Diffracted Dialogues in a Hall of Mirrors

With the proliferation of cheap digital cameras, we have perhaps got to the point that, owing to technology, the making and proliferating of images is as effortless as words. Today both text and image function as advanced sites of human interaction and vehicles for understanding our complex relations with society, politics and the environment. It is increasingly evident that a singular mode of representation is insufficient for understanding our present social and political conditions.

As these processes of human communication have evolved, we can try to understand better the varied principles, aspirations and interior logics of these different forms of expression. Take images, for example: they do not hold meaning together in the same way that words do. The general use for words, as abstractions, is to compile and align them as part of an indirect form of expression. Images can have a much more direct, immediate impact. Furthermore, the way we ‘read’ an image is certainly different from the way we read a text. We do not read an image in straight lines; there is no clear beginning and end.

What is it that makes images so unnerving? How is it that text comes to step in as a kind of crutch or reassurance for the indeterminacy of images? Images are intuitive; they do not explain and yet they know. In this sense they are an end in themselves and not subordinate to the written word. They are perhaps parallel with, not the same as, text in the production of knowledge and subsequently they are equally entangled and complicated with social and cultural relations. Engaging these two languages in relay resists a comfortable coherence and illuminates something of the fragile and instable structures that somehow sustain our ability to communicate with others.

Self-Portrait of an Other is a collaborative project (actually referred to by Nooteboom as a ‘confrontation’) between the highly acclaimed Dutch writer Cees Nooteboom (b.1933) and the enigmatic German painter Max Neumann (b.1949). On first encountering the works of Neumann, Nooteboom noticed that they were a world of their own, and yet he writes, ‘I felt as if I knew the world I encountered in his work very well without being able to say why.’ As a writer he recognized these paintings as both strange and familiar. Believing that literature is, in itself, an art of collaboration with others, his enchantment with this painter’s works would culminate in the two artists making an ‘agreement’ to work together on a project:

Instead of trying to describe his work, I would draw on its atmosphere and my own arsenal of memories, dreams, fantasies, landscapes, stories and nightmares to write a series of textual images as an echo but unlinked, a mirror, but independent of the pictures he had given me. If we have succeeded, the title cuts both ways.

These are therefore neither illustrated stories nor captioned paintings. Nooteboom would receive Neuman’s paintings at his house in Spain. He would not describe the paintings, but write a response to them in reply. The paintings feature contorted and tortured figures, denied of identifiable characteristics, as disposable yet as persistent as the paper bags on which they are produced, these figures are at once nobody and anybody, suspended in a nightmarish atmosphere of orange abstraction; a primitive form of modernism. These pictures affect viewers with a simultaneous array of affectations that are void of linear narrative.

There is something appropriately disorderly about Nooteboom’s literary style placed amongst these images. His prose works offer no beginning, middle or end. Readers hit the ground running as they are introduced to narratives in mid-flow. Any attempt to decode and imagine the meaning of these stories comes despite knowing that such meaning is ultimately unattainable. In the waves of discord that emerge, meaning is continually constructed and deflected. The experience is disorientating and exhilarating. After all the noise, once this pair has exhausted what language has to offer, a profound silence falls to rest on deaf ears.

When depth is nothing but another surface impression, nothing is considered profound, but is endlessly complex. Nothing is disguised because everyone is disguised. The subtitle to this work is Dreams of the Island and the Old City. Text and paintings alike speak to their other from other worlds. The two artists both seem to demonstrate a mutual belief in the courageous effort of language to grasp the essentials of human experiences, despite its inability to ultimately do so.

Once he had thought that you could write the world with words: from the beginning. Speaking the words would turn them into things, obedient to their names. That made all languages holy. Now he no longer knew if that was true. The things that surrounded him and closed themselves off more and more as if knowing that they would lose their names again. He wondered what it would be like when nothing was called anything, when everything was just itself . . . All things undone and robbed of their names, words erased until the first word too had never been said. Only then would it be silent again.

Francesco Maria Grimaldi, coined the term diffraction–meaning ‘to break into pieces’–when he observed how light breaks up into different directions as it comes into contact with an object of another substance. The collision of one against another causes a kind of breakdown that produces an unpredictable marked change in atmosphere and appearance. It should be understood that Self Portrait of an Other is not merely an illustrated book, but more appropriately, a kind of diffracted dialogue from within a hall of mirrors. Aimed at confounding and surprising, to read it fluently is to discover a totally different approach to reading.

