Monday, March 12, 2012

none other than our old friend, the tripod

The graves in that last post, the ones I saw near the fish pool, were the graves of children, or else they weren't graves but statues of Jizo, who takes care of dead children in the underworld. When I try to remember what they were, I can only see the grey bottoms of them, which is not a clue. At first I wrote, "jizo statues," then deleted that and wrote, "graves of children" then left that for while, then came back, then tried to rephrase it in a way that didn't sound so pitiable, then deleted it back to the word graves and left it there, abducting the children from their own burial spots and leaving the ground open to any passing corpse, age optional. They had been children's graves in life but that was no reason why they had to be children's graves in the sentence. By this time I'd decided that they might as well definitely be graves and so much for Jizo, because "graves" explains itself and "children's graves" explains itself but "Jizo" needs explanation, and any kind of explanation there -- I didn't want it, I said to myself, and my mind kicked back at the suggestion as if someone else had made it: not there. Was that good judgment or bad, I ask myself, as I'm tappeting the keyboard; and why do I have to have these doubts about words, which (the doubts) draw attention to the words themselves, items that can be be taken in or out, and then the entire exercise is in jeopardy, because why not leave all of them out and go away and do something else, blow my nose, which I will do now, and phlegm, phlegm half the night, then sleep, then wake again at three when the people across the way had the police knocking on their door, and the police have an unusually loud knock. It sounded as if they were using something metal, such as a spoon. Everybody in Las Vegas has a cold at the moment, even Celine Dion, even the homeless schizophrenics down the streets; it's like Bleak House. And Marguerite Young used one word as the womb for another, her own method of generation, or so it seems to me as I read, "these current events, these current months, these currents in streams, these air currents, this passing or flowing onward," guessing that without "these current events" she would never have reached, "passing or flowing onward," the words at the end of the sentence turning their eyes back to the words earlier and calling them Mother. And this Tribute to Freud I've been reading, by the American poet H.D., is a book made up of two manuscripts, one of them the journal she kept while she was being psychoanalysed by Freud in Vienna, the other a piece she wrote for public consumption ten years later. The polished piece comes first, the book ends with the journal.

Reading the polished part, I discovered that her father owned a stuffed white owl which he kept in a bell jar on a shelf in his study, but not until I came to the journal did I learn that the stuffed owl had emerged from her originally inside an anecdote, and that she, as she refined her manuscript, had stripped away the anecdote and left the owl, in the polished draft, as a suggestive presence that entered the book every now and then, ringing like a bell -- or that was the idea, I think: the image, recurring, chimes on the memory of the reader, the reader understands that it is significant -- it must be, why else is it being repeated in that deliberate way? -- but the significance is not explained, and so the mystery is left to sit in the mind and, ideally, reverberate, as though a question has been asked, suggesting that the writer is working consciously around an idea that Frank Kermode discusses in an essay on Wuthering Heights: "It is in the nature of works of art to be open in so far as they are 'good'; though it is in the nature of authors, and of readers, to close them." And the owl is like Kermode's tick in his Sense of an Ending, without the completion that is tock. (The clock in this room with me doesn't go tick or tock, it says tchach, tchach, tchach, in a mechanical munching way, snapping its teeth.)

