Friday, October 24, 2014

The fire of life

How is it that I can claim a familiarity with Stefan Zweig's oeuvre when I've read merely two of his novellas? (And I've seen Wes Anderson's Zweig-inspired Grand Budapest Hotel, but that hardly counts.) I'll try not to make sweeping generalizations about his work, but the temptation is great, owing to the shroud of intimacy with which he encircles the reader. I feel like I have secret knowledge of the workings of Zweig's heart and mind, but I know it is a trick.

Burning Secret, by Stefan Zweig, is a terrific story — intensely, relentlessly, heart-poundingly emotional.

It's established in the opening pages that the Baron is a ladykiller. It's no secret how this will play out...
It was very likely that he wold not pursue his quarry in vain. She was at that crucial age when a woman begins to regret having stayed faithful to a husband she never really loved, when the glowing sunset colours of her beauty offer her one last, urgent choice between maternal and feminine love. At such a moment a life that seemed to have chosen its course long ago is questioned once again, for the last time the magic compass needle of the will hovers between final resignation and the hope of erotic experience. Then a woman is confronted with a dangerous decision: does she live her own life or live for her children? And the Baron, who had a keen eye for these things, thought he saw in her just that dangerous hesitation between the fire of life and self-sacrifice.
There are a few secrets in play that aren't much of a secret to anyone: that the Baron is using 12-year-old Edgar to make a play for his mother; that the Baron and the mother may be about to embark on something illicit (she is quite married, after all); that both of them want Edgar to keep out of the way. But Edgar, "he had a secret of his own now. Its name was hatred, boundless hatred for both of them."

The burning secret is the one kept from Edgar: the mystery of love.

What's most remarkable about this short work is how much psychology is packed into it. The events take place over just a couple days, and Zweig essentially gives a play-by-play of the characters' actions and intentions: why they say and do what they say and do, what they hope to gain, what they stand to lose, what they're hiding from others.

Nicholas Lezard sums this up nicely in "Zweig's Perfect Triangle" (The Guardian):
One wonders what they were putting into the water in Vienna a century or so ago to produce people with such a capacity to enter into the human soul, and then render it into art or analysis. Around the time Zweig published this, Freud was writing On Narcissism, and there are moments here when you marvel at the psychological accuracy and plausibility of Zweig's characters.
Related

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

A suggestion, and lots of beer

Funny how it takes reading a stylized French crime thriller of another era to learn a little about local history.

The Mad and the Bad, by Jean-Patrick Manchette, was first published in 1972. The protagonist, recently released from an insane asylum and now implicated in a kidnapping and worse, is on the run, literally, across the countryside of France, and in one small village she ducks into a conference hall where some kind of evangelical rally is underway:
"Would you like to know what happens in a big city when there are no more police? That is what occurred in Montreal on October 7, 1969. The police were on strike. Did citizens respect the law once they knew the police were no longer there to make arrests? Not at all! Right away Montreal became the scene of rioting, arson, looting, and fighting among taxi drivers. The rioters armed themselves with clubs and rocks and engaged in an orgy of senseless destruction. They smashed the windows of the Queen Elizabeth Hotel and stole merchandise. They vandalized the fine IBM Building. They plundered the Windsor and Mount Royal hotels. Without police, respect for law and order completely vanished. According to government spokesmen, the city was 'on the verge of anarchy'!"
While the preacher's rhetoric is intended to argue that only God can bring order, the author is no doubt making some kind of commentary on power, authority, and freedom. Meanwhile, I'd never heard of Montreal's night of terror.

Indeed, a taxi driver's union staged a protest regarding unfair competition (a legitimate issue that wasn't resolved till years later). And the police, who were on strike (regarding pay negotiations), weren't around to prevent it from getting out of hand.

(If video does not appear, try Google Chrome.) More facts related to the incident are available in the CBC Digital Archives.
In 1987 Montreal journalist and city councillor Nick Auf der Maur recalled the riot in Saturday Night magazine: "The bunch of us had thrown in our lot with something called the Mouvement de libération de taxi, a group dedicated to ridding the airport of its Murray Hill limousine monopoly... It seems that all it took back then to organize a full-scale riot in Montreal was a suggestion, and lots of beer."

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

More Foundation concepts: the Division of Logic and the Church of Science

So I finished reading Asimov's Foundation, and the details have already faded since I closed it about two weeks ago.

