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The Aristocrats

At the end of 3.14, we are presented with Margherita and Bianca, “playing stage mother and reluctant child.” Tween (or tween-looking) Bianca is made to dance and not sing but grunt her way through a couple of Shirley Temple songs before Greta takes the girl across her lap and begins whipping her with a metal ruler. Naturally this makes everybody horny, and a sort of conga line of an orgy ensues.

My initial reaction was one of something like horror. I mean, I’m not especially prudish, but just as I recoiled a few chapters back at the prospect of Pökler violently bedding his daughter (a contemporary of Bianca’s) and felt great relief that he didn’t go through with it, I was very uncomfortable with the sexualization of Bianca.

Its degeneration into an orgy seems in keeping with the company aboard the hellish Anubis, but it finally occurred to me that our ham of an author is basically riffing on that old dirty joke originating on Vaudeville commonly called “The Aristocrats.” If you don’t know the joke, the premise is that a family is appearing before a talent agency to show off their act, which quickly degenerates into whatever incestuous, coprophilic, sadistic, or otherwise very-far-from-vanilla scene the teller wishes to ad lib. At the end of the joke, the talent agent asks what the number is called, to which the leader of the bunch replies “The Aristocrats.” Pynchon even sets up the gag with the stage mothering and the performance of another Vaudeville-era staple in the Shirley Temple bit. The real joke here is that the people on board the Anubis are in fact mostly aristocratic types, which deflates the satiric punch of the original joke.

You can google the joke and find videos of various comedians giving their renditions. Penn Jillette also produced a documentary about the joke in 2005.

Switching gears just slightly, it’s hard to read sections 3.11, 3.14, and 3.15 without thinking of Nabokov’s Lolita. Pynchon took a course with Nabokov while an undergraduate at Cornell, and there are various articles on the web about possible connections between the two authors, but in a quick scan, I haven’t yet found anything among the resources I have ready access to that goes into much detail on the conversation between Nabokov’s novel and Pynchon’s scenes (but here’s an interesting side note). (Another side note: Humbert seems himself a bit of an, um, aristocrat.) I’m not really equipped to say much about the relationship here and will wait with bated breath for the Modernists among us to weigh in.

The Magnanimous Cuckold

February 17, 2010 6 comments

Belgian playwright Fernand Crommelynk wrote a play entitled The Magnanimous Cuckold (sometimes translated The Magnificent Cuckold). Its protagonist (if it can be said to have one; let’s call him an antagonist in a play with no real protagonist) suspects his wife of cuckoldry and, through mounting paranoia and a bizarre need to confirm his suspicions, forces his innocent wife into cuckolding him with not only his brother (I believe it was his brother) but with the whole village, including himself in disguise. On a side note, the staging for Meyerhold’s 1922 production of the play bears some resemblance to certain elements of Duchamp’s machine céibataire, whose topic is at least obliquely (perhaps inversely) related to the idea of a cuckolding.

Having set myself up last week to establish a seating in literary tradition or convention (e.g. comedy for the first section of the book) and with Crommelynk’s play in mind, I latched onto Amalfitano’s cuckolding. It’s not exactly a convention, but it is certainly a recurring theme in literature. And for lack of anything more solid to latch onto, I decided to explore the topic a little more deeply.

Before I go on, I’m going to posit that there’s a relationship between the way a man feels about his daughter’s purity and his wife’s fidelity. The disturbing phenomenon of the purity ball takes the idea rather to the extreme, but it’s really no coincidence that we joke about shotgun weddings or polishing the (phallic, by the way) shotgun when dear daughter’s boyfriend comes to pick her up for a date. The deflowering of a man’s daughter is often taken as an assault on the man’s honor (of his property, really, I suppose), and so it seems to me like a variant of cuckolding.

That Amalfitano is raising a nubile daughter in an environment saturated with the fear of sex crimes perpetrated on young women makes him doubly and justifiably afraid of a filial cuckolding. We learn on page 198 that he feels spied on. On page 196, he asks himself why he brought his daughter to this horrible place. On the next page, he confides in Pérez that he’s a nervous wreck with fear for his daughter. Later, the voice in his head tells him to do something useful for his daughter. On page 202, we’re told that the wind is slipping into Rosa’s underpants.

But there are other significant things that are more suggestive of a fear of infidelity (of a sort) on the daughter’s part that goes beyond typical fatherly hand-wringing. Imma reads for the poet Lola is chasing a poem about Ariadne lost in a labyrinth. Ariadne, recall, was the daughter of King Minos, who kept a horned beast in his labyrinth. She betrayed her father first by helping Theseus kill the beast and second by eloping with the same lad. Ariadne’s name is figured by some to come from a word meaning “utterly pure.”

