“Ich habe genung” (I have enough)

A change of scene: music.


If I have an aim in life, it is to leave behind something of beauty, and this search for transcendence does not take a religious form. I have known it in music, literature, thought, certain psychological states.

If I attain it I imagine myself singing Bach’s Cantata “Ich habe genung” BWV 82. It is exquisitely beautiful in its music, and its lyrics express a longing to leave the mortal body behind, to set aside this world of suffering after having achieved salvation, the embrace of Jesus, the attainment of transcendence. I secularise this longing and pursue i in writing and listening to music. Right now, as I write this post, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau is singing this reconciliation of the body and spirit, and farewell to the world, the words of the first two parts of which I paste below courtesy of Emmmanuel Music

Cantata for the Purification of Mary
1. Arie B
Ich habe genug,
Ich habe den Heiland, das Hoffen der Frommen,
Auf meine begierigen Arme genommen;
Ich habe genug!
Ich hab ihn erblickt,
Mein Glaube hat Jesum ans Herze gedrückt;
Nun wünsch ich, noch heute mit Freuden
Von hinnen zu scheiden.

1. Aria B
I have enough,
I have taken the Savior, the hope of the righteous,
into my eager arms;
I have enough!
I have beheld Him,
my faith has pressed Jesus to my heart;
now I wish, even today with joy
to depart from here.

2. Rezitativ B
Ich habe genug.
Mein Trost ist nur allein,
Daß Jesus mein und ich sein eigen möchte sein.
Im Glauben halt ich ihn,
Da seh ich auch mit Simeon
Die Freude jenes Lebens schon.
Laßt uns mit diesem Manne ziehn!
Ach! möchte mich von meines Leibes Ketten
Der Herr erretten;
Ach! wäre doch mein Abschied hier,
Mit Freuden sagt ich, Welt, zu dir:
Ich habe genug.

2. Recitative B
I have enough.
My comfort is this alone,
that Jesus might be mine and I His own.
In faith I hold Him,
there I see, along with Simeon,
already the joy of the other life.
Let us go with this man!
Ah! if only the Lord might rescue me
from the chains of my body;
Ah! were only my departure here,
with joy I would say, world, to you:
I have enough.

Some say that the music is similar to the Erbarme Dich (“Have mercy”) from the St Matthew Passion. I know that aria for contralto and strings, and its haunting striving for mercy, from the long opening credits of the Tarkovsky film, The Sacrifice. The hero of the film , who is some kind of estranged artist/intellectual, sacrifices himself to save his family and the world from nuclear disaster, and which for reasons I can never quite fathom has always enthralled me with its slowness and its draping of human tragedy across the stark interiors of modern culture.

But Bach is always the master of transcendent beauty in my mind, and Glenn Gould’s 1981 recording of the Goldberg variations, in which he plays the variations at half the pace of his 1955 recording, and, on some tracks, audibly hums along eerily with his own playing inspired the following poem from my collection After the Pills (apologies for the poor cover design), which I first published on PoetrySoup.

Gould’s humming

In the first aria he begins to hum
This is the trace of true art and magic:
At one with the music but different and beyond.
An horstexte someone might say.
A moment’s expression endures through recording,
this ghost of the artist,
unbidden, improvised, unscored,
not even beautiful,
but it becomes what I listen for each time:
To search again for the traces of the dead in our lives.


Immortal diamond

Gerard Manley Hopkins was a poet I encountered on my parents’ shelves as a child. A small paperback of his poems in a Penguin edition, perhaps from the 1960s, was one of the poetry books met early in life. Unlike many of the poems, which now I remember reading with my father, this book belonged to my mother, and something of her spirit has always made Hopkins’ poetry something I must understand.

As a child, I absorbed perhaps the sounds, the strange music, which I now know echoes Anglo-Saxon rhymes and alliteration within the line, the invented words, and the idea that he was a nature poet. To think of Hopkins as a religious poet was then beyond my ken.

Hopkins sat unloved at the back of my mind for a few decades, and then in the midst of a deep depression last year I discovered a podcast about the terrible sonnets. For several days I wandered with “I wake and feel the fell of dark, not day” and “No worst there is none” singing in my head. And this was a transformational experience that took me beyond me depression and through the flames to some kind of renewal.

