Sunday, July 23, 2017

a distinction be made

Reading Man in the Holocene, 1979, by Max Frisch, tr. Geoffrey Skelton, after Arno Schmidt's The School for Atheists, 1972, I thought about the additional pieces of text that had been made part of each book, the side-columns and footnotes crowding to and fro in Schmidt, and then the boxed horizontal inserts that came evenly and plainly between the paragraphs in Frisch.

In Schmidt the swarming appearance of the inserts makes the 'main' text a combative partner with the side text; they are two equal things muscling one another around. It is all aware that it is in a book, and it also knows that outside this book there are others.

In Holocene the inserts have been chosen by the character Geiser, who is cutting up his library with scissors. Now the main text seems closer to the kind of writing that is 'like real life' because these snippets about dinosaurs, animals, historical episodes, and topographical features are things existing in an implied world, as cuttings exit in life; they are not the same material as that world, in the way the Atheists columns are. There is a kind of strictness in Holocene: one thing is in one place and the other is separated from it, and you notice that the theme of the book is disintegration, age, and collapse, but the form goes steadily on. Geiser has probably suffered a stroke by the end. He can't tell us about it but one of the cuttings lets us know. "Apoplexy," it reads, "commonly known as a stroke, is a sudden loss of brain function …" After the apoplexy cutting there is a passage about the world continuing as usual. "The village stands unharmed. Above the mountains, high up in the blue sky, the white trails of passenger planes. The scent of lavender …" The world and the cuttings are both commenting on him obliquely in different ways.

But they don't attack him directly; I notice that, nobody attacks him. Though over in Schmidt, people are slapping and kissing their flesh. Geiser is losing his ability to make necessary changes in the world. The moment when he almost leaves the hot plate on is worth a mention. He is losing his memory. Going for a walk in the woods, he exults when he tells himself that no one knows where he is, alone like this, independently, proving that he is still a capable body controlled by a knowing mind; the words, "The ascent is laborious," are followed by the phrase, "just as he expected," as he confirms his good judgment to himself. "Geiser knows that it is four hundred meters up to the pass."

"I can only begin a posteriori, by perceiving the world as vast and over¬whelming; each moment stands under an enormous vertical and horizontal pressure of information," wrote Lyn Hejinian in her introduction to The Rejection of Closure, "potent with ambiguity, meaning-full, unfixed, and certainly incomplete. What saves this from becoming a vast undifferentiated mass of data and situation is one’s ability to make distinctions. The open text is one which both acknowledges the vastness of the world and is formally differentiating. It is form that provides an opening."

In the essay itself she wrote:

"The writer experiences a conflict between a desire to satisfy a demand for boundedness, for containment and coherence, and a simultaneous desire for free, unhampered access to the world prompting a correspondingly open response to it. Curiously, the term inclusivity is applicable to both, though the connotative emphasis is different for each. The impulse to boundedness demands circumscription and that in turn requires that a distinction be made between inside and outside, between the relevant and the (for the particular writing at hand) confusing and irrelevant—the meaningless. The desire for unhampered access and response to the world (an encyclopedic impulse), on the other hand, hates to leave anything out.

Schmidt responds to this impulse by constraining his encylopaedic impulse to literature and stories: his Kolderup is another Prospero. But his "response to the world" within this constraint is enormous and playful – if Kolderup is Prospero then his daughter is a Shamela rewriting of Miranda. Frisch quotes other books (which Holocene credits in a bibliography) but there is no sign that he expects you to have read them, or that he thinks you might be interested in consulting them afterwards. Holocene uses them to refer to itself and it leaves them as they were; there is no subversion in its attitude towards them – they are discrete ...

The dinosaurs in Geiser's excerpts are being regarded with a sort of judgmental efficiency by the writer of the scientific text, who in this context might as well be immortal. The human being who walks into the woods is happy when he thinks that no one knows where he is, as if there is a danger that he too might be glanced down upon by someone listing facts about him, or calling him "terrible" and his survival "amazing," as the science-writer does.

If the dinosaurs knew that they were being talked about like this then they also might try to assert themselves by escaping down a forest path so that none of their neighbours, family members, or anyone else would know where they were - thwarting the writer who wanted to make these books out of their memories.

Possibly the dinosaurs and the man would roam together through the Swiss woodland trying to navigate the bridges.

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