The Sultan’s Seal blog has an interesting essay discussing the life and work of the Iraqi poet Sargon Boulos, whose poems I have loved (whenever I can get my hands on a translation). It also includes a beautiful (and, I suppose, topical) translation of the poem “The Refugee Tells“. I find this essay particularly interesting, because it extols the Boulos for being “an uncommitted wanderer”, “free[ing] text of its historical onus… [to push] it back into the broadest possible human context.” As always, I wonder whether this is strictly possible – whether one can liberate oneself from the essential situatedness of human beings (including political situatedness), and find refuge in an abstract “human context.”
Last year, while reading Danilo Kis’ book of short stories, A Tomb for Boris Davidovich, I was particularly struck by an observation made by Joseph Brodsky in his Introduction. After observing that European totalitarianism was a theme that was treated often in the 20th century, Brodsky went on to write:
“By virtue of his place and time alone, Danilo Kis is able to avoid the faults of urgency which considerably marred the works of his listed and unlisted predecessors [Koestler, Orwell etc]. Unlike them, he can afford to treat tragedy as a genre, and his art is more devastating than statistics… with his emphasis on imagery and detail, combined with ironic detachment, Danilo Kis’s obviously poetic prose puts his horrid subject matter into the most adequate perspective by alerting the reader to the prose’s own intelligence. Thus, the reader’s ethical evaluation of the phenomena described ceases to be merely a matter of his distraught sentiment and comes out as a judgment made by his profoundly offended supreme human faculties. It is not that the thought is felt but, rather, that the feeling is thought.”
That critical distance allows the aestheticisation of tragedy in a way that makes the work of art all the more impactful, is not new. I’ve read it before, in analyses of the scene from the Aeneid, where Aeneas sees his ancestors’ statues in Carthage, and of course, in Eliot (“poetry is an escape from emotion).
Recently, I have been re-reading Edward Said’s beautifully rich “Culture and Imperialism“, and I came across this quotation from R.P. Blackmur, on Yeats’ poetry:
“His direct association with Parnell and O’Leary, with the Abbey Theatre, with the Easter Uprising, bring to his poetry what R.P. Blackmur, borrowing from Jung, calls ‘the terrible ambiguity of an immediate experience.’ (Blackmur, Eleven Essays in the European Novel, p. 3).”
I haven’t read Blackmur’s book (it’s unavailable in India), so I don’t know the context in which Blackmur used this phrase, and I’m not entirely sure what Said means by it. I looked up what Jung seemed to mean by it; he uses the phrase in a lecture at Yale, saying that “if, therefore… a person should be convinced of the exclusively sexual origin of his neuroses, I would not disturb him of his opinion, because such a conviction… particularly if it is deeply rooted… is an excellent defence against the onslaught of the terrible ambiguity of an immediate experience.” This interpretive article opposes the terrible ambiguity with “the reassurance of logical systems.” The point, I suppose, is that distance allows you the luxury of fitting the experience in a systemic context of prior and subsequent causes, temporal and logical sequences, and allows you to explain it by imposing symmetry and order upon it.
Immediately after, Said goes on to write:
“Yeats’ work of the early 1920s has an uncanny resemblance to the engagement and ambiguities of Darwish’s Palestinian poetry half a century later, in its renderings of violence, of the overwhelming suddenness and surprises of historical events, of politics and poetry as opposed to violence and guns (‘The Rose and the Dictionry’), of the search for respites after the last border has been crossed, the last sky flown in.”
I suppose that, in applying Jung’s words to the poetry of Yeats and Darwish, Blackmur and Said are trying to say that immediacy of experience can liberate you from the explanatory structures that distance will impose. Art that expresses – or embodies – the ambiguity of an immediate experience is not inferior with art that sublimates it with the benefit of distance.
There will be two very different kinds of art, of course. But perhaps the point is that contra Brodsky, we need the “faults of urgency” as much as we need the aestheticisation of distance, and neither of the two are inferior to each other.
Coincidentally, soon after finishing Colm Toibin’s The South, I came across the following lines in Edward Said’s Culture & Imperialism, analysing the novels of Flaubert and Conrad:
“Unlike Robinson Crusoe on his island, these modern versions of the imperialist who attempts self-redemption are doomed ironically to suffer interruption and distraction, as what they had tried to exclude from their island worlds penetrates anyway. The covert influence of imperial control in Flaubert’s imagery of solitary imperiousness is striking when juxtaposed with Conrad’s overt representations.
