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I’ll be releasing an album under the project name Grand Mal on Montreal’s Jeunesse Cosmique label this winter. The album is called “Nyte Lyte.” More information/music can be found in these places:

http://jeunessecosmique.com/grandmal/

grand-mal.bandcamp.com

An additional track is also available on the “Alpinists of the Wind” compilation by the label.

https://jeunessecosmique.bandcamp.com/album/alpinistes-du-vent-alpinists-of-the-wind

Jeunesse Cosmique winter compilation–”Alpinistes du vent / Alpinists of the wind”

A song of mine appears as the second track on this winter compilation from the Jeunesse Cosmique label of Montreal

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“The Skin” review, Music & Literature

To create an enemy, we must first create the idea of an enemy. We humans are creatures defined by perception, thought, and language, and the history of humanity teaches us that to wield language is to wield death. The Biblical myth of Adam naming the animals profoundly symbolizes humanity’s recognition of the difference between the self and others; the result, we know, was to destroy those things perceived to be outside of the self.

We use language to shroud the most distasteful concepts of contemporary life, and so the cultures of absolutism use language to hide death: if American and Pakistani political leaders and the citizens they rule can strike out the thoughts and language of drone strike victims, they, too, can banish those victims from the earth with little fanfare or thought of retribution. Like Adam, we cut ourselves off from the world to gain power over it. Thus terrorism becomes a terrible corollary of destruction’s politics, making the violence that had been cloaked in political language real. Terrorism and its mute brother, political murder, are the twin monsters of contemporary life.

Indeed, the relationship between language and violence during wartime is perhaps the most relevant subject matter for art in our time. Just as the Modernist ethos was born in the throes of the First World War and reaffirmed in the Second, September 11 and its roots in the language of politics will arguably define the philosophy of art for our generation. Like the youths whose cultural values were called into question by World War I, our system of artistic philosophy has been engendered in violence and an utter chaos that is both spiritual and moral in character.

As its effects are so far reaching and so destructive, authors who analyze the relationship between this manner of thought and action in culture as it relates to violence are among the most meaningful, and by this standard Curzio Malaparte is, without qualification, a major force in philosophical literature…

(Complete review is at M&L website here: http://www.musicandliterature.org/reviews/2013/12/2/the-skin)

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“Time of Grief” review, World Literature Today

It is not without reason that Hemingway symbolized death in “The Snows of Kilimanjaro” as a hyena who “slipped lightly along the edge” of the realization of life’s end. Death within the anthology Time of Grief, as it is in our lives, is a figure we perceive only as it travels among the shadows of the earth, its impact on the psyche more immediate and emotionally painful than that of almost any other force, but all the more difficult to grasp because its nature is supremely unknowable.

A collection of poems written on the subject of mourning, this book is both comforting in the fellow-feeling we have with the poets and challenging in its ability to make readers think deeply about a subject that is sometimes too mysterious and painful to contemplate. The collection is divided into a course of reading over forty-nine days, in the manner of the Buddhist calendar’s forty-nine stations of grieving.

The poems here are selected from a wide gamut of times and cultures, spanning, for example, a piece by Chinese poet Qu Yuan, born in the fourth century BC, to Renaissance poet Louise Labé (who writes beautifully, in the sonnet included in the collection, “[You] once, in passion, could declare / That my two eyes were like two separate suns / Whose fires the god had gathered from above / to strike you down”), to more recent work by authors such as Octavio Paz.

There is a unity of tone within the poems here, despite the vast differences in the times and cultures in which they were written. They are in fact reminiscent in their similarity to one scientist’s hypothesis that flowers had been buried at a Neanderthal grave sixty thousand years ago in the Shanidar cave in what is now Iraq, a gesture which, if true, perhaps shows that grief is an emotion that spans ages and species, one that overcomes its bearer but, more importantly, one in which the person grieving seeks solace in presenting something beautiful to the memory of their loved one. 