I think I kind of get why it's an important book, taking world-building to a new level and elevating the genre of science fiction by a few degrees of respectability. For its relatively low page count, Foundation is big in scope and ideas. But I didn't quite love it.

If you know it only by its reputation, as I did, then you probably don't know much about it at all. Foundation began life as a series of interconnected short stories. The basic premise: it's been foreseen that the Empire is in demise, and a foundation is established to preserve its knowledge. I stand by my initial impressions.

Asimov introduces some terrific concepts: psychohistory and the Encyclopedia Galactica chief among them.

And I love the application of symbolic logic, using it "to prune away all sorts of clogging deadwood that clutters up human language." Upon submitting to symbolic analysis the transcripts of Lord Dorwin's discussions during his diplomatic mission, the Division of Logic
"after two days of steady work, succeeded in eliminating meaningless statements, vague gibberish, useless qualifications — in short, all the goo and dribble — he found he had nothing left. Everything cancelled out."

"Lord Dorwin, gentlemen, in five days of discussion didn't say one damn thing, and said it so you never noticed."
(I wish we could run those analyses on the some of the meetings I'm forced to attend at work.)

And the Church of Science, established by the Foundation in order for the barbarians to more readily accept the science of the Foundation. Hah! Its high priests are in charge of the power plants. This is a wickedly satirical story.

The book reads to me as a cross between The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, for its general tone, humor, and spaciness, and Game of Thrones, for its backroom dealings and back-stabby politics. All of Foundation was narrated to me in my head by the voice of the Guide, giving characters here and there a whiff of Zaphod or Slartibartfast, and adding greatly to my enjoyment.

I should note that the book contains one female character. I was reading some forum or other recently, and someone was criticizing an author for not writing women well and it led to accusations that the author was misogynistic. And so I happened to notice that to that point, I hadn't encountered a woman in Foundation. I don't think Asimov has been accused of these things. However, clearly he is a product of his times. (Possibly there are actually two female characters in Foundation — I can't be sure because my attention foundered toward the end.)

Is my life changed for having read Foundation? No. Am I dying to read the rest of the series? Not particularly. Am I glad to have read Foundation? Sure, but more for its historical significance than for the actual story. I wasn't quite in the perfect headspace for it, but I'll give the rest of the series a chance someday.

Have you read Foundation? How does it rank in your personal sci-fi pantheon?

Check out io9's chapter-by-chapter discussion of Foundation, its strengths and weaknesses and its big ideas.

Monday, October 13, 2014

How literature helps us live


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As much as I dislike Alain de Botton, every now and then his projects demonstrate a glimmer of right and good.

Saturday, October 11, 2014

Why is this a book?

I'm mildly obsessed with Consumed, a new novel by David Cronenberg. I haven't actually read it yet — I'm still hoping someone will think to buy it for me for my birthday next month — but I'm reading every review I can find.

I'm not even that big of a Cronenberg fan (excepting Naked Lunch, which is one of my favourite films ever). I just feel compelled to watch his films, and now read his novel, even though I fully expect it to be an unpleasant experience.

According to Jason Sheehan on NPR (In Cronenberg's 'Consumed,' An Appetite For Sex, Death And The Latest Gear):
Here's everything you need to know about Consumed in one sentence: This is a book that is unmistakably written by David Cronenberg.

Not so much the newer, grayer Cronenberg either. Not Eastern Promises Cronenberg or A History Of Violence Cronenberg. No, this is something that feels more like the young, perverse, freakishly laser-beam-obsessive and deeply, deeply strange Cronenberg.
But what I desperately want to know, and which no reviews that I've found address, is, why is this book? Did this need to be a book? Is it better as a book than it would be as a movie? What is it about the narrative that makes it better suited to this medium?

David Cronenberg’s consuming obsession, by Geoff Pevere in Quill & Quire:
"I really wanted to become an obscure novelist."

And I come to understand that Cronenberg's influences are more literary than filmic, which may explain my interest in him.

What Cronenberg says
Virtual Reality, Corporeality Collide In Cronenberg's First Novel, NPR:
"I always thought I'd be a novelist. I never thought I'd be a filmmaker."

Flavorwire Interview: David Cronenberg on Body Horror, Dick Pics, and His First Novel, Consumed:
"Movies, in some way, are very restrictive — compared to what you can do in a novel."

It came from within, The National Post:
"Seduction of the reader is definitely where it’s at. In a novel it’s much more intimate, because you can be in the interior of these characters."

