There are Monsters Ahead

Mostly unread fiction on these shelves, all monsters exceeding five-hundred pages; some philosophy, or philosophical anthropology in Blumenberg’s case. Tolstoy is missing as is my almost complete set of Heinemann’s Anthony Powell, and two huge Arno Schmidt editions. These are all in my future and the shelves that excite me most, rabbit-holes of discovery that hold in reserve so much promise and mystery.

There are a few novels missing that I’d like to read: William Gaddis’ The Recognitions, another attempt at Infinite Jest, Pynchon, Carlos Fuentes’ Terra Nostra, possibly Louis Armand’s The Combinations, and Cáo Xuěqín’s novel, Grossman’s Life and Fate, Lessing’s space fiction novels. Ever curious about Richardson’s Clarissa, but I don’t think I could sustain myself through its entirety.

‘We are appearance to ourselves’

“When I attempt to understand other human beings, I must necessarily do so on the basis of my own self-understanding. Yet because my consciousness is conditioned by a history and by a culture that can never be completely external objects for me, precisely because I am in them, I can never achieve full self-transparency when it comes to understanding myself and my reactions to other human beings.”

From the prologue to Myth and the Human Sciences, by Angus Nicholls.

This succinct summary of a difficult epistemological situation made me smile, as I read it  several hours after just such a conversation. Unfortunately my side of that discussion was neither as concise or lucid as Nicholl’s.

Writing in the early 1970s, Hans Blumenberg dealt with the same problem as follows:

“Man has no immediate, no purely ‘internal’ relation to himself. His self-understanding has the structure of ‘self-externality.’ Kant was the first to deny that inner experience has any precedence over outer-experience; we are appearance to ourselves, the secondary synthesis of a primary multiplicity, not the reverse. The substantialism of identity is destroyed; identity must be realised, it becomes a kind of accomplishment, and accordingly there is a pathology of identity. What remains as the subject matter of anthropology is a ‘human nature’ that has never been ‘nature’ and never will be.”

‘Swallowing reality whole so as not to lack even a bit of it is arguably the ultimate metaphor for all realism.’

‘Swallowing reality whole so as not to lack even a bit of it is arguably the ultimate metaphor for all realism. Therefore, the most audacious expression of religious longing for unity with the deity—and the sole defence against God’s capriciousness and superiority—is allowing believers to eat their God. Every anxious recourse to symbolism surrenders the boldness found in this form of assuring salvation.’

Hans Blumenberg, Care Crosses the River. (Trans. Paul Fleming)

There was at least an attempt to read other books, but I think I intended only more Blumenberg. Work on Myth rests to my right on my desk, and The Legitimacy of the Modern Age will arrive next week. The only other temptation is Cărtărescu’s Blinding, but that will exhaust what is available of his in translation for a while, so I’m in no hurry. It sits on top of Myth. There are possibly five other of Blumenberg’s books available in English, with History, Metaphors, and Fables due out in late summer. There is much more of his work that could be translated and more in his archives that hopefully is published.

2019 in Review at Time’s Flow Stemmed by Numbers

There was a spike in blog readership a few days ago. Michael Orthofer included my blog in a post about personal-website/blog year-in-review/reading overviews. I don’t pay a lot of attention to my reading numbers and statistics these days, but prompted by Michael’s post, insomnia, and while trying to decide how to follow up Hans Blumenberg’s brilliant The Laughter of the Thracian Woman, I decided to run some numbers.

In 2019, I read 68 books, precisely my ten-year average. I don’t set reading targets nor particularly care how many books I read, beyond feeling decidedly mortal with a reading window that inevitably gets smaller each year.

There were writers I read more than once in 2019. Those listed 1-7 will continue to be part of my future reading plans.

  1. Karl Ole Knausgaard (6)
  2. Enrique Vila-Matas (3)
  3. Clarice Lispector (2)
  4. Maria Gabriela Llansol (2)
  5. Mircea Eliade (2)
  6. S. D. Chrostowska (2)
  7. Jon Fosse (2)
  8. Claudia Rankine (2)
  9. Virginie Despentes (2)
  10. Tomas Espedal (2)

The publishers that featured more than twice were (I don’t solicit or accept review copies):

  1. Dalkey Archive Press (5)
  2. Fitzcarraldo Editions (4)
  3. Harvill Secker (6)
  4. New Directions (3)

This year I am continuing to subscribe to Fitzcarraldo and have also subscribed to Archipelago Books.

