Love, lose, live (not necessarily in that order)

The History of Love by Nicole Krauss (W.W. Norton, 2006) offers all that an entertaining, thought-provoking, and richly-styled fiction should contain. Unlike other cases, its inclusion on The New York Times 2005 bestseller list is well deserved.

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There is no doubt that the novel is entertaining and deceptively uplifting: the backbone of these positive reactions is created by the protagonist of one of the three main distinct but intertwined sections of the novel: the lovable, witty, imaginative, sensitive octogenarian, Leopold Gursky.  Despite all the adversities history tests him with (fleeing from the SS, leaving his family behind, disappearing from his Yiddish Polish hometown, living an immigrant’s life in New York, losing his one and only love to another man by coming to her too late, shadowing his son who never knew him, giving up one book he authored and losing the authorship of another he wrote), Leopold Gursky attempts to survive these painfully traumatic events and go on living as best as he knows.  His coping strategies are varied. For example, he is “trying to make a point of being seen”, such as dropping his change all over the floor in a crowded store. Clearly, this plan of action not only covers up his present loneliness but also balances out the times he was utterly alone while hiding in the forests.The act of appearing and disappearing,  being a leitmotif of the novel,  is also true of other people and things. He often imagines his death which in his opinion should happen on a day when he was seen. His witty comments open up different sides to him (for ex., “Put even a fool in front of the window and you’ll get a Spinoza”, p. 5; “I consider it a small victory that he [the husband of his love] kicked the bucket first”, p. 85).   After ending up in New York, he became a very competent locksmith and the only time he is tempted to and actually does open a locked door was to get inside of a Broadway theatre where he could imagine his love Alma play her violin to a full house. Significantly, he writes one book to Alma, when in his twenties, then life gets in the way, and he starts writing again after his heart attack in his fifties.

The sections of the book devoted to his life are expressed in the first person narrative and labeled with an anatomical heart. Needless to say, Leo Gursky’s personality is made more complex by his use of the adversative conjunction which he is fond of in a phrase like “And yet.” which he ends with a full stop. This stylistic device, stopping the narration and seemingly adding a contradicting value to what was stated previously, illustrates Leo Gursky’s  humanity, fallibility, insecurity, and in the final analysis makes the reader question everything he narrates. This attitude is similar to that of the Italian author Leonardo Sciascia who is often referred to by the phrase Disse e si contraddisse (which, loosely translated, means “He stated something and then he contradicted himself”).

The thought-provoking aspect of the novel leaves the reader with numerous questions relating, for example, to the title, the meaning and force of words, the inspiration for and the function of writing. The title (not only of the novel but also of the first Leo Gursky’s book) is interesting: The = the definite article points to one definitive explanation; History = process of modification through time; of  = belonging to; Love = feeling of tenderness and affection. And yet, the novel contains many personal histories of the feeling of tenderness and affection, not  the definitive one. The three narratives of Leo Gursky, Alma, and Emanuel/Bird) all deal with the meaning and force of words.  Leo Gursky’s second novel is entitled Words for Everything, underlying the cognitive importance of language for the possibility of explaining and understanding our place in the world. The girl Alma’s narration is devoted to the search for her father’s past in order to comprehend the force that binds her mother to her father. This can only happen through Alma’s deciphering  of the contents of the book her father gave to her mother: The History of Love. Alma, as it happens, is the name of all the women in the book, and, importantly, means “soul” in Spanish.  The book is indeed the virtual meeting place between the teenager Alma and Leo Gursky who do not know about each other until the end and whose destinies intertwine on a number of levels.  The meaning and function of writing is dealt with both openly and also less so. When Leo Gursky, in his youth, offers to Alma, his love, his first written piece which deals with their village Slonim and the people who live there, “she shrugged and said she liked  it better when I made things up”. Then he gives her his second piece of writing, which contained all made-up things,  she reacts by saying that maybe he “shouldn’t make up everything, because that made it hard to believe anything” (p. 8). His third attempt becomes his final version of The History of Love, which destiny did not let her read.

