Sponges, metamorphoses and psyche

Sponges, metamorphoses and psyche

After a morning during which I searched my ravaged memory for the concealed door to my troubles, I opened an old box which contained five old, forgotten notebooks of mine. Their black covers and red spines revealed nothing to me of when I last used them to gather observations, thoughts, fragments of lines, like a dark sponge wiping up the mess of my mental life.

I opened the first notebook of the pile, and flicked through the pages. Quickly I dated it to the months or years around 1999.  There I have noted the words spoken by Steve Bracks on election night in 1999, when he defeated the apparently invincible, more despised, but more enduring figure of Jeff Kennett. Bracks: “a victory for decency, honour, compassion.” Beside it, I have scrawled thoughts that record my state of mind – “the joy of seeing a tyrant brought to his knees. The reminder that government is not execution. A child’s eyes pleading for mercy in the midst of horror. A reminder that there can be a reward for waiting and persistence. The heroism of enduring.”

They are not surprising thoughts, except I am struck today with the sense then that the dramas of even minor provincial politics still held for me this fascination to find ordinary virtues – “the heroism of enduring” – in my struggles as a lowly under-castellan.

But these residues of reactions to old news are not the most surprising finding in this notebook. There in the early pages I have written:

Francis Ponge wrote this (or something like this) “an artist has one duty to set up a workshop and to bring in the world for repair as he finds it in pieces.” So the experience, day to day, is transcribed and out of intuition, some poetry found.

Ponge was one of the many French writers who I came to know through my strange search for an artistic identity through the works of Jacques Derrida and Michel Foucault. I was in my 20s and at university, and my first sally into the world of adult identity had failed dismally, when I had sought election as a student politician and failed. I never really belonged to that world in any case, and my true affiliation was with the worlds of dream, madness, transgression and outlandish thought. It was this world that welcomed me as an outcast from reason, familial life and all practical careers, which I believed myself then to be.

Through them, and the ultimately futile attempt to think like them and not like myself, I discovered Ponge, and Leiris, Blanchot, Bataille, Rene Char, Beckett in a new way, Artaud, and the truly enigmatic Raymond Roussel. I tried but could not really understand the philosophy, but I completely absorbed the idea of consecrating my life through an unique and idiosyncratic practice of writing. Just now I picked up Leiris’ Manhood from my shelf, with its frightening, disturbing image of a naked Judith holding a knife and the severed head of Holofernes,

Leiris.jpg

and read from the prologue these words, which spoke to me then and still do today:

My chief activity is literature, a term greatly disparaged today. I do not hesitate to use it, however, for it is a question of fact: one is a literary man as one is a botanist, a philosopher, an astronomer, a physicist, a doctor. There is no point inventing other terms, other excuses to justify one’s predilection for writing: anyone who likes to think with a pen in his hand is a writer. The few books I have published have won me no fame. I do not complain of this, any more than I brag of it, for I feel the same distaste for the “popular author’ genre as for that of the “neglected poet.” (Michel Leiris, Manhood, p 4)

Unlike Leiris or Bataille, to whom Leiris dedicated his self-inquiry, or Bataille’s friend Blanchot, I never gathered on my shelves the works of Francis Ponge. Where I learnt of the quotation that the artist brings into his workshop items of the world to repair one at a time, I do not know, and a cursory google search cannot conceal the sloppiness of my literary scholarship in that notebook, penned at a time of desperation, when I did not know how to continue being what I was, a literary man, and still succeed in the world.

All I remember of reading Ponge is struggling to find my way through Derrida’s essay Signponge – and wondering what it was that provoked such an extraordinary text. I think now, as I read more of Ponge’s attention to the thing itself, simple things, ordinary things, reimagined with puns, dad jokes, word play, that it was simplicity itself that so infuriated Derrida, and made him turn the pun of Ponge’s name into an attack on any aspiration to find meaning in things themselves, outside the endless commentary of differance.

