Cultural Architects: Saramago, Byrne & Le Corbusier Partners

I’ve always wondered what it would be like to have synaesthesia for a day, just so that I could experiment with different pieces of music and observe the shifting patterns of colour, the dynamic lines and shapes that come and go in response to changing pitch, timbre and volume. Hallucinogenic drugs aside, perhaps the closest I’ll come to this mental light show is when listening to the brilliant song Don’t Worry about the Government by The Talking Heads:

Though hardly a piece of 60’s psychedelia, almost every time I hear David Byrne sing the following lyrics,

That’s the highway that goes to the building
I pick the building that I want to live in

It’s over there, it’s over there
My building has every convenience

I automatically see bright images flash in my mind – I see a tall building viewed from a distance, bathed in a cleansing, brilliant sunlight. Following it comes,

It’s gonna make life easy for me
It’s gonna be easy to get things done

and I’m seeing his sunny picture of optimism, which brings to mind the Modernist movement in architecture, and its ideological belief in the power of architecture to improve lives. This stack of evoked images and sensations isn’t the only thing I think about. A whole other set of associative connections fire in my brain. When I hear that lyric, it’s as if I’m hearing Le Corbusier himself say:

The house is a machine for living in.

This hopefulness shines through in the song, even if there is a hint of a darker under-current of meaning. That’s not the end of it though, more reflexive associations pile on and automatically assemble themselves into a dialectic argument.

In The Cave by José Saramago, we encounter the tale of Cipriano Algor and his daughter Marta, potters both, who must contend with the capricious nature of The Center, the chief purchasers of their pottery. The Center is an ever-growing cloistered city within a city; one that leaves the original host crumbling under an extreme gentrification pressure. When David Bryne sings the praise that his building has every convenience, he is summarising perfectly the nature of The Center, containing as it does, accommodation, entertainment, employment and food. Who wouldn’t want all that within easy reach? While he may be happy, the Algors are increasingly suspicious of The Center, an unease which doesn’t dissipate when they are left with no option but to move in. Who could blame them for their misgivings, when faced with such unsettling slogans as:

We Have What You Need, But We Prefer You Need What We Have.

Still it’s only fiction, so there’s nothing to worry about, or is there?

Earlier this year I visited Cardiff, Wales where, in the city centre, there is a building in this model. Luxury shopping forms the base, interspersed with food outlets, and all topped off with expensive apartments. It’s an attempt at concentrating all the functionality of a city into the same land area as a hamlet. So is this the start of the progression, is this a new Center, a building that will expand ever-outwards and upwards, subsuming everything in its path?

If this building, and this trend, is to be stopped, I doubt that it’ll be protests or organised rebellion that does it, but rather the unruly Internet. Why move to live where the shops are, when the whole world of shops can be brought to you? It hardly needs stating that one can work through the internet, socialise through it, even send a virtual instance of ourselves into Second Life and nest ourselves in it at one level removed.

So perhaps Saramago will be wrong in the detail, but the consequences might turn out the same. It could go either way; the Internet could provide our means of escape, or equally could seduce us into our own imprisonment.

For the purposes of Saramago’s message it probably doesn’t matter. The alienating and impersonal nature of this emblem of pure, efficient capitalism, is preserved whatever. Moreover it is this influence on one family, a father, daughter, son-in-law, and dog, and their attempts to adapt to a new reality, that is the important and universal concept. Indeed, one of the highlights of the novel is Saramago’s delicate and insightful rendering of the tender, playful relationship between father and daughter, workers of clay, yet both of them, with Saramago’s guidance, shape beautiful words of wisdom in their conversation.

And this Saramago suggests is the key to our salvation, to embrace our humanity and, as simple as it sounds, stick together. On this Byrne and Saramago agree:

I’ll put down what I’m doing, my friends are important

And family too we might be inclined to add. If The Talking Heads are saying we don’t need to worry about the government, then in The Cave, Saramago agrees. It’s capitalism and blind materialism that are the prime threats. Saramago provides few solutions to these and we can’t blame him for that, but whatever they might prove to be, the first step, the foundation, is to stick together and value your friends, family and the stray dog that tags along.

