Louis Armand’s The Combinations
By Richard Marshall.
‘Armand distrusts authentic reader/writer experience no matter how ironised or sentimentalized. He’s seen it happen, the domestication of ‘experimental writing’ where ‘independent’ and maverick’ become code words for ‘rogue vested interest.’ ‘Realism’ becomes a matter of having the last word ‘whilst handing over scapegoats if only to maintain familiar prerogatives for the next fifteen minutes.’ What do books with avant garde impulses become in this our contemporary context? ‘Cash corpses.’ It’s into this particular inferno of despair that he’s writing his magnum.‘
Where we enter our ‘first world’ of invisible presences, or visible absences, a penny world, self-enclosure has brooding geek angels guarding its exit. It is in this place that we are asked to, as it were, ‘borrow every changing shape/to find expression…’ because this is a place of deliberate disguises where the cultural achievements of the past represent themselves as being out of reach, mocking, never there or like the Byzantine ‘forme precise’ of St Apollinaire, just stone faced with no impulse to scratch. It’s one of the things that the book’s corpse gives out, a lost energy or lost innocence inseparable from the act of reading itself. And so inseparable from consciousness. ‘Innocence’ is the ‘crocodile isle’, Tiresias, Simeon, sardonic Mallarme, those ‘glad of another death’ because they have never yet bloomed. Presuppositions combining. It’s a tough gig.
Louis Armand knows it’s a fatal flaw of avant garde poetics that marginality requires a centre, that radicalism needs a conservative edifice to kick against, that it’s about the fall between essence and the descent, where any nihilist anarchist posing will preserve the despised centre in parenthetical existence or else vanish. It’s when Dante meets Matilda, or Shelley’s ‘Prometheus Unbound’ where we are simultaneously substance and its shadow, united in death and language as a ghost (parody?) of someone meeting themselves as they might have been, Aeneas and Dido in Virgil’s hell where the scalding rebuke contrasts with the epigraphic earlier meeting of Aeneas with his mother Venus, and Marina reunited with her dead Phoenician sailor father, ‘crossing the bar’ as she sets out across the sea of death. Gradually the novel will open up this sea to a world ‘under sleep’, and it will vanish as in an Apocalypse as all seas will. A face takes shape and a new life. This is a phantom novelisation of Baudelaire’s ‘La vie anterieure’, a submarine reincarnation done as rock noire Realism – down and dirty hard-boil dry shimmering on the edges of a deranged avant garde Easter – imagine Mark E Smith as Philip Marlowe and then pump it up.
It’s the defining angst of modernist culture to retain a perpetual avant-garde in the face of a social setting that has subsumed all the revolutions of the word and bought them off. Here and now the avant garde is ‘… the illusion… of a socially-transformative, revolutionary potential.’ and twists to the idiot joy showland as ‘only the residual after-image.’ Po Mo becomes capitalisms’ masterstroke, it’s authentic culture a middleclass revolt, a definition for the culture industry and its cyber-poetic black screen dominance where a glam racket guts the quantifier and life just bounces. Here’s his anxiety, or at least, the question Armand poses in the 888 pages of his unreal poesis polis Golem City, Ezekiel’s valley of dry bones, Isaiah’s ‘shadow of a rock in a dry land’ where he meets all the dying gods – Adonis, Attis, Osiris – caught in the idiocy of the brown fog art of capitalist culture and the art obscenity of Canto 26’s lusts all done in a post-Totalitarian frame Pearl City jam. For Armand, art in totalitarianism is obscene, in capitalism idiotic.
