Old Questions

“If such things as primitive communism, group-marriage, and matriarchy were admitted into the beginnings of Greek civilisation, what would become of the dogma, on which the ruling class leant more and more heavily as the city-state declined, that its economic basis in private property, slave labour, and the subjection of women rested on natural justice? If the writings of the later materialists, Demokritos and Epicurus, had not perished, we might well have possessed a more penetrating analysis of early Greek society than Aristotle’s. But they perished partly for that reason. Plato wanted the works of Demokritos to be burnt, and his wish has been fulfilled.”

George Thomson,  Studies in Ancient Greek Society: The Prehistoric Aegean

Review of this rather curious, but fascinating book.

On Guard Against Herself

“She knows too well the causes which can trigger in a woman some unconscious response to a man: mere self-absorption, the dread of an ignominious loneliness. The man, driven by egotism to think himself irresistible, has the knack of interpreting such signals, no matter how covert, as an open invitation. She must be on guard against herself, all the more so because she considers herself capable on an uncalculating and boundless self-surrender.”

Christa Wolf, No Place on Earth, (trans. Jan van Heurck)

Christas Wolf’s No Place on Earth

This No Place on Earth is whimsy, a dark artifice stage-managed by Christa Wolf, placing Romantic poet Karoline von Günderrode in a succession of frames with Romantic writer Heinrich von Kleist.

There is no evidence that the pair ever met, or engaged in the intoxicating, conversational interplay that Wolf conjures to comment on the patriarchal nature of early nineteenth-century Germany and on the anxiety of post-Goethe German writers of the time. It is, I suppose, an essay as much as a novel in so far as it resists conventional categories; an essay in the true sense of trying something out, testing a hypothesis. I read and then reread No Place on Earth, translated by Jan van Heurck, and found not a single note out of place. It is just shy of one hundred and twenty pages, but contains an immense intimacy, a scrutiny of our chances of vanquishing self-alienation.

Günderrode and Kleist wander away from the tea party, which is the stage set for their encounter, frustrated by the empty chatter of the other guests, and discover during their intense conversation the tantalising possibility that they are intellectual equals capable of recognising each other’s autonomy. “Sometimes,” writes Wolf, “I find it unendurable that nature has split the human being into man and woman.”

Early in No Place on Earth, Wolf writes, “She knows the place where she must drive home the dagger, a surgeon whom she jestingly asked about it showed her the spot, pressing it with his finger.” Suicide, that frequent Romantic release overshadows this novel, and though Wolf closes with a note of hope: “Simply go on, they think. We know what is coming,” it is towards nothing: in Günderrode’s case, by a dagger she carried all the time in her handbag; in Kleist’s case by a bullet.

Bachmann and Wolf

The German Library’s Bachmann and Wolf caught me unawares; words spilling out, some stirring, others stinging, but the whole thing a treasure outright. How does one adequately explain why one loves this story or that particular book? The more I write here about books, the less I think I am even capable of objectivity. I don’t care for reviews, but only understanding why readers love the objects of their attention, which inevitably amounts to explaining themselves.

My affection for Christa Wolf’s stories is long standing. I expect to read everything of hers that makes it into English translation. If my memory serves me right, Wolf’s Cassandra landed first in my collection, imposing itself with its graceful interpretation of dismal aspects of the human condition. Wolf never coerces you into her stories, but invites you in gently, making you feel almost at home, before shaking you up, but gradually like a long ride over cobble-stones. Bachman and Wolf includes her short novel No Place on Earth, which quietly turned me over and over, leaving me washed ashore, and with little choice but to turn back to its first pages and read again, slower, carving notches with my pencil.

I suppose flowerville lead me to Wolf, as to Bachmann, first encountered in this collection, but quickly become indispensable, especially for the fiery lovers’ script of The Good God of Manhattan, translated by Valerie Tekavec, a flight into language every bit as inspired as Orpheus and Eurydice, or Romeo and Juliet. I expect to read as much Bachmann as I can find in translation.

