Category Archives: Literary Studies/Criticism/Theory

Addendum: Edward Said and Colm Toibin

Coincidentally, soon after finishing Colm Toibin’s The South, I came across the following lines in Edward Said’s Culture & Imperialism, analysing the novels of Flaubert and Conrad:

“Unlike Robinson Crusoe on his island, these modern versions of the imperialist who attempts self-redemption are doomed ironically to suffer interruption and distraction, as what they had tried to exclude from their island worlds penetrates anyway. The covert influence of imperial control in Flaubert’s imagery of solitary imperiousness is striking when juxtaposed with Conrad’s overt representations.

Within the codes of European fiction, these interruptions of an imperial project are realistic reminders that no one can in fact withdraw from the world into a private version of reality.”

The constant impingement of the world into increasingly desperate, and increasingly doomed, attempts to create a private reality is, I feel, one of the central concerns in Toibin’s The South.

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“… in squalid and ferocious geometry”: Italo Calvino, ‘The Road to San Giovanni’

“What had the cinema meant to me in this context? I suppose: distance. It satisfied a need for distance, for an expansion of the boundaries of the real, for seeing immeasurable dimensions open up all around me, abstract as geometric entities, yet concrete too, crammed full of faces and situations and settings which established an (abstract) network of relationships with the world of direct experience.”

Reading Italo Calvino is like trying to grasp a fistful of clouds and mist. His words, phrases, sentences arrange themselves into constellations that are suggestive of familiar experiences, when seen from a far distance; but their suggestiveness depends upon suspending the concrete ways in which we relate to the world, and embarking upon a wild leap of imagination. For me, this leap is possible only for momentary instances, that split second in which you’re suspended in mid-air, before gravity grounds you again. This is why I think of his writing as clouds and mist – in its distance-yet-nearness, its affinity to touch, yet resistance to being grasped and held, and its momentariness.

The Road to San Giovanni is a fascinating collection of five essays, because it begins with Calvino’s self-reflective, autobiographical journey, which gives us a glimpse of how his mind came to transmute the concrete into cloud and mist – and then demonstrates that mind at work (without quite losing that critical distance to fiction). The first two essays – The Road to San Giovanni and A Cinema-Goer’s Autobiography – are in the first category, before a gradual, almost imperceptible shift from reflections upon method to the method itself, until in the last essay – Calvino’s musings upon his aesthetic – style an content have become almost as blurred as they are in his fiction.

In the opening, eponymous essay – The Road to San Giovanni – Calvino recalls accompanying his father on the morning walk from their house to their farm at San Giovanni. Calvino draws a vivid picture of his father’s earthiness – his love of plants, his deep knowledge of their taxonomy, his daily proximity to the ‘natural’ world – before sharply setting it against his own, contrarian slowly-forming consciousness:

“To my father’s mind, words must serve as confirmations of things, and as signs of possession; to mine they were foretastes of things barely glimpsed, not possessed, presumed. My father’s vocabulary welled outward into the interminable catalogue of the genuses, species and varieties of the vegetable world – every name was a distinction plucked from the dense compactness of the forest in the belief that one had thus enlarged man’s dominion – and into technical terminology, where the exactness of the word goes hand in hand with the studied exactness of the operation… I could recognize not a single plant or bird. The world of things was mute for me. The words that flowed and flowed inside my head weren’t anchored to objects but to emotions, fantasies, forebodings. And all it took was for a scrap of newspaper to find its way beneath my feet and I would be engrossed in soaking up the writing on it, mutilated and unmentionable – names of theatres, actresses, vanities – and already my mind would be racing off, the sequence of images would go on for hours and hours as I walked silently behind my father.”

This idea – that words do not describe (or, for that matter, construct) reality, but are “foretastes of things bearely glimpsed, not possessed, presumed“, is (I think) at the heart of all Calvino’s writing. Think of The Castle of Crossed Destinies, where allegory is piled upon allegory, a set of worlds imagined and connected through a structure of overlapping – yet chaotically arranged – tarot cards. Or think of Invisible Cities, invisible only to sensory perception, but cities that we have all imagined, in fragments and in parts. Nietzsche described words as rainbow bridges (rainbows — presenting the illusion of a pot of gold at their ever-receding end, much like words hold out the illusory promise of conclusion and possession upon their mastery?) – and truly, in reading Calvino, I often feel as though I’m walking on a rainbow-bridge, with the only thing holding me up are the fragile and ambiguous strands of imagination.

