Lost my seat

by Yule Heibel on September 30, 2005

September is almost over, and somehow the month feels like a leftover plate of regrets.

Buried up to my neck in various tasks and obligations and thoroughly marinated in my own inefficiencies and incompetences, I feel like I’ve gotten nothing done. The other day I had this “brilliant” idea about an essay dealing with need and competition, and how these two are essentially connected, Janus-faced, and how they play their role in writing. In blogging, for example. (Think of Manfredo Tafuri describing the infant de Sade, screaming out his need; think of competing for satisfaction; think of the Buddha teaching that desire — the ball of wax that is need and competition bunged together — is…? What? Not really one thing, but two? Peeled apart, it loses its hold and no longer is The One Thing but a compound…?) But for two days it was impossible to sit down to work on this, and then — poof! — the brilliance tarnished. Or the dust-bunnies made off with it. Or the dog ate it for breakfast. What.ever. There’s a German word (one of those double-barrelled things, a compound word), Sitzfleisch, “sitting-on meat,” which is what you need to have if you’re going to write. “Sitting on one’s bum,” staying at the desk, the adult version of the educational administrator’s “bums in seats” mantra when totting up the annual school budget. Constant interruptions and demands do nothing for the cultivation of Sitzfleisch, which at any rate being such an ugly word is gratefully ignored at every provocation. And there are always provocations, just as wax melts and drips when the candle burns.

Another idea that’s not going to go anywhere is a comparison of two places I have never seen, and perhaps will never get to see. Both places were carved out of a kind of wilderness by two apparently highly willful and difficult personalities. One manifests as a remarkable house (rescued from damp ruin by a foundation), the other as a garden (the unremarkable house is a damp ruin, but the garden thrives). One was built by a bachelor man, the other was cultivated by an oft-married woman whose many children ran away as soon as they could. The man is Curzio Malaparte, born in 1898 as Kurt Erich Suckert in Prato Italy to a German father and an Italian mother, his house is the famous Casa Malaparte on the Punta Massullo on the eastern end of the island of Capri. The woman is Cougar Annie, born in 1888 as Ada Annie Jordan in Sacramento California to a father so cruel and domineering, he tied Annie’s pet dog to the back leg of a horse, which then kicked the dog to death. This was the father’s way of punishing Annie for some misdeed. Her garden is Cougar Annie’s Garden on the Clayoquot Sound in the nearly inaccessible Hesquiat Harbour on the west coast of Vancouver Island. The two environments are obviously remarkably different, consisting of almost categorical oppositions: dry-wet, hot-cold, clear-obscure, male-female, stone house-earth garden, sterile-fecund. At the same time, the people responsible for the artifacts (house and garden) seem imbued with an almost mythical violence, and the places they chose count among the most inhospitable by bourgeois standards of comfort. It occured to me that studying Malaparte and Cougar Annie in tandem would be tremendously rewarding. Then I learned that Cougar Annie’s Garden is accessible only by float plane or boat, and isn’t open to the casual visitor dropping in on a whim; and I don’t think I’ll see Capri any time soon, either. Thinking about the herculean effort necessary to rely only on imagining these places — albeit entirely possible, especially given the resources of the library and the internet — made me so depressed that I came down with a severe case of writer’s block. (Michael McDonough‘s marvellous book on Malaparte notwithstanding…)

So there went another idea….

I did however watch Jean-Luc Godard’s film Contempt, which stars (at the end of the film) the Casa Malaparte, along with Brigitte Bardot, Jack Palance, and Fritz Lang. It’s a terrible film, by the way, but it occured to me that Bernardo Bertolucci must have really liked it because it suddenly seemed clear that Last Tango in Paris takes off from Contempt. The underlying theme of Contempt is Man leaving the confines of Home (Ulysses in the Odyssey, leaving Penelope behind), and the Nagging Question of said Man, “does she still love me?, and if she stopped loving me, when and why exactly?” That’s a question that seems at the heart of Last Tango in Paris, too. And somewhere in the equation is the taboo, that stepping over the line, when the Woman “irrationally” (from the Man’s limited perspective — he thinks it’s universal, but it’s not) rejects the Man and instead feels contempt for him. Very tiresome stuff.

McDonough’s book contains an essay by Simonetta Falasca-Zamponi, “Politics, Aesthetics and Fascism in the World of Malaparte,” which has some of the smartest commentary on fascist aesthetics and the body that I’ve read in a while (her book presumably expands on much of what she writes in the essay):

Fascism followed one strand of modern art that wanted to reduce the sensual and impose form, and that proclaimed the avant-garde artist’s independence from nature — the fable of autogenesis. Mussolini’s aspiration to create a new and supposedly more spiritual Italy was based on the fantasy of a god-like artist-creator who treats the masses as a senseless object, dead matter, a block of marble to be shaped, a deindividualized body-politic. (…)

Fascism’s aesthetic pursuit of a new Italian man and a beautiful, spiritual Italy was envisioned within a violent understanding of existence and social relations. The realization of a political masterpiece depended on the brutal cutting and sculpting technique of the artist-politician’s secure hand. Fully entrenched in the modernist dilemma of creation/ destruction, fascism offered its own ambiguous response to the contradictions of cultural modernity by resorting to a peculiar conception of art that turned hopes of political and cultural renewal into a totalitarian nightmare. Art, fascism ultimately proved, could not be divorced from politics. And politics, in Mussolini’s Italy, was perniciously entangled with art: “That politics is an art there is no doubt. Certainly it is not a science, nor is it empiricism. It is thus art. Also because in politics there is a lot of intuition. Political like artistic creation is a slow elaboration and a sudden divination. At a certain moment the artist creates with inspiration, the politician with decision. Both work the material and the spirit. …In order to give wise laws to a people it is also necessary to become something of an artist.” (Benito Mussolini, 1926)
[From Falasca-Zamponi’s essay, in Michael McDonough’s book on Malaparte, pp.45-46.]

Today the “artist” is called a spin-meister, which is a sort of bastardisation of one of those double-barrelled German words (such as Sitzfleisch)…

And I’m waiting for someone to do for Cougar Annie what Lawrence Russell did for Malaparte.

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