Girl in a Blanket (1953) Lucian Freud
Freud’s captivating Girl in a Blanket appears on the front cover of Henrietta Moraes’ memoir, Henrietta, which I have sampled in small doses alongside Colin Wilson’s Adrift in Soho. I’m fascinated with the louche, hedonistic Soho that stretched between the beat and post-hippie eras. (Moraes called the unfinished sequel to her memoir Fuck Off Darling, which is of course just perfect) Nothing of the Bohemian lifestyle that Moraes and her milieu lived could be tolerated in our age of surveillance, net curtain twitching and consumerism as economic ideology.
I suspect that Michel Houellebecq would’ve fitted neatly in with Morae’s crowd. They would have appreciated his Beckettian mirthless humour, the finest, or at least healthiest, antidote to nihilism. My rereading of Houellebecq’s oeuvre continues, impeded only by my return to wage-orientated labour after four blissful months of reading, travel, navel gazing and walking.
Briefly but intensely compelled to dip into Angela Carter’s work last week, nagged during an insomniac night with echoes of her highly wrought style in the depiction of sexuality in Houellebecq. There are surely broad similarities in the caustic and subversive humour of both writers. I am overdue an immersion once again in Carter’s work.
What keeps coming to mind during my current Michel Houellebecq binge is that beneath the surface of his nihilism and despair is an un-extinguished faith in the redemptive potency of love and friendship, a hope that he realises is unfulfillable but impossible to abandon.
This afternoon, feeling a little dour, I took a break from my Houellebecq bender to reread some of Kate Chopin’s The Awakening, which I read at Francis’ recommendation some years ago. Once again I came across a favourite paragraph, underlined in pencil, which she repeats at the start and end of her novel.
The voice of the sea is seductive; never ceasing, whispering, clamoring, murmuring, inviting the soul to wander for a spell in abysses of solitude; to lose itself in mazes of inward contemplation. The voice of the sea speaks to the soul. The touch of the sea is sensuous, enfolding the body in its soft, close embrace.
The sea, in both deadly and enriching form, is almost a character in The Awakening, and Chopin’s poetic description stands in relief to the sparseness of the rest of the text.
It doesn’t amount to much, generally speaking, a human life; it can be summed up in a small number of events …
Fortunate today to have been able to spend several hours reading Michel Houellebecq’s The Map and the Territory and though I’ve got another eighty or so pages to go, it seems clear that this is his major work to date. The twelve years that separate it from Atomised (The Elementary Articles) are evident in the fully realised characters, and the maturity of its metaphysics. I may write a little more about it when finished, but I am inclined to go back and reread the earlier works. This is a drive-by posting to drop off a couple of quotes that resonated.
Olga loved him, he repeated to himself with a growing sadness as he also realised that nothing would ever happen between them again; life sometimes offers you a chance, he thought, but when you are too cowardly or too indecisive to seize it life takes the cards away; there is a moment for doing things and entering a possible happiness, and this moment lasts a few days, sometimes even a few weeks or even a few months, but it only happens once and one time only, and if you want to return to it later it’s quite simply impossible. There’s no place for enthusiasm, belief and faith, and there remains just gentle resignation, a sad and reciprocal pity, the useless but correct sensation that something could have happened, that you just simply showed yourself unworthy of this gift you had been offered.
Few beings have ever been so impregnated, pierced to the core, by the conviction of the absolute futility of human aspiration. The universe is nothing but a furtive arrangement of elementary particles. A figure in transition toward chaos. That is what will finally prevail. The human race will disappear. Other races in turn will appear and disappear. The skies will be glacial and empty, traversed by the feeble light of half-dead stars. These too will disappear. Everything will disappear. And human actions are as free and as stripped of meaning as the unfettered movements of the elementary particles. Good, evil, morality, sentiments? Pure ‘Victorian fictions.’ All that exists is egotism. Cold, intact, and radiant.
H.P. Lovecraft: Against the World, Against Life
In an odd way, summarising Michel Houellebecq’s work as a series of (mesmerising) quotes affirms the significance of his worldview-and the appeal of his nihilism for me-in a way that gets a little lost when I engage with each work on its own.
I hadn’t intended to read Houellebecq’s Lovecraft book, but these quotes propel it to my essential reading list. At the moment I’m reading The Map and the Territory for the first time, which I’d been saving as my only unread Houellebecq fiction, or so I thought but somehow Lanzarote escaped my attention. Did I read somewhere that Houellebecq intends to stop writing fiction? At some point I must read the BHL engagement, and then perhaps reread Houellebecq from the beginning.
The more our daily life appears standardised, stereotyped, and subject to an accelerated reproduction of objects of consumption, the more art must be injected into it in order to extract from it that little difference which plays simultaneously between other levels of repetition, and even in order to make the two extremes resonate—namely, the habitual series of consumption and the instinctual series of destruction and death.
