Archive for the ‘books and things’ Category
The Birdlike Ones
by ISABELLA YEAGER
Deeply affected by the loss of her infant daughter, René Karl Wilhelm Johann Josef Maria Rilke’s mother Phia dealt with parts of her grief by dressing her young son in girl’s clothing. As historian Ralph Freedman put it, “on one occasion when he was expecting to be punished the seven-year-old boy made himself into a girl to placate his mother. His long hair done up in braids, his sleeves rolled up to bare his thin, girlish arms, he appeared in his mother’s room. ‘Ismene is staying with dear Mama,’ he is quoted as saying. ‘Rene is a no-good. I sent him away. Girls are after all so much nicer.'”
The connections between verse and a feminine sensibility were made uncomfortably explicit by Phia herself, who exposed her son to poetry before he was able to read. A catalog of vivid imagery and language accumulated in his mind, as his mother saturated his childhood with stories of saints’ lives, holy relics, religious art and ardent devotional rhetoric.
His parents separated in 1884; after their divorce they insisted Rilke attend a military academy, which he left in poor health.
Someone will tell a story of a child that often forgot to eat because it seemed more important to him to carve cheap wood with a cheap knife, and someone will relate some event of the days of early manhood that contained promise of future greatness – one of those incidents that are intimate and prophetic.
He was accepted into university and studied literature, art history, and philosophy in Prague and Munich, where he met and fell in love with the sophisticated, articulate, and married Lou Andreas-Salome, at whose urging he had his name changed from Rene to what she considered to be the more masculine “Rainer.”
Rilke traveled with Salome and her husband Friedrich Andreas into Eastern Europe, Bohemia, and Russia.
In 1900 Rilke visited the artists’ colony Worpswede, where he met and wed sculptor Clara Westhoff.
The couple’s child Ruth was born at Worpswede, but a year later Rilke traveled to Paris to begin his treatise on Auguste Rodin, to whom he acted as secretary. While in Paris he lived adjacent to Rodin at 77 Rue de Varenne, in the old mansion surrounded by a park which is now the Musee de Rodin. Clara followed soon after, leaving their daughter with her parents.
Their efforts at divorce in the coming years were thwarted by the technicalities of Catholicism.
Rilke’s writing on Rodin begins:
It is a life that has lost nothing and has forgotten nothing; a life that has absorbed all things as it passed, for only out of a life such as this, we believe, could have risen such fulness and abundance of work; only such a life as this, in which everything is simultaneous and awake, in which nothing passes unnoticed, could remain young and strong and rise again to such high creations.
Auguste Rodin was the son of a police department clerk. In his school years, his drawing teacher believed that in order to encourage his students to draw from recollection and with independent vision, the personality should be developed and encouraged before artistic instruction began.
Rodin’s sister Maria died of peritonitis, an abdominal infection caused by rupture to a hollow organ, and exacerbated by the flexing of the hips. Rodin was wracked by guilt at the possibility that the suitor to whom he had introduced Maria had been unfaithful.
Consistently denied access to Parisian art academies, Rodin spent his early career earning a living as a craftsman and an architectural ornamenter. Rodin’s sense of interior and surface evolved during the course of his work with goldsmith and animal sculptor Antoine-Louis Bayre, a fine worker in musculature and movement.
Of animals rendered in stone, Rilke writes:
There were small figures, animals particularly, that moved, stretched or curled; and although a bird perched quietly, it contained the element of flight. …There was stillness in the stunted animals that stood to support the cornices of the cathedrals or cowered and cringed beneath the consoles, too inert to bear the weight; and there were dogs and squirrels, wood-peckers and lizards, tortoises, rats and snakes. …[Some] animals could be found that were born in this petrified environment, without remembrance of a former existence. They were entirely the natives of this erect, rising, steeply ascending world. Over skeleton-like arches they stood in their fanatic meagerness, with mouths open, like those of pigeons; shrieking, for the nearness of the bells had destroyed their hearing. They did not bear their weight where they stood, but stretched themselves and thus helped the stones to rise. The birdlike ones were perched high up on the balustrades, as though they were on their way to other climes, and wanted but to rest a few centuries and look down upon the growing city. Others in the form of dogs were suspended horizontally from the eaves, high up in the air, ready to throw the rainwater out of their jaws that were swollen from vomiting. All had transformed and accommodated themselves to this environment; they had lost nothing of life.
Rilke has that innate consciousness of internal structure, of the rigid constraints that provide so much of the impetus for creativity, that play a key role in a poet’s work; and it is easy to see how his understanding of rhyme might lend itself to that of a gargoyle: of both as ornamental and architecturally functional. His muscular prose has no trouble conveying the immense energy contained within these stone creatures, whose appearance is that of halted motion – in physics, of potential. Words on Rodin’s later piece Illusion, the Daughter of Ikarus call to attention the motion found here also, this time in bronze and in human form, calling her “that dazzling embodiment of a long, helpless fall.”
Rodin called Rilke’s finished book, Auguste Rodin, the definitive interpretation of his work. Rilke’s writing on the sculptor is in its essence an act of translation: from visual to written, from one artist to another.
