Pale Notes on Friendship

Agamben: “Friendship is inscribed in the most intimate experience, the one that is most one’s own, the very sensation that one exists. But this also means that in the consent and consensus of friendship, the very identity of friends is called into question. A friend presents me with another self, with myself as other and with another like myself. And yet this reduction of identity happens serenely, almost imperceptibly. It is one of friendship’s gentlest gifts.”

Our friendship was inevitable. It started as a consequence of elective affinities. We had in common a love for Beckett, Woolf, Duras, Rimbaud-though mine was perhaps more reverent. Beckett could do no wrong. Our first encounter took place at her sister’s apartment, overlooking the pretty church on Saint Germain des Prés, a block away from Les Deux Magots, where we would one day make a Salad Périgourdine and cheap bottle of Beaujolais last all afternoon. For some reason I was apprehensive, made even more so by her obvious nervousness. She devoured a bowl of walnuts, cracking each walnut shell with vehemence, a reflection, I thought, of our shared tension. We argued about whether Four Quartets or The Duino Elegies was the most sublime long poem of the twentieth century. I had no parents, she had three.

Dante’s Shoe Soles

It’s difficult reading poetry in translation. I’ve read all the usual Russian poets: Akhmatova, Tsvetaeva, Pasternak, Brodsky, and the elusive Mandelstam, but I can’t imagine that much of the poetry comes through. English translators usually avoid trying to reproduce the metres with any exactitude, and English is a notoriously rhyme-poor language, despite its richness and subtlety.

I’ve read, on and off, for some weeks Mandelstam’s poem Solominka which, even in English is beautiful and abstruse. As Guy Davenport writes in The Geography of the Imagination, “A Mandelstam poem lives inside itself.” Mandelstam likened the physical quality of the word to a paper lantern with a candle inside. “Sometimes the candle inside was the meaning and the paper and frame were the sound structure; and sometimes the paper and frame were the meaning and the candle was the sound.” Even the poem’s title is rich in allusion, being the diminutive of the Russian word for straw, but also the Russian diminutive form of Salomé, who not only famously danced for John the Baptist’s head (my favourite Strauss opera), but also is the name of a Georgian beauty with whom Mandelstam was in love.

Mandelstam was also a superb essayist, and these offer a more accessible way to his thought, as in the collection in The Noise of Time [PDF]. In particular I adore Mandelstam’s apprehension of the rhythmic cadences “of the Divine Comedy first of all as a literary sublimate of the physical motion of walking”:

The question occurs to me-and quite seriously-how many shoe soles, how many ox-hide soles, how many sandals Alighieri wore out in the course of his poetic work, wandering about on the goat paths of Italy. The Inferno and especially the Purgatorio glorify the human gait, the measure and rhythm of walking, the foot and its shape. The step, linked to the berthing and saturated with thought: this Dante understands as the beginning of prosody. In order to indicate walking he uses a multitude of varied and charming turns of phrase.

The Selfish Individual

Throughout this week I’ve binged on Susan Sontag’s essays and interviews. The last pieces Sontag wrote are collected in At the Same Time, which include two of my favourite Sontag reviews.

Sontag’s A Double Destiny: On Anne Banti’s Artemisia in which she writes of Banti’s “prowling” around her own text is a deeply insightful review of a stunning book, a rare work of historical fiction that is worth reading. The essay sent me dipping back into Artemisia.

I also came across an essay I haven’t read before, an acceptance speech written for the Jerusalem Prize. With great lucidity Sontag deals with the encouragement of personal liberation, the legacy of the 1960’s that far from freeing up human subjects, acted as a precursor to the selfish individualism so prevalent today in America and the UK, and being exported to a society near you year by year.

I prefer to use “individual” as an adjective rather than as a noun.

The unceasing propaganda in our time for “the individual” seems to me deeply suspect, as “individuality” itself becomes more and more a synonym for selfishness. A capitalist society comes to have vested interest in praising “individuality” and “freedom”-which may mean little more than the right to the perpetual aggrandisement of the self, and the freedom to shop, to acquire, to use up, to consume, to render obsolete.

I don’t believe there is any inherent value in the cultivation of the self. And I think there is no culture (using the term normatively) without the standard of altruism, of regard for others, I do believe there is an inherent value in extending our sense of what a human life can be. If literature has engaged me as a project, first as a reader and then as a writer, it is as an extension of my sympathies to other selves, other domains, other words, other territories of concern.

