Fragments of another world

[Because this post relies on images and captions to images, neither of which renders well on smartphones, in my experience, I suggest you view it on a computer or tablet for an optimal experience.]

As I proceed with my work on A Certain Gesture: Evnine’s Batman Meme Project and Its Parerga!, I find myself thinking not infrequently “I wish I had paid more attention as a child.” I am time and again led right up to the edge of my recollection of people, events, and objects that populated my childhood, each carrying so much, not just of their own histories, but of my history. They were messengers from the worlds that made me, messengers that I heeded far too little. Now, as I try to comprehend some of those worlds, I am frequently baffled, their inhabitants hovering just beyond my grasp. I wish I had paid more attention as a child.

When I began writing this post, over two years ago(!), I had a dim sense that many of these isolated fragments, these messengers, some material and others lodged only in my memory, were connected with the world of Russian Jewish émigrés in New York (often via London, Paris, and Berlin). As I have resumed and intensified my work on the post in the last week or so, this suspicion has been confirmed. This post, therefore, is something of a companion piece to this earlier one, which it intersects at one point I will indicate when we get there.

On a wall in my home in Miami , there hangs this wonderful picture:

It was painted by Nina Evnin, the first wife of my father’s uncle, and dated 1947, the year my parents were married. My parents were, in fact, introduced through the joint efforts of Nina and my mother’s mother, Lillian Kruskal Oppenheimer. Nina and Lillian were good friends and had probably become acquainted owing to the business connections between their husbands, Oscar Evnin and Joseph Kruskal, both furriers in New York. After he was demobbed from the British Army in 1946, my father went from London to New York to learn the business from Uncle Oscar and, presciently, Nina and Lillian saw the potential for a match.

Moscow 1904. Great-uncle Oscar is the little boy on the floor. Brunya (that is, Abraham Jonah, from whom I get my middle name Jonah), my father’s father, is second from the right. The parents are Bezalel and Zissia (née Eitingon; we will meet her again). Bezalel was the son of Nosen Neta Evnin, whose rabbinic writings are listed in my post A Yiddish Meme. Nosen Neta, a rabbi in the Pale of Settlement, certainly spoke Yiddish. Did Bezalel, a member of the Moscow bourgeoisie? I remember a spirited argument across many years between my father and my brother-in-law’s uncle over this question – but unfortunately I cannot now recall the details. One of them, I think, maintained categorically that all Moscow Jews did not (or perhaps did) speak Yiddish.

Brunya and Oscar were the lucky ones among the children. The two daughters, Julia standing and Raya sitting, died young, possibly both by suicide over unhappy love affairs. Another brother Mordecai (Motty – an Eitingon name), standing next to Brunya, was killed in World War I. The saturnine man on the left was Julia’s husband.

This photo is itself an artifact that pervaded my childhood, no doubt influencing my, and certainly my father’s, conception of what a family is. I will spare the reader the sight of an attempt my immediate family made to produce our own comparable photo in 1973.

Given the date of Nina’s picture and her role in my parent’s marriage, I conjecture that the painting was given to them by her as a wedding gift. It was a fixture of my childhood and when, in 1977, my parents disassembled the home in which I was born and grew up, I took possession of it. I have always loved it.

Ubiquitous through my childhood, too, were Kruskal Furs pencils. My grandmother Lillian must have brought them on her visits to us in London, or perhaps my mother had a vast supply as part of her trousseau! They came in two thicknesses, one fatter and one (pictured) thinner than a standard pencil. (Were those odd sizes themselves standard in some place, at some time? I remember feeling their strangeness in my hand as a child.) Now, fifty years later, this lonely pencil, in the possession of my sister, is the only one I know of still in existence.

Joseph Kruskal arrived in America a four-year-old, impoverished, fatherless boy, from Estonia in 1896. Some of the history of the Kruskal family is told in Two Baltic Families Who Came to America: The Jacobsons and the Kruskals, 1870-1970, by Richard Brown. I remember its author, Dick Brown, coming from the US to visit in the early seventies. “Dick is writing a book”, I would hear. Very likely, he stayed with us. But I never really knew who he was! (His mother was a Kruskal.) As for Joseph Kruskal, before he died in 1949, he made, lost, and remade a fortune with his fur business, Kruskal & Kruskal, Inc., which operated, as the pencil informs us, from 150 W. 30th St from 1932 until 1986 (and before that, from another Manhattan address). You can read a brief account of the business here, under “Kruskal, Malvin & Co., Furs.” And here is an (undated) picture of the W. 30th St. building, with a billboard for my grandfather’s firm. If the firm was there until 1986, surely I must have been taken to visit it on one of our not-infrequent trips to the US? But if so, I have no memory of it.

