Le Samuraï

An old post from an old blog

Are intellectual teenagers still into existentialism? or have we exited that age? is it all about theory now? Students downing Badiou and Laruelle to the strains of Tristan Murail? If so, they’re right to. It seems more intellectually demanding, more crazy, more of a shibboleth between the old fucks and the young guns, more of an induction to the modern age than the rudimentary post-romantic shoulder-shrugging of existentialism.

But

I liked Camus a lot.

And I don’t really buy that ‘not real philosophy’ thing.

It may not be real philosophy, but it’s real something, and that something’s very appealing when you’re a teenager: a post-romantic sense of the isolated individual, indifference to conventional social mores (which in return punish that indifference or contempt), misery, nausea and anxiety as necessary corollaries of a universe without epistemological and ethical certainty. Each of these provided serious explanations. it was useful. I could do with something like it now. Nobody understands me. Life’s so unfair. They were self-help manuals, shit self-help manuals admittedly, self-help manuals for people who couldn’t help themselves, but self-help manuals nevertheless, which not only explained why you were so fucking miserable, but why in fact you were some kind of hero for being so fucking miserable. I needed that!

But I picked up The Myth of Sisyphus again recently and was bored out of my mind, so that avenue’s shut. because for a teenager existentialism wasn’t so much about truth, it was about image – how to mentally position yourself in the world, how that looked. So if there’s one thing that french existentialism can be thanked for, it’s cool french films, because that was how the theory became flesh. It reversed the unglamorous polarity of the solitary teenager.

I went to see Le Samuraï when I was 16. The old Lumiere cinema in st martin’s lane, now a gym or something god-fucking-awful like that.

It was a big screen, with lots of soft grey seats ranged in arcs. There were three people in the cinema – me, a cycle courier about five rows in front of me, and a sleeping businessman, two rows behind and about five columns to the left of me.

I remember the setting and the film vividly. the film had a big impact. I got it on dvd, watched it several times.

Anyway, I watched it again the other night. i remembered it well (I said a couple of the lines before they were delivered on screen). How did it stand up?

That’s the opening frame. anyone who’s lived by themselves in a studio flat knows how the inside of your head becomes that flat. look at that first frame again – that’s the inside of someone’s head.

What you can’t see here is that just at the end of this opening the camera moves back and forth in the room, so you get the sensation of looking in a doll’s house. it produces a sense of artificiality, we are looking into this film, as you would look into a doll’s house. By a psychological trick that I don’t really understand, when you do that – emphasise the artificiality – you widen the sense of looking at something universally applicable (we all stand outside it) and less like we’re viewing the specifics of a documentary. Does anyone else get that? I don’t know, it seems a bit rarefied. I’m not sure I’ve articulated it enough.

Once again, you get a strong  sense that the room is a psychological state. for Melville, the director, rooms are like traps. They’re where you end up. There’s a terrifying scene in another of his films, Le Cercle Rouge, where the alcoholic marksman is beset by visual hallucinations in a bout of delerium tremens. rooms are bad. rooms are cages. and to extend the parallel of course, the inside of your head is also a trap, it’s where you end up, in the end.

If we didn’t get all that, Alain Delon keeps a songbird in a cage. Throughout the film, the songbird represents the state of delon’s being. I’m calling him Delon btw because his actual name in the film is Jeff Costello, which for a modern english viewer is too laughable to use without smirking.

One of the things I didn’t pick up the first time I watched it is that delon is a dandy. He’s a dandy in the Beau Brummel sense, that is, he dresses not to stand out but to fit in, and does so with an aesthete’s minute attention to detail.

This impeccability of course makes him stand out.

Props tho to his fixer, here sporting what i’m calling his gesang der jünglinge sweater

The dandy thing comes into sharp focus at one point in the film, where, in a bid to evade police, delon takes a route to 1, rue Lord Byron. That reference immediately clicked with something Kingsley Amis had written on James Bond:

the fact is that, inside that conservative dark-blue worsted suit and under the same skin as a bearer of the hardly-earned double-0 prefix, there lurks an intruder from another age. we can identify him easily enough by adding in at this point some of the accounts of the physical impression given by Bond, his looks and what people feel they signify.

and with the warmth and humour of his eyes extinguished, his features relapsed into a taciturn mask, ironical, brutal and cold.

the table was becoming wary of this dark englishman who played so quietly, wary of the half-smile of certitude on his rather cruel mouth. who was he? where did he come from? what did he do?

Well, he started life about 1818 as Childe Harold in the later cantos of Byron’s poem, reappeared in the novels of the Brontë sisters and was around until fairly recently in such guises as that of Maxim de Winter in Miss Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca. The Byronic hero – Byron’s sentimental and humourless idealization of part of himself rather than any kind of real Byron – the Byronic hero is lonely, melancholy of fine natural physique which has become in some way ravaged, of similarly fine but ravaged countenance, dark and brooding in expression, of a cold or cynical veneer, above all enigmatic, in possession of a sinister secret.

This is delon in le samuraï, and that 1 rue Lord Byron made it easy to identify that this is how were are at least partly to view delon – as a romantic hero.

The paradoxical or absurdist idea of singular anonymity conveys itself in another aspect of delon’s appearance in this film – he never makes the slightest attempt to disguise himself:

At one stage the police ask him to swap his hat and mac with two other people in a line up. He and his dispersed pieces of clothing are identified immediately. Even in disguise he is only the image of himself. This has certain consequences for the film. he can never expect to go unnoticed and so must avoid being seen.

The film is a single action, and everything in it tends towards its completion. this spartan exclusion of the unnecessary is matched by the script: the dialogue is extraordinarily spare, even for a noir, even for a Melville noir, and all of it can be taken as both content and explication, like the passing comment to a group of poker players –

je me perdre jamais. jamais vraiment. 

