Rilke’s Inspiration

Family of Saltimbanques (1905) - Pablo Picasso)

Family of Saltimbanques (1905) – Pablo Picasso)

Duino Elegies

    The Fifth Elegy

But who are they, tell me, these Travellers, even more
transient than we are ourselves, urgently, from their earliest days,
wrung out for whom – to please whom,
by a never-satisfied will? Yet it wrings them,
bends them, twists them, and swings them,
throws them, and catches them again: as if from oiled
more slippery air, so they land
on the threadbare carpet, worn by their continual
leaping, this carpet
lost in the universe.
Stuck on like a plaster, as if the suburban
sky had wounded the earth there.
And scarcely there,
upright, there and revealed: the great
capital letter of Being………and already the ever-returning
grasp wrings the strongest of men again, in jest,
as King August the Strong would crush
a tin plate.

Ah, and around this
centre, the rose of watching
flowers and un-flowers. Round this
stamp, this pistil, caught in the pollen
of its own flowering, fertilised
again to a shadow-fruit of disinterest,
their never-conscious, seeming-to-smile, disinterest,
gleaming lightly, on surface thinness.

There, the withered, wrinkled lifter,
an old man, only a drummer now,
shrunk in his massive hide, as though it had once
contained two men, and one was already
lying there in the churchyard, and the other had survived him,
deaf, and sometimes a little
confused in his widowed skin.

And the young one, the man, as if he were son of a neck
and a nun: taut and erectly filled
with muscle and simple-mindedness.

O you,
that a sorrow, that was still small,
once received as a plaything, in one of its
long convalescences……

You, who fall, with the thud
that only fruit knows, unripe,
a hundred times a day from the tree of mutually
built-up movement (that, swifter than water,
in a few moments, shows spring, summer and autumn),
fall, and impact on the grave:
sometimes, in half-pauses, a loving look tries
to rise from your face towards your seldom
affectionate mother: but it loses itself in your body,
whose surface consumes the shy
scarcely-attempted look…..And again
the man is clapping his hands for your leap, and before
a pain can become more distinct, close to your
constantly racing heart, a burning grows in the soles of your feet,
its source, before a few quick tears rush bodily into your eyes.
And yet, blindly,
that smile……..

Angel! O, gather it, pluck it, that small-flowered healing herb.
Make a vase, keep it safe! Place it among those joys not yet
open to us: on a lovely urn,
praise it, with flowery, swirling, inscription:
‘Subrisio Saltat: the Saltimbanque’s smile’
You, then, beloved,
you, that the loveliest delights
silently over-leapt. Perhaps
your frills are happy for you –
or the green metallic silk,
over your firm young breasts,
feels itself endlessly pampered, and needing nothing.
You, market fruit of serenity
laid out, endlessly, on all the quivering balance scales,
publicly, beneath the shoulders.

Where, oh where is the place – I carry it in my heart –
where they were still far from capable, still fell away
from each other, like coupling animals, not yet
ready for pairing: -
where the weights are still heavy:
where the plates still topple
from their vainly twirling

And, suddenly, in this troublesome nowhere, suddenly,
the unsayable point where the pure too-little
is changed incomprehensibly -, altered
into that empty too-much.
Where the many-placed calculation
is exactly resolved.

Squares: O square in Paris, endless show-place,
where the milliner, Madame Lamort,
winds and twists the restless trails of the earth,
endless ribbons, into new
bows, frills, flowers, rosettes, artificial fruits – all
falsely coloured, – for winter’s
cheap hats of destiny.

Angel: if there were a place we know nothing of, and there,
on some unsayable carpet, lovers revealed
what here they could never master, their high daring
figures of heart’s flight,
their towers of desire, their ladders,
long since standing where there was no ground, leaning,
trembling, on each other – and mastered them,
in front of the circle of watchers, the countless, soundless dead:
Would these not fling their last, ever-saved,
ever-hidden, unknown to us, eternally
valid coins of happiness in front of the finally
truly smiling pair on the silent

The Stalest Repetition

There was a time when reading newspapers was a central part of my day. In the morning I read the Guardian, on my way home I picked up the Evening Standard. I read nonchalantly, nibbling away at whatever articles looked inviting, more drawn to news of dastardly crimes than the articles on business or politics. I ignored the sports and celebrity pages. Then one day I didn’t buy that morning paper, can’t recall when or why. You get to the point where it all starts to repeat itself, the names and places change, but the framework remains the same. Someone gets stabbed, some vacuous politician is caught stealing, some fresh evidence of man’s essential hideousness, what Thoreau in Life Without Principle calls “the stalest repetition,” adding, “I would not run around a corner to see the world blow up.” “Read not the Times. Read the Eternities,” is the summa of Thoreau’s essay.

