Rose, oh pure contradiction, delight
of being no one’s sleep under so
It was said: “To honour a visitor, the Egyptian beauty Nimet Eloui, Rilke gathered some roses from his garden. While doing so, he pricked his hand on a thorn. This small wound failed to heal, grew rapidly worse, soon his entire arm was swollen, and his other arm became affected as well”, and so he died.
the twenty-fourth Sonnet to Orpheus:
Look at the flowers, so faithful to what is earthly,
to whom we lend fate from the very border of fate.
And if they are sad about how they must wither and die,
perhaps it is our vocation to be their regret.
All Things want to fly. Only we are weighed down by desire,
caught in ourselves and enthralled with our heaviness.
Oh what consuming, negative teachers we are
for them, while eternal childhood fills them with grace.
If someone were to fall into intimate slumber, and slept
deeply with Things—: how easily he would come
to a different day, out of the mutual depth.
Or perhaps he would stay there; and they would blossom and praise
their newest convert, who now is like one of them,
all those silent companions in the wind of the meadows.
The events narrated are but images or projections of a longing and of whatever runs contrary to this longing, excites it, or merely protracts it. Everything the knight and princess do betray that they act in virtue of a necessity they are unaware of — and that perhaps the author has been unaware of too — but that is stronger than the need of their happiness. Objectively, not one of the barriers to their fulfillment of that love is insuperable, and yet each time they give it up. It is not too much to say that they never miss a chance of getting parted. When there is no obstruction, they invent one, as in the case of the drawn sword and of Tristan’s marriage. They invent obstructions as if on purpose, notwithstanding that such barriers are their bane. Can it be in order to please the author and reader? It is all one; for the demon of courtly love which prompts the lovers in their inmost selves to the devices that are the cause of their pain is the very demon of the novel as we in the West like it to be.
What, then, is the legend really about? The partings of the lovers? Yes, but in the name of passion, and for love of the very love that agitates them, in order that this love may be intensified and transfigured — at the cost of their happiness and even of their lives.
The secret and disturbing significance of the myth is beginning to loom out — the peril it at once expresses and veils, the passion to which to yield is like a swoon. But it is too late to turn away. We are affected, we are under the spell, we grow alive to the ‘exquisite anguish’. It would be idle to condemn; swooning cannot be condemned. But is it not a philosopher’s passion to mediate in the act of swooning? Perhaps knowledge is but the effort of the mind that resists the headlong fall and holds back in the midst of temptation." —
Denis de Rougemont — on Tristan and Iseult from Love in the Western World
Our eagerness for both novels and films with their identical type of plot; the idealized eroticism that pervades our culture and upbringing and provides the pictures that fill the background of our lives; our desire for ‘escape’, which a mechanical boredom exacerbates — everything within and about us glorifies passion. Hence the prospect of a passionate experience has come to seem the promise that we are about to live more fully and more intensely. We look upon passion as a transfiguring force, something beyond delight and pain, an ardent beatitude. In ‘passion’ we are no longer aware of that ‘which suffers’, only of what is ‘thrilling’. And yet actually passionate love is a misfortune.
Today I had the privilege of joining Kenneth Haynes of Brown University to discuss a few selected poems of Geoffrey Hill — the collected works of whom Haynes had edited — in a seminar setting. Being wholly unacquainted with this poet, I was surprised to hear of his critical acclaim, but it is for good reason. Whereas the distinct modernist figures of poetry approach the form of their work in a manner of dense classical allusions that might lighten bereavement, Hill, also a martyrologist difficult in style and subject, is skeptical of the prophet in the face of the historical weight of words. In the seminar we focused on a series of eight poems exactly in the center of his collection entitled Canaan and on perhaps his most critically examined poem
born 19.6.32——deported 24.9.42
Undesirable you may have been, untouchable
you were not. Not forgotten
or passed over at the proper time.
As estimated, you died. Things marched,
sufficient, to that end.
Just so much Zyklon and leather, patented
terror, so many routine cries.
(I have made
an elegy for myself it
September fattens on the vines. Roses
flake from the wall. The smoke
of harmless fires drifts to my eyes.
This is plenty. This is more than enough.
Immediately the subject is clear. The first word ‘undesirable’ already carries the connotation of those persecuted in the second world war, but Hill is evoking a specific person — one death — per the epigraph. There is touching without desire, the Hebrew God passed over Egypt at the proper time, Hill conjuring a detached language to describe the suffering — the pun on patent leather boots, etc. — a language detached from the humanity of the events.
There is distance, however, between the events and the poem, the events and the poet, the events and the audience — as of course we expect there to be. The smoke of the fires in which countless people died is ‘harmless,’ September is not only the date which the unnamed subject of the epigraph was deported, it is also the month after armistice. Hill cannot be overly empathetic — that would be indecent — thus the understatement of the last line, though the ‘This’ is emphatically repeated twice. This being the poem, this being the best response to suffering, this being one death. The poem is harmless — harm is not implicated in the imagination — but is it adequate?
