Seagull Books

Month: November, 2011

What Books Have Ever Been Lost?

‘Lost’ books, we believe, are all those which have been contemplated, dreamt about, conceived, but not put down on paper; those which are not recorded, that is are not ‘sealed’, as one does when ratifying a legal statement, or even as one marks an unruly pupil down on the detention list.

Yet they are infinitely more beautiful, certainly, than others which become mired in their very inscriptions. For they are unsullied, immaculate, contemporaneous with their surge, intact and unexhibited. They remain untouched by the work of the phrase, not yet damaged by the patience and effort of the line.

There is no deferment.

No loss or consequences . . .

Can this myth be trusted?

Why did Rousseau, when writing the Confessions, still pretend to adhere to it, even as he was in the process of inventing the phrase (the effective phrase, with pen in hand) which knows how to harness this materialization.

I slip such a page from the Confessions (Book IV) into the vast dossier of this mythology which the celebration of the ‘virtual’ has since only caused to take root:

In all of the details of my life which have slipped from my memory, my greatest regret is not to have kept a diary of my travels. Never have I thought so much, never existed or experienced so much, or been myself so much, if I dare say so, as when travelling alone and on foot. Something about walking animates and enlivens my thoughts. When I stay in one place I find thinking almost impossible; my body needs to be shaken up for my mind to be stimulated . . . I take charge of nature as a whole; my heart, wandering from object to object, is united and identified with what pleases it, surrounded with charming images and intoxicated with delightful feelings. If I amuse myself by describing them in order to focus them, what vigour of portrayal, what freshness of hue, what energy of expression I am able to give them! I’m told this can be found in all of my works, even though they were written during my declining years. Oh, if they had seen those descriptions of my earliest youth, those prepared during my travels, which I composed and I have never written! . . . Why not write them, you say? ‘But why should I?’ is my answer. Why should I take away the actual charm of my rapture, to tell others of what I enjoyed? What do I care about readers, an audience, or the whole world, as I soar into the sky? Anyway, did I have pen and paper with me? Had I thought of it, nothing would have come. I don’t anticipate ideas; they come when it pleases them, not when it pleases me. Either they come in a crowd, overwhelming me with their number and their strength, or they don’t come at all. Ten volumes a day would not have been sufficient. How would I have had the time to write? On arrival, my only thought was to eat well. And on leaving my only thought was to walk well. I felt a new paradise was awaiting me at the door. I just thought of going to seek it out.

François Jullien. Philosopher and sinologist, Jullien is Professor at Université Paris Diderot, member of the Institut universitaire de France and Director of the Institut de la pensée contemporaine. The English translation of his Les Transformations Silencieuses (The Silent Transformations) has been published by Seagull Books and of Cette étrange idée du beau (This Strange Idea of the Beautiful) is forthcoming.

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‘The Loveliest Summer’ and What Preceded It

Extract  from: War Diary. With Letters From Jack Hamesh

INGEBORG BACHMANN, EDITED BY HANS HÖL L ER, TRANSLATED BY MIKE MITCHELL

 

The Loveliest Summerand What Preceded It‘ The different conditions leading to Bachmann’s loneliness (even though she had a ‘nice home’) are documented in her diary. The first part, the actual ‘war’ diary, describes how, along with other young women, she withdrew from militarized Nazi society and its dictatorship of terror in education and headed instead for freedom. Her courage and her refusal to compromise are allied to her books: in  the garden of the Klagenfurt house she read, with death all around her, Rilke’s Stundenbuch (Book of Hours) and Baudelaire’s Fleurs du Mal (Flowers of Evil). And she was prepared to desert when she found herself exposed to the murderous consequences of Nazi education in the teacher-training college: ‘These grown-ups, these high-and-mighty “educators”, who want to let us get killed’ .

The second part of Bachmann’s diary—written around the end of May and in June 1945—is about the immediate post-war period in Obervellach. She fled to the village above Hermagor, to the small house her father had inherited, with her mother (Olga Bachmann, née Haas, 1901–98), her sister Isolde (b. 1928) and her brother Heinz (b. 1939). Her father (Matthias Bachmann, 1895–1973), a teacher by profession, had been an officer in the army since the beginning of the war; he rejoined the family in August 1945 after a brief period as a prisoner of war with the Americans.

