The Death of the Novel

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In his book of essays, The Art of the Novel, Milan Kundera discusses the death of that particular art form. Such a death, he argues, is brought about when the novel removes itself from history, as in the literature of the Soviet Union where novels could only confirm the official line of things and by doing so remain entrenched in the status quo. For Kundera, therefore, the spirit of the novel depends upon its historical position, a place that allows it to reveal the human condition to us from beneath the mind-numbing effects of the actual. Novels are, Kundera says, “part of a process which is the conquest of being,” participating in a “succession of discoveries” that are related to the historical process itself.

The idea of the historical process as a succession of discoveries that unfold and enrich humanity, is a humanistic perspective, and literature, and the novel, are without a doubt art forms driven by humanity-enriching purposes. Nevertheless, in our own analyses of the historical process, we have seen that history has never been a humanity-enriching progression. In fact, what we have discovered is that historical evolution has taken humanity further and further away from itself into the segregating tribalism of the national state or religious sects. History has been a process of dividing humanity instead of developing its potentials through unity. For this reason, we talk about the anti-human historical process – but if history is anti-human, what does that tell us about the novel’s role in that development? And, if we agree that our historical process needs to be redesigned in order to eliminate its anti-humanism and make it authentically human for once, what should the novel’s role in that revolution be?

In the first place, however, Kundera’s perception of the nexus between the novel and the historical process is a limited one. He is right to point out the way the novel’s evolution has reflected social changes, but he is mistaken in seeing that reflection as the means itself when the real nexus is the analysis of what it sees, and, through that analysis, its power of being critical.

What dictatorial censorship, like the Soviet one, must do is castrate the novel by chopping out its ability to criticise. Made impotent in its critical faculty, the novel is thereby rendered useless. Kundera’s argument, therefore, is that chopping in any form, even by well-intentioned capitalist editors, is potentially deadly for the novel itself. But a very dangerous question arises here: Is criticism only possible, therefore, because the anti-human historical process is so humanly flawed?

If this is so, then we have to ask ourselves if a truly-human process of progressive history would eliminate the need for criticism, which in turn would create a debilitating process for the mind akin to those created by dictatorship?

Or, in other words: Is the novel important to us only because the System (civilisation) we are immersed in is so defective?

We believe that Kundera, from his experience with Stalinism, would agree that it would. However, beginning an authentic-human historical process is not the same as completing the historical process, which was the purpose of communism.

By understanding the creative forces of humanity in a positive, universal way, guided by art, science and technology rather than ideology and religion, would be far more transformative than the evolutions and incomplete revolutions that have so far been produced by any anti-historical processes we have.

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Rather than dying, the novel would be in the front line of this pro-humanity transformation: both as an analyser and a critique of the new process. The novel, therefore, will not die with authentic-human history, rather its current moribund prestige will be rekindled and rejuvenated as wider appreciation will be made of its essential role in human (Sapiens) evolution.

Kundera admits in his book that the novel itself could have had a different history. He points to the different callings that the novel makes: The call to play (Tristan Shandy and Jacques the Fatalist); the call to dream (Kafka); the call to think (Musil and Broch); the call of time (Proust). There are other calls: the call to freedom (Joyce’s Ulysses); the call for justice (Zola, Dostoevsky and Tolstoy).

But the novel, like humanity has been more fettered than liberated by the anti-human historical process and our novelists now need to imagine new callings that can transcend the anti-human and embrace the calling toward an authentic Sapiens humanity. Yes, an evolution toward human authenticism, centring  history as a process of human-progress, would imagine more callings as the abstract and conditional perspectives of individuals are opened up. One of the major victories that humanity would gain through an authentic-human historical evolution would be the liberation of minds beyond the actual and into the abstract and conditional realms of the potential.

Where Kundera is most definitely right and acute in his book, is when he speaks of the Spirit of the Novel, and that Spirit needs to be analysed and continually vindicated in opposition to the spirit of the market-place or the spirit of selling books. Novels are meant to be written, published and read: and this implies distribution and/or accessibility, but it does not imply sales. A novel’s success has to be measured by how much pleasure it has produced by doing what novels do best, which is … to stimulate the mind. But even here we need to be careful of over-simplifying success: A novel that can stimulate the minds of millions might be considered more successful than another which only managed to reach a handful of readers, but the quantitative degree of that success is no real reflection of the qualitative importance of the two books. A book that is never read may be qualitatively far superior than another that is consumed by billions. We see here the importance of accessibility and distribution: a great, human civilisation would be geared towards ensuring the accessibility of quality. An authentically human ethics would have to always prioritise the production of quality above quantity in art.

