Ernesto Cardenal died on Sunday, March 1st, Saint David’s Day. Born into a privileged Nicaraguan family, Cardenal resisted tyrants and dictatorships throughout his life. He died bitterly opposed to the Ortega government in Nicaragua, that betrayal of the revolution which he had once fought for, acting as Minister of Culture in the first Sandinista government (1979-87).
The last time Cardenal crossed my thoughts was after reading an interview of sorts in the Spanish Newspaper El País, in April last year, in which he claimed that he was unable even to comment on Nicaraguan politics: ‘No hay libertad para que yo diga algo, estamos en una dictadura.’ ‘I don’t have the liberty to say anything, we are in a dictatorship’.
The interviewer then asks Cardenal: What, for you, in the current state of affairs, is a revolution? To which he replies, unobligingly: ‘Why are you asking me? Go look in a dictionary. I’ve already written about it in The Lost Revolution. Why repeat things, I have nothing to say, I don’t want to . . ‘
I met Cardenal a couple of times, in Nicaragua, and translated a few of his poems for the magazine Poetry Wales. He was a man who didn’t seem to much care for all the attention he received. He was mentored by the English mystic Thomas Merton as a young man, in the Trappist Abbey of Gethsemani, Kentucky, and he might well have preferred the quiet life of the literary monk to that of the famous revolutionary priest that he became.
One of the poems I translated for Poetry Wales is available on Ricardo Blanco’s Blog here. I translated the following two poems a decade ago, but haven’t published them before now.
LIKE EMPTY BEER CANS
My days have been like empty beer cans
and stubbed-out cigarette ends.
My life has passed me by like the figures who appear
and disappear on a television screen.
Like cars passing by at speed along the roads
with girls laughing and music from the radio . . .
And beauty was as transient as the models of those cars
and the fleeting hits that blasted from the radios
and were forgotten.
And nothing is left of those days,
nothing, besides the empty cans and stubbed-out dog-ends,
smiles on washed-out photos, torn coupons,
and the sawdust with which, at dawn,
they swept out the bars.
Our poems still cannot
they circulate from hand to hand
or photocopies for a day
the name of the dictator
against whom they were written
will be forgotten
and they will continue to be read.
What does Oaxaca hold in store for me? According to Mesoamerican tradition, which pays homage to Ometeotl, God of Duality, paradise has already been granted to the human race, but to accede to it personal effort is required. Sometimes, one is already predisposed towards duality: this sense of doubleness, or having always had another, an other, a doppelganger of sorts, is described by countless writers; to give just one example, Orhan Pamuk, who wrote in Istanbul of his certainty, while growing up, that another identical Orhan lived behind the closed door of one of the houses that he passed on visits to relatives in another part of the city. Do I share this conviction? I think not. However, I feel a compulsion to discover places like Oaxaca, because I like hearing that paradise has already been granted us, and only a little effort is required in order to dwell in it.
It was not that I knew her particularly well, but she knew my wife, and found it opportune to tell me, or wanted to tell someone, which is more or less the same thing, but maybe not. In any case, we were sitting at adjacent tables in the university coffee shop, and it would have been awkward to ignore each other, so she brought her cup and herself over to my table, and told me, almost without introduction, following some fatuous remark of mine concerning recent meteorological developments, that in the warm weather spiders congregate on the balcony of her flat, which was in Cardiff Bay, one of those converted warehouses on the old quays. Every morning, when she went out on this balcony of hers, there would be more spiders, she said, covering all the available surfaces, creeping down the wall, across the white table that she used to sit at for her morning coffee (here she taps her coffee cup with the teaspoon, as though reminding me what coffee is). And why, she wonders, do they pick her flat, her balcony? She speaks with the neighbours on both sides, and neither of them has any trouble with spiders, let alone mass invasions over the summer months. She leans closer: I can sense a revelation coming. My husband, she confides, is arachnophobic. Terrified of them, he is. Bring him out in a cold sweat. Spiders, she repeats, in case I’ve missed something. He’s phobic, like. And they know. The little bastards know. That’s why they come; word gets round, it’s like with cats, she says, you must have noticed how they pay more attention to someone who doesn’t like them; any sign of aversion to cats and they’re all over you. Well, she says, it’s the same thing with spiders and my husband. They can sense his fear. It brings them running from all over. They want to get in. They want to show him a thing or two about fear. A thousand spiders, crawling everywhere. What wouldn’t I do, she says, leaning close again, her voice raspy, fingers clenching the teaspoon, what wouldn’t I do to let them in?
Originally published in Wales Arts Review, 29.06.2016.
What is a map, other than the unfolding and laying out of the territory — more accurately, a representation of the territory — through which a person may wish to travel? Rather than indicating merely a physical space or geography, maps always seemed to me to offer a way of thinking, a blueprint for what might happen. Maps spoke of the unknown regions of the mind, of alterity and doomed voyages, of treasure that lay hidden away in creased parchment. Robert Louis Stevenson, in writing of the origins of his Treasure Island, encourages the reader to ‘admire the finger of predestination’ and, after offering that curious directive, continues:
I made the map of an island; it was elaborately and (I thought) beautifully coloured; the shape of it took my fancy beyond expression; it contained harbours that pleased me like sonnets; and with the unconsciousness of the predestined, I ticketed my performance “Treasure Island.” I am told there are people who do not care for maps, and find it hard to believe . . . [A]s I pored upon my map of “Treasure Island,” the future characters of the book began to appear there visibly among imaginary woods; and their brown faces and bright weapons peeped out upon me from unexpected quarters, as they passed to and fro, fighting, and hunting treasure, on these few square inches of a flat projection. The next thing I knew, I had some paper before me and was writing out a list of chapters.
If such potential can be released through the making and contemplation of a simple map, hand-drawn and painted with ‘a shilling box of water colours’, how much unresolved wanderlust might be encompassed by an entire room, hall, or Greek taverna, filled with maps?
In Crete, the Lyrakia bar, which lay toward the eastern end of Hania’s old harbour, near the Venetian boat yards, was owned by Giorgos, who wore dark glasses because – as I was told – he had once accidentally or inadvertently caused someone’s death with his evil eye, and never wanted to be held responsible for such a thing again. The Lyrakia, now long gone, was large and square in shape, and the acoustics were, by chance rather than design, exceptionally good. Across the room, facing the long bar, the musicians would sit and play, usually just two of them, a Cretan lyra and an accompanying lauto or lute, often strummed by Giorgos himself, and in between lay a space for dancing which, as the evening progressed, would turn into a long, straggling affair, as drinkers pitched in and dancers snaked around the floor, the more accomplished taking turns to leap, often with astonishing grace, suspended — or so it seemed to me, though in reality it could barely have been for a second – in another dimension, during which their leaping was freeze-framed for eternity, returning as the explicit record, the recurring image, that my memory now associates with the name lyrakia, from the name of that instrument, the lyre; hence lyric, lyrical, etc., but not its homonym, liar, which is a pity, bearing in mind the logical paradox attributed to Epimenides the Cretan, who said that all Cretans were liars, but being a Cretan himself could not reliably be believed.
When temperatures and emotions were raised, fights occasionally erupted in the Lyrakia with the chaotic zeal of a saloon brawl in an old Western. Chairs became weapons and fists flew, and anyone unfortunate enough to be in the way was forced either to participate, or flee. But whatever the outcome of an evening spent drinking at the Lyrakia, whether it ended in dance or a free-for-all, I often felt as though I had entered a kind of dream warehouse, an emporium of almost infinite possibility, and for one reason in particular: the walls, stained, where visible, by decades of cigarette smoke, were plastered with maps, ancient and modern; maps left by bona fide tourists who had lost their way and ended up unaccountably at the Lyrakia (what could they have made of such a place?); stray hippies, equally adrift, navigating their way back from Afghanistan or India in a hashish stupor; Greek naval ratings (this was back in the day of mandatory three-year military service) readying themselves with ouzo before swaggering to the red-light district of the Splanzia, where I also lived. There were naval maps, charting sea channels (one, I recall, of the entrance to the River Plate) and German army maps from World War Two, decorated in Gothic script, and wholly ridiculous Greek maps, possibly designed to mislead the German occupiers, who, however, were seldom misled; maps in Latin script, Cyrillic script, Chinese, Arabic and Persian. Reproductions of the Catalan maps of Abraham and Jehuda Cresques, the Genoese World Map of 1457; Maps of Empire and of the end of Empire, Soviet maps and even, I noted, maps of the moon and of Mars. I once peered at a map of Europe designed for children, a different colour assigned to every country, and I traced with a finger the name for my own country: OYAΛIA. The unfamiliar lettering lent an alien aspect to the place, transforming it into somewhere foreign, which is strangely appropriate, since ‘Wales’ derives from the Anglo-Saxon word for foreigner. I am a foreigner by default.
In his book, Maps of the Imagination, Peter Turchi claims that ‘The first lie of a map—also the first lie of fiction—is that it is the truth.’ He goes on to consider the Mercator projection, through which the world was represented for four hundred years, and which most of us above a certain age instantly recognise, as it was the standard representation of the world used in classrooms across the world it depicted. ‘Despite its being used for centuries to teach schoolchildren geography,’ writes Turchi, ‘it is a particularly misleading projection for that purpose.’