The concrete is a source of disenchantment. So Calvino describes the neat symmetry of farmland as a “squalid and ferocious geometry.” In On the Road, Jack Kerouac writes about how the Greeks, with their passion for symmetry, balance and geometry, got their aesthetics hopelessly wrong. Calvino, like Kerouac, rebels against this sense of conclusion, of finality, and of control – although in a very different way.

It is not, however, that Calvino is entirely convinced of his way. In The Road to San Giovanni, he describes his dissociation with his father’s way of life as  “the loss that I inflicted on myself, the thousands of losses we inflict on ourselves and for which there is no making amends.” But it would seem to be a necessary – if tragic – loss, because, as he writes in A Cinema Goer’s Autobiography, we all need to find something that allows us to relate to the world in a way that gives it fullness, necessity and coherence – and this, in a way that he describes as:

“… a need for distance, for an expansion of the boundaries of the real, for seeing immeasurable dimensions open up all around me, abstract as geometric entities, yet concrete too, crammed full of faces and situations and settings which established an (abstract) network of relationships with the world of direct experience.”

“Abstract, yet concrete too” may sound like a strange paradox, but for me, the paradox dissolves when I think – again – of his writing as clouds and mist, or as a constellation: concrete in the sense of a part of our world, embedded in the here and the now of sensory perception, but abstract in the sense of not being completed by it. Perhaps this is best exemplified in Memories of a Battle, where Calvino describes (I use the word “describes” in its loosest sense) a battle that he participated in on the side of the Partisans during World War II. In a short essay, Calvino invokes seven different images and metaphors to “describe” memory, each time hinting at its incompleteness. Memories are “sandgrains… in the damp bed of sand deposited on the bottom of the stream of thought.” They are “lurking like eels in the pools of the mind“, needing to be stirred so that they can rise to the surface. They constitute the “trail… that crumble[s] under pressure“, like their trail towards the besieged village on the night of battle. They are uncertain, like the “uncertainty of the light and the season and what was to follow.” They are buried “under the sedimentary crust of hindsight.” They are at a valley bottom, and Calvino fears that “as soon as memory forms it immediately takes on the wrong light, mannered, sentimental as war and youth always are, becomes a piece of narrative written in the style of the time, which can’t tell us how things really were but only how we thought we saw them, thought we said them.” And lastly, memory is like a “broken net“, that holds some things, but nor others. What unites these very diverse set of images is an echoing sense of uncertainty and distance, which – in turn – is made vaguely concrete by Calvino’s choice of precisely those images that are in some loose way connected with the night of battle.

“Just steep gorges, beds of dry streams overrun by brambles and ferns, smooth pebbles your hobnail shoes slither on, and we’re still at the beginning of the approach march, just as it’s an approach march I’m trying to make now on the trail of memories that crumble under pressure, not visual memories because it was a moonless starless night, memories of my body slithering in the dark, with half a plate of chestnuts in my stomach…”

But in La Poubelle Agreee, a meditation upon garbage disposal in Paris, Calvino becomes far more circumspect, acknowledging that this world of gossamer webs is only made possible by the very real. In one of the most direct observations of the book, he notes that “our genteel lifestyle seemed guaranteed for all eternity by the availability of cheap labour…”, before going on to echo Aristotle’s understanding of the public/private divide (albeit in a very different way):

“…that heaven of ideas in which we undeservedly soar (or imagine we soar) and which can exist only in so far as we are not overwhelmed by the waste with which every act of living incessantly produces.”

But much like The Road to San Giovanni, this understanding is fleeting. By the time we come to the last essay – Calvino’s reflections upon his own style – the concrete has disappeared entirely, and we are back in world of mist and clouds. But I think that those observations in The Road to San Giovanni and La Poubelle Agreee remain crucial, because they show that Calvino possesses the self-awareness to know and understand what it takes for those clouds and mist to exist. Less Wilde’s clarion call of “art for art’s sake“, this is more reminiscent of those immortal lines of Auden:

Nor ask what doubtful act allows

Our freedom in this English house

Our picnics in the sun.”

And it this self-awareness, I feel, that adds immeasurable depth and richness to this book.

