Tag Archives: Roberto Calasso

Blurred Lines – Matters of Fiction and Nonfiction

9 Mar

Everyone has an idea about the way a bookstore should be arranged in a perfect world. To some, we would be better off if there was only one fiction genre, to be called ‘Fiction.’ That would probably work, though I’m loathe to imagine what it would be like if those customers were ever correct in the grammar of their questions who came into the bookstore of my employment asking, ‘Where is the nonfiction section?’

There is a brand of novelist who detests the distinction between a Western novel and a Science Fiction novel to such a degree that one would think he was battling something he considered tantamount to racism. This brand of impartiality is usually espoused by writers of fiction embarrassed by the very corners of the bookstore to which their publishers have cast them or by writers who, due to contract or mere niche, are unable to easily switch genres in mid-career, causing them much professional resentment. Once in a while, an intellectual like Samuel Delany comes along with a direct interest in and rigorous dedication to the problem of genre and just what makes it what it is. The summit of Delany’s discourse on genre goes something like this: Genres, though they cannot be said to have no basis, are over-determined. Genre is not so much a way of writing as it is a way of reading.

In other words, when one enters a bookstore and opens a book titled Nova by a Samuel R. Delany and sees that its cover art portrays planets, stars and spaceships, one can put a safe bet that concurrent imagery will be featured, at least in part, in the text lying behind the binding. But for over-determined reasons, if the reader is familiar at all with the tradition or simply in touch with the way that markets cater to expectations, he knows that the book is not going to be a book set in space but which quickly isolates itself to a room in which nothing but Jane Austen types of plots and resolutions take place over tea and dances. He knows that the drama will somehow involve the characters in a spaceship, headed toward one of those planets and various technological, cultural, and biological malfunctions. The existence of the genre—and its marketability—depend on this kind of faith that the reader will approach the text with a set of presuppositions that will tell her what kind of attention to give the text.

This is just the same with different kinds of texts lumped together rather clumsily as ‘Nonfiction.’ The difference is that writers of Nonfiction are less willing to admit it. All but the shrewdest of biographers of Marilyn Monroe are doomed to deny that the very word ‘biography’ doesn’t automatically denote a sense of truth concerning the life of their subject and that their account is just as susceptible to the lies and prejudices of the great many people by whom information about the subject came about. Even less are those but the shrewdest of biographers willing to admit that their own tacit prejudices and presuppositions about the subject’s life may have seeped through the text.
If one portrayer of one subject can marginalize the story to such a localized degree, imagine what an entire tradition of thought, what an entire culture can do to history itself. Thus, we arrive in the section of the bookstore that deals with Art Criticism, World War Two, History of the Romani People, Mythology, or any number of sections formed out of genres. We approach these texts with faith that the authors conveyed this information in such a way that the narrative does not compromise the actual events (dates, places, births and deaths). If we were to believe—or if we were told—that the narrative compromised these things, we would be dealing with fiction.

Sometimes the distinctions within one piece of text are clearer in intention than others, and we might find ourselves reading something that would count as a hybrid between Fiction and Nonfiction. We’re not talking about alternate history per se. We’re talking about a text that alternates between what is believed to be real by the wider society and what is completely intended as artificial. Some books do a good job of cluing the reader in on when the book is committing the crime of fiction and when it is eliciting an act of truth. Others intersperse so many different kinds of genres in such short space that the reader feels she is forced to stand back and look at the whole as though it were a completely unique genre to itself.

Roberto Calasso is one such writer. Even though the blurbs on the back of The Ruin of Kasch will tell people right up front what is happening in the book, the reader is forced to experience a page in which every piece of text is broken up the same way. The aphorisms don’t look any different from the fictive paragraph about Goethe’s birthday, nor does this look any different from the anecdotes and mini essays on art, culture, numbers, Marxism and sacrifice. Such books cause wars in bookstores concerning where they belong on the shelves. Because a large portion of Kasch deals with Tallyrand, many bookstores categorized it with French History. The blurbs within claim it as a novel in disguise. It is probably better to go with its author’s description of it when he was interviewed by The Paris Review—that it was, simply, a ‘narrative.’

Just as Kasch used Tallyrand as its rhetorical launch-pad, Callasso’s La Folie de Baudelaire uses the poet of its title. The book’s being put in the poetry section of the bookstore is misleading. The book is not necessarily about poetry, but about the very subject of modernity and how Baudelaire’s thought acted as its template. Just as artful and narrative as it is theoretical, we smell the streets of Paris and feel the sheets in the brothels and we hear the chatter in cafes and see the windows blinking on and off at night, all while Baudelaire haunts some place among it all, acting as a double agent between God and Satan.

