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.

 

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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.

Poem: Nouriel’s Shoes

Poem: Nouriel’s Shoes

The following poem is from my Burning Archive collection.

It had its origins in a strategic leadership program I attended some years ago at the Australian and New Zealand School of Government. We, the participants, sat in a large circle of maybe 30, and were invited by the facilitator to declare something about ourselves, some thing we aspired to do, but had not. It was an exercise in getting out of our comfort zone, and into the kind of psychodynamic group space beloved by the Tavistock Institute.

There were some dull confessions and rote ambitions, and then it came to my turn.  I said, “I had always wanted to be a poet, but never had fully given myself over to it.” I was teetering on the verge of the perpetual crisis of my career – a dichter  lost in the maze of power. I heeded the call of the strange gods that I serve, and set out on my unique path.

Later in the leadership program, we were asked to develop a policy response to the immigration and refugee problem in Australia. We were shipped around Melbourne to meet various stakeholders, including one remarkable community leader of the Afghani refugee community in Melbourne. Nouriel was her name – I have forgotten her surname over the years.

When we presented our proposals to the group we were invited to be as imaginative as possible. I closed out our presentation, with an improvised story about Nouriel’s shoes, the gifts she gave to her home country in the hope that women would be educated, and her society would find peace and no longer need to be a source country for refugees.

Here is the poem.

Nouriel’s Shoes

 

Nouriel does not know time wasting.

She does not know carelessness.

Asylum seekers – she cannot forgive them,

For buying their way to freedom,

For walking past crying millions in the camps.

And the lawyers, who parade

Their bookish rights, like flash cars,

She despises.

 

She fled Kabul in ’79,

An educated woman in a liberal society

that just did not take.

Paris schooled her for a time –

Just like Khomeini, another exile –

Before the Great Southern Land

Gave her freedom,

But not a home.

 

She remembers Kabul:

Its ordered streets and fruit-trees,

The women laughing in the sunshine,

The children dressed in fine cottons,

Playing in the gardens.

Then, the tanks, the shells, the war, the hatred

That brought Afghanis to this kitchen,

At the other end of the world.

 

Here she returned the gift:

Making scarred men into kitchen hands;

Running English classes for the women;

Outwitting the men who would wrap

Their women in silent ignorance

To cocoon their cards and drink and faith;

Nouriel’s freedom must be worked for.

To those many who do, she gives all that she can.

 

Now she returns to Kabul,

after the Taliban

Have fled her city for now.

In abandoned parks, children play bare-footed

Between rubble and shells.

Schools barely hold their girls against poisoned faiths.

To these schools she decides to give;

So no more Afghanis will flee to her wealthy refuge,

But stay in her remembered home.

 

She buys the children shoes,

Hundreds of boxes of shoes.

One summer she visits a school with her gifts.

Watching as the children begin their long walk home,

She sees one girl carrying her box,

Still bare-footed, in the hard dust of the street.

Nouriel asks: “Why don’t you put them on?”

The girl replies: “I must wash my feet first.”

 

Jeff Rich

 

Image source: Getty images

The infinite conversation and survival

The infinite conversation and survival

I have written before in the Burning Archive of the metaphor for writing, and its eternal companion, reading, that I have prised from the title of Blanchot’s work, The Infinite Conversation

I have written here of how writing secures our rare and precious fragments of understanding against loss and destruction, and bequeathed them in their frail forms to those who wish to take part in the infinite conversation.

And I have written here, in more cryptic and plangent terms of how for me writing is my chosen method of going sane and staying sane. To chant the songlines of human heritage, regardless of audience and social esteem, is my path. As I wrote in 2015, surprising myself with this record of my thoughts preserved from the flames:

“it is only the lonely tenacity of single sane souls that invests in the harmless runes of prophecy. But from those chance meanings, spread like disorder across time and space, will emerge the infinite conversation.”

The infinite conversation emerged as a guiding metaphor from a dialogue with my psychotherapist. She posed the question what values are important to you when you write. For me fame is not the spur, nor wealth, nor even impossible immortality. But a kind of survival through braiding my gentle voice with the threads without end of literature.

I do not have ready access to Blanchot’s text to deepen my imagination of the meaning of a mere title to his work. The best I could do was to find the text of a brief tribute by Jean-Luc Nancy on the occasion of Blanchot’s still living centenary. 

This existence is not life as immediate affection and self-perpetuation, nor is it its death. The ‘dying’ [‘mourir’] of which Blanchot speaks—which is in no way to be confused with the cessation of life, and which is, quite on the contrary, the living, or ‘living-on’, or ‘sur-viving’ invoked by Derrida when he was at his closest to Blanchot -forms the movement of the ceaseless approach to absenting as true sense, destroying in it all trace of nihilism.

Such is the movement that, being written, can ‘give to nothing, in its form of nothing, the form of something.

It is this form of survival that I cherish in writing. This survival of ghostly incantations and keener sounds comes from the borderlands of the mind, and a solitary wanderer’s habit of paying loving attention to the voices in his head. This survival promises renewal from isolation. It promises dream from the injuries of the day. And it makes from our evanescent words fragments of beauty that may wander the earth forever.

Mr Dylan’s bad language

Mr Dylan’s bad language

I like to check out the winners of the Nobel Prize for Literature. The world of books in our highly literate world is so vast that any pointers to quality oeuvres that speak of different histories is welcome. It is how I discovered Symborska and Transtormer and a few others.

You can imagine my shock then, late last year, when the Nobel Committee declared the 2016 winner to be the over-celebrated bard of the 60’s, Bob Dylan. 

