Claudio and Isabella, 1850 by William Holman Hunt (1827–1910)
From William Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure, Act 3, Scene 1:
Be ready, Claudio, for your death tomorrow.
Yes. Has he affections in him,
That thus can make him bite the law by the nose,
When he would force it? Sure, it is no sin,
Or of the deadly seven, it is the least.
Which is the least?
If it were damnable, he being so wise,
Why would he for the momentary trick
Be perdurably fined? O Isabel!
What says my brother?
Death is a fearful thing.
And shamed life a hateful.
Ay, but to die, and go we know not where; To lie in cold obstruction and to rot; This sensible warm motion to become A kneaded clod; and the delighted spirit To bathe in fiery floods, or to reside In thrilling region of thick-ribbed ice; To be imprison’d in the viewless winds, And blown with restless violence round about The pendent world; or to be worse than worst Of those that lawless and incertain thought Imagine howling: ’tis too horrible! The weariest and most loathed worldly life That age, ache, penury and imprisonment Can lay on nature is a paradise To what we fear of death.
May 19th.–. . . Lights and shadows are continually flitting across my inward sky, and I know neither whence they come nor whither they go; nor do I inquire too closely into them. It is dangerous to look too minutely into such phenomena. It is apt to create a substance where at first there was a mere shadow. . . . If at any time there should seem to be an expression unintelligible from one soul to another, it is best not to strive to interpret it in earthly language, but wait for the soul to make itself understood; and, were we to wait a thousand years, we need deem it no more time than we can spare. . . . It is not that I have any love of mystery, but because I abhor it, and because I have often felt that words may be a thick and darksome veil of mystery between the soul and the truth which it seeks. Wretched were we, indeed, if we had no better means of communicating ourselves, no fairer garb in which to array our essential being, than these poor rags and tatters of Babel. Yet words are not without their use even for purposes of explanation,–but merely for explaining outward acts and all sorts of external things, leaving the soul’s life and action to explain itself in its own way.
What a misty disquisition I have scribbled! I would not read it over for sixpence.
ONE MIDSUMMER AFTERNOON a dog went running through a village, stopping just long enough to bite a young man who stood on the main street. It was not a deep wound, and the young man washed it at a fountain nearby and thought no more about it. However, several people who had seen the animal bite him mentioned it to his younger brother. You must take your brother to a doctor in the city, they said.
When the boy went home and suggested this, his brother merely laughed. The next day in the village the boy decided to consult the fqih. He found the old man sitting in the shade under the figtree in the courtyard of the mosque. He kissed his hand, and told him that a dog no one had ever seen before had bitten his brother and run away.
That’s very bad, said the fqih. Have you got a stable you can lock him into? Put him there, but tie his hands behind him. No one must go near him, you understand?
The boy thanked the fqih and set out for home. On the way he determined to cover a hammer with yarn and hit his brother on the back of the head. Knowing that his mother would never consent to seeing her son treated in this way, he decided that it would have to be done when she was away from the house.
That evening while the woman stood outside by the well, he crept up behind his brother and beat him with the hammer until he fell to the floor. Then he fastened his hands behind him and dragged him into a shed next to the house. There he left him lying on the ground, and went out, padlocking the door behind him. Continue reading “Read “The Fqih,” a short story by Paul Bowles”→
Jorge Luis Borges is first mentioned in the sixth paragraph of Roberto Bolaño’s masterful short story “The Insufferable Gaucho.” In this paragraph, the narrator tells us that the story’s hero, an ex-judge named Pereda, believed “the best Argentine writers were Borges and his son; any further commentary on that subject was superfluous.”
Several paragraphs later, Bolaño’s narrator explicitly references Borges’s short story “The South,” the precursor text for “The Insufferable Gaucho.” The reference to Borges is tied again to Pereda’s son, the writer Bebe.
Leaving tumultuous Buenos Aires, basically destitute from the Argentine Great Depression, Pereda heads to the countryside to take up residence in his family’s ancient ranch. Departing the train and arriving to a rural town,
Inevitably, he remembered Borges’s story “The South,” and when he thought of the store mentioned in the final paragraphs his eyes brimmed with tears. Then he remembered the plot of Bebe’s last novel, and imagined his son writing on a computer, in an austere room at a Midwestern university. When Bebe comes back and finds out I’ve gone to the ranch . . . , he thought in enthusiastic anticipation.
Bolaño essentially appropriates the plot of “The South” for his tale “The Insufferable Gaucho” and inserts a version of himself into this revision. Bolaño is “Bebe” here, an author who “wrote vaguely melancholy stories with vaguely crime-related plots,” his name phonically doubling the series of mirrors and precursors that Bolaño, mystery man, leaves as clues: Bebe, B-B, Borges-Bolaño, Belano-Bolaño. (Is this too wild a conjecture, dear reader? Mea culpa).
And Pereda then? A stand-in for Borges’s Juan Dahlmann (hero of “The South,” who “considered himself profoundly Argentinian”), surely, but also, maybe also—a stand-in for (a version of) Borges.
What I mean to say:
Bolaño, displaced Chilean, writes “The Insufferable Gaucho” as an intertextual love letter to his displaced father, the Argentine Jorge Luis Borges.
Bolaño then, to steal a line from Borges’s story, locates in Dahlmann/Borges “his romantic ancestor, his ancestor of the romantic death.” (English translation of the Borges here by Anthony Kerrigan; Chris Andrews translates Bolaño).
Bolaño’s retelling of Borges’s tale is initially marked by a heightened self-consciousness on the part of its hero Pereda, who, over time, gives over to an entirely different consciousness. Let me share a passage of some length; note the hazy dream-tone:
On the way back to his ranch, he dozed off a couple of times. He woke up from his second nap on one of the streets of Capitán Jourdan. He saw a corner store that was open. He heard voices, and someone strumming a guitar, tuning it but never settling on a particular song to play, just as he had read in Borges. For a moment, he thought that his destiny, his screwed-up American destiny, would be to meet his death like Dahlmann in “The South,” and it seemed unfair, partly because he now had debts to repay and partly because he wasn’t ready to die, although Pereda knew that death is an occurrence for which one is never ready. Seized by a sudden inspiration, he entered the store on horseback. Inside, he found an old gaucho, strumming the guitar, the owner, and three younger guys sitting at a table, who started when they saw the horse come in. Pereda was inwardly satisfied by the thought that the scene was like something from a story by di Benedetto. Nevertheless, he set his face and approached the zinc-topped bar. He ordered a glass of aguardiente, which he drank with one hand, while in the other he held his riding crop discreetly out of view, since he hadn’t yet bought himself the traditional sheath knife. He asked the owner to put the drink on his account, and on his way out, as he passed the young gauchos, he told them to move aside because he was going to spit. This was meant as affirmation of his authority, but before the gauchos could grasp what was happening the gob of phlegm had flown from his lips; they barely had time to jump. May the rain fall soft on you, he said, before disappearing into the darkness of Capitán Jourdan.
Is this insufferably romantic episode real or simply imagined by our hero? Borges perhaps would simply answer, Yes.
We can find that Yes in”The South,” which turns the binary of real/imagined on its metaphorical ear. The story is larded with examples, but I’ll share one where Dahlmann dozes on a train ride to the ranch (just as decades later Pereda will doze on his train ride to a ranch, and then (then?!) doze on a horse):
Tomorrow I’ll wake up at the ranch, he thought, and it was as if he was two men at a time: the man who traveled through the autumn day and across the geography of the fatherland, and the other one, locked up in a sanitarium and subject to methodical servitude. He saw unplastered brick houses, long and angled, timelessly watching the trains go by; he saw horsemen along the dirt roads; he saw gullies and lagoons and ranches; he saw great luminous clouds that resembled marble; and all these things were accidental, casual, like dreams of the plain. He also thought he recognized trees and crop fields; but he would not have been able to name them, for his actual knowledge of the country side was quite inferior to his nostalgic and literary knowledge.
Two men at a time, Borges tells us; Bolaño will continue exploring that bifurcation decades later with Dahlmann’s doppelgänger Pereda. Do either of the men actually ever wake up? Are their journeys merely their own fictions—or, more Borgesian, the fictions they cobble from the fragments of precursor fictions, shot through the lens of “nostalgic and literary knowledge?”
The extent of Dahlmann’s literary knowledge is never quite clear, although Borges (of course) names a precursor text for “The South”: Weil’s The Thousand and One Nights, a book so intertextually fraught and metatextually overdetermined that I feel little need to remark on its Borgesian significance other than to point out that the tales in that volume are Scheherazade’s way of saving her own life. In “The South,” we are told that Dahlmann uses The Thousand and One Nights as a tool for “suppressing reality” and that during his intense illness it “served to illustrate nightmares.”
Does Dahlmann actually die then, or does he, through literature, imagination, and story-telling, like Scheherazade, stave off death for one more night? Again, I think that the Borgesian answer here is, Yes.
Although I’ve been citing Anthony Kerrigan’s early translation of “The South” here, I think Andrew Hurley’s more recent one makes a marvelous emendation that resonates with the spirit of the tale (and actually fits the original Spanish): He translates the last line into the present tense: “Dahlmann firmly grips the knife, which he may have no idea how to manage, and steps out into the plains.” Dahlmann is still alive at the end of “The South.” Like the enormous sleeping cat that dozes in his memory, Dahlmann “lives in the present, in the eternity of the instant.”
