Category Archives: Art

Freed from the Block: Bento’s Sketchbook by John Berger

I had intended to finish the year reading a stack of German literature that I have acquired, but instead I have fallen down a John Berger rabbit hole.  Bento’s Sketchbook is one of those titles recommended by a friend with the very strong assertion that it is something I “must read.”

We know from different sources that the philosopher Baruch (Benedict or Bento) Spinoza (1632-1677) enjoyed drawing and that he always carried his sketchbooks around with him, none of which seemed to have survived.  When John Berger’s friend gives him a virgin sketchbook, he decides, “This is Bento’s!”  Berger begins to making drawings “prompted by something asking to be drawn.”  He comments about the development of his book, “As time goes by, however, the two of us—Bento and I—become less distinct.  Within the act of looking, the act of questioning with our eyes, we become somewhat interchangeable.  And this happens, I guess, because of a shared awareness about where and to what the practice of drawing can lead.”

For Berger a cluster of irises, a painting in the National Gallery, a friend’s old bicycle all become subjects for drawing and reflection.  The stories and the sketches are simple yet fascinating.  My favorite, one of the more abstract and philosophical pieces, begins:

Around her is a block.  The block is invisible because totally transparent.  Nor does the block restrict her movements.  Is the block what separates Being from Becoming? I don’t know, for this is happening where there are not words.

Normally, we face words frontally and so can read them, speak them or think them.  This was happening somewhere to the side of language.  Any frontal view of language was impossible there.  From the side I could see how language was paper thin, and all its words were foreshortened to become a single vertical stroke—I—like a single post in a vast landscape.

The task was to dismantle the block—to take it apart and lift it off piece by piece.  She allowed this to happen—No. Active and Passive have merged together.  Let us say: She happened this to herself with the utmost ease.  I was with her in what she (we) were doing.

The lovers slowly begin to dismantle the block starting from her head.  The task is tiring, he says, and he needs to take breaks.  But when he is tired he also embraces her and they gain strength from one another.  Finally the block is completely gone and:

She was there whole, looking exactly as she had at the beginning, capable of the same actions and no more, having the same name, the same habits, the same history.  Yet, freed from the block, the relations between her and everything which was not her had changed.  An absolute yet invisible change.  She was now the centre of what surrounded her.  All that was not her made space for her.

This passage of Berger’s pulled my thoughts toward Ovid’s version of the Pygmalion myth.  Although it is oftentimes viewed as a commentary about unattainable standards of beauty, I’ve always seen more in the Latin than this message.  Pygmalion, in his daily solitude, uses the utmost care and love to gently coax a form out of the white block of marble that will become his beloved: “Pygmalion is amazed at his creation and drinks up the with his heart the passionate fires of her simulated body.”  Both stories demonstrate the power that love, kindness, and, most importantly, patience can have on our relationships.

 

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Pain and Pleasure: Some thoughts on And Our Faces, My Heart, Brief as Photos by John Berger

Time and Space are the focus of Berger’s brief yet lovely writings in this impossible-to-classify book.  Part one, entitled “Once” is an attempt to capture  the enigmatic, human experience of time while part two, entitled “Here” explores the concept of space especially in relation to sight and distance.  The text feels like a series of snapshots into Berger’s mind as he uses art, photography, philosophy, poetry and personal anecdotes to grapple with time and space; Hegel, Marx, Dante, Camus, Caravaggio are just a few of the artists and thinkers that are given fleeting attention in his text.

At times Berger addresses his narrative to an unnamed “you” that is his lover.  Time and space have, perhaps, the greatest impact on love, sex, and desire: “The sexual thrust to reproduce and to fill the future is a thrust against the current of time which is flowing ceaselessly towards the past.  The genetic information which assures reproduction works against dissipation.”  And, “Love is a reconstitution in the heart of that holding which is Being.”  Berger’s thoughts to his beloved highlight a painful distance that separates them.  He is writing to her about going to a post office to send her a package or a letter, or he is reminding her of stolen moments spent together or a conversation about art while in bed.  Thoughts on vision and light are mixed with those on distance: “The visible brings the world to us.  But at the same time reminds us ceaselessly that it is a world in which we risk to be lost.  The visible with its space also takes the world away from us. Nothing is more two-faced.”

