Wednesday, March 28, 2018

Swiss Modern

The Country Road by Regina Ullman

For all of Switzerland’s pastoral qualities (think Heidi, think yodeling), this small, isolated nation proved to be one of the great hubs of the seismographic art-cultural phenomenon known as modernism. A distinctly urban invention, modernism burst into particular life there, in Zurich, in the form of a revolutionary art movement called Dada, which quickly spread to other cities in the West—to Paris, Berlin, and New York. Founded in Zurich’s Cabaret Voltaire (after the great French satirist), Dada was conceived as an unequivocal reaction to the chauvinistic, bourgeois norms that had brought Europe to the brink of catastrophe in World War I, leaving in its wake an estimated ten million dead and twenty million wounded. The German poet and Dadaist, Hugo Ball, who had sought refuge from the war in Zurich, put it well, insisting that his aim as a writer was to shock anyone who regarded “all this civilized carnage as a triumph of European intelligence.” It was a whirling, multimedia experiment that made a virtue of chaos, irrationality, and chance.

Remarkably, the stories of Regina Ullmann seem to bear little connection to this artistic-cultural upheaval that was raging all around her, reading more like nineteenth-century village tales than satirical experiments in language or Candide-like attacks on the reigning status quo. Born into a Jewish-Austrian family in 1884, the Swiss writer and poet was in fact perfectly positioned to join the forces of literary modernism, as defined by such giants as Marcel Proust, James Joyce, Franz Kafka, and Virginia Woolf. Widely hailed for her work by Robert Musil, Thomas Mann, and Herman Hesse (whose mother was Swiss), she was championed for years by the poet, Rainer Maria Rilke, who spoke of her and her work with a tender adoration. “Genius,” declared Musil. “Her voice is something holy,” wrote Mann.

Clearly these writers recognized something familiar, even modern, in her seemingly old-fashioned work. Indeed, despite her spare, allegorical style, there is an abiding human sadness in these stories, a philosophical brooding about the world, which, while surely timeless, applicable to any age, seems particular, too, symptomatic of the fraught and whirling times in which she lived. If she is a modernist (and I believe she is) she is differently, obliquely so—“a modernist trailing ghosts of the past,” as critic and blogger Joseph Schreiber puts it on his excellent blog, roughghosts. Her conversion to Catholicism and subsequent flight from Nazi Germany are indications enough that, for all of the remoteness of her stories, her vision, she too was subject to the forces of her times. As a Jew she could never have stood apart. 

Here, for those interested, is some footage of the founding of Dada:

Peter Adam Nash

Sunday, March 18, 2018

"The Falling of the Dusk"

The Blind Owl, Sadegh Hedayat

Hegel's profound insight into our historical blindness has been affirmed again and again in recent decades--understanding comes too late, history preempts reflection and therefore wisdom. The Owl of Minerva flies before the falling of the dusk.

But in one respect Hegel was incorrect: some persons do see the truth, as it were in advance of its unfolding. There are false prophets to be sure, usually hawking a future that will bring them riches and power, but there are genuine prophets as well.  Hedayat was one such. Long before the fateful combination of autocratic power and fundamentalist religion (the creation, in part, of foreign meddling and Western greed) conspired to undo Iran's historical and cultural greatness, Hedayat foretold the event in his writings. Like many other prophets, Hedayat succumbed to his visionary power.

The tension between Western ideas and the cultural traditions of the rest of the world--the subject of so much great literature--manifested itself in the life and art of Hedayat,* the finest of Iranian modernist writers.  He was obsessed with the novelists and poets of his generation who were expanding the boundaries of fiction and the understanding of the psychological turmoil imposed on ordinary men and women by progress, urbanization, and war.  Hedayat read Kafka and Chekhov, Rilke and Poe, while at the same time immersing himself in Persian literature, folklore, and history.  His literary works seek a balance between tradition and the tumultuous change that was the touchstone of his age (he was born in 1900).  He believed in the power of literature to awaken his countrymen to the dangers of complacency, the risks inherent in obedience to a monarch and to a clergy that dominated intellectual and emotional life in Iran.  He felt unheeded and ignored, and was driven to despair, exile, and, in 1951, suicide.