Gerardus Mercator, a German globemaker, devised his map in 1569, as a New and Improved Description of the Lands of the World, Adapted and Intended for the Use of Navigators. ’On Mercator’s map’, Turchi writes, ‘distortion increases as one moves farther from the equator (and the most important sailing routes of the sixteenth century) so that Greenland appears to be the size of South America—though in fact South America is nine times larger.’ Thus our view of the world changes according to the design or projection of the map we are looking at. There are, apparently, well over a hundred distinct cartographic projections in use today and each of them tells a slightly different story. In his radical deconstruction of the map, J.B. Harley questions the very basis of progress in the cartographer’s craft, as though, through the application of science, reality might be reproduced ever more effectively. Quite apart from the redundancy of progress as a guiding principle (in map making, as elsewhere) is that any representation of territory is somehow neutral: ‘Much of the power of the map’, Harley writes, ‘ . . . is that it operates behind a mask of a seemingly neutral science. It hides and denies its social dimensions at the same time as it legitimates.’ How strange that the representation of ‘reality’ — the earth we walk upon — should be subject to so many interpretations, so many versions; that ‘accuracy’ should be such a slippery concern.
The island of Crete, which has been mapped, with varying degrees of accuracy, since antiquity, is instantly recognizable, being long and thin, its span from east to west far exceeding its width from north to south. However, one of the earliest extant maps from the time of Venetian rule, by Cristoforo Buondelmonti (1420) displays the island standing on its head, as it were, which, since we are accustomed to representations of the island viewed horizontally from east to west – is at once disarming and strange, bringing to mind the form of Corsica, rather than Crete.
We might reasonably assume that a map is a means to an end, the end being an actual place we need to go. But another scholarly cartographer, Denis Wood, in his seminal study, The Power of Maps, writes that maps offer ‘a reality that exceeds our vision, our reach, the span of our days, a reality we achieve no other way. We are always mapping the invisible or the unattainable . . . the future or the past.’ Here, it would seem, the reader of maps is moving beyond the normal terrain of cartography, into the realm of the imagination and of dreams; in other words, into the realm of the writer. And that is precisely what the mapped walls (or the walls covered in maps) of the Lyrakia offered me: stuff to dream with, the raw materials of the writer.
It was in Crete that I first read Borges, another lover of maps, whose story ‘On Exactitude in Science’ I reproduce here in its entirety:
In that Empire, the Art of Cartography attained such Perfection that the map of a single Province occupied the entirety of a City, and the map of the Empire, the entirety of a Province. In time, those Unconscionable Maps no longer satisfied, and the Cartographers Guilds struck a Map of the Empire whose size was that of the Empire, and which coincided point for point with it. The following Generations, who were not so fond of the Study of Cartography as their Forebears had been, saw that that vast Map was Useless, and not without some Pitilessness was it, that they delivered it up to the Inclemencies of Sun and Winters. In the Deserts of the West, still today, there are Tattered Ruins of that Map, inhabited by Animals and Beggars; in all the Land there is no other Relic of the Disciplines of Geography.
Borges attributes these words to one Suárez Miranda, in his ‘Viajes de varones prudentes. The idea that those ‘Tattered Ruins’ of the map, ‘inhabited by Animals and Beggars’ are, indeed, the very fabric of the world we live in, and that the map has become the thing it was designed to represent, is a variation on the theme that obsessed Borges throughout his life, that of the other, the double, most famously expressed in his story ‘Borges and I’. In that piece – again a single paragraph – Borges reflects upon his dual identity as both a first person ‘I’ and as another, his own doppelgänger, a ‘name on a list of professors or in some biographical dictionary’, and acknowledges that little by little, he is giving over everything to this ever-present other. This pervasive sense of doubleness, of wandering through a labyrinth of mirrors, seems curiously apt in relation both to maps (which replicate a version of the world) and translation (which replicates a version of the word).
From Ambassador of Nowhere, a work in progress.
The Blue Tent is released by Parthian as an e-book next Tuesday (20th August). Since the novel has provoked quite a few questions from readers, I thought it might be helpful to publish the text of an email interview given to Jenny White, who incorporated some of my rather lengthy responses into her review article in the Western Mail on 13 July.
JW: What inspired this book?
RG: I grew up in Crickhowell and to this day go on the same long walks with my own, now grown-up children that I first took with my father. I like the sense of continuity of landscape and family history – or family mythology. So the landscape of the Black Mountains was an inspiration, but reading Henry Vaughan was crucial. In one of Vaughan’s letters he tells of a lad, a ‘poor beggar boy’ who is tasked with looking after sheep on the hills, and who falls asleep and dreams of a beautiful young man. The young man carries a hawk on his fist, and the hawk flies into the boy’s mouth and into his guts, and he becomes possessed of the gift of poetry and comes to be the greatest bard in all the country. These kinds of stories of the magical or transcendental intruding upon everyday life have always fascinated me, and mid-way through writing the novel I came across Marina Warner’s study of The Thousand and One Nights, Stranger Magic, and in her book I found a quotation from Borges where he says “I think that the reader should enrich what he is reading. He should misunderstand the text; he should change it into something else.” This perfectly captures what I set out to do, to provide options for the reader, so that there is no fixed interpretation of what the story is about: is it a ghost story, a psychological drama being enacted inside the narrator’s insomniac head, or is it a story about the multiverse, a tale of parallel worlds? All these things are possible, and more; hopefully there are readings that have never occurred to me.
I knew that Henry Vaughan’s twin brother Thomas was one of the leading alchemists of his day. He was a priest at the little church in Llansantffraed near Talybont-on -Usk, only a few miles from Crickhowell, between about 1644 and 1650, before losing his parish because he was on the wrong side during the English Civil War. He died in mysterious circumstances in 1666, probably by setting fire to mercury and inhaling the fumes, but there were rumours that he hadn’t died, that he had in fact been a spy for the Royalist cause, and even that he faked his own death and reappeared in Amsterdam, where he continued to produce alchemical texts, but in Latin, rather than English. However, his brother, Henry, records in a letter to one John Aubrey that Thomas died “upon an employment for His Majesty.” Whatever happened, there is no record of Thomas Vaughan’s death and burial in Aylesbury, where he lived during those last years. Then, in one of those twists you couldn’t make up, I discovered that the people who ran the local chemist’s shop in Crickhowell when I was growing up, and had known all my life only by the husband’s surname, were Vaughans on the maternal side, descended from the same historical family as Henry and Thomas, and again I got that sense of connection and continuity, of the past haunting the present, which is another of those threads embedded in the story.
Finally, of course there is Borges: in his short story ‘The Aleph’, the narrator comes across a portal, or small magical device, on which he can ‘read’ not only the world around him, but all possible worlds, across time and space. The aleph is the final piece of the puzzle. Or the first, perhaps, Aleph being the first letter of the alphabet in Hebrew, Arabic, Aramaic and other ancient languages; as such it is a portal to language, and therefore to self-expression. I borrowed the concept of the aleph directly from Borges, but strangely, as one reader pointed out, having downloaded my book onto the kindle app on his phone, it occurred to him that he was reading a story about an aleph, on an aleph. The mobile phone is a kind of aleph for the 21st century, in which one can access information on just about anything that has ever happened – up to a point.
The idea of the tent as a vehicle for bringing my characters into play came to me out of the blue, as it were, and prompted me to start with that image, of the blue tent appearing unannounced at the end of the narrator’s garden.
JW: Tell me a bit about the alchemical/mystical texts mentioned in it – how did you choose which ones to include, what sparked your interest in them and how did they drive the plot and undercurrents in the book?
RG: I was reading Jung and Marie-Louise von Franz as background research for the book, and becoming increasingly intrigued by the idea of alchemy as a route towards self-knowledge, which was its original intended goal, not only for Jung and his followers, but also for the ancient and the renaissance alchemists such as Thomas Vaughan and his contemporaries. Renaissance and seventeenth century Britain was abuzz with cranks and visionaries of this kind, John Dee – another Welshman, and astrologer to Queen Elizabeth I – being the most famous. The titles of the obscure alchemical treatises my narrator reads were mostly taken from von Franz, although it might have been tempting to invent one or two of them. The truth is that a lot of those alchemical texts are completely unreadable, and I certainly wasn’t interested in writing pages of exposition about the alchemical process, which in any case I barely understand. And, not unrelatedly, the underlying quest for the Holy Grail, which pervades the Arthurian legends and, especially, the story of Parsifal, or Perceval – yet another Welshman – was certainly present in the background of my own creative process. Interestingly enough, Chrétien de Troyes, the first chronicler of the Arthurian tales, mentions that Parsifal ‘came out of Wales’, and Wales, of course, was seen as a backwater (and many still regard it as one). The implication is: ‘what good could ever come out of Wales?’ And yet Parsifal, as we know, found the Grail, or, in the language of alchemy, the philosopher’s stone, simply by asking the right questions. This is the aspect of alchemy that most intrigues me; to continually be asking questions, and never to accept facile or received explanations.
JW: How would you define or describe the process that the narrator goes through in this book? Is it alchemical? How is he changed by the experience?