Bachmann’s early short story ‘Das Honditschkreuz. Eine Erzählung aus dem Jahre 1813’ (The Honditsch Cross: A Story from 1813; 1943) is set in that area of southern Carinthia; the cross of the title is not far from her home. As a seventeen-year-old, she situated her story—about the world of war and the Nazi ideology of a border war—in the region of her homeland closest to her: Obervellach in the Gail valley is the land of her childhood. In Das Buch Franza, her childhood myth is called ‘Galicia’ and the chapter in which Franza remembers the time of liberation from war and Nazi rule in the spring and summer of 1945 is called ‘Return to Galicia’.

‘Das Honditschkreuz’ is set during the war of liberation against Napoleon and it mainly takes place in the mixed-language area of Obervellach and Hermagor. The young writer is less concerned with the liberation from Napoleonic rule than with the mania of nationalism which makes people take leave of their senses and turns them into madmen and murderers. Here, for the first time in Bachmann’s writing, we find the longing to cross fixed frontiers, the image of the bridge as an ideal and the portrayal of war as a place of murder. She completed the story in 1943, the same year in which the Nazi ‘Borderland Exhibition’—which marshalled all aspects of the military ideology of a frontier struggle— took place in Klagenfurt.

Part of Bachmann’s distancing from the ‘German racial community’, which preceded her meeting with Hamesh, was to read books banned and burnt by the Nazis. They became a shibboleth by which the soldier of the British Army who had returned to Austria, and the eighteen-year-old student who had just completed secondary school, recognized each other. It was the books from the world of yesterday which suddenly changed the conversation between them: in her diary entry for 14 June 1945 , she wrote, ‘suddenly everything was quite different’. The same entry reveals how a future opened up for her: how she became aware that what was happening must never be lost; that it must become a measure of her future life. She publicly acknowledged her friendship with Hamesh and declared that she’d ‘walk up and down through Vellach and through Hermagor ten times over with him, even if everyone gets in a stew about it,’ yes, ‘especially then’ because both in the village and in the town people still took offence at ‘the Jew’.

In their first conversation about books she has read she mentions Mann, Zweig, Schnitzler and Hofmannsthal, and Hamesh is surprised to find someone who has read ‘all that despite her Nazi upbringing’. Her diary shows how attentively she listened to him and to his completely different life story. In her description, the end of the 14 June meeting is like a dream picture of a new coming together after the catastrophe, like a picture Chagall never painted: after a Jew, driven out of Austria in 1938, has kissed her hand, the eighteen-year-old daughter of a Carinthian Nazi family climbs up into an apple tree that night and cries, thinking she never wants to wash her hand again.

It was as if the books began to live, for those that Bachmann had read and those Hamesh gave her to read (‘Marx and Adler’, writing branded by the Nazis as ‘Jewish-Bolshevist’) and, above all, the way they read together, all show the new openness of the world after the military liberation from Nazi rule. Hamesh, born in Vienna in 1920—where, it is possible, he was called Jakob Fünfer since ‘hamesh’ means ‘five’ in Hebrew—told her the story of his flight from Austria, which she recorded in her diary. In 1938, he managed to flee to England in a kindertransport with other Jewish children even though he was already eighteen. She asks him when there’s something she hasn’t heard of and she realizes that, with ‘the Jew’ and these books, she is moving away from the world she grew up in and that her mother would faint if she heard them talking.

It was in people like her, willing to distance themselves from what they had heard and to listen to other stories, that the survivors of the Shoah put their hope after 1945. Several years after he met Bachmann in 1948 post-war Vienna, Paul Celan recalled the poem ‘In Ägypten’ (In Egypt) that he had dedicated to her: for him, she was the ‘foundation of life’, ‘also because you are and remain the justification for my speaking’

 

The Break with the Wartime World of her Father’s Generation
The first part of the diary, from the last months of the war in Klagenfurt, contains the description of Bachmann’s desertion from a country kept under occupation by the ‘high-and-mighty “educators” ’. The final sentence is: ‘No, there’s no point in talking to grown-ups any more’ .

