A Year of Reading: 2013

It was an exceptional year of reading that began with Benoît Peeters’ prodigious Derrida biography. I also finally got around to Knowlson’s respectful but no less captivating Beckett biography.

2013 was a year for new encounters: notably Jane Bennett, Pierre Hadot and Christa Wolf, each of whose work I intend to continue exploring. Christa Wolf’s Cassandra and Medea linger long as intriguing reinterpretations of myths. Jane Bennett and Pierre Hadot’s philosophical work is transformative, and leads me back to Ancient Greece; expect to see a concentration on old Greeks next year. Robert Fagles’ lucid Iliad has surpassed Lattimore to become my favourite. On translations, until I left my much annotated copy, together with a fourteen-month old sketch/note-book, in an Indian temple, I was luxuriating in the Hollander Dante like a hippo in a mud bath.

Of books published this year (or late in 2012) my favourite non-fiction was Robert Calasso’s La Folie Baudelaire, or Shelley Frisch’s translation of Reiner Stach’s Kafka: The Years of Insight. I didn’t read much contemporary fiction but lapped up Rachel Kushner’s enjoyable The Flamethrowers.

I continued to read Clarice Lispector. A Breath of Life and Near to the Wild Heart were as remarkable as Água Vida. Over the next twelve months I’ll read all the Lispector I can lay my hands on.

As is traditional, for me anyway, serendipity lead me up totally different paths than my intentions of a year ago. All I can say with any certainty of the next twelve months is more Coetzee, Cixous, Lispector and Beckett.

I read pretty much the same number of books as 2012, but still worry about Twitter as a distracting time-sink.

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. Some of the links to PDFs change or disappear, so if something interests you download it quickly.

Pier Paolo Pasolini, Salò, or 120 Days of Sodom, 1975, still from a color film in 35 mm, 145 minutes.

Pier Paolo Pasolini, Salò, or 120 Days of Sodom, 1975, still from a color film in 35 mm, 145 minutes.

Adam Shatz’s LRB review (free) of Benoît Peeters’ Derrida: A Biography which, as a philosopher’s biography, is second only to Ray Monk’s Ludwig Wittgenstein:The Duty of Genius.

Pierre Bourdieu’s The Rules of Art: Genesis and Structure of the Literary Field [PDF] is often captivating, particularly his unique analysis of my favourite Flaubert novel, Sentimental Education. Bourdieu’s sociological approach offers an alternative framework for literary criticism.

Is Antonin Artaud in danger of being forgotten? Jacques Derrida’s The Secret Art of Antonin Artaud [PDF] is an important study of his theory that theatre should have a visceral affect on the audience. It is clearly a work written with love.

This Critical Thinkers guide to Antonio Gramsci [PDF] is a solid introduction to power structures and the rise of new media.

Gordon Graham’s Philosophy of the Arts [PDF] is a superb aesthetics primer that covers discusses the theories of Aristotle, Hume, Hegel, Nietzsche, Croce, Collingwood, Gadamer and Derrida.

There is nothing like the Marquis de Sade’s The 120 Days of Sodom [PDF], described by its noble author as “the most impure tale that has ever been told since our world began.” After reading Sade’s text, watch Pier Paolo Pasolini’s oft-banned film, provided in full below.

Howard Bloom’s controversial The Anxiety of Influence: A Theory of Poetry [PDF]. It is either a little nuts or quite brilliant. Feel free to voice your opinion in comments.

There isn’t much that I’d disagree with on Paul Schrader’s list of cinematic masterworks Canon Fodder [PDF]. I’ve filled in the gaps in my viewing history over the last 15 months.

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. Some of the links to PDFs change or disappear, so if something interests you download it quickly.

Kathy Acker

Kathy Acker

I came across Kathy Acker’s work while pursuing my passion for all things Patti Smith. Smith and Acker (and Mapplethorpe) were close friends. The Language of The Body is central to Acker’s extraordinary body of work.

Djuna Barnes chapbook The Book of Repulsive Women [PDF] collects eight poems and five drawings. It is more a curiosity than one of Barnes’s finest works, she came to view it as an embarrassment.

I’ve not deeply read Giorgio Agamben’s work yet, but from my first study expect to find his work in accord with philosophy as a form of life. The Man Without Content [PDF] looks difficult, but as far as I can tell contends that before the 20th century art was more essential to people than it is today.

