Saturday, October 3, 2009

From Ghosts, by César Aira

The unbuilt is characteristic of those arts whose realization requires the remunerated work of many people, the purchase of materials, the use of expensive equipment, etc. Cinema is the paradigmatic case: anyone can have an idea for a film, but then you need expertise, finance, personnel, and these obstacles mean that ninety-nine times out of a hundred the film doesn't get made. Which might make you wonder if the prodigious bother of it all—which technological advances have exacerbated if anything—isn't actually an essential part of cinema's charm, since, paradoxically, it gives everyone access to movie-making, in the form of pure daydreaming. It's the same in the other arts, to a greater or lesser extent. And yet it is possible to imagine an art in which the limitations of reality would be minimized, in which the made and the unmade would be indistinct, an art that would be instantaneously real, without ghosts. And perhaps that art exists, under the name of literature.

In this sense all the arts have a literary basis, built into their history and their myths. Architecture is no exception. In advanced, or at least sedentary, civilizations, building requires the collaboration of various kinds of tradesmen: bricklayers, carpenters, painters, then electricians, plumbers, glaziers, and so on. In nomadic cultures, dwellings are made by a single person, almost always a woman. Architecture is still symbolic, of course, but its social significations are manifest in the arrangement of dwellings within the camp. The same thing happens in literature: in the composition of some works, the author becomes a whole society, by means of a kind of symbolic condensation, writing with the real or virtual collaboration of all the culture's specialists, while other works are made by an individual working alone like the nomadic woman, in which case society is signified by the arrangement of the writer's books in relation to the books of others, their periodic appearance, and so on.
A book as elegant as a syllogism, but not in the least mechanical. There is a baroque richness to the way the book develops, as Aira's dazzlingly assured voice wafts through the consciousnesses of his characters, remarking upon them acutely, but warmly. Thomas Mann is mentioned near the end (in a quote I'll pull in a moment), and there is a noticeable degree of similarity to him, particularly in The Magic Mountain. What Aira shares with Mann is a neoclassical solidity that grounds the philosophical fancies of the characters or the narrator; while Aira's characters are not so idly pedantic as Naphtha or Settembrini, they share an organic relationship to the thoughts they have which is integral to the progression of the novel, rather than digressive. What I think happens in each case is that the author is able to reproduce his own pursuit of an idea, or a set of ideas, and not just the idea-as-captive. Though the author knows what he is going to say, the path to what will be said is not foreshortened by that foreknowledge: ideas emerge, they aren't just spoken.

Here's another beautiful passage:
It might seem odd that this relatively uneducated young woman, who hadn't even finished secondary school, should entertain such elaborate thoughts. But it's not as strange as it seems. A person might never have thought at all, might have lived as a quivering bundle of futile, momentary passions, and yet at any moment, just like that, ideas as subtle as any that have ever occurred to the greatest philosophers might dawn on him or her. This seems utterly paradoxical, but in fact happens every day. Thought is absorbed from others, who don't think either, but find their thoughts ready-made, and so on. This might seem to be a system spinning in a void, but not entirely; it is grounded, although it's hard to say just how. An example might clarify the point, though only in an analogical mode: imagine one of those people who don't think, a man whose only activity is reading novels, which for him is a purely pleasurable activity, and requires not the slightest intellectual effort; it's simply a matter of letting the pleasure of reading carry him along. Suddenly, some gesture or sentence, not to speak of a "thought," reveals that he is a philosopher in spite of himself. Where did he get that knowledge? From pleasure? From novels? An absurd supposition, given his reading material (if he read Thomas Mann, at least, it might be a different story). Knowledge comes through the novels, not really from them. They are not the ground; you can't expect them to be. They're suspended in the void, like everything else. But there they are, they exist: you can't say that it's a complete void.

1 comment:

Shelley said...

Well yeah, I guess. But. I read this book over the summer and while I was wowed by some of the passages, mostly for their language, occasionally for their ideas, I completely forgot about it within an hour after finishing it. I think the reason is that it didn't stir any feeling in me at all. There are these few passages that made me stop reading and think a little about some of these points regarding art and so on, but it didn't have any of the other things I read fiction for. Since the blurbs made it sound as though it was about construction workers at a fancy high-rise project, I was disappointed. I feel embarrassed writing this, makes me sound like some sort of philistine, I guess, but I like a little humanity in a novel, and I didn't really find any in Ghosts. As with any read, this could be totally subjective, my own failing as a reader, an individual fluke, and so on. Or it could be that there's something missing at the core of this novel. Honestly I don't know which it is.