Monday, 20 September 2010


Just a story my niece told me. She's four.

This is her on the same day as the recording...Actually, I was playing her The Smiths in the car the other day and when it came to Big Mouth Strikes Again, she told me to turn the sound up...

Saturday, 18 September 2010

Winged Hearts

I was saving most of these picture-postcards for a celebratory moment, but now I'm just looking for uplift. So here's a little prayer for wings. As it turns out I'll now be needing some serious help taking-off on schedule...

Even though it gets a mention in Paul Auster's Moon Palace (as table-talk before one of his characters faints in the hallway), few people know about Cyrano De Bergerac's voyage to the moon, an adventure he spuriously committed to paper in about 1647, or some twenty odd years before Isaac Newton watched an apple fall from a tree. I think the Moon is a world like this one, Cyrano prophesies before taking flight:

'After many experiments I constructed a flying machine, and, sitting on top of it, I boldly launched myself in the air from the crest of a mountain. I had scarcely risen more than half a mile when something went wrong with my machine, and it shot back to the earth. But, to my astonishment and joy, instead of descending with it, I continued to rise through the calm, moonlight air. For three quarters of an hour I mounted higher and higher. Then suddenly all the weight of my body seemed to fall upon my head. I was no longer rising quietly from the Earth, but tumbling headlong on to the Moon. At last I crashed through a tree, and, breaking my fall among its leafy, yielding boughs, I landed gently on the grass below.

'I found myself in the midst of a wild and beautiful forest, so full of the sweet music of singing birds that it seemed as if every leaf on every tree had the tongue and figure of a nightingale. The ground was covered with unknown, lovely flowers, with a magical scent. As soon as I smelled it I became twenty years younger. My thin grey hairs changed into thick, brown, wavy tresses; my wrinkled face grew fresh and rosy; and my blood flowed through my veins with the speed and vigour of youth.'

Tuesday, 14 September 2010

Maps for the Melancholy

Photograph by Maurice Denis (1870-1943)
Something I wrote in a letter today: I'm still intrigued by this notion of Freud's, that melancholy is in fact 'mourning without a conscious object.' The ritual of mourning is there, the symbolic drive towards expatiation and catharsis, but the melancholic only wanders in circles because there is no recognition of what has truly been lost. As a result, this loss, this absence, gets spread out shadow-like over everything. This is where I think the work of artists like W.G. Sebald and Chris Marker (not to mention Paul Auster, the later films of Krzysztof Kieslowski, and from what I understand, the Roland Barthes of Camera Lucida) overlaps: in this feeling for the sometimes overwhelming 'poignancy of things'...

An image from the Czech documentary Private Century
Incidentally, one of the chapters in the Wolf Man's Memoir is titled 'Unconscious Mourning.' In it, if I remember right, he finds himself dropping in and out of law school and taking up landscape painting, generally vacillating. He also takes up with a roguish friend of the family and goes on a pan-European expedition in order to finally visit the acreage this man bought long ago and has since talked about as a kind of Eden (it turns out to be little more than a unremarkable meadow).

Monday, 13 September 2010

The Heart of Possibility

Images from the Notebook of Fabienne Verdier and The Inner Life of Martin Frost


Just something I started writing in my early twenties and never finished. I was a little too under the influence of Nabokov at the time, to the extent that I was thinking I might even follow his work into postgraduate studies...

It all started when I met your family standing like gods on the croquet-ground, friends of my missing uncle. Your brutish father was trailing cigar smoke like a locomotive engine around the lawn, a casual, tanned Roman, his shirt-sleeves rolled. Your mother sunned her naked shoulders, equally tanned, her blonde hair tied back, flowing around the arches in a cerulean dress. Your sister and her French beau kept materialising between the trees along the gravel drive, he fixing his collar, she her hair while a mingling brother, aged no more than 12, pilfered drinks in the shade. Random guests were milling attendants, the smaller children swarming cherubs. All the while, you were out along the very distant fringe of the garden, away from all, quietly attempting to clasp your hands around sporadic butterflies that settled among the hedgerows. On the way through the shadowed hallway which had led me to that back garden, I had seen the jars lining a bookcase, each containing a specimen. Of course, I was to forget all this--your family, your house, that day on the croquet-ground (even my missing uncle who returned one stormy night demanding wine) until ten years later, a postgraduate in zoology.

