Fábula / Fable
It will be an honour for me to receive a pretty but useless thing from you.
— Bruce Chatwin, “The Morality of Things”
Whoever opens W.G. Sebald’s “elementary poem” “After Nature” and turns the page twice will first encounter snow on the Alps and, after turning again, this prelude: Whoever closes the wings of the altar in the Lindenhardt parish church, and locks up the carved figures in their casing, on the left-hand panel will be met by St. George. The closing of the altar wings, rendering them smaller and more manageable than altar wings normally seem to us, shutting here like the wings of a ladybug or the valves of a shell; the disappearance of the figures into the shadow of these wings followed by the appearance of Saint George coming at us from the left—even if we are not aware of the author’s interest in the painter Matthaeus Grünewald, to whom the first part of “After Nature” is dedicated, the movement of this sentence carries us straight into the special kind of attentiveness Sebald brings to the artwork; it draws us closer to an appreciation nurtured by an intuitive and personal respect that, more than all erudition, characterizes his writing about others. We find the observer reaching straight for the altar wings and taking Saint George into his hands, rather than keeping him at a distance so as to avoid being taken in too quickly by this slayer of dragons. Foremost at the picture’s edge he stands above the world by a hand’s breadth and is about to step over the frame’s threshold. Sebald never spent much time avoiding being taken in; on the contrary, he was always aware that we are taken in from the beginning, that the story began before us and continues after us and, at times, seems to be telling us more than we tell it. Long before that time pain had entered into the pictures. There is no beginning to appreciation and it is our most noble duty to not let it come to an end.
“Now we have something too,” the people of Visoko in Bosnia said when one of their own returned from American exile and declared that the sharply pointed hills surrounding the town were pyramids once built by human hands. While he is now digging shafts into the hills in order to prove what he concocted, the people of Visoko are building Pharaonic tombs in their cellars for the tourists. They argue that if tombs are discovered one day in the town’s own pyramids, the tombs in their basements can still be rebuilt to reflect the originals. For now though, the Egyptian model will have to do. The EU sends a Commissioner to help along the gold rush—the idea being that for many regions tourism is the only remaining lifeline and, moreover, the surest route from one Europe to the other. Hotels and guesthouses are given certifications, logos are affixed to cafés, and signposts transform footpaths into hiking trails. The Commissioner puts little stock in the pyramid theory, but that’s not the issue, he says. Visoko is setting an example for how a disadvantaged region can use ingenuity to prop itself back up.
How long does it take to walk around the pyramids of Giza? How long to climb them? And how long would one have to wander through the desert to make up for the torments caused by their construction? Civilisation was lashed into place. We inherit the load, writes Bruce Chatwin in “The Nomadic Alternative”, a book that he did not live to write but that was published posthumously anyway. I imagine that if you fix your gaze at them long enough, the shimmering heat rising from the desert makes the sharp edges of the pyramids flutter in the wind like tents. Tents that can be taken down in no time and stowed away in a saddle bag, to be put up again later as a transient abode somewhere else. Why did the Egyptians bury eternity in structures with the same shape as the lightweight dwellings of the nomads, for whom place was still as much part of a rhythmic flow as was time?
Chatwin writes: A nomad does not ‘wander aimlessly from place to place’ as one dictionary would have it. The word derives from the Latin and Greek, meaning ‘to pasture.’ Pastoral tribes follow the most conservative patterns of migration, changing them only in times of drought or disaster. The permanent drought and the ultimate disaster that turn the nomad into a poacher and a displaced person goes by the name of “civilization,” and, from the perspective of the nomads, is nothing but the others’ sluggishness. We have become accustomed, Chatwin writes, to opposing sedentariness to barbarism, animal nature, and the wild, thereby suppressing the fact that the illustrious achievement of “civilization,” on which we base our understanding of ourselves, means nothing more than “living in cities.” Living, in other words, in closed rooms, surrounded by things whose sheer gravity anchors us where architecture itself has not already become a prison.
