words. music. pictures. scheherazade.
Six o’clock, one Monday evening in Ibiza, 1932. Walter Benjamin, on an empty promenade in the eventide silence: notices the foliage of the trees before turning his gaze onto a ship in the waterway called Ciudad de Valencia, which calls into his mind this rhetorical question Horace poses in Ode 2.16: What exile fleeing from his native land would ever flee his own mind? -
Patriae quis exsul
Horace’s notion, that one cannot leave oneself behind by moving elsewhere, seems questionable to Benjamin. Traveling is a purification, claims Benjamin in “Spain, 1932,” an opportunity to develop new passions and, why not, undergo metamorphosis. He had left Germany back in April, a nightmarish land in economic and political insurrection. He was reading Stendhal’s Charterhouse of Parma and Trotsky’s autobiography. He flirted with women. He was an exile. The early moon quietly haunted the eastern horizon.
Montaigne contemplates the very same Horace lines in his essay, “Of Solitude,” but is shrewder than Benjamin is when it comes to man’s capacity to change. Montaigne mentions that when someone commented to Socrates that a certain man had grown no better by his travels, Socrates quipped, “I should think not, he took himself along with him.” Montaigne’s view aligns with Horace’s rather than Benjamin’s when he comments -
If a man does not first unburden his soul of the load that weighs upon it, movement will cause it to be crushed still more, as in a ship the cargo is less cumbersome when it is settled.
Our illness grips us by the soul, and the soul cannot escape from itself, continues Montaigne, before quoting Horace from Book 1.14 of the Epistles: The soul’s at fault, which never escapes itself -
in culpa est animus, qui se non effugit umquam.
In the circumstantial context of Benjamin’s biography, Montaigne’s take on Horace would prove to have been realistic and Benjamin’s, naive. His travel to Ibiza doesn’t provide Benjamin with an opportunity for metamorphosis; he is unable to “unburden his soul of the load that weighs upon it,” as Montaigne puts it. In a letter to Gershom Scholem in July 1932, Benjamin complains of profound fatigue, along with his horror at the situation back home in Germany. He planned to leave Ibiza for Nice, to commit suicide in a hotel there.
Benjamin arrives at Hôtel du Petit Parc in Nice. He writes out his will, naming Scholem as his executor. For inscrutable reasons, however, Benjamin does not carry out his suicide plans, although eight years later in 1940, he ends his life by overdosing on morphine in Hotel de Francia of Port Bou.
Yet, on that particular night in Nice, what could have altered Benjamin’s resolve to kill himself? A small silver coin of a moon seen out the window, perhaps, in his loony state of mind. In the sense of the French word, lunatique (as Benjamin once noted in the margins of a clipping about German Baroque book collections): according to the moods of the moon. No doubt he must have felt a plaything of chance. Of a goddess, τύχη.
τύχη: a foolish belief that you could still exist in my life in countless ways. From David Lewis’ On the Plurality of Worlds -
We can imagine the impossible, provided we do not imagine it in perfect detail and all at once.
For example, we were once watching a documentary program on TV, something on the favelas of Rio. Don’t remember the rest of the program, but I can’t forget this scene: a train shooting out of the dark Rebouças tunnel, into the open vista of Lagoa Rodrigo de Freitas. The verdant Corcovado loomed over the kidney-shaped lake on our crap TV screen, and I despaired selfishly why I shouldn’t see such a landscape in real life: why this reality instead. Probably the very moment when I decided to leave you, for another possible world. But only had I known -
Another possible world is too far away. (Saul Kripke)
When the documentary program became less scenic and we both lost interest, you said, Tell me a story. What kind of story? Anything, dummy, as long as it’s far-fetched and unlikely to happen in real life.
Animae dimidium meae, writes Horace in one of the odes: half of my own soul. Which necessarily implies that, as creatures governed by feeling and love, our souls were perhaps never whole to begin with, nor are they likely to be ever. Aristophanes already knew this, of course, in Plato’s Symposium.
Just a few days after I left you, a girl named G (whom you despised) asked if I wanted to drop ecstasy with her. Met her at the Renaissance Harborplace Hotel piano bar overlooking the Inner Harbor, put the bitter pills on our tongues. The pianist played something with a haphazard bossa nova beat; the sound of the drummer’s brush caressing the snare’s surface was the hushed, easy rustle of the night’s page turning.
The pendant bulbs hanging from the hotel bar’s ceiling began to sway slowly, and G asked me why I left you. I told her I hadn’t and when, as if on cue, the candles on tabletops oozed in sinister amber light to the music, her hands silently swifted over the white table linen toward my own like shadows of night planes. G locked her fingers into mine, her eyes pooling with sudden wildness and pity. She bit her lip. I drove my thumbs into the middle of her moist palms and admired how white and libidinous G’s neck looked as her head rolled back. Ecstasy?
ἔκστασις: as if strangers to ourselves, succumbent to a pleasure that was larger and more uninhibited than anything either of us ever deserved or put claim to.
The night passed, an exhilarated breath. From the chair, I watched G’s naked sleeping body, lovely on the white linen. But her body nonetheless looked to me as unfamiliar as a body can look to a person who has spent the night touching, making love to it. It was still dark when I heard something uncanny: a distant church bell whose muted ring sounded quite different from the usual ring of other church bells tolling the hour. The bell sounded a few notes in a brief but somehow byzantine arrangement of an F-major triad, and it felt as though I had been transported to a foreign land without my cognizance.
When I pulled back the curtains to look at the harbor, I noticed a ship which I couldn’t recognize as one of the usual historic ships docked at the Inner Harbor for tourists. It had three masts, drawn sails. A dread started to build within me as I thought you might have been on that ship waiting out the night, on Argo. The first stunning time I knew by heart that you and I would never meet again once Argo left harbor, animae dimidium meae -
There are ships sailing to many points, but not a single one goes where life is not painful, nor is there any port of call where it is possible to forget. (Fernando Pessoa, from The Book of Disquiet)
How long has it been since you departed on that ship, decades? Centuries? How come back then, I did not have the presence of mind to borrow this closing line from Horace’s Ode 1.14, O Navis, referent -
Vites aequora Cycladas.
to warn you: avoid the shining waves of the Cyclades in the Aegean Sea, under the terrible dominion of Venus?
