For Whom the Bell Tolls II

Hemingway, For Whom the Bell Tolls

Time and timing are of the essence in Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls. The mission at the heart of the book, for which the young American Robert Jordan is to sabotage a bridge in concert with a Republican offensive, is time critical: “To blow the bridge at a stated hour based on the time set for the attack is how it should be done,” he is told by the man in charge, General Golz. “You must be ready for that time” (5). But then, ultimately, when it becomes clear that they have lost the advantage of surprise and Jordan tries to have the attack called off, his messenger cannot get through in time: “C’est dommage. Oui. It’s a shame it came too late” Golz reflects (428). His divisions are already on the move, and there is no stopping them now. Still, “maybe this time [. . .] maybe we will get a break-through, maybe he will get the reserves he asked for, maybe this is it, maybe this is the time” (430).

We never know what comes of the offensive, and whether indeed “this is the time,” though we must presume it isn’t: the book was published in 1940, and so in the aftermath of the eventual failure to save Madrid, and indeed Spain as a whole, from Franco’s forces. A sense of doom hangs over the entire enterprise: “I do not say I like it very much” responds Jordan to Golz even when he receives his orders (6). And “It is starting badly enough [. . .]. I don’t like it. I don’t like any of it” he muses once he is on the scene with the bridge (16). Little by little, step by step, things go from bad to worse: the sky is full of Fascist planes; the leader of the local guerrilla gang is unpredictable and broken; unexpected snow reveals the tracks of an allied group, who are unceremoniously slaughtered; Jordan has to deal with incompetence and betrayal. By the time they finally blow the bridge they know that it is effectively a suicide mission, and what’s worse for a larger cause that is itself destined to fail. Yet still they go on with it. The book ends with Jordan, his leg broken and so unable to flee, on the verge of unconsciousness, waiting for his last fight as the enemy come up the road: “Let them come. Let them come! [. . .] I can’t wait any longer now [. . .]. If I wait any longer I’ll pass out” (470). But again, we are not told precisely what happens next. Instead, the novel’s final line (“He could feel his heart beating against the pine needle floor of the forest” [471]) returns us to how it all started: “He lay flat on the brown, pine-needled floor of the forest” (1). The entire book is a circle, refusing to look ahead as though to stave off the certain tragedy of what is to come, and refusing equally to look back, for the little we glimpse of the past is likewise marked by violence and shame.

Instead, the novel carves out an oasis of time: four days, or rather “not quite three days and three nights” (466), in which almost the entirety of the novel is set, between the moment at which Jordan meets the partisans and the point at which they have to leave him there by the bridge, with hardly the chance for goodbyes: “There is no time” (462). It is not as though this brief stretch is unaffected by what has gone before and what is to come: it is clear, for instance, that some unresolved Oedipal drama has brought Jordan here, while the other characters have traumas of their own that they are unable to escape; and however much they stoically (or heroically?) try to deny their intuition of a bitter finale, they are unable to dispel these presentiments altogether. But Hemingway’s point, I think, is that within these three or four days they are able to live an entire lifetime. There is something almost Borgesian about this, like the short story “El milagro secreto,” in which a man in front of the firing squad lives out what for him is an entire year between the order to fire and the bullets piercing his chest. Robert Jordan lives out his own “secret miracle” in the company of Maria, the ragged-haired young woman that the guerrillas had rescued from a previous operation.

On their last night together (Jordan’s last night tout court), “Robert Jordan lay with the girl and he watched time passing on his wrist.” But this steady temporal progression is, he feels, somehow under his subjective control: “as he watched the minute hand he found he could almost check its motion with his concentration” (378). A little later, “as the hand on the watch moved, unseen now”–and so perhaps unchecked, but also unminded–comes an extraordinary passage in which Hemingway (or Jordan) tries to delimit something like a pure present of absolute intensity:

They knew [. . .] that this was all and always; this was what had been and now and whatever was to come. This, that they were not to have, they were having. They were having now and before and always and now and now and now. Oh, now, now, now, the only now, and above all now, and there is no other now but thou now and now is thy prophet. Now and forever now. Come now, now, for there is no now but now. Yes, now. Now, please now, only now, not anything else only this now. (379)

Of course, the watch hand cannot be detained indefinitely: its motion can at best be “almost check[ed].” And language–or writing–inevitably unfolds linearly. The sentence, the paragraph, the book must all grind inexorably to their ends. But in the meantime, perhaps, this is the time; this is their time, our time. Hemingway’s wager, in For Whom the Bell Tolls, is to rescue and resuscitate a moment of exceptional intensity and vivacity, even within the earshot and in full knowledge of the bells that toll relentlessly for a death that (as in the epigraph taken from John Donne) diminishes us all.

