Auto-da-Fé

Auto-da-Fé, by Elias Canetti [1935]. Translated by C.V. Wedgwood. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 1984.

Inside of your head or outside of your head? Where does the real world exist? This is the conundrum explored in Auto-da-Fé, the only work of fiction published by Elias Canetti, winner of the 1981 Nobel Prize in Literature. The book is an intense, lengthy and detailed meditation on the various subjective realities that humans inhabit, how they overlap, interact, and how they conflict and relate to one another. The book is at once touching, terrifying, hilarious and tragic, raising some thought-provoking and unsettling issues about the world-building nature of human thought. Finishing this 464 page book was like awakening from a dream that made me question how much of my “real” life I actually share with others.

The book is divided into three parts: 1. “A Head Without a World,” 2. “Headless World,” and 3. “The World in the Head.” The story follows the life of Peter Kien, a sinologist who lives in an apartment where he has amassed one of the greatest private libraries in the world. As a scholar he is well respected, but he shuns face-to-face contact with others, instead preferring to remain among his books, researching and writing papers that he sends to conferences for others to present in his absence. The first part of Auto-da-Fé takes place mostly inside of Kien’s apartment. The second part takes place outside of his apartment when he is exiled from his home, and the third part describes his return home. While there are a variety of characters that appear throughout the story, the main thread of the tale is anchored in the unfolding of the main character’s thoughts. In fact, the overall structure of this book reminds me of Hegel’s Phenomenology of Geist, which describes the evolution of consciousness according the triadic convolutions of dialectical logic. Thus, in Part One, Peter Kien begins as a self-contained consciousness (thesis), who, in Part Two, is forced to confront consciousnesses outside of himself (antithesis), until finally in Part Three he consolidates these experiences into a tragic Aufhebung (synthesis).

The structure of Auto-da-Fé gives important guidance to the reader. Many of the events in the book are surreal and bizarre, and so the tight structure that Canetti has imparted to his story helps to lend assurance that there is a point and a purpose to all of this strangeness. I found myself becoming confused and baffled by the seeming illogic of some of the unfolding events, but by recalling the division of the story I was reading, and by going back and reviewing the events leading up to each bizarre episode, I felt re-centered and confident that there was sense behind the seeming nonsense. Ultimately it became apparent that the main theme addressed by the book is the nature of human alienation and our efforts to make ourselves feel safe, certain and secure in a world that is too complicated and fragmented for us truly to grasp. We falsify reality by oversimplifying it, and then we hold these simplifications inside of our heads. Since everyone is engaged in their own, unique forms of simplification, we don’t really understand one another. We construct reifications that bump into the contradictory reifications others have built up in their own heads, and though it may appear as if we are engaging in meaningful relationships with one another, in fact we are just misunderstanding other people from within our our own mental prisons.

Peter Kien’s specialty as a sinologist gives a central clue to the philosophical underpinnings of this book. His studies in Confucianism, Buddhism and Taoism introduce us to ideas concerning impermanence, suffering, and the illusory nature of the phenomenal world. Throughout the book, the ideas of Kant and Hegel also recur, cementing the author’s preoccupation with the flux and flow of existence and of the alienation of human consciousness from the totality of the noumenal, “thing-in-itself.” Both the Eastern and the Western thinkers referenced in this story are ones who characterize the world as an idea in our heads, something that is not “real” in the sense of having an objective or stable existence. This point is articulated quite clearly in an early passage that might either be the voice of Kien or of Cannetti himself:

…our being is one vast blindness, save only for that little circle which our mean intelligence – mean in its nature as in its scope – can illumine. The dominating principle of the universe is blindness. It makes possible juxtapositions which would be impossible if the objects could see each other. It permits the truncation of time when time is unendurable. Time is a continuum whence there is one escape only. By closing the eyes to it from time to time, it is possible to splinter it into those fragments with which alone we are familiar. (p. 71)

The way we understand our situation is by fragmenting and splintering the totality of things into digestible and comprehensible bits and pieces. We are blind to the whole of reality by necessity, since if we paid equal attention to all things all at once, we would be overwhelmed. Each thing would collapse into every other thing, and we would be unable to make distinctions between what is significant to us and what is not. Our minds (to use a metaphor from Sartre) are like flashlights that illumine only small patches of reality at a time. Without this “truncation,” one event would flow into another and there would be no distinct objects, events or situations. It is the human mind that chops things up and then rearranges them into the subjective worlds within which we operate. But then we mistake our own subjective interpretation of the world for the only one that really exists.