We’re drawn to the parenthetical in the middle of the poem as it is constructed differently. We don’t expect the poet to be the subject of the elegy, but this is not a lamentation. Hill is not concerned with pity because pity is the most easily accessible emotion towards the past. I think what Hill is trying to evoke is something more in line with memory — the child was not forgotten at the proper time. The poet is concerned with developing a lens in which to view the moral degradation of history, the poet is concerned with the sensitive weight of words. Language is a struggle against silence.
In Geoffrey Hill’s notebooks around the time he was writing this poem, he had copied a quote from Thomas Mann’s The Genesis of Doctor Faustus: he wrote that one should be “open simultaneously to the criticism of bloody barbarism and bloodless intellectualism.” That is where Hill wants to stand.
yesterday i was crying in my room and a girl heard my sobs even though i utilized a pillow to muffle them and asked if she could come in. then she read a herman hesse story where the character or author — consumed by a certain velleity of not appreciating the far-off character of either the path north or the path south — walks into a field by whim and decides that the world is lovelier than ever before.
(the story was accompanied by shitty watercolors)
in kierkegaard’s elucidation of the sickness unto death, the self is defined as the relation which relates itself to its own self — the self is a soliloquy. and thus arises the despair of infinitude which lacks finitude — our envisioning of extraordinary fantasy — and possibility lacking necessity — entirely becoming and the subsequent evaporation in velleity yes yes that is the word — but without such a stringent relation you lack infinitude thus close mindedness or lack possibility thus triviality — as i’m inclined to categorize the hesse.
and if you can know someone in a moment but not over a period of time, or over a period of time but not in a moment, how can there ever be an aristotelian mean?
i’m reminded of a chekhov story of exile in siberia. even in siberia one can live! with nothing. nothing. materials decay. but — if you arrived in heaven, would you be able to recognize it?
Tired of his Spanish land, an old soldier of the king sought solace in the vast geographies of Ariosto, in that valley of the moon where the time wasted by dreams is contained and in the golden idol of Mohammed stolen by Montalbán.
In gentle mockery of himself, he imagined a credulous man who, perturbed by his readings of marvels, decided to seek prowess and enchantment in prosaic places called El Toboso or Montiel.
Vanquished by reality, by Spain, Don Quixote died in his native village in the year 1614. He was survived but a short time by Miguel de Cervantes.
For both of them, for the dreamer and the dreamed one, the whole scheme of the work consisted in the opposition of two worlds: the unreal world of the books of chivalry, the ordinary everyday world of the seventeenth century.
They did not suspect that the years would finally smooth away that discord, they did not suspect that La Mancha and Montiel and the knight’s lean figure would be, for posterity, no less poetic than the episodes of Sinbad or the vast geographies of Ariosto.
For in the beginning of literature is myth, and in the end as well." — Jorge Luis Borges — “Parable of Cervantes and the Quixote" trans. James E. Irby
Proof that inadequate, even childish measures may serve to rescue one from peril:
To protect himself from the Sirens Ulysses stopped his ears with wax and had himself bound to the mast of his ship. Naturally any and every traveler before him could have done the same, except those whom the Sirens allured even from a great distance; but it was known to all the world that such things were of no help whatever. The song of the Sirens could pierce through everything, and the longing of those they seduced would have broken far stronger bonds than chains and masts. But Ulysses did not think of that, although he had probably heard of it. He trusted absolutely to his handful of wax and his fathom of chain, and in innocent elation over his little stratagem sailed out to meet the Sirens.
Now the Sirens have a still more fatal weapon than their song, namely their silence. And though admittedly such a thing has never happened, still it is conceivable that someone might possibly have escaped from their singing; but from their silence certainly never. Against the feeling of having triumphed over them by one’s one strength, and the consequent exaltation that bears down everything before it, no earthly powers can resist.
And when Ulysses approached them the potent songstresses actually did not sing, whether because they thought that this enemy could be vanquished only by their silence, or because the look of bliss on the face of Ulysses, who was thinking of nothing but his wax and his chains, made them forget their singing.
But Ulysses, if one may so express it, did not hear their silence; he thought they were singing and that he alone did not hear them. For a fleeting moment he saw their throats rising and falling, their breasts lifting, their eyes filled with tears, their lips half-parted, but believed that these were accompaniments to the airs which died unheard around him. Soon, however, all this faded from his sight as he fixed his gaze on the distance, the Sirens literally vanished before his resolution, and at the very moment when they were nearest to him he knew of them no longer.
But they—lovelier than ever—stretched their necks and turned, let their awesome hair flutter free in the wind, and freely stretched their claws on the rocks. They no longer had any desire to allure; all that they wanted was to hold as long as they could the radiance that fell from Ulysses’ great eyes.
If the Sirens had possessed consciousness they would have been annihilated at that moment. But they remained as they had been; all that had happened was that Ulysses had escaped them.
A codicil to the foregoing has also been handed down. Ulysses, it is said, was so full of guile, was such a fox, that not even the goddess of fate could pierce his armor. Perhaps he had really noticed, although here the human understanding is beyond its depths, that the Sirens were silent, and held up to them and to the gods the aforementioned pretense merely as a sort of shield." — Franz Kafka — “The Silence of the Sirens” trans. Willa and Edwin Muir