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
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
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.
It isn’t often that a writer’s voice and concerns register deep enough that I end up scouring second-hand sources for first editions of their work. Jenny Diski becomes the thirty-first writer housed in that hallowed subsection of my library reserved for those I will likely read and reread in their entirety. My old chestnuts, listed here, are an idiosyncratic bunch that will match no other reader’s list of favourite writers, but are each, in different ways, as integral to my central nervous system as my spinal cord. My slowly expanding Jenny Diski collection breaks up the fairly long-term on-shelf relation of Clarice Lispector and Simon Critchley.
I read Diski’s début novel Nothing Natural when it was first published in the late eighties and recall little beyond its potency. Almost thirty years later, it is Diski’s essay on her recent cancer diagnosis that drew me back to her writing with all the force of a rare-earth magnet. This is the first instalment of a memoir to be published in parts in the LRB (which also persuaded me to resubscribe to the LRB).
Disk’s piece encouraged me to buy On Trying to Keep Still, a series of elegantly crafted and very funny essays narrating Diski’s intense desire for inertia-within the confines of writing a travel journal. These are the sort of digressive, meandering essays in which I take great pleasure, no less because of Diski’s even greater commitment to seeking silence and solitude.
Diski’s collection of essays and reviews in A View from the Bed confirms my first sense that I’m reading someone cut from a similar mould in the pursuit of inner space and silence. Glimpsing the world retracted through Diski’s eyes is a vivid and rewarding experience. This is equally clear on reading What I Don’t Know About Animals, Diski’s exploration of our relationship with animals, which probes their minds with similar intentions to Derrida’s The Animal That Therefore I Am (which Diski also explores in her book). She writes with precision and elegance, exploring her chosen subjects with honesty and clarity. My intention is to read the non-fiction and work towards the novels.
This morning I started reading Everybody Knows This Is NOWHERE after breakfast and did little else until I finished reading Alice Furse’s story. Though a first novel, it in no way feels like a work of apprenticeship.
Though the setting and characters are thoroughly contemporary, it has the feel of a work of the modernist movement, its sparse style, Furse’s gift for understatement, allusion and irony, the attentive depiction of the heroine’s preoccupations in an alienating office environment and within a relationship that has hit a dead end. This is very conscious artistry that dispenses of traditional narrative concerns such as plot, event, and facile resolution of the character’s circumstances.
The writer’s meticulously disciplined style and skilful rendering of character through intuitive understanding of dialogue, powerful imagery and metaphor expands the range of the novel. The novel’s heroine is unnamed, her boyfriend identified only as the Traffic Warden, yet each are fully drawn and well-defined in their own right, they each represent an impressive portrait of the atomised condition of life in the twenty-first century.
Everybody Knows This is NOWHERE signals the début of a distinctive voice in English fiction, and a style that I cannot wait to see further developed and refined in later novels.
Seamus Heaney finished this poem 10 days before he died, meditating on the serene beauty of a canal painted by the French artist Gustave Caillebotte.
Banks of a Canal
Say ‘canal’ and there’s that final vowel
Towing silence with it, slowing time
To a walking pace, a path, a whitewashed gleam
Of dwellings at the skyline. World stands still.
The stunted concrete mocks the classical.
Water says, ‘My place here is in dream,
In quiet good standing. Like a sleeping stream,
Come rain or sullen shine I’m peaceable.’
Stretched to the horizon, placid ploughland,
The sky not truly bright or overcast:
I know that clay, the damp and dirt of it,
The coolth along the bank, the grassy zest
Of verges, the path not narrow but still straight
Where soul could mind itself or stray beyond.
A selection of snippets from J. D. Taylor’s Negative Capitalism: Cynicism in the Neoliberal Era (published 2013), an incisive diagnosis and series of responses to the current economic and cultural malaise.
Neoliberalism is the political model of financial capitalism and represents the current political and economic consensus of leaders in Europe, China, and the West. It is an economic argument that unregulated financial trade is the best model for a self-sustaining and meritocratic economy. Whilst it is debatable how fundamentally violent, competitive, or power-seeking human life is, rather than working towards a cooperative and regulated social democracy as I will argue for, declaring capitalism as the best basis for a developed society is dangerously destructive, crisis-ridden, and ultimately fascistic. Capitalism intrinsically negates individual and collective capacity for equal political representation, social rights, and quality of life, given that its base assumption is that the value of life s determined by its success in individually accumulating and trading wealth. The more powerful capitalism is-that is, the more wealth can be observed to be concentrated in the hands of a very small cabal of effective capitalists – the less the lives of individuals and communities on low-incomes matter. There is no ‘good’ capitalism, and the system is by no means in a state of crisis, unless perhaps its sustainability is threatened by the growing anger of social democratic revolt sweeping the globe.
Life needn’t be against power, not when life itself is an operation of power, at present directed against its own interests. Rather, the blinkers of neoliberal capitalism need to be removed from social life. Each of us must re-programme ourselves to think beyond the mean profit principle, anxiety and cynicism of the neoliberal era.
The irony of neoliberalism is that it doesn’t involve free markets at all. It has historically required specific intervention by governments and intergovernmental global agencies into the markets, forcibly deregulating them and transferring public property into private hands. It is maintained with regular state intervention, from continued sales of public assets or resources to financial institutions. It is a state-imposed mechanism.
