Woolf: First Memories

This is a passage from Virginia Woolf’s Moments of Being. Though irresistible, I pull back from nostalgia but find it harder with each folded year. I’ve been thinking a lot this week about those childhood bases against which we judge and measure our future ideas of happiness.

If life has a base that it stands upon, if it is a bowl that fills and fills and fills – then my bowl without a doubt stands upon this memory. It is of lying half asleep, half awake, in bed in the nursery at St Ives. It is of hearing the waves breaking, one, two, one, two, behind a yellow blind. It is of hearing the blind draw its little acorn across the floor as the wind blew the blind out. It is of lying and hearing this splash and seeing this light, and feeling, it is impossible that I should be here; of feeling the purest ecstasy I can conceive.

Rare Birds

Where does the Blogger’s Code (you know those self-appointed men that harangue from street corners) stand on updating old posts? I’d never thought much about it, except to correct typos, until I read One Activity You Should Do On Your Blog Every Day. Then I forgot about it for a few days.

Today I’ve been reading Lev Losev’s Joseph Brodsky: A Literary Life and reflecting on the subject of genius. Losev writes:

“Genius” is not a scholarly term. Its common use is mainly emotive: “You’re a genius!” For me, “genius” is first and foremost a cognate of “genetic.” A one-in-a-million genetic makeup creates a person of unusual creative potential, willpower, and charisma. It may offend our democratic sensibilities to admit that such rare birds are so different from the rest of our common flock, but in fact they are.

That’s a definition I can accept. It lead me to search Time’s Flow Stemmed for how often, in a delirium of enthusiasm for a book I’ve just read, I overuse the term. My search led me to an old post on Aristotle’s hypothesis that mastery of metaphor is a sign of genius. Revisiting led to the sacrilegious act of updating an old post, then to an act of time travel, linking from that old post to one four years later.

Brodsky, almost certainly a genius, in an essay about artistic creativity said, “The lesser commenting upon the greater has, of course, a certain humbling appeal, and at our end of the galaxy we are quite accustomed to this sort of procedure.” Brodsky’s phrase: that the lesser cannot comment upon the greater. This pinpoints my intuition about most literary criticism, that however brilliant the critic, there is always something important left out.

Not Touched By The World

My unique relation with my work – and it is a tenuous one – is the making relation. I am with it a little in the dark and fumbling of making, as long as that lasts, then no more. I have no light to throw on it myself and it seems a stranger in the light that others throw.

This quote, that opens the first volume of Beckett’s letters (1929-1940), brings to mind an incident James Knowlson covers in his superb biography Damned to Fame: The Life of Samuel Beckett. (Read Knowlson’s book if you have any interest in Beckett. It is nectar.)

Adorno met Beckett on several occasions. Despite Beckett’s insistence to Adorno that the character “Hamm” in Endgame contained no allusion to Hamlet, Adorno’s subsequent essay Trying to understand Endgame further developed Adorno’s Hamlet theory. This undoubtedly triggered a reference Beckett made a few years later when questioned about Endgame: “Endgame will be just play. Nothing Less. Don’t worry about enigmas and solutions. For these we have well-equipped universities, churches, cafés du commerce and so on”.

Adorno, incidentally, at the time preceding his death, was working on a series of marginalia to the novel Unnamable, which he considered Beckett’s masterpiece. The motto of Adorno’s marginalia was, “The path of the novel: reduction if the reduced”.

Beckett continues to preoccupy me into the late summer, and, most likely, autumn season. I read Anne Atik’s How it Was: A Memoir of Samuel Beckett, a deeply personal, moving memoir of what Beckett meant to Atik and her family as a close family friend.

Last night I reread this Quarterly Conversation interview about the publication of Beckett’s letters. It is excellent on several levels but especially for this summation by artist and art historian Avigdor Arikha about why Beckett meant so much to him:

When I asked Avigdor Arikha, on one of the last times I met him shortly before his death, if he could tell me why it was that Beckett had mattered so much to him—he had told me he missed him more and more every day—he explained to me that he was the one person he had ever met—in such a full and dramatic life—who in some part of him “n’était pas touché par le monde” (was not touched by the world). By “the world” he intended, as he went on to explain, all that is low and dirty and nasty. Every time I sit at my desk to work on the letters, or almost every time, I feel I am experiencing the truth of what Avigdor told me that day.

Even as a reader of Beckett I recognise this quality as what draws me not only to his prose but to the man, his life, letters and library. Kafka matters in precisely the same way.