The owl is totemic, it stands for -- something -- and at other times she makes a detail ring in another way -- she associates it with Ancient Greece. "For the three-legged lamp-stand in the miscellaneous clutter on the wash-stand is none other than our old friend, the tripod of classic Delphi." So that some of her details ring back on themselves, the stuffed owl for instance, and others ring back to specific points of reference, myth, or sometimes her childhood, relevant to the psychoanalytical theme. She believes in the mystic powers of threes, and André Breton, as I recall from Mad Love, liked the power of twos, the liberating power of twos, believing that the presence of another person will make you pay a sharper attention to the unexpected conjunction between yourself and the found object that has appeared in front of you. "I would be tempted to say that the two people walking near each other constitute a single influencing body, primed. The found object seems to me suddenly to balance the two levels of very different reflection, like those sudden atmospheric condensations which make conductors of regions that were not before, producing flashes of lightning." There is a convulsion of recognition, and a hiss of new life, like the hiss of foam on a beach after a wave has come up. He goes for a walk in a flea market with Giocometti and the artist finds a strange mask: the event makes them vigorous. So there is a triangle, and H.D. and Freud were two points in a triangle, the mythical totemic and untouchable world being the third, perhaps, and triangles are important: they're just unstable enough to make something happen, they're two points of view looking at another point, which might feel entitled to stare back or throw a shoe at them, persecuted dually as it is. To be startled into life, says Heidegger, is important, though barely possible, if possible, and Dickens brings about a transformation with three ghosts. Go, says Scrooge to a passing boy, go and buy me the fattest turkey from that shop around the corner, and send it to my clerk, to which the boy responds with an utterance which, like H.D.'s Hermes Trismegistus, or the mask Breton lit on when he was out with Giocometti, has become detached, in contemporary times, from the world in which it had its primary meaning -- "WALK-er!" says the kid in slang -- which can be translated into modern English as, "Yeah, right: bullshit" -- and which Scrooge (who still inhabits that old world, not like the reader) interprets without a problem, replying with language that the reader can understand even today, and yet the boy's response is the normal response of an ordinary passing boy to a request that seems absurd, and Scrooge's reply is abnormal for a Scrooge, so that the everyday cloaks itself with an enigma and the enigma of the transformed Scrooge expresses itself with absolutely plain words that don't appeal to any mysterious third meaning, myth, or lightning-flash, only to the mystery of his renovated character: "No, no, I am in earnest." I have been repeating a few words here.

Breton was translated by Mary Ann Caws.


  1. I think Breton's wrong though - I prefer being two but I actually only really have epiphanies and notice things properly and so forth when on my own - and reading is something that can only be done in a solitary fashion (although I suppose there used to be the habit of someone reading to the family of an evening, but it wouldn't be the same kind of contemplative experience; it would be more like a form of watching television). As to the whole 'why do I have to have these doubts about words' riff, I presume that was a rhetorical question, ditto, 'why not leave all of them out and go away and do something else'? I mean isn't that another way of saying, 'Why think'?

  2. Breton's way doesn't work for me either; I pay less attention to objects around me when I'm with someone else; I'm not "primed," I'm blunted. He preferred it though. I read three or four Bretons in a row a few weeks ago, and the idea of partnerships ran through all of them. He needed to be removed from himself by someone else, to really see, seems to have been his idea. He needs love or friendship like a spatula to pry him off his personal frying pan and flip him over.

    I wasn't thinking of words-as-thoughts but of words-as-a-presentation. Thought isn't presented to anyone else, but words are, and the idea that a word can be put in or taken out, or that the stone things could have been child-graves or statues or adult graves, or just rocks, or not there at all, depending on a word or two words, made the whole activity of writing seem so thin and arbitrary, and if you can take one out then why not take two out and if you can take two out then why not take all of them out, and leave a blank page? I can volunteer not to write, but I can't volunteer not to think. Something's always going to be occurring to me whether I ask it to come into my head or not. The same isn't true for writing.

  3. Pessoa, or Soares, is also contra Breton: "The presence of another person - of only one person no matter who - immediately slows down my thinking... I lose my intelligence, I become incapable of speech, and, after a few fifteen-minute periods, I only feel sleepy."

  4. Ten thousand readers of The Power of Introverts and The Introvert Advantage and Love Your Inner Introvert are pointing at that description, shouting, "Gets sleepy after too much social interaction! Classic sign!" I can't imagine having Breton's experience. I don't know how he did it. The opposite of the lone Romantic artist tossing on his crag; he liked pairs, groups, cliques, and collaborations -- is the impression I came away with.

    I was going through Lyn Hejinian's Book of a Thousand Eyes today when I came across this line, "Ugliness in art represents either a failure to dominate or a refusal to do so," which reminded me of this in Pessoa: "Thought can be lofty without being elegant, but to the extent it lacks elegance it will have less effect on others. Force without finesse is mere mass." [Zenith translation.]