The Unspeakable Girl by Giorgio Agamben and Monica Ferrando

To be sure, it is never language itself, language as such at work, but always am I speaking from a particular angle of inclination of its own self, concerned with outline and orientation. There is no reality, reality must be sought and won.

The statement above, written by Paul Celan in 1958, preceded his recognition that he wrote poems ‘to orient myself, to find out where I was and where I was meant to go, to create a reality for myself’. Such an undertaking is also typical of Beckett’s Malone, who writes daily ‘in order to know where I have got to’. This probing spirit seems to me at the heart of Seagull Books’ publishing project.

How else to provide rationale for publishing The Unspeakable Girl, this exquisitely beautiful book filled with dozens of images by Monica Ferrando?

Kore alla luce, pastello su carta nepalese

The essay at the heart of the book is by Giorgio Agamben, a thinker who fascinates me for reasons I haven’t fully understood, perhaps for his ability to produce work that endlessly opens the door for further exploration. In this book Agamben explores a story that has intrigued humanity since ancient times, that of Persephone or, in this case, the ‘unspeakable girl’ whose name was considered ill-omened because of its association with her position as Queen of the Dead.

The myth of the abduction and rape of Demeter’s beautiful daughter as she picked a narcissus (in the Orphic version of the tale) played a central role in the Eleusinian cult and Mysteries, a series of rituals that included fasting and drinking of Kykeon, a hallucinogenic  at the heart of these initiatory rites. The early Christian church expended much energy attempting to suppress the existence of the Mysteries. In the second part of this book Monica Ferrando presents her translations of Greek and Latin source materials.

The audience for this wonderful book, I suspect, is not huge, hence my love and respect for Seagull Books’ inquisitive and curious nature. Agamben, as always, but aided by Ferrando’s images and translations, opens up new pathways for thought into image philosophy, mythology and literary criticism, an encounter that compels wandering in further exploration. The exploration is interminable.

Mystery Cults and the Novel Form

If there is somewhere today where an echo of the ancient mysteries can then be heard, it is not in the liturgical splendour of the Catholic Church but in the extreme life resolutions offered by the novel form. Whether it be Lucius in The Golden Ass or Isabel Archer in Henry James’ Portrait of a Lady, the novel places us before a mysterion in which life itself is at once that which initiates us and that into which we are initiated.

Giorgio Agamben, The Unspeakable Girl. Trans. Leland De La Durantaye. Seagull Books, 2014 (2010)

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.

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)

Some Well-Intentioned Reading Ideas for 2013

So, in my review of this year’s reading I vowed to make no reading resolutions for 2013, not because I don’t have some ideas, but writing about them pretty much guarantees serendipity will lead me in a completely different direction. But I’m going to chuck a few ideas into the void, for no other reason than it helps me think.

Since my post dealing with feminine writing, I’ve started to identify a series of writers that I plan to read more thoroughly, more Cixous obviously. My touchstone book for 2012 was Kate Zambreno’s brilliant Heroines. The book  is the sort of polymorphous text that opens up new possibilities for biography, literary criticism and memoir. Read if you must but don’t be mislead by reviews of Heroines that reveal more about the prejudice of the reviewer than the text. Helen’s or Michelle’s reviews offer a more balanced, less blimpish point of view. I’ll be taking inspiration from both Kate Zambreno’s blog (a project now ended) and Heroines and reading writers like Jean Rhys, Djuna Barnes, Olive Moore, obviously more Clarice Lispector and Claude Cahun. I’m also interested in those treading similar ground, writers like Chris Kraus, Vanessa Place, Tamara Faith Berger and Dodie Bellamy. I also plan to read some Julia Kristeva and Kate Zambreno’s earlier Green Girl.

There are some thrilling new books due next year, so I will definitely be reading any new books that appear by László Krasznahorkai, JM Coetzee’s The Childhood of Jesus and the collection of letters between Coetzee and Paul Auster, Giorgio Agamben’s Nymphs, Amelie Nothomb’s Life Form, Sonallah C Ibrahim’s That Smell and Notes from Prison and William Gass’s Middle C. The second (and possibly third) volume of Reiner Stach’s Kafka biography is due and unmissable.

I’ve started reading Benoît Peeters’ Derrida biography and plan to read more Derrida. I’ve got plans to read Wittgenstein, Deleuze and Adorno more deeply, and want to explore further what Ray Brassier is doing. Oh, and I seriously intend to get back to Thomas Bernhard and Peter Handke.

If I achieve half of these goals I’ll be happy and no doubt serendipity will hijack my intentions along the way.

Thanks for reading Time’s Flow Stemmed. Have a good holiday.