James Wood, “Human, All Too Inhuman” & “Tell Me How Does it Feel

“HUMAN, ALL TOO INHUMAN” – August 30, 2001 – New Republic

Taking its title from the first work of aphorisms by Nietzsche (Human, All Too Human), James Wood’s review of Zadie Smith’s first novel, White Teeth, is most famous for its coinage of the term “hysterical realism” (a term of dubious value in any case, but especially, I think, because he coins it in reviewing a female novelist). Wood begins by diagnosing a “hardening genre” of novel in the tradition of Charles Dickens:

A genre is hardening. It is becoming easy to describe the contemporary idea of the “big, ambitious novel.” Familial resemblances are asserting themselves, and a parent can be named: he is Dickens. Such recent novels as The Ground Beneath Her Feet, Mason & Dixon, Underworld, Infinite Jest, and now White Teeth overlap rather as the pages of an atlas expire into each other at their edges. A landscape is disclosed–lively and varied and brightly marked, but riven by dead gullies.

(The image of the atlas here would make a fascinating comparison with David Mitchell… It’s so close to the goal of that book that one almost wonders if it was his inspiration!)

The big contemporary novel is a perpetual-motion machine that appears to have been embarrassed into velocity. It seems to want to abolish stillness, as if ashamed of silence–as it were, a criminal running endless charity marathons. Stories and sub-stories sprout on every page, as these novels continually flourish their glamorous congestion. Inseparable from this culture of permanent storytelling is the pursuit of vitality at all costs. Indeed, vitality is storytelling, as far as these books are concerned.

Creating an imaginary description of a novel culled from many styles, James Wood jokes about improbable names like Toby Awknotuby (perhaps as in Pynchon), twins in Delhi with the same “genital mutilation” (perhaps as in Rushdie), the cult study of Wordsworth by Hell’s Angels (perhaps as in DeLillo), and weird character traits that occurred at specific moments in history (perhaps as in David Foster Wallace). The problem with this for Wood is that it occurs before the character has “done a thing, or thought a thought!”

Zadie Smith is added to this tradition because of her own twins, “silly acronym[s],” and farfetched scientific claptrap. “This is not magical realism,” Wood famously says, “It is hysterical realism.”

“Storytelling has become a kind of grammar in these novels; it is how they structure and drive themselves on. The conventions of realism are not being abolished but, on the contrary, exhausted, and overworked. Appropriately, then, objections [by whom?] are not made at the level of verisimilitude, but at the level of morality [oh dear]: this style of writing is not to be faulted because it lacks reality–the usual charge against botched realism–but because it seems evasive of reality while borrowing from realism itself. It is not a cock-up, but a cover-up.

Underworld’s “calm profusion” has “a soothing sense that it might never have to end, that another thousand or two thousand pages might easily be added.” This fearful continuity (what I want to consider as vital to seriality and faceting), conceals a sort of mindlessness for Wood, as he reveals when he puns on the “lights are on, but nobody’s home” cliche: “Bright lights are taken as evidence of habitation.”

What are these stories evading? One of the awkwardnesses evaded is precisely an awkwardness about the possibility of novelistic storytelling. This in turn has to do with an awkwardness about character and the representation of character… they clothe real people who could never actually endure the stories that happen to them… they are stories which defy the laws of persuasion… what above all makes these stories unconvincing is precisely their very profusion, their relatedness. One cult is convincing; three cults are not.

I find myself rather confused about what it is, for Wood, that distinguishes these recent works from earlier postmodernism, such as White Noise, The Crying of Lot 49, even Pale Fire or The Golden Notebook! This obsession with network and profusion seems to me a hallmark of the fiction of the era, rather than a swerve of the 1990s. Take this description, which is not only a perfect description of The Crying of Lot 49, but also the essence of its genius (which Wood, apparently, does not admit):

An endless web is all they need for meaning. Each of these novels is excessively centripetal. The different stories all intertwine, and double and triple on themselves. Characters are forever seeing connections and links and plots, and paranoid parallels. (There is something essentially paranoid about the belief that everything is connected to everything else.)

What interests me in Wood’s critique is the way that his critique of these novels seems to me to be their very strength; he seems to want to hold to a model of the novel as a fixed, unchanging genre. And it’s not even so much that this is all new; it is rather its return to 19th century convention with a contemporary twist that irks him:

These novelists proceed like street-planners of old in South London: they can never name a street Ruskin Street without linking a whole block, and filling it with Carlyle Street, and Turner Street, and Morris Street, and so on.

In a mode similar to the social realist novel of the 19th century, these novels emphasize forces or ideas over characters, for Wood:

Life is never experienced with such a fervid intensity of connectedness… real humans disaggregate more often than they congregate. So these novels find themselves in the paradoxical position of enforcing connections that are finally conceptual rather than human. The forms of these novels tell us that we are all connected–by the Bomb (DeLillo), or by myth (Rushdie), or by our natural multiracial multiplicity (Smith); but it is a formal lesson rather an actual enactment.

Paradoxically, this is what I find so formally interesting about the novels Wood criticizes. In fact, I think their multiple characters, which drop in and out of lives, are more like a certain kind of realism (we try to make patterns around characters that disappear), and the emphasis on ideas and forces clearly has something to do with a rising awareness of and interaction with systems, technology, and globalization, which the novel cannot help but assimilate and explore. The novel, as Bakhtin points out, swallows up genres and ideas and modes of parlance. Its form of mimesis must change as the world changes (think of Benjamin’s argument about society, or Stendhahl’s mirror vs faceting…) What if the experiment of David Mitchell is the “Time Passes” section of Woolf’s To the Lighthouse taken to its most fecund point for a new age? Wood argues that these characters have no character (I almost think he means morality…):

All these contemporary deformations flow from a crisis that is not only the fault of the writers concerned, but is now of some lineage: the crisis of character, and how to represent it in fiction. Since modernism, many of the finest writers have been offering critique and parody of the idea of character, in the absence of convincing ways to return to an innocent mimesis. Certainly, the characters who inhabit the big, ambitious contemporary novels have a showy liveliness, a theatricality, that almost succeeds in hiding the fact that they are without life: liveliness hangs off them like jewelry.

Smith is ‘not as bad’ as some of the others, like Rushdie. Sometimes we feel sympathy and interest for her characters. “Clearly, Smith does not lack for powers of invention. The problem is that there is too much of it.” What he finally betrays is his distrust of the novels’ surfaces:

As realism, it is incredible; as satire, it is cartoonish; as cartoon, it is too realistic; and anyway, we are not led toward the consciousness of a truly devoted religionist. It is all shiny externality, all caricature.

