Friday, May 23, 2014

For the Art Students of Glasgow

"Fire in the Architectural Institute

Fire in the Architectural Institute!
through all the rooms and over the blueprints
like an amnesty through the jails...
Fire! Fire!

High on the sleepy facade
shamelessly, mischievously
like a red-assed baboon
a window skitters.

We'd already written our theses,
the time had come for us to defend them.
They're crackling away in a sealed cupboard:
all those bad reports on me!

The drafting paper is wounded,
it's a red fall of leaves;
my drawing boards are burning,
whole cities are burning.

Five summers and five winters shoot up in flames
like a jar of kerosene.
Karen, my pet,
Oi! we're on fire!

Farewell architecture:
it's down to a cinder
for all those cowsheds decorated with cupids
and those rec halls in rococo!

O youth, phoenix, ninny,
your dissertation is hot stuff,
flirting its little red skirt now,
flaunting its little red tongue.

Farewell life in the sticks!
Life is a series of burned-out sites.
Nobody escapes the bonfire:
if you live—you burn.

But tomorrow, out of these ashes,
more poisonous than a bee
your compass point will dart
to sting you in the finger.

Everything's gone up in smoke,
and there's no end of people sighing.
It's the end?
                  It's only the beginning.
Let's go to the movies! 
Andrei Voznesensky (1958); English translation, by Stanley Kunitz
in Antiworlds, (Anchor Books, 1967) p135.

I learned of this poem as a student, years ago, by reading Michael Sorkin's book Exquisite Corpse: Writings on Buildings, in which he says: "The poet Andrei Voznesensky originally intended to become an architect. His plans were interrupted. In 1957, shortly before graduation, The Moscow Architectural Institute burned."  He recalls this story in the context of his own experience of a fire on June 14, 1969, at the Yale Art and Architecture Building (designed by Paul Rudolph).  The essay is entitled "Auto Da Fe" after the novel by Elias Canetti first published in 1935.  The first American edition was called The Tower of Babel, perhaps for fear no one would bother looking up the Latin for the burning of heretics.  The original German title was Die Blendung, or The Blinding. 

As Mackintosh's masterpiece, the Glasgow School of Art, burns, we think also of the fire that ate the Library of Alexandria (again vulnerable), and the fictional fire depicted in Umberto Eco's Name of the Rose.

No one is to blame.  History repeats itself.  And the wisdom of Heraclitus smolders on.

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Feelings also have their dance - and playgrounds

“No, life has not disappointed me.  Rather, I find it truer, more desirable and mysterious every year – ever since the day the great liberator overcame me: the thought that life could be an experiment…  And knowledge itself… to me it is a world of dangers and victories in which heroic feelings also have their dance - and playgrounds.”

— Friedrich Nietzsche The Gay Science p181

More arduous than weaving a rope of sand or coining the faceless wind

Borges, on the method of dreams (expanded):

"He wanted to dream a man: he wanted to dream him with minute integrity and insert him into reality… At first, his dreams were chaotic; somewhat later, they were of a dialectical nature. The stranger dreamt that he was in the center of a circular amphitheater... clouds of silent students filled the gradins... He sought a soul which would merit participation in the universe… he comprehended with some bitterness that he could expect nothing of those students who passively accepted his doctrines, but that he could of those who, at times, would venture a reasonable contradiction...  He comprehended that the effort to mold the incoherent and vertiginous matter dreams are made of was the most arduous task a man could undertake, though he might penetrate all the enigmas of the upper and lower orders: much more arduous than weaving a rope of sand or coining the faceless wind… he sought another method…  To take up his task again, he waited until the moon’s disk was perfect.  Then, in the afternoon, he purified himself in the waters of the river, worshiped the planetary gods, uttered the lawful syllable of a powerful name and slept.  Almost immediately, he dreamt of a beating heart.  He dreamt it as active, warm, secret, the size of a closed fist, of garnet color in the penumbra of a human body as yet without face or sex; with minute love he dreamt it, for fourteen lucid nights.  Each night he perceived it with greater clarity…  He perceived it, lived it, from many distances and many angles… ”

— Jorge Luis Borges “The Circular Ruin” in Labyrinths p46-8.

Commons, subtle and intimate to our being, necessary for the emergence of persons

"...commons that are more subtle and more intimate to our being than either grassland or roads - commons that are at least as valuable as silence. Silence, according to western and eastern tradition alike, is necessary for the emergence of persons."

— Ivan Illich, "Silence is a Commons" [from Illich's remarks at the "Asahi Symposium Science and Man - The computer-managed Society," Tokyo, March 21, 1982]

Rhythm upset at a single point yields

"A period that, constructed metrically, afterward has its rhythm upset at a single point yields the finest prose sentence imaginable. In this way a ray of light falls through a chink in the wall of the alchemist's cell, to light up gleaming crystals, spheres, and triangles." 
- Walter Benjamin, "One-Way Street" (1928), in Reflections (1978, p79).

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Huge spiral, ending in a most difficult maze

"There was a certain cave near Thebes in Egypt which resembled a shepherd’s pipe, since as it followed its winding course in the depths of the earth it formed a natural spiral; for it did not take a straight course at the opening and then branch off into straight-running corridors, but winding about under the mountain it made a huge spiral, ending in a most difficult maze. In it was set up an image of a Satyr wrought in marble. He stood on a base in the attitude of one making ready to dance, and lifting the sole of his right foot backward he not only held a flute in his hand but also was being the first to leap up at its sound; though in reality the flute’s note was not reaching the player’s ear, nor yet was the flute endowed with voice, but the physical effect which flute-players experience had been transferred to the stone by the skill of the artist." 

- Callistratus, from "Descriptions" (It seems he began the book with this description of a statue of a satyr), translation by Arthur Fairbanks.

Monday, May 19, 2014

Madmen, hermits, heretics, dreamers, rebels and skeptics

"True literature can only exist when it is created, not by diligent and reliable officials, but by madmen, hermits, heretics, dreamers, rebels and skeptics." 

— Yevgeny Zamyatin, 'We' [written 1921] 1924.

I love this quote, but I never expected it to become my most popular post here at Ubu Loca. In honor of this surprise, the following excerpts from Zamyatin's "Foreword" to the English edition of We:

"Well, what else do you want? ...for three years I wrote about nothing but ice cutters, steam engines, refillers, and 'The Theoretical Exploration of the Works of Floating Steam Shovels.' I couldn't help myself. I was attached to the chair of Ship Architecture and busied myself with teaching in the shipbuilding faculty... If I mean anything in Russian literature, I owe this completely to the Petrograd Secret Service. In 1911 this service exiled me from Petrograd and I was forced to spend two years in a non-populated place in Lachta. There, in the midst of the white winter silence and the green summer silence, I wrote... 

     After that... in England where, during the war, I spent about two years, building ships and visiting the ruins of ancient castles. I listened to the banging of the German Zeppelin bombs and wrote...  
     Now ... Three new volumes are in the hands of the publisher ...The fourth will be my novel We, the funniest and most earnest thing I have written. However, the most serious and most interesting novels I never wrote. They happened to me in my life."
— Yevgeny Zamiatin
[ca 1921] page xvii-xviii, "Foreword" to We, (as cited by a person named Zilboorg.