Future, Present, & Past:

~~ Giving itself latitude and leisure to take any premise or inquiry to its furthest associative conclusion.
Critical~~ Ready to apply, to itself and its object, the canons of reason, evidence, style, and ethics, up to their limits.
Traditional~~ At home and at large in the ecosystem of practice and memory that radically nourishes the whole person.

Oυδεὶς άμουσος εἰσίτω

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Niggle and Morel

On the heels of writing my last post on literary and/or homeopathic "immortality," I finally got around to reading Eileen Joy's "You Are Here: A Manifesto"
literature [i]s a kind of poetic DNA, an inter-subjective, living, and dynamic process and also an open "signaling system," ...literary narratives, especially the ones crafted with a high degree of artistry and whose authors generously and playfully leave the most important questions unsettled ...these narratives are never really done, never really "over"[;].... [C]hange...accomplishes a special purchase within the realm of the imaginative, narrative arts, which I want to argue includes literary criticism, includes scholarship, includes thinking.
This is just what I mean. Moreover, this is (I assert) what the great literary/philosophical tradition has always meant. One retells the great myths not in order to hear them again but to enter them.

Walter Benjamin:
...the listener's naive relationship to the storyteller is controlled by his interest in retaining what he is told. The cardinal point for the unaffected listener is to assure himself of the possibility of reproducing the story. Memory is the epic facultypar excellence. Only by virtue of a comprehensive memory can epic writing absorb the course of events on the one hand and, with the passing of these, make its peace with the power of death on the other. ("The Storyteller.")
Compare this to a remark of James Carse in his Finite and Infinite Games. Carse writes:
To tell a story for its own sake is to tell it for no other reason than that it is a story. Great stories have this feature: to listen to them and learn them is to become their narrator.
It goes back to Plato, at least. Writing, he says, always "says the same thing;" this is why speech is higher, because it can change, because in saying what it means it will alter according to need. Far from undoing any "determinate meaning," this ability to change is precisely what makes speech capable of communicating a meaning. This very same point is made by Latour, in his work on iconoclash: no image means anything by itself; meaning only transpires by moving from one image, one story, one interpretation, to another, to another. This is the case in science as well as in religion, though the modalities of the meanings at stake in such images differs. Of lovers of images, Latour writes that their
iconophilia does not mean the exclusive and obsessive attention to image.... Iconophilia means moving from one image to the next. They know "truth is image but there is no image of truth." For them, the only way to access truth, objectivity, and sanctity is to move fast from one image to another, not to dream the impossible dream of jumping to a non-existing original.
Towards the end of her essay, Joy expressly invokes artistic immortality, urging us to get busy
making new objects. Giving birth to things. Radical acts of coupling and natality and hetero-queer reproduction. Until you can’t anymore. That’s when you drop dead. But don’t worry... you’ll always be with us, by which I mean: with me. I’ll never forget you and I trust you’ll do the same for me. I’m talking to you but also to my dog, the hawthorn outside my study window, the window itself, my favorite plate, and the imaginary pen I write my imaginary books with that never get published. We’ll designate mourners and record their grieving, then play it on an endless feedback loop machine that has a one-thousand-year battery. Some call this medieval studies. Or the humanities, which need to get more, and not less human.
This thousand-year capacity and this playback machine mark the bathetic limit of human aspirations. Long as art may be, it is finite. The feedback loop machine that Joy describes is, essentially, the invention of Morel. This is the title of a novel by Adolfo Bioy Casares, upon which Robbe-Grillet's famous and maddening film Last Year at Marienbad was supposedly based, in part. There is no online text of the story available as far as I can tell, but there are several critical essays, for instance this fine one by David Auerbach. In this novel (spoiler alert), a refugee on an uncharted island discovers a group of people who turn out to be only 3-D holographic images, endlessly repeating a week-long recording made decades earlier. The narrator, slowly unriddling the nature of the people, who of course do not see him, becomes infatuated with one of the women, named Faustine. Eventually he discovers the secret of the recording mechanism, and despite realizing that the process will likely kill him (there are hints that all the original party later died horribly from the effects of the recording process), he records himself "interacting" with various members of the original recording, especially Faustine, in order to give the impression that he was there originally and that he and Faustine are a romantic couple. In effect, he has spliced himself into a story in which he had no part. The story ends with a plea that some future inventor will merge his soul with Faustine's. The Invention of Morel was praised by Jorge Luis Borges as a perfectly contrived fiction. What Borges seems especially to have admired was the way the mysterious atmosphere of the story was resolved (in a perfectly this-worldly manner once the technological premise is accepted) even as it occasioned metaphysical questions that were beyond it.

