Monday, February 28, 2011

The Doll (an excerpt)

To continue with all this rambling about books (I have some real neat astronomy and nature stuff coming up later -- and also comics, I promise), I've recently begun reading Bolesław Prus's The Doll ("Lalka" in the original), held by some to be the finest novel Poland has ever produced. I'm only about 1/8 of the way into it (page 85 out of 680), but there is a passage from this last chapter that I would like to share.

When Wokulski rang the doctor's doorbell, the doctor was busy classifying the hair of various individuals of Slavic, Teutonic, and Semitic races, measuring the largest and smallest cross-sections through a microscope.

'So it's you . . .' he said to Wokulski, looking round. 'Light your pipe if you want to, and sit down on the sofa, if you can find room.' His visitor did as instructed, the doctor went on with his own business. For a time both were silent, then Wokluski said:

'Tell me this: does medical science know of a state of mind in which it seems to a man that all his previously scattered knowledge . . . and feelings have become concentrated, as it were, into one organism?'

'Of course. Continuous mental work and good food can form new cells in the brain or join together old ones. And then one unity is formed out of the various sections of the brain and various spheres of knowledge.'

'But what is the meaning of that state of mind in which a man grows indifferent to death, or begins to feel the need of legends of eternal life?'

'Indifference to death,' the doctor replied, 'is a trait of mature minds, and the desire for an eternal life is the sign of approaching old age.'

Again they fell silent. The visitor smoked his pipe, the doctor concerned himself with the microscope.

'Do you think,' Wokulski asked, 'that it's possible . . . to love a woman ideally, without desiring her?'

'Of course. It is a kind of mask, in which the instinct to preserve the species likes to disguise itself.'

'Instinct . . . species . . . the instinct for preserving something and -- preserving the species . . .' Wokulski repeated. 'Three phrases and four pieces of nonsense.'

'Make a sixth,' said the doctor, not looking away from his eyepiece, 'and get married.'

'The sixth?' asked Wokulski, rising, 'where's the fifth?'

'You have already done it; you have fallen in love.'

'Me? At my age?'

'Forty-five years old -- that is the period for a man's last love, and the most serious.'

'Experts say first love is the worst,' Wokulski murmured.

'Not so. After the first, a hundred others are waiting, but after the hundredth, there's nothing. Get married; that is the only cure for your ailment.'

'Why didn't you ever marry?'

'My fiancée died,' the doctor answered, leaning back in his chair and eyeing the ceiling. 'So I did all I could: I took chloroform. This was in the provinces . . . But God sent me a good colleague who broke down the door and saved me. The worst kind of charity! I had to pay for the door he smashed, and my colleague inherited my practice by pronouncing me insane.'

He turned back to his hairs and his microscope.

'But what moral significance am I to draw from your remarks about last love?'

'That one should never interfere with a suicide,' the doctor replied.

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Carcinogen Comix!

Yaha! Click to read!

It's been fifteen days and counting. The fact that I'm counting can't be a good sign. I'm feeling like Goofy in that old Disney short.

I'm trying to get better at replying to comments. I'm no good at responding right away, but from now on I'll make a point of answering every comment on the last post (if any) before putting up a new one.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

On Tolstoy, Entertainment, and Stuff Books Do

Oh man. Is it ever good to be back.

Several days ago -- while I was still very ill -- I found a message from an esteemed colleague addressed to me on Twitter, referring to the "Tolstoy" post that went up the week before:

you know, you can write a novel to entertain as well :L

I could think of a few things to say to this, but every time I tried typing them the effort of sitting upright made me lightheaded and I had to spend a couple hours sleeping it off. The flu has a way of stemming all debate.

Not long afterwards (an hour? a day? my perception of the last week is so distorted), I sat down and discovered my esteemed colleague had left me a pair of messages via Instant Messenger:

(3:15:51 PM) you can write a novel to entertain people, too
(3:16:03 PM) they're not all 100% explore the human condition

At the time, I could only repay his tenacity with a glib little Twitter message. But now that I'm beginning to feel a little better (I only vomited once today, and I've traded the fever for a shattered sense of equilibrium), let's see if I can't offer my esteemed colleague a more substantial response.


1.) Re: The tacit presumption that War and Peace is not entertaining

War and Peace is a classic. It is a very good book, and a very long book. But it is not a boring book. Just because literary snots like me call this or that novel "a timeless classic that illustrates the the human etc. etc. etc. etc.," you shouldn't assume it's a soporific drag that only someone with an English degree can appreciate.

