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Tag: borges (page 1 of 5)

Chateau d’Argol by Julien Gracq

Gracq’s somewhat decadent, very symbolist French novel from 1938 reads like a cross between Borges and Cocteau.

In telling the story of a trio of youths, two men and one women, who live out an erotic and violent fever dream in a remote house in the middle of a large wood, Gracq remains so abstract, so image-oriented and philosophical, avoiding all discourse direct and indirect, that Chateau d’Argol sometimes comes off as the schema for a much larger Romantic work of feeling and insanity. It is short and relentless.

Its unique strengths and weaknesses are best shown by this quote:

As though borne along by the web of an exalting music, his limbs seemed the prisoners of the fatal laws of a number–although a primary one in every respect–and his step majestic beyond all measure and at every moment plainly oriented, seemed to Albert the materialization, shorn for the first time of all kinds of grotesquely aesthetic veils, of what Kant has caused, mysteriously enough, purposiveness without purpose.

The old translation, by Louise Varese, reads like it was translated extremely closely from the French, as French sentence structure seems evident everywhere. This produces a jarring awkwardness that dampens the spell Gracq is trying to cast, but the consistency of the weird style does eventually create a certain otherworldliness of its own.

Gracq was friends with surrealist Andre Breton but I’m not aware if he knew Cocteau. Will has more on Gracq.

Borges on Shakespeare

On the subject of Shakespeare, his strange impersonalness, and mythology, I think Borges still has it most right.

Everything and Nothing

There was no one in him; behind his face (which even through the bad paintings of those times resembles no other) and his words, which were copious, fantastic and stormy, there was only a bit of coldness, a dream dreamt by no one. At first he thought that all people were like him, but the astonishment of a friend to whom he had begun to speak of this emptiness showed him his error and made him feel always that an individual should not differ in outward appearance. Once he thought that in books he would find a cure for his ill and thus he learned the small Latin and less Greek a contemporary would speak of; later he considered that what he sought might well be found in an elemental rite of humanity, and let himself be initiated by Anne Hathaway one long June afternoon. At the age of twenty-odd years he went to London. Instinctively he had already become proficient in the habit of simulating that he was someone, so that others would not discover his condition as no one; in London he found the profession to which he was predestined, that of the actor, who on a stage plays at being another before a gathering of people who play at taking him for that other person. His histrionic tasks brought him a singular satisfaction, perhaps the first he had ever known; but once -the last verse had been acclaimed and the last dead man withdrawn from the stage, the hated flavour of unreality returned to him. He ceased to be Ferrex or Tamberlane and became no one again. Thus hounded, he took to imagining other heroes and other tragic fables. And so, while his flesh fulfilled its destiny as flesh in the taverns and brothels of London, the soul that inhabited him was Caesar, who disregards the augur’s admonition, and Juliet. who abhors the lark, and Macbeth, who converses on the plain with the witches who are also Fates. No one has ever been so many men as this man who like the Egyptian Proteus could exhaust all the guises of reality. At times he would leave a confession hidden away in some corner of his work, certain that it would not be deciphered; Richard affirms that in his person he plays the part of many and Iago claims with curious words ‘I am not what I am’. The fundamental identity of existing, dreaming and acting inspired famous passages of his.

For twenty years he persisted in that controlled hallucination, but one morning he was suddenly gripped by the tedium and the terror of being so many kings who die by the sword and so many suffering lovers who converge, diverge and melodiously expire. That very day he arranged to sell his theatre. Within.. a week he had returned to his native village, where he recovered the trees and rivers of his childhood and did not relate them to the others his muse had celebrated, illustrious with mythological allusions and Latin terms. He had to be ‘someone: he was a retired impresario who had made his fortune and concerned himself with loans, lawsuits and petty usury. It was in this character that he dictated the arid will and testament known to us, from which he deliberately excluded all traces of pathos or literature. His friends from London would visit his retreat and for them he would take up again his role as poet.

