Felisberto Hernández

Felisberto Hernández, Piano Stories

The Wednesday quotation, part XIX: I’ve been reading Felisberto Hernández, a very striking Uruguayan writer from the first half of the twentieth century who is practically unknown, especially in English. Some of his short stories have been translated, in a collection entitled Piano Stories (introduced by Italo Calvino, which should give a sense of why they might be of interest), but so far as I can tell this book never sold well and is now long out of print.

“The Stray Horse” is a story that begins by giving life to very concrete things: a marble bust, for instance, or furniture, or a pencil that “was anxious to be allowed to write” (17). Before long the narrator, a child depicted with his grandmother and with his piano teacher, Celina, with whom he is obsessed, can say that “the objects were more alive than we were” (18). As the story progresses, however, it takes on the perspective of the man that the child has become many years later and turns into a long disquisition on memory and on aging in which abstract ideas are presented with surprising vividness, as though they were tangible objects. It is as though the two halves of the story were mirror images of each other: the life of things, and the things of life that unite in (or divide) the narrator’s consciousness.

For in time, with the effort to recollect the past, the narrator finds himself multiplied, fragmented, transformed. He imagines a shadowy partner, who follows him wherever he goes and whom he dimly discerns to represent or incarnate the world of others around him. Though the two are often depicted as at odds, they also make common cause in the narrator’s adventures in consciousness and memory. This leads to an extraordinary passage that ultimately proves to be about something like creativity:

I have to thank him for the times he followed me at night to the edge of a river where I went to see the water of memory flow. When I drew some water in a jug and was saddened at how little and how still it was, he would help me invent other containers for it and comfort me by showing me its different shapes in the different vessels. Afterward we invented a boat in which to cross the river to the island where Celina’s house was. We would take along thoughts that fought hand to hand with our memories, knocking over or displacing many objects in the house. Some of the objects may have rolled under the furniture, and others we must have lost on our way back, because when we opened the bag with our hoard it was always down to just a few bones, and the small lantern we had been holding over the soil of memory dropped from our hands.

Yet the next morning we always turned what little we had gathered during the night into writing. (43-4)

Meanwhile, here is something I wrote a few years ago specifically on “The Daisy Dolls” (“Las hortensias”).

“The Yellow Wallpaper”

Charlotte Perkins GilmanCharlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper” is preoccupied above all with the secret and mysterious life of things. It’s concerned with the human and the non-human, and the surprisingly porous line between them. The narrator takes for granted that things have what she terms “expression.” Her only surprise is that, in the circumstances in which she finds herself, they turn out to be more alive than ever: “I never saw so much expression in an inanimate thing before, and we all know how much expression they have!” (3). Yet immediately after declaring that the liveliness of things is an open secret, that “we all know” that they have expression, she backtracks somewhat by suggesting that perhaps she is more attentive to their mysterious vitality than most: “I used to lie awake as a child and get more entertainment and terror out of blank walls and plain furniture than most children could find in a toy-store” (3). In part, then, the plot turns on this uncertainty: is the narrator a special case, abnormal, perhaps insane? Or is she simply telling us something we all know, to some extent or another: that things are more like us and we are more like things than we care to admit. Then there is a third possibility: that the “we” she invokes is general but not universal. It may be that there are some, particularly women, who can sympathize with things and know what it is to be treated as a thing. And that there are others, above all men, whose sense of subjectivity depends on marking (exaggerating?) their difference from things, and on asserting their superiority over the objects around them.

From the outset of the story, the narrator has a sense that things are not quite right. The house that she and her husband are to rent for the summer is, she intuits, perhaps “haunted”–though she doesn’t want to say this outright, for fear she may be accused of “romantic felicity” (1). Is this her (supposed) problem, that she is too much of a romantic, too easily affected by her surroundings? Still, she “proudly” insists, as though to defy any such insinuations, that there is “something queer” about the place. But by contrast, her husband John won’t admit to any such intimation: he is “practical in the extreme [. . .] and he scoffs openly at any talk of things not to be felt and seen and put down in figures” (1). But is his problem perhaps that he in fact takes too little interest in what can be “felt and seen.” For we soon observe that the narrator focuses intently on the sensible, on her senses and sensation. For all her misgivings, she eagerly describes the house, for instance, and describes its garden as “delicious,” as though she could physically taste it. Her conviction that there is “something strange” is confirmed by her senses: “I can feel it.” Her husbands responds that what she “felt was a draught, and shut the window” (1). So begins the confinement.

