Monday, January 30, 2017

human beings only take advantage

As I look at The Porthole again I believe that I could spend a long time going through the book page by page and listing all the variations that Spatola finds in this thwartation or resistance play. Why did Samuel Richardson write books that put him (not him but his written voice) in situations of apparent anxiety and why did he (his voice) exacerbate those situations instead of ending them? Asking, "Why did he create such a perfect character as Grandison?" might be something like the same question. You picture a man observing his voice as if he is watching a very exciting film. Spatola describes a war in which his character Guglielmo takes part on both sides at once (meaning that the name "Guglielmo" is partaking in contrary actions simultaneously in different places), torturing people, stealing horses, etc, baffling the normal expectation that an author who writes about conflict will ask you to sympathise more with one body of combatants than the other. This is a bit shocking: shouldn't he give you a position; shouldn't he find some noble rebels or reluctant army recruits or something to sympathise with? Removing a dead war-horse's shoes, the narrator 'I' also removes its "glasses, watch, ring, gold teeth, hair, and orthopedic limb." I think of Alice in Wonderland's argument for the dominance of algebraic principles in language. By insisting on the vigilant mediation of words, the Wonderland characters point towards a hypothesis of language that has been changed from a common property to a private one. As a Wonderland person you are not inevitably unhappy. You appear abrasive to others, but your privacy ensures your character. It is like having a house to live in. If Alice could handle language algebraically like the others then she would not have to worry so much about warping and stretching. She would be the manipulation of formula.

The inhabitants of Wonderland are living machines in costumes. (Is a living machine also a malfunctioning machine?) Reading the art historian T.J. Clark's 2006 book The Sight of Death I notice how often he refers to boundaries in his work; how he notes the overlapped straightnesses of the landscape in the two Poussin paintings and the outstretched arm of the fleeing individual in Landscape with Man Killed By a Snake, c. 1648. I am interested in his appreciation of the stillness this helps to create upon the canvas; and how his description of a real event, a trip to Michael Heizer's Double Negative earthwork, 1969-1970, is a lifeless sketch. The people in the car gave a "great shout" when the cutting finally comes into view, he says, a phrase so routine in British English that he can rely on it to represent nothing much. Returning to the boundaried world of the paintings he goes back into evocation again. Double Negative has not been an opportunity for thought. Eventually he comes to this idea about the intersection between the painter and the world: "The lake's level, or the balance of branches on a tree – human beings only take advantage of order already present. It is just that nature gives no such clear priority to such orders." It will be interesting to see if Heizer really goes through with the plan to shore up Double Negative with concrete.

Monday, January 23, 2017

flew forth two

When I said that The Porthole, 1964, reminded me of Tom Jones, 1749, what did I have in mind? A rough impression that the parts about the mother at the start of Spatola were similar in their approach to the reader to this passage from Jones:

First, from two lovely blue Eyes, whose bright Orbs flashed Lightning at their Discharge, flew forth two pointed Ogles. But happily for our Heroe, hit only a vast Piece of Beef which he was then conveying into his Plate, and harmless spent their Force.

Since Fielding is setting the audience up to anticipate a certain outcome and then thwarting it, as Spatola does; both also making their awareness of the thwart part of a game that carries on to the ends of the two books; the mood of teasing play being carried on throughout Jones, and the luring/thwarting pattern of the mother passages being mirrored later in Porthole – there's this in the Arianna chapter for example:

It was a small room, three quarters or more were taken up by her wardrobe, and the rest, by her childhood bed. A light rain fell in the twilight on the poorly-lit street. A warm, light rain fell on my street: I slowly moved closer to her. No one spoke.

In front of the enormous mirror she removed the black princess jersey she wore.

In front of the enormous mirror she removed the flared satin dress she wore.

In front of the enormous mirror she removed the wavy blue wool dress with lateral draping she wore.

In front of the enormous mirror she removed the orange wool dress with kimono sleeves she wore.

