Saturday, November 17, 2018

On Rilke's Letter to a Young Poet: "Through which erratum evil seeped into creation..."

I was re-watching the episode of Beauty and Consolation, Episode 4 where Wim Kayzer interviews George Steiner. Around 54:49 Steiner says:

One of the sayings that guides my life is by the great poet, Rilke. Rilke says: when there has been a deeply happy love, later on one becomes the loving guardian of the other's solitude.

The Rilke is, of course, evocative. I paused the episode and did a quick search for the words: Rilke, guardian, solitude. The first result was from Goodreads:

The point of marriage is not to create a quick commonality by tearing down all boundaries; on the contrary, a good marriage is one in which each partner appoints the other to be the guardian of his solitude, and thus they show each other the greatest possible trust. A merging of two people is an impossibility, and where it seems to exist, it is a hemming-in, a mutual consent that robs one party or both parties of their fullest freedom and development. But once the realization is accepted that even between the closest people infinite distances exist, a marvelous living side-by-side can grow up for them, if they succeed in loving the expanse between them, which gives them the possibility of always seeing each other as a whole and before an immense sky.
― Rainer Maria Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet

Excellent. I then went to my copy of Letters to a Young Poet. I have several translations, but figured Stephen Mitchell's to be the most modern and well-known. I search in Mitchell's translation for "guardian." There are no instances of "guardian" in the text. Perhaps, he translated the word differently. I search for "solitude." Since solitude is one of the dominant themes of the letters Rilke wrote to Franz Kappas, I figured there would be a substantial number of hits. 29 instances of "solitude." Scanning through them, the most likely suspect is from the end of Letter Seven:
This advance (at first very much against the will of the outdistanced men) will transform the love experience, which is now filled with error, will change it from the ground up, and reshape it into a relationship that is meant to be between one human being and another, no longer one that flows from man to woman. And this more human love (which will fulfill itself with infinite consideration and gentleness, and kindness and clarity in binding and releasing) will resemble what we are now preparing painfully and with great struggle: the love that consists in this: that two solitudes protect and border and greet each other.
This is close. The final sentence contains something of the sense of, "a good marriage is one in which each partner appoints the other to be the guardian of his solitude, and thus they show each other the greatest possible trust." But the basic syntax and vocabulary are wildly different. Mitchell can be respectfully unfaithful in the service of clarity, but not to this extent.

I go back to the Internet. Check the next search result. It is from a site called, Refine the Mind. Here is the post in full:

I find myself returning again and again to the writings of Rainer Maria Rilke, a Bohemian-Austrian poet who passed away in 1926. 
There is something in Rilke’s words that strikes me as the highest quality to which a writer or artist can aspire. It’s a clarity and a purity that communicates something more than the sum meaning of the words. 
There’s a heartbeat in his language. A sense that Rilke is whispering a secret in your ear. You can feel him. And you can feel that this was a man who was deeply in touch with his truth, with the rhythms as he felt them. 
Today, I don’t want to write anything too cerebral or involved. Today, I just want to share with you two passages that are among my most adored of anything I’ve read. Today, I just want to share two slivers of Rilke and meditate on their significance. 
On Romantic Relationships
“The point of marriage is not to create a quick commonality by tearing down all boundaries; on the contrary, a good marriage is one in which each partner appoints the other to be the guardian of his solitude, and thus they show each other the greatest possible trust. A merging of two people is an impossibility, and where it seems to exist, it is a hemming-in, a mutual consent that robs one party or both parties of their fullest freedom and development. But once the realization is accepted that even between the closest people infinite distances exist, a marvelous living side-by-side can grow up for them, if they succeed in loving the expanse between them, which gives them the possibility of always seeing each other as a whole and before an immense sky.” 
― Rainer Maria Rilke
 This passage is taken from Letters to a Young Poet, a collection of letters Rilke penned to a young writer seeking guidance. The book is an absolute jewel in its entirety.
Rilke speaks specifically of marriage here, but I think his words are applicable to any romantic relationship.
I feel particularly moved and lightened by his declaration that “even between the closest people infinite distances exist.”
For the past 16 months I’ve been in a profoundly loving relationship with an extraordinary woman. [my emphasis]
The post is heartfelt and sweet. The writer certainly seems as if he knows Rilke's Letter to a Young Poet, calling the book, "an absolute jewel in its entirety."

So I return to Letters in another translation. This time from by M. D. Herter Norton. No results for "guardian." Nine instances of "solitude." Again, the penultimate paragraph from Letter Seven seems likely:

This advance will (at first much against the will of the out­ stripped men) change the love-experience. which is now full of error, will alter it from the ground up, reshape it into a relation that is meant to be of one human being to another, no longer of man to woman. And this more human love (that will fulfill itself, infinitely considerate and gentle, and kind and clear in binding and releasing) will resemble that which we are preparing with struggle and toil, the love that consists in this. that two solitudes protect and border and salute each other.

This passage is consonant with the Mitchell translation, so I now doubt there was any translation error. I triple-check by consulting the translation by Charlie Louth: consistent with the the other two.

