The Living Being that has Language

Honoré Daumier – L’Exposition Universelle

“In the definition according to which man is the living being that has language, the decisive  element is clearly not life, but language [lingua].
And yet humans are unable to say what is involved for them in language as such, in the sheer fact that they speak. Although they more or less obscurely sense how inane it is to use speech in the way they mostly use it–often at random and without having anything to say, or to hurt each other–they obstinately continue to speak and transmit language to their progeny, without knowing whether this is the highest good or the worst of misfortunes.”

–Giorgio Agamben, What is Philosophy (trans.Lorenzo Chiesa)

The Thomas Jesus

There was a strong sense while reading J. M. Coetzee’s The Childhood of Jesus that there was much going on that was eluding me, to the degree that I wanted to dig a little deeper. The piece below references the apocryphal infancy gospels that are not permitted to be part of the biblical canon. While I was vaguely aware of their existence, it is quite clear this is a rabbit hole I must follow, not only to do justice to the concentration of thought and feeling in Coetzee’s novel and to prepare to read its sequel The Schooldays of Jesus, but also for curiosity’s sake.

Coetzee’s novel is quite different to what came before, to which he eludes in his exchange of letters with Paul Auster, Here and Now: Letters 2008-2011:

“One can think of a life in art, schematically, in two or perhaps three stages. In the first you find, or pose for yourself, a great question. In the second you labour away at answering it. And then, if you live long enough, you come to the third stage, when the aforesaid great question begins to bore you, and you need to look elsewhere.”

It is I think a very fine novel, one to which I intend to devote time thinking, but it also prompts me to reread some of Coetzee’s earlier work (I’ve read everything) to see how they foreshadow The Childhood of Jesus. In some cases, they seem very directly to do so. One of the reviews I read posed this question: ‘what might happen if characters from previous work were reborn in a new one, with only shadow memories of their prior selves.’ I find this idea very intriguing and, at very least, wish to re-read Life & Times of Michael K, Elizabeth Costello, The Master of Petersburg and Foe, all of which are echoed, to some degree, in The Childhood of Jesus.

“In the canonical New Testament gospels, there is only one reference to Jesus as a boy before the age of twelve and his famous visit to the temple. That is in Luke (2.40), where it is simply said that Jesus ‘grew and became strong’. But there were infancy gospels that did not make the cut, or make it into the canon. (They might be said to be like David’s lost letter.) The infancy gospel called pseudo-Matthew resolves the issue [was he fully human as well as fully divine throughout his life] just raised by having Jesus calm Mary and Joseph about it: ‘Do not be afraid nor consider me a child; I always have been a perfect man and am so now.’ But in the earliest infancy gospel, that of Thomas, the bearing of that narrative on Coetzee’s novel is very clear. In that gospel Jesus is most definitely a child, or perhaps a vindictive and petulant and very childish small adult. A boy bumps into the child Jesus at one point, and Jesus strikes him dead. Another boy displeases him and is said to be ‘withered’. And, again very directly mirroring particular elements of David’s story, the young Jesus is taken by Joseph to Zacchaeus to learn to read, and Jesus outwits and humiliates him to the point where Zacchaeus begs Joseph to take him away. (Jesus, it is clear, does not need to learn to read.) He is later taken to learn Greek and Hebrew (which again he clearly already knows) and in a fit of anger he kills the teacher, although he brings him back to life. (In the novel, David has kept secret that he taught himself to read, and he torments his teacher, señor Léon, until the teacher insists the boy be removed.) Moreover the Thomas Jesus performs miracles that are much more like feats of magic than benevolent displays, and David says several times that he is and will be a great magician. These cannot be accidental and they go beyond irony, or at least that first sort of exasperated irony. If David is not merely an ironic ‘Jesus,’ then in this sense – and perhaps in another irony – he is more ‘realistically’ ‘divine’ and ‘human’ (‘age-appropriate human’) than the ‘official’ biblical Jesus, and is much more like the Thomas Jesus.”

J. M. Coetzee’s The Childhood of Jesus: The Ethics of Ideas & Things, edited by Jennifer Rutherford & Anthony Uhlmann

There is Life No Longer

“What philosophy once called life, has turned into the sphere of the private and then merely of consumption, which is dragged along as an addendum of the material production-process, without autonomy and without its own substance. Whoever wishes to experience the truth of immediate life, must investigate its alienated form, the objective powers, which determine the individual existence into its innermost recesses…The gaze at life has passed over into ideology, which conceals the fact that it no longer exists.” (Trans. Dennis Redmond, 2005)

“What the philosophers once knew as life has become the sphere of private existence and now of mere consumption, dragged along as an appendage of the process of material production, without autonomy or substance of its own. He who wishes to know the truth about life in its immediacy must scrutinize its estranged form, the objective powers that determine individual existence even in its most hidden recesses..Our perspective of life has passed into an ideology which conceals the fact that there is life no longer.” (Trans. E. F. N Jephcott, 1974)

Theodor Adorno, Minima Moralia, 1951

I’ve been spending some time with Adorno’s Minima Moralia, not something I do lightly as it is too easy to be taken over by its melancholy tone. It isn’t undiluted pessimism, despite Adorno’s reputation, but it depends, like anything we ingest, on what filters are in place at the time. It has more to offer. The 153 apparently sealed aporias offer up some fragile hope, a way to see beyond his assertion above that life, from a historical perspective, has ended.

