To Withdraw Myself

June 7, 2014 § Leave a comment

Lord Byron, Letters and Journals

To withdraw myself from myself has ever been my sole, my entire, my sincere motive in scribbling at all [via].

The Invisible Book

June 2, 2014 § Leave a comment

Gill Partington, “The Invisible Book,” LRB Blog 6 May 2014

A while ago I bought an invisible book. Or at least I think I did. It’s hard to tell. I certainly got a confirmation email from its author and creator, the artist Elisabeth Tonnard, advising me that it had been sent and acknowledging my payment of €0. This seems like a shrewd investment: my book is one of a limited edition of 100 (neither signed nor numbered) and, as Tonnard’s website says, it is ‘a product without a single fault, available at the lowest price possible’. To make the transaction a little more concrete I also ordered the set of (visible) postcards accompanying the work. Highlights in the History of ‘The Invisible Book’ includes pictures of the book’s early underwater testing in the Galapagos Islands, its acclaimed 1962 exhibition at the New York Public Library, and the undisclosed facility where the original manuscript has been kept since the 1870s, although ‘some say it is no longer there’.

[...] In No Medium, Craig Dworkin goes still further in shifting the page from background to foreground, identifying a canon of non-texts, works composed only of blank space: the empty fictional journal Nudisme, brandished in the opening scenes of Cocteau’s Orphée; the unused ream of typing paper ‘published’ by Aram Saroyan in 1968, and the de Kooning drawing painstakingly erased by Robert Rauschenberg. Paper here is not a mere support, medium or conduit, but a distinct object with qualities, substance and meaning in its own right. There are other artists and writers who explore these meanings, practising a perverse kind of writing, or perhaps unwriting, in which the creative act involves not inscription but erasure, blankness and redaction. Dworkin’s sometime collaborator, Nick Thurston, has produced an edition of Maurice Blanchot’s Space of Literature, in which Blanchot’s words have been entirely excised, and the text consists only of Thurston’s marginal notes.

[...] Tonnard’s book isn’t non-existent or imaginary. Just invisible.

From Dutch artist and poet Elzabeth Tonnard‘s website:

The Invisible Book is a book produced in limited edition at the affordable price of €0. It will work as a digital book too, on any platform. The edition is limited to 100 copies (neither numbered nor signed).

This is a product without a single fault, available at the lowest price possible. The book was made as a reaction to both the trend of decreasing booksales and the trend of increasing expectations from audiences.

Published by Elisabeth Tonnard, Leerdam, April 2012.

The book’s first edition was sold out on the day of its release. A second edition became available in June 2012. It too was limited to 100 copies, neither numbered nor signed, but all made to perfection and available at the price of €0. Order the book by sending me an email, and note that it will not be possible to buy more than one copy. If you would like to order more copies or prefer to obtain copies of the first edition, follow this link to the German site of Ebay, where artist Joachim Schmid is occasionally offering for sale the first edition copies he bought immediately after the launch of the book (note the auctions are not always up).

The book is included in the collections of Erfgoedbibliotheek Hendrik Conscience (Antwerp), the International Center of Photography (NY) and the Tate Library (London) where you can go and attempt to see it. The book was shortlisted in the 2013 Artists’ Books of the Moment Award, Art Gallery of York University, Canada.

[...] In order to shed some light on the nebulous history of The Invisible Book, a set of visible postcards was published in August 2013. From an early discussion about the book in 1654, to Robert Walser’s sterling 1925 review and Diane Simpson’s legendary marathon reading in 1980, discover some of the highlights in the book’s history through this set of six cards. The set is priced at €5 plus shipping and available in my webshop.

To Speak Without Saying Anything

May 29, 2014 § Leave a comment

Alexandre Kojève, letter to Georges Bataille, 28 July 1942

To manage to express silence (verbally) is to speak without saying anything. There are an infinite number of ways to do it. But the result is always the same (if one is successful): nothingness. [See Blanchot.]

The Experience of Nothing

May 29, 2014 § Leave a comment

Karl Ove Knausgaard, “The Other Side of the Face,” The Paris Review 28 May 2014

This intimacy, which did not just apply to the sun, but to all things and phenomena, is impossible to explain, I now find, for it appears to be a personification of the world, imbuing it with spirit, but it wasn’t, it was something else, a sort of interiorization, perhaps, as if I approached objects and phenomena in the world in the same way that I approached familiar faces, with the same trust, without ever having thought of the sun or all the rest of it as persons, as being alive. It was rather that everything had a face, every tree, every hillock, every bicycle, and therefore was something I felt connected to, for I saw the tree, the hill, the bicycle, and I recognized them. This way of seeing is gone. The sun is the sun, a tree is a tree, a hill is a hill, a bike is a bike. I no longer regard the world the way I look at faces, it is as if the faces have turned away from me.

