Saturday, February 28, 2009

"It happened over an apple," Whatever It Might Be

In the second part of For All We Know, the poem titled 'Proposal' (66*) starts with the following sentence: "It happened over an apple." Though it is obvious that an apple is involved, what the "It" refers to remains unclear. On a sunny day in August graced with the occasional shower, Gabriel and Nina find themselves "in a market" and before "a barrel of apples." Nina then takes one of them:

Try it and see, Miss, said the vendor. You nodded, and bit
into the crisp flesh. You felt its juice explode in your mouth

as I did when you passed it to me for the second bite.

This little scene might recall how Eve first tastes the forbidden fruit, which has often been identified as an apple, and then passes it on to Adam so he might partake of it as well (Gen 3:6). Hence it comes as no surprise that, in the 'Proposal' of the first part (17), there is an explicit reference to the story of the fall of man as recounted in Genesis: "the Tree of Knowledge looming within reach." (There, however, the apple in question is capitalized and of a more electronic nature.) The Tree of Life, Eden's other prominent tree (Gen 2:9), is mentioned too (47).

After tasting the fruit of the forbidden Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, Adam and Eve discover that they are naked (Gen 3:7).
We have to keep this in mind as we turn
back to the poem that caused this excursus, because, as I will show, it seems rather apt that the apples on sale should be called "Discovery" (66). Gabriel and Nina "bought a pound of them, some wine and cheese, / and repaired to the country where we picnicked by a stream" (66).

Though the location where the picnic takes place is not described, the stream alone brings to mind a classical topos, the locus amoenus. In this ideal, paradisal setting, "[Nina] offered [Gabriel] a Discovery" (66). The distinction between the apples bearing that name and an actual discovery is only apparent in writing. This means that if one reads the passage aloud it becomes ambiguous. Besides alluding to Adam and Eve's discovery of their own nakedness, this word also recalls the clichéd metaphor of the male lover as a conqueror and the woman as the terra incognita he discovers and explores.

Yet there is even more that justifies a reading of 'Proposal' that brings out its sexual subtext. Gabriel describes eating the second apple as follows:

This time I could taste
your mouth from it through the juice. We took bite for bite from it

until we finished it as one.

In the first sentence, the apple reminds Gabriel of the taste of Nina's lips and therefore taking a bite from it metonymically comes to stand for kissing her. The phrase "as one" at the end of the second sentence alludes to the lover's becoming one flesh (Gen 2:24). Thus, the ensuing exchange of kisses culminates in the consummation of their love.

Finally, the last line sheds light on the "It" with which the poem began, though it can be read in various ways (66): "Then we asked things of each other we'd never asked before." The most literal, if also simplistic, reading could be paraphrased as: 'We asked questions we had not dared to put to each other earlier.' As it is hardly possible to define the sequence of events between their first meeting and the fatal car accident, this might be their first rendezvous, which results in a second reading. What they ask of each other could then be taken to refer to physically expressing their love.

The reading I prefer, in accordance to the interpretation outlined above, would be that one of them proposed to the other in the heat of passion. Interestingly, the 1st person plural pronoun veils who it was and turns the proposal into something put forward by both of them equally. In a way, the idea that "[t]he lie is memorized, the truth is remembered" (19), that memories blur and change over time, is taken very far by not attributing the proposal to one particular person. On the whole, this reading explains why the trip described in the poem was more significant than many others and accounts for its title.

* All page numbers refer to Ciaran Carson, For All We Know, as published by Wake Forest University Press.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Ciaran Carson's For All We Know: A love story memorised as a ticking fugue

It’s because we were brought up to lead double lives, I said. Yes, you said, because of the language thing it was one thing

with my father, another with my mother. Father tongue and mother tongue, all the more so when they separated irrevocably (66).

The bilingual Irish-English, Ciaran Carson is obsessed with music. The author of a classic work on Irish music, composed this verse novel in a sonnet-fugue of two parts –symbolising the separation of the couple, Gabriel and Nina – with repeating the titles of the individual poems in a chronological order in each part. Readers feel as if they could hear the “boisterous music” in a Bierkeller in Germany or the ticking of the Omega watches which Nina collects.

Not only is Carson obsessed with music, but also with languages. He uses English, French and German to express thoughts and feelings in For all we know. “Not that my German is anything to speak of”, admits Gabriel in the second The Shadow, hence, I was not surprised to read “Spiesewagen” in the first double sonnet To (45). A little irritated at first, I was tempted to ponder whether this is more than a typo or spelling mistake, but I just could not make sense of it, if it was.

What is striking, apart from Carson’s obsession with music and languages, is the recurrence of themes such as the ticking of time. Recurrent themes are typical of a fugue and we seem to hear the Omega watches ticking as in the following passage.

I think men and women run different times, you’d say.

I’m wondering if I wore a man’s watch would I speed up, perhaps we might become synchronized. But you drive too fast,

I’d say, and you often look at your watch as you do so, as if you could never get fast enough wherever

you’re going.

