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Robert Bond reviews

No Traveller Returns
by Vahni Capildeo

Salt. GBP£10.95. 1876857889 paper

Robert Bond has taught at Cambridge, South Bank and Westminster universities. His critical study Iain Sinclair will be published by Salt in 2005.

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More than Museums

A linguist brilliant at Oxford and then Cambridge, coins a new diagnostic category for her type: the ‘Monster’. The Monster is unworldly and obsessive, constantly patterning together ‘the most abrupt transitions and the unlikeliest effusions’, in an attempt to interiorize and mentally crystallize the unpredictable world. Such absolute inwardness is trained well in the specializing academic environment. Yet Vahni Capildeo’s category, the Monster, offers more than a horrific fable of disengaged Oxbridge psychology. Radical estrangement, for the Monster, is not the reverse of functioning in the world, but precisely how she functions in it: this is ‘the long process — not always visible to others — of being alone’. The suggestion can thus be made that radical estrangement, though often rendered invisible by illusory social relations, is the way of being of us all. ‘Monsters are witnesses to the happy population’, though — they exist partly to preserve the illusion of fulfilled relations. No Traveller Returns consistently decries this illusion, pinpointing ‘natural-fibre humanity’ as the ‘social limits’, life that does not live, the veneer through which ‘Monster Self’ at its best cuts.[1]

OED locates the phrase ‘monster-love’ in John Ford’s 1633 drama The Broken Heart. Such ‘deformed or aborted love’, or the climate of emotional aridity inhabited by the radically estranged, is registered in No Traveller Returns by vocabularies of hibernation and ossification. Brian Catling has characterized Capildeo’s writing as ‘crafted silver turning on faultless glass’[2]. The technical-formal precision of this writing is intimately related to its concern with the ossified (or metallicized) self; ‘insect starved out to silver’ (22). Crucially, Capildeo’s descriptions of arid, dormant inwardness reveal a preoccupation with the static or unchanging, which relates to her book’s encounter with myth. This partial and polemical reading of Capildeo’s astonishing book aims to show that her confrontation with the mythic quality of contemporary life enables her to intimate an effective critique of the privatized faith which solaces the estranged self. Her writing’s engagement with mythic experience supplants bourgeois faith with an idea of ‘intent’ toward utopia. In the face of burgeoning American dogma and a yuppie, lifestyle Christianity, No Traveller Returns holds out a potent left utopianism.

‘Nothing Poem’ views sleep — or willed hibernation — as a ‘leap’, a ‘vertigo’ casting the self from the round of days into mythic timelessness: ‘sleep should reject as a start this budding consciousness,/ break from the day to come, sink again, truly archaic.’ (22) These lines will perhaps recall the association of the frozen psyche with mythic timelessness which occurs in Adorno’s account of Kafka’s ‘expressionist epic’. At this point I want to take up with Allen Fisher’s insight that Catling’s ‘conceptual apparatus... links directly to aspects of Expressionism’. Given the profound influence of Catling’s work on Capildeo, it seems possible to trace a (neo-)expressionist lineage here, and to argue that the radical subjectivism and radical estrangement of No Traveller Returns is best illuminated by Adorno’s view of Kafka.

An expressionist epic is a paradox. It tells of something about which nothing can be told, of the totally self-contained subject, which is unfree and which, in fact, can hardly be said to exist. Dissociated into the compulsive moments of its own restrictive and confined existence, stripped of identity with itself, its life has no continuity; objectless inwardness is space in the precise sense that everything it produces obeys the law of timeless repetition. This law is not unrelated to the ahistorical aspect of Kafka’s work.[3]

A trip on the part of objectless inwardness to view external nature prompts the caustic poem-title ‘A Day Outside’ (124). Yet consciousness with ‘no continuity’ can only project its experience outwards, where it becomes the property of nature, and timeless repetition. ‘The moon appears to know what it is doing, what I did.’ (41)

‘Desdemona Resuscitated’ again scans boxed-in life subsisting under the ‘monotone’ law of unvarying repetition:

... Out of range,
I stand in that walled square. Height seems to turn,
And exits flicker with it. All is gone,
Of neither fixed nor followed dailiness,
Except the stonework. That is monotone.
She leaves me nothing. Hence her endlessness.
Trapped in a rhomb of ice a chainmail carp’s
A gleam beneath my sinking English moon,
Off-centre in the fountain. Legend sharps
These non-encounters. Time resumes me then. (54)

In these lines the idea of a successive ‘monotone’, or unvarying, timeless repetition, is identified with the concept of ‘neither fixed nor followed dailiness’, or a nonsuccessive, empty, abstract time. This form of time recalls ‘the empty time sequence, to which the man in the mood of “spleen” is abandoned’, discussed by Benjamin in ‘Some Motifs in Baudelaire’. Benjamin here derived his concept of empty time from Poe’s ‘mystical “Colloquy of Monos and Una”‘, where Poe uses the phrase ‘mental pendulous pulsation’. Whereas Poe’s pulsation regulates the cycles of external nature — ‘the firmamental orbs’ — in Capildeo’s ‘Gone to Pieces’ the ‘lyric timelessly ticking’ is purely internal to the estranged subject:

There seemed to have sprung up in the brain that of which no words could convey to the merely human intelligence even an indistinct conception. Let me term it a mental pendulous pulsation. It was the moral embodiment of man’s abstract idea of Time. By the absolute equalization of this movement — or of such as this — had the cycles of the firmamental orbs themselves been adjusted.[4]

Internal sluicings and pressures,
beadswishing of blood’s blueness,
your lyric timelessly ticking,
never to be snapped red by air. (144)

Capildeo’s concern with the self’s ‘lyric timelessly ticking’, then, illustrates her preoccupation with the changeless quality of the products of objectless inwardness. The poem ‘Convivial’ erotically attacks one visible illusion of sexual happiness, sensing another static product of basically objectless selves. Confrontational seating arrangements legitimize a false passion, the ‘self-selfed consequential’ logic of which betrays two desperate, houseless narcissisms.

... I like you too much to sit
opposite you at lunch —
much rather beside you inside
one same side of our overeyed edge,
lodged love eschewing pond-pleasure’s
torrential self-selfed consequential
unleisurely ease... (94)

A similar consequential, invariant quality of course marks the self’s twice-daily commute, in ‘Commuter Installation’:

‘I am telling us
what it is like the
second time round, and
again, and again,
and again. (141)

Here where we see every traveller returning, successively, No Traveller Returns underlines the mythic quality of the behaviour that objectless inwardness leads us to. Rationalized relationships and administered labour, in condemning us to the invariant and merely-existent, are themselves already in full reversion to myth. ‘Leaving behind nothing but what merely is, demythologization recoils into the mythus; for the mythus is nothing else than the closed system of immanence, of that which is.’[5]

Adorno noted how Kafka’s writing showed bourgeois rationality reverting to mythology against its own intentions, in particular when his expressionism revealed the impurity of a supposedly purified faith modelled on objectless inwardness.

Totally abstract, and indeterminate, purged of all anthropomorphic and mythological qualities, God becomes the ominously ambiguous and threatening deity who evokes nothing but dread and terror. His ‘purity’ — patterned after the mind — which expressionist inwardness sets up as absolute, recreates the archaic terror of nature-bound man in the horror of that which is radically unknown. Kafka’s work preserves the moment in which the purified faith was revealed to be impure, in which demythologizing appeared as demonology.[6]

Adorno offers a level-headed critique of bourgeois immanence, or of the contemporary capitalist self, even as he asserts the persistence of theology and its contemporary regression to demonology. For it is, he argues, the self-interested, privatized self whose divine mirror-image evokes mythic awe once more. Capildeo’s dedication to the goddess Dhumavati, ‘For Dhumavati: Her Work’, similarly takes care to note that she is a deity for the estranged, patterned after a Hindu mind which previewed the contemporary capitalist one in its radical inwardness. ‘She is portrayed as a widow, usually old, ugly, inauspicious, and highly dangerous to those who are not single or detached from the world.’ (9) Capildeo’s poem ‘Remove Packaging Before Use’, too, stresses that it is the ‘personal god’ which now evokes mythic dread and terror, hinting with Adorno that the image of transcendence betrays the continuing suffering of the estranged inwardness which would conceive privatized, undercover salvation:

