italo calvino – the distance of the moon (1965)

‘Like many a critical humanist before him, from Michel de Montaigne to Jonathan Swift, Calvino seems to wonder if our best intellectual efforts, even the sciences, fall subject to “the foibles and fancies of humans,” and to the askew narrative logic of folklore.’  I found this wonderful thing via Open Culture. I had to go and find the story on which the animation is based, and when I did, I had to share it with you, at new moon.

The Distance of the Moon

At one time, according to Sir George H. Darwin, the Moon was very close to the Earth. Then the tides gradually pushed her far away: the tides that the Moon herself causes in the Earth’s waters, where the Earth slowly loses energy.

How well I know! — old Qfwfq cried,– the rest of you can’t remember, but I can. We had her on top of us all the time, that enormous Moon: when she was full — nights as bright as day, but with a butter-colored light — it looked as if she were going to crush us; when she was new, she rolled around the sky like a black umbrella blown by the wind; and when she was waxing, she came forward with her horns so low she seemed about to stick into the peak of a promontory and get caught there. But the whole business of the Moon’s phases worked in a different way then: because the distances from the Sun were different, and the orbits, and the angle of something or other, I forget what; as for eclipses, with Earth and Moon stuck together the way they were, why, we had eclipses every minute: naturally, those two big monsters managed to put each other in the shade constantly, first one, then the other.

Orbit? Oh, elliptical, of course: for a while it would huddle against us and then it would take flight for a while. The tides, when the Moon swung closer, rose so high nobody could hold them back. There were nights when the Moon was full and very, very low, and the tide was so high that the Moon missed a ducking in the sea by a hair’s breadth; well, let’s say a few yards anyway. Climb up on the Moon? Of course we did. All you had to do was row out to it in a boat and, when you were underneath, prop a ladder against her and scramble up.

The spot where the Moon was lowest, as she went by, was off the Zinc Cliffs. We used to go out with those little rowboats they had in those days, round and flat, made of cork. They held quite a few of us: me, Captain Vhd Vhd, his wife, my deaf cousin, and sometimes little Xlthlx — she was twelve or so at that time. On those nights the water was very calm, so silvery it looked like mercury, and the fish in it, violet-colored, unable to resist the Moon’s attraction, rose to the surface, all of them, and so did the octopuses and the saffron medusas. There was always a flight of tiny creatures — little crabs, squid, and even some weeds, light and filmy, and coral plants — that broke from the sea and ended up on the Moon, hanging down from that lime-white ceiling, or else they stayed in midair, a phosphorescent swarm we had to drive off, waving banana leaves at them.

This is how we did the job: in the boat we had a ladder: one of us held it, another climbed to the top, and a third, at the oars, rowed until we were right under the Moon; that’s why there had to be so many of us (I only mentioned the main ones). The man at the top of the ladder, as the boat approached the Moon, would become scared and start shouting: “Stop! Stop! I’m going to bang my head!” That was the impression you had, seeing her on top of you, immense, and all rough with sharp spikes and jagged, saw-tooth edges. It may be different now, but then the Moon, or rather the bottom, the underbelly of the Moon, the part that passed closest to the Earth and almost scraped it, was covered with a crust of sharp scales. It had come to resemble the belly of a fish, and the smell too, as I recall, if not downright fishy, was faintly similar, like smoked salmon.

In reality, from the top of the ladder, standing erect on the last rung, you could just touch the Moon if you held your arms up. We had taken the measurements carefully (we didn’t yet suspect that she was moving away from us); the only thing you had to be very careful about was where you put your hands. I always chose a scale that seemed fast (we climbed up in groups of five or six at a time), then I would cling first with one hand, then with both, and immediately I would feel ladder and boat drifting away from below me, and the motion of the Moon would tear me from the Earth’s attraction. Yes, the Moon was so strong that she pulled you up; you realized this the moment you passed from one to the other: you had to swing up abruptly, with a kind of somersault, grabbing the scales, throwing your legs over your head, until your feet were on the Moon’s surface. Seen from the Earth, you looked as if you were hanging there with your head down, but for you, it was the normal position, and the only odd thing was that when you raised your eyes you saw the sea above you, glistening, with the boat and the others upside down, hanging like a bunch of grapes from the vine.

