Friday, July 02, 2010

Insurgent Summer

Fredy Perlman's 1976 political novel, Letters of Insurgents isn't exactly as complex and rich as Infinite Jest, the David Foster Wallace masterpiece that was last year's big summer reading project, but it's certainly a window onto another world. Whereas Infinite Jest was all too accurately a reflection of our future and of the twin dangers of isolation and addiction, Letters of Insurgents, so far, is a frightening mirror of our present, a fine way of realizing that things haven't changed very much in the last 35 years, at least when it comes to politics. And that's very much the point of Perlman's novel, which probably explains why it's available online through The Anarchist Library. You can find out more about the group-read (which is already four weeks in) here. For my part, since I'm reading Jonathan Lethem's so-far-tediously-snobby Chronic City for my regular book group and am about to start reading Cervantes's Don Quixote for the third time as part of another reading circle, I don't intend to post much about Letters of Insurgents, especially since there's nothing in the structure--not even the back-and-forth letter-structure between Sophia and Yarostan--worth delving into. Like many political novels, it's overwhelmingly repetitive, but also fascinating, and what I'll be emphasizing are the most philosophical sections, or at the very least, the parts that have given me pause.

Illusions (First Letters)
Call it the Matrix dilemma, if you like, or a proof of the old saw that "Ignorance is bliss," but there are few things more cruel than to give someone the illusion of freedom--and then to take it away from them. Far better to be in prison and aware, at least according to Yarostan, than to have an ineffective life of "freedom." Consider Sophia's response to this letter: the defining moment in her life was the group project of rebellion that she undertook twenty years ago, in which "We defined and determined ourselves. No one pushed, drove or coerced us. Each of us was free in the fullest sense." Ironically, as the novel continues, Yarostan will do exactly what he most fears to Sophia, continuing to dispel what he sees as her faulty remembrance of the past, i.e., the illusions of her memory. And if her very self-definition is wrong, then what exactly is she?

I recently saw a play by a young playwright, it was called That Face. You can read into it as you like, as a case study of madness and its effect on a family (see also the gaudier Next to Normal), but what I took out of it was that the main character, Henry, has created a necessary fiction for himself, one which allows him to survive his mother's madness, his father's abandonment of them, and his sister's exile. For the last five years, he has appointed himself the man of the house, believing to the extent that it becomes his reality, that he can be the one to save his mother, that he can make a difference. Spoilers ahead: at the end of the play, his father returns, commits her, and the son, Henry, has a nervous breakdown--because his entire world has just been pulled apart. He's spent five years--wasted them, really--trying to accomplish something, and he's failed.

The insurgents of Perlman's novel face the same issue, twenty years down the road, having suffered imprisonment and other deprivations along the way. Their happiness derives either from a total ignorance of politics, by which I mean a blind acceptance of the way things are, or from a total awareness that they are actively in charge of their own lives, working and struggling to build something of their own.

Language (Third/Fourth Letters)
I really enjoyed my classes in deconstruction, even if the college experience itself is derided by Sophia, now a teacher, who exclaims, "How sickening adaptable people are! During my first few days in school I was revolted, shocked and indignant. Lively young people sat like trained poodles and let ignorant functionaries stuff their heads with garbage." Thankfully, the classes I most enjoyed were the ones that strayed from syllabi and forced--although perhaps not to the extent of anarchy--students to think for themselves. So when we studied Derrida and Saussure, signs and signifiers, well, those were my favorite classes, wild and practically unteachable at times.