Stylistically, this novel proposes a complex, rich, and varied narration. Each character (Gursky, Alma, Emanuel/Bird) has a special voice, expressive communicative strategies, and particular flights of poetic expression. There is also the unnamed author of the introduction to the Spanish version of The History of Love. Bird’s voice is that of a very young boy who looks for his place in the world by constructing his function as one lamed vovnik,  by engendering mystical, helpful, but also impractical attempts at what others construe as sublimation of the loss of his father. Bird’s love does not have one specific outlet, and it finds its place in mysticism. The teenage Alma’s drive to find out what underlies her parent’s  love for each other propels her to understand her father by learning to do things he used to do: camping, surviving in inhospitable places, knowing which plants are edible. The most intricate voice is that of Leo Gursky because he has two functions in the novel: he is the protagonist of Krauss’s vision and he is the author of his The History of Love, in this way, his voice is both biographical (in the first person narration of Leo Gursky’s life) and authorial (as the one who wrote the first The History of Love). The first person narration offers a number of poetic passages (such as Leo trying to burden his heart as little as possible by taking humiliations, displeasure, hardships to his other organs; p. 10). The most poetic is Leo Gursky’s The History of Love, which we as readers do not get to enjoy in its entirety (a pity), and we have to be satisfied with Alma’s mother’s English translation  of Zvi Litvinoff’s Spanish version of the original Yiddish (which apparently was lost). Gursky’s The History of Love contains poetic, comical, sarcastic gems which intrigue the reader and leave us wondering what else we are missing. The book contains parts dealing with humanity’s (love’s?) growth in stages (reminiscent of Giambattista Vico’s Age of Gods, Age of Heroes, and Age of Humans), such as Chapter 10, which describes The Age of Glass, when

“…everyone believed some part of him or her was extremely fragile. For some, it was a hand, for others a femur, yet others believed it was their noses that were made of glass. The Age of Glass followed the Stone Age as an evolutionary corrective, introducing into human relations a new sense of fragility that fostered compassion. This period lasted a relatively short time in the history of love – about a century – until a doctor named Ignacio da Silva hit on a treatment of inviting people to recline on a couch and giving them a bracing smack  on the body part in question, proving to them the truth. The anatomical illusion that had seemed so real slowly disappeared and … became vestigial. But from time to time, for reasons that can’t always be understood, it surfaces again, suggesting that the Age of Glass, like the Age of Silence, never entirely ended.” (p. 61).

In the final analysis, Krauss wrote about the multifaceted and yet specific meanings of the words love and loss: love of a father (for a son who he did not get to raise), love of a mother for her children, love of the daughter for her mother and father (who passed away), love of a young man for a young woman, love of a young woman for an older man, love for a friend; loss of a loved one on account of political circumstances, loss of a son, loss of hope, loss of a father, loss of a manuscript.  The loves and losses are intertwined and their metaphorical meeting point is the original The History of Love. One can discern echoes of Italo Calvino and Franz Kafka. Entertaining and seemingly uplifting, the novels ends with an indirect commentary on loneliness and vastness of the cultural loss suffered by  immigrants. Moreover, the book is also a statement about the various possible but really important  connections among humans of which they do not have any knowledge.  In conclusion,  Krauss succeeded in drawing this reader into her interestingly constructed fictional world.

 

Quantum emanations and Byzantium

The other novel published together in the same volume with Francesco Verso’s Bloodbusters (see my post of December 14) is Sandro Battisti’s L’impero restaurato (Mondadori, November 2015). Both received the Urania Award in Italian Science fiction, and this decision to publish them together could not offer a better view of what Italian science fiction is today: the range, themes, scopes, languages, visions of future are widely different, distinct and thoughtfully enjoyable.  While Francesco Verso’s characters often enjoy a tongue-in-cheek, down to earth, palpable human (human/machine) interactions, Sandro Battisti’s world belongs to all-powerful aliens, capable of controlling quantum energies and use this power to achieve their ends. Thus, near human future  on one side of the literary continuum looks across to alien shenanigans at the other.

L’impero restaurato (The restored empire) is part of a cycle of novels dealing with various themes, but one of the leading concerns is the answer to the question “What could/would an all-powerful, alien, male being do to/with humans?”. To make the answer more concrete, Battisti endows the protagonist, Totka_II, emperor of the Connective Empire, with the ability to capture quantum emanations from earth of any historical period and allow them to be embodied. Totka_II is one of the most powerful of Nephilim  (in the novel, this race of biblical echoes is responsible for human ‘progress’). He is smitten with Byzantium’s power, opulence, military prowess, and therefore while he is looking to found another capital city for his empire, he is bent on establishing a new Constantinople. Using the ability to control quantum fluctuations he observes the court of Justinian and Theodora, the meeting between Justinian and a papal envoy, the triumphant entry to the city by general Belisarius. The most powerful pull on him, however, turns out to be Theodora, whose checkered past he knows.

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The novel proceeds as evil forces gather to attack  the positions of Totka_II’s empire, while the emperor is busy planning the new capital city. One of his envoys who was to report to him the augural liver reading does not return, and his vice, Sillax almost loses control while he is overwhelmed by the fluctuating energies which his technicians try to channel properly.    The augur whose observations of the sacrificed animal’s liver do not give a unequivocal answer to the emperor’s envoy turns out to be an enemy whose military ability almost destroys the Connective Empire. I will stop here not wanting to  spoil the pleasure for those who have not read the novel.