The Blind Owl is Hedayat's only novel and a classic of modern Iranian fiction. It is a strange, hallucinatory book, overwrought and almost mystical in style and content. The story--as much a dream as a traditional plot--focuses on the obsessions of a solitary Iranian artist (he decorates pen cases) with a woman who haunts his wine- and opium-induced visions.  As I read the The Blind Owl I kept thinking of Poe's "Lenore," and finally found the lines in Hedayat's strong predecessor that I had been dimly recalling:

"Let no bell toll!--lest her sweet soul, amid its hallowed mirth, 
Should catch the note, as it doth float up from the damned earth."

This sentiment, and the mysterious Lenore, are typical not only of Poe but of dozens of European romantics and haunt The Blind Owl. She is the mysterious woman who dies in the artist's garret and who possesses the sublimity and inexplicable power of the tubercular Clavdia Chauchat in Mann's vision of cultural decay or of Maria Timofeevna in Demons--insubstantial (diseased!) women whose proximity to death raises their value as objects of sexless adoration. To love the dying (or dead, in the case of Poe) Feminine is to slip free of a world that is horrifying in its banality and coarseness. One can find rich studies of this construct of ideas in Leslie Fiedler or Camille Paglia.

"I often used to recall the days of my childhood in order to forget the present, in order to escape from myself."  

"Sometimes I imagined that the visions I saw were those which appeared to everyone who was at the point of death. All anxiety, awe, fear and will to live had subsided within me and my renunciation of the religious beliefs which had been inculcated into me in my childhood had given me an extraordinary inner tranquility. What comforted me was the prospect of oblivion after death.....I had never been able to adapt myself to the world in which I was now living." 

Romantic modernism. The second half of The Blind Owl--actually a novella thematically linked to the first half of the book which reprises the same themes at an even higher pitch--evokes not only Poe but T.S. Eliot, especially "The Four Quartets:"

"Where is there an end of it, the soundless wailing,
The silent withering of autumn flowers
Dropping their petals and remaining motionless;
Where is there an end to the drifting wreckage,
The prayer of the bone on the beach, the unprayable
Prayer at the calamitous annunciation?"  

("The Dry Salvages" II)

What is going on here?  It's facile and reductive to point to Hedayat's despair and suicide, to his inability to live in a present that mocked the things he believed in--individual autonomy, the dangers of religion, vegetarianism (yes, Hedayat is among the most ardent defenders of animals), the sanctity of art.  The weight of personal despair plays a role in Hedayat's work and gives it much of its power, but more important is the fact that he was a committed cosmopolitan, a believer in the universal value and transformative power of literature at a time when only blood and iron and money and nationalism stirred the masses of men.  The romantic modernist isn't just nostalgic for a vanished past; he has recognized that there can be no compromise with the present without losing one's soul. Better to die, or remain silent (same thing if you are a writer) than to rage against the inevitable.

Stefan Zweig, Nietzsche, Kafka, Robert Walser, and, reaching back further, Leopardi, Trakl, Novalis--Hedayat is in their company, a man out of time, in the wrong place, feeling too deeply and being too unwilling to give up the things for which he lived.  Until cynicism came along to save us from being serious, the deep thinkers and great souls had no choice but to succumb to the machines. To the "bots" as we now affectionately call them, To the Shahs and Ayatollah's, to the gruff liars and self-seekers. I'm not fond of the notion of the "rabble," but I don't know Persian so I will let Hedayat's translated words stand:

"What relationship could exist between the lives of the fools and healthy rabble who were well, who slept well, who performed the sexual act well, who had never felt the wings of death on their face every moment—what relationship could exist between them and one like me who has arrived at the end of his rope and who knows that he will pass away gradually and tragically?"

George Ovitt (3/19/18)

The Blind Owl, translated by D.P. Costello, is published by Grove Press.

*I have relied on the Encyclopedia Iranica for details of Hedayat's life and work.  There is no biography in English or French that I am aware of; I have not been able to secure a copy of On the Damp Road: A Walk With Sadegh Hedayat, by Seheyl Dahl.

