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.

Infinite Conversations

“In hearing the novel, we are of course hearing our own voice, hearing the process by which consciousness binds itself, with the utmost fragility, to material being, the process by which we tell ourselves who and what we are and were. For the novel voice to approach this most intimate, most hidden of infinite conversations, it does not need to pretend that it can speak. The novels that achieve [is this greatness?] the most searing proximity to our self-making mechanisms are those that hear their own silence, and live in the rather terrible gap, endlessly opening and as endlessly closing, between words and things, speaking and listening.”

Peter Boxall, The Value of the Novel

No End to Reading

The problem is that novels, great novels–whatever that means–are excessive. Reading, by nature, is excessive. How is one ever done with reading? We never quite finish reading great fiction. By the time we finish a book, by the time we have picked a novel to the bones, it renews itself, like that bottle filled with magical waters that never empties.

We might remember plot, or character–the parts that don’t matter–but close the book and its pages fill with more nuance, further intellectual delicacies to be discerned on rereading. What is read is never read, but, to draw on Nabokov, one can only reread a book. Something is always missed, something left to be read.

Great writers are deceivers. They fool us into thinking we have done with their book. As Adorno wrote in Minima Moralia (another book we can only endlessly reread), “it is Proust’s courtesy to spare the reader the embarrassment of believing himself cleverer than the author”.

We forget that ur-moment when we first read, no less sensory and traumatic than the primal scene, when words on a page called forth an absent voice, a hermeneutical dialogue that changed us irrevocably. What we read is transformed into ourselves. From this time on our sensory receptiveness to the world is never the same, the moment when, to quote Peter Boxall, we realise it “might be possible to meet with the mind of another with an intimacy and intensity that is unmixed with baser matter”.

 

Dostoevsky, Dreams, Joanna Walsh (My Week)

“These obvious absurdities and impossibilities with which your dream was overflowing . . . you accepted all at once, almost without the slightest surprise, at the very time when, on the other side, your reason was at its highest tension and showed extraordinary power, cunning, sagacity, and logic. And why, too, on waking and fully returning to reality, do you feel almost every time, and sometimes with extraordinary intensity, that you have left something unexplained behind with the dream, and at the same time you feel that interwoven with these absurdities some thought lies hiddden, and a thought that is real, something belonging to your actual life, something that exists and always existed in your heart. It’s as though something new, prophetic, that you were awaiting, has been told you in your dream.”

This passage from Dostoevsky’s The Idiot played on my mind during this week of fever and dreams (and Joanna Walsh’s fevered dream of a book).

Joanna Walsh’s Worlds From the Word’s End

Every four hours I tested my temperature. Sanity slips away on that threshold between high fever and very high fever; in the spaces I read. What else? Reading was a clear but dense broth; examined more closely: a complex refinement of Kafka’s and Lydia Davis’s short stories dusted with a little Calvino, known for its nutrient qualities. When the fever ended, the dreams remained, as did the stories of Joanna Walsh in Worlds From the Word’s End.

When the fever was over, I read these stories again and found them possessed by the spectral figures that I recognised from the fiction-induced vivid dreams of my high fever. Walsh lulls us calmly in with apparently simple wordplay but there are horrors here you may not want to possess your waking and sleeping thoughts: that demon who has read all  those neglected books on your bookshelves, or that wonder-awful-place where words go out of fashion.

Like a film director or a painter, for these are stories with high visual depth, Walsh invites us to escape reality for a few hours, or at least acknowledge the possibility that reality is not as we may perceive. On both readings, I found it important to give these stories room to space their shapes, colours and textures, to balance philosophical tendencies, to develop often banal situations. What excited me most were the ideas that exhibit a fine, skilful query into the nature of being in the world.

