Monday, 21 September 2015

A poor island, lost on the Northwest side of Europe, which seems to have specialized in men of genius: Jorge Luis Borges on Irish Literature

Back in the 1980s Jorge Luis Borges and Osvaldo Ferrari had a radio program; the topic was always books and authors, even when Ferrari tried to lead Borges to other places. Once he asked Borges about the “vast richness” of the Irish Literature.

“Yes,” replies Borges, “it’s a richness that seemed opposed to all statistics: a poor island, lost on the Northwest side of Europe, which seems to have specialized in men of genius and which enriched English Literature, for English Literature is inconceivable without so many unforgettable authors.” Then he develops his thesis. “Why, curiously, that tradition is ancient, for we’d have to think – I think it’s in the ninth century – and there we have that gigantic image of Scotus Eriugena, whose name means ‘Irishman born in Scotland,’ for Ireland was then called Vetus et Maior Scotia, and Scotland is the name Irishmen had over there.” Only Borges to really begin at the beginning. And then of course he starts digressing. “On reading histories of philosophy, and especially histories of scholastics [Who does that?], which is certainly quite rich and has many varied masters, I noticed that Scotus Eriugena is, however, unique because he’s a pantheist. The writings attributed to the Areopagite had arrived in Paris, and there was no one in France capable of reading them. And then this monk from Ireland arrives, and in Ireland they had saved Greek: they had been invaded I’m not sure if by the Saxons or by the Scandinavians; anyway, the Irish monks had to flee from their convents – these convents were particular, each monk was alone in his hut, and in the cultivated fields there were moats to stop the Barbarians. But one of them left: Johannes Scotus Eriugena.” At this point it does look like Borges is going to give a full lecture on Irish Literary History, but damn it!, it’s so interesting. “He was called by Charles the Bald, and translated the text of the Areopagite from the Greek. No one knew neither Latin nor Greek; the Irish monk did. And then he wrote his philosophy, which is a pantheistic philosophy. And, curiously, there’s a Hugo poem, ‘Ce que dit la bouche d’ombre,’ which corresponds exactly to Scotus Eriugena’s philosophy. And that philosophy is also found in Back to Methuselah, from another Irishman, who probably hadn’t read Scotus Eriugena: Bernard Shaw. The idea is that all things emanate from divinity, and that at the end of history all things will return to it. And this provided Hugo with a wonderful page wherein he imagines a whole sort of monsters, of black dragons, or whatever it is, and of demons amongst them. And they all return to the divinity. That is, divinity is reconciled with all creatures, including its monsters.”

Phew, and Ferrari only asked him about Irish Literature! Imagine if he had asked him to talk about philosophy.

Borges moves on to “another incredible writer, we have Swift, to whom we owe Gulliver’s travels – amongst them that horrible voyage: the voyage to the Yahoos, who are men who are like monkeys – and these other men, whose name imitates the sound of a neigh, are the ones who form that republic of thinking horses.” There’s also Berkeley the philosopher. “Berkeley is the first one to reason about idealism and he was Hume’s master. Well, Hume was Scottish, and both were Schopenhauer’s masters. And further on there are so many illustrious Irishmen that one loses the thread: perhaps the greatest poet of the English Language in our, William Butler Yeats. And we also have an unjustly forgotten, George Moore, who began by writing very silly books and in the end writes admirable books with a new type of prose; books like, about confidences of unreal things, of dreamt things by him, but which are told as confidences to the reader and which are Moore’s personal inventions. And there’s another name that, in spite of the sadness, or maybe infamy of his fame, we think of him the way we think of an intimate friends, or even a child: Oscar Wilde obviously. And why not mention another Irishman who created two characters that are perhaps more famous than any politician: the creator of Sherlock Holmes and doctor Watson, Arthur Conan Doyle.”

