May 27 2016

Cards and Cars in Paris and New Orleans

bookbread pencil shavings

Cards and Cars in Paris and New Orleans

I recently finished Wendell Pierce’s moving memoir of Katrina and New Orleans, The Wind in the Reeds (2015) and intend to soon blog about it in more detail. But already passages from Pierce as well as from Houellebecq’s Submission (2015) concerning the differences in mobility and mentality for Americans and Europeans has set my mind a pondering…. trying to stitch together meaning of previous thoughts on trials and travel….

JAQUES: It is a melancholy of mine own, compounded of many simples, extracted from many objects, and indeed the sundry’s contemplation of my travels, in which my often rumination wraps me m a most humorous sadness.

ROSALIND: A traveller! By my faith, you have great reason to be sad: I fear you have sold your own lands to see other men’s; then, to have seen much and to have nothing, is to have rich eyes and poor hands.

JAQUES: Yes, I have gained my experience.

ROSALIND: And your experience makes you sad: I had rather have a fool to make me merry than experience to make me sad; and to travel for it too!

–Shakespeare[1]

 The closest thing Americans have to an identity card is their driver’s license—a card that gives them license to drive into the blue yonder and there discover who they are and can be.

–Yi-Fu Tuan[2]

My father’s mantra kept going through my head, strengthening my resolve: “You can’t get lost in America.”

–Wendell Pierce[3]

No one could have appreciated that generosity more than I did, as I received my rations of celery remoulade and cod purce, each in its little compartment of the metal hospital tray issued by the Bullier student cafeteria (whose unfortunate patrons clearly had nowhere else to go, and had obviously been kicked out of all the acceptable student cafeterias, but who still had their student IDs––you couldn’t take away their student IDs), and I thought of Huysman’s epithets—the woebegone cheese, the grievous sole—and imagined what he might make of those metal cells, which he’d never known, and I felt a little bit less unhappy, a little bit less alone, in the Bullier student cafeteria.

–Michel Houellebecq[4]

NOTES

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[1] Shakespeare, As You Like It, IV, i.”

[2] Tuan, Yi-Fu. “Place/Space, Ethnicity/Cosmos: How to be More Fully Human.” Why Place Matters: Geography, Identity, and Civic Life in Modern America. Edited by McClay and Ted V. McAllister. NY: New Atlantis Books. 2014. p. 115.

[3] Pierce, Wendell. The Wind in the Reeds: A Storm, a Play, and the City that would not be Broken. NY: Riverhead Books. 2015. pp. 126, 239.

[4] Houellebecq, Michel. Sounmission. (Submission.) Translated by Lorin Stein. NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 2015. p. 6.

 


May 12 2016

The Prose of Paris: Michel Houellebecq’s “Submission” versus Henry Miller’s “Tropic of Cancer”

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The Prose of Paris: Michel Houellebecq’s “Submission” versus Henry Miller’s “Tropic of Cancer”

“Hug me till you drug me, honey.”

––Huxley, Brave New World (1934)[1]

Is Michel Houellebecq’s Sounmission (Submission) (2015) merely a re-writing of Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer (1934)? Do these mannish novels, separated by nearly ninety years, bear any family resemblances? One can say, at the very least, that while Miller turned to surrealism in order to cope with the pains of his reality, Houellebecq opted for satire to understand the surrealism plaguing his reality.

One of the theses of Houellebecq’s narrator is the fact that modern citizens of Western civilization don’t fear death—they fear suffering:

People don’t really care all that much about their own death. What they really worry about, their one real fixation, is how to avoid physical suffering as much as possible. [2]

To condition the mind to cope with death, Westerners have resorted to, among other things, music, drugs, sex, and religion. And, most of the time, as Miller’s narrator observes, none of these actions or options remains satisfactory:

Impossible to dream even when the music itself is nothing but a dream…. There is only the poetry of motion creating the illusion of truth and drama.[3]

The “illusion of truth” inhibits one from encountering the truth.[4] The illusion of truth inhibits all experience. This idea is further explored in Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? a.k.a. Blade Runner (1968):

Out in what had been before the war the suburbs, one could find buildings entirely empty … or so he had heard. He had let the information remain secondhand; like most people he did not care to experience it directly.[5]

Is it too absolute, too definite, to suggest that doubt is the midpoint between dream and experience?

Much of Dick’s Electric Sheep is a rewriting of Huxley’s Brave New World (1931). In fact, Dick’s fiction has been conditioned by Huxley’s. From the latter:

It was the sort of idea that might easily decondition the more unsettled minds among the higher castes—make them lose their faith in happiness as the Sovereign Good and take to believing, instead, that the goal was somewhere beyond, somewhere outside the present human sphere; that the purpose of life was not the maintenance of well-being, but some intensification and refining of consciousness, some enlargement of knowledge…. All conditioning aims at that: making people like their unescapable social destiny.” [6]

Oh untimely death![7] Oh inescapable conditioning! With Houellebecq the narrator’s conversion to Islam serves as the medium of his conditioning. In Dick’s book the profession of the character of Rick is that of a bounty hunter, and this––as well as the possibility that Rick may be an android implanted with false memories of being a bounty hunter––has conditioned him to prefer avoiding direct experience. In Huxley the soma pills inhibit the experiences had by the novel’s characters, which is why they sing things like: “hug me till you drug me, honey.” And in Sinclair Lewis’s novel Elmer Gantry (1927), the conditioning comes via the American brand of evangelical Christianity. It is a brand that strives to bring happiness to the sick rather than healing, but this happiness is just another “illusion of truth” that inhibits experience:

“Can you think of anything finer for a big husky like you than to spend his life bringing poor, weak, sick, scared folks to happiness? Can’t you see how the poor little skinny guys and all the kiddies would follow you and praise you and admire you, you old son of a gun?”

And in a later passage from Lewis:

It was not her eloquence but her healing of the sick which raised Sharon to such eminence that she promised to become the most renowned evangelist in America. People were tired of eloquence; and the whole evangelist business was limited, since even the most ardent were not likely to be saved more than three or four times. But they could be healed constantly, and of the same disease.[8]

Huxley, Houellebecq, and Lewis all use satire to tell their tales, while Dick and Miller, whose texts are not without their moments of comic relief, are for the most part, utterly serious with their styles of storytelling.

NOTES

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[1] Huxley, Aldous. Brave New World. 1931. NY: Harper Collins – First Harper Perennial Modern Classics edition. 2006. XIII, p. 193.

[2] Houellebecq, Michel. Sounmission. (Submission.) Translated by Lorin Stein. NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 2015. p. 230.

[3] Miller, Henry. Tropic of Cancer. 1934. NY: Grove Press. 1961. pp.70, 87–88.

[4] I suspect Miller’s “illusion of truth” is akin to Nietzsche’s “seduction of language,” (Genealogy I, 13).

[5] Dick, Philip K. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? 1968. NY: Delrey Books. 2007. I, 3.

[6] Huxley, Brave New World XII, 177; I, 16.

[7] Shakespeare, King Lear, IV, vi, 239.

[8] Lewis, Sinclair. Elmer Gantry. NY: Harcourt, Brace & Co. 1927. “Chapter III,” 39–40; “Chapter XV,” 212.