About Anthony

To quote Samuel Beckett's letter to Thomas MacGreevy (25 March 1936), 'I have been reading wildly all over the place'. Time's Flow Stemmed is a notebook of my wild readings.

The Philosophical and The Lunatic Wittgenstein

“For a century Wittgensteins had produced armaments and machines until finally they produced Ludwig and Paul, the famous epoch-making philosopher and the no less famous – at least in Vienna, and just there, even more famous – lunatic who, basically, was just as philosophical as his uncle Ludwig just as, the other way about, the philosophical Ludwig was just as crazy as his nephew Paul; the one, Ludwig, had made his philosophy the basis of his fame, the other Paul, his craziness. The one, Ludwig, was possibly more philosophical, while the other, was possibly crazier, but it may also be that we believed the one, the philosophical Wittgenstein, to be a philosopher only because he had put his philosophy down on paper and not his craziness, and the other, Paul, to be a lunatic merely because he had suppressed and not published his philosophy and only displayed his madness. Both were completely and utterly exceptional brains; the one who had published his brain and the other had not. I might even say that the one had published his brain while the other had practised his brain. And where is the difference between a brain published and continually publishing itself and one that is practised and continually being practised? But of course if Paul had published any writings he would have published writings totally different from Ludwig’s, just as Ludwig would of course have practised a totally different madness from Paul’s. In either case the Wittgenstein name is a guarantee of a high, indeed the highest standard. Paul, the lunatic undoubtedly attained the standard of Ludwig the philosopher; the one represents an absolute peak of philosophy and the history of thought, while the other represents a peak in the history of madness if we are to describe philosophy as philosophy, thought as thought and madness as what they are described as: as perverse historical concepts.”

Thomas Bernhard, Wittgenstein’s Nephew (trans. Ewald Osers)

Hunger for Wordlessness

The Ten Oxherding Pictures, No. 1. Shūbun, after Kakuan

Lyric thought is a direct response to the fact that the particular capacity for language-use possessed by our species cuts us off from the world in a way, or to a degree, that is painful.

 We experience the burden of our capacity for language as loss – though we rarely recognise that this is the burden, that what we have lost is silence.

 Lyric art is the fullest expression of the hunger for wordlessness

 Jan Zwicky, Lyric Philosophy

The Impersonal Within Us (Lyric Thought)

Scene from Orson Welles’s “Don Quixote”

There is still much I wish to share of Jan Zwicky’s reflections in Lyric Philosophy. Her highly compacted approach to questions of subjectivity and language are developed  with an acute elegance that owes much to Wittgenstein’s style. Her arguments and thoughts, presented through fragments and crystalline prose have none of the patient, and frankly dull linear narrative of claim and counter-claim that characterises much philosophy.

As Wittgenstein, there is little sense that Zwicky’s reflections add up to a philosophical system but they throw an illuminating light on the “I speak” of Foucault’s simple sentence, “It it therefore true, undeniably true, that I speak when I say that I am speaking. But things may not be so simple.”

In Book 1 of Lyric Philosophy Zwicky argues that emotions are an integral part of human nature and unjustly set in opposition to reason and logical thought. Emotions shape how we see our world, a necessary factor in how we acquire knowledge. Although emotions are profoundly interior they also reach outwards. On that note, let me share two of Zwicky’s propositions:

“It is in this way, then, that philosophy might assume lyric form: when thought whose eros is clarity is driven also by profound intuitions of coherence – when it is also an attempt to arrive at an integrated perception, a picture or understanding of how something might affect us as beings with bodies and emotions as well as the ability to think logically. Or when it is an investigation informed by or moving towards an appreciation of such a picture or understanding.

When philosophy attempts to give voice to an ecology of experience.” – § 68

“This is not lyric in a sense that emphasises the role of the individual ego: the ‘outpouring of subjective emotion’ connected with the rise of Romantic poetry. That sense is corrupt and is based on a subversion of the desire that fundamentally underlies lyric expression – relinquishment of the individual ego rather than celebration of it.

