23 September 2015

Commentary on Symphony No. 2

The following is a commentary on a short text by the Soviet absurdist Daniil Kharms.  The commentary was originally composed in my final semester of college, as the term paper for a comparative literature seminar entitled "The Prose Labyrinth".  The course was organized around certain formalist themes, focusing on the role of repetition, inversion, and variation in the construction of logically interesting fictions.  This commentary was the last thing I wrote in college, and remains one of my favorite compositions.  Of course, the commentary itself is not at all formalist, but uses Kharms's chaotic text as the occasion for a number of more or less absurd ruminations on related themes. I have posted sections of it here before.


Anton Mikhailovich spat, and said “Ugh,” spat again, said “Ugh” again, spat again, said “Ugh” again, and went out. To hell with him. I’d better tell you about Ilya Pavlovich.
Ilya Pavlovich was born in 1893 in Constantinople. When he was still a small boy, they moved to Petersburg, and there he graduated from the German School on Kirochnaya Street. Then he had a job in some kind of store; then he did something else; and when the Revolution started, he emigrated. Well, to hell with him. I’d better tell you about Anna Ignatievna.
But it is not so easy to tell you about Anna Ignatievna. First of all, I know almost nothing about her, and secondly, I have just fallen off my chair and forget what I was going to say. So I’d better tell you about myself.
I am tall, fairly intelligent; I dress meticulously and in good taste; I don’t drink, I don’t go to the races, but I like ladies. And ladies don’t dislike me. They like it when I go out with them. Serafima Izmaylovna invited me to her place more than once, and Zinaida Yakovlevna also said that she was always glad to see me. But a funny thing happened to me with Marina Petrovna that I want to tell you about. An absolutely ordinary thing, but an amusing one. Because of me, Marina Petrovna lost all her hair—bald as the palm of your hand. It happened this way: once I went to see Marina Petrovna, and bam! She lost all her hair. That was all.


The German School on Kirochaya Street

When falling asleep one sometimes has the experience of physically falling, as if the relaxation of one’s muscles entailed a liability to stumble in real life. The strange moment in which ones legs suddenly seize up again to prevent the fall — though one is lying back in bed and otherwise stationary — bridges the gap between wakefulness and sleep. Here we consider Ilya Pavlovich. He is born in New Rome, this son of Paul, and moves to the land of the Third Rome, to the fortress of St. Peter. Resonances of the West abound. Petersburg is that great western capital of the unchangeably eastern Holy Russia. The Germans have replaced the French as intellectual overlords, and now the fruits of late protestant German philosophy are being exported to the land of the Tsars to rot and suffocate the populace with their noxious vapors. Mother Russia has demonstrated in the centuries since Peter the Great that classic truth of social behavior: the one who, through lack of confidence about his abilities, seeks to adopt the strengths of another, will not only fail in this task, but, having betrayed himself, fare worse than if he had been content with his original gifts. Ilya Pavlovich is the lost child of a Russia no longer certain of herself. His birth was at the edge of the West already, and his education as a son of Paul in the house of Peter at the hands of some kraut merely confirms his alienation from the land which might have been his home. Blessed are they who will see Christ descend upon Moscow, who will proclaim the second coming from New New Rome. But for the false children of the land, the pruning hooks of he West await, to pull them back into the darkness of rationalism and heresy. Woe, woe to those who flee from his face.

They like it when I go out with them

This fragment demonstrates the instability of modern aestheticism. The narrator cannot keep a steady hold on his subject matter. He is a kind of fictional realization of the thought process of Plato’s Democratic Man. He cannot carry through such a routine task as settling upon a subject for his musings. In fact, the routine-ness of every task is precisely what repels him from following through. He looks down the path, anticipating the next move, anticipating the results of his activity, and sees the futility, the lack of interest in everything. It is fortunate that there are infinitely many subjects to take up and reject in turn, or the boredom might resolve itself into a crisis.

