The Self-nourishment of the Soul

“Reading as a cultural act – and especially as a philosophical practice – culminates in study. Study is a learned set of techniques and strategies implemented in order to acquire and master a given knowledge in a given discipline, and is a highly defined and regulated practice. But it is also an ‘idea’ and ‘ideal’, which has defined for centuries the aims and scope of Western culture, so much so that in the Middle Ages the term studium defined the university itself.”

“. . . Agamben refers then to the etymology of studium – from the root st- or sp-, indicating an impact or collision and the deriving shock – which it shares with ‘stupefy’ but also with ‘stupid’: lost, stupefied and stunned, the studioso remains unable to grasp and absorb the amazing amount of stimuli striking him, and is at the same time unwilling to take leave of them. On the other hand, the messianic nature of study incessantly drives it towards completion, towards parousia, and this polarity between interminability and completion constitutes the ‘rhythm’ of study: a succession of stupor and lucidity, discovery and bewilderment, passion and action.”

“Unlike the classical figure of the ‘saintly scholar’ lionised by tradition, these students [as found in Kafka, Walser and Melville’s Bartleby] are ‘failures’, and as such they undermine the whole construct of cultural transmission and legitimacy. In Bartleby, however, there occurs the messianic reversal, whereby the messianic polarity of study is surpassed, or better deactivated: Bartleby, who for Agamben represents ‘pure potentiality’, is a scrivener who has ceased to write, and thus his gesture represents a potential that does not precede but follows its act. This ‘liberated’ potential frees study of its melancholy and returns it to its truest nature, which is not the work, but rather inspiration, ‘the self-nourishment of the soul’.”

Agamben’s Philosophical Lineage, edited by Adam Kotsko and Carlo Salzani.

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.”

The Real Question

This passage from Gabriel Josipovici’s introduction to his The Mirror of Criticism seems to me to pin down the most real but least well understood question and challenge of literature, any writing that aspires to be literary:

“. . . confirms Kafka in his feelings that the well-written work [Gerhard Hauptmann’s Anna], however well it is written, holds no interest for him. It makes him realise once more (the remark comes in a letter written towards the end of his life) that for him the real question has never been: How can I write as well as this? but: Why should I write this kind of thing at all? And, if not this, then what? The encounter with [Hans] Arp’s work reveals to [Wallace] Stevens, through what it lacks, that the greatest art is an affront as well as a pleasure; that there is an art which is good, intelligent, aesthetically pleasing, but which we will never feel to be really important because it never quite dares to be more than that, to recognise its dangerous power.”

— Gabriel Jospovici, The Mirror of Criticism

Joanna Walsh’s Worlds From the Word’s End

Every four hours I tested my temperature. Sanity slips away on that threshold between high fever and very high fever; in the spaces I read. What else? Reading was a clear but dense broth; examined more closely: a complex refinement of Kafka’s and Lydia Davis’s short stories dusted with a little Calvino, known for its nutrient qualities. When the fever ended, the dreams remained, as did the stories of Joanna Walsh in Worlds From the Word’s End.

When the fever was over, I read these stories again and found them possessed by the spectral figures that I recognised from the fiction-induced vivid dreams of my high fever. Walsh lulls us calmly in with apparently simple wordplay but there are horrors here you may not want to possess your waking and sleeping thoughts: that demon who has read all  those neglected books on your bookshelves, or that wonder-awful-place where words go out of fashion.

Like a film director or a painter, for these are stories with high visual depth, Walsh invites us to escape reality for a few hours, or at least acknowledge the possibility that reality is not as we may perceive. On both readings, I found it important to give these stories room to space their shapes, colours and textures, to balance philosophical tendencies, to develop often banal situations. What excited me most were the ideas that exhibit a fine, skilful query into the nature of being in the world.