Chapter V will continue the story of the nomads in the face of a triumphant agricultural and then industrial Civilisation. I may call it ‘Civilisation or Death!’ the cry of the American frontiersman. This will be a record of the hard line towards nomads, its rationalised hatred and self-assumed moral superiority. Nomads are equated with animals and treated as such. I will discuss the fate of the Gypsies, the American Indians, the Lapps and the Zulus, also nomads within highly civilized societies, tramps, hobos etc. I would give an account of the Beja in the Eastern Sudan, the Fuzzy-Wuzzies of Kippling. They have been able to resist all civilising influences, since they were first mentioned in Egyptian annals some three thousand years ago, only because they are prepared to tolerate the lowest level of personal comfort. They are sensationally idle and truculent as well. Most of the morning for the men is taken up by a fantastic mutual coiffure session.
I wish Chatwin had written the book he is outlining here for Tom Maschler, his publisher. Maybe he was too close to this book to write it, or maybe he was just on the road too much. But there is some truth to the idea that he did write the book he never wrote, spread it out in all the other books and stories and sketches like a meal among friends or the belongings of a traveler who does not know when he will return, if ever.
Whatever the historical materialist surveys in art or science has, without exception, a lineage he cannot observe without horror. The products of art and science owe their existence not merely to the effort of the great geniuses who created them, but also, in one degree or another, to the anonymous toil of their contemporaries. There is no document of culture which is not at the same time a document of barbarism.
These frequently quoted lines by Walter Benjamin about historical materialism, which are dedicated to the collector Eduard Fuchs, raise fundamental doubts about whether we ever see what there is to see. In the history of civilization, the pyramids embody the monumental effort to separate the sensory perception of an object from its meaning and to lead it astray by supplying it with an entirely different content. This is why, for Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, the pyramid is the prime example of a “sign” and thus of the decisive transition in language when a mimetic relationship to the world becomes an abstract one. The sign is some immediate intuition, representing a totally different import from what naturally belongs to it; it is the pyramid into which a foreign soul has been conveyed, and where it is conserved. Unlike a symbol, you cannot tell by looking at a sign what it stands for. You have to learn it and remember it. This arbitrariness with which the sign is first furnished with its meaning makes possible a language that is an objective currency for subjective turmoil. By locating the pyramid at the origins of language, Hegel suggests that language is touched by the capricious violence with which thousands perished in oblivion so that one person could make a name for himself. Language, in other words, is founded on forgetting.
Here we have before us a double architecture, Hegel writes, one above ground, the other subterranean: labyrinth under the soil, magnificent vast excavations, passages half a mile long, chambers adorned with hieroglyphics, everything worked out with the maximum of care; then above ground there are built in addition those amazing constructions…the pyramids…
Jacques Derrida reminds us in his reading of Hegel that a pyramid is a tomb, which means that to speak is also always to bury something. He also reminds us of the forgetting that already took place in the mute prehistory of speech, where Hegel locates the “imagination.” The imagination is involved in the very basic process of turning an object of sense experience, something that is immediate, into an image, a content of thought. Remembering, then, is the internalization of the external world, which for Hegel marks the beginning of “intelligence”: The image when thus kept in mind [erinnert] is no longer existent, but stored up out of consciousness, writes Hegel, and Derrida suggests calling this unconscious repository of images a “pit,” silent as death and resonating with all the powers of the voice which it holds in reserve. From there, he writes, a path leads to a pyramid brought back from the Egyptian desert.
Another double architecture, the pit and the pyramid, and in both there is forgetting. In the second, older case, forgetting lies even closer to the root of memory. So close it can seem that to remember means to forget—to forget that I did not give myself the image, but that it was given to me by the forest of things that surrounds me, or by someone who was walking there in front of me and stumbled over a root before he could say what was already on the tip of his tongue.
