Friday, July 30, 2010

subdued to blinding music

Woman and Music

This is a tall woman walking through a square
thinking what is a woman at midnight in a park
under bells, in the trivial and lovely hours
with images, violins, dancers approaching?

This is a woman sitting at a mirror
her back to the glass and all the dancers advancing,
or in a chair laughing at a bone
sitting upright in a chair
talking of ballet, flesh's impermanence.

This is a woman looking at a stage --
dancer receiving the floral blue and white,
balanced against a tallest blue decor,
dancing -- and all the parks, walks, hours
descend in brilliant water past the eyes
pursuing and forgotten and subdued
to blinding music, the deliberate strings.

Muriel Rukeyser, U.S. 1 (New York: Covici Friede, 1938), p. 112.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

gut symmetries (3)

Walk with me. Walk time in its skeleton. Walk the white curve of Adam's rib. White, that absorbs the minimum, reflects the maximum of light rays, ecstasy of light at the dead of the year.

Walk with me. Walk the ancient history of his body, recorded in quasars, erupted in light. Kiss him and I kiss the full of him and the dust of him. Touch him where he is firm and my hand passes through into empty space. Love him and I love this man, this body. Love him and I love star-dust and light.

Walk with me. Walk the 6,000,000,000,000 miles of travelled light, single year's journey of illumination, ship miles under the glowing keel. In the long frost the sky brightens and the rim of the earth is pierced by sharp stars. After the leaf-fall the star fall, the winter shedding of too much light. Walk the seen and unseen. What can be rendered visible and what cannot.

from Jeanette Winterson, Gut Symmetries (London: Granta, 1997), pp. 101-02.

gut symmetries (2)

Defect of vision. Do I mean affect of vision? At the beginning of the twentieth century when Picasso, Matisse, and Cézanne were turning their faces towards a new manner of light, there was a theory spawned by science and tadpoled by certain art critics that frog-marched the picture towards the view that this new art was an optical confusion. Nothing but a defect of vision. The painters were astigmatic; an abnormality of the retina that unfocuses rays of light. That was why they could not paint realistically. They could not see a cat is a cat is a cat.

Recently I heard the same argument advanced against El Greco. His elongations and foreshortenings had nothing to do with genius, they were an eye problem.

Perhaps art is an eye problem; world apparent, world perceived.

Signs, shadows, wonders.

What you see is not what you think you see.

[. . .]

Defect of vision. Do I mean affect of vision?

'Science cannot solve the ultimate mystery of nature because we ourselves are part of nature and therefore part of the mystery we are trying to solve.' (Max Planck)

'It appears unavoidable that physical reality must be described in terms of continuous functions in space. The material point can hardly be conceived anymore.' (Albert Einstein)

'If we ask whether the position of the electron remains the same we must say no. If we ask whether the electron's position changes with time, we must say no. If we ask whether the electron is at rest we must say no. If we ask whether it is in motion we must say no.' (Robert Oppenheimer)

Is truth what we do not know?

What we know does not satisfy us. What we know constantly reveals itself as partial. What we know, generation by generation, is discarded into new knowings which in turn slowly cease to interest us.

In the Torah, the Hebrew 'to know', often used in a sexual context, is not about facts but about connections. Knowledge, not as accumulation but as charge and discharge. A release of energy from one site to another. Instead of a hoard of certainties, bug-collected, to make me feel secure, I can give up taxonomy and invite myself to the dance: the patterns, rhythms, multiplicities, paradoxes, shifts, currents, cross-currents, irregularities, irrationalities, geniuses, joints, pivots, worked over time, and through time, to find the lines of thought that still transmit.

The facts cut me off. The clean boxes of history, geography, science, art. What is the separateness of things when the current that flows each to each is live? It is the livingness I want. Not mummification. Livingness. I suppose that is why I fell in love with Jove. Or to be accurate, why I knew I would fall in love with Jove, when I first saw him, on the day that I was born.

