May 2011

Elizabeth Bachner


Dwelling Made of Not Knowing Which Way to Turn: Reading Aimé Césaire

Dwelling made of not knowing which way to turn, dwelling made of saber glitter, dwelling made of cut necks. I’m reading Aimé Césaire, unexpurgated, in his own language and my language at the same time. I’m stuck on the poem “Unmaking and Remaking the Sun.” Today I’ve been trying to come to a decision. To change the course of my life. To unmake, remake, make something happen, and it’s gotten me thinking about language. “Come to” a decision, as if I’m going to walk into some rainy urban park, or weave through the crowds on Broadway, and the answer will appear geographically, in a fixed spot, final as a slashed throat. Faite, fate.

The title of Césaire’s 1948 collection Solar Throat Slashed reminds me of Giacometti’s Woman with Her Throat Cut, my favorite Giacometti sculpture other than his sad, skinny dog. A sculpture where the woman is turned into an insect-like creature dead on the floor, and there’s still something alive about her corpse. It has taken until 2011 for us to have an uncensored, complete, dual-language version of this book. The translators -- A. James Arnold and Clayton Esheleman -- had to be passionate, sometimes finishing ten different complete translations of a single poem. The intensity of the project makes me think of something written by Ottilie Mulzet, who translated Lazlo Krasznahorkai’s not-poetry, not-prose pamphlet Animalinside out of Hungarian. She says that “repetition is intrinsic to the idea of apocalypse in itself.” Krasznahorkai gave her the instruction: “There are many repetitions in the text, and this is very important; repeat everything exactly as it is in the original regardless of what the English language WANTS…” Animalinside has unforgettable illustrations by Austrian artist Max Neumann, of a black, haunched, armless not-animal, not-wolf that does not exist. Aimé Césaire writes sentences that move in and out of the language, that rub the language raw, like a rope you keep climbing with your rope-burned hands.

I make my decision. My decision is made. Faite. I come to it. Its dwelling (demeure) is somewhere in time and space between a cold diner on Nassau Street, where I talk for hours over a midday breakfast with a trusted friend, and an empty downtown library with too-few books, where I pick up The Ultimate Guide to Trail Running, a movie about Kirov ballerinas, and some ecstatic poetry by Rumi’s father. I’m feeling... angry? I’m seething, and I’m thinking how sometimes a decision is “just” only words, just a way to create something by naming it.

I’ll have that one. I will. I won’t. I’m sorry. I’m not sorry. I don’t love you. I won’t do it. It’s over. No.  

A decision is a small apocalypse, a change in time and space, and end of at least one world. If it hasn’t been turned into words, does it exist? If the same feeling stays unnamed -- inchoate, a mess of air and guts, but not real air, and not real guts -- does that make it not true? Can you name it without buckling under to what the language wants -- not just in the translation, but in the first writing itself? Does the language change the reality, the way the translation remakes the original?

From Césaire’s “Attack on Morals”:

Hard night long pole night without stars. I am on very bad terms with space.
So what. Dirty night crazed tree rag I am on very bad terms with time. So
what? Farther than the mirror farther than all life reviewed in the accident
where it surges very rapidly farther than forgotten cities farther than rites
with forgotten meanings farther even than the ostrich that carries the letters
I pretend not to write farther than my little horse that I jealously hide because
it fled each and every race farther than the gold pieces that the sun’s brain
scatters in the hovel’s thought farther than the tall white gloves that summits
put on to greet the wind
your gaze plunge it, Monster, into the validity of an abyss fed by a fish tank
of monsters…

From Krasznahorkai’s Animalinside:

You can’t touch me. I have no eyes, no ears, no teeth, no tongue, no brain tissue, no hair, no lungs, no heart, no bowels, no cock, no voice, no smell; there is no blood in me, there is no lymph in me, there is no feeling in me, no devotion in me, I do not know hunger, I do not know the roads, I do not know pain, I do not know the directions, I do not know the hiding places and I will never seek them out, I know nothing of the earth, of sweat and of danger, I know nothing about skin, about flesh, about pus and about bones, useless for anyone to scream at me, I don’t understand… you cannot describe me, you cannot paint me, and you can’t even write one melody about me…

