Technology

Nothing prepared us for this.
We could not plan for the outcome,
nor invent the riches, the lair of a dragon
wholly one with the earth.

Its mind had not been revealed.
No one had dug it out.
Only in the hidden depth, in the alien,
the birth of god was possible.

But what is god?
It is the wrought and won proportion,
but only as something undone,
something that destroys the one who makes it,

for the gaze of a god is impossible to bear.
What you have made, what you have found
is nor yours, it says; not anyone’s.
It is the dragon.

It is the earth, claiming back its gold.

Memories of Rome

This is a somewhat edited version of an essay that was published in the official anthology of the 2016 Seoul International Writer’s Festival, held 25.9.-1.10. in Seoul, South Korea, under the theme The Forgotten and the Unforgettable. I cannot say that I am entirely happy with it, as most of the ideas sound to me now like marginal notes requiring elaboration and the injection of actual personal context — why were these thoughts important to me while I was writing the essay? Sadly, it’s impossible to delve into those issues here, as of now…

There is a parable Freud tells in Civilization and its Discontents, where he asks us to compare the mind with Rome — that is, to consider “a psychical entity (…) in which nothing that has once come into existence will have passed away and all the earlier phases of development continue to exist alongside the latest one”. This exercise in imagination, ironically enough, quickly leads to “things that are unimaginable and even absurd”, since “where the Coliseum now stands we could at the same time admire Nero’s vanished Golden House”, and “on the Piazza of the Pantheon we should find not only the Pantheon of today (…) but, on the same site, the original edifice erected by Agrippa”.

For Freud, this “phantasy” serves as an illustration of the complex nature of our minds, “that in mental life nothing which has once been formed can perish (…)” — but also, that this very truth is quite beyond our conscious conceptual capacities. Thus, it is in actuality a parable of the incomparability of the mind to the real world. Is it not strange, then, that he should have come up with it in the first place (as he himself notes, the city is “a priori unsuited for a comparison of this sort” because cities are constantly being destroyed and rebuilt)?

I suspect it happened because the metaphor of memory as a place is ubiquitous in the history of Western thought — and what a curious tradition it is! Its most developed form can be seen in the ancient arts of memory, the ars memoria, which directed centuries of pupils of rhetoric from the gymnasiums of Greece to the cathedral schools of Medieval Europe to build memory palaces in their mind, and to store there the various sententia, the wise words and arguments of the established auctores, to be used in the invention of future eloquence.

Through this schooling, literature came to be seen as a landscape of topoi, of “places” of argument, illustration, embellishment and admonition, but most of all a place to build in imitation and recognition of an ideal place, the harmonious world of true, beautiful and just ideas. Importantly, for the history of poetry, these places of memory are not words, but images: students were taught to encode teachings in the form of pictures.

My interest in the arts of memory stems from my own incapacity in the face of a very fundamental question: where do ideas come from? If I do not quite believe, with Dante, that the images of imagination land in our fantasy like a rain of self-guiding, spontaneous divine fire (as the poet describes in Canto 17 of the Purgatory) or subscribe to Plato’s theory that we somehow already know what to say — as in the dialogue Meno, where Socrates shows how an unschooled slave boy can be revealed to have knowledge of geometry — I do believe that the task of a poet is to be a kind of receptacle of anamnesis: to invent, often out of thin air, an originality that may be fictional but that is nevertheless necessary for human life.

If that sounds very lofty, let me assure you that I do not have in mind anything more spectacular than the observation which the philosopher Vilém Flusser once made, that the invention of writing was significant because it allowed for the emergence of historical consciousness, since in writing one can stop and review that which had been thought, what in oral discourse is always lost to time, and revise it.

For Flusser, it was this revisionary consciousness which facilitated the emergence of critical thought, which is another way of saying that writing something down becomes, at once, not just a matter of remembering, but of judging, and through the act of judgment, a matter of ethics, of values, of belief.

Such was, after all, the nature of anamnesis for Plato. To remember what each of us must already know — perfect knowledge — is to have access to the right kind of life and the right kind of action. From this point of view it is understandable that Plato criticized the poets. They were, after all, the guardians of the oral history of their people, the cultural knowledge that gave the Greeks of Athens of their values and identity. To put the matter more bluntly than is perhaps necessary, if these poets merely recited words that were dictated to them, copying the copies of copied words instead of intoning the truth about the real, what were they? Clearly, because they had not done the work of rational self-investigation, of having come to know oneself, they could not be trusted.

It is important to note that for Plato the Delphic dictum “to know oneself” meant, in one sense, that it was inconceivable for someone who had knowledge of ultimate virtue to act against such knowledge; this would merely show that he had not become aware of his true self. Crucially, for Plato, such knowledge can’t be or cannot have been forgotten, since each thing exists eternally and necessarily as its own idea. Therefore, the task of the true poet — the philosopher king — is to reveal what is eternal in the temporary, or infinite in the finite.

