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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Harold Skimpole: Art, Time & Money

 

Harold Skimpole is a character from Charles Dickens’ “Bleak House”. He is described as being innocent, like a child who knows nothing of time or money.

From this description we could conclude that Dickens is saying that time and money have eaten up our innocence. Dickens was writing at a time when the Industrial Revolution was pushing capitalism to its full potential and carving a new world-order designed to produce unlimited wealth on the one hand, and abject poverty on the other. A revolution that has endured centuries and continues to steam-roller forward through our own innocence-starved lives. But now, the concept of time-and-money has taken away far more than just our innocence: it has robbed us of our freedom, and, most especially, of our humanity.

In Bleak House, Skimpole has the airs of an artist: an amateur artist; a pure artist. Art, in its pure form, is always a gift – and we can see an association between the pure artist and innocence, because anyone who gives freely must be either innocent or mad. And yes, there is also an association between innocence, the simpleton, and madness. But art, as a gift, is the antithesis of capitalist ideology, because a gift is, in its essence, outside the economy and beyond the realms of time and money.

An authentically human system cannot ignore true art, and a truly human economy would have to understand the incompatibility between art (that which must be given) and the false-necessities created by the ubiquitous presence of money. A truly human economy, therefore, should be designed in a way that allows art to be created in a space beyond time and money, or, in other words, outside the money system itself.

 

PROPOSITION A:

The existence of art has to challenge the ubiquitous nature of the money system.

 

When Skimpole says: “… go after glory, holiness, commerce, trade, any object you prefer; only – let Harold Skimpole live!” in effect Dickens is saying that the capitalists can build society anyway they want. However, the world they are building stifles Skimpole, and if Skimpole is a symbol of the artist, then Dickens is saying that the time-and-money system is choking art.

But Skimpole is a survivor, who has still not been swallowed up by the System. Somehow he manages to maintain his autonomy, perhaps because “he still had claims too, which were the general business of the community and must not be slighted,” or because he is anti-materialistic himself: “I covet nothing”; or because: “I feel as if you ought to be grateful to me for giving you the opportunity of engaging the luxury of generosity. I know you like it … I may have come into the world expressly for the purpose of increasing your stock of happiness.” Forget your worldliness and play with me, he says, which is what any pure artist would say as well.

Art is the gift of escape, but it is also the gift of progress-through-creativity, and because of that it is not only a gift it is a fundamental feature of humanity whose essence is to become through a continual process of becoming. Only through art can humanity ever really conceive itself to be progressing freely. Art is an essential ingredient in any definition of freedom. And, as Skimpole asserts: “the base word money should never be breathed near it!”

Skimpole can only exist in the time-and-money system by being a charlatan, and as a charlatan he is unscrupulous at ensuring his survival. But Dickens is also blaming the system for Skimpole’s unscrupulousness. Skimpole has no choice, just as art or any artist has no choice. In order to survive in this world, everyone needs money, artist or not. Skimpole uses his charms to maintain his independence from the System, but the System is still there and he is still inside it. He is an impossible man, but in his absurdity resides something that the world that makes him absurd also needs: His creativity.

In the eyes of capitalism, Skimpole is a parasite, just as all artists are who cannot justify themselves in the world of the free market are parasites. But let us remember that some parasites achieve greatness as well: those who, doomed to be amateur nobodies in their poverty-stricken lives, became superstars after their death. A most poignant example is Van Gogh, whose work now brings in millions and yet he never sold a painting in his life. Likewise, Dostoevsky was a struggling unfortunate; as was Beckett.

Art in the civilised world now seems to be the heading the same way as the nomad. There is no space for the real artist in the free-money-market world. And, like any nomadic society, the artist will be forced to eventually conform to the system or perish.

Of course, the irony of this, is that art is one of the defining features in the identity of the civilised world against the barbarian. By reducing the artist to the level of the parasite, civilisation reveals a triumph of barbarism within its own walls. It has its pinacothecas and museums, but these only display its own hypocritical attitude toward the artist, who, like Skimpole, is only a parasite until proven otherwise.

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.

KAFKA AND NECESSITY

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In Kafka’s Trial, K. confronts a priest who tells him:

“‘It is not necessary to accept everything as true, one must only accept it as necessary.’

‘A melancholy conclusion,’ said K. ‘It turns lying into a universal principle.’”

But in between the priest’s observation and K.’s conclusion there is another result of this acceptance – that of turning necessity into a lie. The effect of this, of course, is that real necessities can no longer be trusted. They all become suspicious. Real purpose likewise suffers from this. Action itself becomes suspect to all sorts of vanities based on dishonesty and illusion. When necessity is rendered absurd by no longer representing that which really is, nihilism sets in. From this, we can define nihilism as that which arises when necessity loses its character.

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 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.

The Terra Australis Incognita Volume 1

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.

The Terra Australis Incognita Volume 1

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?

THE HOW AND WHY OF WRITING LITERATURE?

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Literary authors don’t sell and finding a publisher for a well-crafted book can be a nightmare. So, why bother? Why write literature?

Italo Calvino answered this question by analysing another interrogative: Why Read the Classics?[i] In that essay Calvino presents 14 definitions of what the classics are. If there is a reason for having the Classics there must be a reason for trying to write a classical work of literature. We are going to borrow Calvino’s definitions and transform them a little in order to work out why some writers (like us) still bother to persist with the literary genre, while giving special relevance to the drafting of our latest novel When Sirens Call[ii].

