words. music. pictures. scheherazade.
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
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)
Would love to check out the Gordon Matta-Clark exhibt at David Zwirner Gallery, which Peter Schjeldahl wrote about in last week’s The New Yorker.
I don’t know much about Gordon Matta-Clark’s biography, except that he died in 1978, from pancreatic cancer - he was only 35 years old. He practiced what some refer to as “Anarchitecture” - he and a group of “anarchitects” would take various condemned buildings, structures and houses in NYC/NJ areas and basically punch holes and slice gaping bisecting lines and geometric shapes through them. See below, a b&w photo of “Splitting” -
and from the interior -
I first saw some of these images in the early 90s, when I was really way too young and easily impressionable, and Gordon Matta-Clark, along with Ban Jas Ader, Joseph Beuys, Martin Kippenberger, represented somewhat of a personal, idiosyncratic pantheon for me when it came to art. I thought about their work just as much as I thought about Babel or Sebald or Akhmatova… it’s quite possible that I was never as much in love with art as I had been back then. Actually, it’s quite true -
When people talk about Matta-Clark’s work, they tend to use terms like “guerilla,” “anarchy,” you know… cutting edge, avant-garde… but what drew me to Matta-Clark is the insistence on stripping things down to the elemental forms, which I found classical in impulse, almost Platonically striving.
I wrote about the nature vs. artifice contrast in the crystal image in Sebald’s work, and so it is, too, here: how ironic is it that Matta-Clark’s Anarchitecture was just as much about the effects and filtration of light and other natural elements as it was about demolishing/re-making manbuilt structures and ruins -
Poetry. Cavafy expresses it better with “Ionic” -
That we’ve broken their statues,
that we’ve driven them out of their temples,
doesn’t mean at all that the gods are dead.
O land of Ionia, they’re still in love with you,
their souls still keep your memory.
When an August dawn wakes over you,
your atmosphere is potent with their life,
and sometimes a young ethereal figure,
indistinct, in rapid flight,
wings across your hills.
(tr. Edmund Keeley/Philip Sherrard)