Monthly Archives: February 2013

Two Views on the Nature of Language: Nietzsche and Auden

That for which we find words is already dead in our hearts,” says Nietzsche. “There is a kind of contempt in the act of speaking.” Language, then, is a substitute for the inexpressibly rich and the unfathomably deep. It is a perpetual reaching-forth towards something (beauty? love? truth?) that recedes even as we attempt to trap it in the web of our words. It is translation, and something is always lost when we translate. It is a faded window onto the world, into our hearts. And it is associated with a kind of suffering that is born out of a sense of incompleteness, a sense that no matter how hard we try, no matter how beautifully and evocatively we use the language that we have, the inexpressible (truth or beauty, the Grecian urn would say they are one) remains ever elusive, beyond our grasp; something that we have access to through sensation, feeling and imagination, but which disappear the moment we try to know it, or even worse, to communicate it to others through the only medium we have – our language.  

Although Nietzsche’s own position is more subtle and complex, he does express this thought in a series of dazzling aphorisms. In S. 296 of Beyond Good and Evil:

What then do we write and paint, we mandarins with Chinese brush, we immortalisers of things which LEND themselves to writing, what are we alone capable of painting? Alas, only that which is just about to fade and begins to lose its odour! Alas, only exhausted and departing storms and belated yellow sentiments! Alas, only birds strayed and fatigued by flight, which now let themselves be captured with the hand—with OUR hand! We immortalize what cannot live and fly much longer, things only which are exhausted and mellow!”  

A slightly different sentiment from S. 423, The Dawn of Day:

Alas! the silence deepens, and once again my heart swells within me: it is startled by a fresh truth—it, too, is dumb; it likewise sneers when the mouth calls out something to this beauty; it also enjoys the sweet malice of its silence. I come to hate speaking; yea, even thinking. Behind every word I utter do I not hear the laughter of error, imagination, and insanity? Must I not laugh at my pity and mock my own mockery? Oh sea, oh evening, ye are bad teachers! Ye teach man how to cease to be a man. Is he to give himself up to you? Shall he become as you now are, pale, brilliant, dumb, immense, reposing calmly upon himself?—exalted above himself?”

And perhaps most eloquently, in Thus Spake Zarathustra (“The Convalescent”): 

“How charming it is that there are words and tones; are not words and tones rainbows and seeming bridges ‘twixt the eternally separated? To each soul belongeth another world; to each soul is every other soul a back-world. Among the most alike doth semblance deceive most delightfully: for the smallest gap is most difficult to bridge over. For me—how could there be an outside-of-me? There is no outside! But this we forget on hearing tones; how delightful it is that we forget!”

I find the imagery of rainbow-bridges particularly poignant. Who hasn’t read about the futile, yearning chase for the pot of fool’s gold at the end of the rainbow, the continuous chase towards the ever-receding goal? Is that, then, the character of language? A continuing yet useless attempt to build a bridge between each individual’s eternally isolated world, a gloss upon our solitude, an anodyne of forgetfulness? Something always incomplete, partial… secondary?

Auden has a different view, one that he expresses in Making, Knowing and Judging, his inaugural lecture as the Oxford Professor of Poetry. At the beginning, he quotes Valery on poetry:

“The power of verse [writes Valery] is derived from an indefinable harmony between what it says and what it is. Indefinable is essential to the definition. The harmony ought not to be definable; when it can be defined it is imitative harmony and that is not good. The impossibility of defining the relation, together with the impossibility of denying it, constitutes the essence of the poetic line.”

Auden cites this to support his point that what distinguishes poetry from prose is that in poetry it matters what particular word is associated with an idea, whereas in prose, it is a question of arbitrary convention. Leaving that aside, if we read “what it says” to refer to form and language, and “what it is” to the unspoken, unexpressed (because inexpressible) idea that gives rise to it (and I understand that this is probably not how Auden or Valery understand the statement), then we have a position where language (in this case, through poetry) isn’t an exercise of translation at all, or an attempt to capture the essence of the inexpressible in a second-best manner.

This sounds rather obscure, and I’m not sure about what it really means, myself. But here’s Auden, towards the end of his lecture, providing his own “theory” of poetry. Drawing from Coleridge’s Biographia Literaria, he says that there are two kinds of imagination: primary and secondary. The primary imagination is concerned with “sacred beings and sacred events”, and the secondary with the profane. What is a sacred being? It is what I have been so far referring to as the inexpressible. It is one that cannot be anticipated, but must be encountered, and on encountering it, the primary imagination has no option but to respond. “The impression made upon the imagination,” says Auden, “By any sacred being is of an overwhelming but undefinable importance-an unchangeable quality, an Identity…”

This sounds obscure as well, but it is greatly clarified by this quotation from Charles Williams:

“One is aware that a phenomenon, being wholly itself, is laden with universal meaning. A hand lighting a cigarette is the explanation of everything; a foot stepping from the train is the rock of all existence…. Two light dancing steps by a girl appear to be what all the Schoolmen were trying to express . . . but two quiet steps by an old man seem like the very speech of hell. Or the other way round.”

And Auden himself:

“The response of the imagination to such a presence or significance is a passion of awe. This awe may vary greatly in intensity and range in tone from joyous wonder to panic dread. A sacred being may be attractive or repuIsive – a swan or an octopus – beautiful or ugly – a toothless hag or a fair young child – good or eviI- a Beatrice or a Belle Dame Sans Merci – historical fact or fiction – a person met on the road or an image encountered in a story or a dream – it may be noble or something unmentionable in a drawing room, it may be anything it likes on condition, but this condition is absolute, that it arouse awe. The realm of the Primary Imagination is without freedom, sense of time or humor. Whatever determines this response or lack of response lies below consciousness and is of concern to psychology, not art. Some sacred beings seem to be sacred to all imaginations at all times. The Moon, for example, Fire, Snakes and those four important beings which can only be defined in terms of nonbeing: Darkness, Silence, Nothing, Death… One cannot be taught to recognize a sacred being, one has to be converted.”

