Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay: Cecily Swanson, August 28

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Cecily Swanson is a guest contributor to the Slow Burn. 

Wollochet Bay, Washington 

Dear Everyone,

When I was seven or eight, my Language Arts teacher gave us a horribly tedious exercise: diagram all the steps that go in to making a peanut butter sandwich. I'm sure all of us have a memory of a similar assignment meant to instill basic logic, reward finicky attention to procedural correctness, and, it seems to me now, prepare us for a future of inexhaustible domestic routines. There was always another step to be added: one more turn of the peanut butter jar, one more swivel of the knife.

But until reading about Lila's mania for block diagramsfor diagramming "the door opening," "knotting the tie," "tying Gennaro's shoe, "making coffee in the napoletana" (TWL & TWS 114)it never occurred to me that I was also learning the fundaments of computer programming. Cursory Google research into the history of block diagramming reveals its centrality in teaching how computer systems intercommunicate: where a system's boundary points lie; in which direction information flows; what responsibility each part has in the functioning of the whole.


IBM Block Diagram/Flow Chart Template from the 1970s

To create successful block diagrams is not only to understand how a system works, it is also to understand how to make a system grow. In book three of Ferrante's Neapolitan novels, Those who Leave and Those who Stay, Lila has become adept at analyzing and cultivating systems broadly conceivedthe intricacies of politics at the Soccavo sausage plant, the language of worker revolt, the System 3 Model 10 card reader at IBM, the data-processing center run by the Solaras. While Lenù feels "pregnant yet empty" (260), Lila, despite being on the Pill, despite her cough, skinniness, and exhaustion, possesses an alarming fecundity that mocks Lenù's inability to write another promising work. None of this is exactly newLenù has admired Lila's talents at self-expression since the days of the Blue Fairy. But in book three, Lenù can no longer fully grasp exactly howand at whather friend excels. Sarah wrote of the "dense miasma" that surrounds Ferrante's Naples; Lila's new role as the "head of technology" appears similarly shrouded to Lenù. One of the novel's feats is to present, through Lenu's clouded vision, technological innovation as most of us perceive it: unintelligible yet fascinating, peripheral yet threatening.

Lenù does grasp that Lila has harnessed a seemingly contradictory set of powers. While Lenù is stuck parroting clichés, Lila can be avant-garde: at once radically abstract and deeply material, occupying a position simultaneously above and below conventional language and narrative. Lila's work at IBM is "incomprehensible jargon" to Lenù, yet it is also alarmingly rooted in visceral reality. As Lila explains to her, "the computer is worse than a stove. Maximum abstraction along with sweat and a terrible stink" (262).  Lenù imagines her taunting, "You wanted to write novels...I created a novel with real people, with real blood, in reality" (313).

T. J. Clark famously claimed that modernism's two greatest desires were the "recognition of the social reality of the sign (away from the comforts of narrative and illusionism)" and, at the same time, the reversion of "the sign back to a bedrock of World/Nature/Sensation/Subjectivity which the to and fro of capitalism had all but destroyed." Lila, through computer programming, has realized these opposing demands in a postmodern era in which she, unlike her modernist forebears, can enter the capitalist marketplacethe Solara's data processing plantwithout feeling destroyed.  A writer that has her cake and eats it tooaesthetic experimentation without sacrificing the grit of lived experience, profit without selling-outLila represents the possibility of the ideal novel, so perfect that it might only be a single diagramor, as Lila's disappearance suggests, nothing at all. Some of the anger and bitterness of the Neapolitan novels comes from this sense that their very existence as novels is a problem, an atavism: "Mute paper, useless paper," Lenù remarks (348).

Lénu's anger at Lila's decision to work for the Solaras also suggests her deeper inability to understand that the communicative systems she participates inaesthetic, political, sexualare ones in which revolutionary change is tied up with structures of power and corruption. Lenù happily harnesses the clout of the Airotas to get Lila the money owed her by the Soccavo factory, but cannot handle the implication that she has herself acted like a Solara: "getting a little money and screwing everyone else over, " as Pasquale puts it (221). Frustration at Lila and Pasquale's lack of gratitude leads to her most baldly self-deluding statement: "Never again, never again would I lift a finger for anyone," uttered on the eve of her marriage to Pietro, childrearing, and housekeeping (228).

Her refusal to admit contradiction is what makes the feminist tract she is writing both so disturbing and intriguing. She theorizes a female automaton, fabricated by man:

Eve can't, doesn't know how, doesn't have the material to be Eve outside of Adam. Her evil and her good are evil and good according to Adam. Eve is Adam as a woman. And the divine work was so successful that she herself, in herself, doesn't know who she is, she has pliable features, she doesn't possess her own language, she doesn't have a spirit or a logic of her own, she loses shape easily (375).