I spend a happy hour re-reading the Mitchell translation just to be certain.

The "guardian of his solitude" quote is NOT from Letters to a Young Poet.

Nevertheless, I return again to the Internet. It is becoming slightly amusing at this point.

The fourth search result is from the relationship blog:

100-Year-Old Marriage Advice (R.M. Rilke) 
In 1902, the famous Bohemian-Austrian poet Rainer Maria Rilke began a letter correspondence with a 19-year-old aspiring poet and military cadet named Franz Kappus who was trying to decide between a literary and a military career.  In his letters, Rilke offers advice on how a poet should feel, love, and seek truth in trying to understand and experience life and art.  In 1929, three years after Rilke’s death, the ten letters were published as Briefe an einen jungen Dichter (Letters to a Young Poet). 
I recently came across this volume of poems and was struck by the advice Rilke offered on marriage, specifically — on the importance of differentiation in intimate relationships.  A common theme in couples counseling sessions, it represents one of the central challenges of long-term relationships:  finding a balance between holding on to one’s self (maintaining autonomy) while meeting the needs of our partner (adaptability and compromise). 
While Rilke’s language may be different from that of psychologist David Schnarch who writes widely on this topic (two articles by Schnarch are posted in this blog), his separate-but-together message resonates strongly.  Rilke also writes of how we must learn how to love if it is to be a truly rich and satisfying experience.
[my emphasis]
*                               *                              * 
The point of marriage is not to create a quick commonality by tearing down all boundaries; on the contrary, a good marriage is one in which each partner appoints the other to be the guardian of his solitude, and thus show each other the greatest possible trust. A merging of two people is an impossibility, and where it seems to exist, it is a hemming-in, a mutual consent that robs one party or both parties of their fullest freedom and development. 
But once the realization is accepted that even between the closest people infinite distances exist, a marvelous living side-by-side can grow for them, if they succeed in loving the expanse between them, which gives them the possibility of always seeing each other as a whole and before an immense sky. 
That is why this, too, must be the criterion for rejection or choice: whether you are willing to stand guard over someone else’s solitude, and whether you are able to set this same person at the gate of your own depths, which he learns of only through what steps forth, in holiday clothing, out of the great darkness. 
To take love seriously and to undergo it and learn it like a profession — that is what young people need to do. Like so many other things, people have also misunderstood the position love has in life; they have made it into play and pleasure because they thought that play and pleasure are more blissful than work; but there is nothing happier than work, and love, precisely because it is the supreme happiness, can be nothing other than work 
So those who love must try to act as if they had a great work to accomplish: they must be much alone and go into themselves and gather and concentrate themselves; they must work; they must become something. 
For the more we are, the richer everything we experience is. And those who want to have a deep love in their lives must collect and save for it, and gather honey. 
Rainer Maria Rilke  

First, Letters to a Young Poet is not a volume of poems.

Second,  this passage is not to be found in any translation of Letters to a Young Poet.

Third, this is a mishmash of several different selections.


I did finally find the "guardian of his solitude" passage in the Letters of Rainer Maria Rilke, 1892-1910. Translated by Jane Bannard Greene and M. D. Herter Norton.

The actual source foe the quote is a letter to To Emanuel von Bodman on August 17, 1901:

For the rest, I am of the opinion that “marriage” as such does not deserve as much emphasis as it has acquired through the conventional development of its nature. It does not occur to anyone to expect a single person to be “happy,”—but if he marries, people are much surprised if he isn’t! (And for that matter it really isn’t at all important to be happy, whether single or married.) Marriage is, in many respects, a simplification of one’s way of life, and the union naturally combines the forces and wills of two young people so that, together, they seem to reach farther into the future than before.—Only, those are sensations by which one cannot live. Above all, marriage is a new task and a new seriousness,—a new challenge to and questioning of the strength and generosity of each partner and a great new danger for both. 
It is a question in marriage, to my feeling, not of creating a quick community of spirit by tearing down and destroying all boundaries, but rather a good marriage is that in which each appoints the other guardian of his solitude, and shows him this confidence, the greatest in his power to bestow. A togetherness between two people is an impossibility, and where it seems, nevertheless, to exist, it is a narrowing, a reciprocal agreement which robs either one party or both of his fullest freedom and development. But, once the realization is accepted that even between the closest human beings infinite distances continue to exist, a wonderful living side by side can grow up, if they succeed in loving the distance between them which makes it possible for each to see the other whole and against a wide sky! 
Therefore this too must be the standard for rejection or choice: whether one is willing to stand guard over the solitude of a person and whether one is inclined to set this same person at the gate of one’s own solitude, of which he learns only through that which steps, festively clothed, out of the great darkness.

