This Space

Britain's first book blogger (November 2000)

Saturday, May 23, 2015

Panthers and the Museum of Fire by Jen Craig

"Where now? Who now? When now?"

The famous opening lines of Samuel Beckett's The Unnamable constitute a modern invocation to the gods at the start of an epic. Only this one appears not at the beginning, not even in medias res, but at the end, where there are no gods, and no end.

"I don't know, I'll never know, in the silence you don't know"

Answers emerge to provide aesthetic balance, if nothing else, but at least one is conclusive: the unnamable has a name of sorts ('the Unnamable') and the positive spin placed on the words that follow – "you must go on, I can't go on, I'll go on" – has enabled writers to accommodate them as gee-ups from a personal trainer as they climb the purgatorial mountain of Literary Achievement. Pick up any contemporary novel, read the first paragraph and see how each sets down the where, the who and the when right from the start, as if to go on is rather to go back.

Appeals to explicit subject matter and dramatic events have become invocations in a godless time, as we seek a grounding in the hereafter of writing. What's especially notable then about Jen Craig's Panthers and the Museum of Fire is how it destablises such invocations:
For a long time I have dreamed of such a breakthrough, I thought as I set off from my flat in Glebe on that Monday morning – walking to a café in Crown Street for no other reason than to meet the sister, Pamela, so that I could give her back the manuscript Panthers and the Museum of Fire supposedly unread, as she had insisted on the phone only two days after she'd given it to me.
This is both straightforward and unaccountable: the specific where is an anonymous spot on the way between the two places where the ostensible action is, the who is the narrative I, perhaps Jen Craig herself – but then who wrote the manuscript with the same title as the book we're reading? – and when is the walk itself, except it appears incidental to the reports of the breakthrough and the café meeting, which seem far more significant whens and, as a result, all three entwine to displace any certainty on their priority.

Perhaps priority should be placed on the narrative itself, which would be convenient because writing is exactly what the dreamer regards as the breakthrough she had been seeking, now given so unexpectedly by Panthers and the Museum of Fire, a manuscript written by Sarah, an old school acquaintance, into whom the narrator had bumped on the street one day, leading to a series of events, including Sarah's death, possibly as an indirect result of her excessive weight, culminating in the supposed non-reading of the manuscript. Each event and the narrator's commentary is reported with reference to where she is on the walk between Glebe and the café on Crown Street, with the events that occur on that walk included too, and also with recollections of how she had related the events before the walk to her friend Raf at some point in the recent past, either at a gastropub in Potts Point, or over the preparation of prawns before a dinner back in Glebe, or over the phone to report the remarkable breakthrough she had experienced the night before.

Confused? You won't be.

Sarah's surviving sister had asked the narrator, knowing she had literary flair, to read the manuscript discovered in her papers, with a view to making something of it, perhaps redemption for Sarah's otherwise sad and lonely existence, an existence not helped by the narrator's tactical avoidance of her. Instead it redeems the narrator's existence, with the odd parallel being that the narrator's name is the same as the Jenny Craig weight loss company, or would be had she not shortened it, which is expanded upon in another odd parallel when the narrator explains she had been anorexic at the time the company had made its name, causing her all kinds of social grief.
No anorectic can bear advice, and particularly no advice that touches on or even seems to touch on our inviolate selves. [...] All those who haven't been anorexic themselves have no idea about anorexia because they have never led an anorexic existence, and it is the anorexic existence – the nature of this existence – which matters more than anything else in the world to an anorexic. An anorexic needs to exist in this way because there is nothing else in their existence but existence itself; everything else in the world they have given up for this existence; the anorectic is an addict of the anorexic existence.
While this might draw us to comparisons with the self of Kafka's Hunger Artist unviolated by nourishment and, like Sarah, dying off-screen, except in her case apparently from too much nourishment, it would be better read in tandem with Metamorphosis, as change is the horror driving that story, with the previously inviolate selves of Gregor and Grete undergoing transformations right at the beginning and right at the end, with Sarah as Gregor to the narrator's Grete; one's death allowing the other to stretch her limbs or, in this case, make a breakthrough in her writing.

