Category Archives: European Writing

Connections: Julio Cortazar, Seamus Heaney, Adrienne Rich, Victor Shklovsky, Zbigniew Herbert

“… the feeling more than the awareness, the intuition that literary prose – in this case, I picture myself while I am writing – can manifest as pure communication and in a perfect style, but also with a certain structure, a certain syntactic architecture, a certain articulation of words, a rhythm in the use of punctuation or separation into sections, a cadence that the reader’s internal ear can recognize more or less clearly as a musical element.”

  • Julio Cortazar, Literature Class 

“And there was also something in his practice which corresponded to the poetics of Robert Frost, in so far as the thing that MacDiarmid was after in the deep Scottish ear resembled what Frost called ‘the sound of sense’, a phonetic patterning which preceded speech and authenticated it, a kind of pre-verbal register to which the poetic voice had to be tuned.”

  • Seamus Heaney, The Redress of Poetry

“That’s where the problem begins, because if he uses the language that expresses the world he is attacking, that language will betray him. How can he denounce something with the tools that are used by the enemy, that is, the stratified, codified language, a language already used by the masters and their disciples?”

  • Julio Cortazar, Literature Class

“… knowledge of the oppressor

is the oppressor’s language

yet I need it to talk to you

(the fracture of order

the repair of speech

to overcome this suffering…)”

“At the beginning there appeared a poet like Mayakovsky. He destroyed the language of poetry and prose and created a new language, which isn’t easy to do. It wasn’t immediately understandable, and it contained dizzying and difficult images.”

  • Julio Cortazar, Literature Class

“Bits of landscape melted into – burned themselves into – Mayakovsky’s poems.”

  • Victor Shklovsky, Once Upon a Time

“… colonization, poverty, and goonish governments also mutilate us aesthetically.”

  • Julio Cortazar, Literature Class

“It didn’t require great character at all

our refusal disagreement and resistance

we had a shred of necessary courage

but fundamentally it was a matter of taste

                                    Yes taste

in which there are fibers of soul the cartilage of conscience

So aesthetics can be helpful in life

one should not neglect the study of beauty…

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Filed under Colm Toibin, Ireland, Julio Cortazar, Poland, Seamus Heaney, Zbigniew Herbert

The Poetry of Containment: On Zbigniew Herbert

In his fictionalised biography of Henry James, The Master, Colm Toibin describes James’ English house in the following way: “In its detail and its dialogue, its slow movements and its mystery, it stood against abstraction, against the greyness and foolishness of large concepts. But it stood singly and small and unprotected, barely present.”

In his poem, Journey, the Polish poet Zbigniew Herbert writes: “Discover the meanness of speech the kingly power of gesture/ The uselessness of concepts…” 

The “uselessness” or “foolishness” of concepts is a thread that runs through Zbigniew Herbert’s The Collected Poems: 1956 – 1998This is an anthology that spans forty-two years – a lifetime of writing – and the rise and fall of Stalinist communism in Poland, a political event that Herbert resisted in different ways throughout his life, and paid a heavy price for. As you might expect, the poems in the volume cover a vast field – from the overtly political (“To the Hungarians” and The Power of Taste“), to the indirectly political  (“Elegy of Fortinbras“), to the politics of aesthetics (“To Ryszard Krynicki“),  to invocations of myth (“Damastes Nicknamed Procrustes Speaks and “Apollo and Marysas“), to the naturalistic (“The Pebble“) and to the intimate and the personal (“Request“).

Poets, of course, evolve over the course of their life. The poems excerpted from Chord of Light (1956) and the selection from Rovigo (1992) or Epilogue to a Storm (1998) are very different from each other. However, what I found interesting was not the change, but the constancy: at all times, Herbert maintains his view about “the uselessness of concepts“. That phrase, however, might be impressionistic enough to be misleading. To take a longer shot at it: Herbert’s is a poetry of containment. By this I mean the following: Herbert is aware of the human impulse to seek transcendence, as a way of imposing meaning upon an otherwise bleak life. He is deeply distrustful of this impulse, because of how it can serve as a mask and a justification for the unjustifiable. However, his response is not to deny its existence, or to stifle it entirely, but to contain it. As a poet – and through his principal poetic construction, Mr Cogito – Herbert is engaged in a constant process of resisting the impulse to transcendence, and creating meaning in life out of this resistance, without taking refuge in nihilism or cynicism. And this applies across the spheres of existence: politics, art, language, and life.

It is important to distinguish the poetry of containment from other aesthetic visions that might overlap in some respects, but are actually quite different. A reading of the early Herbert might fuel the confusion. For instance, in I Would Like to Describe, he writes:

 

I would like to describe courage

without dragging behind me a dusty lion

and also anxiety

without shaking a glass full of water

 

to put it another way

I would give all metaphors

in return for one word

drawn out of my breast like a rib

for one word

contained within the boundaries

of my skin

but apparently this is not possible

 

One can, of course, read this as a standard lament about the gap between language and the world (in a later poem, Herbert makes the also-familiar move of bringing in music to fill the gap: “Mr Cogito/ doomed to stony speech/ to hoary syllables/ secretly worships/ transient lightness“), and how metaphors only take everything further away (we would be familiar with this argument, for instance, from Auden). In Never of YouHerbert expresses a similar sentiment, when he writes:

 

In fact I want to write of the house’s gate latch

of its rough handshake and its friendly creaks 

but although I know so much about it

I use only a cruelly common litany of words

So many feelings fit between two heartbeats

so many objects can be held in our two hands 

 

Don’t be surprised we can’t describe the world 

and just address things tenderly by name. 

