did, finally, was work my rifle over to me with one hand, after rolling my companion onto his stomach in the muddy water, and then put the point of my bayonet on the back of his neck, until it just barely broke the skin and drew a drop of blood.  My friend went weak--collapsed, in fact--and what he cried in German I took to be either a surrender, a plea for mercy, or both.  Not wanting to leave any doubts about the matter, I held him there for several minutes more, perhaps even pressing a trifle harder on the bayonet, until he broke down, lost control of all his bodily functions, as I had done earlier, and wept.  He had, I believe, the same fear; certainly he was a shocked animal.

Where was the rest of the U.S. Army?  Reader, I'ver never learned where the armies spent their time in this battle!

Now read this paragraph with an open mind; I can't warn you too often not to make the quickest, easiest judgments of me, if you're interested in being accurate.  The next thing I did was lay aside my rifle, bayonet and all, lie in the mud beside this animal whom I'd reduced to paralysis, and embrace him as fiercely as any man ever embraced his mistress.  I covered his dirty stubbled face with kisses: his staring eyes, his shuddering neck.  Incredibly, now that I look back on it, he responded in kind!  The fear left him, as it had left me, and for an hour, I'm sure, we clung to each other.

If the notion of homosexuality enters your head, you're normal, I think.  If you judge either the German sergeant or myself to have been homosexual, you're stupid.

After our embrace, the trembling of both of us subsided, and we released each other.  There was a complete and, to my knowledge, unique understanding between us.  I, in fact, was something like normal for the first time since stepping out of the lorry.  I was aware, now, with all my senses.  A great many shells were whistling overhead, but none were bursting very near us, and the hand-to-hand fighting had apparently moved elsewhere.

The German and I sat on opposite sides of the shell hole, perhaps five feet apart, smiling at each other in complete understanding.  Occasionally we attempted to communicate by gestures, but for the most part communication was unnecessary.  I had dry cigarettes; he had none.  He had rations; I had none.  Neither had ammunition.  Both had bandages and iodine.  Both had bayonets.  We shared the cigarettes and rations; I bandaged the wound on his neck, and he the wound in my left.  He indicated the seat of his trousers and held his nose.  I indicated the seat of my trousers and did likewise.  We both laughed until we cried, and fell into each other's arms again--though only for an instant this time:  our fear had gone, and normal embarrassment had taken its place.  We regarded each other warmly.  Perhaps we slept.

Never in my life have I enjoyed such intense intimacy, such clear communication with a fellow human being, male or female, as I enjoyed with that German sergeant.  He was a little grizzled, unlovely fellow, considerably older than I; doubtless a professional soldier.  I saw him more clearly as the day dawned.  While he slept I felt as jealous and protective--I think exactly as jealous and protective--as a lion over her cub.  If any American, even m y father, had jumped into the shell hole at that moment, I'd have killed him unhesitatingly before he could kill my friend.  What validity could the artifices of family and nation claim beside a bond like ours?  I asked myself. What difference did it make that we would go our separate ways, never having learned even the other's name, he to kill other Americans, I perhaps to kill other Germans?  He and I had made a private armistice.  What difference (I asked myself) did he make even if we were to meet each other again, face to face, in the numberless chances of war, and without a smile of recognition, go at each other with bayonets?  For the space of some hours we had been one man, had understood each other beyond friendship, beyond love, as a wise man understands himself.

Let me end the story.  My rhetorical questions, as you may have anticipated, raised after a while the germ of a doubt in my mind.  To be sure, I understood perfectly how I felt about our relationship.  But then, I had instigated it.  My companion had indeed responded, but from beneath the pointed end of my bayonet, his face down in the mud.  Again, he'd not turned on me, though he'd had many opportunities to do so since our tacit truce; but, as I remarked, he looked like an old professional soldier, and I, remember, was only eighteen.  How could I be certain that our incredible sympathy did not actually exist only in my imagination, and that he was not all the while smiling to himself, taking me for a lunatic or a homosexual crank, bidding his time, resting, smoking, sleeping--until he was good and ready to kill me?  Only a hardened professional could sleep so soundly and contentedly in a mudhole during a battle.  There was even a trace of a smile on his lips.  Was it not something of a sneer?

In the growing light everything seemed less nightmarish.  Doubtless the fighting had moved considerably away from our position.  Was I in German territory, or was he in Allied territory?  He was indeed an unlovely fellow.  Common-looking, and tough.  No intelligence in his face.  Heaven knows he looked incapable of conceiving or appreciating any such rapport as I'd envisioned.  Hadn't he speared my leg?  Of course, I'd jumped on him first...

