A Form of Attunement

Image from the series “The double and the half” – Slow Panic by Hanan Kazma

In Lyrical Philosophy, Jan Zwicky writes:

“Resonance is a function of the integration of various components in a whole. (Integration, not fusion. Resonance occurs in the spaces between.)

In pure, schematic argument, ‘content’ is of no interest. The form does not arise from it. The form itself is unidimensional. Only the most minimal resonance is possible, the most rudimentary of non-algebraic meanings. The spaces in analysis are necessarily discontinuities, not chambers.–Integrity is a form of attunement.”

Echoes and resonances are central to Zwicky’s writing on Wittgenstein, her suggestion that you might take a number of randomly selected propositions, say half a dozen, from the Tractatus and see them not only as self-sufficient utterances, but also appreciate their bell-like resonant interconnectedness.

As Zwicky remarks, “Imagine doing a similar thing with randomly selected sentences from one of the standard treatises of systematic philosophy.” To what extent I understand Zwicky on Wittgenstein I find her account insightful enough to tackle the Tractatus directly, aided from to time by Michael Morris’ elegant Routledge ‘guidebook’.

I am struck by this idea of resonance to the point of waking up at three o’clock in the morning buzzing with associations. Many of the utterances in Tractatus appear bland, even unoriginal, taken as single entities, but the cumulative effect and patterns start to appear, if only flickeringly.

The resonances work a little like memories, which, for me, arrive primarily in image form; the associations between memory images being deeply resonant. Resonance is spatial, occurring as Zwicky writes “in the spaces in-between”, not unidimensional, and these associations do not arrive in linear form.

To drag another analogy into this raggedy post, I could compare it with my library where, for me, it makes sense to shelve my newly acquired Zwicky and Wittgenstein beside Rilke, Walser and Akhmatova, my library organised by resonance and not by alphabetisation. Wittgenstein wrote that philosophy should only be written as poetry, so these shelf companions somehow seem more fitting.

With Wittgenstein, and in the same sense Zwicky, I read slowly, retracing my steps often to push against the resistance to comprehension. I recall Wittgenstein acting as the benefactor to the poet, Georg Trakl. When he first read Trakl’s poems, he confessed, “I don’t understand them. But their tone delights me. It is the tone of … genius.”

A Parisian Memory

In the last days of enjoying long childhood-afternoons, in that transitory place between child and adult, I went to live in Paris. While at boarding school, I was profoundly affected by Rilke’s The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge. He cast a portentous shadow over Paris and its beauty was insufficient compensation for the confusion of its streets. In time I’d find Paris the most thrilling city I’d ever lived, but not until I’d found my cold, dark room in a garret above a century-old bookstore with shelves full of books by left-wing philosophers.

The decision to go to Paris was whimsical, partly for a dark, brooding woman who looked like Zelda Fitzgerald –or perhaps Lou Andreas-Salomé, I can no longer recall–but also borne of a vision of roaming the endless hallways of the Louvre and other art galleries, confronting the secrets of the masterpieces. By day and night, Paris unfolded as I walked its streets, returning to my room with gifts of young artichokes, Mont d’Or cheese and village Burgundies, which were stored on the small balcony that served as our refrigerator.

Over a wet autumn, I read Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, craving solitude so I could read beginning to end, surrounded by his confidantes, patronesses and lovers. I visited Proust’s grave at Père-Lachaise Cemetery and afterwards ate cold, salty oysters in his honour. To reread passages of Proust today is to be swept back to chestnut trees shedding dark reds and golds in the Luxembourg Gardens, flower beds lapsing to winter, and the taste of duck pâté, spread roughly on a baguette with a wood-handled pocket knife.

On my last day in Paris I ate sweetbreads for the first time at Les Deux Magots, where Beauvoir and Sartre argued philosophy with their entourage, and made un petit express last an hour so I could eavesdrop a conversation at the next table about the limits of knowledge. I copied a line into my notebook from the seventh Duino Elegy, “Nowhere, Beloved, will world be but within us. Our life passes in transformation. And the external wanes ever smaller.”

You’ll End Up Reading Peter Handke

I read Peter Handke’s The Afternoon of a Writer after watching Tomas Espedal’s hauntingly powerful interview. In the interview Espedal says:

Reading has its own logic. No matter where you start you’ll end up reading Thomas Mann sooner or later. You’ll end up reading Marguerite Duras – and you’ll end up reading Peter Handke. If you read a lot … if you spend your whole life reading, you’ll arrive at those writers.

