category: literature

Thinking about things that other people will not

boris-vianA wonderful thought from Boris Vian, quoted in A half-century homage to France’s master-prankster, on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the author / jazz musician / artist’s death:

[Vian’s] heightened sense of the absurd reached its apotheosis when he joined the Collège de pataphysique, a prestigious circle of French writers and academics studying pataphysics, a virtual science invented at the end of the 19th century by the author Alfred Jarry.

They held absurd honours ceremonies with strange decorations. Vian was promoted to Transcendent Satrap, in charge of the Extraordinary Commission on Clothing. Along with illustrious French names like Raymond Queneau, Eugène Ionesco and Jacques Prévert, they engaged in serious, scientific discussion of stupid ideas, such as crossing Paris using land tides in a boat made of small holes.

I am applying myself to thinking about things that I think people will not think about,” Vian said in a radio recording…

Emphasis mine, because it’s a great credo to live by. Thanks to Tosh Berman for the tip on this article and for turning me on to Boris Vian. We should all be so lucky as to cross Paris using land tides in a boat made of small holes.

How to Build a Universe That Doesn’t Fall Apart Two Days Later

I just stumbled upon a great essay by Philip K. Dick, written in 1978, a few years before he die: How to Build a Universe That Doesn’t Fall Apart Two Days Later. It is longish, but an entertaining read. Here are some excerpts:

It is my job to create universes, as the basis of one novel after another. And I have to build them in such a way that they do not fall apart two days later. Or at least that is what my editors hope. However, I will reveal a secret to you: I like to build universes which do fall apart. I like to see them come unglued, and I like to see how the characters in the novels cope with this problem. I have a secret love of chaos. There should be more of it. Do not believe — and I am dead serious when I say this — do not assume that order and stability are always good, in a society or in a universe. The old, the ossified, must always give way to new life and the birth of new things. Before the new things can be born the old must perish. This is a dangerous realization, because it tells us that we must eventually part with much of what is familiar to us. And that hurts. But that is part of the script of life. Unless we can psychologically accommodate change, we ourselves begin to die, inwardly. What I am saying is that objects, customs, habits, and ways of life must perish so that the authentic human being can live. And it is the authentic human being who matters most, the viable, elastic organism which can bounce back, absorb, and deal with the new.

…In Plato’s Timaeus, God does not create the universe, as does the Christian God; He simply finds it one day. It is in a state of total chaos. God sets to work to transform the chaos into order. That idea appeals to me, and I have adapted it to fit my own intellectual needs: What if our universe started out as not quite real, a sort of illusion, as the Hindu religion teaches, and God, out of love and kindness for us, is slowly transmuting it, slowly and secretly, into something real?

…Just about the time that Supreme Court was ruling that the Nixon tapes had to be turned over to the special prosecutor, I was eating at a Chinese restaurant in Yorba Linda, the town in California where Nixon went to school — where he grew up, worked at a grocery store, where there is a park named after him, and of course the Nixon house, simple clapboard and all that. In my fortune cookie, I got the following fortune:


I mailed the slip of paper to the White House, mentioning that the Chinese restaurant was located within a mile of Nixon’s original house, and I said, “I think a mistake has been made; by accident I got Mr. Nixon’s fortune. Does he have mine?” The White House did not answer.

…The summation of much pre-Socratic theology and philosophy can be stated as follows: The kosmos is not as it appears to be, and what it probably is, at its deepest level, is exactly that which the human being is at his deepest level — call it mind or soul, it is something unitary which lives and thinks, and only appears to be plural and material. Much of this view reaches us through the Logos doctrine regarding Christ. The Logos was both that which thought, and the thing which it thought: thinker and thought together. The universe, then, is thinker and thought, and since we are part of it, we as humans are, in the final analysis, thoughts of and thinkers of those thoughts.

Parallel marginalia: Wölfli and Walser

Sam Goldenrule Jones writes and publishes several excellent blogs, including, Wandering with Robert Walser, “A project dedicated to Swiss author Robert Walser (1878-1956)”, a great writer I only recently discovered.

The fact that Walser was Swiss, ended up in an insane asylum, and wrote stories and articles in a fantastically small microscript handwriting, put me in mind of Adolf Wölfli. Here’s a side-by-side comparison of a famous Wölfli drawing (beating Warhol to Campbell’s Soup by four decades or so) with in image of Walser’s (described below) that I cribbed from Sam’s Flickr set of Walser images (apologies):

adolf wolfli robert walser composite

Here is Sam’s description of the Walser image:

An image of a notecard I purchased at the Museum Neuhaus in Biel, Switzerland, Walser’s birthplace. The legend says “Micrograme No. 147 (Autumn 1925); crayon, 20.5 x 13.2 cm (format original). Robert Walser-Archiv, Zurich. Copyright Carl Seelig-Siftung, Zurich. Museum Neuhaus, Biel. As I recall, the text consists of a review Walser wrote of the book that accompanied this publisher’s announcement.

