Was Dracula foiled by a gang of obsessive note-takers?

May 3 is the date Bram Stoker’s famous novel, Dracula begins. It’s a classic tale of evil, lust and violence and you can follow along from the safety of your in-box with Dracula Daily.1

I was not able to light on any map or work giving the exact locality of the Castle Dracula, as there are no maps of this country as yet to compare with our own Ordnance Survey maps; but I found that Bistritz, the post town named by Count Dracula, is a fairly well-known place. I shall enter here some of my notes, as they may refresh my memory when I talk over my travels with Mina.

The novel is presented as a whole series of notes - journal entries, letters, typed memos and phonograph transcriptions - by a group of bewildered friends (lovers? enemies?), as they try to make sense of the supernatural designs of the mysterious Count. In 1897, when the novel was written, all this seemed new and high-tech. The story, in effect, pits aspirational note-taking against monstrous, blood-sucking evil. You’ll have to read it to find out which of these two tremendous powers wins out in the end.

These days, fortunately, all we have to worry about is ChatGPT taking our jobs. But collecting our notes together and making sense of them, against all the odds, remains as important as ever.

  1. I have no connection with this site - I’m just obsessed with Dracula↩︎

You don’t build art, you grow it

Finished reading: Dancing with the Gods by Kent Nerburn 📚

This book is advice on the artistic life from an experienced sculptor and writer. I found one section particularly striking. It contrasted two approaches to making art: that of the architect and that of the gardener.

“The architect designs and builds; he [sic] knows the desired outcome before he begins. The gardener plants and cultivates, trusting the sun and weather and the vagaries of change to bring forth a bloom. As artists we must learn to be gardeners, not architects. We must seek to cultivate our art, not construct it, giving up our preconceptions and presuppositions to embrace accident and mystery. Let moments of darkness become the seedbed of growth, not occasions of fear.”

I remembered these words while visiting the new exhibition spaces at the Art Gallery of New South Wales in Sydney. It’s hard to imagine an artwork that could have more clearly illustrated the cultivation approach to art that Nerburn wrote of.

In a huge, mysterious, and very dark underground space called The Tank, Argentinian sculptor Adrián Villar Rojas was exhibiting a series of extraordinary sculptures entitled The End of Imagination. These pieces, apparently four years in the making, seemed really ancient, but of the deep future, organic, not constructed, more biological than artificial, and they appeared to be growing there in the darkness.

Rojas undertook an exhaustive computer simulation of deep-time environmental processes in imagined extraterrestrial contexts, to shape and weather each piece, prior to creating their physical representation. So the outcome was not so much sculpted as weathered and sedimented into existence - yet not by any kind of earthly processes.

A large sculpture in the Adrian Villar Rojas exhibition entitled The End of Imagination, in the Tank at the Art Gallery of New South Wales. The sculpture is partially lit, while the rest of the gallery is dark.

Earlier thoughts on Dancing with the Gods.

Free books! 📚

TIL: A search on Amazon Kindle produces loads of free academic book titles, many of which are high quality and really interesting. Just search for publisher (e.g. Routledge), or “University Press”, or “open access”, then order the results by price: low to high. The lowest ones are $0.
Hat tip: @aus.social@joannaholman

Finished reading Cold Enough for Snow

Finished reading: Cold Enough for Snow by Jessica Au 📚 This was a quite mezmerising read. It reminded me of the writing of Yasunari Kawabata, who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1968. He wrote a novel called Snow Country. Both these snowy books are set in an unnamed Japanese onsen resort in the winter, a train journey away from Tokyo. The Wikipedia entry for Kawabata’s work says:

Through many of Kawabata’s works the sense of distance in his life is represented. He often gives the impression that his characters have built up a wall around them that moves them into isolation… Kawabata left many of his stories apparently unfinished, sometimes to the annoyance of readers and reviewers, but this goes hand to hand with his aesthetics of art for art’s sake, leaving outside any sentimentalism, or morality, that an ending would give to any book. This was done intentionally, as Kawabata felt that vignettes of incidents along the way were far more important than conclusions.

All this qualities strongly apply to Jennifer Au’s book, too. But she writes about quite different themes, such as the relationship between mother and daughter, and the distance that accrues between second generation migrants and their parental place of origin.

I found the prose to be so understated as to be almost tedious, but then I found the narrator’s ‘vignettes of incidents along the way’ strangely engaging.

