But leisure. Yes, to be allowed leisure, to dispose of time to one’s mind’s content.
I was reading Forster’s A Passage to India the other day. “The banquet,” he says, “though riotous, had been agreeable, and now the blessings of leisure—unknown to the West, which either works or idles—descended on the motley company….” “The blessing of leisure,” the condescension of a god unknown to the West? Or should the reader, nudged by the sonority of the phrase, read bliss for blessings and enter a frame of thinking outside the expected frame (work v. idleness, but leisure—leisure is something different). I felt complicity with the westerner Forster’s easterners; or rather, I gave in to Forster’s invitation to take sides. To be from the East and to know leisure! How I wish it were a matter of geography. To find a country where leisure descends like manna, and who knows, who knows what secret, delicate sensations it pours on one’s soul, what streams of emotion rush through the bodies of those lucky under its spell! One’s own country.
With due nostalgia, I am drifting from East to West in this geography of the psyche, keeping only retrospective snapshots, always taken last moment, with back and neck half turned forward.
A bench in front of a house. Its dark oil-green paint peels off under fig trees and pomegranates. Shells of sunflower seeds fall timeless on dirty asphalt. On contact they make a rustle.
The small window of a basement-turned-kiosk on the level of the pavement (one has to squat) belches up a packet of cigarettes. In exchange I hold a banknote; it is sucked in and a smile appears in its place. I climb twelve floors up (the lift’s not working) to my room, whose window frames a flock of sheep at the feet of chimneys (beyond the field, a factory). Twelve floors, twenty-four steps each, a syllable a step, I make verses, a line a floor, forgotten again upon crossing the threshold.
“Stubborn reading” or the perusal of a book at one’s own pace with no purpose other than curiosity and pleasure, not to pass the time, not while waiting, not in a subway or a plane, not on the beach, not because there is nothing else to do.
As far as the beach goes—to carry a book and never open it, even though there is nothing much to look at, the sea is not exceptionally beautiful, it does not resemble anything; it is just there, while one talks to friends or is bored.
Frogs, flies and birds under a cloud which stretches like the harmonies gathered in the ear, as if the center of a cobweb.
A road arranges an arch of trees (it is early evening) beyond which are held fields and vineyards. We stop between two vines and walk around and the air is thick, earthy.
The same old man, being helped by the same young man every noon in the park, walks slowly in front of his wheelchair.
On a whim, a restaurant, a lunch, a bottle of wine, and an intoxicated survey of the city from a terrace; sound out of public loudspeakers, children’s voices, the songs descend toward the coast.
And so, my friend complains: It seems your leisure is really “leisure,” you know, rich people have that luxury. We, on the other hand, have to work and pay the bills. We can’t walk among vineyards and drink wine and lie on beaches.
I bristle at the fall from beaks to bills.
Because, you see, my friend, like me, is educated and poor, with too much to do on her hands. She never thought herself susceptible to the cycle of guilt and redemption, which spreads a nebula of broken values and infiltrates the very air she breathes, and which now makes every hour strike with a mysterious apprehension—as if every hour performs a visible obliteration of the scene. She has come to a point where even what is meant to be leisurely is only an interval between other tasks. Is it surprising then that, so restrained, leisure has become a task in itself? I need to rest, I need to do “something fun,” I can be lazy today ... so that I can work tomorrow, we both find ourselves thinking. We have come to a place assembled through a different vocabulary: need, rest, fun, lazy: a net of obligations, and not merely linguistic ones, under the guise of pleasure.
But however enticing the guise, its illusion is brutal. The encouragements, behind obligation’s every pleasurable asset, to have fun, to enjoy, to be complete, an individual who works and rests, who needs both to exert oneself and to relax, only confirm the entrapment in an economically structured existence which channels all movements to a well-defined goal. What goal? The spectral vanishing of a balanced life. And the balancing of life, far from the erotic juggling of words and sensations, is subject to efficiency; and so is only the appearance of equilibrium, an acrobacy without risk, without excess, without, ultimately, aesthetics. An acrobacy with a rope painted in chalk on the pavement.
Is it only a problem of vocabulary? Can we switch back to using “leisure” instead of “fun” or “rest” or “a deserved break”? Have we merely succumbed to a language which allows a certain point of view at the erasure of another? And that other vocabulary—the literary one, which didn’t make use of any concepts of “need” and “fun,” indeed, which did not suggest obligations and just deserts, but implied that leisure is often not fun at all and definitely not something one needed, but something that happened …
I started speaking for my friend as if I knew where her words came from. Let me recompose.
A reminder that one needs to pay the bills. A suggestion that leisure is bound in wealth.
But what is “wealth” now except the extra that money provides as part of the irresistible appeal of purchasing power, the so-called free time? And time which is free is like the white space on a page: a framing framed itself by the power of the text. Think of it as empty only insofar as it is not occupied. And you guessed it. I may be speaking of leisure as a kind of fantasy, only “a fantasy,” a word with a tenuous connection to reality, but one which adds flavor to living. That much about its power anyone may concede. But open a dictionary and you will see how devalued “fantasy” too has become. You will see in its vicinity other words, such as “improbable,” “unrealistic,” “dubious,” as if whatever the imagination conceives has to guarantee one’s hold on objects. Painting the rope guarantees one cannot fall on anything less solid than a pavement.
Come. I promise boredom and bad weather.
Without prescribed intention, you can stop at the kiosk and look at magazines you will not buy. You can enter the pastry shop only to check if they have the pear tart which you don’t feel like eating right now. Rain drops in matchsticks against pale sun and paler lamp. And so the woman emerging from the car has a black fur collar on an otherwise banal coat. But, now that you think of it, that pear tart, get it after all?
So, “Once Tamara and I [Rodchenko] were sitting and looking at the Kazanka river and the sunset. The water, the riverbank, and reflections in the distance; in the foreground, a tree and the pretty drawing of the branches. ...
I said: “I don’t feel my body. It seems like I could fly out of it. ... Where is my body? ... I don’t feel it. ...”
She said: “I feel a weight, the earth pulls me toward it—I’m of the earth. ...”
... The streetlamps went on. ...
“Look how funny everything’s become, so theatrical. A sunset and streetlamps.”
A sunset and streetlamps may as well evoke a theater, but the best part of this little anecdote of two young people on the banks of the Kazanka is doubtless the dots. ... This is not ellipsis. Nothing is omitted. Dot, dot, dot. What we have here is a certain ... wavering. Half desire to express, half desire to pass over and rest with imperfection. Not the gem of a story, but broken up affection only the gleams of which are kept, while noting down in one’s diary, Rodchenko’s diary, the events of the day.
Then someone asked me: “How do you find it?” “It” meant Blaise Cendrars’s novel Confessions of Dan Yack. I said: “I like it. I like it because it is imperfect.” And so came into being the phrase “imperfect literature.”
Take, for example, this passage:
“Down there, it’s already raining.
Once again it’s midday.
So, it must have been yesterday that the brakes sounded much nearer than usual.
I don’t feel like going down any more. The valley is dirty. The peak of the Aiguille is pale, livid. No, it’s not spring yet, in spite of this rain.
I go back indoors.
I am sitting at the little table by the window. Darkness fell some time ago. I am smoking. I.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . “
“I” is recording on a dictaphone. The dots represent a blank, the interval between two records.
I know you would expect me now to venture into a definition and explain this passage. What is “imperfect literature”? Or how is this an example of “imperfect literature”? And what about the dots? But if perfection itself always needs to skirt the issue, we would find ourselves at a dead end before having crossed the starting line. I will only admit that I am thrilled by a sentence as inconspicuous as “The valley is dirty.” The valley whose colors are muddy and indistinguishable, it is not spring yet.
And see how a whole afternoon passes between three lines. “Once again it’s midday. ... Darkness fell some time ago.” Can you hear the slight ennui (or is it excitement?) in “once again”? “Once again it’s midday.” Yes, every day there is midday.
In the Bibliotheque Mazarine, where “he was copying incunabula for Apollinaire,” Cendrars “dashed off on a call slip” a poem: “Midday hammers on its solar anvil rays of light.” But one forgets that time is passing, one forgets, until a different luminosity, like a cloud passing beyond the window, signals the hour. I don’t expect consistency from Dan Yack. As a reader, I want him to err and wander, for my pleasure. If thus it was recorded, let centuries pass between three lines. Where else can one take such liberties with the world?
So maybe imperfect literature is about inconsistency and incompleteness? Maybe. Maybe it is simply the opposite of Truman Capote. In Breakfast at Tiffany’s every mention of Holly’s sunglasses or scarf or cat is tightly, tyrannically almost, knit within a symbolic web. Nothing is looking for its place: everything is placed. Capote’s method is the gradual elimination of chance in style. But most important of all there is a method, a prescription, a pattern which, after the fact, appears somewhat too regular. Hence not realism but the elaborate patterning of experience, where a blank, a series of dots do not provide space for words to shift and transform, but give the prose a diamond-like hardness. If only life was so within our aesthetic grasp!
Two visual parallels come to mind: the National Geographic type of photography and the portrayal of space in interior decoration magazines. Nature in National Geographic inevitably appears petrified. The tiger meets the eye with supernatural intent, frozen in its ferocity among the hyper-green trees belying their mineral molecular structure. The sky over the valley is perfectly purple. The frog’s posture shows the immaculate choreography of genetic information. The whole spectacle silences the imagination and that is its purpose: to stun us into reverence. Nature is the ultimate scientist, whose mysterious laboratory we inhabit, but whose processes always retain an element of opaqueness. This is the new gospel of technocratic beauty: enhanced color, symmetrical framing and composition, retouching, filtering, all of these emphasizing the closure of understanding, the end of all questioning. I have never anything to say in the face of such pictures. Neither can I imagine any conversation taking place in the empty rooms of interior design publications. I take Vanity Fair or Elle Decor. The rooms appear cleaned, all traces of habitation are meticulously erased. It’s a veritable theater of the absent. A book is left “nonchalantly” on the table, but, ominously, the person flipping its pages never existed. Objects tell stories, but these are only skeletons of stories, grammatical structures in non-existent lives, with no content, with nothing of the randomness of dwelling. And so it goes.
Balzac was much preoccupied with the muteness of perfection and the possibilities of its counterpart, imperfection. The mad composer Gambara builds a new monstrous instrument, whose sound horrifies his listeners. The narrator, though, enjoys the fiasco: “the imperfect state of this singular machine hindered the composer’s performance, though his intentions seemed all the greater for that. Frequently, perfection in works of art keeps the soul from raising them to greater heights. Is this not the victory of the sketch over the finished picture, in the judgment of those capable of completing the work by taking thought, instead of accepting it readymade?”
In classic style, I could finish here with the words of the wise (Balzac being “established authority” on matters of life and story-making). Well, of course, not all sketches are better than finished pictures. Neither do all sketches allow the viewer to interject thought. Perhaps it is only those that leave a record of their search for expression, those that use the dots well. Where can one find more sketches?
One word in Apollinaire’s poem “Smoke” caught my eye: azure. “Azure” designates the color of smoke curling up from the poet’s pipe while he sits, enjoying “tobacco from the Zone” in the trenches. The azure wafts of smoke transform the trench into a perfumed grotto, where “a god wearied with love” lies surrounded by “nonchalant women.” A real romantic, Apollinaire. The nonchalance of the women, of course, is crucial; it confirms their divinity.
I vaguely remembered a definition of “azure” in OED and went to look it up: “Coloured like the unclouded sky; orig. of a deep intense blue, now usually of a soft clear bright blue, as is the sky of our more northern latitudes; sky-coloured, cerulean.” The nicest thing here is the pronoun “our,” which, like a waft of smell from another epoch, reminds us that at one time the OED editors expected people from “the northern latitudes” to represent most of their readers. Let us continue, or rather, go back to a previous entry in the dictionary: “The clear blue colour of the unclouded sky, or of the sea reflecting it. (Originally, the deep intense blue of more southern latitudes.)” And one after: “Used, like L. cæruleus, as an epithet of sea- and river-deities and things belonging to them.” So azure is the reflection of clear sky in water, and the deities associated with that striking effect, which as ordinary as it may seem, is no longer very easy to observe. The last time I gazed at the sky-colored water of the sea was five years ago on the Mediterranean, when I took a ten-minute bus ride to the beach, not far from Montpellier, where every morning I began the day, walking under an arch of ash trees through fountain mist and dew and brisk air, a translucent softness which repeated itself at dusk, this time to the accompaniment of the cries of swallows, plunging down and up into the vaulted evening and keeping their conference under the gabled roofs, between houses, above courtyards, through palpable odors and the loosely knitted scarf of human voices from the cafes around the square, which in fact sports three graces in a marble embrace and around which the whole population of the city has at one time or another taken a seat to wait for a friend.
I am positive that azure also relates to the goddess of love, Venus, who, born on the foam of the sea in her shell, is being blown by the West wind, Zephyr, the softest wind, the fruit-bearing wind, which causes all to blossom into existence. When Venus glided upon the waves, one could hear, so legend has it, the “murmur of souls” which accompanies the banal conversations of lovers. Gustave Flaubert (with a touch of colonial pride?) compares the water-gliding aspect of the birth of love to floating on a tropical river, where the perfumed breeze makes the lover forget that she cannot even see the horizon. In Botticelli’s painting, the rising of Venus and her companions is so overpowering that one indeed does not see the distant horizon where sea waves caress sky.
The perfumed breeze of Flaubert’s tropical river is Apollinaire’s stinking tobacco smoke. Through the small lizard-shaped crack, the curling smoke, that blend of the vague and the concrete brought about by a remembered odor, the surface of reality slips away and fantasy invades vision.
Similarly, in “Canto III” Ezra Pound associates the gradual slipping away of reality (“the ebbing actual” in Henry James’s words) with the flicker of shades in the transparent air announcing the recreation of a lost world, a world, not so distant as some would believe, in which the flowers competed for beauty, the leaves were a-whisper, the whole scenery perceived for what it is—”animated”; a world, finally, where one can converse with the spirits of things. Much of ancient folklore is precisely about that. And when I say “spirit” I do not mean anything as vague as a “soul” or “essence.” But that which is felt when one looks carefully at a thing, i.e. the thrill that something fantastic may be about to spring forth. Pound defined gods and deities, after all, as “states of mind.” Here are the verses from “Canto III”:
Gods float in the azure air
Bright gods and Tuscan, back before dew was shed.
Light: and the first light, before ever dew was fallen.
Panisks, and from the oak, dryads,
And from the apple, maelid,
Through all the wood, and the leaves are full of voices,
A-whisper, and the clouds bowe over the lake,
And there are gods upon them,
And in the water, the almond-white swimmers,
The silvery water glazes the upturned nipple,
As Poggio has remarked.
Green veins in the turquoise,
Or, the gray steps lead up under the cedars.
Whoever looked here at the “green veins in the turquoise” and saw the “gray steps under the cedars” was not looking at the stone as decoration, just as walking under the trees is not simply a passage to the end of the garden.
I blame German romanticism for the delegation of so much beautiful poetry to the second-class shelves of folklore collections. When we say “folk songs” now, the phrase brings to mind spilled beer on wooden tables and buxom females dressed eccentrically, strangely alive mummies. By contrast, ancient Greek poetry, which is for a large part folkloric, we call the classics and it is all expensive marble (forgetting the wooden walls which went back to the earth). Panisks and dryads are not divine creatures from classical literature, but common ancient Greek (later, under different names, Latin) lore.
Ancient, or not so ancient, Bulgarians loved the sound of the slippers of girls dancing. A hundred, two hundred girls, hands joined, to the thin (tinnula) sound of flutes, wound in spirals around the church, about the square, back on the street. They called the dance choro. And somebody coming back from work would hear
Yellow slippers: trop- trop! White skirts: fusss- fuss!
Thin waists: pook- pook! Golden bracelets: truss- truss!
two hundred as one, or so they say.
And Catullus speaks of saffron shoes on a bride’s white feet, under an azure sky.
 E.M. Forster. A Passage to India. Penguin Books, 1989. 250–251.
 Rodchenko, Aleksandr. Experiments for the Future: Diaries, Essays, Letters and Other Writings. Trans. Jamey Gambrell. New York: MOMA, 2005. 42.
 Cendrars, Blaise. Confessions of Dan Yack. Trans. Nina Rootes. London: Peter Owen Ltd, 2003. 11.
 Ezra Pound. “Canto III.” The Cantos. New York: New Directions, 1968. 11, lines 3: 240-252.