Monday, December 7, 2009

A Not Too Long Journey in Search of a Method

My pleasure reading over the last month or so included mostly Bolaño, as you could probably tell from the previous few posts. After reading 2666 again, I started Nazi Literature in the Americas, his fake encyclopedia of the mostly melancholy and marginal lives of the men and women who constituted a century-long literary movement built around fascist ideas. Of course, these people were all fictional. It was, as I’ve considered everything else I’ve read by Roberto Bolaño, brilliant.

But after finishing Nazi Literature, I started The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner, and the transition between the two authors in my reading was jarring. It’s made me think about the development of my own writing style, which, even though I owe a lot to the modernists like Joyce and Woolf, now is more aligned with the easier language of Bolaño and Nabokov. The idea I had today was that the reason for this transition has to do with my philosophical development more than my tastes as an author.

What fascinated me about modernist literature when I first discovered James Joyce and Virginia Woolf was the technique of stream-of-consciousness writing, language that inserted the reader into the thoughts of the character as they drifted along an associative train through time and space, sometimes focussed on the colloquial, sometimes on flights of memory, sometimes intimate moments of self-reflection, and sometimes into fragmentary thoughts that completely dissociated one from reality and could lose track of what is typically thought of as the narrative altogether. Plot became secondary to character study with this technique.

And it had none of the irritating omniscience that so annoys me in so much nineteenth century literature. The narration of Jane Austen, Gustave Flaubert, and Maryann Evans (George Eliot) knew everything about their characters and displayed them on the page for you to read. Every facet of their characters were laid out in the text like the terms of an anatomy lesson. It wasn’t so much character study to me as character explanation. The narrator displayed all the psychological properties, and they collided in the mechanical necessity the parts dictated. I could almost call it mechanical realism.

This stream-of-consciousness technique offered a teenager with pretentions for a career in writing a way of exploring a character-constituted narrative, but kept the mystery and paradoxes that I saw in actual people. The mechanical realist technique put every facet of their characters’ psychologies on display, each one fitting together into a consistent whole. A character revealed through stream-of-consciousness could embrace inconsistency, as the character itself could become just as lost in its own stream as the reader. Surprise was possible.

My philosophical development began just as I was turning 19, with my first course in the subject from Jim Bradley, to whom I owe lifelong thanks. When I first began, I was fascinated by the problem of how the subjective could be bridged with the world, how thought could become objective and no longer distort the world in order to understand it. But over the following years, I began to understand how flawed this entire philosophical setup was. If a human subject’s knowledge of the world was so radically distorted as this setup says it is, then no creature with such a flawed perceptual apparatus could survive. In all the ways I had studied of how people tackled the question of how we could overcome the distortion inherent to subjectivity, no one had seriously questioned whether subjectivity was inherently distorting of reality at all. And I abandoned most of the philosophy that refused to pose this question.

And this is why, as I’ve developed this stance of radically rejecting the subject-world problem and all the ways this pseudo-problem crops up in other philosophies (mind-body, thought-reality, certainty-doubt), I’ve come to abandon the stream-of-consciousness as a fruitful literary technique. Reading Faulkner has just made this even more clear to me. I’m only reading him for the first time this year, having picked up a box set of three novels cheaply at a used bookstore in Windsor this March. He’s a master of the technique, taking it to what looks to be an extremity of fragmentation. The story of The Sound and the Fury is nearly impossible to discern from the constant shifts in time, mood, event, perception, and thought. These shifts are structured along the narrative of the decline and fall of the noble family of Compson. But that narrative is far from apparant in the words themselves and their organization.

The stream-of-consciousness technique is a story told from deep within a single character’s subjectivity. And taken to its extreme in Faulkner, I can see now the presumption in the technique as to the nature of a subjectivity: a distortion of the plot playing out in the real, outside, world. There is no place for the world itself to be mysterious in its constitution of itself, no place for a conspiracy between a character and her world, no way to turn a narrative into a plot against the reader. The only way for confusion and mystery to arise in stream-of-consciousness writing is in the distortion consciousness creates in trying (and inevitably failing) to apprehend the world.

The realism of Nabokov, Bolaño, Vonnegut, DeLillo, and Pynchon (these are my favourite examples; I know I must read more women) can create grand structures of multiplicity through a simple structure: realist writing with a narrator who doesn’t know everything, and who sometimes might not know anything. A stream-of-consciousness can flow in only one direction: down the black hole of a distorting subjectivity. Myserious realism can build an entire world with a quick suggestion.

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