“I am Always Late to the Party” by Donna Greenhauser

I’m not one of those people who are glued to book reviews and clamoring to read the latest thing, despite my profession. I prefer to give books a bit of time to age, and to see if it’s just going to be a flash in the pan that no one will care about in a year or so (Water for ElephantsSarah’s Key) or will actually enter the modern canon as worthy of the time it takes to really read a novel.

Because I’m not, nor have I ever been, one of those folks who can speed through page after page, skimming through the boring bits, glancing over descriptions, jumping ahead to the action. For better or for worse, I read every word.

This isn’t a moral stand or a judgement on those who can read faster than I can. I’d find it rather useful if I could hustle through a novel in a weekend, or knock off six chapters in an evening. And I’m not going to make some preposterous claim, like that I enjoy slowly read novels on a deeper level or something. I just don’t read very fast. It’s something I’ve accepted.

It also means that, for me, while reading is a pleasurable and leisurely activity, it is also one that is undertaken with great care. Is whatever book I’m about to embark upon going to be more worth my time than Kant or Hegel? Woolf or Joyce? Pynchon or Wallace?

(It does seem to make reading certain philosophy easier, because I’m used to reading at a very slow pace, whereas, for example, a companion of mine once flew into a rage because she couldn’t deal with the long sentences, but also couldn’t turn her long ingrained speed-reading off. Another friend of mine used to fast-forward through parts of movies that she found boring, and then get angry at the films when she couldn’t understand what was happening (she was the quintessential person in the movie theatre “Why did they kill that guy? I thought he was with them? He was with the bad guys? When did they say that?”), but that’s a separate problem)

Which brings us around, the long way, to Greenhauser’s I am Always Late to the Party.

It’s a novel that came out a few years back, and one that I didn’t pay much attention to on its release, though a lot of folks seemed quite taken by it.

A quick plot summary: Esther, a woman in her late 20s, attempts to “rationalize” her life, by making everything she possibly can completely optimal. She counts her steps, she notes how many times she chews each different type of food, she measures how long she needs to sleep given what activities she has performed each day, etc. etc. She figures that by doing this, she will save herself enough time and effort that she’ll have time to be happy, that the main source of her unhappiness comes from how busy she is, and if she had the time to relax, she wouldn’t hate herself nor the world around her. She has encounters with various folks, there’s minor plot lines running throughout the book about her landlord trying to get with her sister, her boss dissolving the company because of mismanaged funds, her ex-boyfriend who lives down the street from her job trying to get back on his feet after their recent break-up, but the main thrust is Esther herself trying to solve the condition of her life by making more time.

She fails, as you might imagine.

But what struck me as brilliant about the book was not the set up, nor the rather predictable ending where her best friend lets her know The Secret that life isn’t just a series of tasks to be performed, but something to be relished and enjoyed, and that if you spend all your time trying to make yourself happy, rather than finding happiness, you’ll never succeed, and all that… No, it’s that this section comes while there’s still a good third of the book left, and Esther’s reply is “Yeah, no shit. But I don’t have any money. My job is falling apart. I can’t just fuck off to India for two months, Siobhan,” which, needless to say, isn’t the reaction she was expecting.

Now, they don’t have a big breakdown shouting match or anything, which is another point I liked, because far too often female friendships are depicted as fragile or petty, and this honestly felt like a realistic relationship. Siobhan takes it in stride, and lets Esther complain some more. She’s a good friend. They go out drinking, and through the strange vicissitudes of fate, end up crashing a very fancy party hosted by Simon, who is an amalgamation of a number of business person stereotypes. Esther looks like Simon’s ex-girlfriend from behind, and he ends up shouting a ton of nasty things at her, which Esther initially takes as criticism at her crashing the party. But then he gets more personal, going on about parts of their “relationship”, and finishes by calling her Grace. Only after he’s made a fool of himself does she turn around and say “I think you meant to say that to someone else.”

Esther and Siobhan get back to Esther’s apartment, and Siobhan passes out in Esther’s bed. Esther tries sleeping on the couch, but finds that this has fully thrown her attempts to control her life astray. It will take weeks for her to get back on track. But when she controlled everything, she wasn’t happy. What was she doing with all that spare time? Trying to figure out ways to arrange for more spare time? And when she let herself go and didn’t care, at the end of the night, regardless of how good a time she had, she was still back in the same place. What was the point? Why bother with any of it? She goes to the top of her building, intending to jump, but finds that the entire roof has been encircled with fencing and safety nets to prevent this very thing. She laughs, “A sad, private laugh, the sort you’d imagine coming from a clown’s tent as he takes off his make-up after the night is over”, and goes back downstairs.