Over the last few days, inspired by Bloom’s exhortations to memorise poems by heart, I have learned by heart the terrible sonnet, “No worst there is none” –

No worst there is none. Pitched past pitch of grief,

More pangs will, schooled by forepangs, wilder wring.

Comforter where, where is your comforting?

Mary, mother of us, where is your relief?

My cries heave, herds-long; huddle in a main, a chief

Woe, world-sorrow – on an age-old anvil wince and sing

Then lull, then leave off. Fury had shrieked “No ling-

-ering: Let me be fell; perforce I must be brief”

O the mind, mind has mountains; cliffs of fall

Frightful, sheer, no man-fathomed. Hold them cheap

May who ne’er hung there. Nor does long our small

Durance deal with that steep or deep. Here! creep,

Wretch, under a comfort serves a whirlwhind; all

Life death does end, and each day dies with sleep.

I read in a commentary that Hopkins here described his sin of acedie, and perhaps even sought to exorcise this demon in this sonnet. But, for me, he has given a name – mountains – to the impassable obstacles of the melancholic mind.

I read today that a later poem That Nature is a Heraclitean Fire and of the comfort of the Resurrection is a reply to his call out to the uncomforting comforter. “Enough! the Resurrection, /A heart’s clarion! Away grief’s gasping, joyless days, dejection.” And so, for me who knows no religion, but still have passed through some flames to be reborn, I hope, and join an infinite conversation, can find still some comfort in the conclusion to Hopkins’ redemptive poem:

I am all at once what Christ is, since he was what I am, and

This Jack, joke, poor potsherd, patch, matchwood, immortal diamond,

Is immortal diamond.

Gerard Manley HOpkins memorial, Westminster Abbey

Going sane writing

02 adamphillipspix

Adam Phillips says somewhere, perhaps in one of his intriguing essays, perhaps in an interview with the Paris Review, that writing is for him “an experiment in what your life might be like if you were to speak freely.”

It is also a description he gives, in another way, to the process that goes on in the course of psychoanalysis and many other psychotherapies; for fifty minutes you can speak freely and know there is an audience to catch you, to cradle you, to correct you, to chase you to the deepest part of your self.

Phillips’ essays are intriguing for three reasons: their style; the tacit knowledge of the psyche that he brings to them; and his own practice of writing.

The style reflects the pleasure that Phillips states as the only real purpose of his writing. Sentences roll on through enigmas, with never a hectoring voice or a pedantic explanation. Making beautiful sentences is the point of the exercises, and Phillips is true to the essay’s exploratory and experimental genre, playing with and teasing out the silken strands of our stories with which we bind our inner lives. The simple play of his style is there in the title of Going Sane, pleading the paradoxical case that though insanity is well known, the course of developing into a sane person is not. His essays are, like Montaigne’s, peppered with enigmatically selected quotations that point always to this strange artwork that we all practise of making sense of our lives. The epigraph opening Going Sane  is from Baudelaire’s Intimate Journals: “if, by some mischance, people understood each other, they would never be able to reach agreement.”

This deep, tacit knowledge of the strange workings of the psyche makes Phillip’s essays worth reading, where an equivalent stylist’s musings on fluff and fashion or the latest dilemmas of choice in politics are not. Though many of us have had experience of psychotherapy, much that is written about it does not register its subtle entanglement with the imagination. Here Phillips’ sense of style makes him the best ambassador psychoanalysis has ever had. Confidences are not breached, but he does gently share the insights of years of listening to the enigmas and dilemmas of his patients, for whom, he says somewhere, life does not work, and so it is for all of us from time to time.

This unique perspective is also seen in his practice of writing. It is not planned, except that he has a routine that he follows. Every Wednesday he sets aside to write, while maintaining his other profession of therapist. He writes only what pleases him, and is not concerned to persuade or badger or entertain. He claims that the topic of each of his essays or talks is formed in response, and at the moment, of the demand. It is in its own way his mirror of his patients talking out loud, not now as the patient but with a kind of free association of the mind of a very literate and cultured psychoanalyst.

It is this quality of his writing as a free experiment that I most admire; a release of the mind to think on the page; to think freely with compassionate attention to an audience, connected by an unspoken background belief that we do not share stories but share the same endeavour to share stories; but without wanting to force himself into an invented image of the public or marketers. The advice on how to write, how to write to go sane, that began this post is a practice that I will bring to bear on my own writing, with a different professional background, requiring suspension of a whole different set of restrictions on speaking freely.

Quotes to write by, 2.