(All images by the astounding flowerville, copyrighted. Do not use without approaching her for permission)
At first glance, there doesn’t seem to be many surprises in Michael Haneke’s choice of music in his film, Amour (Teju Cole’s review, if you haven’t yet seen the film). Sporadically used in mesmeric bursts are fragments from late music by Beethoven and Schubert; in a film which has one perpetual foot across the threshold of death’s door throughout most of its duration, it seems a very logical, even canny, choice.
The film opens with the fortissimo double octaves of the C-minor Impromptu from Schubert’s Opus 90 before cutting away abruptly in the midst. Later, when Georges daydreams Anne at the piano, she is playing the seraphic opening bars of the G-flat Impromptu from the same Opus 90 (you can listen to a rare performance by Vladimir Sofronitsky in my previous post). The Opus 90 Impromptus were composed in 1827, along with Winterreise, String Quintet in C and the last three piano sonatas among other astounding works (in my mind, no other composer has had a better year). During this year, Schubert sensed that he was near death, often feverish and unable to swallow food: he died in November of the following year.
When Anne requests his pupil (played by Alexandre Tharaud) to play the G-minor Bagatelle from Beethoven’s Opus 126 in Amour, one can further understand Haneke’s rationale - the Spätstil glove fits: late style music for a late style film.
Yet: a kink. There’s a segment in the film in which Georges toys around with Busoni’s piano arrangement of Bach’s Ich ruf zu dir, Herr Jesu Christ BWV 639 which was composed originally for organ. On a superficial level, it makes sense as this chorale prelude is based on Johann Argicola’s hymn. A part of which, as below -
Den rechten Glauben, Herr, ich mein,
den wollest du mir geben,
dir zu leben,
meim Nächsten nütz zu sein,
True faith from Thee, my God, I seek,
The faith that loves Thee solely.
Keeps me lowly,
And prompt to aid the weak,
Still, difficult to avoid this contrast: the Bach-Busoni chorale prelude is resolutely not a late style composition, unlike the late Schubert and Beethoven used in Amour. Bach composed this in his 20s when he was a court organist in Weimar. He had yet to find his speed as a composer, and was much in awe of Dietrich Buxtehude when he composed the Orgelbüchlein.
All the more surprising that the snippet of Bach’s Ich ruf zu dir, Herr Jesu Christ seemed so perfect to me in the context of Amour, a perfect Bagatelle, and while wondering why, it occurred to me: Tarkovsky had used the piece sparingly to a great effect in Solaris. Allow me a conspiracy theory: Tarkovsky uses the original Bach composition of Ich ruf zu dir, Herr Jesu Christ for the organ whereas Haneke used the Busoni transcription of it for the piano. Can one speculate that Haneke is somehow paying a sly homage to Solaris?
Solaris, as many of you know, features a psychologist named Kris Kelvin who leaves for Solaris, a space station, where his late wife, Hari, appears to him in person (Hari had committed suicide on earth). I will spare you from a heaving godforsaken plot synopsis, but I always loved the film, especially when I was younger and reading a lot of Derek Parfit. Bach’s Ich ruf zu dir, Herr Jesu Christ plays only a few times in Solaris. It plays in the background when the opening credits roll. Its chastely lugubrious notes sound when Kris and Hari regard a Bruegelian winter landscape through a screen. But most memorably, Bach’s music plays when, in the brief moment, there is weightlessness in Solaris. Kris and Hari begin floating in air, as do certain other objects as if in a dream. And as they float, the viewer sees that there is a gallery of paintings surrounding the couple in suspension. The paintings are mostly (or all?) Bruegel landscapes and scenes, and as Ich ruf zu dir, Herr Jesu Christ plays, Tarkovsky’s camera zooms in and scans slowly across fragments from Bruegel’s canvases, paintings unbound by frames.
Very early on in Amour, when Georges and Anne return to their apartment from their pupil’s recital at Théâtre des Champs-Élysées, they find evidence that someone has tried to break into their apartment with a screwdriver. It is then that Georges shares a story with Anne, of certain people who have had their homes broken into by burglars. These burglars smashed through a wall, Georges tells Anne, then cut out all the paintings out from their frames and disappeared with these frameless pictures. This almost seems a casual, throwaway anecdote until a pivotal point in Amour, when Georges pleads with Anne (who’s by now lost her faculties to her illness) to take some tea, then becomes irascible and desperate, tries to force the liquid in her mouth. Anne spits it out, and Georges slaps her. Suddenly and violently. They can’t look at each other and the moment is devastating… but just then - the camera cuts to various landscape paintings in their apartment to linger its suddenly-tender gaze on them, so similar to the gaze in Tarkovsky’s Solaris: lovingly panning across the paintings. Without their frames. Stolen landscapes of their lives, lost to them in their own home.
Kris Kelvin in Solaris says this at one point in the film -
You love that which you can lose.
- meaning: loss is built in, from the very first moment we decide to love at all. In an essay on Solaris, Philip Lopate likens the film to Mizoguichi’s Ugetsu, in that both are stories about falling in love with ghosts. And so, by extension, one may make the same claim of Haneke’s Amour. The happiest moment in Amour, if one can call it that, occurs when Anne appears, postmortem, in front of a dazed Georges near the end of the film and chides him to put on a coat to follow her out the door, into a frameless and doubtlessly wide open landscape which is occluded from anyone’s view except hers and Georges’.
In 1784, Mozart was over-fatigued, having performed concerts for Vienna’s bourgeoisie. Between February 26 and April 3 of that year, he packed in twenty-two concerts. He wrote to his father Leopold in Salzburg, complaining in vain -
Don’t I have enough to do?
