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a Madrid codex for an unknown/alien readership: a mad experience with language digging Heidegger, Fuentes & Quixote in the light of our own self-annihilation

On a plane to Madrid. Sans camera again, though unlike Dublin, I've never been to Madrid. I've been to Barcelona & Southern Spain, but had no idea what to expect from Madrid & that's the way it should be. One should go into these things without preconceived images in your mind.

I'm reading Heidegger's On the Way to Language. It's a collection of philosophical essays, the best of which are The Nature of Language (which it seems I've read in some other form or maybe it's that I've read other writers writing about Heidegger or maybe there's overlap with his other books I've read) & The Way to Language. I am also simultaneously reading Aura by Carlos Fuentes, which gives a different perspective to reading Heidegger as I am reading it in Spanish (with a side translation in English). The more Italian I learn, the more my Spanish & Italian get jumbled together, so this trip to Madrid & reading Fuentes in Spanish is a good way to refresh my memory & keep them as distinct in my head.

The problem I have with languages (practically speaking) is that I think too much about language in general. I can understand & read Italian & Spanish & even some French, but when it comes to speaking my brain doesn't know where to begin. I can't construct sentences. I need to be thinking in the language I speak or write. I think I used to be able to think in Spanish at some point, when I was working in remote areas of Mexico for weeks at a time with no one to speak English to. Thinking to the point where you didn't have to think about it. But now I think I think about it too much & it gets in the way. It probably doesn't help that I read the likes of Heidegger. «Scientific and philosophical information about language is one thing, an experience we undergo with language is another.» says Heidegger. And then:

In experiences which we undergo with language, language itself brings itself to language. One would think that this happens anyway, any time anyone speaks. Yet at whatever time and in whatever way we speak a language, language itself never has the floor. Any number of things are given voice in speaking, above all what we are speaking about: a set of facts, an occurrence, a question, a matter of concern. Only because in everyday speaking language does not bring itself to language but holds back, are we able simply to go ahead and speak a language, and so to deal with something and negotiate something by speaking.

This is my dilemma, as a consequence of thinking too much about language for the sake of language—of trying to let language speak for itself. I don't have the capability to use a foreign language in a practical sense, for the day to day negotiations. I'm not even sure I have that ability to use English practically speaking. As I touched on in the last post, in the same way we've abused photography, 99% of humans abuse language, they disrespect it, they just use it without thinking about it. To hear some of the crap people say makes me want to stop speaking. And reading some of the crap people write makes me want to abandon writing. The only thing worth speaking about anymore is language itself.

But when does language speak itself as language? Curiously enough, when we cannot find the right word for something that concerns us, carries us away, oppresses or encourages us. Then we leave unspoken what we have in mind and, without rightly giving it thought, undergo moments in which language itself has distantly and fleetingly touched us with its essential being.

The image I have of language (as inspired by Heidegger) starts with a blank canvas which contains a comprehensive continuum of ideas. Words can nail specific discrete points and combinations of words can fill in some of the gaps, but for the most part it is impossible for language to fill the continuum of possible thought, and even trying to perhaps corrupts or diminishes our field of thought. Another way to look at it (as inspired by Thomas Bernhard) is that when you use language you are extinguishing these thoughts. «No thing is where the word is lacking» as Heidegger says.

mad starlings

[Starlings over Rome]

I read some Heidegger & then switched back to Carlos Fuentes. AuraAura by Carlos Fuentes is about a student who responds to an ad to write the memoirs of the deceased husband of a 109-year old woman—a bit like Sunset Blvd with the addition of a young beauty (the old woman's niece) to further entice the narrator. I won't go into the plot (like travel & photography, these are things you should go into blindly without preconceived notions) except to talk about my experience with the language of it. After all, what else is there worth speaking about? Not only is Aura written in 2nd-person, but it's an omni-present narrator in the present tense. The effect of it is like receiving play-by-play stage directions for a movie that you (the reader) star in, in the very moment you are reading. While writing in 2nd person & in the present tense can be awkward in English it is naturally suited to a language like Spanish where verb conjugations carry this information. And speaking of Heidegger (perhaps most famous for his thinkings on Being and Time) Aura is a novella that experiments in interesting ways with the usual notions of time & it's relation to language & thought. It's as if every action is imparted directly to you, in the present tense, and in the next instant is replaced with the next direct direction. Even thoughts are planted in your head in this way:

«Y ya no piensas, porque existen cosas más fuertes que la imaginación: la costumbre que te obliga a levantare, buscar un baño anexo a esa recámara, no encontrarlo, salir restregándote los párpados, subir al segundo piso saboreando la acidez pastosa de la lengua, entrar a tu recámara acariciándote las mejillas de cerdas revueltas, dejar correr las llaves de la tina e introducirte en el aqua tibia, dejarte ir, no pensar más

or in English as translated by Lysander Kemp (though I don't think the effect of what Fuentes is doing with time & the direct power of suggestion comes through as well):

«And you stop thinking, because there are things even stronger than the imagination, the habits that force you to get up, look for a bathroom off this room without finding one, go out into the hallway rubbing your eyelids, climb the stairs tasting the thick bitterness of your tongue, enter your own room feeling the rough bristles on your chin, turn on the bath faucets and then slide into the warm water, letting yourself relax into forgetfulness.»)

The language as such enables you to experience these things as they happen, as you read the words, fleetingly, if just for an instant. You can even look for a bathroom and not find one simultaneously, or taste your own tongue. It doesn't get any more direct than that. And the effect for me was at times surreal because I didn't fully understand a lot of it but filled in gaps with my imagination rather than read the translation. I can't find the passage now, but I swear there was a point where he looks out the window and sees a screeching & flaming scrum of 4 or 5 cats, interlocked in a burning sexual frenzy! To make matters even stranger, there were a bunch of passages in untranslated French (the memoirs he was translating (& in a sense living vicariously in the process) were written in French). So your level of understanding hinges on your knowledge of French. It seemed to me there were other illusions to animal sacrifices & torturing cats, but they were in French so I can't be sure. Suffice to say it was a magical, horrifying (ala Poe) & surreal experience with language—reading Aura.
carlos fuentes: aura

Back to Heidegger. In The Way to Language he develops the idea of 'Saying' as a different entity than speaking, as showing rather than telling:

The way to speaking is present within language itself. The way to language (in the sense of speaking) is language as Saying. The peculiarity of language, accordingly, conceals itself in the way in which saying allows those who listen to it to reach language. [...] Saying is in no way the linguistic expression added to the phenomena after they have appeared—rather, all radiant appearance and all fading away is grounded in the showing Saying.

Besides language speaking for itself, lately (in the context of Ark Codex) I've been dwelling a lot on the idea of authorship. In addition to the need to attach your name to a work of art, it seems most writers these days write with a particular audience in mind, whether it be their contemporary peers, those that share a common culture bound by that language, or even for the existing world at large. But if you were to think fatalistically that the human race is destined for self-annihilation (like I admittedly do) then it's interesting to think about why artists & writers feel compelled to make art.

With this in mind, I went to the Museum of the Americas to see the Madrid Codex (while J & F went to their meeting—the same F that travelled with us to Kenya & got malaria). It's hard to say what the intentions were of the 'author' (believed to be a single scribe). The beauty of it is that it is what it is. No one really knows how it got to Europe (hence why it's called the Madrid Codex—after the city where it was discovered). 'Scholars believe,' as they say, that it's some sort of almanac, documenting agricultural practices & whatnot (just like what people assume about MS408). But maybe that's because that's what 'scholars' are looking for—they assume it has practical intentions. They see pictures of plants & assume they were for eating & not, say, consumed for the merits of their psychedelic properties. How do we know some Mayan scribe didn't smoke some ganja & write down whatever brainfarts came to his head? In fact, there were a couple of images depicting cigar smoking (or spliff, you decide, though cannabis was not indigenous to the Americas). Another folio looked like instructions for making a fire. Another page detailed how to fashion your hair into a coifed beehive on top of your head. But how do we know it's not a story about a guy who smokes a cigar, then gets his hair done & decides to make a fire, etc.? Another page depicts a Mayan dude taking a knife to another guy's head—'scholars' say it depicts instructions on carving totems, but to me it looked more like trephination on a live human subject. No one ever considers such ancient discovered books might have been written in the name of art. Even the bible... whose to say it's not fiction that people mistook for truth?

Madrid Codex Tro-Cortesianus

folio from the Madrid Codex (a.k.a. Tro-Cortesianus)

They don't call the Madrid Codex as such in Madrid, understandably so. They call it the Códice Trocortesiano. It wasn't the only codex in the museum, there was also the Códice Tudela & lots of others stuff the Spanish looted from the Americas. Exiting through the giftshop I asked if you could buy a facsimile of the Madrid Codex to, say, read at home at my own leisure. She took me to a special area & showed me one that cost 2700 euros. Why it's not in the public domain is criminal. How can a museum own the rights to these things, as far as reproducing & charging such outrageous prices way beyond the cost of reproducing it? Especially considering it was stolen from the Mayans to begin with.

