Beckett’s Cascando and Pierre Tal-Coat

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Samuel Beckett

Cascando

1

why not merely the despaired of
occasion of
wordshed

is it not better abort than be barren

the hours after you are gone are so leaden
they will always start dragging too soon
the grapples clawing blindly the bed of want
bringing up the bones the old loves
sockets filled once with eyes like yours
all always is it better too soon than never
the black want splashing their faces
saying again nine days never floated the loved
nor nine months
nor nine lives

2

saying again
if you do not teach me I shall not learn
saying again there is a last
even of last times
last times of begging
last times of loving
of knowing not knowing pretending
a last even of last times of saying
if you do not love me I shall not be loved
if I do not love you I shall not love

the churn of stale words in the heart again
love love love thud of the old plunger
pestling the unalterable
whey of words

terrified again
of not loving
of loving and not you
of being loved and not by you
of knowing not knowing pretending
pretending

I and all the others that will love you
if they love you

3

unless they love you

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?

Interpretative Revelation

Quote

But all at once it dawned on me that this
Was the real point, the contrapuntal theme;
Just this: not text; not the dream
But topsy-turvical coincidence,
Not flimsy nonsense, but a web of sense.
Yes! It sufficed that I in life could find
Some kind of link-and-bobolink, some kind
Of correlated pattern in the game,
Plexed artistry, and something of the same
Pleasure in it as they who played it found.

Nabokov, Pale Fire (62-63)

December: Extended Reading Notes

Reading wildly all over the place, but with those converging lines I’ve written about providing more direction to my reading than I prefer to concede. To end my reading for 2013, a few thoughts on those books I finished over the last month.

Robert Fagle’s exceptional translation of the Iliad has superseded Richard Lattimore’s as my personal favourite. It is bright, powerful and pulls you relentlessly through the narrative without sacrificing Homeric style. Fagles has found the balance between loyalty to Homer’s language and the need to remove the cobwebs and find a fresh modern voice. I have his Odyssey to read soon. A conversation with a reader in the Comments to my post on reading the old dead Greeks has convinced me to read both George Chapman’s and Christopher Logue’s Homer, the latter first. At Max’s suggestion I also read Alice Oswald’s Memorial this month and was taken aback at the brilliance of her portrayal of the Iliad, in which she brings to the foreground the minor characters of the Iliad, introduced briefly by Homer merely to die horrid deaths. In doing so, Oswald evokes fresh revulsion for the senselessness but inevitability of slaughter and warfare.

After my thrill of discovering Clarice Lispector’s work with Água Viva, as is often the case I waited a considerable time to read another of her books. In this case, my reticence was misplaced as Near to the Wild Heart and A Breath of Life were no less dazzling. I’m less convinced of the inevitable comparison with Virginia Woolf, but see more resonance with Beckett. I need to think more about this, but there is something of the same apprehension about literature’s inability to express anything, and instead falling away towards silence. In each book, including her phenomenal first, written while in her early twenties (which is astounding), Lispector rises above fiction’s banal conventions. She compels every word to hard labour, extracting every drop of meaning from the fewest words, though she, like Beckett, is not a minimalist in that overworked sense. Like Beckett, Woolf or Duras, Lispector’s work make delicious demands of her readers, though with sentences that are completely available. I’ve lined up The Passion According to G.H. and The Hour of the Star to read in the next few weeks.

I mentioned briefly the personally transformative role that Pierre Hadot continues to have, which deepens with my reading of his Plotinus or the Simplicity of Vision. This is part of a self-reflective journey that I feel is to a great extent outside the reaches of language, as in Hadot’s reflection on Plotinus: “… the spiritual world was not for him…a supercosmic place from which he was separated….Neither was it an original state…lost….Rather [it] was nothing other than the self at its deepest level….It could be reached immediately, by returning within oneself.” My contemplation of the relationship between theory and practise of ancient and modern philosophies is taking me back to old dead Greeks with Plotinus and Heraclitus, and further back towards Vedic texts.

