Thursday, 31 March 2011

Like to a little kingdom

This essay’s permanent home is now here:

Like to a little kingdom
On private scales of insurrection

I no longer recall where I came across my latest copy of Julius Caesar, but I’m reasonably certain it was here in Fukuoka. Ten days ago, the book called out to me from its shelf as I was passing by; I took a few steps past before giving in, and then brought it down to the study. I noticed (I had forgotten) it has a bookmark in it: a ticket with the name of a wine bar in Stratford-upon-Avon. The place it marks is one of Brutus’ well-known asides to himself, in his garden, as he struggles with the tension of the conspiracy to assassinate Caesar:

Between the acting of a dreadful thing
And the first motion, all the interim is
Like a phantasma, or a hideous dream:
The genius and the mortal instruments
Are then in council, and the state of man,
Like to a little kingdom, suffers then
The nature of an insurrection.

The act of looking, when I did, into this copy of this book at this passage, set in motion a string of associations. Whoever owned this book before me seems to have taken it along to Stratford-upon-Avon, to the Vintner wine bar, which is the latest occupant of a building that may have been where Shakespeare bought his wine. (A wine trader set up shop there in 1600; Shakespeare likely retired to Stratford around the time the Globe theatre burned down, in 1613.) Curious to see if the bar was still in business, I looked it up in a Google map, and there it was: a very attractive little place, with lots of polished brass and a tapas bar. In the Google street-level view, a woman who looked remarkably like my mother had been accidentally photographed glancing at the front door. This copy of Julius Caesar is a 1986 reprint, which happens to be the year I went to England (although not to Stratford-upon-Avon); I arrived a couple of weeks after the Reagan Administration’s bombing of Libya. I took the book off the shelf on the 20th of March, which was the anniversary of the 2005 Fukuoka earthquake: a magnitude 7 quake that was centred on a point offshore about fifteen or twenty kilometres away from my study. Some of the worst damage occurred in a part of town that had been built over a section of Fukuoka Castle’s water defences; construction of the Castle itself finished in 1607, which was around the time Shakespeare bought his house in Stratford-upon-Avon. The earthquakes and bombing campaigns of March 2011 are ongoing.
Between the acting of a dreadful thing | And the first motion – in Shakespeare’s English, the acting refers to the doing of the thing, and the first motion to the impulse behind it. Brutus, of course, is thinking about the plot to murder Caesar, and he calls it a dreadful thing. We should be careful with this dreadful: careful to distinguish between the modern colloquial ‘dreadful’, as something very bad, and the old, formal ‘dreadful’, as inspiring dread or reverence. The word points to awe and terror: the emotions that arise from confronting things that are larger than what we are. Brutus is caught up in a very specific kind of suspense: that of waiting for the event in which he will act to change the course of history. But dreadful things are not limited to people in his rare condition: this little passage marked off in my book by the Vintner’s ticket also describes the general effect of suspense on the mind, while we wait for a certain beam to fall, while we wait for a dreaded, anticipated event to arrive. Before 20 March 2005, I had never experienced an earthquake of any great force. Once it started, once I understood that a truck had not hit my house but the earth itself was moving, I entered the state of dread: standing below a beam between the living room and kitchen, wondering when the movement would end, wondering if the beam would hold. In an earthquake of great strength, one has a lot of time to experience dread: the shaking goes on for much longer than I ever imagined it would. As it was happening, I understood an awful helplessness, that I was in the power of something far removed from the scale of human agency, that the earth would not stop moving to answer my concern about a single beam. Between March and the end of April we experienced a series of aftershocks, some big, some small, including a magnitude 5.8 ‘after-quake’ on 20 April. That one came in the early morning, when I was still in bed, and on the second floor of this old house, about five metres away from the bookshelf that held my latest copy of Julius Caesar. The second floor of an old house moves around quite a bit when the earth shakes. For many months after, little shudders in the house, the quite natural little shudders native to an old building, served as the first motion of an earthquake fear: would it continue? How big would it be this time? What of the beams, and all the bookshelves?
