Category Archives: fine arts

The Dictionary of the Khazars, pro and con

Milorad Pavic‘s Dictionary of the Khazars (1982) was prominent at the end of the last century, translated into scores of languages and much discussed. I didn’t read it then but got to it this past summer. Its subtitle is A Lexicon Novel, and it consists of alphabetical entries that are heavily cross-referenced. To Pavic’s delight, the order of the entries is different in each translation. He says that he doesn’t want you to read it from the first to the last page (as I did) but to follow links at your own will. The book was published just when hypertext was developing, and it surely owed some of its influence to being on that cutting edge. In a current Kindle edition, you can click words to move around–but we are used to doing that now.

The topic is the story (originally from Judah Halevy) that the Khazars, a real medieval people, converted to Judaism after holding a debate among a Christian, a Moslem, and a Jew. The Dictionary consists of Christian, Moslem, and Jewish sections. The book we’re reading is supposed to have had a long and tortuous history (one edition was poisonous), and the entries concern characters and events from the original conversion period, from the 1600s, and from the 1900s. That produces a 3-by-3 grid of religions and eras into which all the specific entries fit. The whole thing is intricately symmetrical, so that there is guaranteed to be a Moslem 20th-century analogue for a Jewish 17th- century character, and so on.

The whole text is very dream-like. It’s too magical to be magic-realism: people are constantly changing form and doing amazing things for mysterious reasons. Dreams are also an explicit topic, since the Khazars’ priests were “dream hunters.” They interpreted people’s dreams and could follow a thread from one dreamer to another when the first person dreamed of the second one. According to their religion, all our dreams collectively formed the body of the original man, or Adam. As you might expect, it turns out there are still dream-hunters among us today.

The Abrahamic faiths derive scriptures from their founding eras. But they also tell many subsequent stories: tales of saints and sages and miracles. These stories are dream-like, by which I don’t necessarily mean they are false. (That is up to you to decide). They are like dreams in that they are surprising stories with strong symbolic meanings and recurrent motifs. And the three religions’ stories pervasively interconnect. The same people often figure in the dream-like tales of Jews, Christians, and Moslems, albeit sometimes bearing different names, or changing their roles from heroes to villains, or appearing in new contexts. In that sense, an interlinked series of dream-like stories is a great way to represent the world co-created by the Abrahamic faiths.

This fictional world seems cosmopolitan (since the religions are equal and related), free (you can choose your own path), ironic and subversive, and avant-garde. You may or may not enjoy it, but it seems fit for enjoyment.

On the other hand … The Khazars themselves turn out to be a self-hating people, consistently favoring the Jewish, Christian, and Moslem foreigners in their midst until they subject themselves to conversion and then actually vanish. Just for example:

As is known, when a people vanishes, the first to disappear are the upper classes, and with them literature; all that remains are books of law, which the people know by heart. The same can be said of the Khazars. In their capital, sermons in the Khazar language are expensive, whereas in Hebrew, Arabic, or Greek they are cheap or free of charge. Curiously, once they are outside their state the Khazars are reluctant to reveal their Khazar origin, preferring to avoid one another and conceal the fact that they speak and understand the Khazar language, hiding it from their own compatriots even more than from foreigners. In the country itself, people not proficient in the Khazar language, which is the official language, are more highly regarded in the civil and administrative services. Consequently, even people who are fluent in the Khazar language will often deliberately speak it incorrectly, with a foreign accent, from which they derive a manifest advantage. Even with translators – for instance, from Khazar into Hebrew, or Greek into Khazar – the people selected are those who make mistakes in the Khazar language or pretend to do so.

This is plausibly how a nationalistic professor of Serbian literature might feel about his own ethnic group inside Tito’s Yugoslavia. Thus a book that was read around the world as a postmodern ironist’s game was apparently read in Serbia as a nationalist tract.

