My wife and I sat up last Thursday night. Kids had gone to bed early. I suggested we sit down enjoy each other’s company for a moment. I asked about her work day. One thing led to another and soon we were in the deep territory.
And for some reason, I started thinking about Lot’s wife. Do you know about Lot’s wife? I’m aware of the basics, and have read that section in Genesis before. The basic story is two angels appear, tell ol’ Lot Sodom’s going to be destroyed. The angels tell him and his brood better book it or else. They delay in fleeing the city, which is interesting, right? Because if it was such a shitty place, why would they not want to leave? Anyway, finally the angels are like, “Look! Get the fuck out of here, right now, and if you even look back at this shit-hole, you’re going be swept away!” You can probably guess what happens next. Lot’s wife (Aldo, aka Edith, thank you wikipedia) looks back and is literally dusted. Ultra-violence.
I was making this point to my wife, that as we develop and mature that there comes a point, like Lot’s wife, that it can be dangerous to look back into the past. Rehash those old issues.
It’s interesting, and perhaps somewhat dangerous how much Art, and books especially can influence our behaviors and ideas. I think about this sometimes, though I have travelled, geographically speaking little, I feel in all the reading I have done, I have lived a lot of lives, walked in a lot of people’s shoes, or rather the fake shoes these characters wore, that were created by other people. But yes, I love books, and this love is teetering on a compulsion lately, as I attempt to reach my reading goal of 36 books this year.
Things are off to a great start. I was right on track at the end of April, 12 books, and really enjoying reading. I had just finished the first two books of C.S. Lewis’s Out of the Silent Planet series. Great books, and I always love the feeling and insight the Inklings brings. Spring is here too so I find harder to sit in the basement and write. With all the signs of spring about flowers, butterflies, fresh air and sunshine, life is great. Always though, I love to sneak down to my office and have a reading session. Now I am wondering if it isn’t a bit of problem.
To achieve my goal, I decided, and here we see the first hint of the inevitable downfall, to try to pad my total by finding a bunch of great short novels to read in May. So I turned to the internet, that Delphic oracle, and ended up at this Good Reads book list. In a very short period I scanned the list, ignoring works I had already knocked off, and picked the first four or five titles that struck me as interesting. Mostly at random, reading just a snippet of the description, and then checking my local library for a copy.
So, as I was waiting for these titles to arrive at the library. I decided to tackle A Clockwork Orange, which I knew to be a thin book. I borrowed this one from my friend a while ago, and had tried to read it, but the crazy language, called Nadast, a sort of English-Russian fusion, at that moment, just seemed impossible. Strangely here, and I sensed the force of fate, when I picked it up this time. I was in the perfect mood and mindset for it.
If I’ m in that mood I like reading like that, like a translator. It makes you pay attention. It heightens your senses and experience. I have seen Stanley Kubrick’s exceptional film based on the book, so of course I couldn’t help but have that as a visual subtext to my reading. That’s not to diminish the effect of the novel in anyway, mind you. Not at all.
It’s a very scary book. As sort of a grown man now, you know what really frightened me, was how familiar it all felt. And it wasn’t seeing the movie before, it was how close this mindset was to my adolescent mindset, and the mindset of many others that I’ve encountered in the world. Stupid, hedonistic, predatory, narcissistic, megalomanic, moralistic.
There was something else with that book, that just sort of rubbed me the wrong way. Made me very suspicious. Just looking up the book on the oracle again, and I read Burgess claims to have been inspired and wrote the book in three weeks. See, that’s exactly the sort of things I am getting at. That’s an astonishing achievement. The complexity and cohesiveness, the singular terrifying vision just deposited by the universe into Burgesses’ brain like that. Sounds a little too good, too evil, to be true.
Couple key points to note though. Ultra violence. Sexual Aggression. Shadowy Intelligence and Psychiatric organizations. Mind Control. Drugs. I would also note that Burgess himself had military experience, and was husband to a wife who suffered a real life episode of ultra-violence, which sparked the idea for the novel itself.
So, after a bit of a cry, and a shower, I finished A Clockwork Orange, and was left in a strange mood. I will be the first to acknowledge a slight conspiratorial bent to my thinking, but in so many way it just seems to be sitting there, plain as day to me. Of course, it wasn’t so obvious always, and these views are informed by a number of sources, which I won’t get into now. What I am trying to get at is when I reflect on Literature like that, it starts to look a lot less like what I thought it was was (escapist holiday in La-a-Land), and more to look like a manual of evil, or even something like a Curse.
