Category Archives: Literature

What Do You Think an Artist Is?

Update (29 July 2009):

Almost three years on, this has become one of the most popular posts on Los Cuadernos blog. And in the first half of 2009 I saw one site and one video that presented individuals performing self-mutilating acts for art’s sake. First, a pair of twin brothers exchanged arms: one brother’s arm was cut off from his body and reattached to his twin’s body. Thus one man remained with only one arm, while another ended up with three. And the video below taken from TrendHunter explores artistic self-mutilation further, with ten jaw-dropping examples of what is considered art.

Far from decrying anything you see in the video, I will, however, reiterate the point I made in the original post: why, after all wars and losses, do people still need to “practise” pain and mutilation, as if viewing the images of the dead and disabled people is not enough to understand what pain and death is? Three years on, I think I know the answer.

Humanity is fascinated by Death because, like Love and Pain, this is an eternal secret. It is a mystery. Camus said that suicide is the only true philosophical problem, but since the result of a suicide is death, it means that death itself may be the only true philosophical problem. Philosophy, since its origins, has been preoccupied with making sense of Life and of Man as a living being; but much rarely has it delved into the mystery of Death, and this may be its biggest challenge and hurdle.

It is human therefore that everything morbid fascinates, intrigues, and perplexes us. (Zizek comes to mind: people are forever concerned with what they cannot change). Memento mori. Danse macabre. The theme of Death and the Maiden in art (e.g., Hans Baldung, 1517 (right)). Venus at the Mirror as the parable of the fleeting beauty and deplorable life… the list can be continued, and all it will serve to do is to prove to us how truly interested artists are in what philosophy isn’t so eager to discuss. And in this regard it is probably only normal that there are people who use their own bodies to understand the mystery of pain or the secret of being on the brink of dying. In order to live on, art must be experimental, even if it has to experiment with itself.

Having said so, I’d rather not have this kind of art being performed publicly, let alone covered by the media. With our inclination to build hype around things it would be hard to see the forest for the trees.

Most importantly, I am always somewhat confused when artists, writers in particular, claim that in order to write about something they must know it, experience it first-hand. I’m uttering things, but does that mean that Dostoyevsky would need to kill a couple of old ladies to be able to write Crime and Punishment? And at the same time, speaking of literature, can it not help us gain the life experience that we seek?

It may depend on how we read, of course. Reading is both mental and emotional process. However, what is interesting is that because we most often use words to express ourselves, our entire life is one huge text, and each of us is reading it and making sense of it according to our aptitude and experience. We have to translate this text, either in the language of our experience, or in the foreign language, or in the language of other arts or disciplines.

Can it be therefore that after all the millenia humanity has learnt to do pretty much everything, including the genetic engineering and flying into space, but is still rubbish at such important thing as reading? Reading is understanding. Understanding gives one a key to influence things, to change the world. But what is there at the heart of it? Love, no doubt. For we only care to understand things we care about. And nothing can drive us to care about something as much as Love does. However…

…if we cannot love enough to care to understand, does it not mean that even in our Christian world we have never taken Jesus as an example? Does it not mean that we broke the teaching into citations and took to memorise the words without understanding (sic!) their meaning? It’s been a while since I thought: how odd it is that we are told to love God – but not people. How odd that people love God but distrust their neighbours. Maybe it simply means that people inherently distrust themselves. Maybe it means that they find it easier to trust in the Object that is forever absent and therefore cannot let them down more than it already does, rather than trusting another human being whose money isn’t always where the mouth is. But if Art is born in Love, and the present generation of artists often lacks empathy, does this not explain the rising concerns that contemporary art is devoid of essence?

Original post (2 October, 2006)

Several sayings by Pablo Picasso have already appeared on The LOOK’s front page in the past. I also love this photo of him made by Robert Doisneau. A genuine portrait of the genius.