Later, after Amalfitano has learned to embrace the voice he hears, Bolaño tells us he feels like a nightingale. Oscar Wilde wrote a story (perhaps informed by Persian literature, which tells of the nightingale’s love for the rose?) entitled “The Nightingale and the Rose” (remember that Amalfitano’s daughter’s name is Rosa) about a professor’s daughter’s refusal to dance with a student and subsequent faithlessness to the student once he offers her the rose she requires. She opts instead to favor a man who sens her some jewels, ruining the notion of true love for the student and abandoning frivolously what we can assume must have been the sort of true love one would expect a father to want for his daughter.

Even the separation of Amalfitano from his daughter in airports because of their different citizenships points to a sort of infidelity (if not one she’s really culpable for), as he goes through one line while his daughter is frisked by strange men (one can imagine) in another.

And then there’s the voice’s repeated exhortation for Amalfitano to do something useful for his daughter. He is essentially telling Amalfitano to snap out of it and be a man, a reasonable enough suggestion for a character who displays nothing of manhood anywhere so far in the book. Professor Pérez all but throws herself at him (dressed like a ’70s movie star, caressing his face, touching his thigh, taking his arm as if they’re lovers), but he’s ever a cold fish. Several times, he considers planting a tree in his yard, an act that would produce fruit and demonstrate fertility and a lapse the voice reminds him of, but he never follows through, with telling symbolism.

I believe it’s even worth considering whether or not Rosa is Amalfitano’s child. The origin of of the word “cuckold” lies in the habit of the cuckoo of laying its eggs in another bird’s nest. Lola expresses a desire to carry the poet’s child, and at some point she has her son Benoît. Having left a child in Amalfitano’s nest before running off to seek the poet, has Lola in fact left behind Amalfitano’s child or the child of another with whom she’s cuckolded him? (“Lola” is a diminutive form of dolores, meaning “sorrows.” On pages 204 and 210, we see references to “birds of sorrow” and to “tiny little eggs.” Is it reasonable to put these things together to give weight to the Lola-as-cuckoo and Rosa as bastard conceits?) The lack of anything like passion in descriptions of their interactions or their history certainly leaves the possibility open.

Yet Amalfitano takes his matrimonial cuckolding in very gracious stride. Lola writes to him of her experiences with the poet, but he doesn’t seem angry. It’s clear that he loves her (that beautiful image he has of her typing him a letter, reflected in the sky outside an office window), and after her long-overdue return, he sends her away with most of his savings when she leaves. He is the very definition of a magnanimous cuckold.

Much has been made over whether or not Amalfitano is gay, and whether Guerra is gay. (Incidentally, back on the matter of the cuckold as a man with horns, I had trouble not imagining the Guerra of page 218, decked out like a cowboy and jumping out to sort of attack Amalfitano, as a man in conquest of a bull.) Although he seems passionless, I don’t think of Amalfitano as gay. He’s more sexless, something of a bachelor (remember Pelletier’s meditation on the machines célibataires as he himself contemplated aging and the search for fulfillment?) unsure of his relation to the women in his life. Or, for that matter, to the men. Amalfitano seems to me like Prufrock without the yearning.

I can’t quite find a way to bring this to a tidy conclusion. The cuckold is usually a comic figure, and yet Amalfitano is, to me, a sad, sympathetic man. Maria may have it right that Bolaño is saying something, with Amalfitano, about how alien homosexuality is to a virile Hispanic man. But this seems an awfully heavy section of the book for describing what seems to me to wind up being a pretty shallow cultural artifact. In a follow-up comment, Maria says “We do know that it’s men, not women, who are abducting a ton of girls and then torturing and killing them in that strange, sad border town. And this is a real thing that is really happening, in a real border town, to this day.” And maybe that is what really lies at the heart of the Amalfitano section. He’s more or less as helpless to do something useful for his daughter as he is to keep his wife from abandoning him and screwing around on him. What does it mean to be a man in a world in which men are so powerless to hold onto and protect those they would cling to?

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This week’s early milestone stops right in the middle of what is both metaphorically and literally a pivotal scene. I can’t even pretend to say anything useful about it until the scene is resolved. Maybe later in the week, I’ll come up with something about stuff that happens through page 611, but for now, I’ve got nothing. There’s stuff to say. The stuff about Mario, for example. Weird little motifs (e.g. fingers). That sort of thing. Sinister (by which I mean not just sort of malignant but also left-handed, which I think is a good thing to notice) Swiss Subjects. There’s plenty to write about — just not much I’ve got the urge to sit down and do anything with just now.

