Thursday, June 09, 2011

Physical and metaphysical at one and the same time

OK. Wow. This is an amazing little book.

Martin Chuzzlewit is finally almost leaving America. And during his very long (boring) illness in that new land I was distracted (sorry, Charlie) by, appropriately, a little Europeana.

From the first sentence I was drawn along.

When people stopped believing in God, they started to seek ways of expressing that the world is absurd, and they invented Futurism and Expressionism and Dadaism and Surrealism and Existentialism and the Theater of the Absurd. And the Dadaists wanted to do away with art and they made art out of things that were not used before, such as wires and matches and slogans and newspaper titles and the telephone directory, etc., and they said it was new and absolute art. The Futurists wrote verse with lots of interjections such as KARAZUK ZUK ZUK DUM DUM DUM, and they promoted expressive typography, and the Expressionists and the Dadaists wrote verse in new, unknown languages to show that all languages are equal, both comprehensible and incomprehensible ones, such as BAMBLA O FALI BAMBLA, and the Surrealists, on the other hand, promoted automatic writing and unusual metaphors, and they wrote for instance MY CORK BATH IS LIKE YOUR WORM EYE, and they explained that the meaning of this verse spurted out of it automatically and that was physical and metaphysical at one and the same time. The Existentialists said that metaphysics was decadent and everything was subjective, but that objectivity existed nevertheless and that we were going about it the wrong way, because the most important thing was intersubjectivity. And the main thing was for everything to be authentic and that history and the course of history were the result of the philosophical question whether people could communicate authentically and, if they could, then history could be more meaningful than previously, so long as transcendental authorities were restored. And linguists said that communication was only a question of the manner of deconstruction and that there were several ways to deconstruct. And old people said that communication was in a sorry state because people were not capable of looking each other in the eye anymore and they averted their gaze immediately they caught someone's eye and that nowadays people only looked blind people in the eye.

— from Europeana: A Brief History of the Twentieth Century, by Patrik Ouředník.

Europeana is not a novel. So far as I can tell, it's mostly fact. But not entirely. (I would love to see this book annotated. There are some wonderfully intimate, human "facts" included, which may or may not have a basis in historically verifiable anecdotes; either way, they're beautiful.)

The language is so simple, simplistic, naive, it's as if a child had written it. Or a poet.

It pretends to be objective, but it's not. The facts by themselves are cold. The book's power is in how they're juxtaposed. It made me cry.

It does, in fact, in its brief 120 pages cover many events of the 20th century, from a European perspective, and several times. It touches on the invention of tanks and dishwashers, Esperanto and the Enigma machine. Barbie, Scientology, the Y2K bug, and psychoanalyis.

It's main focus, however, is war — both the world wars — cuz let's face it, war pretty much defined the century, framed by fascism and communism and democracy.

The text is repetitive and recursive. It runs over the same territory several times, but from different angles, with different emphasis. This neatly parallels my own theory that time, history, our cultural evolution is not quite cyclical, but spiral, that each time we go over the same old ground, our experience of it is — metaphorically speaking — a little broader, a little higher.

It's the forest and the trees at once. Europeana is an exquisite thing.
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