Gunn, Bohemians and Cole

I’ve read a few books this month without the time to reflect on them here, so some disconnected thoughts on what I’ve read lately.

During a Twitter conversation in which I confessed to abandoning Gunn’s latest novel The Big Music, Michelle persuaded me to read Kirsty Gunn’s Rain. There is a calm beauty in Rain that almost seemed excessive to the demands of the story. I read it twice, taking pleasure in the subtle details: the tension between childhood and adulthood, the elegiac characterisation. Early in her narrative Gunn writes, “… but already the air was touched by the promise of our destination.” The brief novel is filled with these lyric images that disrupt the apparent simplicity of the narrative. Though I was moved by the beauty of the writing, I was detached from the story itself, and somewhat indifferent at the end of a second reading.

An indeterminable urge drew me to read Henrietta Moraes’ autobiography Henrietta. Moraes was the epitomic upper class Bohemian of London’s 1950s and 1960s, seduced by Lucian Freud, painted by Bacon at least two dozen times. When Moraes died in 1999, her son, barely mentioned in the autobiography, considered scattering her ashes around the pubs where she spent a large part of her dissipated life. Terribly written but moving nevertheless, Henrietta is part of a longer term project to read around Soho and London of the years before the-excuse the cliché-swinging sixties.

As soon as Teju Cole’s Every Day is for the Thief arrived, I set aside other reading to spend time with the book that came before Cole’s staggeringly good Open CityJames Wood’s review of Open City called it a “novel as close to a diary as a novel can get, with room for reflection, autobiography, stasis, and repetition.” Every Day is for the Thief is in similar vein, and reads as the warm-up work to Open City, lacking some of its punch, but beautifully evocative of the rhythms of daily life in Lagos. The lightness of tone masks the intensity and seriousness of the narrator’s frustration with his return to Lagos after a long absence from the city.

Piercing the Veil

We are anxiety-ridden animals. Our minds are continually active, fabricating an anxious, self-pre-occupied, often falsifying veil which partially conceals the world.”

What chiefly pierces that veil is a sharp, direct perception of things which are no part of our own being. For instance:

“I am looking out of my window in an anxious and resentful state of mind, oblivious of my surroundings, brooding perhaps on some damage done to my prestige. Then suddenly I observe a hovering kestrel. In a moment everything is altered. The brooding self with its hurt vanity has disappeared. There is nothing now but kestrel. And when I return to thinking of the other matter it seems less important.”

The veil, however, is persistent and terribly hard to detect. In every age it subtly provides new, unnoticed ways of evading reality. Detecting those new forms is a prime business of philosophy, but of course philosophers often find it no easier than other people. (It is always a significant question to ask about any philosopher; “what are they afraid of?”)

Mary Midgley
Sorting Out the Zeitgeist: The Moral Philosophy of Iris Murdoch

A Neoliberalism Reading List

(Re)reading from first to last, as I have recently, Michel Houellebecq’s entire body of translated work leaves me in little doubt that he is the only novelist in the west truly capturing the pernicious effects on individuals living through this latest manifestation of capitalism, a neoliberalism whose influence reaches deep into notions of individualism and identity.

Carole Sweeney’s reading list below is as good as any I’ve seen on the history of capitalism in the twentieth century, and most particularly on the rise of neoliberalism. I’ve read some of these and plan to read the others, and welcome any other reading suggestions along similar lines.

  • Luc Boltanski, Ève Chiapello, The New Spirit of Capitalism
  • Giovanni Arrighi, The Long Twentieth Century: Money, Power and the Origins of our Times
  • Krishnan Kumar, From Post-Industrial to Post-Modern Society: New Theories of the Contemporary World
  • Ash Amin, Post-Fordism: A Reader
  • David Harvey, A Brief History of Neoliberalism
  • Gilles Lipovetsky, Hypermodern Times
  • Paolo Virno, Michael Hardt, Radical Thought in Italy
  • Zygmunt Bauman, Globalization: The Human Consequences
  • Susan Strange, The Retreat of the State: The Diffusion of Power
  • Henry Giroux, Against the Terror of Neoliberalism: Politics Beyond the Age of Greed
  • What We Once Knew As Life

    I suspect that Houellebecq and Adorno would’ve enjoyed a bottle of wine together, grumbling together about the invasion of market relations into every corner of human existence.

    What the philosophers once knew as life has become the sphere of private existence and now of mere consumption, dragged along as an appendage of the process of material production, without autonomy or substance of its own.

