The daydreaming element

(Edit: this post revised and errors corrected 7/6/10; and again 15/6/10)

While I was in Australia I picked up a copy of Andre Pieyre de Mandiargues’ Portrait of an English Gentleman in his Chateau, which the author described as “like a kiss of peace bestowed on the principle of Evil”, although if he had known the term Ero Guro Nansensu he might have used that as a description instead.  Anyway, I didn’t want to rock up at the counter with only that book, which is how I ended up buying the impeccably respectable The Sleepwalkers trilogy (all in one volume) by Austrian writer Hermann Broch — a book one probably should read, I thought, to balance a book one probably shouldn’t.

Broch began writing the trilogy in 1928, taking as his theme “the disintegration of values”. The first book, The Romantic, follows Joachim von Pasenow, a neurotic younger son of Prussian landed gentry whose family puts him in the army. His identity as an officer becomes central to his sense of self; he doesn’t like being out of uniform, and he regards his acquaintance Bertrand, who left the army and went into business, with suspicion and irrational horror. Pasenow has to choose between a woman of his own class, Elisabeth, who he puts on such a pedestal that the thought of having sex with her freaks him out, and a nightclub hostess who he does sleep with and seems to be in love with in an unsurprisingly shallow way. I got the sense (though I could be wrong) that the love story was really only a frame to hang Pasenow’s neurotic ruminations on. The book imitates the style of late 19th century writing, and while it’s exaggerated enough that we know it’s a parody, it still works as a piece of characterisation and storytelling. It cuts off at Joachim and Elisabeth’s wedding night, where the sex problem is solved by him falling asleep. It finishes with a humorous little four-line chapter telling the reader that nonetheless their first child was born eighteen months later: “How this came about cannot be told here. Besides, after the material for character construction already provided, the reader can imagine it for himself.”

Writing on The Sleepwalkers (“The Achievement of Hermann Broch”, 1949), Hannah Arendt notes that this ending “upset(s) the illusion of a created reality”. She asserts that because of it, “The fiction itself is expressly depreciated, its validity is set at an ironical and historical distance…Thus one of the chief pleasures of novel reading, the reader’s identification with the hero, is consciously destroyed, and the daydreaming element, which always had brought the novel suspiciously close to kitsch, is eliminated.” Broch “is never engrossed in, and never permits the reader to become absorbed by, the story itself.”

Sixty years later, I wonder if any reader would be put off identifying with the hero or getting absorbed in the story by a bit of irony and distancing. For that matter, would a theatregoer in Shakespeare’s time? Theatre and film audiences know that characters are fake people animated by real people, and still identify and get absorbed like crazy. No doubt we often turn to novels for a more seamless illusion, but unless that’s all we want, just knocking a brick or two out of the fourth wall isn’t going to eliminate the “daydreaming element”. Even in 1949, or, for that matter, at the time of the book’s publication, I’m not sure that it would have been eliminated. Strong is the reader’s desire to be enagaged by the fiction; easily put off by a few mind-tricks it is not.

No, to guarantee the elimination of the daydreaming element you need to write a really tedious story, dipping into evil without any kisses of peace upon it, about a character who’s a complete shit, which is what Broch does in the second volume of the trilogy, The Anarchist, also set in Germany. The protagonist, Esch, is a self-centred bookkeeper. He has a lot of thoughts about justice, but doesn’t examine his own premises for thinking of something as just or unjust; he’s able to live in a kind of eternal present, making up his own rules as he goes along, thinking with a parody of logic to justify lousy behaviour.  [Edit: and I’m now cutting the rest of what I wrote about Esch, because I think I need to read the rest of the book and some more commentaries on what Broch was trying to do with Esch or show through him; I’m also not sure, now, that the daydreaming element is absent from The Anarchist. I think it might be there, maybe, but treated more as a subject on its own than in The Romantic, and more sytematically undermined than in that book, and yet maybe not entirely undermined…maybe.]

On to a general point Arendt makes in her essay: “A gift for story-telling which half a century ago could be found only among the great is today frequently the common equipment of good but essentially mediocre writers. Good second-rate production, which is as far removed from kitsch as it is from great art, satisfies fully the demands of the educated and art-loving public and has more effectively estranged the great masters from their audience than the much-feared mass culture.”

I don’t think Arendt is saying that first-rate writing is distinguished by not satisfying the demands of a fairly literate and cultured public, but that it does set itself above those demands, and if it satisfies them, perhaps does so incidentally. Accordingly, when the average educated schmoe reads great writing, s/he might well be tempted to read it agin the author’s intent, for the sake of enjoying what is enjoyable in it, be that beauty or sensationalism or an attractive character, and pay comparatively little attention to themes like “the disintegration of values”. Of course, there’s great writing to which beauty and sensationalism are essential, and we can read it knowing the author wants us to bathe our souls in her luminous prose, or identify, if with a condom of irony in place, with some fucked-up weirdo.