At the same time I would deliberately set aside the too difficult question announced by this word; it escapes any frontal approach, and the thing [Ponge’s name, the thing that is not a thing, and yet is declared in Derrida’s sentence] that I am going to talk about obliges me to reconsider mimesis through and through, as an open-ended question, but also as a miniscule vanishing point at the already sunlit abyssal depths of the mimosa. (Derrida, Signponge, (1976, trans 1984) p. 4

The aggressive brio of the scholar. Shots fired a the podium. Words as weapons.

Derrida’s words no longer fascinate me. But through Ponge I discover things that can renew poetry. I read also that Ponge became a recluse in his later life. In this fate he shared with Blanchot, I see my own. The writer who is a recluse looks like Narcissus into the pool and hopes to see his psyche’s echo.

It reminds me of the poem I published in ars poetica IV in May 1997, a couple of years before I penned my thoughts in this notebook, at a time when I hoped to escape the dreariness of a life in servitude as a lowly under-castellan to a minor provincial government, an escape which I have never been able to effect.

 

Dream Life

I

In that small moment dream takes

to fly from memory and become

the nagging image of forgetfulness

the muted clank of psyche’s hold

I can turn too well in bed

and learn the pains of comfort.

II

Whenever these rivers of the night

Dry hard into red scorched beds

Depression takes over my daily self

Like the avenging angel of time.

Scouring winds rub out the image

Leaving behind the carcase of summer.

III

Suppose thought gave way to dream.

Bridges would collapse. Our simple talk

Would become a spree of metaphor

Not even poets could afford.

Self would reign over all meaning

And again the tower would fall.

IV

But why do these solitary creations

reveal their meaning first to others

as if the dreaming tongue betrayed

its beloved solipsism? Eyes wrapped

in fabrics of truth and lies,

the dream asks its interlocutor: who?

V

A tree springs from my stomach.

Nebuchadnezzar’s madness overcomes time and reason

to plant itself in my soil

to come alive again as if

all history is compressed by night

into an image none can forget.

VI

This drowning boat, this fish river,

this medusa returning as a bowl

of squirming snakes which I eat:

these dreams lie like abandoned gifts

but still share their secret being

with listeners to my night’s echo

 

Jeff Rich (1997)

boyd nebuchadnezzar

(Image: Arthur Boyd, Nebuchadnezzar’s Dream of a Tree)

The first line of Derrida’s Psyche: Inventions of the other: “What else am I going to be able to invent?”

Metamorphosis

You can twist at the foot of the stems
The elastic of your heart
It is not like chenille
That you will know the flowers
When more than one sign
Your Rush to Happiness

He shuddered and jumped
Joined the butterflies …

Francis Ponge

Sebald’s sentences

Sebald’s sentences

I have spent the afternoon, as if in retreat from a world that does not welcome me, lying in bed and reading, much as I did as a teenage boy when I fled a family that tormented me into the world that I conjured from the novels of Trollope, Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy, a world which came to wrap my senses in muslin cloth and made me into a walking apparition of a no longer living sensibility; and the book that I have read, itself composed in a modern ghostly form of nineteenth century style, is Austerlitz by the great German emigrant writer, Winfried G. “Max” Sebald.

Sebald enjoys a renown that comes in part from the unclassifiable genre of writing that he practised; he combined personal memoir, fiction, travelogue and history into a cabinet of human curiosities, lined with a dark soft cloth of sadness: yet underneath all the strangeness of his forms, there is an ornate, stately, otherworldly beauty of his sentences.

The story is told of some writer who once was asked by a budding practitioner of the art what might sustain them on a journey to fame. “Do you like sentences?” the writer replied. So, to dwell on Sebald’s sentences seems the best way to honour his memory, and to hope to emulate his art, which found a way to speak of human destruction outside the boundaries of our own time and through a style schooled in the writing of German naturalist description of the nineteenth century.

