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1. i’ve been walking in the rain like Travis Bickle, thinking about Thomas Bernhard. Bernhard is an oddbod to be sure, a kind of literary Werner Herzog. i googled the two names together and was surprised to find almost nothing. Both men study extravagant madmen; they were born in roughly the same area, only 11 years apart; both had early success; both created their own forms. i found an early auto-documentary of Herzog’s, in which he comes across as arrogant and something narcissistic:
i much prefer the present Herzog, who seems to have been purified, made bleakly humorous by age and rejection:
2. Bernhard likewise seems very different in his later interviews – harder and wilder. Perhaps had he lived another 20 years he would have undergone a Herzogian transformation; though one life can only contain so many changes. Bernhard seems to have found his “voice” very early. i haven’t read all his books but the distinctly Bernhardian voice is already present in his first novel, Frost (1963). This is the only Bernhard book i’ve found totally uninteresting. The next, Gargoyles (1967 – the German is Verstörung, which could be better translated as Disturbance) is better but still falls short of the next i’ve read in order, Correction (1975). From Correction on, he is Bernhard.
There isn’t much point quoting Bernhard as he takes force from the cumulative force of an entire paragraph, but here is an example from Correction:
When I concern myself with Roithamer, with what order of magnitude am I dealing? I ask myself, clearly I am dealing with a head that is willing and compelled to go to extremes in everything he does and capable, in this reciprocity of intellectual interaction, of peak record performances, a man who takes his own development, the development of his character and of his inborn intellectual gifts to its utmost peak, its utmost limits, its highest degree of realization . . . and who must force everything he is, in the final analysis, to coalesce in one extreme point, force it all to the utmost limits of his intellectual capacity and his nervous tension until, at the highest degree of such expansion and contraction and the total concentration he has repeatedly achieved, he must actually be torn apart.
3. Today, in the rain, i was thinking about Bernhard’s voice, and why the first two novels aren’t very good (though Gargoyles is readable at least). All his novels are about obsessive lunatics. Frost is about a young medical student who is sent to spy on a deranged painter by the painter’s brother (a doctor). Gargoyles is about a doctor’s young son, accompanying his father on his rounds, and meeting various lunatics, culminating with the deranged Prince Saurau. In both books, the narrator is passive, sane – merely observing the further extent of human insanity. That is, in these novels Bernhard stands aside from madness, attempting some kind of objectivity.
Correction is, i think, his masterpiece; it was also the first Bernhard i read back in 2007 in Manchester – in a garret high over a street featuring 2 synagogues and a house of Sufism, 5 minutes’ on foot from Wittgenstein’s old lodgings, a century ago. i read Correction, then George Steiner’s introduction remarking on the importance of old Wittgenstein to Bernhard; which then moved me to read Ray Monk’s bio of the earlier Austrian, when i chanced on it in the Manchester library a few weeks later. In Correction, Bernhard dissolves the walls between narrator and subject, as he would do in every later book: the narrator is just as nuts as Hoeller, in whose garret he lives, and almost as nuts as Roithamer, about whom he writes. Likewise in Old Masters, the narrator is almost indistinguishable from the subject (Reger) and even from a gallery attendant who has been as it were possessed by Reger, thinking & speaking in Reger’s voice. There are novels without a separate protagonist – so in both Woodcutters and Extinction the narrator is also the subject; but in these, the narrator is so extreme as to be not so much untrustworthy as just something you have to accept, or you may as well stop reading.
Bernhard began writing as a crime reporter. Perhaps this encouraged him to stand aside, to be objective, neutral. His great books required untrammeled subjectivity, to become the lunatic about whom he writes. In real life he was, it is clear, obsessive and maniacal – but not to the degree of his characters. Hence, his Übertreibungskunst – art of exaggeration. He takes elements of his own mind and instead of projecting them onto wholly distinct characters, he exaggerates them and allows this mania to fill the entire novel – to infect the narrator and even minor characters. And this grants the whole book enormous vitality.
