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‘the prose of life’ / a hint from hegel

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I am in Amsterdam on a ‘working holiday,’ and specifically today I’m trying to finish a section about Karl Ove Knausgård. In particular, I am trying to say something more specific and definite about the uncanny power of his evocations of the everyday or the banal.

Other critics have struggled (productively!) to give a clear description of how it works. For instance, James Wood, in his review of the first volume of the series, describes ‘a simplicity, an openness, and an innocence in his relation to life, and thus in his relation to the reader.’ Wood finds himself working through descriptive contortionism in order to describe the strange effects of Knausgård’s prose and its ‘banality is so extreme that it turns into its opposite, and becomes distinctive, curious in its radical transparency.’ Similarly, Zadie Smith has written in the New York Review of Books that:

 As a whole these volumes work not by synecdoche or metaphor, beauty or drama, or even storytelling. What’s notable is Karl Ove’s ability, rare these days, to be fully present in and mindful of his own existence. Every detail is put down without apparent vanity or decoration, as if the writing and the living are happening simultaneously. There shouldn’t be anything remarkable about any of it except for the fact that it immerses you totally. You live his life with him.

She seems to be drawing here on the vocabulary of the contemporary enthusiasm for quasi-Buddhist ‘mindfulness’ meditation… When you have to reach to the New Age section of your vocabulary to describe a literary effect, you know you’re in a bit of a strange spot.

Anyway, in the course of this work I decided to have another look in on Hegel’s statements about the ‘prose of life’ in his Aesthetics. It was quite something to be reminded, given where I’m sitting (the picture above is the view from my desk) of the body of artistic work that he is discussing when he uses the phrase:

Yet if we wish to bring to our notice the most marvellous thing that can be achieved in this connection, we must look at the genre painting of the later Dutch painters. What, in its general spirit, is the substantial basis out of which it issued, is a matter on which I touched above in the consideration of the Ideal as such. Satisfaction in present-day life, even in the commonest and smallest things, flows in the Dutch from the fact that what nature affords directly to other nations, they have had to acquire by hard struggles and bitter industry, and, circumscribed in their locality, they have become great in their care and esteem of the most insignificant things. On the other hand, they are a nation of fishermen, sailors, burghers, and peasants and therefore from the start they have attended to the value of what is necessary and useful in the greatest and smallest things, and this they can procure with the most assiduous industry. In religion the Dutch were Protestants, an important matter, and to Protestantism alone the important thing is to get a sure footing in the prose of life, to make it absolutely valid in itself independently of religious associations, and to let it develop in unrestricted freedom. To no other people, under its different circumstances, would it occur to make into the principal burden of its works of art subjects like those confronting us in Dutch painting. But in all their interests the Dutch have not lived at all in the distress and poverty of existence and oppression of spirit; on the contrary, they have reformed their Church themselves, conquered religious despotism as well as the Spanish temporal power and its grandeur, and through their activity, industry, bravery, and frugality they have attained, in their sense of a self-wrought freedom, a well-being, comfort, honesty, spirit, gaiety, and even a pride in a cheerful daily life. This is the justification for their choice of subjects to paint. (Knox translation, 597-8, italics mine).

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Work was just about over for the day, and we’ve been trying to decide whether to go back to the Rijksmuseum or not. At least we know where Hegel stands on the matter.

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September 14, 2015 at 12:21 pm

Posted in Art, everyday, knausgård

sunday post: letter to theo, with illustrations

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1. Amidst bouts of very adult sadness, the kids’ pictures and drawings and things that hang on the refrigerator are at once a beacon of hope and a source of torment: Just join the dots to complete this picture of a super sunflower and a beautiful butterfly. A sort of simple and joyful structural support of the world, where it starts, but one that is bound to rust and crumble into the anxiety and even psychopathology that is adulthood.

And then a grimmer sense that I am getting even this wrong.

2. At the National Gallery this afternoon, stopped by the Van Goghs to look again at this for a bit:

Am falling in love, at an only somewhat careful distance, with the brilliant bêtise of Van Gogh and his work. Leaving aside the humble craftsman, humble chair, but would a humble craftsman ever paint himself as a humble chair? question implicit in this painting, I am keep laughing to myself about the portrait of the artist as his packet of pipe tobacco thing, as that seems to be the ultimate joke of the piece. There is a strange erotic component to it too, a cockeyed metonymics of sexual parts on display, except they don’t work quite right (in short, you put the female stuff inside the phallic thing and smoke it…) Whatever – brilliantly fucked up painting, and I only wish that the gift shop had had one for sale so that I could display it in my office in a gesture of angry post-bourgeois glee.