Two things that sort of broke my heart, reading this far in the book for the first time since Wallace’s death:

It’s weird to feel like you miss someone you’re not sure you even know.

and:

Madame still had a slight accent and often spoke on the show as if she were talking exclusively to one person or character who was very important to her… Mario’d fallen in love with the first Madame Psychosis programs because he felt like he was listening to someone sad read out loud from yellow letters she’d taken out of a shoebox on a rainy P.M., stuff about heartbreak and people you loved dying and U.S. woe, stuff that was real. It is increasingly hard to find valid art that is about stuff that is real in this way.

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Avery Edison Hurt my Feelings

I think I’m generally considered by those who know me personally to be like Vulcan-level rational, often to a fault. Rational thought tends to supercede feeling, to the point that I wind up hurting people’s feelings by demanding (or at least expecting, and balking at the lack of) distanced, objective consideration of things that are really more or better felt than considered.

So imagine my surprise when I read Avery Edison’s Infinite Summer post yesterday and found myself becoming defensive and doing this weird rare thing that I think may have been emoting. She doesn’t like the book. She’s reading it with distaste and figures it’s a waste of time. She disdains the style and yearns for more explicit and I suppose active plot rather than what she describes as portraits. When I read (and reread) her post, I find myself getting flushed, feeling angry. She doesn’t deserve this book. She’s somehow profaning the book by owning a copy of it and having these opinions. I wish she’d stop reading it, stop taking pot-shots at it. Why doesn’t she just go get the latest Grisham (not much but plot in those, is there?) or maybe a Harlequin romance? Is she fucking retarded?

Silly, huh? I know rationally that her position is valid and shared by many (for many express similar sentiments in the comments to her post). I know that there are simple matters of taste in literature. And I don’t mean taste as in snobby wine drinkers who’ll buy only from boutique wine shops vs. those of us who are happy enough to drink a Yellow Tail. I mean taste simply as in some people like broccoli and some people don’t, and there’s nothing wrong with either position. I know this. When I read Portrait of a Lady many years ago, I had much the same reaction to it that Avery had to Infinite Jest. Rationally, I understand that this book, and probably most of Wallace’s work, just isn’t for Avery, and I know objectively that that’s ok and doesn’t in any way detract from the book’s value for me.

But still, I feel like she’s denigrating one of my children, or unjustly defaming one of my heroes. It’s hard to get past. And here’s the thing: I don’t feel this way about any other author. I’m a great admirer of the work of William Gaddis, but if somebody told me they couldn’t get past page 4 of JR, I’d be neither surprised nor bothered. I have kind of a love/hate relationship with Pynchon’s work; it took me three or four tries to get through Gravity’s Rainbow, and I’ve false started a couple of his others a couple of times too. I haven’t made it more than halfway through Ulysses yet (despite several tries). Steinbeck is another favorite of mine. He’s more traditional and human, in a way, than these postmodern giants. Where I have no real sense of personal admiration for Gaddis or Pynchon (it’s their work I’m on board with), I feel like Steinbeck was a nice, sort of approachable guy, and I sort of like him. Yet if somebody says they don’t like his work, it doesn’t bother me. No hard feelings.

What is it, then, about this disdain for Infinite Jest that sticks in my craw? I do admire who Wallace seemed to be. I think he was probably a good, nourishing person to know personally. But I didn’t know him personally, so I can’t chalk my hurt feelings up to that. Maybe it’s because he died, but then Steinbeck is dead too. Maybe it’s because he’s the first real author whose prime occurred during my active reading/intellectual prime, and whose life ended during mine. That does make it all more personal to me. I had looked forward to many more books from Wallace, to many more years of not only enjoying his work, but of watching it develop in something more like real-time than for these old or dead authors whose work I admire mostly looking back in time. Reading Wallace’s work has been, in a way, almost like watching a child grow up (though I’m not comfortable with the sort of superior or parental role that simile places me in, so let’s discard that part of it). And now that work is done.

There’s a reference somewhere in Infinite Jest to a character (I think a past boyfriend of Molly Notkin’s) who believes that there’s a finite number of orgasms available in the world, and so he’s crippled by the fear of consuming one of them and thus depriving another person of one of them (side note: it just occurs to me that this orgasm limit and selflessness ties in with the whole can-of-soup discussion Marathe and Steeply have at the end of this week’s milestone). Although I know it’s irrational, I feel almost that way about reading Infinite Jest. If somebody’s going to read it at arm’s length or with a sneer or a frown of distaste, I don’t want her to read it. It’s almost like she’s wasting its time (rather than its wasting hers) or preventing some other person from enjoying this major piece of what sadly turns out to be a finite (and far less prolific than I’d desire) body of work. It’s irrational and stupid, I know, but it’s how I feel. Hashing it out here has helped me step back a little bit, so that I can get past the weird flash of anger or resentment I feel when I think about Avery’s post (and similar reactions), but it still all hurts my feelings a little, makes me feel sad and further bereft.

