Franzen on Kraus #3: contemporary apocalypse

My final extended quotation from Franzen on Kraus.  After his explosive and apt diatribe against the effects of Amazon on literature, there is much to ponder in Franzen’s conclusion – does the rapid acceleration and constant restless quest for novelty of contemporary culture lead inevitably to personal apocalypse and/or individual retreat into a postmodern anomie, where rational (as opposed to faith) meaning is ultimately established only through the narrative of the individual life, rather than a common purposeful project?

“And so, sometime in the 90s, I took my bad Kraus translations out of my active file cabinet and put them into deeper storage. Kraus’s sentences never stopped running through my head, but I felt that I’d outgrown Kraus, felt that he was an angry young man’s kind of writer, ultimately not a novelist’s kind of writer. What has drawn me back to him now is, in part, my nagging sense that apocalypse, after seeming to recede for a while, is still in the picture.

In my own little corner of the world, which is to say American fiction, Jeff Bezos of Amazon may not be the antichrist, but he surely looks like one of the four horsemen. Amazon wants a world in which books are either self-published or published by Amazon itself, with readers dependent on Amazon reviews in choosing books, and with authors responsible for their own promotion. The work of yakkers and tweeters and braggers, and of people with the money to pay somebody to churn out hundreds of five-star reviews for them, will flourish in that world. But what happens to the people who became writers because yakking and tweeting and bragging felt to them like intolerably shallow forms of social engagement? What happens to the people who want to communicate in depth, individual to individual, in the quiet and permanence of the printed word, and who were shaped by their love of writers who wrote when publication still assured some kind of quality control and literary reputations were more than a matter of self-promotional decibel levels? As fewer and fewer readers are able to find their way, amid all the noise and disappointing books and phony reviews, to the work produced by the new generation of this kind of writer, Amazon is well on its way to making writers into the kind of prospectless workers whom its contractors employ in its warehouses, labouring harder for less and less, with no job security, because the warehouses are situated in places where they’re the only business hiring. And the more of the population that lives like those workers, the greater the downward pressure on book prices and the greater the squeeze on conventional booksellers, because when you’re not making much money you want your entertainment for free, and when your life is hard you want instant gratification (“Overnight free shipping!”).

But so the physical book goes on the endangered-species list, so responsible book reviewers go extinct, so independent bookstores disappear, so literary novelists are conscripted into Jennifer-Weinerish self-promotion, so the Big Six publishers get killed and devoured by Amazon: this looks like an apocalypse only if most of your friends are writers, editors or booksellers. Plus it’s possible that the story isn’t over. Maybe the internet experiment in consumer reviewing will result in such flagrant corruption (already one-third of all online product reviews are said to be bogus) that people will clamour for the return of professional reviewers. Maybe an economically significant number of readers will come to recognise the human and cultural costs of Amazonian hegemony and go back to local bookstores or at least to barnesandnoble.com, which offers the same books and a superior e-reader, and whose owners have progressive politics. Maybe people will get as sick of Twitter as they once got sick of cigarettes. Twitter’s and Facebook’s latest models for making money still seem to me like one part pyramid scheme, one part wishful thinking, and one part repugnant panoptical surveillance.

I could, it’s true, make a larger apocalyptic argument about the logic of the machine, which has now gone global and is accelerating the denaturisation of the planet and sterilisation of its oceans. I could point to the transformation of Canada’s boreal forest into a toxic lake of tar-sands byproducts, the levelling of Asia’s remaining forests for Chinese-made ultra-low-cost porch furniture at Home Depot, the damming of the Amazon and the endgame clear-cutting of its forests for beef and mineral production, the whole mindset of “Screw the consequences, we want to buy a lot of crap and we want to buy it cheap, with overnight free shipping.” And meanwhile the overheating of the atmosphere, meanwhile the calamitous overuse of antibiotics by agribusiness, meanwhile the widespread tinkering with cell nucleii, which may well prove to be as disastrous as tinkering with atomic nucleii. And, yes, the thermonuclear warheads are still in their silos and subs.

But apocalypse isn’t necessarily the physical end of the world. Indeed, the word more directly implies an element of final cosmic judgment. In Kraus’s chronicling of crimes against truth and language in The Last Days of Mankind, he’s referring not merely to physical destruction. In fact, the title of his play would be better rendered in English as The Last Days of Humanity: “dehumanised” doesn’t mean “depopulated”, and if the first world war spelled the end of humanity in Austria, it wasn’t because there were no longer any people there. Kraus was appalled by the carnage, but he saw it as the result, not the cause, of a loss of humanity by people who were still living. Living but damned, cosmically damned.

But a judgment like this obviously depends on what you mean by “humanity”. Whether I like it or not, the world being created by the infernal machine of technoconsumerism is still a world made by human beings. As I write this, it seems like half the advertisements on network television are featuring people bending over smartphones; there’s a particularly noxious/great one in which all the twentysomethings at a wedding reception are doing nothing but taking smartphone photos and texting them to one another. To describe this dismal spectacle in apocalyptic terms, as a “dehumanisation” of a wedding, is to advance a particular moral conception of humanity; and if you follow Nietzsche and reject the moral judgment in favour of an aesthetic one, you’re immediately confronted by Bourdieu’s persuasive connection of asethetics with class and privilege; and, the next thing you know, you’re translating The Last Days of Mankind as The Last Days of Privileging the Things I Personally Find Beautiful.

And maybe this is not such a bad thing. Maybe apocalypse is, paradoxically, always individual, always personal. I have a brief tenure on Earth, bracketed by infinities of nothingness, and during the first part of this tenure I form an attachment to a particular set of human values that are shaped inevitably by my social circumstances. If I’d been born in 1159, when the world was steadier, I might well have felt, at 53, that the next generation would share my values and appreciate the same things I appreciated; no apocalypse pending. But I was born in 1959, when TV was something you watched only during prime time, and people wrote letters and put them in the mail, and every magazine and newspaper had a robust books section, and venerable publishers made long-term investments in young writers, and New Criticism reigned in English departments, and the Amazon basin was intact, and antibiotics were used only to treat serious infections, not pumped into healthy cows. It wasn’t necessarily a better world (we had bomb shelters and segregated swimming pools), but it was the only world I knew to try to find my place in as a writer. And so today, 53 years later, Kraus’s signal complaint – that the nexus of technology and media has made people relentlessly focused on the present and forgetful of the past – can’t help ringing true to me. Kraus was the first great instance of a writer fully experiencing how modernity, whose essence is the accelerating rate of change, in itself creates the conditions for personal apocalypse. Naturally, because he was the first, the changes felt particular and unique to him, but in fact he was registering something that has become a fixture of modernity. The experience of each succeeding generation is so different from that of the previous one that there will always be people to whom it seems that any connection of the key values of the past have been lost. As long as modernity lasts, all days will feel to someone like the last days of humanity.”

• The Kraus Project by Jonathan Franzen was published by Harper Collins on 1 October. To pre-order it for £15.19 with free UK p&p call Guardian book service on 0330 333 6846 or go to guardianbookshop.co.uk.

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