RG: The traditional alchemical process involves four stages – allegedly the method for transforming base metals into gold – but this chemical transmutation was only a formula or trope, and the real, secret intention of alchemy was always one of self-discovery. The four stages are called nigredo, or blackening; albedo, or whitening; citrinitas, or yellowing, and rubedo, or reddening. I wanted the narrator to pass through these phases with each visit he makes to the tent, but without being too literal about it. I didn’t want to write a New Age mystical thriller any more than I wanted to get bogged down in the arcane details of alchemy. But I wanted to have some fun along the way, and there are moments when the narrator is well aware of the comic or absurdist potential of his quest, shut away in his aunt’s library with all those unreadable texts. I was, however, keen that the four phases represented by the colours of the process were included on the cover, and the designer, Marc Jennings, did a really fine job, I think.
In order to reflect the alchemical process at work, the narrator has to go through a kind of shift in personality with each phase, but again, I didn’t want to labour this aspect of the story. I don’t know to what extent that was successful. When you live with a book for such a long time, you start going a bit crazy and it’s difficult to get a clear perspective. Which is where the reader comes in. I like very much the idea that different readers will come away from the book with completely distinct responses, a completely different understanding of what they read.
JW: I loved the dream-like, shifting nature of the narrator’s world. What challenges did you face in depicting this? What did you enjoy about depicting this, and about writing the book in general?
RG: The book took me over twelve years to finish, and I abandoned it at least twice, and completed two other books in the meantime. I just couldn’t get the structure right. Originally it was going to be a much bigger novel, with three distinct storylines, one from the point of view of the narrator, another would have been Alice’s story, and a third that comprised extracts from Aunt Megan’s journals. But in the end I cut all the rest away, took away the scaffolding, and was left with only the bare story. It seemed better that way. The dream-like, shifting nature of the story came about naturally enough. Like the narrator, I am a chronic insomniac, and spend much of my life in a similar state of bewilderment at the passage from night to day and back again. I’ve written about this in my book The Vagabond’s Breakfast, where I say that insomniacs dismantle the familiar division of time into identifiable segments, so that night and day form a single seamless trajectory. Since one’s life is a continuum of sleeplessness, snatching rare hours here and there at random times of the day or night, yesterday seeps into tomorrow without allowing today to get a toehold.
And in The Blue Tent I refer to a ‘celebrated insomniac’ – in fact the Romanian-French philosopher E.M. Cioran – who ‘claimed that long periods without sleep amount to a tyranny of consciousness; that normal people, who sleep the prescribed number of hours, awake each day as though starting out on a new life, but that for the insomniac no such renewal can occur. Instead, the sleepless live in a continuum of consciousness, and while everyone else rushes toward the future, we insomniacs remain outside.’
In Marina Benjamin’s recent book, Insomnia, she makes some wonderfully astute observations about the insomniac life, and reflects on the paradox that while the insomniac wants to sleep, craves sleep, would give anything, at times, for some sleep, there is also a resignation – sometimes more than resignation, something approaching acceptance or even desire – to follow the imaginative threads provided by insomnia and use them creatively. This is summarised at the end of her book, when she writes: ‘I want to flip disruption and affliction into opportunity, and punctuate the darkness with stabs of light.’ You might say The Blue Tent is a book about insomnia, or a book for insomniacs, so thoroughly did its creation – and its story – centre on those long sleepless hours before dawn. In fact, for a spell, I would wake at 3.45 exactly. It was like a nervous tick. I’d usually get up and try to write, or just wander around the house doing the restless, pointless things insomniacs do. So I translated that into my story, and have the narrator awakened by Alice appearing in the library at 3.45 on, I think, three occasions.
JW: How does this book compare to previous books you have written? Do you feel you have developed/moved on as a writer in creating this book? If so, tell me a bit about how…
RG: Every book presents a unique challenge, and the motivation behind my three novels to date has been different. I’m talking about fiction here, although my non-fiction shares many of the attributes of the novels and at times it’s difficult for me to discriminate between what actually happened and what I merely imagine having happened.
Nevertheless, my life has been influenced very much by place, and I always wanted to write a novel set in each of the three main locations in which I’ve lived my life: Cymru, Crete and Catalonia. The three C’s. My first novel, The Colour of a Dog Running Away, was set in Barcelona and the Pyrenees, where I have spent many years; the second novel, Deep Hanging Out, is set in Crete, where I lived during my mid-twenties, and which left a deep impact on me. It was inevitable that I would come around to a novel set in Wales. None of my books are concerned with social realism, or what people might consider the concerns of the everyday. In terms of literature and art in general, I don’t like being tied to the literal, or wish to describe people’s marriages or affairs or what it’s like to work in an office or go on holiday to the Maldives. I’m not a big fan of realism, which sometimes seems like the last resort of the desperate; the well-rounded fiction as a celebration of triumphant individualism operating within a neatly decipherable universe. Which doesn’t mean that I don’t care about real, marital, familial, social or political issues; I mean, there’s nothing else, is there? But I’m just not interested in writing about them directly in my fiction.
JW: What writers or other factors have influenced/shaped you as a writer?
RG: Too many to name, but I must mention Jorge Luis Borges, of course, closely followed by Italo Calvino and the Greek poets C.F. Cavafy and Yannis Ritsos. These all helped shape my identity as an aspiring writer, and I wouldn’t be the same person without having read them. I currently read more fiction from places other than the US and the UK, especially from Spain and Latin America, and I read a lot of poetry, in Spanish and French, as well as English. But I am also a translator (from Spanish) – and this is probably the biggest single factor on the way I continue to evolve as a writer. By which I mean my work as a writer and as a translator, although quite separate, are intimately woven together at some subterranean level, and this probably has a huge influence on the way I think about language, and therefore about writing.
Among the English language writers I’ve most enjoyed in recent years – but would not count as influences – are Mavis Gallant, Paul Bowles, Joan Didion, Gay Talese, Geoff Dyer and most recently Rebecca Solnit, Olivia Laing, Maggie Nelson and Sarah Manguso – all, apart from Gallant and Bowles, writers of so-called nonfiction, oddly enough. In recent years almost anything published by Fitzcarraldo. I would say that I’m also influenced by visual artists, notably the German Expressionists and the Surrealists, and film makers like Werner Herzog and David Lynch.
JW: Tell me a bit about yourself, your background, how you became a writer and what drives/motivates you as a writer.
RG: You can read all this in The Vagabond’s Breakfast, which was written at the same time I was working on the first draft of The Blue Tent. I think I’ve probably always been a writer, even during the years when I wasn’t writing. I’m motivated by curiosity, rather than any innate talent or aptitude. I think we become the writers we are by trying to write the books we would like to read. The moment you lose your interior compass, try to be something that you are not, write to follow literary fashion or to gain fame and prestige, you’re probably in trouble as a writer.
JW: What do you hope readers will get out of reading this book?
RG: Like I said when I cited Borges, it would please me if readers were able to enrich my text by intelligently misunderstanding it, and by changing it into something else. That way it would have as many interpretations as there are readers, which is as much as any writer can hope for.
‘Once near a border, it is impossible not to be involved, not to want to exorcise or transgress something. Just by being there, the border is an invitation. Come on, it whispers, step across this line. If you dare. To step across the line, in sunshine or under cover of night, is fear and hope rolled into one . . . People die crossing borders, and sometimes just being near them. The lucky ones are reborn on the other side.’
Borders define us and deny us; they carve out entire tracts of the planet, reward those born by chance within certain territories, and condemn others to a condition of otherness and anomie. Crossing borders is, for much of the world’s population, an act of transgression and often involves huge risk.
Borders not only shape lives; they serve a political purpose by promoting a sense of insider and outsider, of belonging and of exile. But perhaps exile itself is a kind of belonging, the forging of an outsider identity that involves, as Kassabova notes, being reborn.
Roberto Bolaño said – rather ungraciously, perhaps – on being invited to speak on the theme of Literature and Exile: ‘I don’t believe in exile, especially not when the word sits next to the word ‘literature’.’ And I can see his point: unless you are Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn or Taslima Nasreen (or even Ovid) few writers are threatening or influential enough to be exiled specifically for what they write, although they may – and in some parts of the world still are – beaten to death or poisoned or imprisoned for long years. A brief scan of PEN International’s register of imprisoned or missing writers will confirm that.
But exile? When and how do writers find themselves in exile? Wole Soyinka has written: ‘When is exile? . . . Where is exile? Is there a state of exile? For surely even an exile must exist in some space physical and mental.’ There is even, he claims, a strong temptation to describe exile as simply a state of mind.
And here it is useful to reflect on the voluntary exile associated with writers such as James Joyce, Lawrence Durrell, Robert Graves and many others, whose self-banishment might be expressed in terms of a kind of disgust born of over-familiarity with aspects of the homeland that make it impossible to remain. Exile of this kind might be explained in the terms chosen by Solinka – by his own admission, whimsically and only half-seriously – as ‘the true temperament of the writer or the artist tribe in general: a creature in a permanent state of exile, since his or her real vocation is the eradication of the barriers of reality.’ In a strange way, this reminds me of Alastair Reid’s concept of the ‘foreigner’ – of which anonymity is a crucial component: ‘Anonymity is peculiarly appealing to a foreigner: he is always trying to live in a nowhere, in the complex of his present’. The anonymity of the foreigner is cognate with the detachment of the exile: ‘From there, if they are lucky, they smuggle back occasional undaunted notes, like messages in a bottle, or glimmers from the other side of the mirror.’
