Forugh Farrokhzad (1935-1967)


For the past few years, I have tried to pay closer attention to the prejudices that guide my reading habits, and to try, albeit slowly, to be more liberal in them. It is not easy for me, and I am rather at the beginning of this endeavor than the end. My reading tends to go hand-in-hand with projects which, however unlikely it is that I should complete them, are important to me, and that I would have to put off or postpone were I to make a resolution to read only women, say, for a year, as was fashionable for certain literary-minded people recently. I also would not care to start avowing – as I often get the sense some have – my enthusiasm for writers I don’t care for especially, in order to feel, and to give the impression, that I am on the right team, politically speaking. Jean Rhys, Gillian Rose, Christine Brooke-Rose, are all people widely praised who have left me indifferent. I do not say that they are bad – I am sure they are not bad – but that their writing didn’t move me. It is not a matter about which to be both decent and sincere, because sincerity, misread as “honesty,” so easily gives way to inconsideration and bluster, and there is always some measure of social reward ready for the person who breaks decorum and “tells it like it is,” even when telling it like it is involved willed ignorance, a lack of self-reflection, and plain meanness; to lie to oneself and others is ridiculous, and yet to imagine one’s tastes are pristine, and that my being unmoved by the aforementioned authors has to do with some unimpeachable facet of my personality immune to the contempt so long and so often shown to women’s writing would be naive.

At any rate, for reasons I have yet to clarify, I have found myself closer to women writers in certain genres than to those in others.  When I was writing Aesthetics of Degradation, I read a great deal of writing on traumatology, narratology, deviance, compassion, and so forth with no especial concern for its authorship, but when I put together the notes for it, I was surprised to find how important women scientists and scholars had been for me, from psychologist Katherine Nelson to neuroscientist Tania Singer to theologian Linda Holler, whose thesis that touch is integral to the development of moral sensibility I found intuitively convincing, despite her book’s mystical inclinations. For years, journalists like Alma Guillermoprieto and Anna Politkovskaya have impressed me with their bravery and rigor. And then there is poetry, which is a special case insofar as I have so little ear for it and am so easy to dismiss it. More and more, it is women poets who touch me deepest.

I don’t know why this should be, but maybe it has to do with a feeling for proportion in regards to the literary self. One of the worst habits evident in contemporary literature – derived, though I don’t think its perpetrators realize this, from the specious apologies so often profferred in business English – is the use of adverbs to qualify one’s own feelings. “I was deeply moved,” “I sincerely felt,” and the like. Not only is the English adverb always already suspect – a thing to be looked at askance, to be sounded out before use – not only is it often a mere spacer – in sentences of the “he caressed her softly” – but it also partakes of a twin arrogance a sensitive reader is likely to find repugnant: first, the need to take up space with oneself, to distinguish oneself by means of degree, to exaggerate the depth of one’s every sensation or thought, and second, the constant presumption of an understanding of oneself that flies in the face of psychology, of any intelligent person’s observations of human behavior, and often of the evidence the author gives of himself in his text.

The exaggeration of self, which finds its lowest expression in contemporary adverb-laden prose, is also, for me, the chief displeasure of so much poetry by men. Recently, for example, I have been reading Klaus Thewelet’s Book of Kings, devotes hundreds of pages to Gottfried Benn and particularly his “Death of Orpehus.” Benn is emblematic of the hunger for grandeur, the self-conscious ceremoniousness in donning the poet’s robes, a willed kinship with the classical that strikes me as no less infantile than the wish to imitate a superhero. This is not a criticism of Benn – I am not competent to criticize Benn – but simply a comment on my tastes. There is something unseemly to me about so much ambition.

Or to take another poet I enjoyed as a teenager, John Berryman – now so much of what I see in the Dream Songs is a pedantic inflation of sentimental self-regard.

The other day, my wife asked me to watch a film she had thought of showing one of her classes, The House is Black by Forough Farrokhzad – her copy of the film is subtitled in English, and she wondered whether her Spanish students would get bored if they didn’t understand the words. The film was moving (Mohsen Makhmalbaf has called it the most beautiful Iranian film): the images, which show affection not for suffering as an exemption, but for the world of those who suffer, and also the words.

Forough Farrokhzad published her first book of poetry at 19. She married young, had a son, and was early divorced. One has the impression that she lusted for freedom and suffered for it: her poems are filled with images of rupture, rebirth, and flight. She took several trips to Europe, and stayed some time in London, to study film. When she returned to Iran, she filmed The House is Black at a leper colony in Tabriz, the city whence Shams-i-Tabrizi, the spiritual teacher of Rumi, would travel, to Konya, where he encountered his student.


