I want to write about a certain kind of prose. It is the kind of prose that gets lost in itself. The kind of writing that tumbles head over heels and threatens to drown in its own wake. But not quite. The kind of prose that drowns completely is not so interesting. And the prose that never gets lost is not so interesting either. In my opinion. You’ve got to teeter around and stumble just at the edge there. In my opinion.
I’m thinking right now of Ingeborg Bachmann. She was a poet but she gave up poetry. She was a philosopher but she gave up philosophy. She was a person but she gave up being a person. Or tried to. I don’t know. She died in Rome in 1972 from the results of smoking a cigarette in bed. She was hooked, at that point, on pills and drink. So it was a kind of lazy, slow moving suicide. She couldn’t teeter on the edge anymore and so she just went over. Maybe.
She wrote a novel before she died. I guess you can call it a novel. Better, let’s say she wrote a piece of prose just a couple of years before that cigarette and the pills got her. It is called Malina. It is impossible to say what Malina is about and so I will not try. It isn’t about anything. It is about everything. It is the story of a love affair, but not really. It is about two love affairs actually. It is about a hate affair. It is just about love. Love as a terrifying thing. Necessary and terrifying. The narrator of Malina is obsessed with a man named Ivan. Here is something she writes about Ivan.
Long before I first heard Ivan shout the word ‘gyerekek!’ or ‘kuss gyerekek!’ he told me: I’m sure you’ve already understood. I don’t love anyone. Except my children, of course, but no one else. I nod, although I hadn’t known, and it’s obvious to Ivan that it should be obvious even to me. JUBILATE. Poised over an abyss, it nonetheless occurs to me how it should begin: EXSULTATE.
You see what I mean? Poised over an abyss and whatnot. Teetering on the edge of what just barely makes sense.
Jubilate Exsultate is, by the way, a motet written by Mozart in 1773 or maybe the end of 1772. Roundabouts that time. You could say it’s something of a frothy piece of music but there is no doubt that it jubilates and there is a fair argument that it exsultates as well. A motet, it should be noted, is a short piece of choral music. The most incredible thing about Jubilate Exsultate is in the fourth section of the short piece. That’s where Mozart decided that his singer would essentially go completely nuts with the word “alleluia.” It gets close to being an unhinged piece of music. I’ve watched performances of Jubilate Exsultate on YouTube where I could swear the singer is about to start laughing somewhere in the middle of the fourth section.
Also, it should be noted that ‘kuss gyerekek’ means ‘shut up children’ in Hungarian. Ivan is Hungarian. Kuss gyrekek is something that he likes to yell. So it is very funny that Ivan tells the narrator that he loves no one except his kids. Ivan, it should be clear, is terrible. This fact only drives the narrator further into her desperate need for him. JUBILATE. EXSULTATE.
When Bachmann writes that ‘it’ should begin with EXSULTATE she is talking about a piece of prose she is trying to write, a book. Is this book the very book we are reading, namely Malina? Maybe, maybe not. Here’s what she says the book will be like.
A stream of words starts in my head, then an incandescence, a few syllables begin to glow, and brightly colored commas fly out of all the dependent clauses and the periods which were once black have swollen into balloons and float up into my cranium, for everything will be like EXSULTATE JUBILATE in that glorious book I am just beginning to find. Should this book appear, as someday it must, people will writhe with laughter after only one page, they will leap for joy, they will be comforted, they will read on, biting their fists to suppress their cries of joy, it can’t be helped, and when they sit down by the window and read still further they’ll start flinging confetti to the pedestrians on the street below, so that they, too, will stop, astonished, as if they had walked into a carnival, and people will start throwing apples and nuts, dates and figs just like on St. Nicholas Day, they will lean out of their windows without getting dizzy and shout out: Hear, hear! Look and see! I’ve just read something wonderful, may I read it to you, everybody come close, it’s wonderful!
Somehow, it is the Hungarian asshole Ivan who stimulates the insane desire that comes forth in Bachmann’s prose. Maybe, even, it is necessary that Ivan be this way. It is necessary that the world be utterly mundane and utterly exsultatable at the same time. Necessary because that is, in fact, how it is. The world is Ivan. And Ivan will always also be JUBILATE, EXSULTATE. Prose will always be frustrating and mute, will always fail to reveal the real thing we really really want it to reveal, which is just the inner core of how it feels actually to be unaccountably right here, the way things actually are. Why can’t this be communicated? Stupid prose. And then, at the edge of despair, the incandescence begins.
Behind all of this there is a glimmering and obscure thought. “The eye with which I see God is the same eye with which God sees me: my eye and God’s eye are one eye, one seeing, one knowing and one love.” Maybe. But I cannot concentrate and Ivan is in the other room yelling kuss gyrekek!
Morgan Meis has a PhD in Philosophy and is a founding member of Flux Factory, an arts collective in New York. He has written for n+1, The Believer, Harper’s Magazine, The Virginia Quarterly Review and is a contributor at The New Yorker. He won the Whiting Award for non-fiction in 2013. Morgan is also an editor at 3 Quarks Daily, and a winner of a Creative Capital | Warhol Foundation Arts Writers grant. A book of Morgan’s selected essays can be found here. His new book from Slant is The Drunken Silenus. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.