*Originally published online in 3AM Magazine on Aug 16, 2016.
‘Armand distrusts authentic reader/writer experience no matter how ironised or sentimentalized. He’s seen it happen, the domestication of ‘experimental writing’ where ‘independent’ and maverick’ become code words for ‘rogue vested interest.’ ‘Realism’ becomes a matter of having the last word ‘whilst handing over scapegoats if only to maintain familiar prerogatives for the next fifteen minutes.’ What do books with avant garde impulses become in this our contemporary context? ‘Cash corpses.’ It’s into this particular inferno of despair that he’s writing his magnum.‘
Where we enter our ‘first world’ of invisible presences, or visible absences, a penny world, self-enclosure has brooding geek angels guarding its exit. It is in this place that we are asked to, as it were, ‘borrow every changing shape/to find expression…’ because this is a place of deliberate disguises where the cultural achievements of the past represent themselves as being out of reach, mocking, never there or like the Byzantine ‘forme precise’ of St Apollinaire, just stone faced with no impulse to scratch. It’s one of the things that the book’s corpse gives out, a lost energy or lost innocence inseparable from the act of reading itself. And so inseparable from consciousness. ‘Innocence’ is the ‘crocodile isle’, Tiresias, Simeon, sardonic Mallarme, those ‘glad of another death’ because they have never yet bloomed. Presuppositions combining. It’s a tough gig.
Louis Armand knows it’s a fatal flaw of avant garde poetics that marginality requires a centre, that radicalism needs a conservative edifice to kick against, that it’s about the fall between essence and the descent, where any nihilist anarchist posing will preserve the despised centre in parenthetical existence or else vanish. It’s when Dante meets Matilda, or Shelley’s ‘Prometheus Unbound’ where we are simultaneously substance and its shadow, united in death and language as a ghost (parody?) of someone meeting themselves as they might have been, Aeneas and Dido in Virgil’s hell where the scalding rebuke contrasts with the epigraphic earlier meeting of Aeneas with his mother Venus, and Marina reunited with her dead Phoenician sailor father, ‘crossing the bar’ as she sets out across the sea of death. Gradually the novel will open up this sea to a world ‘under sleep’, and it will vanish as in an Apocalypse as all seas will. A face takes shape and a new life. This is a phantom novelisation of Baudelaire’s ‘La vie anterieure’, a submarine reincarnation done as rock noire Realism – down and dirty hard-boil dry shimmering on the edges of a deranged avant garde Easter – imagine Mark E Smith as Philip Marlowe and then pump it up.
It’s the defining angst of modernist culture to retain a perpetual avant-garde in the face of a social setting that has subsumed all the revolutions of the word and bought them off. Here and now the avant garde is ‘… the illusion… of a socially-transformative, revolutionary potential.’ and twists to the idiot joy showland as ‘only the residual after-image.’ Po Mo becomes capitalisms’ masterstroke, it’s authentic culture a middleclass revolt, a definition for the culture industry and its cyber-poetic black screen dominance where a glam racket guts the quantifier and life just bounces. Here’s his anxiety, or at least, the question Armand poses in the 888 pages of his unreal poesis polis Golem City, Ezekiel’s valley of dry bones, Isaiah’s ‘shadow of a rock in a dry land’ where he meets all the dying gods – Adonis, Attis, Osiris – caught in the idiocy of the brown fog art of capitalist culture and the art obscenity of Canto 26’s lusts all done in a post-Totalitarian frame Pearl City jam. For Armand, art in totalitarianism is obscene, in capitalism idiotic.
So Armand has already asked the question:
‘Is the cyber-poetic ‘codework’ of Alan Sondheim, Mez, Mark Amerika, Stephanie Strickland and others simply the garlanded machine aesthetic for the Matrix? Are Borges, Escher, Calvino, Rimbaud merely the whimsical sentimentalists of the multiverse? Should we read Kathy Acker and Stewart Home as evangelists or elegists for the Fall?’ The issue is thus about the posthumous status of the underground avant-garde: what is it for and what can it do? And has it been co-opted by the very forces that it might once have hoped to oppose and critique? Can posthumous mean anything anymore? Armand says;
‘Has in fact a posthumous avant-garde become in turn the myth by which the commodity sustains the idea of itself, as global foundation of the New Order? The compost from which the bright future of perpetual innovation will supposedly sprout fully formed?’
His dissolving and reforming imagination enters this perilous domain seeking the equivalent of an answer in what looks like writing but might not be eventually… What might the alternative look like? Maybe the first Cumaean Sibyl hanging in a jar between the centre and the margin wanting nothing else but to die. Or else the other one, living all those sand grain years in her hand having forgotten to ask for perpetual youth – Armand’s book teeters with the shivered recognition of that modernist horror trope: ‘fear in a handful of dust’. He offers a hermaphroditic shadow-mind containing everything Golem City can try and hide away. Golem City itself becomes an emblem of that margin as centre. There’s a whole critique of the weird commerce between margins of culture and the cauldron of unholy loves at the centre, that easy commoditization and commercialism that picks at the bones of, literally, everything.
Armand knows better than most (he’s written about it since forever) this idea that culture both reflects the economics that frame it and simultaneously critiques itself, facing that perplexing question as to whether art can ever become autonomous from its underpinning economic logic. This anxiety is presented as being sincere and original like Strangeways , like drinking your way out of being psychic, like playing out of tune but doing it properly. The plenum Armand offers is the protean nod to James Joyce, an underworld journey which, as always, is about learning the future, the fate that lies ahead of us, and done as if the shoddy occultism of a cut-price Madame Sosostris did actually get us somewhere beyond the sterility of culture, where every culture biz, be it music, books, art is now just middle class executive business, like a police force.
Duchamp’s retinal art was art fascinated by the contingent, the ad hoc and the arbitrary, the very locus of the commodity and the heart of modern Industria’s high culture that develops mobile, anatomized individuals in a shared high culture free from internal sacred nuance – the cult, the feud, the tribe and so forth. Armand senses that these sacred occult hierarchies held powers – strange hopes and loves, even perversions and sympathy, odd-ball dynamics still seething in his Prague churches, synagogues, libraries, lost streets, each working as sentinels testifying to the presence of mysteries in the ruins of Europe, the sorts of thing found in ‘The Tempest’ that runs to Dylans’ ‘wheel of fire’ punked up as an obscure, Eleusian mystery by the Banshees and then left as a dim recall of spiritual and physical narcosis, maybe written up in a lit critters’ book sometime later, but nevertheless impotent, shop worn and logically disconnected by the very fact of being recalled.
