We are embedded in existence, we are woven into its great tapestry, we are not expected to make decisions, since everything is decided ahead of time, the way the rungs on a chair don’t decide to make up the chair, they just do.
I finished this brick of a book by Romania’s Mircea Cărtărescu. In my initial post on it, I was a tad wary of the hype around it. It turns out those concerns were for naught. It’s an incredible read, unlike anything I’ve encountered to date. I liked to so much that I’ve added Cărtărescu’s Blinding to my reading list. (This one also is translated by Sean Cotter, whose work on Solenoid is incredible.)
I’ve been finished with it for over a month and its themes and images keep bubbling up, sometimes while I’m trying to keep my footing on the muddy trails around here, others, quite appropriately, in my dreams. Four things really struck me:
- The idea of pre-destination, as exemplified in the quote above. It’s a notion I would have rejected categorically a few years ago, before I rambled through Alan Moore’s Jersualem. But the more I think about it, the more it makes sense. I’ve heard it said that the zip code you’re born into has more to do with your prospects in life than the decisions you make, the efforts to chart your own destiny. And statistically, it’s true. It’s pretty easy to predict someone’s path through life simply based on the situation they’re born into. There are exceptions, clearly, and it’s those exceptions we cling to when we talk about social mobility and the ability to rise above current circumstances. But there is an intense gravity that pulls you back from whence you came, and for every Horatio Alger rags-to-riches story there are tens of thousands of stories about people who make little upward progress, often clawing just to maintain the circumstances of their birth. Most of us simply drift through our lives, clinging to whatever life raft it takes to navigate these waters.
- The fourth dimension. This idea that there are shades of “reality” that are beyond our senses and constitute an entire, alternative universe from the one we are accustomed to wading through. Again, Alan Moore explores this deeply in Jerusalem, and while there are definite differences, Cărtărescu mines the same recesses of human consciousness and how it interprets the world around us. I think of it in simple terms, thanks to Althea, my happy-go-lucky mutt. I often wonder, while watching her careen through the woods, hearing things I can’t, smelling things that are beyond my ability, what it would be like to have five minutes with her superpowers. But then I think about how overwhelming it would be, that my mind would be drowned by all those sensory inputs and unable to process them, lacking the evolutionary filters required to sort through them. There a spectra of light and sound that are beyond our senses’ ability to comprehend and interpret. I’m starting to think that’s really just a tip-of-the-iceberg thing, and that something like infrared light is a small, relatively insignificant example of what is out there that’s beyond our perception, our ability to impose order on the reality around us that is governed by evolutionary needs to survive in this world. Salvador Dalí and the surrealists clearly were rooting around in this area, and Solenoid has deep roots in their thinking.
- Solenoid actually has a satisfying ending. It’s definitely not a car chase, shootout, good guys win, everyone lives happily ever after type of finish, but the last 100 pages of the book provide some sense of closure, as much as anyone is permitted in this world. It doesn’t just drift off into the ether or segue into a never-ending dream state. It takes a stand, and I found that stand to be immensely satisfying.
- Dreams. I generally don’t remember my dreams, with only vague emotions and images remaining when I open my eyes in the morning, and I’m not a fan of dream sequences in fiction. I generally find them boring, kind of like someone trying to describe an acid trip. It was incredible for you, but your words just aren’t capable of conveying that to me in an impactful way. Solenoid is a dream state, with the line between the narrator’s dreams and reality are largely blurred. One night after I was reading Solenoid, I dreamed about a massive bat that was hanging from a tree, upside down, as bats do. Althea was running around and I was hoping to keep her from noticing the bat, and vice versa. I was afraid initially but also fascinated. I’d never seen a bat like that. And it was a big-ass bat. I didn’t recall any of this when I awoke that morning, but as I read a passage of Solenoid where the narrator and another teacher are exploring a labyrinthine abandoned factory where the students hang out, my own dream suddenly emerged, much the way I’d encountered that bat in it.
