Sunday, November 27, 2005
Salomé, What She Watched
Fenitschka and Deviations by Lou Andreas-Salomé, tr. Dorothee Einstein Krahn
The Human Family (Menschenkinder) by Lou Andreas-Salomé, tr. Raleigh Whitinger
Looking Back by Lou Andreas-Salomé, ed. Ernst Pfeiffer, tr. Breon Mitchell
Two-and-a-half stories into Menschenkinder (timidly Englished as "The Human Family") and I'm pleasantly surprised by their oblique viewpoints, the suggestive opacity of their sweeping gestures. By eight-and-a-half, my cracked fingernails are pawing the door while I whimper for air, air....
The last book to dose me like this was No. 111 2.7.93-10.20.96 by Kenneth Goldsmith, three years' worth of noticed utterances ("found texts" understates its inclusiveness), sorted alphabetically and by number of syllables. Against the author's advice, I read it front to back. (Not at one sitting, but still.)
For all I remember, two-thirds of the way through someone in Goldsmith's circle discovered true love and a revitalizing formula for social progressivism. If so, the next two hundred pages of advertising, trash-talk, and D. H. Lawrence warhorse scribbled them away. Goldsmith's big white volume flattens all layers of a life that seems not to have been unduly dull, solitary, or settled into solid shallowness as far as the mechanically-aided eye can reach. No there there, or anywhere else either; no under; no outside. Nothing but an unbreakable but by no means scuff-free surface. The discursive universe as the wrong side of a jigsaw puzzle.
I wouldn't imply any aesthetic affinity between Lou Andreas-Salomé and Kenneth Goldsmith. But the horror conveyed by both is an emergent formal property whereby the self-traced boundaries of a free-range spirit are established as crushingly limited.
Twelve stories by Andreas-Salomé have been translated into English. All were originally published in 1898 and 1899 and probably written in the same two-year burst. About half the stories have a male point-of-view; about half a female; some split down the middle. Although some include long letters or soliloquies, only one is in the first person. Elements and settings and character types and plotlines appear and re-appear — trains, hospitals, mountain walks, hotels; doctors, artists; older men, slightly less older men; seductions, spellbindings, disillusionments, untrustworthy re-affirmations — in never exactly replicated configurations, with just enough variation to convince us that a solution won't be found.
The puzzle is constant: There's a singularly intelligent and beautiful woman. (The traits are inseparable in these stories.) And all human value is placed in slavish idealization of the (almost always) gender-defined Other. Whether it's a case of male worshipping female, female worshipping male, or (rarer, dismissable) female worshipping female, such idealization is shown as irresistable but unmaintainable, thrashing between the fetishized parties —"I must sacrifice all for you!" "No, I must sacrifice all for you!"— and usually snapped by a sexual outburst.
(I confess that two of the twelve stories do offer "solutions", but both are so absurdly inept that the effect's more revolting than reassuring. According to one, a woman [or Woman] finds fulfillment only in childbirth; transparently the appeal of the theorized child is its strictly theoretical state as inseperable Other. Otherwise, the stories show far less interest in children or mothers than in fathers. Mothers aren't bright, or ambitious, or heroic. At most, they're embarrassing. And one such mother embarrassingly points out the egotism of the second "solution" offered: wait until the imperfect Other is safely dead, produce an idealized portrait, and rest content in mutual [but not consensual] redemption.)