 

It would, however, be too simplistic a reading of Herbert to limit him to merely expressing the inadequacy of language. A hint that there is something more subtle afoot comes from the untitled poem beginning with the lines “we fall asleep on words/ and wake up with words” (a poem that is similar in some respects – yet powerfully different – from Nazik al-Malaika’s Love Song for Words), and where the word “like” is described as “a little pricking pin/ holding together/ the most beautiful lost/ metaphor in the world” – lines that are acutely aware of the possibility of metaphor, a possibility that is even achievable, where Herbert wants missing words to enter “crippled sentences“, so that “the certainty we are waiting for/ casts anchor.” This poem is best placed in juxtaposition with one of Herbert’s later poems, titled “Mr. Cogito. Ars Longa“:

… in every generation

there are those who

with stubbornness worthy of a better cause

wish to rip poetry

from the claws

of the everyday 

 

at an early age

they enter the order 

of the Most Holy Subtlety

and Ascension

 

they strain minds and bodies 

to express that which is

beyond – 

that which is 

above – 

 

they don’t even feel 

how much promise

charm

surprise

lies hidden in the language

everyone

gabs in 

hoodlums and Horace. 

Here we have moved unambiguously to the critique of transcendence. If we read back this into the first two poems, we can understand them not so much as a confessional about the inadequacy of language, but about the failure of metaphors to do justice to existence – and that this is a claim that is not merely descriptive, but is borderline normative.

I think such a reading back makes sense, because it fits with Herbert’s other poems, that are not directly on the theme of language (although metaphor remains a common, binding thread). Consider, for instance, Elegy of Fortinbrasa poem that lies in that ambiguous borderland of the political, the personal, and the aesthetic. Fortinbras, musing over the recently-dead Hamlet’s corpse, says:

Now that we’re alone we can talk prince man to man 

though you lie on the stairs and see more than a dead ant 
nothing but black sun with broken rays 
I could never think of your hands without smiling 
and now that they lie on the stone like fallen nests 
they are as defenceless as before The end is exactly this 
The hands lie apart The sword lies apart The head apart 
and the knight’s feet in soft slippers

 

You will have a soldier’s funeral without having been a soldier 
they only ritual I am acquainted with a little 
There will be no candles no singing only cannon-fuses and bursts 
crepe dragged on the pavement helmets boots artillery horses drums 
drums I know nothing exquisite 
those will be my manoeuvres before I start to rule 
one has to take the city by the neck and shake it a bit

 

Anyhow you had to perish Hamlet you were not for life 
you believed in crystal notions not in human clay 
always twitching as if asleep you hunted chimeras 
wolfishly you crunched the air only to vomit 
you knew no human thing you did not know even how to breathe

 

Now you have peace Hamlet you accomplished what you had to 
and you have peace The rest is not silence but belongs to me 
you chose the easier part an elegant thrust 
but what is heroic death compared with eternal watching 
with a cold apple in one’s hand on a narrow chair 
with a view on the ant-ill and clock’ dial

 

Adieu prince I have tasks a sewer project 
and a decree on prostitutes and beggars 
I must also elaborate a better system of prisons 
since as you justly said Denmark is a prison 
I go to my affairs This night is born 
a star named Hamlet We shall never meet 
what I shall leave will not be worth a tragedy

 

It is not for us to greet each other or bid farewell we live on archipelagos 
and that water these words what can they do what can they do prince

I choose this poem for a segue from Herbert’s poetry about language, because its also not entirely clear which side he’s on. His dogged, prosaic Fortinbras is not exactly the most inspiring character in all of poetry. That said, the very act of choosing Fortinbras’ as the narrative voice is not entirely irrelevant, and even if not inspiring, there is a world-weary wisdom to this Fortinbras that makes him an oddly sympathetic voice (“… what I shall leave will not be worth a tragedy.”) And paying close attention to what Fortinbras says, we find a (somewhat submerged) critique of transcendence: “you believed in crystal notions, not human clay” is his indictment of Hamlet, and he then goes on to accuse the Prince of Denmark of having chosen “the easier part“, by dying a heroic death. Fortinbras’ own task – of governing – is much more prosaic, and, as he confesses at the end, between him and Hamlet there lies an unbridgeable gulf – of communication (and language?).

The fact that Herbert makes Fortinbras sympathetic and persuasive, but not entirely convincing, speaks – I think – to his awareness that the will to transcendence cannot be entirely suppressed; in fact, it must be acknowledged, without passing judgment. At best, it can be contained, along with the continuing awareness that it is always pressing down upon us from all sides.

This sense of containment is expressed particularly vividly in Herbert’s series of poems that feature his most famous poetic creation, Mr. Cogito. At first glance, Mr. Cogito – with his hesitations and faintly ridiculous classical manner – may seem quite Prufrockian, but this would be a mistake. Perhaps it would be more accurate to describe Mr Cogito as an honorary member of the Frankfurt School: he is a man who has seen through the hollowness and illusions of contemporary society, but whose response to that is withdrawal, refusal, and a quest for personal philosophical clarity over active political engagement.

