David Auerbach on literature, tech, film, etc.

Month: January 2003 (page 2 of 5)

The Obscene Bird of Night, Jose Donoso

For a long time before I read it, I referred to the book as That Obscene Bird of Night. I was conflating it with Luis Bunuel’s movie, That Obscure Object of Desire, which I’ve never seen. The only thing I know about the movie is that it stars Fernando Rey as a dirty old man stand in for Bunuel, and has two actresses randomly interchanged as the titular object. I inferred from the use of “that” a dismissive or disgusted familiarity, and it wouldn’t be inappropriate in Donoso’s book, which treats the bird as an creative (and anti-creative) force bringing oblivion.

Bird is extremely disorienting, and the lack of analyses that describe the organization of the book in any detail suggest that it may not actually make sense. Large portions of a book feature a single narrator drifting through a succession of personae: Humberto (a writer and aristocrat’s secretary), Mudito (a deaf, dumb infantile caretaker who frequently loses and regains his senses and limbs), an old nun (a sexless disguise of Mudito), and an unborn fetus. But Donoso is fairly clear about the transitions, and it’s not difficult to figure out when one is taking place or who is speaking at a given time. What complicates matters is that multiple characters seem to be responsible for single actions (like pregnancies), and plot points are continually ignored or rewritten. Here the book is reminiscent of Juan Rulfo’s Pedro Paramo, where memories brought characters back from the dead to offer a cubist view on the history of a town. But since Donoso is writing about the annihilation of memory through imagination, the combination of intermixed characters and resolutely inconsistent plotlines leads to total chaos that dwarfs Rulfo.

As best as I can figure, there are two main story arcs in the book. In the first and most prominent, Humberto/Mudito lives out a bizarre existence in a huge Casa with six nuns and sometimes some orphans, one of which, Iris, is used by Humberto/Mudito in a plot to create an heir for the Casa’s owner, the senator Don Jeronimo Azcoitia, that he will then control. Iris is conflated with Ines, Jeronimo’s barren wife, and Humberto/Mudito meshes with the possibly impotent Azcoitia to impregnate Iris/Ines. Iris is pregnant for most of the book while Humberto/Mudito carries transforms into Iris’s doll, a seventh old nun, and eventually her fetus, who the nuns believe will be a virgin birth. The baby is born and is perfect, and is about to perform a miracle, when the other story intercedes.

It’s not made clear for much of the book, but the other story, about the birth of Jeronimo and Ines’s son, takes place seventeen years prior to the main arc. The son, named Boy, is a horrendous mutant, and Jeronimo charges Humberto, who is his secretary and is the only other person who knows about Boy, with maintaining a house filled with deformed freaks that will take care of Boy, so that he will have no idea of his deviation from reality. Seventeen years later, Boy finally meets his father, who then dies amongst the freaks, and asks his one-eyed doctor to have all memory of his father and his brief exposure to outside reality surgically removed from his brain, and this triggers the collapse of the other plot. The nuns leave the Casa, and only Mudito remains, sewn up inside a sack, from which he cannot escape no matter how much he chews through it, until the sack is taken by a witchlike woman and burned with paper and rags on a fire under a bridge.

There’s more, way more, but this seems to be the basic structure of the book. The Boy story is, with some exceptions, far clearer than the Mudito story, and my takes is that the Mudito story is an insane fantasy of Humberto’s constructed as a rewriting of the past. Its creation is spurred by the death of Jeronimo, which severs Boy’s lineage from reality, as well as Humberto’s. Donoso plays up Humberto’s “authorship” of Boy’s reality to a great extent; Boy becomes fictive and Humberto becomes his father. Consequently, the rewriting in the Mudito parts of the book makes Humberto a double for Jeronimo: they switch genitals and wives even as Mudito loses his senses and body, which is equated with Humberto losing all conception of reality, as he becomes the keeper of knowledge of the Casa who can never leave. Humberto’s authority waxes and wanes as he drifts into his Mudito persona, who signifies the senseless, sexless writer totally detached from reality. His is simultaneously master of his hermetic Casa and subjugated slave to those around him. As he erases causality, linearity, and individuality of phenomena, he is able to kill Jeronimo through pure negation of all but momentary imagination.

