Days of Hope I

André Malraux

Hope is at best an ambivalent sentiment: it both resists and recognizes doubt. “Hope springs eternal,” but we “hope for the best and prepare for the worst.” It is also strangely passive: when we hope something happens (or that it doesn’t), we are acknowledging that it is somehow beyond our control. When we hope, we lay ourselves open to circumstance and fate. So hope is both resilient and fatalistic: hope against hope.

Something of this ambivalence can certainly be seen in André Malraux’s Spanish Civil War novel, L’espoir (translated variously as Man’s Hope or Days of Hope). On the one hand, the book tracks the first few months of the war, before factional infighting had destroyed a Revolution whose “driving force,” one of Malraux’s characters tells us, “is–hope” (37). On the other hand, even at this early stage the Republic’s weaknesses are clear and it often seems as though hope is all its adherents have, and even that is “gasping to survive, like a man who is being throttled” (44). It’s all too easy for an apparent cause for optimism to be revealed as nothing more than a “charitable lie” (93). Malraux’s characters are therefore torn between a self-defeating realism and a hope they know (not so very) deep down to be impossible and self-deluding. Hence the revolutionary spirit is described as a “Apocalypse of fraternity” (100). It embodies all the virtues of human sociability and commonality, but for that very reason it is doomed: “the apocalyptic mood clamours for everything right away. [. . . But] it’s in the very nature of an Apocalypse to have no future. . . . Even when it professes to have one” (102).

Hope alone, then, is insufficient, not least because this (Malraux suggests) is a new kind of war: “a war of mechanized equipment”; and yet the Republicans are “running it as if noble emotions were all that mattered!” (98). But Malraux doesn’t allow this question to be fully settled. Instead, his characters continuously argue (at times, bicker) about the role of technology, organization, and efficiency in determining the war’s outcome. For the intellectual, Garcia, for instance the problem is that the Revolutionaries are taking the Russian Revolution as their model, forgetting that this was not so much “the first revolution of the twentieth century” as “the last of the nineteenth. The Czarists had neither tanks nor ‘planes; the revolutionaries used barricades. [. . .] Today Spain is littered with barricades–to resist Franco’s warplanes” (99). Later he points out that, whatever bravery the disorganized Republican militias may demonstrated, “mass courage in the field [. . .] can’t stand up against ‘planes and machine guns” (176). And as for the Republicans’ ragtag airforce, endlessly waiting for Russian planes that never come (while Hitler and Mussolini ensure that Franco is endlessly supplied), as Garcia says to the airman Magnin: “I doubt if you expect to keep your Flight up to the mark on a basis of mere fraternity” (102). For Garcia, “this would be a technicians’ war” (98).

By contrast, however, other voices vouch for fraternity, courage, and hope, even in the cause of a losing side–and even, indeed, if they ensure that the cause itself is lost. The anarchist Negus, for instance, declares that “it’s courage gets things done. Cut the crap!” (171). And from a rather different perspective, Hernandez, a career army officer who refuses to join Franco’s mutiny, declares that “a world without hope is . . . suffocating. Or else, a purely physical world” (195). Speaking of the militia, who too often resemble a disorganized and ineffective rabble, he says that “if nothing in you responds to the hope that animate them, well then, go to France, there’s nothing for you to do here” (196). And to Garcia, Hernandez asks “What’s the point of a revolution if it isn’t to make men better?” and argues that it can be brought about by “the most humane element of humanity.” (180). To which Garcia responds that “Moral ‘uplift’ and magnanimity are matters for the individual, with which the revolution has no direct concern; far from it!” (183). But even Garcia concedes the dangers involved: that “a popular movement, or a revolution, or even a rebellion, can hold on to its victory only by methods directly opposed to those which gave it victory” (102). For to lose hope it to give in to cynicism, and to put one’s faith in technology is to put efficiency and effectiveness on a pedestal, and ultimately you are a hair’s breadth away from fascism, at least as it is defined here: “The cynical action plus a taste for action makes man a fascist, or a potential fascist–unless there’s loyalty behind him” (143).

