Eurasia Newsletter

bringing the minds of Asia, Canada and Europe together

Month: April, 2017

Writing per se

From the 1920s on, the Surrealists in Paris cultivated écriture automatique, automatic writing. This meant that, as a poet, you just wrote whatever came into your head. You tried not to think any thoughts, much less of anything in particular to say. The idea was that thoughts can arise from the depths of your unconscious when your conscious brain is occupied at some task that still does not require your full attention. The action of writing itself, rhythmic and automatized as it is, functions as a distractor, like tapping your fingers while you speak or repeating a mantra while you perform some other action.

André Breton and the Surrealists got the idea of automatic writing from spiritualist mediums, who wrote supposedly under dictation from the Other World. But these poets thought automatic writing would tap the resources of the unconscious for poetry. They never thought that the handwriting itself could amount to Surrealistic art; that it could become not just the means of writing, but the end.

Yet just about any behaviour that can be automatic can be made voluntary, and just about anything that can be voluntary can be automatized. Writing is a case in point. Usually, when you write, you don’t think of forming the letters or words one by one – even less so when you type on a keyboard. You are just thinking of the message you want to communicate.

Is there any time we think of the physical act of writing and how it looks on the page? There is: calligraphy. It strikes me that calligraphy is écriture volontaire, voluntary writing, the polar opposite of automatic writing. This means that you forget about the meaning of what you are writing, the message you are trying to communicate, and instead focus on the action of writing itself. You express all that the handwriting can express – yourself, your mood, your energy. The means (handwriting) becomes the end, and the end (communication of content) becomes merely the means. Chinese and Japanese calligraphers have long had an exquisite awareness of these possibilities.

Christian Dotremont, who started out as a Surrealist and became interested not only in art but in Asian calligraphy, used handwriting in this way. In fact, in his later logogrammes he was standing the Surrealist programme on its head. He wrote something spontaneously, but with a brush, exaggerating the mannerisms of the handwriting so that it became illegible; but it still expressed something. It was not just the content of the writing that came from Somewhere Else, but the physical action of the writing. As a kind of footnote, he rewrote his text in tiny legible handwriting at the bottom of the page.

Dotremont was a writer who took the vocation of writing literally. Few Europeans have done this.

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A quiet place to go mad

Geneva is definitely not Paris. There is a quiet about the place, dare one say a provinciality, which remains untouched by the élites and oligarchs of many nations passing up and down the fashionable streets. Geneva was always quiet and sober, like its most famous citizen, Calvin, wanted it to be. Before the two world wars, which brought the League of Nations and later the United Nations and its various organizations, Geneva was really a backwater. It was a place to be alone and to do your own thing – perhaps brilliantly, perhaps eccentrically – or to go mad. Or both. As the poet said,

“Great wits are sure to madness near allied,
And thin partitions do their bounds divide.”

Rousseau was definitely mad. He spent more time in Paris than in his native Geneva, but as the years went by he became convinced that he was the victim of a gigantic plot that included almost all his contemporaries. This, however, led to some of his finest writing.

Another among the great Genevans was Ferdinand de Saussure, who belonged to an old patrician family there. His great-grandfather Horace had been a scientist involved in the conquest of Mont Blanc, which he measured to be the highest mountain in Europe.

Ferdinand was a brilliant student of Indo-European philology and achieved fame with his Master’s thesis, in which he discovered an intricate pattern in the vowels of the language family with implications that were only grasped later. However, he did not fit in either in Paris or in the German universities, and he eventually got a job as professor in Geneva. Thereafter little was heard of him in the learned world; yet, all alone, he was devising a completely new science of linguistics and the movement that later became known as structuralism.

Saussure was also working on an eccentric project of his own. He became convinced that the Latin poets had been using a system containing secret messages – the coded names of gods. He was very excited by the discovery of this pattern. Trouble was, he also found it in an English late-Latin poet. Could the tradition have been secretly passed on down the centuries? Then he found it in a contemporary Italian professor who wrote Latin verse. He wrote to him and asked if he was using the code. The other professor, it seems, never wrote back.

At this stage Saussure must have been confronted with the illusory nature of the grand pattern he had detected. He lay low and didn’t try to publish his findings. This was not hard, because he never liked writing or publishing anyway. He didn’t even publish his masterwork, the Cours de linguistique générale. His students put the book together from their lecture notes and published it in 1916, after his death. The rest, as they, say, is history.

Behold, an egg

As we all know, the major Christian festivals of Easter and Christmas replaced pagan festivals for Midwinter and Spring respectively. Such festivals were ingrained the folk memory before the Christian era. They provided a substratum of folklore which could, with a bit of ingenuity, be incorporated into Christian observance. Today, oddly enough, with the waning of Christianity in the West, the folkloric elements, which are the pre-Christian elements, take centre stage again whereas before they were belonged to the periphery. Many people today will tell you that Easter has something to do with eggs. Well, it has.