About the book
David Cronenberg’s debut novel, Consumed, is one of the strangest books you’ll encounter all year, by Pasha Malla in the Globe and Mail:
It’s really, really weird.

All Atwitter, by Jonathan Lethem in The New York Times:
The book presents a locked-room mystery of sorts: Can it be possible that a woman said to be dying of cancer, and whose philosopher-cannibal-husband left a record of her ­dismemberment, is still alive? Or was she a consensual accomplice to her own murder? This core plot is elaborated in a highly traditional (and satisfying) way: twin investigations, apparently unrelated, which gradually entwine. Amateur detectives who become complicit — and, of course, involved sexually — with their suspects.
and
These passages are typical of the book's descriptive exactitude and flatness, its use of banal signifiers like "GarageBand," and the constant germane ­citations of psychoanalytic or philosophical brands. The book seems to desublimate itself for you: No sooner does the reader think, "This is like the case of Louis Althusser's murder of his wife," than some character makes the comparison for you. The result is provocatively comic, and surreal in the manner of a Max Ernst collage.

The Strange and the Familiar: David Cronenberg's Consumed, by Karin L Kross at Tor.com:
So much of it exactly what you would expect from him — especially if your ideas of his films are shaped largely by his earlier work; pre-M. Butterfly, to put an arbitrary stake in the ground — that you occasionally wonder if he's not deliberately sending himself up.

[...] In its energy and content, Consumed feels like a younger man's work — specifically, a younger David Cronenberg's, though with the confidence of someone who has been telling stories for decades.

Body horror and techno lust in director's debut novel, by Steven Poole in The Guardian:
The 21st century's version of the hall of mirrors is the infinite regress of embedded recording devices. Naomi and Nathan are always stealthily recording their conversations with other characters by means of some hidden app on a MacBook Air or iPhone, when they are not overtly putting obscenely expensive Swiss voice recorders on glass coffee tables. Cronenberg's fiction is one of omnipresent multimedia surveillance and retention, though we never witness the heroes performing the subsquent grunt work of transcription and editing. Perhaps deliberately, because a major plot question becomes what one can trust of electronic recording, and what was only cleverly fabricated using Photoshop or its video equivalents.

Other
Excerpt.

David Cronenberg becomes novelist; other directors decide to pull a Cronenberg, by Mark Krotov at MobyLives:
A connoisseur of violence, brutality, and grotesquerie — all of which are banned in Canada, where he was born — David Cronenberg has been making dark and weird masterpieces since the late 1960s. And while he has directed films based on novels — including such conventional, mainstream, user-friendly books as William Burroughs's Naked Lunch, J.G. Ballard's Crash, and Don DeLillo's Cosmopolis — he had never actually written one himself until Consumed.

Wednesday, October 08, 2014

Three hearts!

Happy World Octopus Day!
The Octopus

Tell me, O Octopus, I begs,
Is those things arms, or is they legs?
I marvel at thee, Octopus
If I were thou, I'd call me Us.

— Ogden Nash


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See also:

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Tuesday, October 07, 2014

Who doesn't love the universe?

Why Does the World Exist? asks Jim Holt. John Updike responds, "Beats me, actually, but who doesn't love the universe?"

And Jim Holt most certainly does love it:
  • "I found this idea of a hidden cosmic algebra — an algebra of being! &mdash irresistible."
  • "If you turn on your television and tune it between stations, about 10 percent of that black-and-white speckles static you see is caused by photons left over from the birth of the universe. What greater proof of the reality of the Big Bang — you can watch it on TV."
  • "As the German diplomat and philosopher Max Scheler wrote, 'He who has not, as it were, looked into the abyss of the absolute Nothing will completely overlook the eminently positive content of the realization that there is something rather than nothing.'"

When I was about 12, my best friend and I collaborated on a poem. We called it "Everything is Nothing," or maybe it was "Nothing Is Everything." Mostly, it was an extensive word game, bending semantics to our will, but there was a burgeoning metaphysics — just a hint — about it, too. It made us hypothesizers. I grew up being that kind of person, who now likes this kind of book.

Jim Holt's question to many is naïve. It seems a lot of philosopher simply don't take the problem of nothing seriously anymore.
"I could understand why someone might think the mystery of existence was, by its very nature, insoluble. But to laugh it off as a pseudo-problem seemed a bit too cavalier. Still, if Grunbaum turned out to be right. the whole quest to explain the existence of the world would be a colossal waste of effort, a fool's errand. Why bother trying to solve a mystery when you can simply dissolve it?"

