Nothing to Talk About

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“Gilles Deleuze
53 rue de Colombier
Lyon 7ème

Dear Francois [Châtelet],

Thanks for your letter. You know that I would be happy to write for La Quinzaine, if the chance arose. Unfortunately, I can’t for Painter*. I am like you, I find the book atrocious and meaningless, and poor in its principle. And I do not want to do an article “against” something or “savaging” it (here again, I think I am like you, since as far as I know you have never done an article solely to say something was bad). To be able to write, you have to have some small amount of esteem. Painter was vaguely detective, vaguely ethnographer, vaguely erudite American shit . . . there is nothing to talk about. I will be in Paris at the end of the month and would be happy to see you if you have time.

Friendship and wishes,

Gilles”

*A reference to Painter’s Marcel Proust: A Biography, a nasty, gossipy, psychoanalytical-type biography, all that I loathe in biographies, as compared to the magnificent Paul Celan: Poet, Survivor, Jew by John Felstiner, or David Gilmour’s The Last Lepoard, a biography of Lampedusa. For the same reasons as Deleuze, I think I only wrote one post here about a book I found vaguely bad, to which the author, also a vaguely erudite American shit wrote to correct some points. I don’t remember the author or book and think I deleted the post.

Marianne Moore’s Sinuous Truths

Moore writing at her desk.

Paul Celan translated several of Marianne Moore’s poems into German for a 1952 German edition of Perspectives USA, a short-lived magazine started by New Directions founder, James Laughlin. In his Celan biography, John Felstiner writes, “[Celan] responded to her verbal acumen with his own, and without mind-bending exertion. The first two poems went into German cleanly, though without her intricate rhyming and syllabifying. And What Are Years? had a clear call on him . . . Moore’s sinuous truths fit Celan’s own ever-aggravating struggle.”

It is the first poem that kindled my appreciation of Moore’s poetry, though it isn’t necessarily characteristic of her writing. Felstiner presents a truncated version of the poem in the Celan biography, which includes the question mark after the title, surely as Celan would’ve also come to know the poem. Moore did not like the question mark

“Miss Moore told me that she did not want the question mark after the title. “In my ‘What Are Years’ the printers universally have insisted on putting a question mark after the title: ‘What Are Years?’ It’s not that at all! It’s a meditation: ‘What Are Years. What Are Years.’ You’re thinking about it, not asking anyone to come and answer you. But they won’t have it that way.”

It has been too long since I reread Moore, who may be underappreciated today, so I take this opportunity to quote her compelling poem, without the question mark.

What Are Years

What is our innocence,
what is our guilt? All are
naked, none is safe. And whence
is courage: the unanswered question,
the resolute doubt, —
dumbly calling, deafly listening—that
in misfortune, even death,
encourage others
and in its defeat, stirs
the soul to be strong? He
sees deep and is glad, who
accedes to mortality
and in his imprisonment rises
upon himself as
the sea in a chasm, struggling to be
free and unable to be,
in its surrendering
finds its continuing.
So he who strongly feels,
behaves. The very bird,
grown taller as he sings, steels
his form straight up. Though he is captive,
his mighty singing
says, satisfaction is a lowly
thing, how pure a thing is joy.
This is mortality,
this is eternity.

Barthes: Ideas Circulate

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“There’s never really any originality. We live in a sort of large-scale exchange, a sort of grand intertext. Ideas circulate and languages too. In the end, the only thing we can do—and claim it as our own—is to combine them. That’s more or less how I see things. But you don’t create an idea—it’s there, it’s like a sort of major transaction in a large-scale economy. Ideas circulate and, at a certain point, you stop them, arrange them and edit them, a little bit the way they do in films, and that produces a work.”

Roland Barthes, ‘Simply a Particular Contemporary’, (trans. Chris Turner)

Barthes: Quite a Poor Reader

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Chancel: We may wonder what sort of reader you are? Do you read a lot?

Barthes: No, I don’t read a lot. It’s rather paradoxical. I could say, superficially, that it’s because I don’t have the time, as everyone says.

Being precise, I shall say—still speaking from this level of sensitivity and pleasure—that I don’t read much, either because the book bores me and at that point I put it down, or because it excites me, pleases me, at at that point I’m constantly wanting to lift my eyes from the page to carry on thinking and reflecting for myself. All those things make me quite a poor reader in quantitative terms.”

Roland Barthes, ‘Simply a Particular Contemporary’, (trans. Chris Turner)

A Meditation on the Experience of Reading

Since the beginning of 2020, when for two months I was unable to concentrate on any reading unrelated to the latest news—I think of it as my fallows: a temporary but necessary restorative hiatus—I’ve thought a great deal about the experience of reading and particularly the feelings that arise when reading successfully, that is so deeply that time’s flow is stemmed, so vividly that we forget that we are reading, but instead fully enter into a world conjured up somewhere between the mind of the writer and a reader.

What makes an impression when I open the first pages of the book in my hand is what essayist Philip Lopate describes as ‘a voice in the ear’. When encountering a writer for the first time, hearing this voice through the texture of sentences and paragraphs, getting a sense of the world unfolding in our imagination, following a line of thought, takes a little time. Sometimes, if fortunate, the words on the page quickly reveal the blast-furnace of brilliance, that open flame that is evident from the first pages of Woolf’s To the Lighthouse. On other occasions, Sebald’s The Emigrants comes to mind, as does Lispector’s Near to the Wild Heart, the whispering heat becomes evident as the world of the book reveals itself. Some such books become tutelary spirits taking us somewhere we wouldn’t have found alone, others become companions for years or decades.

Once satisfied that that I will allow a writer’s voice to remain in my mind, this isn’t always fully under my control—once I abandoned a book three times, only to be convinced of its disruptive magnificence on the fourth attempt—then reason can lower its guard and allow the world of the book to fully unfold. If the voice in the ear has wielded its key, the door opens to make clearer the atmosphere of a particular book. That elusive combination of voice and atmosphere, similar I think to the German Stimmung, is, for me, what remains long after I have forgotten particular sentences, plots and characters.

Literary atmosphere is not fact, but possibility, a sensory experience closely related to a third element that often defines how central a book will become to my reading life: the spirit of place (genius loci) or world created by a writer, distinctive in all the writers that make up my necklace of tutelary companions, particularly so in the writing of Gerald Murnane, Marguerite Duras, Maria Gabriela Llansol and Thomas Mann.

When I look at the shelves of those books that endure as a personal canon, it is not the characters, or the story, or a plot that unite them; each and all of these can get in the way of what makes a book come alive to me. Nor is it style, which if evident can be too much, or too short a thrill: literary fireworks that dazzle and disappear just as quickly.

That point of encounter between the writer and the reader, in the example of this amateur reader, that allows a book to become an imperfect conduit to what feels like my soul, or at least somewhere greater than just mind or body (and the body is always involved), is always some fine and subtle layering of the voice in the ear, the spirit of a conjured world and that invisible but authoritative atmosphere. When these layers are in perfect balance, those few indispensable books, to borrow from Augustine, are deeper in me than I am in me.