My cousin, the Deaf One, showed a special talent for making those leaps. His clumsy hands, as soon as they touched the lunar surface (he was always the first to jump up from the ladder), suddenly became deft and sensitive. They found immediately the spot where he could hoist himself up; in fact just the pressure of his palms seemed enough to make him stick to the satellite’s crust. Once I even thought I saw the Moon come toward him, as he held out his hands.

He was just as dextrous in coming back down to Earth, an operation still more difficult. For us, it consisted in jumping, as high as we could, our arms upraised (seen from the Moon, that is, because seen from the Earth it looked more like a dive, or like swimming downwards, arms at our sides), like jumping up from the Earth in other words, only now we were without the ladder, because there was nothing to prop it against on the Moon. But instead of jumping with his arms out, my cousin bent toward the Moon’s surface, his head down as if for a somersault, then made a leap, pushing with his hands. From the boat we watched him, erect in the air as if he were supporting the Moon’s enormous ball and were tossing it, striking it with his palms; then, when his legs came within reach, we managed to grab his ankles and pull him down on board.

Now, you will ask me what in the world we went up on the Moon for; I’ll explain it to you. We went to collect the milk, with a big spoon and a bucket. Moon-milk was very thick, like a kind of cream cheese. It formed in the crevices between one scale and the next, through the fermentation of various bodies and substances of terrestrial origin which had flown up from the prairies and forests and lakes, as the Moon sailed over them. It was composed chiefly of vegetal juices, tadpoles, bitumen, lentils, honey, starch crystals, sturgeon eggs, molds, pollens, gelatinous matter, worms, resins, pepper, mineral salts, combustion residue. You had only to dip the spoon under the scales that covered the Moon’s scabby terrain, and you brought it out filled with that precious muck. Not in the pure state, obviously; there was a lot of refuse. In the fermentation (which took place as the Moon passed over the expanses of hot air above the deserts) not all the bodies melted; some remained stuck in it: fingernails and cartilage, bolts, sea horses, nuts and peduncles, shards of crockery, fishhooks, at times even a comb. So this paste, after it was collected, had to be refined, filtered. But that wasn’t the difficulty: the hard part was transporting it down to the Earth. This is how we did it: we hurled each spoonful into the air with both hands, using the spoon as a catapult. The cheese flew, and if we had thrown it hard enough, it stuck to the ceiling, I mean the surface of the sea. Once there, it floated, and it was easy enough to pull it into the boat. In this operation, too, my deaf cousin displayed a special gift; he had strength and a good aim; with a single, sharp throw, he could send the cheese straight into a bucket we held up to him from the boat. As for me, I occasionally misfired; the contents of the spoon would fail to overcome the Moon’s attraction and they would fall back into my eye.

I still haven’t told you everything, about the things my cousin was good at. That job of extracting lunar milk from the Moon’s scales was child’s play to him: instead of the spoon, at times he had only to thrust his bare hand under the scales, or even one finger. He didn’t proceed in any orderly way, but went to isolated places, jumping from one to the other, as if he were playing tricks on the Moon, surprising her, or perhaps tickling her. And wherever he put his hand, the milk spurted out as if from a nanny goat’s teats. So the rest of us had only to follow him and collect with our spoons the substance that he was pressing out, first here, then there, but always as if by chance, since the Deaf One’s movements seemed to have no clear, practical sense.

There were places, for example, that he touched merely for the fun of touching them: gaps between two scales, naked and tender folds of lunar flesh. At times my cousin pressed not only his fingers but — in a carefully gauged leap — his big toe (he climbed onto the Moon barefoot) and this seemed to be the height of amusement for him, if we could judge by the chirping sounds that came from his throat as he went on leaping. The soil of the Moon was not uniformly scaly, but revealed irregular bare patches of pale, slippery clay.

These soft areas inspired the Deaf One to turn somersaults or to fly almost like a bird, as if he wanted to impress his whole body into the Moon’s pulp. As he ventured farther in this way, we lost sight of him at one point. On the Moon there were vast areas we had never had any reason or curiosity to explore, and that was where my cousin vanished; I had suspected that all those somersaults and nudges he indulged in before our eyes were only a preparation, a prelude to something secret meant to take place in the hidden zones.

