Thursday, October 09, 2008

Not a SEMA Paper, But Something Allied to It and to Us: Nathan Englander's "The Twenty-Seventh Man"

Figure 1. the place where we sometimes feel we work, but it is an illusion

for Dan Remein


This may be a stretch, but I was cleaning up my website this morning and paused to reread some of the response papers written by students who took my contemporary literature course last spring on the topic of Fantastic/Slipstream/Realism, and I was immediately struck by the apropos-ness, if you will, of a short response paper one of my students, Daniel Ising, wrote on Nathan Englander's heartbreaking short story "The Twenty-Seventh Man" to the SEMA panels on "Eros and Phenomenology," as well as to Justin's "Becoming the Medieval Jongleur" paper [and perhaps other papers presented at SEMA as well that considered the bodiliness of texts and of persons in texts], which we posted here a couple of days ago. Daniel is an M.A. student at Southern Illinois, specializing in creative writing, but he is very interested in medieval and cultural studies, and he attended many of the sessions at the SEMA conference and also helped us with the running of the conference. Many of you will remember meeting him here and there. Since I posted my own paper here last night on "Eros and Event in Malory's Tale of Balyn and Balan," I have been thinking about everything I don't know or understand about phenomenology, but also about that "literary-magic power" which John Caputo says is "astir" in literary worlds--which literary worlds have "causal powers that are released from the constraints of actuality," and here were Daniel's brief remarks on Englander's story somehow bringing me right back to another way of thinking through the being-ness [the phenomenology, but also the ontology] of fictional worlds, and what is possible in them, and why they matter so much. I also felt, in re-reading Daniel's remarks, that something important was also being expressed--both in Englander's story and in Daniel's response to it--regarding the absolute brutality under which authors and artists sometimes have to strive to be creative--to continue writing--even when someone [either figuratively, or more literally] is trying to kill them, to make them stop writing. And it can be hard, then, as Daniel intimates in his remarks, to remain true to oneself, to one's vision, not only of the world, but of the worlds we want to create within this world, worlds in which, perhaps, there is more justice and more compassion. There is an amazing passage in Englander's story when the main character, the Russian writer Pinchas Pelovits, who has been picked up and imprisoned as part of one of Stalin's purges, is being tortured and falls unconscious as a result, and yet, he is managing to do the only thing he has been doing since his first day in prison, compose a story, his last one, short enough to be written entirely in memory:
Pinchas Pelovits was not unconscious. He had only lost his way. He heard the conversations, but paid them little heed. The weight of his body lay on him like a corpse. He worked on his story, saying it aloud to himself, hoping the others would hear and follow it and bring him back.
In short, Englander's story concerns itself with the lowly and unknown writer Pinchas Pelovits who, either accidentally or as a direct result of something he has done [although this is doubtful since he has spent his entire life in one room in his parent's inn only writing, and never publishing--constructing "his own world with a compassionate God and a diverse group of worshipers"--and with such fervor that when Stalin's agents first knock on his door his immediate response is, "not hungry"], is arrested by Stalin's agents and thrown in a gulag prison with twenty-six other writers, all of them well-known and some even personal heroes of Pinchas's. The guards proceed to beat and torture all of them every day and there is no doubt that these beatings will end when they are all shot together in the yard. While the other writers worry over and rail against their fate [after all, as one character exclaims, "who would dare to kill the poet laureate of the Communist empire?"], Pinchas, the most frail of all of them and only a "boy" to the others--so much so that he even has to be propped up by two of the writers when he is finally executed, because he has been beaten so badly he can no longer stand--can only think of composing, because that is all he has ever known. Over and over again he composes his one last story so that, just before dying, he can recite it to his heroes. Even while being beaten, Pinchas "had focused on his story, his screams sounding as if they were coming from afar. With every stripe he received, he added a phrase, the impact reaching his mind like the dull rap of a windowpane settling in its sash." His story is short, and goes like this:
The morning that Mendel Muskatev awoke to find his desk was gone, his room was gone, and the sun was gone, he assumed he had died. This worried him, so he said the prayer for the dead, keeping himself in mind. Then he wondered if one was allowed to do such a thing, and worried instead that the first thing he had done upon being dead was sin.