There is, however, perhaps a third option, beyond this opposition between dignified humanism on the one hand and technocratic pragmatism on the other. For the technology that does indeed pervade everything in the novel (almost always, for instance, there is a radio on somewhere in the background) has effects that are as much aesthetic as military. There are frequent comparisons with the movie industry, for instance: Madrid is described as “an enormous film studio” (36); an in Toledo “the fierce light of a film studio played on ruins like the wreckage of a temple of the East” (161); the aviator Scali is compared to “an American film comedian” (118); Hernandez’s friend Moreno’s face is described in terms of its “screen-star symmetry” (195). And at the very end of the first part of the novel, when Hernandez is facing a fascist firing squad, he thinks of it as some kind of grotesque cinematic scene: “yes, all was ready for the camera” (220).

All of which suggests that the true stakes of the war (and the revolution) may not be so much moral or political as in the realm of representation. Hence, listening to “the strident triumph of fraternal unity” as a parade of troops goes by, the American journalist Slade comments that “There’s a spark of poetry [. . .] in every man, and one day he has to come out with it” (37). His friend, Lopez, replies that “we’ve here right now a mob of painters” and argues the need for a revolutionary art or “style” that’s “got to be something definite, not a vague abstraction like ‘the masses’” (38). “One day,” he continues, “that new style of ours will catch on in the whole of Spain, just as the cathedral style spread over Europe, and their painters have given Mexico a revolutionary fresco style” (40). And so perhaps this is where Malraux’s hope is invested: the Republicans may indeed lose the war, and the Revolution may indeed be doomed (may have to be doomed for it not to become itself simply the mirror image of the fascism that opposes it), but somehow an aesthetic style may survive these losses, and take hold not only in Spain but also far beyond.

See also: Days of Hope II; Spanish Civil War novels.

The Aesthetics of Dirt

[Crossposted to Infinite Test.]

One of the more interesting reviews of James Ellroy’s The Cold Six Thousand is by Richard Gehr who, writing in the Village Voice, sets up a comparison between Ellroy’s novel and Don Delillo’s Underworld. For Gehr, Ellroy is “the anti-DeLillo of American lit. Disarmingly shameless and mediagenic, he is the ambitious, hard-boiled materialist to DeLillo’s elegizing modernist.” Both, however, cover “much the same ground”: they are sprawling attempts to catch the Zeitgeist of mid to late twentieth-century America. The difference between their visions is encapsulated, Gehr argues, in their opening and closing lines. The Cold Six Thousand begins: “They sent him to Dallas to kill a nigger pimp named Wendell Durfee.” Underworld starts: “He speaks in your voice, American, and there’s a shine in his eye that’s halfway hopeful.” And where Delillo’s novel ends with the single word, “Peace,” Ellroy’s concludes with apocalyptic Oedipal violence: “His father screamed. Blood sprayed the panes.”


I wonder what would happen if we added Infinite Jest into the mix. It, too, is a long novel that cuts between a large cast of characters in multiple settings, slowly drawing the threads between them so as to say something about the country (and the culture) as a whole. Foster Wallace’s concern may be more late- than mid-twentieth-century, and he is more prone to satire than the other two (though in other novels, such as White Noise, Delillo shows a taste for the absurd). But perhaps what unites all three is an interest, bordering on the obsessional, with waste, surplus, and detritus. This, after all, is surely Underworld‘s central theme, from the baseball hit out of the park (in the “shot heard ’round the world”) to the aeroplane graveyards of the Mojave Desert or Fresh Kills landfill on Staten Island. Among his characters are “waste managers” (113), “waste brokers” (102) and even a “waste hustler” (287) and a “waste theorist” (285). Ellroy, in his own way, is both fascinated and distressed by sleaze (note that The Cold Six Thousand is a sequel to American Tabloid), dirt, and the seamy underside to America’s glittering postwar successes, from mob violence underwriting the bright lights of Vegas to the squalid politics and private shenanigans behind the moral triumphs of the civil rights movement. Here, the key term is dirt, not least the dirt that some people have on others: “Mr. Hoover held dirt. Mr. Hoover leaked dirt” (197); “Pete wants new dirt. Pete wants hot dirt” (128); “He stacked piles. He skimmed sheets. He read fast. He rolled in dirt” (469).

