the water’s fine
"All art is or was modern in its time, daring and new, demonstrating a constant change in seeing and feeling. If revival had been a perpetual virtue, we still would live in caves and earth pits. In art, tradition is to create, not to revive." - Josef Albers, Design, 1946 (quoted in The Arts at Black Mountain College, Mary Emma Harris, 107).
Robert Motherwell, Ile of France, 1945
My last gasp of summer reading that I squeezed in came from my interest in Black Mountain College - ostensibly a quasi precursor to the college where I graduated high school from (North Carolina School of the Arts - they have a high school for the arts within the University). But I didn’t know of that confluence until nearly the end of my reading. What I did know was that Black Mountain College was a really interesting and influential place. Lasting twenty-four years with a total of around thirteen hundred students (1933-1957) in the mountains of North Carolina, an experiment in education was lived out. A spirited, innovative, creative, floundering, democratic ideal of what a meaningful education alive in the world might look like.
Clemens Kauscher, Lake With Dock,1948
Albers felt that “only dynamic possession is fertile–materially as well as spiritually.” He distinguished between the usual possessiveness or industriousness of the student who mindlessly accumulates and memorizes facts and theories to be regurgitated on an exam to please the teacher and the “dynamic possession” of the student for whom experience and action is an integral part of the learning process (15).
Peter Voulkos, Round Bottle, CA., 1953
Albers, one of the founders of Black Mountain College had been a teacher at the Bauhaus. Fleeing Germany and its fascist government, the ideals of democracy, particularly the expansion of community interests flourishing through hands-on education and art, in both the form and function of aesthetics and creative expression, were some of the very progressive and fascinating experimental ideas in the Black Mountain College education.
"What is the nature of an experimental action? It is simply an action the outcome of which is not foreseen. - John Cage, Silence, 1961 (quoted, 107).
Alexander Reed, Untitled Drawing
My interest was peaked by the truly impressive array of artists and thinkers that took part in the experiment. Besides, Alders, some of the notable participants (to me) were Cage, Buckminster Fuller, Allen Ginsburg, Willem De Kooning, Charles Oslon, Robert Creeley, Anaïs Nin, William Carlos Williams, Merce Cunningham, as well as the artist whose work I have included here….it just goes on and on…amazing. Anni Albers, Josef’s wife, brought her extraordinary weaving and textile skills to the college, which I mention not only because they are beautiful but also because the artificial separation between “craft” and “art” was consciously ignored at Black Mountain College. Art for art’s sake is wonderful, but art in form and function is also a worthy pursuit requiring a finger to remain on the pulse of the mundane in a way that Art needn’t, necessarily. And we need art in both the profane and sacred realms…a teacup can transport just as well as a tempest, after all.
The visionary aspects of Black Mountain were holistic, ambitious in their creative freedom, and obviously difficult to maintain - how does one administrate an institution that stands for anti-administration and anti-institutional ideals? Not easily, and not for very long, apparently. But that is hardly the point. The point is that people try - they try over and over again, and the creative results are extraordinary, the human inspiration invigorating. Everything is cyclical, but to have the nerve and verve to let the cycle run is a testament to the spirit of life.
Robert Rauschenberg, Untitled, 1952
Today, it seems to me, so much emphasis is put on the material concept of “success.” “Failure” is anathema to our culture - but it is truly the “failures” that make life flourish. That’s where all the beauty and all meaningful success is fomented. That is one thing Bucky Fuller’s genius proved, with his “magical world of his mathematical models” (151), he was, after all, the self-proclaimed most successful failure ever! And any school that strove to recognize that is pretty great, and successful, in my book.
Undaunted, [by the failure of his geometric dome due to cost cutting inadequate materials] Fuller explained that failure is a part of experimentation and that “you succeed when you stop failing” (151).
I would only add that success, and learning, depend upon it.
*All photographs (except for the Reed drawing) are out of another very fine book, Black Mountain College: Experiments in Art edited by Vincent Katz, in which four long essays accompany copious images of the art produced and inspired by Black Mountain College.
** Title taken from John Cage’s poetic response to the controversy over an exhibition of Rauschenberg’s all white paintings in 1953, (page 230):
No technique (no why)
No white no (and)
After careful consideration, I have come to the conclusion that there is nothing in these paintings that could not be changed, that they can be seen in any light and are not destroyed by the action of shadows.
Hallelujah! the blind can see again; the water’s fine.
John Cage, Printed in Emily Genauer’s column in the New York Herald Tribune, December 27, 1953.