History adds that before or after dying he found himself in the presence of God and told Him: ‘I who have been so many men in vain want to be one and myself.’ The voice of the Lord answered from a whirlwind: ‘Neither am I anyone; I have dreamt the world as you dreamt your work, my Shakespeare, and among the forms in my dream are you, who like myself are many and no one.’

Christian Hawkey: Ventrakl

I wrote a review of this book, a sort of postmodern engagement with Austrian poet Georg Trakl, for the Poetry Project Newsletter. The issue hasn’t been posted online, and since it can be a bit difficult to get ahold of outside of the city, I figured I would post it here in the meantime. But first, Trakl’s most famous poem, “Grodek,” about his terrible experiences on the front in World War I:

Grodek

Am Abend tönen die herbstlichen Wälder
Von tödlichen Waffen, die goldnen Ebenen
Und blauen Seen, darüber die Sonne
Düstrer hinrollt; umfängt die Nacht
Sterbende Krieger, die wilde Klage
Ihrer zerbrochenen Münder.
Doch stille sammelt im Weidengrund
Rotes Gewölk, darin ein zürnender Gott wohnt
Das vergoßne Blut sich, mondne Kühle;
Alle Straßen münden in schwarze Verwesung.
Unter goldnem Gezweig der Nacht und Sternen
Es schwankt der Schwester Schatten durch den schweigenden Hain,
Zu grüßen die Geister der Helden, die blutenden Häupter;
Und leise tönen im Rohr die dunklen Flöten des Herbstes.
O stolzere Trauer! ihr ehernen Altäre,
Die heiße Flamme des Geistes nährt heute ein gewaltiger Schmerz,
Die ungebornen Enkel.

At nightfall the autumn woods cry out
With deadly weapons, and the golden plains
The deep blue lakes, above which more darkly
Rolls the sun; the night embraces
Dying warriors, the wild lament
Of their broken mouths.
But quietly there in the pastureland
Red clouds in which an angry god resides,
The shed blood gathers, lunar coolness.
All the roads lead to the blackest carrion.
Under golden twigs of the night and stars
The sister’s shade now sways through the silent copse
To greet the ghosts of the heroes, the bleeding heads;
And softly the dark flutes of autumn sound in the reeds.
O prouder grief! You brazen altars,
Today a great pain feeds the hot flame of the spirit,
The grandsons yet unborn.

(tr. Michael Hamburger)

It is apparently ambiguous whether Weidengrund is to mean “pastureland” or “willow-ground.” This poem was one of the last two that Trakl wrote before his suicide, and while there are signature stylistic tics (the colors, for one), it is far from representative.

On to the review:

______________

Georg Trakl was an Austrian poet who killed himself at 27. Born in 1887, he trained as a pharmacist and became a medical officer in the war. His ghastly experiences on the front lines while treating wounded soldiers caused a psychotic break in his already unstable personality, which led to his suicide not long after in 1914. Trakl’s experimentation with forms and his feverish imagery mark him as a modernist and expressionist, but the absence of psychology and his Dionysian mysticism mark him as a late Romantic, closer to Hölderlin than Rilke. His obsessive use of color, blue and purple especially, is a marker of a poetic language whose meanings can only be grasped obliquely. This aloofness, this immersion in 19th century poetics, challenges anyone to invade his mind.
Christian Hawkey intends to do just this. Ventrakl is a “scrapbook” of “collaborations” with Trakl. Its investigations into Trakl–Hawkey’s personal reflections, imagined interviews with Trakl, manipulated photographs, a biography of Trakl’s sister, and formal and aleatoric manipulations and translations of Trakl’s poems–confront Trakl’s work from multiple angles, usually indirectly rather than head-on. Such a potpourri is bound to be messy, something Hawkey advertises by terming Ventrakl a scrapbook. Yet the humility of that term is contradicted by the deliberate presumption of also calling the work “a collaboration,” underscoring Hawkey’s own ambivalence about engaging with such an elusive figure. Ambivalence and messiness, rather than an elegant falsity, is what is called for.

