poetics of life

Sei Shonagon’s Lists

Sei Shonagon’s The Pillow Book is one of the strangest and most delightful works of literature in the entire human history.

Shonagon (966-1017) was a Lady-In-Waiting serving the Japanese empress Sadako in the peaceful Heian era. She authored the Pillow Book, a “collection of lists, gossip, poetry, observations, complaints and anything else she found of interest during her years in the court.” In other words, while the anonymous Anglo-Saxon poet was creating Beowulf, Shonagon was writing a blog. Pillow books (Makura no Soshi) were a genre of personal writing of the time, and it wasn’t unusual for court ladies to swap and read them: the one that survives to our time is the one that was most fun to read.

And it is fun to read; and not just compared to OTHER 1,000-year-old books. Shonagon describes the trivial, everyday minutiae of a world extremely alien to us, that of a totally secluded Heian court: one in which people rarely walk, but rather crawl; in which women blacken their teeth; in which polygamy is normal, but men and women hardly ever see each other’s faces; in which professional posts are obtained through poetry contests; and in which referring to a woman by name was considered so rude, and thus so thoroughly avoided, that nobody knows what Sei Shonagon’s actual name was. You read Pillow Book, and you really get a sense of who these people were, these people who lived a thousand years ago: what other book does that?

And you can very quickly become immersed into the spatiality and the temporality of their life: the seasons, the festivals, how people’s careers progress, what to wear when, what to never wear, how to find a husband, what is uncool, what happens to the dead, the spatiality of flirting and romance, the spatiality of old age and abandonment. And I suppose that’s why I love it so much: for the way it is eschews grand themes. Everyday life is an incredibly under-appreciated thing. How it works, why it works, why it fails, why we’re happy or miserable living it. As Chris Marker said, “I’ve been around the world several times, and only banality still interests me.”

The most famous thing about Pillow Book is Sei Shonagon’s lists. Here are some:

16. Things That Make One’s Heart Beat Faster

Sparrows feeding their young. To pass a place where babies are playing. To sleep in a room where some fine incense has been burnt. To notice that one’s elegant Chinese mirror has become a little cloudy. To see a gentleman stop his carriage before one’s gate and instruct his attendants to announce his arrival. To wash one’s hair, make one’s toilet, and put on scented robes; even if not a soul sees one, these preparations still produce an inner pleasure.

It is night and one is expecting a visitor. Suddenly one is startled by the sound of raindrops, which the wind blows against the shatters.

17. Things That Arouse a Fond Memory of the Past

Dried hollyhock. The objects used during the Display of Dolls. To find a piece of deep violet or grape-colored material that has been pressed between the pages of a notebook.

It is a rainy day and one is feeling bored. To pass the time, one starts looking through some old papers. And then one comes across the letters of a man one used to love.

Last year’s paper fan. A night with a clear moon.

25. Infuriating things
A guest who arrives when you have something urgent to do, and stays talking for ages. If it’s someone you don’t have much respect for, you can simply send them away and tell them to come back later, but if it’s a person with whom you feel you must stand on ceremony, it’s an infuriating situation.
A hair has got on to your inkstone and you find yourself grinding it in with the inkstick. Also, the grating sound when a bit of stone gets ground in with the ink.
[…] A very ordinary person, who beams inanely as she prattles on and on.
[…] A baby who cries when you’re trying to hear something. A flock of crows clamoring raucously, all flying around chaotically with noisily flapping wings. A dog that discovers a clandestine lover as he comes creeping in, and barks.
[…] I hate it when, either at home or at the palace, someone comes calling whom you’d rather not see and you pretend to be asleep, but then a well-meaning member of the household comes along and shakes you awake with a look of disapproval at how you’ve dozed off.
Some newcomer steps in and starts interfering and lecturing the old hands as if she knows it all. This is quite infuriating.
[…] Continue reading “Sei Shonagon’s Lists” »

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CITIES, spatial poetics, things I have liked

Robert Dessaix: Arabesques

It often strikes me anew how many of my favourite artists are men on the fringes of gayness, men who are not heterosexual, but are not quite at home in whatever we might call the ‘gay world’, the however-much-coherent culture it is. These men have followed me through my life, right from the start: Morrissey, Michael Stipe, and finally Robert Dessaix. I’m not sure, not yet sure, if it’s a personal affinity I feel, or if their profound non-belonging, queerness about as fundamental as it can get, has sharpened both their sensibility and their minds, and made them able to accurately perceive the complexity of, and judge with understanding, both the world and themselves.