Berger’s thoughts on the close association between pain and pleasure as they relate to time and space and love were the most interesting for me in this book as it brought to mind other authors who have also delved into this complicated association.  Berger writes, “Pleasure and pain need to be considered together, they are inseparable. Yet the space filled by each is perhaps different.”  And:

It has never been easy to relieve pain.  The productive recourses have usually been lacking—food, adequate medicines, clothing, shelter.  But it has never been difficult to locate the causes of pain: hunger, illness, cold, deprivation…It has always been, in principle, simpler to relieve pain than to give pleasure or make happy.  An area of pain is more easily located.

With one enormous exception—the emotional pain of loss, the pain that has broken a heart.  Such pain fills the space of an entire life.  It may have begun with a single event but the event has produced a surplus of pain.  The sufferer becomes inconsolable.  Yet, what is this pain, if it is not the recognition that what was once given as pleasure or happiness has been irrevocably taken away?

It is no wonder that the Epicureans attempted to follow a philosophy that was constructed around the close experiences of pleasure and pain.  I’ve tried to embrace Epicureanism in particular during this past year, jettisoning things and relationships that bring more pain than pleasure.  It is not an easy philosophy to follow, to say the least, but I have seen some value in it.

Berger brings into his discussion of pain and pleasure the paintings of Caravaggio and the facial expressions he captures in his art.  Berger writes, “I have not seen a dissimilar expression on the face of animals—before mating and before a kill.”  Jean Luc Nancy, who also explores the association between pain and pleasure in his book Coming, uses Caravaggio’s Ecstasy of Mary Magdalene on the cover of his text.  Nancy argues that pain and pleasure have an intensity in common and in the moments before orgasm the tension that one experiences can be painful: “Sartre says, ‘There is no pleasure that does not know itself as pleasure.’ We could say the same thing the other way around: There is no pain that does not know itself as pain.  Pleasure is a state that seeks out its own perpetuation, while pain seeks out its own cessation, but it’s exactly the same thing in each sense.”  Pain is always present in jouissance, Nancy argues, because its extreme intensity becomes unbearable—it pushes us to our limits.

This connection between pain and pleasure is expressed by Quignard as a constant tension manifested as desire that never achieves jouissanceIn Sex and Terror, a book whose style of prose mixed with poetry and thoughts on art is similar to Berger,  writes:

Something that belonged to happiness is lost in the lovers’ embrace.  There is in the most complete love, in happiness itself, a desire that everything should suddenly tip over into death.  What overflows with violence in sexual climax is overtaken by a sadness that is not psychological.  By a frightening languor.  There are absolute tears that mingle.  In sensual delight, there is something that gives way.

And finally, Berger’s text brought to mind what I think is perhaps one of the greatest poetic renditions of the deep connection between pain and pleasure.  Ovid, in Book IV of the Metamorphoses, describes the death of Pyramus who, because of time and space, is not able to be with his lover.  Ovid’s description of Pyramus’s tragic death becomes infused with the erotic pleasure that he should have experienced with Thisbe (translation is my own):

He draws his own sword and plunges the iron into his guts,
and as he lays dying, without delay, he withdraws the sword
from the hot wound.  And as he lays prone on the earth, blood
spews high in the air, similar to when a pipe is split
because of a weak part in the lead and ejaculates a great
amount of water from its  thin, hissing stream and ruptures
the air with its blows.

