Acts of Unlearning

The pathways of thought we will sketch have need of poetry, which in its nakedness and directness invades analytical language and allows it to open up; Arendt rejects instruments of comprehension that have proved dull or irrelevant. She allows them to go missing, unlearns them. Many things must be freed from entanglements so that we can argue about and conquer then anew. Such acts of “unlearning,” born of shock and distress, are intellectual awakenings.

From the Preface to Unlearning with Hannah Arendt by Marie Luise Knott (trans. David Dollenmayer).

The Womb of World Civilisation

It amuses me greatly when a degree of unconscious direction behind seemingly arbitrary reading choices becomes clear. What is intended to be patternless drifting from one book to the next, loosely following very broad themes, takes on the form of a literary centripetal force pulling towards a single area of study. Even a year ago I felt the pull towards the study of the Vedas, but resisted the tension, mainly because I couldn’t quite grasp where to begin. As Paul Deussen, a friend of Nietzsche’s, wrote in his old (1907) Outlines in Indian Philosophy, “European idleness tries to escape the study of Indian philosophy.” I still feel that inertia, intimidated by the immensity of the task. But, but …

Rereading Virginia Woolf’s The Waves one night, I came across Bernard’s monologue:

I am not one person, I am many people. I do not know who I am – Jinny, Susan, Rhoda, Neville or Louis – or how to distinguish my life from theirs – ‘we are bound not only to our friends but to the long-long history that began in Egypt in the time of the Pharaos when women carried pitchers to the Nile.’

I started going through The Waves and scribbling notes of instances where Woolf uses metaphors to indicate the relation of one to the many, that Nature is ‘one form in diverse mirrors.’ Both currents of thought were heavily present in my recent readings of Clarice Lispector, Pierre Hadot’s Plotinus and various interpretations of Heraclitus’ Fragments.

For instance, there is the following paragraph from Hadot’s superb Plotinus book:

Since we look towards the outside, away from the point at which we are joined together, we are unaware of the facts that we are one. We are like faces turned towards the outside, but attached on the inside to one single head. If we could turn around – either spontaneously or if we were lucky enough to ‘have Athena pull us by the hair’ [Homer], then all at once, we would see God, ourselves, and the All.

(Incidentally, not that I’ll dwell on the topic here, Plotinus’s notion of deification means the destroying of man, not the modern day religious notion of man living and working in God.)

The philosophical and historical worth of the Vedas has been acknowledged from Voltaire onwards, their influence of Greek culture is certain,  also on most of the major mystical and philosophical traditions, and from there to poets and story-tellers. “The Greeks may have been the cradle of Western civilisation, but the Vedas are the womb of world civilisation.” The more I read on the subject the more I see the influence on writers are diverse as Heraclitus, Plato, Plotinus, Kant, Vico, Woolf, Eliot (clearly), Lispector, Iris Murdoch, Nietzsche, and Emerson.

Please feel free to suggest essential or helpful texts that deal with the influence of the Vedas on Greek culture, or texts that help a curious amateur with the Vedas. This is likely to give some shape to my otherwise arbitrary reading over the next 6-12 months.

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.

How to translate “poem”?

For if the difficulties of translation can be anticipated (and the question of deconstruction is also through and through the question of translation, and of the language of concepts, of the conceptual corpus of so-called “western” metaphysics), one should not begin by naively believing that the word “deconstruction” corresponds in French to some clear and univocal signification. There is already in “my” language a serious [sombre] problem of translation between what here or there can be envisaged for the word, and the usage itself, the reserves of the word. And it is already clear that even in French, things change from one context to another. More so in the German, English, and especially American contexts, where the same word is already attached to very different connotations, inflections, and emotional or affective values. Their analysis would be interesting and warrants a study of its own.

One of Derrida’s major concepts and the one by which Derrida’s thought is often linked is that of deconstruction. A friend could not find a satisfactory equivalent in his own language, so in his Letter to a Japanese friend Derrida provides arguably his most lucid explanation for his choice of word.

When I speak of this writing of the other which will be more beautiful, I clearly understand translation as involving the same risk and chance as the poem. How to translate “poem”? a “poem”?…

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.