Both waiting for the same professor, facing each other on either side of a sun-streaked hallway, saying nothing. I can imagine myself standing there, shirt tails hanging from beneath my moth-eaten jumper--trying not to stare, embarrassed--paying hardly any attention to the book from which I pretended to be reading. Looking up, then looking down, I caught sight of your knees. The undercarriage of your chair was tilting back as you leaned. It was this space you held hooped in the shadows beneath you that finally made me remember who you were...

Tuesday, 7 September 2010

Elle s'appelle Sabine

This was one of the most heartbreaking films I've ever watched: Sandrine Bonnaire's Her Name is Sabine, a documentary about Bonnaire's autistic sister. It reminded me very much of Werner Herzog's equally moving and equally unforgettable Land of Silence and Darkness (1971). Both films are about severly disabled people and their marginalization in society. In Herzog's film, we learn of Fini Straubinger who, after going blind and deaf as an adolescent, was confined to her bed for decades on the recommendation of doctors. (It is only later, after fighting for autonomy, that she becomes a fierce and humanitarian figurehead in the treatment of the deaf-blind). In Bonnaire's case, we learn of the way her misdiagnosed sister was strait-jacketed and basically drugged into submission when her family turned to the State for help. It was treatment that obviously exacerbated all the problems Sabine was already suffering from.

Her Name is Sabine tells this story in two ways, making it perhaps more of a protest film than Herzog's. On the one hand, we see Sabine as she is today: a depleted and deflated woman, atrophied both mentally and physically, who fixates only on whether or not she will be abandoned (throughout these present-day scenes, her only concern is whether or not her sister will come to see her again). At the same time, we watch a younger Sabine through home video footage, some of it strikingly beautiful in its candidness and simplicity. That is, we witness Sabine as she was in the past, before she was institutionalized: a pretty, free-spirited, and somewhat edgy girl. Autistic, yes, but also passionate about life and books and America.

As with Herzog's film, one senses the briefest element of exploitation lurking, distantly, in the background. Bonnaire does at times lingeringly frame Sabine as a drooling, hulking, wreck--as if to say 'look what they've done to my sister,' and perhaps rightly so. But, as with Herzog, these difficult scenes are nonetheless redeemed by a overwhelming tenderness and humanity.

Let me compare two scenes from both these films...

1. In Land of Silence and Darkness, there is a moment when Herzog fixes his camera on a deaf-blind boy with Downs Syndrome. It is difficult to watch, not only because of the lonely state this boy is in, but also because (I think) we are wary of gazing so voyeurisitically on someone who is not complicit in the filming, someone who indeed may even be suffering. Then the frame pulls back and we see that Fini Straubinger is sitting beside the boy and we watch as she makes the most humane and intimate gestures of communication. She gently embraces the boy, signing into his hand a phrase she repeats to the other deaf-blind people she visits throughout the film: 'I am like you.'

2. The penultimate sequence in Her Name is Sabine. Bonnaire asks her sister if she would like to watch a DVD of a trip they took together to New York, long before Sabine was given over to an asylum. It's footage we've already seen, earlier in the film, but now we are watching Sabine viewing the footage of the trip, for what seems to be the first time. Suddenly, she is watching herself as she used to be.

When Sabine begins sobbing, Bonnaire asks if she would rather the TV be switched off. Gasping through her tears, Sabine replies, no, 'I am crying with joy.'