This theme is illustrated in the opening chapter of the book. Kien is outside of a bookshop, clutching a case in which he carries some selections from his private library. Here he encounters a young boy who is also fascinated by the books on display in the bookstore window. Kien breaks out of his internal preoccupation with his own thoughts to engage the boy, who reminds him of himself. He promises the boy a visit to his library and then goes on his way. As he walks down the street, Kien becomes aware of a voice asking for directions. When the voice receives no answer to its query, it becomes more and more agitated and angry sounding. Kien thinks to himself that he approves of the silence with which the questioner is met. Who is it that is refusing to provide this man with directions? Most people are too eager to speak, to blab on and on, but here is one person who remains nobly quiet, like the Buddha. It is only when Kien is assaulted that his internal monologue is interrupted and it becomes apparent both to him and to the reader that the “silent one, the man of character, who controlled himself even in anger, was Kien himself” (p. 17). So it was, in fact, the oblivious Kien who was being asked for directions, and his silence was taken as an insult by the questioner! Upon this realization, Kien breaks free from his offended attacker and heads home to the safety of his library.

Kien is the head without a world. He lives in his thoughts. His only friends are his books. Other people are just annoyances that distract from his scholarly work. “The greatest danger which threatens a man of learning, is to lose himself in talk” (p. 17). This is because talk requires one to step outside of one’s own head in order to engage with others, and in engagement with others a threat arises to one’s own internally complete world. Later in the chapter, Kien writes down his own interpretation of his earlier encounter on the street. Instead of rudeness, he characterizes his silence as an act of compassion; a way of sparing the ignorant questioner embarrassment. In a following chapter when the young boy that he promised a visit to his private library appears at his home, Kien turns him away, annoyed at the intrusion. Kien resists anything that challenges the world inside his own head.

Eight years earlier, Kien had hired a housekeeper, Theresa, to dust his books and to prepare his meals. This housekeeper, though physically living in her employer’s apartment, nevertheless occupies her own mental world. Theresa imagines that she is incredibly beautiful while others think she is hideously ugly. She takes great pride in her starched, blue dress, believing it dazzles those around her. At work, she is scrupulous in her duties, but she is also suspicious of Kien’s secret activities. She believes that he must be engaged in some sort of “vice,” either murder or drugs, but she cannot find evidence of any crime. She comes to suspect that Kien is hiding a large sum of money, and resolves that she will somehow profit from his wealth. She works to convince Kien that she too loves books, and impressed, he asks her to marry him. The remaining action in the first part of the book consists of Theresa’s efforts to take over Kien’s apartment and finally to expel him from his own home. By inviting her into his life – first as hired help and then as his wife – Kien initiates a breach in the integrity of his self-enclosed, scholarly world.

Theresa proceeds to isolate Kien in fewer and fewer rooms of the apartment, and in response, Kien endeavors to rouse his library to action. He delivers a speech to his books in which he formulates a manifesto of war against his housekeeper/wife. Yet, he feels foolish using oral speech, remembering that the wise silence of Buddha was his most powerful form of rebellion. When he scrutinizes his books, he realizes that even they can’t unite and agree with one another about a course of action. The Buddha can’t get along with Hegel, and Hegel can’t get along with Schelling. Kant and Nietzsche are at loggerheads. Finally, Kien decides to turn his books so that their spines face the wall, obscuring their identities while keeping them lined up in neat rows. The books, thus, themselves become silent. Their differences erased, they become united in support of their owner in mute rebellion against the take-over by Theresa.

When Kien falls from a ladder in his library, Theresa thinks that he is dead and searches the apartment for a bankbook that she imagines must be hidden somewhere. But she can’t find it. It turns out that Kien is not dead, and she calls on the building caretaker to help her hoist her injured husband into bed. Kien, while recuperating, formulates a plan to remain silent, stiff and impassive toward his wife. Again, silence is his form of rebellion. He becomes immovable stone, fused to the floor, and this provokes Theresa into a rage. She tosses Kien out of his own apartment.

