Earth of Shadows

Yesterday I bought a bottle of Waterman’s Absolute Brown, a richer complement to my J. Herbin Cacao Du Bresil, and favourite KWZ Honey ink. A little research reveals that this is a rebranded version of Waterman’s older, more evocatively-named Havana Brown. It isn’t a perfect brown, but flows well in my Grey-Blue Pelikan M101N and the colour is agreeable enough.

Recently, I read that some former Omas employees have re-emerged as Scribo. I don’t know their pens, but enjoyed a frisson reading of their Classico Sepia ink. Could this satisfy my interminable pursuit of a bottle of Omas sepia? The quest is for something that resembles the deep, muddy brown from this note in Walter Benjamin’s archives, possibly black originally, but faded to a wonderfully earthy riddle of a colour, the shadowy umber from which Rembrandt’s self portraits emerge.

This photograph is taken from an enthralling Verso collection of Benjamin’s personal manuscripts and documents. I enjoy the swirl of Benjamin’s essays, but am equally fascinated by him as a reader and collector. It’s no surprise to me that “high-quality paper, particular pens, ink, and nibs, and, furthermore, specific spatial preconditions were important prerequisites for a non-resistant and smoothly running flow of writing. In a letter to Siegfried Kracauer, for example, Benjamin reports on the acquisition of a new fountain pen, an ‘enchanting creation’.”

The creation in use in the first photograph is a Pelikan 101N, one of a series inspired by vintage Pelikan pens from the 1930s. My picture doesn’t sufficiently capture the appeal of the design or colour, but, if that is of interest, there are better places for that. I generally prefer bold, music, or oblique nibs, unlike Benjamin who had “such a small handwriting that he never found a pen that was fine enough, which forced him to write with the nib upside down”.

Both quotes here are from Verso’s Walter Benjamin’s Archive.

The Most European of all Qualities

Quote

‘. . . Sontag believes that “the need to be alone, together with the discontent of being alone,” is a characteristic of the melancholic, and she arrives at the conclusion that “irony is the positive description with which the melancholic equips his loneliness, his asocial choices,” before she points to the Benjamin who in One-Way Street celebrates the irony, as he calls it, that allows the individual to claim his right or her right to live outside the fellowship, and this, Benjamin writes, is “the most European of all qualities.”‘

Jon Fosse, An Angel Walks Through the Stage and Other Essays (trans. May-Brit Akerholt)

The Latent Possibility of Pure Language

In The Order of Things, Michel Foucault suggests that around the time of what is now known as the Enlightenment, a great divide, illusory maybe but no less powerful for that, took place. In Western culture before that age there was a ‘reciprocal kinship between knowledge and language. The nineteenth century was to dissolve that link, and leave behind it, in confrontation, a knowledge closed in upon itself and a pure language that had become, in nature and function, enigmatic — something that has been called since that time, Literature.’

It isn’t easy or even possible to project back to a time when readers thought Job or Achilles existed, when foundation stories were read as faithful renditions of events or people. This was the emergence of fiction, when literature was set a higher task. At the moment when literature became disassociated from reality, it became essential, a way through another consciousness to glimpse a possibility of truth. This project was in a way always doomed, a failure to translate the untranslatable, but it is the latent and revelatory nature of the search that is the measure of accomplishment.

This failure is constantly visible in the act of translation, whose task is to unearth the buried fragments of pure language. Walter Benjamin wrote, ‘It is the task of the translator to release in his own language that pure language which is under the spell of another, to liberate the language imprisoned in a work in his recreation of that work. For the sake of pure language, he breaks through decayed barriers of his own language.”

Virginie Despentes’ Vernon Subutex One

It’s only four years old but has the texture of cyberpunk science fiction, Stephenson’s Snow Crash, that sort of thing, that I read in the nineties. It’s partly the gritty urban realism that provides that cyberpunk taste, though Despentes’ Vernon Subutex I isn’t set in some near future, but navigates the joys and terrors of emerging culture in the present day. There is also the ironic social commentary channeled through the hustlers and alienated street people who exist side-by-side in this grim, violent world.

Style is central, a cynical even paranoid perspective, but without sacrificing completely the characters’ humanity. It is a narrative that is perfectly in tune with our post-war awareness that advanced societies do not by default become more humane or civilised, quite the reverse in fact.

Despentes’ Paris is not the city of Benjamin’s bourgeois flaneur, but more in tune with the concrete jungle of Baudelaire. It also contrasts with Cusk’s confined, rather claustrophobic trilogy of middle-class life, offering an alternative set of keys to understanding the ethical dilemmas of human experience in the late-capitalist modern city.

The Aura and Assurance of my Dreams

Self-portrait (Van Gogh, 1887).

There are times when my reading goes into a self-cancelling tail-spin, most often when a book sends me off tracking allusions and word origins. A single word can lead me to multiple volumes in the grip of excited etymologising.

Many curious words turn out be rather dull etymologically, but occasionally there are the thrills of the exotic. Fernando Pessoa writes, “After I’ve slept many dreams, I go out to the street with eyes wide open but still with the aura and assurance of my dreams.”

Although the etymology of aura is quite diverse, it commonly refers to the perceived halo surrounding an object or figure. Russian occultist, Madame Blavatsky, whose disciples included William Yeats, defined aura as a “subtle invisible essence or fluid that emanates from human and animal bodies and even things,” or, “a psychic effluvium.” Walter Benjamin used the word differently in his essays on Dostoevsky’s The Idiot, writing of its protagonist, Prince Mishkin, “he is surrounded in a quite unobtrusive way by an aura of complete isolation.”

Surprisingly its origin is not from the Latin auris, from which we get aural, even though a less common use of aura is to describe the premonitory sensations that come before an epileptic fit, with occasional auditory hallucinations such as hearing music of words. Dostoevsky wrote of “ecstatic aurae” preceding his first epileptic seizure and recurring verbal and nonverbal auditory hallucinations, including the sound of someone snoring. (Freud controversially argued that Dostoevsky suffered not from epilepsy, but neurosis.) My OED asserts that aura is from Greek and Latin for breath and breeze. We could be said to breathe aura, to absorb it into our body, which is how Pessoa appears to embark on his walk, sustained by his dream aura.