There’s some plot wrapping up after that (Siobhan punches Judd, Esther’s ex-, when he shows up the next morning, her landlord and her sister finally go on a date, her boss sells the company and Esther doesn’t lose her job, she meets Grace and learns what an ass Simon was during their relationship, etc.), but this is really where the novel ends in terms of character development and significant action.

It isn’t that she chooses not to commit suicide, it is that suicide is made just inconvenient enough for her not to bother making the effort. Her life isn’t good, per se, but she is forbidden from stopping it easily. She must go on living, happy or not, unless she really doesn’t want to. And, which is why I’m glad the novel doesn’t end on the rooftop, the world doesn’t care whether or not she likes it or hates it. Life still moves on for other people.

One will hope that it will keep its place in the literary consciousness, but sadly, I’ve not seen a copy in bookstores since I bought mine.

So it goes, I guess.

“Where questions of style and exposition are concerned I try to follow a simple maxim: if you can’t say it clearly you don’t understand it yourself.”

Chapter Four: Calypso

Leopold Bloom was eating breakfast at his house at 7 Eccles St., at about 8 am, in Dublin, Ireland, on Thursday July 16th, 1904. He was eating meat. Kidney was his favorite. He liked the taste of urine that the kidney had. He gave some to his cat. The cat was very pretty, and meowed at him. He petted her. He gave her some milk, too.

Mr. Bloom was going to bring his wife breakfast in bed. He made sure to get the toast just right. But she was still asleep, and didn’t want any yet. He told her he was going to go to the shop around the corner. He put on his hat and went.

Dublin was a big city and lots of people bustled about! He passed a church, and a school, and even said hello to one of his friends as he walked down the street.

On the way to the shop, Mr. Bloom thought about all sorts of things: his wife’s father, his military service, Irish history. His wife had been born on the island of Gibraltar, which is one of the islands that Homer may have been thinking of when he was describing the island of Ogygia, where Calypso lives. Molly Bloom is very similar to Calypso, the nymph in Homer’s Odyssey who kept him trapped on her island for seven years, because Molly too is an alluring and sexual creature and Mr. Bloom, who is like Odysseus, has been held captive by her charms. This is why this chapter is called Calypso.

Mr. Bloom got to the shop, and bought threepence worth of pork kidney. This is significant because Mr. Bloom used to be Jewish before converting to Catholicism to marry his wife, and Jews are not supposed to eat pork. He put the package in his pocket, and paid the butcher. “Good morning!” he said as he left.

When Mr. Bloom got back to the house, he found that some mail had been delivered. One letter was for him, and the other for Molly, his wife.

Mr. Bloom made tea while Molly read her letter. He took the kidney out of his pocket and put it on the stove to cook, and then went in to the bedroom to eat breakfast with his wife. Ms. Bloom was still in bed, and was not wearing very much. She was very pretty. Her clothes were tossed about the room. It was a very messy room.

Mr. Bloom asked what Molly’s letter was about. “It’s from my manager, Hugh ‘Blazes’ Boylan,” she said. “He’s bringing over the songs I’m going to sing later. Are you going to Mr. Dignam’s funeral later?”

Patrick “Paddy” Dignam was one of Mr. Bloom’s friends, who had died recently. The circumstances of his death are very similar to Elpenor’s, from The Odyssey (which, again, this novel takes much inspiration from), the youngest of the crew, who gets drunk and decides to sleep on the roof of Circe’s palace, and falls off a ladder to his death the next morning. This death is similar to that of Tim Finnegan, from the traditional Irish ballad, who will be the inspiration for Joyce’s later novel Finnegans Wake.

While heading to the funeral, Mr. Bloom will meet Mr. Simon Dedalus, who was the father of Stephen, the man the first three chapters of this book were about. While Mr. Bloom is at the funeral, Molly is going to have sex with ‘Blazes’ Boylan. We will learn later that Molly thinks her menstrual cycle is connected with her increased sexual appetites, and thus her decision to cheat on Mr. Bloom regularly with Boylan. She wanted Mr. Bloom to leave the house for most of the day, and he will do so, which will cause most of the action in the story. Mr. Bloom knew about Molly’s affair, and didn’t like it, but didn’t feel strong enough to do anything about it. Molly and Mr. Bloom were having marital problems. Some of these were because of their son, Rudy, died shortly after birth, eleven years ago. Mr. Bloom regularly wonders how life would be different had Rudy survived, and this is what prompts him to be so protective of Stephen when he finally encounters him later on in the story.

