edge of irony

Started reading Marjorie Perloff’s Edge of Irony (Modernism in the shadow of the Habsburg Empire). Very eye-opening. She herself grew up as a Jewish child in Interwar Vienna, in what were the ashes of the former empire, and then emigrated with her family; they found refuge in the United States. Writing recently on the city that finally regained its former splendor, she stresses in Viennese literary modernism the crucial role of being on the edge: although German was the language in which people as varied as Musil (born in Brno), Canetti (born in Bulgaria, but really formed in Vienna), Celan (born in Bukovina), Kraus, etc. wrote, they all were immersed in many languages, in the peculiarity of being Jewish in a cosmopolitan city at a time where anti-Semitism was growing.

In the Introduction, amid many names one would expect (Wittgenstein, Musil, Canetti, etc.), Perloff includes as an interesting case of study the truly painful to read Gregor von Rezzori who wrote his Memoirs of an Anti-Semite in 1979. The directness of his account of anti-Semitism in Vienna between the wars is both horrific and eye-opening. There seems to be a short story of “himself when young” living with his very anti-Semite grandmother in Vienna as a student, and falling in love with Minka, the Jewish young women in the apartment upstairs. What is scary is the description of the mind of a young anti-Semite with a Jewish girlfriend, and the juxtaposition of (on one hand) thinking “if… the Germans want to conquer Austria, so much the better. The German-speaking peoples would be united again, as they had been in the Holy Roman Empire of Charlemagne”… but at some point he goes with Minka to a beer cellar and “a huge, rather shabby-looking young man roared in our faces, ‘Juden Raus!’ … I felt frightfully sorry for Minka and all our friends, but it was not my fault that they happened to be Jews, and in the event that they got into serious trouble I could use my connections with the SS to help them out again”, so the narrator continues.

What is most chilling in the passage above is the kind of “normalization” of anti-Semitism, of fascism, and to realize it happens daily in the 21st century. Of course, against the backdrop of what we know happened later, the last sentence is brutal.

I saw Perloff’s book first in the bookstore at the Freud Museum in Vienna. It seemed like a perfect gift for my father, except he wasn’t reading by then. I kept the name and decided finally to order it a few weeks ago, to continue the sort of dialogue he was so fond of, the sort of dialogue he started years ago when I was still living at the home of my parents.

the back yard of Freud’s apartment, summer of 2018 (photo: avn)
summer of 1979, in Schönbrunn, Vienna (photo: jlv)

about a building

It is perhaps easy to hate Warsaw’s Palace of Culture and Science. Looming tall from almost anywhere in a city that until recently didn’t seem to have many high rises, the 237 meter tower seems to assert from afar a crushing presence, a strong remnant of the Cold War – a somewhat ambiguous presence: yes, very Russian, very Soviet Russian, very Lomonosov-like. Yet also very New York-like, although a very heavy set, a very weighed down Empire State (the difference is not that significant: the Warsaw building is more than half the height of the Empire State if measured to its mast, something interesting to remember – and more than 60% the official height of the Empire State). But it is also much wider, and unlike the New York building, set into the middle of an enormous plaza that seems to have been empty of other tall buildings until recently.


To open space for this, Wanda told me they tore down many blocks of what looked like a typical Central/Eastern European capital, of which only this remains.


So there you are, a huge parking lot or space for cars (or pedestrians or military parades or now those terrible Polish November 11 fascist demonstrations) – the photograph only shows a fragment of the empty space that used to be a European City Center and was torn down by Stalin as part of his gift to the city of Warsaw.

P4023316 The building has an interesting history. Erected in 1955, at the height of the early stages of the Cold War, it was an assertion of Stalinist power in an emblematic city. More interesting to me perhaps are the stories Roman and Wanda told me: how Roman used to go to the Math Department (or Math Institute) that was for some time in some high floor of the tower, how he used to go as a kid or young student to the Muzeum Techniki, on one of the side facades of the building, and see a lot of interesting exhibitions there (I didn’t ask more details)… P4023345
or how Wanda used to go swimming in a public pool on the sports side of the building as she needed credit for Physical Education during her university-level Art studies. Or how excellent jazz (Miles Davis, etc.) was played there in the enormous Sala Kongresowa – where for sure important Congresses of the Party were also held… or even how the only strip club – the only official one – was also in a restaurant and bar in the building, Restauracja Kongresowa – open only to high officials of the Party or associates open to the public; at least those who had the money to pay for it.