Between a dreadful choice made and the actions that result from it; between a perception, an understanding, that something dreaded can indeed happen, and its arrival: all the interim is | Like a phantasma, or a hideous dream. This word ‘phantasma’ refers to an illusion, a vision, a dream: something that is not real, but that is nonetheless presented to the eye. We are capable of creating within ourselves the phantasmas of what we fear: for the first year I lived in this house, I perceived a ghost inhabiting the space below the stairs and in the wall of the kitchen; in the second year, I learned that my ghost was a weasel, and I frightened it away by holding a ringing alarm clock up against the wall in the evening in spring. Since the earthquake, both ours in Fukuoka and this month’s quake in the north, I have imagined the ghost of my study and books as a heap of rubble, and experienced the hideous dream of choosing what I might take hold of in flight if this house were to collapse around us. (In reality one is not to take anything: the act of salvaging something of the pre-quake life in flight is a sure-fire way to wind up dead under a mountain of debris.) This phantasma is not something that will be put to flight by an alarm clock, but distractions cause it to recede from the foreground of daily life.
The genius and the mortal instruments | Are then in council, and the state of man, | Like to a little kingdom, suffers then | The nature of an insurrection. The private insurrections between soul and body – The genius and the mortal instruments – are wildest with the narrowest and most personal gaps between the acting and first motion: wildest, because a perpetual state of strife cannot go on together with a healthy mind; and both the soul and body have an interest in maintaining themselves together with a healthy mind, yet neither will be willing to lose ground in the face of dreadful things. And yet, as time goes on, and strangely so, this insurrection wears itself down as we become ever more aware of all the dreadful things that can happen, that will happen, as the field of the phantasma becomes the waking dream of everyday life. The scale of private insurrections lessens with every moment lived, with every moment we survive; although the inner council can be called back into session at a moment’s notice, convened by an outer stimulus, one that recalls us to possibilities we normally keep in deep recess.
Walking down the street on the morning of the 20th of March, an hour or so after I took my latest copy of Julius Caesar down from its shelf, I suddenly heard the air raid sirens going off. The local traffic, and the people in the town, all carried on with the progress of their motion as though nothing had been heard, as though the sound of the sirens had been a waking dream. Later on I was reminded that the 20th of March was the anniversary of the earthquake, and presumably the sirens had been sounded as a memorial. That was when I noticed I had forgotten the date of our earthquake, and the time. The daily experience of dread, the suspense, the private insurrections and the hideous dream: all these had passed away without my noticing. During an aftershock on 20 April 2005, when I knew nothing of the Vintner wine bar in Stratford-upon-Avon, and when Julius Caesar was still in its place on the second floor, I was seated in this chair with my main cat on my knee. He has since passed away, but at that time, when the shaking had continued for longer than my little kingdom could allow, as I convulsively clutched at his fur, he looked at me with calm eyes, to say that all would end in its good time, and that we were doing fine, because we were alive.