These two images together remind me of a phrase that popped into my head the other day that is currently working its way through a Snarkbook and toward a drawing or painting: parallel marginalia.

Sam also turned me on to Words Without Borders, where he recently lead a “Walser month”, with a number of roundtable discussions. One in particular especially interests me, Walser and the Visual Arts, which currently only has Sam’s initial “brief list of works of art, music and film inspired by, or associated with, Walser”, but that alone ought to keep me far too busy being Walserbusy.

Ok, finally, a snippet of Walser, from one of my favorite stories, Kleist in Thun (a title also working its way through my “system”), where Walser imagines himself as the Prussian writer Heinrich von Kleist, during the spring and summer of 1802, in a villa on a small island in the Aar River near the town of Thun, Swizerland. Here is Walser delivering the weather report, the “emotional weather report” as Tom Waits later sang:

On rainy days it is terribly cold and void. The place shivers at him. The green shrubs whine and whimper and shed rain tears for some sun. Over the heads of the mountains drift monstrous dirty clouds like great impudent murderous hands over foreheads. The countryside seems to want to creep away and hide from this evil weather, to shrivel up. The lake is leaden and bleak, the language of the waves unkind. The storm wind, wailing like a weird admonition, can find no issue, crashes from one scarp to the next. It is dark here, and small, small. Everything is pressed right up against one’s nose. One would like to seize a sledgehammer and beat a way out of it all. Get away there, get away!

I love that about Walser, how everything in his prose is alive, sentient and full of its own desire, fellow-citizens with the protagonists and the other characters who people his places.

No pen, no ink, no nothin’…

“No pen, no ink, no table, no room, no time, no quiet, no inclination.”

– James Joyce (1882–1941) from a Dec. 7, 1906, letter to his brother, written from Rome in a state of disillusion. Letters of James Joyce, vol. 2 (1966).

Daniil Kharms – subversive nonsense

daniil-kharms-1932.jpgThe fiction featured in the August 6, 2007 issue of the New Yorker, So It Is in Life, is by Daniil Kharms, a Russian author with a short, hard life extinguished under Stalin in 1942. His work, just now published in English for the first time, has drawn critical comparisons to Beckett, Camus, and Ionesco. Wrote Kharms in 1937: “I am interested only in nonsense, only in that which has no practical meaning.”

Here is the editor’s introduction to the short short stories published in the New Yorker:

Born in St. Petersburg in 1905, Daniil Kharms was one of the founders, in 1928, of OBERIU, or Association of Real Art, an avant-garde group of writers and artists who embraced the ideas of the Futurists and believed that art should operate outside the rules of logic. In his lifetime, Kharms produced several works for children, but his writing for adults was not published. In 1931, Kharms was charged with anti-Soviet activities and briefly exiled from Leningrad. In 1941, he was arrested by the N.K.V.D. for making “defeatist statements”; sentenced to incarceration in the psychiatric ward of a prison hospital, he died of starvation the following year, during the siege of Leningrad. It wasn’t until the late nineteen-seventies that Kharms’s playful and poetic work began to appear in mainstream publications in Russia. Several books followed, as did festivals in Kharms’s honor and critical comparisons to Beckett, Camus, and Ionesco. The following texts have never been published in English.

Each of the pieces in the New Yorker is only at most a handful of paragraphs long. Here is one of my favorite passages, written in 1932-33, which eloquently describes and issue I deal with all the time in my own work — remembering ideas long enough to get them down on paper:

I suddenly had the impression that I had forgotten something, some incident or important word.

I painstakingly tried to remember this word, and it seemed to me that it began with the letter “M.” No, no! Not with an “M” at all but with an “R.”

Reason? Rapture? Rectangle? Rib? Or: Mind? Misery? Matter?

I was making coffee and singing to myself all the words that started with “R.” Oh, what a tremendous number of words I made up beginning with the letter “R”! Perhaps among them was that one word, but I didn’t recognize it, taking it to be the same as all the others.

Then again, perhaps that word didn’t come up.

Notes the Wikipedia entry on Kharms (italics are mine):

In 1928, Daniil Kharms founded the avant-garde collective OBERIU, or Union of Real Art. He embraced the new movements of Russian Futurism laid out by his idols, Khlebnikov, Kazimir Malevich, and Igor Terentiev, among others. Their ideas served as a springboard. His aesthetic centered around a belief in the autonomy of art from real world rules and logic, and the intrinsic meaning to be found in objects and words outside of their practical function.

