Sensorium of the World

A friend sends me an email to ask if I know the poems of American poet Jorie Graham. I am aware of Graham’s work, thanks to an interview with Helen Vendler who talked of a trend in Graham’s work to return to a perceptual aspect of life:

Who are we when we are living in the sensorium of the world? . . . Any slight shift in the [perceptual] field will cause any entire shift in vocabulary to accommodate it; the sense of the vocabulary is not what you want to get said in a philosophical sense or propositional way, but rather that the world is feeling like at this moment.

Graham’s poetry has this dense, archaeological quality that feels like an initiation into hidden mysteries. I take the time to write out entire stanzas to enjoy wallowing in her range and discursiveness. I often return to these lines from Covenant in Never:

At peak: the mesmerisation of here, this me here, this me
passing now.
So as to leave what behind?
. . . .
And to have it come so close and yet not know it:
. . . .
how the instant is very wide and bright and we cannot
ever
get away with it-the instant-what holds the “know”

Of course these lines draw me back to Beckett’s-as everything returns to Beckett-”expression that there is nothing to express, nothing with which to express, nothing from which to express, no power to express, no desire to express, together with the obligation to express”. The insufficiency of selfhood.

One of my favourite London pastimes is to visit the National Gallery and spend a few hours with a single painting. Caravaggio’s Supper at Emmaus is a very old friend which speaks to me of hospitality and comradeship. There is a “real time” effect in the painting which I couldn’t quite name until Graham’s Paris Review interview (the whole interview is excellent):

Maybe not so strange . . . I often teach a painting of Caravaggio’s, Supper at Emmaus. Christ is sitting before us in an alcove against the “back wall” of the painting. We face into a dinner table covered with things for the meal. We are quite sure that the edge of this table is identical with the absolute front of the canvas. But then one undergoes a troubling sensation. The basket of fruit, the edge of the wicker basket, sticks out into our “actual” space, our here and now. The host suddenly recognizes the stranger at his table as Christ and throws open his arms, like this. [Gestures.] His left hand comes out, beyond the border—further than the sacramental grapes in their wicker—out here into the same air that you (and I) are breathing in the National Gallery. At the same time, his right hand penetrates the crucial illusionistic space, the alcove in which Christ sits. What he does, by going like this, is enact what it is to be “taken” by surprise, to be, suddenly, in that spiritual place where the otherness of the world, of possibility, “turns” one’s soul—taking one off the path of mere “ongoingness” onto the other path of “journey.” At any rate, the host’s gesture connects that immortal-because-imaginary space Christ occupies, with the mortal one of the gallery in which I am standing breathing my minutes—and you suddenly realize Caravaggio has activated what I call the “sensation of real time”: the time of the painting’s represented action has crossed over into the time in which my only days are taking place. So you cannot read the painting without being inside the terms of the painting, which are these graduating degrees of temporality: mortal time, immortal time, represented time, actual time, the “time” of process. The activity of the painting is to do that. The host is crucified in this position—a position the artist is also in—saying, You reader and you subject (God, Christ), I have put you two together. It’s my job. That’s what the meal is. That’s what we eat.

Old Man, Dead in a Room by Charles Bukowski

Bukowski in correspondence with John William Corrington who published Bukowski as the American representative of a tradition of literary outsiders stretching back to Villon and Rimbaud:

‘Old Man, Dead in a Room is my future, ‘The Tragedy of the Leaves’ is my past, and the ‘Priest and the Matador’ is a dawdling in between.

Old Man, Dead in a Room

this thing upon me is not death
but it’s as real
and as landlords full of maggots
pound for rent
I eat walnuts in the sheath
of my privacy
and listen for more important
drummers;
it’s as real, it’s as real
as the broken-boned sparrow
cat-mouthed, uttering
more than mere
miserable argument;
between my toes I stare
at clouds, at seas of gaunt
sepulcher. . .
and scratch my back
and form a vowel
as all my lovely women
(wives and lovers)
break like engines
into steam of sorrow
to be blown into eclipse;
bone is bone
but this thing upon me
as I tear the window shades
and walk caged rugs,
this thing upon me
like a flower and a feast,
believe me
is not death and is not
glory
and like Quixote’s windmills
makes a foe
turned by the heavens
against one man;
…this thing upon me,
great god,
this thing upon me
crawling like snake,
terrifying my love of commonness,
some call Art
some call Poetry;
it’s not death
but dying will solve its power
and as my grey hands
drop a last desperate pen
in some cheap room
they will find me there
and never know
my name
my meaning
nor the treasure
of my escape.

Duality of Silence

In The World of Silence, Max Picard quotes Goutran de Procius’s Kablina, where he sums up so lucidly the duality of silence, that tension between rapture and fear familiar to anyone that chooses to spend long periods of immersion in silence.