(I never lose. never truly/completely)

These statements compel analysis after the final reel, for a film which is, like the expressions of the actors in it, motionlessly opaque. There are no tells. facial expressions are an attempt to engage sympathy, to encourage the belief in an outer and an inner where the apparent former can be explained by the suggested latter. even the slightest expression of feeling offers, therefore, reason, and reason has no place in this fatalistic and absurd world. once again, the spareness encourages this sort of extreme analysis, and in that sense, is cognate with Camus’ sparse algerian, sun-bleached and desert presentation of the absurd. we are presented with a singularity.

I wondered because of this, while I was watching, whether this was a reductive film, but the fecundity of speculation required by the viewer I think puts a reverse on that accusation.

There are, after all, plenty of other things to enjoy about this film. the palette is marvellous – all dull greys and washed-out blues:

It’s nearly always raining. No matter the dirigiste economic exertions of the government, the Paris represented here is the fucked up paris of the ’60s – the massacre of the algerians in ’61, the barricades in ’68, a year after Le Samuraï was made.

Some of the images have almost the appearance of a Caravaggio painting:

The film also contains one of the great chase scenes in any film, across the Paris metro:

The chase is predominantly successful because it intensifies to a point of climax the film’s two principle notions of uncertainty and visibility. for delon, a great deal apparently hangs on his ability to correctly identify people from their impassive externals (their internal or hidden life here is not a spiritual or emotional one, incidentally, but one of persecution). For the police, the singularity of delon is either visible or not. the film solves these two strands by re-encrypting an image posed in The Third Man. This keeps the audience in a state of suspense until the end of the film, but the resolution of that practical riddle only pushes the uncertainty about what was known and intended back into the labyrinth of the metro and beyond.

I’m still not sure I’ve located the decisive moments, or understood entirely the motivations of Le Samuraï, and I think that’s how it’s supposed to be – that ambiguity born of its minimalist resistance to interpretation is paradoxically its richness. And as I’ve suggested, I find it rich in other ways. It’s Melville’s best film I think, tho not his best trailer – that would be this:

It’s still a good film, I still really like it. If i call it my favourite that’s probably only for the usefulness in conversations of having a favourite, and I’m not sure that it hasn’t been surpassed for me these days by The Maltese Falcon, a very similar film in some ways, even more remarkable in those ways and others, perhaps.

But there is one thing about this film:

fuck me it makes you want to smoke.

2022 Redux

2022 has been a bit of a dog.

Alright let me pour this little cognac and break it down for you1 I just discovered that this is in fact a 2021 joint, but you remove it from my significant 2022 listening over my dead body

Screenshot 2022 12 20 at 18 27
Screenshot 2022 12 20 at 18 28

My conclusion at the end of the year is that I’ve been suffering from a form of anhedonia and chronic, mild/medium, depression. Drink took up more of a role than it should have, I think to tackle the anhedonia, which led to considerable fatigue and ofc probably made the if-that’s-what-it-is anhedonia worse. My social manner was careless, sometimes borderline deplorable, and discouraging to forming new acquaintance, my already middling intellect very weak2 its natural state is C-, it can reach fairly high on occasion, but this year dragged relentlessly at a skiving, bedridden U. It was something of a relief to realise, 2/3rds of the way through that this seems to be a mode i go into from time to time, much of my teenage years for instance, which the natural intellectual ebullience of teenage years mitigated. but as i get older it feels more existential, more a symptom of decay rather than personality, emotions wan to the point of expiry, still protecting a battered and beleaguered heart by rolling up in a ball, cutting cords that should not be cut. Viva Las Vegas.

This all needs to be corrected or at least worked on to the extent it can be. They who strive upwards the angels can save, as the Goethe epigram to Under the Volcano goes. Resplendency in 2023. Let’s do it. And in the interests of identifying what I’ve enjoyed so that I may enjoy more, and better, in 2023, Here Is An End of Year List…

Oh before I do that, an interview with Svetlana Alexievich I read earlier this year, where she said something that captured an important criteria for the things I like. It’s the central paragraph, but I’ll quote the whole thing because it’s so forceful:

SA:

In Chornobyl Prayer, there is this story from the wife of a dying liquidator about how he’s dying horribly. When she wants to approach him at the hospital, they don’t let her. They tell her, “Forget that it’s a human being you love; it’s matter that needs to be deactivated.” I was struck by her words—her texts—and captured them. It was on the level of Shakespeare and Dostoevsky.

The things that people said were unique. These were texts from some new life of another world that is approaching very fast now. We have Chornobyl, coronavirus, the revolution, war. We are approaching a new reality for which we are not prepared. But Chornobyl is beyond all that because of the cosmic scale of the catastrophe, cosmic in the sense that it’s a shock to our understanding, our worldview. It’s something entirely new.

Why is this theme so important to me? Because when people can’t understand what’s really happening with their mind, you have to listen to the language of their bodies, how they speak about it themselves, how they try to translate their feelings into words. The body is also a text, so I tried to combine two texts: culture, which didn’t really help me much in this situation, with the text of the body.

These were texts from some new life of another world that is approaching very fast now. Svetlana Alexievich’s work operates beyond and at the margin of the new reality, as does Diego Garcia (see books: below), so does, for instance Alex Ward’s music, particularly last year’s Gated, dealing with moods and emotions that are unfamiliar only because they are not yet hackneyed, using modes and methods designed to framebreak, violently if necessary, inherited models. This is art enables us to retune our antennae to pick up the ‘odds and ends of messages coming out of nowhere’ (Kipling, Wireless) from the future.

Ok, The List:

The Book

Three books on a beech table, The English Understand Wool is on top, with a colourful, childlike cover, a picture of slices of cake. Under it is Gerald Murnane's Last Letter to a Reader, with a muted grey cover, and Diego Garcia, with Fitzcarraldo edition's characterist dark blue cover for fiction.