 

 

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“…language, which is free and untouched by occupation?”: Colm Toibin, Love in a Dark Time: Gay Lives from Wilde to Almodovar

In the introduction to this set of elegant essays, Colm Toibin lays out his purpose. “Other communities who have been oppressed,” he says, “– Jewish people, say, or Catholics in Northern Ireland – have every opportunity to work out the implications of their oppression in their early lives. They hear the stories; they have the books around them. Gay people, on the other hand, grow up alone; there is no history. There are no ballads about the wrongs of the past, the martyrs are all forgotten.” He goes on to invoke Adrienne Rich’s famous saying – “as if you looked into a mirror and saw nothing.” This is perhaps not entirely apposite. The whole quotation begins in the following way: “those who have the power to name and construct social reality choose not to see you or hear you…” Indeed, Rich’s concern is not merely with the construction of a canon, and what it excludes, but the construction of language itself. In The Burning of Paper instead of Children, she writes:

“knowledge of the oppressor
this 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)”

Interestingly, in his chapter on Thomas Mann, Toibin quotes the opposite sentiment. In his post-war visits to both West and East Germany, Mann writes: “Who ought to guarantee and represent the unity of Germany if not an independent writer whose true home, as I have said, is the language, which is free and untouched by occupation?” One feels that Rich might have had something to say about that last bit. After all, as Marina Warner writes, in a beautiful essay called Watch Your Tongues:

“The speaking woman, her tongue freed by the ability to write as well as read, found that the emblem books were still filled with the iconology of female wantonness and frailty and their contradictory companions, fatality and power… women often had to work with the grain of misogyny, and then found the timber broke their tools.”

Toibin, while appreciating the pervasive power of language and image to construct a world, is less pessimistic. In his essay on Thom Gunn, while remarking upon the frankness with which he addresses homosexuality in his poetry, he observes:

“The world from Shakespeare to contemporary advertising has been so full of images of heterosexuality that no one notices, but these images are nonetheless absorbed into the most secret and private part of the self. This hidden part of the gay self remains hungry for such ratifying images; it most fully recognizes this need when the need is satisfied, the silence broken, the words spelled out quite naturally, without a second thought.”

This assumes, of course, that words can be spelt out “quite naturally, without a second thought”, without the heaviness of a long, conflicted history. Toibin’s faith that language and culture can be reclaimed simply by virtue of their use is reflected in his wry observation, in his essay on Francis Bacon, about Bacon and Miro’s “denial that [they] made preparatory drawings… for the ears of the Surrealists, who viewed such a thought-out preparation for a painting as a sort of treachery, a betrayal of the power of the unconscious.” Surrealism’s commitment to breaking the hegemony of imposed structures through a method of spontaneity is, of course, well-known, but neither Bacon nor Toibin seem to consider it an urgent necessity. And in his essay on James Baldwin, Toibin chooses to quote the now-famous passage on appropriation:

“[I brought] a special attitude to Shakespeare, Bach, Rembrandt, to the stones of Paris, to the cathedral of Chartres, and to the Empire State Building… these were not really my creations; they did not contain my history; I might search in vain forever for any reflection of myself. I was an interloper; this was not my heritage. At the same time I had no other heritage which I could possibly hope to use – I had certainly been unfitted for the jungle and the tribe. I would have to appropriate those white centuries, I would have to make them mine.”

So while it would have been interesting to have a critique of language from the point of view of sexuality, as Rich and Warner have done for gender, Toibin’s ambition in Love in a Dark Time is rather more modest. He takes nine famous 20th century artists, all of whom were admittedly homosexual, whose sexuality either brought them to grief, or is simply airbrushed out of memory – and tries to illuminate that ‘area of darkness’ – their sexuality – and its connection to their work. Yet, this is not to be dismissed as a crude attempt at creating – or re-creating – an artistic canon. Toibin’s pain at the ignorance about gay lives is matched only by his terror of caricature, of reducing an artist to his sexuality, of feeding the myth of the ‘tragic queer’. This gives Love in a Dark Time an ambiguous tone, that neatly dovetails with the ambiguous lives lead by most of its principal subjects.

Toibin must walk a tightrope. He must focus on the sexuality of his nine chosen artists, while rejecting simplistic explanations about the relationship between their sexuality and their art. He must illuminate sexuality and its inextricable connection with art, without casting so bright a glare that it overwhelms everything else. For the most part, he walks it well, and it gives the book – to use a description by Robert Lowell of Elizabeth Bishop’s work – “something in motion, weary but persistent.” 