Wood acknowledges that many great writers used types (I’m yawning at Dostoevsky and Tolstoy as the examples he gives, not only because it’s dull to extol the 19th century Russian writers at the expense of Dickens, etc., but because it’s not even true, especially of Tolstoy. Two writers could not differ more than they do…). The novels he offers as counterexamples include Buddenbrooks, “written by a writer only a year older than Zadie Smith” (yes! by Thomas Mann! In 1901!), as well as the “less great” Nausea by Sartre and Camus’ The Plague. Wood’s praise is that these engage the same “unreal, symbolic vitality” of hysterical realism, but attach it to ‘real’ characters.

Wood’s problem with the style of the contemporary novel seems mainly to lie in its abandonment of the Jamesian ideal of the individual bourgeois ego unfolding in a psychically complex way to the reader over time. The modernist novels he cites are all written this way; thus he implicitly endorses contemporary novels in the vein of Ishiguro and McEwan – replays of realism and modernism, for which I find them far less interesting – rather than the likes of Smith, Mitchell, and the American writers. (Where would Byatt fall, in his view? She does both so expertly…) Of course this is where we arrive at Dickens:

Many of Dickens’s characters are, as Forster [in Aspects of the Novel] rightly put it, flat but vibrating very fast. They are vivid blots of essence. They are souls seen only through thick, gnarled casings. Their vitality is a histrionic one. Dickens has been the overwhelming influence on postwar fiction, especially postwar British fiction [Spark, Naipaul, Smith].

Here again, Wood prioritizes Forster’s ancient idea of “flat” and “round” characters over any new and vital possibilities for the novel (he also folds Bellow and De Lillo in at this juncture). Here’s where it gets really rude:

One obvious reason for the popularity of Dickens among contemporary novelists is that his way of creating and propelling theatrically alive characters offers an easy model for writers unable, or unwilling, to create characters who are fully human… He shows a novelist how to get a character launched, if not how to keep him afloat, and this glittering liveliness is simply easier to copy, easier to figure out, than the recessed and deferred complexities of, say, Henry James’s character-making. Put bluntly, Dickens makes caricature respectable for an age in which, for various reasons, it has become hard to create character.

But it gets worse:

Yet that is not all there is in Dickens, which is why most contemporary novelists are only his morganatic heirs. There is in Dickens also an immediate access to strong feeling, which rips the puppetry of his people, breaks their casings, and lets us enter them.

For Wood, no one cries and has outbursts of feeling in these novels (I feel like we are reading different novels… What of all the tears in Zadie Smith? Or Jack and his wife in White Noise? Oedipa’s tears in Lot 49?) Here again with the priority of the individual psyche:

It is now customary to read 700-page novels, to spend hours and hours within a fictional world, without experiencing anything really affecting, sublime, or beautiful.This is partly because some of the more impressive novelistic minds of our age do not think that language and the representation of consciousness are the novelist’s quarries any more. Information has become the new character.

Wood doesn’t seem to consider that perhaps it isn’t that these authors can’t write a certain way, but that they want to explore the world this way. His horrible dismissal of pop culture and film makes it clearer still that he seems to fall on the aesthetic side of the curmudgeonly Adorno (rather than fun-having Benjamin): “It is this, and the use made of Dickens, that connects DeLillo and the reportorial Tom Wolfe, despite the literary distinction of the former and the cinematic vulgarity of the latter.” Zadie Smith heself, Wood points out, admits that “none of us” have yet gotten the balance of information and character right… yet.

Ironically, the moments of Smith’s novel that “glow” for Wood, that are “better” than Rushdie, are actually the descriptions of “a recognizable English type… receding,” another weird way in which even his valorizations (of an old white dude in a young novel bursting with multiculturalism) seem to completely miss the point of the text at hand.

About her, one is tempted to apply Orwell’s remark that Dickens had rotten architecture but great gargoyles. The architecture is the essential silliness of her lunge for multiplicities–her cults and cloned mice and Jamaican earthquakes. Formally, her book lacks moral seriousness.

Its best moments, for Wood, are again where it regurgitates the formal tropes of modernism:

When Smith is writing well, she seems capable of a great deal. At several moments, for example, she proves herself skilled at interior monologue, and brilliant, in other passages, at free indirect style:

There’s a disturbing way in which the novel seems to be unreal for Wood because he simply refuses to recognize the reality it seeks to portray. He refuses to enter the suspension of belief that fiction invites and entails. Characters “binging in any kind of allusion” might actually be what those characters think, but Wood does not want to be convinced:

Nothing we know about Samad… convinces us that Smith is telling the truth when she tells us that this hot-headed Muslim sat talking about women’s breasts; the topic seems, instead, to have been chosen by Smith from a catalogue of cliches called “Things Men Talk About in Bars”… The language is oddly thick-fingered, and stubs itself into the vernacular: that juvenile verb “squished,” for instance… corrupts… it is bewildering when… she seems to leave Samad’s interior, and watch him from the outside, satirically (and rather crudely).

Wood reduces all of these to the old dialectical binaries, erasing the multiplicity they try to represent: “And so it goes on, in a curious shuffle of sympathy and distance, affiliation and divorce, brilliance and cartoonishness, astonishing maturity and ordinary puerility.” When characters change their minds, there is no Jamesian depth; “It as if the novel were deciding at these moments whether to cast depths on its shallows, and deciding against.” Once more, we’re reminded that this is ‘even worse’ than Dickens:

It is quite clear that a general message about the need to escape roots is more important than Irie’s reality, what she might actually think, her consciousness…This is problem-solving, all right. But at what cost? As Irie disappears under the themes and ideas, the reader perhaps thinks wistfully of Mr. Micawber and David Copperfield, so uncovered by theme and idea, so uninsured, weeping together in an upstairs room.

“Which way will the ambitious contemporary novel go? Will it dare a picture of life, or just shout a spectacle?” For Wood, these are diametrically opposed values, and though the novel he’s reviewing contains both, it shouldn’t, mostly because he refuses to believe that it can.

“TELL ME HOW DOES IT FEEL” – October 5, 2001 – The Guardian

Lambasting Zadie Smith wasn’t enough for James Wood. Two months later, following the 9/11 attacks, in a bizarre rerouting of his theory, James Wood writes another article on the topic of hysterical realism. This time the subheading is “U.S. novelists must now abandon social and theoretical glitter, says James Wood.”

How we swerved from Wood’s first theory, originating in the work of Naipaul, Rushdie, and, above all, Smith in the UK and somewhat well-connected to Wallace, Pynchon, and DeLillo in the US over to a transparently anti-American theory of national artistic corruption that somehow has something to do with 9/11 – after the fact – is mind-boggling. Wood ironically enacts the same paranoid overconnectedness of facts that he critiques in fictions. The article begins with Jay McInerney and Bret Easton Ellis saying they’re shamefully glad they don’t have a book coming out this month. In my mind, Wood should be ashamed he did have a review a month beforehand.

