Exchanges on Light is forthcoming in March, 2008 from La Presse.
Exchanges on Light by Jacques Roubaud.
Translated by Eleni Sikelianos.
In the Presence of Light
By Melissa Buckheit
Where does the mind go after the death of the beloved? And the heart? Do we try to find our partner in another realm beyond an 'earthly' one, their vibration both vivid and ungraspable, as light moving through the fingers always does leave?
Many years ago I lost a lover in the chance occurrence of time—two bodies on opposite trajectories, in this case, coasts. She did not die but it nearly felt like it, and I felt myself transformed in the way that things leave us, even parts of ourselves, evanescent and intangible. Since then, I've felt a great presence within what might be called the unseen life of things, although these things are no more material in flesh or atoms than light may be; nonetheless, they are real. How might things like the dark and light, shadow, stars, the vacuum of space and the invisible movement hidden in each atom, seem just as real as the firm wood of our house or the breathing body beside us on the subway? If what was flesh and heart to our heart has left, 'disappeared into' the unseen, would not that world then contain a portion of us, like the tip of finger may disappear into the edge of a dark room?
We would examine it, learn of it, touch its energy and present light, its palpable darkness so that we may know and speak of death. To be closer to the beloved, the body may seek even the cold heat of some stars.
Jacques Roubaud's Échanges de la lumiére is the middle book of three written after the death of his wife, Alix Cleo Roubaud. Some Thing Black and The Plurality of Worlds of Lewis, having been translated by Rosemarie Waldrop, Eleni Sikelianos' translation of Échanges, Exchanges on Light, brings forward the middle book in an English both clear and humanly awake, sober yet transfixingly harmonious with Roubaud's luminous yet elusive language, elusive in the sense of his presence—body, limb, tongue—within a world of the unseen he explores. Roubaud's French in Échanges is one most kindred, of kin with what is visible and invisible in the air, the assonances of light and the body, the cold arrival inside death, dedans la mort, that has always been possible in the French language—from Mallarmé to Baudelaire, Camus to Proust to Jabés. To lift this inclination from French and travel with it into English takes a careful, vital ear and tongue. Sikelianos abandons herself to none other than absolute coalescence inside Roubaud's text, in moments fighting tooth and nail a millimeter closer to the unremittingly humane yet incandescent logic and dialogue of the French. Yet her translation is also aware of the necessity of the English, of what must be traversed as well as translated to make a new book in a new language. Witness,
Lewis de B.
The only beauty conceivable in light is, as in all things, the beauty that comes to us from knowledge: to know how light, to know how it moves, I ask no further beauty.
As for me, I would say: the beauty of light is its pain. I name light more than I see it. If I name light, I have named pain.
Exchanges is the intersection of mind with the world, after the death of the other. If Some Thing Black spoke on the most immediate, personal and intimate level of the self in the flux of loss, and The Plurality of Worlds of Lewis investigated the boundaries between possible worlds, the earthly, the 'unseen,' and the phenomenology of the self's own perception of the body of what is lost (a woman's), and the mind left behind, Roubaud's, Exchanges on Light seeks enter into a conversation inside not only the personal and the perceptual, but inside philosophy, physics, the history of ideas, religion, mathematics and poetry, situating itself at the center of a movement which collapses outward, traveling in all directions. The book is set over six nights, with five speakers engaging in dialogue about the nature of light. One of Roubaud's characters, M. Goodman, begins the introduction, placing the speakers and the reader in two real settings—a house in the countryside nearing dusk, and the air which holds the subtle light, the real spaces of stars and of the imagination, perception,
I've asked you all to gather here for the next few evenings, just when the lamps are being lit, as the natural light is dying, leaving the outside world in darkness. Imagine that these windows open to the west, that right out there is the grass, the cultivated grass, of a park laid out by, say, Capability Brown, or perhaps Humphrey Repton, with its orderly disorder of trees and, farther on, the low hills in the soft English distance.
But each of you might imagine another landscape, one beyond these windows facing us, one pierced by stars and lamps in which their lights meet, fight, trade, and leave even as we speak. It's of light that we speak, that you speak.
What is the light? We seem to think that light is the body transmuted from its corporeal form, light is a medium through which energy moves, not literal energy of joules but the waves and particles of sense, the sense of the other. The light moves through air in changes, la lumire in French, as it would seem to before our eyes, so the air and the presence of the light are evidence of some tear or rip in the space around us, some gateway. The other speakers respond, each with a different enumeration of light,
No light, no world; and it's not just the world that's not, without light, but all that is, which is but light. Objects are of worn-out light. The total of light is the world.
