December 29, 2008

Charles Bernstein Recants

Selections from Charles Bernstein's “Recantorium (a Bachelor Machine, after Duchamp after Kafka)”:


I was wrong, I apologize, I recant.  I altogether abandon the false opinion that National Poetry Month is not good for poetry and for poets.  I abjure, curse, and detest the aforesaid error and apostasy.  And I now freely and openly attest to the virtues of National Poetry Month in throwing a national spotlight on poetry, so crucial to keeping verse alive in the twenty-first century.

     I was wrong, I apologize, I recant.  I altogether abandon the false opinion that only elitist and obscure poetry should be praised.  I abjure, curse, detest, and renounce the aforesaid error and aversion.  And I now freely and openly attest that the best way to get general readers to start to read poetry is to present them with broadly appealing work, with strong emotional content and a clear narrative line.


     I was wrong, I apologize, I recant. I altogether abandon and renounce the false opinion that poetry is a social and ideological construction and not the expression of the Pure Feeling of the Poet (PFP) and declare, The Sovereign Human Self (SHS) is the sole origin of authentic expression and meaning.  In full recognition and acknowledgement of my error, I hereby declare and swear, to all present company, that I must not hold, defend, or teach in any way whatsoever, verbally or in writing, the said false doctrine.

     I was wrong, I apologize, I recant.  I altogether abandon the false opinion that official verse culture, through prestigious prizes awarded for merit and reviews in nationally circulated publications selected for major importance, and including the appointments of the poets laureate, does not represent the best and the finest, the most profound and significant, the richest and the most rewarding, poetry of our nation.  And now that I myself, in my person and through my work, have ascended into this Exalted Company, and joined the rarified and incorrigible company of official verse culture, I do here cast stones and sticks and call an abomination and curse and scorn and repudiate any who would not cherish and adore both the process and product of that official verse culture that has embraced, with trepidation and embarrassment, and with noses tightly pinched and earmuffs in place, my unworthy ascent.


     I am with regret fillèd and by errors o’erwhelmed, having chosen the broken path over the righteous, the warped over the erect.  I cant and recant.  I altogether abandon the false opinion that advocacy or partisan positioning has any place in poetry and poetics.  Poetry and poetics should be reserved for those who look beyond the contentions of the present into the eternal verities, the truths beyond this world that never change, as represented in the Books of the Accessible Poets.  I further stipulate that I recant, categorically, that poetry is an activity of the intellect and herewith and hereby declare and proclaim that true poetry is an affair of the heart and only the heart.


I was wrong, I apologize, I recant.  Like a rat seeking a dark cavity to eat its hapless prey, I succumbed to the dictatorship of relativism, a state of profound confusion in which I could not recognize anything as definitive and based my judgments solely on my own ego and desires.  In this graceless state, I falsely believed that the real tyranny was intolerance to those who do not adhere to the aesthetic values of honesty, coherence, clarity, and truth as revealed to all with a moral conviction and a commitment to the timeless human story.  I repudiate this gutless indulgence toward benighted and fallen ideas and commit myself to the dictatorship of obedience.

     I was in error, I apologize, I recant.  I altogether abandon the false doctrine of midrashic antinomianism and bent studies, which I have promulgated in writings, lectures, and teaching, with its base and cowardly insistence on ethical, dialogic, and situational values rather than fixed and immutable moral laws.  I loved language more than truth, discourse more than reality, and so allowed to spread, in myself and others, an intellectual virus that uproots the plain sense of the word.


The full “Recantorium” appears in the January 2009 Harper’s and the Winter 2009 issue of Critical Inquiry, both behind pay-walls.  A video of Bernstein reading “Recantorium” is available here.

December 19, 2008

Relations of Notes

“If you say that in a book the Italians should speak Italian because in the actual world they speak Italian and the Chinese should speak Chinese because Chinese speak Chinese it is a rather naïve way of thinking of a work of art, it’s as if you thought this was the way to make a painting: The sky is blue.  I will paint the sky blue.  The sun is yellow.  I will paint the sun yellow.  A tree is green.  I will paint the tree green.  And what colour is the trunk?  Brown.  So what colour do you use?  Ridiculous.  Even leaving abstract painting out of the question it is closer to the truth that a painter would think of the surface that he wanted in a painting and the kind of light and the lines and the relations of colours and be attracted to painting objects that could be represented in a painting with those properties.  In the same way a composer does not for the most part think that he would like to imitate this or that sound – he thinks that he wants the texture of a piano with a violin, or a piano with a cello, or four stringed instruments or six, or a symphony orchestra; he thinks of relations of notes.

