Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Clay: Appendix 1: the SCAR

C'étaient des femmes quelconques . . .
She passes me on the street, unknown. She is standing still, deciding which way to go. She is squinting in the sun. For a moment I can see her. I can see that it was at least some months earlier she had written the word SCAR across her chest with a knife or perhaps the edge of a broken bar glass. The SCAR is permanent.

I could see the letters A and R through the opening of her blouse, but as the blouse was partially transparent I could make out, through the fabric, the other letters as well, reading SCAR in their entirety. I was left standing there as she walked away.

The word arched across her chest from the top of her right breast to the top of her left. It seems it was written with both fury and precision: the SCAR is deep, yet its letters are in proportion; the marks stand out in a rich rose color.

But she is not the type to have such a scar. Her blouse is rather fine to be framing it, and her age is perhaps 29. Her hair is long and auburn, her look calm and educated.

I find the scar irresistible on her--especially now that the perplexity of reading it has worn off and I have let her walk away to who knows where.

Why didn't I begin to talk with her? Had I, I know I would have been wise enough to talk of anything but the word there on her breast.

But even as I spoke it would have been the scar leading me to do so. It would have been evident there below her mouth even as she responded to me. Her mouth would have responded with words inevitably colored by this scar, colored rose red as my words also would have been inevitably colored.

To have an affair with such a woman, never asking about or even mentioning the word before you.

That I've been mesmerized by the sight of her becomes quite amusing when I contrast it with the fact that just before walking out onto the street where I saw her I'd been in the café reading the last pages of "Noms de pays: le nom." These are the pages in which Marcel dwells on the new generation of women, the elegance of whose manners and dress he cannot himself believe in. The contrast of two such texts read both during the same hour of a summer afternoon leads me to wonder: Can I believe both in the beauty of Proust's writing and in the beauty of the writing glimpsed on this woman's breast?

Friday, August 7, 2009

Clay: Appendix 2

[. . .] thing as "formless matter." Evil resides rather in a kind of willful coup of some part of God's creative forming. Evil is a willful coup of forms that, taking unto itself further form-like character, propels what might be called pseudo-creations. Detached from the divine, pseudo-creations bear the stamp of non-being. They ring hollow, and this hollow ringing can be recognized as their mark of provenance.



Just as the ear needs to hear words of love and anger, so the eye, if it is to be the eye of man, needs to see the idols.

The earliest recorded dream is that of a Mesopotamian woman, written down thousands of years B.C. The woman was a temple guardian. One night she dreamt that she went into the temple and saw that all the idols were gone and that the people who should have been there worshiping were gone too.

This ancient dream shows an ancient anxiety, an anxiety still with us today. We fear that the idols will go missing and that if they do there will be only empty space where they once stood. We fear that if this happens we might be voided out as well.

Our eye, having nowhere to rest in the flatness of space, begins to wander aimlessly, and in that wandering our essence is lost.

Whether of wood or stone or otherwise, man needs the idols. This doesn't mean that man worships the idols. Such is the old misguided fear of the iconoclasts. The idols merely allow man's eye to focus, which is what allows man to worship at all. The idols bring the eye to rest in order that the spirit may roam to the right places, seeking the divine.

* * *

In ancient Israel, if the prophets succeeded in extirpating the idols, the Temple became an idol. In the Diaspora, the Jews had to carry their idols with them into exile: the new idol thus became the Torah itself, a scroll containing the sacred texts. The Jews became "the people of the Book."

As for the Muslims, they forbade all representational art (i.e. idols) so that the Koran itself or calligraphed texts from the Koran could take the idols' place. Under pressure of the interdiction against idolatry, the Muslims created the world's most striking examples of manuscript illumination, works that nearly take the breath away for their subtlety and balance.

In Europe the Protestant revolution made a similar displacement: the paintings of saints and the reliquaries had to go, they said, and they lifted up the Bible in their place. Translated into the vernaculars, the Bible could henceforth hold the eye of this new people of the Book.

That the Bible is now bound in one volume, that one can clutch it, that its words have the thin but stark substantiality of black ink on paper--all this allows it to continue in its function.