Tellingly, Pereda doesn’t share my interpretation—for him, Dahlmann dies. Recall that “he thought that his destiny, his screwed-up American destiny, would be to meet his death like Dahlmann in ‘The South.’” Bolaño’s tale (typically Bolañoesque) radiates a cryptic, sinister morbidity, one saturated in dark humor. In a moment that seems both ironic and wholly earnest, Pereda fantasizes a death coded through “nostalgic and literary knowledge,” one modeled after “his romantic ancestor, his ancestor of the romantic death.”
I’ve plugged Borges’s lines into a different context here, but they work, and really the context isn’t so different. In “The South,” the specific ancestor alluded to is Dahlmann’s “maternal grandfather…Francisco Flores, of the Second Line Infantry Division, who had died on the frontier of Buenos Aires, run through with a lance by Indians from Catriel.” Dahlmann figuratively or literally (Yes) repeats his ancestor’s romantic death.
And then Bolaño repeats his ancestor’s romantic death, reconfiguring the climax at the end of “The South,” in which Dahlmann faces off against the muchachones. I consulted three different translations of “The South”; each one does something a bit different with the youths who threaten Dahlmann: country louts, ruffians, young thugs.
How does Bolaño translate these young men? At the end of “The Insufferable Gaucho,” our quixotic hero, dirty, haggard, “attired like a cross between a gaucho and a rabbit trapper,” perhaps dreaming, perhaps insane, peers into a cafe, where he sees
. . . a group of writers who looked as if they worked in advertising. One of them, who had an adolescent air, although he was over fifty and maybe even over sixty, kept putting a white powder up his nose and holding forth on world literature. Suddenly, the eyes of the fake adolescent met Pereda’s. For a moment, their gazes locked, as if, for each of them, the presence of the other were a gash in the ambient reality. Resolutely and with surprising agility, the writer with the adolescent air sprang to his feet and rushed out into the street. Before Pereda knew what was going on, the writer was upon him.
Of course Bolaño, list-maker, canon-maker, curator, always registering the competitive anxieties of poets and authors, of course Bolaño will turn the threatening youth into a fucking writer!
Significantly, Pereda sees (or more likely believes he sees, although Bolaño doesn’t tip his hand here) “Bebe and an old man (An old man like me! Pereda thought)…presiding over one of the most animated tables.” The image betokens a fantastic displacement in Pereda’s warped mind, yes, but also perhaps signals Bolaño’s fantasy to hash out literary matters in a buzzing cafe with his father, Borges. In any case, this is the last we hear of Bebe, a detail that undercuts the reality of what happens next, as the coked-up writer advances on the insufferable gaucho:
Pereda realized that he had grasped his knife, then let himself go. He took a step forward and, without anyone noticing that he was armed, planted the point of the blade, though not deeply, in his opponent’s groin. Later, he would remember the look of surprise on the man’s face, in which terror blended with something like reproof, and the writer’s words as he groped for an explanation (Hey, what did you do, asshole?), as if there could be an explanation for fever and nausea.
Bolaño’s gaucho—the fantastic reconfiguration of Borges’s gaucho, son of Borges’s gaucho, but also doppelgänger to Borges’s gaucho—Bolaño’s gaucho performs a symbolic castration, an Oedipally-charged act of violence that seems to tip into visceral reality in the story’s last moments.
Bolaño turns the country louts into cosmopolitan poseurs, writers that look like yuppie admen, and then he has his hero cut one—right in the crotch.The gesture revises the ambiguous ending of “The South,” following through with the once-suspended knife fight.
Whether or not this final episode actually happens or happens only in the protagonist’s mind may or may not matter to you, reader. “The Insufferable Gaucho” is stocked with surreal Lynchian moments, from Pereda riding his horse into the country store, to a publisher being attacked by a feral rabbit (after which Pereda cauterizes the man’s neck wound with his knife!).
As the story progresses, Pereda shakes off nostalgia and literary reference. Like a bedraggled Quixote, he lives his romance. His consciousness, once informed by Borges and Antonio di Benedetto, becomes freer, asserts its own fantasy as self-generative and self-sufficient. When Pereda first entered the country store, “He heard voices, and someone strumming a guitar, tuning it but never settling on a particular song to play, just as he had read in Borges”; later in the tale, holding a party for his son, Pereda “sent for the foremost of Capitán Jourdan’s guitar-strumming gauchos, warning him beforehand that he was to do strictly that: strum, without playing any song in particular, in accordance with the country way.” Pereda omits Borges as the source of style here: Borges becomes the country way.
The fantasy Bolaño constructs allows him to simultaneously posit Borges as his literary progenitor and then erase the evidence of that progenitor, even as his contours and essence remain. Bolaño-as-Bebe remains a marginal figure—Bolaño’s own stable consciousness, perhaps?—while knife-weilding Pereda enacts Borges’s revenge on all the poseurs and hacks. And if Pereda is too passionate, too romantic, too violent, too unstable—so be it. At least he thought enough of his son to class him with Borges the Great.
And it’s through this gesture—this literary trick—that Bolaño asserts and defends the literary lineage he lays his claims to: His romantic ancestor, Borges.
[Ed. note–Biblioklept published aversion of this essay in May of 2014].
Atticus is, a, you know, a writer by Christ—is a novelist, by Christ, is indeed, if I, by Keerist, may say so myself, ever so proudly so, ever so rivalrously so, a novelist of nothing less than of rank.
Lish the Elder has impeccable taste, but, you know, c’mon. We all tend to think our kids are great at everything.
Anyway, I picked up a copy of Preparation for the Next Life a few days ago. I wasn’t looking for it; I was looking for another “L” novelist, but the spine popped out. I took it home and read the first few paragraphs. Then I just kept reading, consuming the first third in hungry gulps.
Lish’s prose is amazingly concrete. He renders New York City (and the other settings) with seemingly effortless thoroughness; the evocation of place is vivid and refined in its attention to detail, but reads raw somehow. There’s a flavor of prime Denis Johnson or Don DeLillo here, but these comparisons aren’t fair: Lish is original—the prose reads thoroughly real, real to and from the author. The novel so far strikes me as one of the most authentic “post-9/11” novels I’ve read. There’s almost something sci-fi to Preparation—Lish shows us our world through alien eyes that suck in every detail. I wish I’d read it sooner.
Skinner hitchhikes to New York, newly returned from Iraq, hoping to exorcise his demons. Zou Lei, an undocumented immigrant from Central Asia, catches a bus into the city, searching for a way to get by—or at least stay out of jail. Their unlikely love story becomes the heart of one of the most compelling and widely acclaimed novels in years.
A clear-eyed illustration of life in New York City’s margins, Preparation For the Next Life evokes the unsettling realities of the American Dream for U.S. immigrants and unsupported veterans in stark, vivid detail. At once a nightmare and a love letter to New York City (a place one loves partly for its host of nightmares), Lish’s prose is disciplined yet always alive and taut with danger, rendered with the voice of a new and natural talent.
I got lost in Brian Catling’s expansive 2012 novel The Vorrh, a phantasmagorical critique of colonialism set in and around a massive, possibly infinite jungle called the Vorrh. Apparently God likes to stroll this primeval forest while he meditates, the original Adam (gray and shrunken) skulks about like Gollum, and anthropophagi lurk in the hopes of capturing a human or two to snack on.
These are just minor moments though in this shaggy opus. The Vorrh is larded with myth, religion, science, history, art, and literature. Catling, a sculptor by trade, synthesizes the nascent 20th-century’s ideas about all the centuries that came before it into what Alan Moore calls “Easily the current century’s first landmark work of fantasy.” Moore goes on to describe The Vorrh as
….a sprawling immaterial organism which leaves the reader filthy with its seeds and spores, encouraging new growth and threatening a great reforesting of the imagination.
Moore is enthusiastic (perhaps overly so), and his introduction to the novel serves as a far better review than anything I can muster here—like I said at the outset, I got lost in The Vorrh. It’s an overstuffed beast of a book, its storylines sprouting strangely (often from nowhere), tangling into other storylines, colliding in a kaleidoscope of blooms that often fall from their vine before bearing fruit.
There are a several main strands to The Vorrh’s plot though, and they do bear strange fruit. There’s a Cyclops named Ishmael, raised by robots underneath a haunted house in the colonial capital of Essenwald. He has sex with a blind woman named Cyrena during Carnival and she becomes sighted, an event that sparks a healing epidemic which in time turns into a plague. There’s Peter Williams, veteran of the Great War, who makes a bow out of his wife’s corpse in the novel’s opening section. (Don’t worry, she was a shaman who wanted him to do that). He treks into the Vorrh. Tsungali, a warrior of the True People, tracks the trekker. Another warrior tracks him. There’s a shady doctor and a Scottish taskmaster who conspire to keep a hive-mind slave army happy (?) cutting down trees at the periphery of the Vorrh. There’s a knot of historical characters, including the photographer Eadweard Muybridge (the dude who photographed a horse in motion), Queen Victoria’s personal physician Sir William Withey Gull (whom Alan Moore posited as Jack the Ripper in From Hell), and a version of surrealist writer Raymond Roussel. I realize I began this paragraph with the phrase “several main strands” and then listed more than several without even getting to all of the plot points, let alone an articulation of how they come together—or don’t come together.
