Monday, October 28, 2019

This instant-now

A few weeks ago the poster in the metro caught my eye. I had to go see it. Momenta 2019, Biennale de l'image, presented works around the theme. The Life of Things. "The exhibited works testify to the different ways in which objects are experienced and what they tell us about how we think and live. Objects sometimes bear the fragments of the living, and, in other contexts, they have their own life."

Elisabeth Belliveau, Still Life with Fallen Fruit (after A Breath of Life, Clarice Lispector), still, 2017-19, video, 4 min 15 s.
The image that so engrossed me was a still from a video, Still Life with Fallen Fruit, by Elisabeth Belliveau, after A Breath of Life by Clarice Lispector, as it turns out. I took it as a sign. Time to read more Lispector...

I opted to order Agua Viva, I don't know why, and when I opened it and began to read, I slammed it shut, holy shit, it's so eerily perfect for my now. Am I ready for the now?
Let me tell you: I'm trying to seize the fourth dimension of this instant-now so fleeting that it's already gone because it's already become a new instant-now that's also already gone. Every thing has an instant in which it is. I want to grab hold of the is of the thing. These instants passing through the air I breathe: in fireworks they explode silently in space. I want to possess the atoms of time. And to capture the present, forbidden by its very nature: the present slips away and the instant too, I am this very second forever in the now. Only the act of love — the limpid star — like abstraction of feeling — captures the unknown moment, the instant hard as crystal and vibrating in the air and life is this untellable instant, larger than the event itself: during love the impersonal jewel of the moment shines in the air, the strange glory of the body, matter made feeling in the trembling of the instants — and the feeling is both immaterial and so objective that it seems to happen outside your body, sparkling on high, joy, joy is time's material and the essence of the instant. And in the instant is the is of the instant. I want to seize my is.
— from Agua Viva, by Clarice Lispector.

Friday, October 25, 2019

The texture of orchid petals and the colour of Limbo

I'm reading The Hearing Trumpet, by Leonora Carrington, and for such a slim book it's slow going. It started off riotously funny and clever but then I was stopped cold by the winking nun.
While he spoke I was able to examine a large oil painting on the wall facing me. The painting represented a nun with a very strange and malicious face. [...] The face of the nun in the oil painting was so curiously lighted that she seemed to be winking, although that was hardly possible. She must have had one blind eye and the painter had rendered her infirmity realistically. However the idea that she was winking persisted, she was winking at me with a most disconcerting mixture of mockery and malevolence.
I thought, I need to pay careful attention, so for a few days I lived my life and danced my dance and read something "light" and "escapist" (though that book turned out to be neither really), until I thought I was ready to devote some energy to understanding what Carrington had laid before me.

And I read the words and I read more words and I flipped back the pages and I carried it with me, even while I skimmed other texts about eloquence and nonmainstream sexual practices and pearls.

The early pages of the novel put me in mind of The Crying of Lot 49 — the humour, the secret society, the sense of conspiracy and paranoia, and the reference to Remedios Varo.

Once Marian arrived at the institution, I couldn't get Yoko Tawada out of my head, these people with their strange manners, these surreal images.

Where I'm at, the text is a correspondence within a secret book within the book, folding in on itself. I love these buried-treasure texts — reading becomes an archeological dig, a trip down the rabbit hole.

I thought perhaps some research might enlighten me on this section of the book before I backtracked my way through it. Most summaries of the book gloss over this episode entirely, leading me to believe that it is insignificant. Some readers confess to finding it boring. I wondered briefly if anyone had actually read it, apart from the handful of academics who wrote their thesis on obscure subjects: Carrington's surrealist treatment of space and time, gothic aesthetics in Carrington's surrealist use of myth, that surrealist women could be both muse and creator, something about gender and the divine.

Internet searches for the winking nun eventually led me to René Magritte. In the May 1933 issue of Le Surréalisme au service de révolution there appeared a drawing by René Magritte of a sexually transgressive nun, entitled Vierge retroussée (Trussed-up Virgin)
Winking beneath a halo, the robes of this "virgin" are pushed back to expose a pair of gartered black stockings and a provocative pair of pumps, indexing both her sexual transgressiveness generally and her residence within a homoerotically charged convent environment more specifically.
While my searches began to procure more and more references to his drawing, it was days before I managed to track down the image itself.

In the meantime I learned that "winking nun" might be a veiled reference to a vulva. Certainly Magritte's nun's draped robes have a certain vulvular aura about them, topped by a hooded clitoral winkle.

