West African sculptors have always sung while they worked. And they do not stop singing until their sculptures are finished. That way the music gets inside the carvings and keeps on singing.
In 1910, Leo Frobenius found ancient sculptures on the Slave Coast that made his eyes bulge.
Their beauty was such that the German explorer believed they were Greek, brought from Athens, or perhaps from the lost Atlantis. His colleagues agreed: Africa, daughter of scorn, mother of slaves, could not have produced such marvels.
It did though. Those music-filled effigies had been sculpted a few centuries previously in the belly button of the world, in Ife, the sacred place where Yoruba gods gave birth to women and men.
Africa turned out to be an unending wellspring of art worth celebrating. And worth stealing.
It seems Paul Gaugin, a rather absent-minded fellow, put his name on a couple of sculptures from the Congo. The error was contagious. From then on Picasso, Modigliani, Klee, Giacometti, Ernst, Moore, and many other European artists made the same mistake, and did so with alarming frequency.
Pillaged by its colonial masters, Africa would never know how responsible it was for the most astonishing achievements in twentieth-century European painting and sculpture.
Eduardo Galeano, Mirrors. Portobello Books, 2009 (2008).
At the end on the 1920’s, advertising beat the drum to spread marvellous news: “Fly, don’t ride.” Leaded gasoline made you go faster, and going faster meant getting ahead in life. The ads showed a car going at a snail’s pace, and the embarrassed child inside: “Gee, Pop, they’re all passing you!”
Gasoline with lead additives was invented in the United States, and from the United States a barrage of advertising imposed it on the the world. In 1986, when the U.S. government finally decided to outlaw it, the number of victims of lead poisoning around the world was incalculable. It was known all along that leaded gasoline was killing adults in the United States at a rate of five thousand a year, and causing irreparable damage to the nervous systems and mental development of millions of children.
The principle authors of this crime were two executives from General Motors, Charles Kettering and Alfred Sloan. They have gone down in history as generous benefactors of humanity. They founded a hospital.
Eduardo Galeano, Mirrors. Portobello Books, 2009 (2008)
On his deathbed, Copernicus published the book that founded modern astronomy.
Three centuries before, Arab scientists Mu’ayyad al-Din al-‘Urdi and Nasir al-Din Tusi had come up with the theorems crucial to that development. Copernicus used their theorems but did not cite the source.
Europe looked in the mirror and saw the world.
Beyond that lay nothing.
The three inventions that made the Renaissance possible, the compass, gunpowder, and the printing press, came from China. The Babylonians scooped Pythagoras by fifteen hundred years. Long before anyone else, the Indians knew the world was round and had calculated its age. And better than anyone else, the Mayans knew the stars, eyes of the night, and the mysteries of time.
Such details were not worthy of Europe’s attention.
Eduardo Galeano, Mirrors. Portobello Books, 2009 (2008).
To think is not to exit the cave, nor to replace the uncertainty of the shadows with the clear-cut contours of the things themselves, the flickering light of a flame with the light of the true Sun. It is to enter the Labyrinthe, or more exactly make the Labyrinthe be and appear whereas we could have stayed ‘on our backs, among the flowers, facing the sun’.
To think is the lose oneself in the galleries that exist only because they are relentlessly excavated by us; it is to move around in circles at the end of a dead-end gallery where the entrance has closed behind us – until this circular movement inexplicably opens cracks in the walls that we can use.
The myth definitely wanted to tell us something important, when it presented the Labyrinth as the work of Daedelus, a man.
Cornelius Castoriadis, Crossroads in the Labyrinth (1987)
Yet in many cultural loci these days we are asked to read and write easier, more naively, less rigorously. We are asked to understand by not taking the time and energy to understand. One difference between art and entertainment has to do with the speed of perception. Art deliberately slows and complicates reading, hearing, and/or viewing so that we are challenged to re-think and re-feel form and experience. Entertainment deliberately accelerates and simplifies them so we don’t have to think about or feel very much of anything at all, except, maybe, the adrenalin rush before spectacle.
Lance Olsen, Architectures of Possibility. Guide Dog Books, 2012
The sun is calm and bright, but it isn’t yet quite warm enough to idle outside with Denton Welch’s I Left My Grandfather’s House. So observant Welch’s eye for details of character and architecture, his voice so tender after the cool elegance of Ágota Kristóf’s prose, though the latter’s autobiographical The Illiterate inevitably presents a warmer, more personal note than the novels.
It’s pleasing to tack between Welch and Kristóf, a shot of elegant, slightly oily brandy to accompany a bittersweet, zippy espresso. Now, perhaps back to Kristóf, having tracked down a copy of Yesterday.
Last week, I also read Simon Critchley’s experimental Memory Theatre, a somewhat curious yet thought provoking work. Critchley as mystic recalls Yeats’ essay on magic, in which he writes, “whatever the passions of men have gathered about becomes a symbol in the Great Memory, and in the hands of him who has the secret it is a worker of wonders, a caller-up of angels or of devils.”
It’s been a hard winter, but summer is here and the fields want us to walk upright. Every man is unimpeded, but careful, as when you stand up in a small boat. I remember a day in Africa: on the banks of the Chari, there were many boats, an atmosphere positively friendly, the men almost blue-black in colour with three parallel scars on each cheek (meaning the Sara tribe). I am welcomed on a boat-it’s a canoe hollowed from a dark tree. The canoe is incredibly wobbly, even when you sit on your heels. A balancing act. If you have the heart on the left side you have to lean a bit to the right, nothing in the pockets, no big arms movements, please, all rhetoric has to be left behind. Precisely, rhetoric is impossible here. The canoe glides out over the water.
Tomas Tranströmer, Standing Up. The Half-Finished Heaven, Trans. Robert Bly, Graywolf Press, 2001
Woodcut from A 1564 edition of La Divina Comedia from Arévalo, Spain
If the halls of the Hermitage would suddenly go mad, if the paintings of all schools and masters should suddenly break loose from the nails, should fuse, intermingle, and fill the air of the rooms with futuristic howling and colours in violent agitation, the result then would be something like Dante’s Commedia.
Osip Mandelstam, A Conversation with Dante, as quoted in Alberto Manguel’s Curiosity, Yale University Press, 2015
Each book of Ágota Kristóf’s trilogy is entwined on a smaller scale in each of the books, echoing back the whole of the trilogy. Each successive book unbalances its predecessor to the point that its instability opens up an unbounded dialogism. As I read each book back to back I cannot imagine reading first The Notebook, The Proof two years later, and finally waiting a further three years to read The Third Lie. My aesthetic response would be somewhat muted.
By starting the trilogy with the simple, direct language of childhood, Kristóf disrupts our familiar frames of reference, so when the shocks arrive they have the power of a slap in the face, the visceral response precedes the intellectual. Although the language remains clear throughout the three books, its complexity increases as the protagonists mature and the paradoxes become evident. Picasso said, “Art is a lie that makes us realise the truth.”
The nature of evil is less absurdly simple than history or psychology suggests. The torturer can also be a loving grandfather. Compassion and immorality can exist side by side, as they do with Kristóf’s protagonists.
As is often the case, Michelle’s post led me to the trilogy, which sat on my shelves for some years. Although I read an edition from Grove Press, I suggest these from CB editions. Though the translators are the same, the Grove Press edition of The Notebook Americanises the language: so and so write one another, and the two protagonists are at one point called ‘you two punks.’ Tim Parks writes so well about the inflexibility of American editors. It jars the reading to the point I almost abandoned the book.