Middlemarch Thoughts

George Eliot, Middlemarch. Everyman’s Library, 1991 (1930); Pelikan M800 Blue-striped (Robert Oster Summer Storm ink); Darkstar Collection Notebook

“We learn to read Middlemarch in the probing light of James’ treatment; we then return to The Portrait of a Lady and come to recognise the transformative inflections of its source.”

It is an idea of Steiner’s that I like, his contention that we can think of a reversal in chronology, in that we understand Eliot’s earlier novel better through the reading of the latter. As Christopher J. Knight writes in Uncommon Readers, “James reads Middlemarch, and then writes The Portrait of a Lady. Is the James novel art or criticism? In Real Presences, Steiner contends that it is both.”

In an early review, Edith Simcox described Middlemarch as like ‘a Wilhelm Meister written by Balzac’; George Eliot’s first biographer, Mathilde Blind, compared her to George Sand, Honoré de Balzac and Gustave Flaubert. So, it seems only natural to finish Balzac’s Père Goriot and then read Middlemarch, followed perhaps by The Portrait of a Lady.

Middlemarch is, of course, fascinating and steeped in Eliot’s profound knowledge of European literature and culture. Her passion of the mind is clear, and I like the book’s intensity and seriousness. You can find in Miriam Henderson, the central character in Richardson’s Pilgrimage much in common with Eliot’s Dorothea, that awareness of the impossibility of knowing what is ‘other’, nor even ourselves completely, subject as we are to the lure of imagined states and compelling metaphors.

Dorothea also suggests Zbigniew Herbert’s Mr Cogito and the Imagination (so beautifully translated by Alissa Valles). It is a favourite poem that is never far from my mind.

“he longed to understand fully

-Pascal’s night
-the nature of a diamond
-the prophets’ melancholy
-the wrath of Achilles
-the fury of mass murderers
-the dreams of Mary Stuart
-the fear of Neanderthals
-the last Aztecs’ despair
-Nietzsche’s long dying
-the Lascaux painter’s joy
-the rise and fall of an oak
-the rise and fall of Rome”

Scepticism of Erudition (Fritz Mauthner)

A reference in George Steiner’s great essay Real Presences sent me in search of references to Fritz Mauthner’s influence on Samuel Beckett, and specifically Beckett’s development of scepticism about erudition.

Samuel Beckett’s student library in Watt is worthwhile and usefully points towards other possibly rewarding texts, especially the Linda Ben-Zvi article.

“Beckett came in contact with Mauthner’s Beiträge zu einer Kritik der Sprache during his second collaboration with Joyce. For a long time it was thought that Beckett had read passages from Mauthner out loud to Joyce, helping him with preparations for Finnegans Wake. In reality Beckett was asked by Joyce to read the volumes himself. Beckett ended up engaging even deeper with the Beiträge, as he extracted a number of entries and included them in the “Whoroscope” Notebook. The length of the verbatim notes suggests Beckett did not own a copy at the time. Later, Beckett did acquire a copy of the Beiträge zu einer Kritik der Sprache. However, it can only have come into Beckett’s possession after 1954 when he wrote to the German translator Hans Naumann saying that he would have liked to re-read it after the collaboration with Joyce but that it was difficult to find a copy. Beckett preserved his heavily marked three-volume collection until the end of his life in his personal library.

The influence of Mauthner’s Beiträge zu einer Kritik der Sprache is one of the most relevant to Beckett Studies, equally important as Descartes or Geulincx. In her seminal article, Linda Ben-Zvi presents Mauthner’s stance on language in the Beiträge. According to his philosophy, language encompasses many meanings, including knowledge. By “systematically denying [the] basic efficacy” of language, Mauthner indirectly argues for the ultimate failure of knowledge. However, one cannot discuss the limitations of language by avoiding the medium of linguistic communication. To Ben-Zvi this is equivalent to “the possibility of using language to indict itself”.[My bolding].

A similar argument can be made to explain Beckett’s changing perspective on erudition. In his works, he resorts to knowledge in numerous ways, ranging from an encyclopaedic to a deliberately superficial use of allusions. After Murphy, Beckett revised his use of language as shown in the 1937 letter to Axel Kaun, as well as his relation to the knowledge he had acquired until then. Reading Mauthner at this point in his writing career coincided with his turn to not only linguistic scepticism, but also to a scepticism with regard to erudition. In Watt, Beckett’s resort to intertextuality is diminished substantially in comparison to the previous novels. More importantly, when present allusions are treated less explicitly. Beckett deals in this manner with the problematic question of erudition without excluding the use of external sources.

The theme of complexity from the TCD lectures returns in Watt, this time through the filter of Fritz Mauthner’s ideas and Beckett’s creative reworking. From Mauthner’s Beiträge zu einer Kritik der Sprache, Beckett extracted the idea that the inner world is unknowable because there is no language to express it, since language is a system created only for external experiences. Reading Mauthner must have appealed to Beckett due to a number of aspects discussed in the TCD lectures. More precisely, it resonated with his own interpretation of the mind in Racine’s plays, according to which the mind is a hermetic organ that cannot be accessed or explained.