In Infinite Jest, the dystopian cast of the novel’s near-future setting is sparked by the presidential election of one “Johnny Gentle.” Gentle is a “famous crooner,” chronic germophobe (“world-class retentive” [381]), and political outsider who has founded the “Clean US Party,” which sweeps to power “in a dark time when all landfills got full and all grapes were raisins and sometimes in some places the falling rain clunked instead of splatted” (382). It is Presidential Gentle who engineers the formation of the “Organization of North American Nations” and who converts much of New England into an uninhabitable toxic swamp (the “Great Concavity”) that he persuades the Canadians to annex to their own territory. By the time the novel is (mostly) set, it seems that waste is catapulted or otherwise thrown from long range into this wilderness, while vast fans ensure that foul fumes do not contaminate cities such as Boston. But the Concavity is not simply one huge rubbish dump. It is also the site of what appears to be an extraordinary means of generating power called “annulation,” by which a process of “natural fusion” converts the toxins into energy. This then produces an equally hideous environment, “the eastern Concavity of anxiety and myth” that, devoid of any pollutants, is “so fertilely lush it’s practically unlivable” (573). There is therefore a periodic lurch from poisoned wilderness to verdant rainforest, depending on the timings of the annulation process and the aerial bombardments of toxic rubbish: “from overgrown to wasteland to overgrown several times a month. [. . .] As if time itself were vastly sped up. As if nature itself had desperately to use the lavatory” (573).

In all three books, dirt is less “matter out of place” (in Mary Douglas’s famous definition) than the very fabric of society itself, or at least what pervades that fabric and cannot be excised from it except at considerable cost. Waste is everywhere, between everything, and as such it is as much a medium of transaction as it is a thing in itself. Dirt is traded or exchanged in all three books, if in different ways: bought and sold, acquired and leaked, catapulted and converted. More fundamentally, it is as though dirt (rubbish, waste, garbage) were what enables exchange in the first place: it is not so much excessive, surplus to requirements, as essential to human sociability. More abstractly, it is what enables bodies to interact with and encounter each other. Infinite Jest has a particular interest in bodies–its first line is “I am seated in an office, surrounded by heads and bodies” (3), which is as “materialist” an opening as one could desire. Here, people are treated as things, as objects, albeit objects with a life of their own, with the capacity to surprise. (Note the motto: “Do not underestimate objects!” [394].) Some of these bodies, such as those of the Academy’s young tennis players, are chiseled and honed; others, such as those of the inhabitants of the halfway house down the hill are bloated and abused. These bodies seldom interact, but where they do the point of their intersection is a subterranean commerce in drugs or unmarked video cartridges (objects apparently discarded) or via the omnipresent dumpsters that line the streets and the tennis courts. There’s a constant movement between and around these locales as “garbage from the overfull receptacles blows out into the yard and mixes with the leaves along the fences’ base and some gets out into the street and is never picked up and eventually becomes part of the composition of the street” (583). President Gentle’s dream of perfect hygiene is not simply a fantasy (which, if realized, the example of the eastern Concavity shows would soon become nightmare). It is an aversion to life itself.