I imagine I’ve lost the plot here with most readers, but I gotta try to say what I’m trying to say. Okay, in the book for instance there is this classic scene (how’s that for word choice) where the main character Alex, is strapped in a chair, and forced to watch reel after reel of horrific moments, thereby inducing in him a severe aversion to these acts, which forces him to be “good.”
Now, I can’t help but think how the modern person is much like Alex, more or less forced in front of a screen, shown countless horrific moments, in both Entertainment and News, for hours on end. What’s worth noting, is that unlike in the book, it doesn’t require the drugs (though there are plenty of those circulating), or the eyelids being strapped open. No, people today will freely and willingly subject themselves to these images. Just like we, the reader, have done with this book.
One more point about these shadowy groups running the show. What to make of them? A device of fiction, of course? Well, for argument and interest we will shift focus to the next book. In all that, I finally got my book stash from the library and with a clockwork paranoia slowly brewing I turned to the next book, The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, by John Le Carre.
I knew very little about, this one, except for some buzz line about it being the quintessential spy novel. It started out with a preface from the author. Very interesting. He’s writing to make the point, that yes though he himself held some government position, which involved some degree of classified materials, and though yes this book had been approved by his superiors, these facts did not indicate like the public had assumed at the time, that he must have been divulging some secondary hidden life of espionage, but that in fact that his superiors approved it, showed that it was so over the top, and obviously Fictional, that they saw now harm in putting it out.
Okay, I say as the reader, wouldn’t have thought anything of it, had it not been mentioned, and for full revelation I must say the details of Mr. Burgress and his work still had me on alert, but I still took the preface at face value, and moved on. Brief synopsis, main character Alec Leamas (note that strange synchronicity of the names), is Station Head in the West Berlin office of The Circus (intelligence spooks), circa 1950-60.
One of his main operatives is killed, and Leamas is euphemistically “brought in from the cold,” decommissioned. Control, the Circus chief, and him hatch a plan to get him into proximity of the East Berlin operative, Mundt, who they know is behind the murdering of Leamas operatives.
Things are all screwy and quite complicated. A few major things to note. First off Leamas breaks the spy code and falls in love with a lady. This lady is in cahoots with the enemy, the Communists. All sorts of shadowy spook groups abound. Ultra-violence. Torture. Mind control techniques. And most importantly, like the previous Alex, this Alec, has the experience of being played by both/all sides, and coming to the conclusion that both sides are more alike than they are different, and more over that there must be another party, above these two warring parties, who must be getting off on all this.
I don’t want to digress here, but I feel it’s necessary. So the main bad guy of the novel is this character Mundt, who you learn was a spy for the British, who was educated in the West as well and escaped capture by fleeing into East Germany. That sets up a sort of alert to me. Because I’m aware, though articles like this, that a number of prominent terrorists and other nefarious world actors, are highly educated, and often are living and learning in the West, and then return to their own countries to rule/terrorize their own oppressed people. This should strike us as strange, terrible and significant.
Why is a place (the University or the West) supposedly concerned with Liberty and Freedom, birthing these type of characters? Or even deeper, what is it about our value systems and our cultures that is producing all this? The motivations for these questions is obvious, I hope. I want it to stop.
There is something so broken in these first two characters, that it would be easy, selfishly of course, to write them off as exaggerations for the drama of the novel. The first is a psychopath, the second is a sort of an action hero, let it go at that. Just like the author told us in that preface, mere-fiction.
Here’s the force of the synchronicity though. I think if I would have just stopped there. It would have been interesting, but not so existentially critical as the reading journey became when I moved on to The Wasp Factory by Iain Banks. As I start reading this I just couldn’t believe the similarities with the previous two books. One main character, Frank Caudhame. A male, in Scotland, British Isles, a sort of autistic Rambo, redneck, living on a tiny island. Strained relationship with his parents. Fratricide. Again there’s an interesting subtext in this one about sexuality, and gender identity.
All three characters have dehumanizing concepts of females in their heads. Alex’s violent sexual assaults on females, demonstrates the objectification which has taken place in his mind. Not only to women, but to people in general. The same is true in Alec as well, he uses a woman to add a layer to his persona, but yet loves her and puts her in mortal danger.
Frank makes his hate for women explicit. His hate stems from his Mother walking out on the family multiple times, and abandoning other children on his Father’s island. We will recall in Alex’s case there is the strange occurrence of once he arrives home, after the mind control Ludovico technique, he finds a surrogate brother staying there. It’s obvious too that his parents find their polite, more sensible son, much easier to handle. Alex resents him, and has a fit of mind control sickness, when his anger crests towards the man. This is very much paralleled in Frank’s story, as he calmly declares at one point:
Two years after I killed Blyth I murdered my young brother Paul, for quite different and more fundamental reasons than I’d disposed of Blyth, and then a year after that I did for my young cousin Esmerelda, more less on a whim.
