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.


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