The Pleasures of Unintelligibility

Marina Warner, “At the Gogol Centre,” London Review of Books (website), 16 January 2017

Unintelligibility has become interesting to me as a far more common state – with its own benefits – than has been recognised. Some of the most involving and passionate moments of a reading life can be baffling. In my first encounters with Rebecca, The Waste Land, Waiting for Godot, Dante’s Paradiso, I could grasp very little of what was being said, either at the level of the words or in the larger picture of narrative and thought. Yet these works absorbed me utterly, and their feel has remained vivid in memory; they felt intense and alive and their power is and was contagious – they made me feel intense and alive too. There’s something about attending to a work beyond lucidity that’s like learning a language when young, or finding your way around a neighbourhood.

The pleasures of unintelligibility have been wonderfully explored by nonsense poets and storytellers like Edward Lear and Lewis Carroll, and some of the greatest makers of such literature have been Russian: Velimir Khlebnikov, for example. Khlebnikov revelled in the sound of words and in the feelings that the sheer noise of plosives, gutturals and fricatives could excite, when arranged in patterns and rhythms, without much design on semantic translucency:

Bo-beh-o-bi, sang the lips,
Veh-eh-o-mi, sang the glances,
Pi-eh-eh-o, sang the brows,
Li-eh-eh-ey, sang the visage,
Gzi-gzi-gzeh-o, sang the chain.

The effects can be joyous or bitter; but the energy of improvisation makes for another kind of sense, as the listener escapes from linguistic intelligibility into free-form verbal music.

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It Is Doing Nothing

Jenny Diski, “Diary,” London Review of Books 28 May 1992

I do nothing. I get on with the new novel. Smoke. Drink coffee. Smoke. Write. Stare at ceiling. Smoke. Write. Lie on the sofa. Drink coffee. Write.

It is a kind of heaven. This is what I was made for. It is doing nothing. A fraud is being perpetrated: writing is not work, it’s doing nothing. It’s not a fraud: doing nothing is what I have to do to live. Or: doing writing is what I have to do to do nothing. Or: doing nothing is what I have to do to write. Or: writing is what I have to do to be my melancholy self. And be alone.

Anything For a Quiet Death

Adam Mars-Jones, “Chop, Chop, Chop,” London Review of Books 21 January 2016

The problem with a book about the impact of death, like Grief Is the Thing with Feathers, is that closure isn’t something the bereaved can expect, but it’s a reasonable hope for readers. Death translated into a body of words is no longer death. The idea of progress in the grief-work keeps coming back. …

Yet the need for resolution never goes away. In the last section of the book the conventions start to be reinstated. Dad and the boys scatter the dead woman’s ashes, though there’s been no previous mention either of cremation as an event nor the urn (actually a tin) as an object. After the scornful dismissal by Dad of the idea of moving on, it turns out that narrative — and even quasi-narrative — has an atavistic need for resolution, however much the writer may try to resist it. This shift towards closure in the dying pages of the book is less like an atheist’s last-breath conversion to novelistic orthodoxy than a terminally ill patient’s weary concession, faced with family pressure, that the forms be followed if it makes everybody happy. A few hymns and a blessing, where’s the harm? Anything for a quiet death. But a rite of passage of some description seems to be a requirement in this context.

… When even an imaginary crow can’t abide by the logic of a meaningless death, it’s clear that the need to find significance at the moment life ends runs deep.

Famous last words need an audience. Someone must hear what is said, and must write it down – it would be embarrassing to admit that you weren’t certain of the phrasing. Someone needed to transcribe Keith Vaughan’s last words, and to decide at what point exactly they became illegible. The deathbed scene is a highly literary artefact, with editorial interventions both at the time and subsequently, when it is written down. …

The Tip of the Bull’s Horn

Tom McCarthy, “Writing Machines,” London Review of Books 18 December 2014: 21-22

In ‘Literature Considered as a Bullfight’, Michel Leiris compares the writer to a toreador. Imagine a bullfight without the bull: it would be a set of aesthetic manoeuvres, pretty twirls and pirouettes and so on — but there’d be no danger. The bull, crucially, brings danger to the party, and for Leiris, that’s what the real is: the tip of the bull’s horn. He, too, disappoints by offering candid confession and exposure of personal peccadillos as examples of dalliances with the bull-horn — i.e. Oprah literature. But Leiris’s conceit is rich in ways that even he seems not to realise. Think about it: if a matador is gored, the bullfight, the entire spectacle, suddenly comes to an appalled halt; what the bull’s horn brings to the party is not just danger but also the possibility that the party itself could be catastrophically interrupted. If the bullfight is an analogue for literature, and if the bull’s horn is a vision of the real, then what the real represents is an event, something that would involve the violent rupture of the form and procedure of the work itself. The real, here, is no longer anything like a fact or a secret. It doesn’t depend on any putative correspondence between the writer’s work and the empirically understood world. And it certainly has nothing to do with authenticity.