From The Journals of Kierkegaard, 1834-54:

And this is the simple truth: that to live is to feel oneself lost. He who accepts it has already begun to find himself, to be on firm ground. Instinctively, as do the shipwrecked, he will look around for something to which to cling; and that tragic, ruthless glance, absolutely sincere because it is a question of salvation, will cause him to bring order into the chaos of his life. These are the only genuine ideas, the ideas of the shipwrecked. All the rest is rhetoric, posturing, farce.


List: my lacunae in Bloom’s Western Canon


I admire Harold Bloom and his scorn for the New Schools of Resentment. I recognise my own motivations to read in his argument that “the self, in its quest to be free and solitary, ultimately reads with one aim only: to confront greatness…. Our common fate is age, sickness, death, oblivion. Our common hope, tenuous but persistent, is for some version of survival.” (The Western Canon, p 524)

So my list today is an honest, brief reckoning of who among the 26 authors in Bloom’s The Western Canon I have confronted, my gaps and who I intend to read.

  1. Shakespeare. Yes, a dozen or more of the plays and all of the sonnets. My favourite: The Tempest. More to read.
  2. Dante. Only parts of the Inferno. Much more to read, especially as I have been long lost in una selva oscura.
  3. Chaucer. The prologue, including reading aloud in middle English, and my recent reading of medieval history has intrigued me to read more.
  4. Cervantes. No. I tried once with a new translation
  5. Montaigne. Yes. I used to model myself on his prefatory remarks about being long weary of the service of the court and retiring to his study.
  6. Moliere. Yes, a long time ago.
  7. Milton. I have an old leather-bound copy of his poems, and have read Lycidas well, and still recall Howard Felperin’s joy in this poem, but have not read Paradise Lost.
  8. Dr Samuel Johnson. No. But I will have to read Bloom’s case to overcome an aversion to port-soaked English gentlemen.
  9. Goethe. No, guiltily, since I have had Faust on my shelves for decades.
  10. Wordsworth. Yes
  11. Austen. Yes, three or four of the novels in my twenties, and I have not rejoined the recent fashion.
  12. Whitman. Yes, patchily.
  13. Dickinson. Yes, deeply and with profound fascination since she is one of the authors I most admire who writes regardless of the publishing fates.
  14. Dickens. Yes, but I have not read Bleak House, I think which is the one her extols most.
  15. George Eliot. Yes, but again not the canonical Middlemarch.
  16. Tolstoy. Extensively, and I think it was 2010, amidst the political crisis in Australia and the darkening world, that I read War and Peace fully in the  Volokhonsky translation.
  17. Ibsen. Yes, again in my late teens and twenties.
  18. Freud. Extensively, and I regret selling the many texts that I once owned, and even though I disavow his therapy, he is a great essayist who has inspired a great contemporary essayist in Adam Phillips.
  19. Proust. Proudly, yes and yes again in the more recent translation. I may read it again during this long break.
  20. Joyce. Yes to Dubliners, Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and maybe a third to a half of Ulysses. I dip into Finnegan’s Wake now and again, and it remains one of those projects for later liffey.
  21. Woolf. Yes, with great waves of emotion as a young man.
  22. Kafka. Necessarily yes. Though I have not finished The Castle.
  23. Borges. Splendidly yes.
  24. Neruda. No.
  25. Pessoa. No
  26. Beckett. Yes, but more the plays. I have sampled the smaller fictions, like fizzles, and parts of the great MolloyMalone Dies and The Unnameable trilogy.

So the gaps are pleasingly few – Pessoa, Neruda, Goethe, Johnson, Cervantes.

There are some who I need to read more deeply: Chaucer, Dante, Shakespeare, Milton, Dickens, Eliot, Joyce.

And only one who I wish to avoid – poor old Dr Johnson.

Perhaps next week: a canonical list of post-1960 writers?



From Seamus Heaney

“Here is the great paradox of poetry and of the imaginative arts in general. Faced with the brutality of the historical onslaught, they are practically useless. Yet they verify our singularity. they strike and stake out the ore of self which lies at the base of every individuated life. In one sense the efficacy of poetry is nil – no lyric has ever stopped a tank. In another sense, it is unlimited. It is like the writing in the sand in the face of which accusers and accused are left speechless and renewed.” (“The Governemnt of the Tongue” p 107)

Note: His observation is itself prompted by a letter by Eliot written in wartime London and as he was writing “Little Gidding” when he wondered if “fiddling with words and rhythms is justified activity.”

