Archive for the ‘Essay’ Category
I hate traveling and explorers. Yet here I am proposing to tell the story of my expeditions. But how long it has taken me to make up my mind to do so! It is now fifteen years since I left Brazil for the last time and all during this period I have often planned to undertake the present work but on each occasion a sort of shame and repugnance prevented me from making a start. Why, I asked myself, should I give a detailed account of so many trivial circumstances and insignificant happenings? Adventure has no place in the anthropologists profession; it is merely one of those unavoidable drawbacks, which detract from his effective work through the incidental loss of weeks or months; there are hours of inaction when the informant is not available; periods of hunger, exhaustion, sickness perhaps; and always the thousand and one dreary tasks which eat away the days to no purpose and reduce dangerous living in the heart of the virgin forest to an imitation of military service . . . The fact that so much effort and expenditure has to be wasted on reaching the object of our studies bestows no value on that aspect of our profession, and should be seen rather as its negative side. The truths which we seek so far afield only become valid when we have separated them from this dross.
The paradox is irresoluble: the less one culture communicates with another, the less likely they are to be corrupted, one by the other; but on the other hand, the less likely it is, in such conditions, that the respective emissaries of these cultures will be able to seize the richness and significance of their diversity. The alternative is inescapable: either I am a traveller in ancient times, and faced with a prodigious spectacle which would almost entirely unintelligible to me and might, indeed, provoke me to mockery or disgust; or I am a traveller of my own day, hastening in search of a vanished reality. In either case I am the loser . . . for today, as I go groaning among the shadows, I miss, inevitably, the spectacle that is now taking shape.
Susan Sontag: ‘The anthropologist as hero’ (1963)
“Let’s go and study the primitives,” say Lévi-Strauss and his pupils, “before they disappear.”
from ESSAYS: ‘The Fearful Sphere of Pascal’
……….It may be that universal history is the history of the different intonations given a handful of metaphors.
from FICTIONS: ‘Death and the Compass’
………..Lönnrot avoided Scharlach’s eyes. He looked at the trees and the sky subdivided into diamonds of turbid yellow, green and red. He felt faintly cold, and he felt, too, an impersonal — almost anonymous — sadness. It was already night; from the dusty garden came the futile cry of a bird. For the last time, Lönnrot considered the problem of the symmetrical and periodic deaths.
from FICTIONS: ‘The Secret Miracle’
………..The squad formed and stood at attention. Hladik, standing against the barracks wall, waited for the volley. Someone pointed out that the wall was going to be stained with blood; the victim was ordered to step forward a few paces. Incongruously, this reminded Hladik of the fumbling preparations of photographers.
from ESSAYS: ‘Partial Magic in the Quixote’
……….Why does it disturb us that the map be included in the map and the thousand and one nights in the book of the Thousands and One Nights? Why does it disturb us that Don Quixote be a reader of the Quixote and Hamlet a spectator of Hamlet? I believe I have found a reason: these inversions suggest that if the characters of a fictional work can be readers or spectators, we, its readers or spectators, can be fictitious. In 1833, Carlyle observed that the history of the universe is an infinite sacred book that all men write and read and try to understand, and in which they are also written.
translated from the Spanish (in order) by Anthony Kerrigan, Donald A Yates, Harriet de Onís and James E Irby
The eye follows the paths that have
been laid down for it in the work
(Paul Klee, Pädagogisches Skizzenbuch)
To begin with, the art of jigsaw puzzles seems of little substance, easily exhausted, wholly dealt with by a basic introduction to Gestalt: the perceived object — we may be dealing with a perceptual act, the acquisition of a skill, a physiological system, or, as in the present case, a wooden jigsaw puzzle — is not a sum of elements to be distinguished from each other and analysed discretely, but a pattern, that is to say a form, a structure: the element’s existence does not precede the existence of the whole, it comes neither before nor after it, for the parts do not determine the pattern, but the pattern determines the parts: knowledge of the pattern and of its laws, of the set and its structure, could not possibly be derived from discrete knowledge of the elements that compose it. That means that you can look at a piece of a puzzle for three whole days, you can believe that you know all there is to know about its colouring and shape, and be no further on than when you started. The only thing that counts is the ability to link this piece to other pieces, and in that sense the art of the jigsaw puzzle has something in common with the art of go. The pieces are readable, take on a sense, only when assembled; in isolation, a puzzle piece means nothing — just an impossible question, an opaque challenge. But as soon as you have succeeded, after minutes of trial and error, or after a prodigious half-second flash of inspiration, in fitting it into one of its neighbours, the piece disappears, ceases to exist as a piece. The intense difficulty preceding this link-up — which the English word puzzle indicates so well — not only loses its raison d’être, it seems never to have had any reason, so obvious does the solution appear. The two pieces so miraculously conjoined are henceforth one, which in its turn will be a source of error, hesitation, dismay, and expectation.