In any case, Robert Dessaix is perhaps my favourite Australian writer (speaking empirically, I enjoy Dessaix’s writing often and much). Reading Arabesques in parallel with a scholarly history of the Arab world is a great pleasure, because the shortcomings of each book cancel each other out. Whereas one provides clear facts ad dull nauseam, the light and self-centred (and West-centred) musings of the other are the easiest to enjoy when you, as a reader, feel confidently knowledgeable about the places and people he encounters to enjoy your read dialogically.

When I read Dessaix, I often find many quotes to quote, of both kinds: sometimes I feel like Dessaix says things I think and feel, and sometimes I feel Dessaix is being told things I would like many (Australian) people to know and understand better. In particular, I felt great relief when Dessaix was prepared to dissect the Protestant nature of his own culture. It is one of those aspects of Australia I find most infuriatingly, bafflingly, indefensibly horrible, and so much of it comes from its own extremism (if there is one great notion that Protestant Christian culture has no grasp of, it is the concept of balance or moderation, and the best way to understand this is to observe people’s eating habits). They are good quotes for a Saturday afternoon, and I type quickly, so here they are:

1. on happiness

‘You Westerners,’ Yacoub said with his usual elegant weariness, ‘seem fixated on the idea of happiness. You chase after it everywhere, yet you never seem to catch hold of it. I understand pleasure, comfort, beauty, passion, peace, love…’
‘You? Love?’ Zaïda was open-mouther. A drop of violet ice-cream trickled down her chin.
‘…but I don’t understand what you mean by “happiness”.’
‘I can tell you,’ I said, trying to head Zaïda off before she made a fool of herself. This was the woman who had once rung her lover to thank him for a bouquet of white roses he’d sent her for her birthday and eaten them, petal by petal, while they exchanged honeyed nothings across the Atlantic.
‘Camus came up with the perfect definition.’
‘Camus!’ Zaïda looked puzzled. ‘But he committed suicide.’
‘What’s that got to do with it? Clamence in The Fall says: “I took pleasure in my own nature, and we all know that that’s what happiness. is.”
‘That’s a rather self-satisfied, self-serving notion of happiness, don’t you think?’ I hadn’t supposed that Miriam would give in without a tussle. ‘What about…’
‘Feeding the hungry? Helping the blind to cross the street? I’m not talking about the morality of it, I’m just saying that that’s what we Westerners, as Yacoub calls us, want in order to be happy: the right to take pleasure in our own nature as we see fit.’
‘Whereas we Orientals only want the right to take pleasure in God’s.’ Yacoub smiled one of his smiles.
‘But you don’t believe in God – you told me so yourself in Blidah.’
‘No, I don’t believe in God, and I’m not an atheist.’

2. on protestantism

…surely there are two kinds of forgetting: one is forever and the other is a momentary frenzy. Well, the frenzy might last a month or even a few years, but it doesn’t blot out memory for good. IT’s just taking your hidden self out for an airing.
‘Even some Buddhist monks,’ I said to Daniel, as we walked back to the car, ‘have days of divine madness. It keeps them sane. They take up with loose women and go on drunken rampages.’
‘Yes, it’s called “Crazy Wisdom”. It’s Tibetan’ How annoying that he should know that. ‘And it’s not about “keeping sane”, it’s about flux. It’s about taming instead of clinging, and then letting go. I have the feeling that your Gide may have been too Protestant to believe in flux. He probably believed in virtue and sin.’ I think he partly meant me. But he had a point: Protestants are particularly given to dualities such as sin and virtue, belief and unbelief, spirit and matter. It’s one thing or the other with us. Catholics, on the other hand, have ways of striking a bargain with God. Flux is something they understand.

(There follows a 10-or-20-page discussion of being a Protestant heathen, of Catholic comfort versus Protestant austerity, of Protestantism leading naturally to atheism, etc – but which I am too lazy to reproduce here.)

