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.

The Pythagorean Genre

This weekend I continued reading George Steiner, a Faber and Faber paperback (1985) edition of his Language and Silence, first published in 1967. Few living writers inspire me to acquire and read all their books. Reading Steiner somehow makes the world feel more understandable. His work merits concentrated, slow reading and note taking. With an average of twenty pages, the essays are perfectly paced to allow time for reflection between each.

Steiner is one those great readers, on a list with Nabokov, Empson and Woolf, who seem to have read everything worth reading. He’s also a terrific prose stylist. In a field (the literary essayist) filled with overinflated reputations and accompanying egos, his literary criticism is erudite, smart and always reaching toward larger themes.

A favourite essay so far is The Pythagorean Genre, ostensibly about the decline of the novel:

“But there are other possibilities of form, other shapes of expression dimly at work. In the disorder of our affairs–a disorder made worse by the seeming coherence of kitsch–new modes of statement , new grammars of poetics for insight, are becoming visible. They are tentative and isolated. But they exist like those packets of radiant energy around which matter is said to gather in turbulent space. They exist, if only in a number of rather solitary, little understood books.

It is not the actual list that matters. Anyone can add to it or take away under the impulse of his own recognitions, It is the common factor in these works–the reaching out of language towards new relations (what we call logic), and in a wider sense towards a new syntax by which to tempt reality into the momentary but living order of words. There are books, though not many, in which the old divisions between prose and verse, between dramatic and narrative voice, between imaginary and documentary, are beautifully irrelevant or false. Just as criteria of conventional verisimilitude and common perspective were beginning to be irrelevant to the new focus on Impressionism. Starting in the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, books have appeared which allow no ready answer to the question: what species of literature am I, to what genre do I belong? Works so organised–we tend to forget the imperative of life in that word–that their expressive form is integral only to themselves, they modify, by the very fact of their existence, our sense of how meaning may be communicated.”

Steiner gives some examples of an ‘apparently discontinuous, idiosyncratic series’ that he calls the ‘Pythagorean genre’, beginning with Blake and Kierkegaard, embracing Nietzsche, Péguy, Karl Kraus, possibly Walter Benjamin ‘had he not died early’, Broch, Lévi-Strauss, Wittgenstein, and ending with Ernst Bloch, ‘the foremost living writer in the ‘Pythagorean genre’.

Drowsy Rambling about Kundera and Adorno

Man on a Rope (c. 1858), Honoré DaumierIt might be that Milan Kundera’s Testaments Betrayed: An Essay in Nine Parts is one of the best books I have read on the art of the novel. I pause at the word “read,” which feels inadequate because I immerse myself. I devour. I use the term “might” as I will follow with Kundera’s other explorations The Art of the Novel, The Curtain and Encounter, and perhaps these will be even better, surely better than similar investigations by David Lodge, EM Forster or James Wood, and at home with Rita Felski’s unforgettable Uses of Literature.

A fortnight’s medication has imbued my reading of Testaments Betrayed with a somnolent quality, a few pages separated from the others by the necessity of a few moment’s sleep. Testaments Betrayed can be read this way without loss of understanding. As Kundera writes of Nietzsche, his is a composition that is “maximally articulated” and “maximally  unified” without filler or weak passages.

Testaments Betrayed is also one of the better books I’ve read on the art of musical composition, not a match for Adorno’s essays on modern music, but stimulating nevertheless. I read a few pages and then feel compelled to listen to the piece of Janacek or Stravinsky that Kundera is addressing. It has also sent me back to Adorno’s essays.

A friend asked this week why I still read Adorno, what relevance I still find in his work. I hadn’t even thought that people might no longer read Adorno. I’ve mentioned him reasonably often on this blog, especially in my post about his cultural criticism. Minima Moralia is a supremely important work to me, to the extent that my friend nox.rpm and I talked seriously about devoting a blog just to its exploration.

I might devote a separate post, or several to Adorno (or might not: I lack the grounding in either philosophy or sociology), but two aspects struck me most immediately when asked this question: across an extraordinary range of subjects, Adorno always wrote with such coherence. He was one of the few thinkers of his age, or ours, that retreated from Marxism-socialism, and yet still considered lucidly the nature of a post-capitalist society. But he also understood the poison that lies at the core of humanity, that potential within any one us to either destroy others, or ignore their destruction. And yet, somehow, most of us, we go on.

Great Secondary Philosophical Work

Walter Kaufmann’s Nietzsche is pleasing in several different ways. A great start to a new year’s reading, as it’s got me reading, writing and thinking like a man on fire.