Sunday, 20 March 2011

Discarding the nation, and localising

This essay’s permanent home is now here:

Discarding the nation, and localising
A long answer to a simple enough question

On his ‘Ephemeris’ website the other day (see the entry March 17-18, 2011), Norm Sibum outlined a conversation he’d had: a young poet put it to him that the concept of a ‘national literature’ was at best artificial and at worst actively pernicious; Sibum replied that we may as well acknowledge that a national literature will exist anywhere there is something resembling a ‘national temperament’, and that a ‘state literature’ masquerading as a national literature is the real cause for concern. I suspect these two were talking about varieties of the same thing: Sibum’s point implies that nationalities can develop a temperament and thence a literature, organically, from the base up; the young poet’s position suggests that there is no such thing as an organic literature on a national scale, that such a literature inevitably converges with state literature, as an imposition from above on the living society. With apologies to Sibum and his companion for putting words into their mouths, it seems to me they are roughly agreeing in principle and conflicting in practice: both place a higher value on a literature that grows up independent of superstructural influences (that is, impositions from a more generalised level of social organisation); where they differ lies in where they draw the borders around what one might reasonably consider to be a necessary level of independence. To put it baldly, Sibum accepts that there is, or can be, such a thing as an organically-constituted nation, whereas the young poet would have us move the relevant boundaries down to a much smaller level of society. I must also note that I am reporting on a conversation that took place in Montréal, in Québec, in Canada: a context that guarantees more uncertainty about the nation and its potential literature than would be occasioned here in Fukuoka, in Kyushu, in Japan. But this concept of where to draw the borders of a nation has a great deal of significance for me. In most circumstances, being from Fukuoka, and being from Kyushu, leads to a perception of being Japanese; but this ‘being Japanese’ will never be extended to me. I grew up in Winnipeg, Manitoba, and after that lived for a number of years in Vancouver, British Columbia, both of which happen to be in Canada; my native language is English, and I started to acquire the language of my present community less than twenty years ago. These considerations compel me to admit that allying myself to a Japanese nationality is presumptuous at best; and yet, it also feels misleading to claim anything else, given that my particular temperament leads me to weave the whole fabric of my life into the neighbourhood of my daily experience. Thus the topic of Sibum’s conversation, although simple enough in itself and not really linked to the life of an English-speaking permanent resident of Japan, has touched on an exposed nerve in the bandaged-together corpus of ‘myself where I am’.
Whenever I meet new people, they inevitably ask me where I’m from, and almost every possible answer is misleading. So I say that I’m from Ozasa, which is my adopted nation. I am an English-language culture in a semi-suburban residential enclave built upon a few hills and valleys in what was the unoccupied northern extremity of a farming village to the south of a regional administrative and trading centre in the north part of the westernmost main island in the Japanese archipelago. There, at the end, comes the identification of where this neighbourhood may be said to lie in terms of a national culture. And there, at the end, I betray myself, because it happens to be the case that no-one will ever allow that I am, in some capacity, Japanese. Most people I meet share a tacit acceptance of a deterministic sense of nationality: they expect that I will naturally declare myself for the nationality of the place where I was born and raised. I lived for seventeen years in the Winnipeg and Manitoba culture, and then attempted an emigration to the Vancouver and West Coast culture for a further fifteen years; for about eleven