It is unsurprising that to Rilke, who wrote with equal ease in his native German and in French, translation came naturally.
The task of the translator is a weighty one: he is bound inextricably by several opposing responsibilities. As only a creative mind is able, he must somehow see past the gleam of the finished product to discern the masonry beneath, and in retracing these steps seek to follow them himself. But translation as a creative effort gives little creative license: the translator has to understand that the tool he uses is not his own; that in his case creativity serves only to aid in the production of a loyal representation of an original. In short, the translator must look deeply into the polished surface of a work without pausing at his own reflection.
The act of translating is a process marked by its tenuous balance between dutiful distance and moments of measured emotional release, at once intimate and bound by the most formal kind of duty and restraint. One must seek, find, and convey something without for a moment claiming it; one must break apart and reconstruct but leave no mark or signature. One must hold with no intention to own.
At that time the war came and Rodin went to Brussels. He modeled some figures for private houses and several of the groups on top of the Bourse, and also the four large corner figures on the monument erected to Loos, City-mayor in the Parc d’Anvers. These were orders which he carried out conscientiously, without allowing his growing personality to speak. His real development took place outside of this; it was compressed into the free hours of the evening and unfolded itself in the solitary stillness of the nights; and he had to bear this division of his energy for years.
Beginning in 1870, Rodin’s work sat in his workshop, unseen, as he was unable to afford castings. His submissions of models to competitions for sculpture commissions failed but on his own time he began work on St. John the Baptist Preaching.
And we have that “John” with the eloquent, agitated arms, with the great stride of one who feels another coming after him. This man’s body is not untested: the fires of the desert have scorched him, hunger has racked him, thirst of every kind has tried him. He has come through all and is hardened. The lean, ascetic body is like a wooden handle in which is set the wide fork of the stride. He advances, advances as though all the wide spaces of the world were within him, as if he were apportioning them with his stride. He advances. His arms express it, his fingers are widespread, seeming to make the sign of striding forward in the air. This “John” is the first pedestrian figure in Rodin’s work. Many follow.
We recall John later on, when Rilke outlines Rodin’s progression from master of the face to master of the body, of the gesture, of surface, and of the step.
When Rodin won the 1880 commission to build a portal for a museum of decorative arts, he begun what were to be four decades of work on Gates of Hell. The museum remained unbuilt and the gates themselves unfinished, but several of the work’s more famous elements include the now-ubiquitous The Thinker and The Kiss.
Implicit in Rilke’s exploration of Rodin as a reader is the sense that literature and art have a natural relationship and in many cases can share a vocabulary. At times he wrote of literature’s direct, emotional effect on Rodin:
He read for the first time Dante’s Divina Comedia. It was a revelation. The suffering bodies of another generation passed before him. He gazed into a century the garments of which had been torn off; he saw the great and never-to-be-forgotten judgment of a poet on his age. There were pictures that justified him in his ideas; when he read about the weeping feet of Nicholas the Third, he realized that there were such feet, that there was a weeping which was everywhere, over the whole of mankind, and that there were tears that came from all pores.
At others, he used the vocabulary of plastic arts to illustrate the proclivity to a relationship between sculpture and writing, and the ability of one to communicate the sense of the other:
[With Gates of Hell,] he gave reality to all the figures and forms of Dante’s dream, lifted them as it were from the stirred depths of his own memory and gave to each in turn the silent deliverance of material existence. Hundreds of figures and groups were thus created. But the movements, which he found in the words of the poet, belonged to another age; they awoke in the creative artist, who restored them to life, the knowledge of thousands of other movements, gestures of appropriation, of loss, of suffering and of resignation which had been evolved in the intervening years, and his tireless hands went on and on beyond the world of the Florentine poet to ever new gestures and figures.
From Dante he came to Baudelaire. …In this poet’s verses there were passages, standing out prominently, that did not seem to have been written but moulded; words and groups of words that had melted under the glowing touch of the poet; lines that were like reliefs and sonnets that carried like columns with interlaced capitals the burden of a cumulating thought. He felt dimly that this poetic art, where it ended abruptly, bordered on the beginning of another art and that it reached out toward this other art. In Baudelaire he felt the artist who had preceded him, who had not allowed himself to be deluded by faces but who sought bodies in which life was greater, more cruel and more restless. …Rodin dwelt in the books of the poets and…Later, when as a creator he again touched those realms, their forms rose like memories in his own life, aching and real, and entered into his work as though into a home.
It seems effortless for the poet to understand the way that words might so energetically produce images and shapes in the mind of the sculptor, perhaps because as a writer his mastery is in putting shape and object to words.
Rilke recalls how Rodin’s maturation as an artist followed a series of revelations he experienced as to the nature of surface, of body and of the relationship of the conceptual to the physical. These developments took place around the same time as his drama-filled affair with sculptor and graphic artist Camille Claudel.
While he was working on the Exchange of Brussels, he may have felt that there were no more buildings which admitted of the worth of sculpture as the cathedrals had done, those great magnets of plastic art of past times. Sculpture was a separate thing, as was the easel picture, but it did not require a wall like the picture. It did not even need a roof. It was an object that could exist for itself alone, and it was well to give it entirely the character of a complete thing about which one could walk, and which one could look at from all sides. And yet it had to distinguish itself somehow from other things, the ordinary things which everyone could touch.