There is little doubt that for Robert Graves, exile from his home in Deía during the period of the Spanish Civil War and World War Two was a far greater wrench than leaving England had ever been. As he writes in the autobiographical short story ‘God Grant Your Honour Many Years’:
Thus we became wretched refugees, and wretched refugees we continued to be for ten years more until the Civil War had been fought to a bloody close, until the World War had broken out and run its long miserable course, and until the Franco Government, disencumbered of its obligations to the Axis, had found it possible to sanction our return. Reader, never become a refugee, if you can possible avoid it, even for the sake of that eventual happy homecoming . . . [stay] where you are, kiss the rod and, if very hungry, eat grass or the bark off trees. To live in furnished rooms and travel about from country to country . . . homesick and disorientated, seeking rest but finding none, is the Devil’s own fate.
But Graves’ exile was, ultimately, a choice. The enforced exile of the refugee, the flight from terror and from war, the fear of armed men appearing in one’s street with intent to harm or murder, is today a plight which, sadly, seems as inevitable as ever it was if you happen to live in Syria, or any one of a dozen other countries. However, I would like to focus on a very different part of the world: a zone that extends from Collioure in France down the coast to Portbou, just inside Spain, and inland a little to the village of Rabós d’Empordà, nestled among the Alberas, where the Pyrenees descend toward the Mediterranean. This roughly triangular zone constitutes a region that the Catalan surrealist painter Joan Ponç referred to portentously as the ‘ground zero of the universe’. The area is sometimes known as ‘Greek Catalunya’ and there is a topographical resemblance to the Greek landscape: sheer rockfaces, isolated headlands, an agriculture based on olives and vines, and from many vantage points a view of the sea.
Rabós is part of a landscape that might serve as a trope for transit; it is surrounded on all sides by markers of the past, most notably dozens of Neolithic dolmens and burial chambers that are scattered over the ridges and hillsides, commanding views of the Bay of Roses to the east, the snow-covered peaks of Mount Canigó to the north-west, and the extensive plain of the Ampurdán, stretching towards Girona in the south. Hannibal passed this way with his elephants – elephant remains have been found nearby and dated to the second century BC – and the serial civil wars of Spain have made the place a crossing point in more recent centuries. Traffic has also come the other way, as we shall see. Travelling north out of Rabós, one can walk to France in an hour and a half; by car you can drive there in twenty minutes. The trail past the 9th Century monastery of Sant Quirze, which only became a covered road in the late 1990s, used to be known, in Catalan, as el camí dels contrabandistes – the smuggler’s trail – and from Sant Quirze it snakes over the Col de Banyuls into France. The place resonates with the echo of night crossings, of rushed departures, of struggle and of loss.
This region was a focal point of movement in and out of Spain at the end of the Civil War and throughout the World War that followed. My account describes the experiences of three individuals, two of them well-known writers, the third an unknown teenage girl who simply happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Antonio Machado has long been one of my favourite poets, and the victim of some of my earliest efforts at translation – a mistake, since Machado is a poet fiendishly resistant to translation, as others have discovered. He left Spain in late January 1939. He had been an active participant in and spokesperson for the Republican cause and exile seemed the only sensible course of action. His elderly mother needed medical care that she was unable to receive in Spain, and Machado, along with mother and brother, José, headed for France; the ultimate destination was Paris.
The small group travelling with the poet had to leave most of their luggage when they abandoned the car in the bottleneck of escaping vehicles during a violent rainstorm at Portbou. They were refused food or even water in Cerbères by the French authorities because they could not pay. They made it along the coast as far as Collioure and, after receiving financial help from the Spanish novelist Corpus Barga, they stayed at the hotel Bougnol Quintana, now seemingly deserted, but adorned with a plaque that states, simply: ‘Antonio Machado, poète espagnol, est mort dans cette maison le 22 février, 1939.’
Two years ago, after reading an article by Javier Cercas in El País, I drove to Collioure to visit Machado’s grave. I knew much of history already, but in Cercas’ piece, he is given a strange account by two elderly English residents of Collioure, named the Weavers: according to them, Cercas tells us, in the days before the poet’s death, Machado and José would never appear in the hotel dining room together, but always separately. Nobody could understand why this was, other than to put it down to some bad blood between the two, brought on by the hardships of exile. Only later was the truth discovered: they only had one suit between them and took it in turns to come down to eat. Antonio left the hotel only once, to visit the harbour, and sit for a while by the sea. He died three weeks after arriving in Collioure, victim to an undisclosed illness, probably pneumonia, although in popular legend he died of heartbreak at the fall of the Republic. His mother died three days later.
In the account given by Cercas, the story of Machado’s last suit suggests that there are certain individuals who will not accept a loss of dignity even in the face of the worst of defeats, and that Spain will only have removed the last remaining anguish of its Civil War when, in Cercas’ words, one is able to stand before Machado’s grave without having to restrain one’s tears for his sake, and on that day the war will truly be over.
Fifteen minutes down the coast from Collioure by car, Portbou lies just inside Spanish territory. I first walked this coastline on a baking June afternoon in 1984, arriving dehydrated and exhausted at the crossing, where the border guard, who was about to be relieved from his shift, took pity on me and suggested we adjourn to the adjacent bar for a beer. That night I slept on the beach. The border post no longer exists and the bar is boarded up. But I have always felt an attraction to this ugly, shy little town. Today it exudes a strange, sad energy; a place that, with the cessation of European frontiers, has lost its purpose as a centre for customs control. All that remains of its past glory is its vast and cavernous railway station.
Portbou was the final destination of the German philosopher and polymath, Walter Benjamin. On 25th September 1940, following seven years’ exile in France and numerous changes of address, Benjamin, along with two other asylum-seekers, the photographer Henny Gurland and her son Joseph, was guided across the Alberas from Banyuls and arrived in Portbou. Benjamin, suffering from a heart condition, found the crossing extremely arduous. Nowadays, in a display of cultured tourist chic, there are signposts on the mountainside offering instructions on how to follow in his tracks: the Walter Benjamin Trail, which continues with key landmarks into Portbou itself, terminating at the spot where the hotel once stood in which he died (next door to the recently demolished Guardia Civil barracks). Benjamin carried a provisional American passport issued by the US Foreign Service in Marseilles, which was valid for land travel across Spain to Portugal, where he aimed to catch a ship to the USA. There, he hoped to join his friends Horkheimer and Adorno and resume the work of the Frankfurt School in America.
However, Benjamin was prevented entry to Spain because he had no French exit visa. Perhaps because of his evident ill-health, perhaps because of a border guard’s Republican sympathies, his return to France was postponed until the next day and he was allowed to spend the night in a pension, the Hotel de Francia, rather than in police custody. The following day he was found dead in his room. He had taken an overdose of morphine.
According to a dedicated website on Walter Benjamin in Portbou, ‘The Last Passage’:
‘If they [Benjamin and his companions] had arrived a day earlier, they would not have been refused entry to Spain: a change of orders had been received that very day. If they had arrived a day later, they would probably have been allowed in.’ The Gurlands, at any rate, were permitted to continue their journey, and a few days later, Henny and Joseph boarded a ship for America. Benjamin, apparently, carried on him a small amount of money in dollars and francs, which were changed into pesetas to pay for the funeral four days later. In the judge’s documentation the dead man’s possessions are listed as ‘a leather suitcase, a gold watch, a pipe, a passport issued in Marseilles by the American Foreign Service, six passport photos, an X-ray, a pair of spectacles, various magazines, a number of letters, and a few papers, contents unknown . . .’, a tragic list that successfully conveys the essence of rushed and involuntary departure – exile, in a word.
After seven years of wandering, Benjamin’s suicide in Portbou can been seen as an act of defiance against the Nazi terror by one of the most lucid thinkers of the modern era. However, no aspect of Benjamin’s death is definitively closed. One hypothesis even holds that Benjamin was killed by Stalinist agents (the argument for this hypothesis is summarised by Stuart Jeffries in his Observer article ‘Did Stalin’s killers liquidate Walter Benjamin?’). In an intriguing turn, his guide across the mountains, Lisa Fittko, who died in 2005, referred on many occasions to ‘the suitcase with a manuscript that Benjamin jealously guarded as a valuable treasure.’ Was this a different suitcase from the one referred to in the judge’s report? Unlikely, as the refugees were limited by their guide to one piece of luggage each. Were the ‘few papers’ referred to in the judge’s report his final manuscript, or did this go missing? The authors of ‘The Last Passage’ seem not to know, and conclude that ‘the suitcase was never found and its fate is unknown’, which would contradict their earlier reference to the judge’s report. However, another account, cited by Stuart Jefferies in his Observer article, records that Benjamin’s briefcase, containing the elusive manuscript, was entrusted to an unnamed fellow refugee, who ‘lost it on a train from Barcelona to Madrid.’
The extraordinary memorial Passages at Portbou was created by Israeli artist Dani Karavan, and sits next to the cemetery where Benjamin was buried. It comprises an enclosed staircase of 87 rusty steel steps down which one can walk, terminating in a thick transparent glass wall that protrudes thirty metres above the blue waters of the bay. An inscription reads that ‘it is more arduous to honour the memory of the nameless than that of the renowned. Historical construction is devoted to the memory of the nameless.’ Puzzling, that last sentence, since history forgets the nameless masses, definitively. Perhaps the translation from the German is at fault. But the memorial itself is memorable.
My third account is more personal.