From Césaire’s “To the Serpent”:

I have had occasion in the bewilderment of cities to search for the right
animal to adore. So I worked my way back to the first times. Undoing cycles
untying knots crushing plots removing covers killing my hostages I
Pryer. Tapir. Uprooter.
Where where where the animal who warned me of floods
Where where where the bird who led me to honey
Where where where the bird who revealed to me the fountainheads
the memory of great alliances betrayed great friendships lost through our
fault exalted me
Where where where
Where where where
The word made vulgar to me…

From Animalinside:

That minute in which I shall go mad is here; everyone thinks that
I’m a monster, I am however just someone who has strayed by
mistake into a false space… and here is another road,
its contour again drawing a vista far to the left, maybe this could
mean a new direction, but no, there’s no way, it can’t go on,
there is no more onwards, I stop and howl, and I howl that I’m
exhausted, that hunger is tormenting me, that I hate infinity and
I hate the vistas, and I hate all that is, but what I hate the most is
how I’m howling here into the infinite.

There is a tapir in my dream, the night before I find a tapir in that Aimé Césaire poem. Actually, there are a lot of tapirs in my night’s sleep. There are many kinds of rare animals, running in furious herds into nowhere, and crowds of people are trying to kill them with spears. (Dwelling made of animal skins and eyelids.)  The tapirs in my dream aren’t real, because it’s a dream, and the animals in poems aren’t real, because they’re in poems, and a slit neck in a dream or a poem or a sculpture doesn’t kill anyone, doesn’t cause a real woman’s skull to roll to the ground. But our brilliant ability to name things, to howl, to describe or paint or write a melody, has changed events in so many apocalyptic ways -- this alchemy of repetition. We can’t fight what the language wants. The language wins. It strays by mistake into false space. It is on very bad terms with time. It’s full of animals (tapirs, ostriches, little horses, not-wolves, beasts) carrying the letters we pretend not to write. It’s vulgar, but less vulgar, and less mortal, than the concrete objects of “true” space. It can be used to feed abyssal monsters. Losing the borders of the language -- your own, someone else’s -- and letting the words repeat, regardless of what the language wants, is a classic sign of madness.

The title Solar Throat Slashed (Soleil cou coupé) comes from an incredible Appollinaire poem, “Zone,” a poem with imaginary streets and all kinds of birds in it. Phoenixes, eagles, lyrebirds, hummingbirds, Chinese phis. The cou coupé is a type of Senegalese finch, white and grey, with a collar of red that makes it look like it has a bleeding throat. These cutthroat finches were one of the exotic bird breeds shipped to Paris and kept in gilded cages during the early years of the twentieth century. I have slept on my decision. Come to it, “made” it, “slept on” it -- then it exists like the sheets of a bed, like a pillow stuffed with the integumentary systems of stolen geese -- and now I’m having some coffee and beets, trying to read the Appollinaire poem in French. L’angoisse de l’amour te serre le gosier. Comme si tu ne devais jamais plus être aimé… Aujourd’hui tu marches dans Paris les femmes sont ensanglantées. In 2003, someone showed the 89-year-old Aimé Césaire a picture of a cou coupé, a cutthroat finch. He said he’d never heard of one before.