The ‘hated teacher-training college’, for which she had to register in order to avoid being assigned to compulsory labour in Poland—presumably it was the National Labour Service—was an organizing centre of the Nazi ideology of homeland and ethnic nationality. The name ‘Anderluh’ mentioned several times in the diary represents the way in which Nazi education and ethnic German culture had gone completely over the top during Hitler’s ‘total war’. The person Bachmann probably had in mind is Anton Anderluh (1896–1975), principal of the teacher-training college in Klagenfurt from 1938 to 1945. He was well known as an expert on folk song, conductor of many male and female voice choirs, head of the Gau committee for folk music in Carinthia, regional head of the Reich Chamber of Music for Carinthia and, as established by a commission set up by the Klagenfurt senate in June 2008, ‘more’ than just a ‘follower of the Nazi regime of terror’.

After the First World War, the border conflicts and the politically exploited ‘defensive struggle’ against Yugoslavia’s territorial claims meant that enthusiasm for ‘home defence’ was particularly strong in Carinthia. This made it easy for Nazi officials to steer the patriotic sentiments towards support for the war effort. The murderous consequences of this ethnic cult of the homeland is the subject of the so-called dream chapter in Bachmann’s Malina. In it, the ‘origin’ of the destruction is seen in the ‘topography’ of a Carinthian landscape. The theme of this first nightmarish scene—unmistakably the Wörthersee near Klagenfurt— is the hushing up of the crimes committed at that spot. The dreaming woman has a suspicion of ‘which lake it might be’: the soulful male voice choirs, once standing on the ice in the middle of the lake, are now gone. And the lake, which cannot be seen, is fringed with the many graveyards. Her
father is standing beside her; he takes his hand off her shoulder when the gravedigger comes up to them. He tries to forbid the man from speaking; and, after moving his lips soundlessly for a while, he speaks only one sentence: ‘That is the graveyard of the murdered daughters./He shouldn’t have told me that and I cried bitter tears.’

The war diary, in which Bachmann describes the destructive nature of her father’s generation, is fundamental to understanding the passages on the father-daughter drama developed in the subsequent dream scenes of Malina, and which explode into a panorama of violence that in some mysterious way brings them together in an ominous silence. ‘My father, I say to him, I wouldn’t have betrayed you, I wouldn’t have told anyone,’ Bachmann writes in the dream of the great gas chamber of the world, the one immediately after the Carinthia dream.

The father-son theme of late nineteenth/early twentieth century literature is, in Bachmann’s writing, overwritten by the murder of the daughter. After 1945, we can no longer ignore the fact that the war of the fathers and sons was not fought outside the family but, rather, destroyed the foundations of civilian and family life. In the war diary, the focus is still on the murderous Nazi educators outside the family; but the later the book, the more urgent is Bachmann’s debate with the ‘father’, whom she presents as a social institution, a ‘great figure’, a ‘figure that carries out what society carries out.’ However, as she writes ‘my father’ (or ‘our family’ elsewhere), we are compelled to see ourselves included in this literary discussion on the connection between fathers and violence and on families who remain silent.

A text that has only survived in fragments and that confronts us, in the fictional first-person narrator, with the dilemma of talking about ‘our family’, was probably written while Bachmann worked on Todesarten (Manners of Death) in the second half of the 1960s. The narrative fragment Der Tod wird kommen (Death will come) is about the impossibility of betraying one’s own family ‘with its festering boils’, even though we are ‘allowed to see more of our family’ than ‘of any other’: ‘I have acquired a big eye for our family, a big ear for its languages, acquired a big silence about so much that is to be hushed up from the immediate proximity.’

