There is this book in Romanian I prize so highly: Tinerețe fără de tinerețe.
... Ochiul roşu se stinse, şi în clipa următoare îl orbi, zguduindu-l, explozia luminii albe, incandescente. Parcă ar fi fost aspirat de un ciclon fierbinte izbucnit, în chip neînţeles, chiar în creştetul capului. „A trăsnit pe aproape", îşi spuse clipind cu greu ca să-şi dezlipească pleoapele. Nu înţelegea de ce strânge cu atâta putere mânerul umbrelei...
This is just a metaphor, I know it now. Or perhaps it is indeed so literal. Truth is but ein bewegliches Heer von Metaphern, it had been said. Be as it may, you don't hear any thunder, when it comes for you, you feel nothing, absolutely nothing. Only later on you realize.
The thunder came to me and I missed it totally. I have no idea whatsoever when and where it was. In Bucharest, at Easter, near the Orthodox church? In Warsaw? In Kraków? In Lisbon? In Amsterdam? Have I been in Amsterdam at Easter?
I wake up in my new skin and I slowly start to realize what happened. "A trăsnit pe aproape", I say, still grasping the useless handle of my umbrella.
Dominic Matei had striven to write a book, all-encompassing kind of book, but he couldn't break through the first chapter, down to the origins. In the reality it is the History of the Religious Ideas, in three volumes. It actually exists, I have it on the shelf near my bed as I write. The first chapter is remarkably weak, as if make-shift. Added in the last moment before handling the book to the editor, I presume. Just to make it round and feasible, as it otherwise shouldn't have been.
After the thunder, he needs it no more. Even if he had completed and published it, with the make-shift first chapter, it doesn't actually matter any more.
Yes, exactly as a number of my own first chapters matter no more.
I've told my student today it's like the final undressing to lie down in the coffin. With the difference of the thunder. An old age without being old, as much as a youth without youth. Lost in time, ahead of my time, anticipating myself, coming to be, and yet simply being.
There is one crucial thing I believe have discovered recently. The close articulation between two things I used to see as separate: research and what I call theory-making. I saw the necessity of coming back to systematic research on a single topic as a circumstantial and relatively unlucky requirement (they don't give you grants for theory-making, at least as far as I know; they give you grants for predictable research; yes, even if they claim to finance high-risk intellectual endeavors). But now the research in itself has a new appeal for me.
Certainly it gives a sense of mastery that the moving ground of emergent ideas rarely provides. I'd been fighting against what I used to call "being minor in humanities", and I won. No need to write any more about it, it's just another achievement the Tribal Wife brought home from her stay among the natives. Anyway, I'm completely thuis in humanities right now; I cannot claim any kind of minor condition in it, not even that of Kafka in Deleuze. At least not in function of my geographically and mentally locatable origins.
But here comes the research. I'm preparing a project revolving around the Adamic language and its early-modern becoming. And this is how I came to the figure of Guillaume Postel, a missing link between Llull and Vieira. An obvious discovery that the man is one of mine, and his idea of restitutio omnium fits in for many things. There is still a long shadow of Agamben close nearby.
So I go on thinking about it right now. I should have the project ready for Monday, and I want to stay for a year with it. It might squeeze in nicely before my main ERC project proposal on which I will toil this summer.
A long time since I've written on this blog, time of crisis, of agony. A dark tunnel, and now I slowly emerge at the opposite end, still crawling. Like a hedgehog under a highway, I wrote months ago. What is the world?, I asked months ago.
And I've crossed the tunnel, crawling on my belly, half human, half worm, and I've emerged at the opposite end. And here am I, frenetically completing my research proposals and ready to rewrite all my intellectual agenda, again. Now I'm conscious of all the burden of originality, and the traps and the dangers of it. What it does cost and mean and involve to dare to be original, and to follow untrodden paths.
And my new agenda. I have my drawing with me, my secret map. It's full of unnamed trees; each tree represents an unwritten book, and the forest represents consistence, significance, becoming an important intellectual. Now I am at the very beginning of the path, at the zero level, and empty-handed. Yes, all my experience just served me to reach this forest and to cross the frontier of its shadow. I do not belittle myself. That's more than most people achieve in a lifetime of academic career. Anyway, I've left them behind, and I'm alone, even if I know I need new friends, new allies.
I've crossed the stage of emptiness, these last weeks, and I'm not sure if it is the end of it or not yet. But I am stripped bare. There is the famous triple metaphor in Nietzsche. The camel kneels down and wants to be well laden. “Was ist das Schwerste, ihr Helden? so fragt der tragsame Geist, dass ich es auf mich nehme und meiner Stärke froh werde.” Yet thank God I've been able to abandon all my burden, stop rejoicing and being froh and proud of it. Where are my papers now, 200 of them? Here comes the lion, and it cannot neither count nor calculate weights; no way of asking him how many papers he had written, in how many conferences. Countless, or so few, or none. What the lion wants and cares about is the desert, und Herr sein in seiner eignen Wüste.
And nonetheless, I saw how little the desert is, and to own it, and feind werden to one's last men and gods. "Du-sollst" liegt ihm am Wege, goldfunkelnd. This is how the Drache blocks the way. It says, Du sollst, and the lion says, Ich will. This is enough to stop and freeze the lion in his heilige Nein, and make him never come to the sacred yes, to the self-propelling wheel.