See also: For Whom the Bell Tolls I.

What Happened?

[Crossposted to to Infinite Test.]

Michael Joyce

Infinite Jest was published in 1996, but is set in what was then the near future and is now the recent past. The chronology is complicated by the fact that in the novel years are no longer referred to by numerals (1996, 1997, or whatever) but by product names as time itself is now “subsidized” by corporations that presumably pay good money for the privilege. Hence we have the “Year of the Whopper,” the “Year of the Depend Adult Undergarment,” and so on. This shift to a new mode of reckoning time (or at least, naming it) accentuates a general sense of uncanniness that, I think, pervades Wallace’s text. There is much here that is recognizable, familiar; but there is also the impression that everything is just slightly out of joint and that something, possibly something traumatic, must have happened to make it so.

It is not just time that is out of joint; it is space, too. Again, something has happened: some kind of new international organization, the Organization of North American Nations (happily abbreviated to ONAN), has emerged, and at the same time national borders seem to have been renegotiated: territory (Maine? Vermont? Parts of New York State?) has been given to Canada; and yet in some way Canada has also been assimilated to the USA. Hence the various more or less violent organizations, mostly but not entirely from Québec, “whose opposition to interdependence/reconfiguration is designated by RCMP and USOUS as terrorist/extortionist in character” (144). Here, the RCMP is presumably still the Royal Canadian Mounted Police; but the USOUS is an unfamiliar acronym, part of this new, uncanny world that is so like and unlike our own.

The third element in the novel that is slightly (but significantly) misaligned is technology. In the world of the novel it seems that telephones have been replaced by consoles of some sort (there is a chapter devoted to the rise and fall of video telephony [144-151]), and that broadcast television has disappeared altogether. In place of TV, audiovisual entertainment is provided via a system of cartridges dominated by a small number of suppliers: “InterLace, Tatsuoka, Yushituyu, SyberVision” (110), but above all InterLace. The Internet exists–we even get a copy of an email detailing a somewhat bizarre insurance claim–but this is not exactly a wired, or even wireless, world. A long chapter is devoted to the decidedly old-school pleasures of late-night shows on a local (indeed, hyper-local) college radio station.

Of course, there is always something slightly uncanny about any novel, any work of art, which is inevitably both like and unlike, both part of and distant from our own everyday lives. But here there is also a touch of science fiction, even a touch of post-apocalyptic narrative. But only a touch: it wasn’t quite an apocalypse; life continues in many ways much the same. And the answer to the question as to what exactly happened may not be so very important. Something was bound to happen anyhow. In “actual fact” what happened was the world wide web and 9/11, whose effects are perhaps not all that different from the aftermath of whatever the trauma is that haunts Infinite Jest: a vague sense of paranoia, surveillance, and underlying violence; the rampant commodification of everyday life.

In the midst of all this, we are presented with a paper about the modern, postmodern, and post-postmodern hero, written by the character who is probably the closest thing this book has to a hero of its own: Hal Incandenza, tennis player and lexical prodigy. Written “in the year of the Perdue WonderChicken” and “four years after the demise of broadcast television” (140), the essay puts forward Chief Steve McGarrett of “Hawaii Five-0” and Captain Frank Furillo of “Hill Street Blues” as epitomes of modern and postmodern heroism respectively. McGarrett presents us with ”the hero in action” as we watch him “stalk and strut, homing in on the truth. Homing in is the essence of what the classic hero of modern action does” (141). By contrast, Frank Furillo is “a hero of reaction [. . .] his heroism is bureaucratic, with a genius for navigating cluttered fields.” Furillo is “a virtuoso of triage and compromise and administration” (141). But Incandenza then suggests that we are now waiting for a new kind of (post-postmodern) hero, “the hero of non-action, the catatonic hero, the one beyond calm, divorced from all stimulus, carried here and there across sets by burly extras whose blood sings with retrograde amines” (142).