 

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The Women of Kabul

 

I met the woman in the Kabul men’s hospital, in the spartan room of the Swiss head nurse, poorly heated by an antiquated electric stove. She had come in a gadi, one of the little two-wheeled hackneys that jauntily trotting horses somehow manage to pull through even the narrowest bazaar lanes of the Afghan capital. She wore the chador, the heavy grey veil that hugs the head like a bonnet and falls in loose folds over the shoulders to the ground—the garment that shrouds the Afghan woman. But she was no Afghan woman; she had grown up on the seacoast of Normandy, a happy child with blonde braids, friends with her brothers, with the yard dog and the heavy-hoofed horses and the languid brindled cows, with the babbling fountain, the cliffs, the beach, the bracing winds of her French homeland. She gave me her hand a bit shyly. Maybe I wasn’t nonchalant enough; watching the sad,spectral figure enter, I had felt a crippling sense of horror,almost aversion—and yet it was a long-familiar sight for me. For of course the Afghan women all look the same, in the bazaars, on the dusty streets of the cities and villages, in the walled gardens of private houses. I know only that the Jewish women wear a black chador, the Afghan women grey or light blue, and there may be other differences as well: the upturned shoe tips of the farm women, the worn heels of the poor, the rich ladies’ embroidered velvet sandals beneath the veil’s hem. But one wants to see a face—lively eyes, a pretty mouth, a smile—and all you ever encounter is the little face grille flitting past. And you know that these fearful, helpless creatures can barely see enough through this grille to avoid the swaying camels, the jingling little gadi horses, the men with their cheerful and vigorous stride—they live in constant fear.

 

Having satisfied herself that I was not a boy, the woman awkwardly doffed her chador. Underneath it she was dressed in the European fashion, but not very tastefully and somewhat sloppily. The three of us drank our tea, rather taciturn. And yet I could have asked a hundred questions: Why did you marry an Afghan? Certainly, he’s wellborn, related to a minister at the royal court, he studied in Paris and already has a high-ranking job in the postal administration. And he’s likeable; perhaps you were in love with him then, or you’re still fond of him, or of your child, this dark-skinned, unruly, insolent little boy who’s so unlike you—did this come as a surprise? What did the lovely name ‘Afghanistan’ evoke for you, this most foreign place, when, barely twenty, you plunged into a fate unknown—and perhaps for that reason so incredibly alluring—parting far too lightly from all the things you knew? I’d also have liked to learn how things work in an Afghan household where mother and daughters-in-law, sisters-in-law, sisters and poor relatives all live together, feeding from idleness, embroidering a bit and drinking lots of tea, eating sweets, chatting and—that much I’d gathered— not even capable of looking after their children. Faced with the dismal disorder of such a household, the insubordination of lazy maidservants, the spoilt cheekiness of the little boys who soon scorn the women, the filth, the general squalor, the boredom, the women are helpless, not even aware that one can live differently. Was it conceivable that a girl raised in Europe put up with it all, even played along with it, accepted it and sank into the agony of creeping time, each moment lost beyond recall? That she shared this existence day after day, as sharp-tongued as the sisters in-law and neighbour women, party to the grandmother’s tyranny and the endless gossip-mongering, forgetting that outside, just a few steps past the courtyard walls, a bright sky arched over gardens and roofs and streets and fields, over a splendidly self-renewing, comforting, life-giving earth? Had she forgotten all that?

 

Our hostess, the nurse from Switzerland, did her best to keep the conversation going. She talked about her work: the only European, and the only woman, she supervised fifty male nurses and 120 patients, forced to fight the Ministry of Health for every thermometer, much less alcohol, as alcohol is prohibited in this devoutly Mohammedan country. Every day she herself had to inspect the food, prepared in a clay shed outside the hospital, had to intervene when a lamenting, praying clan gathered around the bed of a feverish relative, had to convince the nurses that beds must be made daily and the desperately ill undressed and washed; she assisted with every operation, gave every injection herself. At home, on Lake Biel, she had two boys being cared for by their grandparents; here, in Kabul, she was earning money for their future. While the nurse talked, as unassumingly as though it were only natural to live a decent life and see things through, duties once shouldered, a whole arduous existence, I observed the taciturn guest. She ate cake without stopping, dunking the pieces in her teacup; her face, puffy and strangely expressionless, might as well have been hidden behind the veil. ‘How is your little boy?’ the nurse asked her. And suddenly, silently, she burst into tears. Soon after that her husband came to pick her up. Hastily she donned her chador and left.

