Friday, 30 April 2010

Orpheus and the Sirens

As a change from botanical names, I spent some time last night looking at the two volumes of Robert Graves' work, The Greek Myths, to see what he says about the Sirens. Something that I'd completely forgotten is that Jason and the Argonauts also encountered the Sirens when they were returning from Colchis, having seized the Golden Fleece from King Aeëtes. They too survived the danger but by different means:
Jason now needed only to double Cape Malea, and return with the fleece to Iolcus. He cruised in safety past the Islands of the Sirens, where the ravishing strains of these bird-women were countered by the even lovelier strains of Orpheus's lyre. Butes along sprang overboard in an attempt to swim ashore, but Aphrodite rescued him; she took him to Mount Eryx by way of Lilybaeum, and there made him her lover. Some say that the Sirens, who had already lost their wings as a result of an unsuccesful contest with the Muses, sponsored by Hera, committed suicide because of their failure to outcharm Orpheus; yet they were still on their island when Odyseus came by a generation later. (Graves, volume 2, page 245)
I think there's something really interesting about this alternative way of resisting the song of the Sirens and, given the focus on music and the voice, it might be worth thinking about, perhaps.

Thursday, 29 April 2010


A couple of images of Kayaköy from the air, both from Google Earth. The houses appear as white rectangles because the walls still stand while the roofs have long gone:

Wednesday, 28 April 2010

thuja again

I realise this stuff may be quite a specific obsession of mine but I'm still very intrigued by the migration of the ancient term thuja from the plant it originally designated to a genus that isn't represented in Europe or Africa at all. The Oxford English Dictionary supplies a scrap of information about when the white cedar first received the name thuja:
Camerarius, 1577, has thya from Pliny and thuia after Gaza; he applies the name to the American Arbor Vitæ, Thuya occidentalis.
I think this must be a reference to a German botanist called Joachim Camerarius the younger (1534-1598) and, since Cartier's attention was only drawn to the white cedar in the 1530s, the text mentioned here - whatever it is - is very early. However, although I've cast about a bit to see if I can locate something that Camerarius published in 1577, I've drawn a blank. So, I've written to the enquiries department at the OED to ask if they have a fuller reference. (Maybe this *is* becoming a bit obsessive!)

Monday, 26 April 2010


It seems that ameda has many variant spellings: anneda, annedda, and hanneda. I'm not sure where these appear - I've just seen them cited in the secondary literature (e.g. an article by C. Stuart Houston on 'Scurvy and Canadian Exploration'). But, thinking about capturing voices through the process of transcription, it's interesting that so many variants appear.

thuja occidentalis

As well as arbor vitae and ameda, which I talked about here, the northern white cedar is also known by its Linnaean nomenclature: thuja occidentalis. When I first saw this name (in the exhibition space at the Forest History Center) it struck me as very strange looking and I underlined it in my notebook for that reason:

Actually, thuja is a transliteration of a Greek term and it looks a lot less odd in the Greek script:

I suppose it's the j that makes the Latin version look strange. Once you realise that it's just a way of writing iota when it appears between two vowels, it doesn't seem so startling. But the Greek term itself has quite an odd history. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, it was originally used as the name of an 'African tree' and appears with that reference in the Enquiry into Plants, by Theophrastus (c. 371- c.287 BC). And in Revelation 18.12, the passage prophesying the fall of Babylon, an adjectival form appears, referring to the same plant:

11. And the merchants of the earth shall weep and mourn over her; for no man buyeth their merchandise any more:
12. The merchandise of gold, and silver, and precious stones, and of pearls, and fine linen, and purple, and silk, and scarlet, and all thyine wood, and all manner vessels of ivory, and all manner vessels of most precious wood, and of brass, and iron, and marble,
13. And cinnamon, and odours, and ointments, and frankincense, and wine, and oil, and fine flour, and wheat, and beasts, and sheep, and horses, and chariots, and slaves, and souls of men.

I think 'thyine wood' was burned for its smell and hence associated with sacrifices. (Quite a few sources connect thuia with thuein (to sacrifice)).

But, funnily enough, when the term thuja had become established in the Linnaean nomenclature to designate a particular genus, it turned out that the original thuia did not belong to that genus and the old 'African tree' is now known as tetraclinis articulata. (Well, I think that's the most recent name - at least it isn't called thuja articulata any more.) So the name has migrated away from its original reference and is now used in the names of five species, two from North America, three from East Asia, and none from North Africa.