Energy precedes matter.

from Jeanette Winterson, Gut Symmetries (London: Granta, 1997), pp. 81-83.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

gut symmetries (1)

[I just love these moments when, flicking through an old book you read a long, long time ago, you are all of a sudden shaken by a passage that reawakens some unspecific memory, a feeling, a longing... I don't know. All I know is that everything changes and you find yourself beginning it anew, as if each and every word had been written for you, about you, your thoughts, your life.

Here it goes (but there are more):]

Walk with me. Hand in hand through the nightmare of narrative, the neat sentences secret-nailed over meaning. Meaning mewed up like anchorite, its vision in broken pieces behind the wall. And if we pull away the panelling, then what? Without the surface, what hope of contact, of conversation? How will I come to read the rawness inside?

The story of my day, the story of my life, the story of how we met, of what happened before we met. And every story I begin to tell talks across a story I cannot tell. And if I were not telling this story to you but to someone else, would it be the same story?

Walk with me, hand in hand through the neon and styrofoam. Walk the razor blades and the broken hearts. Walk the fortune and the fortune hunted. Walk the chop suey bars and the tract of stars.

I know I am a fool, hoping dirt and glory are both a kind of luminous paint; the humiliations and exaltations that light us up. I see like a bug, everything too large, the pressure of infinity hammering at my head. But how else to live, vertical that I am, pressed down and pressing up simultaneously? I cannot assume you will understand me. It is just as likely that as I invent what I want to say, you will invent what you want to hear. Some story we must have. Stray words on crumpled paper. A weak signal into the outer space of each other.

The probability of separate worlds meeting is very small. The lure of it is immense. We send starships. We fall in love.

from Jeanette Winterson, Gut Symmetries (London: Granta, 1997), pp. 24-25.

Friday, July 23, 2010

when all other lines of communication are overloaded (2)

The poet in our times does what poets have always done, given a tongue to dumbness, celebrated wonderments, complained of the government, told tales, found sense where none was to be perceived, found nonsense where we thought there was sense; in short, made a world for the mind (and occasionally the body too) to inhabit. Beauty, poets have taught us, is the king's daughter and the milkmaid, the nightingale and the rose, the wind, a Greek urn, the autumn moon, the sea when it looks like wine. None of which appear often in the confusion of our world.

from Guy Davenport, "Introduction" to Jonathan Williams, A Ear in Bartram's Tree, n.p.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

when all other lines of communication are overloaded (1)

... Anything worth knowing passes from one man to one man. The book is still a viable way of communicating, provided one has taught oneself to find the book one needs to read. It isn't easy. All the electronic media are a flood of noise. And no medium can replace what may be an essential need in the poet: an audience. Homer recited his poems to people who cheered and even gave prizes; at least they passed around wine. Chaucer read his poems in warm firelit rooms. Every line of Shakespeare was written to move a paying audience. The next time you read a slack, obscure, convoluted poem, reflect that it was written in an age when printing has replaced recitation, and that the poet cannot tell his good poems from his bad except by fortuituous criticism.

Guy Davenport, in "Introduction" to Jonathan Williams, An Ear in Bartram's Tree (New York: New Directions, 1969), n.p.


Davenport further suggests that the clarity of poems to the ear and the inner eye is to be tested in the classical weather of poetry - listening faces - and that the reading public is but a "charming fiction".

Couldn't agree more and it is from here that I derive my sense of responsibility as audience to poetry, to music: to be a totally responsive listening face, body and soul, accepting the invitation extended to me as well as my active part in the making of the work of art.

Now, more than ever, when all other channels of communication are blasted away, cluttered with unbearable noise.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

and yet another truth

. . . the hardest to bear, the one you are constantly reminded of on a daily basis. That, as Camus crudely puts it in his Carnets, "it is only your will that keeps [most] people attached to us (not that they wish you ill but because they don't care) and that the others are always able to be interested in something else".

And as times goes by and you grow older, or sceptical, weary, disenchanted, disappointed, whatever, you are more and more reluctant to actively exert that will, to enforce yourself upon others, to remind them of your existence. And so you find yourself immersed in that tepid, stagnant pond of general carelessness and indifference. Invisibility. Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita...

Out of sight, out of mind.