So it was in this state that Mozart was walking past a pet store one day in Vienna, when he heard a bird – a starling – sing a tune that eerily resembled the theme of the Allegretto movement from his Piano Concerto No. 17, K. 453 (music file attached at the head of this post). But the birdsong diverged from the actual melody in two ways: instead of G-natural, the starling sang G-sharp, and added a fermata to the last note of the first full bar. How do we know this? Because Mozart was so delighted with the starling’s rendition of his Allegretto that he transcribed the birdsong and entered it into his diaries -
Mozart was very tickled by the starling’s mimicry, even (or especially?) by the two errata (G-sharp and the fermata), that he wrote beneath the handwritten transcription -
Das war schön! (That was fine!)
Anyway, Mozart bought the starling for 34 kreuzer and brought him home, and called the bird Herr Stahr. It is entirely mysterious, even to this day, how Herr Stahr was able to whistle back Mozart’s Allegretto theme before Mozart even had any idea of the bird’s existence. Probably the case that Mozart must have passed by the pet store daily, whistling the Allegretto theme unconsciously so that the bird was familiarized with the tune. Or maybe… just maybe it’s more mysterious than what the laws of probability dictate, as the poet Karl Kirchwey puts forth in the second stanza (in bold, below) of his poem, “K. 453” -
On May 27, 1784,
as he followed Vienna’s back streets home,
Mozart paused, startled, by a pet shop door
and listened to the allegretto theme
from his own piano concerto in G-Major
repeated by a starling in a cage.
He’d written it only five weeks before—
had God given them both the same message?
Kirchwey’s entire poem is here.
He says that he is a hunter turned into a butterfly. There is a gate (presumably heaven) toward which he flutters, but when he gets near he wakes to find himself back on his bier in the cabin of his ship… The butterfly is one of the most dramatic of metamorphic creatures, its transformations seemingly more divergent than any other. A caterpillar does not die; it becomes a wholly different being.
Gracchus tells the mayor of Riva that as such, he is always in motion, even though he is as still as a corpse. Davenport mentions that this motion is in Gracchus’s mind - psyche is Greek for “butterfly” as well as for “soul.”
Two years ago, right around this time, I was in a coma for three days. I fell on my head and sustained a skull fracture. It was a bar fight. Not much of a fight. I walked into a Mexican restaurant/bar near my neighborhood by myself, just to think about something and clear my head. There were 6-7 guys drinking outside. I don’t know how it got started, but before you knew it, I was out there throwing punches. Then I tripped over someone’s foot, fell over backwards.
The next thing I knew, I was in the ICU of New York Presbyterian. A nurse explained that I have a skull fracture; originally, an ambulance had taken me to the hospital near my area, but they couldn’t handle my complications, so I was ferried to the Presbyterian. There was a blood clot in my head so they were going to open my head up for surgery, but one doctor had suggested waiting overnight. Apparently, by miracle, the condition stabilized on its own, so no surgery was required, and they were just waiting for me to wake up. She told me that I was fortunate to live, that they have to watch me but I’d likely make a slow but full recovery. The nurse then asked me my name, who our president was, things like that. I thought about fooling with her and giving her funny answers circa Grover Cleveland administration but I refrained because I had a catheter sticking out of my penis: not a ripe moment for comedy. She asked me what day of the week it was. I said Sunday, obviously because I got in a fight with those guys the previous night. I was wrong: several days had passed without my cognizance and it was now Tuesday. Completely overwhelmed by surprise, my mind reeled and I caught myself thinking that I had to call [ ] to let her know where I was before she worried herself to death. Even though it’s been well over a decade since we parted.
Gracchus’s Conversion: from death to the heaven’s gate. From caterpillar to butterfly, in the chrysalis of his psyche. The last sighting of Gracchus in Sebald’s Vertigo is in the book’s last pages, as his incarnation as a butterfly. The narrator is looking at the black walls of the Liverpool Station, then:
And I could hardly believe my eyes, as the train was was waiting at a signal, to see a yellow brimstone butterfly flitting about from one purple flower to the other, first at the top, then at the bottom, now on the left, constantly moving.
How do we know that this butterfly is Gracchus? Because Sebald takes care to mention that the butterfly is constantly moving, just as Gracchus in Kafka’s tale tells the mayor of Riva that he is constantly in motion. Motion in the psyche. Not to mention that soon thereafter, the narrator dreams of seeing in the terrain on the Alps - glimmering fragments of quartz crystals.
On the hospital bed, disoriented and racked with a severe case of vertigo from the skull fracture, I thought of the night when I left [ ]. I snuck away to the Greyhound Station in Baltimore and got on the Los Angeles-bound night bus. The bus never stopped, always kept moving, except for the times when we had to switch buses at 4 a.m. in poorly lit, lonely outposts of America. On the bus, there were two young girls with candy-colored hair from California who had made the trip to D.C. to borrow money from one girl’s father. Despite their lack of success, they kindly shared their Percocet pills with me. I made small but meaningful talk with a guy named Thomas, recently released from prison, who was on his gleeful way to see his children in L.A. A garrulous and hectoring Korean War vet, on the way to Las Vegas for a poker convention, shared his Ritz crackers and Cheez-Whiz with me. And on the way, [ ] left me 36 messages on my cell. Some messages were angry, many were pleading. The last message was her, plainly sobbing.
Several years ago, which is once upon a time before I knew anything about Gracchus and his transmogrification into a butterfly, I had a dream in which I encountered a girl walking in my direction on a crosswalk near the Peabody Square in Baltimore, where the Washington Monument was swaying left and right like a stem of a metronome. There was an ivory-white halo of small butterflies shimmering above her head. Even during the dream, and in fact after waking from it, I told myself that it must have been [ ], kept uttering to myself it must have been, must have been, which only convinced me, ironically and in the end, that it couldn’t have been.
(Images in this post by: Masahisa Fukase, Bill Henson and Vladimir Nabokov)
Sven Birkerts has written a very personal essay on Sebald’s Vertigo for AGNI, for which I have Anthony to thank for prompting me there via - what else - twitter. The essay is unusual in that Birkerts begins with a disclaimer that most critics would hesitate to make: he hasn’t read most of Sebald’s work, despite the immediate connection that he’d made with The Rings of Saturn. One pleasure among many which Birkerts’ essay affords the reader is that it relates the experience of reading and loving Vertigo from the perspective of a neophyte to the work.