Here in the land of the Eskimos there is no wind in the tress, for there are no leaves. No birds sing. There is no noise of flowing water. No frightened animals flee in the dark. There is no stone to become loose under human feet and fall down a riverbank, for all the stones are walled in by the frost and buried under the snow. And yet this world is far from dead: it is only that the beings, which dwell in this solitude, are noiseless and invisible.
This stillness, which has been so solitary, which has calmed me and done good to my worn-out nerves, gradually began to weigh on me like a lead weight. The flame of life within us withdrew further and further into a secret hiding place, and our heartbeats became ever slower. The day would come when we should have to shake ourselves to keep our heartbeats going. We had sunk deep into this silence; we were paralysed by it; we were on the bottom of a well from which we could pull ourselves out only with inconceivable difficulty.

I’ve read Picard’s odd and very beautiful book for years and cannot recommend it highly enough. There isn’t anything like it. Its closest literary relative must be Susan Sontag’s essay on modernism, The Aesthetics of Silence in which she argues for silence as a means for furthering speech.

Associations. Associations. Emily Dickinson:

The words the happy say
Are paltry melody
But those the silent feel-
Are beautiful-

A Quiet Revolution Triptych

For a long time I was genuinely puzzled as to how so many suburban American teenagers could be entranced, for instance, by Raoul Vaneigem’s The Revolution of Everyday Life — a book, after all, written in Paris almost forty years ago. In the end I decided it must be because Vaneigem’s book was, in its own way, the highest theoretical expression of the feelings of rage, boredom, and revulsion that almost any adolescent at some point feels when confronted with the middle class existence. The sense of a life broken into fragments, with no ultimate meaning or integrity; of a cynical market system selling its victims commodities and spectacles that themselves represent tiny false images of the very sense of totality and pleasure and community the market has in fact destroyed; the tendency to turn every relation into a form of exchange, to sacrifice life for “survival”, pleasure for renunciation, creativity for hollow homogenous units of power or “dead time” — on some level all this clearly still rings true.

David Graeber, Revolution in Reverse

We are witnessing the collapse of financial capitalism. This was easily predictable. Even among economists, where one finds even more idiots than in the political sphere, a number had been sounding the alarm for a decade or so. Our situation is paradoxical: never in Europe have the forces of repression been so weakened, yet never have the exploited masses been so passive. Still, insurrectional consciousness always sleeps with one eye open. The arrogance, incompetence, and powerlessness of the governing classes will eventually rouse it from its slumber, as will the progression in hearts and minds of what was most radical about May 1968.

Raoul Vaneigem, Hans Ulrich Obrist: In Conversation with Raoul Vaneigem

We may very well stand at one of those decisive turning points of history which separate whole eras from each other. For contemporaries entangled, as we are, in the inexorable demands of daily life, the dividing lines between eras may be hardly visible when they are crossed; only after people stumble over them do the lines grow into walls which irretrievably shut people off the past.

Hannah Arendt, Home to Roost

A Vanishing Breed of Writer

I feel like part of the vanishing breed that thinks a writer should be read and not heard, let alone seen. I think this is because there seems so often today to be a tendency to put the person in the place of his or her work, to turn the creative artist into a performing one, to find what a writer says about writing somehow more valid, or more real, than the writing itself.

William Gaddis — from his acceptance speech for the National Book Award in Fiction for J R , April 1976

Catherine Lacey’s Nobody is Ever Missing


Insidious, that’s my one word summary for Catherine Lacey’s Nobody is Ever Missing, ‘proceeding in a gradual, subtle way’ confirms the dictionary, ‘but with very harmful effects’. Like insomnia. I finished Nobody is Ever Missing forty-eight hours ago unsure whether I enjoyed reading Lacey’s story. Sometimes that happens and a few hours later I’ve forgotten a story, other times it won’t leave me. It encroaches on my thoughts like a screwworm, burrowing deeply.

There are many ways in which Nobody is Ever Missing could be different, even better. For the first forty pages I was going to abandon the book, leave it on my commuter train for someone else to give a fuck. The following paragraph was almost the moment to quit:

She pulled over in front of a café with a sign that said THE INTERNET. I got out of the car and the old lady said, Good luck, take care, and I didn’t know what I was going to spend any good luck on or what I could care for, but I said, Thank you, because that’s what you do

That’s the cutesy note that puts me off a shedload of American literature, normally time to give up, but something of Lacey’s voice kept me reading. The deftness of narrative control whilst depicting the inchoate narrator’s chaotic inner monologue is thrilling and really smart. The way that Lacey handles the passage between monologue and narrative creates a fluidity that sustains the compulsion to read on. There’s also a lightness of touch that situates the story almost, but not quite, on the razor edge of comedy , awaiting a turn to the comic, but the turn never comes. Instead it spirals into deepening notes of darkness, but without losing its place on that razor’s edge.