And that, especially the last line, makes perfect sense, doesn’t it? Which of us hasn’t looked upon a full moon sailing through the cloud-curtain, and responded in an intensely powerful, yet utterly indefinable way? And if someone asks us why we respond in that way, is it possible to make any response but “Can’t you see it?” If someone asks me what I find so profoundly moving about the opening of Dies Irae in Mozart’s Requiem, any answer I make based on musical theory, on harmony or balance, will seem forced, constrained and inadequate – it is, as Auden says, a question of being converted, not taught.

Auden contrasts the primary imagination with the secondary imagination.

“The Secondary Imagination is of another character and at another mental level. It is active not passive, and its categories are not the sacred and the profane, but the beautiful and ugly… Beauty and ugliness pertain to Form not to Being… the Secondary Imagination has, one might say, a bourgeois nature. It approves of regularity, of spatial symmetry and temporal repetition, of law and order: it disapproves of loose ends, irrelevance and mess.”

One of the important characteristics of the secondary imagination is that “is social and craves agreement with other minds. If I think a form beautiful and you think it ugly, we cannot both help agreeing that one of us must be wrong, whereas if I think something is sacred and you think it is profane, neither of us will dream of arguing the matter.”

And then, most crucially:

“The impulse to create a work of art is felt when, in certain persons, the passive awe provoked by sacred beings or events is transformed into a desire to express that awe in a rite of worship or homage, and to be fit homage, this rite must be beautiful.”


“The form of a rite must be beautiful, exhibiting, for example, balance, closure and aptness to that which it is the form of. It is over this last quality of aptness that most of our aesthetic quarrels arise, and must arise, whenever our sacred and profane worlds differ.”


“Thanks to the social nature of language, a poet can relate anyone sacred being or event to any other. The relation may be harmonious, an ironic contrast or a tragic contradiction like the great man, or the beloved? and death; he can relate them to every other concern of the mind, the demands of desire, reason and conscience, and he can bring them into contact and contrast with the profane. Again the consequences can be happy, ironic, tragic and, in relation to the profane, comic… But it is from the sacred encounters of his imagination that a poet’s impulse to write a poem arises. Thanks to the language, he need not name them directly unless he wishes; he can describe one in terms of another and translate those that are private or irrational or socially unacceptable into such as are acceptable to reason and society.”

And, in conclusion:

Whatever its actual content and overt interest, every poem is rooted in imaginative awe. Poetry can do a hundred and one things, delight, sadden, disturb, amuse, instruct – it may express every possible shade of emotion, and describe every conceivable kind of event, but there is only one thing that all poetry must do; it must praise all it can for being and for happening.”

I think the crucial point that Auden is making is that while poetry is “rooted” in imaginative awe – it is not – and language is not – an exercise in direct translation, an attempt to “recapture” imaginative awe, as it were. Imaginative awe a certain kind of response (of the primary imagination, but the terminology is not important) to a certain kind of being or event (the sacred); and through language and poetry (and other forms of art), we seek to evoke a different kind of response – a response of pleasure, perhaps, to form, symmetry, harmony, balance, rhythm – and all those elements which go into making up our conception of beauty, and a response that is not private but social.

To try and gather up these scattered remarks into some kind of conclusion: I suppose that we can either view language as the eternal, futile reaching-forth towards an inaccessible essence, doomed to perpetual failure; or we can view it as a mode of creation, creating and evoking a different kind of response from a deeply private, personal sense of awe. On this view, language isn’t partial or incomplete, always falling short of – shall we say – the ideal. It is simply a different manner of response. As Auden says, both kinds of imagination are necessary. The imaginative awe, on its own, will not and cannot give us the forms of beauty that are so integral to the aesthetic experience, because the imaginative awe doesn’t exist through those forms. And so, it is not the case, as Heine says, that “where words leave off, music begins“; and nor is it the case that “the only valuable thing in art is that which you cannot explain.”

Nothing of great import hinges upon the distinction, of course, but it might be interesting to think about it as we examine our relationship to that which is inexpressible, and our undying attempts to express it nonetheless.


Filed under Literary Studies/Criticism/Theory, Nietzsche, W.H. Auden

“A Man is a Cause”: Kanafani, Returning to Haifa

On April 21, 1948, as the forces of the Haganah and the Irgun launch a three-pronged assault on the city of Haifa, Said S. and his young wife Safiya, with thousands of other Palestinians, must flee to the boats. In the process, they are forced to leave behind their son, the five-month old Khaldun, a loss that naturally haunts them as they build a new life in exile, in Ramallah. Twenty years later, in 1967, when the borders are briefly opened, they make the journey back “home”, to find almost everything the same; yet what was once their house is now occupied by Polish Jews, sometime refugees from the holocaust; and who was once Khaldun is now Dov, brought up for the last twenty years by his adoptive Jewish parents, and now a serving member of the IDF. 

I hardly know how to begin reviewing Hanafani’s searingly beautiful novella, Returning to Haifa. To speak of literary style and technique (for he is a brilliant writer) with respect to a work as self-avowedly political as this seems absurd; and yet, it seems even more absurd to try and set down, in cold, analytical prose, the substantive themes of the novella, themes that have left their burning mark upon the paper, arising directly out of the flames and embers of bitter personal experience. For Ghassan Kanafani was forced into exile himself, in the 1948 War, when he was twelve years old. He went on to become a notable Palestinian writer and activist, until his assassination by a car bomb in 1972. How then can one, whose own experiences are to Kanafani’s as water is to wine, ever hope to capture anything remotely close to their true sense? Nonetheless, I shall try.