            This was all commonplace and banal to a painter or musician, and yet the languages of the world seemed like little heaps of blue and red and yellow powder which had never been used – but if a book just used them so that the English spoke English & the Italians Italian that would be as stupid as saying use yellow for the sun because the sun is yellow.  It seemed to me reading Schoenberg that what the writers of the future would do was not necessarily say:  I am writing about an Armenian grandfather Czech grandmother a young biker from Kansas (of Czech & Armenian descent), Armenian Czech English OK.  Gradually they would approach the level of the other branches of the arts which are so much further developed.  Perhaps a writer would think of the monosyllables and lack of grammatical inflection in Chinese, and of how this would sound next to lovely long Finnish words all double letters & long vowels in 14 cases or lovely Hungarian all prefixes suffixes, & having first thought of that would then think of some story about Hungarians or Finns with Chinese.

            An idea has only to be something you have not thought of before to take over the mind, and all afternoon I kept hearing in my mind snatches of books which might exist in three or four hundred years.  There was one with the characters Hakkinen, Hintikka and Yu, set provisionally in Helsinki – against a background of snow with a mass of black firs, a black sky & brilliant stars a narrative or perhaps dialogue with nominative genitive partitive essive inessive adessive illative ablative & translative, people would come on saying Hyvää päivää for good day there might be a traffic accident so that the word tieliikenneonnettomuus could make an appearance, and then in the mind of Yu Chinese characters, as it might be Black Fir White Snow, this was absolutely ravishing.”

                                                                                     Helen DeWitt, The Last Samurai

December 10, 2008

Thomas Bernhard's Report

One thing first-time readers of Thomas Bernhard notice right away is the repetition of speech-attribution tags.  For me, this is ultimately a more idiosyncratic feature of Bernhard’s style, more of a signature, than the absence of paragraph breaks (which his novels share, for instance, with some of Claude Simon's).  I’ve underlined the attribution tags in this more or less random excerpt from Bernhard’s Old Masters

People always make the mistake in museums of embarking on too much, of wishing to see everything, so they walk and walk and look and look and then suddenly, because they have devoured a surfeit of art, they collapse.  That is what happened to my future wife when Irrsigler took her by the arm and led her to the Bordone Room, as we subsequently established, in the most courteous manner, Reger said.  The layman in matters of art goes to a museum and makes it nauseous for himself through excess, Reger said.  But of course no advice is possible where visiting a museum is concerned.  The expert goes to a museum in order to view at most one picture, Reger said, one statue, one object, Reger said, he goes to the museum to look at, to study, one Veronese, one Velasquez.  But these art experts are all utterly distasteful to me, Reger said, they make a bee-line for a single work of art and examine it in their shameless unscrupulous way and walk out of the museum again, I hate those people, Reger said.

 That’s six in this one short sequence of as many sentences, not bad.  We’re most familiar with these tags, of course, from the back and forth of directly presented dialogue, the “he said, she said” of so many novels that read like wannabe film scripts.  While Bernhard eschews dialogue of that type in favor of monologue, he still finds plenty of opportunities for the attribution tags of reported, rather than directly presented, speech (or writing, or thought).  From Correction:  

The question was not only, how do I build the Cone, but also, how do I keep the Cone, the building of the Cone a secret, so Roithamer.  Half of my energies were concentrated on building the Cone, half of them on keeping the Cone a secret, so Roithamer.  When a man plans such an enormity, he must always retain control of everything and keep everything secret, so Roithamer.  First based on my reading, then on the basis of reading no longer taken into account, so Roithamer.  My own ideas had led with logical consistency to the realization and completion of the Cone, when my sister was frightened to death, the Cone was finished, so Roithamer, I could not have taken her into the Kobernausser forest at any other than the deadly moment, she had dreaded this moment, when she dreaded it most deeply I took her there and so killed her, at the same time I’d finished the Cone (April 7), so Roithamer.  For supreme happiness comes only in death, so Roithamer.  Detour by way of the sciences to supreme happiness, death, so Roithamer.  The experts, the critics, the destroyers, annihilators, so Roithamer.  We always come close to the edge of the abyss and fear the loss of equilibrium, so Roithamer. 

