Wednesday, February 25, 2009

"Je vis, non j'existe."

I live, not I exist, says Le Clézio. This from the top of France Culture's home page. I think this sentence nicely and profoundly describe Le Clézio's attitude. To say that I exist is way too abstract to be true. I live, in, with, within. I and I live. I have always already been we, with the living and the non-living surrounding me alike. A refreshing pause from a dangerous ego-centrism.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Meet you at the corner?

Here is a joke that I really liked about thirty years ago:

--Qu'est-ce qu'un mur dit au mur d'à côté? demanda-t-il d'un ton criard. C'est une devinette!
Je roulais des yeux pensifs vers le plafond et répétai la question tout haut. Puis je regardai Charles d'un air obtus et lui dis que je donnai ma langue au chat.
--Rendez-vous au coin! m'assena-t-il en hurlant.

J.D. Salinger, Nouvelles (tr. Jean-Baptiste Rossi)

But the problem is, why did I find it so hilarious then?

Monday, February 23, 2009

The NRF at 100

I didn't realize that the NRF has been around for a century this year. It was founded in 1909 by Gide, taken over by Jacques Rivière (whom Philippe Sollers regards very highly), then at his death in 1925 succeeded by Jean Paulhan. I read this article by Philippe Lançon in Libération:

A sa [Rivière's] mort, en 1925, Jean Paulhan, radical prince de l'esquive et de l'ironie, lui donne le ton et l'avant-gardisme qu'elle conservera jusque dans les années 60.

And then:

Jamais l'opacité elliptique de Paulhan, dressant un mur de liège entre lui et chacun au profit de tous, n'a mieux révélé sa nécéssité. Il ne sortirait de l'ambiguïté qu'aux dépens des autres. C'est en manipulant par omission leurs talents immenses, capricieux, égoïstes, haineux, capables du pire pour exister, qu'il permet à la littérature qu'il aime d'entretenir ses vices et ses vertus. (Libération, Jeudi 19 février 2009)

Ah, Paulhan. The politics of literature is rife around him. But then, no editor can be totally innocent. Often tactics are mandatory for making things interesting and keeping them alive.

My friend Naoko Kasama has just completed her translation of Paulhan's collection of very short proses. I am hoping to see it materialize, under a book form, this year.

Sunday, February 22, 2009


Films this year:

9. The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, David Fincher (2008)
10. Musée haut, musée bas, Jean-Michel Ribes (2008)
11. Al otro lado, Gustavo Loza (2005)

I watched 9 at Gaumont, Montparnasse. It's a masterpiece with a lot of stunning moments and another victory from Fincher. What I particularly liked (just like anyone else, it seems) was an episode of a man who was struck seven times by lightning. This alone proves the director's well-established sense of humor. Tilda Swinton is breathtaking, as always.

10 is so silly one could only watch it in the trans-Eurasia stratosphere with less than regular oxigen level. But I watched it twice, thanks to Air France. Quite nonsensical, and not in the Ubuan or Dalian or even Lewis-Carolian sense. By the way I was surprised to find that Air France doesn't serve Stella Artois anymore! All they have is Heinekken. Tant pis!

Keisuke Dan showed me 11 which was not bad at all. Three parallel stories of children's border crossings that happen in Michoacan, La Habana, and Morocco/Maraga. Often melodramatic, deserted wives too beautiful, characters stereotypical. yet one can't help loving the film. It's got some "it." The best actress of the show award goes to the little girl from Morocco.

I am well behind my video days... Will try to catch up!

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Paris Dogs

In Paris and off the Seine, I came across a very nice big dog. Magnificent. I said, "C'est un chien superbe que vous avez. J'adore les grands chiens." And the old man responded in English, "Thank you, it's a Scottish Deer Hound." Oh. I thought it was an Irish Wolf Hound.

Strange but these two breeds are identical to my eyes. The same breed given different names in Ireland and Scotland?

I wonder if they have this kind of dog in Wales, and how they call it. But it's unlikely that they have such enormous dogs; Wales is where corgis are from!

