Dialogue on the Threshold

Диалог на пороге

Thursday, 16 December 2010

Historia cicatricosa

Scars can be literal or metaphorical, physical or psychical. The scar is the memory of the wound, imprinted on the warp and weft of the flesh or in the incrassate tissue of the brain. Every scar is unique, the trace left by an unrepeatable concatenation of circumstances and events that culminate in a trauma affecting the body or mind.

But the one scar that is common to all is the umbilical cicatrix. It is the primordial scar; it is the mark that unites all men (and, indeed, all living things not born from the seed or egg). For, no man can enter the world without the cord that bound him to the womb being severed and leaving its trace. The umbilicus thus also marks us as separate, distinct individuals. For the scholastics, it was a subject of fierce debate whether Adam, the only man not to have been formed in the womb, possessed a naval, the umbilical scar. Was his belly smooth, unblemished, or when God moulded him from the red earth did He fashion him an umbilicus in order not to be incomplete? Likewise, when God removed a rib from Adam’s breast from which to shape Eve, did it leave a scar?

What is certain is that the scar is to be found only in the fallen world, a place of toil, disease, violence, natural shocks and heartaches. We enter the world in a state of original sin, and this entrance is thenceforth and forever marked by a scar. The umbilicus, as the first scar, is the nexus from which all other physical scars radiate, the primal node of a web of accidents, mishaps, injuries, and illnesses that forms an intricate and unique map of our passage through the world. Each body has its own uniquely patterned web of scars, and each scar tells its own story. The cicatrix is thus the imprint and bearer of memory, a sign by which a man is revealed in his uniqueness, in the particularity of his own unrepeatable acts and sufferings and the marks they have made on him.

When Odysseus returns to Ithaca disguised as a wandering beggar, his old nurse, Eurycleia, recognises him by the scar on his leg, when, bidden by the unwitting Penelope, she washes his feet in the basin of ringing bronze. The cicatrix, once revealed, aches for its tale to be told. And at this moment of agonising suspense in the flow of Homer’s epic, when it seems that Odysseus might be unmasked before he can exact his revenge on the upstart suitors, the narrative breaks off and the listener is taken back to Parnassus, whither the young Odysseus had journeyed to visit Autolycus, his mother’s father, beloved of cunning Hermes. And thus begins the story of one of the most famous scars in all of literature. Hunting with the sons of Autolycus, among the windy hollows of Mount Parnassus Odysseus corners a boar, within a glade on the steep, forest-clad slopes. Charging from its deep, bosky lair, where neither the rainy winds blow nor the bright rays of Helios ever strike, the boar gashes Odysseus’ thigh with its tusk, and in his turn the resourceful son of Laertes transfixes the beast with his spear. In the halls of Autolycus, on the hunters’ return, the wound demands that its tale be told, the same as the scar (oulê) will demand that its memory be unfolded by the rhapsode once it is secretly revealed in the halls of Odysseus many years later, after the war on the windy plains of Troy and the many years of bitter wandering that followed. Unlike in the Odyssey, it is significant that in the Iliad, the epic of the wrath of Achilles, a narrative of never-ending, fresh wounds, the word oulê (scarred over wound, cicatrix) does not occur once.

Thus, the recounting of the wound is like a scar that forms a break in the tissue of the narrative. A text itself might be full of scars, if the author, like an over-zealous surgeon, wields the critic’s knife, hacking away at even the flesh of healthy passages. Cicatricosus (full of scars) is the adjective used by Roman rhetorician Quintillian in his Institutio Oratoria to describe the bloodless works of those orators who cannot resist tinkering with their manuscripts whenever they have them in their hands, in the belief that every first draft must necessarily be riddled with faults (1). Of course, for the Romans, who for everyday purposes wrote by incising letters with a stylus upon waxed tablets, a text could be a reticulation of scars in quite a literal sense.

The mind, too, has been likened by philosophers to a waxed tablet, upon which impressions are imprinted. Impressions and thoughts are incised into the mind, each leaving a deeper or shallower scar. In the Satyricon, it is said that the man of true culture must smooth all irritation (scabitudo, from scabies, “roughness”) from his mind without leaving any scar. (2) Ataraxy would thus be a state of supreme scarlessness. But just as none can enter life unscarred, life itself cannot be lived without incurring or inflicting scars. And the cicatrix is both memory and the inscription of a tale.

(1) Institutio Oratoria 10 4.3. Sunt enim qui ad omnia scripta tanquam vitiosa redeant et, quasi nihil fas sit rectum esse quod primum est, melius existiment quidquid est aliud, idque faciant, quotiens librum in manus resumpserunt, similes medicis etiam integra secantibus. accidit itaque ut cicatricosa sint et exsanguis et cura pejora.

(2) Petronius, Satyricon 99. Tantum omnem scabitudinem animo tanquam bonarum artium magister delevet sine cicatrice.

Tuesday, 7 December 2010

Un ciel de gouffre / Au coeur du gouffre


À Mr. Étienne R. Veron de Braïla

Un ciel de gouffre, et des images très opaques,
Nuit d'horreur, - mais, parfois, la lune dans le bleu,
Et Paris, et l'hiver grelottant sur les flaques,
Et les long boulevards et ses lignes de feu.

Et des éclairs aussi: - l'homme sinistre et pâle
Dressé, spectre farouche, au-dessus du grand bruit,
Et la cité - chaos, et son immense râle,
Et ses miroitements s'abîmant dans la nuit.

Paris-Cauchemar, et Paris-Déséspérance,
Réel enfer, à nul fictif enfer pareil,
Salut, pourtant, cité très noble, Paris-France,
Malgré ta nuit restant toujours Paris-Soleil.

Alexandru Macedonski, Bronzes, 1897, p. 219-222


Au coeur du gouffre blème où Dieu gîta le sel,
Des voûtes, vainement, suintent, mornes, des larmes,
Les pâles reprouvés aguerris aux alarmes
Font voler en éclats les scellés du recel.

D'aucuns, les traits divins malgré le sombre scel,
Lèvent parfois des yeux volés d'étranges charmes,
Mais leurs torses puissants comme des troncs de charmes
Peupleraient de démons les pages d'un missel.

Et l'acier sur le roc résonne, métallique,
S'entrechoque, et l'écho lui donne la réplique,
Et la paroi s'ébranle et l'enfer s'élargit,

Et malgré la ténèbre, et malgré la souffrance,
Qui, formidable, croit, s'exaspère, et rugit,
Nul enfer où soudain ne chantât l'espérance.

Alexandru Macedonski, Le beau Danube bleu, I, 5, 9 avril 1905, p. 3

Sunday, 28 November 2010


Mais bientôt les bizarreries s’accusèrent davantage, et il devenait parfois difficile de les excuser, car elles sortaient du domaine de la pensée pour entrer dans le domaine de l’action. Des soins éclairés devinrent nécessaires, à la grande indignation de Gérard [de Nerval], car il ne concevait pas que des médecins s’occupassent de lui parce qu’il s’était promené dans le Palais-Royal, traînant un homard en vie au bout d’une faveur bleue. « En quoi, disait-il, un homard est-il plus ridicule qu’un chien, qu’un chat, qu’une gazelle, qu’un lion ou toute autre bête dont on se fait suivre? J’ai le goût des homards, qui sont tranquilles, sérieux, savent les secrets de la mer, n’aboient pas et n’avalent pas la monade des gens comme les chiens, si antipathiques à Goethe lequel pourtant n’était pas fou. » Et mille autre raisons plus ingénieuses les unes que les autres.

Théophile Gautier, Portraits et souvenirs littéraires, G. Charpentier, Paris, 1881, p. 40

Then, suddenly aware of her hideous equipment: "What are you going to do?" he cried.

"Boil the beast," she said, "what else?"

"But it's not dead" protested Belacqua "you can't boil it like that."

She looked at him in astonishment. Had he taken leave of his senses?

"Have sense" she said sharply, "lobsters are always boiled alive. They must be." She caught up the lobster and laid it on its back. It trembled. "They feel nothing" she said.

In the depths of the sea it had crept into the cruel pot. For hours, in the midst of its enemies, it had breathed secretly. It had survived the Frenchwoman's cat and his witless clutch. Now it was going alive into scalding water. It had to. Take into the air my quiet breath.

