Stochastic Bookmark

abstruse unfinished commentary

about correspondence


Function as a quotation device

Lindsay Waters in CHE as CI listeth where it bloweth (top cites being Derrida, Freud, Foucault, Benjamin):

"The authors of the ranking, Anne H. Stevens, an assistant professor of English at the University of Nevada at Las Vegas, and Jay W. Williams, Critical Inquiry's managing editor, note that 'Benjamin's works are cited nonargumentatively,' which I think is a nice way of saying his ideas are just window dressing, not engaged with. That must be why he ranks high as one of the most perfectly citable authors of all, because you can cite him reverently without having to figure out what he said. With Benjamin a citation is the academic equivalent of the purely ritual move, like a ballplayer's sign of the cross."

But Benjamin wrote for quotation, his style is geared to it, and it rose to method for him as aphorism had for Nietzsche. Arendt on Benjamin (from intro to Illuminations, "The Pearl Diver"):

"From the Goethe essay on, quotations are at the center of every work of Benjamin's. This very fact distinguishes his writings from scholarly works of all kinds in which it is the function of quotation to verify and document opinions, wherefore they can safely be relegated to the Notes. This is out of the question for Benjamin. When he was working on his study of German tragedy, he boasted of 'over 600 quotations very systematically and clearly arranged' (Briefe I, 339); like the later notebooks, this collection was not an accumulation of excerpts intended to facilitate the writing of the study but constituted the main work, with the writing as something secondary. The main work consisted in tearing fragments out of their context and arranging them afresh in such a way that they illustrated one another, and were able to prove their raison d'ĂȘtre in a free-floating state, as it were. It definitely was a sort of surrealistic montage. Benjamin's ideal of producing a work consisting entirely of quotations, one that was mounted so masterfully that it could dispense with any accompanying text, may strike one as whimsical in the extreme and self-destructive to boot, but it was not, any more than were the contemporaneous surrealistic experiments which arose from similar impulses. To the extent that an accompanying text by the author proved unavoidable, it was a matter of fashioning it in such a way as to preserve 'the intention of such investigations,' namely, 'to plumb the depths of language and thought ... by drilling rather than excavating' (Briefe I, 329), so as not to ruin everything with explanations that seek to provide a causal or systematic connection. In so doing Benjamin was quite aware that this new method of 'drilling' resulted in a certain 'forcing of insights ... whose inelegant pedantry, however, is preferable to today's almost universal habit of falsifying them'; it was equally clear to him that this method was bound to be 'the cause of certain obscurities (Briefe I, 300). What mattered to him above all was to avoid anything that might be reminiscent of empathy, as though a given subject of investigation had a message in readiness which easily communicated itself, or could be communicated, to the reader or spectator: 'No poem is intended for the reader, no picture for the beholder, no symphony for the listener' ('The Task of the Translator'; italics added)."

For whom then is quotation unintended? What aura persists? What attributes does it carry, in poetry, for instance? So, I've embarked on Umberto Eco's The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana, wherein the narrator (a sixtyish rare-book dealer) starts out stripped of all personal memory, initially having no more than quotes (helpfully italicised) to go on (and whose collection of quotations centered on fog), reconstructing his memory, himself, by diving into the archives of his childhood, bringing up to the surface calcined artifacts from his formative years, struggling to establish current context from these fragments.

As it happens, Friday's newspaper carried quotes from a childhood friend, who had reintroduced me to chess (first learned from my dad long before, who'd stopped playing after I'd won a game from him), and who had introduced me to magazines and organizations devoted to it, the first affiliations that I voluntarily undertook. In high school we had drifted apart, which is to say that I drifted while he had found his calling, culminating in a position as scholar/scientist/educator. And so too as someone quotable in the newspaper, which enabled me to make the connection, re-establish contact, and also to recollect who it was I used to be, and in some ways still am, if you get my drift ...

(Other reading: Jules Supervielle's Selected Writings, more deep-sea diving into dreams; collates with Benjamin's other surrealistic impulses [pdf].)