As the first word of the title might suggest, this is a book about a war. Tolstoy comes to the writing desk with a period of service as a lieutenant in the Crimean War under his belt, meaning he's got more firsthand experience with the smoky pandaemonium of the 19th Century battlefield than every working writer on the planet who didn't serve in the military. War and Peace's battle scenes are intense, very often reading a little like a scene from a Hollywood-approved war flick. You've got people on horseback riding alone into sprays of bullets, cannonballs taking off peoples' limbs, grenades going off in the middle of crowds, motherfuckers getting run through with bayonets, adrenaline-crazed heroes performing apparently superhuman acts in the heat of the moment, etc. One would almost suspect Tolstoy wrote these scenes for the intended purpose of exciting people, but we both know such a notion is crazy. Literary merit and fun are mutually exclusive, after all!

What the dust jackets and armchair reviewers often neglect to mention is that War and Peace is also a very funny book. Tolstoy couldn't stand aristocratic twits and rich jackasses; War and Peace aggressively mocks the snooty men and women of high society. Tolstoy thought of the Germans as eggheads with funny accents, so he wrote a book full of German people with absurd ideas that they take very seriously and shout at each other in silly phonetic renderings of German-inflected speech. You like French-bashing? Tolstoy loves French-bashing, and nobody in the novel gets slammed worse than Napoleon himself. Andrey (one of the main characters), after vocally espousing his admiration for the visionary genius Bonaparte every five minutes for the first several chapters, gets wounded in battle, taken prisoner, and finds himself face to face with his hero -- whereupon he discovers Napoleon to be a fat, narcissistic little pissypants. It's really some entertaining stuff.

2.) Re: Books don't HAVE to be about "the human condition" -- they're allowed to just be entertaining.

Sure. I guess. But that whole "teaching us about ourselves, pulling back the curtain from our perception of the world, and remapping our boundaries" thing is what makes a book good. It's what separates the art from the distractions and toys.

You can certainly read books that "only entertain" if you'd like. Sure. But in the words of Mr. Kundera, life is short and books are long. If you're going to read books at all, why squander your time and effort reading ones less than great?

(Disclaimer/confession: superhero comics are a vice of mine. In my defense -- and lest I be accused of a double standard -- I am rather choosy about which ones I read, a trade paperback is less time-consuming than a cheap sci-fi pulp, and the pencil and ink work in an issue of Batman has far more artistic merit than Dan Brown's prose. I hold the act of reading a novel and the act of reading a comic to totally different standards, in any event.)

But what about the writers themselves? Why should a writer be expected to write about lofty subjects like the human condition? Why can't a good writer just write about things that entertain people?

Because that generally isn't what good writers do. They don't think that way.

Let's suppose an author decides to write a novel about a teenage wizard who falls in love with a green-haired tree elf and helps her fight the evil incubus king. Such an author will be one of two things: an amateur or a hack.

The only hopeful possibility is in the first case. There's a slim chance that our amateur author is an untried genius with an a precision of language equal to the richness of his boundless imagination. His efforts are guided by a keen intellect and strong aesthetic convictions. Such a writer can take whatever plot that strikes his fancy, no matter how trite or inane at face value, and make it part of something beautiful. He is also an exceedingly uncommon specimen.

More likely than not, our amateur's story about the teenage wizard who falls in love with green-haired tree elf will come out as unreadable schlock. Generally, unless you really know what you're doing or are a naturally gifted writer, you don't produce something brilliant by sitting down and thinking STORY ABOUT A WIZARD AND AN ELF, GO! That's not how writing works -- not unless we're talking about the second case.

What if the writer is a hack? Well, we can bank on the story being somewhat competently written. After all, it's being assembled by a professional. Our author goes by a formula, consults a list of character/plot bullets, bangs out the thing in a couple of weeks, collects his check, and drinks a few tequilas to get the juices flowing on his next idea. HEY! How about a story about a pair of dwarf brothers who accidentally dig a mine into a haunted city and have to lift a curse before it's too late? Easy as hell!

For the most part, the authors who write these "fun" books -- novels devised to be easy, entertaining reads that don't challenge anyone or anything -- are either not very good at what they do or cynical sellouts crapping out chapters in exchange for checks. I wouldn't give either a place on my shelf.

The really good authors tend to address lofty subjects because they are good authors. Their artistic and intellectual compasses point toward that which is beautiful, symmetrical, and true. Such writers usually tend to have more on their creative agendas then "WEREWOLF DETECTIVE IN TOKYO!"