[Sculpture] must be intercalated in the silent continuance of space and its great laws. It had to be fitted into the space that surrounded it, as into a niche; its certainty, steadiness and loftiness did not spring from its significance but from its harmonious adjustment to its environment.
Of the Danaide, Rilke praises spatial presence: “…flinging herself from a kneeling position into her flowing hair, …it is wonderful to pass slowly round this marble, to follow the long, long way which passes from the full, rich curve of the back to the face losing itself in the stone as if in a great weeping….”
…and goes on to expand upon Rodin’s development of the body as a medium and as a vehicle to and from ideas.
Rodin knew that, first of all, sculpture depended upon an infallible knowledge of the human body. …[He] had now discovered the fundamental element of his art;…it was the surface,– this differently great surface, variedly accentuated, accurately measured, out of which everything must rise,– which was from this moment the subject matter of his art. …His art was not built upon a great idea, but upon a minute, conscientious realization, upon the attainable, upon a craft. …With this awakening Rodin’s most individual work began.
The public’s disdain at Rodin’s early work reflected a culture that, in Rilke’s words, “held to the superficial, cheap and comfortable metier that was satisfied with the more or less skillful repetition of some sanctified appeal. In this environment the head of ‘The Man with the Broken Nose’ should have roused the storm that did not break out until the occasion of some of the later works of Rodin. …This face had not been touched by life, it had been permeated through and through with it as though an inexorable hand had thrust it into fate and held it there as in the whirlpool of a washing, gnawing torrent.”
When one holds and turns this mask in the hand, one is surprised at the continuous change of profiles, none of which is incidental, imagined or indefinite. There is on this head no line, no exaggeration, no contour that Rodin has not seen and willed. One feels that some of the wrinkles came early, others later, that between this and that deep furrow lie years, terrible years….But [its] beauty is not the result of the incomparable technique alone. It rises from the feeling of balance and equilibrium in all these moving surfaces, from the knowledge that all these moments of emotion originate and come to an end in the thing itself.
However great the movement of a sculpture may be, though it spring out of infinite distances, even from the depths of the sky, it must return to itself, the great circle must complete itself, the circle of solitude that encloses a work of art. This is the law which, unwritten, lived in the sculptures of times gone by. Rodin recognized it; he knew that that which gave distinction to a plastic work of art was its complete self-absorption. It must not demand nor expect aught from outside, it should refer to nothing that lay beyond it, see nothing that was not within itself; its environment must lie within its own boundaries.
Unlike a portrait, then, which as children freaked us out because its eyes always seemed to meet our gaze, “The sculptor Leonardo has given to Gioconda that unapproachableness, that movement that turns inward, that look which one cannot catch or meet.”
Rodin’s studies of the body, of a surface “with infinitely many movements,” reflected his new commitment to his medium and to craft, and produced two of his most famous pieces and nods to literary influence, Monument to Victor Hugo and Balzac.
In response to the former, The Times observed in 1909 that “there is some show of reason in the complaint that [Rodin’s] conceptions are sometimes unsuited to his medium, and that in such cases they overstrain his vast technical powers.” The latter was panned with “there may come a time, and doubtless will come a time, when it will not seem outre to represent a great novelist as a huge comic mask crowning a bathrobe, but even at the present day this statue impresses one as slang.” Monet and Debussy, on the other hand, signed a manifesto in its defense; Rilke, also, was into it: if The Man With the Broken Nose was proof of Rodin’s mastery of the face, he writes, The Man of Early Times had shown his adeptness at the body and the entry of gesture into Rodin’s work; of John and The Burghers of Calais – with their lean, rough musculature and strikingly directed movement: “setting out on their grievous journey – …all his walking figures seem to be but a preparation for the great, challenging step of Balzac.”
Rilke had a rough time in Paris at first. His exposure to and fascination with Rodin’s work eventually contributed to a stylistic overhaul in his poetry; the man who once wrote a short book of letters to God, with stunning if intangible subject matter (The Book of Hours, 1899-1903), turned now to ideas as concrete as to be titled The Book of Images (1902-1906), and finally, simply, New Poems (1907). These gemlike poems stemmed each from a discrete idea or image, and yielded markedly physical, visual, and aesthetic works.
The Panther deals with the gaze, with supple movement and occupation of space, with musculature, physicality, and emotion. Passages like
Strong and supple strides around
and back to their beginning come.
A swirling play of power surrounds
a noble will that stands there numb.
could almost be a continuation of Rilke’s writing on sculpture. In it there are the elements of life; of endurance; of physical representation of self that he alludes to when describing the impossibly lifelike lines etched in face of The Man With the Broken Nose.
But it is in Morgue that Rilke outdoes himself, subtly but definitely, in creating a poem whose nuance is so great, its allusions to creator and created, of seer and seen, of captured life so complex, that it seems inevitable to compare it to a finely-wrought object, a gesture, a step.
