Being: Winter Semester

It rains all the time in the Rhine Valley. Dripping, foggy, penetrating damp, Tag ein Tag aus–you would take the coldest of Vermont winters over this.

At the same time, though, it makes the sun all the more beautiful. You wake up to bright clear skies one morning and skip out on an entire day of studying to walk in the city, and to find out how the stained glass windows in the churches look with sun behind them.

They look glorious, by the way.

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St. Stephanskirche, Mainz

It’s strange, this being in a foreign country. Most of the time it all feels normal, more or less like living at home, but then some little thing happens and the strangeness of it all is brought back to you. Sometimes you go outside in the morning and are shocked that people aren’t speaking your native language. It takes several seconds to remember where you are. You keep forgetting the small things–that lines in the supermarket move 10x faster than they do in America, that no one wants to help you in the clothing store, that you won’t be able to do any banking on Friday afternoons because the German motto is work smarter, not longer.

It’s the different conception of academia that shocks you the most, though. Your university–37,000 students, some 150 institutes–is worlds away from the tiny college you graduated from last spring. Part of it’s good–students in Germany have much more freedom, are treated like adults with the ability to plan their own time and think for themselves. But it’s the apathy that gets you.

For instance: your Herr Dr. Professor–widely published, with his own wikipedia page, applauded by the students at the end of every lecture–is teaching Hamlet. He never smiles in class, seems rather bored by the whole affair. You want to go and shake him at the end of the day and say, “This is a privilege, this! Don’t you see–you are so privileged, so lucky, so blessed to be able to teach this text, to be able to teach at all! The existence of Hamlet is a miracle. The fact that you have a job where you get to read Hamlet every day is also a miracle.”

It’s good, though, too, because you now see what you want to spend the rest of your life fighting against: apathy, boredom, this brand of tired post-modernism that sees the entire world as a deconstruction of a deconstruction of a deconstruction. You want to teach with personality, dammit, in a place where you can sit across the desk from your students and talk about beauty and art like they really matter.

Here in Germany, you have the feeling that the professors think you smile too much in class. But how can one not smile–Hamlet is Hamlet. And apathy aside, it’s good to be here. The cathedrals are still glorious.

Poetry: Angelus Silesius

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*

Der unerkannte Gott

Was Gott ist, weiß man nicht. Er ist nicht Licht, nicht Geist,

Nicht Wahrheit, Einheit, Eins, nicht was man Gottheit heißt.

Nicht Weisheit, nicht Verstand, nicht Liebe, Wille, Güte,

Kein Ding, kein Unding auch, kein Wesen, kein Gemüte.

Er ist, was ich und du und keine Kreatur,

Eh wir geworden sind, was er ist, nie erfuhr.

*

The Unknown God

No one knows what God is. He is not Light, not Spirit,

Not Truth, Unity, One, not anything one calls Divinity.

Not Wisdom, not Intellect, not Love, Will, Goodness,

No Entity, no Nonentity either, no Being, no Spirit.

He is what neither I nor you nor any other creature,

until we have become what he is, can know.

*

________________

The 17th century German mystic Angelus Silesius on God, in preparation for upcoming posts on Franz Kafka. Is this not Das Schloss in six lines? I think so, anyway.

Photography from my sister, as ever. Translation my own.

Being: Fulbright II

SAMSUNG DIGITAL CAMERAHere is the second part of my ETA Fulbright application–the Statement of Purpose. It’s a bit more business-like than the first, but perhaps of interest to other applicants. This whole process has put all other writing projects on hold…I should be back to normal posting next week. The picture is from one lovely day in Munich last summer.

My love of Germany began with opera and old books–Wagner and Thomas Mann, specifically, revelled in over the course of three long highschool summers. It was heady stuff, and by the time I graduated I had erected a sort of German Mythos, all leitmotiv and Rhine rivers and half-mad artists. It was toweringly beautiful, I found, but essentially unreal, disconnected from the questions and concerns of the 21st century.