There is a sense of stillness in many of these writings that one does not find in the expression of other major subjects for poetry, such as love or the ending of love, and the poems collected in Time of Grief seem to each display a sort of cognitive muteness. In Eugénio de Andrade’s “Brief September Elegy,” he writes of someone he has lost, whom he is afraid to call out to, indeed “afraid of breaking the thread / with which you weave unremembered days.” He asks, “With what words / or kisses or tears / can one awake the dead without harming them . . . ?” Perhaps this is another way of saying that we must meet the depths of experience with a sense of courage and dignity toward the memory of those we have lost. 

That mourning is a subject which seems to surpass all others in its need for dignified treatment within art is not surprising. In confronting such subjects with dignity, we come to understand that we are each of us brought into the world in a shroud of darkness we soon learn will never lift but will soon fade only into nothingness, never revealing its nature. Time of Grief exemplifies how death might be treated with steadiness and reserve, for it is undoubtedly a value that stretches out from us into the twilight fields of the past and will no doubt extend beyond us far into a future we will never know. It is a reassuring thought that perhaps our more noble emotions will be understood by those who come after us.

Although he is far less known than great contemporary writers who take memory as their primary subject, such as Javier Marías and W.G. Sebald, Argentinian writer Sergio Chejfec is nearly in league with them; if genius can be defined by the measure of depth of an artist’s perception into human experience, then Chejfec is a genius. His strength as a writer lies in a profound capacity for philosophical exploration within the structure of a brief narrative; in The Planets, his second book to be published in English (after the excellent My Two Worlds,also released by Open Letter), Chejfec reflects on a human being’s complex relationship to their memories, and the implications of this relationship in determining a person’s existence within their society.

This form of reflection takes place in a mapping out of parallels between the individual and their place within their culture, a figuring of human life as though it were something surveyable in the same way that one might map the movement of the planets. (It seems important, in considering this metaphor on the author’s part, that planets were once thought of, because of their movements relative to the “fixed” stars, as wandering stars—the word “planet” descending from a Greek word for “wandering”—and so crucially, in Chejfec’s symbolism, are locked into the patterns gravity has set for them, in the same way as the fixed heavens). Chejfec’s narrator considers, for example, that:

We never encounter a sense of autonomy radical enough to separate us from the world, apart from death. Even the stars and celestial bodies we often discussed, trying to excuse our ignorance with our enthusiastic veneration, which seem to travel through space with liberated precision millions of kilometers from our precarious influence, are actually subject to a complex network of forces that is always at work upon them, such that their movements are easily anticipated.

Chejfec here illustrates the concept that consciousness and society hem us into particular orders, that an individual is always acted upon by forces outside their control. This is why death can be read in this instance as giving autonomy “radical enough to separate us from the world,” in Chejfec’s phrase: that is, it is precisely because death is the ending of consciousness, consciousness being the concept we use to describe the prism of memory through which we see the world, and thus the scale by which we measure our existence. [1]

In The Planets a narrator remembers a childhood friend, referred to only as “M,” who was abducted in Buenos Aires in the 1970′s (in a symbolic sense, subsumed into the culture in which he lived), a period of time in which the government, in the notorious “Dirty War” of the time, “disappeared” suspected political dissidents. This act of memory on the narrator’s part becomes the focus of the novel, but more importantly it is a way of “reclaiming” the life of a disappeared person; the narrative thus becomes an act of bringing back to life the figure of M.

The greatness of Chejfec’s philosophical insight is apparent in this use of metaphor: if we imagine what it means to be “disappeared” within a political conflict, within the present understanding of world history, we can come to understand something extremely meaningful about the nature of memory: a government acts upon what is known and what reality is perceived to be to accomplish its ends.  For a government to “disappear” an individual is to, in a sense, will that person’s memory into nonexistence. As Chejfec shows, the remembrance of a person—particularly one who has vanished from the earth—is an act of refusal against the processes which have given them a double death: the first a physical, the second one related to an absence of knowledge of that person by othersThat is,in a sense, to not be remembered is to be cast into oblivion.

