the opening of platonov’s surrealist masterpiece the foundation pit

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On the day when he reached the thirtieth year of his personal life Voshchev was discharged from the small machine factory where he had earned the means of his existence. The dismissal notice stated that he was being separated from his job because of his increasing loss of powers and tendency to stop and think amidst the general flow of work . . .

The tavernkeeper was readying his establishment, winds and grasses swayed around Voshchev in the sun when he reluctantly opened his eyes, filled with renewed moist strength. He had to live and eat again; therefore he went to see the trade union committee, to defend his unneeded labor.

The management says that you were standing and thinking in the middle of production," they told him at the trade union committee. "What were you thinking about, Comrade Voshchev?”

 

"About the plan of life."

 

"The factory works according to the plan laid down by the Trust. As for your private life, you could plan it out at the club or in the Red Reading Room."

 

"I was thinking about the general plan of life. I’m not worried about my own life, that’s no secret to me."

 

"And what could you accomplish?"

 

"I could have thought up something like happiness, and spiritual meaning would improve productivity."

 

"Happiness will come from materialism, Comrade Voshchev, and not from meaning. We cannot defend you, you are a politically ignorant man, and we don’t wish to find ourselves at the tail end of the masses.”

 

Voshchev wanted to ask for some other work, even the feeblest, just so that he would earn enough to eat; and he would do his thinking on his own time. But how can one ask for anything if there’s no respect for a man, and Voshchev saw that those people had no feeling for him.

 

"You’re scared of being at the tail end of the masses; naturally, a tail’s the hind extremity. So you’ve climbed up on their necks.”

 

"The government gave you an extra hour for your thinking, Voshchev. You used to work eight hours, and now it’s only seven. You should have lived and kept quiet! If everybody starts thinking all at once, who’ll do the acting?”

 

"Without thought, there won’t be any sense in the action,” Voshchev said reflectively.

 

He left the trade union committee without getting help. The path before him lay in the heat of summer. On either side people were building technical improvements and houses where the masses, homeless until now, would live in silence . . .

Andrey Platonovich Platonov (1899-1951) was the son of a railway worker. The eldest of eleven children, he began work at the age of thirteen, first in an office, then in a factory, and finally as an engine driver’s assistant. He began publishing poems and articles in 1918, while studying engineering. Throughout much of the 1920s he worked as a land reclamation expert. Between 1927 and 1932 he wrote his most politically controversial works, some of them first published in the Soviet Union only in the late 1980s. Other stories were published but subjected to vicious criticism. Stalin is reputed to have written "scum" in the margin of the story "For Future Use," and to have said to Aleksandr Fadeev (later secretary of the Writers’ Union), "Give him a good belting—for future use." During the 1930s Platonov made several public confessions of error, but went on writing stories only marginally more acceptable to the authorities. His son was sent to the Gulag in 1938, aged fifteen; he was released three years later, only to die of the tuberculosis he had contracted there. During the war Platonov worked as a war correspondent and published several volumes of stories; after the war, however, he was again almost unable to publish. He died in 1951, of tuberculosis caught from his son . . .

 

—from http://www.nybooks.com/shop/product?usca_p=t&product_id=8831

“through this shaft of nothings we drive onward with that miraculous vitality”—iris murdoch

All work and all love, the search for wealth and fame, the search for truth, like itself, are made up of moments which pass and become nothing.  Yet through this shaft of nothings we drive onward with that miraculous vitality that creates our precarious habitations in the past and future.  So we live; a spirit that broods and hovers over the continual death of time, the lost meaning, the unrecaptured moment, the unremembered face, until the final chop that end  all our moments and plunges that spirit back into the void from which it came.

—Iris Murdoch, Under The Net. London: Chatto & Windus, 1954, p. 275

so much pain . . .

and it never ends.

wishing & questing: norman o. brown’s freud, the history of western thought, and the essence of man

“…this amounts to saying that the essence of man is contemplation. But ambiguously juxtaposed with this doctrine of man as contemplator is the Platonic doctrine of Eros, which, as elaborated by Plato in the Symposium and the Phaedrus, suggests that the fundamental quest of man is to find a satisfactory object for his love. A similar ambiguity between man as contemplator and man as lover is to be found in Spinoza and Hegel. The turning point in the Western tradition comes in the reaction to Hegel, Feuerbach, followed by Marx, calls for the abandonment of the contemplative tradition in favor of what he calls ‘practical-sensuous activity’; the meaning of this concept, and its relation to Freud, would take us far afield. But Schopenhauer, in his notion of the primacy of will—however much he may undo his own notion by his search for an escape from the primacy of the will—is a landmark, seceding from the great, and really rather insane, Western tradition that the goal of mankind is to become as contemplative as possible. Freudian psychology eliminates the category of pure contemplation as nonexistent. Only a wish, says Freud, can possibly set our psychic apparatus in motion…”

 

PART ONE

THE PROBLEM 

 

The entry into Freud cannot avoid being a plunge into a strange world and a strange languagea world of sick men, a diagnostic language of formidable technicality. But this strange world is the world we all of us actually live in.

 

 

1

The Disease Called Man

 

There is one word which, if we only understand it, is the key to Freud’s thought. That word is "repression." The whole edifice of psychoanalysis, Freud said, is based upon the theory of repression.1 Freud’s entire life was devoted to the study of the phenomenon he called repression. The Freudian revolution is that radical revision of traditional theories of human nature and human society which becomes necessary if repression is recognized as a fact. In the new Freudian perspective, the essence of society is repression of the individual, and the essence of the individual is repression of himself.    

 

The best way to explore the notion of repression is to review the path which led Freud to his hypothesis. Freud’s breakthrough was the discovery of meaningfulness in a set of phenomena theretofore regarded, at least in scientific circles, as meaningless: first, the "mad" symptoms of the mentally deranged; second, dreams; and third, the various phenomena gathered together under the title of the psychopathology of everyday life, including slips of the tongue, errors, and random thoughts.                 

                  

Now in what sense does Freud find meaningfulness in neurotic symptoms, dreams, and errors? He means, of course, that these phenomena are determined and can be given a causal explanation. He is rigorously insisting on unequivocal allegiance to the principle of psychic determinism; but he means much more than that. For if it were possible to explain these phenomena on behavioristic principles, as the result of superficial associations of ideas, then they would have a cause but no meaning. Meaningfulness means expression of a purpose or an intention. The crux of Freud’s discovery is that neurotic symptoms, as well as the dreams and errors of everyday life, do have meaning, and that the meaning of "meaning" has to be radically revised because they have meaning. Since the purport of these purposive expressions is generally unknown to the person whose purpose they express, Freud is driven to embrace the paradox that there are in a human being purposes of which he knows nothing, involuntary purposes,2 or, in more technical Freudian language, "unconscious ideas." From this point of view a new world of psychic reality is opened up, of whose inner nature we are every bit as ignorant as we are of the reality of the external world, and of which our ordinary conscious observation tells us no more than our sense organs are able to report to us of the external world.3 Freud can thus define psychoanalysis as "nothing more than the discovery of the unconscious in mental life."4                

                  

But the Freudian revolution is not limited to the hypothesis of an unconscious psychic life in the human being in addition to his conscious life. The other crucial hypothesis is that some unconscious ideas in a human being are incapable of becoming conscious to him in the ordinary way, because they are strenuously disowned and resisted by the conscious self. From this point of view Freud can say that "the whole of psychoanalytic theory is in fact built up on the perception of the resistance exerted by the patient when we try to make him conscious of his unconscious." 5 The dynamic relation between the unconscious and the conscious life is one of conflict, and psychoanalysis is from top to bottom a science of mental conflict.                  

 

The realm of the unconscious is established in the individual when he refuses to admit into his conscious life a purpose or desire which he has, and in doing so establishes in himself a psychic force opposed to his own idea. This rejection by the individual of a purpose or idea, which nevertheless remains his, is repression. "The essence of repression lies simply in the function of rejecting or keeping something out of consciousness."6 Stated in more general terms, the essence of repression lies in the refusal of the human being to recognize the realities of his human nature. The fact that the repressed purposes nevertheless remain his is shown by dreams and neurotic symptoms, which represent an irruption of the unconscious into consciousness, producing not indeed a pure image of the unconscious, but a compromise between the two conflicting systems, and thus exhibiting the reality of the conflict.        

 

Thus the notion of the unconscious remains an enigma without the theory of repression; or, as Freud says, ”We obtain our theory of the unconscious from the theory of repression." 7 To put it another way, the unconscious is "the dynamically unconscious repressed." 8 Repression is the key word in the whole system; the word is chosen to indicate a structure dynamically based on psychic conflict. Freud illustrates the nature of psychic repression by a series of metaphors and analogies drawn from the social phenomena of war, civil war, and police action.9                  

                  

From neurotic symptoms, dreams, and errors to a general theory of human nature may seem like a long step. Granting that it is a long step, Freud could argue that he is entitled to explore the widest possible application of a hypothesis derived from a narrow field. He could take the offensive and claim that traditional theories of human nature must be regarded as unsatisfactory because they have nothing to say about these peripheral phenomena. What theory of human nature, except Freud’s, does have anything significant to say about dreams or insanity? And are dreams and insanity really negligible factors on the periphery of human life?                

 

But the truth of the matter is that Freud maintains that to go from neurotic symptoms, dreams, and errors, to a new theory of human nature in general involves no further step at all. For the evidence on which the hypothesis of the repressed unconscious is based entails the conclusion that it is a phenomenon present in all human beings. The psychopathological phenomena of everyday life, although trivial from a practical point of view, are theoretically important because they show the intrusion of unconscious intentions into our everyday and supposedly normal behavior.

 

Even more theoretically important are dreams. For dreams, also "normal" phenomena, exhibit in detail not only the existence of the unconscious but also the dynamics of its repression (the dream-censorship). But since the same dynamics of repression explained neurotic symptoms, and since the dreams of neurotics, which are a clue to the meaning of their symptoms, differ neither in structure nor in content from the dreams of normal people, the conclusion is that a dream is itself a neurotic symptom.10 We are all therefore neurotic. At least dreams show that the difference between neurosis and health prevails only by day; and since the psychopathology of everyday life exhibits the same dynamics, even the waking life of the "healthy" man is pervaded by innumerable symptom-formations. Between "normality" and "abnormality" there is no qualitative but only a quantitative difference, based largely on the practical question of whether our neurosis is serious enough to incapacitate us for work.11    

 

Or perhaps we are closer to the Freudian point of view if we give a more paradoxical formulation; the difference between "neurotic" and "healthy" is only that the "healthy" have a socially usual form of neurosis. At any rate, to quote a more technical and cautious formulation of the same theorem, Freud says that from the study of dreams we learn that the neuroses make use of a mechanism already in existence as a normal part of our psychic structure, not of one that is newly created by some morbid disturbance or other.12

 

Thus Freud’s first paradox, the existence of a repressed unconscious, necessarily implies the second and even more significant paradox, the universal neurosis of mankind. Here is the pons asinorum of psychoanalysis. Neurosis is not an occasional aberration; it is not just in other people; it is in us, and in us all the time. It is in the psychoanalyst: Freud discovered the Oedipus complex, which he regarded as the root of all neurosis, by self-analysis. The Interpretation of Dreams is one of the great applications and extensions of the Socratic maxim, "Know thyself." Or, to put it another way, the doctrine of the universal neurosis of mankind is the psychoanalytical analogue of the theological doctrine of original sin.     

 

The crucial point in Freud’s basic hypothesis is the existence of psychic conflict; the hypothesis cannot be meaningfully formulated without some further specification of the nature of the conflict and the conflicting forces. Now Freud made repeated analyses of the fundamental psychic conflict, at several different levels and from several points of view. Let us at this point try to abstract the common core from these various accounts.         

 

In our first description of Freud’s theory of repression we used the word "purpose" to designate that which is repressed into the unconscious. This excessively vague word conceals a fundamental Freudian axiom. The psychic conflict which produces dreams and neuroses is not generated by intellectual problems but by purposes, wishes, desires. Freud’s frequent use of the term "unconscious idea" can be misleading here. But as Freud says, "We remain on the surface so long as we treat only of memories and ideas. The only valuable things in psychic life are, rather, the emotions. All psychic forces are significant only through their aptitude to arouse emotions. Ideas are repressed only because they are bound up with releases of emotions, which are not to come about; it would be more correct to say that repression deals with the emotions, but these are comprehensible to us only in their tie-up with ideas." 13 Freud is never tired of insisting that dreams are in essence wish-fulfillments, expressions of repressed unconscious wishes, and neurotic symptoms likewise. 
         

Now if we take "desire" as the most suitably abstract of this series of terms, it is a Freudian axiom that the essence of man consists, not, as Descartes maintained, in thinking, but in desiring. Plato (and, mutatis mutandis, Aristotle) identified the summum bonum for man with contemplation; since the telos or end is the basic element in definition, this amounts to saying that the essence of man is contemplation. But ambiguously juxtaposed with this doctrine of man as contemplator is the Platonic doctrine of Eros, which, as elaborated by Plato in the Symposium and the Phaedrus, suggests that the fundamental quest of man is to find a satisfactory object for his love. A similar ambiguity between man as contemplator and man as lover is to be found in Spinoza and Hegel. The turning point in the Western tradition comes in the reaction to Hegel, Feuerbach, followed by Marx, calls for the abandonment of the contemplative tradition in favor of what he calls "practical-sensuous activity"; the meaning of this concept, and its relation to Freud, would take us far afield. But Schopenhauer, in his notion of the primacy of will—however much he may undo his own notion by his search for an escape from the primacy of the will—is a landmark, seceding from the great, and really rather insane, Western tradition that the goal of mankind is to become as contemplative as possible. Freudian psychology eliminates the category of pure contemplation as nonexistent. Only a wish, says Freud, can possibly set our psychic apparatus in motion.14

 

With this notion of desire as the essence of man is joined a definition of desire as energy directed toward the procurement of pleasure and avoidance of pain. Hence Freud can say, "Our entire psychical activity is bent upon procuring pleasure and avoiding pain, is automatically regulated by the pleasure-principle."15 Or, "It is simply the pleasure-principle which draws up the programme of life’s purpose."16 At this level of analysis, the pleasure-principle implies no complicated hedonistic theory nor any particular theory as to the sources of pleasure. It is an assumption taken from common sense, and means much the same as Aristotle’s dictum that all men seek happiness: Freud says that the goal of the pleasure-principle is happiness.17

 

But man’s desire for happiness is in conflict with the whole world. Reality imposes on human beings the necessity of renunciation of pleasures; reality frustrates desire. The pleasure-principle is in conflict with the reality-principle, and this conflict is the cause of repression.18 Under the conditions of repression the essence of our being lies in the unconscious, and only in the unconscious does the pleasure-principle reign supreme. Dreams and neurotic symptoms show that the frustrations of reality cannot destroy the desires which are the essence of our being: the unconscious is the unsubdued and indestructible element in the human soul. The whole world may be against it, but still man holds fast to the deep-rooted, passionate striving for a positive fulfillment of happiness.19    

 

The conscious self, on the other hand, which by refusing to admit a desire into consciousness institutes the process of repression, is, so to speak, the surface of ourselves mediating between our inner real being and external reality. The nucleus of the conscious self is that part of the mind or system in the mind which receives perceptions from the external world. This nucleus acquires a new dimension through the power of speech, which makes it accessible to the process of education and acculturation. The conscious self is the organ of adaptation to the environment and to the culture. The conscious self, therefore, is governed not by the pleasure-principle but by the principle of adjustment to reality, the reality-principle.   