There was a moment when I was seeing the disjunction between study and creation, research and theory-making, merging with the background and sticking my own thing out. But certainly it's not like this, Agamben is the best author to see how the new things are actually done, the continuity between humus and blossom. And I also froze to confront my last men. Their limitations were shimmering, hypnotizing, their hate danced in the moonlight, goldfunkelnd. I saw them as opposed to what I am, I was in my heilige Nein. And I thought I should do something about them; for them was even more dangerous than against them. This is the dragon of "Du-sollst": our universities so low in the rankings, our culture so impoverished, so parochial, our academic journals so thin and far between. Auf jeder Schuppe glänzt golden: You can save them.
And what emerges at the opposite end is aus sich rollendes Rad. A scholar and a thinker that is there not to save or preserve or cultivate, but zu schaffen, having forgotten the meek nobility of the tiny and wee, and the decency of the modest. Ein aus sich rollendes Rad.
Só despojados é que somos livres
Vergílio Ferreira, Na tua face, 1993.
The book is not ready yet. There is the most difficult part missing. To get rid of myself, my youth, things accumulated in 1993, in 1996, in 1998, in 2003.
I think about fat people, how difficult for them to get slim; and even if by any miracle they manage, how their empty skin falls helplessly down to their knees. Have I been a fat girl, intellectually, with all my Portuguese studies? Or just anorexic, staring to distorted shadow?
Be as it may, what matters now is to get rid, and be light and ready for new things to come. And nonetheless, I linger.
It is not like when I was writing Pokusa pustyni, but by no means lighter.
I linger, unable to detach from myself, my old self. And I know there is no future without it, and there is no time left any more. I should be searching for my new life now, buying new apartment in either Amsterdam or Berlin, all my stuff packed and ready to go. The worst option is to linger now.
And I'm like Ricardo Reis in Lisbon, in Saramago. Falling asleep over my own verses.
La belle au bois dormant. Sleeping in the palace where she had never been. I pace the National Library of Portugal up and down, that's a proud name, and I think I might just leave and never come back to this again. My work is done, and this might be the core of the problem. E agora?
I might leave right now just as I stay, and never come back to this place again. I've collected all my materials, read all the books that were missing. Hardly a couple of pages is missing to complete my work. Or in any case I might leave in two weeks, and never come back to this place again.
As I stay, the sensation that I'm back to 1998 is more and more consistent. There is the same mirror in the bathroom where I was admiring my slim body in 1998. Perhaps the secret of the country's misery is the way how things conserve themselves, not the way how they decay. No thing requires to be substituted. The matter is inert, and confers the same quality to people and ideas.
I'm sitting on my old chair, N14, and the sheets of paper in front of me are literally the same, I mean my original notes made in 1998. I only forgot to bring the same fountain pen. I must still have it, it is somewhere at home.
There was no Afonso Cruz at that time yet. But Afonso Cruz is essentially the same story. I feel the same smell of it, falling down to the same bottom of the hole, in Flores, 2015. With his golem of the revolution, that his Ulme didn't manage to make alive. All Saramago must be essentially about the same thing. Perhaps this is the only progress I achieved, they achieved. Now we are a little bit higher up to look down over the very same thing that mattered thence as it matters now. Perhaps I could write it down in my new book.
Yes I need a new book, all my new books. To get through to myself before it's too late. Otherwise my empty skin will always pend down to my knees, even if by any miracle I manage to get through later on. This is the price of lingering.
comme la rencontre fortuite sur une table de dissection d'une machine à coudre et d'un paraplui
The day I met Eduardo Lourenço, then. I didn't really expect it. It was a surprise he came to our meeting at the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation, just because one of the project was to study & translate his Labirinto da Saudade.
At the first moment, I was just looking, not sure how to take the case on. I've been having those awful encounters with famous intellectuals, full of pretence and American habits, as it was with Markowski and others. But this one was completely Portuguese, shy and modest, and tiny in his manners, as if nothing. At the end I would say he was a charming person, as an intellectual should be, and clever to recognise his equal, as those Polish ones never are.
I talked to him quite a lot later on, during the lunch, but at the meeting, as I was sitting near him, I was staring with the corner of my eye, calculating silently and making a balance in my head. How much is Eduardo Lourenço? Certainly, as I write my book now, cutting down the footnotes, he is the last to remain, as a scholar. His vision of Portugal has been shaping mine; it's only quite recently that I've started to get rid of the repetitive aspect of this influence. And there is more than this. In the Empire and Nostalgia, he is one of the three heroes, the three dispatriants: it is Sena, Saramago and Lourenço. The tiniest, the shiest, the most localised of them, but necessary to make the balance and the triangulation. My topic would never exist without the three of them; between themselves, they make a country.
I waved the hand that triangulated a country, between empire and nostalgia. Should I rather have kissed it?
Today there is something to celebrate, at least that's what I believed for a moment. No, not the book, it's not finished yet. But something else did finish.
I finished publishing the articles from the black file. OK, I still have about 30 texts to finish, but they are something else, papers presented in recent conferences or ongoing projects, such things. But I finished the black file; I've just sent the corrections for the last, tiny paper concerning Verlaine for Romanica Silesiana. he book also helped me, it absorbed some semi-papers that simply disappeared in the flow of the literary history.