Sunday, 25 April 2010

historic buildings

Just to keep the list growing, another historic house near Sheffield is Haddon Hall, a medieval manor house, the oldest parts of which date from the 12th century:

Haddon Hall,
Hardwick Hall,
Bolsover Castle,

northern white cedar

I've been away at a conference for a few days but am back at my desk today and thinking again about botany. I posted here about the way that plant names are entangled with human history and I mentioned some of the trees that are found in the forests of northern Minnesota. This is just a little story about the northern white cedar, which is native to the north-east of the US and the south-east of Canada with Minnesota at the western edge of its range.

This was the first North American tree to be introduced to Europe and that's largely, I think, because of its medicinal properties. When the French explorer, Jacques Cartier, came to Canada for the second time in 1536, he discovered - from Huron informants - that the foliage of the plant could be prepared and used as a cure for scurvy. (His crew were badly afflicted after the journey across the Atlantic.) As a result, he named it arbor vitae, tree of life, and took samples back to France, where it was cultivated.

In 1580, an English edition of Cartier's travels was published under the title: A shorte and briefe narration of the two nauigations and discoueries to the northwest partes called Newe Fraunce. I happen to have to access to this and took the chance to look at the narrative of the arbor vitae. It's interesting because Cartier cites a Native American name for the plant. He says: 'they told us, the vertue of that tree was, to heale any other disease: the tree is in their language called Ameda'. But it's worth looking at the orginal presentation of this passage. Below is a fasimile with the name ringed in red:

What really strikes me is the way the name, Ameda, is set off typographically. Whereas most of the text is in black-letter type, this term is in some kind of Roman font and in small caps with extra space around and between the letters. A theme I've returned to a lot throughout our discussions is that of transcription and this is, of course, a 16th-century transcription of a Native American term. The typographical difference doesn't help us to pronounce it but it does suggest another voice in the text and I've found myself trying to imagine what a voice rendered in well spaced Roman capitals might sound like! (Deep and booming? Or just subtly particular? Not what Cartier's own voice sounds like even when he tries to pronounce it correctly?) Actually, the word 'God', which appears right at the bottom of the page, is also set off typographically. But 'God' is just capitalised - it's in the same font as the rest of the text. Only the Native American term appears in a different font altogether.

So, here we have two names for the same tree but more than one voice is speaking in each of them. When Cartier names the tree arbor vitae, he is not inventing a term but drawing on a Christian name for the cross. I don't know if you've seen this site on the iconography of the cross. It's very good and it provides some references for the arbor vitae:

Peter and Linda Murray. 1998. Oxford Companion to Christian Art and Architecture, pages 540-41.
William Wood Seymour. 1898. Cross in Tradition, History, and Art, pages 83-93.
Eva Wilson. 1994. Ornament 8000 Years: An Illustrated Handbook of Motifs, pages 135-38.

And, when we learn the Huron (?) name for the northern white cedar, we encounter it transcribed in Cartier's text, isolated from the language around it through the typographical choices made by the printer.

That's enough for now, I think. The northern white cedar has other names too, but I'll come to them another time. To finish, here's a picture of the plant itself (borrowed from wikimedia):

Monday, 19 April 2010


Yes, it's very interesting that the idea of nostalgia has reappeared now (in the context of the wisteria). And, actually, that trait of insisting on the present as a way of disentangling oneself from nostalgia strikes a chord with me. You know, I realise that, whenever I go to places with a powerful charge of history, I always start feeling deeply suspicious of my own motives. Nostalgia is a sort of 'bogus' emotion, I think, and there are others. They all involve a sort of performance of sensitivity rather than some more authentic response and they all arise from a particular way of seeing the relationship between past and present.

Sunday, 18 April 2010

bill fontana - river sounding

On a rather different note, my colleague Jane Hodson - who you met at the first 'gathering' last year - put me on to this work by Bill Fontana:

It's a sound installation relating to the Thames as it flows through London. Do have a look at the link and let me know if you find it interesting. I *might* have a chance to get down to London at the end of next week and, if you think this is worth a look, I'll go to Somerset House and make some notes about what it's like.

memory and nature

Once again, I really enjoyed your post (and also the comments it's attracted on your blog and on facebook). I'm keen to write about it this morning but, because it's a complex subject and it's only just opening up, I don't have a worked-out argument to express. I'm just going to jot down a few thoughts...

(1) There is certainly a tension between the haecitas of nature and the fact that natural organisms can also represent traces of historical events. It's true that the wisteria is simultaneously 'a flowering vine blooming out of the ground in the spring' and the trace of a certain kind of history.

(2) In a way the distinction is between recognising the wisteria as a symbol of a particular history and rigorously refusing to make it into a symbol, thus insisting upon its haecitas in the here and now. This idea of nature-as-symbol and nature-without-symbolism is interesting to me. There might be good reasons to want to see the wisteria in both ways.