Encouraged to rest, forbidden from working or writing, stuck in a room with barred windows at the top of the house, the narrator becomes obsessed with the wallpaper that lines the limits of her seclusion. It provokes, from the start, intense feelings: “I never saw a worse paper in my life. [. . .] The color is repellent, almost revolting: a smouldering unclean yellow” (2). But equally, from the start, it is described as though it had a strange (if self-destructive) will of its own: its “lame uncertain curves [. . .] suddenly commit suicide–plunge off at outrageous angles, destroy themselves in unheard of contradictions” (2). Over time, the narrator elaborates on the contradictions that she perceives in the paper, perceiving faintly “a kind of sub-pattern in a different shade, a particularly irritating one, for you can only see it in certain lights, and not clearly then” (3). Eventually, she comes to conclude that “it is like a woman stooping down and creeping about the pattern. I don’t like it a bit” (5). And ultimately, the tensions in her own situation, that of a frustrated woman writer, hemmed in at all sides by a husband who dismisses her sensations as hysteria, come to parallel and merge with the strains that she perceives in the patterns around her. She tears at the paper, grasping at the presence she perceives within it: “I pulled and she shook, I shook and she pulled” (8).

None of this is really about identification. The narrator has written herself into her surroundings, which in turn have opened up to her. It’s best to think of this as a production–better still, a co-production–of an expansive subjectivity immanent to the things of this world. Against the authoritative (and authoritarian) airs of her doctor husband, the narrator makes the whole world tremble and vibrate. And in the end, her particularity, her singularity, affects him, too, when he falls down in a faint upon entering the room that she has made her own by abolishing the distance between subject and object, human and inhuman. She has become part of it, and it finally becomes her.

“The Metamorphosis”

Franz Kafka, The MetamorphosisPerhaps the oddest thing about Franz Kafka’s celebrated short story, “The Metamorphosis,” is how stubbornly it resists the notion that it is an allegory or extended metaphor. Though dreams are invoked in the very first line–“Gregor Samsa woke one morning from uneasy dreams” (28)–the notion that the protagonist’s transformation itself is anything other than real is soon roundly denied: “It was not a dream” (28). Of course, we might still want to read the tale allegorically, but not without pausing to consider the thoroughly matter-of-fact tone in which the whole affair is described. Nobody finds it particularly remarkable that Gregor has turned into a cockroach (or dung-beetle or whatever precisely it is). And, horrific though the change is, everyone is determined that life must go on regardless. At first, Gregor himself even holds out the hope that he might still take the train and continue work as before. The closest he comes to surprise at his fate is the observation that “It’s not yet going as well as I thought. But I’m fine now. Oh, the things that can come over a person!” (36). Which is putting it mildly indeed. In short, the only real surprise is the general lack of surprise that pervades proceedings.

There is little thought or investigation into how or why Gregor has suffered this fate. Nobody evinces either wonder or real curiosity. It’s not even an issue for Gregor himself, while his family shoo away any investigators (the doctor, say) whose role it might be to look into the causes of this strange phenomenon. Gregor’s sister instigates an experiment to see what kinds of food the bug might like–“to try out his taste she brought him a large selection” (46)–but the family never tries to find out, for instance, whether he can really hear or understand what they’re saying. They do end up leaving the door to his room open in the evening so that he can vicariously participate in their company. After all, “family duty towards him commanded that they should swallow their disgust, and put up with him in patience, just put up with him” (59). His changed circumstances ultimately constitute an irritation, an inconvenience. His parents and sister will have to adapt their lifestyle and routines, not least because Gregor had been their provider and breadwinner. But the problem itself is to be neither addressed nor eliminated. It is simply a matter of fact.

Gregor’s metamorphosis does induce a series of other changes: his father, for instance, who previously was somewhat bug-like himself (fat, idle, slovenly, parasitic), takes a job at a bank; his sister and mother likewise find ways to replace Gregor’s lost earnings; the family loses some of its servants and takes in lodgers, accelerating their slow decline and loss of status. But ultimately no one learns anything–and nor, I think, is the reader encouraged to believe that there is any kind of moral or lesson here. We are no longer to believe in any over-arching explanatory narratives. Indeed, we see that those who try to impose such lessons (the chief clerk, for example) are motivated by the most petty of self-regarding interests. It is better, Kafka suggests, to acknowledge simply that we are in a world governed by chance and statistical regularities, in which the odd exception or irregularity should not unduly disturb our everyday habits. We are in a world, in short, best described in terms of biopolitics: patterns, probability, general expectations governing generations and populations rather than exemplary individuals. Occasionally, shit happens. But the only thing we should understand is that there is nothing really to understand. Nothing to see, move along please.