We fell into a special mood on those nights off the Zinc Cliffs: gay, but with a touch of suspense, as if inside our skulls, instead of the brain, we felt a fish, floating, attracted by the Moon. And so we navigated, playing and singing. The Captain’s wife played the harp; she had very long arms, silvery as eels on those nights, and armpits as dark and mysterious as sea urchins; and the sound of the harp was sweet and piercing, so sweet and piercing it was almost unbearable, and we were forced to let out long cries, not so much to accompany the music as to protect our hearing from it. Continue reading

simone weil – the ring of gyges

REMEMBER MARIKANA

simone weil gravity and grace… We set things aside without knowing we are doing so; that is precisely where the danger lies. Or, which is still worse, we set them aside by an act of the will, but by an act of the will that is furtive in relation to ourselves. Afterwards we do not any longer know that we have set anything aside. We do not want to know it, and, by dint of not wanting to know it, we reach the point of not being able to know it.

This faculty of setting things aside opens the door to every sort of crime. Outside those departments where education and training have forged solid links, it provides a key to absolute licence. That is what makes it possible for men to behave in such an incoherent fashion, particularly wherever the social, collective emotions play a part (war, national or class hatreds, patriotism for a party or a church). Whatever is surrounded with the prestige of the social element is set in a different place from other things and is exempt from certain connexions.

We also make use of this key when we give way to the allurements of pleasure.
I use it when, day after day, I put off the fulfillment of some obligation. I separate the obligation and the passage of time.

There is nothing more desirable than to get rid of this key. It should be thrown to the bottom of a well whence it can never again be recovered.

The ring of Gyges who has become invisible—this is precisely the act of setting aside: setting oneself aside from the crime one commits; not establishing the connexion between the two.

The act of throwing away the key, of throwing away the ring of Gyges—this is the effort proper to the will. It is the act by which, in pain and blindness, we make our way out of the cave. Gyges: ‘I have become king, and the other king has been assassinated.’ No connexion whatever between these two things. There we have the ring!

remember-marikana

The owner of a factory: ‘I enjoy this and that expensive luxury and my workmen are miserably poor.’ He may be very sincerely sorry for his workmen and yet not form the connexion.

For no connexion is formed if thought does not bring it about. Two and two remain indefinitely as two and two unless thought adds them together to make them into four.
We hate the people who try to make us form the connexions we do not want to form.

Justice consists of establishing between analogous things connexions identical with those between similar terms, even when some of these things concern us personally and are an object of attachment for us.

This virtue is situated at the point of contact of the natural and the supernatural. It belongs to the realm of the will and of clear understanding, hence it is part of the cave (for our clarity is a twilight), but we cannot hold on to it unless we pass into the light.

REMEMBER MARIKANA.

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Excerpted from Simone Weil‘s Gravity and Grace. First French edition 1947. Translated by Emma Crawford. English language edition 1963. Routledge and Kegan Paul, London.

henk oosterling on science, myth, and deleuze and guattari’s dogon egg

Originally published in: “Oedipus and the Dogon: Myth of Modernity interrogated” in: H. Kimmerle (ed.). I, We and Body. Amsterdam 1989, p.27-45.

Dogon egg

Dogon egg

Let’s return to our initial question: does myth function in Western discourse and how does it function in this specific Western discourse that Capitalisme et Schizophrénie, in spite of all its radical intentions, still is? Is it an ideal that the writers want to revive and transform in order to solve specific Western problems? Is it the answer? Or is it only an illustration of another organisation of our desires that they propose? Is there any presciptive value, or do they offer it to the reader as a description that has an indirect critical function?

Well, whatever their intentions may be, to me it can’t be more than an aesthetic proposal for another body experience or an example of how actual and historical forces inhabit the individual body. In showing an articulation of the Other and opening up a space in which difference productively emerges, one is able to develop a critical instrument. As such, the Dogon myth can function as an actual figuration of that limit conception, that Artaud named the “body without organs”. As Deleuze and Guattari say themselves: the Dogon egg is a splendid theory of signs. It provides a theory of signification. But I think that, once we look at the Dogon society, we also become aware of hidden and condemned aspects of our own society, aspects we can’t see any more because of the apparent disappearance of the constitutive power of myth and religion.

