Tuesday, September 09, 2008

Life-affirming literature?

The concept of "life-affirming literature" seems like a contradiction in terms to me, specially in the world we live in where we are already surrounded by so many phony messages by advertising, homilies of religious gurus, the political propaganda and other such frauds which do the same thing. (Like "Negative things happen to negative people" which I overheard in a conversation today.) What we desperately need instead is a voice of negation and that's what we should look for in art and literature because only in negation we can hope to find truth and freedom. There is a long tradition in philosophy when it comes to pessimism and negation but somehow when we talk of art and literature we (by that I mean the common readers) feel forced to justify and explain - if it is art it must have something positive to say about life.

I was thinking about it and a few other things while watching the recently released Elegy, a very disappointing film based on a moderately interesting book (Philip Roth's The Dying Animal). It was also I think a very personal reaction. More and more I realize that despite being aggressively anti-religious, my views on "the mind-body problem" are actually somewhat theological if not puritanical. I idealise "the life of the mind" which to me feels the same as negating "the life of the body". It is from this perspective that I found the film so depressing (and not in a good enlightening way).

It has actually become almost a cliche in fiction and films - an old man facing death desperate for a last grasp of life reaches out for pleasures of young female flesh - basically the absurd and sordid drama of human condition all over again till the very last moment. And this is even more ironical because the protagonist in the film is a professor of literature - someone who is supposed to be devoted to the life of the mind! Maybe what Roth is doing is a form of negation too - the negation of the idea that the body and the baser aspects of life can be transcended for a higher ideal where one can be genuinely free. I wonder what he thinks of the stages of life as prescribed in Hinduism where old age means "Vanaprastha" (literally, departing to the forests) when one starts to detach oneself from the worldly affairs and prepare for an eventual "sanyas" (complete renunciation). It would be okay with me (even though I do find it very depressing) if Roth thinks that human beings are too weak to leave behind everything and go for Vanaprastha but I doubt it. I think on the other hand he sentimentalizes sex and sees in it something positive and "life-affirming" (at least in principle because all such attempts prove to be futile).

I remember reading Luis Bunuel's autobiography My Last Sigh where he describes his own old age and intimations of his own mortality wonderfully. He says that only in his old age he could feel truly free and truly alive and could see everything clearly. (His last film "Obscure Object of Desire" is, among other things, a hilarious illustration of how sexual desire can blind people to the obvious.) This view of human mortality and old age in general is there in Proust too and that's what makes the last volume of his novel so powerful and moving and puts all the sexual hankerings, jealousies and all sorts of troubles that rest of the volumes document in obsessive detail in context. Personally I am really looking forward to my own old age (even though I already live a life of almost-vanaprastha) and I hope I feel like the narrator in Proust rather than one of those Rothian characters when I get there.


puccinio said...

The whole talk about negation sounds a lot like Buddhism.

In my opinion being a little light-hearted never did literature any harm. I personally find much bleak literature or serious literature these days as...bleak chic. Many people do cleave to alienation and angst as a safety blanket, instead of making them approach life they use that as an excuse for not doing anything. I used to do that as well.

James Joyce for instance had a worldview that was essentially comic in it's approach to life and it's characters. ''Ulysses'' is a serious book, a meditation on identity and social functions but it's also riotously funny and life affirming. The most life affirming of all books as it's final word "Yes" makes so clear. In fact Joyce disliked tragedy and preferred a comedic approach over a serious or portentous worldview. And he's regarded as the eminence grise of modernist writers. Of course Joyce's life affirming stance isn't a happy utopian, tree-hugger variety but it's certainly one of life having endless possibilities and of course a lot of fun.

In general there aren't many writers with a genuine sense of humour anymore. Thomas Pynchon for one, I suppose. Once you read his book six times, his jokes start to be really funny. Then Raymond Queneau the great French polymath was also an essentially comic writer.

Milan Kundera is a writer who I find unintentionally funny. Everytime he gets serious, I start to laugh out loud. His ''The Art of the Novel'' is his most comedic work. Not that I think he's without interest but he's unbearably pompous.

So the concept of ''Life-Affirming Literature'' isn't much of a contradiction for me. To me all great literature is life affirming, be it ''Lolita'', ''The Trial'' or most of Kafka(any world that rich for endless gags is automatically worth living in), ''As I Lay Dying'' and many others. Even ''Madame Bovary'' or Stendhal's moody masterpieces.

Alok said...

I was just thinking aloud there.

I agree bleakness and pessimism can be fetishized too ("bleak chic") but I feel they are much more resistant to commodification and co-option than "life-affirming" arts. I was also thinking about a general attitude towards works of art. Even a film about Holocaust has to provide some life affirming message! I hate shallow and easy cynicism much more than shallow cheerfulness but even writers-directors who are profoundly cynical are routinely apologised for. people look for messages of hope and redemption. I am just saying that this may not matter than much - this necessity for work of art to provide hope or show us a way out.

I haven't read anything by Queneau yet and i have trouble with Pynchon, I can't seem to get into his world though I haven't really tried hard enough. Completely agree about Kundera, it gets actually worse if you compare him with his compatriots who all have wonderful and truly unique sense of humour full of absurdity and despair as also reflected in the wonderful Czech-Slovak films of late 60s - Closely Watched Trains, Loves of a Blond, The Fireman's Ball, or The Shop on Main Street. These are all really wonderful films. I need to read the Czech writers though specially Bohumil Hrabal and also finish the class The Good Soldier Svejk.

puccinio said...

Don't forget the greatest and most creative of Czech film-makers, Vera Chytilova. Her ''Daisies'' is one of the wildest, craziest most anarchic films ever made.

Raymond Queneau is a fascinating figure of French literature. A fellow-traveller surrealist, mathematician, critic and also a reader for Gallimard company. His influence on literature extends to writers like Italo Calvino. Equally great is his influence on French cinema. He was a huge favourite of the French New Wave and Francois Truffaut in particular. He famously also wrote the narration for Alain Resnais masterpiece and final short, ''La Chant du Styrene''(an industrial film about the workings of a polystyrene factory). Of the ones I've read, I loved ''Odile''(the same name as Anna Karina's in ''Bande a part'' as a hommage), ''The Flight of the Icarus'' and ''Zazie dans le metro''(made into the film by Malle).

Thomas Pynchon is a writer that's hard to get into, an acquired taste and not all his books are interesting. To me, I liked all his work upto and including
''Vineland''. He ought to be read chronologically, starting from ''V'' through ''Vineland''.
''Gravity's Rainbow'' is something I find difficult to get into. I've only been able to read the first two sections. His other books are comparatively accessible.

Alok said...

I had written a brief note on Daisies sometime back.

Queneau has been on my to-read list for a long time besides Marguerite Duras and Alain Robbe Grillet both of whom I know only from the films they have been associated with (the two classics by Resnais). They have actually made a few films too. Will definitely check him out sometime soon.

With Pynchon I have tried both The Crying of Lot 49 and Gravity's Rainbow but couldn't get past the first 40-50 pages. He sure is very clever and intelligent but sometimes it is just a case of sensibilities not matching. It may of course change over time. I will rather wait! I think he might be funny but there is also something cold and lifeless about his writing. May be it is a sort of negation as well.