Tuesday, 10 September 2013

The Proper Task of Life.

The anti-philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche deemed art the proper task of life.” He had moved on much farther than the view of Schopenhauer's, where art is a means to deceive the Will and escape from the treadmill of its domination. Nietzsche advocates a radical acceptance of the imperfection of the world and this life in resistance to the otherworldly. He associates art with this embrace of the domination of the Will. This is far from a glum acceptance of a horrible existence. He wants us to rejoice in existence and laugh at the world in all of its absurdity. The knowledge of our existence beyond the precepts of religion provides us with a certain freedom. It is not that man should be freed from emotion, rather life is made meaningful by the passions - which are a source of insight, orientation and understanding. The attachments we build through our passions provide meaning, whether it be the attachments we form with people, ideals or aspirations. The creativity involved in art is particularly important here, especially the attachment forged with a work of art.

It is in this light that the Will to Power is to be understood as a celebration of the passionate life rather than in terms of metaphysics or motivation. Art is not just an escape route but an affirmation of existence, as it can even serve as the process of revaluation insofar as art allows us to participate in the nature of things. This is the development of culture out of the unfolding of human capacities. It is not simply instrumental, works of art may be seen as ends-in-themselves. For this very reason culture is not undermined by heterogeneity, far from it. It is homogeneity which leads to culture going stale and even becoming a lifeless scroll rolled up in the canon. Before you know it, we are to impart this stale culture to the next generation without reflection. Yet high and low culture are not fixed in stone. As Terry Eagleton has observed, there are works once considered canon-worthy which are much less brilliant than the early episodes of The Simpsons. Culture is not ahistorical or unchanging, it is forever transient.
Loving Decay

Too often culture is taken to be ahistorical and unchanging. Only for change to be received as deeply threatening to the artefacts preserved in formaldehyde by a cultural elite. To presuppose this is to accept a rather narrow conception of culture. Even still it is a widespread understanding of culture. We even find it in the work of Michel Houellebecq, a new self-styled Céline, in his nihilism. In Atomised (1998) Houellebecq portrays a vision of late capitalist society as in the thrall of its own decay. The chaos of the market society and its depredations has blown away the traditional order of morality. Sexual liberalism has prevailed to the extent that the very act has become a commodity in a marketplace. Even though Houellebecq seems to accept a conservative thesis on culture he is pessimistic at the possibility of any kind of deliverance from this process. The collapse of the old order is irreversible. It may be better to take what pleasure can be procured from its final twitches than to try and turn the clock back as Evelyn Waugh wanted.

In his nihilism Houellebecq identifies more so with the decay of culture which he seems to disdain. The pages of Atomised (1998) are littered with philosophical conundrums, scientific history and the material pre-conditions for the society which we inhabit. He focuses a great deal on the emergence of sexual freedom in the 1960s, its origins in the Hippie scene and the spread of the Commune movement around Europe and America. His protagonists Michel Djerzinski and Bruno Clément endure the explosion of new possibilities before even reaching pubescence: abandoned by their Hippie mother, only to drift through numerous encounters and non-encounters with members of the opposite sex. Bruno represents the failed attempts at hedonism divorced from the utopianism of the '68 Generation; whereas Michel languishes in anhedonic distance from human relations to prioritise the life of the mind. The dichotomy is set between the unsated and the undesiring to lead us from the 1960s to the 90s. Like the society in which we live the brothers are forever shaped by the events of the 60s. 

Grand Catastrophes

The cultural revolution of the 1960s had an undeniably profound impact on the people who lived amidst its birth pangs. In 1986 a film crew came to make a short documentary about the writer JG Ballard. In the interview, Ballard pointed out that the world which we inhabit requires a certain amount of oil to make the cogs go around and keep the wheels turning. For Ballard it was sex which played such a role in the 1960s, but now sex is no longer a new frontier and increasingly violence has become the oil which keeps the wheels turning. The media landscape of narratives thrives on sensation and requires sensation to go on, like a drowsy beast we find ourselves in need of constant electric shocks just to stay awake. Ballard suggests that the electric shocks are provided more so by violence today.