Today I am at one of those critical junctures in my life, which is why I find myself rereading Thoreau’s essay, where he says, “I wish to suggest that a man may be very in­dus­tri­ous, and yet not spend his time well. There is no more fatal blun­der­er than he who consumes the greater part of his life getting his living.” I am giving much thought to how to spend the rest of my time well.

Digestive Apparatus of Babylon

Destruction of Leviathan (1865): Gustave Doré

Destruction of Leviathan (1865): Gustave Doré

With the enduring presence of that backslappy, foul musical that has become known as Les Miz, it is easy to overlook Victor Hugo’s glorious, gothic novel Les Misérables (1862). I love this piece from a chapter entitled L’intestin de Léviathan:

Winding, fissured, unpaved, cracked, full of quagmires, broken by strange elbows, ascending and descending without rule, fetid, savage, ferocious, submerged in darkness, with scars on its pavements and gashes on its walls, gruesome, such was, viewed retrospectively, the old sewer of Paris. Ramifications in all directions, crossings of trenches, branches, goose-tracks, stars, as in mines, caucus and cup-de-sacs, arches covered with saltpetre, infected pits, scabby exudations on the walls, drops falling from the roof, darkness; nothing equalled the horror of this old excremental crypt; the digestive apparatus of Babylon, a den, a trench, a gulf pierced with streets, a titanic mole-hill, in which the mind fancies that it sees, crawling in the shadows, amid the filth which has once been splendour, that enormous blind mole, the past.


Marlen Haushofer’s The Loft

What began almost too quietly opened up into an extraordinarily powerful story, driven by beautiful writing (translated by Amanda Prantera) and a compelling narrator. Plotless, comprising a series of memories and encounters, the simplicity belies a complex and psychologically compelling story that dissects an apparently functional family with devastating force. The narration is simple, words meticulously chosen, the story develops to show how the world appears to orient itself around the Other. Ending as simply as it began, without resolution, the novel is close as you can get to immaculate.

Haushofer, who Elfriede Jelinek cites as an influence, is better remembered for The Wall which I shall be reading next.

Links of the Week

Many of these links have been tweeted in the past, but here I can tag and categorise them for future reference. I hope you find some of them interesting too. Please feel free to discuss in comments or on Twitter. Some of the links to PDFs change or disappear, so if something interests you download it quickly.

Christine Brooke-Rose

Christine Brooke-Rose

Are we in the process of forgetting Christine Brooke-Rose? I hope not as she is an extraordinary writer and critic. Her memoir-novel Remake is an extraordinary example of experimental autobiography that has stayed with me since reading it ten or more years ago. Brooke-Rose’s fiction is often compared to Ann Quin and BS Johnson, as well as her French compatriots George Perec, Alain Robbe-Grillet and Phillipe Sollers. As well as a bloody exciting writer, Brooke-Rose was an astute critic. You’ll get a feel for her style in this essay [PDF] on Franco-Bulgarian philosopher Tzvetan Todorov. I also recommend Brooke-Rose’s quartet Out, Such, Between and Thru.

William Wordsworth’s The Prelude [PDF], which I consider his finest work. I’m not a huge Wordsworth enthusiast, but parts of it blow me away.

I’ve only dabbled with Paul Ricoeur’s work, intrigued by his complex Freud and Philosophy: An Essay in Interpretation in which he positions psychoanalysis as a language rather than a science. I was convinced by what I understood of his argument, and keep intending to read Ricoeur’s work more extensively. This Introduction: Reading Ricoeur [PDF] usefully establishes Ricoeur’s work as an exploration of the problem of human capability, or what Ricoeur termed the anthropology of the capable human being.

If you only ever read a single literary theory primer, Andrew Bennett and Nicholas Royle’s Literature, Criticism and Theory [PDF] is my suggestion. Illuminating and well-written.

Another of those complex French philosophers, Bernard Stiegler writes on technology, time, consumerism and politics. His essay on Suffocated Desire, Or How the Cultural Industry Destroys the Individual [PDF] reads beautifully in parallel with Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer’s The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception [PDF], which is life-altering material for me, and which I wrote about earlier in the year.

Robert Musil’s Young Torless [PDF] is a classic bildungsroman on the twin themes of innocence and experience.

Freud’s Beyond the Pleasure Principle [PDF] in which he introduces, among other concepts, the death-drive.

The concept of paratexts might seem a little geeky, a theoretical cul de sac, but I love flicking through Gérard Genette’s little book Paratexts: thresholds of interpretation [PDF], about those elements that accompany a published text: blurbs, author’s name, the title, preface or introduction, or illustrations, thresholds that shape one’s reading of a text.