I was visiting a friend, Ramona, and her mother, Victoria, in Castelló d’Empúries, twenty minutes’ drive from Rabós. I’d last seen Victoria at the funeral of Ramona’s husband, Lluís Peñaranda, a Catalan artist with whom I had been friends since the mid 1980s. Victoria was ninety years of age, and the meeting took place in 2012, two years after Lluís’ death. As though making an announcement, Victoria, who was delicate-boned and frail, but alert and inquisitive in her manner, said ‘I have a story for you, Richard.’ I am transcribing this from notes that I took immediately afterwards.
In the final weeks of the Civil War, Rabós provided a staging post for the shattered remnants of the Republican army, and these stragglers were provided with food and shelter before crossing into France. The soldiers slept in the church, in the village hall, and in the narrow, cobbled streets. It was February, 1939, and the nights were cold. A soup kitchen was set up and Victoria, then aged seventeen, along with other volunteers, was able to provide a little nourishment to the exhausted men. The soldiers killed whatever mules remained for meat, hunted rabbits, and might, if they were lucky, shoot the occasional wild boar, though most of these had already been taken by hungry locals. The war was lost, and Victoria, in speaking of those days, evoked the utter devastation of this rag-tag army, but also, I noted, a sense of pride in her teenage self, an excitement at having been able to do something to help by working at the kitchen and caring for the soldiers, many of whom were wounded. Her father was a member of the Guardia Civil in nearby Figueres, and one of the few who had remained loyal to the Republic. Although she was able to cadge a lift home to her parents most nights, sometimes she had to sleep over in Rabós and it was on such a night that the news came through that a large detachment of enemy troops was on its way, and she became caught up in the mass exodus from the village without being able to get a message home. Perhaps she felt obliged to remain with the team of nurses tending to the wounded, or simply got caught up in the general panic, but one way or another she found herself a refugee in France, hoarded into the encampment at Argelès-sur-Mer. No one knew what was going to happen next, what was to become of them. Rumours abounded and food was scarce. The French gendarmerie didn’t seem particularly welcoming, that much was certain. However, she remained only two weeks in the makeshift camp at Argelès before being transported by train to a large camp near Clermont Ferrand, where the refugees were given basic accommodation and food. At this point, her story became rather vague; it seemed as though the passage of the years had transformed her memory of the camp at Clermont into an indeterminate blur of days and nights with no foreseeable conclusion. Many died of malnutrition and dysentery. But Victoria was a resourceful young woman and she got lucky. Among the refugees, she happened into a man, a member of the Guardia, who knew her father, and this man acted as some kind of go-between with the French authorities. Somehow – she was elusive as to the exact nature of its acquisition – she managed to secure a pass to travel by train to Biarritz, and from there crossed over into Irún, the frontier town close by San Sebastian. Six months had passed since her flight from Rabós, and she had not been able to get word to her family. She realised that they probably assumed she was dead. In San Sebastian, she knew no one, but was determined to get home. She begged from strangers, cajoled, insisted that she had to get back to Catalunya. ‘You can’t go there’ one person told her, ‘they [the fascists] are killing everyone.’ But others were willing to help. Someone gave her money and she managed to board a train for Barcelona, and from there – because the rail tracks had been bombed by the Luftwaffe – a bus to Girona, and from there another to Figueres. At this point, she paused in her story, perhaps because its conclusion was so unlikely. ‘When I stepped off the bus in the market place at Figueres the first person I saw was my mother.’ Her father has been detained by the fascists in Girona prison, where he was tortured and would die shortly after his release. The news of her father’s imprisonment soured her return, but the journey itself had been something of a miracle, a round trip of eight months, in which she had escaped, encountered the deprivations of two refugee camps, escaped again, and come back home across a war-torn country.
Victoria’s story seems to me exemplary in so many ways: how the innocence of a teenager can unravel within the space of a few short months, how refugees were welcomed by the French authorities in 1939 and are treated still today across Europe, and the way – in spite of her given name – in which her round trip serves as a kind of elaborate trope for Spain’s defeat. She arrived home an adult, her father imprisoned, the land laid waste, and her language forbidden.
Living again in an era of mass exodus and of refugees being turned away by unsympathetic governments, an era which the veteran war correspondent Patrick Cockburn described recently as one of War without End across an entire swathe of the planet – in which even the relative comforts of European unity are threatened by fragmentation thanks to the resurgence of nationalism and a political tunnel vision almost inconceivable to anyone with even the vaguest sense of history – make the experiences of Machado, Benjamin and Victoria seem only too real. A border might be an idea wedded to a geography, but that idea has teeth and claws. If we take the memorial to Benjamin seriously, we must also take to heart the plight of those nameless hordes who each week become refugees, and whose nameless shadows we find mirrored in ourselves.
‘Borders and Crossings: Varieties of Exile’ was presented at the 14th Robert Graves Conference in Palma, Mallorca, on 12th July 2018. A version of this essay was published in PN Review no. 244 (Nov-Dec, 2018).
Kapka Kassabova, Border: A Journey to the Edge of Europe. Granta, 2017. pp xv-xvi.
Roberto Bolaño, ‘Literature and Exile’, in Between Parentheses: Essays, Articles, and Speeches, 1998-2003, translated by Natasha Wimmer. New Directions, 2011.
Wole Soyinka, ‘Voices from the Frontier’, The Guardian, 13 July, 2002.
Alastair Reid, Notes on Being a Foreigner’, in Outside In: Selected Prose, Edinburgh: Polygon, 2008, pp. 147-158.
Robert Graves, ‘God Grant Your Honour Many Years’ in Complete Short Stories, (ed. Lucia Graves). Penguin, 1995.
Javier Cercas, ‘La leyenda del ultimo traje d Antonio Machado’. El País Semanal, 25 Sept. 2016
Ajuntament de Portbou: Walter Benjamin in Portbou: The Last Passage. www.walterbenjaminportbou.cat/en/content/portbou-anys-d’exili?q=en/content/el-darrer-passatge
Stuart Jeffries, ‘Did Stalin’s killers liquidate Walter Benjamin’. The Observer, 8 July, 2001.
Patrick Cockburn, The Nick Lewis Memorial Trust Lecture, Cardiff University, 25 May 2017.
The Lonely City is an exquisite meditation on loneliness, but it is also so much more. Laing explores the lives of a handful on American artists who knew loneliness well, and whose work often references that state, either outright, or through suggestion.
The final chapter is wonderful (much of it is wonderful, if truth be told, but I spent a long time on it, and there was a hiatus in the middle when I left it alone for quite a while.) The book offers extensive and marvellously sharp portraits of Hopper, Warhol, David Wojnarowicz (‘generally pronounced Wonna-row-vich’), and the sad and reclusive Henry Darger, resident of Chicago and painter of nude little girls with penises – a truly astonishing account; the singer/performer Klaus Nomi; a summary of the 1980s AIDS epidemic; reflections on her own (Laing’s) loneliness, especially of digital obsessing in her neon-lit room on Times Square, in a building which doubles as a hostel for the homeless and displaced, endlessly scrolling through Twitter:
‘What did I want? What was I looking for? What was I doing there, hour after hour? Contradictory things. I wanted to know what was going on. I wanted to be stimulated. I wanted to be in contact and I wanted to retain my privacy, my private space. I wanted to click and click and click until my synapses exploded, until I was flooded by superfluity. I wanted to hypnotise myself with data, with coloured pixels, to become vacant, to overwhelm any creeping sense of who I actually was, to annihilate my feelings. At the same time I wanted to wake up, to be politically and socially engaged. And then again I wanted to declare my presence, to list my interests and objections, to notify the world that I was still there, thinking with my fingers, even if I’d almost lost the art of speech. I wanted to look and I wanted to be seen, and somehow it was easier to do both via the mediating screen.’
The latter sections on the AIDS epidemic and on Warhol’s friendship with Jean-Michel Basquiat are especially moving. She cites extracts from Warhol’s diary and goes to Pittsburgh to the Warhol museum, and she visits Strange Fruit, an installation by Zoe Leonard at Philadelphia Museum of Art in celebration of David Wojnarowicz.
She praises the ability of Art to help heal lives, while conceding that there are many things that art cannot do. ‘It can’t bring the dead back to life, it can’t mend arguments between friends, or cure AIDS, or halt the pace of climate change . . . It does have a capacity to create intimacy; it does have a way of healing wounds, and better yet of making it apparent that not all wounds need healing and not all scars are ugly.’
Finally, on loneliness itself: ‘I don’t believe the cure for loneliness is meeting someone, not necessarily. I think it’s about two things: learning how to befriend yourself and understanding that many of the things that seem to afflict us as individuals are in fact the result of larger forces of stigma and exclusion, which can and should be resisted.’
We are in this together, she reminds us: ‘What matters is kindness; what matters is solidarity. What matters is staying alert, staying open, because if we know anything from what has gone before us, it is that the time for feeling will not last.’
Ryzsard Kapuściński was a Polish writer who spent most of his working life as a roving foreign correspondent for the Polish state news agency (PAP) during the Communist era, but his own writings, in the form of personal journals, mix reportage with a more allegorical and subversive style, resulting in a powerfully idiosyncratic perspective. For long periods he lived in India, China, Latin America and, especially, Africa. He remains a controversial character, as much for his personal life as an adventurer and spy – as an article in the Financial Times explains – as for his abundant literary talents.
