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Lisa Robertson: Dispatch from Jouhet!
During a site migration (I love technical jargon, don’t you?), a number of Harriet’s journals were lost. But I’m pleased – and extremely grateful to the crack web team here for their help – to be able to re-present this one! It’s Lisa Robertson’s dispatch from Jouhet, France. Here you go… enjoy! Discuss!!
In this village, in fair weather the accepted neutral site for mutual discussion of current events (whether political or meteorological or agricultural) is the bridge. A person standing on the bridge, leaning over the stone balustrade, looking down through the water and weeds for fish, often smoking, is signaling their availability for discussion. It was here that an elderly neighbour, Jacqueline, a retired librarian, knowing that I was waiting for news back from a job interview that was important to me, advised me to pray to the holy virgin. The pragmatism of it. Maybe I did not know how to pray.
I think that now America needs better pornography. This idea has been influenced by my early-summer romance with Pauline Reage and The Story of O. Living in France, reading in French, coming across the plain yellow paper volume in a used book shop in the next town, having an ongoing need to build for myself a history of how women have thought, so that I might have a sense gradually of what thinking will be for me in my life, what thinking could become—this is an abbreviated background for my immersion in a text whose anarchism is as sustained, feral and relentless as it is elegantly poised. I think this is the magic formula of O. Each limit or expectation one could have regarding the relation of the subject to desire, to power, to sex, to identity, is systematically obliterated, but this happens in a language whose stylistic achievement is so restrained, so balanced, so modest , that the reader has the feeling she is participating, with sublime effortlessness, in a masque. The only obscenity is the reader’s repeated need to stop and build a moral defense against her own immersion in the imaginary, her own identification with a punitive sadism. Yet L’Histoire d’O is really the first book I’ve read in French nearly effortlessly, voraciously, fast, with full-on admiration. This complex tension, between the sinuous ease of the text as a styled object, the questions it allegorizes—around the relation between embodied will and desire and thus the political—and the reader’s suspension between a received moral hygiene of gender and a freefall into a fantastical extreme—this confused yet poised tension says things about thinking itself as a open form of sustained erotic anarchy.
Pauline Reage was a pseudonym of the Parisian critic, scholar, and editor Dominique Aury. Dominique Aury, in turn, was a name assumed for the length of her professional life by the young woman Anne Desclos. O was first published in 1952, though it was written in the previous decade. The story is a sort of sadistic fairy tale, in the tradition of the sadist contes of Perrault—Bluebeard, Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty. O follows also of course the tradition of de Sade himself, where the orgy in the castle is a discourse on the practice of political power, and the need to dissolve the accepted limits of philosophical thought, so that philosophy might become a form that opens political life to the variousness of bodies and their many ways of being constituted as subjects, erotic and otherwise. That was a long sentence. What I want to indicate is that this book is part of more than one tradition in French letters, and that it is part of a political history of philosophy, and that, like philosophy, it could show us something new about being a person.
There is a new biography of Dominique Aury, written by Angie Davis, and published this year by Editions Leo Scheer. I came across it in a bookstore in Paris near the Pompidou centre, on my way to lunch a few weeks ago, after seeing the Hans Bellmer show. It’s big, a bedside book rather than a slim traveling volume, the way I prefer biographies, but it has no photographs, except for the one on the cover showing Aury with pen in hand, at a table with her lover Jean Paulhan. Both of them glance out with mild surprise, and behind them is a disorderly book shelf, and what appears to be a screen or room divider covered in toile de jouy fabric. The photograph is dark, and Aury’s face glows with what I am tempted to call frankness, though it is only the light. The book has no index either, by choice of the publisher says a note at the end. I started to make up my own on the back flyleaf as I read.
Aury, bilingual since childhood, was a scholar of 16th and 17th century poetry, and translated Donne into French. Her first book, published by Gallimard during the war, was an anthology of French religious poetry of the 16th century. I want to track down her Donne translations, and her anthology. For now I just pull down my old green Norton anthology. (I should also buy a decent edition of Donne) She translated “The Good Morrow”—“I wonder, by my troth, what thou and I / did til we loved? Were we not weaned til then. / But sucked on country pleasures, childishly?” Such supple teasing. She wrote the story of O as a love letter to Jean Paulhan, a Gallimard editor and for several decades, and with extreme clandestine discretion, her lover. The myth of the writing of The Story of O, told by Aury herself in an essay called “Une Fille Amoureuse,” is that she wrote in her bed at night, in school notebooks, with no corrections and few pauses, sending the notebooks by mail to Paulhan one at a time, to a poste restante address. In both Donne and Reage, the erotic emblem is opened out, slowed down, suspended, given space, so that something more than a simple identification happens. One is forced to analyze the terms of an identification as it is experienced. The analysis does not cancel the identificatory force; it troubles its transparency, inserting in it a baroque dynamics. In reading we become someone we can’t fully believe.