 

From this point of view dreams and neurotic symptoms, which we previously analyzed as produced by the conflict between the conscious and unconscious systems, can also be analyzed as produced by the conflict between the pleasure-principle and the reality-principle.20 On the one hand, dreams, neurotic symptoms, and all other manifestations of the unconscious, such as fantasy, represent in some degree or other a flight or alienation from a reality which is found unbearable.21 On the other hand, they represent a return to the pleasure-principle; they are substitutes for pleasures denied by reality.22 In this compromise between the two conflicting systems, the pleasure desired is reduced or distorted or even transformed to pain. Under the conditions of repression, under the domination of the reality-principle, the pursuit of pleasure is degraded to the status of a symptom.23

 

But to say that reality or the reality-principle causes repression defines the problem rather than solves it. Freud sometimes identifies the reality-principle with the "struggle for existence," as if repression could be ultimately explained by some objective economic necessity to work.24 But man makes his own reality and various kinds of reality (and various compulsions to work) through the medium of culture or society. It is therefore more adequate to say that society imposes repression, though even this formula in Freud’s early writings is connected with the inadequate idea that society, in imposing repression, is simply legislating the demands of objective economic necessity. This naive and rationalistic sociology stands, or rather falls, with Freud’s earlier version of psychoanalysis. The later Freud, as we shall see, in his doctrine of anxiety is moving toward the position that man is the animal which represses himself and which creates culture or society in order to repress himself. Even the formula that society imposes repression poses a problem rather than solves it; but the problem it poses is large. For if society imposes repression, and repression causes the universal neurosis of mankind, it follows that there is an intrinsic connection between social organization and neurosis. Man the social animal is by the same token the neurotic animal. Or, as Freud puts it, man’s superiority over the other animals is his capacity for neurosis, and his capacity for neurosis is merely the obverse of his capacity for cultural development. 25       

 

Freud therefore arrives at the same conclusion as Nietzsche ("the disease called man"26), but by a scientific route, by a study of the neuroses. Neurosis is an essential consequence of civilization or culture. Here again is a harsh lesson in humility, which tender-minded critics and apostles of Freud evade or suppress. We must be prepared to analyze clinically as a neurosis not only the foreign culture we dislike, but also our own.

 

 

—from Norman O. Brown, Life Against Death: The Psychoanalytical Meaning of History, Wesleyan University Press, 1959

 

 

 

Notes 

                  

1. The Basic Writings of Sigmund Freud, tr. & ed. A. A. Brill. New York: The Modern Library, 1938 (History), 939.                  

 

2. The Basic Writings of Sigmund Freud, (Dreams), 527.           

 

3. The Basic Writings of Sigmund Freud, (Dreams), 542.           

 

4. A General Introduction to Psycho-Analysis, tr. J. Riviere. New York: Perma Giants, 1953. Copyright 1935 by Edward L. Bemays. (Quotations from this source by permission of Liveright Publishers, New York, and G. Allen & Unwin Ltd., London.), 397.            

 

5. New Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis, tr. W. J. H. Sprott. (International Psycho-Analytical Library, no. 24.) London: Hogarth Press and The Institute of PsychoAnalysis, 1933, 92. Cf. The Ego and the Id, tr. J. Riviere. (International Psycho-Analytical Library, no. 12.) London: Hogarth Press and The Institute of Psycho-Analysis, 1927, 12.            

 

6. Collected Papers, IV, ed. J. Riviere & J. Strachey. 5 vols. (International Psycho-Analytical Library, no. 710, 37.) New York, London: The International Psycho-Analytical Press, 1924-50, 86. Cf. A General Introduction to Psycho-Analysis, 304, 358-59; The Ego and the Id, 11; New Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis, 25-26.

         

7. The Ego and the Id, 12.            

 

8. The Ego and the Id, 12. Cf. Delusion and Dream and Other Essays, ed. P. Rieff. Boston: Beacon Press, 1956, 70.              

 

9. The Basic Writings of Sigmund Freud, (Dreams), 473, 510-11, 540-41; A General Introduction to Psycho-Analysis, 146-47. Cf. The Basic Writings of Sigmund Freud, (Dreams), 519; A General Introduction to Psycho-Analysis, 70, 136, 311, 369.

 

10. A General Introduction to Psycho-Analysis, 87, 236, 307, 368, 464; New Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis, tr. W. J. H. Sprott. (International Psycho-Analytical Library, no. 24.) London: Hogarth Press and The Institute of Psycho-Analysis, 1933, 15, 26.   

         

11. A General Introduction to Psycho-Analysis,  367-68, 464-65; New Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis, 80; Collected Papers, II, 120; Collected Papers, V, 337; Delusion and Dream and Other Essays, 65.

         

12. The Basic Writings of Sigmund Freud, 1938 (Dreams), 539.

 

13. Delusion and Dream and Other Essays, 70.              

 

14. The Basic Writings of Sigmund Freud, (Dreams) 510. 

 

15. A General Introduction to Psycho-Analysis, 365. Cf. Collected Papers, V, 339.   
             

16. Civilization and Its Discontents, tr. J. Riviere. (International Psycho-Analytical Library, ed. E. Jones, no. 17.) London: Hogarth, 1930, 27. 

 

17. Civilization and Its Discontents, 27, 39.         

 

18. A General Introduction to Psycho-Analysis, 27, 310, 35354, 363; Civilization and Its Discontents, 33, 51, 68, 74; The Future of an Illusion, tr. W. D. Robson-Scott. (International Psycho-Analytical Library, no. 15.) London: Hogarth Press and The Institute of Psycho-Analysis, 1928, 16-17; Moses and Monotheism, tr. K. Jones. (International Psycho-Analytical Library, no. 33.) London: Hogarth Press and The Institute of Psycho-Analysis, 1939; (New York, Knopf, 1939), 182-87.             

 

19. Civilization and Its Discontents 37; The Basic Writings of Sigmund Freud, (Dreams), 500, 518, 536, 549; The Ego and the Id, 30; New Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis, 98; Beyond the Pleasure Principle, tr. J. Strachey. (International Psycho-Analytical Library, ed. E. Jones, no. 4.) London: Hogarth Press, 1950, 56.  

 

20. Collected Papers, IV, 13-21; The Ego and the Id, 19-33; New Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis, 100-101; A General Introduction to Psycho-Analysis, 359, 365, 436.     

         

21. Collected Papers, II, 114-15, 277-82; Collected Papers, IV, 13; Inhibitions, Symptoms and Anxiety, tr. A. Strachey. (International Psycho-Analytieal Library, no. 28.) London: Hogarth Press and The Institute of Psycho-Analysis, 1936, 136. 

 

22. A General Introduction to Psycho-Analysis, 308, 375, 453; Inhibitions, Symptoms and Anxiety, 20.                 

 

23. Inhibitions, Symptoms and Anxiety, 2028, 34; Beyond the Pleasure Principle, 7.             

24. A General Introduction to Psycho-Analysis, 27, 199, 321, 363; The Future of an Illusion, 16; Civilization and Its Discontents, 74.           

 

25. A General Introduction to Psycho-Analysis, 421; The Basic Writings of Sigmund Freud, (Sex) 622; Inhibitions, Symptoms and Anxiety, 134; Moses and Monotheism, 121. 

 

26. Nietzsche, The Philosophy of Nietzsche, p. 702.                 

                  

“no finer death in all the world…”—the opening of ernst jünger’s storm of steel

Ernst Jünger’s Storm of Steel chronicles his experiences on the Western Front in the First World War. It is widely considered one of the finest portrayals of mechanized warfare in all of literature. Its textual history reveals the intense feelings regarding his service in World War I that Jünger carried with him all his life: first published privately in 1920 as excerpts from Jünger’s diary, the text was revised eight times; the last iteration was the 1961 version for Jünger’s Collected Works. Jünger perversely stated in the preface to the 1929 English edition that "Time only strengthens my conviction that it was a good and strenuous life, and that the war, for all its destructiveness, was an incomparable schooling of the heart." Such observations earned him the reputation of a writer who glorified war, even the mindless, mechanized mass slaughter of trench warfare in W.W. I. Yet Jünger’s mimetic gifts persuade us that he saw not just the glory but also the cruelty and stupidity of the war, and catalogued with total precision the impressions the war left on his heart and psyche.  Often dismissed as a conservative reactionary or an unrepentant militarist, Jünger’s portrayal of the absurd and senseless aspects of the daily life of a soldier in the Great War earns Storm of Steel a place next to Louis Ferdinand-Céline’s brilliant Journey to the End of the Night.  

 

Storm of Steel

 

 

 

Ernst Jünger, Storm of Steel

For the fallen

 

In the Chalk Trenches of Champagne

 

The train stopped at Bazancourt, a small town in Champagne, and we got out. Full of awe and incredulity, we listened to the slow grinding pulse of the front, a rhythm we were to become mightily familiar with over the years. The white ball of a shrapnel shell melted far off, suffusing the grey December sky. The breath of battle blew across to us, and we shuddered. Did we sense that almost all of us — some sooner, some later — were to be consumed by it, on days when the dark grumbling yonder would crash over our heads like an incessant thunder?

 

We had come from lecture halls, school desks and factory workbenches, and over the brief weeks of training, we had bonded together into one large and enthusiastic group. Grown up in an age of security, we shared a yearning for danger, for the experience of the extraordinary. We were enraptured by war. We had set out in a rain of flowers, in a drunken atmosphere of blood and roses. Surely the war had to supply us with what we wanted; the great, the overwhelming, the hallowed experience. We thought of it as manly, as action, a merry duelling party on flowered, blood-bedewed meadows. ‘No finer death in all the world than …’ Anything to participate, not to have to stay at home!

 

‘Form up by platoon!’ Our heated fantasies cooled down on the march through the claggy soil of Champagne. Knapsacks, munition belts and rifles hung round our necks like lead weights. ‘Ease up! Keep up at the back!’

 

Finally we reached Orainville, one of the typical hamlets of the region, and the designated base for the 73rd Rifles, a group of fifty brick and limestone houses, grouped round a chateau in parkland.

 

Used as we were to the order of cities, the higgledy-piggledy life on the village streets struck us as exotic. We saw only a few, ragged, shy civilians; everywhere else soldiers in worn and tattered tunics, with faces weather-beaten and often with a heavy growth of beard, strolling along at a slow pace, or standing in little clusters in doorways, watching our arrival with ribald remarks. In a gateway there was a glowing field kitchen, smelling of pea soup, surrounded by men jingling their mess-tins as they waited to eat. It seemed that, if anything, life was a little slower and duller here, an impression strengthened by the evidence of dilapidation in the village.

 

We spent our first night in a vast barn, and in the morning were paraded before the regimental adjutant, First Lieutenant von Brixen, in the courtyard of the chateau. I was assigned to the 9th Company.

 

Our first day of war was not to pass without making a decisive impression upon us. We were sitting over breakfast in the school where we were quartered. Suddenly there was a series of dull concussions, and all the soldiers rushed out of the houses towards the entrance of the village. We followed suit, not really knowing why. Again, there was a curious fluttering and whooshing sound over our heads, followed by a sudden, violent explosion. I was amazed at the way the men around me seemed to cower while running at full pelt, as though under some frightful threat. The whole thing struck me as faintly ridiculous, in the way of seeing people doing things one doesn’t properly understand.

 

Immediately afterwards, groups of dark figures emerged on to the empty village street, carrying black bundles on canvas stretchers or fireman’s lifts of their folded hands. I stared, with a queasy feeling of unreality, at a blood-spattered form with a strangely contorted leg hanging loosely down, wailing ‘Help! Help!’ as if sudden death still had him by the throat. He was carried into a building with a Red Cross flag draped over the doorway.

 

What was that about? War had shown its claws, and stripped off its mask of cosiness. It was all so strange, so impersonal. We had barely begun to think about the enemy, that mysterious, treacherous being somewhere. This event, so far beyond anything we had experienced, made such a powerful impression on us that it was difficult to understand what had happened. It was like a ghostly manifestation in broad daylight.

 

A shell had burst high up over the chateau entrance, and had hurled a cloud of stone and debris into the gateway, just as the occupants, alerted by the first shots, were rushing out. There were thirteen fatalities, including Gebhard the music master, whom I remembered well from the promenade concerts in Hanover. A tethered horse had had a keener sense of the approaching danger than the men, and had broken free a few seconds before, and galloped into the courtyard, where it remained unhurt.

 

Even though the shelling could recommence at any moment, I felt irresistibly drawn to the site of the calamity. Next to the spot where the shell had hit dangled a little sign where some wag had written ‘Ordnance this way’. The castle was clearly felt to be a dangerous place. The road was reddened with pools of gore; riddled helmets and sword belts lay around. The heavy iron chateau gate was shredded and pierced by the impact of the explosive; the kerbstone was spattered with blood. My eyes were drawn to the place as if by a magnet; and a profound change went through me.

 

Talking to my comrades, I saw that the incident had rather blunted their enthusiasm for war. That it had also had an effect on me was instanced by numerous auditory hallucinations, so that I would mistake the trundling of a passing cart, say, for the ominous whirring of the deadly shell.

 

This was something that was to accompany us all through the war, that habit of jumping at any sudden and unexpected noise. Whether it was a train clattering past, a book falling to the floor, or a shout in the night — on each occasion, the heart would stop with a sense of mortal dread. It bore out the fact that for four years we lived in the shadow of death. The experience hit so hard in that dark country beyond consciousness, that every time there was a break with the usual, the porter Death would leap to the gates with hand upraised, like the figure above the dial on certain clock towers, who appears at the striking of the hour, with scythe and hourglass.

 

The evening of that same day brought the long-awaited moment of our moving, with full pack, up to battle stations. The road took us through the ruins of the village of Betricourt, looming spectrally out of the half-dark, to the so-called ‘Pheasantry’, an isolated forester’s house, buried in some pine woods, where the regimental reserve was housed, of which, to this point, the 9th Company had formed a part. Their commander was Lieutenant Brahms.

 

We were welcomed, divided up into platoons, and before long found ourselves in the society of bearded, mud-daubed fellows, who greeted us with a kind of ironic benevolence. They asked us how things were back in Hanover, and whether the war might not be over soon. Then the conversation turned, with us all listening avidly, to short statements about earthworks, field kitchens, stretches of trench, shell bombardment, and other aspects of stationary warfare.

 

After a little while, a shout rang out in front of our cottage-like billet to ‘Turn out!’ We formed up into our platoons, and on the order ‘Load and safety!’ we felt a little twinge of arousal as we rammed clips of live ammunition into our magazines.