Throughout Austerlitz, there fall these delicate strings, which also provide some kind of clue to the seemingly undirected perambulations of his melancholy mind. So from early in Austerlitz, Sebald writes, as if inscribing the fractal pattern of his intention deeply in the enigmatic curls and twists of his maze,:

From the first I was astonished by the way Austerlitz put his ideas together as he talked, forming perfectly balanced sentences out of whatever occurred to him, so to speak, and the way in which, in his mind, the passing on of his knowledge seemed to become a gradual approach to a kind of historical metaphysic, bringing remembered events back to life.” (Sebald, Austerlitz p 14)

There is too this graceful concatenation of, on the one hand, the precisely descriptive details of the outer world, of memories, of photographs, of the minor details of fortifications, and the forgotten stories of ambition behind the construction of the Central Railway Station of Antwerp, and, on the other hand, an ethereal uncertainty about our minds’ ability to grasp the experiences that beset them and to stop the torrent of emotions with which we perceive the world. Sebald’s enigmatic prose is born from this coupling of a strangely meticulous prose with the constant evocation that much of our lives are spent in mirages of our own conception.  The very first sentence of Austerlitz contains this quality of a dream, dreamt through the miscegenation of a gentlemanly scholarship with the perplexity of a mind that knows its own madness.

“In the second half of the 1960s I travelled repeatedly from England to Belgium, partly for study, partly for other reasons that were never entirely clear to me, staying sometimes for just one or two days, sometimes for several weeks” (Sebald, Austerlitz, p 1) my emphasis

The phrase that I have underlined (“partly for other reasons…) disrupts the reasoned preoccupations of the apparent narrative, and opens the reader to the disordered world of Sebald’s deeper meditations, which come to him with many qualifications, always with a question of whether he has been deceived. Many states of mind “seem” to be in this prose. They visit the narrator uninvited, unexplained, and lead from the seemingly solid into the always uncertain mists of our own minds.

This theme is conveyed in a passage in which Sebald finds in the image of a captive raccoon in the Nocturama of Antwerp, an image of the longing we have, those of us who sit and polish our words like the raccoon, to reach beyond the darkness that we see all around us.

“The only animal which has remained lingering in my memory is the raccoon. I watched it for a long time as it sat beside a little stream with a serious expression on its face, washing the same piece of apple over and over again, as if it hoped that all this washing, which went far beyond any reasonable thoroughness, would help it escape the unreal world in which it had arrived, so to speak, through no fault of its own. Otherwise, all I remember of the denizens of the Nocturama is that several of them had striking large eyes, and the fixed, inquiring gaze found in certain painters and philosophers who seek to penetrate the darkness which surrounds us purely by means of looking and thinking. (Austerlitz pp 2-3)

The recurring reproach to reason

Today, I finished reading Andrew Scull’s Madness in Civilization: a cultural history of insanity, which has prompted a few posts here and here. The book ends with a series of falls from grace of modern ways of thinking about madness; psychoanalysis becomes stranded with its limitation to a small elite, only to find itself as defined as irrelevant to the great suffering of the most severely mentally ill; then the great disappointments of the evacuation of the asylum, seen as the great enemies of freedom, the great bankrupting social shames, but without any conscientious attention to the community care of the most unwell; and finally, the descent into confusion and denial of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual itself, which in its fifth edition, was abjured by Robert Spitzer and Allen Frances, the architects of its earlier editions.

Out of the collapse of the great encyclopaedia of the disordered mind, there emerged a new project – to fix all mental illness to single biological causes. Led by the Institute of Mental Health in the USA the new scientists of the brain disavowed the DSM’s study of symptoms to search for a more fundamental biological mechanism. Thomas Insel said  “As long as the research community takes the DSM to be a bible, we’ll never make progress. People think everything has to match DSM criteria, but you know what? Biology never read that book” (quoted Scull, p 408).

Rather than a descriptive symptomatology, the new neuroscience believed they could build a diagnostic system on firm biological foundations. But they were to be disappointed. Despite the flashy images of the brain in action, they came no closer to really understanding the mysteries of the disordered mind or much beyond the routines of the ordered mind. And the reason is in part at least that the human mind, and madness as among the most potent expressions of that mind, is one part biology, two parts culture.