I have just finished his wonderful book, Travels with Herodotus, in which Kapuściński summarises a lifetime of travel with Herodotus as his literary companion, employing the Greek historian as both a template and a torch, from which to cast light on the events that he, Kapuściński, is witnessing in the turbulence of the twentieth century. This book has been on my ‘to read’ list for quite a while now, and the long winter evenings have given me time to fully savour it. I read slowly (unfortunately, I know no other way) and scribble in pencil on the pages, and sometimes stop to write something down, usually a digression based on whatever has been jolted into life by a story or idea in the text.
While reading Kapuściński’s book, there were many such pauses.
Consider, for instance, this reflection on the nature of the journey, and I don’t mean the jerr-nee – that all-purpose metaphor that has been foisted on us by wellbeing gurus and life coaches – but the fact of travelling from one place to another:
‘A journey, after all, neither begins in the instant we set out, nor ends when we have reached our doorstep once again. It starts much earlier and is never really over, because the film of memory continues running on inside us long after we have come to a physical standstill. Indeed, there exists something like a contagion of travel, and the disease is essentially incurable.’
The idea of travel as a continuum, as a coherent yet fragmented idea, is one that resonates powerfully with me. The analogy with film is also apposite; we are constantly running over the same movies of our lives, with the effect – or at least this seems to be the case with me – that these are episodes from a life lived by several different selves. It is an idea that I find strangely comforting, and fits in with my understanding of the ‘episodic’ versus the ‘narrative’ as described by Galen Strawson in his essay ‘Against Narrativity.’
At one point in the book, Kapuściński is stuck in the Congo during some long, drawn-out war, unable to leave, and in a dangerous place. He finds refuge with a Dr Ranke, who runs a small hospital. He is obsessed, as was Herodotus, by the way that people define themselves according to the differences they perceive to exist between themselves (or their ‘group’) and others. ‘I know my nearest neighbours, and that is all; they know theirs; and those know others still. In this way we will arrive at the ends of the earth. And who is to gather up all these bits and arrange them? No one. They cannot be arranged.’
And he goes on, wandering around the hospital, where the patients, displaced by the war, having walked about the country for weeks without food, are allocated rooms according to tribal affiliation:
‘Discreetly, I try to infer the differences. I walk around the little hospital, look into the rooms – not a difficult thing to do, because in this hot and humid climate everything is wide open. But the people all seem alike, invariably poor and listless, and only if one listens carefully does one notice that they speak different languages. If one smiles at them, they will respond in kind, but a smile such as theirs will take a long time forming and will remain upon the face for only a moment.’
He ends the book with a reflection on temporal provincialism, a concept I had never given much thought to, at least not in the way that Kapuściński describes it:
‘There were times when journeys into the past appealed to me more than my present-day journeys as correspondent and reporter. I felt this way especially in moments of fatigue with the present. Everything in the present kept repeating itself: politics – always perfidious, unclean games and lies; the life of ordinary man – unrelenting poverty and hopelessness; the division of the world into East and west – eternal duality.’
His conclusion on this other type of provincialism:
‘So there are spatial and temporal provincials. Every globe, every map of the world shows the former how lost and blind they are in their provincialism; similarly, every history – including every page of Herodotus – demonstrates to the latter that the present existed always, that history is merely an uninterrupted progression of presents, that what for us are ancient events were for those who lived them immediate and present reality.’
I particularly like the expression of that last sentiment; that history is merely an uninterrupted progression of present moments; there is really no such things as time: we live in a present that is on a continuum with other presents; there is no beginning and no end, just as there are no dividing lines or cut-off points in the perpetual flow of the present. The past and the future co-exist within the continuum of the present.
This reminds me of Einstein’s letter to the family of his friend Michele Besso, shortly after Besso’s death. He writes: ‘Now he [Michele] has departed from this strange world a little ahead of me. That means nothing . . . People like us who believe in physics, know that the distinction between past, present and future is only a stubbornly persistent illusion.’
The connection between Kapuściński’s reflections on temporal provincialism and Einstein’s ideas about the physics of time might not be obvious, but it seems fitting that two individuals who between them witnessed much of the devastation of the 20th century should arrive at similar conclusions, if through very different means.
Having fallen ill on the last day of teaching, the accumulated tensions of the semester finally erupting in an onslaught of snot, fever, and a hideous, raucous cough, I take to my bed in the hope that rest and warmth, accompanied by mugs of hot lemon and honey, will heal me. Given the horizontal advantage, after drifting in and out of sleep over the course of Saturday afternoon, cold rain pelting at the window, my thoughts drift, if not into unconsciousness, at least toward the unconscious.
Aware as I am of the various scribblings of Freud and Jung on this subject, and dawdling on YouTube, the opportunity arises to watch Jordan Peterson give a class on psychoanalytic theory. Curious to learn what the much-maligned Peterson has to say on this topic (delivered by way of a somewhat cursory psychoanalytic reading on the film Mulholland Drive) I find that – according to Peterson – Freud saw the unconscious as the place of hidden or ‘disguised secrets’, while Jung regarded it as the place of ‘knowledge that had not yet come to be’.
Leaving aside whether or not Peterson is correct in his framing of this difference, the notion that there is another version of knowledge that has ‘not yet come to be’ is intriguing, and certainly corresponds with my understanding of Jung, and of his followers Joseph Campbell and Marie-Louise von Franz, to name but two. But how are we to balance the world of everyday, conscious, ego-driven perception, with the restless, seething mass of subterranean ‘knowledge’ provided by the unconscious?
Having posed this question, I am pleased to come across two indications of how this might be translated into a clearer understanding. The first arrived later in the day when, still idling through YouTube, I find an account given by Marie-Louise von Franz about her first encounter with Jung, when she was eighteen years old and the Swiss psychoanalyst was fifty-eight, an age, the young von Franz thinks, which makes him ‘ready for the cemetery.’ Nevertheless, von Franz is enthralled, and she continues:
‘He [Jung] told that story which you can read in the Memories (Jung’s autobiography, Memories, Dreams, Reflections) about this girl who was on the moon and had to fight a demon, and the black demon got her. And he pretended, or he told it in a way as if she really had been on the moon and it had happened.
And I was very rationalistically trained from school so I said indignantly, “But she imagined to be on the moon, or she dreamt it, but she wasn’t on the moon.”
And he looked at me earnestly and said, “Yes she was on the moon.”
I still remember looking over the lake there and thinking, “Either this man is crazy, or I am too stupid to understand what he means.”
And then suddenly it dawned on me, “He means that what happens psychically is the real reality, and this other moon, this stony desert which goes round the earth, that’s illusion, or that’s only pseudo-reality.”
And that hit me tremendously deeply. When I crawled, rather drunk into bed because he gave us a lot of Burgundy that evening, I thought, “It will take you ten years to digest what you experienced today.”’
In terms of our understanding of the unconscious, this story’s insistence that psychic reality is no less real than the reality of the everyday is, to say the least, instructive.
It is worth bearing in mind, at this point, that the unconscious, according to Jung, has no sense of its own or its bearer’s mortality, and is not constricted by any kind of temporality. The past, the present and the future are equally at its disposal.
Now, this morning, not entirely at random, I find myself re-reading Borges’ story ‘Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius’, in the translation by Alastair Reid, where Borges describes a fictitious country (Uqbar) whose mythology originates in a mysterious world called Tlön.
I come to stop at a passage describing one of the ‘oldest regions of Tlön’ in which ‘it is not an uncommon occurrence for lost objects to be duplicated. Two people are looking for a pencil; the first one finds it and says nothing; the second finds a second pencil, no less real, but more in keeping with his expectation. These secondary objects are called hrönir and, even though awkward in form, are a little larger than the originals.’
Putting it simply – and in terms that Borges himself might well have avoided – Tlön is the unconscious of Uqbar; the realm of myth and dream. And for the sake of the story I’d say that within the unconscious, the search for the pencil results in two discoveries: in one of these the pencil is the ‘authentic’ pencil that the protagonist lost, and in the other version, the pencil is a simulacrum (or hrön), a possible version of itself.
Would it be too much to map that idea from von Franz, of the ‘reality’ of unconscious experience onto this discovery of the ‘real’ pencil; with the second, somewhat clumsier, more ‘awkward’ and ‘larger’ (as in ‘larger than life’) second pencil corresponding to the ‘real life’ acting out of the story of the girl and the demon? By which I mean, of the two pencils, the ‘original’ is the one that appears to the psyche; the second, to the world? And if there is a second pencil, no doubt there exists a third; in other words multiple hrönrir representing the infinite versions of oneself and one’s actions in the multiverse (see Blanco’s last blog but one).
Or has my head cold taken this beyond the grasp of the intellect alone?
There is more, of course (there always is . . .)
In a manner that is never clearly elaborated, the artefacts and objects of Tlön have infiltrated our own world. In other words: ‘Contact with Tlön and the ways of Tlön have disintegrated this world.’ Things do not unfold well in Borges’ story.
Although first published in 1940, the postscript to Borges’ story is dated 1947. In other words he places the postscript to his story seven years after its publication, by which time World War Two has ended, and a New World Order is taking shape. This information (unknowable to Borges at the time of his writing) lends particular valence to the following paragraph:
‘Ten years ago, any symmetrical system whatsoever which gave the appearance of order – dialectical materialism, anti-Semitism, Nazism – was enough to fascinate men. Why not fall under the spell of Tlön and submit to the minute and vast evidence of an ordered planet? Unless to reply that reality, too, is ordered. It may be so, but in accordance with divine laws – I translate: inhuman laws – which we will never completely perceive. Tlön may be a labyrinth, but it is a labyrinth plotted by men, a labyrinth destined to be deciphered by men.’