Where Foster Wallace perhaps differs from Delillo and Ellroy is in his interest in the aesthetics of dirt. This, I think, is the point of his fascination with the deformities produced by exposure to toxic waste: for instance, the boy without a skull, a “Concavity-refugee infant,” who’s worshipped at a South Boston Orthodontist’s house (559). Hence also the Union of the Hideously and Improbably Deformed, whose members take the veil, Joelle van Dyne tells us, because they are no longer afraid to hide: “completely up-front and unabashed about the fact that how we appear to others affects us deeply” (535). Dirt is an eyesore or blemish in increasingly plain sight: after all, the title of Gehr’s review is “Ugly America.” But just as life is unlivable without toxins, so perfect beauty is also a deformity: “I am so beautiful I am deformed,” Joelle tells Don Gately. “I’m so beautiful I drive anybody with a nervous system out of their fucking mind” (538). Again, we have a hint that the mysteriously deadly “Entertainment” involves Joelle is some way: its secret is perhaps a beauty that is so entrancing that it reduces its viewers to a shell of their former selves. In Infinite Jest it is purity or perfection that is the ultimate threat. A little dirt, a little ugliness, is far from superfluous or regrettable. It is the lifeblood of society.

David’s Dirty Diaper

It turns out that I am an artist. Who knew? And this is my art:

David's Dirty Diaper

It is currently exhibited as part of a “Dirt Museum” temporarily on view at the Lobby Gallery of UBC’s Liu Institute for Global Issues.

The genesis of the Dirt Museum is a visit by anthropologist Diane Nelson, who was invited here a couple of months ago by a working group that I help run on “Latin America and the Global.” As part of her visit, she facilitated a rather interesting workshop, “Playing with Dirt”, whose aim was to “focus on the language and imagery of dirt as both a thing (soil, earth, what feeds us) and a metaphor of a person or a communities’ subjective positioning. We will ask participants (faculty and students) to bring a thing and/or image from their own field sites for the ‘dirt museum,’ and use it to create a critical dialogue on the usage of dirt.” The item I suggested for the workshop, and now for the subsequent exhibition, was a dirty diaper from my son.

The interesting thing is that, even though the diaper is presented in a sealed jar, it was felt by the curators to be altogether too insalubrious to be placed on a table with other exhibits. So it was put on the floor, under the table. A little too dirty even for a “Dirt Museum.”

The Eye of the Beholder

[Crossposted to Infinite Test.]

Madame Psychosis

“Of particular interest are the eyes” (299). Though this is a book with much to say about language and words (not least in the fact that Hal has apparently memorized much of the Oxford English Dictionary; so perhaps has Wallace), it also focuses particular interest on vision and the visual. Hal’s father, James, is after all a film-maker of some sort, who spends ever more of his time shooting and editing avant-garde movies rather than attending to the tennis academy that he founded. And his son Mario, Hal’s elder brother, has also taken up some of this cinematographic obsession with his cinema verité-style documentaries of the academy’s activities. Apparently unconcerned with the competitive sport that dominates the other boys’ lives, his perspective on what goes on around him is frequently mediated through thoughts of its technical reproducibility. As a player about to go on court is retching uncontrollably into a bucket, “Mario is wondering how you could get enough light back here in a tarp-tunnel to film a tense cold pre-match gladiatorial march behind an indoor tarp” (265).

But rather than the technicalities of mediation, for Wallace, or for his characters, vision seems on the whole to promise a dangerous immediacy. This surely is the threat of what looks like being one of the novel’s crucial plot points: the “Entertainment,” the unmarked video cartridge that apparently immobilizes all who watch it. It has even been suggested that this video is part of a clandestine plot launched by Quebecois separatists against the Organization of North American Nations: “The local constabulary were shall we say unprepared for an Entertainment like this” (90). And now it appears that this could be a film shot by Jim Incandenza himself, maybe the last film he ever made: a film whose title and status is unclear, but which may be the fifth iteration of a work called (yes) Infinite Jest. In Incandenza’s filmography, increasingly dominated by unfinished and unreleased films (Too Much Fun; Sorry All Over the Place), Infinite Jest (V?) is described as put out by “Poor Yorick Entertainment Unlimited,” starring “Madame Psychosis.” But it has “no other definitive data”: we are told that “no other scholarly synopsis or report of viewing exists” and “all other comprehensive filmographies have the film either unfinished or UNRELEASED, its Master cartridge either destroyed or vaulted sui testator” (993).