4. i’ve experimented with voices. My novel (and aborted novels) failed because i took a lesser form of myself as protagonist or narrator – a curiously muted me, with some buffoonery; i don’t seem capable of doing otherwise, i think because i instinctively recoil from granting myself any grandeur or depth: it seems ludicrous and i feel to be on very thin ice; but then the protagonist is negligible. My short stories are different: here, i have no difficulties, but i think this is because the story itself compels a certain voice; and while i would like to write on demand, to say “it’s a Monday, so I will write a 2000 word story”, every such attempt has fallen horribly flat. This failure is useful and chastening, or would be if i could attend.
1. Sitting on my balcony in the sun, drinking gin, smoking my pipe, and reading John Connolley’s The Book of Lost Things, i glanced down as an antique German woman cycled past. She must have been over 80, perhaps over 90, but was erect and graceful on her bike. This is typically German self-sufficiency. As i watched she pulled a compact mirror out and inspected her make-up without the slightest wobbling or difficulty.
2. Michael of the Michael Report fame moved to Cologne after burning out all his friends in Munich. Probably only a matter of time before he leaves Cologne for the same reason, but in the meantime he’s been busily bassing and this is quite good:
3. My work continues. A year or two ago i was beginning to hate it and wished an escape. Now McLingua has given us all an astonishing pay rise, according to our qualifications (i now get 17 € for 45 mins), i can survive on relatively little work and am relishing my freedom. It’s not enough to buy a car, a 2-room flat, or go on holiday, but i have just enough breathing space. i realise i look at things somewhat like Michael – he’s 25 and expects he will sooner or later become rich & famous for being himself, so it doesn’t matter if he’s broke now because it will all work out. i don’t share this belief but i nonetheless have a sense that money is essentially irrelevant and i will be given enough to manage. So far it’s been thus.
4. My mother & stepfather are here for a visit. i realise how much i’ve changed since 2009, the last time we spent any time together. i don’t feel older though i am fatter – i have a paunch, despite cutting my calories and walking more. My stepfather said it happens with age and contentment. This seems true – i eat less when miserable, and can sleep for long periods, waking without hunger. i haven’t really been miserable since last Christmas and that was due to external causes (my now ex-woman berating me for not being sufficiently Germanic). Even in the Kangarhaus in 2011 i only felt miserable because of the house itself; the last time i really made myself miserable would probably be back in England, when i was doing the wrong jobs and living in the wrong country (and the wrong life). Now i feel to be in the right place and more or less doing the right job. i am content, and fat.
With contentment comes a volitionless drifting, as i feel more or less able to enjoy life as it is. With this comes dissatisfaction, which for me manifests as a desire to write; and an inability to do so without the heat of unhappiness. In any case, most of my time and energy is taking up translating a book from Swiss German to English. The almost daily discipline stimulates the desire to write, but then i find my ideas won’t cohere – as if my usual unhappiness is necessary for that. In an interview, Thomas Bernhard says something like “I only write when something is lacking, if I feel happy why would I disturb myself and write?” (it was in Austrian-accented German so i’m not 100% sure).
i can imagine becoming wildly unhappy once more but i’m not sure if it could happen for internal reasons now. i respond to external difficulties by withdrawing into myself, so i didn’t even feel distressed when i nearly died last year in France; my body was desperate not to die, but i myself felt very little (though once the blood oxygen drops below a certain level, i’ve found i can no longer think or even feel emotions). Most of my literary heroes – Dr Johnson, Beckett, Thomas Bernhard, Kafka, Dante, Milton – seem to have written out of need and dismay or rage; and my own & few good writings likewise. So perhaps i will merely persist in this dissatisfaction and contentment.
5. Nonetheless, i have begun writing a new novel – just to satisfy my occasional cravings. It’s called Descent and, i recognise, uses elements of the 4 or 5 or 6 novels i began and discarded earlier this year. i can also see literary influence but don’t want to make them clear as stupid people like to think a writer mechanically recycles his favourite authors, and so any mention of influence is taken as an admission of conniving intent. In the case of Descent, the idea came to me when i was idly fantasizing, Michael-like, about being rich, then wondered how such a grotesque state of affairs could ever come about, and then began to complicate it for myself. Only when i’d sketched out the entire story did i see the clear literary influence – and that Descent seems to be revisioning this influence, to turn it in a completely different direction – as if one wrote a play about a melancholy Danish prince who decides to kill his uncle but ends up joining a troupe of wandering players and they wander into the Forest of Arden and find a court in exile.
