the authors are in the asylum

One of the curious things, to me, is how many of the authors on the Biblioteca Adelphi list spent time in sanitoriums, asylums, and the like.  It seems to have been a bit more standard, in earlier centuries, that one would have a breakdown of sorts, and take a rest. Perhaps in the Swiss Alps, having long walks and tea, until ready to re-enter the world. Writing letters to other famous (or to become famous) folks, on what you are doing and what you think.

These days, commital seems to be a linear path to One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Then, however, a pause, a break, a restructuring. It was more of a revolving door, and involved fewer drugs that dement the brain from its ability to think or dream. (I don’t include opium in that category, we can discuss this later, if we must.)

This morning my background listening is Warren Ellis and Kevin Slavin having a chat about Warren’s work. His latest book, Normal, is about the strategic planners who look at the end of the world, who forecast the demise, due to climate, politics, greed, or other forces, the abyss-gazers, who eventually end up medicated and in a camp in the forest, their heads too full of propriety knowledge to set free, but too broken to function.

This brought me back to this interesting pattern of breakdowns, and the meaning inherent in this. In fact, perhaps I should not call them breakdowns. That is a modern word for a cultural behavior that does not seem to have been quite so troublesome as it would today.

I wonder though, if in today’s world, a little sanitorium going might be good for us. Take a moment to walk the hills, and remember life.


english-italian-sanskrit part ii

This morning, with my coffee, I have been working with the many versions I have of the Zanzotto poem I am using as test case for the work I mentioned yesterday; the original Italian, the assorted translations I have pulled from the American Academy library, and the translation which started me off on this path, by Wayne Chambliss, also here, in the library. I thought you might want to know how I got here, so here is a story.

One day, when the chalk wall was blank, the Russian’s erased, inspiration waiting to suggest a new direction, a leaf of paper fluttered off my desk and on to the floor. It was Chambliss’ translation of The perfection of the snow, by Andrea Zanzotto. I decided to put it on my wall, so I could see it, in larger form.  Thinking it would be there for a day or two, I left it for weeks. I would return home in the evenings and stand in the room, repeating it out loud, over and over, back and forth with the words, their taste, their texture, how they fit.  I purposely did not go back to the original. I wanted only these words, their structure, their sounds. I wanted to space on my wall and their echo in my room, in my skull.

Andrea Zanzotto, The perfection of the snow, translation by Wayne Chambliss

I recorded the poem several times, listening, again, to the sound of the words. I’d repeat lines, move things around, ponder what the original words could be, still, not looking. Recreating, in my mind, possible structures of what the form of the thing was. Eventually, I realized, I had to go back to work. This was not my work. (Was this my work?)

I erased the poem and moved on to my next task, which was back to the Indologists and tracking the pathways of Sanskrit and Vedic concepts into the European literature of the 19th and 20th centuries (mostly). But the poem stuck, and while I worked through Vedas and Puranas, the poem which I had recited so many times, continued to recite itself in my head, and I found myself pondering the concepts of the words; which English word, which Sanskrit, how did they mesh, how would the shapes of the concepts fit or not fit?  Finally, I needed the Italian, as the middle step, the bridge, but not a bridge. Another universe, another way.  La perfezione della neve.

And here I had three languages, circling each other, differing in distances and meaning. Some words closer than others, some farther. Some barely related, even. And my mind started to create a three dimensional model, a collection of words, pulled out of words, forward to English, backwards to Sanskrit, notes appeared, on choices, and then, of course, it needed to be pulled, to be grasped on the edges and elongated over time. As this image continued to build in my mind, with greater detail, and structure, I started wanting to share it, to create it in a form that made sense, that explored my curiousity and awe. And so, on to paint. And the only way I can find to paint history, is oils, and so, I begin, I try. So far, I fail, but, if, but when, but.


english-italian-sanskrit part i

One of the many things I am working on, spawned from this project, is to map the movement of some language, across language, across time, and across meanings.

What I am trying to do is show, visually, an image of Italian poetry spanned between English and Sanskrit.  Why? I don’t know, it actually turns out to be beautiful, and I’ve been trying to make it work in oils, because there is something about the depth of colour that translates well to the depth of time, across these languages.

So the top level is the English, and to differening levels of depth there are words in Italian and Sanskrit. There are places where the meanings change or do not align, or where the earlier concepts would change the current sentiments, and so they blossom out from words, some obscured, some not.

I haven’t finished even one yet, not just the tracking of the words and concepts, but hell, oils are hard, and new to me. But it feels like the only medium to use — I am using them on wood — because of the way I can build depth. We shall see. I may need help! (And right now they are only in my studio in NYC, I brought nothing like that with me to Rome.) So here, for now, I keep working with the concepts, but not the outputs, except the drawings I have been doing.