They lie here ready, as if we ought to find
a mission for them—something they’d be told
was urgent, which might reconcile and bind
them to each other, even to the cold:
An invitation to a final club,
an unexpected scrap of paper found
in one of their pockets. The bored look around
their mouths, which someone gave a rub,
did not come off, but just got very clean.
Their beards are waxy, stiffer on the chin,
trimly agreeing with the warden’s taste.
He wants us to appreciate the scene.
Beneath the lids, their sight has been replaced
with rolled-back eyes that dwell on things within.
My love for the horrible has drawn me into some relatively ridiculous and odd situations, not least of which being the yellow acrylic nails I’m sporting at the moment. When the ambiguous “-ible” ending is swapped for “‘-or,” though, it leads to a fascination with the grisly and the anxiety-provoking. I developed an unspoken, hitherto unprecedented type of friendship with a kid in middle school over our mutual love for Stephen King novels; I’ve seen all the Amityville movies on the SciFi channel; I read ghost stories day in and day out. One of the things that I’ve realized is maybe most interesting to me about horror writing is that it not only serves to creep out the reader, but also to give him, if he’s astute, a sense of what’s actually eating the author – what keeps the author up at night, letting his mind range from the horror of the vast and unknowable to the minutiae of his room: a ticking clock, a creaking floorboard, a movement in the curtains, a doorknob’s barely perceptible turn to the left.
This morning on the way to work, I was reading Borges’s Book of Imaginary Beings on the train and stumbled across his entry on the Kraken. It includes this excerpt from Tennyson’s Juvenalia, which were written by poet as an adolescent and never published:
Below the thunders of the upper deep;
Far, far beneath in the abysmal sea,
His ancient, dreamless, uninvaded sleep
The Kraken sleepeth: faintest sunlights flee
About his shadowy sides: above him swell
Huge sponges of millennial growth and height;
And far away into the sickly light,
From many a wondrous grot and secret cell
Unnumber’d and enormous polypi
Winnow with giant arms the slumbering green.
Where he hath lain for ages and will lie
Battening upon huge seaworms in his sleep,
Until the latter fire shall heat the deep;
Then once by man and angels to be seen,
In roaring he shall rise and on the surface die.
Now if you’re a fan of horror, this poem points to one thing and one thing only: CTHULHU. A year ago D. and I got into reading the much-lauded king of 20th century horror writing, H.P. Lovecraft, of whose work there are numerous compilations (not to mention almost unlimited fan fiction). The Call of Cthulhu is one of Lovecraft’s best-known works. It’s not the longest, nor in my opinion the most frightening, by a long shot – but it gets to the heart of, and puts a face (if you can call its “pulpy, tentacled head” – one of H.P.’s favorite images – a face) to Lovecraft’s deep hatred of the unknown, the unthinkably large, the ancient, and especially, those Ones who inhabit dark expanses beyond our understanding, i.e., the sea and the reaches of space. If you have read much Lovecraft you know that a great deal of his approach to illustrating the terrible is not to illustrate it much at all; to allow doubt to fester in fertile opacity. His description of Cthulhu’s body (the above-described head surmounting “a grotesque and scaly body with rudimentary wings”) isn’t the most bone-chilling of images, but from how frequently Lovecraft assigns these characteristics to his monsters – the tentacled head in particular – we can tell that at least he’s seriously bothered by them as the physical identity of a creature he associates with the deepest, most unnerving kind of challenge to the bounds of human time, logic, and developed space. For me, it’s these realms that Lovecraft has the most success in describing, and which have left the largest impression on me as suggestions that the most basic laws governing the systems of our planet and galaxy are rooted in a logic that is so far from human as to be obscene, and so obscene as to be sinister in intent. The alien landscapes and their inhabitants, which provide the hair-raising substance of stories like Dagon and The Whisperer in Darkness are perhaps Lovecraft’s most successful feat (what is eerier than the line “And it has come to pass that the Lord of the Woods, being…seven and nine, down the onyx steps…tributes to Him in the Gulf, Azathoth, He of Whom Thou has taught us marvels…on the wings of night out beyond space, out beyond th…to That whereof Yuggoth is the youngest child, rolling alone in black aether at the rim….”?)
Sometimes it’s easy when reading Lovecraft – and especially when reading a Lovecraft compilation, which puts all of his paranoia in one place and invites a few rolled eyes at the man’s burning need to convey how terrible bumps in the night were for him, with what seems at times no sense of obligation to illuminate much for the readers at all – to develop a kind of irritation at his pretty unclear terror about things that we just aren’t generally spooked by. Things like the planet Pluto, pink gelatin, translucent orbs, and air conditioning. But his overall focus, like that of most writers, is on the relationship of the large to the small, the yawning to the minute, the imperceptible to the mindblowing. The shock of something brushing you in the night or of a wasteland so vast its limits are unseeable; the terrible similarity between a nagging fear and the presence of a black hole. One of Lovecraft’s greatest fears it seems, and the thing that lies at the center of much great horror, is the tiny signifier that reveals something inconceivably huge.
In another of Tennyson’s Juvenalia, he writes of the house, and the body, as empty, soulless shell:
The Deserted House
Life and Thought have gone away
Side by side,
Leaving door and windows wide:
Careless tenants they!