I’ve always been stubborn about tackling the major thinkers directly, head on. Stubborn and in cases like Derrida, likely to end in tears. Kaufmann’s Nietzsche is a first-rate work of literature, as good as Thus Spoke Zarathustra, which Nietzsche felt, probably correctly, was his finest moment. I’ve lined up other secondary material on Nietzsche by Nehemas, Safranski and Malcolm Bull.

But I’m wondering what other books on the major thinkers stand up as works of literature in their own right? Is there someone I ought to be reading that will open up Bourdieu’s philosophy/sociology in the way Kaufmann has for Nietzsche’s work? Or Deleuze’s work, which I almost read as poetry, allowing meaning to sink in where it can?

It isn’t just Kaufmann that has me thinking along these lines. Richard Geldard’s Remembering Heraclitus was enlightening. I also became aware from Samuel Beckett’s Library, one of my all-time favourite pieces of secondary literature, how much Beckett approached the major thinkers indirectly before, if ever, launching a direct assault on their major works.

If you have any suggestions please reply in Comments (so other readers can share) rather than Twitter, where everything just gets lost or buried in Favourites.

Kaufmann, Nietzsche and the Cretan

It doesn’t surprise me that Walter Kaufmann’s philosophy is studied alongside his scholarly interpretations of Nietzsche and other thinkers. In Nietzsche: Philosopher, Psychologist, Antichrist, Kaufmann’s personality comes across directly and clearly. Using relevant material from Nietzsche’s notebooks, Kaufmann is able to offer a less ambiguous, coherent interpretation of Nietzsche’s published works.

The following passages come from Kaufmann’s pursuit of the trajectory of one of Nietzsche’s two great insights, the will to power (the other being the eternal recurrence). The numbering is my own. These passages interest me to the degree they evince Kaufmann’s disposition. (Except number ten, all are Kaufmann’s words.)

What is also striking is the extent to which, particularly in 4-5, though Nietzsche had in mind the German Reich, the will to power concept applies to world’s sole remaining superpower.

  1. Primarily, however, fear is nothing but our attitude toward power-or, in Nietzsche’s own previous words, the negative aspect of our will to power.
  2. There is, first, man’s desire to find scapegoats, the quest of the weak and the impotent to find somebody upon whom they can look down and to whom they may feel superior.
  3. [The] sudden association of the will to power with the Greeks was one of the most decisive steps in the development of this conception into an all-embracing monism.
  4. The “history of culture” is thus to be explained in terms of man’s will to overwhelm, outdo, excel, and overpower his neighbour. The barbarian does it by torturing his neighbour. In the light of Nietzsche’s previous comments, he is essentially weak, else he would not need to inflict hurt. Nietzsche speaks of this as a low degree of the striving for excellence because he wishes to express that, quantitatively, we find little power at the bottom of the scale. Toward the middle of the scale, we find what might be called the normal degree of power: one seeks to evoke envy and admiration; one even seeks to elevate one’s neighbour and derives a sense of power from doing so; one gives him joy and gaiety and lets him laugh, saying to oneself, as it were: I have the power to impress and delight them.
  5. One might expect Nietzsche to base his repudiation on the assertion that only a weak nation finds it necessary to impress itself and others with barbarian brawn and armies, and that culture is a higher, i.e., a quantitatively greater, form of power. Instead Nietzsche refers to “the degree of reason in strength”.
  6. The will to power is … introduced as the will to overcome oneself.
  7. Nietzsche asserts that any attempt to understand the universe is prompted by man’s will to power. If so, it would seem that his own conception of the will to power must be admitted by him to be a creation of his own will to power. Is not Nietzsche therefore in the predicament of Epimenides, the Cretan? If his assertion is correct, then it is a fiction.
  8. His theory of the will to power might be the one and only interpretation of human behaviour of which we are capable when we consider the evidence and think about it as clearly as we can. Not only Nietzsche but mankind would then be in the position of the Cretan, and the dilemma-however ridiculous it might seem to the angel Gabriel- would be inescapable for us.
  9. … there “really” is no will, or that the will is “really” a fiction.
  10. “Wherever I found the living, there I found the will to power.”

I’ve enough interest in Kaufmann’s contribution to philosophy to look forward to an updated edition of his The Faith of a Heretic (foreword by Stanley Corngold), due in the summer, and to read his Discovering the Mind series.

The Devilish State

In winter, my reading appetite requires more fibrous material. This year I reread Nietzsche and continue Walter Kaufmann’s Nietzsche. As I read Kaufmann’s interpretation of Nietzsche’s early books I realise that I’ve skipped what Kaufmann calls the Untimely Mediations, translated now as Unfashionable Observations.These four essays are integral to understanding Nietzsche’s early philosophical development, but also make less ambiguous his later work.