Plumbing the surface

... and scratching the depths:

A new translation of late books of Henri Michaux, Grasp (Saisir) and Stroke by Stroke (Par des traits), was the occasion for an intimate gathering at Gotham BookMart for translator Richard Sieburth, no stranger to challenges of this sort, who recited the latter title piece and notes on translation as well as retailing the story of Alan Ginsberg's visitation of Michaux in Paris, putting the latter between himself and a photographer more interested in the grounds than the figures. The investigation of protolanguage through calligraphy evokes Noguchi's chess pieces (as his lithography often evokes Noguchi sculpture), Sherlock Holmes' Dancing Men, the traces left by cellular automata (qv Wolfram), and Poe's A. Gordon Pym (Professor Feather earlier supplied Michaux with the nom de Plume, though Dr. Tarr seems at work here). I'd earlier looked into Miserable Miracle, not his best (not a machine but a recalibration of the machine, an altered state that is but a mere simulacrum of transcendence, or of the abyss), but which hints at potential for his approach -- crosstriggering different representational forms, not amorphism, more sort of a modal synesthesia. In later conversation Sieburth also retailed the tale of Roubaud's geometric exploration of Philadelphia, which landed him in the projects ...

Leading to other reading: Harvey's The Island of Lost Maps unfolded like the extended magazine article it is, but not without points of interest, interleaving a Baedeker on map making, collecting, archiving, and restoration with the investigation of the motives behind Gilbert Bland's carting off rarities from major antiquarian collections (and Harvey's motives in pursuing the story). A journey half again too long, better editing could have brought it home.

Vladimir Voinovich's The Life and Extraordinary Adventures of Private Ivan Chonkin was not quite as extraordinary as I'd hoped, though it was an enjoyable romp with some nice satiric touches, particularly its ending, which reiterated that of Victor Shklovsky's also slightly disappointing Knight's Move, read the following day, so I turned my head and (cough) laughed. I detect a whiff of Swift ... ho-hum, anyway, I wanted to get into the latter to better grasp the end of StPete's Silver Age and abortive 20's movements and to backfill some influence on Bakhtin; Dalkey obliges, and it turns out that Shklovsky's
notion of estrangement is not far removed from that of Michaux ...

Another sort of estrangement, another sense of 'saisir' (distrainment), another Dalkey, Lydie Salvayre's The Company of Ghosts, like Oe's The Silent Cry (mentioned earlier via addendum, and leading to current reading, Natsume Soseki's Kokoro [the heart of things]), deals with the continuing aftermath of WW II on noncombatant casualties. In this case, a dual account (but a different duality from Oe), a counting and recounting, repossession of what is never lost, never possessed, or lost forever, double entry bookkeeping for mother/daughter housekeeping. And another word to supplement the vocabulary, paralipomena, which might apply to another book perused since last I wrote:
I wonder if I can do this. I am convinced that only by tracking down the labyrinth of the No can the paths still open to the writing of the future appear. I wonder if I can evoke them. I shall write footnotes commenting on a text that is invisible, which does not mean it does not exist, since this phantom text could very well end up held in suspension in the literature of the next millenium.

Related by a clerk (like so many of his subjects), Enrique Vila-Matas' Bartleby & Co takes this form; Pessoa & Co* has a part (or parts) in it, as does Kafka, Musil, all those unfinished ruins of German, French, Spanish, other European, even Anglo Lit. If I weren't writing a book this isn't the book I wouldn't write. (Sorry, it couldn't be left unsaid.) But the key text is Hofmannsthal's Lord Chandos' letter (rough trans), the eloquent denunciation of coherence (shades of Miserable Miracle!) that disproves itself. John Banville has also picked up on this, both in his review of Coetzee's Elisabeth Costello, and in his Newton Letter.

* Richard Zenith has supplemented his first collection, which first put me on to Pessoa, with more translations, augmented with stuff that's turned up more recently, in A Little Larger than the Entire Universe, with which I've supplemented my TBR shelf.