 

Then silent progress, in Indian file, through the landscape dobbed with dark patches of forest to the front. Isolated shots rang out from time to time, or a rocket flared up with a hiss to leave us in deeper darkness following its short spectral flash. Monotonous clink of rifles and field shovels, punctuated by the warning cry: ‘Watch it, barbed wire!’

 

Then a sudden jingling crash and a man swearing: ‘Dammit, why couldn’t you tell me there’s a crater!’ A corporal shuts him up: ‘Pipe down, for Christ’s sake, do you think the French are wearing earplugs?’ More rapid progress. The uncertain night, the flickering of flares and the slow crackling of rifle fire produce a kind of subdued excitement that keeps us strangely on our toes. From time to time, a stray bullet whines past chilly into the distance. How often since that first time I’ve gone up the line through dead scenery in that strange mood of melancholy exaltation!

 

At last we dropped into one of the communication trenches that wound their way through the night like white snakes to the front. There I found myself standing between a couple of traverses, lonely and shivering, staring hard into a line of pines in front of the trench, where my imagination conjured up all sorts of shadowy figures, while the occasional stray bullet slapped into the boughs and somersaulted down with a whistle. The only diversion in this seemingly endless time was being collected by an older comrade, and trotting off together down a long, narrow passage to an advance sentry post, where, once again, it was our job to gaze out into the terrain in front. I was given a couple of hours to try to find an exhausted sleep in a bare chalk dugout. When the sky lightened, I was pale and clay-daubed, and so was everyone else; I felt I had lived this sort of mole’s life for many months already.

 

The regiment had taken up a position winding through the chalky Champagne soil, facing the village of Le Godat. On the right, it abutted a tattered area of woodland, the so-called ‘Shell Wood’, and from there it zigzagged across vast sugar-beet fields, where we could see the luminous red trousers of dead French attackers dotted about, to the course of a stream, across which communications with the 74th Regiment were kept open by patrols at night. The stream poured over the weir of a destroyed mill ringed by brooding trees. For months, its water had been laving the black parchment faces of the dead of a French colonial regiment. An eerie place, especially at night, when the moon cast moving shadows through breaks in the clouds, and the sounds of the rushes and the murmuring water were joined by others less easily accounted for.

 

The regimen was taxing, beginning at dusk, for which the entire complement was made to stand to in the trench. Between ten at night and six in the morning, only two men out of each platoon were allowed to sleep at a time, which meant that we got two hours a night each, though they were eaten into by being woken early, having to fetch straw, and other occupations, so that there were only a few minutes left as a rule.

 

Guard duty was either in the trench or else in one of the numerous forward posts that were connected to the line by long, buried saps; a type of insurance that was later given up, because of their exposed position.

 

The endless, exhausting spells of sentry duty were bearable so long as the weather happened to be fine, or even frosty; but it became torture once the rain set in in January. Once the wet had saturated the canvas sheeting overhead, and your coat and uniform, and trickled down your body for hours on end, you got into a mood that nothing could lighten, not even the sound of the splashing feet of the man coming towards you to relieve you. Dawn lit exhausted, clay-smeared figures who, pale and teeth chattering, flung themselves down on the mouldy straw of their dripping dugouts.

 

Those dugouts! They were holes hacked into the chalk, facing the trench, roofed over with boards and a few shovelfuls of earth. If it had been raining, they would drip for days afterwards; a desperate waggishness kitted them out with names like ‘Stalactite Cavern’, ‘Men’s Public Baths’, and other such. If several men wanted to rest at the same time, they had no option but to stick their legs out into the trench, where anyone passing was bound to trip over them. In the circumstances, there was not much chance of sleep in the daytime either. Besides, we had two hours of sentry duty in the day too, as well as having to make running repairs to the trench, go for food, coffee, water, and whatever else.

 

Clearly, this unaccustomed type of existence hit us hard, especially since most of us had had only a nodding acquaintance with real work. Furthermore, we were not received out here with open arms, as we’d expected. The old-stagers took every opportunity to pull our legs, and every tedious or unexpected assignment was put the way of us ‘war-wantons’. That instinct, which had survived the switch from barracks yard to war, and which did nothing to improve our mood, ceased after the first battle we fought in side by side, after which we saw ourselves as ‘old-stagers’.

 

The period in which the company lay in reserve was not much cosier. We dwelt in fir-branch camouflaged earth huts round the ‘Pheasantry’ or in the Hiller Copse, whose dungy floors at least gave off a pleasant, fermenting warmth. Sometimes, though, you would wake up lying in several inches of water. Although ‘roomy-dizzy’ was just a name to me, after only a few nights of this involuntary immersion I felt pain in every one of my joints. I dreamed of iron balls trundling up and down my limbs. Nights here were not for sleeping either, but were used to deepen the many communication trenches. In total darkness, if the French flares happened not to be lighting us up, we had to stick to the heels of the man in front with somnambulistic confidence if we weren’t to lose ourselves altogether, and spent hours traipsing around the labyrinthine network of trenches. At least the digging was easy; only a thin layer of clay or loam covered the mighty thicknesses of chalk, which was easily cut by the pickaxe. Sometimes green sparks would fly up if the steel had encountered one of the fist-sized iron pyrite crystals that were sprinkled throughout the soft stone. These consisted of many little cubes clustered together, and, cut open, had a streakily goldy gleam.

 

A little ray of sunshine in all this monotony was the nightly arrival of the field kitchen in the corner of the Hiller Copse. When the cauldron was opened, it would release a delicious aroma of peas with ham, or some other wonder. Even here, though, there was a dark side: the dried vegetables, dubbed ‘wire entanglements’ or ‘damaged crops’ by disappointed gourmets.

 

In my diary entry for 6 January, I even find the irate note: ‘In the evening, the field kitchen comes teetering up, with some god-awful pigswill, probably frozen beets boiled up.’ On the 14th, by contrast: ‘Delicious pea soup, four heavenly portions, till we groaned with satisfaction. We staged eating contests, and argued about the most favourable position. I contended that it was standing up.’

 

There were liberal helpings of a pale-red brandy, which had a strong taste of methylated spirits, but wasn’t to be sneezed at in the cold wet weather. We drank it out of our mess-tin lids. The tobacco was similarly strong, and also plentiful. The image of the soldier that remains with me from those days is that of the sentry with his spiked, grey helmet, fists buried in the pockets of his greatcoat, standing behind the shooting-slit, blowing pipe smoke over his rifle butt.

 

Most pleasant were days off in Orainville, which were spent catching up on sleep, cleaning our clothes and gear, and drilling. The company was put in a vast barn that had only a couple of hen-roost ladders to facilitate entrances and exits. Although it was still full of straw, there were braziers lit in it. One night I rolled up against one, and was woken only by the efforts of several comrades pouring water over me. I was horrified to see that the back of my uniform was badly charred, and for some time to come I had to go around in what bore a passing resemblance to a pair of tails.

 

After only a short time with the regiment, we had become thoroughly disillusioned. Instead of the danger we’d hoped for, we had been given dirt, work and sleepless nights, getting through which required heroism of a sort, but hardly what we had in mind. Worse still was the boredom, which is still more enervating for the soldier than the proximity of death.

 

We pinned our hopes on an attack; but we had picked a most unfavourable moment to join the front, because all movement had stopped. Even small-scale tactical initiatives were laid to rest as the trenches became more elaborate and the defensive fire more destructive. Only a few weeks before our arrival, a single company had risked one of these localized attacks over a few hundred yards, following a perfunctory artillery barrage. The French had simply picked them off, as on a shooting-range, and only a handful hadgot as far as the enemy wire; the few survivors spent the rest of the day lying low, till darkness fell and they were able to crawl back to their starting-point.

 

A contributory factor in the chronic overtiring of the troops was the way that trench warfare, which demanded a different way of keeping one’s strength up, was still a novel and unexpected phenomenon as far as the officer corps was concerned. The great number of sentries and the incessant trench-digging were largely unnecessary, and even deleterious. It’s not a question of the scale of the earthworks, but of the courage and condition of the men behind them. The ever-deeper trenches might protect against the odd head wound, but it also made for a defensive and security-conscious type of thinking, which we were loath to abandon later. Moreover, the demands made by the maintenance of the trenches were becoming ever-more exorbitant. The most disagreeable contingency was the onset of thaw, which caused the frost-cracked chalk facings of the trenches to disintegrate into a sludgy mess.

 

Of course we heard bullets whistling past our trench, and sometimes we got a few shells from the forts at Rheims, but these little trifling reminders of war came a long way below our expectations. Even so, we were occasionally reminded of the deadly earnest that lurked behind this seemingly aimless business. On 8 July, for instance, a shell struck the ‘Pheasantry’, and killed our battalion adjutant, Lieutenant Schmidt. The officer in command of the French artillery was, apparently, also the owner of that hunting lodge.

 

The artillery was still in an advanced position, just behind the front; there was even a field gun incorporated in the front line, rather inadequately concealed under tarpaulins. During a conversation I was having with the ‘powderheads’, I was surprised to notice that the whistling of rifle bullets bothered them much more than the crumps. That’s just the way it is; the hazards of one’s own line of service always seem more rational and less terrifying.

 

On the stroke of midnight, on 27 January [The birthday of Kaiser Wilhelm II (1859-1941).],we gave the Kaiser three cheers, and all along the front sang ‘Heil dir im Siegerkranz’ [‘Hail thee mid the conquerors’ round’]. The French responded with rifle fire.

 

Some time round about then, I had a disagreeable experience which might have brought my military career to a premature and somewhat inglorious end. The company was on the left of the line, and towards dawn, following a night on duty, a comrade and I were detailed to go on double sentry duty by the stream bed. On account of the cold, I had, in breach of regulations, wrapped a blanket round my head, and was leaning against a tree, having set my rifle down in a bush next to me. On hearing a sudden noise behind me, I reached for my weapon — only to find it had disappeared! The duty officer had snuck up on me and taken it without my noticing. By way of punishment, he sent me, armed only with a pickaxe, towards the French posts about a hundred yards away — a cowboys-and-Indians notion that almost did for me. For, during my bizarre punishment watch, a troop of three volunteers ventured forward through the wide reed bed, creating so much rustling that they were spotted right away by the French, and came under fire. One of them, a man called Lang, was hit and never seen again. Since I was standing hard by, I got my share of the then-fashionable platoon salvoes, so that the twigs of the willow tree I was standing next to were whipping round my ears. I gritted my teeth and, out of sheer cussedness, remained standing. As dusk fell, I was brought back to my unit. We were all mightily pleased when we learned that we would finally leave this position, and we celebrated our departure from Orainville with a beery evening in the big barn. On 4 February, we marched back to Bazancourt, and a regiment of Saxons took our place.

 

le clézio on lautréamont and co.: “man’s freedom to seek & reveal himself through visions & dreams”

J.M.G. Le Clézio, “Freedom to Dream”

 

We could begin the story this time around 1867, when the young Isidore Ducasse—not yet Comte de Lautréamont—decides to move into a furnished room on the Right Bank of Paris, and when, in 1868, he gives "Le Premier Chant" of Les Chants de Maldoror to the publisher Balitout. This act, perhaps one of the most important of modern literature and thought, begins an epic tale of dreams that ends in death and oblivion. Indeed, between 1868 and 24 November 1870, when the young poet dies at the age of twenty-four, in the solitude and abandonment of the Parisian winter, the story unfolds of one of the most burning and disturbing dreams that poetry has ever known—a dream that throws off flame and consumes the dreamer, in the silence and indifference of those around him, and whose waves will not touch his fellow man until long after, like one of those stars whose fixed and silent explosion seems to outrace time.

Freedom of dreams: this seems paradoxical, since dreams are clearly the freest expression of life. But it is this very freedom that is frightening, because it is a threat to reason and the moral order, which is why society’s prohibitions, censorship, and propriety have sought for so long to obscure or stifle it. Dreams are free, but locked up in the prison of silence, thrown into the dungeon of memory. Dreams are the hidden fire that man must steal off with in order to reveal the other side of himself, in order to attain real freedom.

In the chilly aloofness and hypocrisy of Europe’s nineteenth century, Lautréamont’s sacrifice has something truly cruel and despairing about it, but it allows us to see the error that corrupts the mind of civilized societies at the outset of the Industrial Age. Through its indifference and forgetting, nineteenth-century bourgeois society in its entirety casts Lautréamont out into another world, in both senses of the term: it sends him back to the world in which he was born, to Montevideo, the overseas territories, tomb of the banished; but it also throws him back to a world from before civilization, a primitive, violent, magical world, one to which the rationalism and bankers’ reign of the Second Empire could not give credence. It casts him back toward dreams—that is to say, toward the deepest past of mankind.

It is indeed a question of a return toward our origins. The freedom to dream, and to live one’s dreams, takes us back toward another world, that of prehistorical societies (in Lévi-Strauss’s sense of the term). In the Indian societies of the New World, for example, the social structure in most cases is that of a "loose democracy,"1 founded on equality and the self-sufficiency of the family, where each person can be at once warrior, preacher (or shaman), doctor, artist, or orator. The Indian societies of North America (the Iroquois, Sioux, Comanches, Apaches), of the subtropical forests (the Carib, Tupinamba, and Amazonian tribes), and of South America (the Araucan Indians of the pampas) all testify to this full expression of man, which seems to precede the specializations of the hierarchized and sedentary societies (Mexicas, Mayas, Quechuas). But the importance of this full expression of man is apparent even in the most urbane and organized of societies. The Amerindian religious rites all express these influences—magic, concepts of recurrent and cyclical time, the possibility of man’s identification with the gods—which in a sense form the foundation of "savage" philosophy and which the conquering Europeans will try (successfully) to extinguish.

It is in dreams that the original civilizations of the Americas found their explanations for existence. For the ancient Mexicans, as for the Tupi-Guaranis or the Quechuas, dreams were a soul’s journey outside the body, which enabled contact with the beyond and knowledge of the future. The Mexicas, Purepecha, Carib, and Quechua nations were troubled by dreams (or auguries) to such an extent that they couldn’t find the force to resist the conquering peoples from the East whose coming had been announced by the auguries. Upon the arrival of the Spaniards in Mexico, the omens multiplied: visions of death and of peoples in chains, lakes of blood, comets, and swarms of insects. As in the books of the Yucatec Mayas’ Chilam Bilam or in the apparition of the gods meeting on the mountain of Xanoata Hucatzio in the Relación de Michoacán, the most ancient dreams associated with the prophecies thus meet up with reality, but only to bring about the destruction of the dreaming peoples.

