Unreal Nature

September 30, 2018

Full of Sound and Fury

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:50 am

… Music means nothing yet means everything.

This is from Music and the Ineffable by Vladimir Jankélévitch translated by Carolyn Abbate (1983):

… music takes up residence in our intimate self and seemingly elects to make its home there. The man inhabited and possessed by this intruder, the man robbed of a self, is no longer himself: he has become nothing more than a vibrating string, a sounding pipe. He trembles madly under the bow or the fingers of the instrumentalist; and just as Apollo fills the Pythia’s lungs, so the organ’s powerful voice and the harp’s gentle accents take possession of the listener. This process, at once irrational and shameful, takes place on the margins of truth and thus borders more on magic than on empirical science.

Something that wants to persuade us with singing rather than convince us with reason implements an art of pleasing that addresses the passions, that is, one that subjugates in suggesting and that enslaves the listener through the fraudulent and charlatan power of melody, weakens him through harmonic glamor or the fascinations of rhythm. To accomplish this, the process does not tap the logistical or governing aspects of the mind but rather engages the mind’s entire psychosomatic element.

[line break added] If mathematical discourse is thinking that wishes to make itself comprehensible to other thought by becoming transparent to it, a harmonic modulation is an act that expects to influence a being; and by “influence” one must also understand a clandestine causality, just as in astrology or sorcery: illegal maneuvers, black arts. Solon the lawmaker is a sage, but Orpheus the enchanter is a magician.

[ … ]

… words in themselves already signify something: their natural associations and their traditions resist the arbitrary and limit our interpretive liberty. The language of a hermetic orator who speaks in veiled words also possesses a literal sense. But music? Directly, in itself, music signifies nothing, unless by convention or association. Music means nothing yet means everything. One can make notes say what one will, grant them any power of analogy: they do not protest.




September 29, 2018

The Powerful, Painful, Grinding Process

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:43 am

… Beyond all of the false comfort we may derive from the event — the satisfactions of rancor, self-righteousness, spite, pride, armchair blood lust, and complacency —

This is from ‘The Burden of the Literary Mind: Some Meditations on Robert Penn Warren as Historian’ by William C. Havard, found in Robert Penn Warren: A Collection of Critical Essays (1980):

… The beginning of wisdom is the rational perception of the internal conflict between good and evil. The irony in Warren’s novels arises because the confrontation so often occurs after it is too late to rectify the damages that have been done to one’s self and to others. The understanding which results is that the individual must assume responsibility for his actions even when they were taken without awareness of either the moral issues involved or the practical consequences that these issues entailed.

[line break added] Only when this understanding is reached is it possible to perceive the limitations of both human action and human knowledge; and these limits inherent in the nature of an imperfect world, define the rational bounds within which the means to human ends should be confined.

The historic implications are inseparable from these individual themes. The moral confrontation which motivates the inquiry into self-identity is contact with the world. Initial contact with the world does not ordinarily set off self-inquiry, although it may produce a self-interpretation or primitive mythic self-projection. All of us live in a world peopled by other human beings possessed by passions, moved by wills, and handicapped by the limitations of knowledge.

… [Warren’s] biography of John Brown launched him into the imaginative exploration of certain basic themes in Brown’s character and actions, within the historical circumstances which influenced Brown and were reciprocally influenced by him.

[line break added] These include practically all of the philosophical elements of the novels: the lonely search for self-identity, the compromise with the world, the commitment to the idea which justifies great evil in the name of the absolute elimination of evil, the irony of history whereby man sometimes reaches heroic proportions in a frame of action that is nonsensical, and the creation out of historical incidents of myths by which men live and die, myths whose components range over the whole scale of good and evil, of truth and falsehood, of reality and delusion.

… In his view, “The Civil War is our only felt history — history lived in the national imagination”; before the war there was no American history in the “deepest and most inward sense.” Apart from the important external facts of saving the South for the Union, freeing the slaves, and setting the nation on the new course of industrialism, what were its effects?

… the war revealed a starkly realistic inner conflict. Despite southern nationalism and southern preference for the “War Between the States,” the Civil War was, after all, a civil war. The ambivalence of love and hate, the guilts and the self-division “within individuals becomes a series of mirrors in which the plight of the country is reflected, and the self-division of the country a great mirror in which the individual may see imaged his own deep conflicts.”

[line break added] The inwardness of the experience of the Civil War, both in individuals and in the nation, constitutes the drama which painfully forces self-identification and furnishes experiential possibility for acting on a different level of rationality. Here again is the central theme of the search for identity, followed by a moral confrontation forced by tragedy, and eventuating in a moral awareness which provides the potential for matured self-interpretation.