Toward the end of the essay, Birkerts is startled when he revisits the first section of Vertigo centering around Stendhal’s travels in Italy. He realizes - via Guy Davenport’s essay on Kafka’s “Hunter Gracchus” - that Sebald’s account of Stendhal and Mme. Gherardi’s encounter with two men carrying a bier ashore a port of Riva, draped with “a large, frayed flower-patterned silk cloth” under which lay a human body, is neither a scene from Sebald’s nor Stendhal’s imagination, but a doubling of the scene from Kafka’s “Hunter Gracchus.” Birkerts writes that even when he didn’t realize this, he could feel the “specific density of significance.” He muses -
The scene—it felt so deliberately placed—aroused my curiosity. Where would it lead? Why this vibration of the uncanny?
Birkerts leaves his questions tantalizingly unanswered, reminding the readers that what Sebald intended thematically with the Gracchus reference is not the subject of his current essay.
Sebald’s appropriation of Kafka’s Gracchus in Vertigo in the passage below, which so stunned Birkerts with its uncanny power -
Beyle [Stendhal] and Mme Gherardi… entered the small port of Riva… Beyle drew Mme Gherardi’s attention to an old boat, its mainmast fractured two-thirds of the way up, its buff-coloured swails hanging in the folds. It appeared to have made fast only a short time ago, and two men in dark silver-buttoned tunics were at that moment carrying a bier ashore on which, under a large, frayed, flower-patterned silk cloth, lay what was evidently a human form.
This scene recurs many times in Vertigo and throughout his other works in different manifestations. In the passage above, Sebald slyly embeds the opening scene from Kafka’s “Hunter Graccchus” within his account of Stendhal’s travels in Italy, specifically the journey from Bologna to Rome related to in De l’Amour during which Stendhal and Mme Gherardi enter the port of Riva.
It is not a mere coincidence that Sebald interjects the fictive Gracchus moment into Stendhal’s travelogue right before recounting Stendhal’s visit of the underground galleries of the Hallein salt mines with Mme Gherardi. One of the miners presents Mme Gherardi with a twig encrusted with thousands of crystals, and Stendhal notes that the rays of the sun makes the twig glitter in a dazzling show. From Vertigo –
The protracted crystallisation process, which had transformed the dead twig into a truly miraculous object, appeared to [Stendhal], by his own account, as an allegory for the growth of love in the salt mines of the soul. [bold mine]
And below is the corresponding passage from Chapter 2 of De l’Amour, when the two lovers retrieve the dead twig from the salt mines in Salzburg -
Two or three months later they pull it out covered with a shining deposit of crystals. The smallest twig, no bigger than a tom-tit’s claw, is studded with a galaxy of scintillating diamonds. The original branch is no longer recognizable… What I have called crystallization is a mental process which draws from everything that happens new proofs of the perfection of the loved one.
The process of crystallization, in other words, is the process of transformation from a dead twig (indifference) to glittering crystals (perfect love). The crucial point being that “the perfection of the loved one” is generated by our own mental faculties and volition. Stendhal extends his idea of crystallization to his theories on art and fiction in general; the crystallization of a work of literature happens through the observer-reader’s perfection of what he reads, the work of the writer. Art can only then be “crystallized,” when the writer and reader meet at a point of significance: the point which Birkerts astutely refers to in his essay as when he felt a “specific density of significance,” the appearance of Gracchus in Sebald’s Stendhal narrative.
Hence, to me, the rationale by which Sebald sneaks Gracchus into Stendhal’s narrative makes sense. “Hunter Gracchus” is about a man who is eternally roaming the seas, undead. As mentioned, it’s no coincidence that Sebald plants this “fiction” just before the description of the crystallization of the dead twig. Given this context, is it not likely that the story of Kafka’s Gracchus - literally undead - is crystallized in both Stendhalian sense – “perfected” in fiction by the reader and writer Sebald - and also in a Benjaminian sense, the desire of his Angel of History to “awaken the dead, make whole what has been smashed”?
I’ll spare you from bulletpoints listing where in Sebald’s fiction Gracchus appears, in Vertigo and elsewhere. But I do have to mention that Gracchus is resurrected in the section, Il ritorno in patria, in Vertigo, the most autobiographical section in which Sebald’s narrator returns to his childhood town of W. in 1987, after spending time in Verona (Sebald was from Wertach im Allgäu). One of the memories that the narrator relates is his childhood infatuation with a beautiful girl named Romana. One December evening - wait for it - when “a myriad minute crystals glittered in the snow” (!), the narrator says that he witnessed his Romana having sex with a man he refers to as Schlag the hunter in a woodshed. This Schlag, the Gracchus analogue, is later found dead at the bottom of the ravine later in the narrative, just as Gracchus had tripped and fell to his death in the Black Forest in Kafka’s tale. And when Schlag the hunter’s corpse is carried into town, it is on a woodcutters’ sledge. When the sledge appears, borne upon it was -
plainly the body of a man under a wine-coloured horse blanket.
which all but confirms Schlag as another Gracchus doppelgänger, a fictional crystal.
Of course. It should have been obvious that Sebald would weave the fiction of Gracchus into his own “true” childhood memories. As evidenced by the excerpt from Kafka’s diaries which Guy Davenport quotes in his essay on Hunter Gracchus, an old ship docks at the small port in Prague by which his sister was renting a place. When Kafka asks a workman on the harbor wall whose ship it was, the workman replies that it belongs to the Hunter Gracchus.
Highly unlikely that Sebald - a lifelong devotee of Kafka - would have missed the fact that Kafka took this real-life memory and conflated it into fiction. Rather, it seems that it was Sebald’s intention all along to plant “fiction” - Gracchus or otherwise - into what we normatively perceive as truths and reliable memories. The original German title of Vertigo is Schwindel. Gefühle. (Schwindel also means “fraud” or “a con trick”). The title betrays Sebald’s uneasiness with dealing with fiction as a vehicle to convey any kind of truth, an uneasiness that he never quite shook off until his untimely death. In an interview with Joseph Cuomo, published in The Emergence of Memory: Conversations with W.G. Sebald, Sebald identifies with Flaubert’s “fear of the false,” before sheepishly commenting -
Well, yes, writing, as I said before… you make something out of nothing. It is a con trick.
