30 August, 2006

The Divided Self: Part III

So far I have not mentioned the unfairer sex.

To accomplish this I leave the Jews and head over to Greece, where the myths are full of triune goddesses. Diana's aspect Hecate, goddess of crossroads and boundaries, had three faces—and see Gawain's post on the three ages of woman here. Three goddesses competed for Paris' apple. There were three Gorgons, three Graeae, three Horae, three Graces, three Furies, and most importantly, three Fates (Latin Parcae, Greek Μοιραι). Something about the Greek woman just seemed to say, Three. Freud, our kabbalistic diviner, discusses these patterns in his well-known essay, 'The Theme of the Three Caskets' (1913). He sees the Moirai (Clotho, Lachesis and Atropos) as the division of a single original goddess into three, by analogy with the Graces and Horae. That original was Atropos, the shearer, literally 'she from whom there is no turning', an emblem of inevitable death:
The earliest Greek mythology only knows one Moira, personifying the inevitable doom (in Homer). The further development of this one Moira into a group of three sisters—goddesses—less often two, probably came about in connection with other divine figures to which the Moirae are clearly related. . .
The self-division of Atropos into three was thus not intrinsic to her rôle, and as Freud notes, she was occasionally made into two instead. Plutarch, incidentally, in his essay 'On the E at Delphi', regards as a profound enigma the existence at that temple of two statues to the Fates, rather than the usual three: 'το δύο Μοίρας ιδύσθαι πανταχού τριών νομιζομένων' (385D). In this, the last leg of our journey, we shall see Atropos in her dual aspect, and in her dream-reversal, as the goddess not only of death, but of love.


When Offenbach came to write The Tales of Hoffmann (1881), he adapted Hoffmann's story Der Sandmann (1816) for the first act—the very same story later chosen by Freud to epitomise the uncanny. In this act we find the opera's female lead, Stella, reflected as Olympia, the doll or automaton from Hoffmann's story: a material creation under the dominion of a hidden presence, not an active subject, but a passive object. Freud notes the inherent uncanny in the cultural motif of a 'pretend woman', something familiar made strange, although Olympia is not his primary interest. In Offenbach, Stella and Olympia are doubles. Now, in 1951, the Archers, aka. Powell and Pressburger ("No artist believes in escapism. And we secretly believe that no audience does. We have proved, at any rate, that they will pay to see the truth, for other reasons than her nakedness") decided to shoot a film of The Tales of Hoffmann, and in the leading role, the double Stella / Olympia, they cast their young ballerina-muse, Moira Shearer—or as we must surely now think of her, Atropos.

Shearer had already served the Archers well in The Red Shoes (1948), dancing the lead in that film's famous ballet rendition of Hans Christian Andersen's story of the name. The ballet's plot is amazingly simple: girl acquires red shoes, which are magical; girl dances through a series of increasingly fantastic landscapes; girl can't get shoes off; girl dies in the throes of a Romantic passion. The red shoes—themselves a sort of self divided—exert their sinister force on the dancer, turning her from an active subject into a passive object, a doll. There's a beautiful shot (below) where she first sees the shoes in a shop window, and becomes herself divided across the glass, a doppelgänger. In this scene the personification of love is first directed on the path towards inevitable death. It is most uncanny.

Surprisingly uncanny, also, is the original fairy tale, which is online here. I don't want to summarise the whole plot here, as it is somewhat more complicated than the ballet. The image above is paralleled by two scenes in the original story: the first, where the heroine Karen's looking-glass tells her pointedly 'Thou art more than nice, thou art beautiful!', and the second, where Karen sees her literary double, the princess:
And this little daughter was a princess, and people streamed to the castle, and Karen was there also, and the little princess stood in her fine white dress, in a window, and let herself be stared at; she had neither a train nor a golden crown, but splendid red morocco shoes.
In the film, the ballet's Mephistophelean director, played to perfection by Anton Walbrook, claims that at the end of Andersen's story the heroine is killed by the dancing shoes, as she is in the ballet; but this is not true. In the end, in fact, she is redeemed from the shoes' evil, and dies of joy at being allowed into communion. The whole narrative is quite morbid, choked from the start with the threat of death—I adduce these passages:
On the very day her mother was buried, Karen received the red shoes, and wore them for the first time. They were certainly not intended for mourning, but she had no others, and with stockingless feet she followed the poor straw coffin in them.

She danced over the churchyard, but the dead did not dance—they had something better to do than to dance.

The shoes carried her over stack and stone; she was torn till she bled; she danced over the heath till she came to a little house. Here, she knew, dwelt the executioner; and she tapped with her fingers at the window, and said, "Come out! Come out! I cannot come in, for I am forced to dance!"
Freud argued that the death-figure of Atropos had been transformed in many contexts into a personification of love: Cordelia, Cinderella, Aphrodite in the Judgement of Paris. This represents unconsious wish-fulfilment, the insurance of the self against death. But here the two figures are blurred: the red shoes as the red lips of sexual passion are pointed up as the road to perdition, although ambiguously, as it is the executioner who strikes off Karen's feet—an image so pregnant with significance—and restores her to spiritual health.

The lady of death and the lady of love are one, so the shaman tells us, opposites conflated in the dreamer's mind. Moira Shearer, the dead doll and the dancerly beauty bound for Romantic oblivion, is a self divided over and over again, according to the fantasy of the male mind—a mind which thirsts for love, and for oblivion, as if those two were one and the same.

29 August, 2006

The Divided Self: Part II

A key task of comparative linguistics has been to establish kinships between languages by reconstructing, within particular groups of words, vowels which once existed but have since become 'zero-grade'—vowels which therefore retain their significance as markers of original unities, a hidden presence.

Mediaeval rabbis sought to reconstruct the infinity of the divine from the infinity of the Torah: they pointed towards the eternal ambiguity of a text composed only of consonants, requiring vocalisation—inevitably a process of interpretation, of making choices. The various patterns of possible vowels seemed to exist as a spirit lingering behind the corpus of the words, a hidden presence.


Sometimes it is discovered that a material object or phenomenon is under the dominion of a hidden presence. Even as great an object as God, Elohim, was discovered by the Jews to conceal such a presence. The kabbalists of the 13th century saw Elohim as a late stage in the individuation (or 'emanation') of the divine self, a sort of knowable shell over the concealed unknowable. Isaac the Blind named this inner aspect Ein Sof—'without end'. The first phrase of Genesis, bereshit bara Elohim, usually translated as 'In the beginning God created', is interpreted differently by the kabbalists, according to Gershom Scholem:
through the medium (the prefix be) of Hokhmah (called reshit), the first Sefirah—the force hidden within the third person singular of the word bara—produced by an act of emanation the third Sefirah (Binah), which is also called Elohim. Elohim ("God") is thus not the subject but the object of the sentence.
It's an obscure jargon—but don't be too confused, kind reader! Scholem is saying that for the kabbalists, the verb bara, which means 'he created', has a hidden subject: much the same as in a Latin clause like amat librum, 'he likes the book', where there is no word in the Latin corresponding to 'he', as the grammatical subject is concealed. Elohim, instead of being the subject of bara ('Elohim created') is regarded as the object ('he created Elohim'). With this reading, the subject, 'he', is the concealed Ein Sof.

The Hebrew God proclaims himself as Yahweh, 'I am that I am' (Ex. 3.14), but perhaps he might better proclaim with Iago, and with Sartre, 'I am not what I am'.


The kabbalists 'discovered' that behind the Biblical Elohim lay a greater hidden presence—an aspect of the divine (perhaps even his true nature) suppressed on the first line of the Torah, but lingering nonetheless behind every instantiation of God in the text. Elohim, in fact, is a plural noun taking a singular verb. This was construed by the Christian Fathers as evidence for the Holy Trinity—but the division is more fundamental. We adduce Otto Rank's theory of the doppelgänger: the folk-belief that by becoming double, the self insures itself against destruction. The figure of the double, Rank writes, is an 'energetic denial of the power of death'.

