Thursday, August 28, 2008

Six Degrees of Nazification

Scientists including Einstein* have long argued that any person can be connected to Nazism via a chain of no more than five intermediary acquaintances or beliefs. This so-called “Six Degrees of Nazification” is not a new concept: the term was first used in 1906 by Swiss spocktologist Pierre Swille, but it was not until the advent of the Nazi Party in 1920 that it made any sense. Since then, the concept has been used primarily as a parlour game, as well as forming the basis of a short-lived 1986 gameshow hosted by Maurie Fields.

“Six Degrees of Nazification” is in fact a misnomer. As Tagenflagenbelde notes in his 1957 book Schlechter Deutscher Für Schlechte Deutsche the “six” is redundant as by virtue of its Nazi status the last or “goal” degree would on principle have driven the other four degrees into the woods and machine gunned them prior to the connection being made. Thus a typical example of the six degrees takes the form of a simple syllogism of the kind beloved of people with glasses named Aubrey:

Paul McCartney is a vegetarian
Top Nazi Adolf Hitler was a vegetarian
Paul McCartney is a Nazi

John Travolta is a pilot
Top Nazi Hermann Goering was a pilot
John Travolta is a Nazi

This simplified version of the formula is highly popular amongst those wishing to smear their political opponents:

Senator Bob Brown wears suits
Top Nazi Josef Goebbels wore suits
Senator Bob Brown is a Nazi

Schmitt, in his 1975 paper “Aber beklecker nicht das Sofa, Sofa” refutes the validity of this stripped-back formula, although the Japanese translation is said to arrive at the opposite conclusion by way of several highly dubious recipes for home-made old people’s food. McRammstein takes issue with Schmitt in his 1981 paper “Ich bin Freddy Quecksilber”, but we all know McRammstein fiddles with pigeons so his views can be disregarded.

In short, Six Degrees of Nazification is something that exists and you should probably know about it. Apparently there is a film in the works starring Will Smith. Whether he will play the Six Degrees or the Nazification is unknown, but we can confirm that Donald Sutherland has signed to play Anne Frank.

Finally, we turn to Wikipedia to completely contradict everything said thus far:
Six Degrees of Nazification is a board game from Frown & Andrews. Players must move counter-clockwise while manipulating a special orb (Hitler's "ball") upon which images of Walt Disney films are projected, interspersed with random gore from Rob Zombie's remake of His Girl Friday. The first player to eat another player's big toe wins.
* Gerald Einstein, V.C.E., Warrnambool

_____

Yet another look back at Sterne's earlier, funnier/odder, years. This precious gem was originally cut and polished on August 29, 2006.

Saturday, August 23, 2008

Saturday morning cartoon

Not sure how accurate this here mangatar is - the hairdo and stubble look a bit too stylish and deliberate rather than the result of laziness/unemployment - but I do own a shirt that is exactly that colour.

And yes, if everybody else jumped off a cliff I'd probably do it too.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Meaning and condescension

Scattered thoughts on certain aspects of contemporary literary fiction

He was thinking of his mother; of the dog; of Osman, in whom death was advancing cell by cell. He felt malevolence gathering force and drawing closer. The children crossed the street, hooded figures from a tale. Life would set them impossible tasks; straw and spinning wheels waited. Tom crossed his fingers and wished them luck: lives reckoned on the blank pages of history. And thought of a night in September when Nelly and he had sat contented in a pub, until people began to gather in front of the TV mounted on the wall at the other end of the bar.
It was their faces that had drawn him: uplifted and calm as churchgoers.
When they parted, Nelly said, 'Everything changes when Americans fall from the sky.'
The Lost Dog, Michelle de Kretser, pp. 140-41

Maybe I'm just tired of novels in which the mopey, passive protagonist wanders around having epiphanies about The World In Which We Live, but I found this passage, and others like it in The Lost Dog, fairly cringe-inducing. I'm going to advance the argument - dwelled upon at length, but admittedly not fully thought out - that a lot of contemporary fiction is diminished by the fact that its characters (protagonists in particular) are unrealistically self-aware of their roles as subjects of history. I don't mean that characters ought to remain blissfully unaware of geopolitics or ideology or local council noise regulations or whatever. I mean that it is contrived to have characters walk around acting, thinking and speaking beyond the ordinary limits of contextual awareness, ie. as self-conscious agents of or actors in historical events. This sense of contrivance includes characters responding to cataclysmic events by saying things like "Everything changes when Americans fall from the sky" - unless it's said in a Don DeLillo novel, in which case the contrivance is itself part of the novel's aesthetic apparatus. (However successful or unsuccessful that might be.)