Another portrait of the genius was made by Jean Dieuzaide, and I’ll leave it for you to guess, whose historic moustache you’re gazing at.

I’ve also found this phrase by Picasso a while ago on the web:

What do you think an artist is? An imbecile who has only eyes, if he is a painter, or ears if he is a musician, or a lyre in every chamber of his heart if he is a poet, or even, if he is a boxer, just his muscles? Far from it: at the same time, he is also a political being, constantly aware of the heartbreaking, passionate, or delightful things that happen in the world, shaping himself completely in their image. How could it be possible to feel no interest in other people, and with a cool indifference to detach yourself from the very life which they bring to you so abundantly? No, painting is not done to decorate apartments. It is an instrument of war.

One may say that Picasso’s viewpoint is somewhat outdated, in that people want to live in the world as peaceful as possible, hence art-as-war is no longer interesting. But there are many kinds of war, and not all are fought with tanks and missiles. There are language wars, religious wars, ‘moral’ wars, media wars, and all use art as a type of warfare. Furthermore, as George Orwell has put it, there are four main reasons to write prose, one of which is ‘political purpose‘ – ‘using the word “political” in the widest possible sense. Desire to push the world in a certan direction, to alter other people’s idea of the kind of society that they should strive after. Once again, no book is genuinely free from political bias. The opinion that art should have nothing to do with politics is itself a political attitude‘ (Orwell, G., Why I write).

It would be very hard indeed to disagree with either Picasso or Orwell, and there are modern artists who follow in their footsteps. Perhaps, they don’t get involved in politics very much, but they nonetheless admit that their art exists because of people. One such artist is Dave McKean, who put it this way:

My own world is just trying to make sense of the real world. I don’t like the sort of science-fiction art and fantasy art that is just about goblins and fairies and spaceships. I don’t really see the point of that. It’s entertaining and it’s fine, but I couldn’t do it. I needed to be about people, who I have to deal with every day, and that’s what I’m interested in. I’m interested in what people think and how they think, and the things that they believe in, and desire, and are frightened of. So I’m interested in that side of life, really. And then I’m trying to sort of look at those things from a different point of view, or from metaphor, or from dreams, or from these other angles, because I think they are just interesting ways of seeing things, you know, that you have to deal with everyday for fresh, and you see them with different eyes, I think. [read full article based on McKean’s interview].
Finally, however, comes this passage from The Wicked and Unfaithful Song of Marcel Duchamp to His Queen by Paul Carroll:


Art? A form
of intimate hygiene for
the ghosts we really are.

This brings to my mind a TV programme made by Channel 4, which explored the anti-art, particularly in the form of inflicting pain on oneself as a means of teaching the audience a lesson of empathy. One of my ‘favourite’ moments on the programme was the couple who drank tea with biscuits, while literally “hanging down” from the ceiling on chains, hooks perceing their skin. The idea was to explore their experience of pain and also to expand people’s understanding of pain through such performances.

Having read the entire 120 Days of Sodome by de Sade, I wasn’t scared or repulsed by what I saw on screen, but it made me think. The question I asked myself was this: why in the world where there are so many wars and where the footage of deaths and casualties is already available on the Internet, is it necessary to appeal to people’s empathy by sticking iron hooks in your chest? Far from telling the artists what not to do for their art’s sake, I’m simply wondering about the purpose of such art. If the knowledge of the two World Wars and many other military conflicts doesn’t automatically make people detest the very idea of an offensive war, if the photos of destroyed houses, orphaned children and open wounds don’t change people’s view of loss and pain, then why would seeing two able-bodied adults hanging on chains drinking tea influence people’s idea of pain, or make people more compassionate? I’d imagine that after watching such ‘performance’ people would lose interest in pain altogether. If it’s endurable, then what’s the problem?

