MAY 21, 2017
CYRUS CONSOLE’S ROMANIAN NOTEBOOK is among the strangest, most compelling representations of human thought in contemporary literature. The book records the thoughts the author’s body hosts during an expedition to his wife’s homeland of Romania with their young child. Console’s achievement might be initially appreciated negatively, by considering what he doesn’t do. He does not render his thoughts through the venerable stream-of-consciousness style. People who live in a bubble might imagine, as I once did, that the phrase “stream-of-consciousness,” given its illustrious association with figures like William James, Virginia Woolf, and James Joyce, is high literary praise. In my experience, though, when a reader describes a book as having a stream-of-consciousness style, they are explaining why they don’t like it. (I first noticed this in online customer reviews of one of my own books, where the phrase “stream-of-consciousness” in the written section of the review invariably correlated with a one or two star rating in the quantitative section.) It turns out that the comparison of thought to a natural thing like a stream is simply and immediately repellent to most people, like saying someone has a face like a bog, or a voice like grinding glaciers.
Thought obeys no natural law. In a stream of water, time works the way it usually does in nature — the future passes into the present and then into the past. In thought, the past might pour into the present and then drain away into the future. Or the future might rain into the past as the present disappears. Thought is not like a natural thing. Thought is literally the essence of the artificial. Making the words of thought imitate a stream is a mistake, one that writers have a hard time not making.
Romanian Notebook corrects this error. The thoughts Console records during his voyage are like highly formal buildings with reinforced structures that resist the pressure of time and the elements. Here, for example, is a thought Console experiences while on a Romanian beach. His family has just witnessed a lifeguard dragging a drowning man from the sea. Console, trying to leave the crowded beach, catches a glimpse of the scene.
We pass the center of the commotion. I see a characteristic image or image fragment: the broad, totally relaxed expanse of a man’s belly, round with omental fat, quivering at the hundred compressions per minute taught for CPR. It is the only case I know of a tempo having a mnemonic: the 1977 hit theme to Saturday Night Fever. I can’t seem to help subvocalizing the song as I gawk at the quivering belly of the man, the dead man, I am sure, since ten minutes at least must have passed already.
A writer working in the stream-of-consciousness mode might render the relation of the Bee Gees’s song to this scene as an odd juxtaposition: “As I watch the lifeguard applying CPR to the dying man, ‘Stayin’ Alive’ flashes through my mind.” Such a writer may or may not choose to suppress the fact that Console didn’t just transiently think about the song for a fleeting moment, he proceeded to sing “Stayin’ Alive” to himself for many minutes while watching the man die. Probably better to suppress it. From a stream-of-consciousness perspective, such a response must seem either insane or malicious.
Console’s sentences, by contrast, capture the deep structure of the relation between song, situation, and mind. Language stands back from time in the locution: “It is the only case I know.” His personal thoughts have an impersonal, timeless quality. They don’t record a random juxtaposition; they observe a truth. “Stayin’ Alive” has the same tempo as CPR. Thought’s discovery of the relation between the disco song and the death scene binds together images that might seem discordant from the perspective of one caught in time’s flow: the man’s quivering fat, the author’s helpless mental singing of “Stayin’ Alive,” the ultimate relaxation of unconsciousness.
Instead of following natural time, Console’s sentences create a box in which time behaves unnaturally. The tempo of the song is unstrung from the song’s structure, which now becomes a “mnemonic” device by which thought grasps the rhythm of CPR. The “ten minutes” don’t pass; they arrive like an invisible all-at-once avalanche, crushing the life out of a body one suddenly realizes must be dead. This method preserves every drop of the strangeness of Console’s reaction to the dying and then dead man. But now this strangeness is seen not as a function of the author’s psychology, but of the unnatural artifice of thought.
I suspect that we can find many passages in stream-of-consciousness novels where a character or narrator does something repellent for no reason, or for a bad reason. Such books are full of people doing vaguely repellent things, like singing disco while watching someone suffer. There’s a vague idea that such scenes teach us some hard quasi-Freudian truth about unvarnished human interiority — that it’s unpleasant and antisocial, for example. But I suspect if these stream-of-consciousness novels were rewritten in Console’s style, we would see many of these actions revealed, not as the product of a thoughtless moment’s impulse, but as part of thought’s elaborate and inhuman structure.
The genre to which Console’s book belongs — the travel notebook or journal — uses the most minimal possible organization: the succession of the days of a trip. Console transforms the genre by taking this minimal literary organization as an opportunity to reproduce the complex organization of individual thoughts and thought clusters. The notebook doesn’t contain a stream; it preserves a series of buildings, connected by labyrinthine corridors. The structure of these buildings is solid, though their materials are lighter than air.
