Ubi, Ubi, Ubi

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Feb 282012

Having abandoned writing a history of ourselves because for quite some time now one can’t rely on anything I say, or anything you say either for that matter, we have been given permission to travel everywhere. That is the message today from Ubu Roi. What I say is always simply another event. What you say is just another historical observation, but together in the form of the serial feulleton we seem to have chanced upon a method to allow us to seek for work without troubling too much about having a status, fixed situation or known position. Seeking a publisher, we are at the gateway of the world, the threshold of all people…

… and I am back on the shores of the Arabian Sea for two weeks in southern India, staying at a kind of Asclepion hotel where the gaps between dreams and waking have
become even more porous than usual. Sinbad is here fishing offshore in his dugout canoes and telling stories to himself all through the night, and so quite probably is Sherehezade tapping at her tablet on the beach before winging her piece back to Benno (the feuilleton editor) for publication. The 1002nd Arabian Night and so on, in and out of history and backing on to the ocean, there is music everywhere, floating through the coconut groves which fringe the sea from black speakers te size of double-beds.

Yes, our narod – our people – is recomposed, including the Russians who are also back here. There the same ones who I wrote about last year who glow with an intense and restless kind of roaming energy and swim far out to sea five times a day. We are all about the same age, but there are of course many more of them than us, and back home the men work in the nuclear energy industry, running their own businesses with similar robust vigour and will power, and so making themselves reasonable profits (they are as it were well to do borgeoise intellectuals but not the super-rich) sufficient to travel so that we can meet here to the tip of southern India, and break the ice of the Volga in winter to go for a regular dip. So far as I am able to understand them because neither of us speak each other‘s tongue. However, we are all inhabiting a kind of “novelletish world” as Roth wrote in his feuilleton to the F.Z (published 26th August 1925), and we have no trouble filling the gaps between the words with our imagination.

East and West, Roth continues in the same piece, “From wealth to poverty is but a step. The homeless sleep on the palace steps”. We have got on to politics in our conversation, and I ask one of the Russian men for his opinions. It appears he longs for the return of Tzar Nicholas. At any rate he cannot stand Putin and the rest of the toting laptop parvenus with their Social Democrat pretensions, and fat wives with heelless sandles which they buy from the most expensive shops in Italy. It was the same with Rot Roth, the “revolutionary” as he was called, who writes a letter to Benno (the feuilleton editor) in which he tells him how much he cried when Franz Josef died. Like Andrzej Stasiuk too, who I quoted at some length a week or two back, toasting the birthday of the old emperor in East Hungary.

The ends of epochs but without any feelings of nostalgia, and this longing for caesars from another time. We should note that – Plato was of the same viewpoint. Or the longing in our case for an editor like Benno, who will rule us with a firm but kindly hand (“on the one hand feullieton editor, on the other well-disposed human being” as Roth put it in his letter of 30th August 1925).

Do we not share this longing for caesars, editors who will publish us, making deadlines, and demand clarity, and give us back morality? Yes! – Truth in half a page.

That was Roth's definition of the feuilleton by the way. I will leave it to you to check if this Benno is the same one who fulfils the editor role for the hero of Bolano’s 2666. Quite probably.

Feb 232012

If you like, the staircase is always a series of mythological Gnostic steps, and, if you are lucky, a troubadouring Bob Dylan will be waiting for you in the minstrels’ gallery, to sing you through five hundred verses of Desolation Row, though whether or not you find the minstrels’ gallery is another question. Something to do with fate or history or alternatively, to be more personal, who were your people? Did your people clear the thorn entangled path so that you might steal a march on the opposition and your own inveterate laziness. Without further ado I think I should mention that Ubu awaits you in the throne room. And it’s not for me say whether the throne room is up the stairs or down in the extensive cellars. Though one might hazard a guess that as the cellars are where the wine is (was) kept – that might be the place to begin your search.

