It’s interesting to find how much your experience of a book can change when you’ve put on a few years. Today I’m having that experience going back to Basho’s Narrow Road to the Deep North. It didn’t make much of an impression on me when I first read it, but now I find it nearly overpowering.
“I went to see the shrine of Muro-no-yashima. According to Sora, my companion, this shrine is dedicated to the goddess called the Lady of Flower-Bearing Trees, who has another shrine at the foot of Mount Fuji. This goddess is said to have locked herself up in a burning cell to prove the divine nature of her newly-conceived son when her husband doubted it. As a result, her son was named Lord Born Out of The Fire, and her shrine, Muro-no-yashima, which means burning cell. It was a custom of this place for poets to sing of the rising smoke, and for ordinary people not to eat konoshiro, a speckled fish, which has a vile smell when burnt.”
“I mounted the horse and started off, when two small children came running after me. One of them was a girl named Kasane, which means manifold. I thought her name was somewhat strange but exceptionally beautiful.”
Excerpts are from the Penguin Classics edition, translated by Noboyuki Yuasa.
“A rabbi, whose grandfather had been a disciple of the Baal Shem, was asked to tell a story. ‘A story,’ he said, ‘must be told in such a way that it constitutes help in itself.’ And he told: ‘My grandfather was lame. Once they asked him to tell a story about his teacher. And he related how the holy Baal Shem used to hop and dance while he prayed. My grandfather rose as he spoke, and he was so swept away by his story that he himself began to hop and dance and show how the master had done. From that hour on he was cured of his lameness. That’s the way to tell a story!”
From Martin Buber’s Tales of the Hasidim.
For some reason, it never occurred to me until this morning that Robert Bresson’s film “Au Hasard Balthazar” is essentially a Christianized retelling of Lucius Apuleius’ “The Golden Ass;” only where Apuleius passes through suffering to a towering epiphany of world-redeeming insight, Bresson’s dour world is unredeemable, unto the gates of death.
From Thomas Mann’s “On Schopenhauer,” translated by H. T. Lowe-Porter:
“The pleasure we take in a metaphysical system, the gratification purveyed by the intellectual organization of the world into a closely reasoned, complete, and balanced structure of thought, is always of a pre-eminently aesthetic kind. It flows from the same source as the joy, the highest and ever happy satisfaction we get from art, with its power to shape and order its material, to sort out life’s manifold confusions so as to give us a clear and general view.
“Truth and beauty must always be referred the one to the other. Each by itself, without the support given by the other, remains a very fluctuating value. Beauty that has not truth on its side and cannot have reference to it, does not live in it and through it, would be an empty chimera — and ‘What is truth?’ Our conceptions, created out of the phenomenal world, out of a highly conditioned point of view, are, as a critical and discriminating philosophy admits, applicable in an immanent, not in a transcendent sense.”
One of the key episodes in James Joyce’s novel Finnegans Wake is something that occurs in Phoenix Park after midnight, involving the protagonist HCE, two ladies, and three soldiers. What exactly occurred is somewhat obscure, but there was evidently some sort of offense, and rumor of it spread widely.
Joyce’s polymorphous prose allows him to play with this idea both brilliantly and wickedly – there’s a dynamic sense of rumor running amok through transformation, and of course pious denunciations of all kinds are made from all sides, and the mood is one of wrath and retribution, but the events themselves are unrecoverable, not just in fact but in principle, because they rely on different points of view, and even the people who were there are not necessarily certain what occurred.
In reading that book it was of great interest to me that this case should be so important that he would include it as one of his core archetypes or patterns that recur in history, again and again. His ultimate model for this was no doubt the disgrace and pillorying of the Irish politician Parnell, whose movement for national independence was undone by a romantic indiscretion.
But is this pattern really so central, as to deserve a place of privilege in one of the finest novels ever written? All I can say is that since reading the book, I have become aware of precisely this same pattern occurring over and over and over again. Rumor of the event spreads far and wide, and people organize into camps, although no one is precisely sure what occurred. But it was rotten, that’s for sure.
And maybe it was rotten, but there’s a part of myself that increasingly believes that if HCE deserves it, then we all deserve it. And of course, “HCE” stands, among other things, for “Here Comes Everybody.”
Oho, oho Mester Begge, you’re about to be bagged in the bog again. Bugge. But softsies seuf-sighed: Eheu, for gassies! But, lo! lo! by the threnning gods, human, erring and condonable, what statutes of our kuo, who is the messchef be our kuang, ashu ashure there, the unforgettable treeshade looms up behind the jostling judgements of those, as all should owe, malrecapturable days.
The French photographer and conceptual artist Sophie Calle has been on my radar for several years. I became intrigued after reading about her project The Shadow, which Wikipedia describes thusly:
Another project, entitled The Shadow (1981) and displayed in the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain, consisted of Calle being followed for a day by a private detective, who had been hired (at Calle’s request) by her mother. It was, in Calle’s words, an attempt ‘to provide photographic evidence of my own existence’. Calle proceeded to lead the unwitting detective around parts of Paris that were particularly important for her, thereby reversing the expected position of the observed subject. Aware of her follower, she also wrote about in frequent journal entries throughout the day.
Calle’s work focuses on what I take to be one of the central themes of contemporary life: the renegotiation of a sense of personal construction, along with its concordant distinctions between self/other and internal/external, deriving to a large degree from the changing nature of technology, and the increasingly central role of surveillance in all aspects of life.
My own conviction is that any concept of privacy is contingent upon the technology available to the society under discussion. This became clear to me when I was reading the testimony of the Lakota medicine man Black Elk, and found that there was no concept of domestic privacy whatsoever for a people who lived in dwellings made of animal hide.