* * *

Along with the other nightmares our new millennium brings us, there returns the same ancient nightmare of the missing idols. The flat computer screen with its constantly shifting contents and its hypertext links leads the eye to wander in unprecedented ways. Where and how can the eye focus? Doesn't it rather become fatigued and diverted? I myself can never read a text online. If I want to really read something I must download and print it. But like many of the faithful, I wonder about the people around me. I wonder if they may not be drifting into a Diaspora they themselves only vaguely suspect: an ultimate Diaspora away from the possibility of worship, away from man himself. Is this unduly pessimistic? Is it only a bad dream? Uncertainty and persistence. Our concentrated waiting will tell.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Clay: Appendix 4: A Letter to H.

[In August of 1996, I moved from Madison to Taipei. During my first year in Taiwan, I corresponded mainly with H., a friend of mine from graduate school.]


Dear H.:

All that simply means that something is there, something which Barnabas has the chance of using, something or other at the very least; and that it is Barnabas' own fault if he can't get any farther than doubt and anxiety and despair. --Kafka's The Castle, K. to Olga

Our ways of thinking are fundamentally different. In this letter, in a summary fashion, I will take this up. You must know these differences yourself. I think it's curious we haven't fallen out by now, that we've managed to continue communicating. Of course I will take up only my side of the bargain, because your side I can only get at secondhand.

* * *

For one thing, I am a Christian. This is something you must have already recognized, though at what level you recognized it I'm not sure. But in fact I've been a Christian since before we met.

I ought to make clear at least something about how I believe, since the fact of this belief is something you--I know this much--find hard to accept.

First of all, you should know that I am not a Christian merely out of some kind of "conservative" cultural solidarity. These kind of non-believing Christians exist by the churchful, but I'm not one of them. They have been taken in by the Enlightenment; I have not. I actually do believe in God and the soul and revelation.

I'm not of the fundamentalist mindset either. My understanding of things is quite different from the fundamentalists. The revelation, as given in Scripture and elsewhere, is not a kind of literal transcription of the truths of the divine, but is rather oblique: it points to an Otherness that can't be represented in language in any case. This is not to say, however, that I think there is nothing true about the specificity of the Scriptures. The opposite is the case. I am not a believer in cultural relativism when it comes to such things. Rather, there is a specificity in revelation. The texts of Buddhism, for example, are not part of it, or are only so in a very weak manner. The poems of the Mayans, whatever they may have been, were not part of it, or only in some weak and tentative manner. The revelation given in the Bible is not that of a particular culture, but is rather the revelation as given to man as such. This is to say it concerns the destiny of man as such, the meaning of man as such.

These few remarks begin to define what I believe, what I mean by saying I am a Christian.

* * *

You and I know each other because of our mutual concern with literature. But of course here again our thinking is fundamentally different. I have some idea of your thinking of literature from being in classes with you and from reading your dissertation proposal. My own understanding of literature has little in common with yours. I may get at my understanding of literature by beginning with what I could call the literary absolute.

For me, the texts of the Bible are literature's highest meaning. Literature's ultimate meaning is to be the textual medium of revelation. It is a matter of text, and revelation. Literature is that which results from the meeting of these two. Even the manner in which many of the most important Biblical texts came to be written--as a choosing, an editing, a kind of layering one could indicate by the metaphor of a heavily beleaguered palimpsest--even this for me makes the texts of revelation more compelling as the examples of literature. They define from then on what the word literature is to mean.

Literature for me is a question of canons even more than it is a question of rhetorical tropes. The Biblical texts are the Primary Canon and the great texts of Western literature are what I would call the Secondary Canon. They are a secondary canon because they are written after the fact of and under the dispensation of revelation. Following this understanding, the literature of classical antiquity must then constitute a Third Canon, being neither the Primary Canon nor the literature of the culture of the revelation, but being important to the formation (mainly the generic formation) of that latter literature. These remarks indicate how literature is arranged according to my understanding. If I continue reading and studying literature, it is partly in the hopes of an ever-greater understanding of the relationships holding between the major canons. This isn't to say, however, that literature is a scholar's game. If I read Villon or Dostoyevsky with particular delight, it's because these canonical writers articulate parts of a world whose general structure and meaning is founded in the revelation given in the Bible. And this is to say, for one who believes, that they articulate parts of the world as such. Thus it is that those who are not interested in the real world are not much interested in literature.