Ibsen’s A Doll’s House, film for the modern world: http://bit.ly/PcTXpZ

From Kafka to Sebald – essays on narrative form in modernist fiction: http://t.co/jJTPALWh

Maurice Blanchot and Fragmentary Writing by Leslie Hill – Preview: http://t.co/Qdjli4NO

Judith Butler – On Never Having Learned How to Live: http://bit.ly/VhrwJP

“Deleuze always insists on grasping the virtual , as it were ‘behind’ the actual.” http://bit.ly/Rd93b9

The HTMLGiant Beginner’s Guide to Deleuze: http://bit.ly/PgNudD

Frederic Jameson on Realism and Utopia in The Wire: http://awe.sm/n71Th

Fascinating piece on memory by Jenny Diski: http://awe.sm/o71JJ

Glenn Gould Explains the Genius of Johann Sebastian Bach: http://bit.ly/PEToVK

Roberto Calasso interviewed by Lila Azam Zanganeh: http://www.theparisreview.org/interviews/6168/the-art-of-fiction-no-217-roberto-calasso

“Books are sublimely visceral, emotionally evocative objects that constitute a perfect delivery system.” http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10000872396390444868204578064483923017090.html

Remarkable colour photos from inside Nazi-occupied Poland, 1939-1940: http://t.co/n4R1Tjdy

God’s Angry Man — Werner Herzog (Full Documentary):http://bit.ly/RdqkB5

Aldous Huxley’s Most Beautiful, LSD-Assisted Death: A Letter from His Widow: http://bit.ly/PDZdTc

The story behind Joy Division’s Unknown Pleasures album cover: http://thecreatorsproject.com/blog/the-story-behind-joy-divisions-iconic-iunknown-pleasuresi-album-cover

Kate Zambreno’s Heroines

In her poem Zelda Helen Dunmore writes, “Some visitors said she ought / to do more housework, get herself taught / to cook / Above all, find some silent occupation / rather than mess up Scott’s vocation”. Vivienne Eliot and Jane Bowles would have recognised the sentiment. In Heroines, Kate Zambreno extricates these muses of modernism from the asylum, and their one-dimensional role as wives of Great Authors, and breathes life into them as intellects and, though often blocked and suppressed, artists.

Kate Zambreno has a fresh way of approaching literary history. There isn’t a flaccid, dull page in Heroines. The language is in your face, conversational, idiosyncratic, but informed by years of research and reading. Part diary, part polemic against the treatment of depression, part defence of sentiment in the face of the school of New Criticism. It is also an incitement to fill all sorts of reading gaps. My wish list expanded considerably by the end of the book.

Go to the bookshop, or order online, or however you procure your reading material, but read this book. If you are in doubt you can read an excerpt. It might just be the best book I’ve read this year.

I am choked at coming to the end of Heroines, and for several days will be found reading Kate Zambreno’s blog archives.

Thinking the Twentieth Century by Tony Judt

Tony Judt (1948 – 2010)

Unavoidable, while reading and thinking about this book, is the mental picture of Tony Judt paralysed with ALS (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis), a dire disease that paralyses the body but leaves the mind intact. In this state, worsening as Timothy Snyder and he finished the book, Judt “talked” the twentieth century.

Structured around a series of long conversations between Snyder and Judt, the book is an intellectual autobiography that begins with Judt’s early (lapsed) Zionism and Jewish trauma in Europe, and progresses through European intellectual history before and after Judt’s birth in 1948. The book ends with a brief but rigorous analysis of the failure of American politics towards the end of the twentieth century and beyond.

Whether or not one agrees with Judt’s opinionated meditation on Europe’s intellectual history in the twentieth century, the book offers much to think about. His detailed examination of Eastern Europe, in particular the failure of the West to understand so much about the region and its nuances, is enlightening and leaves me with a yearning to fill the gaps in my comprehension. I sincerely recommend Thinking the Twentieth Century, both as an intellectual autobiography and an eloquent, rich European history of ideas.

An English Conversation

Brought up in the Far East, educated in four countries, I’ve never quite mastered the art of being English, despite a spell in a very traditional boarding school. This is clear to me particularly during a certain type of conversation. Tony Judt in his immensely moving Thinking the Twentieth Century describes an English conversation so elegantly.

… how to conduct an English conversation that is never too aggressively political; knowing how to modulate moral seriousness, political engagement and ethical rigidity through the application of irony and wit, and a precisely calibrated appearance of insouciance.