Tudela codex

from the Tudela Codex [with text in Spanish]

Flâneured some more around downtown Madrid then met J & F & ate & drank our way across town, even though I'm not crazy about Spanish food. But they do have more diversity compared to Romans—in addition to tapas we also had some tacos & Thai food. But mostly the Spanish eat lots of swine, they even have these popular 'museos de jamón' where you eat surrounded by hanging pig legs still hoofed & oozing with grease. We also had sherry at La Venecia, but I'm just not a big fan of sherry so hard to say if it was any good. For the most part though, Madrid is far less chaotic & civilized than, say, Rome. Everything is fairly clean & orderly. You don't have to worry about getting run over by motorinos. The subway system is great & runs often. There's lots of green space. People are laidback. & Perhaps best of all, there's not that many tourists.

The next morning I went to the Prado, which was for the most part a big disappointment. I occupied myself as I often do considering things in the anthropological light of our own self-annihilation. If some aliens came to our planet after we'd wiped ourselves out, what would they think? They'd come to the Prado & probably recognize that it housed important objects of some sort—depictions on square framed canvases that for the most part consist of 3 motifs: 1. a guy nailed to a cross, 2. madonna with child & 3. bowls of fruit. The madonna & child motif makes sense I guess given the nature of humans. The Prado in particular seems to have a disproportionate amount of madonnas squirting milk from their tits—one with a madonna two-fisting it, squeezing milk all over a scrum of savage babies, another of a starving beggar suckling up to a mother's breast & another with a priest praying to a madonna & as if his prayers were answered she squirts a stream of milk straight into his open mouth.

Madonna squirting milk to priest

The Vision of St. Bernard by Alonso Cano (1650)

The most noteworthy thing about the Prado is the number of Goyas it contains, including the firing squad one (The 3rd of May 1808) which was a much bigger in real life than I imagined. There were all these students or perhaps they were 'artists' paid by the museum to set up their easels right in front of paintings & copy them. As if to show that art is not art but just a craft, easily copied. In the case of Caravaggio's David Showing Goliath's Head (1605) (not to be confused with the 1601 painting where he's holding the head, which is at the Borghese Gallery) there was a pretentious 'artist' with an easel set up smack in front of the painting so you couldn't even see the real one but had to look at his shite remake!

After that I went and got some Asturian fabada for lunch, thinking ah, would be nice to have some beans for a change, only to discover that the white bean stew had at least 5 different pig products in it, including pieces of blood sausage. Tasty nonetheless. Or at least filling (usually I leave Spanish restaurants still hungry for a big bowl of pasta or rice). Went back to the hotel & met J & we went to the Reina Sofia, which was awesome. As massive as the Prado but all modern art. Tons of Mirós, Dalís & Picassos (including Guernica, flanked by two guards). There was a special exhibit on Raymond Roussel & the artists & writers he influenced. Then we met F & ate & drank our way around the Huerta & Latina quarters.

Vito Acconci: Research Station: First Impressions & the Beginnings of a Conceptual Approach (Antarctica)

Vito Acconci: Research Station: First Impressions & the Beginnings of a Conceptual Approach (Antarctica)

Next day was mellow, did some writing. The take-away from all this (again, in the light of Ark Codex) is that language can only truly speak for & about itself. Not only is Ark Codex written by no one it is for no one. As such, it should not require requisite knowledge of any language. It should contain within itself a 'Rosetta stone'—it should be it's own Rosetta stone in addition to what it is. You shouldn't think presumptuously of your contemporaries when writing but should write imagining that there will be no one left to read it when you are finished. Or think of an unknown alien culture finding it & trying to make sense of it. Or not think at all about audience but just let it speak for itself. J & F finished their meeting & we went to the botanical gardens (it was a nice day out unlike the previous which were rainy). Went to the Atocha train station turned greenhouse. Walked around the Chueca & Malasaña areas. Ate at La Musa which was probably the best meal we had in Madrid. Went to some place called Café La Palma & saw some bands, one of which was called Mirémonos who were pretty damn talented. In fact, I'm pretty sure the live footage from this video was taken at Café La Palma:

(You can download the above song or their Kaizen album for free on Bandcamp). On the way home I read the first 100 pages of Don Quixote (an abridged 300-page version in Spanish that I picked up at one of the many great bookstores in Madrid). I've read it in English, but wanted to see what reading it in the original language was like. In my opinion it's up there as one of the top 5 books ever written. And then to consider it was one of the first books written in Spanish... it's mad.


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