Wednesday, December 31, 2014

the huge, unrecorded hum of implication

Some of the charm of the past consists of the quiet -- the great distracting buzz of implication has stopped and we are left only with what has been fully phrased and precisely stated. And part of the melancholy of the past comes from our knowledge that the huge, unrecorded hum of implication was once there and left no trace -- we feel that because it is evanescent it is especially human. We feel, too, that the truth of the great preserved monuments of the past does not fully appear without it.

Lionel Trilling, Manners, Morals and the Novel, from The Liberal Imagination (1950))

The fact that there is a word for silence is an aesthetic creation.

(Jorge Luis Borges, Poetry, from Seven Nights, tr Eliot Weinberger (1984))

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

in animals

Though the Senses know not from what Places or Parts, Cold comes, or what it Causes, yet they know that we have here at this time Cold with all its Potent Strength, as an Army of Flakes of Snow, with Ammunition of Hail for Bullets and Wind for Powder, also huge Ships of Ice, which Float in the Main Sea, and stop up all the Narrow Rivers; also Cold and its Army Shooting forth the Piercing Darts, which fly so Thick and Fast, and are so Sharp, as they enter into every Pore of the Flesh of all Animal Creatures, whereby many Animals are Wounded with Numbness and Die Insensibly although Mankind bring what strength they can get against Cold, as an Army of Furs, where every Hair stands out like a Squadron of Pikes, to resist Cold's Assault; and Ammunition of Coals serves for Bullets, and Ashes for Powder, with great Loggs for Cannons, Billets for Muskets and Carbines, Brush. Faggots for Pistols, where the Bellows as Firelocks, makes them fly up in a Flame; also great Pieces of Beef for Ships for Men of War, with Cabbages for Sails, Sausages for Tacklings, Carrots for Guns, and Marrow-Bones for Masts, Ballasted with Pepper, and Pitch'd or Tarr'd with Mustard, the Card and Needle being Brewis* and Neat's Tongues, the Steers-men Cooks, besides many Pinnaces of Pork, Mutton, and Veal, and Flying Boats, which are Turkies, Capons, Geese, and the like, all which Swim in a Large Sea of Wine, Beer, and Ale, yet for all this we are Beaten into the Chimney-corner, and there we sit Shaking and Trembling like a Company of Cowards, that dare not stir from their Shelter; and many in the Sea-fight have been Drowned, from whence some have been taken up Dead-Drunk, then carried and Buried in a Feather-bed, where, after a Long Sleep, they may have a Resurrection, but how they will be Judged at that time they Rise, whether Damned with Censure or Saved by Excuse, I cannot tell.

(Margaret Cavendish, Sociable Letters (1664))

So slight
that in animals and limbs
- what more that in reputation and disrepute -
like a worm and trampled down
and like me
              and soon
So slight
             and as all
so slight and

(Gunnar Björling, from You Go the Words, tr Fredrik Hertzberg (2007). The dates I'm giving for translated works are the dates of the published translations, not the originals. This long poem was completed in Swedish in 1955. I read You Go just after or before Inger Christensen's Alphabet and was surprised a little bit later when Christensen cropped up at Biblibio and Wuthering Expectations. She is not a household name in the English-writing world but there she was anyway, like a sprig of mushroom in the grass.)

* brewis could mean either broth or bread soaked in broth, according to the Collins English Dictionary. "C16: from Old French broez, from broet, diminutive of breu broth."

Monday, December 29, 2014

from the describable qualities of things

Slow execution was typically associated with lasting artistic value in classical art theory. Thus Zeuxis explained that he painted "slowly so that my paintings will live for a long time," and Apelles mocked the artist who completed a painting in a single day saying, "you need not tell me … the work itself shows it." In the Renaissance too mistrust of rapid execution remained paramount. For example, Vasari himself was strongly criticized for completing his frescoes in the Cancellaria at Rome too quickly. Michelangelo's withering comment on being told that they had been finished in a hundred days ("e si vedi") directly echoed that of Apelles. However, the same theoretical tradition certainly championed works showing the kind of lightness of touch which merely suggested quickness of execution. […] And yet this modern lightness of touch was not to be confused with mere time-saving.