The second part of the book – “Headless World” – finds Kien out on the streets with his bankbook tucked away in his coat pocket. He despairs of regaining his library and so resolves to reconstruct the collection by visiting bookstores in order to purchase replacements for the lost volumes. Each night he stays at a new hotel, setting up his book collection in his room, dismantling it and then carrying it to another hotel the next evening. One night at Stars of Heaven – a cafe that caters to the dregs of society – Kien meets a chess-playing, humpbacked dwarf named Fisherle. Fisherle is married to another humpbacked dwarf who works as a prostitute. He calls her “The Capitalist.”

In Fisherle, Kien imagines a mirror-image of himself. Fisherle’s deformed body provokes him to reflect on his own unusually thin, tall body. Fisherle’s obsession with chess reminds him of his own scholarly obsession with China. Fisherle’s relationship with his wife reminds him of his own relationship with Theresa. In Kien’s mind, Fisherle is just like him, and he feels that he has never entered “so deeply into the mind of another man” (p. 185). Consequently, he decides to hire Fisherle as his assistant. Fisherle, on the other hand, has his own ideas. He is intent on swindling Kien out of the money that he openly flashes about.

As the two of them rearrange Kien’s books in hotel rooms each night, it starts to become clear to the reader that the “books” being hauled around, loaded and unloaded are not tangible, physical volumes. They are ideas being carried around in Kien’s head, and the ritual of unpacking the “books” at night, then repacking them in the morning, is a metaphor representing Kien’s alienation from his scholarly work in his apartment. Unable to sit behind his desk, think and write, Kien is now living in a “headless world,” a world in which he is preoccupied with merely lugging around his knowledge, interacting with others, and trying to survive from day-to-day. Whereas, in Part One, he was a “head without a world,” living cloistered away in his study, now his head, his self, hovers in a homeless, holding pattern.

Fisherle eventually concocts a story about a local pawnbroker shop – The Teresianium (an apparent reference to Kien’s wife) – where books are mistreated. His tale so horrifies Kien that Kien decides to station himself outside of the business in order to intercept customers and pay them to go away before they have the chance to pawn their books. Meanwhile, Fisherle hires a group of people to take Kien’s payments and formulates a plan to abscond to America. He buys an expensive suit and arranges for a fake passport, but before he is able to complete his plan, Fisherle is murdered by one of his wife’s blind customers, his hump sliced off with a bread knife. Kien, meanwhile, has been detained by the police and is escorted home by the caretaker from his apartment. Thus ends Part Two.

The last, and final, part of the book is titled “The World in the Head.” It is the shortest section, but it is here that the main themes explored and illustrated in the rest of the book are clarified, summed up, and made explicit in a conversation that takes place between Peter Kien and his brother, George. George is a gynecologist-turned-psychoanalyst who shows up to take charge of his brother, now detained in the caretaker’s apartment.

Peter and George represent complementary halves of a single person. As George himself states, “If you and I could be moulded together into a single being, the result would be a spiritually complete man” (p. 436). Peter’s is a world of internally connected ideas. These ideas, while originating in the minds of others, have become disconnected from concrete human beings and solidified into stable, unchanging systems. He recoils from interaction with flesh-and-blood people, preferring to be left alone to contemplate ideas in isolation. While Peter dives deep into the world of books, his brother George goes out into the world of other people. George is a medical doctor, and as such he reaches out to other people, interacting with, talking with, examining, and diagnosing them. His world is empirical and changing, while Peter’s world is self-enclosed and internally solid. Their conflicting perspectives, different as they are, nevertheless represent two differing aspects of what it means to be human. While there is a natural drive toward unity among humans, a drive toward mass existence, there is also a natural counter-drive toward individuation and isolation. These two perspectives must always chafe against one another, existing in an uneasy relationship. The worlds we construct in our heads are stretched between these poles to one degree or another, but neither one alone can possibly do perfect justice to the world’s true nature:

‘Mankind’ has existed as a mass for long before it was conceived of and watered down into an idea. It foams, a huge, wild, full-blooded, warm animal in all of us, very deep, far deeper than the maternal. In spite of its age it is the youngest of the beasts, the essential creation of the earth, its goal and its future. We know nothing of it; we live still as individuals. Sometimes the masses pour over us, one single flood, one ocean, in which each drop is alive, and each drop wants the same thing. But it soon scatters again, and leaves us once more to be ourselves, poor solitary devils” (p. 411).

