In his famous essay on Casablanca, Umberto Eco explained that film’s appeal in terms of the interplay—the “conversation”—among its numerous platitudes. “Two clichés make us laugh,” he writes, “A hundred clichés move us.” An apt characterization, perhaps, of the experience of taking in Michael Curtiz’s classic, but it scarcely speaks to the majority of films comprised of hackneyed narrative tropes. It certainly doesn’t characterize Miguel Necoechea’s The Kid: Chamaco, a decidedly unmoving boxing picture which gives us, for starters, such played-out creations as the ghetto kid from an abusive family who sees sports as the way out, the washed-up prize-fighter looking for one more chance, and the do-gooder atoning for a past mistake. Necoechea’s film, a U.S.-Mexican co-production starring Alex Perea as young would-be boxing champ Abner alongside such American stalwarts as Martin Sheen and Michael Madsen, is so determined to juggle as many narrative elements as possible that it never properly focuses on any single one. Instead, we’re treated to subplots involving Abner’s meth-addicted girlfriend and a romance between his prostitute sister and his trainer that leads to a scene of such melodramatic absurdity that it negates any remaining shred of narrative credibility the film had managed to retain.
The Uncanny Appearance of Sherlock Holmes, a performance piece by the North American Cultural Laboratory, does indeed pose many mysteries: Why is Inspector Lestrade playing the drums? Why is Dr. Watson wearing a silk negligee? And why didn’t writer-director Brad Krumholz take more care in crafting this detective-story/rock-and-roll/circus-arts/steampunk mash-up? One conundrum, at least, offers an easy solution: Why does Brett Keyser’s Holmes sport a pompadour? Because it looks awesome.
Krumholz follows the lead of philosophers like Umberto Eco and Slavoj Zizek, who use the Sherlock Holmes stories to discuss notions of semiotics, authorial intent, and linguistic free play. While of theoretical interest, these notions make for less than scintillating drama. The script calls on Holmes and Watson to investigate the deaths of Jeremy Nietzsche and Kevin Freud; a bewigged P.I., Jacqueline Derrida, offers her aid. Occasionally, the story pauses so that the cast can perform rock-and-roll songs or demonstrate tumbling. The songs relate to the action tangentially; the somersaults do not. In The Valley of Fear, Holmes posits, “There should be no combination of events for which the wit of man cannot conceive an explanation.” But I’m afraid Krumholz’s amalgam of disconnected elements has left me rather stumped.
Umberto Eco is 75 and has entered the autumnal stage of intellectual renown when publishers sell his books with his name rather than his actual writing. He is not yet the factory of anthologies that Harold Bloom has become. But like On Beauty, Eco’s previous well-packaged venture into aesthetics, much of
On Ugliness is a collection of quotes from writers— Aristotle, Dante, Milton, Kafka, Sartre—who are even bigger brands than he is.
As a historical survey of our responses to horror, this format is fine so long as you don’t expect the semiotician-cum-novelist to spend much time analyzing these matters. The muddled relationships between ugliness and evil, physical and moral deformity, dread and mockery of ugliness he’s content to leave muddled, pointing out simply their conjoined ancestry.
Eco starts off with a few promising insights. “Whereas all the synonyms for beautiful could be conceived as a reaction of disinterested appreciation,” he points out, “almost all the synonyms for ugly contain a reaction of disgust, if not of violent repulsion, horror, or fear.” Before pausing to wonder why ugliness rebounds in our gut, however, he is rushing us off to pull down another classical author from the library shelf.
The chapter “The Ugly, the Comic, and the Obscene” opens with a citation from Montaigne, who wondered why sex, a “natural, necessary, and legitimate act,” should provoke shame and jokes. Next is Freud’s dubious observation that the sight of genitals is always exciting, even if they are “nonetheless never considered beautiful.” Eco then closes the section with a few paragraphs about Priapus, the minor Hellenistic deity with the major schlong who inspired laughter but was himself “not a happy god,” according to antiquity.
The buried assumptions in these thoughts would be worth unpacking if Eco would spend time to rest before the next stop on his tour of civilization. And a Eurocentric tour it is: He includes virtually nothing here, text or image, that touches on the many examples of grotesque or terrifying figures in Japanese, Chinese, Indian-American, or African art—stunning omissions given that he also harps on the obvious point that ugliness is relative to period and place.
The pleasures of the book—and they are considerable—derive from listening to an aging scholar’s discourse on a lifetime of reading. Eco has always been at heart a Latinist. The numerous medieval texts he unearths help argue his case that figures such as St. Bernard were more fascinated by monsters and other sinister avatars than they knew they should be. St. Augustine and Thomas Aquinas made room for lots of individual ugliness as part of a more comprehensive divine plan.
The book’s illustrations are less parochial than the text, running the gamut from an astonishing, almost sci-fi painting of the Temptations of Saint Anthony by Salvator Rosa in the 17th century to a snarling photo of Sam, winner of the Ugliest Dog in the World contest. Judith’s beheading of Holophernes by Caravaggio shares a spread with a 2003 photo from the Liberian civil war of a man holding his enemy’s severed skull. Nosferatu, E.T., Divine, and Marilyn Manson also find a home here.
Striking are the centuries of writers and artists who have violated norms, embraced distortion, and deliberately made work they hoped would force their contemporaries to shudder or puke. The Renaissance Mannerists, including Michelangelo, stretched classical ideals to the breaking point. The Romantics reveled in perverse logic (“I love spiders and nettles/Because we hate them,” wrote Victor Hugo in 1856). Other French writers (Marquis de Sade, Octave Mirbeau, Georges Bataille) have contemplated evil as a kind of spiritual exercise, testing how much their minds—and readers—could tolerate.
