Destruction


Orpheus (1865)
Gustave Moreau

La Destruction

Sans cesse à mes côtés s’agite le Démon;
II nage autour de moi comme un air impalpable;
Je l’avale et le sens qui brûle mon poumon
Et l’emplit d’un désir éternel et coupable.

Parfois il prend, sachant mon grand amour de l’Art,
La forme de la plus séduisante des femmes,
Et, sous de spécieux prétextes de cafard,
Accoutume ma lèvre à des philtres infâmes.

II me conduit ainsi, loin du regard de Dieu,
Haletant et brisé de fatigue, au milieu
Des plaines de l’Ennui, profondes et désertes,

Et jette dans mes yeux pleins de confusion
Des vêtements souillés, des blessures ouvertes,
Et l’appareil sanglant de la Destruction!

— Charles Baudelaire


Translation:

Restless, the Devil moves by my side,
Swirling about like an elusive air;
I swallow some and feel fire in my lungs,
Overcome with shameful, unquenchable lust.

Knowing my passion for Art, he assumes
The most seductive form of woman,
And under specious pretexts of deceit,
Accustoms my lips to the vilest of bitters.

Far from the eyes of God, he leads me
Deep into the wastelands of Despair,
Gasping and broken from exhaustion,

And flings before my bewildered eyes—
Soiled garments, festering wounds,
And bloodstained implements of Doom!

(Wiesbaden, 2018)

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Correspondences


Hesiod and the Muses (1860)
Gustave Moreau

Correspondances

La Nature est un temple où de vivants piliers
Laissent parfois sortir de confuses paroles;
L’homme y passe à travers des forêts de symboles
Qui l’observent avec des regards familiers.

Comme de longs échos qui de loin se confondent
Dans une ténébreuse et profonde unité,
Vaste comme la nuit et comme la clarté,
Les parfums, les couleurs et les sons se répondent.

II est des parfums frais comme des chairs d’enfants,
Doux comme les hautbois, verts comme les prairies,
–Et d’autres, corrompus, riches et triomphants,

Ayant l’expansion des choses infinies,
Comme l’ambre, le musc, le benjoin et l’encens,
Qui chantent les transports de l’esprit et des sens.

— Charles Baudelaire


Translation:

Nature is a temple of living colonnades,
At times whispering a tangle of words;
Man passes through the thicket of symbols
That watches him with knowing gazes.

Like drawn out echoes mingling
Into one dark and deep voice,
Vast as the night and just as clear,
Scents, colors and sounds concur with each other.

There are fragrances, so fresh as young flesh,
Pleasant as oboes, verdant like the meadows,
–While others are exultant, heady and sickening,

Diffused out of innumerable constituents,
As amber, musk, balsam or frankincense,
That sing the ecstasies of the mind and the senses.

(Wiesbaden, 2018)

Texas


The Alamo (c.1854)

Aquí también. Aquí, como en el otro
confín del continente, el infinito
campo en que muere solitario el grito;
aquí también el indio, el lazo, el potro.

Aquí también el pájaro secreto
que sobre los fragores de la historia
canta para una tarde y su memoria;
aquí también el místico alfabeto

de los astros, que hoy dictan a mi cálamo
nombres que el incesante laberinto
de los días no arrastra: San Jacinto

y esas otras Termópilas, el Álamo.
Aquí también esa desconocida
y ansiosa y breve cosa que es la vida.

— Jorge Luis Borges (1967)


Translation:

And here too. Here, as at the other
edge of the continent, the infinite
country where a scream dies by itself–
here as well: the Indian, the lasso, the colt.

And here too the unseen bird sings,
over the bellows of history,
for a nightfall and his memory;
here too the stars’ occult

alphabet now commands on my pen
the names the unending labyrinth
of days cannot hold back: San Jacinto,

and such other Thermopylaes–the Alamo.
And here also: that inscrutable,
troubled, fleeting thing called life.

(Wiesbaden 2018)

Fin de siècle Blues

The end of the 19th century saw the apogee of Western civilization: most of the world had been explored and colonized; science reached a universal synthesis of Nature in Newtonian physics and Darwinian evolutionary biology; British Industrial Revolution and the American Gilded Age created tremendous wealth that upended the feudal ancien régime. But there was also a sense of dissipation, a loss of civilization’s former vigor. Culturally, it is also known as the fin de siècle–a period that saw the rise of the Decadent Movement (Charles Baudelaire, Oscar Wilde, the Symbolists and Pre-Raphaelites) in defiance of progressivist critics who denounced the aesthetic ideology of artifice and extravagance then current in art and literature.