It is of course true that the history of Plato’s reception in the West (not to mention the notion that it is very hard to know what Plato “really” thought) is incredibly complex and my summary doesn’t really do any justice to it, but in the grand scheme of things it is perhaps at least somewhat safe to say that the legacy of Plato’s idealism in poetry is the story of romanticism: to see eternity in a flower, or feel the intimations of immortality in our earliest memories. In this tradition, the difference between forgetting and remembering appears to us as the difference between the mortal and the immortal, the transitory and the eternal, the accidental and the necessary, fancy and imagination. In a kind of vicious — or if you prefer, predestined — circle, the true romantic poet’s task is to always keep remembering who we are, since we, because we are mortal, always forget what is immortal within us.

But, if it is sometimes necessary to forget in order to remember, doesn’t that mean that the necessary must, for a time, appear accidental, the immortal mortal, the eternal ephemeral and fleeting — as if they could, somehow, occupy the same place at the same time, Nero’s Golden House where the Coliseum now stands? With this paradox, we come back not only to Freud’s Rome, but to my own question: is creation really a matter of producing, out of nothing, something?

To be quite honest, I don’t really know. Creation presents us with a problem which is, in essence, unsolvable, because both the matter of creation and the medium of its existence is time: the equally imaginary, though distinctly different substances of history and memory, the written and the spoken word.

For which one was first? Our memory of things or the facts themselves? The sign or the thing signified? The philosophers who tackle these problems have not helped us to live through them, nor have science or technology prepared us to face this question, which is at the root of our being, insofar as we, as human subjects, are first and foremost subjects of language, and come to be ourselves through the function of the sign which points in our direction. We are where we say “I am”, but by saying so do two completely different things: mean both ourselves and the sign we mean — history, the generality and totality of language as a system and a record of fact, and memory, the singular, particular experience of being the one to whom the facts are inflicted upon, but also the one who can, because he remembers, forget.

Indeed, if I am myself, if I recognize myself as the sum of my experiences, doesn’t that mean that I am myself only insofar as I remember myself? If that is so, how is the common experience of forgetting oneself possible? Each of us has felt it, the feeling of returning to what was most true, most original about us: “I remembered who I was”, we say. But we remember who we were only because we had been someone else first, as if the forgetting had been in some sense necessary.

The sinister aspect of this realisation is that although we have forgotten the truth, the truth does not forget about us. That is the reality of the speaking being: that we can forget the words, but the words do not forget about us; that the forgotten truth about ourselves is left operational as the compulsion to repeat the uncontrollable quirks and the inconceivable twitches, the implacable urges and the passionate gestures which govern our actions and inform our judgments as the unconscious which we do not remember, but which never forgets about us.

Now, if the unforgettable part of us is the unconscious, doesn’t that mean that the forgettable is the self, the ego, the perishable frontier of our existence? This would explain why the experience of modernity is often the painful nostalgia of a subject history or myth has failed to protect from this realization, or, as Giacomo Leopardi once noted, it is curious how nothing new can appear poetical to us, only the distant, the vague, the indefinite.

Leopardi’s nostalgia is not the longing for myth, but the nostalgia we feel toward our self — what William Wordsworth meant when he said that poetry is emotion recollected in tranquillity: that the art of memory and the art of invention are the same, that the self is both invented and remembered, and therefore poetics are not, for the poet, merely descriptive, but prescriptive, in the sense even of medicinal prescriptions, of dietetics, therapeutics, of a regimen for the exercising and developing of our self-creative abilities.

This task is not an easy one, as the poetry of Wordsworth, in spite of his theories, shows: his magnum opus, The Prelude, the autobiographical epic of his own growth into the poet he became, is not a masterpiece on account of the accuracy of its recollections but because of its many redactions, repressions, and revisions, the decades of difference between its versions, and the uses they had for the person we like to think was the same, but really wasn’t, just like Rome is not the Eternal City, but yet, and still: isn’t that the reason why we go there? Isn’t that the reason for our pilgrimage: to build, in the palace of our minds, out of memories which we have not made, but somehow find as given, an incomparable edifice for the restoration of the best version of ourselves? Isn’t that, in the end, why we read — to remember how to believe?

Nocturne

An orange glow streams into darkened rooms.
Brown ragged clouds turn over and remain
A ceiling for the innocent and brave
Old rabbits grazing on the gleaming lawns.
Where nothing hurts us now, and all is safe,
Young mothers nurse their precious little friends,
And in bright shops, fine things rest in their cots.

Stars loom, as close or distant as a cousin,
Above the tombs of men, a silent vault,
A home for those who find in death a house,
A place to keep, when their long day is done,
Still near to us who feel the winter sun,
Which stings the eyes of those who must endure
The waiting years before they find their cure.