The first Spanish writers captured this final moment of the dreamers’ society, manifested in its strange rites, dances, and sacrifices. The Relación de Michoacán, chronicle of the Purepecha Indians, shows us a people wholly given over to their omens and dreams. The kings’ power and their destiny depend upon their dreams, during which the supreme gods (Curicaueri, god of fire, or the moon goddess Xaratanga) appear before them and strike up alliances. Father Bernardino de Sahagún recounts that the cruel and bloody festivals of the Aztecs took place in this mytical incarnation of gods dancing among men, as in the ixnextiua festival: "It was their belief that on this festival all the gods were dancing, and therefore all the natives who danced were dressed in diverse fancy costumes, some impersonated birds, others different animals; some represented the bird called ‘tzinitzcan’ [hummingbird], others butterflies; some dressed like drones, others like flies, still others like beetles; some carried on their backs a sleeping man who, they said, represented sleep."2

This magical society, this society of dreams and auguries, will be destroyed by Western civilization in the name of rationalism. For the conquering Spaniards, Portuguese, and, later, Anglo-Saxons or French, these magical societies are antiquated. They must be transformed, confined to reality, in order to integrate them into the rationales of productivity and causality on which the modern world rests. This will also be the Christian church’s role, shared among its millennial illusions and its will to destroy religious and philosophical concepts in contradiction with those of the conquerors.

As has been said, for the Renaissance mind, belief in magic and dreams is absurd and illogical. Founded on the sciences, on observation, nascent humanism can only condemn these obscure aspects of the human soul, since the new ideas come about precisely as a response to the beliefs and superstitions of the Middle Ages. In order to affirm this new "man," it is necessary to kill the old one, the one who lives off dreams and chimeras.

The new era is also that of absolute powers: Charles V, Francis I, and Henry VIII each demonstrate the supremacy of true power, armed force, and merchant empires. Curiously, however, it is in these periods when political powers are most extreme—the immense power of gold and silver, the Spanish flotilla, the Holy Roman Empire, the world divided between Spain and Portugal, the birth of the English Empire, the slave trade, the colonization of the Americas—that the place of doubt, dreams, and magic seems the largest, the most troubling. In France, the biggest witchcraft trials, in Louvain and Pau, take place first under first Louis XIII, then under Louis XIV. The peak of Spain’s rise corresponds in fact to the Baroque Age, which is the age of doubt and questioning.

The dreams of the Baroque Age are a questioning of reality, power, and money and mark the appearance of a certain relativity (as one would say today in this other baroque age which is our own). Time, value, love, goods, and the pleasures of our lives are ephemeral. Who is not familiar with these magical lines from Francisco de Quevedo? "Yesterday has gone; tomorrow hasn’t arrived; / Today is going away without stopping for one one moment; / I am a ‘was’ and a ‘will be’ and an ‘is’ tired."3

Or these mysterious and moving lines from Luis de Góngora:

 

While, to compete with your hair, gold burnished in the sun gleams in vain; while, with scorn, in the midst of the plain, your white brow regards the lily fair; while each lip is pursued by more eyes than follow the early carnation; and while with proud disdain your neck triumphs over bright crystal: enjoy neck, hair, lips, and brow, before what was in your golden youth gold, lily, carnation, crystal bright, not only turns into silver or a crushed violet, but you and all of it together into earth, smoke, dust, shadow, nothingness.4

 

The Baroque is not merely a literary mode or school. It is a philosophy, a natural tendency of man, the expression of his nocturnal side, of his dreams and worries. Approximately one hundred years before Góngora’s verses, Quevedo, and La vida es sueño, in the Aztec world on the verge of disappearing, the great Netzahuacoyotl, Lord of the Acolhua people from Tetzcoco, sang the same elegies and laments that would make up the poetry of the English Romantics and of Novalis. One finds here as well the themes of the fragility of happiness, time, the beauty of youth, death and destruction, the final void.

 

Dress yourself in flowers
In flowers the color of the ara of the lakes,
Brilliant as the sun,
The flowers of the raven,
Adorn yourself here on earth,
Only here.
It is thus
Only for a brief moment,
The flowers, for a moment,
We have readied them.
Already, we carry them to the god’s home,
To the home of the Fleshless.5

 

The Baroque asserts nothing other than the right to dream, and it speaks of nothing other than man’s former ties to the supernatural, which is why that right is the dominant force of civilization.

It is in the very era of rationalism, the Age of Classicism, that dreams reveal their power. Cartesian philosophy also has its part of shadow, as Descartes’ dream and the Pascalian illumination bear witness. Writings on the irrational flourish during the years of the Encyclopédie. One can cite not only the writings of Saint-Martin and Swedenborg but also the fantastic tales of this period: Jacques Cazotte with his Diable amoureux, the translations of A Thousand and One Nights, the English Gothic novels by Beckford and Lewis, the German ones by Tieck, and the sometimes absurd, often disturbing tales of the famous Cabinet des Fées, published in Amsterdam at the end of the eighteenth century.

Born of the European wars and the Napoleonic adventure, the Age of Romanticism also dreams of a different society. The second wave of Romanticism (the one which will nourish the young Isidore Ducasse) is at the once the era of the birth of the great industrial empires, colonization, and banks, as well as an era of dreams, of a return to origins, of the resurrection of magic and mysticism. If, as Vladimir Propp notes in his essay on the origins of Russian folktales, most dreams are tied to the tribal or theocratic organization of human societies—the dragon, for instance, as an expression of tyranny and despotism—then the imagination of fantastic literature expresses a demand, a struggle for the freedom to dream.

Romanticism is also the age of messianisms, in the Americas, Oceania, and Africa. The same "wave of dream," as Paul Eluard would later call it, runs throughout the world, pitting conquered peoples against the new industrialized masters. In North America, the Indian "dreamers"—Sioux, Arapaho, Apache—guide the last barbarous nations in total war against the conquering Europeans, who for their part draw on the most effective weapon of all, that of money. Dream dances, ghost dances,6 visions, dreams set the primitive peoples against the modern world and send them on toward the only outcome possible: death. It is a case of a total confrontation between the ideas of the modern world—utilitarianism, logic, determinism—and the prior beliefs in magic and the beyond. Dreams are an insurrection aimed at a new freedom, the freedom of the individual against the prohibitions of classical morality, against logical order; they are a means of access to a new perception of being—i.e., this totality which was the primary value of primitive societies. The deep meaning of Lautréamont’s quest lies in this insurrection of dreams.

After Lautréamont and Nerval, the Surrealists also defend the right to dream, this freedom to dream that can hardly be considered a gentle one. For the Surrealists, dreams are far more than just a poetic theme or means of inspiration. It is a question of a total experience, both physical and metaphysical, from which man will emerge different, changed. It is for this reason that they spoke of a "Surrealist Revolution."

At issue therefore is a complete reversal of values (born, moreover, of nihilism and of the absurdity of the deadliest wars man has ever known). As Breton states in the first Surrealist Manifesto from 1924:

 

To reduce the imagination to a state of slavery—even though it would mean the elimination of what is commonly called happiness—is to betray all sense of absolute justice within oneself. Imagination alone offers me some intimation of what can be, and this is enough to remove to some slight degree the terrible injunction; enough, too, to allow me to devote myself to it without fear of making a mistake (as though it were possible to make a bigger mistake). Where does it begin to turn bad, and where does the mind’s stability cease? For the mind, is the possibility of erring not rather the contingency of good?7

 

Man’s freedom to seek and reveal himself through visions and dreams implicates the dangers of limits, which is why the rationalist and progressivist society of the modern world, spawned by the Reformation, cannot allow it to exist. Man—this "definitive dreamer" as Breton puts it, or Lautréamont’s "pubescent dreamer" victimized by the cruelty of his own creator—ust choose for himself the path of his revelation, the means to his freedom. In undertaking this extreme experience, a man sometimes risks his own life, like the poet Roger Gilbert-Lecomte, creator of the movement "Le Grand Jeu"; like Nerval; or like Antonin Artaud, who, in the tradition of his hero Van Gogh, was "suicided by society."

Doubtless one of the last seers of the modern world, Artaud le Momo, poet-magus par excellence, takes his introspective quest to the very edge of madness: "Where others present their works, I claim to do no more than show my mind. / Life consists of burning up questions. / I cannot conceive of work that is detached from life. / I do not like detached creation. Neither can I conceive of the mind as detached from itself. Each of my works, each diagram of myself, each glacial flowering of my inmost soul dribble over me."8 Artaud renders the totality of this experience of being, in which man is the receptor of magical and unreal forces, in the following terms: "Delights and furies, the entire sky / Launches upon us like a cloud / A whirlwind of wild wings / Torrential with obscenities."9 This burning, harassing freedom leads Artaud all the way to Mexico, to the lands of the Tarahumara Indians, where he seeks the Mountain of Signs, the Race Principle, and a complete, ecstatic communion with creation. Later, in the solitude of madness, it leads still further, to the asylum in Rodez.

Acquired through so much suffering, anguish, and pain, this freedom to dream has something mythlike to it. The myth of katabasis comes to mind: out of curiosity, love, or a fascination with the unknown that is the destiny of some, the human hero descends into the underworld, defying danger and taboo, crossing through the portals of death. Most of the heroes of ancient civilizations have made this journey: the giant Gilgamesh, seeking the flower of immortality; Orpheus, for the love of Eurydice; or Quetzalcóatl, the god of Tula, sacrificed by his celestial enemy Tezcatlipoca and reborn at the end of each century in the form of a morning star. The ecstasy of the shamans and the visions of the prophets had no other goal than to undertake, one more time, this initiatory voyage beyond death. The poets and the seers after them sought out this encounter, this meeting with the two truths of man: that of his life and that of his death. Primitive man, or, in Lévi-Strauss’s terms, "man without history" (since, by way of this other reality, man abolishes time and death, the very things which make up histories), experienced this meeting in its entirety, in each one of the acts of his daily life. In hiding this truth, the determinist, rationalist, Western society has mutilated the nocturnal side of man, the side of his magical and creative origins. Thanks to the poets’ dreams; thanks to Baudelaire, Nerval, and Lautréamont; thanks to Jorge Carrera Andrade and Octavio Paz; thanks to the writers since Joyce and Proust, up to those of today—Borges, Rulfo, Onetti, Mercè Rodoreda—we know now that this imaginative freedom is one of our most precious assets. Like the ancient Mayas, like the Egyptians and Greeks, we have learned that time is cyclical and that visible reality is only a reflection. As Borges, perhaps one of the last visionaries of our world, so admirably puts it, we have learned that "the whole of time has already happened and that our life is a vague memory or dim reflection, doubtless false and fragmented, of an irrevocable process."10 Is this not the rejoinder to the ancient Aztec proverb that expresses the notions of time and creation through the myth of eternal return? "Another time, it shall be thus, another time things shall be thus, in another time, in another place. What happened long ago and which now is no longer done, another time it shall be done, another time it shall be thus, as it was in very distant times. Those who live today shall live another time, they shall live once again."11

—J.M.G. Le Clézio, “Seminar On Lautréamont And ‘Freedom To Dream,’” University of Oklahoma, 18 February 1997.

 

Published as J.M.G. Le Clézio, “Freedom to dream.” World Literature Today v. 71 (Autumn 1997) p. 671-4. Translated by Ralph Schoolcraft III

 

Footnotes

1 The phrase appears in English in the original.
2 Sahagún, A History of Ancient Mexico, vol. 1, tr. Fanny R. Bandelier, Nashville, Fisk University Press, 1932, p. 146.
3 Quevedo, "Metaphysical Poems, #2," in Elias L. Rivers, Renaissance and Baroque Poetry of Spain, tr. Elias L. Rivers, Prospect Heights (Il.), Waveland, 1966, pp. 260-61.
4 Góngora, "Sonnet CLXVI," in Rivers, Renaissance and Baroque Poetry of Spain, p. 163.
5 The translation used here is that found in J.M.G. Le Clézio, The Mexican Dream: Or, The Interrupted Thought of Amerindian Civilizations, tr. Teresa Lavender Fagan, Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 1993, p. 113.
6 These two phrases appear in English in the original.
7 André Breton, "Manifesto of Surrealism (1924)," in Manifestoes of Surrealism, trs. Richard Seaver and Helen R. Lane, Ann Arbor, University of Michigan Press, 1972, pp. 4-5.
8 Artaud, The “Umbilicus of Limbo,” in Selected Writings, tr. Helen Weaver, New York, Farrar Straus Giroux, 1976, p. 59.
9 Artaud, "Windowpane of Sound" ["Vitre de son"]; my translation.
10 Jorge Luis Borges, "Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius," tr. Alastair Reid, in Ficciones, New York, Grove, 1962, p. 25.
11 Codex Florentinus, facsimile edition, Mexico City, AGN, 1969, tr. Alfredo Lopez Austin, book VI, p. 196. This English translation is also from Le Clézio, The Mexican Dream, p. 208.

 

deleuze says le clézio’s act of becoming via fabulation reveals his pedigree—melville, kafka, céline

Gilles Deleuze, "Literature and Life"  

 

Translated by Daniel W. Smith and Michael A. Greco

Critical Inquiry 23 (Winter 1997)

 

To write is certainly not to impose a form (of expression) on the matter of lived experience. Literature rather moves in the direction of the ill- formed or the incomplete, as Witold Gombrowicz said as well as practiced. Writing is a question of becoming, always incomplete, always in the midst of being formed, and goes beyond the matter of any livable or lived experience. It is a process, that is, a passage of Life that traverses both the livable and the lived. Writing is inseparable from becoming: in writing, one becomes-woman, becomes-animal or -vegetable, becomes-molecule, to the point of becoming-imperceptible. These becomings may be linked to each other by a particular line, as in J. M. G. Le Clézio’s novels; or they may coexist at every level, following the doorways, thresh- olds, and zones that make up the entire universe, as in H. P. Lovecraft’s powerful oeuvre. Becoming does not move in the other direction, and one does not become Man, insofar as man presents himself as a dominant form of expression that claims to impose itself on all matter, whereas woman, animal, or molecule always has a component of flight that escapes its own formalization. The shame of being a man—is there any better reason to write? Even when it is a woman who is becoming, she has to become-woman, and this becoming has nothing to do with a state she could claim as her own. To become is not to attain a form (identification, imitation, Mimesis) but to find the zone of proximity, indiscernibility, or undifferentiation where one can no longer be distinguished from a woman, an animal, or a molecule—neither imprecise nor general, but unforeseen and non-preexistent, singularized out of a population rather than determined in a form. One can institute a zone of proximity with anything, on the condition that one creates the literary means for doing so. André Dhôtel, for instance, makes use of the aster: something passes between the sexes, the genera, or the kingdoms.1 Becoming is always "between" or "among": a woman between women, or an animal among others. But the power of the indefinite article is effected only if the term in becoming is stripped of the formal characteristics that make it say the ("the animal in front of you .. ."). When Le Clézio becomes-Indian, it is always as an incomplete Indian who does not know "how to cultivate corn, or carve a dugout canoe"; rather than acquiring formal characteristics, he enters a zone of proximity.2 It is the same, in Kafka, with the swimming champion who does not know how to swim. All writing involves an athleticism, but far from reconciling literature with sports or turning writing into an Olympic event, this athleticism is exercised in flight and in the breakdown of the organic body—an athlete in bed, as Henri Michaux put it. One becomes animal all the more when the animal dies; and contrary to the spiritualist prejudice, it is the animal who knows how to die, who has a sense or premonition of death. Literature begins with a porcupine’s death according to Lawrence or with the death of a mole in Kafka: "our poor little red feet outstretched for tender sympathy."3 As Karl-Philipp Moritz (1756-1793) said, one writes for dying calves.4 Language must devote itself to reaching these feminine, animal, molecular detours, and every detour is a becoming mortal. There are no straight lines, neither in things nor in language. Syntax is the set of necessary detours that are created in each case to reveal the life in things.