The Beaver Coat.
The first time she made any half decent money as an arts journalist and critic, and could stop teaching art history to disinterested American students, Aury splurged on a coveted beaver coat, broad-shouldered and extravagantly fashionable. Yet she was known all her life for her soberness, even nunishness, in dress. She preferred the simplest dark toned tailored suits. And then—the beaver coat. Clothing in O plays a highly coded and central role in the story, and is described with almost documentary remove. At the beginning, (and this is my translation) “She is dressed as she always is: shoes with high heels, a matching jacket and pleated skirt, a silk blouse, no hat. But long gloves that go up over the sleeves of her tailored jacket, and in her leather handbag her identity papers, her powder, and her lipstick.” A simple tension in the image is introduced here already—in a story set in Paris in the middle of the last century, a chic woman wears no hat, but wears long formal gloves. Later in the book, corsets, piercings, brandings, lash wounds, and animal masks are described with the same discrete precision.
Knitting, the Knitted Suit.
Yes, she was knitting herself a suit during the war. She alternated between writing and knitting. I imagine it tightly worked on small steel needles, in navy blue. She would have lined the skirt, which was maybe knitted in the round. Since I recently started knitting again, this gives me a little thrill. How I would love to knit the supple navy suit of Dominique Aury. But it would have to be perfect. In every particular, Aury’s style was immaculate. I don’t yet have the skill. My tension is off. During the war she was also working for the resistance. In occupied Paris she distributed forbidden publications of political journalism and analysis. Some of her colleagues were captured and killed. I imagine her sitting knitting waiting for the delivery that wouldn’t arrive. Wearing that suit.
She had a group of them always in her room, on the mantel, or on her bedside table. She wrote in bed habitually, and imagined them to be her interlocutors. She gave her porcelain zebra to her lover (the one before Paulhan) when he was mobilized in the war. On my desk I have a small bear on yellow skis, a life-sized china toad, a terracotta head of a dog, a tiny glass elephant, a black lead Anubis, a metal swan with outstretched wings and white paint chipping off. Now I feel less odd about that. (admittedly my desk animals were partly influenced by the audience of godlets on Freud’s desk, which I saw in his house in North London in 1997, while strangely hungover on alcohol/sleeping pills/jetlag) I really don’t think Aury was any sort of follower or devotee of psychoanalysis, at least not of psychoanalysis considered as the uncovering or revelation of the self. She believed in maintaining secrets, in duplicity, in dissimulation, in pseudonyms, in invented identities, in tales. She was perhaps trained into the imperative of the clandestine by her resistance work, but already it was a literary taste. She believed in the 18th century of Declos. She wrote an essay on les Liasons Dangereuses in the ‘30s. I thought I had translated a passage from this essay in my notebook, but, looking back, I did not—only the jotted phrase—“and for the erotic education of intelligence.” I did, though, translate a bit from her 1946 essay on Violette Leduc’s first book, L’Asphyxie: “There is no longer a secret garden or a lost paradise. Because, in the novels of women today, paradise never existed. Yet the world exists—a world stifling and splendid, crushing and despised, The titles of the women’s books give an emblem to the tone and atmosphere of their stories. And so, Violette Leduc entitles her first book Asphyxia.” (My battered Panther edition is wordily translated as In the Prison of her Skin) It’s an interesting exercise to consider the forms these two mid-twentieth women chose, the confession, and the erotic conte, as two faces of the 18th C. The construction of an image of complete self disclosure, in Leduc, beside the mythically disciplined, and disciplinary restraint of Aury, two versions of responses to the asphyxiating sensation and experience of female corporality in a world of men. It’s a dialectic I’d like to think more about: Confession/dissimulation. I think one reason I decided to move to France, a reason that’s just now becoming apparent to me, is to continue my research on the 18th century. France, especially in the towns and villages, is still in the 18th century. I love how here a conversation is often structured on the mutual presentation of theories, not as conflictual stances, but as entertaining bibelots. Talking together in the evening in a mown field above the river is a formal masque of theories, and also a real politics.