Some time in my mid-teens, under circumstances that now escape me entirely, I was, for a very brief period (possibly as brief as a single day), close to Nina. She and Oscar had divorced around 1949 or 1950 but, I suppose through her friendship with Lillian, she remained in my immediate family’s orbit. She took me on my first visit to the Guggenheim Museum. I do remember walking down the spiral ramp, stopping to look at pictures, and, filled with awe, hearing her tell me how she knew this painter and had been painted by that one. Alas, I don’t now remember which painters she was talking about. Perhaps, among others, her renowned teacher, Sergey Sudeikin, who painted this very beguiling portrait of her?

Portrait of Nina Schick by Sergei Sudeikin. I believe the painting is in the possession of her son, Tony Evnin. The photo, from The Oklahoman, is by Steve Sisney. The painting was in Oklahoma for an exhibition “American Artists from the Russian Empire” at the Fred Jones Jr. Museum of Art, 2008-9.

Above, I said that the Evnin and Kruskal families must have known each other through their common involvement in the New York fur trade. But there is a particular reason why they should have been on familiar terms. The matriarch in the imposing family photo above was, you may remember, Zissia, née Eitingon. She was, in other words, part of the vast Eitingon clan about whom my distant cousin, Mary-Kay Wilmers, has written a fascinating book, The Eitingons: A Twentieth Century Story (2012). One of the most prominent of the Eitingons was Motty, a second cousin to Zissia (whose eldest son, recall, was Motty too). Motty Eitingon was a towering figure in the international fur business. He was almost certainly exploited by the US government to open unofficial channels with the Soviet Union. And in 1928, Wilmers tells us, his company, Eitingon Schild, which according the New York Times was the “dominant skin dealer of the industry,” acquired Kruskal & Kruskal, Inc., “the largest coat jobber in the fur trade” (NYT quoted in Wilmers, p. 91). So the Evnins and the Kruskals were already connected in New York even before Oscar and Nina arrived there from Paris (where they had gone from Russia).

Other prominent Eitingon relatives of mine, about whom Wilmers writes and who will appear in A Certain Gesture: Evnine’s Batman Meme Project and Its Parerga!, include Max and Leonid. Max Eitingon was a psychoanalyst, a close associate of Freud, and the source of money for much of the early psychoanalytic movement. He was among the founders of the Berlin Psychoanalytic Institute, which formalized the method of instruction for trainee psychoanalysts (lectures, training analysis, supervision of cases) that still goes by the name of the ‘Eitingon method.’ Leonid (Nachum) Eitingon was a major figure in the NKVD/KGB. It was he, in fact, who organized the assassination of Trotsky, recruiting Ramón Mercader, developing his cover, and waiting around the corner from Trotsky’s compound, ready to whisk Mercader away if the need arose. (It did not; Mercader was apprehended by the police.) Another of his exploits is the stuff of fiction. Around 1943, Leonid trained Nikolai Khokhlov, a Russian vaudeville performer (an “artistic whistler”), over a year and a half, to impersonate a German officer. When he was finally ready, Khokhlov parachuted into Minsk under the name “Lieutenant Otto Witgenstein” and successfully completed his mission of blowing up Wilhelm Kube, the “Butcher of Belorussia” (Wilmers, pp. 340-1).

