Saturday, December 3, 2016

12/3, Mary Cappello: Advent's Unconscious

I used to devise boxes in emulation of Joseph Cornell as a suspension bridge to the task of writing. For me, it was like cooking or gardening—a time-stiller that I could lose myself in as prelude to inlaying words like windows onto a page. My handicraft sometimes tended toward a slender cigarette box—my favorite being those a friend supplied me with of Nat Sherman’s—into which I would glue scraps of images cut from magazines, or the surprise of a feather, the glint of a single letter embossed on a glass shard, tucked beneath the opening of a lid. Working with shoebox-sized enclosures à la Cornell was more difficult because, with a wider plan at my disposal and multiple lengthwise sides, I could never visualize how the parts would speak to one another.
     I remember the occasion on which I lined one such box’s interior with crossword puzzles missing their words, cut a few strategic cellophane windows into the back panel, and interspersed an object—a four inch tall choir girl balancing one actual candle in each hand—with 3-D paper cut-out images of “girl thinking,” or “girls hop-frogging” at the base (it’s amazing what old National Geographics will yield). I met the challenge of this larger surface by cutting small doors into the sides of the box, depositing a surprise image behind each one, and labeling each door with a letter versus a number. Behind the letter “n” a bobbin; behind the letter “s,” an Egyptian mummy; behind the letter “I,” the surprise of an angel face missing its halo, an Italianate Buddha in profile. Other diminutive doors gave way to Niagara Falls; a rotary telephone; the psychedelic color wheel of a cereal box’s hidden code; the dots and dashes insignia of a painting in miniature by Paul Klee; a complete set of colorful vintage luggage; one snow-globe; one planet, unnamed. Taken together, the letters spelled out the box’s title, “Advent’s Unconscious.”
     It’s safe to say that the Advent Calendar was my favorite Xmas “device” in childhood—so much more promising than the mawkishly exposed manger with its array of scraggly-bearded shepherds and stony faced wise men. Poised between restraint (only one door per day) and effulgence (the surprise and its gasp), advent made each day over in the image of an event, and one worth courting. The doors and their allures, secreted with a possible gift, aren’t only meant for children, because, isn’t the appeal of our Internets [sic] the illusion of a box inside a box inside a box? Don’t you think they knew what they were doing when they named the software “windows,” or branded a laptop, “air”?
     And isn’t the essay itself—this one as much as those you write and read—an Advent Calendar’s operating system? The essay as the sort of window that cantilevers outward instead of, bottom to top, up. The essay as that type of window, easy to miss, overhead and out of reach, that requires a very long pole; the window that has all the signs of being built to do its job of swinging wide—surely it wants to be opened—but that cannot really be practically approached; the window above which the bats reside, so you can’t open it without the promise of something less pleasant than a “fluttering.”
     Each day of our lives is an advent of what we notice or forget, a brush against a door of the suddenly remembered or the hopelessly out of view. Like, my wondering today, how I could possibly never have read Joan Retallack’s essays on the essay when I thought I’d read and loved and been influenced by all of her other work. Or, like yesterday, finding a box I made when I lived in Russia fifteen years ago on which I’d written the word MOODS in large block letters, only arriving at a book of moods today. Or the day before that, only noticing after visit number five, a painting in the therapist’s office that she insists has always been there (it throws the entire balance off). And the day after that, the sudden desire to translate the commonplace, “How are you?” (see therapist again) into the more tellingly ontological “How is it that you are?”


