Relegated Areas

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For me parks are good when first of all, they’re not impeccable, and when solitude has appropriated them in such a way that solitude itself becomes an emblem, a defining trait for walkers, sporadic at best, who in my opinion should be irrevocably lost or absorbed in thought, and a bit confused, too, as when one walks through a space that’s at once alien and familiar. I don’t know if I should call them abandoned places; what I mean is relegated areas, where the surroundings are suspended for the moment and one can imagine being in any park, anywhere, even at the antipodes. A place that’s cast off, indistinct, or better yet, a place where a person, moved by who knows what kind of distractions, withdraws, turns into a nobody, and ends up being vague.

My Two Worlds
Sergio Chejfec (trans. Margaret B. Carson)

Lines on Brueghel’s “Icarus”

Michael Hamburger’s poem is on my mind today, which I unapologetically quote in full below. I’ve always loved the viewpoint that Hamburger chooses for his poem.

The ploughman ploughs, the fisherman dreams of fish;
Aloft, the sailor, through a world of ropes
Guides tangled meditations, feverish
With memories of girls forsaken, hopes
Of brief reunions, new discoveries,
Past rum consumed, rum promised, rum potential.
Sheep crop the grass, lift up their heads and gaze
Into a sheepish present: the essential,
Illimitable juiciness of things,
Greens, yellows, browns are what they see.
Churlish and slow, the shepherd, hearing wings –
Perhaps an eagle’s–gapes uncertainly;

Too late. The worst has happened: lost to man,
The angel, Icarus, for ever failed,
Fallen with melted wings when, near the sun
He scorned the ordering planet, which prevailed
And, jeering, now slinks off, to rise once more.
But he–his damaged purpose drags him down –
Too far from his half-brothers on the shore,
Hardly conceivable, is left to drown.

Nocturnal Existence

Given its centrality and necessity to our lives, it seems remarkable that philosophers have to a great extent ignored the phenomenon of sleep, At least one of the reasons I have suffered periodically from bouts of insomnia is that sleep seems so downright mystifying, even alarming.

There’s a chapter in Aristotle’s Parva Naturalia on sleep, Galen also writes of sleep but more in context of dreaming. Thereafter, as far as I can tell, our nocturnal existence is left to the poets and psychologists. An exception is French philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy who wrote the fascinating The Fall of Sleep, which amused me for a few sleepless hours last night.

Below is an excerpt from Charlotte Mandell’s translation of The Fall of Sleep by Jean-Luc Nancy (also read by Mandell in the film also below).

I now belong only to myself, having fallen into myself and mingled with that night where everything becomes indistinct to me but more than anything myself. I mean: everything becomes more than anything myself, everything is reabsorbed into me without allowing me to distinguish me from anything. But I also mean: more than anything, I myself become indistinct. I no longer properly distinguish myself from the world or from others, from my own body or from my mind, either. For I can no longer hold anything as an object, as a perception or a thought, without this very thing making itself felt as being at the same time myself and something other than myself. A simultaneity of what is one’s own and not one’s own occurs as this distinction falls away.

There is simultaneity only in the realm of sleep. It is the great present, the co-presence of all compossibilities, even incompatible ones. Removed from the bustle of time, from the obsessions of past and future, of arising and passing away, I coincide with the world. I am reduced to my own indistinctness, which, however, still experiences itself as an “I” that goes along with its visions without, however, distinguishing itself from them.

Pale Notes on Friendship

Agamben: “Friendship is inscribed in the most intimate experience, the one that is most one’s own, the very sensation that one exists. But this also means that in the consent and consensus of friendship, the very identity of friends is called into question. A friend presents me with another self, with myself as other and with another like myself. And yet this reduction of identity happens serenely, almost imperceptibly. It is one of friendship’s gentlest gifts.”

Our friendship was inevitable. It started as a consequence of elective affinities. We had in common a love for Beckett, Woolf, Duras, Rimbaud-though mine was perhaps more reverent. Beckett could do no wrong. Our first encounter took place at her sister’s apartment, overlooking the pretty church on Saint Germain des Prés, a block away from Les Deux Magots, where we would one day make a Salad Périgourdine and cheap bottle of Beaujolais last all afternoon. For some reason I was apprehensive, made even more so by her obvious nervousness. She devoured a bowl of walnuts, cracking each walnut shell with vehemence, a reflection, I thought, of our shared tension. We argued about whether Four Quartets or The Duino Elegies was the most sublime long poem of the twentieth century. I had no parents, she had three.

Dante’s Shoe Soles

It’s difficult reading poetry in translation. I’ve read all the usual Russian poets: Akhmatova, Tsvetaeva, Pasternak, Brodsky, and the elusive Mandelstam, but I can’t imagine that much of the poetry comes through. English translators usually avoid trying to reproduce the metres with any exactitude, and English is a notoriously rhyme-poor language, despite its richness and subtlety.

I’ve read, on and off, for some weeks Mandelstam’s poem Solominka which, even in English is beautiful and abstruse. As Guy Davenport writes in The Geography of the Imagination, “A Mandelstam poem lives inside itself.” Mandelstam likened the physical quality of the word to a paper lantern with a candle inside. “Sometimes the candle inside was the meaning and the paper and frame were the sound structure; and sometimes the paper and frame were the meaning and the candle was the sound.” Even the poem’s title is rich in allusion, being the diminutive of the Russian word for straw, but also the Russian diminutive form of Salomé, who not only famously danced for John the Baptist’s head (my favourite Strauss opera), but also is the name of a Georgian beauty with whom Mandelstam was in love.

