Thursday, July 1, 2010

"the only thing worth while is the feel of the unique"

And yet the music only has to begin and suddenly everything that has been troubling one drops away and one enters the music and lives the music and travels with the music and enters that magic land where doors that had long been closed open of their own accord and the deepest and darkest things become clear and comprehensible and, if not livable-with, at least recognized and accepted.

Alas, this post is VERY LATE! Apologies!

So - Gabriel Josipovici's Moo Pak: where to begin? For 151 pages, this book sure is huge even though its first-person narrator never actually says anything. The single, ongoing paragraph is made up entirely of the musings of retired English professor Jack Toledano. Over the course of several walks around London, Toledano will expound on everything from typewriters v. word processors, friendship, postmodernism, the ancient Greeks' laments to the gods, the Holocaust, the gradual disintegration of authentic Britishness, kids these days, the soulless literary PR machine, liberal activism as the new Puritanism, his favorite writers, and finally, the novel he has been working on for the past decade, a 700-page fictionalized account of the history of Moor Park, where Jonathan Swift once lived, and which has been, at various times, a college of theology, a lunatic asylum, the code-breakers' headquarters during WWII, and a chimp research facility. For this belated post I thought I'd discuss Toledano's theories about life and art.

Moo Pak builds on many themes stemming from the concept of uniqueness, or being set apart: "It is vital, he said, not to succumb to the values of a society at large, not to be swayed by the siren voices that preach truth and reality to us." Toledano's perspective of art is a religious one that distinguishes between the "crassness and philistinism" of "the world" and the sanctity of individualistic integrity. Its priests or prophets are the great writers such as Proust, Kafka, and Cervantes who embraced their own voices. To grow cynical and deny the transcendent possibilities of art is to "sin against the Holy Ghost and that is the sin committed by so-called post modernism in all its manifestations." And yet, ironically, there is a very postmodernist element at work here. Without meaning to, Toledano slips into Baudrillard territory. The "secular" world opposes art and self-realization because it is no longer real - the same media-driven blanket has descended over everyone and everything and informed the way we think, live, and express ourselves.
But now, he said, England is rapidly becoming indistinguishable from America and soon Poland and Russia will be indistinguishable from America as well. I came to England, he said, in the last days of its real Englishness, when it was considered indecent to wear tapered trousers because only Teddy Boys wore those, and everyone drank Horlicks, when you could get any book you wanted out of the public libraries and the Third Programme would juxtapose a one-hour reading of Wallace Stevens with the latest ply by Ugo Bettit translated by Henry Reed. Since then, he said, the libraries have disintegrated for lack of funds, the Third Programme has given to way to what one might call a classical musak channel, and England has become more like America and less and less like the birthplace of Langland and Chaucer and Donne and Herbert and Pope and Swift and Woodsworth and Coleridge. . . But it is already too late, he said. It has already happened. The horror is already upon us and the only way we can fight it is to retreat into the fortress of ourselves and prepare for a long siege.
Returning to this topic some pages later, Toledano asserts that life must be lived authentically in order for one to truly know oneself. Living teaches you who you are and there is no substitute for real experience. Not psychoanalysis and certainly not the passive reception of media.
The world is all one today, he said, and there is nowhere to escape to. Radio and television have ruined us, he said, it would be quite unnatural of course to shut our ears and eyes to them and yet it is equally unnatural to try and cope morally and psychologically with the horrors they report day after day and week after week.
As such, modern society is obsessed with suffering because it is allegedly "more real" than well-being. In fact, Toledano believes, too many hacks are published solely because of their tragic histories. Now at this point I think he's backed himself into a corner. It is certainly true that an affluent suburban American is as real a person as a Bosnian refugee or Congolese rape victim. And yes, being a survivor doesn't automatically make you a good writer. But isn't it important that we hear those latter two stories? That we are made aware life experiences we can't begin to imagine? I'm don't think Toledano even fully establishes just what he means by "authentic" living, but it's implied throughout Moo Pak that it involves a great deal of art consumption. Which, to me, is an extremely privileged position. Basically, he's asking that marginalized peoples - those most vulnerable to the many forms of suffering - be silenced because they don't meet his standards of artistic creation. This from someone who also rambles about being intellectually persecuted by academic activists and the disciples of postmodernism.