This makes things a little difficult, because Herbert himself was not merely a passive refuser: he did play an active (although not a fighter’s) role in resistance to Stalinism. So does Mr Cogito speak for Herbert when, for instance, in About Mr Cogito’s Two Legs“:

 

The left leg normal
one could say optimistic
a little too short
boyish
with exuberant muscles
and a well-shaped calf

 

the right leg
God help us–
thin
with two scars
one along the Achilles tendon
the other oval
pale pink
shameful reminder of an escape

 

the left
inclined to leap
ready to dance
loving life too much
to expose itself

 

the right
nobly rigid
sneering at danger

 

in this way
on two legs
the left which can be compared to Sancho Panza
and the right
recalling the wandering knight
Mr Cogito
goes
through the world
staggering slightly

 

Suspended in the ambiguous zone between Don Quixote and Sancho Panza seems to me to be an accurate image of Herbert’s philosophy of containment: neither the fantasy-obsessed errant knight, nor the incurable skeptic. And it’s not only transcendence in its fantastical sense: Herbert is equally wary of other forms of exhibitionism. In Mr Cogito Meditates on Suffering, he dispenses with Mr Cogito as an intermediary, and directly urges the reader to “make use of the suffering gently moderately/ like an artificial limb/ without false shame/ but also without unnecessary pride/ drink the essence of bitter herbs/ but not to the dregs / leave carefully/ a few sips for the future…” In a still later poem, To Henryk Elzenburg on the Centennial of his Birth“, even the formal device of Mr Cogito is abandoned, and Herbert directly speaks to his former teacher (and through him, to the world):

 

“… the times we lived in were truly a tale told by an idiot

Full of sound and cruelty

Your severe gentleness delicate strength

Taught me to weather the world like a thinking stone

Patient indifferent and tender all at once

 

A thinking stone” is a very defamiliarising expression, although the adjectives that follow – “patient“, “indifferent“, and “tender” – clarify the paradox and bring it into a pattern. To be simultaneously indifferent and tender – to be a stone (remember Yeats’ “too long a sacrifice/ can make a stone of the heart“) and to think – is to feel, but to feel within limits. Perhaps, in this respect, Herbert and Mr Cogito are in consensus.

The same Mr Cogito, however, also bemoans “the pettiness of dreams”, longing for the time of his grandparents, when “their terror was great as a horde of Tartars/ and happiness in a dream like golden rain“, instead of dreams in which “a collector hands me the bill for the gas and electricity.” Once again, the pull of transcendence – even if it is only through the medium of dreams – is acknowledged without judgment, even with sympathy.

If, in the domain of language, of the personal and of the aesthetic, Herbert never quite reveals his hand entirely, it is in the political realm that his poetry of containment is at its sharpest, starkest, and least ambiguous. “Mr Cogito’s Game“, that begins with “Mr Cogito’s/ favourite entertainment/ is the Kropotkin game…“, in its second part, makes this powerful statement:

 

so many years

so many years now

Mr Cogito has been playing

 

but never has he

been tempted

by the role of the fugitive hero

 

not because of any dislike

for the blue blood

of the prince of anarchists

nor distaste for the theory

of mutual aid

 

it isn’t due to cowardice either

Zofia Niklaevna

the fiddler in the little gray house

Doctor Orestes

all put their heads on the line

 

but with them

Mr Cogito

Identifies almost completely

 

if the need arose

he would even be a horse

for the fugitive’s carriage

 

Mr Cogito

would like to be freedom’s intermediary

 

hold the escape rope

smuggle the message

give the sign

 

trust the heart

the pure impulse of sympathy

 

but he doesn’t want to answer for what

is written in the monthly Freedom

by bearded men

of feeble imagination

 

he accepts a supporting role

he will not dwell in history

There is, of course, a sense of Prufrock’s “I am not Prince Hamlet, nor was meant to be”, but that similarity is only superficial. The reason why Mr Cogito doesn’t want to be Hamlet – “but he doesn’t want to answer for what/ is written in the monthly Freedom/ by bearded men/ of feeble imagination” – is because that would require him to make transcendental arguments (in this case, about freedom). This impulse is presented in an even sharper form in Mr Cogito and the Imagination”:

 

… he would rarely soar
on the wings of a metaphor
and then he fell like Icarus
into the embrace of the Great Mother

he adored tautologies
explanations
idem per idem

that a bird is a bird
slavery means slavery
a knife is a knife
death remains death

 

In the Introduction to the Herbert’s Collected Prose, the last four lines are extracted as evidence of Herbert’s determination to seek clarity in language as a way of opposing totalitarianism, in a manner that George Orwell advocates in his essay, Politics and the English Language or – as Marx wrote about the 1848 revolution – to ensure that “phrases have given place to the real thing.”

While I think this reading is largely correct – there is no doubt that Herbert was preoccupied by how totalitarian politics used image and metaphor to justify its crimes (this is reflected vividly in one of his most political poems, Damastes Nicknamed Procrustes Speaks, where Herbert’s Procrustes says that “… in fact I was a scholar a social reformer/ my true passion was anthropometry/ I designed a bed to the size of the perfect man/ I measured captured travelers against that bed/ it was hard to avoid – I admit – stretching limbs/ trimming extremeties/ the patients died but the more of them perished/ the surer I became that my research was correct/ the end was sublime progress requires sacrifice), at least in this poem, he infuses doubt right at the end:

 

Mr Cogito’s imagination
has the motion of a pendulum

it crosses with precision
from suffering to suffering

there is no place in it
for the artificial fires of poetry

he would like to remain faithful
to uncertain clarity

 

If uncertain clarity, then, is the best we can achieve, than can one really be faulted for falling prey to the temptation of certain clarity – the clarity offered by metaphor and image?