Beckett’s connection with the treatment of the mind includes the presentation in chapter 6 in Murphy: instead of the true picture of the “apparatus”, the interest lies in “what it felt and pictured itself to be”. Watt in his turn applies the dualism between the inner and the outer world: “For Watt’s concern, deep as it appeared, was not after all with what the figure was, in reality, but with what the figure appeared to be, in reality. For since when were Watt’s concerns with what things were in reality?”. Complexity is in this way linked to the fragmentation of mind also in Watt, as it is in Racine.
”

A George Steiner Rabbit Hole

Saint Joseph Charpenter by Georges de La Tour (The Faber edition of Real Presences uses a detail from this painting as its cover)

Lost on none of the regular readers of this blog is my plummet headlong down a George Steiner rabbit hole, which may continue unabated until I’ve read all of his appreciable oeuvre. When outlining my reading intentions less than a month ago I warned of my fickle reading disposition. If you dislike Steiner’s work–he is a writer that attracts both passionate critics and acolytes–you may wish to ‘look away’ for a further few months.

Presently I am reading Real Presences in which he argues that “Where we read truly, where the experience is to be that of meaning, we do so as if the text (the piece of music, the work of art) incarnates a real presence of significant being”. The argument and Steiner’s wager of transcendence may prove unsuccessful but undoubtable is its force, virtuosity and autobiographical engagement.

The more I read of Steiner’s work the more I’m convinced that he is our age’s Montaigne or Dr. Johnson, not to be diminished by the term ‘critic’, which would suggest a purely parasitic relationship to literature and the arts, but a writer to which we can attribute ‘greatness’ as the most acutely sensitive reader of our age. Steiner often defends what he calls his “old” critical approach, “when the work of art invades our consciousness, something within us catches flame. What we do thereafter is to refine and make articulate the original leap of recognition”. This approach, abetted by Steiner’s astonishing polymathic erudition casts brilliant light on whatever the target of his attention.

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.

Concentrated Exchanges

“The concentrated exchanges between Valéry “who does not forgive himself for not having been a philosopher” (Cioran) and Alain who may not have forgiven himself for not being a great novelist, like his beloved Balzac, are themselves components of a cardinal dialogue. Shorthand and the tape recorder have restored to modern philosophy some of the viva voce spontaneities and openness to questioning advocated by Plato. A considerable measure of Wittgenstein’s teaching survives in the guise of notes taken by auditors and conversations as recalled by pupils or intimates. On the banks of the Cam as on those of the Illissus. Even so mountainous a word processor as Heidegger propounds his considered views on language in dialogue with a Japanese visitor. The counter-authoritarian, anti-systematic tenor of twentieth-century philosophic instruction is restoring to orality something of its ancient role. Innovation, stimulus emanate from a Strauss or Kojève seminar. Disciples differ fruitfully over the master’s dicta and intentions. Already there is something dusty and self-defeating about vast magisterial tomes such as Jaspers on truth or Sartre on Imagination, treatises as monologue. “Dreams are knowledge” taught Valéry in his “Cimetière marin” and dreams tended to be brief.”

George Steiner, The Poetry of Thought

Steiner’s analytical reading of lyrical thought “from Hellenism to Celan” is illuminating to a similar degree as his Grammars of Creation, What I appreciate most of Steiner’s writing is not just his dissective interpretation of another writer’s thought but that he always responds with a rich meditation of his own in a way that often bears no relation to the original text, yet always comes with considerable creative force.

The Sweet Session of Silent Thought

This is such a wonderful anecdote:

“It was 1937, the Soviet Writers Congress. It was the worst year. One of the worst years. People disappeared like flies everyday. They told [Boris] Pasternak, “if you speak they arrest you, and if you don’t speak they arrest you — for ironic insubordination. There are 2,000 people at the event. It is a three day event. Just off stage stands Zjdanov, the Stalinist killer, police killer. It was a three day meeting and every speech was thanks to brother Stalin, thanks to Father Stalin, thanks to the Leninist-Stalinist new model of truth — not a word from Pasternak. On the third day his friends said, “look, they are going to arrest you anyway, maybe you should say something for the rest of us to carry with us.” He was well over six feet, incredibly beautiful, and when Pasternak got up, everyone knew. He got up and I’m told you could hear the silence still Vladivostok. And he gave a number. A number, and two thousand people stood up. Thirty. It was the number of a certain Shakespeare sonnet — of which Pasternak had done a translation which the Russians say, with Pushkin, is one of their greatest texts, so Shakespeare: when I summon up remembrance of things past. A sonnet of Shakespeare on memory. And they recited it by heart, the two thousand people, the Pasternak translation. It said everything. It said: you can’t touch us; You can’t destroy Shakespeare; You can’t destroy the Russian language; You can’t destroy the fact that we know by heart what Pasternak has given us. And they didn’t arrest him. Well, even if the sons of bitches do arrest you — it’s too late. The people already have your treasure with them.”

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’.