1/30/14

Eduardo Kohn challenges the very foundations of anthropology, calling into question our central assumptions about what it means to be human—and thus distinct from all other life forms

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Eduardo Kohn, How Forests Think, University of California Press, 2013.

Can forests think? Do dogs dream? In this astonishing book, Eduardo Kohn challenges the very foundations of anthropology, calling into question our central assumptions about what it means to be human—and thus distinct from all other life forms. Based on four years of fieldwork among the Runa of Ecuador’s Upper Amazon, Eduardo Kohn draws on his rich ethnography to explore how Amazonians interact with the many creatures that inhabit one of the world’s most complex ecosystems. Whether or not we recognize it, our anthropological tools hinge on those capacities that make us distinctly human. However, when we turn our ethnographic attention to how we relate to other kinds of beings, these tools (which have the effect of divorcing us from the rest of the world) break down. How Forests Think seizes on this breakdown as an opportunity. Avoiding reductionistic solutions, and without losing sight of how our lives and those of others are caught up in the moral webs we humans spin, this book skillfully fashions new kinds of conceptual tools from the strange and unexpected properties of the living world itself. In this groundbreaking work, Kohn takes anthropology in a new and exciting direction–one that offers a more capacious way to think about the world we share with other kinds of beings.




The poets I know read two kinds of books: poetry, and things they hope to turn into poetry. The latter can be almost anything, from tabloids to scripture (though generally not literary fiction; this poets read half-ashamedly, for "fun"). Nonfiction is especially popular: history, philosophy, science. One friend swears by vintage Golden Guides, with their specialist vocabulary and their midcentury muscular prose: "Dendritic drainage patterns are those that show treelike branching because the bedrock has a uniform resistance to erosion and does not influence the direction of stream flow" (Geology by Frank H. T. Rhodes, 1972).
Since the 1970s, theory has exerted a powerful hold -- French theory, linguistics, anthropology, and cultural criticism of various stripes. Why? I think it's about structure. Theory is full of structural ideas, ways to see and understand the world, which are catnip to marauding poets. One does not even have to believe in a structure's reality to make good use of it. In fact, reading The L-A-N-G-U-A-G-E Book, Bruce Andrews and Charles Bernstein's 1984 anthology of the much-loved and -loathed poetry movement, I slog through good-student applications of theory -- "Its line of advance propels it across the axis of the law, lexis, as a praxis which at precisely that juncture of abrasive contact discovers itself to be not parallel to the law..." (Jed Rasula) -- then somersault with mercurial thinkers like Lyn Hejinian: "Marvelous are the dimensions and therefore marveling is understandable -- and often understanding."
Is this responsible of me or them? Does this make poets the Vikings of literature, pillaging, looting, leaving the church in flames? We shall see.
In the meantime, I have a new favorite book I'd like to turn into poetry: How Forests Think by Eduardo Kohn. Kohn's subtitle is Toward an Anthropology beyond the Human; his method is to elucidate incidents from his fieldwork among the Amazonian Runa with theoretical frameworks that reveal... but never mind all that overview, we're poets, remember? And to that end I may as well admit that great swaths of this book mean nothing to me. "It means due to a certain kind of absence of attention to difference," Kohn murmurs, putting me to sleep, and then two pages later a fierce and jagged underline scores a phrase that brought me awake wide-eyed.
For me, Kohn is at his best when offering educated observations about how the Runa and their world think and live. For example, Kohn describes a Runa family's efforts to predict when the winged ants -- a great delicacy -- near their home will take flight, employing methods that, to a Western mind, endow the ants with too much personality. They whistle, for instance, a call that they believe the ants recognize as the call of their mothers. This page-turning drama of ants trying to survive and others trying to survive on the ants ends in success for the Runa: "By treating ants as the intentional communicating selves they are," the Runa are able to harvest them.
Like that one? Here's another. Kohn trips several times on a path; when a Runa friend points this out to him, he realizes that he is merely approximating the path: "I could get away with this because my regular gait was an interpretive habit -- an image of the path -- that was good enough for the challenge at hand."
What if conditions change? Then how we approximate the world may matter more. In fact, Kohn hints that the richness of our approximation of the world -- call it our aliveness -- may determine our survival.
But these instances are not merely trinkets. They lead to Kohn's larger argument, which I half-understand thusly: he means to attach us again to the world we thought our thinking removed us from by showing us that the world too thinks. He is enchanting the real world or reifying the enchanted one: "If thoughts are alive and that which lives thinks, then perhaps the living world is enchanted. What I mean is that the world beyond the human is not a meaningless one made meaningful by humans."
Is Kohn simply redrawing the boundaries, redefining self, live, think? It's possible. But the imaginative possibility counts for us poets, or for anyone who uses words, or thinks in symbols, or interprets at all -- which, Kohn shows, is everyone, by which I mean everything.
More happens here. After my mind had already been blown enough for one book, I came across this, in which Kohn follows the philosopher Charles S. Pierce: "Because all experiences and all thoughts, for all selves, are semiotically mediated, introspection, human-to-human intersubjectivity, and even trans-species sympathy and communication are not categorically different. They are all sign processes."
So I am a forest and you are a forest. Kohn tells us that the Runa especially value stories, dreams, and thoughts that cross species perspectives -- perhaps because the better the Runa think as other beings, the better they hunt and survive. He goes on to suggest that thinking may be, in essence, crossing perspectives.
And this is why I do not think poets need to fear their desire to make off with the tasty bits here. This is not always true. Can we agree amongst ourselves to write no more Anthropologie poems? You know what I mean: the poems that seize a picturesque "cultural" detail against which to set a bourgeois realization. That is poet as marauder in the worst way. But to play with Kohn's thoughts is to enter the enchanted forest -- not as a conqueror but as another animal, thought, self.
I am thinking, now, of the highway I drive to work, which is always smeared with blood and littered with deer carcasses. I've never seen a road so gory. I'm also thinking of how Kohn defines a soul as an essence in relation; all who perceive others have these auras, almas, souls that others in turn perceive. The other day I saw a live deer by the road for the first time. Small, rumpled, he grazed with his rump to the traffic. He did not look up for me, but I knew he could; I was possessed briefly by that life as I flew by him at seventy miles an hour.
*
Come to think of it, perhaps I mean Books for Artists. I know dancers and painters who would groove to Kohn's expansion of self and thought and living, and I want to see the dances, paintings, films, buildings that come out of dreaming over this book.
Or perhaps I mean simply Books for People. Don't we all read this way -- or wouldn't we like to: dropping external demands and letting the aesthetic, like a muscle, like a tongue, run over the text before us? Or perhaps I mean Books for People because the aesthetic seeks what it needs, and everyone needs structures, needs new ways to think about what happens. This passage arrested me:
The I is in form and outside of history.... This is why nothing can happen to it. Heaven is a continuation of form. Hell is history; it is what happens to others. Heaven is a realm where people are not subject to time. They never age. They never die there. Only its can be in time. Only they can be affected, subject to dyadic cause-and-effect, out of form, subject to history -- punished.
What do you need to understand or imagine? Do it here. - Lightsey Darst