Many Hegel readers are unsettled by the way in which his main philosophical concepts—negation, Aufhebung or sublation, dialectics—play with death. Derrida puts it succinctly: The Phenomenology of Spirit describes the work of death. The spirit Hegel sets out to create has to pass through a valley of death, and its path is strewn with corpses. Sounds like a Western—but is it really all just for a fistful of dollars? Derrida asks about the profit derived from this cruel act of civilizing: If the investment in death cannot be integrally amortized (even in the case of a profit, of an excess of revenue), can one still speak of a work of the negative? What might be a “negative” that could not be relevé? And which, in sum, as negative, but without appearing as such, without presenting itself, that is, without working in the service of meaning, would work? but would work, then, as pure loss? He proposes imagining a “machine,” defined in its pure functioning, and not in its final utility, its meaning, its result, its work. The essential effect of such a machine would be a pure loss, and philosophy, Derrida suspects, would see in this a nonfunctioning, a non-work; and thereby philosophy would miss that which, in such a machine, works. By itself. Outside. It seems as if Derrida hopes that taking a detour by way of such a purposeless and wasteful machine—one that Hegel could never think—might lead to a new kind of relationship between human beings. This sounds like a classic utopian idea, despite the fact that Derrida confessed to being suspicious of utopias and preferred to stick with the impossible. He is well aware that language and culture are sponsored by an investment in death and that this fact precedes philosophy. The scandal that my life begins with the death of an other is a well-known subject and cannot be gotten rid of by textual exegesis.
This entire logic, this syntax, these propositions, these concepts, these names, writes Derrida, this language of Hegel’s—and, up to a certain point, Hegel himself—are engaged in the system of this unpower, this structural incapacity to think without relevé. To confirm this, it suffices to make oneself understood within this system. For example, to name machine a machine, functioning a functioning, work a work, etc. Derrida knows that it is not enough to overturn the hierarchy, or to reverse the direction of the current, to attribute an “essentiality” to technology and to the configuration of its equivalents, in order to change the machinery, the system or the terrain.
The machine is not an innocent invention. Our fear that the machine could crush us, or, even worse, render us superfluous, follows the same fear with which we respond to the strangeness of the other. Fear sets the dialectic in motion—explaining, signifying, and naming the other, sublating him, allows for his subsequent return as my world and my other. The “shock of the heterogeneous” precedes the dialectic. Jacques Rancière writes that art responds to this shock in either dialectical or symbolist form. Because the example he has in mind is Jean-Luc Godard’s Histoire(s) du cinéma, he refers to “montage,” but uses the term in the wider sense of juxtaposition or arranging something within the same frame.
By fragmenting continuums and distancing terms that call for each other, or, conversely, by assimilating heterogenous elements and combining incompatible things, [dialectical montage] creates clashes. The encounter therein of incompatible elements highlights the power of a different community imposing a different measure.
Let us remember, in the midst of this rebellion, Derrida’s comment that it is not enough to overthrow the hierarchies and, as it were, to turn everything downside up. The question is what continuities are being fragmented and whose standards of attraction and incompatibility are being scrapped. Typically, the dialectical montage is concerned with
revealing one world behind another: the far-off conflict behind home comforts; the homeless expelled by urban renovation behind the new buildings and old emblems of the polity; the gold of exploitation behind the rhetoric of community or the sublimity of art; the community of capital behind all the separation of spheres and the class war behind all communities. It involves organizing a clash, presenting the strangeness of the familiar, in order to reveal a different order of measurement that is only uncovered by the violence of a conflict.
Symbolist montage has a different approach to the shock of heterogeneity. One could say it suffers this shock, while dialectical montage forces it.
Between elements that are foreign to one another [symbolist montage] works to establish a familiarity, an occasional analogy, attesting to a more fundamental relationship of co-belonging, a shared world where heterogeneous elements are caught up in the same essential fabric, and are therefore open to always being assembled in accordance with the fraternity of a new metaphor.
