intense sensations

Posts Tagged ‘philosophy

The Sense of an EndingThe Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

English men can be very complicated, especially if they’ve had a good education, as Julian Barnes proves in this short, pithy, ironic story of an English man looking back on his life.

The language is exemplary. The jokes are elegant. The sensibility is refined. The wanking is furious.

And then there’s the philosophy…

Julian Barnes’s real-life English teacher once said, “Of course everyone’s worried about what happens when Ted Hughes runs out of animals.”

“We thought it was the wittiest thing we had ever heard,” Barnes confessed in an interview in the Paris Review (Winter 2000).

The fictional Tony Webster’s English teacher says the same thing and Tony finds himself thinking about it often over the years. But Ted Hughes never did run out of animals. That’s the really funny and wonderful thing.

Our lifelong concerns are often misguided, aren’t they? The things that impressed us when we were young turn out to be facile in the end.

In fact this story is a kind of meditation on how our memories distort reality, if reality is, indeed, ever in a state that could be said to be undistorted. How much of what is passing for reality do we actually understand? How much is fact, how much is fiction, how much is simple ignorance? Or complicated ignorance, if you’ve had an English public school education.

Is Tony Webster Julian Barnes?

Probably not. Tony Webster is bald and Julian Barnes has a full head of hair. Or so it seems.

But the questions go on.

Do the people who read this story understand it? Some of them do. But if you take a look at the reviews on some websites, you will see that a lot of people missed the point. Some have even made up completely different stories based on an unfathomable logic all their own.

If I were Julian Barnes I would probably sigh and hold my beautifully coiffured head in my hands and wonder if it was all worth it.

And then I’d probably write an elliptical, poignant, ironic novel about how elusive philosophically self-evident truths can be.

JustineJustine by Donatien-Alphonse-François de Sade
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

This book offers an excellent lesson in how to escape censorship but is otherwise rather dull.

For those of you who don’t know, Paypal is currently trying to clean up the internet by refusing to do business with any site that offers for sale works of a lewd and depraved nature (as defined by Paypal.) Justine is one of the dirtiest, most depraved, most wicked books you will ever come across but has nevertheless managed to elude Paypal’s obsessive team of censors by adopting the following ingenious ploys.

1. The author has chosen for a pen-name something that sounds vaguely aristocratic. Americans revere titles. For the Marquis de Sade, they are a matter of contempt (“forged by the impertinence that seeks, and sustained by the credulity that bestows them.”)

2. The novel is disguised as a work of philosophical literature. You can depict any act, no matter how bestial or disgusting, so long as your tale has a scholarly imprint. On the back of my paperback copy of this book the label “Literature” is stamped in the top-left and in the bottom-right corners, where even the most stupid of censors can’t miss it.

3. It is written in French. Most Americans can’t understand French and those who can know that French, being the language of love and having been kept implicitly pure down the centuries by the French Academy appointed for that purpose, permits everything. That said, my scholarly translation was produced in America by American scholars. It is always a good idea to enlist the aid of scholars in editing your work if you can because most of them are sexually repressed and therefore see nearly any kinky fantasy as normal.

4. The author employs circumlocution. Okay, this ruse can backfire but it keeps all but the most intelligent of readers off your back. (And censors, by definition are not intelligent readers.) So, for example, when Justine is stripped naked and softened up prior to being gang-raped by four hardened criminals, the author finds ingenious ways to stimulate the imagination by using language that is deliberately imprecise:

“… as soon as I was as he [one of the gang members] desired me to be, [i.e. naked] having made me crouch down on all fours so that I resembled a beast, Dubois [the female gang leader] took in hand a very monstrous object and led it to the peristyles of first one and then the other of Nature’s altars, and under her guidance the blows it delivered to me here and there were like those of a battering ram thundering at the gates of a besieged town in the olden days.”

This pretty simile, by the way, reminds me of one of my favourite Chinese books, Fortress Besieged by Qian Zhongshu. The title is based on a French proverb:

Marriage is like a fortress besieged: those who are outside want to get in, and those who are inside want to get out.

There is much more to be said about this extraordinary novel but as it is nearly all of an intellectual and moralistic nature I suspect it will have little interest for my friends, acquaintances and readers, so, with a heavy heart, I will give this book two stars for effort and move on.

Wave of MutilationWave of Mutilation by Douglas Lain
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This seems to be a very good time for science fiction. I was prompted to explore some of it partly on the strength of this novella, which hit me like a blow between the eyes and left me breathless and dizzy for a few days.

The writing is very smooth and controlled. I love clean, precise writing like this, especially when it involves a swimming pool and the promise of sensuality. This drew me in and took me swiftly to the end of the first chapter, where I received my first shock.

I won’t tell you too much more about the plot. There’s some science stuff and a little problem with a particle accelerator. Reality takes a bit of a knock. Strange things start to happen. There is some sex, lots of nudity, some cross-dressing and a birth of sorts. But it’s all a little bit surreal.

Perhaps it’s also a little bit old-fashioned. Think Dada and Derrida, Brecht and Barthes. You might get all kinds of dubious intellectuals latching onto this and confusing you with their philosophical babble about it.

The thing you’ve got to hang onto and not forget is that the book is short and really easy to read. It’s also funny and light.

When dealing with elusive concepts, it’s very important to keep your writing plain and concrete. This the author does with admirable consistency. The ending couldn’t be clearer.

I’d never heard of Douglas Lain before and still don’t know very much about him. He seems to be one of those cult science fiction writers who carves out his own niche and tries not to get noticed too much.

But it’s probably wrong to call this a science fiction book. It’s probably better categorised as literary philosophy.

But it’s all just words, really. Read it for yourself and make up your own mind. Or don’t. It’s up to you.

Vanessa Wu is the author of Love Has No Limits


Books by Vanessa Wu

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