August 20, 2010

on good writing

Filed under: literature — ABRAXAS @ 10:26 am

I more-than-half suspect that all “good” writing, or all prose and poetry that one wants to read more than once, proceeds from a kind of “alteration in consciousness,” i.e. a kind of controlled schizophrenia. [Don't become alarmed -- I think good acting comes from the same place.]

Robert Anton Wilson

August 19, 2010

johan van wyk

Filed under: johan van wyk,literature,poetry — ABRAXAS @ 2:00 pm

Johan van Wyk was born in Jansen Street, in the suburb Dagbreek of the mining town, Welkom in 1956. The family moved to Mozambique in about 1968, and he continued his schooling at Bothashof in Salisbury (now Harare), Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe). The family returned to South Africa around 1972/3 and he enrolled as a first year at the Rand Afrikaans University in 1974. He changed to study at the University of the Witwatersrand in 1975, leaving the university at the end of 1976, fleeing the country as objector to military service. His first volume of poetry Deur die oog van die luiperd was published in 1976. He lived in Swaziland in a tent for a few months and was arrested during a return to his parents farm in 1977. He was in military prison3 for a day and during a breakdown was taken to the military hospital where he was for a few weeks. He was returned to prison where he eventually agreed to join the army, knowing that without basic training he would be sent back home, which would give him the opportunity to seek outside help from psychologists and enroll at the university again. He was eventually discharged from military duty based on his psychological condition. He returned to university and completed his BA and Hons degree. He then enrolled at Rhodes University for an MA degree, which was eventually changed into a Ph.D. The MA had as its topic Die dood, die minnaar en die Oedipale Struktuur in die Ingrid Jonker-teks. His second (Heldedade kom nie dikwels voor nie 1978 ) and third volumes of poetry (Bome gaan dood om jou 1981) appeared. He was appointed as a junior lecturer in Afrikaans at the University of Durban-Westville in 1983. He left in 1988 and was appointed again in 1990. In 1989 he compiled, with Pieter Conradie and Nic Konstandaras, the anthology SA in poësie/ SA in poetry. After returning to the University of Durban-Westville, he soon became the director of the newly established Center for the study of Southern African literature and languages until promoted to the position Head of the School of Languages. In 1996 his fourth volume Oë in ‘n kas: Aantekeninge van ‘n onbewuste appeared. He married Elizabeth Brazelle Grobler in 1985 and had two children, Andreas and Katrina, with her. He also has a child, Tembelani, with Spilile Ndlela. His English novel Man Bitch (2001) is about the people of the Point Area, in Durban. He had a stroke in 2002, and about two months later was attacked in his flat by a lover. His output diminished dramatically after this. The photo book Trollop slaap te veel was published belatedly in 2006.

more info about johan van wyk on his website

ben okri discusses his approach to writing

Filed under: literature — ABRAXAS @ 10:22 am

in translation: walter benjamin on the task of the translator

Filed under: literature — ABRAXAS @ 9:59 am

“The intentional, innermost relationship between languages is that of a particular convergence. It consists in the fact that languages are not ‘foreign’ to one another but instead are a priori and regardless of any historical links related to one another in what they are trying to say.

“The task consists in finding in the language into which the work is being translated the intention on the basis of which, in the translation, the echo of the original will be struck.

“A proper translation is transparent, it does not cover up the original, does not stand in its light; instead it permits pure language, as it were reinforced through its own medium, to fall the more fully on the original.

“To redeem that pure language that is banished into otherness in one’s own language, to release the language held prisoner in the work by rewriting it – that is the task of the translator.

“As the tangent touches the circle fleetingly and only at a single point, and as that contact (though not that point) is prescribed for it by the law in accordance with which it continues its straight course into infinity, so the translation touches the original fleetingly and only at that vanishingly small point of sense before (obedient to the law of fidelity) pursuing its unique course in the freedom of linguistic usage.”

Benjamin then quotes Rudolf Pannwitz, a beautiful passage without punctuation:

“the fundamental mistake of the person translating is to set the fortuitous state of his own language in stone instead of letting the foreign language shift it by force, particularly when translating from an extremely remote language he must push his way back to the ultimate elements of language itself where word image tone merge into one he must widen and deepen his language with the foreign language people have no idea how far this is possible”

August 18, 2010


Filed under: johan van wyk,literature — ABRAXAS @ 12:45 pm

Shanta Reddy takes a look at the book behind the scandal as author Johan van Wyk receives death threats for his controversial novel, Man-Bitch.

For months, much of Durban’s intellectual community has been gripped by battered photocopied versions of an unpublished novel by the respected Afrikaans poet, Johan van Wyk. And the word has been spreading. Book shops have asked Van Wyk to read from his book and the country’s leading writers have been knocking on Van Wyk’s door. The book, Man-Bitch, is an account of Van Wyk’s relationships with a number of black women, some of whom take money in return for his love. A Sunday newspaper recently published an article sensationalising Van Wyk and his novel. He has since received death threats and there have been strident calls from certain quarters for his dismissal from his post at the University of Durban-Westville.

So here’s an author who loves sex – no problem. In true red-blooded hormone-bursting style, he’s attracted to beautiful and sexy women – nothing wrong with that. He wants to be loved for who he is – nothing out of the ordinary. He can barely exercise control over his spending – with the weak rand and the high cost of living who can? He’s outgrown his parents – don’t we all at some stage? He’s middle-aged and balding – no cause for concern.

So why the self-righteous outrage at this Man-Bitch? The answer is multi-layered and interwoven. But it starts with the fact that Van Wyk is white and Afrikaans-speaking and many of the beautiful, sexy African women, with whom he associates are members of the world’s oldest profession.

Van Wyk is uncomfortable with the words “prostitute” or “sex worker” and the layers of stereotypes and connotations they invoke.
Likewise, the easy association of an Afrikaans-speaking male with the routine Christ-worshipping, apartheid-supporting persona persists for many of us. It’s as crisp and clear as any other stereotype.

Like the common assumption that poor Africans and women who have sex for money (and especially poor African women who have sex for money) are filthy, disease-ridden and immoral. We might acknowledge their presence but they are South Africa’s untouchable caste.

It is also difficult to separate the artist from the work of art. How, we wonder, lying on our hire-purchased Sealy Posturepedic, can a middle class, Afrikaans-speaking university professor and father of two abandon his home and family in Glenwood to live in a seedy building in Gillespie Street, even if it is a declared monument? Why does he spend more time with the children of his streetwalker lovers than with his own flesh and blood? Where did good education and religion go wrong? The questions don’t stop pricking at the bourgeois balloon.

Then there are the images, created with cinematic clarity that a reader must deal with: the worms that tickle his arse, the maggots in his fridge. His descriptions are sometimes crass and vile, but they are relentlessly honest. He refuses to seek refuge in middle class euphemism. He is never politically correct nor boorish – reare and exquisite attributes in any man. More so in a professor.

But what do we do with these images? How do we become reconciled with the idea of a man who has chosen this life?

For me the images are purified by their spontaneity. Van Wyk’s attention never waivers from detail of the here and now – this Durban, this cockroach, this orgasm. What remains however, is the truth that while he has freed himself from suburban regime, he is still in a state of unfreedom.

He is caught between desire for a conformist relationship with a woman (he wants to be the sole provider; the only man in her life, the master to whom she must explain the spending of money and the time she spends away from him – ironically killing the sense of freedom which he found appealing in the first place) and a greater and more absolute defiance of the role that conventional morality has assigned to him (father, pedagogue, wise man, white.)

His thoughts oscillate between the freedom he has earned and the indecision that weighs him down as a result of that freedom. He floats around in a haze of depressed anxiety, awaiting the bounty that sexual and moral liberation is supposed to bring.

His exasperation sometimes courts death (“Then I went to bed lying curled up in the dark and crying, muttering “It would be good to be dead, but how to get there?”). One gets the sense, sometimes, that he cannot deal with this vertigo of freedom.

But it’s not all bleak. Van Wyk is immensely entertaining. The cling-wrapped penis episode is an eye opener (apparently it’s better than a Viagra-condom combo: it’s cheaper; stays on longer; allows for prolonged pleasure and is an excellent contraceptive). What more could the new, improved globalised South Africa want?

Despite the book’s title, it’s not all about sex. The women who trade their bodies for money exist on more complex levels than we are prepared to acknowledge.


They fight to realise the same aspirations and dreams that the average home-owner merely steps into by accident of birth. They are intelligent, street-wise and more in touch with the Rainbow Nation than any politician. On the street, stories are told and lessons are taught more effectively than in any Outcomes-based education system. Man-Bitch takes the humanity of the “bitches” very seriously and I would venture that Van Wyk’s portrayal of them is more dignified than the unctuous and paternalistic studies one gets from well-meaning but antiseptic university researchers.

The book is profoundly and powerfully philosophical. Without uttering a phrase of economics, it’s one of the most powerful critiques of our economic system I have ever encountered. Van Wyk’s narrative wrenches the reader’s breath away. Man-Bitch is about more than a mid-life crisis. He hasn’t just abandoned his family, reputation and home in a secure neighbourhood in a search for sexual excitement. (Which, in any case, he doesn’t always sustain – the odd erectile dysfunction interrupts). He’s looking for meaning too. For wisdom, which he defines, with captivating eloquence, as “reason without institution”.

People are calling Man-Bitch everything from “sensationalist pornography” to “the best critique of neo-liberalism yet written” to “nothing more or less than art”. Because it is necessary to separate the author and the protagonist (in order to read without stereotypical prejudices) and to unite them (in order to fully appreciate the philosophical impact of this book), the book unsettles easy judgements. But the message that burns so brightly is that our lives are not our own until we choose to disintegrate into who we want to be – irrespective of the consequences. Van Wyk has done this. Our streets are filled with the living dead but Van Wyk has defended the life of his soul.

Sensational it may be, but that’s not reason enough to discard it as cheap pornography. We listen to rap artists and rock stars chant the words “bitch, fuck, devil, whore” and don’t bat an eyelid. We see pornography on soapies but don’t turn the telly off. His expressions are sometimes grammatically incorrect and simple. His lovers cannot converse fluently in English. Yet, admirably, his challenge to conformity rears its head again when he includes their compositions in Man-Bitch.

Insofar as shocking but widely read literature goes, Man-Bitch can be compared to the likes of Lolita, Incest, Tropic of Cancer and the depraved masterpiece The Story of O. Lolita was banned. Tropic of Cancer was not published in America until it became a worldwide best-seller. Incest was not published until after Nin’s death, for fear of reprisals. We don’t cast aspersions on any of these books and now we call them literature.

We may be unable to fathom the reasons for Van Wyk’s exclusive attraction to African women. It may be foreign to what our institutionalised, pro-forma thought process would make us accept as proper, righteous and moral.

“Progressive” women I’ve spoken to scoff at this professor’s attraction to African women. They concede that physical beauty plays a role, but argue that one can only be attracted to an intellectual equal. Both the assumption of an intellectual imbalance and the blindness to communication beyond language, and beyond English, sentence many of us to being foreigners in our own country and in our own bodies. Other critics point to the obviously exploitative nature of his buying the “love” of women in need.

What this Man-Bitch brings home is that the words “sexy” and “beautiful” are both relative and fluid. Van Wyk challenges, yet again, the Western idea of beauty. For him the image of an appealing woman is different to the image historically forced onto him and also something which changes over time.

Man-Bitch is a record of a man’s journey through the barriers of convention. It is inspiring and jolting. I was jarred and unsettled for days after the first reading. The second reading focused me on the reality that our only duty is the duty to be free.

It is absurd that no publisher has yet had the courage to publish this book and sad that the public is missing out on an honestly written and truly remarkable story of a spirit that is at one with conformicide.

this article first published here

August 17, 2010

henry miller on new york

Filed under: literature — ABRAXAS @ 11:07 pm

Obituary: Ernst Junger

Filed under: bo cavefors,literature — ABRAXAS @ 10:41 pm

by james Kirkup

Wednesday, 18 February 1998

ERNST JUNGER first beheld Halley’s Comet during its 1910 passage, when he was a boy of 15. In 1987, he made a special journey to Malaysia for a second glimpse. He was one of the very few writers to have seen the comet twice in his lifetime.

All this is described in Zwei Mal Halley (“Halley Twice”, 1988), a book filled with Junger’s characteristic meditations on time and place, on dreams, nature, crystals, stars, mountains, the sea, wild animals and insects, especially butterflies, a passion he shared with Nabokov. Throughout his very considerable body of work, there is an obsession with time, with dates, with temporal coincidences, with the fatidic power of numbers over our birth and death. In a volume of his journals covering the years 1965- 70, Siebzig verweht (“Past Seventy”, 1980), he makes this revealing entry at Wilfingen, his home between the Danube and the Black Forest, in sight of the castle of Stauffenberg, on 30 March 1965:

I have now reached the biblical age of three score and ten – a rather strange feeling for a man who, in his youth, had never hoped to see his 30th year. Even after my 23rd birthday in 1918, I would gladly have signed a Faustian pact with the Devil: “Give me just 30 years of life, guaranteed, then let it all be ended.”

A similar expression of his fascinated awe of time and numbers appears in an earlier work, An der Zeitmauer (“At the Wall of Time”, 1959). But one of the most extraordinary examples of this obsession can be found in a journal entry for “Monday, 8.8.1988″ -

a date with four units. 8 is special (four 8′s, and a fifth one by subtracting the 1 from the 9). Odin rides an 8-legged horse . . . Dates have often brought me surprises.

One of his many hobbies was the collection of antique sandglasses, on which he was an authority. He also collected sundial inscriptions.

Ernst Junger’s birth at Heidelberg is recorded precisely. It fell on 29 March 1895 on the stroke of noon, under Aries, with Cancer in the ascendant. He was the eldest of seven children, one of whom, his beloved brother Friedrich Georg (who died in 1977), was also a writer, a poet and philosopher.

Junger spent the greater part of his childhood and adolescence in Hanover, where his prosperous parents settled shortly after his birth. They possessed a beautiful villa by a lake, where Ernst made his first entomological investigations. He soon developed a dislike for bourgeois life, and spent a couple of unhappy years in boarding schools, whose reports complain of his dreaminess and lack of interest in the boring curriculum. He was later to write:

I had invented for myself a sort of distancing indifference that allowed me to remain connected to reality only by an invisible thread like a spider’s.

He spent hours reading unauthorised books, and with his brother lived in an exalted universe of their own. They would go wandering round the countryside, and Ernst struck up happy friendships with tramps and gypsies. He was already the Waldganger (wild man of the woods), the anarchist hero of his 1977 novel Eumeswil.

It was the beginning of an unending passion for travel and exotic lands. He took the first big step in 1913 by running away from home to join the Foreign Legion, in which he saw service in Oran and Sidi-Bel-Abbes. After five weeks, his father bought him out. Ernst was to write about this escapade in Kinderspielen (“Children’s Games”, 1936). His father promised that if he passed his Abitur (school-leaving examination) he would be allowed to join an expedition to Mount Kilimanjaro. So Junger swotted away at the Gildermeister Institut, whose grim atmosphere is evoked in Die Steinschleuder (“The Catapult”, 1973), a novel in the great tradition of German school stories.

Junger passed his exam in August 1914 and at once volunteered for the army, in which he fought on the French front with exceptional courage all through the First World War. Wounded four times, he received the highest German military honour, the Order of Merit created by Friedrich II: he outlived all those who also received it. Out of his wartime experiences was born Stahlgewittern (“Storm of Steel”, 1920), which he had to publish at his own expense. This story of the horrors of modern warfare was drawn from his wartime notebooks, often written in the heat of battle on the Western Front. It remains one of the greatest works about the First World War, along with those by Erich Maria Remarque, Henri Barbusse, e.e. cummings, David Jones and Lucien Descaves.

Junger stayed in the army until 1923, when he left and began studying zoology at the University of Leipzig and at Naples. He married Gretha von Jeinsen and his son Ernst was born in 1926. In 1927 they moved to Berlin, where he became a member of the national revolutionary group led by Niekisch (arrested by Hitler in 1937 and kept in a concentration camp until the end of the Second World War). He also got to know Ernst von Salomon, Bertolt Brecht, Ernst Toller and Alfred Kubin, as well as the publisher Rowohlt. He began travelling widely, to Sicily, Rhodes, the Dalmatian coast, Norway, Brazil and the Canaries, and made the acquaintance of Andre Gide in Paris. These travels had a great influence on all his writings, most noticeable in his superb novel Heliopolis (1949) – the most elegantly learned, eloquently written and hauntingly convincing science- fiction story ever written.

Goebbels tried in vain to draw him into the ranks of the Nazi hierarchy in 1931, and he refused to be elected to the German Academy of Letters because it was dominated by national socialist timeservers. In 1932 Junger produced a very significant book, Der Arbeiter (“The Worker”), which is nevertheless one of his least-known works. It was long out of print until Martin Heidegger, himself besmirched with Nazi collaboration, persuaded him to risk letting it be reissued in 1963. It presents the mythical figure of standardised modern man as “The Worker” whose pragmatism and nihilism destroy the old traditional categories of peasant, soldier and priest, foretelling an unprecedented reversal of temporal power in our collapsing cultures where an intellectual and artistic elite has no place.

Related to this theme is a later work, Das Aladdinproblem (1983), in which he asks who will rub the magic lamp of destructive science and dehumanising technology: “With the heavens empty, we live in the Age of Uranium: how can we believe our modern Aladdin’s lamp will not produce some unimaginable monster?”

Der Arbeiter is also an important theoretical study of the political history of the Thirties in Germany, and has been considered by critics like Georg Lukacs and Walter Benjamin to have been the ideological matrix of national-socialist ideas. But Junger’s links with national socialism were infinitely complex. He was a serving officer, partisan of the revolutionary right, a sort of conservative anarchist, hostile to the Weimar Republic, yet he refused all honours and promotions.

Unable to bear the rising tide of Hitlerism, he left Berlin for the quiet of the countryside at Kirchhorst, where in February 1939 he began the painful drafting of Auf den Marmorklippen. Its anti-Nazi tone is obvious, but the book was published in September, the month war was declared. On the Marble Cliffs was part of my wartime reading, and I well remember the excitement it caused when the translation was published by John Lehmann just after the war.

With the outbreak of war, Junger was given the rank of captain and took part in the invasion of France, during which he did his utmost to spare civilians and protect public monuments. Posted to Paris, he became a well- known figure in the literary salons of the time like the Thursday reunions of artists and writers at Florence Gould’s. He made good friends of authors like the acid-tongued critic Leautaud and above all Marcel Jouhandeau, whose scholarly ease and wit in writing seemed to Junger exceptional at a time of growing artistic barbarity. Even after their condemnation for collaboration with the Nazis, Junger praised the characters and writings of Chardonne, Celine (whom he did not like), Brasillach and Drieu de la Rochelle, while his admiration for Cocteau, Sasha Guitry and actresses like Arletty was as sincere as that for artists like Braque and Picasso, whose studios he frequented.

His journals of this period are studded with all these famous names. However, he was indirectly implicated in Stauffenberg’s attempt to assassinate Hitler in July 1944, and requested to leave the army and return home to Kirchhorst, where he spent the rest of the war, composing a text on Die Friede (“Peace”). His son Ernst, in prison for opposition to Hitler, was despatched to the Italian front and killed on 29 November in the marble quarries at Carrara by Allied snipers.

After German defeat and capitulation, despite his firm denials of having supported Nazism, Junger encountered the shrill hostility of Marxist and so-called liberal critics who accused him of being its predecessor. They even criticised his scholarly, noble, refined style, calling it frigid, elitist and academic.

He writes of his experiments with drugs in Annaherungen (“Approaches”, 1970), influenced by Aldous Huxley’s works on the same subject. He finally settled at Wilfingen in the house of the Master Forester attached to the ancestral home of his executed friend Graf Claus Schenk von Stauffenberg, where in 1959 he founded the literary review Antaios with Mircea Eliade. By 1977, his father, mother, brother and wife had all died. He remarried, taking as his wife Liselotte Lohrer, a professional archivist and literary scholar.

All through the Seventies and Eighties Junger travelled widely. In 1979, he visited Verdun and was awarded the town’s Peace Medal. In 1982 he received a final literary consecration with the award of the City of Frankfurt’s Goethe Prize, which aroused violent protest among his detractors. In 1984, he again made a pilgrimage to Verdun, with Chancellor Helmut Kohl and President Francois Mitterrand to pay homage to the victims of two world wars.