Freud, the great kabbalist of the last century, 'discovered' another hidden presence—an aspect of a man's psyche (perhaps even his true nature) suppressed in waking life, but lingering nonetheless behind every movement of his will. The repressed unconscious, and in particular repressed trauma, asserts its presence at every opportunity—for a litany of examples, see the marvelous Psychopathology of Everyday Life, wherein is explained the Fehlleistung or Freudian lips. In these instances the self is divided against itself, resulting in the unexpected, the guerilla tactics of a dispossessed faction.

Freud used his discovery to analyse literary texts as if patients; he found that in this context, the repressed presence creates a particular atmosphere, which he referred to as the unheimlich or 'uncanny' (from the essay of that name, 1919):
This uncanny is in reality nothing new or foreign, but something familiar and old-established in the mind that has been estranged only by the process of repression.
The divine infinite in the Torah, by this logic, would be uncanny, as the reassertion of Ein Sof, once familiar, but removed from the very first line. A God put into words was a God made finite—and yet His infinity could not be completely suppressed. Its recurrent presence, therefore, arouses a feeling of awe and horror, as for instance when God tells Moses that He will only show His 'back parts' (Ex. 33.23), for 'there shall no man see me, and live' (33.20)—compare this to the trope, common to horror stories and films, where the shadowy villain hides his face, evoking the uncanny.

The Formalists took this uncanny as a guiding principle, describing poetry (and, by extension, all literature) as a defamiliarisation (ostranie) of conventional language. By making familiar words strange, it was thought, the poet makes them new and alive. Freud, the poet of ideas, made the mind strange, and before him the Jews made the Torah strange with their counter-intuitive speculations. At the very beginning, Elohim made himself strange, by which I mean double—and in doing so he insured himself against destruction, becoming new and alive, becoming in fact Yahweh, the totem of the ancient proletariat, and of the nascent divided Israel: I am / that I am.

28 August, 2006

The Divided Self: Part I

This is the first of a trilogy of posts about the divided self in history and literature, using Freud as he should be used, as a diviner or shamanic guide. I would like the reader to understand these posts as a continuous journey or poem of ideas, and not as an argument—there is, I daresay, little truth here, but also, I hope, not a little of the sublime.


Freud, the great kabbalist of the last century, defined masochism as the two-step redirection of a primary sadistic instinct. Between sadism and masochism is an intermediary stage: 'The desire to torture has turned into self-torture and self-punishment, not into masochism. The active is changed, not into the passive, but into the reflexive, middle voice' ('Instincts and Their Vicissitudes', 1915). In anticipation I note on this page of Strachey's translation an instance of parapraxia or Freudian slip—'is what' has been typographically disordered as 'ihs wat', revealing a playful-violent swat between the two words.

The reader will here notice Freud's grammatical metaphor: he refers to the instinct turned upon itself in terms of the 'middle voice'. Hebrew, like the Greek with which Freud was more familiar, also has a middle voice; this account of Hebrew grammar describes its usage:
The Hebrew middle is often employed for reflexives (doing something to yourself) and reciprocals (doing something to each other). This is why, e.g., Hebrew fight is always in the middle voice.
We see here an uneasy conflation of two types of action: things done to oneself, and things done by two parties to one another. As a result, the word 'fight' sits ambiguously here. It is an interesting choice of example. Even in English, the word causes rudimentary confusion with regard to its agents; contrast 'Odysseus fought with Ajax' to 'Odysseus fought with Ajax against the Trojans'. If we allow ourselves to think like Freud for a moment, or like the kabbalist, we may consider this choice of grammatical example, fight, as a suggestion of similarity—or even identity—between fighting with one another, and fighting with oneself. Physical war, and particularly civil war, has always been a trope of psychological conflict: even as early as the Bhagavad Gita, the war between Pandavas and Kauravas is explicitly revealed as a strife of the soul.

Israel's great war at present is, of course, with Palestine. It's an odd phenomenon: a conflict between two ethnic and religious global diasporas localised within a small geographical space. As such, it has partisans all over the world—two Jewish friends of mine, for instance, have trained with the Israeli cadet force, although neither has actually taken part in the war, thank goodness. But the present conflict also carries echoes of its earlier incarnation, ie. the Biblical struggle for hegemony in Canaan. (I notice linguistic delights, for instance the transformation of the merkabah from Ezekiel's celestial chariot into an Israeli tank.) The Bible presents this struggle as racial—I use the word loosely, to mean 'between groups of unrelated peoples'. The Israelites come from far off (Egypt) to claim the land from various tribes of Canaanites, Philistines and Phoenicians, and later they are at war with Assyrians, Babylonians and so on. There is the suggestion, however, that the Israelites are returning to this land: after all, Jacob had settled here (Gen. 37.1) before repatriating to Egypt at the end of his life. In The Tenth Generation, George Mendenhall offers evidence that the hegemonic struggle for Canaan was in fact not racial but political/religious: a civil war between local despots and a revolutionary proletariat, who massed against their oppressors under the standard of a new god, Yahweh. Norman Gottwald refers to this as the 'retribalization hypothesis'. If Mendenhall is right, ancient Canaan can be seen as divided against itself in a Marxist class-struggle: at a national level, what was portrayed in the Bible as 'fighting with one another' was really 'fighting with oneself', a masochistic instinct.

The schism at Canaan would be played out again and again in Jewish history: with the strife of David against Saul and Absalom against David, with the secession of Jeroboam from the despotism bequeathed by Solomon, with the proletarian revolt of the Maccabees against the corrupt priesthood of Antiochus Epiphanes, and again with the division of scribal and priestly élites in the Temple, finally with the myriad popular movements which fermented during the Roman occupation—culminating in the greatest schism of all, in the Joshua who led his people over the Jordan, and brought the walls of Jericho tumbling down. Israel was no longer a self divided, but would suffer instead the aggressions of a third party.

27 August, 2006

No X, no Y

Spinning off from yesterday's title, I note that David Beaver writes about 'No X, no Y' constructions in this post at Language Log. Such constructions can either be conditional ('No shoes, no service' = 'If you have no shoes, then you get no service'), or conjunctive ('No retreat, no surrender' = 'No retreat and no surrender'). 'No pain, no gain' is obviously of the former type. John Cowan neatly illustrates this grammatical ambiguity with his post on 'No cross, no crown', the original meaning of which was conditional: 'If you don't suffer [cross], then you won't succeed [crown]', but which has been reinterpreted as conjunctive: 'Don't talk about religion [cross], and don't talk about politics [crown]'. One phrase, two uses: blessed tongue.

Incidentally, one well-known phrase that Beaver doesn't mention is the Bob Marley song-title, 'No Woman No Cry', which I'd always assumed to be a conditional: 'Don't have a woman? Don't be sad!' In fact, it is neither conditional nor conjunctive, but as we all now know, just picturesque Rastafarian English: 'No, Madam, Don't Cry'.

25 August, 2006

No pain, no gain

It's just as well that I've been writing about art recently, as my right big toe is currently itself a work of art. It took only a large glass pickle-jar, dropped from a metre off the ground, to cause a serious explosion of colour. At first a milky pearl-blue—roughly the shade that has survived from classical frescoes—spread out from the vanishing point under the nail; this has blossomed into fresh shades of Gothic azure and caerulean or Titian blue, applied with a subtle sfumato around the border. As the nail began to foreshorten and come loose from the flesh—itself enlivened with delicate touches of scarlet, recalling the jewel-tones of Tintoretto—it occasioned a patina of pustulent ecru or bone, the ghastly hue of a Fuseli, stippled with crimson lac, worthy of any pre-Raphaelite and daubed impasto. The whole grows increasingly abstract.

Conrad continues to suffer for his art, dear readers: it is a labour of love. It is sad to reflect that, like the dying sunset, such rich hues will soon run their course, restoring a plain pink canvas.

24 August, 2006

Jesus kites

Schiller wrote about the 'naïve' and 'sentimental' appreciations of art: the former content just to let the work wash over him, the latter demanding an intellectual engagement. Mr. Miller, we trust, will not be offended by the modern negative connotations of the word naïve, here used in its Romantic sense, to accept an attribution of this label to his sensibilities. For what it's worth, Schiller associates the naïve with the natural man, to whom painting is more suited, and the sentimental with the cultured man, for whom literature is the chosen art-form. The cultured man, unlike the natural, 'has lost the harmony of his senses and is only striving for unity'. Poor us!

