18 December, 2013

The Celestial Event of W.G. Sebald

Book 2 of 3, which I shall finish any day now on my subway rides to The Strand (my new place of work), is the debut novel of W.G. Sebald (1944-2001) entitled Vertigo. This novel was released first in the writer's preferred language of German as Schwindel in 1990, but the English-language translation by Michael Hulse did not appear until 1999. Much like the sense which James Stewart's character has in Hitchcock's film of the same name, the first-person narrator of Sebald's novel is "afflicted." By what? One could just as easily say anxiety or PTSD or something of that ilk as one could say melancholy, madness, or the musings of a lonely soul.

All great works contain in them a seed in their first chapter or first few pages or lines, that the remaining work grows out from upon the frame of the narrative. Much like a grapevine and the process of its eventual yield as a vintage. Vertigo is a work akin to this process. I began my reading of Sebald's work with his last and most refined novel, Austerlitz. Afterwards, I moved further back with Rings of Saturn. Vertigo as a work upon which the other novels rest extends the metaphor of the grapevine's seed across the breadth of his work. For as the title of Sebald's final work is named after a battlefield of the Napoleonic Wars, Vertigo itself begins with a short life of a soldier and diarist from that Corsican's army - Marie Henri Beyle (1783-1842), best known to posterity as the writer Stendhal.

From Stendhal's youth we are taken through his maturation and his mistakes, his realization about one's memory of images and the power of the image as subsuming the other, as well as the "crystallization" effect, which you may read about at the above link. The narrator of the rest of the novel brings everything in his own life unto the greying light of Monsieur Beyle's realizations on love, memory and history. While traveling from England to Germany to Austria then on toward one Italian city and another, we are entangled in the warp and woof of 7 years that pass between one impulsive visit of the narrator and his following one which tries to grasp at the several moments of afflictions he suffered under strange and myopic circumstances. The probable cause? Living itself.

His last journey is by foot, through that dark, wooded ravine that Dante tread himself. Only for Sebald, this leads not toward a transcendent journey, but to 'W.' which is the place of his birth and early childhood. A month at the same exact inn which housed his family, memory and the reality at hand seemed not to meet one another in an atemporal handshake. Rather the opposite occured: the understanding of what happened in the past and how the present moment could be its result, were utterly despondent. One did not seem related to the other, but for an image here, an object there, their only commonality in the lingering of their impressions in the mind. Kafka-esque in its unequivocal silences, Vertigo ends with Sebald's return to London, and he leaves us with words of another diarist, Samuel Pepys, as he watched his city burn, in the Great Fire of 1666.

I put down my copy of the novel, and I encouraged you to pick one up. There is a long length of human shadow cast by these works, these epitaphs of Mr. Sebald. I do not believe we will see much sun out from under it - unless we come out of the eclipse from our own degree of affliction - in memory and in history.

04 December, 2013

Intellectual Endowments to Humanity

Many more blocks have been walked, and much milder weather has been conducive to the activity. I walk to hand out my resumes and fill out the applications of bookstores that still have storefronts in New York City. Although currently in Brooklyn, I am searching mainly in Manhattan. With each new store, a new space with its own unique energies: high-quality first editions at Left Bank Books; a grand cafe and hand-picked selections at McNally Jackson; and the sole remaining bookstore of Book Row near Union Square, The Strand.

I've been asked by the best leads for a full-time job at these and other bookstores just what am I reading? Mentioning the title of book 1 of 3 which I intend to speak upon, Bollingen: An Adventure in Collecting the Past by William McGuire, I am witness to a sort of wondering and yet disinterested gaze in the person across from me. I begin to enumerate its subject matter in my own words and with each short session and new conversation the enumeration changes, as I read farther and farther into the book. But to be succinct, this book could be said to be the only record of a visionary form of publishing the likes of which this country had never seen at the time - and may not see again.