I'm grasping here at something that has been bothering me about contemporary fiction for a while now. It's related to what I see as the reliance of many authors on a kind of forced profundity, an eagerness to explain great matters through necessarily reductive fictions, which tends to be inimical to the creation of fiction qua fiction, and in most cases has the paradoxical effect of weakening the explanation and undermining the profundity. There is a jigsaw quality to a lot of recent fiction: metaphor, character, setting, etc, all interlock to create an overall meaning or set of meanings that is itself the point of the novel. Of course I don't wish to suggest that meaning in fiction is a recent invention; it does seem to me, however, that the jigsaw method of composition, and the primacy of meaning, has recently become dominant, at least as far as "literary fiction" goes. Peter Ho Davies' The Welsh Girl, nominated for the 2007 Booker, is an example of just such a "jigsaw" novel. My review of the book read in part:
Inevitably, Davies draws Karsten and Esther together for one of those unlikely collaborations that mutual longing – although not necessarily for one another – sometimes conjures. In fact, despite the incongruity of their union, the German soldier and the Welsh farm girl share a common status. Karsten may be literally inside but he is a natural outsider, while Esther is so far outside her native community she is practically neck-deep in the Irish Sea. The reader recalls Rotheram: isn’t he also, in many ways, an outsider? And isn’t the village riven with various permutations of the outsider/insider dichotomy? And isn’t Wales itself an outsider nation? And isn’t – well, you get the idea.
Reading The Welsh Girl I could almost see the flow chart tacked to Davies' wall, plotting out the thematic relationships between the elements of his fiction. I find this approach incredibly condescending; the dialogue between reader and writer (or reader and text) becomes an authorial monologue - this is the message of my book, this is what I want you to take away from it. There is no space for ambiguity, no space for the reader at all. Tolstoy at least had the courtesy to sequester his didactic asides away from the main business of the novel.

To a certain extent I blame 9/11. The preference for literary fiction that tells us things about the world in which we live was already long established when the towers collapsed; the impression I have is that post-9/11 some writers felt that this preference now conferred upon them an obligation. Who would make sense of our tragic times if not the poet-seers, the writer-intellectuals? You might recall how quickly writers like Ian McEwan and Martin Amis recovered from their vocation-denying shock (Amis: "after a couple of hours at their desks, on September 12 2001, all the writers on earth were reluctantly considering a change of occupation") and began turning out fiction in which 9/11 and its consequences were the abiding themes. The truth is that far from being a burden 9/11 was a gift to some writers. No longer was one required to turn to the past for grand themes of life and death, war and peace, love and hatred – now you just had to look out of your window at the sun glinting off the fuselage of a passing jet, describe what you saw, implant your feelings of fear and confusion and outrage into an appropriate fictional vessel (while you’re at it why not make him a neurosurgeon with a talent for squash?), and profundity is your reward.

9/11 didn’t explode the consciousness of our major writers, it imploded their egos and gave them a perpetually renewable “subject” and the license to explore it at the expense of whatever aesthetic they had hitherto developed. All of a sudden it was deemed important that literature – more specifically the "great minds" behind literature – be seen to be tackling the big issues of our time. The irony is that so many of the products of this attitude are a little too polite, a little too safe, a little too pre-9/11 to do justice to (fallacy alert) their authors’ intentions. A novel such as Ian McEwan’s Saturday, while in a limited sense successful as a political handgrenade, is about as safe as fiction gets, a comfortable stroll through the “issues of the day” written in professional prose and with a consolatory structure. The whole business of the impending war is distanced. Surely, however, one feature of post-9/11 life is the immediacy and pervasiveness of events. The attacks on New York were so shocking partly because we all saw it, as it happened – however silly it sounds in hindsight, at the time it felt like it was happening to all of us. In this sense, a trashy-but-entertaining movie like Cloverfield has more to "say" about the post-9/11 world than "serious fiction" like McEwan's. There is something contemptible about the way McEwan and others use their complacent fiction to present diagnoses of these events. It is arrogant art: here comes fiction with all the answers! Doesn’t it make you think? What it doesn’t do is confront and disturb because that would require moving beyond certain safe modes of thought and presentation.

I suppose it's unfair of me to begin this post with a quotation from The Lost Dog, a novel that for the most part avoids the kind of simplistic interplay and faux-profundity I have been describing here. Another Booker-nominated novel, Joseph O'Neill's Netherland, is however the acme of the post-9/11, thematic-jigsaw novel, and it's got a mopey, passive protagonist to boot. Netherland is sober and "realistic" and terribly sincere - a real "missive to the future" concerning our interesting times. I doubt I've read a less engaging novel all year, and I only wish I had my copy here so I could quote some of the deep thoughts O'Neill has his standard-issue white Western male protagonist think.