Kundera says that “the spirit of the novel is the spirit of complexity,” a spirit which is also antithetical to the reductionist spirit of the market-place and its demands for simplicity.

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Some Tests: Macauley’s Trial

Some Tests

Wayne Macauley is one of Australia’s greatest ironists. He writes from within the great bubble of Australian society in order to reveal the soapiness of that bubble. Some Tests is Macauleyan irony in its purest form, and the soapiness is everywhere.

Some Tests is also Macauley’s most Kafkaesque work, a comparison which Macauley himself could not complain of, for Kafka runs thick through all his work since his adaptation of “The Hunger Artist” in the early 80s.

Some Tests is in fact a kind of mirroring of Kafka’s The Trial. His heroine, Beth Own, a nemesis of Joseph K.: Macauley changes the sex of the protagonist; the personality is inverted; K. is arrogant and pseudo-cynical, but Beth is polite and complacent; where K. struggles to resolve the procedure against him, Beth Own has a passive, existential acceptance of what is going forward. But the most disturbing thing (for Australians) about this comparison, is that Macauley makes his Kafkaesque style work just as well in the Melbourne suburbs as it does in Kafka’s Prague; and it makes just as much sense in 2017 as it did in 1915.

But how can that be? What similarities can there possibly be between Melbourne in 2017 and Prague in 1915?

Of course, the central theme – death – is universal. It is not an Australian question but the human condition that is under scrutiny here. Some Tests brings the death theme that is in The Trial right into the foreground. Kafka’s universe is grey whereas Some Tests is full of pastel-toned primary colours. There is always an arrogant tension in The Trial where everything seems utterly incomprehensible, and everyone appears hell-bent on making everything more difficult and complicated than it should be, but Some Tests is tuned with the sweetest, polite people, full of understanding and always helpful. Yes, things are moving in an illogical manner, and things do seem more complicated than it should be, but the Australian bubble is a very soapy place with as many illogical trials as Kafka’s universe, and that is what Macauley’s irony reveals.

Yet perhaps the greatest unifying element between The Trial and Some Tests, is the ubiquitous nihilism that permeates both suburban Melbourne and bureaucratic Prague. Both K. and Beth are looking for an explanation and both Kafka and Macauley know that such an explanation is impossible in a system that is deeply nihilistic.

Macauley is also focussing on society within the biopolitical world, as Foucault called it, in which the State controls not only our social life but takes possession of our control over our physical bodies as well. Of course, biopolitics wasn’t invented by Foucault, he just put a term to the phenomenon, and Kafka’s society suffered from the same malaise on different levels, but the idea of biopolitics is probably more unsettling in the so-called democratic world and the perfect societies like Melbourne’s suburbia.

In the sense of perfection, Some Tests turns Melbourne into a new set for Huxley’s Brave New World. Australia is the lucky country, think Australians, but there is something existentially wrong in the Utopia they live in. So wrong that the Utopia is really a Dystopia. The suburbs of Some Tests sits at Fukuyama’s The End of History and Beth Own is a personification of Nietzsche’s Last Men. Beth’s world is a polite and nice place to be in, but nothing else. Struggle is not really struggle anymore, for there is no authentic purpose behind the struggle, and that creates an existential vacuum that turns the paradise into a purgatory. Beth Own has a lovely family, but that is not enough. She is really biding her time until death comes. She might as well get it over and done with as quickly as possible. Within the nihilistic scenario, we have to think of Beth Own as happy with her fate.

THE GALIMATIAS INTERVIEW (PART FIVE) – POLITICS, THE NOVEL AND SCI FI

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This interview with Paul David Adkin was carried out by the Spanish literary magazine “Galimatias” in March, 2015. We have translated it here into English and have published it in five parts. This is the final part. 

GALIMATIAS: In When Sirens Call, your hero Robert says: “This book is my Trojan horse, sent into the interior of capitalism to burn it down.” Was that meant to be a mirroring statement referring to When Sirens Call itself?

ADKIN: Oh no, not at all. When Sirens Call is a novel. It has no ambitions to bring the system down. Nevertheless, it was a mirroring statement. Robert is referring to his philosophical work which is a mirror of my own philosophical work.

GALIMATIAS: Which has not been published yet.

