Self-portrait in a time of hunger

Self-portrait in a time of hunger

“The storm of progress now threatens to burn the remaining archives of human memory. In an infinite set of information, no tradition holds fast. Where then does the Orphean writer look, if not like this angel towards the past, while being blown irresistibly forward by a fire storm?” This blogger, July 2015, (his first post of The Burning Archive)

Today and tomorrow I am fasting prior to a medical procedure, a probe into my bowels for malignant growths. Much though I would like to find a topic external to my mere self, my inattentive mind keeps circling back to images of food. I walk into the kitchen to make a cup of black tea, and I long for the ripe black Hass avocadoes. I remind myself that I cannot snack on the salted dry biscuits. I turn quickly away from the crisp, radiant pink lady apples.

With no topic held steadily in mind,  and ever diminishing concentration, I skitter about and look back over the topics of this blog. It has voiced poems, and been visited by Dr Cogito. It has been graced with the presence of Symborska, Keats, John Clare, Wallace Stevens, Zbigniew Herbert, Emily Dickinson, Anna Akhmatova, Joyce and more. This blog has emulated Adam Phillips in venturing a form of essay on the life that I lead and the alternatives that I might imagine into being through writing. It has more secretly followed Valery in his Cahiers, improvising connections and committing myself to an artwork as a form of provisional self-creation. It has gathered the fallen blooms of thought from a personal canon, stretching across Proust, Kafka, Havel, Rilke, Benjamin, Fukuyama, Fernandez-Armesto, John Gray the pessimist, Blanchot and Sebald.

I have contemplated suicide, madness, the tragedies of history, play, sacred violence, bureaucracy, governing, trauma, terror, child sexual abuse, sanity, memory, music, literature and more. Certain images – the archive in flames – have recurred as uncanny repetitions. But others have sprung from nowhere and surprised me. There were times when a mere phrase – the disappearance of stories from the world – took hold of me, and found its way to some new thought. Other times I have dared to voice my dissent with the world that I have found in my day job, even if I cannot believe these obscure samizdat will make much, if any, difference. Still, I can practise living in truth and the ordinary virtues – dignity, compassion, the life of the mind. And what is culture if not an unenclosed field in which we are all free to sow our gifts?

The stats page of my wordpress tells me that I have now in the nearly two and a half years I have written this blog, written 164 posts. These posts have enjoyed, at this moment,  1317 views and 773 visitors. To each of you viewers and visitors, I say thank you. Despite my hunger I affirm that this project will continue, whatever strange artwork it may in some future time be known as, if it is not forgotten entirely.

It is the convex mirror in which I write my soul.

… The soul establishes itself.
But how far can it swim out through the eyes
And still return safely to its nest? The surface
Of the mirror being convex, the distance increases
Significantly; that is, enough to make the point
That the soul is a captive, treated humanely, kept
In suspension, unable to advance much farther

Than your look as it intercepts the picture.

from John Ashbery, Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror

Image Source: Parmigianino, Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror, c 1524, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna, Web Gallery of Art

 

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Conrad’s darkness

Conrad’s darkness

“I have never been able to find in any man’s book or any man’s talk anything … to stand up for a moment against my deep-seated sense of fatality governing this man-inhabited world.” Joseph Conrad, 1922, in correspondence with Bertrand Russell.

A new biography of Joseph Conrad has come out. The Dawn Watch: Joseph Conrad in a Global World is written by Maya Jasanoff, an American historian, who has set out to make sense of this dark pessimist as a response to the troubles of the first globalised century.

Her book has prompted a rash of reviews, not the least of which is by the mordant critic of censorious liberalism and all beliefs in progress, John Gray. It is from John Gray’s review, “Homo Duplex,” that I have taken the epigram of this post. It is an epigram I could subscribe to myself.

I first encountered Conrad in reading a little grey-backed student’s guide to English literature, which had been handed down to me from my grandmother’s student days. It must have been published in the 1920s or 1930s if I remember rightly. In this textbook, Conrad appeared as a certain form of stylist – a plain style in contrast to the complex eloquence of Thomas Browne – and a novelist of the high seas.