The Sole Creator: ’s he a maniac stranger
like the one who sent my friend a declaration
(under cover to her supervisor) —
in every word each letter pencilled in a different colour
by the would-be lover? (131)

Again like Adorno, Capildeo asserts the reappearance of mythic awe, ‘the archaic terror of nature-bound man in the horror of that which is radically unknown’, which a rationalized faith would deny even as it reverts to it. Her re-creation of dread is rendered the more powerful by her refusal to offer the estranged self consolation, for instance in the form of a bid for private salvation. In conceiving a purified faith, the bourgeois subject returned the archaic terror of the nature-bound to himself, and must suffer it; this is the message of ‘Hades’. ‘... We are silted up,/ The mote, the jot, in a mothering earthquake’s/ Antique wrath.’ This poem renders corporeal a mythic condition of pressure, which capitalism and an abstracted religion have brought us back to, and which the reader experiences throughout Capildeo’s book.

Your stomach bitter, lungs drowning, bitterness,
Your mauve mouth staggering, your eyes stammering,
As women put to water-death drank volumes,
Bursting under sentence to destroy themselves. (97)

Capildeo was not (de)formed by the compression chamber that is London. Yet along with Catling and Iain Sinclair, she suggests that our estranged selves’ imperative is to confront mythic dread of nature and the ‘radically unknown’, rather than merely lamenting it. ‘Static poltergeist fury/ entices the hunter’ (Pleiades in Nine).[7] Lamentation returns us to consolatory faith, the bid for private salvation, like ‘some wretched and over-rich/ geese buried up to their necks, livers enlarged like an idealist’s/ sorrows.’ (34)

Adorno saw the transcendence erected by the estranged subject to be abstract and indeterminate. In ‘Hades’ Capildeo proposes an alternative source of faith, which relates instead to ‘differences in scale/ Of things themselves, not just their ratio’. The variable materiality of forms is raised over the formless, abstracted deity, yet as a new source of faith, an ‘unprecedented’ darkness, born out of confrontation with the mythic terror of invariant night:

Come back to night. Exact, uncatchable differences in scale
Of things themselves, not just their ratio, emerge immensely,
Unprecedented night, every time the same, calyx of dodges. (97)

Though they emerge immensely, those utopian quantitative differences which would enable us temporarily to dodge mythic immanence are themselves ‘uncatchable’. Similarly, in ‘Nothing Poem’, the ‘difficult’ utopian ‘gift’ of a ‘wedge of coral, bone-white, spotted with/ heartsblood’, which too is shaped out of a confrontation with the mythic dread of invariant nature — being ‘your image taken into the blue, into the unheralded,/ repetitious, lost-messenger’ sky — is ‘unclassifiable’ and ‘uncommunicated’.

The ossified ‘bloom’ which ‘Nothing Poem’ offers as an icon of hope, defines the extraordinary spiritual demands exerted by Capildeo’s book: ‘unkind and/ unpretending,/ at each point seeming limitless, grained and ablaze.’ (23) As with the media mogul Howard Hughes of whom Sinclair writes in Suicide Bridge, the spiritual gift demanded remains uncommunicated because it is excessive, seeming limitless.

He had the Great Silence: was possessed of a truth richer than the visions of electro-convulsive therapy, darker than the tone of terminal alcoholics, madder than the gnomic prophecies of derelicts, further than the screamed secrets of raging women on midnight buses.