Aury was a passionate devotee of Poussin. What did she love in him? Grandeur and restraint, perhaps, a formal, even emblematic approach to the symbolic structure or logic of the image, stylistic exactitude and rigor, but over all this a gentle or even humorous or loving sense of the glorious inevitability of human stupidity. Lytle Shaw and I have been having an off and on conversation about why the English Romantics loved Poussin. (they did. Hazlitt wrote on him, (see Tom Paulin on Hazlitt) Keats owned the first memoir of Poussin’s life, written in 1820 by Maria Graham—a book I impulsively ordered from Abe two years ago simply because at the time I was earning money and I could). It seems at first like such a deep mystery, this love of Poussin, if you approach the idea of romanticism as an expressive plenum, the romantic artwork as an elevation of individual passions. But what if we think of romanticism’s austerity, the measured analysis of convention in social expression, a sustained dignity of formal attention paid to the minutae of quotidian stories? Then emotions become treated as ritual. They become visible, discernable as more than encompassing flows. In this way, Poussin could be a kind of key to the cabinet that is the story of O.
Violette Leduc. (see above)
What is it about all these fabulous French women writers? Aury, Weil, Leduc, Colette, de Beauvoir, Sarrazin. Not that many other nations aren’t also yielding brilliant women, haven’t always for centuries. But in France they seem more part of the centre of the culture, more accepted as necessary fixtures in the history of thought. For example: a common brand of Dijon mustard, typical in every grocery store and pantry cupboard, comes in a re-useable water glass with a blue or green round bauble for a stem. The glass, my 76 year old neighbour tells me, is a copy of the stemware of Georges Sand. So Georges Sand’s stemware is part of the domestic vocabulary of French kitsch. Can we even begin to imagine the same with Emily Dickinson? Would her thimble arrive as the prize in a cereal box? Collect the set? Or Susanah Moodie? Who? I digress. A few weeks ago at a local dinner party I was overcome by the excitement of meeting two people who found it perfectly normal to spend the evening talking about Bergson and Hannah Arendt. (Why should I have been surprised? The dinner was at the house of the pornographic bookseller who had sold me my copy of The Story of O, in its original ample format and plain yellow cover, then later, Reage’s Une Fille Amoureuse, and Regine Deforges’ O m’a dit, a book of interviews with Aury from 1975). We ate with our fingers the fat white asparagus the French love, dabbing it in various sauces before stripping the soft pulp from the fibrous part by slowly extruding the dripping shoot from between tight teeth. I dipped and blabbered on about Arendt, in the full excitement then of delving through The Life of the Mind. I said how few seriously recognized women thinkers there have been. I was called for my thoughtlessness immediately. Not true. They started naming women philosophers—and all of them were French. I was reading Kristeva on Arendt too at the time. (A book that’s part of a trilogy on the notion of genius in women, and includes Melanie Klein and Colette.) I saw they were right. Here Kristeva and Cixous and Irigary or Duras or Yourcenar or Labe for that matter are not part of a dated or quaint marginal camp called French feminism. They are simply serious thinkers in the culture. They offer analysis on current politics and on history. They are part of public life. Ah, public life. Maybe because there still is a tenuous public space here, a serious sense of the necessity of a critical and unsponsored secular discourse, women can be part of it. Discourse as I know it in the USA and Canada seems to be a mostly private activity, sheltered or promoted or squashed by corporations. And so there is not the space for a public tradition of thinking to accrue. I’m familiar with the Habermasian critique of the public sphere, its basis in class privilege. Yet here public discourse seems to persist in spite of the inevitable circulation of power. It is still a site where unimaginable change or resistance exerts creative force. As in the most recent public protests—the student protestors won. Women can be part of public life because public life exists. (But I distrust the simplicity of this formula.) (and public life erodes also. See the recent essay on political life in France in the London Review of Books, by Alain Supiot.) Which unfortunately doesn’t guarantee anything at all about the status of individual women in family or social life. Aury, after her early divorce, refused re-marriage or even cohabitation, preferring to conduct her love affairs with women and men clandestinely, and to maintain her status as an autonomous member of french cultural life. She worked at Gallimard for about 30 years, and was the only woman in that field during that time. So her compartmentalizing was not only a question of intellectual erotics. It stemmed also from a pragmatism in relation to the real politics of gender, the way it circulates in marriages, families, workplaces.
At this point my index dwindles on to:
Poetry as political resistance.
Curiosa, Locked Cabinet of.
The Peruvian Copiest
Libertinage at the Louvre
The imaginary cabin or house
But to return to my first proposition: America needs better pornography.