[...] This familiarity or intimacy may seem like an addition, for now the world is just the world, but back then it was always something more, but it wasn’t an addition, it was just the reverse, it was that the object or the phenomenon was seen as something in itself, something in its own right, with an identity of its own, this is what created the intimacy that gave everything a face.”

[...] It’s easy to think that now I see the world as it really is, as faceless, blind and mute matter. Just as these photographs of necks allow me to see the human being as it really is, flesh and blood, cells and strings, biology. In everything I write, there is a longing for out there, to that which is real, outside of the social realm, while at the same time I am aware that what is out there, beyond the light of the faces, and which we occasionally catch a glimpse of, through art, turns everything to nothing. That the experience of the sublime is the experience of nothing. That God is nothing, which we exist in spite of. And this is why the real is such a dangerous category. In ourselves, as bodies of flesh and blood, things growing somewhere in the world, we are nothing, and I think this is why I am so fearful of the cultivation of organs, the manipulation of genes, of the human machine on an operating table, since even though it saves and prolongs life, it also reduces it, brings it closer to nothing, a wire, a string, a tube, a gutter.

[...] To be socialized is to learn to see yourself as you appear to others. To bring up a child is really nothing other than representing or personifying this, the gaze and the voices of others, for at the outset the child possesses only a sort of undifferentiated self, permeated by feelings and needs, which can be, as it were, lit or extinguished, but not otherwise controlled. Since this is all, it is also nothing, that is to say, unknown. Something is lit, something is extinguished. All the boundaries one gradually imposes as a parent, all the prohibitions and commands, do not only have to do with teaching the child how to behave, are not just about making it function without friction in daily life, though that is perhaps often the motivation, but it is also always a gaze, it is also always a place from which the child can see itself from the outside, from a place other than the self, which only then can emerge as its own, whole self. It becomes an adult. One process is completed, and another sets in: slowly the world turns its face away.

[...] We live in the social realm, which is sameness, the light of the faces, but we exist in the non-identical, in what is unknown to us, it is the other side of the face, that which turns away mutely, beyond the reach of language, just as the blood trickling through the tiny capillaries of the brain is beyond the reach of the thoughts thinking them, a few millimeters away, in that which upon closer inspection turns out to be nothing more than a chemical and electrical reaction in the spongelike object that the neck holds aloft.

Gazing Into Nullity

May 28, 2014 § Leave a comment

James Joyce, letter to his son George, 1935

Here I conclude. My eyes are tired. For over half a century they have gazed into nullity, where they have found a lovely nothing.

A Successful Fragment

May 22, 2014 § Leave a comment

Stéphane Mallarmé, letter to Paul Verlaine, 16 November 1869

Patient as one of the alchemists, I’ve always imagined and attempted something else, and would be willing to sacrifice all satisfaction and vanity for its sake, just as in the old days they used to burn their furniture and the beams of their roofs to feed their furnace for the magnum opus.

What is it? Difficult to say: simply a book, in several volumes, a book that is truly a book, architecturally sound and premeditated, and not a collection of casual inspirations however wonderful that might be…So there, dear friend, is the bare confession of this vice which I’ve rejected a thousand times…But it holds me in its sway and I may yet be able to succeed, not in the contemplation of this work as a whole (one would have to be God-knows-who for that!) but in showing a successful fragment…proving through finished portions that this book does exist, and that I was aware of what I wasn’t able to accomplish. [via]

A Fictional Farewell to Literature

May 18, 2014 § Leave a comment

Ben Lerner, “Each Cornflake,” London Review of Books 22 May 2014 (pp. 21-22)

My Struggle positions itself as an anti-literary project: it’s what Knausgaard writes instead of novels and it describes his increasing revulsion from fiction (broadly construed). If he were to write another novel, he says in Volume 2, ‘it would just be literature, just fiction, and worthless … just the thought of fiction, just the thought of a fabricated character in a fabricated plot made me feel nauseous.’ My Struggle is sometimes categorised as a novel — by its publishers, for one — but nobody expects us to believe that it’s fiction in any conventional sense, given the verifiability of the biographical details and the huge scandal caused in Norway by its exposure of his real relationships. My Struggle is the chronicle of Knausgaard turning his back on the genre of the novel, a six-volume Lord Chandos Letter intended to exhaust and extinguish all of Knausgaard’s literary ambitions. He has described the writing of My Struggle as an act of ‘literary suicide’: ‘There is nothing left; I can never again write something from the heart without repeating myself, but I wanted it that way. In Volume 6 I even wrote a couple of lines about future novels, stories I’d thought of, just to kill them off. The last sentence in that book is: “And I’m so happy that I’m no longer an author.”‘

‘Literary suicide’ — a death both in and of literature. He’ll empty himself into a vessel, shattering that vessel: ‘I thought of this project as a kind of experiment in realistic prose. How far is it possible to go into detail before the novel cracks and becomes unreadable?’ Knausgaard presents his suicide attempt as anti-literary — I’m going to break the well-wrought urn of aesthetic form by filling it with more description than it can hold — but it’s also an attempt to take the problem of closure into one’s own hands. Suicide is, after all, one way ‘to bring order into the sum of experience’.