Ezra Pound hailed a “cult of ugliness” as part of a modernist program. This echoed the Italian and Russian Futurist manifesto, entitled “Let Us Be Courageously Ugly,” which stated that “our aim is to underline the great importance for art of harshness, dissonance, and pure primordial coarseness.” The gay sensibility of camp is related to other forms of ironic (kitsch) or militant (punk) ugliness, and Eco at least acknowledges them, even if he isn’t able to effectively separate them.
At times, he speculates that absolute ugliness may exist. The smell of excrement and the sight of putrefying flesh, he points out, are offensive across all cultures. If he had included the writings of evolutionary biologists, he might have told us why this could be so. That he shows no awareness of post-Darwinian science can mean only that he isn’t serious about locating the sources of aesthetic feelings. Hegel suggested that ugliness was a “species” of beauty. I suspect Eco’s latest effort was hatched as a sport of his earlier research, and although both books are handsome and kinky fun, in neither case does he appear to have overexerted himself.
For the record, Umberto Eco is an avid user of the Internet but he’s not a fanatic. “I’ve never downloaded an MP3,” confesses the Italian author-semiotician. “And I don’t surf late at night in some hallucinatory way.” On most days, Eco logs on just to check his e-mail and the weather. In the evenings, he’ll connect to a radio station for a little background music. Once in a while, he’ll buy a sentimental knickknack: a comic book from his youth or a favorite video game from the ’70s. Explains the writer: “I use the Internet in the same way I use my personal library—I’m in a constant state of coming and going.”
Eco-philes know the relevance that the online medium has for the 73-year-old author, even if the public will forever associate him with such medieval-themed doorstops as The Name of the Rose and Baudolino. His latest book, The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana (Harcourt), may just be his most hypertextual novel to date—a sprawling network of mnemonic associations ripped straight from a highly troubled brain. Yambo, an antiquarian bookseller, awakens one day to find he’s lost his memory, unable to recognize his wife or navigate the streets of his native Milan. In an ironic twist, he has retained total recall of every book he’s read and drops literary quotations with savant-like ease. An afternoon snack prompts him to utter, “The distinctive scent of bitter almond . . . ” (from García Márquez’s Love in the Time of Cholera), while a meeting with a friend inspires “Call me . . . Ishmael?”
In the Eco-ian universe, books aren’t merely stand-alone islands to be traversed in linear fashion; they are nodes in an exponentially expanding extranet. To read one book, you sometimes have to pass through several others, accumulating countless references and subtexts along the way. “We’ve been reading books in a hypertextual way ever since Homer,” Eco says. “We read a page and then we jump, especially when we’re rereading it. Think of the Bible. When people read it, they’re always jumping here and there, constantly connecting various quotations.”
On a certain level, all of Eco’s novels are texts of texts—literary snippets (sometimes chunks) synergistically arranged to form an alternate, labyrinthine reality. In Foucault’s Pendulum, a pair of literary editors and an academic conspire to link various conspiracy theories throughout history into a giant über-conspiracy. Feeding various manuscripts into a supercomputer, they create an intertextual theory so complex that it quickly eludes rational human intelligence. (Many readers experienced a similar befuddlement with the novel itself.)
Arranged in three neat sections, Mysterious Flame quickly reveals itself to be as knotty as anything Eco’s written. The novel begins with Yambo unsuccessfully sifting through the debris of his total system failure. Overwhelmed by faces and names, he escapes to his boyhood home in the Italian Piedmont, where he confronts a different inundation—the novellas and comic books from his adolescence. The second section has Yambo delving into this kitsch pool of superheroes, damsels in distress, and cartoonish fascists—relics of Italy’s Mussolini generation. (One such relic gives the novel its title.) In the final section, Yambo suffers a relapse and is comatose, his still-active mind resurrecting early-childhood memories and hyperlinking them to the present.
“Obviously, when you write a novel about memory, you have the ghost of Proust blackmailing you,” says Eco. “But this isn’t the case here. Proust goes inside himself to retrieve personal memories, while my character has no personal memories, or madeleines, and is dealing with collective, mineral memorabilia. He’s working with external material, not internal material.” Eco has reproduced much of this “mineral memory” in the form of illustrations—period book covers, movie posters, and propa-ganda material. “The graphics don’t illustrate what I’ve already verbally described,” he explains. “They have the function of an ‘etcetera,’ to give the impression of the abundance of material that I found in my attic.”
Eco says he structured Mysterious Flame to mimic the free-associative behavior of electronic navigation. (Indeed, his latest nonfiction book to be published stateside, The History of Beauty, was originally conceived as a CD-ROM.) But Eco stops short when asked about the all too real physical convergence of books and online matter. “I’m very skeptical about that,” he says. “The real function of a novel is to give the reader the impression that destiny can’t be altered. With electronic material, you can change it whenever you want. But a novel tells you that life can’t be changed. That’s its power.” Ever the pragmatist, he adds: “The book form can be useful during a blackout, or sitting on the branch of a tree, or maybe when making love.”
In its own way, Mysterious Flame embodies Eco’s ambivalence toward new media. Yambo’s childhood memories emerge wiki-like, each random fragment lodging itself in his hollowed-out identity.
But memory doubly serves as a lethal cocoon, imprisoning Yambo within himself and rendering human contact impossible. For Eco, the Internet is similarly double-edged. “If you and I rely on the Encyclopaedia Britannica, we have a common ground for interaction,” he explains. “But once we start learning exclusively through the Internet, you risk creating your own personal encyclopedia, which will be different from others’.”