“Will the horrid alteration of America’s greatest city also alter the American novel?” Wood wonders (as if it could not). Stranger still, Wood claims a skepticism about the value of the information fiction he was already preaching before 9/11 even happened: 

“One is naturally suspicious of all the eschatological talk about how the time for trivia has ended, and how only seriousness is now on people’s minds – not least because the people saying it are usually themselves trivial and, as in McInerney’s piece, are thus unwitting arguments against their own new-found seriousness. Doubtless,  trivia and mediocrity will find their own level again, in novel-writing as in everything else. And besides, the “New York novel” – as opposed to the novel set in New York – is a genre of no importance at all. If I live the rest of my life without having to come across another book like Bret Easton Ellis’s New York novel, Glamorama, I will have very happily been what Psalm 81 calls “delivered from the pots”.

He goes on to admit that “there has, of course, been great fiction set or partly set in New York” – thanks, Wood, I really couldn’t figure that out by myself – glad we all have your blessing to agree. These are “already dark books” – how would they accommodate 9/11? Once again, their great value is that “their foci are human and metaphysical before they are social and documentary” – the modernist rises again. “They are stories, above all, about individual consciousness, not about the consciousness of Manhattan.” Once again, too, he attacks the “tentacular” Underworld: 

he DeLilloan idea of the novelist as a kind of Frankfurt School entertainer – a cultural theorist, fighting the culture with dialectical devilry – has been woefully influential, and will take some time to die.

The reviewer, mistaking bright lights for evidence of habitation, praises the novelist who knows about, say, the sonics of volcanoes. Who also knows how to make a fish curry in Fiji! Who also knows about terrorist cults in Kilburn! And about the New Physics! And so on. The result – in America at least – is novels of immense self-consciousness with no selves in them at all, curiously arrested and very “brilliant” books that know a thousand things but do not know a single human being.

This is a lot like the piece on Zadie Smith, and he goes on to attack her next. What’s so bizarre here is the mention of curry and Kilburn even as the insults fly toward specifically American novels – oh, and Zadie Smith. And Rushdie. And… What Wood hopes is that

This idea – that the novelist’s task is to go on to the street and figure out social reality – may well have been altered by the events of September 11, merely through the reminder that whatever the novel gets up to, the “culture” can always get up to something bigger. Ashes defeat garlands.

Wood again deploys a modernist image of backward-looking mimesis to claim an “explosion” that the contemporary novel already explores and values, though he doesn’t seem to see it:

Fiction may well be, as Stendhal wrote, a mirror carried down the middle of a road; but the Stendhalian mirror would explode with reflections were it now being walked around Manhattan.

He even takes on a Yeatsian “Surely, the Second Coming” tone as he wishes this change into existence:

Surely, for a while, novelists will be leery of setting themselves up as analysts of society, while society bucks and charges so helplessly. Surely they will tread carefully over their generalisations. It is now very easy to look very dated very fast.

He cites the irony of Franzen’s The Corrections, which ends with the line “disasters of this magnitude no longer seemed to befall the United States.” More death wishes:

he other casualty of recent events may well be – it is to be hoped – what I have called “hysterical realism”. Hysterical realism is not exactly magical realism, but magical realism’s next stop. It is characterised by a fear of silence.

And for the grand finale, Wood’s hopelessly modernism-loving conclusion:

It ought to be harder, now, either to bounce around in the false zaniness of hysterical realism or to trudge along in the easy fidelity of social realism. Both genres look a little busted. That may allow a space for the aesthetic, for the contemplative, for novels that tell us not “how the world works” but “how somebody felt about something” – indeed, how a lot of different people felt about a lot of different things (these are commonly called novels about human beings). A space may now open, one hopes, for the kind of novel that shows us that human consciousness is the truest Stendhalian mirror, reflecting helplessly the newly dark lights of the age.

Georges Poulet, “Phenomenology of Reading”


“Books are objects. On a table, on bookshelves, in store windows, they wait for someone to come and deliver them from their materiality, from their immobility… Are they aware that an act of man might suddenly transform their existence? They appear to be lit up with that hope. Read me, they seem to say. I find it hard to resist their appeal. No, books are not just objects among others” 1320.

“It would never occur to me to walk around a sewing machine or to look at the under side of a plate [feminized objects!]. I am quite satisfied with the face they present to me. But statues make me want to circle around them… Isn’t it because they give me the illusion that there is something in them which, from a different angle, I might be able to see? Neither vase nor statue seems fully revealed by the unbroken perimeter of its surfaces. In addition to its surfaces it must have an interior… the entrance to a secret chamber. But there is no such entrance” 1320. [think Heidegger and Husserl – the atomization of the object is infinite – also, the illusion of depth – the interface of surface and “depth.”]

“It is this openness of the book which I find so moving. A book is not shut in by its contours, is not walled-up as in a fortress. It asks nothing better than to exist outside itself, or to let you exist in it… You are inside it; it is inside you; there is no longer either outside or inside” 1321.

“I am aware of a rational being, of a consciousness; the consciousness of another, no different from the one I automatically assume in every human being I encounter, except that in this case, the consciousness is open to me, welcomes me, lets me look deep inside itself… to think what it thinks and feel what it feels” 1321.

“It is as if [the object] no longer existed, as long as I read the book… no longer a material reality. It has become a series of words, of images, of ideas which in their turn begin to exist… not in the paper object. Nor, surely, in external space… my innermost self… [the objects in it, like fish in an aquarium] need the shelter I provide: they are dependent on my consciousness… in order to exist as mental objects, they must relinquish their existence as real objects” 1321.

“On the one hand, this is cause for regret… I deliver myself… to the omnipotence of fiction… I become the prey of language… [which] surrounds me with its unreality. On the other hand, the transmutation through language of reality into a fictional equivalent has undeniable advantages. The universe of fiction is infinitely more elastic than the world of objective reality… They are objects, but subjectified objects. In short, since everything has become part of my mind, thanks to the intervention of language, the opposition between the subject and its objects has been considerably attenuated… I am freed from my usual sense of incompatibility between my consciousness and its objects… They are the thoughts of another, and yet it is I who am their subject… I am thinking the thoughts of another… as my very own… I am a self who is granted the experience of thinking thoughts foreign to him” 1322.

“Reading is just that: a way of giving way not only to a host of alien words, images, ideas, but also to the very alien principle which utters them and shelters them… the astonishing facility with which I not only understand but feel what I read… Reading, then, is the act in which the subjective principle which I call I, is modified in such a way that I no longer have the right, strictly speaking, to consider it as my I. I am on loan to another… within me” 1323 [facile, also absorption, feminizing]

“The subject who is revealed to me through my reading of it is not the author, either in the disordered totality of his outer experiences, or in the aggregate, better organized and concentrated totality, which is the one of his writings… what matters to me is to live, from the inside, in a certain identity with the work and the work alone… Nothing external to the work could possibly share the extraordinary claim which the work now exerts on me” 1324.

“Such is the characteristic condition of every work which I summon back into existence by placing my consciousness at its disposal… a work of literature becomes (at the expense of the reader whose own life it suspends) a sort of human being, that it is a mind conscious of itself and constituting itself in me as the subject of its own objects” 1325.

