That Which Is or Isn’t a Pipe

[posted by Greg]

Recently, in our literary supplement irreal (re)views, we published my translation of Michal Ajvaz’s essay “An essay about that which isn’t a pipe.” [review18.htm] At the risk of making this blog read like one of Ajvaz’s recent novels (where the narrative structure tends to be a story within a story within a story within a story), this is a translation of an Ajvaz essay that discusses a Michal Foucault essay which discusses Rene Magritte’s drawing “This is not a pipe.” Furthermore, my inspiration for translating Ajvaz’s essay was that I myself wrote an essay some number of years ago which also discussed Foucault’s discussion of Magritte’s drawing (titled “This could be a pipe: Foucault, irrealism and Ceci n’est pas une pipe”[review5.htm]) and I thought that Ajvaz’s essay would make an interesting contrast with my piece.

The contrast between Ajvaz’s essay and mine can especially be seen in the fact that I almost entirely focus on the first third of Foucault’s essay while Ajvaz focuses almost entirely on the final 2/3 of it. The reason for this difference isn’t hard to fathom: I pretty much reject the ontology with which Foucault interprets Magritte’s drawing (i.e., that the power of the drawing lies in the fact that the inscription “This is not a pipe” attached to a drawing of a pipe highlights a complete divide between language and external reality; I, on the other hand, argue that it is the very real, if ambiguous, relation between the word and the object “pipe” that allows the negative assertion of the inscription to challenge our sense of the real) and therefore don’t get past the part of the essay where Foucault lays out this ontology; Ajvaz, on the other hand, accepts Foucault’s ontology without comment and so focuses his attention on what we should make of the drawing in light of it (and here he has some disagreement with Foucault).

But of course a blog isn’t really the place for a discussion of the ontology of the irreal. Suffice it to say for now that the translation is online for anyone that might be interested.

The judge’s bench and Alvin Langdon Coburn’s storm

[posted by Greg]

Now back in Tucson, we recently attended a photography exhibit, a couple of works from which manifested the irreal in an interesting way. The exhibit, “Made in Arizona: Photographs from the Collection,” was at the Center for Creative Photography and drew upon its world-class collection (they are the repository for the collections of such photographers as Edward Weston and W. Eugene Smith) to feature works such as Ansel Adam’s formal compositions of Arizona landscapes, Aaron Siskind’s highly textured, abstract close-ups, as well as many realist, genre photos of ranchers, urban barrios and the ever ubiquitous post-WWII ranch style housing that makes up so much of the suburban sprawl here.

The first of the pictures that stood out from this mix for its irreal qualities was a picture by William Clift, titled “Judge’s Bench, Old Cochise County Courthouse, AZ (1979)”. This picture caught my eye because of the the way the judge’s bench seems to surge forward into the completely empty and (one presumes) still courtroom, which gives one the fleeting impression, much as the photographic work of Jindřich Styrsky or Eugene Atget does, that the inanimate is animate. But it does so in an opposite manner from Styrsky or Atget, who photographed objects (e.g., a storefront mannequin, a life-size poster of a circus performer) in such a way that we first think of it as being animate and only then do we realize that it is inanimate. By this method, Styrsky forces us, as Alice Whittenburg wrote in her essay on him in irreal (re)views, to “dehumanize the object and force us to confront it in its own right, as brute existence, rather than as a tamed and domesticated bit of human culture.” But “Judge’s Bench, Old Cochise County Courthouse, AZ” achieves, I think, the same effect but the other way around. At first glance it is clear that this is a picture of an empty, older courtroom. But then, continuing to look on the picture in all of its evident stillness, the judge’s bench takes on a biomorphic quality–perhaps a result of its rounded edges contrasting with the rectangular doors behind it or the jury box to its side, the way it seems to be almost moving toward the camera as though it had been spilled onto the floor and was now following the floor’s slope, and the fact it is entirely and conspicuously made from a form of biomass, wood-humanizing it for a brief while until that impression is overcome by the very stillness from which it came in the first place and we once again find ourselves confronted by the fact that, biomorphic or not, the matter that is the judge’s bench is not living and there is not anything living in that courtroom (a fact that we might now, perhaps, even take as being made ironic by the pictures of George Washington and Abraham Lincoln hanging behind the judge’s bench). Here, then, the animate-inanimate dichotomy is revealed to us by our fleetingly bringing life to matter before having to dispense with it, as opposed to a picture by Styrsky in which we are “tricked” by the artist into thinking that the object is animate, has life, and then upon closer examination are forced by the realization of what it actually is to have to strip it of that life.