The sides of the building have many stern statues of workers, teachers, reading the Big Canon, some of them with generic “European” features, but some of them also with Asian or African features (also generic) – perhaps to symbolize the friendship of peoples. Of course, also athletes – modestly covered (this is not Ancient Greece, nor even Poland of the 17th Century where Renaissance style statues – but the “modest” cover is sometimes quite revealing), all of them (the teacher, the reader, the worker, the athlete) with very squarish bodies.

And slowly, while walking around the building and hearing the stories, I start to like it somehow. Not the looming towering figure, perhaps, but the idea of having a building half the height of the Empire State and perhaps much wider, all devoted to music, to mathematics, to science museums, to sports, for sure to many other things along those lines (yes, and also to Party reunions and official meetings and perhaps truly horrific people also).

These days, we only seem to see that massive construction in malls, commercial venues, corporate buildings, banks, Met Life things, hotels. Even sports venues seem to be done in a very different way (of course we have huge “arenas” – often named for some company – for professional sport spectacles). Devoting a whole palace of that size to something like “culture” (whatever its intended meaning) seems more remote today than ever – especially culture including mathematics, art, science and sports (doing sports as opposed to watching them). I could understand why Roman seemed to like the Palace of Culture and Science, or some aspects of it. I would also like a building where you can listen to Miles Davis, go to an advanced seminar in Mathematical Logic, see Art and Science Museum exhibitions and go swimming or perhaps doing some judo.

But I can also understand Wanda’s dislike with the wasted City Center. After the “regime change” (1989), the whole area seems to be on a parade of newer buildings that try to overshadow the Palace of Culture:


Right in front, a Liebeskind building (left in the photo), some banks and other corporations – everything very new – remotely reminiscent of some New York areas (Bryant Park, without the playfulness). Corporate Europe standing in front of Communist Europe as if defying and saying “see, you lost!” yet those new buildings feel somewhat insecure, somewhat contrived, somewhat insubstantial in front of the Pałac Kultury i Nauki.

P4023306 On the South Western side of the Pałac, from the 1980s, a Marriott. Yes, a Marriott. Apparently the first tower to start to defy the Pałac Kultury i Nauki‘s preeminence, this building made before the change in the economy is really puzzling – it now looks as some kind of prescient gesture to the times that would come to Poland (and the world) after the change: a building that would seem taken directly from Omaha, Nebraska (or Anytown, Anycountry really), stands across large empty space – filled with cars. And a Marriott hotel, with all its cheesiness and all its crassness. This building is difficult to understand. I don’t really know what this building may have meant as a space to Varsovians in the 1980s, during the Martial Law years, after Solidarność.

All in all, this collection of buildings, centered on the Pałac Kultury and showing older Central European buildings, then the Pałac itself at the center of things, then the Marriott (and an interesting Train Station of which I have no photographs), and then the Corporate New Poland buildings… and perhaps next some new things that are not yet built – all of that is a fascinating architectural complex, with slices and layers of European history there in front of your eyes.

Leer bajo la pátina del tiempo

Paul Valéry ha aparecido en mis lecturas, conversaciones, discusiones – con frecuencia alarmante últimamente. No solamente Fernando lo menciona mucho (y me ha regalado ensayos sobre Valéry o escritos del poeta/ensayista) sino que por ejemplo en Infinity Valéry fue mencionado/citado por personas muy disímiles  –  por la magnífica Briony Fer, por el conjuntista británico Philip Welch, entre otros.

Flaneando por los muelles de buquinistas (sí, me toca usar un poco de frañol ahí; decirlo en español castizo lo haría sonar como una zarzuela) en busca de Valéry y otros autores noté extrañas reticencias. Libreros amables cambiaban de cara al preguntar yo por Valéry después de haber estado hablando con ellos unos minutos; uno de ellos me dijo ah non, moi, Valéry, j’en ai pas casi como si intentara desligarse de algo incómodo, como si mi pregunta por Valéry hubiera cruzado pese a mí algún umbral de lo correcto según él. Otros me dijeron Valéry en Pléiade c’est pas facile à trouver, on a ceci seulement — y sacaban algún fascículo – a todas luces magra representación del autor.