 

To write is not to recount one’s memories and voyages, one’s loves and griefs, one’s dreams and phantasms. It is the same thing to sin through an excess of reality as through an excess of the imagination. In both cases it is the eternal daddy-mommy, an Oedipal structure that is projected onto the real or introjected into the imaginary. In this infantile conception of literature, what we seek at the end of the voyage, or at the heart of a dream, is a father. One writes for one’s father-mother. Marthe Robert has pushed this infantilization or "psychoanalization" of literature to an extreme, leaving the novelist no other choice than that of the Bastard or the Foundling.5 Even becoming-animal is not safe from an Oedipal reduction of the type "my cat, my dog." As Lawrence says, "if I am a giraffe, and the ordinary Englishmen who write about me … are nice, well-behaved dogs, there it is, the animals are different…. The animal I am you instinctively dislike."6 As a general rule, fantasies simply treat the indefinite as a mask for a personal or a possessive: "a child is being beaten" is quickly transformed into "my father beat me." But literature takes the opposite path and exists only when it discovers beneath appar- ent persons the power of an impersonal-which is not a generality but a singularity at the highest point: a man, a woman, a beast, a stomach, a child…. It is not the first two persons that function as the condition for literary enunciation; literature begins only when a third person is born in us that strips us of the power to say "I" (Blanchot’s "neuter").7 Of course, literary characters are perfectly individuated and are neither vague nor general, but all their individual traits elevate them to a vision that carries them off in an indefinite, like a becoming that is too powerful for them: Ahab and the vision of Moby Dick. The Miser is not a type, but on the contrary his individual traits (to love a young woman, and so on) make him accede to a vision: he sees gold in such a way that he is sent racing along a witch’s line where he gains the power of the indefinite—a miser…, some gold, more gold…. There is no literature without fabulation, but, as Henri Bergson was able to see, fabulation—the fabulating function—does not consist in imagining or projecting an ego. Rather, it attains these visions, it raises itself to these becomings and powers.

 

One does not write with one’s neuroses. Neuroses or psychoses are not passages of life but states into which we fall when the process is interrupted, blocked, or plugged up. Illness is not a process but a stopping of the process, as in the "Nietzsche case." Moreover, the writer as such is not a patient but rather a physician, the physician of himself and of the world. The world is the set of symptoms whose illness merges with man. Literature then appears as an enterprise of health; not that the writer would necessarily be in good health (there would be the same ambiguity here as with athleticism), but he possesses irresistible and delicate health that stems from what he has seen and heard of things too big for him, too strong for him, suffocating things whose passage exhausts him while nonetheless giving him the becomings that dominant and substantial health would render impossible.8 The writer returns from what he has seen and heard with red eyes and pierced eardrums. What health would be sufficient to liberate life wherever it is imprisoned by and within man, by and within organisms and genera? It is like Spinoza’s delicate health, while it lasted, bearing witness until the end to a new vision whose passage it remains open to.

 

Health as literature, as writing, consists in inventing a people that is missing. It is the task of the fabulating function to invent a people. We do not write with memories, unless it is to make them the origin and collective destination of a people to come still ensconced in its betrayals and repudiations. American literature has an exceptional power to produce writers who can recount their own memories, but as those of a universal people composed of immigrants from all countries. Thomas Wolfe "inscribes all of America in writing insofar as it can be found in the experience of a single man."9 This is not exactly a people called upon to dominate the world. It is a minor people, eternally minor, taken up in a becoming-revolutionary. Perhaps it only exists in the atoms of the writer, a bastard people, inferior, dominated, always in becoming, always incomplete. Bastard no longer designates a familial state, but the process or drift of the races. I am a beast, a Negro of an inferior race for all eternity. This is the becoming of the writer. Kafka (for central Europe) and Melville (for America) present literature as the collective enunciation of a minor people, or of all minor peoples, who find their expression only in and through the writer.10 Though it always refers to singular agents [agents], literature is a collective assemblage [agencement] of enunciation. Literature is delirium, but delirium is not a father-mother affair; there is no delirium that does not pass through peoples, races, and tribes and that does not haunt universal history. All delirium is world historical, "a displacement of races and continents."11 Literature is delirium, and as such its destiny is played out between the two poles of delirium. Delirium is a disease, the disease par excellence, whenever it erects a race it claims is pure and dominant. But it is the measure of health when it invokes this oppressed bastard race that ceaselessly stirs beneath dominations, resisting everything that crushes and imprisons, a race that is outlined in relief in literature as process. Here again, there is always the risk that a diseased state will interrupt the process or becoming; health and athleticism both confront the same ambiguity, the constant risk that a delirium of domination will be mixed with a bastard delirium, pushing literature toward a larval fascism, the disease against which it fights—even if this means diagnosing the fascism within itself and fighting against itself. The ultimate aim of literature is to release this creation of a health or this invention of a people—that is, a possibility of life-in the delirium. To write for this people that is missing … (for means less "in the place of" than "for the benefit of").

 

We can see more clearly the effect of literature on language: as Proust says, it opens up a kind of foreign language within language, which is neither another language nor a rediscovered patois but a becoming-other of language, a "minorization" of this major language, a delirium that carries it off, a witch’s line that escapes the dominant system. Kafka makes the swimming champion say, I speak the same language as you, and yet I don’t understand a single word you’re saying. Syntactic creation or style—this is the becoming of language. The creation of words or neologisms is worth nothing apart from the effects of syntax in which they are developed. So literature already presents two aspects: through the creation of syntax, it not only brings about a decomposition or destruction of the maternal language but also the invention of a new language within language. "The only way to defend language is to attack it." "Every writer is obliged to create his or her own language."12 Language seems to be seized by a delirium, which forces it out of its usual furrows. As for the third aspect, it stems from the fact that a foreign language cannot be hollowed outin one language without language as a whole in turn being toppled or pushed to a limit, to an outside or reverse side that consists of Visions and Auditions that no longer belong to any language. These visions are not fantasies, but veritable Ideas that the writer sees and hears in the interstices of language, in its intervals. They are not interruptions of the process but breaks that form part of it, like an eternity that can only be revealed in a becoming, or a landscape that only appears in movement. They are not outside language, but the outside of language. The writer as seer and hearer, the aim of literature: it is the passage of life within language that constitutes Ideas.

 

These three aspects, which are in perpetual movement, can be seen clearly in Antonin Artaud: the fall of letters in the decomposition of the maternal language (R, T, . . .); their incorporation into a new syntax or in new names with a syntactic import, creators of a language ("eTReTé"); and, finally, breath words, the asyntactical limit toward which all language tends.13 And even in Céline—we cannot avoid saying it, so acutely do we feel it: Journey to the End of the Night, or the decomposition of the maternal language; Death on the Installment Plan, with its new syntax as a language within language; and Guignol’s Band, with its suspended exclamations as the limit of language, as explosive visions and sonorities. In order to write, it may perhaps be necessary for the maternal language to be odious, but only so that a syntactic creation can open up a kind of foreign language in it, and language as a whole can reveal its outside, beyond all syntax. We sometimes congratulate writers, but they know that they are far from having achieved their becoming, far from having attained the limit they set for themselves, which ceaselessly slips away from them. To write is also to become something other than a writer. To those who ask what literature is, Virginia Woolf responds, To whom are you speaking of writing? The writer does not speak about it, but is concerned with something else.

 

If we consider these criteria, we can see that, among all those who make books with a literary intent, even among the mad, there are very few who can call themselves writers.

a believer writes his diary. he writes it at intervals & will never complete it, because he will die

Walter Benjamin, The Metaphysics of Youth


The Conversation

Where are you, Youth, that always wakes me
Promptly in the morning? Where are you, Light?
—Friedrich Holderlin, "The Blind Singer"

I

Daily we use unmeasured energies as if in our sleep. What we do and think is filled with the being of our fathers and ancestors. An uncomprehended symbolism enslaves us without ceremony.—Sometimes, on awakening, we recall a dream. In this way rare shafts of insight illuminate the ruins of our energies that time has passed by. We were accustomed to spirit [Geist] just as we are accustomed to the heartbeat that enables us to lift loads and digest our food.

Every conversation deals with knowledge of the past as that of our youth, and with horror at the sight of the spiritual masses of the rubble fields. We never saw the site of the silent struggle our egos waged with our fathers. Now we can see what we have unwittingly destroyed and created. Conversation laments lost greatness.


II

Conversation strives toward silence, and the listener is really the silent partner. The speaker receives meaning from him; the silent one is the unappropriated source of meaning. The conversation raises words to his lips as do vessels, jugs. The speaker immerses the memory of his strength in words and seeks forms in which the listener can reveal himself. For the speaker speaks in order to let himself be converted. He understands the listener despite the flow of his own speech; he realizes that he is addressing someone whose features are inexhaustibly earnest and good, whereas he, the speaker, blasphemes against language.

But even if he revives an empty past through orgiastic excitement, the listener hears not words but the silence of the present. For despite the flight of spirit and the emptiness of words, the speaker is present; his face is open to the listener, and the efforts made by his lips are visible. The listener holds true language in readiness; the words enter him, and at the same time he sees the speaker.

Whoever speaks enters the listener. Silence, then, is born from the conversation. Every great man has only one conversation, at whose margins a silent greatness waits. In the silence, energy was renewed; the listener led the conversation to the edge of language, and the speaker creates the silence of a new language, he, its first auditor.

 
III

Silence is the internal frontier of conversation. The unproductive person never reaches that frontier; he regards his conversations as monologues. He exits the conversation in order to enter the diary or the cafe.

Silence has long reigned in the upholstered rooms. Here he may make as much noise as he wants. He goes amongst the prostitutes and the waiters like a preacher among the faithful—he, the convert of his latest conversation. Now he has mastered two languages, question and answer. (A questioner is someone who hasn’t given a thought to language in his entire life, but now wants to do it right. A questioner is affable even toward the gods.) The questions of the unproductive person break in on the silence, troubling the active, thinkers and women: he inquires about revelation. At the end he feels exalted, he remains unbowed. His eloquence escapes him; enraptured, he listens to his own voice. He hears neither speech nor silence.

But he saves himself by fleeing into the erotic. His gaze deflowers. He wishes to see and hear himself, and for that reason he wishes to gain control of those who see and hear. Therefore, he misspeaks himself and his greatness; speaking, he flees. But he always sinks down, annihilated by the humanity of the other; he always remains incomprehensible. And the gaze of the silent passes searchingly through him, toward the one who will silently draw near.—

Greatness is the eternal silence after the conversation. It is to hear the rhythm of one’s own words in the empty space. The genius [Genie] has utterly cursed his memory in giving it shape. He is forgetful and at a loss. His past was already fate and is now beyond recall. In the genius, God speaks and listens for the contradictions of language.

The windbag thinks the genius is an evasion of greatness. Art is the best remedy for misfortune. The conversation of the true spirit [Genius], however, is prayer. As he speaks, the words fall from him like cloaks. The words of the true spirit strip him naked, and are covers in which the listener feels clothed. Whoever listens is the past of the great speaker, his object and his dead strength. The speaking spirit is more silent than the listener, just as the praying man is more silent than God.


IV

The speaker is always obsessed with the present. That is his curse: he can never utter the past, which is, after all, his aim. And what he says has long since taken hold of the unspoken question of the silent, and their gaze asks him when he will stop speaking. He should, rather, entrust himself to the listener so that she may take his blasphemy by the hand and lead it to the abyss in which the speaker’s soul lies, his past, the lifeless field to which he is straying. But there the prostitute has long been waiting. For every woman possesses the past, and in any case has no present. This is why she protects meaning from understanding; she wards off the misuse of words and refuses to let herself be misused.

She guards the treasures of daily life, but also of the night, the highest good. This is why the prostitute is a listener. She rescues the conversation from triviality; greatness has no claim upon her, for greatness comes to an end when confronted by her. She has seen every man’s desire fail and now the stream of words drains away into her nights. The present that has been eternally will come again. The other conversation of silence is ecstasy.


V

The Genius: I’ve come to you for a rest.

The Prostitute: Sit down, then.

The Genius: I’d like to sit down with you—I touched you just now, and it’s as if I’d already been resting for years.

The Prostitute: You make me uneasy. If I were to lie next to you, I wouldn’t be able to sleep.

The Genius: Every night people come to your room. I feel as if I’d received them all, and they’d given me a joyless look and gone on their way.

The Prostitute: Give me your hand—your sleeping hand makes me feel that you’ve forgotten all your poems.

The Genius: I’m thinking only of my mother. May I tell you about her? She gave birth to me. Like you, she gave birth—to a hundred dead poems. Like you, she didn’t know her children. Her children have gone whoring with strangers.

The Prostitute: Like mine.

The Genius: My mother always looked at me, asked me questions, wrote to me. Through her I’ve learned not to know people. In my eyes, all were mothers. All women had given birth to me; no man had played a part in my conception.

The Prostitute: This is the complaint of all the men who sleep with me. When they look at their lives through my eyes, they see nothing but a thick column of ash that reaches their chin.  No one engendered them, and they come to me in order not to engender.

The Genius: All the women I go to are like you. They gave birth to me and I was stillborn, and all wish to receive dead things from me.

The Prostitute: But I am the one who has least fear of death. [They go to bed.]


VI

Woman is the guardian of conversation. She receives the silence, and the prostitute receives the creator of what has been. But no one watches over the lament when men speak. Their talk becomes despair; it resounds in the muted space and blasphemes against greatness. Two men together are always troublemakers; they finish by resorting to torch and axe. They destroy women with their smutty jokes; the paradox violates greatness. Words of the same gender couple and inflame each other with their secret desire; a soulless double entendre arises, barely concealed by the relentless dialectic. Laughing, revelation stands before them and compels them to fall silent. The dirty joke triumphs—the world was built of words.

Now they have to rise and smash their books and make off with a woman, since otherwise they will secretly strangle their souls.


VII

How did Sappho and her women-friends talk among themselves? How did women come to speak? For language extinguishes their soul. Women receive no sounds from it and no salvation. Words waft over women who are sitting together, but the wafting is crude and toneless; they lapse into idle chatter. Yet their silence towers above their talk. Language does not bear women’s souls aloft, because they do not confide in it; their past is never resolved.

The words fumble around them and some skill or other enables them to make a swift response. But only in the speaker does language appear to them; tortured, he squeezes the bodies of the words in which he has reproduced the silence of the beloved. The words are mute. The language of women has remained inchoate. Talking women are possessed by a demented language.


VIII

How did Sappho and her women-friends talk among themselves?—Language is veiled like the past; like silence it looks toward the future. The speaker summons the past in it; veiled by language, he conceives his womanly past in conversation—but the women remain silent. Listen as they may, the words remain unspoken. They bring their bodies close and caress one another. Their conversation has freed itself from the subject and from language. Despite this it marks out a terrain. For only among them, and when they are together, does the conversation come to rest as part of the past. Now, finally, it has come to itself: it has turned to greatness beneath their gaze, just as life had been greatness before the futile conversation. Silent women are the speakers of what has been spoken. They leave the circle; they alone perceive the perfection of its roundness.