What else in December? David Markson’s Reader’s Block kept me curious enough to get to the end, but it felt like style over substance. I’d rather read John Berger for more accomplished minimalism. I came to Micheline Aharonian Marcom’s A Brief History of Yes eagerly, and finished with thanks for its brevity. My first Ryszard Kapuściński book, which I approached with trepidation (because it appears that Kapuściński might have been one hell of a shitty human being), was better than expected: Travels with Herodotus is clunky written (or translated), and I could pick all sorts of holes as a piece of ‘literary reportage’, but I left with a warmth for the voice of the narrator, and expect to read another Kapuściński one day. Finally, Hélène Cixous never disappoints, and Three Steps on the Ladder of Writing in which she writes of her literary loves is one of those books I shall return to regularly for its radiance.

A Life With the Greeks

My first encounter with the story of Troy happened as a child while reading one of those juvenile collected tales of Ancient Greek and Rome. It kindled an enchantment for that vanished golden age that has never waned. Those gods, goddesses, and heroes have accompanied me as proxy siblings, with that admixture of fierce love and gentle hostility typical to such relationships. Achilles, the truculent and distant older brother, admired and loathed in equal measure. Paris, the craven cousin, who gossips behind closed doors. Beautiful, unpredictable Cassandra who became the model for at least one of the important women in my life.

Although I own Homer in the original Greek I cannot claim to know Homer that way, though, from time to time, I crudely decode stretches, word by word, like a detective. Any classical scholar in his first year possesses more competence in Greek than I’ve achieved. As a teenager I learnt to write the first line of Homer’s Iliad in Greek from memory, but it was artifice, a party trick. Classical Greek studies remain an ambition, to sit beside my formal training in Latin. As Joyce once wrote to Harriet Shaw Weaver, “I [..] have spent a great deal of time with Greeks of all kinds from noblemen down to onionsellers, chiefly the latter. I am superstitious about them. They bring me luck.”

Without classical Greek I am compelled to rely on translations into English, though at school we dabbled a bit with a Latin translation of Homer. Pope’s translation was my first, of which Robert Fagles, while acknowledging its greatness, said, “Pope’s Homer is really an English poem.” Of Pope’s translation (hat-tip to Douglas Robertson), Samuel Johnson wrote:

I suppose many readers of the English “Iliad,” when they have been touched with some unexpected beauty of the lighter kind, have tried to enjoy it in the original, where, alas! it was not to be found. Homer doubtless owes to his translator many Ovidian graces not exactly suitable to his character; but to have added can be no great crime, if nothing be taken away. Elegance is surely to be desired, if it be not gained at the expense of dignity. A hero would wish to be loved, as well as to be reverenced.

To a thousand cavils one answer is sufficient; the purpose of a writer is to be read, and the criticism which would destroy the power of pleasing must be blown aside. Pope wrote for his own age and his own nation: he knew that it was necessary to colour the images and point the sentiments of his author; he therefore made him graceful, but lost him some of his sublimity.

Besides Pope, I’ve read translations of the Iliad by Richard Lattimore, Robert Fitzgerald and William Cowper, as well as much of Stephen Mitchell’s truncated version. I’m reading Robert Fagles admirably lucid translation. Each of these translations tackle the Iliad differently, and I struggle to recommend one over the other, though Mitchell’s version impressed me least.

I do urge those interested in Homer to read Simone Weil’s essay, The Iliad, or The Poem of Force [PDF]. For the nerdy I also recommend Malcolm M. Willcock’s A Companion to the Iliad (based on Richard Lattimore’s translation).

Rare Birds

Where does the Blogger’s Code (you know those self-appointed men that harangue from street corners) stand on updating old posts? I’d never thought much about it, except to correct typos, until I read One Activity You Should Do On Your Blog Every Day. Then I forgot about it for a few days.

Today I’ve been reading Lev Losev’s Joseph Brodsky: A Literary Life and reflecting on the subject of genius. Losev writes:

“Genius” is not a scholarly term. Its common use is mainly emotive: “You’re a genius!” For me, “genius” is first and foremost a cognate of “genetic.” A one-in-a-million genetic makeup creates a person of unusual creative potential, willpower, and charisma. It may offend our democratic sensibilities to admit that such rare birds are so different from the rest of our common flock, but in fact they are.