This book then is a survey of 20th-century philosophy. Holt looks to philosophers, scientists, mathematicians, economists, novelists, his mother, and Woody Allen. As Parfit "hated the 'naturalizing' of epistemology — the idea that the project of justifying our knowledge should be taken away from philosophers and given to cognitive scientists," Holt's book attempts to straddle the rift.

I learn that the now obsolete steady-state theory of the universe was allegedly inspired by a 1945 British horror film, Dead of Night. This awes me. This is the coolest movie I ever saw, or so I thought when I saw it when I was 11. I'm pretty sure this was a year before the Nothing poem. We had to write a radioplay, and I based mine on the coolest movie I'd ever seen, and then my script was one of the plays chosen to be produced. I'd asked my teacher to supply some text — something highfalutin and jargon for the psychiatrist to spout out. So the movie — there's a psychiatrist, goes to work, hears some pretty wacky, creepy supernatural stories in group therapy and at a climactic point wakes up to discover, relieved, that it was all a dream. And his day starts over exactly as it had already unfolded in his dream. It's a loop. So the thing is, 30+ years and I never knew the name of this movie, and Jim Holt brought it to me again and explained how truly significant it was.

Quite apart from steady-state theories, Holt raises lots of arguments that beg to have their assumptions examined:
  • It is more perfect to exist than not to exist.
  • The reason there is Something rather than Nothing is, as they fancifully put it, that nothingness is unstable.
  • A self-subsuming principle is certainly preferable to a brute fact.
  • Are the laws of physics somehow to inform the Abyss that it is pregnant with Being?
  • No explanation of reality is capable of explaining itself.
  • A cosmic possibility chosen at random is overwhelmingly likely to be thoroughly mediocre.
  • The existence of this cosmos can be fully explained only on the assumption that it is middling in every way — a vast Walpurgisnacht of mediocrity.

Holt, with the help of Alex Vilenkin, finally achieves a precise definition of nothingness: "a closed spacetime of zero radius."

Surprise, Holt doesn't actually find an answer to his question. Also not surprisingly, there are several hints along the way that while it's important to ask the question, the answer doesn't really matter.

I had a passing familiarity with several of the concepts discussed in this book. While I've picked up a few new facts and technical details, this book has not swayed me in my beliefs. However.
However — and now we move on to the third part of the axiarchic case — is it really plausible that the explaining reason should be that this world is better than an ontological blank? Actually, the axiarchist is committed to a much stronger thesis. He must believe that the world is not merely better than nothing. but that it is maximally good, infinitely good, the nicest reality that money can buy.

There's this theory that the universe exists because it ought to exist (I think it's John Mackie; I remember using a text of his in Moral Philosophy). And even while I think the theory's kind of stupid, it put a smile on my face, and I consider the possibilities of there being something to that. Holt's book has helped me rediscover my awe.

Everything is as it should be.

The Basic Question — Sarah Bakewell in The New York Times
He is an urbane guide, involving us in his personal adventures. We join him for a weekend sipping claret and reading Parfit in a bathtub at the Athenaeum Club in London. He takes us to Paris for no good reason except to sit in the Café de Flore with a volume of Hegel. We stay with him through the death of his dog, and — movingly — even attend his mother’s deathbed, where she undergoes "the infinitesimal transition from being to nothingness."

What Can You Really Know? — Freeman Dyson in the New York Review of Books
When and why did philosophy lose its bite? How did it become a toothless relic of past glories? These are the ugly questions that Jim Holt’s book compels us to ask. Philosophers became insignificant when philosophy became a separate academic discipline, distinct from science and history and literature and religion. The great philosophers of the past covered all these disciplines.

Has the Meaning of Nothing Changed? — Ron Rosenbaum in Slate
Why should you care about nothing? Well, I know what I care most about is the purity of the nothing invoked in this maddening question. Pure nothingness: It’s the last unspoiled, uncluttered concept in the cosmos. I don't believe in God, but I do believe in Nothing, in the sense I want to believe in mysteries beyond the reach of the mind. It makes life more interesting if existence can't yet be reduced to a series of equations.
Excerpt.

Jim Holt's TED Talk: Why Does the Universe Exist?