The Planet is a Hummingbird
The stream & the poem, & no-sky,
what I write, worn down, in the apt
in the dust. & every piece of paper &
every nub of ink & every key of the type
writer is a bird (8). - Robert Seydel, The Book of Ruth
I spent some of my work hours these past few days assisting (in a very minor capacity) in the hanging of the Robert Seydel show soon to be shown in the Neilson Library at Smith College. Seydel’s The Book of Ruth (2011) was being published at the time of the artist and poet’s unexpected death. It is a beautiful, moving, and poignantly whimsical novel (broadly construed) of Seydel’s alter-ego Ruth. Ruth lives with her brother Sol (or Saul); she is friends with Marcel Duchamp and Joseph Cornell (she is in love with Cornell); she is full of stray thoughts collected into a nest of her rather lovely soul.
I’ve been studying my hat. Men twitch at it, very clearly, or they don’t, in the street. So odd, feathers on a woman’s head. Sometimes I imagine all sorts of things. When i walk *** the pavement tilts up to me, to delineate my way. A sensation then of glory sometimes. A STaR at my forehead. Roussell-vision. Ruth of the tents. Boulevard Queen. But a rabbit more likely (on my path). Hare under hat. Mine’s no longer so lustrous. Does Joseph notice? (116)
I love everything about that passage. Its stark femininity: woman, Queen- that’s Boulevard Queen, thank you very much! rabbit- Ha! yes - more likely…and oh don’t I know a thing or two about lusterless hair?!…Seydel poetically conjures his aunt: a woman, clearly, of profound sensibility, described by her nephew: a man of complex artistry. The confluence is a visual wonder, and a moving narrative of the heart as told by the mind.
The mind runs poorly but is still sweet (66).
The book is beautiful, and the show of Seydel’s work (notebooks, collages, pieces of Book of Ruth) is extraordinary in its comprehension of the power of Seydel’s voice and vision.
Art is fodder for the day I need. Flushing is next to heaven, Joseph: Park Way to the star. I love you. Love my lob-stir art. The green things near the store sprout. Sol shld be sun unto himself. Let me dance, moon to sun, crossing w/ my picture. The rabbits /are/ the stars.
or let’s be as someone sd Americans are
AMATEURS OF THE IMPOSSIBLE. (137)
I was struck by so many of Seydel’s lines, sucked into an eddy of philosophical musings (a weakness of mine, I’ll admit)…just one, which gives this post its title, was on page 66, “The planet is a hummingbird.” Yes, I think to myself, and I can’t help holding the bird’s animated image in my mind while pondering that line, and yes, we flutter and hum, we are at constant motion, looking for something sweet, all a shimmering blue and green, fragile, pulsing planet….we are the planet, we are a hummingbird.
* Robert Seydel: The Eye in Matter exhibition in the Book Arts Gallery of Neilson Library, Smith College, September 2–December 15, 2014.
A Bit of Naughty-Naughty
When Henry Miller’s novel The Tropic of Cancer, appeared in 1935, it was greeted with rather cautious praise, obviously conditioned in some cases by a fear of seeming to enjoy pornography (95).
- George Orwell, from the essay Inside the Whale, in All Art is Propaganda
Ah, Henry Miller. We have something going on….Henry and I…. It began in the spring when I was bemusedly alerted by a shallow online quiz that my literary soulmate was M. Miller himself. Well. What to make of that, I hardly knew. I decided I better at least read his work which I wrote about here and where I blathered on a bit about the literary soulmate bit and Tropic of Cancer.
For the most part it is a story of bug-ridden rooms in workingmen’s hotels, of fights, drinking bouts, cheap brothels, Russian refugees, cadging, swindling and temporary jobs. And the whole atmosphere of the poor quarters of Paris as a foreigner sees them–the cobbled alleys, the sour reek of refuse, the bistros with their greasy zinc counters[…]the peculiar sweetish smell of the Metro, the cigarettes that come to pieces[…]–it is all there, or at any rate the feeling of it is there.
On the face of it no material could be less promising (96) - George Orwell, Inside the Whale.
Miller and I took some heat for my praise, but then, by pure good fortune I worked with a beautiful poet/artist/activist Cecilia Vicuña this summer and on my first day of work discovered that she had had a small but lovely correspondence with Miller. She adored him, his love and passion for life. I told her the trouble I was having convincing people of his (rather lovely) sincerity, she confirmed, on a personal level, what I had felt reading his book.
Good novels are not written by orthodoxy-sniffers, nor by people who are conscience-stricken about their own orthodoxy. Good novels are written by people who are not frightened. This brings me back to Henry Miller (129).