3. My own kitchen table and chairs don’t fit the space they’re in. We bought them for the previous house, which was much bigger, and even had a lovely breakfast room along side the dining area. It was a beautiful house, and I remember it fondly, even though I’m not a better homes and gardens sort of guy and have a bit of a perverse streak when it comes to my own living spaces. But somehow the current arrangement, the fact that one of the chairs is pinned to the wall by the table, as there’s no room for it to fit otherwise, pleases me. I will never allow the table to be replaced, not while we live here.

4. In lieu of Van Gogh’s Chair, I purchased for my daughter a print of his Sunflowers:

I thought to tell her the story about VVG hanging these in his guest bedroom for Gaughin, but realized I didn’t want to tell her the rest of the story of their friendship and how it turned out, and so we left it at the Sunflowers themselves.

5. We were at the National Gallery for a lovely thing they put on for kids every Sunday morning. Because we have, to different degrees, exceded many of the probables and likelies encoded in us by our respective upbringings, we both get a kick out of the fact that our kids go to a thing at the National Gallery in London on some Sunday mornings. (I first visited an art museum was I was fifteen.)

6. It is 3 AM and the International Herald Tribune just dropped through the mail slot. Something disturbing and alluring at once about being up so early and hearing it hit the floor.

7. On the way with all of the kids and the parents to look at the painting that we were all going to look at together at the National Gallery, we passed Poussin’s Landscape with a Man Killed by a Snake….

… which T.J. Clark wrote an interesting, but more than slightly compulsive, book about, which I started but did not finish. For some reason, I hadn’t realized that it was in the National Gallery. But we had been warned by our handler not to dawdle and look on our way to the painting of the day, and so I let it be.

8. The painting that the guide chose to talk to the kids about today was an odd one: Drouet’s Madame de Pompadour at her Tambour Frame. Meh. I think the selection principle at play has one main determinant: there has to be a doggie, or animal of some sort, involved:

At one point, one of the kids asked if she was the queen. The guide only half-nervously answered No, not quite. She was more like the kings, um, special friend, right parents? Softly nervous adult laughter was laughed and I thought to myself Laugh softly, like a nervous adult. This is the time for nervous adult laughter, softly.

9. Later at lunch, my daughter asked us what we were going to be when we grew up (thanks, kid) and we turned the question on her. She asked, in turn, what we thought she would be and my wife said I think that you might be a doctor who helps people, because you’re very good at helping people, which made my daughter happy. I did not tell her that I thought, and secretly hoped, that she would end up an artist, going to art school and the like, like all of those no good hipsters that I rage at, generally sotto voce, daily.

10. I am supposed to be teaching her how to read as the utterly-to-be-expected-to-happen happened: one of the other kids in her class has emerged as a reading prodigy. Son of the only other academic parents in the group, the kid is basically reading his parents’ monographs at night to put himself to sleep.

I think instead I want to teach her to do something that I absolutely cannot do, like draw.

I do not want her to go into the business that I am in. At all. Any of the businesses that I am in.

11. Much is left out, but what strangely honest posts these are, my Sunday (or immediately post-Sunday) numbers. I actually go back and edit out inaccuracies and half-truths. For instance, above I had originally written that I told her the story about Van Gogh and Gaughin, except for the end, but this was untrue and so I changed it, as I told her nothing on this point.

12. What happened after we returned from the museum and lunch, and after we stopped for groceries, I cannot say. Things got very bad in a rather amorphous way, and then I slept, and now I am writing, which makes me feel better, though not as much as the sleep did.

13. Things that nearly made me cry this weekend… I mean palpably have the tears come up only to be forced back down through force of will and masculine embarrassment:

– Sunday, as we prepared to enter the gallery, the guide warned the children not to touch any paintings, and then warned the parents to ensure that the children did not touch any of the paintings.

– Saturday, at her school fair, my daughter found on the used toy table at Barbie doll missing her top. It was the sort of Barbie that comes with the clothes attached, and this one was missing her top. She begged us to buy it for her (40p) and we did and then there was the sight of her gripping it and stroking its blonde hair and showing her friends that she had a new Barbie.

– Other things, some of which I can remember, some of which I can’t.

14. Despite the fact that the logorrhea that is fueling this post should be as worrying as the affectual state that preceded it, it almost impossible to see it that way, to believe that that is so. One takes the mania when it comes, seeks the mania when it is gone, would pay any price just to keep it here rather than slip into its psycho-chemical dialectical partner.

