Archive for October 2009
One other thing from the Paris trip – something I’d rather not get lost unread at the bottom of an overly long photoessay. Just as we were leaving the Jardin des Tuileries, we came upon this, an installation described in more depth here. You can probably guess who translated the Poe bit above. It’s from Baudelaire’s translation of Poe’s “Morella.” But the funny thing is that it’s a mistranslation. The first paragraph of the original goes this way – I’ve bolded the bit that is painted on the wall above:
With a feeling of deep yet most singular affection I regarded my friend Morella. Thrown by accident into her society many years ago, my soul from our first meeting, burned with fires it had never before known; but the fires were not of Eros, and bitter and tormenting to my spirit was the gradual conviction that I could in no manner define their unusual meaning or regulate their vague intensity. Yet we met; and fate bound us together at the altar, and I never spoke of passion nor thought of love. She, however, shunned society, and, attaching herself to me alone rendered me happy. It is a happiness to wonder; it is a happiness to dream.
But wondering and being astonished are two very different things, are they not? I feel like I’ve seen this slippage in translation before, and now am wondering myself whether there’s not something else to this. Baudelaire was actually quite preoccupied with that phrase of Poe’s – the calculation and recalculation of the relationship between astonishment and happiness can be found throughout his work. Here’s one very clear example, where he literally retranslates the passage, from “Salon de 1858”:
Je parlais tout à l’heure des artistes qui cherchent à étonner le public. Le désir d’étonner et d’être étonné est très-légitime. It is a happiness to wonder, “c’est un bonheur d’être étonné” ; mais aussi, it is a happiness to dream, “c’est un bonheur de rêver”. Toute la question, si vous exigez que je vous confère le titre d’artiste ou d’amateur des beaux-arts, est donc de savoir par quels procédés vous voulez créer ou sentir l’étonnement. Parce que le Beau est toujours étonnant, il serait absurde de supposer que ce qui est étonnant est toujours beau. Or notre public, qui est singulièrement impuissant à sentir le bonheur de la rêverie ou de l’admiration (signe des petites âmes), veut être étonné par des moyens étrangers à l’art, et ses artistes obéissants se conforment à son goût ; ils veulent le frapper, le surprendre, le stupéfier par des stratagèmes indignes, parce qu’ils le savent incapable de s’extasier devant la tactique naturelle de l’art véritable.
Baudelaire’s insistence on sticking with this mis-translation here is somewhat remarkable. At least with his version of “Morella,” the reader wouldn’t have the source-text at hand, and thus the license that he’s taking would go unnoticed. I suppose that one explanation would be that he doesn’t realize his mistranslating the phrase – perhaps he’s make a leap from “a wonder,” that is an astonishing thing or occurence, to a verbal form that it doesn’t really fit.
But in the end, whether Baudelaire was aware of what he was doing or not, whether this is a kind of translational parapraxis or intentionally distorting paraphrase, I’m tempted to say that what we see here is something like Baudelaire’s forced modernization of the darkly romantic Poe. He takes the self-involved wondering and jams it outside, transforms it into external shock.
Disneyland Paris has the distinct feel of an office park in one of the semi-prosperous suburbs that ring mid-sized American cities. We didn’t have much of a view from our room at the Newport Beach Hotel. I hate Newport, Rhode Island – went once and once was enough.
Inside the park, erm, parc itself, I amused myself by taking pictures of the curiously foreshortened buildings. Each story is smaller than the last, you will notice. I wonder if there’s some sort of golden formula that they use to come up with the shrinking proportions – like a Disney modulor – hidden in a vault next to Walt’s brain…
The visitors, too, are foreshortened, as if automagically, by the landhumps that Disney’s designers, following Olmstead, have placed to keep your eyes where your eyes belong.
After the parade passes, an army of sweepers swoops out from somewhere to clear away all the guest-debris. Despite the fact that Disney Co. is very big on uniforms (you’ve surely heard the stories about the costume-characters forced to wear shared underpants and thus contracting pubic lice…) they seem to have at least some of the cleaners dress in their own, randomly selected clothes. I am trying to think about just why this is – would the guests be disturbed by seeing an army of janitors, all clothed alike, marching in the wake of the parade?
I find the cartoonoisotypes almost as disturbing as the increasingly centrality of “princesses” with the Disney pantheon. When I was a kid, surely the parade ended with Mickey and Minnie. Now, an entire flotilla of one princess after another, most rags to riches, and saved by handsome, beardless men. We tend laissez-faire with this stuff in my house, all too aware of the perverse consequences of making pleasure decisions for your kids, but we’re thinking it might be time for a crackdown. A few too many But I don’t look beautiful in this dress tantrums from a four-year old and something’s got to change.
