Saturday, June 22, 2013

War with the Newts, by Karel Čapek

This review appeared first on the Dark Mountain blog, but it fits with what I usually publish here, so I thought I would post it again. Robert Wechsler, who publishes the novel as well as several other excellent volumes of Czech literature in translation, did point out in the comments that Čapek's last novel, which I thought had never made it to English, was completed by his wife and published in 1941 as The Cheat. Čapek is an author I've felt very close to recently, so I'm sure the book is worth seeking out.

The best way for this 1936 Czech novel to find its readers is simply to describe the plot.

In an isolated corner of the South Seas, a Dutch captain discovers an unknown species of newt swimming in the shallow waters of a cove which the locals have always avoided. When the captain docks on a neighboring island, the newts seem fascinated by him and strangely able to decipher his signals. The adults, who are almost four feet tall, have a build something like human children, and when on land walk on their hind legs. From the captain’s instructions, the newts bring up some pearl oysters, and the creatures even prove able to use his blade to open up the shells themselves.

Despite these skills, the newts have remained trapped in the cove for untold centuries, because they cannot swim in the open ocean and their population is kept in check by the sharks who come by regularly to devour them.

A scheme occurs to the captain, based both on greed and what seems to him like compassion. With the help of a Czech industrialist, the captain begins to transport the newts out of their cove using a tank on his boat. He spreads them to other local shallows where they can thrive unmolested. In return, the newts collect the pearls that human divers have been unable to reach.

Without frequent visits from sharks, the newts multiply at an astonishing rate (one female can release hundreds of viable eggs). Soon, predictably, they have gathered so many pearls that the bottom drops out of the market. By this point, though, it has been discovered that the newts, given tools and a bare diet, are excellent at a variety of underwater work: excavating harbors, shaping and extending coastlines, and other tasks useful for modern nation states.

Under the direction of a syndicate, huge numbers of newts are now bred and shipped around the world. Countries with coastlines begin rapidly expanding their borders, dredging and reclaiming enormous stretches of land. Fantasies of new continents rising out of the waters begin to circulate—why, after all, should so much space in the oceans and seas be wasted when it could be put to man’s use?

Troubling moral questions arise as the worker newts show increasing levels of sophistication. Scientists maintain that newt behavior is mere mechanical imitation, but soon this becomes impossible to accept. Expert opinions in the novel are constantly, drastically wrong, but no one ever admits a mistake. Instead, people simply move forward into a world where everyone now believes the opposite of what was once maintained.

Things move so quickly that the reshaping of the planet is far along before people can even begin to absorb what has happened. Is it defensible to use newts as slaves? Might there be problems with changing the shape of coastlines? Do these creatures have souls? (Čapek’s invented reply for George Bernard Shaw: “They certainly have no soul. In this they resemble man.”) Newt questions are hotly debated, and these discussions change things a little (schools for newts, more humane working conditions) but the reformers are a few people rowing chaotically on a ship in full sail intent on moving in only one direction. Anxiety only reaches a noticeable level when there are newts blanketing the coastline of every nation, with tools and underwater explosives at their disposal.

A levee breaks in New Orleans, flooding the city. There are other accidents, new inundations, and a sense of things falling mysteriously apart, but no one suspects the newts are behind the problems until they release a statement. They bear humans no ill will; they simply have needs of their own.

No need for alarm. We have no hostile intentions towards you. We only need more water, more coasts, more shallows to live in. There are many of us. There’s no longer enough room for us on your coasts. That’s why we have to dismantle your continents. We shall turn them all into bays and islands. In this way the overall length of the world’s shoreline can be increased by a factor of five. We shall construct new shallows. We cannot live in the deep ocean. We shall need your continents as fill-in material.

The newts still require humans, of course, for surplus food, metals, and other land-based raw materials (perhaps they also find us charming, like pandas, and wouldn’t want to be entirely without us). When denied these materials, the newts are quite willing to use violence.