‘Look at me, forgive me, I am way beyond too much!’ (143) Like the narrator’s ‘chatter’ in ‘Remove Packaging Before Use’, the extremist gift posited in ‘Nothing Poem’ represents ‘an object that falls unpredictably further’ (131). This latter poem speaks of ‘cursed exaggeration of an act’, and it is as a consequence of its extreme spiritual demand that No Traveller Returns emits a ‘radiance having nothing to do with health’ (24). As a gift the book is ‘unkind and/ unpretending’, because it can pretend to nothing other than its own self-collapse. It has been noted how ‘important works of art are the ones that aim for an extreme; they are destroyed in the process and their broken outlines survive as the ciphers of a supreme, unnameable truth’[8]. The exaggerated utopian impulse inhabiting the Monster ensures that she can only be ‘bedazzled momently’ (122), since in gaining the extreme the utopian project implodes: the dazzling future burns out. ‘The first sign was stormlike,/ an ashy spasm of future hit the leaves.’ (147)

In No Traveller Returns this recognition enables the utopian project. In ‘The Mud Flats’, the narrator’s wish ‘to be where blaze partakes of twilight’ (99), or to recognize the collapse of an extreme utopian project, relates to the idea, suggested in ‘White Lilac Time’, that a dark origin, (of) the utopian impulse itself, is to be valued over any dazzling utopian end-point. ‘presence withheld retains the upper hand/ beyond understanding happiness explained.’ The ‘uncommunicated’ gift offered in ‘Nothing Poem’ illustrates such a dark origin or presence withheld. And the ‘pulsar song [is] so hot it started dark’ (33). Capildeo’s view that it is precisely the uncommunicated, hushed or darkened that intends — perhaps toward a ‘hot’ future of ‘happiness’ — is also extractable from the prose piece ‘Monster Time’. ‘Sound is both hushed and magnified, resembling — beyond any communication — something intent.’ (137) In the remainder of this essay, I want to approach more closely Capildeo’s idea of ‘intent’ toward utopia. ‘Intent’ is of course a key counter in the lexicon of neo-modernist writing preoccupied by a ‘dark’ spirituality, and was popularized most effectively by Sinclair’s writing on ‘the shamanism of intent’, which connected artistic intent to the ‘sickness-vocation’ initiating the shaman’s magical power.[9] Yet to what form of art does Capildeo’s concept of intent relate? Another of her prose pieces intimates an intent verbal art: ‘my word is good for nothing, because it exists only in hope of a future’ (132). Yet in ‘Monster Time’, the ‘sound... beyond any communication’ is ambiguous; it could refer to an intent music as well as an intent language. This is why I want to consider Capildeo’s idea of intent toward utopia in connection with Adorno’s thinking about the relationship between music and language.

Titles such as ‘Lactic Song’ and ‘I Hear the Monsters Singing’ make Capildeo’s concern with music explicit. In ‘Seeing Without Looking’, a meditation on the relationship between music and language intertwines the two precisely in terms of their shared intent toward the ‘ultimate’: ‘the effect is of parallelisms, of things that are separate yet that are, in so far as they become ultimate, irretrievably enmeshed’ (58). In the 1956 fragment on music and language which appears in Quasi una Fantasia, Adorno too addressed music and language’s shared ‘“tendency”‘ toward the ultimate or absolute, yet in order to distinguish ‘intentional’ language from music:

... the distinction between music and language cannot be established simply by examining their particular features. It only works by considering them as totalities. Or rather, by looking at their direction, their “tendency”, in the sense of the “telos” of music. Intentional language wants to mediate the absolute, and the absolute escapes language for every specific intention, leaves each one behind because each is limited. Music finds the absolute immediately, but at the moment of discovery it becomes obscured, just as too powerful a light dazzles the eyes, preventing them from seeing things which are perfectly visible.

Adorno observes that intentional language is incapable of reaching the absolute (or of becoming ‘ultimate’), since it ‘wants to mediate the absolute’, or reduce it to communicable concepts. Language’s cognitive intention to mediate disables its religious intent, or its ‘“tendency”‘ toward the absolute. But music does not intend to mediate and, though it sacrifices conceptual elucidation, finds the dazzling, the hot — if the absolute is revealed only momentarily.