In 1992, there was extraordinary confirmation of Junger’s anti-Nazi stance with the discovery of a top secret document proving that his fate was in the balance just before the Third Reich’s capitulation and during the final days Hitler spent in the Wolfs-Schanze, the very headquarters where he was wounded by the Stauffenberg bomb.

The document is dated December 1944. It is addressed by Dr Freisler, president of the Volksgericht (People’s Court) to Martin Bormann, Hitler’s right-hand man. Freisler informs Bormann that the proceedings to be taken against Captain Junger are to be cancelled. Junger had been indicted on account of his novel On the Marble Cliffs and the “defeatist” opinions he had expressed at his old colleague Commandant Stulpnagel’s HQ in Paris, not long before the latter’s suicide. Freisler reveals that on 20 November 1944 the Fuhrer himself had given the order by telephone from the Wolfs- Schanze that the matter was not to be pursued any further. Freisler ends his letter with “Heil Hitler!”, then adds a postscript: “I am sending you three dossiers on the affair. The Fuhrer wishes to have his orders executed immediately.”

In his Journals, Junger notes that the Gestapo had described him at that period in Paris as “an impenetrable, highly suspect individual”. He comments in a 1992 interview:

It was no surprise to me. After all, it conformed to the pattern of my horoscope. Ever since my schooldays I’ve been accustomed to that kind of unpleasantness.

Ernst Junger’s work is all of a piece – highly literary, beautifully sonorous, excitingly visual, intellectually profound and stimulating. It is the life work of an aristocrat of letters, and one of the best tributes to it has been made by another literary patriarch, Julien Gracq:

The hard, smooth enamelling that seems to armour his prose against the touch of too great a familiarity would seem to us perhaps a little frigid if we did not know, and if we never lost consciousness of the fact while reading, that it has been tempered in an ordeal of fire.

That is a fitting eulogy for one of the greatest writers of the 20th century.

Ernst Junger, writer: born Heidelberg, Germany 29 March 1895; married 1925 Gretha von Jeinsen (died 1960; two sons deceased), 1962 Liselotte Lohrer; died Wilflingen, Germany 17 February 1998.

this article first published on independent.co.uk

lolita, nabokov & i by Maurice Girodias

Filed under: censorship,literature — ABRAXAS @ 6:22 pm

One day in the early summer of 1955, 1 received a call from a literary agent, a Russian lady by the name of Doussia Ergaz. She told me about an old friend of hers, a Russian émigré now a professor of Russian Literature at Cornell University. He had written a book with a rather dangerous theme which had, for that reason, been rejected by a number of prominent American publishers.

The man’s name was Vladimir Nabokov and his book, Lolita, dealt with the impossible amours of a middle-aged man with a girl of twelve who belonged to the seductive species for which Nabokov had invented the word “nymphet.”

I asked Madame Ergaz to send me the manuscript, which promptly turned up complete with a curriculum vitae in which I read:

“Born 1899, St. Petersburg, Russia. Old Russian nobility. Father eminent statesman of the Liberal group, elected member of the First Duma. Paternal grandfather State Minister of Justice under Czar Alexander 11. Maternal great grandfather President of Academy of Medicine.

“Education: Private School in St. Petersburg. Cambridge University (Trinity College), England. Graduated with Honors, 1922.

“Family escaped from Communist Russia in 1919. England, Germany, France.

“Acquired considerable fame in émigré circles as a novelist and poet,

“Married in 1925. One son, b. 1934. “Emigrated to the United States in 1940. Became an American writer. American citizen since 1945.

“Since 1940 taught literature at various American universities, combining this with a Research Fellowship in Entomology at the Museum of Comp. Zoology, Harvard (1942-48). Professor of Russian Literature at Cornell University since 1948.

“Guggenheim Fellowship for Creative Writing in 1943, and again in 1952.

“American Academy of Arts and Letters award in 1951.

“List of published works attached.”

There was a certain disarming naïveté in the writer’s insistence on such points as “father eminent statesman,” or the “considerable fame acquired in émigré circles,” which I found to be not devoid of charm, but I quickly succumbed to the much more compelling attraction of the book itself, which developed before me in its near absolute perfection. I was struck with wonder, carried away by this unbelievable phenomenon- the apparently effortless transposition of the rich Russia-n literary tradition into modern English fiction. This was, in itself, an exercise in genius; but the story was a rather magical demonstration of something about which I had so often dreamed, but never found: the treatment of one of the major forbidden human passions in a manner both completely sincere and absolutely legitimate. I sensed that Lolita would become the one great modern work of art to demonstrate once and for all the futility of moral censorship, and the indispensable role of passion in literature.

I immediately wrote Nabokov and we proceeded to negotiate a contract. I bowed to all the terms imposed on me, paid an advance much larger than I could afford at the time, and did not even insist on reserving for my firm a share of the eventual film rights, as is the usual practice. The truth of the matter is that I was delighted by the book itself, but I doubted that it had any of the qualities which make a best seller. Nabokov himself wrote to me that he would be deeply hurt if Lolita were to obtain a success de scandale: as the book had quite another meaning for him. He did not believe that it would ever be published in America, and he repeatedly expressed his gratitude for my acceptance of the book, as I had provided the only chance left for him ever to see it in print.

Madame Ergaz told me that Nabokov, somewhat frightened at first by the reaction of the American publishers to whom he had submitted it, was reluctant to let the book appear under his own name, and that she had had to use all her influence to make him change his mind. His career at Cornell was important to him, obviously, although he had written a number of books before, but they had all met with mediocre reception, and he did not believe that Lolita would ever pull him out of obscurity.

I wanted to print the book immediately, but, before I did, I decided that we had to obtain a number of changes from the author. On July 1, 1955, I wrote to Nabokov that the “excessive use of French sentences and words gives a slightly affected appearance to the text,” and submitted a list of suggested changes; to which he immediately responded by making numerous corrections on the proofs. I had hardly received the proofs back when Nabokov sent me a cable saying: “When is Lolita appearing. Worried. Please answer my letters…” – an entreaty which has been repeated so often in so many cables sent by so many authors to so many publishers…

Lolita appeared a few weeks later, in September 1955, but was not noticed or reviewed anywhere, and sold very poorly. It was only at the end of the next year things started to happen- strange things indeed. In an interview made by the London Times Literary Supplement, Graham Greene mentioned Lolita as one of the “three best books of the year.” That immediately provoked a demential reaction on the part of John Gordon, editor of the popular Daily Express, who accused Graham Greene and the Times of helping sell pornography of the lewdest variety. A very absurd and comical exchange followed-including even a very drunken public debate-in which Graham Greene fought gallantly and cleverly for the book; and the overall result of that commotion was to create a great deal of interest in Lolita among partisans and detractors, an infinitesimal number of whom had read the book. At the same time, I heard that one or two copies of Lolita, having been sent to persons residing in America, had been confiscated by the Customs, and then released after a few weeks, without any explanation. I decided to write to the New York Bureau of Customs to investigate, and received a rather miraculous letter signed by a Mr. Irving Fishman, Deputy Collector for the Restricted Merchandise Division, dated February 8, 1957, which said: “… You are advised that certain copies of this book have been before this Office for examination and that they have been released.” In lay language, that meant that the U.S. Customs had had the remarkable mental – and may I say political- courage of finding Lolita, a book printed in Paris by my disreputable publishing firm, admissible in the United States… That decision by one of the two Federal departments to exert moral censorship (the other being the post office) on literary material, was naturally of extreme importance: Lolita could now legitimately be published in America with practically no danger.

The third fact was of a less favorable nature at least at first sight. The British Government had several times already invoked the International Agreement on the Repression of Obscene Publications to prevail on the French Government to look into my publishing activities. Nothing much had been done about those requests by the French, until the dispute between Graham Greene and John Gordon in London gave new dimensions to the issue. More pressing demands were made on the Ministry of the Interior in Paris by the British Home Office which provoked the intervention of the French police. Lolita was thus banned in its English version by the French government (on December 20, 1956) only a few weeks before it was found to be no longer objectionable by the U.S. authorities.

My relations with Vladimir Nabokov and his wife Vera, who helped him in his work, had up to that point been remarkably courteous and pleasant, if sometimes a little strained, although we had never yet had occasion to meet. When I decided to fight the Lolita ban, my first thought was to ask for Nabokov’s help. I was rather surprised to receive a very adamant refusal to participate in what he called, with blithe unconcern, the “lolitigation.”

“My moral defense of the book is the book itself,” he wrote on March 10, 1957. “I do not feel under any obligation to do more…. On the ethical plane, it is of supreme indifference to me what opinion French, British, or any other courts, magistrates or philistine readers in general may have of my book. However, I appreciate your difficulties.”

Somewhere else he wrote: “I would very much prefer if you did not stress too much my being a professor at Cornell … I do not mind being referred to as a ‘university professor teaching literature in a great American university.’ But I would prefer you not to call Cornell by name…”

All Britain and all America were now aware of Lolita, and in the United States all the big publishers who had turned down Nabokov’s manuscript a few years before were biting their nails in chagrin. The prize was still there for any one of them to seize, but naturally there were quite a few bidders now, and the rights had to be bought from me, not from Nabokov. One publisher spontaneously offered a 20 percent royalty to get the book, but was then apparently frightened away by Nabokov’s attitude when he met him later in New York; and Nabokov’s attitude had indeed changed quite substantially as Lolita’s glory expanded on the horizon. There were no more haughty denunciations of the philistine masses coming from that supple pen, but only tortuous controversies over the terms of our agreement, which was now weighing heavily on Nabokov’s dreams of an impending fortune.

In spite of my disappointment at Nabokov’s indifference, I went on with my single-handed fight against the French authorities’ Progress was slow, as the case was most unusual, and to make the issue known to the French public I printed a pamphlet (L’Affaire Lolita) which elicited from Nabokov a volley of enthusiastic adjectives. Soon after, on August 3, he was still writing: “I shall always be grateful to you for having published Lolita.”

Alas, those were his last nice words to me. After that came more and more morose exchanges on the subject of the American publication of the book and I finally received a registered letter from Nabokov, dated October 5 of the same year “to declare the Agreement between us null and void.” I was already half prepared for that, but the shock was felt nevertheless. Nabokov’s excuse for his action was futile and ineffective, but our relationship was irreparably damaged by it, at a time when we should have been acting more than ever in close agreement. The bickering over the American contract became even more ludicrous since Nabokov had persuaded himself that he no longer had a contract with me.

At last I received a cable from Walter Minton, head of G. P. Putnam’s Sons, announcing: “Nabokov has agreed contract.” That was on February 11, 1958. A few days later I won my lawsuit against the Minister of the Interior: the ban was lifted … in France. Nabokov did not feel it necessary to acknowledge that event. In August, Putnam released their edition of Lolita, which immediately conquered the top place on the best seller list, to be dislodged only a few months later by Dr. Zhivago.

It was very gratifying, and I was receiving Minton’s crescendo reports of our successes with a feeling that I had really earned the right to relax a bit and enjoy life. But the more sales increased the more Nabokov remembered that he hated me for having stolen a portion of his property. His harassment was thorough and all-encompassing: he refused to let Putnam acknowledge my firm as first publisher of Lolita in their edition of the book; a new argument flared up over the British contract and Minton reported that Nabokov was again contemplating lawsuits (more lolitigation). I had made great plans based on my share of American royalties, but Minton was constantly writing to me that he could not pay me as agreed, due to the Nabokovs’ opposition: “They feel you did nothing to help the book and they think you have taken a lot of the royalties,” was his explanation (November 6, 1958).

I became so disgusted that I asked Nabokov to submit his ghostly grievances to arbitration. But after the British contract was signed with Weidenfeld and Nicolson, which was finally achieved when I agreed to pay Nabokov’s commission to his own agent out of my own pocket, Walter Minton again wrote to me (November 19, 1958): “I have also talked with Nabokov about the question of arbitrating your difficulties. I must confess I don’t think there is anything to arbitrate . . .” And a few days later (November 29, 1958): “Incidentally Mrs. Nabokov is highly suspicious of a tie-up between you and Weidenfeld even though I told her I picked him and you did not even meet him… Actually it is she, I think, who is at the bottom of most of the troubles between you and her husband. She is a lovely lady of a very actively suspicious turn of mind which just complements her husband’s…” Aye, aye, sir.

The next episode came when I wrote again to Nabokov on January 14, 1959, a long letter meant as an effort to dissolve the bad feelings, in which I said: – “I was greatly relieved to hear from Madame Ergaz that you see no point in the arbitration I suggested in order to eliminate the legal differences which seemed to persist between us…. Now that the legal aspect of that enigmatic conflict is happily settled, I would very much like to settle its other aspects. I am still at a loss to understand your reasons for so much resenting your association with me, and feel we should make a genuine effort to eliminate misunderstandings…” and concluded thus: “I admit that my satisfaction in having done my job well is marred by your attitude towards me. The only purpose of this letter is to ask you to think the matter over and to reconsider your judgement.” To this I received a twelve-line answer saying: “I have received your letter of January 14th. I am sorry that lack of time prevents my commenting upon it in detail…”

Three weeks later I received a letter from Minton chiding me for having given my agreement to sell the Israeli rights on Lolita to a man named Steimatzky. I had nothing to do with that as it had been Mrs. Nabokov herself who had insisted on having us offer the rights to Steimatzky. I said so but nobody thought of apologizing to me for that silly incident.

In France, since the advent of the Fifth Republic, the status of Lolita had again changed. The Minister of the Interior had appealed against the earlier judgment of the Administrative Tribunal lifting the ban, and had won an easy victory against me at the Conseil d’Etat: under a strong regime, you cannot win against the police. Lolita was again under a ban restricted in its application (by accident, I assume) to the English version as published by me. If strictly interpreted, it did not preclude the possibility of publishing a French version in France. The Librairie Gallimard- France’s foremost literary publishers-had bought the French rights long before, but they had been very hesitant to release the book, which had been translated by my brother, Eric Kahane. The release of the Putnam edition in America was a powerful argument which I used to convince Gallimard finally to publish the French version, which came out in April 1959.

I had asked Gallimard to mention in their version that my firm was the publisher of the original version, as this was very important to me in my litigation with the French government. Such an acknowledgment was a simple enough matter, but Nabokov heard of my request and opposed it violently. Gallimard’s editor, Michel Mohrt, wrote me on February 27, 1959, a pathetically embarrassed letter in which he quoted Nabokov: “You are mistaken in thinking that the French translation of Lolita has been made from the Olympia edition. This is not so. When last spring I prepared the Putnam edition I changed an entire paragraph in the Olympia edition and made several other corrections throughout the book…” Etc., etc.

I was descending the stairs of hell, feeling like the much-hated Quilty with the nuzzle of a maniacal revolver pointed at my back. However, I was still fighting. There was no way of appealing against the final judgment of the Conseil d’Etat and of having the ban lifted on the English version of the book by direct litigation: in its verdict, the Conseil had stated that the Minister of the Interior’s power not only to apply but even to interpret the law was absolute and could not be questioned even by the Conseil (a strange conclusion, incidentally, as the Conseil’s function is precisely to verify the lawful regularity of the government’s acts and decisions). But since the French version of Lolita had been authorized while my own English edition was still under a ban, I had yet another way open to me: to sue the government for damages, under the pretext that an unjust application of the law had been made, and that the republican principle of equality between citizens had been violated. Surprisingly, that worked. I was called to the Ministry of the Interior, and a compromise was proposed to me: the Minister was willing to cancel the ban if I agreed to withdraw my request for damages. I agreed and the ban was finally abrogated on July 21, 1959, signed by Mr. Maurice Bokanowski himself.

The ban had hardly been lifted in France on the English version when the Belgian government decided to forbid the sale of the French version on its own territory. Apparently, Gallimard was not in a hurry to do anything about that, and I took it upon myself to write to the Belgian Minister of the Interior, Mr. René Lefebvre, protesting against his decree. Mr. Lefebvre immediately responded to my request and wrote to me that he would look into the matter: the Belgian ban was in turn abrogated by royal decree a few weeks later.

A few days after that I received the visit of a Mr. Godemert, who acted as legal adviser to Gallimard. I knew him well, and he stated the reason for his visit with as straight a face as he could manage. Mr. Nabokov did not want to spend money on French lawyers, and had therefore asked Gallimard to see if there was any legal possibility of breaking his agreement with me. So, Godemert explained, in view of the fact that you know all the aspects of the case better than I do, I have come to ask you if you could please give me the elements of an answer, and suggest some method to attack you on Mr. Nabokov’s behalf.

We had a drink together, and I wrote to Nabokov (April 27, 1960): “I have just seen Mr. Godemert, Gallimard’s legal adviser, who came to ask on what grounds you could possibly sue me. I need hardly draw your attention to the irony of the situation,” etc.

Nabokov, meanwhile, had instructed his much-harassed agent, Doussia Ergaz, to suspend all payment to me of my share of certain foreign royalties due me as a result of our contract. I reciprocated by informing her that I would suspend payment of the royalties owed by my firm to Nabokov on our own edition. With mechanistic determination another registered letter soon issued from the tireless typewriter dated August 13, 1960, in which I was told: “I must call to your attention, therefore, that as a result of such failure and as provided in paragraph 8 of such Agreement, such Agreement between us, effective as of the last day of July, 1960, automatically became null and void and all rights therein granted reverted to me. I, therefore, demand that you immediately cease publication of Lolita and distribution and sale of any copies thereof,” etc., etc.

What could I do but patiently attempt to refute once again the fine legal metaphysics, and helplessly resort to the habitual conclusion of my letters to Vladimir Nabokov: “Allow me to say again how deeply I regret this turn of events, not only because it cannot, in the long run, fail to harm our mutual interests, but also because I consider your personal attitude to be profoundly unjust in view of my constant efforts in favor of a book which I have always admired…” Nabokov’s final consecration by the American Establishment had come in the form of a long panegyric in Life International of April 13, 1959, entitled “Lolita and the Lepidopterist” and announced by a large portrait of the author himself appearing on the cover in his butterfly-hunting costume, with the wily, innocent grin of the traditional Russian society clown painted on his face.

That article could have been conceived as a pastiche by a clever journalist of an article written for Life by Mr. Nabokov on Mr. Nabokov. In particular, the earlier career of Lolita is dismissed with a series of stylistic shrugs of strictly Nabokovian obedience but the distortion of facts was such that I sent a protest, which Life felt obliged to print in full (Life International, July 6, 1959), although they attempted to water down my pitiful true-life account of facts by framing it between two pieces of prose, the first being a letter from Vladimir Nabokov himself; and the latter being an exhaustive editorial comment which appeared as a postscript, and, which, although signed with the initials of our mysterious friend ED., seems to carry on its forehead the beautiful silver aura of Vera Nabokov’s distinguished scalp. However unjustly trying for the reader, I cannot refrain from quoting Nabokov’s letter which was obviously intended to temper the effects of Life’s reporter’s excessive adulation:

“There are two little errors in your fascinating account of me and Lolita…. In the photograph showing my brother Serge and me in boyhood he is on the left and I am on the right, and not vice versa as the caption says. And towards the end of the article I am described as being ‘startled and . . . indignant’ when my Parisian agent informed me that the Olympia Press wanted to ‘add Lolita to its list.’ I certainly was neither ‘startled’ nor ‘indignant’ since I was only interested in having the book published-no matter by whom.”

In my own letter, I had protested against Nabokov’s innuendoes concerning Lolita’s “unhappy marriage” with The Olympia Press, adding that: “Were it not for my firm, Lolita would still be a dusty manuscript in a nostalgic cupboard. I might add that I do not regret having published this admirable book; in spite of many disappointments, it has proved to be a rather exhilarating experience.” Life, in its closing comments, deemed it right to express regrets for having given “the mistaken impression that Vladimir Nabokov was ‘a little indignant’ at the Olympia Press offer to publish Lolita-an impression that Mr. Nabokov himself corrects in his letter above. As for the somewhat more important question of whether or not Olympia Press publishes pornography, it may depend upon one’s viewpoint.”

