Most of my associates have not been following this project over the summer. I have been excited about taking on the intensity of writing (and reading) every week but have done it largely alone. The web site hasn’t been that active. Comments on my blog have been nearly non-existent. Even the weekly study group at the center of my social life is reading this book without me (as my job has interfered with my ability to be with the group). I have even avoided, by and large, reading the contributions by Artnoose and others out of concern of repeating points, losing focus, or being responsive rather than proactive in sharing my thoughts. I approached this 10 (12) week project much as I approached the book itself, alone.
Archive for the ‘ Aragorn! ’ Category
Sophia’s Ninth Letter features a few strong, minor characters. These three archetypal characters dominate the Letter and, as archetypes, I have known (or been) each of them. Here are a few of our stories.
Around the time I was learning from Letters of Insurgents I was reading a lot of other things. For around an 8-month period when I was absorbing the book I was reading about a book every day. I was working in a graveyard job and living out of my van in Ann Arbor. I was using this as an opportunity to raid bookstores in the area, the U of M library in general, and, in particular, the Labadie collection. This was my chance to hold on the original set of SI Journal and to really dig deep into the material that has shaped my life since. I’ll probably never have another intellectual period in my life as intense as this. The problem with absorbing material in an isolated vacuum (which is what I was in at that time) is that some things you get right, some things you get wrong. I enjoyed the incredible volume of material I was consuming. Later I learned that the mixture of science fiction, post-structural classics, and everything available in English from “the milieu” would garner me a decade of being called incoherent, dense, and postmodernist.
I find the back and forth about who really loved who or who loved an apparition instead of the person tiresome. The flatness of Perlman’s character development is apparent here and I don’t love Letters of Insurgents because the characters are plausible. I love Letters of Insurgents because of the way that the ideas are validated by the characters and situations in the book. I don’t think a more skilled novelist would have made Letters of Insurgents a better book. They would have made a different book with different emphasis, different political bias (of course), and different themes. They would have made a better story but it would have had flattened the sophisticated political problems that I, and most of my peers, have experienced. This lack of character development isn’t the biggest problem I have with the book.
I read Letters of Insurgents as a great work on how to do criticism: a humane story about two sharp people cutting each other to size in appropriate, if harsh and perhaps mean-at-times, ways. This criticism ranges far beyond the tome of Letters of Insurgents or the dynamics between two writers on either side of the Berlin Wall. Each of us is confronted with a great isolation in modern society that we are unable to speak to or from due to lack of tools, models, or closeness to others. The critical model provided by Letters of Insurgents has been personally influential in its demonstration of each of these elements. In the first few weeks the focus was on criticism (by which I also mean closeness). Now we are discussing the tools and models by which we could break down the colossus of the existing order.
Yarostan’s Fifth letter is a strong argument against the institution of work. It is a criticism of the role of the knowledge worker in particular, and predates a body of work around these topics while maintaining a human touch around the topic. Bob Black (in)famously wrote an essay (which was also a presentation as provocation) called “The Abolition of Work.” While the author (and other people with a certain kind of fixation) might take the article as a literal argument against work, its real power is in asking orthogonal questions about the nature of labor and the project of Marxists who valorize labor itself, beyond any recognition of the (cough) use-value of the product of labor. The pro-work ideology is to assume work first of all – before the product of the work, before the worker, and before the impact (environmental, social, psychological, etc.) of that work. And the reactions to “The Abolition of Work” gave this thesis more energy than it probably should have had.
We are past the intensely critical part of the novel and are now moving onto the great descriptive portion. Letter Four is about a carton factory, a university occupation and all of the characters in Yarostan & Sophia’s lives. It is about the specific nature of peoples’ behavior and how the consequences ripple out over time and into lives.
I am writing about this book again after years of absence, because of how formative the book was in my thinking about criticism (and specifically criticism as a form of communication and engagement with written material). The relationships in this story are still the model I use when considering what I mean and what I desire, when I engage in criticism with someone or some project. Criticism is the infinite pool that feeds me and the engagement I would like to have with my peers. But what I understand criticism to be, informed by this book, is very different than the way the term is used by others or practiced in the world.
There are so many themes from this week’s reading to dig into, including a rich quote from Sophia about memory exercises, the concept that political people have “the good life,” a famous paraphrased quotation, and the generosity of poor people. I hope to touch on them in later weeks. This week I’ll keep my focus limited to how loaded perceptions are.
In many ways, during the time it stood, the Berlin Wall, the great wall dividing the West from the Soviet regime, helped clarify life in America. We were clearly separate from them and we had a clear symbol, with armed guards and not-so-symbolic bullets helping make the distinction crystal clear. The story of Letters of Insurgents is amplified by the existence of this wall during its authorship and the real divide between the authors. Today such divides don’t seem to exist and equivalent letters would read like muffled calls out of the postmodern malaise of this time, or perhaps as Romeo and Juliet type stories set around Israel, Tijuana, North and South Korea or the Taiwan Strait.
Anyone who knows me knows that I am a very angry person. I have been and continue to be motivated by anger. During the period when I was most influenced by Western (psychology) and Other (martial arts, meditation, etc) mental healing modalities this became a concern, since there was a limit to how “healthy” I could become if I was not going to resolve the underlying anger at the root of my personality. I needed to “let it go” if I were going to become a person at peace with myself.
Suffice it to say that I resolved never to be at peace with myself or my condition. I devoted my efforts toward using that anger as motivation to continue working on projects, relationships, situations even when they were boring, irrelevant, or ridiculous. Over time I came to realize that my anger was generally not personal (not about the seeming target). It was about me and my dissatisfaction with my condition. Generally it was not related to my particular impatience or the actions of those around me at the time. Anger remained the vibration that resonated with me but was not the entire scope of my interaction with each and every person at each and every moment.