Becky Ayre

Excerpts and images from Self-Portrait of an Other by Cees Nooteboom and Max Neumann (translated by David Colmer) (Calcutta, London and New York: Seagull Books, 2011).

Together–Apart: Fragmented Thoughts on Literature, Community and Imagination

Literature is ‘an afamilial . . . asocial society,’ claims Pascal Quignard, ‘The person who writes is someone who tries to . . . break the dialogue . . .. To extricate himself from brotherhood and fatherland. To undo all religious bonds.’

What is the meaning of community for the writer? When a writer writes, whom does he/she write for?

Mahasweta Devi writes her novels and short stories in solidarity with the marginalized communities of India. Yet, she explained, in a film interview with her publisher Naveen Kishore of Seagull Books, how she seeks solitude and isolation from others in order to communicate her writings. By necessity, she communes with her reader while keeping them at a distance. This would confirm Quignard’s belief that ‘the artist cannot take part in the operation of the human community at the very same time as he is striving to detach himself from it.’

The actor Martin Sheen once said of his social activism (he was been arrested over 60 times) that he does not express his views in order to coerce others into following them. He simply does it for the benefit of his own sense of being. ‘You do it because you cannot not do it and be yourself.’

Nabaneeta Dev Sen has reflected upon a time when she felt ‘immensely unhappy’ if she had not written anything in a period of twenty-four hours. ‘There was an inner pressure that forced me to write. Words were important. How do I know who I am until I have written myself and read myself on a piece of paper in front of me? There I was, me, Nabaneeta, taking shape, on a piece of paper.

Literature, Quignard believes, is ‘the most de-socializing experience there ever was. The most anchoritic. So much so that its history never transited from country to country. It passed from monastery to monastery. Passed from monk to monk. Passed from monos to solus. From one lone being to another.’ And yet for him literature is also, ‘A voice so intimate that it is no longer even conveyable in the air.’ It is in fact a kind of de-socializing intimacy. ‘Between the one who writes and the solitude of the one who reads, there is much that cements the two.’

The relationship between a writer and the marketing department at a publishing house is more problematic. Sales and marketing managers, like politicians, require a pre-meditated idea of who their public is in order for them to function, but for a writer or an artist, the desire to communicate may actually take precedence over the identity of the recipient. Modern politics and society is based on a pre-conceived notion of its ‘public’.  Quinard writes that ‘for the first time, the form of a society is opposed to the existence of literature. Neutrality in the way a society might be organized belongs now among the impossibilia,’ that ‘our societies . . . are frightened.’ They ‘reject the most thrilling, most desirous and finest joys, which always have in them the risk of ruin and death’. John Berger once wrote that fear was an instinct in animals and endemic in humans, that humans were unhappy apes but what separates the former from the latter is not the mind so much as perception.

A society centred on the written word ‘wrested prehistoric humanity from the world of dreams and the imagination,’ warns Quignard. ‘Pregeneric humanity was buried in its picture caves, as in its dreams.’ Society was once entrenched in the imaginary, formed of images. It has since forgotten this intimate relationship with what constitutes itself. Such relationships are precarious in any case. The imaginary also supersedes the very reality of which it is a constituent. I had one once. We connected and yet existed together–apart, or so I thought. As it turned out, what I had perceived as a meeting of minds, an intimacy of complimentary imaginaries, was merely a figment of my imagination, willed into an illusory reality. From monus to solus: so it goes.

‘Alas, the mistaken heart!’ lamented Rabindranath Tagore, in The Postmaster,

Its delusions never end, the laws of reason enter the mind after much delay, disbelieving incontestable evidence it embraces false hope with both arms and all its might to its breast; in the end one day, severing the umbilical cord and sucking the heart empty of blood, it flees, there is then a return to one’s right senses and the mind grows restless again to embrace its next delusion.

‘The decision to get away from everyone else, the choice of an outsider status emerges the moment the first family unit appears among animal groups,’ says Quignard. As early as the sixteenth century, Henry Purcell expressed the sense of ambivalence that one incurs, between a desire for one’s own freedom and the affection for other beings. ‘Oh Solitude! My sweetest choice,’

For thy sake I in love am grown
With what thy fancy does pursue;
But when I think upon my own,
I hate it for that reason too,
Because its needs must hinder me
From seeing and from serving thee.
O solitude, O how I solitude adore!