There’s also a class element: Jeronimo is the prestigious aristocratic stateman, Humberto the insecure, plebeian writer who becomes his servant. There is some allusion to the idea that Humberto is acting as a rebellious servant of Jeronimo, mediating reality in a Hegelian fashion for Jeronimo, who, as the aristocrat, is insulated from it. This aspect is overrun by the general chaos of the novel, but it does indicate that Donoso does know what he’s doing and is not simply spitting words on to paper.

On page 211, Humberto has a moment of clarity:

All my work will explode inside my body, each fragment of my anatomy will acquire a life of its own, outside mine, Humberto won’t exist, only these monsters, the despot who imprisoned me at La Rinconada to force me to invent him, Ines’s honey complexion, Brigida’s death, Iris Mateluna’s hysterical pregnancy, the saintly girl who was never beatified, Humberto Penaloza’s father pointing out Don Jeronimo dressed up to go to the Jockey Club, and your benign, kind hand, Mother Benita, that does not and will not let go of mine, and your attention fixed on these words of a mute, and your rosaries, the Casa’s La Rinconada as it once was, as it is now, as it was afterwards, the escape, the crime, all of it alive in my brain, Peta Ponce’s prism refracting and confusing everything and creating simultaneous and contradictory planes, everything without ever reaching paper, because I always hear voices and laughter enveloping and tying me up.

The events referenced in the first half all fall into the second, realistic story, and the rest of it is a very accurate description of the Mudito storyline, as he is tormented by the witch figure here taking the form of Ines’s nursemaid Peta Ponce. This passage presents a more reductionistic framework: Humberto as author enveloping his created reality, even as its inspiration drives him to lose his identity and bodily and mental integrity.

There’s a power to the book that holds steady for much of it, something stronger than Cortazar and Cabrera Infante, who were both willing to work with the grotesque but maintain a steely hold over their characters and environment. As far as a dissection of the part of the creative process before pen gets put to paper, its assault is far more resonant than Gilbert Sorrentino’s Mulligan Stew, where the dominant emotion is amusement mixed with pathos. Donoso doesn’t have much of either; mostly, there is inchoate, solipsistic horror.

Sator Arepo Tenet Opera Rotas

 S A T O R
 A R E P O
 T E N E T
 O P E R A
 R O T A S

One common translation is “Arepo the sower holds the wheels at work,” but if there does exist one authoritative meaning, it’s been buried among many dubious others.

1. Webern

The square above is inscribed on Webern’s gravestone. Webern had some peculiar obsession with it, since by this dissertation, he dropped it in lectures, and the structure of his Concerto, op. 24 is apparently derived from it. The only definite characteristic I know of is the (multi-dimensional) symmetry, but this quote from a letter cryptically elaborates on what he was after:

You ask about the shape: at the center [of the song] are the the words “Because he fell silent on the cross, we must go after him, in all seriousness of bitterness, our breath follows him.” What went before is now repeated backwards. Repeated. All shapes are similar and none are the same; thus, the chorus points to the secret law, to a holy riddle…. But the fact that it was just these words that constitute the center of the musical shape came about of its own accord– indeed it could not have been otherwise.

The words to the song are Hildegard Jones’. The translation I have gives the lines as “Because it [the Word] fell silent on the Cross we must follow it,” and the subtext is the equation of God and Word. The Jewish Webern was probably less interested in the Biblical implications than in the notion of the center, and of having a piece lead in and out of a central, exalted point rather than having a differentiated start and end. I.e., from the center flows its surroundings, which do not form a circle, but a multiplicity of paths to the center.

2. Osman Lins

Osman Lins constructed the entirety of his book Avalovara around this square, with each letter representing a different concurrent plotline, environment, and/or lover. The book was then structured by superimposing a spiral on the square, which makes a full rotation fourteen times before converging on the middle ‘N’. The path from outside to center is equated with an explicitly Christian movement from perception to immanence, dialogue to unity, and impurity to purity. The book ends with a the narrator, who is possibly insane (it’s a rather abstruse book), being elevated to the Garden of Eden with his quasi-divine lover and turning his back on what is evidently Augustine’s City of Man.