On November 8, 2016, something happened to Advent Calendars that feels irreversible. The Advent Calendar was usurped that night when the map of these United States—exactly double the number of an Advent Calendar’s days—presenting themselves as the door to a prospect, blue or red, filled eventually, over the course of several hours and into the next day, into a nearly, solidly dystopic scarlet: each puzzle-shape went from neutral to replete on a newscaster’s computer screen, as if to say, “finished,” “done,” “down,” “won.” It was an Advent Calendar of sinister proportions that slipped traumatic shock into the space usually reserved for surprise.
     Since that night, it feels as though my hearing has gone awry. So, too, my sight. At a poetry reading with Lee Ann Brown, when she speaks of collecting “ballads” across the North Carolinian landscape, I hear the word “ballots.”
     An essayist, I’m easily impressionable. Now I experience a voting booth or box as a Catholic confessional. A door swings open into a darkness, and the whir of a grate that I kneel before holds the shadow of a man in profile who would condemn me.
     This year, the ever-ominous “holiday” mood is simply a reminder of so many bloody Sundays.
I’m not making this shit up. Now The New York Times requires me to look and hear again because how am I to reckon with the phrase in a recent article that reads, “the plight of ‘white racists.’” The alt-right’s white supremacists, the journalist reports, “believe that the president-elect sympathizes with the plight of ‘white racists.’” Did the reporter supply the word “plight,” or did the racists? Plight: rhymes with fight, and usually reserved for those who have no fight left in them, or those who lack the means to fight the powers that oppress them; in saner parlance, the plight of the working class, or the plight of the poor.
     I switch on the radio and am met with another spanking new phrase to greet the new reality: it’s a blithely frank interview with a “fake news entrepreneur”: a person who makes a living by creating false news feeds that he delivers like “red meat” (he says) to mostly rabid right-wingers in search of rationalizing fodder for their hate. The liberally-minded, he says, are more discerning and not as likely to be taken in. But there’s big business to be made here, and he’s going to grab it while he can.
     Then there are the mouthings of the president-elect: for him, words cannot be coined because they are always already spent. Though he could be credited with injecting a great number of American hearts and minds with a toxic Valentine (“Make America Great Again”), his language neither connects properly with affect nor with physicality; nor with gesture, nor with the dictionary; nor with time-space. His repetitions know two modes: stall and stand still. When he talks now, he sounds as though he is reading from a cue card that is very far out of view (note the perpetual, if oddly confident, squint). Because he has no access to language, he will never understand a word you say. And he will also therefore be perpetually in fear of you, and convinced of the need for your quashing.
     Is it permissible to write such sentences as these in a democracy? Or are we entering a culture of the overheard? One in which our fellow citizens will be on the lookout for what will come to be misconstrued as Enemies of the State and of its “office”? What is a citizen allowed to say, and especially in a world where the “elect” has said everything that civility does not allow, again and again and again, for the past ten months? The elect—the word has never really meant someone who has been elected, but someone who enjoys a privilege denied to all others. The elect are the privileged, the chosen, and the saved. But we are citizen-subjects whose rights must ever be upheld, and especially if, like a belligerent father, the president-elect demands our respect.* “Don’t you know who I am?!,” the despotic patriarch asks while he shakes us and beats us. “That I could squash you like an ant if I wished to?!” Such questions are unanswerable, and yet we know full well their answers. We know all too well who he is, but we cannot, will not say.