A major focus of Ballardian fiction is a secondary world which has been constructed on the media landscape of television, film, radio and the press etc. For Ballard we live in an environment saturated to the extent that we live in a two-tier world, we inhabit a dual reality. The immediate reality of everyday life and the secondary reality forged as the media acts as a map in search of a territory. It is a search for something in ordinary reality which meshes with this secondary reality, only to magnify disasters, confrontations, personal tragedies and so on. At once this secondary world is the subject matter of Ballard's novels, it is described and developments within it are predicted. Too often do we assume that the violence on television is bad for us, the truth about violence is good for us and cannot be repressed. The edge is a cautionary one, e.g. Dangerous Bends Ahead, Slow Down! with the paradox being Crash (1973) in which Ballard bellows “Dangerous Bends Ahead, Speed Up! All in an appreciation of the chaos underneath the surface of modern civilisation. Ballard may have basked in the fires of this chaos, but he was ultimately on the side of it.

Living the Dirt
If we turn to the post-Beat scene of writing from the American West Coast we find another noteworthy literary creature. The poetry of Charles Bukowski stands in contrast to Houellebecq's nihilism. Bukowski's dirty realism pulsates with the same themes as Houellebecq albeit with much more in the way of exuberance. He doesn't so much languish in complacent affluence as live and breathe the filthier side of life. Bukowski remains an essentially American writer in his unabashed individualism, which serves to complement the reservoir of squalor and misanthropy in his prose. He has no coherent social message to convey only defiant exultation in the decline of civilisation. Take the closing lines of Dinosauria, We “And there will be the most beautiful silence never heard” only to add “Born out of that./The sun still hidden there/Awaiting the next chapter.” Thereby Bukowski turns the Apocalypse into another twisted turn in the anfractuous road of progress. We are to be superseded, along with the transient stage which we have made for ourselves. Perhaps Bukowski and Houellebecq share an appreciation of the flux of this world because they were both poets.

In his reasoning Bukowski derided other writers for starting out with pretentious attempts at setting a captivating scene for the readers. It was dead prose, no longer wriggling with life. Instead Bukowski went for the jugular and opened Post Office (1971) with a real hook “It began as a mistake”. He was a working-class poet, often unemployed, usually drifting and forever inebriated. He found the bottle analogous to a fine symphony - something he knew plenty about in his love of classical music. His publisher John Martin considered Bukowski the Walt Whitman of the 20th Century in putting pen to paper in the gutter. He conveyed the grittiest of experiences in his own melancholic brand of free verse. Black Sparrow Press marketed Bukowski as the poet who wrote for the average man in contemporary America. Yet Bukowski was much more misanthropic and self-centred in his alcoholism to be concerned with the wants of the masses. Even still the dirty old man chewed up Wagner and Kant only to spit them back out in his portrayals of a life lived in the darkest corners of American society.

Beautiful Chaos

As Ballard was the middle-class doctor who ventured into bohemian territory after the death of his wife, Bukowski yearned for a normal life and Houellebecq accepted that it would never be found. With Chuck Palahniuk it seems more so that there is more joy to be found in the absurdity of modern society. Picking fun at society by highlighting its more obscure and obscene side is not a new method for satirists. Neither are the themes developed in Palahniuk's work particularly earth-shattering. If you haven’t read Chuck Palahniuk then you should rush out and obtain, possibly by violent means, a copy of Survivor (1999) or Fight Club (1996) as soon as possible. He originally set out to emulate much more conventional modes of writing, but ended up in Tom Spanbauer's workshop. There Chuck took on a radical minimalism which has become the form for the transgressive content of his novels. Though transgressive in content Palahniuk's corpus contains thematic links reaching back to the origins of English literature. You can find courtly love in the deliberate variations made on the boy-meets-girl frame of events in his writing. The foreground stories with their dysfunctional and deranged characters falls against a background worth further examination. Fight Club is not just a tale of madness, or even the love story concealed within it, there is the emergence of an anti-capitalist terrorist network working to bring down America's credit system.

Unlike Houellebecq and Bukowski, Chuck Palahniuk is not a nihilist for he still clings to modernism and romanticism at heart. He may have much more in common with the existentialist tradition. He sets out to carve out a unique place as a writer, dismissing the likes of Martin Amis as a purveyor of “beautifully padded sentences”. It is not enough to try and posture as a living classic as Amis and McEwan does. To put it as Chuck has “We're living in a different world than Charles Dickens lived in”. A radical minimalism strips down the prose for all to view, but this is not a reductionist task as the battle is to build deep layers into the narrative in themes, allusions, symbolism and ideas. To this end Palahniuk may have recycled old themes and fed them into his projects. The mission of dangerous writing is to seek out and cover those aspects of life most uncomfortable, embarrassing and unsettling for us to confront. That is the locus of transgressive fiction and its purveyors. This is the flux of culture before our eyes.

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