Is Hal himself a “hero of non-action”? It is not yet clear: he and the other boys in the tennis academy seem to be striving, perfecting their game for a place in the “Show.” And yet all that effort is less about action itself than about perfecting the habits of the forehand and backhand, ensuring that playing tennis becomes almost robotic, to produce a kind of catatonia in motion: “over and over, each forehand melting into the next, a loop, it’s hypnotizing, it’s supposed to be” (110). As Pierre Bourdieu used to say, when watching good tennis players it’s not always clear whether they control the ball or the ball controls them: through constant practice and repetition, habits of play and performance are instilled to become almost instinctual. This is the aim of the Enfield Tennis Academy that Hal’s father founded and his mother and uncle run. And perhaps for a good tennis player, as for the post-postmodern hero, the question of “what happened?” becomes unimportant or irrelevant. Something happened–it always does–but true heroism consists in insulating oneself from such events, which are mere distraction.

“Kafka and His Precursors”

Borges

Jorge Luis Borges’s “Kafka and His Precursors” begins oddly: “I once premeditated making a study of Kafka’s precursors.” The use of the verb “premeditate” is odd enough, in the Spanish (“Yo premedité alguna vez”) as much as in the English, not least because it is most usually found in juridical discourse: a premeditated crime is one that is considered and planned in advance, as opposed to a crime of passion or an outburst in the heat of the moment. This strange invocation of legal discourse might suggest that some wrong-doing is afoot, or that we are hearing some kind of confession. And yet–and this is the second strange aspect of Borges’s opening gambit–it is also suggested that the crime was never committed. “I once premeditated making a study” implies that the study remained unwritten or unmade; it was only planned. We have the guilty mind (mens rea) but not the guilty act (actus reus). The crime was averted, perhaps because some flaw was found in what was otherwise a perfect plan.

But this then leaves us asking ourselves about the status of the text that we have before us, which (as the title promises and as further readings confirms) turns out to concern precisely the topic of the projected but unwritten or abandoned study: “Kafka and His Precursors.” Yet if this is not that study (perhaps because it is too short, incomplete), nor is it the premeditation of that study: at best it is an account of that premeditation, a summary and reflection upon the preparatory “notes” that would have aided in the writing itself. It is an intervention between the plan and its execution, between intention and act.

In short, the text that we have here is perhaps triply parasitic, or three-times removed from its ostensible object: it is the summary of notes towards a study of Kafka and his precursors. It is also strangely located in time: it is the reflection on a plan in the past to write a study that is still unwritten (and so is postponed to the indefinite future) about a now-dead author and his precursors that (we soon find) proceeds by enumerating them “in chronological order,” beginning with the most far-distant.

As often in Borges, the part mimics the whole or (perhaps better) we find an almost fractal arrangement in which patterns are repeated at various orders of magnitude, albeit to produce less the comfort of familiarity than a vertiginous sense of the uncanny and a shattering of logic. Elsewhere, we see this effect in his description of the “aleph,” a shimmering ball (found in the banal surroundings of a Buenos Aires basement) that contains within itself the entire universe. But Borges also suggests that such apparent oddities (or impossibilities) are remarkably common, even quotidian: think long and hard about anything, and it soon becomes (or is revealed to be) an aleph of its own. Here, these opening lines anticipate the central problematic of the essay itself, which is about the ways in which texts are related and how strange fissures or reversals upset linear temporality, just as it in turn makes (or unmakes) its point through performance as much as through argument or exposition: for this text about Kafka and his precursors is in its own way about Borges and his precursors and in it Borges himself rewrites our collective past and disturbs our conceptions of sequence and priority.

Finally, if what Borges is ultimately saying is that a writer (that writing) has the strange power to intervene in history, to remake or remodel the past just as Kafka creates his own precursors (by making us see an otherwise disparate collection of historical texts as oddly “Kafkaesque” avant la lettre), he is also unabashedly claiming that there is nothing new in this notion. This observation precedes Borges and this text, and so confirms (what is now) his repetition of what can present itself as an established fact. For in another detail, a footnote–a classic paratext or parasite, neither fully part of nor fully detached from the text itself–draws our attention to T S Eliot’s Points of View, whose very title in this context becomes simultaneously uncanny and revelatory. After all, is this entire essay not about “points of view,” and the ways in which they are constructed, obscured, or undermined?

In a rather good essay on Joyce and Borges Patricia Novillo-Corvalán, whom I am here myself copying or appropriating to some extent, notes that “Eliot postulates an aesthetic principle, through which writers are not read in isolation, but as part of a living tradition in which the new alters the old, the present modifies the past and, as a result, texts are continually re-valued from the perspective of subsequent texts” (60). And Rex Butler’s “Everything and Nothing” points out that what makes Borges original–what makes the greatest authors the most original–is precisely the fact that they “can actually appear unoriginal, to add nothing to literature, to repeat what has already been written” (134).

