Blue-bottle in a Jar

Last week, I took Orhan Pamuk’s Istanbul to the city that is its subject, but read very little. Istanbul, whose siren’s call I’ve heard since watching Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s crazy films, left little time for reading. It is a hypomanic city, caught between projection and reality, between time and space. I found it almost impossible to reach beyond the city marketed to consuming tourists.

Visiting Sufi lodges was the highpoint of the trip. Away from the tourist trail I found some essence of Istanbul, a city that resists cognition. Discussing breath-control and visualisation with a patient scholar reminded me also to return to reading Roberto Calasso’s Ardor as soon as practicable.

Pamuk’s Istanbul returned with me to London mostly unread. The insipidity I found in Snow is, if anything, more glaring in Istanbul, but it has enough charm (aided by Ara Güler’s photographs) that I shall attempt to finish it this weekend.

What is now Orhan Kemal Public library, once the Istanbul Public Library, is pictured above, clearly before restoration was completed in 1976. Its collection of rare books includes Arabic and Persian translations of the four Vedas, the subject of Calasso’s Ardor, but a holidaying curator made it impossible to inspect the works, though I saw many other manuscripts in exquisite calligraphy.

Over the last few weeks, I’ve been an unfaithful reader, distracted by non-literary forms of communication and trying to flit between too many books. Like Murphy, I’m bouncing ‘off the walls like a blue-bottle in a jar’. I concentrate better on a single book at a time.

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The Dispute Between Mind and Speech

Relations between Mind and Speech were always difficult and fraught. They sometimes clashed like two warriors-or two lovers. Each wished to do better than the other. Mind said: ‘I am surely better than you, for you say nothing that I don’t understand; and since you imitate what I have done and follow in my wake, I am surely better than you.’

Speech said: ‘ I am surely  better than you, for I communicate what you know, I make it understood.’

They decided to appeal to Prajāpati for him to decide. He decided in favour of Mind and said [to Speech]: ‘Mind is indeed better than you, for you imitate what Mind has done and you follow in his wake'; and in truth he who imitates what his better has done and follows in his wake is inferior.’

Roberto Calasso, Ardor, trans. Richard Dixon. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2014 (2010)

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The Flayed Man

The Book of Leviticus, the third book of the Hebrew bible, instructs the priesthood on the sacrifice that must precede the slaughter of animals for food. Roberto Calasso writes in Ardor of Yājñavalkya’s comparable philosophy in the Vedic Shatapatha Brahmana, but argues further that sacrifice was a way of dealing with the ancients’ guilt about killing and destroying the living for food and clothing. The chapter from which the following passage is taken,  Animals, is wonderful. Not only does it deal elegantly with the transition from gatherer-hunted to hunter-gatherer, but also with the source of our embarrassment at being naked, particularly in front of another species.

As for the Vedic ritualists, they gave it [using cows for clothing] credence through a story the others would one day have called a myth, but which in their words sounded like a dry, anonymous account of how things began. Everything started when the gods, watching events of earth, realised that the whole of life was supported by the cow. Men were its parasites. One of the gods-we don’t know which-urged humans to allow their skin to be used to cover cows. So the gods flayed man. If we try to go back to the very beginning, this is therefore the natural human state: the Flayed Man, as sixteenth-century anatomical drawings. Unlike the naive positivists, who presented primordial man in natural history museum display cabinets with a monkey-like covering of hair, the Vedic ritualises saw him not as the mighty lord of creation, but as a being who was most exposed, most easily vulnerable from the world outside. For them, man didn’t just conceal a wound, but was a single wound. They wanted to add an eloquent detail: man is hemophiliac by vocation, as even a blade of grass can make his blood gush forth

Roberto Calasso, Ardor, trans. Richard Dixon. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2014 (2010)

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Just One More

One those passages you read (you? I read) and check the front cover in case I finally wrote that book I always intended. If I hadn’t been reading.