So Armand has already asked the question:
‘ Is the cyber-poetic ‘codework’ of Alan Sondheim, Mez, Mark Amerika, Stephanie Strickland and others simply the garlanded machine aesthetic for the Matrix? Are Borges, Escher, Calvino, Rimbaud merely the whimsical sentimentalists of the multiverse? Should we read Kathy Acker and Stewart Home as evangelists or elegists for the Fall?’ The issue is thus about the posthumous status of the underground avant-garde: what is it for and what can it do? And has it been co-opted by the very forces that it might once have hoped to oppose and critique? Can posthumous mean anything anymore? Armand says;
‘ Has in fact a posthumous avant-garde become in turn the myth by which the commodity sustains the idea of itself, as global foundation of the New Order? The compost from which the bright future of perpetual innovation will supposedly sprout fully formed?’
His dissolving and reforming imagination enters this perilous domain seeking the equivalent of an answer in what looks like writing but might not be eventually… What might the alternative look like? Maybe the first Cumaean Sibyl hanging in a jar between the centre and the margin wanting nothing else but to die. Or else the other one, living all those sand grain years in her hand having forgotten to ask for perpetual youth – Armand’s book teeters with the shivered recognition of that modernist horror trope: ‘fear in a handful of dust’. He offers a hermaphroditic shadow-mind containing everything Golem City can try and hide away. Golem City itself becomes an emblem of that margin as centre. There’s a whole critique of the weird commerce between margins of culture and the cauldron of unholy loves at the centre, that easy commoditization and commercialism that picks at the bones of, literally, everything.
Armand knows better than most (he’s written about it since forever) this idea that culture both reflects the economics that frame it and simultaneously critiques itself, facing that perplexing question as to whether art can ever become autonomous from its underpinning economic logic. This anxiety is presented as being sincere and original like Strangeways , like drinking your way out of being psychic, like playing out of tune but doing it properly. The plenum Armand offers is the protean nod to James Joyce, an underworld journey which, as always, is about learning the future, the fate that lies ahead of us, and done as if the shoddy occultism of a cut-price Madame Sosostris did actually get us somewhere beyond the sterility of culture, where every culture biz, be it music, books, art is now just middle class executive business, like a police force.
Duchamp’s retinal art was art fascinated by the contingent, the ad hoc and the arbitrary, the very locus of the commodity and the heart of modern Industria’s high culture that develops mobile, anatomized individuals in a shared high culture free from internal sacred nuance – the cult, the feud, the tribe and so forth. Armand senses that these sacred occult hierarchies held powers – strange hopes and loves, even perversions and sympathy, odd-ball dynamics still seething in his Prague churches, synagogues, libraries, lost streets, each working as sentinels testifying to the presence of mysteries in the ruins of Europe, the sorts of thing found in ‘The Tempest’ that runs to Dylans’ ‘wheel of fire’ punked up as an obscure, Eleusian mystery by the Banshees and then left as a dim recall of spiritual and physical narcosis, maybe written up in a lit critters’ book sometime later, but nevertheless impotent, shop worn and logically disconnected by the very fact of being recalled.
Duchamp’s early modernism was framed by a society where the poetics of commodity was in a setting when the full logic of the arbitrary was not predominant but merely emerging, and so still at play, with space between the arid plain of the fisher king and the responding boat of faraway Tristan. With the commodity now fully formed interest with the endless ad hocery of the commodity seems less like avant-Grail passion and more on-line trawling. It seems it’s no longer a critique but the object and process itself. So how is an Acker or a Home any different from the infotainment possibilities of the internet? And how would we know? Or care? In other words, not only is there a question about what the avant-garde can do now that it’s no longer a type but rather the type-cast of modernity where it has become the culture, there is also the question of how to make it visible as a critique even if it is possible. How does a critical marginal ad hoc remain marginal in a culture where everything is a margin -without being invisible and unknowable? Are we in that realm where identity conditions don’t allow us to pick it out? Could it recognize itself even if it did persist? The avant garde has become the condition of its impossibility and therefore a space of self erasure. Here’s the bed-rock then for Armand: ‘… are we dealing … with the unconscious perturbations of a system? The ad hoc symptomatology of a hyper-repressed? Like the periodic eruption of “classified information” onto the internet? A present, in other words, wherein the only possible avant-garde remains a secret, since that’s the domain it belongs to?’
