by Corey Wakeling
3. David Jones *
from the Oxford English Dictionary
baldachin, n. 2. A structure in the form of a canopy, either supported on columns, suspended from the roof, or projecting from the wall, placed above an altar, throne, or door-way; so called as having been originally of the material described in prec. sense.
etymology: < French baldaquin, Spanish baldaquin, Italian baldacchino, in medieval Latin baldakinus , -ekinus , baudaquinus , -ekinus , < Baldacco , Italian form of Bagdad , the city in Asia where the material was made.
David Jones, name of poet of In Parenthesis (1937) and The Anathemata (1952), The Anathemata’s first page is where “baldachin” appears. What is a “pasteboard baldachin”? This philological adventure into British history is also an “attempted writing”, he writes in a subtitle to the long poem. A “pasteboard baldachin”; a contemporary enclosure; a writing experiment which is a covering, an enfolding; a material transnational relation.
David Jones is also the birth name of David Bowie.
David Bowie played Andy Warhol, Pontius Pilate, the Goblin King, Nikola Tesla, the Elephant Man Joseph Merrick, and Brecht’s Baal, not to mention disappearing Agent Jeffries from Twin Peaks. Agent Jeffries, Andy Warhol, Pontius Pilate, the Goblin King, Nikola Tesla, the Elephant Man Joseph Merrick, Baal.
One curiosity of Haruki Murakami’s work is his interest in bearing witness to ways of life which near or rely upon complete anonymity, playing games with the everyday and the pedestrian so that this anonymity’s scale and orientation too is borne witness to. Witnessing this scale of unimportance and invisibility often involves paradoxically an encounter with some kind of basic unreality. Putting into play is central to the way in which Murakami bears witness to the anonymity of the Japanese middle-class in the case of novel/short story collection After the Quake (2003). In After the Quake, distant association to the 1995 Great Hanshin Earthquake in Kobe and surrounding areas is the dramatic conceit in a series of ordinary characters’ lives. If a catastrophe is precisely the kind of event which negates all capacity to be protagonist and whose stage can only be, paradoxically, a wake or aftermath of annihilation, a collection of stories about post-catastrophe subjectivity particular to this context considers the distant and evanescent relationships to catastrophe and how it lives immanently in the anonymous lives of ordinary people. It is a novel made up of six stories about mostly work-obsessed people in Japan in their times of idleness, when not instruments of production.
As a writer, rather than trying to charm their pedestrian lives and say, look at the extraordinary secret lives of the pedestrian, how anyone can become a hero, Murakami upends the ethical programme of moral realism and writes stories like “Super Frog Saves Tokyo” where an impossibly unimportant salaryman, Katagiri, who works in the busiest division in the “Trust Bank Lending Division”, liquidation, saves Tokyo with the help of a magical frog from an even worse earthquake than the Great Hanshin by giving reality to Super Frog by filling a space of imagination with light (98-9). Katagiri essentially does nothing except listen to Super Frog.
Here, post-catastrophe subjectivity involves an interaction with unreality, rather than the idealistic notion that catastrophe brings about some implicit heroic human good. The Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky-reading Frog, before he explodes, tells Katagiri that although being “pure Frog” he also has within him “a world of un-Frog” (99). This totally preposterous situation seems recoverable to meaning when we think about it philosophically, that the unrealities of post-catastrophe subjectivity felt by the anonymous salaryman appear as an un-self, a space which would negate him, and which can only be opposed by bringing it to light. In this kind of world, there are no heroes, only illuminators. A moral realist, a moral
5. Paul Klee’s Actor (1923)‡
instrumentaliser of literature, might not show so frankly the unrealities to human sense that emerge post-catastrophe.
With Murakami in mind, rather than defend literature as exposing a real unexposed by other means, I’m inclined in this context to defend literature’s frankness about unreality as also important. At this point in the twenty-first century, I think it’s time we became very suspicious of the ways in which time to play – which also means time to bear witness, time to experiment, time to think at all – has been trivialized, indicted, made taboo, and extinguished from vocational, institutional, political, and economic images of the future. I think it’s time we paid attention to a situation wherein we have begun calling decadent any behaviours which appear to traverse any field’s imperatives to produce.
By contrast, I can think of nothing more decadent than our current predicament: the instrumentalisation of art for classist configurations of public institutions of culture and education, and the all-too-common conservative approach of all sorts of arts institutions and funding bodies to pander to existing or condescendingly-interpreted audiences, rather than attempting to develop new audiences. The institutions themselves are under an enormously burdening weight, I understand, given the continual economic deracination of their resources unless institutions themselves help meet quotas of success calculated based on prestige and return. But so long as we regurgitate the productivity measure apparent under so many guises, we perpetuate a cycle. Namely, replacements of the forum and the dialectic, like “excellence” and “the general reader”, are the monstrous spawn of this milieu.
Last year was the twenty-year anniversary of the Great Hanshin Earthquake. Last year was the year I started living in the Hanshin area and the suburb of Murakami’s childhood.
‡ In their explorations of the limits of sense and the chance emergence of expression, language games curiously have come to stand in by contrast for the opposite of their very particular limitations by constraint. Language games curiously enough have suggested the repeatability of particular language series developed using certain conceptual, spatial and temporal experiments, procedures which suggest repetitions which might exceed a given set. In the case of Georges Perec’s A Void ( 2008), the seemingly impossible task of writing a novel without the letter “e” is not only the literalising of the titular task to “a void” a vowel, but in doing so gives the sense of a writing process which could endlessly reproduce itself under constraint. It is as if the power of a voiding hurtled the writing towards a time frame without terminal. And if you thought your own attempts at getting a raise were Sisyphean, have a look at Perec’s The art and craft of approaching your head of department to submit a request for a raise ( 2011), which, besides demonstrative, is possibly the funniest book you will read.