And the "gather honey" line from above comes from a letter to Friedrich Westhoff on April 29, 1904:

To take love seriously and to bear and to learn it like a task, this it is, Friedrich, that young people need.—Like so much else, people have also misunderstood the place of love in life, they have made it into play and pleasure because they thought that play and pleasure were more blissful than work; but there is nothing happier than work, and love, just because it is the extreme happiness, can be nothing else but work.—So whoever loves must try to act as if he had a great work: he must be much alone and go into himself and collect himself and hold fast to himself; he must work; he must become something! 
For, Friedrich, believe me, the more one is, the richer is all that one experiences. And whoever wants to have a deep love in his life must collect and save for it and gather honey.

I realize that any argument or complaint regarding proper attribution on the Internet is a Fool's Game. The History of the Two Wolves Story comes to mind.  Or the quote attributed to the Buddha about "Resentment is like taking poison and waiting for the other person to die." Or even pre-Internet in the Byzantine sourcing of the phrase, "Those whom the gods wish to destroy, they first make mad." Of the misattributions of quotations, inadvertent falsifications, deliberate lies and outright propaganda  on the Internet, there is no end.

These examples of mis-attribution to Letters to a Young Poet cited above are only a few amongst a multitude. And I certainly do not wish to shame anyone who is passionate about Rilke in this age where many have no idea who he is or what he wrote.

What puzzles me is how anyone can profess a profound and moving love for Rilke's Letters to a Young Poet and then mis-attribute quotation as being from it. The Letters to a Young Poet only takes about an hour to read.

I grant that there are anthologies of his letters that combine these commonly themed thoughts together. And I also will concede that there are similar thoughts expressed in the Seventh Letter. Still, I would like to (foolishly) imagine the Uncommon Reader with the beloved book opened to the folded page and underlined paragraph faithfully typing the passage onto their post, as a Medieval scribe.

To finally take it full circle, in Grammars of Creation, Steiner writes:

 Jewish mysticism speculates that a second’s lapse from concentration by the scribe to whom God dictated the Torah resulted in the omission of one accent, of one diacritical sign. Through which erratum evil seeped into creation.

I am certain I am as guilty as anyone of omission and erratum.

And such evil seeps and seeps into our world, blacker every day.

Or, perhaps not.

There was a Borgesian moment I experienced after my first unfruitful search into the Letters to a Young Poet where I wondered if there was an "other" edition of the poems - something along the lines of Bioy Casares' referencing the article on Uqbar in Borges' wonderful short story, “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius."

I asked him the origin of this memorable observation and he answered that it was reproduced in The Anglo-American Cyclopaedia, in its article on Uqbar. The house (which we had rented furnished) had a set of this work. On the last pages of Volume XLVI we found an article on Upsala; on the first pages of Volume XLVII, one on Ural-Altaic Languages, but not a word about Uqbar. Bioy, a bit taken aback, consulted the volumes of the index. In vain he exhausted all of the imaginable spellings: Ukbar, Ucbar, Ooqbar, Ookbar, Oukbahr. . . Before leaving, he told me that it was a region of Iraq or of Asia Minor. I must confess that I agreed with some discomfort. I conjectured that this undocumented country and its anonymous heresiarch were a fiction devised by Bioy's modesty in order to justify a statement. The fruitless examination of one of Justus Perthes' atlases fortified my doubt.

Homer's Margites, Aeschylus’ Achilleis, the Lost Books of Aristotle and the Mayan Codices brush shoulders with the complete Kubla Kahn, Beethoven's Tenth Symphony, Shakespeare's Faust and Hart Cranes' Mexican Poem Cycle.

After locating the correct source in the letter to Emanuel von Bodman, I was relieved but also slightly disillusioned. Because just for a moment or two there, I wondered over the potential existence of a "lost" Letter to Felix Kappas, an unexpurgated text perviously unknown, inadvertently slipped into a reprint.

The possibilities of such erratum are endlessly tantalizing.

The story of the printer's mistake in Thomas Nash's A Litany in Time of Plague is well known. Supposedly, in the third stanza, the line: "Brightness falls from the air" - the line Nash is now best known for - was meant to be, "Brightness falls from the hair." A single letter dropped may have granted Nash fame beyond intention.

 Adieu, farewell, earth’s bliss;
This world uncertain is;
Fond are life’s lustful joys;
Death proves them all but toys;
None from his darts can fly;
I am sick, I must die.
    Lord, have mercy on us!

Rich men, trust not in wealth,
Gold cannot buy you health;
Physic himself must fade.
All things to end are made,
The plague full swift goes by;
I am sick, I must die.
    Lord, have mercy on us!

Beauty is but a flower
Which wrinkles will devour;
Brightness falls from the air;
Queens have died young and fair;
Dust hath closed Helen’s eye.
I am sick, I must die.
    Lord, have mercy on us!

Strength stoops unto the grave,
Worms feed on Hector brave;
Swords may not fight with fate,
Earth still holds open her gate.
“Come, come!” the bells do cry.
I am sick, I must die.
    Lord, have mercy on us!

Wit with his wantonness
Tasteth death’s bitterness;
Hell’s executioner
Hath no ears for to hear
What vain art can reply.
I am sick, I must die.
    Lord, have mercy on us!