Translator Gregory Rabassa provides a helpful essay on Avalovara. Lins is explicit about seeing the word square as a circular entity, abandoning the linear reading as far as I can tell. But it’s certainly a weighted circle, and the spiral causes its traversal along neither line, and nor any path given by the reflection of the letters per se. The geometry of the book does not work; not in two dimensions, anyway.

3. Rome
Andrew Hughey gives a history of the acrostic. Its main “hidden” feature is that it can be rearranged to form two “PATERNOSTER”‘s with an overlapped ‘N’, leaving out two ‘A”s and ‘O”s, which, in a fiddly and lexicographically weird stretch, could be read as alpha and omega. (This page gives a far more unbelievable anagram.) It was first discovered in the Pompeii ruins, but has since been found from Britain to Egypt, maybe further. The “secret Christian handshake” interpretation seems reasonable, but pagan and Roman interpretations exist, and it’s more than possible that the meaning has evolved over the millenium in which the square was used. This classics-list page gives the rough outlines of what’s known and what’s not.

What’s interesting, though, is that the alpha/omega Pater Noster interpretation undercuts the square’s own design, giving a differentiated beginning and end (without, but especially with, the ‘A”s and ‘O”s) and the center loses all meaning except as a stopover from beginning to end, which is all part of the undifferentiated “PATERNOSTER.” This a very convenient allegory for the evolution from gnosticism to orthodoxy and the ensuing death of esoteric gnostic traditions. It also leaves the symmetry and multiple paths open to non-Christian interpretation for those who don’t take the anagram approach. The word square is lost with the anagram, which removes the entire apparent rationale for the set of letters. Whichever way you go, relating the two versions is self-defeating.


The scholar Malcolm Stewart offers a more informed analysis of the origins and usage of the word square:

“… fiddly and lexicographically weird” – the Alpha/Omega interpretation? No. Latin had no equivalent for omega and “o” was often used. This came forward into medieval church latin from which we still have a carol with a verse:

“O and A and A and O
cum cantibus in choro
let the merry organ go
benedicamus Domino, benedicamus Domino.”

Pater Noster was not a phrase exclusive to Christian usage, it was a known term. Sometimes used of Jupiter, sometimes even of the Emperor. But it almost certainly is Christian taken together with the A and O. And almost certainly was an acrostic to reveal/hide christian affiliation. The fish sign took two people to make – you made a curved line casually on the ground with a toe, if the other person didn’t add the other curve you kept mum. This too I think was a recognition signal of the kind that could be displayed fairly securely.

One can contrive all sorts of other possibilities. For instance if you decode the square according to current numerology you find all vertica and horizontal lines add to 19 = 1 (by casting out the 9. 19 itself has a sacred numerical pedigree in the ancient world owing to the metonic cycle). However that can’t apply becuase Latin didn’t have some of the letters that lead to the numeration involved so the sums can’t be like that. Contrivances …

The Pater Noster AO solution is elegant, uses without any spare leftover parts, three Christian elements. The Phrase, the Cross and the AO. It’s conclusive … though we all like to think that something further may be hidden ….

An ad hominem indication of what the square encodes is simply to ask people who’ve come across it and solved it forĀ themselves what the found in it. I’m one of the many who have done this (years before the existence of the omniscientĀ www.) It’s always the Pater Noster reading.

I find his case compelling, but there is part of me that still holds out hope for a generative usage of the square in the style of Giordano Bruno. The acrostic explanation does not hold enough of the square’s symmetry to be fully attractive. Consequently, I’m more drawn to Lins and Webern’s symbolic usage of the square.

Graphic Scores: Cornelius Cardew and Barry Guy

The Block Museum has a nice intro to the Voynich Manuscript of music, Cornelius Cardew’s Treatise.

My favorite version that I’ve heard, if it actually is a version, is AMM’s The Inexhaustible Document (that would be Treatise), which spends over an hour on “Page 9.”

