Archive | August, 2011

Casting Ashes

30 Aug

 

The three of them think they are carrying this fish somewhere and the fourth one, the blue man, he knows better. In my mind the blue man is the artist, Lluís Peñaranda, and this is one of my favourite paintings. Lluís died last December, having contracted liver cancer from a viral hepatitis infection contracted many years before.

Lluís was my first and closest friend in this part of the world. He picked me up when I was hitchhiking, soaked to the skin and two-thirds drunk, during a June thunderstorm on the Portbou-Llança road, sometime in the early 80s. It was a risk, on his part. But despite the strange circumstances of our meeting, we recognised something in each another, an affinity of sorts, maybe even an attraction of opposites. Sometimes it just happens like that.

 

 

Last Sunday his son Davíd, his partner Ramona, myself, Mrs Blanco, Joan Castelló and Juliette Murphy – his close family and friends – made an excursion into the Albera mountains to cast his ashes to the wind. We did so at Puig Neulós, the advantage of this peak being that it is visible from all over Alt Empordà, this magical zone which Lluís so magically reflected in his work.

 

 

The first painting Lluís ever gave me was this picture of a suprised-looking tiger flying above a mountain ridge (representing the Collsdecabra mountains, where I was doing very weird rehab in a small village in 1988). The rehab didn’t work, but the message implicit in the painting did, and I became a soaring, startled tiger. Well, okay, I made that bit up.

 

 

I once wrote: “Landscapes appear to rise out of water in Lluís’ work. The ubiquitous cypresses, and especially those moons, poised in the night sky, emanating a numinous light that illuminates the somnolent wanderings of the principal characters. The landscape of Empordà is the subliminal topic or perpetual subtext of Lluís’ work. It provides the mirror for an interior landscape which is essentially dreamlike, and, at times submarine, but the artist surfaces too, gasping, drawing in air in great thirsty gulps, and when he strides onto dry land he carries over his shoulder a bulging net of treasures found scattered on the sea-bed: old trumpets, olive oil cruets, rusting film spools, trowels, deckchairs and an old accordion, which, when beached and squeezed, releases a symphony of pilchards, starfish and seaweed. His is an elemental iconography: we are never far from sea, birds, beasts and the accumulated force of these creatures in the imaginative repertoire. Lluís is a collector of materials, and of symbols.”  Being in Water”: Lluís Peñaranda, Iwan Bala – Notes for an Exhibition bu Richard Gwyn (Cranc, 2001).

 

High above the castle of Requessens and the villages of Alt Empordà, straddling the border with France (actually marked by the broken fence) a young cow swishes away the flies.

 

 

We stand against the lowering sun and the shadows of the six of us are cast upon a giant rock. Only Lluís is absent. I write that, although in the shadows it is always hard to tell who exactly is whom.

Next to the halter of cow dung, secured by a rock, is the empty box that contained Lluís’s ashes. I have no idea how long it will stay there. Lluís insisted that his earthly ashes be kept in a biscuit tin until their dispersal, for reasons that will, like so much else, remain forever a mystery. Knowing Lluís, a shaman and artist of true originality and vision, it was perhaps his last joke, although I would not be surprised if some day I find others planted along my pathway.

It was a very strange day, that began weird and then found its own measure, there in the mountains. By the time we walked down, on the French side, everything felt right, and as it should be. Apart from him not being with us, that is.

 

Ricardo Blanco and Lluís Peñaranda, Cistella, June 1995

 

 

 

 

Miscellaneous sightings

29 Aug

This car was parked on the road near a pool in the river Muga where I like to swim. Who said the Germans have no sense of humour? It certainly wasn’t me. I might however begin an occasional series on this blog titled ‘Exploring National Stereotypes’ or ‘Exploding National Stereotypes’. This would be #147.

 

Beware of reading? This book contains a bloody funny joke? Other possible interpretations to Blanco please.

This parakeet now lives in The Sad Giraffe Café, in Sant Llorenç de la Muga. I am uncertain why the sad giraffe had to go, but when I asked the new owner of the café she looked at me as though I were an imbecile. Sometimes I don’t know whether to keep my mouth shut or just come out with stuff. And the sad giraffe has left. The parakeet is quite nice, but I preferred the giraffe, who sang.

