Sunday Notes

Todd Hido, Untitled #2431

Some weeks my reading ends up in unexpected places. I thought that I’d spend this week reading André Gide’s diaries of the period when Paris was under Nazi occupation. But I’ve been reading Byung-Chul Han. A couple of years ago I read The Burnout Society and last year, The Scent of Time (and would recommend both). Han I like because he diagnoses better than any contemporary thinker what it is to live in this age of hypercommunication and hyperactivity.

Add Michel Houellebecq’s fiction to the brew, with his identification of twenty-first century masculine bitterness, and you’ve got a decent set of windows to view the condition of our age. But I like Han better than Houellebecq. The latter’s reactionary nostalgia overshadows his understanding of the world to a great extent. In both cases I like to see the world through their eyes, especially when they don’t confirm my own perceptions. I’ve been reading Han’s snappily-titled Capitalism and the death drive, and The disappearance of rituals, the latter perhaps his strongest work since The Burnout Society.

A couple of additions this week: Steve Hanson’s A Shaken Bible and Complicities: British Poetry 1945-2007, purchase of the latter evidence of a further attempt to indirectly approach J.H. Prynne’s work, before reading an annotated edition of The Oval Window.

Profanation of culture

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Today, the arts are increasingly rendered profane and disenchanted. Magic and enchantment – the true sources of art – disappear from culture, to be replaced by discourse. The enchanting exterior is replaced with the true interior, the magic signifier with the profane signified. The place of compelling, captivating forms is taken by discursive content, Magic gives way to transparency. The imperative of transparency fosters an animosity to form. Art becomes transparent with regard to its meaning. It no longer seduces. The magic veil is cast off. The forms do not themselves talk. The language of forms, of signifiers, is characterised by compression, complexity, equivocation, exaggeration, a high degree of ambiguity that even reaches the level of contradiction. These suggest meaningfulness without immediately being reducible to meaning. All these now disappear, and instead we are confronted with simplified claims and messages that are artificially imposed on the work of art.

Byung-Chul Han, The disappearance of rituals, translated by Daniel Steuer

Sunday Notes

This week I wrote into my current notebook something that Samuel Beckett is purported to have said in a 1961 interview with Tom Driver: “To find a form that accommodates the mess, that is the task of the artist now.” Beckett, Joyce, Woolf, each exemplified the search for a form that gestures to a reality that exists beyonds the limits of language. Are there contemporary writers that have an interest in questioning and transcending these boundaries?

Where is the fiction with something serious to say, that reveals what cannot be spoken, in a world of omnipresent data and the incessant chattering of ill-informed charlatans? I find assurance in some of the happy melancholy of Jon Fosse, Peter Handke, Gabriel Josipovici, Friederike Mayröcker, and Gerald Murnane, but I cannot help but think that finding new forms to accommodate the mess may no longer be taking place in books.

I’ve been immersed in Beckett, directly and through Andy Wimbush’s Still: Samuel Beckett’s Quietism. At these times I wonder why I stray too far away from my old chestnuts. I could happily spend the time I have available with my tutelary spirits, but for the old rogue of curiosity.

More time than worthwhile was spent reading multiple news sources to comprehend the situation in Ukraine. It serves merely to emphasise the death of investigative reporting and intelligent analysis. I read, with bored compulsion, half of John Calder’s The Garden of Eros, about the goings-on in the post-war Paris literary scene.

In the post this week: Wittgenstein’s Secret Diaries: Semiotic Writing in Cryptography by Dinda L. Gorlée, preparation perhaps for the publication of the first translation into English of Wittgenstein’s Private Notebooks: 1914-1916 later in the year.

Sunday Notes

One of the lessons learned late in my reading life is to think in terms of not writers but books. By instinct a collector, repeatedly have I read a fine book and immediately set about acquiring multiple earlier books by the same writer. With some, my fervour is rewarded, watching a writer’s work become more concentrated over time. Clarice Lispector or Samuel Beckett are both writers that are improved by being read chronologically. With others, Iris Murdoch comes to mind, the early works serve to emphasise recurring foibles that detract, for this reader, from the body of work. Would that I had stopped at The Italian Girl. This lesson applies doubly for poets and poems.

My urge for collection building is balanced by a mid-life desire to travel more lightly, so I continue to thin out my library, discarding old books I will not reread, or whimsical purchases for which a momentary fascination has diminished. This week, laid low by a mild edition of coronavirus, my first, I took the opportunity of self-isolation to gather up a few bags for delivery, when I may once again do so, to my local book dealer.

Between sleeping, working and reading, I did, of course, order a few books while confined to my quarters: Philip Mann’s The Dandy at Dusk, Maria Michela Sassi’s The Beginnings of Philosophy in Greece, Benjamin Lipscomb’s The Women Are Up to Something, and Clare Mac Cumhaill’s Metaphysical Animals. The latter two about Elizabeth Anscombe, Philippa Foot, Mary Midgley and Iris Murdoch who all matriculated at Oxford in the late 1930s, follows a review in the LRB; the other two inspired by being mentioned on Twitter.

I finished two books this week: rereading Albert Camus’s The Outsider in Sandra Smith’s translation, and Marguerite Duras’s The Garden Square, an older translation, showing its age, by Sonia Pitt-Rivers and Irina Morduch. Both sustained earlier readings, unlike Coetzee’s Age of Iron, which I reread in part. The latter reads well as a study of South Africa’s apartheid ideology and how such power structures shape identity. Though there is much fine writing, there are no shortage of weary metaphors: have our two hearts, our organs of love, been tied for this brief while by a cord of sound? Or make of this what you will: Huge bull-testicles pressing down on their wives, their children, pressing the spark out of them.

Acceleration and Standstill

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Man on a Rope (c. 1858), Honoré Daumier

“The general de-temporalization leads to the disappearance of temporal sections and caesurae, the thresholds and transitions which create meaning. The feeling that time passes more quickly now than before is also due to the absence of a pronounced articulation of time. This feeling is intensified by the fact that events follow each other in quick succession without leaving lasting traces, without becoming experiences. Because of the missing gravitation, things are encountered only fleetingly. Nothing carries weight. Nothing is incisive, nothing final. There are no incisions. When it is no longer possible to decide what is of importance, then everything loses importance. Doe to the excessive number of possible connections, i.e. possible directions, things are rarely ever completed, Completion requires a structured, organic time. Within an open and endless process, by contrast, nothing is ever completed. Incompletion becomes a permanent condition.”

— Byung-Chul Han, The Scent of Time, (trans. Daniel Steuer)