Helen DeWitt – The English Understand Wool

It’s a very short book, barely even a novella. I read it sitting on a bench in Cádiz’s Plaza Mina to the sound of fountains and children playing football.

A leafy, sunny square in Cadiz
Plaza de Mina, Cádiz

It forms a loop, beginning and ending at the same point. Its manner is as its narrator: precise, fastidious about the right terminology, fastidious about the differences between one thing and another, and how a thing should be done, how one should approach a thing. The sentence cadences are succinct and didactic, the effect in such a brief piece is lapidary. Within its short chapters lie gins, traps, nets, so that you reach the end, sit back, consider some of the book’s aspects, and rapidly find yourself considering the transmission of culture, the nature of understanding, the acquisition of knowledge, and the moral framework which these entail, before going back again to read the text once more and find where, exactly, these considerations might lie in its deft, light, and poised prose (HDW is an exceptional prose stylist – Swift is a good comparison, they both relish the interplay of sly meanings). It is so short that, like a pop song, you can play, rewind, and play, finding the ‘best bits, and delight in the detail and the phrasing.

The concepts with which Helen DeWitt plays cover a wide ground of thought, across literature, language, coding, heuristics, probability, business, getting things done, and anthropology, to name a handful. These are not all the standard inputs to literary work, and they provide tensions, rules, systems, motivations and structure to the behaviour of her protagonists and to the world they perceive and their management of it. It’s all very lightly done, with anything superfluous removed. Although an insight from reading the more clearly satirical Lightning Rods, the comparison that springs to mind is still Jonathan Swift, in eg A Tale of a Tub, where he is managing multiple implications, references and sometimes contradictory meanings in single sentences. That tension in concision is present also in DeWitt’s writing, and also provides the springs of the humour of her writing. These areas of knowledge bring freshness to the prose and thinking.

To take one example, I was pleased I had read Ernest Goffman’s Interaction Ritual: Essays on Face to Face Behaviour before reading TEUW. Goffman subjects the notion of ‘face’ (as in ‘saving face’) to minute scrutiny and analysis, and it seems to appear very lightly a couple of times in the book, and perhaps contributes partly to the crucial motif of mauvais ton, literally ‘bad tone’ but a better translation would be ‘bad form’. As that translation will indicate, its an expression of class snobbery, though a largely benevolent one – behaving meanly to the people who serve you in some way would be mauvais ton for instance. The motif sits at the centre of some of the dynamics in the book: class v cash, the notion of terroir as a form of cultural knowledge, transmission of knowledge and the optimal syllabus for this.

Helen DeWitt is interested, and her books are interested, in the methods and manner of doing things well, and the tools that relate to that. I won’t land the dreadful word Important on her, but this brings a fresh joy to the writing, and a sense that someone is engaged in the current world and our theoretical and practical understanding of it, combined with a strong artistic sense (across the arts), and most importantly with writing that makes you look up from the page and sit back in sheer pleasure.

Also

Gerald Murnane – Last Letter to a Reader

I picked this up in a very rainy Sydney, along with the 2019 edition of his never-properly-published novel A Season on Earth. As far as I can tell, it’s only fairly recently that you’ve been able to buy Murnane easily outside of Australia, so I use my intermittent visits to pick up the Giramondo editions. The ontology of imaginative and real places in fiction and memory is both process and subject for Murnane. In Last Letter to a Reader he re-reads his books and writes about what he remembers of his feelings during their composition, what he thinks he meant, what strikes him now, what he discovers in writing down the nature of the experience of re-reading his books. That may sound painfully refined, but it’s not; it’s a very good, colloquial, easy-to-read introduction to his writing, thoughtful about finding meaning in the act of writing.

very wet view through a window of a crossroads, the pavement and road glistens
A f’ing wet Sydney

Natasha Soobramanien & Luke Williams – Diego Garcia

A very good, perhaps surprisingly good book. The narrator is a ‘we’, proxies you assume for the actual authors, a couple drifting in Edinburgh, in a sort of precarious post-student life I remember very well, suffering from a form of hypersensitised post-GFC and creative anomie. Periodically the narrative will bifurcate into a double-columned page, when they are apart from each other. The subject of the book, addressed both obliquely and directly, is the forced expulsion of the Chagos Islanders in 1965 as part of the creation of a US Air Force base on the Mauritian island of Diego Garcia, among others, and the last British colony, The British Indian Ocean Territory.

The yoking together of these two worlds shouldn’t work. at all. As described it looks morally wildly self-indulgent for one thing – connecting two people living in London and Edinburgh. But it does work. it’s very well written for a start, with a strong sense of material surroundings and cultural artefacts, with a fluid prose style to convey this well-selected contemporary bricolage of post-GFC culture.

But the overall reason is the book’s purpose: to describe a connexion between brutal colonial displacement, migration, the places people will go, the experiences there, the people you will meet and with whom you’ll interact, and overall an experience of ‘emergencies happening at different speeds’ (to take a line describing a visit to A&E).

One half of the we is Mauritian, which provides one simple part of the equation. But in general, the notion of sagren – Sagren, to the Chagos refugees, a mix of nostalgia, desperation and overwhelming sorrow – a sickness for home so intense it can be deadly – is connected to anger. These feelings are applied to the sense of being dislocated in a time of ‘Emergency’, to the creative and financial state of the two narrators, and the life-story of Chagossian they meet for a short while on the streets of Edinburgh, all coming together to present a sense of the current state of things, whose axis is the Walter Benjamin quote silently injected in the text here:

The tradition of the oppressed teaches us that the state of emergency in which we live is not the exception but the rule.

It’s adventurous, daring writing with a sense of what it wants to do with that formal sense of adventure, and it’s well-written so that it carries it off without feeling like… to use a critic’s phrase ‘a partially successful experiment’. I was hesitant about using that phrase, but it’s useful because it allows me to describe the book correctly: it’s a wholly successful experiment, which covers terrain that will surely become increasingly relevant: how countries manage more widespread migration, both economic and that of refugees of some sort or another.