Life is an ebb and flow between the drive to reach out to others and the drive to withdraw from others. Peter and George occupy extreme ends of this continuum. In the conclusion of Auto-da-Fé, Peter cannot endure his self-enclosed, isolated existence any longer now that he has been exposed to the outside world. This exposure has had too profound an effect on his interior world. He has become aware that he has imprisoned himself in a world of ideas, words, and books. All of the ideas, sensations and experiences that he has taken in over the course of the story finally come cascading through his mind, mixing together in an overwhelming flow that becomes unbearable, and now it is too late to turn back time. He can no longer ignore the chaos of the world outside of his head. The story ends with the maniacal laughter of Peter as he sets fire to his library and burns to death.

Auto-da-Fé is a demanding, yet very profound book. Though seemingly influenced by the structure of the Hegelian dialectic, Canetti is much less optimistic than Hegel, whose philosophy suggests that the human mind can ultimately encompass the overarching Truth of reality in a final synthesis of thought. Canetti’s story, on the contrary, seems to suggest that there is no final Truth to be comprehended by the human mind. Rather, we are all engaged in ongoing relationships with others that lead only to self-delusion and alienation. The ultimate fate of Peter Kein seems to suggest that the only way out of this conundrum is to obliterate the natural tension between inner and outer, the self and the other, that characterizes human life. It is only in death that our illusions evaporate and we are reabsorbed into the tranquility of nothingness.

13 Reasons Why

After watching the first season of the Netflix series 13 Reasons Why I feel emotionally exhausted, with no sense of catharsis or resolution; just a sad heaviness in my chest. I’m now a 53 year-old man, but this series stirred up all sorts of painful memories of my own high school years: memories of bullies, teenage despair, awkward and failed attempts at friendship, and of the oblivious (sometimes hostile) adults who stood on the sidelines. One of the strengths of this show – and what makes it so unsettling – is that, as in real life, no one is depicted as completely free from blame for contributing to the world’s misery and hopelessness. There are no clear distinctions between “good guys” or “bad guys.” Everyone is implicated in the suffering of those around them. The most sympathetic characters in the show are neither pure nor blameless. They’re just the ones striving to be honest about their guilt while making the truth known.

The central conceit of 13 Reasons Why is a series of 13 tapes recorded by Hannah Baker before she commits suicide. Each of these tapes chronicles the abuses she underwent at the hands of fellow students and the adults in her life – from social humiliation, to callousness, to rape – that drove her to kill herself. The tapes have been circulated among the culprits, and finally wind up in the hands of Clay Jensen, her unrequited teenage love, who then struggles with feelings of guilt about his own blameworthiness while trying to figure out what he should do with the information he has learned.

I became interested in 13 Reasons Why because much of the show was filmed in my hometown of San Rafael. As my wife jokes (echoing a character from Walker Percy’s The Moviegoer), seeing your own neighborhood depicted on screen makes you feel “certified.” It makes it feel as if the place where you live has significance beyond your own personal experiences. As I observed the film crews at work on our street, a sense of excited anticipation was provoked in me, priming my desire to see how our familiar, everyday surroundings would ultimately appear on screen.

In 13 Reasons Why, San Rafael landmarks are on prominent display. Mt. Tamalpias appears throughout the series as a visual anchor. The downtown police station, library and Fourth Street are regular backdrops. Key characters occupy houses located in the Gerstle Park and Dominican neighborhoods. San Rafael Hill, with its views of the San Francisco Bay and of the city below, provides a detached, aloof panorama of the landscape in which the despairing drama of the show plays out. Like tourists in our own hometown, my wife and I have now taken to visiting these various addresses and locations, seeing them in a new light, as if they have been illuminated by reflections from the television screen. In the process, our city has taken on a strangely glamorous but melancholic luminosity that merges fabricated gloom with our own real-life recollections of teenage sadness.

