The Self-nourishment of the Soul

“Reading as a cultural act – and especially as a philosophical practice – culminates in study. Study is a learned set of techniques and strategies implemented in order to acquire and master a given knowledge in a given discipline, and is a highly defined and regulated practice. But it is also an ‘idea’ and ‘ideal’, which has defined for centuries the aims and scope of Western culture, so much so that in the Middle Ages the term studium defined the university itself.”

“. . . Agamben refers then to the etymology of studium – from the root st- or sp-, indicating an impact or collision and the deriving shock – which it shares with ‘stupefy’ but also with ‘stupid’: lost, stupefied and stunned, the studioso remains unable to grasp and absorb the amazing amount of stimuli striking him, and is at the same time unwilling to take leave of them. On the other hand, the messianic nature of study incessantly drives it towards completion, towards parousia, and this polarity between interminability and completion constitutes the ‘rhythm’ of study: a succession of stupor and lucidity, discovery and bewilderment, passion and action.”

“Unlike the classical figure of the ‘saintly scholar’ lionised by tradition, these students [as found in Kafka, Walser and Melville’s Bartleby] are ‘failures’, and as such they undermine the whole construct of cultural transmission and legitimacy. In Bartleby, however, there occurs the messianic reversal, whereby the messianic polarity of study is surpassed, or better deactivated: Bartleby, who for Agamben represents ‘pure potentiality’, is a scrivener who has ceased to write, and thus his gesture represents a potential that does not precede but follows its act. This ‘liberated’ potential frees study of its melancholy and returns it to its truest nature, which is not the work, but rather inspiration, ‘the self-nourishment of the soul’.”

Agamben’s Philosophical Lineage, edited by Adam Kotsko and Carlo Salzani.

Recent Arrivals: Biography, Memoir, Guide, Poetry

Of all the many reasons to read Philip Larkin, this collection includes Aubade, an abysmally bleak yet sublime poem that I think I must now learn by heart. The edition includes an introduction by Martin Amis, a novelist of the second-order but a sophisticated critic.

After the exemplary prose of Fanny Howe’s The Needle’s Eye, this time a work that contains autobiography and reflective meditations.

The Life of Ibn ‘Arabi continues my exploration of mystics inspired by Maria Gabriela Llansol’s Book of Communities.

Agamben’s work fascinates me for its range of references and its enigmatic nature. I’ve been slowly making my way through Homo Sacer and was pleased to stumble across this book that explores many of the figures he engages with.

A Relation Between Human Experiences

“A critic for whom literature is not rooted deeply in life, whose ideas seem to have no relation to lived experience, doesn’t hold much interest for me. By the same token, any writing that’s personal, that does not manage to say something critical about life in general, is equally inert. Our own experiences matter only insofar as they reveal something of experience itself. They are often the clearest lens that we can find, but they are a lens.”

–Christian Wiman, Ambition and Survival.

Crossroads of the Paths of my Thinking

Simone Weil wrote, “Our personality seems to us a sort of limit, and we love to figure that some day in an undetermined future we can get around it in one direction or another, or in many. But it also appears to us as a support and we wish to believe there are things we would never be capable of doing or saying or thinking because it is not in our character. That often proves false.” The stoic lesson: life lives us.

We often think that signposts carry meaning. My inner skeptic always questions how I can be sure that I arrive at the correct interpretation of a signpost. Recently all my reading is providing signposts to Simone Weil. Her work. Her self. Fanny Howe quotes a friend who called Weil “a secular monastic”. People will begin to consider me religious, buried in the work of yet another mystic. Some things I read nod forward to Weil: St. John of the Cross, Plato, in whom Weil detected foreshadows of Christianity; a bridge between Greek tragedy and Christian mysticism.

In Fanny Howe, like Christian Wiman, I discover the work of another tutelary spirit. Their books like Agamben’s, Wittgenstein’s blow more or less vigorously in the direction of Simone Weil, what Walter Benjamin, in a letter to Gershom Scholem about Kafka, described as “crossroads of the paths of my thinking.”

Howe in The Needle’s Eye, reflects on personality and our self-representing masks through a series of associative thoughts about the Boston marathon bombers, Francis and Clare of Assisi, folk philosophies and social norms.

My daughter is reading an old favourite book from when I was seventeen, Erving Goffman’s The Presentation of Everyday Life. He argues that the self adapts our personality to suit the setting, donning a different mask as necessary, but that these masks are not permanent. Weil wrote, “The thing we believe to be our self is as ephemeral and automatic a product of external circumstances as the form of a sea wave.”

