First We Write, Then We Fail

Plato Watching Socrates Read. From Prognostica Socratis Basilei by Matthew Parris

  1. “Any serious student of serious realities will shrink from making truth the helpless object of men’s ill-will by committing it to writing.” Plato, Seventh Letter
  2. “Until writing, most kinds of thoughts we are used to thinking today simply could not be thought”. Walter J. Ong, Rhetoric, Romance, and Technology
  3. “Writing is in no way an instrument for communication, it is not an open route through which there passes only the intention to speak.” Barthes, Writing Degree Zero
  4. “Why write? One important reason is that unless we do there are mental acts we cannot perform, thoughts we cannot think, inquiries we cannot engage in.” Richard Young and Patricia Sullivan, Why Write?
  5. “You write so that the life you have around you, and outside, far from the sheet of paper, this life which is not much fun, but annoying and full of worries, exposed to others, can melt into the little rectangle before you and of which you are the master. But this absorption of swarming life into the immobile swarming of letters never happens.” Foucault, Interview with Claude Bonnefoy
  6. “Every bit of writing is imagined as mass which occupies space. It is the duty of writing, therefore, to admit no other, to keep all other writing out.” Edward Said, Beginnings
  7. “Form fascinates when one no longer has the force to understand force from within itself. That is, to create.” Derrida, Writing and Difference
  8. “Endings then, are faked, as are all other parts of a narrative structure that impose metaphor on the metonymic sequence.” Frank Kermode, “Sensing Endings
  9. “. . . I was sweet when I came down out of me mother. My great blue bedroom, the air so quiet, scarce a cloud. In peace and silence, I could have stayed up there for always only. It’s something fails us. First we feel. Then we fail.” Joyce, Finnegans Wake

Privileges of Fiction (Kundera)

The space defined by Milan Kundera’s The Curtain is one that privileges the novel to an extraordinary degree, attributing it to a position distinct from not only other forms of art, but also as a reflection on existence that informs philosophical thought. As Kundera says, “… for me, the founder of the Modern Era is not only Descartes but also Cervantes.”

By using novels to reflect on human existence as opposed to portraying reality, novelists dissect new existential categories and refashion our perception of those we are familiar with. Kundera writes, “Indeed, all the great existential themes Heidegger analyses in Being and Time – considering them to have been neglected by all earlier European philosophy – had been unveiled, displayed, illuminated by four centuries of the European novel.”

Kundera, like Edward Said – in turn influenced by Adorno’s essay on Beethoven – is also much preoccupied by ‘late style’:

What interests me in this piece [a text of Cioran’s] is the amazement of the man who cannot find any link between his present “self” and the past one, who is stupefied before the enigma of his identity. But, you’ll say, is that amazement sincere? Certainly it is! How in the world could I ever have taken seriously that philosophical (or religious, artistic, political) trend? or else (more banally): How could I have fallen in love with such a silly woman (stupid man)? Well, whereas for most people, your life goes by fast and its mistakes evaporate without leaving much trace, Cioran’s turned to stone; one cannot laugh off a ridiculous sweetheart and fascism with the same condescending smile.

[Any blog that continues for long enough knows this amazement when one stupidly decides to reread old posts written by another “self”.]

The force and richness of Kundera’s perceptions in this book and in Testaments Betrayed, which I read previously, puts him in good company with Nabokov and Brodsky. That all three were bilingual exile writers who reworked their own texts and worried endlessly about translation perhaps also made them ideal readers, enacting Derrida’s argument that writing is itself an act of translation.

Digressive Interior Journeys

It isn’t often that a writer’s voice and concerns register deep enough that I end up scouring second-hand sources for first editions of their work. Jenny Diski becomes the thirty-first writer housed in that hallowed subsection of my library reserved for those I will likely read and reread in their entirety. My old chestnuts, listed here, are an idiosyncratic bunch that will match no other reader’s list of favourite writers, but are each, in different ways, as integral to my central nervous system as my spinal cord. My slowly expanding Jenny Diski collection breaks up the fairly long-term on-shelf relation of Clarice Lispector and Simon Critchley.