Mt. Tamalpais looming over the city of San Rafael.

Crestmont is the name of the fictional town that serves as the setting for13 Reasons Why. Early in the first season, one of the parents in the show mentions that her family moved away from the suburbs to this town for a better life. It is a curious, but quite apt, piece of dialogue that perhaps explains the appropriateness of San Rafael as a filming location. Technically, San Rafael is a suburb of San Francisco; however San Rafael is also the seat of Marin County, a place that has a reputation for being a world unto itself; a bubble of wealth, liberality, creativity and idealism. “Mellow Marin” is home to the Grateful Dead, the mountain bike, and as depicted in The Serial, is a place where alternate lifestyles and new-age therapies proliferate. It is also one of the most expensive places to live in the United States. All of this has led many people to regard the county with disdain, as too exclusive, too sheltered, too white and too privileged. 13 Reasons Why capitalizes on this reputation, challenging smug assumptions by showing that economic prosperity and cultural liberality do not eradicate real human suffering.

Obviously, not everyone who lives in Marin is rich, but the aura that is cast by the county’s wealth does affect everyone, sometimes resulting in callousness to the challenges faced by many Marinites. Everyone suffers through their own forms of unhappiness, and the unhappiness experienced by those living in conditions of privilege can sometimes be just as bad, if not worse, than the unhappiness of those who live in more obviously abject conditions. Oftentimes, there is more widespread sympathy for the plight of the underprivileged than there is for the suffering of the well-off, leaving privileged people to feel guilty about their own despair. After all, what do they have to be sad about when there are others in the world who struggle with poverty, crime and hunger?

The effect of this kind of callousness is illustrated in one especially memorable scene from 13 Reasons Why, when Clay is belittled by his high school guidance counselor, Mr. Porter. After complaining about the atmosphere of hostility and despair at school, Mr. Porter makes a point of telling Clay that in his previous job at an urban high school he actually had to deal with students who had “real” problems. Clay’s look of betrayal is obvious enough that the counselor, and we the audience, know instantly the message that has been conveyed. Some suffering is more “real” than other suffering. The suffering of those who live in economically well-off areas is less legitimate than the suffering of poor people. Later in the season, it is this same attitude that is revealed to be one of the 13 reasons why the character Hannah Baker kills herself after Mr. Porter suggests that she just forget about being raped by the school’s star baseball player and get on with her life.

This all struck a personal chord, reminding me of my own high school years and how my teenage despair was compounded by feelings of guilt and shame for being in despair.  When I fell into states of depression, I was told by the adults around me that I should just be thankful that my life was as good as it was. I remember one of the school custodians, a middle-aged man, threatening me, a teenager, with violence when I was sitting alone and depressed, apparently because he thought I was being disrespectful to him. When I complained to the Vice Principal at San Rafael High School about being bullied, I was met with a disdainful, blank stare that I took to mean, “You have nothing legitimate to complain about.” When I eventually did fight back against one of my bullies, I was suspended. The message was clear: I was just a privileged whiner. My suffering was not genuine. After all, other kids have real problems.

It is a sad fact that those who are bullied often end up becoming bullies themselves. Such kids learn that one way to feel strong and to salvage self-dignity is to lash out at the world and the people in it, refusing to remain passive. This is a dynamic famously described by the German philosopher Hegel in his book The Phenomenology of Spirit. Hegel claims that humans desire to see themselves reflected in the eyes of others and to gain their recognition. But in doing so, people endeavor to control the image of how others see them. This control results in a kind of enslavement of those whose acknowledgement we crave, and in this enslavement we reduce others to the status of objects, useful for the fulfillment of our own egoistic desires. However, in being enslaved to us, others come to learn the power of mastery and objectification, incorporating that power into their own consciousnesses and thus learning to break free from their masters. This is what Hegel calls the “master/slave dialectic,” and he claims that it is at work in all human relationships. In a sense, all human relationships are bullying relationships!