I grew increasingly nervous, and peered out of my hold.  Not a living soul was visible, though a number of bodies lay in various positions and degrees of completeness on the ground, in the barbed wire, on the shattered stumps, in other holes.  The air was full of smoke and dust and atmospheric haze, and it was a bit chilly.  My leg hurt.  I sat back in the hole and stared nervously at the German sergeant, waiting for some sign of his awakening.  I even took up my rifle (and moved his away), just to be safe.  I was getting jumpier all the time, and began to worry that the fear might return.

Finally I decided to sneak quietly out of the hole and make my way to the Americans, if I could find them, leaving the German asleep.  A perfect solution!  I rose to my feet, holding my rifle and not taking my eyes from the German soldier's face.  At once he opened his eyes, and although his head didn't move, a look of terrible alarm flashed across his face.  In an instant I lunged at him and struck him in the chest with my bayonet.  The blow stunned him, and my weight on the rifle held him pinned, but the blade lodged in his breastbone and refused to enter.

My God! I thought frantically.  Can't I kill him? He grasped the muzzle of my rifle in both hands, trying to force it away from him, but I had better leverage from my standing position.  We strained silently for a second.  My eyes were on the bayonet; his, I fear, on my face.  At last the point slipped up off the bone, from our combined straining--our last correspondence!--and with a tiny horrible puncturing sound, slid into and through his neck, and he began to die.  I dropped the rifle--no force on earth could have made me withdraw it--and fled, trembling, across the shattered hollow.  By merest luck, the first soldiers I encountered were American, and the battle was over for me.

That's my war story.  I told it--apropos of what? Oh yes, it cured me.  In fact, it cured me of several things.  I seldom daydream any more, even for an instant.  I never expect very much from myself or my fellow animals.  I almost never characterize people in a word or a phrase, and rarely pass judgment on them at all.  I no longer look for the esteem or approbation of my acquaintances.  I do things more slowly, more systematically, and more thoroughly.  To be sure, I don't call that one incident, traumatic as it proved to be, the single cause of all these alterations in me; in fact, I don't see where some of them follow at all.  But when I think of the alterations, I immediately think of the incident (specifically, I confess, of that infinitesimal puncturing noise), and the fact seems significant to me, though I'll allow the possibility of the whole thing's being a case of post hoc, ergo propter hoc, as the logicians say.  I don't really care.

Monday, July 22, 2013

Despair excerpt from...
The Myth of Sisyphus
by Albert Camus

It is a matter of living in that state of the absurd.  I know on what it is founded, this mind and this world straining against each other without being able to embrace each other.  I ask for the rule of life of that state, and what I am offered neglects its basis, negates one of the terms of the painful opposition, demands of me a resignation.  I ask what is involved in the condition I recognize as mine; I know it implies obscurity and ignorance; and I am assured that this ignorance explains everything and that this darkness is my light.  But there is no reply here to my intent, and this stirring lyricism cannot hide the paradox from me.  One must therefore turn away.  Kierkegaard may shout in warning, "If man had no eternal consciousness, if, at the bottom of everything, there were merely a wild, seething force producing everything, both large and trifling, in the storm of dark passions, if the bottomless void that nothing can fill underlay all things, what would life be but despair?"  This cry is not likely to stop the absurd man.  Seeking what is true is not seeking what is desirable.  If in order to elude the anxious question, "What would life be?" one must, like the donkey, feed on the roses of illusion, then the absurd mind, rather than resigning itself to falsehood, prefers to adopt fearlessly Kierkegaard's reply: "despair."  Everything considered, a determined soul will always manage.  

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

The Road Runner excerpt from...
The Broom of the System
by David Foster Wallace

"Has it occurred to you that 'The Road Runner' is what might aptly be termed an existential program?  That it comments not uninterestingly on the very attitudes that would be implicit in a person's feeling 'upset' over a catastrophic fire in his home?  I see you are puzzled," Fieldbinder said, nothing Dr. J___ frantically scratching his head, a plume of dandruff shooting up into the air of the office only to resettle on the obscene bald spot in the middle of the doctor's skull-shaped head.

Fieldbinder smiled and continued, "I invite you to realize that this program does nothing other than present us with a protagonist, a coyote, functioning within a system interestingly characterized as a malevolent Nature, a protagonist who endlessly, tirelessly, disastrously pursues a thing, a telos--the bird in the title role--a thing and goal far, far less valuable than the effort and resources the protagonist puts into its pursuit."  Fieldbinder grinned wryly.  "The thing pursued--a skinny meatless bird--is far less valuable than the energy and attention and economic resources expended by the coyote on the process of pursuit.  Just as an attachment radiating from the Self outward is worth far less than the price the establishment of such an attachment inevitably exacts."  

Dr. J___ inflated an anatomically correct doll and began to fondle it as it stared blankly.  Fieldbinder smiled patiently.

