Freud’s captivating Girl in a Blanket appears on the front cover of Henrietta Moraes’ memoir, Henrietta, which I have sampled in small doses alongside Colin Wilson’s Adrift in Soho. I’m fascinated with the louche, hedonistic Soho that stretched between the beat and post-hippie eras. (Moraes called the unfinished sequel to her memoir Fuck Off Darling, which is of course just perfect) Nothing of the Bohemian lifestyle that Moraes and her milieu lived could be tolerated in our age of surveillance, net curtain twitching and consumerism as economic ideology.
I suspect that Michel Houellebecq would’ve fitted neatly in with Morae’s crowd. They would have appreciated his Beckettian mirthless humour, the finest, or at least healthiest, antidote to nihilism. My rereading of Houellebecq’s oeuvre continues, impeded only by my return to wage-orientated labour after four blissful months of reading, travel, navel gazing and walking.
Briefly but intensely compelled to dip into Angela Carter’s work last week, nagged during an insomniac night with echoes of her highly wrought style in the depiction of sexuality in Houellebecq. There are surely broad similarities in the caustic and subversive humour of both writers. I am overdue an immersion once again in Carter’s work.
What keeps coming to mind during my current Michel Houellebecq binge is that beneath the surface of his nihilism and despair is an un-extinguished faith in the redemptive potency of love and friendship, a hope that he realises is unfulfillable but impossible to abandon.
This afternoon, feeling a little dour, I took a break from my Houellebecq bender to reread some of Kate Chopin’s The Awakening, which I read at Francis’ recommendation some years ago. Once again I came across a favourite paragraph, underlined in pencil, which she repeats at the start and end of her novel.
The voice of the sea is seductive; never ceasing, whispering, clamoring, murmuring, inviting the soul to wander for a spell in abysses of solitude; to lose itself in mazes of inward contemplation. The voice of the sea speaks to the soul. The touch of the sea is sensuous, enfolding the body in its soft, close embrace.
The sea, in both deadly and enriching form, is almost a character in The Awakening, and Chopin’s poetic description stands in relief to the sparseness of the rest of the text.
In this thin transparent air I feel able to perceive in her unmoving form the signs of that invisible movement that reading is, the flow of gaze and breath, but, even more, the journey of words through the person . . .
I see a secret link between Lucretius, Hume, Spinoza, and Nietzsche constituted by their critique of negativity, their cultivation of joy, the hatred of interiority, the externality of forces and relations, the denunciation of power, and so on …
The more our daily life appears standardised, stereotyped, and subject to an accelerated reproduction of objects of consumption, the more art must be injected into it in order to extract from it that little difference which plays simultaneously between other levels of repetition, and even in order to make the two extremes resonate—namely, the habitual series of consumption and the instinctual series of destruction and death.
The flows of lava, biomass, genes, memes, norms, money (and other ‘stuff’) are the source of just about every stable structure that we cherish and value (or, on the contrary, that oppresses or enslaves us).
There is a voyeuristic aspect to reading journals and diaries, a suggestion of breaching someone’s privacy, eavesdropping on supposedly private thoughts. In the case of published diaries, particularly those read as literary texts, this encroachment is neutralised with the knowledge that the writer intended their publication.
This raises the question of a diary’s ‘authenticity,’ whether by virtue of being presented as literature, experiences are created, or revised for the benefit of a future audience. Genre authenticity is also directly linked to psychological aspects, whether we can ever know ourselves well enough to render our lives accurately in writing. My general practise is consider all diaries and autobiographical works as partially fictive with a well-meaning (usually) but ultimately unreliable narrator.
It is not entirely clear in the case of Alix Cléo Roubaud whether she intended her journal for publication. In a poignant introduction, poet and mathematician Jacques Roubaud, writes, “I knew of her journal’s existence, but I had not opened it while she was alive.” After Alix’s death, Jacques was left all her writing and photographs, “to do with as I would deem necessary.” This edition reproduces her photographs to go with he moments when she writes of them.
It is the intertwining of Alix’s photographs and words that carve out the depth of intimacy, truth and beauty within Alix’s Journal. The reader is situated squarely as voyeur in the space between Alix and Jacques Roubaud. The discomfort that this situation illicits, and the combination of literary and philosophical reflections with the insignificant details and concerns that attach to all our realities, make Alix’s Journal a uniquely exquisite reading experience.
