About Anthony

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

Earth of Shadows

Yesterday I bought a bottle of Waterman’s Absolute Brown, a richer complement to my J. Herbin Cacao Du Bresil, and favourite KWZ Honey ink. A little research reveals that this is a rebranded version of Waterman’s older, more evocatively-named Havana Brown. It isn’t a perfect brown, but flows well in my Grey-Blue Pelikan M101N and the colour is agreeable enough.

Recently, I read that some former Omas employees have re-emerged as Scribo. I don’t know their pens, but enjoyed a frisson reading of their Classico Sepia ink. Could this satisfy my interminable pursuit of a bottle of Omas sepia? The quest is for something that resembles the deep, muddy brown from this note in Walter Benjamin’s archives, possibly black originally, but faded to a wonderfully earthy riddle of a colour, the shadowy umber from which Rembrandt’s self portraits emerge.

This photograph is taken from an enthralling Verso collection of Benjamin’s personal manuscripts and documents. I enjoy the swirl of Benjamin’s essays, but am equally fascinated by him as a reader and collector. It’s no surprise to me that “high-quality paper, particular pens, ink, and nibs, and, furthermore, specific spatial preconditions were important prerequisites for a non-resistant and smoothly running flow of writing. In a letter to Siegfried Kracauer, for example, Benjamin reports on the acquisition of a new fountain pen, an ‘enchanting creation’.”

The creation in use in the first photograph is a Pelikan 101N, one of a series inspired by vintage Pelikan pens from the 1930s. My picture doesn’t sufficiently capture the appeal of the design or colour, but, if that is of interest, there are better places for that. I generally prefer bold, music, or oblique nibs, unlike Benjamin who had “such a small handwriting that he never found a pen that was fine enough, which forced him to write with the nib upside down”.

Both quotes here are from Verso’s Walter Benjamin’s Archive.

Wakeful glimpse of the wonder

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‘Celebration . . . is self-restraint, is attentiveness, is questioning, is meditating, is awaiting, is the step over into the more wakeful glimpse of the wonder – the wonder that a world is worlding around us at all, that there are beings rather than nothing, that things are and we ourselves are in their midst, that we ourselves are and yet barely know who we are, and barely know that we do not know all this.’

Martin Heidegger, quoted as the epigraph to the first chapter of Richard Polt’s Heidegger: an introduction.

I’m preparing for another attempt to read Being and Time, encouraged by Danyl McLauchlan’s Tranquility and Ruin. I read the latter out of curiosity, thinking I was reading against the grain, but instead found his writing on metaphysics, meditation, Heidegger and effective altruism thought provoking. It’s another rabbit hole, but not so different from the Andrei Bely-Nietzsche train of thought I was chasing before reading McLauchlan’s book.

Uniting Life With Mystery

They are not frequent visitors, the uncommon threshold moments when you read something that reverberates deeply, leading you to a cognisance of something you’ve always known but never found a way to express. Often, I’ve looked at the bookshelves that house my pantheon of tutelary thinkers and wondered what draws them together as an external reflection of what I can only call my soul. They are powerful voices who are destined to unite life with mystery.

The passage below is from Andre Bely’s Olenina-d’ Alheim, an essay in the collection Between Crisis and Catastrophe. I didn’t start to read these essays expecting understanding. I’ve not yet read Bely’s famous novel. I picked up the book of essays to read something new, an attempt to smash a reading block.

To unite life with mystery: I will not put it into quotation marks or italics here as it is now mine, a response to converging lines of writing, music, painting and dance. But I will quote a passage, written ostensibly about a famous concert singer at the beginning of the 20th century:

‘The epoch of geniuses and great thinkers has passed. Here and there they are being replaced by personalities in whom we see a prophetic pathos and who are destined to unite life with mystery.

Olenina-d’ Alheim unfurls before us the depths of the spirit. On how she unfurls these depths and what she reveals before us lies the shadow of prophecy. That is why we feel strongly that she herself is a link uniting us with mystery.

Our consciousness is a fine boundary between the subconscious and the superconscious. Different relations between given psychic spheres cause variations in this boundary. By introducing new combinations of emotions into our soul through symbols that are being unfolded, we provide new material for our nerves. And since the variable atmosphere of nerve effects can lead to new regroupings of the material of our conscious activity, this atmosphere is capable of affecting variations of the boundary between the superconscious and the subconscious . . . By changing our psychic structure we will be able to change not only the particular elements of consciousness but also the general forms of the latter.

