Jacob’s Room by Virginia Woolf

Time is set free in Virginia Woolf’s Jacob’s Room, scenes come together and dissolve with little unity beyond the absence of the book’s central character, Jacob Flanders. The narrative makes its own time, almost free of plot, but Woolf feels likes she is a writer enjoying herself, a fact she confirms in her diaries, at least during the book’s conception.

Though character is one of Woolf’s central concerns in Jacob’s Room, she also conveys such a strong sense of place; the book is suffused with her memories of summer’s spent on the Cornish coast. With some wit, Woolf also questions our modern fascination with ancient Greece, and continues from the diaries and Mrs. Dalloway the conflation of ancient Greece and the twin themes of love and death which underpin Jacob’s Room.

I very much like Jonathan Gibb’s speculation that Jacob’s Room is ‘an essay’, and also Emily’s intoxication with Woolf’s language. Does it quite hang together as a novel, whatever that is? I’m not sure, and will certainly reread with that question in mind, but the language is wondrous and on that note alone Jacob’s Room shares a space in time with its contemporaries Ulysses and The Waste Land.

Posted in Fiction | Tagged , , , | 2 Comments

Maturing into Childhood

I’ve been thinking about maturity as a process of returning to childhood. Picasso famously said, “It took me four years to paint like Raphael, but a lifetime to paint like a child.” For many of us, childhood is a time before anxiety, when we have yet to learn about cruelty and indifference, when we are fearless.

Bruno Schulz considered childhood an ‘”age of genius,” a time when no barrier existed between an inner psyche and the outer world, between dreams and reality, between desire and fulfilment, between the intellectual and the sensual – the time of the origins of poetry.”‘ In 1936 Schulz wrote to a friend:

What you say about our artificially prolonged childhood – about immaturity – bewilders me somewhat. Rather, it seems to me that this kind of art, the kind which is so dear to my heart, is precisely a regression, a return to childhood. Were it possible to turn back development, achieve a second childhood by some circuitous road, once again to have its fullness and immensity – that would be the incarnation of an “age of genius,” “messianic times” which are promised and pledged to us by all mythologies. My goal is to “mature” into a childhood. This really would be a true maturity.

The idea that in childhood we find the key to self-knowledge is not just a Freudian conceit that exorcised writers like Joyce and Proust. Heraclitus echoed the idea, but instead thought that humans are only children during the entire period of their lifetime, that even into adulthood we are nothing more than children playing games. Heraclitus frees us to consider childhood as not just a stage (the first of Solon’s ten stages of a human lifetime, each of seven years duration) but as a potentiality of human experience, an essential force.

Posted in Letters, Philosophy | Tagged , , , , | 4 Comments

Immobile in Jacob’s Room

I am a mischievous reader. Sometimes I am unable to release myself into the flow of narrative in the way I imagine a writer intends. I get stuck on a sentence, a phrase, sometimes a portmanteau word, and am unable to read on. I am undone. I cannot comply with the onward progression.

Tonight it is with Virginia Woolf’s Jacob’s Room that I am stopped dead by her exquisite prose:

Slowly welling from the point of her gold nib, pale blue ink dissolved the full stop, for there her pen stuck; her eyes fixed, and tears slowly filled them. The entire bay quivered; the lighthouse wobbled; and she had the illusion that the mast of Mr. Connor’s little yacht was bending like a wax candle in the sun. She winked quickly. Accidents were awful things. She winked again. The mast was straight; the waves were regular; the lighthouse was upright; but the blot had spread.

It is here I quickly understand it is too perilous to read on tonight, as I will keep circling around this paragraph, keep pondering the watery course of the pale blue ink, possibly reiterating the pale blue of the bay on which sails the little yacht. The slowly welling tears blurring the ink blot frozen momentarily on the page before it spreads. That sentence: accidents were awful things, that means nothing yet, and yet is the source of the tears that blur her eyes. That sentence that is hard and frozen amid the quiet notes of the paragraph.  I wonder for a moment why she chose the word winked, only to realise that blinked jangles in the ear. And the coincidence, surely, that on the first page of Woolf’s 1922 novel, she has anticipated the lighthouse and the waves that will form part or all of the titles of her 1927 and 1931 novels To the Lighthouse and The Waves.

