Sunday, April 6, 2014

the supposedly self-maintaining organism

Claire Colebrook's Death is not about Modernism, though I quoted from it a few posts ago and that quote was a quote about Modernism; but she is writing about the extinction of the human race. The arts are not dealing well, she says. One day it will happen but we are not prepared. Artists go up to a point and then they baulk. All of our post-apocalypses have people in them. The end of the world will come and go and we think will still be running around the streets shooting vampires. Summoned into a fresh life of weary heroism. Untrue! This is where prose and its “disintegration” come into her argument. “[I]t is only when writing is liberated from life, when one no longer grounds systems of inscription on the supposedly self-maintaining organism, that one disrupts the normalizing figure of bodily life.” The apocalypse is the moment of incorruptable disruption. The normalizing figure of bodily life will vanish.

Modernism seems optimistically added-on in this book, not conclusive or even decisive – it comes along like a thought that has just occurred to her -- but her central point still stands, and if personal death had always been dealt with as falsely as species death usually is, then literature, I think, would feel like a more dishonest enterprise or maybe a more relentlessly playful one, very sweatily playful, until frivolous might be the word I'm looking for, and every character would come back as a ghost, not really gone, just feinting, now returning to continue the story in a slightly different way, maybe with two heads, the equivalent of the post-apocalypse with the campfire 'mongst the muddy ruins and all the can openers gone missing.

Or else the last person on earth poisons themselves and the book ends there, predicting the moment of disintegration but not venturing in, or it is like John Crowley's Little, Big and the cast has moved on to a different place, the slow crumbling of the old place described by the author but this description is a sweetly sad goodbye from a creator who can't follow them to the next iteration of their existences. They have gone to fairyland, which is beyond description. Their adventures will have to be imagined in some other way. Dead but not dead dead. Equivalent to the inhabitants of an escape pod volunteering for detachment from the mother ship. Compare Gertrude Stein at the end of The Making of Americans, hammering herself spastically into a cul de sac. She tries to summarise everything, she gives up, there's nowhere smaller to go, she has pounded her “history of men and women” into fragments but each set of words, no matter how basic they are, makes her pen hop on to another set of words, nothing final, but nothing more to say that is meaningful either, the story told and told and told but the words keep coming in their ever-tinier permutations, rattling on almost beyond meaning but retaining a trace of it, that indelible serpent of intent.


  1. "a fresh life of weary heroism" Yes, that's it exactly: apocalyptic fiction these days tends toward wish-fulfillment of a world where we're freed of our daily obligations and we can blow up our enemies. It's all The Most Dangerous Game, with cool CGI special effects. Real death is silence, real death is not poetry. If the protagonist in The Unnameable were really dead in an urn, he'd shut the hell up, he'd achieve that silence he claims he wants. Even "I have nothing to say but I keep saying that nothing" actually has meaning, meaning "I live" at least. I have no idea how significant an utterance "I live" is, in the end, since in the end it stops being true for each of us. Maybe that makes it more significant. I don't know. What would be the point of art that doesn't reference people? Who would the art be for, and what would it be "about"? I don't know that, either. There's that idea that language/art brings the world into being (a very old idea, you know), but it only brings the world into being for those of us who have language/art, right? The world is already there for everything else. We pretend that we have our own special world that will disintegrate, as you say, when we're gone, but I think it's impossible for us to have a real art of death, because no art is possible in death. Death isn't; death is not, as Guildenstern said to Rosencrantz, right?

    That's good, Stein and the cul de sac. That's so accurate no matter how well she makes her point.

    1. Urn-dweller can't shut up; it's one of his problems: "you go silent, it's the end, short-lived, you begin again ..." I wonder if it's a coincidence that the upsurge of democracy and calls for universal suffrage saw the introduction of serious books about gabble. Woolf, Joyce, Beckett: you have those innerly-perceived voices that will not stop. Colebrook, when she's discussing Joyce, mentions the silences in Dubliners -- which is one kind of annihilation, in writing, of writing, the well-weighted undescribed silence -- and then Finnegans Wake, which, by never letting you get away from history, becomes a different invocation of death, and mingles death and life together in a kind of all-over presence. (This is my memory of her point. I don't think she says it exactly like that.) Maybe you could say that Modernism is the oppression of voice. (And then that gabble-gabble-gabble has to lead or point to the opposite, which is the utter silence of everything-gone.)

      Tom Lehrer sang it:

      "And we will all bake together when we bake.
      There'll be nobody present at the wake.
      With complete participation
      In that grand incineration,
      Nearly three billion hunks of well-done steak."

  2. "Or else the last person on earth poisons themselves and the book ends there" - There is On the Beach in that context. I find it quite a relief that such fictions are few and far between. Pretty hard to take.

    1. That's the book I was thinking of. I've never read it, but somebody donated a copy to the place where I do volunteer work, and I skimmed through looking for Williamstown, because I knew it was in there. Is that kind of ending less popular than it used to be? Optimism seems more fashionable.

    2. I have never come across anything else with anything like as bleak an ending - the characters have to kill their own child as well as themselves. As for post-human narratives, I think they'd be as interesting as Tales of the Dinosaurs - One day T Rex thought he'd like some food so he decided to go to see his friend Brontosaurus Rex. When he got there, he found that she was out and so ...

    3. I must have skimmed past the dead kid.

      I think part of Colebrook's reason for bringing up modernism, is that other kinds of fiction -- Hello Mrs Cockroach, how's your post-apocalypse? -- Oh it's doing very well, Mr Cockroach, how's yours? -- don't have the sense of absence that she's after. Animals with names and friends and homes are still us, in a way.