Anywhere, anywhere, as long as it be out of this world!

Anywhere Out of the World
Charles Baudelaire

Life is a hospital, in which every patient is possessed by the desire to change his bed. This one would prefer to suffer in front of the stove, and that one believes he would get well if he were placed by the window.

It seems to me that I should always be happier elsewhere than where I happen to be, and this question of moving is one that I am continually talking over with my soul.

“Tell me, my soul, poor chilled soul, what do you say to living in Lisbon? It must be very warm there, and you would bask merrily, like a lizard. It is by the sea; they say that it is built of marble, and that the people have such a horror of vegetation that they uproot all the trees. There is a landscape that would suit you — made out of light and minerals, with water to reflect them.”

My soul does not answer.

“Since you love tranquillity, and the sight of moving things, will you come and live in Holland, that heavenly land? Perhaps you could be happy in that country, for you have often admired pictures of Dutch life. What do you say to Rotterdam, you who love forests of masts, and ships anchored at the doors of houses?”

My soul remains silent.

Perhaps Batavia seems more attractive to you? There we would find the intellect of Europe married to the beauty of the tropics.

Not a word. Can my soul be dead?

“Have you sunk into so deep a stupor that only your own torment gives you pleasure? If that be so, let us flee to those lands constituted in the likeness of Death. I know just the place for us, poor soul! We will leave for Tornio. Or let us go even farther, to the last limits of the Baltic; and if possible, still farther from life. Let us go to the Pole. There the sun obliquely grazes the earth, and the slow alternations of light and obscurity make variety impossible, and increase that monotony which is almost death. There we shall be able to take baths of darkness, and for our diversion, from time to time the Aurora Borealis shall scatter its rosy sheaves before us, like reflections of the fireworks of Hell!”

At last my soul bursts into speech, and wisely cries to me: “Anywhere, anywhere, as long as it be out of this world!”

An Optical and Moral Illusion

First proposition. The reasons for which “this” world has been characterised as “apparent” are the very reasons which indicate its reality; any other kind of reality is absolutely undemonstrable.

Second proposition. The criteria which have been bestowed on the “true being” of things are the criteria of not-being, of naught; the “true world” has been constructed out of contradiction to the actual world: indeed an apparent world, insofar as it is merely a moral-optical illusion.

Third proposition. To invent fables about a world “other” than this one has no meaning at all, unless an instinct of slander, detraction, and suspicion against life has gained the upper hand in us: in that case, we avenge ourselves against a better life with a phantasmagoria of “another,” a “better” life.

Fourth proposition. Any distinction between a “true” and an “apparent” world-whether in the Christian manner or in the manner of Kant (in the end, an underhanded Christian)-is only a suggestion of decadence, a symptom of the decline of life. That the artist esteems appearance higher than reality is no objection to this proposition. For “appearance” in this case means reality once more, only by way of selection, reinforcement, and correction. The tragic is no pessimist: he is precisely the one who says Yes to everything questionable, even to the terrible-he is Dionysan.

Nietzsche
Twilight of the Idols

Rilke’s Inspiration

Family of Saltimbanques (1905) - Pablo Picasso)

Family of Saltimbanques (1905) – Pablo Picasso)

Rilke
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
sticks…….

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
carpet?

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.