This particular Handke is the last I’ve read of three that I bought a few years ago on the strength of Steve Mitchelmore’s review. The Afternoon of a Writer is a boundless exploration, somewhat like Rilke’s Malte on a writer’s contradictory needs for both solitude and a social existence.

The narrator, also like Malte, is one of those autobiographical scapegoats into which a writer pours their mental and emotional torments. Unlike Rilke’s incoherent prose though, Handke’s language is natural, minutely observed lights and shades, even during a momentarily grotesque dream sequence, an incredible passage that forces the reader to question the reliability of the narrator.

Although I’ve only read the three Handke books, I am drawn to his interior canvas and his haunted seriousness. As The Afternoon of a Writer draws to its end, the nameless narrator’s loneliness reaches a point that one cannot imagine it being broken.

Phil from The Last Books kindly sent me To Duration, a long Peter Handke poem that I am looking forward to reading next. It is translated by Scott Abbott, a writer whose collaboration with Zarko Radakovic has lead to two books I plan to read, Vampires and A Reasonable Dictionary and Repetitions. The latter follows a character in Peter Handke’s Repetition into what is now Slovenia.

Rilke’s Inspiration

Family of Saltimbanques (1905) - Pablo Picasso)

Family of Saltimbanques (1905) – Pablo Picasso)

Rilke
Duino Elegies

    The Fifth Elegy

But who are they, tell me, these Travellers, even more
transient than we are ourselves, urgently, from their earliest days,
wrung out for whom – to please whom,
by a never-satisfied will? Yet it wrings them,
bends them, twists them, and swings them,
throws them, and catches them again: as if from oiled
more slippery air, so they land
on the threadbare carpet, worn by their continual
leaping, this carpet
lost in the universe.
Stuck on like a plaster, as if the suburban
sky had wounded the earth there.
And scarcely there,
upright, there and revealed: the great
capital letter of Being………and already the ever-returning
grasp wrings the strongest of men again, in jest,
as King August the Strong would crush
a tin plate.

Ah, and around this
centre, the rose of watching
flowers and un-flowers. Round this
stamp, this pistil, caught in the pollen
of its own flowering, fertilised
again to a shadow-fruit of disinterest,
their never-conscious, seeming-to-smile, disinterest,
gleaming lightly, on surface thinness.

There, the withered, wrinkled lifter,
an old man, only a drummer now,
shrunk in his massive hide, as though it had once
contained two men, and one was already
lying there in the churchyard, and the other had survived him,
deaf, and sometimes a little
confused in his widowed skin.

And the young one, the man, as if he were son of a neck
and a nun: taut and erectly filled
with muscle and simple-mindedness.

O you,
that a sorrow, that was still small,
once received as a plaything, in one of its
long convalescences……

You, who fall, with the thud
that only fruit knows, unripe,
a hundred times a day from the tree of mutually
built-up movement (that, swifter than water,
in a few moments, shows spring, summer and autumn),
fall, and impact on the grave:
sometimes, in half-pauses, a loving look tries
to rise from your face towards your seldom
affectionate mother: but it loses itself in your body,
whose surface consumes the shy
scarcely-attempted look…..And again
the man is clapping his hands for your leap, and before
a pain can become more distinct, close to your
constantly racing heart, a burning grows in the soles of your feet,
its source, before a few quick tears rush bodily into your eyes.
And yet, blindly,
that smile……..

Angel! O, gather it, pluck it, that small-flowered healing herb.
Make a vase, keep it safe! Place it among those joys not yet
open to us: on a lovely urn,
praise it, with flowery, swirling, inscription:
‘Subrisio Saltat: the Saltimbanque’s smile’
You, then, beloved,
you, that the loveliest delights
silently over-leapt. Perhaps
your frills are happy for you –
or the green metallic silk,
over your firm young breasts,
feels itself endlessly pampered, and needing nothing.
You, market fruit of serenity
laid out, endlessly, on all the quivering balance scales,
publicly, beneath the shoulders.

Where, oh where is the place – I carry it in my heart –
where they were still far from capable, still fell away
from each other, like coupling animals, not yet
ready for pairing: –
where the weights are still heavy:
where the plates still topple
from their vainly twirling
sticks…….

And, suddenly, in this troublesome nowhere, suddenly,
the unsayable point where the pure too-little
is changed incomprehensibly -, altered
into that empty too-much.
Where the many-placed calculation
is exactly resolved.

Squares: O square in Paris, endless show-place,
where the milliner, Madame Lamort,
winds and twists the restless trails of the earth,
endless ribbons, into new
bows, frills, flowers, rosettes, artificial fruits – all
falsely coloured, – for winter’s
cheap hats of destiny.

