Tag Archives: memory

RIP José Saramago

18 Jun

Here the sea ends and the earth begins. It is raining over the colorless city. The waters of the river are polluted with mud, the riverbanks flooded. A dark vessel, the Highland Brigade, ascends the somber river and is about to anchor at the quay of Alcântara. The steamer is English and belongs to the Royal Mail Line. She crosses the Atlantic between London and Buenos Aires like a weaving shuttle on the highways of the sea, backward and forward, always calling at the same ports, La Plata, Montevideo, Santos, Rio de Janeiro, Pernambuco, Las Palmas, in this order or vice versa, and unless she is shipwrecked, the steamer will also call at Vigo and Boulogne-sur-Mer before finally entering the Thames just as she is now entering the Tagus, and one does not ask which is the greater river, which the greater town.

(José Saramago, The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis, tr. Giovanni Pontiero (London: Harvill, 1992 [1984]), p. 1.)

So begins The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis, the classic novel by José Saramago, the Portuguese writer who died today at the age of 87. The combination of the potentially fantastic and the banal, the metaphoric and the everyday, is typical of Saramago. There is always a sense in his prose that, whatever the story he might be telling us, there are a multitude of stories framing it, running alongside it or visible just beyond its borders. Saramago wants us to know that those stories, which are sometimes really observations (as all stories are observations, ways of seeing the world) and sometimes fantastical retellings of official history, need to be included in the story he is telling us, such that we imagine, or he lets us believe we imagine, that what is unfolding in the labyrinth of his text is one, unending metastory. Frequently, in his wandering, loosely punctuated prose–sometimes described as magical realism, sometimes as stream-of-consciousness, but perhaps just as easily though of as the flow of history running all around us and threatening to drown us in the present–he will take us sidestepping through the fragile walls that separate these universes, giving us a glimpse of the bigger picture before shuttling us back to the scene in which this particular story is taking place.

One does not ask which is the greater river, which the greater town. In The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis, we know which town we have settled in. The novel tells the story of the dead writer Fernando Pessoa returning to visit one of his surviving heteronyms, the classically minded poet Ricardo Reis. In fact Pessoa is not quite dead, but rather existing in the exile of limbo while he awaits a more permanent death. Reis, too, is an exile, returning to Lisbon in the opening scene of the book after a period in Brazil. Over the course of the book, Reis  is constantly witnessed wandering the streets of Lisbon in a recurrent pattern that, spelled out on the sidewalks and in Saramago’s wandering prose, symbolizes his brief presence in the city as a kind of psychogeographer. Like  Paul Auster’s New York Trilogy, Michel de Certeau’s The Practice of Everyday Life and Iain Sinclair’s Lights Out For The Territory, the citizen as walker is both reader and writer, at once subject to the pre-existing paths laid out in the city text and yet able to assert an agency via the sheer act of activity. But Ricardo Reis is not long for this world–he can not be seen, in however magical a reality, to exist beyond the fading memory of his recently deceased creator, Pessoa–and he always seems to be at the mercy of what Italo Calvino calls the ‘intuition of the city as language, as ideology, as the conditioning factor of every thought and word and gesture … as monstrous as a giant crustacean, whose inhabitants are no more than motor articulations’.

Here is Saramago’s description of one of Ricardo Reis’s strolls:

Ricardo Reis walks up the Rua do Alecrim, and no sooner has he left the hotel than he is stopped in his tracks by a relic of another age, perhaps a Corinthian capital, a votive altar, or funereal headstone, what an idea. Such things, if they still exist in Lisbon, are hidden under the soil that was moved when the ground was leveled, or by other natural causes. This is only a rectangular slab of stone embedded in a low wall facing the Rua Nova do Carvalho and bearing the following inscription in ornamental lettering, Eye Clinic and Surgery, and somwhat more austerely, Founded by A. Mascaró in 1870. Stones have a long life. We do not witness their birth, nor will we see their death. So many years have passed over this stone, so many more have yet to pass, Mascaró died and his clinic was closed down, perhaps descendants of the founder can still be traced, they pursuing other professions, ignoring or unaware that their family emblem is on display in this public place. If only families were not so fickle, then this one would gather here to honor the memory of their ancestor, the healer of eyes and other disorders. Truly it is not enough to engrave a name on a stone. The stone remains, gentlemen, safe and sound, but the name, unless people come to read it every day, fades, is forgotten, ceases to exist. These contradictions walk through the mind of Ricardo Reis as he walks up the Rua do Alecrim…