The thrusting and withdrawal of the sword (ilia in Latin can mean “guts”, “intestines” as I translated it here but it is also the word for “groin”) and the ejaculating (eiaculator in the Latin) could just as easily have been words used to describe Pyramus’s consummation of his relationship with Thisbe. I will end with a fitting quote from John Berger from And Our Faces, which applies, I think, to Ovid’s description of pain and pleasure: “Poetry makes language care because it renders everything intimate. This intimacy is the result of the poem’s labor. The result of the bringing-together-into-intimacy of every act and noun and event and perspective to which the poem refers. There is often nothing more substantial to place against the cruelty and indifference of the world than this caring.”

Pierre Gautherot. Pyramus and Thisbe. 1799.

 

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Morning, Paramin by Derek Walcott and Peter Doig

This beautiful collection of poetry and art is a collaboration between the Nobel award winning poet Derek Walcott and landscape painter Peter Doig.  Fifty of Doig’s inspiring paintings are presented in full color with a corresponding poem written by Walcott on the facing page.  The poet was born and raised in St. Lucia in the West Indies and resided there up until his recent death; Doig was born in Scotland, lived in Canada and England and since 2002 has lived in Trinidad. Doig is considered one of the most successful, living figurative painters  A love for the Caribbean—its landscapes, its people, its history, is evident in this collaboration. In the “Dedication” Walcott writes to Doig about his island:

hot beaches you never put your feet on,
the wisdom you get from water-bearded rocks—
they’re yours: those scenes I knew in my green years
with a young man’s joy at Choc, at Blanchisseuse.

But the themes in their art also extend well beyond their beloved island home and include reflections on love, mourning, aging and the ordinary pleasures of everyday life. Walcott’s poems are not literal interpretations of the scenes and figures in Doig’s paintings.  Sometimes he does comment on a particular detail of a painting, but more often than not they are meditations, memories and thoughts inspired by Doig’s art.  What we are reading is Walcott’s reactions to the poems that are not, in any way, meant to be the authoritative interpretation of the paintings;  the poems can certainly gives us unexpected ways to view the paintings through the eyes of another artist, but Walcott leaves room for each viewer and reader to add his or her own interpretations.

The first part of the book includes several landscape paintings which cause Walcott to recall scenes of winter and snowfall.  Although such weather is very different from his home in St. Lucia, he finds a sudden and unexpected comfort and serenity in a snowfall. In “Ski Jacket” Walcott writes:

Ski Jacket

In stricken winter, its melancholy sticks,
the soul is blurred, direction hard to find,
the snowbound roads repeat their cheap effects
and to the snow we might as well be blind.
But sometimes from the welter there appear
things that take definition from the snow
in blinding layout, branches, trees and poles
and windows and window frames, sharp and clear
and packed with heat, a refuge for our souls.

And in “The Architect’s Home in the Ravine” the poet reflects:

The Architect’s Home in the Ravine

The snow starts piling up from the first word
and piles in chapters and is never heard;
behind the foaming drifts there is a house
with scratchy window panes, steadily assessing
its value as a house, we don’t know whose
still in its sure solidity a blessing.
Why don’t we wait until the snow is finished
the scratching storm stopped, to assess ourselves,
to see that our delight is undiminished
in this house that hid our secrets as a boy
both by the storm’s ferocity and joy?

I found it striking that Walcott oftentimes addresses Doig directly, especially when he is making observations about art. In  the poem facing “Metropolitan” (House of Pictures) Walcott speaks to his friend:

Metropolitan

What’s said here is how poverty and art
thrive, but always separately; what Peter Doig catches
is distance. It is the distance of the heart
from what it cannot own, and old, old tune
hummed by the critic with his scarf and patches.

There are too many themes, images and thoughts to fully capture the depth and beauty of this collaboration. But there is one more image worthy of note which keeps reappearing to Walcott through Doig’s poems, that of his deceased second wife who died in 2014 whom he still misses.  In “The Heart of Old San Juan” he specifically mentions her by name as every street in this city is a reminder of her presence:

In the Heart of Old San Juan

To me, the waking day is Margaret:
down every street, every street corner
the boulevards brilliant, with one regret;
every memory is now a mourner.

