Thursday, January 31, 2019
at this point where we pause
Coming off Jean-Paul Richter last year into Heimito von Doderer’s The Merowingians, or, the Total Family, 1962, tr. Vinal Overing Binner, I thought at first that the book’s digressions were Richterian (spontaneous-seeming romanticisms) but as I went on I disagreed with myself. This was a machine, a machine-book, making itself through machine-understanding, by comprehending narrative as a machine that depended on the invention of a vital component to generate form. Once it had invented that component, whatever it was (Dr. Horn’s method of diagnosed repressed anger in his patients by observing the width of the angle between their feet), it allowed itself to create digressions around it (expanding a comment about “the reader’s fury” on page 347 by adding “whose foot angle, at this point where we pause in our questionable reporting, must have already reached an impressive degree”). So it fed like an animal on this machinery, and grew to whatever shape it needed to be to accommodate that digression: chapters odd lengths toward the end, etc, all justified by the machine (first half of the twentieth century he had lived through, Doderer, the age of Buster Keaton and Duchamp’s Large Glass, the machines).
The flesh of the characters becomes mechanical (representing its feelings not through ineffable Richter sighing but via reliable foot-angles) and anger can be switched off (when Dr. Horn leads the sufferers through a scientifically calibrated process that introduces them first to stamping music and then to a room filled with smashable ceramic statuettes). To turn the anger back on again (why? Because a completely cured citizenry would put the Dr Horns of the world out of business) you introduce simple irritations, such as artificial grit in the pockets or a bad manufactured smell. A quote from Doderer’s diary in Jorg Kreienbrock’s Malicious Objects, Anger Management, and the Question of Modern Literature, 2012, is helpful: “Anger caused by a small trifle (which objectively would not be more than a trigger, in French a déclic), like a breakfast ruined by an indolent waitress or other caricatures of domestic misfortune, functions as the inserted sparkplug for everything we have on our mind.” So there is something “on our mind,” in the author’s opinion, something that exists before the sparkplug. The flesh clicks on and off like a machine but it is not empty.
Why does he insist on anger? Why is that the form of expression he chooses for the otherwise unexpressed feelings? Thinking back on The Merowingians in the light of that quote you remember the constant slappings, the punches, the beatings, the incidental details like Richenza manifesting her reaction to the Count by kicking him through a door and “[giving] him such a working over that his gaunt face swelled like a pumpkin”; the number of characters who are dominated by rage, revenge, or violence (Childerich III, Schnippedilderich, Pippin, Horn's clients, the sisters Karla and Sonka who “exhibited a repellent and truly detestable savagery”, etc); the war at the end, the general resort to brutality. The perpetual selection of anger is the unsaid thing in the book. The déclic for the selection is writing. Before that there is a why with no answer. (Is the book is ever aware there is a why?)