O begins when the heroine and her lover, strolling in an unfamiliar neighbourhood, enter a car that is like a taxi, yet is not a taxi, and O’s lover has her undo the closure of her perfect grooming. First he asks her to give him her handbag, containing makeup and identity papers. Then he asks her to remove her under wear, her garter belt, her stockings. She sits feeling the embarrassing sensation of her silk slip on her bare thighs. He blindfolds her. He takes her to a chateau at Roissy (now site of the Charles de Gaulle Airport) were she agrees to be prostituted to the desires of a group or cult of men. They may ask anything of her, and she agrees to comply. She agrees to submit herself to this condition. She is dressed by another woman in an open-bodiced gown that lifts easily to emphasize the general availability of her breasts and groin. Her mouth and nipples and labia are rouged and perfumed. It is a banal fantasy really, making use of the usual props and humiliations. It’s the extreme to which Aury stretches it, coupled with her cool stylistic reserve, and her innate understanding of the simultaneous layerings of allegory, that make more of this fantasy than the typical titillation. O, passed among men like a sort of emptied token of exchange, becomes a slave, then an owl, then nothing. These men become progressively more limited in their capacity for any sort of thinking or compassion. The final man is called simply The Commander. Who consents to the dissolution of personhood inside a cult of authority?
Searching for an explanation for this intuition I have about L’Histoire d’O, I think of Swift then pull Bakhtin’s Rabelais and His World from the shelf, a book I haven’t looked at since the late ‘80s. Then I open a new notebook, a big dark grey one from muji, and start writing a story. As I write I have a feeling the story might be for Allyson Clay. Together we’ve been talking about a video script that would be a conversation between two identical images of the same woman.
As in myth and ritual and politics, nothing was true in this landscape. Violence, prohibitions, limitations, fear, and intimidation together moulded a grotesque, a living tableau that night gave over to the imaginary. Nothing was left for the senses, nothing but the feminine in its extremity. I noticed the extreme difficulty in separating out external compulsion from the experience of desire. Maybe they weren’t different. The entire system of degradation and travesty, the relation to social and historical transformation, the element of relativity and becoming, the material bodily lower stratum: change became this image to which I learned to submit. Nothing was left but the smell of crushed in passing. I myself am an ornate and abstract allegory.
It’s not far from evening and its autumn. Part of political life is not visible. I am dressed as I always am. I go into the world. I’ve emptied all the pronouns. The religiosity is structural, rather than ideal.
I am interested here in new thought. I am standing dressed in the skin of a sheep or a cow in the occidental forest. My name shall be she to them. It is a shame. It is velvety, voluptuous, and odorous. The sky, the cunt, each thing’s hunger is my fate, is universe of the undiscussed. My name shall be she to them, in grotesque, monstrous, most ancient mixture. This is a class.
This work was made under the auspices of material opulence. I think we talk about their ancient secret glowing like a money.
A good blouse, long gloves that go up over the sleeves of the tailored jacket, in the leather handbag the identity papers and minimum of makeup: Our entire relation with objects can’t be subsumed under the rubric of reification.
In my own pornographic experience I accept the imperceptible harnesses, the deafening panting of desire, the unregulated passivity. If I went home to this one emotion, to lovingly read obedience as liberty falsely improvised, that is, specific spiritual liberty, this is my account, is universe of the undiscussed, is nobility of information, is a class, like the inward opening window, called also a casement. I’m still you, in axis inward flung. I simply watch. And the breezes licking the lush terrains peopled with creatures, the authority, the virility, her submissive fidelity: I solicit all this. Each is progressively more limited. I demand a more exigent passivity and I supply it, to see what will happen. The private lumber turns dangerously.
I have wanted to read this novel, Tous Les Chevaux du Roi since 1986, when I first read about the author, Michele Bernstein, in Greil Marcus’ Lipstick Traces. This would have been my introduction to Situationism, that alluring French counter-tradition of radical ambling. I lost my copy of the Marcus books years ago, I think when I offered a pile of books to the general library of the Sea Cabin, a sway backed hippy shack become cedar and glass architectural object, back on the west coast. (The library there was composed of warped volumes from the two great 20th century counter cultural moments, the ‘30s and the ‘60s—so HG Wells rubbed shoulders with Rosicrucian tracts, palm reading manuals and handbooks to healthful fasting with the help of cayenne, early New Directions and City Lights editions of Snyder and Ginsberg, The Golden Notebook, The Female Eunuch, and various philosophical treatises by Watts, Suzuki, and Alexandra David Neel, on tantric matters and zen. Around the year 2000 I thought that Greil Marcus, along with an assortment of early titles from Zone, on the history of the body and anthropology of the sacred and so on, would supply the crucially missing dimension of the quite recent, but already slightly tangy, bibliophilic past. It was a kind of reciprocity since it had been from the Sea Cabin’s driftwood shelves that I appropriated my crisping copy of Maurice Girodias’ Olympia Reader, my introduction to Reage).