Well, perhaps yes. The last poem that I want to discuss is one that brings together the political, the aesthetic, and the personal, into one comprehensive indictment of totalitarianism. This is “The Power of Taste”:

 

It didn’t require great character at all

our refusal disagreement and resistance

we had a shred of necessary courage

but fundamentally it was a matter of taste

                                    Yes taste

in which there are fibers of soul the cartilage of conscience

 

Who knows if we had been better and more attractively tempted

sent rose-skinned women thin as a wafer

or fantastic creatures from the paintings of Hieronymus Bosch

but what kind of hell was there at this time

a wet pit the murderers’ alley the barrack

called a palace of justice

a home-brewed Mephisto in a Lenin jacket

sent Aurora’s grandchildren out into the field

boys with potato faces

very ugly girls with red hands

 

Verily their rhetoric was made of cheap sacking

(Marcus Tullius kept turning in his grave)

chains of tautologies a couple of concepts like flails

the dialectics of slaughterers no distinctions in reasoning

syntax deprived of beauty of the subjunctive

 

So aesthetics can be helpful in life

one should not neglect the study of beauty

 

Before we declare our consent we must carefully examine

the shape of the architecture the rhythm of the drums and pipes

official colors the despicable ritual of funerals

 

              Our eyes and ears refused obedience

              the princes of our senses proudly chose exile

 

It did not require great character at all

we had a shred of necessary courage

but fundamentally it was a matter of taste

                                Yes taste

that commands us to get out to make a wry face draw out a sneer

even if for this the precious capital of the body the head

                                                    must fall

 

The poem, of course, is self-explanatory: Herbert attributes his resistance to totalitarianism not to great personal courage, or to strength of political conviction, but to its kitsch aesthetic. But that, of course, raises the disturbing possibility of a totalitarianism whose aesthetic succeeded in offering the “certain clarity” that the artificial fires of poetry can’t. Would Herbert have succumbed? He himself cannot tell us: “Who knows if we had been better and more attractively tempted?” Who knows indeed.

This, then, is what the poetry of containment leaves us with: emotion, language, metaphor and image, art, and politics are always just on the cusp of spilling over from the contained borders within which Herbert’s poetry attempts to place them, into a space where they can become masks and reasons for horror. Herbert recognises and acknowledges that as a fundamental aspect of the human condition. With that – somewhat bleak – realization always around the edges of his poetry, never to be completely consigned to oblivion, he attempts to create meaning – and a certain kind of beauty – within the borders of containment. The result is poetry that has all the force of “uncertain clarity.”

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Filed under European Writing, Poland, Zbigniew Herbert

Connections: Zbigniew Herbert, Pablo Neruda, Miroslav Holub…

… in responding to totalitarianism.

Zbigniew Herbert, Mr Cogito and the Imagination:

Mr Cogito never trusted
tricks of the imagination

the piano at the top of the Alps
played false concerts for him

he didn’t appreciate labyrinths
the Sphinx filled him with loathing

he lived in a house with no basement
without mirrors or dialectics

jungles of tangled images
were not his home

he would rarely soar
on the wings of a metaphor
and then he fell like Icarus
into the embrace of the Great Mother

he adored tautologies
explanations
idem per idem

that a bird is a bird
slavery means slavery
a knife is a knife
death remains death

he loved
the flat horizon
a straight line
the gravity of the earth

Pablo Neruda, I am Explaining a Few Things

You are going to ask: and where are the lilacs?
and the poppy-petalled metaphysics ?
and the rain repeatedly spattering
its words and drilling them full
of apertures and birds?’

And you will ask: why doesn’t his poetry
speak of dreams and leaves
and the great volcanoes of his native land?

Come and see the blood in the streets.
Come and see
the blood in the streets.
Come and see the blood
in the streets!

Miroslav Holub
… and equally without allegory

without transcendence

and without fuss.

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Filed under Mirsoslav Holub, Poetry: Miscellaneous, Poland, Zbigniew Herbert

Joseph Brodsky, Danilo Kis, Zbigniew Herbert

In his introduction to Danilo Kis’ A Tomb for Boris Davidovich – a collection of short stories about the mental and moral degradation of human beings under totalitarianism –  Joseph Brodsky writes:

“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. 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.”

While I am not entirely convinced about this seeming privileging of an aesthetic response to totalitarianism over a political response, the sentiment is portrayed with a particular impact in a poem that I came across today, Zbigniew Herbert’s The Power of Taste:

It didn’t require great character at all

our refusal disagreement and resistance

we had a shred of necessary courage

but fundamentally it was a matter of taste

                                    Yes taste

in which there are fibers of soul the cartilage of conscience

Who knows if we had been better and more attractively tempted

sent rose-skinned women thin as a wafer

or fantastic creatures from the paintings of Hieronymus Bosch

but what kind of hell was there at this time

a wet pit the murderers’ alley the barrack

called a palace of justice

a home-brewed Mephisto in a Lenin jacket

sent Aurora’s grandchildren out into the field

boys with potato faces

very ugly girls with red hands

Verily their rhetoric was made of cheap sacking

(Marcus Tullius kept turning in his grave)

chains of tautologies a couple of concepts like flails

the dialectics of slaughterers no distinctions in reasoning

syntax deprived of beauty of the subjunctive

So aesthetics can be helpful in life

one should not neglect the study of beauty

Before we declare our consent we must carefully examine

the shape of the architecture the rhythm of the drums and pipes

official colors the despicable ritual of funerals

              Our eyes and ears refused obedience

              the princes of our senses proudly chose exile

It did not require great character at all

we had a shred of necessary courage

but fundamentally it was a matter of taste

                                Yes taste

that commands us to get out to make a wry face draw out a sneer

even if for this the precious capital of the body the head

                                                    must fall

I particularly like “chains of tautologies a couple of concepts like flails/ the dialectics of slaughterers no distinctions in reasoning/ syntax deprived of beauty of the subjunctive…”, for the physical sensation of the language, and for its sense of how the constriction of language is inevitably a precursor to the constriction of imaginative worlds and of empathy (the word “chains” is particularly well-placed).