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

In Paris

Just back from Nantes and je me trouve de nouveau a Paris... Nantes was wonderful, much more so than I had expected. But the memory of the trans-Atlantic slave trade is everywhere, when you look at it. Met a very nice Brazilian anthropologist, Denise, and she said she was rather sad about the new Quai Branly museum. I knew what she meant, I guess. Still it's an interesting, one-of-a-kind place and I am planning to go there again tomorrow.

Thanks all for your mail but please wait a couple of more days before I can respond. I am writing this from an internet cafe... my own computer couldn't get connected at the hotel. Maybe it's not compatible with the Wi-Fi protocol. I did't even know that!

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

On soul

One night in 1979 Derrida was listening to his son Pierre talking with Paul de Man; they were discussing musical instruments after a jazz concert in Chicago. Here is what Jackie recalls:

It was then I realized that Paul had never told me he was an experienced musician and that music had also been a practice with him. The word that let me know this was the word "âme" when, hearing Pierre, my son, and Paul speak with familiarity of the violin's or the bass's soul, I learned that the "soul" is the name one gives in French to the small and fragile piece of wood--always very exposed, very vulnerable--that is placed within the body of these instruments to support the bridge and assure the resonant communication of the two sounding boards.

Jacques Derrida, Memoires for Paul de Man (1989); this part trans. by Kevin Newmark

Always a piece on the fringe that attract Derrida's attraction. And generally speaking, soul resides on the edge of things, it seems!

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Teaching in grade school

What did Wittgenstein and Derrida have in common? They were both (at one stage of their lives) elementary school teachers!

Wittgenstein between 1922-26 (the years when he was between 33 and 37) famously taught in a primary school before he was forced to quit after hitting a student on his head for the child to lose consciousness. W only had two books published during his life time: the Tractatus and a vocabulary book for elementary school students. What a glorious and muy enloquecido teacher to have.

Derrida, instead of a compulsory military service, taught at a primary school in Algeria for two years when he was 27, 28 or thereabouts. This was around 1957, the hottest years in Algeria before independence. What kind of teacher he was, I can't tell.

I find it quite interesting, for me at this age, to teach in grade school along with my university position, if that's possible at all. A forced circulation of the teaching body among institutions of different age groups can only do good for the educational system in general. Themes out of school would be the only interesting and immediately pertinent in our collective survival.

Cowley on Cary

Sometimes you come across a paragraph (by any author) that's as good as a short story in itself. A minimum story.
One such is this from Malcolm Cowley's splendid And I Worked at the Writer's Trade:

In the case of one story by the late Joyce Cary, the "precious particle" was the wrinkles on a young woman's forehead. He had seen her on the little boat that goes around Manhattan Island, "a girl of about thirty," he says, "wearing a shabby skirt. She was enjoying herself. A nice expression, with a wrinkled forehead, a good many wrinkles. i said to my friend, 'I could write about that girl...'" but then he forgot about her. Three weeks later, in San Francisco, Cary woke up at four in the morning with a story in his head---a purely English story with an English heroine. When he came to revise the story he kept wondering, "Why all these wrinkles? That's the third time they come in. And I suddenly realized," he says, "that my English heroine was the girl on the Manhattan boat. Somehow she had gone down into my subconscious, and came up again with a full-sized story."

Malcolm Cowley, And I Worked at the Writer's Trade (1978)

The whole mechanism (of producing such a minimalist story) resides in the function of summarizing through retelling of somebody else's experience. This tells quite a bit about the genesis of the narrative genre.

Monday, February 09, 2009

Benjaminian translation, history, and natural history

Here is what Tom Cohen writes on Benjamin's peculiar "translation":

Walter Benjamin makes reference to a concept of history that breaks with the familiar notions of the term. As we know, he was given to taking familiar terms (allegory, cinema, dialectics, translation) and submitting them to a process of disinvestment. He called this "translation" : a site where the word passes through its own formal properties, emptied of "meaning" or interiority, and is then returned (unmarked) to usage in a sabotaging form void of subjectivity. Allegory becomes the other of the literary historical term; "materialistic historiography" dispels any ECHT Marxian hue; dialectics is unprogressive and anti-narrative, and so on.