On one level, they have learned these habits from years of human tyranny, but the novel also hints at another explanation, the same one that Leopold Kohr would advance a few decades later in The Breakdown of Nations—once a certain critical mass of power has been reached, in terms of numbers and technological sophistication, power-hungry, expansionist behavior seems to develop almost spontaneously. It is the only way that massive systems can absorb the resources they need to keep functioning.

As with lemmings and arctic grass, the planet’s ecosystem in Čapek’s world has become so simplified (newts, humans, and the things they eat and need) that it can only be moving towards a pattern of seesawing crashes. Most countries, nevertheless, keep selling the newts weapons and food. It would, after all, be an economic catastrophe not to. Water begins to spread across every continent, and the remaining humans are pushed higher and higher into the mountains...

When War with the Newts was published in 1936, it was seen as a simple parable about the Nazi threat. As a writer in Czechoslovakia, which had existed precariously as a republic for less than two decades, Čapek was acutely conscious of this danger—but if the newts began as the Nazis in his imagination, they soon sent branches in all directions to become one of literature’s great protean symbols. At different points in the novel, for example, the newts call up both the people on whom the Nazis conducted their experiments and the torturers themselves. Every time the book threatens to become schematic, it slithers away and turns into something else.

I have ruined nothing by describing the plot. The delight of the novel lies in the little eddies and swirls around the narrative—from the mating rituals of the newts, which Čapek catalogs in a few magical pages, to the pamphlet welcoming newt dominion in which I saw a few of my own ideas perceptively mocked.

War with the Newts is not all sophisticated parodies of Spengler, though; in addition to being smart, it is also quite engagingly stupid, with jokes about Hollywood starlets and various farcical footnotes. Part of this is a canny narrative strategy where the book slowly lifts itself out of the frivolity in which prosperous humanity has been drowsing—but it is also something simpler: why not make a silly joke, even in your serious book, if one occurs to you? Unlike the largely humorless, almost oppressive greatness of writers who feel that they speak for nations—like, say, Thomas Mann, a contemporary who admired this novel—Čapek’s pages are lit with a kind of elfin spirit.

As I was reading this book, I kept being reminded of Leopold Kohr, that defender of little states who grew up a few hours from the Czech border. In both writers I recognized the same unwillingness to keep delight out of their pages, even when the ideas within point again and again to an impending collapse—the shared conviction, useful for sanity in bad times, that the most natural and becoming expression of the human face is a smile.

While reading his books, I find it worth remembering that Čapek was often in immense pain—he suffered from severe inflammation of the spine from the time he was a child. In the last story of Tales from Two Pockets, Čapek’s brilliant collection of mystery stories, a narrator who suffered in this way writes:
“I’ve had such respect, such a reverence in me; everything seems more important to me now…each little thing and each human being, do you understand? Everything has enormous value. Whenever I see a sunset, I tell myself it was worth that incredible pain. And people, their work, their ordinary lives…all of it has value because of that pain. And I know it’s a terrible and unspeakable price to pay—but I truly believe that it isn’t some evil or punishment; it’s only pain, and it serves to…to give life this enormous worth—“ Mr Skrivanek stopped, not knowing how to go on.

As the country’s best-known writer, Čapek lobbied for the great powers to resist the Nazis’ demands for Czechoslovakia’s border territories. After Munich, he told a friend, “My world has died. I no longer have any reason to write.”

I can believe that, in a dark mood, he said this and meant it, but it wasn’t true. Čapek knew he would be arrested as soon as the Nazis invaded (he was, in fact, second on their list), but spent the days before the inevitable invasion trying to rescue his beloved garden from heavy autumn rains. He also worked for long stretches on his last, unfinished novel, which has never been translated into English, and spent late nights talking with friends. What else, after all, are you supposed to do?

Čapek caught a bad cold in the garden and didn’t bother to rest. A few days before the Nazis swept into his country, he died at home, spared an execution or a likely death in one of the camps—like this novel, one of literature’s small mercies.