… Beyond all of the false comfort we may derive from the event — the satisfactions of rancor, self-righteousness, spite, pride, armchair blood lust, and complacency — “we can yet see in the Civil War an image of the powerful, painful, grinding process by which an ideal emerges out of history.” This should teach us humility and at the same time draw us “to the glory of the human effort to win meaning from the complex and confused motives of men and the blind ruck of event.”

My most recent previous post from this book is here.




September 28, 2018

Too Late

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:37 am

… I recognized that I must have done the wrong thing.

This is from the essay, ‘The Courage of Turtles’ by Edward Hoagland (1968):

… Years later, however, I was walking on First Avenue [in New York] when I noticed a basket of living turtles in front of a fish store. They were as dry as a heap of old bones in the sun; nevertheless, they were creeping over one another gimpily, doing their best to escape. I looked and was touched to discover that they appeared to be wood turtles, my favorites, so I bought one.

[line break added] In my apartment I looked closer and realized that in fact this was a diamondback terrapin, which was bad news. Diamondbacks are tidewater turtles from brackish estuaries, and I had no seawater to keep him in. He spent his days thumping interminably against the baseboards, pushing for an opening through the wall. He drank thirstily but would not eat and had none of the hearty, accepting qualities of wood turtles.

[line break added] He was morose, paler in color, sleeker and more Oriental in the carved ridges and rings that formed his shell. Though I felt sorry for him, finally I found his unrelenting presence exasperating. I carried him, struggling in a paper bag, across town to the Morton Street Pier on the Hudson River. It was August but gray and windy.

[line break added] He was very surprised when I tossed him in; for the first time in our association, I think, he was afraid. He looked afraid as he bobbed about on top of the water, looking up at me from ten feet below. Though we were both accustomed to his resistance and rigidity, seeing him still pitiful, I recognized that I must have done the wrong thing.

[line break added] At least the river was salty, but it was also bottomless; the waves were too rough for him, and the tide was coming in, bumping him against the pilings underneath the pier. Too late, I realized that he wouldn’t be able to swim to a peaceful inlet in New Jersey, even if he could figure out which way to swim. But since, short of diving in after him, there was nothing I could do, I walked away.

diamondback terrapin




September 27, 2018

But There Are Other Considerations

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 6:01 am

… But there are other considerations and maybe that’s what makes it worth doing, because you never can really decide what is leading you on …

This is from Drawings and Digressions by Larry Rivers (1979):

… I drew this one summer in the Hamptons. The guy is out at my summer place. He’s hanging around — somewhere along the line I’ll say, “Well, why don’t you sit down.” I’m identifying myself as an artist every time I do this, right? The more you do it, the more it means you mean it. The more you mean it, the more someone accepts the idea. It’s a syndrome you can’t escape. And then you want it. Artists are so peculiar — they have to be “identified” over and over. On the other hand, the nature of the activity is that it does take a long time to do anything, so you have to be doing it all the time.

[ … ]

… [from Rivers’ eulogy given at Frank O’Hara’s funeral] Frank was my best friend. I always thought he would be the first to die among my small happy group. But I daydreamed a romantic death brought about by too much whiskey, by smoking three packs of Camels a day, by too much sex, by unhappy love affairs, by writing too many emotional poems, too many music and dance concerts, just too much living which would drain away his energy and his will to live. His death was on my mind all the sixteen years I knew him and I told him this. I was worried about him because he loved me. His real death is a shock because he died — and died horribly in an absurd situation.

Frank O’Hara was my best friend. There are at least sixty people in New York who thought Frank O’Hara was their best friend. Without a doubt he was the most impossible man I knew. He never let me off the hook. He never allowed me to be lazy. His talk, his interests, his poetry, his life was a theatre in which I saw what human beings are really like.

[line break added] He was a dream of contradictions. At one time or another, he was everyone’s greatest and most loyal audience. His friendships were so strong he forced me to reassess men and women I would normally not have bothered to know. He was a professional hand holder. His fee was love. It is easy to deify in the presence of death but Frank was an extraordinary man — everyone here knows it.

[ … ]

… What part does you work play in projecting you in the world as some kind of personality, as some kind of spirit? And you might think that your work should be devoid of that. You should just somehow like something about the color or something about the face or the pose.

[line break added] But there are other considerations and maybe that’s what makes it worth doing, because you never can really decide what is leading you on, what are aesthetic considerations and what are ego concerns and commodity concerns. What is leading your hand? And the more you are aware of the dualities, ambiguities, contradictions in your character, the richer you work is, really. Only naïve people think that what they do is pure and beautiful and full of … the right thing.