Carrington's nun is not obviously sexualized, at least, not on the surface. In fact, Marian surmises she has some physical affliction that contorts her face.

Confined to a patriarchal institution and not bound by societal norms, what could she possibly be winking about?
"It might be the Zurbarán school," she said, looking uncommonly thoughtful. "Probably painted in the late eighteenth century. Spanish of course, an Italian could never have done anything so enchantingly sinister. A nun with a leer. Unknown master."

"Do you suppose she is really winking, or is she blind in one eye?" I asked, anxious for Georgina's opinion on a more personal aspect of the lady.

"She is definitely winking; the bawdy old bag is probably peeking at the monastery through a hole in the wall, watching the monks prancing around in their knickers." Georgiana had a one-track mind. ""It is beautiful," she added. "I wonder the Gams let it hand amongst their hideous possessions. Everything in the house ought to have been burnt long ago apart from the leering abbess."

Certainly the painting had a force all of its own.


"Yes," said Georgina, "how those Spaniards understood the painting of black drapery. So much more superbly blackly depressing than anyone else's black. The old Lady's habit had the texture of orchid petals and the colour of Limbo. It really is a wonderful painting. Her face surrounded by that white starched frill is as luminous as the full moon, and just as bewitching." Somehow I felt that Georgina understood the painting of the leering abbess better than I ever could.
I think my obsession with the winking nun is enhanced this week by my having attained some tangential psychological epiphany in a highly sexualized context. I'm learning how to be in my body and outside of my body at the same time. This is one of the magic tricks of great sex, but it's also a lesson learned from aging. I think Carrington knew it.

As for the abbess's tractate, it tells of falling into ecstasies and a witchcraft of salves; sexual acrobatics, cross-dressing, and a sinful ointment. Nocturnal restlessness, inner turbulence. Ultimately the abbess's body is bloated with death and bursts, giving birth to an angel.

As yet I can find no lay explanation of this history, but if I understand the summaries, it sets off something like a grail quest. Perhaps the body is the vessel.

Wednesday, October 23, 2019

A poet is not somebody who has great thoughts

English teaching at school is, unfortunately, obsessed with what a poet thought, as though that were of any interest to anyone. Rather than being taught about how a poem is phrased, schoolchildren are asked to write essays on what William Blake thought about the Tiger; despite the fact that William Blake was a nutjob whose opinions, in a civilised society, would be of no interest to anybody apart from his parole officer. A poet is not somebody who has great thoughts. That is the menial duty of the philosopher. A poet is somebody who expresses his thoughts, however commonplace they may be, exquisitely. That is the one and only difference between the poet and everybody else.
— from The Elements of Eloquence, by Mark Forsyth.

Thursday, October 17, 2019

Blessed is he who leaves

This is why tyrants of all stripes, infernal servants, have such deep-seated hatred for the nomads — this is why they persecute the Gypsies and the Jews, and why they force all free peoples to settle, assigning the addresses that serve as our sentences.

What they want is to create a frozen order, to falsify time's passage. They want for the days to repeat themselves, unchanging, they want to build a big machine where every creature will be forced to take its place and carry out false actions. Institutions and offices, stamps, newsletters, a hierarchy, and ranks, degrees, applications and rejections, passports, numbers, cards, election results, sales and amassing points, collecting, exchanging some things for others.

What they want is to pin down the world with the aid of barcodes, labelling all things, letting it be known that everything is a commodity, that this is how much it will cost you. Let this new foreign language be illegible to humans, let it be read exclusively by automatons, machines. That way by night, in their great underground shops, they can organize readings of their own barcoded poetry.

Move. Get going. Blessed is he who leaves.
– from Flights, by Olga Tokarczuk.

Last weekend I saw Memory Is Our Homeland, a documentary film charting the story of Polish refugees during World War II. This film covered the journey of Poles through Siberia and Iran to Africa. My mother's story is similar, though it veered east to India.

I've always known this story as part of my family history. It's a personal narrative. What this film helped me understand was its broader political significance. Most people don't know the history of the Soviet invasion of Poland and the deportation of Poles by Soviets, because the Soviet government wanted to keep it quiet. How tightly that government (no doubt with a little help from the British) controlled the release of images once Poles were allowed to mobilize. How they propagandized their involvement in the

It's still a bit puzzling to me how it was determined who left and who stayed. (Which was privilege and which was punishment?) Did some people not hear the news in the street? Did they miss the train?

Flipping through Tokarczuk's Flights in recent days reinforces my interpretation of events. They were homeless, even while the tyrants directed their trajectory. The tyrants redrew the borders. It's no wonder people chose not to return, for it would be to a different geography, land they'd never known, under the tyrants' control.