What I remember about Michele Bernstein is that she had been married to Guy Debord, was herself a member of the Situationist International, a frequent contributor to the magazine Potlatch (some of her texts can be found online), and that she financially supported Debord and herself by writing the horoscopes of racehorses for a betting tabloid. Could this be true? She also wrote various art and literary reviews for the TLS, and two novels, both of which were pastiches of wildly popular books of late ‘50s France, one by Francoise Sagan, and the other, Nathalie Sarraute. This one, All the King’s Horses was a takeoff on Bon Jour Tristesse, and also a roman a clef about Bernstein’s apparently complicated ménage with Debord.
It was published in 1960, has been out of print for decades, and I’ve never been able to find a copy. Then the same day I spotted the bio of Dominique Aury, expecting nothing more, I found myself asking the clerk at Les Cahiers du Colette if he might locate a copy. Amazingly, I learned it is in print again for only six Euros, in a slight and elegant little paperback from Editions Allia. I ordered a copy, and later read it on the way home to the country on the TGV. The cover, in moodily pixilated dark greys, shows Bernstein mid-sentence, a thinking pixie in standard issue chunky black turtleneck. The bio note on the back flap says simply that she was born in Paris in 1932, and that this was her first novel. I haven’t found it possible to learn anything more about her. In one of my periodic Google sessions in search of her trace, I once reached the conclusion that she was doing radical political puppet theatre in the streets of San Diego, but surely this is wrong. After her relationship with Debord ended, she was for a time married to the English Situationist Ralph Rumney. I think that she wrote a column for a while in Liberation, but I’m not sure. She leaves no biographical detritus behind her, resisting entirely the spectacle of publicity as Debord himself failed to do. I assume she is still living.
I’m amused by Bernstein’s deft appropriation of pop genre. Francois Sagan’s Bonjour Tristesse, published in 1954 when she was 19, was immediately as successful as it was scandalous. When Sagan died in Paris last year, the kiosks were filled with glossy souvenir special editions of the ladies magazines, commemorating Sagan’s racy life, her penchants for casual sex and fast cars, her refusal to pay taxes, her honed life-long garconette style. (Now I can’t believe I didn’t save my copy of the special Sagan issue of Marie Claire.) At her death, Sagan had become the bad girl’s Lady Di. Already in 1960 she was fabulously rich, bought and crashed fancy sports cars at will, slummed on the Cote d’Azure, and grinned impishly into the cameras of a million paparazzi. Why not detourne Sagan and maybe make some housekeeping money at the same time? Both novels narrate the summertime frolics of open marriages, between Paris and the hot south, and involve prematurely sophisticated gamines. But the startling thing about Bernstein’s novel, the quality that hooked me right away, is its deadpan humour, entirely at the expense of the marginal art scenes the couple frequented. The scenarios and conversations she describes could be taking place right now in East Vancouver, or somewhere in Williamsburg or the 19th arrondissement.
(from the middle of the novel:
—What do you do anyways? I don’t really know .
—Reification, Gilles replied.
—It’s serious work, I added.
—Yes, he said.
—I see, Carole said with admiration. It’s very serious work with thick books and a lot of papers on a big table.
—No, Gilles said. I walk. Principally I walk.)
Here is a crisply worked opportunity to laugh at ourselves, to feel just slightly, and slightly intelligently, outside the scrawl of theories and complications we use to decorate the fiscal and popular minimalism of a freelance life in poetry. I began to translate as soon as I finished the novel. Here, a draft of a first installation.
Michele Bernstein Tous les Chevaux du Roi
I don’t know how I caught on so quickly that Carole attracted us. I had only just heard about her the night before, in a small gallery stuffed with that crowd that always comes to the openings of painters destined to remain unknown. The few old friends I ran into there were precisely the ones I would have rather not seen again. In a loud voice that tried hard to be worldly, the gallerist spoke of her shoes so that anyone important could understand that she was already cashing in on the success she felt coming. There was no bar and we had nothing to drink.
When I looked around to rescue Gilles, I saw that the painter was talking to him excitedly. A little group was already forming around them. He was a bad painter but a charming old guy, a fossil of an obsolete modernism. Gilles answered without revealing his weariness, and I admired his style. The old painter was already lost in the generation before ours, but he didn’t let that discourage him. He liked us. Our youth inspired his, I guess.
Me, I was stuck in a conversation with his wife.
—I should really bring you my daughter, she was saying. She’s almost your age, but she’s not very mature. You would do her a lot of good.
Indulgence rarely accompanies boredom. I assessed the blandness of this lady. A girl like her, outdated on top of it—I didn’t want to imagine her upbringing. But one ought to take an interest in people. I asked what the girl did.
—She paints. I think she has some talent, but she hasn’t found herself yet.