As ever on Blanco’s Blog, one thing leads irrevocably to another. I photographed this spider’s web on Friday, and over the weekend, reading David Mitchell’s The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, I come across a passage in which the observation of spider webs is said to have influenced early engineers in bridge design:

‘At old days’ says Miss Aibagawa, ‘long ago, before great bridges built over wide rivers, travellers often drowned. People said,”Die because river god angry.” People not said, “Die because big bridges not yet invented.” People not say, “People die because we have ignoration too much.” But one day, clever ancestors observe spider’ webs, weave bridge of vines. Or see trees, fallen over fast rivers, and make stone islands in wider rivers, and lay from islands to islands. They build such bridges. People no longer drown in same dangerous river, or many less people . . .’

However, spider silk is interesting of itself. An article in Interface, the Journal of the Royal Society, entitled  High-performance spider webs: integrating biomechanics, ecology and behaviour offers the following enticement:

“An integrative, mechanistic approach to understanding silk and web function, as well as the selective pressures driving their evolution, will help uncover the potential impacts of environmental change and species invasions (of both spiders and prey) on spider success.” If this interests you as much as it does me, read on here.

 

 

 

Post-canícula promenade

28 Aug

 

The howling of the village dogs has calmed down over the past week, due to the passing of the canícula (named for the dog star, Sirius, and its associated theme of mad dogs/midday sun, hence also ‘dog days of summer’) – that period of extreme heat that peaks here at some point between late July and mid August; and while it is now still hot, it is not unbearably hot. With this in mind I suggest to my friend and neighbour Joan Castelló that we might profitably do a hike from the monastery of Sant Quirze, near the village, across the mountains to Portbou. It seems a reasonable proposition, given an early start. We reckon we might even get to Portbou by lunchtime.

So, Joan, my daughter Sioned and I set off at 6.30, deposited at the monastery by Mrs Blanco, who has decided to sit this one out (on the beach, and somewhat later than 6.30), and we begin the calf-wrenching ascent to the first pass, Coll de Pallerols. Despite the mist, we arrive at the pass an hour later drenched in sweat, and I already feel as though I have spent an uninterrupted week in a Turkish bath, but having got this far there is no option but to press on. I keep wanting the mist to clear, as there are magnificent views across the peaks, and although the Alberas are small mountains compared with the Pyrenees of the interior, they are still dramatic in juxtaposition with the sea.

We pass small circular shepherds’ huts, a variation on a theme found all around the Mediterranean as well as in the British Isles, and just over half way, as the sun finally breaks through the cloud, we find ourselves in an enchanted deciduous woods, remarkable for those of us who live on the south-facing flanks of the Pyrenees, but common enough on the north-facing French side.

Following the border between the two countries for much of our walk, we start descending towards a point where the sea spreads ahead of us, spearheaded by a final mountain ridge, with Cerbère on the French side, and Portbou on the Spanish. The landscape provides a natural frontier, supposedly, (but not to the Catalans, who feel that both sides belong to them, rather than to either nation state).

It is at this point that a new feature has been added to the landscape: a large placard informing walkers in four languages that the renowned German philosopher and critic Walter Benjamin passed this same way on his flight from the Nazis in 1940 (see post for 7 August). The route has been renamed ‘Passage of Liberty’. Fine words, but confusing too – since the passage to liberty was traversed in the opposite direction often enough during and after the Spanish Civil War. They must mean a flexible passage of liberty, bi-directional, depending on your fancy or the pressures of historical necessity.

I applaud the honours due to Walter Benjamin, but cannot help feeling the Portbou civic administration might be milking this one, perhaps in pursuit of a new strain of intellectual tourism, no doubt attracting Euro-funding at the same time as raising the little town’s profile considerably, especially compared with the cultural paucity of the resorts further down the Costa Brava. In fact ‘Literary Landmarks of the Costa Brava’ might have considerable market potential: already there is a new statue to the Catalan poet Josep Palau i Fabre at nearby Grifeu beach. How long before Blanes starts selling itself as the home of Roberto Bolaño, and turning the Botanical Gardens there into a Santa Teresa theme park with 2666-themed dodgem rides and a Savage Detectives Treasure Hunt?

 

Our walk ended, as we might have predicted, far later than we wanted it to, in far too much heat. Seven hours after setting out we staggered onto the beach at Portbou and fell into the sea.

A brief illustrated history of the praying mantis

25 Aug

 

This praying mantis appeared on the table in our back yard yesterday. The praying mantis or mantid (sometimes misspelled as ‘preying mantis’, as it is a hunter as well as seeming to adopt a position of prayer) is from the family of mantodea, a term for the species devised by the German entomologist Hermann Burmeister in 1838 from the Greek mantis, meaning ‘prophet’, and eidos, meaning ‘shape’. Prophet-shaped. Burmeister obviously had a sense of humour. More exactly Burmeister determined that it belonged under the Phylum of Arthropoda, the Class of Insecta, the Subclass of Pterygota, the Infraclass Neoptera,  the Superorder of Dictyoptera  and the Order of Mantodea. And, as my daughter pointed out, ‘mantodea’ sounds quite Welsh, though that is neither here nor there.

