Saturday, October 31, 2009

another small key...

... this time from R. S. Thomas.

... I was in prison
Until you came; your voice was a key
Turning the enormous lock
Of hopelessness. Did the door open
To let me out or yourselves in?

from "A Welsh Testament", in Collected Poems (J M Dent, 1993).

Manafon (1)

You can’t help but notice
A near absence of tenderness
And who wants to live like that?

   --David Sylvian, 'Emily Dickinson'.

I have been listening, spellbound, to David Sylvian's latest album. As with all the previous albums I know, it constitutes a unique experience, but this time for reasons which are themselves pretty unique: not only for its openly experimental amalgam of genres and aesthetics, but also for the overwhelming, looming, austere, cantankerous, intractable presence of a Welsh poet I greatly admire, R. S. Thomas.

As Sylvian himself acknowledges in a recent interview, it is not so much the question of Thomas's direct influence on his work that is relevant here but the poet's predicament and struggle with philosophical, moral and faith issues that run through all the songs and inform their grave, melancholic reflection on our contemporary condition:

There's such a rich complexity there [in R. S. Thomas] and we're only scratching the surface. These contradictions, this multifaceted character, although something of an anachronism in his own time, in some ways anticipates a contemporary predicament. On what does one ground one's own life? In a world that's rudderless when it comes to issues of morality, life values, where all is relative, where does one root oneself? It's a philosophical question that we, at some point in our lives, and the earlier the better, have to begin to ask ourselves. While it might be liberating to be freed from dogma and, for example, the rules of the church, as a society we hand much of that power over to government which steps in as surrogate patriarch and plays the enforcer. This will lead, I'm certain, to outbreaks of violence against societal laws and strictures. If a nation doesn't have a shared moral code how can it manage to order itself and maintain peaceful co-habitation without tighter and tighter reins being applied? With the death of god (as I recently read someplace, shot in the back of the head) on what energy field is the moral compass based? I feel that with the death of the notion of an external god, a necessary step in our evolution perhaps, to some extent we've also done away with the notion of ourselves as spiritual beings, as something more than flesh and blood. This imbalance will need correcting if we're to continue to evolve holistically.

It is almost unfair to single out a track, as they all require to be listened to as a sort of continuum within the album, but there are two songs that deeply touched me from the very first listening, for reasons I don't even dare verbalize. Here is the first one, "emily dickinson", about which Sylvian says, in reply to a question about Thomas:

R. S. Thomas isn’t an “easy” poet. He and his wife lived in the same house, but at opposite ends. They hardly ever spoke to each other, and only met at meal times. Yet after Elsi’s death, all these amazing poems started pouring out. Does love, or the notion of it and its difficulties, influence your own work? If so, how?

I would say the necessity and desire for love is an important underlying theme for me. This issue lies at the heart of a piece such as 'emily dickinson'. It's a fact of life that not everyone experiences unconditional love, finds themselves or others un-loveable, aren't willing to give, to sacrifice for the sake of love. Some simply cut themselves off from it. Withdraw. Yes, the theme of love or its absence is a constant preoccupation. To paraphrase the artist agnes martin, art is a celebration of the beauty in life or a protest against its absence.

Even though the song is not as yet available online, and it is sinful indeed to present it like this, uprooted, I cannot resist transcribing the lyrics, kindly provided by the artist's website:

Emily Dickinson

She was no longer a user
Don't think she realised we knew that
Not one to make a fuss
Why this and not something else
Wasn't it obvious?
She made such a hash of it
You can’t help but notice
A near absence of tenderness
And who wants to live like that?
And friends turned their backs on her
She, no longer a user
And she wanted to stay home
With a box full of postcards
And no place to send them
Live like Emily Dickinson
Without so much as a kiss
Or the comfort of strangers
Withdrawing into herself
But why this and not something else?

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

modern slavery

One of the things I abhor in this country is how very often work becomes a convenient excuse for not having a life. A tragic and small-minded distortion of priorities, at once escapism and self-denial.

But what scares the most is how unwittingly one falls into these traps, after having committed oneself, time and again, to struggle against such senseless schizophrenic boundaries. How modern slavery grips you slyly in its spell...

Sunday, October 25, 2009

cultural (& sexual) misunderstandings, or: occidentalism...

I was recently invited to a Latin American-themed dinner party in Tokyo. There were a couple of Latin American men there, among a vast majority of locals, but I was the only non-Asian woman present.