(3) I have a feeling that this is one of those things where one can move between two perceptions of the same thing, both being possible but each always excluding the other. In this, it's like a Necker Cube:

Each of the box shapes in this image can be seen as either protruding from or intruding into the page. But, although you can see them in both ways, you can't see both at the same time.

(4) The impulse simply to be in the here-and-now is an important one - part of the reason that Buddhism has achieved some purchase in the west - but the impulse to look for the traces of history also seems important to me. Isn't it rather chilling to think that the here-and-now will simply cover up the past? Weren't we quite pleased when we found that the Minnesota Historical Society had put up signs to commemorate what was done to the Ojibwe at Great Sandy Lake and so trouble the sense that the lake is just a gloriously beautiful natural vista? (Although, actually, it occurs to me that, if one is standing there enjoying the 'beauty' of the lake, one might not be able to claim that one is simply being - 'enjoying the view' is a culturally constructed activity, I think.) This is why I like the image of the Necker Cube - wisteria is both presence-in-the-world and historical trace but maybe it can't be both to us at the same time.

(5) I love the fact that you've posted about Eudora Welty in this connection and I agree that she is absolutely fascinating. But, having tried to work out what I feel about this, I'm not sure that I fully understand her sense that places somehow retain their history quite apart from the functioning of human memory. I don't think my intitial response to a place - or at least to a place that seems 'natural' - involves a kind of intuitive discovery of its history but more the kind of aesetheticised here-and-now response that I've talked about in relation to Great Sandy Lake. Moving to the other view of the Necker cube - the view of the place as somewhere where history happened - involves some kind of mental work, some kind of learning - and then, once that's achieved, it can be difficult to go back to the other way of seeing it. Actually, I'm not quite sure about that last point - it's all too easy to slip back into an aestheticised way of seeing it but very difficult to experience it in that rather more unattached way as simply 'there'. (Also, I may not have understood Welty's ideas very well...)

(6) All this leads me to think about my focus on language and voices. The names of plants are quite clearly historical clues and so my interest in language perhaps conditions me to understand nature historically. But, again, it occurs to me that there is something very powerful to be done in thinking about the distinction between the named and the un-named. Would it be possible to detach the wisteria from its name once its name is known to you? I'm really struck by your allusion to Romeo and Juliet here. I'm also thinking about the way I felt as I kayaked through the woods immediately below Vekin's Dam and realised that I couldn't attach names to any of the plants around me.

(7) This is just coincidence really, but - as it happens - the Necker Cube appears in the designs of the mosaics at Pompeii:

Both images in this post come from

Seven 'thoughts' on memory and nature :o) I don't if any of it makes much sense but that's what's in my mind right now...

Saturday, 17 April 2010

wisteria and pine trees

I love your new post and it seems to me that there is a lot to think about here. For a start, you've reminded me of conversations we had in Minnesota about the way in which nature recolonises places long after the humans are gone, but - often - a nature changed by the passage of a human population. In the case of Rodney, the agent of nature's recolonisation is an introduced species, wisteria, and in the case of northern Minnesota (including the area round Mallard) it's the secondary growth, which is actually quite different from the primary growth that was there before. (Despite all the forests, Minnesota does not look as it did before the loggers passed through.) So our sense that nature entirely erases the traces of human habitation (and trauma) isn't quite right: if you can read 'nature's book', you can see those traces still in the way nature is changed by the 'passing through' of human populations. When nature reclaims a ghost town, it is itself changed.

I'm aways interested in how language, speech, and voices are connected with experiences of this kind and I think there is a lot of potential for thinking about that here. The plant we call wisteria must have changed its name many times as it passed from Asia into Europe and on into North America. I wonder what wisteria is called in Chinese? And does it appear in Chinese poetry? [...] Actually, I've just tried to answer my last question by doing a quick online search. And this took me to the website of James Cahill, Professor Emeritus in the History of Art at Berkeley. There he has a handout relating to a seminar on 'Poetic Painting in China'. It's a bit hard to interpret - more like a series of notes than a connected text - but it includes this:

Distant Mts. 4: "Scholars Gazing At Waterfall," 1630. Couplet (p. 37): "Pines and rocks are proper to old age; / Wisteria vines do not count the years."

I think there's something rather striking about that couplet, not least in the way it mentions both pines (the flora to be found around Mallard) and wisteria (the plant that is reclaiming Rodney), connecting both with the passing of time. It seems that, in English, the plant is named after a person, although there seems to be some doubt about which person. Having searched online, I've found that a lot of people say it was Caspar Wister (1761-1818), a physician and anatomist from Philadelphia.