Currently we would rather see migrants die, immiserate them to the point of suicide, or force them via restricted routes to death purely because we do not choose to have the moral capacity to help. (Hey, Suella, what’s your KPI on suicides in detention? Deaths in the channel? Presumably 0 is not an optimal discouragement index score for you?)

More generally, Stephen Bush put it well earlier in the year:

Refugee policies are easier. We can say with extreme confidence that anyone in Ukraine has a compelling case for wanting to leave it, so governments can streamline the process by allowing anyone with a valid passport to treat that document as a visa. And we know what refugees need to make a better life for themselves in a new country: support for their mental and physical health needs, free and easy access to the labour market and help integrating into a new country, usually but not exclusively in the form of language lessons and somewhere to live.

Your country’s ability to do these things is a pretty good test of how effectively governed it is. If your planning and housing system doesn’t have enough flexibility and spare capacity to accommodate some refugees, you almost certainly have a sclerotic planning and housing system. If your community colleges can’t provide them with good enough language skills — people who were already working and living perfectly happily in another country — to enter your labour market, you almost certainly have a very bad adult education system. And if your political class doesn’t have the wit to allow anyone with a valid Ukrainian passport visa-free access to your country, then you almost certainly have a low-wattage political class.

If your country cannot do any of these things, congratulations! You are almost certainly the UK and you are almost certainly heading for a second successive lost decade.

https://www.ft.com/content/8e941a78-4d4f-4bdf-9e3a-2f290ab342ac

The Film

Flux Gourmet (dir. Peter Strickland)

Flux Gourmet is a film that takes the relationship between food and sound partly explored in Berberian Sound Studio much much further. In doing so Strickland creates conceptual spaces for exploration that might otherwise be unmappable. It is also an amusing ‘what if’ whimsy where ‘sonic catering’ is an artistic space with many artistic collectives vying for bursaries, funding and attention, as well as creating a slightly satiric kink out of the modern socialised fetish seen on food programmes for capturing the sound and sizzle of cooking as something sensuous, extending that into the mundanity of the bourgeois in the supermarket via a series of mime scenarios.

That is the space the film creates and in which it operates, but the main dynamics are where and how this mixture of sensualities are digested and absorbed, and what if you are incapable of digesting them, getting acidic flux (comparable to the sonic flux which is a source of artistic and dramatic contention in the film) and flatulence. The mode of the writer and recorder is meticulously captured in a brilliant performance, again, v delicate and underdelivered, from Makis Papadimitriou. Strickland reverses the vulnerable Englishman in the Italian setting of BBS, with Makis suffering social discomfort in an absurd English mixture of rigid dinner party performance (after dinner speeches are given by each of the collective, each of them excellent), and avant-garde resistance and fetishistic subliminal reaction to those social rules.

The other ruleset in this space is performance and ‘backstage’, where audiences show their gratification in post-performance orgies. What intimacies are available in which spaces, where do we… where are we able to… reveal ourselves, our intestinal and gustatory beings, our sexual fetish – what is the interplay in these spaces, what freedom created, what constraints at play. What role does the private performance of writing and recording have? What is the internal, what the external? Stones (played by Makis, and no Strickland is not frightened of the grotesque or heavy handed joke), sits, a slightly malevolent shadowy outline in the glass panelled toilet, undergoing who knows what malevolent transformation under pressure of these culinary, artistic and social dynamics.

The sound, as you might expect, is extraordinary, spacious, dense, discrete – the writer and recorder’s flatulence is barely registered, the speech of the actors is beautifully captured – that speech in itself nuanced, from Asa Butterfield’s slightly dreary and shy wealthy dropout London, to Gwendoline Christie’s poised, over-rich, and melodramatic depth, and ofc Fatma Mohamed’s crisp, autocratic, ironic voice (god, she and her voice are beautiful). Birdsong and field recordings fill the night and the ‘thinking walks’ the collective go on. The sonic performance and malevolent background miasma of recorded food is also exhilarating and appropriately vicsceral. So yes, the sonic space is, as ever, as rich as the pictorial, dramatic and scripted matter.

The overall effect is to create an unusual mood, a space for new emotions and interactions to be at play, allowing the discovery of something new and unfamiliar.

The Music

Sprints – A Modern Job EP

I don’t know, this is hardly the best or most interesting music released this year, but something about its full-throated, youthful, dublin exuberance hit the spot. It is perhaps a form of nostalgia, but it felt fresh enough to bypass feelings of ‘why are people still doing the exact same thing 30 years on?’ feeling I get from most indie music These Days.

I should have listened to more Alewya, who as far as I can tell released several flawless EPs this year. I’ll rectify that over the festive period.3I didn’t, but did get some tickets for her later in the year

It’s a long time since I’ve listened to music as obsessively as I once did, my listening better classed as skimming these days, but here is a playlist of tracks that have in some way stuck with me, no particular order though Calm Down was a clear favourite of the year, and SAD GIRLZ LUV MONEY close behind it.

My god so much indie here. What’s going on.

Oh, and in an otherwise ok I suppose album, The Voltarol Years, Half Man Half Biscuit recorded one of their best ever songs, Oblong of Dreams, a love letter to the Wirral, with the characteristic mix of the mundane, the pastoral, death and the available sublime just at the end of a local field path, all coming together to provide that peculiarly uplifting compassion that for me is their hallmark (more than their ‘humour’).

Albums not represented here, among others.