So far, the story is fine but i’m having problems with the narrative voice. i don’t feel these are insuperable difficulties; sometimes it clicks and feels right, so i guess it’s just a matter of contemplating these moments until i work my way deeper, to the taproot. In a sense, Descent is also about this attempt to work deeper (as i realise now, writing this).
Getting the narrative voice right is the only really important thing – the story itself is almost nothing. It’s also an attempt to find some way of understanding how my present vaguely dissatisfied contentment can be, in a world full of hatred & suffering. i feel – as is my way – that to be happy in this world is akin to living a stolidly bourgeois life next door to a concentration camp; and yet i know this feeling is wrong, that being miserable doesn’t help other people; and i’m not interested in bluster, propaganda, Guardianista grandstanding, self-important lefty hatred & crass intolerance. The story itself cannot deal with these things – it must all be contained in the voice, without becoming programmatic. Ideally, if i finish the book most people won’t even notice these elements. If it works, it will be because the voice succeeds in forming a coherence from my own dissatisfaction & contentment; and the book itself will develop from this, so much so that the roots will be invisible.
i am not optimistic about finishing it, but the worst failure is to never fail, to make il gran rifiuto and fail to fail. In this, i am a good old-fashioned pagan and believe in the nobility of attempt.
Tradition ist nichts, was Einer lernen kann, ist nicht ein Faden, den Einer aufnehmen kann, wenn es ihm gefällt; so wenig, wie es möglich ist, sich die eigenen Ahnen auszusuchen.
Wer eine Tradition nicht hat und sie haben möchte, der ist wie ein unglücklich Verliebter.
Tradition is not something a man can learn; not a thread he can pick up when he feels like it; any more than a man can choose his own ancestors.
Someone lacking a tradition who would like to have one is like a man unhappily in love.
(Wittgenstein’s journals, 1948, tr. Peter Winch)
But consider the following case. A tribe observes strict laws of religious devotion and imposes strict penalties for sacrilege. This practice has a utilitarian justification: it sustains the cohesion of the tribe and so protects it from its foes and predators. But the utilitarian justification, which may be furnished with the most elaborate theories by some observing anthropologist, is not, and could not be, the motive for the religious act. A member of the tribe who engages in religious ceremony in order to sustain social cohesion has lost the sense of religion. In his heart, he is already alienated from the social organism which he seeks to uphold.
(Roger Scruton, A Short History of Modern Philosophy)
I can live no longer by thinking.
(As You Like It)
1. i chanced upon an American pagan woman’s blog earlier this week. i immediately disliked the swagger, the malapropism in the first paragraph, the crass teenage Americanisms; it sounded like it was written by a vacuous snarky 14-year-old but she is actually in her 40s. i forced myself to read on and found she probably knows more about heathenry than i do (i am a protestant heathen); but nonetheless i found it impossible to take her seriously. i won’t quote but it ran more or less thus: “So like [a god] stuck his head in and said yo peeps whassup? And I was like, OMG, it’s [a god]!!! Now I TELL Y’ALL this ain’t my first run-in with a god but I nearly shat myself! My bad!” and so on .
Later, i wondered if i was just being priggish about it. After all, real knowledge need not preclude childish frivolity. But the more i thought about it, the more i decided that it rang as false as when the Viking talked of “getting Poped up” (becoming a Catholic). It’s a way of denying the strangeness of this encounter; it denies the sacred, tries to make it profane and ordinary and matter for cheap jokes; it is of a part with the modern Catholic Mass and Satanically awful modern translations of the Bible (the Viking objected to the King James, saying it is impossible to understand).
