A mind and a memory
Did I already read this passage? He used that same sentence before didn’t he? What? Is there a code in this text?
I’ve been reading Bjørn Rasmussen’s ‘Huden er det elastiske hylster der omgiver hele kroppen’ (‘The skin is the elastic holster that enshrouds the entire body’ – although in effect, due to the massive connotation linked to every word, the translation is open-ended) and in its best postmodern fashion it resists me and my desire to immerse myself in its story. Not to say it is a closed off piece of literature, on the contrary, it lays it all out there in rich condensed prose. However, it does what it can to resist me by saying “hey! I’m a text! I’m a text and I’m a person! I am a narrator and a text and a person! Only, there is no I, I is just a figment in a circular motion towards memory!”
And so it goes on, until I let go of my desire to establish a communication with it and just let it tell me its story. ‘Cause we really like that, and especially when we lose it; we like to communicate with texts and talk back, in essence often just to test out our own identity, mirror our own desires and fears. But this work, and others like it, just wants to tell its story, constantly trying to counteract what you think you already know about it, how it’s going to play out, what it wants. How? By saying it, and by borrowing others’ I’s and texts, and by negating your knowledge because it is not a You and even you don’t know You. The text, the I, can only present itself to a you and that’s that. What you do is either constantly trying to figure the It out, or just leave. No harm, no foul.
Tro intet af, hvad jeg fortæller om følelser. Jeg har kun tilnærmelsesvis ansatser mod at føle noget ægte. Så snart dette ægte indtræder, vil det nødvendigvis opløses, fortæl mig om implosion, om atomer. Når man jagter en frø i timevis, når man endelig lukker hænderne omkring den, dør den af chok. Og hvis jeg virkelig får dig en dag. Så vil jeg ikke have dig længere. Så vil jeg have noget andet. Hvad. Fortæl mig om forskellen på want og need, jeg tror ikke på, at der er nogen. Hvad er der så, kapitalismen, fortæl mig om kapitalismen, nej, den menneskelige natur, åh, hør her: Oppe i mit røvhul er der sort som kul, oppe i mit røvhul, ca. 6 cm. oppe, findes et punkt, en erogen zone, der svarer til klitorissen eller pikhovedet. Det er fakta. Når dette punkt berøres, forplanter vibrationerne sig til rygraden, hammeren, stigbøjlen og hør her: Røvhullet er dialektisk, røvhullet er en død mands blomst, død kvindes blomst, røvhullet er en fuga, et tema med variationer; følelser derimod; frøer, mødre, ridelærere og følelser, de er den samme gamle historie, sut mit plot.
Don’t believe anything I say about feelings. Far from it, I only have beginnings of feeling something real. As soon as this real comes around it inevitably dissolves, talk to me about implosion, about atoms. When you chase a frog for hours, when you finally wrap your hands around it, it will die of shock. And if I really get you one day. Then I don’t want you anymore. Then I’ll want something else. What. Talk to me about the difference between want and need, I don’t think there is any. What’s next, capitalism, tell me about capitalism, no, human nature, ah listen: It is pitch-black up my asshole, up my asshole, about 6 cm. up, there is a point, an erogenous zone, comparable to the clitoris or the penis head. That’s a fact. When you touch this point the vibrations transmit to the spine, the malleus, the stirrups and listen: The asshole is dialectical, the asshole is a dead man’s flower, a dead woman’s flower, the asshole is a fugue, a theme with variations; feelings, on the other hand; frogs, mothers, riding instructors and feelings, they are the same old story, suck my plot.
‘Huden…’ presents this figure named Bjørn, this persona who experiences in reality an array of confusing ‘realities’, that of a sexual being, a victim (of himself), an offender, an identity(?), where the language and the narration join in in a mix of stream-of-consciousness, repetitions, fragmented sentences and scattered punctuation to convey a sense of loss and confusion, shifting the mood and POV’s every which way. There is ample reference to the corporeity of existence, the anatomy, bodily functions, and how emotions and sensations affect the body. The body has long held a strange position; it is both the most real and physical we can think of, and at the same time because/in spite of its obvious and common everyday functions it is constantly embellished, observed and scrutinized from a distance or functioning as a satirical/comical input to check our masked appearance. But in a lot of more recent works, the body is incorporated at a very hands-on level – the shit, pee and puke, reactions to external and internal factors that set off a chain effect that, although it is a very felt thing, we take for granted and with it the emotions, the mind that belongs to it. When you eat, you shit, and sometimes it hurts (depending on how much chili you had the day before). When you cry nonstop for 45 minutes, you get dehydrated and a headache to boot. And the works I am referring to – ‘Huden…’ being an example – don’t necessarily incorporate the body because of fascination of the grotesque or comical input, but because it IS, and when it is, what and how do you do with it? In stead of spending time distancing ourselves from our skin, our blood and teeth, these works spend time incorporate it in the gorges of fiction. A very complex process because both the body and mind seem to constantly resist the being, moving forward and regressing all at the same time.
