Friday, May 27, 2005

Thorbergur Thordarson = best name ever

I am ashamed, but that is largely why I chose to read In Search of My Beloved, a slim little Icelandic work clocking in at 116 pages.
     "A love struck young man worships the soul of his beloved. He considers her soul to be more gifted, more noble, more loving than all other souls. But why does he worship her soul?"
     "Because the soul is the most noble part of a man."
     "I don't think it is because of this... the main reasion is that the young man doesn't know her soul well enough. Therefore he worships it. Just as men worship God in Heaven. We never worship anything other than that which we do not know and understand. (48)"
Emily Dickinson agrees -
A charm invests a face
Imperfectly beheld.
The lady dare not lift her veil
For fear it be dispelled.

But peers beyond her mesh,
And wishes, and denies,
Lest interview annul a want
That image satisfies.
Are worship and understanding truly mutually exclusive? Thordarson, who narrates the story, seems to think so. In order to combat heartache, he retreats into the mind - "I'll... bury myself in studies next winter and drown all these miserable pangs of love in the well of sexless knowledge. (43)" And there are definitely examples of this occuring in life and art – the harlot that has had sex so many times that it ceases to mean anything for her (Scott explores this in Vollmann's The Royal Family), or the professional that gets bored of a job that he'd fantasized about having since he was young. Or how about the literature professor (from a book, I don't know which) who understands everything about literature except how to enjoy it?

But there are people who beg to differ. The entire body of lit studies, for one thing. An English teacher, R., spent time telling me one day that all life is “is looking for patterns.” When I protested at the sterility of living one's life this way, he argued back (I paraphrase, of course):
You make it sound like it's a clinical experiment. But it's not - you're not dissecting something, making it lifeless. It's more like you're peeling back the folds, seeings things in new ways so that they come alive. That's where wonder is.
Perhaps these two viewpoints aren't so different after all. Both agree that worship/wonder is important. Mr. Thordarson is afraid to peel back the layers because he's afraid that there's nothing under there to wonder at (understandable, in the case of his particular Beloved). R. prefers to peel back the layers until he can't anymore; he wonders about that part instead. Maybe the reason Thordarson finds knowledge “sexless” is because he isn't digging deep enough. Maybe the moral of the story is that when you have the right text, be it a person or a book, you shouldn't ever have to worry about completely understanding it and losing your sense of worship – if it's art, it will always have more layers for you to peel back.

Sunday, May 22, 2005

Why I Have Nothing Interesting to Say

Lowry's Under the Volcano is so, so good, yet so, so difficult, and that is why it has become the bane of my existence. The only thing that keeps me going is my vow to myself that I will someday read it again and understand it. Otherwise, I surely would have throttled myself somewhere amidst the dense writing and multilayered metaphors and intertwining subplots. Not to mention the Spanish, and the Spanglish, and the random drunken outbursts. But then, you get to something like this:
There is, sometimes in thunder, another person who thinks for you, takes in one's mental porch furniture, shuts and bolts the mind's window against what seems less appalling as a threat than as some distortion of celestial privacy, a shattering insanity in heaven, a form of disgrace forbidden mortals to observe too closely: but there is always a door left open in the mind-as men have been known in great thunderstorms to leave their real doors open for Jesus to walk in-for the entrance and the reeption of the unprecedented, the fearful acceptance of the thunderbolt that falls on oneself... (334)
and you don't have the heart to set it down.

But, some fun vocabulary: votive, hoyden, cucumiform (as opposed to cuneiform), crenellation, cloacal, nutation, euchred, recusancy, floriferous, and pukka.

So I haven't been slacking off; I've just been toddling through this monster and my American Heritage Dictionary, 3rd ed.

Saturday, May 14, 2005

When you have books, you don't need friends.

Gwenda's post at the LBC about reading habits got me wondering about the correlation between the type of reader you are and the type of socializer you are.

For example, Gwenda, who doesn't read books she doesn't want to and always finishes one book before starting another one, might be a fiercely loyal friend who doesn't brook any nonsense from people she doesn't like. Another commenter, who "lets the brilliant nonfiction he asked for for Christmas pile up on the coffee table while he dawdles over old favorites," might enjoy meeting new people but not forging new friendships. Somebody who always donates her books to the library after buying and reading them is probably the kind of pragmatic, unselfish person that I always wish I were.

What kind of reader am I? I rarely pick up books on impulse anymore; they always have to be touted and recommended by a reputable source before I decide to read them. However, once I decide to read something, I always finish it, unless it completely fails at what it tries to do (e.g. humor books that aren't funny). I always read at least three or four or five books at once - I'm pretty good at keeping plotlines in my head, and it's fun to be able to make connections not only within the novel but with other novels. Also, I'd get bored with only one book.

I'd rather read a book twice than read it once slowly. I'm really antsy near the beginnings and ends of books; I always miss lots of things in those spots. The books that grab my attention from the start (a.k.a. "frontloaders") rarely live up to their promise. Perhaps that's why I don't pay much attention to openings - I'm more eager to see how it'll all pan out.

I love the feeling you get when you finish a good book. It's like a sense of victory at having finished it + a sense of defeat at not having even begun to understand all of it + a renewed sense of wonderment, just in general. Often, it's really difficult for me to know what I think of a book until it's over and it either gives me the feeling or it doesn't.

Wednesday, May 11, 2005

As Simple Plan says,

Is love really nothing more than an addiction, a rarefied habit?

