Posts Tagged ‘Bertolt Brecht’

Jorge Luis Borges: Collected Fictions

January 3, 2023

     This re-reading of Borges’ short stories was less satisfying than my previous visits, as I recall; it was a case of separating the wheat from the chaff. I have always liked him for the bizarreness, as well as for his ability to do something really interesting with the short story form, which I have so often found thin, empty and disappointing. I also respect him as part of the inspiration for Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose, one of my favourite novels of all time, in which the mad monastery librarian is named Jorge, in tribute to Borges.

Borges here is in translation, of course, and for me, the translator has successfully captured a style and use of language, particularly through the use of long, languorous sentences, descriptive and atmospheric. There is often an almost Brechtian sense of alienation from our particular reality in Borges’ playing with time and space in so many of the stories, and in requiring the reader to suspend disbelief in more ways than fiction usually asks of us.

There is also his aptitude for creating a sense of verisimilitude, through the use of small plausible details which we cannot or have no real desire to verify, in totally invented situations, in order to confuse or deceive the reader; I found myself being reminded of the very earliest novelists such as Defoe and Swift, who realised way back in the early 18th century how to do this to great effect. The overall weirdness of Borges’ universes also recalled to me the fiction of Ben Marcus, and I wondered if that writer was familiar with Borges.

So, the tales or fictions are often bizarre or disturbing. The summit, I think, is reached in The Library of Babel, which posits a library as big as the universe which contains all possible writings; it combines Borges’ fascination with books with his fascination with labyrinths, and there is a computer programmer who has paid tribute to these by constructing a website that lets you interact with the library of Babel.

While I enjoyed my favourite stories again, I found myself wondering what exactly Borges had been trying to achieve; weirdness, a sense of eeriness? Alienation? Ensnaring his reader? Throughout, there is a sense of a man, a human like the rest of us, haunted by the meaninglessness of existence when confronted with time, immortality and the inevitability of death; hence the labyrinths in which characters wander, trapped… I found the earliest and the last stories better than those from the middle of his writing career, where there are too many about macho confrontations and knife fights in South America for my liking. There are some real gems, but you have to search for them.

Karel Čapek: R.U.R.

February 6, 2021

     I think it’s pretty well-known that the word robot comes from the Czech word for work, and was coined by Karel Čapek in his 1922 play R.U.R. (which stands for Rossum’s Universal Robots). I’ve just gone back to the play, which I first sought out in the 1980s.

Rossum originally set out to make artificial humans, but his son realised that a simplified, and more functional version would be cheaper and more profitable; soon these creations flood the world and take over almost all human tasks. The unbelieving heroine is shown as unable to tell the difference between human and robot, and then we are in the territory of, is there any real difference? Aren’t these creatures de-humanising humans by taking over their tasks? Our heroine belongs to an organisation that would give robots ‘human rights’; their creator thinks that everything will be produced so cheaply and plentifully that humans will be able to just help themselves to whatever they need…

It’s a play, and the dialogue is rather wooden. It reminds me of some of Shaw’s plays, though a kinder comparison would be with the kind of theatre Brecht was developing around the same time.

Things do not turn out as planned. Five years elapse between the first act and the remainder of the play, during which time humans have used robots as soldiers, wars are being fought everywhere, it’s clear that sometimes robots go berserk, and that they increasingly despise inefficient and useless human beings, who are gradually dying out because they have no real purpose any more. The robots set about eliminating the last of our species. Unfortunately, the papers detailing how the robots are made, are destroyed.

Only one human survives, and the robots expect him to be able to reconstruct the recipe for making more of them, as they only have a 20-year lifespan. He cannot, and strangely, the robots become more despairing as they foresee their eventual disappearance; there is some essence of humanity in the final robot prototype and the last human finds himself in the position of God in Genesis; the ending is at once blindingly obvious, very clever and also highly satirical.