I read Diski’s début novel Nothing Natural when it was first published in the late eighties and recall little beyond its potency. Almost thirty years later, it is Diski’s essay on her recent cancer diagnosis that drew me back to her writing with all the force of a rare-earth magnet. This is the first instalment of a memoir to be published in parts in the LRB (which also persuaded me to resubscribe to the LRB).

Disk’s piece encouraged me to buy On Trying to Keep Stilla series of elegantly crafted and very funny essays narrating Diski’s intense desire for inertia-within the confines of writing a travel journal. These are the sort of digressive, meandering essays in which I take great pleasure, no less because of Diski’s even greater commitment to seeking silence and solitude.

Diski’s collection of essays and reviews in A View from the Bed confirms my first sense that I’m reading someone cut from a similar mould in the pursuit of inner space and silence. Glimpsing the world retracted through Diski’s eyes is a vivid and rewarding experience. This is equally clear on reading What I Don’t Know About Animals, Diski’s exploration of our relationship with animals, which probes their minds with similar intentions to Derrida’s The Animal That Therefore I Am (which Diski also explores in her book). She writes with precision and elegance, exploring her chosen subjects with honesty and clarity. My intention is to read the non-fiction and work towards the novels.

A Year of Reading: 2013

It was an exceptional year of reading that began with Benoît Peeters’ prodigious Derrida biography. I also finally got around to Knowlson’s respectful but no less captivating Beckett biography.

2013 was a year for new encounters: notably Jane Bennett, Pierre Hadot and Christa Wolf, each of whose work I intend to continue exploring. Christa Wolf’s Cassandra and Medea linger long as intriguing reinterpretations of myths. Jane Bennett and Pierre Hadot’s philosophical work is transformative, and leads me back to Ancient Greece; expect to see a concentration on old Greeks next year. Robert Fagles’ lucid Iliad has surpassed Lattimore to become my favourite. On translations, until I left my much annotated copy, together with a fourteen-month old sketch/note-book, in an Indian temple, I was luxuriating in the Hollander Dante like a hippo in a mud bath.

Of books published this year (or late in 2012) my favourite non-fiction was Robert Calasso’s La Folie Baudelaire, or Shelley Frisch’s translation of Reiner Stach’s Kafka: The Years of Insight. I didn’t read much contemporary fiction but lapped up Rachel Kushner’s enjoyable The Flamethrowers.

I continued to read Clarice Lispector. A Breath of Life and Near to the Wild Heart were as remarkable as Água Vida. Over the next twelve months I’ll read all the Lispector I can lay my hands on.

As is traditional, for me anyway, serendipity lead me up totally different paths than my intentions of a year ago. All I can say with any certainty of the next twelve months is more Coetzee, Cixous, Lispector and Beckett.

I read pretty much the same number of books as 2012, but still worry about Twitter as a distracting time-sink.

Authenticity and Semiconsciousness

Three Worlds - MC Escher (1955)

Three Worlds – MC Escher (1955)

This “authenticity,” also tackled by Derrida, inspired by Aristotle and Heidegger, is a central preoccupation. Is it possible to stay in this state always? If so, how?

[..] I have been strongly impressed by the radical opposition between everyday life-which is lived in semiconsciousness and in which we are guided by automatisms and habits without being aware of our existence in the world-and of the privileged states in which we live intensely and are aware of our being in the world. Bergson as well as Heidegger clearly distinguished these two levels of the self: the self that remains at the level of what Heidegger calls the “they,” and the one that rises to the level of what he calls the “authentic.”