  • Writers of literature have to want to write books that people will want to reread. The first encounter with the book is immaterial, the aim is to create a product which will find a permanent place on the reader’s bookshelf.

How is this achieved? The literary writer has to create complexity through detail, levels of interpretation and depth of meaning. For the literary writer the narrative is less important than the message. Non-literary works are a meal, but literature is a recipe book as well all the meals that can be made from that book.

In the case of When Sirens Call we began with a complex folding and unfolding of forms. Our book is a retelling of Homer’s Odyssey via Joyce’s Ulysses, transforming Harold Bloom back into Odysseus but now in the body of a young Australian girl on her own odyssey in the Mediterranean. The link is through form: syntax mostly. The syntax of Ulysses pushed back into the epic voyage home of the Odyssey. Right from the first sentence the readers of literature will hear echoes of distant books, seeping into and flowing through the unfolding narrative of Belinda Babchek. The depth in literature lies in the depth of literature itself.

  • Writing literature means writing books that want to be treasured by those who have read them. But readers will only treasure a great book if they encounter it in the best conditions.

As Calvino says: “reading in youth can be rather unfruitful, due to impatience, distraction, inexperience with the products instructions for use, and inexperience in life itself.”

These negative barriers between the reader and the writer have to be expected by the literary author. It is also the main reason why so often agents and publishers fail to see genius when great works are presented to them. What this means for the literary author is that he or she must persist with his or her attempts to get their book to the readers. Once it is read in the right conditions the book will find its place … and there is always a place somewhere for great literature.

But it also means that the writer of great literature must have: patience, good concentration, and a deep experience with literature and life itself.

  • The literary author wants to write a book that will exert an influence on its readers: “both when they refuse to be eradicated from the mind and when they conceal themselves in the folds of memory, camouflaging themselves as the collective or individual unconscious.”

Again this is managed by creating depth, both in form and meaning.

  • Writing literature is about making the work so complex that every rereading “is as much a voyage of discovery as the first reading.”

And hence …

  • “Every reading of a classic is in fact a rereading.”

Or …

  • What we are writing is a book that “has never finished what it has to say.”
  • When writing we must always bear in mind that we are not trying to create something out of nothingness. The writing is a bringing forward in a new way what has always been there, and we must leave traces for the reader pointing to readings of other great works. Literature is an accumulation of literature. When a reader reads When Sirens Call that reading will be enriched if they have in mind Homer’s text, or Joyce’s, or both of them.

How does the writer achieve this? By carefully reading the classics and absorbing them.

  • The literary author does not necessarily write things that teach us anything new. Literature is about origins, relationships and affinities. The writer of literature has to be prepared to (and must want to) crawl through the labyrinth.
  • Write books that will always be found fresher, more surprising and more marvellous each time they are read. And the key to this again is “complexity”. When one writes literature, one is creating an entire universe.
  • Desire to write the total book. Establish a “strong rapport in terms of opposition and antithesis.”
  • Be the kind of author to whom no one will be able to feel indifferent.
  • Great literature flows through us like a river over which we stand. The ultimate aim of your writing is the future and never the now. A future built on the accumulation of all that flows with it, and carries it forward. Your work needs the river to carry it forward.
  • Remember this point by Calvino: “A classic is something that tends to relegate the concerns of the moment to the status of background noise, but … this background noise is something we cannot do without.”
  • And: “A classic is something that persists as background noise even when the most incompatible momentary concerns are in control of the situation.”

[i] All the quotes in this essay are from Italo Calvino’s “Why Read the Classics?” published in English in THE LITERATURE MACHINE, Picador, 1989, pp. 125 – 134.

[ii] WHEN SIRENS CALL by Paul David Adkin, Threekookaburras, 2014. http://threekookaburras.com/pages/when-sirens-call

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.

BETWEEN BIRTH AND DEATH

penrose_prison

Where is the freedom

Between birth and death

In the illumination between birth and death

Where is the freedom?

 

Open your eyes into the light

Close them and blackness fills

 

Our prisons are walls, or bars, or desert island insulations

Cells can be cages, or boxes, or bags, or homes

We are trapped in tunnels, or caves, on roads or rivers

Prisons can be of flesh

Or they can be of families

The tyrant gaoler father mother sister brother teacher boss

Ruler or friend, lover or foe

Prison is an isolation or a multitude

Retard movement in a restricting suit

With rope or chains or behind a steel locked door

Prisons impede

Impede your progress

Your ability to leave

Only mentally can you escape

 

Homo Sapiens: I think therefore I know

I know therefore I’m free

 

But the multitude is a different prison

A lobotomising gaol that dresses you

In the way it wants you to be dressed

That nourishes you

With the junk it wants you to have

 

The multitude is a prison of thinkers that do not know

Ostrich-head minds that do not want to see

Anti-sensory sapiens that refuse wisdom

 

Our boots are heavy with the mud of life

As we wade through the stress filled swamp of an imaginary illumination

There is no freedom there

 

Prisoners to the techno monsters that master us

We struggle so hard to buy our way in to the gaol

 

There is no freedom there

Unless you find the door

 

Everyone has a door to open

Hidden from them by the multitude

Under its thick curtain of economy

And the culture of money

But the exit is there if you are capable of uncovering it

 

You are Homo Sapiens: You think therefore you know

You know therefore you’re free

 

Imagine Rodin’s statuesque Thinker

Sitting on a backdoor key

That will unlock the exit and free him from the trap that

Is this ridiculous anti-human space

Between birth and death