Lyric thought springs from love, love that attends to the most minutes details of difference; and in this attention experiences connection rather than isolation.” § 69

This seems important to the place of subjective emotion in written thought, whether expressed as fiction or non-fiction – to what extent these terms remain useful today – that it is rooted in emotion but directed outward towards things in the world, or as Zwicky writes, “It bespeaks an awareness that is vulnerable to the world.”

The House Was Quiet and The World Was Calm

The house was quiet and the world was calm.
The reader became the book; and summer night

Was like the conscious being of the book.
The house was quiet and the world was calm.

The words were spoken as if there was no book,
Except that the reader leaned above the page,

Wanted to lean, wanted much most to be
The scholar to whom his book is true, to whom

The summer night is like a perfection of thought.
The house was quiet because it had to be.

The quiet was part of the meaning, part of the mind:
The access of perfection to the page.

And the world was calm. The truth in a calm world,
In which there is no other meaning, itself

Is calm, itself is summer and night, itself
Is the reader leaning late and reading there.

Wallace Stevens, The House Was Quiet and the World Was Calm from The Collected Poems of Wallace Stevens.

I find this poem exceptionally moving and keep returning to it when I cannot sleep. As one of the commenters writes here, where I came across this poem, the immense volume of Wallace Steven’s poetry has served as an obstacle and I’ve never known quite where to begin exploring his work. I’ve got a Collected Poetry and Prose around that I think Steve wrote about years ago. This might be something to explore next year.

An Instrument’s Sound

From Jan Zwicky’s Lyric Philosophy:

“Dealers in fine musical instruments almost never play the instruments they appraise. Their assessments are based on externally measurable proportions, antique value, the visual appearance of the varnish, the reputation of the luthier, and so on. An understanding of the Tractatus’s arguments might be compared to a violin’s market value; an understanding of its thought, to a musician’s appreciation of the instrument’s sound.

Simone Weil [The Notebooks of Simone Weil, trans. Arthur Wills]

Infinite difference between three hours spent at a machine on piece-work, and three hours spent in front of a fresco of Giotto’s. The relationship between time and me is the stuff of which my life is woven, and it is possible to establish an infinite difference therein. A Bach fugue is a model.”

Giotto’s Legend of St Francis – Renunciation of Wordly Goods

Schumann’s glorious sonata played on Isserlis’ Stradivarius, accompanied by pianist Dénes Várjon, for no other reason but that it accompanies the Giotto so exquisitely. This is the stuff of which my life is woven.

A Form of Attunement

Image from the series “The double and the half” – Slow Panic by Hanan Kazma

In Lyrical Philosophy, Jan Zwicky writes:

“Resonance is a function of the integration of various components in a whole. (Integration, not fusion. Resonance occurs in the spaces between.)

In pure, schematic argument, ‘content’ is of no interest. The form does not arise from it. The form itself is unidimensional. Only the most minimal resonance is possible, the most rudimentary of non-algebraic meanings. The spaces in analysis are necessarily discontinuities, not chambers.–Integrity is a form of attunement.”

Echoes and resonances are central to Zwicky’s writing on Wittgenstein, her suggestion that you might take a number of randomly selected propositions, say half a dozen, from the Tractatus and see them not only as self-sufficient utterances, but also appreciate their bell-like resonant interconnectedness.

As Zwicky remarks, “Imagine doing a similar thing with randomly selected sentences from one of the standard treatises of systematic philosophy.” To what extent I understand Zwicky on Wittgenstein I find her account insightful enough to tackle the Tractatus directly, aided from to time by Michael Morris’ elegant Routledge ‘guidebook’.

I am struck by this idea of resonance to the point of waking up at three o’clock in the morning buzzing with associations. Many of the utterances in Tractatus appear bland, even unoriginal, taken as single entities, but the cumulative effect and patterns start to appear, if only flickeringly.

