The Efficient Distribution of Divine Breath: Gonçalo M. Tavares’ Joseph Walser’s Machine

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With the increasingly important role of intelligent machines in all phases of our lives–military, medical, economic and financial, political–it is odd to keep reading articles with titles such as Whatever Happened to Artificial Intelligence? This is a phenomenon that Turing had predicted: that machine intelligence would become so pervasive, so comfortable, and so well integrated into our information-based economy that people would fail even to notice it.
—Ray Kurzweil, The Age of Spiritual Machines

1. Things are in the Saddle
Sometime in the sixth century, Saint Benedict of Nursia, founder of the Benedictine monastery in Italy, required his monks to pray at seven scheduled times throughout the day. Given this rather assiduous prayer regimen, it is perhaps unsurprising that Christian monks — requiring a more exact form of timekeeping — were the ones who propelled innovations in clock technologies. Ultimately, the mechanism they produced would have unexpected consequences on the world outside the hallowed confines of the monastery. By the fourteenth century, the mechanical clock was a staple of the European urban landscape, a clanging device that monitored the hours and announced the day’s exigencies. Applying new pressures of punctuality and scheduling to life, the clock dramatically revamped how people worked and traveled and leisured. It operated as a haunting reminder of time’s inexorable progress. As T.S. Eliot said, “Because I know that time is always time/and place is always and only place/And what is actual is actual only for one time and only for one place.” A simple ticking device changed reality.

Throughout history the best minds have debated about the ways in which technology has impressed itself on humanity. In The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains, Nicholas Carr outlines the argument rather nicely. On one side are “technological determinists” who believe that the technologies we use autonomously determine the type of people we become, without our consent. By way of example, one could point to the invention of the clock, or other seminal technologies. Marx wrote, “The windmill gives you society with the feudal lord; the steam mill, society with the industrial capitalist.” Emerson posited, “Things are in the saddle/ And ride mankind.” On the other end of the debate are “technological instrumentalists” who contend that our technologies are “the means to achieve our ends; they have no ends of their own.” In the post-millennial world, the debate is one of paramount importance, but is rarely given serious attention and compelling dramatization in the contemporary literary novel. This is not to say that contemporary novelists aren’t interested in the subject (see Jonathan Franzen’s “Liking is for Cowards: Go for What Hurts” or Zadie Smith’s “Generation Why”). Or that historians and sociologists haven’t turned the subject into something of an intellectual G-spot (see Jaron Lanier’s You Are Not a Gadget, Sherry Turkel’s Alone Together, or Carr’s The Shallows).

2. A Master of a Language that Never Rears its Head
Such questions about technological determinism occupy a vital space in the artistic medulla of the Portuguese novelist Gonçalo M. Tavares. Since 2001, Tavares has been publishing plays, story collections, essays, and novels while concomitantly snagging a whole bevy of literary prizes. Born in 1970, the Portuguese novelist’s Jerusalem won the 2005 Jose Saramago Prize and inspired the Nobel Prize-winning Saramago himself to rather hyperbolically state that “in thirty years’ time, if not before, [Tavares] will win the Nobel Prize, and I’m sure my prediction will come true…Tavares has no right to be writing so well at the age of 35. One feels like punching him.” It is perhaps unsurprising then that I approached Tavares’ books with equal amounts of skepticism and expectation, since there was simply no way a writer who’s only in his early 40s could be generating this kind of revelatory and cornea-brightening work without my having heard whisper and murmur of it. Turns out I was wrong. His books made me want to throw an envy-inspired uppercut, too.

His novels Jerusalem, Learning to Pray in the Age of Technique, Klaus Klump: A Man, and Joseph Walser’s Machine (out this month in paperback from Dalkey Archive Press) constitute the twisted and ruminative series called The Kingdom, which explores the pathology of political ambition, the logic of human cruelty, the collateral damage of madness, and the senescence of morality in the technological age. Though soul-withered and psychotic, his characters are also breathtakingly smart and often interrupt the narrative action to pontificate on moral relativism, power, politics, and the telos of the individual. Combine the villainous unction of Hannibal Lecter with the grisly impulses of Patrick Bateman and you’ll have a composite psychological sketch of Tavares’s more disturbing creations. His less menacing characters range from the schizophrenic and mentally unstable to the pathologically detached. But his characters aren’t simply fictional renderings of Oliver Sacks’s patients. Instead, Tavares creates an assemblage of people who take the prevailing ethics and logics of society — capitalism, corporatism, and intellectual technology — and radicalize them in an effort to muse about what would happen to humanity if our political and economic efficacy trumped the importance of our souls.