On election night this year, some people were overcome with sobs; others, unable to cry, vomited. Still others combined the two reactions. So many people—myself, included—had visceral responses to American citizenry’s hail and hearty vote of a billionaire xenophobe into the White House. So many felt ill, and awash in paralyzing disbelief: first we said we couldn’t believe it was happening; then we said we couldn’t believe it had happened—here we could pause to consider that we are products of a contradiction: we are shocked by the inevitable, the all-around-us. Now, many of us pretend it is not happening, once more (“Let it go girls!,” a fellow yogi condescendingly addressed me just the other day, “It’ll be ok!”).
     I decided early on not to leave hold of my evisceration, but to await the language that can emerge from it; to embrace it and to essay it. I stopped listening to the news (rhymes with noise) and searched for my copy of Osip Mandelstam’s prose work, from The Noise of Time, to Fourth Prose, from The Egyptian Stamp, to Journey to Armenia. I could quote some Mandelstam and imitate Mandelstam; I could play Mandelstam at top volume, or set his voice to low in a deeply quiet room. Osip Mandelstam (1891-1938), who was tortured and later perished in a labor camp at the age of 47, whose first visit to the infamous Lubyanka in 1934 was ostensibly prompted by his having compared Stalin’s moustache to a cockroach in verses that ran thus:
We live unconscious of the country beneath us,
Our talk cannot be heard ten paces away,
And whenever there is enough for half-a-conversation,
The Kremlin highlander is mentioned.
His thick fingers are fat like worms,
His words hit hard like heavy weights,
His cockroach’s huge moustaches laugh,
And the tops of his boots shine brightly.
Mandelstam, whose work was suppressed “under the cult of the personality of Stalin,” as his translator, Clarence Brown describes it. Who gives me birdsong ripped from an entrail. Whose sad, triumphant life teaches me that when your friend calls the police on you, because of something you said or something you wrote, they end up being tortured first. You, second. No one is saved. Mandelstam, some of whose prose transmits “the inner experience of the death of Russian culture” (61); a “miniaturist and digressionary” in the tradition of Gogol (59) known for his “deliberate cacophony” (33), who held fast to the sense of “surprise…as the essential ingredient of all true art” (61).** Mandelstam, who in essaying, won’t exactly lift your mood or lighten your mood: so much for diversions. Whose writing, “wholly untypical of Russian prose” according to his translator, returns me to the subtlety of sound and calibration.
     Let’s pause here to recall what Nabokov said of the untranslatability of Russian “shum” in Shum vremeni (translated as The Noise of Time): “‘Generally speaking, the sense of shum implies a more sustained and uniform auditory effect than the English ‘noise.’ It is also a shade more remote and confused. It is at heart more of a swoosh than a racket. All its forms—shum (n.), shumnïy (adj.), shumyashchiy (part.), shumet (v.)—are beautifully onomatopoeic, which ‘noisy’ and ‘to noise’ are not.” It includes, “‘the hum of the city’” and “‘the tumult of the town,’” “‘the murmur of the woods,’” the “‘sough of forests,’” “‘the dinning stream,’” “‘the sounding sea,’” “the rote, the thud, and the roar of the surf on the shore—‘the surgy murmurs of the lonely sea…’” (Brown, 33).
     Where can the essay take us in dimly lit times? Where did it take him? Mandelstam, who plays the instrument of language beyond itself, effecting a composition out of a much more difficult de-composition, suffered from auditory hallucinations following his beatings and deprivations in The Lubyanka. His wife, Nadezhda, who recounts the course of their literary and political life together in Hope Against Hope, works to distinguish between those external voices that forever afterwards plagued him and the inner voices he remained faithful to as the very basis of his poetry—the call to create poetry in the hum or musical phrase that rings insistently in the ears, “louder than any noise, radio or conversation in the same room” (70). Though he experienced years of silence in what he called “the word trade,” he eventually wrote again from inside the gaps, fully attuned to the importance of keeping those open. He met the none-sense of propaganda with a passionate absurdism; the drumbeat of forward marching with dizzying dissonance; the deadlock of pounding non-truths—dumb-founding rationale of violent acts—with an irreal, and surreal, uncategorizable prose. He let language scream and rip in shrieking tatters unfolding it and going in from the back, and underground, beneath it. He never entered the realms of the literary “elect” (Brown, 14).
     What he said he needed may be close to what I feel I need right now. I love his articulation of it in Fourth Prose (1930):
Things have come to the point where I value only the proud flesh around the wound in the word trade, only the insane excrescence:
And the whole ravine was cut / To the bone by the falcon’s scream
That is what I need.
I divide all the works of world literature into those writers with and without permission. The first are trash, the second—stolen air. As for writers who write things with prior permission, I want to spit in their faces, beat them over the head with a stick and set them all at a table in the Herzen house… 
I would forbid these writers to marry and have children. After all, children must carry on for us, must say to the end for us what is most important to say. But their fathers have sold out to the pockmarked devil for three generations to come.***
Following his spells in The Lubyanka, Mandelstam suffered from inflammation of his eyelids for the rest of his life. His interrogator told Nadezhda that the visible soreness around his eyes was the result of too much reading—but Mandelstam was not allowed any books in his cell. Nadezhda speculated that it was the result of the bright lights his jailers shined into his eyes during their endless interrogations. Mandelstam himself conveyed that his eyes were damaged by the combination of bright lights and a “stinging liquid” the prison guards squirted through “the spy-hole in the door [of his cell] whenever he went near it” (Hope Against Hope, 76). Nadezhda thought he might have imagined this in his derangements and as an effect of whatever drugs his torturers administered. That he was dragged to a punishment cell and placed in a straight jacket when, approaching his spy-hole, he begged for water, she knew to be a fact.
     Whenever I return to Mandelstam, two other facts meet me in the space of my privilege, asking to be reckoned with:
     [1] that his work survived because Nadezdah devoted herself over the course of several decades to memorizing it;
     [2] that those few who survived him—(at least 1500 writers died under Stalinism between 1924 and 1953)—held fast to the belief that someone had scrawled onto a labor camp wall a line from one of his poems, even though it was never clear where and when exactly Mandelstam died. That sentence read: “Am I real and will death really come?”