Mantises have two grasping, spiked forelegs in which prey – and sexual partners – are caught and held securely. According to the Wikipedia entry “Sexual cannibalism is common among mantises in captivity, and under some circumstances may also be observed in the field. The female may start feeding by biting off the male’s head (as they do with regular prey), and if mating had begun, the male’s movements may become even more vigorous in its delivery of sperm. Early researchers thought that because copulatory movement is controlled by a ganglion in the abdomen, not the head, removal of the male’s head was a reproductive strategy by females to enhance fertilisation while obtaining sustenance.”  The second half of the clip is particularly revealing:

 

 

 

Hmmm.

 

But wait, there’s more:

 

“The reason for sexual cannibalism has been debated, with some considering submissive males to be achieving a selective advantage in their ability to produce offspring. This theory is supported by a quantifiable increase in the duration of copulation among males who are cannibalized, in some cases doubling both the duration and the chance of fertilization. This is further supported in a study where males were seen to approach hungry females with more caution, and were shown to remain mounted on hungry females for a longer time, indicating that males actively avoiding cannibalism may mate with multiple females. The act of dismounting is one of the most dangerous times for males during copulation, for it is at this time that females most frequently cannibalize their mates. This increase in mounting duration was thought to indicate that males would be more prone to wait for an opportune time to dismount from a hungry female rather than from a satiated female that would be less likely to cannibalize her mate. Some consider this to be an indication that male submissiveness does not inherently increase male reproductive success, rather that more fit males are likely to approach a female with caution and escape.”

Close up, the mantis head looks very much like a classic representation of an alien:

 

 

 

In a 1957 B Movie, titled The Deadly Mantis, polar ice begins to shift southward following a volcanic eruption. But below the melting ice a praying mantis, 60 metres in length, lies trapped. The melted ice frees it and off it flies, wreaking havoc on a number of North American cities. My favourite line: “In all the kingdom of the living there is no more deadly or voracious creature than the praying mantis.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

What is a Classic?

24 Aug
A flat major (As-dur) fugue from the second pa...

Image via Wikipedia

A couple of days ago I blogged about John Franklin’s moment of clarity while listening to a late Beethoven sonata in 1845, less than twenty years after it was composed. The music had – according to Sten Narodny’s account in The Discovery of Slowness – an epiphanic effect on the explorer, and in the novel he is made to endure a sublime moment of self-realisation.

Then yesterday, reading J.M. Coetzee’s essays, I come across an autobiographical anecdote of how Coetzee, at fifteen years of age, heard harpsichord music drifting across the garden fence from a neighbour’s open window in his Cape Town suburb, and the effect this had on his life. The music was from Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier and, writes Coetzee: “As long as the music lasted, I was frozen, I dared not breathe. I was being spoken to as music had never spoken to me before.” This despite the fact that his family home was bereft of music, that he received no instruction in music, that classical music above all was “sissy” and regarded by Coetzee in a “somewhat suspicious and hostile teenage manner”.

But somehow Bach’s music breaks through to the boy, “speaks to” him, as Coetzee puts it. And in his essay ‘What is a Classic’ the adult author wonders whether his adolescent response to the music back in 1955 was “truly a response to some inherent quality in the music rather than a symbolic election on my part of European high culture as a way out of a social and historical dead end.” Since the essay’s title marks it out as a response to T.S. Eliot, and Coetzee is concerned about the emergence of the term Bach as a touchstone, and a classic as being, in at least one sense, ‘that which survives’, we end up depending (argues Coetzee) on criticism to define and sustain notions of the classical.

Which is all true, but by resorting to an argument about the nature of the classic (and for perfectly valid reasons) Coetzee rather avoids answering the question that he originally posed, about whether Bach ‘spoke to him across the ages’ or whether he, Coetzee, was (unwittingly perhaps) choosing high European culture and the codes of that culture in order to escape his class position in white South African society, and the historical dead-end represented by his immediate environment.

But despite the excellence of Coetzee’s writing and argumentation, I remain puzzled.