So I'm more of a sentimentalist. But I can cater to the naïve, too. This post is, like, totally naïve. So naïve that it can discuss 'Jesus kites' without recourse to abstruse interpretations. If Mr. Miller enjoys, as I do, the Osservanza Master, he will doutbless enjoy these Jesus kites too.

There is, I think, something touching—even sentimental, in the modern sense—about these holy kites, almost a religious experience, if I might be allowed to deviate from this site's mandate.

The Jesus kite (aquilone di Gesù) was an iconographical representation of Christ being flown as a kite: an eccentric subgenre of religious painting from the late Middle Ages through the early Italian Renaissance. Leonardo, late as he was, even produced a tentative 'Jesus helicopter', though I couldn't find an image online. The Jesus kites shown here are largely from the 14th and 15th centuries, though one is mediaeval, and one the work of a 16th-century Flemish imitator.

The kite, like most of the world's great technology pre-1600, was probably invented in ancient China; but with the trade-route established after Marco Polo, kites imported from 'Cathay' became popular in late mediaeval Italy as toys for the rich.

It was natural, therefore, for painters of the early Renaissance to demonstrate to their wealthy patrons the sanctity of the kites favoured by their children, wives and courtiers. Passages were found in the Latin Fathers, tenuously interpreted to be comparing the blessed Christ to a kite in his playful innocence; and the Viscontis of the time must have delighted in the notion—quite blasphemous in its hubris—that their god was nothing but a plaything to them.

So, I have not attempted any laboured analysis or hunting after mysteries here; I have merely offered my readers an free and unfettered glimpse into the now-forgotten world of the Jesus kite. Perhaps Mr. Miller could renew the tradition, and sculpt such a kite for us. . .

22 August, 2006


Today I present one painting in a cycle depicting the life of St. Anthony from the 1440s, attributed originally to Stefano di Giovanni, il Sassetti (compare his Anthony here), but now simply to an unknown Master of the Osservanza (fl. Siena 1430-50). This piece, tempera and gold on wood, is titled 'St. Anthony Tempted by Gold'.

It's a naïf, colourful style, still essentially Gothic—almost a Quattrocento Le Douanier. The clarity and simplicity of its arrangement is quite touching. But the most interesting thing about this image is the dislocation of its purport caused by later overpainting. St. Anthony, with his characteristic tau cross, throws up his hands in horror, gazing down to his left. Originally in this space was a pile of gold, one of the temptations, and of course not one that's going to work on St. Anthony of all people! But this has been overpainted, and you can see the pinkish patch where it was. Instead, nothing. Anthony is gesturing in horror at nothing. Or rather, as the reader might perhaps have been thinking—at the rabbit!

The painting is like a proposition in which the has been erased—recalling this deconstruction of Garfield by removing Garfield, the melancholy of absorbing absence—or rather one where a different object has come to fill its place. Thus is the original sense replaced unexpectedly by a new meaning. This is what I mean by 'the dislocation of the purport', and it is related to the paranoiac-critical method, where one object is confused with another, as if in a state of delirium. Dali himself spotted another hidden object, the infant coffin which Millet overpainted for the finished Angelus.

The rabbit is a symbol of fertility, as symbolised here by the tree growing out of its back. In the desert landscape it is a sinister fertility: the saint's injunction against the love of money has given way to sexual anxiety, and the quiet desert has become molten with his fear. I ascribe no intentionality, but only observe the unconscious generation of new meaning by absence. By this I want to say that the semantic excrescence—two hands and overpainting as sexual anxiety—exists only in my mind. The content of this new meaning was put in my mind by Freud, who, in reviving ancient symbolic modes of exegesis, has been kind enough to provide our atheistical age with a fresh vocabulary of thought. His analyses—and I hope my analysis too—are convincing: not convincing like an argument, but convincing like a poem, or indeed a painting.

21 August, 2006

Sculpture in the round

In his comments to my last post on ekphrasis, the sculptor Chris Miller expressed the rather unusual view—I do not mean this pejoratively—that a sculpture should not be understood as a unified object, but rather as a series of discrete views: 'I don't think that the views of a sculpture have anything to do with each other—and they are usually of different qualities—with, hopefully, at least one that is memorable, with the rest being acceptable.' Chris even cited one Hildebrand (I presume he meant Adolf von Hildebrand, but I could be wrong) to the effect that relief sculpture is better than 'sculpture in the round' because it does not admit of multiple views.

Perhaps Chris, and those of his opinion, will enjoy a sculpture such as this: I know not the material, nor the sculptor or subject, though I suspect it is either the Virgin or some religious leaderess, and perhaps of plaster, like the cheeky Redland Nose. It is located on the rear wall of a local school, on Rowland Hill Street, Hampstead, a stone's throw from the Royal Free Hospital, where I was born. Being high off the ground, and affixed behind, this sculpture restricts the range of views available to the eye. Our lady hovers in the air, her feet together under her long skirt, and her hands gently beckoning. She has a fixed relation to the viewer: one cannot interact with her, but only gaze from afar. And she has only one thing to say: her semantics are limited.

Duchamp's late Étant Donnés (unveiled 1969, after his death) is the logical extreme of this notion of sculpture. This splayed, faceless nude can only be seen through a hole in a door, and a crack in the velvet wall beyond. Only one single view, therefore, is possible. Duchamp called this 'conceptual', rather than 'retinal' art—his piece is less a beautiful image than an attempt to evoke the unattainable. Again, one has no interaction with the work, beyond that voyeuristic feeling of the private or secret created by the peephole. Whammo!, in Chris's words—but then what?

A group of sculptures, on the other hand, can relate to the viewer in a subtler and more lasting manner. A particular favourite of mine is the Compianto di Cristo (Santa Maria della Vita, Bologna), a terracotta group by Niccolo dell' Arca, or Niccolo da Bari, c. 1460-94, which manages to fuse the virtues of old Gothic expression and new Renaissance composition.

Left to right, around the dead Christ: Joseph of Arimathea, Mary mother of John,
Mary mother of Jesus, John, Mary wife of Cleophas, and Mary Magdalene.

In this group we discover a ripening of emotion from Joseph to the Magdalene: the former stoical with his tools, the latter easily the most dynamic figure in pre-modernist Western sculpture, her robe and veil florrelling behind her as she dashes forward, almost anticipating the Unique Forms (1913) of Boccioni. The point I want to make about this group is that with the exception of Joseph, the figures do not address us, but are turned inward: it is a private tableau. We might stand anywhere in relation to this scene—between two figures, or behind all of them—it makes no odds: we only determine our involvement with the drama. Sure, if we hover behind the figures, we miss the intricate facial details and so on: but instead we have the sensation of trying to see what they see, of being one of a crowd, not at the front—of being a late visitor. The group's quality of private drama forces us to assert our own relation to it, and thus it obviates the notion of a 'bad view'.

We judge an angle not by what it lets us see, but by what it makes of us.

20 August, 2006

Perpetual motion

It's that time of the year again—when it's still so hot that even the dust is burnt up, and the cicadas or tettiges, who were once men, are humming volubly overhead like electrical cables; and even hatbrimmed, with the collar up to prevent redneckedness, one feels faint just looking outside—and when all the tyros, fresh from high school, start milling about the campus, scoping out the Parisian foxes and ex-jailbait, sauntering in packs but still a little nervous under the loom of the tall palms, and when the Christians of all demoninations come out on the campus avenues to recruit, clutching bottles of iced water, which in this heat can only symbolise salvation, if not salivation—Every one that thirsteth, come ye to the waters. . .