Some people with whom I discussed this previously have pointed out that this practice of piercing and inflicting pain is ritual in some countries and cultures. The problem, though, is that the only instance of it on our continent that springs to my mind was flagellantism that had spread in Europe in the 13-14th c. and was later revived as a sexual practice. There is evidently a difference between the culture of piercing in African or Aboriginous societies and this ‘hygienic’ European movement, and as far as I am concerned, this difference is much bigger than someone may think. This ‘civilized’ pain-inflicting art, given its purposes, is – in my opinion – exactly the kind of ‘personal hygiene’ Carroll had written about. An artist, no matter how politically involved, is above all a human being, and when he lacks empathy and cannot relate to other people’s experience, unless he shares it physically, forces to raise questions as to how worthwhile, creative and useful his art is.

And don’t quote Wilde’s ‘all art is quite useless‘. Unknowingly, in this witticism Wilde precluded Sartre who would say that culture doesn’t save or justify anyone – but that it is the mirror in which humanity sees itself. Considering that the Wildean phrase comes from The Portrait of Dorian Gray, culture or art as the mirror symbolically connects Wilde and Sartre. Perhaps it is good if humanity finally notices that it spends more time destructing and inflicting pain instead of learning to love. But will it finally start doing something about it?

How to Compliment a 16th c. Lady

Medieval poetry, in spite of its literary images, was in truth quite pathetic in describing a woman. Naturally, all women were ‘fair beauties’, but, like in painting, poetry rarely went much further.

I like a lot this poem by one of the best-known Tudor poets, John Skelton, The Commendations of Mistress Jane Scrope, which was published in 1545. Throughout the poem Skelton compares his beloved to a number of historical and mythical characters, such as Lucres, Polyxene, Calliope, “or else Penolope” (=Penelope), the nymph Egeria, and deities, starting with “Dame Flora“. It is also interesting that Skelton is more concerned about comparing his dame to an antique character, rather than about the homogeneity of the characters’ geographical origin. The names that we already mentioned come from both Greek and Roman history and mythology.

For my part, I like this passage from the poem:

My pen is unable,
My hand is unstable,
My reason rude and dull,
To praise her at the full,
Godly mistress Jane,
Sober, demure Diane.
Jane this mistress hight,
The lodestar of delight,
Dame Venus of all pleasure,
The well of worldly treasure.
She doth exceed and pass
The prudence dame Pallas.

It is really peculiar how in the space of 12 lines Skelton compares his beloved to Diane, Venus and Pallas – the three goddesses, (in)famously judged by Paris. This is also a curious instance of mixing and matching the names of deities from various mythologies. Both Diane and Venus are goddesses of Roman pantheon, whereas Pallas is a Greek goddess. Her Roman equivalent would be Minerva, but – as it seems – the choice of name was subjected to the purposes of rhyming.

[The quotations are from The Oxford Book of 16th c. verse].

The Rubaiyat

Complete Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam. I know some verses relatively well in Russian, but haven’t found them in the English translation yet. One of my favourite is this (my literal translation from Russian):

To live life wisely, there’s a lot to know,
Two ground rules remember for a start:
Better be hungry than eat whatever food,
And better be alone than with whoever.

Чтоб мудро жизнь прожить, знать надобно немало,
Два важных правила запомни для начала:
Ты лучше голодай, чем что попало есть,
И лучше будь один, чем вместе с кем попало.

Please note that, as I said above, this is a literal translation. I couldn’t find the English version, so I rendered the text from Russian into English, to give an idea. As I don’t know the language of Khayyam, I wouldn’t actually translate this verse from Russian, since the Russian text is already a translation. I’m writing this, having discovered that my rendition has been quoted elsewhere on the web as a variant of the English translation. It must not be used as such.

On Plagiarism

Blessed be the times when medieval monks simply ‘continued’ the chronicles and annalles that had been started by other monks. Today the family of the monk who started the chronicle could very well have sued the family of the monk who continued it for violation of the copyright.