“This astonished consciousness is in fact the consciousness of the critic… an uncertain movement of the mind toward an object which remains hidden. Whereas in the perfect identification of two consciousnesses, each sees itself reflected in the other, in this instance the critical consciousness can, at best, attempt but to draw closer to a reality which must remain forever veiled… since sight, the most intellectual of the five senses… against a basic opacity, the critical mind must approach its goal blindly, through the tactile exploration of surfaces… the material world which separates the critical mind from its object” 1326.

“The critics linguistic apparatus can… bring him closer to the work under consideration, or can remove him from it indefinitely… he can approximate very closely the work in question, thanks to a verbal mimesis which transposes into the critic’s language the sensuous themes of the work. Or else he can make language a pure crystallizing agent, an absolute translucence, which, suffering no opacity to exist between subject and object, promotes the exercise of the cognitive power ont he part of the subject… [the object’s] infinite distance from the subject” 1328.

The first is complicity (union without comprehension), the second is disinterestedness (comprehension without union). He proposes the idea “not of practicing them simultaneously, which would be impossible, but at least of combining them through a kind of reciprocation and alternation” 1329. (A dialectic?) This is “a critical method having as guiding principle the relation between subject and object” 1332.

Roland Barthes, “Mythologies”


My readings of 10 of the sections of Mythologies:

“Blind & Dumb Criticism”: Barthes interrogates the false “inability to understand” of critics as a mode of being so sure of one’s own intelligence and so willing to downplay cultural products as “rhetorical effusion” that the work in question is revealed as abstruse or lacking, rather than the mind of the critic.

“Soap-powders & Detergents”: Barthes examines the advertisement of corrosive but purifying cleansing agents. The marketing of “deep and foamy” creates a paradox of how to make things white: by penetrating a depth fabrics do not seem to have with a proliferation of luxurious and airy foam. This builds trust in the consumer, argues Barthes.

“Novels & Children”: Here Barthes argues that women novelists are allowed to “play” at being writers as long as they maintain maternal and household duties – thus, they must pay for a dose of writerly “bohemianism” with that which will prevent it – conventionality. The world of “double parturition” – children and novels – is a “free space” circumscribed by the male gaze pressing in all around (a womb and prison).

“The Face of Garbo”: Garbo is part of a lost age of cinema when the spectator would lose himself inside a face. The thick, masklike plaster of makeup and unemotional black eyes are like Deleuze & Guattari’s “Faciality” argument. In Garbo’s face, “the clarity of the flesh as essence yields its place to a lyricism of Woman.” Garbo is an essence, an Idea, whereas Barthes says we are “now” (in the 50s) in the face of Audrey Hepburn – a specificity, an Event.

“Wine & Milk”: Barthes argues that wine is a social collective in France, a class equalizer, present at all social occasions, a sign of fire and vitality, too, though it also signifies expropriation and capitalist exploitation. Milk is its opposite – soothing, dense, strong, “the equal of reality” – it is America.

“Steak & Chips”: An odd sequel to “Wine & Milk,” here steak & chips are also put forth as quintessentially French, the rare steak being the sign of strength and maturity.

“The Nautilus & the Drunken Boat”: the boat, especially that of Jules Verne’s fiction, is a habitat, an enclosed space (relate this to public transport in Benjamin). The opposite of it would be an open boat, “freed from its concavity,” no longer a cave but a mode of true exploration.

“Ornamental Cookery”: The “smooth coating” and “glaze surfaces” of food in Elle magazine express the dialectical bourgeois conflict between “fleeing from Nature” (having ideas, making new) and artificially “reconstituting” the natural (bourgeois realism) in the presentation of food. Food is shot from overhead and eroticized as “at once near and inaccessible,” almost like women in the male gaze, or like Benjamin’s concept of the auratic – seeming distant, however near (vs. the trace – seeming near, however distant).

“Striptease”: The paradox of the striptease is that “Woman is desexualized at the very moment when she is stripped naked.” Striptease negates the flesh and innoculates sexuality (much as the prostitute is sanctioned for the good of the family). The woman is an exoticized “object in disguise,” making her nudity the natural state to which she returns by stripping. The bedazzled underpants at the end of the striptease make woman a precious stone, surface, or jewel – “the absolute object, that which serves no purpose.” Only amateur stripteases are erotic; by making striptease public, household, and bourgeois, it is nationalized and sterilized.

“Plastic”: Plastics are alchemical, Barthes argues, turning “greenish crystals” into “fluted dressing-room tidies” by means of a tube. Plastic is among other “imitiation materials,” but the earlier ones sought to mimic cheaply diamonds, silk, “all the luxurious brilliance of the world,” whereas in plastic, “artifice aims at something common, not rare” that will take over the world and the body in its many forms. (Recall advice on “the future of plastics” in The Graduate!)

“More than a substance, plastic is the very idea of its infinite transformation… the trace of a movement… transforming the original crystals into a multitude of more and more startling objects… a spectacle to be deciphered… the quick-change artistry of plastic is absolute: it can become buckets as well as jewels… the singular of the origin and the plural of the effects.”

“But the price to be paid for this success is that plastic, sublimated as movement, hardly exists as substance. Its reality is a negative one: neither hard nor deep, it must be content with a ‘substantial’ attribute which is neutral in spite of its utilitarian advantages: resistance, a state which merely means an absence of yielding. In the hierarchy of the major poetic substances, it figures as a disgraced material, lost between the effusiveness of rubber and the flat hardness of metal… powerless ever to achieve the triumphant smoothness of Nature.”

“What best reveals it for what it is is the sound it gives, at once hollow and flat; its noise is its undoing, as are its colors, for it seems capable of retaining only the most chemical-looking ones… only concepts of colors.”

dir. Douglas Sirk, “Imitation of Life”


Douglas Sirk’s famous 1959 remake of the 1934 John Stahl film and 1933 Fanny Hurst novel changes a number of key features of the story. Lora Meredith (Lana Turner) takes the place of the white heroine Bea Pullman, her daughter Susie (Sandra Dee) replaces Jessie, and the live-in help they meet at the beach and hire are not Delilah and Peola but Annie Johnson (Juanita Moore) and Sarah Jane (Susan Kohner). Instead of selling pancakes and syrup, Lora Meredith is selling herself here – first as a stage, then a movie actress, offering a sort of meta-commentary on film in film (Lana Turner was incredibly successful at this point, and her wardrobe of over $1 million for the film was the most expensive to date). Steve Archer (John Gavin) remains the love interest Susie falls for, but in this version, after refusing Steve for 12 years for the sake of her career, Lora decides to marry him, with Susie going off to school in Colorado to recover from her crush. In this sense, the novel hierachizes the two female leads more as masculine breadwinner and feminine domestic laborer – a “queerer couple” even than the original film. Sarah Jane runs off and changes her name after being beaten by a white boyfriend who discovers she is “colored.” The massive funeral of the brokenhearted Delilah comes after a trip to see Sarah Jane in L.A., where she is acting and dancing. The funeral, featuring Mahalia Jackson’s gospel singing invites us, as Lauren Berlant points out, to see the scene as satire and melodrama, which Sirk intended. It has nevertheless been read “straight” by many viewers since the film’s release. The spectacle of the funeral, more ostentatious even than any of Lora’s spectacles, reveals to the white woman the entire universe Annie has built, not with fame and notoriety, but action and commitment. The film was largely read as “soap opera” and “melodrama” and only came to be appreciated as one of Sirk’s “masterpieces” later on. The opening credits feature the song “Imitation of Life” Thomas Webster (“without love you’re only living – an imitation, an imitation of life), with weighty, faceted, rainbow-colored falling diamonds piling up and filling the screen, giving the sense of a wall of bubbles as the song concludes.