Thus the narrator’s and M’s movements around Buenos Aires become a kind of metaphorical thread which Chejfec uses to escape the Minotaur’s labyrinth of unconsciousness and of nonexistence, to see, in this case, if that thread will lead to the safety of memory; but this is at best an imperfect process: the narrator explains that we should not take memories as solid, tangible things, but rather as metaphysical and imperfect things—projections of our mental processes:

And so, with the passage of time and the unavoidable changes to people and things, it was inevitable that I began to lose track of the traces left by M… They remain only as memories, but there comes a time we can no longer be sure of the real value of what we retain… we should not be overly credulous when we say things like recollection, memory, or simply evocation: there, too, a cave of shadows lies hidden… the truth is, there comes a time when the recovery of memories becomes a path riddled with obstacles.

It is fortunate that Open Letter is providing Chejfec’s work to an English-speaking audience. He is surely an author deserving of greater attention for the beauty of his work, prose, and ideas; it can only be hoped that in the coming years he will find the wider readership his work merits.

[1] Chejfec’s comparison of the individual’s life to the life of the universe is a profound one: because of the scale of the time of the universe compared to that of our own lifespans, we think of the universe as seemingly infinite—yet the universe also experiences a time of “death,” when it expends all of its energy. It is striking, for example, that like the character of “M,” who no longer exists, so to speak, the universe will also one day presumably no longer exist, and prior to this point its energy will become so depleted that it will enter what is termed a “Black Hole Era,” when the energy in the universe is so low that the only celestial bodies will be black holes.

This autumn James Blackshaw released the Holly EP, a brief but remarkable work that adds to an already remarkable discography.  Here he speaks via email about how he approaches the practice of composition, and about key experiences that have shaped his views on art.  (Photo by Nicole Boitos.)

At what age did you first become interested in music?  Growing up, what did music mean to you?  How has your view of music as a form of art changed over the years, if it has?

Around the age of 9, my mum bought an old upright piano with the intention of learning to play.  She never did, but I used to enjoy playing.  I could only really figure out how to use to use a couple of fingers at a time, each hand at a time, but I’d write these little melodies and I quickly managed to convince my parents that I should take piano lessons.  I lasted maybe two or three.  Of course I wish I’d stuck with them now, but learning scales should be like Kryptonite for any sane, marginally creative person of that age.

It was hearing Nirvana that prompted me to want to play guitar when I was 11 years old.  I think perhaps more important than their music itself, they were incredibly important because they led me to find out about all kinds of stuff: Sonic Youth, Hüsker Dü, The Jesus Lizard, Sebadoh, punk rock and the DC post-hardcore scene etc., and I started playing in punk rock bands, hanging out in record stores and going to shows at a very early age.  It was just such a rush of discovery and everything seemed to connect somehow.  The Internet was barely a blip on the radar, so nearly everything revolved around word of mouth, fanzines and mail-order catalogues.  I came to hear stuff like Rachel’s, Gastr Del Sol and even John Fahey by the time I was 16, which seems kind of crazy now to me.  And when I was a teenager, it meant the world to me, both on a personal level and through finding friends who I shared stuff in common with because I was pretty awkward and shy.

I eventually ended up working in a record shop when I was 21.  I became really obsessed with solo guitar and started learning fingerpicking, bought a 12-string a couple of years later just because I was so blown away by Robbie Basho’s music.  I also became really passionate about experimental music, classical music, drone, minimalism, psych and even ran a small mail-order specialising in underground, small-press releases.  I think these types of music in particular shaped my listening tastes and my own music and continue to do so.