This fatal film, fatal perhaps both to its viewer and its maker, further seems connected to the (attempted?) suicide in some way of its star, a character whose importance to the plot (or what there is of a plot) is slowly being revealed, in fits and starts. For Madame Psychosis is the pseudonym of the mysterious DJ who slips into the radio studio at the dead of night without allowing anyone to see her face: “She is hidden from all view by a jointed triptych screen of cream chiffon that glows red and green in the lights of the phone bank and the cueing panel’s dials and frames her silhouette” (183). And this Madame Psychosis is later identified with Joelle van Dyne, whose most notable quirk is that she goes about with a full veil, and who we see (or don’t exactly see) as she takes an overdose in a friend’s bathroom during a party full of hipster film students and scholars. Throughout the laborious process of cooking up the drugs, she is thinking about her suicidal process as “Too Much Fun” and also casting her mind back to the movies: the films she grew up seeing with her “her own personal Daddy” (237) and the film made by another father figure, Jim Incandenza, that for some reason he had never screened: “Had he even cut the tape into something coherent? [. . .] He never let her see it, not even the dailies. He killed himself less than ninety days later. Fewer than ninety days?” (230).

Psychosis/Joelle is coming to appear central in other ways, too: she is the reason why Hal’s eldest brother, Orin, shifted from tennis to American Football when he saw her (then still unveiled) as a college cheerleader. Transfixed by the sight, he and his room-mate nickname her the “P.G.O.A.T” or “Prettiest Girl Of All Time” (290). They instantly think that she must be out of their league, but it turns out that this is what everyone thinks: her looks are a in fact a curse, and provoke in heterosexual males “a kind of deep phylogenic fear of transhuman beauty” (290). Is this also then the curse that seems to be encoded in Infinite Jest, a fatal visual contact with the aesthetic sublime?* Does this indeed account for the simultaneous, if rather different, anxiety about language and words? Note that, even in her determined preparation for suicide, Joelle’s train of thought is apparently derailed as she hesitates between the grammatical issue of whether it’s right to say “less” or “fewer.” For words in this novel are less about communication and the transmission of experience than they are vehicles of prevarication and denial. And that includes the word “denial” itself, which is lambasted as one of the many clichés that abound in the half-way house for recovering addicts that is emerging as a major locale for much of the novel’s (in)action. If the danger of the visual image seems to be the prospect of its overwhelming intensity, that it is “too much,” even perhaps “too much fun,” the danger of words is that they are quickly deadened and indeed deadening, turning those that utter them into little more than zombies: “I walk around with my arms out straight in front of me and recite these clichés” (271).

And yet the deadening effect of words is also their salvation. There is nothing more frightening for Hal than the prospect of a “conversation” offered him by a therapist who may in fact be his father in disguise. Hal’s response is to debate lexicology: “Implore’s a regular verb, transitive: to call upon, or for, in supplication; to pray to, or for, earnestly; to beseech; to entreat” (28). The whole point of such heart-felt supplications is lost precisely as the meaning of the term is dissected. Likewise, when Hal again faces a therapist, this time demanding that he grieve for his father’s death, his response is to go to a library (“the nearest library with a cutting-edge professional grief- and trauma-therapy section” [255]) so as to bone up on the requisite (clichéd?) responses required of him in the therapeutic situation. Words, (mis)used well, can stave off the threat of emotion and intensity. By contrast, it is suggested, we have little such protection against the image, beyond a clumsy veil.

*Here, a (perhaps apposite) footnote, in that Joelle seems to be suggesting that by the time of her suicide attempt, at least, she is no longer insufferably pretty, but rather insufferably ugly. But the point may turn out to be that extreme beauty is itself a form of extreme ugliness. Or, as the cliché has it, that beauty is always only in the eye of the beholder.