If this writing is incomprehensible for anybody or will not go into his head, the fault, it seems to me, is not necessary mine. It is plain enough, assuming-as I do assume-that one has read my earlier writings and not spared some trouble in doing this.

His early recognition of the oppressive and intimidating nature of the State is prescient of his own time, but no less compelling today:

the second side [of the Nation state] is not a bit more delightful but only more disturbing. There are certainly . . . tremendous forces, but they are savage, primordial, and utterly merciless. One looks upon them with uneasy expectations as upon the seething cauldron of a witch’s kitchen: any moment it may flash and lighten to announce terrible apparitions . . . the so-called Nation State . . . is . . . only an increment of the general insecurity and menace . . . and the hunt for happiness will never be greater than when it must be caught between today and tomorrow: because the day after tomorrow all hunting time may have come to an end altogether. We live in the period of atoms, of atomistic chaos . . .  Now almost everything on earth is determined by the crudest and most evil forces, by the egotism of the purchasers and the military despots. The State, in the hands of the latter . . . wishes that people would lavish on it the same idolatrous cult that they used to lavish on the Church.

Kaufmann further interprets his attack on the State:

Nonconformity is the necessary condition of self-realisation. The State is the devil who tempts and intimidates man into animal conformity and thus keeps him from rising into the heaven of true humanity; the Church is the Antichrist who has perverted Christ’s original call to man to break with father and mother and become perfect: she has sold Christ to Caesar and become the chief accomplice of the State in compelling uniformity.

Reading Nietzsche Through Walter Kaufmann

Since I was seventeen I’ve read Nietzsche. I can no longer recall what I read first, probably the yellowing Thus Spake Zarathustra, annotated in two different pens, that still sits on my bookshelf. Nietzsche understands teenagers. He speaks to their complexity and anguish, and they approve of his desire to shatter the tenets of their culture. Nietzsche faced down the nihilism of his age with style, humour and strength. Though Nietzsche’s thinking only partially penetrated my younger self, he left me fortified with the necessity of going deeply into myself to fully experience life.

Over the years I read all of Nietzsche’s published books, though undoubtedly in less reliable translations and editions than are now starting to become available. Nietzsche’s aphoristic style lends itself to dipping into a few lines. Though this achieves little, it is a thought-provoking compass for how one has changed during all the years of reading the same lines. My reading of Nietzsche is changed with all the later reading and thinking I’ve done.

At the moment I’m reading Nietzsche through Walter Kaufmann, only a hundred pages or so in but enjoying his thoughts and observations. Kaufmann untangles Nietzsche’s relations with his anti-Semitic sister Elizabeth Förster-Nietzsche and the intriguing Lou Andreas-Salomé to clarify how both women set out to distort how Nietzsche’s thoughts were later interpreted. Kaufmann then proceeds to show with some elegance how the contradictions in Nietzsche’s arguments are merely superficial. He argues that Socrates is Nietzsche’s ideal, that he is not a ‘system thinker [unlike Kant or Spinoza] but a problem thinker.’

The result is less a solution of the initial problem than a realisation of its limitations: typically the problem is not solved but ‘outgrown’.

Though first published in 1950, Kaufmann’s interpretations are an inspiration for more contemporary readings of Nietzsche, one of which I also wish to read is Alexander Nehamas’ NIETZSCHE Life as Literature (1985). If you know of other Nietzsche secondary literature (not biography) worth reading please let me know.

Some Well-Intentioned Reading Ideas for 2015 (updated)

These are not reading resolutions. Writers promising literary gifts lead me astray too easily for these ideas to be fixed in any way.

This year I read widely covering fifty or so writers, concentrating my reading more deeply only twice on Houellebecq and Anne Carson’s work. In 2015 I’d like to read more deeply into the work of some of my favourite authors: alternative Dante and Homer translations (and Adam Nicholson’s The Mighty Dead: Why Homer Matters) ,  more Ballard’s short stories, always more Beckett, John Berger, Roberto Calasso, more Anne Carson, the new Tom McCarthy, Robert Musil’s diaries, Hélène Cixous, Coetzee, Jenny Diski, Dostoevsky, Marguerite Duras, Pierre Hadot, Houellebecq’s new one if translated next year, Kafka’s short stories, László Krasznahorkai, Clarice Lispector, Bourdieu, Doris Lessing, Nabokov, Alice Oswald, Robert Macfarlane, Nietzsche, Atiq Rahimi, WG Sebald, Thomas Mann, Christa Wolf and Virginia Woolf.

