17 April 2011

Black, white, gangrene

Sara Hayward, "Two Figures I," 2011.

The following is excerpted from "Poetry Black, Poetry White", an essay by René Daumal. When you are done with this post, please read the whole thing: click here!

René Daumal, Mount Analogue cover
The black poet tastes every pleasure, adorns himself in every ornament, exercises every power - in his imagination. The white poet prefers reality, even paltry reality, to these rich lies. His work is an incessant struggle against pride, imagination and laziness. Accepting his gift, even if he suffers from it and suffers from suffering, he seeks to make it serve ends greater than his selfish desires: the as-yet-unknown cause of this gift.


Every poem is born of a seed, dark at first, which we must make luminous for it to produce fruits of light. ... To make it shine, one must create silence, for this seed is the Thing-to-be-said itself, the central emotion that seeks to express itself through my whole machine. ... Silence to word games, memorized lines, memories fortuitously assembled; silence to ambition, to the desire to shine - for only light shines by itself; silence to self-flattery and self-pity; silence to the rooster who thinks he makes the sun rise! ... It is very difficult, but each little effort receives a little glimmer of light in reward. The Thing-to-be-said then appears in its most intimate form, as an eternal certainty - a pinpoint of light containing the immensity of the desire for Being.


I have said what one must do to become a white poet. As if it were that easy! Even in prose, in ordinary speech and writing (as in all aspects of my daily life), all that I produce is grey, salt-and-pepper, soiled, a mixture of light and darkness. And so I take up the struggle after the fact. I re-read myself. In my sentences, I see words, expressions, interferences that do not serve the Thing-to-be-said: an image that meant to be strange, a pun that thought it was funny, the pedantry of a certain prig who would do better to stay seated at his desk instead of coming to play the fipple flute in my string quartet. And remarkably enough, it is simultaneously a mistake in taste, style, or even syntax. Language itself seems set up in such a way as to detect the intruders for me. Few mistakes are purely technical. Almost all of them are my mistakes. And I cross out, and I correct, with the joy one can have at cutting a gangrenous limb from one's body.

Jean Cocteau:

A true poet does not bother to be poetical. Nor does a nursery gardener scent his roses. What he does is to subject them to treatment which ensures their having the finest colour and the sweetest scent.


The poet doesn't invent. He listens.

(The first quote is from, at least, Professional Secrets. I haven't been able to source the second one precisely, but it's mentioned in an interview Cocteau gave for the Paris Review, published in 1964, and Cocteau does not disagree that he said it. The interview can (and must!) be read in its entirety here. As with everything Cocteau touches, it's full of truth and magic.)

Matthias Grünewald, Isenheim Altarpiece, crucifixion, Christ with gangrene
From Matthias Grünewald's "Isenheim Altarpiece", 1506-1515

Holy Sonnet IV.

O, my black soul, now thou art summoned
By sickness, Death's herald and champion ;
Thou'rt like a pilgrim, which abroad hath done
Treason, and durst not turn to whence he's fled ;
Or like a thief, which till death's doom be read,
Wisheth himself deliver'd from prison,
But damn'd and haled to execution,
Wisheth that still he might be imprisoned.
Yet grace, if thou repent, thou canst not lack ;
But who shall give thee that grace to begin ?
O, make thyself with holy mourning black,
And red with blushing, as thou art with sin ;
Or wash thee in Christ's blood, which hath this might,
That being red, it dyes red souls to white.

--John Donne

Matthias Grünewald, Isenheim Altarpiece, crucifixion, detail
Detail from Isenheim Altarpiece. Click for enlarged version. Incidentally, the filename is failureisnotanoption.jpg. That's how I found it; I thought it was funny so I left it that way.


Tyler said...

Excellent, excellent, excellent.

On a whim I decided to check your blog yesterday and saw this post... not sure how I missed it back in mid-April.

There is no real way to respond except, perhaps, through another post... And even then there's still too much that cannot be said (not by me, at least). I wonder if that would make for an interesting blog? Two (or more) people communicating only via posts... It would sorta be like the game "telephone" (only not at all).

"Truth and magic" -- I like that. I like the Mount Analogue cover too; I hadn't seen it. (I imagine it was designed after Jodorowsky's film, though I'd hate to think that people know it only as "the book that inspired The Holy Mountain".)

The Sara Hayward picture reminded me of THIS (in terms of the medium); it's too bad that guy has only an idea and nothing to fill it with.

I looked through my Steegmuller Cocteau bio to see if I could source the quote for you; I couldn't. But I did find this, which relates to the interview you linked to (for my own sake I'm not going to include the various accent marks):

Tyler said...

"Now Devenir, Roger Martin du Gard's first novel, written long before he gained fame with his many volumed Les Thibault, is not a book that is nowadays often read; but it provides interesting glimpses of life among young artists beginning their careers in Paris in the first decade of the century, and added interest comes from Cocteau's remembering that he himself was Martin du Gard's model for the "central figure." Devenir does recount the debut of a poet, but in a way rather different from Cocteau's indication.