Ingeborg Bachmann (German Library)

With its eye-popping red panel, bold black and white frame, the bravura display of Continuum’s German Library is blandishment to my book collector’s compulsion. Its finite 100 volumes, of many writers I wish to explore, goad me on to further temptation.

This afternoon with the Ingeborg Bachmann half of this edition, part of my calling this year to read her short stories and novels. Four Bachmann selections: Sightseeing in an Old City, a passage written for, but not incorporated into her novel Malina; the gelid Among Murderers and Madmen, which I read three times, more aghast each time; the hypnotic Word for Word, and ending with The Good God of Manhattan, a beguiling and evasive drama, given magnificence by its passages of moving  and beautiful language.

“Then there’s just so little time in the world. Because even when everything else has been discovered and formulated, the glaze of your mellow eyes and the blond steppe of hair on your skin will remain incomprehensible. When everything is known, done, and destroyed again, I’ll still be seduced in the labyrinth of our eyes. And the sob in your breath will affect me as never before.”

Reading the Religious . . . ?

“In Mr. Sammler’s Planet, Saul Bellow’s Sammler, a Holocaust survivor who does not think of himself as a religious man, does not know why he keeps reading and returning to medieval religious texts. It is not that he wants to hitch a ride on the language of a belief he does not actually hold. Nor is his a curatorial concern that if modern people cannot read religious writing any more then much of human literature is lost to them, and will be lost ever increasingly in the future. What moves him is rather what made William James write The Varieties of Religious Experience: that there is something in this, even if we do not formally believe in it, even though we do not know how to translate it; something of deep primal importance even if finally we have it leave it behind.
It is towards the strange deep old texts that Sammler is drawn. Long tendentious arguments and reductive explanations are what, Sammler says, he finds too much around and about him. The old man is tired of their coercive pigeonholing, their constant thinness, and their passing fashion, He wants instead descriptions of experience to carry in his head, without being told what to make of them. Weary of modern noise, he wants succinct and austere sayings that stay in mind like poetry. ‘This too shall pass.’ What draws Sammler to these religious works, even as a non-believer, is a dissatisfaction related to Saul Bellow’s own sense that modern people may be trapped in a false and over-familiar framework, by an impoverished worldview. As if they might need a different model of self and a deeper psychological vocabulary to accompany an alternative ontology. ‘I am,’ cried the poet Cowper, ‘a stranger to the system I inhabit.’
What Saul Below feared was that the cry would not be made any more if it seemed melodramatic, stupid or pointless, and meaninglessly out-of-date.”

A passage from a short book, Reading and Reader, by Philip Davis, through which I expected to sail in a day, but which instead performs its own argument by creating what Davis terms a holding-ground for investigation and contemplation.

Pessimism Transformed (For We Must Go On)

“It’s Johnson, always Johnson, who is with me. And if I follow any tradition it is his.” Beckett. Quoted in Frank Doherty, Samuel Beckett

“If by excluding joy we could shut out grief, the scheme would deserve very serious attention,  but since however we may debar ourselves from happiness, misery will find its way at many inlets and the assaults of pain will force our regard, though we may withhold it from the invitations of pleasure, we may surely endeavour to raise Life above the middle point of apathy at one time, since it will necessarily sink below it at another.” Johnson, Rambler 47

“I am interested in the shape of ideas, even if I do not believe in them. There is a wonderful sentence in Augustine: I do wish I could remember the Latin. It is even finer in Latin than in English. ‘Do not despair; one of the thieves was saved. Do not presume, one of the thieves was damned.’ That sentence has a wonderful shape.” Beckett. Quoted in Frank Doherty, Samuel Beckett


Slight Impressions

” . . . the growth and maintenance of new synaptic terminals makes memory persist. Thus, if you remember anything of this book, it will be because your brain is slightly different after you have finished reading it.”

Kandel, In Search of Memory (2006)

Jude posted this fragment on Twitter as an instance of performative language. Unsurprisingly, I’ve thought about it often over the last two days. It was on my mind when compiling my personal canon. Memories, scenes, an atmosphere, a mood or milieu: these are what persist in memory of those books that we find a need to seek out repeatedly. It is as though a space, a cavity is opened up and filled with a new memory. Some books, dizzingly, open up multiple fissures. You sense the difference afterwards. The if only . . .