years now I have been here in my Ozasa and Japanese culture. Curiously, at no point in my life have I accepted the notion that I might be something called a Canadian. This derives in part from the provincialism of my experience: an abiding sense that wherever Canada might have been, it was something devised and maintained far away from me. It is, in part, a private ideology: a desire to resist nationalism in all its forms, to reject the nation’s claim on me; a stubborn, cantankerous individualism that grew from my own character and from the tenor of the times when that character was formed. And it is partly an accidental offshoot of my upbringing and inclinations: as I was growing up, my immediate family were keen to oppose the conception of Canada that was then gaining acceptance among the country’s governing elite, and they had also long maintained the habit of looking to England for a sort of common identity and background. As time went on, I expanded outward not from Winnipeg to a broader Canada, but from my inner England to pursue a long-distance and chimerically European set of cultural inclinations. All of these private factors, like the concept of nation itself, are a heaping-up of illusions into an ordering fiction: a means of applying structure to psychic reality, one’s inner world, which then serves as a convenient way to bind oneself to other people in a community.
These days we all have lots of communities to choose from, and order our social lives according to a case-by-case agglomeration of these influences. Which is to say that our communities come into being on a case-by-case, local, individual basis: every nation is invented by individual people, one person at a time. In political and social matters, collective fictions are often desirable, but as applied to culture they strike me as poisonous. The aspects of culture I value most highly are those that develop organically, from below; of art, I see the greatest value in particularity: in the tendency of art to express aspects of its creator’s experience. I want to advance being small, being local, being particular; this necessarily puts me at odds with being large, being national, being general. Of course there is a danger here: the danger of being narrow and provincial, of individual chauvinism. But such dangers go along with the big-scale perspective as well. The most useful challenge is to develop one’s own particularity while remaining as deeply accommodating to other individuals as it is possible to be, recalling that personalities interact in the manner of chemical reactions, not that of accumulations of liquid sludge. We clash, we blend, we explode, we release pleasing scents, we give off poisons. The process of negotiating our individual balances and accommodations goes on every day, and will never end.
And so Norm Sibum’s innocent references to national temperament and national literature have led me to the crux of my own problem, to a raw nerve I expose voluntarily: my fruitless struggles against the impositions made, without malicious intent, upon the cranky substructure of my individualism. Whenever I meet people, they ask me what I am, and my reply, that I am their neighbour, simply fails to make sense. They expect a simple statement of nationality, but for me, who feels no such nationality, who is even actively hostile to the very idea, it leaves me in a pickle. I doom myself to being confusing, and yet, to remain honest to myself, I must keep at it. Whenever I meet new people, they ask, ‘Where are you from?’ My reply can never begin with a nation I discarded because it never fit me. My reply begins with the local, ‘I am from Ozasa, in Chuo Ward, in Fukuoka.’ And because this seeds confusion, they ask, ‘No, no: I mean, where were you from before?’ Slowly, indirectly, I move toward defeat, but along the way I stubbornly push my simple self-introduction into the messy complexity of my own experience. As Sibum said, wherever there is a poet within a certain set of borders, there you will find a national literature: and here I am, a singularity, a nation of one. I hope to remain indivisible, and, as fate permits, to burrow into the understanding of my neighbour-nations, if only just a little.

