The truth is that I can’t put down my pen: I think I’m going to have the Nausea and I feel as though I’m delaying it while writing. So I write whatever comes into my mind. Madeleine, who wants to please me, calls to me from the distance, holding up a record:
“Your record, Monsieur Antoine, the one you like, do you want to hear it for the last time?”
I said that out of politeness, but I don’t feel too well disposed to listen to jazz. Still, I’m going to pay attention because, as Madeleine says, I’m hearing it for the last time: it is very old, even too old for the provinces; I will look for it in vain in Paris. Madeleine goes and sets it on the gramophone, it is going to spin; in the grooves, the steel needle is going to start jumping and grinding and when the grooves will have spiralled it into the centre of the disc it will be finished and the hoarse voice singing “Some of these days” will be silent forever.
It begins. To think that there are idiots who get consolation from the fine arts. Like my Aunt Bigeois:
“Chopin’s Preludes were such a help to me when your poor uncle died.” And the concert halls overflow with humiliated, outraged people who close their eyes and try to turn their pale faces into receiving antennas. They imagine that the sounds flow into them, sweet, nourishing, and that their sufferings become music, like Werther; they think that beauty is compassionate to them. Mugs. I’d like them to tell me whether they find this music compassionate. A while ago I was certainly far from swimming in beatitudes. On the surface I was counting my money, mechanically. Underneath stagnated all those unpleasant thoughts which took the form of unformulated questions, mute astonishments and which leave me neither day nor night. Thoughts of Anny, of my wasted life. And then, still further down, Nausea, timid as dawn. But there was no music then, I was morose and calm.
All the things around me were made of the same material as I, a sort of messy suffering. The world was so ugly, outside of me, these dirty glasses on the table were so ugly, and the brown stains on the mirror and Madeleine’s apron and the friendly look of the gross lover of the patronne, the very existence of the world so ugly that I felt comfortable, at home.
Now there is this song on the saxophone. And I am ashamed. A glorious little suffering has just been born, an exemplary suffering. Four notes on the saxophone. They come and go, they seem to say: You must be like us, suffer in rhythm. All right! Naturally, I’d like to suffer that way, in rhythm, without complacence, without self-pity, with an arid purity. But is it my fault if the beer at the bottom of my glass is warm, if there are brown stains on the mirror, if I am not wanted, if the sincerest of my sufferings drags and weighs, with too much flesh and the skin too wide at the same time, like a sea elephant, with bulging eyes, damp and touching and yet so ugly? No, they certainly can’t tell me it’s compassionate—this little jewelled pain which spins around above the record and dazzles me. Not even ironic: it spins gaily, completely self-absorbed; like a scythe it has cut through the drab intimacy of the world and now it spins and all of us, Madeleine, the thick-set man, the patronne, myself, the tables, benches, the stained mirror, the glasses, all of us abandon ourselves to existence, because we were among ourselves, only among ourselves, it has taken us unawares, in the disorder, the day to day drift: I am ashamed for myself and for what exists in front of it.
It does not exist. It is even an annoyance; if I were to get up and rip this record from the table which holds it, if I were to break it in two, I wouldn’t reach it. It is beyond—always beyond something, a voice, a violin note. Through layers and layers of existence, it veils itself, thin and firm, and when you want to seize it, you find only existants, you butt against existants devoid of sense. It is behind them: I don’t even hear it, I hear sounds, vibrations in the air which unveil it. It does not exist because it has nothing superfluous: it is all the rest which in relation to it is superfluous. It is.
And I, too, wanted to be. That is all I wanted; this is the last word. At the bottom of all these attempts which seemed without bonds, I find the same desire again: to drive existence out of me, to rid the passing moments of their fat, to twist them, dry them, purify myself, harden myself, to give back at last the sharp, precise sound of a saxophone note. That could even make an apologue: there was a poor man who got in the wrong world. He existed, like other people, in a world of public parks, bistros, commercial cities and he wanted to persuade himself that he was living somewhere else, behind the canvas of paintings, with the doges of Tintoretto, with Gozzoli’s Florentines, behind the pages of books, with Fabrizio del Dongo and Julien Sorel, behind the phonograph records, with the long dry laments of jazz. And then, after making a complete fool of himself, he understood, he opened his eyes, he saw that it was a misdeal: he was in a bistro, just in front of a glass of warm beer. He stayed overwhelmed on the bench; he thought: I am a fool. And at that very moment, on the other side of existence, in this other world which you can see in the distance, but without ever approaching it, a little melody began to sing and dance: “You must be like me; you must suffer in rhythm.”
The voice sings:
Some of these days
You’ll miss me, honey
Someone must have scratched the record at that spot because it makes an odd noise. And there is something that clutches the heart: the melody is absolutely untouched by this tiny coughing of the needle on the record. It is so far—so far behind. I understand that too: the disc is scratched and is wearing out, perhaps the singer is dead; I’m going to leave, I’m going to take my train. But behind the existence which falls from one present to the other, without a past, without a future, behind these sounds which decompose from day to day, peel off and slip towards death, the melody stays the same, young and firm, like a pitiless witness.