You find yourself wondering why you’ve never read Frazer’s Golden Bough, even though you realise this is just another way of putting the question you are always asking yourself (why haven’t you learned to speak Chinese? or Arabic? or Hebrew? why don’t you play chess? why can’t you do differential calculus? why don’t you play the piano?) only making it in terms of Frazier is the easiest, most readily available form that the question takes, and the most likely to lead to the wrong answer as will (because you could read Frazier, and no doubt by the end of the day you will have made an attempt to do so). But this well only be a means of stalling, a means of putting off actually answering the question. Because the reason you don’t, or haven’t done these things is not found in doing them. Because what you are really hoping for and wondering about when you ask the question about Frazer is not something that will ever be answered no matter how many books you read or languages or instruments or sciences or games you learn. You keep coming back to square one (“I think I’ll read Frazer today,” or “it’s time to learn the saxophone”) because that’s where you want to be, the only place you know how and where to be, even though the only thing you know about Square One is that it’s only any good as a place to depart from. But that’s just it: you’re always departing. As if you feared that any form of arrival at all would be a terminal step, and after that there would be nowhere left to go, motion would stop, and you too would be, at last, finished. But as the prospect of infinite departures is too overwhelming to contemplate, it is easier to think that there is always just one more step to take (the last language you’ll ever need to learn, the last book you’ll ever need to read). There is always going to be just one more. And this is the truth upon which all things depend and in which you must pretend to believe in order to live. And so your arm reaches down Frazer from the shelf with the confidence that this time you have stumbled upon that for which you have been searching all along.

David Carl, Heraclitus in Sacramento. iUniverse (2009)

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Taste Follows the Line of Least Resistance

I don’t recall why I ordered David Carl’s Heraclitus in Sacramento, which particular reference in a footnote or suggestion on Twitter led to its arrival on my shelves a year or so ago. So far, it comprises fragments of thought, what the narrator terms lucubrations, a word I like a lot for its definition as compositions or studies that smell of the lamp.

Perhaps it is just what I need to pull me out of the reading funk that set in after finishing Doctor Faustus. I’m also reading Woolf’s diaries, intermittently, possibly the finest way to read them, also fragments of course.

I’m taking notes from most pages of Heraclitus in Sacramento. Here follows a lucubration that shall be my evening’s meditation:

When she hears a person say, “I don’t know what art is, but I know what I like,” she can’t help but think that the very courage of this affirmation (the courage of one’s taste rather than one’s convictions) belies its force. For this is not an aesthetic claim but a rather naive assertion of individuality and freedom from ideology which ignores exactly what art is; an attempt to open up perception as an awareness of just how pervasive, invasive, and insidious such ideologies are. Even granted one does know what one likes (ignoring, for the moment, how limited and ultimately irrelevant a standard this is by which to evaluate or judge works of art), has it ever occurred to the bold individual to inquire into the source of these likes (and by extension dislikes)? A genealogy of taste which any artworks of the modern period might serve as excellent starting points, reveals how socialised, how dependent, precisely how unfree such radical claims of individual freedom are. “I know what I like,” may as well be a confession of which fashion magazines one subscribes to, what one watches on TV, and what movies one has been to recently; for the idea of beauty is more often imposed from without than it is sensed from within.

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An Exchange That Need Never End

The essay from which I’ve extracted the passage below is from a collection of six Rebecca Solnit essays. This essay on Virginia Woolf is the last of the collection. Had I not persisted to the end, I’d probably have decided not to read Rebecca Solnit any further, as the preceding five, though on important themes, are rather dull, lifeless things. Solnit’s essay on Woolf is wonderful, the sort of essay that lifts the day.

Woolf’s essays are often both manifestos about and examples or investigations  of unconfined consciousness, this uncertainty principle. They are also models of a counter-criticism, for we often think the purpose of criticism is to nail things down. During my years as an art critic, I used to joke that museums love artists the way that taxidermists live deer, and something of that desire to secure, to stabilise, to render certain and definite the open-ended, nebulous, and adventurous work of artists is present in many who work in that confinement sometimes called the art world.
A similar kind of aggression against the slipperiness of the work and the ambiguities of the artist’s intent and meaning often exists in literary criticism and academic scholarship, a desire to make certain what is uncertain, to know what is unknowable, to turn the flight across the sky into the roast upon the plate, to classify and contain. What escapes categorisation can escape detection altogether.
There is a kind of counter-criticism that seeks to expand the work of art, by connecting it, opening up its meanings, inviting in the possibilities. A great work of criticism can liberate a work of art, to be seen fully, to remain alive, to engage in conversation that will not ever end but will instead keep feeding the imagination. Not against interpretation, but against confinement, against the killing of the spirit. Such crictism is itself great art.
This is a kind of criticism that does not pit the critic against the text, does not seek authority. It seeks instead to travel with the work and its ideas, to invite it to blossom and invite others into a conversation that might have been unseen and open doors that might have been locked. This is a kind of criticism that respects the essential mystery of a work art, which is in part its beauty and its pleasure, both of which are irreducible and subjective. The worst criticism seeks to have the last word and leave the rest of us in silence; the best opens up an exchange that need never end.