So I have a beer with my brother-in-law to celebrate my return to the country. Not the urinous lager quaffed by the frat-boys in the next apartment, mind—we went down to the deluxe grocery and chose some unusual varieties. Best was the Trappist Rochefort, of course; but most amusing was undoubtedly the He'Brew ('The Chosen Beer') Genesis 10:10, all pomegranaty, not bad-tasting, but not as delicious as the irony. I couldn't help thinking that Genesis 10:10 was a poor choice of verse:
And the beginning of his kingdom was Babel, and Erech, and Accad, and Calneh, in the land of Shinar.
More relevant would have been Genesis 9:21:
And he [Noah] drank of the wine, and was drunken, and he was uncovered within his tent.

Mrs. Roth, like every other woman on the planet, has been trying to shed a few pounds. But despite her starvation diet, her body just won't comply. She walks, she talks—and all she needs is a glass of water and a slap on the bum! I suggested she leave her body to medical science: perhaps they could take steps in the direction of a perpetual motion machine?

18 August, 2006

Ekphrasis and memory

In this post I return to my recent critique of ekphrasis with a more sophisticated historical and theoretical context. Supposedly. It's longer, anyway.

An attack on ekphrasis is one of the central themes of G. E. Lessing's Laocoon (1766), a circumambulatory and much-celebrated essay on the arts, marking something of an anticipatory watershed between the neoclassic and romantic eras of German taste. Lessing's core argument was that painting and poetry are not equivalent art-forms—a view he ascribes to several of his contemporaries—because the first deals with things side-by-side in space, and the second deals with things one after the other in time.
I do not deny to speech in general the power of portraying a bodily whole by its parts. . . but I do deny it to speech as the medium of poetry, because such verbal delineations of bodies fail of the illusion on which poetry particularly depends, and this illusion, I contend, must fail them for the reason that the co-existence of the physical object comes into collision with the consecutiveness of speech, and the former being resolved into the latter, the dismemberment of the whole into its parts is certainly made easier, but the final reunion of those parts into a whole is made uncommonly difficult and not seldom impossible.
Lessing's critique of ekphrasis is focused around Vergil's description of the demise of Laocoon in the Aeneid, which Lessing compares negatively to the Laocoon statuary, pictured above. He quotes the Mantuan: 'Bis medium amplexi, bis collo squamea circum / Terga dati, superant capite et cervicibus altis' (2.218-219), and claims that the imagination is able to see 'now only the serpents and now only Laocoön', rather than the whole picture together. When we return to Brueghel and his poetasters, we find the same problem: here we are able to see, in all its jewelled beauty, the painting which those labourers suffer so miserably to describe. All four poets enumerate one thing after the other, and yet are unable, by the very nature of their medium, to present the enchanting whole all at once—what I called its 'perfect ordonnance'. Each poem distends the image through time, abandoning the intricate relation of parts which gave the original its beauty. And so it must be.


150 years after Laocoon, Irving Babbitt, conservative 'humanist' and enemy of Mencken and Hemingway, published The New Laokoon (1910). The book begins as a calm, measured analysis of Lessing's work, and of artistic confusion in the Renaissance and neoclassic (or 'pseudo-classic') periods; by its finale it has descended, inexorably, into a titanic rant against the decadence of modern times. Its polemic shows through at every turn—Babbitt's good American Protestantism: the Italian aestheticians who seek to impose Aristotelian formalism on poetry are compared to the Jesuits, who 'in order to strengthen and centralize the principle of authority, were ready to multiply their minute rulings on moral "cases" even at the risk of suppressing spontaneity in the religious life'. (Pascal has left his mark!) And Babbitt's good American masculinity: he lambasts Romantic criticism as 'intended primarily for women and men in their unmasculine moods'. And so on.

(A digression on the joy of marginalia—I discover a combative pencil on the pages of my library's copy. Babbitt writes 'If all the arts are thus restless and impressionistic, the reason is not far to seek: it is because the people who practice these arts and for whom they are practiced are themselves living in an impressionistic flutter', alongside which a young Derridean has scribbled: 'Oho! Then the medicine fits the patient? Well, what's the odds? Why pray for a change of diet?'—the same wag, demonstrating a most noble contempt, later annotates a passage on man's inferiority to Nature, almost mediaeval in its snivelling humility, with the snarl, 'Wholesome yet detestable modesty'.)

Babbitt, like Lessing, is against 'word-painting'—but he attributes this vice more to the naturalism of the Romantics than to the neoclassical fallacy of ut pictura poesis. The Romantics, or 'Rousseauists' as he scornfully designates them, were so empty of serious ideas that they scrabbled to describe every insignificant thing they could get their hands on, aiming not for ideas but merely for suggestiveness:
Alfred de Musset insinuates that all this minute lingering over the senses of childhood was a convenient way of producing the maximum amount of "copy" with the minimum expense of intellect.
Babbitt is right to note the great rise of word-painting or ekphrastic poetry after Lessing. I think his condemnation of poetic suggestiveness is also on the mark. As I have remarked more than once, so much poetry is content merely to describe. And this is the other problem of the ekphrases: not only do they lose the spatial harmony of Brueghel's painting, but they are relentlessly superficial, in a way that painting can afford to be, but literature not. Lessing and the Romantics collapsed poetry onto music, but words are not purely musical, purely temporal—they have meaning, semantic content—and this is what makes literature so much richer and more important than the other art-forms. Exegesis is the way we respond intellectually to art, and it is fundamentally verbal: analysis of painting and music can only be a pale reflection of the analysis of words, of texts. This is what is meant by a coherently linguistic world-view. To find our poets abandoning the interpretive richness of language, and treating words like colours, completely superficial, and content only to describe without creating—that is the banality of decadent impressionism, and it is a Romantic excrescence.

A postscript on Lessing's legacy. Writers in the 20th century wrestled with the problem of overcoming the temporal nature of texts. Joseph Frank ('Spatial Form in Modern Literature', 1945) famously cited Ulysses as an archetype of spatial literature, arguing that the novel is not read but only re-read, creating not a linear temporal sequence in the mind but rather a 'system' or arrangement of objects in space, transcending time—Dublin, Thursday June 16, 1904. What is ultimately important is not the music of the words read aloud, but the picture built up by the intellective process. One might read Proust the same way, with its temporal worm-holes generated by Marcel's memorative activities, cutting against the flow of time. Or, indeed, Wordsworth's Prelude, especially in its 1850 form, where the shallow Romanticism of the original has indurated and become cold with the passage of many years.

Like Frank, Northrop Frye (The Critical Path, 1970) emphasises the internal over the external aspects of art: how the reader reads, the viewer gazes, and so forth. He demonstrates how linearly we can 'read' paintings—and Hunters in the Snow is a good example, with its diagonals that force the eye—and how spatially we can read music, as notes on staves. In the more famous Anatomy of Literature (1957), Frye essays the interpretation of poems as structural (spatial) wholes, just as Aaron Haspel did a few days ago with Ben Jonson's 'To Heaven'.

To continue in this vein, we speak of memory. Frank refers to a process of constructing a picture in the mind, which is a function of the memory; and to this we relate the work done by Yates and Carruthers on the ars memoria, the classical mnemotechnic mapping of a speech (ideas in succession) onto the rooms of a palace, or later the cells of a grid, in a spatial layout. At the climax of Yates' book is the work of Giordano Bruno, whose mystical Latin treatises promise more than mnemonic devices, becoming instead meditative manuals for the absorption of the entire world into the confines of a man's mind, the spatial microcosm. Compare this, finally, to a passage I once wrote about the Egyptian Book of the Dead (above), supposedly memorised by the believer before death so as to overcome obstacles in the afterlife:
The dead man prays to the 21 columns of the mansion of Osiris, to the four rudders of heaven, to the 42 chambers of judgement, and to the parts of his own body—which we are to identify with the parts of divine bodies, and with the parts of the underworld itself, taken as a configuration in space of architectural elements.

The text as a whole, when memorised, possesses almost no temporal qualities whatsoever; it constitutes itself a metaphorical space, huge and obscure, timeless, exactly like the space of the underworld which it describes. And perhaps to the early Egyptians, the memorisation of this text, with its attendant structuring of the mind, provided some comfort from the terrifying vision of their impending death. In acquiring themselves, like the text, spatial rather than temporal mentalities, they may have attained a sense of immortality even before trial.

