Róbert Gál – Agnomia
Yes, we all want to be oh-so understood! And yet we know very well that some of the things we try to understand are simply incomprehensible, and this precisely because of their essence.
Over the last hundred years cinema, radio, television and the internet have exploded in reach and quantity while shrinking in terms of scope, difficulty and depth. Popular culture has become the expression of our time, subsuming everything in its need to create constant variations on everyday themes – memes have become the currency of daily speech and the extent to which many people's thoughts roam. Conversations exist as reference after reference; a “funny guy” at a party or a bar is funny because he can accurately mimic and recall comedic television programmes. Cultural intelligence lies in the permutations of contemporary television and cheap nostalgia. The American programme, Glee, shows culture eating itself as amateur actors and singers recreate top 40 songs – and it is one of the more popular shows on television.
But if ideals are abstract, the actions corresponding to such ideals must be equally abstract. Thus, any previously defined words, around which the aforementioned process of recycling an action revolves, must gradually turn into memes, and thus lose their definitional substance.
Slovak author Róbert Gál understands that the function of the artist as a creator has transformed in scope and efficacy in recent years. This extract from Agnomia struggles with the attempt of an artist to create something both more meaningful than himself and capable of reaching another in a manner that is true and engaging. Gál's vision is fundamentally solipsistic, wrestling with the realisation that one will never properly express himself to others – they will interpret everything wrong – or to himself – he will misinterpret his own intent. Since the art of an individual remains opaque to others no matter how hard he tries to convey it, the maw of popular culture, with its ravenous appetite for self-referential material which requires little more than to have seen what came before it, becomes supreme.
It's precisely in small and meaningless countries that one finds writers who naturally think of themselves as “reproducers of reality,” but why this reality needs to be amplified in their writing, they don't say. If we claim – and we do claim precisely this – that such reality must be produced in an artistic way, not simply re-produced, then we need to separate the work of art from art. Someone like Eli Roth shows up, a controversial Jewish film director, and simply shoots his chainsaw massacres in tiny Slovakia, to which Slovaks react first with rage, before realising that this is a perfect way to get Slovakia some publicity. Roth, a young Tarantino, accomplishes in a single moment what dozens of elite intellectuals have attempted.
Similarly, it was not until Iraq was invaded that books by Iraq women could be found in Australian book stores – and, of course, these stories always revolved around women who had come from Iraq to Australia, struggling, and succeeding, to acclimatise themselves to a new, foreign (and, ultimately, correct and right) land. The other nations, other issues and other artists didn't exist because the dialogue of the nation hadn't shifted in that direction. The world today is a world where, should a popular movie be made from an “obscure foreign” author's work, then the book will suddenly gain a new, glossy cover, sell thousands of copies, become the conversation topic of many a middle-class book club, and promptly become forgotten once the next movie comes along. The author may have written twenty other books, but they won't be translated. The author may come from a long and storied tradition in that nation's literature, but none of that will appear. Literature only becomes visible when justified by the dominant mediums of popular culture – cinema and, to a lesser extent, television. One recalls the newspaper articles written about Jim Carrey's 2003 movie, Bruce Almighty which, at one stage, showed the telephone number of God: hundreds of people called the number. Popular culture provides affirmation and release.
...why should a creator need to know what others create, for the purposes of his own creation? A widespread and blind groping about is sufficient for a creator, since as he knows very well that no groping can be without limits or else it would spill into something else. The role of the creator is to sustain the spill within one's own character, preventing it from ever spilling into something else.
Gál speaks here to the problem many creators face. Literature is a grand tradition stretching thousands of years; writers participate in what E. M. Forster refers to as a great circular room in which the major authors write facing one another, competing with one another, playing off and engaging in a dialogue with one another. A writer today must participate in the themes created by Homer and the Bible, must be aware of everything that has come before and all that is happening now. James Joyce's Ulysses is virtually unintelligible without a thorough background in the cultural history and literature of Western thought. But – what a burden! Why must this be the case. Does this mean that literature, too, must be parasitical to remain relevant? Does an author have to read everything in order to add anything? Gál suggests in Agnomia that if we do fall into this trap – if we do, in effect, allow ourselves as writers to engage in a kind of high-brown literature cannibalism – then we are tacitly admitting that what we create will not be new, or unique, or groundbreaking in any way. The avant-garde requires all idols to be smashed, but the best of the avant-garde refuse to pick up the broken pieces when they create their own works.
Roberto Bolaño, in his monumental 2666, writes:
Now even bookish pharmacists are afraid to take on the great, imperfect, torrential works, books that blaze paths into the unknown. They choose the perfect exercises of the great masters. Or what amounts to the same thing: they want to watch the great masters spar, but they have no interest in real combat, when the great masters struggle against that something, that something that terrifies us all, that something that cows us and spurs us on, amid blood and mortal wounds and stench.