After that last scuffle, I began at last to accept the fact of the Nabokovs’ hostility as a permanent part of my difficult publisher’s life. The career of Lolita had been wonderful, and although my role was being represented in the darkest colors, I really did not mind. May I say that I was quite happy to see Nabokov pursuing his literary career so masterfully, with Pnin, Pale Fire, and the heroic translation of Eugene Onegin. Many years spent in this profession, publishing, teach you that no great writer can be less than a monster of egomania. And that seems indeed to be an absolute requisite: literary genius can only derive from superhuman concentration-and who cares if a few people are abused and hurt along the way?

Some time after the Life incident, I heard that Nabokov was coming to Paris. He wrote to my brother Eric that he was anxious to meet him to discuss the French translation of Lolita. Gallimard decided to celebrate Nabokov’s arrival in this conquered city with one of their traditional cocktail parties. I learned that a heated debate and taken place between the directors of the firm when somebody had asked whether I should be invited or not. My conflict with Nabokov was so notorious that some unpleasant incident was bound -to happen if we were ever to face each other in the flesh for the first time in the history of our relationship. Some argued that it would be unseemly to exclude me; and in the end caution prevailed, and it was decided to- eliminate my name from the guest list. But Monique Grall, Gallimard’s P.R. lady, thought it would be amusing to transgress that decision, of which she had not been properly informed. She sent me an invitation.

I was very perplexed when I received it. I did not want to embarrass my friends at Gallimard; and I did not want to look like a coward, being quite as able as anyone else to digest a punch on the nose in case of necessity. I discussed this rather exquisite point of ethics with Eric, who said that he was to meet Nabokov shortly before the party at his hotel, at his invitation, and it would be ludicrous for me to abstain; he later called from the hotel, insisting that Nabokov had showered him with compliments for his translation, and although he had not breathed a word about me, it did not seem that the old boy would be shocked to meet me. I therefore duly made my appearance in the gilded salons of the rue Sébastien-Bottin, and I must add in all proper modesty that the stupor painted on so many faces made me feel a little conspicuous. Monique Grall was doubled over in helpless mirth, in a corner, but the other Gallimard dignitaries were all rather pale, and the many press photographers present had that determined, ferocious glint in their eyes which means so much to celebrities in danger of being caught at a disadvantage.

I immediately identified Nabokov who was surrounded by a tight group of admirers; not too far away Madame Nabokov was impersonating dignity, destroying by her pale-fire presence the myth of her husband’s entomological concern for the race of nymphets. I found, hiding in a corner, my dear suffering, terrified friend Doussia Ergaz, choking on a macaroon. I asked her kindly to introduce me to the master, our master, as was her duty being our mutual friend, as well as the dea ex machina who had, with her magic wand, generated such a sumptuous train of literary facts. She at first protested, then complied. We made our way through the crowd. Nabokov was speaking to my brother in earnest, but he had very obviously recognized me. At last we reached the presence, I was introduced, expecting at all moments a blow, a screech, a slap, anything-but not that vacuous grin which is all the papperazzi were able to capture, much to their disappointment. As if he were seized by some sudden urge, Vladimir Nabokov pivoted on himself with the graceful ease of a circus seal, throwing a glance in the direction of his wife, and was immediately caught up in more ardent conversation by a Czech journalist. I was both relieved and disappointed, and I went to down a few glasses of champagne before I plunged back into the crowd, unassisted this time, in the direction of Madame Nabokov. She was standing very quiet, very self-possessed. I introduced myself, but she did not acknowledge my presence even with the flicker of an eyelash. I did not exist; I was no more than an epistolary fiction, and I had no business wearing a body and disturbing people in a literary cocktail party given in honor of her husband, Vladimir Nabokov.

The next day, Doussia Ergaz called me, chuckling with delight and relief. She had had dinner with the Nabokovs after the party, and asked Vladimir what he thought of me. “And do you know what he answered,” she added: “He said: ‘Was he there? I didn’t know.’”

But so many things have happened since then. There is nothing much now to quarrel about, and when the project of publishing a volume (of selections from books published by Olympia Press) came to be discussed with the directors of Grove Press, I told them that the only difficult author they would have to approach would be Nabokov, but that he would certainly agree after all these years, even if a little reluctantly, to let them print an excerpt from Lolita in this compendium. They said that they would try to approach Nabokov through his American publisher, Walter Minton, who obligingly accepted to forward their request. The answer was no, certainly not. I then wrote to Barney Rosset to tell Minton that if Nabokov were to persist in his refusal, I would have no choice but to write the story of our relationship. The answer came by return mail: “This is blackmail. And you know what you have to do with blackmailers: sue them.”

robert berold on laduma

Filed under: 2004 - laduma (ak thembeka),literature,reviews — ABRAXAS @ 12:13 pm

August 16, 2010

James (Arthur) Baldwin (1924-1987)

Filed under: literature — ABRAXAS @ 9:36 am

American writer, noted for his novels on sexual and personal identity, and sharp essays on civil-rights struggle in the United States. Baldwin also wrote three plays, a children’s storybook, and a book of short stories. He gained fame with his first novel, GO TELL IT ON THE MOUNTAIN (1953), a story of hidden sins, guilt, and religious torments. In this and subsequent works Baldwin fused autobiographical material with analysis of social injustice and prejudices. Several of his novels dealt with homosexual liaisons.

“If we do not now dare everything, the fulfillment of that prophecy, re-created from the Bible in song by a slave, is upon us: God gave Noah the rainbow sigh, No more water, the fire next time!” (from The Fire Next Time, 1963)

James Baldwin was born in Harlem, New York City, as the son of a domestic worker. Illegitimate, he never knew his own father and was brought up in great poverty. When he was three, his mother married a factory worker, a hard and cruel man, who also was a storefront preacher. Baldwin adopted the surname from his stepfather, who died eventually in a mental hospital in 1943. In his childhood Baldwin was a voracious reader. When he was about twelve his first story appeared in a church newspaper. At the age of 17 Baldwin left his home. After graduation from high school, he worked in several ill-paid jobs and started his literary apprenticeship.

“And it seemed to me, too, that the violence which rose all about us as my father left the world had been devised as a corrective for the pride of his eldest son, I had declined to believe in that apocalypse which had been central to my father’s vision; very well, life seemed to be saying, here is something that will certainly pass for an apocalypse until the real thing comes along. I had inclined to be contemptuous of my father for the conditions of his life, for the conditions of our lives. When his life had ended I began to wonder about that life and also, in a new way, to be apprehensive about my own.” (from Notes of a Native Son, 1955)

In the early 1940s Baldwin was in defence work in Belle Meade, New Jersey, and in 1943 he began writing full-time. His book about the store-front churches in Harlem with the photographer Theodore Pelatowski did not gain success. In 1945 he had his first encounter with the FBI, in Woodstock, where he was living in a cabin the the woods. He was interrogated by two men about a deserter. Baldwin had met him at a party, very briefly, and gave the agents the name, Teddy. Afterwards Baldwin felt like being gang-raped, “but they made me hate them, too, with a hatred like hot ice…” (from The Devil Finds Work, 1976)

Although publishers rejected his work, Baldwin’s book reviews and essays in The New Leader, The Nation, Commentary, and Partisan Review, together with the help of Richard Wright, won him a Rosenwald Fellowship in 1948. Baldwin’s strained relations with his stepfather, problems over sexual identity, suicide of a friend, and racism drove him in 1948 to Paris and London. Armed with two Bessie Smith records and a typewriter Baldwin finished the novel Go Tell It on the Mountain in Switzerland. It was followed by the play THE AMEN CORNER (1955). Baldwin lived in Europe ten years, mainly in Paris and Istanbul, and later spent long periods in New York. In 1957 he returned to the U.S. in order to become involved in the Southern school desegregation struggle.

Go Tell It on the Mountain was based on the author’s experiences as a teenage preacher in a small church. Baldwin had found release from his poor surroundings through a Pentecostal church. He was converted at age fourteen and served in the church as a minister for three years. Baldwin depicted two days in the life of the Grimes family. The 14-year- old John is a good student, religious, and sensitive. “Everyone had always said that John would be a preacher when he grew up, just like his father. It had been said so often that John, without ever thinking about it, had come to believe it himself.” He has a long series of conflicts with his brutal stepfather, Gabriel, a preacher, who had fathered an illegitimate child in his youth. His mother has her own secrets. John’s spiritual awakening unites the family but only superficially – John becomes ready to carry his own weight.

Feelings of strangeness and helpless anger troubled Baldwin during his years in Europe. In an essay, ‘Stranger in the Village’ (1953), he depicts his visit to a tiny Swiss village. He realizes that the people of the village cannot be, from the point of view of power, strangers anywhere in the world. The children consider him an exotic rarity and shout Neger! Neger! in the streets without being aware of his reaction under the smile-and-the-world-smiles-with-you routine. Despite the saluts and bonsoirs, which Baldwin changed with his neighbors, he also sees in their eyes paranoiac malevolence – there is no European innocence, and the ideas which American beliefs are based on, originated from Europe. “For this village brings home to me this fact: that there was a day, and not really a very distant day, when Americans were scarcely Americans at all but discontented Europeans, facing a great unconquered continent and strolling, say, into a marketplace and seeing black men for the first time.”

In Baldwin’s second novel, GIOVANNI’S ROOM (1956), the theme was a man’s struggle with his homosexuality. David, the narrator, tells his story on a single night. He is a young, bisexual American, Giovanni is his Italian lover, who is to be executed as a murderer, and Hella his would-be wife. “But people can’t, unhappily, invent their mooring posts, their lovers and friends, anymore than they can invent their parents. Life gives these and also takes them away and the great difficulty is to say Yes to life.” NOBODY KNOWS MY NAME (1962), a collections of essays, explored among others black-white relations in the U.S., William Faulkner’s views on segregation, and Richard Wright’s work. Wright had encouraged Baldwin when he was an aspiring writer but they never became close friends.

The book became a bestseller as THE FIRE NEXT TIME (1963), in which the author appraised the Black Muslim (Nation of Islam) movement, and warned that violence would result if white America does not change its attitudes toward black Americans. Baldwin’s reports on the civil rights activities of the 1960s made him special target of the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation, that alone accumulated a 1750-page file on him. In the title essay of NOTES OF A NATIVE SON (1955) Baldwin took examples from his own family and the Harlem riot of 1943 to describe the experience of growing up black in America. ANOTHER COUNTRY (1962), a novel, was criticized for its thin characters. The protagonist is a black jazz drummer, who kills himself in despair after disappointments in love and life.

TELL ME HOW LONG THE TRAIN’S BEEN GONE (1968) was according to Mario Puzo “a simpleminded, one-dimensional novel with mostly cardboard characters” (The New York Times, June 23, 1968). Again Baldwin had an artist as the protagonist: he is now Leo Proudhammer, a famous actor. Leo’s early years in Harlem are depicted in flashbacks. He shares in Greenwich Village a living space with a white, unmarried couple, Barbara and Jerry. Leo and Barbara become lovers but ultimately Leo gains a new life through his love for a young black militant named Christopher, a Malcolm X-like figure.

After the assassination of Martin Luther King in 1968 and drawbacks in civil-rights movement, Baldwin started bitterly to acknowledge that violence may be the only route to racial justice. Some optimism about peaceful progress would later return, but in the early 1970s he also suffered from writer’s block. “Any writer, I suppose, feels that the world into which he was born is nothing less than a conspiracy against the cultivation of his talent–which attitude certainly has a great deal to support it.” (Baldwin in Collected Essays, 1998)

In a review of Alex Haley’s novel Roots Baldwin looked the work through the possibilities of a presidential election year and stated that “the black people of this country bear a mighty responsibility–which, odd as it may sound, is nothing new–and face an immediate future as devastating, though in a different way, as the past which has led us here: I am speaking of the beginning of the end of the black diaspora, which mean that I am speaking of the beginning of the end of the world as we have suffered it until now” (The New York Times, September 26, 1976). IF BEALE STREET COULD TALK (1974) showed Baldwin’s artistic renewal in a moving and poetic love story of a young talented sculptor, Alonzo Hunt, called Fonny, and his pregnant girlfriend, Tish, the narrator. Fonny is twenty-two, Tish is nineteen. He is accused of a rape, but he is innocent, and Tish struggles to get him free. Baldwin emphasized the importance of family bonds and the simple power of love as a means of survival.

Music, which played a minor role in Go Tell It on the Mountain, moved to the fore in JUST ABOVE MY HEAD (1979), Baldwin’s sixth and longest novel. It focused on the lives of a group of friends, who start out preaching and singing in Harlem churches. Among the central characters is Arthur Montana, a gospel singer. Arthur’s story, the decline of his career, is told by his brother Hall, whose balanced middle-class life is far from the religious turmoils of the Grimes family. African American music in general influenced deeply Baldwin, which is seen also from the titles of his books and their allusions to traditional African American songs. EVIDENCE OF THE THINGS SEEN (1983) was an account of unsolved murder of 28 black children in Atlanta in 1980 and 1981. The work, written mostly as an assignment for Playboy, again disappointed the critics.

In 1983 Baldwin became Five College Professor in the Afro-American Studies department of the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. He spent his latter years in St. Paul de Vence on the Riviera, France, where he died of stomach cancer on November 30, 1987.

For further reading: The Furious Passage of James Baldwin by F. Eckman (1966); James Baldwin, ed. by Keneth Kinnamon (1974); James Baldwin, ed. by Therman O’Daniel (1975); James Baldwin, A Reference Guide by Fred L. Standley (1979); Stealing the Fire: The Art and Protest of James Baldwin by Horace A. Porter (1988); Conversations with James Baldwin, ed. Fred L. Strandley (1989); James Baldwin: The Legacy, ed. by Quincy Troupe (1989); James Baldwin: An Artist on Fire by W.J. Weatherby (1990); Talking at the Gates: A Life of James Baldwin by J. Campbell (1991); The Racial Problem in the Works of Richard Wright and James Baldwin by Jean-Francois Gounard (1993); Commitment As a Theme in African American Literature by R. Jothiprakash (1994); James Baldwin by Randall Kenan (1994); James Baldwin by Ted Gottfried (1997); Cliffsnotes Baldwin’s Go Tell It on the Mountain by Sherry Ann McNett (2000); Re-Viewing James Baldwin: Things Not Seen, ed. by D. Quentin Miller (2000); The Evidence of Things Not Said: James Baldwin and the Promise of American Democracy by Katharine Lawrence Balfour (2001); Black Manhood in James Baldwin, Ernest J. Gaines, and August Wilson by Keith Clark (2002) – American writers in Paris in the 1950s: Richard Wright, Chester Himes – See also: Baldwin and Alex Haley

Selected works:

* BLUES FOR MISTER CHARLIE, (a play, produced in 1964)
* A RAP ON RACE, 1971 (with Margaret Mead)
* COLLECTED ESSAYS, 1998 (ed. by Toni Morrison)

this article first published here

August 15, 2010


Filed under: ian martin,literature — ABRAXAS @ 9:01 pm

from The Life of Henry Fuckit, 1950-2015
by Ian Martin

“Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.”

“Yes, quite so. Most profound. Verily, it takes an atheist to plumb the depths of these arcane utterances.”


“That’s it. A disbeliever. One who denies the existence of God. Or any other deity, for that matter. Feet on the ground, clear-eyed, in possession of all his marbles. It takes an atheist to discover the usefulness hidden in these obscure statements.”

Harry Bergson would have preferred to be discussing the success of Henry’s Oxaston expedition to Namibia. Now there was irrefutable evidence: there existed a network of subterranean conduits capable of conducting telepathic messages. This was of significance to the whole of mankind. And here they were bogged down in a mishmash of psychoanalysis, philosophical conjecture, unable to move away from Henry’s obsessive preoccupation with his mental and emotional condition.

“Henry, the reason why I quote from the book of John is in order to encourage you to seek some kind of renewal. Or at least to acknowledge the necessity for renewal. I’m certainly not suggesting you become a born-again Christian. God forbid!”

He went to the window and looked out over the harbour and Simon’s Bay. It was one of those grey, early summer days when the clouds hung low and motionless. The air was humid and a hint of thunder muttered in the distance. On the concrete quay around the dry-dock he could see where a scattering of heavy drops had made dark splotches. A quiet, listless day, he thought. Hard to feel inspired on a day like this.

Henry lay back on his folding lounger and sighed languidly. (This piece of outdoor furniture was on long loan from the Officers’ Club terrace.) He was well aware that his boss’s thoughts were not concentrated on the topic of conversation. His mind was busy with Oxaston and not Henry’s pain – hence the feeling that they were talking at cross purposes.

“Harry, when I say something inside me is whimpering, like a lost puppy or a frightened child, I don’t mean it quite as figuratively as you seem to think. This is a physical sensation and it worries the hell out of me. The accumulated experiences of twenty-five years on this planet have shaken me badly. I don’t want to alarm you but I think I might well be on the verge of a nervous breakdown.” Bergson didn’t look the slightest bit alarmed so Henry continued. “It’s as if a reservoir deep within me had sprung a leak and my inner strength had seeped away. I feel vulnerable and anxious, no longer able to muster enough bravado to sneer at fate.”

Bergson strode away from the window, seated himself behind the empty expanse of office desk and fixed Henry with a hard gaze. The conversation had to be rounded up, pointed in the right direction, and herded along at a brisk pace. Or they would never reach the end of it and Oxaston would remain waiting out in the corridor forever.

“That’s why I say you’re in need of spiritual renewal. Having been in a similar condition myself I recognise the telltale signs of boredom and apathy interspersed with loathing and panic. I sincerely hope you haven’t long to wait for that critical, catalytic moment of transformation. Until it arrives you’re going to have to plod on resignedly I’m afraid. Just try not to descend too deep into the abyss before you come up.”

“The abyss.” Henry wagged a forefinger in emphasis. “Ah, the abyss. You seem to understand. It’s the black bottomless pit beneath me which causes me to quake within and whimper like…”

“Yes, Henry, yes.” Bergson pushed on, a note of urgency in his voice. Or was it impatience? “There’s no profit in it for any of us, this staring into the pit. I’ve decided to try and alleviate matters by providing you with a change of scene. I’m moving you out of Central Store down to the Verification Office. You’ll be assisting Ivan Schroder with a very interesting project exploring the philosophical aspects of quantum mechanics.”

“Quantum fucking mechanics!?” Henry had sat up and risen to his feet. “Did you say QUANTUM MECHANICS?” His eyes had a wild look in them as he leaned across the desk and thrust his shaggy features towards the Director of Naval Stores. Bergson was gratified to note the stimulating effect his words had produced. He also noted, with disdain, the sour smell of wine being breathed into his face. Ten o’clock in the morning. He coughed and covered his mouth and was relieved when Henry straightened and began to pace before the big window. “What’s quantum mechanics got to do with anything, for Christ’s sake? What do I know about quantum mechanics? Apart from what my dear old insane uncle Fritz Friedemann told me when I was no higher than two tickeys and a sixpence?” The cogs of his mind meshed together and began to turn with Rolls Royce dependability. “Yes, it was way back, in the study at Ingachini, in the earliest days of my tender youth, uncle Fritz actually had quite a lot to say about quantum theory, now I come to think of it.” His eyes had become glazed and unseeing like those of a freshly landed snoek just after its neck has been broken. Hands in pockets he stood facing the drab green ocean beyond the Eastern Mole. Blind to the rapid progress being made by the SAS President Kruger and oblivious to impending drama about to be played out below him, he began to dredge his memory.

“It’s all about subatomic particles and man’s pathological drive to describe, define and classify. Started with the ultraviolet catastrophe back in 1900 when some experimental results differed from theoretical expectations. Threw a spanner in the works, it did. They used to think the energy emitted in electromagnetic radiation occurred as a wave-like flow. Then along came Max Planck with his theory that, yes, energy was a wave-like flow, BUT, at the same time it was a stream of particles which could be measured as individual packets. He called these packets quanta. According to my Uncle Fritz this was terribly perplexing because it didn’t take a genius to ask the obvious question, how can energy be a wave and a particle AT THE SAME FUCKING TIME? Some smart-arse English egghead even suggested that the electron is a particle on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, and a wave on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Hilarious, isn’t it?”

Over the five years of their acquaintance Harry Bergson had grown accustomed to the encyclopaedic breadth of the Fuckit store of knowledge. Even so, he was not a little surprised and amused at how much Henry seemed to have learnt from his boyhood mentor about this particular topic of speculation.

“Did your learned uncle have anything to say about Niels Bohr or Werner Heisenberg?”

