Monthly Archives: October 2012

Problem 31-10-12 – Cold Cases

I am a detective who investigates the coldest of missing person cases. Families who are desperate to find lost relatives petition me for answers when others have found none. However, I feel as though I can never meet their expectations. If I find the missing person dead all I can give is an account of what might have happened. The worst cases are those where something inexplicable has occurred. An incomplete chronology can be devised, but after the facts run out (and they always do) there is a void.

Take one of my current cases as an example: on October 31st, Student 1 finished attending lectures and returned to their Rawson Street accommodation; later Student 2 finished their lectures and joined Student 1 in their flat; a mutual friend of the two students also received an invitation to watch films (Ringu & Videodrome) that night, but did not attend; a neighbour of Student 1 reported being woken by singing of songs from A Nightmare Before Christmas later that night. Neither two students attended classes the next day, and have not been seen since. No signs of struggle or intent to disappear were found.

Even if I confine myself to the realistic, the plausible, there are many gaps where extra events & motives can be inserted. If I wander into the fantastic for an explanation, then what? Were they both consumed by the television set? I think not, but I have no evidence that gives me the authority to rule that out completely.

Any account I give families may by chance describe what happened, and coincidences do happen, but my scenarios, correct or not, are still gross simplifications. For me and these families there are only hollow conclusions. Even if they are reunited with their loved one, there is still an emptiness. People always want to know more than can be told. How can we know exactly what has happened to someone else? Maybe we can learn enough to feel an empathy, but not everything about an experience can be shared.

So, what I do when I meet each new family is sit with them at the table in my office. I make them a drink and put a paper copy of their relative’s file between us. Then I assure them that I will do the best I can to find them, but the chances of success are low. At this point they tend thank me for my honesty. After this, to tease out additional information, we talk about the missing person. At the end of the meeting I say that while there seem to be three possible outcomes (I find them dead, alive, or I fail to find any trace) there is really only one. No matter what the outcome of my investigation is, any of the stories that I tell to these families will never be substitutes for lost time with loved ones.

My “success rate” compared to my colleagues is said to be unusually high.

On & On & On

I finished reading Gabriel Josipovici’s book “Whatever Happened to Modernism” a couple of weeks ago (maybe more, who knows?). It has left an impression. On the one hand I agree with large tracts of it, such as his definition of modernism being the moment where an artist recognizes and then continues to confront and struggle with their awareness of their own lack of authority and with limits of forms instead of being a stylistic period, because it articulates sensations that I’ve felt for the longest time. On the other hand, I don’t quite see things the way he does, but that’s a matter of perspective and understanding that Josipovici doesn’t set out to establish the definitive version of modernism. I’m afraid that for those who know me that this is a book that I’m going to go on and on and on about as I continue to struggle with it.

The book developed out of a paper in the Times Literary Supplement which itself was adapted from the John Coffin memorial lecture given at the Insitute of Germanic and Romance Languages, University of London in early 2007. There is a copy of the paper which can be read here.

Two paragraphs from the paper seem worth considering in light of the recent trend to talk about the exhaustion of Science Fiction.

{13} Mann the novelist could enter the mind of a modern composer precisely because the problems attendant on Modernism are not confined to one artistic form. In fact the novel has become the contested site of Modernists and anti-Modernists precisely because, more than music or poetry, it embodies the multiple paradoxes of the modern situation. For the novel is not a genre but precisely that which emerges when genres no longer seem viable. A genre is a bit like a family: you do not have to explain who you are each time you enter the room, you are taken for granted. But families can seem constricting as well as enabling. Similarly a moment comes when confidence in genre starts to wane. A symbolic moment here, convenient because it is not too far from our key date of 1789, is Dr Johnson’s criticism of Milton, in his Life of the poet, for choosing to express his grief at the death of his friend Edward King in the form of a pastoral elegy. At this point it is clear that genre has come to seem, like aristocratic privilege, a false imposition rather than a natural condition.

{14} Where the subtitle “epic” or “comedy” or “pastoral elegy” prepared readers or spectators for what they were about to experience, and helped the writer enter his subject, the novel, from the start, pretended to be something else – the true memoirs of a rake or a whore, the true story of a seduction or a shipwreck. At the same time the novel asserted, like Descartes at the start of the Discourse on Method, that its creators would bow to no authority, that they would rely on nothing but themselves. Genres were the sign of submission to the authority of tradition, to the authority of the fathers, but the novel was the new form in which the individual would express himself precisely by throwing off the shackles that bound him to his fathers and to tradition. But here it faced a paradox. For if it threw off all authority, where then did it get its own authority from ? The answer had to be: from the novelist’s inspiration or experience of aspects of life not known to the reader. But who conferred this authority upon him ? No one but himself. From the beginning, then, the novel was caught in a double bind – asserting its truth and value (which genre-derived works had never needed to do, since it was the culture that provided them with these things), yet knowing at heart that these were assertions and nothing more.

In other news the new Godspeed You! Black Emperor album, Allelujah! Don’t Bend! Ascend! arrived in the post this week. This will also be played over & over & over again until I’m deaf or sick of it. It will be worth it.

Why we don’t understand Kafka

“How many words there are in this book! They are meant for remembrance! As though words could remember! For words are poor mountaineers and poor miners. They cannot bring down the treasure from the mountains’ peaks, or up from the mountains’ depths”

You absolutely must read this: Why we don’t understand Kafka.

Also I’m reading Gabriel Josipovici’s book Whatever Ever Happened To Modernism.