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.

A Year of Reading: 2012

When I posted last year’s edition of this post, I had no idea I was a few weeks away from being selected as 3:AM Magazine’s Blog of the Year 2011. A thrilling way to end the year; the charge continued into 2012 with the genuine, anxiety-inducing, kick of being asked to contribute to a 3:AM conversation about modernism with David Winters, one of this country’s brightest literary critics.

In fiction reading, the year began brilliantly with László Krasznahorkai’s The Melancholy of Resistance and War and War. The latter has stayed in mind all year, one of the best books I’ve read in memory. I’ve never read such a successful send-up of corporate life as Helen DeWitt’s intelligent Lightning Rods. My slow journey through JM Coetzee’s oeuvre continues; In the Heart of the Country is powerful enough to take skin off.

In non-fiction, the highlight of the year was Theodor Adorno’s Minima Moralia. Much of it whooshed over my head, but with such beauty and insight that I’ve dipped in and out all year.  Kate Zambreno’s Heroines  came out of nowhere, like a lightning bolt, to awaken a passion for the modernist wives, and her idiosyncratic, personal writing style that flowed so naturally into Hélène Cixous, my current idée fixe.

My two major discoveries of the year were Clarice Lispector’s Água Vida and Mahmoud Darwish’s Memory for Forgetfulness, both authors I will be reading and thinking about for a long time.

Geeky Statistics

  1. A third of the sixty-five books I read are in translation, down from forty percent.
  2. More than a third of the books I read are written by women; almost double the eighteen percent of 2011.
  3. Thirty percent of the books I read are fiction, way down on the almost sixty percent of last year.
  4. Over half of the books I read are written by European writers, a third by American writers, the rest split between African, Middle Eastern and South American.

There were no resolutions behind these statistics. As ever, serendipity led my reading. I failed so badly on the few reading resolutions I made last year that I shan’t even repeat the pretence. Reading much less fiction feels in some way connected to this year’s tussle with depression and anxiety. (Fuck, that was hard to write.) The year’s been a grind and make-believe lost some of its allure. I’m pleased that I read more women’s writing, a trend that I expect to continue naturally next year.

I read fewer books and blogged a bit less, both factors I place squarely at the door of my Twitter timeline. Twitter is a huge time-sink but often I find myself having the conversations that I wanted to have on this blog. That is also something that I’ll be considering over the coming year.

Inside

Come, says he, let’s away to prison, we two alone, without her without them, alone I will make you alone, alone you will make the night with your lips on my eyes and I shall see you beyond walls and time. If you will have me I will hold you in my arms and we shall create new tales. If you won’t I shall ask your forgiveness. You will be up above and down below and I shall be inside. Outside, the mystery of things will dry up, under the sun the generations will wash up worlds over words, but inside we shall have stopped dying.

Hélène Cixous
Dedans [Inside]

Feminine Writing

Like all those who read constantly, there is a thread running between each book. Sometimes these threads are part of a conscious intention, other times they are undetectable. Sometimes they are discovered retrospectively. Such a thread has lead me to my current idée fixe: Hélène Cixous, variously described as a professor, feminist writer, poet, playwright, philosopher, literary critic and rhetorician.

Often we are lead to authors grudgingly as I was in the case of Angela Carter. Her reworked fairy tales, exposing their patriarchal roots, stayed in my thoughts. Questions flew across my field of vision like the murmuration of a flock of starlings. Reading is my way of deciphering life; wanting to understand more about deconstructing patriarchal language lead me initially to bell hooks and circuitously to Cixous.

Twice I’ve read Kate Zambreno’s Heroines, one of the exceptional books of the year. Another book that sends my thoughts spinning and wakes me up at night with unresolved questions. In the book and on her blog Kate Zambreno unhitches the notion of feminine writing from gender – as does Cixous – and asks whether writers like Bernhard, Artaud and Rilke are feminine writers.

An exploration into the idea of “feminine”- as contrasted with “masculine” – writing is likely to be the thread that links my reading over the next few months. Cixous emphasises that these terms are not to be equated with “man” and “woman”; part of her intention is to find terms less bound up in emotion and prejudgment. I’ll be reading more Cixous, and constructing a reading list of writers that Kate Zambreno and Cixous discuss. I’ve identified other textually political writers that attempt to dislocate the idea of masculinity and femininity in literary and cultural discourse: Julia Kristeva, Luce Irigaray, Jacques Derrida, Gilles Deleuze and Jacques Lacan.

Reading along these lines, daunting as some of these writers may be, serves a secondary purpose, that of attempting to breathe life into theory, a core intention of Cixous’ writing. For Cixous, theory is not just intellectual masturbation, but a way of seeing and interpreting the world (and word).

In her perceptive Cixous essay, Verena Andermatt Conley writes,

What if, Cixous likes to ask, there were an asymmetry, not a hierarchy, between the sexes, “manifested” at the level of drives and in the relation to the living. The question is vague and perhaps should remain so. But the key question for women is to ask themselves what they want and not just what men want or want them to be. Stories in popular film and literature are told from the man’s point of view. Women tend to write as oppressed men. Relations between the sexes are vitiated by power and self-interest. Rarely do we see or read about a desire for pleasure and joy with and through the other.

The whole topic is ripe with ethical and moral dilemmas, but one I intend to think about a whole lot more. Please make any suggestions of other writers, fiction or non-fiction that might enable me to ask or address any of these questions.