Luego alguien me preguntó ¿Por qué tanto interés en Valéry? … Quien me lo preguntó es el hijo de una profesora de literatura francesa en una universidad bogotana, y me dijo que ya había leído montones de Valéry cuando estaba en el colegio impulsado por su madre – traducían cosas para las clases, etc. Me miró con cierta ironía cuando le dije que como aparece por todas partes en conexión con el infinito, con disquisiciones estéticas, con su poesía, por su centenario reciente, quería leerlo más a fondo.

Finalmente en el Muelle de los Grandes Agustinos apareció un volumen de Pléiade a precio muy bajo y hermosísimo. Mirando por encima y saltando hojas del jugosísimo volumen me encontré con textos y poemas increíbles – que tengo ahora para leer después.

También había comprado ya Variété – un libro que empieza escrito durante la posguerra (de la guerra de 14-18). Valéry como todo el mundo estaba perplejo y lanza un llamado angustiadísimo.

Pero cuesta leerlo, bajo la pátina brutal de eurocentrismo, de creer genuinamente y escribir tanta sandez sobre la “centralidad” y “excepcionalidad” de Europa. Ese dejar entrever la trama de un modo de pensar es el precio a pagar cuando alguien como Valéry escribe tanto, con interés tan genuino por el mundo, por entender tantas conexiones (matemática, música, literatura, política). Algún historiador de las mentalidades podría encontrar tesoros de prejuicios (creo que algunos de los libreros reticentes con Valéry podían estar influidos por ese tema), pensamientos moldeados por su época, en esos diarios de Valéry. Hay joyas impresionantes pero también hay frases que resultan francamente molestas de leer un siglo después – y estoy seguro que alguien con la lucidez de Valéry hoy en día sería un crítico implacable del Valéry de esas frases.

Aún así, disfruto mucho la lectura y los tesoros de ese volumen, pues se configura algo que permite trazar mil hilos entre los temas que me interesan. Y por algo Fernando, Briony y tantos otros no solo lo leen y enseñan, sino que siguen encontrando inspiración inmensa ahí. Yo hasta ahora empiezo.

La mer, la mer, toujours recommencée… (PV)

París, al amanecer del martes de la semana pasada. Foto: AV.

omisiones problemáticas [fragm. incompl. ד]

[20 de junio de 2015]

La exposición Europa: el futuro de la historia en la Kunsthaus de Zúrich es a la vez sumamente interesante y repleta de carencias (expresión tal vez absurda pero así se siente) extrañas. Al final de la exposición fue interesante la conversación con los zuriqueses que estamos visitando un par de días – ellos no van mucho a museos y esperaban algo muy crítico y muy documental – parte de la discusión se fue en decir que de pronto el arte no está para hacer statements directos sino tal vez para provocar esas discusiones o dudas. Ellos dijeron que como buenos suizos los organizadores seguro se fueron por lo barato y lo seguro y la minimización del riesgo y el buen-pensar calvinista (y susto ante el disenso) según ellos aún dominante en esta sociedad. Sin embargo, aún si eso es cierto, había algunas obras interesantísimas y de calidad altísima.

  • El título era brutalmente ambicioso. Europa y futuro son dos palabras que yuxtapuestas en 2015 inmediatamente traen mil preguntas, mil angustias, mil recuerdos de horrores y mucha incertidumbre.
  • Los curadores de la exposición encontraron obras

Bringhurst, looking back in time, but really back

I had already written some notes about Robert Bringhurst, right after having met him personally in Helsinki some months ago. His Everywhere Being is Dancing – twenty pieces of thinking is perhaps less known than his famous book The Elements of Typography. It is however one of the collection of essays that I have read with most trepidation in a long, long time. Perhaps the main point is the difference between Bringhurst’s ideas and those of most of the rest of people: his perspective when discussing poetry, war, society, language, tools, singing, voices, stories puts to shame our extremely narrow interval. Instead of just looking at just thirty centuries of literature, as we usually do (when we want something remote we think Homer or some books of the Hebrew Bible), he ponders perhaps a couple of hundred centuries, he traces our bearings in language, in poetry, in mathematics even, as part of a development started sixty, seventy thousand years ago – the written sentence being much more recent and perhaps ephemeral than we want to admit.