Perhaps the key lies in his choice of subjects. Three of the nine (Oscar Wilde, Roger Casement, Francis Bacon) are Irish – a fraught identity in its own right (and one closest to Toibin’s heart – it is perhaps unsurprising that those three chapters are amongst the longest and most detailed, and their lives are the most lovingly excavated ones in the book). James Baldwin is at the intersection of race and sexuality (Toibin details his struggles to break out of the trope of the “black writer”), and Elizabeth Bishop at the intersection of gender and sexuality. Toibin seems to have paid special heed to Amartya Sen’s warnings against the totalising effects of a single identity, because even his other selections – Thom Gunn, Mark Doty and Thomas Mann (I discount the essay on Pedro Almodovar, which seems almost to be a hasty afterthought) resist easy categorisation, both of their work and their lives. Like Eliot’s observation about James, which he quotes, what Toibin is most concerned with is to prevent – both himself, and his account of his subjects – from being “penetrated by an idea.”

The realisation that his subjects evade easy or definite classifications pervades Toibin’s consideration of their work. The haunting, uncertain quality of the artists’ work leaks into the pages of the book. For instance, Toibin’s account of Bacon’s Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion is perhaps one of the finest passages in the book:

“There is a sense of overwhelming pain here, but experienced by a creature who has known language, howling out a word rather than a cry, or a cry that has the memory of a word.”

Many of the figures that Toibin writes about are “tragic”, in any sense of the word. Wilde was imprisoned and broken for his homosexuality, Casement was executed, Doty’s partner died of HIV. It would be easy to let tragedy overwhelm and define them, but Toibin is always on his guard against reductiveness. At the end of the book, we are left with a conflicted, ambiguous and uncertain sense of the many intersections of art and aesthetics, politics and sexuality, the individual and her circumstances. As in art, so in life, Toibin seems to be telling us: there are no easy conclusions.

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Oscar Wilde and Abanindranath Tagore

A few years ago, while wading through Oscar Wilde’s essays, I came across his discussion of the relationship between art and life in The Decay of the Art of Lying. Written in the form of a dialogue between Cyril (the interlocutor) and Vivian (the aesthete), the essay first lays out Wilde’s objections to the traditional Aristotelian aphorism, that “art imitates life”  (or, the allied claim, justifying naturalism/realism, that the role of art is to faithfully imitate life), because that “would reduce genius to the position of a cracked looking-glass.” Through Vivian, Wilde then develops his own counter-view, i.e., that “life imitates Art, that Life in fact is the mirror, and Art the reality.” Cyril is, naturally, disbelieving. Vivian explains:

“A great artist invents a type, and Life tries to copy it, to reproduce it in a popular form, like an enterprising publisher… Life holds the mirror up to Art, and either reproduces some strange type imagined by painter or sculptor, or realises in fact what has been dreamed in fiction… Scientifically speaking, the basis of life–the energy of life, as Aristotle would call it – -is simply the desire for expression, and Art is always presenting various forms through which this expression can be attained… 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.”

I understand Wilde to be arguing that our experience of the world is always mediated by our mind, and that this mediation involves the process of imposing meaning (or patterns?) upon pure sense-impression. That, in turn, is derived from prior experiences and, primarily, experiences of art. In a sense, I think the argument is similar to the one about how language both creates and limits the possibilities of imagining and constructing the world. For instance, as this fascinating piece argues, part of the project of the Surrealist writers (through the idea of automatic language) was to ensure the liberation of the mind by causing “language, its traditional structure (syntax, morphology, semantics and phonology, to varying degrees) and expectations… to be destroyed and rebuilt… their words create a derangement of the senses (to borrow Rimbaud’s idea), and of the status quo, because the traditional order of language, of the written word, has been almost completely eviscerated.” Thus, also, later in the essay, Vivian memorably remarks, “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.

Today, while wandering through the rooms of the National Gallery of Modern Art in Bangalore, I came across a quotation by Abanindranath Tagore that reminded me powerfully and vividly of Wilde. Tagore writes:

“I have noticed that when you have to paint a beautiful landscape you go to the garden or a riverbank and start painting the tree, plants, flowers and animals from observation. I wonder at this effort of yours to capture beauty in such a cheap trap. Do you realise that beauty is not something external and that it lies deep within. Soak your heart first in the shower of Kalidasa’s poetry, ten lift your eyes towards the sky. You will then appreciate the eternal rhythm of the ever-fresh cloud messenger. First soak yourself in the great poet Valmiki’s description of the sea and then proceed to paint a sea of your own.”

