Wednesday, October 9, 2013

The Book of Job(s)

by Robert J. Howe

In the Fall 2013 issue (#206) of The Paris Review, Jonathan Franzen translates an essay, “Heine and the Consequences,” by Karl Kraus (1874–1936), of whom Franzen says, "...was an Austrian satirist and a central figure in fin de si├Ęcle Vienna’s famously rich life of the mind."

Kraus frames his dissection of Heinrich Heine (1797–1856), with a comparison of "the German" and "the Romance," which Franzen footnotes thus: "In the dichotomy of Romance versus German, which runs throughout this essay, Romance refers to “Romance-language” or “Latin,” particularly French or Italian."

You might ask why we should devote much time to a deconstruction of a 19th century writer by an obscure late 19th/early 20th century writer, but you don't read The Paris Review to get Stephenie Meyer, and Franzen sells the piece, at first.

Then we get to the second footnote, reproduced here in its entirety (bear with me):

2  Kraus’s suspicion of the “melody of life” in France and Italy still has merit. His contention here—that walking down a street in Paris or Rome is an aesthetic experience in itself—is confirmed by the ongoing popularity of France and Italy as vacation destinations and by the “envy me” tone of American Francophiles and Italophiles announcing their travel plans. If you say you’re taking a trip to Germany, you’d better be able to explain what specifically you’re planning to do there, or else people will wonder why you’re not going someplace where life is beautiful. Even now, Germany insists on content over form. If the concept of coolness had existed in Kraus’s time, he might have said that Germany is uncool.
This suggests a more contemporary version of Kraus’s dichotomy: Mac versus PC. Isn’t the essence of the Apple product that you achieve coolness simply by virtue of owning it? It doesn’t even matter what you’re creating on your MacBook Air. Simply using a MacBook Air, experiencing the elegant design of its hardware and software, is a pleasure in itself, like walking down a street in Paris. Whereas when you’re working on some clunky, utilitarian PC, the only thing to enjoy is the quality of your work itself. As Kraus says of Germanic life, the PC “sobers” what you’re doing; it allows you to see it unadorned. This was especially true in the years of dos operating systems and early Windows. 
One of the developments that Kraus will decry—the dolling-up of German language and culture with decorative elements imported from Romance language and culture—has a correlative in more recent editions of Windows, which borrow ever more features from Apple but still can’t conceal their essential uncool Windowsness. Worse yet, in chasing after Apple elegance, they betray the old austere beauty of PC functionality. They still don’t work as well as Macs do, and they’re ugly by both cool and utilitarian standards. 
And yet, to echo Kraus, I’d still rather live among PCs. Any chance that I might have switched to Apple was negated by the famous and long-running series of Apple ads aimed at persuading people like me to switch. The argument—that Macs are pretty, easy to use, free of bugs, and unsusceptible to viruses, all of this in contrast to PCs—was eminently reasonable, but it was delivered by a personified Mac (played by the actor Justin Long) of such insufferably cool smugness that he made the miseries of Windows attractive by comparison. You wouldn’t want to read a novel about the Mac: What would there be to say except that everything is groovy? Characters in novels need to have actual desires; the character in the Apple ads who had desires was the PC, played by John Hodgman. His attempts to defend himself and to pass himself off as cool were funny, and he suffered, like a human being. To return to Kraus’s dichotomy, I could easily imagine the PC being played by a German actor and the Mac by a Frenchman—never the other way around.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t add that the concept of cool has been so fully co-opted by the tech industries that some adjacent word like hip is needed to describe those online voices who proceeded to hate on Justin Long and deem John Hodgman to be the cool one. The restlessness of who or what is considered hip nowadays may be an artifact of what Marx famously identified as the “restless” nature of capitalism. One of the worst things about the Internet is that it tempts everyone to be a sophisticate—to take positions on what is hip and to consider, under pain of being considered unhip, the position that everyone else is taking. Kraus may not have cared about hipness per se, but he certainly reveled in taking positions and was keenly attuned to the positions of others. He was a sophisticate, and this is one reason why Die Fackel has a blog-like feel. Kraus spent a lot of time reading stuff he hated, so as to be able to hate it with authority.

When I first interviewed at my current job, a number of years ago, my soon-to-be boss asked me whether I was a Mac user or a PC user. I told her that she wasn't supposed to ask religious questions in a job interview. In the footnote above, Franzen departs the LitCrit envelope, and flies his rhetorical airplane into the side of Mount Hierology. At the heart of his plaintive moo is this: "…the PC “sobers” what you’re doing; it allows you to see it unadorned."

So full disclosure: I use both Mac and Windows boxes (and have used pre-Windows PCs), but strongly prefer Macs because I'd rather be writing (or doing whatever other thing needs doing) than computing. In my experience, Macs are transparent: the interface puts the minimum barrier between the user and his or her work. Many people, however, prefer Windows machines, not least because they are cheaper and (still) offer more applications than Macs.