The Vorrh has the feel and texture of grand great shaggy comic book, one rendered in my mind’s eye in the fabulous, expansive style of Moebius. Characters—so many characters!—come and go, and if someone dies, don’t worry—there’s every possibility of resurrection in The Vorrh. Catling delights in giving us the backstory on a pair of twin assassins even after he’s killed them off; he allows his free indirect style to enter the consciousness of a sleeping dog’s sex dream; he spends a few sentences on a charming cannibal’s dinner plans. The Vorrh’s in the details.
In its loose erudition and striking visuals, The Vorrh reminded me of the fiction of China Mieville or Neal Stephenson. In its shaggy weirdness it also reminded me of Chris Claremont’s run on The Uncanny X-Men. Its Victorian Gothicism and syntheses of adventure, horror, and Western tropes also recalls the late Showtime television series, Penny Dreadful. And The Vorrh’s prose style often harnesses some of the bombast we find in classic Weird Fiction of Lovecraft or Lord Dunsany.
If it’s lazy to simply trot out comparisons (and there are so many more I can make), mea culpa. The novel is big, and I’d have to read it again to figure out how its baroque features fit together to do any real proper decent analysis—and I’d rather read its sequel, The Erstwhile. I will say that I liked it despite (and maybe to an extent because of) its faults. I think you can suss out from my weak summary in the fourth paragraph if The Vorrh holds any interest for you.
[Ed. note–the image at the top of this review is a scan of a strange press booklet that publisher Vintage sent with original review copies of The Vorrh. In addition to Alan Moore’s introduction, the slim, string-bound booklet contains an interview with Catling, and a portrait by Catling of Alan Moore as a cyclops. The cover of the booklet is a painting by Catling].
A few years ago I posted a brief excerpt from Jules Siegel’s March 1977 Playboy profile “Who is Thomas Pynchon… And Why Did He Take Off With My Wife?” The excerpt came from an excerpt posted on the Pynchon-L forum, but most of the article had been removed at the (apparent) request by Siegel. A few people sent me the whole article though (thanks!) and I read it.
Jules Siegel was briefly a Cornell classmate of Pynchon’s in 1954, and they remained friends (in Siegel’s recollection) for at least two decades after. During this time, Siegel claims that Pynchon wrote him dozens of letters, which were ultimately sold at auction (along with much of Siegel’s property) to help pay for a hip replacement. Material from the letters soak into Siegel’s sketch of Pynchon’s progress, along with several stoned/drunken adventures that would not be out of place in V. or Mason & Dixon or Gravity’s Rainbow, or really, any person’s young life.
A competitive anxiety reverberates under the piece. “We were friends, maybe at some points best friends, very much alike in some important ways,” Siegel writes. “We were both writers,” he boldly writes. Siegel reminds us that “In Mortality and Mercy in Vienna, Pynchon’s first published short story, the protagonist is one Cleanth Siegel,” but protests he doesn’t see himself in that hero.
The competitive anxieties culminate in the big reveal that (spoiler!) Thomas Pynchon had an affair with Siegel’s second wife Chrissie. There’s probably a Freudian reading we can append to the details that Siegel offers about Pynchon’s sexual prowess: “He was a wonderful lover, sensitive and quick, with the ability to project a mood that turned the most ordinary surroundings into a scene out of a masterful film—the reeking industrial slum of Manhattan Beach would become as seen through the eye of Antonioni, for example.”
Or maybe these unsexy details are just a sign of Playboy’s editorial hand. Wedged gracelessly between ads for vibrators and nude greeting cards, Siegel’s lines often reek of 1970’s Playboy’s rhetorical house style, a kind of frank-but-(attempted)-sensual glossiness that contrasts heavily with Pynchon’s own sex writing. At times I found myself reading Siegel’s prose in one of Will Ferrell’s more pompous accents.
Even worse is the casual sexism of the piece—which again, may be attributable to Playboy’s editors. Siegel, on his first wife (sixteen when he married her): “She was so wonderful a lover, generous and easily aroused, but I was too callow then to appreciate her.” Of his second wife: “It is easy to underestimate her intelligence, but it is a mistake. She is obviously too pretty to be serious, conventional wisdom would have you believe.” Of one of Pynchon’s girlfriends: “Susan has red hair and is breathtakingly beautiful, with the voluptuous body of a showgirl. Like Chrissie, she is much brighter than she looks.”
More interesting, obviously, are the (supposedly) real-life details that inform Pynchon’s fiction. Siegel notes some of the contents of Pynchon’s Manhattan Beach apartment: “A built-in bookcase had rows of piggy banks on each shelf and there was a collection of books and magazines about pigs.” Pigs, of course, are a major motif of Gravity’s Rainbow. Another detail that seems to connect to GR: “On the desk, there was a rudimentary rocket made from one of those pencil-like erasers with coiled paper wrappers that you unzip to expose the rubber. It stood on a base twisted out of a paper clip.” Siegel lets us know that he knocked the rocket down. Pynchon puts it back together; Siegel knocks it down again.
(Parenthetically: Siegel’s evocation of Pynchon’s Manhattan Beach days fits neatly into my picture of Inherent Vice).
In accounting details of Pynchon’s alleged affair with his wife, Chrissie, Siegel shares the following:
Once, out on the freeway, she told him that we had all gone naked at the commune, he professed to find that incredible and dared her to take off her blouse right there. She did. A passing truck hooted its horn in lewd applause. He loved her Shirley Temple impersonations—On the Good Ship Lollipop sung and danced like a kid at a birthday party. They talked about running away together.
It is hardly possible here not to recall the episode early in Gravity’s Rainbow wherein Jessica Swanlake removes her blouse in the car on a dare from Roger Mexico. Is Siegel daring the reader to extrapolate further? Extrapolation, paranoid connections—isn’t this part of Pynchonian fun?
In that spirit, I’ll close with my favorite moment from the article.
“You know the W.A.S.T.E. horn in The Crying of Lot 49? The symbol of the secret message service? Every weirdo in the world is on my wave length. You cannot understand the kind of letters I get. Someone wrote to tell me that the very same horn was the symbol of a private mail system in medieval times. I checked it out at the library. It’s true. But I made it up myself before the book was ever published, before I ever got that letter.”
The lines are supposedly from Pynchon himself. Siegel even puts them in quotation marks—so they must be real, right?
[Ed. note: Biblioklept ran a version of this post in 2015].