The language of music is quite different from the language of intentionality... What it has to say is simultaneously revealed and concealed... It is the human attempt, doomed as ever, to name the Name, not to communicate meanings.[10]

In its various manifestations, Catling’s work has always been one that, like Adorno’s language of music, ‘aspires to be a language without intention’. In ‘Servant to the Stars’, his commentary on Catling’s Pleiades in Nine, Sinclair noted how Catling’s project — the discovery and mediumizing of the energies of place — involved the disavowal of the writer’s ‘motive’, or a refusal to reduce it to communicable concepts:

The strategy of the book is to disguise what happens between the writer and his motive. It is something not to speak of. To come close to motive would be to abort the whole project. It is to do with ‘inspiration’ (touch) and the voice of place speaking through.

Catling’s prefatory remarks in The Blindings refuse the notion of that text as a ‘description’ of his performance work; the ‘fictional’ reports of the Blindings aspire not to intend to reduce each Blinding to limited concepts, but to leave each one open within the audience’s transfiguring memories.

There is a territory inside any work of fiction that must be left open. It is a seeding ground, a spoor field that belongs entirely to the audience. Description often closes the gate to that place, evocation keeps it ajar. These texts are lunges to capture handfuls of another time and place while passing through it in the curious guise of a witness to my own crimes.[11]

No Traveller Returns similarly aspires to offer a non-intentional language which, rather than offering descriptions of times and places in order to communicate them cognitively, would pass through and articulate their interstices — manning ‘sash windows outside history’ (34). ‘Turning away from adequate communication’, Capildeo’s writing lunges toward ‘the/ silence between the lines.’ (69, 71) ‘Monster experience is counted as actual only when Monsters re-experience the said experience in such a way that the words that go with it begin to dance and finally filter out.’ (83) For when the words that seemingly necessarily ‘go with’ our experience, or the concepts that are customarily imposed to communicate that experience — but in fact cloak and distort its reality — have filtered out, and we are left with the uncommunicated, the struggle can be launched to articulate the actuality of experience. The articulation of suffering, even when wholly nonverbal, is held by Capildeo to be capable of contravening this society’s demands: those who conceive of themselves as ‘sounding-boards stiffening into monotones’ emit ‘tones fetched from a distance, low but even on the breath — that cannot be produced to order’ (78). Just as for Adorno the non-intentional ‘language of music’ sought out the absolute, in No Traveller Returns the expression of the monotone, the hushed, is that which can intend toward utopia.

This is the song that starts up when life has retreated to the edges of a place kept desolate and majestic. This is the tune for the figure in the long room and on the terrace, the one not in the portraits. It is not safe, it is more than museums. (59)

In her prose pieces such as ‘Seeing Without Looking’, from which the last quotation is taken, Capildeo renovates a parable form familiar from Kafka. Her parabolic mode can itself be seen to attempt a language without intention, which does not seek to communicate experience cognitively. Adorno argued that, in Kafka’s writing, the ‘increased obscurity and ambiguity of the parabolic intention’ was a product of objectless inwardness.

The more its rationalism reduces objective matters to human dimensions, the more barren and unintelligible become the outlines of the merely existing world which man can never entirely dissolve into subjectivity and from which he has already drained everything familiar.

Yet if the estranged parable, like the language of music, aspires to be a language without intention, and turns away from adequate communication of objective reality, again like music it remains ‘permeated through and through with intentionality’[12]. Capildeo seems to acknowledge this in the first ‘Lux Æterna Et Perpetua’, where the gaining of a dazzling future, the ‘hot, bright, and terminal’ — akin to the goal of Adorno’s language of music — is seen to involve a ‘conjunction of rite and meaning’ (76). The poetic sequence King Vertigo represents a strategic bid to recover communication, where each poem is headed ‘He never said just that:’ (141–145).

