What I’ve been reading




This fortnight I have focused on two texts – Austerlitz by Sebald and On Creaturely Life by Eric Santer. A pdf of the latter is available online.

It was my first time reading Austerlitz and I had the usual experience of all Sebald texts of drifting from pure fascination to having read a few pages and not comprehending a single word of what my eyes had passed over – only to note that they were fine words and then to retrace where I had last understood what was going on and start again. I’m not sure Austerlitz will have as great an impact on me as Rings of Saturn – but only time will tell. I don’t really have any worthwhile conclusions about Austerlitz without reading it again, and I’m sure other people have already made such points and you’ve read a lot about it already.

One thing I was looking for as I read – a point made by Sebald in an interview – is that he is constantly reminding the reader that the author, and the characters – had given their preoccupations considerable thought. This is kind of reflexive, as they wouldn’t be preoccupations unless they demanded ones attention, but I suppose the interesting thing to note is the way Sebald handles this in the text – and how these become clues to the greater questions asked in the book. Here are a few examples:

“From the first I was astonished by the way Austerlitz put his ideas together as he talked, forming perfectly balanced sentences out of whatever occurred to him, so to speak, and the way in which, in his mind, the passing on of his knowledge seemed to become a gradual approach to a kind of historical metaphysic, bringing remembered events back to life.” p14

“Histories, for instance, like those of the straw mattresses which lay, shadow-like, on the stacked plank beds and which had become thinner and shorter because the chaff in them disintegrating over the years, shrunken – and now, in writing this, I do remember that such an idea occurred to me at the time – as if they were the mortal frames of those who once lay there in that darkness.” p31

“Though I really gave up my architectural studies long ago, he said, I sometimes relapse into my old habits, even if I don’t make notes and sketches any more, but simply marvel at the strange edifices we construct.” p57

“He would always emerge from his study in the evening in a state of deep despondency, only to disappear into it again next morning. But on Sunday, when he stood up in the chapel in front of his congregation and often addressed them for a full hour, he was a changed man; he spoke with a moving eloquence which I still feel I can hear, conjuring up before the eyes of his flock the Last Judgement awaiting them all, the lurid fires of purgatory, the torments of damnation and then, with the most wonderful stellar and celestial imagery, the entry of the righteous into eternal bliss.” p64

These prompts, I think, are an interesting technique in giving the story and the characters sub-text. An issue that occupies someones thoughts doesn’t just explain events of their past but reveals, in a clever way, why they are where they are and what might motivate them into the future. This also echoes one of Stanley Kubrick’s axiom: concept as subtext.

On Creaturely Life: I thought this book might be a good segue between thinking about walking tracks and nature and the notion of Natural History in Sebald’s work. Maybe I’m stupid but the book lacks a coherent overall thread. For example, in the final chapter Santer begins discussing the references to animals in Sebald’s work – but it only lasts a few pages before switching to discussing humour and then Sebald’s use of photography. Maybe I’ll have to read the book again to gain an overall perspective but at the moment I’m seeing it all piecemeal. The piecemeal take away ideas I have identified follow.

One of the things I do when I go ‘out bush’ is think about animals and what their thinking capacity is. Seeing wild animals is what makes the wilderness wilderness, I suppose. Landscapes and their vegetation are managed, and wildlife populations are managed too, but the nature of animals and how we relate to them remains separate. Santer doesn’t discuss this in relation to wild places but some of the conversation is still relevant:

“For the animal, beings are open, but not accessible; that is to say, they are open in an inaccessibility and an opacity – that is, in some way, in a non-relation. This openness without disconcealment distinguishes the animals poverty in the world from the man forming which characterises man.” p9 from Agamben.

Santer wants to use the contrast between the way animals think and the way man thinks to develop a picture of natural history and how that plays out in various literature. To be in a natural state is to be bored. This is certainly true when you’ve been sitting in a camp somewhere for more than six hours. Boredom, Santer states, is to be in a state that obstinately refuses itself. This may explain why bushwalking is simultaneously exhilarating and utterly boring. The thrill of starting a long walk is quickly tempered by the mundanity of the act.

Somewhere in the relationship between man and animal is the notion of the creaturely, the space between real and symbolic death. Natural history tries to make sense of these forces:

“Natural history is born out of the dual possibilities that life can persist beyond death of the symbolic forms that give it meaning and that symbolic forms can persist beyond the death of the form of life that gave that human vitality.”