All within is dark as night:
In the windows is no light:
And no murmur at the door,
So frequent on its hinge before.
Close the door, the shutters close,
Or thro’ the windows we shall see
The nakedness and vacancy
Of the dark deserted house.
Come away: no more of mirth
Is here or merry-making sound.
The house was builded of the earth,
And shall fall again to ground.
Come away: for Life and Thought
Here no longer dwell;
But in a city glorious –
A great and distant city – have bought
A mansion incorruptible.
Would they could have stayed with us.
These two poems in Tennyson’s Juvenalia terrify perhaps primarily because they’re such massively frightening, and frighteningly effective, works about something both huge and ancient (a monster and death), written by a human adolescent. And what is more unnerving than a written work that betrays a vast, inexplicable darkness within its writer?
_____________________________________________________________ I have seen the dark universe yawning Where the black planets roll without aim, Where they roll in their horror unheeded, Without knowledge or lustre or name.
Active Child – Wilderness
We can begin to look at the word “wilderness” in several languages as lenses for insight into its meaning. In French, the word for wilderness is simply désert, which can mean both desert as we understand it – a dry, sandy, often vast expanse of inhospitable land – and more basically an uninhabited, uncivilized place in nature. At the root of this word is the Latin deserere – to forsake or abandon, from which we take the word “deserter.” With these definitions, we can read in the French conception of the word for wilderness a sense of damnation and sin perhaps attributable to the handling of the concept in Biblical texts (in English translations of which “desert” and “wilderness” are often used interchangeably). Yi-Fu Tuan writes: “In the Bible the term ‘wilderness’ brings to mind… a place of desolation, the unsown land frequented by demons; it is condemned by God.” He cites Jeremiah 25:38: “Their lands became a wilderness… because of [Yahweh’s] wrath,” and several instances in which God’s people are sent to the wilderness as punishment or must meet challenges to their faith in an environment where shaky footing holds both topographical and spiritual significance. However, as Tuan points out, inherent to the idea of the Biblical wilderness is the concept of a productive discipline: as discipulae, or followers, of God, humans must overcome challenges which ultimately “[enable] the contemplative Christian to see the Divine more clearly, unencumbered by the world” (Tuan, 110), lending to wilderness a purifying power so valued in ascetic Christian tradition. Here the idea of wilderness, through the lens of its French and Latin roots, suggests one of several interesting aporias: in naming wilderness as désert, we identify it as a forsaken place, when in fact, as followers of God, we are called in these moments of greatest darkness to accept His presence in our lives. Thus the word désert encompasses an important Biblical theme of man’s constant struggle against the doubt that presents a constant challenge to faith.
The English “wilderness” is equally saturated with meaning. The word’s roots are in the Old English wildeornes, or literally, the place where wild deer reside. This definition appears less qualitative than the French, as it seems on the surface to be an observation-based description of the fauna present in this type of environment. But it is in “wild” rather than in “deer” that we can discern man’s clearest fingerprints. “Wild” is a word that can exist only in contrast to “tame” – as Tuan puts it, “an environmental value requires its antithesis for definition” – and thus we can mark as simultaneous its birth as a concept and our domestication of our environs. Tuan provides a thoughtful analysis applicable to the ways in which wilderness developed in the mind of the Romantics, “at the back of [whose] appreciation for nature is the privilege and wealth of the city.” He makes it clear that wilderness functions as a romantic ideal only in contrast with the refined world, and that it is “romantic in the sense that it is far removed from any real understanding of nature”. Mirroring the antithesis central to defining “wilderness” is the paradox of our projected meaning upon it. We find wilderness fascinating because of its untouched, savage quality, its self-reliance and utter lack of concern for human affairs; yet wilderness as a concept can exist only in relation to human civilization. Thus, it is clear that as an intellectual construct, “wilderness” is a key to understanding the spaces we demarcate to satisfy certain human needs for momentary loss of control. One might say that it is the fulfillment of man’s desire to feel robbed of power within the controlled environment of his own capacity to dictate the boundaries of his strength.
The word “wilderness” is a testament to the reflexive, self-dependent quality of language; a reminder that human discourse is a fragile structure of carefully assembled significance. We can locate the aporia intrinsic to the word “wild” in the contrast between the romantic freedom at the center of its meaning to us to us and the reality of its dependence upon juxtaposition with another human construct – civilization – to exist. This contradiction highlights the ways in which language is symptomatic of the classification systems that we create to define our world, and in turn to the delicacy of these synthetic partitions. It would not be outrageous to posit that classifications make us comfortable by maintaining a set distance between us and our world, and that in the same way the word “wilderness” maintains its romance due to the distance it keeps between itself and civilization, its established antithesis. These distances contribute a great deal to the functionality of language as a science and an art. Manmade systems of classifications are woven as meticulously as a spider’s web, each thread stretching towards the intersection with another that locates its essence. It is in these spaces – in distances between the moments of fastening that give us meaning – that language allows us mental expanses in which to create romance. In illuminating the way that we have constructed language to fulfill our needs both to classify and to indulge in mystery, “wilderness” points to a deep-seated human desire to protect the romance of enigma, whether it be spiritual or environmental, in a world we continue to demystify with codification.