That’s ten; if I had reproduced the whole page there would have been sixteen.  The page before has twelve and the page after six.  Sixteen is on the high side, however; this passage comes from near the end of the novel, as the narrator closes in on the grim inevitable ‘correction’ of Roithamer’s suicide.  Perhaps the repetition functions, in this instance, like the ritual behavior of certain obsessive-compulsives; it lends Bernhard’s survivor-narrator the equilibrium he needs to keep from tumbling into the abyss after his alter-ego.  But it is simultaneously, of course, a kind of knell. 

There are pages from earlier in Correction that don’t have any attribution tags, just as there are pages from later in the novel that have over a dozen.  Four or five tags per page, then, might be a reasonable average for the novel.  With a scanner and the right software program, of course, it should be possible to arrive at the exact number of overall tags in the entire Bernhard corpus, and thus also to calculate the precise numerical average of tags per page (tpp) for the entire Bernhard corpus.  One might arrive at a figure such as 4.85tpp, for instance, rounded up from, say, 4.8489tpp.

(Now I am thinking like one of Bernhard’s own obsessives.  Is the obsession what is bringing me to the edge of the abyss, or is it what is supposed to rescue me – the last fingernail-hold at the edge?  Or like the self-defeating compensations of the neurotic, is it both?)

To keep myself from going under, I turn my attention to The Under-goer (more commonly known as The Loser):

This crazy idea of visiting the hunting lodge had already occurred to me in Madrid.  It’s possible that Wertheimer never told anyone but me about his writings (and notes), I thought, and tucked them away somewhere, so I owe it to him to dig out these notebooks and writings (and notes) and preserve them, no matter how difficult it proves to be.  Glenn actually left nothing behind, Glenn didn’t keep any written record, I thought, Wertheimer on the contrary never stopped writing, for years, for decades.  Above all I’ll find this or that interesting observation about Glenn, I thought, at least something about the three of us, about our student years, about our teachers, about our development and about the development of the entire world, I thought as I stood in the inn and looked out the kitchen window, behind which however I could see nothing, for the windowpanes were black with filth.

Most writers would be searching for equivalents – “I mused,” or “I considered” or “it occurred to me.”  Not Bernhard.  He even sticks to the same order:  if he’s settled on “Reger said,” chances are you’re not going to be reading, “said Reger.”  Just the pounding of the one attribution, over and over and over again.  It becomes a kind of report, like a gunshot or a hammer blow.  Either the nail is long or the wood – maybe our blockheads – exceptionally unyielding.

They cook in this filthy kitchen, I thought, from this filthy kitchen they bring out the food to the customers in the restaurant, I thought.  Austrian inns are all filthy and unappetizing, I thought, one can barely get a clean tablecloth in one of these inns, never mind cloth napkins, which in Switzerland for instance are quite standard.

In more conventional fiction such tags exist only to be elided.  Their traditional function is to anchor the enunciation firmly in the narrator or character, to ensure the seamless procession of the “vivid, continuous dream,” the flow of vicarious experience and psychological identification.  They are lowly markers which do not enjoy the status of the other elements on the page.  When reading to oneself, they’re to be almost skipped over, registered by the eyes but not necessarily by the mental tongue.  Read aloud, the voice drops and gives their syllables a matter-of-fact little shove out into the cold, as if they were asides.  Less than asides: stage directions.  They are like the inert substrate in pills, the delivery system but not the stuff that is supposed to kill your pain or make you sleep.

But what happens when they metastasize?  When they proliferate and threaten to disrupt what they were meant to enable? 

