November 28, 2008
November 24, 2008
— Let’s go.
But Rosenthal can only limp along behind Maréchal, slowing them down even further.— You coming or what?
Extinction looms, yet their bickering seems comic.
— We’re out of food. Might as well give up now.
In a burst of rancor and recrimination, they split up. The gimpy Rosenthal slumps on a rock, while Maréchal makes his own way across the barren heights. Eventually, however, he reappears at Rosenthal’s side.
— Why’d you come back?
Maréchal helps Rosenthal to his feet. They go on.
Exigency has stripped all fullness of character from these two; somehow they are bound to each other, but it has less to do with personal psychology or even, finally, with shared history than it does with sheer existential necessity: they have become a pseudocouple.
Of course, they were not a pseudocouple earlier in the film, nor will they be by the film’s end, but there are moments during this bleakly comic sequence when viewers might be forgiven for thinking they’re watching a cinema adaptation of Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, and moreover one that somehow managed to get filmed a dozen or so years before the play was written. The impression is so strong that when Maréchal and Rosenthal finally reach safe harbor, it doesn’t seem like they’ve escaped German soldiers or starvation so much as they have some condition of interminability that must be the deep grammar of such wasteland trials. A fissure opens up in Jean Renoir’s generous humanism through which a rather starker vision appears, one that parallels Beckett’s in situation, costume, dialogue, setting, and, in flickering moments, sensibility. Even the names Maréchal and Rosenthal have the rhyming lilt of Beckett’s first pseudocouple, Mercier and Camier, who served as a sort of dry run for Didi and Gogo.
Surely I can’t be the first person to have noticed this. I check the indexes in the Beckett biographies, but there’s no reference to the film or the director. Googling a variety of Beckett-Renoir search terms, however, nets me a couple of related hits. Yes, it’s been suggested before that this sequence in Grand Illusion may have influenced Godot.
But now that I think of it, the term “influence” doesn’t do justice to my experience. It had seemed, during that sequence anyway, that Renoir had quite simply been displaced – or had graciously given way – and the film inhabited instead by the Beckett of Godot. During Maréchal and Rosenthal’s trek, Beckett was primary, Renoir came after. To put it another way: Renoir was influenced by Beckett.
I’d heard of this strange phenomenon before, but I had to wrack my brains for a while until I could remember where. Before Harold Bloom became the windbag that inflated such volumes as The Western Canon, Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human, and How to Read and Why, he was an idiosyncratic late-Romantic Freudo-gnostic who wrote a very interesting book called The Anxiety of Influence. The book outlines six “revisionary ratios” or literary ju-jitsu techniques whereby “strong” poets have been able to defeat their precursors and transform mere “influence” into original art. One of these is apophrades, or, The Return of the Dead, of which Bloom writes:
The apophrades, the dismal or unlucky days upon which the dead return to inhabit their former houses, come to the strongest poets, but with the very strongest there is a grand and final revisionary movement that purifies even this last influx. Yeats and Stevens, the strongest poets of our century, and Browning and Dickinson, the strongest of the later nineteenth century, can give us vivid instances of this most cunning of revisionary ratios. For all of them achieve a style that captures and oddly retains priority over their precursors, so that the tyranny of time almost is overturned, and one can believe, for startled moments, that they are being imitated by their ancestors.