The resonances work a little like memories, which, for me, arrive primarily in image form; the associations between memory images being deeply resonant. Resonance is spatial, occurring as Zwicky writes “in the spaces in-between”, not unidimensional, and these associations do not arrive in linear form.

To drag another analogy into this raggedy post, I could compare it with my library where, for me, it makes sense to shelve my newly acquired Zwicky and Wittgenstein beside Rilke, Walser and Akhmatova, my library organised by resonance and not by alphabetisation. Wittgenstein wrote that philosophy should only be written as poetry, so these shelf companions somehow seem more fitting.

With Wittgenstein, and in the same sense Zwicky, I read slowly, retracing my steps often to push against the resistance to comprehension. I recall Wittgenstein acting as the benefactor to the poet, Georg Trakl. When he first read Trakl’s poems, he confessed, “I don’t understand them. But their tone delights me. It is the tone of … genius.”

Sometimes, one’s reading coalesces into silent flood . . .

 

‘Whereas Wittgenstein passionately believes that all that really matters in human life is precisely what, in his view, we must be silent about.’ – Paul Engelmann, Letters from Ludwig with a Memoir

‘Closed place. All needed to be known for say is known. There is nothing but what is said. Beyond what is said there is nothing.’ Beckett, Watt

‘I wanted to take a snapshot from the book but it feels that it demands such a private form of reading.’ Daniela Cascella, (my italics) ‘I feel like that with most books, this is why I hardly ever blog anymore’ flowerville_ii

‘Making yourself understood is impossible, there’s no such thing as doing that.’ Thomas Bernhard, Three Days (Douglas Robertson’s translation)

‘I cannot help these words as he can: / mute radiance, the empty shining valley. / I cannot keep them clean, they suffocate, / fall stillborn from my mouth. / Prod them for signs of life like poisoned mice.’ Jan Zwicky, Wittgenstein Elegies

A Contribution to Seagull Books’s Annual Catalogue

Seagull Annual Catalogue 2017-2018

Regular readers of this blog will know of my profound respect for publisher, Seagull Books. One of the year’s thrills is receiving Seagull Books’s elegant annual catalogue. The beautiful 2017-2018 edition includes my brief response to Naveen Kishore’s “provocation” (in italics):

It begins slowly. Always in slow motion. With just the right pink and gold that the light designer ordered for the occasion. The script as perfect as can be. The director’s genius about to be rewarded. The performance about to, yes, begin. The curtain to rise. An audience seated. Resigned to what they know will unfold. Without change. Like having seen it happen before. Not here. Not at this particular venue. Or at this play. In their lives. They know the drama. The realism. The script. The dance. The moves. They know. Everything.

Drop a bomb. Set off a device. Blow to smithereens. Unless you do. The image that springs to mind when you see a ruin is gentle. Floating into the mind. Sideways. Almost horizontal. A sense of having fallen into something slowly. Over time. Perhaps what you labeled love. Like leaves. The kind that autumn sheds. Those. Very. Leaves. I guess things fall into gentle ruin. They do. That is the phrase I seek. The familiarity of the tragic. The kind that is foretold in every gesture you create. For yes. It is creative. This ruination. How else would it ever have got to the stage it has. One of utter helplessness. Descending into an aesthetically designed. Even overwhelming. Futility.

Embraces like coagulated clots growing. Thickening. Clinging walls. Solidifying layers settling. In an intense and congealed setting for decay to blossom. Into? Dare I say it? Decay. Decay yet to be born so unborn decay. The kind that waits. Waiting to grow. Flourish. Thrive. Open. Unfolding decay. One that matures into full blown decay. Without containment or known boundaries. Therefore spreading. This decay. Decay as epidemic. A decay of ruination. Utter and complete. Defeated decay. Gnawing at the foundations. Of what? Of what once. Was. Eroding decay. Relentless and unceasing. And yes. A committed decay.