As I happens, I've already assembled some material on the naming of plants in Minnesota. While I was kayaking, I was chastened a little by my total inability to recognise or name the plants that surrounded me. So, when we went to the Forest History Center near Grand Rapids, I was excited to see a big board in the exhibition space with the names of lots of the trees that you find in the area. I jotted them down in my notebook and, when I came back to Sheffield, did some research on some that seemed particularly interesting to me. I won't download a lot of information about them now - I'll save it for future postings - but a few that really caught my imagination were:

Jack Pine (Pinus banksiana)
American Basswood (Tilia americana)
Tamarack (Larix laricina)
Northern White Cedar (Thuja occidentalis)

What do you think about collecting a series of 'botanical fragments' relating to the plants that surround our ghost towns? (By 'fragments' I mean fragments of text, of course.) Kayaköy is certainly being recolonised by plant life, all of which presumably has both Greek and Turkish names. Obviously Pompeii wasn't slowly reclaimed by nature - it was buried quickly in volcanic ash. But it occurs to me that the mosaics and paintings of Pompeii include images of plants and I wonder if they are just local ones or if they represent the resources of the empire? Anyway, just a thought - I'll post some more on this later.

Wednesday, 14 April 2010

historic buildings

Another historic house near Sheffield is Hardwick Hall, built by Bess of Hardwich in the late 16th century:

Hardwick Hall,
Bolsover Castle,

Tuesday, 13 April 2010

Benjamin on Kafka on ... Native Americans

Kafka's collection of stories, Contemplation (in German, Betrachtung) includes one called The Wish to be a Red Indian (Wunsch, Indianer zu werden). Benjamin quotes it in the essay we've been looking at. He has just been talking about a childhood photograph of Kafka in which he has '[i]mmensely sad eyes':
The ardent 'wish to become a Red Indian' may have consumed this great sadness at some point. 'If one were only an Indian, instantly alert, and on a racing horse, leaning against the wind, kept on quivering briefly over the quivering ground, until one shed one's spurs, for there were no spurs, threw away the reins, for there were no reins, and barely saw the land before one as a smoothly mown heath, with the horse's neck and head already gone.' A great deal is contained in this wish. Its fulfilment, which he finds in America, yields up its secret.

Image of the Sirens

This is quite a famous image of the sirens from a red-figure vase. I remember looking at it when I did a course on Greek Art at university.

Monday, 12 April 2010

historic buildings

Yesterday you mentioned the idea of looking at some historic buildings near Sheffield that might be possible as venues for an event. I think this is a lovely idea and I'll begin to assemble some possibilities. I'll probably do this in dribs and drabs, if that's OK. Every time I post a new URL, I'll repost all the old ones with it, so that the list grows cumulatively and you don't have to go back through the blog if you want to compare them. Here's a first thought:

Bolsover Castle,

fragment again

I've also got a reference for where the fragment appears in Clement: Stromata, IV, 26, 172, 1.

Fragmentum incertum 911 is a disturbingly resonant name, it occurs to me...

fragment from euripides

Just a quick line to say that it was *excellent* to speak with you yesterday - so inspiring! I'm feeling really fired up and ready to go now!!

To answer your question about that fragment from Euripides: 'And now golden wings are laid upon my back...'. Apparently it isn't from an extant play and I think it's only preserved in Clement's text. Rahner gives the reference, Fragmentum incertum 911. I may have difficulty tracking this down in Sheffield because we don't have a Classics department so the holdings are a bit patchy. Will see what I can do, though...

Sunday, 11 April 2010

ojibwe music #7

Just another chunk of the article on Ojibwe music that I found in Gilfillan's scrap book. This section has the heading 'Specimen Lyrics':

"My Bark Canoe," to which reference has been made in the foregoing, is a lyric which is exquisite from any point of view, and the musical theme such as might have been composed by any of the precursors of Schubert in the last of the eighteenth century. It is cast in the usual mode, beginning upon the higher and ending on low notes, and the melody is at once so graceful and appealing that it is heard here as commonly among the visitors as among the Indians; both sing, whistle, and hum it incessantly, the Ojibway in his tepee or his canoe and the visitor on the piazza of the hotel. It possesses its native touch of barbarism, yet is as fluent as the tenderest thought of Schubert, and, for the paleface musician, its charm is unconsciously enhanced by the appropriate words which Mr Burton has adapted to it. The original Ojibway is:

"Kee-chi ga de beck, ondeydeyan,
Ah gu-ze be, ondeydeyan."

and this is the translation supplied by one of the native singers:

"I am out all night to seek my love;
I paddle all night long and seek for her."