These days, I feel less engaged with what’s going on musically.  Maybe it’s getting older, maybe the thrill of seeking out new things is lessened by the sheer ease with which we can find and obtain things via the Internet.  Maybe I’m just less easily impressed or I have tastes which aren’t easily accounted for.  For example, I’d love to hear someone make some kind of lush orchestral pop record, in the vein of Harry Nilsson, Judee Sill, Margo Guryan, Bill Fay or Dennis Wilson, but who the fuck could or would finance that in an age where so few people buy records?  It’s sad, but not worth getting upset about.  Some people bitch and moan about the music industry, but I personally think that’s like complaining about bad weather.  There’s nothing we can do to change it, just try to adapt and enjoy the many things in life that are worth enjoying.

What role does practicing guitar or piano play for you?  Beyond a certain level, do you find that there is a high degree of correlation between the amount of work you put into writing or playing music and the quality of the result, or is there a drop-off at some point where a composition will not improve with more time?  Do you play or write music daily?  Has your work process changed since you began releasing records and touring?

That’s a tough question.  For me, I personally feel my best work comes from a lot of practice and time spent thinking about what I’m writing, but it’s as hard to know when to stop working on a piece as it is to start one, maybe more so.  What’s interesting is I know for a fact that there’s a number of my pieces which people particularly seem to enjoy which were written in hardly any time at all: the song “Running to the Ghost,” for example, or pretty much the whole of the O True Believers album.  I don’t think there’s a hard-and-fast rule as to whether time and effort equals better quality of music; I just know I generally feel better when I’ve explored all my options both as a performer and a composer.

My work ethic in general has remained the same all these years: I spend big chunks of time where I don’t play or write music at all and big chunks of time where I seem to do nothing but!  It’s not something I’d recommend to everybody, but I tend to be like that in many aspects of my life, drawn to one extreme or the other.

Have you started to read and write musical notation, and if so has this helped the composition process for you, and how has it changed the way that you think of composition?

I’d call my ability to read and write music “rudimentary,” haha!  I can do it, but it takes me an insane amount of time, so if for example I’m writing string or wind parts, I literally just play it on the piano or sing the part and I’m lucky to have friends who are very talented and know what I mean!

What originally brought about an interest in using a nylon-string guitar for the title track of the Holly EP?

I’ve loved the sound of nylon string guitar for a while, but hardly ever had the opportunity to play one.  I like a lot of classical pieces, particularly the composer Leo Brouwer, and recently I started to get quite heavily into some Brazilian guitarists like Baden Powell and Bola Sete, so I decided to pick up a cheap classical guitar and was kind of surprised how much I took to it, given how different it is tonally and in feel from the 12-string.

I think one of your most interesting recent works was “Part 1 from All is Falling; I was wondering what exactly is happening on the piano part at around the 2:10 mark – are you playing the high, fast turn of notes in a different time signature than the rest of the song?  Is this part overdubbed over the other piano line, and is it played with both hands?

Oh yeah, that part was overdubbed, but I think it’s in the same time-signature.  In fact, there’s about 3-4 multi-tracked pianos on that piece, dropping in and out.

I was also wondering what is happening, in an instrumental sense, on “Part 8 of All is Falling – what sort of synth are you using, and are you using many overdubs, or is it just one track?

If I remember rightly, I E-bowed a 12-string electric guitar through a volume pedal and a tremelo pedal, occasionally changing notes, the settings on the tremelo pedal and bringing the volume up and down.  I then overdubbed another track doing the same thing and my friend Charlotte recorded two saxophone tracks, just listening to the drone and playing long, sustained notes over the top.  It wasn’t edited and no effects were added in post-production, so it was all pretty spontaneous.

It seems that your melodies and chord progressions almost always move symmetrically, one phrase counterbalancing another, bringing about a very beautiful form of tension as a result; there is a real beauty on “Transient Life in Twilight” from the O True Believers album that seems to come from variations in the initial phrase, for example – the way that around the 3:12 mark a shift in harmony changes the whole tone of the piece.  Do you visualize the shape of the melodic line, or the shape of a chord progression, or do you just have more a sense of how you would like the piece to sound and trust your instincts?