That, Orwell writes, after a thirty-something page discourse on the history of early 2oth century literature and the effect of politics: fascism, communism, laissez-faire capitalism and many more isms on writers and literature. But, yes– Miller, where were we?- after another of his novels Black Spring, was thrown on my path I started to wonder what was in the water–what was in my water?! Over the course of the summer as I worked archiving collections of books, books about books, and the art of books with Granary Books, as well as Vicuña’s archive and copious notes and writing….I had compiled a long list of artists, poets, and books that I would read when I got some time. Orwell’s All Art is Propaganda was one of those books. He is, by far, one of my favorite essayist, and what a title! Imagine my lack of surprise when after flipping around reading the essays in odd order as to my interest, I came upon a quite long (45 p.) essay all about, yes, my dear soulmate Henry.
The truth is that in 1917 there was nothing that a thinking and sensitive person could do, except to remain human, if possible (136).
Inside the Whale is sweeping, discursive, and at the very heart, brilliantly true. Orwell elucidates on the conditions which make good novels possible, how politics affect writers, directly or obliquely, and how Miller’s insouciance, and refusal to get taken in by the flimsy dictats of nation, class, and persuasion, is so sincerely expressed that one can, if one lets oneself, marvel at his genius (a human scale of genius, but genius can be writ small).
Progress and reaction have both turned out to be swindles. Seemingly there is nothing left but quietism–robbing reality of its terrors by simply submitting to it. Get inside the whale–or rather, admit that you are inside the whale (for you are, of course). Give yourself over to the world-process, stop fighting it; simply accept it, endure it, record it. That seems to be the formula that any sensitive novelist is now likely to adopt. A novel on more positive, “constructive” lines, and not emotionally spurious, is at present very difficult to imagine (138).
Orwell’s essay is fascinating historically, but his concerns and thoughts transport the mere temporal- finding a way to stay human in any time is the challenge. For myself, I’m convinced Miller met that challenge, and had fun doing it, I am convinced he had a good heart, and if that is what makes a soulmate for me - I’ll take it.
*title from: From a mere account of the subject-matter of Tropic of Cancer most people would probably assume it to be no more than a bit of naughty-naughty left over from the ‘twenties (97).
The Luminous Interval
But O the sudden blasts of earth that sweep my breasts
and shake me to the bone!
O Zeus, the seas are heavy, and my unloosened locks
sink me like a stone.
-Ángelos Sikelianós, from Anadyomene, (211) - Modern Greek Poetry, translation and introduction by Kimon Friar
It is a different experience to read a translator’s monograph, rather than a poet’s. Kimon Friar’s book, Modern Greek Poetry is comprised of the work of some thirty poets, but of course, the words come from one man: Friar. He begins his compilation with a very interesting history of Greek poetry and language, or languages- one written one spoken which began the split, but which has never been, Friar explains, so different from each other as the English of Beowulf would be to a modern English reader- despite twice the length of time which separates modern Greek from Classical compared to modern and Old English (13). He then gives a short history of the “schools” of modern Greek poetry and the major poets within.
No cleft can be widened without desire of widening
Sometimes we become hourglasses
And sponges throb to every single drop of ours
-Andréas Embirícos, from Moment of Porphyry (351)
Poetry is a language of darts meant to pierce one’s soul. There were many poems in this book which took my breath away, and many instances, as in the excerpt above where I marveled at the skill of Friar- his use of the word “cleft,” left me in awe. Of course it is entirely possibly that it’s just me, but that’s as it will be, I found the word to be the door into the entire poem, grounding it in the corporal, the consonants’ journey from back of the throat to teeth, sensual and powerful. I don’t read Greek, I have no way of knowing if it is simply a case of a perfect transposing, or if Friar had to truly translate, search his mind to find the word that would transport a reader such as I.
Sleep came and lay between us
like a rival. He took your eyes
and closed them; he took your lips
and swept away your smile and your kiss.
Your pale hair was combed by the tranquil
waters of Lethe that bore your beloved body
away to the world of stars and shadows.
Filters of silence are forcing your sealed lips,
sleep-living voices our ears, and in you veins
I hear the deep rumor of the voyage.
You have emerged from the depths of sleep
with stars and seashells in your hands
and in your eyes the dark coolness
When you open them, I want to be the first to receive
their glance, that I may capture before it fades
the meaning of that world which has kept you away
the night long.
It was through a con,versation with fellow blogger and wonderful poet Tom Simard that I was pointed in the direction of this beautiful work of Friars, and I thank him for the recommendation. Of the poet’s represented, I was only familiar with Constantine Caváfis, but there again, I find the translators’s hand a fascinating thing. Friar’s choice of which of Caváfis poems to include was revealing of what pierces his own soul, and then there is Ithaca.