There is a long genealogy of anthropologists who have borrowed their titles from the translation of Lucien Lévy-Bruhl’s La mentalité primitive — How Natives Think.  Running from Marshall Sahlins’ How “Natives” Think to Maurice Bloch’s How We Think They Think, these transformations run parallel to those of the discipline itself. By entitling his book How Forests Think, Eduardo Kohn indicates that he doesn’t study the way the people he worked with in Ecuador thought about forests, but the way forests actually think. By making a claim about the relation between life and thought, this book takes part in the ontological turn (Candea 2010) that decenters anthropologists’ longstanding focus on cultural representations to ask how representations emerge within forms of life. Following Philippe Descola and Eduardo Viveiros de Castro, Eduardo Kohn shows that Amazonian ethnography challenges our conceptions of life and thought in a way that raises the ontological question of what there is. As the ecological crisis leads to a proliferation of new entities that both blur the opposition between nature and culture and ask for political recognition – “pets, weeds, pests, commensals, new pathogens, ‘wild’ animals, or technoscientific ‘mutants,’” (9) this kind of ethnography cautiously scrutinizes the continuities and discontinuities between humans and nonhumans. The book is ethnographic in a classical sense, and yet its chapters follow a theoretical progression, while powerful images plunge into an “enchanted” world – a term Kohn takes up deliberately – entangling humans and nonhumans in puzzling ways.
The main thesis of the book is about semiosis, the life of signs. If we are troubled by the idea that forests think, it is because we conceive thinking as a conventional relation to the world. Following 19th century American philosopher Charles Saunders Peirce, Kohn argues that all signs are not conventional symbols, and that there are other ways to learn the meaning of signs than to relate them to each other in a cultural context. When a hunter describes the fall of a palm tree under the weight of a monkey as pu’oh, the meaning of this sign is felt with evidence, without knowledge of Quichua (the language spoken by Kohn’s informants), because it relates hunters, monkeys and trees in a complex ecosystem. Kohn asks for “decolonizing thought” and “provincializing language” by looking at relations between signs that are not symbolic. Hence the program of an “anthropology beyond the human” that places human symbols in the forms of life from which they emerge. Without romanticizing tropical nature, Kohn argues that most of our problems are ill-shaped, or filled with anxiety – as in a wonderful description of the bus trip that led him to Avila – if we don’t place them in a larger semiotic field.
Following Terrence Deacon’s interpretation of Peirce (2012), Kohn is less interested in the classifications of signs into indices, icons and symbols than in the process through which they emerge one from the other. A sign refers to something absent that exists in futuro, just as the crashing of the palm tree under the weight of a monkey refers to a coming danger for the monkey, and a possible catch for the hunter. Habits fix the meaning of signs by producing similarity, and are considered as “interpretants” of signs. Using the example of the walking-stick insect, Kohn argues that what appears to look similar is actually the product of a selection from beings that looked different. Signs thus refer to the past as a memory of beings who have disappeared. Since this relation to the past and future is what, for Peirce, constitutes selves, all living beings, and not only humans, can be considered as selves.
The strangeness of Kohn’s text come from the way it interlaces these theoretical analyses of signs with an account of the life of the Runa people, considered not as a cultural context but as “amplifying” certain ontological properties of life itself. “Living beings are loci of selfhood,” Kohn writes. “I make this claim empirically. It grows out of my attention to Runa relations with nonhuman beings as these reveal themselves ethnographically. These relations amplify certain properties of the world, and this amplification can infect and affect our thinking about the world,” (94). This is an original intervention in the ontological reappraisal of animism. Kohn neither contrasts animism to naturalism as two inverse ontologies in the mode of Descola, nor does he engage in the paradoxes of perspectivism like Viveiros.  Instead, he considers living beings as selves in relation to past and future relations, and social life as an amplification of this process of self-formation.
Thus, puma designates both predators like jaguars and shamans who can see the way that jaguars see. Runa people need to learn how jaguars see in order not to be eaten by them. The soul, as what exceeds the limits of the body, is “an effect of intersubjective semiotic interpretance,” (107). What Kohn calls “soul blindness” is an inattention to the effects of the souls of other living beings. The problem is how to live with runa puma: jaguars who act like humans, and kill to revenge other killings, who are dreaded but also considered to be mature selves.
Dreams, analyzed in Chapter 4, are common ways of communication with souls and remediating “soul blindness.” Runa people give hallucinatory drugs to dogs so that they will dream, and their barks during dreaming are interpreted literally—in the same way as their daytime barks–while human dreams of hunting are interpreted metaphorically. Rather than doing a symbolic analysis of dreams, Kohn places them in the semiotic life they express, between humans, dogs and jaguars. Dreams are ways of communicating between species without abolishing them, constituting a “trans-species pidgin.”
In Chapter 5, Kohn makes an important distinction between form and sign. “Whereas semiosis is in and of the living world beyond the human, form emerges from and is part and parcel of the nonliving one as well,” (174). The question he asks is that of the efficacy of form, the constraint it exerts on living beings. Taking the example of the distribution of rubber trees in the Amazonian forest, which depends on the ecology of parasites as well as on the network of rivers, he argues that shamanistic hunting and the colonial extraction of rubber were both constrained by the same form. Forms have a causality that is not moral but that can be called hierarchical: signs emerge from forms, and symbols from signs, in a hierarchy between levels of emergence that cannot be inversed. This is a powerful interpretation of the insertion of colonial extraction in forms that historically precede it: if power brings with it moral categories, this insertion cannot be thought of as an imposition from above, but rather as a fall-out or an incidental movement.
Kohn links this morphodynamic analysis of colonialism to Lévi-Strauss’s analysis of “la pensée sauvage” - a form of thought emerging from relations between signs rather than being imposed upon them. Through forms and signs, Runa people have “frozen” history in such a way that they can interpret events through their dreams. The dream of Oswaldo, who saw a policeman with hair on his shirt, is ambivalent: does it mean he will be caught by the white man, or that he will be successful in hunting peccaries? The final chapter of the book analyses the reversals in relation between the Runa and White missionaries or policemen, as well as the pronouns by which Runa people refer to themselves as subjects, such as amu. “Amu is a particular colonially inflected way of being a self in an ecology of selves filled with a growing array of future-making habits, many of which are not human. In the process, amu renders visible how a living future gives life some of its special properties and how this involves a dynamic that implicates (but is not reducible to) the past. In doing so, amu, and the spirit realm upon which it draws its power, amplifies something general about life—namely, life’s quality of being in futuro,” (208). The question for Runa people is how they can access the realm of the White masters, that is also the heaven of saints: what is generally called the “super-natural.”  To live is to survive, Kohn argues, that is to live beyond life, in the many absences that constitute life as a semiotic process.
The strength of this book is to propose a rigorous demonstration while never leaving empirical analysis. Starting on the level of signs in their triadic mode of existence, Kohn finds form on one side and history on the other, and describes their constraints and ambivalent relationships. This is not a dualism between nature and culture that would be solved through the concept of life – and Kohn tries to avoid an all-encompassing anthropology of life – but a logical tension that is amplified by humans, almost in the way that genetic material is amplified inside and outside the laboratory (Rabinow 1996). Kohn’s anthropology “beyond the human” – but not of the “post-human” – grounds itself in the life of signs where humans emerge to amplify them. The ambition of this ontological claim, its clarity and its theoretical productivity will not doubt be amplified by other ethnographic inquiries on life. -   

References:
Candea, Matei
 (2010) Debate: Ontology Is Just Another Word for Culture. Critique of Anthropology 30 (2): 172-179
Deacon, Terrence (2012) Incomplete Nature: How Mind Emerged from Matter. New York: Norton.
Descola, Philippe (2005) Par-delà nature et culture. Paris: Gallimard.
Viveiros de Castro, Eduardo (1998) Cosmological Deixis and Amerindian Perspectivism. Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, n.s., 4, 469-488.
Rabinow, Paul (1996) Making PCR, A Story of Biotechnology. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.


 

Jeremias Gotthelf - The Black Spider can be seen as a parable of evil in the heart or of evil at large in society, or as a vision, anticipating H. P. Lovecraft, of cosmic horror.



Jeremias Gotthelf, The Black Spider, Trans. by Susan Bernofsky. new York Review of Books, 2013. [1842.]
 

It is a sunny summer Sunday in a remote Swiss village, and a christening is being celebrated at a lovely old farmhouse. One of the guests notes an anomaly in the fabric of the venerable edifice: a blackened post that has been carefully built into a trim new window frame. Thereby hangs a tale, one that, as the wise old grandfather who has lived all his life in the house proceeds to tell it, takes one chilling turn after another, while his audience listens in appalled silence. Featuring a cruelly overbearing lord of the manor and the oppressed villagers who must render him service, an irreverent young woman who will stop at nothing, a mysterious stranger with a red beard and a green hat, and, last but not least, the black spider, the tale is as riveting and appalling today as when Jeremias Gotthelf set it down more than a hundred years ago. can be seen as a parable of evil in the heart or of evil at large in society (Thomas Mann saw it as foretelling the advent of Nazism), or as a vision, anticipating H. P. Lovecraft, of cosmic horror. There’s no question, in any case, that it is unforgettably creepy.

There is scarcely a work in world literature that I admire more.—Thomas Mann

The Black Spider was a horror story of its day, written by a Swiss pastor, Albert Bitzius, under the pseudonym of Jeremias Gotthelf. What distinguishes it from, say, the horror stories of Gotthelf’s contemporary, Edgar Allan Poe, is that Gotthelf firmly believed in the reality of the demon he created…. Gotthelf’s talent is to make his horror credible by the simplicity of his style and the acuteness of his psychological perception, particularly of the herd instinct among the villagers. His story is a homily, showing how the everyday moral weaknesses of men and women give an opening to the spirit of evil. Christine’s sin is not just in flirting with the Devil, but in thinking that she knows best.—Piers Paul Read

Jeremias Gotthelf: with him I’m just like the woman in Heinrich Pestalozzi’s novel Lienhard und Gertrud who says ‘Your priest has driven me out of church!’—Robert Walser

Perhaps the psychological theories of Freud and Jung and the nightmare fantasies of Kafka had to be absorbed before the European imagination was ready for Gotthelf’s The Black Spider.
—Herbert Waidson, author of Jeremias Gotthelf: An Introduction to the Swiss Novelist
Gotthelf’s writings are the utterance of the earnest life within and around him. He entered into the great mountain temple of nature, following within the veil such great high-priests as Wordsworth and Novalis. He is a true poet when he tells us in hushed voice of the hill-side storm, the relentless avalanche, the devastating torrent; or leads us rejoicing through the jubilant spring woods and grateful autumn fields. But his deepest interest lay in the human life which surrounded him, which spoke to him daily in dirge or psalm. —The British Quarterly Review (1863)


Evil, however, abounds in this dire, bone-freezing short novel by a Swiss pastor, first published 171 years ago and newly translated from the German by the able Susan Bernofsky. The writer — whose real name was Albert Bitzius — means to instruct his readers about the consequences of trafficking too casually with the Devil, here imagined as an unsavory character dressed in green, like the fearsome knight with whom Sir Gawain, once upon a time, made a really lousy deal. In “The Black Spider,” this demon (sometimes referred to, bluntly, as the Evil One) offers to help a bunch of Swiss peasants accomplish a nearly impossible task imposed on them by the cruel lord of the local castle. In exchange, the green devil requires the payment of a newborn, unbaptized child. After some initial resistance, the townspeople manage to talk themselves into making this bad trade, and then, we mortals being the weak, foolish creatures we are, they compound their error by trying to break their unholy contract. The Evil One is not amused.
On a woman’s face, a dark spot appears where the Devil had once planted a soft kiss; the spot grows and grows, and in time a large venomous spider bursts from her cheek, a hideous parody of birth. It is also, of course, a striking symbol of original sin. And as the implacable arachnid and its offspring proceed to ravage the rural population, it becomes, too, a metaphor for plague. Gott­helf spins his horrifying tale patiently, serenely, with full confidence, it seems, that it will be strong enough to bear all the allegorical weight he can load on it.
His confidence is justified. “The Black Spider” is scary as hell, and the evil it portrays with such apparent simplicity seems, in the end, a more complex phenomenon than we might have thought. Throughout, Gotthelf keeps his readers aware of the rhythms of nature, so the awful powers unleashed here seem to arise out of the eternal order of creation, a great storm of evil combining the destructive forces of the natural world and the self-destructive force of human nature after the Fall. He does something only the best horror writers, and the best preachers, can do: he puts the fear of God in you. - Terrence Rafferty