Light is the boiling point of things.
Basil of C.
Light is an emanation from God; as emanation, it is an eternal process; it is not creation at each instant; for creation is ex nihilo and takes place in time; and light is natural while creation is a deliberate act.
Everything you have just trebly said is naught but this: the world is luciforme a luce prima: formed of light, derived from First Light. Light is the first bodily form. It is not objects but forms that are light, the only substance of the physical world that is nearly pure form; since all form is a form of light that manifests in the object that it informs.
Light is what cannot be touched; untouchable even as lightning. The cause of all beings, itself nothing, being overessentially cut off from everything.
Lewis de B.
Be serious, let's not get carried away: when the sun, after hovering majestically on the horizon, sinks and suddenly disappears from sight, we understand that between this star and us exists a mode of communication that, without our having to touch it, brings its presence to mind. This mode of communication, which exercises itself over incommensurable distances and is transmitted via the eyes — this, and this alone, is light.
But we may never fully know light, Roubaud seems to say in Exchanges, and of course we cannot. The questions asked of the nature of light range from it origin (who made it and whence did it begin), its nature (is it infinite or finite), out to the inhabiting of light, bodies of light in space, the space we are in, as well as light's inverse—shadow, darkness, loss—and the variance between lights and light, a metaphysics,
But isn't that what light is? There is light and there are lights; lights are objects, light is arrow. The first change, not the second.
Not-light is also the being of beings-of-light. We mustn't call them the simple reverse of perceptible light. If one reasons thus, one transforms them into their opposite, that is to say, into what is, in itself, darkness; instead of being that-which-manifests, that-which-illumines, they become only something manifested, the sign of a light other than that light which informs them. Contrary to what Aristotle said, all contingent realities, like the simple lights which appear on the hill, or those reborn in Mr. Goodman's memory of London, each accidental configuration, must be preceded by a more noble being: it's the illuminative exigency resting on the unconditional hegemony of illumination in relation to the object that it reveals.
Roubaud speaks both of the properties of 'dark bodies', as well as the human body after death. An inquiry against the human fear that all is lost with this dissolution, he preserves the soul, the essence of light. In Sikelianos' translation, arrives,
Visible light, although moving (because of our own slowness) imperceptibly, is no less essentially slow. For it doesn't emanate directly from an absolute luminous core, but from a dark body (dark like ours, like all material bodies). A body, a dark body, is a sponge for light; it absorbs real light and adulterates it. Heated like the stars, it goes from red to white, but the glow it emits, which we call light, is only a distortion of the true light it has swallowed and which we force it to give back.
Which is most real, life-life or the other life? Perhaps a book composed of questions is most aptly engaged with questions. We can not know, but we may follow, perhaps even inhabit a 'dark' light; as Dennis PS. says, If shadows had no light, we wouldn't see them. Sitting here in the morning, as a pale winter light shudders through my curtains, I am led to think of a short poem by Akhmatova from her later work,
It is not with the lyre of someone in love
that I go seducing people.
The rattle of the leper
is what sings in my hands.
(trans. Jane Kenyon, from Twenty Poems of Anna Akhmatova)
Roubaud is no leper; yet as a poet and a writer in the society of OuLiPo, he sings. The fragile luminosity of changes and Sikelianos' Exchanges, brings beauty to such a pitch it might shatter glass. Yet, it is the unbearable beauty, the truth of great price, only arrived at by passage through the fire of great loss. This is some other transaction; Akhmatova's emotion is true also for Roubaud, who sees beyond what existed before, into new forms. The compassionate fire of his intelligence burns with the sharpness of inquiry and the pleasure of encountering natures and experiences which cannot be completely known. Yet, there is no blood in Exchanges, not the blood of the body, the quintessence of Eros. These are different worlds, between which exists a portal. The act which bridges is the act of writing; if not of the flesh, then of the heart—memory, as the cipher which you read on this virtual page, is illuminated by light.
To call light beautiful one must be able to say: what light tells me is itself, but of this I cannot, can no longer, speak.
. . .
Just before light, time takes place, just after, beauty does; during light, light.
Exchanges on Light
translated by Eleni Sikelianos
The correct title for this volume is Exchanges on Light though the cover image sent out by the publisher, and used here, has the erratum of 'Exchanges of Light.' Exchanges on Light is forthcoming in March, 2008 from La Presse.