Motty Eitingon, with his great wealth, was a patron to many artists, especially musicians. One passage about this in Wilmers’ book especially caught my attention:

In October 1927… when it was announced that the young violinist Benno Rabinof would shortly make his debut at Carnegie Hall, the New York Times reported that for many years the boy from the East Side ‘with a hunger for music’ had been looked after by a guardian angel in the form of ‘Motti Eitingon, a New York merchant, who was so convinced of his future that he took the financial cares off the family’s shoulders.’ … On occasions like this it’s not hard to see — or rather it’s hard not to see — Motty as a money man with a soft heart in the old Hollywood mode. (p. 210-1)

When I read this passage, I remembered another object from my youth, an LP that, at least for a certain period of time, I listened to a lot:

In my mid to late teens, I thought I was going to be a composer. Around 1975 or 1976, just after the death of Benno Rabinof, I went to visit Sylvia Rabinof, his widow, accompanist, and a very prominent musician in her own right, in New York. The visit must have been arranged through the good offices either of Lillian or Nina (was this on the same visit during which Nina took me to the Guggenheim?), one or both of whom must have been friendly with the Rabinofs. Sylvia was nice but did not think much, I understood, of those of my compositions that I showed her. (I had a similarly discouraging experience around that time in London, with the composer Joseph Horovitz, though I don’t remember which mutual friend facilitated the meeting.)

Although Benno and Sylvia did not record much — they preferred live performance and teaching — it seems they were quite significant. Benno studied with the great violinist and teacher Leopold Auer. (Perhaps Motty Eitingon payed for these lessons.) Auer’s other students included David and Jascha Heifitz and Efrem Zimbalist. Zimbalist was another Russian Jewish émigré whose son, Efrem Zimbalist Jr., was the star of The F.B.I., a television show from the mid-60s whose opening (“A QM [Quinn Martin] production, starring Efrem Zimbalist Jr.”) has stayed in my mind for over 50 years. (Efrem Zimbalist Jr., by the way, played Alfred Pennyworth, the Wayne family old retainer, in the animated Batman series from the 60s. In another post, I made a surprising discovery about the actor, Alan Napier, who played Alfred in the live action series from that time!)

Another student of Auer’s was yet another Russian Jewish émigrée, Clara Rockmore (née Reisenberg). Rockmore was forced to give up the violin owing to tendinitis but struck up a connection with another Russian then living in the United States, Léon Theremin, inventor of the theremin, and so became the first player to bring a high level of artistry to the newly invented instrument. (Theremin proposed to her but she declined.) Here she is playing Saint-Saëns’ The Swan. If you’ve never seen a theremin played, it’s worth a look.

As I was writing this, I suddenly recalled that my grandmother, Lillian, herself owned a theremin! In fact, I have now convinced myself that I remember trying it out at a young age, though I suspect this is not a genuine memory. Whether or not I did, when I was old enough to care, Lillian no longer owned it. Surely she, and Nina, must have known Theremin and Rockmore. Perhaps, like Rockmore, her theremin was even given to her by its inventor. While I don’t have Lillian’s theremin, I do have, still in my possession, a book that probably belonged to my mother in the 1930s and 40s (she was a clarinetist of no mean accomplishment) that explains all the different musical instruments. It was invaluable to me in my own attempts at composition, giving the ranges of the different instruments, the clefs their parts are written in, and so on. It also had, for each instrument, a picture of someone playing it. Even as a teenager, I found the old-fashioned quality of these pictures remarkable. Truly up to the minute, the book includes the theremin.

Picture of a theremin in Arthur Edward Johnstone’s Instruments of the Modern Symphony Orchestra and Band, revised and augmented edition by Dr. Edwin J. Stringham (New York, 1930). The instruments are pictured with members of the New York Philharmonic Society, the Metropolitan Opera House Orchestra, and the Goldman Band. The book sometimes calls the theremin a “Victor Theremin” or “Victor-Theremin.” Theremin sold the production rights for his machine to RCA in 1928, and RCA acquired the Victor Talking Machine Company in 1929, the outcome of which was RCA Victor (and the Victrola). I assume this is the origin of the name of the theremin in this book, though I have seen it used nowhere else.

What, I imagine you asking, does all this – interesting as it may be – have to do with A Certain Gesture: Evnine’s Batman Meme Project and Its Parerga!? Let me tell you. It has precisely three things to do with it. First, some of the people I discuss here will appear in the book. Secondly, the post itself functions as a kind of personal “cabinet of curiosities,” and the cabinet of curiosities, the Wunderkammer, is one of the forms under which I conceive of my book as a whole. But the third connection is the most significant.

