Reading: The Struggle

Reading: The Struggle

I recently finished Stoner.I expected the book to be worse than what I was told. It was hyped up by magazines, authors and friends. Imagine my surprise when I was able to read the book through in less than a day. It was a wonderful experience. 

It makes me wonder if the problem is not the endless distractions, but the endless and correspondingly poor content that is pushed on the reading public. I spend a good deal of time on the internet. I’m an email addict. But I made time. I did not check my email. It never even occurred to me. Stoner was consumed wholesale. In on big gulp I read M.S’s life. I digested it and then, almost as an after thought, I wondered about this blog. Facebook. The other million amusing and bemusing social media profiles I have. 

So stern, so dire is the article that I wonder if the author hasn’t spent too much time struggling for books that are not written for him. Mr. Parks seems like a kind heart. But somewhat battered, a word he favors, by climbing literary heights that are best suited for others who genuinely enjoy the ascent. People unlike me and unlike him. Perhaps he should be looking for books that he can read on the subway, even if others consider them in the same light as he does Dickens. 

To propose something concrete: only read the books you can read on a subway. Read only the books that will make you miss your stop. Those books will keep the light burning bright inside you. 

 

Excerpts From My Little Black Book

The hallmark of mindless, ceaseless consumerism is not buying to have but buying to replace. A TV is not the goal, but a bigger one is. A more expensive one is. One that lights up and accesses the internet. In Fight Club, the protagonist seems like a mindless consumer. He isn’t. First, note well that he consumes but when he does he does it to have–he does not buy to replace. He laments the loss of his property. He had bought a couch. He thought that no matter what happened he would always have that couch. He would not buy another, more expensive and more ‘stylish’ couch. He had his couch. His property. In an odd way he was already far removed from the culture he later sought out to destroy.

Hold a magnifying glass up to your eye. Right side up and then, in a flash, up side down. What else is like this? What happens in the middle? Zeno’s Paradox: In a race, the quickest runner can never overtake the slowest, since the pursuer must first reach halfway to the pursued, so the slower must always hold a lead. I can get closer and closer to overtaking upside down with right side up, but never overtake it until, all at once, it’s happened.

In a bit of awkward preening in Despair’s foreword, Nabokov recounts the circumstances attending to this first translation of the work. “I asked a rather grumpy Englishman,” says Nabokov, “whose services I obtained [End Page 313] through an agency in Berlin, to read the stuff; he found a few solecisms in the first chapter, but then refused to continue, saying he disapproved of the book; I suspect he wondered if it might not have been a true confession” (Despair, p. xi). Nabokov’s explanation appears to be the one which we will find in nearly all of his later works.

Sometime in late 1960 or early 1961 Adolf Eichmann, jailed and awaiting trial in Jerusalem, was given by his guard a copy of Vladimir Nabokov’s recently published Lolita, as Hannah Arendt puts it, “for relaxation.” After two days Eichmann returned it, visibly indignant: “Quite an unwholesome book”—Das ist aber ein sehr unerfreuliches Buch—he told his guard.

“I note incidentally that professors of literature still assign these two poets [i.e., Blok and Mandelstam] in different schools. There is only one school: that of talent,” Nabokov told Herbert Gold in an interview in 1966

Lolita and Eichmann

Sometime in late 1960 or early 1961 Adolf Eichmann, jailed and awaiting trial in Jerusalem, was given by his guard a copy of Vladimir Nabokov’s recently published Lolita, as Hannah Arendt puts it, “for relaxation.” After two days Eichmann returned it, indignant: “Quite an unwholesome book!” (Das ist aber ein sehr unerfreuliches Buch!)