    Ubu is much bigger than he used to be: a gargantuan waistline, little short legs, a face apoplectically red and purple and his arms waving in rage. It will soon be apparent that all you have to do is follow the noise; a thin weaselling sort of noise, plus explosions of hoarse, enraged grief. Madame Ubu has long since abandoned him and taken most of the staff with her, leaving him only a couple of weasels to hose him down once or twice a day.

    An audience with le Roi is a pressing necessity; better not delay it too long before you set off for the cellars. Ignore, for now, those inviting stairs and don’t forget to drink a couple of bottles on your through the early stages of the labyrinth. Don’t worry I know you are no Theseus – no gorgonzola awaits you. Only the demented Ubi. By the way, he likes to be called Ubi. Ubu is more formal, so I would advise you to stick to Ubi. And do bow low as you enter the throne room. It will be dark, so you might not spot him right away but he will spot you. In fact he will have sniffed your approach two days ago. He is ready. His little red eyes almost bursting with excited anticipation. And do take along your collected works of Walter Benjamin. I can assure you that Uncle Wally is one of his favourite authors. He is very fond of quoting huge chunks to any who come within spitting difference. And that’s something else of course – better to keep beyond spitting difference if you know what’s good for you. And do try to resist his siren calls to divest yourself of your protective clothing.

    Once you find your way out of there (hopefully not needing too much in the way of medical intervention) you will be more than (psychologically, speaking) ready to mount the famous staircase. And hopefully with the physical prowess to lift one foot up on to the next tread.

    To really and truly find out where it leads.


In short, Work Finds Itself a Voice

 Posted by at 11:32 am  Atelier  Comments Off
Feb 222012

Readings out of Walter Benjamin’s Selected Writings, this time it was Volume 2, part 2, 1931-1934, but the selecting and making of quotations appeared wrong to me. A feeling of transgression, I wanted to quote it all, as if the only honest response I could think of as the reader was to transcribe the whole volume from start to end, or beginning from wherever I had begun dipping into, and then over and over again. This honest response, my honesty or the lack of it today, being the question of morality; of the ethical position of writer and reader.

In short, (how) work finds itself a voice. The phrase is found in a piece in Vol 2, Part 2, called Diary from August 7, 1931, to the Day of My Death. Unpublished in Benjamin’s lifetime, “This diary does not promise to become very long,” Benjamin begins and it is true that it is brief, amounting to only about two thousand words in all. But the phrase about work and the brevity of his pieces seems to offer a kind of salvation.

Or put another way, which Benjamin did using a similar phrase within a later, and this time even shorter, piece called The Newspaper, this time published in Der öffentliche Dienst (Zurich), March 1934, and totalling less then five hundred words. “For since writing gains in breadth what it loses in depth, the conventional distinction between author and public that the press has maintained (although it is tending to loosen it through routine) is disappearing in a socially desirable way. The reader is at all times ready to become a writer – that is, a describer or even a prescriber. As an expert – not perhaps in a discipline but in a post that he holds – he gains access to authorship. Work itself has its turn to speak.”

As it happened, being both in and out of work last weekend, I was staying in a large house along the southwest coast of Wales. Located perhaps not so far from where WG Sebald had described the lonely childhood of his middle-european hero in his last novel Austerlitz, the house had been extensively rebuilt in the nineteenth century around a cavernous hall and great wooden staircase, so that on first entering by the front door the wide stairway in the centre of the hall immediately presented itself, leading upwards to a half landing and then dividing against the distant seeming wall to both left and right, a far wall upon which an enormous oil painting happened to hang like a cinema screen covering the whole surface and capturing a moment from antiquity, it was in fact the entry of Alexander into Athens upon a chariot with a near naked Diogenes shown lying outside his barrel in the foreground, and the divided stairs then turned again rising without visible means of support in parallel flights back on themselves towards what is hidden to the onlooker apart from their wooden embossed and geometrically patterned undersides, rising to an obscured landing, and the hall itself was also very dark adding to the sense of foreboding, the only natural light penetrating from above the staircase and giving the impression that further flights of stairs might continue to rise higher and higher towards the sky, but all was hidden from view.