13 August, 2006

Of Montréal

. . . the concrete quays, prussic with age, of a glassy ark—
when I first saw them, I could barely see it was so dark—
from my bleary eyelids, an early dawn climbing over the Lawrence,
chiming on windows speckled with speckled moths
swept flocking in torrents
over the river, around the tower
and the clock, chiming.
There are few better feelings in life than arriving in a new city, all alone, and ready to make something of it. At the age of 18 I shored up in Montréal on the Greyhound, having divested myself (temporarily) of best friend, bodily hygiene and human contact. It was a transitional period for me, as I emerged from my adolescent cocoon and threw a few stones in the direction of manhood. I think all 18 year-olds need some opportunity to feel alone and free, some occasion to stir up banal but powerful romanticisms, scribbling verses in a notebook. I wrote a poem called 'The Bear', which wasn't very good, and I think I've lost it now. I felt unstoppable at that time, as I'd near won a poetry slam in Denver a couple of weeks earlier.

The bus arrived at sun-up, and I lugged my case to the youth hostel, weighed down with inexpensive CDs (mid-period Swans albums, mostly) and second-hand books—Joseph Spence, The History of Atlantis; Ben Willis, The Tao of Art; Benedetto Croce, Aesthetic; Walter Ivins, Art and Geometry—hey, I was young! For the next six days I spoke only to the wayfarers of the hostel, a German couple and a gaggle of idiot Australians, and a friendly local who told me where the best record-stores in the city were. Everything was so cheap in Montréal, I ate a three-course Vietnamese meal for 10 dollars, which is about 4 quid. I walked everywhere. There were so many things I saw but did not understand, like the cubist castle of Habitat '67 across the St. Lawrence, things that swelled me with an unreligious sort of wonder. I imagine that religion impairs the nihilism of pure wonder—makes it crave some sort of higher significance? I strolled around the old harbour, which was choked with moths—an animal I particularly loathe—and saw the boats, the clock-tower, and a couple of private design galleries. I ate club sandwiches and tried framboise, which will always be too sweet for me.
From Mont Royal the city was a grid of giddy sparks on coal,
a quilt of a town, which quelled the roil of my gadding soul
and raised me up, there, out of it all.
I also climbed up the hill, with its gigantic cross framed with light-bulbs. I was with the aforementioned local, who informed me about partisan Quebecois politics and the language policies of Montréal's mayors. He also mentioned the small throng of drummers who would assemble at the foot of Mont Royal on a Sunday dusk, an idea which delighted me, as I have some proficiency with a djembe or darbouka. The drum would become a theme of my stay in the city, for I happened to have one acquaintance there, a percussionist in a cult rock-band. I got an email from him one day before I left, and I wound up going over to his apartment in Mile End, a Jewish quarter to the west. He fed me tofu and mushrooms, a peculiarly unpleasant meal, and we drank homemade beer, which wasn't bad at all. He had a drum-kit in a room under a garage on Van Horne, but alas, I didn't get the chance to check it out.


Montréal excited me, it awakened higher impulses, by virtue of being alien and familiar at the same time. It is a beautiful city, I recall clearly a great white painted milk-bottle sculpture on a rooftop, and the 'cheese-grater' building, as well as the avant-garde stadium and biosphere.

This is an important time to remember for me, and I am not embarrassed by my jejune tastes or other naïveties back then. One must preserve in the heart a comfort with one's late youth, even after its values have been transcended. There are no photographs. My best friend and I patched things up soon after I returned home. I never got around to reading The Tao of Art, which speaks volumes about my tastes. A few months later I packed off to study philosophy at university, and then began my dawning interests in thought and literature. It was necessary that I felt no longer attached to the strictures of custom.

12 August, 2006

c'est à prendre ou à laisser

But some of us older men, some at least I should like to think, avoid debates because we know better: we know better that 1. learning something is more important than the debate (the ultimate evolutionary metaphor for you: if knowledge is a woman, mating with her is what the match is all about, not about some stupid championship belt); and 2. knowledge rarely comes through argument.

Gawain, 2006, on the value of debate.


I have no ulterior political motives when I find the sculptures you made for Hitler repellent.

What don't you like about them?

Their cold, necrophilic aesthetic, the ludicrous poses, the primitivity of expression.

Fair enough, it's a question of perception.

. . .

I was recently in Paris again, and I went to a fruit stand, there were bananas there, all the same size, but with different prices. I must have had an odd expression because the seller said: c'est à prendre ou à laisser, take it or leave it. That's how it is. That's how things are. I see something that irritates me, and I try to fathom the reason for the irritation, and then I'm rebuked by the seller, who has been observing me.

Then why did you put up with it?

What was I supposed to have done? Should I have said: 'I don't understand why they have different prices'? Then I would have had to endure a longer explanation. That wouldn't have done any good.

You never know until you try. Maybe it would have irritated the banana-seller. No one stops you from reflecting.

He was so categorical. I just tipped my hat and left.

Interview with Arno Breker, 1979 [via Castrovalva]

11 August, 2006


Much speculation about this pseudo-Latinism has persisted over the years. Spitzer (1945) derives it from Fr. calembour, pun < cali- derogatory prefix + bourde, tall story (whence also E. quandary); Spitzer admits the chief difficulty, that conundrum is first attested 1596, antedating calembour, 1757. As observed by the OED, the word originated as a university joke in the late sixteenth century; we propose, then, a humorous portmanteau coinage of Tamil kurundum, Skr. kuruvinda, 'ruby' (whence E. corundum), with the sense development of 'gem, prized knowledge, riddle'; L. cum undarum (sc. violentiā), 'with the violence of the waves', attested 1586 in Camden, Britann., ch. xvii; and colloquial E. come undone.

10 August, 2006

On the pleasure of contempt

I grow tired of show and tell, whether it be my books or my city. Back in Arizona, where the humidity is almost unbearable, and where there are serial killers at large in the vicinity, I can comfort myself with the thought that had I travelled two days later, my flight would have been cancelled, due to the latest machinations of those crazy jihadists (probably). Thankfully, Tempe is unlikely to be bombed, except perhaps by any Thessalians outraged with what America has done to their name. Still, at times like this, Hazlitt springs to mind:
The pleasure of hating, like a poisonous mineral, eats into the heart of religion, and turns it to rankling spleen and bigotry; it makes patriotism an excuse for carrying fire, pestilence, and famine into other lands: it leaves to virtue nothing but the spirit of censoriousness, and a narrow, jealous, inquisitorial watchfulness over the actions and motives of others. What have the different sects, creeds, doctrines in religion been but so many pretexts set up for men to wrangle, to quarrel, to tear one another in pieces about, like a target as a mark to shoot at?
You can trust old Hazlitt. After all, he was a man who knew the delights of contempt, not just hatred. Never put any faith in a man lacking contempt, gentle reader. Everyone can and does hate, as Hazlitt demonstrates, but not everyone can contemn. It requires a nobility of the soul. My closest friends, including Mrs. Roth, are all world-class at contempt, and even my second-tier buddies could do pretty nicely at the regionals.

Contempt is an unreligious experience. It makes bystanders uncomfortable, even very angry bystanders. Why? Because as much as a good Christian can hate the Muslim, the Devil, premarital sex, the love of money, etc., still this hatred is framed within a very rigid framework of moral values. There is something reliable and comforting about this sort of group hatred, or even about common private hatreds, such as one's loud neighbours, or cellphones on the train—'pet hates'. We can be religious about these hates, by which I mean we can put a collective and ritual faith in them. Contempt is another matter entirely: it's like Ascension-period Coltrane to hatred's Wagner. True contempt is free and nihilist, unoccasioned, and inopportune. It does not rage, neither does it dissipate. Rather it just exists, and deepens, calmly hidden, like a riverbed potholed by steady currents. It is private, and primary, and nasty. One does not discover hatred within oneself, but one does discover contempt. It is the canker that comes with any measure of greatness, a moral bezoar-stone revealed only by the scalpels of intuition. This is why contempt cuts against religion and spirituality, the brow aimed upward, which hates its oppressor, and pities its inferior—that pity being almost like contempt, but po-faced and self-righteous, aloof and spineless. Those who do not feel contempt fear it, and rightly so; they comfortably hate it as disrespectful or inappropriate. These types laugh at bedroom farce, but not at burlesque.