. . . The matador is gored, the real jumps out and punctures the screen or strip of film, destroying it. This is a real that happens, or forever threatens to happen, not as a result of the artist ‘getting it right’ or being authentic, but rather as a radical and disastrous eruption inside the always and irremediably inauthentic; a traumatic real; a real that is psychoanalytic as much as literary: the real that Lacan defines as ‘that which always returns to the same place’ and as ‘that which is unassimilable by any system of representation’. The challenge isn’t to depict this real realistically, or even ‘well’, but to approach it in the full knowledge that, like some roving black hole, it represents (though that’s not the right word anymore) the point at which the writing’s entire project crumples and implodes.

A Grin Without a Cat

Brian Dillon, “At the Hayward,” London Review of Books 2 August 2012

[‘Magic Ink’ by Gianni Motti, 1989]

Stare long enough into the void, Nietzsche writes in Beyond Good and Evil, and the void stares back at you. The trouble with nothing, no matter an artist or writer’s aspiration to the zero degree, is that it tends to reveal a residual something: whether a sensory trace of the effort at evacuation or a framing narrative about the very gesture of laconic refusal. In the case of the Hayward’s survey of half a century and more of invisible art (until 5 August), the void was filled in advance by a lot of tabloid mock-horror at the thought that a publicly funded gallery was about to charge £8 so that one could turn one’s gaze upon that vacancy, the air. The BBC ran a sneery piece on the Six O’Clock News. Actually, they phoned to ask if I’d comment, but my take on the show (which fittingly I hadn’t yet seen) must have sounded drearily accepting of its premise, because they never called back. The silence seemed right.

In truth, Invisible is both a bracing provocation — there really are empty rooms here, and notionally circumscribed gobbets of air to be wondered at — and a modestly meticulous story about the ways artists have found to approach, but perhaps never really achieve, complete invisibility. As Marina Warner wrote in the 5 July issue of the LRB, while reviewing Damien Hirst along the river at Tate Modern, the Hayward’s is an exhibition that courts attention above all else: attention to surfaces and atmospheres as much as, maybe more than, the works’ conceptual content. This last is all that such art’s detractors like to claim is going on, or not going on: the mere idea of emptiness left hovering, a grin without a cat.

The exhibition shuttles between the sublime idea of absolute nothing and the engaging reality of almost nothing. This oscillation has a prehistory, broached as much in certain artists’ attempts to articulate it verbally as in their near absconded works. Robert Rauschenberg’s Erased de Kooning Drawing (1953) is the record of a month’s careful rubbing out and therefore not exactly a pure void, more a palimpsest in reverse — in Jasper Johns’s words, an ‘additive subtraction’. Such a work has also, of course, to live in a world that may fill it with meaning or form; John Cage had already observed of some white paintings of Rauschenberg’s that they were ‘landing strips’ for light and shadow. Cage, whose 4’33” is just the most notorious instance of an apparently silent work filled with inadvertent sound, liked to tell the story of visiting an anechoic chamber at Harvard, and in the absence of all other noise hearing the roar of his bloodstream and the electric whine of his nervous system. It’s more likely that he was experiencing mild tinnitus, but his insight holds: ‘What silence requires is that I go on talking.’

At the Hayward, this notion of a full or replete invisible art is introduced via Yves Klein, whose empty exhibition known as The Void seems uncompromisingly committed to vacancy, but also reveals how much aesthetic, even occult or spiritual content could be projected into a pallid abyss. Klein mounted four exhibitions deserving of that title, though he only attached the word ‘void’ to the third. For the first, at Galerie Colette Allendy in May 1957, he painted the whole interior white so as to create ‘an ambience, a genuine pictorial climate and, therefore, an invisible one’. In a brief snatch of film, Klein hams up the suggestion that paintings have fled, leaving only their aura. He frames with his hands the spaces they might have occupied, then sits on a radiator, looks around quizzically at the white walls and an empty vitrine, and walks off. The second version, staged the following year at Galerie Iris Clert on rue des Beaux-Arts, was a more provocative affair. Thousands thronged the street, and Klein happened on a young man playfully drawing on the freshly painted gallery wall; he called security and demanded: ‘Seize this man and throw him out, violently.’

The third void was installed, if that’s the word, at the Haus Lange Museum in Krefeld, Germany, where Klein’s small empty room may still be viewed by appointment. The fourth version returned to the conceit of disappearing artworks: the artist and friends removed all the paintings from one room for the Salon Comparaisons at the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris in 1962. Klein had by this stage devised an elaborate and alchemically inflected theory regarding ‘zones of immaterial pictorial sensibility’; he was willing to sell these zones, though he only accepted gold as payment. If the buyer — not quite a collector — agreed to burn the receipt, Klein would throw half the gold in the Seine. An art that seems at first all about nothing was as much concerned with value, exchange, material and transmutation.

As the Hayward’s director (and the curator of Invisible) Ralph Rugoff points out in a suitably svelte catalogue (Hayward, £5), later artists have responded less to the mystical urges latent in Klein’s voids than to the institution-baiting gesture of stripping the gallery or museum of actual artworks. […]

There and not there, giving away very little but not quite nothing, such works seem like examples of Duchamp’s concept of the ‘infra-thin’, like mist on glass, or the warmth of a seat just vacated. […]