3.) It's not as though you're not sufficiently entertained

The "why aren't books allowed to just be fun?" and "it's okay for books to only be entertaining, they don't have to make statements all the time!" objections might ring less hollow if today's multimedia landscape weren't so tremendously dominated by shallow, instantaneous amusements. Stop trying to shove your boring, stuffy "classics" down my throat! I just want to read something fun! I mean, the only other diversions my life affords me are television, Facebook, YouTube, Xbox Live, Minecraft, IRC, Wikipedia, Twitter, Gawker, Hulu, Team Fortress, Tumblr, iPhone apps, Cracked, the Wii, Newgrounds, Netflix, 4chan, World of Warcraft, and free streaming pornography! I'm dying of boredom here! Why won't you just allow me some levity in my life?

This is an entirely separate kettle of potatoes, but it worries me that we appear to be creeping toward a cultural point in which the worthiness of an activity is directly tied to how immediately fun it is. If something isn't instantly gratifying and doesn't aggressively commandeer my attention, I'm just going to go find something that is.

But anyway -- the printed word of the novel is one of the few extant media that can offer people something more conducive to useful intellectual stimulation than the noise, frantic speed, and commercial distractions of television, video games, and the Internet. I think it's important that publishers and authors take advantage of this. I want them to write books that challenge people. I want authors to place more importance on creating something true and beautiful than on writing something "fun" to read. The rest of our media asks so little of us, after all -- I fear that we're going to become less ourselves as a result. Ever read Brave New World? It will tell you all you need to know about what happens when "fun" becomes a cultural prerogative -- and is a supremely entertaining read, to boot.

It has been nine days since my last cigarette. This blog is just going to get bitchier and angrier and bitchier.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Vs. the Flu (day six)

This is getting old. Updates to resume as soon as I am capable of writing them.

Time to vomit!

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Familiar ground -- "Tolstoy and the Times"

A few mornings ago I sat down to an email from my father, who currently resides in Poland. It reads:

Just wanted to let you know that I finally did it – I purchased the longest, most fearful and daunting book ever written by man – War & Peace. It is 1,344 pages long. When I finish it I can use it as a door stop.

The publisher is the Oxford University Press, translated by Louise and Aylmer Maude, and edited with an introduction and notes by Henry Gifford – which amount to 55 pages and includes maps, cast of characters, chronology of events and a Table of Contents that runs to 13 pages (which is longer than some short stories I’ve read).

Wish me luck!


A few days earlier, he had explained over the phone that he told the woman at the little bookstore (all shops in Poland are little, truth be told) he frequents that he needed a changed of pace from Polish novels, whereupon she immediately pulled him over to the "Russian novels" shelf. She only suggested War and Peace -- it was ultimately me who convinced him at last to buck up and brave the 1,400-page slope.

Incidentally, when I flew out to Poland in the summer of 2009 for his wedding, Tolstoy's magnum opus was the book I brought along. Consequentially, inexorably tethered to my recollections of Kraków thunderstorms, underground chapels, getting lost in the back streets of Pruszków, and sitting out on the back stoop and watching the swallows during the sunset are Pierre, Andrey, Natasha, Napoleon, and the undying spirit and grand character of Mother Russia.* (A little ironic, given how the Poles generally feel about the Russians -- especially after that nasty business in Warsaw.)

It was funny that my father should bring up Tolstoy when he did. The Saturday evening before I spoke to him I had briefly chatted with an NYU biology student about Russian novels at an A Place to Bury Strangers show in Brooklyn. After getting chastised for not having read Anna Karenina or The Brothers Karamazov (I'll get around to them, I swear), I asked her about her favorite passage from War and Peace. She didn't even have to think about it, but admitted it was a toss up between Andrei's near-death experience at the Battle of Austerlitz -- the page on which it appears is very prominently highlighted and marked in my copy -- and Pierre's dream of the globe, which I couldn't for the life of me recall.

For the next week or so I periodically picked up the book (no easy task -- you know, since it's so heavy and all, lol) and skimmed through it, trying to find this passage. I hadn't marked the page during my first reading, so all I could do was search all 1,400 pages for mentions of Pierre's name and then search the text for references to a dream.

I finally found it yesterday afternoon. It reads:

The calvary wagons, the prisoners, and Marshal Junot's baggage-train halted for the night in the village of Shamshevo. They all crowded round the camp fires. Pierre went over to a fire, ate some roast horse-meat, lay down with his back to the fire, and fell fast asleep. He slept as he had done at Mozhaysk after the battle of Borodino.

Once again real events mingled with his dreams; once again a voice, either his own or someone else's, was murmuring thoughts in his ear, some of the same thoughts he had heard in his dream at Mozhaysk.