……….The role of the puzzle-maker is hard to define. In most cases — and in particular in all cardboard jigsaws — the pzzles are machine made, and the lines of cutting are entirely arbitrary: a blanking die, set up once and for all, cuts the sheets of cardboard along identical lines every time. But such jigsaws are eschewed by the true puzzle-lover, not just because they are made of cardboard instead of wood, nor because the solutions are printed on the boxes they come in, but because this type of cut destroys the specific nature of jigsaw puzzles. Contrary to a widely and firmly held belief, it does not really matter whether the initial image is easy (or something taken to be easy — a genre scene in the style of Vermeer, for example, or a colour photograph of an Austrian castle) or difficult (a Jackson Pollock, a Pissarro, or the poor paradox of a blank puzzle). It’s not the subject of the picture, or the painter’s technique, which makes a puzzle more or less difficult, but the greater or lesser subtlety of the way it has been cut; and an arbitrary cutting pattern will necessarily produce an arbitrary degree of difficulty, ranging from the extreme of easiness — for edge pieces, patches of light, well-defined objects, lines, transitions — to the tiresome awkwardness of all the other pieces (cloudless skies, sand, meadow, ploughed land, shaded areas, etc.).
……….Pieces in a puzzle of this kind come in classes of which the best-known are
and once the edges have been put together, the detail pieces put in place — the very light, almost whitish yellow fringe on the carpet on the table holding the lectern with an open book, the rich edging of the mirror, the lute, the woman’s red dress — and the bulk of the background pieces parcelled out according to their shade of grey, brown, white, or sky blue, then solving the puzzle consists simply of trying all the plausible combinations one by one.
……….The art of jigsaw puzzling begins with wooden puzzles cut by hand, whose maker undertakes to ask himself all the questions the player will have to solve, and, instead of allowing chance to cover his tracks, aims to replace it with cunning, trickery, and subterfuge. All the elements occurring in the image to be reassembled — this armchair covered in gold brocade, that three-pointed black hat with its rather ruined black plume, or that silver-braided bright yellow livery — serve by design as pints of departure for trails that lead to false information. The organised, coherent, structured signifying space of the picture is cut up not only into inert, formless elements containing little information or signifying power, but also into falsified elements, carrying false information; two fragments of cornice made to fit each other perfectly when they belong in fact to two quite separate sections of the ceiling, the belt buckle of a uniform which turns out in extremis to be a metal clasp holding the chandelier, several almost identically cut pieces belonging, for one part, to a dwarf orange tree placed on a mantelpiece and, for the other part, to its scarcely attenuated reflection in a mirror, are classic examples of the types of traps puzzle-lovers come across.
From this, one can make a deduction which is quite certainly the ultimate truth of jigsaw puzzles: despite appearances, puzzling is not a solitary game: every move the puzzler makes, the puzzle-maker has made before; every piece the puzzler picks up, and picks again, and studies and strokes, every combination he tries, and tries a second time, every blunder and every insight, each hope and each discouragement have all been designed, calculated, and decided by the other.
from CHAPTER TWENTY-EIGHT
On the stairs, 3
Who, on seeing a Parisian apartment house, has never thought of it as indestructible? A bomb, a fire, an earthquake, could certainly bring it down, but what else? In the eyes of an individual, of a family, or even a dynasty, a town, street, or house seems unchangeable, untouchable by time, by the ups and downs of human life, to such an extent that we believe we can compare and contrast the fragility of our condition to the invulnerability of stone. But the same fever which around eighteen fifty brought these buildings out of the ground from Batignolles to Clichy, from Ménilmontant to Butte-aux-Cailles, from Balard to Pré Saint-Gervais, will henceforth strive for their destruction.