A strange critique coming from someone who’s perhaps written his most inward-gazing novel. Early reviews have dismissed Mysterious Flame as nostalgic and at times so personal as to be impenetrable. Eco concedes he wrote it with his own generation in mind. “It’s a book for Italian people of my age,” he says. “When I was in New York 30 years ago, I saw a shop with a sign that said it was selling ‘Shoes for Spanish-Speaking Fat Ladies.’ There was a special market for them! So I thought of my book in this way.”
Eco points out the novel has been a success throughout Europe and adds, with winking immodesty, “We have never been to Troy but by reading Homer, we feel like we’ve always been there. So if Homer succeeded in doing so, why not me?”
No doubt for Eco, books, in all their immutable glory, will outlast any electronic medium. As he once wrote, “Books belong to those kinds of instruments that, once invented, have not been further improved because they are already alright, such as the hammer, the knife, spoon or scissors.” Be that as it may, Eco clearly enjoys the occasional tech musing. Nearly 20 years ago, he compared Apple’s Macintosh and Microsoft DOS to Catholicism and Protestantism, respectively. How would he characterize today’s Internet? “We could say that the World Wide Web aspires to be God. In The Divine Comedy, Dante looks directly at God and sees a single volume containing all the sheets in the universe. God is for him the totality of wisdom and information. But the Internet, while being well-informed, may be too much informed. It can’t distinguish good from evil. So I’d say that if the Web is God, it would be a very stupid God!”
Though a celebrated contemporary of Umberto Eco and Italo Calvino, Giorgio Manganelli had not been translated into English until 1990, when McPherson and Company published All the Errors. Now McPherson offers a translation of his 1979 Centuria: One Hundred Ouroboric Novels. Reminiscent of Calvino’s Invisible Cities, miniature portraits of imaginary places, Cen turia boils the lives of characters down to their most bare and confused elements, each story two pages long. But Manganelli, who died in 1990, distills popular literary clichés as if he’s just set the timer on a bomb meant to end the whole sorry business of novels.
McPherson’s decision to publish Centuria now must be a story of poor timing, a misplaced sense of irony, or an interest in literature as historical artifact. For these 100 stories are all variations on one (not so contemporary) theme: how an author manipulates his characters in a landscape that seems governed by cliché. But despite a jacket photo of the jowly Manganelli facing down a Pinocchio doll, Centuria is a wonderful read for its endlessly inventive send-ups of narrative conventions. Manganelli’s “novels” telescope time so that his characters end where they started, like the ouroborous of the subtitle—an ancient symbol of renewal showing a snake that bites its tail.
Each story inevitably begins with a CV-like assessment of the character: “a man who knows Latin but no longer Greek”; “a youthful-looking gentleman with the air of a person of median cultivation, a movie-goer with a love for film series.” (After laughing at the first dozen of these summaries, you’ll squirm at the thought of how Manganelli might sum up your life.) The action often turns on an anticipated meeting: a man who waits in a piazza for a woman he fears loves him, another man who’s made a rendezvous with a woman he fears he loves, and a group of men waiting at a station for trains known not to arrive. Manganelli’s characters always live at a calculated distance from one another. One couple, not in love, thrives on conversation: “They love each other’s voices, they love their argumentations, the doubts, the perplexities, the exceptions, the objections, the paradoxes, the syllogisms, the metaphors. With a bizarre, mental desperation, they think about a life that does not include the other’s voice. And then, briefly, they fall into silence, since they direly mistrust, and will always mistrust, the vocality of the voice, that vain custodian of the purity of concepts.”
Much the same could be said about Manganelli’s distrust of words. He claimed
Centuria was an attempt to write novels with the air taken out of them. Read in sequence, the stories build on each other, growing increasingly hallucinatory. The men waiting in piazzas for their almost- lovers give way to solitary ghosts who wonder if they’d like company. A being known as the Maleficent Dreamstuff enjoys his job as the embodiment of evil in our dreams. Though he is not as respected as the Nightmares, “he’s never short of work and his standard of living is quite respectable.”
In his preface, Manganelli writes that for maximum effect, readers should be installed on separate landings of a building and made to read one line while the Supreme Reader, who has flung himself from the roof, passes each floor’s window. Manganelli warns, “It is understood that the number of the building’s floors must exactly correspond to the number of the lines and that there will be no ambiguity on the second floor and mezzanine, which might cause an embarrassing silence before the impact.” Less gory but equally satisfying surprises fill the stories themselves. A “pensiv
e and dispirited” man worries because he loves three women at once. “It must be added, however—though strictly speaking he cannot be said to know it—that two of these three women lived one and three centuries before his birth, and that the third will be born two centuries after his death.” In story 63, Manganelli’s predictions for the novel take a self-conscious turn when an atheist metal caster is asked to make a bell to announce Judgment Day. He’s so impressed with his creation that he becomes a believer, certain of the world’s end: “He pulled the cord, and the great bell swung and sounded, loud and strong, and, as it had to be, the Heavens opened.”
It’s not to say that today’s fiction is any less self-conscious, but it’s not suicidal. The old-fashioned story has survived, albeit tattooed with footnotes and photos. So the obvious, sorry danger: Who will read Centuria as anything more than a record of its time, in which a writer makes a 200-page attempt at self-immolation?
I spent my childhood walking through anything shaped like a door. I had read about worlds down rabbit holes and through the looking glass, and I was looking for a way in—which would also, of course, be a way out.
