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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A Fictional Farewell to Literature

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). . . .

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. […]