Fanny Howe, The Wedding Dress

J. M. W. Turner
Landscape with a river and a bay in the distance c.1835–40

“I grew increasingly comfortable sitting at Mass and participating in everything but the Eucharist, for many years. The skepticism that was like a splash of iodine in the milk of my childhood home began to work its way out of my system.” p.XII

“What I have been thinking about, lately, is bewilderment as a way of entering the day as much as the work.
Bewilderment as a poetics and a politics.” p.5

“There is a Muslim prayer that says, ‘Lord, increase my bewilderment,’ and this prayer belongs both to me and to the strange Whoever who goes under the name of ‘I’ in my poems––and under multiple names in my fiction––where error, errancy, and bewilderment are the main forces that signal a story.” p.6

“The maze and the spiral have aesthetic value since they are constructed for others––places to learn about perplexity and loss of bearing.” p.15

“There is a new relationship to time and narrative, when the approach through events and observations is not sequential but dizzying and repetitive. The dance of the dervish is all about this experience.” p.18

“After all, the point of art––like war–– is to show people that life is worth living by showing that it isn’t.” p.23

“At what point, this kind of writing [Edith Stein’s] makes me ask, does the renaming of things actually transform the world around you? Can it? Can you build a vocabulary of faith out of a rhetoric first made of dread and then stand behind this new language? Is faith created by a shift in rhetoric, one that can be consciously constructed, or must there be a shattering experience, one that trashes the wold worlds for things? The difference between her two rhetorics––one hardcore philosophy, one dogmatic-spiritual––makes one wonder how they can coexist, when each one is (seemingly) unbelievable in relation to the other. Only in some of her poems (and her life( do they become indivisible.” p.59

“The importance of [Ilona] Karmel’s novel––its bitter inheritance of memory––lies in its depiction of the camp as the condition of the Western world in mid-century. The labour camp is not an aberration but a continuation of humanity’s increasing contempt for itself. Weary history is a one-way street with no U-turns, no exits.” p.64 [cf., Agamben, and news this week of further child deaths in American border camps.]

“Beyond that, I am at the end of a generation that began with existentialism; that still prefers irritation to irony; and that shares a political position sickened by the fatal incompatibilities between freedom and equality.” p.68

“Thomas Aquinas was an itinerant thinker. His thinking rolled like a reel.
It went forwards as a movement backwards. His thoughts may have been placed on the side like the eyes of any intelligent animals.
To mitigate pain he recommended weeping, condolence by friends, bathing, sleep, and the contemplation of the truth.” p.108

“Probably people should go Sannyasa as soon as they retire, and become wanderers, contemplatives, ones who act charitably all the day long.” p.111

Fanny Howe, The Wedding Dress: Meditations on Word and Life

I don’t have anything to say about this dazzling, precious book. I’m a reader, not a book reviewer, and this one is too close. I’ll be reading this for a long time

Thoughts on Fanny Howe’s Nod

Waves Breaking against the Wind c.1840 Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775-1851 Accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856 http://www.tate.org.uk/art/work/N02881

Still five days remaining, but Fanny Howe’s Nod might be a place to rest for the year. Maybe some poetry or philosophy to conclude. Some big books this year, Middlemarch, Schmidt’s The Novel, Anthony Rudolf’s Silent Conversations; each absorbed over a month. But it feels good to have read fewer books, to have read better and reflected more.

So pleased to have discovered Fanny Howe and Nod is a little special. Perhaps I’ll spend the remainder of the year reading it again. A third reading. I like to finish an extraordinary  book and reread it immediately, without the tension of reading for discovery, just for immersion in its depths. There is plenty of water in Nod, the sea one of its small cast of characters. There is also annihilating human cruelty, more intense than the story’s despair, deliberate cruelty of the sort that often only occurs within the protection of unconditional love, malignant cruelty that destroys self-love.

Yet Nod is not hope-less. It lacks the unredeemed and desperate cruelty of Ágota Kristóf’s trilogy, stories of such saturated excess it took years to almost forget. Nod‘s characters are not diabolical, merely human. Howe allows us to glimpse the rationale, to grasp the ethics, the desire that underpins the cruelty. For this is also a story steeped through with desire and longing, human loneliness taken to an almost infinite degree.