The similarities are interesting. Wilde and Tagore both take a categorically anti-realist position. Both of them think that what is all-important is beauty, and that beauty does not lie in the world, but in how we imagine the world through the medium of art. And they both argue that art is aesthetically anterior to the world, to nature, and to life. “Life imitates art.”

At the NGMA, Abanindranath Tagore’s style of painting was compared to expressionism. It set me thinking about the contrast with impressionism. Zola described Monet as opening “a window into nature.” It is written that for impressionism, ‘the painter’s proper field is the actual, and to give a vivid impression of how a thing happens to look, at a particular moment, is the essence of his vision.’ (Sue Roe, The Private Lives of the Impressionists) So while the impressionists broke with tradition in attempting to capture movement and rhythm, “the actual moment during which the viewer looks at the scene, which, composd as it is of reflected and ever-changing lights, palpitates with movement, light, and life” (Mallarme), it was still an attempt at accurately representing the world. Expressionism aimed at the opposite effect. It made me wonder about the exact nature of the connection between Wilde’s aesthetics and expressionist art.

 

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Filed under Aesthetics, Expressionism, Literary Studies/Criticism/Theory, Oscar Wilde

Inter-textuality: Nasser and Marquez

One of the things I enjoy most, as a reader, is to spot how writers, separated in time, space, culture, and language – nonetheless often end up using very similar words and expressions to convey similar sentiments. The most spectacular form that this takes is using an identical image, but often, even non-imagery based similarities are quite striking. Recently, I read Amjad Nasser’s Land of No Rain, (a part of) Mario Vargas Llosa’s’ The Dream of the Celt and Gabriel Garcia Marquez’ Love in the Time of Cholera, and was, indeed, struck by the similarities between the Jordanian and the two Latin Americans.

Reflecting on nostalgia, Nasser writes:

Nostalgia amplifies things. The memory preserves tastes and smells and images that are of its own making, or that are not as they were in reality.”

And:

Or does the extraordinary power of nostalgia exaggerate what was minor and erase the marginal, the peripheral, the accompanying symptoms, while preserving the stable essence, an elixir that might be of nostalgia’s own making, impervious to the ravages of time?”

And in Love in the Time of Cholera, Marquez writes:

He was still too young to know that the heart’s memory eliminates the bad and magnifies the good, and thanks to this artifice we manage to endure the burden of the past.”

The similarities between these turns of phrase, and some of the best passages from Proust in Swann’s Way would also present an interesting study.

As I mentioned in my review, a large part of Land of No Rain is about split identities within the same person, to the point where the two narrative selves of the same narrator enter into conversation and argumentation with each other. Unfortunately, I did not take down a representative quote, but was intrigued when, at the beginning of The Dream of the Celt (which, just like Land of No Rain, is about revolution), Llosa quotes Jose Enrique Rodo:

Each one of us is not one, but many. And these successive personalities that emerge one from the other tend to present the strangest, most astonishing contrasts among themselves.

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“All things counter, original, spare, strange”: Poetic Philosophy through the Ages?

A while ago, I observed that when T.S. Eliot, in his book of literary criticism, The Sacred Wood, says that good poetry must aim at “that perpetual slight alteration of language, words perpetually juxtaposed in new and sudden combinations” – he is echoing the aesthetic arguments of the Russian defamiliarists, in particular, Victor Shklovsky who, four years before, in 1917, had written:

“… 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.“ 

It seems that the Romantics (first generation and second generation) were on to something similar a hundred years before. In Biographia Literaria, Coleridge writes the following about Wordsworth:

Mr. Wordsowrth… was to… give the charm of novelty to things of every day… by awakening the mind’s attention from the lethargy of custom, and directing it to the loveliness and the wonders of the world before us… but for which in consequence of the film of familiarity and selfish solicitude we have eyes, yet see not, ears that hear not, and hearts that neither feel nor understand.

