About Anthony

Time's Flow Stemmed is a notebook of my wild readings.

Inoperativity as the Real Truth

‘While for the ancients it was labour—negotium—that was defined negatively with respect to the contemplative life—otium—moderns seem unable to conceive of contemplation, inoperativity, and feast otherwise than as rest or negation of labour.’

Giorgio Agamben, Creation and Anarchy (trans. Adam Kotsko)

Philosophy and Potentiality

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‘After many years spent reading, writing, and studying, it happens at times that we understand what is our special way—if there is one—of proceeding in thought and research. In my case, it is a matter of perceiving what Feuerbach called the “capacity for development” contained in the works of the authors I love. The genuinely philosophical element contained in a work—be it an artistic, scientific, or theoretical work—is its capacity to be developed, something that has remained—or has willingly been left—unspoken and that needs to be found and seized. Why does the search for the elements susceptible to being developed fascinate me? Because if we follow this methodological principle all the way, we inevitably end up at a point where it is not possible to distinguish between what is ours and what belongs to the author are reading. Reaching this impersonal zone of indifference in which every proper name, very copyright. and every claim to originality fade was, fills me with joy.’

Agamben’s writing is a voyage. There are passages like the one above that stop me reading any further, for the need to admire and reflect at length. This is from Adam Kotsko’s translation of Creation and Anarchy, lectures held at the Mendrisio Academy of Architecture.

Literary Yearnings

On shelves in various rooms of my home are over a thousand books I’ve yet to read. I want to read them all of course. I want also to read the catalogues from the art exhibitions I visit, and the programmes from my regular opera attendances. Then there’s the journals I can’t do without: The White Review, PN Review and The Review of Contemporary Fiction, and my weekly TLS, which these days invariably comes late, three or four at the time. I skim the FT daily on my iPad, and the headlines from the Guardian, Daily Mail, New York Times and Washington Post.

In an average year I read around sixty-five books, so in the event of house arrest for unforgivable literary consumerism, I have sufficient reading material for at least fifteen years, slightly less perhaps if I can resist the allure of social media. On the other hand, I’ve decided to spend more time on developing my inept film literacy, so I could possibly stretch existing supplies out for up to twenty years, especially if I make time for those art catalogues and opera programmes.

Surrounded by unread books, unwatched films, with the treasures of London’s galleries within fifteen minutes of my office, why is it that the writers I most want to read are not those on my shelves, but those effectively unattainable because they are not translated into a language I can read?

One of this year’s most thrilling moments was the delivery of Roberto Bazlen’s Notes Without a Text. I’ve been translating fragments for at least a decade from the Biblioteca Adelphi edition. More recently I’ve been possessed by Maria Gabriela Llansol’s work since reading and rereading the Geography of Rebels trilogy. Translating from Portuguese is enjoyably difficult but glacially slow work.

This week I’ve been reading Alejandro Zambra’s Not to Read. I am drawn to Zambra’s voice, particularly his essays, translated by Megan McDowell; he writes with precision and extreme generosity. This book gathers essays written for the culture section of a Chilean newspaper. He writes about writing, books he has read, and has fuelled a few more literary yearnings for the difficult to obtain novels of Josefina Vicens and the journals of Paul Léautaud and Raúl Ruiz.

Style of Necessity

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‘I’m sure Ribeyro knew this phrase of Paul Léautaud’s: “What I most like is literature that is written like a letter.” Léautaud was pointing to a style, the style of necessity. When we read other people’s letters, we are looking for a zone of necessity that is often absent in fiction. No clamouring narrators, no startling characters. In short, it does us good every once in a while to pause happily for a while on the steps that lead up to literature.”

Alejandro Zambra, Not to Read (trans. Megan McDowell)

Missing: twelve years of weekly letters written to my father from school.

Paul Collier: The Future of Capitalism

With less than two weeks remaining before a general election that offers nothing but an intolerable choice between populists and ideologues, Paul Collier’s The Future of Capitalism (2018) offers some clear-headed diagnosis and ideas about how to reshape a derailed capitalism.

Jeff Taylor wrote, “The political spectrum may be linear, but it is not a straight line. It is shaped like a horseshoe.” Drift far enough left or right of centre and ideologies both gravitate to authoritarianism. Social democracy appears to be in existential crisis. Collier’s analysis of why we’ve lost our sense of obligation to others is lucid and crucially important.

The force of Collier’s book is in his synthesis of “moral philosophy, political economy, finance, economic geography, social psychology and social policy.” At a time when despair often seems the only possibility, his book offers some relief that there is a progressive and pragmatic path to healing the divisions in our social and economic fabric. The question is how long it will take for our political spectrum to swing back from extremes.

Pablo Katchadjian: What To Do

You could imagine Pablo Katchadjian’s What To Do as narrating the dreams of Lars Iyer’s two philosophy professors from his extravagantly silly trilogy of novels – Spurious, Dogma and Exodus. It has the tense humour of commedia dell’ arte, a complex improvisation built on a multiplying set of objects and scenarios.

In Katchadjian’s dream sequence narrative, multiple dreams within dreams reverberate like a two-voice sonata as the nameless narrator and his companion Alberto play a rhythmic association game with themes and counter-themes. Each of the dreams carries an individual signature but there are recurrent themes of humiliation, lack of communication, death and anxiety.

As in dreams, there is no conclusion, just a sense upon awakening of the instability of identity. What To Do isn’t incoherent and I suspect if I mapped out the cyclical dream elements I might find an underlying structure; the outcome of each episode moves in gradations to the ministructure of the next. The novel’s ninety-nine pages are best read in a single sitting, perhaps as an indulgent bracer between other books.

Serious Fiction’s Purpose

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‘DFW: I had a teacher I liked who used to say good fiction’s job was to comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable. I guess a big part of serious fiction’s purpose is to give the reader, who like all of us is sort of marooned in her own skull, to give her imaginative access to other selves. Since an ineluctable part of being a human self is suffering, part of what we humans come to art for is an experience of suffering, necessarily a vicarious experience, more like a sort of “generalization” of suffering. Does this make sense? We all suffer alone in the real world; true empathy’s impossible. But if a piece of fiction can allow us imaginatively to identify with a character’s pain, we might then also more easily conceive of others identifying with our own. This is nourishing, redemptive; we become less alone inside. It might just be that simple.’

From the Dalkey Archive interview with David Foster Wallace.

It is worth reading the whole interview for DFW’s trenchant diagnosis not only of his own weaknesses as a writer, but those at the centre of American, and to a lesser extent English language culture, that its lack of seriousness stems from a need to be liked: “like me because I’m clever” or the lesser (very English) “like me because I’m funny”.

‘I strongly suspect a big part of real art fiction’s job is to aggravate this sense of entrapment and loneliness and death in people, to move people to countenance it, since any possible human redemption requires us first to face what’s dreadful, what we want to deny.’

‘For our generation, the entire world seems to present itself as “familiar,” but since that’s of course an illusion in terms of anything really important about people, maybe any “realistic” fiction’s job is opposite what it used to be—no longer making the strange familiar but making the familiar strange again. It seems important to find ways of reminding ourselves that most “familiarity” is meditated and delusive.’

There’s so much good in this interview. I might have to explore DFW’s work again, to look beyond the irritating humour. The essays, maybe, or that last unfinished work?

‘DFW: Well, but metafiction is more valuable than that. It helps reveal fiction as a meditated experience. Plus it reminds us that there’s always a recursive component to utterance. This was important, because language’s self-consciousness had always been there, but neither writers nor critics nor readers wanted to be reminded of it. ‘