Written by David Miller, this Very Short Introduction to Political Philosophy [PDF] successfully summarise the main arguments of a huge subject. As Miller writes, political philosophy is “an investigation into the nature, causes, and effects of good and bad government.” As always with this series, the Further Reading section is invaluable.

Colin Ward was Britain’s greatest contributor to the much misunderstood political philosophy of anarchism. I consider his Very Short Introduction to Anarchism [PDF] required reading for anyone that realises no government is ever going to offer tolerable administration.

Nicholas Royle, co-writer of my favourite theory primer: An Introduction to Literature, Criticism and Theory, wrote What is Deconstruction? [PDF] as a letter to the editors of the Chambers Dictionary in disgust at its treatment, in 1998, of the word ‘deconstruction.’ The letter is not only funny but gets close to a working definition.

Derrida’s Letter to a Japanese Friend [PDF] is the closest that Derrida got to providing a comprehensible definition of the word ‘deconstruction.’

Though Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak is not one of my favourite Derrida disciples, her treatment of post-colonialism is exceptional, particularly her development of the concept of subaltern. The Critical Thinkers guide [PDF] is a superb introduction to Spivak’s interests.

Late Lyotard [PDF] presents Derridean scholar Geoffery Bennington’s presentation of Jean-Francois Lyotard’s late themes.

Crass, formed by Penny Rimbaud and Steve Ignorant, were my band, my introduction into the circle of South London punks who adopted me in the early eighties.

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. Some of the links to PDFs disappear quickly so download them promptly.

Naked Lunch Screenshot

Naked Lunch Screenshot

William Burrough’s seminal Naked Lunch [PDF], a great book to dip into, to read in any order. Great stuff, as is Cronenberg’s film interpretation.

I’ve read Rilke since adolescence and, in a sense, cannot imagine how differently I would view art and beauty without his influence. The ten letters in Letters to a Young Poet [PDF] have enriched me immeasurably since first reading the lines, “Nobody can advise you and help you, nobody. There is only one way. Go into yourself.”

In The Animal That Therefore I Am (More to Follow) [PDF] Derrida looks at the animal in Western Culture.

Derrida’s Writing and Difference [PDF] collects many of his early essays and lectures. Derrida’s writing at this stage is vibrant and, by Derridean standards, approachable. Included in this book is Cogito and the History of Madness, in which Derrida notably takes on Foucault’s concept of madness.

In this last Derrida link {PDF], he interviews jazz saxophonist/composer Ornette Coleman, revealing on both sides.

Deborah Parsons’ Theorist of the Modernist Novel [PDF] traces modernism through the texts of James Joyce, Dorothy Richardson and Virginia Woolf.

Maurice Blanchot’s short, dreamlike novel, The Last Man [PDF].

William Gass’s short essay on language in fiction, The Medium of Fiction [PDF].

everything lost is a curiosity, an obscure, early notebook written by William Burroughs in Latin America during 1953, provided in handwritten and transcribed form.

Sometimes I think that Vladimir Nabokov’s lectures are better than his fiction. Lectures on Russian Literature [PDF] is brilliant. You won’t agree with Nabby on everything but you can’t fail to be stimulated by his arguments.

A brief, worthwhile essay on trauma narratives: Mending to Live: Memory, Trauma and Narration in The Writings Of Kazuo Ishiguro, Herta Müller and W. G. Sebald [PDF].

Raoul Vanigem’s The Revolution of Everyday Life is a key text of the Situationists, covering broadly similar ground as Adorno, the ways that late capitalist society can pervert communication and depersonalise “subjects”.

Authenticity and Semiconsciousness

Quote

Three Worlds - MC Escher (1955)

Three Worlds – MC Escher (1955)

This “authenticity,” also tackled by Derrida, inspired by Aristotle and Heidegger, is a central preoccupation. Is it possible to stay in this state always? If so, how?

[..] I have been strongly impressed by the radical opposition between everyday life-which is lived in semiconsciousness and in which we are guided by automatisms and habits without being aware of our existence in the world-and of the privileged states in which we live intensely and are aware of our being in the world. Bergson as well as Heidegger clearly distinguished these two levels of the self: the self that remains at the level of what Heidegger calls the “they,” and the one that rises to the level of what he calls the “authentic.”