Embellishments of real life, like Henry Miller’s writings, might serve to interest a reader looking for something with a narrative resembling fiction but which launches into all kinds of philosophical abstractions, anecdotes and asides. Some of the works of Geoff Dyer alternate quite clearly between fiction and nonfiction, as do the works of William Vollmann, especially in his book Atlas.

The works that interest me most now are those which seem to contain an unironic internal narrative rupture. I say unironic because the works in question are a little older and woollier, when the novel form wasn’t quite as rigid or bound by as many aesthetic laws as it seems to be today. One work that comes to mind is The Sorrows of Young Werther. The tormented main character’s personal diaries meet a friend’s removed account, so that we can logically witness the tragic end. While one could argue that this sort of unconscious use of narrative rupture is manipulative—merely a means to tug on the reader’s heartstrings—I would argue that more recent works of ‘experimental’ fiction, often lumped in as ‘postmodern,’ employ many of these same techniques but for reasons that compromise the internal integrity of the text. Whether a Robert Coover or a John Barth tries to play metafictional games with the readers to teach them about the act of reading by simply reminding them that they are reading, or whether a David Foster Wallace tries to invert these very tactics for some lofty moral purpose by using almost identical narrative ruptures, we are dealing with a kind of fiction that seeks to arrive at some point outside of itself—that tries to transcend itself. But to what purpose?

We may fall endlessly back into arguments between art-for-art’s sake and art that is socially utilitarian, but nothing can convince me that Nabokov’s Pale Fire is not the summit of this sort of narrative gamesmanship that his American academician successors aped every chance they had. Yet at the same time, in Pale Fire, when I read John Shade’s poem, I don’t feel as though I am being tricked into thinking outside of the book. When I read Charles Kinbote’s forward and commentary on that poem which comprise the novel, I feel invited back to a different, personalized interpretation of that poem to serve a narrative rupture—though perhaps ‘rupture’ is not the best word, for it is more like a sort of narrative flowering. Pale Fire does not talk down to the reader and it does not wink or offer transcendence if only you would recognize that it is a fake product. It works off of its own energy and locates all of its meaning only in the world of the book.
Rilke’s The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge probably has more in common with the works of Henry Miller, Hunter S. Thompson and Charles Bukowski than fans of any of them would care to admit. I name them all together for, with the exception of Henry Miller, they all wrote highly fictionalized accounts of their own lives using distinct alter-egos. Rilke’s narrator, however close to Rilke he might be, is not Rilke. The highly transient, listless Rilke was always embellishing his distant blood link to a reputable aristocracy, as though believing himself to be a lost prince from some older world (a real life Charles Kinbote?) while his Brigge is able to tell us precisely who his relatives are and just how distant he is from them. On a much simpler level, Rilke’s Notebooks is a novel narrated by a struggling writer, as are the others mentioned above. But in this book, few are the adventures and episodes of this struggling writer as would happen in a Factotum or a Post Office. Rather, in this book, Brigge can develop some of his most frightening conclusions about the world where the real life Rilke might have only flirted with them in his poems and more so in his letters. It is Brigge who concludes his accounts with his final, lonely views on love by turning the tale of The Prodigal Son inside out—that it was the son who needed to forgive his family for loving him.

If Henry Miller developed an alter-ego, he didn’t bother to change that alter-ego’s name. Rather, he changed the name of his second wife and a few of his friends. God knows how much of it was real; given the way that his books are filled with passages in which friends, acquaintances and lovers compare him to Jesus, speak incessantly about his genius and pretty much seem addicted to his personality altogether, I would suspect, precious little.

If only as a nice break, I’m drawn to books that follow the sort of path laid out by the works listed above. They are fictions that do not seem like fictions and real events that couldn’t possibly be real.

49 Steps by Roberto Calasso

26 Apr

49 Steps

In his interview with The Paris Review, Roberto Calasso said the following:

I feel thought in general, and in particular what is unfortunately called “philosophy,” should lead a sort of clandestine life for a while, just to renew itself. By clandestine I mean concealed in stories, in anecdotes, in numerous forms that are not the form of the treatise. Then thought can biologically renew itself, as it were.

It would appear that Roberto Calasso’s own works set out to do just that. The 49 steps alluded to in the title of Calasso’s book refer to a sequence of meaning in the Talmud. Here, however, the sequence, or something like it, is used not on the Talmud but on the whole plane of western thought in the past few centuries.