Following two readings of Alix’s Journal with the discovery and viewing on YouTube of Jean Eustache’s short film Les Photo’s d’Alix was almost unbearably moving.
How to purge the horror. Not possible. At best give it shape and name.
Incarcerated, awaiting the death penalty, the protagonist of Carole Maso’s Defiance, depicted in the tabloids as a modern-day Medea, gently discloses her devastating, destructive life. Presenting the novel as the journal of an unrepentant double-murderer gives Maso the freedom to explore a story of victimisation and sexual abuse from an unfamiliar angle. That Maso brings to Defiance the intelligence and erudition evident in Ava also helps to lift her novel from the more mainstream discourse of victimhood.
Though beautifully written, the essence of the novel that male violence is endemic in our culture is authoritative and unyielding. Maso’s story is in many ways reminiscent of the Aileen Wournos narrative (as played memorably in Monster by Charlize Theron), the essential difference being that Maso’s protagonist, Bernadette, is a mathematical prodigy. Throughout the story Maso challenges the reader to question the game Bernadette is playing with her readers, her social worker, and others.
Both intrigued and undecided by Carole Maso’s Ava. A fragmentary novel, which impels with the force of allusion and cadence of the sentences. As with Markson’s fragmentary novels, I am not certain that the fragments cohere sufficiently as a narrative. But I am only two-thirds into Ava and will finish (and then intend to read her Defiance.) I want to capture here a couple of the fragments that accord so neatly with my view of the world I wish that I had written them (I did in my notebook, uncredited, so in a few years time I will think I did!):
No character in Beckett has ever admitted that existence is other than a cruel joke. But here in Company Beckett reaches into a darker dark than he has hitherto plumbed, to ask if the poor jokester didn’t, after all, create us, his joke, to keep his lonely self company? This is a way of asking if in our profound and agonising loneliness we have invented the jokester, God, to keep ourselves company?
And what is company? What have we not done for its sake? For everything human we have made up, beginning with our names. Our laws, our quaint systems of kinship, our cities, our technology, a Victorian clergyman’s carefully researched study of the Sumerian cosmology-fiction all. We’ve made it all up, to hide the mystery in an idiotically decorated box.
“The truth is that Heraclitus attracts exegetes as an empty jam pot wasps; and each new wasp discerns traces of his own favourite flavour.” Jonathan Barnes, from The Presocratic Philosophers. He goes on to say, “The existence of such diverse interpretations of Heraclitus’ philosophy will sow seeds of despair in the mind of any honest scholar …”
I posted a few excerpts of Richard Geldard’s Remembering Heraclitus, and thought it a lucid exposition, but with a strong personal flavour, portraying Heraclitus as a mystic, likely influenced by the Vedics and a forerunner of Marcilio Ficino, the Gnostics, up to and including the American Transcendentalists. With Barnes’ caution in mind I’ll admit to seeds of despair (as much as I’d like to follow Geldard wholeheartedly with his arguments), preferring to side with Nietzsche that Heraclitus was neither mystic nor materialist. Geldard’s parallels in the epilogue between Heraclitus, Roger Penrose, and the quantum consciousness hypothesis probably whistled way over my head but didn’t strengthen Geldard’s broader contentions.
Next I’m reading Charles Kahn’s drier (more sober) interpretation of Heraclitus’ fragments that interest me by treating Heraclitus not only as a first-rate philosophical thinker but also as a brilliant literary artist. This is the Heraclitus of George Steiner, who wrote so beautifully:
It is the most “stylish’ of philosophers, those most alert to the expressive constraints and resources of stated thought, to its implicit cadence, such as Kierkegaard and Nietzsche, who look to Heraclitus. It is Novalis, practitioner of the Orphic fragment, and Heidegger the neologist, the craftsman of tautology. Rhapsodic and oracular intellects recognise in Heraclitus the fundamental, generative collision between the elusive opacity of the word and the equally elusive but compelling clarity and evidence of things. Immediate or hurried apprehension, the colloquial, misses this decisive tension, that, in Heraclitus’s celebrated duality, of the bow and the lyre. To listen closely-Nietzsche defined philology as “reading slowly”-is to experience, always imperfectly, the possibility that the order of words, notably in metrics and the metrical nerve-structure within good prose, reflects, perhaps sustains the hidden yet manifest coherence of the cosmos.