Angel: if there were a place we know nothing of, and there,
on some unsayable carpet, lovers revealed
what here they could never master, their high daring
figures of heart’s flight,
their towers of desire, their ladders,
long since standing where there was no ground, leaning,
trembling, on each other – and mastered them,
in front of the circle of watchers, the countless, soundless dead:
Would these not fling their last, ever-saved,
ever-hidden, unknown to us, eternally
valid coins of happiness in front of the finally
truly smiling pair on the silent
carpet?

Feminine Writing

Like all those who read constantly, there is a thread running between each book. Sometimes these threads are part of a conscious intention, other times they are undetectable. Sometimes they are discovered retrospectively. Such a thread has lead me to my current idée fixe: Hélène Cixous, variously described as a professor, feminist writer, poet, playwright, philosopher, literary critic and rhetorician.

Often we are lead to authors grudgingly as I was in the case of Angela Carter. Her reworked fairy tales, exposing their patriarchal roots, stayed in my thoughts. Questions flew across my field of vision like the murmuration of a flock of starlings. Reading is my way of deciphering life; wanting to understand more about deconstructing patriarchal language lead me initially to bell hooks and circuitously to Cixous.

Twice I’ve read Kate Zambreno’s Heroines, one of the exceptional books of the year. Another book that sends my thoughts spinning and wakes me up at night with unresolved questions. In the book and on her blog Kate Zambreno unhitches the notion of feminine writing from gender – as does Cixous – and asks whether writers like Bernhard, Artaud and Rilke are feminine writers.

An exploration into the idea of “feminine”- as contrasted with “masculine” – writing is likely to be the thread that links my reading over the next few months. Cixous emphasises that these terms are not to be equated with “man” and “woman”; part of her intention is to find terms less bound up in emotion and prejudgment. I’ll be reading more Cixous, and constructing a reading list of writers that Kate Zambreno and Cixous discuss. I’ve identified other textually political writers that attempt to dislocate the idea of masculinity and femininity in literary and cultural discourse: Julia Kristeva, Luce Irigaray, Jacques Derrida, Gilles Deleuze and Jacques Lacan.

Reading along these lines, daunting as some of these writers may be, serves a secondary purpose, that of attempting to breathe life into theory, a core intention of Cixous’ writing. For Cixous, theory is not just intellectual masturbation, but a way of seeing and interpreting the world (and word).

In her perceptive Cixous essay, Verena Andermatt Conley writes,

What if, Cixous likes to ask, there were an asymmetry, not a hierarchy, between the sexes, “manifested” at the level of drives and in the relation to the living. The question is vague and perhaps should remain so. But the key question for women is to ask themselves what they want and not just what men want or want them to be. Stories in popular film and literature are told from the man’s point of view. Women tend to write as oppressed men. Relations between the sexes are vitiated by power and self-interest. Rarely do we see or read about a desire for pleasure and joy with and through the other.

The whole topic is ripe with ethical and moral dilemmas, but one I intend to think about a whole lot more. Please make any suggestions of other writers, fiction or non-fiction that might enable me to ask or address any of these questions.

Book List

In no particular order, this is a list of my favourite writers/books. Of course, it is incomplete.

Vladimir Nabokov’s Ada or Ardor: A Family Chronicle, Pale Fire and Speak, Memory and literary lectures
Franz Kafka
Geoff Dyer
JG Ballard
Simone de Beauvoir
Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook
Hélène Cixous
Judith Butler
Peter Handke’s The Weight of the World
Søren Kierkegaard
Marguerite Duras
JM Coetzee
Robert Walser
Roland Barthes
Nadine Gordimer’s The Pickup
Rilke’s Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge
Pascal Quignard’s The Roving Shadows
John William’s Stoner
Jean-Paul Sartre’s Nausea
AM Homes
Patrick Leigh Fermor
Jay Griffith’s Wild: An Elemental Journey
Laszlo Krasznahorkai’s War and War
Mahmoud Darwish’s Memory for Forgetfulness
Samuel Beckett
Simon Critchley
Noam Chomsky
Roger Deakin
Carlos Fuentes’s Diana: The Goddess Who Hunts Alone
Ruth Reichl’s Endless Feast
Teju Cole’s Open City
Jenny Erpenbeck’s The Visitation
Gabriel Josipovici’s What Ever Happened to Modernism? and The Lessons of Modernism
Virginia Woolf’s later novels and diaries
Jospeh Heller’s Something Happened
WG Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn
Don DeLillo’s Underworld
Theodor Adorno’s Minima Moralia
Kate Chopin’s The Awakening
Marcel Proust
Clarice Lispector’s Água Viva
Dante’s Divine Comedy
Kate Zambreno’s Heroines
Leo Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilych
James Joyce’s Ulysses
Richard Power’s The Time of our Singing
Will Ferguson’s Hokkaido Highway Blues