OscarWilde

Decadence follows Romanticism’s passionate reaction to Enlightenment’s enthronement of Reason–but Romantic emotionalism that turned against cold, mechanized Reason, eventually slides into aesthetic over-sensitivity, and a preoccupation with the Baroque and Rococo in the Decadent. As Camille Paglia observes,

Pre-Raphaelite painting begins with Keatsian ardour for the minutiae of organic nature [but] instead of High Romantic energy… we get Late Romantic stasis… [There] is only a single step from Pre-Raphaelite naturism to Gustave Moreau’s Decadent jewelled artifice… Pre-Raphaelite painting deadens even as it celebrates. Persons and things are candied, mummified, miniaturized.

briarrose1
briarrose
Frozen in sleep:
The Legend of Briar Rose (1885-1890),
by Edward Burne-Jones

Decadence is a complex phenomenon that appeared at the fin de siècle, but the same decadent slide had also been seen in the past: in Ptolemaic Egypt of Cleopatra; in the unnatural virtuosity of Mannerism in Late Renaissance; in the Church’s turn to Baroque, (and, later, the French court’s to Rococo) in the face of Protestant Reformation; and, again, in the reappearance of Cleopatra’s Egypt and exotic North Africa in the Orientalism of mid-19th century academic painters.


Jewelled artifice: Delilah (1896),
by Gustave Moreau

It manifests as well in contemporary culture: in Weimar Berlin, Jazz Age Long Island, and Studio 54 New York. The exuberant rockabilly of the 1950’s eventually slid to acid rock in the 60’s, and, finally, to it’s baroque form in 70’s progressive rock. The same transition occurred with hard bop to jazz fusion, and with punk to post-punk, where style becomes more complex, sophisticated, overthought, and, in the case of grunge to post-grunge, irritatingly mannered. (One can think of punk and grunge as revivals of the immediate, energetic rockabilly style.) Indeed, Paglia noted that so much of avant-garde art was really Decadent Late Romantic.

The prevailing cultural mood at the fin de siècle is one of ennui–of living at a time of civilization’s exhaustion, of world-weariness from the burdens of plentitude, and of romantic nostalgia for the past, that is, a lost pastoral innocence. The consolation for the decadent is a cynical pursuit of pleasure: the refinement of taste, the display of extravagance, the indulgence in sadomasochism (a ritual constraint on the diffused body). The hipster’s fetish for the retro and obsessive curation, as well as the soccer mom’s newfound taste for BDSM-lite, are signs of a culture in decline. These folk got the fin de siècle blues real bad, though they ain’t even know it.

HowlinWolf

Blues is the root of all American music. It is in turn rooted in the Negro slave experience, in spirituals and work songs, which cross-pollinated with white folk music to give us jazz, country, and rock-and-roll. The name suggests melancholy and sadness, from heartache or loneliness, recollected in song. Ralph Ellison observes that,  “[the] blues is an impulse to keep the painful details and episodes of a brutal experience alive in one’s aching consciousness, to finger its jagged grain, and to transcend it, not by the consolation of philosophy, but by squeezing from it a near-tragic, near-comic lyricism.”

Blues singers often call their songs and albums simply the “blues,” modified by the name of a person, place, or state of mind the song refers to: Hoodoo Man Blues (Junior Wells), Penitentiary Blues (Lightnin’ Hopkins), Down and Out Blues (Sonny Boy Williamson). Lest you forget, the genre announces itself in the title.

The power of blues, Ellison adds, lies in expressing at once “both the agony of life and the possibility of conquering it through sheer toughness of spirit.” In Guitar Welch’s Electric Chair Blues, he asks,

Wonder why they electrocute a man at the one o’clock hour at night?,

to which he answers, sardonically,

The current much stronger, people turn out all the light.

But then he went on with defiance,

I believe, I believe, oh baby, Lord, I believe I’ll go back home… This old life I’m living, baby, Lord, it ain’t gonna last me long.

So, while the blues recollect suffering, there is, at the same time, an optimism of overcoming it, distinctly different from the pessimism of fin de siècle ennui. Blues, in it’s raw earnestness that admits the tragicomic, always resists decadence. (After their brief digression into decadent psychedelic pop in Their Satanic Majesties Request, The Rolling Stones quickly turned around with the bluesy roots rock of Beggars Banquet. Blues always keeps rock real.)

But even at the fin de siècle, there is also not just a sense of an ending. After all, the turning of a new century also signals the beginning of a new age, and possibly a way out of civilization’s malaise–the enervation of the Old World, replaced by the vigor of the New.

Tokyo

Japan, observes Roland Barthes, that most urbane of French radical intellectuals, is “an empire of signifiers, so immense, so in excess of speech.” Thus begins his investigation of that fictive nation, not as a “reality” (or “essence”) constituted by history, philosophy, culture, and politics in contrast to the Western, but purely as a symbolic system. It presents a situation of writing that exposes the fissure of the symbolic, like “flashes” or seismic events that creates an emptiness of language.

In writing about Japan, Barthes aims to subvert the notion of meaning, and its locus in Western tradition, the individual subject. In these fissures–the irreducible differences an alien language reveals–we can uncover the very limits of language, the ideology of speech, from which we can begin to contest (Western) society.