The symbolism of eggs is obvious: it means new life. This symbol is universal, but it fits in with the Christian meaning of Easter straightforwardly enough. Yet growing up in the English-speaking world, I had little encounter with eggs at Easter. I mean real eggs. We were quite familiar with the chocolate variety, which, it seems, is entirely a modern invention.

All over Europe, however, the custom of enjoying real eggs, with decorated shells, is still strong. Here in Switzerland, for example. At the end of the Easter vigil in Chur cathedral, baskets of coloured eggs will be brought to the altar and the bishop will bless them. Afterwards, they will be handed out to the faithful as they leave. People will engage in Eiertütschen, which means that you knock them together to see whose egg will crack first. They all get cracked in the end, of course, whereupon you peel them and eat them. After the Holy Saturday fast, they taste particularly good.

Children have great fun in Holy Week painting and decorating the hard-boiled eggs. At Easter itself, or just after, these kinds of eggs, and especially the chocolate variety, are hidden in the garden, supposedly left in nests there by a creature called the Osterhase or Easter Hare, and the children have to find them.

As a child you “believe in” the Osterhase like you do in Santa Claus. Eventually comes the age of disenchantment when you no longer believe in it, but the new-found scepticism is often suppressed in the interest of finding these eggs, whoever is really hiding them.

This year Easter falls on the same date for the Greek Orthodox Church. A Greek friend was telling me that their eggs have to be dyed bright red, and that they bring them to church – each person has an egg and a candle – to be blessed, and the egg does not last long after the end of the fast.

There is a lot to be said for real eggs, apart from chocolate ones. Their symbolism is apparent. They mean new life. But the shells are fragile. In France they say proverbially
pour faire une omelette, il faut casser des oeufs. At Easter, to make the most of the egg, you have to crack the painted shell. New life has to burst upon the world, and our existing arrangements, however decorative they may be, have to make way for it.

Journey to the edge

As I wrote last week, the Belgian poet and artist Christian Dotremont wrote a novel in the 1950s called La Pierre et l’Oreiller, a thinly-disguised autobiographical report, mainly about his travels between Paris and Copenhagen and a sanatorium in the Danish countryside.

He talks about the “catastrophe” of his tuberculosis at the age of 30. But he wonders about what the illness means. He finds that the Catholic faith of his childhood, then Communism, then tuberculosis, were all stratagems to cover up life itself, and its ultimate emptiness.

Catholicism was a given in Belgium, where it was much stronger than in France. Dotremont  went to a Jesuit school and had the usual religious education. But he grew into a teenage rebel and got expelled for punching a Jesuit. During the chaos of the German Occupation, he abandoned his faith altogether.

Then at the end of the war, with Stalin occupying the whole of Eastern Europe, it looked like Communism was a winning formula, and so young intellectuals like himself got with the program and joined the Party. Dotremont quickly became disillusioned, however, and quit. Now that he had given up God, and given up Stalin, what was next, or what was left?

Dotremont had the bizarre creative insight that the new thing to occupy his life was tuberculosis. The illness was nothing but a hole in life, admittedly, but it was there to cover the bigger hole of emptiness. It really was taking the place of God and Stalin. Everybody, he reflected, is looking for something to hide that gaping hole. Even Ulla, his Danish girlfriend, was filling up her emptiness – with him. We are all looking for a life project to keep us busy.

Dotremont never really recovered from tuberculosis, and eventually died of the complications over twenty years later. But in the meantime he became an inveterate traveller. Turning his back on Paris, the intellectual and artistic centre, he travelled constantly, through Amsterdam up to Denmark, across to Sweden and Finland, and up to his ultimate goal where he found what he needed: Lapland, the Great Frozen North of Europe. As one writer says of him, he became “the black traveller in white spaces”. In Lapland he could sharpen his sense of three-dimensionality, grasped through the two-dimensionality of abstract brush calligraphy in his logogrammes. Was this really abstract, or was it his vision of the landscape of Lapland? The small black figures of men and animals in the vastness of the snow, the black ink shapes against the white of the paper – it was all one. Lapland was the ultimate emptiness. Out in the snowy wastes, there was no “chalice to hide the emptiness”, as he had written earlier.

So often we think, like Dotremont, that we have reached the limit, the end, nothingness, when in fact it is just a borderland, and there is something else on the other side. Although his strange artwork consciously recalls Chinese calligraphy, he did not realize Lapland could be for him a borderland – the borderland not just to Russia but to Asia, to a new departure for human culture. But he had travelled far enough for one short life.