Monday, December 29, 2014

Mankind had destroyed itself, and the survivors now felt as though they were suicides who had failed.

Eyes That Have Seen the Light of a Thousand Suns
Hiroshima, 1945 - source

This form of pointing to a historicity that can never he fully represented constitutes a kind of allegory in Benjamin's peculiar sense of the term. In Benjamin's understanding, allegory breaks up naturalized concepts of history and life, creating discontinuities through which other times and histories can emerge. Tom Cohen helpfully glosses the term "allography" or "other-writing," describing it as a practice of writing that, like translation, indicates a difference in language that corresponds to history's ongoing and infinitely singular alterity (Ideology 12). Although Borges rejects allegory as
an "aesthetic error," he also acknowledges that it merely exacerbates an abstract aspect of language that is impossible to avoid, even in such forms as the symbol or the novel, which purport to represent immediacy and particularity ("De las alegarias a las novelas," Otras inquisiciones 153-56). If the symbol, the novel, and allegory constitute "maps of the universe," the symbol and the novel are like Borges's famous imperial map that is spread over the colonized territory, and allegory is perhaps the same map, but ill-fitting and shredding with time, perforated by an otherness that it cannot keep covered. Allegory thus concerns a sense of life that cannot be fully represented, but rather gestures beyond itself to what both Benjamin and Borges describe as the "secrets of history" - that is, a conception of history that can never he appropriated by those who Benjamin calls history's victors. - 
- Reading Borges after Benjamin: Allegory, Afterlife, and the Writing of History by Kate Jenckes

In our times, unfortunately, Hirsohima is a forgotten allegory. As such, it has lost contemporary relevance. The word itself has become a metonomy for it's own destruction. Ask almost anyone what Hiroshima means and it will be typically be described as a bombing to end the war with Japan or as the one of the two occurrences in history that nuclear weapons have been used in warfare. What has been forgotten, relegated to the dustbin, is what Benjamin and Borges call the "the secrets of history": what actually happened on the ground to the 350,000 human beings living in the city. 

It has been estimated that 60,000 to 80,000 people were killed instantly - a number that in itself is difficult to imagine. Think of a football stadium filled to capacity - leaving an unsettling margin of error for 20,000 more. If this 20,000 indicated days, it would amount to over 55 years. This is the margin of error. 

In October of 1950, a national survey, counted 158,597 survivors in Hiroshima. Here is where Borges' claim that the allegory is an "aesthetic error" is terribly applicable, for the allegory breaks down in the first person testimonials of life in Hiroshima after the bomb. In the extraordinary case of Hirsoshima, the incomprehensible violent "otherness" of the survivor's traumatic accounts shreds the maps of historiography into obscene fragments disconnected from any meaning. Borges' error has become an imprecation of the highest order, an ontological curse. That we, "history's victors," have become blind to this is indicative of precisely how poisoned by our own "allography," "historiography" we have become. 

On December 10, 1950, William Faulker was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature. He chose the occasion to deliver these haunting words in his acceptance speech

Our tragedy today is a general and universal physical fear so long sustained by now that we can even bear it. There are no longer problems of the spirit. There is only the question: When will I be blown up? Because of this, the young man or woman writing today has forgotten the problems of the human heart in conflict with itself which alone can make good writing because only that is worth writing about, worth the agony and the sweat. 
He must learn them again. He must teach himself that the basest of all things is to be afraid; and, teaching himself that, forget it forever, leaving no room in his workshop for anything but the old verities and truths of the heart, the old universal truths lacking which any story is ephemeral and doomed - love and honor and pity and pride and compassion and sacrifice. Until he does so, he labors under a curse. He writes not of love but of lust, of defeats in which nobody loses anything of value, of victories without hope and, worst of all, without pity or compassion. His griefs grieve on no universal bones, leaving no scars. He writes not of the heart but of the glands. 
Until he relearns these things, he will write as though he stood among and watched the end of man

27 years later, Arthur Koestler wrote in his book Janus: A Summing Up:

If I were asked to name the most important date in the history of prehistory of the human race, I would answer without hesitation, 6 August 1945. The reason is simple. From the dawn of consciousness until 6 August 1945, man had to live with the prospect of his death as an individual; since the day when the first atomic bomb outshone the sun over Hiroshima, mankind as a while has had to live with the prospect of its extinction as a species.  
We have been taught to accept the transitoriness of personal existence, while taking the potential immortality of the human race for granted. This belief has ceased to be valid. We have to revise our axioms.  
It is not an easy task. There are periods of incubation before a new idea takes hold of the mind; the Copernican doctrine which so radically downgraded man's status in the universe took nearly a century until it penetrated European consciousness. The new downgrading of our species to the status of mortality is even more difficult to digest.  
It actually looks as if the novelty of this outlook had worn off before it had properly sunk in. Already the name Hiroshima has become a historical cliche like the Boston Tea Party. We have returned to a state of pseudo-normality. Only a small minority is conscious of the fact that ever since it unlocked the nuclear Pandora's Box, our species has been living on borrowed time. 

Of course, these days, it is not only destruction by nuclear weapons that poisons our hope, but that of global climate change. It seems that if we do not kill ourselves, the planet will do it for us. And the poisonous effects of digesting this pervasive sense of doom are only just beginning to be seen. All those "old verities and truths of the heart" that Faulkner hoped the next generations might "relearn" are losing all meaning. What remains is only the standing among and watching the end of man.

The journalist Robert Jungk spent three years documenting the post-bomb experience of Hiroshima, recounting many survivors' tales, in City of Ashes: The People of Hiroshima (PDF file). Here are those broken fragments of life in the aftermath. Language, thought itself, seems inadequate in the face of the atrocity. And yet, contra-Faulkner, here at the intimations of what any future "literature" might be.

