- Roberto Calasso, The Unnamable Present
- Laura Nasrallah, Archaeology and the Letters of Paul
- Jan Zwicky, The Experience of Meaning
- Yiyun Li, Where Reasons End
- Olga Tokarczuk, The Books of Jacob
- Hans Magnus Enzensberger, Anarchy’s Brief Summer
- Simon Critchley. Tragedy, the Greeks and Us
- Dan Gretton, I You We Them
- Clarice Lispector, The Besieged City
- Rachel Cusk, Coventry
- Hams Blumenberg, Lions
- Simone de Beauvoir, Diary of a Philosophy Student: Volume 2, 1928-29
- Agustín Fernández Mallo, Nocilla Lab
- Annie Ernaux, Happening
- Pierre Gimferrer, The Catalan Poems
- Moyra Davey, Moyra Davey
- Claudio Magris, Snapshots
- Jean-Paul Sartre, Being and Nothingness (Sarah Richmond’s translation)
- Kate Zambreno, Appendix Project
- Christina Hesselholdt, Vivian
- László F. Földényi, The Glance of the Medusa
It is of great importance to my life that I spend time in contemplative thought. Usually this takes place through paying attention to what I’m reading and capturing perceptions in my notebooks, occasionally here on my personal blog and, less often these days, on social media. Paying attention in this way increases my capacity to retain information and appears to give me greater ability to recall knowledge to my thoughts when there is occasion to apply it in some way, either in writing or in conversation. This blog is coming up to its tenth anniversary. Blogging about my reading life changed the way I read, what I read, what I retain from the books I read, and through blogging I’ve made some deep and enduring friendships.
As social media usage, Twitter in particular, became more prevalent, comments in reply to blog posts became less common. In its early days Twitter was a good way to converse with friends, often in the privacy of one-to-one conversations (direct messages), but every now and again there was a sharp reminder that it is a highly public space. It was nevertheless still a good place to make friends that wouldn’t have been made elsewhere. It is also a form of commonplace book where I save and share short form quotations from the books I’m reading.
These days I spend much less time on Twitter. I’ve tried to make it less frustrating by disabling everyone’s retweets and following fewer people, but it is still harder, especially with the loathsome ‘quoted with comment tweets’, to filter out the mock outrage or the fatuous ‘tweet storms’ that accompany a celebrity death, the latest Trump sound bite, or the bandwagon that builds around well-marketed books. It is also impossible to filter out the sometimes stupid, but often not, just merely pointless snarky replies to tweets from people who must make their Opinion known. If using a public Twitter account, this is the price you pay for being in that vast public arena. I de-activate from time to time but I am pathetically irresolute and end up coming back after a week or two, missing some of the book talk from my Twitter feed. I keep hoping for a Twitter alternative but none seem to gain much traction.
I thought briefly about the symbolism of closing this blog on 25th January 2019, ten years after its birth, but it still plays a critical part in my life of contemplation. It is also still instrumental in its way in building friendships with people around the world that share a broadly similar taste in books. It is unquestionably harder to cope with the signal-to-noise ratio on Twitter, but for now I persist there while trying to ignore outraged Twitter. For the first time in several years I have a Facebook presence, primarily to keep loosely in contact with family and friends.
“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.
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 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.
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.”
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