The Artist as Mystic: Conversations with Yahia Lababidi by Alex Stein

Alex Stein, essayist and aphorist, is the author of Made-Up Interviews With Imaginary Artists. In The Artist as Mystic, Stein interviews Yahia Lababidi, essayist, aphorist and poet. Does Lababidi exist? Is the interviewer imaginary? In these post-postmodern (or neo-modern) times, do such distinctions matter? As David Shields wrote in his manifesto, “Once upon a time there will be readers who won’t care what imaginative writing is called and will read it for its passion, its force of intellect, and for its formal originality.”

Sol LeWitt, Wall Drawing #565: On three walls, continuous forms with alternating… (1988)

As Sol Lewitt said, “Conceptual artists are mystics rather than rationalists. They leap to conclusions that logic cannot reach.” Or as Alex Stein puts it, they “hold something more dear than one’s own happiness.” With one exception, the artists chosen as subjects for these literary interviews are those that have accompanied me from early on: Kafka, Baudelaire, Nietzsche, Rilke and Kierkegaard.

Beyond Stein’s introductory essay the book is structured, as the title suggests, as a series of interviews with Yahia Lababidi. Stein fades away, as Lababidi discourses about literature. Lababidi wears his erudition lightly during these interviews with a discursive style that is undemanding but whose allusions circle a fraternity of Modernist thinkers. Of Kafka, Lababidi says:

Kafka is us, without lying.

Shouldn’t that change the way I read him? It should. And it does. It ups the volume on everything. Even if he only clears his throat, it rings like thunder. Because the fact of the matter is he has something thunderous in him to say, and the fact of the matter is we know that he does. That is the point. Some of this stuff, sure, it can be more navel gazing, more convolutions, but what we cannot fail to recognise in Kafka is that this is a guy who is wrestling with his angel, and that commands our attention. What he is up against, so are we up against.

The passion that Lababidi brings to his reflections on what he terms The Exquisites revitalizes and never fails to offer some fresh perspective. This is a short text, that I read in a single sitting, which I hope generates a sequel.

Vilhelm Ekelund

I left hanging above the exception, Vilhelm Ekelund, of whom Lababidi says:

He practised a kind of literary soul-gazing. “Books must be lived to be read,” he writes. He saw into the writers he read in ways that others don’t. He composed essays and aphorisms.

Another essayist and aphorist? Having verified that Ekelund is not imaginary I shall seek out his work.

Poetic Pissing Competition

We thought: we’re poor and don’t own anything,
But as we started to lose one thing after another,
So much that each day became
A commemorative day, –
We began to write songs
About God’s immense generosity
And the wealth we once had.

Anna Akhmatova, 1915
Rhys at A Piece of Monologue links to a review of a new Yeats book. He quotes, “William Butler Yeats has been called the twentieth century’s greatest poet.” Subjective, of course, but I could not vote for this laurel wreath to go to Yeats. There is of course genius there but also mawkishness and mysticism.
Eliot wears the crown if influence is decisive but a case could be made for Rilke or the Russians: for Akhmatova, Mandelstam or Tsvetaeva.

Drowned Mona Lisa

From this Summer’s edition of Cabinet:

1900 The body of an unidentified young woman, an apparent suicide, is pulled from the river Seine. Enchanted by the mysterious corpse’s beauty, a morgue worker makes a plaster case of the woman’s face. Copies of this “drowned Mona Lisa,” as Camus would later describe her, soon proliferate across Paris, appearing first in the city’s salons and finally as a character in its literature. Nabokov later writes a poem titled “L’Inconnue de la Seine,” Rilke mentions her in his only novel, Man Ray photographs the mask, and a character in Louis Aragon’s novel Aurélien tries to resurrect her. In The Savage God: A Study of Suicide, Al Alvarez writes, “I am told that a whole generation of German girls modelled their looks on her . . . the Inconnue became the erotic ideal of the period, as Bardot was for the 1950’s.” In 1958, when the creators of Rescue Annie, the first popular CR dummy, need to put a face on their mannequin, they chose the Inconnue as their model, making her lips perhaps the most kissed of all time.

A singularly tragic story.

Existential Hammer Blow

A couple of weeks past I indulged in a “parlour game” of naming 15 books that somehow influenced my life. I thought it might be fun to explore what impact these texts made. It seems logical to begin with the book that had most influence.