It might be harmless for a writer to adopt aggrieved nationalism, especially in a work of fiction that is pervasively playful. Maybe it was just a stance. However, it seems that Pavic continued to espouse similar ideas even while Serbian armies were massacring other former Yugoslavs. In 1992, he said “I am a Khazar too because the fate of my family was very similar and in the end we went back to our original religion” (quoted in Wachtel, p. 638). It appears that he was completely serious about the Khazar/Serb analogy and genuinely aggrieved as a Serb. At least, he did not distance himself from the nationalistic implications of his work.

I’m not sure what I think about the ethics of having read this novel for fun. Of course, authors do not control their own texts, least of all texts like this one. So maybe the author’s political intentions are not all that important. I certainly did not become a Serbian nationalist as a result of reading the Dictionary of the Khazars, so maybe no harm done. And I deeply appreciate Pound and Eliot, notwithstanding their views. On the other hand, would I read a playful, possibly gimmicky novel that reflected one of the world’s other forms of bigotry? Caveat emptor, I suppose.

See Andrew Wachtel, “Postmodernism as Nightmare: Milorad Pavic’s Literary Demolition of Yugoslavia,” The Slavic and East European Journal, vol. 41, no. 4, 1997, pp. 627–644; and David Damrosch, “Death in Translation,” in Nation, Language, and the Ethics of Translation, edited by Sandra Bermann and Michael Wood (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2005), pp. 380-398; and cf. Ivo Andric, Bosnian Chronicle, Or, The Days of the Consuls

Andrei Rublev by Andrei Tarkovsky

In the Guardian, Steve Rose called Andrei Rublev by Andrei Tarkovsky (1966) “the best arthouse film of all time.” When I had a day alone recently, I watched its three hours. Here are some notes that don’t duplicate anything I can find in English on the Internet. They do contain plot spoilers.

The setting is Russia in the first decade of the 1400s. The people are beset by Tatars, oppressive rulers, and plagues. The landscape often looks like an environmental catastrophe. Tarkovsky uses many long takes, panoramic shots, and set-pieces in which the actors are positioned like figures on a stage or in a painting.

Rublev is a monk and icon-painter. Despite being the moral focus of the film, he is on screen not much more than three other monks. Maybe it was just me, but I found it challenging to keep track of individuals from one scene to another. That task is easier in a written text, because narrators typically use names and may inform us when we have already encountered a given character. Tarkovsky seems content to present life in the confusing way that it actually unfolds.

In the opening scene, a man makes a solo hot-air balloon ride, rising next to an unfinished Orthodox cathedral and then across a river dotted by small boats. Some people help him while others try to bring him down. Although the balloon is anachronistic, it looks suitably medieval. It closely resembles the great bell that is cast in the final scenes of the film–for the same cathedral–and raised from its subterranean mold across the river to the belfry. The balloon and the bell have similar sizes, shapes, and trajectories. The balloon-ride appears to be a stunt that fails, whereas the bell is a spiritual and aesthetic success accomplished by the people, working together.

The second third major scene opens with a man being tortured in the public square as someone cries out that he might be innocent. The artist-monk Kirill walks past this execution and into the cool interior of a church, where he meets another icon-painter, Theophanes the Greek. They discuss the project that will involve Rublev and become his masterpiece. Back outside, we see the dead man’s bloody body.

In several key scenes, the Russian folk are shown in authentic rituals or celebrations–enjoying a jester mocking the Boyar nobility, enacting the Passion of Christ, or engaging in a midnight pagan orgy. (Compare Natascha’s dance in War and Peace.) In several scenes, they are cruelly crushed by Russian nobles, Tatars, or a conspiracy of both.

