andrew taylor, “god’s fugitive”

Andrew Taylor
God’s Fugitive: The Life of C. M. Doughty
(Dorset Press, 1999)


I’ve acquired, somehow, something of a collection of the work of Charles Montagu Doughty: both the full-length and abridged versions of Travels in Arabia Deserta (which I’ve been dipping in and out of for a while), a print-on-demand facsimile edition of the first volume of his epic The Dawn in Britain, a copy of his verse drama The Cliffs. He’s one of those people who pops up in interesting places: Henry Green, Laura Riding Jackson, and Guy Davenport were all interested in him; The Dawn in Britain in mentioned somewhat dismissively in The Pisan Cantos. I had some idea of Doughty but wanted something more, so I found a copy of this relatively recent biography of him; D. G. Hogarth’s The Life of Charles M. Doughty, which I might yet track down, came out in 1928, but I wanted something a little more recent for perspective. This is a serviceable biography; at three hundred pages, it doesn’t presume to be exhaustive, but it does provide a reasonable introduction to Doughty’s life and work, which is mostly what I wanted.

Doughty (1843–1926) seems to fit nicely into the mould of Victorian eccentric: he started out in geology, the most happening subject when he arrived in Cambridge, though he didn’t get particularly far with that. Doughty’s most endearing traits is his astonishing stubbornness: geology interested him precisely because of its increasing conflict with his Christian faith. Being part of the impoverished gentry, he took up traveling; he wound up in the Middle East with the idea of visiting the lands described in the Bible and found it not at all what he was expecting (shades of Melville’s Clarel) but found himself drawn deeper and deeper into it. He set off into Arabia with vague archeological ideas after being impressed with Petra; he ended up wandering the country for a few years. It is a wonder that he was not killed: his travels are known almost entirely through his own accounts, but it seems likely that the Bedouins he traveled with took him for some sort of holy fool. He refused to pretend to be Muslim, much less convert; at the same time, he didn’t presume to proselytize.

Returning to England, he found that most people were uninterested in his travels or his discoveries; relatively uncredentialed, he needed a book. He set to writing Arabia Deserta; as his youthful enthusiasm for geology had worn off, he’d been taken with Chaucer and Spencer, whose works he’d read again and again on his travels. The English language, he was convinced, had fallen into decadence since Spencer’s time; his writing, he hoped, might revive it. (Doughty would certainly have nothing to say to Fr. Rolfe, whose life he overlapped; but one might imagine a certain kinship with Rolfe’s project of creating his own dictionary of macaronic Italian with which to write Don Renato.) Doughty’s reforming spirit was lost, of course, on the publishing world, as well as upon, eventually, the reading public; it didn’t help that the original Arabia Deserta was 1200 pages long. Doughty then abandoned the Arab world entirely for poetry, trotting out an immense epic of the British clash with the Romans (the 30,000 line The Dawn in Britain), dramas in verse with subjects both Christian and anti-German (Adam Cast Forth, The Cliffs, The Clouds) and finally, in 1920, Mansoul, another long blank verse epic describing the journey of the Christian soul. Most of these didn’t make it past a first printing. Wanderings in Arabia Deserta, an abridged version of his first book, eventually found him a small, but devoted, audience; he was befriended by the young T. E. Lawrence, who made sure that he didn’t die indigent.

It’s hard to make sense of Doughty: he seems to have had a quarrel with the world, which makes his life entertaining reading. A reviewer suggested, for example, that The Cliffs might be derivative of Thomas Hardy’s The Dynasts; Doughty wrote to a friend:

The writer knows to his small malicious satisfaction that I had copied something from a book with the strange title Mr Hardy’s Dynasts. Not moving in the Literary World, nor reading the Literary Periodicals, I had never heard of the book or the author, and remain in my ignorance till now, and shall continue to do so . . . (p. 302)

There’s something fantastic about his sheer pigheadedness: his determination that he was right and the world was at fault. An earlier letter to a publisher accompanying the manuscript of The Dawn in Britain explains how he saw the literary world in 1905:

Modern poets’ work has fallen into neglect, and perhaps it may be merito. Where is that sincerity, knowledge, and right inspiration, which is required even in the humblest work of art? Where is that intimate knowledge of language, without which there can be only deciduous handiwork? . . . To speak of the present manuscript. This book is my life’s work, a continuation of Chaucer and of Spenser, such as conceivably they might have written in the present . . . (p. 262)