—Like her father I say rudely. Then I find out that she’s not the daughter of Francois-Joseph, she’s from an early marriage . . . By the end of the sentence I’m saying how much I really want to meet her. Was my eagerness convincing? I’d rather Gilles was in my shoes. He always seems nicer than me.
But finally, after she had finished talking about Beatrice, her daughter’s best friend, who wrote pretty good poems for her age, and who she’d give the copy of Rimbaud she’d just picked up, she had invited me for dinner the next day, with my husband.
The meal was pleasant. Francois-Joseph, not thinking now of the fate of his canvases, was at ease. His friends trotted out in fine form the ideas of thirty years ago. It was amusing. The people of that era appreciated black humour. Even their nonsense could take on a certain ambiguity. When, like good Frenchmen, they evoked the allures of the person who sold paintings without even offering finger food, Francois-Joseph defended her hips.
—Not like you, Carole, he said, you don’t have much yet to offer the gentlemen.
—I’ll have my day, Francois-Joseph, she replied as she moved sinuously in her chair.
Francois-Joseph was so visibly sensitive to this possibility that I hesitated to assist him in his awkward efforts to help Carole loosen up. He’d obviously been digging himself into this hole for quite a while. Maybe I looked at Carole because she was the object of this annoying attention.
A girl of twenty quite easily makes fifty year old men understand that she finds them decrepit, and this girl better than any. I took advantage of the moment when she got up to make coffee. I went to the kitchen to help her.
I felt half-hearted suddenly.
At first I found her quite tiny and incredibly slender. The tousled bangs, the cropped blonde hair, the childish outfit—white collar, blue pull-over—she didn’t look her age. But her awkwardness was expert: Carole didn’t make coffee, she made disorder, ostensibly. It was to give me the chance to lose, if I showed the slightest domestic capability, or if I was ridiculous enough to give her advice.
There’s nothing like a trap avoided. When I run water or look for cups, I am capable of a contrariness that could dissociate me completely insidiously from this group. They were speaking about rare publications. We served a black liquid that caused friendly indignation. Objects now of a general disapproval, it was inevitable that we felt like accomplices. To take advantage of this, I trained a slightly ironical conversation on Carole, speaking to her parents like an equal. Francois-Joseph, happy to focus on her, babbled on. Disconcerted, she kept quiet. I heard that she lived quite far from there, in the 16th district, and that she played the guitar. Gilles also remained silent and looked at us with an interest that I recognized.
But it was me who proposed to take the girl home in a taxi. And when Gilles found me later in the corridor and teasingly asked what we were going to do, I replied:
—Win her, of course.
Will someone go to the Guggenheim to see the Zaha Hadid show, and report back? I once sat on a red ponyskin couch she made. It was the rumpus room of some eerily wealthy Parisian collectors whose house I was writing about for Nest magazine. They had coupled it I think with a big Basquiat canvas, was it, or maybe something lumpy from the support et surface group. (In this house each furnishing seemed to be paired with a canvas to make a kind of very high end pun, and the pun had to do with the cultural rhyme of two names, such as Hadid/Basquiat, more than the desirable objects themselves.) This ponyskin couch had the coarse fur rubbed off it at many points, since the children of the house used the thing like a long, undulant but quite sturdy gymnastic horse. Is that what those things are called, those wood and leather hard contraptions in small town high school gymnasiums, all rubbed to a shine by the labours of several generations of sweating adolescents? I think I would like to have one of those in my living room. Anyways. I suspect I should be in awe of Zaha Hadid. I love her little manifesto “Randomness vs. Arbitrariness.” An incredibly important differentiation to make. “Randomness in architecture is a visual translation of pure mathematical order and thinking which is guided by logic, whereas arbitrariness has no underlying conceptual logic. . . . Arbitrariness has to do with a generation which has been brought up on shopping for ideas. A catalogue exists from which they freely copy anything and apply it with little relevance to any situation. But in architecture our responsibilities are far greater: we must create a new dynamics of architecture in which the land is partially occupied. We must understand the basic principles of liberation.” (1982) Could we differentiate like this in writing please? Could we recognize that arbitrariness is not in itself liberatory? Is arbitrariness truly attractive? How far can randomness go? How could a text partially occupy a site? By scrupulously pursuing a logic it thus transforms to an abstract symbolic apparatus? (I think here, maybe a little predictably, of Kenneth Goldsmith’s work; also of the work of Dan Farrell, Fiona Banner’s The Nam and Lytle Shaw’s Cable Factory.) It seems to me that we could climb all over this simple distinction Hadid makes, explore it and rub it shiny. I’d like that kind of exercise.