A book is shaped like a door, but it’s too small to walk through, though I sometimes imagined that if I laid my cheek against the book and peered along the lines of type into the gutter or the margins, I might see something that lay outside the purview of the paragraph. I did the same with mirrors, hoping to catch a glimpse of something I had never seen before. So when I first saw a Sim walk into view from somewhere off the side of my computer screen, I thought I’d found, if not a door, at least a window into Wonderland.
The Sims are virtual people. They walk, and talk, and pee, and play computer games, and they do all this with or without your interference, though you can make it easier for them, or harder. You create a family for them, move them into a house, give them a life. A mundane one: They’re constantly putting their dirty dishes on the floor, and you have to make them pick them up, or the rotting food will draw flies. If there’s time after dinner, they might watch TV. There is no story, just the daily business of getting by, and no real way to win, though presumably you want to give them good jobs, more friends, and the “biggest pimpest house” (to quote one online player).
The Sims is the bestselling computer game of all time, and The Sims 2, out this fall from Electronic Arts, sold a million copies in its first 10 days of release. It is at least as addictive as the original. It is also, ultimately, boring; something is missing. Or maybe not enough is. What do you need to make an imaginary world? Not much. Every little girl knows that when you get a new doll, the first thing you do is take off her clothes. In a pinch, she can also do without head and hands. Imagination is the essential element. Props are secondary. Same with books, which give us in some ways more, in some ways less to work with: words on a page. But from them we can build a world.
So one thing an imaginary world needs, I think, is to fail. Those toiling away on CGI dinosaurs and VR helmets might consider this: When the illusion is perfect, it will no longer amaze. Lifelike is impressive because it’s like life, meaning slightly, deliciously different. Lacan says that in early childhood we see ourselves in a mirror and find that self way more impressive than the mess of tingles, aches, smells, and partial glimpses by which we previously knew ourselves. We admire that resplendent individual, and we form ourselves in her image. We are our own wannabes. One of the first things Sims players do—especially in Sims 2, where you can model a face in considerable detail—is make someone who looks like them. (But slightly, deliciously different.)
The Sims like mirrors too. They can practice their charisma in front of them, making speeches and gesturing. A little test tube floats in the air nearby, filling up with blue. When the tube is full, ding! They’re one degree more charming! Sims also like to read. They select a book, sit down on a nearby couch. While they turn the pages, the tube appears. When it’s full, ding! If they selected a cookbook, they are now less likely to burn down the house with a stovetop fire.
Sims can also read for pleasure. What are these books about? Nobody knows. Even if you could make out the words, you wouldn’t understand them; Sims have their own language. Sure, you pick up some of their phrases; you even find yourself wanting to use them in situations where attitude means more than information, which are more common than you’d think. But the Sims actually are talking about something. You know what it is from the pictures that flash over their heads: masked robbers, the atom, bags of money, sailboats.
Simlish, a synthesis of vaguely familiar sounds, bears some resemblance to the composite language of Dante’s demons as described by Umberto Eco.
Demons were consigned to a hodge-podge of tongues after Babel, same as humans. But whereas humans were cast into confusion by their sudden inability to communicate, demons—like angels—could communicate without words. Apparently the Sims can too, because only mind readers could speak a language in which words have no stable relationship to meanings. Sims say the same things over and over—or rather, they make the same noises—but different pictures flash above their heads.
Will Wright, the Sims’ creator, originally wanted to use Navajo for the Sims’ language, inspired by the Navajo code talkers in WW II. Navajo—spoken by so few people that it is harder to crack than a secret code—is the paradigmatic language spoken in order not to communicate. If there was something decidedly strange about using the language of a conquered people to wage war on behalf of their conquerors, there is something even stranger about using it for the kaffeeklatsch of a sort of virtual reservation, suburban-America-style.
The Navajo code talkers had to create words for weapons from the vocabulary of a peaceful hunter-gatherer culture—bomb was egg, tank was turtle. To plot war in Simlish, you’d have a related problem: Deploy sailboat, launch bags of money, please debouch from the bathroom so I can pee. Now, if the Sims produced a philosopher (though this is not one of the jobs advertised in their local paper), what would we see in his thought bubbles? I think I know: other thought balloons. The capacity to think about thinking is the beginning of philosophy, surely. Then, if our Plato had a taste for infinite regress, he might imagine thought balloons containing thought balloons, containing smaller thought balloons, ad infinitum. He’d also imagine the Sims world not as we see it, but from within. We all construct the world we live in: This is our first imaginary world, but also all we know of the real. Our philosopher wouldn’t stop there. He’d start imagining other worlds. Including ours. The Sims know we’re watching. It’s an electrifying moment when a neglected Sim turns to face you, looks up, and waves, a fire-engine-red icon floating above her head to let you know what you have forgotten. “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” she cries. (She expresses this, however, with a scarlet hamburger, bed, or toilet.)
Elaine Scarry, in Dreaming by the Book, demonstrates that a fictional wall seems more solid when a fictional shadow or beam of light slides across it. The magic-lantern scenes that glide over the panels of Proust’s room confirm its permanence. Comparing the fleeting to the durable, we take our eyes off the magician, forgetting that both light show and wall are illusions, projections of the magic lantern of language. In a related way, enclosing a book within a book, or a play within a play, makes the enclosing world seem more real. Walter Benjamin and Baudrillard have warned us of the infectious nature of the copy: The reproduction undermines the original. But perhaps there is no original and this is not a problem. Perhaps it is the likening operation that creates the sense of an original; perhaps it’s the imaginary world that brings the real world to life. Cave artists painted deer so that real deer would come. Mechanical canaries can teach real canaries to sing. Books can show us how to live. I had it backward: The way out is the way in.