By the late 1920s, his antirational verse, nonlinear theatrical performances, and public displays of decadent and illogical behavior earned Kharms—who always dressed like an English dandy with a calabash pipe—the reputation of being a talented but highly eccentric “fool” or “crazy-man” in Leningrad cultural circles.

Notes the Wikipedia entry on the OBERIU group:

The great Russian artist Kazimir Malevich gave the OBERIU shelter in his newly created arts institute for a while, letting them rehearse in one of the auditoriums. It is reported that he said to the young “Oberiuty” (as they are called in Russian): “You are young trouble makers, and I am an old one. Let’s see what we can do.” Malevich also gifted a book of his own (“God Is Not Cast Down”) to one of the founders of OBERIU (Daniil Kharms), with the relevant inscription “Go and stop progress!”.

Go and stop progress! Beautiful.

Macedonian poet Bogomil Gjuzel

Macedonian poet Bogomil Gjuzel: Selected poetry (1962-2002).

Professional Poet

The last word, the last hasty swallow

you get up from the table, after your working day
and catch the first bus to the kitchen
you tear off a hunk of bread, inhale the good oven odors
Your body, leaden with weariness, the mold
you cram with rich food
Switch on the set
and inspect the backyard
through another screen
with a wet linger
you flip the pages of the sky.

Nothing will come of nothing.
Clematis tendrils
your daughter brings you a chair
The table is set, your wife calls
through the window of a parallel world.

After dinner, you walk in the garden
alone in your pressurized space-suit,
stars all around you
even beneath you. Your antennae must be redirected.
the pear tree, newly pruned, requires manure.

Back to the module:
Daddy, what does it mean
to be a monster?

Suddenly, the chain of command dissolves
bits of paper whirling in free fall
untouched paper
and your pencil, ominous as a revolver.

Sound and silence in Finnegans Wake

Here is an interesting analysis of sound and silence in Finnegans Wake, featuring my favorite little static interruptor, “zinzin.”

Randomizing The Brothers Karamazov

From Jon Carroll’s column in yesterday’s San Francisco Chronicle, wherein Jon describes a recent road trip he took with his wife and what they listened to:

Listening: We took our iPod along for the ride. We loaded it with 700 of our favorite songs, we selected the “random” option, and we let fate choose our music, Diana Krall followed by Mavis Staples followed by Waylon Jennings. We also downloaded some non-music: Adam Gopnik at the Commonwealth Club, David Sedaris at Carnegie Hall and, because we knew we’d never read it any other way, “The Brothers Karamazov.”

“The B.K.” is a very long book — Dostoevsky never uses one adverb when three will do — and is interspersed with long speeches about the existence of God and the meaning of consciousness. My mind tended to wander in the soft hum of the highway, so sometimes I was confused as to who was speaking to whom. The book is about the activities of about 10 people in the same Russian town, so there aren’t a lot of signposts for the inattentive listener. Still, I was liking it.

“Isn’t it interesting,” I said to Tracy, “how experimental this seems for a 19th century novel? Notice how everyone talks about Dimitri, but we never actually see him.”

It was not until Pennsylvania that we realized that we had neglected to turn off the “random” feature of the iPod, so we were getting chapters in arbitrary order, the plot entirely in the mischievous hands of fate.

We loved the part at the beginning, where everybody died.

Bloomsday x100 June 16, 1904 – June 16, 2004

Happy 100th Bloomsday! The 100th anniversary of Leopold Bloom’s wandering Dublin day chronicled in James Joyce’s Ulysses – June 16, 1904.

If you’re in the neighborhood, you might want to check out ReJoyce Dublin 2004, though if you’re fortunate enough to be in Dublin, you probably can’t escape the old man today.

Here is a passage from Ulysses, picked at random (p. 685):

Did he attribute this homonymity to information or coincidence or intuition?

Did he depict the scene verbally for his guest to see?
He preferred himself to see another’s face and listen to another’s words by which potential narration was realised and kinetic temperament relieved. . . .

Which domestic problem as much as, if not more than, any other frequently engaged his mind?
What to do with our wives.

Bloom – A New Film Adaptation of Ulysses

In one week it will be Bloomsday, and this year’s Bloomsday will mark the centennial of the original day in which the action of James Joyce’s Ulysses takes place, which itself commemorated the day of his first date with his future wife Nora Barnacle. It will be celebrated in part by the release of a new film adaptation of the day in the life of Leopold Bloom and Stephen Dedelus, called Bloom, starring Stephen Rea playing Bloom, Angelina Ball as Molly and Hugh O’Conor as Dedalus.