……….The demolition men will come and their heavy hammers will smash the stucco and the tiles, will punch through the partitions, twist the ironwork, displace the beams and rafters, rip out the breeze blocks and the stone: grotesque images of a building torn down, reduced to piles of raw materials which scrapmerchants in thick gloves will come to quarrel over: lead from the plumbing, marble from the mantelpieces, wood from the structure and the floors, the doors and the skirting boards, brass and cast iron from handles and taps, large mirrors and the gilt of their frames, basin stones, bathtubs, the wrought iron of the stair rail . . .
……….The tireless bulldozers of the site-levellers will come to shovel off the rest: tons and tons of scree and dust.
translated from the French by David Bellos
Saturn Devouring His Son, oil on canvas, 146 x 83 cm
Two Old Men Eating Soup, oil on canvas, 43.9 x 83.4 cm
Fantastic Vision or Asmodea, oil on canvas, 123 x 265 cm
The Dog, oil on canvas, 134 x 80 cm
painted on the walls of Quinta del Sordo (Deaf Man’s Villa) and transferred onto canvas in 1874 under the supervision of Salvador Martínez Cubells; now at Museo del Prado
The Dog is the most unique, modern and remarkable of the group, in part, because it is the least shocking and the most spare.
It is a quirky, brightly colored work, almost a cartoon. Polish it up and enhance the colors and it might be taken for a Miro. But this is a deadly serious work that depicts a near-drowning dog, swimming against a cresting wave the color of dried blood beneath a fiery yellow sky. The animal is doomed, soaked and fighting to survive. It contains almost no illusions of depth. Flatness as a positive attribute of Modern painting, which Goya can be said to have pioneered, did not otherwise arrive in the arts until almost a half century later. What frustration was Goya expressing when he attacked the walls of his home with brushes and paints and created this simple masterpiece? We can speculate about political tensions, the crisis of old age, or simple, artistic and human exhaustion but there are no clear answers.
No matter. It is a work of artistic prophecy.
The two vast swaths of negative space presage one of the main qualities we’ve come to expect in contemporary painting – attention to surface rather than portrayal of literal subject. From the Color Field painters who followed to Abstract Expressionists, to newer artists such as Cy Twombly and Anselm Kiefer, all owe a great dept to Goya, who may not have invented minimalist abstraction, but certainly magnified and perfected it with this perfect, visceral and perhaps unintentional homage to the Myth of Sisyphus, a mythological Greek king cursed for eternity to push a boulder up a huge hill, only to watch it roll down again (artistic representations of the myth are painted on pottery dating back to 530 BC). What could be more sisyphean to a land animal than swimming headlong into a wave, with the certainty that another wave will follow, and another, and another?
Transparence is the highest, most liberating value in art — and in criticism — today. Transparence means experiencing the luminousness of the thing in itself, of things being what they are. This is the greatness of, for example, the films of Bresson and Ozu and Renoir’s The Rules of the Game.
……….Once upon a time (say, for Dante), it must have been a revolutionary and creative move to design works of art so that they might be experienced on several levels. Now it is not. It reinforces the principle of redundancy that is the principal affliction of modern life.
……….Once upon a time (a time when high art was scarce), it must have been a revolutionary and creative move to interpret works of art. Now it is not. What we decidedly do not need now is further to assimilate Art into Thought, or (worse yet) Art into Culture.
……….Interpretation takes the sensory experience of the work of art for granted, and proceeds from there. This cannot be taken for granted, now. Think of the sheer multiplication of works of art available to every one of us, superadded to the conflicting tastes and odors and sights of the urban environment that bombard our senses. Ours is a culture based on excess, on overproduction; the result is a steady loss of sharpness in our sensory experience. All the conditions of modern life — its material plenitude, its sheer crowdedness — conjoin to dull our sensory faculties. And it is in the light of the condition of our senses, our capacities (rather than those of another age), that the task of the critic must be assessed.
……….What is important now is to recover our senses. We must learn to see more, to hear more, to feel more.