Love – Maybe The People Would Be The Times Or Between Clark And Hilldale
If you know anything about me you won’t be surprised to learn that one of my favorite books of all time is The Phantom Tollbooth. I love puns and wordplay, dogs, odd modes of transportation concealed within large boxes in one’s living room, doing things you might get in trouble for during the period after school before your parents get home, etc. One scene that has always stood out in my memory is the one in the word market where Milo and Tock paw through piles of words, long and short, rare and common, blustery and modest. Because the words are represented as actual objects with weight and value, the scene highlighted for me the sensuality of language: the heavy and light words, the ones that sparkle with the regality of rare usage, the tireless blue-collar “ifs”, “ands”, and “buts” (laboring long hours and worked overtime behind semicolons, bearing the weight of a too-heavy second clause and probably not even paid time-and-a-half)…. This feeling that words have real body to them has never left me and today I notice it in the way that I am almost physically moved by the dually clean and sumptuous effect of a word that exposes the true meaning of a thing; a word that mercilessly and motheringly cuts to the center of an idea or a feeling and envelops its fluttering heart in swaths of muscular accuracy.
My father described this as the “inevitable ache of precision.” I notice an ambiguity in this statement: is the ache the result of the search for accuracy and the painful desire for truth, or of the feeling one gets when one has shed a light on something that for a long time lay peacefully in darkness; the sense of guilt in destroying something beautiful? It seems to me that at the heart of this ambiguity lies something deeply curious and elegant about mankind: the contradiction of our constant search for the perfect and our abhorrence of the final – one and the same, even linguistically speaking.
In the book I am reading right now, Arthur O. Lovejoy’s The Great Chain of Being, I just ran across a section in the chapter “Genesis of the Idea” about two historical modes of human thinking. The first of these stresses the impossibility of finding anything true or real in man’s natural life and thus fits into a category Lovejoy titles “otherworldiness”. The other of these modes, which he calls “this-worldliness”, stems from a declaration of the value of worldly life (of the “sufficient worth of the general conditions of existence”) inherent to an “antipathy to satisfaction and finality” common to the Romantic period and identifying “the chief value of existence with process and struggle in time.” Our aversion to conclusion, to the departure of things we love and cling to, is as deeply seated as our longing for truth and perfection, as our search for something purer and distant from ourselves. I think this paradox is stunning because of the way that it reveals the pulling of our souls in two different directions. Nothing is more touching than the way in which humans have tried to at once nest in this world we inhabit, to find beauty in it, to love it for its pains and its losses and its moments of fulfillment, while at the same time feeling our eyes constantly pulled to a distant horizon; to something our hearts press hard against our cage of ribs to be closer to but at the same time fear because of the oneness of perfection and death. In literature we witness authors looking out along this course and following it as far as they dare: in Moby Dick, Ahab pursues his goal of punishing the White Whale, of bringing justice and thus drawing a complete and perfect circle, ending necessarily in death, but Melville spares us from the weight of excruciating perfection by allowing the whale to escape, thus leaving the scales unbalanced and us with a sense of the “sufficient worth of the general conditions of existence” that we are subject to as a race. In Virginia Woolf’s To The Lighthouse, the Ramsay children’s unsatisfied desire to go to the lighthouse represents the mercy of the imperfect: of a life not yet complete, of a hopeful dissatisfaction and the gift of a time-bound vigorousness present only in mortal souls and bodies. Their longing for something out of their reach attests to the Romantic sensibility of “the chief value of existence with process and struggle in time” and in this way the lighthouse acts not as the sacred and unattainable goal but instead as the mercy that gives worth to human experience.
In seeking to do anything perfectly, or more accurately, or more deeply – in trying to find “some final, fixed, immutable, intrinsic, perfectly satisfying good” – we are inflicting upon ourselves a pain that as members of mankind is unavoidable: the pain of seeking to close the divide between the human and the divine, between the imperfect and the perfect, in a way that would in itself destroy the essential value at the heart of our humanity: process and struggle in that most mortal of things, time.
As the bee danced, it gave off the faintest scent of marzipan that mingled with the pinky-orange perfume of the hibiscus.
“Sweet…sweet,” whispered the hibiscus.
She drew her petals tightly round her, and drooped towards the sinking moon.
“Fly away now, for the honey,” she said to the bee. “Fly, so I can see you flying against the last of the yellow moon.”
“I wish I could have been a gentleman for you,” said the bee, and it flew off, towards the golden passing windows of the District Line, and the last of the yellow moon.
When I was a child my mother read to me almost constantly, and later she told me that her method was to lay my books out flat alongside each other in rows, covers beckoning with their rich oilpaint illustrations and embossed lettering, so that I could choose with more to entice me than the thin stripes of small-fonted vertical spines on a shelf. Many of these books make up the strongest memories of my childhood, and I’m interested in considering in what ways the rhythm of the language, the sometimes almost hypnotizingly measured development of the story, the aesthetics, and the fantasy of children’s books have influenced me in my thinking, my writing, and my appreciation of the world as an older person.