And then I saw it.
The last paper.
The one that cannot be absorbed, and the one that was missing.
Apparently it's just another tiny paper, dating back from the time of beginnings, written in 1998 I think. Just a reading of two tiny poems.
And suddenly all the puzzle composed itself. As peças todas a encaixar. Making sense. In illo tempore.
But what are the poems?, you would ask. Oh, that's the old Sena, just two poems from Metamorfoses, one about the mosque of Córdoba, and the other about Cistercian cloister of Alcobaça, and something about the the reconstruction of theologies that Sena does, and such things. There is nothing particularly original in all this, neither from my side, nor Sena's. He is just working over Malraux, Les metamorphoses des dieux, he is just commenting on it, poetically, and I'm commenting on him. But this is something that lays beyond the words, and beyond the ideas, and beyond the stones. Beyond originality, in fact. It is just excessus purae mentis in Deum, as Bernard de Clairvaux would call it.
I shall not publish this paper as a paper. I shall make it a starting point for my "mid-career balance", Garden and Desert. Yes, I'm still thinking about offering this small gift to myself, in 2017, for the 20th anniversary of my academic work. I will delve deep in this time of the origins to get something that might stay with me, the source of sense, the primordial moment of actually choosing this, as my life.
The anniversary strikes wrong, by the way. Nothing happened in 1997. It is something that comes from behind, something that had been born when I was still at school, and studying art history. I thought my choice was to be an artist, not a scholar. But now I see what it really was. It doesn't matter, by the way.
Et ego in illo, and I'm back to the original moment, and I see why, and what is the way in front of me. Suddenly the clouds break apart, and I see where the summit is. And I feel a great safety.
do espírito provável
da expectação tranquila
mortal da eternidade
I've been writing my book. If I did only this, it wouldn't take so long. I've been doing something else as well. I've been reading through my old papers and across my life, since the very beginning. Yes it's taking all the things since the beginning, since 1993, to write this book. And I try to fathom how much I've been mistaken in all my ideas about how books are actually written.
I start to feel I should have learned something about it by now. I did something like 11 of them, I'm puzzled in counting them again and again. And diverse translations, more than 30.
The good thing is that I've forgotten the articles totally; all my plans in writing are nothing but books from now on. And I'm stepping into learning how to actually write them.
When I was young, it was a kind of exhausting ordeal, a struggle at the end of my nerves. I shall never forget the state in which Pokusa pustyni was written. Or rather not written, how it was emerging from chaos.
I've started it several times, I've seen all the stages right now (believe it or not, I've been keeping every single sheet of paper related to this book for over 10 years...). And I can see and feel how I toiled against the mediocrity, against writing like I saw things written in that time, in Poland. It was like several layers of discourse, trying to get out of dullness. The result was not as bad as it had started, I think.
And I should write another book on Saramago now, in English. This is what I want to do this month of November. I will make it small. I will speak only about Cain, and the tanatopower of Intermitencias da Morte, and yet something, but just 4 novels, not more. And I will make it a pretext for just an essay. About the "late style", yes, and about the Desert, as it is in Cain, and about emptiness.
And yes, I do believe I will finish the first book next week, even if there is still work to be done. I've been going so slow not because of writing, but because of all this work of learning how to write, how to work, and cleaning my working space.
I do need order, and habits, and more careful, smarter planning. And to see more clearly where I want to arrive. But I have this very peculiar feeling now my life will be just this, writing books. Till I reach 60 or 80 volumes, like Derrida. Yes, I do take it seriously. Even the whole affair of living long enough to finish these 60 or 80 books. This is why I speak about habits. I need to make it sustainable.
Pokusa pustyni wasn't a sustainable kind of writing. I could make it like an extreme adventure, a passagium, but I couldn't make it as the usual way of working. And now I want to write day by day, book by book. I want to finish this one, and make the one about Saramago during the month of November, and then to travel on Chrismas, and then to make other books with my new editor, perhaps the African one, or the Poetics of the Void he is interested in, or to make other book proposals in English. And I want to make the essay on emptiness in Pessoa, and the transcultural research about Vieira as I was thinking about it before. And I want to make order in the Intrusive spirit. I'm thinking I could make at least a short essay out of it, for Miscellanea Orientalia, an initiative of our Oriental Society, and develop some parts for my Moroccan book, that would be next in the queue. It would be the last patch of chaos in my papers, I cant believe this. I look forward to this. Having no patches of chaos in my papers.
It took me about 4 years to clean up all the unfinished articles I had. Now I clean up the unfinished books, that seems harder to manage, but I'm doing all right, I think.
Yes I do love my books, and I want to learn the job of writing them as they should be written.
Having been here for a month, one morning I could barely climb my way in Entrecampos. There was a moment I felt I would stand it no more, this sight of the polished marble cubes under my feet. But my feet knew more.
After all, the crisis brought me inspiration - sinking down down down makes sense of the depth.