Which brings me back to Pasenow, and to wondering whether I enjoyed The Romantic in part because of its setting in the upper class world. Whenever we read about the well-to-do, we of course get to vicariously inhabit their homes, wear their clothes and visit their haunts. This pleasure, which comes at the cheap price of a book, certainly helps to sell historical romances and doorstoppers about models and movie stars. It also (whisper) probably helps to sell books all the way up to the peaks of Henry James and Virginia Woolf. Would I have been as interested in Pasenow’s neurotic mind, his mad dad, and Elisabeth’s family, who devote themselves to piling up metaphorical sandbags around a world of genteel comfort, if the sandbagged world was one of ordinary comfort and Pasenow was a bookkeeper? I suspect I enjoyed Pasenow as a sort of sinful indulgence, if not a particularly piquant one; if Duc Jean des Esseintes were the absinthe truffle in a box of useless aristocrats, and Mandiargues’ Montcul the semen-and-shit ganache, Pasenow would be the slightly sickly strawberry cream.

A final question (for now): why is the daydreaming element kitsch? As a fantasy writer I want to ask that, since all fantasy is bathed in the daydreaming element, no matter what else is going on or what po-mo ironies are being committed.  And is kitsch always a bad thing? The sentimentality of kitsch can be dangerous because it’s easily turned to progaganda uses; but it can also criticise callous tendencies. Kitsch can sugar-coat a literary pill (though as I said above, there’s the danger of just licking the coating off). The Land of Kitsch may even share a boundary with the sublime, where we meet the gods — who are often gaudy and have been known to try to reach a mass audience. The trick, I think, is to treat kitsch like a would-be lover: see its pickup moves for what they are, and either give or withhold consent to its manipulations. But perhaps I’m wrong, or insufficiently tutored, or whatever you want to call it. (Edit: And maybe I’m misinterpreting what Arendt means by the daydreaming element; perhaps she’s only referring to sentimental identification for purposes of vicarious wish fulfilment and power tripping, so that a work like Gormenghast, which keeps you reading about a bunch of mediocre and awful personalities through the daydreaming power of beautiful writing and an extraordinary setting, would be safe from the kitsch label.)

(…Well, I don’t know whether the lucubrations in this post are up to much, but this is the first time in a long time that the brain fog has lifted enough to let me write something involving actual thought. The irrational anxiety has also diminished somewhat. This may be thanks to recent medical intervention of a rather simple sort, but I’m going to leave it a few weeks more before counting my chickens.)

23 thoughts on “The daydreaming element

  1. Your brain appears to be functioning quite nicely. I adore your final un-bracketed paragraph; the phrase “daydreaming element kitsch” is making my own brain excited, story-like, especially as I developed a strong interest in Vietnamese propaganda posters while travelling there; the idea of treating kitsch like a lover, being careful with it, is spot-on, I think.

    Now you’re back in Bangkok, I shall have to pounce on you once I’m back (back late on 23 June, lingering a couple weeks).

  2. I think I changed that paragraph after you commented…maybe it isn’t adorabe anymore =6

    Do pounce! Do you have any particular plans for while you’re here?

  3. Nope, still adorable. It’s all that stuff about kitsch and daydreaming; I should copy-paste it, leave it on my desktop, and see if I can indeed get a story from/of the kitsch.

    I need to apply for visas, plan out the route for seeing a chunk of mainland Asia, as well as chill out, see a bit more of Bangkok, hang out with friends, go up to Chiang Mai again for a few days… so there’ll be plenty of time for pouncing. I can finally see your Chinese TEC! (Well, I saw the pics of Laurie’s version on her LJ, complete with A++ comic.)

  4. I keep revising this post as I read more of the book. I need to stop and just write another post, I think, and correct myself there if I need to. It’s the most challenging book I’ve read in a while.
    (Edit: Hope you cook something up in the kitschen!)

    Looking out my window, either just north or just south of the river I can see a large region full of trees. I’m wondering what it is, and whether it’s explorable. Maybe we can go pounce on that!

  5. Yes! Woodland-y explorations sound fun.

    (That pun is offending me less than usual. Maybe it’s because kitsch is already tacky and daft, so turning it into a pun is not such a step away from its true self.

  6. Oh, if it’s the big patch of trees on the other side of the Chao Phraya, it’s Thonburi! The site of the original new city, after Ayutthaya fell and before Rattanakosin island became the centre. Tori wants to go exploring there too.

  7. I read this post at work on Monday and it was awesome. I don’t think I ever quite got the desire to read on only one of those levels or the other. My brain likes daydreaming and analysing at the same time, working on two overlapping tracks. Writing being about writing, and fantasy about fantasy, to some extent in every work, but that doesn’t spoil the daydreaming. I mean, I’ve had real dreams where I notice meta-dream symbolic (sometimes noticing a visual pun and thinking ‘I should write that down later!’, though on waking reflection it’s really shit) things while still immersed in the dream-reality, so it really doesn’t seem like a contradiction.

    Also yay, you’re back in Bangkok! We must have tea.

  8. Also, do let’s all go Thonburi exploring! Maybe we’ll stumble upon ancient ruins and nameless horrors, or at least some interesting canalside communities.