Deleuze & Guattari: from “One Thousand Plateaus”



The chapter is a narrative of the Wolf-Man, who “knew that Freud knew nothing” and that his new name for himself would be “reinscribed as patronymic” 26. Speaking of the hysteric versus the neurotic, “Comparing a sock to a vagina is OK, it’s done all the time, but you’d have to be insane to compare a pure aggregate of stitches to a field of vaginas: that’s what Freud says” 27. (Think of how this compares to making the female body into synecdochic surfaces…)

“On the verge of discovering a rhizome, Freud always returns to mere roots” 27.

“The proper name can be nothing more than an extreme case of the common noun, containing its already domesticated multiplicity within itself and linking it to a being or object posited as unique” 27.

“For Freud, when the thing splinters and loses its identity, the word is still there to restore that identity or invent a new one. Freud counted on the word to reestablish a unity no longer found in things. Are we not witnessing the first stirrings of a subsequent adventure, that of the Signifier, the devious despotic agency that substitutes itself for asignifying proper names and replaces multiplicities with the dismal unity of an object declared lost?” 28.

“It was already decided from the very beginning that animals could serve only to represent coitus between parents, or, conversely, be represented by coitus between parents… [not the possibility of ] the call to become-wolf” 28.

“In becoming-wolf, the the important thing is the position of the mass, and above all the position of the subject itself in relation to the pack or wolf-multiplicity… I am on the edge of the crowd, at the periphery; but I belong to it, I am attached to it by one of my extremities, a hand or foot. I know that the periphery is the only place I can be, that I would die if I let myself be drawn into the center of the fray, but just as certainly if I let go of the crowd… difficult to hold… to take a walk like Viriginia Woolf (never again will I say, ‘I am this, I am that’)” 29.

“Freud tried to approach crowd phenomena from the point of view of the unconscious, but he did not see… the unconscious itself was fundamentally a crowd” 29.

“The body without organs is not a dead body but a living body all the more alive and teeming once it has blown apart the organism and its organization” 30. (the novel?)

Why does Freud reduce all to the One, especially when he seems to see libidinal and other multiplicities? “Let us return to the story of multiplicity, for the creation of this substantive marks a very important moment. It was created precisely in order to escape the abstract opposition between the multiple and the one, to escape dialectics, to succeed in conceiving the multiple in the pure state, to cease treating it as a numerical fragment of a lost Unity or Totality… [or one] yet to come” 32. (Also thing about this in terms of fragmentation and the real!)

“There are no individual statements, only statement-producing machinic assemblages. We say that the assemblage is fundamentally libidinal and unconscious. It is the unconscious in person… types of interpenetrating multiplicities that at any given moment form a single machinic assemblage, the faceless figure of the libido” 36.

“Castration! Castration! cries the psychoanalytic scarecrow, who never saw more than a hold, a father, or a dog where wolves are, a domesticated individual where there are wild multiplicities” 38.


In language, “the compulsory education machine does not communicate information; it imposes upon the child semiotic coordinates possessing all of the dual foundations of grammar (masculine-feminine, singular-plural, noun-verb, subject of the statement-subject of enunciation, etc.)” 75-6. “Language is made not to be believed but to be obeyed, and to compel obedience” 76.

“Language does not operate between something seen (or felt) and something said, but always goes from saying to saying… Hearsay… the first determination of language is not the trope or metaphor but indirect discourse. The importance some have accorded metaphor and metonymy proves disastrous for the study of language… merely effects… a part of language only when they presuppose indirect discourse” 77.

“There is no individual enunciation. There is not even a subject of enunciation. Yet relatively few linguists have analyzed the necessarily social character of enunciation” 79-80.

“The major and minor mode are two different treatments of language, one of which consists in extracting constants from it, the other in placing it in continuous variation” 106.

“One should bring forth the order-word of the order-word… There are pass-words beneath order-words. Words that pass, words that are components of passage, whereas order-words mark stoppages or organized, stratified compositions. A single thing or word undoubtedly has this twofold nature: it is necessary to extract one from the other – to transform the compositions of order into components of passage” 110.


Deleuze & Guattari name two axes:

“Significance is never without a white wall upon which it inscribes its signs and redundancies. Subjectification is never without a black hole in which it lodges its consciousness, passion, and redundancies… A very special mechanism is situated at their intersection. Oddly enough, it is a face: the white wall/black hole system. A broad face with white cheeks, a chalk face with eyes cut in for a black hole… The face is not an envelope exterior to the person who speaks, thinks, or feels [because it helps us read speech]… Faces are not basically individual; they define zones of frequency or probability… In film, the close-up of the face can be said to have two poles: make the face reflect light or, on the contrary, emphasize its shadows… the face is a visual percept that crystallizes out of ‘different varieties of vague luminosity without form or dimension’ ” 168.

“The face is part of a surface-holes, holey surface, system… the face is a surface: facial traits, lines, wrinkles… the face is a map… The face is produced only when the head ceases to be a part of the body, when it ceases to be coded by the body… when the body has been decoded and has to be overcoded by something we shall call the Face… the entire body can be facialized, comes to be facialized as part of an inevitable process… horrible and magnificent. Hand, breast, stomach, penis and vagina, thigh, leg and foot, all come to be facialized. Fetishism, erotomania… no anthropomorphism… not by resemblance but by order of reasons… Everything remains sexual; there is no sublimation, but there are new coordinates” 170.

“The inhuman in human beings: that is what the face is from the start… Sartre’s text on the look and Lacan’s on the mirror make the error of appealing to a form of subjectivity or humanity reflected in a phenomenological field or split in a structural field. The gaze is but secondary in relation to the gazeless eyes, to the black hole of faciality. The mirror is but secondary in relation to the white wall of faciality… [not] an approach based on part-objects… not fundamentally organs without bodies, or the fragmented body; it is the body without organs, animated” 171.