Hawkey rightly plays up the difficulties rather than obscuring them. The title page of each section in Ventrakl is marked with an obelus, the division symbol. Two individuals–two dots–separated by a literal line of division. There are many such figurative lines in Ventrakl: English/German, present/past, prose/poetry, reader/writer. The book stakes its success on the extent to which the identification of these lines reveals more than merely the failure to cross them. As Hawkey says of Trakl’s great war poem “Grodek”: “the words erasing the line between two worlds.”

Hawkey reveals some of his translation and transformation techniques in the introduction, but is cagey about how and where they have been applied. One of the clearest processes produces some of the most striking joins of past and present, a series of color poems (“Whitetrakl,” “Yellowtrakl,” etc.) that translate and assemble Trakl’s lines containing that color. The color is made to seem arbitrary, and yet the result is a bas-relief map of the color’s tenor in Trakl’s mind, presented in time-lapse.

black angel, who quietly slipped from a tree’s heart,

the black flight of birds always touches

the black dew, dripping from your temples, all roads flow into black decay . . .

Other poems are constructed via homophonic manipulation of the German texts, a technique memorably used by Louis and Celia Zukofsky in their translations of Catullus and David Melnick in his reappropriation of the Iliad. In Hawkey’s appropriation of “Nachtlied,” “Erstaart vor Bläue, ihrer Heiligkeit” becomes “For the blue of error-stars, heaven’s klieg light,” loosely but effectively evoking the efflorescence of the original. Later in the same poem, “nächtlichen” becomes “night-lichen” and “Spiegel der Wahrheit [mirror of truth]” becomes “speech’s warfare.”  It is some work to track down the originals, as Hawkey does not always give clear pointers to his sources, but a good many of his treatments become more evocative when viewed with the originals at hand. As I participated by delving through Trakl, I came to identify further with Hawkey’s position.

Other words and phrases recur throughout the poems, again pointing to a hidden web of connections behind the veil of a different language. “Reasons Why Orphans Wear Stillness-Mittens” picks up on that final word, already used in earlier poems in the book, and gives an ordered list of those reasons. It is strongly affecting, drawing on Hawkey’s ability to take these strange homophones and draw out their emotional juice. It is here he perhaps comes closest to achieving something of Trakl’s own foreboding presence, by way of creating distance from both Trakl and himself through the space between languages. The recurrent use of such words across poems reinforces the effect. A number of poems use the word “sternum,” linking the heart and chest to the stars (the German stern), a link that is a fitting metaphor for the book itself.

There is an inherent element of risk, however. In Hawkey’s idiolect, “Durch Wolken fährt ein goldner Karren” becomes “A duck fart woke the golden Karen,” in a coarse excursion into sub-Silliman space that even apologizes for itself: “how completely your mirror-language / Has failed.” It seems we must take the good with the bad, but it sits uneasily next to the talk of war and insanity elsewhere in the pages.

The prose excursions are more tentative, lacking the focused incandescence of the best poems in the book. The “interviews” with Trakl, in particular, strive for a self-consciously awkward engagement, but sometimes slide into a stilted preciousness. Yet there are still such gems as Hawkey’s thoughts on gazing at Trakl’s manically intense expression: “Your physician in the Krakow asylum reported that you often saw a man with a drawn knife standing behind your back. Even though your head faces forward, your gaze seems directed there, behind you.”

Taken as a whole, these problematic points still contribute to the book’s acutely Midrashian quality. Appropriation becomes a motif, with Hawkey noting his lifts from Spicer, David Cameron, the Zukofskys, and others. Nothing prevented him from adopting more novel techniques, as K. Silem Mohammad has done, for example, in his treatments of Shakespeare. But Hawkey chooses to emphasize Ventrakl’s lack of autonomy. The translations/deformations are littered with contemporary references both serious and trivial. The strangely po-faced introduction drops Bachelard, Heidegger, Agamben, Stein, and Benjamin in its first three pages, encasing the book in a theoretical carapace that stresses its dependency on contemporary poetic discourse. Trakl, in contrast, comes to seem increasingly universal in refusing to provide anything but the barest specifiers of time and place.

