Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Lost time

[This post, in which I mention another post languishing in my drafts for a year, has been languishing in my drafts for months. But my goodness, it's already long for a blog post, and in the interest of teaching myself that not every single goddamn point has to be run into the ground in order for a post to be "finished," I've decided to post it largely as-is, adding only a few bits gesturing at empty places in it. Part of me thinks I'm on to something vitally important here, while part of me thinks this is as trivial and missing-what-matters as a half-assed 10th-grade term paper. The last paragraph in particular seems now almost embarrassingly grandiose, and yet these ideas continue to nag at me so that I can't find it in myself to get rid of it.]

A passage from Gabriel Josipovici's The Book of God: A Response to the Bible in which he approaches the Jewish and Christian liturgical traditions through a look at Marcel Proust will I think give some helpful background for the ideas I want to talk about here.

         As every reader of À la recherche knows, Proust makes a fundamental distinction between voluntary and involuntary memory. Voluntary memory is the memory of the historian. It tells us that the French Revolution broke out in 1789; that the First World War lasted from 1914 to 1918; that when I was five years old my family moved from X to Y; that I went to such and such a school, took such and such a job, married such and such a person on such and such a date. For Marcel this kind of memory is worse than useless. For what does it do for me to know such things? ... Yet Proust, unlike Nietzsche, was not forced by this insight into the position of having to opt for the memoryless life of the beast. Experience had taught him that there is another kind of memory, quite different from that of the historian, and so important had been this discovery that he made the whole of his giant novel develop out of the insight provided by this involuntary memory.
         Involuntary memory is the memory unleashed by eating again in adulthood a biscuit one had tasted as a child, when the taste brings back the entire world of that time, not as something consciously recalled but directly, physically, in an overwhelming flood. It is as if this memory were lodged inside the body yet sealed off until some chance taste, smell or motion releases it, like the genie from his bottle. Thus Marcel, bending down to tie a shoelace, suddenly finds himself re-experiencing the entire scene of which this movement had been an insignificant part, when his grandmother had helped him to dress. And as he experiences the living reality of his grandmother, her death hits him truly for the first time; before, he had only remembered her as the historian remembers; now he experiences her living presence and so her terrible final absence.
         But the important point about Proust's novel is that Marcel does not remain the mere passive victim of such occurrences. It is true that they cannot consciously be brought into being, but there does not remain for him, as for Nietzsche, an unbridgeable gap between a consciousness which is devoid of meaning and an unconsciousness which is fully meaningful, 'alive'. What bridges the gap is writing. À la recherche is in the end less about spots of time or moments of true being than about uniting the lost fragments of the body through the act of writing which tells of the dispersal of such fragments. And I would suggest that the liturgy, in both the Jewish and the Christian traditions, works in rather the same way: it makes accessible to our daily selves a memory which is alive, which is quite other than the historian's memory. This, I think, is the point of [Yosef Hayim] Yerushalmi's book, Zakhor, which tries to answer the question of why Jews had to wait until the nineteenth century to manifest any real interest in history. The reason, he suggests, is that until then they had no need of history; that it was only with the loss of a traditional way of acceding to the past that the way of the historian became necessary. And we can see the same thing happening in the Christian world at the end of the Middle Ages: the rise of modern historiography goes hand in hand with the collapse of a communal liturgy.


Works of science fiction, by basing their interest precisely in the alteration of — broadly speaking — the environment, implicitly understand that the situation and problems of the individual are shaped by that individual's surroundings. They do not always, or even often, understand this in what strikes me as any significantly accurate or incisive way, but the shape of the understanding, at least, is there.