Observing these events, Rublev develops a populist and antinomian Orthodox theology. He feels he cannot complete his commission to paint the cathedral because it would require an image of the Last Judgment to terrify the people. Inside the bare cathedral, an apprentice reads 1 Corinthians 11 while the mute girl Durochka, a “holy fool” with long blond hair, watches in fascination:

“If a woman does not cover her head, she should have her hair cut off; and if it is a disgrace for a woman to have her hair cut or shaved off, she should cover her head. A man ought not to cover his head, since he is the image and glory of God; but the woman is the glory of man. For man did not come from woman, but woman from man …

Rublev gets an idea: “They are celebrating. It’s a holiday! They are not sinners. Nor is she [Durochka], even if she doesn’t wear a cover.” He will paint joyous scenes for the people.

The interior of the church immediately after Rublev has announced his plan, showing the Holy Fool and the monk Daniil, who had commanded the reading of Corinthians.

Muteness is a motif. The jester has his tongue cut out. Durochka cannot speak. Andrei takes a vow of silence and refuses to paint after he kills a man to save Durochka. The new bell almost fails to ring–and if it never works, the Grand Duke will have its caster flogged to death.

Andrei has several foils, starting with the man in the balloon ride. Another is Kirill, who betrays the jester to the authorities and later quits holy orders, decrying monkish hypocrisy but seeking worldly gain for himself.

An important foil is Boriska, the young son of a bell-caster who died–with the whole family–of the plague. Boriska claims to know his father’s professional secret. With passionate intensity and perfectionism, he leads a crew to make a great bell, using the melted plate of the Grand Duke. He has lied about the secret, but he turns to God for help. Whether the bell will work is genuinely suspenseful. Foppish Italian visitors observe the young artist with pity: “il povoro regazzo” is bound to die a Russian’s death, tortured by a tyrant, because the bell won’t work. Their foreigners’ chatter is interrupted by the bell sounding sonorously. Boriska confesses his lie to Andrei, who says, “Let’s work together, you casting bells and me painting icons.” He then paints the cathedral’s interior in resplendent colors that we see in the epilogue, after three hours of monochrome.

Jeanine Michna-Bales, Photographs of the Underground Railroad

The Phillips Collection in Washington, DC is showing a series of photographs that Jeanine Michna-Bales has taken on key points along the Underground Railroad. She captures these images at night, as if to illustrate what enslaved people would have experienced as they made their way north. This is the project website.

Online reproductions do no justice to her original photos, which are amazingly luminous chromogenic prints; they grab your attention from across the room.

The forests, rivers, starry skies, and swamps are beautiful–a challenging sensation, since the overall topic of the series is human evil and resistance. Even while people persecute other people, the moon still glows through lush canopies of leaves. Although the natural settings are enjoyable to see in a museum, they would have been frightening at the time–try to imagine crossing a Mississippi swamp by night, even if there weren’t bloodhounds and shotguns behind you.

Most of the signs of human habitation are points of refuge along the way; they look inviting. Michna-Bales accentuates lights left in windows to welcome fugitives. Yet arriving at each “station” must have been a moment of terror, because who knew whether it had been compromised?

The view across the Ohio River into a deeply dark Indiana symbolizes the uncertain future–if one can get that far. (I illustrate this post with a different view, across the Tennessee River in Alabama.)

sighs, short and frequent, were exhaled

April is the cruellest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.

I thought of the opening of the “Waste Land” during an international Zoom call with a dozen lovely people, as they described how spring is breaking in their respective countries during this pandemic year.

If your mind turns to extraordinarily famous classics at such moments, you may be both pretentious and unimaginative. Then again, sometimes a new situation provokes a new look at a canonical text that has become a cliché from too much repetition.

Both T.S. and Vivienne Eliot contracted the Spanish ‘flu during the global pandemic. That experience, along with the First World War, might be in the background of his 1922 poem. Rereading it during a respiratory epidemic prompts new interpretations of passages like this one:

Unreal City,
Under the brown fog of a winter dawn,
A crowd flowed over London Bridge, so many,
I had not thought death had undone so many.
Sighs, short and infrequent, were exhaled,
And each man fixed his eyes before his feet.

Even the phrase “Madame Sosostris, famous clairvoyante, / Had a bad cold …” has new implications when read during COVID-19.