(It is interesting to compare the link between this and racism to Ngai’s chapter “Animatedness.”) “How do you get out of the black hole? How do you break through the wall? How do you dismantle the face?” Whereas the French novel is critical of life, the Anglo-American novel is creative of it 186.

“They know how difficult it is to get out of the black hole of subjectivity, of consciousness and memory, of the couple and conjugality. How tempting it is to let yourself get caught, to lull yourself into it, to latch back onto a face… the wall of a signifier… But art is never an end in itself; it is only a tool for blazing life lines… [not] taking refuge in art… but instead sweep[ing] it away with them toward the realms of the asignifying, asubjective, and faceless” 187.

“The white wall of the signifier, the black hole of subjectivity, and the facial machine are impasses, the measure of our submissions and subjections; but we are born into them, and it is there we must stand battle. Not in the sense of a necessary stage [Kant’s aesthetics?], but in the sense of a tool for which a new use must be invented. Only across the wall of the signifier can you run lines of asignificance that void all memory, all return, all possible signification and interpretation. Only in the black hole of subjective consciousness and passion do you discover the transformed, heated, captured particles you must relaunch for a nonsubjective, living love in which each party connects with unknown tracts in the other without entering or conquering them, in which the lines composed are broken lines” 189.

“Set faciality traits free like birds, not in order to return to a primitive head, but to invent the combinations by which those traits connect with landscapity traits that have themselves been freed from the landscape and with traits of picturality and musicality that have been freed from their respective codes… The uncertain moment at which the white wall/black hole black point/white shore system, as on a Japanese print, itself becomes one with the act of leaving it, breaking away from and crossing through it” 189.

“There are no more concentrically organized strata… no more face to be in redundancy with a landscape, painting, or little phrase of music, each perpetually bringing the other to mind, on the unified surface of the wall or the central swirl of the black hole. Each freed faciality trait forms a rhizome with a freed trait of landscapity, picturality, or musicality. This is not a collection of part-objects but a living block, a connection of stems by which the traits of a face enter a real multiplicity or diagram with a trait of an unknown landscape… Thus opens a rhizomatic realm of possibility effecting the potentialization of the possible, as opposed to arborescent possibility, which marks a closure, an impotence” 190.

“Beyond the face lies an altogether different inhumanity: no longer that of the primitive head, but of ‘probe heads’; here, cutting edges of deterritorialization become operative and lines of deterritorialization positive and absolute, forming strange new becomings, new polyvocalities. Become clandestine, make rhizome everywhere, for the wonder of a nonhuman life to be created” 191.

Compare all of this to hysterical realism, the postmodern novel, the jagged, “cutting” edges of faceting interspersed with ‘faces’ that may conceal but are part of the act of fiction (vs rhizome – only lines).


The refrain is territorial: the bird song 312. “Sometimes one goes from chaos to the threshold of aterritorial assemblage: directional components, infra-assemblage. Sometimes one organizes the assemblage: dimensional components, intra-assemblage. Sometimes one leaves the territorial assemblage for other assemblages, or for somewhere else entirely: interassemblage, components of passage or even escape. And all three at once. Forces of chaos, terrestrial forces, cosmic forces: all of these confront each other and converge in the territorial refrain” 312.

“The T factor, the territorializing factor, must be sought elsewhere: precisely in the becoming-expressive of rhythm or melody, in other words, in the emergence or proper qualities (color, odor, sound, silhouette…). Can this becoming, this emergence, be called Art? That would make the territory a result of art. The artist: the first person to set out a boundary stone, or to make a mark. Property, collective or individual, is derived from that even when it is in the service of war and oppression. Property is fundamentally artistic because art is fundamentally poster, placard… coral fish are posters… expressive qualities are necessarily appropriative and constitute a having more profound than being… not the indication of a person; it is the chancy formation of a domain” 316.

“The territorial assemblage continually passes into other assemblages…. In the intra-assemblage, sexuality may appear as a territorialized function, but it can just as easily draw a line of deterritorialization that describes another assemblage; there are therefore quite variable relations between sexuality and the territory, as if sexuality were keeping ‘its distance'” 325.

“The problem of consistency concerns the manner in which the components of a territorial assemblage hold together… different assemblages hold together [to each other], with components of passage and relay… the clearest, easiest answer seems to be provided by a formalizing, linear, hierarchized, centralized arborescent model… This kind of representation, however, is constructed of oversimplified binarities… in considering the system as a whole we should speak less of automatism of a higher center than of coordination between centers, and of the cellular groupings or molecular populations that perform these couplings: there is no form or correct structure imposed from without or above but rather an articulation from within” 327-8.

“There is no beginning from which a linear sequence would derive… ‘there is growth only by intercalation’… a distribution of inequalities… a superposition of disparate rhythms… with no imposition of meter or cadence” 329.

“Not only is concrete [literally the material] a heterogenous matter whose degree of consistency varies according to the elements in the mix, but iron is intercalated following a rhythm; moreover its self-supporting surfaces form a complex rhythmic personage whose ‘stems’ have different sections and variable intervals depending on the intensity and direction of the force to be tapped (armature instead of structure). In this sense, the literary or musical work has an architecture: ‘Saturate every atom,’ as Virginia Woolf said; or in the words of Henry James, it is necessary to ‘begin far away, as far away as possible,’ and to proceed by ‘blocks of wrought matter.’ It is no longer a question of imposing form upon a matter but of elaborating an increasingly rich and consistent material, the better to tap increasingly intense forces. What makes a material increasingly rich is the same as what holds heterogeneities together without their ceasing to be heterogeneities… intercalary oscillators, synthesizers with at least two heats… The territorial assemblage is a milieu consolidation, a space-time consolidation, of coexistence and succession. And the refrain operates with these three factors” 329.

“First, individual atoms can enter into probabilistic or statistical accumulations that tend to efface their individuality; this already happens on the level of the molecule, and then again in the molar aggregate. But they can become complicated in interactions and retain their individuality inside the molecule, then in the macromolecule, etc., setting up direct communications between individuals of different orders. Second, it is clear that the distinction to be made is… between two group movements… one group tends toward increasingly equilibrated, homogenous, and probable states… the other group tends toward les probable states of concentration… Third, the intramolecular forces that give an aggregate its molar form can be of two types: they are either covalent, arborescent, mechanical, linear, localizable relations subject to chemical conditions of action and reaction or to linked reactions, or they are indirect, noncovalent, machinic and nonmechanical, superlienar, nonlocalizable bonds operating by stereospecific discernment or discrimination rather than by linkage” 335 (FACETING)

The authors consider classicism (lacks a boundary between itself and the baroque), romanticism (lacks a people), and the modern (cosmic, disparate).