Ferrari asks him to return to Bernard Shaw. Borges remarks on the similarities between Shaw’s Back to Methuselah and Scotus Eriugena’s philosophy. “And that was all thought of by Scotus Eriugena in the ninth century and Bernard Shaw ends up giving it a dramatic and hilarious form in that work.” On Borges’ mentioning the play’s humour, Ferrari suggests that Ireland “produced the humoristic genre, the ironic, the satiric; a very particular variety.” Borges kindly ignores him and piles on more names from his prodigious memory. “And we forget Goldsmith, we forget Sheridan; well, we forget the ‘Celtic Twilight’ poets, the ‘Celtic penumbra.’ Yes, but Yeats was in that group at first, but then, fortunately, he abandoned that twilight and wrote perhaps the most poetic and precise works. And we forget, I don’t know how we can, it’s really a feat of forgetting: to forget the author of Ulysses and Finnegans Wake, who was also Irish.” It’s not really a feat of forgetting; although Borges held Ulysses in high regard, he derided Finnegans Wake and had very little to say about Joyce’s earlier realistic books.

Ferrari asks Borges to speak a bit more about Yeats. “Well, what Yeats did with the English Language is more admirable than what Joyce did, for Joyce’s compositions are a bit like Literature Museum pieces, no?” Here’s the Borges I know and love! The one who always speaks his mind, who doesn't fear unpopular opinions. “On the other hand, the poetry of William Butler Yeats is not, it’s something that enraptures us, like Hugo’s poetry, for instance. It’s extraordinary: I always remember that untranslatable, unwise verse which however exerts its magic: ‘That dolphin’s thorned, that gong tormented sea.’ How strange! The sea dilacerated by dolphins and tormented by gongs. I don’t know if it can defend itself logically, but it’s evidently a magical conjunction. And we find many in Yeats’ pages; there are constantly unforgettable lines like that.  I remember the end of one of his plays where one character is a pig keeper, and you see these extraordinary women who descend slowly down a staircase’s handrail. And he asks them what were they made for; and they respond: For desecration, and the lover’s night. Those are the last words. It’s stupendous, isn’t?”

As far as I could inquire, the play to look this line in is called The Herne's Egg.

Ferrari reads aloud a line from Don Juan in Hell: “Hell the home of the unreal and of the seekers of happiness.” Borges’ reaction is a very Spanish “Caramba” of approval and delight.

This is a funny little conversation; as always it showcases Borges’ strengths and weaknesses: he has a prodigious memory, he knows all the classics and he can establish unexpected relationships between them; on the other hand literature seems to have stopped somewhere in 1939: no mention of Flann O’Brien, Dylan Thomas, Seamus Heaney. Anyway, it’s always a pleasure to re-read Borges talking about books.

Wednesday, 9 September 2015

Once more unto the Bök, dear friends

I wanted to come back to Christian Bök’s lovely book Eunoia. It’s a short book, less than 100 pages, quite re-readable and endearing. He spent 7 years writing it, and published it in 2001 to surprising but well-deserved critical acclaim and commercial success; 20,000 copies sold, not bad for a book in that blurry space between prose and poetry. Bök, who only had a previous book of poetry to his name, probably didn’t expect this, as we self-deprecatingly acknowledges in a meta-fictional aside:

Relentless, the rebel peddles these theses, even when vexed peers deem the new precept ‘mere dreck.’ The plebes resent newer verse; nevertheless, the rebel perseveres, never deterred, never dejected, heedless, even when hecklers heckle the vehement speeches. We feel perplexed whenever we see these excerpted sentences. We sneer when we detect the clever scheme – the emergent repetend: the letter E. We jeer; we jest. We express resentment. We detest these depthless pretences – these present-tense verbs, expressed pell-mell. We prefer genteel speech, where sense redeems senselessness.

As you can see, the text only uses words with the vowel E. Eunoia is a collection of lipograms, one per vowel. ‘Eunoia’ is the shortest English word to contain all five vowels and means “good thinking”, which is an apt name for such an intelligent book. Bök, influenced by Georges Perec whose A Void avoids the letter E, inverted the concept. It’s a pretty remarkable achievement because, in spite of the Oulipo-like constraint, the book has plot, logic, coherent grammar, complex figures of speech, and lots of humour. As far as form goes, it’s one of the most impressive displays of virtuosity I’ve ever seen in English language.