But if the “Judge’s Bench” remind us of the irreality of some of Magritte’s biomorphic paintings, such as Le séducteur, then the other photograph in the exhibit notable for its irreality reminds of those works of Magritte in which he gives us a canvas or a window that looks out on a different scene from the one it seems we should be looking out on, an example of which might be Le beau monde (The beautiful world): This photograph, “Alvin Langdon Coburn’s storm passing through three seasons and ninety-eight years (1911, 2007, and 2009),” is one of an ongoing series by Mark Klett and Byron Wolfe, in which they find old photographs of the Grand Canyon and then go back to the spot where these photographs were originally taken and retake the photograph, and then, on the new photograph, re-impose parts of the original photograph. In this case, two segments of the original photograph, taken by Alvin Langdon Coburn in 1911 and showing a storm passing through the canyon, were imposed upon the newer views of the panorama (with one half of the panorama composed of a picture taken in 2007, and the other half composed of a photograph from 2009, which is more or less explained in the title, “Alvin Langdon Coburn’s storm passing through three seasons and ninety-eight years [1911, 2007, and 2009]).”

Described in this way, the whole enterprise sounds like it could be a gimmick, even evoking aspects of 19th century trick photography, in which supposed spirits were superimposed on photographs to give the viewer the sense of seeing the supernatural. But the actual effect of what Klett and Wolfe are doing in this (and their other photographs of the Grand Canyon) is far more interesting than this, as they evoke the past, but do so in an absolutely neutral manner. To see, among the unchanging (in the human timeframe, “eternal”) rocks of the Grand Canyon, that a storm passed through in 1911 is hardly a revelation. Of course it did, and so no doubt did many other storms, clouds and fogs. And yet we are intrigued by these ephemeral clouds set against those unchanged rocks, caught in one, not very consequential moment a hundred years ago. More than just intriguing, the juxtaposition of the two time frames brings us into contact with the irreal in that what we are seeing is, in the world of the real, quite impossible, and yet not only are we are seeing it in this potentially most realistic of artistic mediums, there is even a logic to our seeing this impossible as it is the exact same thing that is being shown. We are, however, looking out on a very different time, and the knowledge that we are makes the world created by the photograph topsy-turvy in the photograph, and thereby evokes Magritte and the irreal (it is especially interesting to note here the unique effect that the fact that it is a photograph and not a painting has on the viewer–if one attempted this by way of painting, one expects that the effect would fall flat).

Thus Neal Shrouder’s apt description of Magritte’s work can also be said to well describe this aspect of Klett and Wolfe’s work, but utilizing the photographically unique quality of lapsed time: “Magritte was fond of illusions and problems of visual perception. How do you see things, and can you trust what you see? He used the symbols of windows, eyes, curtains, and pictures within pictures to explore these questions. Whereas his contemporary Salvador Dali painted hallucinatory dreamscapes of the mind, Magritte was content to stay within the reality of the visibly world. He places before us ordinary objects from our everyday lives and gave them new meaning — he forces us look at them from a new, slightly tilted, perspective. Magritte altered the viewer to the process of seeing.”

Irrealism in the Work of Bruno Schulz

[posted by Alice]

Serendipity has again led me to new reading pleasures, and this time I’m also filling a long-standing gap in my education as an irrealist. Because I recently read two Coetzee novels in a row (Slow Man and Diary of a Bad Year), I picked up a volume of his collected essays (Inner Workings: Literary Essays 2000-2005) when I saw it at the library the other day.  I read with interest his short succinct essay on the work of Bruno Schulz, who, Coetzee says, shared many superficial biographical details with Franz Kafka. These included being born in the Austro-Hungarian Empire to a Jewish family, having health problems and having father problems. Both also wrote stories in which a man turns into an insect.  I’m enjoying Coetzee’s very readable and informative essays in which he gracefully gives biographical information, plot summaries, and thoughtful literary critiques in a few short pages. I don’t, however, agree with his statement that similarities between Schulz and Kafka are superficial. I think both were irrealists, though admittedly not the same kind.