There’s something to be written about Disney’s bizarre take on historical reconstruction. You build a castle designed to look like one of those insane German ones, Neuschwanstein for instance, but then you decorate it with images and animals drawn from your own 1950s-era cartoon pantheon, as if this roundeyed creatural aesthetic had always already existed.
Ah but then we left Disneyland Paris and went to Paris proper. It’s funny – almost everyone I was in touch with, electronically, while I was away responded with some variation on When you said Disneyland Paris, I thought you meant Paris itself in its Disneyification. Everyone’s right of course. We spent lots of time in the kids’ section of the Jardin du Luxembourg, where there are ponyrides and playgrounds and in fact a super-French puppet theater, which feels like it should be the setting for the start of a Bertolucci film about very very young Parisians about to be caught up in the evental events of souxiante-huit.
Though you hear about him all the time, I never really understood who or what Guignol was until now. Unfortunately I couldn’t understand much of the dialogue. Why is French so hard?
The playgrounds are lovely and well kept. But you have to pay – and pay quite a lot – to visit them. Parents pay too – which results in the curious phenomenon of 18-month olds toddering around the park by themselves, fenced off from their mom and dad who skipped paying the prix d’entrée, while said mom and dad smoke cigarettes and read serious novels on a bench beyond.
I am trying to think when was the first time I met someone who spoke a language other than English. * My daughter chatters on with the other kids in the playground, both she and her interlocutors oblivious to the fact that they lack a common idiom.
Flaubert! My wife asked me whether I wanted to have my picture taken while standing in the shadow of my guy, and I said that I’d think about whether it’d be appropriate or not. I never made a decision on the point.
Perhaps a picture in front of my saint – whom, it should be noted, I ended up more than once dressing as, with wings, with sword, when I was a little Catholic school boy – would have been more appropriate. My what a curly sword though! My sword was never so curly as that!
We walked a giant circle around the city one of the days we were there. Montparnasse to Notre Dame (my daughter likes cathedrals) to the Arc de Triomphe down under the Eiffel Tower and back to Montparnasse, all of that with double-buggy filled with alternately sleeping children. In the Jardin des Tuileries, I experience a sudden apprehension of the fadeur of Paris, and of France in general. Beyond all the Disney-preservation, or perhaps marginally because of it, there’s a sort of insipidity to the place, a consoling blandness almost totally absent from a city like London.
And the funny thing about that is that I’m very soon going to start writing a piece, ultimately destined for my book but perhaps (from what I understand) placeable at a nice journal that some of you read, about Barthes, China, and blandness. It will center on a short piece that Barthes wrote after a visit to Maoist China, where he states that, having left behind the West and its “turbulence of symbols, we address very vast, very old, and very new land, where signification is discrete to the point of rarity. Right at this moment, a new field is discovered: that of fragility, or still better (I risk the word, quitting it to come back to it later): of blandness [fadeur].”
Barthes found in China “a people (who, in twenty-five years, has already constructed a considerable nation) which circulates, works, drinks its tea or performs solitary gymnastics, without drama, without noise, without pose, in short without hysteria.” But it occurs to me now that only a place bathed in its own brand of blandness – obviously a different type than the Maoists with their calisthenics and their tea – could become so preoccupied with the event, the remarkable emergence. But of course, Barthes was far from the first to take up the subject – the rhythm of blandness and astonishment is the baseline of the French writing of modernity all the way along.
This photo shows where Baudelaire was born in 1821. It’s a block off of Boulevard Saint-Michel, in a house that was destroyed when Haussman put Saint-Germain-des-Près through. I’m about to put up a separate post about Baudelaire – something a bit too interesting to dump in at the end of a photoessay post that itself is a wee bit fadeuse.
My daughter’s learning to read. No, she’s not actually up to perusing the French papers yet. But due to a newspaper distribution strike the last day we were there (devilish irony! half the reason I travel is so that I can buy all sorts of newspapers!) all there was for her to pretend to read was a two-day old copy of some arms-industry owned rag.
* Actually! I do remember the first time I ever met anyone who spoke a different language. It was in Nova Scotia, where my mother’s side lived and lives. We stopped on the drive from Yarmouth Airport (now basically defunct, but it used to have a flight a day from Logan) at an Acadian village on the Bay of Fundy for ice cream. I asked for a flavor – ice cream man yammered back en Français. I remember feeling extremely confused, a bit ashamed. I’m sure my grandmother consoled me by saying something rude about the Frenchies. This seems suddenly and oddly determinative, this episode, and I haven’t thought about it in years.