The similarity is striking not only because the same word “familiarity” is used in the same context, but the entire sense of the two paragraphs is very proximate. Both Shklovsky and Coleridge lament the moribund nature of custom that deadens and dulls our perception of the world into something; and both advocate the point of art (poetry) to be – through defamiliarisation – to reawaken this perception to its full and rich state: so that we can feel things and the stone is made stony (Shklovsky), so that the eyes, ears and heart can see, hear and feel again (Coleridge).

And today, while reading Shelley’s Defence of Poetry, I came across this paragraph:

Poetry lifts the veil from the hidden beauty of the world, and makes familiar objects be as if they were not familiar.”

Followed by:

[Poetry] makes us inhabitants of a world to which the familiar world is a chaos. It reproduces the common universe of which we are portions and percipients, and it purges from our inward sight the film of familiarity which obscures from us the wonder of our being… it creates new the universe after it has been annihilated in our minds by the recurrence of impressions blunted by reiteration. It justifies that bold and true word of Tasso – non merita nome del creator, se non Iddio el di Poeta.”

Shelley is, of course, very evidently channeling Coleridge here, and elaborating upon the basic point: familiarity suppresses beauty by casting a veil (of commonality?) over it; poetry tears down this veil and reveals beauty to us through defamiliarising the sensations and perceptions that we have come to expect and become accustomed to. He is also channeling Wordsworth himself, who in Lyrical Ballads spoke of how extraordiness can serve as an act of “reforming perception.”

The irony here, of course, is that Eliot had a famously low opinion of the romantics – and yet they both seem to have been subscribing to a broadly similar philosophy of poetry.

But I think the most striking statement of this philosophy comes neither from the romantics, nor from the modernists, but from a representative of the intervening period – Gerard Manley Hopkins, Victorian poet, famous for the sprung rhythm. In Pied Beauty, Hopkins puts it pithily – and perfectly:

All things counter, original, spare and strange…

Counter – against the grain, and therefore, unfamiliar; original – by definition, un-imitated, and therefore unfamiliar; spare – in old English – meant “scant”, or rare – and therefore, unfamiliar; strange – naturally, unfamiliar by virtue of being so. What I like best about Hopkins is that while Coleridge, Shelley, Shklovsky and Eliot all express their philosophy of sensing-beauty-through-defamiliarisation through prose, Hopkins does it through poetry – and increases the impact tenfold. It is something similar – but not identical – to Blake expressing his philosophy in a single line of pure magic:

To be an error, and to be cast out, is a part of God’s design.” 

Of course, I’d like to believe that god’s design is at least, in part, aesthetic perfection, in which case Blake would join the illustrious list cited above, but that apart – I think it’s quite fascinating how poets separated by centuries, poets belonging to very different – and in fact, diametrically opposed schools of poetry, poets who would differ fundamentally on aspects such as rhyme, metre, vocabulary, scansion – nonetheless seem to agree on the most fundamental issues of them all: at the ultimately abstract level, what is poetry for, and how must the poet fulfill his task?

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“This world is an orphanage for fallen stars”: narrative, war and orientalism in Ismail Kadare’s “The Siege”

A few months ago I read – and was utterly bewitched by – Ismail Kadare’s beautiful and complex explorations into oral epic and national culture in the wonderful The File on H (reviewed here). The Siege continues with some similar themes, dealing with the intertwined relationships between myth, war, history and the construction of a national narrative. Brilliant as Kadare is at this, The Siege also has, I believe, some serious problem: both in terms of its formal characteristics as a work of literature and, insofar as the two can be separated, its politics – problems that undermine its value as a work of art. So let me try to explain.

The Siege is a novel about an Ottoman Army’s attempts to besiege and capture an unnamed borderland Albanian fortress, at an unnamed time. Somewhere towards the end of the book, the army’s architect is called away to the capital to prepare for the assault on Constantinople; since Constantinople fell in 1453, we can fix the approximate date of events as 1450, which would put it right in the middle of the Ottoman Empire-Albania wars, about twenty years before the ultimate defeat of the Albanian kingdom. What is particularly interesting about The Siege is that the story, written by an Albanian writer, writing at the time of a fever pitch of nationalism (the 1960s, during the height of Enver Hoxha’s Stalinist regime), is nonetheless told from the point of view of the Turks, the invading army – in particular, from the perspective of the Turkish chronicler, Mevla Celebi, and detailing – apart from the events of the siege – the interactions and conversations between a few of his close friends in the army. The perspectives of the Christian soldiers in the fortress are, on the other hand, told through the account of one unnamed warrior, occurring as brief, one-page interludes between chapters. Ostensibly, then, this is about the war as seen by the separate, individual participants of one side – the side that the reader is not expected to sympathise with, either in the abstract, or in the concrete context of the writing of this novel. That, in itself, makes it unique.