Monday, July 19, 2010

the truth of fact and the truth of art (5)

Exchange is creation.

In poetry, the exchange is one of energy. Human energy is transferred, and from the poem it reaches the reader. Human energy, which is consciousness, the capacity to produce change in existing conditions.

But the manner of exchange, the gift that is offered and received - these must be seen according to their own nature.

Fenollosa, writing of the Chinese written character as a medium for poetry, says this: "All truth is the transference of power. The type of sentence in nature is a flash of lightning. It passes between two terms, a cloud and the earth."

This is the threshold, now the symbols are themselves in motion. Now we have the charge, flaming along the path from its reservoir to the receptive target. Even that is not enough to describe the movement of reaching a work of art.

One of our difficulties is that, accepting a science that was static and seeing the world about us according to the vision it afforded, we have tried to freeze everything, including living functions, and the motions of the imaginative arts.

We have used the term "mind" and allowed ourselves to be trapped into believing there was such a thing, such a place, such a locus of forces. We have used the word "poem" and now the people who live by division quarrel about "the poem as object". They pull it away from their own lives, from the life of the poet, and they attempt to pull it away from its meaning, from itself; finally, in a trance of shattering, they deny qualities and forms all significance. Then, cut off from its life, they see the dead Beauty: they know what remorse is, they begin to look for some single cause of their self-hatred and contempt. There is, of course, no single cause. We are not so mechanical as that. But there was a symptom: these specialists in dying, they were prepared to believe there was such a thing as Still Life. For all things change in time; some are made of change itself, and the poem is one of these. It is not an object; the poem is a process.

Charles Peirce takes Fenollosa's lightning flash, sets it away from the giving. Peirce writes: "All dynamical action, or action of brute force, physical or psychical, either takes place between two subjects. . . or at any rate is a resultant of such actions between pairs." It is important here to understand what Peirce means by semiosis. By semiosis I mean, on the contrary, an action, or influence, which is, or involves, a cooperation of three subjects, such as a sign, its object, and its interpretant; this tri-relative influence not being in any way resolvable into actions between pairs. . . ."

The giving and taking of a poem is, then, a triadic relation. It can never be reduced to a pair: we are always confronted by the poet, the poem, and the audience.

The poet, at the moment of his life at which he finished the poem.

The poem, as it is available, heard once, or in a book always at hand.

The audience, the individual reader or listener, with all his life, and whatever capacity he has to summon up his life appropriately to receive more life. At this point, I should like to use another word: "audience" or "reader" or "listener" seems inadequate. I suggest the old word "witness," which includes the act of seeing or knowing by personal experience, as well as the act of giving evidence. The overtone of responsibility in this word is not present in the others; and the tension of the law makes a climate here which is that climate of excitement and revelation giving air to the work of art, announcing with the poem that we are about to change, that work is being done on the self.

These three terms of relationship - poet, poem, and witness - are none of them static. We are changing, living beings, experiencing the inner change of poetry.

from Muriel Rukeyser, The Life of Poetry, pp. 173-75.

the truth of fact and the truth of art (4)

Exchange is creation; and the human energy involved is consciousness, the capacity to produce change from the existing conditions.

Into the present is flung naked life. Life is flung into the present language. The new forms emerge, with their intensive properties, or potentials - their words and images; and their extensive properties, existing in time: sound, forms, subjects, content, and that last includes all the relations between the words and images of the poem.

When the poem arrives with the impact of crucial experience, when it becomes one of the turnings which we living may at any moment approach and enter, then we become more of our age and more primitive. Not primitive as the aesthetes have used the term, but complicated, fresh, full of dark meaning, insisting on discovery, as the experience of a woman giving birth to a child is primitive.

I cannot say what poetry is; I know that our sufferings and our concentrated joy, our states of plunging far and dark and turning to come back to the world - so that the moment of intense turning seems still and universal - are all here, in a music like the music of our time, like the hero and like the anonymous forgotten; and there is exchange here in which our lives are met, and created.

from Muriel Rukeyser, The Life of Poetry, p. 172.

the truth of fact and the truth of art (3)

The one difference between the artist and the audience is that the artist has performed upon his experience that work of acknowledging, shaping, and offering which is the creative process. The audience, in receiving the work of art, acknowledges not only its form, but their own experience and the experience of the artist.