(pp. 46-7)

Poetry, fantasy, the monumental and the everyday, the eternal and the transient, memory, loss, pathos, and the humour of pessimism: all this exists in Saramago’s late voice. He will be missed.


Phonography (II)

28 May

Krapp’s Last Tape suggests an updating of relationships between the Proustian ‘involuntary memory’ and Proust’s project of refinding time and place via the act of consciously recording memory; the evocative power of the petite madeleine and the conscious act of recollection of time and place become one in A la recherche du temps perdu. Proust often plays out these different kinds of memory via references to music, such as the episode of Vinteuil’s sonata. Proust’s character M. Swann is initially affected by the music a year before the events being narrated but does not recognize it and has no way of finding out what it is. The following year, at a soiree, Swann rediscovers the music and is this time affected not by the immediate perception of it, but by the memory of it.

Yet, even on the first listen, memory was at work. As Proust describes the impossibility of capturing music due to its fleetingness, he describes memory, in a manner that utilizes an understanding of memory as place, as ‘a labourer working to put down lasting foundations in the midst of the waves, by fabricating for us facsimiles of these fleeting phrases’.  On Swann’s rediscovery of the music, however, he is furnished with a better way of keeping hold of it: ‘now he could ask the name of his stranger … he possessed it, he could have it in his house as often as he liked, try to learn its language and its secret.’  Proust here combines music, place and memory in a number of ways: firstly, Swann’s initial exposure to the music is described in terms of the fleetingness of spatial perception; secondly, his mind attempts to hold onto the music via the swift erection of memory places; thirdly, he is now able have the music ‘in his house’ where he can guard it and visit it as often as he likes.

An example of this process from the world of fado is provided in the figure of Alfredo Marceneiro. Marceneiro did not record extensively, preferring to sing live in the casas de fado in which he was a legendary figure. The contrast between this ‘authentic’ but undocumented world of fado performance and the promise of reproducibility are hymned in the liner notes to the 1960 album The Fabulous Marceneiro:

Here is, at last in high-fidelity, his husky voice, plaintive to the point of near-disintegration, singing fados, tilting melodies that intoxicate like wine. All this we can hear on record for the first time; and those who had the privilege of actually seeing him (a privilege he is jealous of granting) will recall the small figure, the wrinkled face contrasting with the surprisingly black, wavy hair, the swaying body accompanying the inflections of the voice, the silk neckerchief significantly protecting his throat from the outrages of time and weather: the true ‘fadista’, the living legend … For years and years we had been trying to get him to grant us a recording session in high-fidelity. When at last he bowed to our entreaties and could bring himself to come to our studio he was disgusted. He hates machines and things to ‘interfere’ with his fado (he hates ‘progress’ anyway). So he tried to sing with closed eyes not to see the outrage. And when that proved insufficient he grabbed his neckerchief, tied it round his eyes and started to sing all over again in complete darkness. Yet, it is to high-fidelity that we owe this rare joy: the fabulous, reluctant Marceneiro singing for us, in our homes, as many times as we please.

There is much to note here. Most of the points are based around the opposition between Marceneiro as an authentic, and somehow primitive, fadista and the producers and consumers involved in the recording process, who, while perhaps inauthentic, at least have ‘progress’ on their side. The ‘disintegration’ associated with Marceneiro’s voice is not only an aesthetic statement (although as an aesthetic statement it works quite well at pinning down the unsettling nature of his vocal style), but also a comment on a kind of loss that is extra to the loss of saudade being hymned by the singer: the fact that we might lose this voice to the ‘outrages of time and weather’. Without ‘high-fidelity’ recording we would have to rely on memory, just as those who ‘had the privilege of actually seeing him’ have had to do until now. But the recording promises to do more than just fix the voice; on hearing it, we will be able to recall the man himself.

