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“this is not a detached dissertation but an exploration of my origins, an indirect attempt at self-definition” —Octavio Paz

from The Loop

There is a particular and astonishing thought process at work in this passage, linking a memory ‘snapshot’ and the conceit of a poem.  Roubaud tissues his writing throughout this book with asides and parentheses, not even counting the Insertions.  To get to the particular path of reasoning I want, I’ve elided bits (Roubaud loves his digressions) and passages (Roubaud really loves his opinions) quite frequently, and I’ve left out the ellipses for the sake of my period key.  If you want the unadulterated stuff, you can read the entire section (and the entire book, it seems) here on Google Books.  At the end of the post, there is a link to a translation of the poem which Roubaud discusses.  A few of Roubaud’s comments may be more interesting if you know that the poem is the precursor to the sestina.  Instead of the sestina’s weaving pattern of end-words, Raimbaut “repeats the same words at the rhyme, in the same order, in every stanza.”

from §3 My returning to this image

Seeing that nocturnal windowpane covered with its flowers of frost has become habitual for me, very familiar.  And sometimes the image appears to me on its own, at random, removed from its natural setting, without any particular thought of this memory preceding it.  But I recognize it immediately—I can hardly fail to recognize it, since it resembles nothing so much as itself.

But one day, one day I managed to associate this image with a spoken word, a word from a poem (if I grant for a moment that poetry is speech, a “music of the mouth proffering speech in meter,” as Eustache Deschamps said), a word spoken, then, and put down on paper centuries ago, and now caught on this paper between the blank spaces, the “margins,” that define verse:

Er resplan la flors enversa

These words make up the entire first line of a canso (a “chanson,” a music-poem) by the troubadour Raimbaut d’Orange, written more than eight centuries ago: “Now shines [is resplendant] the inverse flower.”  Raimbaut d’Orange wastes no time in revealing the primary sense of this strange grouping: “quals flors” he says (“which flower?”). And he answer himself, taking the spontaneous and absolute solipsism of all verse even further: “neus gels e conglapis” (“snow, frost and ‘conglapi‘”), introducing, with this last vocable—so rare that it appears only here—who knows what sort of frozen thing.  I have decided to understand it, according to the needs of my own composition, as a vitrified conjunction of neus (snow) and gels (frost): as the condensation of a mist-noise and a cold substance, emblematic of the cold itself; and I hear in it an entire “glapissement,” a kind of screen, along with the scratching sound made by those transparent pellets of cold as they were scraped up, crying out under my nail:

Er resplan la flors enversa
Pels trencans rancx e pels tertres.
Quals flors neus gels e conglapis
Que cotz e destrenh e trenca.


(Then shines the inverse flower
among sharp cliffs and hills.
Which flower? snow frost and ice
that cuts and torments and slices.)

Now, every dawn is a new spring, even a dawn covered in frost.  And in this paradoxical beginning of a lover’s canso, Raimbaut d’Orange—instead of following a tradition that would have him echo the sweet and didactic love songs of the teacher-birds, the teachers of the song, essenhadors del chan—gives voice instead to abstract nightingales.  The poet sees blocks of ice in place of the craggy red mountains, which are now invisible; in place of the orioles or larks, whose throats are now numb; in place of their song now dead from the cold:

Vey mortz quils critz brays siscles
(I see dead calls, cries, noises, whistles)

For Raimbaut, invoking the great aviary cold of the hills, now gripped by frost , is a way to make the three-in-one flower of song, poetry, and love still more brilliant— the inverse flower absent from every bouquet (and here the absence is double).  When I read this image, when I found myself gripped, transfixed, and benumbed by these words, flors enversa, I recognized them as my own (this was near the very beginning of my reading of the Troubadours, I still knew virtually nothing about them), and I spontaneously and sentimentally placed myself, implicitly and without at first realizing it, in one of the two camps—each devoted to a certain method, simultaneously antagonistic and interwoven—of the trobar, the art of the Troubadours.