Yet this “con trick” is more nuanced, paradoxical. Schwindel, according to Sebald -
You have this string of lies, and by this detour you arrive at a form of truth which is more precise, one hopes, that something which is strictly provable.
A form of truth by way of a string of lies. Through fiction, especially given Stendhal’s theory of crystallization to which Sebald devotes a significant attention in Vertigo, there is literally a resurrection of something dead (a twig, a Gracchus doppelgänger) into something miraculously glittering. By art.
In fact, as Sebald’s narrator travels to his childhood hometown of W., he himself transforms into a Gracchus -
Outside, snowflakes were drifting past the small window, and presently it seemed to me as if I were in a boat on a voyage, crossing vast waters.
Finally, there’s a vague allusion to the Gracchus story earlier in Vertigo which is easy to miss, in All’estero section. At a terrace in a hotel in Limone, the narrator writes in his notebooks, fluidly, with a remarkable ease that astonishes him. Then the proprietress of the hotel asks if the narrator is a journalist or a writer. The narrator replies that neither description is quite right. When asked what he’s working on -
I replied that I did not know for certain myself, but had a growing suspicion that it might turn into a crime story, set in upper Italy, in Venice, Verona and Riva. The plot revolved around a series of unsolved murders and the reappearance of a person who had long been missing.
In many ways, this seems to me a transmuted but somehow aptly telegraphed summary, not just of Vertigo itself but of Sebald’s ethos of fiction in general. The “missing person” referred to in the passage above could variously be Gracchus, Schlag, or many others populating the enigmatic skies of Sebald’s fiction, not the least of whom is the writer himself: all of them will reappear, crystallized through the art of fiction, out of the dark mines of history by the author’s hand, by the reader’s gaze.
(Images in this post: stills from Frank Borzaga’s Street Angel, a photograph of Central Park in 1916, by Mikko Rantanen, by Anthony Goicolea, Garin Horner, etc.)
Driving around Koreatown in L.A. last week, it occurred to me that I have almost zero sense of nostalgia about the place, but that the city makes me think of sex. The seediest and most dissolute years of my shitcan of a youth were spent in Los Angeles, and near the end of last century, shortly before I decided to go ascetic, I befriended a guy named H. I met him at my friend J’s birthday party, which I remember to have been held at a top floor suite of the Wilshire Plaza Radisson, don’t know if I have the right hotel. What I do remember with all certainty is that the party was sponsored by cocaine, cocaine and more cocaine, since J was a dealer. We pulverized rocks of it on the glass tabletop, hearts racing all night. The music sounded damn good. Girls were dancing. Clothes came off. Some of the party-goers went into bedrooms in two’s and three’s.
By the time morning arrived, most of the crowd had filtered out of the hotel suite. Some of us remained, talking, and that’s when I noticed a lanky guy sleeping on the couch: H. I wouldn’t have noticed him except a harsh ray of sunlight directly hit his face, and from my view on the floor, I could see that most of the middle cartilage, which separates the left from the right side of the nostrils of most normal human beings, was missing in H’s nose. It was clear that H had burnt it away from his coke habit, and I sat there, wondering at the single cavernous chamber inside his nose, lit up red by the sun. When he woke up, we hit it off well enough although we didn’t have much in common. But over the following month or two, I’d make a concerted effort into being his friend because I was fascinated by him. H was a heavy-lidded guy who spoke slowly, but with a plainspoken and open bluntness that strangely never sounded offensive or menacing. He had a sneaky sense of humor, too, and more than that, seemed completely unperturbed by any guilt or moral system. Nor was he intellectually curious about anything, as far as I could tell. In a word, I wanted to be H at that junction in my life.
H casually dealt cocaine, too, although I found out that he made most of his money running an escort service. Not sure if the girl I talked about previously had worked for him, but with the money he made from pimping, he owned several quite profitable liquor stores for which he hired other people to manage and run. He drove a white Acura NSX he bought secondhand, while most of us were go-karting around town in beat-up Civics and Integras.
But back to the morning after J’s coke bash. When H and I were in mid-conversation, a girl slipped into the hotel room so quietly that I didn’t even notice her presence until she was a couple of paces away. She had raven-black hair, greenish eyes, half-French and half-Colombian. H’s girlfriend: M… She came over and kissed H, and the instant she said hi to me in passing, looking at me with the briefest meaningless glance, I became stunned and heartsick with a desire for M.
A couple days ago on twitter, I posted a tweet asking whether anyone could recall ever reading really great descriptive sex-writing in a novel. I honestly couldn’t, perhaps because I could only remember ghastly passages like below, from John Updike’s Couples -
A luminous polleny pallor, the shadow of last summer’s bathing suit, set off her surprisingly luxuriant pudendum.
Updike on nipple-suckling -
He encircled her, fingered and licked her willing sipping tips, the pip within the slit, wisps.
More pubic hair purple prose -
Sun and spittle set a cloudy froth on her pubic hair: Piet pictured a kitten learning to drink milk from a saucer.
John-fucking-Updike. Seriously. Anyway, the pianist and composer Stephen Hough, whose great blog on Telegraph UK partially captures his wide-ranging intellectual curiosity and wit, saw my tweet and asked a question back -
@houghough: But is good sex writing good when it describes or when it arouses? Thus embarrassing in two different ways perhaps …
@noxrpm: I’d say both, writing that arouses aesthetically and erotically - and hence embarrassing both ways. =D
Then I took a moment to consider my response, and it didn’t take long for me to realize that my answer had a whiff of the false, not unlike Updike’s pudendal prose in Couples. I was wrong: any writing I find genuine aesthetic merit in its descriptive power would not be embarrassing to me at all. Unless I was caught reading it with my pants down.
Which left me with my original question unanswered, as to why it seemed so difficult to depict sex in words?