What is the world, I ask, over an enormous plate of basmati rice, my shoulders covered by the finest pashmina shawl I bought for 4 euros from a real Hindustani trader in Mouraria, my favourite shopping mall in Lisbon, where Portuguese never dare to enter. I always do, but I've never had such a feeling of being the only, conspicuously white woman in the mall, nowhere in the world. Not even in the inner Marrakesh, on the other side of the limes, and far from the touristic route had I such an experience of my whiteness as I did in this centro comercial - yes, it is one, big letters across the modernist, colonial facade announce so, even if inside it only vaguely resemble some humble places of the kind in Malaysia, crowded as it is with big packs of goods stored in the corridors. Scarcely 2 minutes walk from Rossio and Praça da Figueira where the yellow tram collects the crowd of tourists to Belém. That's what remains from this city, the gate of India, this shopping mall caiado de branco.
And that's my pashmina. The category of gammel doesn't exist any more in my aesthetics. The cloth is smooth, but humanly imperfect, dense at touch. I think now I could have bought one for my PhD student. But what a mature woman may attempt with PhD students? Paszminę ci kupiłam, synu, bo zima.
And the world. Indeed I'm searching for the world, and the world's humanities, apophatically, I can only say what the world is not. The world is not the same as making contacts abroad. This is why I keep cautiously apart from the Portuguese colleagues; I expect no particular blessing from them. The world is not making fincapé in other national humanities. The world is not the annual meeting, neither of ICLA nor ACLA. I see it now, especially as I've attempted to organise a session myself. These are mere illusions of worldliness, seeking refuge in the crowd, and less genuine than my plate of basmati rice.
The world is not this. Beyond the negation, I only expect it might come to me certain moments of inspiration, when I would feel what I'm doing is just right, with a sense of completeness. And I would see the veins of the wood, and the pen, and the sheets of paper in front of me, and I would say: indeed it is inside this clay jug.
All seven oceans are inside and
hundreds of millions of stars
The acid that tests gold is there and
the one who judges jewels...
World humanities have neither visibility nor prestige, only the feeling of being in it, of it, like those birds who flied to God.
The basmati rice on the plate in front of me is perfect and sublime. Every grain of it is over a centimetre long, and slightly curved. It's cooked with absolute mastery, with two single dry fruits of cardamom, by a Nepalese refugee. Every grain of this rice is ready to fly to God.
And they are served in such an abundance as to overwhelm the guest, and I see them with the eyes that can fathom their value historically, before our times.
Two days ago, when I climbed in the direction of the Graça, I literally cried over the ruinous state in which I found the city, crunched into dust by its mildews. Is this Europe?! did I exclaim. Oh, how precarious, how barely remediados are we, if this is our Europe of today! And yet this supreme plate of basmati rice that costs me just these two round euros of mine... That's what it does mean, to be European.
Phlebas the Phoenician, a fortnight dead,
Forgot the cry of gulls, and the deep sea swell
And the profit and loss.
A current under sea
Picked his bones in whispers.
As he rose and fell
He passes the stages of his age and youth
Entering the whirlpool.
Gentile or Jew
O you who turn the wheel and look windward,
Consider Phlebas, who was once handsome and tall as you.
The Indian-Nepalese restaurant where the grains of rice fly to God is situated between Anjos and Intendente metro stations, do lado do bairro colonial, or this side of the street where you climb Rua do Forno do Tijolo towards Graça, next door with the shop open late in the night, by the same refugee owners.
I'm back to myself. I'm back to Martim Muniz. I left the room I rented in Telheiras for a hostel in Rua do Forno do Tijolo. I've been missing a shower. Literally, I mean it. In the Portuguese middle class apartment like the one I've been living in Telheiras you hardly have the space of a half a meter to take shower. More like 40 cm, to be exact, but I don't want to be peevish. So I left the home of Dona Fernanda for a hostel in Martim Moniz, that is at least adapted to northern size.
Finally I feel at home. I took my shower and I ate a frango no churrasco in the very same place, at the exit of the Intendente metro station, where I used to dine when I was writing Empire and Nostalgia. When I was already half drunk with Santo Isidoro wine, an athan surprised me, it didn't exist before, and it's a long time indeed I didn't hear athan in any of my travels. They must have created a masalla here recently. But overall, the Indian and the Pakistanis, and the foreigners in general are much less numerous now. I suppose that's a sign of the country's economic decadence.
But Martim Muniz had always been decadent. This is why it has an exotic touch I've been missing in the middle-class Lisbon. One feels at ease here, like in the medinah of any Moroccan city. I came to the restaurant wearing the same clothes I intended to sleep with. I could have come with the plastic shoes I used under the shower, but somehow the prejudice of a "civilised" one stopped me. But I would be comfortable with them. With German shoes on my feet, nonetheless, I play the role of a northern tourist. They are surprised to hear me speaking this totally immersed, high-pitched Portuguese, and they treat me por "senhora" , while they treat the African fellows next table por "tu". In this place, where the retornados settled after 1975, the empire never ended, it merely took a different shape. And that's a luxury place where I payed 11 euro 25 cents, leaving lordly a gorjeta of 40 cents. I know a place nearby where I eat for one euro or two, and hallal.
The empires never end, they are immortal, with a history prone to repeat itself. Now my seat in the National Library of Portugal is not N14 any more, it's N16. There is a young black guy sitting there, from the Cap Vert, I presume. He arrives every morning even before me and we leave together at the hour they close. That's new, and I wish him the best. He is fully entitled to inherit this historical place where I used to sit since I was been writing my PhD dissertation in 1998. I wish he could inherit all my aspirations and, yes, all my worldliness. If there is still any excellence of a white scholar to be left behind as inheritance, I wish it to be upon him. It is a Draculean inheritance: the eternal thirst of the living blood that only some chosen ones can find in dry and sterile books. Anyway I've been reading African books, and they have been enlivening me these sterile days, that's blood that returns to blood.