This post is less a consolidated essay than a collection of (possibly intemperate) "thoughts" about contemporary fiction and I'm not sure how coherent it is. I think what underlies everything I've said is a wish to read fiction that is honest. Not honest in the sense of realistic, but honest as in truthful to the work rather than to some facile "message". I'm tired of didacticism and "research". If I want argument and editorialising I can read the newspaper. If I want to know what happened when and to whom I can read history or biography. I read fiction for other reasons - aesthetic pleasure; intellectual diversion; a sense of possibility coupled to an implicit acknowledgment of limitation - things that are either beyond the ability of writers like Davies and O'Neill to provide, or else do not interest them. I suppose they have bigger things to think about.

Edit (14/08/08): I have altered and expanded upon the second sentence of the fourth-to-last paragraph in order to clarify my meaning. The sentence originally read: "The demand that literary fiction tell us things about the world in which we live was already long established when the towers collapsed." It now reads: "The preference for literary fiction that tells us things about the world in which we live was already long established when the towers collapsed; the impression I have is that post-9/11 some writers felt that this preference now conferred upon them an obligation. Who would make sense of our tragic times if not the poet-seers, the writer-intellectuals?"

The incoherent Olympics-related rant I had to have

I worked for a couple of months last year alongside an English guy - let's call him Clive - who had moved to Australia in early 2007 to get married. Clive was a bit of a lad and not entirely suited to the job but we got along all right, mainly due to a shared interest in quoting Sean Connery's lines from Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. (It's amazing the common ground you find or invent, and desperately latch onto, when you have to work with someone nine hours a day.) Clive was also a real know-all who, as is often the case, actually knew very little: nine out of every ten statements of "fact" consisted of hearsay, urban legend, or just plain bullshit. A little Clive went a long way, and while his claptrap was sometimes amusing at 9:30 a.m., it had usually ceased to be so by 5:30 p.m - especially when he started talking about Australia.

Now, according to Clive, before he moved to Australia he didn't even realise we had cities other than Sydney. He thought Australia was basically Sydney perched on the edge of an enormous empty continent with a few big rocks and some blackfellas outback for the tourists. Despite admitting to this breathtaking ignorance, Clive liked to think that his outsider status conferred upon him the ability to see Australia as it really is. This vision of Australia turned out to include more or less every negative stereotype and cliché about Australian life and character, all mixed up and regurgitated as "fact". I am a patriot of the least rabid stripe, but even I took umbrage at Clive's reductive misrepresentations: we're not all racist; we're not all drunks; we're not all lecherous Alvin Purples. (There was rich irony in the fact that Clive was a racist and a drunk, and would have given Alvin a run for his money in the lechery stakes.) The whole edifice of "national character" is childish and absurd, especially at a personal level. I have nothing in common with the bloke who lives across the road, but I've met Frenchmen and Egyptian women and Irish Setters with whom I have become firm friends. I also like and love various Australians - but their nationality isn't why I like or love them.

Anyway, Clive was a bit of a tool and I probably shouldn't have let him get to me. But the thing is, ignorant as Clive was, he hadn't come to his conclusions about Australia on his own. There had to be input from somewhere, and unfortunately that somewhere was Australia itself. Clive was simply responding to the face we show to the world. It's all beer and Warnie and "Where the bloody hell are ya?" Look at the behaviour of John Coates, IOC member and head of the AOC, who greeted the news of a British swimmer winning a gold medal with "It's not bad for a country that has no swimming pools and very little soap." Grow the fuck up, man. Not that this kind of thing is limited to "our" side: if the exchange of insults continues we can surely expect some jibes from a like-minded (no-minded) British official about "convicts" or whatever. It's not good-natured, it's juvenile; it's not gamesmanship, it's behaving like a dickhead; and it's certainly not patriotic, unless you're idea of patriotism is to represent your country to the world as a bunch of insecure, victory-obsessed oiks.

Monday, August 11, 2008

Aw well

Orwell's diary is being published as a blog. Today's entry epitomises the intelligence, political and cultural insight, and humane decency of this great writer:
Drizzly. Dense mist in evening. Yellow moon.
Timeless.