Rebecca Solnit, Woolf’s Darkness, from Men Explain Things to Me, Haymarket Books, 2014

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Street Haunting

Or is the true self neither this nor that, but something so varied and wandering that it is only when we give the rein to its wishes and let it takes its way unimpeded that we are indeed ourselves? Circumstances compel unity; for convenience’ sake a man must be a whole. The good citizen when he opens hIs door in the evening must be a banker, golfer, husband, father; not a nomad wandering the desert, a mystic staring at the sky, a debauchee in the slums of San Francisco, a soldier heading a revolution, a pariah howling with scepticism and solitude.

Virginia Woolf, Street Haunting: A London Adventure, The Westgate Press, 1930 (1927)

But of course we are all these others. These early Virginia Woolf essays are darkly exquisite, and appear so very modern.

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Voice of Mourning

Christ's Descent into Limbo (c. 1470) - Andrea Mantegna

Christ’s Descent into Limbo (c. 1470) – Andrea Mantegna

Like King Charles’ head, Friedrich Nietzsche is always intruding in Thomas Mann’s Doctor Faustus. Nietzsche functions as a talisman in Doctor Faustus, a deeply Romantic novel suffused with parodic twists. A talisman acts as a battery for some type of force or energy, or what David Winters  describes as ‘a charm that we clasp to our hearts’. At risk of overextending the metaphor, that’s not a bad description of how I feel about Mann’s Doctor Faustus, which has rarely left my side for the last month.

‘Recognition,’ writes Rita Felski, ‘comes without guarantees; it takes place in the messy and mundane world of human action, not divine revelation.’ Doctor Faustus is by no means a perfect novel (whatever that might resemble). Its narrative frequently drags, sometimes almost intolerably. But there is also a deep intoxication at being absorbed in a novel that reveals, or at least tries to reveal, the rhythm of life.

As I read the last few highly charged chapters, set aside the finished book, and spent an hour gazing into the woods, I sense almost imperceptibly that my perspective is altered. The very best of fiction has this talismanic effect. Doctor Faustus, like Mann’s The Magic Mountain is one of the most intense, powerful reading experiences of my life. I am thrilled that it is over. I am mourning that it is over.

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Doctor Faustus (Still)

This is the end of my third week with Thomas Mann’s Doctor Faustus. The week’s reading included Adrian Leverkühn’s pivotal conversation with Diabolus (or whichever nickname you’d prefer), in which the Devil offers Leverkühn a form of artistic genius, a breakthrough to art beyond parody. It is a terrific scene, contradicting those readers who expect Mann’s writing, via translator Helen Lowe-Porter, to be stuffy. This is a novel of ideas, crammed with German philosophy and musical history, but it is also written with a delicate, polished irony.

Distraction lies all around, and I am fighting the urge to read other things, grabbing snatches here and there of Heaney, Cernuda, Kate Tempest. Powerful though the densely-woven Doctor Faustus is, the dogmatic and bumbling narrator Serenus Zeitblom, Ph.D. is wearing after a few hundred pages. But I persist, drawn along as much by curiosity about the novel’s structural logic as by the need to follow Leverkühn’s fate.

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Doctor Faustus

I’m still reading Thomas Mann’s Doctor Faustus, persevering with Helen Tracy Lowe-Porter’s translation. I’ve read that newer translations are more lucid, but stick with Lowe-Porter for her employment of medieval English vocabulary to correspond with the sections of the text in which characters speak in Early High German: masochism perhaps, because reading this novel is more than sufficiently challenging.

I’ve read Proust, Joyce, and Beckett, but Doctor Faustus beats them all for density and the concentration it requires. Part of me is inclined to take a break and dip into some less demanding texts, but I suspect that if I do that I’ll not pick Doctor Faustus up again.

More than my usual determination keeps me reading though, because you can’t help but be fascinated by this odd novel. Mann brings in ideas on religion, music, philosophy and the nature of art, and weaves them into this unreliable mock-biography whose characters I already loathe, but it all works incredibly well and has made me appreciate aspects of both religion, art and music in a new light.

I’ve read Death in Venice several times, of which there are overtones here, particularly in the homoerotic fascination of the narrator with the subject of his biography. Magic Mountain remains one of the finest novels I’ve read, and I think of it often, even six years after reading it. Mann is a novelist that cares far more for ideas than with plot, character or story, and though his reputation is as an arid writer, he shows such subtly in his understanding for human feeling. I’m not sure I’ve read any novel that recreates that narcissistic wall that surrounds youth better than Doctor Faustus.

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