I cannot write about her work too much yet. I am only coming to know it. There are a few books in English, listen below. Here is the end of one of her long poems. Do not trust the translation; it is not from the original.

Perhaps the truth of those two young hands
those two young hands
remained buried beneath incessant snow
and when spring, in the coming year,
will sleep with the sky that lies past the window
and from its body the green fonts
will rise from the thin branches
then it will flower, my friend, my lone, close friend

Let us have faith in the coming of the cold season.

Hasan Javadi and Susan Sallee (trans): Another Birth: Selected Poems of Forugh Farrokhzad with her letters and interviews.
Farzaneh Milani, Veils and words: the emerging voices of Iranian women writers.
A Rebirth: Poems, translated by David Martin, with a critical essay by Farzaneh Milani.
Michael Craig Hillmann, An Autobiographical Voice: Forough Farrokhzad, in Women’s Autobiographies in Contemporary Iran, edited by Afsaneh Najmabadi.


Aditi Machado, Translator


Aditi Machado is a talented poet and translator as well as the editor of what is routinely the best part of Asymptote, its poetry section. I still remember how stunned I was at a selection of Romanian poetry from 2012*, though sadly, I have just discovered that the poem I remembered as beginning:
My compass aims north
But my dick still points to Romania

is a figment of my imagination. Occasionally, when I know the language of the original, I help Aditi sift through the slush pile, and am grateful for these occasions when I can think with another person, in a practical way, about what does and does not work in poetry and translation, and why. I also appreciate her indulging my curmudgeonliness.

Last year I found out she was translating Farid Tali’s Pospopopoeia** for Action Books, and recently I received a copy in the mail. I imagined I would like it, because the French publisher, Éditions P.O.L., is very good. The book opens with a poem by Jean-Baptiste Chassignet, a grim thing that reminds me of Andreas Gryphius. Aditi translates jointure, which might have been joint, juncture, or hinge, as swivel; it is an idiosyncratic choice, and it points to a particular vision in relation to the text.

The book consists of a young man’s observation of his brother’s body in in the course of a death that is not quite complete. His brother, a drug user, has died of AIDS at twenty-six. Later, the narrator will take a lover with his brother’s name.

A book of this kind succeeds or fails on the strength of its language, and the language of Prosopopoeia is rending.

The nose vanishes like sand on a dune. Ancient grains roll down, uncovering the virgin rock from which time had extracted them. One might say this nose is more perfect than the previous one. It too shall sink.

The green trees seemed greener, the sky bluer, how repugnant of them.

And with them the sheet rises releasing an odor like the end of breath.

It is the heel that dies most perfectly. Juvenile alabaster, it lets itself be mackled with death.

The bones, as though newborn branches, would wait prettily to fall.

My congratulations to everyone involved in the production of this book.

*See this essay by Cosmin Borza on contemporary Romanian poetry.

** I can never remember the definition of prosopopoeia. According to the Literary Encyclopedia:

Prosopopoeia identifies the specific rhetorical act of giving a voice to and speaking in the name of another person or an inanimate object. Greek in origin, prosopopoeia literally means “to make” (poeien) a “face” or “person” (prosopon) through the art, skill, or craft of rhetoric. Perhaps the most popular and enduring use of prosopopoeia is to make an absent or dead person present through speech. According to Abraham Fraunce in The Arcadian Rhetorike (1588), prosopopoeia is “a fayning of any person, when in our speech we represent the person… and make it speake as though he were in the present”

An almost seasonal translation


Cristina Campo is a magnificent poet, translator, and essayist I found out about from Flowerville. Since I first read her, I have wanted to translate a book of her into English, and I have done all the poems and an essay, but so far, no one has been interested. Part of the problem is that she wrote relatively little verse – around forty pages – so any volume of her work would have to be padded out with her essays and letters, which seems fine to me but is apparently an obstacle. It’s also possible that my translations are bad. Anyway, she wrote this poem on All Saints’ Day in 1954, for her fellow poet, Maria Luisa Spaziani, whom I have yet to read. I hope you enjoy it.

A Christmas Note to M.L.S.

Maria Luisa, how many times
Shall we gather our lives
in the cup of verse, like saints
cupping a turreted city in their palms?

Spring, how many times
will it hurl the grains of my sorrow
to the rain, and let them fall in your disconsolate
footsteps – in Saint Cloud or Giudecca?

Not even Christmas would suffice
to exchange the most complaisant fables:
the nettle shirts, the seven seas,
the dancing of the swords.

“Miraculously, time unfolds…”
It will bring back in time this minimal
current, a woman, an atom of fire:
us, who live without end.