“Mmmm.” The SAS Kruger had made its turn and was about to enter the calm waters of the harbour. At the back of Henry’s brain a voice was murmuring something about knots, pilots and tugs. “Ah, I think I might have picked up your tracks, Harry. I’m beginning to suspect quantum mechanics could well have something to do with Oxyaston and global telepathic communication. Wasn’t Heisenberg the one with the uncertainty principle?”

“Well done! Now we’re getting somewhere. It’s not possible to be certain about the position and velocity of a particle at any one moment. Nor its position and momentum. More importantly, there can be no certainty about energy and time when examined simultaneously. Certainty lies with the one or the other – not both. Which means that Science moves from being a discipline of certainties to one of probabilities. If one is unable to identify a particle positively and unable to be sure what will become of it in the future, one cannot say whether or not it is obeying the law of cause and effect.”

“Resulting in a fundamental breakdown in our ability to define the world around us. Sorry to interrupt the train of thought Harry, but do come and look at this. Jesus! I can say with one hundred percent certainty we’re about to witness a fuckeration of catastrophic proportion.”

Bergson joined him at the window in time to see half the crew of the frigate diving overboard in a vote of no confidence in their commanding officer, Captain Fanie Plaasboer. The churned up foaming water at the stern of the ship indicated a sincere desire to halt forward passage by reverse propulsion from the screws. When the bow hit the quayside just to the east of the caisson the ship was travelling at six and a half knots. Up on the second floor of the Central Store Henry Fuckit and Harry Bergson experienced the impact as a tremor powerful enough to rattle the window. The horrible thud and the shriek of tearing metal came to their ears and elicited a gasp from the one and a groan from the other.

“Unbelievable!” shouted Henry. “This must be a once-in-a-lifetime experience. To actually have seen this colossal fuck-up play out in front of our very eyes! The art of coarse docking performed for our benefit. What an unmitigated arsehole! What a command performance!” He was laughing and punching the palm of his left hand and then clasping his head as if it might burst.

“The tragedy is in the aftermath, not the immediate action. Action, action. We’ve just witnessed an action scene. But the cost!” Bergson too was speaking in raised tones. Henry’s excitement was of the manic type whilst the older man was boiling over with anger. “That criminal buffoon couldn’t command a rowing boat, let alone a modern warship. And this isn’t the first time he’s tried it.”

As they descended in the lift and joined the throng of Dockyard workers hurrying to the scene of the disaster, Burgson offered an explanation of what had occurred. In the days when the RN had still used Simonstown there had been a certain Captain Arbuthnot of the HMS Daring who had inspired many with his displays of nautical skill. With a sure confidence in his vessel, his crew and his own ability, he had, on no less than four occasions, steamed into port without assistance from pilot or tug. With precise timing he barked out his orders. The bells rang, the water churned, the wheel spun and the ship would slow to a halt, gently drifting broadside to the quay.

“And I suppose this Dutchman thought he could do the same.” Henry shook his head in contemptuous disbelief.

“Exactly. The first time he tried it he nearly ran aground on Admiralty Beach. The second time he was intercepted by three tugboats and several launches. But this time …” Bergson left the sentence unfinished.

The dead and injured were being loaded into ambulances and the President Kruger settled a little lower in the water. Then the ship’s Tannoy crackled and the familiar strains of Die Stem came wafting in a slow goose-step over the crowd. Ons vir jou, Suid-Afrika. Some of them were even standing to attention. Jesus. Fok Suid-Afrika. This was actually bloody amusing and yet, as the man said, at what cost? Henry’s earlier mood, which had been dispelled by quantum mechanics and then this fiasco, slowly began to return and weigh down upon him. He tried to remind himself that life was a joke, or a series of jokes, and he wasn’t supposed to dwell on the irony which made the joke work. He was just supposed to laugh. Was he losing his sense of humour?

Ian Martin’s controversial novel Pop-splat is now available from http://www.pop-splat.co.za.

boris vian’s i spit on your graves reviewed by ken wohlrob

Filed under: literature — ABRAXAS @ 12:01 pm

When Jean d’ Halluin first published I Spit On Your Graves in 1946, he was looking for a bestseller to kickstart his new imprint, Editions du Scorpion. Written by an African-American writer named Vernon Sullivan, the book was a visceral, often misogynistic, and (once it gets rolling) violent pulp novel offering a gritty commentary on racial injustice in the United States.

The plot centered on Lee Anderson, a light skinned black man seeking revenge for the murder of his brother at the hands of whites. Anderson, takes his revenge by infiltrating southern society as a white man (he has light skin and blond hair), bedding every white woman he can, and ultimately selecting two of those women to murder as payback for his brother’s death. Despite being considered too controversial and subversive for U.S. publishers, the French public devoured the novel. By 1947, it outsold work by Sartre and Camus, giving d’ Halluin the bestseller he craved.

That alone would’ve made for interesting literary history. But there was more to the story…

Vernon Sullivan never tried to have the book published in the United States.

Vernon Sullivan did not exist. I Spit On Your Graves was in fact written by a Frenchman. A white Frenchman. Said Frenchman had never actually visited the United States.

Then there was the law suit filed against the author by Cartel d’action sociale et morale, the same right wing organization that tried to censor the work of Henry Miller.

Last but not least, there was the grisly murder committed by a Parisian man who strangled his mistress. The authorities discovered a copy of I Spit On Your Graves at the scene of the crime with a part where Lee Anderson dispatches one of his victims circled.

Hence its bestseller status. Who didn’t want to read the “murder book,” as the introduction Marc Lapprand calls it?

And then of course, there was the bigger question: what if the book was not about racial injustice at all?

On the surface, I Spit On Your Graves is a pulpy, not expertly written tale of murder and sex. And upon first reading, I Spit On Your Graves comes across as that – a cheap pulp mystery, lacking only the cover illustration of a woman screaming, hands raised against her face, as an unseen stalker comes at her with a knife.

It is overflowing with graphic sex (for it’s time) where Lee takes the female characters in every scenario imaginable (barring midgets and donkeys). At first one would take it as a sub-par Tropic of Cancer, except that the reader’s knowledge of Lee’s racial identity gives the book a taboo that is non-existent in Miller’s novels. Lee gets his hands on every white woman he possibly can, and they are all to willing to be taken, even if they don’t admit it at first (as is the case with Lou Asquith). As Lee relates early on in the story, “I had all the girls, one after the other, but it was a bit too easy, it turned my stomach.” It comes off like a line from a 70s Blaxploitation film. And in many ways, I Spit On Your Graves reads like a Blaxploitation script. However, as the book goes on Lee flips from bragging of his conquests to being disgusted at how far he has sunk to achieve his revenge. He becomes increasingly sickened by his seduction of the Asquith girls and this drives him further towards the violent outcome.

And that is where the book starts to turn from pure pulp sadism and gratuitous sex into a more layered, psychological exploration. We know Lee is seeking revenge. We know he is going to kill. It is only a matter of time and the reader is forced to travel down the road, dragged further and further into Lee’s madness, strapped in, unable to change the course.

Keep in mind, Vian was no pulp writer. He was a contemporary of Sartre and Camus, who wrote the incredibly well received Froth on the Daydream (also translated as Foam of the Daze). He was also a translator, poet, music, critic, and jazz musician who was close with Duke Ellington and Miles Davis.

In many ways, it is similar to Brett Easton Ellis’ American Psycho, forcing you to see the world of the book through the eyes of a very twisted and violent narrator. We immediately find ourselves repulsed by the narrator’s narcissism, their ruthlessness, and most importantly their penchant for extremely grisly acts. And yet, it is this grotesque, amped, psychotic, bloodthirsty humanity that captivates us.

I’m not the first person to make such a comparison between these two books. However, there is a major difference between them. Whereas Ellis was satirizing society, specifically the Reagan-worshipping stockbrokers of the 80s, Vian was going deeper – he was satirizing publishing and ultimately, the reader.

After all, sex and murder were rampant in novels published circa 1946. Both are still widely used as devices and plot points today. In fact, one could argue that both are necessary lynchpins of all modern literature. Sex and death is what it’s all about.

The book is so overly violent and misogynist because Vian is parodying pulp writing, a form very prevalent in post-war France when he wrote I Spit On Your Graves. Like Swift’s A Modest Proposal, it takes the argument to its fullest extreme, giving readers the ultimate in literary-noir: a story so extremely violent and disgusting to modern thinking that the reader can’t put it down.

Much has been said about the social commentary perceived within I Spit On Your Graves. Of this one can look literally. Lee, a black man who’s brother was murdered by whites, seeks revenge by wreaking havoc on white society. In the end however, without giving anything away, there is no justice for Lee. So it is easy to see I Spit On Your Graves as a biting commentary on racial injustice in America during the 20th Century.

But in many ways, Vian is still having his fun with us. After all, he’s not trying to convince us that Lee is an unfortunate character of racial injustice that we should pity. He’s getting us to hate Lee Anderson in spite of his quest for justice. After all, Vian’s audience was white, educated, French society. And it is Lee’s racial identity, his status as `black’ that made (and still makes the book) so controversial. If Lee was a white man bedding a bunch of women and then murdering two of them, it would be a Harry Crews novel. Vian however spins the tables, serving up a tale of a violent, lustful black man out for revenge, one that horrifies and yet draws us in, convincing a repulsed and outraged public to keep on reading. Ultimately the joke is on us. We are thinking of racial injustice, clinging to the social message seemingly contained within the book, and yet it is the titillating bits – the sex and death – that keep us reading. Swift would’ve been proud.

james baldwin – sonny’s blues (extract)

Filed under: literature,music — ABRAXAS @ 5:51 am

One Saturday afternoon, when Sonny had been living with us, or anyway, been in our house, for nearly two weeks, I found myself wandering aimlessly about the living room, drinking from a can of beer, and trying to work up courage to search Sonny’s room. He was out, he was usually out whenever I was home, and Isabel had taken the children to see their grandparents. Suddenly I was standing still in front of the living room window, watching Seventh Avenue. The idea of searching Sonny’s room made me still. I scarcely dared to admit to myself what I’d be searching for. I didn’t know what I’d do if I found it. Or if I didn’t.

On the sidewalk across from me, near the entrance to a barbecue joint, some people were holding an old-fashioned revival meeting. The barbecue cook, wearing a dirty white apron, his conked hair reddish and metallic in the pale sun, and a cigarette between his lips, stood in the doorway, watching them. Kids and older people paused in their errands and stood there, along with some older men and a couple of very tough-looking women who watched everything that happened on the avenue, as though they owned it, or were maybe owned by it. Well, they were watching this, too. The revival was being carried on by three sisters in black, and a brother. All they had were their voices and their Bibles and a tambourine. The brother was testifying and while he testified two of the sisters stood together, seeming to say, amen, and the third sister walked around with the tambourine outstretched and a couple of people dropped coins into it. Then the brother’s testimony ended and the sister who had been taking up the collection dumped the coins into her palm and transferred them to the pocket of her long black robe. Then she raised both hands, striking the tambourine against the air, and then against one hand, and she started to sing. And the two other sisters and the brother joined in.

It was strange, suddenly, to watch, though I had been seeing these meetings all my life. So, of course, had everybody else down there. Yet, they paused and watched and listened and I stood still at the window. “‘Tis the old ship of Zion,” they sang, and the sister with the tambourine kept a steady, jangling beat, “it has rescued many a thousand!” Not a soul under the sound of their voices was hearing this song for the first time, not one of them had been rescued. Nor had they seen much in the way of rescue work being done around them. Neither did they especially believe in the holiness of the three sisters and the brother, they knew too much about them, knew where they lived, and how. The woman with the tambourine, whose voice dominated the air, whose face was bright with joy, was divided by very little from the woman who stood watching her, a cigarette between her heavy, chapped lips, her hair a cuckoo’s nest, her face scarred and swollen from many beatings, and her black eyes glittering like coal. Perhaps they both knew this, which was why, when, as rarely, they addressed each other, they addressed each other as Sister. As the singing filled the air the watching, listening faces underwent a change, the eyes focusing on something within; the music seemed to soothe a poison out of them; and time seemed, nearly, to fall away from the sullen, belligerent, battered faces, as though they were fleeing back to their first condition, while dreaming of their last. The barbecue cook half shook his head and smiled, and dropped his cigarette and disappeared into his joint. A man fumbled in his pockets for change and stood holding it in his hand impatiently, as though he had just remembered a pressing appointment further up the avenue. He looked furious. Then I saw Sonny, standing on the edge of the crowd. He was carrying a wide, flat notebook with a green cover, and it made him look, from where I was standing, almost like a schoolboy. The coppery sun brought out the copper in his skin, he was very faintly smiling, standing very still. Then the singing stopped, the tambourine turned into a collection plate again. The furious man dropped in his coins and vanished, so did a couple of the women, and Sonny dropped some change in the plate, looking directly at the woman with a little smile. He started across the avenue, toward the house. He has a slow, loping walk, something like the way Harlem hipsters walk, only he’s imposed on this his own half-beat. I had never really noticed it before.

I stayed at the window, both relieved and apprehensive. As Sonny disappeared from my sight, they began singing again. And they were still singing when his key turned in the lock.
“Hey,” he said.
“Hey, yourself. You want some beer?”
“No. Well, maybe.” But he came up to the window and stood beside me, looking out. “What a
warm voice,” he said.
They were singing If I could only hear my mother pray again!
“Yes,” I said, “and she can sure beat that tambourine.”
“But what a terrible song,” he said, and laughed. He dropped his notebook on the sofa and
disappeared into the kitchen. “Where’s Isabel and the kids?”
“I think they want to see their grandparents. You hungry?”
“No.” He came back into the living room with his can of beer. “You want to come some place
with me tonight?”
I sensed, I don’t know how, that I couldn’t possibly say no. “Sure. Where?”
He sat down on the sofa and picked up his notebook and started leafing through it. “I’m going to sit in with some fellows in a joint in the Village.”
“You mean, you’re going to play, tonight?”
“That’s right.” He took a swallow of his beer and moved back to the window. He gave me a sidelong look. “If you can stand it.”
“I’ll try,” I said.

He smiled to himself and we both watched as the meeting across the way broke up. The three sisters and the brother, heads bowed, were singing God be with you till we meet again. The faces around them were very quiet. Then the song ended. The small crowd dispersed. We watched the three women and the lone man walk slowly up the avenue.

“When she was singing before,” said Sonny, abruptly, “her voice reminded me for a minute of what heroin feels like sometimes-when it’s in your veins. It makes you feel sort of warm and cool at the same time. And distant. And- and sure.” He sipped his beer, very deliberately not looking at me. I watched his face. “It makes you feel-in control. Sometimes you’ve got to have that feeling.”

“Do you?” I sat down slowly in the easy chair.
“Sometimes.” He went to the sofa and picked up his notebook again. “Some people do.”
“In order,” I asked, “to play?” And my voice was very ugly, full of contempt and anger.

“Well”-he looked at me with great, troubled eyes, as though, in fact, he hoped his eyes would tell me things he could never otherwise say-”they think so. And if they think so-!”
“And what do you think?” I asked.

He sat on the sofa and put his can of beer on the floor. “I don’t know,” he said, and I couldn’t be sure if he were answering my question or pursuing his thoughts. His face didn’t tell me. “It’s not so much to play. It’s to stand it, to be able to make it at all. On any level.” He frowned and smiled: “In order to keep from shaking to pieces.”

“But these friends of yours,” I said, “they seem to shake themselves to pieces pretty goddamn fast.”

“Maybe.” He played with the notebook. And something told me that I should curb my tongue, that Sonny was doing his best to talk, that I should listen. “But of course you only know the ones that’ve gone to pieces. Some don’t-or at least they haven’t yet and that’s just about all any of us can say.” He paused. “And then there are some who just live, really, in hell, and they know it and they see what’s happening and they go right on. I don’t know.” He sighed, dropped the notebook, folded his arms. “Some guys, you can tell from the way they play, they on something all the time. And you can see that, well, it makes something real for them. But of course,” he picked up his beer from the floor and sipped it and put the can down again, “they want to, too, you’ve got to see that. Even some of them that say they don’tsome, not all.”

“And what about you?” I asked-I couldn’t help it. “What about you? Do you want to?”

He stood up and walked to the window and I remained silent for a long time. Then he sighed. “Me,” he said. Then: “While I was downstairs before, on my way here, listening to that woman sing, it struck me all of a sudden how much suffering she must have had to go through-to sing like that. It’s repulsive to think you have to suffer that much.”

I said: “But there’s no way not to suffer-is there. Sonny?”

“I believe not,” he said and smiled, “but that’s never stopped anyone from trying.” He looked at me. “Has it?” I realized, with this mocking look, that there stood between us, forever, beyond the power of time or forgiveness, the fact that I had held silence-so long!-when he had needed human speech to help him. He turned back to the window. “No, there’s no way not to suffer. But you try all kinds of ways to keep from drowning in it, to keep on top of it, and to make it seem-well, like you. Like you did something, all right, and now you’re suffering for it. You know?” I said nothing. “Well you know,” he said, impatiently, “why do people suffer? Maybe it’s better to do something to give it a reason, any reason.”

“But we just agreed,” I said, “that there’s no way not to suffer. Isn’t it better, then, just to-take
“But nobody just takes it,” Sonny cried, “that’s what I’m telling you! Everybody tries not to.
You’re just hung up on the way some people try-it’s not your way!”

The hair on my face began to itch, my face felt wet. “That’s not true,” I said, “that’s not true. I don’t give a damn what other people do, I don’t even care how they suffer. I just care how you suffer.” And he looked at me. “Please believe me,” I said, “I don’t want to see you-die trying not to suffer.”

“I won’t,” he said flatly, “die trying not to suffer. At least, not any faster than anybody else.”
“But there’s no need,” I said, trying to laugh, “is there? in killing yourself.”

I wanted to say more, but I couldn’t. I wanted to talk about will power and how life could be well, beautiful. I wanted to say that it was all within; but was it? or, rather, wasn’t that exactly the trouble? And I wanted to promise that I would never fail him again. But it would all have sounded-empty words and lies.

So I made the promise to myself and prayed that I would keep it.

“It’s terrible sometimes, inside,” he said, “that’s what’s the trouble. You walk these streets, black and funky and cold, and there’s not really a living ass to talk to, and there’s nothing shaking, and there’s no way of getting it out- that storm inside. You can’t talk it and you can’t make love with it, and when you finally try to get with it and play it, you realize nobody’s listening. So you’ve got to listen. You got to find a way to listen.”

And then he walked away from the window and sat on the sofa again, as though all the wind had suddenly been knocked out of him. “Sometimes you’ll do anything to play, even cut your mother’s throat.” He laughed and looked at me. “Or your brother’s.” Then he sobered. “Or your own.” Then: “Don’t worry. I’m all right now and I think I’ll be all right. But I can’t forget where I’ve been. I don’t mean just the physical place I’ve been, I mean where I’ve been. And what I’ve been.”

“What have you been, Sonny?” I asked.

He smiled-but sat sideways on the sofa, his elbow resting on the back, his fingers playing with his mouth and chin, not looking at me. “I’ve been something I didn’t recognize, didn’t know I could be. Didn’t know anybody could be.” He stopped, looking inward, looking helplessly young, looking old. “I’m not talking about it now because I feel guilty or anything like that-maybe it would be better if I did, I don’t know. Anyway, I can’t really talk about it. Not to you, not to anybody,” and now he turned and faced me. “Sometimes, you know, and it was actually when I was most out of the world, I felt that I was in it, that I was with it, really, and I could play or I didn’t really have to play, it just came out of me, it was there. And I don’t know how I played, thinking about it now, but I know I did awful things, those times, sometimes, to people. Or it wasn’t that I did anything to them-it was that they weren’t real.” He picked up the beer can; it was empty; he rolled it between his palms: “And other times-well, I needed a fix, I needed to find a place to lean, I needed to clear a space to listen-and I couldn’t find it, and I-went crazy, I did terrible things to me, I was terrible for me.” He began pressing the beer can between his hands, I watched the metal begin to give. It glittered, as he played with it like a knife, and I was afraid he would cut himself, but I said nothing. “Oh well. I can never tell you. I was all by myself at the bottom of something, stinking and sweating and crying and shaking, and I smelled it, you know? my stink, and I thought I’d die if I couldn’t get away from it and yet, all the same, I knew that everything I was doing was just locking me in with it. And I didn’t know,” he paused, still flattening the beer can, “I didn’t know, I still don’t know, something kept telling me that maybe it was good to smell your own stink, but I didn’t think that that was what I’d been trying to do- and-who can stand it?” and he abruptly dropped the ruined beer can, looking at me with a small, still smile, and then rose, walking to the window as though it were the lodestone rock. I watched his face, he watched the avenue. “I couldn’t tell you when Mama died-but the reason I wanted to leave Harlem so bad was to get away from drugs. And then, when I ran away, that’s what I was running from-really. When I came back, nothing had changed I hadn’t changed I was just-older.” And he stopped, drumming with his fingers on the windowpane. The sun had vanished, soon darkness would fall. I watched his face. “It can come again,” he said, almost as though speaking to himself. Then he turned to me. “It can come again,” he repeated. “I just want you to know that.”