Mendel figured he'd best consult the local rabbi, who might be able to direct him in such matters. It was Mendel's first time visiting the rabbi in his study--not having previously concerned himself with the nuances of worship. Mendel was much surprised to find that the rabbi's study was of the exact dimensions of his missing room. In fact, it appeared that the tractate the man was poring over rested on the missing desk.

"Rabbi, have you noticed we are without a sun today?" Mendel asked by way of an introduction.

"My shutters are closed against the noise."

"Did no one else mention it at morning prayers?"

"No one else arrived," said the rabbi, continuing to study.

"Well, don't you think that strange?"

"I had. I had until you told me about this sun. Now I understand--no sensible man would get up to greet a dawn that never came."

"This is all very startling, Rabbi. But I think we--at some point in the night--have died."

The rabbi stood up, grinning. "And here I am with an eternity's worth of Talmud to study."

Mendel took in the volumes lining the walls.

"I've a desk and a chair, and a shtender in the corner should I want to stand," said the rabbi. "Yes, it would seem I'm in heaven." He patted Mendel on the shoulder. "I must thank you for rushing over to tell me." The rabbi shook Mendel's hand and nodded good-naturedly, already searching for his place in the text. "Did you come for some other reason?"

"I did," said Mendel, trying to find a space between the books where once there was a door. "I wanted to know"--and here his voice began to quiver--"which one of us is to say the prayer?"
And herewith are Daniel's comments. They will remind us, I hope, that, as writers and scholars, we are always something, and somewhere, even without our bodies, and also, that when the sun appears dimmed, and even goes out, take heart--there is still so much work to do, so much writing to be accomplished, so many created worlds still to enter, and to ask, what is to be done here?


Eileen Joy said...

And I hope it goes without saying, when composing this post, especially with regard to those who seek to stop others from expressing themselves, that I also had behind my shoulder Cary Howie's luminous presentation, "Bodies in Waiting," and the lines he quoted from Sharon Olds, in which the examiners chant to their student, "No. No. No. No. Fail." Cary brought us, somewhat surprisingly, to the moment and I would even say sacred space of pedagogy, as did Justin, and this has been much on my mind.

Nicola Masciandaro said...

. . . and to ask, what is to be done here?

Occurrence vs. Innovation, and Why (I think) BABEL, Avant-Garde and Micrological, Belongs to the Former, to the Untimely [sounds like an Eileen title!]:

“Micrology [Adorno's "place where metaphysics finds a haven from totality," see Negative Dialectics] inscribes the occurrence of a thought as the unthought that remains to be thought in the decline of ‘great’ philosophical thought. The avant-gardist attempt inscribes the occurrence of a sensory now as what cannot be presented and which remains to be presented in the decline of ‘great’ representational painting. [Here fill in your own parallel sentence with BABEL as subject, affect/being-together/whatever as object, and Medieval Studies after 'decline of']. Like mircology, the avant-garde is not concerned with what happens to the ‘subject’, but with: ‘Does it happen?’, with privation. This is the sense in which it still belongs to the aesthetics of the sublime. In asking questions of the It happens that the work of art is, avant-garde art abandons the role of identification that the work previously played in relation to the community of addressees. . . . The occurrence, the Ereignis, has nothing to do with the petit frisson, the cheap thrill, the profitable pathos, that accompanies an innovation. Hidden in the cynicism of innovation is certainly the despair that nothing further will happen. But innovating means to behave as though lots of things happened, and to make them happen. Through innovation, the will affirms its hegemony over time. It thus conforms to the metaphysics of capital, which is a technology of time. The innovation ‘works’. The question mark of the ‘Is it happening?’ stops. With the occurrence [OTOH], the will is defeated. The avant-gardist task remains that of undoing the presumption [my emphasis] of the mind with respect to time [cf. Long Now]. The sublime feeling is the name of this privation” (Lyotard, “The Sublime and the Avant Garde,” trans. Lisa Liebmann, from The Lyotard Reader).

dan remein said...

Thank you, Eileen, for writing this, or, alternately, posting this, "for Dan Remein."