Within the codes of European fiction, these interruptions of an imperial project are realistic reminders that no one can in fact withdraw from the world into a private version of reality.”
The constant impingement of the world into increasingly desperate, and increasingly doomed, attempts to create a private reality is, I feel, one of the central concerns in Toibin’s The South.
“Cold grey light of the morning in Enniscorthy, the Slaney running softly towards Wexford and the sea, the Dublin train moving past the river and the Ringwood and Davis’ Mills and then under the tunnel at the Model School to cross the bridge and arrive at the station where she was waiting.”
Kafka wrote that “a book must be the axe for the frozen sea within us.” But where Kafka thought of literature as being about breaking through surfaces, to “stab and wound“, Colm Toibin’s The South shows us that a feather-light touch, a “breath on glass” (to use his own words) can be as potent a tool as an axe. Toibin uses the phrase “breath on glass” to describe love – “a small pattern of grief and happiness” in a life, fragile and impermanent, leaving no trace but a memory. I think the same can be said about Toibin’s first work of fiction, The South, a story about exile, love, loss and painting, in mid-century Ireland and Spain. By the end of the book, its specific events had already begun to recede from memory, leaving behind a residue of haunting images, words, and colours. Breath on glass.
The South is the story of Katherine, who leaves her farmstead and her unhappy marriage in Enniscorthy, Ireland, and travels to Barcelona to become a painter. After weeks of aimless wandering, in which she struggles with the past (“grey and empty like the narrow streets of San Sebastian at four in the afternoon“) and her own actions in abandoning her husband and son (“she had forgotten about them now, they came in dreams sometimes and melted into other dreams“), she eventually meets another painter, Miguel, struggling with his own memories of the Spanish Civil War, hastily falls in love (“she had no context in which to place him), and begins her painting lessons. Soon after, they meet Michael Graves, another Irishman seeking sanctuary from his country in Barcelona, who attaches himself to them. Ultimately, Miguel and Katherine seek their solitude in a small mountain village, withdrawing into themselves – before Miguel’s own past and the lingering repression of Franco’s regime collide with devastating consequences.
The South represents, in fiction, something that has been a concern of Toibin’s in his non-fiction, such as Love in a Dark Time: the temptation – and the danger – of reducing complex individuals, and individual works, to a single defining feature. In Love in a Dark Time, it is sexuality; in The South, it is politics, reflected most clearly in the reiteration of an ancient debate, this time between Miguel and Rogent, their painting teacher:
“Rogent spoke about colour and form, he talked about beauty, he spoke about using paint almost for its own sake. Miguel believed that paintings should state something, should tell the truth, should be assertive. Miguel admired Goya for his Third of May; Ramon admired Goya for his court portraits as well. Their views were so clear-cut and far apart that Katherine had no difficulty understanding them. Nor had she any difficulty siding with Ramon Rogent. She felt this sharply as she moved about the gallery.”
But while it is one thing to avoid reduction, it is quite another to jettison politics as easily as slipping out of an old pair of clothes. This is something that Toibin was aware of. Both Katherine and Miguel come from deeply politicised societies, and both have borne the brunt of a particularly violent brand of politics. But while Katherine consciously pushes that away from her, Miguel is unable to avoid being defined, even as he struggles against it.
“He was puzzled by this new context he had for me, as though I was some sort of victim of history. Not a victim, perhaps, but a participant. I have failed to explain to him that I am not. I am on my own here without all that weight of history.”
And in many ways, The South is the story of Katherine trying – and failing – to liberate herself from the weight of history, whether political or personal. Towards the end of the novel, when she is back in Ireland, and painting its landscapes with their “thundery blue light“, she realises that:
“This was the land the English had taken over and tilled. They had cut down the trees, they had given new names to each thing, as though they were the first to live there. In the beginning she had been trying to paint the land as though it had no history, only colours and contours. Had the light changed as the owners changed? How could it matter? At dawn and dusk she walked along by the river. In the morning there was a mist along the Slaney, palpable, grey, lingering. In the evening at four when the light faded, an intense calm descended on the river, a dark blue stillness as though glass were moving from Wicklow to the sea, even the sounds were then muted… She began to work; she started to paint as though she was trying to catch the landscape rolling backwards into history, as though horizon was a time as well as a place. Dusk on Slaney. Over and over. Dusk on Slaney and the sense of all dusks that have come and gone in one spot in one country, the time it was painted to stand for all time, with all time’s ambiguities.”