Where is this staircase leading to? I asked myself more than once during the weekend, having found myself in a state of being equally in and out of place. Because the staircase was clearly not going nowhere, for instance, I could grasp the notion that the staircase was located in a house which was a home, and I could rely on there being bedrooms on the first and perhaps higher floors. But although I could also fix upon a date for its construction in the 1870’s, the question remained, neither wholly in or out of mind, since the purpose of the staircase seemed to transcend domesticity, and my thinking split like the divided staircase itself towards nightmare possibilities of a fantastic architecture, and other imaginative purposes which also impressed themselves on me in cinematic fashion like the story from antiquity being shown in the great picture on the far wall, but again whether my attention was meant more for Alexander or Diogenes I was unable to tell, and split in many other ways to do with its seeming continental minded design and past, and so on without end.

But whether in or out of history, I seemed entirely unable to post the staircase along the river of time. “Run-of-the-mill history answers more questions than a wise man will”, Benjamin writes elsewhere in the diary entry for August 7th (1931), and then continues. “My attempt to explain a theory of history in which the concept of development is entirely supplanted by the concept of origins.  Understood in this way, history cannot be sought in the riverbed of a process of development.  Instead, as I have remarked elsewhere, the image of a riverbed is replaced by that of a whirlpool.  In such a whirlpool earlier and later events – the prehistory and post history of the event, or, better, of a status, swirled around it. The actual objects of such a view of history are not specific events but specific unchanging statuses of the conceptual or sensual kind – for example, the Russian agrarian system, the city of Barcelona, population shifts in the Mark of Brandenburg, barrel vaulting, and so on.” Or the status (state, condition or situation) of this staircase I thought as I paused in my reading. “ If this approach is determined by its firm rejection of the possibility of an evolutionary or universalist dimension in history, it is determined internally by a productive polarity.  The twin poles of such a view of the historical and political – or, to point up the distinction even more sharply, the historical and the event. These two factors occupy two completely different planes. We can never say, for example, that we experience history; nor can we maintain that a historical account brings the events so close to us that it has the same impact as a historical event (such an account would be worthless), or that we have experienced events that are destined to become history (since such a view is journalistic).”

The image of a whirlpool, or a turning staircase at whose bottom we have arrived (in media res inadvertently revisiting) upon entering the darkly lit hall, and ascend to the first landing mid-floor, where it divides in two along the productive polarity of parallel flights, because – Yes! – the world is otherwise bewildering.


Have I slept? I am just falling asleep.
(- Karl Kraus, Words in Verse IV)

Strangers in the night

 Posted by at 11:28 am  Atelier  Comments Off
Feb 182012

How strange it is to inadvertently revisit themes, ideas, realities that I had lost touch with. They had been important, had grabbed my attention but then been left behind in the ever shifting movement, the seeking after toeholds on the cliff, the imperative struggle to combine what is interesting with making money, supporting the family; enjoying life, surviving and moving up*.

It’s like finding buried treasure.


*Until it all crashed about my ears.


Agora / Tree of Life

 Posted by at 6:22 pm  Atelier  Comments Off
Feb 152012

The thread is so fine… (Paul Klee, Tree of Life, 1918)

Klee Tree of Life121

It develops its being in roundness

Slowly giving itself

The form that eliminates

The hazard of wind.

 (Theodore Rilke)

Mondrian Blue Tree121Mondrian Tree122Mondrian Tree124Mondrian Abstract Landscape123Mondrian Abstract geometry121Piet Mondrian,

Trees and Abstract Geometries 

Mondrian Tree123Mondrian Tree125Mondrian Trees 127

Feb 112012
Guest Kiosk 8, Eminonu

You should have gone to Mexico to dance the dance of death with Bolano’s Savage Detectives . . .  have you seen that Dennis Potter’s wonderful The Singing Detective is currently being shown on BBC4. What was it, 1986? I caught the second episode on iplayer and found it just as wonderful when I saw it twenty five years ago. And how it makes our world of 2012 look so glossy and superficial though how long will it be before we are all in the same position of Greece nobody knows. If we do go down it will be like the proverbial house of cards because the world created by free-market capitalism has no substance – it is all based on a me-too wish to be super rich and care nothing for anybody else – well mostly anyway.


