Stranger and Stranger

 Posted by at 10:38 am  Atelier
May 292012

"Boredom is the dreambird that hatches the egg of experience" (W Benjamin, The Storyteller – Illuminations (New York 1968), P 91). There are exercises for keeping our eyes open, awake, and alert to what is emerging out from what was not there to begin with when we began looking; the Where's Wally illustrated books for example, which we used to pore over with our children before bedtime, looking for the bespectacled black-haired smooth-faced Wally in the huge crowds.

We explored the picture book landscapes in which all those people were moving, looking for the one, the case, the exception, the singular. Or the strange: such as The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde in literature, and in history. Cases of exception, or anomalies (NB see the review of Carlo Ginzburg, Threads and Traces: True, False, Fictive in the LRB 26 April 2012).

Cases of exception, or States of Emergency. On the one hand, there is the biopolitical discourse of Agamben et al, examining the history of "outlaw". On the other hand, there is the lawyer Utterton in Stevenson's evegreen novel attempting to describe Edward Hyde to himself after his first meeting, but being unable to find afequate words for the man, who is not so much misshapen as the personification of exception. "A man who is a disgrace" Utterston thinks to himself, or a perversion – as a legal man would describe "the perversion of the course of justice".

Perversions, cases of exception, including also those who are – or believe themselves to be – above the law or beyond it, whether politically, medically, economically, or socially; we will see how Rebekkah and her clan make out when they have their day in court… meanwhile Tony Blair smoothies his way through the Leveson Inquiry cross-examination, and we remember what a consumate performer he is and was.

Why does this all matter? It matters in the strange case of our moral imagination, here and now in the middle of the flag-waving crowds with all their current versions of scepticism – late philosophical relativism, negationism, barbarism – "What is Fiction? What is Non-Fiction?" versions. Because it matters to be able to detect the difference between fact and invention (including epistemiological questions and issues to do with methodology).

An intense "subjectivity" (in inverted commas as Joseph Roth put it in one of his 1920's letters to an aspiring feuilleton writer); personal experience as a cognitive instrument. Another way of putting it? Here's Willy:
"I was sitting in a lunchroom in new York having my doughnuts and coffee. I was thinking that one does feel a little boxed in New York, like living in a series of boxes. I looked out of the window and there was this great big Yale (mover's) truck. That's cut-up – a juxtaposition of what's happening and what you're thinking of. I make this practice when I walk down the street. I'll say, when I got to here I saw that sign; I was thinking this, and when I return to the house I'll type this up. Some of this material I use and some I don't. I literally have thousands of pages of notes here, raw, and I keep a diary as well. In a sense it is travelling in time.
Most people don't see what is going on around them.That's my principal message to writers: for God's sake, keep your eyes open. Notice what is going on around you."
William S Burroughs, The Art of Fiction, No 36 (Paris Review, 35, Autumn 1965).

Moral Imagination: Threads and Traces (Carlo Ginzburg), Lines (Tim Ingold), cut-up boredom in Uncle Wally or Cousin Willy's magic encyclopaedias, criss-crossings time and place (the great slabs of time under pressure), hatching the data sets, dialogues, a songthrush singing in the trees behind Camden Road in north London, handwritten pages of notes, personal journals, saved files, online articles, half-read books on the bedside table…