Melancholia as Ultimate Rebellion

Excerpts from Lee Rourke, “In Conversation: Lee Rourke and Tom McCarthy,” The Guardian (Guardian Review p.12) Saturday 18 September 2010

[Lee Rourke (left) and Tom McCarthy. Photograph: Eamonn McCabe for the Guardian]

LR: You’ve said in the past that all art is repetition.

TMcC: Yeah: Joyce’s “commodius vicus of recirculation” . . . Or Mark E Smith’s three Rs: repetition, repetition and repetition . . .

LR: I’ll drink to that. It’s like a never-ending transmission that can’t be switched off.

TMcC: The transmission thing is important. There’s that Kraftwerk song, “I am the receiver and you are the transmitter”, or however it goes. One way of thinking about art, or the novel, is that the writer is the transmitter, the originator: I have something to say about the world and I’m going to transmit it. But this isn’t how I see it, I see it as exactly the inverse: the writer is a receiver and the content is already out there. The task of the writer is to filter it, to sample it and remix it — not in some random way, but conscientiously and attentively. This is what Heidegger says about poets: to be a poet is to listen before speaking; it’s first and foremost a listening and not a speaking. Kafka said it as well: “I write in order to affirm and reaffirm that I have absolutely nothing to say.” Writing, or art, is not about having something to say; it’s about aspiring to a heightened state of hearing. It’s why C is a totally acoustic novel and a receptive novel. The hero, Serge, sits there for hours trawling the aether waves, absorbing, listening to ship-to-shore transmissions, stock market prices, sports results, writing them all down. In a way, if you could see Serge’s transcript it would probably read like an Ezra Pound canto.

LR: This is why Serge is so brilliant, because all this absorption culminates in a form of pure poetry. I’m thinking of the novel’s “Chute” section, especially the first world war passages. Serge in his plane over enemy lines, flying above and below, marking the sky around him with these wonderful vapour trails while shooting up heroin and quoting Hölderlin, and so on. Where does all that come from? I know you’re interested in Marinetti’s manifestos.

TMcC: For Serge the whole battlefield becomes a sound box. He thinks of his machine gun, when he’s firing it into the trenches below, as like a needle being aligned with the groove of a record. When the needle goes in, static comes out, and it all resonates: the percussion of machine-gun fire, the siren wail of howitzers. The difference between Serge and Wilfred Owen is that Serge loves war. By the way, talking of Marinetti: it’s interesting that Marinetti’s novels, which supposedly enact the propositions of his many manifestos, are much less interesting than the manifestos. And the paintings that people did based on his manifestos are much less good as well. The manifestos are a kind of field of potentiality that to actually realise would spoil.

LR: You’ve stated recently that C is essentially a novel about desire as much as about technology, and the “looping” of both within time. This puts me in mind of Beckett’s Krapp’s Last Tape. This idea that technology doesn’t take you forwards into the future, but actually takes you back towards your past.

TMcC: When Beckett’s old man is listening to these old tapes of himself, what it actually comes down to is desire — it’s incredibly moving. He’s there at the end, the end of his life, he wants to stop replaying it, all the loopings, snarling “Wasn’t once enough?”; but he listens again and again and again to this incredibly lyrical passage that he’s recorded about 30 or 40 years ago about him floating in a punt, with a girl, and the water all around them, I mean, it’s fucking amazing, it’s really, really beautiful. This is it, you see: what we find in technology and networks is desire. Which doesn’t mean the desiring individual; it means desiring consciousness itself. That’s why I wanted Serge Carrefax to be more than an individual; if he was a circuit he’d be over-charged. The surge is too much, it blows. It’s about the desire for impossibility. Giorgio Agamben, when describing melancholia (which Serge has in spades), says that the condition isn’t at all a detachment from the world, even though it may seem like it; in fact it’s an investment in the world so much that the desire for the world exceeds its own limit. The melancholic wants what is impossible; he wants impossibility itself — to experience it and to merge with it. To surge towards it. That’s why the melancholic is the ultimate rebel.

LR: Is it a desire for the impossible, or nothingness, to become real? To become a tangible thing?

TMcC: No, I think it’s more than that. I mean Pygmalion gets that: he wants the statue and then it becomes real, and that’s cute. But take Orpheus looking back: he’s far more interesting. He doesn’t really want Eurydice, he wants the dark night. As Maurice Blanchot brilliantly points out, he wants death itself. Not to make the night illuminated or present, but to have it in its absence, to have the presence of absence, something that is impossible. It’s doomed, beautiful and tragic.