So dance the dance from Mexico to some tiny village in Hungary/Ukraine, the only way in or out is via a dirt track and why not dance by Anish Kapoor’s Olympic sculpture known as the Orbit – I think it should be included in the itinerary that is a linking of psychologically significant spiritual destinations. Death dance has to be at the cutting edge of all human endeavour.


And let’s not forget the American Psychiatric Association’s DSM-5 – or fifth (no, not filth) version of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, which will be available any time soon. Certainly in time for the Olympics. And an early Guardian article suggests that so many new diagnoses are available from it that it looks like all our petty problems and whinges will be covered by a named pathology ready to be packaged and dealt with by a triumphant pharmaceutical company already gearing up its production somewhere near you.


D H Lawrence’s sour soul must be mumbling incoherently somewhere in (over?) Mexico, mixing it with local drug cartel bosses, political dignities and deities. Actually I have received no clear indication of the state of Lawrence’s soul but whenever I see a photo of him he looks to me such a miserable complainer. Why didn’t he pick up a pick axe and get down that mine. Better for all of us, I reckon.


This transatlantic thread is so fine as to be invisible to the human eye but hopefully not to birds following their migratory routes – perhaps they will be able to use it to rest upon when the old body is getting a bit weary. And hopefully this stupendous engineering feat will prove to be David Cameron’s up to the minute take as a thoroughly exciting new embodiment of Alfred Watkins’ Ley lines.


Let’s get there before the press arrives.


Under the Headings of Alienation and Abandonment

 Posted by at 2:39 pm  Atelier  Comments Off
Feb 092012

Was I disappointed by the festival of dying last weekend at the Royal Festival Hospital in London? Yes. It was hardly a danse macabre. Not a day of the dead. Not a carnival at all by any true meaning of the word: no firecrackers to make you jump out of your skin, no tequila to get those crazy voices going talking into your ears, no long knives slung from thick leather belts ready to glint in the moonlight, no fingers on triggers ready to loose off bullets in any direction.

Nothing under the volcano. No, Malcolm Lowry would not have recognised it. It was pastiche. Pretend. Or simulation. Therapeutic perhaps? Possibly, if you have the twenty pound note to buy in to the events, and what you are searching for is that elusive ticket to a feel good factor round about the time and place of your personal demise.

A good death? No, it was not the sustaining community I had in mind at all. I didn’t feel that I belonged. It is odd that, given I am over sixty now, older, and what you would call a good candidate for what was on offer. Still I observed that most of the people there discussing death were younger than me by 20 years. Is it simply that I am joining (as Frederic Jameson has put it), ‘those massive populations around the world who have, as it were, “dropped out of history”’?

Too bloody right!

Time for another quote. We are back in the company of Andrzej Stasiuk, ‘On the Road to Babadag’ (Eng tr 2011) this time, from a piece he has called “A Description of a Journey from East Hungary to Ukraine” (P53-54). Andrzej is stopped in the small town of Gȍnc in a land whose language he cannot speak (nobody from elsewhere, but nobody, can speak Hungarian), hitch-hiking and taking buses and trains to the east with an unnamed companion (he always talks of “we”), and looking out on Main Street for something more interesting than the local museum to stir him while he waits for the next connection:

‘… I went into a liquor store, because it was August 18, the hundred–and-sixty-ninth anniversary of the birth of Franz Josef, and I was determined to celebrate it. When I was again seated on the low wall before the store, there appeared before me a bearded man in a herringbone coat and nothing under it. Without a word he produced an enamel mug and lifted it towards me. How could I refuse him, on this day, the birthday of His Highness? Here I was, travelling through his country, and he granted audiences even to simple peasants and made no distinction between Serb and Slovak, between Pole and Romanian. So I took out the flask of pear brandy I had just purchased and shared it with my fellow man. He drank in silence and pointed at my pack of Kossuths. I gave him a cigarette. Some citizens came by and in the international language of gestures gave me to understand that I was dealing with a lunatic. I reflected that in the empire lunatics too had their place, and I refilled the mug. We drank to the health of Franz Josef. I told my new friend that I had always been partial to sovereigns and caesars, that I particularly missed them in these threadbare times, because democracy cannot satisfy the thirst for the mythic, and so feel people feel abandoned. My friend nodded emphatically and held out his mug. I poured and told him that the idea of democracy contains a fundamental contradiction, because true power cannot, by its nature, be immanent; it would in that case resemble the most ordinary anarchy, though without all the entertainments and pleasures of anarchy. Power must come from without; only then can we embrace it and revolt against it. “Igen,” said my new friend, nodding. A small crowd had gathered around us and was listening to the discussion. People also nodded and said, “Igen, igen.” Then my friend proposed that we arm-wrestle. He won twice; I won twice. The crowd kibitzed and cheered. When it was all over, men came up to me, clapped me on the back, and said, “Franz Josef, Franz Josef.”

‘South of Gȍnc, the plain began.’

It sounds like a disappointing weekend

 Posted by at 12:08 pm  Atelier  Comments Off
Feb 032012

‘The spectacle is the flip side of money. It, too, is an abstract general equivalent of all commodities. But whereas money has dominated society as the representation of universal equivalence – the exchangeability of different goods whose uses remain uncomparable – the spectacle is the modern complement of money: a representation of the commodity world as a whole which serves as a general equivalent for what the entire society can be and can do. The spectacle is money one can only look at, because in it all use has already been exchanged for the totality of abstract representation. The spectacle is not just a servant of pseudo-use, it is already in itself a pseudo-use of life.’*


    I’m trying to catch up; I also know that I never will but what else can one do? I remember this conversation in 1968 in which a friend, name of Joe, was breathlessly informing me about the Situationists – I had never heard of them and apart from the name I don’t remember the content of what he told me about them. But in the last months I’ve become aware of them once more and am currently reading Guy Debord’s Society of the Spectacle and Greil Marcus’s Lipstick Traces. The latter is subtitled A Secret History of the Twentieth Century and was first published in 1989. And in those days most of my reading was around psychoanalytic thought. Though whether that is sufficient reason for my not registering Marcus’s linking of the Sex Pistols with Dada and the Situationists is not so certain. It is both catching up and looking around at what is going on economically and politically and trying to catch hold of ideas that might be helpful. I am sure that Debord would have relished last year’s August riots – a festival of the excluded dreamers.


    After mentioning the supply of oxygen you continue with a puzzling tense: ‘I had already spent last weekend . . . ‘ leading to an expectation of a follow up phrase that might have started, ‘when . . . ‘ but no. Nothing. Perhaps you had something in mind and then got distracted by a different thought. This hiatus then set the ground for disappointment. The numbers tell the story: 500 and 30. These suggest a discrepancy – there was room for 30 but ‘we' could shovel in 500 (paying, I assume) even if this meant 470 floating about slightly lost.

    Now 30 sounds an interesting number. Challenging but not necessarily overwhelming. With 30, thoughts could fly around, be heard, laughter could be unleashed, the weird joke of death examined (or not), a play improvised, written, and performed . . . but 500?

    Mind you, 500 practicing their PRANA YOGA together. WOW! Sucking all the energy out of the city and obviously levitating the RFH.


    I noticed in the Guardian yesterday morning there was a question as to whether independence fever would reach Wales. Now there’s a thought. Cameron, the great European nay-sayer, EU basher, presiding over the dismemberment of the UK.


    Will the coalition government continue to discover that they enjoy impoverishing great swathes of the population? Certainly Osborne always has a malicious curl of his lip. Though perhaps, after all, it will be alright (there, there, wipe your tears). We’ll find solutions – political, technological, aesthetic and patch together new agreements, new compacts, understandings.


    In these clear, high pressure skies – cold but bracing – I can look up to see the 500 in their levitating RFH drifting with the air currents perhaps somewhere in the direction of Denmark, say, or the Ukraine. Or is it out to the middle of the Atlantic?


*49 Society of the Spectacle page 41