All Saints’ Day, 1954


The Awfulness of Pablo Neruda

I posted this entry on my blog in 2014. Then someone introduced me to a Neruda scholar, and for assorted reasons, I thought it best to take it down. I remembered it when I saw the video of Bertolucci describing his plan to degrade the actress Maria Schneider in order to see “her reaction as a girl, not an actress.” Even the greatest art is worthless beside the real pain of another person, but I am also not sure that art in its highest expression is compatible with turpitude. Is Bertolucci great? I found Last Tango in Paris a meandering bore. Anyway, I am reposting this for whomever might care to read it.

For a long time, whenever someone used express admiration for Pablo Neruda, I assumed one of the following to be the case:

1) the person had not read Neruda, but has been convinced by some opinion-propagator of the Harold Bloom stamp that a stated appreciation of Neruda was de rigeur.

2) the person had read Neruda in English and had charitably assumed that the poetry was as good as people say it is in Spanish and that a great deal had been lost in translation.

3) the person majored in Spanish in college, was very likely a high school Spanish teacher, and was caught in the unpleasant situation of a) needing to be able to claim a favorite book or two in Spanish and b) never having cultivated a vocabulary sufficient to appreciate, for example, Valle-Inclán. Such people generally possess sufficient degree of shrewdness to appreciate that Paolo Coelho or Harry Potter, books they actually enjoy, don’t cut the mustard when it comes to impressing others, and tend to lean heavily of the books they read in their classes, two which are inevitably One Hundred Years of Solitude and Neruda’s Twenty Love Songs and a Song of Despair.

I began to think of Neruda again one day when my wife and I mused as to what possible justification might exist for the fame of the twenty-line emetic Me gustas cuando callas: a farrago of souls, stars, butterflies, smiles, and melancholy posing as a love poem although, like so much doggerel of its type, it is really an ode to the poet’s intuitions about the loftiness of his own feelings.

Periodically, “revelations,” as they are called, about the reprehensible behavior of some treasured creative figure or other prove an occasion for the trotting out, on the part of writers who enjoy posing provocative questions that they do not bother to answer, the old threadbare cliché about “separating the artist from the person”: Woody Allen, Klaus Kinski, Roman Polanski, and many others have fit the bill. When these scandals transpire, I am always dismayed by the mediocrity of the parties who, it is thought, might be redeemed by the value of their so-called contributions to culture. Of course, people like to bandy about the word genius, for the implied ability to appreciate genius is far more aggrandizing than a simple statement like, “I liked Annie Hall,” and this helps explain how frequently the term is abused. Do people really think Woody Allen and Roman Polanski are geniuses?  The good artist/bad person dilemma may relevant with someone like Céline, whose pages on the death of his cat Courtial’s failed attempts to grow potatoes via the telluric method really are as beautiful as his antisemitism was disgusting; but commoner by far is the bad artist who is also a bad person, upheld by admirers who ignore his depravity because to do otherwise would bring their own mediocrity to light.

It is remarkable the ease with which philandering poetasters can be resurrected as “great lovers of women.” In 1930 Neruda married Maria Antonieta Hagenaar, a Dutch woman of withdrawn character with only a partial grasp of Spanish (“I love you when you are silent.”). In 1934, she gave birth to their daughter Malva, who was hydrocephalic. Neruda described her in a letter as “a perfectly ridiculous being, like a semicolon.” Not long before before, Neruda had begun an affair with Delia del Carril. He abandoned his wife and daughter in Marseilles two years afterward. In a letter to Delia, he complains of having to trim his own fingernails, but celebrates that once again, he feels alive. After Malva’s death in 1943, with her home country overrun by Nazis, Maria attempted to gain passage to Chile, but Neruda, who was a well-connected diplomat by trade, managed to prevent her doing so.

In his memoirs, Confieso que he vivido, Neruda tells the following story:

When I rented [my bungalow], I tried to find out where the toilet was; I couldn’t see it anywhere. Actually, it was nowhere near the shower, it was at the back of the house. I inspected it with curiosity. It was a wooden box with a hole in the middle, very much like the artifact I had known as a child in the Chilean countryside. But our toilets were set over a deep well or over running water. Here the receptacle was a simple metal pail under the round hole.

The pail was clean every morning, but I had no idea how its contents disappeared. One morning I rose earlier than usual, and I was amazed when I saw what had been happening.

Into the back of the house, walking like a dusky statue, came the most beautiful woman I had yet seen in Ceylon, a Tamil of the pariah caste. She was wearing a red-and-gold sari of the cheapest kind of cloth. She had heavy bangles on her bare ankles. Two tiny red dots glittered on either side of her nose. They must have been ordinary glass, but on her they were rubies.