Reiner Stach: Kafka Biography

A Kafka industry exists. Yet, of the two guides I spoke to in Prague this year, the first informed me that Kafka had never been published, the second that Kafka lived most of his life in Paris. Why of all writers does Kafka return to us in so many different ways? Do the contradictions and ambiguities of his extraordinary stories somehow feed a Kafka mythology that turns him into an allegorical figure living on the threshold between life and death? “Life is a state of being, not an activity,” writes Reiner Stach, “You find out only at the end whether you had a life.”

This year provided the third and final volume of Reiner Stach’s biography of Franz Kafka, chronologically the first. The order of publication was dictated by legal wrangling, availability of sources and doesn’t particularly matter. Stach’s achievement is to have written, eventually, the only definitive biography of Kafka. This is an odd assertion, and there are indeed some attempts at biography. As a Kafka completist, I’ve read all those in print in English language. Stach would possibly argue with the term ‘definitive”. He writes, “The real life of Franz Kafka? Certainly not. But a fleeting glance at it, or an extended look, yes, perhaps that is possible.”

Stach’s book is strange in wonderful ways. There are some magnificent literary biographies, of James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, Samuel Beckett, Samuel Johnson, and Jacques Derrida. Stach does something different and in doing so raises the bar for how biographers can give readers a sense of where a writer’s sense of vision emerges from. By presenting Kafka’s life as a succession of forces–historic, literary, places, personal encounters–and setting these collisions within a context of time, environment, social milieu and class, Stach brings readers closer to understanding how these forces impacted and shaped his thoughts and writing.

Like any capable biographer, Stach uses Kafka’s extensive literary legacy of letters, diaries and primary works, but also, especially for this newly published Early Years edition reads against the grain and interrogates material found in school friends’ diaries, educational and employment records, and newspapers of the day. Often the literary biography of a favourite writer reflects our desire to continue our acquaintance with a writer after exhausting their primary work. Stach’s biography is more interesting and provides another centre of gravity to understanding Kafka’s sensibility. Although there are always the texts a biographer cannot alter, the very best literary biographies allow us to return to a writer’s work with greater sensitivity and reflectiveness. With Stach’s biography of Kafka, the more reductive linear inventory of facts that claims to constitute a biography is now exhausted as a sub-genre.

Of course, of paramount importance in bringing this colossal biography to the English-speaking world is the work of translator Shelley Frisch. Her close collaboration with Stach over almost two decades makes it possible for readers to now read a life of Kafka from the Early Years, to the end of his forty or so years of life. In his closing words, Stach thanks Frisch for her translation that he says is, “without any loss of textual precision and in a marvellously elegant linguistic form”. Michael Hofmann once described the translator as a conduit, writing “It is an urgent, interior, invisible and, if things are going well, (in detail) unnoticed activity …” Frisch’s sensitive and intelligent work demonstrates that great translation is not only invisible but indivisible: great translation is great literature.

A Key to Unfamiliar Rooms

Valerio ADAMI, Excelsior, 2009

Turning back to Stach’s Kafka, some resonances and reverberations:

“Kafka had a strong preference for deep conversations with a small group of friends, and if confronted with too many faces and voice, he tended to sink into daydreams–and look almost apathetic–or slip into the role of an intent and smiling but silent observer. Both reactions were perceived as aloofness, and Kafka’s prim and proper clothing, only heightened this impression, and so it too patience and empathy not to misread his appearance as an affectation.”

“Nevertheless, this friendship [Kafka and Felix Weltsch] never developed the intensity of Kafka’s bond with Brod–even Weltsch’s written recollections of Kafka are oddly bland–most likely because Weltsch did not look to writing for existential expression and was therefore shielded from the torments of literary productivity. Both were after the truth. For Kafka, this pursuit remained a problem of linguistic and visual expression, burdened with a great many subjective reservations and the profound skepticism about language that was quite widespread at the turn of the century, while Weltsch’s approach to philosophical problems was based on his view that education and precise thinking were the best routes to solutions.”