So much for the political. Milan Kundera’s line – “the struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting” – is often taken to be speaking about struggles over political memory, and attempts to hold on to that memory in the face of overwhelming odds. But as Jonas Lichtman argues in an essay called To Forget History, there is another way of understanding Kundera’s words:
“The first time I read The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, I thought it was a political book. I read it as a novel dedicated to the idea that “the struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting,” as one character states. But what hadn’t occurred to me was that Mirek, the character who utters that proclamation, in fact spends most of his time not fighting the State, but trying to retrieve love letters from a former lover of whom he is ashamed. The former lover is a hardline communist, which embarrasses Mirek — but not as much as her physical ugliness. His political repulsion is a cover for aesthetic disgust. As Kundera wrote in The Art of the Novel, “Before it becomes a political issue, the will to forget is an existential one: man has always harbored the desire to rewrite his own biography, to change the past, to wipe out tracks, both his own and others’.” While the struggle of man against power is still the struggle of memory against forgetting, this struggle is not nearly as compelling, to Kundera, as man’s struggle to reshape his own past into a livable present… If the novel’s personal elements are more compelling to Kundera, critics tend to focus on the political. Kundera’s line about the struggle of man against power is almost always read as referring to the State, rather than, for example, as a statement about man’s struggle against the passage of time.”
Even unconsciosly, time past will impinge itself through the cracks of memory. As Katherine tells herself in the aftermath of personal tragedy, “reality rests in being reminded.” This is subtly reflected throughout the book, in how Katherine sees art and the world through the lens of decay: “All morning the sense of decay impinged as though it were a colour“; “Down the ridge and along the valley basin for miles were the yellows, browns, golds of decay.” Even breath on glass has its own paradoxical permanence.
Earlier in the book, Toibin engages in a neat play with words, when he has Rogent teach Katherine that in painting, “light was a form of weight.” It is intuitive, of course, to read “light” in the sense of “light and shadow”; but “light” might also simply mean lightness of touch, which only sharpens the antinomy (the reference to Kundera here is unmistakable). Rogent’s lesson resonates throughout the book. Toibin writes in lightness, deft words and phrases stating the minimum, sketching the outlines of images that the imagination must fill in: “each colour and hint of colour glittered as it caught the sun“; “governing everything was the hard light of Majorca, harder than anything in Catalonia, the soul taken out of every colour and just like its dead, hard body left glinting like granite.”
Toibin does not use the axe that Kafka is so enamoured of. But his words, and his hints of words, which glitter as they catch the imagination, warm the frozen sea without the need to break through it. Mahmoud Darwish wrote about the indelibility of the butterfly’s footprints. Toibin’s work has the indelibility of breath upon glass.
“He has done… quite wonderful things with words.” – Richard Aldington
“[He] seems to me a desperate man who feels that in order to breathe he must break the windows. At moments, when when the window is broken, he is magnificent. But what a waste of energy!” – Virginia Woolf
After recently reading A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (and temporarily abandoning it midway), I feel the force of both statements!
“He saw in his eyes the fireflies of uncertainty…”: Gabriel Garcia Marquez, ‘Of Love and Other Demons’
“The more he thought about her, the stronger grew his desire to think. He recited aloud the love sonnets of Garcilaso, torn by the suspicion that every verse contained an enigmatic portent that had something to do with his life. He could not sleep. At dawn he was slumped over the desk, his forehead pressing against the book he had not read.”
At the risk of sounding sacrilegious, I’ve never really been enamoured of Gabriel Garcia Marquez. I found One Hundred Years of Solitude to be an enjoyable, one-time read, and Love in the Time of Cholera to be over-wrought (and the last section, positively disconcerting). Last week, I took up Of Love and Other Demons. Perhaps it’s a case of third time lucky: this has turned out to be my favourite Marquez by some distance, and a book I could see myself returning to, many times.
In a seaport in colonial New Granada, Sierva Maria, the Marquis’ twelve-year old daughter, is bitten by a rabid dog. After a string of failed medications, she is at last interred in the local convent of Santa Clara, in readiness for an exorcism. But the fates intervene when Cayetano Delaura, the Bishop’s librarian-priest, sent to cleanse her soul of the devil, ends up falling to that most dangerous of all demons – love. Sierva Maria, a child unloved by both parents of a failed marriage, having been brought up entirely in the slave quarters, is a stranger to colonial society and to human desire. Delaura, having studied all his years so as to spend the rest of his years in a library, is equally so. Their love must overcome not only the cloying dictates of the Catholic Church, but also their own corroded selves.