I quote the English arrangement to show how delicately Mr Burton has transcribed the simplicity of the Indian idea:

In the still night the long hours through,
I guide my bark canoe,
My bark canoe, my love, to you.

While the stars shine and falls the dew,
I seek my love in bark canoe,
In bark canoe I seek for you.

It is I, love, your lover true,
Who glides the stream in bark canoe,
It glides to you, my love, to you.

As the reader no doubt has imagined, the same melody again is repeated with each stanza, but the theme is of a haunting quality whose repetition serves only to emphasize the plaint of the Indian swain.

I quite liked the comparisons with Schubert here and also the comparison of the literal translation supplied by 'one of the native singers' and the more 'delicately' translated version by Mr Burton.

Saturday, 10 April 2010

Benjamin on ... Rivers!

This is almost a bit spooky! I'm going to quote another section of Benjamin's essay on Kafka and here B is talking about K's obssession with 'the question of how life and work are organized in human society'. The really startling bit comes at the end of this passage:

This question increasingly occupied Kafka as it became impenetrable to him. If Napoleon, in his famous conversation with Goethe at Erfurt substituted politics for fate, Kafka in a variation of this statement, could have defined organization as destiny. He faces it not only in the extensive hierarchy of officialdom in The Trial and The Castle, but even more concretely in the difficult and incalculable construction plans whose venerable model he dealt with in The Great Wall of China.

'The wall was to be a protection for centuries; accordingly, the most scrupulous care in the construction, the application of the architectural wisdom of all known ages and peoples, a constant sense of personal responsibility on the part of the builders were indispensable prerequisites for the work. To be sure, for the menial tasks ignorant labourers from the populace, men, women, and children, whoever offered his services for good money, could be used; but for the supervision even of every four day labourers a man trained in the building trade was required ... We - and here I speak in the name of many people - did not really know ourselves until we had carefully scrutinized the decrees of the high command; then we discovered that without this leadership neither our book learning nor our common sense would have sufficed for the humble tasks which we performed in the great whole.' This organization resembles fate. Metchnikoff, who has outlined this in his famous book La Civilisation et les grands fleuves historiques [Civilization and the Great Historical Rivers], uses language that could be Kafka's. 'The great canals of the Yangtze and the dams of the Yellow River,' he writes, 'are in all likelihood the result of the skillfully organized joint labour of ... generations. The slightest carelessness in the digging of a ditch or the buttressing of a dam, the least bit of negligence or selfish behaviour on the part of an individual or a group of men in the maintenance of the common hydraulic wealth becomes, under such unusual circumstances, the source of social evils and far-reaching social calamity. Consequently, a life-giving river requires on pain of death a close and permanent solidarity between groups of people that frequently are alien or even hostile to one another; it sentences everyone to labours whose common usefulness is revealed only by time and whose design quite often remains utterly incomprehensible to an ordinary man.'

This focus on the politics of maintaining a river system sounds interesting, I think. I don't know much about Metchnikoff - incidentally, his name is more usually transliterated Mechnikov - but I do know that La Civilisation et les grands fleuves is not a technical history of hydraulics so much as an anarchist thinker's account of how cooperation emerges as a principle in human history. This is a quotation from an article about Mechnikov by James D. White. The article has the title 'Despotism and Anarchy'. I think it gives a flavour of what is going on here:
Mechnikov considered that the first step by which a given people may raise itself on the way to advancement in civilization is to subordinate itself to a despotism. For, he remarks, although there are free peoples in considerable number in various parts of the world, they are without exception no further advanced than the Stone Age as regards science, art and industry, whereas all the advanced nations have at some time experienced despotism. In order to advance materially and culturally a people must combine its efforts and submit to stern discipline. The despot himself, however, is a mere symbol: it is not he who oppresses his subjects, but their own impotence to transform their surroundings individually without the combined effort and the discipline which this involves. In Mechnikov's opinion, it was typical that all the four great civilizations of the ancient world, the Egyptian, the Assyrio-Babylonian, the Hindu and the Chinese, were despotic. All of them, moreover, were associated with great river systems, the utilization of which for irrigation purposes made their high level of culture possible. Mechnikov, however, cautions that he is not propounding any variety of determinism or 'geographical fatalism'. He stresses that:

it is not in the environment itself, but in the relationship between the environment and the aptitude of its inhabitants to provide voluntarily the element of cooperation and solidarity imposed on each by nature that one must look for the raison d 'être of a people's primitive institutions and for their further transformations.
Thus the management of a river system becomes, in some sense, the defining political challenge from which civilization emerges...