In front of the enormous mirror she removed the military-style cloak fastened at the neck she wore.

In front of the enormous mirror she removed the lovely printed pastel-colored wool overcoat she wore.

In front of the enormous mirror she removed the short tulle and lace formal dress she wore.

In front of the enormous mirror she removed the double-bellied skirt with open panel she wore.

In front of the enormous mirror she removed the new fine tulle bridal gown she wore.

In front of the enormous mirror she removed the slender three quarter-sleeve, turtle-neck bodice she wore.

In front of the enormous mirror she removed the fluffy multi-layered skirt she wore.

(tr. Beppe Cavatorte and Polly Geller)

Etc, etc, for over a page, changing the spectacle of an imaginary person into the mechanical production of a real sentence; which I interpret as, at least partly, the author inviting you to see how his trick is done, or how his trick could have been done if he had chosen to be a realist. The expectation you might have formed after the first paragraph was not inevitably going to make the next part manifest itself as you anticipated; your expectation was not fate. (Samuel Richardson believes in fate and fears it, the agitation before the wedding in Grandison so incredibly roused by the thought that this upcoming event cannot be stopped.) You don't expect this much repetition either; it carries on past the point where the point has been made. It takes on, I think, a kind of abrasive mechanical autonomy. At the same time you know a human being is behind it. The human being is expressing freedom by appearing not completely reasonable and human. Clarissa and Tristano (and Grandison as well as Clarissa) are made of movements so small, it seems to me (and to Richardson, who said that he wanted to reduce his books by editing them but there was nothing inessential he could find; in spite of him they needed all their atomies) that they seem to bunch in on themselves, without moving out towards the reader, as Spatola and Fielding do, grabbing them, touching them, changing tone --  Richardson is contrastingly serious -- maybe culminated atomie is the least whimsical thing --.

Sunday, January 15, 2017

it can fight or ransack

The Porthole is against ideas of coherence and secret enormousness (Modernism and Bleak House – what did modernism mean in Italy?); it's a splitting-apart that works consistently throughout its length to maintain the split; the detail in the first paragraph preparing you to know this mother-character better – there must be a reason why she is being filled in with this remark about the pencil behind the ear – but then she is removed and there is nothing to connect her to except the word "mother" again, attached to something that is not her.

"Mother" is placed in impossibility, not by any quality of itself, but by the restrictions of bodies.

If the author writes "mother" again in a distant future chapter then what is he referring to?

He has addressed Guglielmo's mother so that the phrase "Guglielmo's mother" is not restricted to a phenomenon with recognisable habits such as tucking a pencil behind its ear; so, instead, it is attached to an absence or impossible overabundance of character, so impossible that it negates or even ignores its own constituent parts. I want to say that this makes her non-monolithic. In the Love Novel chapter Spatola might be arguing for the power of the anti-monolith and the paradox, but on the other hand he might be asking you to regard everything that is being said as "All the clichés of political debates," because he places that phrase roughly in the middle of the mass of points, some of which are repeated in ways that could make you interpret them as ridiculous things to say* though I prefer to read it as the author's own fidelity to his idea of vital paradox and certainty-repulsion. The point of the book is given priority over the points in the book, in my understanding. If the Porthole pointed to a larger form (a definite political statement, a set of well-drawn characters) then it would not be true to its own faith in paradox. Deducing that the author is thinking about this consciously as he writes and that the paradox is not the byproduct of a desire to write nonsensically.

You can imagine him adjusting his paradoxes to make them more paradoxical.

* e.g., making a point in a calm mode, "a society would not be capable to establish its economy on a large scale, by domesticating man, if it could not find weaker societies, which it can fight or ransack …" then again in a frantic tone: "Do we find weaker societies within reach? Do we destroy them?"