(For a more contemporary consideration of this topic, see my response to Byung-Chul Han in Digital Humanism).
The importance of surveillance in modernity, I believe, speaks for itself, but a fresh example is on my mind. This morning I learned of a video posted to social media of a fighter jet being shot down by a militia in Libya. The report notes that “It’s clear that the recording and posting had been planned with the militia attacking the plane.”
Calle has been on my watch list for some time – she is one of the authors I check for at any new bookstore. It’s taken me several years to run into one of her works, but I found her small The Address Book at the bookstore at the MOMA on a recent trip to New York.
The project documented in the book is simple. One day, Calle found an address book on the street, and xeroxed it in its entirety before sending it back to its author. In collaboration with the French periodical Libération, she began contacting the people in the address book, asking to meet and discuss the address book’s owner, who would only be named at the meeting.
One of the book’s surprises is how many of his acquaintances, perhaps intrigued by this bizarre request, were willing to meet with a stranger and share details of a varying degree of intimacy about her subject, whom she calls Pierre D. Indeed, the tenor of the various responses is one of the most illuminating aspects of this project. One contact, for example, is a minor celebrity, who immediately seems to suspect that this is all a ruse, and that her actual goal is to make contact with him. So there we learn something.
Details gradually emerge, though key aspects of Pierre’s person are studiously kept out of the center. This simultaneous disclosure and occlusion of her subject is reflected in Calle’s photography, which emphasizes the peripheral elements of the scene, never revealing any identity of importance.
Had she tried, she could not have invented a more perfect subject for her project (assuming that she did indeed stumble upon this book at random, as she maintains – I prefer to agree that she did). Pierre is a solitary intellectual who nonetheless inspires deep affection in his friends and colleagues, despite his sometimes-discordant personality. He is a scholar of film, and is himself fascinated by the construction and preservation of identity through visual recording, comparing, in one friend’s recollection, the role of film in preserving identity with the Great Pyramids of Egypt.
One of her final contacts recollects the following:
I remember one day someone stole his video camera. He was convinced he was the victim of conspiracy. He would not leave his apartment: he surrounded himself with all kinds of burglary devices. And this gets us to the core of his personality – he was in a pathological state of mind, but he played it out and overdid it. This was typical of him. When he acts out like that, you never know how much of it is rea, how much is fantasy, or whether he does it because he enjoys being a bit ridiculous and entertaining an audience.
Issues of identity, privacy, construction, and defense all spill into one another, and clearly, Calle implicates herself in this porous economy of surveillance. There she is, as both subject and object of surveillance within her work, like the rest of us.
The art of reading consists to a large degree in developing the ability to find works to which you will respond deeply.
As I’ve tried out my new reading chair, I’ve discovered profound rewards in reading two under-appreciated geniuses of the twentieth century, the playwright Heiner Müller and the Tibetan “renegade monk” Gendun Choephel. Although their backgrounds could not be more dissimilar, they were kindred spirits – relentless independent thinkers who were able to drink deeply from their respective traditions, and to let those energies and ideas pour through their own creative processes, without being overwhelmed or determined by them.
Reading a series of interviews with Müller, compiled in the Semiotext(e) edition Germania, one encounters the fascinating perspective of an intellectual who remained in East Germany by choice, not as a dogmatist, but as an extremely resourceful analyst of history and culture.
For Müller, the Berlin Wall was one of the great monuments of the world. Here, you could come and see it – this is our historical situation, and it’s right there, in concrete. The world that he foresaw after the disintegration of the detente between the US and the Soviet Union was one in which history would cease to exist, not because things would stop happening, but because it would no longer be possible to describe events in a way that made sense.
Gendun Choephel was brought up in one of the last generations to go through traditional training in the monastic universities of Tibet. His prodigious powers of debate were notorious, and he had a tendency to argue against traditional Buddhist doctrine with a tenacity and insight that stunned his contemporaries. In one instance, he shocked his teacher into silence with a virtuosic proof that Buddhahood was impossible, and was subsequently beaten up by some of his fellow monks who tried to force him to recant.
I can’t help but remember Stephen Dedalus being beaten up at Clongowes for praising Byron over Tennyson in “Portrait of the Artist.”
It is extremely rare to find someone deeply immersed in Tibetan scholasticism who is nonetheless not programmatically determined by its traditions, capable of asking real and penetrating questions of long-accepted conclusions. His interest led him into a Quixotic attempt to help modernize and democratize Tibet, which primarily seems to have resulted in getting him thrown into the dungeon of the Potala Palace, where the young Dalai Lama XIV was in residence.
When the Dalai Lama reached his majority, his first act was to declare general amnesty, and Choephel was released, a broken man addicted to opium and drink, who lived just long enough to see the Chinese army march into Lhasa. He died three weeks later.
His newly-translated book Grains of Gold is a masterpiece and is to my knowledge completely unique in Tibetan literature. It consists primarily of his travel log as he spent more than a decade traveling through India, visiting the sights, and confronting the vast gulf separating the heavily-mythologized perception of the Land of Sages held by his compatriots and the realities of a post-Mughal colonial state. His travels and observations are mixed with a heady blend of lyrical descriptions, including a proclivity for quoting the Sanskrit poet and playwright Kālidāsa, one of my most-cherished literary authors.
Curiously parallel, both men drank from the same well, and were alert to different concerns. Müller recalls attending a production of one of his own plays in Cologne, in which a dialog was staged between a man and a woman, and every time war or murder was mentioned, the man would throw a cake between the legs of the woman. I was immediately vividly reminded of Choephel’s account of a Nepali king who was treated for a karmic obstacle by being placed inside a large gilded statue of a woman and emerging from her womb.
Mesocosm on Heiner Müller
Mesocosm on Kālidāsa