Monday, July 06, 2009

"How Much of the Earth is Flesh?"

I'm about 50 pages into a new novel, and so far two passages continue to run circles in my mind.

is the perfect disguise. The replica, which is meant to commemorate, achieves the opposite effect: it allows the original to be forgotten," writes Anne Michaels, in her new novel The Winter Vault.

This is Michaels' second novel. Her first was Fugitive Pieces, which may be one of the most perfect novels ever written--let alone one of the most insightful novels regarding trauma and the Holocaust. Considering the work I do, Fugitive Pieces was compelling because of the way it brings trauma to the forefront through focusing on absence and the immense roars of silence, as opposed to diving deep into the traumatic event and attempting to depict it as it really was.

And clearly this theme of allowing emptiness to speak is continued in her newest novel, which has nothing to do with the Holocaust
. This one is about a couple living on a houseboat on the Nile River, moored below the towering figures of Abu Simbel. The main character, Avery, is one of the engineers charged with the task of dismantling and reconstructing the temple in order to rescue it from the rising waters of the Aswan Dam. Avery loves technology, but he is torn between it and his awareness of the destruction it perpetrates.

Michaels remarks on simulation are interesting because they raise critical questions about originals vs replicas, especially in the context
of memorials and commemorations. What, really, do we achieve by constructing a representation of something (an event, an historical period, a feat of nature, etc)? By creating one thing to stand for another, all we really do is distance ourselves from the original that we seek to capture.

But even if Michaels' narrative
is concerned with the creations and upheavals of our physical world, she is also deeply aware of the enterprises of the heart--the intimacy and immensity of the way that emotion functions in our world.

And here is the second passage that I cannot yet forget:

"And she knew
for the first time that someone can wire your skin in a single evening, and that love arrives not by accumulating to a moment, like a drop of water focused on the tip of a branch---it is not the moment of bringing your whole life to another--but rather, it is everything you leave behind. At that moment."

It seems that even in the enormity
of being in love, it is still about what one chooses not to have; it is still about the presence of absence. It makes me think also of Lot's wife, who (according to some of the Midrashim), while fleeing the city of Sodom with her husband, gazed behind her so that she could look back on the two daughters she was leaving behind. And at that moment, she became a monument of her love for them: a pillar of salt.


Hypotyposis said...

Quick comment on this vast subject: I think you need a distinction between the "buyer" of replicas (f├ętiches, idoles, etc.) and the creator of copies–not sure you can dismiss so fast the idea that for (some) copyists, the imitating act is a way of getting closer to/interpreting/remembering the original. E.g. in a similar direction Proust on writing in the styles of authors you've just read.

Casey said...

Interesting in light of the possibility of "rebuilding the temple."

But, isn't even an original a sort of simulation? When I read about the original temple in Jerusalem, for example, I get the feeling that it was to be a kind of physical manifestation of the place of prayer (which is obviously "inward" somehow)... I wonder if that simulation might already have distanced worshippers from the original?

Monica said...

Hypotyposis--Good point. But...while I don't want to "dismiss" the possibility that for the copyist "the imitating act is a way of getting closer to...the original," I do want to question it. I want to question whether these impulses to get closer to the event/etc really do get us closer. My theory is that when the impulse is purely representational, the consequence is one of distance rather than proximity. I'm just raising this possibility. But what I do think is worth re-considering on my end is the possibility that the creater/copyist might experience the "imitation" in a more ethical way than the viewer/audience? I don't know...will have to think about this.

Casey--Okay, you've really made me think this time. I hadn't considered the idea of "rebuilding the temple" in this context. Even as I was writing about the Egyptian temples, I never really thought about this in a Jewish context.

Is an original a simulation? Yes, I guess in some ways it is--and it just gets more and more diluted with every facsimile. I think you have a point regarding the possibility that the temple "might" already have distanced worshippers from "the original." And in some sense, in a more contemporary manifestation of text-centered Judaism (as opposed to ritual/sacrificed-based) perhaps there is no need for a temple? Maybe the Christians are onto something with their notion of the body as temple?

Kevin said...

Very nice connections here, re: replicas and absence. Surely this is, in general, a danger. But I wonder if this absence you worry about--the tendency of a replica to make absent that of which it purports to be a reminder--is not counter-acted by the example you use at the end.

Under the presumption that the ideal replica/memorial etc. does its work by preventing (so far as it can) the forgetting of the original, one might argue that Lot's wife is a monument/remembrance of one way we fail, precisely by failing to forget. It thus does not seem to be the example you want, because it does not 'make absent' some thing or event of which it would remind us; rather, it reminds us/puts us in mind of a special kind of absence. That sounded a bit fortune-cooky-ish; here is what I mean:

She and Lot are being exiled in favor of 'a land which I will show you'. You mention Love, itself an exile from a previously comfortable internality. Love is a similar 'calling out' ("and he went out...not knowing where he was going..."). Yet there is the terrible temptation of looking back--of being called out by Love, yet being one of those who waver, who hesitate, and "in their heart turn[] back to Egypt." That is, over and against Love and its "Come Forth" is the fear which says "Go Back!" Against Love looms the temptation of conservatism (of soul)--re-seeking the normal, the familiar, the traditional, the safe. And this consideration suggests what I think might be missing in the interpretation you mention: why a monument of SALT? Here, the answer would be this: Lot's wife becomes a immobile commemorative column made of up a preservative precisely because of her conservatism. What an amazing image! Preserving (through replica) the folly of preserving--of conservatism in the face of the call out from self by Love! I love the care taken by this 'replica'!

