My rating: 4 of 5 stars
A comment on a review-aggregating website denounces Rikki Ducornet’s novel Gazelle (2003) for its relative plotlessness and supposed incomprehensibility; characteristically, the review begins, “Wow…just wow.” Ever since encountering, at age 12 or so, a back-cover assertion that the last sentence of Nineteen Eighty-Four (“He loved Big Brother”) would become “the epitaph of our civilization,” I have been on the lookout for other headstone-worthy phrases. For our epitaph, I now favor “Wow…just wow,” which seems to mean, when translated out of the adolescent argot that is the lingua franca of the Internet even though most intelligent adolescents do not even speak it, “I am unwilling to consider any idea I have not already encountered nor am I willing to reconsider any opinions I’ve already formed even if I acquired them from bad TV shows.” Given this unwholesome but, I think, necessary preamble, whatever awe I express in the essay that follows will be appreciative, and I will furthermore try to give strange and unwelcome ideas their due.
Gazelle is the first-person narrative of Elizabeth, a forensic surgeon who researches mummies and who came of age in 1950s Cairo. The novel is her reminiscence of her thirteenth year, when her mother left her father for a sexually independent life in the Egyptian city, following which her history-professor father sunk into a childish slough of intellectual obsessions with war-games, military history, and other such flights from reality. Into this situation comes the titular perfumer Ramses Ragab (“‘the gazelle type of Egyptian male,'” according to Elizabeth’s mother), who operates the Kosmétérion, a fantastical fragrance shop from which he gifts Elizabeth the scent of attar, and who diverts Elizabeth’s father in his bedridden malaise by playing “counterpane battles” with him using toy soldiers. It becomes clear over the course of the narrative that this adolescence of somewhat catastrophic eroticism has stunted Elizabeth’s relationships well into middle age. She must learn, in effect, how to transcend both her mother’s sexual profligacy and her father’s intellectual disengagement, which stand revealed as two desperate ways of avoiding love and change. By the end of the novel, she discovers that “nothing is more essential to living in the world than transformation.”
This summary may sound simple enough, but the novel evades linearity by largely eschewing realistic narrative; instead, each chapter is organized around a central symbol, and the text proceeds as a series of images, often of fantastical or magical character, or of esoteric essays (I will provide an extended quotation below). Sample chapter titles: “The Chess Set of Ivory,” “The Battlefields of Shiraz,” “The Garden of Semblance and Lies,” “Attar,” “Sleeping with Schéhérazade.” Ekphrasis is as important to this book as are scene and narration, and the characters more nearly represent psychological states than they resemble “round” figures who change and grow. The tales of the Arabian Nights are a constant reference point, and their genre seems more to the point than the realist novel. A few of the individual chapters were published as short stories, and most could stand on their own. Gazelle is therefore more lyric than novel, more romantic than realistic.
What are we to make of this way of writing prose narratives? It defies the dominant novelistic tradition of realism, as well as of its modernist and postmodernist deconstructions. (The deconstructionists would, I think, mock romantic and occultic lyricism along with realism, for both claim to offer a signification beyond language.) As the skeptical critic with whom I began this essay indicates, Ducornet’s style isn’t for everyone—but I myself like it and want to make a case for it here by bringing to the surface the metaphysical and political assumptions that underwrite it.
As Daniel Green notes in discussing Michael Cunningham’s unsympathetic review of a later novel by Ducornet,
We don’t “get to know” the character as we do in longer works, especially those devoted to the kind of psychological realism in which “getting to know” is largely the point. Ducornet’s kind of fabulation, which can draw on the elements of the fable or fairy tale without incorporating the movement toward narrative closure (“the moral of the story”), works best both through brevity and a deliberate avoidance of psychological “depth,” at least through explicit strategies of point of view or style. Anything longer could mar the delicacy of what she is after, and “delving into a character’s motives” would only undermine its subtlety.