The play R.U.R. is now a curiosity more than anything, I think, and yet extremely prophetic in the issues it raises and foregrounds, and it deserves revisiting in these days of AI, if only for the purpose of making us think a little more deeply and clearly about what is going on, and what we may be preparing for our futures. Military use of robotics is already, frighteningly, well under-way. Human redundancy in many areas of the workplace has already begun. Can we be sure that robots will always act in our best interests, benevolently obeying Asimov’s famous Three Laws of Robotics? We should not be so complacent…

On censorship and the freedom to write

August 18, 2015

I’ve been thinking about censorship, and the control of ideas and writers, which has gone on in all societies almost as long as writing and thinking, as rulers quickly became aware of the subversive power of words. The basic idea is to prevent, or if that is not possible, to control publication, thus restricting access. For instance, until relatively recently, the Catholic Church maintained an Index Librorum Prohibitorum (index of prohibited books) which the faithful were not allowed to read; all kinds of political, religious, philosophical and social writings were not supposed to be read by good Catholics. Books on doctrine were carefully vetted: you can still see nowadays the Nihil Obstat (nothing against doctrine) and Imprimatur (let it be printed) granted by a highly-placed cleric often labelled as Censor…

In Britain, until 1964, all plays performed in the UK had to be licensed by the Lord Chancellor, and there were many reasons why a license might not be granted. The British have always been very wary of any overt sexual content in literature, and the Obscene Publications Act was used to prevent the publication in this country of such books as James Joyce‘s Ulysses, DH Lawrence‘s Lady Chatterley’s Lover and Hubert Selby‘s Last Exit to Brooklyn. The trouble was, that what couldn’t be printed here could be printed abroad and brought back, in exactly the same way as religious tracts were smuggled around Europe during the Reformation.

We tend to associate censorship with totalitarian regimes rather than our own country, and it’s true, dictatorships can deal with the issues of control of ideas rather more directly and effectively. The Nazis banned books, and publicly burned them (there’s a monument in Berlin’s Bebelplatz commemorating just such actions); given the severity of punishments meted out for small infringements, not much more was required. Writers went into exile – Bertolt Brecht, for instance, knowing that his life was at risk if her remained in Germany. And writers were killed; Irene Nemirovsky, French writer of Jewish origin, author of the astonishing Suite Francaise, was killed in Auschwitz.

The Soviet Union had longer to get ideas under control. Writers perished in Stalin’s purges – the poet Osip Mandelstam, for example – and others had narrow escapes. Some went into exile voluntarily, others were forced out of the country: Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, who had one novella published in the country during a brief thaw, eventually ended up in the USA, a twisted and embittered man cut off from his roots, losing his creative powers. This, one suspects, was exactly what the Soviet authorities desired: he couldn’t be openly tried and jailed or executed, and he couldn’t be kept under control at home; exiled, he was emasculated.

Book production was controlled by censorship and also by paper rationing. Many writers wrote ‘for the bottom drawer’, a euphemism for accepting that, whilst they could write relatively freely, they could not disseminate their manuscripts, and would certainly not be published. As long as they remained quiet, they would be left alone. So a masterpiece such as Vassily Grossman‘s Life and Fate, which has rightly been called a twentieth century War and Peace, sat neglected for years; a KGB officer who read the manuscript was reported to have told Grossman that there was no way the book could be published for at least two centuries…

And every now and then there surfaces from the USA some bizarre story of a school board somewhere wanting to ban a book and prevent students from reading it because they don’t like the ideas in it – To Kill A Mockingbird is one of those books, but any book with vaguely left-wing ideas or hints of sexual freedom is fair game for the book-burners in some places.

The situation is rather more sinister in the West, in some ways. Yes, we can read anything we like as long as we know it exists and we can get hold of it: we have that freedom. But, books which challenge the accepted social, political or religious order are tolerated because of their basically relative irrelevance in the greater scheme of things; literary culture is a very minority interest in the days of modern bread and circuses, The Sun newspaper, Sky TV and Netflix being what most people accept that they want, having been told that and been sold them.

(to be concluded)

 

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