Belacqua looked at the old parchment of her face, grey in the dim kitchen.

"You make a fuss" she said angrily "and upset me and then lash into it for your dinner."

She lifted the lobster clear of the table. It had about thirty seconds to live.

Well, thought Belacqua, it's a quick death, God help us all.

It is not.

Samuel Becket, "Dante and the Lobster", More Pricks Than Kicks (1934), The Grove Centenary Edition, Vol. 4, Poems, Short Fiction, Criticism, ed. Paul Auster, Grove Press, New York, 2006, pp. 87-88.

Tuesday, 2 November 2010

Uri potest in gehenna, non exuri

God sealed us, in imprinting his Image in our soules, and in the powers thereof, at our creation; and so, every man hath this seale, and he hath it, as soone as he hath a soule: The wax, the matter, is in his conception; the seale, the forme, is in his quickning, in his inanimation; as, in Adam, the waxe was that red earth, which he was made of, the seale was that soule, that breath of life, which God breathed into him. Where the Organs of the body are so indisposed, as that this soule cannot exercise her faculties, in that man, (as in naturall Idiots, or otherwise) there, there is a curtaine drawn over this Image, but yet there this Image is, the Image of God, is in the most naturall Idiot, as well as in the wisest of men: worldly men draw other pictures over this picture, other images over this image: The wanton man may paint beauty, the ambitious may paint honour, the covetous wealth, and so deface this image, but yet there this image is, and even in hell it selfe it will be, in him that goes down into hell: uri potest in gehenna, non exuri, sayes St. Bernard, The Image of God may burne in hell, but as long as the soule remaines, that image remaines there too; And then, thou who wouldest not burne their picture, that loved thee, wilt thou betray the picture of thy Maker, thy Saviour, thy Sanctifier, to the torments of hell? Amongst the manifold and perpetuall interpretations of that article, He descended into hell, this is a new one, that thou sentest him to hell in thy soule

John Donne, Sermon Preached to the Earl of Exeter, and his company, in his Chappell at Saint Johns; 13 June 1624. Apoc. 7.9 After this, I beheld, and loe, a great multitude, which no man could number, of all nations, and kindreds, and people, and tongues, stood before the throne, and before the lambe, clothed with white robes, and palmes in their hands.

Monday, 1 November 2010

Immanent justice

"Be virtuous, don't be greedy, Divine justice will not spare you."

Dîmbovița valley, Argeș


Tuesday, 26 October 2010


In the deep places of the earth,
in the utmost depths of the sea,
in the alveoli of the lungs,
in the ventricles of the heart,
in the cavities of the teeth,
in the vesicles of volcanic rock,
in the vacuoles of the cytoplasm,
in the innermost chambers of death,
in the penetralia of the mind,
in the hull of the swart ship,
in the keel of the muffled storm,
in the caul of oblivion,
in the calyx of the dream,
in the shuck of oyster darkness,
in the ventral cavern of the whale,
in the musty cell of a nutshell,
bounded sleeping, enclosed unfeeling,
enveloped fainting, forgetting,
I prayed that I be plucked
from the inner to the outer
surface of mine own hell.

Sunday, 24 October 2010

Melancholia flatuosa

Melancholia Flatuosa multiplicem ob causam difficilis curationis est. Nam praeter vehementem venarum meseraicarum a crassa crudaque materia, tum melancholica, tum pituitosa, unde contumaces perpetuo spiritus elevantur, obstructionem: maxima etiam intemperaturae viscerum inaequalitas subest. Hujus quidem ratione non levia accidentia ingruunt, excrementorum nempe suppressio ab exiccante et humiditatem exugente calido hepate: difficilis spiratio a comprimente septum transversum inflato ventriculo, dolore ventriculi a flatuum distensione et intemperie frigida; eructationes, vomitiones, et successu temporis ab obstructione putredo, cujus venenata evaporatione perculsa mens deficit, et delirium accidit.

Windy melancholy is difficult to cure by reason of its manifold causes. For, besides the violent obstruction of the meseraic veins by incrassate undigested matter, now melancholic, now phlegmatic, and constantly giving off unyielding vapours, a fluctuation in the greatest degree underlies the imbalance in the internal organs. Because of this, grave corollary effects aggressively proliferate: retention of the excretions due to the parching and moisture-draining action of the heated liver; difficulty in breathing due to compression of the transversal septum by the bloated stomach, with pain in the stomach arising from windy distension and excess chill; belching; vomiting; and, over the course of time, due to the blockage, a suppuration, whose poisonous evaporation causes the stricken mind to go astray and delirium to occur.

Johannes Fienus (Jean Fyens), De Flatibus humanum corpus molestantibus commentarius novus ac singularis, in quo Flatuum natura, causae et symptomata describuntur, eorumque remediae facili et expedita methodo indicantur. Antwerp, 1582; Heidelberg, 1589; Frankfurt, 1592 (with notes by Lievinus Fischer); Amsterdam, 1643; Hamburg, 1644; some editions bear the title Physiographia de flatibus.

Tuesday, 5 October 2010

Quare creatae sunt sternutationes?

Ebraeis sternutare est Atasch; unde Thalmudistarum verbale Ittonsch, sternutationem notat. Iidem apud Buxtorfium in Lex. Thalmudico distinguunt inter sternutationem superiorem et inferiorem. Inferior est crepitus ventris. De quo sternutamento idem Buxtorfius ex libro ben Syrae cum Comment. Constantinopoli excuso fol. 27. sequentia Latine reddidit: Quare creatae sunt sternutationes? (inferiores scilicet seu crepitus) Dixit ei; Nisi illae, essent, homo egereret necessitates suas in vestimenta sua. Cum autem homo sentit sternutationes, flatus venientes, abit et satisfacit naturae, ne pudefiat, et vestimenta sua coinquinet.

Martinus Schoock, De Sternutatione. Tractatus copiosus: Omnia ad illam pertinentia, juxta recentia inventa proponens. 2nd edition, Petrus van den Berge, in Vico de Heeregracht sub signo montis Parnassi, Amsterdam, 1664

For the Jews, to sneeze is Atasch, whence the Talmudists’ Ittonsch denotes a sneeze. According to Buxtorfius in his Talmudic Lexicon, they also distinguish between an upper and a lower sneeze. The lower is the crepitus ventris. On which sneezing the same Buxtorfius has rendered into Latin out of the Book of ben Syra with Commentaries printed in Constantinople, page 27 ff. the following: "Wherefore have sneezes been created? (scilicet lower sneezes or crepitus). He said to him: Were it not for them, man would discharge his necessities in his own clothing. But when man feels the sneezes, the flatus, coming, he goes out and satisfies nature, lest he shame himself and besmirch his clothing."

Martin Schoock, On Sneezing. Plentiful Treatise, Laying Forth All Those Things Pertinent to the Subject, along with Recent Findings, Pieter van den Berge, in Heeregracht Street under the Sign of Mount Parnasses, Amsterdam, 1664

Sunday, 12 September 2010


1:1 at the Romanian Pavilion, Venice Architecture Biennale, 2010. Installation created by Romina Grillo, Ciprian Rășoiu, Liviu Vasiu, Matei Vlăsceanu and Tudor Vlăsceanu
Image: Dezeen Design Magazine, 3 September 2010

De Nihilo

When confronted with an empty space, we might ask ourselves what exactly it is that is not there. Something is not there, which is to say, nothing is there. As Henry Fielding puts it in his “An Essay upon Nothing” (1743), “as Nothing is not Something, so every thing which is not Something, is Nothing; and wherever Something is not, Nothing is.” But the statement “Nothing is there” ineluctably leads to a logical dead-end, an aporia: for, if nothing “is”—if “nothing” has being—then it is no longer “nothing” but rather “something”.