Of course, I could choose to focus on the massive amount of sexuality, sex (actions and thoughts) and what that means to societal evolution. I could also focus on the character and his relation/resemblance to the Author, is the author dead or very much alive? I could even focus on the symbolic effect of putting pictures, and at that in the dead center of the book, possibly as a form of legitimizing the linkage to reality or precisely to fuck with the whole notion that a photo would legitimize anything as real. All those aspects are fascinating for its own chain of thought. But when it comes down to it I keep coming back to the circular motion of mind and body towards memory and reality.
If you forgot your book, your mp3-player, your smartphone, your laptop, your magazine, in conclusion yourself, on the Copenhagen Metro there is always an alternative solution to staring at the punch-date on your ticket coupon ’til you go blind. As proponents of happy, smiley customers (adding a bit of branding techniques inspired by the bastard of humanities ideology) the Metro company is kind enough to include literature as one of their services starting in the dark and wet hours of November (who even likes November, it’s the middle child of blah and irk) – I do apologize for the now apparent, even to me, snarly tone. I don’t know where it came from, I promised myself to be positive. Anyways, the Metro Company, in cooperation with Subway Letteratura, has put up a cardboard box (called Literary Jukeboxes) filled with 13 young authored, contest-won stories at the metro stations, under the spiffy name Metro Literature. The goal, as is written on Metro Literature’s webpage, is to “promote the creation and reading of high quality literature by circulating the Jukeboxes and other means and events.” What those other means and events are, is unclear to me at this point, but they also state that response has been overwhelming, and this project will give both young authors a forum for presenting works, and readers the insight in the “latest trends of prose and poetry.” I don’t find it surprising that there is a heavy response to a contest; people love contests, authors need outlets, and it is an exciting way for young people to live out their fantasies in the search of their own identity. And yay for that, and yay for fantasy and identity searches.
However, I chose to remain skeptical for a little while of the project itself, because I have a problem with the believability of the sender and applicability of intention. Granted, for the contest itself there has been a jury set up of authors, a translator, a graphic designer, a literary agent and a publisher. But communication-wise the sender is after all still a transportation service, not even close, in my mind, to a cultural intermediary, and there are just so many easy ways to shoot this “we-wanna-be-part-of-the-trendsetters-with-our-innovative-approaches-to-culture”-ideology down. I love public transportation, it’s a good service in itself, and I am all for the notion of interactive spaces, where urban life shows itself as a living organism. I just think there are fine examples of circumventing the traditional route in public spaces for texts and authors, whose innovative playfulness shows plentiful these days without playing into the hands of metro companies and McDonald’s joints. It causes unnecessary muddling of communication lines and in some cases reception-fatigue. It will come to no surprise that I don’t think it should be in the hands of these companies – not to say they should be excluded, it just doesn’t seem to be a cooperation of the creative and economic forces, more like the latter acting as patron, 14th century style, to the former which gives me the shingles. I will say about the participants in the Metro Literature project that the writing in itself is not bad as such in the pamphlets I’ve read – I just think it is a shame that their stories are placed in a transitory setting with a dubious co-sender, where their contribution becomes more of a read, throwaway and non-contemplatory contribution in urbanity’s many visual and textual offers. And the texts don’t question their place or role in this setting or themselves as texts, so in reality they are merely reproducing the chain of recyclable written material which is lost in and to the crowd immediately after publication. Maybe that also explains my fault in the matter – I can’t transcend the setting/sender.