Deadly Orgone Radiation – Desecration of Form

(Get well soon, James)

OXBOW & Peter Brötzmann – An Eternal Reminder of Not Today / Live at Moers 

Oren Ambarchi – Shebang

Dawn Richard & Spencer Zahn – Pigments

Lady Aicha & Pisko Cranes Original Fulu Mziki of Kinsasha – N’Djila Wa Mudjimu

Soccer Mommy – Sometimes Forever

$ilkMoney – I Don’t Give a Fuck About This Rap Shit, Imma Just Drop Until I Don’t Feel Like It Anymore

Television

This was nearly universally bad, from what I saw. Incredibly conservative4MES sums it up very well in the track Systematic Abuse: ‘it is the same’. However, the prison scenes in Andor were very strong, perhaps because they had their origins in the ’70s film THX1138. So that’s my 2022 vote.

Otherwise, watching the original BBC Edge of Darkness from 1985 was my television highlight. As someone on Twitter said, it does not let up, and is dense with meaning and thought, with substantial direction and the acting, especially Bob Peck of course.

Food

Nandine 

It felt like being a goddam prince visiting a distant land eating at Nandine. The quality in detail was exceptional, from mezze to baclava. I exited the building transformed, almost exuberant, such is the power of a good meal.

a plate of roasted aubergines on a thick orange sauce, with green and red leaves on top
A full plate of richly spiced kurdish food, with sea bass, onions, peppers and tomato

40 Maltby Street

Transformative in a different way – does what a restaurant should do: restore you, but not just in terms of nourishment. Eating three well-constructed, lightly imaginative dishes and taking their recommendation on wine leaves you feeling spiritually and mentally restored too.

My Friends Don’t Like Me, They Don’t Like the Way I Do  

I struggled to maintain social relationships this year – my response to my mental state is to withdraw.

But thanks to those who were in some way a part of it: Dave, Alex, thomp, chuck arrowsmith, gyac & darragh (for Dublin inter alia), tracer hand, ronan, sean, tim, cis, mark s (and the wider ilxor slack cru) carmen, hew, jules, matt, aliya, colleen, calum, jack, james, jem and ofc the infinitely patient comrade alphabet.

as always the people who insist on sticking around for some reason, despite the intermittent communication and erratic manner, are the best part of me.

Bring on 2023.

“It was as if the surface was holding everything together.”

In their exacting Germanic determination to be as faithful to the original as possible, his Berlin team were in danger of being more Miesian than Mies himself. The big surprise, for an architect renowned for his attention to detail, was quite how badly the building was made. “It was like opening the bonnet of a Mercedes and finding …” Chipperfield’s voice trails off and he gives a look of disgust. Walls that looked like solid oak were actually cobbled together from bits of plywood, the concrete under the granite slabs was shot to pieces, and when they took the ceilings down, the electrical and mechanical systems were a mess. “It was as if the surface was holding everything together.”

The curse of Mies van der Rohe: Berlin’s six-year, £120m fight to fix his dysfunctional, puddle-strewn gallery, Oliver Wainwright, The Guardian

I lived in Poland in the late ’90s and I remember finding out that the Rynek Starega Miasta in Warszawa – Warsaw’s old town market square – had been entirely rebuilt in replica after its destruction in World War II by the Luftwaffe.

The desire to return it to the way it was, to rebuild the accumulation of history it contained at the frozen moment when it was destroyed, was understandable. We will rebuild what was taken from us.

I’ve never been convinced that this approach is desirable. It is not a memorial. Instead it attempts to recover the past, and erase the moment of destruction. It is the consequence of a deep pain and loss. The urge is understandable, the implications strange and disturbing. An extreme form of reasoning might suggest it is an attempt to recreate the conditions that led to its destruction in the first place – a form of nihilism.

The more obvious interpretation is that it is an attempt to reset the clock, with the implication that a different possible decision is contained in the apparent reconstruction of the past. Ersatz buildings for an alternate future history.

Instead grinding against the actuality of historical consequences, creating a fracture between the recreated desire and the information in the world. Creating different consensus realities.

And I note that while the externals are subject to this law, it’s rare the internal engineering eschews the comfort and regulations of modern materials and design.

I was reminded of Rynek Starega Miasta in Warsaw by a recent visit to Berlin, and three different buildings, each grappling with the past in different ways.

Das Humboldtforum

A concrete building with windows, and the foliage of a tree, partially shown on the left. in the reflection of the windows, a telecommunications tower.
East façade of the Humboldt Forum with the Alexanderplatz Fernsehturm telecommunications tower reflected in the windows

The first is the Humboldt Forum, which presents two different façades to the world. The façade facing the street is in keeping with the baroque façades of the Enlightenment that give Unter den Linden its character, displeasing to my mind: wide and straight for the military, allowing parades of strength, rapid troop movement, minimising the possibility of ambush, baroque insitutions for the Arts and for the improvement of the people, down the sides: pure Enlightenment distilled.

The façade on the Spree is modernistic, plain, reflecting the design principles of the immediately preceding building that had occupied the site, the Palast der Republik .

Photograph taken from a boat, in the foreground is the boat rail, and the river. The picture is of an extremely regular, four-floor, concrete modernist facade of a building, bearing the words Humboldt Forum above the first floor. Partially visible on the right, is the other face of the building, with baroque window pediments and stylings.
The Humboldt Forum: two-faces

I have no love for the recreation of the baroque street façade, and the building itself is a compromise in the debate between two nostalgias, not one. However, it plays its tensions out in its external form.

Interlude – Memories of the Future: Flughafen Berlin Brandenburg “Willy Brandt”

Newly opened, but already memorable to me because of this @yorksranter post What if reality was more like software? Visit to a failed smart city, which starts with the words: I took these photos of Berlin’s forever-delayed airport terminal this summer. That was in 2017. Anyway it opened with superb timing in 2020.

Willy Brandt Airport – Terminal 1

It was very empty. I guess I was travelling at weird times. Also I was quick off the plane. Nice airport. All that wood and space and light.