The M. family also began to show the painful symptoms that revealed the radiation sickness. Setsuo M. complained that his eyesight had suddenly deteriorated, his wife began to lose her hair, while little Hideko vomited several times a day. Kazuo sat for hours each day in front of the entrance that led down to the air-raid shelter and stared out over the vast field of rubble. Later he attempted to recapture his mood as it had been, in a poem that he sent me: 
It rains and rains,
In the slanting rain I sit,
It drums upon my naked skull,
It drips across my singed eyebrows,
It runs into that bleeding hole, my mouth.
Rain on my wounded shoulders,
Rain in my lacerated heart. Rain, rain, rain,
Wherefore do I live on? 
Doctors practising in Hiroshima at that time have recorded that a second phase now set in, after the first period of desperate and confused activity that followed immediately upon the Pikadon; many survivors now gave an impression of utter apathy and showed no wish to go on living. This symptom they called Muyoku-ganbo, and when they noted in a very sick patient's face an expression of listlessness increasing with each passing day, then they knew that there was no longer any hope of saving this particular life. 
An eye-witness, the poetess Yoko Ohta, has described this condition: 'Each of us had for a time done everything possible, without knowing for sure what exactly it was that we were doing. Then we awoke, and now we wished to speak no more. Even the sheepdogs that roamed about ceased to bark. The trees, the plants all that lived seemed numb, without movement or colour. Hiroshima did not somehow resemble a city destroyed by war, but rather a fragment of a world that was ending. Mankind had destroyed itself, and the survivors now felt as though they were suicides who had failed. Thus the "expression of wanting nothing more" came to be seen upon our faces.' 
Children of the Ashes: The People of Hiroshima, Robert Jungk

Where to go from here? What follows the end of what is sayable? What is the future of hope? Obviously, without a future, there is no hope. The language either has to disconnect itself from the stark sheer face of the reality it barely clings to or lose itself in counter-truths, allegorical lies and fantastical maps that reference only imaginary worlds. Perhaps, we are already in the thick of it. Opium dreamers lost in the layers of deeper dreams and false awakening. Much of our media, especially film, is creating fictional critique of this view. If this is the case, the concern is not so much how to escape but why. What incentive is there to fully awaken from the beautiful dream into the horrible reality? Perhaps, there are potentialities for renewal. But these thoughts are plagued by doubt.

It is not that everything is a lie but the space for exodus is narrow, and we find it difficult to sense much of a navigable entanglement of humanity and world. Kafka's insistence that there is an abundance of hope but none for us seems only all the more pertinent to current conditions. [...]
Bloch's most interesting and challenging claim in relation to hope is that it involves danger and fundamental insecurity and that this is its dark ambivalence. At its most difficult, it approaches and resides in a zero-point of emptiness and darkness. But this is a place where fear creates yearning and longing against that which the darkness most obscures and depreciates. The tenebrous realities of death and tragic being can provide a motivating uncertainty in which a renewal might occur. 
- Frances Daly, The Privatization of Hope: Ernst Bloch and the Future of Utopia, edited by Peter Thompson, Slavoj Zizek

These men must today rear their sons and create their works in a world threatened by nuclear destruction. Nobody, I think, can ask them to be optimists. And I even think that we should understand - without ceasing to fight it - the error of those who in an excess of despair have asserted their right to dishonour and have rushed into the nihilism of the era. But the fact remains that most of us, in my country and in Europe, have refused this nihilism and have engaged upon a quest for legitimacy. They have had to forge for themselves an art of living in times of catastrophe in order to be born a second time and to fight openly against the instinct of death at work in our history. 
- Albert Camus, Nobel Prize Acceptance Speech, 1957

Tuesday, December 09, 2014

Alice Leora Briggs: "where nothing, when it happens, is never terrible enough"

Alice Leora Briggs
Santa Muerte - 2008

There are few living artists whose work is as compelling and as morbidly fascinating as that of Alice Leora Briggs. Even fewer who have the ability to artistically comment on contemporary social and political issues with as much insight, subtle irony and tragic humor. Her work consciously references Holbein's Dance of Death, Rembrandt's Flayed Ox, Gerard David's Flaying of Sisamnes and William Hogarth's ironic moral engravings to name just a few. Whether she is working in 13th century German sgrafitto etching techniques, woodcuts or woodburns, her essential illuminations into the black hollows of human nature are striking and unforgettable, their brutal meanings transcendent, resonant beauty shivering in the bones. 

When I first spoke to artist Alice Leora Briggs last spring, Juarez, Mexico, was under siege by rampant gang- and drug-related violence. Briggs had just completed an arts residency in southern New Mexico and frequently traveled the 30 minutes to witness the carnage and aftermath left by a recent spate of murders in and around the border town. 
She visited so called "death houses," sites of mass executions, and spent time studying the victims' remains in the city morgue. 
"One room is entirely full of bullets from the executions," Brigss said. "I saw an autopsy of a young man who was executed. There was a story in the New York Times about the morgue a day or so after I was there. The photos of the freezers had everything looking tidy. They must have cleaned for them. I was glad to get a different view....The bodies were all akimbo and not neatly wrapped up.... I see things on the news and compare it to what I saw and they do not always jive." 
In response to what she saw, Briggs picked up her etching knives and, using an old etching technique from the 13th century called sgraffito, cut through dark wood to reveal images of what was laid before her eyes. 
Alongside the graphic images, Briggs also incorporates medieval or renaissance scenes like an old-master draftsman. In a more recent conversation, Briggs explained what drew her to violent depictions: "The first time that I went to Italy, I realized that I was part of an extended tradition in Western art. I mean, you go to Italy, walk into any church, and the subject matter is about torture and death and human suffering. And these are things I think maybe are not entertaining, but certainly are worthy of our attention."

Dreamland: The Way Out of Juarez
Words by Charles Bowden
Drawings by Alice Leora Briggs

In 2010, Briggs collaborated with Charles Bowden on the book, Dreamland: The Way Out of Juarez:

What do you call a place where people are tortured and murdered and buried in the backyard of a nice, middle-class condo? Where police work for the drug cartels? Where the meanings of words such as "border" and "crime" and "justice" are emptying out into the streets and flowing down into the sewers? You call it Juárez or, better yet, Dreamland. 
Realizing that merely reporting the facts cannot capture the massive disintegration of society that is happening along the border, Charles Bowden and Alice Leora Briggs use nonfiction and sgraffito drawings to depict the surreality that is Ciudad Juárez, Mexico. Starting from an incident in which a Mexican informant for the U.S. Department of Homeland Security murdered a man while U.S. agents listened in by cell phone—and did nothing to intervene—Bowden forcefully and poetically describes the breakdown of all order in Juárez as the power of the drug industry outstrips the power of the state. Alice Leora Briggs's drawings—reminiscent of Northern Renaissance engraving and profoundly disquieting—intensify the reality of this place where atrocities happen daily and no one, neither citizens nor governments, openly acknowledges them. 
With the feel of a graphic novel, the look of an illuminated medieval manuscript, and the harshness of a police blotter, Dreamland captures the routine brutality, resilient courage, and rapacious daily commerce along the U.S.-Mexico border.

