Paris in January

‘What precipitates outcomes? Vicious acts & virtuous acts.

 

What precipitates acts? Belief.

 

Belief in both prize & battlefield, within the mind & in the mind’s mirror, the world. If we believe humanity is a ladder of tribes, a Colosseum of confrontation, exploitation & bestiality, such a humanity is surely brought into being…one fine day, a purely predatory world shall consume itself. Yes, the devil shall take the hindmost until the foremost is the hindmost. In an individual, selfishness uglifies the soul; for the human species, selfishness is extinction…

 

If we believe that humanity may transcend tooth and claw, if we believe divers races & creeds can share this world as peaceably as the orphans share their candlenut tree, if we believe leaders must be just, violence muzzled, power accountable & the riches of the Earth & its Oceans shared equitably, such a world will come to pass. I am not deceived. It is the hardest of worlds to make real. Torturous advances won over generations can be lost by a single stroke of a myopic president’s pen or a vainglorious general’s sword.’

 

David Mitchell, Cloud Atlas

The Gates of Time

Of all places I have visited during my travels, Fushimi Inari in Kyoto stands out as the most unforgettable. Rebecca Solnit – in an essay written for Granta’s special on Japan – encapsulates the singular experience of strolling up the hillside covered with vermilion gates:

‘Culminations are at least lifelong, and sometimes longer when you look at the natural and social forces that shape you, the acts of the ancestors, of illness or economics, immigration and education. We are constantly arriving; the innumerable circumstances are forever culminating in this glance, this meeting, this collision, this conversation, like the pieces in a kaleidoscopic forever coming into new focus, new flowerings. But to me the gates made visible not the complicated ingredients of the journey but the triumph of arrival.

[…] I had the impression midway through the hours I spent wandering, that time itself had become visible, that every moment of my life I was passing through orange gates, always had been, always would be passing through magnificent gates that only in this one place are visible. Their uneven pacing seemed to underscore this perception; sometimes time grows dense and seems to both slow down and speed up, when you fall in love, when you are in the thick of an emergency or a discovery; other times it flows by limpid as a stream across a meadow, each day calm and like the one before, not much to remember, or time runs dry and you’re stuck, hoping for change that finally arrives in a trickle or a rush. Though all these metaphors of flow can be traded in for solid ground: time is a stroll through orange gates.

[…] All you really need to know is that there is a hillside in Japan in which time is measured in irregular intervals and every moment is an orange gate, and foxes watch over it, and people wander it, and the whole is maintained by priests and by donors, so that gates crumble and gates are erected, time passes and does not, as elsewhere nuclear products decay and cultures change and people come and go, and that the place might be one at which you will arrive some day, to go through the flickering tunnels of orange, up the mountainside, into this elegant machine not for controlling or replicating time but maybe for realizing it, or blessing it. Or maybe you have your own means of being present, your own sense for seeing that at this very minute you are passing through an orange gate.’

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On Rage and Grief

Judith Butler’s moving speech at the 2014 International PEN conference. Partial transcript below:

“Mourning has to do with yielding to an unwanted transformation, when neither the full shape nor the full import of that alteration can be known in advance. This transformative effect of losing always risks becoming a de-formative effect. Whatever it is, it cannot be willed; it is a kind of undoing. One is hit by waves in the middle of the day, in the midst of a task, and everything stops. One falters, even falls. What is that wave that suddenly withdraws your gravity and your forward motion? That something that takes hold of you and makes you stop and takes you down? Where does it come from? Does it have a name? What claims us at such moments when we are most emphatically not masters of ourselves and our motions, when we lose certain people, or when we are dispossessed from a place or a community? It may be that something about who we are suddenly flashes up, something that delineates the ties that we have to others, that shows us that we are bound to one another, and that the bonds that compose us also do strand us, leave us uncomposed. If I lose you under the conditions in which who I am is bound up with you, then I not only mourn the loss, but I become inscrutable to myself, and this life unbearable. Who am I without you? I was not just over here, and you over there, but the I was in the crossing there with you, but also here. So I was already de-centered, one might say, and that was precious. And yet when we lose, we lose our ground, we are suddenly at risk of taking our own lives or the lives of others. Perhaps what I have lost on those occasions is precisely that sense that I can live without you, even if it turns out that I can live without that specific you that you happened to be. Even if I was surprised to find that I survived when survival was unthinkable. If I can and do live without you, it is only because I have not, as it were, lost the place of the you, the one to whom I address myself, the generalized addressee with whom I am already bound up in language, in a scene of address that is the linguistic condition of our survivability.

