Winter Reading

An occasional springlike fragrance in the air buoys the soul, yet my reading still speaks of winter: a mixed clutch of writers, some new to me, others old favourites. The re-emergence of one of my favourite blogs inspired me to sample both  Morselli and Guilloux; Balzac, a long-time companion is also calling.

At the moment, I am reading Adrian Nathan West’s translation of Harmut Lange’s Positive Nihilism: My Confrontation with Heidegger. Its slim form belies its depth, perfect for a wintry evening.

Perfect for the season also is Heinrich Ignaz Franz von Biber’s Passacaglia. Its opening four notes perhaps refers to the traditional hymn to the Guardian Angel,

Maggie Nelson’s Argonauts, Genre etc

I’m reading Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts. It makes me think of the instability of a literary work, that it is always being understood or subverted through and by other work one has read. Where does meaning come from? The following paragraph is quoted all over the place, another jab, at one level, at the conventions of realist fiction.

“That’s what we both hate about fiction, or at least crappy fiction—it purports to provide occasions for thinking through complex issues, but really it has predetermined the positions, and hooked you on them, rendering you less able to see out, to get out.”

The sentence clearly functions as a performative utterance, but also captures the struggle many have with contemporary narrative fiction, the sort of fiction that David Shields inveighs against in Reality Hunger. It is stuffy and confining.

Essays like The Argonauts and Adrian Nathan West’s Aesthetics of Degradation aren’t a new form, but act as a rejection of genre boundaries. Do I particularly care what is made up if I enjoying following Nelson and West’s thinking on the page? Not even remotely. Use whatever techniques of fiction are available to explore themes of love, sexuality, memory and the nature of existence. Give me the space to think though complex issues and I’ll reward a writer with my readership, for what it is worth (clue: very little).

My Week’s Reading (mostly porn and politics)

Pornography, as is clear from Adrian Nathan West’s The Aesthetics of Degradation, has moved on from the moustachioed plumbers and sex-obsessed housewives that I recall from the scant attention I paid when such videos were turned on during all-night teenage house parties.

Though far from prudish I’ve never really understand the appeal of pornography, which has always seemed to me the product of a certain type of shameful male hostility rather than fantasy and sexual appetite. What I hadn’t fully comprehended is the mainstream demand for extreme, violent forms of woman-hating pornography. Adrian Nathan West’s The Aesthetics of Degradation explores degrading pornography’s effects on viewers, participants and producers, not only through literary and sociological lens, but also from a personal perspective. It is deeply intelligent, and in between compulsively reading a lot of awful writing about our current crisis, I’ve been reading, rereading and scribbling lots of notes in The Aesthetics of Degradation.

As Robert Musil wrote in The Man Without Qualities, “It is reality that awakens possibilities, and nothing would be more perverse than deny it.” This sentence keeps returning to me in a week in which the radical-right in Britain have pulled off a well-executed coup to win a non-democratic referendum. As Lara Pawson puts it in the most lucid essay written so far about the 23/6 debacle, “The referendum was not democratic. It was fed by a white supremacist media that either deliberately stoked racial hatred or is so deluded with its own whiteness, it couldn’t recognise the hatred it was helping to harness. I hate to break it to you folks, but that is not democracy: it’s the building blocks of fascism.”

In this traumatic week when many of us are trying to pick up the pieces of our crushed sense of self and our futures, I also keep returning to a passage from Adrian Nathan West’s book:

“A self is not a constant, and we understand virtually nothing of what its persistence in time might mean. We do not know what perdures in the self and what is semelfactive, nor what is incidental or essential. We do not know what marks are left by the things we no longer remember, or when a memory persists in concealment and when it is gone forever. The idea of a person with a unitary self may come from what we have been told or have read than our own inner experience of human existence. Maybe another, clearer way of thinking about the variform nature of our being is possible: being as a participle and not as a noun. We do not know how far our way of talking about ourselves is distorted by our way of talking about others, or others’ way of talking about themselves or others, or to what degree the procedures involved in talking-about already distort or conceal our understanding.”

I’ve been unable to read The Man Without Qualities this week. Its questions about how our lives are related to history and how history shapes us, and how we permit history to happen to us, are simply too close to the marrow. It seems that each unfolding of history propels us in a further downward trajectory.

Houellebecq Strikes a Pose

In the latest issue of The Quarterly Conversation, Adrian Nathan West captures my  sentiment in the immediate aftermath of reading Michel Houellebecq’s Submission:

The worst fate a writer can suffer is to become a “writer”: for ease to eclipse inspiration, for fluency to allay the long struggle with words, for the dreadful void of the inchoate work to become schematic and ho-hum, like an instruction manual. Yet the writer-as-cultural-figure is an inevitable facet of the present, when the commodification of literature and the compression of news, entertainment, and what was once known as high culture into a vague but ubiquitous entity called “media” has led to writers vying for “exposure” alongside politicians and athletes.

There are very few contemporary writers as lucid as Houellebecq on how neoliberal capitalism has woven itself into the affective, cultural and physical sites of everyday life. But in Submission, Houellebecq’s typical dejection is turned to shaky satire reminiscent of the naïve socio-cultural projections of Philip Roth.

Even minor Houellebecq is always worth reading, but it feels rather like his prominence as a ‘bad boy of letters’ has gone to his head and Submission is striking a pose, rather than the usual meandering but luminous exposition on this world we inhabit.