I don’t doubt that a man can live perfectly well on his own, but I’m convinced that he begins to die as soon as he closes the door of his house behind him.

The path disappears around a corner, and veers who knows where, but Saramago at least shows us how we should start the journey.

Review: The Infatuations by Javier Marías

A signal danger with reading or reviewing books from a long-time favourite author is the risk that it will disappoint, and in doing so colour our perception, slowly built yet ever fragile, of both the author and their previous work, both of which we had hitherto admired. And so it was with Javier Marías, and his latest work, The Infatuations. I needn’t have worried.

In this brilliant novel, María Dolz has her daily routine of gentle observation of a happily married couple thrown into disarray by the brutal murder of the husband. Drawn into their world, what follows is her discovery of the possible reality behind his gruesome death.

This is by no means the first of his novels to begin with a death, and yet the subsequent, original development shows us that the interesting story is not the event itself, but rather the effect it has on the people involved, and the efforts they make to accommodate this new and unwanted situation. This is accomplished through verbose, yet never prolix, characters, whose every sentence is a pleasure, and indeed constitute much of the point of a Marías novel. Their exquisitely detailed considerations and peregrinations, forensically examining each potential action, both past and future, reveal much about their own psychology, and that of the reader too. Wordplay suggests María, the first-person narrator, is really Marías, but in a sense, all the characters are him, or at least their opinions are his. For a less-gifted writer, or one possessed of lesser insight, that could be a flaw indeed, but not here.

As far as one can judge without the Spanish original, Margaret Jull Costa is in fine form yet again, handling with aplomb the page-long sentences of an author who inhabits a world of the future and conditional tenses, his moods those of the subjunctive. “That is the awful power of the present, which crushes the past more easily as the past recedes”, by extension, possible future events might possess even greater power than the present, which might explain his fascination with the hypothetical. Or perhaps this is the salient quote, “What matters are the possibilities and ideas that the novel’s imaginary plot communicates to us.”

If Marías’ humanistic streak isn’t immediately obvious from this grim fascination with death, then phrases such as, “What sense does it make that each person should have to experience more or less the same griefs and make more or less the same discoveries, and so on for eternity?”, draw it out. His novels, while never strident, attempt to show ourselves as we really are, and are perhaps his way of gently encouraging us to mend our ways. “That’s the worst thing about losing our old codes of conduct… We have to be guided by ourselves and then it’s very easy to make a blunder.” It’s not necessarily a pessimistic view of our inconstant natures, merely realistic, and one that’s consistently held throughout all his novels.

An admirer of Proust, in a recent interview with the Guardian, he declares, “He says terrible things, but in such a way that you know that you have experienced those thoughts too.” It’s a tradition Marías fully embraces in his own work, but through all the deep exploration of our inner motivations, he never forgets his storytelling instinct, never lets the narrative drive disappear completely. In this there’s something not dissimilar to Kafka, both have a way of building tension through the lengthy and potentially hazardous calculations that their characters make. The basic considerations of his plots, of man as an animal – morality, love, death – is another thing they have in common. Here it is the things that we both do, and don’t do, for love, or because of love, and further, the things we can believe would be done in the name of love, which are the principal target.

As in many of his books, a quote from Macbeth – from which play came the title for his novel, A Heart So White – makes an early appearance. Macbeth, upon learning about the death of his wife and Queen, exclaims, “She should have died hereafter.” Once introduced, this phrase becomes something of a motif, to which the narrator repeatedly returns throughout the novel, each time re-examining its meaning in the light of new revelations. It can’t be mere coincidence that it’s a Shakespearean tragedy from which Marías continues to draw inspiration.

However, perhaps the most telling aspect of his literary philosophy is revealed near the end of the book, when the truth is normally on the verge of being revealed, but no, “The truth is never clear, it’s always a tangled mess. Even when you get to the bottom of it. But in real life almost no one needs to find the truth or devote himself to investigating anything, that only happens in puerile novels.”