And then, the following interesting remark on history:

Typically, "history" survives this procedure--which aims to empty out all interiorist traces--only to re-emerge within a different referential order. Rather than implying historicist echoes, Benjamin invokes a non-human "history" that will be gestured to under the misleading rubric of "natural history"--a history, we may add again, with different, proactive folds of time.

Tom Cohen, Ideology and Inscription (1998)

Saturday, February 07, 2009

This kind of coalition

The name of Alan Liu I only knew as a Wordsworth specialist, and a very good one. Then, today on reading Katherine Hayles' Electronic Literature, I learned of his recent interestingly sounding book The Laws of Cool. Here is what Hayles writes:

Liu urges a coalition between the "cool" --designers, graphic artists, programmers, and other workers within the knowledge industry--and the traditional humanities, suggesting that both camps possess assets essential to cope with the compexities of the commercial interests that currently determine many aspects of how peope live their everyday lives in developed societies. Whereas the traditional humanities specialize in articulating and preserving a deep knowledge of the past and engage in a broad spectrum of cultural analyses, the "cool" bring to the table expert knowledge about networked and programmable media and intuitive understandings of contemporary digital practices.

N. Katherine Hayles, Electronic Literature (2008)

This sounds already like a truism, but this is, objectively speaking, exactly what we have been attempting in our Digital Content Studies program, gathering all the fields of the humanities and contemporary media practices alike. No conspicuous output, not yet. But it will surely happen soon. From a desolate corner of Akihabara...

Friday, February 06, 2009

No solidarity with myself, no, no

Here is what Claude Mauriac writes in his "Cocteau" book:

Trente ans après, je retrouve avec la même gêne cet homme qui était moi et dont je me désolidariserais si je m'en reconnaissais le droit. Mais pourquoi serais-je plus moi aujourd'hui qu'alors? Je renie le mauvais écrivain que j'étais. Je m'y sens autorisé, ayant sans doute fait quelques progrès et n'abusant plus ainsi des adjectifs grandiloquents. Mais si je n'ose plus parler de "joie du ciel" ni le "grandeur humaine" c'est probablement une façon autre d'être conditionné. Aussi peu libre maintenant qu'en ce temps-là. Aussi peu moi, à supposer que ce moi existe, mais je n'y crois plus, ne sachant depuis longtemps interchangeable.

Claude Mauriac, Une amitié contrariée (1970)

A post-Gide consciousness, probably, than a post-Mauriac one. But the subject of pronunciation is here functionning as strong as anything... Egotism, to full extent.

Wednesday, February 04, 2009

What to read (of Celine)?

Casually on rereading Deleuzo-Guattarian Kafka, I was reminded of their opinion on Céline:

Céline's syntactic evolution went from VOYAGES to DEATH ON THE CREDIT PLAN, then from DEATH ON THE CREDIT PLAN to GUIGNOL'S BAND. (After that, Céline had nothing more to talk about except his own misfortunes; in other words, he had no longer any desire to write, only the need to make money. And it always ends like that, language's lines of escape: silence, the interrupted, the interminable, or even worse. But until that point, what a crazy creation, what a writing machine!

Deleuze & Guattari, Kafka (Dana Polan trans. 1986 [original 1975]).

Hey, don't be si méchants, Gilles and Félix, there must be more good works from him. I don't think it's a good idea to limit people's perspective in this way. It's all in the way you talk, you know.

Tuesday, February 03, 2009

Byron on Shelley

"Shelley lives on outside his verse," writes Isabel Quigly in her masterful introduction to The Penguin Portable Library Shelley. She goes on to quote Byron:

Byron, who was almost entirely uninclined, by nature and habit, for admiration, wrote to Murray: 'You were all brutally mistaken about Shelley, who was, without exception, the BEST and least selfish man I ever knew. I never knew anyone who was not a beast in comparison.'

This goodness, this bonté, should be examined. For Romantic poets, it is almost impossible not to take their life into consideration when discussing their works. And this tells about an essential feature of Romanticism.