Haste, therefore, each degree,
To welcome destiny;
Heaven is our heritage,
Earth but a player’s stage;
Mount we unto the sky.
I am sick, I must die.
    Lord, have mercy on us!

In Seven Types of Ambiguity, William Empson comments:
On the other hand 
Brightness falls from the air 
is an example of ambiguity by vagueness, such as was used to excess by the Pre-Raphaelites. Evidently there are a variety of things the line may be about. The sun and moon pass under the earth after their period of shining, and there are stars falling at odd times; Icarus and the prey of hawks, having soared upwards towards heaven, fall exhausted or dead; the glittering turning things the sixteenth century put on the top of a building may have fallen too often. In another sense, hawks, lightning, and meteorites fall flashing from heaven upon their prey. Taking brightness as abstract, not as meaning something bright, it is as a benefit that light falls, diffusely reflected, from the sky. In so far as the sky is brighter than the earth (especially at twilight), brightness is natural to it; in so far as the earth may be bright when the clouds are dark, brightness falls from the sky to the earth when there is a threat of thunder. ‘All is unsafe, even the heavens are not sure of their brightness,’ or ‘the qualities in man that deserve respect are not natural to him but brief gifts from God; they fall like manna, and melt as soon.’ One may extract, too, from the oppression in the notion of thunder the idea that now, ‘in time of pestilence,’ the generosity of Nature is mysteriously interrupted; even at the scene of brilliant ecclesiastical festivity for which the poem was written there is a taint of darkness in the very air. 
It is proper to mention a rather cynical theory that Nash wrote or meant ‘hair’; still, though less imaginative, this is very adequate; oddly enough (it is electricity and the mysterious vitality of youth which have fallen from the hair) carries much the same suggestion as the other version; and gives the relief of a single direct meaning. Elizabethan pronunciation was very little troubled by snobbery, and it is conceivable that Nash meant both words to take effect in some way. Now that all this fuss has been made about aitches it is impossible to imagine what such a line would sound like.

The beautiful consideration here is whether or not Empson would have made such a penetrating and close reading of the poem if the final word had been the "less imaginative" hair, instead of the luminous ambiguity of the air?

Friday, November 09, 2018

Social Media as "The Totality" of Hakim Bey

Satan makes his way through Eden.
Gustave Doré - Paradise Lost

It’s become a truism to say that society no longer expresses a consensus (whether reactionary or liberatory), but that a false consensus is expressed for society; let’s call this false consensus “the Totality.” The Totality is produced thru mediation & alienation, which attempt to subsume or absorb all creative energies for the Totality. Myakovsky killed himself when he realized this; perhaps we’re made of sterner stuff, perhaps not. But for the sake of argument, let us assume that suicide is not a “solution.”
The Totality isolates individuals & renders them powerless by offering only illusory modes of social expression, modes which seem to promise liberation or self-fulfillment but in fact end by producing yet more mediation & alienation. This complex can be viewed clearly at the level of “commodity fetishism,” in which the most rebellious or avant-garde forms in art can be turned into fodder for PBS or MTV or ads for jeans or perfume. 
On a subtler level, however, the Totality can absorb & re-direct any power whatsoever simply by re-contextualizing & re-presenting it. For instance, the liberatory power of a painting can be neutralized or even absorbed simply by placing it in the context of a gallery or museum, where it will automatically become a mere representation of liberatory power. The insurrectionary gesture of a madman or criminal is not negated only by locking up the perpetrator, but even more by allowing the gesture to be represented—by a psychiatrist or by some brainless Kopshow on channel 5 or even by a coffee-table book on Art Brut. This has been called “Spectacular recuperation”; however, the Totality can go even farther than this simply by simulating that which it formerly sought to recuperate. That is, the artist & madman are no longer necessary even as sources of appropriation or “mechanical reproduction,” as Benjamin called it. Simulation cannot reproduce the faint reflection of “aura” which Benjamin allowed even to commodity-trash, its “utopian trace.” Simulation cannot in fact reproduce or produce anything except desolation & misery. But since the Totality thrives on our misery, simulation suits its purpose quite admirably.

Immediatism, Hakim Bey, 1994

Wednesday, November 07, 2018

Armando Iannucci in Milton's Heaven and Hell

Armando Iannucci in Milton's Heaven and Hell - BBC Documentary (2009).

An entertaining and enthusiastic celebration of Milton's well-known, seldom read, epic poem, Paradise Lost. Iannucci has a genuine and contagious love for the poem. His readings, while holding dog-eared and broken backed editions, are surprisingly revelatory. He transfuses fresh hot blood into the language.

His ambulatory reading and gloss on these famous lines - around 7:46 - goes from political double-speak to the concentration camps in a flash. 

A mind not to be chang'd by Place or Time.
The mind is its own place, and in it self
Can make a Heav'n of Hell, a Hell of Heav'n.

For me, it was the hook. After that, I was in for the duration of the documentary.