There are two things I think of, on this night, when I think of the problem of continuing to write, and why people try to stop people from writing from time to time--why writing, in its most intimate, radical, and loving forms as a capacity of where are are and are not in time and space, gets stopped--and usually, when it is stopped it is not in such a dramatic situation as your student describes in his elegant reading of this essay. Tonight they are both sentences from Cary Howie's Claustrophilia:

"There is no acceptable hierarchy of contingency" (4).

and in the same ¶:

"Metonymic reading, embedded and extensive, accepts the inevitability of situatedness but flouts the logic according to which one mode of situating, often historicist, must be privileged above all other."

People who write and believe things like this 1) often get stopped, quietly. 2) Sometimes, obviously, as we are reading Howie's book, indeed write and get read. This is due to the kind of enclosure they love and which loves them, the communities, no matter how disparate, across time (sometimes deep time) and space, which enclose them in their very exteriority.

I wish to give my assent as well to Nicola's comment.

Scott Boston said...

I love this post Eileen, thank you. It gets to the core of what is so interesting (to me at least) about the intersection of history and memory. In writing the unwritten (memory), the author provides an alternate history of the event, which normally is elided by death. I love the incredible poignancy of memory as a present absence, written in the Now. Yet why is it I rarely feel those same emotions for History, with all hegemonic authority (or should I say dust) which it has accrued over time? It is the same process: phenomena (beings/events) which have passed/are past/and therefore are in the Past/ are written into the present, by presences. What is missing is the affect, the love, the personal, except when we in the Now intervene, and recover those histories, those bodies, those minds, those desires, those memories and make them live again. Is memory just affective history, perhaps, but hopefully it is also effective history, for what is the purpose of making those in the past live again, (of dragging those dead bodies into the present (Necrophilia anyone?) if everything they lived for is lost. That is a cold history of shades and shadows, I want a warm history of bodies and desires. I intend to get it too, I refuse to take No. No. No. No. Fail. for an option. I demand Yes. Yes. Yes. Yes. Success. And sometimes, perhaps even all the time, over time, we can perform our way to the futures we desire, and let the rest fall away, as just a bad dream.

Now I must go and write that future for myself. Or sleep. Probably sleep. And in that sleep what dreams may come....

Eileen Joy said...

Nicola, Dan, and Scott: thanks so much for your comments here. As to BABEL as Occurrence [especially when cut off, as it were, from the fetters of "outcomes" and even from the weight of "tradition"--it appears, with a sort of past but not tethered to it as an anchor and it looks forward with expectation and hope and the idea of possibility--happiness/professional identity & intellectual labor oriented to possibility but not to specific "this must happen" scenarios--although, with the codicil that, in certain matters, like human rights, there should be an agenda of sorts], I like that [BABEL as Occurrence], and even more so, I love the idea of the work we do together--here, in BABEL, and in other spaces--as constituting a "sensory now" which remains to be presented/represented.

I've been thinking a lot these past few weeks [and looking ahead to that terrifying GWU talk which, honestly, frightens me a bit] about historical & literary-historical scholarship as a form of humanistic poetics [and yes, I'm still hanging on to humanism as the best bet for the widest possible purchase on what might be called the well-being of *everything*, human and non-human], but that might be too broad by itself--artistic interventions, maybe, into and through time? We have, already, all sorts of cold, rationalistic ways of excavating the past and even of trying to "work through" our present moment[s] while also attempting to determine some better paths to the future [I think one reason I resist phenomenology, at first, is because of how it is situated in the death-obsessed and thought-over-body-centered Western philosophical tradition, and because of, well, frankly, Heidegger, and how for all his brilliance, he could still become a Nazi--yeah, he's good for quotations here and there and for certain insights but what about where the whole *system* of his thought led him, or rather, didn't lead him?--a good book on this subject is Howard Caygill's "Levinas and the Political," in terms of why/how Levinas had to depart from Heidegger]. But there will always be more to phenomenology than Heidegger and his ilk, and yet, why don't we also ask: why do we need phenomenology at all? Let's clear out the room a little and try thinking on our own for a change. Let's aim for this Occurrence, which can never really come out of nowhere, but what a grand experiment it could be, if even an ultimately failed one, yet we could always say, we were there--*together*--and that we wanted something of goodness to happen.