(Tom Nichols, Tintoretto: Tradition and Identity (1999))

We involve ourselves in endless perplexities in trying to deduce excellence and beauty, unity and necessity, from the describable qualities of things, we repeat the rationalistic fiction of turning the notions which we abstract from the observation of facts into the powers that give those facts character and being.

(George Santayana, The Sense of Beauty (1896))

Sunday, December 28, 2014

so tiny that they are like the sound of a tinkling bell

The sky is pure and cool, lying wide open to all the stars. There is a great flock of worlds up in that endless meadow, tiny, teeming worlds, so tiny that they are like the sound of a tinkling bell; as I look at them, I can hear thousands of tiny bells.

(Knut Hamsun, tr. Paula Wiking, Look Back on Happiness)

O up in height, O snatcht up, O swiftly going,
Common to beechwood, breathing was loving, the yet
Unknown Crickley Cliffs trumpeted, set music on glowing
In my mind. White Cotswold, wine scarlet woods and leaf wreckage wet.

(Ivor Gurney, Old Thought, from the Collected Poems)

The world is not to be cheated of a grain; not so much as a breath of its air is to be drawn surreptitiously.

(John Ruskin, The Crown of Wild Olive)

Saturday, December 27, 2014

olive trees bearing splendid fruit

In particular, it is recorded of Sir William James, that he regarded this emperor with feelings of abhorrence so personal and deadly, as to refuse him his customary titular honours whenever he had occasion to mention him by name. Yet it was the whole Roman people that conferred upon him his title of Augustus. But Sir William, ascribing no force to the acts of a people who had sunk so low as to exult in their chains, and to decorate with honours the very instruments of their own vassalage, would not recognise this popular creation, and spoke of him always by his family name of Octavius.

(Thomas de Quincey, The Caesars (1851))

None of the immortals or of mortal men heard
her voice, not even the olive trees bearing splendid fruit.
Only the gentle-tempered daughter of Persaios,
Hekate of the shining headband, heard from her cave,
and lord Helios, the splendid son of Hyperion heard
the maiden calling father Kronides; he sat
apart from the gods away in the temple of prayers,
accepting beautiful sacrifices from mortal men.

(Anonymous, To Demeter, from The Homeric Hymns, tr. Apostolos N. Athanassakis (1976))

Friday, December 26, 2014

the transportive leaf

[…] I could not say then that my vein entering

along the cell walls disresemble the transportive leaf:
I mean, if one speaks of mysticism, it makes good science,
which is the best part of science, that it makes mysticism

discussable without a flurry: and yet too, the discrete
annihilated, suddenly here it is blandished and available:
things go away to return, brighter for the passage

(A.R. Ammons, Sphere (1974))

Now I beseech God love me as well as I love a plain-dealing man, earth is earth, flesh is flesh, earth will to earth, and flesh unto flesh, frail earth, frail flesh, who can keep you from the work of your creation.

(Thomas Nashe, The Unfortunate Traveller: or, the Life of Jack Wilton (1594))

Thursday, December 25, 2014

both of them know neither the future nor the ending

The specific feature of Surrealistic writing, whether it be autobiographical or automatic, is, in fact, less the lack of knowledge of its final destination as such, than the identical position into which this lack places both the reader and the author in the face of a text whose unfolding neither the one nor the other controls, and about which both of them know neither the future nor the ending.

(Denis Hollner, tr Rosalind Krauss, Surrealistic Precipitates: Shadows Don't Cast Shadows, quoted by Krauss in Robert Rauschenberg: a Retrospective (1997))

A net is a large thing, past thy fadoming, if thou cast it from three, but if thou draw it to thee it will lie upon thy arm.