It didn't take me long to realise that virtually everybody at the party saw me as a clichéd "representative" of something - whether of some sort of Latin American femaleness, or of "the" quintessential Mediterranean woman (whatever that is...). I assume the pigeonholing stemmed not only from my national origin and native language - actually the main reason why I was invited - but from my looks.

My "sexy" persona was seemingly expected not only to chat, laugh, dance & sing raucously, but also to gracefully respond to the various... er... rather unsubtle advances from sticky old farts that inevitably shower on you on these occasions.

Forced by the constraining social circumstances to be a good sport while keeping the necessary, safe distance, I couldn't help musing, half amused and half upset, on the irony of the situation. That is to say, of being the object of openly sexist "occidentalism" (or shall I say "Latin-Americanism", or perhaps "Mediterraneanism"?) among people - and esp. women - who have been considered the quintessential victims of... orientalism. Precisely.

I have neither the time nor the patience to elaborate on the topic, which doesn't really interest me at all (and in fact deeply annoys me), but I must state, well, the obvious: whatever their manifestations, these -isms are based on sheer ignorance and, therefore, on sweeping and unacceptable generalisations. Only because your looks slightly resemble certain images of "the" voluptous brunette, you are automatically devoid of an intellect and become a sluttish pair of tits & legs, bah...

Unfortunately, the stereotype recurs in this country - often unwittingly among intelligent people who should know better, alas - no matter how hard you try to drive the point home: that you are not Latin American but European; that you are not even strictly "Mediterranean", but just happen to have been born in a country that has received a considerable influx of Mediterranean influences over the centuries, alongside loads of other Northern and Atlantic influences, for that matter; that Brazilian, Italian, Portuguese, Spanish, French, etc., women are all different from each other and do not all fit the "tart", "hag", "goddess", and-so-on-and-so-on clichés which only serve to insult and abuse women; that not all women who happen to be curvy and brunette are sultry tango or salsa dancers (!); that people - women and men - all have distinct personalities & idiosyncrasies, which more often than not have little or nothing to do with "national" euphoric types.

While abhorring victimology, I cannot but fiercely oppose these vilifying forms of reducing women to national and sexual caricatures. It seems that we'll never get rid of the good ol' dichotomies & misundertandings - and that they are here to stay, under ever-changing guises and manifestations. Sad.

this I'd meant to tell you (if you ever listened)

Max Ernst, Cage, Forest and Black Sun, 1927.

How then should I your true love know
from another one?

A voice, a message, a promise,
a wrong to be righted, a future.
Moving in the forest at night
towards a conclusion, and an end to oppression.

May he reach you from the ends of the earth,
humming-bird caught in his hair.

from "Shining Cliff", by Peter Riley.
Source (and full poem):

(and I still mean to, I still. Listen.)

another cri de coeur...

... without further comments - neither time nor will to elaborate further.
Heaven knows I'm miserable now indeed, damn...

I was happy in the haze of a drunken hour
But heaven knows I'm miserable now

I was looking for a job, and then I found a job
And heaven knows I'm miserable now

In my life
Why do I give valuable time
To people who don't care if I live or die?

Two lovers entwined pass me by
And heaven knows I'm miserable now

I was looking for a job, and then I found a job
And heaven knows I'm miserable now

In my life
Oh, why do I give valuable time
To people who don't care if I live or die?

What she asked of me at the end of the day
Caligula would have blushed

"You've been in the house too long," she said
And I (naturally) fled

In my life
Why do I smile
At people who I'd much rather kick in the eye?

I was happy in the haze of a drunken hour
But heaven knows I'm miserable now

"Oh, you've been in the house too long," she said
And I (naturally) fled

In my life
Oh, why do I give valuable time
To people who don't care if I live or die?...

"Heaven knows I'm miserable now", The Smiths / Morrissey & Marr.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

There is a better world, there must be...

Another tiring day, another song to match...

Sing me to sleep

Sing me to sleep
I'm tired and I
I want to go to bed

Sing me to sleep
Sing me to sleep
And then leave me alone
Don't try to wake me in the morning
'Cause I will be gone
Don't feel bad for me
I want you to know
Deep in the cell of my heart
I will feel so glad to go

Sing me to sleep
Sing me to sleep
I don't want to wake up
On my own anymore

Sing to me
Sing to me
I don't want to wake up
On my own anymore

Don't feel bad for me
I want you to know
Deep in the cell of my heart
I really want to go

There is another world
There is a better world
Well, there must be
Well, there must be
Well, there must be
Well, there must be
Well ...

"Asleep", The Smiths / Morrisey & Marr

Sunday, October 18, 2009

a little paradise on my doorstep (2)

... brings another restful and quiet afternoon. Reading, studying, walking, thinking.