For somewhat less cryptic graphic scores, take a look at Barry Guy’s stunning work.

Hans Burgener/Richard Teitelbaum/Günter Müller/Carlos Zingaro, 11 Ways to Proceed

This is one of my favorite albums of free-improv-with-electronics. Richard Cochrane’s excellent review gives a good description of what makes it soar above so much else around, though I’m not sure if it’s quite so seamlessly holistic as he makes out. Take a look at the instrumentation:

Hans Burgener: acoustic and electric violin
Richard Teitelbaum: Kurzweil K2000, Powerbook w/ Max
Günter Müller: electronics, selected drums
Carlos Zingaro: acoustic violin pitch-to-MIDI w/ Powerbook G3

Teitelbaum and Zingaro aren’t playing undifferentiated electronics, and the signatures of their particular tools are evident. In contrast to Burgener, who has a scratchy, abrasive tone, Zingaro plays fairly smoothly, with some traditionally romantic flourishes, and his electronic modifications are usually loops and echoes rather than anything that would create pure noise. Teitelbaum is playing a synthesizer, and he comes from a background (modern electronic composition) where their sound–blunt, artificial, sometimes ugly, but usually tonal–was made overt. Neither Zingaro nor Teitelbaum normally permit themselves to be subsumed in a group (they’ve worked together on very obtrusive projects), but here they both seem muted, even though their playing is no less assertive.

Müller seems to be the one holding it together. He provides a bed of noise and low rumbles that couch the extremes of the others’ playing and gives a logic from one sound to the next, so that Burgener can become a lead voice, sometimes paired with Zingaro. Burgener doesn’t overplay his hand, though, and takes time to work through his ideas; he never overpowers the electronic backdrop, and sits out for periods of sometimes spacy sound. He’s also an amazing player just by himself, and a match for Zingaro. The sound isn’t one of egoless unity so much as careful cancellation, and it’s a rare achievement. Müller has played a similar role, low-key but crucially integrative, on many of his other recordings, particularly those of Poire_Z, but this is, to me, his finest feat.

Kiwi Days

Snarkout takes me back to my days as a teenager when I paged through the Ajax catalog trying to divine from the descriptions which records I would actually like. Tim Adams enthusiastically wrote the descriptions, before he burning himself out a few years later, as the text got shorter and the catalog got larger and less selective. Bits of the catalog endure here, and I still recognize some of the descriptions ten years later. I discovered that I didn’t care for most indie music coming out of America, and I fixated quickly on what I did like: New Zealand, and the Flying Nun and Xpressway labels. The Chills, the Verlaines, Jay Clarkson, the Terminals, Sneaky Feelings, DoubleHappys, the Jefferies brothers, Alastair Galbraith. New names continued to show up in the catalog, and I’d order most of them.

I came in late. Most of the best groups were already gone, Xpressway was almost dead, and Flying Nun had gone commercial. But it didn’t matter. The records were still around, and they could have come from Mars for all I knew. Most of these people never set foot in America. No one I knew liked them, and I didn’t hang out with a music crowd anyway. There were only these records from people on the other side of the world, who, from what little evidence existed, were stuck in about the most remote first-world country there was (Dunedin and Christchurch, the fulcrums of the “scene” there, were on the rural South Island), and didn’t seem terribly happy about it. Sneaky Feelings’s “P.I.T. Song” sounded as close to emotional hell as I’d ever heard in music, but there was nothing around me to join with it.

Very little of it sounds different to me today than it did then. Even though I spend money on the latest Otomo Yoshihide disc today, the part of my brain that appreciated the Kiwi music of the 80’s and 90’s seems to have been preserved along with the music, unaging. There has been nothing I’ve encountered in the last ten years to change my attitude towards it. I wasn’t consciously seeking out music without any cultural referents back then, but I stumbled on it, and it’s very nearly the only music from then I still listen to. Ajax eventually became Three Beads of Sweat and reissues Mountain Goats rarities, among other things. But the Terminals (or 3/5 of them) had a new album out a few years ago, and I bought it, and listened to it, and it was exactly the same as it was then.

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