Gifts of Befana

I’m intrigued to read Elena Ferrante. Readers that I respect are enthusiastic, and this recent piece by James Wood has added another twist to my intrigue. I love this paragraph from a letter to her publishers that accompanied her first book:

I believe that books, once they are written, have no need of their authors. If they have something to say, they will sooner or later find readers; if not, they won’t. . . . I very much love those mysterious volumes, both ancient and modern, that have no definite author but have had and continue to have an intense life of their own. They seem to me a sort of nighttime miracle, like the gifts of the Befana, which I waited for as a child. . . . True miracles are the ones whose makers will never be known. . . . Besides, isn’t it true that promotion is expensive? I will be the least expensive author of the publishing house. I’ll spare you even my presence.

Links of the Week

Many of these links have been tweeted in the past, but here I can tag and categorise them for future reference. I hope you find some of them interesting too. Please feel free to discuss in comments or on Twitter. Some of the links to PDFs change or disappear, so if something interests you download it quickly.

 Virginia Woolf with father, Sir. Leslie Stephen

Virginia Woolf’s The Voyage Out [PDF] published in 1915, though conventional in form, carries all her later themes.

Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway: Invisible Presences [PDF] by Molly Hoff.

Italo Calvino’s short story The Adventure of a Photographer [PDF]. This is from Calvino’s Difficult Loves collection.

Italo Calvino’s Borgesian, enchanting collection of stories Cosmicomics [PDF].

Mary Ruefle’s essay On Fear captures perfectly the distinction between feeling and emotion.

Jonathan Culler’s Literary Theory: A Very Short Introduction [PDF] is one of the best of the VSI series, and a rock-solid theory primer.

The highly recommended Companion to Philosophy and Film [PDF] embraces “both the philosophical study of cinema and the investigations of films’ philosophical dimensions, implications, and pedagogical value”. If nothing else read Kovác’s Andrei Tarkovsky (p. 581).

Friedrich Nietzsche’s The Antichrist [PDF], (the title might be better translated as The Anti-Christian), is Nietzche’s onslaught on the decadence of Western Christianity.

Anton Chekhov’s Letters to His Family and Friends (trans. Constance Garnett) [PDF]. These are beautiful.

Franco Moretti’s The Slaughterhouse of Literature [PDF].

The Kind of Guy

In this passage from Calvino’s Letters, before he has published a first novel, Calvino reveals his dedication to veracity:

They want articles all over the place and I write them because it takes half an hour to write an article. To write an article not to do an article. To do an article you have to read books, find ideas, roll up your sleeves. In addition I’m the kind of guy who goes from the maximum of superficiality to the maximum of fussiness in a trice. For instance, I want to cite a certain name in a particular sentence in a particular article. Let’s say: Chesterton. Because it sounds good at that point. Chesterton and an adjective. “Olympian like Chesterton.” Or “tormented like Chesterton.” But I’ve never read a line of Chesterton: I don’t know whether he’s Olympian or tormented, whether he has anything to do with what I’m writing. So what do I do? I roll up my sleeves and start looking until I find Chesterton’s works. And I read them. All Chesterton’s works. And I read them. And everything that’s been written about Chesterton. And I read that too. So I write in that particular sentence: “Olympian or tormented or cataleptic or schizophrenic . . . like Chesterton.” That’s it. Meantime two weeks have gone by for three words.

Back to Calvino

Italo Calvino: Letters 1941-1985

Italo Calvino: Letters 1941-1985

I know Michael Wood as the author of Literature and the Taste of Knowledge and Yeats and Violence, both works of literary criticism that I liked very much. Wood both selected the letters in this edition and writes the introduction, saying that the letters reveal not Calvino’s “real self” but his “plain self”: “We eavesdrop not on his secrets but on his devotion to clarity.” (Jonathan Galassi recently reviewed this book for NYRB).

Along with the second volume of Reiner Stach’s Kafka biography, this collection of Calvino’s letters is one of my two most eagerly anticipated books of 2013. Leafing through the index I can see fairly extensive referencing of Barthes, Borges, Kafka, Primo Levi, and Elsa Morante, but also that pretty much every writer I have time for gets at least one mention.

Pursuing a reference to Dante, I came across a lengthy letter addressed to literary critic Mario Motta. I quote a tantalising section below which precedes comments about Kafka, Dante, Conrad, Chekhov and Hemingway

[..] I notice that I’ve started classifying historical figures, writers, cultural movements into “paradisiacal” or not, As happens with these juxtapositions invented on the spot (which also have their own auxiliary usefulness, as long as one doesn’t dwell too long on them), the system always works out: the “paradisiacal” ones are all those I systematically distrust, the “non-paradisiacal” are those from whom I believe I’ve gathered some concrete teaching.