So...I don't know if I'm disagreeing here, but I find this warning-by-replica so acute, so beautifully chosen, that each time I consider it, I am put on guard against this sort of refusal of love's call out--the call to evacuate, not so much Sodom, but Self.

This is what I meant by a replica which enjoins absence. Here is the evacuation/absence Love requires of us. And this image reminds me of--makes present--an absence--and, at my best moments, helps to re-present or evoke in me that same admirable absence--re-minds me that to be ethical is, in this sense, to be, not backward-looking, but rather, to be a whole-hearted/forward-looking fugitive. Ethics as exile, as emptiness, and so ethics as an absence, from which it is wrong to turn back.

Ira said...

Great post. Just wanted to mention: I've been thinking for a little while about how the first sincere (authentic, goodwilled, etc.--who decides which word or which act counts as one of the words, but still, we live through them) imitation can often be the opposite of diluted. That is, if the original is not only a representation of some kind, but equally and equally importantly a negotiation--a way of coming to terms with the thrownness of being at a given moment--what will have been 'the real thing,' what will have been specific to the original, is often only somewhat legible when we look at the original.

For instance, you can look at Alcoholics Anonymous, the founding 12-step group, and see (even still today) an awful lot of Christianity. So much so, in fact, that one might come reasonably to the conclusion that the 12-step movement or ethos or whathaveyou is an offshoot of (Protestant) Christianity.

But if you look at Narcotics Anonymous and Debtors Anonymous and Overeaters Anonymous and any of the other dozens (in their heyday, it was hundreds) of anonymous 12-step self-help groups out there, what you see is far less a specifically Christian phenomenon than in AA still today. Without that particular thrownness specific to AA's origins--close affiliation with Oxford Houses, near-exclusively white male Christian early member-base, etc.--some of the negotiated character of that founding event drops away, and 12-step discourse begins to look more and more like a metareligion, amalgamating a variety of specific religious perspectives and offering up a morality, but leaving members with the injunction to find their cosmology elsewhere.

Without going into over-depth on my own projects, I wanted to suggest that this particular example suggests a way in which the copy is a less diluted version of the original than the original itself was. So, to stay with the example, Narcotics Anonymous is based on nearly all of the same principles as Alcoholics Anonymous, with the signal difference being that members admit powerlessness over 'addiction' rather than over 'alcohol.' As with the structure of the original, which is specifically that of a metareligion but is--in the case of the original--obscured and even, in retrospect, corrupted by its negotiation with the world around, here too the god-term reflects more aptly what was contained in the original god-term than did the original itself.

I hope I've gone into enough detail to suggest the point, without going into so much as to be annoying. Because when you say, "in a more contemporary manifestation of text-centered Judaism (as opposed to ritual/sacrificed-based) perhaps there is no need for a temple," I think of the above--as I recall Lacan's famous insistence that he is not a Lacanian but rather a Freudian. And isn't there some sense in which this is intuitively the case: that Freudian psychoanalysis cannot come to light in its explication by Freud, who must negotiate with a context of which Freudian psychoanalysis is not yet a part, that the copy--the redaction that says, "Yes, I too am a Freudian" and that is also authentic in some way--will have been not the dilution but rather the reduction of the original, the simmering, condensed version?

And so someone like Derrida might say, right, that the text-centered version of Judaism is more faithful to the sacrificial event than the actual sacrifice itself could ever be? That the sacrifice made via a deep identification with language, with (still more) the written word bypasses even the christian body-as-temple to get to the throbbing, bloody heart of the matter?

Anyhow, I really get a lot out of your posts when I drop in now and then, and wanted to offer some sort of response :-). Also, I love this version of Lot's wife.

Monica said...

Kevin--good point. But...that's just it--I don't think that Lot's wife failed! I choose to read that moment as one of self-sacrifice. Or perhaps it was inevitable--the only possible ethical act that a mother could make, the choice she could not BUT choose. I see her as looking back because she could not turn her back on her two daughters, left to burn in the city. Perhaps she is not yielding to temptation; perhaps that is only the superficial reading of the story. There is always another interpretation. Isn't her act an "evacuation of Self" in this regard? And I wonder if being ethical requires not just forward-looking, but also backward-looking sometimes? I don't know...your thoughts are interesting, regardless.

Love your last line: "Ethics as exile..."

Monica said...

Ira...I'm thinking through your comments. Will be back soon...