ADKIN: No, I haven’t found a publisher for it yet.

GALIMATIAS: But you think it will bring down capitalism?

ADKIN: Of course not. Yet it could be considered as one of its objectives.

GALIMATIAS: Getting back to When Sirens Call … it is a novel, but there is also a lot of politics in it. Can’t we see it as a political novel?

ADKIN: Not really … Politics is discussed by the characters, but the book itself takes no obvious political position.

GALIMATIAS: Is Art Wars political?

ADKIN: It’s critical of the system – from the artist’s point of view. It’s cynical. Was Diogenes political?

GALIMATIAS: The one who lived in a barrel?

ADKIN: Yes. Diogenes was a social critic and he would have loved to have been in a less hypocritical place, but he was not a man-of-action.

GALIMATIAS: Placenta in Art Wars does act.

ADKIN: Yes, and she also goes mad. No, I don’t think Art Wars is really a political work either. To be political, I write philosophy … and plays. I, Consul, 1808, and The Queen who could not Rule were political plays. Each one of them used history as a mirror to reflect the current political situation. I, Consul was anti-war and a satire on Bush’s invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, while 1808 and The Queen were anti-neoliberal plays. But plays can be political in ways that novels can’t be – haven’t I already discussed that.

GALIMATIAS: Yes, but I’m trying to clarify it. Novels have to disguise their statement and so therefore they can’t be political.

ADKIN: Something like that. Although, having said this … at the moment I’m working on a piece of science fiction, which will be a political book – that’s because I think that science fiction is an exception … as would be satire. The best sci fi is deeply philosophical and, because it writes about society from a philosophical perspective it is also very political.

Nevertheless, let me reiterate my main argument here – the literary value of sci fi writing is best achieved when it sublimates the big question as well. Once you set your book in the future, it immediately has its political connotations – whether it’s a Utopian or Dystopian vision we see a social and technological development or regression. In this way every descriptive scene has an innate political weight. The writer can just forget about politics as such – the setting itself will bring it all out for you.

If we think of the film Blade Runner, for example. That has a deeply political narrative embedded in it through the Dystopia it creates via the setting. The story itself is deeply ontological, although the depth comes through quite naturally through the existential predicament of the androids. And the big question .. which runs through all of Ridley Scott’s films … is the Oedipus complex. And that is buried in the subconscious of the film, as it should be.

GALIMATIAS: So you like Sci Fi?

ADKIN: Yes, I do. But I don’t read much of it, because the writing too often disappoints me when I do.

GALIMATIAS: And so your next novel will be a work of science fiction?

ADKIN: Perhaps, but I’ve got four things fairly well developed at the moment, I’ve no idea which will be finished first

THE GALIMATIAS INTERVIEW (PART THREE) – Can art save the world? Paradoxes and causes.

This is part three of an interview with Paul David Adkin carried out by the Spanish literary magazine “Galimatias” in March, 2015. We have translated it here into English.

GALIMATIAS: In your philosophical writings you point over and over again to the existence of paradoxes in the fabric of reality, and you say that truth can only be found by analysing these contradictions. Is that where the truth of the novel resides?

ADKIN: I don’t think that I’ve ever said that the truth can only be found by analysing paradoxes – but yes, it helps if we do … and novels are a great place to analyse truth in. It’s the ability of novels to rummage in logically impossible realms of juxtapositions and contradictions, or paradoxes, that can make them so important. But the uncovering and resolving of paradoxical contradictions is not unique to the form and identity of the novel: it can be a vital ingredient in short stories and plays; you see it used in good films and even in some good TV series now. However, it is probably true that this kind of narrative investigation and use of the impossible emerged because of, and was perhaps was even made possible by, the historical development of the novel, which is the king of all narratives.

GALIMATIAS: Is the novel an endangered species?

ADKIN: Humanity is an endangered species – so the novel must be as well.

GALIMATIAS: Can the novel save humanity?

ADKIN: Only if we take it seriously. That means that the novelists have to write well and choose their big questions intelligently. But, it also means that readers must read intelligently as well.

GALIMATIAS: And yet the novel has been around for some four hundred years … what has the novel achieved for humanity so far? Has it made the world a better place?

ADKIN: I think it’s helped civilisation not be a worse experience than it presently is. Art is the antithesis of ideology. It is a humanising force, interested in universals. Ideologies … and religions are ideologies too … separate humanity and retard real human progress for all of humanity. To some extent, art offers a balance against all the damage that ideologies do … But, at the moment at least, ideologies are more powerful than art.

