Josh Cohen’s The Private Life

Josh Cohen introduces The Private Life by explaining the links between psychoanalysis and literature: “I read books obsessively, and eventually chose to teach them, because they hinted at the miraculous possibility of experiencing inner lives other than my own.” Freud borrowed as heavily from Greek myth as Jung did from folklore; stories are at the heart of both literature and psychoanalysis. As I spoke of once before, my avid consumption of literature is rooted in a similar attraction, so I developed early an affinity with Cohen’s description of his relationship with literature.

I was fourteen or maybe fifteen years old when I discovered Freud, initially through the case histories, and then in the very readable The Psychopathology of Everyday Life. Somewhere I still have the paperback Penguin Freud that I read avidly at boarding school, but the annotations would embarrass me too much to even think of rereading that edition.

These days I am less convinced by Freud’s conception of the extent of the unconscious or psychoanalysis’s totems and taboos, and Cohen’s book did little to convince me otherwise. There is nevertheless much in The Private Life that is fascinating, particularly the way that Cohen brings his literary influences to bear on his argument that our modern culture is endangering our psychic health by eroding the value of privacy.

The penultimate chapter in particular which begins with a look at babyhood and the inevitability of anxiety, develops into a probing of the nature of torture and its psychological effects, and ends with our compulsion to scare ourselves with horror films, is both brilliant and haunting. Cohen’s deployment of Blanchot, Jean Améry, Primo Levi and Paul Celan’s work to underpin his argument is profound and elegant.

Here’s a brief description, perhaps as Cohen concedes, overly simplistic, of intra-uterine life, that Cohen uses to contrast the shock of birth:

Sentient life began for you in a vessel precisely adapted to your needs, in which food, warm and shelter were provided from the first with unbroken reliability and constancy, ensuring you registered neither the need of them nor the possibility of their loss. If you expanded, space expanded with you. You were God, to all intents and purposes, the centre of an integral, self-sufficient universe without beginning or end. Profoundly attuned to the syncopated flow of the world’s blood and breath, you took the endlessly variegated transmissions of one voice, and even the more tinny and sporadic emanations of other voices, for discrete parts of the music you alone composed, played and conducted.

Strange Struggle With Meaning

It was during this translation [of Blanchot’s work] that I experienced another strange struggle with meaning: when in a simpler paragraph I found I could follow the thread of M. Blanchot’s argument from one sentence to the next, and that it made sense to me, I could not summarise at the end of the page or even at the end of the paragraph, what I had just read. I thought that this was my own weakness; then when I described this difficulty to others I found that it was true for them as well: it was in the nature of the argument to resist summary. Resisting summary did not mean resisting understanding. Somehow the experience of reading had to take place moment to moment; one had to remain in the moment and not look back on the whole; or dwell inside the moment and not stand back from it; one’s understanding proceeded like the guide’s flashlight illuminating one by one the animals painted on the wall of the ancient cave.

Lydia Davis, For Maurice Blanchot. Nowhere Without No, Vagabond Press, 2003

We Are Singing

  1. Judith Butler in Giving an Account of Oneself writes, “[W]e must recognise that ethics requires us to risk ourselves precisely at moments of unknowingness, when what forms us diverges from what lies before us, when our willingness to become undone in relation to others constitutes our chance of becoming human. To be undone by another is a primary necessity, an anguish, to be sure, but also a chance–to be addressed, claimed, bound to what is not me, but also to be moved, to be prompted to act, to address myself elsewhere, and so to vacate the self-sufficient “I” as a kind of possession. If we speak and try to give an account from this place, we will not be irresponsible, or, if we are, we will surely be forgiven.”
  2. Giorgio Agamben writes in The Coming Community: “This fascination of not uttering something absolutely.”
  3. What has always fascinated me about the Sirens, whether written of by Euripides, Homer, Ovid or Hesiod, is that no one writes about the Sirens’ song. Žižek, in Cogito and the Unconscious reveals Tzvetan Todorov’s thesis, that the Sirens said to Odysseus just one thing: We are singing. Blanchot wrote, “Yes, they really sang, but not in a very satisfactory way. Their song merely suggested the direction from which the perfect song might come.”
  4. In Isak Dinesen’s The Dreamers a young soprano by the name of Pellegrina Leoni loses her singing voice after an accident happens whilst she is singing Donna Anna’s beautiful aria from Don Giovanni. As the greatest soprano of her day, without  her enchanting voice,Pellegrinaisthoughtto be dead, giving her the freedom to travel the world under an assumed identity, living many intense adventures. No muteness is as tragic as a Sirens’ silence.

