There is no sovereign music for our desire

Dammee - tagged again! I always curse a bit when this happens, but gradually the curses fade into grumbles, the grumbling turns into mumbling & then a list begins to appear:

1. The King Must Die & The Bull from the Sea - Mary Renault

When I was quite young, these filled me with the wonder & terror of their imagining of antiquity, specifically, the Theseus story. For years afterwards I thought I probably was Theseus & maybe still do. The sequence on Naxos when Ariadne joins the Maenads in their revels has never left me.

2. Thus Spake Zarathustra - Friedrich Nietzsche

Read this in a Penguin Classic edition the summer after I left school, the summer before I went to university. Was working at the General Motors plant in Trentham, assembling cars at the time. Remember lying on my tummy on the sitting room floor covering pages & pages of a pad with Nietzschean prose, since lost & now unremembered.

3. Labyrinths - Jorge Luis Borges

Again, a discovery of the early 1970s, one that completely changed my, & a lot of other people's, notions of what writing could be. My copy has my mother's name & address impressed on the cover, which means I must have posted it to her, why I don't know, in 1970 or '71 by the style of the hand.

4. Illuminations - Arthur Rimbaud

Probably came to Rimbaud via Robert Lowell's Imitations, which was a kind of sacred text for us in the early 1970s. What can you say about Illuminations? Inexhaustible, ineffable, incomparable. How about a line like this: La musique savante manque à notre désir, which Louise Varèse, whose translations I prefer above all others, renders: There is no sovereign music for our desire.

5. Illuminations - Walter Benjamin

This was a selection translated by Harry Zohn with an introduction by Hannah Arendt published in 1968 I think. Inexhaustible, like it's namesake above. There are essays on his library, on Kafka, on Baudelaire, on the Philosophy of History. There's a companion volume, called Reflections that I also have. Benjamin's prose is mysterious, redolent, you can meditate upon a sentence or a phrase forever it seems.

6. Triste Tropiques - Claude Lévi-Strauss

Like the Benjamin, I read this in the mid-seventies in Wellington. They taught Structural Anthropology at Vic & I've always been grateful for that introduction, since it meant I didn't have to genuflect when deconstruction became the rage a little bit later on. Lévi-Strauss' theoretical works were too much for me but this book is a delight, an education in itself.

7. Canopus in Argos - Doris Lessing

Some books change forever the way you think about things & this series did that for me, especially the first, Shikasta, & the third, The Sirian Experiments. They suggest that something completely different to what our histories have taught is going on on the planet - & in the universe. It's not necessarily true, you don't have to believe it, but you can't altogether dismiss it either.

8. Blood Meridian - Cormac McCarthy

This I bought at Sydney Airport one day in the late 1980s or early 1990s, because it looked interesting. A Picador paperback. Had no idea who the author was, but have now read most, if not all, of what he's published. Blood Meridian or The Evening Redness in the West is roughly comparable in its range & intensity with Moby Dick. Except of course it’s a Western. The ending is like nothing else I've ever read.

9. The Book of Disquiet - Bernardo Soares, Assistant Book-keeper in the City of Lisbon

... who is actual a semi-heteronym of the great Portuguese poet Fernando Pessoa, who I first discovering from reading José Saramago's magnificent The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis. The Book of Disquiet is an infinite book, & there are many English selections / translations, all different; I like best the one prepared by Margaret Jull Costa. This is writing that somehow manages to be at once dream & reality.

10. The Rings of Saturn - W. G. Sebald

... have always counted myself lucky that I'd written my first two books before I encountered Sebald, because, I don't know, the anxiety of influence I guess. This was the first book of his I read & it's still my favourite. A melancholy master like Soares perhaps, with an ability to digress that always returns you to the main theme.

Others who don't figure as particular books but as authors I re-read might include Robert Louis Stevenson, Herman Melville, Joseph Conrad, Albert Camus, Henri Michaux, Raymond Chandler, Samuel Beckett, Bruce Chatwin, William Gaddis, Italo Calvino, John Berger, William Burroughs and perhaps a thousand others.

I've also always read a lot of poetry & if I had to make a list of ten poets they would be, in no particular order, W. B. Yeats, James K Baxter, Alan Brunton, César Vallejo, Charles Olson, Ed Dorn, Gary Snyder, Guillaume Apollinaire, André Breton & Constantin Cavafy.

Painters have been an influence, especially, and decisively, Philip Clairmont, with his techniques of layering & collage, where pieces of old works are archaeologically present as constituents of the new.

Influence is a strange beast, there are books / writers you read that seem to have been prefigured in your soul - so it's not so much about wanting to be like them as it is of discovering how & why this deep affinity exists. You can admire a book or a writer without feeling this affinity; you can also feel it for a work you don't necessarily admire. Some sort of DNA involved perhaps?