The paradoxes of “nothing” and “not-being” are as old as philosophy itself. They are a subversive discourse against which philosophy is helpless to legislate or defend itself. For, as soon as speculative thought postulates “being”, it is a dialectical inevitability that “not-being” will then stake its paradoxical claim to existence. In Plato’s dialogue the Sophist, the anonymous Eleatic Stranger, thus himself a nemo or nobody, a species of nullus and ultimately nihil, warns Theaetetus to turn from the way that leads to thinking not-being is, before himself becoming lost in a maze of reasoning about the possibility of false statements. In Greek, false statements are those that “say what is not” (similarly, Swift’s ultra-rational Houyhnhnms have no notion of falsehood, and Gulliver is only able to explain it to them as “the thing which is not”). But if a statement says nothing, if it predicates what is not, then it is no longer a statement, an adfirmatio, and so there can be no false statements. Another aporia.

Whereas the Greeks laboured under a horror vacui, imagining that primitive matter must somehow have always existed before it was moulded into the cosmos by a divine demiurge, for the scholastics God’s creatio ex nihilo conferred upon “nothing” the privileged status of a primordial “something”. For example, in the Epistola de Nihilo et Tenebris (Letter on Nothing and Shadows) by ninth-century English monk Fredegisus (also known as Fridugisus, Fredugisus, Fridigisus, Fridogisus, Fridegisus, Fridugusus, Frudigisus etc.), the answer to the question “nihilne aliquid sit, an non” (whether nothing is something or not) is found to be affirmative. Among the series of logical arguments he provides is the following: “Omnis significatio est quod est. Nihil autem aliquid significat. Igitur nihil ejus significatio est quid est, id est, rei existentis” (Every signification is what it is. But ‘nothing’ signifies something. Therefore the signification of ‘nothing’ is what it is, that is, [the signification] of an existing thing) (Migne, Patrologia Latina, 105: 752-3). Moreover, given that according to the sacred mysteries God created earth, air, water, fire, light, the angels and man’s soul “out of nothing”, nothing is not only something, but also a great and particular something (magnum quiddam).

Having been elevated to this primordial God-given dignity, nihil goes on to be the subject of several mediaeval (parodic) sermons. Later, with the revival of the spoudogeloion/joco-serium tradition in the Renaissance, it becomes the subject of countless epideictic encomia, which paradoxically demonstrate its pre-eminence. The most important of all these, and the source of countless imitations, was the Laudatio Nihili of Johannes Passeratius (1534-1602), where we find that Nothing is more precious than gold and gems (“Nam Nihil est gemmis, Nihil est pretiosius auro”), Nothing is more beautiful than a watered garden (“Nihil irriguo formosius horto”), Nothing is loftier than the stars (“Nihil altius astris”), Nothing is more useful to the human race than the art of healing (“Humano generi utilius Nihil arte medendi”), and so on. When Passeratius goes so far as to say that Nothing is ultimately greater than Jove (“Nihil est Jove denique maius”), praise verges upon blasphemy, however. Such daringly blasphemous paradoxical permutations are also on display in a tractate called De Nihili Antiquitate (included in the Amphitheatrum Sapientiae Socraticae Joco-Seriae (1619) of Caspar Dornavius), composed by P. Aemilius Portus (1550-1614/15), where we find that Nothing is more ancient than Eternal God Himself, because Nothing was created before God (“Aeterno Deo Nihil antiquius [est]. Quia Nihil creatum est ante Deo”). Ultimately, however, the nihil paradox can always be rescued from blasphemy by its amphiboly: if nihil is read as a pronoun rather than as a noun, as a significatio, as Fredegisus would have it, then the statement that nothing is greater than God becomes the definition of orthodoxy itself.

In 1608, thus at around the same time as the De Nihili Antiquitate, a certain Cornelius Götz delivered a discourse on Nothing before a learned assembly in Wittenberg, presided over by Rudolf Goclenius senior (the great humanist philosopher and inventor of the terms “ontology” and “psychology”). Published in Marburg, the full title of the work is Disputatio de Nihilo, quae non est de Nihilo, Vagans per omnes disciplinas (Disputation on Nothing, which is not about Nothing, Ranging through all the Disciplines). The treatise explores the Greek and Latin etymologies of nothing, the definition of nothing (Modus sine re, cuius est modus, a quo pendet essentialiter, est nihil, id est, esse non potest—The mode without reality, from whose mode it is that it essentially hangs, is nothing, that is, it is not able to be), the species of nothing (nihil absolute and nihil negativum or non ens per se), the theological significations of nothing (for St Paul, an idol is nothing (Idolum nihil est), devoid of any numinous power, while for St Basil, man is nothing by reason of his matter and great by reason of his dignity (homo nihil est propter materiam et magnus propter honorem)), the physics of nothing (nothing can be made from nothing—Ex nihilo nihil fit, after Aristotle), God’s creation out of nothing (Creatio est constitutio essentiae ex nihilo—the creation is the establishment of being out of nothing), evil as a privation of being and thus nothing, the differences between annihilation (recidere seu transire in nihil—to fall back or pass over into nothing), corruption, dissolution and transubstantiation, and much more. To the forty-six propositions of the disputatio proper are appended a number of miscellaneous metaphysical, theological, physical, logical, rhetorical and grammatical questions and answers. Under the heading of Logic, for example, Götz puts forward the following conundrum: “Principium materiale mundi est non nihil: Enunciatum affirmatum falsum est. Principium materiale mundi non est nihil. Enunciatum negatum verum est” (The material origin of the world is non-nothing. The proposition is false when asserted positively. The material origin of the world is not nothing. The proposition is true when asserted negatively).

The jesting-serious wisdom of the Renaissance, which can turn even such a seemingly sterile subject as Nothing into a dazzling rhetorical display of wit and learning, will later give way to metaphysical and existential angst, to fear of the néant. In Heidegger’s Einführung in die Metaphysik (1935, published 1953), the question posed by Leibniz—“Why is there something rather than nothing?”—becomes the inevitable Grundfrage, which looms equally in moments of despair, joy or boredom: “Warum ist überhaupt Seiendes und nicht vielmehr Nichts” (Why are there beings-that-are and not nothing?). For Heidegger, however, the second part of the question is redundant. Even to speak of “nothing” is a grave offence against the logos, against logic, a reckless act that undermines all culture and thought, allying itself with nothingness in the destructive will to nihilism. Therefore, he erases it, consigning the question about nothing to nothingness, and asks simply, “Why are there beings-that-are?” In Was ist Metaphysik, Heidegger tries to find a way around the angst-inducing implications of using “nothing” and “is” in the same sentence, and comes up with “Das Nichts selbst nichtet” (The nothing nothings itself). Rudolph Carnap famously cited this as an example of metaphysical nonsense, but Henry Fielding perhaps best described the nature of this kind of discourse two centuries earlier in his “An Essay Upon Nothing”: “When a Bladder is full of Wind, it is full of Something; but when that is let out, we aptly say, there is Nothing in it. The same may be as justly asserted of a Man as of a Bladder. (…) It is at least possible for a Man to know Nothing. And whoever hath read over many Works of our ingenious Moderns, with proper Attention and Emolument, will, I believe, confess, that if he understands them right, he understands Nothing.”

However, the very word “nothing” does undeniably incorporate an existential premise. No-thing is the non-existence of a thing, after all. Nihil can only be defined by reference to aliquid, a something (else). In etymological terms, this existential premise would seem to be linguistically universal. But what it is that nothing is not varies according to different languages. In Greek, “nothing” is ouden, literally “not-one” (ne unum quidem), or, in the language of philosophy, to mê on, “not-being” (non ens). In Latin, nihil derives from hilum, “a tiny thing”, “a thing of no importance”, “a trifle”. The Russian nichto is a “not-what”. To take a very interesting non-Indo-European example, in Georgian (Kartveli) “nothing” is araperi, literally “not-colour” (ne color quidem). In the phenomenal world, every thing has a colour and it is impossible to imagine any thing without a colour. Even transparent things—water, air, glass etc.—reflect the colours of other things.(*) They exist in space against a background of colour, and it is impossible to picture them mentally in a vacuum, in their pure colourless transparency. Any empty space is thus imbued with borrowed colours. Only an unimaginable metaphysical non-space, a ne locus quidem outside space and being, would truly be devoid of any colour, be it even only black. Only the non-space of non-colour would truly be nothing.