Both artist and audience create, and both do work on themselves in creating.

The audience, in fact, does work only on itself in creating; the artist makes himself and his picture, himself and his poem. The artwork is set to one side with a word, then, as we look at the common ground, the consciousnessa and imagination of artist and audience.

It may be said here in objection that the corruption of consciousness effects an impoversishment upon the artwork, and that there is good art and bad art. Of course there is an effect, a direct effect, for better or for worse. But I cannot acknowledge the way of thought that has given us so many double definitions of "good art" and "bad art".

A work of art is one through which the consciousness of the artist is able to give its emotions to anyone who is prepared to receive them. There is no such thing as bad art.

from Muriel Rukeyser, The Life of Poetry, p. 50.

the truth of fact and the truth of art (2)

. . . And what moves me and gives meaning to life is this. Muriel Rukeyser wrote it in 1949, within the context of her reflections about the resistances to art, to poetry, and their sources, but it remains as perceptive as ever. Life-giving, the truth of art.

[Poetry] is art: it imagines and makes, and gives you the imaginings. Because you have imagined love, you have not loved; merely because you have imagined brotherhood, you have not made brotherhood. You may feel as though you had, but you have not. You are going to have to use that imagining as you best can, by building it into yourself, or you will be left with nothing but illusion.

Art is action, but it does not cause action: rather, it prepares us for thought.

Art is intellectual, but it does not cause thought: it prepares us for thought.

Art is not a world, but a knowing of the world. Art prepares us.

Art is practiced by the artist and the audience. It is not a means to an end, unless that end is the total imaginative experience.

That experience will have meaning. It will apply to your life; and it is more than likely to lead you to thought or action, that is, you are likely to go further into the world, further into yourself, toward future experience.

Art and nature are imitations, not of each other, but of the same third thing - both images of the real, the spectral and vivid reality that employs all means. If we fear it in art, we fear it in nature, and our fear brings it on ourselves in the most unanswerable ways.

The implications for society and for the individual are far reaching.

People want this speech, this immediacy. They need it. The fear of poetry is a complicated and civilized repression of that need. We wish to be told, in the most memorable way, what we have been meaning all along.

This is a ritual moment, a moment of proof.

We need all our implements, and there is strength in these moments.

All the equipment of tradition and invention offers us access to this door, and they work against the totalitarian hardening of modern life as it expresses itself in the state. There is an entire life for us to choose: there is no poetic science, but there are pillars, there are clues. . . .

[The usable truth]: the apprehension of the absolute condition of present things as they strike the eye of the man who fears them not, though they do the worst to him. . .

That pride is deep in our meaning, and in our truth.

But what use is here? What is the use of truth? Is not truth the end? Or has it no human use, does it lead to nothing?

The use of truth is its communication.

from Muriel Rukeyser, The Life of Poetry [1949] (Ashfield, Mass.: Paris Press, 1996), pp. 25-27.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

the truth of fact and the truth of art (1)

Nostalgia, a yearning to return home (nostos) and the simultaneous realisation of its impossibility (thus the algia, pain), seems to be the order of the day - a symptom of the time of crisis we are living, for many; for me, just simply part and parcel of human experience and its anguished relationship with time. Nostalgia has always been ubiquitious in art and integral to our aesthetic experience: I find it thus difficult to understand why so many people feel so discomforted by it.

This weekend I witnessed a most interesting discussion among professional historians around the topic, which once again set me thinking. It would be almost impossible to summarise here the main arguments exchanged; I took, however, particular note of the contention that the past is always, to a great extent, irrecoverable and that nostalgia builds an imaginative bridge between past and present, not by actually returning home but by creating a new experience that irrevocably alters past events. Hence what is called "historical experience" is not that different from fiction, in that both are the products of a narrative. Stories, in sum...