She walked solemnly toward the latrine, without so much as a side glance at me, not bothering to acknowledge my existence, and vanished with the disgusting receptacle on her head, moving away with the steps of a goddess.

She was so lovely that, regardless of her humble job, I couldn’t get her off my mind. Like a shy jungle animal she belonged to another kind of existence, a different world. I called to her, but it was no use. After that, I sometimes put a gift in her path, a piece of silk or some fruit. She would go past without hearing or looking. That ignoble routine had been transformed by her dark beauty into the dutiful ceremony of an indifferent queen.

One morning, I decided to go all the way. I got a strong grip on her wrist and stared into her eyes. There was no language I could talk with her. Unsmiling, she let herself be led away and was soon naked in my bed. Her waist, so very slim, her full hips, the brimming cups of her breasts made her like one of the thousand-year-old sculptures from the south of India. It was the coming together of a man and a statue. She kept her eyes wide open all the while, completely unresponsive. She was right to despise me. The experience was never repeated.

I could not help, when reading this, to recollect the hair-raising mendacity of Louis Althusser’s account of his murdering of his wife, recently examined by Anne Boyer in the New Inquiry. Although their rationales differ, both share the particular wispy tone common to men who have been made to believe, by what must in the end be condemned as a constitutional enervation of western high culture, that their feelings are more moving, their regrets more valid, their transports more ethereal, than those of other people.

It is bracing to recall, in this connection, that Chekhov, an artist and thinker incomparably superior to any mentioned here thusfar, when attempting to explain in a letter to his younger brother the nature of culture, ignored nonsense about art and nobility of spirit, and listed, as the first quality cultured people must satisfy, “a respect human personality, “ as the fruit of which “they are always kind, gentle, polite, and ready to give in to others.”

Roger Lewinter


Roger Lewinter, photographed beautifully by Jean-Marc Martin du Theil

Recently some kind, intuitive soul at New Directions sent me advanced copies of two books that moved me a great deal by the to-me unknown writer Roger Lewinter: The Attraction of Things and Story of Love in Solitude, both translated by Rachel Careau. I had hoped to review them formally, but the two places I pitched to didn’t write me back, and the summer was so busy that I gave up on the idea.

A scholar of Diderot and translator of numerous writers from German, particularly the enigmatic physician Georg Groddeck, Lewinter was born in Montaubon to Austrian Jewish parents and now lives in Geneva. He reminds me very slightly of Francis Ponge, and of Jean Grenier’s Vie Quotidienne and Sur la mort d’un chien, the second of which is one of the most beautiful books I have ever read. There is a curious acuteness of perception in Lewinter that has something to do with exhaustion, as though the author’s weariness excused him from overembellishment; “affective perception” I have written in the margins, because his portrayal of persons and objects, though disinclined to sentimentalism, never settles for mere scrutiny. The settings of the stories are dull, but longing renders them taut:

Svetlana, in welcoming me, had imbued my name with a softness that was foreign to me, making me wish to be this self, since it seemed that it could have some softness in it.

It is as if, at each moment, the author is asking himself first, if this is all there is, and second, whether it might not suffice. He speaks of the “possibilities” of a coveted shawl, and says of the sounds of antique LPs:

…at the flea market, I no longer remember at whose stand, I found two ten-inch Odeon records: four Spanish dances interpreted by La Argentina, which I listened to now, the body that played them having dematerialized, to dance through a scansion, ultimately purely abstract. where a sharp tap of the castanets sufficed to evoke in its brilliance the entirety of beauty.

Unusually, both books are published with the original French following the English translation. In the blurb, Lydia Davis has called the translation “masterful” (masterly, Fowler would say). I enjoyed the English versions, but I would have to reread the books more attentively, and look more closely at the French, to know what I think. “Having misunderstood what is beyond understanding” seems to me a strange rendition of “au scandale m’étant mépris,” (though the phrase on its own has an odd charm), and in places, the writing feels a little clotted. But this is not easy material: the sentences incorporate sinuous and staccato elements, their  parts are delicately arranged as in a mobile sculpture; Careau is aware of this, is respectful of it, and has a good ear. Lewinter lulls, then trips up the reader, with a proliferation of dashes, colons, and semicolons; the effect of strain between elegance and the obsession for inclusion is remarkable.

Sebald’s Poetry and Constraint

Recently I was invited to Stockholm to participate in a seminar on the poetry of W.G. Sebald. For those familiar with his prose, myself included, Sebald’s poetry can prove cryptic. The following is my presentation, which I wrote largely in an attempt to clarify certain aspects of the poems to myself. I am posting it for those who might be interested, with thanks and acknowledgements to Axel Englund, the conference organizer, and the other participants.