This obsession of time reminds me of Quentin Compson’s obsession with time and his inherited, cracked watch in The Sound and the Fury. The Shadows that occur as another topos are also reminiscent of that successful, modernist novel. Whether this is a coincidence or purpose is questionable. Both novels also share motives and symbols such as shadows, perfumes, and the questions whether langauge and narrative can truely represent reality. What the verse and prose novel also have in common is that there were both written in an uncertain period of time shortly before a financial crisis.

It is a very good idea to start the seminar with that verse novel as it includes feelings and sociological observations of the everyday life, all of us can comprehend and empathise with.

The quilt is a repeated motif which often covers and protects the lovers’ bodies and consists of many parts, like a human self consists of memories. Towards the end of the verse novel, the oyster, known as a aphrodisiac, is introduced and leads to the only explicitly sexual-connoted scene I found in this remembered love story (apart from the eating of an apple in turns, maybe).

The last sonnet Zugzwang then repeats the “babble of language”, “the bells”, the fugue’s “melodic fragments” and “different times” and Gabriel assures that his memories of the lost lover will “recede into the future”. Critics often criticised the bland ending of the verse novel, but I find it the icing of the cake of this fairy-tale like, memorised love story.

Those of you who have not read it yet, enjoy!

PS: The page number refers to The Gallery Press's edition.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Der vorborgene Mensch: Vom Schnee

Descartes ist der in der Fabel des Cartesianismus verborgene Mensch. (Der cartesische Taucher, 110)

Man geht auf die Suche nach einer Person, die inzwischen nur aus Papier besteht. Dazu kommen zwei Probleme: diese Person hat mehr Wert auf seinen Gedanken als auf seiner Körperlichkeit gelegt, und diese Person hat seinen Namen nicht nur einer philosophischen Richtung gegeben, sondern auch einer Weltanschauung, die die Geschichte der Welt verändert hat.

Wie findet man eine Person, die nur aus Papier besteht? Mit Papier:

Gefangen sitzt Ihr, Euer Doppelgänger, in den Strophen
Von einem, der Euch schlecht aus Euren Büchern kennt. (32)

Man spricht ihn an und hofft auf Antwort, man stellt sich vor, wie er mit anderen gesprochen hat, wie er sich selbst in seiner Fabel verbarg. Dabei vergisst man nie, dass es hier um die Person geht, um den Menschen, um seine Körperlichkeit, wenn man ihn so etwas sagen hört:

"Entweder suchst du hier die Wahrheit, hier im Innern.
Oder du folgst dem Augenschein—und wer du bist,
Bleibt unbestimmt wie das Ensemblespiel der Sinne.
Und damit Schluß. Heiz den Kamin. Mich friert." Er ißt. (18)

Man lässt ihn sprechen, philosophieren, und man lässt die Körperlichkeit das Philosophieren unterbrechen—in einer Weise, die gerade diese Philosophie ironisiert? Dieser Descartes setzt auf eine "innere Wahrheit" gegen "den Augenschein" und die Sinne, und deshalb auch gegen den Körper überhaupt. "Und damit Schluß": er beendet sein Philosophieren und wendet sich seinen Körper zu: ihm ist kalt, er hat Hunger.

Es kann nicht darum gehen, die Philosophie von Descartes mit seiner Körperlichkeit zu widersprechen—das wäre langweilig (und es gäbe kaum den Impuls, dieses Buch zu schreiben). Es muss eher darum gehen, die Welt der Körperlichkeit, der Kälte, des Hungers, des "Drecks" (der immer wieder am Anfang des Buchs thematisiert wird) gleichzeitig mitzudenken, und nicht außen vor stehen zu lassen.

"Being / A Self in a Song": Autobiography of Red

At one point in Anne Carson's Autobiography of Red, Geryon, the main character, is in "the only authentic / tango bar left in Buenos Aires," and he begins to remember a high-school dance at which he stood "against the wall / for three and a half hours in a casual pose":

Meanwhile music pounded
across hearts opening every valve to the desperate drama of being
a self in a song. (XXXI, 101)

If there is any doubt about whether Carson's verse novel gains anything from being in verse rather than prose, the second line break here clears it up with the exemplary enjambment of "the desperate drama of being / a self in a song."

Read without the phrase after the break, the line picks up on the references to Heidegger that have appeared in the last twenty pages or so; music (even the banal pop of a high-school dance) lays the basis for a moment of insight into the "drama of being." With this reading hanging in the air, the next line continues by specifying a particular kind of being: "being / a self in a song."

But I should be careful about making too much out of this, because Autobiography of Red also makes fun of reading too much into things, especially in altered states (which is what the wallflower at the high-school dance is in, even if he has not smoked or drunk anything):

... He had never been so stoned in his life. I am too naked,
he thought. This thought seemed profound.
And I want to be in love with someone. This too fell on him deeply. It is all wrong.
Wrongness came like a lone finger
chopping through the room and he ducked. What was that? said one of the others
turning towards him centuries later. (XL, 136)

Be careful of finding anything too profound here, Carson seems to be warning—but even that interpretive move might be overdoing it!

