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.

Ali Smith: Autumn

Anyone that’s read this blog for any length of time (thank you) knows my disposition for literature with a modernist spirit, books that share a language of reticence, an ironic stance perhaps. I read with the conviction that through what Shklovsky terms defamiliarisation, it is possible to reveal usually veiled boundaries of our own familiar world, thus offering the possibility of a secular re-enchantment.

Over the last few months I’ve listened intently to the Backlisted podcast, a high-spirited literary conversation that focuses on old books. Before they discuss a featured writer, the podcast hosts chat about the books they’ve read. A comment by Andy Miller piqued my interest in Ali Smith’s Autumn, his argument that the novel is so very contemporary that it demands to be read immediately, almost that it has a literary use-by date.

In choosing our recent European referendum as its backdrop, there is a voguish aspect, which I worried beforehand might be excessive. I’ve not read Ali Smith before and steer away from most contemporary literature, preferring a 10-year delay in order not be to influenced by social media hyperbole and sponsorship. What I discovered in Autumn was greater subtlety than expected, a restrained political context that centred to a greater extent on periodically forgotten and revived British pop artist Pauline Boty, and the Keeler/Profumo scandal.

But there was more of interest in Smith’s book: her exploration of time and memory in particular. In common with many writers that continue to write in the spirit of modernism, Smith embraces a more fluid view of self, confronting the scientific notion of consciousness, of linear moments of time strung out like a set of rosary beads. Her characters in Autumn live with time as a distinctive substance of their selves, with memories, as Bergson wrote, as “messengers from the unconscious” reminding us of “what we are dragging behind us unawares”.

My reading intentions for next year, to what extent I ever stick to a plan (very little), is, as Andy Miller exhorts in the Backlisted podcast, to read outside my taste. I remain very interested in what Seagull Books publish, but also intend to thoroughly explore the backlists of Open Letter and Fitzcarraldo Editions, and to be less squeamish about contemporary books.

Seagull Books / My Sense of Soul

Regular readers of Time’s Flow Stemmed will know of my profound admiration of Seagull Books. In a time of sweeping intellectual nihilism, Seagull publish books that change the possibilities of art, perpetuating the work of serious publishers like Adelphi and Suhrkamp.

Seagull Books’s annual catalogue combines enticing prose and elegant production. The beautiful 2016-2017 edition includes contributions from some favourite lit bloggers, and also my brief response which follows Naveen Kishore’s “provocation”:

“Soul he said. Soul as the prison of the body. Soul I asked? What about the ones who don’t believe? In soul. Or God. Or religion. The ones that understand the body for what it is. Accept its one-way journey towards the inevitable. The body as decay. Gradual ruin. Eventual crumbling. We all know this. Or those that think the ‘inner core’, or what I presume is a ‘substitute’ for the notion of ‘soul’, is actually just an ever changing, evolving, fermenting mass of literature that grows. And grows. And knows freedom. And fear. And emotion. And love. And death. And every kind of existential angst that any soul worth its weight in gold would know! What about me? I asked. Or you for that matter. We who write and read and write and continue to both read and write while our bodies grow old and tired. But the mind. The mind remains in a state of excitement. Constantly radiant. Its brilliance grows with every new thought. What if we substitute ‘literature’ for ‘soul’ in your proud statement so that it now reads ‘Literature as the prison of the body’. Thing is that this doesn’t hold. Literature cannot be a space that restricts movement. Or freedom. At least it shouldn’t be. It is meant to be a liberating presence. Like its close companion. The dark. For me the dark is important. The dark as a substitute for soul? Maybe. Darkness is essential for literature of meaning to grow and take root.”

My sense of soul is rooted in Aristotle who also used the term psyche in a time before we rooted psychology in the brain, rather as a form or a forming of the whole body. Wax and imprint, like Ovid’s Pygmalion, are one, but this begs the question of how we become one. Identity is a precondition for unity of self, awareness of our selves. The eye is for sight, the ear for hearing but there is no organ of memory, no place in the body where identity can be seen to reside.