This great perambulation, ‘The Combinations’, is a case of nerveless romance, Armand’s sub-lingual tablet. He is testing the groundwork. He is producing the self-knowledge and reflexivity of our art’s detonating impotence and self wounding. The novelist here is Perseus or St George in a land ruled by that old sympathetic magic and therefore sterile and masculine in the symbolizing language and tone of Philip Marlowe playing Miranda at chess – it can end either in the death of the King or in a stalemate where two mysteries are united. So either art is buried dead or else we have a faint overtone of an occult purgatorial (the desert, the garden and between them this, the novel as staircase) binding up the drowned hopes of the early avant gardeists with deeper ones. The novelistic persona adopted here is a protagonist with bad nerves, bad teeth, but with the aching working principle of the lone individual working in the strange mythic land where in an Eliotic ‘fisher king’ landscape descent and the temporary death of the wounded knight are recast in Golem City’s leviathan archive quest and library .
Since the 1950’s just what the avant garde can be – if anything – has been a central issue for those working in these margins but Armand here is in a post 1989 state, as well as dropping back a lot lot further like the reaction and bigotry that followed Bohemian independence in 1620, ready to shoot the whole lot of them in an act of aggro pre-cog fever. If the book has a jump skip quality of film then it’s that of Jean Luc Godard who emerged to liberate cinema back in the 50’s. Here’s someone emerging from Joyce, an artist who set up the problem of the modern cultural sensibility of the edit, the montage, the ad hoc and the cut which has become our dominant, all consuming, consumerist, commoditising idiom. Is this the problem or the solution?
Godard ‘… has opened up a new kind of movie making… a new sensibility into film, that, like James Joyce, he is both kinds of master – both innovator and artist. Godard has already imposed his way of seeing on us; we look at cities, at billboards and brand names, at a girl’s hair differently because of him’ Pauline Kael wrote of him and Armand sees Joyce and Godard as ‘the two major inventors of the modern vernacular.’ And if it’s Godard who says, of his approach,
‘One improvises, one invents in front of the moviola just as one does on set. Cutting a movement on camera in quarters can reveal itself more effectively than keeping it as it had been filmed. An exchange of glances… can only be expressed with enough pungency… through clever editing… A simple reversed shot, by its very restraint, is more powerfully expressive than any premeditated zoom, or pan…Editing , therefore, at the same time that it denies, announces and prepares the way for directing…’ so it is in this novel from Armand that we recognize the same playful improvisory stance, the invention of a form that thinks. Armand’s novel is just that, a novel that thinks, but what it also hangs back from doing is commending any of it, leaving everything as a kind of door left open with a very ambiguous invitation note attached.
Just as with Joyce who said that ‘ whenever I am obliged to lie with my eyes closed I see a cinematograph going on and on and it brings back to my memory things I had almost forgotten’ there’s the same sort of thing here in Armand combining that sensibility of a cinema operating linguistically with a freehand Freud dream brooding, probably out in the Krkonose Mountains. Armand has sought to move from writing to processing. His approach to gargantua is that of the cinematograph where the medium constitutes the message. Like Eisenstein on Joyce we confront : ‘…the limit of reconstructing the reflection and refraction of reality in the consciousness and feelings of man. There’s a special dual-level method of writing: unfolding the display of events simultaneously with the particular manner in which these events pass through the consciousness and feelings, the associations and emotions of one of his chief characters. Here literature, as nowhere else, achieves an almost physiological palpability.’