“degrading thirst after outrageous stimulation”

Described as a sequel to his memoir, My Bright Abyss, I shall be reading backwards, getting to the prequel after He Held Radical Light, which I’ve just finished reading three times, back to back.

Wiman is a poet wrestling with spiritual matters yet nothing to him is more central and worthy of attention than the raw facts of living. His optimistic thesis is that no one is spiritually so out of reach as to be forever removed from communication with things infinite and mystical.

“I’m usually suspicious of claims that privilege one generation’s experience, always of some form of suffering, over another’s. (Why do we never compare our joys or our relative capacities for experiencing joy?) Contemporary culture is awash with anxiety over the disease of anxiety, the endless onslaught of technology, and the diminishment of individual attention our electronic immersion entails. It’s a genuine problem, no question, one I feel myself, but it’s not as new or as dependent upon contemporary technology as we make it out to be. Way back in 1790, in his “Preface to Lyrical Ballads,” Wordsworth decried the “degrading thirst after outrageous stimulation” against which his poetry–interior, meditative, focussed on common people and things–was trying to find an audience. The argument is more eloquent and sophisticated than we’re used to, but the heart of his critique would make a fine tweet.”

Christian Wiman, He Held Radical Light

That Feeling of Collusion With Eternity

This is good. I couldn’t resist posting the opening of Christian Wiman’s latest memoir. I’ve been unable to sleep and stuck on this first page. Old oatmeal is near perfect. By coincidence, but unsurprisingly, Wiman is devoted and frustrated in equal parts by the work of Simone Weil.

“I stayed up late last night reading the letters of A. R. Ammons, who for years sowed and savored his loneliness in lonely Ithaca. “Keep Ithaka always in your mind,” wrote Constantin Cavafy, ‘Arriving there is what you’re destined for.” And he did, Ammons, keep that mythical Ithaka in his mind, which is to say in his poems, decade after decade of diaristic ramblings that are as flavorless as old oatmeal this morning, as null and undifferentiated as deep space—then lit up suddenly by a meteoric masterpiece that must have surprised the workaday writer as much as it does the fatigued reader. It is heroic and it is pathetic, like the life of any real writer, I suppose, all the waste space one fills as one can, some with silence, which is often excruciating for the writer, some with noise, which passes that agony along to the reader. And all for what? Those moments of mysterious intrusion, that feeling of collusion with eternity, of life and language riled to the one wild charge:

THE CITY LIMITS

When you consider the radiance, that it does not withhold

itself but pours its abundance without selection into every

nook and cranny not overhung or hidden; when you consider

that birds’ bones make no awful noise against the light but

lie low in the light as in a high testimony; when you consider

the radiance, that it will look into the guiltiest

swervings of the weaving heart and bear itself upon them,

not flinching into disguise or darkening; when you consider

the abundance of such resource as illuminates the glow-blue

bodies and gold-skeined wings of flies swarming the dumped

guts of a natural slaughter or the coil of shit and in no

way winces from its storms of generosity; when you consider

that air or vacuum, snow or shale, squid or wolf, rose or lichen,

each is accepted into as much light as it will take, thenk

the heart moves roomier, the man stands and looks about, the

leaf does not increase itself above the grass, and the dark

work of the deepest cells is of a tune with May bushes

and fear lit by the breadth of such calmly turns to praise.”

Christian Wiman, He Held Radical Light

Ceridwen Dovey on J. M. Coetzee

The works of J. M. Coetzee, whom Ceridwen Dovey would discover through her mother’s references to a “mysterious man whom she referred to only as ‘J.M.'”, are fully literature, but could without error be placed in many other sections of the library. He therefore presents a complex task for a critic. For Coetzee’s works are also replete with quasi-religious  and national myths, quasi-rhetorical speeches, fictionalised autobiography, ethics, metaphysics and psychology. The ideal critic must try to equal his breadth of concerns as well as his psychological depths. It isn’t surprising that most critics fail to write intelligently about Coetzee’s work. However many times you read his books, there is always more to question, more to try to understand.

For Ceridwen Dovey, in her beautifully presented book, part of a Writers on Writers series, interpretation is not her challenge. She does not ask us to believe anything. Her mother, who is truly the book’s subject, a Coetzee scholar, stops trying to unpick his work: “She now thinks that applying theory to his novels, using reasoned critical discourse to dismantle and decode them, may have been fundamentally against the grain of what the novels themselves ask for.” It is a perfect conclusion to a book Dovey has clearly enjoyed writing, in which readers are not bullied into taking a writer’s line and are instead encouraged to think for themselves.