Capildeo’s book attempts a language without intention, and to replicate the obscure expression of objectless inwardness, which is sensed to intend toward utopia. Yet it also attempts to communicate meaning, as an indispensable element of its own intent toward utopia. ‘The word is intentionally opaque, and also/ continuous with a purpose.’ (100) Such a continuity of semantic purpose resembles the ‘“dialectics”‘ that Adorno saw Kierkegaard granting objectless inwardness: ‘Kierkegaard bestows the term “dialectics” on the movement that subjectivity completes both out of itself and in itself to regain “meaning.” This cannot be conceived as a subject/ object dialectic since material objectivity nowhere becomes commensurable with inwardness.’[13] The word’s continuity of semantic purpose is a product, but not an abolition, of estrangement from objective reality. ‘Poetry is spoken in the silence of the live house at night. I am on good terms with objects’ (101) — rather as one is with a momentarily placid rottweiler.

In No Traveller Returns semantic purpose is twinned with a particular estrangement from an interpreter — ‘saint jack the faker/ the anatomist he loves you to bits’ — who would cut down the opaque expression of objectless inwardness to ‘deducible meaning’. ‘The search for/ its meaning would scatter its sound’, distort the monotone. The movement that estranged subjectivity follows to regain meaning is shown to originate and remain within the experience of estrangement, as the attempted communication of semantic purpose itself becomes an assertion of estrangement’s noncommunication: ‘The best poem would be a single word repeated. Cold cold cold cold/ cold. Monotone. Monotone.’ (100) In Capildeo’s book precisely such a failed ‘statement of intention’ frees utopian intent from the pull of mythic invariancy.

So easily misheard is a statement of intention,
in the best belief of its being a statement of the harsh past.
An end-stopped orchard’s fruiting. (111)


[1] Vahni Capildeo, No Traveller Returns (Cambridge: Salt, 2003), pp. 48, 101, 120, 119. Further references to No Traveller Returns are given after quotations in the text.

[2] OED ; Catling quoted on the back cover of No Traveller Returns.

[3] Allen Fisher, ‘Diligence and Dilemmas and Aspects of Work by Brian Catling’, in Tending the Vortex: The Works of Brian Catling, ed. by Simon Perril (Cambridge: CCCP, 2001), pp. 57–65 (p. 63); Theodor W. Adorno, ‘Notes on Kafka’, in Prisms, trans. by Samuel and Shierry Weber (Cambridge, MA: MIT, 1997; first publ. 1981), pp. 243-71 (p. 265).

[4] Walter Benjamin, Charles Baudelaire: A Lyric Poet in the Era of High Capitalism , trans. by Harry Zohn (London: Verso, 1989; first publ. 1983), pp. 143-44 n.76.

[5] Theodor W. Adorno, Negative Dialectics , trans. by E. B. Ashton (London: Routledge, 1996; first publ. 1973), p. 402.

[6] ‘Notes’, p. 268.

[7] B. Catling, Pleiades in Nine (London: Albion Village Press, 1976), p. 9; compare Sinclair’s divagations from these lines in his essay ‘Servant to the Stars: B. Catling’s Pleiades in Nine, the Autolystic Defiances’, in ed. Perril, pp. 46-56 (pp. 50-51).

[8] Iain Sinclair, Lud Heat/Suicide Bridge (London: Vintage, 1995), p. 243; Theodor W. Adorno, ‘Sacred Fragment: Schoenberg’s Moses und Aron’, in Quasi una Fantasia: Essays on Modern Music, trans. by Rodney Livingstone (London: Verso, 1992), pp. 225-48 (p. 226).

[9] Iain Sinclair, The Shamanism of Intent: Some Flights of Redemption (Uppingham: Goldmark, 1991), p. 7.

[10] ‘Music and Language: A Fragment’, in Quasi, pp. 1-6 (pp. 4, 2).

[11] ‘Music’, p. 2; ‘Servant’, p. 47; Brian Catling, The Blindings (London: Book Works, 1995), p. 6.

[12] ‘Notes’, p. 268; ‘Music’, p. 3.

[13] Theodor W. Adorno, Kierkegaard: Construction of the Aesthetic, trans. by Robert Hullot-Kentor (Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 1989), p. 30.

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