When deprivation of activity and agency is combined with a more practical inability to be at home because of longer and more unstructured working hours, a powerful process is at work: a fundamental disempowerment through alienation and a negation of workers’ time, space and mature ability to make independent decisions. Home CCTV systems have been sold by security companies and are increasingly popular, whilst the public spread of CCTV was marked by a new televised form of entertainment, as drunks, criminals and even reality TV contestants amused and entrained record audience figures via recorded CCTV footage. Pervasive monitoring of celebrities and political figures has dominated the scoops and scandals of the British tabloid press, as surveillance equipment and paparazzi have come to constitute the source of political information an popular entertainment. The individual is emptied of all agency except their capacity to also become part of consumer entertainment, and so the infantilised masses contemplate themselves as passive spectacle, the signal point of fascism as Walter Benjamin warned. As ‘reality’ becomes a fixture of television programming, observe a new phenomenon of online self-commodification through Web 2.0 profiling, blogging and use of twitter to immediately share thoughts (and thereby assume their worth), and the rise of home-made pornography. Galloway and Thacker describe this self-commodification with a new motto for the digitised era: ‘Express yourself! Output some data!’ I in turn LOL and dutifully retweet this, ‘Like’ its Facebook page, or repost it on my utterly tedious micro-blog.
Words exist but the pump to bring those words from the bottom of the well to the surface is malfunctioning. Buried in the sand at the bottom of the well is a torrent of words, but if by chance the pump stirs up some sand, by the time it reaches the surface, the words within convey nothing. As Johnson describes the adjective silent: mute, still, quiet, not speaking.
I love, (swoops and loops of love), Ellman’s description: “Beckett was addicted to silences, and so was Joyce; they engaged in conversations which consisted often of silences directed towards each other, both suffused with sadness, Beckett mostly for the world, Joyce mostly for himself.” It is such a precise description, that distinction so clear in the writing of both men.
In a timely intervention, my friend @EstherHawdon mentions the Japanese obsession with silence, and quotes Basho’s poem:
frogs jumped in
sound of water
And goes on to say,
We usually use the word “ma (間)” meaning blank or emptiness, so when there is silence in conversation, we call this silence “ma” – “ma 間” is also used to mean blank space – e.g. there is a space between a stone and another in a garden, we call this blank “ma”
This returns me to a book that I’ve returned to again and again this summer, Federico Campagna’s The Last Night: Anti-work, Atheism, Adventure in which I found so much wisdom, particularly on his conception of comradeship (a few unlinked passages):
Comradeship among egoists allows them to further modify the reality in which they exist, thus shaping the landscape of their adventure and taming at least in part the influence that the environment in which they exist has on them.
As it always happens with the creation of a bond, unions of egoists necessarily result in something that exceeds a friendship based on shared interests or the simple joint-venture of cooperating forces.
And I make no apology for quoting again I passage I quoted a few weeks ago:
There was always something that allowed me to distinguish between the long list of unmemorable relationships and the few who were to remain. In all my strongest friendships, in all the best relationships I have ever had, an element seemed to constantly recur. It was the feeling of a movement together with the other person, a tension towards something or somewhere, a common action, a sense of solidarity within the frame of a shared intent. The people I have ever felt closest to have been something more than friends: they have been comrades.
Of course, I accept the political connotations of the word. But with a difference. Like political comrades, we were bound by a common desire and a common tension. Differently from them, however, our desires and tensions could not be limited by the dogma of some abstract ideals, let alone pre-existing ideologies. Between us, there was something that originated from us alone.
Silence as Esther describes so beautifully is neither a vacuüm to be feared, nor pure emptiness. As in Beckett’s Unnamable, referring to language and silence as distinct entities ends up conveying nothing as both merge into one. The Unnamable is silence.
It is the task of the translator to release in his own language that pure language which is exiled among alien tongues, to liberate the language imprisoned in a work in his re-creation of that work. For the sake of pure language, he breaks through decayed barriers of his own language.
Walter Benjamin, Selected Writings, volume 1
Pannwitz writes: “Our translations, even the best ones, proceed from a mistaken premise. They want to turn Hindi, Greek, English into German instead of German into Hindi, Greek, English. Our translators have a far greater reverence for the usage of their own language than for the spirit of foreign works . . . The basic error of the translator is that he preserved the state in which his own language happens to be instead of allowing his language to be powerfully affected by the foreign tongue . . . He must expand and deepen his language by means of the foreign language. It is not generally realised to what extent this is possible, to what extent any language can be transformed . . .”
Walter Benjamin (quoting Rudolf Pannwitz), Selected Writings, volume 1
Broch proposed the thesis that in every work of German literature there was an echo of the world of German poetry and fairy tales – fog, forest, moon, dragons, elves – and this echo must reverberate in all translations
Marie Luise Knott, Unlearning with Hannah Arendt
Rosenzweig had already made a similar argument in 1924, but in less poetic language. In his well known criticism, that “foreign texts get translated into already existing German”, we hear an anticipation of Hannah Arendt’s attack on the linguistic clichés of refugees.
Marie Luise Knott, Unlearning with Hannah Arendt
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
The pathways of thought we will sketch have need of poetry, which in its nakedness and directness invades analytical language and allows it to open up; Arendt rejects instruments of comprehension that have proved dull or irrelevant. She allows them to go missing, unlearns them. Many things must be freed from entanglements so that we can argue about and conquer then anew. Such acts of “unlearning,” born of shock and distress, are intellectual awakenings.
From the Preface to Unlearning with Hannah Arendt by Marie Luise Knott (trans. David Dollenmayer).