GALIMATIAS: And ideologies use art for their own destructive purposes.

ADKIN: Yes, and I would include technology with the positive, progressive, humanising forces of art … it is obvious, when we think of technology, how easily it can be used for destructive rather than creative ends.

GALIMATIAS: Can Art save humanity?

ADKIN: No, only humanity can save humanity. But, yes, art could be a positive vehicle for a universalising process of humanity to move forward with. However, it is very hard to imagine an army of artistic crusaders conquering humanity with art … except in the most absurd kind of comedy.

GALIMATIAS: Nevertheless, we could try harder, couldn’t we?

ADKIN: We should try harder, but simply trying harder is not the place to start. Trying harder implies a simple continuation – a “keep doing whatever you’re doing but with a bit more effort.” The first thing we need to do is think more about what we’re doing and why we’re doing it. The what and the why needs to come before the how can be possible in an enriching way.

GALIMATIAS: Finding the big question?

ADKIN: Yes, in phenomenological terms the big question is the eidos of the work, or what Aristotle called the formal cause. Applying Aristotle’s causes toward finding our reasons for things would be a good place to start.

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GALIMATIAS: Aristotle’s causes?

ADKIN: Yes … well, first we have to learn what those causes are. Reading Aristotle’s Physics would help.

GALIMATIAS: Can you really expect budding artists to read Aristotle?

ADKIN: I’m just suggesting good ideas.  Aristotle pointed out that there’s not just a singular cause for something, but everything has its different causes. Aristotle, I think, thought of five possibilities. Firstly, the material cause which is that which constitutes what a thing is. For example, the material cause of this table is wood and nails. The material cause of a novel is, in the first instance, paper and ink unless it’s a digital edition that makes it all binary numbers on a plasma screen. At a second level, it’s all words that flow into grammar and syntax.

GALIMATIAS: How does that knowledge help?

ADKIN: Hardly at all. Material causes are involved with common sense, but the important thing is to think beyond the material causes. A lot of thinking stays there. If we think about the causes of society, for example, someone might say – for the people – because society is constituted of people. But that’s just like saying that the reason for this table is that there was some wood and nails around somewhere that needed to be put together. Sometimes you read a book and you think – the only thing that this author seems to want to show us is how clever he uses words and grammar. That of course is bad writing. And we see it in small talk, when we hear people talking because, we say, they like the sound of their own voice.

GALIMATIAS: Yes, although small talk has its social functions as well.

ADKIN: True, but at first that social function is not obvious. We have to look for it. We have to think a little harder to find it.

GALIMATIAS: Ok, so you are saying we have to question the most obvious.

ADKIN: Yes.

GALIMATIAS: And what are Aristotle’s other causes?

ADKIN: The efficient cause.

GALIMATIAS: The builders.

ADKIN: Right. The artists themselves. Here we can start asking for the reasons why the builders decided to make tables, and why novelists bother writing novels. It helps if we can give quality answers to the question why do it? In our nihilist society the answers can very easily be: because I couldn’t think of anything better to do – or – because I was bored. If we are going to do something as important as write a novel, there have to be more qualitatively good reasons than because I want to, or because it might be fun and make me some money.

GALIMATIAS: Or someone might just have a good story to tell, or an interesting experience to relate.

ADKIN: Yes, but even those people will benefit as artists if they slide a big question under the framework of the story or the picture, or music, or whatever they’re creating. Involved in the causes of things are the eidos, which is the real essence of the thing, and the telos, the cause that is the finality. The final cause of a table is to have something that we can put things on, but … what is the telos of civilisation?

GALIMATIAS: Isn’t the final cause of a book to be read by someone?

ADKIN: Sure, but let’s give the answer a bit more quality.

GALIMATIAS: Ok, what is the telos of When Sirens Call?

ADKIN: It is in a Being which is always becoming.

GALIMATIAS: How is that a final cause?

ADKIN: It’s my final cause – the final cause of the artist. Like the big question, I don’t want it to be explicit. But if you look for it, you’ll find it.

GALIMATIAS: I’m not sure I understand what I’m looking for.

ADKIN: Then don’t look for it. Let it find you. I think there has to be an art in reading as well as in composition. For me the art of reading is knowing how to let the causes of a novel find you.

GALIMATIAS: Is there a methodology for that?

