We Are Singing

  1. Judith Butler in Giving an Account of Oneself writes, “[W]e must recognise that ethics requires us to risk ourselves precisely at moments of unknowingness, when what forms us diverges from what lies before us, when our willingness to become undone in relation to others constitutes our chance of becoming human. To be undone by another is a primary necessity, an anguish, to be sure, but also a chance–to be addressed, claimed, bound to what is not me, but also to be moved, to be prompted to act, to address myself elsewhere, and so to vacate the self-sufficient “I” as a kind of possession. If we speak and try to give an account from this place, we will not be irresponsible, or, if we are, we will surely be forgiven.”
  2. Giorgio Agamben writes in The Coming Community: “This fascination of not uttering something absolutely.”
  3. What has always fascinated me about the Sirens, whether written of by Euripides, Homer, Ovid or Hesiod, is that no one writes about the Sirens’ song. Žižek, in Cogito and the Unconscious reveals Tzvetan Todorov’s thesis, that the Sirens said to Odysseus just one thing: We are singing. Blanchot wrote, “Yes, they really sang, but not in a very satisfactory way. Their song merely suggested the direction from which the perfect song might come.”
  4. In Isak Dinesen’s The Dreamers a young soprano by the name of Pellegrina Leoni loses her singing voice after an accident happens whilst she is singing Donna Anna’s beautiful aria from Don Giovanni. As the greatest soprano of her day, without  her enchanting voice,Pellegrinaisthoughtto be dead, giving her the freedom to travel the world under an assumed identity, living many intense adventures. No muteness is as tragic as a Sirens’ silence.

    Holly Hunter in The Piano (Jane Campion, 1993)
    Holly Hunter in The Piano (Jane Campion, 1993)

The Shaping of the Self

Yesterday I alluded to Foucault’s Self Writing [PDF: Technologies of the Self/Self Writing], one of a series of studies on “the arts of oneself” that draws heavily on Greco-Roman thought, particularly that of Seneca.

Woodcut illustration of the suicide of Seneca and the attempted suicide of his wife Pompeia Paulina
Woodcut illustration of the suicide of Seneca and the attempted suicide of his wife Pompeia Paulina

The illustration above depicts Seneca’s suicide (his wife was spared by Nero) who chose the traditional Roman suicide of cutting multiple veins to bleed to death. For some reason the illustration brings to mind the procedure enacted in Kafka’s In the Penal Colony. In Kafka’s story a device is constructed that very slowly, minutely inscribes a condemned man’s sentence on his flesh. It is Kafka’s most chilling and unforgettable short story. Judith Butler, in an early essay, draws an analogy between Kafka’s device and Foucault’s concept that the body is figured as a blank page available for inscription, awaiting the “imprint” of history and knowledge.

In Self Writing Foucault quotes Seneca’s phrase, “It is necessary to read, but also to write” as an exercise in self-inscription, what Plutarch termed ethopoietic, a procedure for transforming truth into essence. My own framework is not dissimilar to that described by Foucault, whereby I read, make notes reflecting on what I’ve read, spend time contemplating my notes, often reread, and converse about reading with others. This desire for conversation about literature is what drew me to blogging. As Foucault describes, “to collect what one has managed to hear or read, and for a purpose that is nothing less than the shaping of the self”.

Book List

In no particular order, this is a list of my favourite writers/books. Of course, it is incomplete.

Vladimir Nabokov’s Ada or Ardor: A Family Chronicle, Pale Fire and Speak, Memory and literary lectures
Franz Kafka
Geoff Dyer
JG Ballard
Simone de Beauvoir
Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook
Hélène Cixous
Judith Butler
Peter Handke’s The Weight of the World
Søren Kierkegaard
Marguerite Duras
JM Coetzee
Robert Walser
Roland Barthes
Nadine Gordimer’s The Pickup
Rilke’s Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge
Pascal Quignard’s The Roving Shadows
John William’s Stoner
Jean-Paul Sartre’s Nausea
AM Homes
Patrick Leigh Fermor
Jay Griffith’s Wild: An Elemental Journey
Laszlo Krasznahorkai’s War and War
Mahmoud Darwish’s Memory for Forgetfulness
Samuel Beckett
Simon Critchley
Noam Chomsky
Roger Deakin
Carlos Fuentes’s Diana: The Goddess Who Hunts Alone
Ruth Reichl’s Endless Feast
Teju Cole’s Open City
Jenny Erpenbeck’s The Visitation
Gabriel Josipovici’s What Ever Happened to Modernism? and The Lessons of Modernism
Virginia Woolf’s later novels and diaries
Jospeh Heller’s Something Happened
WG Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn
Don DeLillo’s Underworld
Theodor Adorno’s Minima Moralia
Kate Chopin’s The Awakening
Marcel Proust
Clarice Lispector’s Água Viva
Dante’s Divine Comedy
Kate Zambreno’s Heroines
Leo Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilych
James Joyce’s Ulysses
Richard Power’s The Time of our Singing
Will Ferguson’s Hokkaido Highway Blues