My literary self, momentarily delighted at what seemed the confession of a weakness, dared suggest that the line separating a historian from a fiction writer is therefore rather blurred or perhaps even non-existent. After an awkard silence, someone replied that the line clearly exists to the extent that the historian must always be committed to an idea of objective (?) "truthfulness", whereas the fiction writer isn't. I was thus reminded, once again, that we move in utterly distinct universes of meaning and deal with very different concepts of truth. The majority of the historians present seemed to be unwilling to admit that they are not only writers but also readers, and that the encounter with the past is never direct and static but always mediated by dense layers of meanings and codes of all sorts.

Nothing new, of course. Yet, it is always good to be reminded of the reasons why you have opted out of certain academic paths and debates (whose importance I nevertheless acknowledge and respect), lest you forget the essentials of what really moves you and gives meaning to life.

Friday, July 16, 2010

among the parish beadles

The more mechanical people to whom life is a shrewd speculation depending on a careful calculation of ways and means, always know where they are going, and go there. They start with the ideal desire of being the parish beadle, and in whatever sphere they are placed they succeed in being the parish beadle and no more. A man whose desire is to be something separate from himself, to be a member of Parliament, or a successful grocer, or a prominent solicitor, or a judge, or something equally tedious, invariably succeeds in being what he wants to be. That is his punishment. Those who want a mask have to wear it.

But with the dynamic forces of life, and those in whom those dynamic forces become incarnate, it is different. People whose desire is solely for self-realisation never know where they are going. They can't know. In one sense of the word it is of course necessary, as the Greek oracle said, to know oneself: that is the first achievement of knowledge. But to recognise that the soul of a man is unknowable, is the ultimate achievement of wisdom. The final mystery is oneself. When one has weighed the sun in the balance, and measured the steps of the moon, and mapped out the seven heavens star by star, there still remains oneself. Who can calculate the orbit of his own soul?

from Oscar Wilde, 'De Profundis'.


Another semester is over, another painfully long, unending season among parish beadles. No ideas, no vision, everything a means to an end, everything subordinated to the shallowest utilitarianism. The world we live in is theirs, no doubt, more and more. A world of Darwinian strife with an interesting twist: the survival of the dullest, not the fittest. Parish beadles.

What passes for education requires you to become as narrow-minded and paroquial as possible. As early as possible. Choose a parish, a specialism immediately recognisable and sanctioned by the other parish beadles, and stick to it for the rest of your life, reproducing the same clichés,
the same authors, the same texts, ad nauseam. After all, sameness is all that matters, isn't it? Just play the game: lick the right asses and, above all, don't make waves nor dare have ideas of your own. To have ideas is the worst possible idea you can have in this world.

Never let anyone who can give you a job think that you are independent-minded and (therefore) capricious and whimsical because you follow your intuition and only write about things to which you are emotionally (tss!) attached. Rule out all intuition and feeling - they have no place in this world, and will only belittle you further in the eyes of the parish beadles. They won't miss the chance to chastise you, sooner than later.

You should become a sort of walking self-help book: be positive, don't criticise, don't condemn, don't complain. The parish beadle in his grey suit and flat hair perfectly parted in the middle is the highest ideal you can aspire to.

And don't forget: the less you try to know yourself, the better you will sleep at night. Dreamless.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010


I's been quite a while, but it returns to memory every so often, at those iffy moments when you are almost tempted to loosen the grip on it all, yielding to small but painful defeats, uncertainties, indifferences, injustices.

And yet I've lived, I live, you've lived - we shall live.

You've Lived

All through the play, Hamlet's
Looking for some hold in the world.
All through it, he's searching for something in life
To bear the weight of his being

And neither his father's murder,
The adultery of his mother
Nor Ophelia's love --
Things shattering enough
One would have thought --
Is sufficient to root him
In the rank, unweeded garden
Which was what he called life.
He was here without an anchor
In a fruitless sea of being.
And he never evolved an interest
(As we say) 'to keep him going' --
He, with his wayward life; he, the lost one.

So take comfort --
Even if you only grow onions,
Breed rabbits or put ships in bottles,
If that grips you, you are one of the saved,
The light shines on you, you can fear death,
Go in dread of the end.
That is to say, you've lived.