2. My own understanding of these matter is, in a sense, aesthetic. i’d read hundreds of books, and written several hundred thousand words before i had any real, direct experience of non-worldly power. A good decade before my weird year in 2008, i had encountered power in another form – in art. There are works which are worthwhile but flawed, for example John Cowper Powys’ A Glastonbury Romance, which i nearly ditched before more or less attuning to its bizarre extravagance; then there are works which are flawed but beyond rebuke, for example Dante’s Comedia, the King James Bible, much of Shakespeare; and works which seem to me flawless: The Great Gatsby, The Waste Land, some Shakespeare (the flaws in, for example, Hamlet, don’t detract from its greatness; if anything, they just make it stranger). The latter two categories provide a standard. In the last circle of Inferno, Dante writes:
S’io avessi le rime aspre e chiocce,
come si converrebbe al tristo buco
sovra ‘l qual pontan tutte l’altre rocce,
io premerei di mio concetto il suco
più pienamente; ma perch’io non l’abbo,
non sanza tema a dicer mi conduco;
chè non è impresa da pigliara a gabbo
discriver fondo a tutto l’universo,
nè da lingua che chiami mamma o babbo.
Had I the harsh and grating rhymes that would be fitting for the dismal hole on which all the other rocks bear down I would press out more completely the sap of my conception; but since I have not it is not without fear I bring myself to speak, for to describe the bottom of all the universe is no enterprise to undertake in sport or for a tongue that cries mamma and babbo. (John Sinclair)
This should stand as rebuke to those who would make the sacred plain, or worse than plain – coarse and japing. Perhaps because of mass media, pornography, science, and ubiquitous marketing, people find it hard to imagine any area of human understanding which could be private, incommunicable. The private core of experience remains, however; all public attempts at it – for which pornography is the most explicit example – result in a caricatural form, and this then makes it harder & harder to arrive at true speech, whether on or off camera.
My more rarefied diction is not greatly dissimilar to my ordinary speech; but it is far removed from the lower reaches, the way i tend to speak with, for example, Toddball (a jovial hustler & petty crook from Chicago). It seems to me that the vulgar pagan woman has no other tone; or that she chooses to talk of the sacred in the language of MTV. This is typically American – egalitarian – and it’s notable that the Viking speaks a strange, Germanic-inflected trans-Atlantic idiom, to the extent that Germans assume he is American and even English speakers assume he’s a foreigner. He sounds like a Germanic Californication character.
3. A couple of days ago i went to a Swans concert in Munich. i arrived early and managed to stand near the front, probably unwisely since i’d forgotten to bring ear plugs and they have a reputation for ear & brain-destroying volume. Most of the audience were my age or older. Just before the band came on, a young German couple – students, by the looks of it – pushed their way in front, with the casual “ja, ve are the best, ve drive a BMV, out of ze way” insolence of rich Germans. They both looked like the students i saw in Durham: rich, affecting a carefully bohemian look, well-scrubbed and characterless. The girl had carefully coiffured hair and spoke a prissy, complaining High German; the boy reminded me of the hipster from Lonely Island’s ‘I Threw It To The Ground’
Michael Gira came on stage, looking professorial in his glasses, and planted a stand with the set list. Throughout, the two clean German kids craned forwards to read his set list, with that peculiarly brazen German insolence. Given Gira used to leap into the audience to attack headbangers, i hoped he would at least kick them in the face, repeatedly. i was about a meter away from the man himself and kept making meaningfully disgusted eye contact, nodding at the German hipsters and making strangulation gestures to indicate he should commit an atrocity. For some reason, he didn’t. He even shot me the occasional irritated glance.
Swans began with a slow, eerie piece, Gira holding his arms out and moaning “there are millions and millions of stars in your eyes”. The clean German girl gave her boyfriend an incredulous, unimpressed, sneering questioning look, and he shrugged with an equally Germanically unimpressed and critical look. i could imagine their disgusting German thoughts: “ughh, we thought this vas to be some bohemian hipster punk band ja but it is an old timer talking about ze stars. I vill sue them for many moneys.”
