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Dismemberment

A couple of months ago, I wrote about disembodiment. Tonight, I’ll give brief consideration to dismemberment, of which there is no shortage in 2666 without even counting all the severed nipples in the fourth part. First, a brief list taken from this week’s reading (some of these aren’t dismemberment precisely, but they’re disfigurings, at any rate, or catastrophic disabilities):

  • Reiter is shot in the throat and loses his voice for a while.
  • Ansky meets a soldier missing an eye and an arm (709)
  • A hunter is described whose sex organs have been torn off. He goes searching for them until at last he marries, at which point, having aged thirty years after being unmanned, he ages in reverse to get the thirty years back. Is there something of the Actaeon myth here?
  • There’s a curious episode with some indigenous people whom the Europeans believe to be cannibals but who actually take the European habit of shaking hands and making eye-contact to be a sort of threat of soul-rape. This isn’t exactly dismemberment, but gosh there sure does seem to be a threat of it, and it just feels related to me.
  • Reiter returns to his war buddies to find that Kruse now speaks as if he’s been castrated (738)
  • Reiter’s mother is blind in one eye.
  • Reiter’s father lost a leg and has some interaction with a sergeant who has also lost a leg.
  • Here’s a real stretch: There’s lots of talk of masturbation in this week’s reading. Can masturbation be construed to be a sort of almost imagined dismemberment of another person?

Some dismemberment  is to be expected, I suppose. It’s war time during this section, after all.

Still, some other body-wholeness or health issues occur to me.

Bolaño was dying as he wrote 2666 and in fact didn’t actually finish writing and editing the book (there’s supposedly a sixth part floating around somewhere). His terminal illness surely must have informed some of his impressions about death. Can it also have led him to focus on body/health issues, or do you suppose that was part of his project to begin with?

Bolaño writes a bit about art and body as well. We can’t forget Edwin Johns and his lost hand, of course, and what to me remains an open question regarding his real motivation for chopping off his hand. And then there’s Archimboldi’s namesake, Arcimboldo, about whom I wrote earlier with an eye toward the critics as a sort of composite character. As Arcimboldo composes some of his pictures as bodies made up of bodies, so Bolaño has made two big piles of bodies (at least two — the biggest or most explicit or pronounced being those of the Jews mid-century and of Mexican women late-century). And then there’s the matter of Bolaño’s health — perhaps worsened by the vagabond artist’s lifestyle he indulged in for much of his life? — and his own decision to switch gears in 1990 to write fiction rather than his beloved poetry, a decision fueled by a perception that he needed to be able to support his family, which he couldn’t do with poetry. Was Johns telling the truth after all, and betraying Bolaño’s own sense of having somehow sold out?

The final section of 2666 feels very mythological to me. It’s almost like a folk tale in tone and content at times. It tells the creation story of the man whose elusiveness set the opening part of the book in motion. Reiter is described as a giant many times, has a strange, counter-intuitive resistance to gunfire in spite of his height, and in fact has a mythology built up around him by the critics. He travels the world on adventures, is stripped of powers (speech) that he later regains, and even has something of an experience, in Castle Dracula, that one might liken to a trip into a labyrinthine underworld complete with a view of a chanting devil. He is awarded the medals of a hero.

As I contemplated the idea of Reiter/Archimboldi as a mythological figure, I tried to think of mythological figures who had been somehow disfigured. Cyclops with his one eye was, I suppose, born that way, but he bears mentioning because of all the one-eyedness in this section and before (blind justice, the mural of the winking saint). Another one-eyed figure were the Graeae, a set of crones (sisters to the Gorgons) who shared one eye and one tooth and whom Perseus outwitted. Prometheus had his liver perpetually torn out by eagles. Medusa, who has made a couple of appearances in Bolaño’s book, was ultimately decapitated, her head used as a weapon in future adventures. There are probably lots that I’m missing.

But the one that seems most relevant to me is Orpheus.  He was the son of a river god, and it’s hard for me to put aside the strange water associations Bolaño assigns to Reiter. Orpheus was linked more to community and to his disciples than to any one race or family; similarly, Reiter/Archimboldi, with his mixed-nationality name and his multi-national appeal, transcends boundaries of country and race. Orpheus was a great singer (and by extension poet) famous for his trip to the underworld to retrieve his wife, Eurydice. After failing to rescue her (he looked back into Hades before she had emerged and thus broke the deal), he became so despondent that he forsook all gods but Apollo, and when he went one morning to the oracle of Dionysus and began to praise Apollo, the female followers of Dionysus ripped him limb from limb. As his head and lyre bobbed down the river, he continued singing. Archimboldi’s final book (at the time of the story’s action, at least) will be called The Head, though I don’t think we know what it’s about. It’s an interesting title, given these little similarities between Orpheus and Reiter and the occurrences of art and disfigurement or dismemberment.

