Engaging with a Book

There are, I suppose, two ways to read a book. Perhaps many more. I tend to inhabit a book, giving rein to a flight of imagination that affords me the opportunity to see through the eyes of a character. Others, I imagine, spectate from afar like viewers at a puppet show.

I read Christa Wolf’s No Place on Earth twice recently, a kind of double reading on the first occasion, when I read it straight through and started again at the beginning and read it straight through again without a break. It is the sort of book that I’ll read five or six times, and still be ready to read again.

Observing a writer’s world through their eyes, or sometimes, just the eyes of a particular character, can be so ineffable, so very fertile, that I wish to prolong the encounter for as long as is possible. Another time, reading a book like Max Frisch’s Homo Faber, the view is unsettling, discordant even, which is fecund in a different way, but still worth drawing out, only to emerge after a double reading, anguished but purged

There are writers I wish to engage with to the greatest extent, seeking out all they write: stories, letters, diaries, everything. They offer a rare chance to disturb in some small but permanent way how I conceptualise the world. It is the very best form of escapism, a boundary crossing, a chance to step over a threshold from one self to the other, not just intellectually but on a deep, emotional level. These writers that I set out to read to completion disengage me from myself, silently and profoundly. Who would I be, I wonder, without the alchemical transformation caused by writers like Dante, Christa Wolf, Denton Welch, Virginia Woolf, Mathias Énard, Roberto Calasso, Doris Lessing, Samuel Beckett, Kate Zambreno, Homer.

It isn’t only fiction that provides voluptuous literary encounters. When reading nonfiction, without that distinction between a writer and a writer’s voice, it is possible to develop what feels uncannily like a friendship. Such friends are Gilbert Highet, Walter Kaufmann, Plato, Hélène Cixous, Marcus Aurelius, who have each influenced my life for the better. This intellectual endowment, this gift that is reading, is transformative. Sometimes enchanting, not always comfortable or easy, but that is the nature of friendship.

Reading Marcus Aurelius

What I like about Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations is their immediacy. My well-thumbed Gregory Hays translation serves a spiritual function. If perplexed I can open a page, and usually find a suitable meditation to contemplate, to think through a particular problem. If nothing else, Marcus (I’ve known the emperor-philosopher long enough that we are on first name terms) is good company when I’m too tired to concentrate on a new book.

When I allow my copy to fall open it is to the following list of eight kephalaia, or points, which serve as a broad announcement of all Marcus’ themes, and function as a reminder of the essential core of Stoicism:

To be angry at something means you’ve forgotten:

  1. That everything that happens is natural.
  2. That the responsibility is theirs, not yours.
  3. And further … that whatever happens has always happened, and always will, and is happening at this very moment, everywhere. Just like this.
  4. What links one human being to all humans: not blood, or birth, but mind [intellect].

And …

  1. That an individual’s mind is God and of God.
  2. That nothing belongs to anyone. Children, body, life itself-all of them come from that same source.
  3. That it’s all how you choose to see things.
  4. That the present is all we have to live in. Or to lose.

In his book on Aurelius, Pierre Hadot connects these to the fundamental dogmas of Stoicism:

From the absolute primary principle according to which the only good is moral good and the only evil is moral evil, it follows that neither pleasure nor pain are evils; that the only thing shameful is moral evil; that faults committed against us cannot touch us; that he who commits a fault hurts only himself; and that the fault cannot be found elsewhere than within oneself. It further follows that I can suffer no harm from the actions of anyone else.

This Year’s Idées Fixes

My reading orbits an accretion of preoccupations. So far, this year’s idées fixes are the influence of the East on Greco-Roman thought (and by extension, modern thought), Epicureanism, the neo-vitalist/transcendental materialist movement in contemporary philosophy, and asceticism. It may be that the interrelation between these themes are personal, but they appear deeply connected.

Following a question on Twitter I thought I’d compile a list of some of the texts that I’ve recently read and that I’ll be reading over the next few months. Please feel free to make further suggestions of titles that speak urgently to these concerns. These are all complementary to the Urtexts  of Epicurus, Lucretius, and Diogenes Laertius, and to this superb companion.

  • Jane Bennett – Vibrant Matter: a political ecology of things [PDF]
  • Pierre Hadot – Philosophy as a way of life
  • Jane Bennett – The Enchantment of Modern Life
  • Pierre Hadot – The Present Alone is Our Happiness
  • Alexander Nehamas – The Art of Living
  • David Jasper – The Sacred Desert
  • Pierre Hadot – The Veil of Isis
  • Randall Collins – The Sociology of Philosophers
  • David Jasper – The Sacred Body
  • Pierre Hadot – What is Ancient Philosophy?