Pierre Hadot
The Present Alone is Our Happiness

Ethical Theory

In my last brief post I wrote of the thrill of discovering (thanks to David) the work of Pierre Hadot and his philosophical leitmotif, drawn from antiquity, that philosophy is the choice of a form of life and not purely academic discourse. We are intuitively drawn to thinkers that confirm our way of thinking, and being non-academic I have always read philosophy in this way, hence the philosophers that fill the most shelf space in my library: Nietzsche, Wittgenstein, Spinoza, Kant, Derrida, Cixous and more recently Jane Bennett, Bourdieu and Pierre Hadot, intellectuals that intentionally spoke to readers beyond the academy.

I wrote of seeking a life with less anxiety, more contentment. Philip responded (and I hope he doesn’t mind me extracting his invaluable remarks from the comments box):

I sometimes wonder, though, whether explicitly searching out a life “with less anxiety, more contentment” – i.e., seeking to improve one’s own lot – isn’t just another reinforcement of the striving self: i.e., if I perform my spiritual exercises with enough discipline, or if I become ascetic enough, I will at last achieve bliss. Seeking liberation from the ego through the workings of the ego.

This is the crux, the Buddhist stance, as far as I understand it, that denies the concept of self. My difficulty with this position is how to develop it as a form of living, in the direction of what the Epicureans called ataraxy (contentment with existence).

I’ve followed the path of ontological nihilism, reality doesn’t exist etc., and reverted to a more existential stance that eschews teleology, but reinforced by what is essentially a modernised Epicureanism, similar to what Jane Bennett terms enchanted materialism. To quote my new old friend Lucretius, “Nothing in the body is made in order that we may use it. What happens to exist is the cause of its use.”

The ancient Greek philosophers, of all schools, developed a set of spiritual practices and meditations, a core of ethical principles that were vigorously discussed and expounded, making it more likely that they would be enacted as ethical practises. Foucault wrote of a discipline for installing an ethical code on the body, of an ideal of self to which the ethical person aspires. It seems to me that denying the concept of self results in a frustrating paradox more likely to result in acedia (apathy, but with shades of depression) than ataraxy.

When time permits I’ll write further about the content of the ethical ideal that gets me out of bed. Do you have a set of ethical ideals to which you subscribe? And, if so, what motivates those ideals?

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.

Kathy Acker Interviews William Burroughs.

“What is most true is poetic.” Leora Skolkin-Smith post about Hélène Cixous’ So Close.

Helene Cixous’ Stigmata – With Jacques Derrida introduction.

Senses of Cinema profile of Robert Bresson’s work.

“The meditative essay hinges on stillness ..” Thoughts on the Meditative Essay by Robert Vivian.

British Sounds (aka See You at Mao) by Jean-Luc Godard.

Writing the Biography of a Genius: An extract from Joseph Brodsky, A Literary Life by Lev Loseff.

Return of the Vanishing Spectacular Landscape – Fatigues, 2012, by British artist Tacita Dean.

Iain Sinclair review of Londoners by Craig Taylor.

The Natural Way of Things. A short story by Peter Stamm.

Vladimir Nabokov’s brilliant lecture on The Metamorphosis.

Wonderful interview with Kate Zambreno.

Carlos Atane’s controversial film adaptation of Kafka’s The Metamorphosis.

Strangely compelling photographic journeys of Franz Kafka.

Franz Kafka’s A Country Doctor animation with English subtitles.

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.

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”?…

‘How to Read Literature.’

J. Hillis Miller was part of the ‘Yale School,’ along with Paul de Man and Harold Bloom. Initially associated with Derrida, their strategy of deconstruction was little more than a way of prolonging the intellectual snobbery of American New Criticism, incisively critiqued in later years by Geoffrey Bennington and others.

From the J. Hillis Miller Reader comes this essay How To Read Literature, which I quite enjoyed for capturing the aporia or unresolvable contradiction between the urge to “read rapidly, allegro, in a dance of the eyes across the page,” and a wish to pause “over every key word or phrase [..] anxious not to let the text put anything over” you.

I am less convinced by the essay’s conclusion that, outside the academy at least, critical reading robs readers of the necessary mystification to maintain a love affair with literature. What do you think?