As a tot I loved the Frog and Toad books for no other reason than that Frog and Toad were, as it seemed to me, somewhat isolated best friends in a foresty world that I liked the looks of. Of these books I would say that their primary influence on me stems, interestingly, from the graphics: the greys and greens and browns of the watercolor illustrations seemed so cozy to me and reminded me of what my parents referred to as “lake light”, or the way that on overcast days the light sometimes looks green as though one were looking up at the sky from beneath the surface of a lake. The colors of the books pleased me and atmospheric, cloudy weather – my favorite sort to this day – still evokes the happiness I felt in reading them.
A favorite was always Rudyard Kipling’s Just So Stories, which I had on video cassette narrated by Jack Nicholson and which gave me the bizarre ability to imitate Nicholson’s nasal, ever-so-slightly-menacing voice perfectly as a six-year-old (watch all three parts of The Elephant’s Child here, here and here) and a knack for peppering my everyday conversations with vaguely out-of-place phrases (“the bi-colored python rocksnake”, “insatiable curiosity”, “the banks of the great, grey-green greasy Limpopo River”, and so on). I think these stories left an indelible mark on my way of speaking, for better or worse: they are swept along by a whimsical, pulsing rhythm, strings of adjectives that become comical in their accumulation, a pleasing cadence of repeated words and phrases, and overall a style that, even as commits itself earnestly to vividly illuminating a story, laughs at itself and in so doing mirrors the playful relationship of fantasy and reality that lies at the heart of a series of fanciful explanations for real life that is Just So Stories. They allow a child to imagine a more fantastical world behind the facts they are taught in school, and train him in the suspension of disbelief that can make life so much more interesting and funny for its duality and juxtapositions.
One of the stories that I remember perhaps most vividly is The Marzipan Pig. I think I can mark in this story the first time I felt alerted to the poignancy of solitude – I might venture to say that my own desire for solitude woke up when I heard this story over the years of my childhood, like a new baby turning its head sharply when it hears its father’s voice for the first time and recognizes it as the enunciation of murmurs it heard from within its warm darkness months before. The pig in the story, a festive candy gift to a child, somehow falls behind the couch and lies there alone for what feels like an eternity, awake in the darkness, listening to the ticking of the grandfather clock and wishing someone would find it. As time passes it imagines the family’s frantic concern that it has gone missing; that upon its rescue there will be great rejoicing and celebration, but is alarmed when it realizes its toe, and then its haunch and sugary pink belly, are being nibbled at by a hungry mouse. Soon it is eaten up and the mouse emerges from behind the couch to nap in the grandfather clock. As the story goes on, taking place in one night and part of the next day, the sweetness of the Marzipan Pig passes from one body to the next in a somehow charming cycle of life and death – from the mouse to an owl to a bee to a nightblooming hibiscus and on. The nocturnal atmosphere of the story fascinated me, as did the vignette-like quality of the different creatures’ experiences and the fleeting intimacy of their interactions and unfulfilled longings (the grandfather clock who has fallen in love with the mouse who naps inside it, the owl whose bellyful of marzipan and mouse causes his heart to beat fast for the meter light of a taxicab and dance for joy, the bee and the hibiscus who court each other in the darkness, mourning the inevitable death of the hibiscus that will come with the sunlight and end their romance). The language of the story is elegant and slow, with the repetitions and lilting phrasing that lull a child into listening peacefully and hearing, between the words themselves, the life of the narrative behind them. The quiet intimacies and thoughtful privacy of the characters stuck with me because on some level I suppose I realized how much they echoed the experiences of an only child, who looks for connections all around him and, more accustomed to silence than other children, hears more deeply and in this way stumbles often upon the deeper and darker nature of his world. The Marzipan Pig deals with silence, solitude, longing, and fleeting happiness – all very adult subjects, if one considers them – in the same way that The Velveteen Rabbit, Abel’s Island, and Stuart Little do, and in a way that draws more relevance and meaning from them as one grows older.
Annie and the Wild Animals and The Girl in the Golden Bower had a dreamlike quality that made an impression on me, and brought about a sort of chilly unease that I liked and still like to this day. The two stories both involve girls who for one reason or another are left alone in houses in hostile situations, abandoned by adults and left to defend themselves against nature. In both stories, animals creep into their houses one by one and the domestic setting of the house becomes more and more overrun by the natural world. It occurred to me how dreamlike these stories are: children often dream of being left to fend for themselves, and the animals seem like clear symbols for frightening or otherwise foreign invasions of our safety. As animals appear steadily in groups of two or three per day, encroaching little by little, they mark the passage of time like seasons or daily cycles of light and dark – in other words, with the same measured symmetry that is so inherently present in nature and to which children look to guide them in their growth and development. The animals in these stories represent the awe-inspiring largeness and forward motion of nature, and I recall feeling equal parts terror and wonder at this mingling of natural and human worlds, in the same way that one is often fascinated by overgrown houses fused to the earth by vines and trees growing up through their foundations.