“Yes,” said Mr. Bloom. “I think the funeral is at 11 o’clock.”

“I had a question about the book I was reading,” said Molly, changing the subject again. “Do you know what ‘metempsychosis’ means? I came upon it in the book which is over there, underneath that pile of clothing, and didn’t understand it.” Mr. Bloom found the book, and she used her hairpin to point at the word.

“It’s a Greek word meaning ‘transmigration of souls’,” Mr Bloom explained.

“That’s confusing,” Molly said. “Why not say it plainly? Anyways, this book wasn’t very good. There were no sexy parts at all.”

“I’ll buy you a different book while I’m out.”

“Thank you. I’d like one by Paul de Kock. His name is a sex joke.”

“Metempsychosis means,” said Mr. Bloom, returning to the previous topic, “that we go on living in a different body after we die. Our soul moves into a new body. That’s what the ancient Greeks believed.”

“What’s that burning smell?” said Molly. She wasn’t interested in what Mr. Bloom had to say.

“Oh no! My kidney!” said Mr. Bloom. The kidney he had put on the stove earlier was burning. Mr. Bloom rushed into the kitchen and turned the stove off. It turned out his kidney wasn’t too badly burned, and he could still eat it. He did so while reading his letter. It was from Milly, Molly and his daughter. Mr. Bloom is happy to hear this she is doing well. She is studying photography, and doesn’t live with them.

Mr. Bloom ate his kidney, and drank a cup of tea. He then went to use the toilet. They had an outhouse. While using the toilet, he read the newspaper. He wondered what it would be like if he and Molly were in the newspaper. He then remembered to check what time the funeral started. Back in 1904, people didn’t have toilet paper, so Mr. Bloom had to use a torn sheet from the newspaper. He wiped himself and stood up.

Derrida, Robot vs Manual

Here is a paragraph from near the beginning of De la Grammatologie, translated by Google:

Whatever one thinks under this heading, the problem of language has probably never been a problem among others. But never as much as today has he invaded as such the world horizon of the most diverse researches and discourses the most heterogeneous in their intention, their method, their ideology. The very devaluation of the word “language,” all that, in the credit given to it, denounces the cowardice of the vocabulary, the temptation to seduce at little cost, passive abandonment in fashion, -guard, that is to say, ignorance, all this testifies. This inflation of the sign “language” is the inflation of the sign itself, absolute inflation, inflation itself. Yet, by a face or a shadow of herself, she again beckons: this crisis is also a symptom. It indicates, in spite of itself, that a historico-metaphysical period must finally determine as a language the totality of its problematic horizon. It owes it not only because everything that desire had sought to wrest from the play of language is taken up again, but also because, at the same time, language itself is threatened in its life, helpless, disoriented To have no limits, to return to its own finitude at the very moment when its limits seem to be effaced, at the very moment when it ceases to be reassured upon itself, contained and bordered by the infinite signified which seemed to exceed it.

And here it is translated by scholar and philosopher Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak:

However the topic is considered, the problem of language has never been simply one problem among others. But never as much as at present has it invaded, as such, the global horizon of the most diverse researches and the most heterogeneous discourses, diverse and heterogeneous in their intention, method, and ideology. The devaluation of the word “language” itself, and how, in the very hold it has upon us, it betrays a loose vocabulary, the temptation of a cheap seduction, the passive yielding to fashion, the consciousness of the avant-garde, in other words—ignorance—are evidences of this effect. This inflation of the sign “language” is the inflation of the sign itself, absolute inflation, inflation itself. Yet, by one of its aspects or shadows, it is itself still a sign: this crisis is also a symptom. It indicates, as if in spite of itself, that a historico-metaphysical epoch must finally determine as language the totality of its problematic horizon. It must do so not only because all that desire had wished to wrest from the play of language finds itself recaptured within that play but also because, for the same reason, language itself is menaced in its very life, helpless, adrift in the threat of limitlessness, brought back to its own finitude at the very moment when its limits seem to disappear, when it ceases to be self-assured, contained, and guaranteed by the infinite signified which seemed to exceed it.

If it were simply nonsense, cooked up by a con man, signifying nothing, there ought to be no difference in the comprehensibility of these two paragraphs, shouldn’t there? I could, jokingly, pull together meaning from the machine translation, assemble some ideas from it’s bad translation, and perhaps wax poetic on some combination of words that would not have arose from an intentional mind… But why bother, unless I found it fun?