Then the noise began.
i don’t know what songs they played as most of it was so unbearably loud that i was only aware of volume and rhythm and madness. The German hipsters immediately inserted ear plugs. i’d brought chewing gum, deciding that if it grew painful i could use them as rudimentary aids. But it was just this side of painful; appallingly loud with a strange stillness to it; like qawwali or Arvo Pärt. And it was all superb:
The noise they created on The Library’s stage didn’t feel like an isolating wall, it didn’t block out audience, it enveloped them. It felt like you were within it, hurtling with it through dark and unsettling scenes, becoming ever more willing to hand yourself over to its all-consuming power, not even caring that it was turning anything caught in its wake to dust.
Gira cavorts and wobbles like a drunk Sufi, sometimes directing the other musicians to a different rhythm or noise. He’s a commanding, strange presence; he can look abruptly startled by his own music, then lunge into it and snarl or laugh. Near the end, he walked menacingly over to the drummer, then squatted slowly down, swan-like, and fluttered his hands gently. The drummer tilted his head and gestured with his sticks, as if to say “like this?”, Gira assented, and the drummer began a rapid, light movement; Gira stood and raised his hands, summoning more volume, then directed the others to follow, the swan beating wings.
After about 30 minutes the German hipster girl shouted complainingly into her hipster boyfriend’s ear and left. After another 15 minutes, he left too, presumably to drive her in his Audi TT to an exclusive hipster party where they would talk about how they went to a dingy club to watch a subversive transgressive American band. Swans continued and now i was right by Gira, praying he would submit to kick me brutally in the face so i could photograph my wounds for posterity (he didn’t).
After what seemed like another decade of noise, they came to a halt. The band lined up at the front and Gira introduced them in good German (one of the members, Christopher Hahn, is a German) and they all performed light, graceful bows, smiling broadly.
i walked 15 minutes in the rain to the nearest s-bahn, wondering that passing cars sounded like part of the show. It took 2 days for my ears to recover.
4. i rarely go to concerts, as i’m broke and don’t like big arenas (the Munich gig was commendably small and grotty). Thus far i’ve been to a big REM concert in 94 (shit), a Tori Amos concert in 95 or so (good, though i don’t like her music now), a few classical music concerts at Durham, Spiritualized in 98 (akin to Swans in magnificence) and 2001 (the same), and Alasdair Roberts in Manchester in 2007/8 (wonderful), and Wagner’s Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg and Der fliegende Holländer (astonishingly and quite good, respectively) in Kassel. Swans, Spiritualized, Roberts, and Die Meistersinger are the closest i’ve come to a public experience of the sacred. One has a veneer of superficial understanding – Swans are a punk band, Spiritualized are a British trance/electronic rock band, Roberts is a Glaswegian folk singer, Wagner is Wagner – but the experience was das Ding an sich, something you can talk about if you want but all your talking will fall far short. For hipsters, only the superficial is of importance; i can imagine the clean, pushy German students heard Swans were radical and underground and wanted to go to as it were add another feather to their Southron apple polishing hats; they wanted to go to talk about it. They were in fact repelled and humiliated by the thing in itself.
i wondered what kind of people would pay 30 € and then walk out; what did they expect? – and what kind of people would lean forwards and crane around to see the set list; what kind of people (Southrons) wouldn’t respect the band’s space and privacy? But then for this kind of rich polisher everything exists for their own hipster gratification. They have no understanding of raw, unmediated experience; hence they left early. For such people, everything is known; everything is subject to, and exhausted by, talk. If they were Christians they would read modern translations of the Bible and talk about it at Bible Study meetings, earnestly talking about everything, because they would talk themselves into reality.
5. In our times, there is almost nowhere to encounter that which is beyond talk. In the universities now, one reads Shakespeare – or rather, attends a lecture – and then vomits forth an exam paper about white privilege and “patriarchy”; and if you do otherwise, you will be penalised. The Christian religion has become a kind of MTV “spirituality”, where everything is made plain, easily digestible by idiots and the profane. There is nothing to look up to, nothing which deafens.
i don’t think the gods have departed; they just have nowhere to come to, in our culture. There is no longer a place for them set aside at the table, and so they walk the streets, or the forest.