Monday, February 20, 2017

Aciman Replies

Feb 12
Dear Robert Garlitz,

I am in Berlin for a few days because they are screening Call Me by Your Name.  It showed at Sundance, but I was too...lazy to go to Utah. Berlin I love.  But I am taking some time out because I wanted to write back.

Yes for the house in either Nantucket or the Vineyard.  But before I sign anything, let me just say this.  I have been in print  for 20 years now and received some adulation, but never--i.e. NEVER--have I felt that a reader understood me to the bone or so thoroughly as you did in your blog. You went straight to the soul of things--to use mystical language--because you got what I have elsewhere called the "soufflé" effect, the folding back and forth without necessarily arriving at any answer, a form of treading water, of floating but not swimming.  I can go on but it is the subject of what I hope will be a forthcoming collection of essays on various artists entitled Homo Irrealis, based on the irrealis mood, something that linguists call the indefinite mood in grammar.  Wikipedia has, I think, a damn good

In any event, you have inspired me to get Pessoa and see what he writes.  Thank you so much for ... well, thinking of me, thinking
about me.


“I miss the future when I’ll be able to look back and miss all of this, however absurdly.”  Pessoa Disquiet 180

"The orator,dizzy from speaking the unspeakable. The monster, drunk on the thought of the monstrosities he heralds Binet on The Blond Beast in his novel about Heydrich.

Friday, February 10, 2017

Mid-February weather report

Ready to Survive Mud Season

On the desk, bookmarks in each, at least ten pages in. 

Sudden Death
Missing Person
False Papers
Mystical Languages of Unsaying
Tantra Illuminated
The Varieties of Religious Experience
Eight White Nights
The Man of Light in Iranian Suifism
The Proust Project
Villa Triste
The Voyager and the Messenger
The Garden of Truth
The Black Notebook
Damaged Lives

Tuesday, February 07, 2017

André Aciman and Apophatic Theology

Aciman, Our Apophatic Mystic

Over the past few weeks I’ve been catching up on the work of André Aciman.  The great memoir and three of the novels.  Started a fourth, Eight White Nights, earlier this week. 

Felt like I should take a break, though, and cast about for what to read.  Could go back to Patrick Modiano, but even though I like his work as much, the most recent book I had stopped after one-third, Missing Person, has themes a bit too similar to those of Aciman.  A blurb from the back cover says the book “portrays a man in pursuit of the identity he lost in the murky days of the Paris Occupation, the black hole of French memory.”  Not too unlike Aciman’s searches for himself after his exile from Alexandria.

I googled Aciman some more, hoping to find he had written an essay on Pessoa.  Nothing promising but did read a few interviews that are online. 

After sleeping on it for a day or so and trying not to ponder too hard, I thought I would take a look at something on apophatic theology.  Real change of pace.  I found the new copy of Michael Sells book, Mystical Languages of Unsaying.  I had read some of the authors under discussion.  I had not realized that “The 150-year period from the mid-twelfth to the beginning of the fourteenth century constitutes the flowering of apophatic mysticism.  Almost simultaneously, the apophatic masterpieces of the Islamic, Jewish, and Christian traditions appeared . . . .” Such a short, intense cross cultural or intercultural period.  It made me wonder about apophatic forms of expression in our time.  I googled “apophatic novel” and up came, of course, the books by Charles Williams.  The Greater Trumps, Shadows of Ecstasy, War in Heaven, The Descent of the Dove.  I had read those years ago but had forgotten them.  I have long privately thought of Beckett’s works as explorations in negative theology.  I suppose there are many dissertations on the topic by now.  I would read Pessoa’s The Book of Disquiet this way. 

Day or so later I picked up a book of Aciman’s prose pieces.  A different voice in these than in the novels and it is the voice in the fictions that I love best.  But in the first few essays in False Papers I began to see how clearly Aciman is an apophatic writer.  “Exile” and “Memory” are in the subtitle and these words Aciman repeats endlessly in marvelously woven intricacies.  But it is desire, longing, that everything he talks about serves.  And look at these passages: 

“It was my way of preempting tomorrow’s worries by making tomorrow seem yesterday, of warding off adversity by warding off happiness as well.  In the end, I learned not to enjoy going to Paris, or even to enjoy being there--because I enjoyed it too much.”

“The Paris I cultivated was a Paris one need not stay too long in.  It was a Paris made to be yearned for and remembered, a Paris of the mind, a Paris which stood for the true life, the life done over, the better life, the one flooded in limelight, with tinsel, soundtrack, and costume.”

“I had long ago learned to prefer the imagined encounter, or the memory of the imagined encounter, to the thing itself.”

This is the basic pattern of all of Aciman’s writing---a saying and then an unsaying.  In Sell’s words “apophsis cannot help but posit . . . a ‘thing’ or ‘being,’ a being it must then unsay, while positing yet more entities that must be unsaid in turn.”  Aciman’s characters love and then lose and learn to unlove, whether a place like Alexandria or Paris, or a person, like Oliver who his love, Elio, asks to call him by his name.  Eight White Nights would be a great title for a mystical work, like The Cloud of Unknowing.  “what I was feeling was not just admiration . . . .  The word worship---as in ‘I could worship people like her’--hadn’t crossed my mind yet, though later that evening which I stood with her watching a glowing moonlight barge moored across the white Hudson I did turn to worship.  Because placid winterscapes lift up the soul and bring down our guard.  Because part of me was already venturing into an amorphous terrain in which a word here, a word there--any word, really---is all we have to hold on to before surrendering to a will far mightier than our own.”  (my emphasis)

I suppose there are already many dissertations in a university libraries on the apophatic tradition in Modernist and Post-Modernist literature.   Aciman is certainly our principal practitioner at this moment.  Yearning oscillates between the poles of every bridge, every love, every utterance, every saying and unsaying.  Memory, exile, love and loss sustain this longing, as with every mystic.