I have just fallen off of my chair

We recall the Laputans in Gulliver’s Travels. What is it about their inflated bladders that wakes them from the sleep of contemplation? This motif recurs in one of the hipster generation’s earliest philosophical expressions, the film “I [heart] Huckabees,” and again in Darren Aronofksy’s post-modern “Clarice Sunrise”. But where Aronofsky turns the bladder into a token of pain (replicating by means of a disconnected outward sign the hidden interior mortification of the monastic hairshirt), in “Huckabees” it is an exercise in nihilism. The moment of contact is the moment of self-forgetting, a chance to lose all interest and focus, to deprive one’s thoughts of any intentionality, and hence (if we accept the hackneyed converse of the Cartesian argument) to cease to exist. Falling off one’s chair is the greatest liberation.

An absolutely ordinary thing

Toothbrush. What is most fascinating about the ordinary is its repetitiveness. Repetition has the ability simultaneously to render a thing completely invisible, and to make it so eerily present at hand to us that it becomes alien and meaningless. Say the word “toothbrush” fifteen times aloud, and then attempt to reconnect the strange mixtures of hisses and clucks to their bristly referent. Toothbrush, toothbrush. Roland Barthes writes, in his late work Camera Lucida, of the strangeness of hearing children chatter in Chinese on film. One has the ability to hear language for a change, where normally it is hidden — toothbrush — the invisible arrow which directs us so perfectly to its object that in seeing the sign we are already present with the thing itself. Toothbrush. Toothbrush. Toothbrush.

Born in 1893

Origins are a tedious matter, as if one could reach the earth’s core with a spade and a large back yard. Where do we find our origins? In memories of early childhood, vivid patches of significance that form little cupboards of the past into which we can occasionally retreat for a moment, recovering the tremendous meaning attributed to the largest marble in our collection, to the tar patches on the asphalt playground, which formed little paths about the chain-link-bounded universe of uncertain play. At such a time the violence of reality was a sign of some deep villainy at work in the world — an incentive to accept the teachings of the Cathar perfect and surrender rule of the world to an unknown dark lord. But for the most part the violence could be kept at bay, by means of flashlights, and illustrated novels, and the promise in hundreds of stacked and printed pages of a systematic crusade against the Gnostic pessimism. The greatest defense, though, lay in a sort of tragic resoluteness, open to the decay of reality while delighting somehow in the profundity of fading goodness. Now, in these latter days, tragedy is no longer the easiest mode of endurance. When we despair of the world, we acknowledge the meaninglessness of the well of the past. I am merely a floating projection of potential onto things open to being discovered according to the habits of my understanding. The one true miracle is that this wispy delusion of selfhood does not simply disperse into a mist.

Because of me

The most obvious thing in the world is that I am of no consequence. The narrator demonstrates this masterfully by the connection between his visit and the loss of Marina Petrovna’s hair. The connection is meaningless. Did he bring some shears? Did he poison her? Is it possible that between the two clauses the entire plot of The Count of Monte Cristo has occurred? No, it is utterly impossible. I have no creative ability; I am merely a scribbler, here, falling off my chair, hovering beside a desk, clacking away at an indifferent machine which could say anything in the world — if it had a voice.

Again, spat again, said Ugh

Ugh, he said, ugh, ugh. This is the grunt of imposition. The world is forcing itself on Anton Mikhailovich, and he has no will to wave it away. It is there before his eyes and he is disgusted. And it is not merely before him, but his beholding is bringing it into him, is affirming the co-dependence between this object of loathing and his own damned self. Anton sympathizes with Dean Young, “You start taking down the walls of your house / sooner or later it’ll collapse / but not before you can walk around / with your eyes closed, rolled backwards / and staring straight into the amygdala’s meatlocker / and your own damn self hanging there.” But Dean Young is fat on the surplus grain of Writers’ Grants and Humanities Fellowships and the greasy stink of academic creative writing centers. Anton is not. We imagine him alone in an unfurnished, cold Soviet room with a frail writing table and a battered pencil. Ugh, he says, ugh. He spits onto the floor. Perhaps the saliva freezes. Dirt everywhere, nothing worth lingering over, hunger and idiocy and a million bad things, but nothing to say about them. Vileness does not inspire good poetry unless you are a psalmist.

I know almost nothing about her

One trick of the novelist is to write about the unfamiliar. This is counterintuitive, since such topics make verisimilitude a problem. Then enters the notion of research, by which the author clears out his strip of narrative territory and acquaints himself with the contours of the land. What does it accomplish? Surely not that the author ends up knowing his subject better than the real equivalents of his characters — if he shows them something about themselves, it is his own life that he reveals in them and not theirs. The novelist discloses alien soil by investing himself in it and sharing in it. If his characters come alive, it is not because he has spent hours deliberating over what such-and-such a man would do in such-and-such circumstances, but because he has spent months living alongside them. The writer gives his characters life by loving them.