The Backstroke of the West: Language and Function

 

Revenge of the Sith is not the best Star Wars movie. It has wonderful visuals, an interesting story, and some really nice action sequences, but it is bogged down by some strange directorial choices, some odd dialogue choices, and the occasional poor acting performance.

Backstroke of the West, on the otherhand, is just brilliant. I’m well aware it was made as a joke. The film was purchased as a Chinese bootleg, translated into Chinese, and then back into English, with all the attendant “engrish” and strangeness that comes from bulk machine translation. Some enterprising souls then dubbed the entire thing over an HD copy into the form above. On a surface level, it’s a silly curio, taken to an extreme level. Years back, Vader’s “No!” translated as “Do not want!” was a series of memetic images that floated around the internet, and this, no doubt, is just as quotable.

However, sitting there and actually watching it, once I got into the movie, after the opening crawl and once the novelty began to wear off, I began to really enjoy it. It was like watching the film again with a fresh pair of eyes and ears. It’s one thing when you’re watching a film that was obviously in another language — even as a child, I was under no illusion that the Godzilla movies were originally in English, and that’s why people’s mouths didn’t match the dialogue — but to export it into a feature length science fiction film, it managed to give the distance and foreignness that most sci fi is simply lacking. I could actually pay attention to the movie, rather than worry about the acting or nitpicking details.

Let me explain further: there is no logical reason why characters in Star Wars should be speaking English. It’s possible, of course, that the intergalactic lingua franca just happens to sound exactly like English, but there’s no in-universe reason why the characters all speak late 20th century American and British accented English — Star Wars isn’t one of those franchises where it’s revealed at the end that Luke and Leia are actually Adam and Eve, or that Tattooine is really Mars after a devastating collapse caused all of humanity to leave Earth. In fact, Star Wars is explicitly set in the past, “A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away”. It is for our convenience as movie viewers that the films are presented in our native languages.

Movies use this sort of shorthand all the time. One famous example is in 1987’s Dirty Dancing. The film is set in 1963, and yet Jennifer Grey and Patrick Swayze’s final dance number is to Bill Medley and Jennifer Warnes’s Academy Award winning (I’ve Had) The Time of My Life, a decidedly contemporary track that became one of the most iconic late 80’s songs. It’s a song  that literally could not have been composed or produced in 1963, due to its use of synthesizers, drum machines, vocal processing, etc. Yet we literally see a character put on a 45 before Swayze takes the stage. They aren’t dancing to silence. They could have used a more contemporary track; there’s a wealth of music from the 60’s that would have been appropriate. But in an attempt to convey the feeling, energy, and passion between the characters, the director and producer used a very modern song to keep the sequence from feeling nostalgic or old. Watching them dance to Time of My Life better conveys to the audience how it would have felt to have them dance to something from the 60’s, realism be damned.

And so, having the characters in Revenge of the Sith speak at a remove, in a slightly more alien tongue, actually helped make the film a more enjoyable experience. You can’t quite understand exactly what’s happening, except for the parts that are perfectly clear. The words are recognizable, but not coherent. You’re forced to focus on the visuals and expressions, rather than vocals, and exposition is cut down to almost nothing.

The result is an emotional rollercoaster, a film of violent pathos, a tragedy of anguish and heartbreak. Gold and Ratio Tile simply cannot find equal footing with one another, despite The Plum Of’s attempts to reconcile them. Mr. Speaker’s takeover is awful in it’s inevitability. The fall of the Presbyterian Church seems destined, because the Hopeless Situation Warriors cannot see the trouble before their own faces. Had they put a little more trust in Gold, perhaps it would not have been so, but they did not, and thus the West conquered all, without the people even noticing.

I’ve always said that there was a good movie hiding inside Revenge of the Sith. It just took a quirk of translation to find it.

Nazi Punching

Let’s check with some ethical systems to see how this plays out…

Aristotle: It is a realization of a person’s true nature to punch Nazis, and punching them brings happiness and contentment. This is the right thing to do, at the right time, to the right person, to the proper extent, in the correct fashion, and for the right reason.

Kant: It would be a better world if everyone punched Nazis. If it were made universal that everyone punched Nazis, this would be perfectly acceptable to me.

Mozi: Punching Nazis directly contributes to the basic good and harmonious needs of the State. A Nazis pointless and a threat to social stability; they should be resisted and driven out.

Utilitarianism: The increase in pleasure gained from punching a Nazi, and the pleasure derived from seeing a Nazi get punched, and the consequent alleviation of suffering that having said Nazi injured and thus removed from Nazi activities, scaring off potential Nazi recruits, limiting public Nazi activities, and otherwise making Naziism unacceptable, outweighs the pain felt by the individual Nazi being punched, and the hurt feelings of the Nazis viewing the act, because there just aren’t that many of them.