The question of originality is something that always bothers artists, critics and the audience alike. There’s no point to narrate the perils that have postmortem befallen William Shakespeare or Mikhail Sholokhov because of some scholars’ zealous attempts to prove they were plagiarists. In truth, since our world is so old, originality may be a strange thing to desire, as it’s very likely that there will be oblique links between you and a certain, let us say, Hume, even if you’ve never heard of the chap.

I’m thinking: perhaps the change in attitude to plagiarism has to do, among other reasons, with how people see their place in the world. In the past, when the world’s exact frontiers were still undiscovered and its historic past was still largely undeciphered, to borrow from someone or to openly cite them for inspiration had meant to find links between yourself and this vast territory of the Unknown. It was not considered bad; instead, it gave perspective to your experience and donned importance to anything you had to offer.

These days it’s different, and it seems that people are suffering from agoraphobia. Although they say they like exploring the big world, they in fact always want to get back to their communities and homes. Globalisation, we’re told, is challenged by localisation. There are so many groups and communities, and some of them only exist in the virtual world of the Internet. We didn’t become any more knowledgeable. What the philosopher said is still true. ‘I only know that I know nothing’ – the land of ignorance grows, as the limits of knowledge expand.

Paradoxically, this Brave Huge world scares (to one extent or another) authors of any kind. They want to be unique, but what if they’re doing exactly the same thing now that someone has already done in the past and they simply didn’t know about it? However, even if you know that you’re totally unique (if such thing is still possible today), then you certainly cannot prohibit others from being inspired by your work.

I guess, the best thing to do is to acknowledge the fact that 1) the world is too old, and it’s not your conscience that should be troubled by ‘plagiarism’ but rather that of your predecessor who was a ‘pioneer’; and that 2) inspiration, aside from talent, is among the reasons why we have artists. To conclude, this is the translation of an extract from the talk of Andy Warhol, one of the gurus of Pop Art, with Adrian Darmon:

AD: Where do you find yourself vis-a-vis Picasso?
AW: He’s dead, and I’m in his place. On the artistic level, I think I’ll be a milestone.
AD: Do you take yourself seriously?
AW: I’m doing things seriously, with aesthetic taste.
AD: And without plagiarism?
AW: I don’t understand the meaning of your question. In any case, the artists are inspired by the works of others.

Exercises in Loneliness – II

A few pearls of wisdom from the Memoirs by Casanova:

My errors will point to thinking men the various roads, and will teach them the great art of treading on the brink of the precipice without falling into it. It is only necessary to have courage, for strength without self-confidence is useless.

As for the deceit perpetrated upon women, let it pass, for, when love is in the way, men and women as a general rule dupe each other.

(Casanova knew this better than anyone – his affair with La Charpillon (Marie Anne Auspurgher) was the fascinating, if impossibly bitter, case of deceipt perpetrated by a woman upon a man. The ‘affair’ which was never consummated and which cost Casanova 2,000 guineas culminated in a “journee du dupe“, when Casanova was denied access to La Charpillon under the pretext that she was dying. Unconsolable, he decided to throw himself in the Thames, but was talked out of it by a friend who happened to pass by. Together, they went to Ranelagh Gardens, where Casanova saw his expensive darling dancing, offensively healthy and beautiful.)

Also, to carry on expanding on the phrase by Huysmans that appeared on The LOOK’s Front Page

There is only one reason for literature to exist, to save those who write it from the tedium of living,

here are a couple of extracts from Casanova’s Memoirs that quite potently prove the Frenchman’s point:

I have written the story of my life,.. but am I wise in throwing it before a public of which I know nothing but evil? No, I am aware it is sheer folly, but I want to be busy, I want to laugh, and why should I deny myself this gratification?… By recollecting the pleasures I have had formerly, I renew them, I enjoy them the second time, while I laugh at the remembrance of times now past, and which I no longer feel.