Gathering flowers for the mind

IMG_0064 (2).JPGThis morning I pulled down from my bookshelf a cardboard box that contains a hundred or more index cards on which I had written in the 1980s and 1990s when I was a student, and before computers, quotations, drawn from my reading. This old habit is like gathering flowers for the mind, and the sewing together of wisdom or insight or simply perceptive observations from writers of the canon has long been a foundation of the essay genre.

Montaigne’s essays after all are patchworks of the classical authors. I open the complete essays at a random page, and there in the first two paragraphs of “Of not communicating one’s glory,” I see Montaigne quoting a verse by Tasso, who I confess I do not know, and writing, “For as Cicero says, even those who combat it [the concern for reputation and glory] still want the books that they write about it to bear their name on the title page, and want to become glorious for having despised glory.”

These cards remind me of what I have strived to be, a custodian of a cultural inheritance, a poet in destitute times, a prophet of the banished. I shuffle through the names – Arendt, Adorno, Heidegger, Rene Char, Foucault, Derrida, Benjamin, Beckett, Norman Brown, Barthes, Wallace Stevens, Weber, Schiller, Kafka and more. For years I reached for the titans in my mind; I sought to scale my mind’s mountains, “cliffs of fall/ Frightful, sheer, no-man-fathomed. (Hopkins)” Did it bring me anything but knowing I had sought the summit? These cards are my souvenirs, my pressed wildflowers of those long hours of walking into maelstroms of black thoughts and lightless uncertainty.

I find from Schiller’s Letters on Aesthetic Education (letter 6):

“Everlastingly chained to a single little fragment of the whole, man himself develops into nothing but a fragment; everlastingly in his ear the monotonous sound of the wheel he turns, he never develops the harmony of his being, and instead of putting the stamp of his humanity upon his own nature, he becomes nothing more than the imprint of his occupation or of his knowledge.”

So long I have sought transcendence of that petty imprint, the husk I have known I have lived in, with the disappointment of not finding a way to make a living in accordance with my deepest humanity, in this infinite conversation, whose ghosts and night whispers I have recorded on these cards.

And this curse of being adrift in the world of work in a way that wars with my spirit I find annotated from Max Weber’s Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism:

The Puritan wanted to work in a calling; we are forced to do so. For when asceticism was carried out of monastic cells into everyday life, and began to dominate worldly morality, it did its part in building the tremendous cosmos of the modern economic order. This order is now bound to the technical and economic conditions of machine production which today determine the lives of all the individuals who are born into this mechanism, not only those directly concerned with economic acquisition, with irresistible force. Perhaps it will so determine them until the last ton of fossilised coal is burned. In Baxter’s view the care for external goods should only lie on the shoulders of the saint like a “light cloak, which can be thrown aside at any moment.” But fate decreed that the cloak should become a housing as hard as steel [or an iron cage]”

There I find myself and my struggles again in the summoning of the irresistible force that took me far from the life of the mind and the way of life I most love. There in the hint of dark prophecy – when the last ton of fossilised coal is burned – I see my own troubled relationship with our times, driven by both an ethic of responsibility to act in the world, not merely to paint word pictures of it, and a deep unease with the people and preoccupations of corporations and contemporary governments.

I read Arendt’s musing on whether political traditions exert their force most powerfully on human minds when the living force of the tradition has died, and people can no longer even think to rebel against it. And I wonder how I can be a vessel for a more vital tradition, a tradition of political thought that honours the ordinary virtues of governing well, if only I allow all that I have been to flow through me and become all that I might be.

And then, at last, I remember Mikhail Bakhtin, and his sense of the carnivalesque and the dialogic, and his words, from Speech Genres and other essays, may best complete this glimpse of recovery of the imagination and of the narrative of my life:

There is neither a first word nor a last word. The contexts of dialogue are without limit. They extend into the deepest past and the most distant future. Even meanings born in dialogues of the remotest past will never be finally grasped once and for all, for they will always be renewed in later dialogue. At any present moment of the dialogue there are great masses of forgotten meanings, but these will be recalled again at a given moment in the dialogue’s later course when it will be given new life. For nothing is absolutely dead: every meaning will someday have its homecoming festival.

When, beyond the flames and ash of the burning archive, will be my homecoming festival?