Writing is as important as audio recording here in at least two ways that may not immediately be obvious and which are not stated explicitly. Those behind the recording, along with its consumers, are associated with writing while Marceneiro is associated with speech and the oral tradition. Those of us who have not been fortunate enough to witness Marceneiro in the flesh have been able to read a description of him penned by C. B. Carvalho, meaning that we now possess an image to accompany our listening. Marceneiro, meanwhile, can sing in complete darkness and without the help of a lyric sheet, summoning up the verses from somewhere deep inside him (no mean feat with a lengthy song like ‘Lembro-Me de Ti’. In this sense he is, as Paul Ricoeur says of musicians, an ‘athlete of memory’, set apart from the everyday person even as he lives his authenticity.  Finally, of course, there is the resonant echo of Proust in the closing declaration that we may now possess this elusive moment and relive it ‘as many times as we please’.

Phonography (I)

28 May

In ‘The Witness’, Borges provides us with a written report of his imagined Saxon’s witnessing but, in doing so, he reminds us that we have neither the Saxon’s own written account nor the sonic record of the bells he hears: those sounds are lost. Recording is intimately connected with the notion of destruction, both the destruction of the past and of the self, for there is a sense in which autobiography and the work of remembering can be seen as a self-witnessing and a destruction of the self’s past. Self-witnessing is dramatically exemplified in Edgar Allan Poe’s story ‘MS. Found in a Bottle’ (1833, rev. 1845), where the narrator attempts to record his fate on a ‘doomed’ ship: ‘I shall from time to time continue this journal … At the last moment I will enclose the MS. in a bottle, and cast it within the sea.’  The close of the tale, which we assume to be the found manuscript itself, attempts to stay true to this promise as the ship goes down in a whirlpool:

But little time will be left me to ponder upon my destiny – the circles rapidly grow small – we are plunging madly within the grasp of the whirlpool – and amid a roaring, and bellowing, and thundering of ocean and of tempest, the ship is quivering, oh God! And – going down.

(Edgar Allan Poe, ‘MS. Found in a Bottle’, The Fall of the House of Usher and Other Writings, ed. David Galloway (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1986), pp. 105-106.)

If Poe’s tale still bears a sense of horror nearly two centuries after its first publication, it is surely because we recognize that, even in an era where the black boxes of aeroplanes provide records of doomed journeys far more accurate than the writing and dispatching of the manuscript allowed Poe’s narrator, there is still a point beyond which nothing more can be recorded that would be of relevance to the person marked for death. As Poe’s epigraph to the tale translates: ‘He who has but a moment to live/No longer has anything to dissimulate’.  But what has been dissimulated up to that moment lives on, in a manner of speaking.

(This sense of being too short of time to communicate what is necessary is captured nicely in a fado performed by Ana Laíns and entitled ‘Pouco Tempo’ [Little Time]. The song describes a situation in which there is not enough time to ‘keep everything I carry / in thought / to write everything I feel’; everything disappears in the wind.)

What are the limits to witnessing? Can we be witnesses to our own destruction? In the sense of Poe’s narrator, the answer must be no: we are always stuck in a ‘working-towards’ such a witnessing via a process of ‘getting down’ what we can get down before we ‘go down’. From another viewpoint, however, we might say that remembering is about witnessing our own destruction. Both of these possibilities are played out quite literally in Samuel Beckett’s monologue Krapp’s Last Tape (1958), in which we witness a man, Krapp, witnessing his own life as he records memories onto his tape recorder in ‘celebration’ of his birthday and plays back old recordings from previous similar occasions. The 39-year-old Krapp – the ‘middle voice’ of the three (re)presented – is ‘played’ by the actor manipulating a tape machine on which is heard his ‘younger’ voice; the ‘actual’ Krapp being played by the actor is thirty years older.