I hope it is evident that my fascination with the image of Batman slapping Robin is fueled by real psychological sources. Among them is the fact that, as a young boy of around seven, I participated in the making of some films by my older brother and his friends (who were around 16 years old). I had, not long before these films were made, been given, as a birthday present, a Batman mask, cape, and vambraces. (I mention this in an interview I gave about my book in which I incorrectly call the vambraces ‘grieves.’) Perhaps because of the presence of this gift, or my evident enthusiasm for Batman, my brother and his friends incorporated a scene into their film in which Batman and Robin appear. Although the Batman gear was mine, and although it was, evidently, comically small on these 16 year olds, I was only allowed to play Robin in the scene while one of the friends played Batman. I will discuss this scene at much greater length in the course of my book – there are depths to the significance of that episode for my current book that I am not even hinting at here. But here is one still from the film. And as you can see, Nina’s painting hangs on the wall behind Batman’s head!

A still from a film made by my brother and his friends. The author, age seven, is Robin.

Holy podcast, Batman!

My colleague from Religious Studies, Professor Robyn Walsh, is teaching a class Star Wars and Religion. Part of how she is continuing to teach her class during the plague is by making podcasts and she has done one with me, on the grounds that there are Baby Yoda memes.

BabyYoda
Thing I learnt while preparing for the podcast

I had a very enjoyable conversation with Robyn and we talked about my book-in-progress, A Certain Gesture: Evnine’s Batman Meme Project and Its Parerga!, autotheory, the ontology of memes, spirit versus letter in St Paul, Star Wars, and yes, Baby Yoda memes (it’s Robyn who has all the cool things to say about that!).

On the matter of genre: auto-theory, in the form of philosophy, in the form of an art catalogue

Whenever I have to describe my book-in-progress, A Certain Gesture: Evnine’s Batman Meme Project and Its Parerga!, I find myself at a loss. I literally do not know what kind of a work it is. This is one of the things that makes work on it so exciting. But there are contexts – such as approaching a publisher – where I cannot simply enjoy my own flailing around and have to try to epitomize the book. Here is something I have written for just such a purpose:

My book defies easy categorization or description. Its outer form is that of an art catalogue in which an editor presents a body of art works and provides commentaries on their formal and material features. The art works being catalogued are over 100 memes, made by me, that use the image of Batman slapping Robin.

canvas

Though no secret is made of the fact that the artist of the memes and the editor of the catalogue are one and the same, as editor I write as if the artist were another person, imposing limits on myself about what I can ‘know’ of him and his intentions.

The commentaries, which make up the bulk of the book, vary in form, length, and style. They deal with issues in philosophy, both in a narrow sense (meaning, naming, the relations between spoken and written language, ontology, paradoxes, etc., couched in the idiom of contemporary analytic philosophy) and in a much broader sense, taking in literary interpretation, theology, Judaism, and, above all, psychoanalysis. Thus, at the next level in, the work’s form is that of a series of complexly interlocking essays and reflections, played out through the memes themselves and the commentaries on them, about broadly philosophical themes.

The description above notwithstanding, it is hard to say, more precisely, what the book is about. The main reason for this is that the book is, by design, a statement against the totalization that is characteristic of contemporary academic writing. Such writing is supposed to have a single identifiable subject matter, a thesis, and an organization around that thesis that leaves every part accounted for. My work deliberately defies these norms. Epitomizing my career-wide pattern of wide and unusual interests leading to publications in substantially different areas, this book is marked by an eclecticism that is theorized, in the book itself, under the headings of the cabinet of curiosities and free association (both of which are explicitly discussed). In this respect, the work is, in spirit and form, both pre- and post-modern.

The image of the memes is central to the book. It is a depiction of an act of violence by an older man directed at an adolescent. Before the idea of the book was born, I had made, and posted on Facebook, a number of memes using this image. The book began to take shape as I explored in my own psychoanalytic treatment why I was so attracted to the image. It thus came to serve as a focal point for many personal issues in my life. Some of these issues are confronted in the book, making the form of the book, at its innermost core, that of a piece of self-writing, of auto-theory, in which the personal and the philosophical are inextricably entangled.

So, auto-theory, in the form of philosophy, in the form of an art catalogue.