……….Our task is not to find the maximum amount of content in a work of art, much less to squeeze more content out of the work than is already there. Our task is to cut back content so that we can see the thing at all.
……….The aim of all commentary on art now should be to make works of art — and, by analogy, our own experience — more, rather than less, real to us. The function of criticism should be to show how it is what it is, even that it is what it is, rather than to show what it means.
In place of a hermeneutics we need an erotics of art.
The marriage of reason and nightmare that has dominated the 20th century has given birth to an ever more ambiguous world. Across the communications landscape move the spectres of sinister technologies and the dreams that money can buy. Thermo-nuclear weapons systems and soft-drink commercials coexist in an overlit realm ruled by advertising and pseudo-events, science and pornography. Over our lives preside the great twin leitmotifs of the 20th century — sex and paranoia.
……….Increasingly, our concepts of past, present and future are being forced to revise themselves. Just as the past, in social and psychological terms, became a casualty of Hiroshima and the nuclear age, so in its turn the future is ceasing to exist, devoured by the all-voracious present. We have annexed the future into the present, as merely one of those manifold alternatives open to us. Options multiply around us, and we live in an almost infantile world where any demand, any possibility, whether for life-styles, travel, sexual roles and identities, can be satisfied instantly.
……….In addition, I feel that the balance between fiction and reality has changed significantly in the past decades. Increasingly their roles are reversed. We live in a world ruled by fictions of every kind — mass-merchandizing, advertising, politics conducted as a branch of advertising, the pre-empting of any original response to experience by the television screen. We live inside an enormous novel. It is now less and less necessary for the writer to invent the fictional content of his novel. The fiction is already there. The writer’s task is to invent the reality.
……….In the past we have always assumed that the external world around us has represented reality, however confusing or uncertain, and that the inner world of our minds, its dreams, hoes, ambitions, represented the realm of fantasy and the imagination. These roles, it seems to me, have been reversed. The most prudent and effective method of dealing with the world around us is to assume that it is a complete fiction — conversely, the one small node of reality left to us is inside our own heads. Freud’s classic distinction between the latent and manifest content of the dream, between the apparent and the real, now needs to be applied to the external world of so-called reality.
……….Given these transformations, what is the main task facing the writer? Can he, any longer, make use of the techniques and perspectives of the tranditional 19th century novel, with its linear narrative, its measured chronology, its consular characters grandly inhabiting their domains within an ample time and space? Is his subject matter the sources of character and personality sunk deep in the past, the unhurried inspection of roots, the examination of the most subtle nuances of social behaviour and personal relationships? Has the writer still the moral authority to invent a self-sufficient and self-enclosed world, to preside over his characters like an examiner, knowing all the questions in advance? Can he leave out anything he prefers not to understand, including his own motives, prejudices and psychopathology?
……….I feel myself that the writer’s role, his authority and licence to act, have changed radically. I feel that, in a sense, the writer knows nothing any longer. He has no moral stance. He offers the reader the contents of his own head, a set of options and imaginative alternatives. His role is that of the scientist, whether on safari or in his laboratory, faced with an unknown terrain or subject. All he can do is to devise various hypotheses and test them against the facts.
……….Crash is such a book, an extreme metaphor for an extreme situation, a kit of desperate measures only for use in an extreme crisis. Crash, of course, is not concerned with an imaginary disaster, however imminent, but with a pandemic cataclysm that kills hundreds of thousands of people each year and injures millions. Do we see, in the car crash, a sinister portent of a nightmare marriage between sex and technology? Will modern technology provide us with hitherto undreamed-of means for tapping our own psychopathologies? Is this harnessing of our innate perversity conceivably of benefit to us? Is there some deviant logic unfolding more powerful than that provided by reason?
……….Throughout Crash I have used the car not only as a sexual image, but as a total metaphor for man’s life in today’s society. As such the novel has a political role quite apart from its sexual content, but I would still like to think that Crash is the first pornographic novel based on technology. In a sense, pornography is the most political form of fiction, dealing with how we use and exploit each other, in the most urgent and ruthless way.
……….Needless to say, the ultimate role of Crash is cautionary, a warning against that brutal, erotic and overlit realm that beckons more and more persuasively to us from the margins of the technological landscape.