It takes a poet who lives amidst our daily clutter to see the near as something distant. With this vision, he hones his provocative craft, picking with bird-beak precision until he breaks open the nut of our times and gets to its kernel. But it requires an intellect with talons to grasp the guts of what we could be losing – freedom of curiosity, and of thought and its expression.
Such a poet and intellectual is Hans Magnus Enzensberger, who, in Panopticon: Twenty Ten-Minute Essays, invites the reader into a conversation that considers the ‘serious’ with lightness. Yes, the forefather of the essay, Montaigne, is invoked here: any topic is worth discussing; but inspiration and precision are vital if ‘the reader or the topic’ aren’t to be exhausted.
Enzensberger keeps his focus on our contemporary moment stable by seating it on the three-legged stool of education, knowledge and expertise. Thus he explores how we can use a variety of information sources, and even artificial intelligence, to make ourselves wiser about the news – be it fake or fallacy – and even to seek fundamental truths.
Each essay title is a poetic conceit, for example, ‘How to Invent Nations at Your Desk’; ‘The Pitfalls of Transparency’; ‘Cosmic Secret’. Each of these illustrates the hegemony over language (in all its avatars), migration and mapping inherited by our world – a place where the truth of poetry is silenced by a dysfunctional imagination.
Panopticon, as the word suggests, is a cabinet of disparate curiosities – a collection on display. Each essay can be described as a geometric construction, made up of ideas and optical irregularities that offer both views on our socio-sensory reality and intellectual maps that are drawn from a nonprescriptive perspective. To go back to the first image in this review, in each piece, having followed the signs he discovers through his nut-breaking or question-seeking narrative, Enzenberger finally reaches a point at which he shares an exploration of factors that he believes experts seriously neglect. We discover that, for Enzenberger, reality is about the human aspects of error, or adventures or triumphs that are unpredictable. For him, reality is not about hope, rather it is a way of seeing disparate realities unpredictably – not using a uniform map of political and social incidents or achievements. His is a logic about defying logic itself and resuscitating observation.
Here is one of the gems from this collection that could inspire radical future artwork: allegedly, 58,000 tonnes of chewing gum are consumed worldwide ever year. Enzenberger encourages us to consider the benefit chewing all this gum has for the chewers, but also the impact it has on public spaces. And then he lets fly a thought: ‘Like chewing gum, the secret services also leave their traces all over the world … Are there, in fact, similarities between the secret services and chewing gum? I offer you four.’ Is this a cliff hanger? In a book of essays? Why not. That’s Enzenberger’s ‘Cosmic Secret’, and the reader will be repaid for their efforts by realising how insights actually work and finding out what external shells are worth cracking.
Enzensberger is considered Germany’s most important living poet – someone who can translate flakes of the ‘now’ moment, by demonstrating how absences exist through their presence and by distilling clarity from binaries drawn from his detailed study of life. Indeed, the first-person narrative in Panopticon is the book’s own endorsement – it is written from experience of the milieu in which it is written.
There is a wide menu to choose from in this collection, but here are some essential pieces: ‘Is Sex Necessary, and If So, How?’; ‘Retirement Plans’; and ‘Why Everything Always Leaves Spots’ – in this last piece Enzensberger does a radical impersonation of a servant in a diagrammatic poem.
All this said, the absence of the female consciousness from this ‘panopticon’ – as scientist, social revolutionary, and yes, why not, domestic goddess and essential part of the chain of being – leaves a shockingly empty space. But, as this particular cabinet is an embassy of provocations, perhaps this omission speaks for itself. As the author says in ‘The Pitfalls of Transparency’: ‘That a secret’s value falls to zero with the hyperinflation of disclosure is a fact that can as easily be met with silence as brought to light.’
Panopticon is a brilliant read, and while not for the faint-hearted, it embraces anyone who wants light shed on subjects that we all probably lie awake thinking about, as we attempt to muddle through life’s predicaments.
The nuances of these essays’ conceits are transported from the poetry of one language into the translated other with miraculous skill by Tess Lewis, who stretches the tensility of both language and ideas.
Reviewed by Vayu Naidu
PANOPTICON: TWENTY TEN-MINUTE ESSAYS
Written by Hans Magnus Enzensberger
Translated by Tess Lewis
Published by Seagull Books (2018)
Dr Vayu Naidu is a storyteller of oral epics and a novelist. Her book The Sari of Surya Vilas (Speaking Tiger – India; Affirmpress – Aus/NZ:2017) features the Madras Presidency as the location of female emancipation. Sita’s Ascent (Penguin India, 2013) was nominated for Commonwealth Book Award. She is currently a Royal Literary Fund Fellow, and an Associate at SOAS – Circulation of Languages and Post Colonial Studies. She is convening a writing and performance residency: TRANSFORM YOUR NOVEL & STORYTELLING at The Write Place, Mammallapuram-Chennai India December 2018. www.vayunaidu.com