Duchamp’s early modernism was framed by a society where the poetics of commodity was in a setting when the full logic of the arbitrary was not predominant but merely emerging, and so still at play, with space between the arid plain of the fisher king and the responding boat of faraway Tristan. With the commodity now fully formed interest with the endless ad hocery of the commodity seems less like avant-Grail passion and more on-line trawling. It seems it’s no longer a critique but the object and process itself. So how is an Acker or a Home any different from the infotainment possibilities of the internet? And how would we know? Or care? In other words, not only is there a question about what the avant-garde can do now that it’s no longer a type but rather the type-cast of modernity where it has become the culture, there is also the question of how to make it visible as a critique even if it is possible. How does a critical marginal ad hoc remain marginal in a culture where everything is a margin -without being invisible and unknowable? Are we in that realm where identity conditions don’t allow us to pick it out? Could it recognize itself even if it did persist? The avant garde has become the condition of its impossibility and therefore a space of self erasure. Here’s the bed-rock then for Armand: ‘… are we dealing … with the unconscious perturbations of a system? The ad hoc symptomatology of a hyper-repressed? Like the periodic eruption of “classified information” onto the internet? A present, in other words, wherein the only possible avant-garde remains a secret, since that’s the domain it belongs to?’
This great perambulation, ‘The Combinations’, is a case of nerveless romance, Armand’s sub-lingual tablet. He is testing the groundwork. He is producing the self-knowledge and reflexivity of our art’s detonating impotence and self wounding. The novelist here is Perseus or St George in a land ruled by that old sympathetic magic and therefore sterile and masculine in the symbolizing language and tone of Philip Marlowe playing Miranda at chess – it can end either in the death of the King or in a stalemate where two mysteries are united. So either art is buried dead or else we have a faint overtone of an occult purgatorial (the desert, the garden and between them this, the novel as staircase) binding up the drowned hopes of the early avant gardeists with deeper ones. The novelistic persona adopted here is a protagonist with bad nerves, bad teeth, but with the aching working principle of the lone individual working in the strange mythic land where in an Eliotic ‘fisher king’ landscape descent and the temporary death of the wounded knight are recast in Golem City’s leviathan archive quest and library .
Since the 1950’s just what the avant garde can be – if anything – has been a central issue for those working in these margins but Armand here is in a post 1989 state, as well as dropping back a lot lot further like the reaction and bigotry that followed Bohemian independence in 1620, ready to shoot the whole lot of them in an act of aggro pre-cog fever. If the book has a jump skip quality of film then it’s that of Jean Luc Godard who emerged to liberate cinema back in the 50’s. Here’s someone emerging from Joyce, an artist who set up the problem of the modern cultural sensibility of the edit, the montage, the ad hoc and the cut which has become our dominant, all consuming, consumerist, commoditising idiom. Is this the problem or the solution?
Godard ‘… has opened up a new kind of movie making… a new sensibility into film, that, like James Joyce, he is both kinds of master – both innovator and artist. Godard has already imposed his way of seeing on us; we look at cities, at billboards and brand names, at a girl’s hair differently because of him’ Pauline Kael wrote of him and Armand sees Joyce and Godard as ‘the two major inventors of the modern vernacular.’ And if it’s Godard who says, of his approach,
‘One improvises, one invents in front of the moviola just as one does on set. Cutting a movement on camera in quarters can reveal itself more effectively than keeping it as it had been filmed. An exchange of glances… can only be expressed with enough pungency… through clever editing… A simple reversed shot, by its very restraint, is more powerfully expressive than any premeditated zoom, or pan…Editing , therefore, at the same time that it denies, announces and prepares the way for directing…’ so it is in this novel from Armand that we recognize the same playful improvisory stance, the invention of a form that thinks. Armand’s novel is just that, a novel that thinks, but what it also hangs back from doing is commending any of it, leaving everything as a kind of door left open with a very ambiguous invitation note attached.
Just as with Joyce who said that ‘ whenever I am obliged to lie with my eyes closed I see a cinematograph going on and on and it brings back to my memory things I had almost forgotten’ there’s the same sort of thing here in Armand combining that sensibility of a cinema operating linguistically with a freehand Freud dream brooding, probably out in the Krkonose Mountains. Armand has sought to move from writing to processing. His approach to gargantua is that of the cinematograph where the medium constitutes the message. Like Eisenstein on Joyce we confront : ‘…the limit of reconstructing the reflection and refraction of reality in the consciousness and feelings of man. There’s a special dual-level method of writing: unfolding the display of events simultaneously with the particular manner in which these events pass through the consciousness and feelings, the associations and emotions of one of his chief characters. Here literature, as nowhere else, achieves an almost physiological palpability.’
He’s valued Antonin Artaud’s: ‘ cinema implies a total inversion of values, a complete upheaval of optics, of perspective and logic. It is more exciting than phosphorous, more captivating than love’ and written out of this cinematic, Joycean ‘chaosmos’ which also picks up on Godard’s demand that he should see his writing as ‘ … a place where it is in the living present , … the register of History… the image of the century in all its aspects.’ Armand writes to the heart of a history that is, as it was for Godard, an ‘unresolved anachronism.’ And at the heart of this is montage where written events read back into us through each cut, juxtaposition, overprint and portmanteau, through the violence done by placing images of war with adverts and pornography etc. In this Godardian world Armand has written about and now written into, there’s no room for categorical thought, categorical morality – images remain amoral and irreflexive, become a ‘third image’ – not just putting images side by side but ‘putting two angles side by side’. Colin MacCabe notes this way montage writes with situations in a polysemic multiplicity that describes ‘a margin of undefinability.’