… It might seem that I’ve moved abruptly from childishness to death, but at every point in My Struggle, particularly in Boyhood Island, we think of the young Knausgaard as a person who will ‘die’ at the end of Volume 6. We know (at least from Volume 2 on) that the end of My Struggle won’t merely be the end of a novel for Knausgaard, but the end of literature altogether. (This is part of why Boyhood Island — although childhood memories are also crucial in the volumes that precede it — must come after the promise of literary suicide; his earliest memories are saturated with what we know about his future.) My Struggle is a portrait of an artist who will turn his back on art, a Künstlerroman that is also a suicide note, and the method of suicide is in part to put everything down: a suicide by overdose.

I mean to emphasise the way the childishness of Knausgaard — the radical inclusiveness, the style-less style, the apparently equal fascination with everything — places a tremendous pressure on the end of the book, on closure as a moment when form is achieved and retrospectively organises the work. Because the book makes a bid to be radically co-extensive with a life – ‘there is nothing left,’ everything gets put down — closure has to present itself as a kind of death (unless the book is simply to break off, surrendering to formlessness, to unreadability). The problem of how My Struggle will end is both evoked and deferred across volumes — an effect amplified by the fact that English readers have to wait for each new translation — and that drama of the deferral of form is part of what keeps us reading. Indeed, there’s a sense in which the more inclusive, digressive — even boring — the book is, the more absorbing it becomes (‘Even when I was bored, I was interested,’ James Wood writes). This is because the felt problem of My Struggle’s ultimate form intensifies in relation to Knausgaard’s effort to ‘crack’ the novel by overfilling it with detail. How far will he go?

Breaking of the vessel of art, the renunciation of fiction, literary suicide – these are fictions, and they’re the devices on which the power of My Struggle depends. It’s obvious, for instance, that Knausgaard couldn’t remember his past in the degree of detail the books provide (Boyhood Island opens with an account of how much fiction is necessarily involved in Knausgaard’s acts of memory, especially of his childhood). But the cumulative effect of his descriptions is to suggest the possibility of total recall, a past citable in all its moments: each cornflake, each snowflake. … Perhaps it’s less that we identify with the particular experiences Knausgaard recounts than that his writing makes us feel we might be able to recall our own past, near or distant, with all the texture and urgency of an inhabited present. This is why the extreme inclusiveness of Knausgaard’s attention — and the flatness of the language in which it’s conveyed — is so important: it feels universal, less interested in the exceptional life than in the way any life can feel exceptional to its subject (even if it sometimes feels exceptionally boring). Much of My Struggle isn’t a story so much as an immersive environment.

Of course Knausgaard does leave things out (why, I wonder, is sex described in less detail than cornflakes?), selects among scenes and sentences, but we are caught up in the fiction that he doesn’t. Yet that childish sense of open-endedness, in which everything is equally interesting, is countered by another fiction: that the meaning of My Struggle will be revealed at its end, secured by the author’s death (at least his death qua author). The former fiction is a fiction of formlessness, the undifferentiated, an infinite verticality outside time; and the latter is a fiction that gives form, the imposition of shape on experience, a syntax of events. The constitutive tension of Knausgaard’s work, its internal struggle, is the push and pull between these two fictions. The former is the promise of an artless infinity purchased at the cost of structure; the latter is the promise of a unity purchased at the cost of death. Maybe it’s significant that My Struggle has six volumes while A la recherche du temps perdu has seven. Knausgaard doesn’t offer a strategy for ‘regaining’ time through the power of art; instead he attempts to achieve closure by sacrificing art itself.

The claim to be giving up literature has a long tradition within literature. It’s everywhere in poetry, for instance. As Aaron Kunin has written: ‘The January eclogue in The Shepheardes Calender ends with Colin destroying his instrument, the oaten pipe, and vowing to sing no more songs. In the first poem in his first collection, Spenser says farewell to poetry: hello, I must be going. The gesture is conventional — Spenser got the idea from Virgil.’ Actual Rimbauds are rare. And the claim to be destroying art has been a staple of avant-garde art since at least the First World War: the role of the painter is to abolish painting, and so on. But such assertions tend to be part of an artistic performance, not its overcoming, and there’s already anecdotal evidence that Knausgaard’s ‘suicide’ is theatre. . . .