He’s valued Antonin Artaud’s: ‘ cinema implies a total inversion of values, a complete upheaval of optics, of perspective and logic. It is more exciting than phosphorous, more captivating than love’ and written out of this cinematic, Joycean ‘chaosmos’ which also picks up on Godard’s demand that he should see his writing as ‘ … a place where it is in the living present , … the register of History… the image of the century in all its aspects.’ Armand writes to the heart of a history that is, as it was for Godard, an ‘unresolved anachronism.’ And at the heart of this is montage where written events read back into us through each cut, juxtaposition, overprint and portmanteau, through the violence done by placing images of war with adverts and pornography etc. In this Godardian world Armand has written about and now written into, there’s no room for categorical thought, categorical morality – images remain amoral and irreflexive, become a ‘third image’ – not just putting images side by side but ‘putting two angles side by side’. Colin MacCabe notes this way montage writes with situations in a polysemic multiplicity that describes ‘a margin of undefinability.’
His book becomes Godardian discursis ‘ something into which everything can be put’, a self conscious monstrum, and the texture of thinking becomes like writing sociological essays as novels using only musical notes… ‘a denial of an opposition between fiction and documentary; exposing the paradox of the socially engaging and disengaging qualities …; exploring the affinities between visual and written expression, as well as art and criticism; privileging the more expansive terms sound and image over other possible permutations; overriding the divide between high and low culture; merging theory and practice; and equating reality with image…’
Dzigo Vertov, Godard’s collaborator writes of ‘an absolute writing in film’ where ‘Kino-eye means the conquest of space, the visual linkage of people throughout the entire world based on the continuous exchange of visible fact, of film documents, as opposed to the exchange of cinematic or theatrical presentations… Kino-eye means the conquest of time… is the possibility of seeing life processes in any temporal order or at any speed inaccessible to the human eye.’ When Sara Danius writes of Vertov’s ‘Man With the Movie Camera’ she says his ‘…camera sweeps an entire city into spirited movement. Chimneys, workers, typewriters, street crossings, automatons, cars, smiles, sewing machines, pedestrians, bicycles, stockings, streetcars, shop windows, telephones: all participate in Vertov’s rapturous urban ballet.’ When Armand sweeps across his Golem City we are given the sharp realism, dingy words, calculated bathos, dreamy romanticism, high vision, parody, prosody, ruminating caustic monosyllabics and polysyllabics of urban intellectual speech in search of the margin to detonate the pattern of the pattern. It’s a language of anticipation, a plenum where the dreamer reflects on forgetting and remembering, decomposition and recombination, present catastrophes and ancient legacies. Like Godard like Joyce, it’s a work that “spans this gap between processes of memory” and that “ labyrinthine semiosis which constitutes human communication” and human consciousness…
History or histoire(s)
Story, fable, myth, allegory, fabrication.
Night and fog.
Which leads us to Armand’s considerations regarding genre. Here his concern is the examination of genre as an institution, which he links with the idea of a joke as, essentially, always a meta-joke ‘whose impetus is one of constant substitution and displacement: the causality of the joke is itself a deteournement of the causal. It operates, in other words, like the unconscious.’ Joke work operates by displacement, as does genre work. It is an orientation ‘which is a disorientation’ as Derrida would have it. Joke work comes full circle.
And then there’s Prague, a city of history and its writers and philosophers in the swim of that history. Lukas Tomin writes three books. One, ‘The Doll’, draws in Armand to its ‘… unredeemed child’s fantasia, replete with maldoror-esque gigantism, its symbolic parricides, its incest, its deranged ecstasies, its polymorph obscenity, its sublime and apocalyptic id-like irrationality’ and on all this the allegorical form that ‘simplifies into archetypes and instructs by indirection’. In Tomin’s hands allegory reverses its spell, and rather than simplification we have a buffed over complexification which ‘bifurcates – multiplies-… places a question mark over the very notion of instruction.’ Instead of instruction we are asked to think. The result is an ‘extreme realism’ that counters didactic forms that reduce to ‘merely describing its own circumstances’ like the Mark E Smith meta-joke: ‘I agree with Colonel Gaddafi. Too much laptops. Too much Nescafe, that is what he said. It’s quite biblical actually. It was predicted in the Bible.’