Returning to Haifa focuses on a few core human themes: deep loss frozen forever by memory; exile and the yearning to return, in both space and time, to what was once was, and forever imagined unchained; the clash of that vision with hopes for a new future; and the nature of personal identity – all these themes, inextricably intertwined with one another, are dealt with in the context of the Israel-Palestine conflict.

“When he reached the edge of Haifa, approaching by car along the Jerusalem road, Said S. had the sensation that something was binding his tongue, compelling him to keep silent, and he feIt grief well up inside of him. For one moment he was tempted to turn back, and without even looking at her he knew that his wife had begun to cry silently. Then suddenly came the sound of the sea, exactly the way it used to be. Oh no, the memory did not retnrn to him little by little. Instead, it rained down inside his head the way a stone wall collapses, the stones piling up, one upon another.”

This is how the story begins. Two things stand out in this passage, two themes that Kanafani returns to repeatedly. The first is the exile’s longing to resurrect a dead past “exactly the way it used to be“, to see things as though he had never been away and nothing had ever changed since he had. The second is how insensible things, like memory, have acquired the images of violence and conflict – indeed, with the choice of a crumbling stone wall, a particularised violence and conflict, specific to the time and place. Walls and gates play an integral role in Said S’s imagination. Indeed, he sums up the tragedy of his – and by extension, his community’s – existence through another (extremely powerful) image, as he talks to Safiya:

“You know, for twenty long years I always imagined that the Mandelbaum Gate would be opened some day, but I never, never imagined that it would be opened from the other side. It never entered my mind. So when they were the ones to open it, it seemed to me frightening and absurd and to a great degree humiliating. Maybe I’d be crazy if I told you that doors should always open from one side only, and that if they opened from the other side they must still be considered closed. But nevertheless, that’s the truth.”

And what we understand from this is that a part of the reason why Said S. and Safiya see – and indeed, want to see – everything the same as it ever was, is their conviction that their exile is temporary, and their return imminent. Twenty years after 1948, facts are now at war with this conviction; and in Kanfani’s story, there is a poignant tension between the two. Either the facts, as one perceives them, must give way, or the conviction must be abandoned. The tension is present in their refusal to acknowledge changes – for instance, in Said S.’s reference to King Faisal Street by its old name, because “for him, the street names had never changed” and in the three familiar cypress trees by a well-known road, that now have new branches; it is present in Said S.’s tormented feelings as they climb up the stairs to their old house, where he “didn’t give either of them the opportunity to see all the little things that would jolt and throw them off balance-the bell and the copper lock and the bullet holes in the wall and the electricity box and the fourth step broken in its center and the smooth carved balustrade which the palm slid over and the unyielding iron grillwork of the masatib and the first floor…” And it is present, most powerfully, in the climactic scene in the house when, while talking with Miriam, the Polish-Jewish woman who now lives in what was once their house, Said S. notices that the glass vase that once had seven peacock feathers, is now a wooden glass that has five.

“For a moment he wanted to get up and leave. Nothing mattered to him anymore. Whether Khaldun was alive or dead made no difference. How things reached that point he simply couldn’t say. He was filled with helpless, bitter anger and felt as if he were about to explode inside. He didn’t know how his gaze happened to fall upon the five peacock feathers stuck in the wooden vase in the middle of the room. He saw their rare, beautiful colors shifting in the puffs of wind coming from the open window. Pointing at the vase, he demanded gruffly: 

“There were seven feathers. What happened to the two missing feathers?”

The old woman looked where he was pointing, then looked at him again questioningly. He continued to hold his arm outstretched toward the vase, staring, demanding an answer. His entire universe hung in the balance, poised on the tip of her tongue. She rose from her chair and grasped the vase as though for the first time. Slowly she said:

“I don’t know where the two feathers you speak of went. I can’t remember. Maybe Dov played with them when he was a child and lost them:’


And with that, we are introduced into the climax of the story, the existence of Dov-Khaldun, that stretches the tension to breaking point. The scene is set at the very beginning, when Miriam says, almost inadvertently, and immediately realising the gravity of her mistake:

“When will he get here?”

“It’s time for him to return now, but he’s late. He never was on time getting home. He’s just like his father. He was … “

She broke off. Biting her lip, she looked at Said, who was trembling as if he’d been hit by an electric shock. “Like his father!” Then suddenly he asked himself, “What is fatherhood?” It was like throwing a window wide to an unexpected cyclone.

And here is where Kanafani begins to engage with issues of personal identity. Miriam’s simple binary definition of the problem, that can easily be resolved by Dov/Khaldun “choosing” his parents, now that he is of age, is rightly rejected by Said. Because, as Said realises:

What Khaldnn, Safiyya? What Khaldun? What flesh and blood are you talking about? You say this is a fair choice? They’ve taught him how to be for twenty years, day by day, hour by hour, with his food, his drink, his sleep. And you say, a fair choice! Truly Khaldun, or Dov, or the devil if you like, doesn’t know us! Do you want to know what I think? Let’s get out of here and return to the past. The matter is finished. They stole him.

And yet, things are not so simple. When Dov does enter the room and is informed of the situation, naturally, he denies any ties with his biological parents. This shocks Safiya, but not Said.

“I didn’t know that Miriam and Iphrat weren’t my parents until about three or four years ago. From the time I was small I was a Jew … I went to Jewish school, I studied Hebrew, I go to Temple, I eat kosher food … When they told me I wasn’t their own child, it didn’t change anything. Even when they told me later on-that my original parents were Arabs, it didn’t change anything. No, nothing changed, that’s certain. After all, in the final analysis, man is a cause.”

“Who said that?”

“Said what?