Bollingen: the name comes from the tower of C.G. Jung's estate on the shores of Lake Zurich in Switzerland. Paul and Mary Mellon visited the psychoanalyst and attended the Eranos lectures which were organized and held in nearby Ascona. Mary was very taken with the material and the caliber of scholarship from the visiting lecturers. Topics usually revolved around the theory of archetypes and its application to mythology, religion, archaeology, particularly of medieval or ancient origin, although many scholars fell outside of the Jungian collective unconscious interpretation. It was a place where ideas were exchanged on equal grounds, where politics were left aside, and the real matter of life was open to discussion: who are we and what are we/have we been doing here? What is Man? What is man's Consciousness? What forms of study of himself and his Consciousness have been conducted in the past, and how can we retain a connection to these forms of study in the present day?

Mary's vision became broader and opened outward from her initial alchemical fascinations. Jung himself was a germinal point or impetus from which much more would be included in the Bollingen Series. 100 publications in multiple volumes, some of which are still to be completed through Princeton University Press (who obtain the rights to the Series) have been proposed and/or executed. Some of the most important scholars of the 20th century, including Henry Corbin, Gershom Scholem, Carl Kerenyi, Erich Neumann, and Mircea Eliade, most of whom would have suffered extermination at the hands of Socialist-Fascist governments if Bollingen hadn't provided flights or support for their refuge, are included in its wide berth of intellectual studies. Little in the later half of the 20th century has been matched in degree and scope when these volumes are read over and considered in the light of their detail, impartiality and focused energy.

When Mary Mellon died in 1946, a shocking blow was sent through Paul, Jung, and all those so far involved in the Foundation. Paul continued to provide funding, awarding fellowships to writers, for excavations, and via the Old Dominion Foundation, creating the A.W. Mellon Lectures in the Fine Arts which continue to be given in Washington D.C. to this day. These philanthropic enterprises were intellectual endowments for humanity. 

How little we hear or know of this from the wealthy in America, especially when it comes to preservation and continuation of older traditions of thought both spiritual and technical. Frankly, if the ideas are not easy to implement via some form of current technology or in the spirit of "the New," the grounds for its continuance are absent. If it's difficult to be marketable to a public who does not demand for it, then it shall not see light. And if it did, its form would likely be altered in such a way, via cover design, annotations, poor translations, that a compromise would be reached - compromising the integrity of the work. We do this constantly with classics of literature. Translations become "outdated" due to the idea that a modernized style would make it more "accessible." Intellectual is a dirty word today anyhow, a synonym of pretentious. The challenge presented by editions from the age in which philology was a real academic study of rigor are to be met with and wrestled for great rewards. Perhaps, even greater than the award, but not unlike, Jacob wrestling with the Angel and granted a new name, a name of transcendence and of heritage.

I have diverted too far from the spotlight of this entry: Bollingen was unique in the risks it took, the money invested, and the spirit of its enterprise. Its heritage, which is none other than that which lies in the vanished cinders of the library of Alexandria or the bones of the island monks of Skye or Kells, still shines on from our shelves. Provide yourself with an introduction to the heritage of your own species by picking up any title of the Series, most of which are available at your local library (probably in the closed stacks) or at a decent used bookstore. Bless your mind with a worthy focus and strengthen the attention which falters often without your permission.

29 November, 2013

A Change of Position

Goodbye Western reaches, frontier land of my nation, and home of the last 10 years. A recent cross-country move has set this writer down on New York's Long Island in the borough of Brooklyn. The English language has slightly changed, accents abound, and tongues from many foreign places surround me on the streets and in the parks. There are as many Halal food carts on street corners as there are notable and historic American sites: Grand Central Station, the main New York Public Library, the Chrysler Building, Union Square, Central Park - these are mythic and real places. It is often humbling to accord this truth some harmony in my mind.