David Auerbach on another of Tomin’s books, ‘Rain Taxi’, writes:
‘Tomin leaves his characters half drawn.. forcing the reader to puzzle out the connections and distinctions between them. His drastic switches of style abandon cumulative effects for a series of instants, sometimes with heavily compressed plotting or circular passages of dialogue….’ Armand compares the results with French nouvelle vague , Godard’s decoupage for instance. It’s an ‘allegory of language’ where semiotic and semantic orders don’t correspond and it’s well to bear this in mind. Armand can’t resist this and his novel seethes with the great torso of Czech history. Golem City is like the presence of the sign descending in time. This is the secret of the book and its anti-Papal studia generalia of the late Middle Ages blowing in with Bologna, Paris and Oxford older lovers, Prague the first city lying beyond the Rhine and Danube, the first city in either German or Slavonic territory to receive such an institution. The top and the bottom, the inside and the outside are visions of plenitude and vacancy. You can’t do this with everywhere. Armand’s planting his feet specifically in this particular historic swamp and fishing its inner circles of subways, innocence and experience just as Blake did in London, say. But expect a different catch here. This ‘aint London.
If Prague’s the centre of anything its also a margin of the West and the East too, with primitive forests, high mountains favouring defences against invaders, a perfect ideaspace for Armand’s anti-Disney land. Prague is a place in the zone of the former Bolshevik/Romanov dynasty. At the carving up of Europe in Vienna 1815 ‘ … the only criterion capable of public defence is whether the new rulers are less corrupt and grasping, or more just and merciful, or whether there is no change at all, but the corruption, the greed, the tyranny merely find victims other than those of the departed rulers.’ So little changed.
What followed was an Irredentist period of strange mutations where two distinct processes overlapped. The first involved the common agrarian turbulence that occurs at empires whose edges are mountains or deserts. In these places the typical thing to do is for local chiefs to challenge the imperial centre. An historical stabilised nomadic segmentary social order is locked up in these places where the relation between margin and centre is defined by the inversion of Western models of the polis i.e. strong society, weak state. But in the Balkans something disrupted the equilibrium. A new kind of social being mutated out of this familiar setting. In the Balkans the overlords were Muslim, the wild men Christian. Conflict became not just about the regular peripheral dissonance of rebellion from one social type but rather became one between different kinds. Politics and culture were fusing in a way that hadn’t done so before. Out of this peculiar situation came a nascent nationalism. The wild men were not just Christians however, they were wild Christians, heretics. They drew in an Enlightenment and Romantic Christianity and Muslims were disinclined to take a lead from heresies from within a religion they felt superior to in the first place. So the Balkan rebels became nationalists.
The Messianic Salvationism of the Russians, for one, comes out of this heady brew and Dostoevsky its greatest literary witness but a whole tribe of Russian nineteenth century novelists made this their key theme. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn drew on this tradition too, baffling and disturbing everyone post-1989 when he seemed to reject the polis of the western European model by driving back to a Russian nationalism the Soviets and Romanov’s had held in check. But anyone reading the great nineteenth century novels shouldn’t have found this surprising at all. Ignored in 1815, by 1914 everyone recognized nationalism as a potent force thanks largely to the literati. Anyone believing the glib line that writers don’t matter and don’t know are just wrong– and Armand’s a writer knowing it’s not always an insignificant action to write into the monstrous foam of history. Armand’s protean work possesses these restless, historical, anthropological resources and fuses them to the crisis of the twentieth century avant garde with a kind of buckling easy flash drive quid pro prose.
Anyhow, Romanovs modernized faster than the Ottomans on the back of a messianic Salvationism that led to the Revolution of 1917. When the Romanov dynasty collapsed after holding nationalism in check between 1815 and 1918 its brutal dynasty was restored by Bolsheviks in a secular mirror-image and it continued to hold Nationalism in check. Jews, Georgians and Ukranians were leaders in the USSR. Population transfers during this Soviet time didn’t simplify the ethnic map except in Poland and the Czech Republic. So Prague is in this mix, a Golem dead/life still-point of a world that keeps twisting. After the end of the USSR what happens next and why does the Western author remain Racinian – a simplification, a style where, as Camus recorded, ‘ The West does not recount the events of everyday life. It is forever feeding its frenzy on great images. It wants to be Manfred or Faust, Don Juan or Narcissus. But it never quite manages to make itself coincide with these images. It is always carried away by the fever for unity. In desperation , it has invented the film hero…’ – an imagination of types – Armand rips and shreds at this Racinian unity like he’s writing the lost Dostoevskian plague novel where all die living different systems and knows in a way it’s a disaster.