My decision and I pair up. Maybe it isn’t a decision, maybe it’s just a rib I didn’t notice, a bit of air or guts, but not real air or guts. (Animalinside: “You are my master, I’m inside you, just like that, inside you, you who are standing here, your hands clasped behind your back, you lean forward attentively and look, but really where do you think you are, in the zoo? a blossoming meadow? in an orchard?! well no, no, not in the zoo and not in the blossoming meadow and not in an orchard but within your own self, you are completely alone, there where between you and me there isn’t any distance at all, because I’m not out there but I’m in here, because I was always inside you, at first just as a kind of cell, or rather something like a mistake in a cell, but then suddenly I grew and now I exist within you with all my force, you carry me everywhere with yourself, your bearing is nice, your clothes are nice…and I’m watching how nicely you look and you think, but here I am inside, and I’m extending outwards, here I am inside, and I’m straining more and more, and always forwards, and always in an outward direction, and at one point I will break out, and that will put an end to all the nice thoughts, an end to the nice looks, and an end to the nice clothes and the nice coat and to how nicely you hold your head, and you look, because then you won’t be looking anywhere at all, you won’t even have any eyes, because I shall begin by corroding both of them, because my coming is violent, just a few moments now, and I shall break out of you, and you will be that which I am, and that which I have always been.”)

I’m thinking about the infinite monkey theorem -- the idea that if you had a monkey, or an infinite number of monkeys, or some device, or an infinite number of devices, banging out random letters on keyboards for an infinite number of years, they would almost surely bang out any given text. The works of Colette and Celine, the poems of Aimé Césaire, the last thirteen pages of my unfinished manuscript, the lyrics of Bryan Adams’ “Run to You.” It’s another reason repetition is so apocalyptic, another reason Krasznahorkai’s not-creature hates infinity. I start to think, if the monkey would almost surely type out every existing text, would she also end up typing every conversation that has ever happened? Maybe she would almost surely type versions of the texts, of the conversations, with slight variations, so that the animalinside would love howling at infinity. So that Césaire (or his protagonist) would be on very good terms with time and space. So that my decision, my judgment, the call I made, would vary in some tiny way from the way it sounds now, from the way I’ve bound and named my world, from the way I try to release myself, only to fall into another trap.

When Aimé Césaire edited Soleil cou coupé in 1961 to construct Cadastre, he eliminated thirty-one poems and cut out material from another twenty-nine, leaving only twelve of these poems intact. “Unmaking and Remaking the Sun” was cut out. “Attack on Morals” was cut out. “To the Serpent” was cut out. If repetition is apocalyptic, what is excision? I’ve had this line from Rimbaud in my head: “It can only be the end of the world, as you move forward.” La fin du monde, but there’s a French word, apocalypse, that’s the same as the one in English -- from Greek, meaning revelation, lifting the veil. Exposing whatever is true.

Another night sleeping on my decision. Dwelling made of your impotence of the power of my simple acts. I open up The Drowned Book, by Rumi’s father, Bahauddin, and the revelation I pick has a decision in it. It’s called “Armspread, Wingspan,” and it starts, “Come together willingly or unwillingly. Freewill seekers open themselves to the sky, while fatalists, for whom everything has already been determined, get driven about like cattle. To live an illustrious life, you must make decisions.” I don’t know if I want an illustrious life, and I think it would be nice enough to be a cow, if we would just leave them in peace to gnaw the grass. Illustrious -- illustre, fameux, glorieux. I wonder what life was like during Bahauddin’s time on earth, 1152-1231, a good century before that word “apocalypse” existed. “There are huge impossibilities in bringing any mystical knowing into language,” write Bahauddin’s translators, “What gets transmitted through presence becomes diluted and distorted when spoken. Even moreso with the transition from that to dried ink on a page... Difficulties proliferate, but the attempt must still be made.”

I wonder whether King Solomon had complete mastery of all human languages, and all texts written and unwritten. Solomon, one of the allegedly wisest men in history, didn’t find wisdom through experience or deep thought. His wisdom was bestowed on him gloriously and easily, directly from god. According to a wry, fun new exploration of Solomon’s life by scholar Steven Weitzman, Solomon: The Lure of Wisdom, “He acquired his wisdom while still a young man and all at once, after a single night. His wisdom likewise does not reflect disciplined study, late-night reading, rigorous training, or the influence of a wise mentor… Solomon’s wisdom is unique, unparalleled, and uncanny. This is why the narrative does not explain it or describe its contents in any detail -- to do so would be to minimize its mystery -- but only shows it in action, leaving us awestruck and puzzled just as it did the world in Solomon’s day.” Another thing that was special about Solomon is that both he and his wisdom were supposedly completely unique -- “No one like you has been before you, and no one like you shall arise after you” -- while the rest of us are all just repeats, variations on texts typed out by monkeys as infinity unfolds.

