Authors lead to other authors. Read one and you’re reminded of another. New publications refer to past ones, famous and obscure. Genres cross over, involving similar concepts, tropes, devices. Authors lift, pay tribute, reimagine, claim as their own and take it a step further in their effort to tell gripping, original stories. Pick up the trail and we end up making extraordinary connections.
Welcome to Connection Degree Three …
[WARNING: CONTAINS SPOILERS!]
Apostolos Doxiadis, Paul Auster, Don DeLillo. Three postmodern writers with an approach to life that borders on the sublime.
Apostolos Doxiadis wrote Logicomix and Democracy, two graphic novels that deal with the human condition on a philosophically accessible level, but the work I’m interested in is Uncle Petros And Goldbach’s Conjecture. In this surprisingly breezy novel, Doxiadis describes the efforts of a mathematician to crack one of the greatest enigmas in the field, Goldbach’s Conjecture. Part of the story involves an extensive flashback in which Uncle Petros explains to his ‘most favored of nephews’ – and narrator – how it all started.
As a young man, during the years leading up to the Great War, Uncle Petros was drawn to mathematics. He had the talent and stamina for it, a passion that helped him climb up the mathematical hierarchy with speed. He seemed destined for monumental discoveries, and would have achieved greatness, if not for his obsession with the holy grail of the field: Goldbach’s Conjecture, to which devoted so much time that he lost focus. The pursuit became a distraction, then a liability, leading to his decline.
Uncle Petros recounts his formative years with nostalgia, telling his nephew about his frenetic moves from Berlin to Cambridge, and from there to Munich, to Innsbruck, back to Cambridge, places all over Europe, all the way to Ekali, Athens. A man possessed by a seemingly futile task, he tells his tale in a swift and engaging manner, the tone and style of narration of which are reminiscent of
The Book Of Illusions by Paul Auster, the story of professor David Zimmer and his obsession with Hector Mann, a film actor who disappeared mysteriously many decades prior. Professor Zimmer, a mere shadow of his former self, is grieving the loss of his wife and children, when he stumbles upon Mann’s old movies. Intrigued by the obscure actor’s work and his mysterious disappearance many decades ago, Zimmer investigates Mann’s past (it’s a way to process his grief) which brings to light a most interesting set of events.
The middle part of the book is dedicated to Mann’s life, breezing through the actor’s oeuvre at a fast pace that reveals not just the MO of Hector Mann per se, but also the derivative nature of the man researching him (Zimmer finds new purpose through his investigation of Mann) and vice versa; how the disappeared Mann acquires shape and form i.e. is derived anew, from professor Zimmer’s research.
In other words, this is the story of one person acquiring a raison d’être through the existence of another person.
The setup is genial, Zimmer’s analysis so meticulous, it borders on the fantastical. The past becomes fluid, able to be rewritten and issued afresh, with new discoveries replacing old data and beliefs, redrawing the landscape. In essence, this story shows how two faded individuals are brought back to life through each other’s ghostly aftereffects, one of them driving the show, following the clues left behind by the other. The answer to their collectively reinvented existence, in fact, to the entire quest, lies in a slate of films that supposedly contain the answer to the enigmatic Hector Mann, which Zimmer decides to pursue to the ends of comfort, finding himself somewhere in the desert where someone claims to possess more answers for him, which brings us to
Point Omega by Don DeLillo, a story about Richard Elster, a retired scholar formerly specializing in war studies and covert warfare. Professor Elster’s principal focus before his retirement was the phenomenon of ‘rendition,’ (a charged, explosive term, dark and multifaceted, loaded with derivative connotations, such the rendition of information, reality, individuals, politics, culture, psychology etc.)
But professor Elster has had enough of the state’s war games. He has retired to the desert to explore space and time.
There, a young filmmaker called Jim Finley approaches him. Finley wants to make a documentary about Elster, using Elster and only Elster. No interviews with family members or colleagues, no shots of relevant locations and landscapes. Just the protagonist himself, the sole representative of his life story, a man rendered alone on a blank background, becoming the story he embodies. The idea is to turn the process into a product, an objectification of a state of flux that loops back in on itself to create a derivative situation, a new object-cum-dynamic – a self-generating concept that becomes free of its former context, and yet forever bound to it, the process extending ad infinitum, until it reaches a point of ultimate complexity and consciousness.
Elster isn’t buying it. Even though he believes in the convergence of consciousness, he fails to see the connection between his beliefs and Finley’s approach (Finley fails to articulate them clearly) so he stalls.
The two men end up debating the matter over the coming weeks, among other topics, getting to know each other. Before long, Elster’s daughter joins the desert party, injecting a fresh dynamic, and the story takes an unexpected turn, leading to annihilation, which is, after all, a form of rendition.
In other words, Point Omega ends as it began, with a form of rendition … What I failed to mention is that the novella begins with an art exhibition where Hitchcock’s iconic movie Psycho is screening in extreme slow motion – yet another form of rendition! Psycho’s entire imagery has been slowed down to such an extent, it’s disconnected from the original stream of its content, and thus from inherent meaning, acquiring a separate nature, if not an entirely new connotation. A horror borne out of the aspic mantle, animation almost suspended, not quite still yet barely moving, caught in limbo. The analysis of Hitchcock’s black and white imagery in this horrifying new state of projection becomes so obsessively thorough, rigorous, it’s almost mathematical in nature, if not transcendental, which brings us back to
Uncle Petros And Goldbach’s Conjecture where the obsessed professor and his ‘most favored of nephews’ grapple with one of history’s most elusive conundrums in mathematics, revealing how a person is the sum of his efforts, just as a person’s efforts are the sum of his accumulating personality. We are, according to the story, what we do, doing what we are, creating and affecting the conditions in which we operate on a constant basis. The integers that make up the function of the world, the prime numbers that give shape to the multitude of integers. People are only as good as the extent to which they’re willing to go, the boundaries they’re willing to break, rendering themselves useful or obsolete, content or restless.
It’s all about the process, a dynamic that objectifies itself as it observes itself, turning into a product, objectifying the objectification, resonating on a level borne of its own accord. Like the electron that somehow takes charge from the void, coming into its own. Like movie frames i.e. motion picture images put together to create the illusion of motion, then slowed down to the point where they become stills that are presented in glacial succession, rendered independent of context, and yet never quite free from it, looping back into the narrative. A buildup that leads to either breakthrough or breakdown, both of which lead to change, which leads to reevaluation, which leads to more change.
The process goes on, ad infinitum – the process of a process that observes itself, its experience fundamental to the outcome, rendered crucial in a sequence of never-ending recalibration and transformation that shapes the world and everyone in it.
And here we are. Apostolos Doxiadis, Paul Auster, Don DeLillo. Three outstanding postmodern analysts-cum-meta-morphosizers, casting their dark light on the human condition and the great lengths to which individuals will go to attain the unattainable – how we examine life through the loops of self-aware awareness and its multiple, intricate, ever-growing layers of rendition to make sense of those around us and, in the end, ourselves.