In this observation, I want to distinguish the phenomenon from the witty insight of Borges, that artists create their precursors, as for instance the Kafka of Borges creates the Browning of Borges. I mean something more drastic and (presumably) absurd, which is the triumph of having so stationed the precursor, in one’s own work, that particular passages in his work seem to be not presages of one’s own advent, but rather to be indebted to one’s own achievement, and even (necessarily) to be lessened by one’s greater splendor. The mighty dead return, but they return in our colors, and speaking in our voices, at least in part, at least in moments, moments that testify to our persistence, and not to their own.We’ve probably all had the experience, and not only with poetry, of reading a writer’s work and suddenly coming upon lines or a passage which really seems to have been written by a later writer, to be in fact the very sort of material which properly belongs to that later figure. And clearly this phenomenon can cross boundaries of genre and even of medium. But while Beckett may or may not have seen Grand Illusion in the time between its first release in 1937 and its seizure by the Nazis as “Cinematic Public Enemy Number 1” in 1940, I don’t think that he can be said to have suffered any anxiety of influence in relation to Renoir such that he would have felt compelled to engage the director’s work in one of Bloom’s revisionary wrestling matches. Beckett’s contest was with Joyce, and it wasn’t until the precursor had died that he could even begin to undertake his revisionary purgation, eschewing the encyclopedic for a sort of via negativa, the way of ignorance, of not-knowing and of failure. The appearance of Godot in Renoir’s Grand Illusion is one measure of the paradoxical “success” of that venture.
November 21, 2008
. . . and probably even if he did manage to locate the house which had served as the prototype for the notorious chateau of Histoire d’O it would turn out to be some monstrosity that the French heritage industry had subcontracted to Disneyworld France and it was now The Story of O World, after paying for tickets you stood in a long queue to be herded onto miniature shuttle-buses which looped on tracks through a series of animatronic tableaux reenacting the travails of O, which if he remembered correctly had more to do with clothing and fabrics than sex, the novel was really just a high-end adult clothing catalog for haberdashers and outfit-fetishists, excruciatingly tiresome and moreover excruciatingly Catholic, O like a nun with her wrists chained to her collar at night to keep her in an attitude of prayer and the chateau run according to the most restrictive rules that even the men of the secret society had to obey, to his mind it didn’t sound like much fun for the men any more than the women, so many rules and timetables like some sort of monastic order, it was a religious tract enjoining service and submission, sex the last refuge of the sacred in a secular age blah blah blah, the Catholic Church in France had given the Disney corporation its blessing and even sent out a priest to the Story of O World to bless it with holy water and censers of incense at the grand opening, with plenty of politicians from the conservative and Gaullist and so-called socialist parties and the National Front on hand to have their pictures taken and speak of the French tradition of art and commerce. He was just about to quit and return to the hotel-zone when he saw a man ahead, from around the corner an actual person of the public walking in his direction on the same public sidewalk about thirty paces ahead, he was surprised to see an actual live person, there were so few other persons on the streets of this so-called village of Roissy that this one had to be an official of the Charles de Gaulle airport or a representative of Air France out on official business, unless he was just another addled tourist who had been overbooked and bumped, although as the stranger approached he gave off distinctly the air of a French person, somehow it was clear right away that the stranger approaching him was French, perhaps because his attire looked stylish in that subdued way of the French who as a people love stylish vestments more than sex, including Italian shoes, to be a properly dressed French person requires Italian shoes, but more especially because of his prominent nose, a truly impressive Gallic honker worn no doubt in honor and emulation of the victorious commander of the Free French forces and later President of the Fourth or is it the Fifth French Republic the late General Charles de Gaulle. And he worried that he would be in trouble with this distinctly French person wearing Italian shoes and a nose in honor of Charles de Gaulle because his own appearance inspired suspicion and maybe he had strayed into some kind of forbidden zone, unwittingly he had strayed into a zone that was off limits at certain times of the day, or off limits at least to suspicious-looking characters such as he had always suspected himself to be. He and the approaching French stranger shared the trait of wearing large noses but the French stranger wore the large nose of a Gallic person and whereas he wore the large nose of a Semitic person, or so the mirrors had always communicated to him, mirrors and other reflective surfaces which he gazed into anxiously had communicated to him this idea that he wore a nose of the