Or a long sentence moving at a certain pace down the page aiming for the bottom-if not the bottom of this page then some other page-where it can rest, or stop for a moment to think out the questions raised by its own (temporary) existence, which ends when the page is turned, or the sentence falls out of the mind that holds it (temporarily) in some kind of embrace, not necessarily an ardent one, but more perhaps the kind of embrace enjoyed (or endured), by a wife who has just waked up and is on her way to the bathroom in the morning to wash her hair, and is bumped into by her husband, who has been lounging at the breakfast table reading the newspaper, and doesn’t see her coming out of the bedroom, but, when he bumps into her, or is bumped into by her, raises his hands to embrace her lightly, transiently, because he knows that if he gives her a real embrace so early in the morning, before she has properly shaken the dreams out of her head, and got her duds on, she won’t respond, and may even become slightly angry, and say something wounding, and so the husband invests in this embrace not so much physical or emotional pressure as he might, because he doesn’t want to waste anything-with this sort of feeling, then, the sentence passes through the mind more or less, and there is another way of describing the situation too, which is to say that the sentence crawls through the mind like something someone says to you while you are listening very hard to the FM radio, some rock group there, with its thrilling sound, and so, with your attention or the major part of it at least already rewarded, there is not much mind room you can give to the remark, especially considering that you have probably just quarreled with that person, the maker of the remark, over the radio being too loud, or something like that, and the view you take, of the remark, is that you’d really rather not hear it, but if you have to hear it, you want to listen to it for the smallest possible length of time, and during a commercial, because immediately after the commercial they’re going to play a new rock song by your favorite group, a cut that has never been aired before, and you want to hear it and respond to it in a new way, a way that accords with whatever you’re feeling at the moment, or might feel, if the threat of new experience could be (temporarily) overbalanced by the promise of possible positive benefits, or what the mind construes as such, remembering that these are often, really, disguised defeats (not that such defeats are not, at times, good for your character, teaching you that it is not by success alone that one surmounts life, but that setbacks, too, contribute to that roughening of the personality that, by providing a textured surface to place against that of life, enables you to leave slight traces, or smudges, on the face of human history-your mark) and after all, benefit-seeking always has something of the smell of raw vanity about it, as if you wished to decorate your own brow with laurel, or wear your medals to a cookout, when the invitation had said nothing about them, and although the ego is always hungry (we are told) it is well to remember that ongoing success is nearly as meaningless as ongoing lack of success, which can make you sick, and that it is good to leave a few crumbs on the table for the rest of your brethren, not to sweep it all into the little beaded purse of your soul but to allow others, too, part of the gratification, and if you share in this way you will find the clouds smiling on you, and the postman bringing you letters, and bicycles available when you want to rent them, and many other signs, however guarded and limited, of the community’s (temporary) approval of you, or at least of it’s willingness to let you believe (temporarily) that it finds you not so lacking in commendable virtues as it had previously allowed you to think, from its scorn of your merits, as it might be put, or anyway its consistent refusal to recognize your basic humanness and its secret blackball of the project of your remaining alive, made in executive session by its ruling bodies, which, as everyone knows, carry out concealed programs of reward and punishment, under the rose, causing faint alterations of the status quo, behind your back, at various points along the periphery of community life, together with other enterprises not dissimilar in tone, such as producing films that have special qualities, or attributes, such as a film where the second half of it is a holy mystery, and girls and women are not permitted to see it, or writing novels in which the final chapter is a plastic bag filled with water, which you can touch, but not drink: in this way, or ways, the underground mental life of the collectivity is botched, or denied, or turned into something else never imagined by the planners, who, returning from the latest seminar in crisis management and being asked what they have learned, say they have learned how to throw up their hands; the sentence meanwhile, although not insensible of these considerations, has a festering conscience of its own, which persuades it to follow its star, and to move with all deliberate speed from one place to another, without losing any of the “riders” it may have picked up just being there, on the page, and turning this way and that, to see what is over there, under that oddly-shaped tree, or over there, reflected in the rain barrel of the imagination, even though it is true that in our young manhood we were taught that short, punchy sentences were best (but what did he mean? doesn’t “punchy” mean punch-drunk? I think he probably intended to say “short, punching sentences,” meaning sentences that lashed out at you, bloodying your brain if possible, and looking up the word just now I came across the nearby “punkah,” which is a large fan suspended from the ceiling in India, operated by an attendant pulling a rope-that is what I want for my sentence, to keep it cool!) we are mature enough now to stand the shock of learning that much of what we were taught in our youth was wrong, or improperly understood by those who were teaching it, or perhaps shaded a bit, the shading resulting from the personal needs of the teachers, who as human beings had a tendency to introduce some of their heart’s blood into their work, and sometimes this may not have been of the first water, this heart’s blood, and even if they thought they were moving the “knowledge” out, as the Board of Education had mandated, they could have noticed that their sentences weren’t having the knockdown power of the new weapons whose bullets tumble end-over-end (but it is true that we didn’t have these weapons at that time) and they might have taken into account the fundamental dubiousness of their project (but all the intelligently conceived projects have been eaten up already, like the moon and the stars) leaving us, in our best clothes, with only things to do like conducting vigorous wars of attrition against our wives, who have now thoroughly come awake, and slipped into their striped bells, and pulled sweaters over their torsi, and adamantly refused to wear any bras under the sweaters, carefully explaining the political significance of this refusal to anyone who will listen, or look, but not touch, because that has nothing to do with it, so they say; leaving us, as it were, with only things to do like floating sheets of Reynolds Wrap around the room, trying to find out how many we can keep in the air at the same time, which at least gives us a sense of participation, as though we were Buddha, looking down at the mystery of your smile, which needs to be investigated, and I think I’ll do that right now, while there’s still enough light, if you’ll sit down over there, in the best chair, and take off all your clothes, and put your feet in that electric toe caddy (which prevents pneumonia) and slip into this permanent press hospital gown, to cover your nakedness-why, if you do all that, we’ll be ready to begin! after I wash my hands, because you pick up an amazing amount of exuviae in this city, just by walking around in the open air, and nodding to acquaintances, and speaking to friends, and copulating with lovers, in the ordinary course (and death to our enemies! by and by)-but I’m getting a little uptight, just about washing my hands, because I can’t find the soap, which somebody has used and not put back in the soap dish, all of which is extremely irritating, if you have a beautiful patient sitting in the examining room, naked inside her gown, and peering at her moles in the mirror, with her immense brown eyes following your every movement (when they are not watching the moles, expecting them, as in a Disney nature film, to exfoliate) and her immense brown head wondering what you’re going to do to her, the pierced places in the head letting that question leak out, while the therapist decides just to wash his hands in plain water, and hang the soap! and does so, and then looks around for a towel, but all the towels have been collected by the towel service, and are not there, so he wipes his hands on his pants, in the back (so as to avoid suspicious stains on the front) thinking: what must she think of me? and, all this is very unprofessional and at-sea looking! trying to visualize the contretemps from her point of view, if she has one (but how can she? she is not in the washroom) and then stopping, because it is finally his own point of view that he cares about and not hers, and with this firmly in mind, and a light, confident step, such as you might find in the works of Bulwer-Lytton, he enters the space she occupies so prettily and, taking her by the hand, proceeds to tear off the stiff white hospital gown (but no, we cannot have that kind of pornographic merde in this majestic and high-minded sentence, which will probably end up in the Library of Congress) (that was just something that took place inside his consciousness, as he looked at her, and since we know that consciousness is always consciousness of something, she is not entirely without responsibility in the matter) so, then, taking her by the hand, he falls into the stupendous white puree of her abyss, no, I mean rather that he asks her how long it has been since her last visit, and she says a fortnight, and he shudders, and tells her that with a condition like hers (she is an immensely popular soldier, and her troops win all their battles by pretending to be forests, the enemy discovering, at the last moment, that those trees they have eaten their lunch under have eyes and swords) (which reminds me of the performance, in 1845, of Robert-Houdin, called The Fantastic Orange Tree, wherein Robert-Houdin borrowed a lady’s handkerchief, rubbed it between his hands and passed it into the center of an egg, after which he passed the egg into the center of a lemon, after which he passed the lemon into the center of an orange, then pressed the orange between his hands, making it smaller and smaller, until only a powder remained, whereupon he asked for a small potted orange tree and sprinkled the powder thereupon, upon which the tree burst into blossom, the blossoms turning into oranges, the oranges turning into butterflies, and the butterflies turning into beautiful young ladies, who then married members of the audience), a condition so damaging to real-time social intercourse of any kind, the best thing she can do is give up, and lay down her arms, and he will lie down in them, and together they will permit themselves a bit of the old slap and tickle, she wearing only her Mr. Christopher medal, on its silver chain, and he (for such is the latitude granted the professional classes) worrying about the sentence, about its thin wires of dramatic tension, which have been omitted, about whether we should write down some natural events occurring in the sky (birds, lightning bolts), and about a possible coup d’etat within the sentence, whereby its chief verb would be-but at this moment a messenger rushes into the sentence, bleeding from a hat of thorns he’s wearing, and cries out: “You don’t know what you’re doing! Stop making this sentence, and begin instead to make Moholy-Nagy cocktails, for those are what we really need, on the frontiers of bad behavior!” and then he falls to the floor, and a trap door opens under him, and he falls through that, into a damp pit where a blue narwhal waits, its horn poised (but maybe the weight of the messenger, falling from such a height, will break off the horn)-thus, considering everything very carefully, in the sweet light of the ceremonial axes, in the run-mad skimble-skamble of information sickness, we must make a decision as to whether we should proceed, or go back, in the latter case enjoying the pathos of eradication, in which the former case reading an erotic advertisement which begins, How to Make Your Mouth a Blowtorch of Excitement (but wouldn’t that overtax our mouthwashes?) attempting, during the pause, while our burned mouths are being smeared with fat, to imagine a better sentence, worthier, more meaningful, like those in the Declaration of Independence, or a bank statement showing that you have seven thousand kroner more than you thought you had-a statement summing up the unreasonable demands that you make on life, and one that also asks the question, if you can imagine these demands, why are they not routinely met, tall fool? but of course it is not that query that this infected sentence has set out to answer (and hello! to our girl friend, Rosetta Stone, who has stuck by us through thick and thin) but some other query that we shall some day discover the nature of, and here comes Ludwig, the expert on sentence construction we have borrowed from the Bauhaus, who will-“Guten Tag, Ludwig!”-probably find a way to cure the sentence’s sprawl, by using the improved way of thinking developed in Weimer-“I am sorry to inform you that the Bauhaus no longer exists, that all of the great masters who formerly thought there are either dead or retired, and that I myself have been reduced to constructing books on how to pass the examination for police sergeant”-and Ludwig falls through the Tugendhat House into the history of man-made objects; a disappointment, to be sure, but it reminds us that the sentence itself is a man-made object, not the one we wanted of course, but still a construction of man, a structure to be treasured for its weakness, as opposed to the strength of stones
I am in a mood that gets more and more familiar: words lose their meaning suddenly. I find myself listening to a sentence, a phrase, a group of words, as if they are in a foreign language—the gap between what they are supposed to mean, and what in fact they say seems unbridgeable. I have been thinking of the novels about the breakdown of language, like Finnegans Wake. And the preoccupation with semantics. The fact that Stalin bothers to write a pamphlet on this subject at all is just a sign of a general uneasiness about language. But what right have I to criticize anything when sentences from the most beautiful novel can seem idiotic to me?
… I made tea, and then I remembered a story that was sent to me last week. By a comrade living somewhere near Leeds. When I first read it, I thought it was an exercise in irony. Then a very skilful parody of a certain attitude. Then I realized it was serious—it was at the moment I searched my memory and rooted out certain fantasies of my own. But what seemed to me important was that it could be read as parody, irony or seriously. It seems to me this fact is another expression of the fragmentation of everything, the painful disintegration of something that is linked with what I feel to be true about language, the thinning of language against the density of our experience.
