Privileges of Fiction (Kundera)

The space defined by Milan Kundera’s The Curtain is one that privileges the novel to an extraordinary degree, attributing it to a position distinct from not only other forms of art, but also as a reflection on existence that informs philosophical thought. As Kundera says, “… for me, the founder of the Modern Era is not only Descartes but also Cervantes.”

By using novels to reflect on human existence as opposed to portraying reality, novelists dissect new existential categories and refashion our perception of those we are familiar with. Kundera writes, “Indeed, all the great existential themes Heidegger analyses in Being and Time – considering them to have been neglected by all earlier European philosophy – had been unveiled, displayed, illuminated by four centuries of the European novel.”

Kundera, like Edward Said – in turn influenced by Adorno’s essay on Beethoven – is also much preoccupied by ‘late style’:

What interests me in this piece [a text of Cioran’s] is the amazement of the man who cannot find any link between his present “self” and the past one, who is stupefied before the enigma of his identity. But, you’ll say, is that amazement sincere? Certainly it is! How in the world could I ever have taken seriously that philosophical (or religious, artistic, political) trend? or else (more banally): How could I have fallen in love with such a silly woman (stupid man)? Well, whereas for most people, your life goes by fast and its mistakes evaporate without leaving much trace, Cioran’s turned to stone; one cannot laugh off a ridiculous sweetheart and fascism with the same condescending smile.

[Any blog that continues for long enough knows this amazement when one stupidly decides to reread old posts written by another “self”.]

The force and richness of Kundera’s perceptions in this book and in Testaments Betrayed, which I read previously, puts him in good company with Nabokov and Brodsky. That all three were bilingual exile writers who reworked their own texts and worried endlessly about translation perhaps also made them ideal readers, enacting Derrida’s argument that writing is itself an act of translation.

Dante’s Shoe Soles

It’s difficult reading poetry in translation. I’ve read all the usual Russian poets: Akhmatova, Tsvetaeva, Pasternak, Brodsky, and the elusive Mandelstam, but I can’t imagine that much of the poetry comes through. English translators usually avoid trying to reproduce the metres with any exactitude, and English is a notoriously rhyme-poor language, despite its richness and subtlety.

I’ve read, on and off, for some weeks Mandelstam’s poem Solominka which, even in English is beautiful and abstruse. As Guy Davenport writes in The Geography of the Imagination, “A Mandelstam poem lives inside itself.” Mandelstam likened the physical quality of the word to a paper lantern with a candle inside. “Sometimes the candle inside was the meaning and the paper and frame were the sound structure; and sometimes the paper and frame were the meaning and the candle was the sound.” Even the poem’s title is rich in allusion, being the diminutive of the Russian word for straw, but also the Russian diminutive form of Salomé, who not only famously danced for John the Baptist’s head (my favourite Strauss opera), but also is the name of a Georgian beauty with whom Mandelstam was in love.

Mandelstam was also a superb essayist, and these offer a more accessible way to his thought, as in the collection in The Noise of Time [PDF]. In particular I adore Mandelstam’s apprehension of the rhythmic cadences “of the Divine Comedy first of all as a literary sublimate of the physical motion of walking”:

The question occurs to me-and quite seriously-how many shoe soles, how many ox-hide soles, how many sandals Alighieri wore out in the course of his poetic work, wandering about on the goat paths of Italy. The Inferno and especially the Purgatorio glorify the human gait, the measure and rhythm of walking, the foot and its shape. The step, linked to the berthing and saturated with thought: this Dante understands as the beginning of prosody. In order to indicate walking he uses a multitude of varied and charming turns of phrase.

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.

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)

Uncommon Readers

A genuine interest in criticism is an achievement in creation.

Marianne Moore

In selecting the title for this post, I should point out that it in no way refers to that dreadful Alan Bennett novel, but is a term that Christopher Knight uses to single out three especially perceptive readers: Denis Donoghue, Frank Kermode, and George Steiner. In his book Uncommon Readers, Knight describes these as critics “who bring to their reviews less a position (though positions they have) than an acute intelligence, prepared to be provoked by the last book they have read and to place it at the centre of a discussion that ripples outward.”

Donoghue, Kermode, and Steiner are generally considered rather conservative, anti-theory critics, but such labels are unnecessarily reductive. James Wood is the contemporary public critic placed in a similar pigeon-hole. All three of the former are touchstone critics that I’ll read for their insight into literature, but also because of the lucidity and elegance of their work.

Virginia Woolf in How It Strikes a Contemporary wrote that any common reader possesses the capacity to interpret a text, providing they are willing to be intellectually challenged. Her goal was to create a system in which a common reader is also a common critic. My Links list on the right of this blog connects to several common readers and critics who would fit into Knight’s definition as uncommonly perceptive readers.

Criticism is rewarding when it confirms my perspective, but thrilling when it changes the way I see a book (or film or whatever). These are the critics I turn to repeatedly, not just for their insight into literature, but also for the sheer headiness of their writing: Christopher Ricks, Virginia Woolf, Hugh Kenner, Susan Sontag, Joseph Brodsky, Martha Nussbaum, Gabriel Josipovici, Edward Said, Harold Bloom, Cynthia Ozick, Guy Davenport, Marjorie Perloff, Zadie Smith, and Helen Vendler.

No doubt there is someone significant that I’ve forgotten from this list. Please feel free to remind me, or let me know of the critics you read for sheer pleasure.

 

Rare Birds

Where does the Blogger’s Code (you know those self-appointed men that harangue from street corners) stand on updating old posts? I’d never thought much about it, except to correct typos, until I read One Activity You Should Do On Your Blog Every Day. Then I forgot about it for a few days.

Today I’ve been reading Lev Losev’s Joseph Brodsky: A Literary Life and reflecting on the subject of genius. Losev writes:

“Genius” is not a scholarly term. Its common use is mainly emotive: “You’re a genius!” For me, “genius” is first and foremost a cognate of “genetic.” A one-in-a-million genetic makeup creates a person of unusual creative potential, willpower, and charisma. It may offend our democratic sensibilities to admit that such rare birds are so different from the rest of our common flock, but in fact they are.

That’s a definition I can accept. It lead me to search Time’s Flow Stemmed for how often, in a delirium of enthusiasm for a book I’ve just read, I overuse the term. My search led me to an old post on Aristotle’s hypothesis that mastery of metaphor is a sign of genius. Revisiting led to the sacrilegious act of updating an old post, then to an act of time travel, linking from that old post to one four years later.

Brodsky, almost certainly a genius, in an essay about artistic creativity said, “The lesser commenting upon the greater has, of course, a certain humbling appeal, and at our end of the galaxy we are quite accustomed to this sort of procedure.” Brodsky’s phrase: that the lesser cannot comment upon the greater. This pinpoints my intuition about most literary criticism, that however brilliant the critic, there is always something important left out.