De Man

Paul de Man also has his moments of bravado, soaring high into the stratosphere of stylistics. No less impressive, and probably with more dexterity, than Bloom is a passage such as:

The erasure or effacement is indeed the loss of a face, in French FIGURE. Rousseau no longer, or hardly (as the tracks are not all gone, but more than half erased), has a face. Like the protagonist in the Hardy story, he is disfigured, défiguré, defaced. And also as in the Hardy story, to be disfigured means primarily the loss of the eyes, turned to "stony orbs" or to empty holes. This trajectory from erased self-knowledge to disfiguration is the trajectory of The Triumph of Life.

"Shelley Disfigured" in Deconstruction & Criticism (1979)

Time to take up Shelley in earnest.

The Yale School revisited

As a beginning graduate student in the early 1980s I encountered the collection since became famous: Deconstruction & Criticism. Famously, for Bloom, "criticism" was he alone, and "deconstruction" the four other gangs. But this is a superb collection that's possible only at a time in history. It is a representative work of five great critics, and at their near-best.

After almost thirty years and I still can't grasp the whole range of its possibility. Yet Bloom is mesmerizing:

A power of evasion may be the belated strong poet's most crucial gift, a psychic and linguistic cunning that energizes what most of us have over-idealized as the imagination. Self-preservation is the labor of the poem's litanies of evasion, of its dance-steps beyond the pleasure principle.

Harold Bloom, "The Breaking of Form" in Deconstruction & Criticism (1979)

I hold my breath and follow his steps, and again, and again...

Monday, February 02, 2009

Cohn on Richard

This book after all might be the most decisive one in my formation: Robert Greer Cohn's Toward the Poems of Mallarmé. On re-reading it once again I notice this passage he writes on Jean-Pierre Richard's majestic L'Univers imaginaire, and I like it very much. With due respect to Richard, undoubtedly one of the most important literary critics ever, he writes:

Richard's volume is remarkable, but chiefly, as we have come to expect of him, as a study of the man (a sort of inner biography) or, rather, of the "everypoet" in Mallarmé. This is scientific and general pre-criticism, or aesthetics, rather than criticism and does not rise to the full specificity of the individual works. How often an image pinned down by a dozen quotations will change under the impact of neighboring images in a given poem! But, while much space is alloted to juvenilia or repetitious documentation, the poems themselves receive a few lines (or, at most, a couple of pages) each. Richard chooses to ignore, for practical purposes, Mallarmé's biggest single effort at a poetic work, the Coup de Dés. In this way, he, Richard--as he candidly admits to be his aim--becomes the owner of the ambitious syntactical or "totalizing" vision which is properly Mallarmé's. God protect us from our friends!

Rober Greer Cohn, Toward the Poems of Mallarmé (1965)

Touché, for the "inner biography" part. And the final sentence is GREAT. Thematism has its own metaphysics. Criticism, in the final instance, should be practical criticism. And criticism is neither biography nor some para-philosophical murmuring. Yet IN PRACTICE we can't help but ending up in syncretism, can we?

Sunday, February 01, 2009

Self/other, otherly, or otherwise

Leslie Hill in his very lucid book on Blanchot explains Blanchot's third type of self/other relations in the following manner:

In this relation of the third kind, the Other is thought not as another Self, but as radically different, irreducible to the One or to the Same. This type of relation occurs, so to speak, beyond the horizon of world and being; it is relation without ratio, adequation, equality, symmetry, or reciprocity. This is relation without relation, relation in the form of a pure interval belonging neither to being nor non-being, irreducible to all thought of truth, visibility, veiling or unveiling, and figurable only as non-reversible dissymmetry, as a strange space in which the distance from me to the Other is not the same as the distance from the Other to me. Here, all topographical continuity is abolished.

Leslie Hill, Blanchot: Extreme Contemporary (1997)

What makes me so uneasy is the phrase above: "a strange space in which the distance from me to the Other is not the same as the distance from the Other to me." The physical reciprocity of distance can't hold. This makes any approach impossible. An eternally parallel world of discommunication?