I’ve also been reading J. M. Coetzee recently, his exchange of letters with Paul Auster, and The Childhood of Jesus, which I found very interesting but perplexing. It was the latter that made me look once again into Minima Moralia. Coetzee also appears to contend in this novel that our inner lives are no longer a necessary part of continued ‘progress’; that philosophy and art have been rendered redundant. This thought also occurs in Annie Ernaux’s The Years, this idea that those things that shape and feed our inner subjectivity have been appropriated by what Adorno would call ‘the culture industry.’ Ernaux writes, “I’m a petite bourgeoise who has arrived,” that she is “no longer entitled to an inner life.”

With no ability to decipher how good are the translations of Adorno, I include both above. It is useful I find to read them both side by side.

Sunday Preoccupations

It isn’t often I’ll decide to buy a book based on a cover, but my purchase of Anthony Rudolf’s European Hours was inspired by Paula Rego’s magnificent 1977 painting. Subsequently I learnt that Rudolf is Rego’s companion and her main male model. His autobiographical Silent Conversations looks also particularly desirable.

The other two I picked up on the basis of TLS reviews, intending to make time for both this summer.

Annie Ernaux’s The Years, though I’m not yet halfway through, seems truly brilliant. The publisher Fitzcarraldo Editions term it a collective autobiography of Ernaux’s generation. I’m not sure that captures her project fully. It seems more an act of memory, not as exercised through one individual, but an exploration of how memories are shared and transmitted within and by the interaction between multiple individuals of different generations. As Paul Ricoeur put it in his Memory, History, Forgetting (trans. Kathleen Blaney and David Pellauer), “no one ever remembers alone”. It is only through collective memory that we are able to remember individually. I will undoubtedly revise these early thoughts as I read slowly through this remarkable book.

Those serendipitous connections that lead me from book to book: the Ernaux is translated by Alison Strayer, a childhood friend and reading companion of an old favourite photographer and writer Moyra Davey.

The Original

“After we’ve seen so many copies of something over the years, the original stops us in our tracks. It takes our breath away. We’re not all experts who can stand before an original and understand it. Therefore, without copies in existence we wouldn’t understand originals. When we fall in love, we see everything as an original. We’re the ones pulling the wool over our own eyes. We inflate the value so much, and add so many zeros to it, that we can’t afford it ourselves. And when we can’t pay the price, we start eliminating, one by one the zeros on the price-tag. We discount the price. Then we arrive at the truth. The point here, which I truly believe, is that access to the original is out of reach for many of us. Therefore, we should value and appreciate a copy. That’s what’s important.”

– Abbas Kiarostami

Knausgaard’s Summer

I found my way back to Knausgaard. Summer is the fourth volume of his Seasons quartet. Perhaps I should have begun with the first but as it is summer it seemed churlish not to begin with this aesthetically pleasing edition with its Anselm Kiefer watercolours.

At first I dipped as into a stream of solipsistic consciousness, unsure whether I wanted to read Knausgaard, but I was drawn into this highly self-conscious work. It is labelled as memoir/essays and I assume it exists in the same world as his autobiographical novels. In his terrific essay on Handke, Knausgaard reveals, I think, a little of his own project: “[Handke’s novels] seek out the gaps, the perimeters, there where something can be seen for the first time, and they insist on the details, on the small incidents, the seemingly insignificant, precisely because they change everything about that which is already seen, and reveal a world that is forever in the making.” In Summer, it is the digressions into the fear of authority, the nature of art, the existence of God, which erupt with apparent spontaneity, triggered by associative memories, that propel the force and charm of his narrative.

The more that Knausgaard interferes with what is apparently his primary narrative, a series of short essays about the small events of family life, the more this work suggests that the primary arc of significance comprises the digressions and their interactive effects. Woven into his narrative is another story that Knausgaard engages to write obliquely on the topic of shame. These are above all digressions on topics dear to Knausgaard.

“The shame I feel so strongly occurs only on the surface of the soul, it is a bit like the flame over charcoal, it is fuelled by lighter fluid and dances above the blackness, lightly and almost non-comittally, whereas the glow within the charcoal is something quite other and deeper.”

There is something more to Summer than A Death in the Family, but it might be I need to re-read that novel with more care. There seems to be less linguistic excess in Summer, less what felt like an absence of re-writing and editing in A Death in the Family. When I finished A Death in the Family I dismissed Knausgaard’s project as a provocative and cynical gesture, silly posturing. Summer restores my interest in what Knausgaard appears to be doing, raising questions about what we know and how we can know what we know. It brings to mind a line of Akhmatova writing of Lot’s wife: “A single glance: a sudden art of pain / stitching her eyes before she made a sound.” A sudden art of pain is the cumulative effect of Knausgaard’s rhetorical movements.

“Our perception of a poem or work of art might actually be a composite of the various interpretations that we make of it at different stages of our lives.”

“It is interesting to read [these] poems over the course of a lifetime, because, as with paintings, one’s perception of them changes with time.
When we superimpose our successive impressions of works of art or poems, we can see them as geological strata. Drilling down through the layers, we extract a core sample that can tell us something about the life of the work, not as an isolated impression or phenomenon linked to the past but as a living being, which has preserved a record of its inner history and evolution.
We can also interpret the phenomenon in another way, namely, as a simple transformation of the work of art over time, with nothing added or subtracted.
This phenomenon is related to cross-mapping, which ones does by arranging maps one on top of another in order to detect differences between them – the differences wherein I believe truth lies.
If we superimpose geological maps, we can observe the coming and going of ice ages. Similarly, historical maps can tell us about the drastic changes brought by the conquests of Alexander the Great or by political changes in the Fertile Crescent over a period of 10,000 years.
With these examples in mind, it is not hard to accept that our perception of a poem or work of art might actually be a composite of the various interpretations that we make of it at different stages of our lives.”

Anselm Kiefer, Marine (trans. Arthur Goldhammer)