15. On the way to the Van Goghs my daughter stopped us at Carracci’s Christ Appearing to Saint Peter on the Appian Way:

Strange picture, based on the apocryphal Peter-in-Rome stuff. But my daughter is fascinated by Jesus (stupid UK state school system introduces her to the story, has her draw pictures of Bible scenes and the like… America is rarely secular, but when it is, thank god, it is truly secular…) and wanted to know what is happening and so we told her:

You know that the man with the cross, Jesus, got in trouble with people and was killed. The man on the right, who was Jesus’s friend, pretended not to know him afterward. Three times people came up to him and asked him, “Do you know this Jesus guy?” And each time he said no, so that he wouldn’t get in trouble. And now, in the picture, he’s having a bad dream about it because he’s feeling guilty.

My wife said the dream part, and I corrected her. Not quite a dream, but still. We moved on…

16. Amazing how fast, when I am in a state like this one, that my imagistic vocabulary, metaphoric tendencies, and general narrative sensibility turns back to the Roman Catholicism that I long ago abandoned. Everything goes Heaven and Hell, venerated images, and a sense of femininity / sexuality organized by constantly collapsing binary oppositions.

Sometimes I wonder if I am one of the last people (in my part of the world) to truly go through the experience of Catholic education – education considered quite broadly. Could this even happen here and today? I am glad that I won’t find out from my own daughters.

17. I am reading a big new novel for a review, something that you’ll likely be hearing about in a few weeks, especially if you’re American and interested in such things. I am disappointed with it – it tries for manic lyricism and ends up with what to me seems more like Joycean pastiche. This in turn is nudging me to rethink Joyce himself, the bloodlessness of his self-conscious verbal play.

If you’ve been reading this blog for awhile, you know that I am – have always been – trying to write. Actually, as you can see, I am constantly writing. But very little of it passes muster – my muster, not anyone else’s as I never send it out. I do not send it out. But lately it is becoming more clear to me what it is that I have found to be lacking in the stuff that I do… Something like the opposite of bloodlessness, something like the lurid. I have cast my lot with the artists of precision, and would never give that up to fall into the other camp. But still, between the hard folds of rigorous self-consciousness, I’d want there to be something organic, animal, leaking or even in spots spurting through.

18. Two versions of the Christian lurid are contained to two relatively recent and similarly controversial films about Christ. The corporeal materiality of The Passion of the Christ and the limbic romantic (sur)realism of The Last Temptation of Christ. Obviously I’m talking more about the latter, as applied to my own work, but who knows – maybe there’s something I need to sort out on this point.

It now seems to me that one could sort each of the paintings posted above into one of the two categories, with only a bit of stretching.

18. Watching Linha de Passe last night, I found myself wishing that I had a brother, or even brothers. But perhaps if I had a brother, or brothers, and they were likeminded or at least sympathetic, perhaps I’d send all this stuff to him or them instead of writing it out on here in letters to all of you.

Stupid only-child fantasy of fraternal intimacy! I’m sure it almost never happens!

19. I am working on a story, something like a primitive or proto version of this aggregate fiction stuff that I keep going on about. There probably are more subtle and thus better ways to get at the aggregate, but one way that suggests itself rather insistently is to let architecture do the work. That is to say, you can find places where the individual subject and the mass of subjects blur and become complex in certain architectural situations, where the interior experience remains at once distinct and idiosyncratic but perhaps predictably so.

I had my start thinking about the aggregate in fiction after writing about it outside of fiction and then teaching Don DeLillo’s Underworld in an MA seminar. In particular, the following passage from the first section, set at the Polo Grounds, stood out to me:

Men passing in and out of the toilets, men zipping their flies as they turn from the trough and other men approaching the long receptacle, thinking where they want to stand and next to whom and not next to whom, and the old ballpark’s reek and mold are consolidated here, generational tides of beer and shit and cigarettes and peanut shells and disinfectants and pisses in the untold millions, and they are thinking in the ordinary way that helps a person glide through a life, thinking thoughts unconnected to events, the dusty hum of who you are, men shouldering through the traffic in the men’s room as the game goes on, the coming and going, the lifting out of dicks and the meditative pissing.

The thing I am working on at the moment is something like this, extended into a (somewhat) progressive narrative. But it is set not in a men’s room but, to borrow from Dante, lo passo che non lasciò mai persona viva – the hellmouth.

20. I suppose one simple and stupid way to put it is that just as VVG took pastelish Impressionism and rendered it lurid and generally off-kilter, that’s sort of what I’d like to do with prose fiction. You take the rational but insipid phenomenology of the sophisticated standard issue, but then do it over it fucked up dense colors and on inappropriate themes, often with inappropriate focus and focalization.

