Friday, July 24, 2015

Ad infinitum

It has taken me until now to realise that all the objects that we imagine ourselves to be surrounded by in Ulvi Haagensen's latest solo exhibition, Ad infinitum, at Defiance Gallery -- each apparent tea towel tucked onto its apparent hook -- the spectral clothesline perfectly, wantonly pegged (how I cram my own line!) -- a bobbing poppy field of vacuum cleaners -- a propped mop, stilled aprons -- that all of these conjured objects are themselves so alluring, so magical to me, precisely because the 'unimportant work', as Haagensen calls it, is the very work that I find most troubling of all -- this work whose restful, simple and rarely celebrated monotony and value has never had any simplicity for me whatsoever: I have to suspect that I have never felt it to be monotonous enough, so difficult I still find it -- never having experienced this work as restful or allowed it to be valuable, despite my conviction that without this very same netting of everyday tasks that I (mostly with the help of others) sort-of fashion, I'd be holing up in a doorway somewhere on King Street now, stiff and stinking in a cardboard box.

Men, perhaps, are more prone to this difficulty. In the meantime I hanker for wall after wall of nothing at all (except for a single drawn wire of one of Haagensen's tea towels). In her last showing, she drew -- what was it? soap? -- onto the floor only to clear the whole of it away; in another, strings of white washing multiplied itself into a fine, grey density on walls that were finally washed clean. Ah bliss.

Her work: perhaps the opposite -- or rather the epitome, the end-work? -- of not writing.

She writes:

I am interested in 'unimportant work' and professions, whether as unpaid in the home or outside. Cleaning and housework is generally an invisible 'art' that is only noticed when it hasn't been done. Why do we do these jobs day after day -- for love, money, a sense of duty or because it is expected of us? Or do we do them to appease, as a form of atonement or out of a sense of guilt.

How does it affect us to do a task repeatedly?

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Flying Away in Peter

Friday

Like Gerald Murnane, David Malouf has always been fascinated by a landscape that stretches out on all sides so that it takes over the mind -- the sheer overabundance of grasses and sky and the teeming of insects and the grains of crushed anthills -- but whereas, in Murnane, the mind itself is sounded for its infinitely replicating images of this overabundance and, perhaps more importantly, for the secret channels that are gouged through it, Malouf's world is smoothed of these inner chasms. The mind -- minds -- are located as regions of unknowing glow. Thoughts hover, hardly touching, in some larger and more perfect (than mine) contemplation. Whose is it? What is it? Thus I start to imagine the mind of Malouf. I've been rereading, after so many years, my precious but dust furred, stained edged -- stained, that is, with the commas of cockroach crap -- first edition of Malouf's Fly Away Peter, and immediately I recognise the wide, tussocky landscape of An Imaginary Life. Here Malouf has, in bringing his safe, calm, intelligent eye to the swamp scummed hinterland of Queensland and then to the trenches of northern Europe, dragged its netted scope south from the earlier book's classical anchorage in such a way that he is able to pull -- or at least seem to pull -- the whole globe of the world together into one vibrating whole. Delia Falconer shares something of this careful, dispassionate sensitivity to grass blade, bird, sky, mud, corpse's hand, as well as those quiet, nearly wordless minds that are somehow able to reflect it all, undistorted. And it is only as I note this that I remember, of course, that Elliott Gyger, whose opera of Malouf's Fly Away Peter premiers tomorrow, has also set the work of Delia Falconer.

There is a whole literature about the quiet, redeeming beauty of ordinary things -- even the notion of what constitutes this ordinary (what is it, this ordinary thing?) -- that rings us with such solid, valuable assuredness that, clearly, anyone who is compelled to rent a hole in it would have to be a cur.

After Saturday

Still thinking about the terrifyingly sticky/slippery-looking textured beauty of the white clay ziggurat on which the opera turned itself almost too earnestly at first, one step after another -- the awkward greeting between Jim and Imogen, the naming of birds hailed in the air over our heads -- but which then became wonderfully (appropriately) fractured -- blurred; the hypnotic setting out of the prussian blue buckets on all of the levels (buckets filled with clay, with water); the clay gradually consuming Jim (Ashley halting it, Imogen wiping the place from which to view it); the music, which pressed its beautiful, strange abstractions under my skin so that for some time afterwards I could still feel its coursing.

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Which they believe to be a revival of the old manner

After reading Flowerville's cutting of Hans Blumenberg I couldn't rest until I found this journeying piece from Proust's Contre Sainte-Beuve (in the chapter on Nerval):

Today there is a school of writers who, being in rebellion -- it must be said, to good purpose -- against the bloodless Battle of Words now in vogue, have imposed a new manner, which they believe to be a revival of the old manner, on the art of letters; and these are their tenets; that in order not to overweight a sentence one will keep it from expressing anything whatsoever, that to sharpen the outline of a book one will exclude any impression, any thought, etc., that cannot be straightforwardly expressed, and, that to preserve the traditional mould of the language one will be ready at all times to accept existing turns of speech, without even troubling to think them over. If this results in a brisk style, a grammar of respectable coinage, a free and easy demeanour, there is no special merit about it. It is not difficult to cover one's journey at a canter if before starting one jettisons all the valuables one was charged to carry; but the speed of the transit, the graceful ease of arrival, are of no great significance, since there is nothing to deliver.