[….] A loss might seem utterly personal, private, isolating, but it may also furnish an unexpected concept of political community, even a premonition of a source of non-violence. If the life that is mine is not originally or finally separable from yours, then the we who we are is not just a composite of you and me and all the others, but a set of relations of interdependency and passion. And these we cannot deny or destroy without refuting something fundamental about the social conditions of our living. What follows is an ethical injunction to preserve those bonds, even the wretched ones, which means precisely guarding against those forms of destructiveness that take away our lives and those of other living beings, and the ecological conditions of life. In other words, before ever losing, we are lost in the other, lost without the other, but we never knew it as well as we do when we do actually lose. This being in thrall is one way of describing the social relations that have the power to sustain and to break us. Way before we enter into contracts that confirm that our relations are a result of our choice, we are already in the hands of the other, a thrilling and terrifying way to begin. We are from the start both done and undone by the other, and if we refuse this, we refuse passion, life, and loss. The lived form of that refusal is destruction; the lived form of its affirmation is non-violence. Perhaps non-violence is the difficult practice of letting rage collapse into grief. Since then we stand the chance of knowing that we are bound up in others, such that who I am or who you are is this living relation that we sometimes lose. With great speed, we do sometimes drive away from the unbearable, or drive precisely into its clutches, or do both at once, not knowing how we move, or with what consequence. It seems unbearable to be patient with unbearable loss. Yet that slowness, that impediment, can be the condition of showing what we value, and even perhaps what steps to take to preserve what is left of what we love.”

 

To be content with the world…is to find within oneself the strength to face up to everything that is abominable, to find within oneself the strength to resist the abominable when it happens. In other terms, self-enjoyment means: to be worthy of the event…be it a catastrophe or a great love…This is a theme that runs across philosophy. – Gilles Deleuze, Lecture on Leibniz, 1987

‘Even brick and mortar are vivified, as of old, at the harp of Orpheus. A metropolis becomes no longer a mere collection of houses or of trades. It puts on all the grandeur of its history, and its literature; its towers, and rivers; its art, and jewellery, and foreign wealth; its multitude of human beings […]; and the noise of its many chariots, heard at the same hour, when the wind sets gently towards some quiet suburb.’ – Leigh Hunt, ‘On the Realities of Imagination’, 1820

Turner on the Seine

The image above is another one of Turner’s lesser-known paintings, Mouth of the Seine, Quille-Boeuf (1833), a distinctively Turnerian picture. Serene upon first glance, the picture actually incorporates violent elemental forces. Near the small French town of Quillebeuf-sur-Seine (which Turner visited), a concentrated narrow channel of the river opens out and meets the full force of the sea, thus rendering the surrounding waters hazardous; tidal variations and shifting sand make is nearly impossible to navigate one’s boat. Quillebeuf is an important place on the Seine, by virtue of its position between two segments of the river – all boats have to break journey in the town in order to sail safely up or down the river. Interestingly, on the right-hand side of the painting, there is concealed amongst the grey-blue waves what appears to be the topmast of a ship, faint but undeniable upon closer inspection. The destructiveness of nature is thus portrayed, complemented by the presence on the left-hand side of the painting of a seagull attacking a fish, another instance of death in nature.

This picture always reminds me of a quote from De Quincey’s Suspiria de Profundis (1845), about a Jamaican port city, Savannah-la-Mar, that was hit by a tidal wave:

‘God smote Savannah-la-Mar, and in one night, by earthquake, removed her, with all her towers standing and population sleeping […] And God said – “Pompeii did I bury and conceal from men through seventeen centuries: this city I will bury, but not conceal. She shall be a monument to men of my mysterious anger; set in azure light through generations to come: for I will enshrine her in a crystal dome of my tropic seas”‘.

Don’t think too much about the moment and refrain from judging life during those hazy hours that afford us no glimpse of its vastness – R. M. Rilke

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