The Self-nourishment of the Soul

“Reading as a cultural act – and especially as a philosophical practice – culminates in study. Study is a learned set of techniques and strategies implemented in order to acquire and master a given knowledge in a given discipline, and is a highly defined and regulated practice. But it is also an ‘idea’ and ‘ideal’, which has defined for centuries the aims and scope of Western culture, so much so that in the Middle Ages the term studium defined the university itself.”

“. . . Agamben refers then to the etymology of studium – from the root st- or sp-, indicating an impact or collision and the deriving shock – which it shares with ‘stupefy’ but also with ‘stupid’: lost, stupefied and stunned, the studioso remains unable to grasp and absorb the amazing amount of stimuli striking him, and is at the same time unwilling to take leave of them. On the other hand, the messianic nature of study incessantly drives it towards completion, towards parousia, and this polarity between interminability and completion constitutes the ‘rhythm’ of study: a succession of stupor and lucidity, discovery and bewilderment, passion and action.”

“Unlike the classical figure of the ‘saintly scholar’ lionised by tradition, these students [as found in Kafka, Walser and Melville’s Bartleby] are ‘failures’, and as such they undermine the whole construct of cultural transmission and legitimacy. In Bartleby, however, there occurs the messianic reversal, whereby the messianic polarity of study is surpassed, or better deactivated: Bartleby, who for Agamben represents ‘pure potentiality’, is a scrivener who has ceased to write, and thus his gesture represents a potential that does not precede but follows its act. This ‘liberated’ potential frees study of its melancholy and returns it to its truest nature, which is not the work, but rather inspiration, ‘the self-nourishment of the soul’.”

Agamben’s Philosophical Lineage, edited by Adam Kotsko and Carlo Salzani.

Fifty Works of English Literature We Could Do Without by Brophy, Levey and Osborne

The value we ascribe to a literary work is as much an effect of its continued circulation in contemporary culture as its artistry. I wish books like Fifty Works of English Literature We Could Do Without were more common, providing productive criticism of works whose value may be overstated. Negative criticism can be destructive but done with discernment contributes much that is useful.

Brigid Brophy, Michael Levey and Charles Osborne are not in the least bit awed by the ‘greatness’ of any writer and for the most part don’t fall into the object-subject confusion that devils a lot of criticism of canonical writers. No living writers were chosen for their scrutiny (back when the book was published in 1967) so they can also be forgiven for the cold-bloodedness and insensitivity of the criticism. It is perhaps only readers at risk of being torn away from favourite works by cool and intelligent appraisal that risk hurt feelings.

I laughed aloud at the suggestion that Hemingway be recognised only as “a footnote to the minor art of Gertrude Stein, an appendix to the biography of the great novelist Scott Fitzgerald,” as posterity seems to be granting The Big Man that status anyway. I enjoyed the butchery of Melville as “an annotator and labeller” and agreed wholeheartedly that, ” we could easily do without the entire oeuvre of William Faulkner”.

Delicately I agreed with much of the TS Eliot appraisal, even chuckling at this footnote:

General Note. It may be that the means whereby T. S. Eliot prevailed upon the world to mistake him for a major poet was the simple but efficient confidence trick of deliberately entitling one or two of his verses, as though thereby to differentiate them from the rest, ‘Minor Poems’.

I saved until the end witnessing Woolf’s To the Lighthouse being dragged to the abattoir:

But what is the artistic achievement of reducing human experience to the gossipy level of the shallowest layer of consciousness? We are all conducting Virginia Woolf novels inside ourselves all day long, thinking how the sunset clouds look like crumbling cheese, wondering why the dinner party guests don’t go, puzzling about children growing up, noticing for the first time the colour of a bus ticket. This famed sensitivity is everyone’s birthright; and probably Virginia Woolf was applauded by those who were delighted to find literary expression of their own commonplace associations. To have those put in a book and called a novel . . . Only dots can do justice to their delight.

I’ll argue that Woolf’s method of immersing us in her character’s minds went further than gossip. There are nuances that the critics here seem to miss or ignore; Woolf’s voice offers a fluidity that gives a seamless quality to the stitching together of many different perspectives. The same argument is made of jazz, that it is pure ornamentation without any inward beauty. Nevertheless there are limitations to Woolf’s method and the argument sends me back to To The Lighthouse to think further, which is the value of such a book (even when almost 50 years old). In today’s sensitive environment though it ought to come with a health warning.

A Bibliography of Boredom

This afternoon I reread the passage in The Magic Mountain in which Thomas Mann expounds on the nature of boredom.  Lars Svendsen in A Philosophy of Boredom asks, “What is the difference between profound boredom and depression?” concluding that there is considerable overlap.