I went on from this coy introduction to read much of Conrad – Lord Jim, The Secret Agent, Nostromo, and, of course, The Heart of Darkness. He evoked like few other writers the gloom and glower of the world, and the futility of all our grandiose enterprises.

Perhaps the passages that have had the longest, deepest impact on my reading and writing are the portraits of his narrator, Marlow. This wandering storyteller was separated from his society by both experience and vision. His tales are those of a dark prophet spurned in his own country. They are tales of the barbarism in all civilisations.

At the start of The Heart of Darkness, Conrad describes the floating steamer on the Thames, on which Marlow will tell his tale of the horror, the horror of the Belgian Congo. Conrad evokes the great historical voyages of English navigation and English piracy – “the Golden Hind returning with her round flanks full of treasure” – and exclaims: “What greatness had not floated on the ebb of that river into the mystery of an unknown earth!… The dreams of men, the seed of commonwealths, the germs of empires.”

Then he turns to the sun setting on the great metropole of London – “the monstrous town was still marked ominously on the sky, a brooding gloom in sunshine, a lurid glare under the stars.” It is then that Marlow speaks: “”And this also,’ said Marlow suddenly, ‘has been one of the dark places of the earth.'”

No-one really responds to Marlow. His words were accepted in silence, as expressive of the enigma that he was. He did not tell tales like the other sailors. and did not find in life the direct simplicity, the easy satisfactions and the disregard for secret knowledge of other men.

But Marlow was not typical (if his propensity to spin yarns be excepted), and to him the meaning of an episode was not inside like a kernel but outside, enveloping the tale that brought it out only as a glow brings out a haze, in the likeness of one of these misty halos that sometimes are made visible by the spectral illumination of moonshine.” Conrad, Heart of Darkness, p. 8

This story seemed to lay down a way of being I would emulate in my own life, in my own writing. Marlow spoke of the mysterious and the strangeness we only see in darkness. He spoke as one sailor among others who yet pursued another course. He spoke as a man who made his way through the world, and yet was forever marked off by the cultures he connected to. They made him into a stranger in every world he passed through. Of Marlow, Conrad writes: “he had the pose of a Buddha preaching in European clothes and without a lotus-flower.”

It would seem the most natural thing in the world then that Conrad would make an appearance in the strangely beautiful tales by W.G. Sebald, The Rings of Saturn, which have changed forever my sense of what it means to write. Conrad – “whose protracted bouts of despair were henceforth [after his trip to the Belgian Congo] to alternate with his writing” – would appear in Sebald’s Rings of Saturn as both a witness to the human destructiveness that haunts the narrator and the prelude to the tragic story of Roger Casement’s fatal opposition to the horrors of King Leopold’s monstrosity: it would lead to Casement’s brutal execution and the extirpation of his name.

Sebald, Conrad, Marlow, and if this does not seem an imposture, myself: our thoughts are connected by a deep pessimism, from which writing is the only escape. Action in the world is too marked by fatality; but writing allows us to say the things that our silent readers will ignore and accept as just like Marlow.

It is these thoughts too that John Gray speaks of in his undefinable political philosophy marked by scepticism towards all illusions of progress. If I maintain the tradition of Marlow, speaking my strange stories on a floating steamer as the sun sets on our monstrous world, then John Gray maintains the traditions of Conrad’s darkness. Let the final words of his review of Jasanoff’s biography close my post for today:

If Conrad sounds cynical to readers today, it is because he voices truths that are now deemed unmentionable. He did not believe in what Russell, in a 1937 essay, called the ‘superior virtue of the oppressed’. All human institutions, including newly independent states, were steeped in crime; barbarism and civilisation would always be intertwined, with old evils continually reappearing in new guises. It is a vision as disruptive to the censorious liberalism that holds the reins today as it was to imperial fantasies of progress a hundred years ago.

 

When I have fears

When I have fears

I have over the last year or so frequently relaxed in a meditative trance while listening to soft-spoken readings of poetry.  Set against moody electronic music, the softly but precisely enunciated words penetrate to unknown chambers of the mind. Who this poet trance reader is, I do not know, but I appreciate her readings, stripped of any theatrical reading of the kind famous actors sometimes make.