The poem “Paramin” is beautiful but I found the loving words about his wife and his home to be a strange contrast when compared to Doig’s untitled painting that inspired this poem.  I wonder which aspects of Doig’s piece, with the dark greens and blues in the background and the elongated, male figure in the foreground reminded him of Paramin and his wife?  Walcott writes:

Untitled

The name said by itself could make us laugh
as if some deep, deep secret was hidden there.
I see it through crossing tree trunks framed with love
and she is gone but the hill is still there
and when I join her it will be Paramin
for both of us and the children, the mountain air
and music with no hint of what the name could mean,
rocking gently by itself, “Paramin,” “Paramin.”

The last few lines are especially haunting since Walcott himself passed away so recently. For those who have never read his poetry, this beautiful book is a great starting point to experience his poetry. When I read Omeros, his epic poem based on Homer, I was completely captivated by his work and this book was a reminder for me of his intelligent, emotional, raw and striking poetry.

 

 

 

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Review: Justine by Iben Mondrup

My Review:
justine-front_frame_largeJustine is another example of the cutting-edge, fascinating, and experimental writing that Open Letter seeks out and publishes from authors around the world.  Originally written and published in 2012 in Danish, it has taken a few years for Mondrup’s work to become available in English.  It is just the type of creative, sensual, interesting book that was screaming out for Open Letter to translate and publish.

When the book opens, Justine’s house has just burned down and along with the house all of her artwork for an upcoming exhibition has gone up in flames.  Justine inherited the house and her artist sensibilities from her grandfather.  We are given some vague hints about what started the fire and whether or not Justine herself is to blame.  Most of the book is taken up with  Justine’s jumbled thoughts about her life past and present, about her experimentations with her art, about the sexist world of the Dutch art school, about her varied sexual relationships and about her disintegrating state of mind.

Sex is available to Justine no matter whom she encounters in art school; professors, graduates and students alike, male or female, will sleep with her.  I can’t help but think that the author chose the name for her title and main character, Justine, as a literary nod to de Sade who also penned a book with this title.  Justine is officially dating a woman named Vita, whom she appears to have genuine affection for: “I love her,” she writes, “I already loved her that New Year’s Eve when the light had long since departed, everyone had gone home, it was only us tough dogs left.”  Notice the interesting mix of past and present tense—the polyptoton love and loved is especially fitting— even in this one short sentence spoken by Justine.

But despite her feelings for Vita,  Justine keeps cheating on Vita with an interesting variety of men.  It turns out that Vita has also been seeing another woman behind Justine’s back and Justine becomes extremely jealous when she finds out.  Like the writing and some of the plot in the book, Justine’s sexual orientation is ambiguous.  Her sexual encounters with men and women are, like her state of mind, frenzied, intense, dark and highly erotic.  She describes a drunken escapade with a man named Bo she regularly meets for sex:

I can perch atop him and ride.  In my hand he’s an animal I’m bringing down.  I’ll ride him like he’s never been ridden, until he spurts until he dies.  I unzip his pants.  There’s softness in the warmth between the hairs.  I ride him with my hand.  I transform him to a fountain that shoots high in the air.

When her Grandfather and Ane, a good friend from art school, are described the narrative is more straightforward, more traditional.  But when she tells us about her various erotic interludes the text becomes poetic, scattered, broken.  Grandfather, who was himself a painter, discusses art, life and family history with Justine.  Grandfather himself has not had an easy existence because his wife, Justine’s grandmother, suffered from a nervous breakdown after she gave birth to Justine’s mother.  Justine’s mother is also mentally unstable and a drunk who accidentally burns herself to death.  Mondrup subtly weaves patterns of images throughout Justine’s scattered narrative: fire, burning, passion and madness.