Sunday, March 1, 2015

There's no more to it than that

On Friday we went to the funeral of a family member who had died, finally, after many years of crises that had come about through his apparent determination to drink himself to death. We had been prepared to be saddened, if not immobilised by the terrible and depressing circumstances of his final years. After all, he had once been a conscientious academic in the faculty of Drama at a rural university. In his lifetime he had directed and performed many plays and cabarets, both his own and others'. In fact, it was this person who had first introduced me to the plays of Samuel Beckett, through a production of short pieces he had directed with his students. Although it was only about a year or so later that I saw productions of Beckett's most well-known plays by the company, as I've been reminded since, that Beckett himself directed, I know that it was the intimacy and even amateurish directness of those student pieces that had touched me more profoundly than the supposedly brilliant productions of Beckett I saw later.

Less than a decade ago, this family member who had directed his students in a series of Beckett short plays had taken very early retirement, and after this so much had gone wrong for him. His marriage split up, a computer crash saw the loss of most of his major literary and musical works — he was a prolific writer of songs, cabarets, plays, and poems — but while many people have copies of some of these, it was the long and complex novel that he supposedly wrote and finished on that one never-backed-up computer whose annihilation is most complete — all this and, what was far more devastating for everyone around him (especially his young adult children and his sister who looked after him in the years that followed), he took to alcohol in a serious and doggedly self-destructive way. He nearly died three years ago from some kind of internal bleeding in the brain that had been brought on by the sheer intensity of his drinking; several weeks ago, there was another crisis from which he never recovered. And yet his funeral — all of it: the eulogies, the tears, and the splendidly wild and energetic wake — was so exuberant and rich and not at all sober, that we knew by the end that we had celebrated a life that had been lived to the full. After all, he had been one whose summary, we'd learned, of Waiting for Godot could run (with a tune) to four simple lines:

I want to take my shoes off
I want a bigger hat
Intellectuals can piss off
There's no more to it than that

(vale Andrew McCue)

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

There are optical errors in time as there are in space

It's been half a week now since I saw Jim Sharman's 1978 film of Patrick White's screenplay, The Night the Prowler, and I have to say that the film works best at a distance since, as Proust writes, 'there are optical errors in time as there are in space'. Now, what even a day or two ago I still thought of as the more awkward attempts of the script seem mostly to have disappeared between scenes of beehive teas, leathered frumpings and the near smiling, high camping delight that the writers Dorothy Hewett and Merv Lilley take in their roles as nocturnal Centennial Park derros. The naked, emaciated man, whose death is signalled by a quiet runnel of urine, pulls the film towards something Beckettian, from which the film keeps itself, nevertheless, at a firm remove with all of its Easter Show bag, stiff cat artifice, as well as the whole 'Many and One' drag that Kerry Walker plays with such admirable, slow witted awkwardness -- because, how else to play that final, fatuous line?

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Things don’t go away just because you choose to forget them

‘I read Freud,’ declares Julius, the young psychiatrist narrator in Teju Cole’s Open City, ‘only for literary truths.’ Here, I was thinking, his invocation of Freud might have been apt – and particularly what he takes to be Freud’s main ideas on grief and loss, from Mourning and Melancholia and The Ego and the Id, which should have resonated so well with what was looking then to be little more than a gently meditative novel about the stunned and peripatetic aftermath of loss:

The dead are fully assimilated into the living, a process he called introjection. In mourning that does not proceed normally, mourning in which something has gone wrong, this benign internalization does not happen. Instead, there’s an incorporation. The dead occupy only a part of the one who has survived; they are sectioned off, hidden in a crypt, and from this place of encryption they haunt the living. 

Except for the fact that this wasn’t Freud at all. Julius, I could see, had confused Freud’s Mourning and Melancholia with Nicolas Abraham and Maria Torok’s 1972 essay ‘Mourning or melancholia: Introjection versus Incorporation’, in which all these ideas are elaborated away from, and in response to, Freud. For one thing, I thought, Abraham and Torok’s use of the term ‘introjection’ to mean ‘a process of broadening the ego’ by working through loss and trauma – but also any new, challenging experience – comes, most ironically, from their fellow Hungarian Sandor Ferenczi – the same Ferenczi with whom Freud famously fell out when he retreated from the so-named ‘seduction theory’ to his one of the drives and the Oedipus complex. I then got to thinking that it was likely to have been Derrida that had confused Julius (or Cole): perhaps something that Derrida had written, or something that someone else had written about Derrida. After all, it was Derrida, whose Foreword, ‘Fors: The Anglish Words of Nicolas Abraham and Maria Torok’, to their The Wolf Man’s Magic Word: A Cryptonomy, did most to bring the ideas of this Franco-Hungarian pair to a wider readership. What kind of psychiatric specialist, or writer about psychiatric specialists, I was wondering, would make such a slip?