Spending more time in M’s presence was easy, as H and I hung out a lot together. Not that M paid me any mind - at bars or clubs, she was ever-smiling but simultaneously, ever-distant from everyone. I’d never heard her speak more than a clutter of words to someone at once, including to H; English was not her first language and when she spoke it, it was in a barely audible hush. Not that anything detracted from my attraction toward her. At trendy K-town bars on 6th Ave., I would tune out all chatter and surreptitiously follow the sloping line from her bare shoulders up to her lovely neck. Time slowed. I didn’t dare ask anyone whether M worked for H, but even if she had, that would not have mattered in my hopeless and irrational longing for her.
Then one night, our usual crew of friends went to a club in Hollywood where John Digweed was DJ-ing a set. H hated going to mega clubs, and he chose to stay back that night to smoke weed with a couple of potheads. M came along, to my delight, but she latched onto one of the girls and disappeared. I ground up a few ecstasy pills and sniffed up, found a corner near the speakers, away from the crowd gathered around platforms upon which the bikini’d go-go dancers with long waxen limbs were gyrating. The music was sick. One of my friends came by with a vial of GHB and I drank it down. Soon: melancholy melded into euphoria, and with every blink of my eye, an hour-block of time seemed to flee into the past. I felt happy and fucked up at once, but began intermittently losing consciousness, seated on the floor.
In the midst of that quicksand, I noticed that someone was holding me from behind. The hands moved, massaging my thighs, then up my back, before sensually and forcefully kneading my neck. I turned around to find M’s dilated nocturnal green eyes peering into mine. She bit my neck lightly, overrun with her MDMA euphoria, too, and squeezed me really tight. It felt as though her flesh was being molten into mine. Drugged up, M was a lot more forthcoming than she would normally have been. I asked her why she came over to me. You look like you keep a lot of things hidden, she said. Then she said, out of the blue -
Back in Montreal where I grew up, my stepfather turned me out to sex clients when I was 12 years old.
I turned around to look at her, and her eyes seemed to pool with substance darker than tears, something stronger than myself. I knew I was fucked up but still my mind felt clear. We held each other tight. Rocked back and forth, grinding into each other. Kissed for a long time. I want to have sex with you, I told her. Okay, she said.
While still thinking about sex in writing two days ago, a line from George Barker’s poem, “The True Confession of George Barker,” stuck in my head like a devil’s koan -
My pleasure’s been to undress sin.
Fortunately, I had a friend to bounce my ideas around with, and she mentioned that sin, naked, would look like any other body. She was totally right, and it’s the reason why I find the line so compelling. Because not only can I identify with that impulse, to normalize sin, but I find that impulse even more twisted than sin itself. Such an interesting torque in Barker’s line.
Speaking of strange torques, my mind then turned to Aristophanes’ speech in Plato’s Symposium, something he says after the fabulist myth he relates about how there once was a time when man and woman were one being, then the gods - afraid of their power - cleft them into two halves. Leaving one half forever seeking the other, blah blah blah. Then Aristophanes has this to say about the intimacy of sex -
It’s obvious that the soul of every lover longs for something else; his soul cannot say what it is, but like an oracle it has a sense of what it wants, and like an oracle it hides behind a riddle.
Does this not have the ring of truth to it? The soul’s part in sex: what makes Eros so compelling is that we only have an ineffable sense of what our soul requires. But rather than uttering this desire, the soul stays hidden behind a riddle in making love. I’m going to willfully and horribly misappropriate Schiller’s famous quote, but in this warped selfish context, it seems as if Schiller responds to Aristophanes, centuries later -
If the soul speaks, alas, it is no longer the soul that speaks.
Is this the reason why it is so difficult to mediate the experience of sex in words? I can only speculate. But this all lends a lexical element to the act of making love which I find terribly attractive. Speaking without speaking.
M and I didn’t have sex right after that night. But we made arrangements to disappear from other people for a while, and met up a few weeks later in the hotel bar of Westin Bonaventure in Downtown L.A. We took pills again, and soon enough, the beautifully dimmed lights of the hotel bar began to glow with a special kind of incandescence. We went up to our sunken room, tipped the butler excessively so he could bring up fifty or so votive candles. She lost her black dress, then slipped underneath the comforter on top of me. For three days, we didn’t separate. Hopped up on MDMA and Adderall, I couldn’t physically come, so we made desperate love in a long stretch of longing. On the last day together, M sat on the ledge of the soaking tub and began to masturbate, looking at me without any guile, and it occurred to me that this would be the last day I would ever see her.
I thought: we will forget each other completely in a year and I won’t know where you are.
I thought: all things begin in their ending.
I thought: we should touch each other, make love.
So I moved toward her for the last time.
(All images by Bill Henson)
Peter Mendelsund, a pretty sick polymath who also happens to be the associate art director at Knopf, has a lengthy, thought-provoking post on how our visual imagination works when we read, whether we can visualize characters or things in a work of fiction with reliable specificity, but more crucially: whether it really matters at all that we do so.
I’m at work right now, quote-unquote slogging through regulatory material which needs to be reviewed, so can’t summarize Peter’s post in finer detail. But in quick essence (Peter, don’t hate me for rushing through this!), Peter goes through a series of examples from Anna Karenina, The Sound and the Fury, Moby Dick, Madame Bovary, To the Lighthouse, etc., and notes various instances in which he cannot picture at all what a character or a place looks like.
Via contemplations on Wittgenstein and Barthes, among other things, Peter determines the following -
Good books incite us towards imagining - towards filling in an author’s suggestions.
But there is an important distinction: that this imagination on the part of the reader is not at all a striving to recreate an author’s ideals or original intentions, but instead a striving toward an opposite aim, if you will - not toward a recreation but toward a reduction -
Writers reduce when they write, and readers reduce when they read. The brain itself is built to reduce. Verisimilitude is not only a false idol, but also an unattainable goal…
Picturing stories is making reductions.
My quick thoughts before hopping back to my spreadsheet: it’s interesting that Peter applies a passage from Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Grammar to his thoughts -
We do sometimes see memory pictures in our minds: but commonly they are only scattered through the memory like illustrations in a story book.