All things are in time, transient, and subject to change. Is it possible to conceive an entity without the potential for change? Is not the capacity for change a definitive element of a thing’s existence? For a thing to be incapable of change it surely must lie outside of time, what Samuel Beckett’s Molloy describes as the ‘indestructible chaos of timeless things”. To be in time is to be defined by terms like ‘past,’ ‘present,’ ‘future,’ ‘before,’ ‘after,’ and more nuanced terms like ‘simultaneous,’ ‘later,’ ‘always,’ and ‘forever,’ etc. Thus, for instance, if the Christian God is outside of time, to say that God existed before Moses is either false or meaningless. Does this suggest that time is illusory, unreal perhaps?

Whatever terms we use to cope with this sense of the unreal, all that is available to us is a succession of temporal moments; a progression of nows that comprise our immediate experience. To register our transience we reduce time to a series of clock or calendar measurements. Eliot’s Four Quartets draw together the poet’s reading of both eastern and western traditions to explore the ‘timeless moment’–assuming such a concept is not too problematic–when consciousness rubs up against deeper arrangements of meaning and order rooted in the substance of existence. In the final part of poem, Little Gidding, Eliot writes ‘A people without history / Is not redeemed from time, for history is a pattern / Of timeless moments.’ By indicating a way beyond the chaos of historical process as we normally receive it, Eliot suggests conditions that might make possible a redemptive transfiguration of self.

As we survey the ruins of self that is the aftermath of the modern consumerist obsession with finding a true identity, usually requiring some notion of fulfilment with consumption. Are we perhaps finally turning inward, away from self-absorbed individualism, a counter-reaction to an accelerated external world in which time has become ephemeral and fleeting?

Virginia Woolf, ahead of time in so many ways, wrote a haunting and intense story, The Fascination of the Pool, in which she uses a pond as metaphor for our consciousness. Its central theme is the interplay of water, light, past and future; its action invokes the submergence of our consciousness in its timeless reality. Modern science and its conception of water’s information structure as capable of possessing memories for the longest of times offers the tantalising possibility that human thought and emotion from the oldest times are both transient and timeless.

Sometimes I like to conceive of time as like water flowing in a river that always flows in the same direction. I can dream myself onto the river bank, outside of time’s flow, watching the whole span of earthly time as its memorised sequence of events flows by.

Virginia Woolf’s Flâneuse, Street Haunting

Today, Street Haunting from The Death of the Moth and other essays, an essay of Virginia Woolf’s that I hadn’t read before, written in 1927 and published two years after Mrs. Dalloway. This is Woolf’s flâneur, or perhaps flâneuse.

Woolf’s narrator also recalls Dorothy Richardson’s London, the shared freedom of Woolf’s narrator and Richardson’s Miriam Henderson to walk the streets of London and feel their connectedness to other inhabitants of the city.

A fragment, my favourite perhaps, of the essay. The whole text can be found here.

“But here, none too soon, are the second-hand bookshops. Here we find anchorage in these thwarting currents of being; here we balance ourselves after the splendours and miseries of the streets. The very sight of the bookseller’s wife with her foot on the fender, sitting beside a good coal fire, screened from the door, is sobering and cheerful. She is never reading, or only the newspaper; her talk, when it leaves bookselling, which it does so gladly, is about hats; she likes a hat to be practical, she says, as well as pretty. 0 no, they don’t live at the shop; they live in Brixton; she must have a bit of green to look at. In summer a jar of flowers grown in her own garden is stood on the top of some dusty pile to enliven the shop. Books are everywhere; and always the same sense of adventure fills us. Second-hand books are wild books, homeless books; they have come together in vast flocks of variegated feather, and have a charm which the domesticated volumes of the library lack. Besides, in this random miscellaneous company we may rub against some complete stranger who will, with luck, turn into the best friend we have in the world. There is always a hope, as we reach down some grayish-white book from an upper shelf, directed by its air of shabbiness and desertion, of meeting here with a man who set out on horseback over a hundred years ago to explore the woollen market in the Midlands and Wales; an unknown traveller, who stayed at inns, drank his pint, noted pretty girls and serious customs, wrote it all down stiffly, laboriously for sheer love of it (the book was published at his own expense); was infinitely prosy, busy, and matter-of-fact, and so let flow in without his knowing it the very scent of hollyhocks and the hay together with such a portrait of himself as gives him forever a seat in the warm corner of the mind’s inglenook. One may buy him for eighteen pence now. He is marked three and sixpence, but the bookseller’s wife, seeing how shabby the covers are and how long the book has stood there since it was bought at some sale of a gentleman’s library in Suffolk, will let it go at that.”