My most recent previous post from Rivers’s book is here.




September 26, 2018

Common Sense

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:50 am

“… common sense tells us that our existence is but a brief crack of light between two eternities of darkness.”

This is from ‘Writing with Photographs: Sally Mann’s Ode to the South, 1969-2017′ by Sarah Greenough found in Sally Mann: A Thousand Crossings (2018):

… Some saw her new dark elegiac pictures as mourning the loss of her children’s youth or even as “sentimental … coy, overwrought and empty.” Hilton Als in a perceptive but critical review in the New Yorker chided Mann for being “too obsessed with the South’s picture-postcard ‘terrible beauty.’ … Rather than enjoying one of photography’s most liberating qualities, its freedom from language, Mann begs for verbalization.” He concluded, “she wants to be a mythologizer, a Faulkner of the lens.”

Mann may well have agreed, at least in part, with Als’ assessment. From the beginning of her career, she has laid claim to her southern heritage and asserted that what makes her work southern is her “obsession with place, with family, with both the personal and the social past, the susceptibility to myth, the love of this light which is all our own, and the readiness to experiment with dosages of romance that would be fatal to most late twentieth-century artists.” But she has also been equally clear that literature has been just as important to her art, noting that she has “always had to reconcile wanting to be a writer and wanting to be a photographer.”

[ … ]

… Made with her children lying flat on a plank beneath her large camera, they show only their eyes, noses, and mouths. Illuminated with a pale diffuse light and softly focused, these pictures are like fragments of classical sculpture, imbued with both an ethereal serenity and a sense of inner reflection. With details of their faces — their gossamer eyelashes or lustrous lips — floating in and out of focus, Mann created a telling metaphor for the inability of photography and memory itself to firmly fix an image of reality.

[line break added] The photographs are sequenced so that the images grow paler, less distinct, the children’s eyes close, and their expressions relax, as if lost in sleep or evanescing into Proust’s “silence and shadow.” Although they inevitably call to mind Victorian post-mortem photographs of children, they also reveal Mann’s fascination with the fragility and transience of life and clarify the larger theme of the book [What Remains] — memory, love, and loss.

… It is, though, an excerpt from Pound’s Canto 81, placed among the photographs of her children, that answers the question posed by her title:

What thou lovest well remains,”
the rest is dross
What thou lov’st well shall not be
reft from thee.

[ … ]

Time and the Bell — a picture of Larry [Mann’s husband] seated in front of the window, his body barely distinguishable from (and nearly becoming one with) the light surrounding him — is drawn from Eliot’s last great poem, Four Quartets, published during World War II: “Time and the bell have buried the day / the black cloud carries the sun away.” Ruminating on the passage of time, the poem seeks “the still point of the turning world,” those small, brief moments like the “sudden in a shaft of sunlight” when eternity is caught.

[line break added] Speak, Memory — a striking photograph of Larry’s prone body, his head seemingly impaled by a ray of light — is taken from Nabokov’s autobiography of the same name. Addressing the changeability of memory and its susceptibility to the passage of time and the whims of imagination, he wrote: “the cradle rocks above an abyss, and common sense tells us that our existence is but a brief crack of light between two eternities of darkness.”

Time and the Bell




September 25, 2018

Possession in Common

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 6:05 am

… a nation is necessarily an imagined community …

This is from the essay ‘National Park Landscapes and the Rhetorical Display of Civic Religion’ by Michael Halloran and Gregory Clark, found in Rhetorics of Display edited by Lawrence J. Prelli (2006):

… J.B. Jackson, a cultural geographer and American cultural historian, has noted that when we refer to a “sense of place,” we mean not just atmosphere but also influence. As he put it, when we view or visit a symbolic place,

the experience varies in intensity; it can be private and solitary, or convivial and social. The place can be a natural setting or a crowded street or even a public occasion. What moves us is our change of mood, the brief but vivid event. And what automatically ensues, it seems to me, is a sense of fellowship with those who share the experience, and the instinctive desire to return, to establish a custom of repeated ritual.

… Rhetoric is at work whenever people interact using symbols and are influenced by that interaction to understand themselves and their relation to each other differently. That different understanding prompts a change of identity, and this change “may involve identification not just with mankind or the world in general, but with some kind of congregation that also implies some related norms of differentiation and segregation.” [Kenneth Burke]

… From the beginning, American national parks and monuments have been “made to mean” something more to the American public than mere pleasure. Stephen Mather’s rhetorical project was to prompt citizens to invent for themselves the sort of identity from which national purposes would follow.