At nightfall once in the olden time, on the rugged side of one of the Crystal Hills, a party of adventurers were refreshing themselves after a toilsome and fruitless quest for the Great Carbuncle. They had come thither, not as friends nor partners in the enterprise, but each, save one youthful pair, impelled by his own selfish and solitary longing for this wondrous gem. Their feeling of brotherhood, however, was strong enough to induce them to contribute a mutual aid in building a rude hut of branches and kindling a great fire of shattered pines that had drifted down the headlong current of the Amonoosuck, on the lower bank of which they were to pass the night. There was but one of their number, perhaps, who had become so estranged from natural sympathies by the absorbing spell of the pursuit as to acknowledge no satisfaction at the sight of human faces in the remote and solitary region whither they had ascended. A vast extent of wilderness lay between them and the nearest settlement, while scant a mile above their heads was that bleak verge where the hills throw off their shaggy mantle of forest-trees and either robe themselves in clouds or tower naked into the sky. The roar of the Amonoosuck would have been too awful for endurance if only a solitary man had listened while the mountain-stream talked with the wind.
The adventurers, therefore, exchanged hospitable greetings and welcomed one another to the hut where each man was the host and all were the guests of the whole company. They spread their individual supplies of food on the flat surface of a rock and partook of a general repast; at the close of which a sentiment of good-fellowship was perceptible among the party, though repressed by the idea that the renewed search for the Great Carbuncle must make them strangers again in the morning. Seven men and one young woman, they warmed themselves together at the fire, which extended its bright wall along the whole front of their wigwam. As they observed the various and contrasted figures that made up the assemblage, each man looking like a caricature of himself in the unsteady light that flickered over him, they came mutually to the conclusion that an odder society had never met in city or wilderness, on mountain or plain.
The eldest of the group—a tall, lean, weatherbeaten man some sixty years of age—was clad in the skins of wild animals whose fashion of dress he did well to imitate, since the deer, the wolf and the bear had long been his most intimate companions. He was one of those ill-fated mortals, such as the Indians told of, whom in their early youth the Great Carbuncle smote with a peculiar madness and became the passionate dream of their existence. All who visited that region knew him as “the Seeker,” and by no other name. As none could remember when he first took up the search, there went a fable in the valley of the Saco that for his inordinate lust after the Great Carbuncle he had been condemned to wander among the mountains till the end of time, still with the same feverish hopes at sunrise, the same despair at eve. Near this miserable Seeker sat a little elderly personage wearing a high-crowned hat shaped somewhat like a crucible. He was from beyond the sea—a Doctor Cacaphodel, who had wilted and dried himself into a mummy by continually stooping over charcoal-furnaces and inhaling unwholesome fumes during his researches in chemistry and alchemy. It was told of him—whether truly or not—that at the commencement of his studies he had drained his body of all its richest blood and wasted it, with other inestimable ingredients, in an unsuccessful experiment, and had never been a well man since. Another of the adventurers was Master Ichabod Pigsnort, a weighty merchant and selectman of Boston, and an elder of the famous Mr. Norton’s church. His enemies had a ridiculous story that Master Pigsnort was accustomed to spend a whole hour after prayer-time every morning and evening in wallowing naked among an immense quantity of pine-tree shillings, which were the earliest silver coinage of Massachusetts. The fourth whom we shall notice had no name that his companions knew of, and was chiefly distinguished by a sneer that always contorted his thin visage, and by a prodigious pair of spectacles which were supposed to deform and discolor the whole face of nature to this gentleman’s perception. The fifth adventurer likewise lacked a name, which was the greater pity, as he appeared to be a poet. He was a bright-eyed man, but woefully pined away, which was no more than natural if, as some people affirmed, his ordinary diet was fog, morning mist and a slice of the densest cloud within his reach, sauced with moonshine whenever he could get it. Certain it is that the poetry which flowed from him had a smack of all these dainties. The sixth of the party was a young man of haughty mien and sat somewhat apart from the rest, wearing his plumed hat loftily among his elders, while the fire glittered on the rich embroidery of his dress and gleamed intensely on the jewelled pommel of his sword. This was the lord De Vere, who when at home was said to spend much of his time in the burial-vault of his dead progenitors rummaging their mouldy coffins in search of all the earthly pride and vainglory that was hidden among bones and dust; so that, besides his own share, he had the collected haughtiness of his whole line of ancestry. Lastly, there was a handsome youth in rustic garb, and by his side a blooming little person in whom a delicate shade of maiden reserve was just melting into the rich glow of a young wife’s affection. Her name was Hannah, and her husband’s Matthew—two homely names, yet well enough adapted to the simple pair who seemed strangely out of place among the whimsical fraternity whose wits had been set agog by the Great Carbuncle. Continue reading ““The Great Carbuncle,” a story by Nathaniel Hawthorne”→
Rainer J. Hanshe is the translator of My Heart Laid Bare & Other Texts, a collection of writings by Charles Baudelaire, new from Contra Mundum Press. Over a series of emails, Hanshe was kind enough to talk to me about My Heart Laid Bare, Baudelaire, dandyism, translation, art, stealing books, and all other manner of topics.
Biblioklept: What is My Heart Laid Bare? Did Baudelaire envision its publication in his lifetime?
Rainer J. Hanshe: The title My Heart Laid Bare is Edgar Allan Poe’s, and it’s he who conceives of a book that, if daring enough, if ‘bare’ enough, could revolutionize human thought, opinion, and sentiment. This could be achieved, Poe said, “by writing and publishing a very little book. Its title should be simple — a few plain words — ‘My Heart Laid Bare.’ But this little book must be true to its title.” Baudelaire took up Poe’s provocation and his Mon cœur mis à nu is one of a number of different books that he dreamt up and hoped to write “without lassitude — in a word to be in good heart day after day.” Others Baudelaire mentioned along with it in an 1864 letter included Histoires grotesques et sérieuses, Les fleurs du Mal, Le spleen de Paris, Les paradis artificiels, Contemporaines, and Pauvre Belgium! The first notes for Mon cœur mis à nu begin in 1859, two years after the initial publication of The flowers of Evil, if not possibly somewhat earlier, and continue until 1865, ceasing only due to Baudelaire’s severe health condition (he would die in 1867 at just 46 years of age), hence they comprise the final decade of his writing life.
Aside from the more direct root of Poe, Rousseau was another of Baudelaire’s models, albeit a negative one to surpass. Baudelaire said that “all the targets of [his] rage” would be collected in Mon cœur mis à nu. “Ah! if ever that sees the light of day, J-J’s Confessions will seem pale.” As I describe in the synopsis, it is an apodictic work of aphorism, maxim, note, and extended reflection. It is not however some memoir-like spewing of Baudelaire’s bios; rather, it is the baring of his l’esprit, and as a crystallization of such, it isn’t some kind of ‘tell-all exposé’ (Rousseau’s notion of absolute transparency, an indulgence we could well do without, especially considering its pernicious ramifications), but to me a much higher form of ‘confession,’ for it is the arc of thought, the play of the mind in its every breadth that is bared. It contains Baudelaire’s exhortations on work, faith, religion, and politics, excoriating sociological analyses, diatribes on literature, the arts (George Sand receives some choice malicious arrows), and love (women, prostitution, sadomasochism, erotics en générale), and outlines of his conception of the dandy and the Poet.
The Poet for Baudelaire is I would say a figure similar in kind to Nietzsche’s untimely personage, the posthumous human, a kind of philosophical anthropologist who hovers over the earth, examining the human species both from within and externally, from a sub species aeternitatis perspective, diagnosing it like a physician (much of the book’s terminology is medical taxonomy).
In 1861, two years after beginning Mon cœur mis à nu, sieged by resignation, calumny, and ill health (nervous disorders, vomiting, insomnia, fainting fits, recurrent syphilitic outbreaks), Baudelaire expresses doubt that he will ever complete his various projects. “My situation as regards my honor, frightful — and that’s the greatest evil. Never any rest. Insults, outrages, affronts you can’t imagine, which corrupt the imagination and paralyze it.” Three years later, it was against the continuing extremities of an exacerbated solitude, frayed nerves, self-described terrors, and constant hounding by creditors that Baudelaire implored himself to remain stalwart (“I must pull myself together, take heart! This may well bring rewards.”) and write.
Clearly, he did envision publishing the book in his lifetime, and he diligently worked at it, steeling himself against his trials to the degree within his power, but it was never completed. The obstructions he faced were abundant; the somatic afflictions inordinately taxing. The threat of his impending decline or decay is sharply articulated in one passage wherein he speaks of “feeling the wind of the wing of imbecility” passing over him. Various translators have rendered that as “the wing of madness,” but Baudelaire says “imbécillité,” not folie or démence. The notion of “the wing of madness” has greater Gothico-Romantic cache, but it’s not what Baudelaire says, and in this case, there’s a relatively exact equivalence of terms. It was more physical weakness and feebleness that he feared, and experienced, and believed would finally incapacitate him, as it did, not madness. His aphasia and heart attacks led to his losing his ability to speak and thereafter, his ability to read and write — the death of the writer.
