Blindness & Rage is a verse novel in 34 cantos. Lucien Gracq, suffering from a terminal illness, moves to Paris from Adelaide to live out his last days. There he discovers a secret society which only accepts as members writers with varying degrees of terminal illnesses. It is not a palliative clinic, but is in fact a meeting place for the production of literary texts. Its overriding premise is that a text considered good enough to be published would have to attributed to another member, the recipient of a gift which may endow that person with high honours and prizes. It is preoccupied with the question: What is an author? No egotistical apostasy, no reclaimed ownership/authorship of the original work would be allowed under threat of the potential murder/suicide of the ghost writer who breaks the faith. Euthanasia is a free service. Gracq’s epic is chosen. He now has to decide what to do … to live anonymously as long as possible, or to welcome a visiting assassin.
All my life, thought Lucien Gracq, I’d written my disasters:
predicted them, installed them, lived them.
For example: all his life he’d written to women
in mannered courtly love
hoping they would respond, but
would not take it too far – or go any further.
It always redounded, overflowing into minor tragedies.
His heart began palpitating,
he developed high blood pressure.
Writing had consequences, not least
a sedentary posture and excess of calories.
So he turned from prose and entered a more
emphatic breath, of which he was short
or was brought up short.
And then some lesser ailments:
the neurotic episodes of embarrassment
dying into each at three in the morning,
all screaming, negotiating unpleasantness,
and it seemed nothing was enjoyable –
experience reeking of threat, regret and hurt.
Could romantic love so easily disappear
without casting around for a new desire
to enhance the redemption of illusion
in the small cell of the free, alert
to the farewell wave of chance?
All his life he wished for unemployment
in order to attain a paradise,
an Eden of inspired work and experience,
but all his life Gracq laboured as a town-planner
in an Adelaide office unrolling ennui
and blueprints until now …
when time had already flown its coop.
I can’t bring myself to act, he thought,
since that would cut short
his precious melancholy.
Instead he could feel, enact through writing,
since he was in search of lost emotion –
words which slowed the heart and
humoured the day and held
the night with chimeras.
But how to write now in such gloom
in the face of real impending doom?
Should the work be given every attention
to become the focus of constriction?
His heart’s regret
was his life’s invention: to beget
lying and exaggeration
in exchange for deep imagination
when it was a sign of the times
to pretend to the truth,
even if it smacks of youth
to force some easy ABBA rhymes,
without relying on Pushkin’s Onegin
for good taste
after pulp fiction had laid waste
to innocence in the nursery,
pushpins inserted into favourite Teddy
and every friend a Fagin.
Divorce again, says Gracq each morning
while scooping out his avocado,
not meaning to indicate a new world dawning
but the cheery chime of boot-up time
rings well with his bravado.
Today I’m free once more with each new laptop page
to look forward without fear
at the horizon of a limited holiday; no foe,
no rule to fight against the rhyme save
something long suppressed,
sage Oriental respect perhaps,
for time, patience and all its psycho-analytic show,
suppressing atavistic anger
and deep revenge at God knows whom.
It brought him back.
The corner shop opens for afternoon trading.
Long past the pizza for the microwave and
its use-by-date, Gracq has no appetite and
lingers by cancer’s tropic – his fate of late –
attending neither medicine’s ball nor
fortune-cookie fêtes, believes he’s at the meridian
or the End – soon to rave and pitch
a farewell note and bill of lading for the ferryman.
In Australia they were good at testing blood.
They said “we need to stick in tubes, then cameras
then see what else to try” –
after that it was pay the fee or fry in radiation.
They turned him inside-out on screen –
he would never eat stew again after this movie-tone autopsy.
He had not felt ill at all but now he did
in this panopticon of cell revolt.
A way of recognising the body was not
a representation of life,
of words, of significance, but
an object once deep in the ‘I’, now wrenched,
a struggling fish, from which
we have to be disentangled at some stage,
losing command, swimming in discomfort,
drowning in pain and evanescence.
Suddenly someone else’s, but not yet God’s.
I like to be in tune with the weather, Gracq thinks.
He has rented a small Parisian apartment
upon pronouncement of his sentence.
Can you tune the weather with a thermometer?
But like his body, it cannot be controlled, though
he is proud of reading both, waiting for change.
It has been a long time since he’s noticed
this kind of sky, mackerel cloud or stunted tree,
damp smell of a cemetery,
its symmetry of silence between passers-by and the passed.
Or heard the recursive chorus of guillotined Carmelites
from beneath an eight-metre ditch in Picpus
amongst freshly-weeded sods,
their mournful plainsong and bloody history,
cantos on the circularity of life and its short-circuitry,
so Gracq liked to say, unhelpfully seeking solitude
at the final hour, his words morbid and over-stuffed,
without the divine comfort of God’s.