 

I didn’t even ask the nurse whether an Afghan woman could get a divorce. It was too obvious that the poor woman would lack the courage now to cast off the chador for good. The languor of her flat, rather pretty face was already oriental, aged or ageless; even when she wept, all that showed was misery, no real sorrow, no regret, no unbroken defiance. Later I had the opportunity to meet Afghan women— with and without the chador. Most of them were so alike that I can’t tell one from the other in my memory. But I also met children; that autumn, last year, the government opened the first girls’ school in Kabul and recruited several capable women—the wives of the professors at the French school—as teachers. If you wish to know the state of a people, turn to its youth: here, nothing is disfigured yet, they express themselves in ways unset by convention, undulled by habit, unswayed by external dependencies and existential conditions; here, ability and zest for life manifests itself with lovely unselfconsciousness. The little schoolgirls of Kabul were extremely gifted, lively, receptive creatures, a match for the boys, pretty and with such radiant eyes that it was impossible to imagine these slender little forms and delicate intent faces ever banished to the shadow of the harem walls, the sombre confinement of the chador. Today in Europe we may have grown sceptical towards the catchphrases of freedom, responsibility, equal rights for all and so forth. But it is enough to have seen at close hand the stifling servitude that makes God’s creatures into joyless, fearful beings—and you’ll cast off discouragement like a bad dream and listen to the voice of reason that exhorts us to believe in and fight for the simple goals of a humane existence.

 

 

This extract has been taken from: 

All the Roads are Open
An Afghan Journey 1939-1940
Annemarie Schwarzenbach
Translated by Isabel Fargo Cole

 

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Philosophical Tantrums

(Every now and then I experience these ‘philosophical tantrums’ right in front of an audience. In a sense I’m workshopping ideas and thinking out loud; speaking up and talking back to power, even if power is not overtly present. What follows are excerpts of my favorite tantrums from the past six years. They have been slightly rewritten and updated. For the printed version, the reader is ‘the audience’. )

 

Philosophical Tantrum 1:

On the hardships of finding a useful role

for a performance artist (2005-10)

 

Ladies and gentlemen,

I’m feeling a bit insecure and introspective tonight.  As a 55-year-old rebel, I wonder if I’m still asking the right question or am I merely repeating myself? Am I pushing hard enough or should I push harder? Should I go further north? But the North is at war again. South? Should I go back to Mexico for good? Regresar en español a las entañas de mi madre? But the Mexican nation-state is collapsing as I speak . . .  so strict sensu, Mexico en español no longer exists because, every day, Mexico and the US look more and more like one another. And less and less like you and I; which means ‘you’ y ‘yo’ are no longer foreigners to one another. .  .

Therefore, as orphans of two nation-states, we’ve got no government to defend; no flag to wave. We’ve only got one another, which sounds quite romantic, politically speaking, but it is a philosophical nightmare considering the current immigration policy. . . I mean, if neither the North nor the South are viable options any more, where should I go? East? EST? Deeper into the universal psyche and become a Chicano Buddhist?

Or should I cross the digital divide west and join the art technologist cadre? Yes? How exactly? Alter my identity through body-enhancement techniques, laser surgery, prosthetic implants, and become the Mexica Orlan? I could grow a new face with glow-in-the-dark implants and blond hair; become a transgenic mojado. . . or a post-ethnic cyborg, perhaps? A Ricky Martin with brains? That’s a strange thought. But I’d rather become a woman. Imagine if we could create a hybrid replicant with the physique of Eva Longoria and the political intelligence of Rigoberta Menchu, eh? That’s pure Chicano sci-fi!

Maybe I should donate my body to the MIT Artificial Intelligence department. They can plant computer nacho chips in my pito and transplant a robotic bleeding heart so that I become  ‘El Ranchero Stelarc’. What about getting a chipotle-squirting techno-jalapeño phallus to blind the border patrol while crossing over? Or an ‘intelligent’ tongue activated by tech-eela? You know, imaginary technology for those without access to the real thing. ‘Cause when you don’t have access to power, poetry replaces science and performance art becomes politics.