Sunday, March 03, 2013

Forever Endeavour, by Ron Sexsmith

I've written a few times about my love for Ron Sexsmith's music. I own all of his albums, and have come to expect, every few years, another infusion of the spirit that has filled his work since his first eponymous album. Along with folk songs, and some classics by Dylan, Sam Cooke, and the old soul and country legends, I sing Ron's songs every few weeks just to feel them moving through me.

I picked up Sexsmith's most recent album, Forever Endeavour, on the day it was released. I listened to it for several weeks, and found, after years of what could be described as satisfied greed, that for the first time something felt off. The melodies were memorable, the production was intricate and tasteful, but the spirit that I had come to expect was missing from most of the album.

I don't usually bother writing about complaints. I should make it clear that I owe this man and his art an enormous debt of gratitude, and he owes me nothing at all. Still, I thought my sense of what was missing might be useful, because Forever Endeavour strikes me as succumbing to one of the few temptations that threaten great artists.

People often talk about musicians becoming commercially-compromised. I actually think that true artists have a difficult time selling out—not because they aren't tempted to do so, but because I suspect that they're not really sure how to manage it. Pandering is a special skill that the gods in their wisdom tend to grant to people who would never be able to produce something good anyway.

Although commercial compromise has affected some of the production on Sexsmith's albums, it has never threatened his songs—they come from a place that simply won't supply a mass product. Instead, I think that much of this album, like just a few of Sexsmith's older songs, is immortality-compromised.

To be immortality-compromised is to set out in advance to create a work of art that is going to continue to connect with people. It is the courting of posterity in the process of composition. We can start with the title: Forever Endeavour. Sexsmith explained in an interview that it refers to the aspiration to write something that would last. The idea has appeared before in his work. In “Chasing Forever,” off Destination Unknown, he wrote “Once it dawned on me what a song can grant you, I learned to write / In every songbook on every piano, eternal life.”

This may seem harmless enough—isn't a just a way of saying that, as an artist, you're going to do your absolute best? Or the fancy that we allow to play over a finished work to enhance the feeling of pride, or later, during bad days, to drive away despair when no one much cares for what we've made?

Sometimes, though, it is not harmless. You can see the fingerprints of that mysterious audience, posterity, on a song like “If Only Avenue.”

With the luxury of hindsight
The past becomes so clear
As I look out on the twilight
My days have become years
It's strange, as people we're prone to dwell
On things that we can't undo
And we're liable to wander down
If Only Avenue

This is not bad, certainly. The melody is lovely; the lyrics are coherent and well-crafted. But this song, like so many others on the album, is about Everyone living in Anytown. It is a transmission directed towards the future, where the people all have blurred faces and their needs are unclear.

Compare this song of generalized regret to the very specific regrets found in “Dandelion Wine,” which relates to the painful collapse of Sexsmith's first marriage. A young couple gathers dandelion flowers to make wine (I have always wondered how to do this) and creates a concoction that ends up being less than tasty—“we drank it anyway,” he sings, “for love had made it fine.” I have never had any of the experiences in this song, but whenever I sing or play it, it reaches to a place of regret—because genuine instead of abstract—that “If Only Avenue” can't approach.

It's true that some of Sexsmith's best songs are written out of a sense of desperation that it would be unfair to expect anyone to feel on a regular basis. Most of his songs, though, are not confessional and still do not drift away into this universal territory. These is always something concrete, some individual strangeness, including some lines that I don't think we're even meant to understand, like the ones about “dumming down and talk shows” on “Seem to Recall” (it's spelled that way in the lyric sheet).

Sexsmith has even written message songs before, sometimes about the very same subjects, but on this album the tendency to generalize has taken over. Here, for example, is “Blind Eye.”