His book becomes Godardian discursis ‘ something into which everything can be put’, a self conscious monstrum, and the texture of thinking becomes like writing sociological essays as novels using only musical notes… ‘a denial of an opposition between fiction and documentary; exposing the paradox of the socially engaging and disengaging qualities …; exploring the affinities between visual and written expression, as well as art and criticism; privileging the more expansive terms sound and image over other possible permutations; overriding the divide between high and low culture; merging theory and practice; and equating reality with image…’
Dziga Vertov, Godard’s collaborator writes of ‘an absolute writing in film’ where ‘Kino-eye means the conquest of space, the visual linkage of people throughout the entire world based on the continuous exchange of visible fact, of film documents, as opposed to the exchange of cinematic or theatrical presentations… Kino-eye means the conquest of time… is the possibility of seeing life processes in any temporal order or at any speed inaccessible to the human eye.’ When Sara Danius writes of Vertov’s ‘Man With the Movie Camera’ she says his ‘…camera sweeps an entire city into spirited movement. Chimneys, workers, typewriters, street crossings, automatons, cars, smiles, sewing machines, pedestrians, bicycles, stockings, streetcars, shop windows, telephones: all participate in Vertov’s rapturous urban ballet.’ When Armand sweeps across his Golem City we are given the sharp realism, dingy words, calculated bathos, dreamy romanticism, high vision, parody, prosody, ruminating caustic monosyllabics and polysyllabics of urban intellectual speech in search of the margin to detonate the pattern of the pattern. It’s a language of anticipation, a plenum where the dreamer reflects on forgetting and remembering, decomposition and recombination, present catastrophes and ancient legacies. Like Godard like Joyce, it’s a work that “spans this gap between processes of memory” and that “ labyrinthine semiosis which constitutes human communication” and human consciousness…
History or histoire(s)
Story, fable, myth, allegory, fabrication.
Night and fog.
Which leads us to Armand’s considerations regarding genre. Here his concern is the examination of genre as an institution, which he links with the idea of a joke as, essentially, always a meta-joke ‘whose impetus is one of constant substitution and displacement: the causality of the joke is itself a deteournement of the causal. It operates, in other words, like the unconscious.’ Joke work operates by displacement, as does genre work. It is an orientation ‘which is a disorientation’ as Derrida would have it. Joke work comes full circle.
And then there’s Prague, a city of history and its writers and philosophers in the swim of that history. Lukas Tomin writes three books. One, ‘The Doll’, draws in Armand to its ‘… unredeemed child’s fantasia, replete with maldoror-esque gigantism, its symbolic parricides, its incest, its deranged ecstasies, its polymorph obscenity, its sublime and apocalyptic id-like irrationality’ and on all this the allegorical form that ‘simplifies into archetypes and instructs by indirection’. In Tomin’s hands allegory reverses its spell, and rather than simplification we have a buffed over complexification which ‘bifurcates – multiplies-… places a question mark over the very notion of instruction.’ Instead of instruction we are asked to think. The result is an ‘extreme realism’ that counters didactic forms that reduce to ‘merely describing its own circumstances’ like the Mark E Smith meta-joke: ‘I agree with Colonel Gaddafi. Too much laptops. Too much Nescafe, that is what he said. It’s quite biblical actually. It was predicted in the Bible.’
David Auerbach on another of Tomin’s books, ‘Rain Taxi’, writes:
‘Tomin leaves his characters half drawn.. forcing the reader to puzzle out the connections and distinctions between them. His drastic switches of style abandon cumulative effects for a series of instants, sometimes with heavily compressed plotting or circular passages of dialogue….’ Armand compares the results with French nouvelle vague , Godard’s decoupage for instance. It’s an ‘allegory of language’ where semiotic and semantic orders don’t correspond and it’s well to bear this in mind. Armand can’t resist this and his novel seethes with the great torso of Czech history. Golem City is like the presence of the sign descending in time. This is the secret of the book and its anti-Papal studia generalia of the late Middle Ages blowing in with Bologna, Paris and Oxford older lovers, Prague the first city lying beyond the Rhine and Danube, the first city in either German or Slavonic territory to receive such an institution. The top and the bottom, the inside and the outside are visions of plenitude and vacancy. You can’t do this with everywhere. Armand’s planting his feet specifically in this particular historic swamp and fishing its inner circles of subways, innocence and experience just as Blake did in London, say. But expect a different catch here. This ‘aint London.
If Prague’s the centre of anything its also a margin of the West and the East too, with primitive forests, high mountains favouring defences against invaders, a perfect ideaspace for Armand’s anti-Disney land. Prague is a place in the zone of the former Bolshevik/Romanov dynasty. At the carving up of Europe in Vienna 1815 ‘ … the only criterion capable of public defence is whether the new rulers are less corrupt and grasping, or more just and merciful, or whether there is no change at all, but the corruption, the greed, the tyranny merely find victims other than those of the departed rulers.’ So little changed.
What followed was an Irredentist period of strange mutations where two distinct processes overlapped. The first involved the common agrarian turbulence that occurs at empires whose edges are mountains or deserts. In these places the typical thing to do is for local chiefs to challenge the imperial centre. An historical stabilised nomadic segmentary social order is locked up in these places where the relation between margin and centre is defined by the inversion of Western models of the polis i.e. strong society, weak state. But in the Balkans something disrupted the equilibrium. A new kind of social being mutated out of this familiar setting. In the Balkans the overlords were Muslim, the wild men Christian. Conflict became not just about the regular peripheral dissonance of rebellion from one social type but rather became one between different kinds. Politics and culture were fusing in a way that hadn’t done so before. Out of this peculiar situation came a nascent nationalism. The wild men were not just Christians however, they were wild Christians, heretics. They drew in an Enlightenment and Romantic Christianity and Muslims were disinclined to take a lead from heresies from within a religion they felt superior to in the first place. So the Balkan rebels became nationalists.
