A Short Shelf of Writers Writing on Writers

In Oranges and Peanuts for Sale, Eliot Weinberger writes, “The writing of writers tends to last longer than standard literary criticism, and not only because it is better written. Critics explain their subjects; in writer’s books, the subject is explaining the author.”

A short shelf of writers writing on writers that forever changed how I read those writers:

  1. Simone Weil’s The Iliad, or the Poem of Force
  2. Robert Duncan’s The H. D. Book
  3. André Gide’s Dostoevsky
  4. Colm Tóibín’s On Elizabeth Bishop
  5. Hélène Cixous’ Reading with Clarice Lispector
  6. John Cowper Powys’ Dorothy Richardson
  7. Susan Howe’s My Emily Dickinson
  8. H. D.’s Tribute to Freud
  9. T. S. Eliot’s Dante
  10. Hélène Cixous’s Zero’s Neighbour: Sam Beckett
  11. Dorothy L. Sayers’ Papers on Dante

I’ve been particular with definition here, choosing only single study books written by writers  with an accomplished body of their own work. Michael Wood’s On Empson didn’t quite make the cut, nor any of Cynthia Ozick’s writing on Henry James, nor André Bernold’s delightfully odd memoir Beckett’s Friendship. It’s a very personal list; please let me know in the Comments section of any of your favourites.

 

Crossroads of the Paths of my Thinking

Simone Weil wrote, “Our personality seems to us a sort of limit, and we love to figure that some day in an undetermined future we can get around it in one direction or another, or in many. But it also appears to us as a support and we wish to believe there are things we would never be capable of doing or saying or thinking because it is not in our character. That often proves false.” The stoic lesson: life lives us.

We often think that signposts carry meaning. My inner skeptic always questions how I can be sure that I arrive at the correct interpretation of a signpost. Recently all my reading is providing signposts to Simone Weil. Her work. Her self. Fanny Howe quotes a friend who called Weil “a secular monastic”. People will begin to consider me religious, buried in the work of yet another mystic. Some things I read nod forward to Weil: St. John of the Cross, Plato, in whom Weil detected foreshadows of Christianity; a bridge between Greek tragedy and Christian mysticism.

In Fanny Howe, like Christian Wiman, I discover the work of another tutelary spirit. Their books like Agamben’s, Wittgenstein’s blow more or less vigorously in the direction of Simone Weil, what Walter Benjamin, in a letter to Gershom Scholem about Kafka, described as “crossroads of the paths of my thinking.”

Howe in The Needle’s Eye, reflects on personality and our self-representing masks through a series of associative thoughts about the Boston marathon bombers, Francis and Clare of Assisi, folk philosophies and social norms.

My daughter is reading an old favourite book from when I was seventeen, Erving Goffman’s The Presentation of Everyday Life. He argues that the self adapts our personality to suit the setting, donning a different mask as necessary, but that these masks are not permanent. Weil wrote, “The thing we believe to be our self is as ephemeral and automatic a product of external circumstances as the form of a sea wave.”

Recent Arrivals: Notebooks, Copernicus and Research

My attraction to Simone Weil’s work is deepening the more I read. I couldn’t resist the notebooks. Her reading of Plato is sending me back to his work, which I haven’t revisited much since my twenties. I’ve written a rather dodgy post on Weil and Plato. I may or may not post it here, but am fascinated by her argument that Plato was deeply influential on the medieval Christian mystics.

I am not especially religious (though not an atheist), but alongside Weil I am enjoying an exploration of much earlier Christian mystics (is Weil a mystic?) like St John of the Cross. So much we simply cannot know; as Heidegger said somewhere, it is quite possible that human thought is at only a rudimentary level.

The other two are continuations of my tumbling headlong down a rabbit-hole propelled by Maria Gabriela Llansol’s Book of Communities. Emily Dickinson’s influence on Llansol is clear.

An Empty Gesture

The universe is a unity
making itself manifest
through an infinite number
of relative phenomena
in part accessible to our senses
(in their relativity).
Only through things
do we sense the unity.

Wols. Aphorisms and Pictures (1971)

It is quite possible to hold literature in high regard and recognise its dangers. You remember Plato’s Republic denies writers a place. Rightly, for in the perfect community they are superfluous and hazardous.

Why read? Transformation. The characteristic feature of literature is the way it transforms. Is it possible to imagine oneself without literature, a person who had never read transformative literature? I have tried to make separate reading as an act of transformation, and reading as consumption.

To avoid writing that is expression for the sake of expression. Is this the nature of blogging? Expression mattering more than what is expressed. As Richter wrote, “As a record of reality, the thing I have to represent is unimportant and devoid of meaning, though I make it just as visible as if it were important”.

Why blog? To think. The demand to think about what I read, to reflect upon my position in a collaboration between writer and reader. Even if I fail to write about what I am reading, the act of blogging here for so long is sure to make me think as though I am to write about what I read. To tell the truth, these days I write in my notebooks more. The more I’ve written about literature, the less I understand. The less I have to say.

With the misery and suffering in the world, reading, writing sometimes feels ridiculous, contemptible. There is one ally only against barbarism – friends. Why blog? For the people I’ve met through blogging. A small handful but they are dear to me. A blog lives by companionship.

We want to understand literature. Why not try to understand birdsong? There are so many things I love, the night, trees, waves, everything around, but I don’t feel I must understand them. I read autobiographies as though this might help to understand literature, but understanding writers is of no more use to understanding literature than understanding birdsong. Perhaps less.

To read as an adventure into unknown worlds. To blog as a simple expression of complex thoughts. An attempt to destroy illusion and reveal truth.

Concentrated Exchanges

“The concentrated exchanges between Valéry “who does not forgive himself for not having been a philosopher” (Cioran) and Alain who may not have forgiven himself for not being a great novelist, like his beloved Balzac, are themselves components of a cardinal dialogue. Shorthand and the tape recorder have restored to modern philosophy some of the viva voce spontaneities and openness to questioning advocated by Plato. A considerable measure of Wittgenstein’s teaching survives in the guise of notes taken by auditors and conversations as recalled by pupils or intimates. On the banks of the Cam as on those of the Illissus. Even so mountainous a word processor as Heidegger propounds his considered views on language in dialogue with a Japanese visitor. The counter-authoritarian, anti-systematic tenor of twentieth-century philosophic instruction is restoring to orality something of its ancient role. Innovation, stimulus emanate from a Strauss or Kojève seminar. Disciples differ fruitfully over the master’s dicta and intentions. Already there is something dusty and self-defeating about vast magisterial tomes such as Jaspers on truth or Sartre on Imagination, treatises as monologue. “Dreams are knowledge” taught Valéry in his “Cimetière marin” and dreams tended to be brief.”

George Steiner, The Poetry of Thought

Steiner’s analytical reading of lyrical thought “from Hellenism to Celan” is illuminating to a similar degree as his Grammars of Creation, What I appreciate most of Steiner’s writing is not just his dissective interpretation of another writer’s thought but that he always responds with a rich meditation of his own in a way that often bears no relation to the original text, yet always comes with considerable creative force.