I think everything I do is very instinctive and rarely something I pre-empt, I just know what feels right to my ears or moves me in some way.  And maybe it’s cheesy to some people, but shifting from major to minor keys in unexpected places is just one of those things that work so well in music.  The way one chord leads to another is one of the more important details for me.  With the exception of pure drone, which I think demands a very different kind of attention from a listener, a lot of music that stays in one key just sounds very flat and lifeless to me.

What music has most interested you lately?  Are there many works from other forms, such as painting, film, or literature that have struck a chord with you recently?

According to my iTunes, these are the last few artists I added: Baden Powell, Alan Licht,  Jack Nitzsche, Roberto Cacciapaglia’s The Ann Steel Album, J Dilla and a lot of David Shire’s soundtrack work.

I’ll be honest, I’m kind of a geek, haha!  The last book I read was Speaker For The Dead by Orson Scott Card.  I read a lot of comic books and I’m obsessed with the series Fables.  I love sci-fi, fantasy and horror.  I haven’t seen any good films in a while, except for Drive, but with amazing TV shows like Breaking Bad, Game of Thrones, and Boardwalk Empire showing, I probably spend too much time in front of the TV as it is.  I don’t know if any of this stuff has had a profound impact on my work, maybe not, but I’m convinced that there’s as much wonderful stuff to be gleaned from what some people call “low-brow culture” as there is from high art.

In a related question, it seems like you are influenced by an aspect of Elliott Smith’s work that is often overlooked, that is, the compositional aspect itself – could you talk about the effect that he has had on you?

Wow, where do I begin?!  I think Elliott Smith was really on another level when it came to making pop music.  His music was often catchy yet rarely obvious without trying be overtly challenging or weird for weird’s sake.  His innate sense of harmony, melody and attention to detail just made him an extraordinarily gifted songwriter.  I also think he was a really stellar guitarist and lyrically, I know there’s been many times in my life where I’ve just connected so much emotionally with his words.  It’s terribly sad that he’s no longer with us because there’s no one else who makes music quite like him, but what’s worse is that I’m sure there are some people who can’t see objectively how fucking good his music is because of their preconceptions about who he was as a person.  I don’t know how much he’s influenced my own music or not, but his music has been a massive inspiration to me.

What is the process of touring like?  Is it enjoyable, or stressful, or both?

Both!  The thing I love most about touring is meeting people and it’s also wonderful to travel the world and see so many places, even if half the time it is just from the window of a van and then eight hours stuck inside a club, haha!  I wouldn’t swap it for the world, but it can also throw you off balance and it can get very lonely.  All the things you take for granted at home – washing your clothes, taking a shower, checking your e-mail, watching a movie, eating what you want to eat when you want to eat it – can become mammoth tasks.  And it can put a lot of strain on friendships and relationships, being away for big stretches of time.  But man, I have met so many wonderful people, had so many great times as well as terrible ones and after a few months at home, I miss it like crazy!

Did the idea of your music change to you as you started releasing records and people began showing support for your work?  Was this a confidence boost?

Without people’s enthusiasm and support, I have no doubt I would never have written and recorded so much music or toured like I have.  I’ve always just tried to write music for myself as I find it very cathartic, but of course knowing other people will listen to it and decide for themselves whether it’s good or bad has an effect on me.  I just try to do what I feel like the right thing to do is, I don’t try to pander to anybody but I genuinely hope people will like it, I’m not out to alienate anyone.  Sometimes I think I have – I think there are some people who’d just wish I’d just keep on plucking that 12-string and cut it out with all the other shit, haha!  Who knows, maybe they’re right, maybe they’re not, but if it’s not what I want to do, then I’m not going to do it, I’m sorry.  I do feel incredibly grateful that there is an audience for my music and I just hope people will take a chance on me if I choose to explore different concepts and ideas.

