Tuesday, April 12, 2005

George Steiner's Desert Island Discs

A Belch: "Fortinbras's Belch. The one at the end of the interminable coronation carouse....The wines had been heavy, and the herring. Dawn could not be far off. Even through the thick walls and battlements, Fortinbras the son of Norway could sense the changing rasp of the sea when the dawn approaches. He was bone-tired. Almost envious of the dead prince, who had always seemed to him like a master of sleep, and of the secrets which sleep breeds. Fortinbras belched. It was a loud, cavernous belch. From the inmost of his drowsing, armoured flesh. Thunderous and replete with the promise of a simpler tomorrow."

A Horse's Neigh: "It all happened at such speed. The horses had been half asleep, their eyes closed against the damn flies. Out of breath with the heat and the slight rise which leads to the place where the three roads meet, the two slaves were trotting in the spare shade of the cart. The old man was humming to himself, as he often did, a lullaby to a new-born child, but breaking off, always, on a jagged tooth. Then the harsh pull on the reins, forcing the horses almost to their haunches. The slash of the whip and the charioteer's high-pitched obscenities. The muffled call of the old man, his bony arms waving in the drumming air. And cutting through it all, a voice which the dappled would never shake out of its ears. A voice strangely like his old master's, but totally different: raw yet resonate, like that of a bronze clarion. A call so brimful of rage that it tore the skin off one's back, but knowing, with a knowledge that was like a knife.
One of the windmill strokes from the traveler's knotted staff grazed the little horse's neck. It was not a direct blow - he had heard the old man's skull crack and the death-rattle of the driver - but of a contemptuous violence. The traces had snapped like dry reeds and the grey had raced for the hills. The sharp flint had galled his hoofs and now, at sunset, the shadows ran cold. Looking back, the little horse had glimpsed a figure running desperately towards Thebes. Was it one of the slaves, or the traveler? He did not know. And began neighing, uncertain of his fodder."

A Scratch: "The scratch or, more precisely, [ ] the sibilant swerve (in G minor) of the steel nib on Rudolf Julius Emmanuel Clausius's pen in the instant in which the pen wrote the n in the exponential n minus x to the nth power in the equation of entropy.... Entropy meant run-down and the transmutation of spent energy into cold stasis. A stillness, a cold past all imagining. Compared to which are own deaths and the decomposition of the warm flesh are a trivial carnival.. In that equation, the cosmos had its epitaph. In the beginning was the Word; at the close was the algebraic function. A pen-nib, bought in a scrolled cardboard box at Kreutzner's, university stationer, had put finis to the sum and total of being. After the downward right-hand stroke of that n came not infinite blackness, which is still, but a nothingness, an unfathomable zero. Unthinking, Clausius started tracing a line beneath the equation. But the nib had gone dry."

A Laugh: "[The sound of] her fingers in his perspiring hair as he knelt. Of the buttons slipping out of the braided hooks of her long coat. The rustle of her skirt, like the leafy edge of summer, as she drew it up her thighs. And when his tongue came home to her, from above his dizzied head and shoulders, that laugh, distant at first, over-arching, then closer than his own skin. The hushed chime of her laugh as he drank of her. A note which left his soul singing and crazy with peace."

A Tape: "[The one and only] tape extant of the otherwise lost Trio in F Major for crumhorn, double bass and Sumatran conch-bells which Sigbert Weimerschlund composed in the year of his death.... The music played, and these the performers, in the waiting-room for the Last Judgement."

A Whistle: The recording of the whistle in the painting labelled 'By the Master of the Chambèry Passion'. "It is a Crucifixion on gilded panelling which can most plausibly be dated mid-fourteenth century and ascribed to one of the workshops in the Turin area.... It is the red-headed lad in the attendant crowd [of those witnessing the Crucifixion], the fourth figure from the left, who arrests the attention. He is whistling. On two supple fingers inserted, shepherd - or street urchin style, into a corner of his full lips. Whistling either to himself or some listener - a crony, a sheep-dog, a girl - outside the scene. There can be no mistake. The whistle is a loud and joyous one, as of a thrush on a spring upland. The whistler's firm green-hosed legs tell us that, as does the merry swelling of his throat and cheeks. And though his lips are pursed, there can be no doubt as to the smile and the dawn cheer which gives them breath. Yet the young man's eyes are on the Cross, on the twisted flesh and the petals of bright blood around the nails. The eyes are unwavering as he whistles, as the pure clear merriment rises into the paschal air."
From Proofs and Three Parables (1989) by George Steiner, having appeared first in Granta.

No comments: