Blindness and Rage: A Phantasmagoria, A Novel in thirty-four cantos
by Brian Castro
Published April, 2017
Apostate from the storms of passion,
He locked himself within his den
And, with a yawn, took up his pen
And tried to write. But art’s exaction
Of steady labour made him ill,
And nothing issued from his quill;
So thus he failed to join the faction
Of writers––whom I won’t condemn
Since, after all, I’m one of them.
– Stanza 43, Eugene Onegin
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.
– Blindness and Rage
Brian Castro’s book-length narrative poem, Blindness and Rage, announces its agenda and its titular phrase in the first of its thirty-four cantos. Lucien Gracq, a retired town planner from Adelaide, is given a terminal cancer diagnosis. He decides to up sticks and head to Paris to complete his magnum opus, the epic poem Paidia, incognito and donate its authorship to a deserving poet according to the rules of the Fugitives, a secretive society of ‘terminal poets.’ Driven by the demons of the poem’s title, Gracq digresses into personal memory and literary memory. When the potential for love intervenes, the blurring of these lines of self and literature takes him to a different geography altogether and finally leads him home. When presented in a nutshell this seems a satisfying narrative arc. But this is poetry, where a multitude of complications and stimulations await the reader: is this an epic poem or an inflected meditation on the epic? Why does Lucien Gracq choose Paris, and what might his name have to do with this choice? What might we make of his habits of literary reference and his favourite writers? Finally, how do we discern the relationships between personal history, literary history, and the construction of a literary persona?
Epic Poetry and the Long Poem in History
He had almost finished the writing
Of his epic poem in an age which
Had no idea of such a form (III / 22)
Poetry of all forms bear numerological affinities––syllable counts, rhyme schemes, stanzaic structure, and other metrical quantities––but perhaps none so freighted with significance in the broadly Western tradition as the epic poem. Homer’s two epics were each of twenty-four books, Virgil’s Aeneid were of twelve––a structure emulated by John Milton in his epic poem Paradise Lost of 1674––and Dante’s Commedia is composed of one hundred cantos across the three canticles of Inferno, Purgatorio, and Paradiso. This arithmetic requires unequal division between the three canticles, and indeed Inferno has thirty-four cantos, the same number as Castro has chosen for his poem. Thus beginneth the inducements of intertextuality, of citation, emulation, and pastiche. From the briefest thumbnail sketch above, Lucien Gracq’s emulation of Dante’s travails is clear to see: ‘Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita / mi ritrovai per una selva oscura’ (‘In the midst of my life’s journey / I found myself in a dark wood’). As in all self-respecting epics, both begin in medias res: in Dante’s case, midlife as well as at a turning point in his poetic career (not to mention the biographical condition of exile from Florence and refuge in Ravenna); and in Gracq’s case, a turning point that is deemed terminal but turns out to be something quite other. Whether he escapes the icy floor of hell and climbs his Mount Purgatorio is up for debate, but certainly Gracq’s paradiso, should it transpire, is measured in anything but epic terms. Other major ancient poems such as the Sanskrit Rāmāyaṇa and Mahābhārata (both of them enormous in length, the latter by far the biggest of them all at over 100 000 lines plus extensive prose interludes), and the Persian Shahnameh (Book of Kings) accord to the model of national epics, a function performed at a reduced dimension in the Anglo-Saxon Beowulf, and, in modern times, Elias Lönnrot’s compilation of folklore in the Finnish epic Kalevala first published in 1835.
Despite several structural affinities, Castro’s poem makes no pretence at such epic ambition. But is epic potential to be found in the exploration of Gracq’s literary and psychological impulses? The model of nationalist and mythic epic poetry turned inwards in its Romantic manifestation, most prominently in William Wordsworth’s Prelude (1799, 1805 and 1850) and The Recluse (1814). John Keats, in his unfinished Hyperion: A Fragment (1818-19), and Percy Shelley, in Prometheus Unbound (1820), attempted to yoke mythic energy with psychological portraiture, but the afterlife of the Romantic long poem finds its Victorian residue in Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s elegy for Arthur Henry Hallam, In Memoriam (1850), Robert Browning’s verse novel (both historical murder intrigue and courtroom drama in one) The Ring and the Book (1868-69), and perhaps the most innovative of them all, Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s novel in verse, Aurora Leigh (1856). This long poem engages in dialogue with such novelists as George Sand and Germaine de Staël as well as the bildungsroman form made famous by Geothe’s Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship (1795-96) and Rousseau’s Emile, or On Education (1762), reaching across Modernism to become near-kin with the experimental long poets of the 1970s and beyond.
The modern novel in verse, emerging from the character portraits of the Victorian long poem, is acutely aware of its literary filiations: answerable to the question of epic themes and to the acute perceptions of narrating personae, it responds by negotiating an intensive line of citation, deflection, emulation, and literary self-consciousness. Prominent identifying features among the many examples of verse novels in recent decades include a focus on character psychology and a self-conscious positioning in relation to literary and cultural history. Vikram Seth’s novel of Californian self-actualisation, The Golden Gate (1986), comprises 590 stanzas of fourteen lines in iambic tetrameter, the so-called Onegin stanza. Derek Walcott’s Omeros (1990) transposes Homeric myth to the Caribbean nation of St. Lucia in an act of literary and postcolonial reclamation (its sixty four chapters are set in a verse form similar to Dante’s terza rima). Dorothy Porter’s sequence of verse novels include a portrait of the eighteenth-dynasty Egyptian pharaoh Akhenaten (1992), a crime thriller, The Monkey’s Mask (1994), a male psychiatrist’s career in a psychiatric institution, What a Piece of Work (1999), a failing marriage in Wild Surmise (2002), and a murder mystery in El Dorado (2007).
The modernist long poem signals a more or less violent break from the Romantic and Victorian long poems, flagging its epic ambitions in a dense allusive surface. The pre-eminent example, Ezra Pound’s Cantos (1925-1972), frames itself upon Homeric and Dantescan themes, but its structure ranges across classical epic tropes (opening with the anabasis from Book 12 of the Odyssey––where Odysseus journeys to the Underworld––cast in Anglo-Saxon alliterative verse from a Renaissance Latin translation), chronicles of Chinese history composed by French Jesuits, documents in medieval Latin and early modern English, musical scores, and much else besides (including an homage to Robert Browning’s Sordello in Canto 2). Several poets emulated Pound’s ambition as it foundered over the course of the century, such as in Louis Zukovsky’s ‘A’ (1940-1978) in the Homeric structure of twenty-four books, whilst others such as William Carlos Williams in his five-and-a-fragment-book Paterson (1946-1958) steered away from Pound’s literary and historical cosmopolitanism, preferring to write of his home town in the style of literary reportage. Charles Olson’s Maximus Poems (1953-83) partly emulates Pound in attempting the broad canvas of American history, with a focus on Dogtown, an area near Gloucester, Massachusetts (might the Dogman of Castro’s novel set his compass in this direction?). As Blindness and Rage circles on the literary milieu of modernist Paris, it is worth noting that the most significant French long prose-poem of the time was Saint-John Perse’s Anabase (1924; the English translation by T. S. Eliot was published in 1930), a ten-section narrative which presented acute problems of genre in its navigation between epic and lyric. The contemporary long poem maintains some of these avant-garde impulses, such as John Ashbery’s Flow Chart (1991), Hiromi Ito’s meditation on migration, violence and dreams, Wild Grass on the Riverbank (translated by Jeffrey Angles in 2015) which moves between California and Japan, and ‘Areal’ (2017), the first book of A. J. Carruthers’s experimental ‘lifelong’ poem Axis.
Castro nods to many of these sources and to the history of the long poem generally––whether epic, narrative, lyric, or prose-poem––and there is much diversion to be had in sensing these moments in half-allusions, metrical arrangements, and other prosodic features arising in Blindness and Rage. Yet the poem that looms largest of all is Alexander Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin. Pushkin’s classic long narrative poem was published serially in 1825-32 and in standard form in 1837, in which the protagonist comes to define the Russian literary figure of the ‘superfluous man’––this figure then appears in such novels as Ivan Turgenev’s Diary of a Superfluous Man (1850) and Ivan Goncharov’s Oblomov (1859), and develops its own afterlife especially in French, Swiss, German and Austrian avant-garde novels. Onegin comprises 389 stanzas of iambic tetrameter, the so-called ‘Pushkin sonnet,’ with a rhyme scheme AbAbCCddEffEgg (where capitals are feminine rhymes and lower case masculine rhymes). This feat of metrical discipline combines with an intimate narrative voice exploring love, death, boredom, as well as indulging in serial digressions: themes emulated throughout Castro’s verse novel. At one point Tatyana, Onegin’s spurned lover, visits his estate during his absence abroad and examines his library where she examines the annotations in his books. This has her wonder whether Onegin is not, in fact, an amalgam of various literary characters rather than having an authentic core of self, and this question gets to the heart of what is at stake for Lucien Gracq as he navigates Adelaide, Paris, Amsterdam, and South-Western China.
Pushkin’s novel ends neither as comedy (the lovers’ consummation) nor tragedy. This feature Castro borrows too, adapting its ludic sensibility to modernist and present-day Paris. Pushkin’s own life was governed by a belief in chance, where his inveterate gambling fed into ‘the special powers that he attributed to chance and sensuality in his creative life,’ as James E. Falon states in his Introduction to the Oxford Classics edition. Eugene Onegin typifies the modern long poem in its mix of styles and genres: between the Romantic poem in the Byronic tradition and the realist novel that was to dominate Russian literature. Onegin and Tatyana are products of their reading, are even literary stereotypes, but they are self-aware in the realist mode. Their personae raise questions of authenticity and the relation of literary sensibility to life. Blindness and Rage, its fury directed to the futility of literary activity, resonates with Pushkin in the dying and regeneration of literary genres: autobiography, philosophical digression, cultural commentary, psychological portraiture; and a range of expression in a variety of tones: lyric, realism, parody, romantic and ironic.
Blindness and Rage
How does this history of the long poem, from Homer to Pushkin to contemporary literature, help the reader navigate Castro’s poem? ‘A Phantasmagoria,’ as its subtitle alerts us, the novel takes its epigraph from Walter Benjamin thumbnail portrait of the flâneur who observes the phantasmagoria of the city. This particularly Parisian phenomenon directs the novel’s sensibility to the French capital, where much of the action and reminiscence occurs, and the phantasmagoric provides the index of memory, ghosts, the virtuality of literary characters, and the ephemerality of literary artists. Lucien Gracq’s name is a tissue of historical, literary, and artistic citation: Julien Gracq, the French Surrealist novelist; the artist Lucien Freud; and even echoes of Tiberius and Gaius Gracchus, the brothers who attempted plebian land reform in the Roman Republic in the second century BCE and who were murdered for their efforts by the city’s patricians. Kafka’s short story ‘The Hunter Gracchus’ looms here too, where Gracchus, having been killed on the hunt, is destined to wander seas eternally, and gives his story to the Mayor of Riva in a boat, not unlike the Ancient Mariner’s persistent warning to the wedding guest in Coleridge’s 1798 poem.
Narrative is the defining feature of any long poem, including epic and verse novel. Castro’s novel in verse is a kind of detective fiction, in which Gracq’s decline in Paris is punctuated by his discovery of a secret society of writers. Membership requires a terminal illness and the motivation to write for posterity. The result of one’s labours is then given to another writer, conferring a conspiracy of anonymity upon the ‘real’ authors on pain of forced suicide if the pledge is broken. This was the setup given in the 600 lines of the poem published in Cordite in 2015: we now discover how Gracq navigates his knowledge, his literary ambitions, and his ability to stay the course with the burdens of a burning secret. He is an acutely self-conscious figure, a mannered writer past his best:
So he turned from prose and entered a more
emphatic breath, of which he was short
or was brought up short. (I / 1)
His occupation of the ‘hell or paradise of imagination,’ ‘the small cell of the free’ establishes Dante’s Inferno, and its 34 cantos, as a structural and thematic touchstone. The opening verse paragraphs indicate the intensity of literary reference one might expect in a long poem, as well as the writerly sensibility of both Gracq and his as-yet-unidentified narrator:
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. (I / 2)
In this verse paragraph there exist direct references to Walter Benjamin, Karl Marx and Martin Heidegger (who reminds the reader in his essay ‘The Origin of the Work of Art,’ that der Riss is both rift and blueprint, related to reissen or writing, and cognate with grundriss). Hamlet, Bartleby the Scrivener, and T. S. Eliot’s Prufrock lurk in the sense of inaction and ennui, ‘in search of lost emotion’ calls out Proust, and the night chimeras raises the phantasm of Goya’s etching El sueño de la razón produce monstrous (The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters). The uneasiness with which Gracq occupies his world combines with unprepossessing prospects in a kind of cross between Peter Carey’s The Tax Inspector and J. M. Coetzee’s halting perambulatory novel set in Adelaide, Slow Man (a long digressive episode in Canto XI describes Gracq’s employment of a local gypsy to build him a shed in the Adelaide Hills, just when he begins his epic poem Paidia).
The establishing scenario of the narrative ties Gracq’s poetry to the fate of the verse novel: as a divorced town-planner, given to sentimentality and mawkish literary sensibility, he intends to spend his final time writing without fear: ‘no rule to fight against the rhyme / saves something long suppressed’ (I / 3). This determination is itself expressed in parodic intensity of short rhyming stopped lines: ‘A breath. / A death.’ With a nod to Henry Miler––‘Gracq has no appetitite and / lingers by cancer’s tropic’ (I / 4)––medical technologies are ironically couched in metaphors tied up in Australian national history: ‘this panopticon of cell revolt’ cites Jeremy Bentham’s design for total surveillance in the eighteenth century, a response to increasing convict numbers that eventually resulted in the system of transportation. Dante appears again in reference to the ferryman (I / 5) awaiting Gracq’s impending passage across the Styx. The pivot between Antipodean and European literary references is reflected in the variable metrical scheme. What begins loosely is followed by a verse paragraph bearing a recognisable rhyme scheme of aabbccddeffeghhiig (noting that the second ‘e’ line and first ‘g’ read ‘to force some easy ABBA rhymes / without relying on Pushkin’s Onegin’). This reference to Onegin provides a clue to Gracq’s character: he is a bathetic hybrid of the ‘superfluous man’ of Russian literature and Dostoevsky’s Underground Man––much emulated in the existential novels of the twentieth century such as Hermann Hesse’s Steppenwolf (1927), Elias Canetti’s Auto-da-Fé (1935), and Ferenc Karinthy’s Metropole (1970). The superfluous man grew out of the Byronic hero of late-Romanticism, a kind of decadent revenant of this figure of action, given instead to despair, cynicism, and the spoliation of others’ success.
Yet Gracq is neither cynical nor covetous of others’ success. He rents an apartment in Picpus in the 12th arrondissement––located near the famous cemetery containing most of the guillotined executions of the Red Terror ––in order to write his magnum opus, Paidia. He hears Schubert (one of Beckett’s favourite composers) being played on piano in the apartment next door, inducing an idealisation of Paris instead a gritty realism of ‘voyeurism and apartment users’ manuals’ (I / 6): referencing both the 2001 film Amélie and Georges Perec’s novel La Vie mode d’emploi (1978). (Gracq’s pianist neighbour Catherine Bourgeois will repeat this reference in conversation with Gracq much later: ‘life, a manual / for reproducing yourself as another’ [XXIII / 147].) The apartment is also the location of Gracq’s first exposure to the writing of Roger Caillois (1913-1978), who becomes a central factor in Gracq’s intellectual odyssey:
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. (I / 7)
Caillois developed a ludic theory that encompassed literature, sociology, and philosophy, and was a founding member of the Collège de Sociologie along with Michel Leiris, Georges Bataille, Alexandre Kojève, Pierre Klossowski, and others. This informal group was set up in the 1930s in a move away from Surrealism and its emphasis on individual unconscious, giving greater emphasis to the social and political implications of ritual and the sacred. Caillois is best known for Les jeux et les homes (1958) [Man, Play and Games (1961)], building on the Dutch historian Johann Huizinga’s 1938 earlier work Homo Ludens (1938). For Caillois there are four basic ludic forms: agon, based on competition (e.g. chess); alea, stemming from chance (e.g. gambling); mimesis, encompassing various kinds of role playing; and ilinx, the processes of altering perception (e.g. spinning around and falling). The narrator provides this schema in outline (I / 9), which is to become a complex undertone of the entire narrative, and directly informs Gracq’s decisions throughout. Ludus (structured games) and paidia (Greek for ‘child’s games,’ or spontaneous playfulness, and not to be confused with paideia or education) form the two ends of a continuum of play for Caillois, with many kinds of games falling in between.
Blindness and Rage conducts a practicum on the subject of mimesis: moving between third-person narration / commentary and Gracq’s sensibility, the novel’s emulation, parody, and oblique mimicry of an extensive literary corpus stands in contrast with its credulous protagonist. Gracq is advised by his doctor to
substitute delicious soma for his summa,
Forget writing, drink champagne with morphine,
Be seen with friends, reconnect with women. (I / 7)
The studied carelessness of deep learning finds its prosodic counterpart in these lines: the dominant iambic metric reverses with each line’s interspersed trochees. The effect is to mimic in sound the slippage from one way of thinking to another, the mediation of chance with structure that echoes Johann Huizinger’s view of gambling as ‘deadly serious’:
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. (I / 8)
Lucien Gracq, despair given over to resignation, begins to inhabit the world of mid-century Parisian avant-garde writers, adding Raymond Roussel to Roger Caillois in his pantheon of influences. Roussel (1877-1933) composed by a process of aural association, where unrelated homonyms combined to form the stimulus for narrative in a linguistic game of chance––emulated in Canto II in an extended homophonic play on ludic / ludens / ludicrous (II / 16). Roussel composed a long poem in the form of a travelogue, Nouvelles impressions d’Afrique (1932), notable for its intense digressiveness. Roussel’s methods anticipated the Surrealists, who in turn embraced his highly idiosyncratic works (this affection was unreciprocated). His works were met with bemusement by publishers and the public but he exerted significant influence on Oulipo and other writers. Roussel led a largely solitary life, avoiding public scrutiny (thus his affinities with Gracq extend to his attitude toward literary institutions on a much wider scale) and he committed suicide in hotel room in Palermo, bringing his biography into proximity with Lucien Gracq’s in Blindness and Rage.
The third member of this avant-garde trinity is Lucien’s near-namesake, Julien Gracq, the pseudonym of Louis Poirier (1910-2007). Friend to André Breton, and to Surrealism generally, and heavily influenced by German Romanticism, particularly Ludwig Tieck and Novalis, Julien Gracq was a collector of ‘phantasmagorias.’ His most famous work is the novella A Dark Stranger (1945): a diary followed by third-person narration concerning a visitor to a seaside resort who slowly seduces everyone with his intensity, with disastrous results. His novel The Opposing Shore (1951) concerns an impending battle between two fictive states in standoff, where the protagonist Aldo seeks to find the nature of the border separating the two states, mapping instead a condition of ontological uncertainty. In his collection of critical essays, En lisant en crivant (Reading Writing) he asserts: ‘Literature was the last of all the arts to make its appearance. It will be the first to disappear.’ Gracq, like Roussel, famously averted the institutions of literature––he rejected the Prix Goncourt in 1951––and studiously avoided literary salons and groups. He was briefly a member of the Communist Party but left following the signing of the Russo-German pact.
So much for Gracq’s phantasmagoria. Following the heavy lifting of Canto I, the poem shifts scenes between the past (Adelaide, travels, lost loves, etc.) and Gracq’s present in Paris, and from first person to third person, where the narratological formula of ‘Dear Reader’ is used on occasion. Gracq’s memory is replete with literary references (vide Pushkin), such as a point early in Canto II when Gracq thinks back to Dublin: Yeats appears in the context of the Easter Rising of 1916, and Beckett arouses memories of cricket on College Park at Trinity College (Beckett’s spectre ‘appears’ again when reference is made to ‘kicking against the pricks’ at III / 20). Gracq finds his secret society in a cryptic newspaper advertisement, distinguished in the text in italicised prose: ‘We are Le club des fugitives’ (III / 20). Gracq reflects on this venture in terms of literary economy, legacy, and ego:
What does it mean
if not pure and present vanity
to think of your memory
as a future commodity? (III / 21)
His subsequent letter of invitation from Georges Crêpe is also provided in italicised prose (III / 23-24). Gracq’s personal reflections intensify in their literary residues, casting back the questions of phantasmagoria from this constellation of literary spirits to Gracq himself, sufficiently proximate to a posthumous state to dwell on his own memorial. He cites, or more precisely arouses spectral echoes of T. S. Eliot (The Hollow Men and ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’) alongside an increasing obsession with the history of Red Terror, zeroing in on the Place de la Concorde (III / 24-25), scene of a multitude of guillotine executions.
Gracq’s meditations are presented in italics as he crosses Paris to meet Georges Crêpe (a cross-echo of Walter Benjamin’s Arcades Project with Leopold Bloom’s Dublin wanderings), with the effect of blending the time of transit with their actual meeting, as though located in a time and space separate from the actual city (this occurs in Canto V; later crossings occur in Cantos VI and XVI). As he ponders Georges’ theory of ‘late style’ (recalling Edward Said’s book of that title), and its embedded pun in Gracq’s terminal case, Georges frames it in Levinasian term of ‘care for the other’ rather than any expectation of reciprocity (V / 40). Georges’ increasingly drunken speech becomes a tissue of half-allusions (‘fail worse’ for Beckett’s ‘fail better’ is a beauty, a nod from one half-allusionist to another). The club’s address, ‘L’atelier 13 Rue Linné,’ turns out to be ‘two doors down’ from Gracq’s abode (V / 44). When he meets the mysterious piano player in the monastic setting of the club des fugitives, she turns out to be his neighbour Catherine Bourgeois (XI / 78) whom we learn much later is also suffering a terminal illness. This first visit to the club ‘pour le déjeuner’ (XII / 85) has Gracq lose control where he ‘broke into a perspiration of superfluous prose.’ The canto mimics Gracq’s prosodic incontinence and switches into a long prose sentence at this point (XII / 86-87). The primary business of this first meeting is a series of introductions to a fantasia of modernist French writers: first ‘Apollonian’ Guillaume ‘over a calligramme, guzzling’ (XIII / 89) and nodding to Proust who seeks out a certain Madeleine in the city; the ‘two Raymonds,’ Roussel and Queneau, each rehearsing their distinctive attitudes to language and to French literary history. Queneau’s distaste for the letter ‘O’ signals the literary constraints of the Oulipo, and obliquely cites George Perec’s ‘e’-less novel La Disparition. In giving vowels certain auratic profiles Queneau’s literary habits recall Charles Baudelaire’s sonnet ‘Correspondances’ and Arthur Rimbaud’s poetic response, ‘Voyelles,’ in which the vowels, parts of speech, colours, musical notes, and so forth arrange themselves in an array of equivalences––what Catherine Borgeois will call ‘vowel cancer,’ ‘a male reflex’ (XXII / 142). Further introductions are made to Louis-Fernand Céline, Edmond Jabès, Michel Leiris, and Italo Calvino (Cantos XIV-XVI).
These densely allusive cantos at the club establish the narrative arc with Gracq’s terminal poem, as well as furnishing much of the Parisian mid-century literary armature to Blindness and Rage. Echoing earlier digressions, Gracq returns to a memory of Adelaide in Canto XVII, precisely halfway through the 34 cantos of this Inferno:
The self is the loneliest place
which another visits only in memory,
for its abandonment. (XVII / 111)
Gracq’s home is situated in a wine-growing region in the hills outside the city (for my money it’s McLaren Vale), and his memory of it comprises a meditation on death, his mother’s ashes, his own diagnosis, his application to the Fugitives, and his poetry performing a kind of an ‘urn burial’––after Thomas Browne’s Hydriotaphia (1658), a meditation on the discovery of Roman urns in Norfolk, and perhaps a distant reminder of the Gracchi lurking behind the protagonist’s name. An earlier digression in Canto VI has Gracq shift between reflections on home and his present situation in Paris, conjoined in his reading the ‘complete 1781 first edition of / La Découverte australe par un homme volant / by Restif the shoe-fetishist’ (VI / 57). This text by Restif de la Bretonne intrudes upon the poem in visually arresting form: an illustration from the book, photographed in the Bibliothèque Nationale with ‘his iPhone surreptitiously between his knees’ (57), shows the protagonist Victorin in his flying contraption. Back in Canto XVII, Gracq returns to Paris in the present, again mediated by dense literary allusion: Coleridge, Tennyson, Thomas Mann, and others.
Gracq’s propensity for a long internal monologue––and his narrator’s eagerness to indulge the reader in these baroque tides of language and literature––inevitably turn to the viability of seducing Catherine Bourgeois (Cantos XVIII-XIX). This is a fatal error for Lucien Gracq, and the effect on his prosody is felt immediately by Georges, who reports:
Your Paidia is losing its serious play,
verging on frivolity. There is no crossword
or chiasmus, no game of Go.
There is no verbal Rubik’s Cube
or even rubrics cubed; no red-lining,
no rules, injunctions, prescriptions. (XIX / 123-4)
He instructs Lucien not to waste time on ‘mining’ his emotions, and promises to send him his ‘glorious death kit […] the gift of darkness at noon’ (XIX / 124). This, we find out in Canto XXII, is to be administered by ‘the infamous Doctor Nietzsche’––a double-play on the German philosopher and Australia’s most prominent advocate of legalised euthanasia, Dr Philip Nitschke. The reference to Arthur Koestler’s 1940 novel, allegorising the Moscow show trials of 1938, is hard to square with the narrative moment in which it arises. Perhaps the production of Gracq’s Paidia is a study of tyranny, of language rather than society, poets as the ‘legislators of the world’ as Shelley claimed, but taking an authoritarian turn? Shortly afterward in Canto XXI Gracq crosses the ‘Pont du Vercors,’ ‘across the Silence of the Sea’ (131) – providing another second world war reference in the title of Jean Bruller’s narrative of resistance against the German occupation of Paris: La Silence de la Mer was written under the pseudonym Vercors and published secretly in Paris in 1942.
Gracq’s seduction stratagems take effect on the poem’s narrative, increasingly interspersed with autobiographical reminiscences in Adelaide. We learn in Canto XXI that Gracq migrated to Australia as a boy, in a passage conflating the protagonist and his author, in the style of Pushkin:
I came from the North,
commonly called the East
and here I was in the so-called West (134-35)
At this point the as-yet-unnamed narrator introduces elements of autobiography also, suggesting by way of stereotype that he is in fact a gypsy, perhaps even he of whom Gracq had spoken earlier:
My father worked in a brewery
and I in construction where I flew a crane,
wore a vest and hat (they called me a phoney)
when all I was doing was dreaming
of a caravan and handsome pony. (XXI / 136)
In a later digression in Canto XXIV, another reversion to memories of Adelaide, we learn that Gracq teaches the ‘Dogman’ about Derrida: slowly the Dogman, the Gypsy, and the narrator come into view as one and the same persona. Gracq in Paris, waiting for Catherine, determines to dedicate Paidia to her in a dream vision or literary hallucination combining reference to Beckett, Marcel Duchamp, Marguerite Duras, Roland Barthes, and in such portmanteau words as ‘strandentwining,’ James Joyce (XXII / 141). He divines her backstory as Georges’ lover who left the Fugitives because ‘They weigh their game too well’ in ‘non-serious delight, / their day in night, / their death in light’ (XXIII / 148). She supplies Gracq with the solution to the riddle Georges set for him appointing their meeting time and place––a wartime broadcast of a poem by Verlaine ‘to signal / the Normandy invasion’ (XXIII / 152). Waiting for his appointment with Georges at a railway crossing in the dark, Gracq stumbles upon a meeting of the Fugitives in which they assess his character and literary strategies by means of his racial background:
The habit of Chinese writers
from the twelfth century onwards
has been to incorporate into their writings
the work of others along with their refusal
to give the names of either the authors
or their books. (XXV / 163)
Gracq is excommunicated due to his infatuation with Catherine and its effect on his powers of composition. He is recommended to go to Amsterdam to see out his euthanasia with ‘Doctor Philip Nietzsche’ (XXVI / 167). As though his ejection from the Fugitives functions as a prolongation of his life as well as his efforts of composition, Gracq then changes course at Schiphol airport for a destination East, leaving Catherine a letter that comprises Canto XXVII in prose (a letter he will not send). The letter’s formula of repeated first phrase to each paragraph––‘I forgot to say’ then ‘I wonder,’ ‘Where did I read,’ ‘I remember that,’ ‘I’m not the sort to,’ ‘I know that,’ ‘I’m sorry that I’––ends with the recognition of how memory and forgetting allow for the conflation of one’s life and the books one has read (XXVII / 180).
The relative stability in the poem’s geography (Paris present and Adelaide past) is jolted into a shift to a river cruise in China, taking place between Chongqing in Sichuan and Shashi (or modern day Jingzhou) in Hubei province. Gracq appears to have been cured of cancer by virtue of love for Catherine. His ancestral awareness of the power of Chinese writing provides an ironic distance from the earnest games of the Fugitives in Paris:
Meaning came from silent
written innuendo, hints and clues
in which Chinese ideograms are born,
their palindromes perfect for
Oulipo and puzzling poems
constructed in a suspended state
between back and forth. (XXIX / 187)
This short statement contains a compact history of Western literary orientalism, drawn to the power of Chinese signs: from Leibniz and William Warburton to Ernest Fenollosa, Victor Segalen, Ezra Pound, and Jacques Derrida. Gracq’s cruise is of a piece with contemporary high-end tourism, ‘a lifetime’s experience / of ancient Sina and its recrudescence’ (XXIX / 189). His state of mild inebriation is channeled into writing ‘sweet melodies’ (Keats’s ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’), ‘lost in joy’ (Friedrich Schiller, ‘Ode to Joy,’ Keats’s Endymion, ‘A thing of beauty is a joy forever’), and reaching ‘the floor of heaven’ (a nod to John Tranter). Any complacency at having reached paradiso is quickly overturned, as is the boat, and Gracq finds himself in the river. In the aftermath of this disaster, Gracq composes verse paragraphs in Shanghai beginning with ‘To be able to write is not to’ (XXXI); then ‘There is perhaps something wrong with you’ (XXXII), in a similar rhetorical strategy as that in his letter to Catherine. The question of his survival after now two near-death experiences has Gracq reflect on his transit from hell through purgatory: ‘what of heaven after that?’ (XXXII / 198). The love that saved him remains with him in a process of transformation: Catherine becomes Cathay. Gracq’s explains his ‘mortuary aesthetic’ in a final dinner with her (XXII / 202):
Cathay is her name,
Always in the game of
Thinking, fabricating History,
Why she possesses
Eyes so Eastern,
Rich with mystery and
Intelligence, half-serious in the
New moon sending me quivering
Ever so unheavenly. (XXXII / 199-200)
The unusual capitalisation of each line in this passage marks its significance as a gesture toward poetic conformity, in keeping with its orientalist sensibility––the East feminised and compliant. This exaggerated parody turns inward to the ludic quest running through the entire novel. The narrating voice intrudes again, comparing Lucien Gracq to the voladores or pole flyers of Mexico and to Chinese plate spinners (XXXIII / 205). He recalls his mother called it wan, ‘which could mean both / dizziness and play’ (XXXIII / 206).