From next door he hears
the beginning of another kind of music.
A respect at first for volume.
Someone playing piano.
Lightly, softly. Schubert, Gracq believes.
Gracq was from Australia.
Nobody played Schubert lightly there.
He corrects himself; he’s mythologising Paris,
where people live clustered together and have to deal
with noise and voyeurism and apartment users’ manuals.
It was in this small flat, numéro onze rue Linné
where the toilet lived up to the description of a cabinet –
airless, dripping – that he had first read Roger Caillois.
He thought of trying speed, not pills but
extremist sports; flying over a cliff if only he could ski;
live in a peaceful coma until they turned off the apparatus;
but he read instead of the Collège de Sociologie,
of Bataille, Leiris and Caillois; all
smoking, drinking, eating fine foie gras,
screeching at meetings like wheeling plovers.
None died early except their lovers.
The specialist told Gracq to enjoy himself
in the remaining time. Soon he will be cactus:
more loss of appetite, of speech and hearing,
of sight and emotional reach.
He should substitute delicious soma for his summa,
forget writing, drink champagne with morphine,
be seen with friends, reconnect with women,
there was nothing else to lose.
That had been the motto of his youth;
anything for inspiration.
It had brought him to this pass,
a mirror-image now,
the only catch being a different end,
a stop at the mortuary station.
Gaming, the doctor said to Gracq,
was playing with chance and God,
not for pleasure but with angry purpose,
breaching the rules with all the tools
at man’s disposal.
He read how Caillois saw himself
on a list of names – it was 1938 –
a date with Germany looming –
so Roger the dodger left for Argentina
to write Man, Play and Games.
In a cursed corner of history
he sat out the war with Borges,
drinking coffee in smoky tango joints,
feeding bananas to a monkey in a fez
jigging in time to the melodeon,
a diatonic button accordion.
Jorge hated music, or didn’t have an ear;
he shouted that the monkey
give way to a dancing bear.
Perhaps his ire came from Plato,
whose rage at poetic shadow
kept philosophy centre-stage,
tuneless, spare and dry.
Roger found a spry new bed-fellow
in Victoria Ocampo,
fell in love and decamped for a long sojourn,
his wife mostly in the gloom of the next room,
smelling smoke but seeing no fire,
cutting up his fine Havanas.
When the cigar wars were finally over
they returned by way of Dover
to a dour Paris without bananas.
Caillois’ contribution to intellectual history
was to distinguish games of rivalry
from those of speculation and identification:
agôn (competition), alea (chance)
and a non-aggression pact between
mimicry (simulation) and ilinx (vertigo).
Play was not all about vanquishing a foe –
others or death – but enjoying the passive satiety
of waiting for excitement with
diversion, turbulence, free improvisation
and carefree gaiety.
Lucien Gracq was much taken by this last quartet
which resembled the rising graph of an orgasm.
Death was not his enemy, only its little brother.
Caillois called it paidia, the Greek for play,
the rounded education of an ancient élite
living a well-played life, its end closing a circle
like a roundel or a lay –
and for one moment Gracq flirted with fantasy:
Did he have the courage, energy and impetus?
The piano next door began again
to saturate the past with syphilitic genius.
Every weekday morning Lucien made his way
to the national library
and in a small cubicle he watched the rain come down
softly over Paris listening for the brush of stockings,
click of stilettos, without looking for their source.
He lived in a painful secret
and in other people’s secrets,
tuning imagination to a sightless gauge,
for dying into writing was … well …
both blindness and rage.
Today he browsed the shelves for
Colette Peignot, the lover of Georges Bataille,
who drove his nephew crazy
with her tanned and scissoring legs –
and the latter burst his trousers
with his stallion’s cock
sitting beside her at a bullfight,
observing how the moment of blood and gore
brought her to orgasm
when she screamed above the roar,
“I adore the putrid lips of Jesus.”
She called Bataille her river-god, her rhesus,
for daring to publish his nephew’s pornographia,
but she was not part of their masculine mafia,
holding sacred the memory
of her father and four brothers,
killed in the trenches by shrapnel and TB –
sacrificial to the end.
This story of devotion would distend
to Bataille’s crazy theory, with focus
upon his luke-warm battle with fascism:
“A human sacrifice would stand up to oppression,”
he declared with some hocus-pocus.
In his boyhood Bataille almost became a priest;
now he was musing on the idea that
between play and blood lay a sacred feast,
the bullfight an example. Yet he couldn’t
quite catch the spark and struck an acrid match
to a bitter-sweet cigarette
at the thought of this leveller:
his nephew screwing Colette.
Pierre Klossowski, Jesuit friend and fellow-traveller
would write this version of his jealous joie
and call it Roberte ce soir.
Bataille liked reading Nietzsche.
Would he shake the hand of this mad man?