Our sleepy town of denial
Where all of the tears people cry
Fall on deaf ears
For we turn a blind eye 

This is the same little town that contains If Only Avenue: a landscape without a single actual suffering person. Compare these lines to “Ghost of a Chance,” off a truly great Sexsmith album, Exit Strategy of the Soul. which begins with a magical line: “With the graceful and grotesque the morning rings / see the garbage truck roll by, hear the birds begin to sing.” The narrator looks at the world around him and sees the same suffering that is the subject of “Blind Eye,” but produces these lyrics:

I'm on the trail of a storm
And everywhere I look
I see the ones that life has torn
Like pages from a book 

I've always remembered this image of people floating around like torn pages from a single volume. How many poets could have captured a sense of what we owe to each other as a community in such a beautiful line, let alone set it to such a lovely and flowing melody?

In Forever Endeavour, though, one feels that Sexsmith hasn't stepped outside his door to look at a real place, and is instead netting airy universal truths in a kind of vacuum. It is the danger of aiming for immortality: in trying to satisfy the needs of a future one knows nothing about, one subtracts and cuts and sands away the peculiar, aiming for the permanent, and the finished piece is an “essence” that ends up feeling like less than you started with.

Some sample song titles: “Deepens with Time,” “The Morning Light,” “Lost in Thought.” What deepens with time? Holding a beloved person's hand, hearing a mother's voice, an old song—again, any song, any voice, any mother. So, instead of a strange, personal reflection like “God Loves Everyone,” we get lines like these, on “Back of My Hand”: “Like the back of my hands / I know if there's a god / That only he understands / What to us just seems so odd.”

Odd? Plenty of people might be repelled and offended (or moved and stirred) by “God Loves Everyone.” I was casually dismissive of Sexsmith's spirituality when I first wrote about his work, but I feel my mistake now partially because the song convinced me. No one will have a similar reaction—or any particularly strong reaction—to the bouncy sentiments in “Back of My Hand.”

When Sexsmith steps away from Elysium, it is clear that none of his talent has left him. The songs I like the best on Forever Endeavour are actually the goofy ones, because they are so much less self-conscious: “Me, Myself, and Wine” and “She Does My Heart Good.” And there is one folk-y song, “Sneak Out the Back Door,” with just Sexsmith and a guitar, that is simply great. It's the only one off this album whose chords I immediately felt the need to figure out so I could sing it myself.

Will the song last? I have no idea. We have no idea what the needs of posterity might be and how we can meet them, or the strange paths by which a work of art sticks around. Many of the world's greatest artists—Shakespeare and Pushkin come to mind—have shown utter indifference to the preservation of their writing, and once upon a time most artists didn't even bother to sign their work. Increasingly I find this something to admire. You do your best, make some reasonable effort to get an audience, and then you let it go.

Time does its work; it saves some of Shakespeare's plays from the fire, and destroys almost all of the ones that Sophocles and Aeschylus wrote. It is currently extirpating hundreds of languages, and all of the stories and myths and songs that were created through them. The idea of posterity (we forget this, I think, in countries that have had their way for a while) relies on one's confidence in the continuity of a cultural tradition. If this confidence breaks apart, it can be paralyzing (I speak from experience) until one finally decides to push this idea of immortality quite forcefully away. Whenever I am tempted by it, I remember the idiot critic who goes around shouting “Glawr” through the centuries in Virginia Woolf's Orlando (he means gloire), while remaining continuously blind to the beauty in front of his nose.

This idea of lasting work—of eternal songbooks and Western canons—has always struck me as making art a kind of substitute religion. Since I've always had a hard time embracing any religious faith, I once found it an attractive one. I now feel like it's a bad religion for both its devotees and its priests. To aspire to create something eternal is an anti-spiritual idea, because it aims for a permanence that has never been true of human works of any kind; it also assigns a transcendent value to artistic activity that simply doesn't belong to it, and does so moreover with the aim of self glorification.

I think we are always punished for such presumption. The spirits withdraw a little, and then some more. If anyone can call them back, though, as he has so many times over the years, it is Sexsmith. And I hope he names his next album something like Way Station or All Things Must Pass.