I am reminded of two other poems. The slightly defamiliarising “necessary courage” recalls the fare more defamliarising “necessary murder” used by Auden in Spain, almost as a counterpoint: “The conscious acceptance of guilt in the necessary murder...” Auden later disavowed this too-quick endorsement of revolutionary violence, and renounced the poem entirely. And “cartilege of conscience” brings to mind the “vertebraed with veracities” of Jorge Fernandez Granados’ Reconciliation, a poem about doubt and the end-of-the-rainbow quest for certainty. Both poems use an image of the body to capture that sensation that occupies that nameless space somewhere between firmness and rigidity.

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Filed under Poland, Zbigniew Herbert

Connections: Proust and Wilde

From the Loose Signatures blog:

“The visits that Bergotte paid us were a few years too late for me now, because I didn’t like him as much any more—which doesn’t contradict the fact that his reputation had grown. An oeuvre is rarely completely victorious and comprehended without another writer’s work, perhaps still obscure, beginning to replace the cult that has almost finished coming to the fore with a new one (at least among a few more hard-to-please minds). In the books of Bergotte that I re-read most often, his sentences were as clear before my eyes as my own ideas, the furniture in my room, and the cars in the street. All things were comfortably obvious—even if not exactly as you had always seen them, at least as you were used to seeing them at the present time. But a new writer had started publishing works where the relationships between things were so different from those that bound things together for me that I could barely understand anything he wrote. For example, he said, “The watering hoses admired the lovely upkeep of the highways” (and that was easy; I slid down the length of those highways) “which left every five minutes from Briand and from Claudel.” I didn’t understand any more, since I’d expected the name of a city, but instead it gave me the name of a person. I didn’t just think that the sentence was poorly made; I thought that I wasn’t strong and quick enough to go all the way to its end. I picked up my spirits and clambered on hands and feet to get to a place where I could see the new relations between things. Each time I got a little closer to the midpoint of the sentence, I fell back down, like the slowest soldier in a regiment during the “portico” exercise. I admired the new writer no less than the clumsy kid who gets a zero in gym class admires a more dexterous child. From then on, I admired Bergotte less; his limpidity now seemed to come from inadequacy. There had once been a time when people recognized things when Fromentin painted them, but not when Renoir did.

Today, people of taste tell us that Renoir is a great painter of the nineteenth century.* But in saying so, they forget Time, and that it took a lot of it—well into the twentieth century—for Renoir to be hailed as a great artist. To successfully be recognized as such, the original painter or artist must set forth like opticians. The treatment of their painting, their prose, isn’t always pleasant. When finished, the practitioner tells us: “Now look.” And behold—the world (which was not created just once, but as often as a truly original artist appears) looks entirely different to us from the old one, but perfectly clear. Women pass in the street, different from those of the past, since they are Renoirs—those same Renoirs in which we long ago refused to see any women at all. The cars are also Renoirs, and the water, and the sky. We feel like we are walking in a forest like the one which on the first day seemed to us like everything excepta forest—like a tapestry with a number of nuances that nevertheless lacks just those nuances that a forest should have. That is the universe, new and perishable, which has just been created. It will last until the next geological catastrophe unleashed by a new painter or writer who is truly original.”

  • Proust, The Guermantes Way, part 2, chapter 1

—-

“Where, if not from the Impressionists, do we get those wonderful brown fogs that come creeping down our streets, blurring the gas-lamps and changing the houses into monstrous shadows? To whom, if not to them and their master, do we owe the lovely silver mists that brood over our river, and turn to faint forms of fading grace curved bridge and swaying barge? The extraordinary change that has taken place in the climate of London during the last ten years is entirely due to a particular school of Art. You smile. Consider the matter from a scientific or a metaphysical point of view, and you will find that I am right. For what is Nature? Nature is no great mother who has borne us. She is our creation. It is in our brain that she quickens to life. Things are because we see them, and what we see, and how we see it, depends on the Arts that have influenced us. To look at a thing is very different from seeing a thing. One does not see anything until one sees its beauty. Then, and then only, does it come into
existence. At present, people see fogs, not because there are fogs, but because poets and painters have taught them the mysterious loveliness of such effects. There may have been fogs for centuries in London. I dare say there were. But no one saw them, and so we do not know anything about them. They did not exist till Art had invented them. Now, it must be admitted, fogs are carried to excess. They have become the mere mannerism of a clique, and the exaggerated realism of their method gives dull people bronchitis. Where the cultured catch an effect, the uncultured catch cold. And so, let us be humane, and invite Art to turn her wonderful eyes elsewhere. She has done so already, indeed. That white quivering sunlight that one sees now in France, with its strange blotches of mauve, and its restless violet shadows, is her latest fancy, and, on the whole, Nature reproduces it quite admirably. Where she used to give us Corots and Daubignys, she gives us now exquisite Monets and entrancing Pissaros. Indeed there are moments, rare, it is true, but still to be observed from time to time, when Nature becomes absolutely modern. Of course she is not always to be relied upon. The fact is that she is in this unfortunate position. Art creates an incomparable and unique effect, and, having done so, passes on to other things. Nature, upon the other hand, forgetting that imitation can be made the sincerest form of insult, keeps on repeating this effect until we all become absolutely wearied of it. Nobody of any real culture, for instance, ever talks nowadays about the beauty of a sunset. Sunsets are quite old-fashioned. They belong to the time when Turner was the last note in art. To admire them is a distinct sign of provincialism of temperament. Upon the other hand they go on. Yesterday evening Mrs. Arundel insisted on my going to the window, and looking at the glorious sky, as she called it. Of course I had to look at it. She is one of those absurdly pretty Philistines to whom one can deny nothing. And what was it? It was simply a very second-rate Turner, a Turner of a bad period, with all the painter’s worst faults exaggerated and over-emphasised. Of course, I am quite ready to admit that Life very often commits the same error. She produces her false Renes and her sham Vautrins, just as Nature gives us, on one day a doubtful Cuyp, and on another a more than questionable Rousseau. Still, Nature irritates one more when she does things of that kind. It seems so stupid, so obvious, so unnecessary. A false Vautrin might be delightful. A doubtful Cuyp is unbearable. However, I don’t want to be too hard on Nature. I wish the Channel, especially at Hastings, did not look quite so often like a Henry Moore, grey pearl with yellow lights, but then, when Art is more varied, Nature will, no doubt, be more varied also. That she imitates Art, I don’t think even her worst enemy would deny now. It is the one thing that keeps her in touch with civilised man. But have I proved my theory to your satisfaction?”