Beyond these ‘old chestnuts’ (as Beckett called his favourite authors) I’m looking forward to unexpected surprises within the pages of the following new books, either missed in 2014 or due in 2015, by authors I have not read before:

  1. Kirmin Uribe – Bilbao – New York – Bilbao
  2. Claudia Rankine – Citizen: An American Lyric
  3. Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor – Dust
  4. Ceridwen Dovey – Only the Animals
  5. Karin Wieland (trans. Shelley Frisch) – Dietrich & Riefenstahl: The dream of the new woman
  6. Can Xue – The Last Lover
  7. Anna Smaill – The Chimes
  8. Han Kang (trans. Deborah Smith) – The Vegetarian
  9. Paul Celan – Breathturn Into Timestead
  10. David Winters – Infinite Fictions: Essays on Literature and Theory

There are several other writers whose older works I’d like to get around to exploring sometime soon including Jens Bjørneboe, Martin Shaw, Ivan Illich, Eva Hoffman, Ivan Goncharov, David Abram, Ágota Kristóf, Rebecca Solnit, Tomas Espedal and Elfriede Jelinek.

As always, distractions are greater than my ambition, but if I manage to take in a decent selection of the above I’m expecting a good year in reading. There are several other titles I have my eye on but I’m mindful of your patience and Molloy’s admission that ‘if you set out to mention everything you would never be done.’

An Optical and Moral Illusion

First proposition. The reasons for which “this” world has been characterised as “apparent” are the very reasons which indicate its reality; any other kind of reality is absolutely undemonstrable.

Second proposition. The criteria which have been bestowed on the “true being” of things are the criteria of not-being, of naught; the “true world” has been constructed out of contradiction to the actual world: indeed an apparent world, insofar as it is merely a moral-optical illusion.

Third proposition. To invent fables about a world “other” than this one has no meaning at all, unless an instinct of slander, detraction, and suspicion against life has gained the upper hand in us: in that case, we avenge ourselves against a better life with a phantasmagoria of “another,” a “better” life.

Fourth proposition. Any distinction between a “true” and an “apparent” world-whether in the Christian manner or in the manner of Kant (in the end, an underhanded Christian)-is only a suggestion of decadence, a symptom of the decline of life. That the artist esteems appearance higher than reality is no objection to this proposition. For “appearance” in this case means reality once more, only by way of selection, reinforcement, and correction. The tragic is no pessimist: he is precisely the one who says Yes to everything questionable, even to the terrible-he is Dionysan.

Nietzsche
Twilight of the Idols

Heraclitus at the Edge of Language

“The truth is that Heraclitus attracts exegetes as an empty jam pot wasps; and each new wasp discerns traces of his own favourite flavour.” Jonathan Barnes, from The Presocratic Philosophers. He goes on to say, “The existence of such diverse interpretations of Heraclitus’ philosophy will sow seeds of despair in the mind of any honest scholar …”

I posted a few excerpts of Richard Geldard’s Remembering Heraclitus, and thought it a lucid exposition, but with a strong personal flavour, portraying Heraclitus as a mystic, likely influenced by the Vedics and a forerunner of Marcilio Ficino, the Gnostics, up to and including the American Transcendentalists. With Barnes’ caution in mind I’ll admit to seeds of despair (as much as I’d like to follow Geldard wholeheartedly with his arguments), preferring to side with Nietzsche that Heraclitus was neither mystic nor materialist. Geldard’s parallels in the epilogue between Heraclitus, Roger Penrose, and the quantum consciousness hypothesis probably whistled way over my head but didn’t strengthen Geldard’s broader contentions.

Next I’m reading Charles Kahn’s drier (more sober) interpretation of Heraclitus’ fragments that interest me by treating Heraclitus not only as a first-rate philosophical thinker but also as a brilliant literary artist. This is the Heraclitus of George Steiner, who wrote so beautifully:

It is the most “stylish’ of philosophers, those most alert to the expressive constraints and resources of stated thought, to its implicit cadence, such as Kierkegaard and Nietzsche, who look to Heraclitus. It is Novalis, practitioner of the Orphic fragment, and Heidegger the neologist, the craftsman of tautology. Rhapsodic and oracular intellects recognise in Heraclitus the fundamental, generative collision between the elusive opacity of the word and the equally elusive but compelling clarity and evidence of things. Immediate or hurried apprehension, the colloquial, misses this decisive tension, that, in Heraclitus’s celebrated duality, of the bow and the lyre. 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.