None of them complain; they gaze in wonderment. The love of their bodies does not procreate, but their love is beautiful to see. And they venture to gaze at one another. It makes them catch their breath, while the words fade away in space. Silence and voluptuous delight—eternally divorced in conversation—have become one. The silence of the conversations was future delight; delight was bygone silence. Among the women, however, the conversations were perceived from the frontier of silent delight. In a great burst of light, the youth of mysterious conversations arose. Essence was radiant.


The Diary

The next place might be so near at hand
That one could hear the cocks crowing in it, the dogs barking;
But the people would grow old and die
Without ever having been there.
—Lao Tzu, trans. Arthur Waley


I

We wish to pay heed to the sources of the unnameable despair that flows in every soul. The souls listen expectantly to the melody of their youth—a youth that is guaranteed them a thousandfold. But the more they immerse themselves in the uncertain decades and broach that part of their youth which is most laden with future, the more orphaned they are in the emptiness of the present. One day they awake to despair: the first day of the diary.

With hopeless earnestness it poses the question: In what time does man live? The thinkers have always known that he does not live in any time at all. The immortality of thoughts and deeds banishes him to a timeless realm at whose heart an inscrutable death lies in wait. Throughout his life the emptiness of time surrounds him, but not immortality. Devoured by the countless demands of the moment, time slipped away from him; the medium in which the pure melody of his youth would swell was destroyed. The fulfilled tranquillity in which his late maturity would ripen was stolen from him. It was purloined by everyday reality, which, with its events, chance occurrences, and obligations, disrupted the myriad opportunities of youthful time, immortal time, at which he did not even guess. Lurking even more menacingly behind the everyday reality was death. Now it manifests itself in little things, and kills daily so that life itself may go on. Until one day the great death falls from the clouds, like a hand that forbids life to go on. From day to day, second to second, the self preserves itself, clinging to that instrument: time, the instrument that it was supposed to play.

In despair, he thus recalls his childhood. In those days there was time without flight and an "I" without death. He gazes down and down into the current whence he had emerged and slowly, finally, he is redeemed by losing his comprehension. Amid such obliviousness, not knowing what he thinks and yet thinking himself redeemed, he begins the diary. It is the unfathomable document of a life never lived, the book of a life in whose time everything that we experienced inadequately is transformed into experience perfected.

A diary is an act of liberation, covert and unrestrained in its victory. No unfree spirit will understand this book. When the self was devoured by yearning for itself, devoured by its desire for youth, devoured by the lust for power over the years to come, devoured by the yearning to pass calmly through the days to come, darkly inflamed by the pleasures of idleness but cursed and imprisoned in calendar time, clock time, and stock-exchange time, and when no ray of immortality cast its light over the self—it began to glow of its own accord. I am myself (it knows), a ray of light. Not the murky inwardness of the self which calls me "I" and tortures me with its intimacies, but the ray of light of that other self which appears to oppress me but which is also myself: the ray of time. Trembling, an "I" that we know only from our diaries stands on the brink of an immortality into which it plunges. It is time after all. In this self, to which events occur and which encounters human beings—friends, enemies, and lovers—in this self courses immortal time. The time of its greatness runs out in it; it is the glow that radiates from time and nothing else.

This believer writes his diary. He writes it at intervals and will never complete it, because he will die. What is an interval in a diary? It does not occur in developmental time, for that has been abrogated. It does not occur in time at all, for time has vanished. Instead it is a book of time: a book of days. This transmits the rays of his knowledge through space. A diary does not contain a chain of experiences, for then it would exist without intervals. Instead time is overcome, and overcome, too, is the self that acts in time: I am entirely transposed into time; it irradiates me. Nothing further can happen to this self, this creation of time. Everything else on which time exerts its effect yields to it. For in the diary our self, as time, impinges on everything else, the "I" befalls all things, they gravitate toward our self. But time no longer impinges on this self, which is now the birth of immortal time. The self experiences timelessness, all things are assembled in it. It livesall-powerful in the interval; in the interval (the diary’s silence), the "I" experiences its own time, pure time. It gathers itself in the interval; no thing pushes its way into its immortal juxtaposition of events. Here it draws the strength to impinge on things, to absorb them, to misrecognize its own fate. The interval is safe and secure, and where there is silence, nothing can befall. No catastrophe finds its way into the lines of this book. That is why we do not believe in derivations and sources; we never remember what has befallen us. Time, which shines forth as the self that we are, impinges on all things around us as they become our fate. That time, our essence, is the immortality in which others die. What kills them lets us feel our essential nature in death (the final interval).


II

Inclining her head, the beloved of the landscape shines in time,
But the enemy broods darkly above the center.
His wings are poised in slumber. The black redeemer of the lands
Breathes out his crystal No, and decides our death.


On rare occasions the diary emerges hesitantly from the immortality of its intervals and writes itself. Silently it rejoices and surveys the fates that lie within it, clearly entailed by its time. Thirsting for definition, things draw near in the expectation of receiving their fate at its hands. In their impotence they approach its sovereign majesty; their amorphousness seeks definition. They give limits to humanity through their questioning existence and lend depth to time. And as time at its extremity collides with things, it quivers with a hint of insecurity, and, questioning, replies to the questions posed by those things. In the interchange of such vibrations, the self has its life. This is the content of our diaries: our destiny declares its faith in us because we have long since ceased to relate it to ourselves—we who have died and who are resurrected in what happens to us.

There is, however, a place reserved for the resurrections of the self, even when time disperses it in ever widening waves. That is the landscape. As landscape all events surround us, for we, the time of things, know no time. Nothing but the leaning of the trees, the horizon, the silhouetted mountain ridges, which suddenly awake full of meaning because they have placed us in their midst. The landscape transports us into their midst, the trembling treetops assail us with questions, the valleys envelop us with mist, incomprehensible houses oppress us with their shapes. We, their midpoint, impinge on them. But from all the time when we stand there quivering, one question remains: Are we time? Arrogance tempts us to answer yes—and then the landscape would vanish. We would be citizens. But the spell of the book bids us be silent. The only answer is that we set out on a path. As we advance, the same surroundings sanctify us. Knowing no answers but forming the center, we define things with the movement of our bodies. By drawing nigh and distancing ourselves once again on our wanderings, we single out trees and fields from their like and flood them with the time of our existence. We give firm definition to fields and mountains in their arbitrariness: they are our past existence—that was the prophecy of childhood. We are their future. Naked in this futurity, the landscape welcomes us, the grownups. Exposed, it responds to the shudder of temporality with which we assault the landscape. Here we wake up and partake of the morning repast of youth. Things perceive us; their gaze propels us into the future, since we do not respond to them but instead step among them. Around us is the landscape where we rejected their appeal. Spirituality’s thousand cries of glee storm around the landscape—so with a smile the diary sends a single thought in their direction. Permeated by time, the landscape breathes before us, deeply stirred. We are safe in each other’s care, the landscape and I. We plunge from nakedness to nakedness. Gathered together, we come to ourselves.

The landscape sends us our beloved. We encounter nothing that is not in landscape, and in it we find nothing but future. It knows but one girl, and she is already a woman. She enters the diary along with the history of her future. Together we have already died once. We were once entirely identical with that story. If we impinge on it in death, it impinges on us in life, countless times. From the vantage point of death, every girl is the beloved woman who encounters us sleepers in our diary. And her awakening takes place at night—invisibly, to the diary. This is the shape of love in a diary; it meets us in the landscape, beneath a very bright sky. Passion has slept its fill between us, and the woman is a girl, since she girlishly gives us back our unused time that she has collected in her death. The plunging nakedness which overwhelms us in the landscape is counterbalanced by the naked beloved.

When our time expelled us from our isolation into the landscape and our beloved strode toward us on the protected path of thought, we could feel how time, which sent us forth, flooded back toward us. This rhythm of time, which returns home to us from all corners of the earth, lulls us to sleep. Anyone who reads a diary falls asleep over it and fulfills the fate of its writer. Again and again the diary conjures up the death of its writer, if only in the sleep of the reader: our diary acknowledges only one reader, and he becomes the redeemer as he is mastered by the book. We ourselves are the reader, or our own enemy. He has found no entry into the kingdom that flowered around us. He is none other than the expelled, purified "I," dwelling invisibly in the unnameable center of time. He has not abandoned himself to the current of fate that washed around us. As the landscape rose up toward us, strangely invigorated by us, as our beloved flew past us, she whom we had once wooed, the enemy stands in the middle of the stream, as upright as she. But more powerful. He sends landscape and beloved toward us and is the indefatigable thinker of the thoughts that come only to us. He comes to meet us in total clarity, and while time conceals itself in the silent melody of the diary intervals, he is busily at work. He suddenly rears up in an interval like a fanfare, and sends us off on an adventure. He is no less a manifestation of time than we are, but he is also the most powerful reflector of ourselves. Dazzling us with the knowledge of love and the vision of distant lands, he returns, bursting in on us, inciting our immortality to ever more distant missions. He knows the empires of the hundred deaths that surround time, and wishes to drown them in immortality. After every sight and every flight from death, we return home to ourselves as our enemy. The diary never speaks of any other enemy, since every enemy fades away when confronted by the hostility of our illustrious knowledge; for he is an incompetent compared to us, who never catch up with our own time, who are always lagging behind it or precociously overtaking it. We are always putting our immortality at risk and losing it. Our enemy knows this; he is the courageous, indefatigable conscience which spurs us on. Our diary writes what it must, while he remains active when it breaks off at intervals. In his hand rest the scales of our time and of immortal time. When will they come to rest? We shall befall ourselves.

 
III

The cowardice of the living, whose manifold self is present in every adventure and constantly hides its features in the garments of its dignity—this cowardice must ultimately become unbearable. For every step we took into the kingdom of fate, we also kept looking back—to see whether we were truthful even when unobserved. So the infinitely humiliated sovereign will in us finally became weary; it turned away, full of endless contempt for the self that had been given to it. It mounted a throne in the imagination and waited. In large letters the stylus of its sleeping spirit wrote the diary.

These books, then, are concerned with the accession to the throne of an abdicating self. Abdicating from the experience for which he holds his self to be neither worthy nor capable, and from which he ultimately retreats. Once upon a time the things fell across his path, instead of coming to meet him; they assailed him from all sides while he took flight. Never did the noble spirit taste the love of the defeated. He felt mistrustabout whether he was meant by the things. "Do you mean me?" he asked of the victory that had fallen to him. "Do you mean me?" to the girl who has cuddled up to him. Thus did he tear himself away from his consummation. He had appeared as victor to his victory, as the beloved to the woman who loves him. But love had come to him and victory had fallen at his feet while he was sacrificing to the Penates of his privacy. He ran past his fate, unable ever to encounter it.

But when, in the diary, the sovereignty of the self withdrew and the raging against the way things happen fell silent, events showed themselves to be undecided. The ever more distant visibility of this self that relates nothing more to itself weaves the ever more imminent myth of things that storm on, endlessly attracted to the self, as a restless questioning, thirsting for definition.

The new storm rages in the agitated self. Dispatched in the shape of time, things storm on within it, responding to it in their humble, distancing movement toward the center of the interval, toward the womb of time, whence the self radiates outward. And fate is: this countermovement of things in the time of the self. And that time of the self in which the things befall us—that is greatness. To it all future is past. The past of things is the future of the "I"-time, But past things have futurity. They dispatch the time of the self anew when they have entered into the diary interval. With the events our diary writes the history of our future existence. And thereby prophesies our past fate. The diary writes the story of our greatness from the vantage point of our death. For once, the time of things is really overcome in the time of the self; fate is overcome in greatness; and intervals in the interval. One day the rejuvenated enemy will confront us with his boundless love, he who has gathered together all our dazzled weakness in his strength, bedded down all our nakedness in his bodilessness, and drowned out all our silence with his speechlessness. He brings all things home and puts an end to all men, since he is the great interval: death. In death we befall ourselves; our deadness releases itself from things. And the time of death is our own. Redeemed, we become aware of the fulfillment of the game; the time of death was the time of our diary; death was the last interval, the first loving enemy, death which bears us with all greatness and the manifold fate of our wide plain into the unnameable centerpoint of time. Death, which for one instant bestows immortality upon us. Simple and multifold, this is the content of our diaries. The vocation that we proudly dismissed in our youth takes us by surprise. Yet it is nothing but a call to immortality. We enter into the time that was in the diary, the symbol of yearning, the rite of purification. With us things sink toward the center, with us they await the new radiance. For immortality can be found only in death, and time rises up at the end of time.

 
TheBall

For the sake of what prelude do we cheat ourselves of our dreams? With a wave of the hand we push them aside into the pillows, leave them behind, while some of them flutter silently about our heads. How do we dare carry them into the brightness of day, as we awake? Oh, into the brightness! All of us carry invisible dreams around with us; how deeply veiled the girls’ faces are, their eyes are secret [heimliche] nests of the uncanny [der Unheimlichen], of dreams, quite inaccessible, luminous from sheer perfection. The music elevates us all to the level of that bright strip of light—you have all seen it—that shines from beneath the curtain when the violins tune up in the orchestra. The dance begins. Our hands slide off one another; our glances meet, laden, emptying themselves out and smiling from the ultimate heaven. Our bodies make careful contact; we do not arouse each other from our dreams, or call each other homeward into the darkness—out of the night of nights which is not day. How we love each other! How we safeguard our nakedness! We have bound everything in gay colors, masks, alternately withholding and promising naked flesh. In everything there is something monstrous that we have to keep quiet about. But we hurl ourselves into the rhythm of the violins; never was a night more ethereal, more uncanny, more chaste than this.

Where we stand alone, on a cartload of fanfares, alone in the bright night of nights which we conjured up, our fleeing soul invites a woman to come—a girl who stands at the end of a distant room.

She walks regally across the parquet floor that lies so smoothly between the dancers, as if it reflected the music; for this smooth floor to which people do not belong creates a space for Elysium, the paradise that joins the isolated into a round dance. Her stately step creates order among the dancers; she presses some to leave; they break into fragments at the tables where the din of the lonely holds sway, or where people move along corridors, as if on tightropes through the night.

When did night ever attain brightness and become radiant, if not here? When was time ever overcome? Who knows whom we will meet at this hour? Otherwise (were there an otherwise") we would be just here, but already complete; otherwise we would perhaps just pour away the dregs of the day and start to taste the new one. But now we pour the foaming day over into the purple crystal of the night; it becomes peaceful and sparkling.

The music transports our thoughts; our eyes reflect our friends around us, how they all move, surrounded by the flowing night. We are truly in a house without windows, a ballroom without world. Flights of stairs lead up and down, marble. Here time is captured. It sometimes resists, moves its weary breath in us, and makes us restless. But a word, uttered in the night, summons someone to us; we walk together, we did not really need the music but could lie together in the dark, even though our eyes would flash, just like a sword between people. We know that all the merciless realities that have been expelled still flutter round this house. The poets with their bitter smiles, the saints and the policemen, and the waiting cars. From time to time, music penetrates to the outside world and submerges them.