How can we create a literary Advent Calendar for these times? I begin most tentatively, inspired by Mandelstam to fill in words behind closed doors:

Day One: The elderly head tilted in spite of its best effort to perch upright on its neck; the youthful head and its hat—goofy and raucous and crazed.

Day Two: The unidirectional sound of voices in a political pulpit.

Day Three: The amphitheatrical sounds of birds and the amphitheatrical sounds of art.

Day Four: The moody compositions of Anatole Liadov: a room to feel properly roused and restless in.

Day Five: Nothing can be brought to conclusion and everything’s unhinged.

Day Six: The need to fantasize a tenor—a leader and her movement—for these times.

I’ll say it again: these days I read and re-read Osip Mandelstam. I’m not good at Advent, nor am I hip to the tune of Lent’s restraint, because I want to open the doors of his sentences all at once, allowing for a bell concert of discordant re-arrangements. Sensing that these times will be better served by patient recollection, I offer this Mandelstamian Advent Calendar, or, at least, the beginning of one, one sentence from his prose for each day of a year that our country is helmed by a jabbering businessman.


[1] “‘What was the mood of the petty bourgeoisie in Kiev in 1919?’”

[2] “It is frightening to live in a world that consists only of exclamations and interjections.”

[3] “And on the table there is an elegant syntax—of confused, heteroalphabet, grammatically wrong wildflowers, as though all the preschool forms of vegetative nature were coalescing into a pleophonic anthology poem.”

[4] “Let us speak about the physiology of reading. It is a rich, inexhaustible and, it would seem, forbidden theme.”

[5] “Now I stretched out my vision and sank my eye into the wide goblet of the sea, so that every mote and tear should come to the surface.”

[6] “And I began to understand what the obligatory nature of color is—the excitement of sky blue and orange football shirts—and that color is nothing other than a sense of the start of a race, a sense tinged by distance and locked into its size.”

[7] “The red paint of [Matisse’s] canvasses fizzes like soda. He knows nothing of the joy of ripening fruits.”

[8] “Looking at Renoir’s water you feel blisters on your palm as though you’d been rowing.”

[9] “Signac invented the maize sun.”

[10] “Standing before a picture to which the body temperature of your vision has not yet adjusted itself, for which the crystalline lens has not yet found the one suitable accommodation, is like singing a serenade in a fur coat behind storm windows.”

[11] “The end of the street, seemingly crushed by binoculars, swerved off into a squinting lump: and all of this, distant and linden-lined, was stuffed into a string bag.”

[12] “Damp chamois skin, rotted velvet—but when you break it open to look inside: azure.”

[13] “The kangaroo moves with the leaps of logic.”

[14] “Leopards have the sly ears of punished schoolboys.”

[15] “Yesterday I was reading Firdousi and it seemed to me that a bumblebee was sitting on the book sucking it.”

[16] “A plant is a sound evoked by the wand of a termenvox and it coos in a sphere oversaturated with wave processes.”

[17] “It was the descending and ascending motion of cream when it is poured into a glass of ruddy tea and roils in all directions like cumulous tubers.”