“All right,” I said, at last. “So it can come again. All right.”
He smiled, but the smile was sorrowful. “I had to try to tell you,” he said.
“Yes,” I said. “I understand that.”
“You’re my brother,” he said, looking straight at me, and not smiling at all.
“Yes,” I repeated, “yes. I understand that.”

He turned back to the window, looking out. “All that hatred down there,” he said, “all that hatred and misery and love. It’s a wonder it doesn’t blow the avenue apart.”

We went to the only nightclub on a short, dark street, downtown. We squeezed through the narrow, chattering, jampacked bar to the entrance of the big room, where the bandstand was. And we stood there for a moment for the lights were very dim in this room and we couldn’t see. Then, “Hello, boy ” said the voice and an enormous black man, much older than Sonny or myself, erupted out of all that atmospheric lighting and put an arm around Sonny’s shoulder. “I been sitting right here,” he said, “waiting for you.”

He had a big voice, too, and heads in the darkness turned toward us.

Sonny grinned and pulled a little away, and said, “Creole, this is my brother. I told you about him.”

Creole shook my hand. “I’m glad to meet you, son,” he said and it was clear that he was glad to meet me there, for Sonny’s sake. And he smiled, “You got a real musician in your family,” and he took his arm from Sonny’s shoulder and slapped him, lightly, affectionately, with the back of his hand.

“Well. Now I’ve heard it all,” said a voice behind us. This was another musician, and a friend of Sonny’s, a coal-black, cheerful-looking man built close to the ground. He immediately began confiding to me, at the top of his lungs, the most terrible things about Sonny, his teeth gleaming like a lighthouse and his laugh coming up out of him like the beginning of an earthquake. And it turned out that everyone at the bar knew Sonny, or almost everyone some were musicians, working there, or nearby, or not working, some were simply hangerson, and some were there to hear Sonny play. I was introduced to all of them and they were all very polite to me. Yet, it was clear that, for them I was only Sonny’s brother. Here, I was in Sonny’s world. Or, rather: his kingdom. Here, it was not even a question that his veins bore royal blood.

They were going to play soon and Creole installed me, by myself, at a table in a dark corner. Then I watched them, Creole, and the little black man and Sonny, and the others, while they horsed around, standing just below the bandstand. The light from the bandstand spilled just a little short of them and watching them laughing and gesturing and moving about, I had the feeling that they, nevertheless, were being most careful not to step into that circle of light too suddenly; that if they moved into the light too suddenly, without thinking, they would perish in flame. Then, while I watched, one of them, the small black man, moved into the light and crossed the bandstand and started fooling around with his drums. Then-being funny and being, also, extremely ceremonious- Creole took Sonny by the arm and led him to the piano. A woman’s voice called Sonny’s name and a few hands started clapping. And Sonny, also being funny and being ceremonious, and so touched, I think, that he could have cried, but neither hiding it nor showing it, riding it like a man, grinned, and put both hands to his heart and bowed from the waist.

Creole then went to the bass fiddle and a lean, very bright-skinned brown man jumped up on the bandstand and picked up his horn. So there they were, and the atmosphere on the bandstand and in the room began to change and tighten. Someone stepped up to the microphone and announced them. Then there were all kinds of murmurs. Some people at the bar shushed others. The waitress ran around, frantically getting in the last orders, guys and chicks got closer to each other, and the lights on the bandstand, on the quartet, turned to a kind of indigo. Then they all looked different there. Creole looked about him for the last time, as though he were making certain that all his chickens were in the coop, and then he jumped and struck the fiddle. And there they were.

All I know about music is that not many people ever really hear it. And even then, on the rare occasions when something opens within, and the music enters, what we mainly hear, or hear corroborated, are personal, private, vanishing evocations. But the man who creates the music is hearing something else, is dealing with the roar rising from the void and imposing order on it as it hits the air. What is evoked in him, then, is of another order, more terrible because it has no words, and triumphant, too, for that same reason. And his triumph, when he triumphs, is ours. I just watched Sonny’s face. His face was troubled, he was working hard, but he wasn’t with it. And I had the feeling that, in a way, everyone on the bandstand was waiting for him, both waiting for him and pushing him along. But as I began to watch Creole, I realized that it was Creole who held them all back. He had them on a short rein. Up
there, keeping the beat with his whole body, wailing on the fiddle, with his eyes half closed, he was listening to everything, but he was listening to Sonny. He was having a dialogue with Sonny. He wanted Sonny to leave the shoreline and strike out for the deep water. He was Sonny’s witness that deep water and drowning were not the same thing-he had been there, and he knew. And he wanted Sonny to know. He was waiting for Sonny to do the things on the keys which would let Creole know that Sonny was in the water.

And, while Creole listened, Sonny moved, deep within, exactly like someone in torment. I had never before thought of how awful the relationship must be between the musician and his instrument. He has to fill it, this instrument, with the breath of life, his own. He has to make it do what he wants it to do. And a piano is just a piano. It’s made out of so much wood and wires and little hammers and big ones, and ivory. While there’s only so much you can do with it, the only way to find this out is to try; to try and make it do everything.

And Sonny hadn’t been near a piano for over a year. And he wasn’t on much better terms with his life, not the life that stretched before him now. He and the piano stammered, started one way, got scared, stopped; started another way, panicked, marked time, started again; then seemed to have found a direction, panicked again, got stuck. And the face I saw on Sonny I’d never seen before. Everything had been burned out of it, and, at the same time, things usually hidden were being burned in, by the fire and fury of the battle which was occurring in him up there.

Yet, watching Creole’s face as they neared the end of the first set, I had the feeling that something had happened, something I hadn’t heard. Then they finished, there was scattered applause, and then, without an instant’s warning, Creole started into something else, it was almost sardonic, it was Am I Blue? And, as though he commanded, Sonny began to play. Something began to happen. And Creole let out the reins. The dry, low, black man said something awful on the drums, Creole answered, and the drums talked back. Then the horn insisted, sweet and high, slightly detached perhaps, and Creole listened, commenting now and then, dry, and driving, beautiful and calm and old. Then they all came together again, and Sonny was part of the family again. I could tell this from his face. He seemed to have found, right there beneath his fingers, a damn brand-new piano. It seemed that he couldn’t get over it. Then, for a while, just being happy with Sonny, they seemed to be agreeing with him that brand-new pianos certainly were a gas.

Then Creole stepped forward to remind them that what they were playing was the blues. He hit something in all of them, he hit something in me, myself, and the music tightened and deepened, apprehension began to beat the air. Creole began to tell us what the blues were all about. They were not about anything very new. He and his boys up there were keeping it new, at the risk of ruin, destruction, madness, and death, in order to find new ways to make
us listen. For, while the tale of how we suffer, and how we are delighted, and how we may triumph is never new, it always must be heard. There isn’t any other tale to tell, it’s the only light we’ve got in all this darkness.

And this tale, according to that face, that body, those strong hands on those strings, has another aspect in every country, and a new depth in every generation. Listen, Creole seemed to be saying, listen. Now these are Sonny’s blues. He made the little black man on the drums know it, and the bright, brown man on the horn. Creole wasn’t trying any longer to get Sonny in the water. He was wishing him Godspeed. Then he stepped back, very slowly, filling the air with the immense suggestion that Sonny speak for himself.

Then they all gathered around Sonny and Sonny played. Every now and again one of them seemed to say, amen. Sonny’s fingers filled the air with life, his life. But that life contained so many others. And Sonny went all the way back, he really began with the spare, flat statement of the opening phrase of the song. Then he began to make it his. It was very beautiful because it wasn’t hurried and it was no longer a lament. I seemed to hear with what burning he had made it his, and what burning we had yet to make it ours, how we could cease lamenting. Freedom lurked around us and I understood, at last, that he could help us to be free if we would listen, that he would never be free until we did. Yet, there was no battle in his face now, I heard what he had gone through, and would continue to go through until he came to rest in earth. He had made it his: that long line, of which we knew only Mama and Daddy. And he was giving it back, as everything must be given back, so that, passing through death, it can live forever. I saw my mother’s face again, and felt, for the first time, how the stones of the road she had walked on must have bruised her feet. I saw the moonlit road where my father’s brother died. And it brought something else back to me, and carried me past it, I saw my little girl again and felt Isabel’s tears again, and I felt my own tears begin to rise. And I was yet aware that this was only a moment, that the world waited outside, as hungry as a tiger, and that trouble stretched above us, longer than the sky.

Then it was over. Creole and Sonny let out their breath, both soaking wet, and grinning. There was a lot of applause and some of it was real. In the dark, the girl came by and I asked her to take drinks to the bandstand. There was a long pause, while they talked up there in the indigo light and after awhile I saw the girl put a Scotch and milk on top of the piano for Sonny. He didn’t seem to notice it, but just before they started playing again, he sipped from it and looked toward me, and nodded. Then he put it back on top of the piano. For me, then, as they began to play again, it glowed and shook above my brother’s head like the very cup of trembling.

August 11, 2010

An extract from Point Omega by don delillo


Late Summer/Early Fall


September 3

There was a man standing against the north wall, barely visible. People entered in twos and threes and they stood in the dark and looked at the screen and then they left. Sometimes they hardly moved past the doorway, larger groups wandering in, tourists in a daze, and they looked and shifted their weight and then they left.

There were no seats in the gallery. The screen was freestanding, about ten by fourteen feet, not elevated, placed in the middle of the room. it was a translucent screen and some people, a few, remained long enough to drift to the other side. They stayed a moment longer and then they left.

The gallery was cold and lighted only by the faint gray shimmer on the screen. back by the north wall the darkness was nearly complete and the man standing alone moved a hand toward his face, repeating, ever so slowly, the action of a figure on the screen. When the gallery door slid open and people entered, there was a glancing light from the area beyond, where others were gathered, at some distance, browsing the art books and postcards.

The film ran without dialogue or music, no soundtrack at all. The museum guard stood just inside the door and people leaving sometimes looked at him, seeking eye contact, some kind of understanding that might pass between them and make their bafflement valid. There were other galleries, entire floors, no point lingering in a secluded room in which whatever was happening took forever to happen.

The man at the wall watched the screen and then began to move along the adjacent wall to the other side of the screen so he could watch the same action in a flipped image. He watched Anthony Perkins reaching for a car door, using the right hand. He knew that Anthony Perkins would use the right hand on this side of the screen and the left hand on the other side. He knew it but needed to see it and he moved through the darkness along the side wall and then edged away a few feet to watch Anthony Perkins on this side of the screen, the reverse side, Anthony Perkins using the left hand, the wrong hand, to reach for a car door and then open it.

But could he call the left hand the wrong hand? because what made this side of the screen any less truthful than the other side?

The guard was joined by another guard and they spoke awhile quietly as the automatic door slid open and people came in, with kids, without, and the man went back to his place at the wall, where he stood motionless now, watching Anthony Perkins turn his head.

The slightest camera movement was a profound shift in space and time but the camera was not moving now. Anthony Perkins is turning his head. it was like whole numbers. The man could count the gradations in the movement of Anthony Perkins’ head. Anthony Perkins turns his head in five incremental movements rather than one continuous motion. it was like bricks in a wall, clearly countable, not like the flight of an arrow or a bird. Then again it was not like or unlike anything. Anthony Perkins’ head swiveling over time on his long thin neck.

It was only the closest watching that yielded this perception. He found himself undistracted for some minutes by the coming and going of others and he was able to look at the film with the degree of intensity that was required. The nature of the film permitted total concentration and also depended on it. The film’s merciless pacing had no meaning without a corresponding watchfulness, the individual whose absolute alertness did not betray what was demanded. He stood and looked. in the time it took for Anthony Perkins to turn his head, there seemed to flow an array of ideas involving science and philosophy and nameless other things, or maybe he was seeing too much. but it was impossible to see too much. The less there was to see, the harder he looked, the more he saw. This was the point. To see what’s here, finally to look and to know you’re looking, to feel time passing, to be alive to what is happening in the smallest registers of motion.

Everybody remembers the killer’s name, Norman Bates, but nobody remembers the victim’s name. Anthony Perkins is Norman Bates, Janet Leigh is Janet Leigh. The victim is required to share the name of the actress who plays her. it is Janet Leigh who enters the remote motel owned by Norman Bates.

He’d been standing for more than three hours, looking. This was the fifth straight day he’d come here and it was the next-to-last day before the installation shut down and went to another city or was placed in obscure storage somewhere.

No one entering seemed to know what to expect and surely no one expected this.

The original movie had been slowed to a running time of twenty-four hours. What he was watching seemed pure film, pure time. The broad horror of the old gothic movie was subsumed in time. How long would he have to stand here, how many weeks or months, before the film’s time scheme absorbed his own, or had this already begun to happen? He approached the screen and stood about a foot away, seeing snatches and staticky fragments, flurries of trembling light. He walked around the screen several times. The gallery was empty now and he was able to stand at various angles and points of separation. He walked backwards looking, always, at the screen. He understood completely why the film was projected without sound. it had to be silent. it had to engage the individual at a depth beyond the usual assumptions, the things he supposes and presumes and takes for granted.

He went back to the wall at the north end, passing the guard at the door. The guard was here but did not count as a presence in the room. The guard was here to be unseen. This was his job. The guard faced the edge of the screen but was looking nowhere, looking at whatever museum guards look at when a room stands empty. The man at the wall was here but maybe the guard did not count him as a presence any more than the man counted the guard. The man had been here for days on end and for extended periods every day and anyway he was back at the wall, in the dark, motionless.

He watched the actor’s eyes in slow transit across his bony sockets. Did he imagine himself seeing with the actor’s eyes? or did the actor’s eyes seem to be searching him out?

He knew he would stay until the museum closed, two and a half hours from now, then come back in the morning. He watched two men enter, the older man using a cane and wearing a suit that looked traveled in, his long white hair braided at the nape, professor emeritus perhaps, film scholar perhaps, and the younger man in a casual shirt, jeans and running shoes, the assistant professor, lean, a little nervous. They moved away from the door now into partial darkness along the adjacent wall. He watched them a moment longer, the academics, adepts of film, of film theory, film syntax, film and myth, the dialectics of film, the metaphysics of film, as Janet leigh began to undress for the blood-soaked shower to come.

When an actor moved a muscle, when eyes blinked, it was a revelation. every action was broken into components so distinct from the entity that the watcher found himself isolated from every expectation.

everybody was watching something. He was watching the two men, they were watching the screen, Anthony Perkins at his peephole was watching Janet leigh undress.

Nobody was watching him. This was the ideal world as he might have drawn it in his mind. He had no idea what he looked like to others. He wasn’t sure what he looked like to himself. He looked like what his mother saw when she looked at him. but his mother had passed on. This raised a question for advanced students. What was left of him for others to see?

For the first time he didn’t mind not being alone here. These two men had strong reason to be here and he wondered if they were seeing what he was seeing. even if they were, they would draw different conclusions, find references across a range of filmographies and disciplines. Filmography. The word used to make him draw back his head as if to put an antiseptic distance between him and it.

He thought he might want to time the shower scene. Then he thought this was the last thing he wanted to do. He knew it was a brief scene in the original movie, less than a minute, famously less, and he’d watched the prolonged scene here some days earlier, all broken motion, without suspense or dread or urgent pulsing screech-owl sound. curtain rings, that’s what he recalled most clearly, the rings on the shower curtain spinning on the rod when the curtain is torn loose, a moment lost at normal speed, four rings spinning slowly over the fallen figure of Janet Leigh, a stray poem above the hellish death, and then the bloody water curling and cresting at the shower drain, minute by minute, and eventually swirling down.

He was eager to watch again. He wanted to count the curtain rings, maybe four, possibly five or more or less. He knew that the two men at the adjacent wall would also be watching intently. He felt they shared something, we three, that’s what he felt. it was the kind of rare fellowship that singular events engender, even if the others didn’t know he was here.

Almost no one entered the room alone. They came in teams, in squads, shuffling in and milling briefly near the door and then leaving. one or two would turn and leave and then the others, forgetting what they’d seen in the seconds it took to turn and move toward the door. He thought of them as members of theater groups. Film, he thought, is solitary.

Janet leigh in the long interval of her unawareness. He watched her begin to drop her robe. He understood for the first time that black-and-white was the only true medium for film as an idea, film in the mind. He almost knew why but not quite. The men standing nearby would know why. For this film, in this cold dark space, it was completely necessary, black-and-white, one more neutralizing element, a way in which the action becomes something near to elemental life, a thing receding into its drugged parts. Janet leigh in the detailed process of not knowing what is about to happen to her.

Then they left, just like that, they were moving toward the door. He didn’t know how to take this. He took it personally. The tall door slid open for the man with the cane and then the assistant. They walked out. What, bored? They went past the guard and were gone. They had to think in words. This was their problem. The action moved too slowly to accommodate their vocabulary of film. He didn’t know if this made the slightest sense. They could not feel the heartbeat of images projected at this speed. Their vocabulary of film, he thought, could not be adapted to curtain rods and curtain rings and eyelets. What, plane to catch? They thought they were serious but weren’t. And if you’re not serious, you don’t belong here.

Then he thought, Serious about what?

Someone walked to a certain point in the room and cast a shadow on the screen.

There was an element of forgetting involved in this experience. He wanted to forget the original movie or at least limit the memory to a distant reference, unintrusive. There was also the memory of this version, seen and reseen all week. Anthony Perkins as Norman bates, a wading bird’s neck, a bird’s face in profile.

The film made him feel like someone watching a film. The meaning of this escaped him. He kept feeling things whose meaning escaped him. but this wasn’t truly film, was it, in the strict sense. it was videotape. but it was also film. in the broader meaning he was watching a film, a movie, a more or less moving picture.

Her robe settling finally on the closed toilet lid.

The younger one wanted to stay, he thought, in scuffed running shoes. but he had to follow the traditional theorist with the braided hair or risk damaging his academic future.

or the fall down the stairs, still a long way off, maybe hours yet before the private detective, Arbogast, goes backwards down the stairs, face badly slashed, eyes wide, arms windmilling, a scene he recalled from earlier in the week, or maybe only yesterday, impossible to sort out the days and viewings. Arbogast. The name deeply seeded in some obscure niche in the left brain. Norman Bates and Detective Arbogast. These were the names he remembered through the years that had passed since he’d seen the original movie. Arbogast on the stairs, falling forever.

Twenty-four hours. The museum closed at five-thirty most days. What he wanted was a situation in which the museum closed but the gallery did not. He wanted to see the film screened start to finish over twenty-four
consecutive hours. No one allowed to enter once the screening begins.

This was history he was watching in a way, a movie known to people everywhere. He played with the idea that the gallery was like a preserved site, a dead poet’s cottage or hushed tomb, a medieval chapel. Here it is, the bates Motel. but people don’t see this. They see fractured motion, film stills on the border of benumbed life. He understands what they see. They see one brain-dead room in six gleaming floors of crowded art. The original movie is what matters to them, a common experience to be relived on Tv screens, at home, with dishes in the sink.

The fatigue he felt was in his legs, hours and days of standing, the weight of the body standing. Twenty-four hours. Who would survive, physically and otherwise? Would he be able to walk out into the street after an unbroken day and night of living in this radically altered plane of time? Standing in the dark, watching a screen. Watching now, the way the water dances in front of her face as she slides down the tiled wall reaching her hand to the shower curtain to secure a grip and halt the movement of her body toward its last breath.

A kind of shimmy in the way the water falls from the showerhead, an illusion of waver or sway.