Indeed, for the man who had been to many countries and places and had known (literally, as figuratively, speaking) many people, to find himself as a librarian in an old chateau in Dux must have been frustrating, especially as his health had also begun to deteriorate. With nothing interesting happening around him in the chateau his only resort was his own past, which thought he captured with the well-known ‘my life is my subject, and my subject is my life‘.

[The quotes are from the unabridged English translation of Casanova’s Memoirs (London, 1894)].

Exercises in Loneliness

I remember speaking to one film director who deplored the fact that he had to write an article about his film. In his words, he’d be happy to talk about it for as long as he could, but writing was weighing him down. As the person who, instead of a silver spoon, was probably born with a pen, I obviously asked what he didn’t like about writing. His answer was that writing was ‘a lonely experience’.

Of course, as I’m writing this at an ungodly hour I have to admit that, physically, writing is the lonely experience. But mentally it can be quite stimulating and even scandalous, if one considers the works of Marquis de Sade, some of which he wrote in prison, and some – in asylum.

Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut: Homo Ludens and Momento More

Speaking of the raid of Dresden: I know exactly that until the year 2000 I had huge inhibitions re writing about war. Russian literary accounts of the Great Patriotic War were by and large realistic and were based on the personal experiences of the authors. I had no personal experience, except for reading those accounts, viewing wartime photos, watching films (very touching) and listening to the story of my grandma’s evacuation, so I felt kind of trapped.

In 2000 I was going through a ‘love affair’ with the works of Kurt Vonnegut, and when I went on a research trip to St. Petersburg I finally found and bought his Slaughterhouse-Five, the novel that alluded to Vonnegut’s imprisonment and survival in the Dresden raid. The rest, as usual, is history: I was researching in the day, and as soon as I’d get to my spartan hotel room and have a cup of soup I’d be reading Slaughterhouse-Five. I’m aware that the way I’m speaking of this book makes it sound like it was un-realistic, if compared to Russian literature about war. This is obviously not true. What is true, however, was that on my then memory Vonnegut was the first author who reached out to my experience. The subtitle of his novel – The Children’s Crusade – and the fact that his characters were more or less of the same age as me simply forced me to put myself in their place and to read the book, as if it was my story.

What I quite love about Slaughterhouse-Five is its Tralfamadorian dogma of everything taking place simultaneously, namely the past, the present and the future existing together at once. I don’t share it, but I do appreciate its connection to the subtitle, and how the subtitle can give a focus to the novel.

The chidren’s crusade per se is a disputed historical fact. If trusted, then in the 13th c. multitudes of children from Western Europe had assembled for the journey to the Holy Land, but on their way either perished or were sold into slavery. This is an irrational and dubitable fact, and in addition to telling us how strange and dark were the Middle Ages, it also brings into question the validity of war (Second World War in our case). But regardless of whether or not this fact had actually taken place, it belongs to the medieval period. And in medieval painting, as we know, one and same picture (~a depiction of a saint’s life) very often told the story of an event in the past, in the present and in the future. The view is obviously very similar to how Tralfamadorians saw life. So, this is the first, ‘historical’, interpretation of the subtitle that gives a focus to the novel, as well.

The second, ‘psychological’ interpretation connects the subtitle to the children’s attitude to death (basically as something that is not real) and to the possibility of living through all things at once. Consider the games where in the space of a small room children ‘locate’ a ship, a castle and a battlefield; and also the games where events are shuffled, skipped or repeated, depending on the game’s scenario and rules. If we speak of children playing war, everyone always remains alive (otherwise no players would be left).

The two themes in the ‘psychological’ interpretation are explored in Johan Huizinga’s Homo Ludens (The Playing Man), published- incidentally – in 1938. In children’s games, everything that is happening is not happening ‘for real’, and whoever is killed will rise again. Billy Pilgrim’s journeys through time in Slaughterhouse-Five resemble this childish indiscernment between the real and the imaginary. But when this inability (or unwillingness?) to underpin oneself in the boundaries of physical world reappears in an adult, the question rises: did these adults ever begin to see the difference between the real and the non-real?