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Banished Immortal

The Selected Poems of Li Po, translated by David Hinton

The T’ang Dynasty poet, Li Po, is popularly know as the ‘Banished Immortal’, “an exiled spirit moving through this world with an unearthly ease and freedom from attachment,” writes David Hinton, the translator of this extraordinarily fine collection. There is in fact an unmistakable ease, an uncanny, even preternatural satisfaction in the way this poet-wanderer experienced the world around him, every gorge and temple and mountain rendered so crisply, so clearly, it is easy to forget one is reading.

The Chinese term wu-wei (literally: ‘doing nothing’, an important part of Taoist and Ch’an practice) perhaps best describes the selfless spontaneity with which Li Po encounters ‘the ten thousand things”, that is, the material, phenomenal world of form. Writes Hinton, “The most essential quality of Li Po’s work is the way in which wu-wei spontaneity gives shape to his experience of the natural world. He is primarily engaged with the natural world in its wild, rather than domestic forms. Not only does the wild evoke wonder, it is also where the spontaneous energy of tzu-jan (‘being such of itself’ or natural) is clearly visible, energy with which Li Po identified.” 

Here, to illustrate this spirit in his work, are a few of his better known poems:

Listening to Lu Tzu-Hsün Play the Ch’in on a Moonlit Night

The night’s lazy, the moon bright. Sitting
here, a recluse plays his pale white ch’in,

and suddenly, as if cold pines were singing,
it’s all those harmonies of grieving wind.

Intricate fingers flurries of white snow,
empty thoughts emerald-water clarities:

No one understands now. Those who could
hear a song this deeply vanished long ago.

Night Thoughts at Tung-lin Monastery on Lu Mountain

Alone, searching for blue-lotus roofs,
I set out from city gates. Soon, frost

clear, Tung-lin temple bells call out,
Hu Creek’s moon bright in pale water.

Heaven’s fragrance everywhere pure
Emptiness, heaven’s music endless,

I sit silent. It’s still, the entire Buddha-
realm in  a hair’s breadth, mind-depths

all bottomless clarity, in which vast
kalpas begin and end out of nowhere.

Something Said, Waking Drunk on a Spring Day

It’s like boundless dream here in this
world, nothing anywhere to trouble us.

I have, therefore, been drunk all day,
a shambles of sleep on the front porch.

Coming to, I look into the courtyard.
There’s a bird among blossoms calling,

and when I ask what season this is,
an oriole’s voice drifts on spring winds.

Overcome, verging on sorrow and lament,
I pour another drink. Soon, awaiting

this bright moon, I’m chanting a song.
And now it’s over, I’ve forgotten why.

An inveterate  drinker, Li Po died as legend says he did—drunk in a boat one night, he drowned while trying to embrace the moon.

Peter Adam Nash

Sunday, March 4, 2018

The Blues

Rain in Our Door (Duets With Robert Johnson), poems by Diann Blakely

Escaping the Delta: Robert Johnson and the Invention of the Blues, by Elijah Wald

"I Believe I'll Dust My Broom," Robert Johnson (recorded in 1936)

He was a natty dresser, a ladies man,  he always had pocket change, was "a strange dude, a loner and a drifter." He had the kind of long "spidery" fingers that made it easier to reach for a note; he drank, but he was seldom drunk. Johnny Shines, himself a fine bluesman, spent a lot of time on the road with Johnson, and noted that Johnson "was about the greatest guitar player [he'd] ever heard," an innovator as a slide player and adept at taking old songs, adding verses and sprucing up the guitar parts in ways no one had ever heard before (check out "Terraplane Blues" for a sampling of Johnson's remarkable, innovative style).  "I Believe I'll Dust My Broom," based on a blues of Leroy Carr, uses "floating verses"--stock lines that Johnson, like any oral-formulaic poet, popped into his longer tunes to fill out the song. Elijah Wald's reading of this and other great Johnson tunes emphasizes the way in which Johnson used triplets and a boogie-woogie beat to drive the song forward, to give it an urgency that doesn't show up in any early versions. Most listeners know this tune from the Elmore James recording of 1951--it's a remarkable performance and contains what one critic has called the "most famous blues riff" ever recorded.  I prefer Johnson's scalding acoustic to James's electric slide, but both songs are the real thing. Johnson wasn't a poet, but listening through the entire body of his recorded work demonstrates his genius for merging standard blues sentiments to stunningly original guitar riffs.