Weighed down by its declared lack of autonomy, the book appeals to Trakl as a source of unimpeachable authenticity, only to be overwhelmed by the concept of that authenticity and the inability to contain it across language, time, and place. It throws up beautiful but uncanny images, only to be unable to claim them as its own. (Here the word “collaboration” starts to seem more sinister.) When it now seems depressingly obligatory to cite Walter Benjamin’s “The Task of the Translator” in any meditation on translation, as Hawkey indeed does, how can a writer and reader escape the theoretical baggage and speak of poetry and war? Ventrakl does not give an answer, but tenaciously refuses to admit success or surrender. It is an ouroboros looking to let go of its tail.

________________

One last note: I really would endorse an embargo on the use of Walter Benjamin’s “The Task of a Translator” when discussing translation. It has become too ubiquitous and its Romantic notion of translation as a gnostic, transcendent impossibility doesn’t strike me as helpful. His idea of “pure language” simply seems wrong-headed. I had real problems with Adam Thirlwell’s book on translation, The Delighted States, but I think he had the right idea in going with Borges’ more elastic and pragmatic conceptions of translation.

The perfect page, the page in which no word can be altered without harm, is the most precarious of all. Changes in language erase shades of meaning, and the “perfect” page is precisely the one that consists of those delicate fringes that are so easily worn away. On the contrary, the page that becomes immortal can traverse the fire of typographical errors, approximate translations, and inattentive or erroneous readings without losing its soul in the process. One cannot with impunity alter any line fabricated by Góngora (according to those who restore his texts), but Don Quixote wins posthumous battles against his translators and survives each and every careless version.

Borges, “The Superstitious Ethics of the Reader”

Leo Perutz: The Master of the Day of Judgment

Perutz was an Prague-born, Jewish Austrian writer who wrote a number of short books. He emigrated to Palestine in 1938 and lived there until his death in 1957. His background only shows up indirectly in this novel, which falls under the “metaphysical mystery” category. It shows in the foreign background of our narrator and protagonist, the Baron, who has had an affair with the wife of a famous actor named Bischoff. Bischoff commits suicide under mysterious circumstances shortly after the book begins, after telling the Baron and a few other guests of the mysterious suicides of a soldier and his cousin. The Baron is accused; he is innocent, but the suicide does not seem to have been of Bischoff’s own volition either. The Baron then accompanies an engineer (another outsider) in his investigations into the murder.

This all plays out rather glacially, and the Baron contributes a cryptic introduction that reveals that the engineer too will die in his pursuit of the solution to these (induced) suicides. Before long we are in the realm of gnostic doings and a frightening, long-dead painter who claimed to have been able to bring people to their final judgment. The solution is not supernatural, though it is a bit untenable, but Perutz then undercuts that explanation itself with a coda that places an entirely different interpretation on what has gone before. I won’t give too much away if I say it jumps from gnosticism to Freud.

The asymmetry of these two accounts, and how each is incommensurate with the other, is the most unique point of the book. It does not leave a sense of satisfaction, but it did leave me impressed with what Perutz had managed, as well as wondering exactly what his intent had been. The two accounts really don’t mesh; they could come from different centuries.

The book reads like an antecedent to Borges, especially “Death and the Compass” (with a little of “The Aleph” thrown in), and also to Adolfo Bioy Casares’ early novels like The Invention of Morel. Borges praised Perutz, so I gather he and his friend Bioy Casares must have read this book and appreciated its attempt to mix the gothic, the gnostic, and crime. The admixture is compelling precisely because it is so awkward. The crime aspect, in particular, always seems to jut out. I’m not at all a reader of mysteries, and when the heavy stuff is introduced in Master, it makes the crime seem rather trivial in comparison.

The tradition continued with Carlo Emilio Gadda’s works, where the crime really does get smothered by Gadda’s own philosophical obsessions. Stanislaw Lem took it up from Borges (his admitted idol) in his mystery novel The Chain of Chance, which, bizarrely enough, features a solution quite similar to one of Perutz’s two resolutions in The Master of the Day of Judgment. Lem’s thematic, metaphysical concerns (science, probability, technology) are completely different from Perutz’s eschatological ones, yet the forms of the two novels are the same: the concerns are piggybacked onto the narrative until they overshadow it.