‘Middle Krapp’ recounts his thoughts on listening to an earlier tape (which we do not get to hear) made when he was younger. He is furious with the romantic idealist he used to be and mocks his younger self, allowing ‘Old Krapp’ to join in as he listens. But the 39-year-old still holds to certain ideals, the recording of which is now treated with contempt by the old man, who then records his own critique. The process we catch Krapp in, then, is similar to the perfecting process, or ‘working-toward’ mentioned above. Each successive attempt to fix life and thought somehow gets it wrong and must be updated, though for how much longer we cannot be sure due to Old Krapp’s admonishments to himself to cease this endless torture and to the ‘last tape’ alluded to in the title. Do we know this is the last (final) tape that we are witnessing being made in the same way that we know we are reading the message in the bottle in Poe’s tale? Or is ‘last’ only supposed to refer to ‘preceding’, as in the way Krapp continues to listen to preceding attempts to come to terms with his life?

Krapp’s Last Tape provides a good example of how nostalgia and loss interlock with technological attempts to prevent loss, and how those attempts are both a damming of the reservoir of memories and the means by which that reservoir can be tapped. Krapp is caught in a cyclical process of remembering and memorializing, of recapturing the past and planning for the future (a future where the importance of remembering the past now being recaptured and the moment of recapturing it will prove both fascinating and repellent. In other words the past of the now and the now are the raw materials to be mined in the future of the now. The now, at the same time, is the repository of the sum of experience of the past of the now – the latter has no substance outside of the former – just as the now will become a part of the repository that constructs the future of the now.

In the words of film director Atom Egoyan, who filmed Beckett’s monologue in 2001 (thus providing another kind of ‘last tape’ in the form of a videotape), ‘With [the play], a man listening to his younger self commenting on his even younger self – Beckett is able to express the central paradox of personal archiving technology; its ability simultaneously to enhance and trivialize experience.’  David Toop, who discusses Egoyan’s work, has his own ‘take’ on this: ‘a strip of tape passing through the playback head of a tape recorder, threatening to unspool as it comes to the end of its reel, is analogous to the memory of a life threading through the space and time of the world, then unspooling into nothingness.’

It is possible to bring together the Beckett of Krapp’s Last Tape, the Roland Barthes of Camera Lucida and the Walter Benjamin of ‘The Work of Art in the Era of Mechanical Reproduction’ in considering the implications that mechanical reproduction has for the process of witnessing. In all there seems to be a division between the faithful witnessing offered by the mechanical process of recording and that element that breaks through (punctures) the ‘merely’ mechanical. This element is the fetishized object, the aura regained. It is this regaining of the aura that is connected to Egoyan’s point about technology enhancing even as it trivializes.

It is useful here to consider the ways in which recording has followed writing in embracing a dialectic of transcription and creation. Just as writing is both a creative and transcriptive act in that it not only records but invents (is inventive), so mechanical reproduction is, as is already apparent in its name, a form of production as much as mimesis.  As has often been noted, composition in western classical music developed to such a degree that it reached a point where music no longer preceded text – the complexity of the orchestral score was such that the realization of it in music was inconceivable without the finished ‘text’. In considering Krapp’s Last Tape, we must not only dwell on the use of recording technology to ‘memorize’ the protagonist’s life and experiences but must bear in mind the use of the same technology to allow Beckett to create his dramatic monologue.  In this sense, recording has a creative as well as transcriptive role ‘to play’. This is a point that Toop takes up in connection with his own work as a musician and composer. Refusing the ‘pessimism’ of Jean Luc Godard – who has one of his characters suggest that ‘technology has replaced memory’ – Toop claims:

Other than those times when I’m sorting back through boxes of tape, like wearish old man Krapp, delving into the archives for the purpose of resuscitating past music for a new audience, I record on minidisk, onto CD, or directly onto the hard disk of my computer. Then I work on the sound files, burrowing into their imaginary space microscopically, transforming them from raw material into a sketch, a fragment moving towards a composition, even a finished composition.