When I told my Woolf-loving friend I was to read Jacob’s Room tonight, she urged me to read it slowly. I find so far I have little choice.

Posted in Fiction | Tagged , , , | 14 Comments

Pichwai Painting – Gujarat

Pichawai for temple steps, Gujarat, India, 19th century, The Karun Thakar Collection

Pichawai for temple steps, Gujarat, India, 19th century, The Karun Thakar Collection

Pichawai paintings originated 200 years ago in Rajasthan. The word pichwai is derived from pich meaning back. Traditionally, pichwai paintings form a backdrop for the idols in Lord Krishna temples. The paintings are made on cotton, using only natural colours.

This painting is from the Karun Thakar collection

Image | Posted on by | Tagged | Leave a comment

Great Secondary Philosophical Work

Walter Kaufmann’s Nietzsche is pleasing in several different ways. A great start to a new year’s reading, as it’s got me reading, writing and thinking like a man on fire.

I’ve always been stubborn about tackling the major thinkers directly, head on. Stubborn and in cases like Derrida, likely to end in tears. Kaufmann’s Nietzsche is a first-rate work of literature, as good as Thus Spoke Zarathustra, which Nietzsche felt, probably correctly, was his finest moment. I’ve lined up other secondary material on Nietzsche by Nehemas, Safranski and Malcolm Bull.

But I’m wondering what other books on the major thinkers stand up as works of literature in their own right? Is there someone I ought to be reading that will open up Bourdieu’s philosophy/sociology in the way Kaufmann has for Nietzsche’s work? Or Deleuze’s work, which I almost read as poetry, allowing meaning to sink in where it can?

It isn’t just Kaufmann that has me thinking along these lines. Richard Geldard’s Remembering Heraclitus was enlightening. I also became aware from Samuel Beckett’s Library, one of my all-time favourite pieces of secondary literature, how much Beckett approached the major thinkers indirectly before, if ever, launching a direct assault on their major works.

If you have any suggestions please reply in Comments (so other readers can share) rather than Twitter, where everything just gets lost or buried in Favourites.

Posted in Philosophy | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | 10 Comments

Kaufmann, Nietzsche and the Cretan

It doesn’t surprise me that Walter Kaufmann’s philosophy is studied alongside his scholarly interpretations of Nietzsche and other thinkers. In Nietzsche: Philosopher, Psychologist, Antichrist, Kaufmann’s personality comes across directly and clearly. Using relevant material from Nietzsche’s notebooks, Kaufmann is able to offer a less ambiguous, coherent interpretation of Nietzsche’s published works.

The following passages come from Kaufmann’s pursuit of the trajectory of one of Nietzsche’s two great insights, the will to power (the other being the eternal recurrence). The numbering is my own. These passages interest me to the degree they evince Kaufmann’s disposition. (Except number ten, all are Kaufmann’s words.)

What is also striking is the extent to which, particularly in 4-5, though Nietzsche had in mind the German Reich, the will to power concept applies to world’s sole remaining superpower.