ADKIN: Not that I know of. I think I can do it, but I don’t know how. Not that I think that knowing how would be helpful at all.

GALIMATIAS: You’re starting to make this sound mystical.

ADKIN: Whenever we run into paradoxes things start to sound mystical. But that’s because the mystical can only be appreciated through paradox. The mystical is always paradoxical, but the paradoxical is not always mystical.

THE GALIMATIAS INTERVIEW (PART TWO) – CATHARSIS, THE SUBLIMINAL, AND THE MORAL IMPERATIVE OF THE NOVEL

This is the second part of the interview with Paul David Adkin that was carried out by the Spanish literary magazine “Galimatias” in March, 2015. We have translated it here into English. (Part one is also published here, see the link below)

GALIMATIAS: You’re implying that there is a large aesthetic difference between the novella and novel?

ADKIN: Yes, I think there is. A difference embedded in the need to hide the central question of the novel. In the novella that question can be tackled more openly and directly, like a play can. But Art Wars, remember, was also written as an anti-novel. Just as The Clown and Hamlet Rex were anti-theatre.

GALIMATIAS: It almost seems as if you like to throw stones at your own house.

ADKIN: It’s my personal catharsis.

GALIMATIAS: When Sirens Call is also a tragedy, as is, in a sense, Purgatory. Are these works also cathartic?

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ADKIN: No, not really. For the same reason that they are novels. The novel forgets the big question, whilst catharsis is a tackling, head-on, of the big question. Let me reiterate it: when one decides to adopt the form of a novel to one’s expression, one needs to sublimate the central theme. That is where the resonance of the novel comes from. By pushing the theme into the subliminal, it attacks the readers on a subconscious level as well.

GALIMATIAS: When Sirens Call has references to the Odyssey, sometimes I the form of direct quotes. There is also your big question of the Home that has its resonances with Homer. How conscious of the big question were you in this regard?

ADKIN: Like many of my works – like Hamlet Rex and The Clown – When Sirens Calls began as a kind of academic experiment or a joke. Hamlet Rex was a re-writing of Oedipus Rex through the conduit of Hamlet, but a Hamlet as a young actor in the 21st century. When Sirens Call began as an experiment to rewrite the Odyssey via Joyce’s Ulysses, but a Ulysses taken out of Dublin and brought back to Greece. I was always conscious of this original idea although the experiment itself dwindled away and became lost in the greater demands of the novel. Nevertheless, this original experimental impetus did help the process of sublimation, for the idea of sifting the Odyssey through Ulysses was itself an alienating method. In a sense, the form itself of When Sirens Call provided the distancing required from the narrative and its theme to allow the novel to freely unfold.

In Purgatory there is a different kind of filtering, but the purpose was basically the same. Purgatory, of course, had an original source – the log books of the explorer Mendaña and his crew – but I needed to distance myself from them in order to make their accounts realistic. And to create that distance I invented the character of Valentín. This also facilitated the possibility of achieving another effect with Purgatory that was “the epic”. For me that meant the creation of a profound sense of journeying through a timeless landscape. I think of the epic as something essentially un-historical, existing in a timeless space. That is what Greek theatre and Shakespeare have in common. One can use any wardrobe one pleases or set the stories in any historical moment one wants. In the epic and its timelessness, there are no anachronisms.

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GALIMATIAS: And yet Purgatory is a deeply historical work, with tremendous attention to historical detail.

ADKIN: Yes. It is and it isn’t. It could be classified as an historical novel, and yet it’s not, just as you wouldn’t classify the Iliad as an historical work, and yet it is.

GALIMATIAS: According to Hermann Broch – and I’m paraphrasing him through Milan Kundera – the only moral imperative that the novel has is the transmission of knowledge. Do you agree with this?

ADKIN: A novel is obviously never a science book, and any would-be novelist would always fail if all he or she wanted to do was impart knowledge. I don’t know the quote from Broch in its proper context, but I imagine he is really saying that a novel is a description of life that pulls off certain veils and opens certain closed doors in order to reveal a vision of life that we don’t get by simply watching life go by around us. So, I’d say that the novel is a transmission of a certain type of knowledge that is not normally obvious. The imagination of the novelist opens up into life, and this provides a different insight and therefore a different kind of knowledge. And yes, perhaps we could say that there is a moral imperative for this opening and unveiling to take place, and …. as I’ve already said … there is the imperative of the big question. However, as I also said, I think it’s a mistake for the novelist to consciously try and answer the big question in the novel. It’s enough that the question is raised. Finding an answer may even ruin the book. I made that mistake when I was writing the first drafts of Art Wars. They were awful attempts to resolve the questions brought up by the plot. I’ve written more drafts of Art Wars than anything else, mainly in an attempt to rid the book of its resolutions. That was, perhaps, where I learned my most important lessons in novel writing.