In freeing himself from the philosophical treatise of which he spoke, abandoning the essay as we know it today with a strong supportable thesis, and without resorting to the constant chain of overcoming that often happens in western thought—you know, the easy academic distinction which believes that analytic philosophy supersedes Derrida, who supersedes Heidegger, who supersedes Nietzsche, who supersedes Plato—Calasso resorts to those very anecdotes, stories and other forms he favors to weave a narrative of the modern world.

The project that Calasso seems to take on here is a means of exploring those more latent features of history that, while not belonging to the socially accepted sequence of historical influence, may have left a definite imprint on modern consciousness.

One can’t so easily accuse him of jazzing around unseriously with history. Calasso, rather, seems to ascertain that if one doesn’t weave one’s own narrative, one is weaved by someone else’s narrative. Yet, all the while, he feels somewhat easy with the recognition that we are always wrapped up in some narrative not of our own making; another feature of life.

Most systems of thought have come about through someone trying to escape history, whether it be Marxism, The French Revolution or The Society of the Best Sunday Cheeses. Revolutions and intended revolutions, gigantic cultural gestures, act as instant points by which we can map out human progress or history.

Rather than escaping history, Calasso, rather, digs deep into the sediment of history, burrows through its tunnels, pays careful attention to its sequential blips and interruptions, comes out the other side and explores the secret rooms of the ancient cities of civilization. He walks the dark alleyways of society, lying adjacent to the boulevards filled with the humbuggy chants of party members making political changes, and in these alleyways a secret history is played out.

In Calasso’s narrative, everything new is actually an eventuation of something incredibly ancient. The peculiar, bisexually misogynistic message of Otto Weininger, which captivated a few college boys and girls in the early part of the twentieth century, is not a new psychological breakthrough but merely a more immediate and honest manifestation of how men have viewed women for countless millennia. Likewise, the mostly discarded writings of Marx (even by most Marxists) on the role of women in society can be seen as a hyper-reduction of an almost primitive tendency to view women as mere agents of sexual utility.

In like manner, many specific artists, politicians and historical figures make ‘cameos’—to use a theatrical phrase—on Calasso’s stage in order to embody a specific problem or a very distinct yet ongoing thread of thought or behavior. Yet, because this is not a story in the classic sense, Calasso’s narrative takes the form, not of a theatrical stage, but a sort of web. Each thread is connected to a different branch. Each essay is a branch on which Calasso sits for a time to gain a different thought.

He returns frequently to Walter Benjamin and Karl Kraus. There is one amusing anecdote in which Calasso tells us that we can ascertain the shape of Walter Benjamin’s thought by some of the things he reviews—as is the case when Benjamin employs his knowledge of Freud alongside philosophy of identity and pleasure when reviewing a book about toys.

Calasso’s frequent return to Kraus gives special attention to his prolific periodical, Die Fackel, along with The Last Days of Mankind. Kraus is depicted as the careful scribbler of uncareful half-truths and truth-and-a-halfs. Calasso gives us a picture of Kraus holed up during the Nazi-apocalypse, more intent on determining the perfect placement of commas than fighting the devil, with the firm belief that good grammar prevents future genocide.

Max Stirner earns an awkward place in the anxiety of influence, as most philosophers who’ve read him seem anxious to even admit his obvious influence on their work.

As Calasso weaves this narrative, it is easy to get lost in the euphoria of his poetic command. As a reader, I want to believe that his various curiosities and interests give us a more likely sequence of historical movement, even if it is only along some sub-current. But to trust the very finitude of Calasso’s narrative, bound by the walls of the book and its bindings, is to betray the spirit of the work, for part of the euphoria offered by the reading experience, I suspect, comes from a sense of inexhaustibility.

Following a similar trajectory through history as 49 Steps, there are all kinds of places one can go, suspicions one can entertain and conclusions one can draw. It acts almost as a mystery story through the walls of history, as we try to trace, not necessarily its origins, but how we relate to it.

Toward the book’s close, in a chapter called ‘The Terror of Fables,’ Calasso talks about our modern relationship with the word ‘myth’ and its having become a sneering synonym for ‘lie.’ He tries to restore myth as an ancient form of truth.

Thus now we can own up to what was—what is—that ancient terror that the fables continue to arouse. It is no different from the terror that is the first one of all: terror of the world; terror in the face of its mute, deceptive, overwhelming enigma; terror before this place of constant metamorphosis and epiphany, which above all includes our own minds, where we witness without letup the tumult of simulacra.

No, if myth is precisely a sequence of simulacra that help to recognize simulacra, it is naïve to pretend to interpret myth, when it is myth itself that is already interpreting us.

Perhaps it should be no wonder that Roberto Calasso only wrote one novel. After that, history itself was novel enough.