Semitic type, even the convexities of spoons and the surface of his watch in the right light could communicate to him this idea that he wore a Semitic-type nose, to say nothing of his wife’s sunglasses, he wore the nose of a Jew or an Arab in spite of the fact that to his knowledge he was neither Arab nor Jew, the old problem of appearance versus essence. To his mind neither Jews nor Arabs were especially popular in France right then but he thought that on the whole the Arabs were less popular than the Jews, which was unfortunate because he believed that on balance he looked more like an Arab than a Jew, in the context of his complexion and hair and five o’clock shadow and the je ne sais quoi of his overall demeanor his Semitic-type nose came off more like an Arab’s than a Jew‘s, at least to people in the United States and Europe, in the United States and Europe everyone took him automatically for an Arab, in fact everyone everywhere took him for an Arab except for the Arabs who took him for a Jew. He did not wish to be classed as an Arab by this French person, possibly an official of some kind although in no uniform save that of the well-attired French person, in principle his sympathies were all with the Arabs but at that particular moment he did not wish to be classed among things such as rabbits, frogs, snails, and Arabs, things which the French people and Western Europeans in general fear are going to overrun their tarmacs in hordes and thus need at regular intervals to be exterminated en masse, he and the French stranger were heading right towards each other but it would have looked even more suspicious for him as a suspicious possibly Arab-looking person to cross to the other side of the street even definitively suspicious an open and shut case of suspiciousness, he wished his wife were at his side she had blond hair and an open face, he needed to get the Frenchman’s mind off his appearance right away, now that they had drawn near to each other he would speak first in such a way as to demonstrate the harmlessness of his presence in the zone— Excusez-moi, monsieur, et bonjour, eh . . . je suis ein tourist, eh, er . . . un tourist Canadien, oui, et je suis tres interessant dans le literature, n’est-ce-pas? Et je . . . je . . . et, to, to look for, I’m looking for . . . um, parlez-vous anglais? As he spoke the French stranger lifted his nose, throughout this demonstration of his harmlessness the French stranger slowly but steadily lifted his nose, pausing only at the interrogative to roll its Gallic impressiveness from side to side like the dorsal fin of a sea mammal and expel from the opening beneath it a brief non. Oh, that’s alright, I mean, c’est ca, oui, mais . . . je, je voudrais aller a la musée, oui, je voudrais aller a la musée de la chateau de le roman Histoire d’O, oui,? Eh, eh, le roman de Pauline Reage, n’est-ce-pas? To make his meaning perfectly clear he supplemented his speech with gestures, indicating first himself, then making walking fingers in the air, then pointing to the nearest house, then making a waving motion as if to erase the house and bringing his hands together and apart as if opening a book, and finally lifting and lowering his fist in the air to suggest flogging. Yet the French person only continued to lift his great Gallic nose skyward by worrisome increments as if sampling the air in order to determine if there might be an Arab on the tarmac, or else he was farsighted and had to rear back his head in order to bring the importuning questioner’s nose into focus in order to determine if it was a nose belonging to an Arab. And so the questioner found himself steadily lowering his chin, dipping his chin downwards in increments in the hope of foreshortening his nose in the French person’s perspective, the French person lifted his nose while the questioner dipped his chin until at last it was difficult for him to question let alone breathe, with his chin tucked into his breastbone his last question came out in a wheeze while the French person’s nose had positively taken off and now soared like the Concorde over the Pays de France. At last in exasperation S’il vous plais, monsieur, le chateau! he cried, raising his chin again but making up for this insolence by cringing deeply and flailing his arms in several directions, Le chateau, s’il vous plais! Ou est le chateau, n’est ce pas, le chateau? Ou est le chateau? at which point the Concorde returned to earth and the light of a successful communication circuit came on in the French person’s control panel. Ah, le chateau! cried the French person. Oui, le chateau! the questioner cried. Suddenly they were friends. The French person turned and pointed. Le chateau est la! All the questioner had to do, it turned out, was to continue in the direction he had been traveling and he would without question find himself at the chateau. He and the French person parted in high spirits and each bore their noses buoyantly in opposite directions. Buoyantly he bore his after all perhaps not so Semitic-looking nose in the direction he had originally been traveling through the village of Roissy, for the moment no longer the “so-called” village, it might not be so bad a village as all that with such a literary point of interest as the prototype of the notorious chateau of Pauline Réage’s notorious novel Histoire d’O, a serious literary investigation into erotic clothing as the last refuge of the sacred in a secular age . . .