The Waste Land

The Waste LandThe final stanza of T S Eliot’s The Waste Land encapsulates much of what has gone before. It comprises four languages, multiple allusions, abrupt transitions and changes in register and tone:

London Bridge is falling down falling down falling down
Poi s’ascose nel foco che gli affina
Quando fiam uti chelidon
–O swallow swallow
Le Prince d’Aquitaine à la tour abolie
These fragments I have shored against my ruins
Why then Ile fit you. Hieronymo’s mad againe.
Datta. Dayadhvam. Damyata

Shantih shantih shantih

What is this, then? A monument to erudition and scholarship, that only the elite could (or should) decode? Or a cry of despair and doubt that contemporary culture will ever cohere again? In truth, it is both: Eliot claims to diagnose the crisis of an entire civilization, and also (hesitantly perhaps) to offer some kind of solution, drawn from the long history of that culture itself. The fear, however, is that the cure is simply a repetition of the initial disease. For what difference is there really between the “ruins” that litter the “waste land” and the “fragments” that Eliot wishes to “shore[] against” them? What keeps a fragment from becoming a ruin? Indeed, is Eliot not complicit in the ruination he laments? As Maud Ellmann eloquently puts it: “Because the poem can only abject writing with more writing, it catches the infection that it tries to purge, and implodes like an obsessive ceremonial under the pressure of its own contradictions” (273).

So for all that the poem apparently concludes with the calm of quiet benediction–Eliot gives “The Peace which passeth understanding” as a translation for the Sanskrit incantation that makes up its final line (26)–something of the stench of decay and corruption, dismay and disillusion, lives on. Indeed, the fear is that the text has only accelerated the process that it sets out to delay if not reverse. The three “shantihs” cannot prevent London Bridge’s thrice-announced “falling down” of a few lines earlier. Or is it that something more sinister is at work? Does Eliot not so secretly welcome the ruination of London Bridge, on which he has earlier noted crowds of somnolent and short-sighted commuters, who for all intents and purposes have already given up on life: “I had not thought death had undone so many. / Sighs, short and frequent, were exhaled, / And each man fixed his eyes before his feet” (7). Isn’t it worth an apocalypse, laying waste to this banal and meaningless excuse for an existence so as perhaps to start all over again? For Eliot surely speaks also through the voice of the pub landlord whose invocation “HURRY UP PLEASE ITS TIME” becomes less of a warning and more of a threat with every iteration (10).

It may merely be a matter of what we want from the text–any text, no doubt, but perhaps this text more obviously than most. Ultimately, it’s up to us how (or even if) we read The Waste Land today. Lawrence Rainey has a quite marvelous essay about the poem’s publication history that ends up with the only slightly tongue-in-cheek suggestion that the most faithful approach to the poem doesn’t get caught up in the intricacies of the text itself. Noting that “generations of students have been exhorted to look closely at the poem,” he articulates by contrast what he calls “the modernist principle of reading,” that “the best reading of a work is often that which does not read it at all” (111). Close reading, he tells us, is merely one approach among many–and if anything a sign of the way in which modernism has been hi-jacked by the academy, turned into a sport for professors.

But Eliot’s poem anticipates this question of the reader’s desire. The line “Why then Ile fit you” comes from Thomas Kyd’s The Spanish Tragedie, where it is a response to the request for some amusing entertainment for the king: “I’ll give you something that will suit your wishes,” is how our editor glosses its meaning (64). Poetry is endlessly malleable, a mere transient representation, it is implied, as though to get the poet off the hook for any offence (or ruination) he or she may cause. We get what we want out of literature: if we want to see it as a puzzle to be deciphered, then so be it; but if (à la Ellmann) we now prefer to think of it as a “sphinx without a secret,” then that is fine, too. We can take the fragments that language offers us and turn them to our advantage; we can play among the ruins. Isn’t this the shift from Eliot’s time to our own? The fragmentation that modernism saw in anguished terms has simply become our everyday reality, our happily postmodern condition. The twist, however, is that in The Spanish Tragedie a staged drama (a play within the play) becomes deadly as it turns out to be all too real: amid the “meere confusion” of its polyglot “unknowne languages” (63) it serves as cover for a revenge plot whereby the maddened Hieronymo kills the men who have murdered his son, and then kills himself, too. Is there something similarly suicidally murderous in The Waste Land? And if so, should we take the affects that literature provokes a little more seriously, and perhaps its talk of ruins more literally (if less literarily)?