In my imagination I venture deep into the caves of Lascaux where humans, sometime between 15,000 and 10,000 BC painted falling horses into the cracks in the rocks. If I imagine carefully I can catch obliquely a shimmering of half-recalled moving images that was perhaps in the mind of a human in this time before language. It seems to me that we retain a sense of this inner life during our dreams, when sound, smells, gestures have primacy over the spoken or written word. Language seems a less direct, less rich way of interrelating with the world around us.

Chimpanzees are thought to have the ability to understand other’s behaviour by inferring from unobservable signs, such as desires, feelings, beliefs and thoughts. If this is true it casts powerful light on fundamental aspects of human nature, of what life might of been like for languageless humans.

Pascal Quignard, indebted to Lacan, likens the acquisition of verbal language to loss, a second death, when an infant’s worldview is transfigured into a system of commonplace signs. Quignard insists that ears are the earliest organs to develop in our prenatal state, that our time in the womb is a long maternal symphony. We lie around, increasingly cramped in non-verbal life until we are torn from our self-contained kingdom into a place of language and identity. Everything we gain is haunted by our loss. Celan captured fully the nature of this tragedy when he wrote, “Whichever word you speak—/you owe/to destruction.”

“Perception,” wrote Bergson, “is completely impregnated by memory-images which, in interpreting it, complete it.” I was only eighteen months old when my mother died. My memory-image of her is of a shadowy nature, based wholly on a small selection of photographs and anecdotes. In memory, my mother is without voice, of which I have no recollection, though she was musical and must have sung to me often. Depersonalisation, characterised by an inescapable sense of strangeness and unreality, is a not uncommon response to sudden loss. My earliest memories are of retreating into a fantasy world where books and drawings soon became more real than the estranged, not-right world around me.

Identity, in the way that Quignard appears to use the term, is a slippery concept. In the case of depersonalisation, identity is extraordinarily elusive. Our unique selves, for the sake of stability, rely on a sense of continuity. The most useful definition for me, is that of William James, who identified the hallmark of personal identity as the “consciousness of personal sameness.” A secure sense of identity is undermined when our concept of self is variable. A state of depersonalisation is often characterised by the appearance of images and sensations from the preconscious, not unlike our non-verbal dream worlds.

Though words are the tools of literature, I think, in some sense, we take for granted the way our identities are transformed by all that literature embodies. While reading, our mind is forming image concepts in the same way it does when using other sensory systems, such as hearing, touch and gesture. The mediation of memory through the vivid images that literature provides, in all their vicarious delicacy, can be redemptive. Didn’t Orwell exhort us to use invigoratingly fresh metaphors to evoke a powerful visual imagery?

Moments of Being (Virginia Woolf)

Mere memories. Moments of Being is a collection of unpublished autobiographical writings of Virginia Woolf, centred on A Sketch of the Past, in which Woolf saws her memories into slices. As always with Woolf, there are surprises within a work that is by turn shocking, saddening and witty. It also serves as a contemplative study of the telescoping effect of memory recollection.

Bergson wrote that until a memory arrives in the present it is cold, lifeless. Woolf’s memory of her beloved mother’s death “unveiled and intensified . . . perceptions, as if a burning glass has been laid over what was shaded and dormant . . . as if something were becoming visible”, unshades memories of people visitable only in memory. It brought to mind afresh a long forgotten memory of a man who delivered groceries to my childhood home in Brunei, an effervescent, laughing man, harrowed with grief after losing his son, my five-year old friend, to appendicitis.

Woolf also writes about how her fiction and memory served each other:

Further, just as I rubbed out a good deal of the force of my mother’s memory by writing about her in To the Lighthouse, so I rubbed out much of [my father’s] memory there too. Yet he obsessed me for years. Until I wrote it out, I would find my lips moving; I would be arguing with him; raging against him; saying to myself all that I never said to him; how deep they drove themselves into me, the things it was impossible to say aloud. They are still some of them sayable; when Nessa for instance revives the memory of Wednesday and its weekly books, I still feel come over me that old frustrated fury.