In Jeremias Gotthelf’s 19th century gothic horror story The Black Spider, newly translated by Susan Bernofsky, a young woman makes a pact with the devil, sealed by a single kiss, that brings generations of terror to her community. The destruction of the evil caused by that kiss is the basis of Gotthelf’s wonderfully creepy and genuinely frightening story.
The story opens on a radiantly beautiful morning in a quaint Swiss village—black birds trill aubades amid dew-speckled flowers, and lusty cows traipse across lush fields. In a well-kept farmhouse, preparations are underway for a celebration: the newest member of the village is about to be baptized. The house is a hubbub of activity. There’s sumptuous food to prepare, archaic rituals to observe, and social niceties to carry out—but finally, amid or perhaps despite the hustle and bustle, the baptism party gets underway for the church, where the child finally receives the eternal protection that holy baptism confers.
While the churchgoers are relaxing after the celebratory meal back at the farmhouse, the second part of the story takes place. Noticing a blemished and blackened window post in the otherwise handsome and newly built home, a villager goads the grandfather into explaining its presence. The grandfather ends up telling two linked stories separated by many centuries (that are framed by the story of the child’s baptism) of a terrible monster that devastates the village. It seems at first that these two tales are where the horror resides, but what is most chilling is how the stories (themselves grisly and terrifying) shed new light on the framing story of the baptism of the child, spreading, as if by contagion, a pall of fear and doubt onto what has previously been read as the splendor of a sacred day.
Gotthelf’s warning is that evil can be (and may be especially) lurking among the pomp and finery of what we think of as sacred: when worship of God is replaced with “vainglorious grandeur” and hearts are “hardened against God and man,” then evil finds a foothold. The antidote to evil, argues Gotthelf, is a continuous application of piety, humility, courage, and above all else, devotion to traditional values and God’s grace. God has the ability to save humankind from itself provided that humans are willing to believe fervently in God and be able to sacrifice themselves for God and his community.
Fifty years before 19th-century French social psychologists Gabriel Tarde and Gustave Le Bon put forth the theory of crowd mentality, Gotthelf was examining it in works like The Black Spider. The villagers’ mistake when the devil arrives is to become swayed from what they know is right—in their misguided frenzy, they rationalize the acceptance of evil . At the root of evil, argues Gotthelf, is an environment where
God’s commandments mattered less and less, and worship and worshipers became objects of mockery; for where much vainglory is to be found, or much money, one also finds delusions that mistake appetites for wisdom…
Jeremias Gotthelf
Jeremias Gotthelf
Gotthelf (translated literally = God help or helper of God) is the pen name of Albert Bitzius (1797-1854), a Swiss pastor and author of novels, novellas, short stories, and nonfiction. Though notorious for his strong reformist views on education and the plight of the poor, Gotthelf was one of the most important novelists in Switzerland and of the German language in that period. But The Black Spider is no mere didactic tract; Gotthelf’s cunning use of allegory, mastery of the framing device, and irony-infused language (where every detail, reread or recollected, becomes a sign of impending doom) creates a precise study in the psychology of fear—one that is as true in the 10th century as it is today.
Bernofsky’s elegant translation brings out the magic of Gotthelf’s prose. The chair of the PEN Translation Committee, multi-translation award winner, and translator of modern German authors such as Walser, Kafka, and Hesse, Bernofsky says this about the novel on the Pen America website:
[Y]ou get the sense that he wrote this to encourage his community to keep the faith, because it’s only by keeping the faith, and having the community as a whole keep the faith, that catastrophe can be deterred. On an ongoing level, sustained faith is necessary to keep the community from being destroyed.
Horror is most affecting when it catches us by surprise, when it unseats what we normally think of as safe, holy, and pure. Our sin, and our undoing, is to be swayed by the safety of our own satisfaction, our wealth, and our success:
But just as the pear tree that is best nourished and watered and bears the most fruit can be struck by the worm that gnaws at its rind, making it wither and die, so it can happen that where the flood of God’s blessings flows most richly over men, the worm can creep its way in, causing men to puff themselves up and grow blind, seeing only God’s blessing and forgetting God, letting the riches they enjoyed distract them from their provider, becoming like the Israelites who received God’s succor and then forgot Him, blinded by golden calves.
It’s in the moment of reckoning that we become aware of signs that we previously read as innocent and insignificant. It is then that we become aware of our errors, and evil’s range and power are revealed to us as all-knowing. As Gotthelf knows, evil is always (has always been) waiting patiently for us to slip into the delusion that we are safe. - Jessica Michalofsky

In The Black Spider (Die schwarze Spinne —here newly translated by Susan Bernofsky), Jeremias Gotthelf—the pseudonym of Swiss pastor Albert Bitzius—spins a morality tale of evil in a Swiss hamlet. Originally published in 1842, The Black Spider illustrates with terrifying vividness a village tormented by deadly spiders over several generations. This is more than just a story of gratuitous horror: it presents the cause of this terrible affliction and the villagers’ (periodic) deliverance from it as lessons in sin and redemption.
Framed by a “contemporary” (i.e. nineteenth century) christening feast in the same village, the story of the spiders narrated by an old man is prompted by a comment about an incongruously dark post in his home. He carries his audience centuries back to a time when a cruel knight imposed impossible burdens upon the villagers. Desperate, they debate whether or not to accept a deal from Satan in which they exchange an unbaptized child for his assistance. One villager makes the decision for them by agreeing to Satan’s terms, albeit believing she can outwit him. What follows is the town’s attempt over several generations to prevent the loss of a soul and keep tethered the forces of evil that they allowed to become unleashed in their town.
The Black Spider, while a chillingly satisfying horror story, could be found in the Old Testament. God’s people, subjugated by a cruel ruler, acquiesce to the temptations of evil and lose their trust and fear in God (and of course all of this is instigated by a woman). The people are punished; only the faithful are preserved. A priest finally rids the land of evil, and the villagers and their descendants resume their piety and holiness. But then they lapse, and the evil is unleashed again, and again the evil is contained, although this time by a repentant layman (initially misguided, of course, by women). Thus it serves (or served) as a warning of the perils of sin and virtue of redemption, this time in the Alps rather than along the Jordan. That the author of this work was a pastor is probably more than coincidental.
The villagers are flat and more or less archetypes (the fallen woman, the good priest, the evil lord), but character development is not essential to experiencing Gotthelf’s horrifying evocation of paranoia and fear. He deftly illustrates the terror the spiders wreak among the villagers, not least when the spider on Christine’s face unleashes its full wrath:
. . . Christine felt as if her face was bursting open and glowing coals were being birthed from it, quickening into life and swarming across her face and all her limbs, and everything within her face had sprung to life, a fiery swarming all across her body. In the lightning’s pallid glow she saw, long-legged and venomous, innumerable black spiderlings scurrying down her limbs and out into the night, and as the vanished they were followed, long-legged and venomous, by innumerable others.
This ought to serve as a warning to any arachnophobes: Gotthelf does spares no detail in his description of the hairy, spindly legs of spiders creeping up the necks of the villagers or the spiders’ beady eyes watching them in their sleep.
The Black Spider is a delightfully creepy tale of a town plagued not by some weird monster or flesh-eating plague, but by the very real (albeit not ubiquitous) venomous spider. As an admonition against sin and a call to faithfulness it may be of more interest to some than to others. However, as a horror story, it ought to terrify every reader and make him wonder if the feeling on the back of his neck are hairs standing up in fear, or tiny hairy legs crawling upward toward his head. - Phillip Koyoumjian