The Companion to Russian Literature [PDF] is brimful of essays spanning Russian literature from the Middle Ages to the post-Soviet period. I’ve only read a few to date but recommend those of Katerina Clark and W Gareth Jones.

Chris Janaway’s advocacy for Schopenhauer as the greatest philosopher:

Links of the Week

Many of these links have been tweeted in the past, but here I can tag and categorise them for future reference. I hope you find some of them interesting too. Please feel free to discuss in comments or on Twitter. Some of the links to PDFs change or disappear, so if something interests you download it quickly.

 Virginia Woolf with father, Sir. Leslie Stephen

Virginia Woolf’s The Voyage Out [PDF] published in 1915, though conventional in form, carries all her later themes.

Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway: Invisible Presences [PDF] by Molly Hoff.

Italo Calvino’s short story The Adventure of a Photographer [PDF]. This is from Calvino’s Difficult Loves collection.

Italo Calvino’s Borgesian, enchanting collection of stories Cosmicomics [PDF].

Mary Ruefle’s essay On Fear captures perfectly the distinction between feeling and emotion.

Jonathan Culler’s Literary Theory: A Very Short Introduction [PDF] is one of the best of the VSI series, and a rock-solid theory primer.

The highly recommended Companion to Philosophy and Film [PDF] embraces “both the philosophical study of cinema and the investigations of films’ philosophical dimensions, implications, and pedagogical value”. If nothing else read Kovác’s Andrei Tarkovsky (p. 581).

Friedrich Nietzsche’s The Antichrist [PDF], (the title might be better translated as The Anti-Christian), is Nietzche’s onslaught on the decadence of Western Christianity.

Anton Chekhov’s Letters to His Family and Friends (trans. Constance Garnett) [PDF]. These are beautiful.

Franco Moretti’s The Slaughterhouse of Literature [PDF].

Coetzee’s The Master of Petersburg

Such darkness in Coetzee’s The Master of Petersburg, ostensibly the tale of a haunted, fictionalised Dostoevsky returning to nineteenth century St Petersburg to mourn and collect the papers of a dead stepson, who has apparently become the political tool of local nihilists.

Although Coetzee’s Russian backdrop is superficially different from his earlier works, his theme of a tortured protagonist that must humble himself to learn to love, against an undercurrent of violence and death, is familiar territory. The tension in The Master of Petersburg is created from a confrontation of moralities and questions around authorship.

This Wikipedia post on the book suggests a confessional aspect to The Master of Petersburg, which I’ll investigate further when time permits. The intertextual relationship with Dostoevsky’s Demons is clear and fascinating. I love when a writer of Coetzee’s ability continues a literary conversation started a century earlier.

The Stupor of Power

It is hard, perhaps impossible, not to be cynical about politicians. Our institutions have singularly failed us, repeatedly. As the man credited with the title of first anarchist, Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, wrote:

To be ruled is to be kept an eye on, inspected, spied on, regulated, indoctrinated, sermonised, listed and checked-off, estimated, appraised, censured, ordered about, by creatures without knowledge and without virtues. To be ruled is, at every operation, transaction, movement, to be noted, registered, counted, priced, admonished, prevented, reformed, redressed, corrected. It is, on the pretext of public utility and in the name of the common good, to be put under contribution, exercised, held to ransom, exploited, monopolised, concussed, pressured, mystified,
robbed; then, at the least resistance and at the first hint of complaint, repressed, fined, vilified, vexed, hunted, exasperated, knocked-down, disarmed, garroted, imprisoned, shot, grape-shot, judged, condemned, deported, sacrificed, sold, tricked; and to finish off with, hoaxed, calumniated, dishonoured. Such is government! And to think that there are democrats among us who claim there’s some good in government!

Such a statement must have seemed overly dramatic in 19th-century France, but is there anybody now that would not recognise much that is familiar in the governments of the 21st-century?

This isn’t a political blog (though everything is political). Reading JM Coetzee sent me flicking through my anarchist notebooks for context. In Age of Iron, Coetzee’s narrator writes of the South African administration but it applies to any:

The parade of politicians every evening: I have only to see the heavy, blank faces so familiar since childhood to feel gloom and nausea. The bullies in the last row of school-desks, raw-boned, lumpish boys, grown up now and promoted to rule the land. They with their mothers and fathers, their aunts and uncles, their brothers and sisters: a locust horde, a plague of black locusts infesting the country, munching without cease, devouring lives. Why, in a spirit of horror and loathing, do I watch them? [..] Legitimacy they no longer trouble to claim. Reason they have shrugged off. What absorbs them is power and the stupor of power.

Links of the Week

Many of these links have been tweeted in the past, but here I can tag and categorise them for future reference. I hope you find some of them interesting too. Please feel free to discuss in comments or on Twitter. Some of the links to PDFs disappear quickly so download them promptly.