Coming back, there was a long trek across tarmac past some continuing construction work to get to Terminal 2. Oh, and there were only water fountains in Terminal 1, not Terminal 2. I wandered down an empty corridor to an empty gate and filled it up from the toilet sink tap, as the airport staff had suggested.

Oh and the toilets look weirdly like locked restricted zones so some people were unsure whether they were open or not?

Maybe… abandoned, unfinished, plague stricken, the airport left stranded like an oxbow lake when we decided reality should reset from the previous commit, uploaded in the stary rynek in old Warsaw town.

Nice airport though. Very light.

Waiting at Terminal 2

Die Neue Nationalgalerie

Die Neue Nationalgalerie

A history of its travails here. These all stem from the complete indifference of architect Mies van der Rohe to the function of the building he was designing, resulting in a building pathologically opposed to the successful display of art within its walls.

Even more impressive, David Chipperfield’s attempt to maximise the amount of Mies while still allowing it to function as an art gallery, with only partial success:

“You see so many Bauhaus buildings where the window frames have been remade twice as big to improve their thermal performance,” says Chipperfield. “We obviously couldn’t do that here.” The solution was to replace the single 16mm panes with two sheets of 12mm glass laminated together, made in China and each weighing 1.2 tonnes. The compromise was allowed, provided the upper gallery never shows paintings in summer or winter when the temperatures are too extreme. The ghost of Mies lives on.

The curse of Mies van der Rohe: Berlin’s six-year, £120m fight to fix his dysfunctional, puddle-strewn gallery, Oliver Wainwright, The Guardian

The attempts to invisibly engineer the architectural intent of Mies and the function of the building, despite money and intent, are in the end impossible to reconcile, so the only way to accommodate them has been to build a new gallery, more functionally accommodating to art, allowing the Neue Nationalgalerie to continue to function as a quixotic folly. Something has gone badly wrong here.

I quite liked it.

On the day I visited, the gallery itself was very difficult to access due to construction work on the new gallery, no art was visible above ground, it was all in boxes, with construction workers readying the interior for the new exhibition. It wasn’t even clear it was open.

This seemed entirely appropriate.

Die Neue Nationalgalerie
Die Neue Nationalgalerie
Die Neue Nationalgalerie, construction taking place inside, St Matthäus-Kirche reflected in the background

Interlude – Ghosts and Legal Entities on Potsdamer Platz

In 2001 I stood on a muddy barren bit of wasteland in Potsdamer Platz, from which Romany gypsies and other itinerant, displaced or precariously positioned people had just been evicted so that the bright new commercial and financial future buildings of Berlin could be established. Daimler, Sony, Beisheim, PwC, EY, KPMG. Writing that I am reminded of the opening chapters of Eric Vuillard’s The Order of the Day, as the titans of German industry and finance prepare to meet Hermann Göring:

There were twenty-four of them, near the dead trees on the bank: twenty-four overcoats in black, brown, or amber; twenty-four pairs of wool-padded shoulders; twenty-four three-piece suits, and the same number of pleated trousers with wide cuffs. The shadows entered the large vestibule of the palace of the President of the Assembly – though before long, there would be no more assembly, no more president, and eventually no more parliament. Only a heap of smoking rubble.

A company is a person whose blood rushes to the head. We call these legal entities. Their lives last much longer than ours.

Around the table were Gustav Krupp, Albert Vögler, Günther Quandt, Friedrich Flick, Ernst Tengelmann, Fritz Springorum, August Rosterg, Ernst Brandi, Karl Büren, Günther Heubel, Georg von Schnitzler, Hugo Stinnes Jr., Eduard Schulte, Ludwig von Winterfeld, Wolf-Dietrich von Witzleben, Wolfgang Reuter, August Diehn, Erich Fickler, Hans von Loewenstein zu Loewenstein, Ludwig Grauert, Kurt Schmitt, August von Finck, and Dr Stein. We’re at the nirvana of industry and finance.

Vuillard, Eric. The Order of the Day (pages 2, 6 & 10). Pan Macmillan. Kindle Edition

Gedächtniskirche

Just off the Ku’damm, down from KaDeWe (omg that foodhall), is the Kaiser-Wilhelm-Gedächtniskirche. The church tower was bombed out in 1943. German architect Egon Eiermann won a competition to build an entirely new construction. There were objections. So he ended up retaining the bombed tower, and built a new church to one side, a new bell tower on the other, with a separate chapel to the side and below it.

Gedächtniskirche – main church on the far left, original tower in the middle, bell tower surrounded by scaffolding, chapel behind. Fortifications around the Christmas Market being put up after the terrorist attack here in 2016.

The new church itself, concrete and impenetrable on the outside, provides a revelatory experience on the inside.

Interior of the new church building of the Gedächtniskirche

Not entirely voluntarily Eiermann separated out the experienced and the new, the memorial and the modern into four separate buildings, relieving the overall group of a need to absorb the contradictions and instead making them legible, capable of interacting with each other.

It was by far my favourite of the buildings I saw.

I don’t want to moralise though. There is no should in these matters, and I’d far rather these designs find their way through the messy paths of civic approval and compromise than someone come in and dictate how things should be done. And the debates around theoretical frameworks for reconstruction glancingly and clumsily knocked about here have been rehearsed more fully and in greater depth elsewhere. This is merely a travelogue.

We do learn something about a given culture and society from the decisions manifested in these buildings though.

Civic objections to the destruction of the past may overrule architect and artistic decision making, in order to enable political decision making and therefore funding. Civic opinion will divide between the progressive, the nostalgic, and of course the indifferent, but this will always result in an element of nostalgia, or perhaps more fairly the conservative or conservationist sentiment, expressing that long-term ‘partnership between the living, the dead and the unborn’1 from Roger Scruton’s gloss to Burke’s Preface to Reflections on the Revolution in France, in The Anthology of Prefaces ed. Alasdair Gray.. Regardless, such pragmatism will always mean an element of the nostalgic dragging at the contemporary in the commissioning of civic structures and reconstruction.

