Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Growing up

I would like to write a sort of mini review of three books I've read or started reading lately, but that's not what this is going to be. The books are Wittgenstein's Nephew by Thomas Bernhard, Witold Gombrowicz's Diary, and Coetzee's The Childhood of Jesus. OK, here's a mini review: I don't get the first of these at all, but the other two are great. Bernhard's book is full of repetition, which did nothing that I could see except irritate, and occasional bits of what seem like attempts at humor. The part of the book I find hardest to forget is the repetition of the names of two building, the Ludwig Pavilion and the Hermann Pavilion. Bernhard never seems to use a pronoun instead of proper nouns (I assume the problem exists in the original and not just the translation):
While I myself saw Professor Salzer at least once a week, though at first only through the crack of the door, my friend Paul, who was after all his nephew, never saw him once during all the months he spent in the Ludwig Pavilion, although Professor Salzer certainly knew of his nephew's presence and it would have been the easiest thing in the world, as I thought at the time, for him to walk the few yards from the Hermann Pavilion to the Ludwig Pavilion. I do not know what reasons he had for not visiting Paul; perhaps they were weighty reasons, or perhaps he simply found it too much trouble to visit his nephew, who had frequently been a patient in the Ludwig Pavilion, whereas this was my first visit to the Hermann Pavilion.
That might not be enough to make the point, but I found the repetition painful and pointless. Is it meant to be making some clever point about language? It doesn't do so as far as I can see. And then there are (what I take to be) jokes like this:
He had in fact two passions, which were at the same time his two main diseases—music and motor racing. In the first half of his life it was motor racing that meant everything to him; in the second half it was music. And sailing.
This reminded me of something out of Monty Python, except that they did it earlier and better. I feel as though I'm missing the point of the book, but the reviews I've read shed no light on what is supposed to be good about it.

But here's what I really want to say. Gombrowicz's diary (warning: I'm less than a hundred pages in) strikes me as marvelously grownup. It isn't written well in the sense of being full of memorable phrases, although if I kept a commonplace book I think I would have copied out about one part per page for the first fifty pages or so. (It goes a little downhill after that, it seems to me.) And it's not that what he says seems so true. A lot of it is about Polish literature that I haven't read, so it's not that I agree with him about it. But he sounds perceptive, as though he is actually seeing things and calling them as they are when no one else is. Like a rock that is not carried by the current of the stream. I wonder how you get like this.

Coetzee's novel is one of his best (or so it seems after one reading and very few days of digesting it). It's full of Wittgenstein references too, including Cavellian vertigo. And it's about growing up, among other things. The boy at the center of the story isn't like other boys, or other people. What's obvious to him is not obvious to us, and vice versa. He does not react to the methods of teachers as most of us do. But the people of this world are not quite like us either. They are blandly good, and have no sense of irony. The book feels like a riddle but I doubt there is any solution to it, some idea that, once had, acts like a key to open up the book's secret meaning. I certainly hope it isn't a puzzle like that.

Part of growing up, in the sense that Gombrowicz strikes me as grownup, is learning to see through or past the conventions that both guide and pass for thinking in most people's cases. (I'm not claiming to be grownup myself, at least not in any infallible way. Maybe I think of myself as one of the less deceived, but then anyone who thinks does that.) And learning to see these conventions as conventions, not necessities or falsehoods. But it seems as though you have to be able to succumb to these conventions in the first place to get anywhere. Coetzee's boy (he isn't called Jesus in the novel) almost doesn't get an education because he is so difficult to teach. To grow up, or to be a grownup (is it something one grows into?), you have to be different but not too different. Or maybe not really different at all until later. So it's a bit mysterious how one would either acquire this differentness or else maintain it, protect it, through all the years of socialization and education (which doesn't only draw out in a Socratic, midwifing way but draws us into a set of more or less fixed ways of doing things and of thinking). It almost seems as though philosophy is a recipe for growing up, since it teaches us to question conventional wisdom. But I doubt Gombrowicz needed philosophy to think as he does. And it's hardly as if every philosopher is self-aware or genuinely unconventional. Nor as if all questioning of conventional wisdom is wise or mature.

What's needed is a kind of intellectual virtue, it seems to me, combining the ability to sniff out cant and bullshit with the courage or obliviousness that it takes to speak honestly. The kind of philosophy that focuses on language and texts (as in primary sources expressing the author's own views, not as in "everything's a text, if you think about it") could help a lot with the former, I think. The kind of philosophy, that is, that focuses on what people say and mean rather than on problems that are no one's in particular and then tries to solve these problems in a quasi-scientific, methodical way. (I'm not saying that that kind of philosophy is necessarily useless, only that doing it is not especially likely to make anyone better at detecting bull.) Some kinds of literature would probably help as well. The kind that uses language carefully or that draws attention to bullshit and bullshitters. (So not the kind, for instance, that aims at sounding good without having any precise meaning, or that aims at telling a ripping yarn without much concern for wording, or that aims to be a fictional version of journalism or sociology, or that aims to raise and explore impersonal philosophical questions. Again, not that there's necessarily anything wrong with that kind of thing in itself. I like a ripping yarn.) How you learn courage or independence is beyond me though. Perhaps by being surrounded by people who are bravely independent. That would be a good education for grownups, I think.        


  1. discussion with Raimond Gaita

  2. (1) On Thomas Bernhard and pronouns: "I heard your dad went into a restaurant and he ate all the food in the restaurant and they had to close the restaurant." --Ralph Wiggum (The Simpsons, "King-Size Homer")

    (2) "This reminded me of something out of Monty Python, except that they did it earlier and better." I'm going to guess that the line is "Golf, strangling animals, and masturbating" (which appeared on television as "Golf and [sudden change in audio track] strangling animals").

    1. The Simpsons always has the best Bernhard parodies. And I was thinking of the Spanish Inquisition sketch from Monty Python: "Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition! Our chief weapon is surprise...surprise and fear...fear and surprise.... our two weapons are fear and surprise...and ruthless efficiency.... Our three weapons are fear, surprise, and ruthless efficiency...and an almost fanatical devotion to the Pope.... Our amongst our weapons.... amongst our weaponry...are such elements as fear, surprise.... I'll come in again."

  3. Maybe Bernhard doesn’t translate well into English. I read *Wittgenstein’s Nephew* in Swedish and found it quite enjoyable (especially the episode where they go chasing after *Neue Zürcher Zeitung*). But then Swedish is much closer to German. (I was told, by the way, by Brian McGuinness that the model for the eponymous character isn’t really Wittgenstein’s nephew but the son of a cousin of his.)

    I read one book in Bernhard’s autobiographical suit in German – I don’t recall the title – and found it quite powerful and moving. For instance scenes from a bomb shelter during the war. Here a very large part of the power comes from his peculiar use of language, paraphrase, syntax.

    On the other hand I’ve seen one of his plays and didn’t really see the point of it.

  4. Thanks, Lars. I'm sure the problem is more likely to lie with me and/or the translation. I'll try some of his autobiographical writings and see if I get on better with them.

  5. try 'the voice imitator', if you like this (complete) sample from it

    Hotel Waldhaus
    We had no luck with the weather and the guests at our table were repellent in every respect. They even spoiled Nietzsche for us. Even after they had had a fatal car accident and had been laid out in the church in Sils, we still hated them.