The best online Paradise Lost is at Dartmouth:

The best audio book is narrated by Simon Vance:

Also, Iannuci's Death of Stalin is brilliant. And, of course, Veep is well-acclaimed.

Friday, November 02, 2018

A Rendering of Psalm 130: From the depths of the Abyss, in which You are, I call on You

At the Monastery of Christ in the Desert, the Opus Dei, Work of God, in each of the eight prayer periods is to sing and recite the Psalms, over and over again. Much of the strangeness of these “dark sprouts and black flowers” (N. Fisher) resists even the most strenuous and imaginative attempts to perceive the workings of the Holy Ghost or figurations of the Christ in them. There’s no way around the stark violence Psalm 137:

“Happy shall he be, that taketh and dasheth thy little ones against the stones.”

However, the darker river that runs through the Psalms has worked well for my own Jonesian interpretation regarding the almost axiomatic presence of violence in and around the sacred. Over the years, when I have been at the Monastery, I silently continued to build my own counter-theology and radical ontology of the Psalms and Christianity in general. So much so, that I often felt a sense of blasphemous transgression at the divine offices, as if I was a wolf, with Jesus’ blood staining my teeth, praying amongst the herd of peaceful grazing sheep. All self-inflation aside, I am less and less inclined to pray at the Monastery, preferring to perform my religion in the shadows of the Chama canyon amidst the whitening bones of god, accompanied by the wandering ghosts of slaughtered ancient peoples, haunted by the vengeful Brujas and the screams of crucified Penitentes. 

Relevant to the work on Jones, I was studying Psalm 130. It is most remembered for its plaintive first line, “Out of the depths I have cried unto Thee, O Lord.” KJV

I was reading a commentary by Steiner in Grammars of Creation that indicated the Hebrew could actually be translated as, “From the depths of the Abyss, in which You are, I call on You.” With regard to God’s withdrawal from the the world, the presence of an awe-full absence, and Jones’ lifelong pursuit of the Fugitive Gods, this caught my attention. 

So using this as a first line, I chose to make my own, well, a Charles Jones style, translation of Psalm 130. I also relied upon the standards, KJV, NIV, ESV and renderings by Robert Alter and Stephen Mitchell. There is a remarkable semantic tension between the various translations regarding this particular Psalm. My own rendering is born out of this. There is a pressing desire to learn Hebrew. Perhaps after I learn Sanskrit. Always, there is never enough time. 

There are few notes that follow. 

Psalm 130

The red ribbon of blood striving ever upwards:

1 From the depths of the Abyss, in which You are, I call on You.
2 Entwined Immanence, hear my voice. 
may Your mind in-gather and hold the song of my saying.
3 Were You, O Embedded Immanence, to attend to forgetting, 
O Being, who amongst us could endure?
4 For the forgiveness is Yours, 
so that You may be revered.
5 I hope for the Presence of You, my being hopes,
and for Your Word I wait.
6 My being for Your Presence—
more than the watchmen wait for the dawn,
more than the watchmen wait for the dawn.
7 Wait, O Sacred State, for this Shuddering Immanence,
for within this Luminous Presence there is mercy,
and a plentiful plenitude of redemption.
8 And all manner of things will be redeemed,
and all manner of thing will forgiven,
and all shall be be forgotten,
as we shall all be entwined again into the One. 


Red ribbon - Saviors of God - Kazantzakis
From the Depths - Grammars of Creation - Steiner
In-gather and hold - Question Concerning Technology - Heidegger
Could endure - Dur Desir De Durer - Eluard
My being for Your Presence - Being and Time - Heidegger
All manner of thing - Julian of Norwich, Eliot, Four Quartets


Psalm 130 KJV

A song of ascent 

1 Out of the depths have I cried unto thee, O Lord.
2 Lord, hear my voice: let thine ears be attentive to the voice of my supplications.
3 If thou, Lord, shouldest mark iniquities, O Lord, who shall stand?
4 But there is forgiveness with thee, that thou mayest be feared.
5 I wait for the Lord, my soul doth wait, and in his word do I hope.
6 My soul waiteth for the Lord more than they that watch for the morning: I say, more than they that watch for the morning.
7 Let Israel hope in the Lord: for with the Lord there is mercy, and with him is plenteous redemption.
8 And he shall redeem Israel from all his iniquities.

Thursday, May 24, 2018

The Rendering of Watchmen: "Most of my work was designed to be un-filmable"

"Whenever anybody talks about comics, they usually make a great deal about the similarities between comics and film. And while I'll agree that a comic creator who understands cinematic techniques will probably be a better creator than one who doesn't, I feel that if we only see comics in a relationship to movies, then the best that they will ever be are films that do not move. I found that in the mid-80s preferable to try and concentrate upon those things that ONLY comics could achieve: the way in which a tremendous amount of information could be included visually in every panel; the juxtapositions between what a character was saying and the image that the reader was looking at. So that, in a sense, I guess you could say that most of my work from the 80s on was more designed to be un-filmable. This is what I had to explain to Terry Gilliam when he was originally selected as the director on the touted Watchmen movie that was being discussed at that time."