The length and complexity of Console’s sentences teach us, like Proust’s, that the natural language of thought is not speech but writing. Thought exists at the farthest remove from the vocalizations of the human animal. Consider the following extraordinary sentence:
My hope is that certain kinds of experience, “long experience,” will enable me, will give me unanticipated — but “powers” is not yet the word, since my only example of progress so far, an example more affecting to me probably than it should be, the fact that I can now, in the dark, that simply by holding the shirt in front of me, holding it at the shoulder seams, unseen, I can discern, by means not entirely clear to me, which way the shirt faces, and thus put it on properly — “powers” is not yet the word.
The written sentence above stalls and hesitates and wavers and recovers. This is not the record of the wavering of a mind in the stream of consciousness or conversation. This wavering reflects the syntactical capacities of the sentence — which embodies thought’s capture of a perception that’s barely perceived, and an experience that’s barely an experience. The experiential content described is so evanescent that it instantly evaporates. To take one of the many ambiguities which would break the back of talk, there is a doubt here as to whether the author’s capacity to tell which way his shirt faces in the dark, solely by contact with the shoulder seams, is mysterious — perhaps even supernatural — or is simply an unremarkable effect of habit. If you can figure out a way to put that into speech, now suspend this ambiguity within a second ambiguity: as to whether this scene with the shirt is just one example of a certain kind of thing the author is wondering about, or is a unique phenomenon. And if you can figure this out, then figure out how to tell us exactly what kind of thing the author is wondering about.
To note the distance between speech and writing in this book is one way of approaching its most profound question. What is the relation of Console’s breakthrough in representing thought, to the emotional crisis that is the book’s ostensible topic? Immediately before Cyrus and his wife Paula embark for Romania, they receive an unsettling ultrasound result. Paula is pregnant with their second child. The test reveals that the child is at an increased risk for Down syndrome. By the time they return from their trip, it will be too late to terminate the pregnancy by the laws of the state of Kansas, where they reside.
Husband and wife have no speech with which they can discuss this issue. Even worse, Console has no way to think about it even within the privacy of his own skull. Should one abort a fetus with Down syndrome? This is an ethical question for which our culture offers few clear guidelines. Fierce polemicists can be found on all sides of the issue, symptoms that it brings into conflict some of our culture’s highest values. Console’s response is not to puzzle through these conflicts. Rather, the crisis precipitates a deeper, more primitive reaction. Thought recedes from life.
The test results show “a brightness in the heart” of the fetus. This paradoxical image of life waxing is also an image of chaos erupting. Romanian Notebook replicates and multiplies the conflict between thought’s order and nature’s order, thought’s health and nature’s health, thought’s language and nature’s language. One arresting instance is Console’s record of the memory of his undergraduate days spent in a biology lab, observing the “lesser wax moths,” and struggling to find a solution to a mystery of lesser wax moth anatomy. In the lab sequences, Console’s essentially verbal thinking confronts the fact that the language of life might be composed of numbers.
In other sequences, the struggle is carried out between thought and speech. Console doesn’t speak Romanian, and few of the country’s natives speak English. His thought is for the most part utterly sealed off from contact with the spoken transactions of the people around him. Cut off, or cut free, from speech, thought assumes its baroque writerly structures. Speech in a language of which he knows only a few words involves the conscious, patient, awkward, hilarious, and typically unsuccessful translation of thought. This process illuminates the gulf between thought and speech, which is not quite identical to the gulf between inside and outside.
One of the most moving strands of Romanian Notebook is its reflection on life’s cruelty. The cruelty of the Romanians to the Gypsy minority; the cruelty of a group of boys to a dog; the cruelty of gender relations; the cruelty of meat eating; the cruelty of alcoholic self-destruction. The passive term of each relation is itself elsewhere seen to be the agent of a cruelty. Life is cruelty feeding on cruelty. Console sees himself imbricated and reflected in each of these cruel relations.
It might be tempting to read this book as the tragedy of the human who cries out at life’s chaotic cruelties, but seems unable to avoid participating in them. Oedipus hates murder and rape, yet he murders and rapes. A parent loves his future children, but perhaps there is one kind of future child he cannot love. This is the stuff of tragedy. Yet Romanian Notebook is not a tragedy: it is a notebook. It tells the story of the beautiful structures of thought, gently wavering as the fluid shapes of an alien life stream past.