In one sense this is comparable to the practice of composing music by writing notation on staves, building a composition by remembering or imagining sounds and their organisation, then documenting by purely visual method the information needed to bring that remarkable feat of imagination to life at some time in the future.

(David Toop, Haunted Weather: Music, Silence and Memory (London: Serpent’s Tail, 2004), pp. 99-100. However, Toop does go on to say that ‘in another sense, it’s completely different’ as his music is all stored in the computer and the computer can play it, with no need for an ensemble.)

The use of recorded sound to reconfigure the sonic past has been central to sample-based musics such as hip hop and its numerous offshoots, leading to a revolution in the way popular music is produced, performed and heard (albeit one that has numerous precursors in twentieth century avant-garde music).

There are spatial as well as temporal implications arising from these processes, all of which contribute towards the production of social space. Beckett’s stage instructions and Egoyan’s filmic interpretation are important in this regard; in both we find that a space of intimacy is produced. The use of microphones, tape recorders, cameras and broadcasting technologies create a totally reconfigured sonic space in the twentieth century.

The implications for fado practice, as for other popular music genres, are numerous. Not least among these is the fact that there is no longer a necessity for projection, or rather that there are possibilities for new kinds of projection. What defines many modern fado singers such as Carlos do Carmo and Camané is their ‘microphone voices’, a point to which I will return. These technologies also have implications for the process of bearing witness, bringing with them new possibilities of surveillance, bugging, and listening-in. This allows a removal from the ‘primal scene’, a putting-off and making-distant of the act of witnessing, notable in the experience of the contemporary listener of music. The fact that witnessing can involve removing oneself from the action via technologies of surveillance is often forgotten in the literature on witnessing, no doubt due to the emphasis placed in that literature on ‘first hand’ witnessing, of having been there.

Fado’s invisible cities

19 May
Mouraria 1932

Mouraria 1932

It may be the case that, as Svetlana Boym claims, ‘places in the city are not merely architectural metaphors; they are also screen memories for urban dwellers, projections of contested remembrances.’  However, I would also suggest that it is necessary to keep in play the relationship between these types of space. I believe that fado song texts allow us to think of the city as both context and symbol. Taking on the dual roles of character and stage, the city acts very much as it might in a photograph or film; the same shift of focus from the cityscape to the human life within the cityscape occurs in fados, photographs and films. With the numerous references to the old city – the lost city that was the victim of demolition and renovation – the fado text becomes a snapshot of the past, rendered in sepia and always in danger of fading from view, of failing to be fixed for posterity.

Italo Calvino uses the imagery of the postcard to illustrate the role of the remembered city and the problems it forces upon both visitors and inhabitants, who find themselves contemplating it from the location of the remoulded city. Calvino describes Maurilia, one of his ‘invisible cities’, thus:

In Maurilia, the traveler is invited to visit the city and, at the same time, to examine some old post cards that show it as it used to be: the same identical square with a hen in the place of the bus station, a bandstand in the place of the overpass, two young ladies with white parasols in the place of the munitions factory. If the traveler does not wish to disappoint the inhabitants, he must praise the postcard city and prefer it to the present one, though he must be careful to contain his regret at the changes within definite limits: admitting that the magnificence and prosperity of the metropolis Maurilia, when compared to the old, provincial Maurilia, cannot compensate for a certain lost grace, which, however, can be appreciated only now in the old post cards, whereas before, when that provincial Maurilia was before one’s eyes, one saw absolutely nothing graceful and would see it even less today, if Maurilia had remained unchanged; and in any case the metropolis has the added attraction that, through what it has become, one can look back with nostalgia at what it was.

(Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities, p. 30.)

One reason the city can be a source of nostalgia is that, despite the history of appeals to a rural Arcadia, the city of the past only ever survives as a fragment of the city of the present and loss is always referenced. The city is never static but is always rebuilding itself; the longing for stasis that has so often been connected to the (falsely remembered, idealized) countryside can as easily be transferred to the (falsely remembered, idealized) city of the past. The longing that is felt is the desire to see through the palimpsest that is the modern city.