The Messianic Salvationism of the Russians, for one, comes out of this heady brew and Dostoevsky its greatest literary witness but a whole tribe of Russian nineteenth century novelists made this their key theme. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn drew on this tradition too, baffling and disturbing everyone post-1989 when he seemed to reject the polis of the western European model by driving back to a Russian nationalism the Soviets and Romanov’s had held in check. But anyone reading the great nineteenth century novels shouldn’t have found this surprising at all. Ignored in 1815, by 1914 everyone recognized nationalism as a potent force thanks largely to the literati. Anyone believing the glib line that writers don’t matter and don’t know are just wrong– and Armand’s a writer knowing it’s not always an insignificant action to write into the monstrous foam of history. Armand’s protean work possesses these restless, historical, anthropological resources and fuses them to the crisis of the twentieth century avant garde with a kind of buckling easy flash drive quid pro prose.
Anyhow, Romanovs modernized faster than the Ottomans on the back of a messianic Salvationism that led to the Revolution of 1917. When the Romanov dynasty collapsed after holding nationalism in check between 1815 and 1918 its brutal dynasty was restored by Bolsheviks in a secular mirror-image and it continued to hold Nationalism in check. Jews, Georgians and Ukranians were leaders in the USSR. Population transfers during this Soviet time didn’t simplify the ethnic map except in Poland and the Czech Republic. So Prague is in this mix, a Golem dead/life still-point of a world that keeps twisting. After the end of the USSR what happens next and why does the Western author remain Racinian – a simplification, a style where, as Camus recorded, ‘ The West does not recount the events of everyday life. It is forever feeding its frenzy on great images. It wants to be Manfred or Faust, Don Juan or Narcissus. But it never quite manages to make itself coincide with these images. It is always carried away by the fever for unity. In desperation , it has invented the film hero…’ – an imagination of types – Armand rips and shreds at this Racinian unity like he’s writing the lost Dostoevskian plague novel where all die living different systems and knows in a way it’s a disaster.
Well, the reason why Czech nationalism (along with Polish nationalism, though for different reasons) is different from its surroundings is that Medieval and early-modern Bohemia was already an important political unit. These were the lands of the Crown of king Wenceslas after all and they had links to Czech culture and written language with its own high culture. It disappeared in the 17th Century at the Peace of Westphalia and became a ghost, a minimal element of the Hapsburg Empire. But the Hapsburgs, the larger successor unit, by not linking up to the Czech language, sowed seeds of its future disintegration – and the resurrection of the Czechs. For a while the Czech language survived as a peasant language. But as the Industrial Revolution rolled in Czech speakers became the majority in Bohemia and Moravia. The language became restored to the cities as their high culture and prestige language.
How was this possible? The old culture was available even when lost. The ancient Bohemian kingdom, and Golem City’s Prague University dated back to 14th century and there were already proto-nationalistic themes in the make-up of Czech students even then. The Hussites, a proto-protestant group, was based in Bohemia resisting Papal and Imperial efforts to subdue it. Prague’s Hussite ghosts rose up in Versailles 1918 to replace the legitimacy of the Hapsburgs who splintered and were lost even as the ghosts rose and replaced them in renewed liveliness.
President-liberator Tomas Masaryk commanded the Czech army in World War One and worked out a theory of national independence that was moralistic not Romantic, that aimed for the transference from the Hapsburg’s authoritarian, dogmatic political and dogmatic dynastic system to an independent, liberal democracy. The Hapsburgs were Absolutist and Papal. The Hussites were proto-democratic and liberal and became Masaryk’s inspiration, capable of delivering a self image for the nation despite their defeat in 1620 and the 300 years wait to Versailles.
But his version of the roots of the democratic soul of the Czech state had a rival that was ultimately to defeat it. Palacky’s alternative vision of Czech nationalism saw it as a romantic awakening, a vision of Austro-Slavism coming into consciousness after years of dormition. This vision served up a Danubian state of all those small nations of central Europe gloriously and bravely working as a bulwark against German expansion and Russian autocracy, a vision largely taken up by Charter 77 and its writers. Thus Masaryk’s thesis was rejected by Charter 77. Jan Patocka , another philosopher taking charge of politics in this wild mix, argued against any continuity between the long-gone Hussites and the modern egalitarian, democratic state and claimed instead that the genuine roots were in the reaction of Catholic peasantry to Enlightenment bureaucratic centralization introduced by the Hapsburgs’ in the late 18th century, a reaction perpetuated by peasants moving from the land to the towns. And any idea that Czech democracy was rooted in western values were proved to be without warrant when first the Germans came calling and then Russians.
It happened like this: in 1918 the Czech’s annexed Magyar territories because they wanted the Danube to work like the Rhine and make communication costs easier. But they did this without demographic or historical justification. Magyars and Bulgarians just happened to be on the wrong side of the river. This resulted in all their neighbours being united against them. It was a fragile arrangement and collapsed quickly, first under Hitler and then Stalin. Anyhow, later, when finally the USSR dynasty collapsed in ’89 Charter 77 saw the restoration of democracy as based on an interest in markets not values. Economic laissez-fairists and Catholics combined in government to set the tone of a more inward looking Czech Republic and this fitted better – though imperfectly – the Patocka vision of the historical roots of the Czech Nation.
Armand swims wildly in this loopy political mix, but from the perspective of a gate-crashing HP Lovecraft/Bill Burroughs/Tom Pynchon knee deep in all the alchemical conspiracies of occult politics. Here’s a longish extract just so you get the swirling razor energies of the book:
‘Recently T.H.’s conscience has been troubling him more than usual, on account of this Heydrich, who’s had most of his (Kulička’s) colleagues tortured & shot on account of some private obsession to get his hands on the lost alchemical library of Rudolf II & one volume in particular, the Roger Bacon manuscript, socalled, the original (but not copy) of which, unbeknownst to Heydrich (but not to T.H.), is at that moment residing in a safe deposit box at the First Bank of America, Manhattan branch, registered to the widow of one W.M. Voynich. Kulička’s on the Gestapo’s most-wanted list, but so far T.H. has had the advantage: he knows Josef Kulička doesn’t exist, while the Gestapo (he thinks) don’t yet know he exists. The idea had come from Eldrich von N____: they’d known each other since childhood. Kulička is T.H.’s insurance policy & a convenient cover for Eldrich von N____’s scam-mongering: his insurance policy is that he’s managed, through old Silesian family connections, to get himself a junior commission at the Ministry of Inertia, complete with desk, pen-set & tailored grey SS uniform. When he’s not busy supplying the “enemy” with morale-defeating celeb gossip about Goebbels’s latest Barrandov blockbuster (photo opps with all the big names — Moravec, the Havels, Goebbels’s fat wife — having quite the time of it, he is) & generally hobnobbing away from the office, Eldrich von N____, self-styled baron-in-waiting ever since his father’s been safely ensconced in a sanatorium on Lake Geneva, moonlights (a fact not unknown to his superiors, some of them his best customers) as an agent for the Golem City Book Emporium — Buchstaben- getreu! — earning fat commissions in the antiques trade. Business is good. In fact, from where Eldrich von N____ is sitting, so to speak, it couldn’t be better. Together with T.H. — a graduate of the historical restoration programme at the National Visual Arts Academy — he’s put together a nice little sideline in lesser-known rare editions, all fakes of course, sold at considerable profit to unsuspecting collectors: everything from Gutenberg psalm books to the works of that lunatic Englishman, William Blake, sometimes even the odd papyrus from the 2nd Intermediate. They’ve been at it for years, even before Munich, taking regular jaunts up to Berlin with autograph copies of everything from Schiller to Sharkspier, milking the market in cultural Anmaßung.’