In contrast to this project there is a project called Ordskælv! It is inspired by and draws information from author Dave Eggers‘ non-profit project in San Francisco, 826 Valencia, and has been initiated by local organization Hygge Factory, organized by the local library and school with support from different other institutions, including The Ministry of Culture. Ordskælv! encouraged young people from 2200 Nørrebro (Copenhagen) to write and illustrate their own stories in 2200 words – performing in essence a collective conceptual work – and in 2010 they published their writings in a book called ‘2200 N – orakler, shawarmaer og bristede fordomme’ (2200 N – oracles, shawarma’s and burst prejudice’). The book is a chance for youths in Nørrebro to use their creative talent in telling their story and show others the plethora of lifestyles and -choices that Nørrebro has to offer when, for the most part, Nørrebro is branded as a troubled part of Copenhagen. Hygge Factory has continued this work in Ordskælv! 2012, where youths write essays about losing a loved one and will be publishing their works in cooperation with artists who will illustrate each writer’s essay in March. As it is a project originating in, and funded by, institutions such as libraries and schools, we must not forget that there is a matter of learning curve to be included in the success criteria. But I would nonetheless deem this to be a far favorable milieu for creative exercise and supportive community than the usual notion of writers in their ivory towers.
The participants make all decisions on layout and content with the help of volunteers who offer a wide field of competences to the youths, from creative writing, to publishing. As such they are actively involved in the collective process, which appeals to me greatly, and they get a sense of ownership that transcends any isolated participation as I would imagine the Metro competition has been.
I love the whole and vast literary field and spend a great deal of time reading – and NO, it is not the same as saying I love to read from every particle of the field and YES, I do think that some of it is real BS and could be chucked in the bin without hesitation. It has come to my attention that thinking and debating literature, its implications and techniques (if not with company, then with myself), is a hazard of studying the darned matter daily. It can cause what I understand from some people damages to the so-called ‘lystlæsning’ strategy (passionate or zestful reading) – as many often like to differentiate between reading for fun and reading for learning. Although I don’t adhere to this segregation of reading, because on the one hand I find reading theoretical works just as exhilarating and mind-forgetting as reading fictional works, and on the other hand, I need to deepen my knowledge of a work that goes beyond the singular work to feel like I gain something worth having, I sometimes tend to emphasize the value of technical reading more (if I absolutely must segregate), so that I forget to or don’t allow my brain not to work as hard at pressing some theory or school of thought down on a work.
It must stem from being brought up within institutionalized reading and “learning” to decode symbols, signs and meanings – I think we have all at one point in our life, knowingly or unknowingly been set to use Propp’s structured formula on fairy tales or Greimas’ actantial model, you know, the ones with the role casting: the adversary, the helper, the hero and so forth and so on, with the sole intent to prove that fairy tales are codes to social mannerism to be interpreted in a specific manner and thus recasting ourselves in specific roles in society either as proponents or opponents of known rules – meaning, however, that the interpretation is not necessarily a fixed structure with one goal to all stories. I guess it can be very comforting to claim that there is a formula to literature – so everyone can participate at every juncture. But studies show that the choices readers make (also the critical ones) are not always in favor of the intention of the formula.
Reading using taught strategies can be a great way of reading a fairy tale, no doubt about it, because it can expose inner workings of fairy tales and give your brain a mental workout – and it is often emphasized that the tools you use when learning to read say for instance fairy tales in school can be implemented on other structures in life.
But just as any other process, it can be too adamant and rigid, and cause you to lose sight of other just as important aspects of literature. Sometimes fairy tales are just good because they are fairy tales, because they come with an excess of cultural and personal baggage, connotations treading back to childhood and diffuse hints of recognition that sometimes are just as well savored affectively. And if literature is just a code to be cracked with schemes, counting alliterations and making mental notes of how many times the author uses the word asphyxiate then literature and reader have lost and the first might just as well be classified under the care instructions section. When we are taught to treat literature as code the general reader gives up if it gets to hard (often because he or she don’t know the background, setting, reason/style of writing etc.), we don’t trust our own way of reading (which can be at odds with, if not completely opposite, what we are taught), we strike out and disappoint (each other and ourselves).