The Poetry of W.G. Sebald copy.jpg

It is almost certainly asking too much that the right thing be liked for the right reason, and so, when a writer such as W.G. Sebald becomes a sensation, selling hundreds of thousands of books, while Jean Améry, Kluge, and many of those on whose shoulders he stood remain cult authors at best, I cannot help but feel a measure of suspicion. In my own country, the United States, which is not renowned for the thoroughness of its concern with the historical antecedents of disaster, I have the sense that it is may be too costly, psychologically, to take a proper inventory of the countless infamies to which we have been party, and that the periodic symbolic condemnation of nazism has come to stand in for proper self-reckoning. Hence, in a country that by European standards translates nothing, you find on the lists of bestsellers, year’s best, and various other bests, the whole menu of Holocaust entertainments: Bernhard Schlink for the followers of Oprah’s book club, Modiano for the upper-middlebrow, and Sebald somewhere near the top.

The poetry, though, has sidestepped somewhat the weight of Sebald’s legacy, in part because, being less explicitly condemnatory, it eludes readers whose enthusiasms reflect their vision of themselves as moral actors. The poems are vague, and have about them only the aftertaste of a melancholy that is expressed, in Sebald’s fiction, in a systematic form. Of course, it was also published well after the peak of the Sebald craze, and even in the most fortunate cases, poetry is a commercially dubious undertaking.

Before proceeding, I would like to delimit somewhat the boundaries of my own inquiry. When I speak of Sebald’s poetry, it is generally with reference to the more or less fragmentary verses of Across the Land and the Water. I ignore After Nature insofar as, to me, it represents an intermediate stage between the earlier poetry and the mature prose works; most of the poetic effects found therein have their equivalents in the novels, and the themes, the approach taken to them, and even the syntax are hardly distinguishable. I overlook as well the late poems For Years Now and Unrecounted, which for me are simply too gnomic to arouse any particular emotional effect.

An essential document for approximating Sebald’s thinking about poetry is his 1975 conversation with Rainer Kunze, in which he quotes from the poet’s book Zimmerlautstärke: “The poem as stabilizer, as an orientation-point of the I.” Later he describes poetry as a form of self-therapy, as a way of achieving a degree of freedom, as a method for making the earth inhabitable. I think it is clear these are not mere literary-critical remarks, but impend upon Sebald’s own evolving poetic praxis as well as on the later prose works, in which disorientation, the fragmentation of identity, and art as, at once, a symptom of and a countercharm against madness will have pride of place. From the beginning, the poetic object, for Sebald, is linked to a sense of instability which is first of all perspectival. This is apparent in the switch of viewpoints in the untitled opening poem of both the English and German editions of Sebald’s poetry, in which an observer from a train car is observed to vanish by the landscape he himself had seemed to be observing, as well as in the quote from Merleau-Ponty’s Le visible et l’invisible that Sebald arranges into a stanza in Unrecounted:

I have felt

On certain days

That it was

The trees which

Were watching me.

We see similar reversals throughout Sebald’s mature work, notably in the Nocturnium episode in Austerlitz. This perspectival instability has a passive and an active component; in other words a psychological and programmatic aspect. As far as the former, Sebald asserts that human history, humankind, must be observed not with reference to the liberal ideal of the emancipated individual as posited from the Enlightenment onward, but as a natural-historical, mass phenomenon within which the individual is borne along, to quote Georges Bataille, “like a wave lost among many other waves.” To the extent that consciousness transcends this organic or materialist aspect of human history, it does so less through resistance than through neurotic behaviors that incorporate and reproduce in miniature the nature-transfiguring movements of the larger mass: I am thinking here of the countless poets, scholars, artists, and tinkerers who populate Sebald’s work, whose disposition is inevitably saturnine and encumbered. This extends to Sebald himself, who frequently commented with evident displeasure on his métier as writer and scholar, its dubious merit, and its necessary kinship to melancholy and exhaustion, seen again, to return to the poetry, in his portrayal of “exhausted eyes” of the novelist Marianne Fritz in the fairly late poem In Alfermée.

The sense of self-displacement necessary, epistemologically, if one is to examine human conduct from the natural-historical perspective as opposed to that of individual freedom, necessarily stresses the moment of embodiment as an intermediate stage between generation and destruction, bordered at either end by the extinction of the consciousness-mechanism. Anyone who has considered life deliberately in this way knows how unsettling it is, and how urgently the need assails one to subsume the resultant horror, whether through the attenuation of consciousness into intellectual flights of fancy or more robust methods of self-abnegation.

Concerning the programmatic aspect, it might be best to turn to Sebald’s 1984 essay on Canetti, which is a categorical denunciation of the creative propensities of authority. Canetti, according to Sebald,

Describes the processes of power as those of a closed system which, in perpetuation of itself, continually makes victims of outsiders.