Friday, 9 April 2010

Kurt Weill

This is just an off-the-cuff comment really but, while I was in London over the weekend, I went to one of my favourite CD shops (on the South Bank, near the National Theatre) and bought a recording of Kurt Weill's Die sieben Totsünden. I wasn't really thinking about this when I bought it, but afterwards it struck me that Weill was another exile from Nazi Germany who made his way to the US. I always think that there is a very interesting - not to say strange - sense of place in Weill's songs, partly because of the words but also because of the musical styles that accompany them. (I'm thinking of something like ' Benares Song', which seems almost willfully defiant of 'real' geography.)

Benjamin on Kafka on Ulysses #2

Following on from the quotation I posted here, Benjamin starts to talk about the world of myth, which promises redemption to Kafka's 'older' world:

Even the world of myth of which we think in this context is incomparably younger than Kafka's world, which has been promised redemption by the myth. But if we can be sure of one thing, it is this: Kafka did not succumb to its temptation. [I take it that by 'its temptation' Benjamin means the temptation of myth - RSJ.] A latter-day Ulysses, he let the Sirens go by 'his gaze which was fixed on the distance, the Sirens disappeared as it were before his determination, and at the very moment when he was closest to them he was no longer aware of them.' Among Kafka's ancestors in the ancient world, the Jews and the Chinese, whom we shall encounter later, this Greek one should not be forgotten. Ulysses, after all, stands at the dividing line between myth and fairy tale. Reason and cunning have inserted tricks into myths; their forces cease to be invincible. Fairy tales are the traditional stories about victory over these forces, and fairly tales for dialecticians are what Kafka wrote when he went to work on legends. He inserted little tricks into them; then he used them as proof 'that inadequate, even childish measures may alos serve to rescue one.' With these words he begins his story about the 'Silence of the Sirens.' For Kafka's Sirens are silent; they have 'an even more terrible weapon than their song ... their silence.' This they used on Ulysses. But he, so Kafka tells us, 'was so full of guile, was such a fox that not even the goddess of fate could pierce his armour. Perhaps he had really noticed, although here the human understanding is beyond its depths, that the Sirens were silent, and opposed the afore-mentioned pretence to them and the gods merely as a sort of shield.

Kafka's Sirens are silent. Perhaps because for Kafka music and singing are an expression or at least a token of escape, a token of hope which comes to us from that intermediate world - at once unfinished and commonplace, comforting and silly - in which the assistants are at home.
At this point Benjamin refers back to the story of Potemkin, with which the essay began. (In the story, Benjamin describes Potemkin's deep depressions, which resulted in the whole Russian bureaucracy grinding to a halt because he was not in a fit state even to sign papers.)
Kafka is like the lad who set out to learn what fear was. He has got into Potemkin's palace and finally, in the depths of its cellar, has encountered Josephine, the singing mouse, whose tune he describes: 'Something of our poor brief childhood is in it, something of lost happiness which can never be found again, but also something of active presentday life, of its small gaieties, unaccountable and yet real and unquenchable.'

There is something that I like about Benjamin's brief allusions to the role of music. And I'm not sure that Rebecca Comay quite captures it in the section of her essay that I quoted here. She presents Benjamin's view as being that 'by Kafka's day, the Sirens have fallen silent because music as such - the last "token of hope" - has been permanently gagged'. But that surely isn't what Benjamin is saying in the two shorter paragraphs I've quoted above. It sounds more as if, even now, music offers a glimpse - or 'token' - of hope, restricted and abject, certainly, but not 'permanently gagged', surely?

Thursday, 8 April 2010

ojibwe music #6

Another (shorter) quotation from the article on Ojibwe music that I found in Gilfillan's scrapbook. It follows on from the material on rhythm and harmony that I posted earlier. The title of this section is 'Rules of Indian Music':

One of the rules of Indian music is that a song begins on a high note and ends on a low one. We usually reach our climaxes in art music by just the opposite process. To its own rules Ojibway music generally conforms, but among the comparatively few examples studied there are striking exceptions, one song in particular ending in the most spirited manner on a high note. Another rule is in regard to the scale which, with most tribes, is limited to five notes. The omitted intervals are usually the fourth and seventh; some of the Ojibway songs have the seventh as a passing note, and some include the fourth on the accented part of the measure. It will occasion no surprise to discover native songs in which every note of the scale is employed. How much missionary influence, exerted over a series of generations, has had to do with the making of Indian songs cannot be asserted, but various circumstances suggest that the music is practically undefiled. The melodies unquestionably are very ancient. No one appears to know where or when they originated, but it is certain that they have been handed down by oral tradition for many generations. It is not a wild dream that many of the identical songs of Longfellow's Chibiabos are reproduced annually on the shore of Lake Huron.
So here we have more of that speculation about how 'pure' the present state of Native American music is and how much is owed to contact with missionaries. Actually, it made me think of something you said last summer about the term 'authenticity'. A practice is authentic if its practitioners see it as such...

