Jorge Semprún’s Literature or Life

The Greeks called it Avernus, the Birdless Place, the entrance to the underworld, where according to Virgil ‘no winged creatures could ever wing their way’. Virgil sees no birds until he returns above ground, nor does Molloy on his own metaphorical journey to the underworld saying ‘I had not heard a bird for a long time. How was it I had not heard any in the forest? Nor seen any.’

The conspicuous absence of birds is one of Jorge Sepmrún’s recurring memories of his journey through death in Buchenwald, written about in his staggeringly moving and insightful Literature or Life. ‘No birds left. They say the smoke from the crematory drove them away. Never any birds in this forest . . .’ With these words Semprún greets four soldiers about to enter Buchenwald on the first morning of its liberation.

David Morris, writing on the Freudian uncanny, writes that it [unheimlich] ‘derives its terror not from something externally alien or unknown but–on the contrary–from something strangely familiar which defeats our efforts to separate ourselves from it’. Semprún for many years is unable to write directly of his experience, ‘I start to doubt the possibility of telling the story. Not that what we lived through is indescribable. It was unbearable, which is something else entirely (that won’t be hard to understand), something that doesn’t concern the form of a possible account but its substance. Not its articulation, but its density.’

Semprún chooses a ‘long cure of aphasia, of voluntary amnesia’ despite the dangers of suppression, until the suicide of Primo Levi unlocks a need to represent his journey into, and out the other side of death. These memoirs ask the question, how to write of these unimaginable terrors in a way people can hear, can understand? Semprún shows that there needn’t be a disjunction between literature and life, that it is possible to write poetically about barbaric events. Perhaps he demonstrates quite the opposite, that literature (poetry) is precisely the response needed for terrors like Buchenwald.

Hidden Art and Enchantment

Ovid is an excellent travelling companion; he endured, with good humour, my occasional lack of attention, but with wit and ferocity drew my concentration back to the page. His curiosity is a vital component of the sensibility required to compose a  long poem without a central hero or even a single topic beyond the idea of metamorphosis.

Truth and illusion are Ovid’s medium. But truth and illusion are ever slippery, especially in a world where the usual laws of nature are suspended. Illusion is always implicated in desire, with the risk of misunderstanding but in that risk there is the possibility of revealing truths.

At school we were required to learn the opening lines of the Second book of The Metamorphoses. I haven’t been able to source the particular translation but it’s likely that time has made different those lines I still recall. It is worth memorizing again those lines in which Ovid depicts the dazzling palace of Sol, the sun god:

“The soaring palace of the Sun, with all
its giant columns, was ablaze with gold
and bronze, as if aflame; its pediments
were crowned on high with polished ivory;
and glowing silver graced the double doors.”

Ivory’s beauty and value is recognised in the earliest Greek texts and mentioned in the Iliad and Odyssey to symbolise royal abundance. Ovid draws out its magical qualities in his highly metaphorical conception of the Pygmalion myth:

“Meanwhile, Pygmalion began to carve
in snow-white ivory, with wondrous art,
a female figure more exquisite than
a woman who was born could ever match.
That done, he falls in love with his own work.”

The Pygmalion story may be the finest Ovid wove in The Metamorphoses, a fable of truth and illusion as implicated in desire. In his story, the sensitive, lonely artist, unable to face the world becomes a recluse and falls in love with his own creation.

“The image seems, in truth, to be a girl;
one could have thought she was alive and keen
to stir, to move her limbs, had she not been
too timid: with his art, he’d hidden art.
He’s enchanted and, within his heart,
the likeness of a body now ignites
a flame.”

How much Ovid portrays within just a few lines. An absolute work of art displays no vestiges of art but is genuine and enchanting in its own right. Once a work of art is completed, its future is independent of its maker. In the alternative universe of The Metamorphoses, Pygmalion gets his girl:

At once, Pygmalion, at home again,
seeks out the image of the girl; he bends
over his couch; he kisses her. And when
it seems her lips are warm, he leans again
to kiss her; and he reaches with his hands
to touch her breasts. The ivory has lost
its hardness; now his fingers problem; grown soft,
the statue yields beneath his sculptors’s touch,
just as Hymettian wax beneath the sun
grows soft and, moulded by the thumb, takes on
so many varied shapes—in fact, becomes
more pliant as one plies it.”

I’m reminded of Ryszard Kapuściński’s Travels with Herodotus in which he writes “People sit around the fire and tell stories.” He continues:

“Later, these will be called legends and myths, but in the instant when they are first being related and heard, the tellers and the listeners believe in them as the holiest of truths, absolute reality.

They listen, the fire burns, someone adds more wood, the flames’ renewed warmth quickens thought, awakens the imagination. The spinning of tales is almost unimaginable without a fire crackling somewhere nearby, or without the darkness of a house illuminated by an oil lamp or a candle. The fire’s light attracts, unites, galvanizes attentions. The flame and community. The flame and history. The flame and memory.”

This is how I read Ovid and I like this drawing back to sit around the camp fire with such a bookish and witty story teller. Book Eleven will be my evening’s reading, no longer travelling but no less in need of such an excellent companion.

Ovid’s Envy

Ovid’s personification of Envy is powerfully vivid, animated with gesture, diet, sounds and colour. It is a remarkable portrait, painterly, even filmic. Its depiction of Envy evokes its malignant nature. This is from Allen Mandelbaum’s rather beautiful translation.