The Iago Gate

for Mark Young

Strange horizon in the city of styles. Reminiscences of Byzantium, of Carthage, of Trieste. Three buildings, side by side, from three different years. 1897. 1900. 1898. Their walls contiguous and the centre one ziguratted, with a stepped facade, after the fashion of houses in Amsterdam. Here is the African Market, here they sell leather goods, whips and chains, here is a travel agency where you buy tickets to Mars. At the other end of the strip I find two pictures of old Malacca, Jonkers Street (1890), where the (fake) antique shops are, Dutch Square (1880) which I don't know; but I remember the toothy wastrel in the annex of the roofless church on the hill who sold me an image of the St Iago Gate (1890) in the same manner for a fraction of what they want for these two prints. A gate, local superstition says, that it is death to walk through. And yet I did. The rows of poetry books are black with dust, it comes stickily off onto my fingers, sweat drips inside my shirt as I go to the counter to buy the one my friend wants. The proprietor remembers the poet, two months before she died, coming in with armloads of books to sell so she could feed her addiction. He shakes his head. Such a good poet, he says. So sad. I pause, waiting for more, but he just looks blankly over his glasses, folding and passing large denomination notes to the younger man at his elbow. Out in the street it no longer looks like antiquity but a future I don't want any part of, one made out of gasoline, pheromones and noise. Choose your seat, a man says, climbing a ladder with spanner and screwdriver. Cretin is an old French word for Christian, I recall, lion is still lion. In the Coliseum. My own book on the floor of the shop, in the history section, didn't look like one that anybody would want to buy. Sometimes the train arrives on the platform the same time as you do, sometimes fate takes a hand. I get on, feeling suddenly as if an un-sought-for destination has chosen me. Rookwood, perhaps. And what, after all, does Knäbel mean? Knife? Knave? Or some other knackery?


Ones I'd See Again

Impossible not to take it serious when you're tagged. But equally impossible to limit the top movies to ten. I wrote down ten films at random & then, during my shift, realised they wouldn't do. Had to make geographical distinctions. Ten European. Ten American. Ten Eastern. Ten Antipodean ... but that's forty ... & what about Mexico? Iran? Egypt? Mongolia? ... where to put them? It's vertigo inducing. Anyway. Here's the ten I wrote down yesterday, & afterwards, some of the omissions:

The Night of Counting the Years

Wild Child

Pan's Labyrinth


The Travelling Players

La Strada

The Third Man

Days of Heaven

The Man Who Wasn't There

The Passenger

Nothing here by Jim Jarmusch ... Dead Man? Down by Law? Broken Flowers ... Dog Day Afternoon is not here. Nor Midnight Cowboy. Double Indemnity. Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. The Grifters. Rumblefish. Nothing by David Lynch ... Blue Velvet? Mulholland Drive? The Elephant Man? No Scorcese either. Only one Western. One (latter day) Noir.

It's the same when you look at the Europeans: Pasolini? Visconti? Melville? Godard? Bresson? Bergman? Where is Herzog, Fassbinder, Wim Wenders? What about Nosferatu? The Russians? Remember Burnt by the Sun? Solaris? Stalker? And the Brits, where are the Brits? David Lean. Ealing Studios. Where is Stanley Kubrick?

And now I remember The Ten Commandments & Three Colours: Blue, White, Red by Polish director Krzysztof Kieslowski. Ashes & Diamonds by Andrzej Wajda. A Czech film called Closely Watched Trains. Shoah, the Holocaust documentary. A French film about the trial of Adolf Eichmann.

The great early films of Zhang Yimou. Yellow Earth, Red Sorghum, Raise the Red Lantern, To Live ... Wong Kar Wai's In the Mood For Love. Dersu Uzala.

Japan, India, Africa ... it's endless ... I can't go on, I'll go on.

If I were thinking about Antipodean films I'd list ... Breaker Morant; Picnic at Hanging Rock; The Quiet Earth; Vigil; Utu; Sweetie; The Tale of Ruby Rose; The Year my Voice Broke; Mad Max; Illustrious Energy ...


It’s as if some wise old literary Gaia might use fraud for her own ends, and this is a recurrent theme in Luca Antara—a hint that, where a writer’s intelligence is finally unconstrained by identity or the conventions of genre, the truth within that writer’s work might burn brighter

Geoff Chapple in the Dominion Post, 17.2.07


Adam & Eve & Eat Me

Turns out the first plant we know to have been cultivated by humans was ... the fig!