One of the things Solomon’s wisdom brings is the ability to speak “about beasts and fowl, creeping things and fish.” This reference in the text, with some Hebrew reinterpretation, “gave rise to a legend that Solomon knew how to talk to the animals, that he could speak to the beasts and fowl. Where other people heard only meaningless squeaks and squawks, bellows and roars, the king could recognize the ant’s cry for help as he scrambled to escape his footfalls, the arrogance of the crowing rooster, and the desperate pleas of a cow about to be slaughtered.” In Solar Throat Slashed, Aimé Césaire speaks about beast and fowl, creeping things and fish. He also speaks to them. And he invents them -- animals with crocodile bodies, equine feet and dog’s heads, earthworms animated by strange will. Is this wisdom, or just brilliance?

One reason Solomon’s wisdom leaves us so awestruck and puzzled is that -- even with the wild luck of all that divine intervention -- he makes lots of missteps. He’s often wrong. Sometimes, he’s really kind of an ass. There are contradictions in the different tellings, retellings, interpretations, and repetitions of Solomon’s story. There’s the idea that wisdom should demystify the world: “Knowing what God knew, having the key to the most mysterious aspects of life, meant that one never had to face the terror of the unknown or fall prey to duplicity. If knowledge is power, perfect knowledge meant absolute power, an ability to control the forces of nature, to manipulate human psychology, and even to predict what the future will bring.” But it’s hard to account for why the world is the way it is, if anyone has any wisdom at all. “One can make a case that even now, three thousand years later, we are still living in the aftermath of Solomon’s failure,” writes Weitzman.

In the Cristina Perri Rossi story “The Museum of Useless Efforts,” the building is located “on the outskirts of the city, in a vacant lot full of cats and refuse where, just slightly below ground level, you can still find cannonballs from an ancient war, rusty sword handles, and donkey jawbones decayed by time.” The protagonist asks to see the fourteen volumes from the year 1922 -- “children who tried to fly, men bent on amassing riches, complicated mechanisms that never actually worked, and a lot of couples… Curiously, useless efforts get repeated, but the repeats aren't included in the catalog. That would take up too much space. With the aid of various contraptions, a man tried to fly seven times; some prostitutes attempted to find another job; a woman wanted to paint a picture; someone sought to overcome fear; nearly everybody tried to be immortal or lived as if they were… Some of the useless efforts are beautiful, others somber. We don't always agree about their classification… Leafing through one of the volumes, I found a man who spent ten years trying to make his dog talk. Another spent more than twenty trying to win a woman's affections. He would bring her flowers, plants, and butterfly catalogs, offer her trips, write poems, compose songs; he built her a house, forgave all her mistakes, and tolerated her lovers. Then he committed suicide.”

There isn’t room for repetition, even in the voluminous and imaginary Museum of Useless Efforts catalog. But I can hope that in the museum itself, each futile repeat has a place, a fate, a fixed spot -- that it exists, even if it was never recorded. Or maybe the catalog is the museum, and the museum is the catalog? Then the repetitions are lost, because there isn’t space for them even in infinity.  

Unmade, remade. Unexpurgated. Cut. Dwelling made of defeats. I’m going to move forward without my decision, without a decision either way. Un-illustrious. Inglorious. But is this a decision, too, locked in time and space? Or a decision, open to the sky? Am I still howling? I’m feeling -- excited? Looking for my decision under the pillow, looking for my decision back on that stretch of Broadway just north of Fulton Street, looking for my decision hidden under some cannonballs and rusty sword handles at the outskirts of the city, looking for my decision in the fluorescent-lit grocery store, in the rainy park, looking for my decision underneath whatever the sun’s brain has scattered.