Alienation (II)

The reading life expresses a pre-existing world, organizing it temporarily into language, bringing its contours and challenges to conscious shape. Take a listen to Robert Stone, from “Dog Soldiers” (1974): “In the course of being fragmentation-bombed by the South Vietnamese Air Force, Converse experienced several insights; he did not welcome them although they came as no surprise. One insight was that the ordinary physical world through which one shuffled heedless and half-assed towards nonentity was capable of composing itself, at any time and without notice, into a massive instrument of agonizing death. Existence was a trap, the testy patience of things as they are might be exhausted at any moment.”   One is tempted to say that this insight (more a recognition than an insight, actually) brings to light what was heretofore implicit in the modern world, a state of “being” that existed not at all in the ancient world (death was no surprise), and only half-darkly in the emergent realms of capital and labor as they surfaced in England, France, the Netherlands and the German states. As a young reader, our hopes, dreams and self-delusions coincide with what books are telling us. Later, the story changes. It isn’t for nothing that poor children, abused children, children in the Third World, haven’t time to read. They’ve already absorbed the lessons of the world. They’ve experienced already the testy patience of things as they are and understand how existence is a trap. And, surely, Stone’s character “Converse” bears a significant name, he being the converse of the expectations and hopes of youth that have borne us along so happily and hopefully heretofore. What’s new? Hemingway framed the insight in his first book of stories, “In Our Time”, though more wearily. Books bring into being a series of characters that are at once characteristic and ideal: The Good Clerk. The Good Soldier. The Good Son.

During the Napoleonic Wars huge bureaucracies grew up around London’s Threadneedle Street and Cornhill, where merchants and brokers mingled in the colonnades and courtyards to deal commodities and foreign bills. Nearby stood the Royal Exchange, while on the eastern side of the Square stood the still relatively small Stock Exchange. Just opposite was the Bank of England and in the nearby streets and alleys all the newly born corporations and partnerships that fed like vultures off the war. In these dark passageways labored Charles Lamb, who worked there every day for thirty-three years from 1792. Thirty-three years in an office! An unthinkable term of servitude! One imagines Lamb shuffling heedlessly and half-assed to work every morning, bearing suitable psychological resemblance to the hapless slob on LA’s Harbor Freeway at 7am. “Often profoundly depressed by the monotony, Lamb did his best to play the part he later described with dry affection as “The Good Clerk”, clean and neat, up early so that he can be first at his desk, with his quill behind his ear: ‘His whole deportment is staid, modest and civil. His motto is “Regularity.’…” (From Jenny Uglow, “In These Times”, quoting Charles Lamb, “The Good Clerk” (1811)) Gogol’s clerk lurks here, as does Melville’s Bartelby and Kafka’s K. It’s a thread from Threadneedle Street that binds Converse to the South Vietnamese Air Force. How could we readers have been so stupid not to see it coming?  How could we have thought that, feeling our way along (heedless and half-assed?), the world would not resist? Books it turns out, as physical objects, have a testy patience all their own.