Finely crafted stories generally have virtues that are easy to describe: they're about an interesting place or milieu, or they contain particularly precise and vivid language, or they introduce a character who immediately comes alive, or they have a high-concept premise. But some stories are enjoyable in entirely new and unexpected ways. This is particularly the case for works, like The Black Spider, that predate our modern storytelling rules and, thus, behave in ways that put us off our guard.
This novella was first published in 1842 by the Swiss pastor Jeremias Gotthelf. It was recently retranslated (from the German) by Susan Bernofsky and released last month by the New York Review of Books (NYRB) imprint that has done so much in the past decade—under its Classics label—to revive interest in so many unjustly obscure authors.
The story is fairly short (only 108 pages) and doesn't go out of its way to classify itself. The back cover blurb summarizes its elements in a list that seems dark but also charmingly quaint:
Featuring a cruelly overbearing lord of the manor and the oppressed villagers who must render him service, an irreverent young woman who will stop at nothing, a mysterious stranger with a red beard and a green hat, and, last but not least, the black spider . . . The Black Spider can be seen as a parable of evil in the heart or at large in society, or as a vision, anticipating H.P. Lovecraft, of cosmic horror. There's no question, in any case, that it is unforgettably creepy.
Rarely has a novel's description left me so adrift. From reading the back cover, I had no idea what sort of story I was going to read. Was it a fairy tale? Was it a tale of supernatural horror? Or a work of darkly accented realism?
The beginning offered little guidance. The first 20 pages of the work (almost a fifth of its length) are given over to a description of the christening of a newborn in a fairly prosperous nineteenth-century Swiss village. The bucolic scene is played out with wit and humor and considerable detail—the portrait of this rural life is, in its own way, very readable—but it's also somewhat slow-paced:
[The godmother] turned the handleless cup upside down, declaring that she had no room left for anything more and that if they did not leave her in peace she would have to play some tricks of her own. The housewife replied that she truly regretted the godmother was so displeased with the coffee, she'd given the nurse most urgent orders to make it as good as possible, there was indeed nothing she could have done to prevent it turning out so badly that no one wanted to drink it, and the cream was surely not to blame, she'd skimmed it herself, which was certainly not her daily custom. What could the poor godmother do but accept another cup? (p. 9)
As in the above passage, considerable attention is devoted to the discomfort of the child's young godmother: she's forced to eat far more food than she wants, and then she forgets to remind the priest of the newborn's name and subsequently becomes petrified that he'll christen the boy with the wrong name. But everything turns out fine, and the villagers all come back to the parents' cottage for a feast. The fire is going. People are waiting for food.
It's only at this point that the boy's grandfather begins relating a story about a blackened post that's embedded into the corner of their house. His story begins several centuries ago, sometime in the Middle Ages, when the villagers' ancestors were the serfs of a particularly cruel lord. After he forces them to work through their harvest on an impossible task, the villagers are approached by a mysterious woodsman who says he will complete the work for them . . . if they promise to give him the first child born in the village. The villagers are not confused; they immediately understand that the woodsman is the Devil.
At this point, we are one third of the way into the story and for the first time I feel like I finally understand it: Eureka! I'm reading a Deal With The Devil story. Okay, so why didn't Gotthelf start with that? What was up with all that other stuff? Oh well, it was probably some weird nineteenth-century storytelling quirk, like how Frankenstein begins with a captain finding Victor Frankenstein on an iceberg in the Arctic Circle.
The Black Spider rapidly puts together all the elements of a Deal With the Devil story. We have sympathetic people with sympathetic desires put into a situation which is so impossible that it's almost understandable that they could make the deal—if the villagers can't complete the lord's task and get back to harvest their fields, the whole village will perish, so maybe it makes sense to sacrifice one child.
And then a bold young woman steps forward and offers up the hope that they can make the deal and somehow wriggle out of it. And, finally, I felt like I fully understood this story: All right, I'm getting it. She's the hero here. Even if she comes out badly in the end (like Faust), we'll still end up admiring her passion.
But that was not the story at all. In fact, I was reading a very different story.
I recognize that my expectations for this story are not the ones that Gotthelf's readers would have had, but stories can't help but be read within the context of the modern day and of what's come after them. For me, the fun of the story was the ways in which it exposed—through contrast—the value system that covertly undergirds many modern novels. Whether she lives or dies, we expect the bold and courageous wife to be celebrated for her audacity. Whether he is overthrown or not, we expect the cruel and uncaring master to be reviled for his selfishness. But Gotthelf's story is built on a different system of morality: one that was developed precisely because its creators lived in a world where audacity was punished and cruel systems of government perpetuated themselves year after year, century after century.
Gotthelf was a pastor: he really believed in the reality of the Christian god. And The Black Spider is an unflinching, theologically correct look at what it means to believe in the Christian god. Gotthelf builds a world that doesn't very much care for human life. In this world, God does not swoop down and save you at the last minute. Both the righteous and the unrighteous are doomed. Oftentimes, the righteous die in more untimely and painful ways than the unrighteous. The only difference between their deaths is that the righteous ascend to heaven, while the unrighteous suffer for all eternity.
As the story comes to a close, the reason for its meandering opening becomes clearer. This is a story about a community. The christening that we witnessed was a reverent and joyful event. But these villagers are the direct descendants of the ones we see later, howling at each other, striking each other down, and struggling to hand a child over to the devil. Nothing separates them. Even the memory of the titular black spider has been lost. And, with the closing lines of the novella, we’re left with a very real sense that, given enough time, these villagers will also fall prey to the same evil that beset their ancestors:
where belief dwells, the black spider may not stir, neither by day nor by night. But what strength it can attain when beliefs and temperaments change is known only to the One who knows all things and who gives to each his powers: both to spiders and to men. (p. 108) - Rahul Kanakia

Translation Duel: The Black Spider – Jeremias Gotthelf

German Novellas of Realism: Stifter, Droste-Hulshoff, Gotthelf, Grillparzer ...


1/18/14

Morton Feldman - What was great about the fifties is that for one brief moment — maybe, say, six weeks — nobody understood art. That’s why it all happened



Morton Feldman, Give My Regards to Eighth Street: Collected Writings, Exact Change, 2004.

“What was great about the fifties is that for one brief moment — maybe, say, six weeks — nobody understood art. That’s why it all happened.” — Morton Feldman

Morton Feldman (1926-1987) is among the most influential American composers of the 20th century. While his music is known for its extreme quiet and delicate beauty, Feldman himself was famously large and loud. His writings are both funny and illuminating, not only about his own music but about the entire New York School of painters, poets, and composers that coalesced in the 1950s, including his friends Jackson Pollock, Philip Guston, Mark Rothko, Robert Rauschenberg, Frank O’Hara, and John Cage.
Give My Regards to Eighth Street is an authoritative collection of Feldman’s writings, culled from published articles, program notes, LP liners, lectures, interviews, and unpublished writings in the Morton Feldman Archive at SUNY Buffalo (where Feldman taught for many years). Feldman’s writings explore his music and his theories about music, but they also make clear how heavily Feldman was influenced by painting and by his friendships with the Abstract Expressionists. As editor B.H. Friedman notes in his introduction, Feldman’s “writing about art is also of lasting importance.”

“Like the artists involved in the new American painting, he was pursuing a personal seafor expression which could not be limited by any system… His music sets in morchtion a spiritual life which is rare in any period and especially so in ours.”— Frank O’Hara

“He talked wonderfully, sharply, outrageously, but that wasn’t quite his music. One thinks of the disparity of his large, strong presence and the delicate, hypersoft music, but in fact he too was, among other things, full of tenderness and the music is, among other things, as tough as nails.”— Christian Wolff

 

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Morton Feldman essay "American Sublime" by Alex Ross

1/17/14

Antoine Renard - Based on his interest in altered states of reality, conceptual artist Antoine Renard encountered a naturally growing specimen of Datura stramonium, a highly hallucinogenic plant that has obtained a significant cult status. Renard cultivated the plants in his studio. The outcome was a crop of organic art objects which were altered and sculpted


Oh Rats! It's Deceiving!

Antoine Renard, Oh Rats! It's Deceiving!, Broken Dimanche Press, 2013.

Following from his research on consumption cycles and cognitive representation, and based on a long interest in narcotics and altered states of reality, Antoine Renard encountered a naturally growing specimen of Datura stramonium in the summer of 2010 – a plant that, through thousands of years of coexistence alongside human activities, has obtained a significant cult status for its various properties. Harvesting the Datura’s seeds, he cultivated a large number of plants in his studio and garden using hypertonic methods. The outcome was a crop of organic art objects steeped in potential, altered and sculpted. Photographer Maxime Ballesteros, in his trademark stark and bright style, caught the artist with his creations. Alongside with Merel Cladder’s writing and comments over the course of the book, the result is a project that crosses the fields of contemporary art, biotechnology, shamanism, consumerism and the global sharing of anecdotal experiences found on the Internet.

Eugène Savitzkaya - Tabacchino was a child. Tabacchino was a dormouse. Tabacchino was a dog, a bird, a squirrel, an almond tree, a living being. Child, dog, dormouse, bird, squirrel, or almond tree, he breathed, drank water, had a clean smell, a unique charm, and grew old

Eugène Savitzkaya, Rules of Solitude,  Quale Press, 2004.

read an excerpt at Google Books


One prose poem from Rules of Solitude...

Touching one’s own face is tantamount to plunging one’s hand into muddy water or disturbing the shape of a puff of smoke. Children wear their golden faces like a splash of sun in the middle of the sea, far from any port.