(an excerpt from “Return to the Chateau,” a chapter of the novel ENEMY COMBATANT)
November 19, 2008
November 18, 2008
In his memoir, Hand to Mouth, Paul Auster relates how at one point during the years between his return from France and his first literary success he worked writing catalogue copy for a rare-book dealership, Ex Libris. Auster includes several sample entries, one of which interested me in particular:
394. (STEIN, GERTRUDE). Testimony: Against Gertrude Stein. Texts by Georges Braque, Eugene Jolas, Maria Jolas, Henri Matisse, André Salmon, Tristan Tzara. Servire Press. The Hague, February, 1935. (Transition Pamphlet no. 1; supplement to Transition 1934-35; no. 23). 16 pp. 5 11/16 x 8 7/8". Printed paper covers. Stapled.
In light of the great Stein revival of the Seventies, the continuing value of this pamphlet cannot be denied. It serves as an antidote to literary self-serving and, in its own right, is an important document of literary and artistic history. Occasioned by the inaccuracies and distortions of fact in The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, Transition produced this forum in order to allow some of the figures treated in Miss Stein’s book to rebut her portrayal of them. The verdict seems to be unanimous. Matisse: “In short, it is more like a harlequin’s costume the different pieces of which, having been more or less invented by herself, have been sewn together without taste and without relation to reality.” Eugene Jolas: “The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, in its hollow, tinsel bohemianism and egocentric deformations, may very well become one day the symbol of the decadence that hovers over contemporary literature.” Braque: “Miss Stein understood nothing of what went on around her.” Tzara: “Underneath the ‘baby’ style, which is pleasant enough when it is a question of simpering at the interstices of envy, it is easy to discern such a really coarse spirit, accustomed to the artifices of the lowest literary prostitution, that I cannot believe it necessary for me to insist on the presence of a clinical case of megalomania.” Salmon: “And what confusion! What incomprehension of an epoch! Fortunately there are others who have described it better.” Finally the piece by Maria Jolas is particularly noteworthy for its detailed description of the early days of Transition. This pamphlet was originally not for sale separately. $95.00
Maybe Auster was being a little coy in quietly tucking Eugene and Maria Jolas’s names in there with the others when after all transition was their magazine; more likely though he was just reproducing the sequence on the pamphlet’s cover or table of contents. I wanted to read more about the controversy occasioned by the Autobiography, so I went and got Janet Hobhouse’s short biography of Stein down from the shelf. The grievances were as follows: The Jolases were pissed because Stein had pronounced transition dead (it hadn’t published any Stein lately); Braque was pissed because Stein had denied his role at Picasso’s side in the creation of cubism, and Matisse was pissed because Stein had compared his wife to a horse. Tzara was pissed because he was Tzara.
The pamphlet sounded to me like a kind of anti-matter version of Our Exagmination Round His Factification for Incamination of Work in Progress, the latter symposium intended to promote a modernist work and the former, its evil twin, intended to torpedo one. Joyce himself had been behind the 1929 publication of Exagmination, and most of the contributions – by Eugene Jolas, Samuel Beckett, and others – had already appeared in the pages of transition. This got me wondering: could the real motivation behind the 1935 transition pamphlet have been an attack by the Joyce faction on the Stein circle?
The Jolases had always been personally closer to Joyce than to Stein, and Eugene Jolas to a Joycean aesthetic. In an essay that quotes Jolas’s autobiography, Man from Babel, Marjorie Perloff writes:
When, in late 1926, he heard Joyce read from the opening pages of his new manuscript, Jolas marveled at the 'polysynthetic quality' of Joyce's language, a language which was to become the touchstone for transition. The 'repetitiveness of Gertrude Stein's writings', on the other hand, was not really Jolas's cup of tea, even though, in deference to his co-editor Elliot Paul and to Stein's stature as the 'doyenne among American writers in Paris', he was to publish so many of her experimental pieces, and even though he frequently came to her defense in the pages of transition […]. In his autobiography, Jolas was more candid about what he called Stein's 'esoteric stammering':
Her mental attitude was remote from anything I felt and thought. For not only did she seem to be quite devoid of metaphysical awareness but I also found her aesthetic approach both gratuitous and lacking in substance. . . .
