Seagull Books / My Sense of Soul

Regular readers of Time’s Flow Stemmed will know of my profound admiration of Seagull Books. In a time of sweeping intellectual nihilism, Seagull publish books that change the possibilities of art, perpetuating the work of serious publishers like Adelphi and Suhrkamp.

Seagull Books’s annual catalogue combines enticing prose and elegant production. The beautiful 2016-2017 edition includes contributions from some favourite lit bloggers, and also my brief response which follows Naveen Kishore’s “provocation”:

“Soul he said. Soul as the prison of the body. Soul I asked? What about the ones who don’t believe? In soul. Or God. Or religion. The ones that understand the body for what it is. Accept its one-way journey towards the inevitable. The body as decay. Gradual ruin. Eventual crumbling. We all know this. Or those that think the ‘inner core’, or what I presume is a ‘substitute’ for the notion of ‘soul’, is actually just an ever changing, evolving, fermenting mass of literature that grows. And grows. And knows freedom. And fear. And emotion. And love. And death. And every kind of existential angst that any soul worth its weight in gold would know! What about me? I asked. Or you for that matter. We who write and read and write and continue to both read and write while our bodies grow old and tired. But the mind. The mind remains in a state of excitement. Constantly radiant. Its brilliance grows with every new thought. What if we substitute ‘literature’ for ‘soul’ in your proud statement so that it now reads ‘Literature as the prison of the body’. Thing is that this doesn’t hold. Literature cannot be a space that restricts movement. Or freedom. At least it shouldn’t be. It is meant to be a liberating presence. Like its close companion. The dark. For me the dark is important. The dark as a substitute for soul? Maybe. Darkness is essential for literature of meaning to grow and take root.”

My sense of soul is rooted in Aristotle who also used the term psyche in a time before we rooted psychology in the brain, rather as a form or a forming of the whole body. Wax and imprint, like Ovid’s Pygmalion, are one, but this begs the question of how we become one. Identity is a precondition for unity of self, awareness of our selves. The eye is for sight, the ear for hearing but there is no organ of memory, no place in the body where identity can be seen to reside.

In my imagination I venture deep into the caves of Lascaux where humans, sometime between 15,000 and 10,000 BC painted falling horses into the cracks in the rocks. If I imagine carefully I can catch obliquely a shimmering of half-recalled moving images that was perhaps in the mind of a human in this time before language. It seems to me that we retain a sense of this inner life during our dreams, when sound, smells, gestures have primacy over the spoken or written word. Language seems a less direct, less rich way of interrelating with the world around us.

Chimpanzees are thought to have the ability to understand other’s behaviour by inferring from unobservable signs, such as desires, feelings, beliefs and thoughts. If this is true it casts powerful light on fundamental aspects of human nature, of what life might of been like for languageless humans.

Pascal Quignard, indebted to Lacan, likens the acquisition of verbal language to loss, a second death, when an infant’s worldview is transfigured into a system of commonplace signs. Quignard insists that ears are the earliest organs to develop in our prenatal state, that our time in the womb is a long maternal symphony. We lie around, increasingly cramped in non-verbal life until we are torn from our self-contained kingdom into a place of language and identity. Everything we gain is haunted by our loss. Celan captured fully the nature of this tragedy when he wrote, “Whichever word you speak—/you owe/to destruction.”

“Perception,” wrote Bergson, “is completely impregnated by memory-images which, in interpreting it, complete it.” I was only eighteen months old when my mother died. My memory-image of her is of a shadowy nature, based wholly on a small selection of photographs and anecdotes. In memory, my mother is without voice, of which I have no recollection, though she was musical and must have sung to me often. Depersonalisation, characterised by an inescapable sense of strangeness and unreality, is a not uncommon response to sudden loss. My earliest memories are of retreating into a fantasy world where books and drawings soon became more real than the estranged, not-right world around me.

Identity, in the way that Quignard appears to use the term, is a slippery concept. In the case of depersonalisation, identity is extraordinarily elusive. Our unique selves, for the sake of stability, rely on a sense of continuity. The most useful definition for me, is that of William James, who identified the hallmark of personal identity as the “consciousness of personal sameness.” A secure sense of identity is undermined when our concept of self is variable. A state of depersonalisation is often characterised by the appearance of images and sensations from the preconscious, not unlike our non-verbal dream worlds.

Though words are the tools of literature, I think, in some sense, we take for granted the way our identities are transformed by all that literature embodies. While reading, our mind is forming image concepts in the same way it does when using other sensory systems, such as hearing, touch and gesture. The mediation of memory through the vivid images that literature provides, in all their vicarious delicacy, can be redemptive. Didn’t Orwell exhort us to use invigoratingly fresh metaphors to evoke a powerful visual imagery?

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)

A Life With the Greeks

My first encounter with the story of Troy happened as a child while reading one of those juvenile collected tales of Ancient Greek and Rome. It kindled an enchantment for that vanished golden age that has never waned. Those gods, goddesses, and heroes have accompanied me as proxy siblings, with that admixture of fierce love and gentle hostility typical to such relationships. Achilles, the truculent and distant older brother, admired and loathed in equal measure. Paris, the craven cousin, who gossips behind closed doors. Beautiful, unpredictable Cassandra who became the model for at least one of the important women in my life.

Although I own Homer in the original Greek I cannot claim to know Homer that way, though, from time to time, I crudely decode stretches, word by word, like a detective. Any classical scholar in his first year possesses more competence in Greek than I’ve achieved. As a teenager I learnt to write the first line of Homer’s Iliad in Greek from memory, but it was artifice, a party trick. Classical Greek studies remain an ambition, to sit beside my formal training in Latin. As Joyce once wrote to Harriet Shaw Weaver, “I [..] have spent a great deal of time with Greeks of all kinds from noblemen down to onionsellers, chiefly the latter. I am superstitious about them. They bring me luck.”