Now, nearly four years later, I feel like the Mythos has transferred into reality. I have learned German, spent time abroad, sought above all to ground my love of old art in contemporary existence. Last spring, I sat at a conference on modern Germany and realized what draws me to the country as it is today: it was the willingness of the panelists to engage with difficult issues head-on, the transparency,* the urgency behind the questions they were posing. This wasn’t distant academia–here were real people and concerns, sometimes uncomfortably close. Land, race, language, memory. What do those things mean today, and how do they shape who we are? We ask ourselves the same sort of questions in America, of course. In Germany, however, the discussion seems often to be more more critical, the answers brought into sharper focus because of Germany’s historical heritage and current position in Europe.

In the end, then, this is why I am applying for an ETA in Germany–not only for the beauty of their art, but because the important questions there are so pressing. The country today seems to serve as sort of catalyst for the hard questions, for investigations which can then be turned around to reflect on issues in America and elsewhere.

As a student of languages interested in pursuing education as a career, I am thrilled for the opportunities of growth and service the ETA provides. I bring almost ten years of teaching experience to the program, and a fascination with the methods of pedagogy that goes back to childhood. As a homeschooled student, I was encouraged to translate the academic into the personal, to observe what worked and what didn’t at the most concrete level. This early experience made clear to me the power of individualized, hands-on learning. Today, my job in the Writing Center is teaching me the value of real Socratic dialogue and conversation, my position as a German tutor the skill of simplicity and conciseness. As the co-director of the Latin program at a local school, finally, I have learned the importance of organization: education, however inspired, can hardly be effective without the framework of well-defined goals and curricula.

Today, I seek to bring these qualities–personalization, dialogue, simplicity, organization–to whatever teaching situation I find myself in. In a program like the ETA, however, I would add one more element: an ongoing, inclusive discussion of US culture and politics. As a participant in my college’s required courses on America’s historical, intellectual, and political heritage, I have had excellent models for this sort of exchange. While in Germany, I would be honored to serve as a representative of both the US and the Fulbright by helping students draw connections between their experiences and my own.

Outside of the classroom, I hope to continue to pursue the vital questions connected with the study of German thought. I am and always will be fascinated by 19th- and early 20th-century music, literature, and philosophy. In the end, however, there is always something discomfiting about my study of old art–a feeling that, by taking it all so seriously, I am disconnecting myself from the issues of today. With these concerns in mind, while in Germany I would like to examine the heritage of creators like Wagner and Mann in the context of the 21st century. How do these figures continue to be a part of the cultural and political dialogues of today? Most importantly, how are current German thinkers building on their legacy, and how are they moving beyond? In answering these questions I will seek real involvement wherever I am placed in Germany, especially in contemporary artistic, cultural, and academic circles.

Bieto ParsifalCalixto Bieito’s 2010 production of Parsifal, for instance. This is Richard Wagner in the 21st century–hard-hitting, painful, real. Perhaps ludicrous. Wo ist Gott?

Such a project will not only offer me a platform for social engagement while an ETA, but also lay the groundwork for further studies in the country. I intend to pursue a Masters in Comparative Literature in Germany, before returning to America for a PhD in Germanistik. With the experience gained as a Fulbrighter, I will be better equipped to one day teach languages and literature at an American university, and able to bring a more holistic perspective to the study of German art, literature, and thought–both the old and the new.

~~~~~~~

*This theme of transparency in contemporary Germany is fascinating to me, and seems to play out at all sorts of different levels, art and academia aside. Scroll down this post from last summer, for instance, to pictures of the Reichstag and other government buildings in Berlin, architectural mirrors of the same clarity and openness.

Being: Writing Center

still-life-writing-tableStill Life Writing Table, William Michael Harnett

This was supposed to be finished and posted a month ago, while I was still at college, which is of course where this is set. Finals Week and Goethe Institut exams put an end to that. Here ’tis.