Such assertive monologues do then suggest a neurotic focus on self and the inevitablity of change: the stability of former being dependent on the latter only in its stubborn resistance. This is a theme consistent with Jen Craig's first novel Since the Accident, in which the narrator's sister, the one for whom change came in catastrophic form, describes how a closing door had changed her attitude to the art workshop she had just attended as part of her recovery:
It was stupid, she said, and it was only a measure of her suggestibility after the workshop that she should have let herself be panicked by a door that was sliding shut. She'd thought until that moment that, unlike the others, she hadn't been affected by all the talk of creativity and images at the workshop, but the door had shown her otherwise. Before the workshop, she thought, the door would just have been a door and not a symbol of an impending disaster or an urgent and life-changing choice.
The fear of impending disaster, caused by an excessive attention to signs, is of course the disaster itself and, worse, appears to be prompted by what we otherwise assume to be its consolation: artful self-expression. The comedy and distress of the situation is very much in keeping with the experience of Panthers and the Museum of Fire, which is neither one of comedy nor of distress but both at the same time, impossible to separate, and in which the entangling energy of the narrative is at one with the panicked immobility of the narrator.

The bizarre title, about which I'm sure you're still asking, embodies these dynamic oppositions, as the intrigue and promise in panthers and fire is then displaced by mundane facts. The words come from road signs pointing to a rugby league club called the Panthers and a genuine museum of fire, both with gift shops selling even more signs on T-shirts and mugs. Except the title, like the signs on the T-shirts and mugs, retains the promise of something beyond rugby club and museum, even if they are found in the rugby club and museum, a promise found in a manuscript only ever present as a title, as a sign of things to come. Where now? Who now? When now?

Such promise and its displacement reminds me of the author of the line Es ist alles lächerlich, wenn man an den Tod denkt, and anyone who loves the work of this author will find similar, blessed relief in Jen Craig's fiction. For all their differences, they share an unaccountable joy in writing within absurdity and impossibility, despite and because of absurdity and impossibility. It is from Thomas Bernhard's acceptance speech when he received the Austrian State Prize for literature and caused a government minister to storm out of the building in disgust. Everything is ridiculous when one thinks of death – perhaps the ultimate breakthrough.

Jen Craig blogs at Being in Lieu and Absurd Enticements.

Saturday, March 21, 2015

'Foreign to the resources of literature'

In the early days of blogging, I often wrote about book prizes. At that time I trusted the aura of a shortlist, drawn by what I assumed was the light of Literature shining down and carving deep relief into the profile of an otherwise flat novel. But I also often complained precisely because once read the books themselves didn't seem to deserve such attention, while others that did were ignored. After a while, in fact after serving on a jury, it became clear that I was fascinated instead by the aura of the impersonal force of a collective honour rather than in the books themselves. The books themselves are incidental, as a glance at the titles of previous winners will confirm. For me the aura now illuminates only the book equivalent of the picture of Dorian Gray decaying in an attic while below literary professionals in brightly lit rooms swoon over its prettified worldly companion. Yes, prize-winning literary novels are a genre in themselves: rhetorical exercises, inbred descendents of mummified classics rather than sui generis acts of writing. Nothing to see here. But sometimes the shock of what prizes overlook is a revelation.

Saturday, February 21, 2015

Albertine Asleep

For a short time, I stayed up most of the night. In the long summer months between years at school – my guess is 1978 – there was no all-night radio let alone all-night television. Instead I would listen to the BBC World Service on unreliable Medium Wave reception. One night around two in the morning, an actor with a mellifluous voice read an extract from what I now know as Swann's Way. This was before even Terence Kilmartin had updated Scott Moncrieff's original translation.

Next day, as I played football in the local park, I told my friends of this book that spent half an hour to describe someone (Swann) ringing a doorbell. Inside, however, my amused tone was tempered. Secretly, I was impressed. The following week there was an extract from another part of the novel, of which I have no memory, and in the third and final week, he read the section known as Albertine Asleep (which Anne Carson has had some fun with recently). And I taped it. The tape still exists.

A blog comes to one in the dark

What follows the break wasn't going to be posted. I wrote it last week and decided it would be more effective to summarise on my Tumblr blog and then publicise on Twitter. To my surprise, bar one message of support, there was no response. The silence was instructive.

Saturday, January 31, 2015

Book of forgotten dreams

For eighteen years I have wanted the English translation of Georges Bataille's book La Peinture Préhistorique: Lascaux ou la naissance de l'art, ever since Maurice Blanchot's review essay appeared in the collection Friendship published in 1997. A strange yearning because Blanchot had summarised the content, so there was apparently nothing to gain and, what's more, I have never been a big Bataille reader, much preferring at university Blanchot's unparalleled prose to the jargon-scarred theory beloved of my fellow students who thought "transgression" meant wearing rubber.

Still, there was something withheld by this book, the actual thing, the physical object, in its absence. Unfortunately, the edition from Albert Skira's Great Centuries of Painting series, described by one scholar as a "highbrow coffee table book", has been out of print since 1955 and secondhand copies have always been too expensive, often approaching three figures. Until late one night last November when desultory book searching revealed one in good condition for under £50. In a moment of madness, I clicked Buy Now and sat back to dwell on the extravagance.