Inchoate Thoughts

Earlier I commented on Robert’s post entitled On Disdainful Ignorance. As I was reading and responding, I remembered this fragment of Wordsworth that always makes me think of that ‘how’.

”          but that the soul,
Remembering how she felt, but what she felt
Remembering not, retains an obscure sense
Of possible sublimity, to which
With growing faculties she doth aspire,
With faculties still growing, feeling still
That whatsoever point they gain, they yet
Have something to pursue.”

Wordsworth, The Prelude

Kierkegaard, Like the Interjection

“The life of mankind could very well be conceived as a speech in which different men represented the various parts of speech (that might also be applied to the nations in the relations to one another). How many people are mere adjectives, interjections, conjunctions, adverbs; and how few are substantives, verbs etc.; how many are copula?
In relation to each other men are like irregular verbs in different languages; nearly all verbs are slightly irregular.
There are people whose position in life is like that of the interjection, without influence on the sentence– They are the hermits of life, and at the very most take a case, e.g., O me miserum.
Our politicians are like Greek reciprocals (alleeloin) which are wanting in the nominative singular and all subjective cases. They can only be thought of in the plural and possessive cases.
The sad thing about me is that my life (the condition of my soul) changes according to the declensions where not only the endings change but the whole word is altered.”

Søren Kierkegaard, Journals (trans. A Dru)

Of Accidie

“Our sixth contending is with that which the Greeks call ἀκηδία, and which we may describe as tedium or perturbation of heart. It is akin to dejection and especially felt by wandering monks and solitaries, a persistent and obnoxious enemy to such as dwell in the desert, disturbing the monk especially about midday, like a fever mounting at a regular time, and bringing its highest tide of inflammation at definite accustomed hours to the sick soul. And so some of the Fathers declare it to be the demon of noontide which is spoken of in the Ninety-first Psalm.

When this besieges the unhappy mind, it begets aversion from the place, boredom with one’s cell, and scorn and contempt for one’s brethren, whether they be dwelling with one or some way off, as careless and unspiritually minded persons. Also, towards any work that may be done within the enclosure of our own lair, we become listless and inert. It will not suffer us to stay in our cell, or to attend to our reading: we lament that in all this while, living in the same spot, we have made no progress, we sigh and complain that bereft of sympathetic fellowship we have no spiritual fruit; and bewail ourselves as empty of all spiritual profit, abiding vacant and useless in this place; and we that could guide others and be of value to multitudes have edified no man, enriched no man with our precept and example. We praise other and far distant monasteries, describing them as more helpful to one’s progress, more congenial to one’s soul’s health. . . . Towards eleven o’clock or midday it induces such lassitude of body and craving for food, as one might feel after the exhaustion of a long journey and hard toil, or the postponing of a meal throughout a two or three days fast. Finally one gazes anxiously here and there, and sighs that no brother of any description is to be seen approaching: one is for ever in and out of one’s cell, gazing at the sun as though it were tarrying to its setting: one’s mind is in an irrational confusion, like the earth befogged in a mist, one is slothful and vacant in every spiritual activity, and no remedy, it seems, can be found for this state of siege than a visit from some brother, or the solace of sleep.”

The Desert Fathers (trans. Helen Waddell)

Michael Hamburger’s String of Beginnings

To read Mathias Enard’s Compass and Michael Hamburger’s String of Beginnings in the same year is to be blessed. Doubly blessed. The gods of serendipity sometimes endow fortunate readers with such divine favour. Virginia Woolf contemplated reading King Lear, with the question, “Do I want such a strain on the emotions?”, answering, of course, pining reader that she was, “I think I do.” But esurient readers are equally blessed and cursed: the question always of what to read after scaling such peaks. Who can once again place such strain on our emotions?