In 13 Reasons Why, the master/slave dialectic is on full display. The jocks in the school represent the masters; those who demand that others glorify and adore them, submitting to their desires, whether they be social, sexual or educational. These demands for dominance are expressed in the intimidation, assault and rape of other students. But we learn, as the season unfolds, that these “masters” have themselves been enslaved outside of school by their own dysfunctional family dynamics. The jocks’ abusive inclinations did not come from nowhere but rather grew out of the abuses that they themselves have suffered at home. Their trauma has become internalized and then vented on others at school.

This, however, initiates a cycle, and the students who are abused by the jocks at school in turn learn to lash out, either by abusing others or by abusing themselves. So it is that a bullied photography student finds that he can reclaim a sense of his own power by secretly snapping, and then publicly distributing, photographs of other students in intimate situations. Clay Jensen, from whose perspective the show’s story unfolds, takes his own revenge on the photography student, secretly snapping a nude photo of him and sending it out on social media in order to humiliate him. Throughout the season, these little acts of revenge build up but produce no feelings of justice or relief. Instead, the atmosphere of despair, anger and hostility just grows and grows as more acts of violence, humiliation and unkindness are piled one on top of the other. Meanwhile, the adults in charge seem disconnected from the pain taking place underneath their noses.

Again, I am reminded of my own high school experiences. Sometime in my junior year I came to the conclusion that none of the adults in my life were going to offer any help in dealing with the humiliation, violence or despair that were daily aspects of life at San Rafael High. I recall dreading going to campus and finally deciding that I was going to fight back. I would be just as cruel to others as they were to me. That was when I started to smart mouth teachers, school administrators and school narcs. I got into fights and was suspended. I realized that I could use my intellect to make fun of the jocks who tormented me, confusing and belittling them in front of other students. And it all made me feel more powerful, more clever and more in control than I had ever felt before in my life. But I also became more callous to the feelings of others, more arrogant, and more disdainful of people than I had ever been. Just like in the show, I alleviated my own suffering by making others suffer. I made myself feel big by making those who threatened me feel small. This coping strategy followed me into my post-high school life, and it has taken decades for me to learn how to abandon it.

Graffito on a water tower that sits on San Rafael Hill.

The only thing that feels inauthentic about 13 Reasons Why is the depiction of how kids from various and differing subgroups socialize with one another. So, for instance, Clay and Hannah attend (and are welcomed at) a party thrown by jocks and cheerleaders. Some of the jocks and popular kids appear at the cafe hangout frequented by Clay and his friends. Alex Standall, a kid who listens to The Ramones and Joy Division, dates Jessica Davis, the school’s most popular cheerleader. Maybe things have changed, but when I was in high school jocks and alternative kids did not date one another or attend the same parties. Maybe things are different now, or maybe this is just a bit of artistic license on the part of the show’s writers.

I would recommend 13 Reasons Why to those who are looking for something more than light, easy entertainment. It is a show that encourages viewers to reflect on their own victimization at the hands of bullies while also considering their own culpability in contributing to the suffering of others. As mentioned at the beginning of this post, it is not a show that offers catharsis or resolution. However, it does push audiences to think about their own complicated connections to others with depth and a sensitivity rarely seen on TV.

Screen Bodies

jnl_cover_screen[1]Issue #1 of the journal Screen Bodies is now available. My article, “Monstrous Masses: The Human Body as Raw Material,” appears on pages 51-70:

This article investigates the varied reactions of audiences to cinematic depictions of the human body as objectified raw material. The investigation proceeds, first, by explicating an ontological distinction between being-in-itself and being-for-itself, which in turn allows for a clarification of the processes involved in the objectification of one human being by another. The article then argues that in films where depictions of bodily objectification are pushed to an extreme—such as The Human Centipede, Nymphomaniac, and Videodrome—a potentially positive, empathic potential is unlocked in audiences. Rather than simply resulting in the humiliation of human characters, such films encourage audiences to experience a kind of sympathy for the characters that is related to, but not distinct from, other horrific, humorous, and erotic feelings. The article concludes that the objectification of human bodies in film is both unavoidable and a potentially positive moral exercise.