- Alan Moore in the film, The Mindscape of Alan Moore

Damon Lindelof recently wrote a five page letter to the fans of the graphic masterwork, The Watchmen by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons. Evidently, he has been hired by HBO to create a pilot set within the Watchmen world. His intensly personal letter (see pdf) is written in the "quantum style" of Dr. Manhattan / Jonathan Osterman.

"I am two-hundred and twenty-seven million kilometers from the sun. Its light is already ten minutes old. It will not reach Pluto for another two hours. Two hours into my future, I observe meteorites from a glass balcony, thinking about my father. Twelve seconds, into my past, I open my fingers. The photograph is falling. I am watching the stars. Halley's Comet tumbles through the solar system on its great, seventy-six year ellipse. My father admired the sky for its precision. He repaired watches. It's 1945, I sit in a Brooklyn kitchen, fascinated by an arrangement of cogs on black velvet. I am sixteen years old. It is 1985. I am on Mars. I am fifty-six years old. The photograph lies at my feet; falls from my fingers, is in my hand. I am watching the stars, admiring their complex trajectories through space and time. I am trying to give a name to the force that set them in motion." [source]

Watchmen is a work of transcendent art, fully realized within the medium of comics, or "the graphic novel." In the calculus of aesthetics, it approaches perfection. The necessary reductions of film - where visual puns between frames are lost, where the imaginative action inferred in the gutter between two panels is forgotten, where big splash panels are diminished - these adaptations cut away much of what is extraordinary about the work as a supreme instance of content beautifully interwoven with form.

Alan Moore again:

“I find film in its modern form to be quite bullying. It spoon-feeds us, which has the effect of watering down our collective cultural imagination. It is as if we are freshly hatched birds looking up with our mouths open waiting for Hollywood to feed us more regurgitated worms. The ‘Watchmen’ film sounds like more regurgitated worms. I for one am sick of worms." [source]

For years I have read with concern the reports about making a film of Blood Meridian.  McCarthy exploits, explores and expands all of the tropes, tricks and tools of the novel to create a world that has no translation into any other form, especially film. In my estimation, Blood Meridian is un-translatable. The Divine Comedy, Don Quixote, Moby Dick are all, at their core, resistant to even "faithful" adaptation.

I am in no way condemning inspiration and authentic response, the creation of new artifacts from the old. But these are not translations or adaptations or sequels. No one considers The Aeneid to be a sequel to the Iliad, or the Divine Comedy to be an adaptation of The Aeneid.

Moore is dead on: as a culture we have become entirely happy and satisfied with watered down "regurgitations."

The question of whether the movie is better than the book makes the same sense as dancing about architecture.

Imagine making a movie of Crane's The Bridge or Eliot's Four Quartets. Who would even think of making such an obscenity? Perhaps, rendering is the more apt term here - as when a dead animal is rendered into more palatable parts.

Chopin's answer also comes to mind. When asked what a particular Nocturne meant, he simply played it again.

Who would ever consider / believe a "translation" of Beethoven's 9th into another mode of expression: poetry, prose, comic, film? There is no translation for music, no abridgment, no bowdlerization, no censoring. There is only diminishment, loss, reduction and error. A child can perform the first notes of Beethoven's 5th. But it is not Beethoven's 5th.

Nabokov, typically cantankerous and contrary, is insighful here regarding translation:

"Three grades of evil can be discerned in the queer world of verbal transmigration. The first, and lesser one, comprises obvious errors due to ignorance or misguided knowledge. This is mere human frailty and thus excusable. The next step to Hell is taken by the translator who intentionally skips words or passages that he does not bother to understand or that might seem obscure or obscene to vaguely imagined readers; he accepts the blank look that his dictionary gives him without any qualms; or subjects scholarship to primness: he is as ready to know less than the author as he is to think he knows better. The third, and worst, degree of turpitude is reached when a masterpiece is planished and patted into such a shape, vilely beautified in such a fashion as to conform to the notions and prejudices of a given public. This is a crime, to be punished by the stocks as plagiarists were in the shoebuckle days." [source]

Lindelof clearly honors The Watchmen. His letter is well-written and full of passion. However, in his quantum style, I read the anxiety of a man being paid an enormous sum of money to kill the thing he loves.

God help me for quoting Bono:

It's no secret that a conscience can sometimes be a pest
It's no secret ambition bites the nails of success
Every artist is a cannibal, every poet is a thief
All kill their inspiration and sing about their grief

I understand, of course, the Lindelof is not attempting to re-tell the canonical Old Testament story of the Watchmen. Rather, he says he wants to explore new possibilities in that world in the same manner as the New Testament extended the possibilities of the Old. It's a clever tactic, as old as Don Quixote. But recall, it was the unauthorized publication of a sequel to the original spurred Cervantes to write Part Two and allow Don Quixote his rightful death.

Unfortunately, Hollywood refuses to allow any character (or imaginative world) a rightful death, digging them up again like Webster's wolves, no final rest when they can continue to feed and make money off of the corpse.

