Wittgenstein on Europe, America and Whistling Dixie

“I will say, posthumously, that Europe is the world’s sore affliction, that you in America who have taken the best that Europe has to offer while hoping to avoid the worst are, in your indigenously American phrase, ‘whistling Dixie.’ All your God-drenched thinking replicates the religious structures built out of the hallucinatory life of the ancient Near East by European clericalists, all your social frictions are the inheritance of colonialist slave-making economies of European businessmen, all your metaphysical conundrums were concocted for you by European intellectuals, and you have now come across the ocean in two world wars conceived by European politicians and so have installed in your republic just the militarist mind-state that has kept our cities burning during since the days of Hadrian.”

Christa Wolf, quoting Wittgenstein, from a preface in Doctorow’s City of God. I’m unable to find the source of this quotation. If you know, please let me know. I shall clearly have to read the Doctorow, which the NYT reviewed concluding, “The ideas are certainly there — the idea of New York, the idea of God, the idea of literature. But where is the novel?” If anything, that only increases its allure.

[Postscript: I’m reasonably sure that this is a fictional Wittgenstein quote.]

Wittgenstein and Dostoyevsky

A great many, perhaps most, of the books I choose to read are a consequence of something I’ve just read, or an intriguing comment on social media. Kaufmann’s The Faith of a Heretic led me to Norman Malcolm’s delightful Wittgenstein memoir, which in turn fixed my resolve to read The Brothers Karamazov. Malcolm’s contention that Wittgenstein considered The House of the Dead Dostoyevsky’s greatest work is unusual in that it is not one of his ‘big four’ novels.

Once when we were conversing Wittgenstein was delighted to learn that I knew Tolstoy’s Twenty-three Tales. He’d had an extremely high opinion of these stories. He questioned me closely to find out whether I had understood the moral of the one entitled ‘How Much Land Does A Man Need?’ Wittgenstein had been stiff with me at the beginning of the conversation because he was displeased with me for a reason I have forgotten. But when he discovered that I had read, understood, and valued Tolstoy’s stories, he became friendly and animated. Wittgenstein also admired the writings of Dostoevsky. He read The Brothers Karamazov and extraordinary number of times, but he once said that The House of the Dead was Dostoevsky’s greatest work.

Memoirs from the House of the Dead is therefore what I’ll read next, in the Jesse Coulson translation.

When it’s Nasty Then it’s Most Important

Yet another sighting of E. R. Dodds’ The Greeks and the Irrational in Walter Kaufmann’s The Faith of a Heretic. Coming across a mention of Dodd’s book has a talismanic aspect; though I’ve never read what Kaufmann refers to as a ‘splendid book’ its presence always implies a text that transcends traditional categories.

Kaufmann’s book is misleadingly titled. Rather than another contribution to that ocean of gibberish in which boorish windbags peddle atheism with all the charm of pavement charity chuggers, Kaufmann’s beautifully elegant, witty book is his very personal critique of philosophy and religion. As with any Kaufmann study, you follow as he discourses freely, peppering his work with anecdotes like this of Wittgenstein, a writer whose voluptuously textured philosophy I’ve failed to understand for three decades:

[..]in his very interesting and moving little book, Ludwig Wittgenstein: A Memoir, Norman Malcolm tells us how a casual remark he once made in a conversation in the fall of 1939 about the British “national character” vexed Wittgenstein; and he quotes a letter Wittgenstein wrote to him five years later: “Whenever I thought of you I couldn’t help thinking of a particular incident which seemed to me very important. You & I were walking along the river towards the railway bridge & we had a heated discussion in which you made a remark about ‘national character’ that shocked me by its primitiveness. I then thought: what is the use of studying philosophy if all that it does for you is to enable you to talk with some plausibility about some abstruse questions in logic, etc., & if it does not improve your thinking about the important questions of everyday life, if it does not make you more conscientious . . . . You see, I know that its difficult to think well about ‘certainty,’ ‘probability,’ ‘perception,’ etc. But it is, if possible, still more difficult to think, or try to think, really honestly about your life & other people’s lives. And the trouble is that thinking about these things is not thrilling, but often downright nasty. And when it’s nasty then it’s most important.