The Stamps for Dreamland series is stunning and evocative. The implicit authority of the stamp is sublimely subverted by the use of imagery associated with the hellish Narco-Terrorist world of Juarez, Mexico and El Paso, Texas. It is a modern day Dance of Death, narratively compelling as the woodcut prints of Hans Holbein, and yet something entirely new, utterly 21st century. And yet, a thing that has always haunted human beings. Desire and death. You imagine that when the lights of the world have been extinguished, these images of Alice Leora Briggs are what the desperate trembling survivors will look to for some insight into the nature of our current insanity. In her images are the omens, portents and signs of the sickness rotting inside the heart of our world.

Everyone knows the facts and yet the facts slip from everyone’s hands. Walk a hundred feet from a body on the pavement - the blood puddled around the skull - and it never happened, the young girls smile, the traffic zooms past without slowing, the city beats on and on, and the dead no longer exist and soon the memory of the dead will be a rare bit of fact polished and cherished by the family and ignored or forgotten by everyone else. This is a survival tactic and it crosses all class lines. This is the fruit of living without history. This is the result of amnesia in television, radio, and print. This is the sweet drug that comes from fantasy. The authorities are real. The police enforce the laws. The courts function. The army protects. The streetlights sweep evil from the night. There is a consensus here to believe the unbelievable, to insist that things are normal - the government is in charge, the incidents, should they even come to notice, are accidents, little imperfections in the tapestry that is life and this tapestry is sound and beautiful to both the eye and to the hand as it strokes the elaborate weave of lives that make up the city.

It took me a long time to accept that the present is always acceptable. Period.”
- Charles Bowdee, Murder City: Ciudad Juárez and the Global Economy's New Killing Fields

Alice Leora Briggs
Twelve - 2008

“I don’t trust the answers or the people who give me the answers. I believe in dirt and bone and flowers and fresh pasta and salsa cruda and red wine. I don’t believe in white wine; I insist on color.”   
- Charles Bowden 

Alice Leora Briggs
Narcotraficante - 2008

Alice Leora Briggs
Decapitacion Humana - 2010

Disquiet has marked art since its beginnings: the success and failures of Paleolithic hunts, the tides of slaves who filled Egyptian tombs, the memento moris of Dutch stilled lives, the spears of Shakespearean wit. Likewise, occupation with human frailty and worldly conceits is integral to Alice Leora Briggs’ work. When she was seven years old, her brother fell to his death at Grand Teton National Park. And, perhaps as a result, Briggs probes with curiosity and intensity those facets of human life that we often seek to closet. The artist finds her subject in the narco-violence that plagues Ciudad Juárez and in an asylum built by a visionary on the outskirts of this Mexican border city. Briggs explores the daily adaptations made by the citizens of the narco-battered borderlands. She renders them in her native amalgam of classic and contemporary imagery and oblique narratives coaxed from European art history. 
In tandem a recent series of woodcuts explores a twelve-line universe, The Room, a poem by American poet laureate, Mark Strand. Each of her images conjures one line from the poem. The world she creates is brittle, tenuous, and furtive. The images glimpse into concealed longings and secrets, like looking into someone’s emotional closet. In her persistent way, all of Briggs’ work finds a way to link our contemporary anxieties, desires, and expectations with those of the art historical past. Her visual quotations from Albrecht Durer, Hans Holbein, Hendrik Goltzius, and others meld seemingly incongruent worlds into the singular time and place of her drawings.

Alice Leora Briggs
where the farmer sits and stares - 2014

The Room by Mark Strand 
It is an old story, the way it happens
sometimes in winter, sometimes not.
The listener falls to sleep,
the doors to the closets of his unhappiness open 
and into his room the misfortunes come --
death by daybreak, death by nightfall,
their wooden wings bruising the air,
their shadows the spilled milk the world cries over. 
There is a need for surprise endings;
the green field where cows burn like newsprint,
where the farmer sits and stares,
where nothing, when it happens, is never terrible enough.

Alice Leora Briggs
Spit - 2007

O Fortuna,
velut Luna
statu variabilis,
semper crescis
aut decrescis;
vita detestabilis
nunc obdurat
et tunc curat
ludo mentis aciem,
dissolvit ut glaciem. 
Sors immanis
et inanis,
rota tu volubilis,
status malus,
vana salus
semper dissolubilis,
et velata
michi quoque niteris;
nunc per ludum
dorsum nudum
fero tui sceleris.

Sors salutis
et virtutis
michi nunc contraria.
est affectus
et defectus
semper in angaria.
Hac in hora
sine mora
corde pulsum tangite;
quod per sortem
sternit fortem,
mecum omnes plangite!

O Fortune!
Like the moon
rising first
then declining;
hateful life
treats us badly
then with kindness
making sport with our desires,
causing power
and poverty alike
to melt like ice. 
Dread destiny
and empty fate,
an ever-turning wheel,
who make adversity
and fickle health
alike turn to nothing,
in the dark
and secretly
you work against me;
how through your trickery
my naked back
is turned to you unarmed. 
Good fortune
and strength
now are turned from me.
and defeat
are always on duty.
Come now,
pluck the strings
without delay;
and since by fate
the strong are overthrown
weep ye all with me.
- Carmina Burana

Monday, October 06, 2014

Shiloh: The fifth and last one was piled up into a mass of skull, arms, some toes and the remains of a butternut suit....

"Two or three of us took a little ramble out on the field... We took a look at the ghastly sights.... I saw five dead Confederates all killed by one six pound solid shot -- no doubt from one of our cannon. They had been behind a log and all in a row. The ball had raked them as they crouched behind the log (no doubt firing at our men). One of them had his head taken off. One had been struck at the right shoulder and his chest lay open. One had been cut in two at the bowels and nothing held the carcass together but the spine. One had been hit at the thighs and the legs were torn from the body. The fifth and last one was piled up into a mass of skull, arms, some toes and the remains of a butternut suit.... 
"Ambulances and men are hurrying over the field and gathering up the wounded. The surgeons are cutting off the arms and legs. Burying parties and details are out burying the dead this evening... The terrible rain of last night has filled the ground with water... The trees are just bursting into leaf and the little flowers are covering the ground -- but their fragrance is lost in the pall of death which has settled down on this bloody field." 
"This is the valley and the shadow of death."