That’s a definition I can accept. It lead me to search Time’s Flow Stemmed for how often, in a delirium of enthusiasm for a book I’ve just read, I overuse the term. My search led me to an old post on Aristotle’s hypothesis that mastery of metaphor is a sign of genius. Revisiting led to the sacrilegious act of updating an old post, then to an act of time travel, linking from that old post to one four years later.

Brodsky, almost certainly a genius, in an essay about artistic creativity said, “The lesser commenting upon the greater has, of course, a certain humbling appeal, and at our end of the galaxy we are quite accustomed to this sort of procedure.” Brodsky’s phrase: that the lesser cannot comment upon the greater. This pinpoints my intuition about most literary criticism, that however brilliant the critic, there is always something important left out.

The Correct Incantations

In Thom Gunn’s The Occasions of Poetry I came across this paragraph, which expresses that same incoherence that Eliot was grasping toward when he wrote of  ‘a raid on the inarticulate’ in his exquisite East Coker:

For me the act of writing is an exploration, a reaching out, an act of trusting search for the correct incantation that will return me certain feelings whenever I want them. And of course I have never completely succeeded in finding the correct incantations.

‘Incantation’ is very good, literally ‘singing spells.’ It calls to mind those rare occasions while reading when we come across an unerring incantation, a particularly resonant sentence or phrase that enchants us forever. Gunn writes of seeking transparency, of words being the glass to his mind, as though observing an object through that glass.

Idées Fixes of the Week

Caspar David Friedrich – On the Sailing-Vessel (1818)

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*****

Anselm Kiefer: Heaven and Earth. SFMOMA

There is no history. Each human being makes his own history, has his own thoughts and his own world but everyone is alone with his own illusions, with his own methods…I think each human being tries to put themselves in a bigger context. You always create an illusion that you stay longer on earth than you do…That’s what a religion is…This reassures you in a sense in the work because in this world there is no sense. So the scientific process…doesn’t lead to any key to the work….the more we know, more we don’t know. It’s always like this only mythology…tries to explain the world in a logical sense.

*****

Jorie Graham – Untitled (2010)

Of the two dogs the car hit, one, two, while we were talking, and thinking about
how to change each
other’s
mind, the other people’s
survived – dark spot near the front
fender just hair blowing in low wind, a spot all wind’s, then
a stir in the ribs and everything’s rising slow-motion up from the tight small shoulders, the
chest, the
dragging hind end of itself on the dirt
road as if sewing a new strap
back
on, dragging, a long
moment, then the
division occurs and the wide perishing shrinks and the legs
are four again and
up. Not ours. Ours
is placed by gravity on the far bank, as if an as yet unbuilt unimagined house on the
empty field into which
one peers past mist
wondering how will or
concentration or want alone will bring the as-yet-not thing into view. What will it take to
build the
thing? The not yet, not anymore, not
again? That. Wouldn’t the beautiful field be best left
alone? unfilled? No. Now the children are folding
over it and sound
is restored and it is the only human
world, something perished on the road, it was its turn, you have your turn says the road I
stare blankly
at, white dust,
thinking there are words now
that must take the
place of this
creature, and I
am at the point in the road where I, who will have lived, no matter how many thousands
of years in the future come, if they come,
even if there are no more humans then or they have become unrecognisable, I,
even when no rain will have come down
in the memory of generations
so they think the story of such an element is one of the myths, the empty
myths, I still will have
lived this day and all the preceding ones of my
person, mine, as I rise now
to the moment when right words
are needed – Dear moon
this morning I woke up, I thought the room for an instant was a blossoming, then a
burning cell, then a thing
changing its clothes, huge transparent clothes, the ceiling part of the neck, where is
the head I thought, of the year, this
year, where are the eyes of
the years – the years, can we stay human, will we slow the end
down, how much, what do we have to promise, how think our way
from here to
there – and human life survived – and its world – ah, room, the
words – has it been just
luck, the room now wild with winds of centuries swirling floods tectonic plates like wide
bones shifting round me – elephants flow through, all gone, volcanoes emerging and
disappearing just like that, didn’t even really get to see them, pestilence, there, it took its
people, hurricane, there, it took its – ‘you’re a
martian’ I heard the angry child cry out on the street
below to the other
child, and the door slams, and the only story I know, my head, my century, the one where
187 million perished in wars, massacre, persecution, famine – all policy induced – is the
one out of which
I must find the reason
for the loved still-young creature being carried now onto the family lawn as they try
everything, and all murmurs shroud hum cry instruct, and all the
six arms gleam, firm, limp, all over it, caresses, tentacular
surround of the never-again, rush of blood and words, although look, you out there
peering in, listening, to see who we were: here: this was history:
their turn
is all they actually have
flowing in them.

