Feb 132016
 

Chrostowska_s_d_retouched_scaled_cropped

It can be said that the entire book is a working out of how a Western-educated liberal, free from acquaintance with Eastern philosophy (apparently), and bereft of much human contact, sees his world—a Man without Qualities in a novel of ideas for our time when the idea of the nation-state is being replaced by the mechanisms of a large private limited company. —Jeff Bursey

Matches_Cover_Front_Mockup_07182015

Matches: A Light Book
S.D. Chrostowska
Punctum
Paper, 538 pp., $25.00
9780692540732

I

An apt place to start discussing S.D. Chrostowska’s new work is with the cover, where the representation of untapped fire in the form of matchboxes rests in our hand along with the book itself to summon forth imagery of conflagrations ignited by congregations of ignorance, inbred fright and hostility, where the State and/or citizenry burn books gleefully or, where restrained, banish them from library shelves for their views on gender issues, same-sex marriage, explicit descriptions or the use of offensive words defined as such by those eager to protect their children. The pyrotechnics continue on the copyright page—that overlooked dead leaf in most books (would that there existed a work made up solely of idiosyncratic copyright pages)—where Punctum states:

This work carries a Creative Commons BY-NC-SA 4.0 International license, which means that you are free to copy and redistribute the material in any medium or format, and you may also remix, transform and build upon the material, as long as you clearly attribute the work to the authors (but not in a way that suggests the authors or punctum endorses you and your work), you do not use this work for commercial gain in any form whatsoever, and that for any remixing and transformation, you distribute your rebuild under the same license.

Anything goes, then, this book is practically a box or kit filled with gears and levers, you can make out of its contents a soapbox racer or a towering edifice to Marxism, a paean to the life of the public intellectual or a scrap with philosopher-sociologist Bruno Latour, and the book performs its own self-transubstantiation from the top line on the back cover where booksellers are aided in commodifying it by the heading “Philosophy/Essays,” like that first word will propel sales or encapsulate the pith of Matches by offering a partial truth—a fragment of the truth—of what Chrostowska has achieved, for what we have here is a multi-sided work: the unnamed narrator (hereafter referred to as N.) as a goad, as a cynic despairing of humanity’s chances, watching while the world comes to a slow and distasteful end, and occasionally winking at this or that outrageous statement. (Who’s to say that essays can’t be spoken by a persona?) The decline is presented in stages, with themes, walk-on parts for minor figures, costumes (verbal dressing of arguments), and sharp attacks (verbal dressing downs). “Before you level at me the charge of inkhorn writer, you must try to understand my reason for choosing ‘bookish words’: they remind me there used to be such things as books” (“Inkhorn”).

Nostalgia, sentiment (not sentimentality), days of golden glory long gone to rust, a cultural milieu fast disappearing, a long battle with inanition and lowering standards—what is this all for? While it contains philosophy, Matches is more an intellectual biography of a fractious mind in contact with long-standing and current crises engendered by politics and science as well as fads and paradigm shifts, sparing scant glances at the stuff of the sensory world. Real people are almost absent, and when they are encountered it’s dramatic and disturbing:

As the bus pulled into the station at the end of the line, I took a tactical position and, passing him, ran my shoulder into his—instantly realizing, however, that my puniness may have left the wrong impression (of an accident, not deliberate aggression). Fearing cowardice and loss of composure, with shame already coming on, I turned around to give him one final look with all the urgency I could muster. (“Angel of Death”)

Instead of a moment of significant impact there is an instance of insubstantiality. Wispiness of N.’s physical self, a life that does not include many descriptions of meals, surfing, broken bones, or guitars, is countered by vigorous cerebral activity. But to be as precise as N., the scene of his running into a man dressed in the regalia of a Nazi SS officer is as vaporous as this: “It is a comforting thought that the extremes of good and
evil as we knew them are a thing of the past, that in our attention-deficit economy good and evil are losing their edge, growing closer together” (“The Gulf of Inattention”). We pause to take in both the humour and the sting. Yet there’s nothing actually going on beyond the press of ink on paper; nothing has happened. Despite the acknowledged limitations of the page Matches makes clear a larger world lies beyond it. But it’s not a safe place, as N. notes: “No scaffold is too elevated for a writer’s execution. He has come into being as a public figure, and it is only fitting that he be helped to die as one” (“Literary Public Execution).

II

Matches has seven sections: Proem (a kind of preface), Books I-V, and Paralipomena (defined as things omitted but added as a supplement). Proem as a whole is a joy to read aloud, and here is the first paragraph:

I had a vision of a book that shed light. A torch book to light my way. A comet book, its luminous tail to leave a trace for me. Its brightness so intense that closing it submerged whoever broke it open in deeper darkness than before. I fancied a kind of sempiternal flame that shot up again as one resumed where one had left off.