At which point, as I observe that I in turn am in large part simply “repeat[ing] what has already been written,” remaking and remodeling it for my own purposes, creating precursors who sadly are not quite as disparate (or quite as unpredictable) as those of Borges and Kafka, perhaps it’s time to stop what is after all only a first approach to these issues. It’s time to end, in other words, so that we can at last begin.

resonance

A long, empassioned post from my friend and colleague Gastón Gordillo over at his blog “Space and Politics” discusses “Resonance and the Egyptian Revolution”.

More generally, Gastón is also engaged in an attempt to think what I have previously termed a politics of affective resonance.

There’s much to say about and to respond to in Gastón’s post, and surely we need to develop further a critical vocabulary of resonance, dissonance, damping, attunement (on which see Massumi), and so on.

In terms of the relationship between space and politics, I think it would be worth investigating the ways in which resonance is discussed in Physics or Engineering. And one would presumably have to distinguish between resonance as it functions in solids, liquids, and gases. (This would be one answer to Gastón’s reasonable critique that my tendency is to emphasize spatial solidity.)

But I’d also emphasize that resonance enables an intersection between a concern with space and an interest in time or history. For rhythm or tempo immediately invoke a concern with temporality. A body that resonates moves in space but also in time… literally, “in time” with others.

stuck

Postmodernity does strange things to time. We feel, for instance, that we live in a world in which everything is speeded up: it’s hard to keep up with the pace of innovation, the ever-new updating of technology, the merry-go-round of fashion, the wildfire rapidity of the media, the voraciousness of the TV and blog-driven news cycle, the instantaneousness of email and the Internet, and so on.

And yet while some things speed up, others slow down. Above all, the literal transport of people and commodities is getting slower rather than faster. In the air, the mid-twentieth century vision of supersonic passenger travel is long tarnished and dusty: Concorde never became a going concern and was retired with nothing to replace it; most contemporary jets are flown at less than their top speeds, so as to conserve fuel. The same goes on the seas: as The Observer recently observed, modern cargo shipping is now geared towards “super-slow steaming,” and trading vessels take longer to cross the oceans than did nineteenth-century sailing clippers. Meanwhile, on land, the density of traffic in contemporary cities means that road traffic has actually slowed as cars have replaced horses as the primary means of transportation: in London, for example, the average off-peak vehicle speed dropped from 12 to 10mph over the course of the twentieth century.

Cosmopolis cover

Cosmopolis takes such paradoxes of speed and time and would run with them if only it could. Unfortunately, however, its tale is set in a stretch limo that takes all day to cross midtown Manhattan from East to West. So it crawls, instead, albeit very luxuriously, stuck in traffic. But there is plenty to distract us within. For this is a limo that is fully equipped with plasma screen TVs, a microwave oven, a toilet, marble floors, cork-lined walls to keep out the ambient noise, even a map of the solar system on the underside of the roof. It may be a slow ride, but there are plenty of distractions along the way. Indeed, if there is a cosmopolis here, it is not New York, however much the crosstown journey manages to take in a presidential motorcade, a rapper funeral, an anti-capitalist riot, and myriad other encounters in between. It is, rather, the wired automobile as a node for the receipt and transmission of information: some of its screens show the currency markets in real time; others display the news from across oceans and continents; still others are closed-circuit TVs that repeat (in fact, anticipate) what’s happening in the car itself.

It’s possible that the cosmopolis may become smaller still: at one point the limousine’s owner, a twenty-something plutocrat by the name of Eric Packer, uses his wristwatch to hack into various financial systems and wipe out someone else’s multi-million dollar wealth. This same watch has a camera that is “a device so microscopically refined it was almost pure information. It was almost pure metaphysics” (204). At the novel’s end, it is on the watch screen that Packer sees or foresees his own death. It’s perhaps a sign of the novel’s (or the author’s) slight datedness that this digital aleph is a watch rather than a smartphone. In any case, the idea remains the same: space and time can become so concentrated in one point that perhaps it doesn’t matter how slowly we travel in physical space. Or equally, thanks to this instant availability of information, there’s no longer anywhere to run in any case: the car can stand in for the office; there are ever-fewer in-between spaces where we might be out of range of the call of capital.