Happiness--personal and collective--is highly undervalued in our field [as is, god knows, compassion and joy]. Let's do something about it--let's practice--again, together--a radical will of happiness, a happiness predicated on the idea [which I cadge here from Sara Ahmed's yet-unpublished book, "On Being Directed: Happiness, Promises, Deviations"] of encounters as sites of [Deleuzan] potentiality and becoming [and keep in mind that Ahmed's book is mainly a scathing critique of happiness and the way it has traditionally been defined and *forced* upon us and that part of being ethical is tearing down the walls of certain edifices--familial, national, political, etc.--of smug "happiness"]. Here is how Brain Massumi puts it:

"Ethical, empirical and creative, because your participation in this world is part of a global becoming. So it's about taking joy in that process, wherever it leads, and I guess its about having a kind of faith in the world which is simply the hope that it continues . . . . But again its not a hope that has a particular content or end point – it’s a desire for more life, for more to life" [working from Ahmed's rough draft of her book's conclusion, so don't have specific reference here].

But Ahmed also wants to take happiness outside of the domain of classical/Enlightenment ethics where, traditionally, it has become a kind of force field for coercing certain behaviors over others, and also because it has, generally, excluded the "hap" from happiness. This is also why the past will always matter because, in Ahmed's words,

"Possibilities have to be recognised to be possible. This is why embracing possibility involves going back; it involves returning to the past, recognising what one has, as well as what one has lost, what one has given, been given, as well as what one has given up. To learn about possibility is to do genealogy, to learn about how you arrive at the present" [unpublished typescript and, god, I hope Ahmed wouldn't kill me over sharing this wee bit here].

Ahmed also shares this quotation from Kierkegaard:

". . . this possibility that is said to be so light is commonly regarded as the possibility of happiness, fortune etc. But this is not possibility. It is rather a mendacious invitation that human depravity has dressed up so as to have reason for complaining of life and Governance and a pretext of becoming self-important. No, in possibility all things are equally possible, and whoever has truly been brought up by possibility has grasped the terrible as well as the joyful."

Happiness must be valued for its precariousness and also for the ways in which it brings the unexpected into our midst and allows us to, on one hand, be silly together, and on another, to be swept away together in sudden grief [and think here, again, of the conclusion to Justin's "medieval Jongleur" paper]. And think of all the other possibilities of possibility in between these two poles--one light and one almost too heavy to bear.

And this brings me, then, to Scott's comments on memory, which, as Scott beautifully illustrates via the character of Pinchas in Englander's short story can be, not only a remembrance [however partial, distorted, etc.] of something that happened, but of something that has not yet happened [a point which is beautifully elaborated upon in the "Otherword" to our Palgrave book, "Cultural Studies of the Modern Middle Ages," by M. Uebel in his essay, "Opening Time: Psychoanalysis and Medieval Culture"]. The world is ending for Pinchas the writer in the frame of Englander's story, and in the framed story, the sun has gone out and Mendel the writer who has lost his study and writing desk and finds it again in the rabbi's house and is wondering what is to be done, who is to say the prayer? Who, indeed.

Jeffrey Cohen said...

Who indeed, indeed,

Happiness--personal and collective--is highly undervalued in our field [as is, god knows, compassion and joy]. Let's do something about it--let's practice--again, together--a radical will of happiness

Anyone who can write such a line, anyone who can mean such a line, need fear nothing from the "terrifying" GW symposium, which will actually be quite low key and intimate.

I was so moved by this post and by your student's comments. Something that I learned for the upteenth time at SEMA is just how important is what happens between teacher and student, colleague and colleague, friend and friend: much more important than any essay frozen into some shelved journal.

Jeffrey Cohen said...

Having woken up with this post on my mind, I also want to express (again) my gratitude for its relentlessly affirmative vision of humanistic study, especially in the face of that which might otherwise lead easily to despaire.

Eileen Joy said...

Thank you, Jeffrey, for your affirmation of an affirmation.