But I think Toledano is meant to be an anachronism - an old man out of touch with current attitudes. It does tie into his perspective of himself as an outsider (ironic, in light of the above) due to his national/ethnic background and literary tastes. Toledano is a Sephardic Jew who was born in France but spent most of his childhood in Egypt, following the outbreak of World War II. Although he misses the sense of "belonging" he felt in Egypt, he also recalls that,
The day I set foot in England, . . . I began to come alive. It was the thirteenth of September 1956 and apparently it was the first fine summer's day that year. From that day on, I began to recognize the value of not belonging. I began to flourish and to feel myself expanding, discovering what I could do.
The roots of his present-day persecution complex are found in the uprooted childhood of a refugee whose minority group was expelled from two countries. Now I began to understand him better. Toledano's history informs how he reacts to and perceives the world - as does everyone's history. Although Moo Pak drifts all over the place and into a whole multitude of topics, I see the bulk of it as Toledano's articulation and exploration of a feeling that has haunted him since he was a boy: that he surrounded by hostile and/or alien forces who demand his intellectual and cultural conformity (assimilation).
For a long time, he said, I tried to go my own way and to teach them the values I myself believed in, but there comes a point when you realise you cannot win the war. You may win a skirmish here and there or even a battle there, but you cannot win the war. In the interests of sanity, he said, it is better to get out then, before you are ground into powder by the unthinking unseeing unfeeling forces ranged against you.
Moo Pak initially comes across as merely a catalog of scholarly digressions. There is a psychological base to it, however, one that shapes Toledano's thoughts regardless of where they end up. Moo Pak is more than a collection of ideas; it is a portrait as well, a sort of memoir as monologue, if that makes any sense. Gabriel Josipovici takes a motley grab bag of subjects and unifies them in a very subtle manner that allows his book to flow seamlessly from one point to another without turning into a motley grab-bag of arguments, ideas, speculations, and so forth. Definitely an intriguing read. (The single-paragraph format isn't nearly as annoying as you'd think.)

And thus, I return to real blogging. The state of things around here for the past week and a half has been sorry indeed.

Moo Pak was our Unstructured Group Read for the month of June. Please feel free to join us at any time! You can find a complete book list here.

Other June participants include:


Past selections:

March: Tennessee Williams, The Night of the Iguana
April: Georges Perec, Life: A User's Manual
May: Margo Lanagan, Tender Morsels


Emily said...

I'm glad you articulated some of the contradictions involved in Toledano's "the kids these days" attitudes re: the modern state of publishing/art/England/etc., because that was one of the more annoying aspects of his character as far as I was concerned, and it's interesting to dig into that a little bit. I found myself reluctantly agreeing with/relating to certain elements of these jeremiads (the unattractiveness of an author milking a tragedy publicly for financial gain, for example), while violently disagreeing with other claims (like that reclusive authors would necessarily be more "authentic" - which in any case seems at odds with his "all experience is equally authentic" idea). And, like you, I think some of his claims lead to ridiculous conclusions if followed to their logical conclusion - of course we shouldn't be limiting literature to one set of experiences or the other. For what it's worth I think Toledano is a pretty accurate portrait of a person of privilege who doesn't necessarily REALIZE that's what they're advocating when they bitch & moan about "deteriorating standards" or whatever.

Eileen said...

For what it's worth I think Toledano is a pretty accurate portrait of a person of privilege who doesn't necessarily REALIZE that's what they're advocating when they bitch & moan about "deteriorating standards" or whatever.

Yes, and that's another major irony I forgot to bring up. He's so privileged to the point where he's basically advocating for people to shut up unless they meet his exact criteria of what constitutes a talented writer with something worth writing about. And since he complains so much about modern literature's alleged reliance on suffering, he's practically erasing the experiences of entire groups of people. And yet he himself comes from a marginalized, persecuted background. So like you said, followed to their logical conclusion, some of his ideas really make no sense.

Richard said...

I like your line about a "memoir as monologue," E.L. Fay! With a little more distance between this read and me, though, I'm beginning to think of Toledano's rambling on not so much as a good or bad thing intrinsically so much as a necessary airing out of ideas prior to writing. His walking companion/sidekick/listener completes him in that regard in terms of the creative process, wouldn't you agree? I did enjoy quite a few of Toledano's nuggets, too, such as his opinion that good literature need not be all grim and depressing but could be something fun like Raymond Queneau. I think that's a good reminder even though I'm often drawn to the grim and depressing literature myself for some reason!

claire said...

Alas! This comment is very late! I have been going in and out of bloggyland the past weeks..

Like Emily, I appreciate your touching on the ironies and contradictions of Toledano's ideas.. it irked me sometimes.. and though some of what he said were scoff-worthy, there are so many other things I did agree with, however..

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