The readings I listen to most are those of Keats, Dickinson, Gerard Manley-Hopkins, and a reading from Rilke’s letters of advice to a young poet. But my favourite is the recording of Keats’ poems:  When I have fears that I may cease to be; To a Nightingale; Ode on A Grecian Urn; To Autumn; This living hand, warm and capable.

I did not know the poem, “When I have fears”, before I discovered it, read in this way. I had been searching for quality readings of poems, as a way to aid memorisation and to fill the well with things of beauty. Instead of showing me the way to famous actors rendering well known poems with their robust personalities, the world wide web pointed me to this anonymous lyricist of trance, who showed modestly how beauty is truth, truth beauty, and that is all ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.

The poem itself echoes in my mind. Here it is, before my thoughts:

When I have fears that I may cease to be
Before my pen has gleaned my teeming brain,
Before high-pilèd books, in charactery,
Hold like rich garners the full ripened grain;
When I behold, upon the night’s starred face,
Huge cloudy symbols of a high romance,
And think that I may never live to trace
Their shadows with the magic hand of chance;
And when I feel, fair creature of an hour,
That I shall never look upon thee more,
Never have relish in the faery power
Of unreflecting love—then on the shore
Of the wide world I stand alone, and think
Till love and fame to nothingness do sink.

What writer of a certain sensibility has not feared they may never live to trace the shadows of the visions that come without fanfare, without announcement, yet fatefully deciding the inner life?

These fears are not resolved in the poem; and instead they are endured. The poet patiently waits out these fears, with their origins in the mysterious illusions of fame and love. He stands alone on the shore of the wide world, thinks, and waits for his fears to subside and for his dreamt illusions – the high-piled books of literary fame, the faery power of unreflecting love – to sink beneath the lapping waves. He is left alone to write, and to make things of beauty from this world, with no expectation of admiration, applause or recognition. These fears hold a cruel paradox – they are fears of not having things that cannot be. Beautiful, evocative, satisfying, alluring illusions. But these illusions also crush words of truth under the heavy weight of impossibility – huge cloudy symbols of a high romance.

In the face of death, in the face of oblivion, in the face of insignificance before the grandeur of the wide world, in the face of losing love, the poem realises all those things are true. They may be feared, but they cannot be averted. So, when I have fears, I endure them. I stand on the shore of the wide world, and I sing my song.

It was her voice that made

The sky acutest at its vanishing.

She measured to the hour its solitude.

She was the single artificer of the world

In which she sang. And when she sang, the sea,

Whatever self it has, became the self

That was her song, for she was the maker. Then we,

As we beheld her striding there alone,

Knew that there never was a world for her

Except the one she sang and, singing, made.

(From Wallace Stevens, “The Idea of Order at Key West”)

 

Keats’ own inscription for his tombstone: “Here lies one whose name was writ in water.”

My inscription: “Here lies one whose name was writ on burning paper.”

Red Nostalgia

Red Nostalgia

During the week I attended a lecture at my old university on the meaning of the Russian Revolution today, 100 years on from Red October. The lecturer, Mark Edele,  gave an entertaining and insightful talk to perhaps 600 guests, some alumni, some students, some dignitaries associated with the large philanthropic donation that had enabled the creation of the professorship, of which this was the ceremonial inaugural lecture.

The event was not without some pain or embarrassment for me since I had a year or more ago applied  for a job as one of the new lectureships in History at the University of Melbourne, created by this gift from the Hansen Trust, and meant to be dedicated to improving the teaching and public engagement of history. Here was the professor appointed in that batch, alongside a number of lecturers whose experience in the world outside the academy was not exceptional. Here was the living example of the path I did not take, and that still mourn, but which despite my brief hopes in the winter of 2016, I will not ever be able to return to.

