Monday, 15 June 2015

Enclaves for self-defense

In Mario Vargas Llosa's latest novel, The Discreet Hero (2013), a character has the revelation that the things of the world are spatial in their essence. But spatial in a special way. Disgusted by filth, the mass media and the cheap spectacles of publicity, he has surrounded himself with objects of perennial worth: art books, novels, music. He’s built for himself some pretty solid walls.

Don Rigoberto finds in this hoarder’s instinct a necessary reassurance and a rather bourgeois piece of mind.
"That was when he’d had the idea of saving spaces, the idea that civilization was not, had never been a movement, a general state of things, an environment that would embrace all of society, but rather was composed of tiny citadels raised throughout time and space, which resisted the ongoing assault of the instinctive, violent, obtuse, ugly, destructive, bestial force that dominated the world [...]"
What’s interesting here is not the idealisation of civilization as such but rather its enclavisation, its capacity to lock itself up in a closet of self-sufficiency. In other words, what we’ve got here is civilization’s ability to become a space, a territory. Or to be more precise: a series of spaces, a series of territories.

Corral, i.e. enclaves. Source: Terrierman

Keeping viruses out

Vargas Llosa posits the works of human civilization as fortresses built to gain good defense against threats. Security before everything else! In Abraham Maslow’s famous pyramid of human needs, security is right there, at the bottom, after physiological needs, two of the most wide-spread wants: ones that are at the same time the most desired and also the most lacking.
One is tempted to say that all is good when all is safe. But there’s another sense of the threat that makes a lot of sense in the wider scheme of things. This one indicates that the idea of threat is appealing because it offers the best justification for creation. And I mean the creation of everything: from an antidote to a virus to a dam to impede future shortage of electricity; electricity, itself created to impede our lack of light and heat. The creation of everything: from poetry, which keeps returning us to a state where we dread being but where we love to see others performing well, to photography, which keeps us from falling into some fictional dark ages devoid of images and perhaps of imagination. This urge to produce has been equivalent to our need to make things safe for ourselves.
What will happen if we ask this simple question: why is literature necessary? The great majority will say: because without it we would be uglier, worse, more wicked, less moral. You see how the affirmation of the art of writing, among all this, starts from a negation: least we become this; least we become that. Least we return to that state. Least we grow horns and hooves. Least we end up mocking Creation.
The enclaves we construct to safeguard (this word, which has never gotten into proper use because it’s been hijacked by ideologies from its very beginnings) the world – these enclaves are, in fact, vaccines meant to put our fears to rest.

Prisoners of literature

It is perhaps due to these enclaves that keep us safe (enclosures, corrals, confinements, detentions, gaols) that literature, for instance, rests on such an abundance of entrapments.
Trapped in a gesture (Sisyphus and perpetual motion, Atlas and perpetual stasis, Ulysses and perpetual transition); trapped in storytelling (Boccaccio’s Decameron, Chaucer’s Tales, The One Thousand and One Nights), trapped, of course, in a place (all the utopias where humanity fares better but is never allowed to live to tell the tale); trapped in admirations (Kobo Abe’s Woman in the Dunes¸ Yasunari Kawabata’s The House of the Sleeping Beauties, Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s Memories of My Melancholy Whores); trapped in desires for something better, something more (Madame Bovary, Anna Karenina) trapped in exercises of imagination (Le Petit Prince, Alice in Wonderland, Sherlock Holmes, Hercule Poirot).

Atlas. Source: Wikipedia
To clarify. By this entrapment I don’t mean impossibility to move forth and back; not like what’s happened to an insect caught forever in the perfection of a teardrop of amber. At the end of the day, Ulysses reaches Ithaca; Boccaccio’s storytellers return to their places of origin. The enclaves are not permanent in the strict sense of the word; and it is not permanence that matters, anyway. The entrapment, however, is a precondition of everything. The will to escape, the acknowledgment of the force that keeps things at a standstill, the desire to exchange the current space, with all its certitudes and “lacks of shadows” (Wallace Stevens), for a space that hasn’t been conceived of yet, not even as a wild dream – this is what stands at the foundation of progression, of movement, of the universal sway. In order to set out on their journeys, the heroes of fairy tales must experience enclosure as a point of pressure, as an original point that can no longer contain them, that expels them like a decayed tooth. The kind of decayed tooth that Ovid, for instance, turned into; Ovid, who made Rome incapable of putting up with him and sent him off to the shores of that distant Pontus Euxinus where he was entrapped for as long as it took for the city to considered him cured. The expulsion and the entrapment that ensued were the preconditions of his Tristia and his Epistulae ex Ponto.

Perfections and the intertext

Because the threats are great, the defense also needs to be close to perfection. Hence the need for round novels, the need for systemic philosophy, the need for poems that read in one breath. Hence the requirement for authors with oeuvre, who can be recognized ten pages into their latest book. Hence the factor of elimination, applicable when the next volume is unlike the benchmark. Hence, indeed, the need for benchmarks at all, for standards that stay unchanged for as close as possible to forever.

Escher's neverending buildings, a form of intertextuality. Source: Crystalinks
The enclaves require isolationist politics; they need to be so perfect in themselves that they cannot possibly communicate beyond their borders. This is why it takes serious effort to understand intertextuality, and why, for instance, the rise of electronic literature is regarded (still) with so much scorn. Because in intertextuality the limits are negated in the name of a text that grows outside its own limits, outside its own enclave, and which, more importantly, grows in ways impossible to predict. With the intertext there seems to be no more entrapment. The growth comes, then, from somewhere else, from an internal tension, from a need to expand: a need that is organic, a need that every text has, since texts don’t grow in isolation, by themselves and for themselves. Digital writing reaches out to similar new limits (or rather to the lack thereof). For one thing, hypertext is a concrete materialization of the principle of intertextuality. A link expands the text, makes it part of Borges’ universal library – it becomes that library itself. And because of this, the digital universe, a multidimensional conglomerate of texts and codes and circuits, feels so much more at home in the notion of the Sublime. The space of the digital, like the space of the intertextual, is an enormous space, a space of non-limits, grandiose, overwhelming, disempowering. Therefore, frightening.