Written in 1913-1914; unpublished in Benjamin’s lifetime. Translated by Rodney Livingstone.

Image:Grab Walter Benjamin.jpg

“every decision you make is a mistake”—an edward dahlberg miscellany

Edward Dahlberg was admired by and a friend to an exceptionally diverse group of writers: Jack Kerouac, Lydia Davis, Guy Davenport, Paul West, Anthony Burgess, Charles Olson, Samuel R. Delany, Gilbert Sorrentino, Thomas McGonigle, Jonathan Lethem… 

edward dahlberg biography (from wikipedia)

Edward Dahlberg (July 22, 1900 – February 27, 1977) was an American novelist and essayist.

Dahlberg was born in Boston to Elizabeth Dahlberg. Mother and son wandered through the southern and western United States until 1905, when she opened a barber shop in Kansas City. In April 1912 Dahlberg was sent to the Jewish Orphan Asylum, Cleveland, where he lived until 1917. He eventually attended the University of California, Berkeley and Columbia University.

In the late 1920s Dahlberg lived in Paris and in London. His first novel, Bottom Dogs, was published in London with an introduction by D. H. Lawrence. He visited Germany in 1933 and in reaction briefly joined the CommunistParty, but left the Party by 1936. From the 1940s onwards, Dahlberg made his living as an author, and also taught at various colleges and universities, most notably Black Mountain College. He married R’Lene LaFleur Howell in 1950.

Dahlberg died in Santa Barbara, California, on February 27, 1977.

 


assorted quotations

life, truth & the self

Every decision you make is a mistake.

Everything ultimately fails, for we die, and that is either the penultimate failure or our most enigmatical achievement.

So much of our lives is given over to the consideration of our imperfections that there is no time to improve our imaginary virtues. The truth is we only perfect our vices, and man is a worse creature when he dies than he was when he was born.

Men are mad most of their lives; few live sane, fewer die so. The acts of people are baffling unless we realize that their wits are disordered. Man is driven to justice by his lunacy.

Ambition is a Dead Sea fruit, and the greatest peril to the soul is that one is likely to get precisely what he is seeking.

There is no place to go, and so we travel! You and I, and what for, just to imagine that we could go somewhere else.

The people who think they are happy should rummage through their dreams.

Genius, like truth, has a shabby and neglected mien.

We cannot live, suffer or die for somebody else, for suffering is too precious to be shared.

What most men desire is a virgin who is a whore.

When one realizes that his life is worthless he either commits suicide or travels.

It takes a long time to understand nothing.

Man hoards himself when he has nothing to give away.

I would rather take hellebore than spend a conversation with a good, little man.


a
merica & society

We are a most solitary people, and we live, repelled by one another, in the gray, outcast cities of Cain.

No people require maxims so much as the American. The reason is obvious: the country is so vast, the people always going somewhere, from Oregonapple valley to boreal New England, that we do not know whether to be temperate orchards or sterile climate.

Intellectual sodomy, which comes from the refusal to be simple about plain matters, is as gross and abundant today as sexual perversion and they are nowise different from one another.

One of the weaknesses in the cooperative is that it has never been sufficiently leavened by the imagination. This is a quick-silver faculty, and likely to be a cause of worry to any collective settlement.

The ruin of the human heart is self-interest, which the American merchant calls self-service. We have become a self-service populace, and all our specious comforts — the automatic elevator, the escalator, the cafeteria — are depriving us of volition and moral and physical energy.

There is a strange and mighty race of people called the Americans who are rapidly becoming the coldest in the world because of this cruel, man-eating idol, lucre.

A strong foe is better than a weak friend.

One cat in a house is a sign of loneliness, two of barrenness, and three of sodomy.

Men are mad most of their lives; few live sane, fewer die so. The acts of people are baffling unless we realize that their wits are disordered. Man is driven to justice by his lunacy.

Nothing in our times has become so unattractive as virtue.

The Americans have always been food, sex, and spirit revivalists.

The ancients understood the regulation of power better than the regulation of liberty.

The machine has had a pernicious effect upon virtue, pity, and love, and young men used to machines which induce inertia, and fear, are near impotent.

The majority of persons choose their wives with as little prudence as they eat. They see a troll with nothing else to recommend her but a pair of thighs and choice hunkers, and so smart to void their seed that they marry her at once. They imagine they can live in marvelous contentment with handsome feet and ambrosial buttocks. Most men are accredited fools shortly after they leave the womb.

It is very perplexing how an intrepid frontier people, who fought a wilderness, floods, tornadoes, and the Rockies, cower before criticism, which is regarded as a malignant tumor in the imagination.


writers & writing

The earnings of a poet could be reckoned by a metaphysician rather than a bookkeeper.

Herman Melville was as separated from a civilized literature as the lost Atlantis was said to have been from the great peoples of the earth.

Though man is the only beast that can write, he has small reason to be proud of it. When he utters something that is wise it is nothing that the river horse does not know, and most of his creations are the result of accident.

The bad poet is a toady mimicking nature.

Hardly a book of human worth, be it heaven’s own secret, is honestly placed before the reader; it is either shunned, given a Periclean funeral oration in a hundred and fifty words, or interred in the potter’s field of the newspapers back pages.

Writing is conscience, scruple, and the farming of our ancestors.

To write is a humiliation.

What has a writer to be bombastic about? Whatever good a man may write is the consequence of accident, luck, or surprise, and nobody is more surprised than an honest writer when he makes a good phrase or says something truthful.

We can only write well about our sins because it is too difficult to recall a virtuous act or even whether it was the result of good or evil motives.

Writing is conscience, scruple, and the farming of our ancestors.

Those who write for lucre or fame are grosser than the cartel robbers, for they steal the genius of the people, which is its will to resist evil.

Recognize the cunning man not by the corpses he pays homage to but by the living writers he conspires against with the most shameful weapon, Silence, or the briefest review.


excerpts

Edward Dahlberg, Because I Was Flesh (1964)

Would to God that my mother had not been a leaf scattered every-where and as the wind listeth. Would to heaven that I could compose a different account of her flesh . . . Should I err against her dear relics or trouble her sleep, may no one imagine that she has not always been for me the three Marys of the New Testament. Moreover, whatever I imagine I know is taken from my mother’s body, and this is the memoir of her body…

Kansas City was my Tarsus; the Kaw and the Missouri Rivers were the washpots of joyous Dianas from St. Joseph and Joplin. It was a young seminal town and the seed of its men was strong. Homer sang of many sacred towns in Hellas which were no better than Kansas City, as hilly as Eteonus and as stony as Aulis. The city wore a coat of rocks and grass. The bosom of this town nursed men, mules and horses as famous as the asses of Arcadia and the steeds of Diomedes . . . Kansas City was the city of my youth and the burial ground of my poor mother’s hopes; her blood, like Abel’s, cries out to me from every cobblestone, building, flat and street…

 

When the image of her comes up on a sudden—just as my bad demons do—and I see her dyed henna hair, the eyes dwarfed by the electric lights in the Star Lady Barber Shop, and the dear, broken wing of her mouth, and when I regard her wild tatters, I know that not even Solomon in his lilied raiment was so glorious as my mother in her rags. Selah.


Edward Dahlberg,
Bottom Dogs (1929)

The next five years were spent in a kaleidoscopic succession of occeupations, which took him all over the country. He has been a Western Union messenger boy in Cleveland, trucker for the American express, driver of a laundry wagon, cattle drover in the Kansas City Stockyards, dishwasher in Portland, Oregon, potato peeler in Sacramento, bus-boy in San Francisco, longshoreman in San Pedro, clerk in a clinic, and vagabond everywhere. . .

She moved from town to town, selling hair switches, giving osteopathic treatments, going on again when she felt the place had been played out. In this way she hoped to save a little money and establish herself in some thriving city. She had taken Lorry with her wherever she went.


Edward Dahlberg,
Do These Bones Live? (New York, 1941)

There are no abstract truths—no Mass-Man, no proletariat. There is only Man. When the Pulse has been nailed upon the crossbeams, lo, Reason gives up its viable breath and becomes a wandering ghostly Error. Truth and folly are ever about to expire, so that we, like our beloved Sancho Panza kneeling at the death-bed of Don Quixote, must always be ready to go out to receive the holy communion of cudgels and distaffs, for the rebirth of the Pulse, living anew, in our veins and bones, as the quickened Truth.

Finally, this Whitmanesque poem (in its entirety):

Edward Dahlberg, “The Leafless American,” (1967)

How old are we?

We are still a horse and buffalo
people, heavy, lumbering cattle, with
prairie and grain virtues, and our avarice
is primitive wigwam barter; we ought to
adore the great fish god, for we are a
costal people, and New Mexico and Arizona,
which are saurian undersea country, breeding
pine, cactus, and snakes, are Galilean land.

We are passing from a morning horse
innocence to unusual vices, and we are not
ready.

Is Pike’s Peak a hummock of old world
sin, or the Rockies Scythian debauchery,
or the mineraled Colorado dawn the Orient
pearl? It is hay and brook and sweet pony
corral, appled meadow garnished with odors
more virtuous than spiced Eden.

Take no stock in American turpitudes;
look to the Toltec of the Mayan for the
lascivious parrot and monkey.

The Platte River, the pine, the sage
brush are hardy character, but not history,
and I admit that nothing has ever happened
to me, and that I am mad for events.

Whatever we do is vast, unconscious
geography; we are huge space giants of the
mesa, surd, mad rivers that rush along, and
we do not care to be near each other; this
is not ancient wickedness, but solitary
prairie grazing.

We cannot bear each other because we
are immense territory, and our most malignant
folly was to closet us up in cities, and take
away our ocean past.

We should have the deepest reverence
for poverty, because we are New Testament
ground. Every day I offer a sacrifice to
the extinct bison, the horse and savage
Iroquois, who are our muse of cereal, yam
and maize, and when somebody strokes my
head, I walk to Mt. Shasta, or the Oregon
orchards which are my epistles to the
Cornithians.

Who is my Father?

The rising sun-man disappeared,
and the step-father, the petticoat parent,
is rearing the children since the tent,
the wagon, and saddle have gone.

The great, grassy basin, the Catskill
eagle made us tribal and fierce; the Pawnee,
leading the sorrel of the Platte by a bull-hide
rope, lessoned us in poverty, for want too
is a tough, rude god make out of dried buffalo
skin, to which we must offer our orisons, lest
we perish of sloth and surfeit.

Our forefathers were giant volcano-horses;
we were a hot earth animal as the elephant
shaped mounds found in Kansas show.

Give us back our origins, for I am out
of season in any other land, or plant except
the corn seeds of Quetzalcoatl, the yucca,
the cactus, and the Mojave joshua tree,
dearer than the desert tamarisk beneath
which Saul sat.

We have lost ground, city-cursed
that we are, left it behind us like the
Quiche did the Yaqui for whom they wept.

Return the Platte, the bison, the hoof-print
of the deer, for I am as hungry for them as
the wandering Quiche who had to smell the points
of their staffs to deceive their empty stomachs.

Our Mother paps were rabid gulches
in which the white and gray wolves howled,
and now that the Toltecs and the Pawnee
are dead, we are their evil genius, looking
for a relic, a flint arrow, a teepee, a
harness, a piece of bread.

I need confidence, the antelope, the
pack-mule, the Indian apple, but we have
killed the old bread gods made of plums,
incense and the coca plant. Until we find
the Quiche bread idol, we are orphans.

The word together has become a tabu
devil; everything is public except guilt,
which is hidden like hands that are pursed
and pocketed lest they be demanded for
hand-shaking, which is some uneasy, first
sin; touch a man and blood goes out
of his cheek; the mountains, the hills and
the grass are turning against men, and
every man dreads every man.

The mating season that once cattled
the fingers of the marriageable now brings
the alley tree, cemented in the side walk,
and the tuberose poodle together. Aging
men walk through the macadam auto ravines,
until magnolia dusk, and then they go to
their rooms, walking from faucet to window-hole.
They crawl under a mealy blanket seeking that
primeval night that came before creation, and
fall at once into a water of sleep, void of
vegetable, animal or root.

The highways have no ancestors;
the 19th century American was kinless
iron, and these men of the
20th are houseless sepcters because
they have never claimed the continent.
They have destroyed the old, rooty
deities of the Cherokee and the Huron
which are now howling in their dead,
double-breasted coats and pants. The
city auto man has killed everything,
going through the unowned land without
branch, leaf, trunk or earth. The
autumn comes, and he has no foliage
to shed, and the winter appears, and
he cannot rest or sleep or die until
April, and his destiny star, too, is
dead. He has no green May shoots and
no loam in which to sprout. He feeds
listlessly and is alone when he genders
with his wife. He is an unseeding,
hating man who has forgotten to plant
a street, a blue-bell, a house.

Prophecy, O lost people without
a fate, is seeing the quick of the
instant. You have no porch, no yard,
no steps, you are groundless, and bitten
by gnats because you have slain the
earth. Can you die? Death is sweet
and dear, for it is quiet. But there
are no hills to appease you, and no
mountains to give you hard, striving
will, or rivers to wash your eyes to
make them see.

Homeless, denatured ghost of many
leafy races, where do you blow? who
will gather you up?


— from The Leafless American and Other Writings

a fellow of infinite jest—david foster wallace dead at 46

 

When I found out David Foster Wallace had killed himself, my reaction was—I imagine—typical of so many who had read him, even just a little (and had of course never met him): a kind of immediate mind freeze for a couple of seconds, followed by hours of stunned disbelief. This summer has proven to be a very bad season for literature: The U.S. poet and critic Reginald Sheppard died from cancer just days ago, and novelist and poet Thomas Disch killed himself only several weeks before. When you further consider the deaths of Saul Bellow, Kurt Vonnegut, William Styron and Norman Mailer over the last few years, it’s hard not to conclude that the vitality of several generations of American writers has now all but disappeared from the literary world.     

 

Transcription of Kenyon Commencement Address, May 21, 2005

Delivered By David Foster Wallace

 

(If anybody feels like perspiring [cough], I’d advise you to go ahead, because I’m sure going to. In fact I’m gonna [mumbles while pulling up his gown and taking out a handkerchief from his pocket].) Greetings ["parents"?] and congratulations to Kenyon’s graduating class of 2005. There are these two young fish swimming along and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says "Morning, boys. How’s the water?" And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes "What the hell is water?"

This is a standard requirement of US commencement speeches, the deployment of didactic little parable-ish stories. The story ["thing"] turns out to be one of the better, less bullshitty conventions of the genre, but if you’re worried thatI plan to present myself here as the wise, older fish explaining what water is to you younger fish, please don’t be. I am not the wise old fish. The point of the fish story is merely that the most obvious, important realities are often the ones that are hardest to see and talk about. Stated as an English sentence, of course, this is just a banal platitude, but the fact is that in the day to day trenches of adult existence, banal platitudes can have a life or death importance, or so I wish to suggest to you on this dry and lovely morning.