~~~~~~

You work at the Writing Center, and you love it.

The place is a little sanctuary in the ancient basement of the Old Union, full of MLA handbooks and half-drunk mugs of coffee and tea. The entire side wall is a blackboard, scrawled with thesis diagrams, pictures of phoenixes, and the usual quotes from Eliot and Shakespeare. Words, words, words. And the Fire and the Rose are one. During Finals’ Week some witty Latinist replaced the diagrams with a line from Virgil’s Aenead: Forsan et haec olim meminisse juvabit. And perhaps someday you will rejoice to remember even this.

You and the other tutors play at being half-psychologist-half-Socrates. You are only allowed to ask questions, absolutely no being “directive,” as the crazy bearded English professor who runs the place informs you. If the students cry on your watch, well then, that is their own fault and not yours. They should have started their papers earlier. He has no pity for criers, nor did he when he himself was an undergrad Writer Center tutor. Things were tough, back in the day.

When it comes to the tutoring sessions, you are quite run-of-the-mill. Tell me what you think about Odysseus, give me a thesis, what do you know about commas, have you considered that your textual evidence is worse than non-existent? Contrary to the English Professor’s creed, you can’t help but feel sorry for the sniffling freshmen on their third all-nighter, twelve hours to go before class and only a half-cocked thesis to go on. You give them tissues, and remind them that they are here to engage in the lofty pursuit of the True, the Good, and the Beautiful, not to lose their sanity over a looming C- on a Smith paper. Such a line of argument is rarely successful.

Some of your fellow tutors are more, well, novel in their methods. Daniel manages to terrify every student who signs up for him, even the Honors’ kids, by conducting his sessions perched on the back of a chair while bouncing a tennis ball maniacally off the edge of the table–already balding at the age of 23, bow-tie disheveled, always smelling a little of pipe smoke and whiskey. Somehow he is able to turn each 20-minute session into a monologue on Eucharistic imagery in Hamlet, whether the paper at hand is on Homer or Dante or twentieth-century aestheticism. You and the other tutors are awed and a bit frightened by his ability to do this.