For this is not simply an insolent metamorphosis of the tradition’s “spring-time” metaphor (the beginning of poetic singing, in the spring, identified with the love songs of the birds), but also the affirmation of a certain way of speaking in poetry, which goes far beyond the privileged moment in which the singing flowers of the frost are discovered.  One could dub this the Way of Double Negation (which has its related and parallel forms in philosophy, theology, and even logic): the frost negates both the flower and the song.  But in the desert of first, a paradoxical flower blooms—in its silence an insistent disharmony resonates, and from this “hirsute” blossoming, as from this polar atonality, are reborn, in the vibratory evocation of the verse, both a happy music and its simultaneous and hopeless disappearance.

The poetic method called “obscure” and “closed,” according to Raimbaut d’Orange and Arnaut Daniel, never forgets that beneath love’s greatest “joy”—its “joi“— lurks the frost of fulfillment, the ferocity of a reality mingled with death.

This is why, even if it wasn’t within my power to dissolve this association between childhood and a fragment of poetry, I did not for a moment refuse it.  As I progressed (slightly) in my knowledge of the trobar, as I formed a clearer idea of it, this association became deeper and still more necessary, losing the sudden, fortuitous, and arbitrary character of its origins.  The memory image of the square pane made hazy with frost, the night that it hid and then revealed, and the bedroom around me all acquired from this association a greater force of conviction (the conviction of being an authentic and significant revelation of the past) and a greater legitimacy.

The poem which Roubaud discusses may also be read at Google Books, in a translation by William D. Paden and Frances Freeman Paden, here.

Filed under: Quotes, Roubaud

from Roubaud’s “The Great Fire of London”

§136 Something that would be a project (a future), a project for existence

In a project for existence— it doesn’t matter which— only a single, pragmatic answer exists to the overall “what’s-the-point?”: time passes.  Every project, particularly a formal project of writing, like mine today, which has outlived all its value (I ascribed the Project value, thus opposing it to the what’s-the-point), takes up time, structures it, erases its empty pockets.  Each hour determines another, pushes it along, consumes and nullifies it.

If I myself seek (and I don’t, really) some sort of organized answer to the overall what’s-the-point today, I only come up with skepticism; I declare myself a skeptic in the classical style of Sextus Empiricus; I seek an ataractic calm in reading and “suspended judgement.”

From a philosophical point of view, my skepticism is essentialy shallow; I don’t seek the philosophical possibility of living skeptically, but simply (a lid on the kettle of appalling thoughts) some kind of protection for an affirmation: belief in nothing so as to not have death be my only belief.

This is a voluntarist attitude, whose corollary is a strategy for life that I’ve practice spontaneously, unreflectively, and unsystematically for a long while; I’ll dub it avoidism.  I avoid time by means of tasks—counting; describing, and searching for sonnets in libraries; this work at hand, pushing along and then recopying these black lines.  I avoid the world and its remains: I don’t answer letters, nor the telephone; I walk, I keep to myself, I keep my activity to a minimum.

It is true that in all this I am neither really “consistent” nor absolute.  Perhaps such is not possible without rapidly falling into the conclusions of a total what’s-the-point, but along another path, through a sort of death by starvation.  But precisely in this probable inconsistency (I don’t really subject it to questioning) lies the possibility for my current skeptical existence.  I practice a modest skepticism; I don’t allow myself to be dragged into the pitfall of passionately denying my contradictions.