Sebald goes on to declare the “fundamental affinity between power-politics and paranoia” as the basis for a totalizing impulse, “a longing for total order” for which life is dispensable. Though initially, Sebald’s critique seems applicable to a more traditional understanding of power, the artistic implications of his words become clear in his disparagement of the attempt, on the part of novelistic culture in the course of the diffusion of bourgeois society, to develop comprehensive codices and systems. As examples he offers the brothers Mann, Broch, Musil, Arnold Zweig, and Döblin, contrasting them approvingly with Canetti’s assertion, after abandoning his intention to compose his own Comédie Humaine, that “Every work, by its sheer mass, is a violation. One must find other, purer means of self-expression.”

In this critique of power, of authority, lie the roots of Sebald’s inclination for the oblique and a preference for letting others speak to the detriment of his own voice. In the late prose work, this will evolve into an almost medieval method of attributing auctoritas to a select group of figures, most of them marked by exile and suffering, for whose words Sebald limits himself to providing annotations, as though there were something inherently validating about the standpoint of the victim. This approach develops over time, and is first fully evident the two initial cantos of After Nature, in the biographical sketches of Grünewald and Steller. The appropriation of biography, and in particular the absorption of others’ words into what thereby becomes an intersubjective text, are the culmination of writing as bricolage, such as Sebald practiced and sang the praises of throughout his life. Well known for his hostility to the traditional strictures of academic writing and investigation, Sebald praised bricolage as a “pre-modern form of research” that was, presumably, untainted by the totalitarian residue of ends-based rationality.

The process begins, as early as 1967, with scattered or occasionally more allusions: to Butor in the long poem Breston, to Félix Timmerman in Winter Poem, most significantly for me, because in the kind of source employed and the author’s slightly aloof perspective, Dürer in Pneumatological Prose. Slowly, acquired knowledge, arranged more or less cryptically, comes to stand in for the natural locus of sentiment in sensation and memory.

… I should probably say something about coincidence, since it was the ostensible subject of my presentation but has largely disappeared from its final version. Coincidence is a uniting thread of Sebald’s mature prose work, subsuming otherwise disparate themes and providing a sense of order, however haunting, for historical and organic processes tending toward entropy and chaos. Because it lies, or appears to lie, beyond the author’s or narrator’s influence, coincidence, like photographs and other documentary evidence, provides a means for establishing global narratives that dispense with the more dubious aspects of authorship. In general, whether because of formal restraints or a lack of definitive method, these ordering mechanisms are mostly absent in the poems, which thus become exemplary of the primitive aesthetic encounter between Sebald and his material. The poems’ subjects are fragmentary, but whereas the fragmentary form has at times been adopted, particularly in thrall to a certain probably fallacious notion of the aims and capacities of so-called Eastern poetry, to emphasize and draw attention to the sufficiency of the object in itself, in Sebald the fragment seems to be reaching outward, as though to alert the reader to an absence without which it is incomprehensible.

The question as to whether the fragmentary in itself is possessed of sufficient artistic vigor or whether it represents an intermediate stage to be contrasted with the highly finished later prose works is an open one, though it appears that for Sebald, the choice was not an absolute one. While Sebald recycled parts of his poems in After Nature as well as in the novels, he continued to write poetry throughout his life, indicating that there was, so to speak, a remainder that the prose works failed to subsume and for which poetry continued to be the most adequate means of expression.

An example of these contrasting methods is clear in the specific brevity of Sebald’s meeting with one poet, Jesse Kleemann, viewed against his extensive narration of an afternoon spent with the schizophrenic Ernst Herbeck, as recounted in Vertigo. Herbeck is introduced with a capsule biography and a photograph, is described at length, and two examples of his work are presented, including a very charming improvised verse about England.

Jesse Kleemann, on the other hand, appears as a pure anecdote, slightly sensationalized as a “living / Greenlandic / poet in the flesh” uttering “double vowels and double vees” with several words left in something approximating her original language. Given first that Kleeman’s appearance at the Literarisches Colloquium in Berlin took place in late 1997, second that the idiom of other Sebald poems from around that time is much closer to that of the prose works, and third that it was prepared for publication, Calm November Weather should not be thought of as a draft or an abstract; clearly Sebald, who was famously scrupulous in such matters, saw it as a proper piece of work.

It is perhaps wistful to say that it was only in brief snatches that Sebald could permit the intrusion of bare life, stripped of literary references, temporal coincidences, historical connections, and so forth, but it is true that here, and in such poems as I Remember, composed in English, a hint emerges of another, less laden, possibly warmer kind of writing toward Sebald might have tended toward, had it not been for his untimely death.