I’d like to try to think through her idea of randomness in relation to catalogues and cataloguing. Are the artists of randomness, in Hadid’s terms, the ones who are now constructing new catalogues, rather than shopping arbitrarily among the existing ones? Some seem to ask—what is a category and how is it constituted? And the indexical relationship of catalogue to culture has an elasticity that can’t be subsumed under the positivist notion of the enlightenment project. Indexical work now emits a Gothic mood. The index is the forest or the ruin where we may be lost. This is a partial occupation. Seeking a universal thoroughness, the index or catalogue must always fail. That is its huge attraction for me. It is like a textual unconscious yet it follows a scrupulous compositional principal. This tension compels me.
A letter arrives from Matthew Stadler, and he’s inviting me to an evening of conversation with old friends from Vancouver, Hadley Howes and Maxwell Stephens, at a restaurant table in Portland, part of a supper talk series he curates. Max and Hadley are conceptual artists who work as a collaborative unit, making installations, paintings and photographs in galleries and apartments, projects that have to do with redecoration, love, popular dissent, and the hokey song lyrics of the recent past. Matthew suggests we talk about community in relation to the writing and art scenes in Vancouver.
This word community is a common currency right now in poetry blogs and certain bars. Community’s presence or absence, failure, responsibility, supportiveness, etc—everyone is hovering around this word. It could be that I just feel its ubiquity since I moved to rural France from Vancouver, ostensibly away from “my community.” When I think about it from here I feel ambivalent. I don’t miss community at all. I do miss my friends. How much of this notion of community is an abstraction of the real texture of friendship, with all its complicated drives and expressions—erotic, conversational, culinary, all the bodily cultures concentrated in a twisty relation between finite, failing persons. When I try to think of what a friend is, I imagine these activities we pleasurably share with someone we love—grooming, reading, sleeping, sex perhaps but not necessarily, intellectual argument, the exchange of books, garments and kitchen implements, all these exchanges and interweavings that slowly transform to become an idea and then a culture. Or a culture first, a culture of friends, and then an idea. Or both simultaneously. Writing is an extension and expression of friendship. Maybe friendship is more dangerous to think about and talk about because of its corporal erotics, mostly not institutionalized, not abstracted into an overarching concept and structure of collective protocols. For me, the drive to talk, to be in a room with someone I want to laugh or dance or fight with, to feed, all of those things—this has more to do with how writing happens for me, and also how I receive others’ writing, than community does. I think my friends have become models and incentives for my relationships with books and writing. Certainly I primarily write to my friends and for them, seeking to please and delight them above all, and sometimes mysteriously and painfully falling out. But I don’t want to call this community. I want to preserve the dark body of friendship.
Is the idea of community in collective cultural life replacing the broader notion of a participatory public politics? Is our sense of broader collective agency being reduced to the limited scopes our most immediate productive microcosms and economies? I think that maybe the political disempowerment experienced by huge swathes of populations in the United States certainly, but everywhere, under the expansion of the global neo-liberal economy, is gradually causing us to act out our political drives within smaller and smaller circles. I have to say that for me the micro-economy of experimental writing or visual culture does not in itself constitute the polis. I can’t pretend the stakes correspond. And I don’t want to euphemize the complicated bodily texture of my specific relationships in writing and thinking.
Some other friendships I look to, with deep curiosity, sometimes even with a kind of retrospective ficto-jealousy—the one between Lady Mary Wortley Montague and Alexander Pope. (According to Edith Sitwell their friendship ended when Lady Mary borrowed bed sheets (for unexpected guests) from Pope, and returned them unlaundered.) Between Mina Loy and Djuna Barnes. Between Djuna Barnes and Samuel Beckett. Between Wordsworth and Coleridge. Between Lucy Hutchinson, the 17th C. translator of Lucretius, and her patron, Lord Anglesey. Between Montaigne and Marie le Jars de Gournay. Between Madame de Sevigne and Descartes. And then there is the intimate history of my touch on their texts. That I have a split set of Madame de Sevigne’s collected letters because Erin Moure and I bought them to share, during a car trip to San Francisco the week after I got my drivers license in 1995 or 6. One evening last week I had that strange sensation of being watched while working in my study and I turned around to face an immense green cricket sitting on the browny pink rim of volume three. And so I remembered that I want to read more of her, and I learned the French for cricket—le grillon.
Much of what writing has become for me unfolded from a chance discovery, deep in the footnotes of a scholarly biography of Lady Mary. I learned that while living in the south of France in the early 18th C., Lady Mary wrote a series of letters, in French, to Marguerite of Navarre, the Renaissance writer of the Heptameron. I burned to read these letters, which are I think in some private archive in England, and have never been published. Suddenly one morning in 1990, thinking and desiring was not limited to the era in which I happened to be born. Since then I have experienced passionate friendships with the dead, and they are not less real because of the discrepancy. This causes me to live in libraries. I have no intention of calling this community. Perhaps what we are is a cult.
