Friday, March 30, 2007

Light Switches

The first Interplay session with Prof. Matthew Belmonte and myself on Wednesday evening was quite fun—more like a conversation than a reading/lecture. I did my best to draw a connection between poetry and autism with a reading of my homophonic translation of Paul Celan's "Psalm" (it's the first poem in Selah), hypothesizing that the act of homophonic translation depended on a fixation of the surface features of language that possibly resembled an autistic relation to language. (This was partially confirmed by Matthew later on when he told us about how one autistic man uses slogans he's heard on television in an attempt to communicate—slogans whose relevance to the situation are rarely immediately apparent to his listeners.) My "reading" of Celan finds peculiar English analogues to the sounds of the German (a language I didn't know at all at the time the poem was written; I can now read it with a dictionary and lots of effort) so as to transplant, in a way, his first-order experience of trauma into my second-generation experience as the child of successful assimilated Jews (on my father's side) and of Holocaust survivors (my mother and her parents). Here's Celan's German:

Niemand knetet uns wieder aus Erde und Lehm,
niemand bespricht unsern Staub.

Gelobt seist du, Niemand.
Dir zulieb wollen
wir blühn.

Ein Nichts
waren wir, sind wir, werden
wir bleiben, blühend:
die Nichts-, die

Mit dem Griffel seelenhell,
dem Staubfaden himmelswüst,
der Krone rot
vom Purpurwort, das wir sangen
über, o über
dem Dorn.
Just typing this out, I see how my translation was really more sight than ear-driven, since I didn't realize that the German W is pronounced with a V-sound. But choosing ignorance is part of homophonic translation, and in this case was meant in part to convey the literal and metaphorical darkness in which Celan's experience, and my own family's, lay. Anyway, here's Michael Hamburger's translation, followed by my own:

No one moulds us again out of earth and clay,
no one conjures our dust.
No one.

Praised be your name, no one.
For your sake
we shall flower.

A nothing
we were, are, shall
remain, flowering:
the nothing-, the
no one's rose.

With our pistil soul-bright,
with our stamen heaven-ravaged,
our corolla red
with the crimson word which we sang
over, O over
the thorn.


Neiman Marcus knits a leader out of earth and lime.
Neiman be-shops a western stab.

Galloped apts do, Neiman.
Dear zoo leads woolens
to veer bloomers.

Nine naughts:
where we're singed, we're wared,
we're weary bluehound.
Deathnaut dreading
kneed man's rose.

den grin seals in hell
dem stable-faded him's liverwurst,
dares crone's rot.
Vow the pupa's word. Dazzled weresong.
Or bear, O you bar
the door.
I just noticed there's no period at the end in Selah; that's a typo. Ah, well. The whole poem is a travesty, deliberately so, indexical of the impossible relationship of my personal (American) history with capital-H History. The poem is a little pile of the wrecked language that Benjamin's Angel cannot set right, a little rhythmic rocking in the face of the improbability of my own existence.

Matthew's presentation was fascinating. He used a remark of mine about some new poems I read ("I didn't know I could say these things until I said them") as a jumping off point to talk about how normal people tend to peel past the "shallow" surface features of language so as to abstract a "deeper" meaning from them: we do violence to the percept so as to get at the concept. Autistic people do not have this means to control "the continuous flow of happenings," so they devise more primitive rituals to create a sense of safety and predictability—like flicking a light switch on and off for hours, secure in the knowledge of the perfect repeatability of their action. He shared with us a remarkable poem by a fourteen year-old autistic boy named Tito Mukhopadhyay:
Men and women are puzzled by everything I do
Doctors use different terminologies to describe me
I just wonder
The thoughts are bigger than I can express
Every move that I make shows how trapped I feel
Under the continuous flow of happenings
The effect of a cause becomes the cause of another effect
And I wonder
I think about the times when I change the environment around me
With the help of my imagination
I can go places that do not exist
And they are like beautiful dreams.
But it is a world full of improbabilities
Racing towards uncertainty.
It's a remarkably clear expression, I think, of the impulse behind writing, or any sort of creative activity, which attempts to master "a world full of improbabilities / Racing towards uncertainty." Matthew also showed us some paintings by autistic artists (high-function autistics tend to be either verbally or visually oriented), many of which were nearly photorealistic except for certain peculiarities—the color scheme was often tuned toward the highest possible contrast, creating a psychedelic feel. In a remarkable painting of Times Square—done from memory, Matthew believes—the cars are lovingly detailed, right down to every reflection and gleam of metal, but there are no people and no drivers.

Matthew used the wonderful phrase "a Cartesian cinema" by which to imagine autistic experience: one is watching a film with an incompetent projector, so that there's a picture but no sound, or vice-versa, or only a tiny portion of the screen is visible; so you go upstairs and ask the projectionist to run the film again, and again. It doesn't change the flaw in the information, but you scrutinize that flawed information over and over, hoping to master the hidden whole. It's not hard to see that these descriptions of autistic experience are like heightened expressions of everyone's experience—indeed, Matthew was quick to draw a comparison between postmodernity as described in literature (he cited Gravity's Rainbow) and autistic art. Ultimately, Matthew believes, it comes down to The Denial of Death—a book by Ernest Becker that he recommends for its insight into the need to hold back chaos, and our simultaneous resistance to the structures that we set up to protect ourselves from chaos. The autistic painter, losing herself in the details, or the autistic boy rocking and rocking, or flipping the light switch over and over, haunts us as an image of imprisonment in our own armor—an armor which will ultimately and after all, not protect us in the end.

Shifting gears, I'm looking forward to a conference being hosted at Cornell this weekend, "Between Primitive Accumulation and the New Enclosures." Unfortunately I'm going to miss the opening session this afternoon, but the readings for the conference (available here) are fascinating and will, I think, contribute a lot to my evolving understanding of the particular exigencies and necessity of utopian thought in the face of what Iain Boals calls in a wonderful interview the false Malthusian logic of neoliberalism.

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