3. on travel

‘When the absurdity of my life begins to nauseate me, I don’t commit suicide, you see, as Camus did, I travel.’
‘How could being in Algeria make your life less absurd? If life is nauseatingly absurd anywhere in this world, it’s in Algeria.’
‘It doesn’t make life any less absurd, but for a few days, a week, a month, it can make mine seem worth living. I can take pleasure there in my own nature.’ This sounded less flippant than Gide’s observation about places where he found himself interesting – but it amounted to much the same thing, I suppose. ‘In a way I can’t at home – or at any rate not often.’
‘Like Gide, do you mean? Les petits musiciens?’
‘Yes and no, actually. Travel is an art, it seems to me, just like painting or writing a novel, it crystallises things. It crystallises me. Whenever I feel that I’m on the point of disappearing, dissolving into a thousand selves – and that happens when you don’t feel you have a single source – I make art. I tell myself a story, I tell others a story, and I travel. And tell stories about my travels. I crystallise anew. (…) I make art – and travel – both to remember and to forget. Like a crystal, you see – both solid and translucent at the same time.’
‘To remember and forget what, precisely?’
‘To remember who I’ve been and also who I wanted to be, to write a new script and act it out without shame. To find my source.’
‘That sounds like God again. And does it work?’
‘No, of course not, but that’s no reason to stay at home. But I also travel – and write – to forget, to sink into the river of unmindfulness, to be utterly transparent, crystal-clear, to just be.’
‘And does that work?’
‘For a day or two, if I’m lucky.’

4. on how Australians perceive Europeans

Yacoub spoke with his accustomed world-weariness tinged with mischief and, as usual, he was annoyingly difficult to read.

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CITIES, how the world works

The conservatism of youth OR Gen Y OR Australia…

The problem does not lie with technology. A glance around the globe shows that the youth of other countries are doing a fantastic job of combining online with offline civic activism. The Arab Spring, the Occupy Wall Street Movement and anti-austerity protests in Europe show youth tweeting and Facebooking their way to radical street protest. It seems Australia is the only country where youth are cocooned in narcissistic conservatism. They’re more concerned about their own economic future at a time of wild prosperity than environmental destruction or any number of disadvantaged groups.

Brittany Ruppert, a Herald intern, attributes her generation’s apathy to prosperity. They have never had anything to fight for, except home ownership. It’s plausible. But why is a 20-year-old worried about home ownership rather than global poverty, gender discrimination or climate change? The world is more interesting than a mortgage! I’m not sure why Australia has been burdened with such a mind-numbing, spirit-crushingly boring generation of young people. Are they just Howard’s children? Is reducing your dreams to the size of a suburban home the price of prosperity?

All I know is that there is nothing more tragic than a generation without spirit.

via Why oh why, Gen Y, are you so nauseatingly conservative?.

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CITIES, spatial poetics

To je ta Evropa, o kojoj piše malograđanski štampa da je velegradska i zapadnjačka, zagrebačka Evropa. Međutim, sve to samo je esplanadska kulisa. Dođite, molim vas, sa mnom prijeko na drugu stranu kolodvora, iza Podvožnjaka, ni dvjesto metara od gradskog centra, slika je zakulisno kobna, kao što je sve fatalno što je zakulisno: trnjanske petrolejke, blato do gležnja, prizemnice s trulim tarabama, seoske bašte (krastavci, tikve, ribiz i grah), kudravi psi bez marke, krave na melankoličnom povratku iz Vrbika, u predvečerje, selendra bez građevinskog reda, bez plana, sve gnjile kolibe s vlažnom horizontalom vodene razine od posljednje katastrofalne poplave koja se tu javlja s matematskom neizbježnošću: sezonski pravilno dvaput, svakog proljeća i svake jeseni, već kako padaju kiše oko Rjavine i Mezaklje na Feldesu. Patke po barama, otvorene toalete, malarija, tifus i sedam hiljada drugih bolesti, kao sudbina felaha u nilskoj Delti, sve sivo, sve bolesno, sve beznadno, sve antipatično, sve balkanska tužna provincija, gdje ljudi stanuju na smeću, gdje ljudi krepavaju kao pacovi, gdje slabokrvna djeca crkavaju od gladi i gdje se uopće krevapa više nego živi u ljudskom smislu […]

