A Year in Reading: 2014

A sense of despondency settled on me as I totted up the number of books I completed this year. Sixty-four read to date in 2014, a hefty reduction from the eighty-five to a hundred I used to consider my yearly run-rate. I can’t even excuse myself by pointing to any especially taxing or lengthy books, though I am abandoning unsatisfying fiction earlier and earlier-there were at least a dozen I gave up within twenty pages.

Absorption with the short-term high of Twitter is the root of my distraction. Twitter has given me an opportunity to converse with, and in many cases meet, many serious readers and thinkers around the world, but how to balance that blessing with its qualities as a massively capacious time sink? One way or another I need to reduce the distraction.

Three writers dominated my reading this year: Michel Houellebecq, Anne Carson and Jenny Diski. Houellebecq, unlike the other two, is no great stylist but is the only fictional writer I know who so precisely captures in fiction what it is to live through this latest manifestation of capitalism, a neoliberalism whose influence reaches deep into notions of individualism and identity. Carson enables me to agree with Harold Bloom’s assessment of literary genius, as defined by a writer’s ability to widen and clarify our consciousness, and intensify our awareness-Carson has been augmenting my consciousness for some time, and I fully expect that to continue. Diski’s quietism and unsociability continually provides me with those prized moments when you come across a thought or feeling you’d thought particular to you-those moments when it feels like a hand has come out and taken yours.

Those writers aside, the books that impressed me this year, in the sense of becoming deeply fixed in my mind are the same books I’ve bought for friends, urging them zealously to read immediately. There are five that are each extraordinary in the own way: Grace Dane Mazur’s Hinges: Meditations of the Portals of the Imagination, Jenny Offill’s Dept. of Speculation, Atiq Rahimi’s A Curse on Dostoevsky, Jonathan Gibbs’ Randall and Leslie Jamison’s The Empathy Exams.

Last year I omitted the geeky statistics influenced by Twitter snark the year before, but fuck the cynics (I’m so bored of world-weary cynics). This year half of the books I’ve read are by women writers, not a deliberate practice but a pleasing one in the year of Badaude’s #readwomen2014 action. About 60% of the books I read are non-fiction, the same proportion are by either French or British writers. About a third of the fiction I read is translated, a proportion that seems to be consistent year on year.

This year I read a lot more work by writers I hadn’t read before, including two exceptional debuts by Catherine Lacey and Alice Furse: in  both cases I look forward to reading their follow-up books. I became acquainted with the work of Carole Maso and Elena Ferrante and intend to read their work more deeply (and, of course, the writers I mention above).

I also discovered the Dark Mountain Project, a network of thinkers who are shaping a cultural response to our ecological, political and social unravelling. Discovering others that so closely share my thoughts provides relief even when the line of thinking is overwhelmingly pessimistic. Via Dark Mountain I was lead to Nick Hunt’s Walking the Woods and the Water, a journey in the footsteps of Patrick Leigh Fermor, which I am currently reading. I recommend it highly to anyone that has read Paddy Fermor’s books, it is every bit as evocative and beautifully written.

I don’t feel that I’ve been a consistent blogger this year (haven’t even written of many of the books I’ve mentioned above), so was very pleased to get name-checked by the Guardian book blog. I am thrilled that, despite my inconsistency, a couple of hundred readers a day drop by Time’s Flow Stemmed. Thank you very much for your interest.

Duality of Silence

In The World of Silence, Max Picard quotes Goutran de Procius’s Kablina, where he sums up so lucidly the duality of silence, that tension between rapture and fear familiar to anyone that chooses to spend long periods of immersion in silence.

Here in the land of the Eskimos there is no wind in the tress, for there are no leaves. No birds sing. There is no noise of flowing water. No frightened animals flee in the dark. There is no stone to become loose under human feet and fall down a riverbank, for all the stones are walled in by the frost and buried under the snow. And yet this world is far from dead: it is only that the beings, which dwell in this solitude, are noiseless and invisible.
This stillness, which has been so solitary, which has calmed me and done good to my worn-out nerves, gradually began to weigh on me like a lead weight. The flame of life within us withdrew further and further into a secret hiding place, and our heartbeats became ever slower. The day would come when we should have to shake ourselves to keep our heartbeats going. We had sunk deep into this silence; we were paralysed by it; we were on the bottom of a well from which we could pull ourselves out only with inconceivable difficulty.