There would have to be some rules:
anti-Semites to be excluded
from the secret society he was already
forming in his head,
though he declared that only to demonstrate
he may have been a communist instead.
He formulated a society for sacrifice;
now, that was it. He was at a crossroad
in the darkest night of the Catholic Right.
crossing rue Monge in his usual fog
on his way to the National Library
almost met an early fate and
froze half a metre
short of a speeding motorcyclist
who swerved in the nick of time
cursing behind his Grecian helmet.
Un grand serpent glisse le long de la rue
a nutter shouted from across the street.
Gracq took it as an omen: was he missing the beat
of the Reaper’s hoary finger upon his chest?
Had he committed an error?
What have I got to fear but fear itself?
He spoke aloud for that was best
when staving off chronic terror.
He had nothing to fear, nothing at all,
he declared, eyes agog
at the serpent stream of
passers-by who took him for another psychotic
in a secret dialogue with God.
I woke early one morning
with roving specks in an eye then
a pulsing, flashes of lightning in one corner
and soon a mosquito-net drew over sight,
a slurring through dirty water,
landing me like a prawn upon a semi-night.
That was the first sign of strife,
a deeper design, slaughter
at the gate of the auto-immune
which used to tick like a tuned V8
on the highway of a decent life.
He remembers the Dublin of years ago,
the lilting voices of Irish girls
laughing by the Liffey into which the English
had thrown the executed bodies of young rebels
during the Easter Rising.
There was no rebellion in him
when he was working on his epic poem Paidia,
staring out at the playing fields of Trinity College
capturing the summer muffle of sun and cricket bats
and collecting the smells of pubs, breweries and vats.
He was briefly famous in the musty halls
and foetid corridors of the vacated varsity,
not for his verse but for his stalls of
Australian wine, whose scarcity he managed
as a small sideline to fund his stay.
“Australian are we?” asked the Irish customs officer
who liked to take the piss.
“Ah oui” he would reply, not missing a beat,
adjusting his beret and blowing a kiss.
But now …
Just begin again, notice how safe
you’d become, how few risks
you’ve taken after two health crises,
your cockpit awhirl,
nosing onto the medical clatter
of premature death.
You don’t even go to the supermarket
without rehearsing dialogues
with the check-out girl …
if only she understood his breathless poem.
Just begin the epic again, play the game,
empty out the emptiness within
and supply the void with chatter.
That’s how life is done.
That’s how it is always done.
Just flirting; just gaming; just batting with a willow
at the sorrowful drooping of summer’s end.
That’s how to begin again at the bend,
replaying life before death’s accounting –
see it approaching with its high pillow –
an innings, then run.
The risk is extinction, but your problem,
Gracq told himself, was that in lieu
of making a living you should have learned to sit
and write posthumously,
as a shade beneath a yew, its suns long past.
Not homo sapiens but homo ludens –
the word ludicrous holds it fast.
Gracq felt his pain was nothing
compared to others. Perhaps he should
find a group of brothers, a Männerbund
who understood time, its arrow and its wound.
But he changed his mind when he read
Georges Bataille, who said cryptically:
“There is no need to show solidarity
with those who are suffering.”
Bataille’s father, syphilitic and paralysed,
was abandoned by his wife and son
during the shelling of Reims in 1914.
Before he left, Georges carried
the blind old man to the WC and
watched his large translucent ears
light up with each shell-burst
as he groaned in pain during defecation.
Georges would not see his father alive again –
he locked the toilet door to memory –
but knew in his morning meditation
Joseph-Aristide had left his son a legacy.
Georges was seared with the painful smile
of perpetual guilt, suffice
to say a benediction –
his rationale for guile and sacrifice.
In 1936, elegant young Bataille in high collar,
now an archivist at the Bibliothèque Nationale
and editor of a magazine, formed a secret society:
Acéphale had as its symbol a headless
man with arms outstretched, a skull at his crotch;
it meant the state was leaderless.
Twenty disciples from the right and left
met secretly once a month, initially at the obelisk
on the Place de la Concorde where Louis XVI
had been guillotined.
Thereafter, nocturnal meetings were held
in the forest of Marly around a blackened tree
where Bataille lit a dish of sulphur and divulged
his plan to serve up a human sacrifice:
“France was headless and impotent,
its politics riddled with lice,” he said with a sneer,
“and man is nought unless death conjoins us.
Freed into nothingness, our solidarity
is what counts against mass fear.”
But it seemed the shaman was never in place
in order to keep his own life safe.
“He is a monster with whom I must live,” said
Colette of his semi-fascistic tendency,
sacrificing herself to porno
sessions in railway toilets,
something much discussed
by the cluster of intellectuals,
the society’s respectable face which
drew distinguished speakers from
Jacques Lacan to Theodor Adorno.