Sadness

Wallace once said that in writing Infinite Jest, he wanted to write something sad. There are lots of individual fragments of sadness throughout the book that I need not catalogue. As I got to the end of this week’s milestone, I was more or less knocked over by what turns out to be probably the central overarching sadness of the book. And I found it in, of all places, a Steeply/Marathe section. These sections have always felt during previous readings almost like filler, stuff to sort of loosely bind together a couple of the larger plots. I’ve found them a bit more compelling this time around, though still strange and disjunctive, removed somehow (geographically, of course, but also in mood) from the rest of the book.

In the section that struck me, Marathe is trying to coax Steeply through a dialog (in almost the Socratic sense) about desire and delayed gratification. Steeply says the usual platitudes about freedom and being responsible adults and how the social contract is what keeps us from bonking one another on the head, because in order to maximize our own pleasure, we have to make sure we’re not curtailing the pleasure of others. He has also says that, in the case of kids and candy, for example, “[i]t can’t be a Fascist matter of screaming at the kid or giving him electric shocks each time he overindulges in candy. You can’t induce a moral sensibility the same way you’d train a rat. The kid has got to learn by his own experience how to learn to balance the short-and long-term pursuit of what he wants” (429).

Just a page later, we go to Marathe:

‘You believe we are underestimating to see all you as selfish, decadent. But the question has been raised: are we cells of Canada alone in this view? Aren’t you afraid, you of your government and gendarmes? If not, your B.S.S., why work so hard to prevent dissemination? Why make a simple Entertainment, no matter how seducing its pleasures, a samizdat and forbidden in the first place, if you do not fear so many U.S.A.s cannot make the enlightened choices?’

This now was the closest large Steeply had come, to stand over Marathe to look down, looming. The rising astral body Venus lit his left side of the face to the color of pallid cheese. ‘Get real. The Entertainment isn’t candy or beer. Look at Boston just now. You can’t compare this kind of insidious enslaving process to your little cases of sugar and soup.’

Marathe smiled bleakly into the chiaroscuro flesh of this round and hairless U.S.A face. ‘Perhaps the facts are true, after the first watching: that then there seems to be no choice. But to decide to be this pleasurably entertained in the first place. This is still a choice, no? Sacred to the viewing self, and free? No? Yes?’

In the case of the attache in the context of whose viewing we’re first introduced to the Entertainment, of course he had no specific choice in the matter of being made catatonic by the film; he didn’t know what specifically he was in for. One could reasonably enough argue that he was so enslaved by the habit of passive entertainment that he may as well have made the choice to view the cartridge that would leave him slobbering and incontinent. Let’s put that aside for a moment, though, and grant that most people confronted with the choice to watch or not watch a movie that will assuredly prove fatal would choose not to. If we grant as much, then Steeply’s more or less right, and Marathe’s point doesn’t really hold.

But take Steeply’s own words: “Look at Boston just now.” Look at it. Hookers turning tricks with their dead babies still placentally attached. Fathers diddling their catatonic retarded rubber-masked daughters and driving their complicit adoptive daughters to become strippers. Withdrawal-racked transgendered prostitutes stealing hearts and later going into withdrawal-induced seizures on buses. Talented, smart, All-American-type girls going into friends’ bathrooms for what they plan to make their last dance with Too Much Fun. And so on and so forth, all to feed the Spider. Boston just now is full of people who know, in at least vague, Just-Say-No, ways that there can be severe consequences for engaging in certain behaviors known to be addictive. And yet they do them, many well beyond that healthy way in which, say, a Schacht occasionally indulges, and they do them, and they do them until they hit bottom, until they have to bonk others on the head for their fix: they’re kids eating candy all day until they throw up even though, in many cases, they knew better.

As Steeply says, “[y]ou can’t induce a moral sensibility the same way you’d train a rat.” And yet clearly the moral sensibility (or whatever sensibility it is — one of self-preservation, maybe?) isn’t self-generating, or at any rate is pretty easily put aside, for all of the people suffering the horrors of their addictions. How, then, do you fix the problem? You can’t force a fix, but people resist fixes from within. It’s another double-bind, its own sort of dark infinite jest. This is a bleak, bleak view.

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