Forty-eight hours later Lacey’s story is still playing on my mind. The ending is brilliant. It doesn’t allow you to leave the story behind. I don’t know if I enjoyed the book, but I want to read more of Lacey’s work. As a début, it is staggeringly good.

Homogenisation of Perceptual Experience

Philosopher Bernard Stiegler has written widely on the consequences of what he sees as the homogenization of perceptual experience within contemporary culture. He is especially concerned with the global circulation of mass-produced “temporal objects,” which, for him, includes movies, television programs, popular music, and video clips. Stiegler cites the advent of widespread internet use in the mid 1990s as the decisive turning point (his key date is 1992) in the impact of these industrial audiovisual products. Over the last two decades, he believes, they have been responsible for a “mass synchronisation” of consciousness and memory. The standardisation of experience on such a large scale, he argues, entails a loss of subjective identity and singularity; it also leads to the disastrous disappearance of individual participation and creativity in the making of the symbols we all exchange and share. His notion of synchronisation is radically unlike what I referred to earlier as shared temporalities, in which the co-presence of differences and otherness could be the basis for provisional publics or communities. Stiegler concludes there is an ongoing destruction of the “primordial narcissism” essential for a human being to care for themselves or for others, and he points to the many episodes of mass murder/suicide as ominous results of this widespread psychic and existential damage. He calls urgently for the creation of counter-products that might reintroduce singularity into cultural experience and somehow disconnect desire from the imperatives of consumption.

A paragraph from Jonathan Crary’s bold 24/7, an important book that demands a personal reaction.

Leslie Jamison’s The Empathy Exams

Leslie Jamison’s final essay in The Empathy Exams is its strongest piece. “I’m tired of female pain, and also tired of people who are tired of it,” she writes. In many ways Jamison’s response to the female body and pain opposes Kate Zambreno’s project, but I prefer to see it as complementary, viewing the same issues though other prisms.

The Empathy Exams is a series of unrelated essays, memoirs, and ‘pain tours’ that focuses primarily on American culture. It is framed at by the fascinating The Empathy Exams, an exploration of Jamison’s job as a medical actor, paid to convincingly fake illness as part of medical students’ training, and concludes with Grand Unified Theory of Female Pain.

Jamison writes beautifully, though often without the punch of a storyteller like Joan Didion, but the collection shows tremendous power as an essayist with a journalist’s eye.

Unmoving Targets

Quote

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This concerted attempt to erase the responsibilities of thought and volition from our daily lives has produced a nation of couched-out soft touches, easily riled by the most cynically vacuous sloganeering and handily manipulated by the alibis of “morality” and false patriotism. To put it bluntly, no ones home. We are literally absent from our own present. We are elsewhere, not in the real but in the represented. Our bodies, the flesh and blood of it all, have given way to representations: figures that cavort on TV, movie, and computer screens. Propped up and ultra-relaxed, we teeter on the cusp of narcolepsy and believe everything and nothing.

Barbara Kruger
Remote Control: Power, Cultures, and the World of Appearances

Writing That Stops Itself

Binge-reading Anne Carson continues with Men in the Off Hours. I’ve just spent a fortnight with Eros the Bittersweet, reading it three times back to back and then a fourth to transcribe large passages into my notebook. It is simply one of the most sublime books I’ve read, and certainly the finest on the nature of desire and love, and how each intertwines with the act of reading and writing.

I keep thinking of how to write about Anne Carson’s work which I might attempt when I’ve finished this reading of her oeuvre, but my reverence gets in the way of any critical insight. Michelle mentioned Carson’s idea of writing/language that “stops itself” which is evident even in the weaker works like Autobiography of Red, with unexpected images like “He switched on the light. He was staring at the sweep hand of the electric clock / on the dresser. Its little dry hum ran over his nerves like a comb.”

But the writer who comes to mind most immediately whose language constantly disrupts thought is Derek Walcott. Last night I reread his dazzling Omeros, and wanted to share these seven exquisite lines (I can’t preserve the spacing on WordPress):

We watched the Major lift
his wife’s coffin hung with orchids , many she had found
in the blue smoke of Saltibus. Then Achilles saw the swift
pinned to the orchids, but it was the image of a swift

which Maud had sown into the silk draping her bier
and not only the African swift but all the horned island’s
birds, bitterns and herons, silently screeching there.

There are, so far, many poems in Carson’s Men in the Off Hours that stop me dead. I have to put the book down and inhabit the silence that her work conjures.