What is the nature of this subtlety? As Green also observes, Ducornet’s narrative focuses less on characters who are carefully particularized, discriminated as individuals, but rather on figures who undergo mental and emotional states that we all are subject to. Green’s example, obviously enough, is desire, but intellectual absorption, fear, spiritual awe, and aesthetic pleasure are all part of Gazelle‘s repertoire. To put it in more highfalutin theoretical terms, Ducornet is less interested in writing about individuals than in about pre- and transpersonal experiences, what we might follow Deleuze and Guattari, themselves following Spinoza, in calling affect. But this demotion of the individual leads us quickly enough to implications about the nature and purpose of human societies—what we might reductively call “politics”—and that is my next topic.
Another tempting but inadequate way to object to this text, very much in vogue now, would be to pull the hammer of Orientalism from the theory toolbox we all assembled haphazardly out of disparate secondary sources sometime early in our liberal arts degree. But I can think of no greater instance of reification today than this ignorant truncation of one of the more labyrinthine personalities of the late 20th century to a puritanical moral slogan meant to be slapped willy-nilly on any text that comes to hand if it happens to mention sand or camels. Here’s the real, by which I mean the complicated, Edward W. Said, implicitly admonishing the readers of Al-Ahram that they’re not to treat his book as if it were the Malleus Maleficarum:
To say of a novel that it is immoral is to suggest that novels are supposed to be moral, which is almost pure nonsense, since the only morality or good behavior that literature is really about directly is either good or bad writing. To treat fiction as if it were a religious or moral sermon is about as far from the actuality of literature as it is possible to get and indeed it is, in my opinion, the purest form of intellectual barbarism.
Granted, Said here sounds like Wilde and not Gramsci, and the confluence of that unlikely pair brings me to why I don’t think Orientalism, in its current vernacular usage as moralistic shibboleth, is a very good guide to Gazelle. For what did Said’s beloved Gramsci want? Consider that, as the northern Italians say, “Garibaldi didn’t unite Italy, he divided Africa.” Or that “Africa begins at the Pyrenees.” Or consider that commonplace of fascism and anti-Semitism that understands Judeo-Christianity to be an Oriental encrustation upon the pure white soul of a peninsula that should by rights be divided only between Zeus and Wotan. Or consider Žižek’s quip about how each country in “Europe,” from England to Turkey, considers itself to be the frontier of the occident, while its eastern or southern neighbor is the dangerous, doleful start of Asia or Africa. Consider all that, and then consider this part of Gramsci’s love letter to American capitalism, a fierce denunciation of the backwardness of the Italian hinterland:
It is worth noting that in “Utopias” the sexual question plays a large and often dominant part. (Croce’s observation that Campanella’s solutions in La Citta del Sole are inexplicable in terms of the sexual needs of Calabrian peasants is just inept.) Sexual instincts are those that have undergone the greatest degree of repression from society in the course of its development. “Regulation” of sexual instincts, because of the contradictions it creates and the perversions that are attributed to it, seems particularly “unnatural”. Hence the frequency of appeals to “nature” in this area. “Psycho-analytical” literature is also a kind of criticism of the regulation of sexual instincts in a form which often recalls the Enlightenment, as in its creation of a new myth of the “savage” on a sexual basis (including relations between parents and children).
There is a split, in this field, between city and country, but with no idyllic bias in favour of the country, where the most frequent and the most monstrous sexual crimes take place and where bestiality and sodomy are widespread. In the parliamentary enquiry on the South in 1911 it is stated that in Abruzzo and the Basilicata, which are the regions where there is most religious fanaticism and patriarchalism and the least influence of urban ideas (to such an extent that, according to Serpieri, in the years 1919-20 there was not even any peasant unrest in those areas) there is incest in 30 per cent of families. And it does not appear that the situation has changed since then.