See, underneath it all, my dilemma is quite simple: in post-9/11 US, critical artists are a mere nuisance. In the permanent economy of war invented by the White House, art is not working out fiscally. Period. So. . . I got to get me a ‘real’ job, a 9-5 job. But the question is: Doing what?

I could be an intercultural forensic detective or an expert in X-treme identity theft. . . But not really.  I love cultural expropriation and I hate secrecy.

Hey, academia is an option. I could teach a course in ‘antropo-locura’ in (local university).I could teach ‘Chiconics’, in jail, I mean Yale, or at Brownor State Penn, I mean Penn State: ‘What’s up esos y esas; chinguen a sus professors. Saquen la mota y el chemo.Forever, Aztlan nation!’

No, I have a better idea: I could conduct self-realization  seminars for lost Hispanics. And there are thousands of you out there, specially in the military. ‘ Hey vatos: Come to terms with your inner Chihuahua. Wake up and bark!’ (I bark) Or I could lead workshops for neoprimitive Anglos in Burning Man: ‘Find you inner Aztec.’ (I speak in pseudo-Nahautl) I look the part, que no? Kind of. . .

How about posing as a model for a TV ad or a billboard: ‘Chicanos in cyberspace — there goes the virtual neighborhood again. ‘

I could do some TV commercials, porque no? Imagine ‘El Mexterminator against the Minutemen’ in a wrestling arena placed right on the US—Mexico border, screaming audiences on either side: ‘Mojados out of the US!’ ‘Viva la raza culeros!’ After kicking their racist ass, I grab a cocktail glass, wink at the camera and say, ‘Orale Vatos, my power drink es Tequila Revolution’. And then this nude muscled Latina cyborg with twelve reconstructive surgeries appears on the screen and say (thick Latino accent ) ‘Drink Responsibly. Fight racism and sexism.’

Nah, there’s no place for performance art on TV.

Next idea.

I could write a bestseller for conservative ‘minorities’ titles . . . Inverted Minstrel: 100 Ways to Camouflage your Ethnicity to Get a Better Job. But what am I thinking? Condoleeza Rice already wrote it some years ago.

I just don’t know any more. It’s tough to find a useful task for a performance artist in the age of the mainstream bizarre and globalization gone wrong. What a strange time to be an artist. . .

In this time and place, what does it mean to be ‘transgressive’? What does ‘radical behaviour’ mean the Tea Party lunatics are perceived as defenders of democracy and Glen Beck as a defender of free speech? When our most intelligent newscasters are comedians and Anjelina Jolie is considered an activist? Remember the Bush era? What the hell is performance art, pregunto, when a theological cowboy governed the so-called free world as if he were directing a Spaghetti Western on the wrong set? And half a million civilians die during the shooting of the film? And we let him do it? What does radical performance art look like against the images from Abu Ghraib? What is science fiction when creationism becomes official policy? When some US politicians are sincerely waiting for the rapture and believe that the UN is the Antichrist? What the hell is performance when Conan the Barbarian becomes Governor of California twice in the reality show called ‘California’?

Coño, I ask myself rhetorically, what else is there to ‘transgress’? Who can artists shock, challenge, enlighten? Who is listening? What else should I do or say tonight? Should I improvise more? Give birth to yet another performance persona on stage, ‘America’s Most Wanted Inner Demon’? Should I burn my bra or my green card at the steps of the Museum of Contemporary Art? Bare my soul at the altar of despair? Masturbate in the name of democracy and freedom? Curse Jehovah or Allah? Show up naked at the Alamo with my red stilettos and black cane? Auction my left testicle on E-Bay?

You tell me. . . kemosable. Tonight I am your intellectual surrogate. . . Or rather, your house Mexican.

Can we start all over again? Can we? May I? Mearlos?

OK, Tabula Rasa; take 2:

 

Guillermo Gómez Peña. A Mac-Arthur Genius and American Book Award recipient, Gómez-Peña has authored 10 books on performance, border culture, activism, and radical pedagogy, including Conversations Across Borders (Seagull Books,2010).

 

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