Marías has not written one of those, and even if in this book we never quite attain the truth of the story with complete certainty, this doesn’t stop us learning some truths about ourselves. And how very enjoyably unsettling it is.

Five Ice Cream Vans

A frosted sky makes gentle diffuse sun,
that soothes this politicians’ bridge.

And there five ice cream vans idle,
tune nothing but a childhood hum.

Above, the dandelion Eye looks on,
and each of us circles around one thought:

where have all the people gone?

Don’t Only Think, Feel Too

What is the hardest thing to write about? Or to be seen to be writing about, if such a statement makes any sense?

In an interview with Michael Silverblatt of Bookworm, the late, great author David Foster Wallace (DFW) argued that, in his experience as college professor, it was sentiment that his students had the most difficulty producing in their work. To express weird, twisted and abnormal thoughts was nothing but the norm to them. Sentiment, however, was to be avoided at all costs, lest the student risk being perceived as naive, corny or soppy. I’m sure a desire to appear clever was another key motivation.

These observations of DFW were brought back to me by a recent conversation I had, in which a friend, commenting on my blog, said that they wanted to know what something made me feel and not only what it made me think. I accept the criticism gratefully.

First, let’s acknowledge that it is hard to write and talk about these things. Certainly in today’s postmodern world, where knowing-parody and the ironic are staples of our cultural diet, the straightforward emotion is often viewed as simplistic and unsophisticated, and displaying it almost impolite to the point of offence.

Further, a society that values the intellect and wealth perhaps sees a diminished role for emotion, except in the cynical exploitation of it that organisational behaviourists refer to as emotional labour. You’ve all experienced it, take the last time you bought a cup of coffee for instance – the forced-smile greeting and the exhortation to have a great day as you leave. Occasionally genuinely felt I’m sure, but that would just be a happy coincidence. This misuse of false emotion must surely colour our impressions of the genuine article, a Pavlovian training to be wary of it, lest that person harbour ulterior motives.

Perhaps it’s difficult to write about because the felt-emotion can be fleeting and difficult to reproduce, whereas the thought seems longer term, more permanent. The emotion only persists for about as long as we read the book, in the best cases perhaps a little longer. But its intangible nature makes it harder to record and to analyse, and so we don’t bestow upon it the same permanence.

A few days ago I watched the film 50/50, a loosely-autobiographical dark comedy-drama about Adam, a 27-year-old radio journalist who develops a rare form of cancer. The film charts his struggle, and those of his friends and family, to come to terms with the diagnosis and subsequent treatment of his condition. Certain elements of the film appear to be on the verge of becoming corny, but the writing and classy acting help it veer away from this, and the end result is a very good film. Although it is sad in parts, it isn’t unremittingly so, and even the sad moments are generally handled through humour, that is, apart from a scene near the end, which was played straight, and was enough to leave me weeping for several minutes.

That this happened, and the intensity of it, took me quite by surprise, and I’m not exactly certain why it affected me so strongly. The risk of what I think of as “narrative self-delusion” – the way we fool ourselves by telling neat Just So stories to explain our behaviour – is ever present here, but it’s reasonable to suspect the following factors: one of my relatives is unfortunately currently in hospital; the very similar ages of myself and the protagonist, and the sense of tragedy that accompanies his young age; finally, the brilliantly-subtle acting of Adam’s father, an Alzheimer’s sufferer, as he looks on confused, not quite understanding but still somehow touched, when his son tells him he loves him. Even remembering and writing about it now isn’t very easy, as sure a sign as any that it is necessary.

Maybe one explanation for our unwillingness to write about these things, is that they either seem too simple – base states of happy, sad or angry – to be worth the bother of writing about, or they are too complex – the reasons for feeling how we do, and the concurrent, paradoxical feelings we seem able to hold in a single moment – mean that it’s simply easier to talk about abstract thoughts, which can be logically connected and analysed.