I like Mute – both the magazine and the website. But checked the site today and something’s gone wrong with their quality control. This piece by Daniel Miller is about as close to a pure distillation of subpar gradstudentese as one could imagine in one’s worst teacherly nightmare. It’s a sort of self-sokaling sendup of Benjaminian thetical writing, all breathless paragraphs that make less and less sense the slower you read them. For instance, check out this one:
The city of the future will resemble Lagos more closely than London. In his book Concrete Reveries, Mark Kingwell takes a page from Walter Benjamin, naming New York as capital of the 20th century, overtaking Paris, the capital of the 19th. At the peaks of their prominence, both the City of Light and The Seat of Empire (© George Washington, 1784) incarnated and symbolised planetary dreams. Every epoch dreams its successor. The destruction of the World Trade Center in September 2001 brought the era of New York’s unquestioned urban supremacy to a close. The North East blackout which descended on the city two years later represented the requiem. The economy runs on symbolic authority like a car runs on gas. In a matter of hours, world trade became hollow. Ground zero replaced the twin towers, creating the context for the recent financial crisis.
Now, if DM were my tutorial student, and thank god he’s not, we’d start with the fact that sentence two has absolutely nothing to do with sentence one. Further, does DM mean that New York “dreamed” Lagos? If so, how so? The destruction of the WTC had absolutely nothing to do with the unseating (if that’s in fact what has happened) of New York as center of the universe – if anything, it allowed for a momentary stabilization of the geographical dispersion of playpieces on the world board rather than the opposite. The northeast blackout has nothing to do with anything, other than permitting a recognition that the city’s a lot more civil than it once was. World trade became hollow? Did it? And in the wake of what, the destruction of the WTC or the blackout – as the organization of the paragraph suggests the latter, but that doesn’t make any sense at all. DM, in general, demonstrates zero understanding of the relationship (or lack thereof) of 9/11 to the financial crisis, which both started before the attacks and resumed in full force several years after them… The attacks themselves had absolutely nothing to do with the general trajectory of the American economy….
This is only one, almost randomly selected paragraph, in the course of an persistently incoherent piece. Come on Mute! You’re letting the side down when you publish stuff like this! And the absolutely precious author bio at the bottom of the piece is enough to make a regular reader gag!
If the militant dysphorics ever want a good picture for an event poster or a bookcover, I think I found l’image juste while walking in the Jardin du Luxembourg yesterday.
Step 2 seems especially relevant, no?
Just kidding. Seriously. But I did make myself laugh for a full 3-4 minutes after seeing, passing, returning, shooting, and then contemplating posting this sign.
(On another level, and I know you can do this with just about any set of instructions, but: hilarious to think that some bureaucrat thought that it’d be necessary to instruct les citoyens de Paris in the fine art of inside-out-poop-scooping. For years, I’d been grabbing the dogshit with my bare hand and then dropping it into the plastic bag! Thank you, municipal government, for the instructions that have kept my hands free of dogshit streaks and the accompanying unpleasant odor!)
Anyway. I’m sorry about the light blogging! I was away! But that’s not the whole story. I’m actually, finally, making some progress on the finishing the Monstrous Tome. And I actually like what I’m writing! As a rule of thumb, one needs to remember simply to explain what one is trying to talk about rather than do quickwork quickstep dancing around the point. It doesn’t hurt (except, of course, it does) that someone’s basically called me into an office and put a gun to my head, extracted promises from me, etc. But I’ll get back to the blog soon enough once I’ve written what I need to write, if not sooner.
Well, my youngest’s passport and visa have finally come through, which means that we’re off on our summer holiday! In October! None too soon, either – the natives are getting a bit restless about foreigners like me swiping jobs away from honest Englishmen. So I’m headed to a place that is way less ambivalent about immigration and immigrants…
So from Saturday AM, two days at Eurodisney (I know, but come on, the oldest one is four for chrissake! It’s two hours away! I stopped liking traveling places a few years ago so someone may as well enjoy themselves!) and two days in Paris. I’m sure I’ll get some photoblogging done, one way or another.