The first, striking thing that one must mention about Kadare, I suppose, is his use of language. His use of adjectives and verbs to establish image and atmosphere is brilliant. In particular, it is the economy and precision of his language – and the corresponding swiftness and accuracy of the vision that it imposes upon the reader’s mind – that is particularly worthy of comment. “A faint glow,” he tells us, was “leaking out of the tents.” Banners “swim like flotsam over the turbid ocean of soldiers.” There are people who are “craftsmen in the rotting and corroding of nations.” And this, one of the best descriptions of a battle-scene that I have read, astoundingly effective in its very sparseness and brevity:

A thick pall of yellowish dust obscured parts of the tableau from time to time, just as it revealed others more horrible as it slowly moved away on the wind.

Demystification seems to be a common theme with Eastern European writers, living as they did under brutal Stalinist regimes that depended, for their survival, on maintaining false consciousness through myth, allegory and narrative. Many passages in The Siege are strongly reminiscent of Milan Kundera’s Life is Elsewhere. While Kundera wants to demystify love and revolution, Kadare’s theme is war. As Mevla watches war preparations at the beginning of the siege, he thinks to himself that “… no chronicle ever mentioned the tying and untying of soldiers’ backpacks. As for flea-hunting, that was never spoken of either… pay was also never mentioned in that kind of narrative.” This theme is repeated throughout the novel. Beautiful images of the army are turned into the language of flotsam and jestam. And right at the very end, when an attempt to take the fortress by introducing the plague into it through infected animals has failed, the doctor tells Mevla, with some degree of bitterness:  “I’m sure you’ll manage not to write about rats in your chronicle” – accepting, as it is, the fact that chronicles and accounts portray an aestheticised, romanticised vision of war that is fundamentally at odds with the grimy, dirty business that it actually is. Kadare is unsparing even in death: as the commander goes to his, “he would have liked to have thought a sublime thought, but he could not.” War is ignominious – and so is death.

Much like in The File on H, Kadare is at his best when dealing with how myth and narrative intertwine with politics and the construction of a national identity. As the siege wears on, the Turks wonder why the Albanians – led by their charismatic and mysterious leader, Skanderberg – are bent upon a resistance that is so evidently futile. Not so the Quartermaster-general of the Turkish army, who understands Skanderberg’s motivations only too well:

“He’s in the process of achieving an uncommon exploit… an extraordinary exploit… just now I was telling you about the heavens where people put their relics for safekeeping… well, as from now, that man is aiming for the heavens… I don’t know if you get my meaning. He’s trying to create a second Albania, outside anyone’s reach, a kind of immaterial Albania. So that when one day this Albania, the terrestrial one, falls to the Empire, that other, ghostly Albania, its shadow-self, will go on wandering among the clouds… do you see what I mean? He’s devoted himself to a task which almost nobody has ever thought of before… how to reuse a defeat. Or, to put it another way, the eternal recycling of defeat in battle… you see Mevla, he’s trying to oblige us to fight his shadow. To vanquish a ghost, so to speak, the image of his own defeat. But how can you overcome a defeat, a rout? It’s like trying to hollow out a ravine. It already is hollow! You could make no different to it, whereas you could yourself fall into it…” 

The idea, of course, is that resistance – even futile, doomed resistance – engenders a narrative that exists parallel to physical conquest, and is bound to outlast it. Almost perversely, it is the inevitability of conquest and the futility of physical resistance that ensures that the narrative itself is more tightly-knit, stronger and built to endure for longer. And it is that narrative that creates something that did not exist before it, before its own creation out of an unequal battle – an Albania that goes beyond physical borders, rocks, trees, stones, rivers, an agglomeration of human beings – but rather, an Albania that exists in legends, stories and songs, a collection of narratives bound together by the common theme of resisting an invincible enemy, a theme that coheres and unites them, and constructs a unified Albania – an Albania that, because it only exists in the collective mind of the people (a collectivity that in itself has come into being because of the way that the narrative has been shaped out of communal resistance) is, by its very nature, indestructible. The Quartermaster-General understands precisely what is at stake, therefore, when he speaks of their plans after completing the physical conquest:

“We will leave the people their faith. As for their language, for the time being we will only prohibit it from being written down.”