Books read were originally written in the following languages:

  1. English (30) – 44%
  2. Norwegian (12)
  3. Spanish (8)
  4. Portuguese (4)
  5. Italian (4)
  6. French (3)
  7. Romanian (3)
  8. German (3)
  9. Polish (1)

Fiction was dominant at 38 books, although these boundaries are wonderfully porous these days, twenty-seven non-fiction (diaries, memoirs, philosophy and literacy criticism) and only three poetry collections.

Publication dates ranged from 1947 to 2019, with all but ten books published after the year 2000. This wasn’t a year for the nineteenth century or earlier.

Fifty-eight percent of the books I read were written by men. My ratio of male-to-female writers has changed markedly over the ten years of this blog, not by any particular design, just exposure to a wider range of writing.

Fifty-two percent of my reading was of writers I read for the first time. There is every year an intention to read more deeply of my literary touchstones, but inevitably I get diverted. I don’t expect that to change. Notably, this year marked my first reading of Mircea Cărtărescu, Hermann Broch, Mircea Eliade, Jon Fosse, Renee Gladman and Ricardo Piglia, each writers whose work I would like to explore further.

If I was compelled to narrow down the year to a single brilliant book, it would be Mircea Cărtărescu’s Nostalgia. I abandon books without guilt, so couldn’t name the year’s worst book.

Visitors to Time’s Flow Stemmed declined by 9% year on year, and down 27% from this blog’s peak in 2013. Comments (335 in total) declined by 28% from 2018 and 48% from a peak in 2017. Of the twenty-two thousand visitors to this blog, most came from America, UK and Canada, followed by India, Australia and Germany. That pattern is consistent over the years. In total visitors came from 156 countries.

Seventy percent of the visitors here came via search, mostly Google, with Twitter referring 18% of visitors. The latter is always a conundrum to me; while I’ve made some enduring friendships on Twitter, its addictive quality represents a serious distraction from reading and reflection. I don’t expect to find resolution anytime soon. My number one external referrer in 2019 was Seraillon (thanks, Scott).

Lessons in Solitude

Jonas Burgert

Whether subconscious intention, some ‘factor X’ effect of the sort posited by Colin Wilson, or, as I prefer to think, pure serendipity, my recent reading is coalescing loosely around oneiric elements and a ‘retrieval of the archaic.’ Or I may well be delusional and seeing links where none exist. All are possibilities.

Mircea Cărtărescu’s ‘taste for things extravagant’ is paired well with my current favourite podcast Weird Studies, the latest centres on Colin Wilson’s classic study of Western esotericism, The Occult, which I thirstily gulped down as a teenager. Wilson’s view of the occult, as described in the podcast: ‘some kind of ether, some kind of energy, some force we don’t understand at work in the world thats deeply essential to the way we experience the world, which we need to come to grips with . . .’ wouldn’t have stood too far, I think, from Hans Blumenberg’s conception of metaphysics.

I read Blumenberg’s The Laughter of the Thracian Maid with reverence, but won’t write an account, not at least without a further less ardent reading. If you like the fragments I’ve posted, you will find a rare treat awaits you.

Spencer Hawkins, translator of Blumenberg’s book, also wrote an afterword that reads more like an introduction; nevertheless it further fuels my interest to read more of Blumenberg’s work: ‘[his] work remains, in many regards, a reflection on reclusion: a highly documented account of a life spent apart from the world, suspicious of common understandings, and in pursuit of his lessons of solitude.’

One of my favourite paragraphs.

‘The study of Being must constantly detach itself, particularly from everything that has already been there before. That also goes for the historical distance in which Thales belongs: the pre-Socratics, to the surprise of those who considered them to represent starting points—as well attested by written transmission—prove to be a mere afterglow of what came before them. The mythology painstakingly reworked by them, perhaps more concealed than overcome, is also just such a sunset view of something withdrawing itself irrecoverably from us. And withdrawing mercifully, because we would simply not be up for its concealment, as has always been the case with whatever yields the highest privilege to the survivor capable of documenting what he may only perceive fading behind him.’

I cannot read the word mere without the mere breath of Job’s interlocutors, devoid of substance.