Pierre Hadot
The Present Alone is Our Happiness

Ethical Theory

In my last brief post I wrote of the thrill of discovering (thanks to David) the work of Pierre Hadot and his philosophical leitmotif, drawn from antiquity, that philosophy is the choice of a form of life and not purely academic discourse. We are intuitively drawn to thinkers that confirm our way of thinking, and being non-academic I have always read philosophy in this way, hence the philosophers that fill the most shelf space in my library: Nietzsche, Wittgenstein, Spinoza, Kant, Derrida, Cixous and more recently Jane Bennett, Bourdieu and Pierre Hadot, intellectuals that intentionally spoke to readers beyond the academy.

I wrote of seeking a life with less anxiety, more contentment. Philip responded (and I hope he doesn’t mind me extracting his invaluable remarks from the comments box):

I sometimes wonder, though, whether explicitly searching out a life “with less anxiety, more contentment” – i.e., seeking to improve one’s own lot – isn’t just another reinforcement of the striving self: i.e., if I perform my spiritual exercises with enough discipline, or if I become ascetic enough, I will at last achieve bliss. Seeking liberation from the ego through the workings of the ego.

This is the crux, the Buddhist stance, as far as I understand it, that denies the concept of self. My difficulty with this position is how to develop it as a form of living, in the direction of what the Epicureans called ataraxy (contentment with existence).

I’ve followed the path of ontological nihilism, reality doesn’t exist etc., and reverted to a more existential stance that eschews teleology, but reinforced by what is essentially a modernised Epicureanism, similar to what Jane Bennett terms enchanted materialism. To quote my new old friend Lucretius, “Nothing in the body is made in order that we may use it. What happens to exist is the cause of its use.”

The ancient Greek philosophers, of all schools, developed a set of spiritual practices and meditations, a core of ethical principles that were vigorously discussed and expounded, making it more likely that they would be enacted as ethical practises. Foucault wrote of a discipline for installing an ethical code on the body, of an ideal of self to which the ethical person aspires. It seems to me that denying the concept of self results in a frustrating paradox more likely to result in acedia (apathy, but with shades of depression) than ataraxy.

When time permits I’ll write further about the content of the ethical ideal that gets me out of bed. Do you have a set of ethical ideals to which you subscribe? And, if so, what motivates those ideals?

Benoît Peeters’ Derrida A Biography

Derrida A Biography is an oversized book, heavy too. My original plan was to read it at home in the evenings and weekends, with a more conveniently sized paperback for my other reading, on planes, trains and in the bath. If it wasn’t for the sheer joy of reading in a hot steamy bath, I’d have a shower preference. Benoît Peeter’s Derrida biography was so captivating that I not only lumped it around whilst commuting, but also, despite aching arms, read in while soaking in the bath.

Peeters explains that his intention is not “to provide an introduction to the philosophy of Jacques Derrida, let alone a new interpretation,” but intends to “present the biography of a philosophy at least as much as the story of an individual.” Both aims are achieved. The pacing of the biography is perfect. Often biographers get bogged down in the pre-adult years. In this case Peeters gives us enough to feel the shape of Derrida’s origins and the beginnings of the hell-hounds that would overshadow his life (depression) without a bunch of humdrum psychoanalysis. Right on time we leave Jackie behind for Jacques’ adulthood. It didn’t feel right thinking of Derrida as Jackie so I was ready for the transition.

Derrida's Library

Derrida’s Library

Judging by the access that Peeters got to Derrida’s family, friends and archives, this is an authorised biography, although he doesn’t shrink away from revealing the many feuds, and Derrida’s all important affair with Sylviane Agacinski, (who would go on to marry French politician Lionel Jospin), it is compassionate and avoids overt criticism of Derrida. As an intellectual biography the book does a superb job of recounting the shifting nature of Derrida’s concerns as a writer.

As a polarizing figure, few people are lukewarm about Derrida, but his portrayal by Peeters is of a deeply humane man, unstinting in his support of friends, relentless in his philosophical beliefs in the face of near constant criticism and rejection. Though I’ve struggled through several of Derrida’s texts, which I read as poetic, performative prose, it is the man I’m drawn to. Avital Ronell said of Derrida, “his solitude was immense, profound,” and somehow that solitude is communicated in his texts, and in the many interviews that are online from the later years of his life. That solitude is magnetic.