But symbolist montage no more means the consistent manufacturing of a premature harmony than dialectical montage exhausts itself in overturning the old order. In its best moments, ”the fraternity of a new metaphor”, a power of contact, not of translation or explanation, succeeds in creating a kind of remembering that has not yet suffered from forgetting. Of course such success depends upon the “freedom of art” to make equal use of images and language and, at the right time, to place at the side of the forgetting inherent in every utterance a roaring silence that hurls us into remembering. Rancière’s entire line of argument in “The Future of the Image” lives from the fact that art is made up of images and that image is not exclusive to the visible. There is visibility that does not amount to an image; there are images which consist wholly in words, he writes, pointing to the strange functioning of the machine he now goes on to reveal:
If the dialectical way aims, through the clash of different elements, at the secret of a heterogeneous order, the symbolist way assembles elements in the form of mystery. Mystery does not mean enigma or mysticism. Mystery is an aesthetic category, developed by Mallarmé and explicitly adopted by Godard. The mystery is a little theatrical machine that manufactures analogy, which makes it possible to recognize the poet’s thought in the feet of a dancer, the fold of a stole, the opening of a fan, the sparkle of a chandelier, or the unexpected movement of a standing bear.
There is a longing for necessity. The problem is that this claim is normally made in the wrong context, leaving us with no choice but to counter by insisting on our freedom. But there is a longing for necessity. A longing for physics, for friction, for my own practice to rub up against a body with its own insistence, a body that will not evaporate in the abracadabra of my freedom. Necessity is what you kiss or bang your head against, writes John Berger. How could we do without it? The disaster begins when the lack of necessity is interpreted as the failure of authority. When it is a matter of the space between you and me, between me and the things, there is a call instead for the instruments of power. And yet we have not even begun to really use our freedom. We should not put up with this. When they start talking about authority, we should talk about freedom, and when they talk about freedom, we should talk about necessity, and when they talk about necessity, we should talk about the dead, and when they have the audacity to talk about the dead, as they like to do, we should demand that the dead be given back to us.
Those who respond to the lack of necessity with a call for authority will also have us believe that we have experienced “the end of utopias.” Parallel lines, they tell us, will never meet. Regardless of which one we follow, we will never come face to face again with the other. We might come face to face with it, but it will always be out of reach, remaining at a steady distance, a far-off vista. Parallel lines, they tell us, meet in infinity. Maybe it’s worth aiming, against all odds, at this point in infinity. Perhaps such an endeavor would not even turn us into Sisyphus, but would be more a matter of making proper use of leverage: by stepping down on the beginning of the parallel lines, its end might lift up out of infinity and bend down towards us.
Authority has charted and priced the terrain, laid mines, installed motion detectors, and retired. Authority has become a vanishing point that can no longer be seen, but all the threads still seem to come together there. Infinity or one’s own desire—it amounts to the same thing in the end. Has authority erected its shopping centers on the pastures where the utopias once ranged?
In “The Shape of a Pocket”, John Berger sets about turning the world on its head by retrieving the things from their exile. He brings them back into contact with our bodies, where they give us a tactile feeling of necessity and a notion of reality devoid of noisy euphoria and mute clamor.
Necessity is the condition of the existent. It is what makes reality real. And the system’s mythology requires only the not-yet real, the virtual, the next purchase. This produces in the spectator, not, as claimed, a sense of freedom (the so-called freedom of choice) but a profound isolation.
A kiss or a bump on the head, on the other hand… Berger not only takes the things out of the shop windows and designed living environments, but also rescues the objects of painting from their distancing role as model. Both gestures obey the same necessity, that of rehabilitating reality. But not out of some kind of post-industrial, guilt-ridden missing of “the good old things,” but from the conviction that when we are no longer close to the things we also lose the measure of our own bodies, thus running the risk of imagining ourselves to be happy in the midst of the greatest unhappiness, and of mistaking the moment of happiness for someone who has dialed the wrong number.
Berger’s “Steps Towards a Small Theory of the Visible (for Yves)” are equally steps towards a practice of getting one’s hands dirty (for us). As far as painting is concerned, he, for the time being, turns his back on insider shoptalk as primarily concerned with appraising market value, and asks instead:
What does all painting have in common? His answer: Every painted image announces: I have seen this. For him, painting is, first, an affirmation of the visible which surrounds us and which continually appears and disappears. Without the disappearing, there would perhaps be no impulse to paint, for then the visible itself would possess the surety (the permanence) which painting strives to find.