We don’t always notice it but we implement an array of different reading strategies in daily life, and do so without thinking that we’ve learned it somewhere. But when the specific term “literature” is mentioned, say someone tries to explain or discuss a reading, rather than opening ourselves up to different perspectives and contesting each other we become obsessed with sticking to the right formula or saying the magic words. Furthermore, when we say we read literature, we often think of, and glorify, the type of reading that happens as a solitary event when we sit in a chair with a cup of hot beverage by our side, minimal body movement, and eyeballs loosely skimming page after page in a paper book filled with specifically fonted lettering, while our brain zooms in and out of the page and links it to the mind, which in return projects mental images that almost always seem to create immense disappointment when illusions are burst at the screen version.
I have come across many (non)theorists that can’t help but throw in arabesque explanations entailing the wonders of this type of reading and thus hierarchize the relationship between author, work and reader. And in these cases the reader often becomes a passive vessel to the words of the writer of a given work: a sort of attitude where the reader is being infused with the spirit of the previous. But in other cases I have also noticed that the institutionalized reader is being challenged, both from within academia, and outside it: some theories bank on the modern human being so fragmented and isolated that it does not trust anyone but itself – and therefore reading cannot or must not be done as others do it. The downside of that is that the human race is also characterized as a social being and so withholding the need to share experiences and being validated or contested by others can seem counter-intuitive if not downright damaging to our mental health – “no man is an island”, if you catch my drift. But the upside, when we count involving others in the process, is that an array of readings, previously found to be insufficient or wrong have gained some status in a previously closed (dare I say, uptight) arena.
I’m not sure just what I was aiming at with this, if I was aiming at anything, I just like reading and discussing literature and other people’s’ readings.
Literary festivals, what are they good for? Once you’ve seen one, you’ve seen ’em all, you might say. Sure, a lot of the questions revolve around the same things; ‘how do you write a novel?’, ‘how should readers read you novel?’, ‘what is literature to you?’ – questions, whose answers I pretty much know by heart now. And there is not really any grand surprise when authors say ‘well, I get up at 9, have some breakfast, sit by the computer all day, and hope to have written at least 2 solid pages by the end of the day’. If you want to experience something different though, you have to get in between the creases and observe reactions, the digressions that evolve in the interviews outside the standard questionnaire, like observing audience interaction, author reactions to questions, readings and the expressions and tonality of the readings. So the following introductions are some of the impressions I had of this years Louisiana Literature.
Kjell Askildsen/Helle Helle
Yes, yes, yes, I am getting to the festival itself: there was enough to feast your eyes on. Like for instance a p***** off Kjell Askildsen who closed the ball off with giving us comparative literature students, researchers and all of the critics who label him and others as minimalist writers a flogging during the Kjell Askildsen/Helle Helle interview. Man, he really did not like that label at all! Throughout the interview he was laid back until the point where the interviewer called him and Helle Helle minimalists and then he just let it rip (in that 80-something-years old, half-blind intellectual crazy fashion). I can’t say I blame him in a way; labels can be incredibly restricting and especially if you don’t see why this or that label is tagged to you. But on the other hand; I don’t see literary minimalism as a dirty word, not even an intellectualization of some people’s styles. If you can choose to say a lot with a small amount of words, that’s fine. If you want to use 4 pages to explain the color of your grandmother’s living room carpet, that’s fine too – to me, it’s all in the strength and confidence with which writers write.
If you are into dystopia novels you might have found Marc-Cristoph Wagner’s interview with Juli Zeh interesting. The German, Berlin-based author talked about her latest novel, ‘Corpus delicti’ and the obsessive development we see in modern times in any area relating to health issues. And although I didn’t really get a sense of how her novel is different or bringing anything new to the genre of the dystopia novels such as ‘Nineteen Eighty-Four’ or ‘Brave New World’ (maybe it’s not supposed to) I bought a copy that in this moment is just sitting in wait for me. I especially thought of someone close to me, who has her own theories about the possible detrimental effects of the fanatic attitude people have with health these days – and she might very well be right. She was also very passionate about the topic, so I have a feeling that might just translate onto the novel.