Shock grew to doubt about the Nobel’s claim to award distinctions, and then to searching questioning about what this meant about the culture. It was not the first unconventional choice by the committee. The year before a Russian journalist won the prize; but at least her deep testimonies of the experiences of post-communist Russia were unequivocally her own work, and she showed up to accept the prize.

Mr Dylan struck out on both counts. He did not go to his award ceremony. He had other commitments, a schedule full of the kind of unbreakable commitments made by aging rock celebrities. A rather sheepish American ambassador appeared in his stead, and duly read what she had to say was Mr Dylan’s speech.

But it gets worse. The Committee insisted that to claim the prize, and the substantial money attached, Mr Dylan must give an acceptance speech. So he did, a mere couple of days before the deadline, when he would have lost his cheque. But the aging rolling stone could not make it to Sweden; he posted his speech to YouTube, a 30 minute ramble about the great literary traditions from which he sprang, including Moby Dick.

Perhaps this is innovation? Perhaps it is a sly parody of formality from which he chooses to stand apart. Or perhaps it is lazy, arrogant and incompetent contempt.

On investigation it appears Mr Dylan was not capable of giving an authentic account of his literary craft, and too narcissistic to believe he would be found out for his failure. His speech contained dozens of sentences cribbed like a lackadaisical student directly from Spark Notes, that well known den of scholarly scoundrels. Andrea Pitzer at Slate makes the case, complete with laid out comparisons of Mr Dylan’s and Spark Notes texts on that US high school text, Moby Dick, and puts the compelling question: is the current Nobel Laureate a not very literary plagiarist?

So what does this mean for the culture? What does it tell us about the destructive flames of contemporary life that threaten to burn to the ground our precious archive of memory, history, tradition, literature and culture?

I fear it is another sign of the death of culture. I fear it is a sign of a new bourgeois stupidity that we not yet know how to fight, as Flaubert did in another age.

But perhaps I could speaking to the twisting nether, and ask this of the committee that awards the Nobel Prize: take the prize back from Mr Dylan’s slack and begging hands. It is time for Culture to mutiny against Mr Dylan’s bad language.

Waste books and epigrams

Waste books and epigrams

“The excuses we make to ourselves when we want to do something are excellent material for soliloquies, for they are rarely made except when we are alone, and are very often made aloud.”

George Lichtenberg (1742-99), The Waste Books, #22, p 8

I collected from the local library The Notebooks of Robert Frost, which features on its cover an emblematic photograph of the aged poet writing in his Vermont home in 1958, as if he were painting at an easel.

Robert Frost.jpg

Image Source: Alfred Eisenstaedt via Prospect magazine

The notebooks stretch from the 1890s to the 1970s, spanning a life’s adventure in writing that is surely both too majestic and too humble to be known as a career, and contain all manner of writing, reflection, experiment and, as suits their form, annotations. Notebook 20 dates from 1929, and begins

“These are not monologues but my part in a conversation in which the other part is more or less implied.” (The Notebooks of Robert Frost, p 267)

The thought reminds me of Maurice Blanchot’s idea of the infinite conversation, which I imagine as the eternal, if enigmatic, survival of the solitary murmuring of the great words that sustain the connection between the dead and the living. To be part of this infinite conversation is why I write. To attend to the dying murmurings of this conversation, the words that are at risk of ashen destruction in the burning archive, is why I write, and why I devote so much time, despite no show of social success or fame or even much of an audience, to this life in literature.

It comes with a moral imperative, an ordinary virtue of dignity and grace in defeat, evoked in Herbert’s “Envoy of Mr Cogito”

repeat old incantations of humanity fables and legends
because this is how you will attain the good you will not attain
repeat great words repeat them stubbornly
like those crossing the desert who perished in the sand
To be an old, grey, wizened and solitary man, like Frost in his Vermont home, and still to repeat these old incantations is my path of redemption.
Strange, though, that all we write is so perishable, so vulnerable to fire and neglect, and yet these impermanent notebooks endure. It is a paradox that these words survive beyond death when they are ephemeral, a temporary incantation against the chaos of the world, in which the poet-priest marks the lost place of truth and beauty in the world as if in a disappearing rite. These are words consigned to “waste books,” the flames and the mould, and not inscribed defiantly in stone like the original epigrams.

 

The introduction  to Frost’s Notebooks compares them to the “Waste Books” of George Lichtenberg.  Out of these scraps of notes, ideas, drafts, quotations, the ordinary observations of life emerged, after death, Lichtenberg, the great aphorist. The temporary words of waste books become in time monuments of soul-making.

Is the blog the new waste book? It is somewhere else surely. It does not have the  privacy of personal experiment, but nor does it have the polish and mirage of publication. Still it seeks to endure beyond its act of writing, just as Frost kept and preserved his notebooks. He dated them. He organised them. He secured them against loss and destruction, and bequeathed them to those who wish to take part in the infinite conversation.

So too this blog finds its way to endure, even if it is always written in a first draft, with little plan or attempt to impress, to manufacture a brand. I pen the words, and cast them adrift on the digital ocean. It is one of the ordinary things that give me the accomplishment of form without the drag of organisation. It is one of the lesser forms that endure.

“Fortunately too no forms are more engrossing, gratifying, comforting, staying than those lesser ones we throw off, like vortex rings of smoke, all our individual enterprise and needing nobody’s cooperation; a basket, a garden, a room, an idea, a picture, a poem.” Robert Frost, Letter to The Amherst Student, quoted in Notebooks, p xv

And a blog. Even if, or perhaps especially if, that blog has few readers, no great name.

The work is solitary: that does not mean that it remains incommunicable, that it lacks a reader. But the person who reads it enters into that affirmation of the solitude of the work, just as the one who writes it belongs to the risk of solitude.” (Maurice Blanchot, “The Essential Solitude” in The Gaze of Orpheus, p 64)

 

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