There is a continuity of civilisation, a secret renovatio imperii they, the Portuguese, neither guess nor expect. There is this vital encounter and this circulation of the living blood. That's Apophrades, the return of the dead, and a long expected fulfilment of the living, the end of adventure that comes when no one expects any more to hear an athan over Martim Muniz that had once been al-Ushbuna, and had long ceased to be.
Certainly it's a much better place to be, rather than squeeze under the 40-cm-wide shower in the post-Salazarian, middle-class Lisbon I've just left behind. Perhaps it's not the end yet, after all. I'd repudiated this city and this country. But here I am, again, as Noor's itinerant scholar. And I can say, as he did in Zanzibar, or wherever it was: I love this country.
Yesterday I sent a new proposal to my editor, to make yet another book after this one, about African literature written in Portuguese. He answered me by a kind of conditional yes. I think I could do it.
I've been reading Mia Couto all day, a confissão da leoa. I never had excessive respect for the writer, before, but the book is hallucinatory, sticking to mind, like Chraibi, years ago, or more. It is a recent book, published in 2012, free from irritating habits of the constant passivum in Mia Couto's earlier books, that I've always judged to be just the cheapest way to make things sound African. Here he enters quite a different game, introducing the kind of soulless bombastic colonial Portuguese in some parts of the text: os caçadores deslocaram-se da capital, etc. porque começaram a ocorrer ataques de leões a pessoas. Many things are reused in a new configuration, such as the emergence of literacy, and a kind of native intellectual that keeps the memory of those who have been taken to São Tomé. I´ve written about it already, and I could write about it again. But I can have no doubt about the power of this narration, I feel it on me, with all the universal value of the fable on men and lions, or rather, the women and lionesses.
I wonder where does this power come from, is it the earth, or it resides on the frontiers of humanity, where nothing is left to run short of? This guy is as Portuguese as those here, just the same as Lobo Antunes, trying, after all, to speak about the very same problem of women. Oh, I was clever with Lobo Antunes, I gave him such a great excuse in my book... I wrote about his novel Da natureza dos deuses, that I literally couldn't read, that he returns to the problem of reading, just like Cortázar in La Rayuela: the confession of the Lady cannot be read, neither written nor spoken, nobody can get through it, and the phrase Diz que és a minha cabra and Diz que es a minha cadela must reappear several hundred times just to make the reader think how many times those things must have been pronounced over the 38 years the Lady was married, and this is and anti-psychoanalytical work, because the speech is demised of its curative powers, and after those 500 dismal pages nothing is said, nothing done, and... And this is the great advancement and great discovery, and in the 90ties people talked Lobo Antunes might have the Nobel that finally was given to Saramago.
Gosh, the hell be upon me.
And here is the confession of the lioness, and I could also write about this literature, a real literature, the living one, even if I don't have excessive respect for this writer in particular. But there is the voice of the earth, and the extremes of humanity, and this is the least I could do...
I've been watching Tribal Wives in the evenings, this BBC series in which English women feeling that "something is missing" are sent to spend a month among any kind of tribal people, in Gabon or elsewhere. And as they departed with a problem, after a month they return without it.
It's nearly a month I'm here.
Gammel is the Dutch, or Danish, or generally Germanic word that I've been using to name my problem. It could be substituted by the simple word "shabby" in English, but I find "gammel" more expressive, more adapted to the essence of my problem. I've made a test, by the way. It says I know around 37 000 English words, more than an average native speaker. It might be true, I presume. My problems with English are mostly bad habits, missing articles, hesitation in tenses, double negations... Curiously, I'm perfect in Portuguese now, as I came after a big break in using this language. My pronunciation irritates me by its total immersion. I speak with hysterical, high-pitched intonation of a real Portuguese freguesa.
Portugal irritates me, because everything is gammel. The seats in the metro are so dirty that I expressly look for a recently substituted ones to dare to sit down. I believe it's organic, it's a kind of microscopic black mildew growing everywhere, on the walls, in all the nooks and crannies. There is heat and sufficient humidity. I always bring old clothes to Portugal, the ones I don't use any more. They serve my total immersion here.
But I write about all these things, because I discover they belong to what Jung would call my Shadow. The gammel things around me irritate me, because they secretly correspond to the gammel inside me. And as the month passes by, as I go on doing all the hard work of a tribal wife, the gammel inside me goes cracking. Like an English woman in Gabon, I can see and experience how much gammel man can stand. And I grow up to a great liberation.
Perhaps when I come back, I will manage to get rid of my gammel things. Not only shabby clothes, they are falling down of me like autumn leaves at each of my travels (one thing is incredible: how on earth I still do possess such a vast assortment of shabby clothes at home?! sometimes I doubt they make sex and multiply when I'm not looking). But also shabby books, shabby ideas. I've many old Portuguese books at home, filling all nooks and crannies like black lichen. Old books that were old already in my time, the ones I used to buy for 100 escudos from a street book pedlar. I used to gather anything Portuguese, and I thought that what I was doing was specialising. All these gammel papers form a bulk that weights heavily upon my intellectual destiny. This is the hidden reason why I projected to make this history of the Portuguese literature, to have an excuse to dig through all this and hopefully, to get rid.