While there was mingling offered with drinks and nibblies before the event, I took myself to one side and wrote down some reflections on my day, which had seen rejection for one job, and an interview, despite expecting rejection, for another.  It made me recall the note I had written to the former head of the History Department, as I sought to return there over a year ago: advice for a prodigal son. But wandering I would remain. I scanned the faces of the minglers, and saw no-one I could recall, except one faded peter pan, with unruly hair and modest clothes, who I remembered as a tutor from my university days.

The lecture itself provided a stimulating account of the many processes of revolution, civil war and breakdown of authority that constituted the events of the Russian Revolution. I learned of the new scholarly account of the revolution as an event that spanned the years 1916 to 1923 and all regions of the vast Russian empire, not only the familiar events of Red Petrograd.

Indeed, before this lecture I had not realised the significance of the containment of the imperial breakdown, with revolts across Central Asia, the Caucasus and European Russia, by Lenin thorough a structure of federated soviet republics, based on frustrated national identities. I had read indifferently of the discussion of the nationalities question, but had not realised its significance. Indeed, it was a principal dispute between the old Bolsheviks, Lenin and Stalin (pictured in the featured photograph from 1919, source, wikipedia). Lenin’s view prevailed. He sealed the imperial breakdown in amber, despite Stalin’s objections. In doing so, Edele pointed out, he left what Vladimir Putin described as a “time-bomb” in the constitution of the Soviet Union. The time bomb duly exploded after 1989.

Edele spoke about the conflicting views of historians of Red October as a coup or a popular revolt. It was, I guess I would summarise his view, as a coup with the backing of the power of the radicalised crowds on the streets. Edele seemed less critical of the Bolsheviks as cynical manipulators of this radicalised crowd, compared to the account of paid demonstrators, funded by German money, orchestrated through the German agent, Lenin, that appears in McMeekin’s recent account of the Russian Revolution, which I read a short time ago.

The “radicalised” crowd is a trope of revolutionary history, and part of a kind of Red Nostalgia. I recall reading, in my undergraduate years, George Rudé’s celebration of the revolutionary crowd in the French Revolution, and his portrayal of this crowd as a serious actor in an historical drama. The radicalised crowd is a contrast to the violent mob. A long tradition of thought, which began at least one source of the history of emotions, sought to find an explanation in group psychology and emotional response to the phenomenon of violence in the radicalised crowd. In response to this tradition, Rudé tried to find the reason, indeed the emerging class consciousness, of this radicalised crowd in their material conditions. Bread prices and not fury explained the crowd in this Marixist view. Simon Schama’s Citizens inoculated me forever against this view.

Despite the new fashion of Marxism in some intellectual circles, Edele’s only concession to this view was to speak of the radicalised crowd. This simple word, radicalised, is, despite all attempts at academic civility, a trigger for red nostalgia. It contains within it whirlpools of emotion, strange psychologies, and much responsibility for violence. Today,  we try to explain to ourselves how relatively prosperous settled people can radicalise as terrorists. There is no simple explanation, and no single process that leads from grievance to fighting in foreign wars and seeking martyrdom in Islam. It was likely was no simpler in Petrograd in 1917.

The sentiment of radicalism is immune to scholarly inquiry. It lingers on, and surely some level of red nostalgia played a part in the large audience attracted to this lecture. Edele was polite towards this nostalgia, only gently chiding the sentimental Marxism that has hidden the violence and the chaos of Red October for so many years.

But one unrepentant revolutionary spoke out in question time after the lecture. With only a brief time for questions, one ragged, aged Trotskyist, whose face seemed familiar from decades ago handing out the dreadful rags of propaganda put out by the Socialist Workers Party and similar organs, stood up and made a comment. He was disappointed in the lecture. Edele had not conveyed the grandeur of the Russian Revolution – surely the greatest of them all, better than the French or the Glorious English Revolution. And why should we care of the Constituent Assembly was abolished? It was a corrupted institution. And did not Alexandra Kollontai bring feminism to the world as part of the Revolution? Why did not Edele speak more of the great and true historians of the Russian Revolution – Isaac Deutscher, Stephen Smith and E.H. Carr?