This book reveals how desire is inscribed in the body in a cruel way and connected, by ignoring the mediating role of the family, immediately to the social field and history. It shows us a different meaning of time. The thinking of the Dogon is focused to the past, not the future, and completely unfamiliar with the idea of development and fulfilment in a near future. The time circle is oriented to the star Sirius which eclipses every sixty years, in which Dogon society revitalises itself. History, social planning and collective self-realisation find their essential expression in the Dogon egg. Its constituting power can open our eyes to the ritualizing functions of science in our modern educational and therapeutical practices, that can be recognized as rituals, in which science tries to fasten its grip on the body. Generally speaking it focuses our attention on the implicit mythological and ritualizing aspects of modern science.

I’m not sure whether I can draw this parallel, but perhaps we can recognize this tension in the recent discussion in Africa about the status of philosophy. On one side the oral traditions and the local systems of thought are emphasised as the original form of African philosophy, which is qualified as ‘ethnophilosophy’. On the other side, one tries to bring, by means of a theoretical instrumentation, these local stories onto a theoretical level. This discussion touches our issue because the relation between myth and science here also seems to be the main target. The critics of ethnophilosophy are aiming their attack on the irrational elements in the local systems of thought. The modernist tendency in African thinking would rather strip itself of these irrational elements.

In an article entitled Mythe et philosophie – Réponse à Elungu, Towa et autres, Irung Ishitambal’a Mulang(1) criticizes the radical division between these two points of view. In the English summary it is stated:

“The radical dichotomy between the rational and the mythopoeic is misleading, since philosophical thought, from presocratic to present times, is informed in no small measure by mythical elements. Not only have thinkers like Plato and Marx used forms of expression that properly belong to myth but, too, philosophers and philosophy as such can’t proceed without in some measure having recourse to these forms of expression.”

Here I would like to assert that in Western thought, in spite of the fact that we have tried to banish myth in a radical way from our conception of world and history, we involuntarily reintroduced it in a very peculiar way. In order to display this point to its full extent I refer to a discussion which has been initiated decennia ago by Adorno and Horkheimer in their Dialektik der Aufklärung. They state that the rational discourse of Enlightenment, which has become the dominating discourse in Western philosophy, has produced a new myth: the autonomous subject. Although modern philosophy flatters itself with the thought that it completely freed itself from the shackles of mythology and externally imposed authority in the form of religion, many 20th century philosophers have recognized the fact that, as in myth, Enlightenment gets trapped in mythology with each step it takes in order to enlarge the distance between itself and mythology.

In the beginning of the Enlightenment, myth seemed to be transformed into sheer objectivity: the project of the Encyclopedia tried to objectify religious and mythical phenomena and transform them into positive forms of knowledge. Further on, Kant grounded this knowledge in the transparency of the autonomous, self-reflexive subject. But, as Adorno and Horkheimer conclude, this subject, who thought he was the lord of creation and the driving force of history, became a myth himself. His urge to develop and to finalize, to objectify and dominate, has produced counterforces which he can no longer control.(2)

Adorno and Horkheimer come to the same conclusion as Mulang: myth and enlightenment are interrelated. Historically we can easily locate the perverted effects of the irrationality of the enlightened bourgeois society in our time: in fascism the lower middle class embraced a secularized myth. It used and destroyed democracy and autonomous subjectivity in favour of technological violence in order to physically destroy the Other: Jews, gypsies, communists and homosexuals. But in spite of its perversion it did not solely function in a negative way by providing a justification for racism, totalitarianism and genocide. Myth also offered to a completely destroyed community, as postwar Germany obviously was, a new identity and feeling of solidarity. It connected German society once more with ongoing historical events. In other words, the functions of myth were apparently still very active in this proclaimed rational society.

(1) Irung Ishitambal’a Mulang, “Mythe et philosophie: Réponse à Elungu, Towa et autres”. In:Quest, vol. 1 no. 1, 1987, p. 12.

(2) Max Horkheimer/Theodor W. Adorno, Dialektik der Aufklärung. Amsterdam 1947, p. 22.

This excerpted from the essay published HERE.

ravel – shéhérazade, part II – la flûte enchantée

(Bożena Bujnicka – soprano, Paweł Sommer – piano)
A song cycle by Ravel, first performed in 1904. More information about the composition can be found HERE.