We published a number of her compositions in transition, although I am obliged to say that I saw, and see today, little inventiveness in her writing. The "little household words" so dear to Sherwood Anderson, never impressed me, for my tendency was always in the other direction. I wanted an enrichment of language, new words, millions of words. . . . (my emphasis)
More vocabulary rather than less, Joycean 'enrichment' rather than Steinian reduction: this 'other direction' was, of course, Jolas's own.
On Stein’s part, there was jealousy at Joyce’s growing reputation. According to Hemingway if you brought up the author of Ulysses more than once at the Stein salon you would not be welcomed back. Stein thought that Joyce got credit for a current of innovation that she herself had inaugurated: “But who came first,” she wrote, “Gertrude Stein or James Joyce? Do not forget that my first great book, Three Lives, was published in 1908. That was long before Ulysses” (qtd in Ellmann, James Joyce). The knocks on Joyce extended to the Autobiography itself, where Stein writes: “Picasso once said when he and Gertrude were talking together, yes Braque and James Joyce, they are incomprehensibles whom anybody can understand” (qtd in Hobhouse). In other words, just as Braque was relegated to the sidelines at the creation of cubism, so Joyce should be seen as a secondary figure in literary modernism’s revolution of the word.
On his side Joyce expressed little curiosity about Stein’s works and no desire to meet their author – Ellmann reports him voicing the charming sentiment, “I hate intellectual women.” Although the two writers did once bump into each other at the Jolases’ flat (an encounter apparently even more unremarkable than the famous anticlimax of Joyce’s meeting with Proust), Joyce certainly never read the Autobiography, and if he was affronted, it was at second hand.
That’s as much as I’ve been able to glean with the resources within reach of my Oblomov’s couch. If anyone has any further information, send it along. In the meantime I’ll be thinking about how amusing it is, in Auster’s catalogue entry, to hear Jolas complain about “the decadence that hovers over contemporary literature” in the years when new installments of Finnegans Wake were still appearing in print, and in fact in the very pages of transition itself. The decadence no longer hovers, it has seeped into the interstices.
November 8, 2008
Catherine says, “It’s so yellow! So bright – it’s never been like this before!"
Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness—Just kidding. In spite of cold feet I get out of the covers again and fetch the book from the other room. Here’s the whole thing:
October DayOh Lord, it’s time, it’s time. It was a great summer.Lay your shadow now on the sundials,and on the open fields let the winds go!Give the tardy fruits the hint to fill;give them two more Mediterranean days,drive them on into their greatness, and pressthe final sweetness into the heavy wine.Whoever has no house by now will not build.Whoever is alone now will remain alone,will wait up, read, write long letters,and walk along sidewalks under large trees,not going home, as the leaves fall and blow away.Rainer Maria Rilke(translated by Robert Bly)
Herr: es ist Zeit. Der Sommer war sehr gross.The repetition of “it’s time” is all Bly. Rilke’s language is a bowing of the head, Bly’s a wistful waving farewell. “Great” could be an adequate translation of gross if the connotation of majesty were not so subsumed, as it inevitably is in American English usage, by mere generic approbation. Maybe the first line should be translated something like this:
Lord: It’s time. The summer was large.Except “large” misses the hint of abundance and bounty which, given the context, is there in gross. But to say “the summer was abundant” or “the summer was bountiful” clutters the starkness and gravity of the original (like a hymn or prayer) with too many syllables. How about this:
Lord: It’s time. The summer was fat.
and walk along sidewalks under large trees,not going home, as the leaves fall and blow away.und wird in den Alleen hin und herunruhig wandern, wenn die Blätter treiben.
Whoever is in bed now will remain in bed,will drowse, sip coffee, and read a few poems . . .