In fact, one of my difficulties with Carson's book (one that I have rarely had with any other literature, whether poetry, prose, or drama) is that it simply makes my jaw drop. When I began rereading the book in preparation for the verse-novels course, I intended to read with a pencil, but I ended up just reading it straight through, without marking anything that I had not marked before (a few phrases here and there, such as "Facts are bigger in the dark"). That made three times that I had read it, and I had to read it a fourth time and force myself to highlight things in order to be able to begin to interpret it.

And frankly, even now I find it hard to interpret a book that just leaves me speechless, as in the final lines of the book (well, the final lines before the concluding "interview" with Stesichoros, author of an ancient epic about Geryon whose few remaining fragments were the starting point for Carson's work). Although my mind was less confused than it would have been if I had been as stoned as Geryon was in the lines above, and less frustrated than if I had been the wallflower at a high-school dance, each time I have read this book I have been in an altered state by the time I read these lines:

We are amazing beings,
Geryon is thinking. We are neighbors of fire.
And now time is rushing towards them
where they stand side by side with arms touching, immortality on their faces,
night at their back. (XLVII, 146)

"Was bedeute eine Gestalt denn schon?" Erste Notizen zum fliegenden Berg

Hier erste Notizen zu Der fliegende Berg von Christoph Ransmayr:

Was bedeute eine Gestalt denn schon?
Es könne doch auch eine Nebelkrähe
bloß als kluger Vogel erscheinen
und zugleich ein Bote des Himmels sein—

ebenso wie das über einen Grat ins Tal einfallende
Morgenlicht zugleich den Sonnenstand und
den Lidschlag eines Gottes anzeigen könne,

und erst recht erscheine etwa ein Firnfeld,
das hoch oben unter den Gletschern den Mondschein spiegele,
einem schlaflosen Hirten als ein silbernes Tor in den Felsen
oder als ein Stück offenen Himmels!
und sei in Wahrheit? eben doch nur Schnee,
Schnee vom vergangenen Jahr. (198)

Die tibetanische Leart von diesen Verdoppelungen scheint beide Möglichkeiten zuzulassen. Die naturwissenschaftliche Lesart sieht eine Seite als die Wahrheit und die andere Seite als eine mythologische oder allegorische Deutung.
Die vorangegangene Diskussion von dem "Dhjemo" trägt noch ein weiteres Thema bei: die verschiedenen Namen, die einer Sache gegeben werden. "Dhjemo" und "Yeti" werden erwähnt, aber diese Figur ist der "Träger dutzender Namen," sowie der höchste Berg der Welt auch unter mindestens drei Namen im Buch vorkommt (123, 130, 133).
Diese beiden Themen ("in Wahrheit?" und Namen) werden auch mit Irland verbunden: "das wahre Irland" und die Verdoppelungen von geographischen Namen (Englisch und Gaelisch).
Ersteres kompliziert das obenstehende Bild von den tibetanischen Lesarten von Situationen. Im Bild vom "wahren Irland" sieht der Vater die Wahrheit in der Dichtung: "das wahre Irland" ist eine Darstellung der Auswanderung aus Irland, nicht Irland selbst:

Ein fensterloser Korridor etwa hieß das wahre Irland,
seit er dessen Wände mit Hunderten Fotos
und einer ölfleckigen Weltkarte tapeziert hatte ... (53)

Diese Fotos zeigen ausgewanderte Freunde und Verwandten:

Was für ein seltsamer Kontrast
zwischen den Sommerhimmeln
auf diesen Familienbildern und Porträts
und dem Dunkel unseres fensterlosen Korridors ... (54-55)

Zu den Fotos gibt es eine Weltkarte mit Stecknadelköpfen bei jedem Ort, wo die Ausgewanderten angekommen sind, sowie Fäden, die komplizierte Verbindungen zwischen den verschieden Orten (und den Herkunftsorten in Irland) klarmachen sollten.
Die Tibetaner verstehen die Welt doppelt, als natürliche und als übernatürliche Erscheinung. Der Naturwissenschaftler, dessen Weltbild in der Wendung "in Wahrheit" oben erscheint, braucht die übernatürliche Erklärung nicht, um in der Welt klarzukommen. Man könnte sagen, dass der Vater sein "wahres Irland" als Allegorie mehr Gewicht als das eigentliche Irland zumesst, aber das ist ein bisschen zu einfach. Erstens gibt es keine Stelle im Buch, wo der Vater das eigentliche Irland überhaupt mit dem "wahren" Irland vergleicht, und zweitens ist das Verhältnis zwischen diesen beiden Irlands nicht ganz in das oben entwickelte Schema einzukriegen. Es ist nicht das Verhältnis zwischen Welt und Allegorie oder Mythos.