Doughty’s stubbornness seems to have been a dissatisfaction with the world: unhappy with England, he left for the Europe and then the Middle East; unhappy with the writing of the present, he abandoned it for the past. Though religious to his core, he rarely if ever attended church. Taylor only sketches the personal life of Doughty, but these details further complicate his picture: a bachelor for forty years, he married soon after his return to England, and seems to have led a contented life with his wife and two daughters. It’s hard to blame Taylor for this: Doughty seems to have been thoroughly his own man, inscrutable from outside. One might wish, however, for a little more focus on Doughty’s literary works past Arabia Deserta. Maybe they need their own book.

maggie nelson, “bluets” / william gass, “on being blue”

Maggie Nelson
Bluets
(Wave Books, 2009)

William Gass
On Being Blue
(David R. Godine, 1976)


I don’t remember why I picked up Maggie Nelson’s book sometime last year; someone had said something positive about it, and I always feel guilty about not reading enough contemporary work. But I took it home & made my way through the not inconsiderable credits at the back of the book & found myself losing interest, and I put it back on the shelf. It seemed odd, I thought, almost inconceivable, that someone would write a long essay (or a short book) about the color blue when William Gass’s perfectly nice On Being Blue existed in the world, and was still in print.

But I found myself thinking about Gass’s book when reading Thomas Browne in Libya: reading The Garden of Cyrus, it became entirely clear where Gass had taken his form for On Being Blue – starting with a concept, almost arbitrary; then moving through digressions to end up in an entirely different space. There’s something comforting about this: reading something and realizing that others that you know have been there before you. But with this realization, of course, there was the need to go back to Gass, to see how he’d changed since I’d last read him – I think I first read this book around 2001, though I could certainly be wrong – and whether the work holds up. And of course there was the Nelson book on the shelf, which I found myself resolving to be unfair to.

And while reading Browne I found myself thinking about the color blue: at about the same time, we were spending a lot of time driving through the sand seas of the Sahara, and I found myself fixated on the line between sand and sky. Partly this is because the desert is aesthetically barren: there are only two elements, and the sky was uniformly blue, the sand was uniformly orange-yellow. As evening approaches, shadows appear, which change things; but until then, there is the horizon. Next to the sand, the blue of the sky pops in an astonishing way: it’s hard to imagine how any blue could be more blue. There was the urge, with a blue so intense, to capture it somehow; I was taking photos with my iPhone, which I knew very well does not take the best photos in the world, but it was hard to fight off that urge to capture that blueness. It’s hard not to have some sort of aesthetic experience in a space like that – in the same way that it’s hard not to when standing in front of Monet’s Water Lilies in the Musée de l’Orangerie. Blue summons up feelings of the infinite; one understands immediately why people feel the urge to write books about the color. Off the top of my head, I can think of Alexander Theroux’s The Primary Colors (which widens its interest to include red and yellow) and Joshua Cohen’s more narrow “Thirty-Six Shades of Prussian Blue” to stay outside of writing about the visual arts; Kandinsky’s Concerning the Spiritual in Art nails down his weird theory of precise meanings of colors and shapes; and of course there are Albers and Goethe and Wittgenstein, and we could go on.

But these two books about blueness, both collections of blue fragments, although they are arranged very differently. One finds Browne sneaking through them; he’s mentioned by name in Gass’s, of course, but one of the most famous passages of Religio Medici:

I could be content that we might procreate like trees, without conjunction, or that there were any way to perpetuate the world without this triviall and vulgar way of coition; It is the foolishest act a wise man commits in all his life, nor is there any thing that will more deject his coold imagination, when he shall consider what an odde and unworthy piece of folly hee hath committed; I speake not in prejudice, nor am averse from that sweet sexe, but naturally amorous of all that is beautifull; I can looke a whole day with delight upon a handsome picture, though it be but of an Horse.

In Gass, this is reduced further:

I should like to suggest that at least on the face of it a stroke by stroke story of a copulation is exactly as absurd as a chew by chew account of the consumption of a chicken’s wing. (p. 20)

Gass’s book is an argument about the relation between words and the world, the experience of blueness tying them together: depiction (like Browne’s portrait of a horse) is different from personal experience. Nelson’s approach to roughly the same subject is messier: in numbered paragraphs, she examines her personal experiences with blueness, drawing in a predictable series of artists and works as evidence (Yves Klein, Rose Hobart, poor old Wittgenstein), trying to discern why blue is important to her personally.