Picture a 13-year-old girl sitting at her computer, watching her miniature read a book. The girl sits quietly. The Sim sits quietly. Pages turn with a rustle. The plates on the floor buzz with flies. The need to pee is getting urgent on both sides of the screen. What is happening? Nothing and everything. When my Sim reads a book, sunk in an illusory inwardness, a bit of code flipping the pages of another bit of code, I imagine for her an imaginary life, and imagining this, my world brightens, and I think I can feel what it is like to be real.
But wait. It’s 2004, and the book is no longer the main portal to another world. As I said, the Sims also play computer games. In Sims 2, one of these games is The Sims. With some trepidation, I told my Sim to play it. The game did not freeze. No little test tube appeared, either. But say it had. What new attainment would it represent? Would my Sim learn that she is made of code, that real breasts have nipples, and that real books have words in them? Would she start writing her own (books, code)? Would she figure out a way to win the game?
Shelley Jackson is the author of The Melancholy of Anatomy. A different version of this essay appears in Gamers, just out from Soft Skull.
Everything really, really old is new again: The defining multiplex event of the millennium so far is a medievalist fantasy trilogy, and the juggernaut publishing phenomenon is a pseudo-historical conspiracy theory that purports to blow the lid on a thousand-year-old secret society. (How long before the VH1 special I Love the Middle Ages?) Lev Grossman’s literary thriller Codex transcends the current vogue for the archaic—explicitly linking the 14th and 21st centuries by considering the respective, and not entirely dissimilar, powers of parchment and PlayStation. It’s an artful, populist, conceptually ambitious exercise in what Umberto Eco has labeled “postmodern medievalism” (a microgenre pretty much dominated by the Italian semiotician’s own The Name of the Rose and Monty Python and the Holy Grail). An addictive meditation on narrative addictions, the book toggles between the disconcertingly lifelike virtual environment of a state-of-the-art video game and an increasingly dreamlike dusty-stacks search for a lost, possibly apocryphal Chaucer-era manuscript.
Codex is steeped equally in the arcana of medieval lit and the rituals of gaming; not least for the sake of uninitiated readers, its protagonist, 25-year-old Manhattan I-banker Edward Wozny, is very much a novice in both areas. He can’t remember the last time he read a non-detective novel (despite an English degree that he prefers to keep secret) and is openly scornful of his dorky Atari-weaned friends (though as a former chess prodigy, he possesses something of a latent gaming instinct himself). With time to kill before he moves to London for a new job, on the cusp of burnout but too passive to do anything about it, he agrees to uncrate and catalog a personal library of rare books for ex-clients, an eccentric, aristocratic English couple with scads of money and ambiguous motives. Pure drudgery at first, the task quickly turns obsessive when the duchess instructs Edward to track down one particular volume: A Viage to the Contree of the Cimmerians, an existential travelogue written by a nobleman’s servant in the mid 14th century that apparently contains an encrypted message.
Concurrently, Edward becomes hooked on MOMUS (as in the Greek god of blame, not the eye-patched British pop singer), an open-source video game recommended to him by a programmer friend. His adventures in VR grow out of a dazed, virginal bemusement with the format—he begins by testing various methods of killing off his screen self—but after a few sessions of clumsy experimentation, he finds his game persona oddly immortal, and transported to a New York City utterly unmoored from earthly rules of time and space. Back in the real world, at a rare-book library, he meets Margaret, a snippy, know-it-all Columbia grad student who, like most scholars, believes the duch-ess’s coveted grail to be an 18th-century hoax, but is sufficiently intrigued to sign on as expert sidekick.
Grossman, a book critic for Time, impels Edward’s biblio quest and gaming reveries along improbably convergent paths—there are a few eerie, vertiginous moments when an element from one realm inexplicably materializes in the other: What is the Viage‘s stag-headed knight doing in MOMUS? Before it’s wrestled down to earth by the plot machine, this free-floating, through-the-looking-glass sense of volatility and porousness evokes Grossman’s larger point about the manifold forms and purposes of narrative. Do video games, constantly refining notions of escapism and verisimilitude, serve a similar function today as fiction did seven centuries ago? The Viage, if it indeed exists, would be a revolutionary work for a time when, as Margaret puts it, “a fictional narrative written to be read alone in your room, for pure enjoyment, would have been considered immoral and unhealthy, if not positively satanic.” (Edward’s general reticence and reliable ignorance of the matters at hand are schematically offset by Margaret’s tendency to speak in densely informational paragraphs.)
Despite its oneiric drift, Codex insists on the unpretentiously aerodynamic shape of a page-turner. (Grossman’s efficient prose is faceless and propulsive—clipped, bestseller rat-a-tat with occasional detours into muted lyricism.) That said, the book is somewhat withholding in terms of genre payoff—the cracked code proves disappointingly primitive and the double-crossing machinations are almost perversely low-stakes. If anything, there’s a modest, slackerly charm in the manner Codex fulfills its thriller obligations. You can sense the author’s sheepishness about stepping on the suspense pedal. The closest to a brush with danger is a brief, awkward confrontation on the sidewalk; there’s no car chase, just a climactic cab ride over the Manhattan Bridge to nowhere more sinister than brownstone Brooklyn.