We have only the existing fragments then, which have been translated in full, but they were published posthumously. Despite no such title existing in the text, or any related material, French editors originally published the work as “Journaux intime” (Intimate Journals), which included two other sections, “Fusées” and “Hygiène.” Translations into English followed suite, and they adopted the false title, which must at last be discarded. If Baudelaire hadn’t been besieged by illnesses as he was, he would have imaginably given us a definitive version of Mon cœur mis à nu considering that he did complete other books he began around the same period (Le spleen de Paris, Les paradis artificiels, et cetera). It remains a fragmentary work then, in both senses, yet one that is substantive enough to merit our continued attention.
Biblioklept: For me, the fragmentary nature of My Heart Laid Bare is in some ways more appealing than the cohesion of a more polished philosophical or poetic text. It’s a discursive read, and there’s joy in tying (or failing to tie) the fragments together. This reading experience is perhaps as close as we can get to seeing Baudelaire thinking (and feeling). At the same time, there’s perhaps a risk of the average reader’s misreading or misinterpreting some of Baudelaire’s riffs, quips, and jabs here. How tempting was it to footnote the hell out of My Heart Laid Bare?
Hanshe: In his poet’s notebook, Paul Valéry said that “a work is never necessarily finished, for he who has made it is never complete, and the power and agility he has drawn from it confer on him just the power to improve it […]. He draws from it what is needed to efface and remake it. This is how a free artist, at least, should regard things.” Similarly, he says elsewhere that, “in the eyes of lovers of anxiety and perfection, a work is never finished but abandoned.” Since Baudelaire never prepared a definitive version of the book, we cannot know what he would have changed, or not, yet as a work closely aligned with his self, it’s something that could never have been completed, only abandoned. Hence, it would always remain fragmentary. Think of Schlegel’s poetics of the fragment where even ‘incompleteness’ is exceptionally refined, an architecturally precise aesthetic form (sculpturally, this calls to mind Giacometti). In his essay on German Romanticism, Walter Benjamin pointed out that aphoristic writing is not proof against systematic intentions (an accurate insight made about Nietzsche’s work in fact, albeit one lost on many of his later readers…), that one can write aphoristically and still think through one’s philosophy or writing “in a comprehensive and unitary manner in keeping with one’s guiding ideas.” In this way, it’s not that Baudelaire’s book lacks cohesiveness; it’s deliberately fragmentary to eschew finality, and because the self, the ‘heart’ being laid bare, is never complete. That Baudelaire worked on it for nearly ten years though makes it probable that its character was quite well defined before illness permanently disrupted his voluntarily abandoning it.
There are certainly unities, or thoughts that overlap and intertwine within the book, as there are with other books of Baudelaire’s, and when I began translating it, I kept track of those I was aware of while also benefitting from the extensive and exemplary notes that the French editors amassed. The critical addendum was therefore unfurling like an infinite papyrus, threatening to end in it being as long, if not longer, than the book itself. In a way, that kind of critical gesture is an act of usurpation and domination, just as overly lengthy introductions can be (consider the grand effrontery of Foucault’s introduction to Binswanger’s Dream & Existence, which is twice the length of the book). At a certain point, I felt that continuing to amass notes would have made the book extremely cumbersome, one unpleasant to read, merely due to sheer volume. There’s also something about a massive critical addendum that’s imposing, if not intrusive, to many readers. Additionally, it was a question of elegance: I didn’t want to litter the book with footnote numbers; alternative methods to that could have easily been devised but, ultimately, I opted against including extensive notes. While as readers we can disavow them altogether, not having them makes for a more comfortable book to wield. Finally, encountering it would be more like coming upon Baudelaire’s own notebook, free of editorial invasiveness, thereby leaving the reader to his or her own rapturous encounter with it, however intractable it may be. As for misreading or misinterpreting, I don’t think such can ever be definitively foreclosed. While errant and contentious readings exist, to fear risking them is to argue that we can fathom authorial intention, or that there are definitive and absolute interpretations. Reading should be dangerous, risky, volatile, something that threatens to undermine, overwhelm, and mutate us, if not put the world into metamorphosis, as books can and have done, though hardly as much in our depleted and toothless epoch. Otherwise, reading is just entertainment, a diversionary narcotic, and we have to be willing to be shattered by books, to undergo both subtle and emphatic shocks.
Biblioklept: What is Flares?
Hanshe: Quite simply, it’s a writer’s notebook; as such, it doesn’t have a single focus but is more motley, something of a hybrid entity. To paraphrase, we could call it The Poet Laid Bare (of poetic form). Nonetheless, I believe it has two principal nerve centers: critique and meditation.
The critique is many-tendrilled, with its points of observation being the craft of the writer, art and aesthetics, love, pleasure, and intoxication (numerous types), religion and theology, politics, etc. The writer’s smelting room and sometimes place of furious venting. As with Mon cœur mis à nu, there is a root in Poe, who in his Marginalia spoke of “a peculiar type of criticism” that “can only be designated by the ‘German ‘Schwarmerei’ — not exactly ‘humbug’ but ‘sky-rocketing’…” Baudelaire took up this idea, naming his work fusées, which is an expansive translation of the English skyrockets. A fusée is a pyrotechnical device (rocket, flare, or firework), musket, or heraldic emblem, hence the title corresponds well with the work’s variegated character. It is something incendiary, combative, and elegant. The manifold subtitles peppered throughout “Flares” offer us a provisional overview of its character, too: Plans, Projects, Suggestions, Notes, Hygiene, Morality, Conduct, Method. Here we see the writer’s notebook, the critique, and the meditation.
In speaking of intellectual gymnastics, the altar of the will, moral dynamics, the great deed, perfect health, the hygiene of the soul, political harmony of character, eurhythmy of character and faculties, self-purification, mastery of time, and accomplishing one’s duties, Baudelaire enumerates a concentration of terms and concepts related to self-cultivation. The book thus contains a kind of technology of the self, the outline of Baudelaire’s martial praxis for the artist — intellectual gymnastics and the sanctification of the will both bespeak an agonistic sensibility, as does his paean to greatness and his call to achieve it in contradistinction to the tremendous oppositional force of nothing less than an entire nation. What is this but Baudelaire’s Miltonic-Satanic typology. “The man of letters rends foundations…” (Flares §6) Such terminology, and the repeated invocations to himself to master his will and to work diligently to become who he is, are part of a regimen of poetic self-shaping. “Want every day to be the greatest of men!!!” (My Heart… §70) The references to Emerson and his Conduct of Life further reinforce that, which is but one reason why in the book’s synopsis I made a parallel to Marcus Aurelius, characterizing the book as Baudelaire’s meditations, which I see as its second nerve center. The poet is clearly concerned with self-government, and this shaping or cultivation of the self is meant to strengthen him, thereby aiding his accomplishing his artistic tasks, of which the book is in part a record.
These notions can be woven together with other parts of the work, i.e. §16 of “Flares,” where Baudelaire speaks of the most perfect type of virile Beauty (the Miltonic Satan), or the Emersonian hero (he who is immovably centered), giving us the supreme artistic model of Satan, that is, Satan as the light-bringer, the visionary, he who is anti-human (“Let us defy the people, common sense, the heart, inspiration, and evidence.” §47; “The man of letters is the enemy of the world.” §53). In §21 of ”Flares” Baudelaire asks, “To give oneself to Satan, what is it?” The book provides us with some answers, as does his poetry (the “Litanies of Satan” et alia), and his Dandy (a superior figure) is another type with similarly sublime aspirations. It is the onset of the anti-Christian hyperanthropos. “The poet, the priest, and the soldier are the only great men among men: … the rest are made for the whip” (§47). Continue reading ““Translation is an act of risk” | An interview with Rainer J. Hanshe on translating Baudelaire’s My Heart Laid Bare”→
May 1st.–. . . Every day of my life makes me feel more and more how seldom a fact is accurately stated; how, almost invariably, when a story has passed through the mind of a third person, it becomes, so far as regards the impression that it makes in further repetitions, little better than a falsehood, and this, too, though the narrator be the most truth-seeking person in existence. How marvellous the tendency is! . . . Is truth a fantasy which we are to pursue forever and never grasp?
My cold has almost entirely departed. Were it a sunny day, I should consider myself quite fit for labors out of doors; but as the ground is so damp, and the atmosphere so chill, and the sky so sullen, I intend to keep myself on the sick-list this one day longer, more especially as I wish to read Carlyle on Heroes.
There has been but one flower found in this vicinity,–and that was an anemone, a poor, pale, shivering little flower, that had crept under a stone-wall for shelter. Mr. Farley found it, while taking a walk with me.
. . . This is May-Day! Alas, what a difference between the ideal and the real!
We tend to pathologize the ultimate no—suicide—as a shameful failure, the worst kind of failure. The shame of not having assimilated into normative culture, of not bootstrapping the self into a legible narrative of success. Of being merely unable. Melville’s Bartleby teaches us this lesson all too well. Those around Bartleby can’t read his preference to merely not be as such. They want to know why he doesn’t want to be a good bureaucrat. And they string him up for it. But saying no can be an assertion of power, freedom and will, as Bartelby teaches us. The choice to merely not be is simply that. It frustrates everyone around it because it defies the most naturalized assumption in existence: that consciousness is a gift, a privilege, a precious unit of time not to be squandered or frivolously wasted. We are urged to make good with life.