I am working with a friend’s translation of Italian poetry into English, as with my knowledge of Latin and Sanskrit, to move these things around in a way that swirls greater meaning into the breathe of each word.

I’ll post images when I get back to NYC. Just thinking of this now, as I am working with some older Tantric texts here in Rome, that were hard to get my hands on in NYC, short of coughing up gazillions of dollars.

linguistic interiority

I’ve begun reading the Italian books in both Italian and English, as, for many authors, my Italian is good enough to read them. What a statement that is. The reality is, it may never be good enough for all the nuance, but it works, for now. My perspective is that I would have to live here for years to truly understand, but enough on that for now.

One of the things that strikes me is how different the English and Italian versions are. (I should read one of the Italians in French and see how that fares.)  The structure, the sound, the length of the sentences, all, quite different. The sentiments feel off to me as well, at times.

I find, in the Italian and English versions, that there is more space, and more freedom taken by the translators. It doesn’t make the books not as good but they definitely feel different.

I am particularly pondering this, this morning, because I don’t feel that level of distance between French and English translations, though I often wonder at word choice of something specific, it is less large, except for a few authors who I feel translate so poorly you should skip reading them, if English is your only option.

The question I have though, is if this gap is due to the newness of my Italian, if it will diminish over time, and my brain will fill in the additional parts, the structures and nuances, so that even in English, I can hear the Italian, get a sense of what the original likely was.

residency, part ii

It’s an interesting thing, this residency, away from home. I’ve never done it formally before, though I have a tendency to move into the woods for periods of time, to focus on work, but it’s not the same.

Here I am, for a month, away. What’s interesting to me, is how the days flow. How I want the days to flow. Do I build a structure similar to the high functioning writer’s life I can manage at home? I know exactly what this is, the hours I work, the flow of the day, what I do. But here I am, away. Do I recreate that? Or do I allow for something entirely different?

Currently, I am mostly on the latter. I stay up til all hours — in part because I want to roam the library at weird hours. I barely sleep or eat. I work either all the hours, or none of them.  I don’t write on a schedule or edit on a schedule. I don’t try to assmilate to the lives of others. It’s not normal, but I don’t feel the urge to shift it.

Is this what residency is? Throw out all the rules, all the ways I know that things work?


residency, part i

I’ve learned the library pathways well enough that I often don’t turn the lights on at all. I just traverse until I am where I want to be, and then opt for a small puddle.  Dark spaces, ark spaces of books, five floors with spiral staircases, that old school edging of the second level of books, with its veritable ledge, for traversing those stacks. Moveable ladders and ancient wooden chairs.

screen-shot-2017-03-18-at-10-15-32The bottom floor is tiled, deep red, there is a vaulted edge and the barest of natural light leaks in during daylight hours. Lying on the floor it feels a bit like I have been buried alive in a cavern of books. Last night I sat, lay, paced, and read Fernando Baez’ A Universal History of the Destruction of Books, a beautiful and devastating tale of all the libraries and collections, destroyed, largely at the hands of man.

Later, I was sitting in the bar, having a glass of wine, listening to a crew of Fellows discussing the library.  They were interested in exploring it at night, but were afraid of the dark and the ghost. I wanted to lean over and warn them that they are more likely to scare themselves to death stumbling over me, in the dark of night.  I would recommend the library in the dark of night, but I hope they wait a few weeks to find their courage, so it can continue to be mine.

scholarly artist?

I am at the American Academy as a visiting artist. Because I don’t qualify as a scholar.  This is because, to be a scholar, I’d have to have a PhD, or be enrolled in a PhD program.  And even though I have two masters degrees, it doesn’t matter.

When I tell people I am here as a visiting artist, first, they assume I am a visual artist. When I tell them I am a writer, they assume I am a fiction writer, when I tell them what I am doing, they gape at me.

On my first day, at lunch, explaining The Adelphi Project to two scholars (Mary Beard and Hussein Fancy, if you are familiar with your classicists), they both were stunned that I can’t be considered a scholar. I suppose if you live in the world of PhD, you don’t quite get what happens if you are focused, and without one. Hussein suggested that since it would only take me about three weeks to get one, I might just do it.

It does resurface my dilemma, of how and what to do with what I am creating. It’s not a bad dilemma, it is a question of form, and how to move forward, and where to play, in a sense.

What do I want the outcome of this work to be, and thus, where do I want to fit in the world. I am not sure that is as linear as that sentence made it sound, but it is a set of unknowns that I need to address, and soon.

biblioteca calassoteca

I’ve been rather quiet of late because I was shutting down the majority of my life in NYC to decamp to Italy for several months. The first month is at the American Academy, where I was given a visiting artist residency.