To hell with him.

To hell with him. If only it were so easy to cast off the undesirables of life, to simply delete them and say, finally, once and for all, “I am finished with you. Henceforth you are no more to me.” But even in the cases when we are able henceforth to cast off the despised troublemaker, the past remains. The annihilation of another would, ideally, enable us to move freely about in the spaces he might have occupied, creating a history in which he never was, who is not and never again will be. But we lack such power. The theologians tell us that even the omnipotent cannot make the past not to have been. Instead, in order to cast away another, we must pull in the bounds of the world, treading carefully along narrower passageways, meticulously avoiding memories and attachments, connections and concepts that would bring us face to face with the forgotten other. To hell with him, we say, but really we have divided the world between us two, and introduced in the process a host of anxieties about the placement and maintenance of invisible and illogical boundaries. Claustrophobia begins to take hold of us, complemented by an inescapable sadness at the vistas of thought and possibility which have been sacrificed in this mutual damnation of the two foes.

Bald as the palm of your hand

The palm is naked and therefore easily read. Its baldness and proximity to everyday concerns: work, communication, eating, moving about make it the perfect oracle. What is barer or closer to life than our hands?

When the revolution started

War and ideology are two things as distant from each other as possible. Levinas says, “The state of war divests the eternal institutions and obligations of their eternity and rescinds ad interim the unconditional imperatives.” Nonetheless, the philosopher is drawn to contemplate war as much as the ancient explorer would have been drawn to the edge of the world. Here the very essence of humanity is divided in a great and gruesome game which operates by its own rules, distinct from the measured cadence of civilized life. But if war has traditionally divided the world into halves, its more advanced forms (those which, in fact, are even less than barbaric) destroy altogether the coherence which has normally held each partial reality together. Order is most stringently imposed at the fringes, like a hem on a garment, which must make sure that, even though the cloth is cut, the sudden cessation of the woven grid does not allow the entire piece to unravel. So in the military order is maximally enforced, a strict hierarchy maintained and rules enforced. But in guerilla warfare the order of war is itself challenged. Consequently, counterinsurgency tactics have arisen to create a military in which front lines no longer exist. Here, at the extremity of war, ideology is capable of making an entrance. Insurgents seek to re-form the cloth of society by slicing it into a million different fragments, which can then be rebound. What is challenged is not the placement of a particular seam in the garment (as it used to be, even at the time of the second world war), but the weave of the cloth itself. Counterinsurgents attempt to blot out irregularities in the weave, to create uniformity. But these basic questions of local structure, which are relevant everywhere in society, between all men at all times, are essentially philosophical. If Marx is right, and the point of philosophy is to change the world, then philosophers must always be terrorists of a sort, attempting to rip up the fabric of reality and reconstitute it under different conceptual forms.

She was always glad to see me.

The sheer difficulty of facing someone and speaking to him on an average day about some mundane topic is frequently overlooked. The problem is not simply the invented one of transcending one’s own subjectivity and meeting some “other” face to face, but rather that of learning how to engage. What does one say? How? What is necessary in conversation for one to enter into the order of things correctly, to respect the invisible hierarchy of persons and qualities and not upset it? How could someone start from scratch and get along with others who understand so little the problems posed by community, social interaction, etc. People so casual about it all. How could I ever be understood correctly? All this small talk is so bestial.

I dress meticulously and in good taste

In the 1943 Sherlock Holmes film “Sherlock Holmes and the Secret Weapon”, Holmes (played by the greatest interpreter of the detective, Basil Rathbone) is captured by Professor Moriarty while attempting to prevent the latter from stealing the parts to a secret weapon which would give the Nazis and advantage in the war. Moriarty asks how Holmes would choose to have him die, and Holmes answers that he would have him bleed to death, drop by drop, so that the criminal could slowly and painfully count the seconds passing before his end. This choice plays an obvious role in the plot of the film, since while Moriarty is bleeding Holmes to death, Watson and company have time to find and save him.