As for the opening, the combination of “memory and desire” seems apt for our moment, when many familiar experiences have become distant memories that we yearn to repeat. Lilacs look and smell lovely, but their springtime “breeding” may be a painful process. Each of the first three enjambed lines splits a participle from its object, creating a series of false starts. Are we moving again?

Eliot is surely responding to the cheerful opening of the first great long poem in English:

Whan that Aprille with his shoures soote,
The droghte of March hath perced to the roote,
And bathed every veyne in swich licóur
Of which vertú engendred is the flour ...

However, the opening of “The Waste Land” depicts rebirth as cruel.

Later, Roethke will ask …

This urge, wrestle, resurrection of dry sticks,
Cut stems struggling to put down feet.
What saint strained so much,
Rose on such lopped limbs to a new life?
 -- Theodore Roethke, from "The Lost Son and Other Poems" (1948)

Eliot’s entitles his whole first section “The Burial of the Dead,” referring, perhaps, to that rite from the Anglican Book of Common Prayer. The Anglican prayer emphasizes peaceful rest followed by joyous resurrection: “Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord …” In contrast, I think Eliot’s narrator adopts a tone of metaphysical pessimism, as in classical Buddhism, Schopenhauer, or Silenus’ Greek phrase: “for humans, the best is not to be born at all, not to partake of nature’s excellence; not to be is best.”

This does not mean that pessimism is the spirit of the whole poem, which deliberately presents many voices and perspectives as Eliot portrays a metropolis in the aftermath of trauma.

In fact, it’s worth recovering an alternative to pessimism from the same poem. Apparently, the sequence Datta, Dayadhvam, Damyata (quoting an Upanishad) means: “be self-controlled, be charitable, and be compassionate.” Eliot presents that advice in a passage that is liquid, when most of the poem is bone-dry, and calm, when most of it feels tormented:

Damyata: The boat responded
Gaily, to the hand expert with sail and oar
The sea was calm, your heart would have responded
Gaily, when invited, beating obedient
To controlling hands.

And the whole work ends with the mantra “Shantih. shantih. shantih” (or “peace. peace. peace.”) So may it be.

Wallace Stevens’ idea of order

Ramon Fernandez, tell me, if you know,   
Why, when the singing ended and we turned   
Toward the town, tell why the glassy lights,   
The lights in the fishing boats at anchor there,   
As the night descended, tilting in the air,   
Mastered the night and portioned out the sea,   
Fixing emblazoned zones and fiery poles,   
Arranging, deepening, enchanting night.
     from Wallace Stevens, "The Idea of Order at Key West." 

Anchored fishing boats at night will send luminous streaks across the water to point directly at you, the viewer. They seem to partition the sea in an ordered way that gives you the central place. By doing so, they make the dark sea more attractive: organized, deepened, enchanted. Although you are not hallucinating or succumbing to egoism, your impression is misleading, for anyone else will see the streaks pointing at them. From the sky, the sea would not appear partitioned at all, although it must seem that way to you.

George Eliot uses a comparable metaphor:

Your pier-glass or extensive surface of polished steel made to be rubbed by a housemaid, will be minutely and multitudinously scratched in all directions; but place now against it a lighted candle as a centre of illumination, and lo! the scratches will seem to arrange themselves in a fine series of concentric circles round that little sun. It is demonstrable that the scratches are going everywhere impartially and it is only your candle which produces the flattering illusion of a concentric arrangement, its light falling with an exclusive optical selection. These things are a parable. The scratches are events, and the candle is the egoism of any person now absent …

Eliot, Middlemarch, part 3, chap. 27

Eliot is concerned about moral egoism. I think Stevens’ main interest is the subjectivity of any order that we impose on nature. If we push such skepticism far, nature vanishes entirely and all we have is our description. But the boats really are at anchor off Key West.