One Too Many Eyes

Coming across Clément Rosset’s work is akin to discovering a close new friend in adulthood; Rosset is an ally to add to that small list of thinkers, philosophers, writers (call them what you will) that do not feel the need to contest, mask or avoid reality, but from time to time stare at it for moments at a time with curiosity and terror.

On the strength of Joyful Cruelty: Toward a Philosophy of the Real, Rosset’s work takes it place alongside that of Beckett, Epicurus, Adorno, Lucretius, Nietzsche, Jane Bennett, Emil Cioran, Schopenhauer, Montaigne, perhaps Spinoza and Wittgenstein. I’ve been back and forth through this book, scribbling notes, underlining passages and dipping into large passages of all the other writers just listed, chasing down philosophical references, some chimerical, some actual. Here is an extended passage to give you a flavour of the work:

The acceptance of the real presupposes, then, either pure unconsciousness-like Epicurus’ pig, who is the only one at ease on board as the storm rages and fills the passengers and crew with anguish-or a consciousness which would be capable both of knowing the worst and of not being mortally affected by this knowledge of the worst. It must be noted that this last faculty-to know without receiving mortal damage-is situated absolutely out of reach of human faculties, unless of course some extraordinary assistance appears, what Pascal calls grace and I call for my part joy. Indeed, knowledge constitutes for humankind a fatality and a sort of curse recognised in Genesis (“You shall not eat from the tree of knowledge”). Since it is both inevitable (impossible to ignore completely what one knows) and inadmissible (equally impossible to admit it), it condemns humanity. Man is the being who has ventured into the recognition of a truth that he is incapable of facing (like a foolhardy general who throws himself into the assault without being assured of the state of the forces at play and the possibilities of retreat) and which is a contradictory and tragic destiny-tragic in the sense that Vladimir Jankélévitch understands it (“the alliance of the necessary and the impossible”). What is most crucial and most notable in what is called the human condition seems to me to reside precisely in this: to be equipped with a knowledge-contrary to what is true of animals and inanimate objects-but simultaneously to be stripped of sufficient psychological resources to confront one’s own wisdom, to be furnished with a surplus of knowledge or “one too many eyes,” as André Green would say, which indiscriminately is our privilege and our ruin, in short, to know but to be completely incapable. Thus, man, is the sole creature to be conscious of his own death (and of the death promised for all things), but also the only one to reject without appeal the idea of death. He knows that he is living but knows not how he lives; he knows he must die but knows not how he will die. In other words, man is the being capable of knowing what he is incapable of knowing, of being able in principle to do what he is incapable of doing in reality, of finding himself confronted precisely with that which he is incapable of confronting. Equally incapable of knowing and of ignoring, he demonstrates contradictory capacities which prevent the formulation of all plausible definitions of him, as Pascal insists in the Pensées. One could say that a divine and universal programmer (unless it is just a chance combination of things, as Epicurus suggests) committed in this instance a basic error, sending confidential information to a terminal which was not in a state to receive it, to master it, and to integrate it into its own program, revealing to humanity a truth that we are incapable of admitting but also, unhappily, very capable of understanding. This is why Lucretius’ poem, which sets out to cure human anguish by revealing the truth, can only have as its principal result to increase that very anguish. To administer the truth to one who suffers precisely from the truth is worthless. In the same manner, the forced perception of reality to which Lucretius invites us is without benefit for someone who fears above all reality taken in itself, in its unadorned and cruel state. The cure is worse than the disease here. Exceeding the powers of the afflicted person, it can only treat a cadaver which has already succumbed to the test of a real which was beyond its capacities-or occasionally comfort someone who is well and in no need of comfort. In a passage from his Zibaldone,Leopardi analyses this inadequacy and necessary contradiction which opposes the exercise of life to the knowledge of life: “One can hardly better expose the horrible mystery of things and universal existence … than by declaring insufficient and even false not only the extension, the influence, and the force, but the fundamental principles of our reason themselves. The principle for example-without which every proposition, every discourse, every argument, and the capacity to be able to establish and conceive the truth collapses-the principle, as I was saying, according to which a thing cannot simultaneously both be and not be seems absolutely false when one considers the palpable contradictions which exist in nature. To exist in fact and to be unable in any way to be happy, by virtue of an innate impotence inseparable from existence, or rather, to be and to be unable nor to be unhappy, are two truths as proven and as certain with respect to man and o every living being as any truth can be according to our principles and our experience. Now, a being united with unhappiness, and united with it necessarily and by its essence, is something which is in direct contradiction with itself, with perfection and its very goal which is happiness alone, a things which ravages itself, which it its own enemy. Thus the being of living beings is in a natural, essential, and necessary contradiction with itself.” Cioran briefly summarises the same thought in an aphorism from The Temptation to Exist: “To exist is to protest against the truth.”