This “avoidist” version of skepticism (which I acknowledge can only prompt an irritated shrug from a philosopher…), my own version of skepticism is, finally, rather close to what Coleridge recommended to fiction readers in his famous expression: “willing suspension of disbelief.”  I find this position eminently skeptical: entering into the novel (and more generally, placing yourself before the poem, the work of art) in such a frame of mind means (and the use of the word suspension, as in the skeptic principle of “suspension of judgment,” seems characteristic) living out my reading in the same exact terms as I live my daily life: by willingly suspending my belief, by deciding momentarily, and for a limited time, to believe in nothing at all.  The skeptical world is a world of the incredible that can be entered only in brief fragments odf demarcated time, in which the impossibility of accepting that things and worlds exist will be suspended between parentheses.  And the world of a novel is penetrated similarly; the world of the great novels imposes its force of conviction, not in its capacity as an exact replica or the revelation of a world that might be our own, but because by immersing ourselves withini t we gradualy yield our consent to the fact—though with an inner conviction that we remain masters of this choice—that every life is on the whole improbable.

Filed under: Quotes, Roubaud

The Particular Burden of Reality

To cut off Medusa’s head without being turned to stone, Perseus supports himself on the very lightest of things, the winds and the clouds, and fixes his gaze upon what can be revealed only by indirect vision, an image caught in a mirror.  I am immediately tempted to see this myth as an allegory on the poet’s relationship to the world, a lesson in the method to follow when writing.  But I know that any interpretation impoverishes the myth and suffocates it.  With myths, one should not be in a hurry.  It is better to let them settle into the memory, to stop and dwell on every detail, to reflect on them without losing touch with their language of images.  The lesson we can learn from a myth lies in the literal narrative, not in what we add to it from the outside.

The relationship between Perseus and the Gorgon is a complex one and does not end with the beheading of the monster.  …  Perseus does not abandom [the severed head] but carries it concealed in a bag.  When his enemies are about to overcome him, he has only to display it, holding it by its snaky locks, and this bloodstained booty becomes an invincible weapon in the hero’s hand.  It is a weapon he uses only in cases of dire necessity, and only against those who deserve the punishment of being turned into statues.  Here, certainly, the myth is telling us something, something implicit in the images that can’t be explained in any other way.  Perseus succeeds in mastering that horrendous face by keeping it hidden, just as in the first place he vanquished it by viewing it in a mirror.  Perseus’s strength always lies in a refusal to look directly, but not in a refusal of the reality in which he is fated to live; he carries the reality with him and accepts it as his particular burden.

— Italo Calvino, ‘Lightness,’ Six Memos for the Next Millennium

Filed under: Calvino, Quotes

from “How is Literature Possible?”

Being now in the midst of the pre-term-paper research panic, it will probably be dead here for a little while, but stumbling into this essay by Blanchot fairly well made my afternoon. Here’s a rather large (and lightly edited) excerpt:

According to some, the mission of language is correctly to express thought, to make itself into its faithful interpreter, to submit t it as to a sovereign that it acknowledges. But for others expression is only the prosaic destiny of everyday languages; the true role of language is not to express but to communicate, nt to translate but t be; and it would be absurd to see in it only an intermediary, a miserable agent: it has a power unique to itself, which it is exactly the writer’s duty to discover or to restore. There, it seems, are the two families of thought, each completely foreign to the other. What could they possibly have in common?

We have seen that come struggled against language because they saw in it an imperfect means of expression and because they wished for language a complete perfection of intelligibility. To what does this ambition lead? To the invention of a language without commonplaces, a language without apparent ambiguity, in fact a language that no longer offers a common measure and is completely removed from comprehension. And we have also seen that others struggled against language that was considered a too-complete or over-perfect means of expression and consequently a nonliterary language and that, by their pitiless demand, their concern for an inaccessible purity, they ended up hunting down conventions, rules, genres, all the way to a total prohibition of literature, satisfied if they could make their secret perceptible outside f any literary form. But it must now be added that these consequences— rejection of language, rejection of literature— are not the only ones to which both parties yielded. It also necessarily happens that their enterprise against words, their desire not to take them into account in order to leave thought its empire whole, their obsessive fear of indifference, all provoke an extreme care for language whose consequence is verbalism. That is a significant fate, at once deplorable and fortunate. Whoever wants to be absent from words at every instant or to be present only to those that he reinvents is endlessly occupied with them so that, of all authors, those who most eagerly seek to avoid the reproach of verbalism are also exactly the ones that are most exposed to this reproach.