For as there are images and realities, there is art and there is life. ‘Whenever I have to choose between poetry and life,’ writes Nabaneeta Dev Sen, ‘I decide in favour of life, knowing full well that life was most treacherous. Whereas, poetry would offer, as ever, the final refuge. It will never let me down. Every time I was flooded over and drowning, poetry pulled me up onto dry land. I survived.’


Becky Ayre

Publishing Lives 7: Manas Saikia, Managing Director, Cambridge University Press

Good books are those that sell. This fact that one of my fellow classmates highlighted was ‘liked’ by Manas Saikia at once and that became the take-off point of our interesting journey for the day with the Managing Director of Cambridge University Press Pvt. Ltd. His take on addressing an odd group of students was quite different from the others we have come across. He acknowledged that he has no idea of what we know and so he decided to begin from the origin of printing press itself.

His presentation, complete with a slide show, was filled with tiny yet power-packed facts about the publishing world that gave us a number of occasions to go ‘Ah!’, ‘What?’, ‘Seriously?’, ‘No way!’ all throughout. Taking the reader through a tour of the whole day is something I don’t want to do for the simple reason that if you were not there, you missed it forever and a 900-something-word article cannot enlighten you enough. What I will do is rather talk on a topic that he discussed with us extensively at a very informal yet informative level.

Book piracy is something that intrigues everyone these days. But no one has yet come up with an appropriate solution. This applies especially to countries like India, Bangladesh and other developing nations where the large middle-class population includes ardent readers who refuse to part with a large sum of money for ‘buying’ books for reading. Manas traced the Indian habit of ‘borrowing’ books in any form for reading to the Vedic ages. It was a part of the core Indian tradition to pass on knowledge verbally, a process based mainly on mutual trust, admiration and sharing attitude. It is this passion to share that refuses to let go of the Indians and mutates over ages to take the form of piracy at large—be it books or audio-visual materials.

During the course of the fairly open discussion that we had with Manas, the point that repeatedly came up was the dearth of reading materials in the market for the student community. According to most of us, this is what instigates students to go for photocopying, somewhat illegally, even the whole of the books for reference. It’s not that we are not willing to buy the books but the market fails to provide us with enough of these for buying. Copies of important academic texts are hardly seen even at the most reputed libraries of the country. The publishers somehow lose contact with the academic community at large and hence the whole problem. Manas acknowledged this and mentioned that it is only recently that INFLIBNET or the Information and Library Network Centres have come up to help universities join together to improve library facilities and information resources.

Is the absence of legal constraints the root of all disasters? Is it because the laws of the country have many holes that book piracy is causing such a huge loss to publishers? Or is it because the critical texts in many subjects are priced so high that students/ research scholars find it easier to bypass the law than abide by it, at least in this part of the country? Questions are many, but answers are few. And the problem does not remain limited to academic books—it spreads out to fictions, non-fictions, books of general interest, etc. Someone visiting The Seagull School of Publishing had aptly pointed out that Indians are ready to have a single serving of alcohol for 450 bucks, but when it comes to a book, that is an absurdly high price to pay. What should the course of action then be?

Manas came up with an idea that he and his fellow colleagues in the industry have been nurturing for some time now. It involves going up to universities and asking them to ‘tax’ photocopiers in and around the campus for every page copied. A part of this would go towards the publishers in collective. But does that necessarily curb photocopying or book piracy? It makes things a little more expensive but does not solve the inherent problems. This seems justifiable to some extent from the viewpoint of a publisher who is losing out on the revenue portion but in the long run will this address piracy?

During the second half of the day, all of us, including Manas Saikia, chose to deter piracy from eating up our valuable time. Instead, he chose, very kindly, to talk about the job profiles of editors at different levels in the publishing world, the employer’s habit of spoiling employees, publishing houses as task masters and of course, about salaries. For those of us who are willing to find a place for ourselves in the world of books as editors and designers, these small but critical pieces of information were among the prettiest rewards of the day.

The day was indeed fruitful and we got the perspective of neither a publisher, nor an editor but someone who knows the art or business of books just as well if not more. Manas Saikia’s concern about the book industry has built up over time with experience as a book distributor, sales person, commissioning agent, book officer and as the joint owner of one of the largest publishing house in India. With such exposure in that field, he cleared our misconceptions and addressed our concerns regarding the idea of books as part of trade, as things that need to be sold and not just loved. I genuinely hope that following his guidelines we can sell books that we consider good and come up with sustaining innovations in the age of the electronic media.

Indrani Dutta