Another significant stylist detail to note about the book is that several of the pages of the text are very short, a paragraph or even a sentence in length.  Since Justine jumps back and forth between past and present sometimes we are thrust into the midst of one of these short meditations and we aren’t sure if she is talking about past or present.  Many of her thoughts are eerily foreboding:

Is it even possible to find a cut-off?  An exact moment when it all went wrong?  A point around which all events are distributed?  Before and after?  A crime scene?  A weapon cast in a backyard?  The road to murder is a slippery slope of things that are said and done.  An eye that saw amiss.  Something that should’ve remained hidden.  Or something that  didn’t happen.  After the murder there’s the clean-up.  The cover up.  Someone must pay the penalty.  Others must receive it.

Justine finally manages to pull enough of her art work together to have a successful showing at a local gallery.  But the ending of the book can only be described as ambiguous.  Normally I would find this frustrating, but it is a fitting end for Justine whose own ambiguities abound throughout the novel.

About the Author:
mondrupIben Mondrup is a trained visual artist from The Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts who is also the author of four novels, including Justine, its sequel, and Godhavn.

Read an conversation with Mondrup from The Rumpus: http://therumpus.net/2016/12/the-rumpus-book-club-chat-with-iben-mondrup-and-kerri-pierce/

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Tempus, Aevum, Aeternitas: a review of December by Alexander Kluge and Gerhard Richter

This title was published in the original German in 2010 and this English version has been translated by Martin Chalmers and published by Seagull Books.

My Review:
decemberDecember comes from the Latin word decem, meaning ten because in the original Roman calendar December was the tenth month of the year.  When two new months were added to the beginning of the Julian calendar, thus pushing back December to become the twelfth month, no one bothered to change the name.  As the month which concludes the Julian and Gregorian calendar years it is naturally a month of reflection, of looking back, of becoming more aware of the passage of time.  Kluge and Richter use this last month of the year for the inspiration behind their collection of stories and photographs; there is one entry for each day of the month in December and together the writings and art work serve as a philosophical and poetic commentary about time, fate, choice and even love.

The entries or pieces of writing for each day in December are a mixture of short story, poetry and philosophy.  The dates for the entries vary widely, from 12,999 B.C. to 2009 A.D.  Kluge does tend to favor the events of December 1941 and 2009 as many of the entries are set during one of these two years.  My favorite entry is the one for December 18th, 1941 entitled, “A WRONG DECISION IN WARTIME.”  Kluge describes Marita, the wife of the surgeon Dalquen, who had come to Berlin from her provincial town to stay at the Grand Hotel Furstenberg on Potsdamer Platz.  She falls in love with First Lieutenant Berlepsch but refuses to make love to him on that night because she had not wanted to prematurely hasten their relationship by engaging in one evening of unbridled passion.  Kluge writes, “Only three weeks later she would regret her decision.  The young officer fell in the fighting in northern Russia.”  Marita is deeply upset because she did not take the chance to be with the First Lieutenant when she was presented with a choice.  When Marita is faced with the opportunity later in the war to have one night of passion she takes it, and although it is not with Berlepsch whom she truly loved, she does not regret it.  Kluge’s last quotation in this story is very striking:

For one night full of bliss

 I would give my all

december-1

Kluge’s story about Marita and her fallen love brings up many more questions than answers.  Do we live our lives to the fullest and take advantage of every precious moment, whether there is a war or a crisis raging around us or not?  Do we take time to embrace and appreciate those whom we love?  And if we make the wrong choice is it irrevocable? Or can we find a way to learn from our mistakes and move on?

December is the month of the winter solstice in the northern hemisphere, so the cold and the snow and the shorter days feature  prominently in Kluge’s stories and in Richter’s photographs.  Another story that stands out is the one dated the 20th of December, 1832: “UNEXPECTED CONVERSION OF A HEATHEN.”  Dr. Wernecke has just helped a woman give birth in the village and is setting out through the snow and the woods to go back home.  Kluge writes:

At first he took the path which the villagers, either out of habit or out of superstition, had created as a kind of VILLAGE EXIT INTO DEAD NATURE, because in this hard-frozen winter such a ‘track’ led into nothingness.