3. As if Humans Were Substances that Thought, Substances with Souls
Joseph Walser’s Machine is a slender though pithy meditation on the ways in which systemic routines — economic, medical, industrial, and political — scour the human psyche to a bloodless husk. Like all Tavares’ novels, Machine is set an unidentified European city and is populated by characters with vaguely Germanic-sounding names. The year is unknown, but the psychic aura of the book suggests late-millennium panic. An odd hybrid of social critique, philosophical tract, and black comedy, Machine opens with an oblique snapshot of Joseph Walser’s life. “He was a strange man… He wore a simple pair of pants, almost like a peasant’s, and his hazel-colored shoes were absolutely out of style… Walser was a collector. Of what? It’s too early to say.” His days are existentially moored by routines: He gets up in the morning, shaves, eats a sensible breakfast, goes to his job in a factory owned by the most important business man in the city, reprieves for lunch around two, and walks home around six. Walser maintains a somnambulant existence in which the events of the outside world constitute a predictable landscape, a scheduled set change on a choreographed stage. Everything is ordinary, nothing spontaneous. Even the threat of war that looms over his city gets regarded as just another variable in the cyclical rhythms of history: “The technique of influencing men by frightening them about things that don’t exist yet is ancient. It’s happening again. There’s talk of a military unit approaching with great appetite.” Numb to these expected political events, Walser similarly views other people — his wife Margha, his boss Klober Muller, and his friends — with pathological blankness. Consider Walser’s impassive discovery of his wife’s affair with Muller. He fails to confront either of them and instead resumes the quiet fulfillment of the rote. Another staple of his routine is the weekly Dice Game he plays with his coworkers, some of whom eventually plan and execute an act of terrorism against the occupying army, which, even though it’s intended to be a catalyst for disorder, only further confirms that this type of violent resistance is to be expected during wartime. Because the Dice Game allows the men to gamble on chance, it seemingly offers a necessary break from the deadening routines of daily life. But the omniscient narrator explains the paradox of the game: “There was nothing lacking, everything was there already, in the game, nothing new could crop up to disrupt the proceedings. There were six numbers struck to the die and they weren’t going anywhere. There was no seventh cipher, no seventh hypothesis. Six was the limit.” It seems then the habitual decision to submit to chance and unpredictability every week is, for Walser, just another kind of routine. All this perhaps explains why his emotional potential amounts to that of a storefront mannequin. Other people misconstrue his silence and carelessness toward the outside world as a faculty for proletarian obedience.

Walser’s relationship with his machine is the only bond in his life that demands his precise attention:
Walser had long since operated the machine with unceasing concentration, since, from the beginning, he’d realized the following: if the machine could, in the worst case, as a result of a mistake, kill him, him the honorable citizen Joseph Walser, in peacetime, the most tranquil of times, while lazy children played in the parks on Sundays, then he, Joseph Walser, was, after all, at war, for he was dealing with a dangerous friend, a friend that was potentially an enemy, a mortal enemy, because it could — not in a few months or a couple of days, but in a second — turn into that which seeks to inflict bodily harm. The foundation of his very existence — this machine — which supported his family and was, therefore, what saved him, day after day, from being some other person, eventually his own negative, the opposite of the Man that he thought himself to be… but in saving him day after day, the machine also constantly threatened him, without abeyance.
This almost symbiotic relationship with his machine imbues Walser’s life with meaning. In fact, whenever he turns it off, he is overcome by an acute apprehension, wondering whether his own heart has stopped. Eventually, the machine makes good on its threat and severs Walser’s index finger, a gruesome incident that occurs while his friends from the factory detonate a bomb on a nearby street, which momentarily sends the city into hysterics. In the face of such chaos, the citizens begin the expected triage and abide a municipally enforced emotional prudence — carrying out routines to create some semblance of normal life. Walser’s own routine involves collecting shards of metals broken off from various mechanisms and storing them in his study as a kind of shrine to technological rationality. It is his way of constructing meaning — a personal logic — out of entropy. Despite the backdrop of war and the privations of his personal life, Walser all the while behaves with the chilly equanimity of a heart surgeon. At one point, he considers himself to be a great man because he is “prepared to not love anyone…” Such a formulation of human greatness allows him to commit twisted actions — having sex with his dead friend’s wife, stealing the belt off the corpse of recently murdered man, which he adds to his metal collection — the consequences of which converge in one of the strangest endings to a novel I’ve read, up there with Don Delillo’s Americana, Jonathan Littel’s The Kindly Ones, or Tom McCarthy’s Remainder.