I check out critical responses to the Borges story, and then recall, among the many commentaries, Peter Gyngell’s unpublished PhD thesis, The Enigmas of Borges, and the Enigma of Borges (2012). Gyngell considers ‘Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius’ to be, to some extent, a reflection on ‘the scepticism and despair for Argentina’s future that Borges shared with his contemporaries in the late 1930’s; and, above all, a reflection of his fears at that time of the domination of Argentina by the new and growing imperial power of the USA.’ In Gyngell’s reading, the takeover by Tlön represents the commercial and cultural influence of the USA permeating the world.
‘I would also submit’, writes Gyngell, ‘that Tlön is not a complete success. The reader is presented not only with two totally incompatible themes — heavy philosophical satire and economic politics — but also with a story that is overwritten, at least by Borges’ standards. ‘Tlön’ is the longest story in the Collected Fictions; and I suggest that this is brought about, at least in part, by Borges’ vain attempt to reconcile its irreconcilable themes.’
I personally still retain a fondness for the story – which was the first by Borges that I ever read – particularly for the following paragraph, with which I will end this post, and which I remember citing in my first essay as an anthropology undergraduate many years ago; apropos of what precisely, I simply cannot remember:
‘Things duplicate themselves in Tlön. They tend at the same time to efface themselves, to lose their detail when people forget them. The classic example is that of a stone threshold which lasted as long as it was visited by a beggar, and which faded from sight on his death. Occasionally, a few birds, a horse perhaps, have saved the ruins of an amphitheatre.’
The question of whether or not to keep a diary, or journal, is one that has perplexed me, on and off, for much of my adult life. If you do decide to keep a record of the everyday, what form should it take? What should go into it? Crucially, what kind of artefact should it be: an expensive leather-bound Italian volume, or a cheap supermarket note pad? Too often, whatever its design, it dissolves into a series of injunctions; things to do, places to go, suggestions of ways to become a better person, and shopping lists.
When teaching, on the other hand, I readily recommend students to read Joan Didion’s brilliant essay ‘On Keeping a Notebook’ – but then a notebook is not quite the same thing as a diary, is it? And Didion is quite clear on the way she uses her own notebook:
‘. . . [T]he point of my keeping a notebook has never been, nor is it now, to have an accurate factual record of what I have been doing or thinking. That would be a different impulse entirely, an instinct for reality which I sometimes envy but do not possess. At no point have I ever been able successfully to keep a diary; my approach to daily life ranges from the grossly negligent to the merely absent, and on those few occasions when I have tried dutifully to record a day’s events, boredom has so overcome me that the results are mysterious at best. What is this business about “shopping, typing piece, dinner with E, depressed”? Shopping for what? Typing what piece? Who is E? Was this “E” depressed, or was I depressed? Who cares?’
Sarah Manguso is a writer I have been pressing on anyone who will listen since discovering her in the summer, while on a residency in Canada. The writing defies easy categorisation, and is marked by a graceful minimalism. I have just finished Ongoingness, a reflection on the past, and on the diary that she no longer feels the need to maintain with the same obsessive zeal with which she began it as a teenager (and sustained for twenty-five years). With wit and admirable brevity, she succeeds in saying more in a few pages than many writers manage in a lifetime.
One of the many interesting reflections to emerges from Manguso’s book is that quality of forgetfulness that allows us to continue in the rut of accustomed thought, even when our circumstances have changed. One may even be inclined, on occasion, to forget as momentous a change as having had a baby. She writes:
‘Since the baby was born I still occasionally wonder whether I should have a baby, whether I should get married, whether I should move to this or that city I’ve already moved to, already left. All the large questions still float about me, and in its sleep- deprived dampened awareness of the present moment, my memory treats these past moments as if they’re all still happening.’
How that resonates! How often the momentous events of one’s life seem to be happening to someone else, to a distinct other or avatar, while our more familiar self goes about its business, oblivious. Not only births, but deaths, can be dissolved in everyday forgetfulness. There are times, for example, when I think to myself that I must call my father, to tell him about something that has just happened, some small detail that will interest him – only to remember that he is no longer with us, that he died three and a half years ago.
‘I’ve never understood so clearly that linear time is a summary of actual time, of All Time, of the forever that has always been happening.’
And on the following page, this – which has happened to me also:
‘In class my students repeated what they claimed I’d said during the previous class, and, not remembering the words as my own, I found myself approving of them vaguely.’
While this latter example might be put down to simple forgetfulness, I find it hard to conceive of myself as such an inherently forgetful person, when I can, on certain occasions, remember events in their minutest detail. It is almost as alarming as when my iPhone tells me ‘You have a new memory’: only to be presented with a series of photographs taken in 2016 in a place called ‘Great Britain.’
Returning to Manguso’s book, her ‘Afterword’ considers whether or not she should have included excerpts from her quarter century of diaries in the text of Ongoingness. She decided against it, she writes, because ‘the only way to represent the diary in this book would be either to include the entire thing untouched – which would have required an additional eight thousand pages – or to include none of it. . . The only way I could include my diary in this book then, was to refer to it and then continue on.’
And this memorable line from her interview with The White Review: ‘Writing has always felt good to me. It provides an escape hatch for the internal mess.’
She also says in that interview, in answer to the question: ‘Was the process of writing Ongoingness a necessary distinction between yourself now, and the self you were recording in the diary?’ with: ‘I wrote Ongoingness to record the particular experience of losing a continuous anxiety of long duration. When I was done with it, the worry had dissipated. So, yes, there is a before and an after, but it’s the same as with all my books.’
Manguso also says that ‘Ongoingness is a book about learning to inhabit time instead of just ceaselessly documenting it’ – which might suggest that having a child presents one with the reality of someone else depending utterly on one, that one has to be constantly present and correct rather than on the periphery, recording stuff. Personally, becoming a parent made me conscious of my presence in the world more forcefully than anything else I’ve experienced.
Keeping a diary should be a gentle, rather than obsessive, pursuit. You need to record and observe with a quiet detachment rather than an obsessive appropriation. You are never going to record everything of import, as Sarah discovers in her own book: ‘I began to understand that keeping a diary was, as we say, neither necessary nor sufficient.’ She ends the interview, appropriately enough, with a quotation from Virginia Woolf’s ‘Sketch of the Past’:
‘These then are some of my first memories. But of course as an account of my life they are misleading, because the things one does not remember are as important; perhaps they are more important.’
There are few ideas more mind-blowing than that of the multiverse, and the notion that the universe is perpetually dividing into parallel universes, each of them containing versions of ourselves.
Long before I’d ever heard of the multiverse, or parallel universes, I was pretty much obsessed by the notion that every decision I took led to an outcome, or rather, a series of outcomes, which, had I chosen differently, would have led to different life circumstances – not just for me, but for others around me. To use a footballing analogy, one of the things that used to bother me was when a sports commentator would say ‘if he hadn’t missed that goal in the first half, the score would now be 2-1’ No!! If he hadn’t missed that goal something else would have happened, and then something else – every moment of the game would have unfolded in a totally different way from the way it did by the missing of the goal; just as in life, if I had stayed behind one night in 1984 for another drink, or had worn another shirt, or had stepped into the road, or had decided to take the bus rather than the tube, the course of my life would probably have been different. True, the outcomes might often be trivial, but they might also, on the other hand, be life-altering. The term ‘sliding-door’ moment has become shorthand for this line of thinking.
I remember a story about a small boy I knew, let’s call him Francesco, who, as a five-year-old asked his grandmother: ‘where will little Francesco be when I am a grown up?’ The question is staggering in its perspicacity. It is as if the child had intuited the possibility of multiple selves emerging at every step of the way on his journey towards adulthood; which in turn suggests a precocious anticipation of the multiverse.
Hugh Everett, a Princeton PhD student, published a thesis in 1947 that introduced the concept of the multiverse. In it, he claimed that we are living in a multiverse of countless universes, in which exist countless copies of ourselves. Each decision in the course of a life precipitates the splitting of the universe, which then continues to split, infinitely, with each decision that follows.
At the time, Everett’s theory was rejected by the then reigning authority in quantum mechanics, Niels Bohr, and Everett, disgusted by academia, gave up theoretical physics and went to work for the Pentagon as a probability analyst. However, among a small group of followers his theory lived on, took on momentum, and is now seriously regarded by many of today’s leading quantum physicists as foundational. According to one of these physicists, Max Tegmark of MIT, Everett’s discovery of the multiverse is ‘as important as Einstein’s work on relativity.’
The idea that at each and every turn the cosmos divides into parallel universes in which every conceivable outcome of every event happens somewhere is both appealing and terrifying. On the one hand, there is some comfort, to me at least, in knowing that all the bad decisions I ever took have – in some distant world – been counteracted by better ones. On the other hand, there is the moral dilemma of whether or not one is causing suffering in other universes by making certain choices which will, by definition, have negative ramifications elsewhere in the multiverse, with potentially disastrous consequences. After some deep thought, I came to the realisation that – as Rowan Hooper put it in a New Scientist article on the theme: ‘the best way to live in the multiverse is to think carefully about how you live your life in this one.’