This is a literature losing its balance, the underbelly of scam religion, a chiasmus of ‘plugholes, ashtrays, diseased vaginas, symbols and systems of entropy; the bottom of a glass or an uncrossable ocean; the whole cosmos of sensory derangements.’ It offers no truths nor the temptation shared by all forms of intelligence, cynicism, deals a generous psychology that pays some attention to details of a pure despair, that of Faust, the detailed efforescences of its accumulating actions where noting is a gesture but is a participation. This is going out far behind closed doors! Prague is the ever present absence and locus of the chiasmus. Prague from prah means threshold. On the verge of the baroque ‘that never quite materialises’.
It’s the baroque version of Beckett’s impossible game of chess in ‘Murphy’, Endom’s offense, ‘… struggling to remember the proper combination of moves that constitute the usually innocuous Vienna Game: pawn to king four… knight to king’s bishop three… pawn to queen four (!)… & afterwards? White’s pawn-exchange tilts the game towards an open paradox neither player seems aware of, distracted as they each are by concerns of a different order — terms like “classical” & “hypermodern” have no currency here, it’s all gut-instinct & joining-the-dots — T.H. blundering his king into an impossible position just as one of the undercover cops gets up from his table & heads across the terrace into the restaurant, probably to take a piss but who knows, could be making a phone call to HQ: We’ve got your man right out in the open. He’s a sitting duck. Want us to bring him in? Even Eldrich von N____ can see there’s a checkmate coming in the next move.’ What we read makes a much deeper impression than what we’ve seen with our own eyes.
In another Prague novel, ‘Kye’ Tomin writes to bluff analogy:
‘Like the postcard you’d shown me/ Like a dried up skeleton afloating on the river of her dreams/ like a fossil/ like charcoal/ like a cockroach in an old boot/ like a madman in a barn/ like a map of a large country impossible to visit’ – one thing never leads to another and Armand takes from this that ‘… this irresolvable dialectic exists only as long as we believe it does – as long as we insist that writing must, in a sense, be like something.’ So just as Tomin writes against the usual Prague lit culture of surrealism, phenomenology, magic realism and says he’s ‘above all interested in silence’ Armand recognises all of this and starts to frantically, brilliantly make noise so make visible this literature that refuses disclosure, refuses tribalism, refuses to deliver instruction or message. It’s another way of recuperating the marginal. Armand walks a hundred yards, a hundred years, a few yards, whatever, sceances the poet Farnsworth in Prague and his ‘spare, reductive intensity’ and his farce-discourse that knows that in Greece there were free men because they had slaves. Such understanding leads to an overwhelming impulse to cast ourselves away and reject everything: Ortega Y Gasset – ‘to be a farce may be precisely the mission and virtue of art. This is history in a cracked mirror, or cracked actor. Poetry in Farnsworth is social by virtue of what it is (not by whatever obligations it places on itself – ‘ the world becomes coated/and hidden with words/the terrible mistake of language/the only thing worse is fluency.’ (dalek bird poetry) and goes with Trotsky when he writes:
‘… art, like science, not only does not seek orders, but by its very existence, cannot tolerate them…Truly intellectual creation is incompatible with lies, hypocrisy and the spirit of conformity. Art can become a strong ally of revolution only insofar as it remains faithful to itself.’
In panto there’s an Esperanto of farce used not for what it means but for the sake of life. The model here is Frank O’Hara’s Personism, an offhand version of Sartre’s austerity poetics, that of ‘… the chosen poverty, the refusal of early success, the constant sense of dissatisfaction and that permanent revolution which he wages against himself and others.’ He breaks with ‘the hankering after a sense of moment. A rejection of self-fetishisation of institutional avant-gardism’ that recognizes that MTV is public television and the high culture critiques of mass cultural kitsch mentality by Clem Greenberg and Marcuse that can’t appreciate the engagement with the kitsch of O’Hara, Berrigan etc. As Tocqueville warns: ‘ It is always a great crime to deprive people of its liberty on the pretext that it is using it wrongly.’ Armand likes that Farnsworth delivers poems both intonationally and flat – ‘ between poetico-engagement on the one hand and the resources of boredom and entropy on the other hand…’ By refusing the claims of both Rosenburgian flatness and Greenbergian flatness, neither subjectivism nor formal purity, Armand writes that ; ‘It’s as if Farnsworth had set out to demonstrate that a poetics which rejects illusion of depth… is thereby able to surmount the limitations of a poetics preoccupied with the political signified.’ His flatness exacerbates depth, ‘flatness at high volume’ where intonality is the medium and this, the medium, is where the resistance is happening. What all this means is that in Golem City we’re looking to strike a bargain to have whatever we lack. But it’s no longer the goods of the world. We have those. it’s the other stuff. It’s an inverted Faust situation where we ask God for what we lack and agree to sell our bodies to Him at the end. As Camus’s devil explains: ‘And that will be your eternal punishment’.