Would he walk out into the street forgetting who he was and where he lived, after twenty-four hours straight? or even under the current hours, if the run was extended and he kept coming, five, six, seven hours a day, week after week, would it be possible for him to live in the world? Did he want to? Where was it, the world?

He counted six rings. The rings spinning on the curtain rod when she pulls the curtain down with her. The knife, the silence, the spinning rings.

It takes close attention to see what is happening in front of you. it takes work, pious effort, to see what you are looking at. He was mesmerized by this, the depths that were possible in the slowing of motion, the things to see, the depths of things so easy to miss in the shallow habit of seeing.

People now and then casting shadows on the screen.

He began to think of one thing’s relationship to another. This film had the same relationship to the original movie that the original movie had to real lived experience. This was the departure from the departure. The original movie was fiction, this was real.

Meaningless, he thought, but maybe not.

The day seeped away, with fewer people coming in, then nearly none. There was nowhere else he wanted to be, dark against this wall.

The way a room seems to slide on a track behind a character. The character is moving but it’s the room that seems to move. He found deeper interest in a scene when there was only one character to look at, or, better maybe, none.

The empty staircase seen from above. Suspense is trying to build but the silence and stillness outlive it.

He began to understand, after all this time, that he’d been standing here waiting for something. What was it? it was something outside conscious grasp until now. He’d been waiting for a woman to arrive, a woman alone, someone he might talk to, here at the wall, in whispers, sparingly of course, or later, somewhere, trading ideas and impressions, what they’d seen and how they felt about it. Wasn’t that it? He was thinking a woman would enter who’d stay and watch for a time, finding her way to a place at the wall, an hour, half an hour, that was enough, half an hour, that was sufficient, a serious person, soft-spoken, wearing a pale summer dress.


it felt real, the pace was paradoxically real, bodies moving musically, barely moving, twelve-tone, things barely happening, cause and effect so drastically drawn apart that it seemed real to him, the way all the things
in the physical world that we don’t understand are said to be real.

The door slid open and there was a stir of mild traffic at the far end of the floor, people getting on the escalator, a clerk swiping credit cards, a clerk tossing items into large sleek museum bags. light and sound, wordless monotone, an intimation of life-beyond, world-beyond, the strange bright fact that breathes and eats out there, the thing that’s not the movies.

james baldwin on the only story worth (re)telling

Filed under: literature,philosophy — ABRAXAS @ 1:52 pm

while the tale of how we suffer, and how we are delighted, and how we may triumph is never new, it always must be heard. There isn’t any other tale to tell, it’s the only light we’ve got in all this darkness.

from sonny’s blues

August 8, 2010


Filed under: anton krueger,i&I younity movement,literature,paradoxism,poetry — ABRAXAS @ 11:05 pm

what am i to say? i said.

be yourself, they said, say yourself.
myself? i said. what are you insinuating?

samuel beckett (from ohio manuscripts)


Filed under: ian martin,literature — ABRAXAS @ 9:37 pm

From The Life of Henry Fuckit, 1950-2015
by Ian Martin

The driver saw him from a long way off and had plenty of time to slow down and come to a halt where he stood beside the road in the stones and the dust. The three men in the cab were Portuguese.

“Where you go?”


They were going back to Jo’burg with a load of fish in big insulated crates already dripping with condensation. For ten rand they would take him as far as Keetmanshoop. Shit! These Porro bastards. He glanced in the direction of Luderitz and in the distance saw a vehicle on the black ribbon of road.

“I’ve only got five.” He held up the note and they conversed in Portuguese. A hand reached out and took his money and he heaved up Lady Provider and clambered onto the back of the truck amongst the crates. They pulled away as he settled himself. He could see the long dark outline of the hearse. The gap between it and him had been closing steadily but now was widening as it slowed and swung off the tar onto the rough track. He watched its progress, a cloud of dust trailing behind, and as it receded something inside him began to whimper.

Ian Martin’s controversial novel Pop-splat is now available from http://www.pop-splat.co.za.

August 7, 2010


Filed under: literature — ABRAXAS @ 8:42 pm

August 5, 2010

Wael Al-Mahdi on Pessoa, Jung, and Nietzsche

Filed under: fernando pessoa,literature,philosophy — ABRAXAS @ 6:42 pm

“The genius which runs into madness is no longer genius.” -Otto Weininger

One of the lasting contributions of evolutionary psychology to our understanding of human nature is undoubtedly a list of human universals composed by Donald Brown. The list runs into the hunderds and includes:

* Actions under self-control distinguished from those not under self-control.
* Anthropomorphization
* Self as subject and object

Human univerals “comprise those features of culture, society, language, behavior, and psyche for which there are no known exception”. In other words, regardless of their place in history or geography, all the cultures that have been studied so far show evidence of these shared human characteristics. All humans have the salient ability to perceive the objects and phenomena of the world and make abstract mental representations of them. They also have a tendency of anthropomorphize, or personify, what they perceive. Inner psychic objects are no exception; humans personify thoughts, emotions, and inner states of feeling. Any person who can have a conversation with himself has already seen his self as object.

The unity of human personality has never been a sure thing, and still faces difficulties in our modern times. In primitive cultures, the individual is wont to identify with the tribe; that is, the person feels no selfhood or standing outside the context of the tribe. This may be a difficult to imagine for modern persons belonging to individualistic cultures, but is a condition still prevailing in many apparently modern societies. We could cite many Middle Eastern societies or even communities in parts of Europe where the individual’s social and psychic well-being hinges primarily on his being a part of the whole. But the primitive also identified with other objects in his/her environment: animals, trees, sacred places; and from a temporal point of view, with his or her ancestors, or even descendants. This condition was given the name participation mystique by the ethnologist Lucien Lévy-Brühl, who first observed it among Australian aborigines while studying their dreamland mythology.

But perhaps the most striking result of the disunity of human personality is the individual’s variance with himself. It is here that we find the most urgent symptoms and also the most interest from the lay public and experts alike. We all know the common examples: patients with multiple personalities, criminals who blame their alter-ego, and lost men who can’t remember who they are. The arts abound with examples: Jekyll and Hyde, comic book characters who are docile in the morning and swash-buckling heroes at night, and my favorite example, the 1999 film Fight Club which portrays a morally ambiguous and wish-washy insurance officer (Edward Norton) whose compensatory personality is a charismatic, square-jawed muscleman who also has a taste for existential philosophical questions (Brad Pitt). In an act of ultimate compensation, this brazen alter-ego sets up a nation-wide network of fight clubs whose goal is complete liberation from social constraints through vicious fighting between the male members. As in many other stories in the same vein, the alternate personality is eventually vanquished, but the victory of the normal ego is usually dubious and comes at an excessively high price. This raises the vital question of integration as opposed to suppression of vagrant psychic elements.

These examples, whether they be fictive or real, touch on a very important element in our discussion, namely the question of abnormal psychic functioning. Is any kind of psychic disunity a symptom of disease? It would appear that a great deal of psychological anguish stems precisely from such a variance with oneself. For examples, neurotic patients with compulsive obsessive behavior simply lose control of the part (or parts?) of themselves which insist on obsessive actions. We also know, for instance, that schizophrenic patients suffer a fragmentation of personality; this results in them hearing voices, or of performing actions they are unaware of, or in states of megalomania. It might be queried as to what the functional purpose of these fragmentations might be; we might discern a definite adaptive purpose in some instances, such in cases of multiple personalities which help the individual to deal with early and continued abuse. In any case, it can be observed that it some states a part of the personality habitually escapes conscious control and exerts an abnormal and pathological effect on the individual by inducing clearly undesirable and detrimental behaviors.

Literature and art seem to be an especially rich fountain of examples of exceptional and also pathological psychic states. Carl Gustav Jung frequently referred to literature and mythology to illustrate his concepts, and indeed encouraged his patients to produce art themselves in their attempts to form a better relationship with the unconscious. But it is the concept of the heteronym that is the most interesting from the point of view of the multiplicity of personalities and that effect that this might have on an individual. This term was invented by the influential modernist Portuguese poet Fernando Pessoa, who sought a term that would not be confused with pseudonym, which simply means false name. According to Pessoa, the heteronym is no mere false name; rather, it represents a complete personality, with its own attributes, psychic and physical characteristics, worldview, and literary and philosophical taste. Succinctly put, a heteronym is a fully-fledged and independent personality which possesses its own distinct literary style.

What? One would be forgiven to ask. Do all these disparate and independent personalities exist in one person? If ‘normal’ people are in a continuous state of disunity, why not a highly creative artist with an exceedingly complex and multi-faceted personality? Furthermore, this very disunity, while adversely affecting his personal life, seems to have been the very fountain of his creativity. But lest the reader think that this is all romantic, we must add that Pessoa was obsessed with the idea of madness and fragmentation of the personality. In fact, posing as a psychiatrist he wrote letters to his former acquaintances asking them to describe his own personality. It seems that Pessoa had so little psychic stability that his heteronyms found a ready conduit in his shaky ego.

Revealingly, this looseness of psychic forces produced in him an intellect that “has attained a pliancy and a reach that enable me to assume any emotion I desire and enter at will into any state of mind”. His heteronyms might have been the result of these flexible emotions and states of mind. But all this did not come without its severe drawbacks: a pathological deficiency of will which he described as “purely negative”, and an ever unfulfilled search for psychic completeness in which “no book at all can be an aid”.

Pessoa himself was very much conscious of his inner persons. In a seminal passage hauntingly reminiscent of Nietzsche’s description of inspiration quoted later, Pessoa described the appearance of his ‘master’:

On the day when I finally desisted – it was the 8th of March, 1914 – I went over to a high desk and, taking a sheet of paper, began to write, standing, as I always write when I can. And I wrote thirty-odd poems straight off, in a kind of ecstasy whose nature I cannot define. It was the triumphal day of my life, and I shall never have another like it. I started with a title – ‘The Keeper of Sheep’. And what followed was the apparition of a somebody in me, to whom I at once gave the name Alberto Caeiro. Forgive me the absurdity of the phrase: my master had appeared in me. This was the immediately sensation I had.

In terms of psychological balance, it was characteristic that Alberto Caeiro was almost the complete opposite of Pessoa. Caeiro was a almost natural philosopher, a straightforward pagan – he saw only appearances, indeed the whole universe was for him a surface. When Caeiro observed nature, he did not see any deeper meaning behind the façade – and based on this, he wrote his poetry. He expressed a complete Zen-like non-reflection on the world: “My mysticism is not to try to know/It is to live and not think about it”. He has been called the ‘innocent poet’. According to Jung, a vital function of the unconscious is compensation of the subject-ego; could Caeiro have been an attempt at compensation for Pessoa’s generally negative personality? Octavio Paz defines Caeiro as ‘everything that Pessoa is not and more’.

According to some estimates, Pessoa had more than 70 heteronyms: a veritable parliament. But some stood out. Take, for instance, Ricardo Reis. Reis was also a disciple of Caeiro but in contrast to him was a sophisticated epicurist who was cultivated and well-read in the classics. Then there was Álvaro de Campos – a futurist, an intoxicated dreamer in the best tradition of Nietzschean Dionysianism.

Also Nietzschean is the tension between Pessoa’s solitude on the one hand, and his rejection of man on the other: “Solitude devastates me; company oppresses me’. And he is very much aware of the Promethean price of his heteronyms: “To create, I have destroyed myself…I’m the empty stage where various actors act out various plays’. Contrary to the public’s romantic notions of multiple personalities, fragmentation of the self is always disastrous, even if the artist receives the gift of extraordinary genius.

When investigating a phenomenon that is difficult to circumscribe and categorize, it is always helpful to seek analogies and examples. And beautiful examples do we find in the case of the psychologist Carl Gustav Jung’s archetypes. Jung always stressed the disunity of personality, pointing out at the same time the lamentable tendency of modern persons to believe that their intact egos possess full self-knowledge. The external ego, masked by the persona, did not fool Jung; he realized the enormity and autonomy of our inner worlds, and set out to explore his own. What did he find? Specific tendencies to think and feel in certain pre-set patterns; that is, psychological instincts which produce typical human behaviors and frames-of-mind, and which mark our stages of development and have from the earliest times inspired our most sacred symbols and dramas. These he called the archetypes. In the context of our discussion, perhaps the most arresting attribute of the archetype is the personifications that it could assume. Jung knew this early on and invented the method of active imagination in order to communicate with his unconscious archetypes. What are we to make of Pessoa’s Alberto Caeiro when we read what Jung has to say about personified archetypes? In his discussion of the anima (the inner woman in man), he describes active imagination and the personification processes:

I mean this as an actual technique. We know that practically everyone has not only the peculiarity, but also the faculty, of holding a conversation with himself. Since it is our intention to learn what we can about the foundations of our being, this little matter of living in a metaphor should not bother us. The psyche not being a unity of a contradictory multiplicity of complexes, the dissociation required for our dialectics with the anima is not so terribly difficult. The art of it consists only in allowing our invisible partner to make herself heard, in putting the mechanism of expression momentarily at her disposal, without being overcome by the distaste one naturally feels at playing such a apparently ludicrous game with oneself, or by doubts as to the genuineness of the voice of one’s interlocutor. We are so in the habit of identifying ourselves with the thoughts that come to us that we invariably assume we have made them.

Personification, then, was key to Jung’s dialectic with the unconscious. And if we allow the anima, or any other archetype, to speak through us, why not allow a literary personality, a heteronym, to write poetry through us? Jung considered his confrontation with the unconscious to be the main source of his contributions to our understanding of the psyche. As a child, Jung felt he had a No. 2 personality who was in fact a 18th century gentleman. And in his autobiography he relates that in his researches he “let himself drop” and descended into a psychic world where he met a beautiful young girl in the company of an old man called “Elijah”. Later, Jung drew a winged old man called Philemon, which he said represented “superior insight”.

The implications of this disunity of personality on artistic creativity was not lost on Jung. He had a great interest in the “inspired artist”, a man who gave himself over completely to the unconscious and who became its conduit of expression. Jung cited the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche as a prime example of such an artist. The reason for this becomes clear in the following bombastic passage by Nietzsche describing how he is violently seized by inspiration. The similarity with Pessoa’s description of the appearance of his ‘master’ is astonishing:

Has anyone at the end of the nineteenth century a distinct conception of what poets of strong ages called inspiration? If not, I will describe it. If one had the slightest residue of superstition left in one, one would hardly be able to set aside the idea that one is merely incarnation, merely mouthpiece, merely medium of overwhelming forces. The concept of revelation, in the sense that something suddenly, with unspeakable certainty and subtlety, becomes visible, audible, something that shakes and overturns one to the depths, simply describes the fact. One hears, one does not seek; one takes, one does not ask who gives; a thought flashes up like lightning, with necessity, unfalteringly formed – I have never had any choice… The involuntary nature of image, of metaphor, is the most remarkable thing of all; one no longer has any idea what is image, what metaphor, everything presents itself as the readiest, the truest, the simplest means of expression. This is my experience of inspiration; I do not doubt that one has to go back thousands of years to anyone who could say to me ‘it is mine also’.

I have quoted this passage, despite its length, to illustrate the idea of ‘involuntary’ inspiration, of the inner autonomous personality that descends upon the almost pathetic artist and makes him its ‘mouthpiece’. Vitally for a poet, this revelation inspires ‘metaphor and images’. Nietzsche characteristically uses awe-inspiring words, and as usual, makes claims to uniqueness. I do not think that one has to go back a thousand years to find such an inspiration, as there are examples readily available from recent times; Pessoa himself was an important example. Nevertheless, the passage is an excellent description of the process of the inspired artist.

Nietzsche must have known, because Nietzsche, after all, had given speech toZarathustra. The ancient prophet, who has come back to atone for his invention of good and evil by ‘transvaluating all values’ and carrying new ‘value tables’, could perhaps be considered Nietzsche’s heteronym, albeit a colossally inflated one. Or was he? Keeping to Nietzsche’s experience of inspiration, wouldn’t it be closer to the truth to say that the poor mortal Nietzsche was Zarathustra’s mere conduit of expression? Similarly, was not Pessoa the mouthpiece of Caeiro and a host of other heteronyms? Toward the end of his sane life, Nietzsche identified increasingly with his wise old man and signed his letters as Zarathustra. In a little poem Nietzsche describes the coming of Zarathustra: Da wurde eins zu zwei und Zarathustra ging an mir vorbei, “The one became two and Zarathustra passed by me”.

But are we, so-called ‘normal’ people, so different in our fragmentation and disunity? Since ancient times we have recognized that there are many streams inside us, and that our waking ego is not the complete self. Even in everyday matters we use expressions like “I said to myself” and “I was beside myself”. And we have constant problems with willpower – “I couldn’t force myself to do it.” What it is in me that I can’t control, and goes on sleeping, or over-eating, or drinking despite my conscious objections? In following Jung’s assertion that pathological or abnormal processes are simply exaggerations of normal processes, we can all catch a glimpse of the processes that were going on in the psyche of a genius such as Pessoa. With a multi-layered brain with diverse cognitive modules, conflicting goals and desires, and instincts designed by natural selection vying for control of the psyche, is it strange that we are not masters of own house? The discovery of the complexities of the brain, I believe, will ultimately provide the complete answers for these dilemmae of spirit and self. And in this vein let us leave the last word to the well-known evolutionary psychologist Steven Pinker: “Our mental life is noisy parliament of competing factions”.

this article first appeared here

August 4, 2010

M-Net Literary Award winners

Filed under: literature — ABRAXAS @ 7:22 pm

On 31 July at the Table Bay Hotel in Cape Town, pay-TV broadcaster M-Net paid tribute to five South African novels in its M-Net Literary Awards. The novels are Plaasmoord; Small Moving Parts; Santa Gamka; Ga di mphelele! (Let Them Live for Me!); and Iingada zibuyile endle (Wildcats have Come Home).

Karin Brynard’s Plaasmoord was judged as having the most potential for adaptation into a screenplay and won the Film Category prize. Plaasmoord is set against the backdrop of a small town on the outskirts of the Great Kalahari. On one level, a spine-chilling plot unfolds, centered around a gruesome double murder, while on another level the author provides unique insight into a rural society in the grip of change. The murderer is exposed by the changes sweeping through the town, changes which also bring to light the avarice and greed with which everything in society is cloaked.

The judges felt that Brynard had brought something new to the table of the murder mystery genre, mixing history and extraordinary insight into contemporary society to produce a quite intoxicating novel.

Jan du Plessis, Director: Content Strategy at M-Net, felt that Plaasmoord had vivid texture, which could be transferred to the silver screen. “We were blessed with some great books this year, many of which would have worked well as screenplays,” he says. “Plaasmoord stood out from the pack because of the richness of its characters and the way the author brought new life to the murder mystery genre”.

The winner of the English Category was Sally-Ann Murray’s Small Moving Parts, recognised by the judges for its lush textures of language and minutely-observed narration. The judges said of Small Moving Parts: ”Seldom has any piece of South African writing in English rendered the bildungsroman form with such lyrical beauty and complexity, combining both the imaginative and the real, in ways that are unique and outstanding. Detailed it may be, but if the devil is to be found in the detail, the detail surely also harbours redemption. There are so many examples of little things remembered, things that are common to the essence of being South Africans – the small parts make up a wondrous whole. Small Moving Parts is about the fabric of society and the fabric of a mind, life in South Africa and life itself.”

Winner of the Afrikaans Category was Eben Venter for Santa Gamka. The judges felt that Santa Gamka had all the hallmarks of a worthy winner of the M-Net Literary Awards because of its innovative use of language, in the same vein as pervious winners Marlene van Niekerk (Agaat) and Etienne van Heerden (30 Nagte in Amsterdam).

With a touch that remains light despite the often-desperate circumstances of the inhabitants of the town of Bethesda, the reader is taken on a journey by an attractive 21-one year-old rent-boy who grew up in the heart of the Karoo. Here the impact of the “new” South Africa has not been felt, apart from cosmetic changes. His hometown remains a place of contrasts. It is a place where you could well find yourself in a potter’s oven with only seven minutes to live if you’re not careful. Santa Gamka is a rich testament to an equally rich imagination.