Thursday, January 5, 2017

the eye fixed on the fisherman

I failed to use excerpts from books as far apart in style and intent as Scott G.F. Bailey's murder mystery The Transcendental Detective, 2014 (which I could call "a page-turner" if I were writing blurbs, since I had a sincere desire to know who had murdered whom and why, and kept reading because of it), and the 1964 Italian book L'oblò or The Porthole by Adriano Spatola, (tr. Beppe Cavatorta and Polly Geller) "a singular novel that evades any kind of categorisation and remains even more important today for its remarkable achievement in that fertile period of Italian literature," according to the tripartite publisher. The same "fertile period" included Nanni Balestrini's Tristiano, 1966, another book I didn't quote. There are similarities between Balestrini's book and The Porthole but only superficial ones, I think, Spatola proceeding humanistically (you can imagine a person at a desk, planning striking contrasts), and Tristiano arranged by a machine (I believe you would know this even if they didn't tell you since there seems to be a willingness toward accidental repetition and no effort to create contrasts, the computer taking on the personality of chance. Compare this to the Porthole chapter called A Love Novel in which the questions deliberately escalate).

The mechanics of Balestrini's plan were so advanced that the book couldn't be published as he wanted it until 2014. Every copy is different. I read no. #11246.

My preference for Tristiano over Porthole resembles my preference I think for Clarissa over Tom Jones.

One of Porthole's techniques is to state an apparent fact the way that normal stories do and then write another fact cancelling it out, in a succeeding paragraph and in the same tone, without acknowledging the earlier assertion. The book opens directly into scene-setting with realismistic details, Guglielmo's mother "sitting on a chair, her right elbow propped up on the table (pencil in her hair)," tallying up the grocery bill, when "they" come through the door and kill her. "And he hadn't been born yet." Later, says the author, they killed his father. "But he hadn't been born yet." His mother is not human but a cow. She is a Samoyed or a Belgian sheepdog, she is an ant reformed as an earthworm; and her son is born in an attic, next to a freeway, on an island in the Dead Sea, and on the Adriatic Riviera. His father is a stable-keeper, his father is a demon, his father gave birth to him by laying an egg, his father is a truck moving at 100 miles per hour.

One consistent element is a hole that Guglielmo sees through: somehow throughout the book, no matter what he is doing, he (or something) is also in some sealed location looking through a hole. The sealed location seems degraded (this is not the metaphor of the lighthouse-human looking through the erected windows of the eye); his mother's anthill is mentioned; he is trapped inside a building, and his detached eye is brought up as well, wandering around.

In the river, the eye that the fisherman pulled to shore. The fixed eye that the fisherman pulled to shore. And when it was on the shore, the eye fixed on the fisherman and recognised him.

Spatola later suggested that the title-eye-hole-porthole "indicates a particular method of 'viewing' the world" which "passes before the writer much like it would in front of a camera," and the translator Beppe Cavatorta quotes this in order to make an argument about "the Spatolian eye [that] simultaneously records the things and actions of the world that surrounds it, as well as 'non-things, ' non-actions'."

But when I see that Spatola's method is explained with a reference to assemblage art while the author for the rest of his life (1941 – 1988) made concrete-collage poems that look like large single shapes then I say, "What if I thought of it as a stand-in for the eye of the single viewer ever-present throughout the viewing of a two-dimensional artwork, which, here, has to be placed inside the text, looking at it all at once, because no reader's eye is able to do what the eye of a viewer looking at a visual collage can do, which is to be all over the work with a single glance?"

Sunday, January 1, 2017

face out

Marble turned out to be a wonderful medium for rendering what all sculptors strive for: that is to make the piece seem carved from the inside rather than chiselled from the outside.

(Mark Cartwright, from the Greek Sculpture page at

Old symbols collapse,
forming black holes

A yard strung with plastic Jack-O-Lanterns,
some filled with poinsettias

Pictures of dolls
and of Hilary Clinton
taped face out
over the windows

(Rae Armantrout, Collapse, from The Pretext, 2001)