What should by now be rather obvious is that Joseph Walser isn’t intended to strike us as a flesh-and-blood human being. This is not to suggest that Machine eschews the aesthetics of Realism, though. Instead, Tavares plumbs the internal life of a character who has or is slowly metamorphosing into a machine, a type of person whose morality is not a divine deliberation of how best to live, but is a mechanical operation. If the requested action is executed successfully — regardless of whether we find that action laudable or opprobrious — then the action is good. Such is the compassionless morality of Tavares’s Kingdom, where people value machines more than they do human beings. These characters are atomized individuals who are slaves to their own base desires, who fail to see themselves as part of a collective.

I teach literature and writing at a small college in Wisconsin, and oftentimes center my composition courses on discussions about how digital technologies are changing our definitions of communication, friendship, love, and morality. We read Jaron Lanier and Nicholas Carr, Martin Buber and Ray Kurzweil. APA studies about how Facebook increases narcissistic tendencies among its users, a documentary about Internet Addiction Recovery Camps in Asia, and Thomas de Zengotita’s essay from Harper’s about “the numbing of the American mind” are a few examples of the vast catalog of arguments we encounter throughout the semester. Thoughtful and at times intimidatingly smart, my students have curious reactions to these texts. They at once confirm the desensitization to reality and the ablation of serious thought that digital technologies eventuate, while at the same time praising the convenience, efficiency, and sleekness of their smartphones, which they often utilize in class to fact-check my lectures (a practice that fills me with a kind of searing dread). Recently, my students and I were discussing the ways in which texting and Facebook posts and Instant Messaging reduce our expectations of human interaction — one should note that the majority of my students absolutely abhor making actual, vox-a-vox phone calls. They related anecdotes about text message conversations gone awry (“I couldn’t tell if he was being sarcastic!” or “I thought she was pissed at me!”). One student recalled a face-to-face conversation she recently had with her friend. She had said that friend is the kind of funny where whenever you’re around her you find yourself clutching your stomach and begging her to stop. Anyways, the friend told a joke, and instead of laughing, instead of giving the friend some expressive indication that she thought the joke was that delicious blend of irreverence and wisdom, my student sat there stone-faced and saw a familiar acronym fill up the IMAX of her head. It read: “LOL.” As she bravely recounted the anecdote, speaking with that special intensity that attends a kind of personal revelation, she seemed preoccupied in a haunted way.

Now, I’m not saying that my student bears even a remote likeness to a single one of Tavares’ characters. In fact, she’s a terribly nice person who I have faith will do important things with her life. But we shouldn’t disregard the seriousness of the incident, for it speaks to the subtle and disturbing ways in which technologies sometimes limit or reduce our appreciation of reality, our ability to sensitively apprehend and partake in reality. While it’s easy to sneer or bristle at Tavares’ characters, to close his books and say, “Boy, that was weird,” I don’t think these are meant to be portraits of the cold and the sociopathic, the damaged and the damned. What makes these books necessary, urgent, and arguably genius is Tavares’ unapologetic presentation of characters who follow contemporary society’s prevailing ethics—the ethics of efficient machines—to their logical and devastating ends: a world without what Tavares calls “the efficient distribution of divine breath.” Told in pellucid prose, Joseph Walser’s Machine is a terrifying and mesmeric novel, offering a dark premonition of where we might be headed and what we might become.