Consider also the story of Medusa. There are different renderings of the myth, but a couple of them suggest that she was actually very beautiful until she faced the wrath of Athena for defiling her temple by having sex in it. In one of the accounts, Poseidon desired Medusa, which angered Athena, who then allowed Poseidon to rape Medusa in her (Athena’s) temple, whereupon Athena punished Medusa for the defilement with the famous head of snakes and stony glance. I think it’s interesting to think of this story — relevant in a way to the murders in St. Teresa — with its ultimate beheading of a snake-haired head alongside that of Orpheus and his own decapitation: dismemberment of a woman for her uninvited sex set up next to dismemberment and subsequent immortalization of a poet for love of his wife, who died at the fangs of a snake.

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Disembodiment

February 5, 2010 1 comment

In our second swath of reading, I began to notice lots of cases of disembodiment, sometimes figurative and other times literal. I don’t have time for any sort of obsessive synthesis of these things right now, but I thought I’d publish a little list.

  • Medusa/Gorgon and snakes found in England and the Medusa’s disembodied head as a weapon
  • Edwin Johns and mutilation (and Morini’s relationship to it as a man not himself whole of body)
  • Morini’s disembodied voice on the phone message (p. 93)
  • Archimboldi’s book entitled The Head mentioned in this section
  • don’t forget Arcimboldo and his pictures of things made of other things, in particular heads made of bodies.
  • ghost on 98 as a spirit separated from its earthly body
  • synechdoche as a sort of disembodiment? (the head as representative of the whole?)
  • question of whether or not Archimboldi really bodily exists (along with the Marquis de Sade)
  • silhouettes (65)
  • blow you to pieces (60)
  • “bodies and faces” on 84
  • “weren’t you supposed to have disappeared?” (102)
  • Morini is at the U. of Turin; makes me think of the shroud of Turin, a link to another elusive body

There may be more. I had been thinking of trying to tie in the bachelor/brides reference I’ve written about before. Along with lots of instances of disembodiment (or at least attention to bodies and parts of bodies or absence thereof), we see escalating violence in this section. This all seems connected.

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BloodSuckerSexMagick

November 2, 2009 1 comment

“…and while Scary is Exciting, Nice is different than Good.”

-Red Riding Hood, from “I Know Things Now,” Into the Woods

And so we end in a warm living room, all gathered together, knocking back rack punch and talking about that freaky time back just after we got married where Mina got totes possessed and we ran all over Eastern Europe chasing a Vampire.  Vampire, pleeease.

So is Dracula a Good book?  Meh.  I think it has probably been more of a Nice book for me … a creepy tale of the supernatural mixed with no small amount of “Law & Order”-like proceduralism to keep the pace going.  But for me, all of the compelling bits ended up falling short of their early promise:

Mina as the “New Woman” – why couldn’t her Baptism by Blood have proven to be the small impetus needed to turn her from an apologist for women who wanted more out of Victorian life to a rabid champion for what womanhood could have been.  Lucy might have been the hot one, but Mina had all the makings of that kind-of-wierd-but-sort-of-hot girl in your Psych 201 class, with all the threat and promise of the same.

Renfield as the Spurned Apostle – poor most-likely-bipolar Renfield.  Never have we seen a more plain case of hero worship/man crush gone horribly wrong.  Imagine what his diary might have been like … secreted away under his stool, pages sticky with melted sugar and the cover painstakingly adorned with the pearlescent sheen of a thousand blowfly wings.

Van Helsing as the (Un)witting Impetus — Abraham, with your so halting speech and  knowledge of the wampyr that seems almost uncanny in its thoroughness.  Surely Stoker must have thought you had a little bit more in you.  In your so-strong drive for knowledge, a drive that drove your poor wife Sarah mad with fear and grief, you saw something one night, didn’t you?  Peering up over a rock lip onto the unholy convocation of the scholars at Scholomance you witnessed something so thrillingly wrong, so completely, compellingly depraved that the rest of your life would be spent trying to scrub that so-not-of-Gott image from your mind, hoping against hope that you’d fail.  Abe, you are a sick little monkey.