Eichmann’s reaction is about what I imagined for him. But guessing the officer’s intentions is another matter. There is difficultly imagining anyone offering Lolita for “relaxation.” Eichmann was writing under observation and awaiting a trial that will consign him either to death or prolonged imprisonment—which fate spares him by felling him with a heart attack. If nothing else we can agree that Eichmann did not find many things relaxing. Regardless if he was a delusional madman or simply unthinking: few things are relaxing for someone at that moment writing his (soon to be posthumous) memoirs. Nabokov’s challenging book is not one of them. That much, dear reader, we can assume.

We might speculate other intentions on the part of Eichmann’s guard. Was it a sincere gift? Or was it something of an experiment? Nabokov has never faded from the popular consciousness, but Lolita was certainly closer national recognition in the ’60s. It is probable that the guard knew the book was for the thinking public and imagined that Eichmann constituted some distorted, cruel reimagining of that public (by National Socialism? Germany? Hitler? I leave the agent in that sentence up to you, dear reader).

I can’t help but wonder: might Eichmann’s guard have seen Lolita as a sort of litmus test for radical evil, and wanted to see whether the real-life villain reacted? Was it to see how the novel reacted to him? Imagine his devastation, or glee, if the man who organized transportation for countless innocents approved of Nabokov’s creation.

In a bit of awkward preening in Despair’s foreword, Nabokov recounts the circumstances attending to this first translation of the work. “I asked a rather grumpy Englishman,” says Nabokov, “whose services I obtained [End Page 313] through an agency in Berlin, to read the stuff; he found a few solecisms in the first chapter, but then refused to continue, saying he disapproved of the book; I suspect he wondered if it might not have been a true confession” (Despair, p. xi). Nabokov’s explanation appears to be the one which we will find in nearly all of his later works. If Eichmann approved would it be because he saw too much Nabokov in Humbert? That he disproved would it be because he saw too much Nabokov in Humbert? Too little?

It is possible to imagine that Eichmann’s reaction was intended to act as a mirror. What does the guard see when Humbert is reflected through and off the lens of evil. Did Eichmann see a fellow traveler in Humbert? An alien? What could we say if Eichmann, like so many of us, grasped the novel and refused to let go? I wonder if it would make any difference and whether it should.

This is all only speculation. In Arendt’s account, she congratulates Eichmann for his indignation and moves on to other matters. In any event, given Eichmann’s radical conventionality one could hardly imagine him liking—or even very well understanding—much of the book. As Eichmann himself avowed, during his adult life he had read only two books, one of them being Theodor Herzl’s The Jewish State. He preferred newspapers. I don’t know what that says about the New York Times.

And if they all…

And if they all, kneeling with poised palms, millions
billions of them, ended together with their illusion?
I shall never agree. I will give them the crown.
The human mind is splendid; lips powerful, and the
summons so great it must open Paradise

Czeslaw Milosz.

Word Chat and the Other References

The French have a vocabulary of eroticism littered with gems. Jouissance and jouir scrupulously put the facts but they hint at currents that flow beneath. English cannot channel them. Leon Roudiez’s, in his introduction to Desire in Language, is that there are several meanings of jouissance. The meanings “are simultaneous” and at once “sexual, spiritual, physical conceptual.” The definitions are neither sterile and medical nor guttural and grotesque. Yet because of our tradition or some natural limit of expression English comes awkwardly to the bedroom. Sentences can buck with double meanings. But if the word is not diagnosing a condition it is being scrawled on bathroom doors. If we wish to speak of the kind of pleasure we take–the supreme pleasure, say, associated with sexuality at its jagged edge with consciousness–we lack the terms acknowledged and allowed in polite French circles.

The Bible has “knowing,” but it is imperfect. Deep in the prehistory of Greek there was a word root constructed of a k or g, an n, and a vowel. The words springing from this root all have to do with reproduction, both sexual and intellectual: generate, gonad, know, ignorant, and forty others. In the King James Bible a husband knows his wife and begets children. In the Bible’s original Greek procreation is a type of construction, say ‘the Structure of the Orgasm and Making Children.’ There is no bliss and if there is pleasure it is tangential. Continue reading