So Scull notes that the metaphysical wager that madness is an illness explicable by the body alone has not paid off. Our cures can be neither solely mental nor merely medical. They must embrace the cultures that temper, limit and excite the voices of madness within us. It is not that the pills or biological explanations will not play some role. “But will madness, that most solitary of afflictions and social of maladies, be reducible at last to biology and nothing but biology?” (p 411)

No, Scull replies:

The social and cultural dimensions of mental disorders, so indispensable a part of the story of madness in civilization over the centuries, are unlikely to melt away, or prove to be nothing more than epiphenomenal features of so universal a feature of human existence. Madness indeed has its meanings, elusive and evanescent as our attempts to capture them have been. It remains a fundamental puzzle, a reproach to reason, inescapably part and parcel of civilization itself. (Scull, p 411)

 

Turn and face the strange…

Turn and face the strange…

About a year ago I wrote a post Time might change me, but I can’t change time. It was prompted by Felipe Fernandez-Armesto’s A foot in the river: why our lives change and the limits of evolution, and frustration with a dose of bland management rhetoric about change.

Today I finished rereading Fernandez-Armesto’s book, again prompted to reflect more deeply on change by a defiant reaction to urgings from senior bureaucrats to change with change. I also learnt that I had misheard the refrain from Bowie’s song, and substituted one “change” for the more mysterious “trace”.

What more might I say about change beyond the slightly dyspeptic remarks of a year ago?

Fernandez-Armesto’s book is valuable because it is a deep reflection on what is really meant by change, and how change happens, especially in the realm of culture. Organic change occurs through evolution, selection and inheritance. But cultures do not evolve. The changes that occur in cultures follow no uniform pattern of descent, progress, or adaptation for survival., He rejects the common stock of metaphors that give shape to changes in cultures over time, and in their place portrays a chaotic, pluralistic world, with vectors of change shooting in all sorts of direction.

But he does agree with our bureaucratic leader friends that the speed of change is quickening. He speculates however, that these changes may slow or even cease. The great successful cultures, he remarks, are those that have endured with little change for thousands of years. Those cultures that have run furiously after the lure of change have brought on their own collapse. Today’s innovation is tomorrow’s ruin.

The striking thing about these reflections is how they emerge from a deep reflection on biology and culture, and an attempt to think on change across those disciplines, so long divided. He presents the now well-established evidence that culture is not a uniquely human treasure. Other creates have culture, especially our fellow primates. No other species has yet imagined such a bewildering diversity of cultures. And to differentiate in culture is to change chultures.

It might interest readers to note the chain of propositions that Fernandez-Armesto sets down so helpfully at the outset of his book.

  1. “culture is a by-product of faculties of memory and anticipation evolved in some species”
  2. “those faculties predispose cultures to change”
  3. “humans’ faculty of anticipation is exceptionally developed and contributes to making them highly imaginative”
  4. “humans are the most mutable of cultural creatures because in their case peculiar features of memory and imagination make them fertile in ideas (which I understand as ways of re-imagining the world)
  5. “ideas are the main motors of change in human cultures”
  6. “the pace of change is a function of the mutual accessibility of ideas: the more that ideas are exchanged, the more new ideas ensue; and cultural instability increases accordingly.”

Our biology, especially our brains, bestow on us a faculty of imagination; and with that imagination we unleash a crowd of change on the world. Imagination feeds on its own artefacts, its misprisions, its deceits, its delusions, its random deviations. Change is not a driver. It is not the final cause of external reality. It is culture’s wild child.

“Culture stimulates imagination further still, partly by rewarding it and partly by enhancing it with psychotropic behaviour. We praise the bard, pay the piper, fear the shaman, obey the priest, revere the artist. We unlock visions with dance and drums and music and alcohol and excitants and narcotics.”

Change is not an external necessity, to which we must loyally submit, but the coils of the “imaginative animal.”

Imagination is the motor of culture. We look around us. We see the world. In our mind’s eye we see it differently – improved or made more conformable to some imagined model or pattern ideal of order; or, if our taste so inclines us, we envision its destruction or reduction to chaos. Either way, we recraft our world imaginatively. We act to realise the world we have re-imagined. That is how and why cultures change.”

So we come to a more genial response to the stern lectures from managers on changing with the change that beset us. These changes are so often so petty, and yet insisted upon like a martinet commander demanding conformity with some new marching order. But they are but one imaginative reordering of the world. I choose another dream with less fury, less tempest, and deep roots in the great world-tree.