Its "central" figure is a failed literary man named Andre Mazerelles, not at all reminiscent of the debutant Cocteau. The figure Cocteau had in mind can only be one, or the fusion, of a pair of incidental characters. These are a collaborating poet and musician, who, in the novel, resemble Cocteau in their triumph on stage of the Theatre Femina. The two young men are inseparable; their names, Jemmequin and Coczani, are interestingly initialed, and in fact are combined by their friends into a joint "English" nickname, "Jemm and Co." They are taken up by a famous actor, "le beau Cyprian," who organizes a Jemm and Co. Matinee. "All the newspapers carried announcements that there would be a matinee of poetry and music at the Theatre Femina on the last Saturday of the month. The occasion was to be the 'introduction, to the world of literature and the arts, of a pair of twin geniuses, M. Raoul Jemm and Mate Coczani, who had been discovered by the divine Cyprian, the masterly interpreter of French poetry. He himself would officiate their Parisian debut.'

For his novelistic purposes, Martin du Gard has Jemm's poetry, "that poetry that was so light, so indolent, so full of nuances," read, at the Theatre Femina, not only by De Max-Cyprian but also by Sarah Bernhardt, who, in life, is not known to have been present. (She is called "Rebecca Bechdolt" in the novel.) Amid the applause, the cries of "Bravo! Auteur! Poete!" the Co. half of the team keeps cool -- "he behaved as though he had been the public's idol for years" -- whereas Jemm, led forward by Rebecca, "seemed so young, so slender, so touching, with his eyes bright with tears, his tangled blonde hair, his trembling lips, that the public was completely won over and clapped and clapped..." That evening, one of the Paris newspapers prints a rave review, headlined "Un triomphe."

Following the success, Jemm put together a volume of verse, "a sheaf of short poems garnered at Versailles"; there was nothing winged about it: "One felt that Jemm had had to take the train at the Gare St. Lazare and set off in search of impressions." The pair looks about "to see who might like" the volume, and they dedicate the separate poems. The dedications, Roger Martin du Gard says, "lengthily considered and discussed," were "actually a shrewd bit of business."

Those details from Devenir cast an amusing light on Cocteau's saying about Roger Martin du Gard that "He did not see me as ridiculous ... He made that person who appeared on the stage of the Theatre Femina the central figure of his first novel." And in fact by the last year of his life, in 1963, when Cocteau was asked to talk about "The Art of Fiction" for the Paris Review, he was saying confidently to his interviewer: "...in 1908 De Max and Sarah Bernhardt hired the Femina Theatre in the Champs-Elysees for an evening of my poems." Cocteau's mismemory had produced for the interviewer, although the latter was unaware of it, an example of the very "art of fiction" the two men had come together to discuss."

the curator said...

The photo on the Mount Analogue cover seems to predate Holy Mountain by a few years. For more information about the photo and the book edition: http://ajourneyroundmyskull.blogspot.com/2007/08/rene-daumal-mount-analogue-part-2.html

On the topic of art made of book pages: http://briandettmer.com
(I had seen this before you e-mailed me the link and was planning to put it in my response anyway, you just saved me the trouble of looking it up myself!)

I like the blog idea, it could be done in a huge number of ways. It might even be interesting if it was just a correspondence/conversation between two people (preferably who had never met before), rather than an attempt to respond to otherwise self-contained posts.

I'm also reminded of a blog experiment a friend and I wanted to try once that involved "translating" short fictional pieces. Someone would post something and then other people would rewrite it according to their own style/inspiration. We tried it briefly but it never really went anywhere: http://asymmetrystories.wordpress.com

Tyler said...

"Damn Will Schofield!" was something I used to repeat on a semi-regular basis; it seemed like every time I went to look up something online (something I was considering making a post about), I'd find images from his site in Google. It was frustrating. Now I say it once again (but for different reasons): Damn you Will!

The "translation" thing was/is an interesting blog idea -- I'll look over the results more carefully sometime soon. Regarding the correspondence/conversation, I'm not sure how that would work. I assume you mean incorporating pictures and other things...? (The abscene of other media might be the weakest park of your translation idea since it doesn't utilize anything that's unique to blogging as a medium. But I say this as someone who isn't very good with words, so I'm biased. And besides, I guess that that kind of participation is somewhat unique to the medium.)

Regarding "translation", I once tried to translate some of Petrus Borel's MADAME PUTIPHAR using only a dictionary and various online devices... The results were interesting, and I ended up using the jumbled text as inspiration for new writing. It was a "poetic" translation, if you will, since it resembled his text very little. I decided that it would be relatively easy to make (write) a whole book using similar methods, and no one would ever know! (Lautréamont, they say, ouright lifted text from various sources for his Poesies.)