I also thought about Wittgenstein while reading Peter’s post, especially about the foreword from Philosophical Investigations, which in essence says that one can only make sense of the “scattered memory pictures” mentioned in the quote above, not through looking for a determined identity or essence, but through -
a complicated network of similarities overlapping and crisscrossing… as in spinning a thread we twist fibre on fibre.
It’s an intentional point of fact that Wittgenstein describes his Philosophical Investigations in pictorial terms when he calls it “an album” which should not cohere into “any single direction.”
Funny how Peter thinks about Wittgenstein while providing a litany of literary examples in which he cannot pictorially imagine what the character looks like: this is how Sebald’s narrator in Austerlitz describes what Austerlitz looks like -
Whenever I see a photograph of Wittgenstein somewhere or other, I feel more and more as if Austerlitz were gazing at me out of it, and when I look at Austerlitz it is as if I see in him the disconsolate philosopher…
Notice that Sebald’s description of Austerlitz is not really a description of a verisimilitude? But of Schwindelgefühle. (Okay, my conviction in that last statement aside, that was a pun obviously for the Sebald nerds: the German title for Sebald’s Vertigo is indeed Schwindel. Gefühle.)
I have to run now, but a few of you may recall my post about the photographer William Gedney I wrote a couple of years ago, about Gedney trying to paint - totally from his memory - a posterior view of a woman in a Vuillard painting he saw at an exhibition. Obviously, there isn’t a one-to-one correspondence in likeness between Vuillard’s woman and Gedney’s representation of her. But it’s funny how I discover Peter’s conclusion in his post - that verisimilitude in representation/imagination doesn’t matter - in my Gedney post, as well -
it wouldn’t make much of a difference to know which exact Vuillard he saw: we know that Gedney’s girl, painted from memory, can only be an approximation, at best, of the girl in the actual Vuillard painting he saw. However, if we did have the opportunity to compare Gedney’s girl next to Vuillard’s girl, we would no doubt recognize that Gedney’s girl is indeed the girl from the Vuillard, not as much from the verisimilitude of physical details, but from the same infinite care and compassion with which both men looked at the small, lovely busy-ness of the woman turned away: their sights on the same point on the same axis, as if they share a common nexus of memory.
Uncanny, right? But again, Wittgenstein says it better and more succinctly than either of us in Philosophical Investigations -
What makes my image of him into an image of him?
Not its looking like him.
(The first image is stolen from Peter’s post, the second is by Mikka Rantanen, the third is by Nicolas de Crecy, the fourth is taken from Austerlitz, and the last is from William Gedney’s sketchbook)
The slippery “I”: Walter Benjamin has this to say about the way with which Proust and Kafka use “I” (tr. Esther Leslie) -
When Proust, in his Recherche du temps perdu, and Kafka, in his diaries, use I, for both of them it is equally transparent, glassy. Its chambers have no local coloring; every reader can occupy it today and move out tomorrow… In these authors the subject adopts the protective coloring of the planet, which will turn grey in the coming catastrophes.
Benjamin scribbled his thoughts above on the drug prescription pad discarded by his doctor friend, Fritz Fränkel. Wonderful, the lugubrious notion expressed in the final sentence of his thoughts. I’d also add the “I” in Cavafy’s 4th Century Alexandria poems to the company of Proust and Kafka’s, as well as Sebald’s “I,” within whom other storytelling voices are nested…
Let me tell you a story. When I was a little kid in Korea, I used to play with this girl, who essentially bossed me around to do everything she wanted me to do. We only played house, doctor, etc., or rather, she forced me to play them - role playing games. Even as a kid, I knew that she was very pretty and grasped that I’d better inhabit the roles she’d ordered me to play with gusto if I wanted to please her.
I mention this girl because I was talking to my mom last week, and she reminded me of one day in my childhood past, when I went missing. She panicked and enlisted all the neighbors to look for me, even got the police involved. When my mom found me, I was at the girl’s house. At the very moment of discovery, my mom saw that the girl was helping me go pee on a tree in the yard, pretending that she was my mother in the darkness of dusk.
My mom had the occasion to bring her up in conversation with me, because she had recently talked on the phone with an old friend in Korea, and the friend mentioned by way of casual update that my girl friend died at an early age due to cancer a few years back, leaving behind a husband and a toddler daughter.
Benjamin highlights the ludic qualities in the I’s of Proust and Kafka, that every reader can occupy their I’s on a whim and move out equally capriciously. Perhaps that’s what we are doing fundamentally when we slip into Proust or Kafka’s I’s (and by extension, Cavafy’s and Sebald’s, et cetera): not so much reading by or through them, but slipping in and out, playing.
When my mom found me at the yard of the girl’s house those many years ago, would we not likely have been cloaked in the protective coloring of the planet, learning to inhabit other I’s and experiences, just playing games, before we sadly and eventually came to mind any pending catastrophes of this world? And so I learned to read I’s with her, I’d like to believe. In another fragment retrieved from Adorno’s archive, Benjamin wrote the lines below in his tiny script as opening lines of a poem, and I’m going to pretend that these Ariadnic lines were meant for my old friend all along (which also means they’re likewise meant for me) -
When I begin a song
And if I become aware of youIt is an illusion
readingmarksonreading tumblr is getting too good -
Pgs. 194 & 195 of David Markson’s copy of Irrational Man: A Study in Existential Philosophy by William Barrett:
Further on down the page: “Heidegger calls this field of Being Dasein. Dasein (which, in German, means literally Being-there) is his name for man.”
Then on the following page: “That Heidegger can say everything he wants to say about human existence without using either ‘man’ or ‘consciousness’ means that the gulf between subject and object, or between mind and body, that has been dug by modern philosophy need not exist if we do not make it.”
… then readingmarksonreading moves to Markson’s novels in which he sees traces of Heidegger, and this observation below on Markson’s Vanishing Point -
Just after tossing in the word “Dasein” in Vanishing Point, on pg. 160, Markson writes:
(Which were SS paramilitary death squads.)
… and so on, just a delightful running catalogue of David Markson’s notes in the margins of his books which readingmarksonreading has bought secondhand from The Strand, his thoughts criss-crossing from Markson’s marginalia to his novels, so forth.