As an exercise in spritual discicpline, I'd wanted to avoid gossip while reading Andreas-Salomé's fiction. But these exercises in objective solipsism are so clearly trying to work something out that my resolve crumbled, and I found, in the autobiographical essays she wrote more than thirty years later:
In the dark of night I didn't just tell God what had happened to me that day—I also told him entire stories, in a spirit of generosity, without being asked. These stories had a special point. They were born of the necessity to provide God with the entire world which paralleled our secret one, since my special relationship to him seemed to divert my attention from the real world, rather than making me feel more at home in it. So it was no accident that I chose the material for my stories from my daily encounters with people, animals, or objects. The fairy-tale side of life hardly needed to be emphasized—the fact that God was my audience provided adequately for that. My sole concern was to present a convincing picture of reality. Of course I could hardly tell God something he didn't already know, yet it was precisely this that ensured the factual nature of the story I was telling, which was why I would begin each story, with no small degree of self-satisfaction, with the phrase:
as you know
[After losing faith in God] I continued to tell my stories before I fell asleep. As before, I took them from simple sources, encounters and events in my daily life, although they had suffered a decisive reversal as well, since the listener was gone. No matter how hard I tried to embellish them, to guide their destiny along a better path, they too disappeared among the shadows. [...] For that matter, was I even sure that they were true, since I had ceased to receive them and pass them on with the confident words "as you know"? They became a cause of unconfessed anxiety for me. It was as if I were thrusting them, unprotected, into the uncertainties of the very life from which I had drawn them as impressions in the first place. I recall a nightmare—one which was often retold to me—which occurred during an attack of the measles, when I was in a high fever. In it I saw a multitude of characters from my stories whom I had abandoned without food or shelter. No one else could tell them apart, there was no way to bring them home from wherever they were in their perplexing journey, to return them to that protective custody in which I imagined them all securely resting—all of them, in their thousandfold individuality, constantly remultiplying until there was not a single speck of the world which had not found its way home to God. It was probably this notion which also caused me to relate quite different external impressions to one another. [...] It was as if they belonged together from the first. This remained the case even when the sum total of such impressions gradually began to overload my memory, so that I began to use threads, or knots, or catchwords to orient myself within the ever more densely woven tapestry. (Perhaps something of this habit carried over into later life when I began to write short stories; they were temporary aids in getting at something which was after all a much larger coherent whole, something which could not be expressed in them, so that they remained at best makeshift.)
[...] nothing can affect the significance of any thing, neither murder, nor destruction, unless it be to fail to show this final reverence to the weight of its existence, which it shares with us, for, at the same time, it is us. In saying this I've let slip the word in which one may well be inclined to see the spiritual residue of my early relationship to God. For it is true that throughout my life no desire has been more instinctive in me than that of showing reverence—as if all further relationships to persons or things could come only after this initial act.
It's easy enough to guess why such a person would have felt attracted to Freudian methods.
To return to her fiction, for those who'd prefer not to commit themselves, one Menschenkinder story is online. The books' most representative highlights might be "Maidens' Roundelay" (with a full double cycle of other-idealization and self-disillusion) and "Fenitschka" (which begins with near date-rape and ends years later in an ambiguously liberating act of forced voyeurism).
Having suffered the effects of full committal, I'm inclined to favor the two least representative stories. "On Their Way" is a black comedy of criss-crossed class incomprehension in which a young couple fail at romantic suicide but succeed at idiotic boyslaughter. "At One, Again, with Nature" stares aghast at the iciest of Andreas-Salomé's girl geniuses. Inventing California-style boutique organic produce, mocking country cousin and sugar daddy, romping with colts, kicking poor pregnant servants out in disgust, and anticipating the final solution of Ethan Edwards, Irene von Geyern escorts us out of the sequence into a harsh and welcome winter's wind.
These two don't solve the problem of Andreas-Salomé, but they do solve the problem of Story: an Other given the small mercy of The End.
Her fiction sounds like a weird twist on the “Mary Sue” story, in which the authoress transparently injects her fantasy self into an exciting, implausible story: “Lou, the brilliant temptress before whom the great minds of Europe bowed down....”
Except that it was true. Even in fantasy, you really couldn’t top Nietzsche, Rilke, and Freud.
No hint of easily-deciphered-pseudonym-dropping in these stories, though, John E. No great young philosopher, no great young poet. And although there’s always a “Lou” figure, and that “Lou” figure is usually idealized for some amount of time by at least one person, she’s not always admirable, never always right, and she morphs—the only traits that unite them into “the Lou figure” are the ones I listed. The egocentricity of the tales is undeniable but less simple than reputation suggests.
OK, then Lou reversed the “Mary Sue” paradigm, living an actual Mary Sue life while inserting herself into fictions describing a more mediocre life.
After reading “A Reunion,” the story to which you link, I must say you are very brave to have read an entire collection by the same writer. I had the odd impression of being intrigued by the setting but wishing it were populated by anyone other than those two. That sort of low-grade emotional s&m is sick-making.
I know who she reminds me of: Ayn Rand.