One senses such diffidence in Michael Hamburger’s memoir, String of Beginnings, written of his early life from the perspective of his late forties. He attempts to subvert the fictional nature of autobiography by relying only on documentary evidence of the time: letters, diaries, fragments of a written life. The purism of eschewing memory and reconstruction from a work of autobiography is revealing, and marks Hamburger’s approach to both poetry and translation. He writes, “Had it not been for a crisis in my personal life that made it necessary for me to discover as much as I could about my formative years, so as to break the pattern they had set up, I was past wishing to write about myself at all.” Not, of course, that Hamburger discloses the nature of this crisis. This is a reluctant memoir.

His memoir captures the essence of an extraordinary time, of lives disrupted by the conflicts of 1939 to 1945; of the suspension of his education at Christ Church, Oxford, to serve in the British Army, and the subsequent return to his education and writing, altered irrevocably by his wartime experience. He writes, “So, in the end, I don’t know what the Army did to my writing. Even the books I glossed in barrack-rooms did something to me, though I’ve forgotten what most of them were about. Everything I saw and heard and felt did something to me, though I’ve forgotten most of the details. That’s one reason why one writes: sooner or later almost everything about a life is forgotten, by the person who lived it and by the others.”

In the end, what penetrates most, despite Hamburger’s self-effacement, is the admirable and lovable nature of the man himself, which is most clear, ironically, or perhaps typically, not in his own self-reflection, but in the way that he perceives and describes the other people he encounters. In an exquisite section on his friendship with half-forgotten Welsh poet, Vernon Watkins, he reproduces part of a letter Watkins wrote to him about the German poet, Heinrich Heine; “The nature of his genius is elusive, and so many readers treat the mask as absolute, whereas I think Heine really believed only in love, and rarely found it.” It isn’t surprising for Hamburger to single out such a sentence as it expresses a sentiment I am certain was equally true about himself.

I’m for the Hôtel de la Louisiane

“. . . I have a room for 400 francs a month and at last I will be living within my own and other people’s income. I am tired of acquaintances and tired of friends unless they’re intelligent, tired also of extrovert unbookish life. Me for good talk, wet evenings, intimacy, vins rouges en carafe, reading, relative solitude, street worship, exploration of the least known arrondissements, shopgazing, alley sloping, cafe crawling, Seine loafing, and plenty of writing from the table by this my window where I can watch the streets light up… I am for the intricacy of Europe, the discrete and many folded strata of the old world, the past, the North, the world of ideas. I am for the Hôtel de la Louisiane.”

Cyril Connolly, Hôtel de la Louisiane

Five Possible Verdicts

“As readers, we remain in the nursery stage so long as we cannot distinguish between taste and judgment, so long, that is, as the only possible verdicts we can pass on a book are two: this I like; this I don’t like. For an adult reader, the possible verdicts are five: I can see this is good and I like it; I can see this is good but I don’t like it; I can see this is good and, though at present I don’t like it, I believe that with perseverance I shall come to like it; I can see that this is trash but I like it; I can see that this is trash and I don’t like it.”

W.H. Auden, A Certain World: A Commonplace Book

Broadcasting Ambiguity

Sir William Empson by Fay Godwin

“Yet only writers (and certain kinds of reader) will believe they can never leave language to the side of any question.”

“Empson wants us to see literature as a kind of continuum, a viaduct from mind to mind …”

“Empson writes (in the poem “Letter I”), “I approve myself, dark spaces between stars,” and [Denis] Donoghue says, “You have to be an Ancient rather than a Modern to put yourself between that verb and that object.”

“But Empson doesn’t state the important corollary, perhaps because he thinks the judgment of a critic’s work needs to be left to that critic’s readers. The corollary is this: “if criticism can’t explain, can’t peg things out in words, it can, often magnificently, show us what there is to be looked at, prove there is a crossroad where we so far have seen only a single well-trodden track.”

“It strikes me that modern critics . . . have become oddly resistant to admitting that there is more than one code of morals in the world, whereas the central purpose of reading imaginative literature is to accustom yourself to this basic fact.”

Michael Wood. On Empson (2017)