The air, when it is not filled with food smells, is a dry and crisp Atlantic cold. We (my lady and I) have already walked through many neighborhoods between waiting for the vacuum of a subway train's arrival. Wind and heavy rains threatened our arrival but have now abated. Our sublet is warm and the roommates are Swiss and practice composing their music. Giving my knees a rest, I have but three books to my name and they are as follows:

Bollingen: An Adventure in Collecting the Past by William McGuire
Vertigo by W. G. Sebald
The Diamond in the Window by Jane Langton

In upcoming posts, I shall note more of my new surroundings from as objective a point of view as possible while noting the impact these works have on my thoughts and presence. Books are curiously the bane and the bastion of knowledge - we hold them before us as guardsmen of our thoughts and also use them as the tool to unlock or unhinge the tightened bars of our ignorance. May we read only what we have set before us and not a jot more or less! I have no wish to die under a tower of books, but until the boxes arrive which contain my small library, three couldn't do more than stub my toe.

Until the next transmission, readers.

07 October, 2013

Lingua Anglica

Language both is and is not ours. The anthropologically-rooted linguistic theories that language "appeared" in order for our species to convey information basic to their survival covers but that utility of survival itself and goes no length to offer a reason for its creative functions (the topic of this post). 

On a daily basis we encounter numerous examples which expose this theory as a fallacy. The radical differentiation of languages, even within themselves in their many dialects, regionalisms, and recent sub-divisions (made possible by the ever-touted technical innovations for communication) such as media newspeak and hyper-subjective textspeak, seem to prove the opposite. Indeed, a language's ability to harbor and synthesize the introduction of neologisms, colloquial slang and vocabulary from other languages, shows that the language one speaks is an ever growing and, arguably, debilitating tool for the lone benefit of communication. 

This is not an isolated occurrence of the modern era (See The English Language, 1985, Oxford University Press by Robert Burchfield, former chief editor of the OED). Being an English speaker in America, and with English being the language I have in mind while writing this post, the metaphor of great loads of English ivy climbing over trees and landscape as a rampant, ever encroaching and choking invasive species is, I should say, "spot on." Communication via language easily becomes entangled by the nature of its lively structure and we compensate with bodily movements, furrows of brow, smiles and frowns, laughter, and all the other sounds and gestures (culturally unique but also universally ingenious) to supplement the entrenched activity we learn to do -  from our first word to our last breath.

And so, why do we speak if it is not to communicate well? Perhaps we speak to understand it in its negative sense - not speaking. We cannot know what it is to be mute or silent in meditation without first knowing what our utterances perform, and their complications. And it is a complicated performance. Robert Graves, though long since debunked by the semantic and syntactical science of Linguistics, theorized that there had to have been an Ursprach or primary poetic language from which all languages share a root and from which poetry was born. This is a very beautiful and Platonic idea, or "Form." Language at its purest and most undifferentiated is the very source of the human expression we call poiesis. This is why we speak - to bring utterance to the composed - to sing. As I just stated, this does not accord itself with our modern notion of where language comes from and why it appeared. For the poets and the philosophers however, this couldn't be closer to the truth deduced by reason and reflection upon the nature of language and human nature itself, those conjoined twins of Babel.

Graves can still be shown to be relevant, as anthropologists and the archaeologists consistently find that the first utterances we have on record in most, if not all, major cultures are their oral traditions codified. Oral history did not become unreliable, but written language pushed the spoken word into an unknown territory, and the poetry we most often read there is of conflict. See Beowulf, the Epic of Gilgamesh, the Homeric epics, the Mahabharata. East and West (and assuredly North and South) have at the root of the history of their languages the struggle between the force of words-in-mouth vs. the power of words-in-scribed. The struggles occurred at pivotal times where their language was undergoing mutations, both internally and externally, and masses of people moved beyond cataclysms and climate changes and encountered, or warred with, then assimilated and birthed new people and new(/old) tongues. And so, one can read that our first stories, no matter our sedentary heritage (as more nomadic tongues than settled ones remain "on the lip" and haven't dropped to the page) are stories of emergence, change and recapitulation in "new" Forms.