And yet.

The Neues Nationalgalerie shows that single-minded artistic intent can produce a building a modern building so immediately magnetic that will spend a lot of money and energy to repair something that doesn’t work properly to try and hide the fact it doesn’t work properly.

The Gedächtniskirche is, I think, better for the compromise, it’s monument to destruction becoming part of the literal vernacular with its popular name der hohle Zahn – the hollow tooth.

So.

My main takeaway? Berliners/Germans have spent a lot of money very recently on civic, artistic and cultural buildings and infrastructure.

Postscript: Civic Building and Marvel Civil War

On a river trip, we passed through strange, peaceful, utopian civic architecture, the structures in which post-war, liberal, federalised consensus would be managed. Lots of excellent canteens, I’m sure. They are very appealing in their sense of calm, the perfectly placid structures and colonnaded, ‘governing planet’ sci-fi angles and planes and sense of space.

When I got back home, tired, I thought I’d limber up for the new Black Panther film by watching Captain America: Civil War. And lo, what do I see but our emotionally confined + bantz superheroes smashing and crashing the fuck out of these buildings.

I don’t really trust the buildings really, go for bricolage, the bits in between, acquired, stuck on, undesigned, unfunded. You can see the centre from the margins, but you can’t see the margins from the centre.

Facts and Communications

The following section, from Erving Goffman’s essay On Face Work, understood in political terms, is a lot more helpful than explanations provided by those who generally appeal to facts as being a trump card (categorised as ‘appealing to the referee’, or ‘speaking to the manager’, something that gets generally attached to the FBPE crowd or liberal centrists by the left).

Facts are of the schoolboy’s world—they can be altered by diligent effort but they cannot be avoided. But what the person protects and defends and invests his feelings in is an idea about himself, and ideas are vulnerable not to facts and things but to communications. Communications belong to a less punitive scheme than do facts, for communications can be by-passed, withdrawn from, disbelieved, conveniently misunderstood, and tactfully conveyed. And even should the person misbehave and break the truce he has made with society, punishment need not be the consequence. If the offense is one that the offended persons can let go by without losing too much face, then they are likely to act forbearantly, telling themselves that they will get even with the offender in another way at another time, even though such an occasion may never arise and might not be exploited if it did. If the offense is great, the offended persons may withdraw from the encounter, or from future similar ones, allowing their with-drawal to be reinforced by the awe they may feel toward someone who breaks the ritual code. Or they may have the offender withdrawn, so that no further communication can occur. But since the offender can salvage a good deal of face from such operations, withdrawal is often not so much an informal punishment for an offense as it is merely a means of terminating it. Perhaps the main principle of the ritual order is not justice but face, and what any offender receives is not what he deserves but what will sustain for the moment the line to which he has committed himself, and through this the line to which he has committed the interaction.

Goffman, Erving. Interaction Ritual (pp. 43–44). Taylor and Francis. Kindle Edition.

Notes on Dublin Books 1: The Chester Beatty Library, MS 751

This important 13th century Samaritan Pentateuch – the first five books of the bible and the only books in the Samaritan canon – retains evidence of continual use over centuries including inscriptions by its owners in the 15th and 16th centuries.

This opening shows clear traces of kissing, an act reserved for especially sacred passages, such as the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20.1-17)

Exhibition note for Samaritan Pentateuch,
Abi Barakatah
1225, Palestine (historical region)
CBL Heb 751 at the Chester Beatty Library, Dublin

Logos: The word he utters, the truth that it contains…

They are not kissing the vellum – the animal skin stretched and scraped, depilated, and boiled of its fat. The needlemarks from the skin, stretched on its frame and scraped, are still visible.

They are not kissing the calligraphy, even though the scribe, Abi Barakatah, was one of the most famous and exquisite calligraphers of the 13th Century.

They are not kissing the words of J, E, P, or D. E in this case – Exodus 20. E, who got their initial because they used ‘El’ for God, and Were Not Concerned with Priestly Matters.

Nor are they kissing R – the Redactor, who filleted and assembled the sections of the Pentateuch with paste and cuttings.

These letters! What visions of politics and power in that distant time and land they conjure!

My thesis is that the redactors of Genesis and Numbers have one overriding concern, that is for the prospects of the priestly corporation which they belong to, and which includes their northern brethren in Samaria.

Mary Douglas, Jacob’s Tears: The Priestly Work of Reconciliation, OUP (2004)

Those sensitive, sensuous and reverent lips are touching and kissing the utterances of Moses, and by extension, for it is stated at the beginning of Exodus 20, God:

And God spake all these words, saying…

And yet they are kissing all. The route of transmission of those words to the reader is the route back for the kiss. Though a magician or theologian might say that the route of knowledge needn’t be the return route of divine intimacy.

When I kiss your lips, and we look at each other as if we could look at each other forever, at least until the next kiss, it is into that farthest, most intimate place we gaze. But it is also the lips we taste, and each other’s body that we hold so closely in that moment, and no other. And the smell of your hair, like grass.

The preservation of matter (or conservation of energy in other terms) and the transfer of information are always essential to get to the bottom of any subject or object or any thing that concerns us whatsoever*.

The connexion between the kissing of the page and God necessitates our entire field of humanities, and more besides.

In Eros and Magic in the Renaissance Ioan P Couliano covers the variety and intellectual history of Classical and Renaissance theories of love. How rays from the eyes communicate the image of the loved one via pneuma into the creation of a phantasm of the beloved, perceptible to the soul.

