Category: Modernism

Abandoning Catalogues, Bonding Atoms

Not even illness could keep me this weekend from devouring the remaining half of The Earthquake Observers, sucked in as I was by its winning combination of an inherently interesting topic and the atmosphere of European modernism that pervaded most of the work.* I was especially fascinated by Coen’s discussion of various scientists’ late-nineteenth and early-twentieth century attempts to form something of a universal catalogue of seismic activity, to “be perfected from year to year, [and] become the fundamental repertory of the entire seismological science of the future.” But unsurprisingly, this aspiration was short-lived, given the number of qualifying occurrences in even one year, for just one country or region. As one sponsor noted, once it had become possible to record “macroseismic and microseismic observations… on the surface of the globe with the necessary fullness of detail and generality, the work of the annual global catalog will become completely unrealizable; the central office will be literally overwhelmed… can one imagine the International Meteorological Association publishing an annual catalog of rainfall on the surface of the globe?”**

From the Geological Society of London, on Wikimedia Commons.

The enchantment here for me was the fact that this endeavor, and the resigned reactions to its impossibility, seem as if they could have come straight out of Borges, a natural-sciences add-on to “On Exactitude in Science,” or “The Library of Babel,” maybe even “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius.” For all we know (Coen devotes only a couple of pages to the wished-for catalogue), the project may have driven some of its real-life booster-creators to obsession or worse, even after its necessary sponsors and support staff had withdrawn under the pressures of reality and the ever-increasing numbers of events that transcended human abilities to pin them down in any meaningful way. Given our contemporary technologies and their superhuman recording and processing abilities, maybe such an undertaking is more achievable than ever before– but, thanks to the natural world’s wonderful ability to slip out of our grasp via the masterfully unseen cracks it’s created, I’ll place my bet on its never happening.

Even though this aspect of seismology seems still doomed to failure, the way in which the science has always been and still is dependent on “lay” observers may be one of the reasons I’m such a fan.*** Indeed, I especially appreciated Coen’s pointing out of the not-just-science-benefitting ways in which this participatory model might (have) enhance(d) the lives of those who go in for observation of the earth’s motions. Including the entirety of one woman’s letter to geologist Hans Schardt as an example, Coen notes that talking to people about what they experienced during a bout of shaking or shifting “was a social opportunity, particularly for those living in solitude… [within] the atomization of modern society,… [it] offered a welcome excuse to penetrate the social walls that separated neighbors from each other.”**** Such an aim never was part of “pure science”– but if one of its branches not only benefits from, but also bestows boons upon, the people of all sorts working to further it, I’ll call that a win, even if the universal knowledge we like to believe is such an unalloyed grand thing never materializes.


* N.b., it also continued to feed my need for modernist– or in this case, neo-modernist, as I’ll call it– literature, as I also swallowed whole W.G. Sebald’s excellent set of essays, A Place in the Country.

**Deborah R. Coen, The Earthquake Observers: Disaster Science from Lisbon to Richter (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2013), 175, 177.

*** In my earthquake-zone-dwelling days, I would get stupidly excited and grateful any time I had even the most minutely plausible opportunity to fill in information on the U.S. Geological Survey’s “Did You Feel It?” website.

**** Coen, 94.


Shaken into Modernism

All this talk (or rather, reading) about the development of seismology to which I’ve been exposing myself lately has instilled a burning need for some honest-to-goodness modernism. All of those earnest 19th-century Europeans tromping around and beyond the continent’s borders, trying to be objective and proper and to note dispassionately the time and duration of a temblor when thrown out of their beds for the first time: well, the bearing of those eager beavers had me thirsting for the particular variety of literary clarity only someone like Robert Walser can provide, and so I flew straight into the arms of his Jakob von Gunten.

I especially love when tales from this particular subset of time and place also happen to be set in an educational environment, one of my favorite examples being Robert Musil’s Young Törless. The fact that said genre’s depictions of boarding school life are often stark and cruel*, and that they still have me feeling slightly cheated that I never experienced that form of institutional existence, speaks volumes for these authors’ way with words– but in particular, for their ability to bring out those environments’ pervasive, saving air of mystery, especially with regard to instructors. Anyone, even lowly public school kids like me, who’s ever had a crush, whether platonic or more, on some beloved teacher, will know what I’m talking about.** I can only imagine how much more heightened is the intensity of sick teenage infatuation when everyone’s living on the same premises, and when adolescent imaginings and naïveté only feed off of and strengthen each other without respite. At the same time, those authority figures who seem so immune to your own youthful anxieties, and who have no desperate need of guidance or intense friendship, become even more alluringly mysterious and (because they have to be even more purposeful than their off-campus counterparts about guarding their privacy) maddeningly out of reach.

There’s so much to love about this book– but as should now be no surprise, I zeroed lovingly in on its way of portraying students’ obsessions with their teachers, and the disappointments or uncertainties that may emerge if said authority figures actually end up reciprocating a young person’s desires for a personal relationship. And so, Jakob lets us know early on that “… [he was] always thinking of him, of both of them, of him and Fräulein, the way they go on living here with us boys. What are they always doing in there, in their apartment? How do they keep themselves busy… perhaps one day I shall penetrate into these inner chambers… I know it, somewhere here there are marvelous things.” And as his daydreaming invades his reality, we’re sometimes unsure of how Herr or Fräulein Benjamenta is really acting, whether either or both is truly confessing to him (precisely what the love-struck student hopes for!)– but we do catch glimpses of Jakob’s disillusionment as the brother and sister become a little more human for him: “Everything’s collapsing, the classes, the effort, the rules… Something is going on and I don’t understand it yet;” “I’ve been, at least, in the authentic inner chambers, and I must say, they don’t exist.”***

Even though Jakob looks as though he might finally set aside his fantasies of the principal and his sister (and maybe even of his own aim in being at the institute), his acceptance of his own self-delusion reveals what we may all be longing for on some level, and why so many of us will agree to the tenets of doubtful, yet guiding, propositions, beliefs, and people: namely, at least having something to hold onto. As Jakob decides, “This person suits me and I’m not asking myself why any more.” **** Even if it means having to continually repair and reconstruct– and overcome being let down by– an image crafted of your own imagination and longing; even then, it’s a bit of a relief to stop having to ask yourself why.