It seems that we need to speak as a way of continuing our humanity, of existing as beings of our degree in the chain of life on this planet.

I can't help but tangent my building argument by way of mentioning a subjective experience. When I encounter most casual conversationalists and mention my degree in English, their opinion rolls around from a condescending/sympathetic nicety directed towards me, to an utterance about the nature of the English language itself: "English is a poor/decaying language." "It's taking/taken over the world." "Our language is so messy - it's just a mishmash of other languages."

All of the above opinions are taken from real life.

What is so bemusing to this student of English is the equality of all three opinions. They all hold that English is somehow deficient and differ only in the stated cause - either from the low quality of its use, its past as the voice of British Imperialists or the continuing history of its morphology. What is not surprising but unique about these opinions is that the flip-side of their negative connotations denotes some positive ones. The use of poor English is the sign of a language changing. Whether or not in a future time this can be called "decay" isn't an aesthetic question. The linguists would say, to quote an old professor, that laziness is just as much, if not more, a factor for morphological change than successive ages of increasing elaboration & eloquence. The proliferation of English speakers due primarily to the latest and greatest sea-goers of the world, who happened to speak English (it could've been the Portuguese or the Dutch or the Spanish, but history has it as the British), cannot be a remotely useful argument to brand English in itself as a language of oppression. 

Lastly, every other language English has come into contact with has had an influence on the English we spoke in either the 15th century or the one we speak now. This is especially true, as the exception and the rule, in North America. No other diaspora on this planet has record of such quantities of tongues and peoples and cultural traditions being "mixed up" together in such a manner as it was in the 19th & 20th centuries here. And yet, I can understand a text written in Elizabethan prose with only minor attention to close readings or exegesis of peculiar vocabulary and syntax. How did this oppressive/tolerant and equally dynamic/lazy language ever survive? Precisely because of these attributes, and not because of their negative or supposedly unmerited reasons. A lesson in objectivity for our relativistic and subjective contemporary education.

If poetry is to survive as a creative form, it will be because of its merits in using the language it is composed of to its utmost and beyond. Read James Joyce's Ulysses or Ezra Pound's Cantos to get a sense of the boundary/boundlessness between the ursprach Graves speaks of, the languages English has inherited from, and the language of the modern era until the late 20th century. Our great poets of the 21st century will exhibit their likeness and compel our definitions of what English is to break upon itself, as a seedling breaks its own containment. The new plant shall sing.

03 February, 2013

Terry Gilliam's Twin Fables

[ First and foremost, apologies to any readers who have been awaiting most of the second half of the calendar year of 2012, and the first half of 2013, for new transmissions from the Observatory here at Waves of Guide. To bring you something new has been to cull what is old and rotten, shake away its stink and musk, and enliven some fresh feelings and thoughts into this tapestry of Life. And so, without further ado, a piece entitled "Terry Gilliam's Twin Fables" ]

Few films project their own light free from a theater screen through the days of my youth and upon the years of my adulthood as do Terry Gilliam's Time Bandits (1981) and his Adventures of Baron Munchausen (1988). Perhaps it is because of this writer's constant exposure to Monty Python's absurd antics and particularly British humour by his father's incessant tuning-in to comedy channels on the TeleVision. Or, maybe the connection made between one's impressions received in youth and an awareness created later in life by certain stories, told by certain creators (whether "original" or "inauthentic") maintain something within that just keeps nudging you, over and over again, as your life goes on. From chance encounter to deeply intimate experience, there they appear with gentleness and honesty, the children of his fables - Sally of Baron Munchausen and Kevin of Time Bandits 

The Fable of Romanticism

The children in these films go on journeys apart from their "realistic" worlds, but as one knows, if one remembers, we were born from that world apart from the real world, the imaginal world, and are gradually pulled away, forgetting its sensation. [See the Introduction to the Work of the philosopher who coined this term "imaginal" at Henry Corbin Project] Sally lives in a world of war, pseudo-rationality, and the utmost evil of these conditions - bureaucracy - in the form of a magistrate played by Jonathan Pryce, in a vastly different (and French) role than his portrayal of Sam Lowry in 1985's Brazil.