When there are no students, however, you talk. Professors, grad school, Shakespeare Shakespeare Shakespeare. And Eucharistic imagery in Hamlet, of course. Lots of that. You know to stay away from the topic of women in academia, because you don’t want to hear again that your only options are getting married and raising a family. There is always someone being converted to Catholicism outside in the hall. There are always debates on the validity of Cormac McCarthy. One night before Finals’ Week, you all read the Ghost scene aloud. The time is out of joint….oh, that ever I was born to set it right. What was he talking about?

~~~~~~

For the past month, the senior Honors students have been writing their theses. They have taken up the four “cells” at the end of the center, the normally tidy blue rooms with just space to set a laptop. Now they are full of old pizza boxes, pipe tobacco, icons, prayer books, crucifixes, stacks and stacks of books–Elizabethan England, Aesthetics, Bonhoeffer, T.S. Eliot, The Sublime. Someone took the whiteboard markers and drew a hundred pictures of fat cats all over the glass windows. It was probably Karl, who is rather obsessed with cats. The college-aged mind’s innate surrealism never ceases to amaze you.

Travis has the most orderly cell. He, double major in Classics and History, buzzed up on gallons of bad free coffee from the Career Center, is having a FANTASTIC thesis writing experience. He informs everyone of this fact at least six times each evening. He is writing on Bonhoeffer. Bonhoeffer is AMAZING, EVERYONE should LOVE him, he CAN’T BELIEVE how brilliant he is, isn’t it WONDERFUL to be able to write such a thing as a thesis?? He finishes his final draft a week early. This is hard for the rest of the thesis-writers to stomach.

Daniel takes it particularly hard. Fifty pages behind, in disagreement with his adviser, he has started sitting under his desk because the lowness of the position matches the increasingly-penitential nature of the whole undertaking. He is desperately regretting giving up both cigarettes and beer for Lent. His various mutterings are becoming ever more incoherent.

“Chaos…chaos…why is my brain full of chaos? Why is every paper I write on Hamlet? Chaos, I tell you……”

Rachel, the kindest of the tutors who bakes cookies for the weeping freshmen, is concerned. “Do you want consolation or an answer? Or tea? How about some tea?” But there aren’t any clean mugs left.

He caves the night before his defense and smokes a cigarette, Lent be damned. This prompts an existential crisis the following morning, and a hasty trip to confession. But his defense is brilliant, and you tell him you think he is going to be fine. You are all going to be fine, actually, you say, when you meet in the Center one last time after everything is over, to clean the blackboard and wash a semesters’ worth of stale coffee out of the mugs. You will rejoice at even this. You know because you are already rejoicing.

Literature: B.H. Fairchild

durer-self_portrait-1500Albrecht Dürer, Self Portrait, 1500

The second poem I heard read here at school was B.H. Fairchild’s Rave On. Someone declaimed it, almost shouting, in a house full of pictures of saints and students who thought that this poet was the closest thing to a hero we had. Rave On was everything we wanted to be, and Beauty too, perhaps more than the first.

There is a  B.H. Fairchild night here every semester, somewhere between Eliot and Shakespeare in the line-up of authors. His poems are hard-hitting, occasionally obscene, constructing a bridge between high art and the brutally quotidian. Machine-shop innuendos and carwrecks and dying midwest towns in the same universe as Dürer and Virgil and Bach. They always draw a crowd–students  leaning on the window-ledges and couch backs, thumbed paperback copies of The Art of the Lathe and Usher on the floor. And this semester, B.H. Fairchild was visiting the campus in April. B.H. Fairchild, the man, in person! We were elated.

He was as paradoxical as his poems, narcissistic in the way of very intelligent people who know they have led extraordinary lives. He gave a lecture and a reading in cowboy boots and a suit jacket, worker’s hands and lined face. His father was a machinist who didn’t read. He was enthralled by words and a professor of English at a prestigious university. He spoke about wanting to save his students and not being able to, about how poetic language was akin to the coming into Being-in-the-world, the thing itself, the going-on. All that he wished for his poetry, he said, was that it be a small thing done well.

At the off-campus house where he had been idolized for years, he rambled about all the shitty things he and the guys did in highschool, how the rest of them started a band and went to California and made it big (hot chicks and convertables) while he slogged away at his PhD in English. He doesn’t reccommend doing that, by the way–the college part, that is, not the California debauch. Not right away. Not if you are 18 and male and live through poems like Rave On.

He signed the wall of the off-campus house before he left, like the other visiting poets before him but twice as large. We were exuberant.

~~~~~

At the luncheon I told him that I had been to Nürnberg and had seen Dürer’s self portrait and had such a love of it and of his poem about the work, Blood Rain. Dürer as Christ, the artist as divinity–what a crazy, bold statement, a century before Hamlet and opera and the burgeoning of the human self as a worthy subject of art. He said that he thought Dürer must have been the smug, self-satisfied type, to paint something like that. I didn’t agree, and didn’t think his poem did, either.

 

Blood Rain

Like rust on iron, red algae invading rain.

And again, the plague. Nuremberg in ruin.