Saturday, 4 September 2010

Your face was simple and your hands were naked

The Wolf Man about 1910

I dreamt that it was night and that I was lying in my bed. (My bed stood with its foot towards the window; in front of the window there was a row of old walnut trees. I know it was winter when I had the dream, and night time).

The Wolf Man, about seventeen years old, in his school uniform; also his sister, at his family's estate.

Suddenly, the window openned of its own accord, and I was terrified to see that some white wolves were sitting in the big walnut tree in front of the window. There were seven of them. The wolves were more like sheep dogs, for they had big tails like foxes and they had their ears pricked like dogs when they pay attention to something. In great terror, evidently of being eaten up by the wolves, I screamed and woke up.

The cover is in fact a painting by the Wolf Man, obviously inspired by the dream that Freud quotes in his study. It's funny, but in his memoir, he only really mentions wolves, early on, in reference to his sister's scaring him with a picture of a wolf when they were children (it is Freud who makes a connection between these wolves and the embarrasing deaths of the boy's father's sheep in an epidemic--and again emphasises this same mythology elsewhere in the boy's childhood).

I've been wanting to write about this for a while now: A few months back, the title of this dark little book leapt out at me. It was sitting there amidst amidst a bunch of bad novels, on the shelf of the local library booksale. At first, I thought it was simply a joke taken too far: The Wolf Man by the Wolf Man, sounded a bit like one of those ridiculous retellings of classic literature: Dracula by Dracula, The Bible according to God. It was only when I looked at the cover that I realised this was Sigmund Freud's Wolf Man, a patient he treated just prior to and during the First World War. In fact, the book is indeed a double-portrait of sorts, as Freud's case-study is also present as an afterword (weightily supplemented with a foreword by Anna Freud, an introduction by Muriel Gardiner--an American herione in pre-war Vienna, who was a close friend of the Wolf Man in his later years--as well as an additional essay by Ruth Mack Brunswick who also treated him).

It's a startlingly good read, revelatory about the man's character in a way that Freud's case history isn't quite. In Freud's analysis of the Wolf Man, we're placed at some objective distance from the patient--but in the voice of Sergei Konstantinovitch Pankejeff (for that was this man's name), we get a sympathetic sense of him, as he felt, a living, feeling human being. The veil of his neurosis, which Freud works so hard to deconstruct, is here allowed to form the textured fabric of someone's life. It's the difference between an object lesson in 'infantile neurosis' and an autobiographical character, someone deeply haunted by his manipulative mother, his father's depressions, his sister's suicide--and how these traumas repeat themselves cyclically and symbolically throught his life. All of which takes place against a backdrop of surreal and meandering travels, a host of eccentric relatives, and endless Edwardian spa-treatments. After the quackery and rather heartless bumbling of numerous 'society' doctors, Freud's entrance into the Wolf Man's biography (although accidental) is almost messianic. Finally, here is someone who the poor guy can talk to intimately. We also get a picture of Freud as rather less cool than he comes across in his own writing: accepting of gifts, a sender of invitations, even going so far as to subsidize his patient's rent at one point.

Josh Ritter, 'Wolves'

Here is Pankejeff discussing his first real sense of autonomy--ephemeral though it was--as he takes up painting for the first time:

'When after my father's death in the summer of 1908 I began to paint on my own, I soon succeeded in finding my own style of painting. I have mentioned my childhood attempts at musical composition. Perhaps, through painting, something that had been buried in my childhood again came to life. Once could say that it was the only medium that had changed, and that music had now become landscape painting. It may have been of importance that landscape had formed part of my childhood improvising.

'My enthusiasm for painting at this time infected even [my friend] P. who, following my example took up the brush, although he had never done any drawing or painting. We would go out together and P., sitting beside me, would try as best he could to reproduce the landscape in front of us.

'In the meantime the beautiful south Russian autumn had arrived with its glowing light and its warm, ripe colours. I wanted of course to make the most of this season so favourable to painting. Therefore P. and I stayed in the country long after my mother and all the others had left the estate...'