Finally, the etymon of the Romanian nimic (“nothing”) is nemica, from the Latin ne mica (not a crumb, not a morsel). It thus echoes the Latin ne hilum. The Romanian verb a nimicnici (“to annihilate”), and its variant a nimici, might be translated as “to reduce something to less than its ultimate crumb of matter”. The mica, which refers to the smallest possible particle of matter (cf. the hilum, which can also refer to the moral unimportance of a thing; Lucretius uses ne hilum in the sense of “not a whit”, “not a jot” and hilum in the sense of “smallest part (of a thing)”), is thus the final threshold between “something” and “nothing”. In contrast to the German das Nichts, which is perhaps the starkest nothing of all—a naked “not”— the Romanian nimicul (the nothing, nothingness, not-a-crumb-ness) is peculiarly substantial; it incorporates within itself the trace or echo of a physical something, a tiny crumb which is no longer there or could never be there. Likewise, the empty space that is intrinsic to the 1:1 installation in the Romanian Pavilion at this year’s Biennale of Architecture in Venice is a means of articulating within space nimic, nihil, nichego, araperi, nothing, as a way of asking what is no longer there, what could have been there, what should be there.

Alistair Ian Blyth, from the exhibition catalogue

Image: Dezeen

(*) The Georgian araperi may be compared with the Romanian idiomatic expression de nici o culoare ("not at all", "in no way", "by no means"), which translates literally as "by not one colour". 

Friday, 3 September 2010

The Immediate Unreality

Max Blecher was born on 8 September 1909 in Botoșani, a provincial town in northern Moldavia. Up until the Second World War, Botoșani was an ethnically and culturally diverse town, whose population was made up of Romanians, Jews, Armenians, Greeks, Roma and Lipovians (Russian Old Believers whose ancestors had fled persecution during the time of Peter the Great). At the turn of the century, Jews made up almost half of the town’s population. Max Blecher was the son of a merchant from the town’s Jewish community. While he was still a young child, Blecher’s family moved to Roman, a Moldavian town south of Botoșani, in the county of Neamț, where his father opened a porcelain shop. The petty bourgeois Jewish milieu of provincial Moldavia is memorably evoked in his autobiographical Întîmplări în irealitatea imediată (Occurrences in the Immediate Unreality) (1936), for example in the settings of Eugene’s sewing machine shop or the house and office of Blecher’s uncle and cousins, the Webers.

After finishing lycée in Roman, Blecher travelled to Paris to study medicine. It was here, in 1928, that he was diagnosed with tuberculosis of the spine, or Pott’s disease. He subsequently underwent treatment at sanatoria in France (Berck-sur-Mer), Switzerland (Leysin) and Romania (Tekirghiol), an experience which served as the inspiration for his novel Inimi cicatrizate (Cicatrised Hearts), in some ways a miniature, more naturalist counterpart to Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain, and which is also described in Vizuina luminată: Jurnal de sanatoriu (The Illumined Burrow: Sanatorium Diary). However, treatment was of no avail, and Max Blecher was to remain bedridden until the end of his short life. After a decade of illness and suffering, he died, aged twenty-eight, on 31 May 1938.

Blecher’s literary work dates entirely from the period of his illness. Sașa Pană describes him as having been “paralysed and wracked by pain for ten years, with a few relative intermissions, but his mind voyaged through the most deeply buried mysteries, he burrowed with the tenacity of a miner into the remotest seams of his rich mind, of a body engrafted with abscesses and gangrenes.”(i) On 29 June 1930, Blecher made his literary debut with a short prose piece entitled “Herrant”, written in Berck-sur-Mer and published in Bilete de papagal (Parrot Papers)(ii). In another short prose piece published in 1934,(iii) Blecher describes Berck, home to five thousand patients suffering from tuberculosis of the spine, as a “town of immobility and plaster-casts”. Plaster is the material specific to the place, “just as steel is to Creuzot, coal to Liverpool, or petrol to Baku”. Similarly, Blecher describes the hallucinatory spectacle of a town whose inhabitants are all paralysed in a recumbent posture and encased in plaster: “Recumbent they go to the cinema, recumbent they take carriage rides, recumbent they frequent places of entertainment, recumbent they attend lectures, recumbent they pay their social visits.”(iv) Also in 1934, a slim volume of Blecher’s poems, entitled Transparent Body, was published. In the same year, Blecher published translations from Appolinaire, in Frize (Friezes) magazine. His own poetry is lyrical and surrealistic, reminiscent perhaps of Paul Eluard, as can be seen in the following strophe, for example: “Your integument / Like a bird in the nest of the heart / In rivers of blood you bathe / And you fly through my fingertips.”(v) The following year, in 1935, his parents rented a small house for him in a suburb of his hometown of Roman. Writing on a wooden board propped against his knees, which had remained paralysed in a flexed position, it was here that he finished, during interminable nights of insomnia, the books Occurrences in the Immediate Unreality (1936), Cicatrised Hearts (1937), and The Illumined Burrow (posthumously edited and published by Sașa Pană in 1971).

Blecher’s literary prose was, to a certain extent, influenced by Surrealism. As an autobiography describing the subject’s oneiric, irrational experiences, Occurrences in the Immediate Unreality (1936) has been compared with André Breton’s Nadja (1928), although Sașa Pană was of the opinion that Blecher’s novel surpassed and would ultimately outlast that of Surrealism’s founder. Blecher himself was fascinated by the controlled, lucid pictorial descriptions of delirium to be found in the work of excommunicated Surrealist outcast Salvador Dalí. In a letter to Sașa Pană, dated 7 July 1934,(vi) for example, he speaks of Dalí’s “cold, perfectly legible and essential dementia”, whose “hyper-aesthetic extravagances of adjusted irrationality” he endeavours to imitate in his own texts: “For me, the ideal in writing would be a transposition of the heightened tension that is released by the paintings of Salvador Dalí.” Like Dalí’s “paranoiac critical method”, Blecher’s “surrealism” is therefore not an unmediated, disorganised outpouring of the unconscious, such as that found in the experiments with “automatic writing” made by the doctrinaire Surrealists, but rather a controlled channelling of the irrational life of the mind: “The power of the unconscious is very great. A well-structured unconscious (…) can bring ideas which our conscious mind would never have arrived at. I may thus cite two characteristic manifestations of this power: revelation and inspiration.”(vii)”

It is revelation and inspiration – what James Joyce in his autobiographical fictions of childhood and adolescence (Stephen Hero and A Portrait of the Artist as Young Man) refers to as (secular) “epiphanies” – that provide the material for Max Blecher’s own Bildungsroman of formative experiences, “occurrences” which take place almost entirely within the confines of the author’s own febrile, delirious consciousness. In childhood, Max Blecher suffered “crises” or “attacks” of unreality, in which he experienced rupture both from the outer world of objects, and from the inner world of the self. These crises, narrated in Occurrences in the Immediate Unreality, might also be likened to the haunting moments of Stimmung evoked by Giorgio de Chirico in his pittura metafisica, as well as in his oneiric novel Hebdomeros (1929), moments during which inward disquietude is experienced as outward atmosphere, submerging the world in ineffable strangeness and enigma. In psychopathology, this is the eerie atmosphere of heightened but empty significance also experienced by sufferers of dementia praecox during the so-called ‘aura’ that precedes complete rupture with reality. Psychiatrist and neurologist Klaus Conrad referred to such states of exalted dread as the “Trema”, employing a piece of German theatrical slang for stage fright.(viii). In this respect it is notable that many of de Chirico’s paintings depict the vertiginously tilted boards of theatre stages. Likewise, as we shall see below, Blecher’s occurrences in the immediate unreality are also pervaded by a menacing sense of theatricality.

During the state of Stimmung, external phenomena are thus imbued with a sense of intense but ineffable significance, which hovers tantalisingly beyond reach. Like de Chirico, who saw the world as a “vast museum of strangeness”, Blecher too locates his crises out there in the world; they are intrinsic to various places, “sickly spaces”, which thereby become menacing “invisible traps”. These crises, which Blecher defines as the “profound sentiment of the world’s pointlessness”, are thus precisely the anti-epiphany or empty transcendence of Modernism: an anxious, heightened sense of meaningfulness, but one devoid of cognisable content, like the “Anwandlungen eines Fast-Nichts” (fits or attacks of an Almost-Nothing) described by Hugo von Hofmannsthal in Die Briefe des Zurückgekehrten (Letters of Those Who Returned) (1901). Like the cast of the inner ear whose image obsesses Blecher, people and things are nothing more than the negative image of an immanent emptiness.