At home alone, the artist prays for grace

while, gates flung open, the neighbor’s geese

roam the yard in droves, and their wild honks

and the ravings of a servant girl bring Dürer

to the window. She stands there, her wet hair

clumped in black strands, and her arms fall limp

in a great sob, her head lolling, while the damp

shift she wears blotters the rain in red streaks–

like a wound slowly spreading, Dürer sees, to make

a sign: in the bleeding fabric of her dress

as if etched in copper hangs Christ upon His Cross

between two ghosts. Cruel miracles, God’s grace

drawn in God’s blood on the body of a girl who sighs

at him, swoons, and collapses in the mud.

~~~~~

Outside, gutters turning scarlet, the dead

hauled from house to wagon, cries of women

battering the window panes. Inside, the burin

drops from Dürer’s hand as the girl wakes

and rises from the bench below his portrait,

done in Munich the year of the apocalypse, but

never to be sold, never to leave the artist’s house.

She touches once more God’s message on her dress,

then turns and stares at the painting’s face

so solemn, so god-like in its limpid gaze,

that she backs away to study the long brown locks

spread evenly about His shoulders, the beatific

right hand held more gently than the blessing

of a priest, and the inscription in a tongue

she does not understand. This is Christ!

No, it’s me, he says, touching hand to chest,

~~~~~

the rough right hand, the human chest, the heart’s dream

of art’s divinity as death rolls down the street.

 

B. H. Fairchild, Early Occult Memory Systems of the Lower Midwest, 2003

 

Robert Musil: The Failure of Words

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Robert Musil is taking over the world. Or the semester, anyway. There is such a peculiar thrill in the first engagement with a great artist, the headiness of a burgeoning love-affair with a thinker you know will follow you for the rest of your life. I will be studying Musil until school lets out, reading almost all of the shorter prose and hopefully a good chunk of Der Mann ohne Eigenschaften (The Man without Qualities). It is the perfect follow-up to Thomas Mann last semester.