Like other Marquez works, Of Love and Other Demons is filled with an almost unbearably keen sense of place, mixing touch, scent, vision and hearing into a smorgasbord of the sensory perception. In the vast hall of the convent, the “brilliance of the sea [comes] clamouring in“, and the “uproar of the cliffs” sounds close. The cold, clear winters of Toledo are contrasted with “the hallucinatory twilights, the nightmarish birds, the exquisite putrefactions of the mangrove swamps“. Sierva Maria’s hair “gush[es] like bubbles.” And so on. While reading Marquez, I’ve often felt that this bouquet of perceptions becomes so rich and dense that it is almost cloying – and somewhere, the story I’m reading is overwhelmed by pure description. In Of Love and Other Demons, though, that never happens. Perhaps part of the reason for that is that this is also the most political of the three Marquez novels that I’ve read. In One Hundred Years of Solitude, mythic history is the dominant theme; in Love in the Time of Cholera, it is an exploration of the human heart; but in Of Love and Other Demons, for me, the frontal theme was a biting, bitter critique of the Church. Sierva Maria internment in the convent prison, her treatment by the religious authorities, her forbidden love affair with Delaura, Delaura’s own stigmatisation for it, and the lovers’ eventual fate, are all inextricably bound up with the Church, its strictures, and its will to control the subterranean realm of human yearning.
This theme is omnipresent throughout the novel, lending it a kind of structural coherence that allowed me to enjoy it more than I did One Hundred Years of Solitude or Love in the Time of Cholera (many will say, of course, that structural un-coherence is exactly the point of those two novels; fair enough). Delaura, for instance, has been battling the Church before – in the question of forbidden reading. As chief librarian, he has “pontifical permission to explore the abysses of written works gone astray“, but always longs to discover a certain book which he had been found reading in his student-youth by an over-zealous Rector. When the Rector asked him how it ended, he said he didn’t know – yet.
“The Rector, with a relieved smile, locked the volume away.
“You will never know,” he said. “It is a forbidden book.”
Twenty-four years later, in the gloom of the diocesan library, he realized he had read every book that had passed through his hands, authorised or not, except that one.”
In the house of Abrenuncio, a heretical doctor, he finds it again:
“Not saying a word, the physician placed before him a volume that he recognised as soon as he saw it. It was an old Sevillan edition of The Four Books of Amadis of Gaul. Delaura trembled as he examined it, realizing he was on the verge of becoming unredeemable. At last he dared to say, ‘Do you know this is a forbidden book?’
‘Like the best novels of our time.’”
In many ways, it is fitting that the book in question is Amadis of Gaul, that great medieval fantasy epic, an entire alternative universe with its own set of codes, and where Christianity plays a negligible role. In fact, in Don Quixote, Amadis is one of the three books that the destroyers of Don Quixote’s vast library think worth preserving, despite its undeniable hold on Cervantes’ mad knight. Abrenuncio’s pithy observation is truer than perhaps even he knows. The Church’s control extends not only to the human yearning for love, but the yearning for imagination as well.
I will end with a complaint. There are two African characters of any significance in the novel: Dominga de Adviento, the Marquis’ slave who brings up Sierva Maria, and Judas Iscariote, male slave who is also the Marquis’ wife’s paramour. Both are disappointingly caricatured. Dominga de Adviento sings Yoruban songs, and Judas has copious amounts of sex, but beyond that, they may as well not exist. In contrast to the other characters, who are brilliantly drawn, with their histories, dreams, desires and hearbreaks, the two Africans are stage-props, little more than plot-devices, railway signals necessary for nudging the story along its destined track. It is a bigger question, though: slavery was economically and culturally absolutely central to colonial Latin America, especially its port-towns. In a book I read recently, called Empire of Necessity, the historian Greg Grandin describes the mind-boggling magnitude of the slave trade, and the role played by enslaved and emancipated Africans in daily life. For all that, when one reads Marquez, or Llosa, or Borges – writers who, by their own admission, are writing about their continent, and are writing with a keen sense of history, it seems that the Africans have just been… written out. They exist, if at all, on the margins, footnotes to the main story, and even where a black character plays a substantial part (such as Llosa’s The War at the End of the World), it still feels… secondary.
I wonder why.
‘I’ve always understood everything except death,’ she said. – Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Of Love and Other Demons (117)
‘Death – when I received it, when I gave it – is for me the only mystery. All the rest is nothing but rituals, habits, and dubious bonding.’ – Kamel Daoud, The Meursault Investigation (115)