What most gives us the sense of liberty? Forgetting that you are being watched.
No longer being either a child or an old person, neither a woman nor a man, neither a father nor a mother, neither a son nor a daughter.
Pascal Quignard, The Silent Crossing
Pindar wrote in his second Pythian ode: Genoi autos essi mathon. Become what you are. No, do not become what you are. What individualises is the proper name or, in other words, the language in which it has its place – that is to say, social control through the internalised voice or, in other word, endless servitude. Do not become the slave of your people in the patronym they gave you within the collective language they taught you. Otherwise, the name they gave you will take the place of your flesh.
Pascal Quignard, The Silent Crossing
In the morning of August 6th 1945 the American B-29 aeroplane Enola Gay dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima. Reports always speak of the blinding light and fireball that formed with a surface temperature hotter than the sun. Estimates suggest that the Little Boy atomic bomb killed 80,000 people in a single day and another 140,000 of radiation poisoning and burns by the end of the year.
Jun’ichirō Tanizaki’s In Praise of Shadows was published in 1933, an essay length reflection on a Japanese architecture and sensibility destroyed by modern (Western) illumination. Though published 12 years before the horrors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Tanizaki’s polemic is haunted with a prefiguring of the mass destruction that was to come.
As in most recent Western-style buildings, the ceilings are so low that one feels as if balls of fire were blazing directly above one’s head. ‘Hot’ is no word for the effect, and the closer to the ceiling the worse it is – your head and neck and spine feel as if they were being roasted.
No clairvoyance was involved in Tanizaki’s elegy. It is a privileged viewpoint. His essay is more ironic in tone, a baggy, rambling piece of writing that ranges from architecture to hygiene to jade to women to heating levels. And I use those terms as a reader that loves to read discursive, seemingly unstructured essays.
Tanizaki writes, ‘Were it not for shadows, there would be no beauty’. To read his essay is to recall a lost world, liminal spaces no longer permitted in a time of of what Pascal Quignard refers to as ‘dazzling, puritanical, imperialist, American neon light.”
Quignard draws a central part of The Roving Shadows from Tanizaki’s essay, about which he writes: ‘I think these pages are among the finest ever written in any of the various societies that have arisen over time …’
Pascal Quignard’s work belongs in a no-mans-land between what is long since past and what is still to come, reeling on the edges between literature, antiquarianism and philosophy. Texts like The Roving Shadows and Abysses seem so fresh yet also inevitable in terrain carved by writers like Calasso, Sebald, John Berger and Cixous. To find Quignard’s precursors you could go further back to Montaigne, Bacon, even Erasmus.
I have such hunger for these works that find new ways of questioning and expressing knowledge. Quignard’s work demands and refuses easy interpretation in the way that older essayists used the form to test ideas, where cognition proceeds through flashes and rereading (I read The Roving Shadows once before). Structured as a mixture of fragments and lengthier, more structured essays Quignard reflects on the philosophers of Greece and Rome (mostly but not exclusively) interwoven with touches of autobiography and outrage.
I also read Sex and Terror which uses visual arts to explore the edges where Greek civilisation and Roman civilisation overlapped with seismic reverberations that are still being felt in the present day. It is less demanding than the other two, but equally enlightening.
Chris Turner’s translation of all three books (once again from the wonderful Seagull Books) is so beautiful that I intend to collect a couple in the original French to see what I am missing. Quignard’s work is important, moving and powerful in equal measure and deserves to leave a significant trace. He is one of those writers who will divide my life (not just reading) into a before discovery and after.
There is a world in which ages are not equal, the sexes not undifferentiated, roles not equivalent and civilisations not easily confused with one another.
There is a world in which the ignorant are not the equal of the learned, the oral does not have the same ‘voice’ as the written, nor the vulgus as the atomos, nor barbarians as civilised beings.
There is another world.
There is a world that belongs to the shore of the Lethe.
That shore is memory.
It is the world of novels and sonatas, the world of the pleasure of naked bodies that love the half-closed blind or the world of the dream that loves it even more closed, to the point where it feigns the darkness of night or contrives it.
It is the world of magpies on graves.
It is the world of solitude required for reading books or listening to music.
The world of tepid silence and idle semi-darkness where thought drifts, then suddenly seethes with excitement.
Pascal Quignard, The Roving Shadows. trans. Chris Turner. Seagull Books, 2011 (2002)
Revisiting an old friend, my first Quignard and one of those coincidences that provides much joy: I had forgotten that The Roving Shadows is, in part, a tribute to Junichiro Tanizaki’s In Praise of Shadows, which Des has highly recommended to me. It was awaiting me under the Christmas tree this morning.
We carry with us the turmoil of our conception.
There is no image that shocks us that does not remind us of the acts that made us.
Humanity is endlessly the product of a scene that pits two-male and female-mammals against each other, whose urogenital organs, provided abnormality overtakes them and once they have become distinctly misshapen, fit one inside the other.
Pascal Quignard, Sex and Terror. trans. Chris Turner. Seagull Books, 2011 (1997)
I may never be able to write much about this book, not at least until I’ve read it again and even then it is the sort of book that takes weeks, month, a lifetime, to absorb. These are just the opening lines of the introduction and shorn of context but in three sentences suggest the acuity, subtle wit and boldness of Quignard’s work. I think I could spend next year just reading and thinking about this book. It would be a year well spent.