Although in time Blecher’s crises as such abate, they leave behind them the same “crepuscular state” that used to presage them. As in de Chirico’s cluttered paintings of his later metaphysical period, Blecher then discovers in heteroclite, seemingly insignificant objects an “essential nostalgia for the world’s pointlessness”. Such states, which oscillate between melancholy and exaltation, are also closely intertwined with the ambiguous, confusing, even dream-like, experiences of his sexual awakening as an adolescent. He experiences occurrences as disturbingly artificial and theatrical, while other people are like automatons or mannequins, oblivious that “the certitude in which we live is separated by a very fine pellicle from the world of uncertainties”. The world itself becomes an eerie stage set, and many episodes in the novel occur in settings of inherent theatrical artificiality, such as the cinema, a waxworks exhibition, or the prop-cluttered basement beneath the stage of a theatre, where Blecher finds refuge and which thus becomes a symbol of the tiers of conscious and unconscious mind. Blecher himself dreams of being an inanimate waxwork, or else he is haunted by his own photograph, which he chances to see mysteriously displayed in the booth of a travelling fairground photographer and which then takes on a life of its own, threatening to subsume his own existence. In one of the most remarkable episodes in the book, Blecher attempts to escape from the agony of his exacerbated awareness (the “Bewußstseinswelt”, as it is called by Gottfried Benn, who similarly yearns to escape the pain of consciousness by regressing to the condition of mindless protoplasm) by descending to the ontological level of amorphous, primal mud.

As a whole, Occurrences in the Immediate Unreality teems with unsettling characters and events, refracted through the prism of the author’s unique existential “illness”. It is a work that deserves recognition as one of the most remarkable texts of European modernism.

(Introduction (c) Alistair Ian Blyth and University of Plymouth Press, 2009)

(i) Cu inimă lîngă M. Blecher, in Max Blecher, Vizuina luminată, Bucharest: Cartea românească, 1971, pp. 6-7, quoted in Max Blecher, Întîmplări în irealitatea imediată. Inimi cicatrizate. Vizuina luminată. Corp transparent. Corespondență, ed. Constantin Popa and Nicolae Țone, Bucharest: Editura Vinea, 1999, p. 409. Sașa Pană was the pen name of Alexander Binder (1902-1981), a close friend of Max Blecher and an important figure in the Romanian avant-garde. As well as being a writer in his own right, he financed, edited and published unu (one), an avant-garde magazine, and, after the War, wrote a number of studies and memoirs about the Romanian avant-garde.
(ii) Edited and published by Tudor Arghezi (1880-1967), a major Romanian poet and novelist.
(iii) “Berck, orașul damnaților” (“Berck, the Town of the Damned”), Vremea, VII, 358, 7 October 1934; Max Blecher, Întîmplări în irealitatea imediată. Inimi cicatrizate. Vizuina luminată. Corp transparent. Corespondență, ed. Constantin Popa and Nicolae Țone, Bucharest: Editura Vinea, 1999, pp. 352-357.
(iv) Max Blecher, Întîmplări în irealitatea imediată. Inimi cicatrizate. Vizuina luminată. Corp transparent. Corespondență, ed. Constantin Popa and Nicolae Țone, Bucharest: Editura Vinea, 1999, p. 353.
(v) Max Blecher, Întîmplări în irealitatea imediată. Inimi cicatrizate. Vizuina luminată. Corp transparent. Corespondență, ed. Constantin Popa and Nicolae Țone, Bucharest: Editura Vinea, 1999, p. 335.
(vi) Max Blecher, Întîmplări în irealitatea imediată. Inimi cicatrizate. Vizuina luminată. Corp transparent. Corespondență, ed. Constantin Popa and Nicolae Țone, Bucharest: Editura Vinea, 1999, p. 396.
(vii) Note from an undated manuscript, quoted by Radu Țepoșu in the Preface to Max Blecher, Întîmplări în irealitatea imediată. Inimi cicatrizate. Vizuina luminată. Corp transparent. Corespondență, ed. Constantin Popa and Nicolae Țone, Bucharest: Editura Vinea, 1999, p. 12.
(viii) See the chapter ‘The Truth-Taking Stare’ in Louis A. Sass, Madness and Modernism: Insanity in the Light of Modern Art, Literature, and Thought (Cambridge, Mass., 1994), pp. 43-74.

Max Blecher, Occurrence in the Immediate Unreality, translated by Alistair Ian Blyth, University of Plymouth Press: Plymouth, 2009.

Quare morieris?

That God should let my soul fall out of his hand, into a bottomless pit, and roll an unremovable stone upon it, and leave it to that which it finds there, (and it shall find that there, which it never imagined, till it came thither) and never think more of that soul, never have more to do with it. That of that providence of God, that studies the life of every weed, and worm, and ant, and spider, and toad, and viper, there should never, never any beam flow out upon me; that that God, who looked upon me, when I was nothing, and called me when I was not, as though I had been, out of the womb and depth of darkness, will not look upon me now, when, though a miserable, and a banished, and a damned creature, yet I am his creature still, and contribute something to his glory, even in my damnation; that that God, who hath often looked upon me in my foulest uncleanness, and when I had shut out the eye of the day, the sun, and the eye of the night, the taper, and the eyes of all the world, with curtains and windows, and doors, did yet see me, and see me in mercy, by making me see that he saw me, and sometimes brought me to a present remorse, and (for that time) to a forbearing of that sin, should so turn himself from me, to his glorious saints and angels, as that no saint nor angel, nor Christ Jesus himself, should ever pray him to look towards me, never remember him, that such a soul there is; that that God, who hath so often said to my soul, Quare morieris ? Why wilt thou die ? and so often sworn to my soul, Vivit Domimis, As the Lord liveth, I would not have thee die, but live, will neither let me die, nor let me live, but die an everlasting life, and live an everlasting death; that that God, who, when he could not get into me, by standing, and knocking, by his ordinary means of entering, by his word, his mercies, hath applied his judgments, and hath shaked the house, this body, with agues and palsies, and set this house on fire, with fevers and calentures, and frightened the master of the house, my soul, with horrors, and heavy apprehensions, and so made an entrance into me; that that God should frustrate all his own purposes and practices upon me, and leave me, and cast me away, as though I had cost him nothing, that this God at last, should let this soul go away, as a smoke, as a vapour, as a bubble, and that then this soul cannot be a smoke, a vapour, nor a bubble, but must lie in darkness, as long as the Lord of light is light itself, and never spark of that light reach to my soul; what Tophet is not paradise, what brimstone is not amber, what gnashing is not a comfort, what gnawing of the worm is not a tickling, what torment is not a marriage-bed to this damnation, to be secluded eternally, eternally, eternally from the sight of God? especially to us, for as the perpetual loss of that is most heavy, with which we have been best acquainted, and to which we have been most accustomed ; so shall this damnation, which consists in the loss of the sight and presence of God, be heavier to us than others, because God hath so graciously, and so evidently, and so diversely appeared to us, in his pillar of fire, in the light of prosperity, and in the pillar of the cloud, in hiding himself for a while from us: we that have seen him in all the parts of this commission, in his word, in his sacraments, and in good example, and not believed, shall bo further removed from his sight, in the next world, than they to whom he never appeared in this. But vincenti et credenti, to him that believes aright, and overcomes all temptations to a wrong belief, God shall give the accomplishment of fulness, and fulness of joy, and joy rooted in glory, and glory established in eternity, and this eternity is God; to him that believes and overcomes, God shall give himself in an everlasting presence and fruition, Amen.