Notice the small steps that lead from a personal light to an object “whoever” can use, and then the subtly implied external (and therefore potentially larger) audience of “one” that may find illumination in what’s to come. Attention to assonance and consonance in service to both the embrace of a widening audience and an abiding metaphor persists to the book’s final, slippery words: “Endings: Can be eelusory.”

The bulk of Matches contains threads of discussion, picked up and dropped as N. loses interest, on writing and books, indigenous people, the pursuit of knowledge, Utopia and what that recurrent idea says about the world we inhabit, sensitivity, art, and dreams, but these categories only hint at what resides in this book. Here are random examples:

This work of art may have been made by your neighbour, but in it he seems a stranger. (“Work of Exception”)

What, at base, is resentment, if not the need for equality clumsily expressed? (“Resentment”)

Nature seems never
 to have cared less for our micro-minded designs for self-preservation than in our present age. Twice marked, once wise, we make do in the killing fields without admitting this bleak and ageist thought. And our horrid work isn’t exactly getting any easier. But when our turn comes, let’s not flatter one another. It is nature that pulls the trigger—not in our name, no, but in its own. (“Sapiens sapiens, or Nil Admirari”)

Matches is a work that is replete with fragmentation, a literary incendiary device that changes a marathon reading to a deliberate exercise in sifting cultural rubble. “What do all these fragments have in common?” asks N. “What unites them? Or is their fragmentariness meant to point us in the direction of the titular ‘threshold’?” (“Cannonball”) That question isn’t directed inwards; it’s left to readers to discern what we can from the one-liners, the puns, the pastiches, the wry tone, and the longer considerations of this or that topic. Perhaps figuring out the narrator might help the book cohere.

III

What is N.’s nature? I built in my mind over the course of 450 pages the following figure: a garrulous aunt you primarily see at weddings, funerals, and festive celebrations, stationed by the food, drink in hand but not drunk, a little shorter than average, maybe known as Madge, peppery, quick-tongued, cognitively aware, and unafraid to say what came to mind, a woman wearily aware of the passing of time and the ends of things, nearer to pessimism than meliorism. In “Making Up Lives” N. says: “My biographer might write, based on my work: he was interested in X because he had experienced something like, or something of, X.” He. Everything I had concocted exploded by this pronoun. Recalibration of motivations began, but why had I led myself astray? Does gender change ideas that much? In Chrostowska’s novel Permission (2013), where a one-sided epistolary affair collects tension as to whether or not the recipient of the letters will refrain from responding, the action is made up of recollections and hypotheses, to the point where one might feel bored, until there is a sudden shift, a confession from the letter writer (Fern) that cautions the reader from making complacent assumptions. Chrostowska has executed a similarly smart move in Matches dislocating the point of view so casually and so deep in the work that I’m left questioning myself.

When N. writes about commerce, culture, and civilization, bracing his remarks with long and short quotations from this or that public intellectual, there is a reserve of anger that emerges in flashes of impatience or, more commonly, a forced resignation (or powerlessness) to accept the way things are or look to be going. Matches can be seen as protest literature, though without strikes, demonstrations or civil disobedience. Whatever action the narrator might contemplate is never more than a thought. Passion and humour are present, yet what’s most prevalent is the ambivalence and melancholy about everything from political activity to the use of aphorisms (in a book filled with them), and skeptical or dismissive of such things as “the grasping hand of Christianity in the shape of the modern capitalist state,” life coaches, and “the revolutionary power of social media.” In “Faster! Faster!” N. addresses technology: “Some say that we are modern if and when we accelerate. Such a modernity would be worth celebrating only if things were moving faster and in the right direction.” This leads him to speak on efforts to forestall climate change: “And technological acceleration as a way of outpacing nature’s decline—to save it at the other end—is something of a vicious circle. Has anyone ever succeeded in catching someone they had themselves pushed off a roof?” The Anthropocene age is embraced decisively (as is “the Age of the Troll” [“Naming Contest”]). How to not descend into an even more drastic state is, as any newspaper or newscast will show, a question left to those in power: billionaires and their factotums (so-called world leaders), corporations, and advocates of globalization.

