The Mathematics of Madness

“Madness” and “insanity” are the words most often deployed in descriptions of Hilda Hilst’s enigmatic novella, With My Dog-Eyes. It gives voice to “a mind unravelling,” writes Nick Lezard in The Guardian, “and through the gaps we see a horrified fascination with the body, a kind of carnal awareness of existential futility.” “[F]luid, shifting narration tells the story — if you can call it that — of mathematician and poet Amós Kéres’ descent into madness,” adds The Independent‘s Holly Williams, “mov[ing] rapidly between first person present tense, recalled memories, reported speech, and chunks of poetry; between absurdism, theory, fable and filth.” The novel “reads like a long poem,” Juan Vidal concurs in his review for NPR, “with utter insanity pervading each and every page. The vivid, disjointed prose mirrors the troubled mind of our protagonist… an expert in pure mathematics who is losing his grasp on reality.”

For me, however, the most captivating quality of With My Dog-Eyes is not the way in which Kéres’ burgeoning insanity leads his representations of events to become increasingly disjointed. That sort of thing has been done often enough before that it no longer bears remarking on. More captivating here is the way in which the novel’s structure projects a mind so fundamentally, inflexibly logical — so absolutely committed to mathematics — that when his reality begins to lose its logical underpinnings, when he ceases to grasp the causal connections between sequential experiences, Kéres mounts a resistance to insanity by seeking refuge in mathematical logic and marshalling his experiences into a form that follows its rules. Although this choice of form is to some extent suggestive of Kéres’ insanity, I was struck by how it also suggests his striving for coherence in the face of insanity — albeit a coherence that may likewise appear to be tainted by insanity insofar as the structure beneath the novella’s narrative surface is built upon an alternative to narrative logic. Continue reading →

How Works Works

Like many readers of Édouard Levé, I first came to his books when Dalkey Archive published English translations of Autoportrait (2002) and Suicide (2008) several years ago. But while Suicide was arguably the title that received the most attention from critics — in no small part because Levé actually committed suicide ten days after delivering the manuscript to his publisher — I was more taken with Autoportrait for reasons best articulated by Mark O’Connell at Slate:

To describe that book in basic terms is to risk making it sound outright unreadable. It’s a single paragraph, 112 pages long, consisting of a continuous sequence of short declarative sentences, each of which states some or other fact about its author, a relentlessly present “I”. … It’s grueling and madly propulsive at the same time; you kind of want him to stop just saying things about himself, but you also can’t stop reading these things that he just keeps saying. “My uncle’s friend taught me to laugh at things I saw on TV that were not, on the face of it, funny, for example Bobby Ewing’s hairstyle on Dallas,” he writes. “I have not signed a manifesto. If I turn around while looking in the mirror, there comes a moment when I no longer see myself. Raymond Poulidor is one of the least sexy names I know. I like salad mainly for the crunch and the vinaigrette.” It goes on like this, in this arbitrarily funny and boring and horrifying way. The more it goes on, the more facts he asserts about himself, the more the referent — the autobiographical subject, Levé himself — is displaced, defined into obscurity.

“I was as transfixed by the book’s self-possessed commitment to its formal conceit as I was by its blank and pitiless gaze on the reality of pain… [its] strange combination of formal distance and emotional immediacy,” O’Connell writes of Autoportrait — although he writes those words in his review of Levé’s latest posthumous publication, Works, in order to identify the governing aesthetic of Levé’s entire oeuvre. “[T]his is the signature of Levé’s pulverized non-narratives,” he says, “this unflappable insistence on going on like this. He’s never afraid, in other words, of being boring in the service of some larger way of being interesting.” Continue reading →