- Excerpt from Throne, Mildred, ed. The Civil War Diary of Cyrus F. Boyd. 
Fifteenth Iowa Infantry, 1861-1863. The State Historical Society of Iowa, 1976. 
Reprint, Millwood, NY: Kraus Reprint Co.

Saturday, March 29, 2014

The Master of Ceremonies, Hasta Los Huesos and Vado Mori - "My name then is ded."

These two films and short exchange of words sum up the figures carved into the weathered face of the world by wandering astral bodies. Totems and artifact unwinding in the Waste Land like a dream of perpetual motion manifested in a broken music box. Beethoven Piano Sonata 14. The ferocity of the moon. A theme played forever becomes the sustained scream of a dying God in the end. 

Master of Ceremonies. Death the Entertainer, Vaudevillian, Juggler, Guitar Player, Comedian, Pedant and Tinker. The flesh burns, the skeleton tried to run away, the angel emerges like a moth flying over water. 

Hasta Los Huesos. A diorama of Jose Guadalupe Posada. William Blake's Sick Rose and Invisible Worm. The man slides out of the womb and lusts to return to it with every woman, his bone hungry for the hole, finding no sanctuary until he slides into the tomb, the last bone hole. 

Vado Mori. I go to die. Text and Image. Death levels all. Hamlet Act 4, Scene 3:

Not where he eats, but where he is eaten: a certain convocation of politic worms are e'en at him. Your worm is your only emperor for diet: we fat all creatures else to fat us, and we fat ourselves for maggots: your fat king and your lean beggar is but variable service, two dishes, but to one table: that's the end. 
Alas, alas! 
A man may fish with the worm that hath eat of a king, and cat of the fish that hath fed of that worm. 
What dost you mean by this? 
Nothing but to show you how a king may go aprogress through the guts of a beggar.

Landscape with the Fall of Icarus (fragment) also by Chris Sullivan

"Although the relationship among the three manuscripts of the Desert of Religion cannot be traced precisely, the question is made all the more intriguing by their common witness to several other text-and-image combinations. Two other imagetexts travel with the Desert of Religion in all three extant copies, linking the manuscripts still more closely together. All three include an illustrated English version of what are known as Vado Mori verses, extant also often in Latin. Although these verses are commonly found in several languages, illustrations accompany them in no other manuscript apart from these three. 
The text is spoken by a king, a bishop, and a knight, as they relate their individual encounters with Death: 
I wende to dede knight stithe in stoure:
thurghe fyght in felde I wane the flour.
Na fightes me taght the dede to quell.
I weend to dede soth I ghow tell. 
I weende to dede a kynge iwisse.
What helpis honor or werldis blysse?
Dede is to mane the kynde wai:
I wende to be clade in clay. 
I wende to dede clerk ful of skill,
that couth wt worde men more and dill.
Sone has me made the dede ane ende
beese ware wt me to dede I wende.
The point of these verses—that Death levels all traces of worldy station—is made implicitly by the human speakers, but in the Stowe version, the figure of Death himself speaks further lines that make the point explicit: 
Be ghe wele now warr wt me:
My name then is ded.
May ther none fro me fle
That any lyfe gun led.
Kynge Kaser then no knyght,
Ne clerke that can on boke rede,
Beest ne foghel ne other wyght,
Bot I sal make tham dedde. 
The Stowe manuscript, then, offers a more fully elaborated variant of the Vado Mori texts and images than Additional and Cotton, but the substance of all three versions is recognizably the same. They offer a double memento mori that capitalizes on the rememorative function of visual art so commonly cited by medieval theorists of the image."

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Ellis Nadler: Cards of U'ut

Cards of U'ut by Ellis Nadler

The Cards of U'ut are 37 beautiful and subtle woodcut Tarot interpretations of by Ellis Nadler. You can see all of the cards here: However, there is also an online booklet where you can read short gnomic poems he has written to accompany each image: In the video Nadler talks about his desire to found a new religion mixed him giving reading to people on the street. He also demonstrates his technique in making the woodcuts. 

Each of the woodcut images seem simultaneously familiar and strange. It is easy to imagine them as a lost or esoteric version of the Marseilles deck from the 15th century. But then there is a disconcerting modernity to them, a graphic frankness mixed with a transgressive sense of humor. 

His price is less than $200 for a set of 37 oversized cards in an "aluminum box, with a 48 page booklet and a numbered certificate signed by the artist."

Cards of U'ut by Ellis Nadler

In the fullness of time
The leg will recover
To kick out heretics
And regain control

U'ut's iron jack-boot
Will crush the free-thinkers
And exile dissenters
Into a black hole

Sunday, March 16, 2014

To Philosophize Is to Learn How to Die

Death on the Barricades, Alfred Rethel

Death can surprise us in so many ways:

Quid quisque vitet, nunquam homini satis
Cautum est in horas.

[No man knows what dangers he should avoid from one hour to another.] 
Leaving aside fevers and pleurisies, who would ever have thought that a Duke of Brittany was to be crushed to death in a crowd, as one was during the state entry into Lyons of Pope Clement, who came from my part of the world! Have you not seen one of our kings killed at sport? And was not one of his ancestors killed by a bump from a pig? Aeschylus was warned against a falling house; he was always on the alert, but in vain: he was killed by the shell of a tortoise which slipped from the talons of an eagle in flight. Another choked to death on a pip from a grape; an Emperor died from a scratch when combing his hair; Aemilius Lepidus, from knocking his foot on his own doorstep; Aufidius from bumping into a door of his Council chamber. Those who died between a woman’s thighs include Cornelius Gallus, a praetor; Tigillinus, a captain of the Roman Guard; Ludovico, the son of Guy di Gonzaga, the Marquis of Mantua; and – providing even worse examples – Speucippus the Platonic philosopher, and one of our Popes. [...] 
To begin depriving death of its greatest advantage over us, let us adopt a way clean contrary to that common one; let us deprive death of its strangeness; let us frequent it, let us get used to it; let us have nothing more often in mind than death.  
At every instant let us evoke it in our imagination under all its aspects. Whenever a horse stumbles, a tile falls or a pin pricks however slightly, let us at once chew over this thought: ‘Supposing that was death itself?’ With that, let us brace ourselves and make an effort. In the midst of joy and feasting let our refrain be one which recalls our human condition. Let us never be carried away by pleasure so strongly that we fail to recall occasionally how many are the ways in which that joy of ours is subject to death or how many are the fashions in which death threatens to snatch it away.  
That is what the Egyptians did: in the midst of all their banquets and good cheer they would bring in a mummified corpse to serve as a warning to the guests:

Omnem crede diem tibi diluxisse supremum.
Grata superveniet, quæ non sperabitur hora.