(John Donne, Sermon 14 (1620s))

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

soup with a few sprigs of bindweed

After her parents died and her brother left for the underground, my mother lived alone, fretting and pacing through a whole year of days. The house, three main rooms and three outbuildings, was deserted but for her. It was difficult enough to clean it and scrub the floors. On top of that, there was the garden to maintain and defend from an invasion of weeds. As soon as she had weeded one corner, weeds would swallow up another. At noon, when the summer heat reached its peak, the cry of a black cuckoo bird was enough to make her jump in terror. She came and went in silence, followed only by her own shadow.

A straw fire licking at a stoneware cooking pot filled with the daily rice. A jar of salted vegetables stinking in the corner of the house. A steamed fish pickled in its own brine. Or a hard-boiled egg on a tiny plate. A clear soup with a few sprigs of bindweed plucked from the hedge.

(Duong Thu Huong, tr Nina McPherson, The Paradise of the Blind (1993))

[Georges Bataille] links abjection to "the inability to assume with sufficient strength the imperative act of excluding."

(Julia Kristeva, tr. Leon S. Roudiez, Powers Of Horror: An Essay On Abjection (1982))

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

swifts (hirundines apodes) among the rubbish

But a clergyman, of an inquisitive turn, assures me, that when he was a great boy, some workmen, in pulling down the battlements of a church tower early in the spring, found two or three swifts (hirundines apodes) among the rubbish, which were at first appearance dead, but on being carried towards the fire revived. He told me, that out of his great care to preserve them, he put them in a paper bag, and hung them by the kitchen fire, where they were suffocated.

(Gilbert White, The Natural History of Selborne (1789))

It was characteristic of the vein of unhappy sluggishness and inertness in him that only when impressions had subsided into the remote past could he be thrilled by them. The reality of the present seemed always weighted with something hurting.

(John Cowper Powys, Weymouth Sands (1934))

Monday, December 22, 2014

a site of desires, relations, drives, fantasies and projections

Usually at the end of the year I take a few of the books I've read and mush them together. This year I'm going to try out a few days of quotes.

It was as if the unfortunate man's paroxysm of terror had reached such a point that it had broken down some biological barrier between animal sensibility and the sensitiveness of such inorganic planetary substances in the stellar galaxy as can be imagined shrinking at the threat of some atomic explosion that could throw them back into the void of non-existence!

(John Cowper Powys, The Inmates (1952))

This scene captured the predicament of misrecognition: the self is not the naturally bounded organism (a thing within the world), but a site of desires, relations, drives, fantasies and projections that cannot possess the coherence of a body.


It is the body as a bounded organism, centred on a looking face whose gaze can be returned by the mirror, that not only represses the chaotically dispersed and relational manner of our existence; it also operates as a figure of reading. We read other bodies as though they harboured a sense of interior meaning that might be disclosed through communication, and we read texts as though they operated like bodies -- as well-formed wholes possessing a systemic logic, the sense of which might become apparent.

(Claire Colebrook, Death of the Posthuman: Essays on Extinction, Volume 1 (2014))

Thursday, December 18, 2014

the chief ingredient of this composite? Scorn.

Defending himself, he suggests he is too porous but imperfectly porous even, not everything getting through: penetrable, enstormed, deaf, "I'm deaf, and have to speak at random," though others are not leaky; a woman is "charming," a dog is "yellow," just one adjective each is enough for that summary, a solid nice adjective, so, not everything is indistinct and hard to understand, a teenager in the United States was wrong not to care when her mother sold the family home. "She should have laid her cheek against that wall and never gone away from it." What is he reflecting on here, besides a fact of his time overseas?

Language, that is to say, does not issue from reflection but is an inherent element within the activity of reflection itself; it is an integral part of the body of reflection.

-- wrote Geoffrey Hill in the essay Poetry and Value. There's a contrast between the helplessness that Hamsun describes and the control that he asserts. Something between those two states is unstated. The words "Shipwrecked sailors lie quiet as dead goats | in a winding sheet of sponges," occur to me, from Sally Purcell's translation of Nikos Gatsos's work of 1943, Amorgos -- the feel of smothering, I think, is where that goes (there's a beautiful poem) -- and then -- I try to remember if Hamsun's characters ever have those moments of revelation that fix an impression by attaching it to some memory or influence from the past, those moments of conclusion, like the one that Henry Miller described in a letter to Anaïs Nin, dated July, 1933, when he told her that "a whore sitting in this cafe" had "a composite" resemblance to his mother, his first wife, and his second wife. "What should I say was the chief ingredient of this composite? Scorn." So he is able to summarise three women from three different periods of time; he reaches a kind of fastening. "I see the three of them by their nostrils, that telltale dilation."

Hamsun would have been angry if anyone had tried to enclose him in the way Miller has enclosed the three women. There is nothing in Overgrown Paths that makes the author more scornful than one doctor in an asylum who pretends to know about him. "This was probably his way of showing his staff how infinitely deep his investigation of me went, almost back to the womb." A bully, this psychiatrist Langfeldt. "He knew that the staff would remain silent." This is what you are like when you want people to think that you absolutely know things. "[A]ll the modern knowledge he has picked up from textbooks" is not as intrinsically right as the author's humble confusion, good confusion, as Nagel's confusion is good and ultimately harmless; as the narrator in Hunger harms no-one but himself. "An intentional helplessness, an infection from the Bible"

He [Langfeldt] is so secure in his knowledge. But that is not the same as being secure in the old knowledge: nothing can be known for certain!

(Yet, yet, Hamsun will psychoanalyse him: "Professor Langfeldt knows in his heart that he is not very well suited for delving into and fiddling with the intimacies of someone else's marriage.")

Monday, December 15, 2014

helplessness, an infection from the Bible

If the authorities listened to Hamsun then they would know that he lives muddled, according to himself: he reiterates it in Overgrown Paths. "It is a mysterious concept which I am unable to figure out." "But here the riddle began for me." "I wasn't great shakes at thinking deep yet and I just stood there." "A sheath knife has found its way into my room, I don't know how." "I have long wracked my brain over getting my galoshes repaired now that fall is approaching. They go back to the First World War but still have good soles; it's just that the right one is torn and won't stay on my foot." When a young woman walks into the room "not only do I stand there naked from the waist up, I don't even have my teeth in place." He sees himself characterised by "a sufferance of my own shortcomings. An intentional helplessness, an infection from the Bible."

Politics are not divorced from the galoshes, the false teeth, and the decent helplessness, this Biblical failure that is dignified by abjection, submission, which appears in the holy text many times -- it is not -- Biblical -- he implicitly protests -- to ask a person to pretend to know their politics. The letter that he wrote to the court when he was defending himself against the charge of fascism is the most tangled expression of helplessness in the memoir.

I tried to understand what National Union was about, I tried to get to the bottom of it, but it didn't amount to anything. However it may very well be that I wrote in the spirit of National Union now and then. I don't know because I don't know what the spirit of National Union is. But it may have happened that I wrote in the spirit of National Union, that something had seeped into me from the newspapers I read. In any case my articles are there for anyone to see. I'm not trying to minimize them, to make them more trifling then that are, it may be bad enough as it is. On the contrary I am ready to answer for them now as before, as I always have been.

This is the only time when the expression of muddle is itself in any way muddled. In every other instance he is clear. He can even remove himself to the camera-like distance necessary for humour. "I stand there naked from the waist up." (I need to remember that Hamsun is a clown. Nagel is a clown and the narrator of Hunger is a clown.) When he writes he is not confused. He wanders between the distant and recent past but his intentions are constant. He has more self-control than Ruskin, who propels himself into Rose La Touche.

