6.26.2011

Collecting Some Preliminary Thoughts on Consciousness from John Cowper Powys' Porius




Consciousness: another theme among too many to numerate that pops off the page at times in Porius.

Consider the following passages in chapter three, shortly after Porius & Rhun have encountered the emperor's wacky (was he playacting?) and wackily attired counselor, Merlinus Ambrosius (a.k.a., Myrddin's Wyllt or Emrys), and Porius reflects on their meeting:

"There was nothing mystical, far less spiritual, in what he experienced as he thus came near to this squid-consciousness. 'I must squeeze the life out of him,' he said to himself, 'while I drain his thoughts.'"

And now, keeping in mind that Merlinus was the origination of that pungent "stinkhorn fungus smell," watch how Porius even employs the sense of smell to absorb Merlinus' consciousness:

"What proved to him {to Porius} that there was no sorcery about it was the fact that all the time he was feeling it he was perfectly aware of a wafture {all boldness in post mine; I love that word and Powys uses it a lot} of ground-ivy fragrance from under his feet and a lingering whiff of delicious pungency from some bed of water-mint on which he must have trodden as they came up from the river. The impressions of multiplicity for which he became a medium at this moment were as far-flung and telescopic as they were concentrated and microscopic."

We're overly familiar with the idea of collective consciousness, I'm sure, but Porius seems to literally collect consciousnesses, and add them to his own: a hybrid mind comprised of many minds. And it's never in a psychotically-Sybil, Dissociative Identity Disorder sort of manner his mind melds with other consciousnesses; but definitely more in a "metempsychosis" manner (if we recall the word from our study of Ulysses & Infinite Jest) that his mind's sight and awareness exponentially enlarges, flourishes:

"He grew aware of vast continents and countries and cities. He grew aware of the unrolling of world-shaking events; of famines and plagues, of battles and migrations, of the births and deaths of whole civilizations."

Porius describes his dawning awareness of his many-minded, epic-scale consciousness in the following awesome paragraph:

"The human frame he held became an organism whose conscious recession into its primordial beginnings extended far beyond the prophet's temporary existence. It was as if what held, and what he could so easily have crushed, became a multiple entity composed of many separate lives, the lives of beasts and birds and reptiles and plants and trees, and even rocks and stones!"

Echoes of Emerson & Whitman there too.

Porius: A novel about consciousness indeed! And yet about so much more ... (and I'm only one-tenth of the way done! Woo hoo!

Reading the book, for me (feel free to insert the Twilight Zone theme music here) feels like participating in some sacred ritual from some forgotten religion I can vaguely recall but can't quite remember.

6.18.2011

99 Novels: The Best in English since 1939 by Anthony Burgess




Anthony Burgess knew what he liked and why he liked it, which is a lot more than I can say about some of today's supposed critics so quick with clichés, but slow on real insight.  Burgess' selections are often whimsical, perhaps sentimental a few times too, as when he picks Goldfinger (1959) by Ian Fleming or Bomber (1970) by Len Deighton, for inclusion among such literary luminaries as Vladimir Nabokov and Iris Murdoch, but he admits as much, and offers sound rationale for why he'd intermingle lightweight adventure thrillers with serious literature.  I happen to like the surprising mix, and wish other critics would be just as quick to meld works of genre with literature in similar fashion, much like FM radio did in its heyday, back before the mega-conglomerates seized control of the airwaves, and you could hear the delicate sitar strumming of a Ravi Shankar one minute followed by the head bashing of Black Sabbath the next.

Before I read 99 Novels: The Best in English since 1939, I'd never heard of so many of the wonderful writers Burgess included, and have since heeded his advice and "discovered" their work for myself, and so owe the late great Anthony Burgess a deep debt of gratitude.  Thank you, Sir Anthony!  I might add that if A Clockwork Orange is your only reading experience with Burgess, do know he was as creative a critic as he was that iconic and innovative novelist.

Thanks to Burgess, I've "discovered" C.P. Snow (Strangers and Brothers, a twelve novel sequence, 1940-70); Olivia Manning (The Balkans Trilogy, 1960-65); Angus Wilson (not just his largely forgotten novels, but his criticism too, especially the introduction to Zola he published in 1952 when Zola wasn't even in fashion in Britain); and hope to one day yet "discover" the nearly completely unknown writer, Henry Williamson, and his fifteen volume opus, A Chronicle of Ancient Sunlight, (1951-1969) -- very pricey to obtain; and hope to find Ivy Compton-Burnett too, whom I've heard lots of good stuff about in LibraryThing as well.  God, I could go on foaming at the keyboard forever:  Paul Scott, Alexander Theroux, Henry Green, Muriel Spark, but I'll stop.

