Wednesday, August 03, 2005

Paul Auster: Moon Palace

Marco Stanley Fogg (a.k.a. M.S.) is an existential drifter. Even his very name is a combination of some great explorers of history: Marco Polo (an Italian who was supposed to visit China in the 13th century), Henry Morton Stanley (an American journalist who found David Livingstone in Kenya in 1871) and Phileas Fogg, a character created by Jules Verne for his book Around the World in 80 Days.

M.S. is an orphan whose mother has died in a traffic accident when he was only eleven years old, after which he was raised by his slightly eccentric but loving uncle Victor, who is an ill-fated musician. M.S. does not know the identity of his father. M.S. arrives to study in a New York college in the mid-1960s, as his only possession the tweed suit and vast library of books inherited from his uncle. He lives in a small apartment which only furniture consists of the crates of his uncle's books. Gradually M.S. drops out of the college and sustains himself for awhile by selling away those books little by little to an antiquarian shop, after he has read them all, of course. The "furniture" of his apartment dwindles away
as he sells the books, and in the end he will find himself living in an empty room. It's obvious Marco's both mental and physical condition are deteriorating, and after he has been evicted from his apartment, he lives as a sort of hermit (or perhaps "bum" would be a more appropriate word) in Central Park. He is finally saved from a certain death by his friend Zimmer and a Chinese girl called Kitty Wu, with whom M.S. soon finds himself to be in love with. M.S. recovers and soon gets a job with a grumpy old man called Thomas Effing ("f-ing", get it?), who is blind (or is he?) and confined to a wheelchair. Effing wants to dictate M.S. his own obituary, and what unfolds is an amazing story covering over half a century, and even providing the key to the personal origins of M.S.

This is another great book from Paul Auster with characters that are totally lost in trying to search some sort of meaning in their lives. As in other books of Auster, coincidences (or Jungian synchronicities), surprising connections and a strange sense of metaphysical mystery also play a large part in Moon Palace. And here too the sense of loss hangs very prominently in the air. The very bottomline of also this work of Auster is very humane: it seems M.S. Fogg is an intelligent but hopelessly pathetic drifter, willingly trying to give up his life all the time but always saved by a helper of one sort or another, as a proof a human kindness found even under most peculiar circumstances.

To make the structure of narrative even more interesting, there is also another book inside this book as Thomas Effing dictates M.S. his memoirs to be published as his own obituary.

(Also the life of the mystical inventor and a real-life character Nikola Tesla is vastly paraphrased here connecting to Thomas Effing's story. I think the life of Tesla would certainly be worth of a major movie, yet to be made.)

I had jumped off the edge of a cliff, and then, just as I was about to hit bottom, an extraordinary event took place: I learned that there were people who loved me. To be loved like that makes all the difference. It does not lessen the terror of the fall, but it gives a new perspective on what that terror means. I had jumped off the edge, and then, at the very last moment, something reached out and caught me in midair. That something is what I define as love. It is the one thing that can stop a man from falling, the one thing powerful enough to negate the laws of gravity.


Perhaps that was all that all I had set out to prove in the first place: that once you throw your life to the winds, you will discover things you had never known before, things that cannot be learned under any other circumstances. I was half-dead from hunger, but whenever something good happened to me, I did not attribute it to chance so much as to a special state of mind. If I was able to maintain the proper balance between desire and indifference, I felt that I could somehow will the universe to respond to me. How else was I to judge the extraordinary acts of generosity that I experienced in Central Park? I never asked anyone for anything, I never budged from my spot, and yet strangers were continually coming up to me and giving me help. There must have been some force emanating from me into the world, I thought, some indefinable something that made people want to do this. As time went on, I began to notice that good things happened to me only when I stopped wishing for them. If that was true, then the reverse was true as well: wishing too much for things would prevent them from happening. That was the logical consequence of my theory, for if I had proven to myself that I could attract the world, then it also followed that I could repel it. In other words, you got what you wanted by not wanting it. It made no sense, but the incomprehensibility of the argument was what appealed to me. If my wants could be answered only by not thinking about them, then all thoughts about my situation were necessarily counterproductive. The moment I began to embrace this idea, I found myself staggering along an impossible tightrope of consciousness. For how do you not think about your hunger when you are always hungry? How do you silence your stomach when it is constantly calling out to you, begging to be filled? It is next to impossible to ignore such pleas. Time and again, I would succumb to them, and once I did, I automatically knew that I had destroyed my chances of being helped. The result was inescapable, as rigid and precise as a mathematical formula. As long as I worried about my problems, the world would turn its back on me. That left me no choice but to fend for myself, to scrounge, to make the best of it on my own. Time would pass. A day, two days, perhaps even three or four, and little by little I would purge myself up for lost. It was only then that any of the miraculous occurrences ever took place. They always struck like a bolt from the blue. I could not predict them, and once they happened, there was no way I could count on seeing another. Each miracle was therefore always the last miracle. And because it was the last, I was continually being thrown back to the beginning, continually having to start the battle all over again.


Causality was no longer the hidden demiurge that ruled the universe: down was up, the last was the first, the end was the beginning. Heraclitus had been resurrected from his dung heap, and what he had to show us was the simplest of truths: reality was a yo-yo, change was the only constant.


He was working himself now, no longer burdened by the threat of other people's opinions, and that alone was enough to produce a fundamental change in how he approached his art. For the first time in his life, he stopped worrying about result, and as a consequence the terms "success" and "failure" had suddenly lost their meaning for him. The true purpose of art was not to create beautiful objects, he discovered. It was a method of understanding, a way of penetrating the world and finding one's place in it, and whatever aesthetic qualities an individual canvas might have were almost an incidental by-product of the effort to engage oneself in this struggle, to enter into the thick of things. He untaught himself the rules he had learned, trusting in the landscape as an equal partner, voluntarily abandoning his intentions to the assaults of chance, of spontaneity, the onrush of brute particulars. He was no longer afraid of the emptiness around him. The act of trying to put it one canvas had somehow internalized it for him, and now he was able to feel its indifference as something that belonged to him, as much as he belonged to the silent power of those gigantic spaces himself. The pictures he produced were raw, he said, filled with violent colours and strange, unpremeditated surges of energy, a whirl of forms and light. He has no idea if they were ugly or beautiful, but that was probably beside the point. They were his, and they didn't look like any other paintings he had seen before.

Moon Palace @ Wikipedia
A vast site dedicated to this book