The Reconstruction of LisbonAs Michael Colvin suggests, fados that bemoan the destruction and mourn the loss of the old Mouraria also come to stand as witnesses of the lost city, not only in recordings but also in forming the points of reference and even source materials for scholarly works on fado, such as Colvin’s own discussion of the neighbourhoods ‘condemned to progress’ by the Estado Novo.  The parts of the lower Mouraria that were left, such as the sixteenth-century hermitage of Nossa Senhora da Saude, become fetishized as remainders of the past: ‘The hermitage’s anomolic condition, perched unscathed among unsophisticated shopping centres and cement fountains … has made it a symbol of tradition in a Lisbon compelled to modernization.’  Fado, meanwhile, can act as a subversive text when highlighting not only the lost past but the wrong decisions made about the future: ‘Gabriel de Oliveira’s “Há Festa na Mouraria” has inspired a subversive trend in the fado novo: the idealization of a pre-Republican Mouraria … as an alternative to the Estado Novo’s notion of progress’.  If we compare the Maurilia of Calvino’s work with the Mouraria of fado songwriters we find a similar obsession with the city of the past, albeit articulated rather differently. Where Calvino’s narrator warns against praising the old at the expense of the new, many of the fados discussed by Michael Colvin have taken Mouraria as their subject matter have taken the opposite view. (See Michael Colvin, ‘Gabriel de Oliveira’s “Há Festa na Mouraria” and the Fado Novo’s Criticism of the Estado Novo’s Demolition of the Baixa Mouraria’, Portuguese Studies, 20 (2004) and his book The Reconstruction of Lisbon.)

Here, the city becomes both ‘theatre of memory’ and museum. It is not a museum that demands the silent contemplation of a preserved site but a modern, interactive museum, more akin to a performance space, where, as Kimberly DaCosta Holton points out, the ‘occularcentrism’ of traditional anthropology has been converted into an appeal to all the senses.  Yet, while museums have developed methodologies to bring the object ever closer to a point of virtual reality, the Baudrillardian conquest of the signifier over the signified has yet to come about.  This is in large part due to the act of ‘roping off’ that provides the necessary borderline between viewer and viewed; this may entail literal ropes, or it may involve a border of another sort, be it the walls of the museum or the entrance gate to the theme park, or the recorded boundaries of a song.

From transcribing to writing

19 May

When talking about witnessing we must be clear what we are describing. In his poem ‘Elegy’, Borges writes:

to have seen the things that men see,
death, the sluggish dawn, the plains,
and the delicate stars,
and to have seen nothing, or almost nothing
except the face of a girl from Buenos Aires
a face that does not want you to remember it.

(Jorge Luis Borges, ‘Elegy’ (tr. Donald A. Yates), Labyrinths, p. 287.)

The conflict between what the witness cannot forget and what the witnessed wants to be forgotten highlights three basic processes of witnessing: firstly, a reception of something (an image, a sound, a smell) that has left some form of imprint in the mind; secondly, a presentation (a making-present) to the self of the impression (memory); and finally, a re-presentation of that memory to an other (here, the reader). Of these, only the last might be said to be voluntary; Borges has not only remembered the face that did not want to be remembered but he has told his readers about it. Or has he? We still know nothing about that face, only his remembering it. We might compare this ‘witness report’ with that of Borges’s fellow Argentine, the novelist Juan José Saer, whose novel The Witness (1983) plays with the standard accounts of the colonisation of the New World by having a sixteenth century Spaniard caught and kept prisoner by an Indian tribe solely so that he can be released and act as witness to the tribe’s existence and destruction, to tell their story to the world.

This allows us to reduce the main aspects of witnessing to two: seeing and saying. In this sense we might call to mind the witness as used in law courts, where a witness who has seen but will not say what they have seen is of little use. The witness is carrying something that is wanted by the other; we might define the ‘active’ witness by saying that it is the desirability of their information that makes of them a witness. We also need to expand the notion of witnessing from merely ‘seeing’ to include the other senses. Borges has already provided guidance for this in his use of fragments that go beyond the visual in his short piece ‘The Witness’: the tolling of bells, the voice of Macedonio Fernández, the smell of sulphur. Listening, here, can be thought of as a carrying which may be borne but which may also be unburdened by passing on. In the latter process this carrying becomes a carrying-out – the completion of a task – and witnessing moves from a passive to an active role, as in the witness before the Law.