LR: This is Blanchot’s Orpheus’s Gaze

TMcC: Right. It’s an essay about five pages long and it’s the most amazing summary of what literature is, or could be, ever written. It’s not about representing the world, it’s not about criticising the world even. It’s about surrendering to a vertigo that can never be mastered, to an abyss that can never be commanded, or excavated or filled in.

LR: But you can leave your mark, right?

TMcC: Yeah, the scratch. Scratching the negative. That’s what artists do at their very best.

C By Tom McCarthy

This appeared in the September 2010 issue of Dazed & Confused (vol. 2, issue 89, p. 196):

C by Tom McCarthy

Incest, spies and coke-fuelled adventures

Let’s not beat about the bush: Tom McCarthy’s third novel, C, is a masterpiece: a sprawling associative web that keeps generating new meanings as though of its own volition. “That’s the beautiful thing about what literature does to language,” says McCarthy. “You stick these slippery terms in and they start cross-fertilising in ways you never anticipated — incestuous ways.” C takes us from a fairytale English silk farm to spy-ridden Egypt by way of a central European spa town, aerial warfare and a coke-fuelled London filled with bright young Amazons. It is a comedy of errors, a gothic mystery, a boy’s own story; a traditional 19th-century novel seemingly rewritten by Burroughs or Ballard. You’ll find geometry, technology and trauma. Loops, repetitions and mutations. Incest, insects and radio bugs. And phantom words emanating from subterranean worlds half-glimpsed “at the dial’s far end”. Tune in…

DAZED & CONFUSED: C could be seen as a futurist novel. Serge, the protagonist, even seems to be partly modelled on Marinetti himself…
TOM MCCARTHY: I love Marinetti, and, yes, he’s part of Serge’s make-up, particularly in the war section. But Serge is equally a mixture of Freud’s Wolf Man, the beautifully fucked-up melancholic eternally grieving for his dead sister; and Alexander Bell, inventor of the phone (who also lost two siblings); and Howard Carter, the Egyptologist who disinterred the ur-family tomb; and a bunch of other people. I’m interested in the places where technology and mourning intersect.

There’s also a strong retro-futurist — even steampunk — element to C. Did you feel the need to revisit the early 20th century in order to reinvent the future of the novel?
Yes. Walter Benjamin says that the angel of history faces backwards. I think it’s the same for literature: you’ve got to look back in order to move forwards. It’s not just the foundations of contemporary technology that are being laid in the early 20th century (the code radio bugs used exactly anticipated text speak, just as lots of their output anticipated Twitter), but also literature’s period of high modernism that’s coming to a head. Not for nothing does the novel end in 1922: it’s the year that Ulysses and The Waste Land came out. The task for the contemporary writer (sadly, one which many writers of today are shirking) is to work through that period’s legacy — dynamically and radically, but attentively too.

All the major themes in C — from wireless technology to the discovery of Tutankhamun — come from your early experiments with the International Necronautical Society (INS), don’t they?
I had the idea for C while I was working on the INS project at the ICA. There, we had a radio station modelled on the illicit one in Jean Cocteau’s film Orphée (where the person transmitting is already dead), sending out all these coded poetic messages. I was looking at writing around encryption, and the concept of the ‘crypt’ that you get in psychoanalysis and philosophy.

Incest lies at the heart of C: this, for you, is the source code of western literature, right?
Yes. You go back from Nabokov through Faulkner through Racine right back to Sophocles, and incest is the central theme that keeps recurring. For Freud, the incest prohibition is what makes us civilised, socialised, even human, so that’s the taboo all tragic heroes, who are fundamentally doomed rebels, are most drawn towards transgressing.

Why do you think that all new means of telecommunication are linked to death, mourning and melancholia?
I don’t know if I can explain it. It’s just a pattern that keeps recurring. For every comm-tech invention, there seems to be a dead sibling somewhere. Bell even made a pact with his brother that, if one of them died like their other brother had, the surviving one would invent a device capable of receiving messages from the dead. Then the second brother dies, and Bell invents the telephone. He remained a rationalist, a sceptic — basically because his brothers never called. But the desire, the fantasy, is there in the technology: a ghost in the machine. It’s the same with radio. Seances in the 20s weren’t about spirit and ectoplasm any more: they were about “tuning in” to voices resonating on high frequencies, like radio waves. With the internet, it seems to be more about a presence than an absence: everything’s there, every click and keystroke ever made eternally retrievable, a giant archive. That’s a kind of haunting too, though.

Text and Photography