 

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‘Everything in her, was the result of the chaos of an occasion’: Elena Ferrante’s ‘The Story of a New Name’

“When she closed the door behind her and, as if she were inside a white cloud of steam that made her invisible, took the metro to Campi Flegrei, Lila had the impression that she had left a soft space, inhabited by forms without definition, and was finally heading toward a structure that was capable of containing her fully, all of her, without her cracking or the figures around her cracking.”

The Story of a New Name, the second book in Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Novels, explodes into life like a meteor shower. It begins at Lila’s wedding, where it is already clear to Elena that her childhood friend’s decision to marry the up-and-coming neighbourhood grocer Stefano is a huge mistake, and one that will have tragic consequences. Feverishly moving between nihilism (“if nothing could save us, not money, not a male body, and not even studying, we might as well destroy everything immediately…”) and envy (“I saw myself identical to a dented bowl in which my sister Elisa used to feed a stray cat, until he disappeared, and the bowl stood empty, gathering dust on the landing…”), the marriage generates storm-clouds of conflicting emotions within her, which clash and produce the lightning-flash of her own hesitant, half-suppressed sexual desires. These, at last, find an outlet in her boyfriend, Antonio:

“We kissed without stopping, behind a tree, in the doorway of a building, along dark alleys. We took a bus, then another, and reached the station. We went towards the ponds on foot, still kissing each other on the nearly deserted street that skirted the railroad tracks… I wanted desire to find a violent satisfaction, capable of shattering that whole day… I said nothing else. I embraced him, I clasped him to me with all my strength. I would have liked to be caressed and kissed over every inch of my body, I felt the need to be rubbed, bitten, I wanted my breath to fail… My heart began to beat hard, I was afraid of the place, of myself, of the craving that possessed me to obliterate from my manners and from my voice the sense of alienation that I had discovered a few hours earlier… … yearning and anguished and guilty…”

With this, the stage is set. The Story of a New Name, which takes up the adventures of Elena and Lila, now sixteen years old, and their Neopolitan neighbourhood, is a story of sexual and emotional awakening, of the personal and the political coming together with an intimate violence, and – in the words of Charles Segal – of “the intransigence of reality before the plasticity of language” (and, we may add, the plasticity of desire). In the first book, My Brilliant Friend, we had seen the first hints of how the world impinges upon imagination, upon possibilities, and most of all, upon women’s freedom to fashion their own lives. In The Story of a New Name, the protagonists are older, their dreams more real and their desires more formed, and so they find reality to be even more implacably intransigent. “Words”, Elena tells herself at one point, “with them you can do and undo as you please.” But even words must fail before the “gluelike consistency” of time, the substance of which, now that the protagonists are seventeen, “no longer seemed fluid… but… churned around us like a yellow cream in a confectioner’s machine.”

Marriage – even a mistaken, bad marriage – destroys the possibilities of autonomy: “They had been consumed by the bodies of husbands, fathers, brothers, whom they ultimately came to resemble, because of their labors or the arrival of old age, of illness. When did that transformation begin? With housework? With pregnancies? With beatings?” Class forestalls the possibilities of love requited: “… the girl who came to meet Nino… was superior to us, just as she was, unwittingly. And this was unendurable.” Gender precludes the possibilities of academic excellence. To the coming-of-age heart, it is all quite unendurable:

“And then there was the lazy sea, the leaden sun that bore down on the gulf and the city, stray fantasies, desires, the ever-present wish to undo the order of the lines – and, with it, every order that required an effort, a wait for fulfillment yet to come – and yield, instead, to what was within reach, immediately gained, the crude life of the creatures of the sky, the earth, and the sea.”

But The Story of a New Name is not about a quiet surrender to the suffocating embrace of time and the world. There is a scene in which Lila and Elena are refashioning the display at the front of her family’s shoe shop window, to the utter chagrin of Lila’s brother and father. As they work together:

“We suspended time, we isolated space, there remained only the play of glue, scissors, paper, paint: the play of shared creation.”

And this, in a sentence, could be what The Story of a New Name is all about. Moments when time is suspended, space isolated, where “the play of… creation” becomes a question of authenticity, of authorship in a constraining world. These moments take different forms: a doomed extra-marital affair (or many), an undesired-yet-desired sexual encounter, an against-the-odds university education, and so on. They are moments of rebellion, of self-actualisation, and most of all, moments when women act in a world that denies them the very possibility of action.

Yet this is not to suggest that The Story of a New Name glorifies these acts of rebellion. More often than not, there is more ugliness than glory, more grit and slime than the music of the spheres, more breaking (frantumaglia) than making whole. This is not surprising. Ferrante’s material is the material of everyday life, her characters are excruciatingly, agonisingly, infuriatingly, human (and therefore us, and therefore, impossible to love). Yet even as she deals with the every day, Ferrante never drags us down to the level of a soap-opera. She manages to avoid the perils of both glorification and banality, and, instead – to borrow a phrase from the phenomenologists – takes us “to the things themselves“. In her writing, our submerged thoughts, our buried dreams and desires, the darkness that we keep secret even from ourselves, takes on flesh, shape, contours, reality. Hannah Arendt once wrote about Heidegger, that “he worked his way down to the roots of things, but rather than hauling them into the light, he left them embedded, merely opening up exploratory roots around them.” That is a perfect description of Ferrante.

