December: Extended Reading Notes

Reading wildly all over the place, but with those converging lines I’ve written about providing more direction to my reading than I prefer to concede. To end my reading for 2013, a few thoughts on those books I finished over the last month.

Robert Fagle’s exceptional translation of the Iliad has superseded Richard Lattimore’s as my personal favourite. It is bright, powerful and pulls you relentlessly through the narrative without sacrificing Homeric style. Fagles has found the balance between loyalty to Homer’s language and the need to remove the cobwebs and find a fresh modern voice. I have his Odyssey to read soon. A conversation with a reader in the Comments to my post on reading the old dead Greeks has convinced me to read both George Chapman’s and Christopher Logue’s Homer, the latter first. At Max’s suggestion I also read Alice Oswald’s Memorial this month and was taken aback at the brilliance of her portrayal of the Iliad, in which she brings to the foreground the minor characters of the Iliad, introduced briefly by Homer merely to die horrid deaths. In doing so, Oswald evokes fresh revulsion for the senselessness but inevitability of slaughter and warfare.

After my thrill of discovering Clarice Lispector’s work with Água Viva, as is often the case I waited a considerable time to read another of her books. In this case, my reticence was misplaced as Near to the Wild Heart and A Breath of Life were no less dazzling. I’m less convinced of the inevitable comparison with Virginia Woolf, but see more resonance with Beckett. I need to think more about this, but there is something of the same apprehension about literature’s inability to express anything, and instead falling away towards silence. In each book, including her phenomenal first, written while in her early twenties (which is astounding), Lispector rises above fiction’s banal conventions. She compels every word to hard labour, extracting every drop of meaning from the fewest words, though she, like Beckett, is not a minimalist in that overworked sense. Like Beckett, Woolf or Duras, Lispector’s work make delicious demands of her readers, though with sentences that are completely available. I’ve lined up The Passion According to G.H. and The Hour of the Star to read in the next few weeks.

I mentioned briefly the personally transformative role that Pierre Hadot continues to have, which deepens with my reading of his Plotinus or the Simplicity of Vision. This is part of a self-reflective journey that I feel is to a great extent outside the reaches of language, as in Hadot’s reflection on Plotinus: “… the spiritual world was not for him…a supercosmic place from which he was separated….Neither was it an original state…lost….Rather [it] was nothing other than the self at its deepest level….It could be reached immediately, by returning within oneself.” My contemplation of the relationship between theory and practise of ancient and modern philosophies is taking me back to old dead Greeks with Plotinus and Heraclitus, and further back towards Vedic texts.

What else in December? David Markson’s Reader’s Block kept me curious enough to get to the end, but it felt like style over substance. I’d rather read John Berger for more accomplished minimalism. I came to Micheline Aharonian Marcom’s A Brief History of Yes eagerly, and finished with thanks for its brevity. My first Ryszard Kapuściński book, which I approached with trepidation (because it appears that Kapuściński might have been one hell of a shitty human being), was better than expected: Travels with Herodotus is clunky written (or translated), and I could pick all sorts of holes as a piece of ‘literary reportage’, but I left with a warmth for the voice of the narrator, and expect to read another Kapuściński one day. Finally, Hélène Cixous never disappoints, and Three Steps on the Ladder of Writing in which she writes of her literary loves is one of those books I shall return to regularly for its radiance.

Contemplative Silence As Bodily Practice.

Self-portrait at an early age (between 1628 and 1700) - After Rembrandt (1606–1669)
Self-portrait at an early age (between 1628 and 1700) – After Rembrandt (1606–1669)

These notes on contemplative silence and hermitism aspired to something more, but failed. Insomnia gives me solitude and reading time, but the longer it persists the more fragmentary my thoughts become.

Gustav Mensching offers a typology of silences: preparatory silence, contemplative silence, worshipful silence, expectant silence and monastic-ascetic silence.

I wonder what lies behind my longing for a hermitic existence, to enact a modern-day Anthony of the Desert (sans sainthood).