Diann Blakely, like Robert Johnson, died too young.  I have admired her poetry since reading her first collection, Hurricane Walk, in 1993.  Here's the title poem from that collection, typical of Blakely's intense and lyric style:

Hurricane Walk

It was better than sex, the way it relaxed me.
My thighs throbbed for ours, each finger
seemed limp. I lighted
a cigarette, then found it too heavy to lift.

A more comfortable lust would have kept me
inside. Yet I wanted
the wind’s touch, to feel its whorled force.
I stood on a bridge, there were no trees

to stop it — I saw thin sheets of water
spin like ghosts from the Charles.
And now, damp from a bath, I feel
honed, quite essential.

This robe seems too big, it abrades
my cleansed skin. The room’s warmth
stings my lips; they were left raw and chapped,
almost bruised. It will take days

to heal them, the slightest good-night kiss
is out of the question for weeks.

At the time of her death in 2014, Blakely was working on Rain in Our Door, duets that honor, and, in the style of the blues, riff on the songs of Robert Johnson. The blues are stacked deep with meaning: a tag line from a song might reach back to a call and response shouted by a tired field worker on a Saturday afternoon, a man or a woman waiting for the pay envelop and a night at the juke or on the front porch.  Johnson and so many other blues players learned their craft from older practitioners; the songs they played were based on "traditional" tunes, meaning songs whose origins cannot be traced to any composer but are so deeply embedded in the culture as to be the culture. The instruments--beat-up guitars, fiddles, harmonicas, drums--were often found in pawn shops, and the blues voice, more often than not, was honed in a church choir ("devil's music" the preachers called it).  Blakely was deeply immersed in this rich tradition of making music out of pain. Her poems, virtually all of them, are full of yearning, and in this collection she brilliantly captures Johnson's moods--not just the words he sang, but the guitar voicings that are often the real attraction.

Here's part of Blakely's syncopated "Stop Breaking Down"

O can I get a witness for this wreckage?
             You asked when sweet black angels beckoned

And you kicked off the sheets, sweating fresh blues
               And dreaming of Friars Point, Memphis, 

Dreaming of Rosedale and Mound Bayou. The stuff
               I get--o sing it now--gon' bust

Your brains out baby, gon' make you lose your mind.
               Lost him like smoke, said Johnny Shines.... 

Robert Johnson was always dreaming of someplace else. He lived no where in particular. Robert Lockwood shares stories of traveling with Johnson, of splitting the kitty, playing "both sides of the bridge" to make more money for moonshine and smokes, and especially for the women who loved Johnson's look ("he was part Indian" with smooth skin and a quick smile, according to Shines).  

Blakely replicates the restlessness of Johnson in her poems--they move from blues verses, to fragments of Johnson's life ("Mr. Downchild"), to sad reflections on how race still haunts America ("Rambling on My Mind").  

"Truth sides / With history's open veins..." Blakely seamlessly weaves Johnson's lyrics into her poems, or she writes her own blues, following Johnson across his brief, wild life to his dying in agony of poisoned whiskey (or a stabbing, or syphilis, depending on who is telling the story--Wald quotes "Honeyboy" Edwards to support the poisoning story, which is the most credible).  

"And soon you're brokedown on your knees, mouth full of foam
   And blood and curses hurled at God. 
Please Mr. HIghwayman. please don't block the road.
   Three days. Three nights. A borrowed bed

With shrieking metal springs. But first musky confusion;
   Your gut becomes a gallows-rope [!]
O play me. Play me. O play me Terraplane Blues...
   Strings fray. You're booked and got to go.

--from "Terraplane Blues"

Blakely's chronology of Johnson's life and her remarkable notes to her poems--not snippets of explanation, but short essays on the life and afterlife of Johnson and the blues--make Rain in Our Door more than just an extraordinary collection of poems; the book is a homage to the greatest of the early bluesmen. 

I recommend that you read Rain in Our Door with Elijah Wald's wonderful account of the Delta blues at hand. Taken together, and with the definitive recordings of Johnson's songs on the stereo, the books provide both poetic and historical insights into America's most important cultural creation. 

 Here's a link to Johnson's version of "I Believe I'll Dust My Broom"

Rain in Our Door is published by White Pine Press

George Ovitt (3/4/18)