Uniting Life With Mystery

They are not frequent visitors, the uncommon threshold moments when you read something that reverberates deeply, leading you to a cognisance of something you’ve always known but never found a way to express. Often, I’ve looked at the bookshelves that house my pantheon of tutelary thinkers and wondered what draws them together as an external reflection of what I can only call my soul. They are powerful voices who are destined to unite life with mystery.

The passage below is from Andre Bely’s Olenina-d’ Alheim, an essay in the collection Between Crisis and Catastrophe. I didn’t start to read these essays expecting understanding. I’ve not yet read Bely’s famous novel. I picked up the book of essays to read something new, an attempt to smash a reading block.

To unite life with mystery: I will not put it into quotation marks or italics here as it is now mine, a response to converging lines of writing, music, painting and dance. But I will quote a passage, written ostensibly about a famous concert singer at the beginning of the 20th century:

‘The epoch of geniuses and great thinkers has passed. Here and there they are being replaced by personalities in whom we see a prophetic pathos and who are destined to unite life with mystery.

Olenina-d’ Alheim unfurls before us the depths of the spirit. On how she unfurls these depths and what she reveals before us lies the shadow of prophecy. That is why we feel strongly that she herself is a link uniting us with mystery.

Our consciousness is a fine boundary between the subconscious and the superconscious. Different relations between given psychic spheres cause variations in this boundary. By introducing new combinations of emotions into our soul through symbols that are being unfolded, we provide new material for our nerves. And since the variable atmosphere of nerve effects can lead to new regroupings of the material of our conscious activity, this atmosphere is capable of affecting variations of the boundary between the superconscious and the subconscious . . . By changing our psychic structure we will be able to change not only the particular elements of consciousness but also the general forms of the latter.

Defined externally, religion is a system of successively unfolded symbols. This inner connectedness of symbols differentiates religious revelation from artistic creation. From the external side there is no boundary between art and religion. There is only a difference in the quality and quantity of internally connected images. The purpose of art is to express ideas; the deepening and purification of every idea invariably extend this idea to a universal significance. Thus, all ideaness in art has a religious nuance.

The symbol that is deepened and expended analogously to an idea is therefore connected with the universal symbol. This is the final and invariable background of all symbols. The relation of the Logos to the world Soul as the mystical principle of humanity is such a symbol. That is why the foundations of symbolism are always religious.’

The War Sonatas

Prokofiev’s letters to opera and theatre director Vsevolod Meyerhold make clear the depth and enduring importance of their occasionally turbulent friendship. Their professional collaboration began in 1916 and lasted until Meyerhold’s disappearance in 1939. It was to emerge that Meyerhold was brutally tortured over a three-year period before signing a confession to being a follower of Leon Trotsky’s teachings, and executed by firing squad in 1940. Meyerhold’s wife, Zinaida Raykh, a close friend also of Prokofiev and his wife, Lina, was, a month after her husband’s arrest, tortured and stabbed to death in her Moscow flat.

Shortly after Meyerhold’s arrest and Zinaida Raykh’s murder, Prokofiev was requested to compose a homage to Stalin to celebrate his 60th birthday. That cantata, Zdravitsa, was performed to official acclaim at the end of the awful year.

This post is the second in which I’m sharing pieces that have shaped my love of music, if not quite a personal canon, then those proverbial Desert Island Discs perhaps.

Prokofiev’s deeper, darker response to those events of 1939 is, perhaps, embodied, not of course in the trite Hail to Stalin, but in the War Sonatas that followed, and particularly No. 7, which includes a musical allusion to the Schumann song, Wehmut: “I can sometimes sing if I were glad, yet secretly tears well and so free my heart. Nightingales . . . sing their song of longing from their dungeon’s depth . . . everyone delights, yet no one feels the pain, the deep sorrow in the songs”.

There are several fine, very different performances but, for me, no one quite ‘translates’ Prokofiev, especially this sonata, like Sviatoslav Richter.

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.”

Ali Smith: Autumn

Anyone that’s read this blog for any length of time (thank you) knows my disposition for literature with a modernist spirit, books that share a language of reticence, an ironic stance perhaps. I read with the conviction that through what Shklovsky terms defamiliarisation, it is possible to reveal usually veiled boundaries of our own familiar world, thus offering the possibility of a secular re-enchantment.

Over the last few months I’ve listened intently to the Backlisted podcast, a high-spirited literary conversation that focuses on old books. Before they discuss a featured writer, the podcast hosts chat about the books they’ve read. A comment by Andy Miller piqued my interest in Ali Smith’s Autumn, his argument that the novel is so very contemporary that it demands to be read immediately, almost that it has a literary use-by date.

In choosing our recent European referendum as its backdrop, there is a voguish aspect, which I worried beforehand might be excessive. I’ve not read Ali Smith before and steer away from most contemporary literature, preferring a 10-year delay in order not be to influenced by social media hyperbole and sponsorship. What I discovered in Autumn was greater subtlety than expected, a restrained political context that centred to a greater extent on periodically forgotten and revived British pop artist Pauline Boty, and the Keeler/Profumo scandal.

But there was more of interest in Smith’s book: her exploration of time and memory in particular. In common with many writers that continue to write in the spirit of modernism, Smith embraces a more fluid view of self, confronting the scientific notion of consciousness, of linear moments of time strung out like a set of rosary beads. Her characters in Autumn live with time as a distinctive substance of their selves, with memories, as Bergson wrote, as “messengers from the unconscious” reminding us of “what we are dragging behind us unawares”.

My reading intentions for next year, to what extent I ever stick to a plan (very little), is, as Andy Miller exhorts in the Backlisted podcast, to read outside my taste. I remain very interested in what Seagull Books publish, but also intend to thoroughly explore the backlists of Open Letter and Fitzcarraldo Editions, and to be less squeamish about contemporary books.

Dante’s Shoe Soles

It’s difficult reading poetry in translation. I’ve read all the usual Russian poets: Akhmatova, Tsvetaeva, Pasternak, Brodsky, and the elusive Mandelstam, but I can’t imagine that much of the poetry comes through. English translators usually avoid trying to reproduce the metres with any exactitude, and English is a notoriously rhyme-poor language, despite its richness and subtlety.

I’ve read, on and off, for some weeks Mandelstam’s poem Solominka which, even in English is beautiful and abstruse. As Guy Davenport writes in The Geography of the Imagination, “A Mandelstam poem lives inside itself.” Mandelstam likened the physical quality of the word to a paper lantern with a candle inside. “Sometimes the candle inside was the meaning and the paper and frame were the sound structure; and sometimes the paper and frame were the meaning and the candle was the sound.” Even the poem’s title is rich in allusion, being the diminutive of the Russian word for straw, but also the Russian diminutive form of Salomé, who not only famously danced for John the Baptist’s head (my favourite Strauss opera), but also is the name of a Georgian beauty with whom Mandelstam was in love.

Mandelstam was also a superb essayist, and these offer a more accessible way to his thought, as in the collection in The Noise of Time [PDF]. In particular I adore Mandelstam’s apprehension of the rhythmic cadences “of the Divine Comedy first of all as a literary sublimate of the physical motion of walking”:

The question occurs to me-and quite seriously-how many shoe soles, how many ox-hide soles, how many sandals Alighieri wore out in the course of his poetic work, wandering about on the goat paths of Italy. The Inferno and especially the Purgatorio glorify the human gait, the measure and rhythm of walking, the foot and its shape. The step, linked to the berthing and saturated with thought: this Dante understands as the beginning of prosody. In order to indicate walking he uses a multitude of varied and charming turns of phrase.