Taking delivery of a desired book often signals the end of possibility and the settling of melancholy in the prospect of the real thing finally arriving and dissolving the aura. And then there are the heavy demands of procedural content. Reading is bound to kill the possible book, the Platonic form revolving in your head, the edition of Bolaño's 2666 Kirsty Logan described a few years ago. So it was my good fortune that Prehistoric Paintings: Lascaux or the Birth of Art got lost in the post. For two weeks I waited, anticipating each furtive visit from the postman and panicking once he had left. How could I have been so careless to waste fifty quid?! Wasn't this punishment for transgressing the line between desire and its realisation?

In hope I walked to the post office depot to enquire. A queue lined the pavement outside. After fifteen minutes of standing around and shuffling forward in the cold, they said, Yes, they had a package for me but they couldn't hand it over because I didn't have a red card from the postman. What? But I'm here, now, so why not hand it over? No, that can't be done. At least let me see the parcel to prove to myself that it exists. No, that wasn't possible. They said they would have to redeliver it. Would tomorrow be OK? Yes, it would. This was good news, and I went home happy. Of course, the following day nothing arrived. I walked the post office depot again. The queue was even longer and, after half an hour of standing around and shuffling forward in the cold, the man behind the counter just shrugged. I went home unhappy and eventually gave up caring.

A few days later the bell rang and the postman handed over an A3-sized package. Having ordered a Radio Times holder as a gift for a telly addict, I had my doubts about what it contained and tore at the parcel carefully. The first thing exposed was the spine of a book. So just look at it for a moment, shining there.

The bright colours suggested a brand new book rather than one published sixty years ago. So this is what its absence withheld! On removing the cardboard slipcase and opening the book, five black and white postcards with serrated edges fell out.

Pasted on the inside cover were three visitor tickets to three different caves. Souvenirs of another life. When the previous owner visited is unclear, but Lascaux was closed to visitors in 1963.

These small discoveries were the prelude to the content.

A miracle occurred at Lascaux, Bataille says, a miracle that remains before us in the "clear and burning presence" of these paintings. His rapture is evident, and it is rare for a world-weary reader to feel he shares in the author's wonder, lifting the pages to see what's next and reading the words so large and clear that they could have been typed directly onto the page. A similar edition written by Captain Cook or Neil Armstrong might compare. The production values are such that the illustrations are separate items, pasted onto the page.

"What transfixes us is the vision, present before our very eyes, of all that is most remote. Of our presence in the real world."

The paradox in the words of the caption that being close to ourselves in proximity to what is most remote is explained here as the "strong and intimate emotion" of religion or, better, "the sacred", to which the cave paintings are "more solidly attached to than it has ever been since". This is not religion as one more additional theory but as the catalyst of humankind, when the creature wandering the icy plains descended into the caves and, in the remove of darkness and solitude, set itself apart from the animal kingdom and discovered itself, codifying the cosmos with paint. As Richard White puts it, this is "not the sacred as the beyond, another realm of being that exists in opposition to this one—but the sacred as the deep reality of this life that we are typically alienated from". So we shouldn't include these moments perusing the book with the usual "Oh I like that" pleasures of the art gallery but as the kindling of the effects of art was it when born; that is, when we were born, perhaps the deeper feeling we have in galleries we have since been socialised to restrain. Whatever, the miracle is foundational.

Bataille says that in looking at the cave paintings in Lascaux "we are left painfully in suspense by this incomparable beauty and the sympathy it awakens in us", and something close to this is what I experience looking at the book, if this can be called an experience. One is not transported in awe towards fantastical otherness but toward a fog-bound interior, as comforting as it is alien. "It is as though paradoxically our essential self clung to the nostalgia of attaining what our reasoning self had judged unattainable, impossible." This is where I ask: what can be done with this suspense and sympathy if our reasoning self is how we measure experience?

The remainder of Prehistoric Paintings examines each area of the cave to elaborate the author's theory that art served as a channel for the animality enduring in the human community provoked by the taboos of death and sexuality. One reader, stepping forth with good reason, describes the book as "a lot of flowery writing that implies interpretations not necessarily supported by evidence", and it is this inevitable doubt and the scientific innocence that seems to me where the book is worthwhile. In his review, Blanchot suggests that it is from this subterranean overflow that humankind appears, because it reveals our separation from animals, over which we now recognise our power of life and death, and yet, at the same time, exposes us to a death blissfully unknown to animals, thereby weakening us. However, we modern humans value this unique quality over everything, so much that what Blanchot says weakened us is now what we believe makes us stronger.