Do you have advice for musicians who are just starting out, but would like to release music in the future?

If you love making music or genuinely find some sense of achievement or therapy in it, just stick at it and I genuinely feel you will know when the time is right to record and release something.  Talk to people with similar tastes and interests, don’t be afraid to send it out to labels – I honestly believe that most people who make people with good intentions and for the right reasons will find a place for it somewhere.

Where would you like to see your work go in the next ten years?

I have no idea!  I’m just finishing up writing a new album.  Recording and getting it out will be the next step.  If I’m still able to do that in ten years time, I’ll thank my lucky stars.  There’s still a few ambitions that I’ve yet to fulfil, like scoring a film for example, but mainly I just want to continue what I’m doing, nothing more and nothing less.

James Blackshaw’s websites are here:

www.myspace.com/jamesblackshaw

http://younggodrecords.com/Artists/?C=1988

I.

As writers, Marcel Proust and Javier Marías are concerned with the contrast of finite human memory against nearly infinite time, a contrast laying bare a tragic aspect of human existence, in which, aware of the limitations of our own memories, we are nonetheless able to compare those limitations against the ceaseless expanse of time and space surrounding them. Their works also constantly involve deliberation over both the extent to which we can understand the past, and represent that past via language, and the extent to which we can know either ourselves or others that we interact with. Both authors might suggest that what we can know of any of these things is an extremely limited amount, if it is any amount at all. What is also frighteningly evident in Proust’s and Marías’s delineations of the effects of time on human beings is that as a defense mechanism to the lack of assurance posed by the idea that we can be conscious of so little, human culture will inevitably deceive itself into believing that it can indeed “know” a great deal about the past or of the world around it, creating in this false and desperate need of certainty an internecine world that is constantly tearing itself apart. 

 

Marías’s relatively early novel All Souls is exemplified, for example, by the exploration on the author’s part of the ghostliness of human memory and the desperation with which human beings attempt to hold onto the past, as suggested by the novel’s title (a pun on the name of an Oxford college). [1] Within the novel’s first paragraph, the narrator describes his inability to fully express, via his writing, the time he spent in Oxford as a lecturer in Spanish literature and translation, since this would merely be giving in to an illusory sense of certainty about a past he knows he is unable to fully represent: 

 

[In] order to speak of [two friends that have died], I must speak of myself and of my time in the city of Oxford, even though the person speaking is not the same person who was there. He seems to be, but he is not. If I call myself “I,” or use a name which has accompanied me since birth and by which some will remember me, if I detail facts that coincide with facts others would attribute to my life, or if I use the term “my house” for the house inhabited by others before and after me but where I lived for two years, it is simply because I prefer to speak in the first person and not because I believe that the faculty of memory alone is any guarantee that a person remains the same in different times and different places. The person recounting here and now what he saw and what happened to him then is not the same person who saw those things and to whom those things happened; neither is he a prolongation of that person, his shadow, his heir or his usurper.

 

From the outset, then, the narrator of All Souls is looking back on his life as though, as is typical of nearly all of Marías’s narrators, he is a ghost looking back on his past life. That the incommensurability of language and memory impose this ghostly effect on the novel is no accident. For Marías, as for Proust, the fact that we generally express memory through language means that there will be a wide gulf between memories and our expression of them, just as there is a dissociation between memory and experience. As Proust’s narrator says in In Search of Lost Time, “We feel in one world, we think, we give names to things in another; between the two we can establish a certain correspondence, but not bridge the gap.” 

 

The narrators used by both authors also understand themselves as conduits of language’s evolution, in much the same way that the human body may be seen as a vessel conveying evolutionary traits: for both Marías and Proust language is something continuously changing, active, non-static, just as the self is something constantly transforming, only giving the semblance of continuity. As the narrator of In Search of Lost Time notes,

 

those French words which we are so proud of pronouncing accurately are themselves only “howlers” made by Gaulish lips which mispronounced Latin or Saxon, our language being merely a defective pronunciation of several others. The genius of language is its living state, the future and past of French, that is what ought to have interested me in Françoise’s mistakes. Wasn’t “amender” for “mender” just as curious as those animals that survive from remote ages, such as the whale or the giraffe, and show us the state through which animal life has passed? 