Experiments with Weird: Eugène Savitzkaya


Savitzkaya
It is customary to establish reality before disrupting it, but some works are uncertain from the get-go. We all know that voice, of contemplation or reserve, into which madness gradually leaches, or in which it is revealed to have been lurking all along — the idea of a weird tale being to leave us without a place to stand, or a leg to do it on, before the vast, malign indifference. Still, there are stories where our first step falls not on firm ground, but on sand at the water’s edge. And already the tides, rushing out, are robbing us of foothold.
The water’s edge, that porous border, is a good place to start with Eugène Savitzkaya: a creature of limens, spaces of detente, unlikely juxtapositions. Belgian by birth of Ukranian descent, long admired but little known, Savitzkaya is generally classed as a poet despite having penned plays, essays, and more than twelve novels. And these novels — plotless, impressionistic, glories of language and consciousness, brief unchaptered bursts all from France’s leading avant-garde publisher, Minuit — surely they partake more of poetry than prose?
The intersections of the Weird and what is often called “experimental” writing have been covered before: Burroughs, Ballard, Donald Barthelme, Blake Butler, Brians Marcus and Evenson, Mark Danielewski’s House of Leaves… Like “world” literature, “experiment” is a baggy category, a catch-all for whatever balks the casual reader: strange line breaks, eccentric page layouts, lack of characters or plot, lack of setting or signposts… Another feature might be emphasis on language: meticulous, painstaking emphasis, the sense that at every moment the entire work hinges on, lives or dies by the next word choice, the syllable-by-syllable propagation of some established rhythm. It’s not that the prose is abstract — in fact, it is often exceedingly concrete, blunt, simple, stripped of metaphor and complex syntax — but that (as in Evenson, Butler, or even Beckett) something has been subtracted from it, making us work harder for a fuller picture of what is being described. The result is a certain destabilization, dislocation, an alienation that does not distance you so much from the text as lock you alone inside it. Hence the usual adjectives: hallucinatory, intense, incantatory… the feel and unease of Weird. You’re not sure where you are, because if you are where you think you are, it can’t really be that way, can it? The author can’t mean it.
Consider the opening paragraph of Savitzkaya’s short eulogy “In Memory of Tabacchino,” in the latest issue of Anomalous:
Tabacchino was a child. Tabacchino was a dormouse. Tabacchino was a dog, a bird, a squirrel, an almond tree, a living being. Child, dog, dormouse, bird, squirrel, or almond tree, he breathed, drank water, had a clean smell, a unique charm, and grew old. He bore inside him sap that flowed groundward through openings planned and improvised. The wind would muss his hair, rumple him, refresh and sometimes torment him. The first Tabacchino to get the coup de grâce was the almond tree: drought, then woodcutters. They wept then, lovers of almonds, the child first among them. No one could put the tree back as it had been. The dormouse, terrified by an owl, succumbed to a heart attack, rotted, and was scattered to the winds. Not the slightest sign of that bird in the skies now. Seek the dog’s grave in vain. Then came the child’s turn: crushed, ground, and scattered.
What, exactly, is Tabacchino? All of these things? None of them? Is he really a man; are these merely metaphorical comparisons? And if so, are his transformations meant as fable? If this is allegory, where is the key? (One might also dismiss this as “poetry.”)
Degrees of reification have sometimes been used to draw lines: between spec fic and lit fic, between allegory and story, between poetry and fiction. If the monster’s a metaphor, it’s lily-livered literary, but if the monster’s a monster — well, now we’re talking. Speculative fiction is the imagined made real, so that it must be contended with, at a physical, visceral level: blood and guts, meat and sweat. Literature, ever polite, merely entertains the imagined, as in a parlor of conjecture.
But I would argue Savitzkaya’s very power derives from his refusal to reify, his insistence on simply stating. Reification, Savitzkaya shows us, can in its own way be a kind of reassurance, a signposting, letting us know where we stand. When we tightrope between is-it? or isn’t-it?, a fuller reification tips us off, tips us to one side. As an elaboration of the simply stated, reifying is also a bringing-into-the-world that entails history and rules and a certain kind of sense-making: all the basics of that spec staple, coherent worldbuilding.
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Savitzkaya’s Russian mother is said to have fed him on fairy tales, and “In the Rediscovered Book” (also in Anomalous) certainly owes more to that tradition, but as usual, slips from classifying grasp. Its sinuous first sentence takes us straight into the world inside a book inside the drawer of a small platen press in the cellar of a house in the mountains. We spend the rest of this short piece there, punctuated by something like a refrain. Three times throughout, it is stated that there is no point peering nearer, or bending closer to sniff: the world of the book, being described, is immediate and blindingly obvious, assaults the senses. Of course this organizing chorus, a tactic borrowed from lyric or joke, clarifies nothing, may not even organize, may indeed only provide the appearance of organization. The minutely detailed world of Savitzkaya, who once devoted a monograph to Hieronymous Bosch, is never far from violence, nor the blithe ignorance that is the other side of its coin:
All the book’s children were in love; they polished their nails, smoothed their hair, and painted their lips. At night in the book, trucks passing by on the road crushed the sheep, then the dogs who’d come to devour the dead or wounded sheep, then other wilder dogs drawn by the fresh flesh of the dead or wounded dogs and the reek of the sheep’s remains. Night in the book smelled bad… At the heart of the book, the balloon exploded, and the charred navigator landed on the pines. The young woman watching the scene let herself be bitten and eaten by ants. Only the children kept playing.
Or consider this vow of vengeance from “Tabacchino”, which smacks of Arcimboldo whimsy and childish caprice:
Whosoever scattered Tabacchino’s body: I would have shattered his bones, those of the torso and those of the head, I would have scored into his skin as into calf leather, annulled the order of his fingers and replaced his tongue with a pepper of the brightest red. And his nose with a sprouting potato.
We cling to every word as if to handholds in a rock face, because at every moment we have no idea what to expect. In the absence of conventionally established expectations, anything is possible. Every word defers the promise of sense; in fact this creeping progress is Savitzkaya’s narrative drive. Story lies in smithereens. This is narrative atomized, moving forward by crumbs; we can see no further than the next word, focus yoked to this infinitesimal progress, like a tile in a vast mosaic, a scrutiny of minutiae, while all around us is a spreading sensation of alarm that the bigger picture, could we but see it, is quite terrifying.
Through language, Savitzkaya lends, extrudes consciousness into things alien to him: animal, vegetable, and mineral alike. This, the imaginative process by which writers bring the strange closer to us, often  finds itself inverted in Savitzkaya’s work: we are brought closer to the strange, the alien. As Rokus Hofstede (trans. Donald Gardner) notes at Poetry International, Savitzkaya’s voice,
sometimes sombre, sometimes intimate, but always sensual… sings of metamorphosis, of unity and dissolution. The world appears to him as a garden in which everything and everyone – plants, insects and people – are doomed to change, to melt away and disappear.”
Among his more famous novels are pseudo-biographies of his son, then his daughter in their infancy, and of young Elvis. From the succinct sections of these novels something emergent arises, a portrait of development and transition through accretion of fantastical detail. His record of infancy — that of son Marin, daughter Louise, and even himself, in stories like “The Rubber Animal” — is something like a mushroom coming to life: the dawning of some powerfully alien intelligence.
In “Family Portrait,” (forthcoming in the next issue of Unstuck), this intelligence is applied to death, whose harbinger is a wasp:
A wasp visits my mother, who is lying in her room. The wasp is truly golden and soot-streaked. Its abdomen is separated from its thorax by only a filament thin as a hair, which seems very close to snapping. The wasp says to my mother:
I know this room, I’ve been here three times before and I drank a good amount of sugar from your glass of blackcurrant cordial, the walls of this room are much too close and the window cold and hard like the tall sky.
And the wasp says:
I am a woman you met in the train taking you to Germany; it was I who, having put you at ease — you, sad and shattered — stole the envelope containing all your photos, my heart and my nerves are in my thorax and my abdomen contains the rest, and this clear division makes me invincible.
And the wasp says:
I have always been a wasp, golden and soot-streaked, social, relentless and quivering; the world doesn’t frighten me, already I have begun to eat you, I devoured your children and soon I will tell you how I went about it, I work the best when ignored, I am most effective when believed absent, I am also all the women who have harmed you.
If writing is a record of thought, then the thought process here is lyrical, fractured, unpredictably foreign.
While Gian Lombardo has translated some of Savitzkaya’s prose poems in Rules of Solitude (Quale Press, 2004) and the anthology When the Time Comes: A Selection of Contemporary Prose Poetry (Quale Press 2002), the work of Savitzkaya’s that most clearly maps onto the Weird — while far from the majority of his oeuvre — has yet to be explored in English. Savitzkaya is minimal without being skeletal; in fact, in few words he is almost lush, an impression derived from the swerve of his language, coloration through unlikely word choice. Lusher, I think, than his avant-weird American counterparts, though both draw power from rhythmic devices. Above all he is authoritative. By refusing to say more, he makes us make do with what is said. Whatever is said simply is, though it can’t be.

In Memory of Tabacchino

Edward Gauvin translating the French of Eugène Savitzkaya

- See more at: http://anomalouspress.org/10/2.gauvin.tabacchino.php#sthash.f2cFaQ6y.dpuf
Tabacchino was a child. Tabacchino was a dormouse. Tabacchino was a dog, a bird, a squirrel, an almond tree, a living being. Child, dog, dormouse, bird, squirrel, or almond tree, he breathed, drank water, had a clean smell, a unique charm, and grew old. He bore inside him sap that flowed groundward through openings planned and improvised. The wind would muss his hair, rumple him, refresh and sometimes torment him. The first Tabacchino to get the coup de grâce was the almond tree: drought, then woodcutters. They wept then, lovers of almonds, the child first among them. No one could put the tree back as it had been. The dormouse, terrified by an owl, succumbed to a heart attack, rotted, and was scattered to the winds. Not the slightest sign of that bird in the skies now. Seek the dog’s grave in vain. Then came the child’s turn: crushed, ground, and scattered.
Whosoever scattered Tabacchino’s body: I would have shattered his bones, those of the torso and those of the head, I would have scored into his skin as into calf leather, annulled the order of his fingers and replaced his tongue with a pepper of the brightest red. And his nose with a sprouting potato.
Nothing remains of Tabacchino but a fine powder on green oaks and red roofs, and at the feet of crumbling walls. The gardens where Tabacchino was scattered are surrounded by walls and planted with old oaks. And so we walk on the child wherever we set our feet, and this makes us sullen and quick to anger. When the anger is over: forgetting.
      We cannot, from a foot found in the soft tuffeau, knead ourselves a new Tabacchino because the heart is gone—the heart that expanded once and for all in the cold night.
      From a single, unrecognizable hand, we can recreate nothing because of the heart’s remoteness. Clay, cinder, silica are not enough, not even when mixed with water.
Let us make a mold. But the wax won’t take, not in the air. And the penis has withdrawn into its sheath of skin and sharpened itself of its own accord. It is now the bit of flesh that lives in elder wood or laurel blossom or stone. Sometimes it still shivers, opens its little fish mouth, but no bubble escapes (because of the heart’s remoteness), nor any scent of linden, garlic, yeast, cinnamon, soiled dishcloth. It has never spoken and it never will.
The almonds found everywhere on the ground, light and hollow, gone entirely soft, belonged to Tabacchino. He would toss them at the earth, break them between his teeth, against a rock, or between two pebbles. The friable earth, the compost, the soft tuffeau from the depths, the chalk belonged to Tabacchino. He liked to suck it, rummage through it, dampen and knead it with movements sometimes incredibly slow. He would wet it and toss his waste upon it, which it would make vanish. The sky, the beautiful sky, belonged to Tabacchino. Sometimes he would turn away from it. Often he would gaze at it, when he was tired of looking at the earth upon which he’d alighted or toward which he fell. The clouds, three white clouds or an enormous cloud, Prussian blue, belonged to him. The wind, the dry wind, stinging or gentle, belonged to him. The dust belonged to him too. It covered him, and he was full of it.
     Words, even those he never uttered, belonged to Tabacchino, the word bitter, the word night, like all the others. The shadow resting on the ground was his and tracks that lingered in the mud belonged to him.
And who will put Tabacchino back in his cradle, in his marble cradle, on his pillow of hay, in his sculpted casing with its arrow lightning-rod, its mirrors hung on the sky, its stars, its feathers, its creaking, its frills, the rain, the snow, the wind in the branches and the tremblings?
- See more at: http://anomalouspress.org/10/2.gauvin.tabacchino.php#sthash.f2cFaQ6y.dpuf


