Thursday, November 10, 2016

2016, a dreamlike year

'The sky over Tenochtitlan darkens; flashes of lighting; then rain sweeping off the lake.
Down by the docks, Cortes and Montezuma take shelter in a doorway. "Dona Marina translated it; I have a copy," says Cortes.
"When you smashed Blue Hummingbird with the crowbar-"
"I was rash. I admit it."
"You may take the gold with you. All of it. My gift."
"Your Highness is most kind."
"Your ships are ready. My messengers say their sails are as many as the clouds over the water."
"I cannot leave until all of the gold in Mexico, past, present and future, is stacked in the holds."
"Impossible on the face of it."
"I agree. Let us talk of something else."'

-Donald Barthelme, Cortes and Montezuma

"One thought alone preoccupies the submerged mind of Empire: how not to end, how not to die, how to prolong its era. By day it pursues its enemies. It is cunning and ruthless, it sends its bloodhounds everywhere. By night it feeds on images of disaster: the sack of cities, the rape of populations, pyramids of bones, acres of desolation."

J. M. Coetzee, 'Waiting for the Barbarians', 1979

The end of empire is always dreamlike, feverish (think Hitler in his bunker, Cortes and Montezuma), and this has been such a dreamlike year. I suppose it's our empire that's ending and by empire I mean - not exactly the middle class or enlightenment values, or civic society, or respect for other cultures, or truth, or morals, or neoliberalism, or people being paid for their work, or western privilege or entitlement or any one thing really --- but all of these and also something I can't put my finger on, something falling away. Something we can no longer argue for convincingly, but have no alternative to to present. So the dreamlike months continue and we are trapped inside our feelings of unreality. 

Monday, May 16, 2016

Not in a dark wood but a railway tunnel halfway on a journey down England

Iain Hamilton Finlay - The world has been empty since the Romans, 1985. Tate Gallery.

I coincidentally read two quotes saying much the same thing in the last week. The first, in an article about Seamus Heaney's translation of Virgil's Aeneid, book VI, comments on:
"the ... tendency among 20th-century poets to recuperate epic in the register of the humdrum, a tendency Seamus Heaney once neatly characterised by saying, ‘if Philip Larkin had ever composed his version of The Divine Comedy he would probably have discovered himself not in a dark wood but a railway tunnel halfway on a journey down England.'"
- Colin Burrow, LRB, 2016
(Funny that this also perfectly describes the great children's books of the 1970s - Elidor, The Owl Service, The Dark is Rising.)

Of course, Philip Larkin would never have dreamt of composing a version of the Divine Comedy. That's so much more a Seamus Heaney/Tony Harrison/Ted Hughes-type endeavour.

Quote 2:
"I think that in this age, which has probably lost what I may call the epic sense, as it lives in villas and flats instead of castles and goes in tweeds in place of chain mail - for us, I think, it is easier to discern the secret beauty and wonder and mystery in humble and common things than in the splendid and noble and storied things ... we, it appears, are to learn of high things, if at all, through little things and things of low estate.

If we are to see the vision of the Grail, however dimly, it must no longer be in some vaulted chamber in a high tower of Carbonneck, over dreadful rocks and the foam of a faery sea. For us, the odour of the rarest spiceries must be blown through the Venetian blinds of some grey, forgotten square in Islington; the flame that is redder than any rose must come shining ... over the mantelpiece in the Canonbury lodging house. And be it remembered, I regard these old tales as true tales, true very likely in the very letter, and true now as ever"
- Arthur Machen - The London Adventure, 1924, Three Impostors Press p.55-57

Are we also, in 2016, to see the vision of the Grail, however dimly? I like the entirely Quixotic idea of attesting to the literal truth of these stories, with music or art. Discovering their fugitive contours within the shapes of other, humbler, things: the chance glimpse of uncanny reflections in a bus windscreen, and so on, etc. etc.

I wonder if this is because I have a sense that the world is empty, and has been for a long time.
‘The world has been empty since the Romans. But the memory of the Romans fills it. They go on prophesying liberty.’ - Louis Antoine de Saint-Just (1767–1794) - legal architect of Robespierre's terror. 

Thursday, February 25, 2016

Natasha on the balcony

 "That night, alone in new surroundings, Prince Andrei was unable to sleep. The night was fresh, bright, and very still. In front of the window was a row of pollard trees, black on one side, silver on the other. Beneath the trees grew lush, wet bushes with silver-lit leaves and stems. Farther back beyond the dark copse a roof glittered with dew, to the right was a tree with branches of brilliant white, and above it shone the moon, nearly full, in a pale, almost starless, spring sky. Prince Andrei leaned his elbows on the window ledge and his eyes rested on that sky.

Those in the rooms above were also awake. He heard female voices overhead.

"Just once more," said a girlish voice above him which he recognized at once.

"But when are you coming to bed?" replied another voice.

"I won't, I can't sleep, what's the use? Come now for the last time."

They sang a musical passage together--the end of some song.

"Yes, how lovely! Now go to sleep, and there's an end of it."

"You go to sleep, but I can't," said the first voice, coming nearer to the window. She was evidently leaning right out, for the rustle of her dress and even her breathing could be heard. Everything was motionless; the moon and its light and the shadows. Prince Andrei dared not stir.

"Sonya! Sonya!" she cried. "Oh, how can you sleep? Only look how glorious it is! Ah, how glorious! Do wake up, Sonya!" she said, sounding almost tearful. "There never, never was such a lovely night before!"

Sonya made some reluctant reply.

"Do just come and see what a moon!... Come here.... There, you see? I feel like sitting down on my heels, putting my arms round my knees like this, straining tight, as tight as possible, and flying away! Like this...."

"Take care! you'll fall out!"

He heard the sound of a scuffle and Sonya's voice: "It's past one o'clock."

"Oh, you only spoil things for me. All right, go, go!"

Again all was silent, but Prince Andrei knew she was still sitting there.

From time to time he heard a soft rustle and at times a sigh.

"O God! O God! What does it mean?" she suddenly exclaimed. "To bed then, if it must be!" and she slammed the casement."

War and Peace - Book 3, Chapter II. Tolstoy.

Monday, February 01, 2016

Fear of mirrors

Sigmund Freud thought he saw a stranger entering his train compartment. "I hurried to help him but was quickly taken aback when I realised that the intruder was none other than my own image reflected in the mirror of the connecting door. And I remember that this apparition gave me profound displeasure".

The Summa de Officio Inquisitorii of 1270, warns of the evils of all reflective surfaces: lacquer, glass, jewels, swords, water. It advises readers to avoid anything which might catch their reflection. It's more than a warning against vanity - it's a distrust of the mirror-world. The devil, or something analogous to that, controls the kingdom of reflections.

17th century thinkers are equally disturbed by the doubling -or tripling- of their own image, A French orator named Jean-Benigne Bossuet asks in a sermon, whether in anguish or curiosity it isn't clear:

"What is this image of myself that I see more deliberately still, this lively apparition in this running water? It disappears when the water is disturbed. What have I lost?"

Mirrors existed in antiquity. The Ancient Greeks and the Romans prized them though they were a poor relation to what we know now - nowhere near as big and clear. They were handheld, darker, with a dimmer reflection. Their reflections really were like ghosts, fainter than ours, more a part of the texture of the reflecting surface. Emperor Nero, so they say, had a mirror made of emeralds.

After the hall of mirrors in Versailles, something changes. Mirrors become commonplace and our own reflections stop being astonishing. Because now everybody has mirrors and cameras and film. No one is aware of the symmetry anymore, the dividing line between them and it. Other than the smallest children, we've mistaken our reflections for a part of ourselves.