Months ago, in e-mail with Roberto Calasso, he told me the story of his sitting in the library in a very hot July, to check all the references for his book, The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony, and that it is truly an amazing place. I took those words in, but really had no idea until I appeared here ten days ago.

The library has thousands of books, a renowned classics collection, and endless other mysteries. As a resident, I am not beholden to the library’s 9-6 schedule, rather I am given a fob which allows me 24 hour access, once I complete a mandatory introduction by the library staff.  They warned us to be careful, as it is dark at night, and often people forget others are there and shut of the lights on the stairs. The library has six floors, a marble spiral staircase, worn with years of foot traffic, which make it just dangerous enough to run up and down in the night.

The first night I went in around 11pm. There was no one else there. The stacks are open, and I like to read the stacks, book by book, see what is there. I don’t like to do this during the day, as it may disturb the people working there.

I screen-shot-2017-03-12-at-19-59-33found myself sitting on the floor, in the dark, tucked behind a table where I found a section on magic, and I poured through these two books, until it got quite late, so I picked them and me up, checked them out, and took them home to bed with me.

This place is a marvel. More soon.

mythic language and milarepa

We modern people have special difficulties here because we have abandoned the mythic language of earlier traditions, a language that resonated with the deeper mental structures of human beings according to their hereditary conditioning. Our own language is scientific, that is to say, based on sensory experience and abstract generalizations — the latter being a function of the mind, which is relatively the same in all human beings, unconditioned by innate forces of feeling and instinct and therefore unresponsive to the truth and power which these innate forces embody.  

So much about this project, for me, comes back to language and translation. How does meaning get expressed in the language we choose to express it in, and what happens as the writing and ideas move from language to language.

Re-reading The Life of Milarepa this morning, the above passage is in the introduction by Lobsang P. Lhalungpha. It brings me back to why I am continually trying to pull many of the concepts in these books back into Sanskrit; this idea that there is a language, and a sound, which inscribes a different pathway to knowledge, and that one needs more than what we have, such as English, in order to arrive at lands unknown.

Of course most of these writings have never been in Sanskrit or Pali or Aramaic, but I find that I want to pull the structures back into what they would have been before they became what they are, to see what the underlying possibilities would have been, in a different time and place.

Is it possible that those writings which most resonate to us have a protolanguage structure, unknown to the author, that would have embodied something mythic and magical, that because of this possible past, it circumvents the mind and travels to the meaning?


Some thoughts on the beauty of this project

It’s strange to have written so little about The Adelphi Project in the past year. Having read 341 books or so (a few more now), and having spent so much time thinking about everything even slightly related, I still seem to forget to bring you along.

  • I regret that we don’t write the short novels of early 20th century Austria. These astonishing books that are really never about their author. I am going to try to talk you into doing this, soon. We need these, our world needs these, our cultures need these.
  • I am astonished by how much history my brain can absorb and re-weave together into new fabrics to fold beneath the story I am trying to tell.
  • I’ve discovered that what I see wants to be made into short movies, with archival footage, because the images of the past are beautiful. As are the sounds. More sound archives please!
  • I find I can tell stories of history the way I tell stories at Mythology Club, that there is a magic in knowing something so well that I can tell it in any direction and a thousand different ways, and they will all be as true as the next. My own personal creation of a European Mahābhārata.
  • I think I underestimated the importance of Adelphi Edizioni in the history of Italy. Yep, I am just going to leave this here for now. This is big and I need to get it right.
  • There is no good software to track the tangential thoughts and pathways that are part of the magic of this project. Network theory and history and a million other things are complex enough, but this model is stored in my head in five languages, and that’s just hard for the machines. And I can rotate it, like a chemical model, to see the view through a different lens, or language, or time period. If I could figure out how to do this with software it would be gorgeous. If you have ideas, please get in touch.
  • I want to translate the untranslated books, or the old translations that aren’t able to resonante now. I want to become a translator of both the books and the magic of the history that interweaves them. I want to tell you the stories that make me laugh or weep or wonder or love. The stories big and small. There are so many. Stop by for tea, and I will tell you a story.
  • Hand drawn maps and the chalk walls are an amazing tool for seeing simplicity in complexity. Especially as I sit in the morning with coffee and stare at the wall, in that slightly unfocused way, where I can see things that aren’t there, or weren’t until I only half looked.
  • Most of the really cool bits of this work to date are in notebooks and on pieces of paper and I really need to figure out how better to share them with you. I want you to fall in love, along with me. I want to make you movies and stories and books and pictures.
  • As I read, the project continues to shift, and it becomes more beautiful and more meaningful. Back to the point before this one, this is really important. How do I bring you with me? I am working on it. Funding is ever a problem. Great sorrow that this is. I need a de Medici.
  • My friends still love me, it seems, even though I talk about history and literature and mythology and languages and all that, and not a whole lot of other things. Thank you for that.