“Why write about solitude in the first place? Certainly not in order to preach it, to exhort people to become solitary. What could be more absurd? Those who are to become solitary are, as a rule, solitary already … all men are solitary. Only most of them are so averse to being alone, or to feeling alone, that they do everything they can to forget their solitude.” (Thomas Merton, Disputed Questions)

I return to the desert eager to welcome the dawn, but what I’m seeking is an outer silence to complete my inner silence, my voicelessness. Desert silence is before time, beyond life, a place we have come from and to which we will return.

The word hermit-and, of course, eremite, derives from the Greek eremites, with its roots in eremos, a desert or wilderness.

The Japanese have a term hikikomori, literally pulling inward, reclusiveness as a manifestation of a social illness. Samuel Riba, the protagonist of Enrique Vila-Matas’ Dublinesque self-diagnoses hikiomori tendencies.

Cixous (Rootprints) writes that “Our dialogues are often mute. / This doesn’t prevent them from taking place,” understanding that keeping silent is a form of communication. Cixous’ writing is filled with silence. It is a silence that runs up against the thresholds of language.

Anna Akhmatova’s poetry resides in that realm between silence and speech, between muteness and articulation. “Silence herself speaks.” (Poem Without a Hero)

“The person who dares to be alone can come to see that the ’emptiness’ and ‘uselessness’ which the collective mind fears and condemns are necessary conditions for the encounter with truth. It is in the desert of loneliness and emptiness that the fear of death and the need for self-affirmation are seen to be illusory.” (Thomas Merton, Raids on the Unspeakable)

Egyptian-born St Anthony spent fifteen years living in a cave, communicating with others through a tiny crevice carved into the cave wall. He died in the year 356 at the age of 105.

Brodsky (Conversations) said, “As the body grows older it fills up with silence-with organs and functions which are no longer relevant to its life.”

Neurologists profess that the brain’s cortical mantle evolved primarily from a need to communicate. We are wired to be sociable and live in communities.

“Every human being is alone in the core of the mind. When we are born we cry; and that cry is the cry of loneliness. Thus it is with children. Thus it is with growing youth. And the older we grow the lonelier we grow.” (John Cowper Powys, A Philosophy of Solitude)

Ethical Theory

In my last brief post I wrote of the thrill of discovering (thanks to David) the work of Pierre Hadot and his philosophical leitmotif, drawn from antiquity, that philosophy is the choice of a form of life and not purely academic discourse. We are intuitively drawn to thinkers that confirm our way of thinking, and being non-academic I have always read philosophy in this way, hence the philosophers that fill the most shelf space in my library: Nietzsche, Wittgenstein, Spinoza, Kant, Derrida, Cixous and more recently Jane Bennett, Bourdieu and Pierre Hadot, intellectuals that intentionally spoke to readers beyond the academy.

I wrote of seeking a life with less anxiety, more contentment. Philip responded (and I hope he doesn’t mind me extracting his invaluable remarks from the comments box):

I sometimes wonder, though, whether explicitly searching out a life “with less anxiety, more contentment” – i.e., seeking to improve one’s own lot – isn’t just another reinforcement of the striving self: i.e., if I perform my spiritual exercises with enough discipline, or if I become ascetic enough, I will at last achieve bliss. Seeking liberation from the ego through the workings of the ego.

This is the crux, the Buddhist stance, as far as I understand it, that denies the concept of self. My difficulty with this position is how to develop it as a form of living, in the direction of what the Epicureans called ataraxy (contentment with existence).

I’ve followed the path of ontological nihilism, reality doesn’t exist etc., and reverted to a more existential stance that eschews teleology, but reinforced by what is essentially a modernised Epicureanism, similar to what Jane Bennett terms enchanted materialism. To quote my new old friend Lucretius, “Nothing in the body is made in order that we may use it. What happens to exist is the cause of its use.”

The ancient Greek philosophers, of all schools, developed a set of spiritual practices and meditations, a core of ethical principles that were vigorously discussed and expounded, making it more likely that they would be enacted as ethical practises. Foucault wrote of a discipline for installing an ethical code on the body, of an ideal of self to which the ethical person aspires. It seems to me that denying the concept of self results in a frustrating paradox more likely to result in acedia (apathy, but with shades of depression) than ataraxy.