In the Rediscovered Book 
Edward Gauvin translating the French of Eugène Savitzkaya 

In the book rediscovered in the drawer of the Gordon press, in the white cellar of the house on the mountains in the land that knew so many plagues and disasters, you saw trucks rolling down a muddy road, their enormous wheels splattering cyclists, many cyclists, red, blue and green; you saw quite low over the woods the balloon in flames, and in a well-mown meadow, fallen oxen washed by rain; you saw, sitting on a stone shaped like an oval table, a young girl wearing a crown made from natural palm leaves soaked in varnish, plastic ivy leaves and pearl flowers, wearing a great black wool damask paletot, lined with gray squirrel glistening with dew, but browned in spots. No loupe was needed, all this was blindingly obvious. Nearby, in the book, was a bridge of astounding shape and size thrown over a cliff, and formed of a rounded arch with a thirty-foot span, depthless and anchored on two rocky projections, seemingly supported by thin air. From atop the bridge, you gazed on the falls you felt settling on you in a fine rain. It made itself felt: your cheeks, hair, and shoulders were soaked with it. You were cold and trembling. In the rediscovered book, the fields were fragrant only with buckwheat in bloom. No point sticking your nose between the pages, the smell was cloying; it drew bees and flies, the air quivered. Sometimes, in the book, a little girl beneath her raspberry parasol would leave the house and run to meet her two brothers, who were fishing; she would stick a pink worm on her hook and cast the line whose light float was but goosedown touched up with a brushstroke, sensitive to the slightest impact. In the deep, transparent stream of the book could be seen, if you leaned over, eels, unmoving trout, shadows with violet fins, rocks, pebbles, dark whirlpools, strings of swirling eddies, sparkling shingle and shells, chases and clashes. The water in the book flowed with wondrous swiftness under your eyes, usually clear, utterly limpid, but sometimes bearing small uprooted trees, baobab trunks that bumped the banks, many ice cubes ripped from rock walls like clayey clouds, smoke suddenly opaque, lightning. Fish living in the stream of the book were mostly striped or boldly golden, rarely scarlet. If the children should happen to see a red one, red like a poppy or rust, they said not a word to anyone, but celebrated the event amongst themselves, calm and delighted, smoking cigars rolled from rhubarb leaves and sucking on honey. Only children dared venture down the stream in the book; indeed, they had a monopoly on the manufacture of high-prowed pirogues from leaves, in which they rowed down bow and bend and every whitewater between. All the book’s children were in love; they polished their nails, smoothed their hair, and painted their lips. At night in the book, trucks passing by on the road crushed the sheep, then the dogs who’d come to devour the dead or wounded sheep, then other wilder dogs drawn by the fresh flesh of the dead or wounded dogs and the reek of the sheep’s remains. Night in the book smelled bad. No need to poke your nose between its pages to check, the stink was so bad. At the heart of the book, the balloon exploded, and the charred navigator landed on the pines. The young woman watching the scene let herself be bitten and eaten by ants. Only the children kept playing.

1/9/14

Jean Ferry - a collection of short prose narratives that offer a blend of pataphysical humor and surreal nightmare: secret societies so secret that one cannot know if one is a member or not, music-hall acts that walk a tightrope from humor to horror, childhood memories of a man never born, and correspondence from countries that are more states of mind than geographical locales



Jean Ferry. The Conductor and Other Tales, Illustrations by Claude Ballaré. Trans. by Edward Gauvin. Wakefield Press, 2013.
 

Featured image is reproduced from <I>The Conductor and Other Tales</I>.First published in French in 1950 in a limited edition of 100 copies, then republished in 1953 (and enthusiastically praised by André Breton), The Conductor and Other Tales is Jean Ferry’s only published book of fiction. It is a collection of short prose narratives that offer a blend of pataphysical humor and surreal nightmare: secret societies so secret that one cannot know if one is a member or not, music-hall acts that walk a tightrope from humor to horror, childhood memories of a man never born, and correspondence from countries that are more states of mind than geographical locales. Lying somewhere between Kafka’s parables and the prose poems of Henri Michaux, Ferry’s tales read like pages from the journal of a stranger in a familiar land. Though extracts have appeared regularly in Surrealist anthologies over the decades, The Conductorhas never been fully translated into English until now. This edition includes four stories not included in the original French edition and is illustrated throughout with collages by Claude Ballaré.
Jean Ferry (1906–1974) made his living as a screenwriter for such filmmakers as Luis Buñuel and Louis Malle, cowriting such classics as Henri-Georges Clouzot’s Le Quai des orfèvres and script-doctoring Marcel Carné’s Les Enfants du paradis. He was the first serious scholar and exegete of the work of Raymond Roussel (on whom he published three books) and a member of the Collège de ’Pataphysique. 

 
The Conductor and Other Tales is Jean Ferry's only published work of fiction. It first appeared in 1950; this edition is a translation of the one published in 2011, which also includes four previously unpublished pieces. Authorship, in the tangible form of books emblazoned with his name, does not appear to have been important to Ferry; a screenwriter (or, apparently more often, script doctor), he apparently was fine with sharing credit, or with it not being acknowledged in bright lights -- and perhaps the most charming piece in this collection is the opening one, 'Notice', in which he imagines the fate of this manuscript, beginning:
     Quite possibly, this book will be printed and read some day. Just as likely it will remain a manuscript, quietly sleeping the long years away in a drawer.
       He goes on to imagine the eventual fate and path of the manuscript-pages -- leading finally to the person he writes for (who is no longer even a reader, at that point). It's a beautifully executed little piece, and sets the tone for Ferry's odd literary excursions that follow.
       These pieces -- stories, of sorts, but not quite -- are very short, some only a page long. There's some overlap and continuity among some of them, but most stand simply, wonderfully strangely on their own.
       There's an ineffable quality to these pieces. Ferry makes unexpected claims or observations -- and yet spins them out convincingly:
     Man is a sunflower. This obvious truth has gone unnoticed. Once stated, everything else follows.
       Several of the best pieces touch upon writing itself, the far-from-prolific Ferry distilling a life's worth of ambition in the most succinct form -- most perfectly in 'Failure of a Fine Career in Letters', where he admits:
I would like to write thirty-odd novels, with the very precise goal of inserting, in some logical place, a few sentences I am especially fond of.
       Of course, he doesn't get around to it -- and so, after explaining himself, simply offers here: "a few of the lines with which I'd like to have adorned a novel", in a reductio near absurdum.
       Perhaps best summing up his attitude towards actually getting on paper entireties -- of bothering to write whole novels and the like -- is the haunting image of:
the intellectual who died of exhaustion at a young age for, on top of a draining, harassing, and poorly paid day job, he put his every spare moment toward preparing a monumental and definitive critical edition of Lafargue's The Right to be Lazy.
       A leading authority on Raymond Roussel (for more on Roussel see, for example, Mark Ford's Raymond Roussel and the Republic of Dreams), Ferry also offers a beautiful homage, 'Raymond Roussel in Heaven':
Here was repose, with the restored glory he had spent his life pursuing in vain through a series of pathetic expedients.
       (Ferry also closes off the piece amusingly:
     Later, Roussel really hit it off with God, whom he did a very good impression of for his closest friends, which won him even greater acclaim with the angels.
       In a lovely pocket-sized (hurrah !) edition from Wakefield Press, this is a wonderful volume to dip back into even if one first reads it through in one go; the pieces are well worth revisiting. The collages by Claude Ballaré also strike the proper note.
       Note also that this volume comes with a fairly detailed Introduction by Edward Gauvin, who has admirably and actively been doing his best to spread the Ferry-word. Given Ferry's relative obscurity there's certainly a case to be made for such an introduction and overview of the man and his place in French letters (and cinema), but I have to say I found it a distraction. The paragraphs of jacket-flap and back-cover copy provide more than enough information about the man and the book, and the more academic Introduction-proper is rather a drag on such an otherwise light (yet never shallow) book. - M.A.Orthofer