[Believe that each day was the last to shine on you. If it comes, any unexpected hour will be welcome indeed.] 
We do not know where death awaits us: so let us wait for it everywhere. To practise death is to practise freedom. A man who has learned how to die has unlearned how to be a slave. Knowing how to die gives us freedom from subjection and constraint. Life has no evil for him who has thoroughly understood that loss of life is not an evil.

Michel de Montaigne, The Complete Essays.

Death as a Friend, Alfred Rethel

In an old tower just below the belfry, in the place where they ring the bells: there is Death again in his pilgrim's dress, tolling for one who is just dead, the Sacristan of that Church; this Death is draped tenderly down to the feet; there is no maddening horror about him, awe only; he is not grinning as in the other picture, but gazes downward, thoughtfully, almost sadly, thinking of the old man's life that has been. And he, with his hands laid together and his eyes closed, is leaning back in his chair: many a time these latter years has he leant back so; then needs must that he rise stiffly and wearily to go about his duties; but now he need never rise again; his lips, parted a little now, need never again be drawn together close, at sight of weary injustice and wrong; he will soon understand why all these things were. The dragons on the spire eaves lean forward open-mouthed, disappointed because he has got quit of all that now; near the head of him against the wall is a figure of Christ on the Cross, a Bible is open by the side of him; near the stairs is a horn hanging, a huntsman's horn, and through the window, on the sill of which a bird is singing, you can see the fair sunset-country stretching away for leagues and leagues (for we are high up here, just under the spire). 
They say he was a hunter in the old time, this man; that he heard the north wind sing about his ears, as he dashed over the open spaces; that the young beech-leaves in the early summer quivered at the blasts of his horn; that many a time he rode into that village you can see down there, wherein he was born, where his father and his father's father lived, weary with riding; that some one used to look out for him when he rode in, in the evenings. But that too is all gone by—only in memories perhaps—yet he had other hopes then perhaps than this, a mere old sacristan dying lonely in the old belfry.
What matter? for the setting sun is bright over all that country, and the bird sings still in the window sill—not afraid of death.

William Morris, "'Death the Avenger' and 'Death the Friend'," 
Oxford and Cambridge Magazine (August 1856) via Laudator Temporis Acti

Death the Avenger, Alfred Rethel

In 1844 Rethel visited Rome, executing, along with other subjects, an altar-piece for one of the churches of his native land. In 1846, he returned to Aachen, and commenced his Charlemagne frescoes. But mental derangement, attributed, it is believed, to an accident that he suffered in childhood, began to manifest itself. While he hovered between madness and sanity, Rethel produced some of the most striking, individual, and impressive of his works. Strange legends are told of the effect produced by some of his weird subjects. He painted Nemesis pursuing a murderer across a flat stretch of landscape. A slaughtered body lies on the ground, while in front is the assassin speeding away into the darkness, and above an angel of vengeance. The picture, so the story goes, was won in a lottery at Frankfurt by a personage of high rank, who had been guilty of an undiscovered crime, and the contemplation of his prize drove him mad. 
Another design which Rethel executed was "Death the Avenger," a skeleton appearing at a masked ball, scraping daintily, like a violinist, upon two human bones. The drawing haunted the memory of his artist friends and disturbed their dreams; and, in expiation, he produced his pathetic design of "Death the Friend." Rethel also executed a powerful series of drawings "The Dance of Death" suggested by the Belgian insurrections of 1848. It is by such designs as these, executed in a technique founded upon that of Albrecht Dürer, and animated by an imagination akin to that of the elder master, that Rethel is most widely known.

Nemesis, Alfred Rethel

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Beethoven: "destroy all within us except the pain of endless longing"

Abtei im Eichwald, Caspar David Friedrich, 1810

“Radiant beams shoot through the deep night of this region, and we become aware of gigantic shadows which, rocking back and forth, close in on us and destroy all within us except the pain of endless longing—a longing in which every pleasure that rose up amid jubilant tones sinks and succumbs. Only through this pain, which, while consuming but not destroying love, hope, and joy, tries to burst our breasts with a full-voiced general cry from all the passions, do we live on and are captivated beholders of the spirits.”

 - E.T.A. Hoffmann, Allgemeine musikalische Zeitung

The Effect of Fog and Snow 
Seen through a Ruined Gothic Colonnade, L. J. M. Daguerre, 1826

“On May 28, 1810, Elizabeth Brentano, a young woman who is described as having been beautiful, highly cultured and fascinating, wrote a letter to Goethe describing her meeting with Beethoven. In the course of this letter she professes to report a conversation with Beethoven and attributes to him the following remarks :

“When I open my eyes I must sigh, for what I see is contrary to my religion, and I must despise the world which does not know that music is a higher revelation than all wisdom and philosophy, the wine which inspires one to new generative processes, and I am the Bacchus who presses out this glorious wine for mankind and makes them spiritually drunken. When they are again become sober they have drawn from the sea all that they brought with them, all that they can bring with them to dry land. I have not a single friend, I must live alone. But well I know that God is nearer to me than to other artists; I associate with Him without fear; I have always recognized and understood Him and have no fear for my music—it can meet no evil fate. Those who understand it must be freed by it from all the miseries which the others drag about with themselves." 
"Music, verily, is the mediator Between intellectual and sensuous life." 
"Speak to Goethe about me. Tell him to hear my symphonies and he will say that I am right in saying that music is the one incorporeal entrance into the higher world of knowledge which comprehends mankind but which mankind cannot comprehend." 
On the following day, when Elizabeth showed Beethoven what she had written he exclaimed, Did I say that? Well, then I had a raptus. 
But the question is whether Beethoven said any of it at all. It is an unfortunate fact that the fascinating Elizabeth was not a perfectly truthful person. Even her champion, Thayer, admits that she was not above forging documents, or parts of documents. And the remarks attributed to Beethoven in this letter certainly differ in style from anything to be found in his writings. Schindler, the constant associate of Beethoven in his last years, stated that he had never heard "the master" talk like it. On the other hand, Beethoven was at this time only forty years of age; he had not yet entered into the silence of his last years. And Elizabeth was indisputably far more intelligent and responsive than Schindler. Moreover there are certain points about the report which, when examined, are seen to be characteristic and such as would be difficult to invent. The reasonable hypothesis is to suppose that Beethoven did make certain claims for his music and that Elizabeth, very romantic and somewhat unscrupulous, gave them what she thought was an effective presentation”

-  J. W. N. Sullivan, Beethoven: His Spiritual Development

Saturday, February 08, 2014

"He was a heavyweight."