I think that's why I love Zdenek, a friend of Yarostan's, so much. Take this section, for example:

"All the forms you mention are forms which allowed politicians to make themselves representatives of the working people, embodiments of the worker's movement. You missed my comparison with a commonwealth. Just as in a commonwealth, the monarchs of a union speak for, dominate, repress and sell their subjects."
"That's of course true today, but--"
Zdenek interrupted the teacher and shouted, "That's true whenever working people lose control over the language they use, whenever their very thoughts are couched in terms that don't understand, terms like organization!"
"But that's ridiculous," the teacher objected. "You seem to want every generation to destroy the language and invent one of its own."
"Maybe that's exactly what I want," Zdenek said. "For people to destroy the language along with all the other conditions they're born into, for every generation to shape its own world and invent its own language. How can we talk of a revolution in which people reshape their world if we can't even imagine people shaping their own language? How can people shape anything if they never leave the world they're born into?"
Zdenek's talking about a pure form of anarchy, an uprising of a million independent voices, not thrown together by political speeches, or urged to action by leaders, but by their own personal feels. The cruel irony here, which the teacher points out, is that present-day conditions make this sort of revolt absolutely untenable, which means that, so far as I can see, the rebels have already lost. One coup just leads to another; the leaders we appoint to give us strength eventually end up replacing the people we've just thrown out, and the realization of this creates a complacent feeling of "Why bother?" in which the people basically repress themselves. And our willingness to simply follow in the footsteps of the past--nowhere more clearly than in the way that we stick to the same old imprisoning conventions of language--proves this. We accept what we've learned as fact--all too blindly for some people these days, with FOX News being a major inciter of unrest, but controllable unrest, which is useful only to the Tea Party politicians who ride that wave into their own personal power--never questioning that the old sayings might be wrong. "Those who forget the past are doomed to repeat it." Or maybe it's that those who remember the past are bound to remain living in it.

Here's the really frightening part that feels most salient to today's world: "When we applaud, we again become the lifeless globs of organic matter we've been nearly every moment of our normal lives. We cheer the pedants and we're again helpless, like the spectators of a sporting match rooting for a team. We're hypnotized by the bouts and struggles among the concepts; we passively admire reflections of our own real longings and we passively admire the politicians who return our longings to us in the form of images." I read a great op-ed once, which argued against watching the Daily Show on the grounds that it took away our anger: having heard what we felt be articulated, we lost the impetus to actually go out and march. I also saw a play recently which argued a similar thing--I think it was Collected Stories--and that was that once you've said something out loud, you lose the drive to actually do that thing. We take ourselves out of the moment, we reduce our passions.

As Yarostan says, "Instead of taking steps with those around me to realize my desires, I transformed my desires into what seemed to be the first step toward their realization, namely into a program of action. But by this transformation, I negated my real desires; I replaced them with ideas, with words, with notions in my brain. Instead of a life, I had a credo. Instead of taking steps with other people toward real projects carried out during our living moments of time, I took steps to convert other people to my credo, my religion, my words. I replaced the concrete practical activity of the whole human being with merely mental activity, with activity that took place inside my mind, with combinations of written letters or spoken sounds, namely with non-activity."

Having written this, I can't really argue with Yarostan's point. As I've often been accused of--in my writing, which is even worse--I tend to be to intellectual about things. I think them through, and by the time I'm ready to act, if I ever am, the need to do so is long past. To bring things full circle, David Foster Wallace also wrote about men of action and inaction, and he worried, greatly, that America was heading more and more toward "heroes" of the latter kind. Should I be concerned, then, that despite being aware of this, I'm still not troubled? Is my complacency such a terrible thing? I think that's a good spot to stop writing.


isaac butler said...

wait... can you try to quantify in a little more depth what you mean by so-far-tediously-snobby w/r/t Chronic City? I really liked that book (i also don't know how far you are through it, it's a book that really comes together at the end). A lot of it is loving parody of culture snobs and the way they talk, but I don't think that makes it itself particularly snobby, especially considering most of the cultural figures they talk about (morrison groom, the gnuppets etc) aren't real.

Aaron Riccio said...

Oh, I'm very early on in Chronic City--page 96--and I fully expect that it'll get better. But if it's parody of snobs, that's not apparent yet. And for all the Gnuppets (which I thought was just a copyright concern, honestly), there are enough cultural references to irritate me. I'm also not a fan of "heroes" like Insteadman--the sorts of inert, inactive people for whom their biggest problem in life is figuring out how to spend their exhaustingly inexhaustible time and money.

So yes, so far, the book itself is snobby, the sort of valueless thing that puffs up at its own self-importance, as if simply by talking about art it somehow rubs some of that significance off on itself. I also find it uninventive (so far), with the exception of his space-stranded girlfriend and her evocative letters.

I'm reading the Wallace-transcript book right now, too; I'll be blogging about "Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself" as well. I'm sure that has some effect on how critical I am toward Lethem's novel--I'm really looking for so, so much more.

isaac butler said...

hey aaron,

can't wait to talk to you about "Of Course..." which is such a profoundly mixed bag, so we'll have to cross blog on that later.

all I'll say about Chronic City is to just... well.. .suspend your judgement for as long as possible. I think your opinion of it might be getting in the way of seeing what it's doing, if that makes sense. I know that's hard, but if you can just kind of stay with it on its terms, i think it's rewarding.

ALso, is this the first Lethem you've read? If it is, this is not the place to start with his books, it's not the right entry way into his work. I think if you read enough of his stuff, you'll find that he's about as sympathetic to Insteadman as you are.

Aaron Riccio said...

Looking forward to the "Of Course," convo--I'm rereading all of David Mitchell's stuff first (because his new novel just came out), but this is paving the way for me to read through all of DFW's work again before The Pale King comes out next year.

As for Chronic City--I've read Fortress of Solitude previously, so I know that Lethem's got more up his sleeve, but I find authors like Chabon (with Fortress) and Auster (or Yann Martel) are doing what I believe Lethem's doing with Chronic a little bit better. But I am holding off judgment -- it's why I keep using the "so-far" modifier -- and I am enjoying his actual WRITING, if not his actual plot (which puts him above Moody, in my book). For instance, Oona being described as if spilled coffee had suddenly turned into a woman, or the mysterious tiger-that's-not-a-tiger.

By the way, if you or anyone else has other recommendations for books for me to read, feel free to pass them my way. Later this month, I'll be starting a new feature on this blog wherein I read a short story a day (inspired by the whole 20 under 40 thing, and my own desire to identify what I want to be doing in my own writing), and hopefully branch out to include plays, so I'll be relying on suggestions.

Infinite Tasks said...

Aaron, this is a very fair rendering of some of the strengths and weaknesses of Letters of Insurgents. The "mysteries" of the text are clearly not so profound or wonderful or evocative as those of IJ, yet it is a far more systematic interrogation of politics - and the personal - and morality. Hang in there, the ride gets crazier as you go!

I did add your link to the Insurgent Summer site, even though you won't be posting regularly. We'll look forward to any additional comments you have over the next six weeks!

isaac butler said...

hey aaron,

glad you appreciate Chronic City on a sentence-by-sentence level. I think every page of that book has a gobsmackingly brilliant moment on it, which is what kept me going through the parts where I was like "er, where is this going?" I think it's a book that's an uncomfortable read, because (like, say, underworld) it comes together after you're done reading it. At least, that's what it did for me. It's also a book about a difficult friendship that moves with the rhythms of a difficult friendship, rather than standard narrative rhythm.

You want recs, eh? Well, the former book store employee in me is always happy to oblige.

From what I know of your taste in books (Milhauser, Auster, Lethem, Wallace, etc.) I would say you have to do yourself a favor and read Chris Adrian's THE CHILDREN'S HOSPITAL as sooon as you possibly can. He also has a book fo short stories that is supposed to be quite good, but i haven't read it.

I love some of Lethem's shorter works, particularly the much maligned YOU DON'T LOVE ME YET, the almost never mentioned THIS SHAPE WE'RE IN and the wonderful AS SHE CLIMBED ACROSS THE TABLE. Each of which can be read in maybe two days.

I would also recommend that you read Iris Murdoch's THE BLACK PRINCE, as it does things with first person perspective that rae so disturbingly brilliant I kinda don't know what to say about. Also, i can't say anything about it without ruining it. It's great. and hilarious. And was turned into a play starring Ian McDiormid, if that gives you any idea how hilariously unlikeable the main character is.