John Donne, from a Sermon preached to the Earle of Carlile, and his Company, at Sion (Autumn, 1622), on Mark 16:16, 'He that believeth not shall be damned'

Fresco in the porch of Biserica Sf. Elefterie Vechi (the Church of Old St. Eleftherios) (1744), Bucharest

Tuesday, 31 August 2010

Trulla aurea

Les Grecs dont parle Juvénal mettaient au service de leur ambition une merveilleuse souplesse de caractère, leur devise était: Tout à tous, aussi le succès ne leur manquait guère. Habiles à composer leur visage sur celui du maître, ils flattaient; c’est le grand secret de plaire; ils applaudissaient en toute occasion, même dans des circonstances singulières :
Si bene ructavit, si rectum minxit amicus.
Les éructations, qu l’on dissimule avec tant de soin chez nous et dans beaucoup d’autres pays, ne sont pas considérées comme une incongruité chez les Arabes. Les gaz s’échappant de l’estomac sont l’indice d’une bonne digestion, d’une bonne santé, et les Orientaux diraient volontiers, à ceux qui rotent, comme nous à ceux qui éternuent : Dieu vous bénisse ! Quant au second chapitre, rectum minxit, il y a là un signe évident de vigeur, de jeunesse, et puisque ces actes s’accomplissaient en public, il n’est pas étonnant qu’ils fussent l’occasion de remarques de ce genre et de compliments analogues. Mais notre Grec ne se borne pas à cela; il félicite le patron qu’il encense d’une autre chose bien difficile à dire en français :
Si trulla inverso crepitum dedit aurea fundo.
Dusaulx n’a pas osé traduire ce vers, et bien d’autres ont fait comme lui. Une longue note latine de M. Achaintre donne tous les éclaircissements nécessaires sur ce passage si dégoûtant. Nous emprunterons encore à M. Constant Dubos deux vers de son excellente traduction. Nous l’avons dit, ce confrère se croit ici en plein clinique, il ne recule devant aucune expression, jugez-en :
De son anus béant si la charge élancée
Tombe avec bruit dans l’or de sa chaise percée.
C’est une paraphrase, mais elle dit tout; elle dit trop, sans doute, et nous regrettons les derniers mots qui ne rendent pas trulla aurea. Mais hâtons-nous de passer outre, car, si médecin que nous soyons, nous devons être discrets et ne pas abuser de ces particularités de garde-robe bonnes à réjouir les Purgon et les Diafoirus de Molière.

P. Menière, Études Médicales sur les Poètes Latins, Paris 1858

Saturday, 28 August 2010

Logical lunacy

Victor Serge said, "I followed his argument
With the blank uneasiness which one might feel
In the presence of a logical lunatic."
He said it of Konstantinov. Revolution
Is the affair of logical lunatics.
The politics of emotion must appear
To be an intellectual structure. The cause
Creates a logic not to be distinguished
From lunacy.

Wallace Stevens, Esthétique du mal, part xiv

Saturday, 7 August 2010

De Nihilo

As Nothing is not Something, so every thing which is not Something, is Nothing; and wherever Something is not, Nothing is (...) For instance; when a Bladder is full of Wind, it is full of Something; but when that is let out, we aptly say, there is Nothing in it. The same may be as justly asserted of a Man as of a Bladder. However well he may be bedaubed with Lace, or with Title, yet if he have not Something in him, we may predicate the same of him as of an empty Bladder. (...) Indeed some have imagined, that Knowledge, with the adjective human placed before it, is another word for Nothing. And one of the wisest Men in the world declared, he knew Nothing. But without carrying it so far, this I believe may be allowed: it is at least possible for a Man to know Nothing. And whoever hath read over many Works of our ingenious Moderns, with proper Attention and Emolument, will, I believe, confess, that if he understands them right, he understands Nothing.

Henry Fielding, "An Essay on Nothing", Miscellanies, Vol. 3 (London, 1743)

Monday, 2 August 2010


To our grandparents, a ‘house’, a ‘well’, a familiar steeple, even their own clothes, their cloak, still meant infinitely more, were still infinitely more intimate; almost everything was a vessel in which they found something human and added something human to its store. Now, over here, there are encroaching from America empty, trivial things, sham-things, dummies of life... A house, in the American understanding of the word, an American apple or a vine from over there, have nothing in common with the house, the fruit, the grape into which the hope and reflection of our forefathers had entered... The life-infused, genuinely lived things, the things known to us, are waning and can no longer be replaced. We are perhaps the last still to know such things. Upon us rests the responsibility to preserve not only their memory (that would be too little and unreliable), but also their human and laral value (‘laral’ in the sense of the household deities [the Lares]).

Rainer Maria Rilke, letter to Witold von Hulewicz, 13 November 1925

Noch für unsere Großeltern war ein ,Haus‘, ein ,Brunnen‘, ein ihnen vertrauter Turm, ja ihr eigenes Kleid, ihr Mantel: unendlich mehr, unendlich vertaulicher; fast jedes Ding ein Gefäß, in dem sie Menschliches vorfanden und Menschliches hinzusparten. Nun drängen, von Amerika her, leere gleichgültige Dinge herüber, Schein-Dinge, Lebens-Attrappen... Ein Haus, im amerikanischen Verstande, ein amerikanischer Apfel oder eine dortige Rebe, hat nichts gemeinsam mit dem Haus, der Frucht, der Traube, in die Hoffnung und Nachdenklichkeit unserer Vorväter eingegangen war... Die belebten, die erlebten, die uns mitwissenden Dinge gehen zur Neige und können nicht mehr ersetzt werden. Wir sind vielleicht die Letzten, die noch solche Dinge gekannt haben. Auf uns ruht die Verantwortung, nicht allein ihr Andenken zu erhalten (das wäre wenig und unzuverlässig), sondern ihren humanen und larischen Wert (,Larisch‘, im Sinne der Haus-Gottheiten.)

Photographs: Sergej Mixailovich Prokudin-Gorskij, Russia 1909-1912 (Library of Congress)

Saturday, 31 July 2010


A patient noticed the waiter in the coffee-house; he skipped past him so quickly and uncannily. He noticed odd behaviour in an acquaintance which made him feel strange; everything in the street was so different, something was bound to be happening. A passer-by gave such a penetrating glance, he could be a detective. Then there was a dog who seemed hypnotised, a kind of mechanical dog made of rubber. There were such a lot of people walking about, something must surely be starting up against the patient. All the umbrellas were rattling as if some apparatus was hidden inside them.

In other cases patients have noticed transfigured faces, unusual beauty of landscape, brilliant golden hair, overpowering glory of the sunlight. Something must be going on; the world is changing, a new era is starting. Lights are bewitched and will not burn; something is behind it. A child is like a monkey; people are mixed up, they are imposters all, they all look unnatural. The house-signs are crooked, the streets look suspicious; everything happens so quickly. The dog scratches oddly at the door.

Karl Jaspers, General Psychopathology, trans. J. Hoenig and Marian W. Hamilton (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1963), p. 100.

Einem Kranken fällt im Café der Kellner auf. Der hupfte so schnell und unheimlich an ihm vorbei. Bei einem Bekannten fiel ihm das seltsame Benehmen auf, so daß ihm nicht geheuer war. Auf der Straße war alles so anders. Es mußte etwas los sein. Ein vorübergehender Mann hatte einen so durchdringenden Blick, das war womöglich ein Detektiv. Dann kam ein Hund wie hypnotisiert war, wie ein Gummihund, als wenn er durch Maschinen bewegt wurde. Es waren so viele Menschen unterwegs: es war wohl etwas gegen den Kranken im Werke. Alle klapperten mit den Schirmen, als wenn ein Apparat darin wäre.

In anderen Fällen fallen den Kranken die verklärten Geschichter, die ganz ungewohnte Schönheit der Landschaft, dar auffällig goldene Haar, die überwältigende Schönheit der Sonne auf. Es muß etwas vor sich gehen. Es verändert sich die Welt. Es ist ein neues Zeitalter im Anbruch. Die Lichter sind verhext und wollen nicht brennen. Da steckt etwas Unnatürliches dahinter. Das Kind ist wie ein Affe geworden. Die Menschen sind ,,verwechselt‘‘, es sind ,,Figuranten‘‘, sie sehen alle unnatürlich aus. Die Schilder sind schief an den Häusern, die Straßen sehen so verdächtig aus. Es geht ,,alles so schnell‘‘. Der Hund kratzt so sonderbar an der Tür.