The tension between the actualities of my book and the norms of contemporary academic writing is encapsulated in the key notion of the parergon. A parergon (or paratext, when the ergon, or work, is a text) is both part of and outside its associated work. It mediates the work’s place in the world at large and defines its unity. The parergon functions at several levels throughout my book. In the title, there is a distinction between the Batman Meme Project (the first 40 or so of the memes, which were posted on Facebook between January and March 2016) and the memes created after the declared completion of the Batman Meme Project. The text in the book is also a parergon to the memes themselves, an editorial frame around them. And this is associated with the crucial split in the work’s voice between the ‘silent’ artist of the memes, the nominal focus of attention, and the parergonal editor whose official role of commentator is belied by his identity with the artist. Finally, the work of the book is itself continued in further writing around it, now published on my blog, The Parergon. In all these cases, the parerga function to put in question just what the work itself is, what is part of it and what incidental to it. Lacking clear boundaries, lacking an identifiable genre, lacking a single voice in which it is spoken, the work is barely a work. There is, instead, a field of activity, a rhizome, to use Deleuze’s and Guattari’s term.

 A Certain Gesture is cerebral, playful, social, and intensely personal. Parts of it are academic philosophy (though written with the non-specialist reader in mind); parts are funny or absurd; parts are intimate and personal; and parts are about wondrous things of general interest. Many parts are all of these things.

Interview with the author

The Parergon sat down for an in-depth conversation with Simon Evnine, the author of A Certain Gesture: Evnine’s Batman Meme Project and Its Parerga! (in progress).

TP: Thanks so much for talking with us about what sounds like a fascinating book. Perhaps we could begin with your telling our readers what the book will be like. It’s rather unusual.

SE: Thanks, yes, it is unusual. It is a kind of post-modern literary work that will have the form of, indeed will be, an art catalogue. The ‘art works’ are over a hundred memes I have made using the image of Batman slapping Robin. I will provide editorial commentary on these memes, written as if I, the editor, were not the same person as the one who made the memes. Within that outer form, the book will mix philosophy, psychoanalysis, and literary criticism with writing about myself.

TP: So, I have to ask, are you a big fan of Batman?

SE: Oddly, I am not particularly a fan of Batman. I never read superhero comics as a kid and although I think I have seen one or two of the many Batman movies that have been made since the 1980s, I couldn’t tell you which ones. The only ‘incarnation’ of Batman that has meant anything at all to me, and that still dominates my imagination with respect to the character, was the TV show from the 1960s with Adam West and Burt Ward.

TP: What do you like about that show?

SE: Well, everyone goes on about its campiness. I don’t know how much that was part of my enjoyment of it as young boy but I certainly think I…

TP: KAPOW!!

SE: Er, yes. Right. All that. I’m pretty sure though that…

TP: THWACK! BOFF!!!

SE: Yes. May I finish?

TP: Sorry.

SE: I think I did respond to its campiness in some way. And I think I was somehow, also, identifying with something in the show, perhaps with the character of Robin (I had three siblings quite a bit older than me) though perhaps also with Batman. I had a Batman mask, cape, and… I don’t know what to call them, but you put them over your forearms. Are those ‘greaves’? I got them as a birthday present.

TP: I see.

SE: If I might add, that show was also the site of early, indeed premature, sexual knowledge. I’m pretty sure that I learned the word “catamite” in connection with it. And my father would call Robin “Batman’s little buggery boy.” I would have been between 6 and 9 years old.

TP: Oh wow! And what about the particular image of Batman slapping Robin that features in your book? Does that have some special meaning for you?

SE: The slap. The slap is about shame. Robin’s shame for whatever he’s being slapped for, his shame for being the victim of the slap, Batman’s shame for his capacity for violence towards one he loves. The slap brings the blood to your cheek; it makes you blush – the visible mark of shame. A lot of the book is about shame.

TP: Shame over?

SE:  You’ll have to read the book to find out. Seriously, though, I can’t really say over what. It’s an emotion that dominates my life. I could take a stab at some of the reasons… but really….

TP: In that image, what, reduced to their simplest reciprocal form, are Robin’s thoughts about Batman’s thoughts about Robin and about Batman’s thoughts about Robin’s thoughts about Batman?

SE: Well, he thinks that he thinks that he is a child whereas he knows that he knows that he knows that he is not.