Turning Everything Into Liquid

The painter Strauch is one of those who turn everything into liquid. Whatever they touch dissolves. Character, solidity, stability. “No one can see me, because no one can see anything,” he has said, and: “The principles that put millennia on the skids.” Or again: “Any activity is predicated on another, any meaning, any style. Wisdom on nonsense, and vice versa and simultaneously.” Breakfast is “way too ceremonial” for him, “it feels absurd to pick up a spoon. Meaningless. A sugar cube is an assault against me. … A catastrophe. The day begins with insidious sweetness.” He hunkers down on his chair, which is far too low for him. But even there he towers over me. He looks down at me, his eye piercing. “To allow ingratitude to develop within one,” he says, “only to take note of a thing once one is certain what a terrible thing it is. Facts pile up, terrible facts too, and before too long you’re just the miserable little wretch trying to push the table back, which gets you a clip around the ears from above.” So great was reason that it too was “condemned to fail.” “Those two notions of mine, trotting along side by side like a couple of dogs, barking at everything.” Wanton destruction, to make contemplation a little easier. He whispers, and listens to the walls shaking. “There is an obligation toward the depth of one’s own inner abyss,” he says. He pulls himself together, and it takes the brutality of simply getting up to bring him back to himself and out of himself. To some express, like “It’s so utterly ghastly here!” He is dominated by himself, as by a lifelong injustice. By his destructive apparatus. …

The way he compares the inn with an Alpine village in Carinthia, and with a ballet dancer who has had just one appearance in the opera and whom he describes as “a natural talent, but very dangerous,” is very illuminating. Or a vegetable trader who once gave him a smack because he thought he was stealing his tomatoes, with Napoleon III. It seems to me that even as he’s speaking about the woodcutter he watched dying, he’s already thinking about the tragedy of the four hundred mountain people who were abruptly killed in catastrophic storms. And then always himself. A sudden blast of wind forced him to the wall, and put him in mind of a celebrated acrobat. “He performed four somersaults between the backs of two galloping horses.” When he says “London,” he envisions the outer suburbs of Budapest. Sections of the lower Danube he attaches quite effortlessly to the upper Rhine. He swaps one delta for another. “In fact, that’s my sense of color,” he says. Certain mixtures of aromas play a part here. I can readily imagine him as a thirty-year-old, crossing the swollen plazas, and despising the dead, megalomaniac capital of the country. Anything provincial and dilettante as much as the “truly great” and the untouchable. His self-contempt is not based on ignorance; after all he was a city-dweller. Miles ahead of him he sees a lost thought return to him after years away. “Murder has a taste of honey,” he often thought. While his mouth talks about the ways of making paper, his hands are burrowing in his jacket pockets. He sees images faster than his body can catch them. “Every street debouches in my brain,” he says. He has turned a vast system of beginnings and significations into an edifice of thought where he tries to order the extraordinary chaos of history. “For decades, I’ve suffered from the most extreme attention, do you have any idea what that means?” If he talks about a tragedy, he shows no signs of the tragedy in his expression. When was it? “I’ve invented a notation of my fears,” he says. Of the three who go to make him up, he doesn’t know which one he is here or there, when and where. “Being on the lookout doesn’t imply ill intentions, you know.” Everything was morbidly affected by the horrible, and “harmlessness has taken on all the tasks of destruction, do you see?”

Thomas Bernhard

Translated by Michael Hoffman

A Perceptive Diagnosis

Bereft of intellectual or cultural stimulation, they proceed, as minds devouring themselves, to fixate on every sort of insignificance and absurdity, ranting giddily about how awful life is in voices that shriek with loathing and despair.

That’s Cameron Woodhead, writing the capsule reviews in today’s The Age, issuing an off-the-cuff but strikingly perceptive diagnosis of what tends to ail the characters of Thomas Bernhard. I would have used “howl” rather than “shriek” — I don’t sense a lot of hysteria or histrionics in their lamentations; I sense self-awareness and knowing purpose — but, with only two hundred words in which to offer a verdict on Bernhard’s Prose, Woodhead does a remarkably good job of pinpointing the unifying element of Bernhard’s entire oeuvre.