This leads him to quote 13th Century poet and inventor of the sonnet, Giacomo da Lentino:

HOW A WOMAN, WHO IS SO BIG, PENETRATES THE EYES, WHICH ARE SO SMALL

If we closely examine Bernard of Gordon’s long description of amor hereos, we observe that it deals with a phantasmic infection finding expression in the subject’s melancholic wasting away, except for the eyes. Why are the eyes excepted? Because the very image of the woman has entered the spirit through the eyes and, through the optic nerve, has been transmitted to the sensory spirit that forms common sense. Tranformed into phantasm, the obsessional image has invaded the territory of the three ventricles of the brain, inducing a disordered state of the reasoning faculty (virtus estimativa), which resides in the second cerebral cell. If the eyes do not partake of the organism’s general decay, it is because the spirit uses those corporeal apertures to try to reestablish contact with the object that was converted into the obsessing phantasm: the woman.

Ioan P Couliano, Eros and Magic in the Renaissance, University of Chicago Press (1987)

Now, we can all laugh about this… but in that description is the recognition that any theory needs to account for the material transmission of information that leads to this object cathexis. And in that transmission are very deep matters indeed, much of science and psychology, and areas more generally that remain unfathomed and are still mysteries.

There are analogous issues in the nature of metaphor, another form of transference, which we can see in complex form in a diary entry by Rilke:

I invented a new form of caress: placing a rose gently on a closed eye until its coolness can no longer be felt: only the gentle petal will continue to rest on the eyelid like sleep just before dawn.

Rilke’s Diaries, from this excellent essay by Marjorie Perloff Reading Gass Reading Rilke

As the heat is transfered to the imperceptible petal, so God’s breath and the kissing of the manuscript intermingle, and somewhere in there, between petal, eyelid and heat transference, among the mysteries still to be resolved, are the kisses I treasure.

This post can be read in conjunction with The Squalid Rag, on the destruction of meaning, or Three Ghost Stories for All Hallows E’en, on how ghosts may reach the reader.

*Question: when information is lost in communication as per Shannon etc where does it go? I realise this is the subject of entropy, but I am dumb, and don’t quite get what the equivalent of thermodynamic equilibrium for information would be)

**This reminds me that I must post on the collapsing of distribution chains in media flows

More Things Can Happen Than Will Happen

I have concluded that a lot of poor decision making and thinking happens because people do not understand the concept ‘more things can happen than will happen.’

They are people who claim they understand risk and probability, but nothing about how they go about things suggests that this is in fact the case.

It is a problem with men particularly. The specific way in which they do not get it is because they have a desire for events to prove them right, or to be ‘right’, in quite binary ways. Dogmatic statements, ex cathedra, and a rather moody, cynical or sceptical manner when it comes to other scenarios are a giveaway of this psychology.

[Later insert]: I meant to say that I think it is to do with the exertion of power and its importance to many men. I wonder if being right is less important than being able to impose ‘being right’ on others. That includes minimising or in some other way diminishing the occasions when an outcome differs from the prediction. It’s not just that forgetfulness of when you were wrong causes this, it’s also a useful personal and (projected by those in power onto an organisation) institutional method of maintaining your rightness. You can impose that forgetfulness on others, or make it costly for them to call it out.

There are other methods of preserving rightness that go along with this:

  • Constant caveating, so that you can always point out you were right really
  • Aggressive assertion of extremely binary views, but chaotically and varying from time to time, even within the sentence-memory of, say, a meeting

It’s extraordinarily psychologically and institutionally unhealthy.

This post in part prompted by a footnote to Helen deWitt’s excellent short story My Heart Belongs to Bertie.

I began reading obsessively about statistics and probability. Peter Bernstein’s Against the Gods: The Remarkable Story of Risk was one inspiration; he says: “The revolutionary idea that defines the boundary between modern times and the past is the mastery of risk: the notion that the future is more than a whim of the gods and that men and women are not passive before nature.” Analysis of probability seemed more compelling than ever for fiction; I spent endless hours grappling with R, a programming language with strength in statistical graphics.

R is open source, and it has come a long way since I first downloaded the DMG.

What hasn’t changed, I think, is the gap between people who see why understanding chance matters and people who just don’t get it—people who don’t see why this is crucial to the most basic questions of ethics. I have more glamorous plots in my portfolio than the primitive efforts on display in this story, but the philosophical issue was what I hoped to bring into the open.

DeWitt, Helen. Some Trick (pp. 41-42). New Directions

(I mentioned in the previous post my second happiest birthday, and in fact this specific story has a direct connection with my happiest birthday, in that it was published in an art gallery exhibition catalogue that I picked up visiting the deserted exhibition on my birthday. One of the exhibits was a stack of the catalogues. The story was one of the pieces in the catalogue.)

This sent me back to Peter Bernstein’s Against the Gods: The Remarkable Story of Risk, which is a very good book, and which contains the sentence:

The Greeks understood that more things might happen in the future than actually will happen.

Bernstein, Peter L.. Against the Gods (p. 64). Wiley

The subject is in the news again with the imminent publication of William MacAskill’s What We Owe the Future and the general salience of effective altruism.

Institutions and Ideologies

On holiday, and re-reading the beginning of Roberto Mangabeira Unger’s The Self Awakened, full of enormously potent and clarifying observations, and often quite intellectually thrilling to read, so much so that it gets my ‘feels too good’ suspicion heuristic going.

Anyway, out last night having a – is it possible to get bad food in Cádiz? – very good meal, on my x glass of wine and was unable to get past the sentence (my italics) in this paragraph on ‘shrunken pragmatism’:

A further consequence of this position is to exclude the possibility that we might be able to transform the character of our relation to the social and cultural worlds we inhabit rather than just to change, little by little, the content of the arrangements and beliefs that comprise them. It is a mistaken view. Institutions and ideologies are not like natural objects, forcing themselves onto our consciousness with insistent force and reminding us that we have been born into a world that is not our own. They are nothing but frozen will and interrupted conflict.

Roberto Mangabeira Unger, The Self Awakened

Once again forcibly reminded just how frozen 12 years of economic stagnation has made the ideology of the political and mainstream epistemic space in the UK.