Skretati pozornost na prosjačku, zakulisnu bijedu nekih dekorativnih laži nije nikakvo naročito otkriće, ali kad se te dekorativne laži uzdižu na žrtvenik jednog samozaljubljenog idolopoklonstva, koje iz dana u dan sve više gubi najminimalniji smisao za procjenu istinitih vrijednosti, onda nam upravo ljubav za bijedu i neimaštinu naše stvarnosti nalaže da istini pogledamo u oči smionim i otvorenim pogledom.

Miroslav Krleža, in: Stefan Treskanica, Ukrudbene povjesnice, Zarez, XIV/346, p.25

Krleža

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CITIES, things I have liked

But how can you write?

My week in Chefchaouen is full of these snapshots, vivid in colour and deeply etched in my mind. But none is as close to the surface as that moment when I opened my eyes to a group of children, staring at me with total discombobulation. I smiled slowly and the eldest came forward.

“What are you doing?” He asked in French

“I’m writing.”

“Why?”

“Because I want to remember.”

“Why?”

“Because I think your town is beautiful, and I want to capture that beauty so I don’t lose any of it later.”

“But how are you writing?” he asked, more forcefully this time.

“Pardon me?”

“How…” he said gesturing to my notebook impatiently, “HOW?”

Impasse. I wasn’t sure what he was asking me. Was it a permission problem or a question about what I planned to do with those words? I closed the notebook carefully, not wanting to lose the memories I had already jotted down. The children all stared at me, foreheads knotted, until a smaller girl came to the front and plopped down in front of me on the stoop, staring up at my face with wide eyes. She took my pen and mimicked what I was doing, then stopped and stared up at me for approval. I gave her a hug, still concerned that I had somehow offended my impromptu hosts.

“How?” He asked again, more softly.

A man walked by, slowing down when he saw the kids surrounding me and pausing entirely when he caught a glimpse of my baffled state. He spoke with the eldest in Arabic, and then he said what stuck with me ever since:

“Often, the women here cannot write. They think you are in your teens, and they want to know why you, as a woman, can write but many of the women here cannot.”

from Vivid Memories in Chefchaouen, Morocco, by Jodi of Legal Nomads.

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CITIES, how the world works, spatial poetics

With all the money we need to buy guns…

This may be the year when we finally come face to face with ourselves; finally just lay back and say it – that we are really just a nation of 220 million used car selesmen with all the money we need to buy guns, and no qualms at all about killing anybody else in the world who tries to make us uncomfortable.

– Hunter S. Thompson

I was cleaning up my Google Docs, when I found this quote, sitting solitary on an empty page. I no longer know why it was so important to preserve it, however many years ago, and whether it related to some specific US event, or some relationship I felt it had to the aggressive entitlement of Australians to keep comfortable, no matter what harm it did to others. The younger self is another person. Still, it is like getting a message from someone who used to be important to us, even if they no longer are.

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CITIES, how the world works

On the difficulty young Americans have with using the language of moral evaluation, rather than entrepreneurialism.

The student discussion was smart, civil and illuminating. But I was struck by the unspoken assumptions. Many of these students seem to have a blinkered view of their options. There’s crass but affluent investment banking. There’s the poor but noble nonprofit world. And then there is the world of high-tech start-ups, which magically provides money and coolness simultaneously. But there was little interest in or awareness of the ministry, the military, the academy, government service or the zillion other sectors.

Furthermore, few students showed any interest in working for a company that actually makes products. It sometimes seems that good students at schools in blue states go into service capitalism consulting and finance while good students in red states go into production capitalism Procter & Gamble, John Deere, AutoZone.

The discussion also reinforced a thought I’ve had in many other contexts: that community service has become a patch for morality. Many people today have not been given vocabularies to talk about what virtue is, what character consists of, and in which way excellence lies, so they just talk about community service, figuring that if you are doing the sort of work that Bono celebrates then you must be a good person.