“This synthesis of disparate elements is not without ambiguity… Sometimes one overdoes it, puts too much in, works with a jumble of lines and sounds… back to a machine of reproduction that ends up reproducing nothing but a scribble effacing all lines, a scramble effacing all sounds. The claim is that one is opening music to all events, all irruptions, but one ends up reproducing a scrambling that prevents any event from happening… A material that is too rich remains too ‘territorialized’… one makes an aggregate fuzzy, instead of defining the fuzzy aggregate by the operations of consistency or consolidation… a fuzzy aggregate, a synthesis of disparate elements, is defined only by a degree of consistency that makes it possible to distinguish the disparate elements constituting that aggregae (discernibility). The material must be sufficiently deterritorialized to be molecularized and open onto something cosmic, instead of lapsing into a statistical heap. This condition is met only if there is a certain simplicity in the nonuniform material… sobriety” 344.

(The word choice of effacing is interesting here, as is heap – Jameson!). The authors emphasize that this is not teleological progress and

“should not be interpreted as an evolution, or a s structures separated by signifying breaks. They are assemblages enveloping different Machines, or different relations to the Machine. In a sense, everything we attribute to an age was already present in the preceding age… Fuzzy aggregates have been constituting themselves and inventing their processes of consolidation all along… The most we can say is that when forces appear as forces of the earth or of chaos, they are not grasped directly as forces but as reflected in relations between matter and form. Thus it is more a question of thresholds of perception, or thresholds of discernibility belonging to given assemblages” 346.

“So just what is a refrain? Glass harmonica: the refrain is a prism, a crystal of space-time. It acts upon that which surrounds it, sound or light, extracting from it various vibrations, or decompositions, projections, or transformations. The refrain also has a catalytic function: not only to increase the speed of the exchanges and reactions in that which surrounds it, but also to assure indirect interactions between elements devoid of so-called natural affinity, and thereby to form organized masses. The refrain is therefor of the crystal or protein type. The seed, or internal structure, then has two essential aspects: augmentations and diminutions, additions and withdrawals, amplifications and eliminations by unequal values, but also the presence of a retrograde motion running in both directions… from the extremes to  a center, or, on the contrary, to develop by additions, moving from a center to the extremes” 349.


“Smooth space [felt] and striated space [fabric] – nomad space and sedentary space – the space in which the war machine develops and the space instituted by the State apparatus – are not of the same nature… the two spaces in fact only exist in mixture: smooth space is constantly being translated, transversed into a striated space; striated space is constantly being reversed, returned to a smooth space” 474.

The authors give the example of felt, “an entanglement of fibers obtained by fulling (for example, by rolling the block of fibers back and forth)” rather than by a gridlike weaving or intersection, which “is nevertheless smooth, and contrasts point by point with the space of fabric” 475. Other textural oppositions: crochet/knitting, patchwork/embroidery (the patchwork in Faulkner’s Sartoris).  “An amorphous collection of juxtaposed pieces that can be joined together in an infinite number of ways: we see that patchwork is literally a Riemannian space, or vice versa… the quilting bee in America, and its role from the standpoint of women’s collectivity” 477. Here the authors are more explicit about the way in which the rhizome and its relatives are less phallogocentric and more gynocentric.

“In striated space, lines or trajectories tend to be subordinated to points: one goes from one point to another. In the smooth, it is the opposite: the points are subordinated to the journey; inside space conforms to outside space: tent, igloo, boat” 478 (FACETING!)

“This is where the very special problem of the sea enters in. For the sea is a smooth space par excellence, and yet was the first to encounter the demands of increasingly strict striation… [the first] of all smooth spaces… to undergo a gradual striation gridding it in one place, then another, on this side and that” 480. (Dylan Thomas, Virginia Woolf, James Joyce)

“It was a decisive event when the mathematician Riemann uprooted the multiple from its predicate state and made it a noun, ‘multiplicity.’ It marked the end of dialectics and the beginning of a typology and topology of multiplicities… unlike magnitutes, they cannot divide without changing in nature each time… [Bergson’s] duration is in no way indivisible, but is that which cannot be divided whtout changing in nature at each division [Xeno’s paradox]” 483.

“All progress is made by and in striated space, but all becoming occurs in smooth space. Is it possible to give a very general mathematical definition of smooth spaces? Benoit Mandelbrot’s ‘fractals’ seem to be on that path. Fractals are aggregates whose number of dimensions is fractional rather than whole, or else whole but with continuous variation in direction” 486.

I’d like to think about poetry and films as “more than a line, less than a surface” (Von Koch’s curve, made by “pointing” segments of a line ad infinitum) and novels and television series as “more than a surface, less than a volume” (Sierpensky’s sponge, successively and infinitely “hollow”) 487. The first has shape, but not dimension (time!), the latter has dimension, but not volume (actuality). This model renders smooth space as “a flat multiplicity” that “does not have a dimension higher than that which moves through it or is inscribed in it” 488. There are six features of this smooth space, of which the last is:

“A smooth, amorphous space of this kind is constituted by an accumulation of proximities, and each accumulation defines a zone of indiscernibility proper to ‘becoming’ (more than a line and less than a surface; less than a volume and more than a surface)” 488.

This is opposed to the ‘weave’ of striated space: ”

“the more regular the intersection, the tighter the striation, the more homogenous the space tends to become… homogeneity did not seem to us to be a characteristic of smooth space, but on the contrary, the extreme result of striation” 488.

“What interests us in the operations of striation and smoothing are precisely the passages or combinations: how the forces at work within space continually striate it, and how in the course of its striation it develops other forces and emits new smooth spaces. Even the most striated city gives rise to smooth spaces: to live in the city as a nomad, or as a cave dweller. Movements, speed and slowness, are sometimes enough to reconstruct a smooth space. Of course, smooth spaces are not in themselves liberatory. But the struggle is changed or displaced in them, and life reconstitutes its stakes, confronts new obstacles, invents new paces, switches adversaries. Never believe that a smooth space will suffice to save us” 500. (Frost, ice.)


The conclusion is structured as a short review of the previous sections, annotated with marginal numbers to reference the source sections for the ideas. “At the level of pathos, these multiplicities are expressed by psychosis and especially schizophrenia. At the level of pragmatics, they are utilized by sorcery” (fascination?) 506. “Mechanosphere” 514.

Christopher Isherwood, “Prater Violet”


The title of this short novel refers to eponymous film the protagonist (also named Christopher Isherwood) is working on in the years 1933-4 in London. Isherwood drew from his experience scriptwriting for Berthold Viertel’s Little Friend (British Gaumont, 1934). The story begins with Isherwood, still living at home with his mother, receiving a call about scriptwriting from a studio exectutive named Chatsworth and going on a wild goose chase for Bergmann, the film’s quirky Austrian Jewish director. It ends with the film’s success, giving Bergmann the means to move his entire family from Austria in 1935 before the Anschluss. The distant, elusive narrator is reminiscent of Jim Burden (Cather’s My Antonia), Nick Carraway (Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby), or Tod Hackett (West’s The Day of the Locust).