The shade is soft and my master sleeps
Wearing a conical hat of silk,
His long yellow nose in his white beard.
But me, I’m yet awake,
Listening to the melody of a flute outside
which pours forth, in turns, sadness and joy,
An air in turns languid or frivolous,
Which my darling love plays.
And when I approach the window,
It seems to me that each note flies
From the flute to my cheek
Like a mysterious kiss.

kay nielsen_arabian_nights

L’ombre est douce et mon maître dort
Coiffé d’un bonnet conique de soie
Et son long nez jaune en sa barbe blanche.
Mais moi, je suis éveillée encor
Et j’écoute au dehors
Une chanson de flûte où s’épanche
Tour à tour la tristesse ou la joie.
Un air tour à tour langoureux ou frivole
Que mon amoureux chéri joue,
Et quand je m’approche de la croisée
Il me semble que chaque note s’envole
De la flûte vers ma joue
Comme un mystérieux baiser.

 

“if i get killed, please don’t bury my soul”

The New York Times recently published an evocative long-form article penned by John Jeremiah Sullivan about the enigmatic Geeshie Wiley and Elvie Thomas, woman blues musicians who haunt the archive with just six songs ever recorded, pressed on cheap, poor quality 78s by Paramount in 1930, as was the custom with “race” records not intended for mainstream markets.

I have been gripped on every listening by “Last Kind Words Blues” since I first heard it on the soundtrack to Crumb in the late ’90s (the same place Sullivan did), so I understood what Caitlyn Love, who did much of the the on-the-ground research for Sullivan, meant about its haunting her. From her blog:

When I first started doing research for John Jeremiah Sullivan for his article about Geeshie Wiley and Elvie Thomas, two women who changed American music and then vanished without a trace, I kept Wiley’s song “Last Kind Words Blues” on repeat for days. I hadn’t listened closely to her songs before this project, but I was aware of the mythology around them. Now, I found myself hearing something new: a haunting, a mystery.

I began my research splitting time between the Clayton Library Center for Genealogical Research, hunting among death, birth and marriage records, and the Houston Metropolitan Research Center, looking through old maps, photographs and city-directory records. All of these materials provided context for the era that Lillie Mae (Geetchie) Wiley and L.V. Thomas lived through.

Eventually we learned a great deal about Thomas’s personal history. But leads to Wiley went nowhere. I made myself dizzy scrolling through rolls of microfilm to find any meaningful clue. She had disappeared. The trail only picked up once, but it picked up sharply.

 “We may have found Geeshie’s grave yesterday. Not 100 percent but optimistic,” John wrote in an email to editors at the magazine.

Continue reading about Caitlyn Love’s quest HERE.

Read John Jeremiah Sullivan’s piece HERE – it’s beautifully written, and reflects in deep ways on the romance and violence of the archive.

And this is the short version of the story, from a Youtube comment posted last week:

It is now believed that Elvie (L.V. Thomas nee Grant) and Geechie (Lillie Mae Wiley) recorded all of their songs in Grafton, WI for Paramount in 1930. According to L.V., she would play and Geechie would “bass” behind her or she’d play (guitar) and Geechie would “bass” behind her. Thus, it might very well be Geechie we hear doing this fine guitar work. L.V. turned her back on the blues (life) and dedicated herself to her local church in Texas. Geeshie disappeared into the unknown. Recent records indicate she killed her husband with a knife in 1931. She may have changed her name/I.D. to avoid being found.

motherless child blues

wislawa szymborska – consolation

Darwin.
They say he read novels to relax,
But only certain kinds:
nothing that ended unhappily.
If anything like that turned up,
enraged, he flung the book into the fire.

True or not,
I’m ready to believe it.

Scanning in his mind so many times and places,
he’d had enough of dying species,
the triumphs of the strong over the weak,
the endless struggles to survive,
all doomed sooner or later.
He’d earned the right to happy endings,
at least in fiction
with its diminutions.

Hence the indispensable
silver lining,
the lovers reunited, the families reconciled,
the doubts dispelled, fidelity rewarded,
fortunes regained, treasures uncovered,
stiff-necked neighbours mending their ways,
good names restored, greed daunted,
old maids married off to worthy parsons,
troublemakers banished to other hemispheres,
forgers of documents tossed down the stairs,
seducers scurrying to the altar,
orphans sheltered, widows comforted,
pride humbled, wounds healed over,
prodigal sons summoned home,
cups of sorrow thrown into the ocean,
hankies drenched with tears of reconciliation,
general merriment and celebration,
and the dog Fido,
gone astray in the first chapter,
turns up barking gladly
in the last.