Last year while reading Caváfis I was working as a caregiver, and one of my oldest clients (over 100) loved the poem Ithaca. We bonded over our mutual sentimental attachment to Greece, my father’s work was much influenced by the Aegean and she and her late husband had taken a sublime trip to Greece early on (they met and befriended Mark Rothko on the ship over) to see some newly discovered temples…she had a sweet spot in her mind for the memory and with such a long life, the theme of Ithaca moved her deeply. But there were many poems in my book of Caváfis of more, shall we say- passionate verse…I lent her the book and she was a bit bemused by her nobel Platonic Caváfis writing so much about love, or even lust! That, of course, was what I most loved about him, but she wasn’t so much amused by her discomfiture as I was - oh I do miss her. But I digress…Modern Greek Poetry is an ambitious yet focused book….truly lovely lovely lovely. O my heart.
from DE RERUM NATURA
I move my body, and my soul moves,
I put it to sleep, it sleeps.
I love, and my soul loves,
It tastes my body and my blood.
I sniff the air, and my soul sniffs also.
It is I who hunger, it is I who thirsts
In my soul, it is I who suffer.
It is I who wound my fingers
We shall never have enough, O my soul. - George Thémelis (325)
No, we shan’t.
* Title from prologue of Nikos Kazanantzákis’ poem The Saviors of God: Spiritual Exercises. “We come from a dark abyss, we end in a dark abyss, and we call the luminous interval life” (164).
*Photo: Eric Ryan doing underwater archeology in the Aegean Sea
It’s Not Too Late
The snowy cold he knows to flee and every human exigency crackles as he plugs it in every outlet works but one: death stays dark.
- Sophokles, Antigonick, translated by Anne Carson illustrated by Bianca Stone.
I was recently move to reread Antigone after a discussion with a lovely man over the eponymous character’s attributes. I love Anne Carson’s translations, so I was thrilled to find her version, Antigonick in my library system. But I had no idea just what a treat it would be. More of an artist’s book than straightforward text with illustrations. The interplay between words, images, pages, color is magnificent, irreverent, absurd, lovely and striking.
The book as a whole, as an object inseparable from the visual and tactile components that it comprises, makes the rash Kreon all the more ridiculous, the sweet Antigone all the more reasonable in her steadfast refusal to be shamed by the capricious laws of a man (or men, writ large). In the collaborative translation, illustration, and design trio of Carson, Stone and Robert Currie, Kreon is shown to be the flibbertigibbit that he is, but to tragic effect. He spews his nouns and verbs, but the black and white words imprison the letter of his laws, shutting his heart to the vitality of wisdom.
Tangled up, and cornered in, when one can not feel and let love be the ruler of the day the results are bloody awful. And for Sophokles, that is quite literal. The body count is high. Oh! the Greek Tragedians - they didn’t fool around! The Chorus sings, “You’re late to learn what’s what aren’t you” And for Kreon it is a painful realization. Yes, he is late, so late. But, it’s never too late for wisdom. Isn’t that why we continue to revisit these tales of woe and tragedy? - to soften our hearts with what is wise and true.
Outside of academia I guess they’re aren’t too many people reading Augustine (particularly for non-religious reasons). But a dear friend of mine and I are the founders and, oftener than not, sole members of a book group in which we are now reading our way, in historical order, through classic poems, plays, histories and autobiographies (we completed the fiction section separately first, which began with Don Quixote). As you can imagine it has been a project spanning many years.
No-one knows the inner motions of man except the Spirit of the man that lies in him (81, XXVII) Augustine, City of God, Book 1
As in Confessions the power of Augustine’s intellect is impressive. And yet, in this first book of City of God, my intellect struggled with what he considered a response (apology) to the citizens of Rome that had just been decimated by the Visogoths. Needless to say it was brutal, and the newly converted Christians felt pretty swindled. After all wasn’t this new Christian God suppose to protect the converted worthy?
For among those whom you see wantonly and brazenly insulting Christ’s servants are very many who would not have escaped that death and disaster if they had not pretended that they too were Christ’s servants (19, I).
The circularity of his logic is surprising. There is no argument that he posits that can’t just as easily serve the Pagan’s and their Gods. No God (or Gods), it would seem, protect people from evil, Augustine argues that that is not the point, no matter what happens, one still has the serenity of God within. Whether or not that is true is outside the scope of my quibble, I only ask, isn’t that the same for a person who believes that Zeus is the father of all gods? Wouldn’t a pagan still have the comfort of their beliefs (if that is all one is to have as a comfort)? Furthermore, wouldn’t God know the truth of a person’s heart - can one trick God so easily by “pretending to be Christ’s servant.”
Death is not be thought of an evil preceded by life which is good; the only thing which makes death evil is what follows (45, XI).
Perhaps his is truly just a faith that is focused on the afterlife…but even there, Hades? Hell? Wouldn’t that be the same place to fear going to? But, then again, what do I know, after all, I spent half my time through this book in state of some confusion: it was presented in Latin on the verso side and English on the recto. I swear, every damn time I turned the page I forgot and was more than halfway into a Latin sentence before saying, huh?