The voice is silent. The disc scrapes a little, then stops. Delivered from a troublesome dream, the cafe ruminates, chews the cud over the pleasure of existing. The patronne’s face is flushed, she slaps the fat white cheeks of her new friend, but without succeeding in colouring them. Cheeks of a corpse. I stagnate, fall half-asleep. In fifteen minutes I will be on the train, but I don’t think about it. I think about a clean-shaven American with thick black eyebrows, suffocating with the heat, on the twenty-first floor of a New York skyscraper. The sky burns above New York, the blue of the sky is inflamed, enormous yellow flames come and lick the roofs; the Brooklyn children are going to put on bathing drawers and play under the water of a fire-hose. The dark room on the twenty-first floor cooks under a high pressure. The American with the black eyebrows sighs, gasps and the sweat rolls down his cheeks. He is sitting, in shirtsleeves, in front of his piano; he has a taste of smoke in his mouth and, vaguely, a ghost of a tune in his head. “Some of these days.” Continue reading
Hyperobjects are objects that are massively distributed in time and space: Plutonium (half-life of 24 100 years), global warming (7% of effects still occurring 100 000 years later), the BP oil slick. This massive distribution does various things to our perception of them, and to our ideas about what constitutes an “environment” and the significance of being human—among others.
Oil made me develop the metaphor that hyperobjects are viscous. Viscosity here means that the more you know about a hyperobject, the more entangled with it you realize you already are.
Hyperobjects thus push the reset button on what phenomenology (Levinas, Graham Harman) calls sincerity. Sincerity means that in the words of Buckaroo Banzai, “Wherever you go, there you are.” When I’m typing this, I’m totally absorbed in the typing. When I’m experiencing irony, there I am, feeling ironic. Sincerity eats irony! In Lacanian, “there is no metalanguage.”
This is a very curious phenomenon, one that confirms my suspicion that we have entered an ecological era. A few moments ago we were delighting in our ironic free play. Now it seems we’re stuck to the mirror, like Neo in that scene in The Matrix.
We are caught in object-ive existence whether we like it or not.
–– Timothy Morton, from his fascinating blog, ECOLOGY WITHOUT NATURE
A baby vomits curdled milk. She learns to distinguish between the vomit and the not-vomit, and comes to know the not-vomit as self. Every subject is formed at the expense of some viscous, slightly poisoned substance, possibly teeming with bacteria, rank with stomach acid. The parent scoops up the mucky milk in a tissue and flushes the wadded package down the toilet.
Now we know where it goes.
For some time we may have thought that the U-bend in the toilet was a convenient curvature of ontological space that took whatever we flush down it into a totally different dimension called Away, leaving things clean over here. Now we know better: instead of the mythical land Away, we know the waste goes to the Pacific Ocean or the wastewater treatment facility.
Knowledge of the hyperobject Earth, and of the hyperobject biosphere, presents us with viscous surfaces from which nothing can be forcibly peeled. There is no Away on this surface, no here and no there. In effect, the entire Earth is a wadded tissue of vomited milk.
— Timothy Morton, from “Hyperobjects” (University of Minnesota Press, 2013)
The first track off the album Split (4AD, 1994).
NB: not for the strait-laced! An experimental Freudian drama by Niki de Saint Phalle and Peter Whitehead. Grotesque, garish, ghastly… with an incredible piano-driven soundtrack that riffs on Cole Porter’s “My Heart Belongs To Daddy”. If you’re needing an antidote to all the commercial, anodyne Father’s Day bull, this should do the trick.
“If you think childlike, you’ll stay young. If you keep your energy going, and do everything with a little flair, you’re gonna stay young. But most people do things without energy, and they atrophy their mind as well as their body. You have to think young, you have to laugh a lot, and you have to have good feelings for everyone in the world, because if you don’t, it’s going to come inside, your own poison, and it’s over.”
— Jerry Lewis
Paul Simon and a wonderfully spunky child in improvisational counterpoint on the Muppet Show in 1977. Thank you to Genna Gardini for reminding me about this awkward, amazing moment. Read more on the Muppet Wiki.
Simon later would stress the concept of rhythm itself communicating a deeper message, and his earlier writing also demonstrates his dedication to making a deceptively simple rock and roll song embody a unified, total package in which each part must complement the others. “If you take a song that has some rhythm to it…and I don’t get the rhythm right… then the song doesn’t seem real.” With the right rhythm, though, “the listener gives up his defense. You’re willing to entertain a number of ideas, you’re having that good a time.” Rhythm, he said, “is good for lyrics that express emotion. And in allowing emotion to speak, rhythm connects us in anger or in love, to others.” Again, Simon stresses that the artist must communicate, and the songwriter´s communication must appeal to a sense well beyond that of the five recognized senses, a sense of rhythm innately found in songwriter and audience alike.