(Benjamin failed to show, nor did Leiris,
and Caillois was packing for Buenos Aires –
perhaps they all sniffed out pathology.)
In the end, no one was sacrificed, though Gracq
was sceptical: who would know? He too,
felt in need of secrets and silence. Besides,
no witness would talk when war was looming
and many a willing victim supplied no executioner,
like Colette Peignot, who would never deny
the lenience she attached to sleeping
with strangers in cheap hotels, for she
would be the one to give Bataille his baby,
his Story of the Eye.
She died from TB while GB shacked up with another,
exploring his so-called ‘interior experience’.
His reputation was blooming.
An old habit,
scouring newspaper advertisements.
Not many do that now with the internet at fingertips.
Gracq likes to browse, lingers
over voluptuaries, women from lonely-hearts clubs,
scrupulously avoiding obituaries.
In the Paris papers there are still curiosities,
messages sent in anagrams, cryptic
crosswords for secret societies, elliptic
clues to meeting-places, acrostics meant for
expensive mistresses, invitations to necromancy.
One takes his fancy:
Gracq is particularly interested
in such hopelessness, in literatures and politics
that never get up, that are fired by long odds,
obscurity, kicking against the pricks,
seeds that will not burst from pods
until a hundred years later. Who could tell?
After all, a club for the terminally ill would need to
be replenished by a stream of dying clientele
which possessed a dispensation from lying
about success to reach such pure disinterest.
But then again, in the insanity
of enjoying posterity when quite dead,
would you be able to keen
for a hundred years ahead?
What does it mean
if not pure and present vanity
to think of your memory
as a future commodity?
He respects the loneliness of objects:
their inert and passive lack of protest
He thinks of the burghers of Calais, the
martyrs of Masada and the Gracchi brothers
who pitted themselves against Roman nobility
to achieve plebeian land reform, assassinated
for their devotion to upward mobility.
They overlooked one point:
that the people had no powerbase in history.
Lucien Gracq understood the case:
his name was carved in theirs,
on stone that cares naught for abandonment.
When he instigated a program of housing reform
in urban affairs – no high rises in low-rent queues –
in Elizabeth for example –
he was told the disadvantaged didn’t need his views.
He hated colloquy
so the firm offered him a body lotion
labelled redundancy, his anger quelled
by the exit-strategy of an unlimited ocean
of time at precisely the moment
his body rebelled.
He was, is, and will be solitary.
He had almost finished the writing
of an epic poem in an age which
had no idea of such a form,
his words invisible as sand-flies,
irritating, bringing hurt and confusion
(“write prose and cut your margins”
a friend and editor advised),
relieved only by dreams
of a vast and streeling sea
of dangerous currents
and drowning sirens.
Now he had time and no time.
At first he tried to make each minute
last longer than the next by throwing out
his watch, but that was a fleeting fit, a personal fine
exacted by exasperation with his own inaction.
He wrote to the Club des fugitives
on expensive stationery he bought on the
Pont Louis-Philippe to inquire about
new membership. It took a while for a reply:
they obviously didn’t believe in haste,
but in their patience picked up he was not French:
something forced about the ancient grammar
at which he worked with cut and paste
of the crude and cultured,
sounding familiar, almost similar
to Restif de la Bretonne (1734-1806) who was
a pornographer, foot-fetishist and early communist.
He checked his mailbox every hour
and one morning found a crumpled envelope
which he opened in his favourite café
after ordering a sour margarita.
Mon cher Monsieur
and then the rest in English:
He scoured the petites annonces every single day
ensconced in the Café Louis-Phillipe, where the waiter
brought him his margarita without delay.
Then he spied the puzzle under the heading «Spectacles»:
Dialogue des Carmélites
La Chope du Roi,
Place de la Nation.
That was all there was. He franticly
tapped on his new laptop (its keys already worn
from vigorous typing –
Gracq worked it in a hammering fashion,
habituated to his ancient manual Olivetti),
and found that sixteen nuns were beheaded
at the Barrière de Vincennes on 17th July 1794.
They offered themselves as sacrifices to God
in exchange for the restoration of peace in France
and a short while later the Reign of Terror ended.
The square is now called the Place de la Nation.
(Poulenc wrote an opera on this carmeline gloom
but there was no performance of this work
at Nation anytime soon.)
Gracq needed to find the exact moment,
chanting now and at the hour of our death –
employing every search engine in great torment,
his mouth agape
and came up with a time:
to unlock the coded message
of the Carmelites and Crêpe.
He would take the metro
and arrive on the square
at precisely six o’clock,
unaware of the shadow
of that guillotine or the flood
which overflowed mean drains
with thick black blood,
or the trains of song left in the air
as the gravediggers divvied up
dead linen in their dingy lair.
53 days to make up his mind,
erase his name,
delete in kind,
the fatuity of posthumous fame.