I’ve read Picard’s odd and very beautiful book for years and cannot recommend it highly enough. There isn’t anything like it. Its closest literary relative must be Susan Sontag’s essay on modernism, The Aesthetics of Silence in which she argues for silence as a means for furthering speech.

Associations. Associations. Emily Dickinson:

The words the happy say
Are paltry melody
But those the silent feel-
Are beautiful-

Resisting Translation

It is the task of the translator to release in his own language that pure language which is exiled among alien tongues, to liberate the language imprisoned in a work in his re-creation of that work. For the sake of pure language, he breaks through decayed barriers of his own language.

Walter Benjamin, Selected Writings, volume 1

Pannwitz writes: “Our translations, even the best ones, proceed from a mistaken premise. They want to turn Hindi, Greek, English into German instead of German into Hindi, Greek, English. Our translators have a far greater reverence for the usage of their own language than for the spirit of foreign works . . . The basic error of the translator is that he preserved the state in which his own language happens to be instead of allowing his language to be powerfully affected by the foreign tongue . . . He must expand and deepen his language by means of the foreign language. It is not generally realised to what extent this is possible, to what extent any language can be transformed . . .”

Walter Benjamin (quoting Rudolf Pannwitz), Selected Writings, volume 1

Broch proposed the thesis that in every work of German literature there was an echo of the world of German poetry and fairy tales – fog, forest, moon, dragons, elves – and this echo must reverberate in all translations

Marie Luise Knott, Unlearning with Hannah Arendt

Rosenzweig had already made a similar argument in 1924, but in less poetic language. In his well known criticism, that “foreign texts get translated into already existing German”, we hear an anticipation of Hannah Arendt’s attack on the linguistic clichés of refugees.

Marie Luise Knott, Unlearning with Hannah Arendt

A Quiet Revolution Triptych

For a long time I was genuinely puzzled as to how so many suburban American teenagers could be entranced, for instance, by Raoul Vaneigem’s The Revolution of Everyday Life — a book, after all, written in Paris almost forty years ago. In the end I decided it must be because Vaneigem’s book was, in its own way, the highest theoretical expression of the feelings of rage, boredom, and revulsion that almost any adolescent at some point feels when confronted with the middle class existence. The sense of a life broken into fragments, with no ultimate meaning or integrity; of a cynical market system selling its victims commodities and spectacles that themselves represent tiny false images of the very sense of totality and pleasure and community the market has in fact destroyed; the tendency to turn every relation into a form of exchange, to sacrifice life for “survival”, pleasure for renunciation, creativity for hollow homogenous units of power or “dead time” — on some level all this clearly still rings true.

David Graeber, Revolution in Reverse

We are witnessing the collapse of financial capitalism. This was easily predictable. Even among economists, where one finds even more idiots than in the political sphere, a number had been sounding the alarm for a decade or so. Our situation is paradoxical: never in Europe have the forces of repression been so weakened, yet never have the exploited masses been so passive. Still, insurrectional consciousness always sleeps with one eye open. The arrogance, incompetence, and powerlessness of the governing classes will eventually rouse it from its slumber, as will the progression in hearts and minds of what was most radical about May 1968.

Raoul Vaneigem, Hans Ulrich Obrist: In Conversation with Raoul Vaneigem

We may very well stand at one of those decisive turning points of history which separate whole eras from each other. For contemporaries entangled, as we are, in the inexorable demands of daily life, the dividing lines between eras may be hardly visible when they are crossed; only after people stumble over them do the lines grow into walls which irretrievably shut people off the past.

Hannah Arendt, Home to Roost

The Epic of Words

Time and again in my afternoons on the plateau, I applauded the epic of words. And I laughed as well, not the laughter of ridicule, but the laughter of recognition and complicity. Yes, there is a word for the bright spot in a cloudy sky, a word for the way an ox runs back and forth on a hot day when he’s stung by a horsefly, for flame suddenly bursting from a stove, for the juice of stewed pears, for the star on a bull’s forehead, for a man on all fours extracting himself from the snow, for a woman’s stocking up on summer clothes, for the sloshing of liquid in a half-empty bucket, for the trickling of seeds out of seedpods, for the skipping of a flat stone over the surface of a pond, for icicles hanging from a tree, for the raw spot in a boiled potato, for a puddle in clayey ground. Yes, that’s the word.