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GALIMATIAS: Although you said that Art Wars was an anti-novel.

ADKIN: Which it is. Perhaps the best way to understand what a novel is is to write an anti-novel.

SEE ALSO: https://pauladkin.wordpress.com/2015/04/20/the-galimatias-interview-part-one/

THE GALIMATIAS INTERVIEW (PART ONE)

This interview with Paul David Adkin was carried out by the Spanish literary magazine “Galimatias” in March, 2015. We have translated it here into English.

GALIMATIAS: We want to centre this discussion on essences. Your writing is quite diverse: apart from your three novels, you have a large number of plays and short stories and philosophical essays, a couple of books of aphorisms and you dabble in poetry and songs. So, my first question is: is there an essential theme running through all this work?

ADKIN: Nothing that I’m conscious of. But I’m sure you could find an unconscious link. Or, perhaps the essential theme is a search for that unconscious link.

GALIMATIAS: You’ve said that art is an invitation to the unravelling of ideas. But isn’t that the role of philosophy?

ADKIN: Yes, but art, of course, unravels those ideas in a different way that philosophy does.

GALIMATIAS: What are the questions that you as an “artist” are concerned with? Are there any central questions, or any singular central question, that you are wrestling with in your work?

ADKIN: In my philosophical writings I’m mainly concerned with why humanity has made such little progress in establishing itself as “humanity” – which implies a simpler question: why do we keep making the same mistakes? But whether that question is buried in all my work … I’m not sure.

GALIMATIAS: Let’s take your three published novels: Purgatory, Art Wars and When Sirens Call. Is the question embedded in them?

ADKIN: Purgatory and When Sirens Call are both about trying to find our way Home with a capital “h”, and both of them contain an idea that our real home is not where we are but where we are going to. Contained in this is the philosophical idea, albeit unstated, that our final destination, in order to be truly purposeful, has to lie beyond our own lives, and that its purposefulness is far greater than our own lives. An idea which, through a philosophical link between aesthetics and human purposefulness, also links Art Wars.

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Art Wars is about finding a purpose through art, or through taking an aesthetic stand point. Purgatory is about finding an aesthetic, and human position between art and the world through an alchemical search for eternity. And, When Sirens Call is likewise a debate around purposiveness and a search for life’s meaning which goes beyond our actual experience of life.

GALIMATIAS: And so we always make the same mistakes and fail to progress because we can’t see the real purpose of our existence?

ADKIN: Yes, in a nutshell, that’s it.

GALIMATIAS: Is your aim to point us in the right direction.

ADKIN: In my essays, yes. I tackle the problem of purposiveness head on. Philosophy has to be direct … like shooting an arrow, as Nietzsche said. But in the novels there is no deliberate exhibition of that idea. There can’t be. If there had been the novels would be unbearable. I think that would be a general rule in novel writing – if you’ve got something you really, passionately want to say, forget about it before you start writing. The question will remain if it’s truly important, but you need to let it sink into the subconscious and come out accidentally.

GALIMATIAS: And yet, art is about unravelling ideas?

ADKIN: Yes, but for a novel to work, the unravelling has to be part of the process of the creation itself. The big question being asked in the novel must always be the subconscious one, buried in the subtext. It’s the secret one. But a shaky secret because it’s the one that will always reveal itself whether you like it or not, and that is why it can, and should be, forgotten.

GALIMATIAS: What you mean is that all art has its subconscious question to ask?

ADKIN: Yes, and the essence of all works of art have to be found in the subject behind the image itself. They say that the essence of the Mona Lisa is her smile. But it’s not … it’s something deeper. A question between the lifeless representation and life itself. And a crying out for eternal life. The Mona Lisa, like all great art, is a bridge between the actual and the eternal.

The difference between art and philosophy is that philosophy attacks the ideas head on in a fully conscious way. A philosopher can never be shy about ideas, but a novelist must be.

GALIMATIAS: And what about the playwright?

ADKIN: The playwright is somewhere in between. Plays can be more direct than the novel. In my case they always are. I write plays when I want to scream directly at my audience, whereas I usually try to be more seductive with my novels.