Gillian Rose as Implacable Educator

“By its very nature all philosophy may be said to be a devising of strategies for intellectual transcendence, an attempt to rise above the mere clash of opposing partial truths at the level of ‘opinion’. Thinking at the level of ‘opinion’ is thinking entirely trapped within a given viewpoint, belonging to a particular historic time and place. Philosophy by contrast seeks to penetrate to the eternal: the most comprehensive possible overview. For Plato’s Socrates this is essentially a process of ‘recollection; a turning backwards, to uncover what one’s experience has already, in fact, potentially taught one, but what, for lack of questioning, one has not yet understood.”

– from Andrew Shanks, Against Innocence

I’m amused how Shanks, in his way, attempts to deter a naive reader from tackling his subject, Gillian Rose’s work, writing, “. . . she abandons all pretence of seamless argument. The argument of [her most momentous book] The Broken Middle jumps, in mind-boggling-fashion, from topic to topic. Fragments of philosophy, theology, political theory, historiography and biography, anthropology, literary criticism and theory of architecture are thrown all higgledy-piggledy together. The underlying coherence of her thought is systematically covered by a surface show of randomness.” Shanks goes on to say, “This is difficult writing, not at all because it is inept, but because it is an attempt, in the most direct way possible to enact the intrinsic difficulty of ‘absolute knowing’.”

Furthermore, Shanks adds, ” . . . as an educator she is implacable. Her ambition for us knows no limits. In The Broken Middle, for instance, she discusses Hegel, Adorno again, Kierkegaard, Maurice Blanchot, Franz Kafka, Sigmund Freud, Thomas Mann, René Girard, Rahel Varnhagen, Rosa Luxembourg, Hannah Arendt, Emmanual Levinas, Franz Rosenzweig, Emil Fackenheim and various others”, and further, “Her book reads like an accumulation of marginal notes compiled originally for herself alone, on these texts – abstruse musings, studded with arcane witticisms.”

For a naive reader, sufficiently curious about Rose and her work, to buy and read Shanks’ excellent book and his elegant warnings–as he is of course all too aware– just serve to take one deeper down the Gillian Rose rabbit hole. His admonitions serve as the sign above another forbidding portal–”All hope abandon ye who enter here.”

Our Desire for Innocence

“Reflection requires that the plain opposition of positive and negative be left behind. Thinking is not content with the abstraction of mutual exclusivities, but struggles to conceive of a structured wholeness nuanced enough to contain what appeared to be contradictories.”

– Rowan Williams, quoted in Giles Fraser’s foreword to Andrew Shanks’ Against Innocence

” . . . the sort of peace negotiation suggested by Rose and Shanks has a definite strategy: it attempts to dismantle our desire for innocence.”

Most useful in this context is Fraser’s elucidation of Williams’ definition of innocence as “longing to be utterly sure of our rightness”, which is quite brilliant.

[Gillian] Rose’s work is an encouragement to pay attention to the philosophical condition of human fallenness. Human beings are haunted by complexity, compromised by mixed motives, and debased by threads of complicity with cruelty and untruthfulness. We constantly seek to represent ourselves with various fictions of innocence . . .”

– Giles Fraser’s foreword to Andrew Shanks’ Against Innocence

‘The longing for Paradise is man’s longing not to be man.’

‘And paradise is the capacity to be happy, not bored, with monotony, with repetition. As animals are, “because only animals were not expelled from Paradise.” “The longing for Paradise is man’s longing not to be man.” Paradise then is not exactly a longing for repetition; a world without repetition’s alternative, without knowledge of the irrevocable, of the once-and-for-all changes that are the very condition of our conscious (and indeed our physical) life. These changes occur to animals too, of course, but (we assume) they don’t interpret then as we do. They think perhaps, they interpret behaviour; but they don’t register change or time, or they register them lightly, merely as the necessary means of measuring continuity and return. Paradise is theirs and can’t be ours; the Fall is not the fruit of sin, it is mere mortality and the consciousness of it; the world of the forgiving novelist.’