Nausea by Jean-Paul Sartre (1938). At 17, a phase of dabbling with religion left me unconvinced. I was vaguely aware of existentialism. Nausea was the book that erased four years of mysticism and occultism. After reading the book twice in succession I came to the conclusion of my search for meaning.

Two years of disquietude followed as the discovery reshaped how I was to live in life. During that period I  read Sartre, Kierkegaard and Nietzsche. I attempted Heidegger. Indirectly Nausea lead to Kafka and Dostoyevsky, both whom became important influences. Twenty-five years on I still strive to define myself and to live an authentic existence. I frequently fail, taking little reassurance from the knowledge that Sartre was frequently lead to inauthenticity. Each year I examine my personal commitment to bring meaning to my existence.

My recent reading of Rilke’s The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge brought strong memories of Nausea. It is said that The Notebooks were a source of Sartre’s inspiration.

Time’s Flow Stemmed

This blog’s name is an allusion to the time that elapses when you look up from a book and realise it is much later than you thought. Contained within that allusion is what Mihály Csíkszentmihályi called Flow, what sporting participants refer to as being in the zone.

The inspiration is from Rainer Maria Rilke’s The Reader.

I’d long been reading. Since with rush of rain
this afternoon first dimmed the window-pane.
The wind outside had passed from my regard:
my book was hard.
And, as I turned its pages, I would con them
like features darkened by reflectiveness;
time’s flow was stemmed around my studiousness.
Then of a sudden something overshone them,
and, ousting anxious verbal maziness,
stood: Evening, Evening … everywhere upon them.
I do not yet look out, but the long lines
have split in two, and words from their combining
threads roll away wherever they’re inclining …
And then I know: above there’s a serpentining,
glittering gardens there’s a spaciousness;
yes, once again the sun must have been shining.
Now summer-night is all encompassing:
small groups are formed by what lay scatteredly,
people on long walks wander darksomely,
and strangely far, as though more meaningly,
is heard the little that’s still happening.

And when I gaze up now from what I’ve read,
everything’s great and nothing’s akin.
Out there exists what I live within,
and here and there it’s all unlimited;
save that I weave myself still more therein
when on to outward things my glances fly
and gravely simple masses formed thereby,-
there far beyond itself the earth’s outswelling.
It seems to be embracing all the sky,
and the first star is like the farthest dwelling.

A Dilettante’s Challenge

Again from The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge,

For centuries women have accomplished the totality of love, they have always played the whole dialog, both roles. For the man has only repeated after them, and badly. And made their learning difficult with his distractedness, his negligence, his jealousy that was also a kind of negligence. But women persevered day and night, and grew in love and misery.

And,

Old women who had become hard, with a precious kernel inside them that they concealed. Shapeless women who had become stout, who, grown stout from exhaustion, let themselves become like their husbands and yet were differeent inside, there where their love had been working, in the darkness.

And to end,

But now, when so much is changing, is it not up to us to change ourselves? Could we not try to develop ourselves a little, and slowly, gradually, take upon ourselves our share of the work in love? We have been spared all its hardship, and so it has slipped among our distractions, as a piece of genuine lace falls into a child’s box of toys, and delights and no longer delights and finally lies there among the broken and disassembled things in worse state than everything else. Like all dilettantes we have been spoiled by easy enjoyment, and are reputed to be masters. But what if we despised our successes, what if we were to begin from the very beginning to learn the work of love that has always been done for us? What if we went off and became beginners, now that so much is changing.

Queasiness of Second-Hand Armchairs

At first it was really hard for me to lay my head back in this armchair, for in its green covering there is a kind of smeary gray hollow into which all heads seem to fit.

I have squirmed uncomfortably in those armchairs that too readily recall previous occupants. It takes a while before an armchair becomes a place of comfort.

For quite a long time I took the precaution of putting a handkerchief behind my head, but now I’m too tired to; I have discovered that it works without it and that the small indentation is made precisely for my head, as if to measure.

From The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge; an elusive work that requires several readings to unwrap its silky-sheer layers. Even then, there are unfathomed depths of immense beauty. The influence on Sartre’s Nausea is clear.

A Rare Hour When Poetry Comes

Whilst reading Rilke’s exquisite The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge :

But alas, with poems one accomplishes so little when one writes them early. One should hold off and gather sense and sweetness, a whole life long if possible, and then, right at the end, one could perhaps write ten lines that are good.

And more:

But it is still not enough to have memories. One must be able to forget them, if they are many, and have the patience to wait for them to come again. For it is not the memories themselves. Only when they become blood in us, glance and gesture, nameless and no longer to be distinguished from ourselves, only then can it happen that in a rare hour the first word of a line arises in their midst and strides out of them.