But this attitude comes with the privilege of choices. One who can say that things can be different, that one only need to work a bit harder, shift her perception, to “be the change she wishes to see in the world” doesn’t wake up on Skid Row every morning, is not black in Baltimore or Ferguson, does not live in a body policed by the law and popular culture. Moreover, this attitude assumes that whatever prevents this different life, where one doesn’t have to say no, is conquerable, fixable. Often, the sensation that things cannot be different appears insurmountable. Whatever is assaulting you cannot be removed with a simple shift in perception and attitude.
Such is the dilemma of Yeong-hye in Han Kang’s The Vegetarian. The flap copy describes Yeong-hye’s turn towards vegetarianism as a decision, as does her tyrannical husband and everyone around her, but Yeong-hye’s plant-like turn is only a decision in the most technical sense. Yes, she does decide to become a vegetarian, but not because of preference, or political/ethical commitment. Yeong-hye’s vegetarianism is vital; for her, vegetarianism is her only out from the violent misogyny that she has been born into. But to also say that she wants death and, in turn, that Kang’s novel is a reconfiguration of the normative narrative of suicide would be a double injustice. I know nothing of South Korean culture, and I can only speak confidently of the misogyny that frames The Vegetarian because it is terrifyingly normal in the mouths of its narrators; the first injustice is that I only know this misogyny through western narratives. The second, to assert that Yeong-hye wants death, falls into the trap of romanticizing suicide. None of Yeong-hye’s life is decision, or choice, or freedom, except her desire to become more plant-like—even that is a stretch to say it is a desire. For Yeong-hye, a plant-like existence approaches a state of supreme serenity and disaffection from her world – a position where she cannot be read as a sexual being and, in turn, under the hands of a violent culture. Vegetarianism hangs the human body and self between what we understand and project onto the outside world as life and death. Vegetarianism asymptotically kisses death.
‘…I thought trees stood up straight … I only found out just now. They actually stand with both arms in the earth, all of them. … Do you know how I found out? Well, I was in a dream, and I was standing on my head … leaves were growing from my body, and roots were sprouting from my hands … so I dug down into the earth. On and on…I wanted flowers to bloom from my crotch so I spread my legs; I spread them wide…’
What’s peculiar about the novel, apart from the quiet horror of Kang’s prose, the quiet violence of Yeong-hye’s world and its casual presentation thereof, and actually a lot of things that are wonderfully disquieting, is that none of its three acts are narrated by Yeong-hye herself. I expected more time with and inside Yeong-hye in a book about the murderously aloof self-satisfaction of the men in power that orchestrate her destruction. But I even wince at the word “inside” of Yeong-hye. It sounds like I’m participating in a certain kind of violence. The important thing to remember is that Yeong-hye’s perceived disability is only so in the eyes of the narrators, Yeong-hye’s husband, brother-in-law, and sister. Her family insists, and then demands, that Yeong-hye provide a rational reason for her vegetarianism, but they only want to hear her say that it’s for the sake of her health, or for her appearance. They might even tolerate an ethical argument. Instead, Yeong-hye only offers, like our Bartleby, a frustration. Drunk and sleepy, Yeong-hye’s husband finds his wife staring intently into the white light of the fridge.
Dark woods. No people. The sharp-pointed leaves on the trees, my torn feet. This place, almost remembered, but I’m lost now. Frightened. Cold. Across the frozen ravine, a red barn-like building. Straw matting flapping limp across the door. Roll it up and I’m inside, it’s inside. A long bamboo stick strung with great blood-red gashes of meat, blood still dripping down. Try to push past but the meat, there’s no end to the meat, and no exit. Blood in my moth, blood-soaked clothes sucked onto skin.
The repetition of the word meat has a certain violence to it, and metaphorizes the ways in which the category of “meat” is embedded even in the writing itself, how deeply it penetrates. Yeong-hye is treated like meat; pigs and cattle raised for consumption are referred to as pork and beef, even before they’re slaughtered; meat is a violently rendered, aestheticized experience. Soon, Yeong-hye does remember the places that are lost in her dreams inside of actual memories. The haunting repetition of the word “meat” transforming what was once familiar into paralyzing strangeness.
While Father ties the dog to the tree and scorches it with a lamp, he says it isn’t to be flogged. He says he heard somewhere that driving a dog to keep running until the point of death is considered a milder punishment. The motorcycle engine starts, and Father begins to drive in a circle. […] Once it has gone five laps, the dog is frothing at the mouth. Blood drips from its throat, which is being choked with the rope. Constantly groaning through its damaged throat, the dog is dragged along the ground.
Punishment and thus justice isn’t swift, but an exercise in pushing one’s ability to endure physical shame. Like when her father, incredulous and domineering, forces her family to hold Yeong-hye back as he shoves a “lump of meat” into Yeong-hye’s wailing body. Or when Yeong-hye is forced to endure the public shaming at an obligatory business dinner. Her vegetarianism unhinges the normative narrative of her family’s reality, and they take it personally. To them, it is an invitation to rape, to control, and to punish.
But it was no easy thing for a man in the prime of his life, for whom married life had always gone entirely without a hitch, to have his physical needs go unsatisfied for such a long period of time. So yes, one night when I returned home late and somewhat inebriated after a meal with colleagues, I grabbed hold of my wife and pushed her to the floor. Pinning down her struggling arms and tugging off her trousers, I became unexpectedly aroused. She put up a surprisingly strong resistance and, spitting out vulgar curses all the while, it took me three attempts before I managed to insert myself successfully. Once that had happened she lay there in the dark staring up at the ceiling, her face blank, as though she were a ‘comfort woman’ dragged in against her will, and I was the Japanese soldier demanding her services.
Rape doesn’t apply to Yeong-hye because she is called a wife, her refusal to play the role erases the violence of rape in the rules of this reality. Yeong-hye’s renunciation of subservience, and the subsequent violence, highlights the underlying rage of male culture presented in this novel. More striking than the appalling behavior of Yeong-hye’s husband is his nonchalance, a result of Kang’s cool, distending prose, brilliantly translated by into English by Deborah Smith. We’re not meant to be unhinged by the drapes of meat in Yeong-hye’s dreams, but the coolness in which Yeong-hye’s family preclude empathy and default to insult and violence. Even before empathy, they preclude curiosity—their questions only seek answers for which they are already disappointed. What we are supposed to be horrified by is how bereft they are of compassion.
Where they shame a woman supposedly acting out of character, Yeong-hye simply wants the dreams to stop. But where do the dreams come from? This tension sustains the entirety of the novel, and drives Yeong-hye deeper into plant-like behavior. Yeong-hye is eventually committed to a mental hospital after the staff find her shirtless, looking up into the sun with eyes clenched, as if in the grip of photosynthesis. Later, after a divorce, in a second mental hospital, something akin to the sanatoriums of Kafka’s and Bernhard’s worlds, far away from Seoul, she refuses to eat and spends hours in a hand-stand, emulating the trees of the mountains. Yeong-hye can’t do anything about the dreams because they are the signature of her conscription into humanity.
Yeong-hye cut her off. ‘They say my insides have all atrophied, you know.’ In-hye was lost for words. Yeong-hye moved her emaciated face closer to her sister. ‘I’m not an animal anymore, sister,’ she said, first scanning the empty ward as if about to disclose a momentous secret. ‘I don’t need to eat, now now. I can live without it. All I need is sunlight.’
Becoming vegetarian isn’t a choice, but a last resort. Yeong-hye is compelled towards plant-like existence because it’s her only method of control and, ironically, affirming her humanity. Yeong-hye doesn’t elect vegetarianism; her family conditioned her for this transformation, her refusal to play this version of humanity. But this is the humanity under which all of us are prescribed. When Yeong-hye recoils at the sight of meat, she sees herself. Yeong-hye turns to vegetarianism because she projects onto plants a freedom of being non-human, non-woman, non-sexualized. The possibility of existing without violence or domination, of being in the world without the risk of knowing what one is, but just being. Vegetarianism in The Vegetarian isn’t a religious requirement, nor the fancy of first-world privilege, but anti-human. It is an affirmation that says not only is the culture a problem, but people are the problem.
[Ed. note: Ryan Chang’s review of The Vegetarian was originally published by Biblioklept in May of 2015].
Margaret Atwood’s 1985 novel The Handmaid’s Tale has been adapted into a television series by Hulu, a fact which you probably already knew if you are on the internet and are interested in these sorts of things.
Initial clips of the show seem promising enough. Elisabeth Moss, who I loved in Top of The Lake, plays the novel’s protagonist Offred, and Margaret Atwood, a consulting producer, has been a vocal supporter of the adaptation. And, as many have pointed out lately, the story’s backdrop—a patriarchal theocratic regime—seems, uh, timely. (Hell, there’s even a Wall).
In anticipation of Hulu’s adaptation, I decided to reread The Handmade’s Tale a third time in a third decade. I found it subtler, more personally intense than the broad, voluminous epic my memory had concocted. My memory had filled in some of Atwood’s strategic gaps; one of her rhetorical gambits is to deliver the so-called “worldbuilding” common to sci-fi novels in tiny morsels and incomplete glimpses. She refuses to give us a big picture. We see this world like one of the handmaids, who view it through a veil of white wings around their heads.