At Andreas-Salome’s worst, I get that sick Ayn Rand vibe too. But at least she never carries her heroic-slavishness so far as to celebrate rape or capitalism. I guess I prefer it low-grade....
By the way, I should probably admit that I have no intention of recommending her fiction. I read it; I thought about it; I don’t regret it. Other people might feel the same way, but probably not many.
Have to agree with Miriam about that one linked story. Two period stereotypes, the Seducer and the Idealist (before the former become complex and the latter discredited) face off, except that neither has their respective signature strengths of honest villainy or unthinking self-confidence.
Digression the first: something about it reminds me of a not very good but perhaps better book of a slightly later period, _The Venetian Glass Nephew_ by Elinor Wylie (1925). In that book, a cardinal wants a nephew, and commissions a sorceror to make one out of glass; the beautiful yet fragile creation and a vital woman fall in love, and perhaps it’s the unlikely attraction of these idealizations to each other that reminded me of this book. But he is just too fragile for her; as one character drily remarks, “A handspring would be the end of him.” In one scene, they have just clung to each other’s hands in leave-taking:
“Virginio examined his finger-nails; they were quite uninjured, but the least finger of his left hand appeared to have suffered a slight sprain.
Rosalba, drawing on her white suede gloves, observed without surprise that both of her wrists were faintly flecked with blood, as though a bracelet of thorns had lately clasped them.”
Rather than breaking off the marriage (perhaps literally) she agrees to have herself transformed into a clay figure to match him, losing her vitality, individuality, and humanity. The whole thing is played as a love story, and perhaps many of its contemporaries believed it to be one, but the proto-feminism underneath is pretty clear, if you can get past the twee pseudo-Renaissance quality.
Digression the second: in an unremarkable personal coincidence, I recently wrote a not very successful poem in which a prophetic vagrant appears throughout a pre- and post-Katrina New Orleans, making accurate predictions that are useless because they all involve things that people have no power to do anything about. He begins each of his statements with “as you know”, which I intended to be an ironic take on its shiny 1950s SF use. (Somehow, this infodump phrase of a brave new future never seemed to be used in conjunction with statements like “As you know, Bob, our society is crippled by longstanding racism.") It’s interesting to hear of a perhaps even more lame use of the phrase.
Hey, send your poem to Scott Eric Kaufman. I’m sure that he’d enjoy disliking your poem, along with all the other poems that have ever been written.
John, it’s not polite to make fun others without first commenting on why you do so. In fact, it’s mean. Don’t make me go all Sorrowful Troll on you. I can hound you. Not full time, mind you, what with having papers to mark, a real job and a modicum of sanity…
...and anyway, I acknowledged that my aversion to poetry is based almost entirely upon the excesses of the New York School and their M.F.A. legacy. That kind of honest sentiment shouldn’t be mocked so much as applauded. After all, I’m inviting people to prove me wrong.
Rich, thanks for the pointer to Wylie’s bad book—it sounds like an interesting comparison point to Wendy Walker’s _The Secret Service_. But (as you probably gathered) I’m kind of charmed by the idea of addressing compositions “as you know” rather than “ad majorem dei gloriam”. It seems more, I don’t know, reverent.
Scott, which members of the New York School have an MFA legacy? I’m not kidding—I usually hear them opposed.
Scott, you’re the only person I’ve ever seen go on record saying they just plain don’t like poetry. I applaud your boldness, but there is a risk in saying stuff like that.
Personally, I read drama as literature and listen to opera as abstract music, never attending a production or even imagining of what a staging might be like, and I have no interest in dance at all. So people can ridicule me for that.
Sorry. Perhaps I misread what you wrote.
I think that the MFA poets and New York School are opposed within a certain circle, but there is an outside to that circle.
No worries John. I never said I didn’t like poetry, or if I did, I only meant I didn’t read it. Rich and I are having a related conversation which, for the sake of brevity, I’ll excerpt here.
I have difficulty figuring out your exact attitude towards poetry, actually. You say that you don’t like poetry because of its ambiguity, yet you didn’t like Pinter’s non-ambiguous obvious-message poetry either. Wouldn’t it be simpler to say that you just generally don’t like poetry?