TP: What is the thesis of the book? It’s a philosophy book, I think I’ve heard you say. And philosophy books are books written in defense of a thesis.

SE: Ah! Good question. Several times I have talked about the book and explained how it will be about many different things, connected in various different ways, only to have someone, in the question period, ask me “yes, but what is it saying? What is its thesis?” Let me state here explicitly, it has no thesis. Many things are said in the book, but the book as a whole says nothing. I think, though I’m no expert, that the Deleuzian concept of the rhizome may apply to it. The metaphors I myself use to think about it are free association (as in psychoanalysis) and the Wunderkammer or cabinet of curiosities. It goes from one topic to another, it meanders, it gathers together and juxtaposes things that are initially unrelated but, hopefully, undergo an increase in meaning by their situation. Both of these…

TP: Your book has… oh excuse me. Please go on.

SE: Thanks. I was going to say that both these concepts, free association and the Wunderkammer, will be explicitly discussed in the course of the book. In a sense, the commentaries on the memes will be about explaining the nature of the book itself, or helping the reader to read it.

TP: Oh, that’s interesting. I was going to ask you something about the word “parerga” in your title but I’d like to follow up what you just said. That idea of the book explaining itself. Could you say more? Also, you said above that the book is about shame, that it’s about explaining its own nature, that it’s a philosophy book, that it will be about yourself, that it will be about psychoanalysis and literary criticism. It’s very confusing. Just what is your book about?

SE: That’s really just a variant of the “what is its thesis?” question, no? It’s about all these things. It is a statement against totalization, in favor of the fragmentary, the incomplete, the dilettantish, all those things that are supposed to be suppressed by the totalization that dominates the academic work and the academic career. The totalization of the thesis, the research project, the AOS… My own philosophical career has been such a statement, too, in that I have moved around between many subjects. I have written several one-off papers on topics that I never return to. As a philosopher, I am not easy to categorize and it is only fitting that I should produce a book that is similarly hard to categorize. I could add one more “about” – the book is about my career and situation within the philosophy profession! No truer, but no less true, than all the other abouts you confronted me with. And don’t think we have completed that list!

TP: OK. Now let me ask you about “parerga.” The word appears in the title of your book. Perhaps you could remind our readers of what it means since it is an uncommon word.

SE: Sure. It comes from the Greek words “para” and “ergon” and it is used to describe things that are next to, or supplementary to, a work (usually a work of art). (“Paratext” would describe the special case where the ergon in question is a text.) So the frame of a painting, the title or the preface of a literary work, etc.

TP: And what associations do you have to the word “parerga”?

SE: Well, I first encountered it, as many people do, in the title of Schopenhauer’s book Parerga and Paralipomena. I don’t know much about Schopenhauer (though I will be discussing one of his parerga or paralipomena in my book), but the little I do know comes through lectures about him that I attended in London in the 1980s, when I was just starting out in philosophy. The lectures were given by Brian O’Shaughnessy. Brian was my very first teacher of philosophy and a wonderful and idiosyncratic man. There was a mystique about him and the first lectures in any lecture series he gave would be packed. But one thing he was not was a good lecturer and by half-way through the series only a few die-hards would still be attending. I was one of those die-hards in that Schopenhauer class. Brian was married to Edna O’Shaughnessy, a very important psychoanalyst in the Kleinian tradition. A lot of Kleinian analysis just sounds really crazy. Many years ago I read some of Klein’s Narrative of a Child Analysis. You just wonder what world you’ve stepped into! The splittings, the projections and introjections, a confusing world in which what is inside and what is outside is unstable and ever-changing, the ego being formed (ergon) through these vicissitudes while awash in paranoia over the projected, but now consuming, para-ego (parergon) that…

TP: I’m sorry to cut you off, but we have to stop. It’s been a great pleasure talking with you.

SE: Thank you! I’ve enjoyed it.

TP: Our readers can get an idea of what the book is like from an excerpt posted here, the commentary on this meme.

irksome2

 

 

The adventitious

In a philosophy paper I am presently working on, I lean heavily on the term “adventitious.” I say that the changes an ordinary artifact undergoes over time with respect to its parts are adventitious to it (and hence that a theory of such artifacts that ‘builds in’ these changes to an object’s identity is mistaken). I liked the term “adventitious” here but thought, mistakenly, that I was using it merely as a stylistic variant of “contingent.” I now think, in fact, that it gets at something deeper, or at least other, than contingency (though you’ll have to consult the paper, when it’s ready, to get a sense of what I’m gesturing at).