In an interview (with both Urania winners,  published together with their novels in the last pages of the book, pp 298-301), Sandro Battisti claims that “l’umano non mi ha mai affascinato: è l’inumano la grande frontiera da indagare, così immenso nelle sue potenzialità da sovrapporsi, nel mio pensiero di uomo, all’infinito.” (the human never fascinated me: the great frontier to be investigated  is the non-human, so immense in its potentialities that it superimposes itself as infinity, in my thoughts as human.) The novel clearly shows this interest: human beings exist as fluctuating energies, as posthuman entities bidding the will of the Nephilim and treated worse than slaves. But humans are also very attractive to Totka_II, especially Theodora, who in her desire to learn about the Connective Emperor’s real identity, abandons her earthly life. However, to imagine, let alone describe in verbal language, an alien world of vast complexity is impossible, and here is where the non-human empire meets its challenges. Battisti is careful not to be too technical, and leaves a lot to the imagination. But he also uses unexpected (almost deus-ex-machina) strategy to have Totka_II emerge victorious. One could quibble with Battisti’s mixing, on one hand, the  utterly out of this world aliens able to travel on quantum fluctuations, with, on the other, their need to hang on the words of an augur. Also, the human language in the alien world rears its head now and then, as in the case of the directional metaphor which uses the direction of the hands on the clock (!) (“passeggiando in rigoroso senso antiorario”: walking strictly counter-clockwise). Nevertheless, there is no better illustration of Giambattista Vico’s principle verum factum est  (we [humans] can only know what we made) as in the predictability of the fact that empires are created, have to be maintained,  and fall, whether they be human or alien. The lovers of empires will cherish this aspect of Battisti’s Connective Empire.

 

 

Humanity, imagination, money: challenges to Harari’s idea

TED talks are a great way to communicate succinctly and in a logical manner some interesting theories and ideas. What follows are three main challenges  to Yuval Noah Harari’s answer to the question: What explains the rise of humans? which he answers in a TED talk.

The objections stem from his main idea that humans are different from other species because they have imagination and that allows them to “cooperate flexibly in large numbers”. Therefore, humans live in two realities: one is objective, and, in his words,  “over the centuries, we have constructed on top of this objective reality a second layer of fictional reality, a reality made of fictional entities, like nations, like gods, like money, like corporations. And what is amazing is that as history unfolded, this fictional reality became more and more powerful so that today, the most powerful forces in the world are these fictional entities. Today, the very survival of rivers and trees and lions and elephants depends on the decisions and wishes of fictional entities, like the United States, like Google, like the World Bank — entities that exist only in our own imagination.” These are great ideas, but the objections below stem from my perplexity about some of them.

Challenge 1: The social collaboration, “the flexible cooperation in large numbers” cannot be possible without a supple and versatile communication system, i.e. verbal language,  that allows humans not only to share the imaginative musings of individuals, but also reinforces the ever-present  possibilities of cognitive transformations. Clearly, it is still a moot point whether language actually helped the development of imagination (symbolic, abstract  thinking) or whether it followed the rise of symbolic, abstract thinking. Harari does not explain the rise of imagination in the human species, nor does he mention the important aspect of the existence of language without which no collaboration would be possible. Furthermore, to share one’s imaginative stories is not enough, other humans must “buy” into them, must be convinced of their utility, functionality, necessity, etc. This was not explained in the talk either. Moreover, to understand, share and accept these stories is not enough: they must be acted upon, defended, elaborated on to actually construct the “objective” reality he mentions.

Challenge 2: The list of stories mentioned by Harari as those imaginative creations on which humans built everything includes religion, political and economic systems, states and nations, companies, corporations, money. The stories behind all of them make sense, with the exception of money. In fact, all of them except money are attempts at answering our deepest concerns about the purpose of life. Money is not a story in the sense that a religion is a story: there are stories around money and with money as the protagonist, but money itself is not a story. The explanatory strength of his idea of imagination and stories behind everything human is greatly weakened by this example. On the other hand, all these examples except money bring to mind Giambattista Vico’s “three ages” and human institutions which he elaborated on in the early 18th century in his Scienza nuova.

Challenge 3: It is interesting that Harari avoids the use of the word “narrative” in the sense of  Foucault’s grand narratives: this avoidance weakens his general idea further. The consequences of this point to the question What happens when these narratives (stories) do not prevail any longer? Of course, other narratives take the places of the old. One could muse and suggest that transhumanism is replacing religion as the grand narrative now. If this is the case, then all the other examples of Harari’s stories would fall to the wayside (ironically, maybe except for “money”). To be a transhuman surely means to have narratives (imagination), but not of the kind Harari proposes for humans.

In conclusion, Harari’s ideas are worthy of interest, if only to point towards perspectives that challenge them.