Friday, October 24, 2014

779 Research Weeks 7 & 8

I'm going to be sharing some notes here from my research into literary utopias and dystopias for coursework I'm working on at UW-M for my PhD. Why? Because it's the 21st century, baby, and otherwise all of this will just rattle off of the inside of my head or the walls of the library as I mumble words like "exegesis" and "hegemony" between the occasional forlorn, wordless wail. So gather 'round. Trust me, there's nothing out there in the rest of the internet except cat posters and Facebook invitations to parties in cities you don't live in.

Weeks 7 and 8: Hawthorne Malaise, Pirated Study Time, and The Wall

This is the part of the term where I start to inwardly rebel against the coursework. It isn't just that there's so much of it, or that I'm exhausted from the forced march of reading and writing (there is, and I am), but this is the point, about halfway, where I start to discover tangential things to research and learn about that seem suddenly very tempting to spend time on rather than the material with due dates and grades attached. This is an enormously challenging phase to get through because books like Thomas Piketty's Capital in the Twenty First Century and Marlen Haushofer's Die Wand seem to come out of nowhere and beckon to me right at the point where my ability to read, integrate, and respond to texts has been honed by the semester to its keenest point.

This wouldn't be as big of a problem if I had a less airtight schedule for work completion that could tolerate 10 or 20 extra hours of work on something of my own choosing, or if it coincided with equally entrancing coursework like Frank Norris' McTeague or Herman Melville's Typee, but every once in a while I find myself trying to focus on more difficult texts like Frank Norris' The Pit or Nathaniel Hawthorne's Blithedale Romance and I cave.

Capital in the Twenty-First Century, as fascinating as it promises to be, is a doorstop of a book, so I decided to put that one off for now after reading just the introduction and part of the first chapter, and I allowed myself to read Marlen Haushofer's Die Wand and watch the 2012 film adaptation. Both of these, as my mentor Pete Sands pointed out, are absolutely worth your time if you haven't read/watched them.

The novel has a very simple premise: a woman goes to visit friends and stay the night in their cabin atop a mountain in Austria. She awakes to discover that the mountaintop has been surrounded by an unbreakable transparent wall. The wall doesn't seem to prevent air or water from passing through it, but all of the other physical things, including her and a mountain's worth of domesticated and wild animals, are trapped inside. Outside, the world has apparently ended. There is no apocalyptic destruction or wasteland, only a stark, crystalline stillness. People in nearby homes and villages (which she can see through binoculars) are frozen in whatever position they were in when the cataclysm occurred. Not only is the wall transparent, but it almost seems to make the narrator's vision of the outside world sharper. She can see far-distant buildings and birds which fell frozen from the sky lying on the ground in mid-wing-flap. The grass continues to grow, and weather continues to fluctuate, but there is no sign of any other living thing outside the wall. The narrator explores the rather large area enclosed by the wall and collects a series of animals, a dog, a cow, and a cat, and progresses to write a diary for several years while doing everything she can think of to stay alive and keep her animals alive.

Most of the book is concerned with slow meditations on what all of this means, and what sorts of emotional challenges the narrator faces during various phases of grief and acceptance of her new life. She becomes quite close to the animals and dependent on them to survive, and she battles constant emotional and physical exhaustion that threaten to overwhelm her. She begins to lose track of time and her memories of the world before the wall start to blend together, heightening the sense of estrangement she attains from the world, though she is ironically more intimately tied to the physical world for survival than ever in her life. Without ruining the ending, it's worth mentioning that the entire narrative builds, I thought quite brilliantly, to a single question that she poses the reader--a reader that she is not certain will ever encounter her diary. And here I am, four days later still mulling over that question and trying to piece together what it, and the rest of the book, means.

I finished the film last night as well. While a visual and auditory treat, and harrowing in its own way, was a more or less straightforward and faithful adaptation of the novel. Which is to say that it didn't, I felt, substantially improve on or remediate the narrative. The photography and sound design are both haunting and spectacular, and it plays with motion and texture like very few films I’ve seen from the last ten years. I could have done without the voiceover, and especially the constant intercuts back to the diary-writing present, but the Wall itself and the mountain, and the animals, and Martina Gedeck's performance, were all great. The novel is so meditative at times in the naturalist tradition that I think some part of my brain was looking for a film treatment similar to The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford or There Will Be Blood. Instead of one particular slow-motion scene with a violin overture, I was expecting something distressingly quieter, and aesthetically blunter and more profound somehow. I’m not sure the film captured how frail and fragile the narrator seems for most of the novel, being constantly hungry and sick and exhausted to the point of immobility, and it doesn’t quite capture how intimately dependent she is on the animals the way a film like, say Into the Wild does. But these are minor complaints, it’s still easily better than 95% of the 21st century speculative fiction films I’ve seen, and aside from the intercuts and that slo-mo scene it seems as unwilling to indulge itself in formal tropes as the novel, which I loved.

I’m also feeling a little conflicted about the film because the more I ponder the novel, the more I think it has something to tell us about emotion in the years when generatively (motherhood, fatherhood, housekeeping, family-making, etc) starts to wane and reveal a less-satisfying second phase of life. The argument could be made that the narrator is variously a divorcee, a spinster, or especially an empty-nester, but I think these are all overly-simplistic readings. No one talks about this but a lot of people, even young people, go through acute phases where parenting and family-making become a deep, searing, un-shareable, and shame-inducing disappointment. They realize that they’re not as good parents as they thought they’d be, or that once their children are no longer helpless babies that they’re not as interested in them, or they may even secretly think at various times that their own children are despicable. I think there’s a special intense sort of estrangement that happens when the narrator admits that she has an affinity for birth and some varieties of care-taking, but that when things grow she starts to care less about them. She goes on at great lengths about the personalities of the random pets she accumulates over the course of the novel, but admits that she did not like or care for her own children and cannot remember much about them beyond the fact that they grew into difficult and unrewarding elements of a life she'd rather forget. I found this to be a highly complex and powerful psychological character study and the film doesn't touch on it at all, and that's a shame because I think if I had to say critically what the novel is "about," this estrangement is at the very heart of it.

She never says so, but I think it's clear that this disconnect causes the narrator unendurable pain, so much so that she transfers what passes for a stewardship instinct onto Bella (her cow) and especially Lynx (her dog). Is she making a bid for a second chance at motherhood? I don’t think that’s exactly it, and nor do I think she’s trying to anthropomorphize the dog, necessarily. The note at the end of the novel from the filmmaker mentioned the narrative keenly describes clinical depression, but I don’t think that’s precisely it, either. I think the crystalline “outside” is the key to it all somehow; that the novel is trying to emotionally dramatize the moment of realization that the first phases, the generative phases, of one’s life are over, and that a new, existentially distressing phase has begun, where boundaries permanently solidify in a way that seems unfair and abrupt, and during which many of the promises and hopes of the first phase are pushed beyond these boundaries where one cannot reach them but can only watch them persist and slowly decay in wrenching distance but tantalizing clarity.

And now, as you are very right to remind me, it's time to stop dallying around with The Wall and get back to Hawthorne and my other research.

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