Berger reminds us that the first painters were hunters, and that the practices of painting and hunting, precisely because they were distinct from each other, were closely related.
In a number of early cave paintings there are stencil representations of the human hand beside the animals. We do not know what precise ritual this served. We do know that painting was used to confirm a magical ‘companionship’ between prey and hunter … Painting was the means of making this companionship explicit and therefore (hopefully) permanent.
It still holds, for Berger, that painting always means inviting the object to collaborate. When I paint, I give myself over to a physics that is the territory of the object as much as it is mine:
To go in close means forgetting convention, reputation, reasoning, hierarchies and self. It also means risking incoherence, even madness. For it can happen that one gets too close and then the collaboration breaks down and the painter dissolves into the model. Or the animal devours or tramples the painter into the ground.
We can’t avoid admitting, Berger writes, that the painter is less creator than receiver. What seems like creation is the act of giving form to what he has received.
Berger is not interested in demystifying painting. On the contrary, my impression is that he wants to give painting back its secret. In that sense, painting for him is the intimate encounter with the same world other practices engage with when they give themselves over to the physics without which our lives have neither boundary nor necessity. For Berger, giving painting back its secret means giving the things back their secret, and giving the things back their secret means giving oneself over to necessity without looking around for authority. And that means allowing the utopias to range freely again.
The painter’s continual search is for a place to welcome the absent. If he finds a place, he arranges it and prays for the face of the absent to appear. As you know, the face of the absent can be the backside of a mule! There are no hierarchies, thank God.
Artists’ workshops hardly ever have a permanent address anymore. In a letter to the painter Leon Kossoff, John Berger compares his studio to a stomach. When describing a studio, Berger writes, there is always a lot of fuss made about the light. This leads us to think of a studio as a conservatory, an observatory, or even a lighthouse. In truth, however, the space in which an artist works is a digestive organ, a place of transformation and excretion. Or is it not? All the things you say about the studio are true, Kossoff writes back. It’s true that he doesn’t worry much about the light. If it ever gets too bright, he just turns the painting around or starts on a new version. The walls and the floor are covered with paint, brushes are drying on the radiator, and there are unfinished paintings on the walls. I seem engaged in an endless cycle of activities. For the best part of 40 years I have been left alone but recently, owing to extra exposure and studio visits, the place has become like a deserted ship.
Artist in residence. You are sitting in an empty room in a foreign city, waiting for the shipping company to deliver your tools. All traces of your predecessor have been whitewashed away. There could have been a starting point, a thread you might have picked up that he dropped because the shipping company arrived to pick up his tools. Instead, nothing but white walls. “Was mache ich hier?” “What am I doing here?” Written down, the question has no accent. Ich is already the signature of a movement that preceded the question; a movement in which acqui became hier and I switched languages in order to become a wandering signifier, an empty room that can be inhabited by anyone. Hier is a place indicated by language. “What am I doing here?” is not a question about the chronology of prior events or their consistency. It rather posits a new beginning. The question concerns a practice that would connect these three unbound elements: what, I, and here.
You hung a sheet from a hook in the ceiling so that it fell to the ground like a tent, or a pyramid. You collected beer bottles that others had emptied and posters thick and cracked with wheatpaste and declared them all architecture. You said that emptying a beer bottle, creating an empty space, was an architectural act. A kind of longing, in that sense. I thought of the sound in the desert of Lop Raoul Schrott wrote a novella about. It is impossible to determine whether it is the rustling of the wind or the swishing of the sand.
An aeolian harp, says Török, the Hungarian professor, is something which makes the world audible. From the branches of the oak tree in Dodona people would suspend stones, mussel shells, or little figurines of clay, close enough that they would clatter gently against each other. How else can the wind possibly be heard? It would be nothing, not even a rustling: it would simply be wind.