The anti-British xenophobia from his pro-Nazi writings has disappeared. Now he praises British authors. "[T]he great Swift in England …" "Stevenson […] was a genius in eruption …" Does this belong to the instinctive dodging that I think I see in, "But it may have happened …"?

Readers of The Last Joy (1912) know that his ideas were leaning toward fascism twenty years before the National Union/Nasjonal Samling party was invented (1933) and the something in the newspapers would not have seeped so much as chimed.

Monday, December 8, 2014

if I could speak without any restriction, the wind would turn around to acquittal

Hamsun's gaolers have told him that he mustn't go farther away than a certain specific point but his character in the book has been clarified until we can see that it is in his nature to walk a long way through the trees, and therefore he must go past the designated point; nothing else would be reasonable: he will go up a hill.

His good judgment is proven when he meets, in the forest, a man named Martin who encourages him to read an unpublished autobiographical manuscript, a strange man and not a fool, Martin, a wandering preacher, with the habits of one of Hamsun's own characters, staying apart in a baffled, thoughtful way whenever someone is suffering. "I didn't dare show myself too often but only sent greetings at Christmas and the other holidays. This, too, made her sore at me …"

The authorities do not know what is best, Hamsun says; he would solve the whole problem if they would stop locking him up and let him speak. "For I knew in my heart that if I could speak without any restriction, the wind would turn around to acquittal for me, or as close to acquittal as I would dare to go and the court accept. I knew I was innocent, deaf and innocent; I would have done very well in an examination by the public prosecutor just by telling the truth. But this situation was confounded by the circumstance of my being locked up month after month …"

Martin is innocent too. The woman is "sore at me" because he lent her husband money for a project and the man died. Now the widow blames him. "Here," Hamsun might as well be saying, "is the way this drama should be played out. The accused is not imprisoned, he is free to roam, he presents his case freely, a reader reads it freely, and nobody can blame him now that we understand his side. Events were beyond his control."

Distressed, then, choked, restricted, his point of view not seen. "I do not think it is distinctly enough felt by us that the beak of a bird is not only its mouth, but its hand, or rather its two hands." (Ruskin, Love's Meinie.)

Thursday, December 4, 2014

in charge of it all for the time being

What evidence we think we have of that obduration might be called character. Hamsun's early people try to avoid the fixative effect of character as it exists in the construction of books where a human being is thickened and slowed down, or slowed down then thickened so that the author can observe whatever they hope is there, Hamsun using that thickened, slowing, simplifying technique on himself in his memoir, On Overgrown Paths: behold, a stubborn, humble, deaf old man confronted by a whimsical bureaucracy, a man who is easy to understand, a decent prosaic man.

On the 14th of June I was taken by car from my home and brought to the hospital at Grimstad -- my wife had been picked up a few days earlier and and taken to the women's prison in Arendal. Now, of course, I could no longer look after the farm. That was very unfortunate, inasmuch as a mere youth was left in charge of it all for the time being. But it couldn't be helped.

(tr. Sverre Lyngstad)

They remove his pistols, they put him in an institution; they are unreasonable and he is tolerant. "Again, this [command] was surely not to be taken literally, but I would like to be an obedient probationary prisoner."

And when he disobeys them he is only being sensible, he is sane, and I think of Ruskin demonstrating his sanity in the Praeterita, these two men appealing to fairness and goodness; both of them are sure that it is there in the reader's heart: the reader is sensible, the reader will see, the reader is not a human displaced from them as the authorities are displaced; the reader, the reader, this friend the reader who can be trapped inside their point of view and not allowed out, behold this frankly predatory view of the reader, who will not immediately learn why the author of Overgrown Paths has been taken away from his farm, or why his two pistols were confiscated, or why his wife was removed to a prison, and so it seems dystopian inside the book, though outside the book he was being charged with treason.