This is not an apology for the West. Of course I'm writing of the world as such in a manner that would make cultural anthropologists and the politically correct cringe. That doesn't concern me. There is in fact much offered by the West (such as the cultural anthropologists themselves) that doesn't concern the world as such. I mention current academic intellectual culture, but could choose the West's "literary" culture as well. I could take up the American Thomas Pynchon as an example.

As for the world represented in a Western writer like Pynchon, it is amusing, to be sure. It is full of interesting gags and twists, colorful and subtly modulated; the reader enjoys moving about in this world as one enjoys being taken into a film. I've once or twice suggested you read Pynchon because there's something unique in his work, something entrancing. He is, or at least for a time was, a major American writer. Ultimately, however, I don't find Pynchon's writing to be serious literature. It is not Literature. His is a flimsy world that does not recognize the bases of its being. It is one that is becoming quickly a world of mere surfaces, a dumb show of empirical data--nothingness. This is why many who seriously take up Pynchon as a subject of study will read his books five or six times, read much of the criticism, then suddenly feel a total lack of interest fall upon them. Diversion is not the stuff of life: it is rather something to keep one from taking up the stuff of life. The need for reality eventually makes one tire of such writing. But the readers around us, what do they do when they tire of a writer like Pynchon? Since so many of them are only willing to read contemporary writers, they put down Pynchon only to pick up another contemporary with similar strengths. Such writing as Pynchon's--and the West offers much of it now--shows a soul impoverished, a soul that has been seduced into believing that the dumb shows of science and technology are all there is. Intuition shut down, the soul's hearing shut down, language's revelatory power curtailed, the data of the senses organized by a logical machinery much smaller than language itself. Of course the literature arising from this general situation is comic. It is merely comic. This is to say that it is not even humorous in the stronger manner in which much of the great European literature is humorous. Don Quixote, the story of Jacob and Laban, Prince Myshkin. This latter strong humor, the possibility of this humor in man, is one of the mainstays of my understanding of man's place in the world. The critics that most interest me have all understood this humor to some degree: Bakhtin, for instance, or Benjamin.

* * *

I am a Catholic in most things, but am not certain if I am a Catholic, or rather if I can be accepted as a Catholic. At least many Catholics would probably not recognize me as such. There are things about which I believe the Catholic Church is wrong.

The Catholic Church is most crucially right in its understanding of the Mass. The Mass is the ritual that defines the destiny of man: it is the central sacrament. The Mass is the gathering around which men might eventually gather. Perhaps they will eventually gather around it. This is something the Catholic Church knows better than the other branches of the Church.

* * *

I know you must disagree with these things, and of course I can live with such disagreement.

* * *

We are both concerned with the question of how language reveals presence, but the register of the presence that language most essentially reveals--that is one basis of our difference.

* * *

That you are a secularized Jew makes you even further from me than if you were a believer in Judaism. For regardless of the gripes Jews may have with Christians, I don't have as much gripe with Jews as I do with the secular. The fact that you are a secularized Jew means to me that I have no reason to consider you other than, say, the secularized Christians all over America. This is to say, in part, that I don't know in what you consider your Jewishness resides. I know this is an infinitely discussed question, one that receives much of its immediate importance from the nightmares of the twentieth century.

The Jews as a religion are very close to the truth I follow, and their understanding of the truth of revelation is of great concern to me, much more, say, than the Zen Buddhist understanding of truth. I would never step on a Menorah, though I would certainly step on Diderot's Encyclopedia, or even Voltaire's hand. So you should know where I stand.

* * *

That you and I have managed to communicate. Perhaps it will continue. It is like Origen maintaining a correspondence with Lucretius.

* * *


I had read most of Kafka before, but it was only recently that I read The Castle.