Without classical Greek I am compelled to rely on translations into English, though at school we dabbled a bit with a Latin translation of Homer. Pope’s translation was my first, of which Robert Fagles, while acknowledging its greatness, said, “Pope’s Homer is really an English poem.” Of Pope’s translation (hat-tip to Douglas Robertson), Samuel Johnson wrote:

I suppose many readers of the English “Iliad,” when they have been touched with some unexpected beauty of the lighter kind, have tried to enjoy it in the original, where, alas! it was not to be found. Homer doubtless owes to his translator many Ovidian graces not exactly suitable to his character; but to have added can be no great crime, if nothing be taken away. Elegance is surely to be desired, if it be not gained at the expense of dignity. A hero would wish to be loved, as well as to be reverenced.

To a thousand cavils one answer is sufficient; the purpose of a writer is to be read, and the criticism which would destroy the power of pleasing must be blown aside. Pope wrote for his own age and his own nation: he knew that it was necessary to colour the images and point the sentiments of his author; he therefore made him graceful, but lost him some of his sublimity.

Besides Pope, I’ve read translations of the Iliad by Richard Lattimore, Robert Fitzgerald and William Cowper, as well as much of Stephen Mitchell’s truncated version. I’m reading Robert Fagles admirably lucid translation. Each of these translations tackle the Iliad differently, and I struggle to recommend one over the other, though Mitchell’s version impressed me least.

I do urge those interested in Homer to read Simone Weil’s essay, The Iliad, or The Poem of Force [PDF]. For the nerdy I also recommend Malcolm M. Willcock’s A Companion to the Iliad (based on Richard Lattimore’s translation).

Idées Fixes of the Week

Caspar David Friedrich – On the Sailing-Vessel (1818)

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*****

Anselm Kiefer: Heaven and Earth. SFMOMA

There is no history. Each human being makes his own history, has his own thoughts and his own world but everyone is alone with his own illusions, with his own methods…I think each human being tries to put themselves in a bigger context. You always create an illusion that you stay longer on earth than you do…That’s what a religion is…This reassures you in a sense in the work because in this world there is no sense. So the scientific process…doesn’t lead to any key to the work….the more we know, more we don’t know. It’s always like this only mythology…tries to explain the world in a logical sense.

*****

Jorie Graham – Untitled (2010)

Of the two dogs the car hit, one, two, while we were talking, and thinking about
how to change each
other’s
mind, the other people’s
survived – dark spot near the front
fender just hair blowing in low wind, a spot all wind’s, then
a stir in the ribs and everything’s rising slow-motion up from the tight small shoulders, the
chest, the
dragging hind end of itself on the dirt
road as if sewing a new strap
back
on, dragging, a long
moment, then the
division occurs and the wide perishing shrinks and the legs
are four again and
up. Not ours. Ours
is placed by gravity on the far bank, as if an as yet unbuilt unimagined house on the
empty field into which
one peers past mist
wondering how will or
concentration or want alone will bring the as-yet-not thing into view. What will it take to
build the
thing? The not yet, not anymore, not
again? That. Wouldn’t the beautiful field be best left
alone? unfilled? No. Now the children are folding
over it and sound
is restored and it is the only human
world, something perished on the road, it was its turn, you have your turn says the road I
stare blankly
at, white dust,
thinking there are words now
that must take the
place of this
creature, and I
am at the point in the road where I, who will have lived, no matter how many thousands
of years in the future come, if they come,
even if there are no more humans then or they have become unrecognisable, I,
even when no rain will have come down
in the memory of generations
so they think the story of such an element is one of the myths, the empty
myths, I still will have
lived this day and all the preceding ones of my
person, mine, as I rise now
to the moment when right words
are needed – Dear moon
this morning I woke up, I thought the room for an instant was a blossoming, then a
burning cell, then a thing
changing its clothes, huge transparent clothes, the ceiling part of the neck, where is
the head I thought, of the year, this
year, where are the eyes of
the years – the years, can we stay human, will we slow the end
down, how much, what do we have to promise, how think our way
from here to
there – and human life survived – and its world – ah, room, the
words – has it been just
luck, the room now wild with winds of centuries swirling floods tectonic plates like wide
bones shifting round me – elephants flow through, all gone, volcanoes emerging and
disappearing just like that, didn’t even really get to see them, pestilence, there, it took its
people, hurricane, there, it took its – ‘you’re a
martian’ I heard the angry child cry out on the street
below to the other
child, and the door slams, and the only story I know, my head, my century, the one where
187 million perished in wars, massacre, persecution, famine – all policy induced – is the
one out of which
I must find the reason
for the loved still-young creature being carried now onto the family lawn as they try
everything, and all murmurs shroud hum cry instruct, and all the
six arms gleam, firm, limp, all over it, caresses, tentacular
surround of the never-again, rush of blood and words, although look, you out there
peering in, listening, to see who we were: here: this was history:
their turn
is all they actually have
flowing in them.

******

Christa Wolf, City of Angels or Overcoat of Dr. Freud

Night thoughts have a different color than day thoughts, a different slant, more than anything else they know all the secret paths and chinks in the armor they can take advantage of to force their way into consciousness.

*****

Ovid – Metamorphoses

No species remains constant: that great renovator of matter
Nature, endlessly fashions new forms from old: there’s nothing
in the whole universe that perishes, believe me; rather
it renews and varies its substance. What we describe as birth
is no more than incipient change from a prior state, while dying
is merely to quit it. Though the parts may be transported
hither and thither, the sum of all matter is constant.

*****

I’ve posted Ginevra before, but she haunts me …

Leonardo da Vinci
Ginevra de’ Benci (1474)

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