In trying to select a favourite passage to reveal the languid beauty of Peter Handke’s Repetition I could have selected from so many pieces. I have a notebook filled with passages from Repetition. It is an extraordinary book, which I urge you to read. WG Sebald has written a wonderful essay [PDF] about Repetition.

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).

To burn delight from suffering

When someday this long affliction
will have broken up, like ice,
it will be spoken of
as of the Black Death;
and children on the heath
will build a man of straw
to burn delight from suffering
and light from ancient dread.

Gottfried Keller
The public slanderers

Thomas Mann quoted Keller’s poem in an essay he wrote after the German invasion of Poland in 1939. It seems equally apposite today, but I wonder bleakly whether the hope that our present day affliction will break up is less certain.

Relegated Areas

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For me parks are good when first of all, they’re not impeccable, and when solitude has appropriated them in such a way that solitude itself becomes an emblem, a defining trait for walkers, sporadic at best, who in my opinion should be irrevocably lost or absorbed in thought, and a bit confused, too, as when one walks through a space that’s at once alien and familiar. I don’t know if I should call them abandoned places; what I mean is relegated areas, where the surroundings are suspended for the moment and one can imagine being in any park, anywhere, even at the antipodes. A place that’s cast off, indistinct, or better yet, a place where a person, moved by who knows what kind of distractions, withdraws, turns into a nobody, and ends up being vague.

My Two Worlds
Sergio Chejfec (trans. Margaret B. Carson)

Lines on Brueghel’s “Icarus”

Michael Hamburger’s poem is on my mind today, which I unapologetically quote in full below. I’ve always loved the viewpoint that Hamburger chooses for his poem.

The ploughman ploughs, the fisherman dreams of fish;
Aloft, the sailor, through a world of ropes
Guides tangled meditations, feverish
With memories of girls forsaken, hopes
Of brief reunions, new discoveries,
Past rum consumed, rum promised, rum potential.
Sheep crop the grass, lift up their heads and gaze
Into a sheepish present: the essential,
Illimitable juiciness of things,
Greens, yellows, browns are what they see.
Churlish and slow, the shepherd, hearing wings –
Perhaps an eagle’s–gapes uncertainly;

Too late. The worst has happened: lost to man,
The angel, Icarus, for ever failed,
Fallen with melted wings when, near the sun
He scorned the ordering planet, which prevailed
And, jeering, now slinks off, to rise once more.
But he–his damaged purpose drags him down –
Too far from his half-brothers on the shore,
Hardly conceivable, is left to drown.

Nocturnal Existence

Given its centrality and necessity to our lives, it seems remarkable that philosophers have to a great extent ignored the phenomenon of sleep, At least one of the reasons I have suffered periodically from bouts of insomnia is that sleep seems so downright mystifying, even alarming.

There’s a chapter in Aristotle’s Parva Naturalia on sleep, Galen also writes of sleep but more in context of dreaming. Thereafter, as far as I can tell, our nocturnal existence is left to the poets and psychologists. An exception is French philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy who wrote the fascinating The Fall of Sleep, which amused me for a few sleepless hours last night.

Below is an excerpt from Charlotte Mandell’s translation of The Fall of Sleep by Jean-Luc Nancy (also read by Mandell in the film also below).

I now belong only to myself, having fallen into myself and mingled with that night where everything becomes indistinct to me but more than anything myself. I mean: everything becomes more than anything myself, everything is reabsorbed into me without allowing me to distinguish me from anything. But I also mean: more than anything, I myself become indistinct. I no longer properly distinguish myself from the world or from others, from my own body or from my mind, either. For I can no longer hold anything as an object, as a perception or a thought, without this very thing making itself felt as being at the same time myself and something other than myself. A simultaneity of what is one’s own and not one’s own occurs as this distinction falls away.

There is simultaneity only in the realm of sleep. It is the great present, the co-presence of all compossibilities, even incompatible ones. Removed from the bustle of time, from the obsessions of past and future, of arising and passing away, I coincide with the world. I am reduced to my own indistinctness, which, however, still experiences itself as an “I” that goes along with its visions without, however, distinguishing itself from them.