It is the same for those who through the marvels of asceticism have had the illusion of distancing themselves from all literature. For having wanted to rid themselves of conventions and of forms, in order to touch directly the secret world and the profound metaphysics that they meant to reveal, they finally contented themselves with using this world, this secret, this metaphysics as they would conventions and forms that they complacently exhibited and that constituted at once the visible framework and the foundation of their works. In other words, for this kind of writer metaphysics, religion, and emotions take the place of technique and language. They are a system of expression, a literary genre – in a word, literature.

Now we are ready to give an answer to the question, How is literature possible? It is actually through virtue of a double illusion— illusion of some who struggle against commonplaces; illusion of others who, renouncing literary conventions or, as we say, literature, cause it to be reborn in a form (metaphysics, religion, etc.) that is not its own. It is from this illusion and from the awareness of this illusion that Jean Paulhan [the author of the work under review in this essay], through a revolution that can be called Copernican, like that of Kant, proposes to draw the most precise and rigorous literary reign. Let us note how bold this revolution is at first sight, for finally it is a question of putting an end to the essential illusion that allows literature. It is a question of revealing to the writer that he gives birth to art only through a vain, blind struggle against it, that the works that he thought he wrenched from common, vulgar language exists thanks to the vulgarization of virgin language, through an excess of impurity and debasement. There is in this discovery enough to cause the silence of Rimbaud to fall on everyone. But just as for man the fact of knowing that the world is the projection of his mind does not destroy the world, but on the contrary assures knowledge of it, represents its limits and makes clear its meaning, so does the writer, if he knows that the more he struggles against commonplaces the more he is bound to them, or if he learns that he writes only with the help of what he detests, has the chance to see the extent of his power and the means of his authority more clearly. In any case, instead of being unknowingly ruled by words or indirectly governed by rules (for his refusal of rules causes him to depend on them), he will seek for mastery of them. Instead of submitting to commonplaces, he will be able to make them; and knowing that he cannot struggle against literature, that he could eschew conventions only to accept their constraints, he will receive the rules, not as artificial guidelines that point out the way to follow and the world to discover but as the means of his discovery and the law of his progress through the darkness where there is neither a way nor an outline.

(collected in Faux Pas, translated by Charlotte Mandell)

RSB has an introduction to the work under review in this essay, Jean Paulhan’s The Flowers of Tarbes.

Filed under: Blanchot, Quotes, Writing

The Existence Machine on Josipovici on the Bible

The Bible does not offer reasons why things happen or why certain people are affected or chosen–why Abraham? for example; indeed, why the Jews?–and of course this is how life is. Things happen. Things are. What matters is how we respond to things. In this way, he argues, the Bible is above all, realistic, which may seem odd to us, given how used to the conventions of the so-called realist novel we are, and how unlike such a novel the Bible is, regardless of our attempts to read it as if it were one.

From Richard’s excellent post about Josipovici’s discussion of the Bible, which I mentioned briefly in my last post, which, as always, feels utterly inadequate once the enthusiasm of saying it has worn off…  Luckily, Richard decided to discuss one of the essays that has influenced my thinking on the subject, so be sure and read him talking about it much more eloquently than I did.

Filed under: Josipovici, Quotes

“The Disappearance of Literature”

I was trying to write something about it, and I hopefully will soon, but for now, an excerpt (a link to the full essay is at the end):

“[The independence of the poem from the author, in the sense meant by Mallarmé when he spoke of the Book,] does not designate the proud transcendence that would make literary creation the equivalent of the creation of a world by some demiurge; it does not even signify eternity or the immutability of the poetic sphere; on the contrary it reverses the ordinary values that we attach to the word “to make” (faire) and to the word “to be” (être).