But in me, though not in her, rage alternated with love. . . . ‘You must think me,’ he said to me after one of these rages—I think the word he used was ‘foolish’. I was silent. I did not think him foolish. I thought him brutal. . . .

How this text may have evolved and changed had it ever come to publication is worthy of contemplation. It is raw Woolf, naked and revealing, but deeply insightful.

Sebald’s The Emigrants and Phantasms

Walking England’s oldest pathway in between immersing in WG Sebald, placing foot after foot on a path used by walkers 5000 years ago, reflecting on the memories and stones and truths in The Emigrants. A grass trackway crosses chalk downs beside clumps of trees sitting on barrows, ancient burial grounds, and I’m pondering the accrual of events that combine places, artefacts and persons in an act of transformation.

In a late essay-The Mystery of the Red-brown Skin. An Approach to Bruce Chatwin, included in Campo Santo-Sebald wrote of Bruce Chatwin’s writing, situating him in a literary limbo. His words in this passage serve equally to locate his own legacy:

Just as Chatwin himself remains an enigma, one never knows how to classify his books. All that is obvious is that their structure and intentions place them in no known genre. Inspired by a kind of avidity for the undiscovered, they move along a lin where the points of demarcation are those strange manifestations and objects of which one cannot say whether they are real, or whether they are among the phantasms generated in our minds from time immemorial. Anthropological and mythological studies in the tradition of Lévy-Strauss’s Tristes Tropiques, adventure stories looking back to our early childhood reading, collections of facts, dream books, regional novels, examples of lush exoticism, puritanical penance, sweeping baroque vision, self-denial and personal confusion-they are all these things together. It probably does them most justice to see their promiscuity, which breaks the modernist concept, as a late flowering of those early travellers’ tales going back to Marco Polo where reality is constantly entering the realm of the metaphysical and miraculous, and the way through the world is taken from the first with an eye fixed on the writer’s own end.

My deepest gratitude goes to a friend that suggested I might find the Ridgeway uniquely fascinating, this ancient pathway following the Chiltern Hills; roaming respectfully over ancient long barrows, white horses and old forts – there is no better way to continue the preceding movement, a journey of phantasms, that of reading Sebald’s writing. They are not so vastly different in character. As Bergson wrote, ‘the following instant repeats the preceding instant’, or, at least, that is how it feels.

One way or another I’m going to have to acquire Die Ausgewanderten [The Emigrants] in the German original. Lise Patt in Searching for Sebald: What I Know for Sure writes, ‘Many scholars have noted the loss of language subtleties in the translation. The interplay between German and English that marked the original is almost entirely lost when all sentences are translated to English. But the assault to the images and to the multiple visual dialects that Sebald has carefully built over the last ten years is even more egregious’. Patt explains at length the slippage in text and imagery between translated versions, a point also touched on in Philippa Comber’s Ariadne’s Thread of Sebald’s correcting, and eventual falling out with translators.

My intrigue with Sebald’s writing compels me to continue reading, moving into his poetry and  critical essays, but also reading some of the better secondary literature. I’ve been quietly building up a small collection of both (Terry Pittsthe  blog for Sebald enthusiasts-probably has an extensive list of worthwhile secondary material; if not I’ll compile one sometime soon). But Sebald’s work is also drawing me back to two other writers that seem to have a similar range of concerns: Woolf and Herodotus.

The Highest Laugh

Officer and Laughing Girl (1657) - Johannes Vermeer

Officer and Laughing Girl (1657) – Johannes Vermeer

Laughter evolved not for its health benefits but because of its impact on others, and therefore positive benefits should most reliably occur within interpersonal contexts. Evolutionary accounts of laughter exists because of the generally accepted view that laughter is a homologue of the primate relaxed open-mouth display, known less formally as the play face.