Life is everything. Life is God. Everything is in flux and movement, and this movement is God. And while there is life there is pleasure in being conscious of the Godhead. To love life is to love God. The hardest and the most blessed thing is to love this life even in suffering, innocent suffering.

'Karatayev!' The memory flashed into Pierre's mind. And suddenly Pierre had a vision, like reality itself, of someone long forgotten, a gentle old teacher who had taught him geography in Switzerland. 'Wait a minute,' said the little old man. And he showed Pierre a globe. This globe was a living thing, a shimmering ball with no fixed dimensions. The entire surface of the ball consisted of drops closely compressed. And the drops were in constant movement and flux, sometimes dissolving from many into one, sometimes breaking down from one into many. Each drop was trying to spread out and take up as much space as possible, but all the others, wanting to do the same, squeezed it back, absorbing it or merging into it.

'This is life,' said the little old teacher.

How something like this could have slipped my mind? And why the hell didn't I slap a blue sticky note on this page?

At any rate, I'm rather glad it took so long to find this passage. Had I opened up to it right away, I might have foregone a chance a reread and reconsider some of the most powerful moments of the greatest novel ever written.

Yes, that's right. The greatest novel. Granted, I have not read every work of fiction ever published, but I'm not sure how anything could measure up to Tolstoy's magnum opus. It is a novel that transcends the novel. The count himself famously claimed that War and Peace indeed is not a novel, but declined to specify what he would call it instead.

The stock term critics, scholars, and fans fall back on is "panorama." War and Peace is less a story than an immense still-life of The Human Experience committed to print. And thought it would be no less derivative to turn to the "Shield of Achilles" comparison sketched in every AP English and World Literature 101 classroom since 1950, such an analogy is not only the most apt and accessible, but one of a presumable few that admits both halves of the scale their proper weight. War and Peace is an unparalleled achievement of the human intellect that can never be outdone. I'd even go so far to claim that one cannot call himself a complete human being until he has read it at least once. I don't care if this makes me sound like a douche; I stand by it. Argue with me after you've read it.

As such, War and Peace has the potential to be a little discouraging to an aspiring authors who has spend a lot of time with it. What we have here is a book that makes nearly every novel written after 1869 virtually superfluous. There is no romance, no epiphany, no act of battlefield heroism, no travails of maturing youth, no praise nor criticism of human nature that War and Peace doesn't already brilliantly (sufficiently, and definitively) touches on.

Hemingway suggested that if something has already been written, the author's task becomes to write it better; to "beat" the older story. If we take him at his word, then, the author trying to make a point about the Human Condition -- at least in any conventional sense -- is like a featherweight boxer stepping into the ring for ten rounds against Mike Tyson on PCP. No matter what you commit to paper, The Count has already kicked your ass. Your own novel might as well be a booklet containing nothing but block quotes from Tolstoy.

As a writer who believes that the novel should primarily strive to elucidate and offer perspective on what it is/means to be a human being, it can be somewhat daunting to approach a blank page knowing that Tolstoy already did your work for you, did your work better than you over 140 years ago. It is equally troubling to consider the idea that the ongoing transformations in human though, communication, and literacy wrought by the Information Age have all but placed the novel in the wax museum of cultural has-beens.

The novel is dead. Tolstoy already did it best, besides. So what's the point? Why don't we just resign ourselves to typing up Top Ten lists and barbed pop culture analyses?

A thought struck me last night -- a thought about Tolstoy and the times. Leo successfully pins down and paints nearly everything that is eternal and immutable about The Human Experience. That much is practically a given.

But Tolstoy couldn't possibly have imagined the ways in which the experience would change in the years after his death. He never dreamed that man could devise a means of splitting the atom and building weapons capable of annihilating entire cities and nations with the push of a button from across the planet. How could he have foreseen the technological, digital, and consumerist revolutions? Could he have predicted (as Melville did in The Bell-Tower) that human beings might contrive the means of making human labor practically obsolete? Did it ever occur to him that the day-to-day domestic activities he celebrates in War and Peace might someday make the oceans rise, poison the air, and irrevocably alter global weather patterns?

There is much about humanity that will never change; the extant beauty and continuing relevance of ancient works such as The Epic of Gilgamesh and The Iliad attest to this. But there is much about humanity that is not only malleable, but rapidly transforming.

If the Twenty-First Century novelist -- that poor, shrinking, outmoded anachronism -- can claim a purpose, perhaps this should be it. Not to demarcate and illuminate the established givens of humanity and the world, but to examine what is changing throughout and within them -- and to do so with the essential purity, honesty, and control that is only possible through written fiction. To do that which the other subjects and speakers of this peculiar period, this TELL ME NOW TELL ME FAST TELL ME NOW Information Age, haven't the time, inclination, or ability to do themselves.