This surprising transformation of modern art, which occurs at the moment when history offers humanity tasks and aims that are entirely different, could seem like a reaction against these tasks and these aims, an empty effort of affirmation and justification. That is not so, or it is true only superficially. Writers and artists sometimes answer the summons of community with a frivolous withdrawal, answer the powerful work of their century with a naïve glorification of their idle secrets or with a despiare that makes them recognize themselves, like Flaubert, in the condition they reject. Or rather they think they can save art by enclosing it in themselves: art might be a state of the soul; ‘poetic’ should mean ‘subjective.’

But precisely, with Mallarmé and with Cézanne (to use these two names symbolically), art does not seek out these paltry refuges. What counts for Cézanne is realization— not the states of the soul of Cézanne. Art strives powerfully for the work, and the work of art, the work that has its origin in art, shows itself as an affirmation entirely different from works that have their measure in labor, values, and exchanges— different, but not opposite: art does not negate the modern world, or the world of technique, or the effort toward liberation and transformation that relies on this technique, but it expresses and perhaps achieves connections that precede any objective, technical accomplishment.

Obscure, difficult and tormented quest. It is an essentially risky experiment in which art, the work, truth, and the essence of language are called back into question and enter into risk.”

Italics in original.

Google Books was kind enough to display the full [rather short, a little less than seven pages] essay, here, the whole of which would really be better to read than just an excerpt.

Filed under: Blanchot, Quotes

Why I’ll Lose Time to Watch Marcel Finding His

When you embark on the quest to read the whole of In Search of Lost Time, people find out.  My friends often ask with hints of mockery and pity how it’s going and react with disbelief when I don’t gush.  Frankly, it is not fun, at times.  I’ll lament that this damn luncheon at Mme. Villeparisis has been trundling along for ninety pages and there is no end in sight, and then they ask— they always ask— “Well, why on earth are you still reading it you don’t enjoy it, then?”  Then, I get to gush.

I have had a difficult time explaining exactly what it is that fascinates, because as much as it is his wrought descriptions or witty never-used-twice similes, it is not those things that I find intoxicating about Proust.  It is the passage of time, the slow-fade of characters’ personae between their own iterations in life and Marcel’s developing understanding of them.  It is this changing, this relation between the various presentations that makes the occasional hundred pages of bore well worth it, but this changing is very hard to say to people.

Proust, thankfully, has said it for me.  I stumbled across this passage today that is, it goes without saying, rather long, so I’ve attempt to edit it down to the pertinent bits:

I remembered Albertine first of all on the beach, almost painted upon a background of sea, having for me no more real an existence than those theatrical tableaux in which one does not know whether one is looking at the actress herself…, at an understudy…, or simply at a projection.  Then the real woman had detached herself from the beam of light and had come towards me, but only for me to perceive that in the real world she had none of the amorous facility with which one had credited her in the magic tableau.  I had learned that it was not possible to touch her, to kiss her, that one might only talk to her, that for me she was no more a woman than jade grapes…are really fruit.  And now she was appearing to me on a third plane, real as in the second experience that I had had of her but available as in the first; available, and all the more deliciously so in that I had long imagined that she was not. …  What can one positively affirm, when the thing that one thought probable at first has then shown itself to be false and in the third instance turns out true?  (And alas, I was not yet at the end of my discoveries with regard to Albertine.)

The entire passage is an exquisite summary of what reading Proust “is like,” and as well written as this summarization is, it is nothing compared to the experience of watching Albertine work her way, in what sometimes admittedly feels like laborious real-time, through these various permutations of Marcel’s composition.  If you want to know how you enjoy even the boring bits of Proust, it is that Marcel is, thankfully, never “at the end of his discoveries” regarding even the bores of whatever society event he is currently dragging you through.

Filed under: Proust, Quotes,

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