For at least two hours in the London Library I was absorbed in Psychophysiological Approaches to the Study of Laughter in the Oxford Handbook on positive psychology. (I’m ambivalent about the positive psychology movement, sympathetic to its Stoic roots, but repelled by its corporate manifestation.) There was much of interest in the chapter, but mostly it brought to mind Beckett, Critchley and Bergson.

In Simon Critchley’s essay superb  On Humour he writes,

For me, it is this smile – deriding the having and the not having, the pleasure and the pain, the sublimity and suffering of the human situation – that is the essence of humour. This is the risus purus, the highest laugh, the laugh that laughs at the laugh, that laughs at that which is unhappy, the mirthless laugh of the epigraph to this book. Yet, this smile does not bring unhappiness, but rather elevation and liberation, the lucidity of consolation. This is why, melancholy animals that we are, human beings are also the most cheerful. We smile and find ourselves ridiculous. Our wretchedness is our greatness.

I’ve always viewed with a mixture of envy and unease those with hearty, big belly laughs. From time to time I try them out for size, but they don’t fit. I laugh often but my laughs are quieter, sounds, whether major or minor, from the interior. Bataille identified “major laughter” which requires “two conditions: (1) that it’s sudden; and (2) that no inhibition is involved.”

Critchley’s argument, if I understand it correctly, is developed from Plato’s theory (in Philebus, Socrates explains his suspicion of laughter) that humour comes from a place of superiority, that laughter has its roots in disparaging others. Not Bataille’s unpredictable laughter of release, but one of mockery, closer to what Beckett calls the intellectual or dianoetic laugh.

The bitter laugh laughs at that which is not good, it is the ethical laugh. The hollow laugh laughs at that which is not true, it is the intellectual laugh. Not good! Not true! Well well. But the mirthless laugh is the dianoetic laugh, down the snout — Haw! – so. It is the laugh of laughs, the risus purus, the laugh laughing at the laugh, the beholding, saluting of the highest joke, in a word the laugh that laughs – silence please — at that which is unhappy.

This theory of a superiority of humour  fits with Bergson’s idea that laughter is a corrective to foolish behaviour, what he calls, “a constant striving after reciprocal adaptation, ” concluding, “We may therefore admit, as a general rule, that it is the faults of others that make us laugh by reason of their unsociability rather than of their immorality.

A Philosophical Attitude

Gill001

Like Einstein I disassociate myself from the atheist tag, partly because I prefer an “attitude of humility corresponding to the weakness of our intellectual understanding of nature and of our own being.” But also to distance myself completely from the fundamental atheists (Dawkins, Dennett, Hitchens et al.) who declaim their untestable (on both sides) hypothesis at very opportunity.

During the Middle Ages everything changes, because philosophy is no longer merely religion’s servant. As soon as philosophy frees itself from a theology, it becomes a critique, either purifying or destroying, of religion. Philosophers-Spinoza no less than Kant, for example-have always had a tendency to purify the idea of God and detach it from properly religious representations. It seems to me that what has been called natural religion is merely a theistic philosophy. As such, it lacks what is essential in religion: rites. Now, I recognise that by defining religion in this way, I oppose a rather general use of the word, namely, to speak of God, transcendence, or mystery. I have observed the fact in Thomas Mann, who in a letter remarks, “We live and we die in mystery, and one can, if one wishes, qualify the consciousness we have of it as religious.” Similarly, Einstein spoke of the scientific religiosity and the cosmic religion of his own position, which he expresses by reporting, “I have the strongest emotion in front of the mystery of life,” while refusing a God who rewards and punishes. In his inaugural lecture, Merleau-Ponty said roughly the same thing as Thomas Mann and Einstein, but was careful to specify that this is a philosophical attitude: “Philosophy awakens us to what is problematic in itself in the existence of the world and our own existence, to the point that we are never healed from searching, as Bergson would say, for a solution ‘in the master’s book.” This is a philosophical attitude that Merleau-Ponty refuses to qualify as atheist, because it merely consists of displacing the sacred or defining it in another way.

Pierre Hadot
The Present Alone is Our Happiness