    Holly Hunter in The Piano (Jane Campion, 1993)

    Holly Hunter in The Piano (Jane Campion, 1993)

Sontag: Influence

I realise, rereading that essay [on Paul Nizan] how important Sartre has been for me. He is the model – that abundance, that lucidity, that knowingness. And the bad taste.

Greatest influence on Barthes: reading Bachelard (Psychoanalysis of Fire – then books on earth, air and water), second Mauss, structural ethnology and of course, Hegel, Husserl. The discovery of the phenomenological p-o-v. Then you can look at anything and it will yield up fresh idea. Anything: a doorknob, Garbo. Imagine having such a mind as Barthes has – that always works … But Blanchot really started it.

Susan Sontag: Diaries 1964-1980: As Consciousness is Harnessed to Flesh

Beckett: A Bibliography of Secondary Literature (edited 16/04/13)

My starting point for Beckett is the four-volume Grove Press Centenary edition, containing seven novels, thirty-two dramatic works, thirty poems, fifty-four stories, texts and novellas, three pieces of criticism. Though not a true Collected Works, the set forms the essential part of the Beckett canon. I’m now reading Beckett’s Trilogy: Molloy, Malone Dies and The Unnamable (sharing the reading with Emily).

Of the thirty or so writers that constitute the core of my literary exploration, I like to go beyond the primary works. Looking past the Grove Press collection I intend to read an enlightening biography, the letters and Disjecta: Miscellaneous Writings and a Dramatic Fragment. But which biography, and what other ‘divine analysis’ is worth reading?

Beckett distrusted biography as a form of knowledge but curiosity is irrepressible and Knowle’s biography the most illuminating. Beckett critical scholarship is vast and frequently dull, but what are the works that, to quote Hugh Kenner are not intended “to explain Samuel Beckett’s work but to help the reader think about it.” Which works are worth exploring? Starter list below, please help me to add any worthy titles (or to remove discredited or dull works):

  1. Damned to Fame: The Life of Samuel Beckett – James Knowlson
  2. The Irish Beckett – John P Harrington
  3. Beckett Remembering: Remembering Beckett: Unpublished Interviews with Samuel Beckett and Memories of Those Who Knew Him  – James Knowlson
  4. Flaubert, Joyce and Beckett: The Stoic Magicians – Hugh Kenner
  5. Samuel Beckett: A Critical Study – Hugh Kenner
  6. The Beckett Canon – Ruby Cohn
  7. Beckett’s Dying Words – Christopher Ricks
  8. “Where now? Who now?” (The Book to Come) – Maurice Blanchot
  9. Know happiness – on Beckett (Very Little…Almost Nothing) – Simon Critchley
  10. Beckett’s Fiction – Leslie Hill
  11. Narrative Emotions: Beckett’s Genealogy of Love (Love’s Knowledge) – Martha Nussbaum
  12. Saying “I” No More – Daniel Katz
  13. Samuel Beckett: Photographs – John Minihan
  14. Samuel Beckett (Overlook Illustrated Lives) – Gerry Dukes
  15.  Beckett chapter (Theatre of the Absurd) – Martin Esslin
  16. Beckett: “En Attendant Godot” and “Fin de Partie” (Critical Guides to French Texts) – J.P. Little
  17. The Beckett Country – Eoin O’Brien
  18. Samuel Beckett and the Meaning of Being – Lance St. John Butler
  19. How it Was – Anne Atik
  20. No Author Better Served – edited by Maurice Harmon
  21. Samuel Beckett: Humanistic Perspectives edited by Morris Beja
  22. Review of Contemporary Fiction, volume 7, #2, Samuel Beckett issue
  23. The Mechanic Muse – Hugh Kenner
  24. Just Play: Beckett’s Theater – Ruby Cohn
  25. Innovation in Samuel Beckett’s Fiction – Rubin Rabinovitz
  26. The Drama in the Text – Enoch Brater
  27. Bram van Velde (Grove Press)
  28. The Grove Companion to Samuel Beckett – Stanley E. Gontarski
  29. On Beckett – Alain Badiou
  30. Samuel Beckett’s self-referential drama – Shimon Levy
  31. Samuel Beckett – Andrew Gibson
  32. Samuel Beckett and the end of modernity – Richard Begam
  33. Beckett and Poststructuralism – Anthony Uhlmann
  34. Samuel Beckett: Repetition, Theory, and Text – Steven Connor
  35. Beckett: A Guide for the Perplexed – Jonathan Boulter
  36. Remembering and the Sound of Words: Mallarmé, Proust, Joyce, Beckett – Adam Piette
  37. A Reader’s Guide to Samuel Beckett – Hugh Kenner