******

Christa Wolf, City of Angels or Overcoat of Dr. Freud

Night thoughts have a different color than day thoughts, a different slant, more than anything else they know all the secret paths and chinks in the armor they can take advantage of to force their way into consciousness.

*****

Ovid – Metamorphoses

No species remains constant: that great renovator of matter
Nature, endlessly fashions new forms from old: there’s nothing
in the whole universe that perishes, believe me; rather
it renews and varies its substance. What we describe as birth
is no more than incipient change from a prior state, while dying
is merely to quit it. Though the parts may be transported
hither and thither, the sum of all matter is constant.

*****

I’ve posted Ginevra before, but she haunts me …

Leonardo da Vinci
Ginevra de’ Benci (1474)

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So This Is How I Turned Into A Dog

This is entirely unbearable!
As though bitten all over by malice.
I rage not like anyone could possibly,
Like a hound at the bareheaded moon –
in its face
then howl at everything.

Nerves, it must be….
Go outside,
take a stroll.
And in the street didn’t calm down at anyone.
Somebody shouted about the good evening.
I have to answer her:
she’s an acquaintance.
I want to.
I feel –
but can’t like a human being.

What is this barbarity?
Am I asleep, what gives?
Squeeze myself:
the same as I’ve been,
the same face I’ve grown accustomed to.
Touch my lips,
and out from under my lip –
a fang.

Quickly I cover my face as though blowing my nose.
Rush homeward, redoubling my stride.
Carefully rounding the policeman’s post,
suddenly thundering:
“Policeman!
He’s got a tail!”

I trace it with my hand and freeze like a post.
What the hell,
better than all the fangs in the world,
I hadn’t noticed in my mad pace:
from under my jacket
fanning behind me a giant tail,
huge and canine.

What to do now?
One hollered and a crowd grew.
A second merged, then a third, and a fourth.
They trampled an old woman.
She, crossing herself, shouted something about the devil.

And when my face stiffened with broom-like mustaches,
a mob piled up,
tremendous,
furious,
I got down on all fours
and began to bark.

Vladimir Mayakovsky
(Translated from Russian by Alex Cigale)

The Lunatic Fringe by Christine Brooke-Rose

Have you ever felt madness behind your eyes
cold as a draught from a forgotten door,
when you are talking intelligently to those
who think you sane, poised and perhaps a little more
brilliant than that flask of liquid brain allows,
that honeycomb filled with the drugs of bees
out of a season’s hearts, then drained
by the insomniac insolent machinery of love?

Madness, like shame or rage, is not hot as they say,
but like a stylus needling in a groove
to some loudspeaker at a distance of
about God’s nearness to us,
which for the lunatic is close
as his own brain that sometimes runs away
into an ocean of prehistoric fish,
long-playing to the beak of a bird,
and amplified
in, maybe, sex.

I must get into the mad world now.
There is a secret in the lunatic fringe,
a way of impinging
on God without mock-heroics of spirit.
When the soul is anyway lost,
given up with awareness,
generously as a gambit
in life’s deadly conversation with death,
there then can be no remorse,
only the cold closeness of creation,
a white filament of matter through the brain
ejaculating from generation to generation,
like Lucifer, falling.