Because language, of course (not religion, but language) – and, in particular, written language is what ensures the continuity and coherence of the narrative, and thus, in turn, the continued indestructibility of Albania, dormant but not dead, only suppressed until the time comes when the physical conditions are right once more. As the Quartermaster-General points out, that is the only way in which Skanderberg can win – with a timeframe that spans generations:

For the moment he is dragging Albania into the abyss, believing that he is making his nation unattainable, in his own image, by making it also pass out of its own time, into another dimension. He may well be right. It would be pointless for us to try to separate Skanderberg from Albania. Even if we wanted to we would not be able to do it… what he’s working towards is to give Albania a cloud of invulnerability, to give it a form which casts it up and beyond the vicissitudes of the present – a metaform, it I may say, which makes it able to resucitate… he is trying to crucify Albania, as their God was crucified, so that like Christ, Albania will be resurrected. He doesn’t care whether it is on the third day, the third century, or the third millennium after his death… what matters is his vision of the future.

So, just as the very crucifixion of Christ ensured his immortality by ensuring the construction of a myth around his person, so too does the (physical) crucifixion of Albania in battle ensure its own survival until the time of resurrection.

One last point about the positive qualities of this book ought, I believe, to be mentioned: the details of the siege are meticulously – even painstakingly – researched, and presented with a fine attention to detail. As a piece of military history, it makes for fine reading.

Now, on to the problems. The most glaring, in my opinion, is the characterisation (or lack thereof). At no point, it seems to me, thus Kadare attempt to make us care about his primary characters. We are not told their back-stories. We are told very little about their thoughts and perceptions outside of their observations of the siege, and themes associated with that. They are, of course, individuals – make no mistake about that – but individuals with whom it is very difficult to sympathise, whose tragedies it is difficult to be moved by, whose joys it is nearly impossible to share in, because we simply do not know them well enough to feel for them. Perhaps that is the idea – again, considering the context – but it makes for bad novelistic practice, especially because the event itself (a military siege) is fairly commonplace (unless you’re a historically -inclined Albanian with a nationalistic streak).

But now, onto a more serious problem. Kadare’s work betrays, at many points, a near-shockingly uncritical application of some of the most common Orientalist tropes. The work of Edward Said, in particular, Orientalism and Culture and Imperialism, provides a particularly acute critical vision. To the most serious charge that Said lays against the Orientalists, Kadare is not guilty – he does not reduce his orientals to a nameless, faceless mass – his story does have individuals (not very well-drawn individuals, as I suggested above, but individuals nonetheless). But that is where the good news ends. Viciousness, cruelty, tyranny, irrationalism, unpredictably and mysticism – all qualities attributed to the “East”, as Said demonstrates, in order to contrast it to the more Occidental – and perceivedly superior – qualities such as rationality, self-discipline, enlightened free thought – are in full play. The pre-War battle dance of the dervishes is described with all the fascinated horror of a Richard Burton in Mecca; show-trials and random executions, expressly for the purpose of maintaining army morale, become more and more frequent as time goes on, with the express involvement of some of the most sympathetic and intelligent Turk characters, such as the Quartermaster-General (compare this, for instance, with how two of the Christian soldiers are only sent to jail for raising their weapons against each other right in the middle of the siege). The strict hierarchical nature and instances of personal tyranny abound; it is no surprise, therefore, that there comes a time when the mask falls, and we find this statement:

“What we saw spread out beneath us was Asia in all its mysticism and barbarity, a dark grave ready to swallow us all.”

This could be right out of a Said book, the part where he demonstrates through examples. Of course, one may argue that this is actually said by one of the Chritisn soldiers, and Kadare in no need subscribe to this view – but much like the similar response made to claims of Joseph Conrad’s racism, the critical point is that Kadare makes absolutely no effort to dissociate the writer’s voice – his own voice – from the expression of such opinions, and such absence must be taken to mean at least implied, tacit support. And such a crude usage of the most unsubtle of orientalist tropes makes for, I think, a serious weakness in the book as a whole.

Nonetheless, and despite such misgivings – the book is most certainly worth a read – especially after The File on H.

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Filed under Albania, Edward Said, European Writing, Ismail Kadare, Postcolonial Theory