What's surprising about this idea is not its familiar premise that women are defined by and in relation to men. Rather, its strangeness comes from its profound failure to explain Lila, who, contrary to Lenù's formulation, appears to be fabricating male automatons. Enzoblond, selfless, unreal Enzois, in his own words, identical to the computer he operates: "he is me," he explains (299). And Lila is behind the controls: "I think what she thinks," he tells Lenù (333), who, in flagrant disregard of her own theorizing of patriarchal power, tries to undermine Lila's intelligence based on her wage differential: "if Lina is so good," she teases Enzo, "why do they give you three hundred and fifty thousand lire and her a hundred thousand, why are you boss and she's the assistant?" (299).

What is Ferrante getting at here?  That cybernetics are indeed, as Shulamith Firestone imagined, uprooting the biological division of the sexes by undoing the division of labor, an idea that exceeds Lenù's sometimes shrewd but sometimes myopic class-consciousness? Or is Ferrante simply pointing out the inevitable gap between theory and reality that makes writing feel like a futile activity: Lenù's tract cannot give voice to the complexity of her actual experience, another sign of the insufficiency of words. It's hard not to read lines like Lenù's explanation of the subject of her new work"Men who fabricate women" (361)as jab at, or a provocation to, readers who speculate about Ferrante's own gender. The pat insufficiency of Lenù's proposition seems to ridicule (or wickedly encourage) readers who smugly assume that one day we will be able to definitively answer, "Who is Elena Ferrante?"

Lenù, despite her anger at, jealousy of, and malicious response to Lila's block diagrams, punch cards, and data files (vexation that their telephone calls only exacerbate, as if the immediacy of Lila's voice over the wire offers further proof of her abstraction and extension), retains a canny sensitivity to a register of language that Lila's mania for computing risks effacing. Lila is able to both to elevate writingrendering it poetic, experimental, encodedand to deflate it, concretizing it into the sweating, stinking computer. But Lenù desires a way to communicate that eschews the poles of the literary and the anti-literary, carving out a space for that which is neither fully meaningful nor material. She tells one of her early audiences that her first book hoped to capture "what seems unsayable and what we do not speak of even to ourselves" (64). Throughout Those who Leave and Those who Stay we think we discover what the unsayable might be: Dede's "shriek[s] like a furious little animal" (238), "Silvia's "animal cries of terror" (291), and Lenù's own "terrible cries, not words, only breath spilling out along with despair" (242). Lenù's more potent feminist act may be to let these howls reverberate.

The difficulty with such a readingin a move that is characteristic of Ferranteis that we know, by Lenù's own confession, that her reading audience "liked" when she told them she hoped to recount the "unsayable"; after uttering those words, she "regained respect" and began to use them over and over again, a refrain that ensured "a certain success" (64-65). Do her audiences "like" this refrain because it speaks to a restrictive consensus about women's writing and the female conditionthat it is inchoate, formless, indescribable? If so, is Ferrante suggesting that even our "unsayables"our cries, shrieks, and howlsare always compromised? Lila's apparent indifference before the novel's opening horrorGigliola Spagnuolo's battered, bloated bodymay in fact bear better witness to the neighborhood's "sandpaper of torments" than Lenù's profusion of tears (23). Indifference, block diagramsare these signs of a cold inhumanity or a brilliant appraisal of the real?

– Cecily


The Slow Burn: an Introduction

My Brilliant Friend: Jill, June 22

My Brilliant Friend: Katherine, June 23

My Brilliant Friend: Merve, June 25

My Brilliant Friend: Sarah, June 26

My Brilliant Friend: Katherine, July 1

My Brilliant Friend: Merve, July 6

My Brilliant Friend: Sarah, July 11

The Story of a New Name: Jill, July 17

The Story of a New Name: Merve, July 20

The Story of a New Name: Merve, July 30

The Story of a New Name: Katherine, July 31

The Story of a New Name: Sara Marcus, August 6

The Story of a New Name: Sarah, August 9

The Story of a New Name: Marissa Brostoff, August 10

Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay: Katherine, August 20

Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay: Merve, August 21

Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay: Lili Loofbourow, August 26

Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay: Jill, August 27

Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay: Amy Schiller, August 30

Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay: Sarah, September 1

The Story of the Lost Child: Merve, September 16

The Story of the Lost Child: Katherine, September 18

The Story of the Lost Child: Jill, September 21

The Story of the Lost Child: Sarah, September 25