Thinking about how various thinkers have dealt with boredom led me to scribbling a bibliography for a study on the subject, which I thought I’d share here. All of these works deal to a greater or lesser extent with the concept of boredom:

  1. Boredom: The Literary History of a State of Mind – Patricia Meyer Spacks
  2. In Praise of Boredom (from On Grief and Reason) – Joseph Brodsky
  3. Boredom is a major preoccupation in much of Herman Melville’s work
  4. Being and Time – Martin Heidegger (on the theme of profound boredom)
  5. The Conquest of Happiness – Bertrand Russell
  6. The themes of boredom and  waiting are dominant in the novels of Marguerite Duras, notably Moderato Cantabile (which is brilliant and you should read anyway.)
  7. The Voyage Out – Virgina Woolf (fascinating exploration of the textual use of boredom)
  8. Experience Without Qualities: Boredom and Modernity – Elizabeth Goodstein
  9. Anatomy of Melancholy – Robert Burton
  10. A Philosophy of Boredom – Lars Svendsen
  11. Boredom: A Lively History – Peter Toohey
  12. Beyond Boredom and Anxiety – Mihály Csíkszentmihályi

I realise there is an extensive literature of the phenomenon of boredom, many of which I have not included. I came cross Lee Rourke’s top 10 books about boredom. Please feel free to add any titles in the comments section.

Invoking the Sanity Clause

Fiorello: Hey, wait, wait. What does this say here, this thing here?
Driftwood: Oh, that? Oh, that’s the usual clause that’s in every contract. That just says, uh, it says, uh, if any of the parties participating in this contract are shown not to be in their right mind, the entire agreement is automatically nullified.
Fiorello: Well, I don’t know…
Driftwood: It’s all right. That’s, that’s in every contract. That’s, that’s what they call a sanity clause.
Fiorello: Ha-ha-ha-ha-ha! You can’t fool me. There ain’t no Sanity Clause!

The first film that the Marx Brothers made for MGM, A Night at the Opera is on my list of top-5 films. The scene above never fails to brighten my mood.

I am invoking the Sanity Clause on my participation in the Art of the Novella Reading Challenge. Thirteen books down, I am beyond Passionate. With the last novella, I reached my delight ceiling and this challenge began to feel less like fun and more like hard slog. For the rest of the month I’ll be cheerleading Frances in her continued attempt to read all 42 novellas in the series.

The thirteen books I read for the Art of the Novella Reading Challenge were:

  1. Benito Cereno by Herman Melville
  2. First Love by Ivan Turgenev
  3. The Man That Corrupted Hadleyburg by Mark Twain
  4. The Duel by Joseph Conrad
  5. The Hound of the Baskervilles by Arthur Conan Doyle
  6. My Life by Chekhov
  7. Rasselas, Prince of Abyssinia by Samuel Johnson
  8. Stempenyu: A Jewish Romance by Sholem Aleichem
  9. The Devil by Tolstoy
  10. The Awakening by Kate Chopin
  11. The Death of Ivan Ilych by Tolstoy
  12. The Nice Old Man and the Pretty Girl by Italo Svevo
  13. Parnassus on Wheels by Christopher Morley
Two of the thirteen I disliked, and two I thought first-rate. The others brought pleasure. There are some brilliant stories in the remaining twenty-nine novellas, which I look forward to reading at a more leisurely pace. For now, having digested thirteen new stories and many more memorable characters, I have binged on fiction. It is time for a little poetry, some diaries perhaps and non-fiction.

Benito Cereno by Herman Melville

After reading Submergence, with its watery thematic base, it is mildly amusing that a random selection from Melville House’s Art of the Novella series yields Herman Melville’s Benito Cereno, a maritime adventure. Maritime is not a genre of the literary ecosystem I find seductive, but I found Melville’s story absorbing, though assuaged by its mere one hundred and twenty four pages.

A fictionalised account of a real event, Benito Cereno tells of a slave insurrection on a ship travelling in South America. The captain of an American merchant ship, Amasa Delano, boards to assist what he considers a ship in distress after illness, bad weather and probable incompetence. Delano discerns, but continually misreads, a more macabre misery. Understanding more than the captain, we observe and participate in his unease.

Melville’s tale has more of the quiet horror of a Edgar Allen Poe story, rather than the swashbuckling of Horatio Hornblower (this is an assumption, I have no direct knowledge of Hornblower). It was Dore’s Ancient Mariner etching that kept coming to mind.

[Read as part of Frances’s and Melville House’s The Art of the Novella Reading Challenge.]

The Art of the Novella Reading Challenge Begins

August is the month of the Art of the Novella Reading Challenge, which begins today. The intention is to read all 42 novellas in the series. Being a reader that values attentive reading, it seems a daunting task, but I enjoy a challenge. My reading choices will be selected each day by my daughter, starting with Melville’s Benito Cereno.

Bartleby the Scrivener by Herman Melville

Not what I expected, Melville’s Bartleby the Scrivener. I presumed the story to be revolutionary in tone, a fictional refusal to work sympathetic with Paul Lafargue’s The Right to be Lazy:

The Greeks in their era of greatness had only contempt for work: their slaves alone were permitted to labour: the free man knew only exercises for the body and mind. . .

Bartleby though is not an Idler, but more disquieting. At the beginning of his employment as a scrivener, or document copyist, he did an ‘extraordinary quantity of writing.’ At one request he utters the words, “I would prefer not to.” Thereafter his eccentricity becomes unsettling. Aside from Bartleby, Melville conjures up the memorable trio of more consistent copyists: Turkey, Nippers and Ginger Nut.

Part of Melville House’s wonderful The Art of the Novella series, Melville crams a lot of story into these 64 pages.