The 2010 M-Net Literary Awards also recognised winners in two of the African Language categories – Sotho and Nguni. Debutant novelist Mokhale Machitela scooped the Sotho prize for Ga di mphelele! (Let Them Live for Me!), written in Sepedi. The judges praised Machitela for his tale of thwarted passion and murder most foul that kept them glued to their seats: “The author touches on relevant issues such as infidelity and the impact of cultural beliefs in modern society. The language is rich and powerful, laced with idiomatic expressions and humour to soften the blows. Ga di mphelele! is based on the notion that all human beings have shortcomings that affect their lives, none more so than the main character who spends most of his life trying to correct his mistakes, while simultaneously making even worse decisions – with devastating consequences.”

The winner in the Nguni category is a political allegory about the emergence of our rainbow nation, written in isiXhosa. The prize was awarded to Professor Peter Mtuze for his novel Iingada zibuyile endle (Wildcats have Come Home). The judges lauded it for introducing a bold new strain in African-language literary tradition. Iingada zibuyile endle provides an acute reflection indicative of issues of readership, thematic explorations, aesthetics and a range of issues which link African-language writing in South Africa with African writing practices in the rest of the continent and in the African diaspora. “The novel is written with sensitivity and pathos, introducing various animal characters to present an all-encompassing plot. The author, deftly weaving allegory, humour and satire, succeeds in showing how the characters grappled with one another in a South African political landscape with all its unpredictability.”

August 1, 2010


Filed under: ian martin,literature — ABRAXAS @ 9:30 pm

From The Life of Henry Fuckit, 1950-2015
by Ian Martin

The sun was sinking into the mist on the horizon when he awoke cold and stiff. Thirsty, he drank more than half the contents of his water bottle, then pulled on his Navy sweater. The land was cooling fast and the evening breeze was stirring up the dust. He cut a thick slice of bread and a hunk of cheese and walked over to where Lady Provider stood waiting before the welwitschia.

Over two mugs of Vrotters he pondered his next move. The light was going and all the time the temperature was dropping. It was too late to attempt hitching a ride anywhere but to stay put for the night would be extremely uncomfortable. Well, he couldn’t just stand around getting pissed either. What about the dwelling shown on the map? He would go back to the track and follow it to the top of the next rise and maybe discover some kind of shelter for the night.

It was further than he had imagined and when he finally topped the rise the twilight had faded into dusk. In the murk ahead he was just able to discern a broad flat valley backed by a line of black hills. The building stood on the open plain, unprotected and solitary. To his surprise a feeble light glimmered at a window. What was there for people to do out here in this barren waste? He hurried on, anxious to beat the dark.

As he approached the building he began to worry about dogs. He had heard no barking but at any moment he expected the silence to be torn by a warning howl followed by furious baying. Alsatians? Rottweilers? Bull terriers? He had no means of protecting himself. From what he could make out the house was in a state of neglect but the windows were still glazed and he saw the glint of metal against the dark solidity of the front door. As quietly as possible he approached the lighted window and looked in. The room was dimly lit by candles and a single oil lamp. On the table lay the body of a man covered with a plain white sheet. The sheet was drawn up to his neck and his chin pointed sharply ceilingward. Not a young man, maybe fifty or sixty, a gaunt face and bald dome of a head. Henry stood frozen in shocked fascination. Then from the right there appeared a woman, barefoot, long hair flowing loose, tying the belt of a bathrobe. Carelessly she tossed a towel over a chair and went to the sideboard. She lit a cigarette and began to pour from a bottle into a glass. Jesus, what was he to do? It was almost completely dark and a hard wind had sprung up, helping him to make up his mind.

“Who is it?” In response to his knock on the door her voice was aggressive and without fear.

“A stranger. I’m a hitchhiker, stranded on the road.”

After a few moments the door opened. It had been unlocked all the time. A flashlight shone in his face and then dropped to his chest and he saw she was holding an extremely large pistol, one of those horrible Smith & Wesson Magnum things, probably.

“I’m so sorry to disturb you, madam. I’ve been overtaken by nightfall and find myself in an embarrassingly vulnerable position. You don’t have an outbuilding where I might take refuge from the cold just for the night, do you? If you’re in a position to oblige I’ll be on my way again at first light.”

“Come in.” She lowered the gun and he followed her into the room. “You’ve chosen a bad time. My husband’s just died on me.” Henry stood looking down at the pale and livid skin drawn tight across the facial bones, the half-closed eyelids, the gaping thin-lipped mouth, the scrawny neck of a chicken. “Want a brandy?” She was at the sideboard.

“Er, yes please. Just to keep you company. For the shock. You must be…”

“He was ill for a long time. I treated him badly and he hated me. It’s a relief.” She spoke flatly, without emotion. This woman wasn’t more than thirty-five, forty at the most. He ran his eye over the shrouded body and noted the splay of the feet beneath the sheet. The outlines struck him as entirely authentic, one hundred percent cadaverous. “The undertakers are coming in the morning.”

He took the glass and drank the neat brandy.

The curtain edges slowly acquired definition, the light strengthened and the room took shape. He raised himself on one elbow and saw she was awake, looking at the wall with wide unblinking eyes. Without moving her head, without even the briefest of glances towards him, she uttered the one phlegmatic word: Go.

Ian Martin’s controversial novel Pop-splat is now available from http://www.pop-splat.co.za.

July 27, 2010


Filed under: ian martin,literature — ABRAXAS @ 12:36 pm

From The Life of Henry Fuckit, 1950-2015
by Ian Martin

He dozed fitfully and then at first light he packed his belongings and wrote a short note: “Urgent personal business necessitates my immediate return to Cape Town. Regret not able to explain in person. Keys and week’s rent enclosed. Henry.” He left the envelope on her doormat and, Lady Provider at his heels, trudged through the town as it began to stir. His water bottle was full and his suitcase was tanked up with Vrotters. At the last café he bought a loaf of whole-wheat bread and a slab of cheese and made his way out onto the open road, ready to resume his expedition.

It was not long before a Roads Department bakkie pulled up and he was offered a lift. The driver was surprised to learn that Henry was only going a few kilometres, just as far as the first side road leading off to the north. They soon cleared a rise and saw the turnoff in the distance on the left. He ignored the man’s inquiring eyebrows, thanked him for the short ride, and alighted in a harsh landscape devoid of all vegetation.

Perched on Lady Provider he examined Bergson’s map and tried to orientate himself. The dirt road led some three or four kilometres north to a small black rectangle signifying human habitation. Thereafter it meandered eastward in a diminished status, a dotted line designating a track or footpath. The red circle was about half a kilometre east of the gravel road, midway between highway and black rectangle. The air was still cool but the sky was empty and the winter sun was gaining in strength as it rose higher. It was his intention to investigate the Oxyaston site and be back on the tar road before noon. That would allow him sufficient time to get to Keetmanshoop by nightfall.

By no stretch of hopeful imagination could it be called a road. This was just a route between points A and B that avoided the major obstacles and sought out the smoothest and easiest of inclines. Lady Provider didn’t take kindly to such surfaces and stumbled and overbalanced at frequent intervals. How sensitive was the electronic equipment? After the third tumble Henry took the suitcase by its handle and began to carry it; all thirty kilograms of it. Dedication to duty? Sense of responsibility? Self interest?

The site lay in a shallow dried-out valley between two dykes of black basalt. These dykes were a dominant feature in the area and from the air must have resembled ribs in the pale sand and gravely detritus. Sweating freely he plodded through the sand away from the track and saw ahead of him, in the harsh, uncertain light, a dark mound. On closer examination it proved to be one of those ridiculous welwitschias, lying in a horrible sprawl of tangled rubbish. He paused to urinate in the dust and then headed for the nearest outcrop of rock.

In the shade he sat down and rested. The faintest breeze was stirring from the west, coming in from the Atlantic as the landmass began to warm itself like a lizard in the sun. It was extraordinarily quiet. He could hear his heart pumping away, keeping the six litres of red fluid flowing and flowing and flowing. A shard of rock, which had been prevaricating for a hundred years, decided the moment was right, let go and fell to the sand with a self-effacing clatter.

For breakfast he cut a slice of bread and a hunk of cheese and tapped off a mug of Vrotters. The emptiness of this stark moonscape impressed him. Stark? He flipped a rock with his foot and two dark beetles scurried for cover. Turn the stone, cleave the wood. This jumble of broken rock might well conceal one of the elusive vents of which Bergson was so convinced. With a pang of guilt he rose to his feet and began to do what he was supposed to be doing – investigating the Oxyastonishing phenomenon of universal telepathic interaction.

He extended the antenna, he plugged in and donned the headphones, he flicked the switches, he fiddled with the knobs. All he heard was a faint hissing noise, like the sound of the sea in a shell cupped to the ear. He swung the antenna this way and that. He picked up the equipment and moved along the rocky slope. Nothing, nothing, nothing. Niks, fokall. Here he was, tramping up and down in the middle of the desert, pointing his feelers here, there and everywhere like some giant insect, stumbling, cursing, sweating and farting in search of some crazy impossibility. For half an hour, an hour, an hour and a half. Fuck Bergson, sitting in his office drinking rooibosch tea and twiddling his stupid moustache. This is KAK! So saying he kicked Lady Provider squarely in the ribs, sending her crashing sideways down the slope.

Just before the three-metre headphone cable pulled taught and the terminal was jerked from its socket on the end of the case, Henry experienced the strangest of sensations. It was like nothing he had ever felt before. A brief vibration, a kind of buzz, not in his ears but right inside his head. Had he somehow received a shock? His annoyance forgotten, he hastened to Lady Provider’s aid, put her back on her wheels with a muttered, “Sorry about that. These damn conniption-fits, you know,” and plugged in his headphone.

“Holy Jesus!” The tingling sensation was back in the depths of his brain. The antenna was pointing away form the black ridge of rock and he quickly swung it back. The sensation disappeared. What the hell was going on? He was on the wrong track. Picking up Lady by the handle he turned his back on the ridge and aligned himself until the feeling was at its most perceptible. He was facing back the way he had come. Slowly he made his way down the slope and began plodding through the sand of the valley floor, all the while concentrating on what was happening inside his head. As he walked the sensation strengthened and then he looked ahead and realised in a flash of insight that he was headed directly towards the Welwitschia mirabilis and the word TAP ROOT exploded in giant technicolour letters before his mind’s eye, fizzing, crackling and spluttering with significance. God’s mistake? Professor Albert Adendorff’s mistake!

He set Lady Provider before the freak of nature and removed the headset. He now knew that he didn’t need it and, on all fours, crawled in under the tattered leaves. The sweet spicy scent of Oxyaston was in his nose, his mouth, his lungs.

“Bergson, Bergson!” he called. “Are you there, Harry baby?” Prostrate upon the desert floor, head and shoulders buried under the torn and frazzled foliage, he lay and listened intently. Again he called. “Harry Bergson! Where the fug are you?”

“Henry, Henry!” Bergson’s voice was so faint Henry wondered whether he was hearing it or merely imagining it. But again it came and he could detect the excitement in the raised tones. “Henry, you fool, don’t you know it’s Saturday? I’m not at the Dockyard. This is incredible! Just as I hoped. This is nothing less than telepathy!”

“Shit!” Henry had not given a moment’s thought to the days of the week since he had left Cape Town. “So where are you, then?”

“I’m at home. I’m actually on the toilet right at this moment. But Henry, this is going to exhaust you. Stop now and make contact again on Monday morning. Goodbye, my boy. This is…”

Henry’s head was spinning and a heavy weariness was descending upon him. With difficulty he got to his knees, stood up and then staggered to the basalt ridge. In the shade of overhanging rocks he lay down with his head on his pack and immediately fell into a deep sleep.

Ian Martin’s controversial novel Pop-splat is now available from http://www.pop-splat.co.za.

stacy hardy: I fucked the underground

Filed under: art,literature,politics,stacy hardy — ABRAXAS @ 11:14 am

A small, insignificant white chick’s journey from bad-assed boyfriends, capital complicity and oral obscurantism to subaltern sex, popular promiscuity and play

It starts with a email from Fred. This is 4 years ago. A lot changes in four years. A lot stays the same. Fred’s email explains he is organizing a conference and he wants me to speak. The topic is the underground. He wants me to talk about women, women in the underground, underground women.

I stare at the screen. My first thought is that I should say no. I’m not qualified. What do I know about women? Sure I am one. I have tits and an arse but that’s where it ends. I’ve never studied the theory. Feminism pisses me off. I mean, why me? I think that maybe there’s been some confusion. Sure I tend to write about sex. But when I say sex, I mean sex. Sex as in, well, fucking. Sex as in you and me. Not all this gender stuff – male, female, bi, straight, trans, politics, whatever, you know the story.

It doesn’t stop there. I’m not too sure about this idea of an underground. I’m not too sure it existed? And if it did was I ever a part of it? Sure there were parts, scenes I participated in – and I use participated loosely. For me the scene was more about seeing and being seen. For me it was about the boyfriends, you know, the sex – as in the fucking.

I flash back.

Jo’burg. Post-1994 underground fallout. A couple of us in the back of a car parked outside a club in Melville. I’m not really hearing the things that are being said – drugs, black market body parts, Doc Martens – because right now I’m busy sucking off some hot young underground writer. His work is white-trash-ultra-hip. His cock is cold and hard. Another scene. Another time. Cape Town. A soundtrack of wordcore, dub poetry, rap and rock steady, whatever.

The list goes on.

I phone Fred up and tell him I can’t do the paper. I say I have nothing to say. I say you’ve got the wrong girl. I’m not really part of this story. I’m just a bit part, you know, an extra. I say sorry baby, but I’m just the girlfriend.

Fred obviously isn’t listening, or else he has other ideas … maybe he’s trying to chat me up? He’s silent for a while then he says, well why not talk about not being in the underground? I’m not following. He says, you know about how few women are in the underground? About how it’s a man’s game, a way to wage war without lethal weapons?

Jesus! I hang up and light a cigarette. War without lethal weapons? What does he want me to say? That Kendell Geers fucked me so hard that I cried? I’ve heard this all before. That was the 90s or whatever. Afterwards Kendell takes me to an exhibition opening. His head is shaved to number one. Under the glare of the gallery lights it shines like the sun. He pours me a glass of wine and tells me his art works are deadly bombs, cultural weapons strategically placed to blow up in the heart of the Capitalist beast.

I walk home alone. I sit in front of the TV. I’m waiting to see if Kendell’s bombs make the news. The screen flickers. Afghanistan blast. Bombs in Iraq. 1 000 suicide bombers “ready” in Iran. Who is kidding who? I mean even if Kendell’s bombs did make the news I probably wouldn’t notice. The footage is all the same. A roof convulses. Windows smash half a block down. Bodies on the pavement. Instant horror and fear. The enthralled spectator. How can we hope to compete with that?

I phone up a friend and organise to meet for coffee. Let’s call her J. She has her own story to tell. She’s been making underground films for years. She used to work with her ex. They worked together. She says his name. And I say, of course, wow, he’s like famous. J nods. This is her point. They made films together but it’s his name that sticks. Biological inheritance, economic forces, cultural biases, media hype conspired to cast her as the pretty little girlfriend.

I order another skinny latte. I sit there stirring it so the white foam mixes with the espresso below. I’m starting to piece things together. It’s not that there were so few women in the underground, it’s just that they weren’t given the same status. Women were seen as girlfriends. Like it or not, I wasn’t alone, we were all just there to fuck the underground.

I take a sip of the latte. I’m thinking about power. Like if you cut all the crap, turn down the soundtrack, forget all the theory, fancy language tricks and dances. If you cut to the essence, the system of power, the structures underpinning it all, it’s the same old story. The same HIStory. White male dominance. Capital. Command. Control. Containment. C for yourself.

I’m starting to wonder: if the enactments of power are exactly the same, then how underground is this underground really? I’m starting to wonder if what we’ve been calling the underground isn’t something more like a cocoon or a bunker system. An agoraphobic? structure which covertly mirrors the white security village, where there is no discomfort around things like poverty or sexism or racism because only well-educated, white men are allowed. And if that is the case, then don’t we need some other kind of underground? A different underground? One that is different from that which it seeks to oppose and destroy?

J must be able to tell I’m feeling kind of bummed because she tells me a joke to cheer me up. She says, “What did the female suicide bomber say?” I shake my head. She stands to deliver the punch line. She says, “Does my bomb look beeg in this?” We both piss ourselves laughing. We laugh so loudly that the people in the café all turn and stare.

And maybe laughing is the only – the best – thing left to do. One can take this even further. A few days later I come across a piece in an old Chimurenga by South African writer Ashraf Jamal. Like me, Jamal is skeptical about the strategies employed by white male bombers like Kendell. Jamal writes, “What is profoundly absent in South Africa’s creation of itself is modesty. Its maniacal belief in closure, its festering recourse to pain, its toxic pride, has left it standing like the proverbial emperor enfolded in its naked pomp. A soap opera, South Africa is a country that chooses to serialise itself into oblivion …”1

As an alternative to this soap-opera-gore-fest Jamal looks to the idea of play. I like that. I like the idea of breaking down barriers instead of erecting them. I’m talking about crawling out of our safe white sanitised bunkers and actually getting down and dirty for a bit. I’m talking about confusing the boundaries – between, yes, the political and the personal, inside/outside, male/female, white/black, one/many, but also between the underground and the over-ground, the centre and the periphery.

After all what exactly is the underground in a country that’s economy was built on a superfluous labor force used to extract extravagant material wealth from the depths below, a country were a surplus population is marginalized, pushed underground, out of site in squatter camps?

How do we begin to talk about underground in a city built on top of the bodies of dead slaves; a city where the train station is being sent underground, keeping the workers out of sight/ site, buried below a well lit mall?

What the fuck am I, a stupid white chick doing talking about the underground at an art conference in a country where so many black artists were literally forced underground during apartheid?

How can we begin understand underground on a continent were the political situation has forced everything including economics “underground.” Where everything operates via fixes, dodgy deals and illegal practice.

If I’m underground then how deep is someone like Zebulon Dread buried? Why aren’t we digging that groove? What is it we Dread?

What these examples point to is the need for new strategies. What I’m saying is we need to move beyond the myth of the hero, that single lone assassin, the solitary white male bomber, and start to work in other spaces: in the in-between, on the borders, in the holes, the silences. In the slippages. I’m talking about fucking with the underground instead of just fucking it. This requires that we become double agents. And this isn’t just some stupid white chick’s fantasy either. This is history. Or maybe HERstory. See, whether we realise it or not, the greatest double agent the South African underground has ever had was a chick. I’m talking about Brenda Fassie.

The thing about Brenda was she always worked in the in-between: straight/lesbian, mother/sex kitten, feminist heroine/lost little girl, drug addict/role model, lo-life/hi-art. But perhaps most significantly for the underground, Brenda refused the distinction between public and private. She did it all and she told about it too. And it’s this rupture that’s at the heart of Brenda’s challenge to the mainstream, to the status quo. It’s this that makes her ungovernable3. See, Brenda wasn’t just a symbol of freedom. She was freedom. She made personal the cold, abstract political and metaphorical quest for freedom. She brought the experience of freedom – of living in a world that is open and limitless – intimately, dangerously close.

1. Jamal, Ashraf. The bearable lightness of Tracey Rose’s The Kiss in Chimurenga, June 2004.
2. See Botha, Nadine. ants moving the house millimetres, Deep South Publishing, 2005.
3. Ndebele, Njabulo. Thinking of Brenda, www.music.org.za. 2004

het sierlijke niets of “CELLULOID CASANOVA”

Filed under: dick tuinder,film,literature — ABRAXAS @ 8:34 am

Voor iemand die van zo’n beetje alles wat hem in zijn leven overkwam verslag heeft gedaan zij er betrekkelijk veel pogingen ondernomen om dat leven, met behulp van meer of minder fictieve novellen, romans, toneelstukken en films, nog verder uit de doeken te doen. Niet zonder reden uiteraard, want in al zijn openheid van zaken blijft Casanova een raadselachtig persoon wiens vele tegenstrijdigheden gelijkwaardig worden in de onnavolgbare wijze waarop hij ruim 3500 pagina’s lang de aandacht van de lezer moeiteloos vasthoudt met de herinneringen aan een plotloos leven. Om iemand goed te kennen moet je vaak niet te veel van hem weten.