Read Adam Shatz’s very good LRB review of this biography and/or Terry Eagleton’s Guardian review.

How to translate “poem”?

For if the difficulties of translation can be anticipated (and the question of deconstruction is also through and through the question of translation, and of the language of concepts, of the conceptual corpus of so-called “western” metaphysics), one should not begin by naively believing that the word “deconstruction” corresponds in French to some clear and univocal signification. There is already in “my” language a serious [sombre] problem of translation between what here or there can be envisaged for the word, and the usage itself, the reserves of the word. And it is already clear that even in French, things change from one context to another. More so in the German, English, and especially American contexts, where the same word is already attached to very different connotations, inflections, and emotional or affective values. Their analysis would be interesting and warrants a study of its own.

One of Derrida’s major concepts and the one by which Derrida’s thought is often linked is that of deconstruction. A friend could not find a satisfactory equivalent in his own language, so in his Letter to a Japanese friend Derrida provides arguably his most lucid explanation for his choice of word.

When I speak of this writing of the other which will be more beautiful, I clearly understand translation as involving the same risk and chance as the poem. How to translate “poem”? a “poem”?…

‘How to Read Literature.’

J. Hillis Miller was part of the ‘Yale School,’ along with Paul de Man and Harold Bloom. Initially associated with Derrida, their strategy of deconstruction was little more than a way of prolonging the intellectual snobbery of American New Criticism, incisively critiqued in later years by Geoffrey Bennington and others.

From the J. Hillis Miller Reader comes this essay How To Read Literature, which I quite enjoyed for capturing the aporia or unresolvable contradiction between the urge to “read rapidly, allegro, in a dance of the eyes across the page,” and a wish to pause “over every key word or phrase [..] anxious not to let the text put anything over” you.

I am less convinced by the essay’s conclusion that, outside the academy at least, critical reading robs readers of the necessary mystification to maintain a love affair with literature. What do you think?

‘What is Deconstruction?’

Earlier I tweeted a link to an essay by Nicholas Royle which poses the question ‘What is Deconstruction?’. The essay is a trenchant, witty letter to the editors of Chambers Dictionary about the weakness of their definition of the term. Royle writes:

I offer a hypothesis: your definition is haunted by the anxiety that, with deconstruction, the very possibility of a dictionary explodes.

I’m linking here to the essay because it is so fucking great. Derrida eventually became unhappy with the privilege attached to the term ‘deconstruction’, just one of many important concepts in his texts. It is a term resistant of easy definition. Derrida wrote ‘deconstruction loses nothing from admitting that it is impossible’, that it is ‘an experience of the impossible’.

Jacques Derrida – The Last Interview

[..] a text is possessed of an unconscious, and that it will reveal itself, in all its anxieties and neuroses and pathologies and denials and phantasms, if you ana- lyze it – read it – carefully enough.

Back now to Benoît Peeters’ Derrida, though I am struggling to think of Derrida as Jackie. I return often to read the text of Derrida’s last interview, which I find very moving.

Nietzsche, Ecce Homo and Biography

Nietzsche, like Jean-Paul Sartre, TS Eliot and the films of Martin Scorsese, is best discovered before you hit your twenties. His writing is accessible to early interpretation and uncorrupted by the language of the academy. I remember so clearly the combustive impact of reading Friedrich Nietzsche’s books, one after the other as he laid waste to Christian morality. After reading Nietzsche, the world expanded, less mysterious but cleaner, more chaotic. Nietzsche, like Sartre, is best reread every ten years.

When I first read Nietzsche, probably under the baleful influence of TS Eliot, I abjured biography. All that mattered was the text, so I disdained to read Ecce Homo, Nietzsche’s autobiography (of sorts). As I learnt from the introduction to Benoît Peeters’ Derrida biography, Derrida did not consider philosopher’s lives as extraneous to their philosophical work. On Nietzsche, Derrida wrote:

We no longer consider the biography of a ‘philosopher’ as a corpus of empirical accidents that leaves both a name and a signature outside a system which would itself be offered up to an immanent philosophical reading – the only kind of reading held to be philosophically legitimate […].