Michael Wood, Maps of Fiction

Jen Craig’s Panthers and the Museum of Fire

Humanity, Léon Bloy, wrote can be divided into two categories, those who fight the beast, and those who nourish it. In literature, the former is presently in the ascendance. This is why I like so much Stephen Mitchelmore’s remark that the right reader will find “blessed relief in Jen Craig’s fiction”. For such blessed relief is precisely what I found on my three passes through Panthers & the Museum of Fire.

There is little character development, only passing narrative impetus and no plot, yet relief is to be found in the novel’s reticence. Unavoidably, it has a situation: a writer called Jen Craig is given a manuscript written by a friend who has died. She is asked by the dead friend’s sister to return it unread; unable to resist temptation she reads the manuscript and achieves a breakthrough in her own writing, possible the book the reader is now reading. There is suspense in wondering why, after urging the narrator to read the manuscript because of her supposed literary flair, the sister now asks for its return, unread, but this question is unresolved. Mr. Godot never arrives.

Novels like Panthers & the Museum of Fire jettison everything recognisable as a novel, lacking much that Aristotle deemed essential to drama, yet this extraordinary little novel has at its heart a tragic fatality and a concentration of mature and tender feeling.

The Power of Sentences

Sometimes I think Pilgrimage changed my way of reading. Or maybe my way of thinking. Perhaps both. I’ve always read slowly, meditatively, but this tendency has intensified of late. Maybe it’s age, or the coming of autumn.

This week I’ve been reading Jen Craig’s Panthers and the Museum of Fire and dwelling on its sentences, allowing their meaning to flow, layers of meaning emerging from her sentences on a first reading, and differently on the second, when the drum beat of newness is decreased. Her book already feels like a friend that I don’t wish to leave anytime soon. What strikes me most about Panthers and the Museum of Fire is the way Jen Craig uses sinuous, snakelike sentences to slow down and complicate the reading experience.

I like to think that Dorothy Richardson taught me how to read her prose, and in doing so made me a participant in the creation of prospect and meaning, with a satisfying double awareness, of not only the places her writing can take me, but also of the extraordinary artistry and integrity of the language that takes me there.

Stephen Mitchelmore’s This Space of Writing

In 2015, a selection of Stephen Mitchelmore’s writing on This Space was released in book form, making available his critiques of modernist literature as contemporary classics of the form. The irony, of course, is that Mitchelmore’s inimitable blog posts have long offered more depth and perspicacity than much of book reviewing that appears in print, rebuttal to the somewhat hysterical argument that book blogging will “be to the detriment of literature”.

Book blogging however is an easy target for mockery. Amongst the thousands of sites that are merely shills for publishers, This Space stands out, not only for a prose that is shorn of needless surface effect, but that provides essayistic posts about literature that deal with the ongoing challenge of modernism. Analysis is Mitchelmore’s strength, sifting narrative material with a playful alertness for the nuggets that pinpoint its weight.

I can no longer recall whether I discovered This Space before or after I started writing on this blog, but I’ve since read it twice end to end. That many of my favourite posts now exist in printed form is a revelation for it underscores how difficult I find linear in-depth reading on screen. I’m thrilled to be able to devote more sustained attention to Mitchelmore’s blog in the form of This Space of Writing.

The forty or so essays, read one after the other, form a heterogeneous whole, revealing the underlying unity of Mitchelmore’s concerns: reading, and writing what we read, is not about uncovering the meaning(s) of a work, but allowing a text to assert its own existence as a fracture of being.

That Retiring Figure

It is the richness of character development that is the genius of Dorothy Richardson’s Pilgrimage. I know of no other fictional character than Miriam Henderson where a reader participates so fully in their psychological development. The expansiveness of the narrative allows room for Richardson to enrich her character but it is more than the length of the work that allows this exceptional amount of character development.

It isn’t unusual in modern fiction for a writer to elevate deep character development over plot, nor for narrative complexity to be used to advance development of character, but by constraining a reader’s viewpoint so narrowly through Miriam Henderson’s interior, a reader is compelled to frequently alter one’s narrative expectations as they see her character reflected and shaped by and through her complex social network. As Miriam Henderson’s character arc unfolds slowly before our eyes it is impossible not to think of how the certainties of our twenties become the uncertainties of middle age.