As a form of writing: marginalia, small notes, lists and catalogues, diary entries, etc. Fragments, shards, ephemeralia: small in ambition, happiness in a corner, das Glück im Winkel. Walser’s Microscripts comes to mind, deftly translated by Susan Bernofsky (I’ve two copies already but will be buying the paperback edition due out later this year, illustrated by Maira Kalman).
Who else? Walter Benjamin, who was also fond of pencil micrography, like Walser. In his letter to Jula Radt-Cohn on June 9, 1926 (tr. Esther Leslie) -
You will see that - starting about a week ago, I have once more entered a period of small writing, in which, even after long intervals, I always find some kind of home again, and into which I should like to entice you. If you perceive this little box as homely, then nothing should prevent you from becoming its Princess. (You do know the “New Melusine,” don’t you?)
“The New Melusine” is a story in Goethe’s William Meister’s Journeyman Years, in which a small, magical box contains a miniaturized world which is constantly under a threat of disappearance. A world constantly under a threat of disappearance… if you think of it: is any earthly world in its natural course ever not under such a threat? Doesn’t seem far-fetched by any means, if we follow this logic, to record our disappearing world with small writings. Benjamin again -
Memory does this: lets the things appear small, compresses them. Land of the sailor.
(Last image of Syrian refugees crossing into Turkey for sanctuary, by Moises Saman)
Last Friday night at home, working off the buzz I’d inherited from the four beers I’d guzzled during my company’s happy hour (literally a one hour-long affair, spread on the credenza near the hallway), I logged into my twitter to tweet about a dream I had the night before in which I wrote a tidy tome analyzing Paul Celan’s poems using sabermetrics (the results of my book proved that - post VOPR, UZR and adjusted OPS via dream logic - Celan was more than a little overrated, which made me a pariah with both the literati and baseball statisticians). Just before logging out, however, I saw @arachnomaria’s link to Cavafy’s stunning poem, “Myres: Alexandria in 340 A.D.,” translated by Daniel Mendelsohn. The poem, I guess, can ostensibly be taken as an elegy, except there’s nothing much elegiac about it on the surface.
In the poem, a youth named Myres has died. He was a Christian in Alexandria during a period when the city, after Constantine’s rule, was undergoing a tidal religious transformation - in the beginning of the fourth century, Alexandria was predominantly pagan; there were laws and injunctions which persecuted Christians for their faith unto death. Then, during and after Constantine, Alexandria increasingly and en masse converted to Christianity, until it was the pagans who became marginalized, culminating in the destruction of the Serapeum led by Theophilus. (I have to note and strongly recommend: Daniel Mendelsohn’s annotations to his Cavafy translation, by the way, serve as excellent guide to Cavafy’s series of poems set in Alexandria of this era.)
In Cavafy’s poem, the “I” is a pagan friend or lover (?) of Myres, and the final stanza is a stunning testament of mourning which summons the personally emotional, metaphysical and religio-political sense of loss, all at once with chilling realism. By the closing lines of the poem, “I” is observing the diligent rituals of Christian funeral rites, listening to the priests talk of Myres’ soul -
And all of a sudden I was seized by a queer
impression. Vaguely, I had the feeling that
Myres was going far away from me;
had a feeling that he, a Christian, was being united
with his own, and that I was becoming
a stranger to him, very much a stranger; I sensed besides
a certain doubt coming over me: perhaps I had been fooled
by my passion, had always been a stranger to him.—
I flew out of their horrible house,
and quickly left before their Christianity
could get hold of, could alter, the memory of Myres.
This poem is bar none the best non-Christian Christian poem ever. The perspective is profoundly pagan, but that stark realization of “I,” that it may be the Christian faith which will ultimately estrange “I” from the memory of Myres… There’s a deliberate and brilliant blurring of boundaries between the pagan and the Christian - the perspective of the poem repudiates Christianity, but the ultimate confession does not deny Christianity’s darkly real hold on the “I” of the poem, over the memory of Myres, and finally ends up fundamentally coloring his entire relationship with Myres, threatening his lasting remembrance of him.
The sense of mourning, as expressed by Cavafy, is multivalent. In historical context, this voice seems all the more sad and desperate, backed up against the wall. This diary entry from Roland Barthes’ The Mourning Diary flashes across my mind for some reason now (tr. Richard Howard) -
Mourning: indisposition, a situation with no possible blackmail.
It’s just a hopeless fight to preserve the memory of the lost, which, in the end, has to do with our stupid desire to bring back those whom we’ve lost with futile rites and gestures: a syncretic and universalist foolishness, equally Christian and pagan at once. Cavafy expresses this very foolishness of our rituals and desires in another poem called “Cleitus’s Illness” set in Alexandria of the same era. In this poem, an old housemaid tries to bring Cleitus, a privileged Christian youth, back from the verge of death and to health by chanting litanies to a pagan idol she once worshiped as a girl, in a Christian home of her master, no less. Here’s how the poem ends -
She secretly takes some cakes, and wine, and honey.
She brings them before the idol. She chants as many
litanies as she recalls: the bits from either end, the middles. The foolish
doesn’t realize that it matters little to the black demon
whether a Christian is or isn’t cured.
Yet, it is because of this foolish endeavor that the maidservant has our sympathies, that she moves us. All the more moving because no matter the futility of her vigilance, there is still a sense of life in her petition. Cavafy. Just one day before the entry on mourning which I quoted above, Barthes made another entry on mourning -
(Images, top to bottom: by Alexey Titarenko, Roland Barthes’ handwriting from a “Mourning Diary” entry, a detail from Ghirlandaio’s Portrait of Giovanna Tornabuonni)
Sergio De La Pava’s A Naked Singularityis here. It’ll start shipping next week and should be stacked in a bookstore near you by the Ides of April. Clear your calendars, folks: there be reading ahead.
Thought: Levi Stahl should have a TV show in which he holds up books and talks about them.
… in which he also dispenses ironic sartorial advice. And I swear I see the face of Wilfred Benitez in 3-D out of the patterns of the cover.