Karl Jaspers, Allgemeine Psychopathologie (Berlin, Heidelberg and New York: Springer-Verlag, 1923, 1973), p. 84

Friday, 30 July 2010

Die lyrische Stimmung

...Darum geht im Liede und der lyrischen Stimmung das Wollen (das persönliche Interesse des Zwecks) und das reine Anschauen der sich darbietenden Umgebung wundersam gemischt durch einander: es werden Beziehungen zwischen beiden gesucht und imaginirt; die subjective Stimmung, die Affection des Willens, theilt der angeschauten Umgebung und diese wiederum jener ihre Farbe im Reflex mit: von diesem ganzen so gemischten und getheilten Gemüthszustande ist das ächte Lied der Abdruck

Die Welt als Wille und Vorstellung (1819)

Ueber den Prozess seines Dichtens hat uns Schiller durch eine ihm selbst unerklärliche, doch nicht bedenklich scheinende psychologische Beobachtung Licht gebracht; er gesteht nämlich als den vorbereitenden Zustand vor dem Actus des Dichtens nicht etwa eine Reihe von Bildern, mit geordneter Causalität der Gedanken, vor sich und in sich gehabt zu haben, sondern vielmehr eine musikalische Stimmung („Die Empfindung ist bei mir anfangs ohne bestimmten und klaren Gegenstand; dieser bildet sich erst später. Eine gewisse musikalische Gemüthsstimmung geht vorher, und auf diese folgt bei mir erst die poetische Idee“).

Die Geburt der Tragödie aus dem Geist der Musik (1872)

Friday, 23 July 2010

Like another Sisyphus

... and giving to one of his old acquaintances his wallet, books, and opistographs, away went he out of town towards a little hill or promontory of Corinth called Craneum: and there on the strand, a pretty level place, did he roll his jolly tub, which served him for an house to shelter him from injuries of the weather; there, I say, in a great vehemency of spirit, did he turn it, veer it, wheel it, whirl it, frisk it, jumble it, shuffle it, huddle it, tumble it, hurry it, justle it, jumble it, joult it, evert it, overthrow it, subvert it, beat it, thwack it, bump it, knock it, thrust it, push it, batter it, shock it, shake it, throw it, toss it, jerk it, overthrow it upside-down, topsy-turvy, arsiversy, tread it, trample it, stamp it, slamp it, tap it, ting it, ring it, tingle it, towl it, sound it, resound it, shut it, unbung it, stop it, close it, unstopple it. He hurled it, slid it down the hill, precipitated it from the very height of the Craneum; heaved it, transfigured it, bespattered it, garnished it, furnished it, bored it, bewrayed it, parched it, bedashed, tottered it, adorned, staggered it, transformed it, brangled it, heaved it, carried it, bedashed it, hacked it; then from the foot to the top, like another Sisyphus with his stone, bore it up again, slid it down the hill, and every way so banged it and belaboured it that it was ten thousand to one he had not struck the bottom of it out.

François Rabelais, Gargantua and Pantagruel, trans. Sir Thomas Urquhart (1653, 1693)

Monday, 19 July 2010

The Seductiveness of the Interval

The Seductiveness of the Interval catalogue is available from the Renaissance Society Bookstore, at the University of Chicago

Friday, 16 July 2010

Encomium culicis

Caelius Calcagninus (1479-1541)

Ast ego magnanimum culicem quo carmine laudem?
Certe huius rara est gloria, rarus honor.
Cetera quaecunque a nobis insecta vocantur,
Furtim ex insidiis figere tela solent.
Ille, cave, exclamat, metuendaque classica pulsat:
Dissidiaeque nota, qui dolet, ille dolet.
In reliquis fraudem atque astum causabere: nemo
De culicis poterit vulnere jure queri.

l. 4 solent Buonaventura, Carmina illustrium poetarum italorum ] sonant Dornau, Amphitheatrum Sapientiae Socraticae Joco-Seriae

But by which song might I praise the great-souled gnat? Assuredly, rare is its glory, rare its renown. Whatever other things we call insects are wont to lay traps, fastening their stings by stealth. The gnat cries out, "Beware!" and blares his fearful war-trumpet: "And mark the fray, whoever smarts will rue. As for the rest, you will allege trickery and cunning: but no one can justly accuse a gnat for the sake of a wound."

Thursday, 15 July 2010

Latmia saxa

Politian (Angelo de'Ambrosini da Monte Pulciano) (1454-1494)

O mihi quanta datis fallacia gaudia, somni!
Invideo, Endymion, Latmia saxa tibi.
Iam si nil sopor est gelidae nisi mortis imago,
Omnia mors superat gaudia: vita, vale.

Oh, slumbers, how many illusive joys you give me! / I envy thee, Endymion, thy Latmian* rocks. / And if sleep is nought but the image of frigid death, / Then death doth surpass all other joys: life, farewell.

* Latmus, a mountain at the mouth of the Maeander, in Caria, where the Moon descended to kiss the sleeping Endymion

Sunday, 4 July 2010

Melancholicorum risus

Georgio de Chirico, Mélancolie (1912)

Qua de caussa Melancholicorum risus rarior ille quidem, sed immoderatus esse solet?

Certum est: sicut iracundia non est in felle, cuius conceptaculum est in folliculo cavae parti hepatis adnascenti: Ita risum & facultatem ridendis etiam in splene non esse. Splen enim tam destinatus est a natura ad recipiendum ab hepate melancholicum sanguinem & excrementum: Melancholicus autem humor risui, sicut gaudio inimicus est. Risus igitur in ea parte non esse potest, in qua hic humor abundat. Unde igitur est, quod melancholicos effusius ridere contingit? Responsio vera ad hanc quaestionem haec est: Melancholici seu quorum sanguis valde melancholicus & crassus est, ut rariuscule rident, quia sunt natura frigidiores, ita incalescente humore melancholico, si quando in risum erumpunt, in hoc saepiuscule sunt nimii seu solent modum excedere, ob iam dictam calefactionem adventitiam.

Rodolphi Gocklenii De risu et ridiculo problemata (Frankfurt, 1607), cap. xvi

By what cause is the laughter of melancholics wont to be infrequent but immoderate?

It is certain that just as irascibility does not reside in the gall, whose receptacle is in the sac adjoined to the hollow part of the liver, so too laughing and the faculty of laughter do not reside in the spleen. For the spleen is designed by nature to collect melancholic blood and waste from the liver. But the melancholic humour is inimical to laughter, the same as to joy. Therefore laughter cannot reside in that part where this humour abounds. And so why is it that melancholics are seized with unrestrained laughter? The real answer to this question is that melancholics or those whose blood is exceedingly melancholic and incrassate very rarely laugh, because they are colder by nature, and so once the melancholic humour has been inflamed, if they burst out laughing they are very often excessive in this or wont to be immoderate, because of the said heating of the connective tissue.

Saturday, 3 July 2010

Cur nullus possit seipse titillare?

Cur nullus possit seipse titillare?

Titillatio risus species esse videtur, etsi nesciam maximis quibusdam Philosophis placere verum risum non esse, sed huic similem. Alii ita loquuntur, ut dicant, ex titillatu in nobis excitari risum, sed haec nunc relinquentes in medio, quaerimus, cur nemo possit seipsum titillare? Respondit Vallesius lib. 5. controversiarum cap. 9. Titillatio fit ex fraudulento & clandestino tactu seu attrectatione partium acerrimi sensus, ad quas musculorum sunt capita. Eae sentiunt voluptatem ex tactu velut delintis carneis partibus, quem repente & latentur accedens transfundit gaudium ad cor cum quadam novitatis specie, atque ita risus fit. At nullus tactus potest sibi ipsi occulte seu latenter occurrere, Nemo igitur potest seipse titillare.

Rodolphi Gocklenii De risu et ridiculo problemata (Frankfurt, 1607), cap. v

Why is no man able to tickle himself?

Tickling can be seen to be a species of laughter, although in the opinion of certain great philosophers it is not true laughter, but merely similar to it. Likewise, others say that laughter is, as they argue, stimulated in us from a tickling, but leaving these things undecided we shall now ask why it is that no man is able to tickle himself. Vallesius, in Book 5, Chapter 9 of his Disputations, answers that tickling is produced by furtive and secret touching or by fingering of the parts of sharpest sense, present at the extremities of the muscles. These feel pleasure from the touching and the contraction of the fleshy parts, which the swiftly and secretly attendant delight transfers to the heart together with a certain kind of surprise, and thus laughter is produced. But no man is able to touch himself in secret or run up on himself and surprise himself. Therefore no man is able to tickle himself.