Bioy Casares' story was published in 1940. It is almost perfectly contemporary with Tolkien's "Leaf by Niggle", written in 1938-39 (albeit first published in '45). (Thanks to SCT reader and commenter Alf for the email which inspired this comparison.) In this work, the painter Niggle works endlessly and sometimes aimlessly on an enormous painting of a tree, when he should be getting ready for a "journey" he must take. He is troubled when he remembers the necessity of the journey and occasionally makes some token preparations; and he resents the intrusions of other business, especially the needs of his neighbor, Parish, who has a bad leg and often needs assistance; but mostly he works and works on his unfinished and perhaps unfinishable painting. One day, however, he is suddenly called upon to leave on his "journey." (Despite Tolkien's avowed dislike of allegory, it is indisputable that this journey is death). Because he arrives with "no luggage," Niggle must stay in a kind of purgatorial "Workhouse," where his labors, at first very arduous, become satisfying little by little, not because they change but because Niggle does. He develops a kind of Zen-like discipline and detachment. Then, after a spate of particularly back-breaking work, he is told to take complete rest. Lying in the dark, he overhears two Voices discussing his "case." Eventually they conclude it is time for some "gentle treatment;" Niggle awakes the next day to be sent on a train to a little station where he finds a bicycle and a path.
The bicycle was rolling along over a marvellous turf. It was green and close; and yet he could see every blade distinctly. He seemed to remember having seen or dreamed of that sweep of grass somewhere or other. The curves of the land were familiar somehow. Yes: the ground was becoming level, as it should, and now, of course, it was beginning to rise again. A great green shadow came between him and the sun. Niggle looked up, and fell off his bicycle.

Before him stood the Tree, his Tree, finished. If you could say that of a Tree that was alive, its leaves opening, its branches growing and bending in the wind that Niggle had so often felt or guessed, and had so often failed to catch. He gazed at the Tree, and slowly he lifted his arms and opened them wide.

"It's a gift!" he said.
Niggle has found himself in his own art, his art perfected, as it were, by grace. He has been placed there, not by his own design, like the narrator of Morel, nor in a closed universe that repeats endlessly, but in a real world that opens endlessly upon more and more. Even in his original painting, Niggle had included far in the distance mountains; these now become the sign of a threshold to a world beyond his own subcreation, but with which that subcreation is continuous.
There were the Mountains in the background. They did get nearer, very slowly. They did not seem to belong to the picture, or only as a link to something else, a glimpse through the trees of something different, a further stage: another picture.
Like the thousand-year battery Eileen Joy imagines running the feedback-machine of mourning, all the fame of even the best art has its limit. A tiny corner of Niggle's original canvas painting is preserved for a while,
left...to the Town Museum, and for a long while "Leaf: by Niggle" hung there in a recess, and was noticed by a few eyes. But eventually the Museum was burnt down, and the leaf, and Niggle, were entirely forgotten in his old country.
The possibility of really standing under the Tree the artist imagines (and we are all artists in this sense), and of hiking beyond the forest into the land beyond, cannot be given by art, although art can imagine it. Eventually Niggle does go off towards the mountains, leaving Parish to look after the Tree and the garden.
Even little Niggle in his old home could glimpse the Mountains far away, and they got into the borders of his picture; but what they are really like, and what lies beyond them, only those can say who have climbed them.
My brief reading of Tolkien's allegory is not meant to be definitive, much less demonstrative. I am only highlighting what I take to be the difference between the highest aspirations of which human art is capable (a hope for a Nabokovian immortality, an immortality "in song" as it were, long-lived perhaps, like the Indian or Tibetan gods, but ultimately destined to find their limit), and the eschatological assurance of the Christian gospel in which Tolkien believed. I am far from asserting that Tolkien's thematics of subcreation, enchantment, and so on, can only be accessed or even understood by those who share these commitments. My own position, however, is that "enchantment" in the sense in which Tolkien conceived it, is distinguished from delusion in precisely the way Morel's narrator is distinguished from Niggle. The former remains hermetically sealed off from the world. The latter moves, like Latour's iconophile, from story to story to story; it knows, as Joy's commends us to know, that "these narratives are never really done, never really 'over'." But of course, for these narratives to really never be done, they must transpire in a world larger than the one bounded by extinction, in which the clever animals must die and the Museum inevitably burns down. Human subcreation may intuit or hope for such a world, but it is not our prerogative to make it. Either we must find that it is the world in which we are already, or we must live in disappointment, delusion, or resignation.


