Obfuscation : Arthur Schopenhauer – “The World as Will and Idea”- Prefaces.

“Although the laboriously attained clearness of the explanation and distinctness of the expression never leaves the immediate sense of what is said doubtful, it cannot at the same time express its relations to all that remains to be said. Further, the earnest endeavour to be more completely and even more easily comprehended in the case of a difficult subject, must justify occasional repetition. Indeed the structure of the whole makes it necessary sometimes to touch on the same point twice.”

That’s Arthur Schopenhauer, pessimist extraordinaire, on the Preface to the first volume of “The World as Will and Idea,” which I’m about to start reading, perhaps inspired by all the pessimism in J. K. Huysmans’ “Against Nature.”

ABOVE: You can tell he was a genius because he ate all the combs that came within his vicinity.

If you’re wondering what he just said, it was this:

“I want to be clear in this book, so I might repeat my points.”

But he DIDN’T say that, because he’s lying. He DOESN’T want to be clear. CLARITY would not be good for business.

I have to slow my reading speed for the fella’s sentences. Is it because what he’s saying is blowing my synapses? Nope. It’s because, like many a philosopher, he’s not a terribly good writer, and I’m sure translations does him no justice. He fights the urge for communication with the considerable might of his intellect. What Schopenhauer is very good at is obfuscation.

Here’s another passage right from the Preface.

“A system of thought must always have an architectonic connection or coherence, that is, a connection in which one part always supports the other, though the latter does not support the former, in which ultimately the foundation supports all the rest without being supported by it, and the apex is supported without supporting.”

Huh? Real clear. Let’s parse that out.

All he said is that a system of thought is like a building where everything connects and builds toward an idea. Basically, a pyramid. Foundation at the bottom, apex at the top.

It’s a simple concept any child can understand, but the philosopher is not interested in having children understand him, hence a ridiculously constructed sentence like the one above that HAPPENS TO BE INCORRECT. By obfuscating, Schopenhauer made himself erroneous. (If any one part ALWAYS supports the other, then the latter will ALWAYS support the former and the former will ALWAYS support the latter, which sounds like a paradox but would make lots of sense if the system of thought were circular, and not pyramidal like the one Schopenhauer just described!)

It’s no coincidence that the world “laborious” gets repeated use in the Preface.

There are three main reasons why people obfuscate.

1- To confuse and avoid an issue. This is what kids, politicians and philanderers all default into when asked, respectively: “Who took the cookie from the cookie jar?” “Who took the money from the cookie jar?” “Who poked the cookie in the neighbor’s cookie jar?” This isn’t Schopenhauer’s case. He is genuinely trying to EXPLAIN an issue (how to approach life in this world) even if his own words defeat him at every turn.

2- Out of insanity. The obfuscator might be mentally ill and their confusing comments are the true reflection of a malfunctioning brain. I’m not a hundred percent sure this doesn’t apply to Schopenhauer, but let’s suppose it’s 3:

3- To sound fucking smart. The thing about philosophical obfuscations (as opposed to the usage of idiotic jargon) is that it DOES demonstrate intelligence. It takes big brains gooey with grey matter to complicate things like Schopenhauer does. But why is it that philosophical writers often coat their most brilliant thoughts with the murkiest of sentences? Because if you’re a great thinker and your thoughts are understandable, no one will find you guilty of philosophy. At best, you’ll have a folksy sort of wisdom, or lead a cult. Also, no one will excuse your questionable grooming habits, and no one will give you tenure. Tenure was in Schopenhauer’s mind early in his 40s, when he tried to make it in the competitive world of German academia- only to find that the couple of students who showed up to his classes had no clue what he was going on about. Schopenhauer dropped out of the system unhappily.

He had been too incomprehensible for his own good. The fools!

POST-SCRIPT:

There IS a pleasure in the untangling of obfuscation that is probably best recognized by the gamer who has just solved a tough puzzle, or by that nearly-extinct sailor who still delights in the expertise of knotting and unknotting. So, onto the first volume of “The World as Will and Idea”! (Or “Representation,” Or “Presentation,” depending who you ask.)

Love Don’t Do Binaries : David Mazzucchelli – “Asterios Polyp”

David Mazzuchelli had allied himself with Frank Miller for seminal graphic novels “Daredevil : Born Again” and “Batman : Year One,” but it wasn’t until “Asterios Polyp” that he won real acclaim as a solo creator. “Asterios Polyp” won any number of Harvey and Eisner Awards, and the benevolent attention of mainstream media in 2009. That last part isn’t surprising, since it indulges in a couple of cliches that cling close to “literary fiction,” in that comforting Philip Roth mold. The most prominent of all: The mired-in-ennui middle aged college professor who hooks up with the sexy, unfathomably younger disciple. (Want variety? Instead of the usual English professor, Asterios Polyp teaches architecture.) For a similar beam supporting a different graphic structure, see Paul Pope’s “The Ballad of Doctor Richardson.”) BUT this is one of the most daring achievements of the form, ambitiously intelligent in ways that novelists of more “cache” rarely reach for.