Louis found Chip in the kitchen making himself a Bloody Mary and asked him, "Who's Ezra Pound?" 
Chip said, "Ezra Pound," stirring his drink and then pausing. "He was a heavyweight. Beat Joe Louis for the crown and lost it to Marciano. Or was it Jersey Joe Walcott?"
- Elmore Leonard, Riding the Rap, 1995 
- Quoted in François Villon in His Works: The Villain's Tale by Michael Freeman, 2000

The inside joke here, explained to me by my friend, the poet and boxing aficionado Robert Lashley, is that there was a fighter, a great fighter, by the name of Ezzard Charles.

From Wikipedia: Ezzard Charles:

"He returned to boxing after the war as a light heavyweight, picking up many notable wins over leading light heavyweights, as well as heavyweight contenders Archie Moore, Jimmy Bivins, Lloyd Marshall and Elmer Ray. Shortly after his knock-out of Moore in their third and final meeting, tragedy struck. Charles fought a young contender named Sam Baroudi, knocking him out in Round 10. Baroudi died of the injuries he sustained in this bout. Charles was so devastated he almost gave up fighting. Charles was unable to secure a title shot at light heavyweight and moved up to heavyweight. After knocking out Joe Baksi and Johnny Haynes, Charles won the vacant National Boxing Association World Heavyweight title when he outpointed Jersey Joe Walcott over 15 rounds on June 22, 1949. The following year, he outpointed his idol and former World Heavyweight Champion Joe Louis to become the recognized Lineal Champion. Successful defenses against Walcott, Lee Oma and Joey Maxim would follow. 
In 1951, Charles fought Walcott a third time and lost the title by knockout in the seventh round. Charles lost a controversial decision in the fourth and final bout. If Charles had won this fight, he would have become the first man in history to regain the heavyweight championship.:

Friday, February 07, 2014

11 Translations of "Ballade de bonne doctrine à ceux de mauvaise vie" By François Villon


The French poet, François Villon, was born in Paris in 1431 - the same year that Joan of Arc was burned at the stake - then disappeared, never to be heard from again, after 1463. He had lived a hard 32 years as a murderer, thief, outlaw, vagabond, but most of all as a poet. He wrote his most enduring and famous work, Le Grand Testement, in 1461, aged 30. It is a complex collection of ballads and rondels laced through with a macabre humor and aching death-haunted nostalgia. 

One of the more popular ballads, mostly due a translation / rendering by William Ernest Henley in 1887, is from Le Grand Testement, known as the "Ballade de de bonne doctrine à ceux de mauvaise vie." Henley's rendition employs the rich cryptolect canting lingo of thieves commonly spoken in 19th century England. The idea was to replicate the more visceral qualities of Villon's original French with it's in-jokes and slang that we are too linguistically distant from to understand.

Henley's translation, which he titled, Straight Tip to All Cross Cove, took on a life of it's own. In 1911, Andrew Lang remarked that "[Henley's] translations of two of Villon's ballades into modern thieves' slang were marvels of dexterity.” As might be expected, it angered the more "traditional" translators. In 1917, Henry De Vere Stacpoole, a well-known translator of Villon had this to say about Henley:

“This fine ballade is among the best that Villon ever wrote. It has a swing and go absolutely lost in the absurd travesty of it which W. E. Henley published under the name of a translation.  
The man who could render the ringing “Tout aux taverns at aux files” by “Booze and blowers cop the lot” did more than miss the music of the original, he missed the mind of the poet and the method and manner of the writer. 
Villon knew the worth and the worthlessness of slang and argot - none better; and to represent the poet as speaking in the language of a pot-house when he is speaking his own tongue is to misrepresent him.”

More recently, Douglas Hofstadter, in his book concerning translation, Le Ton Beau De Marot: In Praise Of The Music Of Language, discusses Henley's Straight Tip to All Cross Cove as an instance of the difficulty / beauty of translating highly idiomatic texts.

The magician and historian Ricky Jay has recited Straight Tip in his performances.

And the internet is replete with websites offering gloss and commentary on this remarkable translation.

In his Norton Lectures, Borges famously said that "The original is unfaithful to the translation." And Sergio Waisman in Borges and Translation: The Irreverence of the Periphery writes:

The idea that the original can be unfaithful to its translation goes even further than the challenges to fidelity that Borges expresses in "Los traductores de Las 1001 Noches." There, Borges valorizes mistranslations and creative infidelities and suggests that a translation can surpass the original. 

Henley's Straight Tip to All Cross Cove appears to me to a particularly apt instance of this  observation. 

Given that Henley is idiosyncratically definitive, it is still enlightening to read other translations. I have collected a small selection here. Each has their merit and, for anyone who is not proficient in 15th century French, each new translation offers further insight into Villon’s ballad.

I have attributed and linked each translation to the best of my ability. If you are one of the translators and wish me to remove your version, please send me a note in the comments. 

Robert Peckham's Francois Villon. A Bibliography, 1990 is the most comprehensive source. Out of Print and unavailable online.

Please see The Memory Cathedral: Francois Villon for a detailed study of the poem and instruction for memorization. 


- More or Less Chronologically Ordered - 

Straight Tip To All Cross Coves, 1887
(De bonne doctrine a ceux de mauvaise vie)
Rendered by William Ernest Henley (1849 - 1903)

 ‘Tout aux tavernes et aux filles’


Suppose you screeve, or go cheap-jack?
Or fake the broads? or fig a nag?
Or thimble-rig? or knap a yack?
Or pitch a snide? or smash a rag?
Suppose you duff? or nose and lag?
Or get the straight, and land your pot?
How do you melt the multy swag?
Booze and the blowens cop the lot.