My maternal grandparents were young children in Abruzzo at about the time of Gramsci’s writing, and their town would later fall prey to aggressive modernizers of the rival camp. My mother was born there two decades after Gramsci’s essay, and was mired in just the squalid rural idiocy the Sardinian intellectual described, as she will happily testify when singing her own Gramscian praises of Americanism. When she came to America, what did she want? With an ardor that I can only call Leninist, she wanted modernity. But the time of her immigration was not long after what Ducornet’s narrator ruefully calls “the age of McCarthy,” and so modernity to her was capitalism, while communism was the work of il diavolo. (I believe the first Presidential vote she cast was for McCarthy’s fellow anti-Communist witch-hammerer, Nixon). So just what are Gramsci or me or my mother or Said (the aristocratic Episcopalian Palestinian Proustian pianist) or, for that matter, Ducornet (the half-Cuban postmodernist)? Oriental or Occidental or what? I must conclude that life and art are just too complex to be talked about in this way, as if these peremptory one-word fixities could actually apply to anyone.
To wit: a certain type of artist or thinker, of whom we could worse than to take Wilde as an example, doesn’t want, as the militant capitalist and the militant communist alike want, to obliterate the pre-modern. Instead, dispirited and enervated by capitalocommunism’s insistence on the mappable, the iterable, the calculable, the visible, the exchangeable, the knowable, the predictable, and the causal, these thinkers and artists wish to recover some of what was lost with the epistemological shift to the clockwork universe—above all, a way of apprehending the world as at once whole and ineffable, for which nearly nonsensical idea Walter Pater’s famously paradoxical image of the “hard, gem-like flame,” a substance both solid and transparent, indestructible and evanescent, is modernism’s perfect emblem. To always stigmatize this desire as Orientalist if its artistic manifestations take any inspiration at all from anything that originated east or south of the English/French/German nexus that is meant in intellectual history by the word “Europe” is to act as if the content of Europe or of its outside were a settled question—and this is what Said at his best was warning us not to do.
For the conflict between modernity and its discontents runs through every society, rather as the conflict between good and evil runs through every individual soul. Gazelle, as it happens, contains within it an instructively ideal locale, Ramses Ragab’s floral orchard in the village of Fayum where he grows the flowers whose essences furnish his perfumes. Ragab explains that his orchard is a kind of commune, an aesthetic utopia where art, commerce, and equality are undivided:
“The villagers call the gardens and their network of ditches ‘our chain of miracles’ and, indeed, the village and its people are flourishing. The Kosmétérion, the production of attar, of absolute of henna and tuberose—these enable us all to live well. Mother and I are only two among the many the land provides for. We are fortunate that the villagers delight in beauty as much as we do, and believe that to devote a life to beauty is honorable.”
It is fortunate, as fortunate as it is unlikely, and its unlikeliness makes us doubt Ragab’s veracity, not for the first or last time in this book. And there are accordingly troubles in Fayum’s paradise: the village patriarchalism eventually claims the youthful ingénue Sakkiet, with whom Lizzie falls into a kind of hothouse adolescent love. Ragab gives voice to the essential problem he—and those like him, including myself—face when we challenge the modern world with the residua of what it has vanquished:
“If only there was a way to keep the beauty of Old Time safe, but not its tragic foolishness!”
In other words, if only we could “have it all”—the old magical worldview and smart phones and companionate marriage and anesthesia and free elections. That would be the true utopia! And it remains truly nowhere.
The narrative upon which this little utopia is strung like an amber bead on a bracelet simply doesn’t resemble the novel in its classical form. According to both Franco Moretti and Milan Kundera (whom Moretti, another ardent modernizer from Europe’s Orient, gratuitously insults, presumably on the good old strategic principle of removing the proximate enemy first), the novel is an anti-lyrical form. It dissolves the spell of lyricism’s magic in the coldly rational waters of causal narrative and organic character development, a literary form more closely resembling its sister-disciplines of the Enlightenment, geology or biology, than it does poetry. This was always one of James Wood’s more compelling points; here is how he puts it in his somewhat infamous review of Paradise:
Toni Morrison puts one in mind of Auden’s poem ‘The Novelist.’ The poet, writes Auden, can rush forward ‘like a hussar,’ but the novelist must eschew such acceleration, and learn to be ‘plain and awkward.’ In this novel, Morrison is forever rushing in sentimental garments, with no thought of the plain and awkward clothes that carry a narrative, that make its solemnities moving and not simply ridiculous.