But what could be less ‘unexpected’? The prizefighter comes out of retirement again and again. … Knausgaard’s renunciation of literature, whatever his conscious intentions, is ultimately a trope, a dramatic attempt to bring order to the mass of text that precedes it.

Even if Knausgaard’s ‘literary suicide’ is an enabling fiction, the association of death (particularly violent death) with the end of My Struggle is troubling. Here we must reckon with the long shadow cast across the volumes by the title. Are we supposed to think of Knausgaard as a failed artist whose violent will-to-order is somehow analogous to Hitler’s? … To put it reductively, Hitler and Breivik are two men — or perhaps two man-children, albeit in a much more sinister sense than Baudelaire’s — who responded to the value vacuum, the bad infinity, opened up by modernity with murder and murderous ideologies; they reacted to the terror of formlessness with the ‘false totality’ of fascism (though this might be overstating the coherence of Breivik’s worldview). . . .

The Great Poets of Silence

May 15, 2014 § Leave a comment

Fernando Pessoa, The Book of Disquiet (Pengun Classics, pp. 277-78)

How sublime to waste a life that could have been useful, never to execute a work of art that was certain to be beautiful, to abandon midway a sure road to victory!

Ah, my love, the glory of works which have been lost for ever, of treatises which today are mere titles, of libraries which burned down, of statues which were demolished!

How blessed with absurdity are the artists who set fire to a beautiful work! Or the artists who could have made a beautiful work but deliberately made it ordinary! Or the great poets of silence who, knowing they were capable of writing an absolutely perfect work, preferred to crown it with the decision never to write it. (For an imperfect work, it makes no difference.)

How much more beautiful the Mona Lisa would be if we couldn’t see it! And if someone were to rob it just to burn it, what an artist he would be, even greater than the one who painted it!

Why is art beautiful? Because it is useless. Why is life ugly? Because it’s all aims, objectives and intentions. All of its roads are for going from one point to another. If only we could have a road connecting a place no one ever leaves from to a place where no one goes! If only someone would devote his life to building a road from the middle of one field to the middle of another — a road that would be useful if extended at each end, but that would sublimely remain as only the middle stretch of a road!

The beauty of ruins? That they’re no longer good for anything.

… And I who am saying all this — why am I writing this book? Because I realize it’s imperfect. Dreamed, it would be perfection; written, it becomes imperfect; that’s why I’m writing it. And above all else, because I advocate uselessness, absurdity — I write this book to lie to myself, to be unfaithful to my own theory.

This Mute Presence Beyond Meaning

May 7, 2014 § Leave a comment

Slavoj Žižek, The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology, 2012

[On the "redemptive value" of post-castrophe movies like I Am Legend] We see the devastated human environment, half-empty factories, machines falling apart, empty stores. What we experience at this moment, the psychoanalytic term for it would have been the inertia of the real — this mute presence beyond meaning. What moments like confronting planes in the Mojave desert bring to us is maybe a chance for an authentic passive experience. Maybe without this properly artistic moment of authentic passivity nothing new can emerge. Maybe something new only emerges through the failure, the suspension of properly functioning of the existing network of our life. . . . Maybe this is what we need more than ever today.

Zombie Novels and Undead Art

May 6, 2014 § Leave a comment

Will Self, “The Novel is Dead (This Time It’s For Real),” The Guardian 3 May 2014 (Guardian Review p. 2)

… The omnipresent and deadly threat to the novel has been imminent now for a long time — getting on, I would say, for a century — and so it’s become part of culture. During that century, more books of all kinds have been printed and read by far than in the entire preceding half millennium since the invention of movable-type printing. If this was death it had a weird, pullulating way of expressing itself. The saying is that there are no second acts in American lives; the novel, I think, has led a very American sort of life: swaggering, confident, brash even — and ever aware of its world-conquering manifest destiny. But unlike Ernest Hemingway or F Scott Fitzgerald, the novel has also had a second life. The form should have been laid to rest at about the time of Finnegans Wake, but in fact it has continued to stalk the corridors of our minds for a further three-quarters of a century. Many fine novels have been written during this period, but I would contend that these were, taking the long view, zombie novels, instances of an undead art form that yet wouldn’t lie down.

… It would seem better all round to accept the truth, which is that we are still solidly within the modernist era, and that the crisis registered in the novel form in the early 1900s by the inception of new and more powerful media technologies continues apace. The use of montage for transition; the telescoping of fictional characters into their streams of consciousness; the abandonment of the omniscient narrator; the inability to suspend disbelief in the artificialities of plot – these were always latent in the problematic of the novel form, but in the early 20th century, under pressure from other, juvenescent, narrative forms, the novel began to founder.

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