Well, the reason why Czech nationalism (along with Polish nationalism, though for different reasons) is different from its surroundings is that Medieval and early-modern Bohemia was already an important political unit. These were the lands of the Crown of king Wenceslas after all and they had links to Czech culture and written language with its own high culture. It disappeared in the 17th Century at the Peace of Westphalia and became a ghost, a minimal element of the Hapsburg Empire. But the Hapsburgs, the larger successor unit, by not linking up to the Czech language, sowed seeds of its future disintegration – and the resurrection of the Czechs. For a while the Czech language survived as a peasant language. But as the Industrial Revolution rolled in Czech speakers became the majority in Bohemia and Moravia. The language became restored to the cities as their high culture and prestige language.
How was this possible? The old culture was available even when lost. The ancient Bohemian kingdom, and Golem City’s Prague University dated back to 14th century and there were already proto-nationalistic themes in the make-up of Czech students even then. The Hussites, a proto-protestant group, was based in Bohemia resisting Papal and Imperial efforts to subdue it. Prague’s Hussite ghosts rose up in Versailles 1918 to replace the legitimacy of the Hapsburgs who splintered and were lost even as the ghosts rose and replaced them in renewed liveliness.
President-liberator Tomas Masaryk commanded the Czech army in World War One and worked out a theory of national independence that was moralistic not Romantic, that aimed for the transference from the Hapsburg’s authoritarian, dogmatic political and dogmatic dynastic system to an independent, liberal democracy. The Hapsburgs were Absolutist and Papal. The Hussites were proto-democratic and liberal and became Masaryk’s inspiration, capable of delivering a self image for the nation despite their defeat in 1620 and the 300 years wait to Versailles.
But his version of the roots of the democratic soul of the Czech state had a rival that was ultimately to defeat it. Palacky’s alternative vision of Czech nationalism saw it as a romantic awakening, a vision of Austro-Slavism coming into consciousness after years of dormition. This vision served up a Danubian state of all those small nations of central Europe gloriously and bravely working as a bulwark against German expansion and Russian autocracy, a vision largely taken up by Charter 77 and its writers. Thus Masaryk’s thesis was rejected by Charter 77. Jan Patocka , another philosopher taking charge of politics in this wild mix, argued against any continuity between the long-gone Hussites and the modern egalitarian, democratic state and claimed instead that the genuine roots were in the reaction of Catholic peasantry to Enlightenment bureaucratic centralization introduced by the Hapsburgs’ in the late 18th century, a reaction perpetuated by peasants moving from the land to the towns. And any idea that Czech democracy was rooted in western values were proved to be without warrant when first the Germans came calling and then Russians.
It happened like this: in 1918 the Czech’s annexed Magyar territories because they wanted the Danube to work like the Rhine and make communication costs easier. But they did this without demographic or historical justification. Magyars and Bulgarians just happened to be on the wrong side of the river. This resulted in all their neighbours being united against them. It was a fragile arrangement and collapsed quickly, first under Hitler and then Stalin. Anyhow, later, when finally the USSR dynasty collapsed in ’89 Charter 77 saw the restoration of democracy as based on an interest in markets not values. Economic laissez-fairists and Catholics combined in government to set the tone of a more inward looking Czech Republic and this fitted better – though imperfectly – the Patocka vision of the historical roots of the Czech Nation.
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First published in 3:AM Magazine: Tuesday, August 16th, 2016.