Dominating this idea of the “testy patience” of the world are the ominous figures of the Chaplain, the Court and the Father (we call the Chaplain, “Father,” don’t we?), brought into clear yet tantalizingly mysterious relief by Kafka in “The Trial”. In the Schocken Books edition (1992) of Kafka’s novel, George Steiner remarks, “As the Chaplain pronounces, in the most desolate of mockeries (but is it that?): ‘The Court wants nothing from you. It receives you when you come and it dismisses you when you go.’ The formula comes deliberately close to being a definition of human life, of the freedom to be culpable which is that of a fallen man. Who but Kafka could have put it in so few words? Or known himself condemned by being inspired enough to do so in so.” Twenty years later Albert Camus reformulated the proposition (or is it an hypothesis?) in “The Stranger.” “For the third time I’ve refused to see the chaplain. I don’t have anything to say to him. I don’t feel like talking, and I’ll be seeing him soon enough as it is. All I care about right now is escaping the machinery of justice, seeing if there’s any way out of the inevitable. They’ve put me in a different cell. From this one, when I’m stretched out on my bunk, I see the sky and that’s all I see. I spend my days watching how the dwindling color turns day into night. Lying here, I put my hands behind my head and wait. I can’t count the times I’ve wondered if there have ever been any instances of condemned men escaping the relentless machinery, disappearing before the execution or breaking through the cordon of police.” (“The Stranger”, Modern Library, 1993). In this iteration, Camus welds onto “Being” the idea of machinery, hardening Kafka’s notion of Being’s “aristocratic aloofness”. The move is from Hapsburg to Vichy. We are not so much dismissed as worn down. Or, perhaps we are “smashed”, rather than worn down. Take this: “The greatest defeat, in anything, is to forget, and above all to forget is what it is that has smashed you, and to let yourself be smashed without ever realizing how thoroughly devilish men can be. When our time is up, we people mustn’t bear malice, but neither must we forget: we must tell the whole thing, without altering one word—everything that we have seen of man’s viciousness; and then it will be over and time to go. That is enough of a job for a whole lifetime.” (“Journey to the End of the Night”, Louis-Ferdinand Celine, 1932). Dismissed, jailed, smashed!

And here is the time for a lovely thought experiment—suppose you’re a hapless, half-assed philosophy student having the time of your life enjoying a sexual revolution and on the run from a devilish War prosecuted by Suits and Ties in Washington. Reading is a joyful confirmation of your deepest (as yet inchoate) sentiments, books your friends, and the world itself tuned to your own emotional wavelength. Books, ideas, throwing rocks at cops, smoking dope, having lots of sex, playing the guitar for hours and listening to music all nights expresses the world’s deepest theoretical structure. Ten years later, those same books turn out to have predicted an ominous truth—the world is indeed testily patient, hard as granite and worryingly terminal. The books you once read with rebellious pleasure are now eyeing you suspiciously. In the distance, waiting patiently is a different life. Ahead are more books, angrier ones, more dissolute ones, and more frustrating ones. Books are no longer wings, but pebbles in your sock. There are lots of books out there that have been down a darker road.

“I am in my mother’s room. It’s I who live there now. I don’t know how I got there. The truth is I don’t know much. For example, my mother’s death. Was she already dead when I came? Or did she only die later? I mean enough to bury. I don’t know. Perhaps they haven’t buried her yet. In any case, I have taken her room.” (“Molloy”, Samuel Beckett, 1947). Another mother famously dies: “Maman died today. Or yesterday maybe. I don’t know. I got the telegram from the home: ‘Mother deceased. Funeral tomorrow. Faithfully yours.’ That doesn’t mean anything. Maybe it was yesterday.” What an odd congruence! (“The Stranger”, Albert Camus) Dismissed, jailed, smashed and finally de-sensitized. Left alone in a cage, unable to mourn the death of one’s mother!

A deadpan Beckett sums it up: “The sun shone, having no alternative, on the nothing new. Murphy sat out of it, as though he were free, in a mew in West Brompton. Here for what might have been six months he had eaten, drunk, slept, and put his clothes on and off, in a medium-sized cage of north-western aspect commanding an unbroken view of medium-sized cages of south-eastern aspect. Soon he would have to make other arrangements, for the mew had been condemned. Soon he would have to buckle to and start eating, drinking, sleeping and putting clothes on and off, in quite alien surroundings.” (“Murphy”, Samuel Beckett, 1947)

When you read these words, you’re living in a one-room third-floor bedsitter in Shepherd’s Bush, a cage of southwestern aspect with an unbroken view of both smaller and slightly larger cages of southeastern aspect. You are “reading the law” at LSE and you are sexless for the first time in six years.   You wake every night to feed the heater a shilling, just to transit from nearly frozen to merely cold. You exist on Wimpy Bar beans and sausages, on flavorless cups of tea loaded with sugar and milk, on bad Cadbury’s chocolate. You’re damn near broke. You hate the shit music, mostly ABBA and Rod Stewart. Your friends have blown away like leaves. You are a foreigner with a student visa, an alien. Surrounding you are London’s thirteen millions.  Why do these books torment you so?