But still, I have to admit that Augustine’s ability to logically dissect any given dilemma is stunning and often, as in his discussion on suicide, or rape, with his conclusion (obvious in this day and age) of a woman’s moral innocence as the victim, leads him to some progressive, for his day, ideas. For Augustine, what is in the heart matters more than any given act.
I do not hear what answer your hearts makes when you question them (83, XXVIII)
But, I apologize, as lovely and stirring as some of his language can be, I am not sure if I want to spend my precious and limited reading hours continuing through the rest of the books, but I suppose I will have to consult the book group (of one). I fear Augustine led many people to states of blind faith, I take umbrage at his disavowal of the woman he loved and their child, and I feel he encouraged a disconnect between body and soul that I find an incomprehensible waste of all that is beautiful here and now. Nevertheless, although I find lacking some of his arguments, I deeply appreciate the depth to which he examines them and examines his own heart, while leaving others to their own.
*Aris and Phillips Classical Text, Augustine De Civitate Dei, edited, introduction, translation and commentary by P.G. Walsh
Sins of Denial
The word “lie,” like the word “truth,” is banned in art, and during the normalization neither of them can be used (251).
When writing fiction, an author strives to make a story feel real and true, the reader must believe. Breaking the suspension of disbelief with questions like, “could that have really happened?” is naturally to be avoided. Unfortunately, non-fiction never ceases to mercilessly move the goalpost of plausible truth. It is difficult to compete with the awful, endless absurdity that is reality. Mariusz Szczygiel has rather brilliantly shown fiction to be a mere sliver of the horrors of non-fiction. Exhibit A, his brilliant book of creative non-fiction, Gottland: Mostly True Stories from Half of Czechoslovakia.
2. not succumbing to idleness (so it is best to read, but with one reservation: DO NOT READ RUSSIAN NOVELS, says the slogan thought up by Bata and posted on the wall of the felting unit. Why not? Bata’s reply is on the wall of the rubber unit: RUSSIAN NOVELS KILL YOUR JOIE DE VIVRE) (17-18).
Szczygiel collection of vignettes in dark, despairing humor give a history of Czechoslovakia through the 1900s. It is fascinating, heartbreaking, and puzzling. Whywhywhy? Totalitarianism is formidable in its exercise and precision of terror. The truth that it is nearly impossible to be heroic under total surveillance is made plain- at best the sound of your soul squashing will be second guessed and dissected by future gawkers of history, further robbing it of meaning and complexity.
Beginning the book with the grand rise of the Plato/Henry Ford-esque utopian entrepreneur Tomás Bata (legendary Czechoslovakian canvas shoe maker) sets the perfect tone to a tale of societal engineering gone so incomprehensibly wrong.
'I realized that, in Czechoslovakia, a hospital for the mentally ill was the only normal place, because there everyone could say what they really thought with impunity' (journalist Eda Kriseova quoted, 167).
The stories of various screen stars, writers, singers and artists coping with life under extremely unfunny and cruel conditions that are shoved down every Czech citizen’s throat with an arrogant “it’s good for you” attitude are just devastating. The people that don’t kill themselves, must distort themselves into, as Szcygiel makes beautiful reference to, cubist versions of themselves: broken up, disjointed, disconnected. And still, goodness knows why, but there are always the unflappable spirits among us:
Though haggard and deprived of a job, he is always happy about something. He says that in prison he sang arias from Wagner’s operas. (“And if I hadn’t ended up in there, it never would have occurred to me to sing.”) (235).
The style of Szczygiel’s prose perfectly accentuates his theme of human fragility coping with the absurdity, cruelty, and bureaucratic black humor that history endlessly doles out. That people even survive societies where intellectuals are imprisoned for being the enemy of the “working man” (what ever that actually means…) while pulp fiction is literally being pulped for the crime of corrupting the intellect of the working man, (say what?) is remarkable. Little that would give pleasure through escapism survived, 70%, Szczygiel reports, of all “trash” crime fiction, horror, thrillers, adventure, science fiction and romance novels were liquidated. All pleasurable fiction was to be replaced with “social-realist trash.” Because, why just live it, eh? Besides why would you want to escape? Are you a traitor? Unsurprisingly, the reverberations live on. I have difficulty understanding the totalitarianism mind-set, but no difficulty at all fearing it.
"Oh, that’s Procházka’s writing. Take a look, I think he wrote something about The Ear there,” he says.
Yes, he did.
"This story is made up. The things that really happened were far more terrible." (director Karel Kachyna quoted, 145).
*Title from page 102: Taking note of linguistic details in the Czech Republic can offer clues. Thus, in situations where someone ought to say: “I was afraid to talk about it,” “I hadn’t the courage to ask about it,” or “I had no idea about it,” they say:
"THERE WAS NO TALK about it."
