Talismanic Identifications and Ghostly Demarcations

There was a time when I drifted between reading books of poetry and fiction without a thought for the writer; choosing what to read next— there was no enduringly impatient stack—was a function of where the endlessly reflective waves induced by the last book led me, or more prosaically, whatever caught my attention when browsing in my nearest bookshop.

Around my early twenties, a different whole seemed to fall into shape and I begun to pay attention to certain writers and, setting a pattern that has followed throughout my reading life, to read them to completion, seeing the inevitable minor works as a pathway to answering the thousand questions that arose around the major books.

Once I drew up a list of best books, what I termed a personal canon, but this would prove a shot-silk, a slippery list that refused stability. What, after all, is best? The Canon? Or those books that once read refused to be forgotten, crystal-carbon in memory? What of those evanescent books thought of as favourites, where little lingers beyond perhaps an atmosphere, or a single character?

Instead, in what I optimistically term my maturity, I choose writers over specific books, and my choices embody what Anthony Rudolf in Silent Conversations terms: “magical thinking, talismanic identifications and ghostly demarcations”. There is a distinction between those I read that will probably always be read whilst there are literate readers to be found, say Samuel Beckett, Anton Chekhov, Franz Kafka, Virginia Woolf, Emily Dickinson, James Joyce and Charles Baudelaire.

There are those I read closely because I am, for reasons not always fully understand, intrigued by the way they think or observe the world, for example Peter Handke, Gerald Murnane, Dorothy Richardson, George Oppen, Clarice Lispector, Christa Wolf, Mircea Cărtărescu and Enrique Vila-Matas. Time and the quick sands of taste will decide whether each find a home in posterity.

There is a far stranger category of writers I have only sampled, yet fascinate me deeply: Maurice Blanchot, Ricardo Piglia, Marguerite Duras, Hans Blumenberg, Laura Riding, Arno Schmidt are all examples, but I could name a dozen others. These interest me as much for the lived life as the work, though I always plan to explore the latter more deeply.

Reading books becomes a way to find the writer, or at least to see a glimpse of that writer’s mind. In doing so, I find that I am a part of all that I have read, that reading is a process to becoming. The more I contemplate the act of reading and of what I read, the stranger it seems. I understand less than I did when I began. Where once writing seemed certain and assured, as I moved toward the depthless prose of the writers that I came to consider part of my pantheon, the more I felt strangely included in that writer’s thought process.

Virginie Despentes’ Vernon Subutex One

It’s only four years old but has the texture of cyberpunk science fiction, Stephenson’s Snow Crash, that sort of thing, that I read in the nineties. It’s partly the gritty urban realism that provides that cyberpunk taste, though Despentes’ Vernon Subutex I isn’t set in some near future, but navigates the joys and terrors of emerging culture in the present day. There is also the ironic social commentary channeled through the hustlers and alienated street people who exist side-by-side in this grim, violent world.

Style is central, a cynical even paranoid perspective, but without sacrificing completely the characters’ humanity. It is a narrative that is perfectly in tune with our post-war awareness that advanced societies do not by default become more humane or civilised, quite the reverse in fact.

Despentes’ Paris is not the city of Benjamin’s bourgeois flaneur, but more in tune with the concrete jungle of Baudelaire. It also contrasts with Cusk’s confined, rather claustrophobic trilogy of middle-class life, offering an alternative set of keys to understanding the ethical dilemmas of human experience in the late-capitalist modern city.

The Poetry of Thought

Aristotle with a Bust of Homer (1653)

“When God sings to Himself, he sings algebra, opined Liebniz.” p.18

“Sentences, oral and written (the mute can be taught to read and write), are the enabling organ of our being, of that dialogue with the self and with others which assembles and stabilises our identity. Words, imprecise, time-bound as they are, construct remembrance and articulative futurity. Hope is the future tense.” p.21

This dialogue, Steiner’s The Poetry of Thought, a dialogic embrace of metaphysics and literature, thrilling as any novel, a book of life, a book for life, one I have no desire to leave. Pencil in hand, note-taking. Lashings of tea.

A reading list that is ever-swelling, transforming.

“To listen closely–Nietzsche defined philology as “reading slowly”– is to experience, always imperfectly, the possibility that the order of words, notably in metrics and the metrical nerve-structure within good prose, reflects, perhaps sustains the hidden yet manifest coherence of the cosmos.” p.34

One wants to read everything. To reread everything, better. Did one ever understand anything?

“Does difficulty in the Phenomenology and the Enzyklopadie prepare that in Mallarmé, Joyce or Paul Celan, the displacement of language from the axis of immediate or paraphrasable meaning as we find it in Lacan or Derrida (an annotator of Hegel.)” p.88

“Is it possible to reconcile the hermetic with the didactic?” p.88

“What was, lazily, deemed fixed, eternal in the conceptual–that Platonic legacy–is made actual and fluid by the breaking open of words.” p.89

“The muteness of animals remains vestigial in us.” p.90

Stricto sensu consciousness should revert to silence. Beckett is not far off. Yet only language can reveal being.” p.91

“Philosophy, however, outranks even great literature.” p.91

“Human labour both manual and spiritual defines the realisation of the conceptual. This insight translates into the fabric of a Hegelian treatise. The reader must work his way through it. Only the laborious in the root-sense can activate understanding. Passive reception is futile. Via the hard labour of concentrated intake “disquiet is made order” in our consciousness.” p.93

“Hegel produces ‘anti-texts’ aiming at collision with the inert matter of the commonplace. They are, says Adorno, ‘films of thought’ calling for experience rather than comprehension.” p.96

“There was darkness also in Bergson’s outlook, notably toward its close. But he did not wish to extend such darkness to his readers.” p.127

There’s a lifetime’s reading here just tracing the patterns of Steiner’s thought. More than one lifetime.