Somewhere in his writings, possibly The Curtain – I am away from my library right now and cannot check – Milan Kundera speculates on the kind of reception that would be given to a work of Beethoven’s were it written by a contemporary composer and performed as though it were a new composition. Kundera asserts that such a piece of music would be subject to ridicule. No one would take the music or its composer seriously. Since all cultural artefacts are a product of their historical and cultural moment, a ‘contemporary’ writing of the opus 111 piano sonata by a modern composer would fail to have the effect on a latter-day John Franklin, or by extension, on you or me.

How does this play out in relation to Coetzee’s adolescent experience? What if The Well-Tempered Clavier was the work of a brilliant but geeky composer of the 1950s who despised the tendencies of Romanticism and Modernism and elected to write ‘like’ J.S. Bach? The sequence of sounds would be identical, but would the effect be the same? Does this mean that young Coetzee’s response to Bach’s quintessentially classical music had its profound effect– even though he did not know what he was listening to?

How can this come about? Are our responses to music entirely subject to cultural and historic provenance? Is a particular arrangement of sounds only a cipher, a means by which a listener measures him or herself as a participant-observer in cultural experience?

This raises many other questions, including obvious ones such as the way we ditch and discard some music – even find it unlistenable – over the course of years, while other music we can listen to almost any time. But for the moment, Kundera’s question and Coetzee’s musical awakening in 1955 present a paradox that I am struggling to reconcile.

Any comments welcome.

 

 

 

Restless Geography

23 Aug
Cretan labyrinth

Image via Wikipedia

The blog is founded on the idea that Blanco never spends too much time writing a post, unless it is an article, review or poem that has already been prepared or published elsewhere (i.e. recycled work, of which there is an irregular smattering). In other words the motivating principle is of spontaneity, of always allowing myself, in my writing, to move where the mood takes me, so I do not necessarily end up in a place where I thought I was going: I would go so far as to say that was the whole point of the blog – to begin a thought process and see where it takes me. This will sometimes mean that the title of the piece only makes sense in terms of something that appears towards the end, or is a fleeting thought that arises as a consequence of something in the blog that is not fully explored.

So what we have is a kind of diary, alongside a series of reflections – precisely as the subtitle proclaims – on the mutable universe. Like most things concerning the genesis of the blog, the words came without conscious forethought: but ‘mutable’ is key here: I want the blog to act as an archive – very much in the spirit of the work of my friend, the painter Lluís Peñaranda – of mutability, of fleetingness, of transience. The transience of those things that we explore, and the transience of ourselves.

Actually, the most apt description of what we have is labyrinth. A labyrinth is not only a metaphor for the questing self, and a means of self-transcendence: it is also a way of getting purposefully lost, of going up blind alleys, of plunging deeper into one’s own lack of knowledge and coming back with something unknown, of finding surprising routes to places we never intended going. Of noting that the exit to the labyrinth is sometimes marked Entrance to the Labyrinth.

And of observing what goes on inside the labyrinth when the geography will not stay still.

To be continued.

 

 

I set out on a journey, but the geography would not stay still, and I ended up somewhere I hadn’t intended going.

 

‘Restless Geography’ from Sad Giraffe Café (2010)

 

 

 

A State of Wonder

22 Aug

Ludwig van Beethoven 1770-1827

In Sten Nadolny’s fine novel The Discovery of Slowness, the polar explorer John Franklin attends a recital of Beethoven sonatas on 9th May 1845. During the performance of the opus 111 sonata, “John felt he was actually meeting the fine skeleton of all thought, the elements, and the ephemeral nature of all structures, the duration and slippage of all ideas. He was imbued with insight and optimism. A few moments after the final note sounded he suddenly knew, There is no victory and no defeat. These are arbitrary notions that float about in concepts of time invented by man.”

While it might not be a realistic objective for most of us to achieve this state of immaculate insight very often – supermarket shopping, tax statements, the MOT, and for some of us the basic dignity of finding work, all this stuff gets in the way – we are all gifted these moments of clarity, we all catch the occasional glimpse, and if we are lucky we build up a store of such experiences, an archive of rare encounters with the transcendent. Normally such moments are not instructive to others, nor in fact are they easy to elucidate or express. But cumulatively they create a cluster, form a chain reaction, each epiphany linked mysteriously to all those that have come before, in a steady act of making. I am reminded of the words of the pianist Glenn Gould that I quoted in The Vagabond’s Breakfast: “The purpose of art is not the release of a momentary ejection of adrenalin but rather the gradual, lifelong construction of a state of wonder and serenity.”

Sometimes it swings this way, and sometimes the world has other plans.

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