Wood is on solid ground here; his positions are always bolstered by substantial arguments, often venerable claims in the tradition of radical aesthetics, despite his wholly unwarranted reputation as some kind of reactionary (does no one recall that the two epigraphs of his first book were from Ruskin and Lukács?), and not the fusty bundle of prejudices his less attentive or less prepared readers tend to acknowledge when they “Wow…just wow” at him. I say this as a prelude to taking issue with him on this matter, even as I also sympathize with his position.
Wood here is, like all the scourges of romance and lyricism and Orientalism discussed above, begging the aesthetic question when he presumes that ridicule is all the greeting intensity and compression deserve when we encounter them in narrative prose. More importantly, as he must know, he’s begging the metaphysical question when he implies that prose narrative ought not to be organized symbolically rather than mimetically—the latter implies a clockwork world susceptible to rational interpretation, while the former evokes a universe of correspondences or forest of symbols available only via visionary and gnostic experiences. Aestheticizing this via Auden’s sweet reasonableness as simply a question of genre (poetry vs. prose) doesn’t resolve the question but only disposes of it prematurely, as if the distinction between prose and poetry weren’t precisely the matter in dispute in the first place. We’re back, then, to the topos with which I began: modernity and its repressed.
Which side am I on? It is, as Zhou Enlai said in a related context, too soon to tell. Like most of us—if we admit it rather than trying to disguise it beneath our moral panics about supposed Orientalism—I’m torn; my thought, my work, is held together by the tension between these poles of experience. The question is simply not settled, and will certainly not be in my lifetime. And if I object to political propagandizing on this subject, it’s because I can determine no necessary connection between racial or gendered identity and where one falls in this dispute. There are men and women, whites and persons of color, on both sides of the divide; and there are moreover polities on the map that can’t be neatly described in an us vs. them fashion. Whether we are interested in celebrating the individual or in examining what pre-exists the individual in the motions of affect—and both are legitimate aspirations for art in my view—we should acknowledge that coarsely collective categories of identity are of limited help when exploring such subtle territory as spirituality and desire.
I am of the view that artists ask questions rather than answer them, and Gazelle asks the question of reality with tremendous flare and intelligence. So, in closing, here is Ducornet’s narrator, putting the position represented by modernity’s repressed as eloquently as I’ve seen anyone put it so far in this century. She does so by writing just such a sexual utopia as Gramsci skeptically evokes above, but this utopia does not so much appeal to nature, considered as mechanism in Enlightenment fashion, but rather to nature as infused or identical with spirit:
The prophet tells men to cultivate their wives as one cultivates a garden: this was just what Schéhérazade does to Schahriar. Night after night she cultivates him in the infinite revery that glimmers at the heart of human sexuality. Night after night she provokes the king’s curiosity and his desire, just as she softens his lethal rage against women and reveals the feminine sympathies that animate the world: the rose, the shell, the female sex; the female face, the moon; her saliva and the nectar of flowers, the taste of grapes that have been ripened on the vine. She reveals the sympathy between sensual love and adventure; she reveals that love is both the reason for adventure and its reward. Love, Schéhérazade tells Schariar, is the Universe’s soul—indissoluble and indestructible. Without love’s ardor to animate it, the Universe would be as lifeless as a handful of sand. Everything is perceived through the senses, she reminds him; it is the imagining mind that makes the world intelligible, and nothing animates the imagination as does love. It is love that makes us human, spontaneous, and thoughtful; it is the highest bond and the greatest good. The world and all its forms belong to Eros, and when everything is ended love will persist. Ardor, Schéhérazade tells Schariar, is the world’s cause and the world’s reason. When Schéhérazade speaks, it is as if the words themselves are wantoning.