Benjamin on Kafka on Ulysses

I wrote here about Rebecca Comay's article and the references she makes to Benjamin's essay on Kafka. (Incidentally, I also mentioned there an article by Laurence Rickel but I've looked at that now and didn't find it helpful.) Over the last few days I've been following up Comay's reference by reading Benjamin's essay, 'Franz Kafka on the tenth anniversary of his death'. I hope it's OK with you if I quote some sections from the essay? The discussion of Ulysses and the Sirens is preceded by some thoughts on hope and on the issue of who can reasonably feel hope in the present world. I'll just quote that for today - the connection with the Ulysses myth will become apparent later:

'I remember,' [Max] Brod writes, 'a conversation with Kafka which began with present-day Europe and the decline of the human race. "We are nihilistic thoughts, suicidal thoughts that come into God's head," Kafka said. This reminded me of the Gnostic view of life: God as the evil demiurge, the world as his Fall. "Oh no," said Kafka, "our world is only a bad mood of God, a bad day of his." "Then there is hope outside this manifestation of the world that we know." He smiled. "Oh, plenty of hope, an infinite amount of hope - but not for us."' These words provide a bridge to those extremely strange figures in the Kafka, the only ones who have escaped from the family circle and for whom there may still be hope. These are not the animals, not even those hybrids or imaginary creatures like the Cat Lamb or Odradek; they all still live under the spell of the family. It is no accident that Gregor Samsa wakes up as a bug in the parental home and not somewhere else, and that the peculiar animal which is half kitten, half lamb, is inherited from the father; Odradek likewise is the concern of the father of the family. The 'assistants', however, are outside this circle.

These assistants belong to a group of figures which recurs though Kafka's entire work. Their tribe includes the confidence man who is unmasked in the 'Meditation'; the student who appears on the balcony at night as Karl Rossman's neighbour; and the fools who live in that town in the south and never get tired. The twilight in which they exist is reminiscent of the uncertain light in which the figures in the short prose pieces of Robert Walser appear. In Indian mythology there are the gandharvas, celestial creatures, beings in an unfinished state. Kafka's assistants are of that kind: neither members of, nor strangers to, any of the other groups of figures, but, rather messengers from one to the other. Kafka tells us that they resemble Barnabas, who is a messenger. They have not yet been completely released from the womb of nature, and that is why they have 'settled down on two old women's skirts on the floor in a corner. It was ... their ambition ... to use up as little space as possible. To that end they kept making various experiments, folding their arms and legs, huddling close together; in the darkness all one could see in their corner was one big ball.' It is for them and their kind, the unfinished and the bunglers, that there is hope.

What may be discerned, subtly and informally, in the activities of these messengers is law in an oppressive and gloomy way for this whole group of beings. None has a firm place in the world, firm, inalienable outlines. There is not one that is not either rising or falling, none that is not trading qualities with its enemy or neighbour, none that has not completed its period of time and yet is unripe, none that is not deeply exhausted and yet is only at the beginning of a long existence. To speak of any order or hierarchy is impossible here. Even the world of myth of which we think in this context is incomparably younger than Kafka's world, which has been promised redemption by the myth.

It is this mention of myth that leads on the story of Ulysses but I'll leave that for now so that the posting doesn't become too long. I'll just say that one sentence leaps out at me from the passage I've just quoted and I hope I'm not making too much of it just because it 'fits' with some of what we've been discussing. The sentence is this one: 'None has a firm place in the world, firm, inalienable outlines'. The state of the characters whom Benjamin calls 'assistants' is hardly enviable in any normal sense but they are the ones in whom hope resides and their condition is to be 'out of place' and without 'inalienable outlines'.

Thursday, 1 April 2010

break in transmission

I'm off to London for three nights over the Easter weekend, so won't be blogging again until the middle of next week. Actually, there's a big exhibition called 'Warriors of the Plains' on at the British Library at the moment. (There's a bit of information here.) So I'll try to see it if I can because I'm interested in how they'll have curated their Native American materials. At any rate, I'll try to keep the momentum going when I get back and we can have a chat before too long as well. Have a very happy Easter!

more reflections (voices/archive/exile)

In the last week, I've posted a few thoughts on exile and a few on archive-and-exile, so I reckon it's time to look at the third term we're working with and write something about voices-and-archive-and-exile. Over the last year I've come to feel that the idea of voice has an interesting relationship with BOTH of our other terms...