    Alex, I did actually dub the kitchen in my first student house the ‘kitschen’, because I had a lot of kitschy crockery and decor. I don’t know if that’s better or worse than some arty friends who moved into a house together and called the place ‘arthaus’ 🙂

  9. Alex — Looking at a map, I think it might be Bang Kachao. It’s south of Klong Toei. If we wanted to try going there, I know a travel agent who knows a guy with a boat who might pick us up at a river landing. Or taxi from the excitingly named Industrial Ring Road might work (there’s also a Japanese robot restaurant on the way). Or Tori might have a better idea!

    Tori — I do that too. I wonder if we read differently from people in the past; or if there’s always been an intellectual echelon that avoids the daydreaming track out of principle? I also wonder if you work on both tracks when you write.

    That guy with the boat took some friends and I around the Thonburi canals, which was a pleasant (if engine-noisy) day’s outing. But I’m game to try walking!

  10. I found this, about propaganda art in Vietnam: http://www.dogmacollection.com/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=32&Itemid=24 I suspect they’re connected to the Dogma shops in HCMC that sell posters, clothes, notebooks, postcards, etc. I had fun in those. Haven’t read this website yet, but it has potential.

    I’m also really torn about a lovely book called The Women in Vietnamese Revolutionary Art that I saw in Orbit Books but didn’t buy, due to size and weight and high, high cost (1,600 baht or similar), but it seems the only way to get it in the West is to order online from Orchid Books. Will have to debate buying it some more.

  11. A (nottoopricey?) boat sounds better than my probable method of trying to figure it out myself via public transport and then wandering frustrated and lost among the trees…

    And oh, I’m really intrigued by the question of whether we read differently from people in the past – tempted to say yes because we’re pretty influenced by readers who’ve come before or are contemporary to us, but there’s lots to think about there. Hmm. I don’t know if I do it when I write, though, my writing-brain may be too much of an almighty muddle.

  12. …. Good second-rate production, which is as far removed from kitsch as it is from great art, satisfies fully the demands of the educated and art-loving public and has more effectively estranged the great masters from their audience than the much-feared mass culture.”

    I get reminded of this whenever I read the 1-star reviews of “The Road” on Amazon, because that book left me in terror that I had already read the best book of my life and it was all downhill from here.

    Errr… there’s more to that obviously, but my brain is stuck.

  13. “is kitsch always a bad thing?”
    I find I that kitsch thing like I treat everything of late. If I can’t dive head first into it I’ll look at it with the eye of a cynic, then try and dive in boots first

  14. I love this post. You’ve given me a lot to much on.

    Playing and dreaming are important parts of how we live and how we discover shared realities and create shared realities. If the exaggerated mode is definable as kitsch, then that might be a different function of playing or dreaming to the mode that’s not kitsch, but it doesn’t make the kitsch less important.

  15. Alex — that’s what a pack horse is for! I like the naive style of those posters, especially the women snipers in the lotuses.

    Tori — I don’t think it was all that pricey, but I’ll check.

    I’m having so many thoughts about how we read and write (and who are “we” anyway) that I think I’ll have to make a new post!

    Kirby — I don’t think I’ve ever bought or not bought a book based on Amazon reviews, but I kind of find the reviews interesting as artefacts in themselves — snapshops of people’s tastes and assumptions and approaches to reading, a sort of scrapbook of readers.

    Colin — Only boots, not a hazmat suit?

    Gillian — Except (I thought of this yesterday, and I’m about to argue against myself) if the kitsch satisfies us, we might get a “kitsch tooth” — maybe we risk the emotional response becoming tuned to the exaggerated mode.

  16. I’m work with sharp rusted pointed things all day. I don’t have time to worry about the hazmat gear.
    Besides i think if my thought process could be turned into a liquid you would probably have some kind of desise that would make aids look like the common cold

  17. A “kitsch tooth” :3 It feels like you’re caressing my brain.

    I so want to take a pack-animal – a camel! – onto my flight home. Wonder what Qantas’ll say.

  18. Colin – I like to think that my thought processes smell like roses.

    Alex – Tell them it’s your chocolate roadie and I’m sure they’ll understand.

  19. Cultures do get kitsch teeth (I love that phrase, too). Rococo art shows signs of this. and maybe (just maybe) a particular generation of Bollywood films. The nuanced stuff is still there, hidden under the gold leaf and mountains of sugar, but it’s the gold leaf and mountains of sugar that help bring foth the emotions. Bathos and pathos aren’t really that far removed from each other.

  20. I agree that the gold leaf and sugar help to bring forth emotions, but I’m thinking of where it goes from there.
    Maybe a kitsch culture encourages us to live so much in our feelings that we become easily subject to the manipulations of kitsch, for both benign and malign goals, and less likely to act on reason.

  21. Some cultures use the kitsch to express the emotions with an underlay of cynicism, though. I guess it depends on what we eat with our kitsch. Kitsch with a dash of sarcasm?

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