When time permits I’ll write further about the content of the ethical ideal that gets me out of bed. Do you have a set of ethical ideals to which you subscribe? And, if so, what motivates those ideals?

Thoughts on Chris Kraus’ I Love Dick

Chris Kraus reading from "I Love Dick"
Chris Kraus reading from “I Love Dick”

My copy of Chris Kraus’ I Love Dick is full of scribbles and underlining, flecked with coloured markers, sections I will now transfer to my notebook. These are mostly in the second part. I enjoyed the first part of the novel but it didn’t feel as remarkable as the second. Soon into the second part my pulse quickened and I read to the end in a frenzy.

Apart from a couple of brief conversations on Twitter I have avoided the pre-text to I Love Dick so read it as fictionalised memoir and essay. Kathy Acker’s influence is palpable, and in turn the influence on Zambreno’s brilliant Heroines. I Love Dick is fifteen years old but “men still ruin women’s lives” and the book will stay relevant until that no longer remains the norm.

The second half of this book blew the top of my head off. Its extended pieces of art criticism are simply brilliant. Although informed by theory, it is not a deeply allusive novel, and stands alone as a serious piece of literature, one using the epistolary form, which I normally avoid but in this case is the only form possible for this particular narrative.

I’ll be thinking a lot more about this book, sitting as it does neatly with Heroines but also with my reading of Cixous. Let me leave behind a small number of the shorter pieces I underlined.

  1. I think our story is performative philosophy.
  2. Who gets to speak and why is the only question.
  3. Men still ruin women’s lives.
  4. To be female still means being trapped within the purely psychological. No matter how dispassionate or large a vision of the world a woman formulates, whenever it includes her own experience and emotion, the telescope’s turned back on her. Because emotion’s just so terrifying the world refuses to believe that it can be pursued as discipline, as form.
  5. There’s not enough female irrepressibility written down.
  6. I think the sheer fact of women talking, being, paradoxical, inexplicable, flip, self-destructive but above all else public is the most revolutionary thing in the world. I could be twenty years too late but epiphanies don’t always synchronise with style.
  7. What happens between women now is the most interesting thing in the world because it’s least described.

I have the sequel Torpor on order.

Nietzsche, Ecce Homo and Biography

Nietzsche, like Jean-Paul Sartre, TS Eliot and the films of Martin Scorsese, is best discovered before you hit your twenties. His writing is accessible to early interpretation and uncorrupted by the language of the academy. I remember so clearly the combustive impact of reading Friedrich Nietzsche’s books, one after the other as he laid waste to Christian morality. After reading Nietzsche, the world expanded, less mysterious but cleaner, more chaotic. Nietzsche, like Sartre, is best reread every ten years.

When I first read Nietzsche, probably under the baleful influence of TS Eliot, I abjured biography. All that mattered was the text, so I disdained to read Ecce Homo, Nietzsche’s autobiography (of sorts). As I learnt from the introduction to Benoît Peeters’ Derrida biography, Derrida did not consider philosopher’s lives as extraneous to their philosophical work. On Nietzsche, Derrida wrote:

We no longer consider the biography of a ‘philosopher’ as a corpus of empirical accidents that leaves both a name and a signature outside a system which would itself be offered up to an immanent philosophical reading – the only kind of reading held to be philosophically legitimate […].

In a late interview on “the question of biography”, Derrida insisted:

I am among those few people who have constantly drawn attention to this: you must (and you must do it well) put philosophers’ biographies back in the picture, and the commitments, particularly political commitments, that they sign in their own names, whether in relation to Heidegger or equally to Hegel, Freud, Nietzsche, Sartre, or Blanchot, and so on.

Taking inspiration from Derrida and Kate Zambreno’s initial FFIMS post I tackled Ecce Homo for the first time. I now suspect it will become my favourite Nietzsche book, though I am long overdue a rereading of his works.

