Talismanic Identifications and Ghostly Demarcations

There was a time when I drifted between reading books of poetry and fiction without a thought for the writer; choosing what to read next— there was no enduringly impatient stack—was a function of where the endlessly reflective waves induced by the last book led me, or more prosaically, whatever caught my attention when browsing in my nearest bookshop.

Around my early twenties, a different whole seemed to fall into shape and I begun to pay attention to certain writers and, setting a pattern that has followed throughout my reading life, to read them to completion, seeing the inevitable minor works as a pathway to answering the thousand questions that arose around the major books.

Once I drew up a list of best books, what I termed a personal canon, but this would prove a shot-silk, a slippery list that refused stability. What, after all, is best? The Canon? Or those books that once read refused to be forgotten, crystal-carbon in memory? What of those evanescent books thought of as favourites, where little lingers beyond perhaps an atmosphere, or a single character?

Instead, in what I optimistically term my maturity, I choose writers over specific books, and my choices embody what Anthony Rudolf in Silent Conversations terms: “magical thinking, talismanic identifications and ghostly demarcations”. There is a distinction between those I read that will probably always be read whilst there are literate readers to be found, say Samuel Beckett, Anton Chekhov, Franz Kafka, Virginia Woolf, Emily Dickinson, James Joyce and Charles Baudelaire.

There are those I read closely because I am, for reasons not always fully understand, intrigued by the way they think or observe the world, for example Peter Handke, Gerald Murnane, Dorothy Richardson, George Oppen, Clarice Lispector, Christa Wolf, Mircea Cărtărescu and Enrique Vila-Matas. Time and the quick sands of taste will decide whether each find a home in posterity.

There is a far stranger category of writers I have only sampled, yet fascinate me deeply: Maurice Blanchot, Ricardo Piglia, Marguerite Duras, Hans Blumenberg, Laura Riding, Arno Schmidt are all examples, but I could name a dozen others. These interest me as much for the lived life as the work, though I always plan to explore the latter more deeply.

Reading books becomes a way to find the writer, or at least to see a glimpse of that writer’s mind. In doing so, I find that I am a part of all that I have read, that reading is a process to becoming. The more I contemplate the act of reading and of what I read, the stranger it seems. I understand less than I did when I began. Where once writing seemed certain and assured, as I moved toward the depthless prose of the writers that I came to consider part of my pantheon, the more I felt strangely included in that writer’s thought process.

Dickinson’s ‘Enigmatic Presence’ (Maria Gabriela Llansol)

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‘I can only sense that Emily Dickinson has just arrived, without being an intruder (. . .). I turned to Emily Dickinson, then — to speak is not inevitable; she worked without talking, and, by the end of the day, they had almost forgotten she existed; there could only be seen, rootless, the result of her work.’

Maria Gabriela Llansol, from Um Falcão no Punho, (1985)

‘Llansol also links Emily Dickinson to the Brontë sisters: the American poet appears in her room after Anne, Emily and Charlotte have sent her an invitation letter to confirm their common interest in menageries.’

From The International Reception of Emily Dickinson, (2009)

‘It is no wonder that you are there, half-naked, leaning over what I write. You make a triangle with your legs, you stand on your foot, but not as a ballerina. (. . .) But if you lay down a foot on my breast and raise your arms, letting your hair fall down, I think it is a writing foot split into fingers, searching for my emotion. Provoking me. In the end, I bit it. This is my retribution as a living writer.’

Maria Gabriela Llansol, from Onde Vais, Drama-Poesia, (2000)

The Embrace of a Poet

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“Four months earlier to the day, on August 14, I had had the unforeseen good luck to meet Pascoaes in Oporto, for the first time and also the last. The impression of his emaciated, at times twitching, but always kind old face is fading away. The lively eyes and the humorous corners of the wide, thin-lipped mouth were strikingly framed, though, by the severe dark hat and suit which plain people wear in Southern countries. I may forget the fireworks of his conversation, with which he easily kept the younger men hanging at his lips. (In those days a Pascoaes cult existed in Portugal; perhaps it still does.) But his embrace I am still able to feel, the most Portuguese of all Portuguese embraces I have been accorded. When we took leave from him, my friend and I, to return to the city, he singled me, the stranger, out and hugged me with a particular warmth and fondness. Did he want to enthral me forever, by putting into that farewell gesture all the human solidarity of a Portuguese? It was the gesture of one who was clinging to life with his last strength. Perhaps it was magic “America,” from whence I came and to which I was soon to return, that he wishes to draw into his immaterial universe of living trees and mountains, in my person, one of the few, perhaps the last who had come to him from the young continent of hope? It meant no love or friendship or goodwill—we had hardly met!—but it sent out a stream of sympathy that will not cease.”