And where better to read a book on trees than among them, close to the water, between the earth and the sky?...

Paradise, paradise: so far away, so near...

Sengawa, Tokyo
18 October 2009

a little paradise on my doorstep (1)

... brings me the first intimations of autumn (though my beloved momiji are still clad in lush green).

Sengawa, Tokyo
18 October 2009

yes, even the soul has a syntax of its own

"Man is a foreign body whose centre of gravity is not in himself. Our soul is transitive. It needs an object that affects it, as its direct object. This is the gravest of all relationships (not of
having but of being)."

Francis Ponge, cited in Robert Dumas, Tratado da Árvore: Ensaio de Uma Filosofia Ocidental, trans. by Maria Jorge V. de Figueiredo (Lisbon: Assírio & Alvim, 2007), p. 18. [translated by DK from the Portuguese translation. And many thanks to Vítor for this wonderful reading suggestion.]

Saturday, October 17, 2009

glooms & solitudes

A restful afternoon, despite a disappointing and altogether forgettable event.

The soothing effect of an art garden - walking through its delicate paths reconciles me with life's essentials, with the ability to place things and people into perspective, with no illusions nor evasions.

Being here and now, accepting the distance between us while yearning, longing for it to happen. Knowing you are not here, might well never be, yet not giving up on... well, never mind, never mind.

Ian H. Finlay was so very right: the best gardens are composed of Glooms and Solitudes and not of plants and trees. So is life, so are we. But maybe there is some sort of hopefulness in our hopelessness and loss.

Maybe, maybe.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

let yourself lose yourself...

The perfect song at the end of a wearisome, draining week, when you long to be elsewhere - far, far away from this world. La vie est ailleurs...

All the lies that you make up
What's at the back of your mind ?
Oh, your face I can see
And it's desperately kind
But what's at the back of your mind ?

Two icy-cold hands conducting the way
It's the eskimo blood in my veins
Amid concrete and clay
And general decay
Nature must still find a way

So ignore all the codes of the day
Let your juvenile impulses sway
This way and that way
This way, that way
God, how sex implores you
To let yourself lose yourself...

Stretch out and wait
Stretch out and wait
Let your puny body, lie down, lie down
As we lie, you say
As we lie, you say
Stretch out and ...
Stretch out and wait
Stretch out and wait
Let your puny body lie down, lie down

As we lie, you say :
Will the world end in the night time ?
(I really don't know)
Or will the world end in the day time ?
(I really don't know)
And is there any point ever having children ?
(Oh, I don't know)
All I do know is we're Here and it's Now...

So stretch out and wait
Stretch out and wait
There is no debate, no debate, no debate
How can you conciously contemplate
When there's no debate, no debate ?
Stretch out and wait
Stretch out and wait
Stretch out and wait
Oh ...

The Smiths / Morrissey and Marr

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

world-weariness... (4)

There are moments when I suddenly realise how far I have moved from my "salad-days"-belief in the power of literature to change and save the world, or some other grandiloquent design.

All in all, I belief in the power of literature to save myself, to preserve a sanctuary of sanity, lucidity, freedom, away from the senseless chitter-chatter outside, away from the shallowness of most people you are forced to put up with on a daily basis. A space I cherish more and more as time goes by and there is less and less time for this precious shelter that makes no demands on life - only on emotion and the imagination. A place where you can "goldenly stagnate in the sun, like a murky pond surrounded by flowers, lost among larger things", as Pessoa put it.

Call it escapism, cowardice, daydreaming, whatever. To me it has always been life-sustaining (more literally than you can think). And it will remain so. Always.


To write is to forget. Literature is the most agreeable way of ignoring life. Music soothes, the visual arts exhilarate, and the performing arts (such as acting and dancing) entertain. Literature, however, retreats from life by turning it into a slumber. The other arts make no such retreat - some because they use visible and hence vital formulas, others because they live from human life itself.

This isn't the case with literature. Literature simulates life. A novel is a story that never was, and a play is a novel without narration. A poem is the expressionn of ideas or feelings in a language no one uses, because no one talks in verse.

. . .

All literature is an attempt to make life real. As all of us know, even when we don't act on what we know, life is absolutely unreal in its directly real form; the country, the city and our ideas are all absolutely fictitious things, the offspring of our complex sensation of our own selves. Impressions are incommunicable unless we make them literary.