While I am waiting for you, a sparrow flies in through the open door of the café, hops all the way into the furthest corner of the room, where the bread basket the waiters use to serve the tables is hanging from the wall. No doubt there are crumbs on the floor beneath it. A short while later the sparrow flies back through the café and out the door. Normally when a bird strays into an enclosed room you think: it’s done for. If I don’t help it, it will fly itself to death against the windows. The second part of Sebald’s “After Nature” is dedicated to the naturalist Georg Wilhelm Steller, whose internal compass drove him irresistibly northwards. We are told that when he made his first shore leave in Alaska, the animals drew near him and attached themselves to him with complete nonchalance—foxes and magpies and crows, all fearless of him and of each other. Could it be that the original relationship of animals to humans was one of tameness and guilelessness, and that they acquired their fearfulness, their skittishness, only as a result of millennia of painfully disappointed expectations? We see tame animals as degenerate and interpret shyness and mistrust as “healthy natural instinct.” A fantasy derived from our own hunting appetite, perhaps—we would hardly kill an animal we could communicate with. It is only the mute, shy, alien animal fleeing us that becomes our prey.
Later, in a shelter made out of joined fir logs, Steller as recounted by Sebald experienced the effect of forsaken things in a foreign space. A circular drinking vessel of peeled-off bark, a whetstone dotted with copper ore, a fish-head paddle and a child’s rattle of fired clay he carefully selects, and in their place leaves behind an iron kettle, a string of many-coloured beads, a little strip of Bokhara silk, half a pound of tobacco and a Chinese clay pipe. After half a century this mute exchange is still remembered, as can be seen in a report by Commander Billings, by an inhabitant of this remote region, with a laugh that’s a rustling turned inwards.
The first encounter with someone else’s things in a foreign space is an oddly value-free moment that can convince us of the fundamental equivalence or even worthlessness of all things. Theft, giving, and property lose their weight in this space and make room for curiosity, tactility, and the desire to be remembered. That is why the most precious thing about the scene Sebald describes is the laughter of the one who still remembers, half a century later.
Translated by Millay Hyatt
Published in André Sousa, Tobias Hering: “Fábula/Fabel/Fable” (Berlin, Künstlerhaus Bethanien, 2009). The book, designed by Atlas Projectos, was created during André Sousa’s artist residency at Bethanien and it was published on the occasion of his final solo exhibition. The paintings and photographs are taken from André Sousa’s image essay accompanying the text.
The following is a list of works quoted in the essay. The translations are taken from published translations, as far as these were available. Where it seemed appropriate, the author and the translators took the liberty of adapting the published translations in view of the original works.
Eduard Fuchs, der Sammler und der Historiker, in: Das Kunstwerk im Zeitalter seiner technischen Reproduzierbarkeit, Frankfurt 1970
English in: The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility, and Other Writings on Media, eds. Michael W. Jennings, Brigid Doherty, Thomas Y. Levin, Harvard University Press, 2008
The Shape of a Pocket, New York 2001
Anatomy of Restlessness, New York 1997
Le puits et la pyramide, in: Marges de la philosophie, Paris 1972.
English: The Pit and the Pyramid, in: Margins of Philosophy, translated from the French by Alan Bass, Chicago 1982.
The Hegel quotes were originally taken from the Encyclopaedia of Philosophical Sciences and the Lectures on Aesthetics; here they are cited as they appear in Derrida’s essay.
Le destin des images, Paris 2003.
English: The Future of the Image, translated from the French by Gregory Elliott, London 2007
Die Wüste Lop Nor, Frankfurt 2003
English: The Desert of Lop, translated from the German by Karen Leeder, London 2004
Winfried Georg Sebald
Nach der Natur. Ein Elementargedicht, Frankfurt/Main 1995
English: After Nature, translated from the German by Michael Hamburger, London 2002
The story of the pyramids of Visoko is from the documentary film Visoko flying high by Ira Hadžic.