Of course the main requirement of speeches like this is that I’m supposed to talk about your liberal arts education’s meaning, to try to explain why the degree you are about to receive has actual human value instead of just a material payoff. So let’s talk about the single most pervasive cliché in the commencement speech genre, which is that a liberal arts education is not so much about filling you up with knowledge as it is about quote teaching you how to think. If you’re like me as a student, you’ve never liked hearing this, and you tend to feel a bit insulted by the claim that you needed anybody to teach you how to think, since the fact that you even got admitted to a college this good seems like proof that you already know how to think. But I’m going to posit to you that the liberal arts cliché turns out not to be insulting at all, because the really significant education in thinking that we’re supposed to get in a place like this isn’t really about the capacity to think, but rather about the choice of what to think about. If your total freedom of choice regarding what to think about seems too obvious to waste time discussing, I’d ask you to think about fish and water, and to bracket for just a few minutes your skepticism about the value of the totally obvious.

Here’s another didactic little story. There are these two guys sitting together in a bar in the remote Alaskan wilderness. One of the guys is religious, the other is an atheist, and the two are arguing about the existence of God with that special intensity that comes after about the fourth beer. And the atheist says: "Look, it’s not like I don’t have actual reasons for not believing in God. It’s not like I haven’t ever experimented with the whole God and prayer thing. Just last month I got caught away from the camp in that terrible blizzard, and I was totally lost and I couldn’t see a thing, and it was fifty below, and so I tried it: I fell to my knees in the snow and cried out ‘Oh, God, if there is a God, I’m lost in this blizzard, and I’m gonna die if you don’t help me.’" And now, in the bar, the religious guy looks at the atheist all puzzled. "Well then you must believe now," he says, "After all, here you are, alive." The atheist just rolls his eyes. "No, man, all that was was a couple Eskimos happened to come wandering by and showed me the way back to camp."

It’s easy to run this story through kind of a standard liberal arts analysis: the exact same experience can mean two totally different things to two different people, given those people’s two different belief templates and two different ways of constructing meaning from experience. Because we prize tolerance and diversity of belief, nowhere in our liberal arts analysis do we want to claim that one guy’s interpretation is true and the other guy’s is false or bad. Which is fine, except we also never end up talking about just where these individual templates and beliefs come from. Meaning, where they come from INSIDE the two guys. As if a person’s most basic orientation toward the world, and the meaning of his experience were somehow just hard-wired, like height or shoe-size; or automatically absorbed from the culture, like language. As if how we construct meaning were not actually a matter of personal, intentional choice. Plus, there’s the whole matter of arrogance. The nonreligious guy is so totally certain in his dismissal of the possibility that the passing Eskimos had anything to do with his prayer for help. True, there are plenty of religious people who seem arrogant and certain of their own interpretations, too. They’re probably even more repulsive than atheists, at least to most of us. But religious dogmatists’ problem is exactly the same as the story’s unbeliever: blind certainty, a close-mindedness that amounts to an imprisonment so total that the prisoner doesn’t even know he’s locked up.

The point here is that I think this is one part of what teaching me how to think is really supposed to mean. To be just a little less arrogant. To have just a little critical awareness about myself and my certainties. Because a huge percentage of the stuff that I tend to be automatically certain of is, it turns out, totally wrong and deluded. I have learned this the hard way, as I predict you graduates will, too.

Here is just one example of the total wrongness of something I tend to be automatically sure of: everything in my own immediate experience supports my deep belief that I am the absolute center of the universe; the realest, most vivid and important person in existence. We rarely think about this sort of natural, basic self-centeredness because it’s so socially repulsive. But it’s pretty much the same for all of us. It is our default setting, hard-wired into our boards at birth. Think about it: there is no experience you have had that you are not the absolute center of. The world as you experience it is there in front of YOU or behind YOU, to the left or right of YOU, on YOUR TV or YOUR monitor. And so on. Other people’s thoughts and feelings have to be communicated to you somehow, but your own are so immediate, urgent, real.

Please don’t worry that I’m getting ready to lecture you about compassion or other-directedness or all the so-called virtues. This is not a matter of virtue. It’s a matter of my choosing to do the work of somehow altering or getting free of my natural, hard-wired default setting which is to be deeply and literally self-centered and to see and interpret everything through this lens of self. People who can adjust their natural default setting this way are often described as being "well-adjusted", which I suggest to you is not an accidental term.

Given the triumphant academic setting here, an obvious question is how much of this work of adjusting our default setting involves actual knowledge or intellect. This question gets very tricky. Probably the most dangerous thing about an academic education — least in my own case — is that it enables my tendency to over-intellectualize stuff, to get lost in abstract argument inside my head, instead of simply paying attention to what is going on right in front of me, paying attention to what is going on inside me.

As I’m sure you guys know by now, it is extremely difficult to stay alert and attentive, instead of getting hypnotized by the constant monologue inside your own head (may be happening right now). Twenty years after my own graduation, I have come gradually to understand that the liberal arts cliché about teaching you how to think is actually shorthand for a much deeper, more serious idea: learning how to think really means learning how to exercise some control over how and what you think. It means being conscious and aware enough to choose what you pay attention to and to choose how you construct meaning from experience. Because if you cannot exercise this kind of choice in adult life, you will be totally hosed. Think of the old cliché about quote the mind being an excellent servant but a terrible master.

This, like many clichés, so lame and unexciting on the surface, actually expresses a great and terrible truth. It is not the least bit coincidental that adults who commit suicide with firearms almost always shoot themselves in: the head. They shoot the terrible master. And the truth is that most of these suicides are actually dead long before they pull the trigger.

And I submit that this is what the real, no bullshit value of your liberal arts education is supposed to be about: how to keep from going through your comfortable, prosperous, respectable adult life dead, unconscious, a slave to your head and to your natural default setting of being uniquely, completely, imperially alone day in and day out. That may sound like hyperbole, or abstract nonsense. Let’s get concrete. The plain fact is that you graduating seniors do not yet have any clue what "day in day out" really means. There happen to be whole, large parts of adult American life that nobody talks about in commencement speeches. One such part involves boredom, routine, and petty frustration. The parents and older folks here will know all too well what I’m talking about.

By way of example, let’s say it’s an average adult day, and you get up in the morning, go to your challenging, white-collar, college-graduate job, and you work hard for eight or ten hours, and at the end of the day you’re tired and somewhat stressed and all you want is to go home and have a good supper and maybe unwind for an hour, and then hit the sack early because, of course, you have to get up the next day and do it all again. But then you remember there’s no food at home. You haven’t had time to shop this week because of your challenging job, and so now after work you have to get in your car and drive to the supermarket. It’s the end of the work day and the traffic is apt to be: very bad. So getting to the store takes way longer than it should, and when you finally get there, the supermarket is very crowded, because of course it’s the time of day when all the other people with jobs also try to squeeze in some grocery shopping. And the store is hideously lit and infused with soul-killing muzak or corporate pop and it’s pretty much the last place you want to be but you can’t just get in and quickly out; you have to wander all over the huge, over-lit store’s confusing aisles to find the stuff you want and you have to maneuver your junky cart through all these other tired, hurried people with carts (et cetera, et cetera, cutting stuff out because this is a long ceremony) and eventually you get all your supper supplies, except now it turns out there aren’t enough check-out lanes open even though it’s the end-of-the-day rush. So the checkout line is incredibly long, which is stupid and infuriating. But you can’t take your frustration out on the frantic lady working the register, who is overworked at a job whose daily tedium and meaninglessness surpasses the imagination of any of us here at a prestigious college.

But anyway, you finally get to the checkout line’s front, and you pay for your food, and you get told to "Have a nice day" in a voice that is the absolute voice of death. Then you have to take your creepy, flimsy, plastic bags of groceries in your cart with the one crazy wheel that pulls maddeningly to the left, all the way out through the crowded, bumpy, littery parking lot, and then you have to drive all the way home through slow, heavy, SUV-intensive, rush-hour traffic, et cetera et cetera.

Everyone here has done this, of course. But it hasn’t yet been part of you graduates’ actual life routine, day after week after month after year.

But it will be. And many more dreary, annoying, seemingly meaningless routines besides. But that is not the point. The point is that petty, frustrating crap like this is exactly where the work of choosing is gonna come in. Because the traffic jams and crowded aisles and long checkout lines give me time to think, and if I don’t make a conscious decision about how to think and what to pay attention to, I’m gonna be pissed and miserable every time I have to shop. Because my natural default setting is the certainty that situations like this are really all about me. About MY hungriness and MY fatigue and MY desire to just get home, and it’s going to seem for all the world like everybody else is just in my way. And who are all these people in my way? And look at how repulsive most of them are, and how stupid and cow-like and dead-eyed and nonhuman they seem in the checkout line, or at how annoying and rude it is that people are talking loudly on cell phones in the middle of the line. And look at how deeply and personally unfair this is.

Or, of course, if I’m in a more socially conscious liberal arts form of my default setting, I can spend time in the end-of-the-day traffic being disgusted about all the huge, stupid, lane-blocking SUV’s and Hummers and V-12 pickup trucks, burning their wasteful, selfish, forty-gallon tanks of gas, and I can dwell on the fact that the patriotic or religious bumper-stickers always seem to be on the biggest, most disgustingly selfish vehicles, driven by the ugliest [responding here to loud applause] (this is an example of how NOT to think, though) most disgustingly selfish vehicles, driven by the ugliest, most inconsiderate and aggressive drivers. And I can think about how our children’s children will despise us for wasting all the future’s fuel, and probably screwing up the climate, and how spoiled and stupid and selfish and disgusting we all are, and how modern consumer society just sucks, and so forth and so on.

You get the idea.

If I choose to think this way in a store and on the freeway, fine. Lots of us do. Except thinking this way tends to be so easy and automatic that it doesn’t have to be a choice. It is my natural default setting. It’s the automatic way that I experience the boring, frustrating, crowded parts of adult life when I’m operating on the automatic, unconscious belief that I am the center of the world, and that my immediate needs and feelings are what should determine the world’s priorities.

The thing is that, of course, there are totally different ways to think about these kinds of situations. In this traffic, all these vehicles stopped and idling in my way, it’s not impossible that some of these people in SUV’s have been in horrible auto accidents in the past, and now find driving so terrifying that their therapist has all but ordered them to get a huge, heavy SUV so they can feel safe enough to drive. Or that the Hummer that just cut me off is maybe being driven by a father whose little child is hurt or sick in the seat next to him, and he’s trying to get this kid to the hospital, and he’s in a bigger, more legitimate hurry than I am: it is actually I who am in HIS way.

Or I can choose to force myself to consider the likelihood that everyone else in the supermarket’s checkout line is just as bored and frustrated as I am, and that some of these people probably have harder, more tedious and painful lives than I do.

Again, please don’t think that I’m giving you moral advice, or that I’m saying you are supposed to think this way, or that anyone expects you to just automatically do it. Because it’s hard. It takes will and effort, and if you are like me, some days you won’t be able to do it, or you just flat out won’t want to.

But most days, if you’re aware enough to give yourself a choice, you can choose to look differently at this fat, dead-eyed, over-made-up lady who just screamed at her kid in the checkout line. Maybe she’s not usually like this. Maybe she’s been up three straight nights holding the hand of a husband who is dying of bone cancer. Or maybe this very lady is the low-wage clerk at the motor vehicle department, who just yesterday helped your spouse resolve a horrific, infuriating, red-tape problem through some small act of bureaucratic kindness. Of course, none of this is likely, but it’s also not impossible. It just depends what you what to consider. If you’re automatically sure that you know what reality is, and you are operating on your default setting, then you, like me, probably won’t consider possibilities that aren’t annoying and miserable. But if you really learn how to pay attention, then you will know there are other options. It will actually be within your power to experience a crowded, hot, slow, consumer-hell type situation as not only meaningful, but sacred, on fire with the same force that made the stars: love, fellowship, the mystical oneness of all things deep down.

Not that that mystical stuff is necessarily true. The only thing that’s capital-T True is that you get to decide how you’re gonna try to see it.

This, I submit, is the freedom of a real education, of learning how to be well-adjusted. You get to consciously decide what has meaning and what doesn’t. You get to decide what to worship.

Because here’s something else that’s weird but true: in the day-to day trenches of adult life, there is actually no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship. And the compelling reason for maybe choosing some sort of god or spiritual-type thing to worship — be it JC or Allah, bet it YHWH or the Wiccan Mother Goddess, or the Four Noble Truths, or some inviolable set of ethical principles — is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive. If you worship money and things, if they are where you tap real meaning in life, then you will never have enough, never feel you have enough. It’s the truth. Worship your body and beauty and sexual allure and you will always feel ugly. And when time and age start showing, you will die a million deaths before they finally grieve you. On one level, we all know this stuff already. It’s been codified as myths, proverbs, clichés, epigrams, parables; the skeleton of every great story. The whole trick is keeping the truth up front in daily consciousness.

Worship power, you will end up feeling weak and afraid, and you will need ever more power over others to numb you to your own fear. Worship your intellect, being seen as smart, you will end up feeling stupid, a fraud, always on the verge of being found out. But the insidious thing about these forms of worship is not that they’re evil or sinful, it’s that they’re unconscious. They are default settings.

They’re the kind of worship you just gradually slip into, day after day, getting more and more selective about what you see and how you measure value without ever being fully aware that that’s what you’re doing.

And the so-called real world will not discourage you from operating on your default settings, because the so-called real world of men and money and power hums merrily along in a pool of fear and anger and frustration and craving and worship of self. Our own present culture has harnessed these forces in ways that have yielded extraordinary wealth and comfort and personal freedom. The freedom all to be lords of our tiny skull-sized kingdoms, alone at the center of all creation. This kind of freedom has much to recommend it. But of course there are all different kinds of freedom, and the kind that is most precious you will not hear much talk about much in the great outside world of wanting and achieving and [unintelligible — sounds like "displayal"]. The really important kind of freedom involves attention and awareness and discipline, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them over and over in myriad petty, unsexy ways every day.

That is real freedom. That is being educated, and understanding how to think. The alternative is unconsciousness, the default setting, the rat race, the constant gnawing sense of having had, and lost, some infinite thing.

I know that this stuff probably doesn’t sound fun and breezy or grandly inspirational the way a commencement speech is supposed to sound. What it is, as far as I can see, is the capital-T Truth, with a whole lot of rhetorical niceties stripped away. You are, of course, free to think of it whatever you wish. But please don’t just dismiss it as just some finger-wagging Dr. Laura sermon. None of this stuff is really about morality or religion or dogma or big fancy questions of life after death.

The capital-T Truth is about life BEFORE death.

It is about the real value of a real education, which has almost nothing to do with knowledge, and everything to do with simple awareness; awareness of what is so real and essential, so hidden in plain sight all around us, all the time, that we have to keep reminding ourselves over and over:

"This is water."

"This is water."

It is unimaginably hard to do this, to stay conscious and alive in the adult world day in and day out. Which means yet another grand cliché turns out to be true: your education really IS the job of a lifetime. And it commences: now.

I wish you way more than luck.

 

From: http://www.marginalia.org/dfw_kenyon_commencement.html