Children are particularly literary, for they say what they feel and not what someone has taught them to feel. Once I heard a child, who wished to say he was on the verge of tears, say not 'I feel like crying,' which is what an adult, i.e. an idiot, would say, but rather, 'I feel like tears.' And this phrase - so literary it would seem affected in a well-known poet, if he could ever invent it - decisively refers to the warm presence of tears about to burst from eyelids that feel the liquid bitterness. . . .

To say! To know what to say! To know how to exist via the written voice and the intellectual image! This is all that matters in life; the rest is men and women, imagined loves and factitious vanities, the wiles of our digestion and forgetfulness, people squirming - like worms when a rock is lifted - under the huge abstract boulder of the meaningless blue sky.

Fernando Pessoa, The Book of Disquiet, ed. and trans. by Richard Zenith (Penguin, 2002), pp. 107-08.


Indeed: "to be no more, have no more, want no more"... - neither happy nor sad, without burden or destination...

Monday, October 12, 2009

the uselessness of labels, or: the mind's eye

Yesterday I went to see a fine exhibition at the Tokyo Metropolitan Museum of Photography, Mind’s Eye: Photographs by Koichi Inakoshi, who passed away last February.

There is always something ghostly about photography, but this exhibition had the particularity of having been prepared when the photographer was still alive, which reinforced the eerie feeling as you moved through the chronologically ordered series and came to realize the contrast between his early inhabited cityscapes and the final natural landscapes, blurred and devoid of all human presence.

What struck me, however, as I was walking along the neat walls was that, apart from the sparse titles of the various series - from the first maybe, maybe (1971) to the the final never-seen-before China (2008) and basho-kei - the photographs had no captions (you had to refer to the catalogue to identify the various locations). I was reminded of a recent conversation with an artist friend, who confessed that one of the things that most upsets her is when visitors to her exhibitions focus their attention mainly on the captions, having only a cursory look at the works of art, or virtually disregarding them.

Likewise, Debussy didn't want his listeners to focus on the titles of some of his pieces, and deliberately placed them at the end of the programme, in the smallest type and in parenthesis, so that the work could be taken as music - not as something else...

And I thought this might be precisely why there were no captions under the exhibits yesterday. To encourage each viewer to judge for her/himself, by walking along, being responsive to the images and their worlds, imagi(ni)ng, establishing lines, continuities, differences. Following the "mind's eye", not some pre-arranged script. Refusing ready-made labels. Preferring the soft tentativeness and ambiguity of a "maybe, maybe" to the harshness of biased judgements and snap decisions.

I was thereby also reminded of the hallmark of the best, most powerful works of art: their ability to draw us to a unique world, to extend to us a subtle invitation that is much more than visual, requiring a total response. And, most important to me personally, a timely reminder that in life & love, as in art, labels and rigid scripts do more harm than good, and that there is nothing like an unencumbered intuition allowing information to freely, gradually flow to the "mind's eye" from all the senses, to paraphrase a dear poet.

Maybe, maybe...

Sunday, October 11, 2009

more or less the same?...

Photo: Jim Brandenburg

On my way home today, I heard in passing this old tune by Simon & Garfunkel in the air somewhere, and could not help conjuring up the verses that made the song so memorable to many:

Now the years are rolling by me, they are rockin' even me
I am older than I once was, and younger than I'll be, that's not unusual
No, it isn't strange, after changes upon changes, we are more or less the same...

... and musing, once again, on how true and, at the same time, untrue they are.

Our inner experience of time and distance, as well as the entailing perception we have of change and sameness, continuity and transformation, will always remain philosophical puzzles, mainly because we can never look at our interior life from an 'outer' perspective, as it were, or else it would no longer be 'inner'... (though in these tittle-tattle times when nearly everything, everyone is on continuous display, having an interior life of your own seems almost an eccentricity).

Happily (?) trapped within my own foolish subjectivity, whenever I look back on... er... life, I see only a puzzling amalgam of change and continuity, tiny shards of a mirror upon which I glimpse vaguely familiar stills from a film I will never be able to restore to its wholeness. And perhaps this is how it's meant to be (growing old, that is): you gradually learn to live without a master narrative, but accept the at once melancolic and epiphanic quality of fragments, moments, instants - the beyond-repairedness of the mirror. You become more and more open to change, unpredictability, uncertainty, yet keep longing for stability, safety, firm ground.

But, all in all, the greatest and most fascinating puzzle remains: people, especially those that become meaningful to you, and that you choose - because they choose you - as close friends or/and lovers (can you always draw the line?...). Are those you love and are attracted to over the years absolutely unique in their personalities, idiosyncrasies, physique, or just ever-changing embodiments of abstract qualities you have always, consciously or unconsciously, cherished: gentleness, sensitivity, kindness, fragility, reticence, secretiveness, ambiguity?... And to which extent do these feelings and these persons change you or just confirm you in your changelessness over the years?...