All of the above has to do with Jane Birkin or doesn’t.
Jupebeast, manga-boho, relookage: these are today’s words. I was trawling for anything about Tsumori Chisato. She’s a Tokyo- based designer I discovered this May in the glorious archive called le Bon Marche. My Visa card procured one garment.
The strictness of black haberdashery, the slight sheen of the better, sturdy, mannish polished cottons of the last century, the utter frivolity of a very deeply scalloped knee-length hem, a structural use of self-piping, insouciance of a smock, a nudge towards deconstruction (the front button plackets extend to dangle 10 centimetres beneath the hem, slightly tickling the wearer’s upper calves), pearly grey flash of the long row of shirt buttons, a neck deeply vee’ed to expose the curve of a breast or some funky vintage debardeur, a hint of the priest, the suffragette, the middle-aged weekend painter of 1923 in her country retreat, a detourned scholar’s robe of Oxbridge vaguely, a nunnish flirt: I couldn’t name it. I loved it.
Its 13 vertical gores are deeply tucked onto simple shoulder yokes in both front and back, and it swings like a crumpled bell when I walk. Each gore finishes itself as one petal-like, piped scallop of the hem.
It makes me realize that I have never seriously considered the referential potential of a pocket. There is just one, structured into the seam of a left hand front gore. Here Chisato has begun roughly with the idea of a vertically tailored pocket, but she has made five little slashes into the fabric and sewn a little V shaped gusset into each slash, making of the pocket opening an outward-ruffling irregular invitation for the hand. Each gusset is topstitched to stiffen the ruffle. And the pocket is of more than adequate deepness. I keep a black Pacific beach pebble there.
It could be worn with high-tops, espadrilles, riding boots, polka-dot stiletto pumps, petticoats, torn jeans, lots of beads, striped stockings, a high necked blouse, gold sandals, knitted leggings, nothing, or a smoke-toned nylon Comme des Garcons irregularly dangling underskirt from 2001.
More simply put, it’s a knee length black sleeveless tunic or smock that immediately transforms the wearer to a 21st-century Djuna Barnes. On the basis of this single garment, I passionately recommend Tsumori Chisato.
All I could discover is that she worked for Issey Miyake from 1977 til 1990, that she started showing in Paris in 2001, and that she wears her hair long. The saleswoman at Bon Marche told me she’s popular with those wild Japanese manga girls, who do a sort of street cartoon Victorian hi-tech girly goth.
What would Deleuze have to say about it? Perhaps nothing, since her seams achieve an almost strict Nordic articulateness previously unimaginable among such baroque surplus of folds. Entirely unnecessary and useful, it hangs on its wooden hanger from a bookshelf, the shelf containing Ashbery, Bryher, Armantrout, and Bowles. The garment twists slightly to the right, as if in mid stride, and the left ruffled pocket splays out lasciviously.
Now, all art is impossible. That is its special function.
The perfume dispensing machine in the Women’s toilet at the Owen Sound bus station is called the Resemblance Distributor. A one dollar coin could procure a simulacrum of Opium, Obsession or Poison.
“If there had been no repressions, no stake, truth would have cast off the clown’s attire; it could have spoken.” Bakhtin, Rabelais and his World
It is the important function of money to use all available vital power first.
To keep our appetites in play, I climbed a tree and tossed you cherries. If only my lips were cherries. I’d drop down some cherries. My lips should be cherries. Are these lips cherries. Why are not my lips cherries. My mouth bent as heavy cherries. Among her breasts, cherries. Tasting pleasures such as cherries. With a hot heart I’d toss you cherries.
“The mere consciousness of our bodily organs is enough to prevent them from functioning properly.” Hannah Arendt, The Life of the Mind
She had perhaps escaped from the political economy of the future.
Fruit-flies were everywhere.
I don’t think the will is beautiful, or hardly ever.
What wouldn’t feel false. To bite into a lucid pigment.
Just Another Spontaneous Horizontal Restaurant.
I’d take some food from my tree-so-sweet.
On a warm afternoon after rain, one’s shoulder-basket ready, everything is an apple—Persian apple, sour apple, spiny apple, love apple, golden apple, Pomona—there’s something sad about it.
She was fiercely monogamous and a libertine.
Water becomes leaves. At the core of this a dissidence.
How does style suffer?
– Lisa Robertson: 06.26.06-06.30.06