Claudio Magris’s A Different Sea

the-dreamer-1840-jpglargeOne morning as I was riding my bicycle–I must have been around five or six years of age–I was struck by the sensation of being ‘me’. It hadn’t occurred to me before but the feeling persisted for several minutes. I saw myself for the first time as distinct from the people around me. In Sartre’s essay on Baudelaire, he writes that “Everyone in his childhood has been able to observe the accidental and shattering apparition of the consciousness of self.” When I was able, much later, to think coherently about that sensation of personal identity, I understood it to be composed of a person’s past and present.

Claudio Magris’s A Different Sea is a narrative about a protagonist seeking non-being, an experiment with living each moment fully, without desire or projection. His sense of self is fashioned by “Homer, the tragedians, the Pre-Socratics, Plato, and the New Testament in the original Greek, and Schopenhauer – also, of course, in the original; the Vedas, the Upanishads, the Sermon of Benares and the other teachings of Buddha; Ibsen, Leopardi, and Tolstoy.” Magris raises important questions that many of us struggle with about personal autonomy, authenticity and identity–how to make the transition from an aesthetic to ethical selfhood? His protagonist, Enrico Mreule, choses an austere, solitary life that leads not only to his own progressive mental deterioration but that of the people he choses to have around him.

Man is not a particularly dignified species but it is compelling to read an account of a character with a heroic, fate haunted conception of self. Enrico, like Philoctetes who he admires, tries to establish a life solely dependent on himself but of course, like all of us, is enmeshed in a web of complex forces. Past relationships and emotions are a crucial part of our consciousness of self. To disregard such forces is to put our sense of identity at risk. Magris’s novel is all too brief, but remarkable to follow Enrico’s life journey from nobility to pity, and use the space to reflect on human nature and the values that ought govern a human life.

Characteristic Activity of the Mind of God (Elizabeth Sewell)

It is promising that the first of Studies in Modern Literature and Thought that I started is Elizabeth Sewell’s Paul Valery. In a letter, Wallace Stevens thought it truly wonderful and recommended accompanying it with a Rhine wine or Moselle.

After a single chapter, I want to track down all Sewell wrote, in love with both her elegant prose and her brilliant mind.

“It is a curious and interesting fact that mirrors become increasingly frequent in literature toward the end of the nineteenth century.”

“Then there is Mallarmé himself, sitting, as he admitted in a letter to a close friend, in front of a mirror as he wrote, to make sure that he would not disappear into that nothingness which during the writing of Hérodiade his soul had seen and shuddered at.”

“It is as if, during the second half of the nineteenth century, literature were turning itself into a Galerie des Glaces—the French word being so much more expressive than the English one, conveying as it does the suggestion of ice as well as glass, the ‘froid féroce’ which Valery’s Faust discovers at the highest point of abstract thought in the mind, ‘essential solitude, the extreme of the rarefaction of Being’.

“It is useless to try to interpret any poet’s work, by symbols or any other literary technique; all we can do is to attempt to build something and hope that in doing so we may a little conform our minds to he shape of his.”

“He was a poet and a precise and rigorous thinker, but at the same time he was always watching himself making poetry, watching his mind thinking and making a form and structure out of its thoughts. Valery’s mind watches itself in the mirror.”

“It is like Mallarmé, whose poetry is so pure that it is about poetry and nothing else at all, a form commenting on a form, the content irrelevant.”

“The Schoolmen of the Middle Ages knew about it, but we lost it with the Renaissance and the Reformation, and by 1850 nobody was being taught to play the game of thought, any more than they are nowadays, and poets and thinkers were taking themselves seriously and separately.”

“Although logic and mathematics and chess flourish, poetry and hard thinking are in danger of becoming separated again. Mallarmé and Valery are dead, with no visible heirs; in England the only one who took this tradition over from Carroll was G. K. Chesterton, but he lacked the intellectual discipline to carry it through to perfection, either in thought or poetry, and since then the game has lapsed. But it is essential that it be revived, for poetry and thought will sicken if they cannot go on playing with one another. We no longer, alas, study the Scholastics, and so have forgotten how to think, forgotten that science and art belong together, that art is an intellectual virtue and that wisdom and games are to be pursued for their own sake. With heads untrained and idle we are too solemn to appreciate transcendental games such as Mallarmé plays, or too lazy to join in. We think comfortably that hard thought i.e. beyond our powers, and forget that mathematics and logic produced the Alices, to confound us.”

“If Valery was thinking about thinking, that is what we are going to have to do. It is perhaps worth noticing at this stage that Aristotle says in his Metaphysics that thinking about thinking must be the characteristic activity of the mind of God.”