The world is a never-ending cross-reference

May 17, 2014 § Leave a comment

Rarely in a critical essay are personal anecdotes regarding the text useful for other peoples’ understanding; in this case, a few lines will be illustrative, however. The Following Story was handed me by Carolina in 2010, underscored & annotated by her already. Immediately I added to these markings with enthusiasm — it was a book I knew would become a part of my greater story. As I pick it up again, obstructed by pencil-markings & bad handwriting, I find that old self to be as much a stranger to me as the separate body in my friend.

This experience is in harmony with Cees Nooteboom’s thesis in the book regarding the constant mobility & metamorphosis of identity through time [returning to that great Proustian question of the self that slips between consciousnesses & the subconscious]. Our protagonist, Herman Mussert, wakes up one morning with a serious dilemma of “[t]he liquid I” (40). Having gone to bed at home in Amsterdam, he muses, “& now (to use the unspeakable word that always cuts the ground from under one’s feet), I was lying in a room in Lisbon with my eyes shut tight, thinking about the other now of the previous evening (if it had been the previous evening)” (15—6, emphasis his). Could this be a vivid memory, for he had indeed stayed at this Portuguese hotel twenty years earlier? Was this a sort of metamorphosis? Or perhaps logic passed away in the night? Maybe he had?

The word “now”, along with its connotations of fleeting ethereality, has long been accepted the antithesis of writing — that is to say, the present is precisely what cannot be recorded. Its challenge is “[m]emory, postponement of metamorphosis” (39); memory is also what gives us the illusion of stable character — memory, in its form as habit & hobby. Words are referents, which means they are the objects of memory [working by way of recognition]. The narrator jokes, “Can you keep track of my tenses? They are all past tenses” (49). Language is the great incompatible to the moment.

Part II makes this very clear. The scenario puts Herman on a ship with five other men, each taking turns at telling the story of his own death. The story completed, that figure disappears into the unknown. Every one of them is brought to definition in their narrative, post factum. Only, “the others seemed to know so much better than I what story to tell” (91) he confesses. They had violent deaths, incidents, crescendos. As he had led his life, Herman’s death was relatively without spectacle: in his sleep in Amsterdam, roughly 50 years old, holding a picture of the ‘Voyager’ spacecraft.

So what is the story he has to share? Roughly speaking, it is the acquisition of a knowledge system. Herman Mussert was a Latin teacher & then travel writer, an avid reader by whose lamp the neighbours could find their way home. The surname Mussert is an unpopular one — connecting him to the leader of the National Socialists of Holland, executed for high treason at the end of WWII. His celibacy is relatively without choice, only once being described from the outside & then as “a schizoid garden gnome from the antique shop” (65). But Herman knows something of superior pleasures; his respect for literature is so great that he “do[es] not which to join the ranks of the dabblers” (12). He works on a translation of Ovid’s Metamorphoses without ever intending to publish it. The truth of the matter is, however, that in life he is such a dabbler [described three times as “the pawing & clawing of a blind man” (20, & also 68 & 82)] that he does not even recognise death when it summons him.

For all his sense of being an outsider, as matter he was unbanishable [the “ashes of the ashes of our ashes” (15) is the only reasonable aspiration to eternity]. He elaborates, “It was not my soul that would set out on a journey, […] it was my body that would embark on endless wanderings, never to be ousted from the universe, & so it would take part in the most fantastic metamorphoses about which it would tell me nothing” (97). We should note the juxtaposition: the immaterial — not to say, metaphysical — part of the human being is in the “telling” speech-act, the ability to recount narrative & report information. This skill society uses to develop a cultural basis, or Doxa, on which to support itself & develop. As such, semiotics has generally taken the place of metaphysics.

We are totally dependent. Life is too empty to our taste, too open-ended, we have invented all sorts of things to cling to: names, dates, measurements, anecdotes. So just let me be, I have nothing more than my conventions & so I will go on referring quite simply to day & hour, even though our voyage seemed to take not the least notice of their dictates. (57—8).

Herman discloses a preference for insufficient systems to the truth, which is “too open-ended”. His own system is evolutive from classic Western literature. For another shipmate, Professor Deng, a functional system of understanding is taken from the work of Qu Yuan [born three centuries before Ovid, on whose poetry much Eastern culture is based]. As a result, Herman & Deng see different metaphors for the rising & setting of the sun, & each has his own tales & distribution for the constellations.

A second double to our protagonist is in his colleague & lover, Maria Zeinstra. After comparing the transformation of Phaeton’s mourning sisters into trees & the decomposition of life, she points out to him that “[a]ll those changes of [my subject, biology] are metaphors for yours” (43). They start to notice how remarkably self-sufficient each other’s systems are & that the work of scientific knowledge began long before the conception of science.

It is less these characters that are Herman’s mirrors & metaphors than their ways of seeing. After all, “[t]he wold is a never-ending cross-reference” (84). We learn with Herman that, like word choice, meaning is imperfect doxic inheritance. Intelligence — or at least literary intelligence — is the acute capacity to bridge & translate the functioning metaphors that satisfy life’s requirement to rhyme & reason. It is the ability to interchange perspective — & that is the knowledge system, allegorical & polyvocal, that The Following Story moves towards elaborating.

In a work of literature, these metaphors take the shape of symbols which extend an idea or concept with each reincarnation. In a historical exposition, it may be an example or case-study that is used. In an essay, sometimes it is achieved with an anecdote.

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