About Anthony

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

Battles Against Windmills

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“To clarify thought, to discredit the intrinsically meaningless words, and to define the use of others by precise analysis – to do this, strange though it may appear, might be a way of saving human lives.

Our age seems almost entirely unfitted for such a task. The glossy surface of our civilisation hides a real intellectual decadence. There is no area in our minds reserved for superstition, such as the Greeks had in their mythology; and superstition, under cover of an abstract vocabulary, has revenged itself by invading the entire realm of thought. Our science is like a store filled with with the most subtle intellectual devices for solving the most complex problems, and yet we are almost incapable of applying the elementary principles of rational thought. In every sphere, we seem to have lost the very elements of intelligence: the ideas of limit, measure, degree, proportion, relation, comparison, contingency, interdependence, interrelation of means and ends. To keep to the social level, our political universe is peopled exclusively by myths and monsters; all it contains is absolutes and abstract entities. This is illustrated by all the words of our political and social vocabulary: nation, security, capitalism, communism, fascism, order, authority, property, democracy. We never use them in phrases such as: There is democracy to the extent that   . . . or: There is capitalism in so far as . . . The use of expressions like ‘to the extent that’ is beyond our intellectual capacity. Each of these words seems to represent for us an absolute reality, unaffected by conditions, or an absolute objective, independent of methods of action, or an absolute evil; and at the same time we make all these words mean, successively or simultaneously, anything whatsoever. Our lives are lived, in actual fact, among changing, varying realities, subject to the casual play of external necessities, and modifying themselves according to specific conditions within specific limits; and yet we act and strive and sacrifice ourselves and others by reference to fixed and isolated abstractions which cannot possibly be related either to one another or to any concrete facts. In this so-called age of technicians, the only battles we know how to fight are battles against windmills.”

From The Power of Words, by Simone Weil, translated by Richard Rees.

Partial Notes: The Gnostic Gospels by Elaine Pagels

‘These are the secret words which the living Jesus spoke, and which the twin, Judas Thomas, wrote down.’ Gospel of Thomas 32.10-11, in NHL 118. — p.14.

Another text, mysteriously entitled ‘Thunder, Perfect Mind‘, offers an extraordinary poem spoken in the voice of a feminine divine power. — p.16.

‘Abandon the search for God and the creation and other matters of a similar sort. Look for him by taking yourself as a starting point. Learn who it is within you who makes everything his own and says, ‘ My God, my mind, my thought, my soul, my body,’ Learn the sources of sorrow, joy, love, hate . . .If you carefully investigate these matters you will find him in yourself.’ Hippolytus, Refutationis omnium Haeresium 1. — p.18.

As early as the second century, Christians realised the potential political consequences of having ‘seen the risen Lord’: in Jerusalem, where James, Jesus’s brother, successfully rivalled Peter’s authority, one tradition maintained that James, not Peter (and certainly not Mary Magdalene) was ‘the first witness of the resurrection’. — p.39.

Mary  lacks the proper credentials for leadership, from the orthodox viewpoint: she is not one of the ‘twelve’. But as Mary stands up to Peter, so the gnostics who take her as their prototype challenge the authority of these priests and bishops who claim to be Peter’s successors. — p.44.

[Bishop Irenaeus] charges that ‘they boast that they are discoverers and inventors of this kind of imaginary fiction’, and accuses them of creating new forms of mythological poetry. — p.48.

Another group of gnostics, called Sethians because they identified themselves as sons of Seth, the third child of Adam and Eve. — p.50.

Whoever comes to this gnosis — this insight — is ready to receive the secret sacrament  called the redemption (apolytrosis; literally, ‘release’). Before gaining gnosis, the candidate worshipped the demiurge [the creator], mistaking him for the true God . . . — p.62.

. . . gnostic description of God — as Father, Mother and Son — may startle us at first, but on reflection, we can recognise it as another version of the Trinity. The Greek terminology for the Trinity, which includes the neuter term for spirit (pneuma) virtually requires that the third ‘Person’ of the Trinity be asexual. But the author of the Secret Book has in mind the Hebrew term for spirit, ruah, a feminine word; and so concludes that the feminine ‘Person’ conjoined with the Other and Son must be the Mother. — p.74.

