“I know that knowledge can transform us, that truth is not only a way of deciphering the world (and maybe what we call truth doesn’t decipher anything) but that if I know the truth I will be changed. . . . Or maybe I’ll die but I think that is the same anyway for me. . . . You see, that’s why I really work like a dog and I worked like a dog all my life. I am not interested in the academic status of what I am doing because my problem is my own transformation. . . . This transformation of one’s self by one’s knowledge is, I think, something rather close to the aesthetic experience.”

—Michel Foucault, The Minimalist Self, 1982 interview by Stephen Riggins, in Politics, Philosophy, Culture: Interviews and Other Writings, 1977-1984

“the strange and difficult notion that reading is subject not to the text as its law, but to the law to which the text is subject. The law forces the reader to betray the text or deviate from it in the act of reading, in the name of a higher demand that can yet be reached only by way of the text.”

—J. Hillis Miller, The Ethics of Reading

Human beings are difficult

“Human beings are difficult. We’re difficult to ourselves, we’re difficult to each other. And we are mysteries to ourselves, we are mysteries to each other. One encounters in any ordinary day far more real difficulty than one confronts in the most “intellectual” piece of work. Why is it believed that poetry, prose, painting, music should be less than we are? . . . . I think art has a right — not an obligation — to be difficult if it wishes. And . . . I would add that genuinely difficulty art is truly democratic?”

—Geoffrey Hill, Paris Review interview (2000)

Detecting the Power

Reading around J. Hillis Miller’s incisive reflection on Heart of Darkness lead me serendipitously to Lord Jim, a favourite from a mostly-forgotten Conrad phase. I had underlined and appended an exclamation mark to the following sentence in chapter 12:

” . . . that mysterious, almost miraculous, power of producing striking effects by means impossible of detection which is the last word of the highest art.”

Detecting the means of that power is what Miller does effectively in his study of Conrad’s nihilism. But, in a much smaller sense, I suppose, it is what all of us that have the temerity to comment on literature at least aspire toward.

Martin Hägglund’s This Life

“The brevity of my life is made salient by the forms of time to which I am recalled.”

“What I do and what I love can matter to me only because I understand myself as mortal.”

“The sense of finitude—the sense of the ultimate fragility of everything we care about—is at heart of what I call secular faith.”

“I call it secular faith because it is devoted to a form of life that is bounded by time.”

“I seek to show that any life worth living must be finite and requires secular faith.”

The “idea of secular life as empty or meaningless is itself a religious notion.”

The central thesis of Martin Hägglund’s This Life is summarised in his introduction. His book then labours to go beyond critical philosophy, developing his arguments through readings of the Bible, Buddhist philosophy, Greek and Roman Stoics, and writers like Augustine, Kierkegaard, Spinoza, Augustine, C. S. Lewis and Charles Taylor. In the most rewarding chapter, he reads a secular confession in Knausgaard’s My Struggle. Finally, he turns to Marx’s argument that renders spiritual freedom the essential attribute of human labour.

The book seems unnecessarily verbose, not to disguise weak reasoning, but an excessive use of circumlocution. I was also surprised that Feuerbach is missing from Hägglund’s pantheon of writers, as from what little I understand of this undervalued thinker, his is a highly elegant argument that dissolves religious essence into human existence, without finding, it necessary (a strength of Hägglund’s) for an aggressive tearing-down.

That said, Hägglund’s thesis is substantive and thought provoking. It succeeds in moving Knausgaard forward in my reading plans, and reminds me to reread Feuerbach, a thinker I read with great enjoyment in my twenties.

Here is a proper review of Hägglund’s book.

“Promising, commitment and fidelity, for instance, are genuinely temporal practices. They bind the future by continuing the present into the future and linking the two, thus creating a temporal continuity that has a stabilising effect. This continuity protects the future against the violence of non-time. Where the practice of long-term commitment (which is also a form of conclusion) gives way to increasing short-termism, non-timeliness also increases, and is reflected at the psychological level in the form of anxiety and restlessness. Growing discontinuity, the atomisation of time, destroys the experience of continuity. The world becomes non-timely.”

Byung-Chul Han, Non-Time, from The scent of time (trans. Daniel Steuer)