Thursday, 17 March 2011

That which we love, and to which we cannot return

This essay’s permanent home is now here:

That which we love, and to which we cannot return
I.M. Aldo Clementi, 25 May 1925 to 3 March 2011

Aldo Clementi passed away on 3 March; over the past week or so I’ve been listening to the recordings of his music that I’ve been able to accumulate, arranged in chronological order, except for a few cases of duplication, where I repeat a piece or two a bit out of sequence. There have been few notices of his death in the English-language press, which seems rather odd. Together with his near-contemporaries Bruno Maderna, Luigi Nono, and Luciano Berio, Clementi was one of the giants of post-war Italian music. In photographs I’ve seen, Maderna usually has an air of Boulezian confidence about him, Nono inevitably looks like he’s angry about something, and Berio seems genial and about to lend someone a hand. Clementi often presented a dour face to the camera, although his expressions seemed to become more impish as he got older. Among that group of four, Maderna and Nono were Venetians, Berio was born in Liguria, and Clementi in Catania, Sicily. Being a provincial myself, I tend to see a non-metropolitan unsettledness in Clementi’s development, in his progress through the usual mid-twentieth century upbringing from Webern to Darmstadt, and then to his own unique style, which leaned heavily on influences from the visual and plastic arts (Pollock’s paintings; Calder’s mobiles). In the latter influence he is somewhat like Morton Feldman, but where Feldman’s music sets up expansive textures like a Rothko painting, Clementi’s burrows into dense networks of interlocking lines. Both composers appear to struggle against the monumental uncertainty of music-making: the unsettled ground occupied by the avant-garde in the aftermath of both common practice tonality and serialism. The generation born in the early to middle 1920s was largely responsible for reinventing the European avant-garde after the war; perhaps because of their radical experience with destruction, both physical and moral, they had a tendency to be even more emphatic about sweeping away the old than had been the post-WWI generation of Modernists. And of course this led into a dark, uncomfortable corner: the death of artistic expression itself, or at least of any kind of honest belief in the inherited systems which had provided an expressive mechanism for artistic ideas. This impasse led Boulez into elaborate clockwork castles, and sent Stockhausen right off the earth; Clementi found a language that could balance his love for what had been lost against the necessary understanding that there is no right of return to the pre-modern certainties. Even as it documents the last days of European music, Clementi’s work holds up a brave commitment to continue, somehow, to exist. And of course Aldo Clementi was a radical: a member of the avant-garde; although in his case it would be more satisfying to identify him as an avant-garde of one, singly pursuing a conviction well in advance of the rest of us, a figure making poignant gestures alone on the edge of an abyss we will all approach sooner or later.
I have been listening to my Aldo Clementi, and wondering what I might say about him, about the struggle with what can and cannot be said when the language itself is fatally compromised. Which then throws up the question: is it really necessary to approach aesthetic ideas in such apocalyptic terms? Perhaps it is in my case, because I am serious about being a Modernist, with the big ‘M’, and it is impossible to get away from the fact that my chosen movement has lost momentum, that we have become locked in a particular kind of self-made ice. But why would I want to ally myself with a movement that has already produced its own successor movements, when even these post-movements have started to fade from the scene? There is no way out of Modernism: it is not over yet, and will not be over until the circumstances that led to Modernism themselves disappear. And what are these circumstances? The experience of alienation in the world-culture of electricity? A sense of loving that to which we cannot return? It involves a permanent crisis in aesthetic being: the old ways of doing things are no longer viable, and this turns out to be a rolling decay, always rolling forward, always rendering the recently-viable old, and frozen. This is the state of being ‘modern’, this rolling-forward of decay, with the ground beneath us changing constantly. A form that promises order can never be trusted, because it must be built on either an illusion or a falsehood. Sometimes both of these are useful, and necessary; but an avant-garde Modernist has no choice but to insist on illuminating our illusions and falsehoods, even while being aware that this goal itself is quixotic, and itself untrustworthy.
The essay that accompanied a 1982 recording of Clementi’s 1980 vocal-dramatic work Es described a battle then raging between ‘younger composers… convinced that in some cases, the renewal [of music] is already taking place,’ and ‘others… convinced that the glaciation of the musical planet is already inevitable.’ I have always felt myself trapped between these two positions: between the sensation that everything is always renewing itself, and the conclusion that everything is always ending. It reminds me of the popular science books I used to read out in the country, in the summer of my childhood, the most memorable passage having been my discovery of the entropy principle. The word itself fascinated me, and I’d inscribe it in notebooks as one might doodle pictures of guitars or girls in pigtails. This, and the line from Keats, half in love with easeful death, which has as its corollary being half in mortal terror. The pain of not-being always coupled to faith in the world’s power for self-renewal: a faith in something awesome and profoundly non-human, and thus a very cold faith. Art can only offer us a palliative, which will inevitably be illusory, against the vast terror of being; the act of making art inevitably involves us in form and structure, which creates a false promise of permanence and stability. One must be honest about art’s potential, yet if honesty compels silence, what does it imply for everyone who attempts art without being silent? Is any act of artistic creation necessarily a dishonesty? And yet dishonesty is not an absolute, a pole away from what we should desire: honesty, of one variety, involves being clear about which contradictions we choose to call into service at any given time. Why are we not silent? Because we cannot remain silent. It unhinges us, it goes against our nature: humanity is social, and we cannot help seeking after connections with other people. Thus we constantly attempt to communicate, and the richest form of communication (other than love) is art: art will emerge, even if it emerges as a long-extended assertion of its own exhaustion in the face of the world in which we find ourselves.
Which leads me to a rhetorical question: why did Aldo Clementi continue to write music? We can ask a similar question about Feldman and music, and about Beckett and literature, and about anyone who harbours the classical doubts of post-war Modernism, myself included. The resulting art will be restless, often full of self-doubt, but at the same time it will possess the paradoxical self-confidence of a lament, a cry of pain. It will be, like Aldo Clementi’s work, a vertigo of shimmering elements, struggling to express what may no longer be expressible, offering an honest look at its own decay. As Clementi said of his own music, it will be an art that accepts ‘the humble task of describing its own End’.