Now in Adelaide, the narrator acquires something of an education in conversation with Gracq, and identifies his otherworldly experience:
He dwells in a different world
Already past; I think he scooped
Some knowledge from beyond,
Some encouragement of streams
Reamed through rock in ages
Seamed with ancient light. (XXXIII / 206)
Such hydrological and geological images describe the geography of Guilin, of course, but also echo the cataract in Coleridge’s ‘Kubla Khan’ that takes the attention of the speaker away from the ‘stately pleasure-dome’ to the cave and underground river. The Dogman / gypsy meditates on this relation of language to geography, ‘upon land that is not our own’ (XXXIII / 209). This raises the question of survival through language into another register, but one left implicit in these last sections of the narrative. Gracq’s confesses his survival in the poetic register of Whitman’s elegy for Abraham Lincoln, ‘When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d’:
[…] having just recently
returned from the schoolyard
of deadly play when last the lilacs
bloomed in that intermission
pausing the division
of his labouring cells. (XXXIII / 210)
Gracq has failed to compose his epic poem, but in the aftermath he discovers Catherine performing at the Adelaide Festival. This invokes a series of reflections in verse paragraphs opening with ‘He would not go’––a companion undelivered missive to the object of his desire. The narrative concludes not with consummation or closure (just as Onegin and Tatyana conclude their tale without consummation), but with a quiet persistence, contained in that final anaphora:
Between the walls,
in the quiet of the afternoon,
a brush-tailed possum wheezes in daytime sleep.
Finally, there are no more selves;
finally, everyone has time. (XXXIV / 214)
One might conclude this circular narrative satisfied with its denouement, the resolution of time, locale, geography, ancestry, and the dissipation of the title states of emotion into ‘the peace that passeth understanding.’ But is this all there is? An epic poem drowned to counterbalance the baptismal regeneration of its unprepossessing author? If Blindness and Rage is a kind of homage to Pushkin’s epochal novel in verse, and to the genre it engendered, how it responds to the pivot Onegin represents between Romantic poetry and the Russian prose tradition makes Castro’s work a meditation of a different sort. It registers the gallows humour concerning the marginal state of poetry publishing today, but as a mechanism to register a threat of an entirely different order: the existential threat to literary production of any kind. How do we read Gracq’s complacent satisfaction at the novel’s end? His drive to compose, metastasising within him in key with multiplying cancerous cells, is given absolution in the Chinese boating disaster, as though an ironic orientalist baptism into a new life, but equally a life full circle, retracing his father’s steps across China to Australia. It is the Dogman, the gypsy narrator, who takes on the urgency of composition, recording his own paideia or education at the feet of his master, and completing the Paidia that Gracq could not––Gracq, who instead finds another way, departing from the way of Blindness and Rage.
Note: All references to Blindness and Rage in this essay take the form of Canto and page number.
Dante Alighieri, Commedia: Inferno, Purgatorio, Paradiso, trans. Robert Hollander and Jean Hollader (New York: Random House, 2002, 2004, 2008)
Brian Castro, ‘600 lines of Blindness and Rage,’ Cordite Poetry Review
Martin Heidegger, ‘The Origin of the Work of Art,’ in Basic Writings, ed. and trans. David Farrell Krell, rev. ed. (London: Routledge, 1993), pp. 143-203.
Alexander Pushkin, Eugene Onegin: A Novel in Verse, trans. and intro. James E. Falen (Oxford: Oxford UP, 1995)