Then consider that it’s possible, even probable, that the scene won’t have the same hold over me the next time I see it. The perfect storm of circumstance might no longer be present and, this time prepared for it, I’ll be able to watch it more calmly. This is another problem of putting emotional content in art; it’s difficult to control the response of the reader or viewer, there are too many variables at work.

The rejection of this, by a cynical culture, is a defence mechanism. A sign of our unwillingness to face pain because, by talking about what we feel we can induce in others similar sensations, we are at risk of a kind emotional infection. In everyday life, this might be an unwelcome imposition, but in art, in literature, surely it is what we desire. And if not desire it, we probably need it. In fact, we need both new, original thinking and strong feelings.

I had been previously persuaded by DFW’s interview that it was necessary and right to inject sentiment into writing, and wanted to do so, but in the main I suspect I had failed. The recent conversation, and watching the film 50/50, has reconfirmed this suspicion, and I am encouraged to try again.

That said, looking back over this piece it seems I’ve only partially succeeded in trying to talk about how I felt; inevitably a whole lot of thinking resulted. Still, it’s a better ratio than before, and no matter my level of success, I shouldn’t stop trying. And if I do, then readers, feel free to call me on it.

Why I Write

So far in my posts on this blog I have only hinted at the reasons for writing them. In one sense, no justification is necessary; this blog is not being written under duress, and, intentional fallacies aside, there are no coded messages hidden in the text that implore the reader to send for help. No, I do it, of course, because I want to, but why do I want to?

There are the obvious motivations: I want to practice my writing; to generate additional impetus to help with writing the novel; to receive feedback; etc; etc. Case closed.

But still this is avoiding the question: why write anything at all? Simply put, I have ideas, and ones which I thought were interesting, and wanted to record them. But is that sufficient explanation?

Sometime ago I came across the following quote from Nassim Taleb.

Most people write so they can remember things, I write to forget.

The Bed of Procrustes: Philosophical and Practical Aphorisms

At the time I thought this was the typically-contrary type of statement in which Taleb seems to specialise, a sign of his wilful individualism, but I’m beginning to be convinced.

For years, intermittent thoughts bubbled up, occasionally recurring, and which I thought might make a good plot for a story, or perhaps a humorous set-piece, or simply an insightful observation. Even the ideas that I thought would be interesting to others were ignored; at most they were occasionally jotted down on a tiny scrap of paper only to be tossed away later. Over time though a feeling grew in me that this wasn’t a sufficient response, that something more permanent should be constructed from them. It was a discomfort that these ideas were being lost forever, with no guarantees that I could ever regenerate them on demand in future.

Despite this reasoning, I suspect I feel similarly to Taleb. I might write down the ideas so that they are remembered, sure, but they won’t need to be remembered by me. Once the initial documenting is completed I can simply forget about them, and be guilt-free in my forgetfulness. The instinct to hoard is sated.

The problem is that writing down an idea isn’t as simple a task as it sounds. Sometimes the idea is actually just the suspicion of one, the hint of its existence, a sense that there is something there, but it’s inchoate and inarticulate. It needs a physical medium in which to assume a form and to permit its boundaries to be shaped and discovered with any precision.

What they don’t seem to tell you, or perhaps they do and we ignore it, is that the cure is as harmful as the disease. In the writing of thoughts already had, are spawned many more; writing is dangerous.

Moreover, once started, there is no way to quit. It is no cure, merely a palliative. There is only temporary respite until the calls of the newly-discovered ideas become too strong to ignore. Nothing to be done but wait until the ideas stop coming. But who would wish for such a thing? Not I, never, quite the opposite.

Inevitably though, the flow will cease, and what better comfort for that moment than documentary evidence? I can show my sceptical, older self that the younger manifestation did indeed once possess ideas, and with them produced something original, even interesting. Geoffrey Wellum had it right when he said he wrote to convince himself that, at some point in his life he had been of use.

At the very least, and even if nobody ever reads it, writing is reassurance.
For any readers who also write: what drives you? Please do share your thoughts below…