Here are a few words about the just-named Literature Nobel recipient, Tomas Transtromer.

Two ideas about human beings recur in his poetry:

One, we are mentally and physically fragile beings, for whom existence itself is an immense, constant struggle. Just surviving in the world – the obdurate, difficult, indifferent world – is an incredible struggle. Periodically, we lose ourselves. Our very identities – so contingent, so frail – actually vanish, and in those long moments of not even knowing who we are and where we are, we discover our true underlying condition, our non-being (our being-toward-death, if you like) amid the baffles and brazens of personality. A certain discipline toward, a certain respect for, reality involves accepting, and thinking about those amnesiac moments as they disclose metaphysical truths, not just about our defensive, patched-up social being, but about the nothingness that preceded, and will succeed, us.

The Name is one among many Transtromer poems that make the point. I found it quoted here, in a review essay by Bill Coyle.

I grow sleepy during the car journey and I drive in under the trees at the side of the road. I curl up in the back seat and sleep. For how long? Hours. Dusk has fallen.

Suddenly I’m awake and don’t know where I am. Wide awake, but it doesn’t help. Where am I? WHO am I? I am something that wakens in a back seat, twists about in panic like a cat in a sack. Who?

At last my life returns. My name appears like an angel. Outside the walls a trumpet signal blows (as in the Leonora Overture) and the rescuing footsteps come down the overlong stairway. It is I! It is I!

But impossible to forget the fifteen-second struggle in the hell of oblivion, a few meters from the main road, where the traffic drives past with its lights on.


In an unpublished essay titled Come as You Are, Eve Sedgwick quotes the following passage – strikingly similar to the Transtromer poem – from The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying. She remarks that its description of amnesia “filled me with a comical sense of recognition.”

Imagine a person who suddenly wakes up in a hospital after a road accident to find she is suffering from total amnesia. Outwardly, everything is intact: she has the same face and form, her senses and mind are there, but she doesn’t have any idea or any trace of a memory of who she really is. In exactly the same way, we cannot remember our true identity, our original nature. Frantically, and in real dread, we cast around and improvise another identity, one we clutch onto with all the desperation of someone falling continually into an abyss. This false and ignorantly assumed identity is “ego.”

So ego, then, is the absence of true knowledge of who we really are, together with its result: a doomed clutching on, at all costs, to a cobbled together and makeshift image of ourselves, an inevitably chameleon charlatan self that keeps changing us and has to, to keep alive the fiction of its existence. In Tibetan ego is called dak dzin, which means “grasping at a self.” . . . . The fact that we need to grasp at all and go on and on grasping shows that in the depths of our being we know that the self does not inherently exist. From this secret, unnerving knowledge spring all our fundamental insecurities and fear. (116-17)

It’s a more radical idea than Transtromer’s, which at least has us returning – amid the indifferent grinding on of the nearby car lights – to a sense of I – I – I. And of course for the Buddhist this sense of self-loss isn’t “hell” — it’s simply the reality that “the self does not inherently exist.” For Buddhists, the choice isn’t between feeling you’ve been reduced to a panicky animal – “a cat in a sack” – and feeling fully and comfortably affirmed as a rosy rounded ego. But despite these differences, both writers evoke the basic fact of our shaky, constantly-needing-to-be-elaborated, selfhood…

The second idea predominant in Transtromer’s work is related to the first one. Contingent and slippery we may be, but one capacious and reliable thing we do have is interiority. Our consciousness, our memory, our imagination, enables our movement – such as it is – through the world. A cultivation of those vast inner spaces which are all ours can make existence easier. Here’s part of “Romanesque Arches”:

Inside the huge Romanesque church the tourists jostled in the half darkness.

Vault gaped behind vault, no complete view.

A few candle flames flickered.

An angel with no face embraced me

and whispered through my whole body:

“Don’t be ashamed of being human, be proud!

Inside you vault opens behind vault endlessly.

You will never be complete, that’s how it’s meant to be.”

Blind with tears

I was pushed out on the sun-seething piazza

together with Mr. and Mrs. Jones, Mr. Tanaka, and Signora Sabatini,

and inside each of them vault opened behind vault endlessly.


Here’s another evocation of our precious vaults.

The Indoors is Endless

It’s spring in 1827, Beethoven
hoists his death-mask and sails off.

The grindstones are turning in Europe’s windmills.
The wild geese are flying northwards.

Here is the north, here is Stockholm
swimming palaces and hovels.

The logs in the royal fireplace
collapse from Attention to At Ease.

Peace prevails, vaccine and potatoes,
but the city wells breathe heavily.

Privy barrels in sedan chairs like paschas
are carried by night over the North Bridge.

The cobblestones make them stagger
mamselles loafers gentlemen.

Implacably still, the sign-board
with the smoking blackamoor.

So many islands, so much rowing
with invisible oars against the current!

The channels open up, April May
and sweet honey dribbling June.

The heat reaches islands far out.
The village doors are open, except one.

The snake-clock’s pointer licks the silence.
The rock slopes glow with geology’s patience.

It happened like this, or almost.
It is an obscure family tale

about Erik, done down by a curse
disabled by a bullet through the soul.

He went to town, met an enemy
and sailed home sick and grey.

Keeps to his bed all that summer.
The tools on the wall are in mourning.

He lies awake, hears the woolly flutter
of night moths, his moonlight comrades.

His strength ebbs out, he pushes in vain
against the iron-bound tomorrow.

And the God of the depths cries out of the depths
‘Deliver me! Deliver yourself!’

All the surface action turns inwards.
He’s taken apart, put together.

The wind rises and the wild rose bushes
catch on the fleeing light.

The future opens, he looks into
the self-rotating kaleidoscope

sees indistinct fluttering faces
family faces not yet born.

By mistake his gaze strikes me
as I walk around here in Washington

among grandiose houses where only
every second column bears weight.

White buildings in crematorium style
where the dream of the poor turns to ash.

The gentle downward slope gets steeper
and imperceptibly becomes an abyss.


Heavy breathing, staggering, rowing against the current: There’s the first idea, the immense difficulty of life — all aspects of life. But then, imagining a long-dead relative imagining him, the poet says that “all the surface action turns inwards… the future opens” to the present. Erik – the long-dead relative – uses his vast vault of imagination (“the indoors is endless”) to see the living poet walking today around Washington DC, where life isn’t difficult – where “only / every second column bears weight.”

Yet even here, in the white weightless contemporary city, “the dream of the poor turns to ash,” and the same abyss that threatens Erik, with his “bullet through the soul,” threatens his descendant.

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  1. Sequel « Log24 Says:

    […] and a sequel to University Diaries' meditation today on the Nobel literature prize, which includes a quote from the […]

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