This Quality of Modern Fiction

In her essay Modern Fiction, Virginia Woolf comes close to pinning down that elusive quality that is the difference between a novel that may be well constructed, even beautifully written, but that lacks life or spirit, that essential thing that wakes us up with a blow to the head:

“[The novel] fails because of the comparative poverty of the writer’s mind, we might say simply and have done with it. But it is possible to press a little further and wonder whether we may not refer our sense of being in a bright yet narrow room, confined and shut in, rather than enlarged and set free, to some limitation imposed by the method as well as the mind. Is it the method that inhibits the creative power? Is it due to the method that we feel neither jovial nor magnanimous, but centred in a self which, in spite of its tremor of susceptibility, never embraces or creates what is outside itself and beyond.”

I should think that of the contemporary fiction I abandon, most of it is due to this suffocating quality.

Loathsome Labours

“For who can doubt that once writers had the chance of writing what they enjoy writing they would write on any other terms; or that readers once they had the chance of reading what writers enjoy writing, would find it so much more nourishing than what is written for money that they would refuse to be palmed off with the stale substitute any longer. Thus the slaves who are now kept hard at work piling words into books, piling words into articles, as the old slaves piled stones into pyramids, would shake the manacles from their wrists and give up their loathsome labour. And now “culture”, that amorphous bundle, swaddled up as she now is in insincerity, emitting half truths from her timid lips, sweetening and diluting her message with whatever sugar or water serves to swell the writer’s fame or his master’s purse, would regain her shape and become, as Milton, Keats and other great writers assure us that she is in reality, muscular, adventurous, free. Whereas now, Madam, at the very mention of culture the head aches, the eyes close, the doors shut, the air thickens; we are in a lecture room, rank with the fumes of stale print, listening to a gentleman who is forced to lecture or to write about Keats, while the lilac shakes its branches in the garden free, and the gulls, swirling and swooping, suggest with wild laughter that such stale fish might with advantage be tossed to them.”

A tremendous rant from Virginia Woolf’s Three Guineas. My immediate thought is how much more impoverished our culture has become in the eighty years since this was published. Is it now even possible to conceive of a culture stripped of money, power, promotional and vanity motives? The only consolation to be found is that it is perhaps once again possible to take in everything genuinely worthwhile in contemporary culture. Assuming one is fortunate enough to find what is worthwhile amid the din.

Not Small After All

“Then there could be no doubt that as a novelist [Mary Carmichael] enjoyed some natural advantages of a high order. She had a sensibility that was very wide, eager and free. It responded to an almost imperceptible touch on it. It feasted like a plant newly stood in the air on every sight and sound that came its way. It ranged, too, very subtly and curiously, among almost unknown or unrecorded things; it lighted on small things and showed that perhaps they were not small after all. It brought buried things to light and made one wonder what need there had been to bury them. Awkward though she was and with the unconscious bearing of long descent which makes the least turn of the pen of a Thackeray or a Lamb delightful to the ear, she had – I began to think – mastered the first great lesson; she wrote as a woman, so that her pages were full of that curious sexual quality which comes only when sex is unconscious of itself.”