Kafka: A Bibliography of Criticism (updated 24 Aug 2011)

Type “Kafka” into Google and you can choose from more than 14,000,000 English language sites-twice as many as for James Joyce. In Kafka: The Decisive Years Reiner Stach writes of ‘ well worn “complete interpretations” from the 1950s and 1960s, handbooks and tomes that explicate specific passages, essay collections, dreadfully hefty but nonetheless outdated bibliographies, and finally an immense array of academic monographs on the structure of fragment x, the influence of author y, or the concept of z “in Kafka.” As a reader of many of these volumes I agree with Stach’s conclusion of their value:

Disillusionment soon follows. Most of this material consists of unsupported speculation or academic verbiage. No Theory is too far-fetched to have been advocated somewhere by someone; there is no methodological approach that has not been used to interpret Kafka’s work. Some monographs resemble autistic games; it is impossible to imagine a reader who might reasonably benefit from them.

Although it is possible to revel in Kafka’s artistry without reading a single word of criticism, it is natural after reading the short stories and the three incomplete novels to dip into the diaries and letters. From there a curious mind is drawn to biography and interpretation. Disillusion swiftly follows.

I could use some help to compile a short list of essential Kafka criticism. What are the genuinely enlightening essays or books? After suggestions from Steve Mitchelmore and Flowerville I have updated the bibliography:

  1. Kafka: The Decisive Years – Reiner Stach
  2. The I Without a Self (The Dyer’s Hand) – W. H. Auden
  3. Lambent Traces: Kafka – Stanley Corngold
  4. A Bird Was In The Room (Writing and the Body) – Gabriel Josipovici
  5. Kafka’s Children (Singer on the Shore) – Gabriel Josipovici
  6. Kafka’s Other Trial: The Letters to Felice – Elias Canetti
  7. The Castrating Shadow of Saint Garta (Testaments Betrayed) – Milan Kundera
  8. Reading Kafka and Kafka & Literature (The Work of Fire) – Maurice Blanchot
  9. Franz Kafka: The Necessity of Form – Stanley Corngold
  10. Kafka: An Art for the Wilderness (The Lessons of Modernism) – Gabriel Josipovici
  11. Notes on Kafka (Prisms) – Adorno
  12. K. – Roberto Calasso
  13. Conversations With Kafka – Gustav Janouch
  14. Kafka: A Collection of Critical Essays – Ronald Gray, ed.
  15. The Metamorphosis (Lectures on Literature) – Vladimir Nabokov
  16. Kafka, Rilke and Rumpelstiltskin (Speak, Silence) – Idris Parry
  17. Kafka and the Work’s Demand  (The Space of Literature) – Maurice Blanchot
Excluded from this list because I consider them inferior are Brod’s biography (interesting but unreliable), Pietro Citati’s hagiography and Deleuze and Guattari’s showiness.
[21 Aug: Added a second Blanchot, Gray, Parry and Nabokov; deleted Pawel’s biography due to speculation and inaccuracies. 24 Aug: Removed Benjamin’s two Kafka essays (Illuminations)]

The Insomniac of the Day

Yesterday’s post, acknowledging my difficulty in understanding Blanchot’s The Space of Literature lead to some useful comments. Stephen’s advice lead me to read the insightful essay at the centre of Blanchot’s work, Orpheus’ Gaze, which I read a several times, in two different translations.