In a late interview on “the question of biography”, Derrida insisted:

I am among those few people who have constantly drawn attention to this: you must (and you must do it well) put philosophers’ biographies back in the picture, and the commitments, particularly political commitments, that they sign in their own names, whether in relation to Heidegger or equally to Hegel, Freud, Nietzsche, Sartre, or Blanchot, and so on.

Taking inspiration from Derrida and Kate Zambreno’s initial FFIMS post I tackled Ecce Homo for the first time. I now suspect it will become my favourite Nietzsche book, though I am long overdue a rereading of his works.

The first thought on reading Ecce Homo is the cavernous confidence of the text, bordering on arrogance, or what Thomas Steinbuch, in his commentary on Ecce Homo calls megalomania:

The chapters of Ecce Homo are composed as answers to the questions posed in their titles: “Why I Am So Wise,” “Why I Am So Clever,” “Why I Write Such Good Books,” and “Why I Am a Destiny.” The titles seem to be naked expressions of self-importance, of egotism, from the simple hubris of “I am wise” to the megalomania of “I am destiny,” as if in writing these titles Nietzsche had reared up before the world demanding its acknowledgement, tragically presaging the madness that was soon to engulf him. This is not so. Egotism in the sense of self-importance, as belonging to the psychology of domination, is not part of Nietzsche’s life or work. If an ideology of affirming self-importance has been found here, this is only the projection of an authoritarian society’s own obsessive focus on figures of domination and its need to believe in the monolithic action of authority. Indeed, we shall see below that constructing the other as a “self-of-importance” belongs to the psychology of competition. It is simply true that Nietzsche’s role in the history of life was tremendously important as the dialectical counter to décadence. Sooner of later we need to come to terms with the problem of décadence in ourselves, and at that moment the one we will find is Nietzsche-this is what he meant by declaring himself a destiny.

So, not egotism or megalomania but the Dionysian overcoming of decadence to find the order concealed in the chaos. A bit self-helpy perhaps, or more generously where Nietzsche joins forces with Buddhism to destroy individuality. But this is why Nietzsche has always appealed; he is a philosopher, like Sartre, that changes the prism through which you see life, and therefore changes your life. Gilles Deleuze, Jacques Derrida and Hélène Cixous seem to offer the same opportunity, though need far more effort.

Enough rambling. Can anyone recommend a reliable Nietzsche biography? Thanks to a conversation with flowerville, I’ve been reading up on Thomas Brobjer. I like the look of Thomas Brobjer’s Nietzsche’s Philosophical Context: An Intellectual Biography.  Ecce Homo is very fine but suffers the flaw of any autobiography, that it is essentially a fiction. The best Nietzsche “biography” I’ve read is this thrilling chronological list of “not only the books which Nietzsche read throughout his life, but also lectures he attended as well as professorial work he was engaged in, the music he listened to and composed, and, finally, denotes when and where he wrote his philosophical works.”

Some Well-Intentioned Reading Ideas for 2013

So, in my review of this year’s reading I vowed to make no reading resolutions for 2013, not because I don’t have some ideas, but writing about them pretty much guarantees serendipity will lead me in a completely different direction. But I’m going to chuck a few ideas into the void, for no other reason than it helps me think.

Since my post dealing with feminine writing, I’ve started to identify a series of writers that I plan to read more thoroughly, more Cixous obviously. My touchstone book for 2012 was Kate Zambreno’s brilliant Heroines. The book  is the sort of polymorphous text that opens up new possibilities for biography, literary criticism and memoir. Read if you must but don’t be mislead by reviews of Heroines that reveal more about the prejudice of the reviewer than the text. Helen’s or Michelle’s reviews offer a more balanced, less blimpish point of view. I’ll be taking inspiration from both Kate Zambreno’s blog (a project now ended) and Heroines and reading writers like Jean Rhys, Djuna Barnes, Olive Moore, obviously more Clarice Lispector and Claude Cahun. I’m also interested in those treading similar ground, writers like Chris Kraus, Vanessa Place, Tamara Faith Berger and Dodie Bellamy. I also plan to read some Julia Kristeva and Kate Zambreno’s earlier Green Girl.