The deflationary approach has its advantages (the ending’s minor-key ambience is haunting and lovely), but the tidy, risk-averse plotting can seem like an undermining of the novel’s rich central ideas on narratology—which might have been more profitably sown in a garden of forking paths, or left to ricochet off each other in an Eco chamber of intertextuality. (Compare Olivier Assayas’s demonlover, a phantasmagoric vision of new media and big money that midway abandons linear storytelling for nightmare logic and a poetic hypertextual syntax.) Still, Codex is unusually generous metafiction. Never better than when its protagonist (and by extension the reader) is in a fugue state of narrative immersion, the book wonders what it means to truly get lost in a story—and keeps an admirably open mind about the numerous ways that can happen.
A mid-career survey of a living artist is one of the hardest things a museum can do. But that’s no excuse for doing it completely wrong, as the Whitney Museum has done with “SCANNING: the aberrant architectures of diller + scofidio.” It’s true, many surveys are awarded to artists who really aren’t ready for them, and may never be ready for them. But Diller and Scofidio aren’t even artists, they’re architects pretending to be artists, and their so-called art is atrocious. This show is inexcusable by any measure—curatorial, artistic, experiential, intellectual, and architectural.
Diller and Scofidio aren’t especially bad architects in a jazzy, pseudo-intellectual, quasi-Rem Koolhaas kind of way. The winners of a MacArthur Award, they’ve built two buildings. One, a so-so housing project, is in Japan. The other, the Blur Building, a media pavilion fabricated for Swiss Expo 2002, is less a building than a fun house. Its main feature is that it sprays mists of water on visitors. Their plans for Boston’s Institute of Contemporary Art look OK, and their model for Eyebeam’s new Chelsea site resembles an azure escalator and ought to be quite the tourist attraction (if it’s ever built). Their best project is their Philippe Stark-meets-’60s-airport-lounge re-design of the Brasserie restaurant, which suggests their true calling may be interior decoration.
All this is fine by me. D + S spice things up and toss in brainy bits of theory. Architecture and design critics eat it up, as do wealthy clients. Things could be worse. What couldn’t, and what’s particularly annoying about Elizabeth Diller, who is 48, and the former student of her now husband, Ricardo Scofidio, 67, is their imitation art. Start with the inflated exhibition title. Notice the pretentious absence of capital letters and the chic plus sign between the two lowercase names (diller plus scofidio equals what? Fluff?), the fatuous all-capitalized “SCANNING,” and the presumptuous use of the word “aberrant” to describe work that is remarkably run-of-the-mill.
In his pedantic, fawning catalog essay, co-curator Aaron Betsky gushes, “Diller + Scofidio are hybrid architects/artists who make visible the technologies of desire and reveal the surveillance of objects of desire” (whatever that means). He repeatedly uses the word “display,” as in “the culture of display,” Diller + Scofidio “display display,” or they “frustrate the act of display.” He raves, “Diller + Scofidio have exquisite taste.” Actually, they and he have conventional taste. Except for one seductive piece involving a section of wall that a Duchamp formerly hung on at MOMA and that has been inserted at the Whitney, “SCANNING” is dead as a doornail, lost in some academic haze where the architects and curators think they’re Duchamp, Baudrillard, Jenny Holzer, Barbara Kruger, and Barbara Bloom on the set of Blade Runner.
To describe some of these works is to see how lame-brained and unoriginal they are. There’s Soft Sell (1993), a video featuring a female mouth (an “emblem of seduction” we are told) orating inane phrases like “Hey you, wanna buy a ticket to paradise?” or “Hey you, wanna buy a vowel?” So imitative is this work that you want to say, “Hey you, ever heard of Laurie Anderson?”
Vanity Chair (1988), which rhymes, I guess, with Vanity Fair, is a three-legged aluminum seat with a mirror mounted on it and the words binge and purge embossed on the seat. The wall label says the piece makes us “reexamine the narcissism of our daily rituals,” when all it does is make us think of legions of fourth-rate conceptualists who’ve done this sort of work better. Particularly slick and sterile is Tourisms: suitCase Studies (1991), whose title is an insipid pun on the L.A. Case Study Houses. The piece consists of 50 identical Samsonite suitcases (one for each state) opened and suspended from a wooden ceiling. Each sports a postcard and a quote from someone like Baudrillard, Barthes, or Umberto Eco. Presumably, Eco’s first name is misspelled as “Unberto” on the Utah bag because the piece is so boring no one could bear to read it.
Condescending and empty is The American Lawn: Surface of Everyday Life (1998), a work involving a bunch of stereoscopic viewers, each with a photograph of neighboring lawns. The label sniffs that this represents “a sinister surface of repressed horror.” Really, it represents people who simply have different ideas about lawns.
The swank, superficial, room-filling installation featuring toy robots on conveyor belts supposedly deals with “themes of surveillance and bureaucratic monotony.” “Monotony” is right, but more accurately it’s about unchecked excess and curatorial ignorance. Which brings us to Mural: a roving, robotic drill that intermittently bores holes in the walls throughout the exhibition. In a wonderful bit of poetic justice, its label unwittingly describes the problem with this entire show as well as the current state of the museum under Maxwell Anderson: “Mural,” it clucks, is about “silent signs of curatorial judgment withheld.”
Amen. Despite the museum’s uneven but quite lively project series and several good historical surveys, this fiasco—coupled with last summer’s super-vacuous Michal Rovner exhibition and the middling “BitStreams,”and coming on the heels of two biennials that were bad in ways they needn’t have been—suggests the Whitney is incompetent at mounting both large-scale shows and mid-career surveys of contemporary art. This must change.