Call for the robin-red-breast and the wren,
Since o'er shady groves they hover,
And with leaves and flow'rs do cover
The friendless bodies of unburied men.
Call unto his funeral dole
The ant, the field-mouse and the mole,
To rear him hillocks that shall keep him warm,
And (when gay tombs are robbed) sustain no harm,
But keep the wolf far thence, that's foe to men,
For with his nails he'll dig them up again.
Let holy Church receive him duly,
Since he paid the church-tithes truly.

- John Webster

Tuesday, April 10, 2018

A Conversation with Shelton Walsmith: "Somehow the question keeps the torch lit."

Shelton Walsmith

SC: Again, I'm always in for the more restrained color palette. The Mytho-poetic imagery. I've been reading Book 6 of the Aeneid, the journey of Aeneas into the underworld in search of his father. Just before he died, Seamus Heaney made a translation. Upon finally finding the shade of his father, Aeneas attempts to embrace him:

"Let me take your hand, my father, 

O let me, and do not
Hold back from my embrace.

And as he spoke he wept. 

Three times he tried to reach arms round that neck.

Three times the form, reached for in vain, escaped

Like a breeze between his hands, a dream on wings."

Shelton Walsmith

Shelton Walsmith

SW: I like the pitch of the emotion in that writing. I recently saw Teagle in the play Is God Is? Most of the performance is in a claustrophobic shallow set with a windowed wall close to the front of the stage. Towards the end, Teagle pushes the wall backward and it falls with a crash at a 45 degree angle. He then climbs it to have a showdown with a daughter who's come to kill him. The 4th wall of theater transgressed.

SC: I've been listening to Lee Morgan's Cornbread. It's pure Sunday morning to me.

SW: He managed to infuse those recordings with with joie de vivre.

SC: Overflowing exuberance.

SW: I can turn my frown upside down by simply playing Sidewinder record. Same thing with Django Reinhardt.

Shelton Walsmith

SW: Couldn't find any Lee Morgan at the studio but looking I rediscovered a great by Lee Konitz titled Another Shade of Blue.

SC: I'll check it out. I've always admired how prolific jazz musicians are. Hundreds of albums. The live improvisation and "real presence" of the music being antithetical to closeted perfectionism and hermetic solipsism. 

Shelton Walsmith

SW: Here here. A lot of stuff in the heyday pre-1963 is praying - a very clear transcription of presence. Did you read Giacometti discussing the pursuit of presence? He was all about exposing the ghost and making it playback - recording the playing as it lives -  as you mention. The records of Segovia, Glenn Gould or Kronos Quartet are performance/recorded like jazz live. 

It's been a blessing to take on this bather exhibition. Like you saying, I'm Back! to yourself at the Bellingham library. While I'm drawing studiously daily, I feel most at home. Going through tons of moleskins looking for precedent is a also reminder how much energy and looking and recording I've devoted to drawing. It's an instrument of human thought sounding or touching. It's a lot of rehearsing for painting but it also remains strong as an end to the means.

SC: Not to remark upon a trivial example, but perhaps appropriate for its lack of pretension, I am increasingly aware of how unconsciously practiced and accomplished am I for this work. As if some Mr Miyagi from the Karate Kid has had me painting the fence or waxing the car for years, honing skills I was unaware I possessed. Over 20 years meditation upon a theme, writing poems, songs, prose, creating graphics until is all second nature, like riding a bike. I no longer think about writing: it is an unconscious vehicle to transport me to my destination. I'm pretty happy when I realize this anew. Look ma! No hands!

SW: Exactly.

Shelton Walsmith

Shelton Walsmith

Shelton Walsmith

SC: The immediate provisionality of the sketchbook, the "showing of the work", is always fascinating. Seeing how the sausage is made. Or perfume.

Shelton Walsmith

SC: Sweet.

Shelton Walsmith

Shelton Walsmith

SC: Something in the natural, but muted eroticism of the bathers. Not nude, but just there. The idea of the Venus de Milo in a bikini. It's interesting.

SW: There's something to how open the kimono is...revealing the right amount hiding the best parts. I want to tap into an endless summer atmosphere wherein ghosts are represented as passersby in rivers and lakes and surf. You're always younger when you're swimming and younger is always past. It's a proverbial fish bowl looked on by Prospero. 

SC: Nicely put. Re: Eliot:

Now the hedgerow
Is blanched for an hour with transitory blossom 
Of snow, a bloom more sudden 
Than that of summer, neither budding nor fading, 
Not in the scheme of generation.
Where is the summer, the unimaginable Zero summer?

Shelton Walsmith

Shelton Walsmith

SW: I've continued to study Mark Tansey for his monochromatic mastery and disjointed narrative send offs on sentiment, nostalgia, redacted history and painting about painting. See his "Action paintings"1 and 2. Making grayscale or monochromatic fiction emerges, it's not true to life in it's reduction to tonal over coloristic. My inquiry into how to make it more artificial than lifelike launches a type of Once upon a time...