A few days ago I posted here about how I was re-thinking which memes would be included in my book A Certain Gesture: Evnine’s Batman Meme Project and Its Parerga!. The book, you could say, was undergoing an adventitious change in its parts. But I am made anxious by these changes. Not because I fear for the identity of the book. It is, in my mind, the very same book, only now with (slightly) different parts. I fear, rather, a different kind of loss.

How have I made the decisions about which memes to retain and which to remove? There are two ways a meme can keep its place. It must either be of sufficiently high quality itself or it must provide me with an occasion for some interesting commentary. While I feel fairly confident in my judgments of quality (only once or twice have I dithered over some meme, wondering if it is good enough for inclusion), I cannot tell, in advance of trying to write the commentary on it, whether a meme will occasion interesting commentary. And that is not an adventitious fact about the work. It is deeply central to what I am doing that I should be open to the adventitious in writing the commentaries. That is the process that underlies the work’s resemblance to the Wunderkammer, the Cabinet of Curiosities.

For example, take the commentary on the Yiddish meme which I have recently posted about three times. It is true that I did have some ideas of what I wanted to write about prior to starting on the commentary (some of which persisted into the final version and some of which did not), but it wasn’t until I wrote about a friend’s remark that the Romanization of the Yiddish gave the meme a “Lithuanian slant” that I took off in the direction of Lita (Jewish Lithuania), the Vilna Gaon, and my own Litvak ancestors. I ended up, quite spontaneously, composing a bibliography of these ancestors’ rabbinic works.

O9g4m

Continue reading “The adventitious”

Other voices

I have previously indicated that the spirit of W.G. Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn hovers over my own efforts in A Certain Gesture: Evnine’s Batman Meme Project and Its Parerga!. I first read the Sebald six or seven years ago. In the course of his loosely connected, almost free associative, wanderings from one reflection on death and destruction to another, he describes a visit to Somerleyton, the seat of an unlikely magnate from the nineteenth century, now a crumbling cabinet of curiosities in which a guided tour takes one through rooms of bygone paraphernalia. A camphorwood chest which may once have accompanied a former occupant of the house on a tour of duty to Nigeria or Singapore now contains old croquet mallets and wooden balls… The walls are hung with copper kettles, bedpans, hussars’ sabres, African masks, spears, safari trophies, hand-coloured engravings of Boer War battles… Nor can one readily say which decade or century it is, for many ages are superimposed here and coexist… How fine a place the house seemed to me now, continues Sebald, that it was imperceptibly nearing the brink of dissolution and silent oblivion.

In order to avail myself of its riches in the execution of my own current project, I recently started to re-read Sebald’s work – with some trepidation, since time leaves nothing unaltered. And indeed my experience of it has been rather different. On my first reading, I recall being enveloped by a single sustained mood, utterly enchanted. Now, owing perhaps to the somewhat difficult circumstances in which I have been re-encountering Sebald’s melancholy ramblings, my experience has been highly fragmented. I have learnt to recognize, and hence occasionally be irritated by, some of his mannerisms. Parts of the book have moved me nearly to tears while other parts have felt forced and predictable. I have little doubt that the differences here come from me and do not reflect substantial variations in the quality of Sebald’s writing.

One mannerism, which I had either not noticed on my first reading or else had forgotten about, is the way in which Sebald mentions a work by some other writer and then begins, without any warning (and hence without the use of quotation marks), to quote from it. One does not always realize this is happening until one runs into the use of a personal pronoun which is clearly the original author’s and not Sebald’s. At this juncture, Sebald will insert text into the quotation that alerts the reader to the dislocation of the personal pronoun, as I did two paragraphs above.

I had determined that I would use this technique to incorporate some of Sebald’s own book into the commentary on a meme that refers to Sir Thomas Browne, who himself is the subject of some of Sebald’s reflections and whose own spirit evidently infuses his work.

