Friday, November 5, 2010

Front List / Back List: Microscripts by Robert Walser & Five Moral Pieces by Umberto Eco

Truly, I am sorry for the delay. I failed to even get you one last Halloween post, though I assume the tales from the crypt comic has been more than nourishing these last two weeks.

I kind of had a tough time deciding on the subject for today. I knew I was going to review the Walser, which is one of the most enjoyable books I've laid eyes and hands upon in a long time. It was the back list that caused the delay this week. I kind of went back and forth on whether or not to keep it literary or put something in about the elections the US held over the last week. International readers, let me be among the first to apologize for the road we're going down over here. As you well know, we'll be taking you along with us.

Before we get to the dark times of the Republic let me first talk about this absolutely lovely book New Directions has published.

From The Front List

Microscripts by Robert Walser. Translated from the German and with an Introduction by Susan Bernofsky. Afterword by Walter Benjamin. Fiction. Hardcover. New Directions. 159 pps. ISBN: 9780811218801. $24.95.

A person can be swinish in matters of love and might even succeed in justifying himself to a certain extent. In my opinion, various possibilities would appear to exist with regard to swinishness, etc. Someone might happen to look like a person who appears to be a swine, and all the while he is at bottom perhaps fairly upstanding. One can say with a rather large degree of certainty that men seem to possess a greater predisposition and talent for swinishness than women, who of course are now and then capable of achieving excellence in this regard.

-from "Swine" by Robert Walser.

First let's get the pedantry out of the way: This book is gorgeous. For one it is illustrated with color facsimiles of Walser's original microscripts placed both on the front and back of a single page to fully render the unique nature of this writing endeavor. For two there is the pastedown label on the front cover, heavy paper stock and matte finish jacket that all hearken to better times in the field of book production, or at least to European formats and standards. Like I said before: The book is gorgeous. That said let's get to what Walser was doing.

On scraps of paper, sometimes postcards that had already been written on or small advertisements containing their own information, Walser wrote what was long believed to be strange coded missives that for a long time were believed to be physically unreadable. Walser was institutionalized at the time of the composition of these tiny works and this daunting notion called into question the intelligibility of the writings, let alone whether they could be transcribed or translated.

Sample images from Microscripts.

Time and patience won out however, and Walser's tiny handwriting eventually revealed itself to be a modified and extremely tiny version of the Medieval German script known as Kurrent. Current is a simplified script that involves utilizing a more vertical, angular alphabet. This makes it highly compressible. Apparently extremely compressible. Like coal into diamonds compression.

The translators of Microscripts describe their process as educated guesswork. By determining a handful of Walser's tiny letters a single word can be formulated from tendencies and previous words. This makes the translation one of the most difficult ever, ranking among some of the translations of Oulipo authors like Georges Perec and Raymond Queaneau.

The reason for Walser's strange style is not one of conservation. Unlike Hans Fallada's vertical and horizontal approach (front and back of a page mind you) to books like The Drinker, Walser's reasoning was not born of a shortage of materials. Oddly enough it has more to do with the afore mentioned Oulipo approach to literature than it does an infirm mind or penury.

Walser had encountered an immense writer's block. It became almost offensive to the effortless writer, who delighted in the rapidity with which he could write down his thoughts, let alone the aesthetic beauty of his handwriting. So like the Oulipo tenants did later on, he set himself a limit.

The cramped writing style proved therapeutic and forced a physical constraint on his body as well as mind. Plotting more or less had to be thrown out and in its stead there is a certain rhythm and tidal flow. The people who briefly inhabit these writings are rational (as far as people are rational) and their movements are logical. They exist however only as props, demonstrations and at times seem ghostlike. The stories and sketches in Microscripts exist more as impression and humorously implied situation as they do linear narrative. The wry humor, sometimes darkly sarcastic, is the only thing that speaks of Walser's troubled mind.

In December I plan on doing another year-in-review and pull out imy favorite books published in 2010. Without a doubt Microscripts will be appearing there once again.

From The Back List

Five Moral Pieces by Umberto Eco. Translated by Alastair McEwen. Philosophy/Essays. Trade paperback. Mariner Books. 127 pps. ISBN: 0156013258. $15.