Today I’ve been reading the first lecture in Simon Critchley’s Very Little … Almost Nothing, devoted to his own struggle with Blanchot. Critchley concedes, “. . . when writing on Blanchot, I confess that I feel very much in the dark, fumbling here and there for a thread.” This thread, for me, came from the reading of Orpheus’ Gaze. Critchley, making some comments in general, elucidates better than I am able the insight I obtained from my reading of Orpheus’ Gaze:

Blanchot’s original insight, obsessively reiterated in his work, is that the desire that governs writing has for its (impossible) origins this experience of the night, which is the experience of a dying stronger than death . . . Writing is not a desire for the beautiful artwork but for the origin of the artwork, its nocturnal source; which is why Blanchot defines the writer as ‘the insomniac of the day’.

And:

For Blanchot, the possibility of literature is found in the radical impossibility of creating a complete work.

My intention is to re-start my exploration of Blanchot’s work with The Work of Fire, keeping this insight to the fore.

Refusal of the Moment of Comprehension

After a morning reading Maurice Blanchot’s The Space of Literature, I conceded defeat. I can understand the words but meaning eludes me. Online I seek guidance and find:

. . . that if one wants to experience the full scope of Blanchot’s critical writing, and perhaps these works are his most influential, then one might begin with The Work of Fire (1949), The Space of Literature (1955) and The Writing of Disaster (1980).

And:

This early essay [The Work of Fire] holds the kernel of his approach to the question of literature and would be one of the best places to start reading his work.

Sampled, The Work of Fire appears less opaque and perhaps a better starting point.

Later, reading Simon Critchley’s Very Little . . . Almost Nothing I find:

Reading Blanchot is, in a sense, the easiest of tasks. His French is limpid and clear, it is daylight itself; almost the French of the Discours de la méthode. And yet, as nearly everyone who writes on Blanchot points out, his work seems to defy any possible approach, it seems to evade being drawn into the circle of interpretation. The utter clarity of Blanchot’s prose would appear to be somehow premised upon a refusal of the moment of comprehension and the consequent labour of interpretation and judgement. Absolutely clear at the level of reading, yet fundamentally opaque at the level of comprehension; a vague fore-understanding that somehow resists being drawn up into an active comprehension.

For now, the plan is to read Critchley’s book as preparation for The Work of Fire’s arrival next week.

Best of Literary Criticism

Recently I posted this quote from Julian Barnes:

You do often feel when you read academic criticism, not that I do it much, or when you hear academics talking about their books, that they forget that theirs is a secondary activity. They forget that however important a critic is, a first-rate critic is always less important, and less interesting, than a second-rate writer. Their job is, firstly, to explain, but secondly to celebrate rather than diminish.

I’m mostly behind Barnes’s opinion but some literary criticism is first-rate writing. When I feel like reading criticism I want erudition, something cultured, digressive and preferably tendentious. This list comprises ten favourite books that stand proudly alongside first-rate fiction:

  1. Hugh Kenner – The Counterfeiters: An Historical Novel
  2. Maurice Blanchot – The Space of Literature
  3. Harold Bloom – The Western Canon
  4. Guy Davenport – The Geography of the Imagination
  5. Cynthia Ozick – Metaphor & Memory
  6. Denis Donoghue – The Practise of Reading
  7. William H. Gass – A Temple of Texts
  8. D. J. Enright – The Alluring Problem: an Essay on Irony
  9. Susan Sontag – Against Interpretation
  10. Vladimir Nabokov – Lectures on Literature
The list is in no particular order. It could have easily grown to twenty and included work of Cyril Connolly, William Empson, Joseph Brodsky or Viktor Shlovsky.