Who is Musil? Another one of those towering creators of Mann’s generation, exhaustive and exhausting, fighting for a heroism of weakness and making art in a country on the edge of decay. He spent his life in Austria and Germany and died in Switzerland in 1942, ever eluded by the fame and security that Mann won so easily. He was Mann’s opposite in more than just physical circumstances–his is a world of the subjective and impressionistic, blurred outlines and shifting boundaries to Mann’s lazer-sharp precision. Though no traditionalism, Musil’s religiosity is real and aching, to Mann’s ironically God-less, classical universe. There is a fragility about Musil that is lacking in Mann, an ambiguity that makes him peculiarly unsuited for normal literary criticism. And extraordinarily, mind-blowingly difficult to read.

~~~~~

We began with Törless (English: The Confusions of Young Törless), Musil’s first work and the only one he was ever really well-known for during his life. What was it about? There are a hundred themes I could write on—sadomasochism and Eastern religion, Bildung and the duality of the soul. Those are all on the surface, there for the taking.

What, then? For me, the most pressing question Törless raised was something less direct, inherent in the very structure and method of Musil’s writing–what can language do, and what happens when it fails? Törless was, in a sense, a book about the process of writing itself, about the power or powerlessness of the author, about the attempt to bring anything to words. What sort of an ability did language have, in the end? Are words in essence strong or weak? How much of human experience can they really contain?

And again, most hauntingly, what when words simply fail? When that which the artist seeks to portray is unreachable with language? When the part of human life he wants to get at lies completely beyond the realm of words?

All of those questions were there already behind the motto that opened Törless, a quote from Maeterlinck—when we speak something out, we devalue it curiously. Something vital is lost in the process of verbal transmission. When we dive into the depths (of the sea, the self), the drops of water we bring to the surface on our fingertips are pale and lacking. Later, Törless himself expressed the problem most clearly, and made the connection to language:

He remembered that he had once stood with his father before some landscape or other, and suddenly cried, oh it is beautiful–and was embarrassed, when that pleased his father. Because he could have just as easily have said, it is horribly sad. It was a failure of words that tortured him, a half-conscious knowledge that the words were only chance elusions of that which was felt.

Aside: the sometimes-inseparability of beauty and horrible sadness–don’t we all know this? The first and penultimate time I heard Wagner’s Parsifal I was depressed for days. Continue:

And now he had the desire to search unrestingly for a bridge, a correlation, a simile and a compromise—between himself and that which stood wordless before his soul.

It seems to me that Musil’s work is the perpetual search to span that gap, to find the bridge. To plunge into the depths (of the sea, the self), and make words express what lies there. Musil’s medium is that of language, but his subject matter something else entirely–that which is felt and not reasoned, psychological, intimated, having to do with a thousand unspoken nuances of soul and mind. His artistic territory is that of the wordless.

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If Törless sets up the problem, the question of wording the wordless, then the two short stories of Vereinigungen (Unions) are Musil’s attempt to find a solution. There the tension, here a potential resolution–just what would a bridge between language and the unspeakable look like, at the practical level of literary creation? How to work around, even transcend, this failure of words in the composition of an actual text?  How to make the wordless into prose? What details of style and syntax to draw on?

Because it was even more clear that the realm of Vereinigungen lay outside of language. The physical happenings of each story could be recounted in a sentence–the actual plot took place within the soul itself, in some half-conscious realm of memory and association that the characters themselves were barely aware of. Feelings happened, not events.  The subtlest of psychological shifts was epoch-making–and out of all this the narrator crafted the language and syntax to tell a story. How did he do it?

First there were the similes. Both stories were saturated with them, these comparisons of a few words or several sentences introduced by like or as when, sometimes a dozen or more to a page.  Often they were beautiful, sometimes funny, nearly always puzzling.

In all that happened, she had a feeling like a guest who enters a strange house only once and gives himself over, thoughtlessly and a little bored, to everything that confronted him there.

The crowd shoved her slowly here and there like a great, heavy swell of dishwater.

And she began to long for the abused and exploited lives of strange men, as after the pale, weak vigil during a sickness when the sounds wander from one room to the next and listen nowhere and, freed from the soul’s own weight, somewhere carry on a hovering life.

Her thoughts wandered slowly in the snow outside, without looking back, ever farther and farther, as when someone is too tired to turn around and walks and walks.

It is out of this dense net of images that Musil builds his text. His characters and narrator are unable say how it all is in and of itself, because the it lies outside of language–so they must say it is like something else, something we can read off a page. We can relate to Musil’s similes–they give us something to go on, something we can internalize, verbalize, discuss. A bridge over the wordless.

And then the sentence structure, Musil’s choice of vocabulary–the prose style is dominated by subjunctive case verbs, by the word maybe (vielleicht) and the word feeling (Gefühl). What she says was only maybe so, or not, because it had to do with feeling. He could perhaps see the world that way. The words are themselves pointedly ambiguous, Musil’s imprecision allowing language to come closer to containing what was behind it.

~~~~~

But how much of Törless’ failure of words does Musil overcome, in the end? In the second story, the struggle to bring to words is even more pressing. The conversations between Veronika and Johannes are more full of silence than of language. When Veronika does speak, her words are again pale, misunderstood, poor representations of the area of the self she seeks to bring to the surface and express.

Veronika gasped after words….and silence arose again.

“I’m going out now, indeed, and perhaps I will die.” But he knew there too, that wasn’t what he meant.

And Johannes didn’t know how to say it–there were too many possibilities in his head.

They hardly spoke to another any more.