Carsten Jensen/Ilija Trojanov
If you are a traveling literary soul with a weak spot for having a critical eye to globalization then the Jensen/Trojanov combo is your bet. Trojanov is the author of ‘Collector of Worlds’ and Jensen is most widely known for his ‘We, the drowned’. They both put great emphasis on the experience of traveling – something that evolved from an exiting sensation to something Trojanov explained as painful if you stayed to long and realized you never did fit naturally in with the locals. They both agreed that a journey was endless and goalless. Jensen amusingly said that the two most favorite places a Dane could be was in departures and arrivals of Kastrup Airport, because if Danes didn’t travel they would get claustrophobic. But Jensen is nonetheless a Dane and heavily involved and invested in Danish issues, such as the Danish involvement in the Afghanistan and Iraqi wars, and in debates on culture and academia. Trojanov’s travelling life story on the other hand is that of someone who chose his country rather than being rooted in one, or as he said “a forced travel”. His parents fled Bulgaria and ended up in Kenya and Trojanov now resides in Germany and writes in German.
What happens when you stick a lodger, an author lacking inspiration in an apartment with a landlady, a woman waiting for her boyfriend to come home from India, and who also incidentally believes her body’s sole purpose is to produce babies? And what happens when the lodger gets the crazy idea that his next novel should be a detective novel – and what better way of gaining material than to put someone under surveillance? Aka. the landlady who is just sitting alone in her room. Well, Kirsten Hammann’s latest novel ‘Kig på mig’ (Look at me) is what happens. Interviewer Marie Tetzlaff was anxious to know just why successful female authors such as Helle Helle and Hammann chose to let their female characters appear strong on the outside and all kinds of messed up on the inside, I’m guessing to poke at the degree of self-portrayal from a hidden angle, but the question was just left hanging in the air.
Lars Saabye Christensen
One of my favorite interviews was the one Anette Dina Sørensen did with Norwegian author Lars Saabye Christensen. He was there to speak about his latest novel ‘Bernhard Hvals fortalelser’ (Bernhard Hval’s Freudian slips). Bernhard Hval is totally inappropriate – your average anti-hero – completely useless in social settings. An outsider, who teams up with another outsider, a race walker named Notto Fipp with a fondness for a diet consisting of milk and bananas that is quite out of the ordinary (who, incidentally is an actual person). Christensen read a scene from the novel, where Hval and his wife are on their honeymoon in Nice and on one of their outings none other that Knut Hamsun falls down with a heart attack next to them. Naturally, Hval a doctor who prefers the dead, must help in resuscitating Hamsun, although he would much rather let him be. The reading was hilarious and the audience responded well to the narrative. Christensen then spoke of his affinity for Oslo, his home town, and ended the interview by reading ’22 7 2011′ commemorating the victims of the Oslo/Utøya attack. It was so hard to listen to that I had to strain myself so as not to cry. (A reading by Aksel Hennie can be seen here.)
All in all, there was an incredible amount of experiences and impressions at the four-day festival – so much so that I would be writing for many days about it if I didn’t limit myself, so I will stop here. This was not the last literature festival I will be going to.
When it comes to literature in digital media there is a lot going on – and especially for kids the playing field is fascinating. But that should come as no surprise since kids really are like sponges and much of the technology seems to be very intuitively adapted for point and play mode. YouTube has been overflowed with different kids playing iPads * taken and encouraged by proud parents (mostly dads) – and it is quite fascinating to see how quickly they pick up on the choices at hand, but I will not dare try to go into the debate on the cognitive benefits and learning curves. Suffice to say that the interactive literature the technology enables often seems to be targeted at children and young adults. Maybe it’s because the combination of reading with the rest of your sensory system is often thought of as a pedagogical tool for learning and when you are an adult the ideology becomes that you read not to learn but to reaffirm or contest what you have previously learned.
My latest encounter with interactive fiction is the wonderful world of Mr. Morris Lessmore (alas, only second-hand, as I have no iPad). I would love to hear from others who have actually tried it, from what I can gather it seems quite interesting.
“The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore” is a short film and app by Moonbot Studios (although of course, the film is only available in US iTunes godblastit) and created through a combination of stop motion, 2D and miniature. Just like other narrated apps Morris Lessmore gives you different possibilities to explore like repairing books and flying through a world of words etc. It is literature in game play – however, the Morris Lessmore website says it ‘reinvents digital storytelling’, which I would call a smart-ass sales pitch, because from what I can gather the app stands on the shoulders of and joins in on the same track as other lit-apps before them. Think of “Alice in Wonderland” for example, restricted as it may have been in relation to Morris Lessmore, but still, reinvention is a big word.
* And other electronic devices, I’m sorry for singling out the iPad, it’s not the only choice out there.