(It's eerie how Tokarczuk reflects many of the issues of home and identity and belonging and memory, as if these attitudes are embedded in the Polish psyche, the cultural subconscious.)
Far from home, at a video rental shop, rummaging around the shelves, I swear in Polish. And suddenly an average-sized woman who looks to be about fifty years old stops beside me and awkwardly says in my language:

"Is that Polish? Do you speak Polish? Hello."

Here, alas, her stock of Polish sentences is at an end.

And now she tells me in English that she came here when she was seventeen, with her parents; here she shows off with the Polish word for "mummy". Much to my dismay she then begins to cry, indicating her arm, her forearm, and talks about blood, that this is where her whole soul is, that her blood is Polish. This hapless gesture reminds me of an addict's gesture — her index finger showing veins, the place to stick a neeedle in. She says she married a Hungarian and forgot her Polish. She squeezes my shoulder and leaves, disappearing between shelves labelled "Drama" and "Action".

It's hard for me to believe that you could forget the language thanks to which the maps of the world were drawn. She must have simply mislaid it somewhere. Maybe it lies wadded up and dusty in a drawer of bras and knickers, squeezed into a corner like sexy thongs acquired once in a fit of enthusiasm that there was never really an occasion to wear.
To what extent are you your language?

If you can't speak Polish, are you still Polish? If you haven't been to Poland in 80 years, are you still Polish? If the only land you knew as Poland is no longer Polish territory, are you still Polish? Yes.

Monday, October 14, 2019

We are the individual nerve impulses of the world

And Frankfurt? That great air travel hub, that state within a state? What do you associate that with? Yes, yes, the spitting image of a chip, a computer chip, a razor-thin plate. Here there can be no doubts — they tell us what we are, dear travellers. We are the individual nerve impulses of the world, fractions of an instant, barely that part of it that permits the change from plus to minus, or maybe the other way around, and keeps everything in constant flux.
— from Flights, by Olga Tokarczuk.

I was thrilled to hear that Olga Tokarczuk was the recipient of the 2018 Nobel Prize in Literature.

Her Primeval and Other Times currently ranks as one of my favourite books ever.

And Flights... I realize that while I posted excerpts from Flights, I never wrote about it in full. Partly because I don't know how to. It sprawls, in a most beautiful way.

Also, it's a book that I read over many months, making it harder to synthesize. Its fragmentary nature leant itself to these bursts of attention, after which I could consider at leisure. However, this method of reading means I have trouble seeing how the novel hangs together; for me, its parts were more valuable than the whole.

It's about... travelling, flying, airports, encounters in airports, things overheard, taxis and hotels, guidebooks and maps ("nothing cures melancholy like maps"), the Earth's nipples, the passage of time, and here I find a fragment on overnight trains ("for cowards")...
Coffee or tea? That's the closest to freedom the railway gets. Had these passengers just got one of those cheap flights, they would have been there in an hour, and it would have cost them less money, too. They would have had a night in the arms of their longing lovers, breakfast at one of the restaurants on rue je-ne-sais-quoi, where oysters are served. An evening Mozart concert at a cathedral. A walk along the riverbanks. Instead they must fully surrender to the time taken by rail travel, must personally traverse every kilometre according to the age-old custom of their ancestors, go over every bridge and through each viaduct and tunnel on this voyage over land. Nothing can be skipped, nothing bypassed. Every millimetre of the way will be touched by the wheel, will for an instant be part of its tangent, and this will be an unrepeatable configuration for all time — of the wheel and the rail, of the time and place, unique throughout the cosmos.
As I skim through it now, I am losing myself in this book again. Language, anatomy, the anatomy of airports, anatomical drawings...
Drawing is never reproducing — in order to see, you have to know how to look, and you have to know what you're looking at.
Obsession, obligation, women who walk away, whales drowning in air. The journey of Chopin's heart.

Memory and perception (isn't that what all books are about?).

You can read a beautiful review of Flights in the Glasgow Review of Books.

Last year, I convinced my sister to go see Tokarczuk at her local bookstore, and she was gracious enough to record some of that conversation for me. Politics and Prose has now posted Tokarczuk's talk in full. But one of my favourite segments is the clip above regarding an aspect of the writing process, immersion in one's subject, the controlled psychosis.

Tokarczuk says that egocentric obsession is narcissism, and she contrasts this with the interest and research in something outside yourself, which is therapeutic — writing frees you from yourself. (But when the subject of examination is the self, the self in relation to the world, as my writing has been of late, what kind of obsession is this? Can I be freed from myself by going into myself?)