In Bernhard, the tags become pronounced, in both senses of the word.  After five or ten or twenty repetitions in more or less close succession, they get louder rather than softer.  They stick in the throat, won’t let the prose – no, the story – go down easily.  Compared with the “fine” writing of so much contemporary literary fiction (brought to us by the ethic of writing-as-craft that holds sway in the MFA programs), their effect is powerfully unlovely, brilliantly “bad.”  And suddenly, instead of tripping over them, you find yourself laughing. 

Even the tiniest inn in Switzerland is clean and appetizing, even our finest Austrian hotels are filthy and unappetizing.  And talk about the rooms! I thought.  Often they just iron over sheets that have already been slept in, and it’s not uncommon to find clumps of hair in the sink from the previous guest.  Austrian inns have always turned my stomach, I thought.  

There’s a high-wire quality to the performance – how many of these can he get away with, anyway?  But maybe that’s one reason the laughter is so anxious:  the wire is suspended over an abyss.  In places Bernhard even double-bunks the attributions:

But Wertheimer often ate in these inns, at least once a day I want to see people, he said, even if it’s just this decrepit, down-and-out, filthy innkeeper.  So I go from one cage to the next, Wertheimer once said, from the Kohlmarkt apartment to Traich and then back again, he said, I thought.  From the catastrophic big city cage to the catastrophic forest cage.  Now I hide myself here, now there, now in the Kohlmarkt perversity, now in the country-forest perversity.  I slip out of one and back into the other.  For life.  But this procedure has become such a habit that I can’t imagine doing anything else, he said.  Glenn locked himself in his North American cage, I in my Upper Austrian one, Wertheimer said, I thought.  He with his megalomania, I with my desperation.  All three with our desperation, he said, I thought.  I told Glenn about our hunting lodge, Wertheimer said, I’m convinced that that’s what gave him the idea of building his own house in the woods, his studio, his desperation machine, Wertheimer once said, I thought. 

But this abyss is without depth.  Again and again, the speech-attribution tags return us to the surface of the page.  They remind us that it’s writing we’re looking at.  In the absence of these repetitions, Bernhard’s narratives might read more like conventional free indirect discourse.  Their insistent interruptions, however, do more than merely answer the question of “Who speaks?” (or “Who thinks?" or “Who writes?”).  So far are they in excess of that function that they confound the question itself.  They take us out of the narcissistic pseudo-profounds of identification and put us back on the surface.  Their report highlights nothing so much as their own stubborn, interminable materiality. 

Thus Bernhard’s narrator in The Loser, standing in the Austrian inn and looking out the kitchen window – “behind which however I could see nothing, for the windowpanes were black with filth” – enacts an allegory of reading the very novel he is in.

Maybe this kind of abyss, a depthless abyss, is even more terrifying.  With depth – even a bottomless or an endless depth – there’s always the comfort, however cold or last-ditch, of a covert, a hiding place or refuge, or a recuperation:  an inside.  The writing is made to yield up a little bleak, desperately attenuated Romanticism of the diminished soul, but at least still a soul.  Persistence itself becomes its testimony.  Beckett, I think, is sometimes (wrongly) recuperated this way.  The agonizing equivocation of ‘I can’t go on, I’ll go on’ is turned too blithely into a heroism. 

Bernhard narrates like Nietzsche philosophized – with a hammer.  And the goal is in some ways similar, the smashing of metaphysical idols.  Certainly Bernhard’s report is a species of defamiliarization, but even this assertion must be qualified.  The conventional take on defamiliarizing devices is that they are meant to break readers out of habitual or conventionalized modes of thought and perception, in the service of “new” or “refreshed” perception.  In other words, there is still the rehearsal of a moment of transcendence.  But Bernhard’s report awakens the reader only to sameness, utter repetition, bad infinity, just as his books don’t end so much as simply stop.  There’s no “new.”  I don’t wish to traffic in paradoxes for their own sake, but there’s something about this particular Bernhardian device that defamiliarizes defamiliarization itself, that estranges estrangement.   

I thought, I thought, I thought; Reger said, Reger said, Reger said; so Roithamer, so Roithamer, so Roithamer; boom, boom, boom.

Thus Bernhard.

December 6, 2008

The Ugly Americans

Taipei Zoo Station, Taipei, March 2008