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

Contact is Crisis

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As members of human society, perhaps the most difficult task we face daily is that of touching one another–whether the touch is physical, moral, emotional, or imaginary. Contact is crisis. As the anthropologists say, “Every touch is a modified blow.” The difficulty presented by any instance of contact is that of violating a fixed boundary, transgressing a closed category where one does not belong.

Anne Carson
Putting Her in Her Place: Women, Dirt, and Desire
from Before Sexuality: The Construction of Erotic Experience in the Ancient Greek

The Summer I Really Started Reading

I’d been given the task of clearing out Mr. Lace’s garage. For ten pounds. Mr. Lace lived in Finchley, a two hour journey involving trains and buses. A long way, but ten pounds was a lot of money.

In 1980, LPs cost £2.99. With that ten pounds I bought Join Hands by Siouxsie and the Banshees, and saved the rest to buy a knock-off Perfecto leather biker jacket from Portobello Road. I wish I still had that jacket but I left it in the Lewisham Wimpey after the Adam and the Ants’ gig. Of course it had gone when I went back to look for it.

Rearranging Mr. Lace’s garage changed everything. I’d always been a reader, at that stage mostly science fiction, or my father’s books. My father read American detective stories and Wilbur Smiths. Mr. Lace was American, another reason, apart from the ten pounds, I accepted the task of cleaning his garage, curious to see what an American would store. Americans were still exotic in London then, what little I knew of Americans, to me the land of MAD paperbacks and The Wanderers.

Among the bicycles of various sizes, empty jars, old copies of the Washington Post, boxes of mysterious machine parts, pallets of tinned goods, and spiders the size of my hand, I discovered two boxes of decomposing books. They were in such an awful state that the books on the top layer fell apart in my hands like ancient fragments of bone at a dig. But the next layer were slightly better preserved.

Entranced by my discovery I began taking the books from the boxes, they seemed to call to me, poor unloved books. They deserved some attention before they crumbled to dust. And so my reading acquired a new depth and voraciousness. I took all those books from the boxes, laying them out in the sun. Mr. Lace didn’t seem to mind. Every so often he’d look in on me, on my perch of an upturned tea chest, and throw me an encouraging wink. A task that should have taken three days took a week.

I’d dip into each book, reading the first two pages. If it caught my attention I’d read on for another ten pages or so. If still hooked, I’d put it aside in a pile that grew over the course of that week. The first book that snagged me so hard I had to finish it was The Man with the Golden Arm by Nelson Algren. At the end of that third day, I tucked the book into my jacket, carefully, like a pigeon with a broken wing, and was grateful of the long train and bus journey home. I finished that story about a heroin junkie in Chicago on the way to Mr. Lace’s garage the next day, the last day of my task.

At the end of that last day, quite a pile of books had been stacked. After Mr. Lace gave me ten pounds, I asked if I might have the books, if he had no further use for them. Mr. Lace nodded, but prior to allowing me to put them gingerly into the black rubbish bag I had stuffed into my pocket that morning explicitly to bring these books home, he glanced over each title, sometimes with a nostalgic smirk. Over that long summer I read all those books, the start of my adult reading life. Amongst those glorious titles were In Cold Blood by Capote, The Thin Man, Sartre’s Nausea and The Story of O. That summer I went from sporadic reading to never leaving home without a book in the inside pocket of my knock off Perfecto biker jacket. Thanks to The Story of O, that summer also marked my transition from boyhood to horny teenager, but that’s a whole other story.

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

We Are Singing

  1. Judith Butler in Giving an Account of Oneself writes, “[W]e must recognise that ethics requires us to risk ourselves precisely at moments of unknowingness, when what forms us diverges from what lies before us, when our willingness to become undone in relation to others constitutes our chance of becoming human. To be undone by another is a primary necessity, an anguish, to be sure, but also a chance–to be addressed, claimed, bound to what is not me, but also to be moved, to be prompted to act, to address myself elsewhere, and so to vacate the self-sufficient “I” as a kind of possession. If we speak and try to give an account from this place, we will not be irresponsible, or, if we are, we will surely be forgiven.”
  2. Giorgio Agamben writes in The Coming Community: “This fascination of not uttering something absolutely.”
  3. What has always fascinated me about the Sirens, whether written of by Euripides, Homer, Ovid or Hesiod, is that no one writes about the Sirens’ song. Žižek, in Cogito and the Unconscious reveals Tzvetan Todorov’s thesis, that the Sirens said to Odysseus just one thing: We are singing. Blanchot wrote, “Yes, they really sang, but not in a very satisfactory way. Their song merely suggested the direction from which the perfect song might come.”
  4. In Isak Dinesen’s The Dreamers a young soprano by the name of Pellegrina Leoni loses her singing voice after an accident happens whilst she is singing Donna Anna’s beautiful aria from Don Giovanni. As the greatest soprano of her day, without  her enchanting voice,Pellegrinaisthoughtto be dead, giving her the freedom to travel the world under an assumed identity, living many intense adventures. No muteness is as tragic as a Sirens’ silence.

    Holly Hunter in The Piano (Jane Campion, 1993)

    Holly Hunter in The Piano (Jane Campion, 1993)