Never put any faith in a man lacking contempt, for he has no nobility, no greatness—he has not the divine bile or melancholia, and he is without the bitter humour of the afflicted.

09 August, 2006

Spam Haiku

Mange emigration!
Seduce repudiation!
spoonful. . . i n f i n i t e l y

Shawl formality! {external stole}

Lull shown, silence gaping: obsoleTE pedagogy

Er, wasn't that a piece from BLAST?

07 August, 2006

Cheeky Monarchy

Tonight I spent my last evening in the Great Wen, before I resume my sojourn in the Arizona heat; so many thoughts in my head. I had a pint with the Archbishop's nephew, and then M and I took a brisk stroll up from Westminster Cathedral and over and along the Thames, past County Hall and back over the river, in silence, and then he started talking again as we passed Whitehall Court. He feels that with increasingly specialised interests, he has less time for 'senseless chatter', the run of pleasant conversation with a friend. His interests are becoming hermetically private. It's a sad direction for us, old friends that we are, as silence has come to dominate our time together.

I was stopped on Victoria Street by H, an acquaintance from university; last time we spoke I think I told him he was the dullest person I'd ever known. I might be wrong about that. H shook my hand with an American handshake, he was all smiles, said he'd become a lawyer 'for his sins', and enquired whether my number had changed. This person has never called me, nor I him, and we've never really had a conversation together; he dares to ask me 'if my number has changed', and intimates that he might 'give me a bell'. I wanted to knock his fucking block off! I couldn't have done, of course—H was a lifeguard once, and I suspect he could still take me with his little finger. Blandly suave as he is, H is a bit of an ape, his intellectual fists trailing in the dirt as he goes on lumbering suavely through life, clutching that first-class degree in English literature.


Will Self wrote a book about chimpanzees taking over London. I have no intention of reading it. But the figure of the ape, close cousin, hovers over us, an articulate but ambivalent shadow and metaphor.

2001: A Space Odyssey envisioned mankind as primitive, warlike apes made powerful (but hardly less primitive) by alien forces—the symbol chosen for those forces being a simple basalt monolith, appearing at specific moments during man's evolution. Kubrick originally imagined a block of clear perspex, and he had it made too, by the Polish sculptor Arthur Fleischmann, in 1968. At two tons, it was the largest single block of acrylic glass in the world. Kubrick rejected it in favour of the now-famous basalt, but Fleischmann hung on to it anyway; 9 years later, for the Silver Jubilee, and barely a week after the Sex Pistols had released 'God Save the Queen', he unveiled his new piece at St. Katharine's Docks, Tower Bridge. By royal commission, Fleischmann had carved on the perspex an image of the crown, ie. St. Edward's, haloed in light. It would be known as the Silver Jubilee Crystal Crown. The piece is still around today, in place at the eastern end of the West Dock, and here's a picture of it:

Clearly, this is not an image of the crown. It is an ape. Look at it! He has a round, furry head, imposing eyes, and lips ajar in malediction. It is Moonwatcher, watching us. Dale Devereux-Barker, an artist of sorts who made some revolting enamels for the docks ten years ago, wrote that he hoped his work might reflect the marina's diversity and 'positively contribute to its continuing evolution'. Here man has evolved fully from the ape at the docks' heart—in the 1930s the docks, built by Thomas Telford in 1825, were still 'the world's greatest concentration of portable wealth'.

Yes the ape, and man's evolution from him, haunts us. Here he is king and god, like Hanuman, with rays emanating from his divine head. And so for a joke I founded the Order of the Cheeky Monarchy, and made my wife president for life, in exchange for a photograph of her making obeisance beneath him. I cited Joyce, in a letter to Frank Budgen: 'The Holy Roman Catholic Apostolic Church was built upon a pun. It ought to be good enough for me.'


Also the London ape is melancholy and heavy, with a spirit of dejected play. Wells and Huxley noted this expression, so much like the best among us, in The Science of Life (1931):
The construction of apes is so like our own that their actions constantly remind us of familiar human doings. We see an ape mother fondling her baby, and it seems to us that she must be experiencing the feelings appropriate to a human mother. . . Or the melancholy philosopher in the corner—if he is thinking, why does he never talk? If he is so human, why does he suddenly break off into some unrepressed obscenity? Is the mind behind the actions really so like our own?
Of course it is. We can understand this, of course. Even as a child I could empathise with this propensity to gloom, this philosophical ape, which is why at the age of about ten I fashioned this simian character in the art-room after school:

Crude, but moving to me, even now. I say goodbye tomorrow morning to the ape king and the ape philosopher, at least for a few months, as I struggle towards becoming a philosopher king. I will always be an ape in this regard, not an H, but with a penchant for mischief—for so long I thought I was born in the year of the ape, but sadly not—and an atrabilious humour, one content with 'senseless chatter' now and then, even delighting to hear on the riverside by the docks the quiet roar of the chatter of the chattering classes, who might better be called after the Italian, chiacchiericcisti.

04 August, 2006

To the moon, Alice

Daniel Defoe, The Consolidator, or, Memoirs of Sundry Transactions from the World in the Moon (1705) in Henry Morley, ed. The Earlier Life and the Chief Earlier Works of Daniel Defoe (1889).

Joyce once gave a lecture on Daniel Defoe, calling him the first writer to produce a literature distinctively English—Chaucer, he said, mimicked Boccaccio, just as Malory mimicked Chrètien, Shakespeare Seneca and Petrarch, and Milton Dante. Joyce made reference to Defoe's The Storm, until recently a work so rare as to be excluded from most editions of the author's Complete Works. Ever the hunter after obscurities, I found and read it—a great work of journalism, with enjoyably preposterous levels of detail about the havoc wrought by the titular storm. Then Allen Lane did a paperback of it; I was gutted. I can't imagine that it captures the popular imagination, even now.

The Consolidator, an example of moon-voyage literature, remains obscure, despite being online here; I finally discovered it in an edition of Defoe oddities compiled by Henry Morley for the Carisbrooke Library in 1889. That edition was 20 bucks in the Columbia Bookstore, NYC, a smaller but considerably better store than the world-renowned Strand. (The Strand rare books dept. is another story, though—how I regret turning down that elusive first edition of Elizabeth Gallup's Biliteral Cypher!)

A post on lunar imagery at the remarkable Giornale Nuovo made me think about this work again. Moon-voyages became very fashionable as a species of utopia literature in the 17th century, when with Kepler and Brahe the heavens were suddenly a hot topic for investigation—examples include John Wilkins' A Voyage to the Moon, Cyrano de Bergerac's Voyage dans la Lune, and the shorter works compiled by Isaac Asimov in The Man in the Moone. The moon-voyage had been anticipated in a famous scene, 34.70, of Orlando Furioso (1516), wherein the knight Astolfo travels with St. John to the moon for the recovery of Orlando's lost wits—'Tutta la sfera varcano del fuoco / ed indi vanno al regno de la luna / Veggon per la piu parte esser quel loco / come un acciar che non ha macchia alcuna'—and the genre was still in flight by the time of Raspe's Baron Munchausen (1785)—you can see above the Baron's moon-bound galleon, illustrated by Doré, taken from my 1960 Dover edition—and going strong still with the efforts of Wells and Verne a century later, at which point the tradition was simply subsumed into the burgeoning science-fiction genre. Verne gave his From the Earth to the Moon (1865) a blackly comic finale, with the rocket winding up in orbit around the moon:
Either the attraction of the moon will end by drawing it towards her, and the travellers will reach he goal of their journey. Or the projectile, maintained in an immutable orbit, will gravitate round the lunar disc till the end of time. Observation will settle this point some day, but until now the experiment of the Gun Club has had no other result than that of providing our solar system with a new star.