ABOVE: Men blue, women pink. Men like geometry, women like to nag. Heteronormativity: The Comic.

Let’s move on from the negative quibbling to the positive raving. There may be a few “fancy lit” cliches in the tale of Polyp, but it’s hard not to be awed by the way Mazzuchelli tackles endlessly complex ideas from a visual point of view – and manages to prove that “negative” and “positive” are false, or at least insufficient, dualities. In fact, the novel constantly explodes the neat, “rational” geometrical reasoning to which a philosophical architect (of Greek descent, no less) naturally would  pay homage. Reality keeps evading Polyp’s comprehension because, like most of us this side of Mazzuchelli, he’s accustomed to function within the easy dichotomies of Religion and its nephew, Philosophy: good vs. evil; fate vs. free will; nurture vs. nature. Mazzuchelli exposes their absurdities and insufficiencies time and again. It’s pretty simple and woefully inaccurate to pit “the heart” against “the brain” as we often do. The human body has something like 76 other organs: Our love for binary systems left them out of the conversation.

Ignazio: “Why must choice always lie along a linear spectrum, with two poles, instead of, say, among a sphere of possibilities?”

Asterios: “Duality is just a convenient organizing principle. By choosing two aspects of a subject which appear to be in opposition, each can be examined in light of the other, in order to better illuminate the entire subject.”

Ignazio: “As long as one doesn’t mistake the system for REALITY.”

ABOVE: “Don’t look now but that guy on the corner is being all abstract.”

RATING: Near MASTERPIECE!!!

Arthur Machen – “The White People and Other Weird Tales”

ABOVE: Damned white people, always being demonic and stuff.

Guillermo del Toro‘s influences are varied enough that it doesn’t feel odd for him to be a big fan of Arthur Machen ; he provides an introduction to Penguin Classics’ selection of Machen’s stories, “The White People and Other Weird Stories.” The intro is a fairly standard contextual history of “weird fiction,” with some cool bio bits: Did you know Machen was the celebrated, (though badly renumerated) translator of Casanova’s memoirs and Marguerite de Navarre’s “Heptameron”? That Machen’s wholly made up story about angels aiding British soldiers during the Battle of Mons in 1914 got mistaken by the gullible for a factual account that had been “covered up by the government”? (Much to Machen’s bemusement.)

“The White People” contains Machen’s best stories: the titular one, “The Inmost Light,””The Novel of the White Powder,” “The Novel of the Black Seal” (as in Apocalyptic seal, not as in the barking pinniped). They’re all fine trips by themselves, but potential ODs when taken in bulk. That’s because their rigid structure rarely varies: some gentlemen meet; they discuss odd events from newspapers or documents; some mysterious item from a sinister culture is produced; then some final, ambigous, indescribable thing happens. And by indescribable I mean that Machen demurs in his story-telling obligations. Evidence from this volume: “I heard bursting from his lips the secrets of the underworld, and the word of dread, “Ishakshar,” the signification of which I must be excused from giving.” Sure, you’re excused, no need to tell us THE COOL PART!

Machen incurs in all of the sins from “The Great God Pan” over and over again. Add to them truly overwrought diction: “I have seen once or twice a laden ’bus bound thitherwards.” Machen is not from the 1700s; “Bound thitherwards” should have made his eyebrows temporarily migrate in a northerly direction. Or enjoy this other line:

“You interest me intensely,” said Phillipps. “Would you mind continuing your story? The circumstance you have mentioned seems to me of the most inexplicable character, and I thirst for an elucidation.”

That’s a howler. But take this moment:

“I will not weary you with a description of the savage desolation of that tract of country, a tract of utterest loneliness, of bare green hills dotted over with grey limestone boulders, worn by the ravages of time into fantastic semblances of men and beasts.” It’s a perfect summary of Machen’s syle, its flaws and triumphs in one sentence. He begins with that stiff, overly polite narration – then he can’t help but give us the very description we have JUST been told we weren’t going to get – and yet in the end he achieves enough evocative eeriness to disturb us anyway.

RATING: GOOD ENOUGH for me, COOL! for Guillermo del Toro.

ABOVE: Don’t look now, Guillermo, but the white people are photobombing you.