As for my attitude toward poetry, well, I still wrestle with it myself. I find most poetry I read needlessly personal; like the work of the New York School, all of whom insert coterie-specific allusions into their poems. I can’t stand poems so personal that knowing the poet’s biography’s essential to understanding the poem. (I have a feeling this comment may appear, in slightly revised form, on the Valve in an hour or so.) If you compare the work of say, James Schuyler, to something like Leonard Cohen’s “Famous Blue Raincoat,” you’ll see what I mean: both are intensely personal, but instead of masking meaning in a poetic performance of maximal insularity, Cohen focuses on communication with his audience. The turn toward an inscrutability best understood via biography infuriates me as a reader; I don’t like feeling that I have to know a scene to enjoy a work, and most contemporary poetry is saturated in that. So it’s not the ambiguity that bothers me so much as the insularity . . . and I can prove as much by saying that most of the novels I love are, to put it bluntly, poetic. Faulkner, Joyce, Kafka, what have you, all contain the dense imagery and ambiguous language more commonly associated with poetry; the difference, of course, is that they provide enough context to allow Joe Anonymous to pick up their books and understand the stakes behind of that ambiguity. (For the record, I’d consider Pinter’s poetry like I would a realist novel.)
I think there may be some confusion given the fact that I chose to work not on the books I love but on the ones I don’t; that was, in part, a conscious decision, as I didn’t want to ruin my experience of Joyce or Faulkner by turning either into a chore. I foresee this pattern defining my career: work not on what I love but what I find interesting, and evolutionary theory is what I find more interesting than anything else. (I also love archival work, the sense of discovery, that I’m beginning from the beginning; all of this factors into why I chose to work on novels I find interesting instead of the ones I love.)
As for the relation the NYS to MFA programs, I realize that may be a highly idiosyncratic idea, so much so that it’s genuinely incorrect. What I should have said is that many of the poetry readings I’ve been to involving UCI poets have that NYS insider feel to them. Not that they’re not talented poets here (I think we’re one of the top three programs in the country), but that because they spend so much time writing for each other, that coterie feel creeps into their work. For example, at readings out here all the MFAs frequently laugh at lines which aren’t, on their face, funny. When I ask someone about this later, I get the explanation: “Such and such said/did so and so...” Because I don’t read or hear much of their work after they leave UCI, that’s the impression which sticks; I realize, now that I’ve thought about it, the illegitimacy of that assumption.
Lest I cause confusion: I’m not opposed to the formation of small communities of interested readers who’ve shared a similar set of experiences and know what words like “holbonic” mean. I think that’s a fine thing to do. Only here, we’re all textual, and to join the community all one need do is read; the politics of poetic coteries, on the other, work according to more or less normal group dynamics and are therefore far more exclusive. (For example, one year there were no married MFAs here, so they spent a lot of time together in Laguna Beach, Long Beach and Hollywood hitting the clubs. I didn’t know that group of MFAs so well, since their interests were, well, I wasn’t looking to meet anyone, or talking endlessly about meeting someone, &c.)
But (as you probably gathered) I’m kind of charmed by the idea of addressing compositions “as you know” rather than “ad majorem dei gloriam”. It seems more, I don’t know, reverent.
Better yet, “Stop me if you’ve heard this one ...”
My favorite poetry-faction fight:
John: “Hey, send your poem to Scott Eric Kaufman. I’m sure that he’d enjoy disliking your poem, along with all the other poems that have ever been written.”
Funny! I actually already had, after he’d written about Katrina. It’s a form of poetic terrorism, I suppose.
If anyone wants to read the poem, it’s here.
Scott: Ah, that MFA coziness. I once attended a university reading where a well-scrubbed youth introduced a poem (all poems have introductions, of course, just as all paintings and sculptures have artist’s statements) by telling us about seeing romantic graffiti written in (simple enough that she could understand) Spanish on a bridge while driving to a cafe with an MFA friend—“and I called dibs!” The poem itself contained the (intoned, with a stilt [that unit of prosody less than a pause and more than natural] to indicate the line break) sentence “He said: your skin / smelled like warm tortillas.”
The poets usually classed in the first and second New York Schools were/are quite a bit pricklier and smarter than that. Alice Notley would pound that privileged child to masa.