The above is often quoted, and for good reason – literature is in a place where the perfect exercises of the great writers are chosen as the models for young writers to emulate, while the “great, imperfect, torrential works” are off-limits, their genius hardly explicable in workshops, by mentors, in 2,000 word essays. Works of literature which demand their authors devote their lives to them (Ulysses, In Search of Lost Time, 2666, Don Quixote, Moby Dick, Montaigne's Essays, The Anatomy of Melancholy, etc) are endless and endlessly interpretable, but even these, Gál (implicitly) argues, operate at a remove from the author's intent and the reader's understanding. The writer of a work intends one things which he does not achieve; the reader interprets one way which does not align with the writer's ideas, and the work itself exists between – two people, three separate works, no correct answer.
As in music, here it's not about thoughts, but about the permanent tension caused by the need to think, about belonging to this or that content to the point of accepting it in the form of parasitism. Because the scalpel of intellect isn't able to adequately discern between operation and autopsy, the object of its incision is abstract at first and only during the act itself does it emerge from the fog of unconsciousness into the sphere of understanding to gradually acquire the face of a conscious reality.
Literature as an end point is not the end, but literature as an act may provide something. Gál understands that this “something” is not fulfillment, glory, money or satisfaction – though these may come, but the struggle of the intellect with itself. An author must content himself with knowing that, at the end of his career, no matter how lauded or recognised, he will never have said what he intended, and that what was published was wrong, inferior, cheap and flawed to that which was in his thoughts. The act of taking something from one's mind to the page pales it, turning an oil painting into a watercolour.
Gál's experience as an aphorist are on display throughout this selection from Agnomia. Many of the sentences are individually quotable, and benefit greatly from extraction and contemplation. Similarly, the plot and characters from the extract are interesting, though I have chosen to avoid discussing them in order to engage more directly with some of the ideas presented in the text. Speaking of ideas – the majority of these quotations have been taken from four pages of the nine page extract; the other five pages would have provided a similarly deep well of potential intellectual engagement. In short, there is a lot here to like, and much that sticks. Gál's sentences function as springboards into possibility, coaxing and encouraging the reader to think about more than just what has been written. This is not a quick story to sprint through.
The extract from Gál's Agnomia argues against the possibility of ever interpreting a work of art, against the possibility of communicating your own thoughts into a coherent and relatable piece of literature, while also understanding that the torrential, flawed works which nonetheless reach for something great are important as themselves and not as a means to an end. One can't read these works – or attempt to write them – for their pedagogical use or the sustenance of their moralistic stance. While it may sound trite, the crux of the argument comes down to the necessity of the artist to try.
...those of us whose destinies are to struggle in the waters of our restlessness will always find ourselves at a disadvantage.
Victory cannot be won, the battle is endless, and losing is the only possibility in the end. What use is there to be understood, really? The detritus of popular culture is “understood” by everyone, but this one virtue is its undoing and its curse. If everyone understands it then it has no importance. But those things which do have meaning have no clear definition, in much the way that Plato struggles to define “justice” through The Republic, the participants in the dialogue turning in endless circles in an effort to catch the true essence of the word. They can't and they don't.
As noted above, Eli Roth's brutal torture porn movie was capable of shifting the cultural dialogue of a nation purely by being arbitrarily placed there instead of some other “backward European nation” (backward of course in the eyes of the average American). A thousand Slovak writers couldn't do it, but an American director could – what does that say? Gál knows, and it isn't pretty.
Why do we so stubbornly look for locks in every door – even the ones that are already open?
But, again, try. It won't work, but it will remain yours.
Agnomia by Róbert Gál is a short piece from the Dalkey Archive Press' anthology, Best European Fiction 2012
Review updated 14 November 2011 to correct from an earlier version of the translation
Other titles by Róbert Gál under review include:
---Signs and Symptoms
Other stories from the Dalkey Archive Press' anthology, Best European Fiction 2012, include:
------Belgium (Flemish): de Martelaere, Patricia - My Hand is Exhausted
------Croatian: Hrgović, Maja - Zlatka
------Spanish (Galician): Fernández Paz, Agustín - This Strange Lucidity
------Polish: Rudnicki, Janusz - The Sorrows of Idiot Augustus
------Irish: Rosenstock, Gabriel - “...everything emptying into white”
------Hungarian: Bán, Zsófia - When There Were Only Animals
------Swiss (Rhaeto-Romanic and German): Camenisch, Arno - Sez Ner
------Portuguese: Zink, Rui - Tourist Destination
------Georgian: Dephy, David - Before the End
------Irish: Hogan, Desmond - Kennedy
------Russian: Davydov, Danila - The Telescope
------Czech: Kratochvil, Jiří - I, Loshaď
------Estonian: Kõomägi, Armin - Logisticians Anonymous
Best European Fiction 2011 short stories under review
Best European Fiction 2010 short stories under review
Index of titles by The Dalkey Archive Press under review
Index of short stories under review