 

Twice Shy : Fyodor Dostoyevsky – “The Double”

ABOVE: I knew you were double when I met you.

The doppelgängers of German folklore; the mischievous menaechmi in Plautus, or in Shakespeare’s “The Comedy of Errors”; the Martin Guerres of “The Two Dianas”; the Victorian Jekylls and Hydes. The human is always splitting into two, ( a rather conservative number.) “The Double” is Fyodor Dostoevsky’s second novella, ( after “Poor Folk”) and it’s a noticeable forward leap that uses Nikolai Gogol’s deadpan satires “The Nose” and “The Overcoat” as inspirational springboards. The plot, (easy enough to guess) finds a shy, undistinguished clerk named Golyadkin confronted with an identical, though far more assertive, look-alike (Golyadkin Jr.) whose unexplained presence goes unquestioned by all except by our ineffective hero.

“Our hero” is how Dostoevsky sardonically refers to Golyadkin,  but this is a hero that undergoes no quest; Dostoevsky as the narrator often demurs that he’s not quite Homer or Pushkin, and this is no epic. Golyadkin Sr. is too much of a nothing to even count as an anti-hero. His typical reaction to the possibility of conflict: “He made up his mind that it was better to keep quiet, not to open his lips, and to show that he was ‘all right,’ that he was ‘like every one else,’ and that his position, as far as he could see, was quite a proper one.”

He frequently fails at this propriety, turning into what in current parlance would be deemed a hot mess: “He felt that if he stammered all would be lost at once. And so it turned out – he stammered and floundered . . . floundering, he blushed crimson; blushing, he was overcome with confusion. In his confusion he raised his eyes; raising his eyes he looked about him; looking about him – he almost swooned.”

Golyadkin is a sketch of the personality type that Dostoevsky would soon examine with considerable less humor in “Notes from the Underground”: socially awkward, mired in constant hesitation, shyness, self-doubt. Here’s the poor clerk’s internal monologue as he tries to crash a cool party:

Mr. Golyadkin saw all this through the little window; in two steps he was at the door and had already opened it. “Should he go in or not? Come, should he or not? I’ll go in . . . why not? to the bold all ways lie open!” Reassuring himself in this way, our hero suddenly and quite unexpectedly retreated behind the screen. “No,” he thought.

He berates himself:

“You silly fool, you silly old Golyadkin – silly fool of a surname!”

I don’t know any Russian beyond “nyet”, “tovarich”, and “sputnik” (thanks a lot, James Bond movies!), but I’m going to guess that the name “Golyadkin” contains some pun the translator, (the ever influential Constance Garnett) doesn’t deal with (something like Mr. Halfaman, perhaps?) No ditz on the late Garnett, (whose epochal translations from the Russian pretty much forced Dostoevsky, Tolstoy and Chekhov into the Anglo-American consciousness.)

Above: They’re trying really hard not to make eye contact while they pee.

P. S.: “The Double” was turned by Richard Aoyade into a 2013 movie with Jesse Eisenberg. By abandoning plot specifics, Aoyade creates a little story about alienation that is a little too Eastern-Bloc-in-the-70s to say much about the Golyadkins in today’s cubicles, (a lost opportunity)  – but still marks Aoyade as one of today’s up-and-coming auteurs. (He’s Moss from “The IT Crowd,” if you didn’t know.)

ABOVE: Auteur.

 

The Unbearable Lightness of Smurfing : Peyo – “The Smurfs”

I grew up calling them “Los Pitufos.” When Belgian cartoonist Peyo created them in the late ’50s, they were called “Les Schtroumpfs.” In Germany, they’re Schlumpf. In Italy, they’re Puffi. In Israel, they’re Ha-Dardasim. In Japan, they’re Sumafu. You probably know them as The Smurfs, and possibly hate them a little bit, depending on whether you refer to the movies with Katy Perry as Smurfette or the old Hanna-Barbera cartoon.

ABOVE: Smurfy smurfing smurfers!

I recently tried reading a few of the re-published Smurfs albums. The Smurfs were a lot flatter in character than I remembered. It’s essentially one anonymous guy talking to himself solipsistically in rhythms that make verbal wit an impossibility: in Smurfland, every line is reduced to the same smurfing smurf! If that sounds harsh, consider that when the comic wants to create “characters”, it takes the baseline Smurf and gives it exactly ONE trait. Therefore, the average Smurfs is practically trait-less! The Smurf design itself is cute enough to justify nearly 70 years of popularity; but the stories I read were real light-weights, aimed squarely at children, and I didn’t feel any of the adult pleasures that make something like “Asterix” an all-ages proposition.

RATING: COOL! for kids, SHRUG for adults