Now one of the goals of the book was to prove that each vowel has a personality. “A unique personality for each vowel soon emerges: A is courtly, E is elegiac, I is lyrical, O is jocular, U is obscene,” the back cover says. I don’t find this convincing: certainly a chapter with Alfred Jarry’s Ubu will be obscene, but no less than:

“Slick pimps, bribing civic kingpins, distill gin in stills, spiking drinks with illicit pills which might bring bliss. Whiz kids in silk-knit shirts script films in which slim girls might strip, jiggling tits, wiggling hips, inciting wild shindigs. Twin siblings in bikinis might kiss rich bigwigs, giving this prim prig his wish, whipping him, tickling him, licking his limp dick till, rigid, his prick spills its jism. Shit! This ticklish victim is trifling with kink. Sick minds, thriving in kinship with pigs, might find insipid thrills in this filth. This flick irks critics. It is swinish; it is piggish. It stinks.”

Chapters A and E seemed equally courtly, and lyrical passages are not exclusive to I. Personality certainly must be shaped by the vocabulary at his disposal, but for every cunt there’s a twat and for every fuck there’s a bang. I think the personalities that emerged have more to do with the way Bök’s imagination interacted with the words he had available, that magical thing we call creativity. To me it’s rather his personality that’s showing through the meanings he constructed with each story.

But I think the book does show English language’s personality in another way; although Eunoia is an ars poetica digressing through potentialities, it’s also a lament to its limitations. In Chapter A, the character, if that means anything here, is Hassan Abd al-Hassad. Along with Chapter U, it’s one of the book’s most repetitive parts. Bök, you see, was forbidden from using pronouns; ‘Hassan’ shows up 6 times in this short text:

Hassan asks that a vassal grant a man what manna a man wants: Alaskan crabs, alfafa salad and kasha, Malahat clams, lasagna, pasta and salsa. Hassan wants Kalamata shawarma, cassabananas and taramasalata. Hassan gnaws at a calf flank and chaws at a lamb shank, as a charman chars a black bass and salts a bland carp. Hassan scarfs back gravlax and sprats, crawdaw and prawns, balks at Parma ham, and has, as a snack, canard à l’ananas sans safran. Hassan asks that a vassal grant a man jam tarts and bananas, jam flans and casabas, halva, pappadam and challah, babka, fasnacht and baklava.

When Ubu gets on the stage the same thing happens. The other chapters have ways of ameliorating this constraint. Chapter O, for instance, is the chapter of the third person plural:

Goths who rob tombs confront old ghosts (most of whom prowl from ghost town to ghost town to spook poltroons). Lots of ghosts, who brood, forlorn, on moods of loss, how long-lost consorts – blond frows, sworn to honor fond vows of forsworn troth (now long forgot). Most consorts, too forlorn to long for comfort from sorrow, sob: boohoo, boohoo – so bozo clowns, who know not how to frown, don coxcombs, for pomp, for show, to spoof droll plots from books. Most fools who josh lords or mock snobs don hoods or cowls to do so (for wroth lords who scowl oft long to shoot folks who honor no form of snobdom). Most fools go: ‘oops, ow – oh, bollocks: ho, ho’.

Here the text has multiple subjects, which gives the action more variety. In Chapter E, also known as the retelling of the War of Troy, Helen is the protagonist; here there’s more room for maneuver because Bök has pronouns like “me”, “she”, “we”, “her” e “herself”. (At one point he even uses “thee”, which makes sense given the Homeric setting; I love that popular fiction trope of putting mythological characters speaking with faux Shakespearean terms.) This newfound freedom also allows the chapter to use dialogue and reflexive structures; if Hassan is all about exterior, Helen is about me and the self. Chapter I, since it has “I”, goes one step further, it’s even more intimate and self-centered. It’s also the most inquisitive chapter since Bök at last has at his disposal the vocabulary (“is”, “it”, “why”, “might) to ask questions:

Hiking in British districts, I picnic in virgin firths, grinning in mirth with misfit whims, smiling if I find birch twigs, smirking if I find mint sprigs. Midspring brings with it singing birds, six kinds (finch, siskin, ibis, tit, pipit, swift), whirling shrill chirps, trilling chirr chirr in high pitch. Kingbirds flit in gliding flight skimming limpid springs, dipping wingtips in rills which brim with living things: krill, shrimp, brill – fish with gilt fins, which swim in flitting zigs. Might Virgil find bliss implicit in this primitivism? Might I mimic him in print if I find his writings inspiring?

Bök is certainly dependent on vocabulary, he follows its lead, allows it to create possibilities. For instance, Chapter A has a remarkable text on drugs and premonitions because it can:

Hassan wants a catnap and grabs, as a calmant, hash, grass and smack, khat, ganja and tabac – an amalgam that can spark a pharmacal flashback. Hassan falls slack, arms asprawl, and has a nap that spawns dark phantasmatas. Satan stands back, aback a damask arras, and draws a fractal mandala – a charm that can trap what a Cathar savant calls an ‘astral avatar’ (part man, part bat – and fang and claw) – a phantasm that can snarl and gnash at a carcass. A fantast chants ‘abracadabra’ as a mantra, wags a wand, and (zap) a sandglass cracks. A hag as mad as Cassandra warns a shah that bad karma attracts phantasmal cataclasms.

Still the available vocabulary is not that restrictive. “Eunoia abides by many subsidiary rules,” the author wrote. “All chapters must allude to the art of writing. All chapters must describe a culinary banquet, a prurient debauch, a pastoral tableau and a nautical voyage.”

Each chapter illustrates many different potentialities, but then denies many more; I, thanks to the “–ing” suffix, is the only one that uses the gerund; O, since it has the monopoly on “no”, ”nor” and “not”, abounds in negative sentences, and that too becomes part of its personality. Each chapter, perforce, must use simple, declarative syntax; many of the elements that allow the creation of more complex grammar are multivocalic: while, whereas, because, since, therefore, although, and therefore prohibited to Bök. Each letter has exclusive rights on a very small cluster of conjunctions, adverbs, prepositions, articles and pronouns, the synapses that interconnect the phrases’ neurons. Thus A does what it can with “as”, “a”, “that”, “at e “and”; thanks to the repetition of “and,” this chapter has a touch of oral literature (which seems right to me; Hassan made me think of Harun al-Rashid, the caliph of The Arabian Nights.) E, better equipped, benefits from “nevertheless”, “wherever”, “whenever”, “hence”, “then”, “where”; I has “in,” “it,” “which.” I was thinking why O uses the third person plural; I think it’s so Bök can use verbs like “to go” and “to do”; one of his subsidiary rules was to exhaust all the available vocabulary; he couldn’t do that if he conjugated them in the third personal singular, with the “–es” suffix getting in the way. O oversees “who”, “whom”, “both”, “on” and “to”, which allows him to use verbs in the infinitive. U has “thus”, “but”, “such”, “must”, “up”. Obviously since these elements are reused several times; each text acquires its own syntactical personality; the reader can predict the type of sentences he’ll found next. Even so there are surprises; I thought E would use the past tense – that “–ed” suffix – but actually he coherently wrote the whole book in the present tense.

Eunoia is an amazing book, with dazzling verbal tricks. However, although I don’t wish to downplay Bök’s amazing feat, I also have the impression that he fared so well because the English language evolved to permit him to pull off this stunt. Apropos of him I wrote a bit about the differences between Portuguese and English before; and I still think he was very lucky to have a language so monosyllabic, so poor in declensions and conjugations, so devoid of information in its syntax. It’s almost as if English evolved to allow someone to create this book; that it had to wait so many centuries is also quite incredible. So congratulations to Christian Bök; he’s not just a great virtuoso, he also had the genius to notice all this untapped potential that others ignored.