 

Strange salt

Strange salt

All I’ve suffered, and all the suffering I’ve  caused, might have arisen from the lack of a little salt in my brain.”

Robert Lowell

I have been reading Kay Redfield Jamison’s Robert Lowell. Setting the River on Fire: a study of genius, mania and character. It is a lusciously detailed and clinically informed study of Lowell bipolar disorder, its treatments and the endurance of his writing through the many crises his madness bestowed on him.

In the late 60s Lowell began to take lithium for his illness. Lithium, this strange and ancient salt, would change Lowell’s experience of illness and mania. For the next 15 years the frequent, yearly or more, attacks of mania would subside. These attacks had harrowed Lowell’s soul and left him with a constant fear of the recurrence of mania. Jamison insightfully compares the trauma of mania or other psychotic episodes to the trauma of war. After lithium Lowell could live through a late peace.

There is a debate about the quality of Lowell’s poetry in these years of less strife and torment. Jamison takes the view the lithium gave Lowell more years to write without the ravages of madness. Jamison can speak with authority. She has known those manias and the falls, and has written a wonderful account of her own descent as a psychiatrist into her personal bipolar hell. I share her view, knowing in my own life how a little pill can school an errant mind.

Surely poetry, literature, art do not demand the sacrifice of the poet, writer, artist, prophet to the destructive gods of madness. Surely we can shift the inner circles of body and mind, just as we remake nature with culture which is after all part of nature. Surely we can make this small offering of a little salt or a pill to appease the gods of destruction.

Thoughts on the Unnameable

Thoughts on the Unnameable

It was some time in my early 20s that I listened, with fitful attention on a Sunday afternoon, to a literary arts documentary maybe about Joyce, maybe about Dublin, but certainly with a fragment, read by a fine British actor, of Samuel Beckett’s prose works. Keep going, going on – I remember in a lilting slow Irish voice that seemed to linger on all the irony of each and every word – call that going, call that on.

 

It has stayed with me all of these years, as a watchword of a kind of ironic literary mindfulness. But the work from which it was detached thirty or more years ago, back when you could still occasionally watch quality literary arts documentaries on television, has long eluded me. Until this morning, with the ubiquitous solutions of google – that anti-mystery machine – I established that these phrases came from the opening sentence of The Unnameable, which has long sat on my shelves unread, forgotten, an isolated fictional narrator lost to time and culture.

 

“Where now? Who now? When now? Unquestioning. I , say I. Unbelieving. Questions.hypotheses, call them that. Keep going, going on. Call that going, call that on.

Samuel Beckett, The Unnameable

 

 

As I read on this morning, I wondered why this great drama of the compulsion to speak, or worstward ho, to write, had not captured my attention before. In all the fragments, in all the destitution of these times, still there is this compulsion to speak, to write, to leave the words we share in our breath, and cast them to the winds that will destroy us. Is this not the same dilemma I have wrestled with. Nothing to say except the weak and fading Malones of my imagination – skeletons only, caricatures, ghosts in some uncontrolled machine – still I must say something.

 

“At the same time I am obliged to speak. I shall never be silent. Never.”

Beckett, The Unnameable

 

It is surely a cruel joke that Beckett, that stylist of epic failure, that artist of impoverishment, Kafka’s hunger artist put on stage in fizzles and events of no, should have become the source of motivational images on the internet. His Fail better lines, on this page inscribed on an ascending stair, have even found their way into speeches by sportsmen, spurring on their Olympic striving.

 

And who can dispute the value of that? If I can drift my life towards the spirit I heard that long forgotten Sunday afternoon, in the steady renaming of each of our failures as going and as on, why cannot others take his words and accent better, not fail. We writers after all do not control our words, don not control how we are forgotten and ignored.

 

Failure and futility have their sorrows, but also their comforts. They are after all the great defiance of the rulers of the world, all those who believe in systems, in logical prose, in the rationality of our errant minds.

 

The thing to avoid, I don’t know why, is the spirit of system.

Beckett, The Unnameable