Difference and Repetition
There is a voyeuristic aspect to reading journals and diaries, a suggestion of breaching someone’s privacy, eavesdropping on supposedly private thoughts. In the case of published diaries, particularly those read as literary texts, this encroachment is neutralised with the knowledge that the writer intended their publication.
This raises the question of a diary’s ‘authenticity,’ whether by virtue of being presented as literature, experiences are created, or revised for the benefit of a future audience. Genre authenticity is also directly linked to psychological aspects, whether we can ever know ourselves well enough to render our lives accurately in writing. My general practise is consider all diaries and autobiographical works as partially fictive with a well-meaning (usually) but ultimately unreliable narrator.
It is not entirely clear in the case of Alix Cléo Roubaud whether she intended her journal for publication. In a poignant introduction, poet and mathematician Jacques Roubaud, writes, “I knew of her journal’s existence, but I had not opened it while she was alive.” After Alix’s death, Jacques was left all her writing and photographs, “to do with as I would deem necessary.” This edition reproduces her photographs to go with he moments when she writes of them.
It is the intertwining of Alix’s photographs and words that carve out the depth of intimacy, truth and beauty within Alix’s Journal. The reader is situated squarely as voyeur in the space between Alix and Jacques Roubaud. The discomfort that this situation illicits, and the combination of literary and philosophical reflections with the insignificant details and concerns that attach to all our realities, make Alix’s Journal a uniquely exquisite reading experience.
Following two readings of Alix’s Journal with the discovery and viewing on YouTube of Jean Eustache’s short film Les Photo’s d’Alix was almost unbearably moving.
Samuel Beckett, Paris, 1964
Coetzee on Beckett (1992):
Beckett has meant a great deal to me in my own writing – that must be obvious. He is a clear influence on my prose. [...] The essays I wrote on Beckett’s style aren’t only academic exercises, in the colloquial sense of that word. They are also attempts to get closer to a secret, a secret of Beckett’s that I wanted to make my own. And discard, eventually, as it is with influences.
It is In the Heart of the Country that Beckett’s influence seems most clear in Coetzee’s work, but also apparent in Waiting for Barbarians and Life and Times of Michael K. In the latter Coetzee writes memorably of, “a stone, a pebble that, having lain around quietly minding its own business since the dawn of time, is suddenly picked up and tossed randomly from hand to hand,” paying quiet homage to Molloy’s famous sequence.
[November 2013: The link originally in this post, to a NYRB Coetzee review of Beckett's letters is now subscribers only, so I've changed the original post.]
The Song of the Violet (1951) – René Magritte
The most terrifying of all Magritte’s visions was of a world of utter silence in which humans and objects have turned to stone, as in some Absurdist play.
For the only consciousness which can appear to me in its own temporisation is mine, and it can do so only by renouncing all objectivity. In short the for-itself as for-itself cannot be known by the Other. The object which I apprehend under the name of the Other appears to me in a radically other form. The Other is not a for-itself as he appears to me; I do not appear to myself as I am for-the-Other. I am incapable of apprehending for myself the self which I am for the Other, just as I am incapable of apprehending on the basis of the Other-as-object which appears to me, what the Other is for himself.
There are rules to Insomnia. The second rule of Insomnia is: You don’t talk about Insomnia. I made that up, but there are psychological games insomniacs play, superstitions that go with the disorder. Talking about insomnia when you are going through a period of undisturbed sleep is perilous, it might trigger that very disorder you dread. At the edges of chronic insomnia are bouts of subjective insomnia, when you are so accustomed to not sleeping that you experience sleep state misperception. In that case you sleep for normal durations but perceive that you have slept poorly. Our psychic integrity is fragile.
This morning at 2:30am I sought literary intervention for a bout of insomnia. It’s been a while since I’ve struggled with night awakening but I’m going through some changes rating way up in the thirties or forties on that Holmes and Rahe Stress Scale.
Early this morning I settled down with Jacques Lacan’s framework of the imaginary and symbolic in psychic life. Lacan argues that in the territory of the symbolic, we recall our “imaginary” existence as what he terms “body-in-pieces” or a fragmented assemblage of body parts.Furthermore the “I” that a child recognises in a mirror is experienced as a fiction. Rather than having the normal soporific effect that Lacan induces, this sent me back to the shelves to Beckett and Kathy Acker, the latter on my mind after a Twitter conversation with Kate Zambreno.
These are very 2am thoughts so bear with me, but I’m thinking about the way we alternate between the “I” we perceive, the fictional “I” we create, and our fragmentary pasts that are primarily fiction. It seems that this is precisely what Acker and Beckett explore repeatedly through fictional characters and their analogous stories. Their characters, a series of autobiographical personas, are caught between a wish to confess and a need for privacy. Much of the potency of their writing lies in the tension of trying to write their way out of the work.