In Jorge Luis Borges’s “The Library of Babel” from Labyrinths (1962), infinitude can only be referenced by some kind of transcription in finite terms, through geometries, spaces, signs, directions, citations, towards an excess of scale and repetition they put into effect, which in the case of “The Library of Babel” is a series of conceptual problems in trying to imagine a total library. Some characters in the story believe the library’s infinitude is revealed by the recursive reflection of space given by an orb in the library, some the necessary but absent figure of a “compendium” and author text which contains the unity of the library in total. Further, in an essay on The Thousand and One Nights (or The Arabian Nights), Borges notes that by exploiting the scale of a thousand stories told over a thousand nights, in adding one more night, the excess of scale suggests the infinite (Borges 1984). Borges writes of the kinds of notation which suggest infinitude by giving the example of stories within stories: “Stories within stories create a strange effect, almost infinite, a sort of vertigo” (572). What is this vertigo but the perceptibility of chance in what once was the involuntariness of balance and your perception of balance. I’m interested in the affect of vertigo as the feeling for infinitude. The media of these interactions are particular, limited relations to chance in such a way that chance’s refusal of abolition appears.
Vertigo, vapour, void, vacuum. Stéphane Mallarmé’s Un coup de dés jamais n’abolira le hasard (1897) is an historical event in literature in which a reading phenomenology was speculated about in form to confront the conceptual problems of notating the limits of the imaginable, namely, that invoking chance when rolling dice or using a writing procedure will not delimit or abolish chance. In Borges’s “The Library of Babel” is a lesson sympathetic to Mallarmé’s: in the infinite library, discovering this or that order to infinitude such as the “inquisitors” or other cults do (Borges 82-83) is to abolish what Borges calls “disorder”, what Mallarmé calls hasard, or chance. Mallarmé’s is a work which courts vertigo by rendering the page a field, by working procedurally and typographically as opposed to euphoniously or rhythmically (in the verbal sense). Borges’s vertiginous, Piranesian library is best surmised at in the narrator’s view as “unlimited and cyclical” (85). It is the cycle which promises eternal evasion of a graspable totality which at least for the narrator of “The Library of Babel”, rather than inquisition, signals a preference for vertigo.
The finale of Robert Altman’s 1974 film California Split shares a Mallarméan view of contingency that could be easily missed by thinking too traditionally about this movie, that is, for example, to see it as in the tradition of gambling movies about vice or even as an instance of Altman’s reputation in the genre of post-cinema verité neo-realist film. The finale involves George Segal’s character sitting miserably at an empty card table, on a comedown from an enormous winning streak. After the unbearable mayhem of the last twenty minutes of cinema time in which the viewer is sure that Segal’s character is about to lose, after a breathtaking achievement George Segal’s character looks over at Elliott Gould’s character and says to him: “it don’t mean a fucking thing, does it”. This interval works neither as a climax nor anti-climax, but as a kind of cinematic volta turning in on the trajectory of the whole film. This volta establishes a form in which the eternal delay of moral justice the viewer has been anticipating in what is a movie otherwise apparently about vice, lacking a moral paratext suggested by the form, concludes with a clear view of relation in
List of references
Borges, Jorge Luis. Labyrinths. London: Penguin, 2000.
Borges, Jorge Luis. “The Thousand and One Nights.” The Georgia Review, trans. Eliot Weinberger, 38. 3 (1984): 564-574.
California Split (1974). Directed by Robert Altman. Written by Joseph Walsh. Produced by Columbia Pictures Corporation.
Jones, David. The Anathemata. New York: Chilmark Press, 1963.
Murakami, Haruki. After the Quake, trans. Jay Rubin. London: Vintage, 2003.
Perec, Georges. A Void, trans. Gilbert Adair. London: Vintage, 2008.
Perec, Georges. The art and craft of approaching your head of department to submit a request for a raise, trans. David Bellos. London, New York: Verso, 2011.
idleness and formlessness. This moment of a seemingly deflationary reality check is really more than how it appears on the page, as a wisecrack. Instead, for me, it is an arrival at vertigo.
Rather than a moment of affective saturation, it’s tempting instead to read this great line from film history as Altman’s neo-realism sustaining the integrity of its photographic gaze. That is, it might appear that the film’s gaze follows through with its promise to never give up on the project of revealing the truth of things, Altman’s signature probing of layer after layer of accumulating imagery bringing about an unsentimental education in human folly through the context of the meaninglessness of gambling.
Throughout the film the two characters had couched their narratives, mythologies, and their senses of being in the monomyth of the big win which to the viewer has appeared instead as rather tawdry and pathetic. It is in the climax that the currency of the game – not just human friendship, but specifically a human reliance on others to charm time – has become visible as a clinamen, a tear, in the mythic veil. There is no abolition of chance at the arrival of this aphoristic interval, there is only becoming intimate with chance’s unimpeachable conditions.
Between Segal and Gould’s characters there is a form, a form of mutual recognition, an enclosure of game-playing with another. There is no big win; it would be an abolition of chance to have the mythic big win, an event necessitating retirement from gambling. To bet any of the winnings would instead be to remain in play. So the finale is different, the fact of their friendship built upon contingency is this unfinishable, unwinnable thing, the witnessing, instead, of a vertiginous recognition.