Moon-voyages, like utopias, were always allegorical—yawn—whether sober or satirical, and Defoe's satire was no exception. Fantasy for fantasy's sake remains a relatively late invention. That is one disadvantage, Gawain, to the old books—that while their author is free to digress, he so often has ulterior motives. The reader may well ask, what exactly is the Consolidator? It turns out to be a means of transport—and Defoe's lunar predecessors all wrestled with the problem of how to get there—Astolfo took a hippogriff, others would use birds or catapults, later rockets, and Cyrano spins surreally on this riff for a while, even trying out bottled dew:
J'avais attaché autour de moi quantité de fioles pleines de rosée, sur lesquelles le Soleil dardait ses rayons si violemment, que la chaleur, qui les attirait, comme elle fait les plus grosses nuées, m'éleva si haut, qu'enfin je me trouvai au-dessus de la moyenne région.
(For an English translation, see here.) Otto will be pleased to note that the lucky fellow winds up in Canada. The Consolidator, called Dupekasses in the lunar language, and Apezolanthukanistes in the 'Ancient Chinese, or Tartarian', is a feathered chariot guided by fire:
But above all his Inventions for making this Voyage, I saw none more pleasant or profitable, than a certain Engine formed in the shape of a Chariot, on the Backs of two vast Bodies with extended Wings, which spread about 50 Yards in Breadth, compos'd of Feathers so nicely put together, that no Air could pass; and as the Bodies were made of Lunar Earth which would bear the Fire, the Cavities were fill'd with an Ambient Flame, which fed on a certain Spirit deposited in a proper quantity, to last out the Voyage; and this Fire so order'd as to move about such Springs and Wheels as kept the Wings in a most exact and regular Motion, always ascendant.
The chariot is a cipher for Parliament, the two vast bodies being the Houses of Commons and Lords, and each feather representing an MP; 'consolidation' referred to a process of attaching one parliamentary bill to another, just like they allegedly do in Congress these days, so as to carry through a particular piece of legislation. Scientific and political metaphors keep getting mixed up together, as with Gulliver's Travels. But allegory is the bane of literature, and I prefer to read literally, or sometimes to find my own metaphor, as if without understanding, but in fact distilling from the work its caprice and its delight. Better to go to the moon than to go to Augustan England qua moon; better a Dupekasses, I think, than a Consolidator.

Bernard de Fontenelle alludes to the moon voyages, then at the crest of their vogue, in his Entretiens sur la Pluralité des Mondes (1684), a pop-astronomy handbook as dialogue between a philosopher and his host the Marquise, out walking among the bowers at dusk (I adapt Hargreaves' 1990 translation to suit):
On commence déjà à voler un peu; plusieurs personnes différentes ont trouvé le secret de s'ajuster des ailes qui les soutiennent en l'air, de leur donner du mouvement, et de passer par-dessus des rivieres. . . L'art de voler ne fait encore que de naitre; il se perfectionnera, et quelque jour on ira jusqu'à la lune. Prétendons-nous avoir découvert toutes choses?

We're beginning to fly a little now; a number of different people have found the secret of strapping on wings that hold them up in the air, and making them move, and crossing over rivers. . . The art of flying has only just been born; it will be perfected, and some day we'll go to the Moon. Do we presume to have discovered all things?
Such hit-guided optimism! In his general outlook, it so happens that Fontenelle was a man after Gawain's heart: according to the 1911 Encyclopaedia Britannica, he 'balanced his penchant for universal critical thought with liberal doses of. . . praise to the appropriate individuals in aristocratic society.' Perhaps Gawain's society is not so much aristocratic as philosophicocratic, and not so much a society as a Republic of Letters—he makes frequent reference to Café Gawain, which is merely an anagram of coffee-house culture. If Fontenelle could make Kepler and Descartes exciting, so can Gawain popularise evolutionary psychology. I quote here two further passages purely for G's pleasure:
Je ne jurerois pourtant pas que cela fût vrai; mais je le tiens pour vrai, parce qu'il me fait plaisir à croire. C'est une idée qui me plait, et qui s'est placée dans mon esprit d'une maniere riante. Selon moi, il n'y a pas jusqu'aux verités à qui l'agrément ne soit nécessaire.

I wouldn't swear that it was true, but I take it as such because it pleases me to think so. It's an idea that pleases me, and puts me into a delighted frame of mind. As I see it, this delight is necessary to all truths.
Have today's thinkers lost this delight, this maniere riante, which is really a laughing manner? Could it be a truth-criterion? Here is a gay science which finds itself suffused with a Platonic light in the face of truth, or at least in the face of an idée of sufficient grandeur. The Marquise having insisted that the narrator explain his philosophical theories to her, he replies:
"Non, il ne me sera point reproché que dans un bois, à dix heures du soir, j'aie parlé de philosophie à la plus aimable personne que je connoisse. Cherchez ailleurs vos philosophes."

"No, it will never be said of me that in an arbour, at ten o'clock in the evening, I talked of philosophy to the most lovely woman I know. Seek elsewhere your philosophers."
I quote, incidentally, the yummy 1800 sestodecimo I picked up a couple of years ago in the Quartier Latin, Paris—just a stone's throw from La Dame et La Licorne, and from the boutique where I purchased as a birthday gift for my future wife a divine pair of earrings, pendant clusters of lazuli grapes set in silver, rather lunar, le clair sur la Seine, voltigant—that last word from the last line of Les Lauriers sont Coupés, which is not at all about the moon—it is a part of the world full of memories, zenzizenzizenzical—yes, an edition which contains this celestial centrefold:

They say the moon has no light, but only reflects the light of the sun. My moon has all her own light, like a child, voltigant, celestial centrefold, consolidatrix.

Update: more on Fontenelle at The Nonist.

02 August, 2006

The Loves of a Puppet and a Star

I cherish the mystery, and speak without delay;
I was born immortal, and I die each day.
I've said too much—perhaps I do myself betray;
But naïvely by these words myself I can portray:
Bad luck to you if you must know me!
Bad luck to you if you've
not known me!

— Riddle

Your eyes are of the stars
Star of my nights!
When the stars are lit from my loves,
Etc. etc. etc. etc. etc.

— Fragments of a Panckoucke classic

XVI. Intimate memories of mythological times. A zephyr painted by himself. The vengeance of Venus. A puppet who recovers his wings.

Perhaps it would be a propos to determine the duration of the puppet's disappearance; but we lack such facts as would enlighten our religion: after all, can we know the exact moment at which the bud or the crystal droplet blossoms? One thing of which we can be certain is that as he recovered his senses he could hear the cockerel announcing nature's reveille. Dawn had put on her rosy gloves to hoist delicately Night's sable curtain, and the lighter of celestial street-lamps had brought up his lantern to Sol's lampadaire.

O delights of a fine morning, what heart could remain insensible to thy magic? That of our puppet was not fashioned to resist thee. His soul was seized softly with a compulsion to pour out its feelings; the breath of the morning reanimated him, and quickly he picked himself up—as puppets do not like to be stretched out for long periods of time—scarcely on his legs as he cried out with a dolorous sigh:

«Young witness to my weaknesses, it is clear that I need hide myself from you no longer; listen, therefore, to my story.

«I am the son of an unknown mother and father. One bright day I emerged from the perfumed lips of a Nymph as she sighed, amorously—this is how all the Zephyrs are born—for, you see, I was born a Zephyr.

«I wandered in this capacity, a vagabond through space. Without parents to oversee my education, I was a very naughty little imp. I slipped across the stiffest of bodices, I frolicked in curls and lovelocks, stirring the gazes of the prudish and giddying the coiffures of all the little minxes. An old Faun among my friends taught me many a smart turn for the purpose of tormenting innocent shepherdesses, and I never missed a trick or a profit from his advice.

«One day I was playing truant with a band of Zephyrs in a forest, when there came a pretty young thing, placing barely a sentimental workboot on the lawn and casting defiant glances about her: it was quite evident that she was there for a romantic tryst. Right away I gave the signal to my comrades, and up we crept with the foot-falls of zephyrs to surround the lovely girl. I tormented her the most. We made her scarf fly in the air, and rent her fragile parasol; we peeled away the stole sheathing her breast. The old Faun, hidden behind a tree, burst out laughing. Surprised and alarmed by this sudden aggression, the girl made vain efforts to resist; but already by the hem of her dress we could make out the end of a most charming leg, and a few clothes later, our victory was consummated—when all of a sudden my comrades, the Faun, the girl—all vanished; my wings fell from me, and I found myself alone, with four feet and a beard powdered with gold, a purple tunic, a crown of roses on my head and a lyre in my hand.