Armand finds this inner context of flatness and action in Lebanese artist Nadim Karam and Atelier Hephastis. Karam’s ‘Prague project’ where strange constructed figures of mythical beasts and people on a bridge over the river in Prague aim to bring down paradigms by releasing ‘…unrealized possibilities of seeing things otherwise.’ Kandinsky and Miro talk about this in terms of the ‘swerve.’ Farnsworth treats narration not as illusionism but ‘… as textual surface-effect, its flatness corresponding to the resistance (e.g. of affect) which is the medium itself.’ Poetry haunts margins because it resists regularisability and ‘names the subjective in language…’ and is ‘… the mode par excellence of a resistance at the heart of the so-called political’, a programme that succeeds only through failure. You need to be two people when you read Armand, the first one to govern your own inner sense of whatever is mysterious, the other to try and work out the best translation, like an oath of allegiance commited despite the feeling that so much is underwater. If there’s monotony it’s that of Proust or de Sade, one that carefully finds itself a meaning that cannot be taken away by death.
Another key feature is the book’s poetic nomadism, which is part of his artillery against the Goethe who writes: ‘politics can never be the subject of poetry.’ Nomadism for Armand is about displacement through estranging the object of poiesis, incorporating what was not made for it. Pierre Joris on ‘The Seamlessly Nomadic Future of Collage’ in 2005 comments on a remark by Picasso:
‘If a piece of newspaper can become a bottle, that gives us something to think about in connection with both newspapers and bottles too. This displaced object has entered a universe for which it was not made and where it retains, in a measure, its strangeness. And this strangeness was what we wanted to make people think about because we were very aware that our world was becoming very strange and not exactly reassuring.’
Armand’s mind roves, nomadic style. Olson’s ‘Maximus’ was collage material. Plato’s hostility to poesis was just his awareness that poetry is just language and thus language itself is ‘ruination… of a particular type of thought or dianoi’ – the thought without knowledge or even thought. Badiou’s ‘event’ mirrors the strangeness of the displaced object. And if a political rationality of exclusion presupposes its contrary then are we merely at the point where ‘ the appropriation of the political to the “revolutionary formal innovation” of a generalized collage-effect.’
Nomadism in Joris reincorporates the displaced object so that collage becomes like the nomadic pastoralist – weak state, strong society where each singularity reifies the whole. Actually, there’s a western bias in this analysis which presupposes the strong state, weak society model of the western polis when nomadism is the opposite – strong society, weak state. The dialectical ‘seductions from Plato to Hegel to Marx are here constantly in play exposing what we might call the seductions of the anti – (anti-Platonism, anti Oedipus, anti-colonialism etc).’
Armand quotes Joris quoting Tengour on North African colonialism, post-colonialism and eleven hundred years of Arabic colonialism…
‘A domain that misleads. Political jealousy far from the exploded sense of the real. Indeed there exists a divided space called the Mahgreb but the Mahgredian is always elsewhere. And that’s where he makes himself come true.’ But then this oddity – ‘Ibn Khaldoun found himself obliged to give his steed to Tamerlaine’ and the conclusion that it is the marking of boundaries in this special social arrangement that is decisive. But what’s interesting is that this is what culture does: mark out hierarchies within the polis. What it doesn’t do is mark the boundaries of the polis as it does in the western nationalistic model. It’s kinship that delivers the principles of organisation and cohesion, as Ibn Khaldun makes clear:
‘… the simple mechanism by which [a tyrant’s] emergence and rise to power take place. In a canton the aspiring amghar gains control thanks to the support of a loyal faction based on his own patriarchal family… In a tribe he triumphs because of the strength of his leff… In a larger field still, the great caid subdues tribes… with troops provided by his tribe. He gives the renumerative task of collecting taxes from remote tribes to fellow members of his canton and tribe. It is essentially the exploitation of a whole area by a single tribe… The concentric structure of the berber state founded by force explains the facility with which it is established and organised, but it also explains, at the same time, the speed of its disintegration.’
For Khaldoun cohesion and civilisation are antithetical. ‘Cohesion is the fruit of hardships of tribal life: hence tribes can on occasion form major political units, but they do so only in the image of their previous tribal existence. In doing so they lose their cohesion in the end [takes about three generations] and the unit disintegrates… all political centralisation is unstable and ephemeral’, as Gellner summarises it.
Looked at from the perspective of North African nomadic tribalism the model of nomadism is hardly one that can provide the avant garde’s fatal desire to remove the centre. Khaldoun presents us with a precise anatomy of a society based on nomadism where dissection from the centre is never lethal, the monarchy at the centre is always preserved as are the tribes in the periphery. Yet Western eyes have tended to see nomadism as fatal for the centre. Nomadism in this occidental misreading is where wherever the nomad dwells they are never at home and this then become analogous to a view of language which poetic logic nomadises and makes uncanny. Heidegger might have called this Dasein: ‘I’m here’. That old fraud Badiou has based his whole career on this error, universalising his Western polis so that everything, including poetry, are conceived in such a way, seeing the centre and the periphery locked in a fatal struggle when actually they are necessary elements of a stable synchronicity. Badiou ignores this, and he transfers his error into his analogy with language and poetry. ‘The poem has nothing to communicate. It’s only a saying, a declaration that draws authority from itself alone’ he declares. Badiou concludes that nothing in language is destined. Language is a symptom. It is nomadised from its origin and ‘poetics is its articulation’ so … ‘The poem introduces the following question into the domain of language: what is an experience without an object?’ He concludes : ‘ … thought of the poem only begins after the complete disobjectification of presence. ‘Badiou assumes this relation between the poetic body and the body politic and says the elements of the poem are not some inner life or externalized object but ‘their own “existence” … their textility or what Joris calls “wordnetting.”, which is also ‘their event.’ ‘The poem presents itself as a thing of language, encountered – each and every time – as an event… The poem…from beginning to end…declares its own universe.’
For Badiou this connects with the Platonic idea of poetry being ‘a remainder or even anti remainder (a negative definition of the ideal polis)’. Let’s overlook the fact that Plato’s city wasn’t part of any nomadic culture, and that Badiou seems to practise philosophy as a totalitarian romp through different cultures, never troubled by any resisting evidence, and run with this so we get to see the link between this and Hans Bellmer who makes the same point without basing it on such an error thus:
‘The sentence too resembles a body which seems to invite us to decompose it, so that an infinite chain of anagrams may recompose the truth it contains.’