I wish I had a library at home, a collection, with nothing but valuable things, good books and good ideas. I wish I had this collection reflecting me, and I wish I got rid of the gammel in my intellectual world. I wish I could unlearn the gammel I ingested in all these years. And believe me, to get rid is more difficult than to accumulate. My art is like sculpture in marble, essentially it consists in getting rid.
I've been to my Portuguese bank this morning, to ask why I still didn't receive the debit card I'd requested. They told me the cards are late, because they run short of the plastic to make them.
Now I'm in the library, reading African books about man-eating lions, and I can't stop laughing. Among all gammel things man may run short of, the plastic to make banking cards is certainly the least essential.
I've been going daily to the the National Library for nearly two weeks now. I haven't written much yet, mostly I've read through the last decade's publications. It is a painful, draining experience, and the big question, perhaps the biggest question in making this book, is how to present it to people. I can't just come and say look guys the Portuguese have this great literature, because simply it's not true. The reason why this might be important is not simple and obvious like this. Much of the Lusophone African literature is incomparably better, more powerful. Sticking to the mind, while the metropolitan Portuguese one is a kind of basso continuo circling around the same topics, the same situations, the same unsolved traumas illustrated kaleidoscopically in further and further configurations.
There is nonetheless something humanly important that is to be read in those dim, repetitive books. Baço is the Portuguese term for it. Livros baços, literatura parda. Perhaps also something that is not given in any single book, something it is my work to bring forth: the whole situation of writing that takes form of a painful, desperate struggle against emptiness, mediocrity of mind, lack of greatness, lack of spark that might shine, be it for a single moment, against the dim background, a tela do fundo baça.
This is a situation of writing without talent, education, taste, illustrious tradition, without anything coming from behind. These are bitter words; I don't know how they might react to them, with hate or a masochistic love. But this is what I believe to be true, this is the conclusion of my research, the comprehension I've have reached over those twenty years of me in it.
One of the high points, I wouldn't say highlights is the work with the trauma of retorno de África. I've read extensively O Retorno by Dulce Maria Cardoso. It is a honest book, well done; I wouldn't say more. Except for one image, that of girls with cherries as earrings (the illusory image of the "metropolis", dissolved in the trauma of an actual return from Africa). But I read it through in one long sitting, and there was no such moment I felt an urge to make any specific note on it, to pinpoint a particular sentence, a quotation. The whole narration of a teenage boy is just one constant pyroclastic flow of mixed emotions: fear, anger, other things. Without highlights. Without sentences getting straight to the point. There are valuable things nonetheless, things worth pointing out. There is the figure of the father, a result of a long search for a positive masculinity that had started somewhere in the 60ties, even in the 50ties, with Abelaira and Cardoso Pires and so many others. A decent Portuguese guy that returns from Africa covered by scars, and returns against all the odds, making obviously think about a D. Sebastião às avessas (contrary to the national myth of the returning king that had actually never returned, and contrary to Garrett's Frei Luis de Sousa). He does return and as he returns it is about the future he thinks, about a cement factory, about building houses. This is a great novelty and a great achievement in the field of the Portuguese culture, it is a narration that brings the element that was missing for so long. For half a millennium, it could be. I know it, because I've studied it in depth, and also because I experienced the country and its limitations. But I doubt if a foreign reader might appreciate it greatly as it is. After all our own fathers had always returned, and there had never been nothing so special about building houses. This is a work in grisaille.
One of the dominant features of the Portuguese literature these days is its interest in psychological exploration, especially in terms of the relationships inside family. There is O Vale da Paixão by Lídia Jorge (the title seems taken directly from the 19th century; I congratulate myself about my idea of speaking about the contemporary Portuguese literature as something that must start with the Romanticism; otherwise it is impossible to pin down its internal logic). The father, solving the absence of the paternal figure is one of those topics that return kaleidoscopically in further and further configurations (the idea of an incest as a way of female individuation is such a far-flung conclusion; yet I see what she wants to say: the transgression as a unique exorcism to oppose to the ghostly presence of a father that never returns, of this late, very late Indian soldier - o soldado da Índia - that had departed for Goa covered by his emblematic manta). Against this dim background, the idea of exploring the relationship between a woman and her mother, as Maria Teresa Horta does in Meninas, is already an innovation. But again, these are works in grisaille: extensive, analytical, painstaking, unappealing, low-profile.
There are more books I've read. They have further idiosyncrasies: dubious taste, and I think an intrinsic failure in the very concept of literariness. Even in our post-post-modern times, perhaps especially in them, there are still rules of taste, boundaries that one should have a reason to cross, as well as rules of efficiency and impact, repetition and difference. For instance there is O últmo europeu 2284 by Miguel Real. I've read it as extensively as it seemed feasible to me; a full close reading might be literally impossible. The book is an obvious, yet superficial allusion to Orwell's 1984; there are several dates ending in 84 in it, as well as several empires; but beyond this, there is no reading of Orwell contained in it. Strangely, the work is written as if by someone who has little experience in writing (again, no getting straight to the point, and each sentence, steadily across more than 200 endless pages, is a paragraph a parte). As catastrophic declined with Utopian (the remnants of a destroyed civilisation going back to some kind of Enlightened ideal on what remains, once again, of the archipelago of Azores), the book is profoundly indebted to Saramgo's Jangada de pedra. At the same time, it seems to over-accentuate grotesquely some of its elements, such as the collective giving birth to a new humanity. But what was presented with discretion in Saramago, here occupies a full-sized Orwellian screen.