By grouping them as diptychs or triptychs the additional frame or filmic cell reels another engine of narrative movement

Shelton Walsmith

Shelton Walsmith

SC: Those are excellent. The Muybridge filmic nostalgia.

SW: Like the Disney analogue animation m.o. endless drawings, same but different, not just feeling innocence but also and reanimated call and response btw having it and losing it. Reality vs. recollection. Someone remembered so often their face gets warn off until the memory is grasping as featureless ghosts receding.

Shelton Walsmith

SW: The sexual highlight reel too often revisited goes from lucid real time play by play recollection to blippy gif like compression. Instead of the short film you had now the memory 3 or 4 vignettes flipbooking then it's one long exposure compressed into a single image then  that photograph becomes worn and loses detail to wear and attrition...

Shelton Walsmith

Shelton Walsmith

SC: You are exactly right. Film offers an all too easy metaphor for memory that, while evocative, is not accurate. I think people born in the age of film and now smart phones will think of memory as a message aligned with those mediums: a slow motion panning shot of a walk to the altar, soundtracked with a favorite song, close up on the face, or, far worse, their lives as a series of posed/ not posed filter / no filter selfies. The creative and interpretively demanding windows opened by a work of art with its constantly shifting meanings and aporia are traded for these more compressed representations of the experience - the plastic souvenir remembered instead of the experience itself. The capacities of memory are vast and energized by immersion to the most profound depths. Borges said one of the most signal moments in the development of Western culture was when Aeschylus introduced a second actor onto the stage. No longer a single singer or priest addressing the crowd directly, but a re-presentation of reality, as two actors magically create a dramatic universe we view as non-participatory spectators. No wonder the earliest memory systems were memory theaters. Internal private stages where we each enact our own myths. Something Freud "discovered" as a unexplored country within. 

SW: Isn't interesting that in the first chapter of photography that a negative image needed to be born before it's positive inverse could document the latent image?

A lot of those glass plates that documented Civil War death were destroyed or repurposed as greenhouse windows. It was best forgotten and the photos were a terrible reminder. That reminds me of the Van Gogh scholar researching his haunts and homes discovering a former landlord was using one his paintings traded for rent as the door to her henhouse. The real fate of most pictures rather than d'Orsay, Sotheby's or Hong Kong penthouses.

SC: There is something philosophically and aesthetically beautiful about those images. The eternal question: what is art good for? What does it do? For some, it's a good window, something with which to build a door. Keiffer's monumental leaden books come to mind. But so do the pyramids. And Guernica. 

SW: The use of art or the use of the art encounter is best from the cheap seats in a theatre watching a play. No one's fooling anybody from there and the necessary suspension of disbelief is transferrable into poetry, music and the plastic arts if one needs to ask the question, to what end? Or what use is it?  Suspension of functional practicality. Why take soot or blood and make a handprint or drawing of a bison on the cave wall? To what end? Somehow the question keeps the torch lit. Imaging or reimagining or projecting of mere shadows of the real thing ignites inquiries into the substance of sight and the weight of remembering. Mona Lisa looks at us looking at her and a cycle of wonder loops.

SC: Beautiful. Could my epitaph: 

"To what end? Somehow the question keeps the torch lit. Imaging or reimagining or projecting of mere shadows of the real thing ignites inquiries into the substance of sight and the weight of remembering."

SW: Often progress in art is retrospective like turning your back to the mirror and panning your sightlines back over your shoulder at the view you walking away. Michaelangelo is looking at the ancients and literally thinking, to beat these are guys beat these guys I need to see  grandeur and monumentality as they saw/projected it. 

Kiefer progressed art by seeing/deposing Nazi hegemony in favor of a pre third Reich Mother Germany. All thru backward visioning. The PreRaphaelite painters pushed into magic realism by genre hopping backward.

SC: Consonant with Borges idea that a writer's awareness of his precursors not only informs his present work, but alters our conception of the past. History is a lie of the mind and as fluid as any story. Thus, he says we now know Homer's Odyssey as coming AFTER Joyce's Ulysses. He cites Whistler's answer to the question of how long it took him to paint one of his nocturnes. Whistler answered, all of my life. "With the same rigor he could have said all the centuries that preceded that moment when he painted were necessary."

Shelton Walsmith

SW: When you answer To what end?  With a political message in visuart at least those aforementioned suspensions become flattened and rigid and to an known end. Political art smells like a doctor's office.

SC: The etymological sense of porno graphia - writing about prostitutes, those who allow themselves to be bought and used for other's purposes. Most of our current culture is pornography to me, more insidious because it tries so desperately to pretend as if it is not. 

Shelton Walsmith

SW: Yeah, we're a mess.

Well, I went to the doctor
I said, "I'm feeling kind of rough"
He said, "I'll break it to you, son"
"Let me break it to you, son"
Your shit's fucked up."
I said, "my shit's fucked up?"
Well, I don't see how-"
He said, "The shit that used to work-
It won't work now." - Warren Zevon