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?

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.

Her Not All Her by Elfriede Jelinek

For reasons I can’t really explain there’s a fusing of Ludwig Wittgenstein and Robert Walser in my mind. I’m unable to think of one without the other. I suppose they were contemporaries and both shared a passion, even obsession, with the way that language can be used to show, or obscure, the world. That aside, their paths could not be more different. Walser’s journey ended in a mental hospital, unable, or unwilling to write.

It is from this point that Her Not All Her loosely resuscitates Robert Walser. Elfriede Jelinek, in a beautiful Cahiers Series publication, uses Walser’s voice as the starting point for a prose-poem about language, memory and artistic creation. I’ve read it twice and am very taken with the beauty of Jelinek’s prose (as translated by Damon Searls). It is written to be performed on stage and not intended as a short story, a performance I’d love to see one day.

Alongside the prose are a series of reproductions of Thomas Newbolt’s ‘Head’ paintings. Newbolt’s work is new to me, but I am as stunned by his powerful paintings as by Jelinek’s prose.

This is a cryptic work that I am nowhere near the end of unpicking and contemplating. If you have read this edition, I’d love to have a conversation to see what you make of it.

What Bolaño Read

Via Sponge! I hear compelling news and discover Mobylives:

Over the next two weeks, we’ll be hosting “What Bolaño Read,” a series of posts by Tom McCartan charting the reading habits of Roberto Bolaño, the Chilean novelist, poet, and short story writer.

It is a great post and includes details of “five books that marked his life”:

“In reality the five books are more like 5,000. I’ll mention these only as the tip of the spear: Don Quixote by Cervantes, Moby Dick by Melville. The complete works of Borges, Hopscotch by Cortázar, A Confederacy of Dunces by Toole. I should also cite Nadja by Breton, the letters of Jacques Vaché. Anything Ubu by Jarry, Life: A User’s Manual by Perec. The Castle and The Trial by Kafka. Aphorisms by Lichtenberg. The Tractatus by Wittgenstein. The Invention of Morel by Bioy Casares. The Satyricon by Petronius. The History of Rome by Tito Livio. Pensées by Pascal.”

Categories That Amuse

Voracious readers have regular dilemmas about what book to read next. At Of Books and Bicycles, the perplexity is of genre or category. Always the question of whether to read deeply to explore a category or individual writer thoroughly, or widely to embrace a wide selection of genres. The categories that provide amusement at the moment are:

  • Philosophy to deepen my reading of Nietzsche, Wittgenstein and Kierkegaard; also to explore Kant to whatever extent I am capable.
  • Literary criticism of the novel: contemporary texts like James Wood, Harold Bloom, Susan Sontag, Geoffrey Hill and Denis Donoghue; also earlier writing by Guy Davenport, Maurice Blanchot, Cyril Connolly and William Empson.
  • Fiction and non-fiction classics of all periods, with less emphasis on contemporary, and guided loosely by Bloom’s Western Canon.
  • Books about books, with the work of Alberto Manguel and Michael Dirda top of my list.
  • Natural history, inspired by my deep enjoyment of Roger Deakin.
  • A sprinkling of science, certainly all the output of cosmologist Paul Davies.
  • Psychology, working my way slowly through Freud’s essays and lectures.
  • Travel classics like Wilfred Thesiger, William Dalyrymple, Patrick Leigh Fermor.
  • Culinary-lit, particularly M. F. K. Fisher and Ruth Reichl

This is hardly comprehensive and is subject to whimsy.