Sunday, 6 December 2009


It is almost a truism but still worth repeating - a writer is a kind of spy.  Why is betrayal such a common theme of novels and drama?  Spies are not just stealing secrets; they circulate lies, lead multiple lives.

A certain kind of novel  attracts an easily satisfied readership eager to lend credence to a rigged theatre of ‘ambiguities’.  These ‘hypocritical readers’ are such happy recipients of this kind of novel because they find there a much lesser ambiguity, a much more ‘manageable’ conflict than in ‘life’.  They are lured and gratified by fake symbols obligingly placed like sub-prompters in the scenery by the author-souffleur. 

The world on the other hand is not ambiguous; it is a factual illusion, resistant to perception, not logical and not knowable.  Ambiguity in the sense used by literary critics refers merely to rhetoric.   In this regard, novels are similar to philosophy, which according to Wittgenstein is also only rhetoric.  Human nature is in principle perverse, also not logical.  Hence, so much of human behaviour although not free is unpredictable, even when predictably so.  This leads to a paradoxical reality – in other words dialectical.  The question is not “Why would he...?” but “Why wouldn’t he...?”.  One should never exclude any possibility apriori.  Real motives though, especially those of the 'unconscious', are of secondary interest.

Most novels are shabby imitations of complexity and intrigue - they are constructed along the narrow lines of common knowledge, that’s why they are so easily recognizable by the average recipient – what Heidegger calls “das Man”.  The world of ordinary language is full of foregone conclusions and ideal types (“the idealized woman”, "the loser" etc) with which novelists fill out their novels.  The slightly better sort of  middlebrow type manipulates this heap of platitudes in a more devious way.  They add a kind of parody of chagrin and self-criticism, the so-called anti-hero.  But who wants to read what everyone knows already?  The average novelist cuts through his ‘forest of fake symbols’ to arrive at a false resolution, immediately comprehensible for the average reader.  That’s why they are so useful for dogma and dogmatists.  Such novels purport to reveal the secrets of the ‘human heart’, placing themselves and their writings out of the reach of scepticism, like saints of the average.  What they lack is the wisdom of defeat - which you can find in abundance in the literature of the Orient - for instance Noh.   

Even in greater novels such as “à la recherche du temps perdu”, one is deluged by overemphasized fake symbols.  Since Proust is so often used to stand for the school of nostalgia, it is perhaps easier to demonstrate these intentional fallacies in a book of greater substance.  His symbols are more artificial and more real, for they are part of an elaborate trap and distraction woven into the novel.  For instance the spurious symbol of the narrator’s first  botanical love - the white hawthorn branches adorning the altar of the Holy Virgin in the Cathedral of Combray.  The narrator’s passion for the hawthorn bush seduces the reader into believing the author is expressing a chaste romantic love of nature.  You might think the virginal white hawthorn stands for innocence - like a tomb for mourning.  But it doesn’t.  The author subtly links the hawthorn to one of the first lesbians (gomorrheans) of the book, whose dissembling mask of evil, sadistic character is mingled with the adoration of the hawthorn bush.  Many Proust interpreters refer to the symbol of the hawthorn, following strong hints by Proust himself, as a nostalgic receptacle of his childhood memories, as a lineament of his pervasive cathedral theme.  Such interpreters fall into Proust’s trap.  The white hawthorn is the very image of corruption.  Proust’s work is overflowing with such artificial sentiments and their decoys.

Lesser novelists are unable to use fake symbols as a cover for other meanings; that’s why they stand out so conspicuously, uselessly, with nil literary value.

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