The most obscure of the obscure, and will probably stay obscure, but not to the fault of the great pubishing house Wakefield Press.  Hardcore Surrealist narratives by Jean Ferry, a name that maybe familiar if one follows the world of the Collége de Pataphysique and Surrealist texts.  This collection of short stories was admired by Andre Breton and was originally a limited edition of 100 copies.  And now we can read this rarity and marvel to Ferry's mix of humor and dread.
Not hard to believe that Ferry wrote numerous books on Raymond Roussel in French, because one can see the influence in his own fictional writings.  These stories are very slight, but also very important with respect to the culture that it came from.  Which is the avant-garde French literary world, that also leaks into French cinema as well.  Ferry wrote scripts for both Luis Bunuel and Henri-Georges Clouzot, so I think he was a man at the right place, with the right people and at the right time.    The stories themselves are not essential, but having and reading this is actually a very important part of the puzzle.   20th Century French literature is a large spider with its webs going towards different directions and areas.  Here is one map one should own and read. - 

 

Jean Ferry: A Figure of the French 20th Century

More on the man behind "The Society Tiger"

He was a little man, round all over. A sharp eye behind round glasses, close-shaven head, high-pitched voice, and a potbelly that recalled Ubu’s gidouille.” ~ Raphaël Sorin
 
Though Jean Ferry (1906 – 1974) primarily made his living as a screenwriter, he was involved in many notable movements of 20th century French literature. He was a satrap of the College of ‘Pataphysics, an Oulipo guest of honor, and the greatest specialist of his day in the works of Proust’s eccentric neighbor and cult figure, Raymond Roussel.
As a screenwriter, Ferry had an illustrious career, best known for his collaborations with Luis Buñuel, Louis Malle, and Georges Franju. He is known to have done script doctoring on no less than Marcel Carné’s Les enfants du paradis, and co-written Henri-Georges Clouzot’s classics, the murder mystery Quai des Orfèvres and Manon, an updated adaptation of Abbé Prevost’s Manon Lescaut. Late in life, he indulged his fondness for the fantastic by adapting Jean Ray’s gothic masterpiece Malpertuis for director Harry Kümel.
However, Ferry was also a nimble storyteller with a gift for whimsical detail:
It’s just like with the gas that fills the balloons. No one’s giving it away to the anglers; as if by chance, the factories just happen to sell it, and fix prices as they see fit. And so they effectively indenture these poor people. Everything conspires to overburden the bird-anglers. If the catch is bad, if winds are high and the balloons must stay grounded for a week, of course bird prices rise, but factory owners make it up by raising the price of gas. And when the catch is plentiful, it’s the price of birds that goes down. Sometimes it sinks so low that anglers have been spotted tossing the fruits of their fatigue back into the air, rather than surrender them so cheaply. And yet the factories always turn a profit. At the sparrowplant (where children, the sickly, and anglers’ daughters toil for a pittance), the bosses in the olden days were more humane, and left workers the heads (removed before canning). Now they sell them off to coal merchants. Really! That’s what they call progress, I guess…
At night, keeping vigil, they tell stories of the olden days that make youngsters tremble in the baskets where they’re pretending to sleep. They tell of the great serpent of the skies who swallows balloons whole. They curse cargo planes that pass thoughtlessly through fields of traps, moored to small air bladders, that are nowhere to be found the next morning, when it’s time to pull them in. They also tell the story of the angler who left one day and didn’t come back till twenty-five years later. His wife was dead, his children didn’t recognize him. Exiled by tempests far from his usual routes, his balloon had run aground on a deserted cloud. There, thanks to miracles of ingenuity, the brave, tenacious man had managed to survive entirely on carrier pigeons, thriftily sipping water from his cloud (for fear of shrinking it too much), until by sheerest luck a reconnaissance plane came and saved him. This angler’s name — so they say — was Robinson Crusair.
His fiction is playful, rueful, ironic, and absurd, merrily obsessed with what he sees as fundamental, inevitable tragedies: failure and fatigue.
They have flat little heads, whitish and triangular, like certain phonograph needles, needles of a model I believe has been forgotten. The little creatures are nice as all get-out, and easy to feed. They eat whatever I give them: sorrows, pulled, wounds (to pride, and other things), worries, sexual shortcomings, heartaches, regrets, unshed tears, lack of sleep — they down all these in a single gulp and ask for more. But what they like best of all is my fatigue, which works out well, since there’s no risk of that running low. I glut them with it, they never finish, and there’s always leftovers; I can never get rid of it all.
His tone can combine the journalistic pithiness and clubby bonhomie of a latterday Algonquin Round Table acolyte like A.J. Liebling with a truly subversive imagination, casually prolific with original, unsettling imagery:
Who among us, at that age when we grow curious about fantastical tales, hasn’t been captivated by the story of that character who describes himself as endowed by the creator with the face of a hyena, lips of bronze, eyes of jasper, and a reproductive organ much closer to the deadly viper than a harmless phallus? Among other peculiarities of a personality that seems to have been difficult, this individual, mired throughout his brief, unhappy life in what he calls “the green membranes of space” (we credit the expression entirely to him), insists on having it known that it was impossible for him to laugh. I won’t mention here the curious experiment that followed this confession, whose principal accessory was a well-sharpened razor.
Subtle transitions reinforce the veracity of skillfully deployed fantastical conceits, virtuoso passages of invention sustained by mastery of the long sentence and a deeply felt sense of humanity’s plight in a colossally indifferent universe:
The old woman sat down at the table with its oilcloth and coffeepot, and poured herself a brimming cup. Without turning around (from their accent, I could tell they were Scottish, and from the old Davy lamp hanging from the hearth, that they were a family of miners), the young woman said:
Mother, there’s a mountaineer on the wall.”
The old woman glanced vaguely my way, then turned back to the young woman. “Been there long?”
I don’t know, I spotted him just now in the mirror.”
Ferry’s prose reputation is founded on a single volume passed almost samizdat in varying versions from publisher to publisher, first appearing in 1950 from Cinéastes Bibliophiles in a 100 copy print run before finding a home at Gallimard in 1953, under the  editorship of Jean Paulhan, in their Métamorphoses imprint (print run: 1650).  Entitled The Conductor and Other Tales, it was reprinted most recently by the small Bordeaux press Éditions Finitude, who added for the first time in book form four stories previously scattered to the periodical winds, from internal publications of the College of ‘Pataphysics to Gallimard’s prestigious house organ, the Nouvelle Revue Française.
It is difficult to fit Ferry’s output in a single English category: his fictions run short, to flash (narrative) or the prose poem (atmosphere), although a few feature full-fledged, traditional plots. Structures vary: some are letters, some essays, some dramatic monologues, some frank reports of dreams. The sprightly, dilettantish charm of his voice belies expert concision, thoroughly figured thematics, and a felicity for sudden, vertiginous invention.
What I really wanted to tell you is you must never to come to this land. To be sure, one wants for neither food nor water, and the houses are rather comfortable, if one can adjust. No, what’s troubling is the manner of existence. I’ll never get used to it. The solitude here is too populous for me. It’s bearable by day, but at night… the noise of thousands of invisible breaths astonishes and, let me tell you, terrifies. It’s hard to explain. But you’ll understand. Haven’t you, in the dark, ever reached out with your foot for the final step of a staircase, only to find there wasn’t one? Do you remember the utter disarray you felt for a moment? Do you remember those patient explorations in bed at night when, just as you were about to fall asleep, your leg suddenly relaxed and you almost fell who knows where? Well, this land is always like that. Matter itself here is made of the same stuff as that step missing from your staircase. You never get used to it, I promise, and you must never come here.
Perhaps because of this unclassifiable ingenuity, Ferry’s writings are poised to enter several of our own literary conversations in English, at a moment when boundaries between genres are blurring and border-crossings between discourses encouraged. This fact is attested to by the variety of editorial visions across the periodicals in which I have published his work; we live in a cultural moment when Ferry’s deserving fictions might find a wider readership than they did in his own day, as elements of  many avant-garde movements that marked him have, in a process like sweet poison leaching into soil, permanently altered mainstream tastes.
Ferry’s witty and seditious “Kafka, or ‘The Secret Society’” and the abrupt “Robinson,” for example, are firmly of the parable class. “The Traveler With Luggage,” a sordid account of crime and amnesia, would not be out of place in a genrebending “neo-noir” anthology, while his shorts “The Garbagemen’s Strike” and “Homage to Baedeker,” featuring (respectively) a trash heap come to life and bird-fishermen in hot air balloons, might find a home in many a fantasy venue. Pieces like “Carbuncles” and “My Aquarium” extend the tradition begun in French by critic, poet, and painter Max Jacob, whose 1916 classic The Dice Cup is now seen as a link between Symbolism and Surrealism.
No doubt I’m mistaken. Perhaps carbuncles are simply creatures of the Great North, a cross between walrus and caribou, with nothing to do but wander in the fog looking for moist blue-green lichen. There’s so much fog they’ve never seen each other. But – no, no, carbuncles are like her, they burn. It was that detective, with his pipe smoke, who filled my head with fog, fog so you can’t tell the Thames from its banks.
Nor are carbuncles a species of globular insect that stoops to speaking with eagles. Well, then?
Ferry has the sheer writing chops to pull off a piece on idiosyncrasy of voice and opinion alone, as in “On the Frontiers of Plaster: A Few Notes on Sleep.” His 1953 story “Bourgenew & Co.”,  a unique revision of the Shangri-La tale first published in the Nouvelle revue française, was adapted by Claude Andrieux in 1990 into a short film that won several festival prizes in Switzerland, Italy, and France.
Ferry’s single most famous story, “The Society Tiger” (1946), has been anthologized multiple times in both French, most notably in Marcel Schneider’s 1965 Histoires fantastiques d’aujourd’hui, and André Breton’s 1966 Anthology of Black Humor, where Breton said that Ferry’s letterhead should read: “Psychological constructions a specialty. — Large selection of paradoxes, brash ideas, etc. —Always in stock: strong, human subjects. — Poetic details: upon request.” Breton, who also provided the introduction to original edition of Le Mécanicien, is said to have taken Ferry¹s wife Marcelle (a.k.a. Lila) as the inspiration for his book L’Amour fouLes quatre vents [The Four Winds] was an innovative if short-lived ‘40s revue whose regular features included “Master of the Fantastic,” where they reprinted Stoker’s Dracula; “Check and Mate,” devoted to crime fiction; and “Beyond the Walls,” for translations. When “The Society Tiger” first appeared in issue 5 of this magazine, Breton called it “the most sensationally new poetical text I have read in a long time.” It has been translated into English three times by different translators in various anthologies, but never has it or have other scattered translations of Ferry appeared in the context of his other work: the original collection, The Conductor. Nor has any greater investigation into his literary legacy been attempted, when in fact his cavalier stylistic brilliance and thematic cohesiveness are best showcased by a more comprehensive presentation of his work. Already a chilling and unforgettable tale, “The Society Tiger” is deepened and broadened when set beside “Memories of Childhood,” which, whether fact or fiction (the latter is likelier), plumbs psychology that “Tiger” stunningly leaves as symbol.
Miss Florence won’t mean a thing to today’s generation, but perhaps some survivors of the golden age (Tziganes and a prix fixe for 60 centimes) will not have forgotten that splendid girl who for two seasons running sent shivers of insidious dread down their spines at the Nouveau Cirque. Miss Florence would walk into the ring in a great evening gown, like a heroine from Henry Bataille, which meant yards of lace and velvet, black glacé kid gloves with pearl buttons, dazzling opaline shoulders, and eyes that were green just so, and suddenly all the men became serious, attentive, focused. And that great fan of pink swan feathers! But she wouldn’t keep her pretty dress on for long, not Mama. With two kicks and a roll of her hips, voilà, there she was in a black satin swimsuit, calves laced up like a genuine Mack Sennett bathing beauty (something still unknown to us then). That packed quite a wallop for the crowd, from the box seats to the back rows, way up there, where the ring below looked like a saucer of light. Monsieur Loyal didn’t need to ask for silence; no one thought about laughing while Miss Florence climbed a rope ladder to the top of the tent. Stirring thoughts filled your head as you watched that sublime derrière, those wild, golden, diamond-spangled tresses, rise toward the heavens. Afterwards, it all went very fast: a line of pink light swept from top to bottom, a splash, and Miss Florence, all smiles and wet skin, sprang from the little bathtub no one had initially believed she’d get in so dramatically. And they clapped, to free themselves of the fear they’d come looking for: to see that sweet, tempting, velvety machine become in a second a flattened pile of bleeding meat, punctured by bones and screams…
A nephew of the great avant-garde literary publisher José Corti, Ferry’s presence on the fringes of many major movements makes him, quite apart from the evident quality of his writing, a fascinating historical figure, a prism that can be turned at will to shed light on disparate literary traditions. Through him, we can trace the lyrical protests of Surrealism, the mechanics of Oulipo, the human heart of ‘Pataphysics, the long shadow of Kafka on the European fantastic, the sadistic excesses of the Panic movement. Ferry both embraced these currents and enjoyed their esteem, gave and received influence. His work, shot through with allusions from Anouilh to Dickens, Klossowski to Bataille, exists at a nexus of other authors like Boris Vian, Pierre Jean-Jouve, André Hardellet, André Pieyre de Mandiargues, and Marcel Béalu, whose affiliations with multiple movements often left their work forgotten in the cracks between. But as Roussel did with his marvelous and extravagant tableaux, Ferry has made a place for himself among the sui generis.
An unjustly neglected writer of limited but significant output, Ferry and his oeuvre are ripe for rediscovery, from this, his single volume of prose fiction, to his more personal screen work (Fidélité, written in collaboration with Max Ernst and Dorothea Tanning, but never filmed). Ferry’s stories have also been translated into Spanish and German. My translations of his work have appeared here at WFR, in The Coffin Factory, and The Café Irreal; more are forthcoming in Subtropics and Sentence. The Conductor and Other Tales will make its English debut in November 2013 from Wakefield Press with an introduction providing further critical and historical context.
 