Fiddle, or fence, or mace, or mack;
Or moskeneer, or flash the drag;
Dead-lurk a crib, or do a crack;
Pad with a slang, or chuck a fag;
Bonnet, or tout, or mump and gag;
Rattle the tats, or mark the spot
You cannot bank a single stag:
Booze and the blowens cop the lot.


Suppose you try a different tack,
And on the square you flash your flag?
At penny-a-lining make your whack,
Or with the mummers mug and gag?
For nix, for nix the dibbs you bag
At any graft, no matter what!
Your merry goblins soon stravag:
Booze and the blowens cop the lot.

The Moral.

It’s up-the-spout and Charley-Wag
With wipes and tickers and what not!
Until the squeezer nips your scrag,
 Booze and the blowens cop the lot.

Villon’s Ballade of Good Counsel, To His Friends of Evil Life, 1911
From Ballads in Blue China and Verses and Translations
by Andrew Lang
[ Check for OCR errors. ]

Nay, be you pardoner or cheat,
Or cogger keen, or mumper shy,
You'll burn your fingers at the feat,
And howl like other folks that fry.
All evil folks that love a lie!
And where goes gain that greed amasses,
By wile, and trick, and thievery?
'Tis all to taverns and to lasses!

Rhyme, rail, dance, play the cymbals sweet,
With game, and shame, and jollity,
Go jigging through the field and street,
Win gold at GLEEK and that will fly,
Where all you gain at PASSAGE passes,
And that's? You know as well as I,
'Tis all to taverns and to lasses!

Nay, forth from all such filth retreat,
Go delve and ditch, in wet or dry,
Turn groom, give horse and mule their meat,
If you've no clerkly skill to ply;
You'll gain enough, with husbandry,
But sow hempseed and such wild grasses,
And where goes all you take thereby?
'Tis all to taverns and to lasses!


Your clothes, your hose, your broidery,
Your linen that the snow surpasses,
Or ere they're worn, off, off they fly,
'Tis all to taverns and to lasses!

On Henley: 

“The ballade was an old French form of verse, in France revived by
Theodore de Banville, and restored to an England which had long
forgotten the Middle Ages, by my friends Mr. Austin Dobson and Mr.
Edmund Gosse. They, so far as I can trust my memory, were the first
to reintroduce these pleasant old French nugae, while an anonymous
author let loose upon the town a whole winged flock of ballades of
amazing dexterity. This unknown balladist was Mr. Henley; perhaps
he was the first Englishman who ever burst into a double ballade,
and his translations of two of Villon's ballades into modern
thieves' slang were marvels of dexterity.”

Ballad of Good Doctrine To Those of Evil Life, 1914
By Henry De Vere Stacpoole (1863 - 1951)

Ye who be smugglers of papal bulls,
Or cheaters at dice, whatever be ye --
Coiners who risk life and limb like fools,
Then boil in hot oil for their felony,
Traitors disloyal -- ye know who ye be --
Stealers of jewels, of perfume and pearls:
So where goes it all, that ye get in fee?
All to the taverns and to the girls.

Rhyming and jesting, cymbals and lutes --
Don ye these emblems of minstrelsy.
Farce and imbroglio, music of flutes --
Try these in hamlets or Gay Paree.
Go mumming in masque or mystery,
Win money at cards, or at ninepin hurls.
But 'tis of no use1 It'll flow, hear ye me,
All to the taverns and to the girls.

Ye shrink before such a hard-knocks school --
Play safe, then, with honester husbandry:
Of horses be grooms, go tend to a mule,
Plow ye the fields, here and there plant a tree.
And should ye be short on Latinity,
As lowly in learning as poor pleasant churls,
Just work, lest your hard-earned pennies flee
All to the taverns and to the girls.


Your stockings and doublets, your fine drapery,
Every last rag that around ye furls,
Ere ye be done, will have slipped, ye shall see,
All to the taverns and to the girls.

Ballad of Good Doctrine to Those of Evil Life, 1917
From Francois Villon, his life and time, 1431-1463
By Henry De Vere Stacpoole (1863 - 1951)

Be ye carriers of bulls,
Cheats at dice - whate’er ye be,
Coiners - they who risk like fools,
Boiling for their felony.
Traitors perverse - so be ye -
Thieves of gold, or virgin’s pearls,
Where goes what ye get in fee?
All on taverns and on girls.

Song, jest, cymbals, lutes -
Don these signs of minstrelsy.
Farce, imbroglio, play of flutes,
Make in hamlet or city.
Gain at cards, or ninepins hurls.
All your profits, where go they?
All on taverns and on girls.

Turn, before your spirit cools,
To more honest husbandry;
Grooms of horses be, or mules,
Plough the fields and plant the tree.
If you’ve no Latinity.
No more learning than the curls,
Work - nor cast you money free
All on taverns and on girls.


Stockings, pourpoint, drapery,
Every rag that round you furls, 
Ere you’ve done, will go, you’ll see.
All on taverns and on girls.

On Henley:

“This fine ballade is among the best that Villon ever wrote. It has a swing and go absolutely lost in the absurd travesty of it which W. E. Henley published under the name of a translation.

The man who could render the ringing “Tout aux taverns at aux files” by “Booze and blowers cop the lot” did more than miss the music of the original, he missed the mind of the poet and the method and manner of the writer. 

Villon knew the worth and the worthlessness of slang and argot - none better; and to represent the poet as speaking in the language of a pot-house when he is speaking his own tongue is to misrepresent him.”

Ballad of Good Doctrine to Those of Ill Life
By John Payne

SMUGGLE indulgences, as you may: 
Cog the dice for your cheating throws.
Try if counterfeit coin will pay,
At the risk of losing your ears and nose :
Deal but in treason, lie and glose,
Rob and ravish : what profits it ?
Where do you think the money goes ?
Taverns and wenches, every whit.

Flute and juggle and cymbals play :
Follow the mountebanks and their shows :
Along with the strolling players stray,
That wander whither God onlv knows :
Act mysteries, farces, imbroglios :
Gain money by cards or a lucky hit
At the pins : however if s got, it goes :
Taverns and wenches, every whit.

Turn from your evil courses, I pray.
That smell so foul in a decent nose :
Earn your bread in some honest way.
If you have no letters, nor verse nor prose,
Plough or groom horses for food and clothes.
Enough shall you have if you stick to it:
But throw not your wage to each wind that blows :
Taverns and wenches, every whit.