And leave it to Armand to summarise a point that may be taken as a point of departure, a way of grasping some of the elements being combined: ‘The collage-body’s elemental existence is traversed by intensities of articulation. Trellis, word-netting, caravan of syntax, mosaic: a surface of migrating symptoms (objectless signs, if this itself weren’t almost a type of pleonism.)’ Eventually there is a move (in Olson and identified by Joris) away from Plato’s exclusion of poetry from the polis, the power of the margin and grasping a radical nomadism ’born within the gesture of the polis.’ Redemption then becomes from poetry ‘… as mirror to a quasi-nostalgic seeking after a place of acceptance for poetry within the polis.’
Of course Armand is not going to be convinced by any sleight of hand that ends up taking itself seriously as a conclusion to the avant gardeist problematic. He wonders what nomadism is for if a certain type of poetry is just seamless dissimulation across borders ‘… an art of camouflage … by which so-called philosophic truth is finally de-objectified, not simply as hypotheis (or counterveiling poetical fiction) but, as Michaux says, in its own-most “terrifying mobility and tendency to dissolve.” Armand understands nomadism in terms of Khaldoun rather than Badiou: it is a systematic preservation of the centre and not its defeat. If the avant garde ideal of decentralisation is to be understood as a form of nomadism then Armand recognises that it will have to be understood as a process, a flux, rather than an achieved end.
He cites Joris: ‘ If Pound, Joyce & others have shown the way, it is essential now to push this matter further, again, not as “collage” but as a material flux of language matter, moving in and out of semantic and non-semantic spaces, moving around & through the features accreting as a poem, a lingo-cubism that is no longer an ‘explosante fixe,’ as Breton defined the poem, but an ‘explosante mouvante.’”
Which as always raises the perpetual problem of a permanent poesis revolution – where commoditisation and its detritus commands the plains. The problem: ‘… wherever discourse addresses itself as a dogmatic objectification, the logic of the commodity prevails.’ The revolution always fails – ‘if poetry is to be revolutionary it must assume a risk. Above all it must risk itself. It becomes a condition ‘a tropic movement that doesn’t seek resolution, is without an object-correlative… ‘perpetual inventory’ as Rauschenberg says, which constitutes its own temporality, and its own end.’
Armand distrusts authentic reader/writer experience no matter how ironised or sentimentalized. He’s seen it happen, the domestication of ‘experimental writing’ where ‘independent’ and maverick’ become code words for ‘rogue vested interest.’ ‘Realism’ becomes a matter of having the last word ‘whilst handing over scapegoats if only to maintain familiar prerogatives for the next fifteen minutes.’ What do books with avant garde impulses become in this our contemporary context? ‘Cash corpses.’ It’s into this particular inferno of despair that he’s writing his magnum.
His twist is to turn to a the Traumatic realism he’s already autopsied in relation to the poet John Kinsella. (And Australia itself, the margin-land that repressed the indigenous societies already there when it became a prison and then a primitive pastoral and then on and on, in all manifestations thinking as if the world looked on whatever it was as an enemy whilst actually it couldn’t care less. It’s where Kinsella’s poetry of landscape operates in that seeming gap between nature (so called) and the beatific vision – the aestheticisation of something without categorical value into something that works – contemplation, work… ‘pastoral framing geography as something redeemed from a kind of oblivion.’) Armand does the same by framing the story he presents through a bashed in prism of oblivion history. For this traumatic realism Warhol is a key figure whose all-over approach to the poetic art logic is ‘referential and simulacral, critical and complacent’ all at once, all over, as Hal Foster puts it. ‘I want to be a machine’ is traumatic realism defined, traumatic because… ‘it may point less to the blank subject than to a shocked one, who takes the nature of what shocks him as a mimetic defence against this shock..’
Kinsella’s poems do Warhol, do Warholian logic, pointing to a missed encounter with a missed encounter. Here trauma is bound to the poetic as the movement of a return of the unrepresentable. The real can’t be presented as simply an array of objects and in Kinsella ‘narrative poetry with horror as its subject subscribes to the worst aspects of commitment. It necessarily becomes fetishised and commodified itself.’ An alternative to this vision is ‘work that wants nothing but to exist.’ Armand’s traumatic realism is everywhere but perhaps most obviously in his gesture to the printing presses, his play with fonts and design throughout, the explicit attention drawn to the text qua physical object, the central trope of the secret text that is nevertheless repeatable. His bibliophilism, the libraries and archives and the quest amongst copied and original versions for the document with the key is all another layer in his effort find that Tolstoyan meaning in the face of inevitable death.
Repetition becomes a testing of the exceptionalism Adorno and Aristotle assume will deliver us from mere techne et al and serve up authenticity and the real. Even revolution when conceived of as an achieved stasis – ‘The Revolution’ – on these terms has faltered and failed to deliver in the light of this logic. Warhol’s Disaster series offers trauma not purely in terms of the content but in its operations of technique where “a slippage of register or a wash of colour’ serves to do the work. Armand’s different fonts, modes, use of footnotes work in the same way to reveal the operations of the book as technique. It’s a sort of sublimated pornography where the digressions and slips away from the finished ‘seem accidental, but they also appear repetitive, automatic, even technological’. Armand makes it clear why he has written his writing down as he has: ‘It is no longer a question of the implied disquiet of an image prepared to expose itself as radical abstraction, or even as mildly licentious wallpaper, but as naked commoditisation.’
Plus – and this is you dear reader – it hasps the whole performance to ‘the guilty conscience of the museum goer’ where, as Warhol knew, ‘the more you look at the same thing, the more the meaning goes away’. All this is possibly mediated by Lacan’s definition of trauma as ‘ the missed encounter with the real’ where trauma is the opposite of the singular – it is a compulsion to repeat the missed encounter. The encounter is therefore what is not representable but only repeated, Freud’s adage haunting the art civilisation with the reflexive shock that ‘repetition is not representation’.