In Munchausen, the risk of death is present not only in war, murder & disease, but also in the form of the Spirit of Death itself which continually seeks the Baron. Sally still senses/lives in the imaginal world, and so she is the only one who sees Death for what it Is, and sees through what it masquerades as in the end for the Baron - modern Western medicine. Sally carries this dark gift but is disowned of her story-telling heritage as the daughter who goes unrecognized, poster after poster, in the advertisements for her father's theater troupe. She is barred from the inheritance of imagination in an increasingly unimaginative world. We meet her father's troupe performing for the city's bombarded people the unbelievable "true" stories of Baron Munchausen. Sally needs Baron as much as the people need his stories, to show the length and breadth of a life lived with the thirst for love, for honor, and for the journey through it all, even facing danger - and death. Military science and the machine of bureaucracy is a wheel spinning just above the ground, and the city of Man which it's purporting to protect is falling...

Historically, Karl Friedrich Hieronymus, Baron von Munchausen, was a real figure who served in the Russian campaigns against the Turks during the 18th century. The exaggerated stories of his travels were first published in England in 1785 by German exile Rudolph Erich Raspe. Gilliam mines Raspe's stories for the action of his film, but expands upon the intrinsic value of such elaboration as an essential elaboration to counter-balance the stolid reality of a modern world. The director wryly titles the opening scene as, "The Age of Reason," before we are brought into the siege of the city. In this way, he is inviting us to compare the level of destitution caused by the grim methods of warfare, paired with the increasing capacity for an idolatrous humanity to deem itself more learned, more rational, and more ethically justified to do "good." The Mind had now been raised higher than the Spirit. This is farcically shown by Pryce's character 'The Right Ordinary Horatio Jackson' condemning a Heroic Officer to death, played by a young Sting, for going "beyond the call of duty," capturing cannons and saving men. Sting is a recognizable artist, and his character's death is also a parody of the artist's death (to some folk's subjective delight, but we're leaving that aside here).

Munchausen is the spirit of Sally's world and the very quintessence of the era of Catherine the Great of Russia, the energy of the French Revolution, the European world invigorated by Classical mythology and expounding Nature's affect in poetry. The world before the Scientific era (and oddly, the spirit of the reactive artistic movement after the Age of Reason, Romanticism). Sally maintains wonder for this old way being eclipsed by the new. When Munchausen-on-stage, played by Sally's father, is flayed of his prosthetic nose by the real Munchausen, the film begins a process of pulling the seams apart between the deteriorating theater of the world (which is literally being blown apart by Turkish cannon fire) and the true substance of our life that gives living whether in a "reasonable" war or in an unreasonable story any meaning. Munchasuen takes responsibility for the play and the war, then sets out on the adventures that shaped both. His faults throughout are his virtues. Sally won't have him give up his spirit to Death, because our Spirit is what's truly under siege, and death is always out to take it from us, wearing many disguises, all antithetical to the imagination. The end of the film is a hopeful one, Sally receiving her inheritance of place and name in the troop, though she could not keep Death from taking the Baron's soul. Time Bandits offers no such gift.

The Fable of Modernity

"So we create a world that isn't true to a realistic, naturalistic world, but is truthful" - this is Terry Gilliam on his film-making practice, and on storytelling. In Time Bandits, Kevin is a modern boy fascinated by the annals of history, his walls adorned with his drawings of ancient, medieval and turn-of-the-century images. They occupy his entire imagination. His parents watch a television show "Your Money or Your Life" and eat from ready-made meals of the Microwave, disinterested in their son's young life. Kevin has a taste for what has been lost in the sands of time, lost to the immediate present, and finds only the dessicated remnants of it in his books.