In the context of Natural history the universe doesn’t end when you die. The modes of understanding that make us human also exist and persist outside of us and continue on in a collective sense. The idea that “life can persist beyond death of the symbolic forms” leads to a fascination with violence and war and the decay of human orders in order to give structure to the narration of natural history. All of this leads to allegory which is a signifier of temporality. In allegory, Santer argues, the observer is confronted with the facies hippocratica of history. (p18) The most extreme example as represented in the skull. A ruin, for example, is irresistible decay. Therefore, in allegory, as a expression of temporality, mans subjection to nature is most obvious.

When we look at the works of Sebald and some of the take away messages of Natural History – simply being there – the thereness – and grasping the changing face of history; the impact of the observation of death and decay, is experienced as trauma. For the characters is Sebalds work, observation is not a beholding, but recollecting traces of past lives and lost possibilities. They become a medium and photographic apparatus for communion with the dead. (p.53) Hence why we get the feeling history has a strangle-hold on these people to find out what they can.
Finally, past suffering has been absorbed into the substance of lived space, into the setting of human history. Basically, natural history is all around us, a kind of morphic resonance that lies beyond the books, but is present if you know how to read the landscape and people.

All this seems a bit dark and dreary, especially when thinking about wilderness walks and their apparent healing processes, but each track will have a story to tell, and having a sense of the natural history of a track will make the story I will try to tell more informative. Pilgrimages are predicated on the movement of people and automatically trigger within us the notion of the past and salvation. Songlines bring to us the past and carry with them the stories of the past. The Bibbulmun track, for example, has aboriginal, colonial, forestry, mining histories embedded in the landscapes that it passes through. Apparently the Wilson Inlet in Walpole is the oldest inlet in the world. The track itself has its own history and the way it developed and changes.

Bill Bryson spends a bit of time discussing the history of the Appalachian trail before the character in A Walk in the Woods sets foot on the trail. I’ll be reading that book over the next week or two to see how popular walking stories work.



Mooro Katta

5am we watch the sun rise at Mooro Katta.
Nowhere to sit but cold marble steps
Where we have placed hundreds of fake candles
Which hundreds of people carry hundreds
Of metres across the dewy grass
Where ducks are asleep and the plants
Are from thousands of kilometres away
With common and Latin labels.

And because there has been rain they look healthy.
Happy even. Orchids amongst banksias
Kangaroo paw amongst marri. The light
Changes so rapidly, we walk amongst strangers
And those of us who have not cried feel the change too.

At the hilltop we come to a boab;
That travelling circus elephant, rotten and cracking
A beached whale whose blubber leached
Back to the ocean, staining the sand.
Up north they use these trees as prisons.
Down below we see the estuary
That once was a river and further and further
Past the smoke stacks, purple hills.

Others are already at the memorial
Stretching their legs, straightening their backs.
A wattle bird’s silhouette on the metal railing.

Someone blows their nose and uses the same tissue
To wipe their eyes. For all the stories
We choose life and die, or choose death
And die. And after the poem is read
And we disperse, we meet a pregnant woman
Due any day, a cook from the country
Whose only wish is to see her toes again.

A quick thought on Landscapes

In John Dixon Hunts’ book Greater Perfections in the chapter ‘Word and Image in the Garden’ he discusses the role of the word and narrative and experience in landscape architecture. In context of narrative, he argues:

“[N]arratives that recount times past do so in the present, which with landscape architecture is intimately linked to the configurations of the site that functions both as setting and presumably as prompt for the narrative to be recounted. Further, the “reader” is thrust into prominence; the narrative of a place relies on the verbal skills of its visitor, who has to infer or “translate” from the given materials, which can never (qua narrative) be as complete as they would be, for instance, on the pages of a novel.”

Thus, the verbal skills of a viewer, reader or visitor in a didactic, narrative designed landscape can never as complete as the reader of a novel. This is because of the “translation” from the abstraction of the inscriptions on the materials of the site, and the site itself. Therefore, for example, a plaque by the ocean may describe the anchorage of a ship in a port two hundred years earlier. The visitor reads the plaque, looks over to the position of anchorage, and is imagines a ship there. The argument put forward by Hunt is that this scenario is not as complete a narrative on the pages of a novel. However, I think there are grounds for a contrary argument. A visitor with verbal skills may have their experienced enhanced by looking out to where the boats set anchor. A purely fictionalised novel has no landscape equivalent to compare the given materials.