Aesthetics of Degradation

AOD cover.jpg

Today marks the publication of my first book, The Aesthetics of Degradation. I had considered posting some acknowledgements here, but when I started writing them, they came out too grandiose, so I nixed the idea. The book is about pornography, specifically pornography centered on the brutalization of women, a phenomenon that raises fewer eyebrows than it should and strikes me as an ominous symptom of the drift of present-day masculinity; but equally important are the themes of memory and justice and the integrity of the self over time. It is a novel, and I would like it to be taken as such, though publication also means relinquishment of control over how something will be read and interpreted.

Here is a link to the publisher’s page, with information about ordering:


Translation Reviewing, Isabel Fargo Cole

Last month, Scott Esposito was kind enough to sand me a copy of Wolfgang Hilbig’s Sleep of the Righteous in Isabel Fargo Cole’s translation. The book is excellent, but what particularly interests me is the translation. Naming the translator has become a rallying cry and shibboleth among many people who talk about literary topics online, and though I, as a person who lives by translation, may see some benefit from this hoopla and therefore should be thankful, I am not always in agreement with the push to move the act of translation to the center of conversations about translated literature. In critics who are sympathetic to translators’ claims, it tends to provoke a cursory response, and the dashed-off “cleverly translated,” “brilliantly translated,” “awkwardly translated” etc. no more indicate real thought about the original’s rendition into English than the use of politically correct terms for minority groups, so-called, is a sign of sensitivity as to their status. Writers aware of this sometimes strive to do more, but lacking sufficient information, the attempt often comes out bad. A reviewer of a comic I translated went to the trouble of naming me, only to imply that I had been remiss in failing to translate an important note a character held in his hand; naturally this was the choice of the editor, who didn’t want to pony up for a hand letterer. Frequently, reviewers hoping to look clever will home in on an instance of “mistranslation”  without regard to the chain of associations with a certain word in a given text. In Jean Améry’s Charles Bovary, Landarzt. Porträt eines einfachen Mann, the word Wirklichkeit is thematic, though its scope in German, particularly in the philosophical tradition Améry is responding to, is broader than whatever English term I eventually settle on in the translation. To pick a single occurrence and say, what Améry really means here is objectivity or substantiality or truthfulness or what have you, would be short-sighted. Also, this exercise frequently fails: some years back, I saw a review censuring a translator from Spanish for having rendered maleducado as “ill-mannered.” Really, the critic claimed, it should be uneducated. Naturally, that is ludicrous.

Michael Hoffman makes the seemingly obvious, but still necessary point that his translations aren’t for people who speak German, and advocates for a measure of wilfulness on the translator’s part. What that measure is must be an open question, but it strikes me he is right, at least in many instances. A translation cannot respect the whole range of syntactic, rhetorical, and semantic niceties that undergird a work’s goodness or greatness in its original language; and to attempt to do so halfway may yield something clunky yet still far from illuminating in this respect. Lydia Davis, in her translation of Swann’s Way, claims to have taken pains to follow Proust’s punctuation and word order, but does would a reader ignorant of French really get a better sense of Proust’s French from her version than from the Moncrieff translation? Is it possible for a person who unfamiliar with a language to get a sense of what it is like?

“Fidelity to the original” is invoked at times to justify the awkwardness of a text, ignoring that rhetoric is not ideal, but instead embedded in historical and cultural circumstances that are not always transferable. Due to interference from Euskera, many Spanish speakers from the Basque country and Navarre place their verbs at the end of clauses. Were this reproducible in a target language, that would not make it advisable. At best, it would require a footnote providing the reader with a bit of pedantic trivia. English has a genius for combining words (cankles, frenemy) that carries over poorly into other languages; the same is true of the German yen for ponderous neologisms. Attempts at “fidelity” to the specific resources of the out-language, which also partake of the unique way its speakers think and live, may exhibit brilliance,  but they run the danger of yielding something ugly and unshapely, and there are already too many ugly and unshapely books.

(That said, much that is thought inherent to a language may be the result of ignorance of the language’s heritage, which those working in literature ought to struggle to preserve. It is averred, to take a small example, that German syntax is more complex than English and that German sentences requite breaking up. When I hear this, I think people need to read more De Quincey or Johnson.)

Anyway: The Sleep of the Righteous is one of the most exquisite translations I’ve read in some time, and gives some clues as to when and how discussing the translator’s art, even in the absence of an awareness of the source language, may be possible. Look at these beautiful sentences:

With their shoes slipping on the frozen mud crests, now and then the utterly phlegmatic beasts would stop; the coachman’s long, arcing whip, tip flicked out, sank from the white sky onto the horses’ huge rumps, darting there artfully until the mighty animals, making reluctant fluttery sounds with their nostrils, resumed their trot once more; fine wisps of ash rose from their coats as the man on the wooden seat administered those tiny, well-aimed rapier jabs that sometimes cracked like distant gunshots.