Jonathan “I Was Cuckolded by The Undead and All I Got Was this Lousy Head of White Hair” Harker:  You never could get those three women out of your minds, could you, Johnny?  How could Mina ever be enough after the freaky bloodthrill of getting three-wayed in the Eastern European equivalent of the Bunny Ranch.  ANd tell me you didn’t go into explicit detail the minute you and the boys were out of earshot of the women.  Dude, you had three undead, bi-curious, possibly related wraith women fighting over who would be your first?  How do you not turn that into the best campfire story ever?

Of course, the slash fic possibilities are endless.  And maybe in the end, it’s that malleability that makes Dracula a classic.  You can hang sex, mystery, nationalism, criminality, class warfare and so many other Big Ideas from the hooks Stoker leaves festooned around the story that Dracula can’t help but be retold and reread time and time again.  It brushes up against enough of humanity’s Naughty Bits that it ends up being the perfect framework into which we can all cast our own hopes and fears about Life, Death, Sex, Money, Class and Technology and more and watch what happens.

So is Dracula a good book?  Maybe not.  But is Dracula the book we need and deserve?  Mien Gott, yes.

Phoning it In

I’ve got company in town this week and really divided attention, so I’ll almost certainly be less prolific and more half-assed about posting over the next few days. For now, some quotes about pattern:

  • “[Madame Psychosis's] monologues seem both free-associative and intricately structured, not unlike nightmares.” (185)
  • “Madame’s themes are at once unpredictable and somehow rhythmic, more like probability-waves for subhadronics than anything else.” (187)
  • “You can never predict what it will be, but over time some kind of pattern emerges, a trend or rhythm. Tonight’s background fits, somehow, as she reads… The word periodic pops into his head.” (190)
  • “The background music is both predictable and, within that predictability, surprising: it’s periodic. It suggests expansion without really expanding. It leads up to the exact kind of inevitability it denies.” (191)

The recurrence of a number of phrases and ideas (e.g. the distant familiarity of MP’s voice and its associations for Mario) along with this insistence on paradoxically unpredictably periodic patterns makes me suspect that this section of the book could be charted or analyzed to uncover an underlying pretty tightly-controlled pattern. If so, then Wallace has done just what he’s talking about in these passages by providing a sense of unpredictable rhythm that turns out actually to be periodic. It would make a lot of sense for him to do something like this given various themes of circularity/period in the book. Whether or not there’s anything to my suspicion will have to be confirmed by somebody else or at another time, though.

I can’t help thinking that sections like this might be part of what led Bookworm’s Silverblatt to intuit that there was something fractal about the book’s structure, an intuition Wallace confirmed. The very pattern Wallace claimed informed the structure of the book makes an appearance on page 213 in the form of the Sierpinski gasket. I’ve been familiar with this particular fractal since I discovered during high school calculus a function on my graphing calculator that would draw it. With minimal digging, I found the following further information about the figure (source):

It apparently was Mandelbrot who first gave it the name “Sierpinski’s gasket.” Sierpinski described the construction to give an example of “a curve simultaneously Cantorian and Jordanian, of which every point is a point of ramification.” Basically, this means that it is a curve that crosses itself at every point.

The quote stood out to me because of the mention of Cantor, who was mentioned in passing on page 81 in a passage I previously flagged as probably important and about whom Wallace wrote a book a few years ago. Cantor studied infinity and was clearly of interest to Wallace, so his naming here in connection with the Sierpinski fractal along with the confession that the fractal informs the book’s structure seems kind of neat.

I was going to stop there but then flipped forward to see if there was anything else important in this milestone. The Joelle things are pretty darned important. I think I probably found these early Joelle passages tiresome or something on my first read, but I was wowed by some of the writing this time around. And not just the description, but the sound of it. Some of this is good to read aloud. Take this fragment from page 221 (emphasis mine):

and now murky-colored people with sacks and grocery carts appraising that litter, squatting to lift and sift through litter; and the rustle and jut of limbs from dumpsters being sifted by people who all day do nothing but sift through I.W.D. dumpsters; and other people’s blue shoeless limbs extending in coronal rays from refrigerator boxes in each block’s three alleys… red annex’s… boxes’ tops… Endless Stem

And this from 222:

clogged solid with leaves and sodden litter. She walks on toward the Common with the empty bottle

in which a number of vowel sounds match perfectly, but “walks” can also be reasonably read to match, and the second syllables of “common” and “bottle” are so swallowed by the emphatic first syllables that they almost come off as something close to feminine rhymes. At any rate, it’s a very trochaic couple of fragments.