Hardly ever go to the theatre any more, but Saturday night I did, with a friend, who works in a group who had a play in this year's Short & Sweet festival. The seven plays we saw - late, missed the first - were variable in quality, as you'd expect I guess; none of them was bad but ... don't know quite how to say this, all of them made me feel uncomfortable. Put simply, I always feel uneasy in a traditional theatre audience. It's something about how audiences are addressed, or perhaps I should say, imagined. We are, as it were, generic. We are one. We are the audience for theatre. It's not exactly that the fourth wall is up, though for quite a few of these plays it was; more that we as audience are the creature of the theatre, of an act of theatrical imagination in which I, for one, feel trapped. Feel like I want to protest. I was once thrown out of a theatre performance in Sydney, at the Stables, for refusing to go along with the delusion of a particularly deluded theatre practitioner ... but that's another story. Those years (1977-81) that I spent working in the theatre we used to try to construct and deconstruct theatrical illusions at the same time. We would solicit the audience's belief in an illusion at the same time as telling them it was false. And, when we addressed that audience, we did so as if they were a collection of individuals who might, just might, form themselves into a collective, with us, that could make magic happen. Whereas, I don't know, Saturday night I didn't feel I had any choice but that of polite acceptance of what was put before me.

After the theatre we went around to a local pub, the Lewisham Hotel, where, every now and again, they have a ... reggae night? Not sure what they're called. A back room, dimly lit, with massive speakers, a desk where two DJ's perform, one manipulating the turntables and the sound, the other toasting with microphone. An eclectic crowd, mainly African - whether from the Caribbean or not I don't know - and Japanese, with a sprinkling of whites, the odd others. This is the second of these night I've been to, and I just love them (thanks, Dom!). They remind me a bit of the discos I used to go to in my teens, where a roomful of people would gather to dance to the records someone played. Because this is what everyone is there to do, to dance. And everybody does. Looked around at one point and saw that the whole room, including those faraway in dark corners cluttered with bizarre bits of furniture, was dancing. And it's not a boy-girl thing either, sometimes the dance floor was 80-90 percent males, dancing - outside of gay clubs, where do you ever see that, these days? And some of those guys can really move ... so, what am I saying, something about how the sense of being one in that dancing room came simply out of being there, was not imposed, not a given, not a role that had to be conformed to; just what happened.


megacities, airports, highways, stadiums, plane fleets, resorts ...

What appear to be disparate effects - say, the normalisation of plastic surgery for teenagers at one end, and wars for control of oil reserves at the other - are really shards of the same shattered vessel, our cup which hath overfloweth. As denial comes to the centre of the culture, two social tasks, steering rational action and reproducing an ideology, start to be confused for each other. The production of values is rendered cynical and strategic (the knowing emptiness of Paris Hilton) and planning comes to be based on illusion and fantasy (the empty knowingness of George W. Bush).

It seems to me that it is this aspect of our culture that will expand in the years to come. We are in the strange cultural situation whereby the core process at the heart of our civilisation - scientific rationality - overwhelmingly argues that we are undermining, or already have undermined, the basis of life. And yet there seems no way in which a real process of cultural change (as opposed to near-useless "carbon neutralising") might develop on a global scale, before visible and disastrous effects start to concentrate the collective human mind.

This is not to suggest that the case for global warming has been utterly, unequivocally proven, or that the (fairly rare) honest sceptics should cease to offer alternative accounts. It is simply to make the cultural point that the phenomenon has been taken into people's lives as a truth, and that the utter state of denial in which we find ourselves cannot but have a series of corrosive cultural effects. After all, if even the mid-range scenarios prove correct, then a vast amount of current human effort, the megacities, airports, highways, stadiums, plane fleets and resorts, amount to the most phenomenally futile project in human history.

Guy Rundle in the Australian Literary Review; full text here.


An Ohakune Story

Christine runs the local St. Vinnies, just round the corner from here, in Smith Street. She's been there for about a year, replacing the Chinese woman who was, I'm told, pilfering the stock, keeping the best of what came in for herself or her friends. Christine runs a tight ship and has increased prices and decreased stock, making the shop less of a wonderland of chaos but, no doubt, a better business. She's from Wanganui, the nearest city to the town, Ohakune, where I grew up. We've become good friends, although I haven't yet given her the copy of Luca Antara she wants, probably because I suspect it wouldn't be her kind of thing. On the other hand, refusing it is perhaps worse ... maybe I will before she goes back to En Zed for her niece's birthday at the end of the month. The other day she offered me a copy of Alan Duff's One Night Out Stealing (which I declined) and, in subsequent conversation, told me an Ohakune story. Her friend, who grew up there, said that every night her father came home drunk, he would sit his children along the mantelpiece and insist that they sing for him: five, maybe six kids, in a row, singing. He also used to rough up his wife, their mother. And then, one night, she, the wife, had had enough. She picked her husband bodily up and hung him by his jacket collar from the coat hanger on the back of the door. His feet could not reach the floor and his arms could not reach the coat hanger. He hung there until she deigned to lift him down. He never beat her again, nor did he ever again make the children sing for him from the mantelpiece. Her friend, said Christine, has the most wonderful voice and an astounding repertoire of old songs, word and tune perfect - but cannot often be persuaded to sing.