In fact, the point is best explained by resorting – as ever – to Ferrante’s own language. Early in the book, while reading novels lent to her by her school Professor, Elena feels that “they presented intense lives, profound conversations, a phantom reality more appealing then my real life.” This is not Ferrante. At a later point, suffering from the agony of unrequited love, Elena “call[s]  on poems and novels as tranquilizers. Maybe, I thought, studying has been useful to me just for this: to calm myself.” This is not Ferrante either. Neither a phantom reality, nor a tranquiliser. Simply, the limits of what can be articulated.

Politics, as always, is a subtle yet unmistakable presence. At one point, Elena sees Stefano as cheerful: “he began to speak of Lila with the pride of someone possessing a rare object whose ownership confers great prestige… yet Lila, in his words, was no longer a person who couldn’t be controlled but a sort of precious fluid stored in a container that belonged to him.”  And then there’s Elena’s ambiguous, unequal relationship with Nino Sarratore:

“Have you read Federico Chabod? It was the only moment when Nino seemed to be annoyed. I realized that he didn’t know who Chabod was and from that I got an electrifying sensation of fullness. I began to summarise the little I had learned, but I quickly realized that to know, to compulsively display what he knew, was his point of strength and at the same time his weakness. He felt strong if he took the lead and weak if he lacked words. He darkened, in fact he stopped me almost immediately. He sidetracked the conversation, he started talking about the Regions, about how urgent it was to get them approved, about autonomy and decentralization, about economic planning on a regional basis, all things I had never heard a word about. No Chabod, then: I had left him the field… What were we doing? A discussion? Practicing for future confrontations with people who had learned to use words as we had? An exchange of signals to prove to ourselves that such words were the basis of a long and fruitful friendship? A cultivated screen for sexual desire? … But I also understood that there was no comparison with the exchanges I had had with Lila years earlier, which ignited my brain, and in the course of which we tore the words from each other’s mouth, creating an excitement that seemed like a storm of electrical charges. With Nino it was different. I felt that I had to pay attention to say what he wanted me to say, hiding from him both my ignorance, and the few things I knew and he didn’t.”

There is, I feel, more in there about gender, about patriarchy, and about structural privilege, than in a month of graduate school seminars. Or consider Elena’s first, painful introduction to class, at a party organised by her professor:

“And Nino, politely disagreeing with the professor, contradicted Armando, contradicted Carlo. I listened spellbound. Their words were buds that blossomed in my mind into more or less familiar flowers, and then I flared up, mimicking participation; or they manifested forms unknown to me, and I retreated, to hide my ignorance.” 

Unlike Nino, who “was profound in confronting the great problems of the world as he was superficial in the feelings of love“, Ferrante is equally adept at both.

Previously, while reviewing My Brilliant Friend, I had remarked upon Ferrante’s felicity with the perfect phrase, the almost achingly perfect choice of words, as though for her, language is no barrier to expression, but augments it. The Story of a New Name is simply more of the same. Whether it is describing the ambiguity of friendship and parting (“I had wished to diminish her in order not to feel her loss…”), the inexpressible pains of love (“Maybe he’s hurting himself inside, because the words, shouted in his throat like that, in his chest, but without exploding in the air, are like bits of sharp iron piercing his lungs and his pharynx…”), insecurity (“… as if the pure and simple fact that he loved me were the public sanctioning of my talents…”),  the ending of relationships (“… there are people who leave and people who know how to be left…”), or simply, pure rage against the constraints of the world (“At times she was overwhelmed by a mania to express herself with no mediation…”), after Ferrante has written it, you wonder how it could ever have been expressed differently.

After finishing The Story of a New Name, you take a deep, shuddering breath. You put the book down, and you go out for a walk, into a world that feels – as Ferrante writes – “… formed, reformed, deformed.” But a world that you recognise better than you did before you began the book.

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‘Every day I felt more strongly the anguish of not being in time’: Elena Ferrante’s ‘My Brilliant Friend’

“My father held tight to my hand as if he were afraid that I would slip away. In fact I had the wish to leave him, run, move, cross the street, be struck by the brilliant scales of the sea. At that tremendous moment, full of light and sound, I pretended I was alone in the newness of the city, new myself with all life ahead, exposed to the mutable fury of things but surely triumphant: I, I and Lila, we two with that capacity that together – only together – we had to seize the mass of colours, things, and people, and express it and give it power.”

In Charles Baudelaire’s poem, Le Soleil, the poet goes out into the streets questing for words. “Along the old street on whose cottages are hung/ The slatted shutters which hide secret lecheries,/ When the cruel sun strikes with increased blows/ The city, the country, the roofs, and the wheat fields,/ I go alone to try my fanciful fencing,/ Scenting in every corner the chance of a rhyme,/ Stumbling over words as over paving stones,/ Colliding at times with lines dreamed of long ago.” There is a sense of language as a physical obstruction, condensed in words such as “stumbling” and “colliding’, a barrier against expressing meaning. In the next two stanzas, Baudelaire turns to the sun for clarity: “This foster-father, enemy of chlorosis,/ Makes verses bloom in the fields like roses;/… commands crops to flourish and ripen/ In those immortal hearts which ever wish to bloom!” With the right catalyst, then, language (words) can serve to make the world “flourish and ripen”, replacing “chlorosis” with “bloom”.