  1. Primarily, however, fear is nothing but our attitude toward power-or, in Nietzsche’s own previous words, the negative aspect of our will to power.
  2. There is, first, man’s desire to find scapegoats, the quest of the weak and the impotent to find somebody upon whom they can look down and to whom they may feel superior.
  3. [The] sudden association of the will to power with the Greeks was one of the most decisive steps in the development of this conception into an all-embracing monism.
  4. The “history of culture” is thus to be explained in terms of man’s will to overwhelm, outdo, excel, and overpower his neighbour. The barbarian does it by torturing his neighbour. In the light of Nietzsche’s previous comments, he is essentially weak, else he would not need to inflict hurt. Nietzsche speaks of this as a low degree of the striving for excellence because he wishes to express that, quantitatively, we find little power at the bottom of the scale. Toward the middle of the scale, we find what might be called the normal degree of power: one seeks to evoke envy and admiration; one even seeks to elevate one’s neighbour and derives a sense of power from doing so; one gives him joy and gaiety and lets him laugh, saying to oneself, as it were: I have the power to impress and delight them.
  5. One might expect Nietzsche to base his repudiation on the assertion that only a weak nation finds it necessary to impress itself and others with barbarian brawn and armies, and that culture is a higher, i.e., a quantitatively greater, form of power. Instead Nietzsche refers to “the degree of reason in strength”.
  6. The will to power is … introduced as the will to overcome oneself.
  7. Nietzsche asserts that any attempt to understand the universe is prompted by man’s will to power. If so, it would seem that his own conception of the will to power must be admitted by him to be a creation of his own will to power. Is not Nietzsche therefore in the predicament of Epimenides, the Cretan? If his assertion is correct, then it is a fiction.
  8. His theory of the will to power might be the one and only interpretation of human behaviour of which we are capable when we consider the evidence and think about it as clearly as we can. Not only Nietzsche but mankind would then be in the position of the Cretan, and the dilemma-however ridiculous it might seem to the angel Gabriel- would be inescapable for us.
  9. … there “really” is no will, or that the will is “really” a fiction.
  10. “Wherever I found the living, there I found the will to power.”

I’ve enough interest in Kaufmann’s contribution to philosophy to look forward to an updated edition of his The Faith of a Heretic (foreword by Stanley Corngold), due in the summer, and to read his Discovering the Mind series.

Posted in Philosophy, Psychology | Tagged , , , , | 7 Comments

The Devilish State

In winter, my reading appetite requires more fibrous material. This year I reread Nietzsche and continue Walter Kaufmann’s Nietzsche. As I read Kaufmann’s interpretation of Nietzsche’s early books I realise that I’ve skipped what Kaufmann calls the Untimely Mediations, translated now as Unfashionable Observations.These four essays are integral to understanding Nietzsche’s early philosophical development, but also make less ambiguous his later work.

If this writing is incomprehensible for anybody or will not go into his head, the fault, it seems to me, is not necessary mine. It is plain enough, assuming-as I do assume-that one has read my earlier writings and not spared some trouble in doing this.

His early recognition of the oppressive and intimidating nature of the State is prescient of his own time, but no less compelling today:

the second side [of the Nation state] is not a bit more delightful but only more disturbing. There are certainly . . . tremendous forces, but they are savage, primordial, and utterly merciless. One looks upon them with uneasy expectations as upon the seething cauldron of a witch’s kitchen: any moment it may flash and lighten to announce terrible apparitions . . . the so-called Nation State . . . is . . . only an increment of the general insecurity and menace . . . and the hunt for happiness will never be greater than when it must be caught between today and tomorrow: because the day after tomorrow all hunting time may have come to an end altogether. We live in the period of atoms, of atomistic chaos . . .  Now almost everything on earth is determined by the crudest and most evil forces, by the egotism of the purchasers and the military despots. The State, in the hands of the latter . . . wishes that people would lavish on it the same idolatrous cult that they used to lavish on the Church.

Kaufmann further interprets his attack on the State:

Nonconformity is the necessary condition of self-realisation. The State is the devil who tempts and intimidates man into animal conformity and thus keeps him from rising into the heaven of true humanity; the Church is the Antichrist who has perverted Christ’s original call to man to break with father and mother and become perfect: she has sold Christ to Caesar and become the chief accomplice of the State in compelling uniformity.