Australian Kinsella’s poetry draws itself in around this, as does Australian Armand’s Golem City visions. If Warhol represents the failure of mainstream art to grasp the missed character of this non-encounter with the real and the compulsive seeking to manufacture in its place images and discourses about it then Armand and Kinsella bring this to the novel of ideas. Trauma masks a primal displacement. ‘the institution seeks to externalize the idea of trauma which it displaces into artifacts, even treating itself as artifact and rehearse an institutional-critical rhetoric against itself ‘but only as an integrated element in the overall spectacle.’ Armand’s book – the whole material object including its cover – is no mere objective correlative but is it’s own displaced fact.
Roland Barthes dreamed of Armand’s book when he writes: ‘only allude to writing before going off somewhere else’ where writing becomes a quasi-linguistic function existing already in excess of itself, ‘rehearsing the contemporary tropes of the semioticians’. For Barthes the photographic image can’t be made into an analogue for something else because it is the analogue of the impossible, ‘an image whose detonation is … finally reducible only to the reflexive movement of its own enframing, between two shots, two anachronistic moments. ‘ It represents ‘the perfection and plenitude of its analogy.’ And that analogy risks being mythological and artefactual. ‘an issueless predicament of nothing.’ Armand’s novel is a sequence plenum of this Barthean process, all the time wondering – ‘if not writing, what the fuck is this?’.
The alphabet – another prominent material character in Armand’s book is also a crucial peg linking the uncanny space and time of the novel to its peculiar phonetical possibilities which disrupts and breaks away from the comforts of thinking in classical Greek terms. How’s that? Armand is playing with the suggestions of McLuhan and Pound in this game. McLuhan raised the possibility that ‘only phonetically literate man lives in a ‘rational’ or ‘pictorial’ space. The discovery or invention of such a space that is uniform, continuous and connected was an environmental effect of the phonetic alphabet in the sensory life of ancient Greece. This form of rational or pictorial space is an environment that results from no other form of writing, Hebraic, Arabic or Chinese.’ And Pound said: ‘In Europe, if you ask a man to define anything, his definition always moves away from the simple things that he knows perfectly well, it recedes into an unknown region of remoter and progressively remote abstraction… By contrast to the method of abstraction, or of defining things in more and still more general terms, Fenollosa emphasizes the method of science, ‘which is the method of poetry’, as distinct from that of “philosophic method”… and this is the way the Chinese go about it in their ideographic and abbreviated picture writing.’ If Armand ghost writes to the Montage-effect all these influences feed and snag his novel, catch its great themes and irrepressible movement that Jean Bessière has already recognised
… exemplifies remarkably the possibilities of the genre and contradicts the contemporary obsession with its decline and commodification. The Combinations unites several narrations, many gnomic and proverbial expressions, various literary frames and historical data/ backgrounds. Humor, puns and highlighted commonplaces — however slightly altered by Armand’s ‘écriture’: ‘A man’s only the sum of his whatsits, after all’ — make the reader able to preserve their own identity and point of view. Comments and pauses are allowed, as shown by the ‘Intermission’ section. That applies to future amateurs and defines the novel’s play upon continuity and discontinuity. In its construction, The Combinations compares with David Mitchell’s novels; by its balance between ‘totalisation’ and ‘detotalisation’ with Michel Butor’s Degrés. Louis Armand’s questioning humor, use of commonplaces, and rewriting of many typological stories recall the reflexive attitude of Robert Coover. The cover of The Combinations should not be ignored either, in that its collage offers a precise introduction to the novel. The Combinations should actually be viewed as starting with its front cover and ending with its back cover. That just confirms the questioning power of the novel, since the cover does not show any text, except for the author’s name and the novel’s title in quite small print’ which is enough to get you started.
A final take home: in England excavating underground tradition has tended to work in the opposite direction of Armand’s generous and democratic , avant garde, anti-authoritarian, juiced up, republican spirit. English writers see Armand’s democratic tradition as the end of civilisation and the beginning of the damned modern world. T.S. Eliot is perhaps the most obvious and powerful figure exemplifying this, but the whiff of a royalist, authoritarian and anti-democratic tradition often puffs itself around less important writers too. For Eliot and his clan the civil war never ended and his attacks on the republican tradition are notorious. So according to this old mystical Royalist, Milton built a ‘ Chinese wall’ across poetry, his words were just vague visuals leading nowhere ‘outside of the mazes of sound… the facile use of resonant names’. Contemporary literature was the mere detrius of Romanticism and ‘tends to be demeaning.’ DH Lawrence’s ‘vision is spiritual, but spiritually sick’, Yeats a little Irish occultist with a minor and peripheral mythology, Bernard Shaw, HG Wells and Bertrand Russell prose writers without convictions and ‘good prose cannot be written by a people without convictions.’ Pope and Dryden pass muster but the Augustan Age failed to produce an English Racine. Overall Eliot was content to pronounce that ‘ We all agree about the cultural breakdown’. And modernity’s seething mobile flux became for this Nobel Prize winner personified in the person of the Jew who becomes the notorious target of Eliot’s noxious and unforgivable racism. Eliot sees restoration of a Latin and Catholic Absolutist civilisation as a bulwark against these ruinous Republican, democratic and protestant tendencies. Of course, and here’s the rub, Pound, Joyce and Baudelaire were lauded by Eliot for their cultural conservativism as well as their originality of expression, a triumvirate that has been co-opted by the devil’s party too, but the point is that in this English tradition alternative histories tend to have the restoration of a Catholic Royalist Absolutism as its toxic end.
Armand, an Australian writer working in Prague, has combined his presuppositions into a novel bigger on the outside than on the inside. History presses in on it, and it’s a different history to that which animates English ‘literary politics’ which Northrop Fry likened to ‘a heresy… a partial insight with a “seductive simplicity” which is “altogether more plausible than the truth.” The orthodoxy of which it a larger heresy would be, or include, a much larger “truth” about our very complex situation than the mythology of decline affords.’
Armand has written an important and corrosive novel, which is a commitment to creativity in the face of absurdity, a politics of avant garde literary concentration and experience that knows, as Camus had it, that:
‘The innocent is the person who explains nothing.’