Today to Burnaby Art Gallery, which has a show of works on paper by Takao Tanabe.

I’d never heard of Tanabe, but I liked what I saw. The pictures were mainly landscapes, mostly of Canadian scenes (the West Coast, the Rockies, the Prairies), often verging into abstraction.

I liked best the series of pictures of the Prairies, which were on the cusp between landscape and abstract: graphite on dark paper, a thick line roughly outlining the horizon and maybe rain above or grass below.

Burnaby Art Gallery was interesting too: occupying an old mansion house that has more than its fair share of history; the building was previously used variously as a monastery, a cult’s headquarters, and a fraternity house.


The Saturday photo, part XIII: I’ve been browsing some of the photos of Mogadishu on Flickr. It is, of course, a quite spectacularly ruined city. But, as with (almost?) all ruins, not without its beauty. This is the old port:

Mogadishu old port
Recently I ordered my own copy of Robert Ginsberg’s strange book, The Aesthetics of Ruins. It’s strange for many reason, and that strangeness is no doubt enhanced by the fact that it’s apparently a self-published labor of love. But it is to my mind the most interesting book on ruins yet written.


Here’s my brief contribution to a symposium on “What is Literature?” Nothing too surprising, but still…

What is Literature?

Literature can be considered from two perspectives: as part of a system of cultural distinctions; and as a tendency that resists all systematization. These definitions are antagonistic, but their conflictive tension indicates literature’s interest and importance.

good literatureThe notion that literature is part of a larger cultural system is familiar. Literature is one mode of writing opposed to others, and defined by its difference from (say) expository or documentary prose; and also from work that lacks quality or texture. Hence James Estes, Douglas Demaster, and Daniel Doak’s Whales, Whaling, and Ocean Ecosystems, which features chapters such as “Industrial Whaling in the North Pacific Ocean 1952-1978: Spatial Patterns of Harvest and Decline,” is not literature; while Herman Melville’s Moby Dick is. Equally, it would be hard to argue that David A. Carter’s The 12 Bugs of Christmas: A Pop-up Christmas Counting Book is literature; yet Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol is generally accepted as part of the canon.

This first definition describes a system that organizes texts according to genre and canonicity. It’s a system that’s generally accepted: I can enter a bookstore and ask for contemporary literature, and expect to be understood, that the bookseller and I are using the term similarly. There are marginal cases (say, Dylan Thomas’s A Child’s Christmas in Wales), and there are ways of reading literature that ignore generic or canonical differences (researching nineteenth-century maritime culture via Moby Dick, for instance). But on the whole these distinctions are established as common sense, and turn around the way in which literature (as genre and canon) treats language. Literature spotlights language itself, subordinating the uses to which language can be put, above all referentiality. Literature, in other words, pays particular attention to form.

But here things become complicated. For just as literature cannot divorce itself from content altogether, so other texts also are linguistic products (and we could generalize to visual language in the analogous cases of, say, film or visual art) that necessarily employ formal strategies. There is something literary in all texts. And a careful reading (a literary reading) of any text demonstrates the ways in which literary form, language itself, tends to subvert non-literary use, the drive to referentiality and transparency, and undoes attempts to impose order on culture. This is literature in its second definition.

There is much to say about the first definition: literature as system, as a canonical genre that promotes form at the expense of content, which is (for me) best analyzed by sociologists such as Pierre Bourdieu on the one hand, and formalist critics such as Victor Shklovsky on the other.

Yet it is the second, which reveals a rebellious, resolutely anti-utilitarian literariness in all texts, that most interests me. Here the prominent theorists are deconstructionists such as Jacques Derrida, but also (if in rather different ways) post-structuralists such as Roland Barthes and Gilles Deleuze. And the challenge that these critics pose is how to actualize the literariness of a range of texts, in the teeth and against the grain of a cultural system that would corral the literary within a relatively restricted cultural domain. And all this without, however, losing sight of the practical and pragmatic effects of accepted distinctions between what is literature and what is not.