You can judge a think like this by counter-example: how could it have been done worse? From the poetic perspective, this is so magnificent, so subtly weighted, that almost any substitution would make it worse. I do not know whether the original is so alliteratively and metrically rich –– if so, Cole’s feat is doubly impressive –– but I also don’t care. No one to whom such phrases occur should fail to write them down. Throughout the book, the translator’s lexicon is so fresh and surprising (licquescing, dapples, asimmer, runnels, flues), and it makes the book a joy to read.

At night, the gleaming birch leaves caught the moonlight, and when they stirred in a breeze, a flutter or flicker passed down the edge of the causeway, an iridescent glitter like crinkled tinfoil, coming from beyond, from the rubbish heaps that loomed nearby forbiddingly with the blood-red light of fires, hellfires, shooting up between them: the red luminescence and the moon’s silver dazzle were echoed in the ripples of the bay… 

This is a blog post, not an essay, so I won’t say more, but congratulations and thanks to Isabel Fargo Cole and to Two Lines Press for this lovely book of stories, some of which will stay with me for a long time.

NB: I reread Torii Moi’s review of the now not-so-new translation of Beauvoir’s Second Sex this morning. The entire thing is a fascinating look at how and why a bad translation (for those who do consider it a bad translation) happens as well as the publishing politics that favor one sort of translation over another and that may affect the reviewing process afterward.

Jürgen Shmidhuber on Consciousness as Problem-Solving

Karl Popper famously said: “All life is problem solving.” No theory of consciousness is necessary to define the objectives of a general problem solver. From an AGI point of view, consciousness is at best a by-product of a general problem solving procedure.

I must admit that I am not a big fan of Tononi’s theory. The following may represent a simpler and more general view of consciousness. Where do the symbols and self-symbols underlying consciousness and sentience come from? I think they come from data compression during problem solving. Let me plagiarize what I wrote earlier:

While a problem solver is interacting with the world, it should store the entire raw history of actions and sensory observations including reward signals. The data is ‘holy’ as it is the only basis of all that can be known about the world. If you can store the data, do not throw it away! Brains may have enough storage capacity to store 100 years of lifetime at reasonable resolution.

As we interact with the world to achieve goals, we are constructing internal models of the world, predicting and thus partially compressing the data history we are observing. If the predictor/compressor is a biological or artificial recurrent neural network (RNN), it will automatically create feature hierarchies, lower level neurons corresponding to simple feature detectors similar to those found in human brains, higher layer neurons typically corresponding to more abstract features, but fine-grained where necessary. Like any good compressor, the RNN will learn to identify shared regularities among different already existing internal data structures, and generate prototype encodings (across neuron populations) or symbols for frequently occurring observation sub-sequences, to shrink the storage space needed for the whole (we see this in our artificial RNNs all the time). Self-symbols may be viewed as a by-product of this, since there is one thing that is involved in all actions and sensory inputs of the agent, namely, the agent itself. To efficiently encode the entire data history through predictive coding, it will profit from creating some sort of internal prototype symbol or code (e. g. a neural activity pattern) representing itself [1,2]. Whenever this representation becomes activated above a certain threshold, say, by activating the corresponding neurons through new incoming sensory inputs or an internal ‘search light’ or otherwise, the agent could be called self-aware. No need to see this as a mysterious process — it is just a natural by-product of partially compressing the observation history by efficiently encoding frequent observations.


from Schmidhuber’s Reddit AMA

Introspection Explained

Fascinating piece on the possible limits of introspection at The Three Pound Brain, courtesy of Germán Sierra.

Three Pound Brain

Las Meninas

So I couldn’t get past the first paper in Thomas Metzinger’s excellent Open MIND offering without having to work up a long-winded blog post! Tim Bayne’s “Introspective Insecurity” offers a critique of Eric Schwitzgebel’s Perplexities of Consciousness, which is my runaway favourite book on introspection (and consciousness, for that matter). This alone might have sparked me to write a rebuttal, but what I find most extraordinary about the case Bayne lays out against introspective skepticism is the way it directly implicates Blind Brain Theory. His  defence of introspective optimism, I want to show, actually vindicates an even more radical form of pessimism than the one he hopes to domesticate.

In the article, Bayne divides the philosophical field into two general camps, the introspective optimists, who think introspection provides reliable access to conscious experience, and introspective pessimists, who do not. Recent years have witnessed a sea change in philosophy of mind circles…

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