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Meme that refers to Sir Thomas Browne

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Edition of Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn at an exhibition on Browne

How thrilled I was, then, when a friend and student, Ted Locke, suggested that I read a paper by the literary scholar Jane Tompkins called “Me and My Shadow.” Ted and I have discussed auto-theory off and on for over a year. Tompkins’s paper is an early manifesto of auto-theory. In it, she expresses a frustration with academic writing and a desire somehow to incorporate a more personal element into her work that exactly reflects (or I should say, preflects, since her essay was published in 1987) my own motivations for and aspirations in A Certain Gesture: Evnine’s Batman Meme Project and Its Parerga!. Having referred to Ursula Le Guin’s distinction between father tongue (which only lectures) and mother tongue (which expects an answer), she goes on to say:

I find that having released myself from the duty to say things I’m not interested in, in a language I resist, I feel free to entertain other people’s voices. Quoting them becomes a pleasure of appreciation rather than the obligatory giving of credit, because when I write in a voice that is not struggling to be heard through the screen of forced language, I no longer feel that it is not I who am speaking, and so there is more room for what others have said.

Sebald’s murmuring prose does exactly what Tompkins seeks to articulate in her essay; it blends the impersonal historical with the personal, it seamlessly incorporates other voices, and it never struggles to make itself heard through forced language. This incorporation of other voices makes his work itself a cabinet of literary curiosities – a work in which one cannot tell what decade or century it is, in which one is as likely to find oneself conjecturing about Sir Thomas Browne’s attendance at a scene depicted by Rembrandt as on the childhood of Conrad, or on the death of Edward Fitzgerald, whose translations of Omar Khayam are so distinctive that they have passed into the English language as something generic –  just one of the many ways English can be – in the way that the King James translation of the Bible has. I have yet to finish my second reading of The Rings of Saturn but the frustrations of my re-reading of its earlier parts will, I feel sure, be entirely reconfigured, and perhaps disappear altogether, owing to Tompkins’s invigorating essay. And for anyone keeping track, you might have noticed that I have been silent on my blog for some time now – this post, “Other voices,” is the first new parergonal material I have been able to create for quite some time.

Repellent intimacy

Gerard Genette (yes, I’m still reading Genette’s Paratexts: Thresholds of Interpretation – it’s endless!) is now discussing the various functions of different kinds of prefaces (all quotations below from pp. 203-5). One function of the most common kind of preface (by the author; published with the text originally) is to explain the unity of the work it stands before. This is especially the case when the work is a collection of some kind. But some authors, he notes, make a point of eschewing the unity of the work and embracing its disunity. Roland Barthes, writing later of his collection Essais critiques, said “I explained in my preface why I didn’t want to give these texts, written at different times, a retrospective unity” but, somewhat contradictorily goes on to say “The unity of this collection can only be a question: What is writing?” As Genette wryly comments: “The retrospective unity that is virtuously shoved out the door sneaks back in through the window in the form of a ‘question’.” (And, talking of Barthes, how brilliantly the lack of punctuation speaks in his title Sade Fourier Loyola, the preface to which “emphasizes indirectly… the incongruous – indeed provocative – appearance of such a grouping.”) More resolutely, Borges, in many of his prefaces, appears to prize diversity over unity: “This book is nothing more than a compilation,” “God grant that the essential monotony of this miscellany… be less evident than the geographical and historical diversity of its themes,” and so on.

I have come to realize that A Certain Gesture: Evnine’s Batman Meme Project and Its Parerga! is about exactly this – privileging disunity and disorganization over their opposites. The Wunderkammer, again: a curious assortment, a serendipity, a heap. But just how far down can disunity go in the book? Continue reading “Repellent intimacy”

A cabinet of curiosities

An aspect of A Certain Gesture: Evnine’s Batman Meme Project and Its Parerga! about which I have not said very much at all yet is the influence on it of the idea of the Wunderkammer, the cabinet of curiosities. In the back of my mind is always W. G. Sebald’s melancholy but enchanting book The Rings of Saturn which is like a literary manifestation of the Wunderkammer. Sebald was influenced by Sir Thomas Browne and Browne is, in fact, indirectly referenced in one of my memes. (I was referring to an early 18th century anonymous pamphleteer who was, I later came to learn, himself drawing on Browne.)

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Meme referring to anonymous 18th century pamphlet

Continue reading “A cabinet of curiosities”