Writers who have been inspired by the multiverse since the 1960s include Philip K. Dick, Diana Wynne Jones, Stephen King, Phillip Pullman and Neil Garman. However, all of these writers made use of the trope of the multiverse, or parallel universes after Hugh Everett’s discovery. Not so J.L. Borges, as I was alerted a few weeks ago by an article in the Spanish newspaper El País.
Readers may remember Borges’ story, ‘The Garden of Forking Paths’ (El jardín de los senderos que se bifurcan), which is the account given by one Yu Tsun, a German spy working in England during World War One. Dr Tsun, who is Chinese, is being pursued by a British agent named Richard Madden, who is Irish, a detail that already suggests divided loyalties. Dr Tsun has information of great importance to the German war effort, but with Madden closing in on him, is unable to pass this on to his masters in Berlin. He goes, inexplicably, it seems, to the house of Dr Stephen Albert, a renowned Sinologist with a special research interest in Ts’ui Pên, Tsun’s grandfather, a respected sage, who retired as Governor of Yunnan Province in order to write a vast novel and ‘to create a maze in which all men would lose themselves. He spent thirteen years on these oddly assorted tasks before he was assassinated by a stranger. His novel had no sense to it and nobody ever found his labyrinth.’ It turns out, this being Borges, that the book and the labyrinth are one and the same thing, and the title of this infinite and ‘chaotic novel’ is of course, The Garden of Forking Paths.
Albert tells Yu Tsun that Ts’ui Pên’s novel is modelled on a maze in the sense that it constantly bifurcates ‘in time, but not in space.’ ‘In all fiction’, he explains, ‘when a man is faced with alternatives he chooses one at the expense of the others.’ However, in this novel, whenever a course of action has to be decided upon, rather than choosing one and pursuing its linear development, each course taken divides in two, with each of these being the point of departure for other, further, bifurcations, and so on.
‘Your ancestor (continues Albert) . . . believed in an infinite series of times, in a dizzily growing, ever-spreading network of diverging, converging and parallel times. This web of time – the strands of which approach one another, bifurcate, intersect, or ignore each other through the centuries – embraces every possibility. We do not exist in most of them. In some you exist and not I, while in others I do, and you do not, and in yet others both of us exist. In this one, in which chance has favoured me, you have come to my gate. In another, you, crossing the garden, have found me dead. In yet another, I say these very same words, but am an error, a phantom.’
After this peregrination towards the mysteries of the multiverse, it almost comes as an anti-climax to learn that the only reason Yu Tsun has decided to come to this house is to murder Albert, whose name will be splashed all across the newspapers the following day – thereby informing Yu Tsun’s spy chief in Berlin that Albert is the name of the northern French town from which the Allies are preparing a massive artillery offensive against the German lines.
The publication of Borges’ story predates the theory of multiple universes, as devised by Hugh Everett, by six years. A neat illustration of art anticipating science, perhaps, but also, as my own intuitions have led me to think, and young Francesco’s observation put into startling perspective, not entirely unusual or unprecedented: perhaps, as with the language faculty, we are somehow hard-wired to acquire this knowledge; perhaps we already know it.
A few months ago, while on a residency at Banff, in the Canadian Rockies, I wrote about a serendipitous encounter with a black bear.
This encounter, however fleeting, and with a distance of fifteen metres or so between us, at our closest, nonetheless filled me with a kind of awe, which I struggled in the following days to contextualise. I had never experienced anything quite like it, and explained it to myself and to my friends in what might – to some readers – appear as somewhat inflated or grandiose terms. The truth was, I felt suffused at the time, and for a couple of days after, by something like deep contentment; as if I had been granted not only a profound and profoundly reassuring realisation of the relationship between the human and the animal, but equally (and which is perhaps the same thing) between aspects of my own identity – of the self or the soul – that I had barely considered before.
At the time of my encounter with the bear I had been reading Helen Macdonald’s memoir H is for Hawk and had been moved by the way Macdonald synthesised or channelled emotions of grief at the loss of her father though training a young goshawk. At one point in the book, she writes of a growing understanding of her hawk, Mabel: ‘I am becoming fascinated by her quality of attention. I’m starting to believe in what Barry Lopez has called ‘the conversation of death’, something he saw in the exchange of glances between caribou and hunting wolves, a wordless negotiation that ends up with them working out whether they will become hunter and hunted, or passers-by.’
This detached summation of what we are in relation to another creature, or other creatures, is something we, as humans, have almost entirely lost sight of, or perhaps better expressed, lost contact with. Perhaps only in encounters in the wild is anything remotely similar ever evoked. And I am not claiming this happened with the black bear. I felt far too safe for that, and the bear . . . well, the bear seemed to be more interested in sniffing the flowers, to be honest, than in anything I was doing.
Further on in her story, Macdonald is discussing Rane Willerslev’s ethnography of time spent amid a Yukaghir community in Siberia: ‘The hunters, he wrote, think ‘humans and animals can turn into each other by temporarily taking on one another’s bodies.’ If you want to hunt elk, you dress in elkskins, walk like an elk, take on an elk’s alien consciousness. If you do this, elk will recognise you as one of their own and walk straight towards you . . . but [the] hunters consider these transformations very dangerous, because they can make you lose sight of your ‘original species identity and undergo an invisible metamorphosis.’ So, a warning here against anthropomorphism . . .
And at another point in the book, Macdonald says something for which I felt immediate identification and recognition, having visited the caves at Lascaux myself, as a young child – shortly before they were closed to public view in 1963 – an event which made a lasting impression on me. She says:
‘I remember a teacher showing us photographs of the cave paintings at Lascaux and explain that no one knew why prehistoric people drew these animals. I was indignant. I knew exactly why, but at that age was at a loss to put my intuition into words that made sense even to me.’
Why might this be? What was it that made MacDonald indignant, and which makes me exasperated at such a failure to see ourselves in relation to the natural world, and to pass on that ignorance to our children?
Fortunately, there are some writers who attempt to evoke our relationships with animals with utter poise and lack of pretentiousness. Amongst these is Jean-Christophe Bailly, whose short book Le versant animal (2007) translated into English by Catherine Porter as The Animal Side (2011) begins with an extraordinary account of the author driving at night along a dark country road and encountering a solitary deer:
‘A deer has come out of the undergrowth; frightened, it runs up the road, trapped between hedgerows: it too is caught in the estuary. It rushes ahead, just as it is, just as it has to be – fear and beauty, quivering grace, lightness. The driver, going slowly now, follows the creature, watches its croup move up and down, bounding in its dance. A kind of hunt is under way, in which the goal is not – certainly not – to catch up, but simply to follow, and since this race takes longer than one might have imagined, several hundred metres, a strange joy comes, childlike, or perhaps archaic. Finally, another path opens up for the animal, and after hesitating ever so slightly the deer plunges in and disappears.’
It is this moment that Bailly describes – a strange joy . . . childlike, or perhaps archaic – that I want to think about, to write about . . . It is not only what I seem to recall from my visit to the Lascaux caves as a five-year old, but also the joy intuited by Macdonald in her childhood classroom, and quashed by her teacher’s remark that ‘no one knew why prehistoric people drew animals.’
Of course we knew! Children, perhaps, more than anyone else: we know it in the very fibre of our flesh. We need to draw the animals, and to sing the songs of the animals, for a very simple reason: we recognise them as both ourselves and as other, a simultaneous perception of identification and of othering; the elemental you and I, perceiver and perceived; the subject and object of all encounters. The essential paradox of being. And we needed to invoke that other – the bison, the buffalo, the deer – through what would later, and perhaps misleadingly, be termed sympathetic magic. Bailly writes eloquently on the subject in the next section of his little book, including the awkward reactions that such intense sentiments often give rise to:
‘I have become aware . . . that declarations of intense feelings on the subject of animals quite often not only fall flat but give rise to a sort of embarrassment, rather as though one had inadvertently crossed a line and gotten mixed up in something untoward, or even obscene . . . The truth is that a point of solitude is always reached in one’s relations with animals. When this point extends into a line and the line extends into an arch, a shelter takes shape, the very place where that solitude responds freely to its counterpart: a beloved animal. But as soon as we go outside the line and reveal our love (that solitude and that bond), those to whom we have taken the risk of speaking almost always pull back, in a move resembling the one we ourselves might have made upon encountering a similar admission by someone else. There is a very murky zone of affects here, involving in the first place our relationships with so called companion animals, pets, but a zone which nevertheless extends far beyond the merely private sphere: visits to a zoo or a game reserve, the positions we hold or adopt towards hunting or eating meat (“s’il est loisible de manger chair [if we are entitled to eat flesh],” as Amyot, translating Plutarch, put it so aptly); it is our entire relation to the animal world, or rather worlds, that is traversed by affect and that is troubled and troubling.’
Troubled and troubling it may be, but these animal encounters lie at the heart of so much that we human animals, once upon a time – not so long ago – experienced, day in, day out, over millions of years of evolution, in fact, when such thought was integral to everyday existence. As Claude Lévi-Strauss so appositely put it, animals were – and are – ‘good to think with’.
Nowadays, the closest most people are likely to get to such an animal encounter is with their pets – typically with the domestic cat or a dog – or perhaps when nervously passing a herd of frisky Friesians in a field; and for huge swathes of the urban population the vital, life-enhancing experience of coming face to face with animals in the wild is something they will never know; indeed the nearest they will come to encountering an animal in the flesh, as it were, will be biting into a Big Mac.