 

Language is in this instance something stretching out far beyond us into the dark past, something over which we lack control. When the narrator of In Search of Lost Time attempts to understand the origin of a particular word within the fabric of language, what he glimpses is language’s variegated nature; he is in a sense looking back through time, like an archaeologist examining a fossil record:

 

I asked Brichot if he knew what the word Balbec meant. “Balbec is probably a corruption of Dalbec,” he told me. “One would probably have to consult the charters of the Kings of England, Suzerains of Normandy, for Balbec was a dependency of the barony of Dover, for which reason it is styled Balbec d’Outre-Mer.”

 

In a sense the word Balbec has a history, mostly unseen, whose evolution we can perceive only the slightest glimpses into via history; so too is Proust’s work one point in the continuous expanse of time, much like the narrator of his novel finds himself to be:

 

I was not situated somewhere outside of Time, but was subject to its laws, just like those characters in novels who, for that reason, used to plunge me into such gloom when I read of their lives, down at Combray, in the fastness of my hooded wicker chair. In theory one is aware that the earth revolves, but in practice one does not perceive it, the ground upon which one treads seems not to move, and one can rest assured. So it is with Time in one’s life. And to make its flight perceptible novelists are obliged, by wildly accelerating the beat of the pendulum, to transport the reader in a couple of minutes over ten, or twenty, or even thirty years.

 

How strange then that Proust’s novel is a point in time that is, as it were, conscious and reflective of itself, as though it exists in a world of sleep and dreams, as something that has awakened, and is the sole thing looking over that sleeping world. Indeed it is as though language is looking over, and commenting on, the very process by which it evolves. 

 

The narrator of All Souls is also fascinated with language as a marker of time: long bored by what he views as the pointless nature of his role as a lecturer in Spanish translation, he responds to his students’ self-aggrandizing questions on the meanings of seemingly arbitrary and obscure Spanish words by creating lengthy and humorously false explanations on their origin. At first the narrator is scared that his falsehoods will be discovered by colleagues sitting in on the lectures, but in a moment of extreme irony the narrator consults a dictionary and finds that, in fact, one word to which he has ascribed a particularly absurd source in fact originated just as he said. It as though history is playing a joke on the narrator by confirming that the idea of a word’s “origin” is necessarily absurd, and that such origins are always forever forgotten in a vast abyss of time, even while we attempt to delude ourselves into believing that we have grasped those origins: “I felt more of an impostor than ever,” the narrator says, “but at the same time my conscience felt clearer, for it seemed to me that my crazy etymologies were no more nonsensical, no less likely than the real ones. . . . When true knowledge proves irrelevant, one is free to invent.” Even as the narrator attempts to escape the absurd satire that memory and time play on humanity, he is powerless to do so because his dismissal of humanity’s pride in knowledge turns out to be as absurd as the pride itself.

 

Marías’s case of a representative of knowledge passing on information that is simultaneously both arbitrarily true and arbitrarily false serves also as a complicated illustration of the fundamental problem of received information. That is, information passed down through time and memory never can contain what it claims to—a pure understanding of the past—just as one of the main problems put forth by post-structuralism is the lack of an original point from which “pure” information can be obtained. It is as though Marías’s lecturer is a point, a cipher, through which language passes, and is warped, like a beam of light bent by the gravitational force of consciousness. Because our memories are too limited to fully interpret the past, there is no point of origin from which the narrator can pass on “true” information.

 

(The rest of this essay can be found here: http://quarterlyconversation.com/marcel-proust-in-search-lost-time-javier-marias-all-souls)

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