That’s my score to date. Three. I haven’t killed anybody for years, and don’t intend to ever again.
It was just a stage I was going through. (42)
That last sentence. It was just a stage I was going through. That’s the real ringer. The casualness, the off handedness, just a phase. Everyone’s on their own journey. These are the words which condemn us now. In all these stories so far, murder and every other heinous act has become common place. When we study the background, the history, it’s of course not out of place. The world is barbaric and heinous. But where did the urge to make a game of it, to play at barbarism, not just be real barbarians, come from? It seems a very Western urge to want to feel morally justified in our evil, to make it a Romantic concept.
My reading got frantic at this point. Think I read The Wasp Factory over a three day period, just four or five sittings. I started getting that feeling that I was doing it too much, reading that is. That if I kept playing with it, I might just break my reading muscle. End up curled in the corner of some library, papers cuts on my hands, naked, a literary journal covering my loins.
But I couldn’t stop. I realized I was on to something. My subconscious had been at work here. I had to continue on to see what else was in this stash. Two titles remained. The Sense of An Ending by Julian Barnes and The Postman Always Rings Twice by James. M. Cain. Deep sigh. It’s hard to get my point across here. It’s too deep, too personal. So again I will try my best, but forgive the wandering, it hides the truth.
Here’s a brief sketch of The Sense of an Ending. Again we have a story told from the perspective of a single individual, Tony, British, more over there is definite contrast drawn between himself who ends up at Bristol University, and another important character Adrian Finn who ended up at Cambridge University, exemplifying British classism. So now, those middle class, upper middle class intellectuals we heard mentioned in “A Spy…” we get to see up close and personal. What do we find again, nihilism, sexual perversity and predation, conflicting and broken identity issues, the problem of seeing everything as a game, or as Finn put is, “he hates the way the English have about being serious about not being serious.”
We find distorted versions of masculinity and femininity, a detachment in the face of heinous violence. I felt though, and this made this work more challenging then the rest, that it presented the more realistic sense of what this post-modern, horror show really looks like. No one is understood, no one really cares for anyone else, everything is a facade, the truth is only revealed in tragedy. You also have this dynamic of parents, and generations, and the mutual definition that takes place in those relationships
I read The Sense of an Ending very fast, two days, and two sittings. When I got to the end, after these four books, I was seriously wasted. The thing that gets me about all this is the sense that it is all so goddamn stupid. This hate and injury that we cause to one another trying to figure out our own lives. And how sick and tired I am of dumb-smart people, who know so much, but behave so stupidly, how easy it is to take it all for granted, and then to wake up one day and realize its all gone, your Mum has replaced you with a vagrant.
Ahem. Anyway, yes suicide plays a big role in both A Clockwork Orange and The Sense of An Ending. There’s a scene early on that’s very constructive of the point I’m making. Tony and Adrian’s class are having a debate about the causes of WWI:
Hunt gave a brief nod to Colin’s attempt to undermine everything, as if morbid disbelief was a natural by-product of adolescence, something to be grown out of, Masters, and parents used to remind us irritatingly that they too had once been young, and so could speak with authority. It’s just a phase, they would insist. You’ll grow out of it; life will teach you reality and realism. But back then we declined to acknowledge that they had ever been anything like us, and we knew that we grasped life–and truth, and morality, and art–far more clearly than our compromised elders.
“Finn, you’ve been quiet. You started this ball rolling. You are, as it were, our Serbian gunman.” Hunt paused to let the allusion take effect. “Would you care to give us the benefit of you thoughts?”
“I don’t know, sir.”
“What don’t you know?”
“Well, in one sense I can’t know what it is that I don’t know. That’s philosophically self-evident.” He left one of those slight pauses in which we again wondered if he was engaged in subtle mockery or a high seriousness beyond the rest of us. “Indeed, isn’t the whole business of ascribing responsibility a kind of cop-out? We want to blame an individual so that everyone else is exculpated. Or we blame a historical process as a way of exonerating individuals. Or it’s all anarchic chaos, with the same consequence. It seems to me that there is–was–a chain of individual responsibilities, all of which were necessary, but not so long a chain that everybody can simply blame everyone else. But of course, my desire to ascribe responsibility might be more a reflection of my own cast of mind than a fair analysis of what happened. That’s one of the central problems of history, isn’t it, sir? The question of subjective versus objective interpretation, the fact that we need to know the history of historian in order to understand the version that is being put in front of us.”