For those interested in reading a complete itemization of the books listed in Burgess' 99 Novels: The Best in English since 1939, and an accompanying discussion on nearly all of the books included, go here.

6.11.2011

French "Bibliomaniacs"

I can relate to just about every person featured in this segment, even the dude with the stacks piled every which way in his house and the rock 'n roller turned book hunter for his wealthy clientele.  That would be a dream job.

Book Collectors in Paris

6.03.2011

Stanley Elkin "At the Academy Awards" from Pieces of Soap: Essays



Stanley Elkin wrote a great essay, "At the Academy Awards," that was originally published in the Dec. 1989 issue of Harper's, and later collected in his sole essay collection, Pieces of Soap: Essays, that I serendipitously happened upon at a library book sale a few months ago.

I meant to post the following excerpts from Elkin's excellent essay on the eve of this year's Oscars (see below), but completely forgot to.  I figure if I don't post them now, I'll probably completely forget to post them again on the eve of next year's Oscars.  So I might as well post them now, whether it's relevant to do so or not, because Stanley Elkin, in whatever context, pop culturally or not, is worth mentioning.

Elkin is one of the funniest novelists I've ever read among those novelists that hardly anybody has ever read.  In LibraryThing, the majority of his books are owned by less than 100 users each -- he was, is, and probably will remain -- under a literary reader's radar indefinitely.  I'd recommend the interested reader begin with The Franchiser, a novel that makes me think of Death of a Salesman ... That is, Death of a Salesman had it been written as a comedy rather than tragedy.  I don't know why Elkin's books never sold well, or why so few I talk to have ever heard of him.  His contemporaries and critics typically lauded him.  Below are his major literary awards and nominations.

1995 - National Book Critics Circle Award for Mrs. Ted Bliss

1994 - PEN Faulkner Award finalist for Van Gogh's Room at Arles

1991 - National Book Award finalist for Fiction for The MacGuffin

1982 - National Book Critics Circle Award for George Mills

Perhaps I'll return and properly review some Stanley Elkin.  But for now, here's his bemused takes on attending the Academy Awards:  

"At the Academy Awards, the entrance to the Shrine Civic Auditorium is flanked by four giant Oscars quite, or so it seems to me, like sullen, art deco Nazis. Set maybe a hundred feet back from these, two temporary grandstands have been constructed for three thousand or so fans -- day-of-the-locust types, extras, all the tribal, representative legions who come to these things, drawn, it could almost be, by the limousines themselves, gleaming cream-colored packages of celebrity.

"Why I'm steamed, to the extent I am, is that I've watched these ceremonies ... for years. Always I'd come away ... with some prize-in-every-box sense of homogenized, evenly distributed fame. Now, in my immediate area, except for a few stars straggling into the hall and walking past our discrete little acreage -- there's Max von Sydow -- ... I recognize only myself and my wife.

Clearly, the star-spangled demographics are off this evening ... And suddenly I understand something, that all the splash and flourish of all those advertised lives I'd seen on all those Oscar shows had been nothing but camera angles, a sort of trick photography, doctored like Chinese news.

It's easy to knock these ceremonies because here at the Academy Awards, where glitz hands off to glitz and it's the Mardi Gras of diamonds larger than rhinestones, structure surrenders to motion, to din, to appearance as arbitrary and frantic as a chase scene. Ironically, at the Academy Awards, all sense of the theatrical gives way neither to wit nor spectacle but to stunt -- how many presenters, like so many clowns, can be crammed into the Volkswagen.

At the Academy Awards, it's a pointless, incomplete vaudeville. Bob Hope and Lucille Ball present nineteen 'Oscar Winners of Tomorrow' in an endless every-man-for-himself song and dance about ambition and narcissism philosophically distilled from A Chorus Line without the benefit of that show's melody, passion, talent, or wit ... it's a drawn-out, almost fastidious, customary kowtow. It's the obligatory standing ovation. You could put money down on who's going to get one ...

And these anger me too -- his {Bob Hope's} banter, these "jokes". From my resentment pool, deep as some sea trench, rises a personal bile ... It's stupidity that has me down, Bob Hope's simplistic, condescending view of history and of ourselves, me. Because I take it personally, the good-natured contempt, the artificial scorn, the false assumption like a wink up in your face like a slap, or the car salesman's nudge like an elbow to your rib that we're all pals here, that we're in it together. Well -- we ain't."