“Who said that man is a cause?”

“I don’t know. I don’t remember. Why do you ask?”

“Curiosity. Actually, just because that’s exactly what was going throngh my mind at this moment:’

“That man is a cause?”


“Then why did you come looking for me?”

“I don’t know. Maybe because I didn’t know it, or to be more certain about it. I don’t know.”

There is, of course, a contradiction here. If man is a cause, then what did Said mean, earlier, when he said to Safiya: “they stole him”? Who is the “him”, this unchanging essence, permanent and invariant, born Said and Safiya’s son, and… an Arab? Said now realises the falsity of this picture, understanding that:

Isn’t a human being made up of what’s injected into him hour after hour, day after day, year after year? If I regret anything, it’s that I believed the opposite for twenty years!”

The twenty years that he lived in hope of “finding” Khaldun again, a hope that he now realises was futile, because “Khaldun”, whatever that be, has ceased to exist. There is nothing to be found.

Dov isn’t done yet. He accuses Said and Safiya of cowardice, of the unforgivable abandonment of flesh and blood:

You should not have left Haifa. If that wasn’t possible, then no matter what it took, you should not have left an infant in its crib. And if that was also impossible, then you should never have stopped trying to return. You say that too was impossible? Twenty years have passed, sir! Twenty years! What did you do during that time to reclaim your son? If I were you I would’ve borne arms for that. Is there any stronger motive? You’re all weak! Weak! You’re bound by heavy chains of backwardness and paralysis! Don’t tell me you spent twenty years crying! Tears won’t bring back the missing or the lost. Tears won’t work miracles! All the tears in the world won’t carry a small boat holding two parents searching for their lost child. So you spent twenty years crying. That’s what you tell me now? Is this your dull, worn-out weapon?”

Said has nothing to say to this, but for once, Safiya does:

And because we’re cowards, he can become like this?

Does this single line not sum it all up better than any moral philosophy ever can? It seems almost deflationary when Said has to spend long paragraphs explaining this. All that could be said, all the truth of the world, and the history of the conflict, seems to be aptly contained in that one line, those nine words.

And realisation comes to Said, with this encounter with Dov, that the past cannot – can never – be reclaimed. That what is at stake here now is not the piecing together of a shattered mosaic, but the building of a new one. He and his wife represent a dead yesterday, but their other son, Khalid, represents the future. Until yesterday, Said had forbidden Khalid to join the fidayeen, but now he fervently hopes that his son has taken advantage of his parents’ absence to run away and do it.

“Do you know what the homeland is, Safiyya? The homeland is where none of this can happen.”

“What happened to you, Said?”

“Nothing. Nothing at alL I was just asking. I’m looking for the true Palestine, the Palestine that’s more than memories, more than peacock feathers, more than a son, more than scars written by bullets on the stairs. I was just saying to myself: What’s Palestine with respect to Khalid? He doesn’t know the vase or the picture or the stairs or Hilisa or Khaldun. And yet for him, Palestine is something worthy of a man bearing arms for, dying for. For us, for you and me, it’s only a search for something buried beneath the dust of memories. And look what we found beneath that dust. Yet more dust. We were mistaken when we thought the homeland was only the past. For Khalid, the homeland is the future. That’s how we differed and that’s why Khalid wants to carry arms. Tens of thousands like Khalid won’t be stopped by the tears of men searching in the depths of their defeat for scraps of armor and broken flowers. Men like Khalid are looking toward the future, so they can put right our mistakes and the mistakes of the whole world. Dov is our shame, but Khalid is our enduring honor. Didn’t I tell you from the beginning that we shouldn’t come-because that was something requiring a war? Let’s go!”

What makes, I think, the encounter between Said, Safiya, Miriam and Dov so very powerful is the sheer impossibility of drawing any kind of definitive – and therefore, comforting – moral conclusions. And not just that – it is not as if this is a dispute over art or philosophy, where thinkers throughout the ages have treated the fragmentation of value and the unattainability of clear conclusions. On the contrary, it is a dispute where we want – and need – to have some kind of moral clarity. We cannot say, with Flaubert, that “Stupidity consists in wanting to reach conclusions. We are a thread, and we want to know the whole cloth… What mind worthy of the name, beginning with Homer, ever reached a conclusion? Let’s accept the picture. That’s how things are. So be it…” We cannot say this because it seems grossly irresponsible to engage in moral abdication where countless lives have been destroyed and countless more are at stake. We desperately need firm ground, a compass that points North, a fixed point, a moral position that is at least temporarily immune to undermining.

Kanafani gives us none of that. Two aspects of the confrontation stands out. “Is man a cause?” Dov asks, almost rhetorically. We are reminded promptly of the writings of Milan Kundera, especially of Life is Elsewhere, where Kundera launches an acerbic attack upon the kind of absolutism that comes through in Dov’s sentence; the idea that the individual spirit is subservient to a goal higher than itself (in Kundera’s case, the cause of the revolution), the idea of human beings as instrumental pieces upon some cosmic chessboard, even the idea of moral absolutes. And especially, coming from the mouth of an IDF officer, we could be inclined to treat it in a similar way; but Said, who is far more reflective, agrees with him entirely, and even expresses a wish that his son, Khalid, has taken advantage of his father’s absence to run off and join the fidayeen. What Said seems to have realised – and perhaps what Kanafani is getting at is that, ex hypothesi, conflicts that run so deep and so bitter create men and woman who are no more or no less – nor can ever be – than the causes that they serve. It is not a question of choice, because it defines and characterises you from the moment you are born, through every moment of your childhood and youth, shaped of course, by society. So while Kundera is clearly against the romanticisation of violence and the lyricism of revolution, Kanafani is far more ambiguous; he shows us that in certain situation, it might simply become part of what it is to live, a human being, in that society. Where does that leave my moral judgment against man being a cause, that I thought was as firmly rooted after reading Kundera? I’m not sure. But perhaps that is the point; how our comfortable moral systems simply break down in the face of such suffering.