Some readers find in Kafka an apparent restatement of the universe projected by the Kabbalists. Benjamin is the great exponent of this reading. Benjamin's Kafka wrote allegories of a kind of Kabbalist faith or hope. Other critics disagree by leaning on the fact that Kafka was not a "religious writer," that he was an atheist, that he was not a scholar of Kabbalism, etc. I am one of those who think that Kafka needn't have been a "religious writer" or a Kabbalist to write the kind of allegories he wrote. These allegories are Kabbalist allegories, if you will. Kafka was a Prague Jew, after all.

The dichotomy set up between a "religious writer" and a "secular writer": what does it amount to unless we are considering precisely weak writers or journalists or, again, cultural anthropologists?

The Castle seems to me, after this first reading, a kind of allegorical romance. K.'s quest is nearly fruitless--that is apparently the case--and yet K.'s life in the shadow of the Castle seems more a life than that, say, of Kafka's father in the shadow of a cash register.

Kafka's K. shows a certain daring in his quest. He is not struck with the same kind of unreasonable awe that strikes the people of the village. Threatening or not, he would be there where the Castle's power is manifested. He would know its workings and sees such knowledge as the only thing worth struggling for. Any other activity--cobbling, tanning, running an inn--is a species of biding time that concerns him not.

Does Kafka, despite his atheism, make it into what I have called the Secondary Canon? Evidently so.

Was Chretien de Troyes a "religious writer"?


Saturday, August 1, 2009

Clay: Appendix 5: Rimbaud and Exorcism


Rimbaud's oeuvre is a pack of lies.

Rimbaud was too busy barking and howling to listen.

What kind of poet is this anyway?

An admirable teen rebellion. Beautiful blue-eyed Demiurgette. Pint-sized Promethiite.

We scribes don't give a damn for his virtuosity, his pyrotechnics.

A poet of the visual spectrum. All in all a rather more charming child of the Enlightenment than most. Toy trains, the Corpus Hermeticum, romantic oriental fetishes, obsessive inventiveness, the "new".

His color is nasty blue--the same blue as on our flags, but more fluorescent. Blue approaching the shiny blue of certain species of hornet.

Baudelaire's colors are faded gold leaf, black, purple, blood red, black, Avignon ochre, ash, ivory or ebony flesh, black, etc.

Baudelaire: the master of Latinity in our two centuries.

III. Mystique...

A clear night sky. After so much hashish--this time!--how the stars flatten out and press down upon me!

Tiring of the sky, he lies on his side near the campfire, gazing into it. --[--We know he doesn't really understand mysticism. --He has perhaps read of the Zoroastrians? --Who doesn't know of these hashishin microcosms?]--

After so much hashish--this time!--the crumbling logs heaped in the fire become for him a landscape in flames.

Off the top of the hill formed by the logs in flames, bits of ash rise with the heat; then, whirling, descend. They are tiny angels spinning in grey-white woolen robes.

On the left, a darkened log crackles and smokes. Ruts have broken into its surface: the charred remains and sounds of a battle.

On the right, embers glow in white and mystic heat: Oriental splendor! The wisdom of ages!

The fire hisses and cracks, and as the stoned youth turns to gaze upward, eyes stinging from the heat and the drug, he sees brown and black curdles of smoke rising away and rolling. --Are they the lost time of men? --Are they that which is burned away? --Are they the remains of all the struggles and nights?

The starry sky behind the campfire, the vague flicker of light against the trees, stretch down like a canvas or a basket, the whole scene collapsing into the broken perspective of hashish and medieval murals, turbulent foreground pushed up against flat background.

Down at the very bottom--wrapped round the hottest embers like a mantle of purest candy--the soft glow of blue flames: the liminal color.

Once--when I may have dared to taste!

[. . .] XI.
I understand Rimbaud. I look into him as into a mirror. I understand his shame. It is all true, all of it. It is a shame so absolute. It is the encounter. All of Europe. It is much deeper and harder than . . . It is a wretchedness in the very Shaman's Dance of Europe, a wretchedness never cleansed or appeased, for which no sacrifice . . .

Case in point.]