Wordless, unspeakable, inexpressible, hesitating, silence–this is Musil’s vocabulary. In the end, one has the feeling that the words he gives his characters are still only poor stand-ins for what is really behind them, masks in front of the true face of being. In German the expression “to put into words” translates to “in Worte kleiden”—to clothe in words. As if words are only something put on, some outer garment that is not and cannot be a true part of the body and soul.

~~~~~

What is the effect of all this? This wording of the wordless, this headstrong determination clothe with language things usually left outside of it? Where does it leave the reader? who can, after all, only read words?

Es ist komisch….komisch, Emily, oder? says the enigmatic German Professor. He thinks Musil is too intimate, too close for comfort. The books are somehow deeply unnerving, Musil’s constant trying to make language fit disturbing, almost irritating. But shouldn’t great art be irritating sometimes? Yes, of course it should.

And then I say, going rather far out on a limb–is Robert Musil fundamentally unsuited to the literary medium? Is his project out of place in a language-based form of expression? His artistic territory—feeling, intimation, soul—is usually left unspoken—or left to music. Would he not have made a better composer? Listen to the final movement of Gustav Mahler’s 9th Symphony, or the fourth movement of his 5th. There, perfectly, effortlessly, is everything Musil wanted to get at, with those silences in Vereinigungen, with the interchangeable beauty and sadness in Törless. The most intimate of psychological states made vivid,  without the restriction of words or language–wasn’t that the realm of music, not literature?

It’s a funny and disturbing thought, that a great author is unsuited to his artform. But so it goes. There are no conclusions–this is only the very beginning of the dialogue. Give me a decade to think about it. What is the power of words? In the end, I’m not sure that even Musil had an answer.


As an aside, I am fascinated by the similarities between Musil and Mahler. They were both Austrian, in Vienna at almost the same time. They both were intimately familiar with the drive towards the immense, the desire to encompass everything in a work of art. Mahler said, “The symphony must be like the world; it must contain everything within it.” Whence this desire for the exhaustive, the all-encompassing? What was it about the Austrian fin de siècle artistic consciousness?

Translations are my own, from the beautiful Rowolt 1968 edition in the first picture above (only $6! and shipping from America!).

Listen to Mahler.

That is all.

Kunst: Rainer Maria Rilke’s Sankt Sebastian

Guido Reni Sebastian 2

Wie ein Liegender so steht er; ganz

hingehalten von dem großen Willen.

Weitentrückt wie Mütter, wenn sie stillen,

und in sich gebunden wie ein Kranz.

*

Und die Pfeile kommen: jetzt und jetzt

und als sprängen sie aus seinen Lenden,

eisern bebend mit den freien Enden.

Doch er lächelt dunkel, unverletzt.

*

Einmal nur wird eine Trauer groß,

und die Augen liegen schmerzlich bloß,

bis sie etwas leugnen, wie Geringes,

und als ließen sie verächtlich los

die Vernichter eines schönen Dinges.

 

Saint Sebastian

So he stands like someone lying down; fully

held back by his great will.

Distanced, reveried, as mothers when they nurse,

and bound into himself like a ring.

*

And the arrows come: now and now

as if they sprang from his own loins,

iron-quaking with their free ends.

Still he smiles darkly, not yet wounded.

*

Only once is his sorrow great,

his eyes laid bare in pain

until they deny something slight and mean,

as if they scornfully set free

the annihilators of a beautiful thing.

 Rilke_Signature

_______________________

A lovely and disturbing poem. [Poor] translation my own. Painting from Guido Reni. More to come later on St. Sebastian and Death in Venice.

Being: Language, Virginia Woolf, Sugaring Season

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The thing about studying this beautiful foreign language is that it leaves me starving for English. After oral exams and sight translations I want to collapse into familiarity, into the comfort of Shakespeare or Nabokov or Gerard Manley Hopkins.  For all the intoxication of foreign languages, there is always for me an underlying level of disquiet, a persistent feeling of having the rug pulled out from under one’s feet. There such a luxury in one’s own speech, really, in the ability to fly through paragraphs unencumbered by dictionary and pocket grammar. The resonance behind the words, cadence and illusion–all there for the taking. English majors are spoiled, I think.

The desire to flee into English was strongest last August when I returned from Germany. I was weary of my own ineptness in the language, of stumbling through small-talk with bus drivers and trying to read between the lines in Kleist, who never meant what he wrote anyway. Petulantly, I wanted beauty and familiarity, wanted to be able to read a hundred pages in one afternoon. So I fell into Nabokov on the iron daybed on our porch, reading, reading, reading, too hot, with my eyes half-shut and the neighbor making hay across the road. Nabokov’s prose was sick and beautiful, and above all searingly good English.

This Christmas break the desire for familiarity was the same, after a semester where the only prose in my language I studied was secondary articles on Cicero. Boring, oder? So I looked forward to a few weeks of literary English, Plato word lists be damned. This time, there was Virginia Woolf–The Waves, on the recommendation of a friend who copied out a quote for me that was too arresting to ignore.