Specifically because the alterations sf works propose are necessarily alterations to the conditions of modernity — both because these are quite simply the conditions under which we find ourselves and because science and "high" technology (as we currently understand them) are peculiarly modern phenomena — sf is singularly well-placed to explore the problems modernity gives rise to in the individual (hence my insistence on placing sf alongside those works I think of as modernist, at the risk of homogenizing these very different literatures). If, again, sf in practice rarely does this in any significant way, the potential is there. And this problem, this fracturing of memory and therefore of the self that has to be reconstructed through chance encounters with involuntary memory — for, as Walter Benjamin points out in discussing the same issues in his essay "On Some Motifs in Baudelaire", for Proust "it depends entirely on chance whether we come upon it before we die or whether we never encounter it" — and then through the struggle of writing, is another peculiarly modern phenomenon, the product (as Benjamin explores in that same essay) of the breakdown of community and tradition that is one of the foundations on which modernity is built (and please note that when I say "modern" I'm speaking of a much longer time-scale than, say, "since WWI").

For well over a year now, the thought has been bubbling in my mind that it could be very fruitful indeed to examine the works of many sf writers through the lens of Proust's meditations on time and memory. A perhaps quarter-written post doing just this with Clifford D. Simak's City, Cordwainer Smith's "Instrumentality" stories, Gene Wolfe's Book of the New Sun, and Octavia E. Butler's Kindred has been languishing in my drafts for nearly that long, and most likely will never be finished. The gist is that what is in Proust an individual struggle becomes a societal and/or communal (and sometimes literally universal, or transcendental) one in the sf works, while what is metaphorical, conceptual, or non-physical becomes literal, embodied, and physical.

In Simak, Proust's finding that deliberate, conscious investigation of memory can never conjure up the past in its totality is transformed into the scientific discovery that time travel to the past is impossible — because the past literally does not exist (which, incidentally, puts the reader — who lives in that past — in an odd position); meanwhile the robot Jenkins, the living communal memory of a family and, by extension, humanity, for thousands of years, embodies Proust's explorations of the way a physical object or sensation can involuntarily call up the presence of the past in a way that conscious effort never can. For Simak, what exists instead of the past when it is sought after intellectually is vague and nebulous, either a "figment of remembrance that flit[s] like a night-winged thing in the shadow of one's mind" or the more flatly-stated inconceivability of "another world" existing "where there should have been the past". Both of these options are so obscure and ungraspable precisely because the characters here refuse to trust the embodied memory available to them in the form of Jenkins — indeed their entire reason for seeking travel to the past is to discover for themselves whether what the robot remembers is true or not. It is characteristic of Simak's sense of irony that Jenkins is himself, as a robot, the product of intellect (though his immense longevity and thus his embodiment of communal memory are much more the products of chance), while the "other worlds" discovered scientifically bring with them their own flitting things: ghostly and often malevolent presences. Here, it seems, neither kind of memory is unproblematically available.

In Wolfe and Smith, meanwhile, these explorations of time and memory play out against even vaster swathes of history: Wolfe's four novels come down to us from a future so far removed that our sun is dying, while Smith's "Instrumentality" stories (making up nearly all of his sf output) flit about in one continuous imagined future, any given story alighting here or there almost at random, however many hundreds or thousands or occasionally millions of years from now. In both cases, most of the history and traditions, the known memory, have been lost, but still the immensity of time is felt, the traces of its passage compressed into strange physical presences; to put it in one insufferably cute phrase, the past is present in these futures.

In Smith, no one person is ever aware of the totality — seldom even is anyone aware of even a small sliver — of the ways the past weighs on (what is in any given story) the present; and even we, in our privileged position as readers, can only become aware of any of it by means of the fleeting, disjointed glimpses we get of it all — as this story alights in this moment, that story in that, seemingly at random, by chance. To read a Cordwainer Smith story is, to some extent, to share the feeling with the characters that while one is simply trying to live out one's own small life, one is also participating in some half-felt, never-understood fashion in the immense impersonal sweep of history. The fragmentary nature of this history, or rather of the traces of it available to us and to the characters, is key to this feeling.* Equally key is the embodiment of these traces in physical and ritual presences rather than in written history (think of the lingering danger of the Manshonyaggers, left over from some ancient Fourth Reich, or the rituals performed at the meetings of the Confraternity of Scanners). The vastness of time past, indeed one's place in all time, is felt, not rationally known.