After Solenoid, I rolled into the first of what likely will be Cormac McCarthy’s final two works, The Passenger. Another strange, introspective novel that is maybe a second or third cousin to Solenoid. There is a lot of discussion of physics and tearing at the fabric of ostensible reality here, too, as Bobby Western tries to make sense of his sister’s suicide. It bounces from New Orleans to Knoxville to Spain. I’m currently thinking about how this book is a descendant of McCarthy’s brilliant, brutal Blood Meridian, especially that strange final scene, a coda, of sorts, where we see someone planting fence posts on the open prairie. Some people argue that it adds a hopeful spin, a suggestion that order is coming to this chaotic world of blood and brimfire, but I always saw it as a bleak comment on the emerging “order,” so-called civilization, paving the way for more towns like the one Judge Holden is dancing in, and will continue to dance in, as the war god moves toward the Civil War, the First World War, the Second World War … The carnage will become more organized, more “civilized,” if you will, but it will carry on. Instead of riding through the desert of northern Mexico, killing everything that moves, tasting the blood as it sprays into the air, we’re moving toward an age that will be just as barbaric but perhaps more … scientific? In The Passenger, Bobby Western’s father is one of the nuclear scientists at Oak Ridge who helps to develop The Bomb. There’s a progression here. The Kid of Blood Meridian, this man-boy who came from Tennessee and waded through all the bloodshed of the Wild West, becomes The Passenger’s Thalidomide Kid a hallucination of Alicia, Bobby’s schizophrenic sister. (And Bobby and Alicia’s last name — Western – struck me as an echo of Blood Meridian). Slaughtering and scalping are replaced by an atomic nightmare that melts people like wax candles. But the latter is done on the 20th Century altar of science. The Thalidomide Kid invokes the pharmaceutical science that arrogantly tried to fix everything but instead causes genetic mutation and deformed children. The scientists talk about Einstein and other dimensions of reality, but how different, really, is their work from the Captain’s rampage across the desert in Blood Meridian? Civilization has changed only in its scale, in its ability to wipe out entire cities instead of entire villages in a few short moments of insanity. McCarthy is no optimist. I don’t fully understand some of the Agnostic underpinnings of his thinking, but it’s clear his assessment of the basic nature of man is not optimistic and while he concedes our ability to rise above these bestial displays, he also understand that time and again, we are more likely to indulge them. (A sort of pre-destination?)
The third book I’ve tackled recently is Kate Chopin’s The Awakening, which is considered a key text in modern feminism and a precursor to modernist writers like Virginia Wolfe. It’s set in New Orleans and features Edna, a woman living a comfortable upper middle class life with a milquetoast husband, servants, and all the trappings of wealthy white people a few decades after the Civil War. I picked it up while watching a Netflix slow called 1899 that features a boat full of immigrants who are bound for New York that suddenly “disappears,” leaving them in some strange alternative dimension. It turns out to be a simulation, and the show was canceled almost immediately after season one concluded, but there was a scene where the female protagonist is shown reading a book, and the camera lingers on its title. It’s The Awakening. So I downloaded it from Gutenberg and just finished reading it. I get why everyone loves it, but I found it tedious in sections as Edna frets over about her would-be lover and sometimes comes across more like a bored suburban housewife than a paragon of feminist virtue. But both can be true, and I think they are in this instance. I found it maddening that she and her husband leave the care of their children largely to a “quadroon” who doesn’t even get the dignity of a name. While the rich little white girl has time to think about sexual and individual fulfillment, the black folks of New Orleans are just struggling to get by. But that’s the story of America, I guess, and in the end it is a great book, a Great American Novel, as the podcast of the same name decreed it. And I had forgotten about it, but the novel also was pivotal in the storyline for John Goodman’s character in Treme. The book is even more remarkable when one considers the world in which it was written. Willa Cather, while complimenting Chopin’s writing ability, cast moral aspersions on the work as a whole, particularly Edna’s infidelity and general indifference toward her children. Cather seems fine, however, with the husband’s almost total absence from the children’s lives. This is still a man’s world, and Edna refuses to conform to its restraints and petty demands. Her only solution, in the end, is an apparent suicide as she walks out into the ocean to drown herself having realized it’s the only real path toward truth and freedom. Her lover failed her. Her family life failed her. So maybe there is a line from Jerusalem to Solenoid to Blood Meridian to The Passenger to The Awakening. Our perceived reality is a construct, whether it’s imposed by the mind in an attempt to order the universe or by society in an attempt to keep people from de-evolving into a herd of murderous savages killing everything that moves in northern Mexico or Nagasaki. It’s not to say the novels are the same. Just threads I’m seeing that link them together.
I also picked up a copy of the I Ching that I’m reading sporadically. I’m a bit leery of its premise, never having been sold on things such as Tarot readings, but the Wilhelm/Baynes translation I found provides perspective on the Book of Changes and, not surprisingly, there’s a tie to a recent TV series I watched (yes I’m watching more, probably too much, TV, these days). The Man in the High Castle features a Japanese “trade minister” who uses the I Ching to guide him as he throws yarrow sticks and reads passages that offer insight into his moral dilemmas.
As I read the I Ching, I was a bit put off by how complicated it is to get to a “reading.” But I listened again to an episode of the What’s This Tao All About podcast that focuses on the I Ching, and at one point Dr. Totton suggests sidestepping the complication and opening the I Ching randomly after thinking about the issue you are facing, which really is the equivalent of tossing yarrow sticks or coins to generate that random in-road into the Book of Changes. It’s definitely something I plan to delve into more deeply as 2023 progresses …