There was a silence. And no, he wasn’t taking the piss, not in the slightest. (13)
The same is true of our personal histories, and ultimately life is a game of being your own historian, whether you want to be or not. I start to wonder in all this reading why do it to myself? I gave up horror movies in a similar way. Why subject yourself to that shit?
I feel this battle too, personally, in my own history. When I start thinking of it that way, subjective vs. objective becomes good vs. evil, or evil vs. good, it’s hard to make sense of it, that’s what’s at issue, I guess. Subjectivity leads to moral relativism, moral relativism leads to the types we have been discussing here. Go with objectivism, we get to moral absolutism, and sooner or later you end with the Salem Witch trials, or the guillotine, or atomic weapons. One solution would be to view the world in a yin-yang, pillars and mounds, mutual definition,sort of way, but what does this do to us individually? How does it help me understand my own decisions and my history. Am I a good guy or a bad guy? Does it even matter?
Synchronicity bubbles the more you’re aware of it. It seems to spawn spontaneously, like mushrooms, so the key is to keep your eye out for it. So one way or another, I came to this documentary on Appalachian folk music. This was right as I started reading The Sense of an Ending. In that documentary, this song is mentioned Gold Watch Blues, and I looked it up online for a guitar tutorial, to my joy found one, and it seemed simple enough so I learned it. I had been practicing it for a day when I came to this scene in the book.
So we’re back at our protagonist’s place. For the first time, he’s brought his first serious girlfriend Veronica there:
…She looked through my record collection with an occasional flickering smile and a more frequent frown. The fact that I’d hidden both the 1812 Overture and the soundtrack to Un Homme et Une Femme didn’t spare me. There was enough dubious material even before she reached my extensive pop section: Elvis, the Beatles, the Stone (not that anyone could object to them, surely), but also the Hollies, the Animals, the Moody Blues and a two-disc boxed set of Donovan called (in lower case) a gift from a flower to a garden.
“You like this stuff?” she asked neutrally.
“Good to dance to,” I replied, a little defensively.
“Do you dance to it? Here? In your room? By yourself?”
“No, not really.” Though of course I did. (23)
Strange. Powerful. There it was the little synchronistic blip which seemed to show that it all had some meaning, purpose, destiny. And it is odd, right? Had I not learned that song, I would have still enjoyed the scene. It was excellently written, humorous, intelligent, telling, but that little juicy nugget of self reference just sealed it for me. I had never heard of Donovan, and a day earlier I had learned a song from him, and seen a reference about him in a randomly selected book. There was something more at play here.
And doesn’t the scene show much of the problem of subjectivity and objectivity. We like what we like regards of what others think, until of course life events draw multiple subjectivities together and then we are forced to show our hand, to reveal our true likes and dislikes. Musical taste is a perfect platform for these considerations. At first it can seem trivial, but as Barnes takes us through the stories these details become something like the characters grounding points, and their relations to these details help us draw broader conclusions about them. In the same way our likes and dislikes are reflected in our outwards appearances and choices. Modernity seems obsessed with these different tastes and fashions, so much so that all life and death (and sex) can hinge on wether or not one likes the Rolling Stones.
And frankly, if we are all being honest. Isn’t that about what life is like? We pick our partner on often trivial grounds. The obvious sexual or physical attraction, quickly gives way to general considerations of compatibility. Will they put up with my shit? This question is deeper then it seems though. It races towards the grounds of objective moralism. Am I the type of person whose shit ought to be tolerated? What are my faults? What are their faults? What is best? What is right and wrong? Will someone please touch me?
The next day after that charming allusion to Lot’s wife we began with, I read this passage from James Cain’s The Postman Always Rings Twice. The context, Frank Chambers is a vagrant who stumbles into a roadside dinner/gas station. He accepts a job offer from the proprietor, because he lusts after the man’s wife Cora. Their love affair begins and they decide to try to murder her husband. They fail, but are not discovered for the scoundrels that they really are. The scene is the day before the husband is due back home from the hospital. They are attempting to flee:
We started out. It was two miles to the bus stop, and we had to hike it. Every time a car went by, we would stand there with our hand stuck out, like a cigar store Indian, but none of them stopped. A man alone can get a ride, and a woman alone, if she’s fool enough to take it, but a man and a woman together don’t have much luck. After about twenty had gone by, she stopped. We had gone about a quarter of a mile.
“Frank, I can’t.”
“What’s the matter?”
“This is it.”
“This is what?”
“You’re crazy. You’re tired, that’s all. Look. You wait here, and I’l get somebody down the road to drive us in to the city. That’s what we ought to done anyhow. Then we’ll be all right.”