*For this reason, NESFA's The Rediscovery of Man: The Complete Short Science Fiction of Cordwainer Smith, admirable labor of love though it is, and though I am all in favor of his work reappearing in print, does Smith a disservice. I tend to feel that the word "complete" is never appropriate when applied to his work, that his stories are best encountered buried in and scattered across anthologies and magazines, perhaps sometimes some — but never all — of them gathered into single-author collections. If one wishes to reconstruct Smith's whole future history, to the extent that it is possible (hint: it is not), one should ideally be forced to delve into archives, to search, to hunt, to be a historian. The decision to present the stories in order of "internal chronology" is even more catastrophic; publication or even random order would have been better.

Wolfe's four-volume novel, composed as it was as a single work, is more contained, more "linear" in its decidedly nonlinear way, but its sense of the traces times past leave on the present is surprisingly similar. In this world however many millennia in the future, civilizations and technological and scientific knowledges have come and gone unknowably many times over. There has been time enough for the residues left behind by each of these waves to build and build, even if most is effaced — like a kind of fossil record. Scientific understanding that for us came too late to affect everyday speech is here unspeakably older than ancient, and so for example the characters speak of, to paraphrase (I don't have the books to hand), the west rising up to cover the sun, rather than the sun setting in the west. A method for faster-than-light travel that we can vaguely recognize as an (admittedly fanciful) extrapolation on relativity theory is presented as a quasi-magical ritual with mirrors and "living flame". The citadel in which the protagonist grows up is a rooted, integral part of the city in which it is loacted — and it is also a grounded space vessel. The notion of leaving Earth is absurd, unknown, or at best legendary, to most of the characters, but there are forests on the moon. Whole mountain ranges are statues (or maybe more accurately vice versa). And because of time dilation, there are people recently returned to Earth who left not far in our own future. Once again, the fullness of historical memory, not knowable through intellectual effort, lingers on inescapably, sometimes bringing itself unbidden to the fore, in physical presences.*

*And I haven't even mentioned the method depicted in the books of literally taking onto oneself the full memories of a dead person by eating portions of their flesh.

And of the four writers I've named, it is in Butler that the personal search for lost time most explicitly becomes political through its projection beyond the individual. At the novel's start, Dana is aware, in the sense that she knows the facts, of the United States's history with slavery; though she might in some ways deny it, she is even aware, in a vague sense, that her dehumanization as a waged worker and as a black woman — as a multiply-oppressed member of society — in the present bears some remarkable similarities to this past in its form, if not usually in its degree of physical brutality. But involuntary memory comes to her, as she begins to shift unpredictably between her own time and that of her enslaved ancestors; by the end of the novel, whip scars on her back and an arm lost when she reappears for the last time in the present partially inside a wall form the inescapable stigmata of the living memory and history of slavery, genocide, and oppression, the physical embodiment of the damage this past continues to do to the present.

The final points in Josipovici's discussion through À la recherche, that writing his novel is for Proust a way to reconstruct this modern fragmentation of memory (and therefore of the self), and that this role was once served by (among other things) the liturgy, I find I am not quite able, right now, to address fully. But think of the role of the "essays" in Simak (and in Wolfe); of ritual in Smith; of autobiography and eidetic memory in Wolfe. And think of Andrea Hairston's comments in her essay "Octavia Butler — Praise Song to a Prophetic Artist" (one of the precious few good essays in Daughters of Earth: Feminist Science Fiction in the 20th Century), where she defines a "prophet" not as someone who merely "predicts" the future but as one who attempts to channel the authority of the past through her body and writing in order to "illuminate the immanent possibilities of the here and now", in the process perhaps enabling a future to come to be — a role I suspect is not available to those at the center of modernity (i.e., white people, men) even in the partial sense in which it was and is to writers like Butler, who attack the center from the margin. For all four, though, writing seems to matter desperately, no matter how they may (to varying degrees) try to cover it up with the priorities of the "commercial" writer; they write, to be sure, for money, but they also write (rather than or in addition to doing other things for money) because of these problems. They write, it seems to me, not to "solve" these problems in any positivist sense, but rather to make the problems intelligible.