    Theodor Adorno
    Minima Moralia

    Traces of Individuality

    It is wrong to pretend that human beings are unique, that they carry within them an irreplaceable individuality; as far as I was concerned, at any rate, I could not distinguish any trace of such an individuality. As often as not it is futile to wear yourself out trying to distinguish individual destinies and personalities. When all’s said and done, the idea of the uniqueness of the individual is nothing more than pompous absurdity. We remember our own lives, Schopenhauer wrote somewhere, a little better than a novel we once read. That’s about right: a little, no more.

    Michel Houellebecq
    Platform

    Idées Fixes of the Week

    Girl in a Blanket (1953) Lucian Freud

    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.

    Gentle Resignation

    It doesn’t amount to much, generally speaking, a human life; it can be summed up in a small number of events …

    Fortunate today to have been able to spend several hours reading Michel Houellebecq’s The Map and the Territory and though I’ve got another eighty or so pages to go, it seems clear that this is his major work to date. The twelve years that separate it from Atomised (The Elementary Articles) are evident in the fully realised characters, and the maturity of its metaphysics. I may write a little more about it when finished, but I am inclined to go back and reread the earlier works. This is a drive-by posting to drop off a couple of quotes that resonated.

    Olga loved him, he repeated to himself with a growing sadness as he also realised that nothing would ever happen between them again; life sometimes offers you a chance, he thought, but when you are too cowardly or too indecisive to seize it life takes the cards away; there is a moment for doing things and entering a possible happiness, and this moment lasts a few days, sometimes even a few weeks or even a few months, but it only happens once and one time only, and if you want to return to it later it’s quite simply impossible. There’s no place for enthusiasm, belief and faith, and there remains just gentle resignation, a sad and reciprocal pity, the useless but correct sensation that something could have happened, that you just simply showed yourself unworthy of this gift you had been offered.

    All That Exists is Egotism

    Few beings have ever been so impregnated, pierced to the core, by the conviction of the absolute futility of human aspiration. The universe is nothing but a furtive arrangement of elementary particles. A figure in transition toward chaos. That is what will finally prevail. The human race will disappear. Other races in turn will appear and disappear. The skies will be glacial and empty, traversed by the feeble light of half-dead stars. These too will disappear. Everything will disappear. And human actions are as free and as stripped of meaning as the unfettered movements of the elementary particles. Good, evil, morality, sentiments? Pure ‘Victorian fictions.’ All that exists is egotism. Cold, intact, and radiant.

    Michel Houellebecq
    H.P. Lovecraft: Against the World, Against Life

    In an odd way, summarising Michel Houellebecq’s work as a series of (mesmerising) quotes affirms the significance of his worldview-and the appeal of his nihilism for me-in a way that gets a little lost when I engage with each work on its own.

    I hadn’t intended to read Houellebecq’s Lovecraft book, but these quotes propel it to my essential reading list. At the moment I’m reading The Map and the Territory for the first time, which I’d been saving as my only unread Houellebecq fiction, or so I thought but somehow Lanzarote escaped my attention. Did I read somewhere that Houellebecq intends to stop writing fiction? At some point I must read the BHL engagement, and then perhaps reread Houellebecq from the beginning.

    How Rubens Sees Orpheus

    In Hinges: Meditations on the Portals of The Imagination Grace Dane Mazur asks of Rubens’ Orpheus painting, “Pretend that you do not know what this painting is about. Look at it with eyes fresh and innocent and unknowing; ask yourself what is going on.”

    Katie Roiphe’s In Praise of Messy Lives

    That Gawker regularly vent their unsophisticated spleen on Katie Roiphe may be thought a reason to read her books. Much of the other invective that streams towards Roiphe appears to be a result of her mid-90′s polemics on campus rape.

    I don’t know if this was the case during those debates, but Roiphe does seem courageous enough to argue against the grain in In Praise of Messy Lives, though in this case her target is conventional marriage and parenthood, and what, if any, putative advantages a nuclear family confers on a child compared to single parenthood (roughly half of all first children in the US are born to unwed mothers). Ropihe’s arguments are eloquent and convincing, but rarely stray beyond the confines of a narrow bourgeois demographic.

    In Praise of Messy Lives also includes some entertaining pieces of literary criticism including a contentious defence of the US literary old-guard’s (Roth, Updike etc.) depiction of sex, compared to its vapid portrayal by the following generation (DFW, Franzen etc.) My favourite of these essays is the study of the depth of Joan Didion’s influence on later American women writers. Apart from a feeble essay on Jane Austen, Roiphe fails to acknowledge any writing outside the US, but this insularity that blights American literature is far from isolated to Roiphe.

    For a flavour of Roiphe’s style I can recommend this superb article: Want To Understand Sexual Politics? Read This Novel. There also a good NYT review of these essays.