Exile and Voices

It's clearly the case that literal experiences of exile produce an acute awareness of voice. The German Jews who came to the US in the '30s had to live in a new language, one that they didn't necessarily speak all that well and one that many always spoke with a 'foreign' accent. (Hannah Arendt and Theodor Adorno have both written or spoken about this.) This kind of experience has a complex dynamic.

The process of 'becoming foreign' that is part of the experience of exile may include the defamiliarisation of one's own voice. But this is more than just the defamiliarisation that many people experience when they hear recordings of themselves speaking. We are so immersed in our own language and its associated forms of communication that we are often only dimly aware of it as the medium in which our lives take place. The experience of exile forces upon one the realization that familiar ways of speaking do not 'work' in this new context and this can lead to a heightened level of reflection on the nature of both 'native' and 'foreign' languages and their relation with the self.

I would want to be careful of saying this necessarily results in a more 'objective' view of one's own language. Defamiliarisation is not necessarily identical with the discovery of an 'objective' viewpoint and - in my experience - a great deal of emotion often surrounds the discussion of language in exilic texts, although this emotion can, of course, become an object of contemplation in its own right. At any rate, defamiliarisation produces a new kind of perspective that I think might be interesting for us.

Turning now to exile-as-ideal, the experience of literal-exile might figure the sort of moral pattern we are talking about here (with all those provisos about acknowledging the impossibility of voluntarily going into exile, etc). In a sense, your journey down the Mississippi involved meeting people and hearing voices that led you to reflect on your own. I do want to emphasise that I'm still talking about voices here and am not drifting away from that concept. Your comments on meeting an old white guy in the south - they appear here - are essentially about the language in which we express ourselves and the contrast between his language and yours is what sparked the moment of reflection. If I'm understanding you correctly - and do say if I'm not - the experience you describe seems to have revealed something of the limitations of taking language as the central site where our moral relations with others are worked out? It led you to think about how much his use of language matters when considered alongside the reality of his life and how much your well considered language is worth if you are not in a place where the relations among the particular American cultures involved here are really worked out.

However, we also have mythological texts - like the Odyssey - which can be seen as figuring exile-as-ideal and in which voices play an important, but different, role. Odysseus among the Sirens does not function as an allegory of literal-exile I think! The American voices involved in producing Adorno's new sense of his own voice, for example, were not Siren voices. In a sense, his positioning among them was the mechanism that gave rise to the kind of critical distance that I think is characteristic of exilic experience. It is not that those voices were all dangerous and needed to be treated with caution. It was rather that the contrast between own-voice and other-voice contributed to producing a special kind of awareness that could be turned on the world in general.

By contrast, in the myth of Odysseus, it is not Odysseus' positioning among the Sirens that produces critical distance. Quite the opposite! The risk is that he will not be able to achieve any critical distance from them at all. So a contrast between own-voice and other-voice is not here the mechanism by which the special vision of exile is achieved; the voices do not figure the means by which exilic distance will be produced. They figure that from which one needs to achieve an appropriate level of distance. And the mechanism of distancing is figured in terms of the self-imposed disciplines that the crew and the hero adopt: plugging the ears with wax in one case and binding oneself to the mast in the other.

I'm sorry if I'm labouring the point a bit but I've actually struggled to get the relationship between Adorno and Odysseus clear in my own mind :o) And I think it's important because it is relevant to how I understand the practice of travel (or pilgrimage?) that you engaged in last summer and that we've taken as the basis of our work.

I've already discussed the idea that the contrast between the 'old white guy's' language is a bit like that of literal-exile (with the usual provisos). But is it also like the experience of Odysseus? Well, in a way, yes. After all, you wouldn't want to take on his way of speaking - really not! But you do want to see what you can learn from it, or, rather, from considering the relationship between his speech and his life. And that kind of 'listen but remain detached' is very much what the Odysseus story is about.

OK, I'd intended just to write a few lines and I've actually been working on this for about an hour and half, so I'm going to stop and resume at some later point. What I think is important here, I suppose, is to work out the significance of the voices in two different narratives: those of people in literal-exile and those in mythological narratives like that of Odysseus. They are both revealing, I think, but they aren't identical. They may overlap - there are times where the mechanism of contrast involves an encounter with a voice that itself needs resisting. But they don't necessarily overlap. And that's all for now...