There is great subtlety in Howe’s work, whether in Nod or in the essays of The Winter Sun and The Needle’s Eye. Her roots as a poet are evident in the attentive, meticulous prose. I want to read everything.

My Year in Reading: 2018

This may seem an unyielding impression, but reflecting on my year’s reading is somewhat disheartening. Much of what I read this year amused, entertained and perhaps at the time even excited me. Little has stuck to the bone. It glistened and was gone. It isn’t that the writers I read lack skill or talent. Alive or dead, they serve the desires of the culture industry effectively. (The books I read are the tip of a much, much longer list of others I abandoned.) Nevertheless, more than most years I fell for the appeal of books as items of consumption.

It isn’t that I am incapable of appreciating popular culture, just that, in the limited time available, I wish to take art more seriously. It is a troubling time politically and too easy to use culture as palliative, rather than as the proverbial axe for the frozen sea inside, or to help to enrich perception and participate in the strange otherness of existence. As one of my favourite discoveries of the year wrote, “I have to say I never got over my shock that there is a world and it is living.” Nor me, and there is too little of life to waste too much time on mere entertainment.

Fanny Howe also wrote, “The struggle to foster a culture informed by art and literature was soon to be stifled by the military, scientific, and monetary complex. Some people knew this and found the loss unbearable, most didn’t notice.” Adorno would have agreed wholeheartedly. Next year I resolve to submit less to what is cosy and predictable. Easier written than lived up to in a political and social climate that feels like a headlong rush towards totalitarianism and environmental collapse.

That said, there were some books I read this year that inscribed the experience and condition of being human. Knowledge as being-formation, rather than reading for sensation. These are in order of impact on mind and spirit.

  1. Maria Gabriella Llansol, The Book of Communities (trans. Audrey Young). It is the first of a trilogy, published in English translation as a compilation.
  2. Fanny Howe, The Winter Sun and Nod. The first is non-fiction; the latter I have just finished and will read again immediately.
  3. J. M. Coetzee, The Childhood of Jesus and The Schooldays of Jesus. I thought the first a better book, technically, but both were rewarding.
  4. V. S. Naipaul, The Enigma of Arrival.
  5. George Eliot, Middlemarch. Flawed, but sufficiently thought provoking that I will read more Eliot.

What is left of 2018 will be spent reading the other novels in Fanny Howe’s five-novel compilation, Radical Love.

Thanks to Steve for compelling me towards The Enigma of Arrival, and to flowerville for shaping much of my reading over the years, this year particularly in the direction of Fanny Howe.

Most Didn’t Notice

“Since early adolescence I have wanted to live the life of a poet. What this meant to me was a life outside the law; it would include disobedience and uprootedness. I would be at liberty to observe, drift, read, travel, take notes, converse with friends, and struggle with form.” p.5

“The child poised on the threshold of a door is also the ghost going the other way; they are one action immortalised by a single position toward the world: not there.” p.23

“The struggle to foster a culture informed by art and literature was soon to be stifled by the military, scientific, and monetary complex. Some people knew this and found the loss unbearable; most didn’t notice.” p.31

Fanny Howe, The Winter Sun

“The unformed mind at play is the most interior, half-submerged, and elusive figure we have, expunged and redrawn.” p.15

“I have to say I never got over my shock that there is a world and it is living.” p.117

Fanny Howe, The Needle’s Eye

Many and special thanks to flowerville for the discovery of Fanny Howe, who combines intellectual coherence with a use of language that can stab, soothe or tickle as the occasion requires.

Recent Arrivals: Biography, Memoir, Guide, Poetry

Of all the many reasons to read Philip Larkin, this collection includes Aubade, an abysmally bleak yet sublime poem that I think I must now learn by heart. The edition includes an introduction by Martin Amis, a novelist of the second-order but a sophisticated critic.

After the exemplary prose of Fanny Howe’s The Needle’s Eye, this time a work that contains autobiography and reflective meditations.

The Life of Ibn ‘Arabi continues my exploration of mystics inspired by Maria Gabriela Llansol’s Book of Communities.

Agamben’s work fascinates me for its range of references and its enigmatic nature. I’ve been slowly making my way through Homo Sacer and was pleased to stumble across this book that explores many of the figures he engages with.

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.”