And then again, once Safiya asks – and Said explains – whether their cowardice gives Dov the right to act as he did, and once Said elaborates:

First you say that our mistakes justify your mistakes, then you say that one wrong doesn’t absolve another. You use the first logic to justify your presence here, and the second to avoid the punishment your presence here deserves. It seems to me you greatly enjoy this strange game. Here again, you’re trying to fashion a race horse out of our weakness and mount its back. No, I’m not decreeing that you’re an Arab. Now I know, better than anyone, that man is a cause, not flesh and blood passed down from generation to generation like a merchant and his client exchanging a can of chopped meat. I’m decreeing that in the final analysis you’re a human being, Jewish or whatever you want. You must come to understand things as they should be understood. I know that one day you’ll realize these things, and that you’ll realize that the greatest crime any human being can commit, whoever he may be, is to believe even for one moment that the weakness and mistakes of others give him the right to exist at their expense and justify his own mistakes and crimes.”

He was quiet for a moment, then looked directly into Dov’s eyes. “And you, do you believe we’ll continue making mistakes? If we should stop making mistakes one day, what would be left for you then?”

At this point, one can divine the distinctly humanist direction in which this story is going. But within a page, this equilibrium is shattered when, on his departure, Said tells Miriam:

You two may remain in our house temporarily. It will take a war to settle that.

And once again, the indication seems to be that maybe the humanist framework is simply inadequate to deal with a problem of this magnitude, this depth. Is there an adequate framework? Kanafani doesn’t provide one, and it seems difficult to imagine what such a framework would look like.

There are many other themes in the story that I wish I could explore here, and so many striking images and pieces of fine writing that I have an almost irresistible desire to quote (repeatedly), but I will stop here.

In summary, I’ve often felt that good literature can capture a situation, in all its complexity, far better and deeper than actual history (Hugo’s Les Miserables is a great example). After reading Returning to Haifa, I do feel that I know something about the Israel-Palestine concept that I couldn’t possibly have known otherwise.

PS. Kanafani’s Wiki page:

PPS: Returning to Haifa isn’t available online. I do, however, have a scanned copy, and would be happy to email it to anyone who’s interested in knowing more about this great writer.


Filed under Ghassan Kanafani, Middle-Eastern Writing, Palestine

Baudelaire and the Eliotic Shudder

In his article in The London Review of Books, Eliot and the ShudderFrank Kermode presents a fascinating account of T.S. Eliot’s aesthetics. Eliot, he says, valued a particular sensation that, in an analysis of Tennyson’s In Memoriam, he labeled “the shudder”. This shudder, according to Kermode, is about “describing the horror, or even the beauty, of a body’s response to violent stimulus. Eliot admired shock and surprise, looked for these qualities in his own verse, and judged others, as he does Tennyson, by their success in providing them.” More specifically, by the shudder Eliot (according to Kermode) refers to “experiences one would rather not have, and which are roughly antithetical to moments of ecstasy.” It “belongs to a set that includes ‘fear’ and ‘horror’ and is associated with a powerful physical response.” For Kermode, Yeats’ Leda and the Swan is an example par excellence of a shudder-inducing poem.

The idea of the “shudder” links up with what Eliot considered to be an integral part of the aesthetic experience, something that good poetry must aim at: “that perpetual slight alteration of language, words perpetually juxtaposed in new and sudden combinations.” The newness and suddenness of the combination (recall Rimbaud saying that all poetry must be modern, and Pound saying that poetry must be new) is what, I think yields the “shudder”. In a sense, what Eliot is saying is remarkably similar to the Russian defamiliarists such as Schlosky who, in Art as Technique, writes:

And art exists that one may recover the sensation of life; it exists to make one feel things, to make the stone stony. The purpose of art is to impart the sensation of things as they are perceived and not as they are known. The technique of art is to make objects ‘unfamiliar,’ to make forms difficult, to increase the difficulty and length of perception because the process of perception is an aesthetic end in itself and must be prolonged.


After we see an object several times, we begin to recognize it. The object is in front of us and we know about it, but we do not see it – hence, we cannot say anything significant about it. Art removes objects from the automatism of perception in several ways.

And, on a specific passage from Tolstoy:

“The familiar act of flogging is made unfamiliar both by the description and by the proposal to change its form without changing its nature.”

Kermode himself, in his article, uses different words to describe the phenomenon. The French word “frisson“; a “hit”; “shock”; “a touch of mystery”; Poe’s “quality of surprise”; and so on.

For my part, all of these, I think, are partly true, yet incomplete. The “shudder” (and there probably is no better word for the experience in question), I would suggest, is the product of an intense – almost paradoxical – meeting of novelty and recognition. When Eliot talks about words in new combinations, I take him to mean that the words themselves are familiar, and used in a familiar context, but it is the way that they associate with each other that is novel (Eliot’s classic example, Shakespeare’s phrase “strong toil of grace” to describe Cleopatera’s seductive beauty, is an outstanding illustration – “strong toil” and “grace“). Now, the initial force of the phrase certainly, I think, stems from its novelty; but the Eliotic shudder isn’t simply novelty. After the initial shock, the hit, we recognise the new combination as expressing something important about the human condition in a way that hasn’t been expressed before, but that is nonetheless, in a sense, true. That is the stage of recognition, of matching the novel description, the novel association of ideas, thoughts, sensations, feelings (and I know that these are all different things for Eliot) with our prior experiences and beliefs, and it is at the moment when the two align that the “shudder” is completed. In a sense, the “novel” association has always been latent within us, as a way of understanding ourselves and the world, and the great poets tease it out into awareness. But what is crucial is that we do realise that it was, indeed, latent, and what the novelty does is to prompt an awakening.