[18] “I have received your eighteen page letter, completely covered in a hand straight and tall as an avenue of poplars, and here is my answer:”

[19] “We are all, without suspecting it, carriers of an immense embryological experiment: for the very process of remembering, crowned with the victory of memory’s effort, is amazingly similar to the phenomenon of growth. In both of them there is a sprout, an embryo, some facial feature, half a character, half a sound, the ending of a name, something labial or palatal, some sweet pea on the tongue—which doesn’t develop out of itself but only answers an invitation, only stretches out, justifying one’s expectation.”

[20] “There was some beautiful boiling water in a pewter teapot and suddenly a pinch of wonderful black tea was thrown into it. That’s how I felt about the Armenian language.”

[21] “Now, no matter where fate may carry me, this sense already has a speculative existence and will remain with me.”

[22] “What tense do you want to live in?—I want to live in the imperative of a future passive participle—in the ‘what ought to be.’”

[23] “Lower your eye into what will be for it a new material ambiance—and remember that the eye is a noble, but stubborn animal.”

[24] A slice of lemon is a ticket to the fat roses of Sicily; the elevator is out of order. Life is both terrifying and beautiful! I repeat once more: the grandeur of this place is that no information is ever given to anyone. In a rage the chief tangled all the yarn. The deaf-mutes disappeared into the General Staff Arch: They went on twisting their yarn, but were already much more tranquil, as if they were releasing messenger pigeons in various directions. In order to answer someone it was necessary to undo the laces that cut into one’s chin. Terror takes me by the hand and leads me. A white cotton glove. Terror unharnesses the horses when one has to drive and sends us dreams with unnecessarily low ceilings.  He is a lemon seed thrown into a crevice in the granite of Petersburg. Life is both terrifying and beautiful.****

[25] “The horizon has been abolished. There is no perspective.”


*My reference aims to recall, among other things, the recent paternalistic call by the president-elect to the cast members of Hamilton to “apologize for their terrible behavior”—his language for a statement they delivered to the vice-president-elect at the close of the show at which he was in attendance, and which the president-elect deemed “inappropriate.” In this same string of tweets, the president-elect also judged the show—considered a contemporary masterpiece—as “highly over-rated.” Or, rather, that he’d “heard” the show was “highly over-rated.”

**I am referencing Clarence Brown’s introductory and critical essays contained in his translation of The Noise of Time, throughout.

***In a footnote to this piece, Clarence Brown explains that Herzen House was a building “on Tverskoy Boulevard…[in Moscow, which] was at the time something like the headquarters of Soviet literature, since it housed principal writers’ organizations as well as numerous indigent writers and their families.” The “pockmarked devil,” he writes, is “a phrase that would most certainly have been taken as a reference to Stalin” (239).

****Most of the sentences in my Mandelstam Advent Calendar are culled from his Journey to Armenia (1933) except for this one for Day 24, which is a cut-up created out of various sentences that appear in The Egyptian Stamp (1928).

I refer to the following texts herein: Osip Mandelstam, The Noise of Time: The Prose of Osip Mandelstam, translated with critical essays by Clarence Brown, San Francisco: North Point Press, 1986; Nadezhda Mandelstam, Hope Against Hope: A Memoir, translated from the Russian by Max Hayward, with an introduction by Clarence Brown, New York: Atheneum, 1970; Alan Rappeport and Noah Weiland, “White Nationalists Celebrate ‘an Awakening’ After Donald Trump’s Victory,” The New York Times, November 19, 2016: “Mr. Stankard said he thought it was unlikely that Mr. Trump would be able to do things like end affirmative action, even though he believes that the president-elect sympathizes with the plight of ‘white racists.’”


Mary Cappello’s five books of literary nonfiction include a detour (on awkwardness); a breast cancer anti-chronicle; a lyric biography; and, the mood fantasia, Life Breaks In: A Mood Almanack, which appeared last month from University of Chicago Press. Devoted to forms of disruptive beauty, she is a Guggenheim and Berlin Prize Fellow; a recipient of the Dorothea-Lange/Paul Taylor Prize from Duke University’s Center for Documentary Studies, and the Bechtel Prize for Educating the Imagination from Teachers and Writers Collaborative. Professor of English and Creative Writing at the University of Rhode Island, Cappello is a former Fulbright lecturer at the Gorky Literary Institute, Moscow. For further info:; or for follow-up conversation,

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