~~~~~~

I finished The Waves in two afternoons in front of the wood stove, moving a bronze bookmark back and back to the last page. It had been three years since I had read Virginia Woolf, and I had forgotten the beauty of her English–heady stuff, prose not as red-blooded as Nabokov but equally as musical.

The first time I read Woolf–To the Lighthouse–I was 17 and a senior in high school, making notes in the margins for a presentation on art and atheism. My recollection of the book had since receded to only a sense of the prose, vague outlines of imagery like the wedge of darkness before the sea.

Memory is funny, though. The book and author are, for me, unalterably bound to another recollection, one still piercingly vivid. It was late March in Vermont–maple sugaring season–and I was reading To the Lighthouse in the tiny sugar house across from the barn. I copied out the quote about the wedge of darkness and wrote a little more.

I am sitting in the sugar house, looking out the white-washed door into the last clean light of day. Luke is on the step, spitting into the yard and melting the edges of his rubber boots on the door of the arch. This is a terrible season for sugaring, and all the neighbors gather to commiserate. Too warm–too early–the sap is not sweet. The Beedes made 9 gallons out of 400 taps, and Jim Curtin burned his new front pan. The Cute Farmer Down the Hill once again drank more beer than he made syrup.

There is something about the light in March in Vermont, like it is filtered through air that is is thinner or sharper or something. As clear as Woolf’s prose, or clearer, perhaps the apotheosis of clarity. And the whole world is flowing, water, mud, sap, everything is liquid flowing downhill. My sister and I scratched Elvish into the arms of the plastic chairs inside the sugar house, raw-cheeked and smelling like smoke. The steam off the boiling sap curled the pages of anything we were reading. The wind was coarse but warm enough for sweaters and no hats. There were lambs in the barn.

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Now reading Woolf again, in January when nothing flows, this memory of sugaring comes back and the vagueness of To the Lighthouse is also filled out. There are the same themes, I think, running throughout Woolf’s entire opus like a symphony.

For instance there is always the sea. The descriptions of ocean and light that run through To the Lighthouse and The Waves are like worded versions of the sea interludes in Benjamin Britten’s opera, I think. Dawn, Morning, Moonlight, Storm.

 

And time. Time is romanced in Woolf, ebbing and flowing like snowmelt in March, or like music, but certainly not like history or clocks. What was she getting at? Perhaps Wagner had it right in his Parsifal. Zum Raum wird hier die Zeit–Here time becomes space. Or perhaps it was the opening lines of Eliot’s Four Quartets:

Time present and time past
Are both perhaps present in time future,
And time future contained in time past.
If all time is eternally present
All time is unredeemable.

In Woolf one is never certain. A day, a life–which has passed? And was the one as long as the other? And time lets fall its drop. The drop that has formed on the roof of the soul falls. On the roof of my mind time, forming, lets fall its drop. What does that mean?

And one more thing, that struck me as especially oxymoronic, dreadful, somehow misplaced in the clear light in March, and also now in the firelight in January. In Virginia Woolf there is such darkness at the edge of being. The roar of blackness just within consciousness was louder than any spring flood, measureless, burning. I was disturbed, and tried to get at that in the art and atheism presentation. And now, here it was again, writ large in The Waves.  Now I say there is a grinning, there is a subterfuge. There is something sneering behind our backs. That was frightening.

And so Virginia Woolf’s sea broke itself, her nights were full of wind and destruction. But the destruction, whatever else it was, was beautiful.