Phosphorescent – Wolves
The last book I’ll talk about is one of the most special to me, called The Boy & the Cloth of Dreams, which tells the story of a child whose beautiful blanket, woven for him by his grandmother to ward off nightmares, rips, leaving him vulnerable to all the terrors that seep into his sleeping mind through the hole. The story begins with a visit to his grandmother’s house, and the description of the meal they eat together and the blissful evening he spends before bedtime never left me: I was struck by their evocative aestheticism and to this day value things so much for their sensuality I think in part due to this book. The supper is described as salty, sweet, hot, cold; the evening striped with dusty sunlit columns and dark pools of shadow; the house scented with old wood and later, during the nightmares, filled with a vast darkness turning even the most familiar shapes into foreign, warped, looming mysteries. The cloth itself is a fantastic aesthetic object in itself: it illustrates the idea that the world of fantasy and reality, of the tangible and the abstract, could be connected in a physical way, giving mass to our imaginings (much like a passage of mirrors that allows for mingling of the spiritual and physical worlds). Later when, upon the instruction of his grandmother, the boy pulls threads from the moon and sun to mend the hole in his cloth, the fantasy of the story graciously melts away the reality of the situation – the distance, the actual makeup of sun and moon – like an elegant circus ringmaster bowing and pulling aside a curtain, and leaves children with only the most wonderful of aesthetics to feast their minds upon: the manifestation of the sun’s heat and the moon’s cold, reminiscent of the supper from hours before, into gold and silver strands tugged from their tapering rays in a way that could not seem more natural or perfect.
Wild Nothing – The Witching Hour
The children’s stories that meant the most to me, I’ve found, are those that brought my attention to things I still find haunting to this day: solitude, the painful loveliness of fleeting intimacy, the awful steadiness of time passing, the sensuality of light and dark and tastes and smells and temperatures, the eerie connections between the physical and metaphysical, and the imagination and its manifestation in our lives.
Fleet Foxes – Mykonos
When I was at the Villa St. Anne a few weekends back, J. was so kind as to reach a narrow arm up to a top kitchen shelf and pull down for me a 1969 edition of a guidebook to Paris written by two jolly-looking French men, Christian Millau and Henri Gault. If you ever read an original copy of a Nancy Drew mystery, you know what it smells like when you open this book up – that smell like reading on a rainy day in the attic of your house.
Many of the spots listed in the book are still there – Parisian classics like Laduree and La Coupole – but just as many have disappeared and are that much more alluring as souvenirs of a Paris now existing only in fading hardbacks like this one. One place in particular, an extinct Beatnik bistro in the 5e, drew my attention, and I thought if you’re anything like me you’d enjoy equally the idea of such a place as the satisfying, dated way it is illustrated, each sentence as pleasant for its slow, meticulous description as it is to watch someone take their time rolling a perfect cigarette.
…Popoff’s happens to be closed at the time of this writing, for reasons we prefer to skip…Most Parisians have never heard of Chez Popoff. But whenever one of those wild-haired young vagabonds, squeezed into grayish T-shirts and faded jeans, who hitchhike here, there and everywhere with bouncing knapsack and flying beard, runs into a like specimen in San Francisco, Hamburg, Rotterdam or New Delhi and wants to get together in Paris, there’s just one place that comes to mind….
Tyrolian knapsacks and sailors’ duffel bags pile up in the back room while their owners are out looking for a room or lying in the sun on the banks of the Seine. Even though many of them consider grime the emblem of social protest, a few Vikings, still conditioned by their native Scandinavia, crowd around the washbasin (soap and towels are free).
These glorious youths, most of whom come from Northern Europe or the English-speaking countries, spend hours sprawled on the benches, waiting for heaven only knows what over a cup of coffee that has long been drained. When they’re hungry they buy a piece of bread from the baker across the street and salami or olives from the grocer next door, then come back for a picnic under the proprietor’s paternal eye.
For Monsieur Popoff is a broad-minded man and prides himself on his understanding and affection for footloose youngsters. “You’ve got to help the kids out,” he says in his gentle voice. And whenever a Finn with thick, curly locks wants to buy a cigarette from him, he takes his pack from his pocket and graciously offers him a Gauloise.”
View from the RER C | Coming into Paris, Sunday, March 14, 2010
Vivian Girls – When I’m Gone
I’ve been to Spain and back again. It was wonderful and full of fruit and markets and paella and sweet pretty friends that I’ve missed so much. Pictures here.
Bakerby observed in a recent post, alongside some evocative photos of Paris, that she always thinks of my Current City in the colors “jade green, ivory white, and dusty beige.” It’s funny she should say that because I myself so often imagine places as a smear of color, of lights and darks, and Valencia is orange, nightsky purple, and a blue like raw silk curtains.
I tried to get to Valencia on Thursday night, but my flight was cancelled, so back I came to Paris and headed to Shakespeare & Co. to satisfy a burning desire for more books to read. I bought Flatland, The Great Chain of Being, and Logics of Disintegration, and then trotted over to Place St. Michel for some duck and potatoes, a sundae, and some typical flirtations as integral to the service of any self-respecting French waiter as a smart black suit and white apron. It is always strange, and nice, to come back to Paris and feel a sense of comfort at being home.