As the entries mount N. comes across as an impotent, ineffectual, dejected liberal who, at times, sounds like a neoliberal or a conservative. The thinkers brought in to bolster a case on this or that topic—de Man, Foucault, Habermas, Nietzsche—are flawed or far removed from the public they ostensibly understand and seek to represent. N. is most withering when he invokes Marx (pilloried not long ago but Lazarus-like since the Great Recession started) in this passage from “Mutatio mundi”:

But Marx’s words cannot themselves accomplish what they call for, which is new to philosophy. They are conscious of communicating a novelty to thought. They are a call for a new totality (the world), in the making of which philosophy can—must—cannot but participate, and the enormity of the task requires marshalling the totality of philosophy, a move so revolutionary as to pull thought out of its orbit. In theology, exegesis, prayer, the task of thought exceeded its worldly limit; with modern philosophy, thought sets for itself a task at once greater than itself and within its new limits, which it projects and identifies with those of the world. The last Feuerbach thesis is furthest out in this respect, jutting out like a pier into swelling waters, its pillars firmly planted in the ocean floor. At the end of it stands the revolutionary visionary. Diverting his gaze from the dreamy horizon now back towards dry land, now down into the depths below, is the tension in his breast between the beachcomber and the pearl diver. (253-254)

In this image there is the liminal space between earth-bound reality and liquid illusions (hopes), and the visionary—the philosophical visionary only—is hesitancy incarnate. A ditherer. The poor, as N. states in “Means without End,” though willing to take some course of action, are unable to act: “After all, how can the slavishly exploited. . ., the truly solidary who willingly gave up their spare and excess means in return for the truth of struggle against ‘scarcity,’ who make ends meet in the struggle’s day to day, who instead of ‘minding the gap’ between where they are and where they’d like to be have wound up dwelling in it bodily—how can they actively prefigure a collective utopia?” The book is redolent of what might be termed negative Whiggishness—a view that everything declines, and that that is natural.

To draw such a clever image as that revolutionary on a pier—pointedly not at a barricade—is to indulge, as N. frequently does, in binary oppositions. This Manichean view of issues—in politics, criticism, social theory—requires false dilemmas and straw men. Far from being a weakness, that suits one of the narrative’s intentions, I believe: through polemics, to make us side (or not) with N.’s black-and-white positions and then catch ourselves for not considering every side. (Men of action will get on with things.) N. has a short entry that removes the option of empathy: “A soft spot for the opponent in a political debate indexes decay in one’s own position” (“Mushy Criticism”). Politics is a blood sport, but not a team one, as shown when religious imagery is used to illustrate more about the individual than about God or His people (the public is often invoked but is never a felt presence):

The simpler the life, the more pronounced its religious features. We carry the world’s expectations of us into our hermitage, priding ourselves on our private orderliness. As long as the mind does not deviate, we feel our days have been well-spent, and we have fulfilled our duty to the world: rising, the first meal, light or heavy, the first stimulant of the day. Morning ablutions, drying and dressing of the body. Choice of activity, planning out the rest of the day, exercise, a look at the budget, concluded with entertainment of some sort. We know it all well enough, take pleasure in this simple discipline, and yet when other things come to occupy our mind, these private rituals quickly lose their gravity and precision. It is still possible to be devout, as long as mind and body worship each other without interruption or intermediary.

A pleasant, unruffled, and still life sanitized of children, pets, parents and siblings, employers, neighbours, and their needs. Nowadays even the ring of a telephone is disruptive. Everything has to have a filter. No wonder social media is so pleasing.

In “Heart & Home” N. looks at this splendid isolation from another angle:

Political ignorance extends to the idea that the nation-state is just a bigger home, in which all the nation’s families live in harmony as in a communal dwelling.

The cosmopolitan, whose knowledge of political community breaks with such sentiments, rejects this Aristotelian conception of the state as home-land—as much as the idea that politics needs a fixed abode—fixed by familial-national attachment. Regardless of what he calls home, his true home is his heart—his cosmopolitan heart. And this home is his politics.

Syrian refugees? Forget about them. And there’s no wish to side with the 99% when your heart is the only residence you need. Who wants to contain multitudes these days? Isn’t selfishness more appropriate for this world than, say, a return to the demeaning German conceit of Kinder, Küche, Kirche, taken on in the last century by the English, and seemingly doing well in the Republican Party?

Narrowness of vision, attributed to the entire populace and shared, to some degree, by N., has contributed to the degradation of practically everything. Yet N. is at times blind to what is glaringly obvious, as when he writes: “Thieves need banks to deposit their stash without accounting for it. This to keep it from being stolen by others like them” (“Safety Deposits”). The 99% believe the real thieves are the banks and bankers, as N. knows, but he sits alone, diagnosing the maladies afflicting the body politic yet barely raising his own pulse through taking part in a struggle for change. He always has more words to buffer his heart, however grimly, as in this creed:

Thinking as source of certainty, and its mouth.

Thinking as the bed of certainty, and its bank.

Thinking as the cradle of certainty, and its grave. (“Three Clear Thoughts”)

There are set pieces when N. distances himself from his own thoughts, perhaps to explore alternate viewpoints in external form. In addition to quotations from Adorno, Benjamin, Foucault, Cioran, Gombrowicz, and daily papers, which allow for debates on items major and minor, there are dialogues between entities labelled A and B and A and A1. After a while you start to think of A and B as a refined Statler and Waldorf. They glide along in their speeches about what is human and what isn’t, on publishing, and nostalgia, as examples—though we are reminded by N. of “the naive embrace of the benefits of eloquence” with TED talks the epitome, for him, of the debasement of communication—and have a patter that, while occasionally showing irritation, reinforces the notion that they’ve gotten used to each other over time and enjoy their parole. Never mind the camouflage, however; this is N. thinking through subjects.