"NOTHING WAS KNOWN about it."
"that WASN’T ASKED about."
I often hear the impersonal form when people have to talk about communism. As if people had no influence on anything and were unwilling to take personal responsibility. As if to remind me that they were just part of a greater whole, which also had some sin of denial on its conscience.
I would only add that, it seems to me, “communism” in this context is a mutable term. It is fundamentalists of any kind for whom freedom of thought and human dignity is actively suppressed, violently or in more subtle forms of propaganda and dogmatic ideologies, that are a plague upon peace and compassion. Haven’t we fought this battle, didn’t others cover this ground? Perhaps, but it seems to me reckless to neglect stating that this proclivity for fundamentalism is very much a part of present current affairs in many places around the world. I can’t just gawk. And as history has shown, simply speaking is a lot.
** Gottland translated from Polish by Antonia Lloyd-Jones
Degrees of Difference
As you said, it was too good for mere dirt; you tried to apply it to your own wandering and uneasy life. It is the angle I am aiming for myself, and I don’t mean the rigid angle at which I rest in this chair. I wonder if you ever reached it (24). - Wallace Stegner, The Angle of Repose
One (of the many) wonderful things about Wallace Stegner’s Angle of Repose is the title itself. It is the reason, in fact, why I read this book (at a friend’s ardent recommendation). More than that, Stegner knew it. Unlike many books in which the title is a summation, or vague bit of poetical pointing, Angle of Repose and what it means technically, as well as metaphorically, is addressed throughout the novel. And just exactly because it is a technical term that is given the freedom to expand its meaning to the characters’ philosophical perspective of life, the reader alike, makes it a particularly meaningful part of the story.
Willingly or unwillingly, she collected experience and wrote it back East in letters. Perhaps she wrote so fully because she wanted to divert Augusta’s depression. Perhaps she was only indulging her own starved desire for talk (140).
I have far too many similarities to the characters in this book to write about it with any sense of comfort, but I can say that, for me, the angle of repose is that sweet spot where the force of gravity and inertia succumbs to a place of rest- the rocks stop rolling, your place on this earth is found, and felt.
Down this drift, with Kendall walking ahead and the others steering her by the elbows, they made their way. Inevitably she thought of Dante, Virgil, and Beatrice, and up on top Tregoning, Charon of this vertical Styx; but the thought of how silly it would sound to speak that thought made her blot it out. About used up, I should think, Oliver might say (139).
What a wonder and comfort it is that we have our fellow humans to share our feelings, and what a strange and disconcerting thing it is that we persist in thwarting our repose- through pride, hubris, culturally induced concealment, and shame…So what if Dante, Virgil and Charon “used it up”? What’s true is true, and better that we share it than suffer in silence. Stegner so brilliantly and subtly dissects the mores of the ages: Victorian, the free loving 60’s, and the extremities betwixt the two- my heart ached for the protagonist/narrator, Lyman- the smart, sarcastic, stoic and sensitive man- with a capital ‘M,’ for whom the story revolves around. As a rather hopelessly devout reader, I have found that it is the moment in which I fall in love with the voice of a book that keeps me, holds me, and consoles me - like a lover: the language permeates the deepest parts of one’s mind and heart, my eyes race to meet the words, to leap and joyously roll over them, or linger with sorrow and empathy . It is a powerful gift for a writer to share with a reader. It is a powerful union between the two.
The literary device in Angle of Repose of having the grandson, Lyman, write a history of his grandmother’s life, gives a long and nuanced view as to how unhappiness can take root. An errant or thoughtless figuring here and there, and before you know it, the amount of effort a reckoning would entail, distorts and separates all the equations.
In God’s name, Grandmother, I feel like saying to her, what was the matter with him? Did he have a harelip? Use bad language? Eat with his knife? You can do him harm, constantly adjusting his tie and correcting his grammar and telling him to stand up straight (68).
But Lyman, I feel like saying to him, isn’t it really true that there doesn’t have to be anything ‘wrong’ with him? It is all about the angles, and whether or not one is close enough to adjust their angle to meet another. The failure to try is tragic, but misjudging the difference of degrees between is equally so.
Bathing in Language
I am Comrade Korotkov, V.P., from whom the documents were just stolen…Every last one…I could be arrested…”
"Very simply too," the man on the porch affirmed.
"So let me…"
"Have Korotkov come personally."
"But I am Korotkov, comrade."
"Give me your identification papers." (20) Mikhail Bulgakov, Diaboliad
I read a book of short stories by Mikhail Bulgakov (Diaboliad and Other Stories) this weekend, intermittently taking breaks to read another book, Consciousness and the Acquisition of Language by Maurice Merleau-Ponty.