Professor Edele politely demurred. Those books are now very old. It is true that even factions were banned under the Communist Party – how could that represent a true democracy? But there, alas, the time for questions was exhausted, and so the evening ended in a bitter red sunset.

I was left to question: where do our political passions come from, and in what kind of thought process are they grounded? Surely, it is not in the material facts of history.

Sorrow

Sorrow

“Give sorrow words; the grief that does not speak knits up the o-er wrought heart and bids it break.”  Shakespeare Macbeth

On a sunny afternoon I visit my mother in her residential aged care home. She has had a minor stroke. Speech and memory are difficult now. She struggles to complete sentences. Only a last desperate look from the whirlpool of memory reminds me of her love. Now all the pain, the madness of her days, the grief, the regrets, the loss, they are all imprisoned inside. There will be no final understanding, except in meeting her glance. Now habit and the simplest acts of caring, to wheel her through the aching sun, are all that we have left together.

Mr Cogito’s monster

lacks all dimensions

 

it’s hard to describe

it eludes definitions

 

it’s like a vast depression

hanging over the country

 

it can’t be pierced

by a pen

 

an argument

a spear

 

if not for its stifling weight

and the death it sends

you might conclude

that it was a phantom

a disease of the imagination

 

but it’s there

it’s there all right

 

it fills crannies of houses

temples bazaars like gas

 

it poisons the wells

destroys a mind’s constructs

covers the bread with mold

 

proof the monster exists

is offered by its victims

 

indirect proof

but sufficient

from Zbigniew Herbert, “Mr Cogito’s Monster”

Image source: http://loveheartministries.com/

Dr Cogito regrets the futility of his existence

The next in my series of Dr Cogito poems, composed fresh this morning.

 

Dr Cogito regrets the futility of his existence

Do not believe your search will end

Only in salted bread

And a place as a stoker somewhere

The commanding heights will never know

The impress of your shoddy boots

You will die in this open plan

There will be no obituary for you

In our forgotten press

No flowers cast from famous hands

Only the well-known taste of clay

The executioners will gossip

At your grave your madness

Your uncomfortable squirming

When asked to lie

To play along with the latest

Comrade from the rainbow guard

Your dated learning

All those useless books

What help were they

When the judges took your eyes

As if the law could take your side

Only silence forgetting betrayal

You wandered blind prophet

Searching the way to the castle

And back you never knew all lies

Every last veil

Do not believe your helpless revenge

Will disturb the board as it meets

Your words became chains

Holding you against invented change

It was that they distrusted

Words that flowed too well

Bonds between mind and burning soul

Evidence of your jihad

The print on your weapon

Their last conspiracy

Will be to end your words

To make memory fail

To disperse the last rain cloud

And they will say

Do not believe.

 

Dr Cogito brings his mind to heel

Dr Cogito brings his mind to heel

Here is another in my series of Dr Cogito poems

Dr Cogito brings his mind to heel

Dr Cogito brought his mind to heel
And made a long list, a dark inventory
Of all the errors of his errant mind.

The unfinished manuscript on dark power.
The poems that returned formality
To its customary esteem.

His escape attempts,
breaking from his lifelong cell,
To reach into the charmed circle

Where the potentates dwell.
Broken diets. Failed regimes
That exercised his core strength.

Abandoned readings. Forlorn petitions
To those who do belong
In some salon or cafe in the great city

Where the infinite conversation
Proceeds in exalted time,
Somewhere beneath his daily dream.

The one time he interpreted Borges
As a fantasist of parthenogenesis.
The tears he spilled

On Boyd’s oils at Shoalhaven.
The winters – so many –
When the dim tide of his missing salts

Lapped the memory of a drowning child.
His ravings to the ethernet
On the latest thing he had read.

All the distractions from true purpose.
The fears that penned him.
His cravings for sweets.

The mentors he might have had,
If he were not like Parsifal
Lost and wandering through this crystal forest

In search of his once true name.
The longing for scholarship,
Its erudite footnotes and elegant forms,

So out of place in this hyper-linked world.
Songs of sorrow in memory of the dead
Whose suffering he sought to know.