In Dennis Potters’ ‘CASANOVA’, de zesdelige BBC televisieserie uit 1971, centreert de vertelling zich rondom Casanova’s gevangenschap in de Venetiaanse Piombi gevangenis, waaruit hij na vijftien maanden voornamelijk eenzame opsluiting op spectaculaire wijze weet te ontsnappen. Zijn gevangenschap onder de strenge wetten van de Venetiaanse Republiek had hij te danken aan een combinatie van vrijzinnig gedrag, openlijke interesse in het occulte en filosofie (welks laatste de indirecte verdenking van godsontkenning voedde) en een vete met een vooraanstaande Venetiaanse partricieer met vrienden hogerop. Vrienden van Casanova met dezelfde connecties hadden hem gewaarschuwd voor een aanstaande arrestatie en hem geadviseerd de stad althans tijdelijk te verlaten, maar de 27 jarige is overtuigd van de ongrijpbaarheid van zijn handelen en de zuiverheid van zijn intenties en slaat het advies in de wind.

De gevangenschap en de ontsnapping daaraan zijn natuurlijk uitstekende PR voor een 18-de eeuwse avonturier, en maken ook dat hij voor de dertig jaar die daarop volgen in ballingschap moet leven, waardoor het twijfelachtig is of wij, zonder die gevangenschap, ooit van Casanova hadden gehoord.

Potter, die merkwaardigerwijs beweerde de Memoires nooit in haar geheel te hebben gelezen, gebruikt de barre omstandigheden van de kleine cel waarin Casanova opgesloten zit – grauw, donker, te laag voor zijn 1 meter 96 om rechtop in te staan, vlooien overal en onverdragelijke hitte in de zomer – als contrast met het rijke en kleurige leven waarin hij zich voor en na die ongelukkige periode beweegt.

In de beroemde en levendige beschrijving die Casanova zelf van die episode geeft overheerst – naast toegegeven enige wanhoop – voornamelijk zijn intellect. Hij beraamt plannen, bespeelt de weinige mensen met wie hij te maken krijgt (zijn cipier en een aantal medegevangen) en zint, nadat hij heeft ingezien dat de reden en de duur van zijn opsluiting hem niet duidelijk zullen worden gemaakt, al vrij snel op een ontsnapping. Potter gebruikt de episode van de gevangenschap als een dramatische snelkookpan waarmee hij de diepere lagen van de persoon Casanova aan de oppervlakte brengt en de acteur Frank Finlay leeft zich er met de ongeremde emotionaliteit van zijn tijd in uit. Hysterisch gelach, koortsdromen en naar krankzinnigheid neigende werkelijkswanen maken van de eenzame opsluiting een hellegang. Het doet in zekere zin denken aan de wijze waarop Tim Rice jezus in musicalvorm voor zijn eigen tijd actualiseerde.

Het is voor iedere liefhebber van een boek pijnlijk om, na de innerlijke beleving van het woord, de held van zijn verhaal in beeld te zien. Bij Casanova, die zo’n enorm gedetailleerd en tegenstrijdig portret van zichzelf heeft nagelaten, en die mede gevormd werd door conventies waarvan wij de verstrekkendheid hedentendage niet meer waarlijk kunnen doorvoelen, is dat misschien nog wel meer het geval dan bij andere historische figureren, met als voornaamste uitzondering de bejaarde Casanova zoals die door Marcello Mastroianni in Ettore Scola’s La Nuit de Varennes werd neergezet, waarover later meer. De Casanova die Heath Ledger speelt in Lasse Hälstroms, wederom niet bijster origineel gedoopt film ‘Casanova’, uit 2005, neerzet heeft weinig met de naamgever en zijn tijd te maken anders dan door de onontkenbare charme van de hoofdrolspeler en de rijke aankleding van kostuums en decors.

Frank Finlay, de vertolker in Potters vrije adaptatie, speelt Casanova als een man die buiten zijn eigen wil om handelt. Zijn acteren pendelt tussen uitgelaten krankzinnigheid en de meest beheerste elegantie. Hij is een man gevangen in zijn eigen woorden en in het beeld dat hij met zoveel inzet en succes van zichzelf heeft gemaakt. De werkelijk gevangen Casanova, verstoken van een buitenwereld die hij zo hard nodig heeft om zichzelf te kunnen zien, neemt onvermijdelijk de trekken aan van de schrijver van het stuk. Een schrijver die net als zijn personage met woorden probeerde te ontsnappen aan zijn achtergrond – een thema dat hij nog verder zou uitwerken in The Singing Detective – maar altijd tussen twee werelden zou blijven zweven. Zich aan woorden vastklampend die tenslotte nooit de werkelijkheid volledig buiten de deur kunnen houden, en die terwijl wij denken hen te gebruiken om ons los te denken, feitelijk degenen zijn die ons als instrument gebruiken om zich te uitten. Een mooie leugen wordt eerder geloofd dan een lelijke waarheid. Wat je verzint wordt echt. Maar waar loopt het uit de hand? Waar eindigt het voordeel van de tovenarij met woorden? Op welk moment wordt de grens overschreden waarlangs de illusie onverbiddelijk haar tol eist? Het zijn van die vragen waarop je pas het antwoord weet als het al te laat is. En in een sleutelscene van de serie, in de voorlaatste aflevering, is het zover.

Casanova bevindt zich in London, en heeft onder valse voorwendselen een advertentie gezet in de krant waarin hij een etage in zijn huis aanbiedt aan een alleenstaande, jonge vrouw, zonder kinderen en die geen bezoek ontvangt. De vrouw die hij uiteidnelijk kiest is knap, maar gruwlijk eerzaam en draagster van een groot geheim waardoor zij zich niet aan hem kan geven. Zij is in afwachting van een brief van haar echtgenoot. En als die komt zal zij moeten gaan. “Vraagt u alstublieft niet meer aan mij.”
Een situatie die de gevoelens van smachtende verliefdheid bij haar gulle verhuurder sterker zouden aanjagen is niet denkbaar. Gedurende een zestal weken waarin niets gebeurd maar veel wordt besproken en de spanning tussen beiden hoog oploopt, onstaat er desondanks een vertrouwdheid in het gedeelde lot van een onmogelijke liefde, waardoor de twee zich vrijelijk tegenover elkaar uitspreken.

Casanova, tastend naar de motieven voor zijn liefde legt zijn twijfels en gedachten aan de vrouw voor wier gevoelens daardoor niet minder verward worden. Nergens uiteraard is in de vertwijfeling die hij tegenover haar uitspreekt de bijgedachte ver, dat het juist deze verklaring van onwaardigheid zal zijn die uiteindelijk haar hart zal winnen. Maar als na lang smachten de verovering inderdaad bijna daar is hoort Casanova, in extase, zichzelf woorden herhalen die hij jaren daarvoor, ten overstaan van een andere eeuwige liefde, in volle overtuiging uitsprak. En hij voelt zich betrapt en duwt de vrouw bruut van zich weg.

In het begin van de scene verklaart hij haar enigzins zakelijk de liefde. Hij bekent dat vele malen eerder te hebben gedaan maar dat hij is veranderd.

“Mijn liefde voor u doet er niet toe. Ze is er. Ze bestaat. Ze zal niet veranderen, ze hoort nu bij me. Laat me het gewoon zeggen. Laat het me mezelf horen zeggen, terwijl ik van binnen weet dat ik nog nooit zulke ware woorden heb gesproken. Lieve God, ik meen het. Kunt U mij geen hoop geven?”
De jonge vrouw weet niet wat ze moet zeggen: “U bent zo aardig voor me geweest. U hebt geluisterd en u hebt gepraat waardoor ik de afschuwlijke toestand waarin ik mij bevind op momenten kon vergeten.”
“Ik probeerde U te verleiden”
“Ik weet het.”
“Maar ik ben blij dat ik het niet heb gedaan.”
Casanova geeft de jonge vrouw de tijd om de schok te laten inzinken.
“U heeft een prachtig lichaam, het is sierlijk. Uw ledematen drukken, zonder dat ze het zelf willen, sierlijkheid uit. Iets dat ontoegankelijk is voor iemand zoals ik. Iets dat ik maar net herken, maar wat ik niet kan vinden, niet kan vatten, niet kan vasthouden.”
“Doe uzelf niet tekort.”
Casanova loopt naar het raam. Kijkt naar buiten en naar zijn eigen spiegeling in het glas.
“Vreemd deze weerspiegeling… ik zie mijn gezicht vemengt met de achtergrond, alsof ik daar op een bepaalde manier deel vanuit maak. Mijn gezicht gaat op in andere dingen, andere beelden. En mijn woorden? Gaat het daar ook zo mee? Zijn mijn woorden een weerspiegeling vermengt met andere geluiden, andere momenten, andere situaties, andere verlangens?”
Woorden die voor hem van levensbelang waren omdat ze niet alleen toegang gaven tot een wereld waar hij op grond van zijn afkomst en rijkdom niet zou zijn toegelaten, woorden die, meer dan welke vrouwlijke schoonheid ook, zijn zintuigen voedden. De woorden die als enige echt zijn hart veroverd hebben en hem hebben gemaakt tot wie hij is: een bijna volmaakte, half-automatische woordenmachine, die niet zozeer bestaat door zijn daden maar hoe hij er over spreekt. En zelfs wanneer hij die machine afvalt, in een moment van bitter inzicht, doet hij dat met woorden die een verdediging waardig waren geweest.
“Ik heb ze allemaal eerder gehoord. Ik heb altijd naar mijzelf geluisterd. Ieder woord voorzichtig plaatsend als een kat op het dak, een roofdier op jacht. Alle woorden. Ik heb alle woorden verbruikt. Zodat, wanneer ik de waarheid wil uitdrukken alles wat ik zeg me bespottelijk maakt. Alles kaatst terug naar tijden toen ik precies diezelfde woorden gebruikte, met schijnbaar precies dezelfde oprechtheid.”

Er is een theoretisch oneindig aantal vrouwen dat hij zou kunnen veroveren, maar de wijze waarop is pijnlijk beperkt voor een man die van geen einde wil weten. Uiteindelijk is het dus onvermijdelijk dat hij zichzelf en zijn woorden – twee grootheden waarvan het individuele bestaan, los van de ander, niet te bewijzen valt – in exact dezelfde vorm maar in een geheel andere omgeving weer tegenkomt. Over dat wat zijn diepste verlangen is, zijn zintuigen te voeden en te verklaren met tijdloze extase, komt nu de grauwe sluier van de herhaling te liggen die zijn blik op de schoonheid vertroebelt en hem doet twijfelen aan het gelijk van zijn zintuigen.
“Zijn er geen nieuwe woorden? Is er voor een libertijn geen manier om de woorden uit zijn ziel te trekken die uiteindelijk alle vreugde, alle pijn en waarheid uitdrukken?”
Pauline, de jonge vrouw zegt dat zij hem geloofd. “Dat zeiden ze allemaal,” is het onnodig harde antwoord.

Casanova is het soort bron waarin iedereen wel iets van zijn gading kan vinden. Van de meest stijve moralist tot de meest vrijzinnige denker. Hij is een vignet dat op vele wijnen past. De raadselachtige voorkeur van Federico Fellini voor Donald Sutherland boven de veel voordehandliggender keuze voor Mastroianni als hoofdrolspeler in zijn ‘Il Casanova” uit 1976 had uiteraard met het rijzige postuur te maken dat Sutherland, anders dan Mastroianni, met Casanova gemeen had. Daarnaast speelde nog iets mee. “Sutherland,” schijnt Fellini te hebben gezegd, “heeft de ogen van een masturbator.” Een observatie die naadloos aansluit op Fellini’s visie op de figuur Casanova die aan het einde van de film fameus verliefd wordt op een 18-eeuwse mechanische love-doll. Casanova gebruikte de wereld als een zakdoek om zich in af te trekken, zegt Fellini wiens ambivalente weerzin voor de Casanova zoals die uit de memoires op ons afkomt, niet moeilijk te ontmaskeren is als een vorm van zelfhaat van de man die net als Casanova de wereld zozeer nodig had om zichzelf te kunnen zien dat hij een tweede schiep.

Bij Fellini’s Casanova ligt er een waas van onechtheid over de mensen en de dingen. Ze lachen te hard, ze maken te veel lawaai en ze bewegen zich als acteurs die van hun rol hun leven hebben gemaakt. De nonchalante realiteit die in bijna al zijn andere films, met uitzondering misschien van Satyricon, aanwezig is ontbreekt nadrukkelijk in deze verfilming. Het lijkt er zelfs op dat Fellini na zijn triomfen van het decennium daarvoor, net als Casanova op het midden van zijn leven in wantrouwen omkijkt naar zijn eigen meest succesvolle verhalen. Zoals alle vormen van liefde evenvele variaties op masturbatie zijn, zo is ook de kunst uiteindelijk niet meer dan een spiegeling waarin men zijn eigen portret ziet zweven, zonder dat het de dingen waartussen het zich beweegt ooit echt aan zal kunnen raken. Een ongrijpbaar, maar sierlijk niets dat zich even makkelijk tooit in liefde als in wanhoop.

Een filmscene die met enig recht voor altijd aan de herinnering van Casanova zal zijn vastgekleeft komt uit het eerder genoemde La Nuit de Varennes, het briljante en op bijna alle vlakken perfect uitgevoerde kostuumdrama, waarin in het spoor van de op de vlucht geslagen Lodewijk XIV en zijn gezin – die incognito onderweg zijn naar het buitenland en Koningsgetrouwe militaire troepen – een aantal historische figuren samen komen. Daaronder Thomas Paine, een spick & span vertolking van een nog jeugdige Harvy Keitel, die blinkt van rationalisme en het triomfantelijke gelijk van de Amerikaanse onafhankelijkheid, en voor eigen zaken onderweg is naar Metz. De schrijver en drukker Nicolas-Edme Retif die een journalist avant la lettre is en door nieuwsgierigheid en goede kopij voor zijn legendarische maandkrant Les Nuits de Paris gedreven wordt de vlucht van de koning te volgen. Een hofdame van Marie-Antoinette – een in koele bloei staande Hanna Schygulla – en haar aandoenlijk nichterige kapper, die koning in het geheim volgen, een aristocratische grootindustrieel, een italiaanse operazangeres en haar norsige minnaar en het nodige personeel.

Er ontvouwd zich een roadmovie met postkoetsen die de hedendaagse kijker onbewust doet terugverlangen naar deze wijde wereld van spierkracht en wind die ooit door mensen werd bewoond. Door een verkeersongeluk met een paard maakt De Retif kennis met Giacomo Casanova die, zeventig jaar oud, terug op weg is naar het kasteel Wallenstein in Dux (Bohemen) dat hij enige maanden daarvoor is ontvlucht, om nog een keer rusteloos en zonder doel ¬– behave zich te verwijderen van dat wat achter hem ligt – door zijn geliefde Frankrijk te reizen. Maar hij reist door een wereld die hij niet meer herkent. De revolutie heeft het land lelijk en de mensen ontevreden gemaakt en de koning heeft het volk, door vermomd als een lakei te vluchten, een onweerlegbaar bewijs voor haar minachting gegeven.

De hofdame bekent tijdens een tussenstop dat zij Casanova vroeger aan het hof heeft gezien, toen zij nog een meisje was. “U was mijn eerste liefde,” fluistert zij.
De oude man kijkt haar weemoedig aan. “U bent te laat geboren, en ik te vroeg.”
Met een klein gebaar haalt hij zijn schouder op.
“Als wij ons straks weer bij de rest voegen zullen ze denken dat ons gesprek van amoreuze aard was,” zegt de hofdame met droeve koketterie.
Casanova, stram als in de houding en met plechtige ernst: “Dat was het ook voor mij.”

Zoals hij van vrouwen hield, zo hield hij ook van Frankrijk. Als een vanzelfsprekend verlengstuk van zijn eigen persoonlijkheid. Rijk, gelukkig, vrolijk, potent en binnen haar eigen grenzen oneindig. Na zijn vlucht uit de Piombi zette Casanova bijna onmiddelijk koers naar Parijs, het licht van de wereld in die tijd. Binnen een jaar zou hij er miljonair zijn en vertrouweling van hoogggeplaatsten aan het Franse hof. Welke zeventigjarige die in melancholie terugkijkt op zijn leven waarin hij met niets begon zou geen goede herinneringen overhouden aan het land waarin hem al dat fortuin ten deel is gevallen? Een fortuin overigens dat hij binnen enkele jaren weer geheel zou verliezen door dezelfde levensstijl als waarmee hij het verworven had. Als geen ander belichaamd hij de wereld die met de uiteindelijke aanhouding van het Koninklijk gezin in Varennes, tot stilstand komt. Een wereld van toevallige rijkdom, ver doorgevoerde vormelijkheid en liefdadigheid bij gebrek aan rechtvaardigheid, snakkend naar verstrooing voor wie zich de verveling kon permitteren. Een door God zelf gesanctioneerde, neo-liberale natte droom waarin voor een ongebonden man met ideeen, talent, gevoel voor theater en een grote mate van doortastendheid meer te vinden was dan in een wereld die in alles streefde naar gelijkheid. De ondergang van die wereld loopt parallel aan de ondergang van zijn fysieke leven waar een revolutie van de dood onder de organen en gewrichten sluimerde waarvoor de rusteloze geest, zoals de Franse koning voor zijn volk, tegen beter weten in op de vlucht was geslagen.

Ook Mastroianni doorspekt zijn Casanova ongetwijfeld met veel genoegen met nuances uit zijn eigen leven. De ongeneeslijke meidengek die een tiental jaren eerder in Le Garnde Bouffe nog uitschreeuwde dat hij minstens eenmaal per dag moest neuken omdat hij anders gek zou worden, speelt die andere ongeneeslijke meidengek op leeftijd, met de vermoeidheid van persoonlijke ervaring. Het is opvallend dat deze Casanova, wiens persoonlijkheid in de periode die de film beslaat, eigenlijk al opgehouden had te bestaan – hij is een mythe geworden van wie alleen mensen van een bepaalde leeftijd nog weten – dichter bij ons vermoeden van de werkelijke Casanova komt dan de veel diepgravender poging tot analyse die Potter op hem los laat. Uiteraard heeft dat te maken met de wijze waarop Mastroianni hem vertolkt, als een man die ooit groter dan het leven was maar nu zijn onweerstaanbare zelfverzekerheid en charme met zich meezeult in een haperend lichaam, dat de last van die charme nauwelijks meer kan dragen. Maar ook omdat de film ons Casanova niet alleen als mens laat zien, maar als produkt van zijn tijd die, in de contex van de Franse revolutie, plotseling een onbedoeld exentriek en enigzins naief voorkomen heeft gekregen, als een reliëf dat van opzij aangelicht als bij toverslag groteske contouren krijgt.

Aan redenen om ontevreden te zijn met het bestaan was ook in de 18de eeuw geen gebrek. Literatuur was een geaccepteerde vorm van escapisme die het mogelijk maakte – door toespelingen, dubbelzinnigheden en door wat verzwegen diende te worden heel hoorbaar niet te zeggen – te ontsnappen aan een vormelijkheid die zij naar buiten toe bevestigde. Voor zulk een lucide nuancering van de werkelijkheid is in tijden van revolutie geen geduld. Casanova’s voorliefde voor makerades, verkleedpartijen, intelligente oplichterij en ver doorgevoerde practical jokes waren het kenmerk van een elite die in grote mate buiten de werkelijkheid leefde waardoor de literaire verbeelding van die werkelijkheid – die dus al van zichzelf in grote mate virtueel was – voor waarachtige realiteit kon worden gehouden. Ondanks dat men begin en einde van het touw niet ziet loopt men door wolken van verbeelding over het slappe koort van de taal. En meer nog dan van zijn moeder was Casanova een kind van die taal. Een in zichzelf opgesloten draagbare werkelijkheid die zich als door een poreuze wand met het echte leven vermengt. Woorden maakten hem tot wie hij was. Eerst in het echte leven, en tenslotte in zijn verslag daarvan.

Naast de gebeurtenisvolheid van dat leven lijkt de voornaamste oorzaak voor de omvang van zijn memoires dan ook de noodzakelijke aanwezigheid van woorden in zijn leven, zonder wie niets echt bestaat of gebeurd is. Niet de liefde, niet de avonturen, niet de voorspoed en tegenslag, niet de vele ontmoetingen, maar alleen wat in woorden gevat werd was echt, en is echt gebleven als het niets met heel veel krullen.

26 juli 2010

July 26, 2010


Filed under: literature — ABRAXAS @ 5:41 pm

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