Barthes observes that in Japanese the subject is turned into a great envelope empty of speech, not that dense kernel which proclaims itself in utterances. It confines fictive beings into inanimate “products,” or signs properly cut off from their primary referents in living things. In the Japanese zen (as in the Chinese ch’an and Hindu dhyana), the act of knowledge is without a knowing subject, and without known object. It is a perception of emptiness.

Shinjuku Girl
Shinjuku Girl:
The hat, the fur coat, those stick-thin legs.

Subway Somniloquy
Subway Somniloquy:
Who was he talking with in his dream?

This evisceration of the core is exemplified in the over-politeness of the bow. It is pure ceremony, an exercise of the void. By the strength of its codification–the scrupulosity of its codes, the graphism of its gestures–it signifies nothing. The Form is Empty, the Buddhist says. The “person” bowing is bounded in quotations, its metaphysical substrate deferred or in doubt. Humiliation (the extreme prostration of the self), is therefore as meaningless as its Western converse, self-assertion (a fullness of the self).

Untitled
Grass1
Grass2
There’s something “moody” about these scenes.
What is this about? Perhaps about nothing.

This mode of being (or non-being), extends even to Japanese civic life. Whereas, the Western city is concentric around an essential center, where the values of civilization are gathered and condensed (church, offices, stores, cafés), the Japanese city of Tokyo orbits around a center that is empty.

Gādo-shita
Gādo-shita
Gādo-shita
Gādo-shita: pubs under the train tracks,
watering holes for Japanese salaried men.

The city I am talking about (Tokyo) offers this precious paradox: it does possess a center, but this center is empty. The entire city turns around a site both forbidden and indifferent, a residence concealed beneath foliage, protected by moats, inhabited by an emperor who is never seen, which is to say, literally, by no one knows who. Daily, in their rapid, energetic, bullet-like trajectories, the taxis avoid this circle, whose low crest, the visible form of invisibility, hides the sacred “nothing.”

Family picnic
Homunculi
Cool
Family picnic; Chiyoda Sunday flea-market;
Cool kid: haircut, puffer jacket, patched jeans.

There is no Emperor (no Subject, no God)–or at least he has evaporated into the figment of a collective dream. And yet the city continues its frenetic activity, in constant deflection from this center which is empty. It is a circulation of signs around a vacuum of meaning–a floating world, unmoored, turning on a chasm.

(Tokyo, 2015)

Love Song

Le chant d'amour (1914, Giorgio de Chrico)
Le chant d’amour (1914, Giorgio de Chrico)

Liebes-Lied

Wie soll ich meine Seele halten, daß
sie nicht an deine rührt? Wie soll ich sie
hinheben über dich zu andern Dingen?
Ach gerne möchte ich sie bei irgendetwas
Verlorenem im Dunkel unterbringen
an einer fremden stillen Stelle, die
nicht weiterschwingt, wenn deine Tiefen schwingen.
Doch alles, was uns anrührt, dich und mich,
nimmt uns zusammen wie ein Bogenstrich,
die aus zwei Saiten eine Stimme zieht.
Auf welches Instrument sind wir gespannt?
Und welcher Geiger hat uns in der Hand?
O süßes Lied.

— Rainer Maria Rilke (1907)


Translation:

How could I keep my soul from
perturbing yours? How can I lift her
over and above you unto other things?
Ah, how I’d like to hide her
among those lost in the dark,
in some strange, quiet place that
will not reverberate, even as your depths vibrate.
But everything that perturbs us, you and me,
binds us together like a bow that draws
a single voice from two strings.
From which instrument are we spanned?
And which violinist holds us in his hand?
Oh, sweetest song.

(Chemnitz/Dresden, 2017)

Apollo’s Archaic Torso

Belvedere Torso
Belvedere Torso

Archaischer Torso Apollos

Wir kannten nicht sein unerhörtes Haupt,
darin die Augenäpfel reiften. Aber
sein Torso glüht noch wie ein Kandelaber,
in dem sein Schauen, nur zurückgeschraubt,

sich hält und glänzt. Sonst könnte nicht der Bug
der Brust dich blenden, und im leisen Drehen
der Lenden könnte nicht ein Lächeln gehen
zu jener Mitte, die die Zeugung trug.

Sonst stünde dieser Stein entstellt und kurz
unter der Schultern durchsichtigem Sturz
und flimmerte nicht so wie Raubtierfelle;

und bräche nicht aus allen seinen Rändern
aus wie ein Stern: denn da ist keine Stelle,
die dich nicht sieht. Du musst dein Leben ändern.

— Rainer Maria Rilke (Paris, 1908)


Translation:

We do not know his undiscovered head,
in which the apples of the eyes ripened. But
his torso still glows like a lamp,
in which his gaze, twisted back,

persists, illuminating. Othewise the prow
of the chest could not dazzle so, nor the gentle
twist of the loins bring a smile
to that nexus where procreation springs.

Otherwise, this stone, disfigured,
truncated at the shoulders from a clean fall,
would not glisten like a wild beast’s coat,

nor break free from all its incised edges
like a star: here, there is no place
that does not see you. Your life must change.

(Mainz/Wiesbaden, 2017)