The Prince

Machiavelli, The PrinceFor a political writer renowned for his commitment to realism–to real politik, indeed–it’s remarkable, and surely significant, that Niccolò Machiavelli should open and close The Prince with a couple of extended metaphors. The resort to literary tropes frames what is otherwise often taken to be the founding text of a political “science” that simply tells it as it is, without ideology or obfuscation. After all, Machiavelli himself tells us in his preface dedicated to Lorenzo de’ Medici: “I have not ornamented this book with rhetorical turns of phrase, or stuffed it with pretentious and magnificent words. [. . .] For my intention is that this should be a book without pretensions” (5). The frame, however, turns out to be rather more decorative than this preface (itself in point of fact hardly lacking in rhetoric) admits. And it’s perhaps precisely because this surprisingly gilded frame is in tension with what it contains that it’s worth further investigation.

On first sight, the metaphor with which the book concludes is conventional and, however disturbing, frankly not that interesting: “Fortune is a lady,” Machiavelli reports. Hence “it is necessary, if you want to master her, to beat and strike her” (76). Yet it’s precisely the conventionality of the image, or rather conjunction of images–of both the fickleness and the subservience of women–that reminds us that for all his originality and scandalous novelty, for all of what Louis Althusser terms his “solitude,” there are plenty of ways in which Machiavelli is very much of his time, part of the crowd.

The book’s opening metaphor is rather more complex, not least because it is also a self-referential comment on the status of Machiavelli’s theory itself. It’s worth quoting at length:

I hope it will not be thought presumptuous for someone of humble and lowly status to discuss the behavior of rulers and to make recommendations regarding policy. Just as those who paint landscapes set up their easels down in the valley in order to portray the nature of the mountains and the peaks, and climb up into the mountains in order to draw the valleys, similarly in order to properly understand the behavior of the lower classes one needs to be a ruler, and in order to properly understand the behavior of rulers one needs to be a member of the lower classes. (6)

This is an image of an image, of the ways in which images are produced: it is a representation of the proper process of representation, an analysis of how best to analyze. Moreover, it concerns the proper perspective or point of view from which images, representation, and analysis should be drawn. One might ask immediately from which standpoint is this image itself drawn, which after all takes in both the mountain and the valley and purports to compare both. Doesn’t this already indicate the strange slippage in Machiavelli’s work: that he presents it as though envisaged from the valley, from the humble advisor; and yet he needs endlessly to imagine how things look from the mountain, to identify with the view of the prince.

At issue here is the place of the book and Machiavelli’s theory itself. Why would the virtuoso, the man gifted with virtù, need a guide like this at all? He who is sovereign should surely not have to depend on another; he who is decisive should not waver by looking for advice. The book is called The Prince, not “The Prince and His Advisor.” The prince should be singular, independent, and free. And yet it seems he is always haunted by his shadow, by the man who can see from the valleys and acts as a mirror in which the ruler can see his own reflection but in that same moment is divided, distanced from his own image of himself. Equally, as the prince follows the advisor’s counsel, so he begins to reflect him, to take on the attributes and characteristics of the lower man. A strange and dynamic symbiosis emerges, in which the true source of influence and power becomes increasingly obscured.

However much Machiavelli tries to resolve this tension, it persists and even colours his infamous reputation. Who, after all, is more fully Machiavellian, more the “Machiavellian type”: the heartless prince or the sinister advisor? Marlowe’s Duke of Guise of Shakespeare’s Iago? Nixon or Kissinger, Blair or Campbell, Bush or Rove? Should we fear the cruel autocrat or the eminence grise? Is it enough to say that one could not subsist without the other, that the prince is thereby doubled, his sovereignty fatally split? Or perhaps it is more to the point to note that sovereignty is always split, always both lacking and excessive, and that without that essential fissure it would not exist. And would it be too quick to identify this doubleness at the heart of sovereignty, enabling and yet undoing its basic claims, with the perpetually unresolved tension between constituent and constituted power?