Update (12/8): Gosh, now Eric's blackberries are "beginning to redden". Reading this, it's almost like you're there.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Writer's lump

There must be a name for this: the lump that develops on your finger(s) as a result of holding pens or paintbrushes over a period of years. My family didn't own a computer until I was about fifteen so until that time I wrote exclusively - and messily - by hand. As a result I developed quite a pronounced and incredibly hard lump on the side of my right middle finger. I used to gnaw at it during boring high school classes, ie. all of them. When I gave people "the finger", the lump added a unique, personal touch to the gesture that I'm sure didn't go unappreciated. When I shook hands with people, the lump would communicate to me their darkest secrets and deepest fears thus allowing me to bend the person to my will. Sadly, a decade-plus of computer use has caused the lump to disappear, leaving only a slight toughness of skin to indicate that it was ever there. Like sand through the hourglass, etc.

If anybody knows what these lumps are called - other than "gross" - do share.

Friday, August 08, 2008

Listening tour

A year ago today I signed up to last.fm, an online music community that enables you to track the music you listen to and (in theory) connect with like-minded individuals. I haven't done much of the latter, nor have I paid a great deal of attention to the weekly charts, etc, that last.fm compiles of my listening but it's still interesting (kind of) to check in today and see that in the past twelve months I have listened to 10, 554 songs on my computer. (Obviously music listened to on my stereo isn't tracked.) No wonder my headphones are falling apart. The above chart (click to embiggen) shows my twenty most-listened-to artists for the year, while the full chart can be viewed here, although I'm not sure why anybody would want to do that.

Obviously this kind of thing is of extremely limited utility but to me it has the same kind of (admittedly fairly narcissistic) appeal as a reading log. I've been keeping one of those since 2005 and I find it quite interesting to see when I read what, especially when there is a cluster of similar books or books that obviously led from one to the other. I only wish I'd started keeping track years ago - I'm mildly envious of the likes of Art Garfunkel whose reading log extends back some thirty-eight years. Garfunkel's reading is also more consistently highbrow than mine, but then my stuff with Paul Simon is a lot better than his so it all balances out.

Thursday, August 07, 2008

More pronounced

I was watching Friends tonight and one of the characters said something about emus. Except the Friend in question didn't say "emus" they said "e-moos", like they were talking about some kind of new-fangled techno-bovine. I was expecting the laugh track to erupt with insincere hilarity - I mean, e-moos, really? - but the laughter remained canned until the next time Chandler said something sarcastic. Then: everybody whooped.

Is this for serious? Do Americans really say "e-moos"? W, as the kids say, tf?

Kids say creepiest things

One night my friend Erin went out to the cinema, leaving her husband Michael in charge of their young son. Michael duly fed and watered the boy, read him a story and tucked him into bed. As was the family's routine, Michael then kissed his son goodnight and moved to the door where he dimmed the lights so that the room was almost, but not quite, completely dark.

"Goodnight, Daniel," he said.

"Goodnight, Dad," said Daniel. "Goodnight, Mum."

"I told you, Dan, Mummy's not here. She's gone to see a movie."

"But she is here!" the boy insisted.

"No, silly," said Michael, moving back into the doorway. "Mummy's out for the night. You'll see her in the morning."

"Oh." Daniel bit his lip thoughtfully. "Daddy?"

"Yes?"

"If Mummy's not here, whose hand is that on your shoulder?"

If you can't say anything nice, you must be reading the Booker longlist

You'll chuckle knowingly when I tell you that less than a week into Booker '08 I've almost had enough. You knew, of course, that I wasn't going to read the longlist, not after my dramatic withdrawal from the 2006 longlist reading project. You knew that the only reason I read so much of the 2005 longlist was because of the novelty factor, and also because I was studying imagist poetry and American modernism and needed some low-impact reading to salve my brain of an evening. You knew I wouldn't have the determination, time, and masochistic tendencies required to wade neck-deep through the mire of the Booker Dozen, not when I could be reading, say, the Bible in Klingon, or the month-old Green Guide I found under my armchair. You knew all that, didn't you, you little know-it-all? I just have one question: why didn't you tell me?

The problem is that most of the books aren't worth reading, at least not cover to cover. I was discussing this with with Beth and she suggested that perhaps "observing the Booker longlist" was a better description of what we're doing than "reading the Booker longlist". So far I have observed four longlisted novels:

- The Clothes on Their Backs, Linda Grant. The blurb was enough to put me off this one: "...a wise and tender novel about the clothes we choose to wear, the personalities we dress ourselves in, and about how they define us all." I didn't bother reading any further.

- The White Tiger, Aravind Adiga. Read about twenty pages of this. It seemed ok.

