Saturday, October 14, 2017

Introduction to the Pleasant

Inauguration of the Pleasantness

What is the opposite of Horror?

It cannot be, as is often thought, an unreflective grounding in the everyday, the kind of consensus-seeking Social Realism favored by whoever currently maintains the Canon™. Inasmuch as Horror is a scalar value, a jerking left into the negative zone of the Uncanny, then its opposite cannot be the zero point neutrality of the merely Real; it requires, instead, a state just as heightened, equal but opposite. This state, it seems clear, has until now been evoked much less in literature than its superficially menacing but commercially profitable reflection, but for some time it has been gaining momentum in certain subterranean channels of its own, unobserved and mostly unsuspected until the publication of the present volume. This state is the Pleasant.

It’s been noted that a worldview often achieves its greatest prominence just as it is about to decline. This seems an appropriate description of what could variously be termed the cosmic horror or Lovecraftian mode, which some would claim to be undergoing a renaissance, but which seems more strictly appropriate to the years of its origin than to the early decades of the 21st century. At the time when this mode was still fresh, the scientific revelations of Darwin and Einstein, the mass devastations of the World Wars, and the changing social attitudes brought about by rapidly advancing technology all hastened the decline of the already enfeebled anthropocentric view of literature. The novelty of the approach was to suggest that increased scientific understanding would lead, not to greater sanity and social harmony as H.G. Wells would have had us believe, but to an unceremonious expulsion into a universe that was at best infinitely and inhospitably vast, and at worst populated with forces wholly destructive of human life and meaning. And as the 20th century progressed, the various voices of Anxiety, Absurdity and Exhaustion joined the chorus. The critical quarter took part too, with academic writings focused on the radical contingency of human values. By the turn of the 21st century, this mode had become something of a default, degrading into a reflexive apocalypticism suitable for the comic books, video games and blockbuster films that had arisen to recuperate its insights and render them safe for the capitalist production line. In short, this mode has become shorthand for “seriousness,” and has now reached its Mannerist nadir.

It’s possible to imagine the Pleasant incubating all the while, beneath a toadstool perhaps, like some shadowy fairy embryo. The fairy or bright blinking goblin of the Pleasant, youthful and shy, has until now only peeked through the pages of a scattered band of authors who would at first seem to have little in common: Colette, John Cowper Powys, Jippensha Ikku, Robert Walser, Mario Vargas Llosa, Italo Svevo. But there is nothing here like a school, and the glimpses of the Pleasant in their works are just that: brief sightings, usually unverified and likely to have been taken for something else entirely. The Pleasant is distinct from the whimsical, the absurd, the comical and the farcical. The Pleasant is not pastoral; neither is it realism in the sense that the term is usually meant; neither is it fantasy. A few of the works of Quentin S. Crisp come perilously close to embodying the Pleasant in full flower (the story “Italianetto,” and parts of the novel Blue on Blue). But nowhere has concentrated Pleasantness been felt until now.

In 2010 Brendan Connell published Unpleasant Tales. Unlike many of his more workshopped peers, Connell had, in the service of style, sensibly discarded plot, character, “arcs,” “craftsmanship,” and most of the other appurtenances of modern commercial fiction. In their place was an emphasis on the historical extrusions of decadence, or what might be termed a Neo-Decadent expression of classical decadent themes. Unpleasant Tales thus succeeded in its objectives, but in a sense it succeeded too well. Eight-year-old boys and girls reading it were stricken with a profound sense of disquietude that occasionally interfered with their delectation of the conveniences of the modern Industrial Age. To be unpleasant is at heart to be uncivilized, and nothing uncivilized can long retain the attention of an English-language readership. After realizing the crudeness of the Unpleasant and its even more boorish and self-aggrandizing cousin, the Weird (now a reformed New™ genre of sorts, with its own tedious orthodoxies and compound eyes fixed on the Hollywood Prize), Connell went through a prolonged spiritual crisis. He drank mostly black barley tea, fed himself on figs and prickly pears, and observed the desert, the sky. Through rigorous training he achieved an enviable abdominal definition. He wandered the streets at night playing Tetris on a vintage Game Boy. In the end he arrived at the Pleasant through mostly non-rational and extra-literary means.

The Pleasant as manifested through Connell’s stories is unconcerned with any teenage hysterics, with any of the plunging, swooning theatrics of Modernist ecstasy. Character and self as generally understood are not important; neither is plot. The Pleasant mode is at once atmospheric yet deeply detached, expansive yet leanly impersonal. Blissfully unmarked by the cross-hatchings of programmatic psychological realism, it is in a sense a transpersonal literature, albeit one more spiritually complete than its predecessors. It is manifestly not a critique, in that it does not perceive anything in existence to be lacking. Its characters are human in the same sense that figures in premodern literature are human, while still striking us as recognizable inhabitants of the present.

The instinctive philosophical position of the Pleasant can be defined as a kind of super-correlationism. The universe is not inimical to human life, nor even indifferent to it; rather, the universe dotes on us like a grandfather, wheezing and rocking in infinitely relaxed decrepitude, patient and amused, blinking its endless eyes or stars. A benevolent animism quickens its rhythms. The characters are not situated in their settings like actors on a stage; rather the settings emerge directly from the characters, or can be considered as the expressions of everything they are not consciously aware of knowing, but are always remembering in some vague, distracted way. There is something grotesquely excessive about the Pleasant, yet perfectly natural—and in this it is the perfect counterpart to Horror, because it evokes exactly as much of an inhumanly positive seizure of Meaning as its opposite does a negative or malevolent seizure through estrangement.

Connell seems to be telling us: the Human in the 21st century has become estranged from estrangement. The period of Anxiety, Absurdity and Exhaustion was akin to the momentary disillusionment felt by a child discovering the literal non-existence of Santa Claus. For a brief moment the child became a cynical atheist concerned with “truth” and perturbed by vast doubts; eventually, though, the realization set in that the child’s parents were in fact doing the hard work of depositing the vintage Game Boys and brightly-colored toothbrushes under the ornament-laden tree. And just as the Claus scenario functions structurally as a form of home invasion, so the child or reader will come to anticipate that tingling moment when the Pleasant comes crawling down the chimney of the everyday, dressed in its ancestral costume, depositing fresh novelties wrapped in cheap tinsel. Pleasant Tales is a vision of the Human utterly at home in the universe, sinking into mildness as into an old armchair. The Pleasant is coming, and it fully intends to crawl headfirst into your safe space. Be sure to keep your metaphysics clean, and leave out a plate of cookies.

Buy Pleasant Tales here

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