• Bergmann claims British men “marry their mothers… It will lead to the destruction of Europe” 29, predicts the fall of Europe and hints at the Holocaust 41, dream of Nazis 55.
• “This respectable umbrella is the Englishman’s magic wand, with which he will try to wave Hitler out of existence.” 31 (see 29 for the state of Austria).
• Bergmann points out “an inoffensive man sitting alone in the distant corner” and says he is the real eveil, for he will be the one to “do anything, anything to be allowed to live” 42.
• “It was unreal because I couldn’t imagine anything beyond it… The out break of war, like the moment of death, crossed my perspective of the future like a wall; it marked the instant, total end of my imagined world.” 43
• “[Art] is political… The dilemma [of the film] is the dillema of the would-be revolutionary writer or artist, all over Europe.” 49
• “The fog… covered not only London but the entire island; thereby accounting for all our less agreeable racial characteristics, our insularity, our hypocrisy, our political muddling, our prudery and our refusal to face facts… ‘They feed on it, like a kind of bitter soup which fills them with illusions. It is their national costume, clothing the enormous nakedness of the slums and the scandal of unjust ownership.'” 51-2
• Picture is “heartless filth” that is aiding “all their gangsters,” says Bergmann 96, and Isherwood has to convince him “not to send them” to the press, for “He had no case. The papers were being perfectly fair, according to their own standards. You couldn’t expect anything else.” 99
• “This has nothing to do with politics. This has to do with plain human men and women. Not with actresses… Not with celluloid. Not with self-advertisement.” 103
• British exhaustion: “We cared about everything… We had spread our feelings over the whole world; and I knew that mine were spread very thin.” 104
• “As for Bergmann, Prater Violet got him the offer of a job in Hollywood. He went out there with his family, early in 1935.” 128, last line of the novel.


• “Ashmeade smiled his smooth, pussycat smile. ‘Hullo, Isherwood,’ he said softly, in an amused voice. Our eyes met.” 21
• “[Bergmann] pursued me with questions, about my friends, my interests, my habits, my love life… jealous curiosity… ‘Is it Mr. W. H. you seek, or the Dark Lady of the Sonnets?’ But I was equally obstinate. i wouldn’t tell him. I teased him with smiles and hints.” 38 (both examples are male love objects)
• “But there was a little waiter who… had taken a fancy to me… he came up behind my chair and whispered, ‘Why not take the lobster?… I won’t charge you anything.” 83 (is this J?)
• “Love had been J. for the last month – ever since we met at that party…I would be anxious. I would be jealous… We would part, immune, in future, from that particular toxin, that special twinge of jealous desire, when one of us met the other, with somebody else, at another party. I was glad I had never told Bergmann about J… it was still mine, and it always would be. Even when J. and I were only trophies, hung up in the museums of each other’s vanity. After J., there would be K. and L. and M.,right down the alphabet.” 125 (recall that Ashmeade is A, thus potentially making him, in the alphabet, Isherwood’s first lover? This is also reminiscent of Mr. Ramsay’s linear, alphabetical mode of thought in To the Lighthouse – why, I wonder?)

Surfaces & Aesthetics:

• Bergmann reads Isherwood’s “grandiose” and “genial” novel (27).
• “Sensuality is a whole spearate world. What we seeon the outside, what comes up to the surface – it’s nothing. Love is like a mine. You go deeper and deeper. There are passages, caves, whole strata. You discover entire geological eras. You find little things, objects, which enable you to reconstruct her life, her other lovers, things she does not even know about herself, things you must never tell her that you know…” 39
• “Such a woman is my religion” 44.
• “The film studio of today is really the palace of the sixteenth century… There is enormous splendour, which is a sham; and also horrible squalor hidden behind the scenery.” 60
• Lawrence Dwight & fascist aesthetics: “All you writers have such a bloody romantic attitude. You think you’re too good for the movies. Don’t you believe it. The movies are too good for you. We don’t need any romantic nineteenth-century whores. We need technicians. Thank God, I’m a cutter. I know my job… I don’t treat film as if it were a bit of my intestine… The movies aren’t drama, they aren’t literature – they’re pure mathematics.” 66-7. (see measuring distance from starlet’s nose to camera lens, 78)
• “Within the great barnlike sound-stage… stands the inconsequent, half-dismantled architecture of the sets… huge photographic backdrops, the frontages of streets; a kind of Pompeii, but more desolate, more uncanny, because this is, literally, a half-world, a limbo of mirror-images, a town which has lost its third dimension. Only the tangle of heavy power cables is solid, and apt to trip you as you cross the floor. Your footsteps sound unnaturally loud; you find yourself walking on tiptoe.” 71, set as a dollhouse 72.
• Lawrence: “The incentive is to fight anarchy. That’s all Man lives for. Reclaiming life from its natural muddle. Making patterns… For the sake of patterns. To create meaning. What else is there?” 69-70, also 92.
• “Bergmann stands by the table. His lips tremble, his eyes glisten; he is a beautiful young girl on the verge of tears.” 77
• The actress shows her “anxiously pretty mask which is her job, her source of income, the tool of her trade” 77, later she “makes a sensational entrance, on his arm, at the top of the staircase, in a blaze of borrowed diamonds.” 87
• Bergmann protests that Chatworth has gotten an “analphabet to take [his] place” 117 for not working too fast.
• Life as waiter’s recommendations: “It seemed to me that I had always done whatever people recommended… teddy bears, football, cigarettes. motor bikes, whisky, Bach, poker, the culture of Classical Greece. Above all, he had recommended Love: a very strange dish.” 124
His relationship with Bergmann: “The dialogue was crude, the costumes and make-up were more absurd, more of a caricature, than anything in Prater Violet:  Mother’s Boy, the comic Foreigner with the funny accent.” 127.


• “The film is an infernal machine. Once it is ignited and set in motion, it revolves with an enormous dynamism. It cannot pause. It cannot apologize. It cannot retract anything. It cannot wait for you to understand it. It cannot explain itself. It simply ripens to its inevitable explosion. This explosion we have to prepare, like anarchists, with the utmost ingenuity and malice…” 31
• “The whole beauty of the film… is that it has a certain fixed speed. The way you see it is mechanically conditioned… [examples of painting and book]. The point is, you choose your approach. When you go into a cinema, it’s different. There’s the film, and you have to look at it as the director wants you to look at it… he allows you a certain number of seconds or minutes to grasp each one… an infernal machine.” 32 (see camera as living being 80)
• “In the National Gallery, he explained, with reference to the Rembrandt portraits, his theory of camera angles and the lighting of close-ups.” 53
• The film: “Not all Bergmann’s histrionics, no amount of Freudian analysis or Marxian dialectic could make it anything but very silly.” 58
• From writing to production: “as though two hermits had been transported from their cave in the mountains into the middle of a modern railway station.” 63
• Lawrence writes him that the film is a flop among Parisian intellectuals, who find it counter-revolutionary 128.