It can be said that the entire book is a working out of how a Western-educated liberal, free from acquaintance with Eastern philosophy (apparently), and bereft of much human contact, sees his world—a Man without Qualities in a novel of ideas for our time when the idea of the nation-state is being replaced by the mechanisms of a large private limited company. The comparison to Robert Musil’s work finds some underpinning in “Not Taken Lightly,” where N. writes:

. . . what better evidence that 
we are more discerning when we negate? Surely no one 
today would draw the more obvious conclusion: that there are more reasons to believe or more things to affirm than to disbelieve or disaffirm. But that won’t do. Refusal is often dangerous in going against the ruling consensus, it is courage to belief’s cowardice; it is safer and therefore easier to say yes. You don’t need much brains to say yes or no, but it takes nerve even to jangle your chains—sometimes conscious nerve. Negators expect to be held to account for their nos rather than patted and fed for their yeses. What’s more, negation is not always the result of whim or contrarian adolescence; not infrequently, it comes after thinking things over, thinking them twice (considering the risks of opposition). And expecting to be made to defend itself, it arms itself with arguments so as not to appear irresponsible. Either way you look at it, obviously a form of cognitive refinement.

N. doesn’t fight vigorously against anything, so he has chosen to put down his thoughts while attempting to fix himself in the shifting world. What started as notes has become, over time, a rough profile of his internal life. The fragments can’t be glued together, but they do suggest a lost wholeness that is impossible to reclaim in this breaking world. Has N. unwittingly shown more than he imagined?

IV

In “‘The younger the more clear-sighted’” N. offers this opinion:

Why should we look up to the future as we do? Why should we expect it to go where we cannot lead it by example? Time will not separate the good from the bad. It will not judge better, only similarly or differently. Posterity will not know to hold in high regard what we now fail to appreciate. But we can be sure that it will look down on us—not because we deserve it, but just because it has superseded us.

Posterity contains condescension and youthfulness, and it’s not a smarter time or a safe repository for deferred respect. What does that mean when applied to Matches: A Light Book?

It must be apparent that the 538 pages that make up this book offer an abundance of streams for critics to attempt to chart and cross, choosing to pay attention to certain ones over others. (One could just as easily focus on N.’s aesthetic views as his politics, for example.) N. has many acute and, at times, severe remarks about those who write on books, and the most fitting may be this: “Critics today need to feel the writer had reason for what they did, reason to innovate, reason to be daring” (“Novel Experiments”). Is this work in need of justification? Not solely critics, of course, but any reader of Matches, now and in the future, will offer an answer to that and an interpretation if they’re open to its arguments, ready to disagree or to be persuaded, after which revelation will follow on revelation, an oecumenical group activity, as each person makes of it what he or she wants, and perhaps needs, since its fragments can be read in numerous ways, under bright and dim light shining straight on or pitched at an angle to throw up facets as the shards are handled gingerly or roughly caressed. No one can piece these entries together to form one wholly, catholic, and postulated assemblage. That’s part of its genius, to allow for and provoke debate on its essence, on the identity of N., and, since this is the way things go, what its creator meant by writing it.

A truly thorough examination of Matches: A Light Book would map all the terrain and take an unusual form: a multi-week course containing lectures, slides, video, theatre, playtime, and interactivity. S.D. Chrostowska is a writer of importance, and with this work she has raised her own personal bar, as well as challenged her countrymen to do the same.

The final words go to N.’s stand-ins where the occasional gloominess is relieved by mordant wit:

A The life of the mind is nearly extinct.
B Leave it to brains-in-vats! Leave it to the machines . . .
A You think they’ll revive it?
B But of course! We’ll transmit to them what we admire but have no more time for. (“Vita contemplativa”)

—Jeff Bursey

nc

Jeff Bursey

Jeff Bursey is a Canadian literary critic, and author the novel Mirrors on which dust has fallen (Verbivoracious Press, 2015), and the political satire Verbatim: A Novel (2010), both of which take place in the same fictional Canadian province. His academic criticism has appeared most recently in Henry Miller: New Perspectives (Bloomsbury, 2015), a collection of essays on Miller and his works by various writers. Bursey is a Contributing Editor at The Winnipeg Review and an Associate Editor at Lee Thompson’s Galleon. His reviews have appeared in, among others, American Book Review, Books in Canada, The Quarterly Conversation, Music & Literature, Rain Taxi, The Winnipeg Review and Review of Contemporary Fiction. He makes his home on Prince Edward Island in Canada’s Far East

Leave a Reply