  1. Lovely post, and thanks for your generous commentary upon my talk, which gives me some very productive food for further thought. I agree with you about immortality, by the way [literary or otherwise]. One reason I chose the idea of thousand-year battery is partly because that is roughly the amount of time that has transpired since roundabout the tenth century [the period that I study: I am an Anglo-Saxonist], but also because I know there's an end-point--ultimately, this universe will not last forever, nor will human culture [well, *this* human culture, anyway]. When I said in my talk, "I won't forget you," I kind of meant, also, "as long as I can, which isn't forever." That's why *this* world, the one we are in now, is where we have to find meaning, and not necessarily in posterity. But I would also like to make the argument that anything that exists now is always, and will always, in some fashion, be "here." I take some comfort in that idea. Art, of course, as you also sketch out here, provides a unique realm within which, in some way, almost anything is possible. It offers an alternate form of consciousness which, although not immortal, nor as assured of longevity as a tectonic plate, does extend beyond us in certain meaningful ways and functions as an "item" within large textual and language networks that I really believe are a type of world sentience. In any case: some beautiful writing here.

  2. Eileen, welcome and thank you. I've been savoring posts from In the Middle for years now, so it's gratifying to have you stop by. I've a closet amateur medievalism hobby of my own and perhaps eventually something about that will turn up here. Speaking of Anglo-Saxon, once upon a time I did a good spot of thinking about The Wife's Lament, one of the saddest and most perfect poems I know (I incline to think it is not fragmentary).

    My notion is that art, like all finite human things, shows despite its finitude, and indeed because of its finitude, a hint at what it cannot, itself, deliver, but for which we may hope. I shudder at art, if that is the word, which sneers at hope, just as I shudder at "art" which claims to deliver what it cannot. The former is nihilism-- a temptation to which I am prone, so I know of which I speak -- and the latter is just kitsch or complacency.

    Will what exists now always "be here"? This is part of what I suggested in my bit on "homeopathic" immortality (despite dilution, any experience could in principle be retrievable); I recently saw a lecture by Michael Persinger (courtesy of Matthew Segall at Footnotes to Plato) in which Persinger suggests that every bit of neuron-processed experience could in principle be stored in the Earth's ionospheric electromagnetic field. The notion that "information is never lost" is the hard-science analogue to the hope of the Church in proclaiming "memory eternal;" but when I think that what has happened will never not have happened, I am making an ontological assertion, not a falsifiable scientific claim.

    My real, deep, argument, is that the philosophico-literary tradition of the west (at least) has always been about this kind of "mortal immortality;" it is however divided -- inevitably so -- upon the further, religious, question of whether this hint "points to something," or not. This is simply the question of the limits of representation and discourse.