Distress, distress

Quote

Anyone who knew Sam well knew that his generosity did not stem from a deprived childhood for which he was trying to compensate; on the contrary, his early years had been happy, fortunate. He would even ask, uncomprehendingly, why people thought his writings must mean he had a miserable childhood. All they have to do, he added, is go to the window, read the papers, it is all there. A. remembers being with him in a taxi, stopped at a traffic light, and Sam, looking out the window, suddenly throwing up his hands and murmuring, almost to himself, ‘La détresse, la détresse‘ (‘Distress, distress’)

Anne Atik
How it Was

Need Need Need

Below is an extended quotation from Olivia Laing’s The Trip to Echo Spring. The book is a beautifully written, lovingly researched, fascinating account of why writers drink. It is one of those discursive, genre-busting books that I enjoy so much. Laing succeeds in offering an alternative way of reading Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and Cheever. This passage concerns John Berryman, whom I must read sometime soon.I quote without further comment a passage that continues to play on my mind.

A line came into my head then. It was from another Dream Song. What was it? Something about pieces. ‘The pieces sat up and wrote’? Yes.

Hunger was constitutional with him,
wine, cigarettes, liquor, need need need
until he went to pieces.
The pieces sat up and wrote.

The overwhelming infantile wail of that need need need, too urgent even for punctuation. If you carry that sense of starvation – for love, for nourishment, for security – with you into adulthood, what do you do? You feed it, I suppose, with whatever you can find to stave off the awful, annihilating sense of dismemberment, disintegration, of being torn apart, of losing the integrity of the self.

There are the terrors of the infant waiting for the breast, or they are if you read Freud and Melanie Klein; and these are the terrors of the adult whose childhood sense of security was ruptured before they managed to build a sturdy enough skin with which to face the world. Hardly any wonder that the Dream Songs are so obsessively interested in the state of being skinless or having one’s pelt ripped off or stripped away. Indeed, Berryman once joshed bleakly to his editor about having them bound ‘blue-black’ in scraps of his own skin.

Decompression Zone

After several days living in the dappled shade of a forest comprised mostly of ancient giant redwoods, I’m unable, or unwilling, to return to London. I find myself in need of a decompression zone, so have elected to stay for a few days a flat in a small cathedral city. Once a bishop’s wardrobe, this small and moderately cosy flat is in a peaceful close next to the cathedral. These unusually sultry days are spent reading, writing and walking by the river at the end of the large garden. In the still evenings I listen to the choir’s evensong and am accompanied by regular tolling of church bells.

I’m under the spell of Reiner Stach’s Kafka: The Years of Insight, which I finished late last night, and so unable to settle with another book at the moment. While staying at his sister’s farm, Kafka wrote fragmentary notes that have become known to Kafka readers as the Zürau octavo notebooks. Stach writes that these fragments “consist mainly of compactly formulated notes that focus on religious and philosophical questions on good and evil, truth and falsehood, and alienation and redemption.” Stach also writes that “there a few comparable examples of this form in world literature: Valéry’s notebooks (a mother lode of this type of writing, which, however became accessible only after 1945 [and therefore not to Kafka] and, of course, Pascal’s Pensees.”

Serendipitously this sends me back to Valéry’s Notebooks. I bought the first volume with me, together with Calvino’s letters, though I am finding the latter inaccessible, perhaps because such a passage of time has passed since my Calvino obsession.

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.

This Japanese Modernist reading list is intriguing, and I must make time to investigate more closely some of these titles.

Jhumpa Lahiri on the craft of writing: My Life’s Sentences.

Gatsby, 35 Years Later (1960).

Michiko Kakutani’s review of Zelda Fitzgerald The Collected Writings Edited by Matthew J. Bruccoli.

Conversations with iconic people: interview with Chris Kraus.

The complete audio recordings of Jean Cocteau, recorded between 1929 and 1955.

A complete digital edition of Thomas More’s Utopia.

Review of Franz Schulze’s superb, updated Mies van der Rohe: A Critical Biography.

A punk rock vision quest told in the tradition of the anarchist travel story. Hib and Kika’s Off the Map.

Why isn’t his greatness acknowledged? Review of Arun Kolatkar’s Jejuri.

Referred to as China’s first modern short story, Lu Xun’s A Madman’s Diary.

Angela Carter’s literary executor explores the enduring influence of her reimagined fairy tales.

A Garland of Plagiarism.

Quote

The entire history of literature-a secret history that no one will ever be able to write except in part, because authors are too skilful at obscuring themselves-can be seen as a sinuous garland of plagiarism. By this I do not mean functional plagiarism, due to haste and laziness, such as Stendhal’s plundering of Lanzi; but the other kind, based on admiration and as a process of physiological assimilation that is one of the best protected mysteries of literature.

Roberto Calasso
La Folie Baudelaire

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.

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.”