This image from the end of the poem might offer some hints about how to read the earlier portions. It seems that the narrator is by the sea with his friend, Ramon Fernandez, and they have heard a “she” singing. Stevens said he invented the name of his friend, but he later acknowledged that he might have suppressed the memory of the real literary critic, who was not actually his friend, and who might have been too keen to impose order. (The real Fernandez was a communist at the time Stevens wrote this poem, on his way to becoming a fascist collaborator.)

As for the “she,” this is a pronoun without any concrete noun. She has no name and is not called a woman or anything else specific. She has a complex relationship with the sea: she may be describing it, or communicating the sound it makes, or creating it with her song; or she may have been invented by the narrator as a metaphor for the experience.

The narrator explores each of those hypotheses:

  • [the ocean’s] mimic motion /  Made constant cry … [The sea is singing.]
  • Even if what she sang was what she heard … / it was she and not the sea we heard. / For she was the maker of the song she sang. [She is singing.]
  • If it was only the dark voice of the sea / That rose … / But it was more than that, /
    More even than her voice, and ours …
    [It is more than she who is singing.]

Perhaps this section–about the moment of a subtropical sunset–offers a synthesis to follow the various theses and antitheses:

        It was her voice that made   
The sky acutest at its vanishing.   
She measured to the hour its solitude.   
She was the single artificer of the world
In which she sang. And when she sang, the sea,   
Whatever self it had, became the self
That was her song, for she was the maker. Then we,   
As we beheld her striding there alone,
Knew that there never was a world for her   
Except the one she sang and, singing, made.

One can read the poem very literally and imagine that Wallace Stevens, a man from the mainland, and his friend, a man with a Spanish surname, have seen a woman striding along the beach and singing about the sea. But her song has the very special power of making the whole world. Even though the narrator insists that “she was the maker of the song she sang,” her song is coterminous with the object of her singing–the sea–which suggests that she is not different from it but another way of naming it.

At this point, the literal reading collapses–much as a naive interpretation of the streaks of light collapses when you realize that they are not really pointing at you. The poem does not give us direct access to a real moment in the past when a woman, two men, and some boats were visible at Key West. The poem is the object that we see, and it has a writer and some readers.

Under the title of the poem is the name “Wallace Stevens,” which stands for an actual man, married to a woman, who became famous for writing words. It’s reasonable to begin with the assumption that the narrator who tells us, “She sang …” is this man, and that he either really heard her singing or made her up from scratch, thus functioning as her artistic creator.

It’s then reasonable to place the poem in a very long tradition of men writing about women who are their muses, objects of love, creatures of their art, and/or metaphors for abstractions, such as nature. The politics of this tradition is problematic, since the poet with the he-pronouns typically controls the “she” of his verse.* He certainly gets credit for the words that attach to his name. Stevens either maintains this tradition or possibly subverts it, depending on what you think of the phrases “mastered” and “maker’s rage for order” near the end.

I don’t disagree with using gender to analyze the poem, but I think it also asks us to question our metaphysics. Why are we so sure that the narrator is Wallace Stevens, the poet with the he-pronouns? Couldn’t she be speaking, or the ocean, or the reader?

In one recorded dialogue with a student, Basho instructed, “The problem with most poems is that they are either subjective or objective.” “Don’t you mean too subjective or too objective?” his student asked. Basho answered, simply, “No.” 

Jane Hirshfeld, The Heart of Haiku

The moment of sunset is neither day nor night. Stevens’ poem is neither objective nor subjective but right on that edge. Basho avoids tipping either way by means of imagism. His poems do not mean; they are. Stevens attempts it in a very different way–by arguing explicitly about the nature of his own verse in ways that skillfully undermine any fixed conclusion about who is saying what about what.

*For a good reading along these lines, see Brooke Baeten, “Whose Spirit Is This?”: Musings on the Woman Singer in ‘The Idea of Order at Key West.’ The Wallace Stevens Journal 24.1 (2000): 24-36. See also: nostalgia for now; homage to Basho; a poem should; and the tree and the rock.