* I've finally come around to checking out Proust and the Squid.** Very early on, Ms. Wolf quotes this chunk from Proust's On Writing:

There are perhaps no days of our childhood we lived so fully as those...we spent with a favorite book. Everything that filled them for others, so it seemed, and that we dismissed as a vulgar obstacle to a divine pleasure: the game for which a friend would come to fetch us at the most interesting passage; the troublesome bee or sun ray that forced us to lift our eyes from the page or to change position; the provisions for the afternoon snack that we had been made to take along and that we left beside us on the bench without touching, while above our head the sun was diminishing in force in the blue sky; the dinner we had to return home for, and during which we thought only of going up immediately afterward to finish the interrupted chapter, all those things with which reader should have kept us from feeling anything but annoyance, on the contrary they have engraved in us so sweet a memory (so much for precious to our present judgment than what we read with such love), that if we still happen today to leaf through those books of another time, it is for no other reason that that they are the only calendars we have kept of the days that have vanished, and we hope to see reflected on their pages the dwellings and the ponds which no longer exist.

** I should confess that I am listening to an audiobook version of Proust and the Squid; I thought it would be more constructive to listen to something other than MST3K episodes and Sisters of Mercy albums when I sit down to draw. Listening to a book about reading doesn't sit altogether well with me, but...

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Optix Comix!

This took too fecking long to make. I'd draw comics a lot more often if I weren't so damned slow at it.

Click to see!

In any case, I feel I deserve the nine-hour nap to which I am about to treat myself.

Friday, February 4, 2011

Fragment: dictators, death drives

Hmm. Where do you suppose this came from?

Toward the end of his life – after decades of sustained cocaine use – Sigmund Freud determined that all instincts act as subordinate extensions of two higher drives: the life drive and the death drive. The instincts in the service of life work to keep the organism alive and see that it procreates. And the death instincts...

Just as the river seeks the drift of the ocean beyond the terminal estuary, all organic matter seeks a return to constancy of the inorganic.

The river cannot choose where it springs. It rolls from the mountain's thighs and into the light, and can only labor on, pushing forward, being pushed and jerked along until it reaches the ocean. And we are no different thrust into the cold commotion of a strange planet without our consent, living under compulsion to go on living through scarcity and strife until our life gives out, with no purpose or prerogative other than to stay alive for as long as we can and force more of ourselves into the world to bear the burden of existence.

Life is a chemical pattern conscientiously aiming, devilishly designed to perpetuate itself. Maybe it could be best understood by way of analogy as the will of a bunkered dictator. A totalitarian despot whose sole aim is to widen his influence and consolidate his rule. Seizing whatever matter he can and forcing it into his service.

Any effective tyrant understands the value of threat, punishment, and reward, and uses each to secure his subjects’ loyalty to his purpose. The dictator life is no different, ensuring that its subjects, by working to fulfill their own interests, are always serving his own.

We are kept alive by pangs. When our body is hungry, it inflicts pain upon us until we provide it with sustenance. It tears at our hearts and sets our minds to a frenzy until we copulate. When the life in us wants something, it puts the bladed spurs into our sides. When we consent, it rewards us with relief. A moment without pain. A brief respite from the billy club.

Satisfying the life instincts is an act of self-annihilation. All contentment in life is the taste of death. Pleasure is the forgetting of life, forgetting the shocks and aches that life inflicts on those in its possession to keep its hold on them. The moment of eradication is the desserts for every want, the final end of every human goal. We act in the hope of never having to act again. Throwing ourselves off every cliff, hoping to find the ocean at the bottom. After all – what is life but wanting? And what is death but needing nothing?

Don't look at me like I'm crazy, please. This is the truth. It is absolute fact. Peace and pleasure are tastes of death, and death is relief from the dictator's demands. The runner runs to escape himself. The fisherman fishes to forget himself. The drunkard drinks to drown himself. We immerse ourselves in art and entertainment, absorb ourselves in our work, lose ourselves in the company of friends. We seek stability and comfort as a means of abandoning the struggle, of placing ourselves in a position of having to toil with life just that much less. We savor our own annihilation; dying as much as life allows us to without achieving death.

Freud said that life is only a roundabout route to death. I intend to treat it as such. I am going to die and life will go on without me. So fuck it: I will live as briefly as I choose and with as little pain as possible. Then I will die and my obligation to dictator will have ended. If I can spare some other souls a little pain of life as I work to spare myself, all the better, I suppose.

Your guess is as good as mine. Comic got delayed; will be up tomorrow evening, surely.