I have to incorporate some of his ideas in a couple of things I am writing. I won’t elaborate more on this at this point – but I do want to quote an excerpt of his essay A Poet and a War on Avdo Međedović, a Montenegrin poet and the permanence of the tradition of epic poetry in the Mediterranean since Agamemnon’s time. But here is the quote:

War in its twenty-first century glory is the nightmare of industrial technology, but the war that most affects my daily life is the Four Century War (c. 1500-c.1900) fought between invading Europeans and retreating Native Americans for the land in which I live. That war, rarely mentioned in the textbooks, left more than six million dead in North America alone, yet it was fought with minimal equipment and very little centralized command. The most devastating weapons used were biological – smallpox bacilli in particular. These agents were often delivered haphazardly, by preindustrial means, yet their effectiveness was huge.

Robert Bringhurst, speaking at the Helsinki Mathematics Department on the structure of Navajo Poetry (in Cháálatsoh, the Origin of Horses). Photo: AV.

Simon Schama: The Story of the Jews.

Llegó hoy ese pedido. Salió recientemente. La introducción es espectacular. Habla Schama, ese hijo inglés de inmigrantes judíos venidos de Amsterdam, de la París jacobina, de Carolina del Sur, de Skara Brae – de cómo sabía desde los años 1970 que tenía que escribir esa historia (inconclusa a la muerte de Cecil Roth) y cómo la pospuso y la pospuso, como Yona escapando a Tarshish vía Joppa evitando su Ninveh… cómo duró cuarenta años escribiendo otras historias (las historias de Inglaterra, de Holanda, de Schama son monumentales e inescapables para cualquiera que quiera imbuirse de saber, de detalle, de ironía – cualquiera que se haya visto afectado por el Rijksmuseum, por Vermeer, por la luz holandesa). Finalmente, después de cuarenta años, parece que Schama llega – por lo menos está llegando: este primer volumen es la historia de los judíos desde el año 1000 AEC hasta el año 1492 EC. Lo que Schama llama certeramente Finding the Words. Ciertamente, él ha estado encontrado palabras para hablar de un tema tan brutalmente difícil (y tan brutalmente central: finalmente, la historia de los judíos termina siendo la historia de todos nosotros, judíos o no judíos – de maneras extrañísimas y enrevesadísimas). Es, al decir de Schama, a great labour of love. Sí parece. Lee uno trozos – con Schama hablando de Babilonia o de Antíoco y su opresión o de Shapur I de Persia – y saltando a su propia Inglaterra de los años 20 o 30 del siglo XX – armando un fresco increíble que termina tejiendo todo ahí.

Creo que será buena lectura (y no necesariamente fácil – nuestra historia entera está ahí).

El Ocaso: cavilando, Roda.

Todos concentrados (los pájaros inaudibles en las fotos, Margarita, Carmen María y María Clara discutiendo sobre la exposición de Roda que estará a cargo de Margarita próximamente, los perros Tuno y Tommy, el personaje del cuadro de Don Kurka…). Mediodía de domingo en El Ocaso, Cundinamarca.

In a world of giants, it helps to be a giant yourself. But a rationale, an intellectual argument, is not the same as an emotional driving force, based on direct personal experience and an immediate sense of threat. We don’t have that sense in today’s Europe. For standard of living and quality of life, most Europeans have never had it so good. They don’t realise how radically things need to change in order that things may remain the same. It would take a new Winston Churchill to explain this to all Europeans.

Europe is sleepwalking to decline (via The Guardian) (via detectivesalvaje)

(Por Timothy Garton Ash – la frase “The current and emerging great powers of the 21st century, from the United States and China to Brazil and Russia, already treat European pretensions to be a major single player on the world stage with something close to contempt” es fuerte) ¿Será justificado todo ese euro-pesimismo de 2010?