In fact, just as the child learns to know himself through others, he learns to know others through himself; he also learns to speak because the surrounding language calls up his thought, because he is enticed by its style until a single meaning emerges from the whole” (51, Merleau-Ponty)
Language calls up thought…the two (language and thought)are distinct…if one considers Bulgakov’s Diaboliad within that distinction, his use of satire, indeed satire generally, becomes a thing of great substance. His language is calling, what thoughts emerge? Perhaps it is only because I was (more or less) simultaneously reading a book about language that I was lead to consider, more deeply, the ‘language of satire.’ But once I did, it seemed to me the first order of business was to consider the translating of such a genre. I find the myopic world of English-speaking literature annoying, (please indulge me while I get this little rant out of the way) translations* into English are far less frequent than the reverse, and that bothers. How better can one experience different cultures, worlds, and times than through literature? I’m sure I don’t know, but the insularity of the English literary world is problematic not to mention emblematic.
The most characteristic of a word is “what the others are not.” Signification exists not for a word but for all words in relation to one another. Our present tense could never be the same as the present tense of a language without a future tense. It is for this reason that one can never exactly translate from one language to another (99, Merleau-Ponty).
Translation is a fascinating project, and satire is an entirely different order of complexity. As Merleau-Ponty elucidates, translation is in some regards, impossible. Language is more than a grouping of words. Every word is connected to a web of other words and the ability to see that web, to be conscious of the layers and interconnectedness is particularly essential in satire.
A very fat and pink man met Korotkov with the words, “Just marvelous. I’m putting you under arrest.”
"I cannot be arrested," replied Korotkov–and he laughed a Satanic laughter, "because I am no one knows who. Of course. I cannot be arrested or married" (40, Bulgakov).
Fortunately for Bulgakov the horrors of bureaucracies are keenly understood by most. The entire tale revolves around Korotkov’s loss of his ‘papers’ but the sickenly bizarre frustrations of state agencies are not lost. It is the particular: the play of names, the references to the Soviet state idiosyncrasies, the absurdity interlaced with cultural artifacts and references of the day that make the ride, in translation, less smooth than the original language required. The totality of the web of language is difficult to fully see and feel by a translation. Still, I am not dissuaded.
As far as the imitation of speech is concerned, one finds himself in possession of a double kinesthetic gift which is lacking in the imitation of gestures (36, Merleau-Ponty).
I think that what Merleau-Ponty is referring to is the phenomenological truth that in regard to the senses, language, which one speaks and hears with the ‘other’ to which the language is directed, is unique among our experience in the world. If I wave my arms, I can never see myself doing it as you do, but if I speak to you, we experience the language together without a marked difference of perspective.
There is no radical difference between consciousness of self and consciousness of other people (46, Merleau-Ponty).
There seems to be, to Merleau-Ponty, a circular wrapping around of the concept of ‘egocentric.’ A child is so entirely egocentric that there is actually no separation between herself and the other. For me, it is a reminder of the basic neutrality of individual words to consider what is thought of as an ugly and maligned concept such as ‘egocentric’ in a different way. There is a unity with others in the egocentric inception of our being; what is unity but a melting into our centers, in which the center is everywhere. Language unites, but it also, in fact, is what ultimately separates us. Once a child integrates the rhythm of their native environment, the pronouns, and prepositions…the lacunary nature of existence is delineated. There are spaces between us after all.
This meditation of the objective and of the subjective, of the interior and of the exterior–what philosophy seeks to do–we can find in language if we succeed in getting close enough to it (102, Merleau-Ponty).
Bulgakov buries a world of pain in the language of the absurd, but because language is more than a grouping of words, more than a mode of communication, it doesn’t matter so much that I don’t know that a green felt covered desk is shorthand for ‘institution’ - I’ve spent enough hours at the DMV to know that a Gogol-esque moment of a nose running across the tiled floor is entirely possible. The original state of our unity is the subtext, it is the baseline of sanity by which satire is possible.
A momentary enlarging of his own life: it consists of living for a moment in other people, and not only living the same thing as others for his own benefit (39, Merleau-Ponty).
Language, and by extension literature, is just that- a momentary enlarging of our own lives. Just as an infant begins with the ability to articulate every sound possible in any language, she also begins in a state of complete union to others. However, through the maturation of our individuality, the sense of shared consciousness can wither away.
According to Delacroix, “the child bathes in language.” He is attracted and enthralled by the movement of dialogue around him, and tries it himself (12, Merleau-Ponty).
Our consciousness is made through language. As many people have figured out, control of language becomes control of thought. Bulgakov and others took subversive hold of their language through satire thereby holding the line on sanity. That what separates us is every bit what unites us is a beautiful paradox. As David Foster Wallace famously said - this is water, we bathe in it. In this mad world it is through language that we will all float.