Doublets, pourpoints and silken hose,
Gowns and linen, woven or knit,
Ere your wede's worn, away it goes :
Taverns and wenches, every whit.

A Bug in the Ear to All Children of Darkness
By Peter Dale

Whether you counterfeit your brass
and end so oiled you boil and bake;
traitors whose credit wouldn't pass;
or peddle pardons; learn to shake
the loaded dice; or maybe take
to filching in and out of doors - 
where does it go, the money you make?
All to the taverns and the whores.

Rhyme or rail or clash your brass,
like shameless fools that always fake;
mime, mum, or try some magic pass;
or if in towns and cities, make
miracles, mysteries, jigs; or take
a trick or two or skittle scores - 
soon gained, soon gone! (You still awake?)
All to the taverns and the whores.

If depths like these are not your class,
then plough up fields or drive a rake;
or turn to doctoring horse and ass.
But only if you cannot take
to book and pen. A crust you'll make.
Yet if you've slaved at prison chores
you haven't lifted loot to take
all to the taverns and the whores.


Before you do much worse then, take
trousers and shoes and all that's yours,
gowns and the silks for your own sake
all to the taverns and the whores.

All to the girls and taverners, 2004
By Stephen Eridan
From The Testament by Francois Villon with facing Notes
Metric translation with altered rhyme scheme

Whether you trade indulgences ,
Play false at bones, counterfeit coin,
Stack the cards, for connivances
Men are boiled, that's the crowd you’ll join,
Or the traitors and heretics,
Whether rapists, thieves, cozeners,
Where goes the booty from these tricks?
All to the girls and taverners.

Play cymbal, rhyme and pluck the lute,
Acting like some dopey mummer,
Do sleight of hand and blow the flute,
In cities and towns each summer,
Stage acts, farces, moralities,
Cards or ninepins, come up winners,
It goes real quick, now hear me please,
All to the girls and taverners.

Hey, don't waste your life with such fools,
Till the fields as long as there's light,
Brush and tend the horses and mules,
Even if you can't read or write,
You can do alright with some care,
But if you keep cutting corners,
Won't you just fork over your share,
All to the girls and taverners.

Pants , laced doublets and softest hose,
Also your best leathers and furs ,
Before you do worse just take those,
All to the girls and taverners.

"Good Doctrines for a Bad Life”, 2004
By Scriblerus

For whether you carry bulls
Or cheat or play dice,
Counterfeiting you burn yourself;
Like those who are emboldened,
Perjurious traitors, empty of faith;         5
Be a thief, steal or pillage:
Where does the booty go, to what end?
All to the taverns and to the girls.

Rhyme, mock, disturb, wrestle,
Like a madman or a shameless crook,         10
Con, embezzle, draw your sword;
Do, in towns and cities,
Tricks, games and parlor games;
Win at the berlanc, the glic or bowling,
It all goes--and listen--                   15
All to the taverns and to the girls.

Walk away from such garbage;
Get a hoe, labour in fields and meadows;
Care for and saddle horses and mules;
You are a blessed ignorant;                 20
You will have enough, I guarantee.
But whether you plough or till your field,
You only labour for one thing
All to the taverns and to the girls.


Shoes, embroidered pourpoints,              25
Dresses, and all your clothes,
So it doesn't get worse, carry them
All to the taverns and to the girls.

A Good Doctrine for a Bad Life
By Jack Rusher

Whether you smuggle papal bulls,
Or hazard a cheat while playing dice,
Or burn yourself shaping fake coins,
Like those who’re boiled in oil for their felonies.
Perjurious traitors; empty of faith;
Stealing jewels, perfume and pearls,
Where do your winnings go?
All to the taverns and the girls.

Rhyme, rail, crash or fight,
Like a fool or a shameless tout,
Bullshit and battle, or play the flute.
Do, in towns and cities,
Play farces, games and masquerades,
Win at cards or ninepins.
It all goes — and listen —
All to the taverns and the girls.

From this stink you recoil?
Then work hard in fields and meadows,
Turn your thoughts to horses and mules.
If you lack an education,
You’ll still have enough coin.
But whether you plough or till your fields,
Your labor and your work:
All to the taverns and the girls.

The Message

Shoes, embroidered doublets,
Dresses, and all your drapes:
Before you do worse, just carry them
All to the taverns and the girls.

Ballade: A Good Lesson for Bad Men
from The Testament, lines 1692–1719
By David Georgi

Say you sell indulgences
or cheat at cards, or dice all day,
or stamp false coins (and so get burned
with others scalded for that crime,
lying faithless traitors all),
or burgle, pilfer, or purloin:
where do you suppose your profit goes?
All to the taverns and the girls.

Rhyme or riff, play flute or cymbals
as beguiling, shameless fools do;
clown, swindle, con, do magic tricks,
or stage in every town and city
farces, dramas, morality plays;
win at poker, craps, or ninepins—
however it comes, you know it goes
all to the taverns and the girls.

Perhaps such vices make you shudder?
So work! Mow fields and meadows,
groom horses or look after mules
if you lack an education:
you’ll have enough, you’ll be content!
But after you scutch and strip your hemp,
still, don’t you take your meager share
all to the taverns and the girls?

Your hose, your clothes, your lace-up vests,
your robes and haberdashery—
before you go do worse, just take it
all to the taverns and the girls.

Booze and Bitches Just Fuck You Up, 2014
By Scot Casey

Say you palm off communion plates,
Say you play and cheat at bones,
Print out bills til you get burned,
Scarred and scammed like all the others,
All of them fuckers, none of them true,
When you're the man who does the work.
What do you get from all of this shit?
Booze and Bitches just fuck you up.

Sing it say it bang or bash,
Fucking loser, drunken fool,
Fake it, break it, take all the cash.
Bright big city, piece of shit town,
Run your con and all your games:
Cards or drugs or whatever's rough.
I tell you this: You gonna always lose
Cause Booze and Bitches just fuck you up

Say you think your sick of this shit?
Go work for the man in the government:
Kiss the horse's ass and the pig's soft dick.
You are such a fucking idiot.
So sit back now and just rest your bones,
You'll never be able to work enough.
Cause you know your shit will always go
To Booze and Bitches who fuck you up.

You still got your shoes on your feet,
Shirt on your back, your bones and blood,
That's all your ever gonna need

For Booze and Bitches to fuck you up.

Please see The Memory Cathedral: Francois Villon for a detailed study of the poem and instruction for memorization.