GALIMATIAS: When Sirens Call is about seduction?

ADKIN: Yes. Sirens are seductive creatures. I wanted to write something that was, above all, atmospheric in When Sirens Call. But its ultimate purpose is to be useful, rather than to drive us against the rocks, as the Sirens do.

GALIMATIAS: It has very strong resonances.

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On the other hand, Art Wars is not seductive at all.

ADKIN: No, it’s not. I made conscious, aesthetic decisions in Art Wars to deliberately not seduce. In fact I consider Art Wars as a kind of anti-novel. I made very conscious decisions to make things not as they should be made. Not that this was such an original standpoint – Dostoevsky did the same with his characters. There’s always an element in Dostoevsky’s characters that makes them seem inconsistent, even wrong, but it is that inconsistency that makes them appear so human.

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GALIMATIAS: And Dostoevsky was exorcising his own demons through his characters, right?

ADKIN: Perhaps. We could analyse all art from the perspective of catharsis and it would be a very valid stand point, but a conservative one that undermines the purposive role of art. If catharsis exists it’s a cleansing and clearing process, pushing the pain of the past aside via direct confrontation, in order to clear the road for a positive future. But once we get immersed in the mess it’s not always easy to push through it. And for that reason catharsis is also a dangerous process. Kafka or Beckett probably never could get through, but the fact that they insisted and persisted with the creative act indicated the need for the positive results of the catharsis. Catharsis is an important element in art, but it is not the reason for art.

GALIMATIAS: Some of your own plays: The Clown or Hamlet Rex, for example, seem cathartic.

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ADKIN: Yes, but both of those plays are basically comedies.

GALIMATIAS: Tragi-comedies.

ADKIN: The tragic is part of the comedy. Nihilism is a tragedy in itself. In those works I was portraying, and laughing at, our nihilist society and the nihilistic direction of our civilisation.

GALIMATIAS: And yet your anti-nihilism is not obvious in those plays.

ADKIN: Not obvious for a nihilist. But really those plays were not at all subtle. Quite the contrary, I was trying to hit hard and they are full of the irony of the overstatement.

GALIMATIAS: An irony which is also crafted in Art Wars.

ADKIN: Yes, which is also overtly anti-nihilist.

GALIMATIAS: Can Art Wars be classified as a novel?

ADKIN: It is closer to a novella, and sprang out of my reaction to reading a short story by Thomas Mann, Gladius Dei.

GALIMATIAS: Which is very moralistic.

ADKIN: Correct. And Art Wars is moralistic as well. Which is why it couldn’t be developed as novel would be.

GALIMATIAS: You’re implying that there is a large aesthetic difference between the novella and novel?

PURGATORY AND ANTI-HUMAN HISTORY

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If human history is the description of human progress towards fulfilment, then the real historical process has not yet begun. Instead of an unfolding toward a better world for all of humanity we are immersed in a process geared unto the satisfaction of the greed of power. True human fulfilment, or the procedure towards it, only exists in our fantasies and our projections of Utopias.

When I immersed myself in the historical archives of Spanish libraries, to start research on my novel Purgatory, now more than twenty-five years ago, I was conscious that I was not creating a work of historical fiction so much as opening a door towards the human historical dream within a background of anti-human history. In the 16th century the Terra Australis was such a dream: a potential paradise on earth that could, once it was discovered, redirect humanity towards real human fulfilment. Or, at least, that the journey itself towards this “impossible” and unreachable Utopia would take us there.

It is no accident, therefore, that the first of the three Spanish attempts to reach the Terra Australis Incognita (what we now call Australia) was inspired by an alchemist. The alchemists knew that human fulfilment could only be realised through science. From the alchemist’s point of view, the myth of the Fall is inherently misunderstood – it is not the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge which has caused human perdition, rather it is the discovery of that fruit that will allow for human salvation as Humanity living in harmony with the world. Knowledge and the technology that is the fruit of that knowledge, will bring humanity back to the Earthly Paradise as Humanity.

Purgatory, then, is a fictional recreation of that historical dream, spawned with a deep conviction that the Utopian dream is important. Perhaps it is the only guide humanity has. But it is also important that we understand that the magical processes of the alchemists were ignorant attempts at what can now be achieved through science.

The human historical process only begins when humanity starts to move toward the Paradise on Earth, a process that does not come through prayer but through the advancement of knowledge and the power of creative thought.