Part of my problem with Nelson’s book comes down to a personal distrust of those writers whose confessions aren’t oblique: those who tell all the truth, but don’t tell it slant. When one gets to the end of On Being Blue, it’s possible to say, really, only two things about the physical existence of William Gass: first, that he saw a particular photograph when young that affected him, an experience he talks about in some detail; second, that he’s married. One knows, of course, that he’s read a lot of books, many of which are mentioned or quoted from; and the reader has a distinct feeling for Gass’s sensibility: what he finds interesting and why, how he thinks about the world, at least the tiny chunk of it that he’s encircled in On Being Blue. The reader has a conception of the author; but the reader is held at arm’s distance. The beginning of the final section of Gass’s book explains this:

It is not simple, not a matter for amateurs, making sentences sexual; it is not easy to structure the consciousness of the reader with the real thing, to use one wonder to speak of another, until in the place of the voyeur who reads we have fashioned the reader who sings; but the secret lies in seeing sentences as containers of consciousness, as constructions whose purpose it is to create conceptual perceptions – blue in every area and range: emotion moving through the space of the imagination, the mind at gleeful hop and scotch, qualities, through the arrangement of relations, which seem alive within the limits they pale and redden like spanked cheeks, and thus the bodies, objects, happenings, they essentially define. (pp. 86–87)

In Bluets, Nelson writes off Gass’s book as “puritanism, not eros,” declaring

I will not choose between the blue things of the world and the words that say them: you might as well be heating up the poker and readying your eyes for the altar. Your loss. (p. 25)

Because Nelson’s book is constructed aphoristically, she moves on; this is frustrating, because this isn’t really an argument so much as a stance of defiance: her blue is entirely hers, and there’s little space in her book for the reader.

noted

  • There’s a very nice interview with Joseph McElroy on Michael Silverblatt’s Bookworm: most interesting thing to come out of the publicity around Night Soul so far.
  • Jace Clayton’s mixtape for Sharifa Rhodes-Pitts’s Harlem Is Nowhere is much better than a mix based on a book has any right to be.
  • Outtakes from William Gass’s reading of The Tunnel at Inside Higher Ed.
  • Stefania Heim interviews Susan Howe February 25 at the Graduate Center.

julien gracq, “the opposing shore”

Julien Gracq
The Opposing Shore
(trans. Richard Howard)
(Columbia University Press, 1986)


This novel is one I that I return to; this is my third time through. Julien Gracq was one of the writers the Surrealists wanted but they couldn’t get (like Roussel and De Chirico); his work shares something with their aesthetic, but it’s very much his own. This particular novel hasn’t attracted much attention in English; Columbia released it in 1986, Harvill seems to have put out a British edition in the late 1990s, and since then nothing. The Pushkin Press has been reissuing out-of-print editions of Gracq (most recently A Dark Stranger; Turtle Point Press has been very slowly publishing untranslated works by Gracq. This book has so far been left out; it’s a shame, because it’s one of his most accessible works.

When Gracq published the novel in 1951, it was given the name Le rivage des Syrtes; I don’t know whether the change of the English title was Richard Howard’s or not, but it’s an odd one. “Syrtes” in the novel is the southern-most region of Orsenna, a country that seems to be a stand-in for a pre-Risorgimento Italy where there seem to be cars but no electricity, ruled by a city of the same name which seems to be, but isn’t quite, Venice. Almost all the characters in the novel have Italian names. There isn’t an exact correspondence: Venice still exists in the novel, and the Catholic church is present but inwardly directed and apolitical. Orsenna has been at war almost indefinitely with Farghestan, the desert country across the sea to the south; Farghestan, with its two main cities on the coast and endless deserts seems a great deal like Libya. There have been symbolic exchanges in Gracq’s book: Mount Etna moves to Libya and becomes the Tängri; the ruins of Sabratha leave Libya for Italy and become Sagra, where spies from Farghestan enter the country of Orsenna. And of course Sirt goes to Italy and becomes Syrtes.