Mandelstam was also a superb essayist, and these offer a more accessible way to his thought, as in the collection in The Noise of Time [PDF]. In particular I adore Mandelstam’s apprehension of the rhythmic cadences “of the Divine Comedy first of all as a literary sublimate of the physical motion of walking”:

The question occurs to me-and quite seriously-how many shoe soles, how many ox-hide soles, how many sandals Alighieri wore out in the course of his poetic work, wandering about on the goat paths of Italy. The Inferno and especially the Purgatorio glorify the human gait, the measure and rhythm of walking, the foot and its shape. The step, linked to the berthing and saturated with thought: this Dante understands as the beginning of prosody. In order to indicate walking he uses a multitude of varied and charming turns of phrase.

Everyday Life

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Debord described [..] in his 1961 lecture (delivered via tape recorder) on the “Prospects for Conscious Modifications in Everyday Life,” everyday life was “organized within the limits of a scandalous poverty,” a poverty defined by the “scarcity of free time and scarcity of possible uses of this free time.” And this condition was by no means accidental, but the necessary product of modern capitalist accumulation and industrialization. Such poverty, in Debord’s words, “is the expression of the fundamental need for the lack of consciousness and for mystification in an exploitative society, in a society of alienation.” If Lefebvre had first suggested that everyday life could be understood as the product of uneven development within capitalist society, Debord would extend this idea by further describing ordinary existence as “a colonized sector,” as “a kind of reservation for the good savages who (without realizing it) make modern society, with the rapid increase in its technological powers and the forced expansion of its market, work.” Everyday life, then, marked a border, the “frontier of the controlled and the uncontrolled sectors of life”—between, that is, the planned sector of production and the as yet unplanned sector of lived experience, consumption, leisure. The situationist goal was “to substitute an always moving frontier for the present ghetto, to work continuously for the organization of new opportunities”—in other words, to put uncertainty to work through the rational control of productive forces, to institute a regime devoted to eliminating the irrational, mythical holdovers still present in everyday life. No longer a colony, this sphere was to be fully integrated into the logical functioning of society, a complete planification of the future.

Guy Debord and The Situationist international: Texts and Documents

Atiq Rahimi’s A Curse on Dostoevsky

What would have made Atiq Rahimi’s A Curse on Dostoevsky a better book? Like any brilliant book it is multiply flawed, how could it not be?

The women are impoverished, wafer-thin, particularly in contrast with his richly depicted male characters, who are breathing with complexities and life. Rahimi’s pawnbroker Nana Alia is as two-dimensional as Dostoevsky’s Alyona Ivanovna in the parallel Crime and Punishment, his Sophia is not a match for Dostoevsky’s Christ-like Sonia (Sofia).

As the title suggests, Rahimi borrows from Dostoevsky the narrative frame for his book, mirroring the original to a point, but setting it a violent and war-worn Kabul during its occupation by the Taliban. A Curse on Dostoevsky lacks much of the whiff of Christian moralising that weighed Dostoevsky’s masterpiece down, but also lacks much of its intensity and intricacy. The comparison is only viable because of Rahimi’s bravery in choosing to echo Crime and Punishment, a novel he clearly dissects with love.

The radiance of A Curse on Dostoevsky lies in the characters that do come together, particularly the protagonist Rassoul, every bit as distinctive and imbued with existence as his brother Raskolnikov. There is also sheer joy in the unpredictable turns of what might loosely be called a plot, you never really know where Rahimi is going with his narrative, but the writing is so good that you stay for the journey, a pleasure to be part of the conflicted world he has created. I was enchanted by the story and sorry to leave Rassoul and his world behind.

Duras: Rhetoric of Women

Women must find their own answer. That’s the important thing. I’m no longer interested in books about women written by men. Even if I could believe in their objectivity, I just can’t find their opinions relevant. Now I will only believe what a woman has to say about women, because even if it’s not entirely true, it’s her struggle and she’s on the way to the answer.

Many of you seek masculine approval. Even though you have inside you your way of talking and writing, you have mountains of it inside you, and even though it is enough to begin expressing yourselves so long as it is with your vocabulary, your abstractions, and your own conceptualization, I think you are still afraid of the master: men. Of their judgment. As long as you have this fear, you will not progress. I think the future belongs to women. Men have been completely dethroned. Their rhetoric is stale, used up. We must move on the rhetoric of women, one that is anchored in the organism, in the body.

Marguerite Duras

Tarnished Mirrors

It appears that life evolved from animal forms whose soft parts were inside, covered by a hard external casing, into other forms, such as ours, in which everything hard is interiorized as bone, cartilage, skeleton, while the soft is expressed as flesh, mucous membranes and skin. Those who love to fight are unevolved leftovers from a very ancient past, from the dark time when we were armoured. The newcomers amongst us become gentle, wrinkle-bearing: we bear imprints. We are clothed in soft, warm wax, we are tarnished mirrors, a warped, scratched, blotched, diverse surface in which the universe is reflected a little.

Michael Serres
The Five Senses : A Philosophy of Mingled Bodies

Marking Territory

The captain who unloads waste in the high seas has never seen, or rather has never let, the countless smiles of the gods emerge; that would be too demanding, or even creative. Shitting on the world, has he ever seen its beauty before? Did he ever see his own beauty? And so, he who dirties space with billboards full of sentences and images hides the view of the surrounding landscape, kills perception, and skewers it by this theft. First the landscape then the world.

This quote from Michael Serres’ compelling book Malfeasance: Appropriation Through Pollution?, in which he compares our despoiling of landscape through physical advertising, rubbish dumps and industrial waste with the territorial marking of other animals. What began with piss and shit has evolved into numerous forms of hard and soft pollution.