To watch a man bleed to death is a terrible thing. Aside from the pain accompanying the original wound and the panic which arises from consciousness of imminent death, exsanguination amounts to the gradual removal of soul from body. Dizziness, sweating, chills and then coma precede the last moment. The individual experiences what Kant seems describe in his refutation of Mendelssohn’s proof of the soul’s immortality: a fading of consciousness as the definition of specific concepts deteriorates, eventually leaving the mind nothing to think at all, so that the operation ceases and the soul decays into a plethora of dispersed functions spiraling into the chaotic inertia that characterizes inanimate matter. With less than a tenth of his bodyweight removed, the person is merely a shell, materially whole but absent in act. To think along these lines is to sense with sadness the weightiness of Plato’s claim that our bodies are merely clothes or coats for our souls. From this side, though, what Plato would describe as the revelation of the true self appears merely to be the collapse of a set of clothes, as when the Wicked Witch of the West is killed by water, or Obi-Wan Kenobi by a light saber. What gave them form and life has been lost.

And went out

The project of annihilating oneself is moderately appealing and remarkably easy. What we have in mind is not suicide, but the project of driving oneself through the core of reality and beyond it. The image of an enflamed Buddha, cackling and seated in the lotus position as he immolates himself, expresses perfectly what is so desirable about self-annihilation. It possesses a delightful composition of opposites: death and enlightenment, energy and passivity, amusement and self-destruction, mastery and submission. This kind of Buddha straddles the boundary of sense and in so doing demonstrates to us that the perimeter of reason is actually its center. In realizing that transgression is the fount of sense, we let go of the law of non-contradiction and every other rule, recognizing with this little laughing man that to transcend sanity is to become all things.

That was all.

We are deeply concerned over the declining quality of printed books. Standards of ink, paper and binding are collapsing as the mass-market paperback vents its noxious death cloud of ephemerality over the entire publishing industry. Despite the decline in standards and the frustrations the past two centuries will no doubt provide in great quantity for librarians, historians and conservationists, we must accept the advent of wood pulp paper as a great blessing for the preservation of the intellectual integrity of our civilization. Within another two hundred years, the majority of what was written between 1830 and the present day will have been reduced to a mass of filthy brown dust. Good riddance. It is about time that the curse of the printing press with its tendency to magnify at random the most pathetic and unworthy authorial voices was counteracted by some natural winnowing fork. The lignin-driven decay of millions and millions of volumes that is presently underway will force publishers to actively decide what will be preserved from one generation to the next, and force them to choose wisely, since typesetting is expensive. No doubt many of these books will be preserved digitally in the internet, but the beauty of that massive cesspit is that one can only really find in it exactly what one is looking for. Genuine browsing is completely impossible in the digital world, contrary to the indications of common parlance. What is chiefly needed is a system of transmission whereby significant effort is required to generate a new copy of a text. When we hear that Aquinas would have exchanged all of Paris for a copy of some volume of Chrysostom’s works, we are given a glimpse into the differences in education between the thirteenth century and the present day. The real function of the textbook has collapsed, as we no longer have some standard reference volume like Lombard or the Glossa Ordinaria upon which a curriculum can be based. We read too much, too quickly, without focus or stability of perspective, to the extent that it is now possible to receive sixteen years of education at the best schools and remain a kind of ignoramus. The liberal arts, which were once the glory of western civilization and the cornerstone of an ordered understanding of the world, have now collapsed into a collection of fragmentary monologues concerned primarily with the proliferation of differences, the maintenance of a sheltered skepticism, and the production of marginally “original” texts. What we all seem to miss is the uselessness of originality when one actually wants to learn something. Mathematics textbooks published a century ago are generally better than those published today, at least because they lack the idiotic distractions of colored photographs, excessive sample problems and worthless motivating factoids. Today children are given books of several hundred pages to teach them basic principles of algebra that could be covered adequately in a few dozen leaves of smaller paper. What’s the use? We are obsessed with the new at the expense of truth and understanding; we value the idea of new-fangled pedagogical methods too highly to notice their worthlessness. Our libraries are overflowing with trivial studies on obscurities and our educators have been trained to pursue fringe topics to the point that many can no longer adequately teach the fundamentals of their own disciplines. The value of book burnings is underrated.