* This characterization doesn’t really apply in Jakob von Gunten– but the school in it is still really not a model of educational aspiration.

** I still have very little understanding of why I, at least, thought teachers possessed some transcendent quality, that their everyday routines were somehow fraught with special allure. Yes, yes; I’ve always wanted to learn everything anyone could teach me– but that doesn’t even come close to explaining this particular emotional mystery.

*** Citations in this paragraph are from Robert Walser, Jakob von Gunten, transl. Christopher Middleton (New York: New York Review Books, 1999), 17-18, 128, 139. Probably the most devastating tale of what schoolgirls’ naïve fantasies about their teachers could result in is depicted in the 2002 film, Blue Car, with David Strathairn turning in a creepily, believably brilliant performance of a could-have-been.

**** ibid., 176. Also, this is the completely wrong place for this question, especially since I’m addressing the end of this book– but who is this brilliant translator and introducer-of-the-work, Christopher Middleton? I don’t believe I’ve ever been driven to find out more about the introducer’s own work, based on his/her introductory remarks– but this Mr. Middleton has made me terribly curious about what other literary output he’s got up his sleeve.




A Quick Catch-Up Combo

What with managing an injury, fending off a cold, trying to get through a pile of work at the job, and hosting a friend for the weekend, musing publicly about books has fallen by the wayside. So, too, has trying to get through the few things I’m reading, and which I’d love to complete in order to move on to something else.

One of those volumes is Amélie Nothomb’s Péplum, a sort of philosophical/sci-fi piece that, halfway in, is reading like a His Girl Friday version of a latter-day Socratic dialogue, with the wit and one-liners flying back and forth at each other while, in typically Gallic fashion, everyone seems to maintain a victoriously thick skin and to just keep the snappy exchange rolling. Probably the most interesting thing I’ve come across so far is the report of a future-man that, way back in the day, people were so unable to deal with the thought of unpleasantness that someone rewrote the Bible, excising all its sad parts and transforming hard-to-digest stories into feel-good tales that didn’t make a whole lot of sense. Called “The Happy Bible,” the thing was slapped together in under a hundred pages, and its general incomprehensibility started a trend in storytelling that pretty much did away with plot and narrative altogether, and kept any given piece small, including the rewrites of classics that say, brought Zola’s L’Assommoir down from 500-plus to forty pages. Nothomb was writing this all in 1995, and although she didn’t predict anything like a Twitter Bible, I’ll have to give her credit for seeing something of how the tide was turning, in terms of people’s attention spans and rejection of things not meant to offer cheap elevations of mood.

Robert Walser’s The Assistant is another one I’m working on– and to my surprise, given his incredible short stories, I’ve begun to wonder what the purpose of this little novel is. A depiction of bourgeois emptiness, etc., etc., sure– but what Walser’s doing with this tale is nothing new, and it’s almost not even interesting. I’m waiting for some sort of modernist plot twist to throw a wrench into things, but I’ll admit my hope isn’t all that strong.

And that’s it for now; with a conference coming up and 4,000 things to get done before then, that’s about the best I can offer. More on the two tales I just mentioned if anything of note develops…

Three Cheers for Modernism

Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Boy, do I love those Modernists! Try to top Kafka, Walser, Benjamin, or Babel (yes, I’m counting him), and most authors from that crowd, and you’ve got a huge challenge on your hands. The latest evidence of my enthusiasm comes from the fact that, in tackling a collection of Robert Musil’s stories, I’m rereading* Young Törless, the first selection to feature in said volume.

I have a hard time describing just what it is that makes the greats from the early 20th century stand out so much; the best I can offer is the sense that these writers are just plain solid. They pull off an intellectual sophistication that engages unashamedly in disciplined soul-searching and social criticism without turning florid, sappy, dogmatic, or cynical. And even though the worlds they describe are in reality even further removed from my own existence than is the poetic universe created by Frost (as discussed here yesterday), something about them never feels alien. That last observation could have something to do with the fact that I was much more immersed early on with European literature than with American, but that personal-historical item doesn’t quite serve to explain things.

Might it all come down to a sort of nostalgic yearning for an intellectual golden era that never really existed? Doubtful. As much as I love the literature and the thought of regularly writing and receiving handwritten correspondence (with a fountain pen, no less!), you couldn’t pay me enough to live according to pre-World-War mores, no matter what sort of great conversations and inspiration could be found within that world, and that’s assuming I’d be lucky enough to befriend even one of those luminaries.

What I’d like to say, at the risk of sounding like a New Age romantic, is that there’s some intellectual-emotional connection, or some shared genetic sensibility between at least this reader and those authors of old that’s survived more or less unbroken. That may be what good literature is supposed to keep alive: the ability to go and live beyond an informational transaction, and institute an impossible conjuction within and throughout time. But before I turn flowery, I’ll just leave you with a link to what for me is the hands-down best example of that shared wavelength: Walter Benjamin’s “Unpacking My Library.” Dig in.

* I very rarely reread a book.