‘The old life and death struggle between conflicting ideas had died down. She could see the self who had lived so long upon that battle ground, far off; annoying, when thought of as suffered by others. But it was not without a pang that she looked back at that retiring figure. It had been, at least, with all its blindness, desperately sincere. She was growing worldly now, capable of concealments in the interest in social joys, worse, capable of assumed cynicism for the sake of advertising her readiness for larks she was not quite sure of wishing to share. And thought was still there, a guilty secret, quiet as a rule. Sometimes inconveniently obtrusive at moments when she wished to approximate to the approved pattern of charming femininity.’

I’ve finished The Trap, after taking a little time to read Gloria G. Fromm’s decent Dorothy Richardson biography, and so begin the final volume in the Dent|Cresset edition of Pilgrimage.

The gradual socialisation of the male

“But the blaze of light [Mrs Stetson] brings is by showing that women were social from the first and that all history has been the gradual socialisation of the male. It is partly complete. But the male world is still savage.”

Dorothy Richardson, Pilgrimage (Revolving Lights)

“But not until this giant force could ally itself with others and work cooperatively, overcoming the destructive action of male energy in its blind competition, could our human life enter upon its full course of racial evolution. This is what was accomplished through the suppression of the free action of maternal energy in the female and its irresistible expression through the male. The two forces were combined, and he was the active factor in their manifestation. It was one of nature’s calm, unsmiling miracles, no more wonderful than where she makes the guileless, greedy bee, who thinks he is merely getting his dinner, serve as an agent of reproduction to countless flowers. The bee might resent it if he knew what office he performed, and that his dinner was only there that he might fulfil that office. The subjection of woman has involved to an enormous degree the maternalising of man. Under its bonds he has been forced into new functions, impossible to male energy alone. He has had to learn to love and care for some one besides himself. He has had to learn to work, to serve, to be human. Through the sex-passion, mightily overgrown, the human race has been led and driven up the long, steep path of progress, over all obstacles, through all the dangers, carrying its accompanying conditions of disease and sin (and surmounting them), up and up in spite of it all, until at last a degree of evolution is reached in which the extension of human service and human love makes possible a better way.”

Charlotte Perkins (Stetson) Gilman, Women and Economics

Memory is not in us . . .

“The past is not to be confused with the mental existence of recollection-images which actualise within us. It is preserved in time: it is the virtual element into which we penetrate to look for the ‘pure recollection’ which will become actual in a ‘recollection-image’. The latter would have no trace of the past if we had not been to look for its seed in the past. It is the same with perception, just as we perceive things where they are present, in space, we remember where they have passed, in time, and we go out of ourselves just as much in each case. Memory is not in us; it is we who move in a Being-memory, a world memory.”

Gilles Deleuze, Cinema 2

Richardson’s In-Between Spaces

It isn’t so easy to find words for a concentrated sort of illumination that comes from reading Dorothy Richardson’s Pilgrimage, a sense as one progresses through the book that one is learning to read her work, and, in turn, understanding something new about others and oneself.

That Kübler-Ross model, much criticised today, the notion of stage theories of grief, superseded by this idea that we live in a state of middle knowledge, not really truly living but unable to acknowledge the reality of death. An absence of certainty: is reality socially constructed, or objective? Richardson teaches us that it is both, that women intuit these in-between spaces more readily than men.

In a fascinating essay Tim Parks writes that novels may “open our eyes to different worlds of feeling from our own”. Richardson, more than any other writer I’ve read, articulates a part of life that escapes and exists unnamed. For obvious reasons, it isn’t always clear but she is writing of in-between spaces, a world where science and language are incomplete. In Pilgrimage, she is mapping a shadowy geography of interstices that defy our certainties and that shelter life left out from a more open and sunlit terrain.