- A Fraction of the Whole, Steve Toltz. By page 200 of this 700+ page novel I was exhausted and bored by the chatty, superficial style. This is the kind of book that attracts reviews containing words like "rollicking", "romp", "thumping", and "rip-roaring", but for all its vim and vigour it's actually quite dull and amateurish. I reckon it would make the perfect companion on a long-haul flight - long, not at all taxing yet not completely brainless, and marginally more interesting than clocking Super Mario 3 for the eighth time on the little back-of-the-seat entertainment unit.

- Netherland, Joseph O'Neill. The one longlistee I have read thoroughly. I've been working on an essay about this book and other post-9/11 fiction, however I am not sure I will complete it because frankly I find the whole sub-genre wearying. For now I'll simply say that Netherland is a good example of modern mainstream literary fiction, which is to say that it is well written, utterly conventional, and terribly "sincere" and "profound". It'll probably win.

Wednesday, August 06, 2008

Melbourne-baste

When I was given the opportunity to write some book reviews for the SMH last year it crossed my mind for about six seconds that I ought to write under a pseudonym. This was not because I had anything to hide but because the average law-abiding person gets so few chances to act under an assumed name that it seemed a shame to waste the opportunity. I was also conscious that whatever name those reviews were published under would probably be the name I would use for anything else I might have published. (Of course I already have a pseudonym of sorts in "Tim Sterne", but that's really more of a nickname or nom de blog - I am Tim, from Sterne - than a name I have deliberately adopted.) In the end I decided to use my boring, everyday name, the surname of which I find I have to keep spelling for people despite it being the name of our recently-deposed PM of eleven years. How soon we (bash our skulls against walls in an effort to) forget.

The other thing I had to decide on was my contributor note. Again there was a strong temptation to lie, eg. "T. Kazutoki Sterne is the author of Drescher, Goebbels, Braque: An Eternal Golden Shower. He lives in a canoe under a chocolate waterfall with a sentient cabbage named Joyce." Sobriety and the desire not to appear insane prevailed once more and I settled on the more prosaic and honest, yet vastly less intriguing, "Tim Howard is a Melbourne writer". What I like about this formulation is that it makes a claim for authority - hey, this Tim Howard guy's a writer, not just some schmuck! Or at least he's a schmuck who is also a writer! - while also providing the authors of the books I reviewed with my full name and rough geographical location just in case they felt like tracking me down and pointing out my own deficiencies, literary or otherwise. "Tim Howard is a Melbourne writer" may be boring, but it is also fair.

I also like its concreteness. "Melbourne writer" rather than that common variation "Melbourne-based writer". The latter sounds as if the writer in question merely "keeps a house" in Melbourne, turning up occasionally to dust the Van Goghs and water the geraniums before jetting off to Paris, London, New York. I suppose in some cases this might be true; in my case it would be so far from the truth as to constitute a category five fib, punishable by the malicious flicking (with a ruler) of the perp's ear lobes.

All this talk of contributor's notes reminds me of Michael Martone's book Michael Martone: Fictions, which consists entirely of contributor notes for "Michael Martone". I haven't read it but I would like to. On an unrelated note: my birthday is coming up soon and I have no qualms about accepting gifts.

*

Incidentally, does anybody else find it odd and disappointing that this month's Australian Literary Review contains only one fiction review and that's of a short story collection largely consisting of previously published - if often brilliant - material?

Tim C. McSterne is the author of this post. He is based in a darkened room somewhere in Melbourne.

Schlock Tactics

That'd be the head of Corey Worthington, "party boy", photoshopped onto the body of Jesus Christ, "saviour". The image is one of the entrants in this year's Blake Prize, which has a history of pissing off the usual people who get pissed off at such things with "provocative" and "controversial" (read: jejune and facile) works.

Dean Sewell, the creator of the Cory Christ piece, says: "Jesus was crucified to pay for the sins of man, and Corey was crucified by the media to pay for the sins of the MySpace generation." Yes, he really said that, apparently with a straight face. Reminds me of somebody I once knew...

Monday, August 04, 2008

For all your Hellboy needs

This is a shop in Box Hill. They sell mobile phones as well as large, red, demon superheroes.

"Heroes"

The Australian swimming team arrived in Beijing overnight, dressed as convicts. Which was appropriate, given the host nation's attitude towards freedom.

Mel and Koshie are hosting Sunrise from Beijing. This morning they presented a guest with a memento in the form of a Mao Zedong wristwatch, an act that pretty much sums up our media's reluctance to discuss China's recent history - let alone its present - in any but the most superficial of terms.