The children’s crusade therefore becomes ever more emblematic, as it not only symbolises the selling of children to war and the irrationality of war, but also underlines this infant disbelief in the tragic nature of things as the form of fatalism that stems from a convinction in the unlimitedness of time, space and, ultimately, a human life. Children are therefore not simply those who are young, but those who take life for granted and play by the rules of fate, denying free will.

Los Cuadernos (How It All Started)

Los Cuadernos de Julia is a paraphrase of the title of Mario Vargas Llosa’s 1997 novel, Los Cuadernos de Don Rigoberto. I bought the book (published in English by Faber&Faber) in the summer of 2004, in WHSmith in Blackpool, but didn’t start reading it until after September, as I had to write my MA dissertation first. When I eventually began to read it, it practically blew me away. I know some critics described the book as ‘ambitious‘ (a word I very much dislike), but to me it is simply one of the most original books of the last century. Obviously, as I know no Spanish, I have to thank the English translator for doing a fantastic job.

‘Cuadernos’ as ‘notebooks’ are a normal part of life of many writers, which is exactly what I am. These present cuadernos are, of course, slightly different, since I decided that I’d be posting here not only random quotations that I’ve been collecting for years, but also reflections on films, music, works of art, phrases I’ve heard or read elsewhere, some musings about news stories, etc. I’ve been doing a similar thing on a website for several months, but sometimes there’s more to post than just a couple of quotes from my beloved Jacques Prevert.

On the other hand, my own mother, who isn’t a writer, used to have two cuadernos – dark thick exercise-books, in which she had collected quotes and poems. When I was 12 or 13, she gave them to me, and some content influenced me quite profoundly. And providing you have read Llosa’s novel, you surely know that the cuadernos played a crucial part in the story. So, it is from these two experiences, plus a couple of ‘tangible’ cuadernos I used to have previously, that the idea for this blog has originated.

For a while, I must admit, I wasn’t sure whether to start a blog or not. Two things have finally compelled me to do it. First, the front page of my web radio programme’s website is way too small for everything I want to put on it. Half of those things will never make it to the programme, like The Quotes on the Front Page, or some news stories, or various other stuff. Yet I do want to share these things with anyone who is interested, hence I have finally succumbed to blogging.

Secondly, I have never managed or even wanted to write a diary, if the diary is to be understood as a narration of one’s private everyday life. However, the notebooks are different, especially because I’m a writer. So, while using the form of a diary, I’m essentially creating no more or less than a writer’s open notebook. Many things will still be left behind, for one reason or another, but I’m glad I’ll be able to do what few publications would allow me to do, not to mention the restrictions of the radio format.

As for the content, it will hardly be up for any strict systematisation, bearing in mind that its author is also an historian, who knows a couple of languages, and has many interests. The only thing that consoles me is that even Umberto Eco’s brilliant ideas are reportedly jotted down on small pieces of paper that are scattered around his flat or stuck in the professor’s case. At least, I’ve got ‘labels‘…

In the beginning….

As I was thinking what to write in the very first message in this first blog of mine, I suddenly realised that you’re probably more compelled to produce something when you stare at the screen rather than when you’re falling short of breaking a pencil because nothing “worthwhile” comes to mind. I guess it had to do with the nature of the blog: once you’ve finished typing, your musings are published in the space where they can be read virtually by anybody, from a college student through a BBC broadcaster to a pensioner. I don’t know yet if the understanding of this puts any pressure on what and how you write, but one thing I know for sure: when I was publishing articles online or ‘making’ a website, etc., I didn’t have this sort of feeling of being obliged to write something as quickly as possible. In part, I felt so because I wanted to begin to publish other stuff, but in part it was because an empty blog – my blog – looked terrible, so I needed to fill it with something… and what could be a better filler than an introduction?