Wednesday, October 02, 2019

Singing myself into stupidity

"Scientists have even begun studying the chants," said Frère Sébastien, "trying to explain the popularity of the recording these monks made. People went nuts for it."

"And have they any explanation?"

"Well, when they hooked up probes to volunteers and played Gregorian chants it was quite startling."

"How so?"

"It showed that after a while their brain waves changed. They started producing alpha waves. Do you know what those are?"

"They're the most calm state," said the Chief. "When people are still alert, but at peace."

"Exactly. Their blood pressure dropped, their breathing became deeper. And yet, they also became, as you said, more alert. It was as though they became 'more so,' you know?"

"Themselves, but their best selves."

"That's it. Doesn't work on everyone, of course. But I think it works on you."

Gamache considered that and nodded. "It does. Perhaps not as profoundly as the Gilbertines, but I've felt it."

"While the scientists say it's alpha waves, the Church calls it 'the beautiful mystery.'"

"The mystery being?"

"Why these chants, more than any other church music, are so powerful. Since I'm a monk I think I'll go with the theory they're the voice of God. Though there's a third possibility," the Dominican admitted. "I was at dinner a few weeks ago with a colleague and he has a theory that all tenors are idiots. Something to do with their brain pans and vibration of the sound waves."

Gamache laughed. "Does he know you're a tenor?"

"He's my boss, and he sure suspects I'm an idiot. And he might be right. But what a glorious way to go. Singing myself into stupidity. Maybe Gregorian chants have the same effect. Make us all into happy morons. Scrambling our brains as we sing the chants. Forgetting our cares and worries. Letting the world slip away." The younger man closed his eyes and seemed to go somewhere else. And the, just as quickly, he came back. Opening his eyes he looked at Gamache, and smiled. "Bliss."

"Ecstasy," said Gamache.


"But for monks it's not just music," said Gamache. "There's also prayer. The chants and prayers. It's a potent combination. Both mind altering, in their way."

When the monk didn't say anything, Gamache continued.

"I've sat here for a number of services now and watched the monks. To a man they go into a sort of reverie when singing the chants. Or even just listening to them. You did it just now, just thinking about the chants."


"I've seen that before, you know. On the faces of drug addicts."
— from The Beautiful Mystery, by Louise Penny.

It's one of few memories I have of my father. I was 4, and he took me to church. My mother must have been not feeling well, it was just him and me. I'm sure I fidgeted; I was a good kid, but even then I remember not believing in God. A stern look from my father was enough to still me. But what I remember is him, afterward, amused, telling my mother that I hum along with the priest's chanting. The chanting – that was the only reason I tolerated mass.

I've been self-conscious about my humming ever since. It's stronger than me, the instinctive urge to hum along with almost any type of music. Humming, chanting, is weirdly both physical and spiritual, whether I'm practicing yoga or blissed out on sex, drugs, and rock 'n' roll.

Home sick in bed for a couple days last week, I glutted on Louise Penny, downloading whatever my library had readily available. In brief:

The Beautiful Mystery is set in a monastery in Northern Quebec, completely removed from the village of Three Pines and its inhabitants. Featuring a small, reclusive order of monks once thought vanished, the rule of silence is lifted so that the brothers can help the investigation into the murder of the choirmaster, who was responsible for the recording of chants that brought the order out of obscurity. Although they indulge in chocolate-covered blueberries, Chief Inspector Gamache and Inspector Beauvoir wrestle with powerful personal demons in this one. Monks, music, and manuscripts — this book was heaven for me.

The Long Way Home, on the other hand, is dependent on some familiarity with the cast of regulars in Three Pines. Gamache's wife plays a larger role than I remember in other books, but this is only natural as she is now a resident of the community, the couple having decided to retire there. While the cast travels first to Toronto and then across Quebec to the stony mouth of the Saint Lawrence, the story journeys into the heart of Quebecois art, with a layover at the Garden of Cosmic Speculation.

The Hangman is disappointing. You need to know that this story was written as part of a series designed to encourage adult literacy. It's simplistic, not nuanced at all. It has the kernel of a good story, but the plotting and characterization are thin. Chronologically the events of this book fall between numbers 6 and 7 in the Inspector Gamache series, but it hardly matters, as there are no developments in the greater character or story arcs. It's short, easy to read, and still compelling, and therefore suitable for its target audience, but you won't miss anything if you skip this one.

If I had a cottage, I'd be sure to stock its shelves with a complete set of Penny's books.