Fallen Time

Quote

You do not describe the past by writing about old things, but by writing about the haze that exists between yourself and the past. I write about the way my present brain wraps around my brains of smaller and smaller crania, of bones and cartilage and membrane. . . the tension and discord between my present mind and my mind a moment ago, my mind ten years ago. . . their interactions as they mix with each other’s images and emotions. There’s so much necrophilia in memory! So much fascination with ruin and rot! It’s like being a forensic pathologist, peering at liquefied organs!

Mircea Cărtărescu, Blinding, translated by Sean Cotter.

[This struck me as worth reflecting on at length. For some reason it brought to mind something that stayed with me from Augustine about fallen time: experiencing time as a succession of self-erasing moments. I’m reading Blinding as preparation for reading Cărtărescu’s Solenoid, possibly next year.]

‘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.]

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.

Knausgaard / Hägglund (Secular Faith)

“Only what slips through one’s fingers, only what is never expressed in words, has no thoughts, exists completely. That is the price of proximity: you don’t see it. Don’t know that it’s there. Then it is over, then you see it.”

– Karl Ove Knausgaard, Autumn

“I read such a secular confession in Karl One Knausgaard’s My Struggle, which can be seen as a contemporary response to Augustine. Knausgaard’s painstaking attention to a secular life places us in the midst of everyday existence. Like Augustine, he explores the care that binds us to others and how the experience of time cuts through every moment. But while Augustine seeks to turn us toward eternity, Knausgaard turns us back toward finite lives as the heart of everything that matters. The animating principle of his writing is one of attachment to finite life, which is all the more profound because it remains faithful to the ambivalence of any attachment. Devoted to secular life, we can be moved both to bliss and devastation, hope and despair, success and failure. Knausgaard, then, makes vivid what it means to keep faith in a life that is bound to die. This secular faith, I argue, opens the possibility for all passion and meaningful engagement.”

Martin Hägglund, This Life

I’ve just started reading Hägglund’s book. It lacks the militant atheist pyrotechnics of Dawkins and Hitchens, arguing instead for a stable concept of secular faith. Fascinating so far, and also lucid in his insight into Marx, of of Knausgaard’s project, developed in greater length in this essay. It nudges me to get back to Knausgaard soon.