“Philosophy has lost (or repressed) it’s transformative urge. It has become, instead, a forensic practice of searching out flaws in arguments, rather than a slow engagement with the ‘strangeness’ or otherness of the world—an engagement that transforms and moves us beyond ourselves.”
— Michelle Boulous Walker, Slow Philosophy
Much that is glorious in Walker’s book. The central argument that “it is timely for the love of wisdom, the instituting moment of Western philosophy, to retrieve its pre-eminent place in philosophical work” also draws me back to Pierre Hadot’s work.
“[…] the true complexity of reading is admitted. The first process, to receive impressions with the utmost understanding, is only half the process of reading; it must be completed, if we are to get the whole pleasure from a book, by another. We must pass judgement upon these multitudinous impressions; we must make of these fleeting shapes one that is hard and lasting. But not directly. Wait for the dust of reading to settle; for the conflict and the questioning to die down; walk, talk, pull the dead petals from a rose, or fall sleep. Then suddenly without our willing it, for it is thus Nature undertakes these transitions, the book will return, but differently. It will float to the top of the mind as a whole. And the book as a whole is different from the book received currently in separate phrases; we are no longer the friends of the writer, but his judges; and just as we cannot be too sympathetic as friends, so as judges we cannot be too severe.”
—Virginia Woolf, ‘How Should One Read a Book?’, The Second Common Reader, p.258
This weekend I read Renee Gladman’s Morelia, a short book, in an hour, followed by a couple of hours in the garden in contemplation. This ‘sitting with’ a book one has finished is perhaps the finest part of reading. I reread and think often of Woolf’s encouragement to attend properly to what we read. Slow reading needn’t always mean to read slowly, but to reread, reflect and allow a book to return as a thing rather than a resource.
“In a word, she is ordinary. Ordinary not in the sense of average, but in the sense of a nonspecific majority among which it would be meaningless to attempt to make a distinction. One cannot conclude that she is not beautiful: ordinary beauty, that degree of beauty possessed by most young women, is also possessed by her, but she is beautiful not because she is a young woman but because she is ordinary. Possibly because hers is an impersonal ordinariness that no one could hate, too strong to be lorded over by a queen yet not strong enough to be pursued outside of a crowd. If her ordinariness were to have a character, that character would be darkness.” p.23
—Bae Suah, Milena, Milena, Ecstatic (trans. Deborah Smith)
There is a quality to Bae Suah’s flat affectless prose that I find compelling. I remember the same feeling when I read Nowhere to be Found. This is another story of hollow people and oscillating passages that build up to very little. I must read more of her work.
It’s only four years old but has the texture of cyberpunk science fiction, Stephenson’s Snow Crash, that sort of thing, that I read in the nineties. It’s partly the gritty urban realism that provides that cyberpunk taste, though Despentes’ Vernon Subutex I isn’t set in some near future, but navigates the joys and terrors of emerging culture in the present day. There is also the ironic social commentary channeled through the hustlers and alienated street people who exist side-by-side in this grim, violent world.
Style is central, a cynical even paranoid perspective, but without sacrificing completely the characters’ humanity. It is a narrative that is perfectly in tune with our post-war awareness that advanced societies do not by default become more humane or civilised, quite the reverse in fact.
Despentes’ Paris is not the city of Benjamin’s bourgeois flaneur, but more in tune with the concrete jungle of Baudelaire. It also contrasts with Cusk’s confined, rather claustrophobic trilogy of middle-class life, offering an alternative set of keys to understanding the ethical dilemmas of human experience in the late-capitalist modern city.
“I suppose, Sirs, that you are so glutted with this banquet of various literary dishes that the food you eat continues to rise. Indeed ye sit crammed with dainties, for many served up to you a mixed feast of precious and varied discourse and persuade you to look with contempt on ordinary fare. What shall I do now? Shall I allow what I had prepared to lie uneaten and spoil, or shall I expose it in the middle of the market for sale to retail dealers at any price it will fetch? Who in that case will want any part of my wares or who would give twopence for my writings, unless his ears were stopped up?”
—Agathias, 6th century C.E.
“Nobody means by a word precisely and exactly what his neighbour does, and the difference, be it ever so small, vibrates, like a ripple in water, throughout the entire language. Thus all understanding is always t the same time a not-understanding, all concurrence in thought and feeling at the same time a divergence.”
—Wilhelm Von Humboldt, Humboldt: ‘On Language’. (trans. Peter Heath)