Red Reader # 3 : The Real Survivor
The Real Survivor
When I was child, as I was racing outside from my babysitter’s basement—even though I’d been warned to slow down and be more careful—I tripped and my right arm punched through the glass on her screen door with the force of boxer. There was shattered glass everywhere, and I went into shock. I didn’t feel the pain until her son, who was waiting for me in the yard, saw the blood. In the moment after I tripped, I could see what was coming but couldn’t do anything to stop the inevitable fall. I couldn’t stop the momentum of my body’s weight. I couldn’t stop my arm hitting the glass. I couldn’t stop time.
Matthew Battles’ collection of tales, fables, and parables, The Sovereignties of Invention, gives me the same feeling of inevitability that I had just before I reached the glass. The stories not only serve as analogies for the times in which we live, but also they have a prophetic quality to them. One gets the sense after reading these tales that the human race is doomed and we have only ourselves to blame. And if we’re not doomed, then we’re caught in a Sisyphean state of absurdity—minus the recognition that Camus believed would set us free and make life, if not worth living, at least bearable.1
There’s a line from Kurt Vonnegut’s novel Timequake in which Kilgore Trout pronounces: “It was the world that had suffered the nervous breakdown. I was just having fun in a nightmare...”2 Trout is referring to his dealings with the publishing industry over a prized manuscript, but the quote can be analogous to the experience of living in the world—the horror of our waking life is not all that different than our nightmares.
Battles’ tale “The Dogs in the Trees” is one such nightmare where dogs, in the process of self-imposed extinction, retreat to the trees to die. And the society that bears witnesses to this, including the narrator, is caught in the trap of the bystander effect—watching with interest but failing to act. The consequences are incomprehensible, but the narrator and witnesses seem to accept this extinction with resignation as if it was as inevitable as the turning of the seasons, leaves falling from trees.
In the title story, “Sovereignties of Invention,” pleasure and pain are contrasted when the protagonist becomes a slave to his desire to record his stream of consciousness with a technological device he receives in the mail. But there’s a steep price to pay—the fulfilling of this one need obliterates all other aspects of his life. In trying to seek more of his own humanity, he ends up with less.
In another story, “The Gnomon,” the narrator is caught in a nightmare in which he cannot resist the magnetic force of a gnomon that draws him and the masses toward it. He knows he should resist it like his friend, who sees the danger and is able to get away, but the narrator can’t stop himself. His action as well as the action of those around him is, like my fall, inevitable.
In all of these instances, the characters choose individual desires (knowingly and unknowingly) over the greater good and over their own interests even though they have an opportunity to behave differently. These stories point out the destruction that human needs or wants can beget and the consequences we face as a result—extinction, addiction, and the loss of our humanity and free will.
Battles’ stories also bring to mind Walter Benjamin’s theory of progress from his essay “Theses on the Philosophy of History” in which Benjamin compares our notion of progress to the angel of history who is propelled into the future while “his face is turned toward the past”:
Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of our feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them. This storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress.2
Catastrophe forces Battles’ characters, like Benjamin’s angel, to look back on the wreckage of human destruction. “The World & Trees,” is a story in which the protagonist is punished for seeking knowledge beyond the tree that was the only home he ever knew, and now he’s forced to live in a ruined habitation where he watches his past and all his previous knowledge, which takes the form of the “tree’s trunks,” fall away and widen “the lumberyard of the world”.
In “Time Capsules,” the narrator is complicit in his own and the world’s demise—it’s for selfish reasons that he keeps taking capsules that give him time but annihilate “some volume of space.” This is a universe, the narrator tells us, “…in which nothing can be gained without cost.” Yet he continues—even after he’s aware of the destruction he’s causing. This is a familiar vice of humanity. In fact, it would be hard to name a world problem that wasn’t caused by this kind of self-interest.
The catastrophe in “The Unicorn” is the reproduction of the unicorn’s gift of being able to produce undying energy. Once the masses are able to reproduce and commodify this energy, the unicorn fades into obscurity. But their reproduction is temporary, and ultimately the unicorn finds himself the only survivor in a dying universe. One could read this is as a fictionalization of the loss of the “aura” in artwork as described in Benjamin’s essay, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” where he discusses the loss that occurs when uniqueness is forsaken for reproduction.4 Alternatively one could read the story as a critique of the fantasy and the ritualization of “the aura”. By dramatizing the loss of the “aura” in this story, is Battles suggesting that idealizing and lamenting the past contributes to the crises we face in the present? If mechanical reproduction allows us, according to Benjamin, to hold a mirror up to our own faces what are we to make of the ugly little unicorn so “unbearably close at hand” to a universe in the process of destruction?5 In either case, the outcome is ominous.
Moralistic. Critical. Timely. These parables are a call to action: wake up and do something before it’s too late. However, the absurd predicament we find ourselves in—is that when it comes right down to it, there’s not much we can do but look back upon the wreckage, the shattered glass and try to make sense of what just happened. But this might not be completely futile; in fact, it might just be, according to Kafka, the only way to survive:
Anyone who cannot cope with life while he is alive needs one hand to ward off a little his despair over his fate…but with his other hand he can jot down what he sees among the ruins, for he sees different and more than the others; after all, he is dead in his own lifetime and the real survivor.6
The glass from the screen door ended up slashing my arm two inches lengthwise, and they had to take me to the hospital for fear I’d burst an artery. In the emergency room, they gave me fifteen stitches. Miraculously, though, the cut missed my artery by a hair. After my arm healed and the stitches were removed, the incident was all but forgotten like so many events that accumulate throughout our lives. The only evidence—a smooth, pale scar—I rarely think about or notice but that I carry with me everywhere like a shadow.
1 Camus, Albert, The Myth of Sisyphus. Trans. Justin O’Brien (London, England: Penguin Books, 1955).
2 Vonnegut, Kurt, Timequake (New York: Berkley Books, 1997), 62.
3 Benjamin, Walter, “Theses on the Philosophy of History,” Trans. Harry Zohn. Illuminations. Ed. Hannah Arendt. New York: Schocken Books, 1969, p. 257-258. Print.
5 Benjamin, 251. “In big parades and monster rallies, in sports events, and in war, all of which nowadays are captured by camera and sound recording, the masses are brought face to face with themselves. This process, whose significance need not be stressed, is intimately connected with the development of the techniques of reproduction and photography.”
6Arendt, Hannah, “Introduction.” Illuminations. By Walter Benjamin. Trans. Harry Zohn (New York: Schocken Books, 1969), 19. The quote comes form Kafka’s
Kathryn Mockler is the author of the poetry book Onion Man (Tightrope Books, 2011) and the forthcoming bookThe Saddest Place on Earth (DC Books, Fall 2012). She received her MFA in creative writing from the University of British Columbia and her BA in Honours English and Creative Writing from Concordia University. Her writing has been published most recently in The Capilano Review, The Windsor Review, Joyland, Rattle Poetry, and CellStories. Her films have been broadcast on TMN, Movieola, and Bravo and have screened in national and international film festivals. She teaches creative writing at the University of Western Ontario and is the co-editor of the UWO online journal The Rusty Toque.