Ialdabaoth, becoming arrogant in spirit, boasted himself over all those who were below him, and explained, ‘I am father, and God, and above me there is no one,’ his mother, hearing him speak thus, cried out against him: ‘Do not lie, Ialdabaoth; for the father of all, the primal Anthropos, is above you; and so is Anthropos, the son of Anthropos.’ Gospel of Philip 1.30.6. — p.132.

Some who seek their own interior direction, like the radical gnostics, reject religious institutions as a hindrance to their progress. Others, like the Valentinians, willingly participate in them, although they regard the church more as an instrument of their own self-discovery than as the necessary ‘ark of salvation’. — p.133.

Many gnostics . . . insisted that ignorance, not sin, is what involves a person in suffering. — p.133.

So, according to the passage scholars call the ‘nightmare parable’, they lived

as if they were sunk in sleep and found themselves in disturbing dreams. Either (there is) a place to which they are fleeing, or, without strength, they come (from) having chased after others, or they are involved in striking blows, or they are receiving blows themselves, or they have fallen from high places, or they take off into the air though they do not even have wings. Again, sometimes (it is as) if people were murdering them, though there is no one even pursuing them, or they themselves are killing their neighbors, for they have been stained with their blood. When those who are going through all these things wake up, they see nothing, they who were in the midst of these disturbances, for they are nothing. Such is the way of those who have cast ignorance aside as sleep, leaving (its works) behind like a dream in the night. . . This is the way everyone has acted, as though asleep at the time when he was ignorant. And this is the way he has come to knowledge, as if he had awakened. Gospel of Truth, 71.20-21 in NHL 420. — p.134.

He learns what he needs to know by himself in meditative silence. — p.139

According to the Gospel of Thomas, Jesus praises this solitude: ‘Blessed are the solitary and the chosen, for you will find the Kingdom. For you are from it, and to it you will return.’ — p.149

 

‘We have no models, we have only precursors’

It would be easy for this blog to become a whirlpool, rotating obsessively around a small handful of writers that, to my mind at least, carve out a highly individual niche; perhaps a series of whirlpools that interconnect only at the periphery, and in doing so twirl off creating other eddies and vortexes. That sounds like a description of my reading mind. Two writers I keep returning to over the last few weeks, at night particularly, trying to understand why these two have captured so much of my waking and dreaming attention.

What is it that draws close the writing of Mircea Cărtărescu and Maria Gabriela Llansol? They are both European writers in the broad sense that they call upon a common pool of themes, myths and visions. Their writing appears, from what is translated heroically into English, to be marked by a transgression of genre, seeking instead to dance in the spaces between realism, magical realism, poetry, essay and analysis. Both writers summon strange figures to an oneiric imaginary geography, slipping in and out of the dramatis personae that is above all a way of constructing a form of hermitic autobiography. One could argue that their novels’ narrative fabric exists primarily as a device for reflection. There is also the space in which their stories function, bound not by a common conception of time but spatially, an amazing world where time sags and slows, dissolving into seemingly bottomless holes.

Both write in dialogue with ancient sources (the Bible and Ovid came quickest to mind) and also a strange world of literature that explores metafiction and intertextuality, inevitably hearkening back to old touchstones like Borges, Kafka, the Woolf of Orlando, even Nietzsche, and to writers I tasted and disregarded like Pynchon and García Márquez.

[The title of this post is from Roberto Bazlen’s Notes Without a Text.]

‘Swallowing reality whole so as not to lack even a bit of it is arguably the ultimate metaphor for all realism.’

‘Swallowing reality whole so as not to lack even a bit of it is arguably the ultimate metaphor for all realism. Therefore, the most audacious expression of religious longing for unity with the deity—and the sole defence against God’s capriciousness and superiority—is allowing believers to eat their God. Every anxious recourse to symbolism surrenders the boldness found in this form of assuring salvation.’