Sunday, 20 June 2010

Tute, si recte vixeris

Aeschylus in Sicilia moenibus urbis, in qua morabatur, egressus, aprico in loco resedit: super quem aquila testudinem ferens, elusa splendore capitis (erat enim capillis vacuum) perinde atque lapidi eam collisit, ut fractae carne vesceretur: eoque ictu origo et principium fortioris tragoediae extinctum est.

La Mort est inévitable.

Ne crois pas éviter la mort,
Que la Loy divine t’apprête;
Car si ton propre toit ne t’écrase la tête,
Le toit d’un étranger accomplira le sort.

Othonis Vaeni [Otto van Veen's] Emblemata Horatiana (1684)

Wednesday, 2 June 2010


The lychgate of a field showed Father Conmee breadths of cabbages, curtseying to him with ample underleaves. The sky showed him a flock of small white clouds going slowly down the wind.

James Joyce, Ulysses (1922), Wandering Rocks

Мокрая осень летела над Петербургом; и невесело так мерцал сентябревский денек. Зеленоватым роем проносились там облачные клоки; они сгущались в желтоватый дым, припадающий к крышам угрозою. (Sodden autumn was flying over Petersburg; and joylessly gleamed the September day. Thence cloud-tatters were borne in a greenish swarm; they congealed into a yellowish smoke, tumbling down to the rooftops threat-wise.)

Andrei Bely, Petersburg (1913), A Wet Autumn

The wind began to moan in hollow murmurs, as the sun went down carrying glad day elsewhere; and a train of dull clouds coming up against it menaced thunder and lightning. Large drops of rain soon began to fall, and, as the storm clouds came sailing onward, others supplied the void they left behind and spread over all the sky.

Charles Dickens, The Old Curiosity Shop (1841), Chapter 29

Небо было ужасно темное, но явно можно было различить разорванные облака, а между ними бездонные черные пятна. Вдруг я заметил в одном из этих пятен звездочку и стал пристально глядеть на нее. Это потому, что эта звездочка дала мне мысль: я положил в эту ночь убить себя. (The sky was frightfully dark, but it was possible to descry the ragged clouds clearly, and between them bottomless black spots. All of a sudden I noticed in one of these spots a little star and I began to stare at it fixedly. That was because the little star gave me an idea: I decided to kill myself that very night.)

Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Dream of a Ridiculous Man (1877)

Становилось все темнее. Туча залила уже полнеба, стремясь к Ершалаиму, белые кипящие облака неслись впереди наполненной черной влагой и огнем тучи. Сверкнуло и ударило над самым холмом. (It was growing ever darker. Nearing Jerusalem, the cloud had already flooded half the sky. Seething white billows raced ahead of the cloud saturated with black moisture and flame.)

Mikhail Bulgakov, Master and Margarita (1931-1940), Chapter 16 'The Execution'

It was principally for these reasons that Watt would have been glad to hear Erskine’s voice, wrapping up safe in words the kitchen space, the extraordinary newel-lamp, the stairs that were never the same and of which even the number of steps seemed to vary, from day to day, and from night to morning, and many other things in the house, and the bushes without and other garden growths, that so often prevented Watt from taking the air, even on the finest day, so that he grew pale, and constipated, and even the light as it came and went and the clouds that climbed the sky, now slow, now rapid, and generally from west to east, or sank down towards the earth on the other side, for the clouds seen from Mr. Knott’s premises were not quite the clouds that Watt was used to, and Watt had a great experience of clouds, and could distinguish the various sorts, the cirrhus, the stratus, the cumulus and the various other sorts, at a glance.

Samuel Beckett, Watt (1953)

There might be a line of spaced trees silhouetted against the horizon, and hot still noons above a wilderness of clover, and Claude Lorrain clouds inscribed remotely into misty azure with only their cumulus part conspicuous against the neutral swoon of the background.

Vladimir Nabokov, Lolita (1955)

A fitful light was breaking through the clouds, and the arches circumscribing the quadrangle cast pale shadows that weakened or intensified as the clouds stole across the sun.

Mervyn Peake, Titus Groan (1946), 'The Sun Goes down Again'

Friday, 28 May 2010

De poenarum tartarearum latitudine

Etenim oculi, qui nunc colorum venustatem, concinnasque membrorum symmetrias studiose demirantur, multaque quae referre non lubet, nec licet, curiose simul et exitiose observant, tunc solis, lunae, caeterorumque astrorum splendore, suavissima Christi et Sanctorum omnium visione, omni denique quod oculorum sensum quoquo modo capere aut oblectare queat privati, tenebris, fletu, fumo, terrifioque daemonum et impiorum aspectu vehementissime offendentur. Aures, quae vocanti Christo male nunc occluduntur, diaboli suggestionibus late panduntur, musicis numeris ad ciendam voluptatem comparatis distenduntur, ineptas nugatorum facetias, facetasque ineptias, adulatores rursum, alienaeque famae corrosores avide excipiunt, quaeque miserorum clamoribus et fletibus, vivificoque Dei verbo fastidito, ad inanes fabulas se se convertunt, horribili impiorum clamore, ulutata, fletu, planctu, gemitu, suspiriis, maledictis, blasphemisque vocibus mire tunc obtundentur. [...] Gustatus, qui esculentis et poculentis plusque Sibariticis hic male sese oblectarat, quotidie splendide epulando, immoderateque helluando, omni cibariorum et potionum suavitate orbatus, perpetua isthic siti et fame excarnificabitur, aut certe felle et absynthio ex[s]atiabitur. [...] Odoratus, qui exquisitissimis aromatum et unguentorum odoribus hic ad luxum et lasciviam abutebatur, teterrimo foetore isthic affligetur. [...] Ad tactum quod spectat, ut is unus omnium latissime patet, ita ei nusquam non, unde offendi queat, ocurret. Nec impiorum corpora solum enim erunt segnia, crassa, obscura, foetida, deformiaque, verum etiam maxime patibilia. At vero sensuum exteriorum poenae, ad sensum communem, phantasiam, aestimativam, memoriam, caeterasque omnes tam organicas, quam inorganicas animae vires ordine quodam penetrantes atrocissimos isthic cruciatus excitaturae sunt.

Theodor Anton Peltanus, De Inferno et miserando impiorum statu (1569)

Truly, the eyes, which now eagerly marvel at the loveliness of colours and the pleasing symmetries of the limbs, which inquisitively yet perniciously gaze upon many things neither permissible nor decent to mention, but which then shall be bereft of the radiance of sun, moon and other stars, of the most sweet sight of Christ and all the Saints, and, in short, of all that the eyesight might seize upon or delight in howsoever, will be most violently assailed by darkness, lamentation, smoke, and the fearful sight of demons and sinners. The ears, which now are evilly shut to the call of Christ, which yawn wide to the insinuations of the devil, which gape to musical measures composed in order to excite lascivious pleasure, which avidly listen to the absurd witticisms of idle speeches, inane jokes, flatterers and those who gnaw away at others’ reputation, and which turn aside in disgust from the life-giving word of God, preferring vain stories, will then be deafened by the dreadful clamour of sinners, by wailing, lamenting, weeping, groaning, sighing, cursing and blaspheming voices. [...] The taste, which here evilly delights in Sybaritic foods and beverages, every day feasting ostentatiously, gormandising immoderately, there, deprived of the sweetness of nourishment and drink, shall be perpetually emaciated with thirst and hunger, or else glutted on gall and wormwood. [...] The smell, which here abuses the exquisite scents of perfumes and unguents for purposes of luxury and lust, there shall be afflicted with a most noisome stench. [...] With regard to touch, as this is the broadest of all [the senses] in extent, there will be no place it might run whence not to suffer mortification. Not only will sinners’ bodies be sluggish, heavy, darksome, foetid, and misshapen, but also sensitive to pain in the highest degree. And indeed the punishments of the external senses, penetrating in turn to the sensus communis, phantasia, instinctive judgement ([vis] aestimativa), memory and all the other faculties of the soul, both organic and inorganic, will in that place rouse unrelenting torments.