Witnessing, then, can be a productive force in that it results in the transference of a thing presented to a thing re-presented (this use of the word ‘transference’ serves to remind us that psychoanalysis is a form of witnessing: a kind of double witnessing, where the analyst witnesses the analysand witnessing themselves). Writing is an example of this, the transference from the witnessed to the represented. Something is inevitably lost in the process, as Roland Barthes observes in ‘From Speech to Writing’, an essay prefacing a series of interviews with him that have been transcribed: ‘This inscription, what does it cost us? What do we lose? What do we win?’  Jacques Roubard, in trying to weigh the benefits and dangers of writing, also stresses the notion of transference from one place or state to another:

Once set down on paper, each fragment of memory … becomes, in fact, inaccessible to me. This probably doesn’t mean that the record of memory, located under my skull, in the neurons, has disappeared, but everything happens as if a transference had occurred, something in the nature of a translation, with the result that ever since, the words composing the black lines of my transcription interpose themselves between the record of memory and myself, and in the long run completely supplant it.

(Jacques Roubard, The Great Fire of London: A Story with Interpolations and Bifurcations, tr. Dominic Di Bernardi (Elmwood Park, IL: Dalkey Archive Press, 1992 [1989]), pp. 197-198.)

Roubard’s friend Georges Perec concurs: ‘The work of writing is always done in relation to something that no longer exists, which may be fixed for a moment in writing, like a trace, but which has vanished.’  We are back to the notion of forgetting and we can see here how writing, along with other methods of recording, is a vital tool in allowing us the possibility to forget.

The Witness

19 May

One of the things I am interested in throughout my work is writing (in its broadest sense) as a form of fixing. In order to do the work of remembering, be it a melancholy or a militant elegizing or a post-traumatic ‘working-through’, there is generally a clear desire to ‘get it down’ somehow. Writing functions as a form of witnessing. The process is beautifully summarized in a short piece by Jorge Luis Borges entitled ‘The Witness’:

He is awakened by the bells tolling the Angelus. In the kingdoms of England the ringing of bells is now one of the customs of the evening, but this man, as a child, has seen the face of Woden, the divine horror and exultation, the crude wooden idol hung with Roman coins and heavy clothing, the sacrificing of horses, dogs and prisoners. Before dawn he will die and with him will die, and never return, the last immediate images of these pagan rites; the world will be a little poorer when this Saxon has died.

(Jorge Luis Borges, ‘The Witness’ (tr. James E. Irby), in Labyrinths, ed. Donald A. Yates & James E. Irby (Penguin: Harmondsworth, 1985 [1964]), p. 279.)

Borges is here exploring one of his favourite themes, oblivion. He goes on to note that with every death ‘one thing, or an infinite number of things, dies’. And he finishes, not surprisingly, by reflecting on his own transient world: ‘What will die with me when I die, what pathetic or fragile form will the world lose? The voice of Macedonio Fernández, the image of a red horse in the vacant lot at Serrano and Charcas, a bar of sulphur in the drawer of a mahogany desk?’

What is notable here is the recourse to the ‘pathetic or fragile form’, the suggestion that history and biography be thought of as fragments, seemingly unimportant details that have stubbornly persisted in memory. In this sense they resemble the memories of the ‘I remember’ school discussed in another post,  those random fragments, personal or shared, that are placed together to form a life. In terms of biography they accord with Roland Barthes’s use of the ‘biographeme’, the detail that escapes the remembering of an individual in terms of chronology. As Seán Burke notes of Barthes’s use of the device in the latter’s Sade, Fourier, Loyola:

These details – Fourier’s cats and flowers, Sade’s dislike of the sea – are crystalline moments in lives whose motion and totality are necessarily irrecoverable. While the conventional biographer will seek to mimic the impetus of a life, to register it according to certain representative proportions, the biographeme breaks with the teleology implicit in this lambent narrative movement. Events are not connected to imply any destiny or purpose in the course of a life, rather the biographemes are the shards of any such forward movement, those velleities that are passed over in the more frenetic, directed movement of the footprint-following biographer.