Enter the little people, the common stock, the otherworldly. The bandits of the film's title steal not time exactly, but a Map of points in space-time, where they plan to steal treasure from history's notables. The troupe of 6 are joined by Kevin, the 7th, and they fall through time, which takes them further and further away from the Supreme Being, whom they stole the map from, and towards the Evil Genius (played by David Warner). Evil's intentions are quite different than the small bandits for the wealth of the world they created, or Kevin's for a life of substance - he wishes to acquire the knowledge he needs of the latest machinations made by man, to understand computers, and become as a supreme being himself. This is taking Horatio's conception of the world to its logical extreme.

It is worth noting that when Kevin and the bandits make for the Time of Legends, space between what "happened" and what is lost in story, is bridged. This is also where and when the Fortress of Ultimate Darkness, where the Evil Genius dwells, is accessed from; a bridge where mythology and history meet has, from a modern standpoint, little meaning, only for archaic or faddish New-Aged knowledge. This is the trick of Warner's character, that he lures them into believing that the greatest treasure is beyond the edges of the Map of space-time, the very same intriguing idea that lures many a person to religion, mysticism, sorcery, etc. Metaphysical truths are the seeds of physical experience. The "beyond" is where they do find the Supreme Being, or rather he finds them, but his characterization is nothing more than that of a watchmaker-type God (played by Ralph Richardson) whom neatly cleans up and makes orderly where mistakes of his own were made. "Why does evil exist?" Kevin asks him. He momentarily walks off behind a broken pillar and comes back to answer, "I think it has something to do with free will." So begins and ends any theological considerations in the film. The bandits are then re-instated as the workers of the World, and Kevin is sent back...

What is most vexing about Time Bandits, if you will sympathize with my own vexation, taking notice of not my review but poor synopsis of the film's parts, is that in the end Kevin is not allowed to stay with Agamemnon in antiquity or anywhere else but ends up back in his own time - as his house is burning. One single chunk of the Evil Genius remained and traveled back with him, lodged in the Microwave. His parents touch the chunk and are incinerated before his eyes. The camera lifts away and we are left much as how we are in Gilliam's other film about time travel, 12 Monkeys (1995), with the child alone and dispossessed of a future. Where will Kevin now be sent? To live with a Munchausen-like relative who like an indemnitor gives him new hope for a coming age? Or like James Cole, will he now have the greater grief of succumbing to a human movement underground because of a new plague of our creation which wipes out most of the world's population in 1996? The questions raised in Time Bandits are unresolved, being a film about modernity's own unresolved complications. 


Complication is essential, as simplicity is co-opted by that very evil with which the modern era touts its own ideologies for the sake of any number of conveniences, to the debilitating effect of complacency and disinterest in the individual - as it was with Kevin's parents. The Imaginal world, as Corbin shows, has not a fable of its own, for the true substance of our imaginations are made of its material and are woven in this reality. Film, and I think Terry Gilliam would agree with me, exemplifies this transcendent notion of Ideas expressed in the Forms of the World, that very dear Platonic teaching. The images and sounds fabricated remind us that the actions upon the screen of the theater are as the activities of our Imaginations which manifest themselves in our worlds and our lives. The questions is: What stories are worth telling well? Gilliam has at least been consistent enough to give a thoughtful and era-appropriate answer with each one of his works, even up through 2011's web-only release of his 20-minute short film "The Wholly Family" (available to 'rent' for $2.99 at terrygilliamweb.com). There is a much different outcome for this new 21st century child Jake than for Kevin, but I will withhold my spoiling of that cinematic fruit and instead shall urge you, the receivers, to view, reflect, and make something of your own in response.

27 January, 2013

Postcard Triptych

Collected postcards arrangement. Read from the Fall clockwise and around once more. Comments and reactions welcome.


My photo
Portland, OR, United States
For the Observatory's Grand Opening