Gwyn Thomas

Sunday, July 4, 2010

taking stock (2)

If a man has any genuine talent he should be ready to make almost any sacrifice
in order to cultivate it to the full.

G. H. Hardy, A Mathematician's Apology.

A while ago I confessed here my deep admiration - an admiration verging on envy - for those who, having a great, genuine talent for something, are willing to make every sacrifice for creative freedom. A recent conversation with a friend has brought me back to the issue and to a book that is one of the best descriptions of what it is like to be a creative artist single-mindedly devoted to the pursuit of a vision of beauty: G. H. Hardy's A Mathematician's Apology, a book that yours truly translated into Portuguese a few years ago. Here goes one of the most significant passages in this respect:

A man who sets out to justify his existence and his activities has to distinguish two different questions. The first is whether the work which he does is worth doing; and the second is why he does it, whatever its value may be. The first question is often very difficult, and the answer very discouraging, but most people will find the second easy enough even then. Their answers, if they are honest, will usually take one or other of two forms; and the second form is a merely a humbler variation of the first, which is the only answer we need consider seriously.

(1) ‘I do what I do because it is the one and only thing that I can do at all well. I am a lawyer, or a stockbroker, or a professional cricketer, because I have some real talent for that particular job. I am a lawyer because I have a fluent tongue, and am interested in legal subtleties; I am a stockbroker because my judgment of the markets is quick and sound; I am a professional cricketer because I can bat unusually well. I agree that it might be better to be a poet or a mathematician, but unfortunately I have no talent for such pursuits.’
I am not suggesting that this is a defence which can be made by most people, since most people can do nothing at all well. But it is impregnable when it can be made without absurdity, as it can by a substantial minority: perhaps five or even ten percent of men
can do something rather well. It is a tiny minority who can do something really well, and the number of men who can do two things well is negligible. If a man has any genuine talent he should be ready to make almost any sacrifice in order to cultivate
it to the full.

This view was endorsed by Dr Johnson

When I told him that I had been to see [his namesake] Johnson ride upon three horses, he said ‘Such a man, sir, should be encouraged, for his performances show the extent of the human powers ...’—

and similarly he would have applauded mountain climbers, channel swimmers, and blindfold chess-players. For my own part, I am entirely in sympathy with all such attempts at remarkable achievement. I feel some sympathy even with conjurors and ventriloquists and when Alekhine and Bradman set out to beat records, I am quite bitterly disappointed if they fail. And here both Dr Johnson and I find ourselves in agreement with the
public. As W. J. Turner has said so truly, it is only the ‘highbrows’ (in the unpleasant sense) who do not admire the ‘real swells’.

We have of course to take account of the differences in value between different activities. I would rather be a novelist or a painter than a statesman of similar rank; and there are many roads to fame which most of us would reject as actively pernicious. Yet it is seldom that such differences of value will turn the scale in a man’s choice of a career, which will almost always be dictated by the limitations of his natural abilities. Poetry is more valuable than cricket, but Bradman would be a fool if he sacrificed his cricket in order to write second-rate minor poetry (and I suppose that it is unlikely that he could do better). If the cricket were a little less supreme, and the poetry better, then the choice might be more difficult: I do not know whether I would rather have been Victor Trumper or Rupert Brooke. It is fortunate that such dilemmas are so seldom.

I may add that they are particularly unlikely to present themselves to a mathematician. It is usual to exaggerate rather grossly the differences between the mental processes of mathematicians and other people, but it is undeniable that a gift for mathematics is one of the most specialized talents, and that mathematicians as a class are not particularly distinguished for general ability or versatility. If a man is in any sense a real mathematician, then it is a hundred to one that his mathematics will be far better than anything else he can do, and that he would be silly if he surrendered any decent opportunity of exercising his one talent in order to do undistinguished work in other fields. Such a sacrifice could be justified only by economic necessity or age.

G. H. Hardy, A Mathematician's Apology, pp. 4-5. (from the first electronic version, available here)