In his introduction to Kraus's essay, Franzen writes: "For now, let me just make a small plea for patience with Kraus’s prose. He’s hard to read in German, too—deliberately hard. He was the scourge of throwaway journalism and a stickler for the interpenetration of form and content, and to his followers (he had a cultlike following) his dense and intricately coded style formed an agreeable barrier to entry; it kept the uninitiated out." 

Franzen's argument against the Mac, and by extension for the dense, impenetrable prose of Kraus, hinges (ironically) on a romantic notion of of what literary work is. I don't have the same affinity for self-imposed barriers that Franzen does, this Teutonic fetish for the the hard way of doing everything, but it kind of charms me that Franzen does. Every writer has his or her process, and this is clearly is part of his. But the kind of intellectual and cultural elitism that Franzen argues for here (catnip to The Paris Review audience, I imagine) is, I think, at cross purposes with the goal of an honest writer.

There will always be a tension between those who want a small, pure church, and those who are more comfortable with a large, heterodox congregation. Different writers have different audiences, and I would be the last person to say anyone should write a certain way. I have no truck with Meyer-of-the-sparkly-vampires, but there is no doubt in my mind that she is doing the best she can to reach her audience. In that regard, she is an honest writer. Likewise, I respect writers who are using complicated language to convey complicated ideas and emotions. The form follows function. Again, honest. What I have no patience with are writers who are deliberately obtuse in the service of ideas or a story that could be stated to greater effect with simpler prose. At best it's a fetish, at worst it's a snobby affectation that serves only as balm for the writer's insecurities; it puts the writer above an imaginary audience too dim to appreciate his or her genius.

God knows I have these insecurities (and the compulsion to mock Stephenie Meyer is of a piece with them): most writers do. No one is proud of their id, their profoundly narcissistic, greedy, enraged, and envious inner voice, but most people's ids are just toddlers, thrashing around and wailing in the snack aisle until the adult self scoops them up and calms them down. Writer's ids, though, are more like hormonal teenagers out for a night with mom's car, a six-pack of Rolling Rock, and a gassed-up chainsaw. If you don't pounce on them before they get out of the driveway, you're going to have a hell of a mess to clean up in the morning. (Then you have serial killers, hedge fund managers, and reality TV producers: people whose ids are like Grendel on a meth binge, and the adults have fled the house in terror.)

There are some noble aspects to Small Church Franzen. He obviously cares about what he does. His fiction is always interesting--I think the better angels of his nature reside there. He snubbed Oprah, despite the goose she could do for his career. I'd like to think he did so not because she is popular with what Franzen considers a lowbrow audience, but because she is a horrible person whose television show was often an atrocity exhibition that would make Ballard gag on his bourbon. It's telling though, that Franzen identifies with Kraus's anger (he was called "the great hater" by his critics). I think Franzen's own enraged id sometimes takes over and suffocates his empathy, and his targets aren't necessarily the rich and powerful, like Oprah. In footnote 51, he writes:

"I was on a deserted train platform in Hannover. I’d come from Munich and was waiting for a train to Berlin, it was a dark gray German day, and I took a handful of German coins out of my pocket and started throwing them on the platform. There with a penny-pinching old German woman and it did me good to imagine other penny-pinching old German women bending down to pick the coins up, as I knew they would, and thereby aggravating their knee and hip pains. The way I hurled the coins, though, was more generally angry. I was angry at the world in a way I’d never been before. The proximate cause of my anger was my failure to have sex with an unbelievably pretty girl in Munich, except that it hadn’t actually been a failure, it had been a decision on my part. A few hours later, on the platform in Hannover, I marked my entry into the life that came after that decision by throwing away my coins. Then I boarded a train and went back to Berlin and enrolled in a class on Karl Kraus."

I'd seen this excerpt mocked on The Toast, and discussed on Cat Rambo's Facebook page and elsewhere, but I hadn't gotten to the original yet (it's the last article in the issue), and wasn't sure if there was exculpatory context. Not so much, to my mind. And of course he's put his sexist mitre on in a few other masses at the Church of the Male Author. That's not to say his translation (with fifty-three footnotes, some of which go on for pages) isn't worth reading. Franzen is a powerful writer and, often, a thoughtful one, and I subscribe to The Paris Review for exactly this kind of thing. 

I think, finally, it's Franzen's palpable anger and resentment that keeps his church small. Those emotions are the enemy of connection, and while people read novels for a lot of reasons, high among them is the desire to live the life of the other; to at least temporarily lower the barriers that separate us. "Only connect!" said another early 20th century writer. In this, he has the better of Franzen.

Sunday, October 6, 2013

Beltway Roofies

some politicians
have their way with words, they do