I really wanted to take the Nabokovian approach to this last week's election and place my head deep into the sands of literature. In that case I would have done a back list comparison for Miscroscripts with the equally near impossible to translate Eyeseas by the French Oulipo founder, Raymond Queaneau. Alas, I am not wired that way.

Thus instead we are going to chat about emergent fascism. Sorry class. But the times are about to suck.

One of the earliest accusations leveled at Barack Obama after his election to President of the United States was that he was going to usher in a left-wing fascism replete with armbands and the policing of such god-given rights as the the one on owning assault weaponry. Fascism is a leftist thing, they argued, as totalitarianism always involves the complete and total involvement of the state in all public spheres.


Never mind the surveillance and unconstitutionally extreme intrusions of the GOP led Patriot Act. Never mind the cult of fear and lies manufactured by a disingenuous Bush presidency in order to lead the country to war. Never mind the prudish censorship and bowdlerizing of the media. Never mind...

Truly I hate talking about this. It's old news and I honestly believed we had a shot at putting it behind us, well, at least to some extent. The midterm elections came around and if any of your are like me then you're still wiping the egg off.

Umberto Eco was privy to fascism first hand. The Italian philosopher actually won a prize in his youth writing on (and for) the greatness of Mussolini's Italian brand of fascism. Then the dark years of World War II descended on Italy and it wasn't until the liberation of his town, by French speaking African-American soldiers, that he realized the complete and total error of his previous convictions.

Obviously Eco has gone an unbelievably long way since writing that essay. He comes clean about it in a straightforward piece of writing collected in the above mentioned Five Moral Pieces. That essay, titled "Ur-Fascism," should now be required reading for all Americans because simply put: We are becoming fascists.

Eco's outline of emergent fascism is fairly simple. When confronted with hard times a sector of the population will first grow sentimental for some previously enjoyed (or remembered) golden years. The older, the more fascist the movement. This is purely sentimentalism at first but as times grow increasingly more difficult the (now) movement manifests an actual desire to revert to these olden, better ways. In Germany it was the worship of the Teutonic myths and aesthetics coupled with pre-Weimar or classical morality that formed this historical identity.

Imagery is of course a big part of this process. In Germany early Nazi propaganda would invoke Teutonic Knights and the innocence of German purity as it might (key word) have existed in the literature of the 19th and 18th centuries. What is truly "German" thus defined, the Nazis could move ahead and begin to define what is in turn "not" German. If historical documents and realities have to be left out or manipulated to fit the overall objective of returning to an ideal identity then so be it. That part isn't even difficult, especially if the public is incapable or limited in their critical thinking skills. If something is undeniable then surely it can be interpreted in some way more favorable to the movement.

Invoking fear of what is alien or perceived as malignant is only the final act, and once achieved you have an increasingly motivated public capable of violence and extreme action. The other is to be feared. Trust is to be withdrawn. The are to be ostracized, pushed away and removed from society one way or another.

Fascism isn't about total totalitarianism, though it nearly always evolves into that. The most salient definitions of fascism stem from something as supposedly innocent as nostalgia. Sentimentalism is nearly always the sign of a weak argument. Use it sparingly.

So when you see those "Don't Tread On Me" flags fluttering and hear the cry that our president is an African Muslim you'll know what you're looking at. When you hear someone longingly talk about returning to the kind of fully "free" market economy that existed prior to Theodore Roosevelt's trust busting, even if that entails an insanely rough economic depression and the subjugation of the working class, then you know what you're hearing.

In the meantime, we all better start reading Von Mises' economic writings and Steven Ambrose's version of history. Also get yourself a cool Revolutionary War pin, hat or flag. Then finally be sure to throw out any or all editions of Thomas Paine you might have lying around. He'll be taken out of the textbooks shortly. Probably banned.

Sorry for the gloomy as well as late post. Sure, there is a bit of hyperbole on hand but I'm honestly not that sure of how much. And sorry to only tease you about the Queaneau. Perhaps a quote then to soothe the sting?

The ground's deep fire flares high
in sprays of cold sparks that flash
like blades of gold and silver swords
woven of metal and of wool
a flag transformed as if by fate
to a rag filthy with hate

-from "Recent Aspects Of The Middle Ages" by Raymond Queaneau

Shit. That didn't work at all.

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