‘Douceur: from sweetness to delight to pleasure to slowness to softness to mildness to languor to tenderness to civility to smoothness. It is useless to try to circumscribe what, at different times, for different people, that word contained . . . History after the French Revolution is the history of progress devoid of the patina of douceur . . . After the Revolution, progress forgets sweetness . . . When the very memory of sweetness is eliminated, when all history becomes son et lumière and no longer cohabitation with protective shadows, then certain well-meaning expressions begin to appear (“leisure time,” “quality of life”), just as people began to talk about “landscape” after nature had already been disfigured . . . Douceur is the patina that is spread over life, that makes it liveable—the dust on the butterfly’s wings. Producing it requires slow, careful alchemy, long simmering, a gentle heat. But this is nonetheless a fire, which ultimately seeks to kill.’
The Ruin of Kasch, Roberto Calasso (trans. William Weaver and Stephen Sartarelli)
With some regret I finished Denise Riley’s Time Lived, Without Its Flow. It follows the sudden death of her son, an immense reflection on the loosening of time and her ensuing relearning of the world.
I think about the dead, what Maria Gabriela Llansol called the ‘shadows that will remain living among us’. Where do our encounters with these shadows, the non-existent realities (figures) of stories, true or otherwise, take place? What would we be without them?
Riley’s book isn’t a misery memoir, is quite dispassionate in tone, reflecting on how the mourning process is intertwined with the writing of her text. In the three years after her son’s death, Riley found writing anything beyond sporadic notes impossible: ‘You can’t, it seems, take the slightest interest in the activity of writing unless you possess some feeling of futurity.’ Only once she felt time was resumed, well over two and a half years after the death, did narration become possible again. Like Llansol, incorporating her loved one into the narrative is a way to not only accept the reality of their absence but also bring them to life again through the text.
‘Most people guard and keep; they suppose that it is they themselves and what they identify with themselves that they are guarding and keeping, whereas what they are actually guarding and keeping is their system of reality and what they assume themselves to be. One can give nothing whatever without giving oneself—that is to say, risking oneself.’
‘What’s especially tragic about a mind that imagines itself as something separate, defensible, and capable of “efficiency” is not just that it results in a probably very boring (and bored) person; it’s that it’s based on a complete fallacy about the constitution of the self as something separate from others and from the world. Although I can understand it as the logical outcome of a very human craving for stability and categories, I also see this desire as, ironically, the intersection of many forces inside and outside this imagined “self”: fear of change, capitalist ideas of time and value, and an inability to accept mortality. It’s also about control, since if we recognise that what we experience as the self is completely bound to others, determined not by essential qualities but by relationships, then we must further relinquish the ideas of a controllable identity and of a neutral, apolitical existence . . . But whether we are the fluid product of our interactions with others is not our choice to make. The only choice is whether to recognise this reality or not.’
‘To resist in place is to make oneself into a shape that cannot so easily be appropriated by a capitalist value system. To do this means refusing the frame of reference: in this case, a frame of reference in which value is determined by productivity, the strength of one’s career, and individual entrepreneurship. It means embracing and trying to inhabit somewhat fuzzier or blobbier ideas: of maintenance as productivity, of the importance of nonverbal communications, and of the mere experience of life as the highest goal. It means recognising and celebrating a form of self that changes over time, exceeds algorithmic description, and whose identity doesn’t always stop at the boundary of the individual.”
It seems like mere moments, but in fact it’s been nine months since my last post listing the forthcoming books I was looking forward to reading. In most cases the books on that last list were acquired, though I’ve read only four of the nineteen listed, though remain interested in reading the others. This year I’m acquiring fewer books, but the following are mostly irresistible:
Antonio Negri, Spinoza: Then and Now
Michel Houellebecq, Serotonin
Denise Riley, Time Lived, Without Its Flow
Rachel Mann, A Kingdom of Love
Yiyun Li, Must I Go
Karl Ole Knausgaard, In the Land of the Cyclops
Naomi Klein, On Fire: The Burning Case for a New Green Deal
J. M. Coetzee, The Death of Jesus
Roberto Calasso, The Celestial Hunter
Vivian Gornick, Unfinished Business: Notes of a Chronic Re-Reader
S. D. Chrostowska, The Eyelid
Chantal Akerman, My Mother Laughs
Sergio Chejfec, The Incompletes
Kate Zambreno, Drifts
Lars Iyer, Nietzsche and The Burbs
Vladimir Nabokov, Think, Write, Speak
Alistair Ian Blythe, Card Catalogue
Peter Weiss, The Aesthetics of Resistance, Volume II
Luis Goytisolo, The Greens of May Down to the Sea: Antagony, Book II
In The Order of Things, Michel Foucault suggests that around the time of what is now known as the Enlightenment, a great divide, illusory maybe but no less powerful for that, took place. In Western culture before that age there was a ‘reciprocal kinship between knowledge and language. The nineteenth century was to dissolve that link, and leave behind it, in confrontation, a knowledge closed in upon itself and a pure language that had become, in nature and function, enigmatic — something that has been called since that time, Literature.’
It isn’t easy or even possible to project back to a time when readers thought Job or Achilles existed, when foundation stories were read as faithful renditions of events or people. This was the emergence of fiction, when literature was set a higher task. At the moment when literature became disassociated from reality, it became essential, a way through another consciousness to glimpse a possibility of truth. This project was in a way always doomed, a failure to translate the untranslatable, but it is the latent and revelatory nature of the search that is the measure of accomplishment.
This failure is constantly visible in the act of translation, whose task is to unearth the buried fragments of pure language. Walter Benjamin wrote, ‘It is the task of the translator to release in his own language that pure language which is under the spell of another, to liberate the language imprisoned in a work in his recreation of that work. For the sake of pure language, he breaks through decayed barriers of his own language.”