To illustrate these admittedly vague generalisations, I will refer – yet again, in this blog – to the poetry of Charles Baudelaire. Previously, I’ve found Baudelaire fascinating because of his approach to the impossibility of achieving the ideal, and his ideas about the ugliness of beauty. But I feel that above all else, his poetry evokes – most brilliantly – the Eliotic “shudder”. I’ve already written about A Une PassanteLe Soleil, L’Ideal, Le Cygne, Hymn to Beauty and The Carcass, all of whom I think exhibit this quality in abundance. But here are three more examples (Aggeler translations). I will attempt no analysis of them, only say that I felt – never more strongly – the Eliotic shudder when I read them. Perhaps you will, too.



I have more memories than if I’d lived a thousand years.

A heavy chest of drawers cluttered with balance-sheets, 
Processes, love-letters, verses, ballads, 
And heavy locks of hair enveloped in receipts, 
Hides fewer secrets than my gloomy brain. 
It is a pyramid, a vast burial vault 
Which contains more corpses than potter’s field.
— I am a cemetery abhorred by the moon, 
In which long worms crawl like remorse 
And constantly harass my dearest dead. 
I am an old boudoir full of withered roses, 
Where lies a whole litter of old-fashioned dresses, 
Where the plaintive pastels and the pale Bouchers, 
Alone, breathe in the fragrance from an opened phial.

Nothing is so long as those limping days, 
When under the heavy flakes of snowy years 
Ennui, the fruit of dismal apathy, 
Becomes as large as immortality. 
— Henceforth you are no more, O living matter! 
Than a block of granite surrounded by vague terrors, 
Dozing in the depths of a hazy Sahara 
An old sphinx ignored by a heedless world, 
Omitted from the map, whose savage nature 
Sings only in the rays of a setting sun.


The Complaints of an Icarus

The lovers of prostitutes
Are happy, healthy, and sated;
As for me, my arms are weary
Because I have embraced the clouds,

It is thanks to the peerless stars 
That flame in the depth of the sky 
That my burned out eyes see 
Only the memories of suns.

I tried in vain to find 
The middle and the end of space; 
I know not under what fiery eye 
I feel my pinions breaking;

Burned by love of the beautiful 
I shan’t have the sublime honor 
Of giving my name to the abyss 
That will serve me as a tomb.


The Death of Lovers

We shall have beds full of subtle perfumes, 
Divans as deep as graves, and on the shelves 
Will be strange flowers that blossomed for us 
Under more beautiful heavens.

Using their dying flames emulously, 
Our two hearts will be two immense torches 
Which will reflect their double light 
In our two souls, those twin mirrors.

Some evening made of rose and of mystical blue 
A single flash will pass between us 
Like a long sob, charged with farewells;

And later an Angel, setting the doors ajar,
Faithful and joyous, will come to revive
The tarnished mirrors, the extinguished flames.


And lastly – I’m cheating here, but nonetheless – this quatrain from To the Reader, which uses the well-worn image of paint on canvas in conjunction with a deeply disturbing suggestion, the two of which combine in a rather heady concoction:

If rape, poison, daggers, arson 
Have not yet embroidered with their pleasing designs 
The banal canvas of our pitiable lives, 
It is because our souls have not enough boldness.




Filed under Charles Baudelaire, French poetry

A Kind of Poetical Galaxy: Ismail Kadare’s The File on H

“The droplets of condensation on the window pane reminded her of tears on a tragic-comic mask…”

Oral poetry fascinates me. In particular, I’ve always found the story of Milman Parry and Albert Lord’s pathbreaking investigations into the origins of the Homeric epic – that I wrote about here – spellbinding. So when, in Aeneid lectures this week, the professor informed us that Ismail Kadare’s (a name I was hearing for the first time) The File on H was an absolute must-read for anyone interested in the oral epic, I promptly issued it from the Balliol library.

A quick google reveals that Kadare is considered to be the foremost Albanian writer and poet of the 20th century (whatever that might mean or signify), and that he won the inaugural Man Booker International Award in 2005. Here is the blurb:

Society in rural Albania had evolved little since the Middle Ages. What better place in which two Irish-American scholars might study the tradition of oral poetry, in the hope of understanding how Homeric epics came to be composed and handed down, to elucidate the strange commerce between memory and forgetting. The small country town through which they pass, and the remote inn that serves as their base, are not left unaffected, however, by their presence: the society ladies, and not least the restless and ambitious wife of the Governor, insist on having their due; the Governor himself is under instructions from the Minister for the Interior to spy on the scholars’ activities, which are assumed to be an insidious form of espionage; and the notion of trapping the speech of the traveling rhapsodes in their new-fangled tape-recorder excites fear and outrage in a country where even a person’s shadow, let alone his voice, is considered capable of capture and annihilation. The two simple, dedicated scholars realise only too late that they have stumbled over an ant’s nest…

This is a brilliant book. In it, the bleakness of Kafka meets the laughter of Wodehouse; the unsparing psychological portraits of Maupassant mingle with the surrealism of Garcia Marquez; and the whole work is shot through with a wistful yearning for days past, a brooding reflection on memory and loss, and a dirge for the breaking of things.

As the blurb suggests, the story is a fictional re-telling of the Parry-Lord journey to central Europe to solve the Homeric question by examining a living oral epic tradition. Of course, while Parry and Lord went to Bosnia, Max and Bill, their (fictional) equivalents, journey to Albania. But, just like Parry and Lord, they too carry with them the recently-invented tape-recording technology, desperate to salvage something of a dying tradition, in the last place where it yet survives, before it is gone forever.