“No, it’s not that. I’m not tired. I can’t, that’s all. At all.”
“Don’t you want to be with me, Cora?”
“You know I do.”
“We can’t go back, you know. We can’t start up again, like it was before. You know that. You’ve got to come.”
“I told you I wasn’t really a bum, Frank. I don’t feel like no gypsy. I don’t feel like nothing, only ashamed, that I’m out here asking for a ride.”
“I told you. We’re getting a car in to the city.”
“And then what?”
“Then we’re there. Then we get going.”
“No we don’t. We spend one night in a hotel, and then we start looking for a job. And living in a dump.”
“Isn’t that a dump? What you just left?”
“Cora, you going to let it get your goat?”
“It’s got it, Frank. I can’t go on. Goodbye.”
“Will you listen to me a minute?”
“Goodbye, Frank. I’m going back.”
She kept tugging at the hatbox. I tried to hold on to it, anyway to carry it back for her, but she got it. She started back with it. She had looked nice when she started out, with a little blue suit and blue hat, but now she looked all battered, and her shoes were dusty, and she couldn’t even walk right, from crying. All of a sudden, I found out I was crying too. (25-26)
Besides the striking resemblance to Lot’s wife, behold that twisted moral structure. Murder, do it for love, but for love, hitchhike? Not a chance. Risk spending life in prison for murder, wont take guaranteed life of struggle with freedom. Love another person so much, you would risk cushy situation, but then abandon same person for the place. Moreover, they love each other for their respective wickedness, because it reflects a person they recognize. And you do feel there is love there, no doubt, but you also feel how low and weak, and malformed it is. Is malformed love still love? Is there anything but malformed love?
There something about Frank too, really bugs me. It’s like the spirit that started at A Clockwork Orange, has been pulled through each text, taking on different forms manifesting a different angle. When it all boils down, he’s just a huckster, a Tom Sawyer on LSD, a demon. I don’t get it, but I believe it.
There’s weird synchronicity with Iowa too, my home-state. Cora, the Greeks wife runs to California from Des Moines. A beautiful young woman, the old cliche is suggested, she finds herself a beauty among many, note shadowy parties are mentioned, and then the reader is informed she sort of settled on the Greek. And Iowa isn’t necessarily important, but to me its like this little sign of the universe saying hello, thanks for paying attention.
There’s something about the sea too. I think that’s what everybody was running for. And Hollywood…I spent a disastrous week in San Diego a decade or so ago. I won’t address that here. But one morning we drove up to Los Angeles. I refused to go on the celebrity house bus tour thingy and instead walked up and down Hollywood Blvd. It was a matter of principal. A revolt, I just couldn’t get why we would pay to get on to a bus, and drive around looking at the hedges and mansions of other people. It was more of course, deeper values at play. Like I’ve said before, I refrain from airing too much dirty laundry here, but it came down to the old culprits, Mommy/Daddy issues, civilization issues. The point is I have felt briefly the existential tug of southern California, and this is a background for Cain’s story.
California became something like the end of the world, it seems. It’s interesting when faced with that final limit it became am imagination epicenter, detached from the material, detached from the world. There’s a moral detachment in all these characters, beyond good and evil, however briefly they can delude themselves. You feel the devil in them, and they make you feel the devil in yourself. Just like all great art and archetypes can. Heroes can become dull, “white knights”. We like characters that have a healthy batch of both, good and evil, clearly defined and obvious.
Artists have to have a little hustler in them don’t they? A little huckster? There’s something ornery in seizing the creative power and making a bunch of stuff. To demand that universal attention. It’s bold. In A Clockwork Orange, Alex loves classical music. But it becomes associated with gross, sadistic urges, and ultimately used by the shadowy groups as a form of control in itself. What are we to make of that? The strange similarities in all these texts helped to suspend, suspended disbelief, and in my own detachment I saw how they all reflected the sort of moral journey modern people struggles with/under. Not to say we’re all a bunch of rapists and murderers or anything, we can pray, but there still is something seriously wrong here.
And like it or not, but there is a strange stratification taking place in society, where all degrees of civilization and technology are evolving, and it certainly isn’t moral or equal or anything, and we all just swim in this giant culture, trying to survive. How’s that for a word view?
James Cain is an exceptional author. Great stories. I would suggest going to read him at once. Along with all the rest of these titles. Maybe not in a row…That’s the fucked up part, isn’t it? Maybe you shouldn’t read these titles at all? What could you read then? Whatever you do, cue spooky ghost voice, don’t try to pad the reading list!