The (provisional) answer is: both, I guess - or perhaps none. What a bore life would be without mysteries & enigmas...

Friday, October 9, 2009

a small key...

... despondently offered to a recalcitrant friend who has a heart of water, but persists in behaving like stone.

Make a key, however small,
enter the house.
Allow yourself the tenderness, have mercy
on the matter of dreams and birds.

Summon the fire, clarity, the music
in the groin.
Do not say stone, say window.
Do not be like a shadow.

Say man, say child, say star.
Repeat the syllables
where light is happy and lingers.

Say it again: man, woman, child.
Where beauty is newer.

from Eugenio de Andrade, "Faz uma Chave", in Branco no Branco / White on White (freely translated from the Portuguese).

Thursday, October 8, 2009

world-weariness... (3)

In this metallic age of barbarians, only a relentless cultivation of our ability to dream, to analyze and to captivate can prevent our personality from degenerating into nothing or else into a personality like all the rest.

Whatever is real in our sensations is precisely what they have that isn't ours. The sensations common to us all are what constitute reality. Our sensations' individuality, therefore, lies in whatever they have that's erroneous. What joy it would give me to see a scarlet-coloured sun! How totally and exclusively mine it would be!

I never let my feelings know what I'm going to make them feel. I play with my sensations like a bored princess with her large, viciously agile cats.

I slam doors within me where certain sensations were about to pass in order to be realized. I quickly clear their path of mental objects that might cause them to make gestures.

Fernando Pessoa, The Book of Disquiet, ed. and trans. by Richard Zenith (Penguin, 2002), pp. 304-05.

a journey through a wilderness

The best thing is to walk. We should follow the Chinese poet Li Po in 'the hardships of travel and the many branchings of the way'. For life is a journey through a wilderness. This concept, universal to the point of banality, could not have survived unless it were biologically true.

I know this may sound farfetched,' I said to Elizabeth Vrba, 'but if I were asked, "What is the big brain for"?, I would be tempted to say, "For singing our way through the wilderness."'

Bruce Chatwin, Winding Paths: Photographs by Bruce Chatwin (London: Jonathan Cape, 1999), pp. 23-24.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

world-weariness... (2)

Claude Lorrain, Landscape with Apollo and Muses and a River God (1652)

The value of art is that it takes us away from here.

Fernando Pessoa, The Book of Disquiet, ed. and trans. by Richard Zenith (Penguin, 2002), p. 300.

(Afterthought: Art takes us away from here, while making us pitifully realise, in the same movement, that we are here, alas...)

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

world-weariness... (1)

No one understands anyone else. We are, as the poet said, islands in the sea of life; between us flows the sea that defines and separates us. However much one soul strives to know another, he can know only what is told him by a word - a shapeless shadow on the ground of his understanding.

Fernando Pessoa, The Book of Disquiet, ed. and trans. by Richard Zenith (Penguin, 2002), p. 298.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

self-reliance, again

Living alone and being a woman in a foreign country (and, in a sense, all countries are foreign), you always find yourself pondering on the issue, negotiating boundaries, lowering sights, relying more and more on your inner resources and intuition, rather than expecting much from other people or from seemingly promising new situations.

While there is a lonely tranquility, a melancholic acceptance in it all, there is also the increasing strength that comes from the awareness that if you have survived so much so far, then you can survive anything, anything, and cope with uncertainty, with the inability to solve and explain everything, to change those you wish were otherwise, to put everything into little watertight compartments and feel good about it. And, above all, there is the realisation you can only see and (thus) know where you now walk, guided by your own clarity alone. In the most essential things you are irretrievably alone (though not necessarily adrift), indeed.

Perhaps this is what Keats meant by his famous negative capability: when one is is "capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts without any irritable reaching after fact & reason"... Or, as Carolee Schneemann put it in a much rawer, assertingly feminine note:

. . . where you might expect
understanding and appreciation you must expect NOTHING
then enjoy whatever gives-to-you
as long as it does and however
and NEVER justify yourself just do what
you feel carry it strongly yourself

from Interior Scroll, Performance, 1975, in Carolee Schneemann, Imaging Her Erotics: Essays, Interviews, Projects (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2002), p. 157.

I couldn't agree more with the absolute necessity of this daily struggle with an intractable, merciless, stone-hard world.