It’s not completely clear to me what the aggregate has to do with the lurid.

The best part is I have only the dimmest sense of why I would want to do this. Which seems, intuitionally, a good thing, but also a bit frightening.

21. What balls I have, or something else, to write this way about writing, on here and like this. Interesting to note that if you had me in person, whether my best day or my worst, whether drunk or sober, whether we were lifelong intimates or airport-intersecting contingents, I promise that you’d never in a million years hear me talk like this, have me tell you any of this.

Further, I will push the button to post this, and then I will have a cigarette and think of twenty other things I meant to say…

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May 17, 2010 at 5:16 am

van gogh on-line

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Wow. I’d been sort of coveting the new edition of Van Gogh’s letters – which costs only £395! – and was somewhat depressed at the thought of reading them in my old-fashioned Penguin edition instead. But I’ve just discovered that basically the entire new edition is available on-line, complete with facsimiles of the letters, translations and the original text, commentary and annotation, the works….

Really wish I’d made it to the exhibition. Big miss there. But by the time I got around to it there were no more tickets and, without tickets, a four or five hour wait….

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May 4, 2010 at 12:39 am

Posted in Art

“Economic Values”

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Beuys_economic_values_1From the current Joseph Beuys exhibit at the Tate Modern. This one is "Wirtschaftswerte" or "Economic Values."

From the museum’s website on this piece:

Economic Values 1980

Metal shelves are stacked with packets of foodstuffs and other basic products purchased in the former German Democratic Republic.
Over time the packaging has deteriorated, and the food has disintegrated. On the walls are a group of nineteenth-century paintings from the Tate’s Collection, their dates loosely corresponding to the
period of Karl Marx’s life (1818-1883). Each time the installation  is displayed the paintings are different as they are drawn from the host museum’s own collection. Beuys requested that they should be presented in gold frames as an expression of bourgeois taste. They provide a deliberately provocative contrast to the humble
products on the shelves.

Not only have the products on the shelves changed physically over
time, the political, social and economic context in which Economic Values was created has also altered. When Beuys made the work,
Communism was a major political force and the Berlin Wall divided East and West Germany. These goods from the East were the products
   of an anti-capitalist economy, and for Beuys, represented a simplicity and authenticity that reminded him of his childhood. According to  Beuys, the inner needs of a human being should be met first through the ‘production of spiritual goods’ in the form of ideas, art, and education, rather than in commodities. ‘We do not need all that we are meant to buy today to satisfy profit-based private capitalism,’ he said.

The deterioration of this sculpture over time was something Beuys intended. Indeed he welcomed change in his materials, linking it to the process of regeneration and change he believed society needed to undergo. ‘My sculpture is not fixed and finished. Processes
continue in most of them: chemical reactions, fermentations, colour
           changes, decay, drying up. Everything is in a state of change.’
            

            
            
            

I love the part about the old paintings from each museum’s own collection. Terrific.

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March 17, 2005 at 10:21 pm

Posted in Art

Very belatedly: The Gates

with 2 comments

Kept meaning to write something caustic about The Gates, and just never got around to it. Maybe this is the problem – not provocative enough to hate, detest, run home and shrill about… Just there…

Hal Foster seems to agree. And he even must have overheard the conversation my wife and I had about it as a index of the banal benevolence of the powers-that-be in the City toward happy art – and complete lack of tolerance when it comes to ugly political protest…


The Gates
made for friendly city politics and nice holiday
aesthetics, and no one can be against sociability in the park. Yet for
what exactly was this festival of the people staged? The Gates
prettied up an extraordinary public place, but the fanfare was empty of
social consequence: the city blocked a demonstration against the
Republican Convention in the park, but gave a green light to Christo.
Out of one eye, then, I saw an enjoyable mass art event; out of the
other, a telling instance of high kitsch in the Bloomberg-Bush era, a
cross between the Yellow Brick Road and a grand opening where the
packaging was literally all.

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March 8, 2005 at 11:17 pm

Posted in Art

Une Place Pour Chacun

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Monde_nouveau

 

Take a look at these.

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November 17, 2004 at 12:03 am

Posted in Art

Lars Arrhenius

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Looks like something to see, this exhibition of Lars Arrhenius’s stuff at Feigen Contemporary Gallery. (Be sure to check out the Quicktime version of the image at the left – it’s a still from a video animation…)

What is it about these international symbol people that’s so wonderful? Do they show the worst of what we are today (conformity, alienation, depersonalization) or the best (order, benevolent anonymity, the sunny side of the everyday?)

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November 13, 2004 at 4:48 pm

Posted in Art