In the opening moments of Uncle Vanya, the disaffected Doctor Astrov wonders, as Chekhov characters often do, “What are people going to say a hundred years from now? We’re supposed to be paving the way for them. You think they’ll admire us for the way we live now?” Within the context of the work Chekhov subtitled “Scenes of Country Life”— scenes that lay bare “the way we live now”— the question sets in motion the subtle rhythms of time that undulate through the play, as the characters look expectantly to the future for some kind of salve (if not salvation) to alleviate their grief.
In the context of the Lincoln Center Festival, which is currently presenting an adaptation of Vanya by the Irish playwright Brian Friel, a version of Astrov’s question finds an uneasy answer in the festival’s other major theatrical offerings: two contemporary plays by Friel, and Robert Wilson’s first U.S. premiere since 1986, THE DAYS BEFORE death, destruction & Detroit III. Both talk back to the turn of the last century— if not directly to the way Vanya‘s characters lived, at least to the way Chekhov wrote them. Friel represents, both in his own work (two Festival productions have not yet been seen for review) and in his milky rendering of Vanya, a naturalism that has curdled over the last 100 years, while Wilson offers the antithesis, famously and frequently sneering that “naturalism is based on a lie.”
That was hardly news a century ago. And it may as well be said of any art form, or at least of any interesting art form. But it is true that the perfunctory naturalism that dominates mainstream theater today has lost its self-consciousness, winding up its plots ever more mechanically, and explaining (and expiating) its characters ever more tediously. Chekhov’s plays, on the other hand, are digressive, mysterious, and lyrically lacking in forward drive. Friel, unfortunately, seems to want to bring Chekhov up to date. He fills in the open questions that give Vanya its rhythm and depth; he turns its delicate humor into cheap gags.
At the end of the play, for instance, when Astrov is preparing to leave Vanya’s home, presumably forever, he notices a map on the wall and suddenly remarks, “It must be hot in Africa right now. Really hot.” Vanya mumbles a “probably” and that’s all. Chekhov makes a musical gesture here, guiding the tempo of Astrov’s uneasy departure even as he underscores Astrov’s surging irrelevance to the household. Friel, however, adds several excruciatingly explicatory lines, in which the characters wonder how a globe ever came into the room and then joke about what Telegin, a family friend who lives with them, might have to say about Africa, thus reiterating the punch lines that Telegin has repeated half a dozen times already. This joking further beefs up the substantial additions Friel has made to exaggerate Telegin into a pathetic buffoon.
Director Ben Barnes is Friel’s reliable henchman. Chekhov gives us a Sonya who says not a word about her love for Astrov once she learns that he does not love her in return, allowing her woe to sift silently into the atmosphere and linger like a cloud over the fourth act; Barnes sends her into the
upstage-center doorway as Astrov exists, and leaves her standing there, frozen, for a good long while, a spotlight on her intensifying as the surrounding lights fade to blue. Drowned out, perhaps, by such bald emotional effects, the actors drum up precious little feeling between them in this cold, cloying Vanya. Indeed, this is a naturalism that can match Robert Wilson for chill.
Unavoidably, Wilson’s work, too, is based on a lie: the supposition that people can experience sound, text, and human movement without teasing out — or at least projecting— some kind of discursive meaning. Indeed, this has been a most productive lie, pulsing like a muscle within Wilson’s most thrilling extravaganzas. Over the last several decades, they have done nothing less than teach us new ways to perceive theatrical space and time and our own inevitable role in shaping them.
In THE DAYS BEFORE, however, Wilson heaps on so much discursive material— primarily sections of Umberto Eco’s The Island of the Day Before— that there’s hardly room to see what his cast of some 20 actors and dancers is doing. The constant buzz of narrative, albeit beautifully delivered by Fiona Shaw, frequently overwhelms Wilson’s stage paintings, and one can’t help reading the images as simpleminded, if abstract, illustrations of the text, a tangled epic romance set in the 17th century, about a man shipwrecked as he searches for the meridian that divides yesterday from today. Headless black figures wander about the stage as Shaw speaks of human carnage and annihilation. Actors in costumes that suggest a cross between samurai warriors and Star Trek villains walk geometric patterns across the floor and then combat each other in a sword fight of clanging pipes, while Shaw talks of barbarism and images of the czar’s family are projected onto fluttering pieces of scrim. The accelerating chug-chug of a train, pierced by an occasional whistle, crescendos through the sound system as three upstage screens show fuzzy black-and-white footage of people who look like refugees, carrying bundles and enduring occasional random shoves from a man in a uniform.
Wilson says in program notes that THE DAYS BEFORE was inspired by myths of Apocalypse: “Shifting between ancient and modern times, visions of the end of the world in the second millennium reflect those which appear in the first millennium.” When matched with Eco’s text, which waxes like a sophomore reading Descartes for the first time— “I would go on seeking the atom to infinity. The action would lead me to the moment where matter would be infinite divisibility . . . “— the production comes off as a pretty pageant of despair, in which Eco’s labored rhetoric is Eurythmically interpreted. Yes, it’s often that boring and that silly. What’s worse, evocations of the Hiroshima bombing and the Nazi Holocaust are reduced to aesthetic elements in the careful construction of lovely stage pictures.
Still, there are some arresting moments: It’s Wilson, after all. A.J. Weissbard’s lighting is never anything but gorgeous and Ryuichi Sakamato’s constant score— droning undertones, smashing glass, crashing surf, braying cows, flattened-out Barry Manilow, wailing cellos, thumping disco bass— lends the production its most coherent structure. A 90-year-old opera singer, Semiha Berksoy, got up in gold lamé, rhinestones, and feathers, reclines on a red divan that glides across the stage as she rasps out Isolde’s “Liebestod” with throaty confidence. I can’t help reading the campy moment as a comment on decadence in the face of disaster, but I rather suspect— and felt in one of only two emotional catches of the 100-minute performance— that the scene celebrates creativity as humanity’s only possible answer to its violence.