How many paradises there are, for instance, in recent literature! What can be more “paradisiacal” than Surrealism? And psychoanalysis? And Gidean irresponsibility? But even more significant, it seems to me, is the fact that the most coveted myth in modern literature is a regressive paradise: memory. And what can one say about the gelid paradise of the Hermeticists: absence?

Of course, the letters have disarmed me and demand my immediate attention.

Links of the Week

Many of these links have been tweeted in the past, but here I can tag and categorise them for future reference. I hope you find some of them interesting too. Please feel free to discuss in comments or on Twitter. Some of the links to PDFs change or disappear, so if something interests you download it quickly.

Kathy Acker

Kathy Acker

I came across Kathy Acker’s work while pursuing my passion for all things Patti Smith. Smith and Acker (and Mapplethorpe) were close friends. The Language of The Body is central to Acker’s extraordinary body of work.

Djuna Barnes chapbook The Book of Repulsive Women [PDF] collects eight poems and five drawings. It is more a curiosity than one of Barnes’s finest works, she came to view it as an embarrassment.

I’ve not deeply read Giorgio Agamben’s work yet, but from my first study expect to find his work in accord with philosophy as a form of life. The Man Without Content [PDF] looks difficult, but as far as I can tell contends that before the 20th century art was more essential to people than it is today.

Written by David Miller, this Very Short Introduction to Political Philosophy [PDF] successfully summarise the main arguments of a huge subject. As Miller writes, political philosophy is “an investigation into the nature, causes, and effects of good and bad government.” As always with this series, the Further Reading section is invaluable.

Colin Ward was Britain’s greatest contributor to the much misunderstood political philosophy of anarchism. I consider his Very Short Introduction to Anarchism [PDF] required reading for anyone that realises no government is ever going to offer tolerable administration.

Nicholas Royle, co-writer of my favourite theory primer: An Introduction to Literature, Criticism and Theory, wrote What is Deconstruction? [PDF] as a letter to the editors of the Chambers Dictionary in disgust at its treatment, in 1998, of the word ‘deconstruction.’ The letter is not only funny but gets close to a working definition.

Derrida’s Letter to a Japanese Friend [PDF] is the closest that Derrida got to providing a comprehensible definition of the word ‘deconstruction.’

Though Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak is not one of my favourite Derrida disciples, her treatment of post-colonialism is exceptional, particularly her development of the concept of subaltern. The Critical Thinkers guide [PDF] is a superb introduction to Spivak’s interests.

Late Lyotard [PDF] presents Derridean scholar Geoffery Bennington’s presentation of Jean-Francois Lyotard’s late themes.

Crass, formed by Penny Rimbaud and Steve Ignorant, were my band, my introduction into the circle of South London punks who adopted me in the early eighties.

Links of the Week

Many of these links have been tweeted in the past, but here I can tag and categorise them for future reference. I hope you find some of them interesting too. Please feel free to discuss in comments or on Twitter. Some of the links to PDFs disappear quickly so download them promptly.

Jorge Luis Borges

Jorge Luis Borges

The Signifying Corpse: Re-Reading Kristeva on Marguerite Duras by Karen Piper [PDF]: “Moderato cantabile, far from the sweet and melodious story the title suggests, is centred around the sound of a scream.”

A Dictionary of Borges [PDF] by Evelyn Fishburn and Psiche Hughes (Forewords by Mario Vargas Llosa and Anthony Burgess).

One of my favourite of JG Ballard’s short stories: The Concentration City [PDF].

Jonathan McCalmont’s perceptive analysis of the ambiguities of the brilliant film Fish Tank.

Sex and Gender in Simone de Beauvoir’s Second Sex [PDF] by Judith Butler. “In fact, we can see in The Second Sex an effort to radicalize the Sartrian program to establish an embodied notion of freedom.”

A Writer from Chicago [PDF] by Saul Bellow. “Neither in brash, and now demoralised, Chicago nor in New York, the capital of victorious mass culture (American culture is the culture of the TV networks), will any writer try to live like an artist. If he is a person of any degree of seriousness, why would he want to?”

James Joyce’s sublime A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man [PDF-Full].

Complete Dante Alighieri’s Divine Comedy in PDF – 3 books. This is Longfellow’s translation.

The Library of Babel [PDF] by Jorge Luis Borges.

A wonderful Anne Carson essay, Contempts [PDF] .

Patrick Leigh Fermor: We May Just Forget to Die [PDF] by Margot Demopoulos.

Gabriel Josipovici’s brilliant Kafka essay: Why we don’t understand Kafka.

James Joyce’s essential Ulysses [PDF-Full].

Two by Friedrich Nietzsche: my favourite Ecce Homo (How One Becomes What One Is) and The Antichrist (A Curse on Christianity) [PDF]. A new translation by Thomas Wayne.