The four examples I've chosen perhaps leap readily to mind because in them involuntary memory is almost wholly traumatic, or at best deeply problematic, but this is not always the case in sf. In Doris Pisierchia's novel Star Rider, the members of an atomized, individualistic culture are finally brought together by the rediscovery of the physical legacy of their forebears, and though they are forced to incorporate its memory into their selves and move on because living with it would be literally deadly, there is no mistaking the salutary effects of the encounter. Consuelo in Marge Piercy's Woman on the Edge of Time is herself a physical manifestation of history — our present — within the future into which she is brought, a physical manifestation without which that utopian future likely will not exist. And, more quotidian if not less intriguing, William F. Touponce suggests in his (otherwise routine) study of Isaac Asimov that the gradual transformation of event into legend is one of that writer's central subjects; for Asimov, while this process may sometimes be amusing or sad or even dangerous, it is mostly just the way things work.

For all this, I have only sketched out here the rudiments of what I've been thinking about. I haven't even begun to explore the implications of all of this: what it means that what is in the one literature a personal struggle is extrapersonal in the other, for example, or whether it is even feasable to consider these problems on such a level, whether it makes any sense to project an individual (or even a societal, or political) struggle onto such a broader canvas. Consider this then a platform from which to launch further investigations, whether my own or (I flatter myself) yours, whether in essay, fiction, or some other form. For myself, I doubt I'll ever be able to explore these ideas to my satisfaction in writing, at least not in essays. But it is always in my thoughts both when I read and when I try my hand at writing sf.


Marc said...

A nice comparative look at involuntary memory, but a few quick comments, especially in regards to Gene Wolfe: it is not only to show the passage of time and augment figures of speech that creates passages such as the urth rising to cover the sun, but to drive home the heliocentric nature of the text - where the sun is the symbolic center and is presented as contiguous with the main character, granting it centrality in all tropes and discussions throughout. Wolfe intentionally used Proust as his basis for many of the themes and even took lines wholesale, such as "time turns our lies into truth" - many of the most memorable lines in Wolfe I was later to find pulled directly from Proust. In Proust, Marcel eats a madeleine cookie to invoke memories - Severian eats a Chatelaine. The relationships between Proust and Wolfe's New Sun is not unintentional, but a deliberate and authorial intent, even down to the letter that the main character receives after the death of his love interest, forcing himself to believe that it is true even though he knows it would be miraculous. The signature transforming in that letter in Proust (and the transformation through fiction of the real life's Proust's Albert into the fictional Albertine) seems particularly Wolfean after the fact.

Ethan Robinson said...

Ah, see, this is what comes of me trying to write about books I read years ago without having them in front of me...those are all good points.

Though of course the main issue isn't whether or not these resonances are intentional, or whether they come from Proust directly (I don't know about Butler or Simak, but I wouldn't be surprised at all if Smith read Proust; he had an obvious fondness for at least one French modernist, if "Drunkboat" and Artyr Rambo are any indication...); rather, it's that these problems will continuously crop up as concerns of sensitive writers trying to live and work under the conditions of modernity. Wolfe reads Proust and what he sees there resonates with him deeply; others, dealing with the same concerns but perhaps without the benefit of Proust, come to similar "conclusions" (terrible word) independently.

Ethan Robinson said...

(oh, also, yes re: heliocentricity; but the figure of speech wouldn't work without the background of scientific knowledge, etc...I remember that there are many other examples, having nothing to do with the sun, but I can't think of any offhand)

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