(Seán Burke, The Death and Return of the Author: Criticism and Subjectivity in Barthes, Foucault and Derrida, 2nd edn. (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1998), pp. 38-9.)

In doing so, the biographeme partakes of a process similar to the ‘flash’ of history that Walter Benjamin proposes.  This notion of history is similar to the kind of collective memory that Gilbert Adair evokes when he describes his versioning of Roland Barthes and Georges Perec as ‘tiny shards of a common nostalgia’.  The shards suggest a series of broken-off memories that, while difficult to locate, may prick the conscience at any given time. As Burke says:

The biographeme suspends narrative time and the telos that only such time can insure. Its ethos has affinities with the Proustian concept of ‘involuntary memory’ as it has too with the repertoires of ordinary memory. Those who have lost their nearest and dearest do not recall their departed in the manner of the monumental biographer, but through discreet images, a love of cats and flowers, a liking for particular cakes, watery eyes like Ignatius of Loyola.

Lost shards become found through this involuntary process, bringing the past to the present: ‘For Barthes, never far from Proust, the biographeme reverberates with the pathos of lost time, and yet participates in its recovery.’

There is still no certainty of any kind of permanence to these shards. Yet Borges and Barthes are already attempting a solution to the problem by writing it down. As Barthes struggles with the dilemma of whether or not to keep a diary, he records the following:

Death, real death, is when the witness himself dies. Chateaubriand says of his grandmother and his great-aunt: ‘I may be the only man in the world who knows that such persons have existed’: yes, but since he has written this, and written it well, we know it too, insofar, at least, as we still read Chateaubriand.

(Roland Barthes, The Rustle of Language, pp. 362-3.)

Fernando Pessoa had earlier discussed a similar process and its implications:

We say ‘Cromwell did’ but ‘Milton says.’ And in the distant future when there is no more England … Cromwell will be remembered only because Milton mentioned him in a sonnet. The end of England will signify the end of what we may call the work of Cromwell, or the work in which he collaborated. But the poetry of Milton will end only with the end of all civilization or of man’s presence on earth, and perhaps even then it won’t have ended.

(Fernando Pessoa, The Selected Prose, ed. & tr. Richard Zenith (New York: Grove Press, 2001), p. 166.)

There is clearly an importance being placed here on biography, for biography is strongly associated with the types of remembering associated with death rites (the witness, the epitaph, the obituary, the gravestone). Furthermore, biography serves both to distinguish individuals from each other and to bring them together in community through similarity and shared qualities, intimately connecting personal and collective memory and identity while attempting to fix the messy fluidity of lived life. Mark C. Taylor, in his fascinating survey of final resting places, Grave Matters, discusses the rise of biography following Augustine (whose Confessions may remind us that autobiography is not so much telling the truth of oneself as deciding what, how much and to whom to confess). Taylor suggests that the rise of cemeteries and marked graves ‘invented’ death, a point that relates to the notion that writing invents speech and that scores, transcriptions, instruments and ultimately recording invent (or at least reinvent) music.

It may initially be hard to see popular song in similar terms given its apparently transient nature, but the contention throughout Fado and the place of Longing is that popular song, as much as any other part of popular culture, has, in the modern era, become subject to the kind of desire for perpetuation that has long been literature’s domain. This has happened via the technology of recording and storing but also by the desire that drives the development of such technology, the desire to ward off loss, to archive, to remember even if it is by means of a relegated memory. There are important differences, of course. Recorded music has not had nearly the erasing effect on live performance that writing brought about and it has never been convincing that preservation is recording’s raison d’être in the way that it is arguably writing’s. But even these differences, in the work of a thinker such as Jacques Derrida, can be seen to be constructions.