Unless of course, Hunt means that a plaque can never be as long or as big as a novel. In which case he is correct. He concludes: “in short, the site qua site may play a greater or lesser role.” When, I think what he means to say is: the abstract site (narrative) within a real landscape may play a greater or lesser role.

Sites within sites, narratives within narratives; the way our minds work and our body moves through a site is immensely complex. There are an infinite amount of impressions, senses, ideas and events that coalesce to complete our understanding of a landscape or site. While historical narratives within sites seek to represent a true interpretation of a sites past, what of the fictional impressions we gain from a site? How does a shift in scale, an imagined people of the past, an animated artefact, the re evaluation of the ugly change the way we read landscapes? Can, or do we reach neutrality by championing the fake and the ugly when best practise seeks to promote the good and feel good?

Poem written with Shane Starling

Its fun to drive in a beetle
and see on the footpath
one kid punch another.
But its grand to barf that
V-Dub through any prepuce freeway tunnel.
there by the subterranean palominos needle hopping the strained motor putsch right there by the compression of hard plastics and aluminum crying
like a corked arm
searing within your accelerator
so compact the boots
leather is skin
inside a pastel dream
and oranges are lost
until the multidirectional charge of
their juices slide
down tangerine tunnels
clasping bassoons’
fragrant tomorrow
we, of the hideous arsed
tribe, poised with moss
and vicissitudes
uncomplete (sic)
sick by the road
dumbed by trees we cannot name
burning XB’s amphetamine
fingering the Gods
lucid orifices after
decoding the oracle
that was the barmaid
serving liquid
gone impotent and sour
which amounted to me staring at her tits for half an hour as i consumed the tipple and felt increasingly impotent
until another beetle screamed passed
and i corked you in the other arm
there would always be violence
in this world i thought
rubbing a tricep
relieved in a way to been acted
(we of the hideous arses)
profound movements
castrating the sting
as a
beetle divine now
lost the road chess
through the autobahn
going as fast as possible
sunglasses and soft pack
on the dash of
the panzer he’s seconded
from barracks
which was almost exclusively
recognized as a shithole
even the earthworms who slid there
thought as much
the value, a real estate agent
said would rise if civilization was applied.
the cows appealed
the crocodiles left weeping

Toward an Understanding of Attraction

Toward an understanding of attraction: I am astounded as to the origin of the force that overwhelms my being in the presence of beauty; in particular, beautiful women. For example, at a recent social gathering I spent part of evening seated next to a woman of remarkable beauty during which time an emotion in me was evoked. In that instant she was perfect and divine. It was as if normally intangible metaphysical dilemmas had altered so significantly that all pointless and purposeless wanderings had been irrevocably redirected by, and toward this woman’s disposition. Questions regarding the nature of reality and existence were rendered completely futile and impotent in her presence. In her, and beaming out of her, it seemed, lay all the conceivable answers. I imagined that if I shared the rest of my days with her they would be happy and trouble-free. Yet, nothing that she said or acted was any more extraordinary that anybody else at the gathering. I knew this, but despite that, by virtue of her attractiveness to me, I watched her movements and listened to her words with deep interest. In an attempt to conceal my infatuation I consciously addressed my remarks to anyone but this beautiful woman.

more here

Ted Berrigan and America

Interview with Lorenz Gude 29th April 2002 on Ted Berrigan and America:

James: Can you tell me about how you met Ted Berrigan?

Lorenz: When I arrived at Columbia University in 1960 I met a fella named Tom Veitch who was a year older than me. Tom was very interested in literature and he and his brothers loved comic books. They were very talented and they drew all these comic books, Tom wrote the stories. I got a bit involved in that, well, I didn’t do anything, but I knew what was going on. Hell, I didn’t really know what I wanted to do; I was probably more interested in history than literature, but I began to meet some of Tom’s friends and develop some of my own. On my floor was a young fella from Oklahoma named Ron Padgett, who was sort of a classic westerner, really tall, skinny and wore cowboy boots, with pressed jeans pulled down over the top of them. He was very fastidious. Soon we became friends, and some of his friends started coming up from Oklahoma. One time his mother came up, and she came with a pistol in her suitcase. She was a petite little brunette, very spirited middle-aged lady and a lot of fun to be around, but she packed a pistol, which in New York will get you twenty years, though back in Oklahoma it just goes in your purse with your make-up. The father was a bail bondsman and Ron never went home after nine o’clock because after then if anyone came into the house you shot em’ first and asked questions later…

more here