By the way, the importance of giving birth in the contemporary Portuguese literature is striking. Maria Teresa Horta elaborates it poetically in the first pages of her Meninas, yet in other places the subject is taken just as the Naturalism had left it. Or perhaps not. As the Portuguese Naturalism didn't manage to show it (I'm not sure how the act of giving birth in Eça's Crime do Padre Amaro appears as compared to Żeromski's Dzieje grzechu; yet my impression is that Żeromski exploited the topic more fully).
These are apparently universal things. But in fact such a book as O últmo europeu 2284 is, I'm afraid, indigestible for a foreign reader. Its taste, its ironies, its presuppositions are strictly local. Miguel Real builds up on prejudices and fears that are specifically Portuguese and may not be understood correctly elsewhere. The satire goes against the dislike of the Chinese (people who appeared in Lisbon in the aftermath of the global economic crisis to occupy with their commerce the abandoned spaces in the centre of the city), as well as against the latent racism of the Portuguese society (at the moment of the final destruction, the last European children are sold to some rich Americans; "at least they would be educated in white families" is presented as a consolation).
In the Portuguese literature, I notice the peculiar untimeliness of all cultural formations in the periphery. I've written about this falling out of time, analysing the Polish case. Now the problem of a peculiar Portuguese timing is even more clear to me. Of course the things occur perfectly in time, their time. But only sometimes they coincide with the global calendar; mostly they fall out of joint. Another thing that handicaps the Portuguese culture is the absolute lack of eroticism. There is much ado about those things in the books I've read. But the dominant task is still dealing with their dirty aspect, a sujidade toda. The bodily ways are no longer unspeakable; the literary (over)exploitation of partum is the sign of it. But the recuperation of eroticism is still a work to be done; still an interrupted lesson that remains unlearned since the 60ties, when Jorge de Sena tried to do something about it.
It makes me think about Morocco. They might hate the comparison, but it comes to me all the time as the patriarchal topic returns in its kaleidoscopic reformulations. And I think about Fatema Mernissi, how she gets over things, straight to the point, rebuilding intimacy from its post-colonial ashes. People follow this, even in our contorted times. But she had a heritage to recuperate, things coming from behind. Such a legacy is missing in the Portuguese case, or buried so deeply I don't even notice where it might be hidden. Is this the reason why the Moroccan literature is generally much better than the Portuguese one?
Alone num sítio sem poesia nenhuma. Gosh, that's a dismal place, in 40 degrees heat. But it's not the heat that hurts me most, it is a vague sensation of being poor, suddenly impoverished. The discomfort of this is surprising. Usually I enjoy being poor, living among simple people in the medinah of any Moroccan city, wearing clothes I intend to throw away at the end of my adventure. But here there is something else, it is an impoverishment that cuts down frozen into one's heart, in spite of the 40 degrees, not the fanciful poverty of an intellectual traveller. This poverty is of such a kind that no amount of money can solve it. It is possible, by the way, that poverty doesn't depend on money, at least not in such a linear way we usually presume. There are people and peoples in the world that possess very little in pecuniary value, and yet are not poor. And there are people and peoples and places doomed to lack and impoverishment and transitoriness.
On Sunday, I went to the Calouste Gulbenkian museum in hope of alleviating it somehow, but strangely, confronted with the privacy of this collection, I stayed with an obsessive thought in my head: this guy lived in a hotel in Lisbon. Kind of homeless, rhyming with my own homelessness.
Yes, he lived here in Ritz, that's what I believe, even if I need to discover more about the biography of my Armenian patron. With his Rembrandt and his Turner, I presume? Is it like this? One may possess a Rembrandt and a Turner and no wall to hang it on? Be as it may, Lisbon is a place of homelessness, of precarious existence, of quartos alugados. If it has any poetry, it is a poetry of a dire and dismal kind.
I don't know if this stay is a beginning of a new stage in my intellectual career, or a moment of touching the bottom, cutting down to the strictest necessity. Of realising what the strictest necessity is.
I miss Amsterdam, and I miss my home in Kraków much more than expected; I miss sedentariness, even the sedentariness of a Moroccan city. Perhaps this feeling marks the gate of the Desert.
I'd been struggling for a few days, till my struggle got exhausted and vanished. I understood that my problem is not about hedgehogs and the passages under highways, and not about international humanities. It is through myself that I try to squeeze, and it is all about my own standards, not those of MLA and ACLA.