From Gerald M. Moser’s The Embrace of a Poet, Books Abroad, Vol.28, No. 4

There are Monsters Ahead

Mostly unread fiction on these shelves, all monsters exceeding five-hundred pages; some philosophy, or philosophical anthropology in Blumenberg’s case. Tolstoy is missing as is my almost complete set of Heinemann’s Anthony Powell, and two huge Arno Schmidt editions. These are all in my future and the shelves that excite me most, rabbit-holes of discovery that hold in reserve so much promise and mystery.

There are a few novels missing that I’d like to read: William Gaddis’ The Recognitions, another attempt at Infinite Jest, Pynchon, Carlos Fuentes’ Terra Nostra, possibly Louis Armand’s The Combinations, and Cáo Xuěqín’s novel, Grossman’s Life and Fate, Lessing’s space fiction novels. Ever curious about Richardson’s Clarissa, but I don’t think I could sustain myself through its entirety.

Partial Notes: The Gnostic Gospels by Elaine Pagels

‘These are the secret words which the living Jesus spoke, and which the twin, Judas Thomas, wrote down.’ Gospel of Thomas 32.10-11, in NHL 118. — p.14.

Another text, mysteriously entitled ‘Thunder, Perfect Mind‘, offers an extraordinary poem spoken in the voice of a feminine divine power. — p.16.

‘Abandon the search for God and the creation and other matters of a similar sort. Look for him by taking yourself as a starting point. Learn who it is within you who makes everything his own and says, ‘ My God, my mind, my thought, my soul, my body,’ Learn the sources of sorrow, joy, love, hate . . .If you carefully investigate these matters you will find him in yourself.’ Hippolytus, Refutationis omnium Haeresium 1. — p.18.

As early as the second century, Christians realised the potential political consequences of having ‘seen the risen Lord’: in Jerusalem, where James, Jesus’s brother, successfully rivalled Peter’s authority, one tradition maintained that James, not Peter (and certainly not Mary Magdalene) was ‘the first witness of the resurrection’. — p.39.

Mary  lacks the proper credentials for leadership, from the orthodox viewpoint: she is not one of the ‘twelve’. But as Mary stands up to Peter, so the gnostics who take her as their prototype challenge the authority of these priests and bishops who claim to be Peter’s successors. — p.44.

[Bishop Irenaeus] charges that ‘they boast that they are discoverers and inventors of this kind of imaginary fiction’, and accuses them of creating new forms of mythological poetry. — p.48.

Another group of gnostics, called Sethians because they identified themselves as sons of Seth, the third child of Adam and Eve. — p.50.

Whoever comes to this gnosis — this insight — is ready to receive the secret sacrament  called the redemption (apolytrosis; literally, ‘release’). Before gaining gnosis, the candidate worshipped the demiurge [the creator], mistaking him for the true God . . . — p.62.

. . . gnostic description of God — as Father, Mother and Son — may startle us at first, but on reflection, we can recognise it as another version of the Trinity. The Greek terminology for the Trinity, which includes the neuter term for spirit (pneuma) virtually requires that the third ‘Person’ of the Trinity be asexual. But the author of the Secret Book has in mind the Hebrew term for spirit, ruah, a feminine word; and so concludes that the feminine ‘Person’ conjoined with the Other and Son must be the Mother. — p.74.

Ialdabaoth, becoming arrogant in spirit, boasted himself over all those who were below him, and explained, ‘I am father, and God, and above me there is no one,’ his mother, hearing him speak thus, cried out against him: ‘Do not lie, Ialdabaoth; for the father of all, the primal Anthropos, is above you; and so is Anthropos, the son of Anthropos.’ Gospel of Philip 1.30.6. — p.132.

Some who seek their own interior direction, like the radical gnostics, reject religious institutions as a hindrance to their progress. Others, like the Valentinians, willingly participate in them, although they regard the church more as an instrument of their own self-discovery than as the necessary ‘ark of salvation’. — p.133.

Many gnostics . . . insisted that ignorance, not sin, is what involves a person in suffering. — p.133.

So, according to the passage scholars call the ‘nightmare parable’, they lived

as if they were sunk in sleep and found themselves in disturbing dreams. Either (there is) a place to which they are fleeing, or, without strength, they come (from) having chased after others, or they are involved in striking blows, or they are receiving blows themselves, or they have fallen from high places, or they take off into the air though they do not even have wings. Again, sometimes (it is as) if people were murdering them, though there is no one even pursuing them, or they themselves are killing their neighbors, for they have been stained with their blood. When those who are going through all these things wake up, they see nothing, they who were in the midst of these disturbances, for they are nothing. Such is the way of those who have cast ignorance aside as sleep, leaving (its works) behind like a dream in the night. . . This is the way everyone has acted, as though asleep at the time when he was ignorant. And this is the way he has come to knowledge, as if he had awakened. Gospel of Truth, 71.20-21 in NHL 420. — p.134.

He learns what he needs to know by himself in meditative silence. — p.139

According to the Gospel of Thomas, Jesus praises this solitude: ‘Blessed are the solitary and the chosen, for you will find the Kingdom. For you are from it, and to it you will return.’ — p.149