Our narrator Offred is one of those, whatchamacallit, unreliable narrators (as she frequently, subtly reminds us), and her picture of the Republic of Gilead is necessarily incomplete. My memory filled in huge swaths of backstory—a caste system, forced breeding, a plague of infertility, civil wars, ecological collapse, mutations, religious infighting, spy networks and underground railroads. There’s something of an epic scale there, no? But the The Handmaid’s Tale actually elides much of the its genre’s heavy baggage. Exposition hides in bits and pieces for the reader to scrabble together. Even in some of its more straightforward expository passages, as when Offred describes the theocratic regime’s coup d’etat, we still only get the events from her perspective. We experience the effects of the revolution as the effects on her life. There’s no big picture geopolitical analysis. The causes aren’t clear.
Indeed, the lack of clear causality between events is one of the scariest aspects of The Handmaid’s Tale. Our narrator emphasizes how quickly norms can change in a culture, which is, from a plot-standpoint, quite important. Nineteen Eighty-Four has long been a point of comparison to The Handmaid’s Tale, but in Orwell’s novel the totalitarian regime has presumably been in power for decades (although of course, the protagonist’s job in that novel is to revise historical documents so that they align with the past, making “history” suspect).
In The Handmaid’s Tale, crucially, the protagonist is still connected to the pre-Revolutionary, pre-theocratic world. We’re reminded again and again that she’s one of the first generation of handmaids; we’re reminded again and again that after the first generation takes hold, the practice of forced breeding will become completely normalized. The Handmaid’s Tale is the preamble to dystopia. Offred remembers life in the U.S., life before her role was absolutely proscribed by a patriarchal theocracy. The narrator’s disconnection between that life and her new one drives the narrative.
This radical disconnection threatens the narrator’s sanity. It’s not just the wings of her habit that obstruct her vision, but also a veil of creeping instability. The unraveling of history, the sense that she is dislocated in time threaten to undo her. Her way of seeing the world and her self in the world is completely destabilized. Consider the following passage, in which our heroine gazes at the “smile” of a dead man hung from the Wall as a warning:
I look at the one red smile. The red of the smile is the same as the red of the tulips in Serena Joy’s garden, towards the base of the flowers where they are beginning to heal. The red is the same but there is no connection. The tulips are not tulips of blood, the red smiles are not flowers, neither thing makes a comment on the other. The tulip is not a reason for disbelief in the hanged man, or vice versa. Each thing is valid and really there. It is through a field of such valid objects that I must pick my way, every day and in every way. I put a lot of effort into making such distinctions. I need to make them. I need to be very clear, in my own mind.
The protagonist’s defense against the threat of dislocation, displacement, and insanity is her power to tell her tale. In this sense, The Handmade’s Tale has as much in common with Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s“The Yellow Wallpaper” as it does with Orwell’s dystopian classic.
Our narrator’s need “to be very clear [in her] own mind” carries (what many readers will consider) the main thread of The Handmaid’s Tale on a straightforward, linear path: Offred is pressed into the service of the Commander (Fred, from whom she receives her patronymic) so that he can impregnate her, become a father, and perpetuate his class tier. If she can’t produce a child in a certain time frame, it’s off to the colonies! (Never mind that the Commander is likely sterile).
The narrative’s linear sequence will provide a sturdy frame for Hulu’s adaptation, and the constant flashbacks that interweave through the novel will also likely help to flesh out the series, both in tone and characterization. The ways in which the novel’s narrator weaves and unweaves these story strands might be much more difficult for the show to capture though. Indeed, Atwood’s rhetorical technique here is something native to literature itself. Atwood evokes consciousness under duress. She shows us a heroine trying to weave strands of a story together into something meaningful, to make a story where there is none, to find a space to speak where there is only the specter of mute doom. The Handmaid’s Tale is a story about storytelling as resistance and self-preservation:
I would like to believe this is a story I’m telling. I need to believe it. I must believe it. Those who can believe that such stories are only stories have a better chance.
If it’s a story I’m telling, then I have control over the ending. Then there will be an ending, to the story, and real life will come after it. I can pick up where I left off.
It isn’t a story I’m telling.
It’s also a story I’m telling, in my head, as I go along.
Tell, rather than write, because I have nothing to write with and writing is in any case forbidden. But if it’s a story, even in my head, I must be telling it to someone. You don’t tell a story only to yourself. There’s always someone else.
Even when there is no one.
A story is like a letter. Dear You, I’ll say. Just you, without a name. Attaching a name attaches you to the world of fact, which is riskier, more hazardous: who knows what the chances are out there, of survival, yours? I will say you, you, like an old love song. You can mean more than one.
You can mean thousands.
Our storyteller—we are her You—is finely attuned to language. She constantly points out old phrases, commonplaces, and cliches, and remarks on what they used to mean in “the time before.” In some of these moments of linguistic mulling, Atwood calls attention to language’s destructive potential, of its ability to unravel the very meaning we seek to pin to it. If language connects, it can also disconnect. Consider the following passage:
It’s strange, now, to think about having a job. Job. It’s a funny word. It’s a job for a man. Do a jobbie, they’d say to children, when they were being toilet-trained. Or of dogs: he did a job on the carpet. You were supposed to hit them with rolled-up newspapers, my mother said. I can remember when there were newspapers, though I never had a dog, only cats.
The Book of Job.
Language can protect, but it can also threaten. It can slipslide from a random memory to an existentialist myth in the span of a breath. It can turn tulips into bloody smiles and bloody smiles into explanations for executions. Language can turn into stories, but stories can swallow up whole lives, whole cultures. That’s the threat of theocracy.
Atwood highlights the novel’s attention to storytelling itself in the final chapter, which reads almost like an appendix. Called “Historical Notes,” and separated from the text proper by its own title page, the final (unnumbered) chapter purports to be the transcript of a speech given at an academic conference on “Gileadean Studies” in the year 2195. There is much exposition and analysis here. Our anthropologist lecturer informs us that what is known as The Handmaid’s Tale is the composite of a number of audiocassettes. Furthermore, we learn that the narrator Offred (apparently) fabricated or synthesized elements of the story, either to protect certain persons’ anonymity, or for her own pleasure—or simply in the service, of, y’know, good storytelling. The lecturer laments that Offred failed to give future listeners more details about politics and war and the culture of Gilead at large. In a sense, the lecturer’s complaint is the one that many readers who go to Atwood’s novel expecting “worldbuilding” might have. The narrator isn’t telling a story about dystopian Gilead. She’s telling a story about storytelling. She’s making herself a story. Speaking to a You helps to preserve her I.
The “Historical Notes” on The Handmaid’s Tale are an example of a particular trope I generally dislike—the “expert shows up at the end and explains everything” device. However, Atwood’s final chapter is successful, and perhaps even essential to the novel’s critique of patriarchy and of how institutions tell and what they tell. The key, of course, is to recognize the layers of irony in this “explainer” chapter, in which a male authority arrives and asks all the wrong questions about Offred and criticizes some of her narrative choices. Even though he’s an expert on her text, he manages to miss that she’s woven her true name into the story. It’s right there at the end of the first chapter.
“Historical Notes” shows the problems and limitations in telling “the truth,” highlighting that all tales are constructions, syntheses of pre-existing elements. At the same time, the chapter points towards a narrative future, and a fairly stable future at that. “Historical Notes” thus provides the “happy ending” that the text proper—The Handmaid’s Tale—refuses to offer.
After finishing Atwood’s novel, I indulged in a favorite treat: sifting through one-star Amazon reviews with the express purpose of rearranging lines and fragments into…something. A complaint that arose again and again about The Handmaid’s Tale was the novel’s ambiguous ending. Only “ambiguous” wasn’t a word I saw used—our stalwart reviewers insisted that the novel had no conclusion. Such an interpretation is either a misreading or a failure to see that ambiguity is its own opening to adventure.
Our heroine concludes her tale: “And so I step up, into the darkness within; or else the light.” The line might frustrate many readers and even license them to accuse Atwood of simply not knowing how to finish her story. The final line’s ambiguity is structural though, part and parcel of the narrative itself. The heroine crosses a threshold. She’s pregnant, both literally and figuratively. The novel’s final ambiguity opens a space for our heroine to “step up” into. As Scheherazade understood, storytelling isn’t about closing off, but opening up. When the narrator walks out into either darkness or light, she’s entering a new narrative possibility—one that can be imagined by the auditors of her tale, her future You.
The evolution of language would begin with the names of things. After that would come descriptions of these things and descriptions of what they do. The growth of languages into their present shape and form—their syntax and grammar—has a universality that suggests a common rule. The rule is that languages have followed their own requirements. The rule is that they are charged with describing the world. There is nothing else to describe.
All very quickly. There are no languages whose form is in a state of development. And their forms are all basically the same.
We dont know what the unconscious is or where it is or how it got there—wherever there might be. Recent animal brain studies showing outsized cerebellums in some pretty smart species are suggestive. That facts about the world are in themselves capable of shaping the brain is slowly becoming accepted. Does the unconscious only get these facts from us, or does it have the same access to our sensorium that we have? You can do whatever you like with the us and the our and the we. I did. At some point the mind must grammaticize facts and convert them to narratives. The facts of the world do not for the most part come in narrative form. We have to do that.