The first thought on reading Ecce Homo is the cavernous confidence of the text, bordering on arrogance, or what Thomas Steinbuch, in his commentary on Ecce Homo calls megalomania:

The chapters of Ecce Homo are composed as answers to the questions posed in their titles: “Why I Am So Wise,” “Why I Am So Clever,” “Why I Write Such Good Books,” and “Why I Am a Destiny.” The titles seem to be naked expressions of self-importance, of egotism, from the simple hubris of “I am wise” to the megalomania of “I am destiny,” as if in writing these titles Nietzsche had reared up before the world demanding its acknowledgement, tragically presaging the madness that was soon to engulf him. This is not so. Egotism in the sense of self-importance, as belonging to the psychology of domination, is not part of Nietzsche’s life or work. If an ideology of affirming self-importance has been found here, this is only the projection of an authoritarian society’s own obsessive focus on figures of domination and its need to believe in the monolithic action of authority. Indeed, we shall see below that constructing the other as a “self-of-importance” belongs to the psychology of competition. It is simply true that Nietzsche’s role in the history of life was tremendously important as the dialectical counter to décadence. Sooner of later we need to come to terms with the problem of décadence in ourselves, and at that moment the one we will find is Nietzsche-this is what he meant by declaring himself a destiny.

So, not egotism or megalomania but the Dionysian overcoming of decadence to find the order concealed in the chaos. A bit self-helpy perhaps, or more generously where Nietzsche joins forces with Buddhism to destroy individuality. But this is why Nietzsche has always appealed; he is a philosopher, like Sartre, that changes the prism through which you see life, and therefore changes your life. Gilles Deleuze, Jacques Derrida and Hélène Cixous seem to offer the same opportunity, though need far more effort.

Enough rambling. Can anyone recommend a reliable Nietzsche biography? Thanks to a conversation with flowerville, I’ve been reading up on Thomas Brobjer. I like the look of Thomas Brobjer’s Nietzsche’s Philosophical Context: An Intellectual Biography.  Ecce Homo is very fine but suffers the flaw of any autobiography, that it is essentially a fiction. The best Nietzsche “biography” I’ve read is this thrilling chronological list of “not only the books which Nietzsche read throughout his life, but also lectures he attended as well as professorial work he was engaged in, the music he listened to and composed, and, finally, denotes when and where he wrote his philosophical works.”

Some Well-Intentioned Reading Ideas for 2013

So, in my review of this year’s reading I vowed to make no reading resolutions for 2013, not because I don’t have some ideas, but writing about them pretty much guarantees serendipity will lead me in a completely different direction. But I’m going to chuck a few ideas into the void, for no other reason than it helps me think.

Since my post dealing with feminine writing, I’ve started to identify a series of writers that I plan to read more thoroughly, more Cixous obviously. My touchstone book for 2012 was Kate Zambreno’s brilliant Heroines. The book  is the sort of polymorphous text that opens up new possibilities for biography, literary criticism and memoir. Read if you must but don’t be mislead by reviews of Heroines that reveal more about the prejudice of the reviewer than the text. Helen’s or Michelle’s reviews offer a more balanced, less blimpish point of view. I’ll be taking inspiration from both Kate Zambreno’s blog (a project now ended) and Heroines and reading writers like Jean Rhys, Djuna Barnes, Olive Moore, obviously more Clarice Lispector and Claude Cahun. I’m also interested in those treading similar ground, writers like Chris Kraus, Vanessa Place, Tamara Faith Berger and Dodie Bellamy. I also plan to read some Julia Kristeva and Kate Zambreno’s earlier Green Girl.

There are some thrilling new books due next year, so I will definitely be reading any new books that appear by László Krasznahorkai, JM Coetzee’s The Childhood of Jesus and the collection of letters between Coetzee and Paul Auster, Giorgio Agamben’s Nymphs, Amelie Nothomb’s Life Form, Sonallah C Ibrahim’s That Smell and Notes from Prison and William Gass’s Middle C. The second (and possibly third) volume of Reiner Stach’s Kafka biography is due and unmissable.

I’ve started reading Benoît Peeters’ Derrida biography and plan to read more Derrida. I’ve got plans to read Wittgenstein, Deleuze and Adorno more deeply, and want to explore further what Ray Brassier is doing. Oh, and I seriously intend to get back to Thomas Bernhard and Peter Handke.

If I achieve half of these goals I’ll be happy and no doubt serendipity will hijack my intentions along the way.

Thanks for reading Time’s Flow Stemmed. Have a good holiday.