[line break added] Mather was the first of many who worked to make the national parks and monuments places where Americans would learn who they are as citizens of a nation, members of a “congregation” that, in the modern era, has shaped individual and collective identity in the same ways religion did in premodern times. Benedict Anderson observes that the “dawn of nationalism at the end of the eighteenth century coincide[d] with the dusk of religious modes of thought.” And yet, as Ernest Renan has put it:

A nation is a soul, a spiritual principle. Two things, which in truth are but one, constitute this soul or spiritual principle. One lies in the past, one in the present. One is the possession in common of a rich legacy of memories; the other is present-day consent, the desire to live together, the will to perpetuate the value of the heritage that one has received in an undivided form.

As Benedict Anderson has explained, a nation is necessarily an imagined community realized in shared symbols. What those symbols display is an ideal human identity that encompasses values and beliefs, desires and commitments of the people that community comprises. A nation’s officially designated public places display that identity. Individuals may encounter those places separately, but the meaning they encounter is collective — it is the soul of the nation they share.

My most recent previous post from this book is here.




September 24, 2018

Delivering the Goods

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:54 am

“… they end up supporting a cultural prison that is out of their control.”

This is from Beyond Objecthood: The Exhibition as a Critical Form since 1968 by James Voorhies (2017):

… In his 1930 essay “The Modern Theatre Is the Epic Theatre,” Brecht insightfully explains:

For a long time now they have taken the handiwork (music, writing, criticism, etc.) of intellectuals who share in their profits — that is, of men who are economically committed to the prevailing system but are socially near-proletarian — and processed it to make fodder for their public entertainment machine, judging it by their own standards and guiding it into their own channels; meanwhile the intellectuals themselves have gone on supposing that the whole business is concerned only with the presentation of their work, is a secondary process which has no influence over their work but merely wins influence for it.

… While Brecht poses serious questions concerning the “entertainment machine,” in the same text he also comments on the value of the content provided by the intellectuals (in our case, the artists):

Their output then becomes a matter of delivering the goods. Values evolve which are based on the fodder principle. And this leads to a general habit of judging works of art by their suitability for the apparatus without ever judging the apparatus by its suitability for the work. People say, this or that is good work; and they mean (but do not say) good for the apparatus. Yet this apparatus is conditioned by the society of the day and only accepts what can keep it going in that society.

Smithson understood the critical value of the exhibition as apparatus, and thus his irritation with Szeeman’s approach of organizing Documenta 5 bears repeating: “Some artists imagine they’ve got a hold on this apparatus, which in fact has got a hold on them. As a result, they end up supporting a cultural prison that is out of their control. Artists themselves are not confined, but their output it.”

My previous post from Voorhies’s book is here.




September 23, 2018

The Definition of Joy

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:43 am

… between this hell and this light there is no purgatory …

Final post from The Bad Conscience by Vladimir Jankélévich, translated by Andrew Kelley (2015):

… The bad conscience of evil is good … if it is sincere, that is, without complacency; consciousness of the misdeed mysteriously redeems the misdeed … on the condition that it does not become consciousness for the purpose of redeeming this misdeed, or because the shame would seemingly be a way to acquit oneself: for shame becomes inoperative from the instant that it takes on the ulterior motive of a reward; for despair becomes a comedy of despair and a disperato of the theatre and a ridiculous affectation from the instant that the most fugitive ulterior motive concerning its own effectiveness touches it.

… and if it is necessary to abandon gratuitous virtue, well then, better the pleasure of the hedonists than the sordid interest of the utilitarians; better to have too much sensuality than too much conscience! This is why Fénelon says: “One must take a taste when God offers it.” There is in voluptuous pleasure a sort of profound fantasy that is not displeasing: it comes when one is not expecting it; in particular it does not want to be forced; it is temperamental and ungovernable; one grabs it when it is offered; with regards to it, one holds oneself in a state of persistent grace. Pleasure is like virtue or like sleep: one takes distance from it by thinking about it. Happiness, one says, is planned, but pleasure is not planned …

… There is perhaps more spiritual life and more generosity in the person of voluptuous pleasure, who is madly profligate with his senses, than in an “arithmetic of pleasures” that pitifully skimps on enjoyment; one must not reason too much about one’s pleasures if one does not want to become the laughable dupe of one’s own foresight …

… The definition of despair is that it is without any ulterior motive of hope, or admixture of light; the definition of joy is that it is pure light without shadow: between this hell and this light there is no purgatory of the graduated interval, but the instantaneous grace of purification. The repentant good conscience is the mixture of a false joy and a false affliction, the latter troubling and upsetting the former, the former making the latter frivolous, taking away from it its gravity and its tragedy: desolation obscures joy, which makes a comedy of desolation; here all is “pseudo” and apocryphal, all is “artificial,” all is ulterior motive …

… if happiness is the continuous clarity that just as much illuminates our worries, then joy is the instantaneous fulguration that rends apart the nighttime of remorse …

My most recent previous post from Jankélévich’s book is here.