On similar lines, the protagonist of Elena Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend (also called Elena), writes of her friend Lila: “… she took the facts and in a natural way charged them with tension; she identified reality as she reduced it to words, she injected it with energy.”  And this, I think, is the aptest description of Ferrante’s writing as well. To borrow a line from the Irish playwright Brien Friel, Ferrante’s novel is all about how “an experience, an event, even a small unimportant happening [can be] isolated, and assessed, and articulated.” It is not quite as simple as just glamourising the quotidian; rather, it is about taking that collage of human life – love, loss, friendship, growing up – and, like Baudelaire’s sun, casting a light upon the ordinary language of experience that makes it flourish, ripen, and bloom.

My Brilliant Friend is the first book in a four-volume series called The Neapolitan Novels. It is an account of a rough Neapolitan neighbourhood in the immediate aftermath of the Second World War, told through the eyes of the narrator, a young girl called Elena Greco. The novel features a generous ensemble of characters (James Wood calls it an “amiably peopled bildungsroman“), tracing out the intertwined lives of a number of families of the neighbourhood, a neighbourhood whose dense past hangs over it like a thick cloud of regret, unhappiness, and unresolved tension, and which continues to choke the lives of its residents: “and they thought that what had happened before was past and, in order to live quietly, they placed a stone on top of it, and so, without knowing it, they continued it, they were immersed in the things of before, and we kept them inside us too.”

At its heart, however, My Brilliant Friend is about the intense, passionate friendship between Elena and another girl her age, Lila. Like all things intense and passionate, it is never quite equal, and invariably causes Elena equal amounts of joy and pain. In the beginning, Lila’s fierce intelligence and fiercer wit makes her a subject of near-worshipful adoration. And although as they grow up, it is Lila who bends more to the demands of society and of convention, Elena can never quite shake off their initial equation, much though she tries (“… maybe I should erase Lila from myself like a drawing from the blackboard.”) The relationship between the two comes to define, to characterise, and to colour the world around, even as it presses in upon them, constricting their choices and suffocating their desires.

My Brilliant Friend has been called a ‘bildungsroman’, a coming-of-age novel. I’m not so sure. A significant part of it is, indeed, about how Elena’s interior landscape transforms and evolves in response to the world around her, and Ferrante describes this with rare sensitivity: “I was absorbing much of that sight, many things, too many, were scattering around me without letting me grasp them.”

Far more than that, however, My Brilliant Friend – as I wrote above – is about “isolating, assessing, and articulating” that core of experience that might (with some trepidation) be called “universal”. Many reviews respond to this by using adjectives such as “honest” and “authentic” (fraught words, both) to describe Ferrante’s writing. There is a kernel of truth there, of course, but that’s not all there is to it. Honesty of expression is all very well, but My Brilliant Friend has something more. Like the “sublimation of sorrow” that Adam Perry invokes to characterise how Virgil’s Aeneid transforms raw grief into art, what is unique about My Brilliant Friend is the range of experiences that it sublimates in this fashion. Consider, for instance, Elena’s musings as she reflects upon her fraught relationship with Lila, at one of its particularly low points: “I wanted her to be curious, to want at least a little to share my adventure from the outside, to feel she was losing something of me as I always feared losing much of her”; and “it was an old fear, a fear that has never left me: the fear that, in losing pieces of her life, mine lost intensity and importance.”

These are sentiments that we all, I suppose, have felt at one point or another (for my part, I can personally affirm to it). But they have been inarticulable: perhaps, partly, we fear to articulate them for what they reveal about ourselves; but perhaps, mostly, because they are buried so deep within us that they defy articulation. Ferrante – to go back t0 Baudelaire’s image – is the sun that casts its light upon them, illuminating them in a way that we can recognise them as our own, claim them, and yet (somehow) not be ashamed of them. That’s why “honesty” does not quite capture it – it is something more, something elusive and fleeting, almost unnameable. “Sublimation” is the best that I can come up with.

Yet more than this, Ferrante is also equal to the task of writing one of the most sensitive and difficult of experiences: the infinitesimally slow, yet infinitely painful process by which our childhood imaginations run up against the rocky shoals of the world, and after an agonising resistance (whether long or short), break upon it. Because of the structure of our society, this is something that I’m sure will resonate far more with Ferrante’s women readers than it will with men (and there are other scenes that will as well: “I myself – especially after the incident with the Solaras – had learned instinctively to lower our eyes, pretend not to hear the obscenities they directed at us, and keep going.“) But consider this:

“… she was struggling to find, from inside the cage in which she was enclosed, a way of being, all her own, that was still obscure to her.”

I cannot think of a word out of place, a word that is not perfect in this pellucid half-sentence. I think of Elizabeth Bishop’s One Art, with its last, almost desperate cry of Write it! – write it so that it can be named, so that language can save us from the wilderness of unsayable sorrows, so that words can anchor us safe from the “terrifying ambiguity of… experience.” Ferrante writes it. And who can be the same again after reading this frisson-inducing account of Elena bathing Lila a few hours before her wedding:

“At the time it was just a tumultuous sensation of necessary awkwardness, a state in which you cannot avert the gaze or take away the hand without recognizing your own turmoil, without, by that retreat, declaring it, hence without coming into conflict with the undisturbed innocence of the one who is the cause of the turmoil, without expressing by that rejection the violent emotion that overwhelms you, so that it forces you to stay, to rest your gaze on the childish shoulders, on the breasts and stiffly cold nipples, on the narrow hips and the tense buttocks, on the black sex, on the long legs, on the tender knees, on the curved ankles, on the elegant feet; and to act as if it’s nothing when instead everything is there, present, in the poor dim room, amid the worn furniture, on the uneven, water-stained floor, and your heart is agitated, your veins inflamed.”

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