Defined externally, religion is a system of successively unfolded symbols. This inner connectedness of symbols differentiates religious revelation from artistic creation. From the external side there is no boundary between art and religion. There is only a difference in the quality and quantity of internally connected images. The purpose of art is to express ideas; the deepening and purification of every idea invariably extend this idea to a universal significance. Thus, all ideaness in art has a religious nuance.

The symbol that is deepened and expended analogously to an idea is therefore connected with the universal symbol. This is the final and invariable background of all symbols. The relation of the Logos to the world Soul as the mystical principle of humanity is such a symbol. That is why the foundations of symbolism are always religious.’

Thoughts on Reading Kate Briggs’ This Little Art

In an essay on Stendhal, Roland Barthes wrote, translated by Adam Thirlwell, of the marked difference between Stendhal’s journals and the richness of his novels: ‘What happened between the Travel Journal and The Charterhouse of Parma, is writing.’ Kate Briggs, in This Little Art asks a similar question about the idea of the art of translation and whether it would be more appropriate to consider the translator as a craftsperson or artisan, rather than an artist. Helen Lowe-Porter, after all, ‘didn’t write [The Magic Mountain], as [she] would no doubt have also been very ready to concede.’ Briggs quotes Lowe-Porter: ‘You see, the job is to some extent an artist job,’ adding ‘she refused to send a translation to the publisher until she felt as though she had written the book herself.’

My first reading of Mann’s The Magic Mountain was twelve years ago. I was late to Mann, overly influenced by Nabokov’s disdain, who considered Mann one of those ‘puffed-up writers’ that traded ‘in great ideas’. I read Helen Lowe-Porter’s translation over a couple of weeks, too quickly for I was skipping over some of the extended philosophical debates between Settembrini and Naphta. After this somewhat fierce first reading, unable to part company with the author’s voice, I immediately read the book again, taking more time to unpick not only the face offs between the liberal and the Marxist, but also the context for the rival revolutionary forces the two intellectuals represented. After following several rabbit holes, I had spent quarter of the year with Mann’s book and its related reading.

In my secondary reading around The Magic Mountain, I came across Timothy Buck’s virulent article in the TLS, in which he meticulously takes apart Lowe-Porter’s translation as ‘a pseudo-Mann’. In This Little Art, Kate Briggs reviews the debate that followed Buck’s critical evaluation. It’s worth pointing out that Buck does not advocate the later translation by John Woods, considering both debased versions of Mann’s German. Briggs approaches the debate about this, and to a lesser extent around the translation of André Gide’s novels, with less sanguine gloom, exploring the divergent conceptions of what translation should be and can be as a historical and cultural phenomenon.

As a primarily anglophone reader—my limited French will not stretch to Proust— I require a translator to meditate with The Magic Mountain and work in many other languages. Briggs quotes Barthes: ‘Of course I can read the great foreign novels translated into French, like Tolstoy or Dostoevsky or Don Quixote, etc,’ and adds: ‘All those novels? Yes, read them. I’ve read them. I have. Let me insist that I have read them.’

What I enjoyed most of This Little Art is the speculative voice. It gives space for me to pause in my reading and wonder if I could insist that I’ve read those books or just English translations of those books. I won’t truly be able to confidently insist that I’ve read Proust until I can read it in the French, nor The Magic Mountain in German, but if I waited to acquire those languages I’d be more like a friend who refuses to read translations, considering them to be lesser adaptions of the great novels. I am grateful to those that practise this little art for the compromises we must make to read life-changing foreign works of art.

Genre no longer interests me. . .

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“Genre no longer interests me. What interests me is mystery. Is there some ritual attached to mystery? I believe there is. In order to adhere to the certainty of things. Meanwhile, I somehow already adhere to the earth. I am a daughter of nature: I want to hold things, feel them, touch them, I want to exist. And this is all part of a totality, of a mystery. I am but one being. But there was a difference between the writer and me (or am I wrong? I cannot be certain). But no longer. I am but one being. And I leave you to be yourself. Does that frighten you? I believe it does. But it is worthwhile. Even if it hurts. For the pain soon passes.”

Clarice Lispector, Words From the Typewriter