Here's Veblen (read it a few times, or just skip it and read what I have to say about it):
And the prevalent type of transmitted aptitudes, or in other words the type of temperament belonging to the dominant ethnic element in any community, will go far to decide what will be the scope and form of expression of the community's habitual life process. How greatly the transmitted idiosyncrasies of aptitude may count in the way of a rapid and definitive formation of habit in individuals is illustrated by the extreme facility with which an all-dominating habit of alcoholism is sometimes formed;... Much the same meaning attaches to that peculiar facility of habituation to a specific human environment that is called romantic love.
- p.96, The Theory of the Leisure Class
It's odd that this passage from a book (purportedly) about economics should be echoed, a century later, by David Foster Wallace.
    'What if sometimes there is no choice about what to love? What if the temple comes to Mohammed? What if you just love? without deciding? You just do: you see her and in that instant are lost to sober account-keeping and cannot choose but to love?'
    Marathe's snfif held disdain. 'Then in such a case your temple is self and sentiment. Then in such an instance you are a fanatic of desire, a slave to your individual subjective narrow self's sentiments; a citizen of nothing. You become a citizen of nothing. You are by yourself and alone, kneeling to yourself.'
- p.106, Infinite Jest
In this passage, Veblen is discussing the ways that habit informs the things we consume. He defines habit as a "heightened facility of expression in a given direction;" i.e. habits come when a person finds that it is agreeable to do something over again in the same manner. As a result of habit, even when they come upon economic hard times and ought to logically scrimp and save, people find it difficult to lower the standard of living that they've grown accustomed to. He goes on to compare this to alcoholism, and alcoholism to "romantic love."

Here, it seems like habit is synonymous with addiction. When he first begins using the term, a habit seems to be merely a mild predilection for something (the way an addiction seems harmless at first), but by the time he starts describing people that refuse to cut down on superfluous expenditures even as they descend deeper and deeper into penury, and cites alcoholism as an example, it's clear that what we have here is something much more pernicious.

Yet the sudden reference to love is rather off-putting. It's casually tossed-in at the end of the paragraph and never expanded upon; Veblen seems to see love as a natural extension of all other habits and addictions. For me, the connection isn't so obvious.

The Wallace passage continues where Veblen left off and plays with this idea, of love being nothing more than a helpless addiction and, as such, simply an exercise in solips-/egotism. Being swept away by a tempestuous love isn't romantic; it's contemptible - to fall in love with someone at first sight is to fall in love with your own made-up construct of what that person is like. It's to become enamored with an extension of yourself, and not in a fuzzy Plato's Hermaphrodite Theory sort of way.

Hmm. I'm sure I could never find it, but there definitely is a passage in Proust's Temps Perdu that takes on this issue from the other side. Basically, he says that what makes love for a human different than "love" for an object is that, while objects are immutable, you can never fully know another human being because by the time you get close to him he's already evolved a bit more. So true love can never be an addiction or a habit because you have to constantly modify your perceptions and emotions to fit the object of your desire.

As usual, I'm uncertain of my own take on this. It's possible that both types exist, but that's not a very comforting thought because how can one ever be sure that his love is the latter and not the former? All that is romantic within me (and there is an embarassing amount of it) wants to deny love-addictions, but there's also something rather thrillingly defeatist about the thought. Perhaps the secret to a successful relationship is simply a healthy dose of self-delusion, or, as my mom says, "After you get married, keep your eyes tightly shut.*"

*Lest my mom sound like some sort of mythomaniacal Avril I., the full quote actually begins: "Before you get married, keep your eyes wide open."

Wednesday, May 04, 2005

That's Not Funny.

The usual technique, among the literati, is to pretend like absurd events aren't absurd at all, by making one's characters accept them as if they're everyday happenings. The idea is that when juxtaposed with the otherwise normal behavior and a detached narrative, bizarre events become even more unsettling.

What Louis Malle does in Le Souffle au Coeur, which I found interesting, is make the characters fully aware of the ridiculousness of their situations. Yet the characters, instead of evincing the usual corny mouth-agape/wide-eyed/whatever expression of shock, just laugh. Oh, my older brothers are molesting me. Hahaha. Oh, now we're comparing penis size. Hahahaha. The final scene shows the entire family sitting in the hotel room, dissolved into laughing fits. It's probably important to point out that the laughter is just normal, easy laughter - it's not hysterical or affected or uncomfortable.

So what does this mean? I am reminded of this excellent quote by Dave Barry, even though he really doesn't do it for me as a comedic writer:
A sense of humor is a measurement of the extent to which we realize that we are trapped in a world almost totally devoid of reason. Laughter is how we express the anxiety we feel at this knowledge.
Like it's okay to get all worked up about love or sex or religion, and read Proust and Camus and Goethe, but sometimes events are just too big and too vast, and at that point it's helpful to be able to just laugh at how ridiculous it is, how ridiculous you are, how utterly unimportant everything actually is in the scheme of things.


I don't mind sounding like a pretentious ass in order to admit that I've fallen head over ears in love with French film. Within the past month, I've watched Amelie, Les Parapluies de Cherbourg, and Le Souffle au Coeur. Despite being vastly different, they all seem to share a peculiar tenderness/reverence for their subject matter that tickles me in just the right way.

A trolling of my tracker has revealed the following:
- Tito Perez relates this to a really interesting Umberto Eco quote. One day I will sit down and read an Eco book, I swear.
- Patricia of BookLust writes a really swishy post about the true nature of humor. Far from being a defense mechanism, a shying away from reality, perhaps it's only through humor that we can accept the bleakness of reality. Her talent to amuse might just be a talent for telling the truth.