*Speaking of translations - Diaboliad and Other Stories was translated by Carl R. Poffer, Consciousness and the Acquisition of Language was translated by Hugh J. Silverman.
Live Without Appeal
The only question for us was whether or not to accept a world in which there was no choice possible save whether to be victim or executioner (Albert Camus quoted 271).
- Sean B. Carroll, Brave Genius
It is difficult to assign a genre to Sean Carroll’s book Brave Genius. Ostensibly about the friendship between Albert Camus and Jaques Monad, like life, the book is quite a bit more complex, enormous, and interlaced than the simple premise would suggest.
Camus, famously, was the moral voice of an amoral age, writing anonymously for the French Resistance paper Combat during the Nazi occupation, he also wrote his manifesto, Myth of Sisyphus during that time. I find that astounding. But I suppose it really underlines the message of his profound essay - the revolt is against the absurdity of the world, the revolt is actively rejecting the blinding copout of ideology or suicide - to live! to feel joy or pain, but to feel! To be authentic to the vitality, the humanity, the passion - to the only thing we have - life.
Jacques Monad was a Resistance fighter, and Carroll gives an account of those years with frightening clarity. The terror is palatable. But Monad was also a biologist trying to understand, through science, the same questions Camus was deeply engaged in - what is the meaning of life - what is life? Monad would go on to discover what happens in between DNA and the creation of protein, and he too would win a Nobel Prize for his contributions to humanity through his work.
Monad admitted that, of course, “this fundamental scientific result is also the most unacceptable” to most people, as it overturns all previous, long-cherished notions of human’s special significance in the universe (487).
It is more than halfway into the book before Camus and Monad even meet, and by then their friendship is a logical conclusion of their individual work, perspectives and proximity… yes, the friendship was meaningful and true, but…it is the steadfastness of their humanity that is raison d’etre of their individual importance and importance to each other. The consideration of their bravery in the face of absurd cruelty and a devastatingly frightening absence of kindness is profound and deeply moving. The book is really equal parts history, science, and philosophy. Carroll takes the near inevitable friendship between like-minded intellectuals as a baseline for what is really an exploration and history of all travellers on the same journey.
"We are living in nihilism….We shall not get out of it by pretending to ignore the evil of our time or by deciding to deny it. The only hope is to name it, on the contrary, and to inventory it to discover the cure for the disease…Let us recognize that this is a time for hope, even if it is a difficult hope" (267, Camus quoted)
The confluence and yet beautifully related questions concerning the meaning of life, whether it be through philosophy , politics, science, or any other mode of thinking, is at the heart of the book. None are possible without intellectual freedom and Carroll’s focus on the horrors of the infringement upon intellectual freedoms is the cris de coeur of the book.
In the act of refusal, the rebel thereby defines a value, a value that Camus alleged “transcends the individual, which removes him from his solitude” and thus joins him to others, and so establishes “the solidarity of man in the same adventure.”
The first philosophical secret of life for Camus was the recognition of the absurd condition. This instinct for positive rebellion–against death, oppression, suffering, or injustice– was the second secret of life, the path to humanity (308).
As much as Albert Camus was, and is, an inspiration for all of the open-hearted and sincere populace, I have a feeling that this book was written to expose the truth that there are many amongst the true-hearted. Jacques Monad’s story is every bit as riveting and moving as Camus’ or any other of the countless unsung heroes of humanity. And yes, Monad is not exactly unsung, having won a Nobel Peace prize and what not, but still, Carroll’s purpose is to invigorate that which is universally graspable- freedom, and human dignity. The choice between executioner and victim is exactly the hell Monad and Camus gave their lives’ energy to combat. And yet…the world remains what it is…it is enough to make one weep in futile rage.
What Camus could not abide were ideologies that sacrificed life in the present, the one fundamental value above all, for some promise of future justice (310).
Brave Genius, while not really about a friendship per se, makes the history, science, and humanitarian interest of that time so compelling that one hardly notices. It is simply inspiring that such people existed. Camus is well known, Monad less so, but there are many other heroic, beautiful people intertwined in the story and that is the moving heart and soul of this history. Good people existed then. They exist now. There has never yet been a system designed to put them down permanently. Never.
The question (and striking down) of adaptation (in enzymes) was key to Monad’s work, and in another way, Camus’ as well. To adapt to evil is true suicide. To adapt to fear and the fettering of intellectual freedom is the death of humanity. The acute crisis of WWII was horrific, but the chronic crisis of existence is another, and for Monad, Camus pointed a way out of the despair that the cosmos’s indifference or the scientific evidence of mere chance and necessity being the sole arbiters of all existence seemed to make inevitable. After all, what does any of that matter when we have life within us now?
In the middle of winter I at last discovered that there was in me an invincible summer (322 Camus quoted from Return to Tipasa).