The thing about advice is that people do what they want with it

Currently reading: Dancing with the Gods by Kent Nerburn 📚

I know nothing at all about Kent Nerburn, so it’s interesting to read this book of reflections on creative work.

I did notice, though, that the US version of this book has been re-named to: The Artist’s Journey: On Making Art and Being an Artist. This alternative title reminds me of the format of Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet, in the sense that both authors offer reflections on their creative experience, having been prompted by a letter from a younger person, wondering about setting out on a career as an artist. The difference is that Rilke was rather young to be dishing out such ‘wisdom’, whereas Nerburn has lived a bit.

To be fair to Rilke, though, he didn’t seek out Franz Xaver Kappus, the nineteen year old military cadet who first wrote for advice when Rilke was only twenty seven. Nor did Rilke publish his letters of advice. They were only collected and published after his death, by Kappus. Nor finally was Rilke’s advice in any way arrogant. He said:

“Nobody can advise you and help you. Nobody. There is only one way—Go into yourself.”

Rilke’s advice didn’t make Kappus a poet. It didn’t make him abandon his military career. He was an officer for 15 years and fought in WW1. But Rilke surely helped make him a writer. Kappus wrote novels and screenplays and was a newspaper editor for many years.

That’s the thing about advice. People receive it and then they do what they want with it. Oscar Wilde said:

“I always pass on good advice. It is the only thing to do with it. It is never of any use to oneself.”

Though given his legal difficulties, perhaps he should have listened, just once.

I finished Dancing with the Gods.
Can Rilke change your life?

Can sentimental writing ever be as exact as reality?

Finished reading: The Forest of Wool and Steel by Natsu Miyashita 📚 There’s a section of the book where the narrator, an apprentice piano tuner, quotes a Japanese writer’s vision of what they’re trying to achieve:

“Bright, quiet, crystal-clear writing that evokes fond memories, that seems a touch sentimental yet is unsparing and deep, writing as lovely as a dream, yet as exact as reality.”

The piano tuner syas that this is what he wants for his own work. Of course this is implicitly what the author of the novel is seeking for their own writing, so it’s surely a little meta. Yet a sentimental style is by definition in tension with reality. If it wasn’t, it would be seen not as sentimental but as realism. The more sentimental the writing is, the less exactly it can describe the world. The great risk is that a writer who entertains sentimental writing may also forgive stereotype and cliche. There are times when this book rises above sentimentality, but not many times.

The past is as urgent as ever

Finished reading: The War of the Poor by Eric Vuillard 📚

This incendiary novella - only 66 pages long - burns so fiercely it felt like a bomb was about to go off in my hand. With amazing economy the author, Eric Vuillard, brings to life the brief, violent career of Thomas Müntzer. He makes the past as vivid as an execution, and renders the urgency of the past fully present. The Peasants' War, so distant in time, is now.

“Müntzer is thirsty, hungry and thirsty, terribly hungry and thirsty, and nothing can sate him, nothing can slake his thirst. He’ll devour old bones, branches, stones, mud, milk, blood, fire. Everything.”


Visions of a utopian Middle Ages

Finished reading: Matrix by Lauren Groff 📚

I found this an intriguing, highly fictional reconstruction of the life of a medieval convent. The version of Marie de France presented here - visionary, heretical, fiercely compassionate - is certainly doing far more than just filling in the gaps in the historical record. The author makes her a really intriguing, though surely anachronistic, character. And in Lauren Groff’s Marie, there’s more than an echo of another medieval mystic, Hildegard of Bingen.

Although I fully approve of lesbian feminist seperatist utopias (which obviously hardly need my approval), I feel Groff has missed an opportunity here to present a politically pursuasive vision. In particular, why did Marie need to build a huge protective labyrinth around her convent, effectively cutting it off from the rest of the world? The medieval Beguine movement of female lay communities, was highly influential and highly urban. It’s an example of real-life utopianism that wasn’t disconnected from the rest of society at all.

Reading this novel has encouraged me to seek out the background historical research, The Care of Nuns, by Katie Bugrys.

My piano is a forest

Currently reading: The Forest of Wool and Steel by Natsu Miyashita 📚

I love the metaphor of the piano as a living forest, and I’m enjoying the journey of the diffident main character, Tomura, in his apprenticeship as a piano tuner. It’s certainly making me see my own piano in a new light.

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