Posted in Literature in Translation, Philosophy, Politics | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Reading Nietzsche Through Walter Kaufmann

Since I was seventeen I’ve read Nietzsche. I can no longer recall what I read first, probably the yellowing Thus Spake Zarathustra, annotated in two different pens, that still sits on my bookshelf. Nietzsche understands teenagers. He speaks to their complexity and anguish, and they approve of his desire to shatter the tenets of their culture. Nietzsche faced down the nihilism of his age with style, humour and strength. Though Nietzsche’s thinking only partially penetrated my younger self, he left me fortified with the necessity of going deeply into myself to fully experience life.

Over the years I read all of Nietzsche’s published books, though undoubtedly in less reliable translations and editions than are now starting to become available. Nietzsche’s aphoristic style lends itself to dipping into a few lines. Though this achieves little, it is a thought-provoking compass for how one has changed during all the years of reading the same lines. My reading of Nietzsche is changed with all the later reading and thinking I’ve done.

At the moment I’m reading Nietzsche through Walter Kaufmann, only a hundred pages or so in but enjoying his thoughts and observations. Kaufmann untangles Nietzsche’s relations with his anti-Semitic sister Elizabeth Förster-Nietzsche and the intriguing Lou Andreas-Salomé to clarify how both women set out to distort how Nietzsche’s thoughts were later interpreted. Kaufmann then proceeds to show with some elegance how the contradictions in Nietzsche’s arguments are merely superficial. He argues that Socrates is Nietzsche’s ideal, that he is not a ‘system thinker [unlike Kant or Spinoza] but a problem thinker.’

The result is less a solution of the initial problem than a realisation of its limitations: typically the problem is not solved but ‘outgrown’.

Though first published in 1950, Kaufmann’s interpretations are an inspiration for more contemporary readings of Nietzsche, one of which I also wish to read is Alexander Nehamas’ NIETZSCHE Life as Literature (1985). If you know of other Nietzsche secondary literature (not biography) worth reading please let me know.

Posted in Literature in Translation, Philosophy, Psychology | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 8 Comments

Walking the Woods and the Water by Nick Hunt

I began to read travel literature when the peripatetic period of my late teens and twenties came to an end. Patrick Leigh Fermor, Dervla Murphy and Wilfred Thesiger offered some relief for the yearning for adventure and wild places that came when I hung up the dress-like jalabiya that had allowed me to pass discreetly through much of rural North Africa (my last significant, open-ended travel adventure), and adopted the traditional jumper of native England.

The sort of haphazard drifting that impelled me across North Africa, through much of aromatic East Asia, deep into the steamy jungles of Borneo and across a small part of the largest desert on the planet, is best bookended at either end of the grown up responsibilities of raising a child and trying to hold down a career. Or so I managed to convince myself.

Nick Hunt’s Walking the Woods and the Water offers the intimacy that comes from reading great travel journals, conveying a strong sense of personality as well as a strong sense of place. There were times when I felt Hunt had outshone Patrick Leigh Fermor’s account of his own teenage trek from The Hook of Holland to Istanbul. What was so familiar from my own wandering is that intense optimism that is so essential to goad you on your journey when the discomforts or dangers occasionally feel too pronounced. If you enjoy travel literature Nick Hunt’s book is recommended. Like Patrick Leigh Fermor who inspired his adventure, Hunt is a traveller from an ancient tradition.

Posted in Travel | Tagged , , , , | 3 Comments

A Work of Fiction by Louise Gluck

A Work of Fiction

As I turned over the last page, after many nights, a wave of sorrow envel-
oped me. Where had they all gone, these people who had seemed so real?
To distract myself, I walked out into the night; instinctively, I lit a cigarette.
In the dark, the cigarette glowed, like a fire lit by a survivor. But who would
see this light, this small dot among the infinite stars? I stood a while in the
dark, the cigarette glowing and growing small, each breath patiently de-
stroying me. How small it was, how brief. Brief, brief, but inside me now,
which the stars could never be.

Louise Gluck, from her new collection Faithful and Virtuous Night, reviewed in the Guardian and New York Times.

Posted in Poetry | Tagged , , | 1 Comment