"The marvelous never loses its impact"

Bataille criticises the "timidity" of scholars who speak "with undue reserve" of what they see in the caves and thereby neutralise the effect of the marvelous on their studies. The "marvelous" then is that which is "not necessarily supported by evidence", and it is only an accredited scholar's book, such as The Mind in the Cave (2002) that can provide such evidence. However, while David Lewis-Williams is a professor emeritus of the Rock Art Research Institute in Johannesburg, his book suggests Bataille's wonderment is vital for appreciating the caves, or at least to get closer to their creation. He explains that they were not created in sober rationality, not in the light of day but in states of consciousness we have devalued.

He prefaces his study by presenting "the greatest riddle of archeology – how we became human and in the process began to make art" (my italics), so we see that becoming human is the lacuna. There were Neanderthals in the Middle Paleolithic era who did not make art and then there are Homo Sapiens in the Upper Paleolithic who did. What caused the transition between animal consciousness and that of Homo sapiens?

Lewis-Williams runs through the intellectual history of attempts to explain the transition – Darwinian, Marxist, Structuralist and Evolutionary Psychological, though not Bataille's – before setting out studies of the art and beliefs of the San of southern Africa that were made before they were swallowed up by modernity. Homo sapiens have a higher consciousness than that of the Neanderthals, which allowed us to develop a fully modern language system, enabling us to "fashion...individual identities and mental 'scenes' of past, present and future events". But, crucially, we also have access to the lower end of the spectrum, altered states of consciousness such dreams and trance states, brought on by communal rituals, dance and hallucinogens. Language enabled us to see these alternative realities, to hear inner voices and to articulate them to others. The cave paintings, Lewis-Williams argues, are attempts to fix these visions, to enable those who made them to touch "what was already there" in the spirit world. They are not representations of spirits but the spirits themselves.

These dreams, sounds and visions revealed a cosmological order. Humanity's creation of the sacred was thereby possible only because of altered states of consciousness. And while Lewis-Williams' prefatory sentence implicitly rejects Bataille's thesis that art as practised by early humans precipitated its own emergence, he is as critical of Western scientists as Bataille for neglecting what he calls "the autistic end" of the spectrum of consciousness. As a result, their studies follow a positivist route in which intelligence and rationality become the defining characteristics of humanity and the manifest destiny of early people was grow to become "more and more like Western scientists". They are made in their own image.

Yet we have the same neurological structure as early humans and, as Bataille reports, we respond with a curious, even painful sympathy to an art that transcends aesthetic pleasure. Cave painting, according to both Bataille and Lewis-Williams, is then not an addition to human society but constitutive of it. Lewis-Williams writes of the San that hierarchies developed according to those who had better access to the spirit world governing all life: "Art and religion were therefore socially divisive". Every member of a community had access to dreams and were keen to learn more, so were influenced by male and female "shamans" and took part in their rituals. Art and religion, art and the sacred, were indistinguishable and "image-making did not merely take place in the spirit world: it also shaped and created the world."

It is a world we have long left behind, with commonsense and the insomnia of scientific method having replaced superstition and shamanic dreams in shaping our universe. To most modern minds, this is an unquestionable good. But it leads to a troubling question: if humankind emerged and grew to be itself out of reverence for what was revealed in realms of consciousness we now not only neglect but regard with suspicion, even as intellectual taboo, is our existence vitally impoverished?

Perhaps my unaccountable wish to own a copy of Bataille's highbrow coffee table book reveals a buried giant of a need for the elemental in art more generally sublimated into gushing about "the wonder of nature". Such eruptions of the old fascination with dreams to be found in our confused response to art and artists, books and writers, movies and directors, and invariably contained by the intervention of biographical exposés, won't go away even in their diminished state, and indeed occasionally break through into polite society. It is implicitly approached in what has been recently labelled the Hard Problem of consciousness, itself a controversial outgrowth of cognitive science, and the explicit paradox of a debate dependent on its own immaterial space yet able to address it only in the autism of empirical discourse is the elephant in the room. However, to continue to the wildlife theme, it is suppressed, like moles on a bowling green, with the back of a humanist's spade. With this proscription of the sacred, however it is defined, deeply in place, it would seem a new kind of transgression is required. Except this is precisely the realm of true art. As Bataille writes: "only art expresses the prohibition with beseeming gravity, and only art resolves the dilemma [of proscription]. It is the state of transgression that promotes the desire, the need for a more profound, a richer, a marvelous world, the need, in a word, for a sacred world".


Please email me at steve dot mitchelmore at gmail dot com.

Blog Archive


Contact steve dot mitchelmore at Powered by Blogger.