Umberto Eco also took the blueprint for his entire career in fiction from this tradition. The latest exercise of this sort that I can think of is Peter Greenaway’s Nightwatching, in which Rembrandt places the solution to a covered-up murder in the details of a painting. The difficulty, to me, still seems to be keeping the elements in balance without the whole work turning trivial.

Blumenberg on Significance and Fiction

Significance [Bedeutsamkeit] can exceed what is aesthetically permissiblre. The Dane Oehlenschlaeger was a nonparticipant observer at the battle of Jena. He tends toward ironical distance and he knows that he can also presuppose this as Goethe’s private attitude. He writes to Goethe on September 4, 1808, from Tuebingen, about the plan of a novel and his fear that the result would unintentionally be a description of his own life; and one would not be permitted to make that even as good as it was in reality. There is no feeling, he says, more peculiar than the feeling that one must place what occurs in real life above poetry, even though the role of poetry is to represent “the ideal concentrated beauty and meaningful content of life.” This particular feeling has never been stronger for him “than when I read Smollett’s Peregrine Pickle in Weimar while the French were winning the battle at Jena and capturing the town.” It is the problem of aesthetic probability: Fiction cannot allow itself the significance that reality portrays without losing credibility.

Work on Myth, Ch. 3

“Significance” here is used in the sense coined by Dilthey: a human- and/or historically-given importance over and above anything that can be gleaned from the baseline reality of the natural world. I get more from this passage than from all the heat currently being spilled over Reality Hunger (really now, did it need such marquee reviews?). For someone like me who’s always bothered by the problem of what’s effective and what’s not in creative writing, this passage doesn’t quite give a heuristic, but it does concisely point out one crucial problem: the artist’s struggle to break free of the mundane details of the world in order to isolate what is important, while not going too far and making the work contrived and overblown. In other words, too much meaningfulness, too much significance, breeds artificiality, further from an ideal of beauty than the raw material composing it. But in times of (mutually agreed-upon) massive human change, significance smacks us in the face and the intensity of it is beyond what a writer can conjure up except by indirection (the Romantic’s technique, evoking abstract greatness out of sensory particulars). We may not know the immediate significance of a war or a crisis, but we know that it is significant and must be addressed and understood post-haste. Creativity suddenly seems secondary, while people are absorbed in the seemingly prima facie meaning of the present. (It’s not actually prima facie, but the collective delusion is very strong.) Historical fiction is one compromise used to get around this problem; another is to create really large works of art, in order to smooth over the seams of contrivance with added lesser detail. Or you can go the route of Borges and admit to the contrivance and claim to dwell in the realm of imagination rather than reality. All of these are mitigating techniques, however, not solutions.

There is something to the reality-focus idea, however. With the advent of the internet, the strangest and rarest circumstances can float to notice far more easily than in the past, when newspapers had to resort to making up stories to keep people’s interest. (What’s FML other than a vehicle for condensing and aggregating significance?) It doesn’t make imagination redundant (quite the opposite), but it does seem to be challenging a lot of fiction writers to come up with increasingly grandiose or grotesque scenarios in order to keep pace with the constant stream of significant moments now being shoved in our faces. Significance and meaning randomize rather than orient, and they do so with ultimately trivial mechanisms: crazy stories and inspiring tales, rather than wars and crises. The balance of significance in art and the world has been thrown off. Imagination gives way to mere imitation.

Blumenberg spends a lot of time in this chapter on Joyce, and though I think he’s off-base on his interpretation of Ulysses (more on this later), he does correctly point it out as a case where significance and mundanity are made to collide in constant and violent ways. I think Joyce’s ability to occupy these tensions and contradictions and produce something worth out of them is unmatched. Finnegans Wake achieves the same thing at the historical level rather than the personal, and Blumenberg is dead on there. Again, this will be dealt with in the next post.

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