Which brings us back to the name of the novel: “Sirt” (in French “Syrte,” in Arabic “سرت”) is the name of both a town in Libya (most prominent now as the birthplace of Qaddafi) and a gulf directly north of it, the Gulf of Sidra (the Arabicized version of the Latin Syrtis Major). Gracq’s choice to write about a conflict between Italy and Libya is not as disinterested as it might seem: from 1911 to 1943, Libya had been an Italian colony; Libya become independent in 1951. Mussolini declared Libya to be Italy’s fourth shore (the Quarta Sponda); his bloody history in Libya is by and large forgotten, but he was busy using tanks against civilians, setting up concentration camps, and building a 168-mile-long barbed wire fence to control an insurgency; maybe half the population of Cyrenaica died under Italian occupation. F. T. Marinetti and the Futurists rushed out manifestoes in favor of the war on Libya; Marinetti went to go see the bombardment of Tripoli as a correspondent for the French press.

How then should Gracq’s novel be read? Generally this book is presented as being in the tradition of Kafka, like Dino Buzzati’s The Tartar Steppe, with which it shares a premise; certainly the French title of Gracq’s book can simply be read as a pun. It’s entirely possible, maybe even likely, that I’m reading too much into this book. Politically, it’s hard to charge Gracq with anything: he split with the Communists on the point of the Stalin-Hitler pact and was thereafter uninvolved. Gracq did, however, teach history and geography: presumably, he knew exactly what he was doing with his allusions to Libya.

Farghestan, in the end, is purposefully unreal: the “secret powers of the city” that Aldo discovers when he leaves Syrtes for Orsenna are using the pretense of a war with Farghestan to whip up nationalist patriotism. Aldo, the protagonist, realizes that he’s been used, both by his lover and by the state; Danielo, one of the masters of Orsenna, explains how Aldo’s actions have proven useful:

When you rule, nothing is worse than losing hold. Once the Thing came to me, it was a strange discovery to realize that this was the only way to hold on to Orsenna. Everything that focused on Syrtes again,everything that led to the renewal of your . . . episode made the old gears turn with almost phantasmagorical ease, everything that failed to concern it met with a wall of inertia and unconcern. The Thing took advantage of every instance – the gestures to accelerate it and the gestures to slow it down – like a man sliding down the slope of a roof. Once the question was raised – how can I put this to you? – everything was mobilized of its own accord. (p. 284)

Orsenna, the final chapter makes clear, is about to descend into fascism: war with Farghestan, however, unlikely, is a convenient excuse. A deep dreaminess pervades this book, maybe the reason I find myself coming back to it; the politics, however, remain as timely as ever.

february 1–february 5

Books

Films

  • The Arbor, directed by Clio Barnard
  • Western Union, dir. Fritz Lang
  • The Return of Frank James, dir. Fritz Lang
  • Snow, dir. Geoffrey Jones
  • Lion of the Desert, dir. Moustapha Akkad
  • The Sweet Hereafter, dir. Atom Egoyan
  • Groundhog Day, dir. Harold Ramis

Exhibits

  • “Abstract Expressionist New York,” MoMA
  • “On Line: Drawing through the Twentieth Century,” MoMA

orhan pamuk, “my name is red”

Orhan Pamuk
My Name is Red
(trans. Erdağ Göknar)
(Faber and Faber, 2002; originally 2001)


I picked this book up at the airport in Istanbul, trying to spend the last of my Turkish lira. I don’t know why it took me so long to get to this book; I’d read Pamuk’s first book, The White Castle, and thought it was pleasant if slight. Maybe it was the overwhelming Orientalism of Chip Kidd’s cover to the American edition; more likely it’s because at the ALTA conference around the same time this book came out, an award was given to a new translation of Bilge Karasu’s The Garden of Departed Cats, a novel that sounded interesting (though it seemed to receive precisely no publicity) and that I was told was a major influence on Pamuk, but which I then forgot to read, though it kept me from buying more Pamuk. I dip into Pamuk’s essays occasionally and find them nice enough. But I did finally get around to picking up My Name is Red, which in this edition benefits from being pocket-sized: it feels like a book you’d read on an airplane, rather than a work of capital-L Literature. (It turns out that this book has just been admitted to Everyman’s Library in hard cover; this seems like awfully fast turnaround, but maybe that’s the way the world works; it turns out that it was released simultaneously with an edition of Isaac Asimov’s Foundation novels. I understand Everyman’s Library even less than the Library of America.)