Kadare begins with a series of acute portrayals of life in a provincial Albanian town, with all its dreariness, weariness and ennui, a world seen most starkly through the eyes of the deeply frustrated wife of the governor.

“She picked up the telephone under her customary cloud of melancholy, condensed from dozens of disappointments when, on hearing the same bell ring, she had rushed to it in the hope of hearing some really uplifting news that would relieve the monotony of her life, only to hear through the perforated Bakelite her husband’s trivial interrogations…”

And when the news of the foreigners first arrives:

“…and the day, wound up like a string by that bell, had been transformed from a slack stretch of time into its opposite – into a day full of surprise and mystery…”

Setting off a rapid chain of fantasising:

“… and she imagined herself in the arms of the one, then in the arms of the other, dancing the tango to the tune called “Jealousy…”


She ran back to the phone but as she picked up the receiver she froze. Before passing on such radiant news to the postmaster’s wife she felt the need to savour it all alone for a little longer…”


“Chaotically, without seeking to make her mind keep to any logical sequence, she saw herself first entangled with the hairy redhead, Max Ross, not because she was really attracted to him, but by force of circumstance, or rather by the desire to encounter the whole range of initial emotions, exhaustively and sophisticatedly (rivalry, exacerbated jealous etc.) before plunging fully into an affair with the other, Bill.”

And for the governor himself:

Good God, how do you manage to keep the same smile on your face for hours at a stretch, for dozens of people?


with his early-evening smile upon his face…

The characterisation is sparse, spare, almost like – to use a pet analogy of mine – an impressionist painting, leaving the reader to complete the vision with his mind’s eye. And, like the best of impressionist paintings, it is utterly compelling.

Things begin to get complicated when spies are deputed to watch the movements of the Irishmen, suspected as they are (as all foreigners are) of unknown and unknowably nefarious purposes. Here is where we begin to get drawn into a Kafka-esque world of the infinite State with its labyrinthine machines and machinations, but unlike Kafka, Kadare is relentlessly humorous; his spies and his provincial officials are so puffed up, so taken in by their own sense of self-importance, so utterly mock-Machiavellian, that it is impossible to be bogged down by the crushing inevitability of individual destruction that accompanies The Castle or The Trial. Of course, the shadow of secret police, show trials, purges and darkness at noon is ever-present in the background, and a distinct sense of unease pervades the novel, but it never grows to define it. So, consider:

“He tried to get “notwithstanding” into his report three times over, but however hard he tried, he could not manage to get it in the right place; it stuck out from the other words like a foreign body, like an unacceptable and even comical intrusion, and he crossed it out three times over with a stroke of the pen that was more like the lash of a whip. “oh, oh,” he groaned aloud. A vulgar little spy who can write better than I can! Well, anyway, he added by way of self-consolation, flowers also grow better on dunghills. “

And then, with these two themes playing in the background, as Max and Bill arrive in the old inn at the crossroads of the rhapsodes’ ways, we begin to slip into the theme of epic. We are informed, early on, about how their project is not simply a work of detached, academic investigation into the Homeric question. Rather:

“For more than a thousand years, Albanians and Slavs had been in ceaseless conflict in this area. They had quarreled over everything – over land, over boundaries, over pastures and watering holes, and it would have been entirely unsurprising had they also disputed the ownership of local rainbows. And as if that were not enough, they were also squabbling over the ancient epics which existed, just to make things completely intractable, in both languages, Albanian and Serbo-Croatian. Each of the two people asserted that it had created the epic, leaving the other nation the choice of being considered either a thief or a mere imitator.”

And, as Bill reminds Max, their work on Homer plunges them right into the conflict, working on a question, as they are, that will decide the controversy of historical precedence in the occupation of the Balkan peninsula. If, as they suspect, they find evidence linking the Albanian epic to the Greek, then it is proof that Albanian were present in the Balkans during classical times, and certainly before the Serbo-Croats. Epic poetry will become a formidable weapon in political conflict.

As the Irishmen’s work goes on, we are taken deeper into the nuances of oral epic poetry. We are introduced to the core of the oral tradition, the formulaic epithet, that tool both of memory and of metre:

What shifts and what stays fixed in epic poetry? Is there an unchanging core of material that ensures the integrity of the art-form over the centuries?… up to now we believed that the anchoring role was played by the figures of speech, the models or fixed forms of the language, or, to put it another way, the basic moulds into which epic material was poured… so we were convinced that the ancient laboratory’s linguistic equipment, which was itself unchanging, guaranteed the homogeneity of its poetic production. 

That is the standard Parry-Lord thesis. But, as Bill and Max find out, even the formulae are subject to change, albeit slowly and incrementally. And it is linked, in the end, to the art of forgetting – what prevents the epic from attrition – or dissolution – is the individual rhapsode’s ability to both remember and forget – to add as well as subtract from the corpus available to him.

“How are we going to know why and by what mysterious means a line that has been forgotten and shrouded in darkness for years may emerge into the light once again? And that’s leaving aside the fact that the phenomenon occurs not just within the repertoire of an individual rhapsode, but, as if carried along by a subterranean stream, an omitted line can be restored by some other rhapsode in a different time and place. Epic fragments seem able to climb out of the gave where the bard’s body has been rotting away for years, claw their way through the earth, and come alive in another’s song, as if death had not changed them at all.”