Pragmatism: He’s a damn Nazi. Of course you should punch him.

Confucianism: The role of the Nazi in society is to be the abused enemy against which good people define themselves against. It is as virtuous to punch a Nazi as it is for a son to show fealty and respect to his father, a mother love to her children, or a King to give proper orders to his ministers.

Rawls: Under the veil of ignorance, knowing no details about the puncher or the Nazi, or the circumstances under which the Nazi was punched, their places in society, their class positions or social statuses, nor their fortunes in the distribution of natural assets and abilities, their intelligence, strength, and the like, and even assuming that the parties do not know their conceptions of the good or their special psychological propensities, it is still ethical to punch the Nazi. Even were I the Nazi, I would wish to be punched, once I realized what I was.

Hedonism: Punching Nazis feels good, and minimizes the pain of those oppressed by Nazis. Proceed. Perhaps wear boxing gloves weighed with quarters or fishing weights, so you don’t injure your knuckles, and don’t need to exert so much effort.

Moore: Punching Nazis produces the most good, regardless of whatever naturalistic fallacy people may ascribe about the innate nature of Nazi punching. The consequences of Nazi punching are good, therefore it is a moral action, and it is also pleasing from an aesthetic standpoint, so go right ahead.

Foucault: Ethical conduct consists of the actions performed and capacities exercised intentionally by a subject for the purpose of engaging in morally approved conduct. A moral obligation is an imperative of a moral code that either requires or forbids a specific kind of conduct, whereas an ethical obligation is a prescription for conduct that is a necessary condition for producing morally approved conduct. The moral valorization of conduct might be, as it was with the ancients, weighted toward the satisfaction of ethical obligations, or, as it is in modernity, weighted toward the satisfaction of the moral obligations that comprise a moral code. Naziism, being universally condemned in the Western world, and forming an “Other” which has been designated as “fair game” in the power relationship of Master to Slave, and, unlike with race or sexuality or gender, being a self-chosen Otherization chosen due to a desire for victimization and an understanding that, by holding one’s self up to an impossible goal of racial purity and Aryan supremacy, one is by default designating oneself as impure and unworthy in one’s own eyes. One turns oneself into the imaginary enemy against which goodness is set (“The Nazi is that which is unethical, amoral, that which our fathers and grandfathers fought so that we might be free”). One reveals one’s own self-loathing. “Parrēsia,” Foucault says, “is the free courage by which one binds oneself in the act of telling the truth. Or again, parrhesia is the ethics of truth-telling as an action which is risky and free” (The Government of Self and Others, p. 66). The language that Foucault uses to describe parrhesiastic freedom throughout this lecture is incredibly suggestive of its source: it is the language of Kantian self-legislation. For Kant, autonomy does not consist in giving oneself the moral law, since the moral law is a necessity of the rational will; rather, autonomy consists in binding oneself to the law by freely conforming one’s conduct to it. By designating oneself as impure and worthless, akin to the Indian “untouchables”, one freely invites the punching that one desires. And thus, one must punch the Nazi. Society as currently constructed will not allow one to do otherwise.

Derrida: Let us examine the word “Nazi”. “Not See”, something unseen, hidden, placed away from sight, invisible. By its very nature, a contemptuous word, something not to be revealed in public. A hidden shame that, even in its native Germany cannot be displayed. None of their symbols, none of their marches, nothing outside of the historic context in which is first occurred. The law demands that it is an object of the past. But let us look at it further. “Nationalsozialist”, a compound that was too much to speak aloud, that demanded contraction to birth itself into a party, that contained that which they fought against, the very socialism they claimed to despise when they fought the Russians. So the word must be hidden, it must be buried, it must be concealed, made unseen, a relic of a past which never existed, a false secret history. They are haunted by the very socialism they claim to oppose. And this very “hauntology” that I spoke of in the Spectre of Marx epitomizes the new “Ironic Nazi” that exists in the non-space of the internet. They are Nazis only to the extent that they are not nazis: they simply believe in the extermination of the Jews and non-white races, but, if pressed, admit that they are simply doing it to get a rise out of you, but no, really, they do with the Jews to be destroyed. A denial of a denial of a denial. A non-non-non-existence. Post-post-irony. Their atemporal naziism is located precisely in its hidden non-existence. And so, the only conclusion is to fill in the void that they have left in their non-Naziism with a very concrete French resistance, with an “ironic” punch in the face.