From a very smart Guardian piece by Jane Graham on the Saw series of ultrahorror films. In particular, this paragraph caught my eye:
When pushed, Burg cites the importance of context in justifying the extreme violence in his films – Jigsaw is punishing those he regards as immoral, thus the torture is not presented with the sadistic glee manifest in the likes of Hostel. What is questionable, though, is how much kids on YouTube care, or even think, about context. The prevalence of home-made YouTube montages simply comprising torture scenes from the Saw films on the site illustrates that, for some viewers, context is just an irritation to be got round, just like the establishing storyline in the Emmanuelle videos was for young boys in the 1980s. “Is it wierd [sic] that I just got an erection after watching that?” asks a fan posting on Facebook after viewing the brutal trailer for Saw VI. “I wish it could turn my stomach but some of the footage in the films are like stuff I do to my friends in my dreams!!!” confides another on Bebo.
Ah Bebo confessor, data-point in a reader-response theory just around the corner but somehow already staring us in the face! But more importantly, Emmanuelle! Not just for young boys in the eighties, but the early nineties as well! The VHS tape dubbed off of Cinemax, and yes – the pacing of the films, always a strange stroll through some baroque bienale of transnational decadent not fully post-colonial seventiesness… Like Duras in the ‘Nam but after the end of Bretton Woods…
Of course, Graham’s exactly right: my early-adolescent self didn’t actually watch any of that stuff, not if the FF button could do anything about it. Ahem. But the thing is, still to this day, when I’m teaching or writing about narrative and its rhythms (which is basically what I teach or write when I teach or write) the Emmanuelle movies are never far from my mind. The strange relationship between the heightened moments of revelation or affectual intensity and all of the stuff that moves the characters around the board, shows you the sites, establishes the patter of the everyday that goes on around the climactic bits. In a certain sense, I learned to read the way that I read by watching these soft-core films. And it was the very soft-coreness of them that was determinative on this score. If I’d grown up now, with the porn sites and their menus of contextless acts for the viewing, I’d read differently – or perhaps, who knows, I wouldn’t read at all.
Of course, I’m not alone in this sort of thing, even if the specific media involved have changed with time. Here’s Roland Barthes, for instance, in The Pleasure of the Text returning to his own favorite allegorical materialization of reading:
[W]e boldly skip (no one is watching) descriptions, explanations, analyses, conversations; doing so, we resemble a spectator in a nightclub who climbs on to the stage and speeds up the dancer’s striptease, tearing off her clothing, but in the same order, that is: on the one hand respecting and on the other hastening the episodes of the ritual.
The fascination of what Barthes is noticing about the reading of novels runs parallel to the question that today’s porn clips beg about the feature-length films of the past: why have the filler material at all? What is the point, besides evading the censors or fulfilling the aesthetic ambitions of the directors, of the plot and the setting, the conversations and the dramatic angling, when clearly everyone watching the film is watching it for only one thing? *
There are easy and hard answers to this question… I’m going to reserve offering my own ideas for a little bit. (Especially since I’m going to acquire a bunch of these movies with an eye toward writing something about them soon but later… On here of course but perhaps in fuller form too…) Just a hint for now: some sort of interesting and perhaps new definition of the aesthetic itself lurks within those scenes that bathe the porn actress, fully clothed if scantily, if scenery and conversations and transportation. If the models that we’re used to for the aesthetic, ranging from vehicle of pleasure and beauty to device for estrangement and on to statement of impossible autonomy, are worn out, these fill-scenes suggest (at least to me) other modalities of the aesthetic ranging from filter to alibi, dilutive solution to perverse advertisement, negative affectual space to the sort of thing where we take a little rest before doing it all again.
So more of that to come, one way or another. But it occurs to be that what the novelistic romance, or the romance that persists within all novels, was to those in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries who were busy with the invention of modernism, I am starting to think porn is – or should be – for us today. It is that popular form, so circumscribed and rote, so unreflectively ideological, so bestial that we might resist, and in resisting discover that we can’t quite fully extricate ourselves from. Modernism attempts to purge literature of romance – but the problem is it simply can’t stop purging itself of romance, and thus the backwash of the young man carbuncular and the girl on the strand, the passante and the strange copulation of Clarissa and Septimus. We might think would it would mean to begin a similarly violent romance, the sort of maddeningly intense affair that refuses to name itself as such, with the legacy of the most popular, titanically popular, aesthetic form of our own time.
* Of course I understand that I’m deploying a reductive and perhaps rather masculinist notion of the way that porn is consumed / enjoyed. Of course I’m aware of the fem-porn industry, and some of the difference involved in that (often themselves organized by essentialised notions of female preference for the emotional over the physical, talkiness vs. dirtiness….) If anyone wants to provide an alternative version of any of the above, by all means the comment box is yours!