By the way, I proposed a topic for the next ACLA Annual Meeting that is to take place in Utrecht next summer. Ironically, since my attempts at radical innovation had been rejected last time for the MLA in Dusseldorf, this time I proposed a radically traditionalist topic: the importance of the great figures of comparative literature. It is nonetheless the topic I would actually like to see in the program, since I have my thoughts about Edward Said, and I still work on his "classical" concepts, such as worldliness and the late style. On the other hand, if I can't get around with this, I'm planning to propose a paper for the queer/Lusophone seminar organised by Anna Klobucka, about my bubbles, intimacy and empire, in Pessoa's Antinoos. It is also an attempt at innovation, because I read Pessoa's "homosexual" poem to build a topological approach towards universalism: treating it as a "higher dimension" enabling the subject to get an insight into the sphere of intimacy, that had been lost, when empire became the sole reality available. I'd written a paper about it in Polish, and seemingly it was excluded from publication. This is the glass ceiling of innovation. When you start to be original, people don't know what to do about it, they have no place to put you. It is also hard to sound convincing, when you stop quoting, when you no longer repeat things that had been accepted before. For the moment, I'm trying to step back, to get roots in those things coming from behind, like Said's worldliness. And I look for the channels by which the innovation actually gets through in the academic world. One of the simplest and most obvious observations is that a conference paper is not a circumstance to bring forth such things. In a conference paper you are supposed to announce something that is in fact a tiny progress in relation to the current state of the art. There is no space for revolutions; and a conference is in itself a social occasion: you get together on a common ground.
Well, that's OK, all this. But it's below the expectations I have about myself. And I start to be vaguely worried. Perhaps there is not much terrain left to step back. The only way is to push through, and find the way, the circumstance, the strength to go on with my innovation, and to make it sound convincing without quoting. On the other hand, the only thing really bitter in all this is the fact that my innovation is not a real innovation after all. My topological approach is only a continuation of the same line of marrying mathematics with literary studies that gave many ideas in Moretti and in the digital "macroanalysis" -- ideas derived from the revolution that mathematicised life sciences...
Against my predicament, I get this new wisdom that comes from my reading Eliade in Romanian. I knew the Youth without Youth of course, but the language of the original gets it somehow back to the locatable, make the story of Dominic Matei so down-to-earth, so directly human, plausible, lived-through. All the ingredients become somehow palpable, including the recognition he would finally get in his town, that feels like a handful of dry sand, like a mouthful of ash. I've never been haunted by the vision of myself in Lublin, but here it is.
Reading Eliade helps me to build a distanced outlook of my trouble, to see the destiny as a whole. I'm not alone in my predicament, there had been people to get through the same way before. By the way, I also wrote about Eliade in my unpublished "topological" paper. Perhaps it was him, his life and the transcription of his destiny into literature that gave me a hint, for more than one thing.
ICLA 2016: THE WORLD CONGRESS OF THE INTERNATIONAL COMPARATIVE LITERATURE ASSOCIATION
I did everything wrong in this congress. I was wandering among the sessions, instead of sticking to the main panels and keynotes. And what's more, I tried to catch the most exotic ones, instead of staying close to the major literatures and major affiliations. Because unfortunately, in the current state of the world comparative literature, it's still either - or. Either you stick to the same medieval French literature, and you hear smooth, perfectly professional presentation in elegant English, or you wander in search of Gitagovinda, or mysticism, or any other exotic topic of the kind, and you hear not more than mumbling, degenerating in some moments into sheer drivel. The session on mysticism, on the last day, culminated into a detailed reading of Derrida's and Spivak's writings in terms of mystical utterances (sic!). Haven't you ever wonder why you cant understand a word of them? Because they are mystics, that's what it is!
There was a substantial Polish representation in this congress. Finally we have our own national association of comparative literature. The event provokes an answer to the eternal question concerning our place in the world humanities. Well, the level of the world is variable; you find such an enormous scale of competence, going from zero to... close to infinity? I don't think so. Overall I found relatively few brilliant and innovative ideas in this congress, in any case less than expected (David Damrosch's brilliant analysis of... the latest books' covers was symptomatic). Anyway we, Poles are somewhere in the middle, between nothing and... something of everything. The wisdom that comes to me is rather to accept stoically our own fate of insufficiency. All ignorance is justified. The clumsiness of those who tried to speak about their recitations, those at home in Kerala, as well as the learned presumption of those who could speak pertinently about the same French literature of all times, never attempting to break through their own cultural horizon.
But the Polish case, again... The coordinator of my session, a very nice German lady, commented at the end that she had been so surprised reading my abstract, it seemed so exotic to her, she said, that someone in Poland studied the literature of Angola and Mozambique... I see the reason of her surprise. I know what kind of presentations the Polish colleagues used to propose... "Polish reception of this and that" and "This and that in Poland". And strangely, I didn't say a word about Ondjaki in Poland...
Overall, I'm planning to come back for the next world congress. But in the meanwhile, I've scheduled my participation in an Orientalistentag organised by the Deutsche Morgenländische Gesellschaft, a respectful, 19th.-century association that hopefully might provide me with all what I wish to know about Gitagovindas of the world. In other words, I hope that specialised conferences may offer me what I've been missing at the great comparativist congress.
I might regret I didn't stick to the leading scholars, I didn't pay sufficient attention to affiliations, and I lost my time exploring the margins. But after all, such events are not really to gather knowledge. Their aim is to offer an insight into the global situation, to see people, not ideas. Even if, at the end, you are left alone with just yourself... David Damrosch's book, Meetings of the Mind, came back in more than one conversation. Its final lesson, after all: the whole panel of scholars is just you. I prefer another reference. The note of young Eliade in the Tivoli gardens, alone, dreaming about the crowd of discussing scholars...
The world congress with a thousand participants is perhaps an opportunity to be alone, bringing forth the essential loneliness of the scholar, helping to find one's own place in the middle of all the mess.