Let’s put it differently. Many people today find it easy to use the vocabulary of entrepreneurialism, whether they are in business or social entrepreneurs. This is a utilitarian vocabulary. How can I serve the greatest number? How can I most productively apply my talents to the problems of the world? It’s about resource allocation.

People are less good at using the vocabulary of moral evaluation, which is less about what sort of career path you choose than what sort of person you are.

In whatever field you go into, you will face greed, frustration and failure. You may find your life challenged by depression, alcoholism, infidelity, your own stupidity and self-indulgence. So how should you structure your soul to prepare for this? Simply working at Amnesty International instead of McKinsey is not necessarily going to help you with these primal character tests.

Furthermore, how do you achieve excellence? Around what ultimate purpose should your life revolve? Are you capable of heroic self-sacrifice or is life just a series of achievement hoops? These, too, are not analytic questions about what to do. They require literary distinctions and moral evaluations.

When I read the Stanford discussion thread, I saw young people with deep moral yearnings. But they tended to convert moral questions into resource allocation questions; questions about how to be into questions about what to do.

It’s worth noting that you can devote your life to community service and be a total schmuck. You can spend your life on Wall Street and be a hero. Understanding heroism and schmuckdom requires fewer Excel spreadsheets, more Dostoyevsky and the Book of Job.

via The Service Patch – NYTimes.com.

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CITIES, how the world works

Interview: Chris Dercon | Electronic Beats

I have said a few times that European cultural journalism of the sort published in free press is generally better than what Australian ‘elite’ media publish. This is not because am mean and/or hate Australia, but because standards of cultural journalism in Australia are held very low.

To demonstrate what I mean, here is an interview from Electronic Beats, a magazine I picked up in a bar a few days ago, here in Berlin. The interviewee is Chris Dercon, the director of Tate Modern:

You’re known for using interviews as platforms to make people aware of such societal developments. To quote you: “There are millions and millions of people […] who don’t know what social class they belong to and who can’t identify with any particular political agenda. And they’re becoming more and more. Those in power are hoping they don’t realize how many they’ve become; they’re hoping that they just continue to exploit themselves . . .” Do you think the art of modern governance lies in the skill to make the millions of members of the freelance “precariat” believe they’re only struggling for themselves individually?
I am completely aware that broaching sensitive topics like that is probably not something that’s expected from the director of a major art institution. A director’s job in the twenty-first century is not only to assume responsibility of a space for art, but also, and maybe even more so, to supposedly create a “time-slot” for art. That’s not my interest and never has been. I want to institute an institution, and this means to really create a space, to establish the conditions that fulfill particular needs and allow for certain experiences, and to make possible events in the future. This shouldn’t be equated with simply celebrating art’s “time-slot” within the larger scheme of socio-political events. I think most politicians see art as entertainment, as an expression of consensus of thought and taste, not as a form of critique. To make the impossible probable, and to celebrate the demos—that’s what I see as my task at Tate Modern, and that’s why this job is so intriguing. The Tate Modern is both sexy and democratic. You see celebrities and famous thinkers, but also groups of school kids and tourists who just arrived in London with the Eurostar . . . not to mention the twenty million visitors who use our online tools every year. And they all want something different. An exhibition like Gerhard Richter: Panorama is just one thing people want to experience amongst a host of other offerings. Curating exhibitions, selecting artists and art works; that’s one thing. Getting a message across is another. That’s why I like talking about small-scale organizations and what they can achieve.

OK, let’s talk about it. How do small-scale organizations fit into the picture?
Enthusiasm about being creative is a key aspect of self-exploitation nowadays, and that’s one of the biggest issues in an era where millions of people are freelancing. Today’s inequality is indeed unbearable. The art world is an ecosystem made up of art schools, art fairs, auction houses, galleries, museums, art publications, et cetera. And within this ecological mix, small-scale organizations become more and more important because they’re forced on the one hand to deal with so many other parts of the ecosystem and to adapt, while on the other hand still being absolutely unwavering about their mission. Most of them operate under almost impossible—I would even say unbearable—conditions. And yet they continue to operate.

You mean they are forced to operate in the face of failure?
That’s exactly why I’m interested in them.

via Interview: Chris Dercon | Electronic Beats.

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