We might say that the limousine incarnates a smooth space of capital flows that is folded within a rather stickier space of midtown traffic jams and public disturbances, even if (as the novel suggests) these can be effects of the system itself: a turbulence that is innate to the market.

But still the body and its cloying materiality intrudes: the point of the whole lugubrious journey is that Eric is a billionaire in search of a haircut. En route, he also has regular meals as well as a prostate examination and at least three sexual encounters. Some of these diversions can be more or less easily accommodated within the vehicle’s sedate progress along 47th Street: the doctor who examines Eric’s prostate is picked up from the sidewalk and does his business in the car while his patient talks to one of his financial advisors. More generally, Eric’s security detail, under the command of a terse man named Torval “whose head seemed removable for maintenance” (11), are trained to cover his every move and report on the latest warnings from a higher-level “complex” that studies possible threats and dangers to the slow-moving voyage.

Gradually his protection unravels, and Eric finds himself reduced to a naked body on a West Side street–though still as yet in the service of the image, for the occasion is a film shoot for which he has become an impromptu extra. The story doesn’t end there, however, and in a derelict building even as he dreams about “the master thrust of cyber-capital” and its promise “to extend the human experience toward infinity as a medium for corporate growth and investment,” Eric finds that “his pain interfered with his immortality” (207). His pain is “too vital to be bypassed and not susceptible, he didn’t think, to computer emulation” (207).

Moreover, the past also intrudes. Packer’s paid theorist has told him that “the past is disappearing. We used to know the past but not the future. This is changing” (86). And yet it turns out that Eric’s slow march westward is towards the past, not the future. He has been heading towards one particular barbershop, bypassing many others that are more conveniently located, for reasons of nostalgia and familiarity. Despite all his obsession with change and his constant impatience at the fact that even language cannot keep up with the pace of technology, he chooses to return to the barber who has always cut his hair, and who cut his father’s hair before him. He is drawn to the repetition and to the patina of age: “This is what he wanted from Anthony. The same words. The oil company calendar on the wall. The mirror that needed silvering” (161).

The body is not yet as far in the future as it wants to be, Delillo suggests. And yet it is precisely this temporal lag, this sluggardness, that provides comfort. It’s only in the barber’s chair, seeing himself in the mirror (rather than in the various CCTV screens that have surrounded him all day), that Eric finally “remember[s] who he was” (165). Here he can speak, confide in people and trust them: “It felt right to expose the matter in this particular place, where elapsed time hangs in the air, suffusing solid objects and men’s faces. This is where he felt safe” (166).

Eric is wrong, of course. He is not safe in the past, which catches up with him in the form of a vengeful former employee that he himself has long forgotten (if he ever really knew him). But even Eric’s sticky, all too corporeal end is a matter of putting things right. In the end, Cosmopolis is a paean to memory, and to the stickiness of both things and the language used to describe them.

But in a pitiless analysis of its language and style, James Wood excoriates this novel, and not without reason. He’s right, for instance, to say that what he calls the story’s “nineteenth-century heart” is never fully animated. In the end, we don’t really care for or about Eric Packer and his fate. What stays with the reader is the surreal, postmodern shell, rather than the turn to humanism that Delillo wants us to take alongside his unfortunate but unlikeable protagonist. So be it. Some novels crawl along and never quite reach their destination, getting stuck along the way.

Still, Wood goes too far when he argues that “Cosmopolis, so eager to tell us about our age, to bring back the news, delivers a kind of information, and delivers it in such a way that finally it threatens the existence of the novel form.” This book, and others like it that present us with what we might term a science fiction of the now (a vision of the future set firmly in the present day), supplement rather than compete with cultural theory or criticism. The attempt may not finally come off, but for all his techno-dystopianism what Delillo is offering is something along the lines of the plasma screens that line Eric Packer’s limousine: a version of what is to come that is almost infinitesimally but (precisely for that reason) uncannily ahead of what we actually have to live through in our own lives and bodies. This is what science fiction does, and it can only do so as fiction (rather than as futurology), with the freedom to speculate and to invent, if also therefore to fail.

potty

I’m wondering about this extraordinary event that is the publication of the final Harry Potter book. There’s something strange here about the manipulation of time and the perversity of the market. I find it mind-boggling that practically each and every copy of the book will be sold at a loss. Also the ridiculous efforts to which Bloomsbury has gone to attempt to ensure secrecy.

But even I know that Ron dies. For what I care.

More on this, later.