“Many a book,” he wrote to Oskar Pollak, “seems like a key to unfamiliar rooms in one’s own castle.”

“Instead, Kafka pursued these perplexing trains of thought as a reader of literature, keenly observing the waves of mutually enhancing associations that emanated from them. If they welled up with particular intensity, he concluded that he had touched on an inner, subjective truth of which he had been unaware until that moment–a process he was able to grasp only on imagery.”

My Year of Reading: 2016

I bear no guilt for reading fewer books this year than any other in recent memory – I regret only my morbid fascination with the sulphurous news, as the worst aspects of human nature become manifest. My natural refuge in literature has proved insufficient distraction to the horrifying potency of watching vultures tearing at a creature’s entrails, gripped and subdued by the grisly pantomime. I don’t wish to drown in the spectacle. I must find balance and some self-discipline, though only imagine that this year is merely grisly prelude to further gross stupidity and narcissism next year.

It is Jorge Semprún’s writing that proved most alluring this year. In writing Literature or Life, he chose to end a “long cure of aphasia, of voluntary amnesia” to write this lightly fictionalised memoir, controlling and channeling his complex memories of the evil exerted during his incarceration in Buchenwald. I read backwards to the lyrical reticence of The Long Voyage, an almost dispassionate account of the cattle train journey to the concentration camp”. Semprún reassures that it is possible to both write poetically and read about barbarism. Literature or Life is one of those books that sit on one’s shelves for years before one is compelled to read even a sentence. The image that lingers most intensely from Literature or Life is his consideration of which books to take on a return to Buchenwald to film a documentary about the camp. In the end he opts for Mann’s The Beloved Returns and a volume of Celan, who perhaps has written the greatest poems about the Holocaust. Semprún quotes a verse from Celan, “hoping, today/ for a thinking man’s/ future word/ in my heart.”

Another book that languished unread on my shelves was a fine first edition of Helen DeWitt’s The Last Samurai. Greatness resides in this wonderfully singular story of a mother and son obsessed with Kurosawa’s The Seven Samurai. I was swept helplessly along by the the torrent of DeWitt’s thought who brings into her novel not only Kurosawa but Ptolemaic Alexandria, Ancient Greek and Fourier analysis. There is a curious quality to the work –stark, lonely, even sadistic– it is one of the most original novels of our time, original as regards sensibility.

I discovered Max Frisch’s work this year. Frisch’s novels offer up a world where no-one is allowed to rest easy; self is thrown back upon uneasy self. There is no escape. Not that Frisch is without hope; his novels unfold the twisted and often darkly comic search for a way out. It is Homo Faber that made the deepest impression, its melancholy cadences contrasting with the ice burn revelation of an incestuous relationship with his daughter.

This year also gave me Anna Kavan’s haunting imagery. The stories in Julie and the Bazooka and I am Lazarus read like a heightened version of Burroughs’s fantasies. Kavan can be gruesomely funny, but with a richness that lies in her proximity to the sensory and the unconscious. It is the chilling tales of narcosis wards that remain, months after reading these stories, the struggle to awaken from speechless unconsciousness. Kavan’s writing, though piercingly clear, is best taken in small doses for its horror and loneliness weighs numbly on the heart.

I’ve read Christopher Logue’s Homer in part during its long evolution but War Music collects all the parts of his adaption of the Iliad into a single edition. This is Homer channelled through Logue’s erudition and the jarring of modern technology. It is a creative ‘translation that shouldn’t work but Logue invigorates an epic that always appears modern.

As the year approaches its end, Reiner Stach’s Kafka: The Early Years is casting a very strong spell over me, This first volume is the last of three to be published due to an overhanging lawsuit. Auden wrote, “Biographies of writers are always superfluous and usually in bad taste”, but there are a few brilliant, definitive biographies that count as essential. This and Stach’s companion piece Is that Kafka? restore Kafka from cliché so we might return to his writing anew.

Here is a list of the 55 books I’ve read so far this year.