I’m not being fair. Maybe it’s worth trying to parse out why it is that I feel suspicious of a book of this type, and what precisely a book of this type means. It’s the kind of book that’s deemed high literature, but that also isn’t so complicated that it can’t be brought over into other languages. García Márquez might be seen as a starting point for this (one could maybe go back further to Hermann Hesse) though I’m really talking about books from the past twenty years: Milan Kundera might fit in here, though he might also be more of a father figure, Salman Rushdie’s output for the past twenty years certainly does, Umberto Eco to an extent but more someone like Alessandro Baricco. Paulo Coelho doesn’t quite fit into this as he’s not quite high art enough. Saramago and Coetzee probably don’t quite fit in here, though a case could be made for them. But what I’m getting at is the highbrow that’s not particularly taxing: these books are working in established forms. There’s a touch of metafiction, but not enough to undercut the reader’s immersive experience; there’s a strong belief in the power of literature.

The sources of this particular book aren’t particularly hard to guess at: there’s Borges, of course, and Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying, where this book’s narrative strategy (each chapter gets its own first-person narrator) springs from. There are hints of Nabokov’s Ada; there’s a fair amount of Milorad Milorad Pavić’s Dictionary of the Khazars, with the presentation, then reinterpretation, of story after story. The Italo Calvino of Mr. Palomar and Invisible Cities can be found here. I would be interested to know if there are Turkish sources for Pamuk’s narrative strategies: there’s an offhand (and rather funny) mention of the Thousand and One Nights, but Pamuk’s style seems to be an amalgamation of American and European styles.

So this is a book that seems to me more derivative than not in terms of how it’s done; that said, it’s still a pleasant enough book to read. Pamuk’s subject, the world of Ottoman miniaturists in the late sixteenth century, is still unfamiliar enough to feel fresh, even if it seems strange to depict this world in such a contemporary way. This is germane to the art crisis at the center of the book: Western perspective vs. the Ottoman tradition: we see the end of Ottoman tradition through Western eyes; we know, of course, how this is going to end. Maybe the trick of doing each chapter from a different character’s perspective is designed to emulate the Islamic tradition of depicting each person or object perfectly (something like a Platonic ideal); but it comes off more as Faulkner than anything else.

This is a book of ekphrasis, and in that it succeeds: it’s about the pleasure of looking at pictures. The sort of pleasure depicted here is one very different from what we’re accustomed to: the miniaturists create masterpieces for sultans, but when these masterpieces are given to the sultan, they end up in the treasury, unseen by anyone. (Sultans are invariably depicted as boorish and not interested in anything but their own glory; they will not look at the pictures.) The great masterpieces of the past, then, can only be imagined; they are immune from the plague of criticism. The miniaturist’s career, at least in Pamuk’s version, always ends in blindness (one of the most explicitly Pavić-like elements), but this can be read as the apotheosis of looking at pictures: the blind miniaturist knows enough about illustration to never need to see them again. The masterpiece is unattainable; the viewer is almost incidental. There is, of course, the hint that painting is a stand-in for writing: the main character of the novel is not a miniaturist, but a man hired to write narratives to go with illustrations; he has a stepson named Orhan. This isn’t intrusive; nor is it conclusive.

The cover of this book, done by Pentagram, might be thought about, simply because it’s not really explained. We see a window frame; through the window, we see what seems to be an Ottoman miniature, one man stabbing another with a dagger. The window frame comes from Robert Campin’s St. Barbara, in the Prado from 1438; it’s the window in the background, which has been reversed to better fit the cover. I don’t know where the miniature comes from; the credit says “British Museum,” which seems a bit lazy. This is an unexpectedly smart cover for the book: an Ottoman past seen through a Western perspective, manipulated through Photoshop.

january 27–january 31

Films

  • Good Night, Nurse, directed by Roscoe Arbuckle
  • Back Stage, dir. Roscoe Arbuckle
  • The Hayseed, dir. Roscoe Arbuckle
  • The Garage, dir. Roscoe Arbuckle
  • Emak-Bakia, dir. Man Ray
  • L’Étoile de Mer, dir. Man Ray
  • Les Mystères du Château de Dé, dir. Man Ray
  • The Life and Death of 9413: a Hollywood Extra, dir. Robert Florey & Slavko Vorkapich
  • Brumes d’Automne, dir. Dimitri Kirsanoff
  • The Woodmans, dir. C. Scott Willis
  • Trafic, dir. Jacques Tati
  • The Woman in the Window, dir. Fritz Lang
  • Scarlet Street, dir. Fritz Lang