..There within,
she saw that Envy was intent upon
a meal of viper flesh, the meat that fed
her vice. Minerva turned aside her eyes.
But Envy sluggishly rose from the ground,
leaving the half-chewed dregs of serpents’ flesh
and coming forward with her faltering steps.
And when she saw the splendid goddess dressed
in gleaming armor, Envy moaned: her face
Contracted as she sighed. That face is wan,
that body shriveled; and her gaze is not
direct; her teeth are filled with filth and rot;
her breast is green with gall, and poison coats
her tongue. She never smiles except when some
sad sight brings her delight; she is denied
sweet sleep, for she is too preoccupied,
forever vigilant; when men succeed,
she is displeased – success means her defeat.
she gnaws at others and at her own self—
her never-ending, self-inflicted hell.

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)

One Too Many Eyes

Coming across Clément Rosset’s work is akin to discovering a close new friend in adulthood; Rosset is an ally to add to that small list of thinkers, philosophers, writers (call them what you will) that do not feel the need to contest, mask or avoid reality, but from time to time stare at it for moments at a time with curiosity and terror.

On the strength of Joyful Cruelty: Toward a Philosophy of the Real, Rosset’s work takes it place alongside that of Beckett, Epicurus, Adorno, Lucretius, Nietzsche, Jane Bennett, Emil Cioran, Schopenhauer, Montaigne, perhaps Spinoza and Wittgenstein. I’ve been back and forth through this book, scribbling notes, underlining passages and dipping into large passages of all the other writers just listed, chasing down philosophical references, some chimerical, some actual. Here is an extended passage to give you a flavour of the work:

The acceptance of the real presupposes, then, either pure unconsciousness-like Epicurus’ pig, who is the only one at ease on board as the storm rages and fills the passengers and crew with anguish-or a consciousness which would be capable both of knowing the worst and of not being mortally affected by this knowledge of the worst. It must be noted that this last faculty-to know without receiving mortal damage-is situated absolutely out of reach of human faculties, unless of course some extraordinary assistance appears, what Pascal calls grace and I call for my part joy. Indeed, knowledge constitutes for humankind a fatality and a sort of curse recognised in Genesis (“You shall not eat from the tree of knowledge”). Since it is both inevitable (impossible to ignore completely what one knows) and inadmissible (equally impossible to admit it), it condemns humanity. Man is the being who has ventured into the recognition of a truth that he is incapable of facing (like a foolhardy general who throws himself into the assault without being assured of the state of the forces at play and the possibilities of retreat) and which is a contradictory and tragic destiny-tragic in the sense that Vladimir Jankélévitch understands it (“the alliance of the necessary and the impossible”). What is most crucial and most notable in what is called the human condition seems to me to reside precisely in this: to be equipped with a knowledge-contrary to what is true of animals and inanimate objects-but simultaneously to be stripped of sufficient psychological resources to confront one’s own wisdom, to be furnished with a surplus of knowledge or “one too many eyes,” as André Green would say, which indiscriminately is our privilege and our ruin, in short, to know but to be completely incapable. Thus, man, is the sole creature to be conscious of his own death (and of the death promised for all things), but also the only one to reject without appeal the idea of death. He knows that he is living but knows not how he lives; he knows he must die but knows not how he will die. In other words, man is the being capable of knowing what he is incapable of knowing, of being able in principle to do what he is incapable of doing in reality, of finding himself confronted precisely with that which he is incapable of confronting. Equally incapable of knowing and of ignoring, he demonstrates contradictory capacities which prevent the formulation of all plausible definitions of him, as Pascal insists in the Pensées. One could say that a divine and universal programmer (unless it is just a chance combination of things, as Epicurus suggests) committed in this instance a basic error, sending confidential information to a terminal which was not in a state to receive it, to master it, and to integrate it into its own program, revealing to humanity a truth that we are incapable of admitting but also, unhappily, very capable of understanding. This is why Lucretius’ poem, which sets out to cure human anguish by revealing the truth, can only have as its principal result to increase that very anguish. To administer the truth to one who suffers precisely from the truth is worthless. In the same manner, the forced perception of reality to which Lucretius invites us is without benefit for someone who fears above all reality taken in itself, in its unadorned and cruel state. The cure is worse than the disease here. Exceeding the powers of the afflicted person, it can only treat a cadaver which has already succumbed to the test of a real which was beyond its capacities-or occasionally comfort someone who is well and in no need of comfort. In a passage from his Zibaldone,Leopardi analyses this inadequacy and necessary contradiction which opposes the exercise of life to the knowledge of life: “One can hardly better expose the horrible mystery of things and universal existence … than by declaring insufficient and even false not only the extension, the influence, and the force, but the fundamental principles of our reason themselves. The principle for example-without which every proposition, every discourse, every argument, and the capacity to be able to establish and conceive the truth collapses-the principle, as I was saying, according to which a thing cannot simultaneously both be and not be seems absolutely false when one considers the palpable contradictions which exist in nature. To exist in fact and to be unable in any way to be happy, by virtue of an innate impotence inseparable from existence, or rather, to be and to be unable nor to be unhappy, are two truths as proven and as certain with respect to man and o every living being as any truth can be according to our principles and our experience. Now, a being united with unhappiness, and united with it necessarily and by its essence, is something which is in direct contradiction with itself, with perfection and its very goal which is happiness alone, a things which ravages itself, which it its own enemy. Thus the being of living beings is in a natural, essential, and necessary contradiction with itself.” Cioran briefly summarises the same thought in an aphorism from The Temptation to Exist: “To exist is to protest against the truth.”