Gerhard Richter - 'The Reader.'

Gerhard Richter – ‘The Reader.’

Gerhard Richter is the top-selling living artist. This thrilling lecture/essay [PDF] takes two of Richter’s paintings (including The Reader) and examines them using as a framework Heidegger’s thesis that art should be understood as a discovery and disclosure of truth. “Things, scenes and persons depicted do not act for the spectator; rather, they act as if the spectator is not present.”

Chris Kraus’s intelligent, controversial I Love Dick narrates an infatuation with a fictional media theorist based, allegedly, on Dick Hebdige, whose 1979 Subculture: The Meaning of Style , [PDF]influenced by Julia Kristeva’s work, provides a semiotic reading of punk.

Reading Jacques Lacan can be worthwhile but hard work. This guide to Lacan is very useful, as is this Cambridge Companion [PDF] (Alenka Zupančič’s essay is particularly good).

In The Art of Fiction Henry James provides a practical, radical definition of the novel, arguing that the craft of writing cannot be taught and pouncing on the failings of philistine readers. Surprisingly relevant and amusing to read.

Do you know Borges’s short story, Of Exactitude in Science? It is a favourite, and short enough to quote:

In that Empire, the craft of Cartography attained such Perfection that the Map of a Single province covered the space of an entire City, and the Map of the Empire itself an entire Province. In the course of Time, these Extensive maps were found somehow wanting, and so the College of Cartographers evolved a Map of the Empire that was of the same Scale as the Empire and that coincided with it point for point. Less attentive to the Study of Cartography, succeeding Generations came to judge a map of such Magnitude cumbersome, and, not without Irreverence, they abandoned it to the Rigours of sun and Rain. In the western Deserts, tattered Fragments of the Map are still to be found, Sheltering an occasional Beast or beggar; in the whole Nation, no other relic is left of the Discipline of Geography.

I mention Borges’s story because I am always reminded of it by Jean Baudrillard’s Simulcra and Simulation [PDF] in which he argues that our models and maps have distanced us from the real world that preceded the models and maps:

It is no longer a question of imitation, nor duplication, nor even parody. It is a question of substituting the signs of the real for the real, that is to say of an operation of deterring every real process via its operational double, a programmatic, metastable, perfectly descriptive machine that offers all the signs of the real and short-circuits all its vicissitudes.

Paul Virilio’s The Information Bomb [PDF] packs a lot of power into less than 150 pages, a deeply pessimistic analysis of humanity’s relation to technology.

The legendary 1978 samizdat recording of Audience, starring Václav Havel (1936-2011) as Vanek and Pavel Landovský as Sládek.

The only way I can take Georges Bataille’s work seriously is to read it ironically. Like Björk, I read his Story of the Eye [PDF] when I was 17 years old.

I read Adorno’s Minima Moralia: Reflections on a Damaged Life much more recently, and it is rare a day goes by that I don’t dip into the copy I keep on my desk.

Links of the Week

Many of these links have been tweeted in the past, but here I can tag and categorise them for future reference. I hope you find some of them interesting too. Please feel free to discuss in comments or on Twitter. Some of the links to PDFs disappear quickly so download them promptly.

Susan Sontag’s dazzling essay, Against Interpretation [PDF]

Susan Sontag’s Notes on “Camp” [PDF]

Brian Dillon - Le Goût des Autres: Laughter, Tears and Rage -  “Since the 17th century, taste has been integral to the discourse surrounding aesthetics, class, culture, gender and sexuality. Has it become an anachronism?”

From Was Jack Kerouac a Punjabi? – Survivability, Vulnerability, Affect

Nietzsche’s library [PDF]: “traces not only the books which Nietzsche read throughout his life, but also lectures he attended as well as professorial work he was engaged in, the music he listened to and composed, and, finally, denotes when and where he wrote his philosophical works. Its primary concern though is with the books Nietzsche was reading; the most abundant references are to those books.”

Friedrich Nietzsche’s The Birth of Tragedy: Out of the Spirit of Music (translated by Ian Johnston) [PDF]

Joan Didion interviewed by Sheila Heti. “With writing, I don’t think it’s performing a character, really, if the character you’re performing is yourself. I don’t see that as playing a role. It’s just appearing in public.”

Albert Camus’s The Stranger (translated by Stuart Gilbert) [PDF]

From Larval Subjects blog, How to Make a Blog

Terry Eagleton’s essay, Capitalism, Modernism and Postmodernism [PDF]

An old favourite essay: Sven Birket’s Reading in a Digital Age “Notes on why the novel and the Internet are opposites, and why the latter both undermines the former and makes it more necessary.”

Ford Madox Ford’s The Good Soldier [PDF]