"A question, doctor," he said.  "Why doesn't the coyote take the money he spends on bird costumes and catapults and radioactive road runner pellets and explosive missiles and simply go eat Chinese?"  He smiled coolly.  "Why doesn't the coyote simply go eat Chinese food?"  Fieldbinder's face assumed a cool, bland, wry expression as he attended to his impeccable slacks.  

Friday, April 26, 2013

On youth excerpt from...
by Witold Gombrowicz

At first glance he was perfectly ordinary, serene and friendly, obedient and even eager.  Torn between the child and the grown man (and this made him both innocently naive and pitilessly experienced) he was neither the one nor the other, but he was a third term, he was youth, violent and uncontrolled, surrendering him to cruelty, restraint and obedience, and condemning him to slavery and humiliation.  He was inferior because he was young.  Imperfect because he was young.  Sensual because he was young.  Carnal because he was young.  Destructive because he was young.  And, in his very youthfulness, he was despicable.  The oddest thing of all was that his smile, the most elegant thing about him, was the very mechanism that dragged him into humiliation, because this child could not defend himself, disarmed as he was by his constant desire to laugh.

This excerpt is from the version translated from a French translation (not from the original Polish) by Alastair Hamilton.  Though it reads well, there has since been an English translation made directly from the original Polish by Danuta Borchardt, who did fantastic work translating Ferdydurke

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Survival of the species while you wonder if life has a purpose excerpt from...
Agape Agape
by William Gaddis

How could, all going backward braced myself against that heap like a pillar of salt whole thing yes, the unswerving punctuality of chance, clock without the clockmaker perfectly simple in word and deed says Plato, God wouldn't lie or change because he's perfect so it's God God God, virtue and beauty and no mad or senseless person can be God's friend no, make yourselves eunuchs for the kingdom of heaven's sake says Tolstoy, nothing senseless about that is there? Strive for absolute chastity for the good of the neighborhood whole purpose of life to be part of God's kingdom only way to get there's absolute chastity, husband and wife live like brother and sister nothing mad about that is there?  Dress up like a muzhik float around the house look like Noah's Ark whole performance out of the greatest fiction ever created, take God out of the equation you've got nothing left not even love no, had that somewhere if I had that letter Wagner wrote to Rockel where love's lost sight of because everything we do, think, take and give is in fear of the end, the greatest most desperate fiction of the afterlife ever created yes, the denial of death, what this whole mad escapade's all about, isn't it Levochka? Good God how you fight it!  Your man Pozdnyshev in The Kreutzer Sonata wallowing in the slime of debauchery he tells us, keeps stripping away the fictions right down to what it's really all about and then he can't face it, not just love no, only you, the choice of one man or woman over all the others says the lady on the train won't have it will you, Pozdnyshev.  Supposed to be something noble and ideal but it's just something sordid that brings us down to the level of pigs.  Natural? a natural human activity? No no no, eating's natural, something you enjoy but this is unnatural and loathsome, honeymoon's shameful and tedious, nothing sacred for us about marriage nothing to it but copulation, couple of months you've learned to hate the sight of each other ready to poison her or shoot yourself good God man, when you felt the blade go into her didn't what it's really all about stare you in the face?  Some nonsense there about mankind following some ideal that's the fiction isn't it?  What Plato's poets and honeyed muse are all about, you strip it clean stop short and run because you really know don't you, not like pigs and rabbits reproducing themselves as fast as they can but you hold it at arm's length, even say animals seem to know their offspring mean survival of the species while you wonder if life has a purpose and that's it isn't it!  That you're being used, used, used, that you're being used by nature simply to perpetuate the family line, the social tribe, the white race, the species just like your pigs and rabbits and that's what you resent, what you hate, what you go through hell for and she knew it too didn't she?  Knew what her body was for, like animals know yes and she knew you thought you owned her body, why you're terrified by a woman bearing down on you in a ballgown because you know those bare arms and shoulders, you know those breasts aren't just playthings she's offering to you posing as an instrument of pleasure but bigger the better there's gallons, there's the promise of gallons of survival of the species like a yes, like a huge brood mare.  Pleasure yes, yes it's beautifully done jealousy and the whole un, unreasonable the whole madness...

Note:  The novel's name is properly accented AgapÄ“ Agape, but I was having difficulty inserting the accent.   

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Safety in numbers excerpt from...
White Noise
by Don DeLillo

I tell my students they're already too old to figure importantly in the making of society.  Minute by minute they're beginning to diverge from each other.  'Even as we sit here,' I tell them, 'you are spinning out from the core, becoming less recognizable as a group, less targetable by advertisers and mass-producers of culture.  Kids are a true universal.  But you're well beyond that, already beginning to drift, to feel estranged from the products  you consume.  Who are they designed for?  What is your place in the marketing scheme?  Once you're out of school, it is only a matter of time before you experience the vast loneliness and dissatisfaction of consumers who have lost their group identity.'  Then I tap my pencil on the table to indicate time passing ominously.