As the doctor gets farther along on his snowy journey he becomes increasingly tired and bewildered.  He keeps on moving so he doesn’t freeze but he is becoming tired and disoriented.  The snow and the woods around him are closing in:

The endless expanse of snow produced a certain brightness in the night.  Wernecke could neither say ‘I don’t see anything at all’ nor ‘I see something.’ For that a clue would have been needed, a difference in the monotony of the snow-covered land.

december-2The doctor estimates that he has about four or five hours to live when suddenly he sees a faint, flickering light in the distance.  He isn’t sure if this light is a figment of his bewildered mind but he chooses to follow it anyway.  The light, which is indeed the very thing that saves him, was the lamp of the cathedral verger who at that precise moment was climbing the stairs of the cathedral to ring the nightly bells.

Dull-eyed, Dr. Wernecke nevertheless resolved to trust the light that had soon disappeared.  The light had guided his obstinate heart.  So the doctor found his way to the first houses of the town.

Because the good doctor is saved by this light, he, the “heathen” pays to have an iron lamp installed in the tower next to the bells.  Once again, Kluge poses many deep, philosophical questions with this brief story.  Why do we choose to follow certain paths and not others?  When a light appears in life do we choose to let it guide us, or do we let our obstinate heart convince us to take a less fortunate and unhappy path?  Do we choose to trust and to follow the light like Dr. Wernecke did, or do we ignore it at our own peril?

Each of the 39 photographs in the collection are a variation of trees in a forest that are covered with snow.  The photos are taken up close and give one the feeling of being closed in by the forest and the snow.  Dr. Wernecke’s description of his time in the snow-covered forest, as being able to see something and yet nothing at all, is a fitting description for Richter’s art.  In one picture there is, in the distance, a tiny image of a deer and in the very last photo in the collection a small cottage appears in a clearing through the trees.  Like Dr. Wernecke, can we make our way out of this claustrophobic woods and find that faint glimmer of light?

The second part of the book entitled, “CALENDARS ARE CONSERVATIVE” contains various discussions and meditations on calendars, time, and the passage of time.  One passage in particular caught my attention because of its reference to Latin words for time.  In “Tempus, Aevum, Aeternitas’, an Islamic astrophysicist from Bangladesh and a European ambassador who is a medievalist are discussing different kinds of time by using the Latin names for them.  TEMPUS is time associated with the clock, with checking our watches, it is earthly time that we are always fighting against.  AEVUM, however, is celestial time, experienced only by the angels or other celestial beings.  In Latin it can be literally translated as “Time regarded as the medium in which events occur, indefinite continuous duration, the time series.”  It is oftentimes translated as a “span of time,” a “generation,” or an “age.”  Finally AETERNITAS is brought up by the scholars which, they argue, is the sense of time experienced only by the highest divinity.  It is translated as “infinite time,” eternity,” or “immortality.”  This tricolon crescendo of time presented by the men makes us step outside ourselves and think about time as something other than that ticking clock on the wall or that alarm that wakes us up or that watch which is constantly staring up at us from our wrists.

Seagull Books has published another extraordinary, thought-provoking, beautiful book.  This book is worth owning not only for the literature, philosophy and poetry contained within, but the beautiful prints reproduced on glossy, heavy weight paper make it a very special piece.

About the Author:
Alexander Kluge is one of the major German fiction writers of the late- twentieth century and an important social critic. As a filmmaker, he is credited with the launch of the New German Cinema movement.

About the Artist:
Gerhard Richter is one of the most respected visual artists of Germany, and his seminal works include Atlas (1964), October 18, 1977 (1988) and Eight Grey (2002).

december-3

 

 

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