The other time my heart quickened came at the end, when a tiny, ancient, white-bearded man appeared. This frail Beckettian figure was so compelling, exuding such presence and energy as he wondered at the company assembled in tidy tableau, that he nearly upstaged all the commotion around him.
But these two scenes can hardly puncture the holiness that encases the solemn proceedings. I have heard a few colleagues describe THE DAYS BEFORE as an unintentional self-parody, trotting out, as it does, so many of the familiar Wilsonian devices— slo-mo movement, Kabuki-ish blocking, flying-in horizontal bar, abrupt stops to crescendoing sound and accelerating motion. It reminds me, however, of the sorts of plays mocked a hundred years ago by Chekhov, in the first act of The Seagull.
Ask Robert Wilson if his latest creation, THE DAYS BEFORE, Death, Destruction, & Detroit III, is postmodern, and he laughs. Then the former Texan quips in a robust twang: “I don’t even know what that word means. Today, everything’s ‘postmodern.’ ”
Maybe so. But with his painterly mise-en-scène, alienated actors, and dreamily fractured tableaux, Wilson has done more to usher in the postmodern on stage than any other living theater artist. His new piece opens July 7 as part of the Lincoln Center Festival.
“Naturalism is based on a lie,” Wilson is fond of proclaiming. Still, he owes as much to the surrealists and absurdists as he does to postmodernism. In 1971, after seeing Deafman Glance, one of Wilson’s first “plays” in Paris, the poet Louis Aragon, then in his seventies, wrote that it was “an extraordinary freedom machine.” And after seeing Death, Destruction, & Detroit I at Peter Stein’s Schaubuhne in 1979, Eugène Ionesco wrote that certain images in the play revealed how, in the late 20th century, we are already inside “the realization of menace.” Absurdists and surrealists being in short supply in America, how-ever, Wilson has worked here infrequently.
“I’ve directed a play every year in Paris since 1979— people there have grown up looking at my work,” the director says wistfully, recalling how, that same year, a series of productions of Death, Destruction, & Detroit I slated to be performed at the Metropolitan Opera had to be abandoned after he refused to back down on plans to insert lighting in the Met stage floor. THE DAYS BEFORE is the final part of this same trilogy and the first Wilson premiere to take place in New York in almost 15 years.
Compared to some of Wilson’s earlier works, this new piece seems almost Chekhovian at first. After all, it runs a mere 200 minutes and uses only 13 actors and four dancers. (By contrast, Wilson’s 1969 Life and Times of Joseph Stalin clocked in at 12 hours.) And instead of Philip Glass’s minimalist music or Hans Peter Kuhn’s stark sonic environments, Wilson has used the somber techno-pop of the Japanese composer Ryuichi Sakamoto.
Does this mean that our most famous theatrical exile is going mainstream? Certainly, Wilson is more interested in working in a wider array of theatrical vernaculars than he has been, especially in the U.S. Last year, his Lohengrin was produced at the Metropolitan Opera. In 1996, Lincoln Center staged his production of Gertrude Stein’s Dr. Faustus Lights the Lights. And the director of CIVIL warS and Einstein on the Beach makes a point of saying that he has directed not just original avant-garde works, but also the more standard repertoire. “I just did Madame Butterfly,” he says. “There was no abstraction there.”
THE DAYS BEFORE‘s biography is fairly straightforward: Wilson began work on it three years ago, inspired by Umberto Eco’s 1995 novel, The Island of the Day Before, which tells the story of Roberto della Griva, a 17th-
century nobleman shipwrecked in the Pacific at the longitudinal point where, as Wilson puts it, “yesterday becomes today.
“Eco’s novel takes a point in time when you see someone in the distance and you don’t know if they’re going forward or backward,” says the director known for slowing down stage time.
And yet THE DAYS BEFORE is only based on Eco’s 1995 novel in the way that Death, Destruction, & Detroit I was “about” the life of Nazi war criminal Rudolf Hess or Death, Destruction, & Detroit II— staged at the Schaubuhne in 1987— was “about” the life of Franz Kafka. None of the trilogy actually puts its subject on stage. Instead, these works refer and allude to them in a tapestry of eerie meditations and strange, stark scenes.
“I like to say that the first part of the tri-
logy was about a man who refuses to die,” Wilson notes, “The second was about a man who refuses to live.” All three parts of the trilogy dramatize their alleged subjects’ inner lives. Death, Destruction, & Detroit I “takes place” when Hess is incarcerated in Spandau Prison at the end of his life. But the play reverberates around Hess’s mind, moving the audience from a Louis Quinze gallery to a Greyhound bus. THE DAYS BEFORE is about Roberto’s spiritual journey; as his life slips away from him, his mind ignores spatial and temporal realities and carries him from a volcanic island to New
Jersey in the spring.
Veering from Judgment Day scenes to natural disasters to the moment the Russian czar is exiled, THE DAYS BEFORE reflects on the world’s end: the text weaves together apocalyptic visions from the poetry of Christopher Knowles, Wilson’s longtime, autistic collaborator; the epilogue of Moby Dick; a scene from Bergman’s The Seventh Seal; and an excerpt from The Catcher in the Rye. By collecting these opposing visions, THE DAYS BEFORE limns the essential doubleness of life, an enduring Wilson theme.
“Heaven doesn’t exist without hell,” Wilson says. “As long as we’re crossing the millennium, we look to the past.”