There are some thrilling new books due next year, so I will definitely be reading any new books that appear by László Krasznahorkai, JM Coetzee’s The Childhood of Jesus and the collection of letters between Coetzee and Paul Auster, Giorgio Agamben’s Nymphs, Amelie Nothomb’s Life Form, Sonallah C Ibrahim’s That Smell and Notes from Prison and William Gass’s Middle C. The second (and possibly third) volume of Reiner Stach’s Kafka biography is due and unmissable.

I’ve started reading Benoît Peeters’ Derrida biography and plan to read more Derrida. I’ve got plans to read Wittgenstein, Deleuze and Adorno more deeply, and want to explore further what Ray Brassier is doing. Oh, and I seriously intend to get back to Thomas Bernhard and Peter Handke.

If I achieve half of these goals I’ll be happy and no doubt serendipity will hijack my intentions along the way.

Thanks for reading Time’s Flow Stemmed. Have a good holiday.

Feminine Writing

Like all those who read constantly, there is a thread running between each book. Sometimes these threads are part of a conscious intention, other times they are undetectable. Sometimes they are discovered retrospectively. Such a thread has lead me to my current idée fixe: Hélène Cixous, variously described as a professor, feminist writer, poet, playwright, philosopher, literary critic and rhetorician.

Often we are lead to authors grudgingly as I was in the case of Angela Carter. Her reworked fairy tales, exposing their patriarchal roots, stayed in my thoughts. Questions flew across my field of vision like the murmuration of a flock of starlings. Reading is my way of deciphering life; wanting to understand more about deconstructing patriarchal language lead me initially to bell hooks and circuitously to Cixous.

Twice I’ve read Kate Zambreno’s Heroines, one of the exceptional books of the year. Another book that sends my thoughts spinning and wakes me up at night with unresolved questions. In the book and on her blog Kate Zambreno unhitches the notion of feminine writing from gender – as does Cixous – and asks whether writers like Bernhard, Artaud and Rilke are feminine writers.

An exploration into the idea of “feminine”- as contrasted with “masculine” – writing is likely to be the thread that links my reading over the next few months. Cixous emphasises that these terms are not to be equated with “man” and “woman”; part of her intention is to find terms less bound up in emotion and prejudgment. I’ll be reading more Cixous, and constructing a reading list of writers that Kate Zambreno and Cixous discuss. I’ve identified other textually political writers that attempt to dislocate the idea of masculinity and femininity in literary and cultural discourse: Julia Kristeva, Luce Irigaray, Jacques Derrida, Gilles Deleuze and Jacques Lacan.

Reading along these lines, daunting as some of these writers may be, serves a secondary purpose, that of attempting to breathe life into theory, a core intention of Cixous’ writing. For Cixous, theory is not just intellectual masturbation, but a way of seeing and interpreting the world (and word).

In her perceptive Cixous essay, Verena Andermatt Conley writes,

What if, Cixous likes to ask, there were an asymmetry, not a hierarchy, between the sexes, “manifested” at the level of drives and in the relation to the living. The question is vague and perhaps should remain so. But the key question for women is to ask themselves what they want and not just what men want or want them to be. Stories in popular film and literature are told from the man’s point of view. Women tend to write as oppressed men. Relations between the sexes are vitiated by power and self-interest. Rarely do we see or read about a desire for pleasure and joy with and through the other.

The whole topic is ripe with ethical and moral dilemmas, but one I intend to think about a whole lot more. Please make any suggestions of other writers, fiction or non-fiction that might enable me to ask or address any of these questions.