After I read Coetzee’s essay on Schulz, I picked up The Street of Crocodiles and Other Stories (a 2008 Penguin reprint of Schulz’ work with an introduction by Jonathan Safran Foer) when I saw it at the public library. [Note to American readers: The work Coetzee discusses as Cinnamon Shops is called The Street of Crocodiles in U.S. editions of Schulz’s fiction.] Some of the chapters/stories in this work seem very much like magical realism (e.g., “The Birds,” “The Gale”), featuring mystical events which take place in a small town in Galicia. Others, including “August,” “Nimrod,” “Mr. Charles,” and even “Pan,” represent a kind of heightened, vivid realism—the world seen through the eyes of a child. And in fact Schulz himself described Street of Crocodiles as “the story of a family told in the mode not of biology or of psychology but of myth,” which is not based on shared symbols but comes from the experiences of early childhood where certain images dominate the imagination (see Coetzee, pp. 70-71). And to be honest, after reading “August,” a rather long piece that opens Street of Crocodiles, I wasn’t sure that Schulz had the philosophical and literary inclination to examine means rebelling against their ends or to set up pointers to an unknown meaning as irrealist writers do. But as soon as I began to read the chapter called “Tailors’ Dummies,” I realized Schulz was also capable of wonderfully irreal prose.

The tailor’s dummy interested many painters we consider to be irreal (or on the border between irrealism and surrealism). These include Rene Magritte and Giorgio de Chirico, who used these analogues of the human form in many of their works. In “Tailors’ Dummies” Schulz shows us the complex meanings a seamstress’ dummy has for him, and as a result we begin to see his abilities as an irrealist writer. When two young seamstresses bring their dressmaker’s dummy into the room to begin their work, Schulz describes the object as a “silent immobile lady… mistress of the situation,” who is a “silent idol… difficult to please…  [and] inexorable as only a female Moloch can be.” Then the narrator (a young child) watches as his father delivers a three-part “Treatise on Tailors’ Dummies or the Second Book of Genesis” to the seamstresses. This complex, rambling lecture deals with creation and is a compact, complex meditation on what Sartre would call the relation between being in-itself and being for-itself. The child narrator disapproves of the attitudes toward the animate and inanimate world expressed in his father’s lecture. And in fact these attitudes are very odd—he feels compassion for matter forced to bear a human form, yet blithely announces that murder and sadism must be sanctioned if they are necessary to the creative process. Elsewhere he deplores the process of nailing boards together (“the martyred wood”), yet gives no thought for the trees from which the wood came. He also waxes poetic about humans becoming useful inanimate objects, such as when a lamp is made of a man’s murdered mistress, and we are unsure about whether the father’s constant references to the Demiurge lead us to the artist or to God or to something diabolical. The meaning of the seamstress’ dummy is enriched (and from a feminist point of view also diminished) by the way women are sometimes depicted in Schulz’ work. The “dominant woman” Adela, who suppresses the father’s excesses with a tickling forefinger or an insistence that he attend to her proffered foot, encased in its stocking like a serpent’s tongue, finally stops the lecture and rescues the impatient and bored seamstresses.  The tailors’ dummies point toward women and nature and all that the father wants to dominate in the course of his creative activities, yet he is easily reduced to helplessness by Adela’s tickling.

Coetzee quotes Schulz on Kafka: “[Kafka’s] attitude to reality is radically ironic, treacherous, profoundly ill-intentioned—the relationship of a prestidigitator to his raw material. He only simulates the attention to detail, the seriousness, and the elaborate precision of this reality in order to compromise it all the more thoroughly.” (p. 75) Coetzee says that Schulz is speaking only about himself and his own writing, and that this description doesn’t apply to Kafka’s work at all. Yet to my way of thinking this quotation could be applied to both Kafka’s work and (at least in the case of writings like “Tailors’ Dummies”) to Schulz’ own.