Kafka, or the Secret Society

by Jean Ferry

Around his twentieth year, Joseph K. learned of the existence of a secret society—highly secret. Truth be told, it is unlike any other association of its kind. Some have a very hard time being admitted. Many who wish ardently to do so will never succeed. Others, however, are members without even knowing it. Furthermore, one is never entirely sure of being a member; many people believe themselves a part of this secret society when they aren’t at all. Although initiates, they are even less a part of it than many men who remain unaware of its existence. In fact, they were subjected to the trials of a fake initiation, meant to distract those unworthy of actually being initiated. But the most legitimate members, those who have reached the highest ranks in this society’s hierarchy—not even they ever discover whether their successive initiations are valid or not. It may even happen that a member who attains an actual rank after a series of genuine initiations is then subjected, without warning, to only fake initiations from then on. Whether it is better to be admitted to a low but authentic rank, or to hold an exalted but illusory position, is a subject of endless debate among members. At any rate, as to the solidity of their ranking, none can be sure.
In fact the situation is even more complicated, for certain applicants are admitted to the highest ranks without undergoing any trials, and others without even ever being told. Actually, it is not even necessary to apply; some have received initiations of a very high level without even knowing the secret society exists.
The powers of its higher members are limitless; they bear within them a powerful emanation of the secret society. Even should they manifest no emanation, the mere presence of these members is, for example, enough to turn an ordinary gathering like a concert or a birthday dinner into a meeting of the secret society. It is their duty to prepare secret reports on all the meetings they attend, reports scrutinized by other members of the same rank; thus there is a perpetual exchange of reports among members, which allows the secret society’s supreme authorities to keep the situation well in hand.
No matter how deeply or fully one’s initiation goes, it never goes so far as to reveal the goal of the secret society. Still, there are always traitors, and for some time now there has been no mystery about the fact that this goal is to keep secrets.
Joseph K. was quite terrified to learn this secret society was so powerful, so many-limbed, that he might have shaken the hand of its most powerful member without even knowing it. But as bad luck would have it one morning, after a troubled night’s sleep, he lost his first-class metro ticket. This misfortune was the first link in a chain of confused and contradictory circumstances that put him in contact with the secret society. Later, in order to defend himself, he was forced to take the necessary steps toward being admitted into this fearsome organization. All this happened quite some time ago, and how far he has gotten in these attempts is still unknown.(translated by Edward Gauvin)


I became acquainted with Jean Ferry through his most famous story, the thrice-translated “Le tigre mondain,” praised by writers from founding Surrealist André Breton to modern American horror master Thomas Ligotti. The place is Paris; the time, entre-deux-guerres. Mesmerism, beauty, barbarism’s foppish veneer: these converge in Ferry’s ostensibly straightforward account of an unusual music hall number, where for a moment, in the lurid theatrical light, all civilization seems to hang by a thread. The short but potent piece also proves Ferry one of Kafka’s lost children. I thought: here is an author who unites disparate readerships, surely of use in our niche-fractured literary landscape, where readers divided by camp and interest can be reunited by quirk and quality, eccentricity and excellence.
Luckily, the tiger was just the tip of the iceberg. Beggars formed from garbage, bird-anglers fishing from hot air balloons, travel fantasias from Defoe to Calvino, satires of bureaucracy, Shangri-La in a Welsh miner’s kitchen, gemlike prose poems, dramatic monologues of long-suffering, long-simmering existential menace… Ferry’s fortes were among my favorites: oneiric explorations, a felicity for detail, dilettante wit, inimitable (and often very verbal) Gallic whimsy, not to mention that singular halo only obscurity bestows, which the years merely burnish. His involuted logic charmed, as did his dashes of dread and absurdity, equally deadpan.
Great men admit they were wrong; great writers close on notes of defeat. What endeared me most to Ferry was his passion for fatigue. Any concordance of The Conductor will show this to be the collection’s foremost sentiment, even villain, lurking in stories to surface in the surrender on which so many of them end. If sheer weariness has ever terrorized you more than physically, almost spiritually; if it has, as Peter Handke wrote in his great “Essay on Tiredness,” ever “denatured the world around” you, then you will find in Ferry a kindred soul. Literature has always made much of death and eros, but exhaustion—linked to sex by la petite mort—is no less a mortal force, perhaps even more of one; a daily, rather than definitive, reckoning it was Ferry’s peculiarity to plumb. He did so by championing the petty, the niggling; his querulous, everyman narrators are so pitifully beleaguered, so easily dizzied by paradox, so universally beset by the inexpressible, that their final capitulations amount to a new gray in the spectrum of fatalism, somewhere between what John Gardner called Vonnegut’s “shrug” and Beckett’s exhortation to “fail better.” This unrelieved panic, these professions of impotence, somehow manage to be ironic and heartfelt, dismissive and plaintive—as Santayana said of life, “tragic in fate and comic in existence.”
One glamour of translation is the exercise of taste, the choice of whom to exhume. In case it isn’t clear, I love to ferret out the forgotten and neglected: secret masters, one-hit wonders, frustrated gurus, Bartlebys, enemies of promise, wastrel talents. Ferry, in his time, was the most prominent scholar of another overlooked oddball, the visionary Raymond Roussel, whose contemporary cult fame owes much to Ferry’s early exegeses. Perhaps fittingly, his interest in Roussel foreshadows his own eclipsing. But if the master was sui generis, the acolyte is similarly unclassifiable. In his story “Raymond Roussel in Heaven,” Ferry delivered his hero at last unto that glory so wholly deserved and devoutly desired. My translation is meant as no less an homage. - Edward Gauvin

 

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