And one more (226):

mistaking little mutters of thunder for the approach of the train, wanting more of it so badly she could feel her brain heaving around in its skull, then a pleasant and gentle-faced older black man in a raincoat and hat with a little flat black feather

In this one, “mutters” does double-duty, sharing its staccato t sound with “little” and its vowel with “thunder.” I don’t think there’s a way to draw any sort of extra meaning out of the poetry of these passages (based on the poetry alone), but it sure stood out to me during this read.

One more shifting of the old gears. I wrote briefly at one point about the cardioid shape of the tennis academy campus and the Lung that exists thereon. During this milestone, we see a cranial building complete with more or less anatomically correct structures. And then we see Enfield described as an arm and the academy described as a cyst on the elbow. In The Broom of the System, Wallace creates a place in the shape of Jayne Mansfield (whether just her face/head or her whole person I forget). There’s talk throughout Infinite Jest of eliminating somebody’s map as either killing them or messing their face up very badly in the process of killing them. I don’t really have a point or a theory to advance. I just think it’s interesting to follow this tic or whatever it is.

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Divided Attention and Being in the Body

I took this note on page 146 (the part about video phones):

DFW is concerned here and elsewhere (Mister Squishy) with divided attention — yet look what the full attention of The Entertainment yields.

What I was reacting to was this:

A traditional aural-only conversation… let you enter a kind of highway-hypnotic semi-attentive fugue: while conversing, you could look around the room, doodle, fine-groom, peel tiny bits of dead skin away from your cuticles… all while seeming to be right there attending closely to the voice on the phone. And yet — and this was the retrospectively marvelous part — even as you were dividing your attention between the phone call and all sorts of other idle little fuguelike activities, you were somehow never haunted by the suspicion that the person on the other end’s attention might be similarly divided…. The bilateral illusion of unilateral attention was almost infantilely gratifying from an emotional standpoint: you got to believe you were receiving somebody’s complete attention without having to return it.

He goes on to write about childish self-absorption and the “infantile fantasy of commanding your partner’s attention.” Tangential as this little section seems (almost like a little bit of filler that helps provide some context for the just-barely-future world of the novel), it actually seems to tie in with the infantilizing effect of The Entertainment.

How about JOI’s father’s monologue? What an amazing, sad, funny, unlikely thing. Nobody really talks the way this speaker does, and yet it’s hard not to visualize it happening and to believe it. I always think of John Turturro playing this role.

My first post about the book proper was about being trapped. In this section, we see things like this:

  • “Living in your body” (158)
  • “Head is body” (159)
  • “a machine in the ghost” (160)
  • “That’s my kid, in his body.” (164)
  • “I was in my body. My body and I were one.” (165)
  • “The court becomes a … an extremely unique place to be. It will do everything for you. It will let nothing escape your body.” (166)
  • “It was a foreign body, or a substance, not my body” (167)
  • “We’re just bodies to you.” (167 – 168)
  • “That I was in there” (168)

Flash back to early in the book, where Hal says “I am in here.” I don’t have a thesis about what all this means. I do have yet another quote, though, this time from the Kenyon commencement address Wallace gave a few years ago:

Probably the most dangerous thing about an academic education — least in my own case — is that it enables my tendency to over-intellectualize stuff, to get lost in abstract argument inside my head, instead of simply paying attention to what is going on right in front of me, paying attention to what is going on inside me.

As I’m sure you guys know by now, it is extremely difficult to stay alert and attentive, instead of getting hypnotized by the constant monologue inside your own head (may be happening right now). Twenty years after my own graduation, I have come gradually to understand that the liberal arts cliché about teaching you how to think is actually shorthand for a much deeper, more serious idea: learning how to think really means learning how to exercise some control over how and what you think. It means being conscious and aware enough to choose what you pay attention to and to choose how you construct meaning from experience. Because if you cannot exercise this kind of choice in adult life, you will be totally hosed. Think of the old cliché about quote the mind being an excellent servant but a terrible master.

This, like many clichés, so lame and unexciting on the surface, actually expresses a great and terrible truth. It is not the least bit coincidental that adults who commit suicide with firearms almost always shoot themselves in: the head. They shoot the terrible master.

Almost immediately after saving a draft of this post, I went and read the latest post over at Infinite Summer and discovered that Eden had excerpted from the same part of Wallace’s speech. I swear I’m not just a copy cat. Whether I have a fleshed-out thesis or not, it’s hard for me not to see some thematic similarities between this part of Wallace’s speech and the two sections of the past week’s milestone that I wanted to comment on: divided attention, being (trapped?) in your body/head, a sort of narcissism/solipsism and its infantilizing outcome, the perils of giving yourself too fully to something (The Entertainment, pot, whatever) versus dividing your attention to some degree, and how all that relates to how to think and how to be.

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