«Frantic and terrified, I was trying to explain to myself the reasons for this change when a dove, perched on a nearby tree, cooed out these words:

«‹I am the bird of Venus; it is she who has just punished you. You are aware that the gods and goddesses on occasion take the figure of simple mortals, so as to share in their pleasures. Now you have disturbed Venus in one of her delicate parts. As a punishment, she has turned you into a man, by which I mean a poet; and you will only recover your former shape after having loved her, until it pleases her to pardon you.›

«This occurred in the environs of Rome, during the reign of the emperor Gallienus. I addressed epistles to the emperor during the day, and at night I composed odes to Venus, to move her to pity. I loved her in the form of a star. For two thousand years I loved her, two thousand years during which I did not cease to be a poet—a condition which begins to be quite tiring after a while!

«O Venus! Why did you take me upon your knees the other day, at the great soirée held at the house of Urania? When the comets had danced their gallop, and the stars had waltzed about the planets, I thought that you would pardon me: I was wrong! I was only a joujou to you, a vile puppet whom you let so disdainfully fall back into his own realm.

«Do not think, however, that I dislike overmuch my actual condition. When one has been poet under the emperors, during the 18th century, the Directoire, the Empire, the Restoration, and during the 13 Julys that slipped away, one can very well become a puppet without realising the change.

«And this is how my present metamorphosis came about.

«I was at the Opéra, peacefully seated by the orchestra, when the loge across from me opened up and a woman of remarkable beauty took her seat at the box. At once all eyes turned in her direction. You had to have seen the fire burning in those eyes to have any notion of this inconnue's beauty; never had admiration been swifter, livelier, or more universal. One eye, who should have been an Academician, cried out: It's Venus herself! Though a little overstated, I could readily agree. My old nature was awakened, and I cast a stinging wink at the stranger; she seemed to smile back at me. Let me tell you, I heeded only my own audacity, and scheming like an ex-Zephyr I met her at the exit, wishing to slip a little letter into her palm; the inconnue only turned around and, looking me up and down with disdain, said to me, ‹Why, you're nothing but a puppet!›

«Alas! it was only too true! The blood congealed in my veins, my joints stiffened; my arms elongated and my legs, which were trembling in fear, began to knock the one against the other with a dry noise; I saw my own nose shrink inordinately; I went to put on my gloves, but my hands were wooden. Unable to explain the force carrying me, in an instant I was hoisted from the earth and cast down upon this deserted planet. The lady at the opera was none other than Venus herself who, wishing to test me, had profited from a fog obscuring her absence in the sky. See how I have fallen!

«Since that moment, cast out on this abandoned planet, I have vegetated; it is a dead star, a makeshift Siberia, a place of exile for those disfavoured by the gods. I populated this unhappy place with my memories; by the strength of will and patience, I've reconstructed the world that I once knew; but a puppet can rule only over automata. You must perceive that I've been rather successful in creating my subjects and confecting my realm; and yet, even so, I am bored so much of the time, happy only for the opportunity, as today, to unburden my griefs upon a friend's heart!»

Hearing these last words, Hahblle could restrain his tears no longer, and he fell sobbing into the puppet's arms.

«Don't pity me», replied the ex-Zephyr; «just let me contemplate my belle; now is just the moment when she has inhaled the evening's freshness at her balcony, and has lighted that beacon that guides lovers through the night. Let us see if her eyes are telling me to keep faith. . . »

The puppet approached the magic lantern, and cried out «O heaven!»

Hahblle, turning around, could see no longer the puppet, nor the lantern; only a slight wind, which moved keenly over his head, and joyously stirred up his hair—from which Hahblle hastened to conclude that Venus had at last returned to the Zephyr his original form.


The above is a chapter translated from J. J. Grandville's fantasy masterpiece, Un Autre Monde (1844), about which I already wrote a short post a long time ago. (BibliOdyssey has a selection of Grandville links here.) This is one of my favourite books, and I own proudly a beautiful full-colour reprint of it. Hyperlinked are tangential pieces and snippets which Grandville's text made me think of, some deliberately—Ovid's exile, The Golden Asse, Katsuhiro Otomo's Memories, Astrophel and Stella, and so on. I wish I could have done a better job of the line about the lamplighter—the Parisians have a whole mythology about that figure, which we Anglophones don't quite understand. Max Ernst's Loplop character, for instance, was inspired by a lamplighter. More details about this obscure and mesmerising text can be found scattered throughout Walter Benjamin's Passagenwerk, where Grandville's aesthetic is seen as part of a bourgeois, utopian-socialist, pro-technological inclination among the intelligensia of 19th-century Paris.

01 August, 2006

Against ekphrasis

A friend of mine once wrote an essay on ekphrasis, one of those badly-coined jargon-words littering lit-crit but failing the OED test (for now), imported from the Greek to denote any poetic description of a painting or visual scene. The classic early examples are Homer's elaboration of Achilles' shield in The Iliad, and Vergil's delineation of the images wrought upon the bronze gates at Carthage, bringing back to Aeneas all his painful memories of the Trojan War (1.453-493):

Namque videbat, uti bellantes Pergama circum
hac fugerent Graii, premeret Troiana iuventus,
hac Phryges, instaret curru cristatus Achilles.
Nec procul hinc Rhesi niveis tentoria velis
adgnoscit lacrimans, primo quae prodita somno
Tydides multa vastabat caede cruentus,
ardentisque avertit equos in castra, prius quam
pabula gustassent Troiae Xanthumque bibissent.

Homer and Vergil both describe imaginary tableaux, and use them as a locus for allegory (good government, bad government—see here) and emotional reflection (mentem mortalia tangunt, 'mortal things touch [his] mind'), but now the term 'ekphrasis' more often refers to verbal renditions of actual paintings, renditions which apparently have scant more purpose than mere description. As a case-study, my friend chose Brueghel's—and that's Pieter 'Peasant' Brueg(h)el the ElderHunters in the Snow (1565), part of the master's 'Book of Hours' cycle, and one of the most famous and most ravishing works ever put to canvas. It was a good choice, because at least four ekphrastic poems have been composed about it, by Walter de la Mare, John Berryman, William Carlos Williams, and Joseph Langland (as well as that line about skating kiddies in Auden's 'Musee des Beaux Arts'). Helpfully, they've been assembled at this site (WM JB WCW JL), so they can be perused in all their shoddiness.

I won't reproduce these efforts here, because I think that the same thing is wrong with all of them—each poem uses words in a highly inefficient and inelegant way, putting them to a task for which they are singularly unqualified. De la Mare writes in old-fashioned rhymes and turns, Williams and Langland in free verse; but it doesn't matter—they're all telling us what they see, and unfortunately, that's pretty much the same as what we see, only without the beauty of the original painting. None of them tells us what is beautiful about it—whether the subtle, expansive colouring, or the perfect interplay between receding detail and obscurity, or the bitter accentuation of the snow by silhouette in thick masses.

What elements of each poem can't be derived from a glance at Brueghel himself? De la Mare weeps so poignantly about 'him / Who squandered here life's mystery', when it is De la Mare who has squandered Brueghel's mystery. Berryman spews out some hackneyed lines about the 'sandy time / To come. . . when all their company/ Will have been irrevocably lost', about the moment in time captured for posterity. Williams numbly musters a reference to Brueghel as 'the painter / concerned with it all'. And Langland prattles vapidly on about form: 'neutral evening of indeterminate form', 'the fabulous hour of shape and form'. It's all so wet. Why does poetry have to be so bloody wet?

Update: at least one kudo to my correspondent R, who noticed that Hunters in the Snow is in fact painted on wood panel, not canvas. It was just a test, of course. Also, I continue my critique of ekphrasis here, and Gawain develops my argument in his own inimitable way here. Look ma, they're talking about me!