Hans Blumenberg, Care Crosses the River. (Trans. Paul Fleming)

There was at least an attempt to read other books, but I think I intended only more Blumenberg. Work on Myth rests to my right on my desk, and The Legitimacy of the Modern Age will arrive next week. The only other temptation is Cărtărescu’s Blinding, but that will exhaust what is available of his in translation for a while, so I’m in no hurry. It sits on top of Myth. There are possibly five other of Blumenberg’s books available in English, with History, Metaphors, and Fables due out in late summer. There is much more of his work that could be translated and more in his archives that hopefully is published.

2019 in Review at Time’s Flow Stemmed by Numbers

There was a spike in blog readership a few days ago. Michael Orthofer included my blog in a post about personal-website/blog year-in-review/reading overviews. I don’t pay a lot of attention to my reading numbers and statistics these days, but prompted by Michael’s post, insomnia, and while trying to decide how to follow up Hans Blumenberg’s brilliant The Laughter of the Thracian Woman, I decided to run some numbers.

In 2019, I read 68 books, precisely my ten-year average. I don’t set reading targets nor particularly care how many books I read, beyond feeling decidedly mortal with a reading window that inevitably gets smaller each year.

There were writers I read more than once in 2019. Those listed 1-7 will continue to be part of my future reading plans.

  1. Karl Ole Knausgaard (6)
  2. Enrique Vila-Matas (3)
  3. Clarice Lispector (2)
  4. Maria Gabriela Llansol (2)
  5. Mircea Eliade (2)
  6. S. D. Chrostowska (2)
  7. Jon Fosse (2)
  8. Claudia Rankine (2)
  9. Virginie Despentes (2)
  10. Tomas Espedal (2)

The publishers that featured more than twice were (I don’t solicit or accept review copies):

  1. Dalkey Archive Press (5)
  2. Fitzcarraldo Editions (4)
  3. Harvill Secker (6)
  4. New Directions (3)

This year I am continuing to subscribe to Fitzcarraldo and have also subscribed to Archipelago Books.

Books read were originally written in the following languages:

  1. English (30) – 44%
  2. Norwegian (12)
  3. Spanish (8)
  4. Portuguese (4)
  5. Italian (4)
  6. French (3)
  7. Romanian (3)
  8. German (3)
  9. Polish (1)

Fiction was dominant at 38 books, although these boundaries are wonderfully porous these days, twenty-seven non-fiction (diaries, memoirs, philosophy and literacy criticism) and only three poetry collections.

Publication dates ranged from 1947 to 2019, with all but ten books published after the year 2000. This wasn’t a year for the nineteenth century or earlier.

Fifty-eight percent of the books I read were written by men. My ratio of male-to-female writers has changed markedly over the ten years of this blog, not by any particular design, just exposure to a wider range of writing.

Fifty-two percent of my reading was of writers I read for the first time. There is every year an intention to read more deeply of my literary touchstones, but inevitably I get diverted. I don’t expect that to change. Notably, this year marked my first reading of Mircea Cărtărescu, Hermann Broch, Mircea Eliade, Jon Fosse, Renee Gladman and Ricardo Piglia, each writers whose work I would like to explore further.

If I was compelled to narrow down the year to a single brilliant book, it would be Mircea Cărtărescu’s Nostalgia. I abandon books without guilt, so couldn’t name the year’s worst book.

Visitors to Time’s Flow Stemmed declined by 9% year on year, and down 27% from this blog’s peak in 2013. Comments (335 in total) declined by 28% from 2018 and 48% from a peak in 2017. Of the twenty-two thousand visitors to this blog, most came from America, UK and Canada, followed by India, Australia and Germany. That pattern is consistent over the years. In total visitors came from 156 countries.

Seventy percent of the visitors here came via search, mostly Google, with Twitter referring 18% of visitors. The latter is always a conundrum to me; while I’ve made some enduring friendships on Twitter, its addictive quality represents a serious distraction from reading and reflection. I don’t expect to find resolution anytime soon. My number one external referrer in 2019 was Seraillon (thanks, Scott).