You, who neither hope for glory or demise,
Lie sleepless with these words that cannot cast
Anew your frame of reference, blind chance.
This is no future dreamed of in the past —
This godlessness of animals who last
To witness how the miracle of life
Once arose, under all-engulfing night.

Some Notes on the Necessity of Ignorance

This is a talk I gave in Beijing, China, at the Beijing Normal University Writing Center’s International Forum for Commemorating Chinese Avantgarde Literature on the 25th of November, 2015, having been invited there as an alumni of the Iowa Writing Center’s International Fall Residency Program.

Esteemed colleagues and hosts. I would like to begin this presentation by describing what happened when I began, as someone absolutely ignorant of Chinese avantgarde literature, to read the most accessible introductory text available to me, the anthology called China’s Avantgarde Fiction, edited by Jing Wang, and published by Duke University Press in 1998.

This paperback edition presents the work of seven writers of the avantgarde fiction movement of the late 80s and early 90s: Ge Fei, Yu Hua, Su Tong, Can Xue, Bei Cun, Sun Ganlu and Ma Yuan. I had heard of none of them prior to opening this anthology.

Continue reading

Indignatio

for Aase Berg

They ask of us so many things:
To fill the silence in the center of words;
To measure the wealth and height of healthy man,
And be the foil to his fondest crimes.

Against the obligation to oblige,
Against the affirmation of what is subscribed
Stands only the molting mouth of a bite
That finds no satisfaction in smiles:

The negativity of the snake, the camouflage
Of the cold at heart, who only allow the sun to touch
Their seething scales to build up rage,
The fuel of their poisonous tongues.

O, let that patient gland that cooks
Bad breath, and sharp-voiced song
Be your protection, your own charmed pharmacy,
The factory of your ever-changing skin.

For nothing in our mammal mythology
Breeds us for birthing ourselves:
Only the ancient, hissing exigence
Of the oldest enemy, the critical one.

The Door Home

And still, something is there, is present:
something in you sings, when the maple
covers the opposite wall and white window sills
when you return, foreign tastes still

lingering, and greens will spill and splash
in the evening red, and past the bank of tulips,
past the young potato and cabbage
you feel again that pasture, your own yard —

cross the threshold, throw yourself to safety,
as if a homeless beast were out to discover you,
knew you by name, knew everything
you can only guess at yet, daunted.

Inside, sturdy steps ascend to a door,
which the same familiar key still homes towards,
and a low-lit room lets you sit down, unfound,
your own plate on a palm’s ground.

The State of Poetry

A speech for the 51st International Poetry Spring Festival, Vilnius, Lithuania. I was unable to attend because of an illness, but here is the address, just to have it somewhere.

The state of poetry: the concept sparks the mind to invent a fabulous fable, a possible past, where the bards Plato threw out of his rational state had, in exile, gathered on a mountain, perhaps like the one where Marsilio Ficino’s humanistic dialogues took place, a monastic mountain, after the manner of Karmel, to form their own polis, a closed cloister of monks each reciting the glory of their own, personal god. The mere image of that ivory tower sends shivers down the spine. Let prose guard us from such a possibility!

All humor aside, it is apparent that there is and can be no state of poetry, that it is, at best, a metaphor: either the timeless white page as a place of communion for the unavowable community of Blanchot or a diplomatic government of the tongue, where Ovid shakes hands with Seamus, and Zbigniew with Octavio. Continue reading

Lilac Vesper

At first, only a familiar, distant bristling,
like the claws of a hunter’s hand
brushing a hawthorn hedge:
hyenas, locked in a contest of strength.

How soon will vespers settle in a lilac shade,
daubed by blues that recede like breath
cooling welted flesh? Then,
a boy like a long lost brother

will venture the stifling evening roads
and return to the place where he came,
where even angels lack their place,
coralled by a dog star’s reign.

There’s no room in that land for us,
paupers of love, who grow not, diminish.
But you, wandering brother,
what pith do you feign?

Only your proud back remains.

Discontent

What is one to do,
when the painful grasping of youth
returns to its reach,
not having captured its gain?

The incandescent orange
of a sky at dusk,
midwinter’s stark black
draws willow lines up from snow

blue-white, settled in to stay,
hard as concrete,
as real as anything gets.
This, too, shall pass.

It is only half of who we are.
A quarter, an inch –
comes a deluge, returns the drought,
the burden of harvest,

a season of doubt.

Bats

Ripe bats trickle down dark leaves.
New graves distill in vagrant mist.
A thousand fat flowers sleep
in the deep mouth of a black ravine,

as a naked girl laughs and vomits.
A hard drunk boy in tall grass
worms towards the nymph. A stench
of willowherb chokes the riverbed.

A genial wind fans. The girl’s
virgin Vespa is safely secured
in the forest’s confident bosom.
A tarred boat sloshes in a weak stream.

From The Bad Mother (Paha äiti), 2012.