I think what’s important about the passage is its re-emphasis on an idea that cannot be stressed enough: assumptions of individuality and authorship, assumptions that we bring unthinkingly to our reading of written texts, simply don’t apply to the oral tradition which is, in a very Eliotic sense, a “tradition“. The image of a stream, a stream of epic that flows through time and space, borne along by the currents of its own logic, independent of individual efforts to dam or direct it, is a very striking one. As the scholars recognise, at another point, while they muse upon the history of epic poetry:

They thought that if Homer’s version of the Iliad had not been written down and subsequently published, then it too could easily have been fragmented and then been reassembled later on into a quite different shape. The cycles of condensation and dissolution of this kind of epic poetry must have some resemblance to the cycles of creation, fragmentation and re-creation of possible worlds from cosmic dust… more and more, epic poetry seemed to the like a kind of poetical galaxay under the sway of mysterious forces.

So much for that. As the reader approaches the book – especially a reader aware of the work of Parry and Lord, he is undoubtedly very sympathetic to the project. Saving – rescuing – salvaging – preserving for posterity – these are the things that come to mind when one contemplates what Bill and Max are trying to do. They are trying to keep a dying tradition alive by recording the songs of the last of the oral rhapsodes.

And yet, is it truly that simple? At the end of the first recording, when the Irishmen – and we – are flushed with a sense of triumph, of having participated in a great and memorable moment, of having set out on the road to making a fundamental contribution to the world’s heritage, we are given the first, faint sense of something being wrong. Because, when they play back the recorder, and the rhapsode’s now-artificial voice fills the room, Bill and Max feel that:

There was something quite horrifying about this disconnection, this removal of a man from the attributes which give him his distinct and independent existence. 

But what, precisely, is so horrifying about this? I don’t think that this is a point about imitation in general, but is uniquely characteristic of oral poetry. That is because, as I discussed earlier, when writing on Parry-Lord, the “distinct and independent existence” of the performer is one of the cornerstones of oral poetry. There is no original, no standard, no text; on the contrary, each performance is an act of creation, and each performer an author many times over. And this, of course, changes fundamentally with the advent of a device like the tape-recorder. As Kadare writes:

The rhapsodist is the main wheel in the machinery of the epic. He is publisher, bookseller and librarian all at once, and also rather more than that: he is a posthumous co-author and, in this capacity, has the right to amend the text. It’s perfectly legal, no-one disputes his right, and no one criticizes him for doing so, except perhaps his own conscience.  

Of course, I have serious reservations about using the word “text” and “amend” at all (I wonder if something’s been lost in translation), because we know from Parry and Lord that in oral poetry, there is no such thing as a “text”, and consequently, no such thing as an “amendation” (since you need a standard to amend). But that minor quibble apart, what changes with the advent of the tape-recorder is precisely what changes with the advent of the written word – the creation of a model, a standard. And as Parry and Lord tell us, the written word destroyed the oral. Ex hypothesi, does not a recording device serve exactly the same function as the written word?

At some points, the thought occurs to Bill and Max themselves:

On other occasions they told themselves that oral epic could only ever exist in the scattered form in which they found it, and they there were betraying and altering their material by trying to put its pieces together. In that way of thinking, oral recitation was less like a poetic entity than a medieval order… 

And certainly, to the locals. This, from a conversation:

“This machine walls up the ancient songs, imprisons them within itself, and you know as well as I do what happens to a song when you wall up is voice. It’s like when you wall up a man’s shadow. He wilts and dies. That’s what happens to him. It doesn’t matter to me, I’m only a foreigner myself, my land and my Serbian songs are far away in a safe place, but I deplore what’s going on for your sake. With this machine these Irishmen will cut limbs from your body. They’ll mow down all those old songs that are the joy of life, and without them it will be like being deaf. You’ll wake up one fine morning and find yourselves in a desert and you’ll hold your heads in your hands; but meanwhile, those devils will have fled far away. They’ll have robbed you of everything, and you’ll be condemned to deafness for the rest of your lives.”

Normally, we would be inclined to give this short shrift, since the conversation occurs in a deeply political context, and the monologue is clearly motivated by nationalist fervour. Nonetheless, Kadare has destabilised our conceptions enough, by now, to make us wonder: could there actually be a kernel of truth in this? Can the nature of oral poetry ever remain the same once it has been recorded? Even if, like Parry and Lord, like Bill and Max, your purpose is to preserve as much as you can, as many versions of the same story (does that even make grammatical sense in the context of oral poetry) – because what you’ll have at the end of that is multiple standards/models, but standards and models nonetheless.

Is the very idea of “preservation” antithetical to the essence of oral poetry? 

And does that mean that if oral poetry is dying, we are faced with the grim choice of either letting it die or, by preserving it, change its fundamental character – so that oral poetry is dead anyway? And what ought we to do.

Kadare is profoundly ambivalent on this point, an ambivalence that is summed up towards the end, as Bill and Max reflect on their work:

Whereas they had previously despaired at the dispersion of the Albanian epic tradition, they now felt reassured that the entire corpus was in good order. What to begin with had seemed like shards scattered through space and time, as ungraspable as the mane of rainbows, as wind and burnt dust, and quite impossible to collect, was now locked in numbered metal reel cases. Sometimes it seemed hard to credit that they had managed to tame all that hatred and all that passion. 

As the underlined phrases suggest – and as the images of “locking” and “taming”, as opposed to “ungraspable” signify – the soul of oral poetry lies in its resistance to being caught, labeled, classified, pinned down, defined. Once you do accomplish that, you lose something precious.

What conclusions, then, are we meant to draw about the project? At times it seems absurd to even begin to doubt, to doubt the value of Parry-Lord’s work, and the worth of their discoveries, their contribution to our knowledge about a great field of human endeavour. But Kadare makes us wonder. And the ending – which I won’t spoil here – only serves to make the ambivalence deeper and more profound.

As is the case with the best of books, you can’t quite sleep at night after having turned the last page.

Kadare’s Wiki entry:

The File on H:

The opening page:



Filed under Albania, Epic, European Writing, Homer, Ismail Kadare, Milman Parry & Albert Lord