Of course, I could see that Open City was all about slips and failure, unedifying deaths and indecisiveness – from Julius’s overwhelming sense of multiple erasures at the site of the World Trade Centre towers, his unacknowledged avoidance of a dying friend, to his experience as ‘a pathetic old-young man padding about in the grip of some nervousness’, unable to remember his ATM card code. And it seemed that the codes that so often elude Julius represent, merely, the sorts of meanings that make the functional materiality of our living a little smoother – codes for the ordinary workings of financial transactions, for apparently coherent, if archaic, systems of making sense of herbs – and not for meanings resisted and denied, as the oblique, and in fact erased reference to the Wolf Man suggests. Initially I was thinking that there simply was no key encrypted word/action like ‘teret’ in Open City – that this novel, despite its faux Freud reference, was not so much about encryption at all but the more predicable theme of the inadequacy of signs.

Then Moji speaks – and to say more would give away too much – but it should suffice to say that the great blind spot that Julius identifies at the heart of his profession – and the blind spots in his memory, the great blinding spot that both lures the birds of New York to their deaths and obscures how they died – blinding spots that flare on each side of Moji’s story – might very well have to do with the word ‘force’ which, before its noticeable play in both the telling and the context of her story, emerges in the novel not long after Julius encounters Moji for the first time in New York:

I noticed a copy of Simone Weil’s essays. I picked it up. My friend turned from the window. She’s wonderful on the Iliad, he said. I think she really gets what force is about, how it motivates action and loses control of what it has motivated. You really should take a look at it sometime. 

Behind this ‘force’ – should we read here Freud’s theory of the drives? Julius’s entire field of expertise? – is something that Abraham and Torok would have called the ‘fantasy of incorporation’: ‘The magical “cure” by incorporation,’ they write, ‘exempts the subject from the painful process of reorganization’. Incorporation enacts a pretence, after a loss or a trauma, that ‘we had absolutely nothing to lose’.

But as Moji says to Julius: ‘Things don’t go away just because you choose to forget them.’

Immediately after listening to her story, Julius becomes obsessed with Camus’s account of Nietzsche and Gaius Mucius Cordus Scaevola, and the pain they inflicted on their own bodies just to demonstrate to others – if not more to themselves – their fearlessness. As though to deflect the import of what Moji has just told him, Julius finds himself researching exactly what the fifteen-year-old Nietzsche had done to himself in the presence of his schoolmates. Was it a hot coal or a brace of matches? Such questions serve, most usefully, to distract.

Saturday, September 6, 2014

Fiction is a kind of magic or alchemy

In this interview with Ivor Indyk, Gerald Murnane speaks, it seems, as he writes -- from the room he has written about so often -- the one from which he reports, as he might say, how one image changes into another in his mind, with all of it documented in one way or another -- in his writing, as well as the legendary files that he has arranged against the walls of the room:

So I can say in all honesty and sincerity that I can’t tell the difference between my fiction, my thinking about my fiction, and my life. It’s as important to me as almost anything else in my life. And as I jokingly said years ago to somebody – it was in connection with literature board grants. Somebody said it must be nice to have a literature board grant – this was back in the 1970s – it must be nice to have a literature board grant now, you’ll able to go on with your writing. I said, I’d go on with my writing if they fined me for writing, instead of giving me seven thousand a year or whatever it was. If they made me pay that amount. So long as I could find the money I would go on writing, that’s how important it was to me. And in the face of a certain amount of unfavourable criticism, which I have had from some quarters. It would have no effect on me whatever because I am just one of those people who just had to write, even if it’s not for publication. The evidence is around us as we sit here.
He tells us that 'fiction is a kind of magic or alchemy', and then goes on to describe the reading moment -- a reading moment that is placed, characteristically, in the context of how it occurred -- which not only prompted a life long obsession with learning Hungarian, but also insinuated something new into his landscapes:

I was sitting on a suburban train. I can’t recall – somewhere in those archives over there would be the answer to that, but never mind – it was a date somewhere in the ‘80s, and I was reading an English translation of the Hungarian – it’s not a novel, it’s a book of sociology I suppose – Puszta Népe, which means people of the Puszta. It was written in the 1930s. And I read a section about the oppression, the sexual oppression of the girls on the great estates by the – not by the owners and the aristocrats who owned the estates, but by the lesser officials who were only jumped up peasants anyway: the overseers and the farm supervisors. And then I read the pages – the cowherds pulled her out when they watered the cattle at dawn – and I think my life changed at that point. Something, I knew something was afoot. I couldn’t have imagined the way that piece of reading would change my life and my fiction.