A passage from Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own, which I reread as preparation for a first reading of Three Guineas. (The picture above, incidentally, is, sadly, not of my edition. If you have a spare £20,000 a complete set of Virginia Woolf first editions could be yours, which seems a far better use of such a sum than a reasonably smart car, or desert island holiday.)

It doesn’t need me to point out how incisive is Woolf’s dissection of women’s inequity, but in the twenty years since I last read A Room of One’s Own, I had forgotten how elegant and witty her exposition. The passage above sums up so many of the qualities I enjoy in a writer, Dorothy Richardson comes closest to mind. Reading this essay again makes me wish to reread Woolf, and to read, like Three Guineas, some of the work I’ve missed.

Losing Literature

D. J. Enright, literary critic, novelist, poet, with a reticence comparable to Stevie Smith, is not literally insufferable. His reluctantly autobiographical commonplace books have dressed my bedside for some years, and with good temper and a mood for his lightly worn erudition, they offer diversion from insomnious thought-spreading. Mood is all important; on another occasion he’ll bring out my deep-shrouded Ajax, desirous to purge myself of his insufferable pride, his manner of finding yet another oblique way of emphasising his scholarship. Such is the nature of insomnia.

In Injury Time he tells the story of when fellow literary critic Frank Kermode moved house a few years before his death:

“[Kermode] had boxes of books, inscribed first editions and valuable manuscripts, ready for the removal men. The three workmen to whom he showed the boxes were Cambridge dustmen called in to make a special waste clearance. Thirty boxes had been consigned to the dustcart before the mistake was realised. The dustmen declined to climb into the cart, which contained a mechanical crusher.”

James Wood, literary critic, also often insufferable, tells the same story, adding that Kermode “was left with only his cheapest paperbacks, and his collection of literary theory.”

This came to mind recently as I accidentally gave away a book I learnt a few days later was very valuable. As its value was only pecuniary I was able to recover my equanimity remarkably quickly.

Yiyun Li: Reading Letters and Journals

“What do we gain from wanting to know a stranger’s life? But when we read someone’s private words, when we experience her most vulnerable moments with her, and when her words speak more eloquently of our feelings that we are able to, can we still call her a stranger? I have convinced myself that reading letters and journals is a way of having a conversation with those writers, but surely it is as glib as calling perusing the music score of a symphony the same as listening to it. A conversation requires more than scribbling in the margin.
Sometimes I suspect that I am drawn to those who don’t converse with me because I have not outgrown a childish wish that they will teach me how to live. Or, a slightly more complicated version: I wish that they would teach one how to die.”
. . .

“All people lie, in their writing as much as in their lives. It frustrates me that I hold on to an unrealistic belief: there is some irrefutable truth in each mind, and the truth is told without concealment or distortion in a letter or in a journal entry. My obligation is to look for that truth; finding it will offer me the certainty I don’t have in me. With that certainty I will find a way to build a solid self. This burden I never take on while reading or writing fiction.”

To those that have read Yiyun Li’s The Vagrants, Dear Friend, from My Life I Write to You in Your Life offers something very different, another reluctant memoir: introspective without morbidity and philosophical without pretension.

Christina Hesselholdt’s Companions

“. . . everything is saturated with meaning, friendships, love affairs, the view of the world, the language.”

Reading Christina Hesselholdt’s Companions is to inhabit a constant rise and fall, immersion into conflicting currents and patterns that appear and disappear in the form of interior monologues of a group of the companions that give the book its title.

These companions are intertwined around Camilla, whose literary passion is one of the many pleasing aspects of this novel, as she contemplates, amongst many others, writers as diverse as Thomas Bernhard and Lawrence Durrell.

Saturation is the word that Virginia Woolf used to describe the effect she desired in The Waves, ‘a saturated unchopped completenesss’. Hesselholdt’s book stylistically nods in the direction of The Waves but has a different intensity. I found it absorbing and satisfying to follow each individual’s disillusionments and their sense of life and human separateness.