September 22, 2018


Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:48 am

… It is a motion toward a point of rest, but if it is not a resisted motion, it is motion of no consequence.

This is from ‘Exploration of Value: Warren’s Criticism’ by John Hicks, found in Robert Penn Warren: A Collection of Critical Essays (1980):

… [Warren] refuses to think of a poet as a contriver of verses and images and impressive lines; or of the fiction writer as a deviser of plots and scenes and descriptions. Both have value only as explorers into hints of meaning implicit in life and personal experience. They are solvers of human problems, discoverers of vital symbols that will hold in imaginative suspension the most significant aspects of life itself:

Actually, the creation of a poem is as much a process of discovery as a process of making. A poem may, in fact, start from an idea — and may involve any number of ideas — but the process for the poet is the process of discovering what the idea … means … to him in the light of his total being and his total experience.

[line break added] Or a poem may start from a phrase, a scene, an image, or an incident which has a suggestive quality … the symbolic potential. Then the process of the poet is the process of discovering why the item has caught his attention in the first place — which is simply another way of saying that he is trying to develop the symbolic potential.

… In a superficial sense, what the author searches for is his story or poem or novel. But how will the author know that he has achieved it? Here we return to Warren’s persistent test question: What is the integrating center? What is the moral and structural focus?

… “The poet is like the jujitsu expert: he wins by utilizing the resistance of his opponent — the materials of the poem. In other words, a poem, to be good, must earn itself. It is a motion toward a point of rest, but if it is not a resisted motion, it is motion of no consequence. … [T]he good poem must, in some way, involve the resistances; it must carry something of the context of its own creation; it must come to terms with Mercutio.”

My most recent previous post from this book is here.




September 21, 2018

I Was Twenty, and It Was Summertime

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:37 am

… it would never be quite the same again.

This is from the essay ‘Goodbye to All That’ by Joan Didion:

It is easy to see the beginnings of things, and harder to see the ends. I can remember now, with a clarity that makes the nerves in the back of my neck constrict, when New York began for me, but I cannot lay my finger upon the moment it ended, can never cut through the ambiguities and second starts and broken resolves to the exact place on the page where the heroine is no longer as optimistic as she once was.

[line break added] When I first saw New York I was twenty, and it was summertime, and I got off a DC-7 at the old Idlewild temporary terminal in a new dress which had seemed very smart in Sacramento but seemed less smart already, even in the old Idlewild temporary terminal, and the warm air smelled of mildew and some instinct, programmed by all the movies I had ever seen and all the songs I had ever heard sung and all the stories I had ever read about New York informed me that it would never be quite the same again. In fact it never was.

[line break added] Some time later there was a song on all the jukeboxes on the upper East Side that went “but where is the schoolgirl who used to be me,” and if it was late enough at night I used to wonder that. I know now that almost everyone wonders something like that, sooner or later and no matter what he or she is doing, but one of the mixed blessings of being twenty and twenty-one and even twenty-three is the conviction that nothing like this, all evidence to the contrary notwithstanding, has ever happened to anyone before.

… I remember walking across Sixty-second Street one twilight that first spring, or the second spring, they were all alike for a while. I was late to meet someone but I stopped at Lexington Avenue and bought a peach and stood on the corner eating it and knew that I had come out of the West and reached the mirage. I could taste the peach and feel the soft air blowing from a subway grating on my legs and I could smell lilac and garbage and expensive perfume and I knew that it would cost something sooner or later …

… At that time making a living seemed a game to me, with arbitrary but quite inflexible rules. And except on a certain kind of winter evening — six-thirty in the Seventies, say, already dark and bitter with a wind off the river, when I would be walking very fast toward a bus and would look in the bright windows of brownstones and see cooks working in clean kitchens and imagine women lighting candles on the floor above and beautiful children being bathed on the floor above that — except on nights like those, I never felt poor; I had the feeling that if I needed money I could always get it. I could write a syndicated column for teenagers under the name “Debbi Lynn” or I could smuggle gold into India or I could become a $100 call girl, and none of it would matter.

Nothing was irrevocable; everything was within reach.

[ … ]




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