Winter Reading

An occasional springlike fragrance in the air buoys the soul, yet my reading still speaks of winter: a mixed clutch of writers, some new to me, others old favourites. The re-emergence of one of my favourite blogs inspired me to sample both  Morselli and Guilloux; Balzac, a long-time companion is also calling.

At the moment, I am reading Adrian Nathan West’s translation of Harmut Lange’s Positive Nihilism: My Confrontation with Heidegger. Its slim form belies its depth, perfect for a wintry evening.

Perfect for the season also is Heinrich Ignaz Franz von Biber’s Passacaglia. Its opening four notes perhaps refers to the traditional hymn to the Guardian Angel,

Concentrated Exchanges

“The concentrated exchanges between Valéry “who does not forgive himself for not having been a philosopher” (Cioran) and Alain who may not have forgiven himself for not being a great novelist, like his beloved Balzac, are themselves components of a cardinal dialogue. Shorthand and the tape recorder have restored to modern philosophy some of the viva voce spontaneities and openness to questioning advocated by Plato. A considerable measure of Wittgenstein’s teaching survives in the guise of notes taken by auditors and conversations as recalled by pupils or intimates. On the banks of the Cam as on those of the Illissus. Even so mountainous a word processor as Heidegger propounds his considered views on language in dialogue with a Japanese visitor. The counter-authoritarian, anti-systematic tenor of twentieth-century philosophic instruction is restoring to orality something of its ancient role. Innovation, stimulus emanate from a Strauss or Kojève seminar. Disciples differ fruitfully over the master’s dicta and intentions. Already there is something dusty and self-defeating about vast magisterial tomes such as Jaspers on truth or Sartre on Imagination, treatises as monologue. “Dreams are knowledge” taught Valéry in his “Cimetière marin” and dreams tended to be brief.”

George Steiner, The Poetry of Thought

Steiner’s analytical reading of lyrical thought “from Hellenism to Celan” is illuminating to a similar degree as his Grammars of Creation, What I appreciate most of Steiner’s writing is not just his dissective interpretation of another writer’s thought but that he always responds with a rich meditation of his own in a way that often bears no relation to the original text, yet always comes with considerable creative force.

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.

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.

Old Chestnuts

I am immensely moved by this Richard Rorty essay written just before his death, with this staggering closing paragraph:

However that may be, I now wish that I had spent somewhat more of my life with verse. This is not because I fear having missed out on truths that are incapable of statement in prose. There are no such truths; there is nothing about death that Swinburne and Landor knew but Epicurus and Heidegger failed to grasp. Rather, it is because I would have lived more fully if I had been able to rattle off more old chestnuts — just as I would have if I had made more close friends. Cultures with richer vocabularies are more fully human — farther removed from the beasts — than those with poorer ones; individual men and women are more fully human when their memories are amply stocked with verses.

Authenticity and Semiconsciousness

Three Worlds - MC Escher (1955)

Three Worlds – MC Escher (1955)

This “authenticity,” also tackled by Derrida, inspired by Aristotle and Heidegger, is a central preoccupation. Is it possible to stay in this state always? If so, how?

[..] I have been strongly impressed by the radical opposition between everyday life-which is lived in semiconsciousness and in which we are guided by automatisms and habits without being aware of our existence in the world-and of the privileged states in which we live intensely and are aware of our being in the world. Bergson as well as Heidegger clearly distinguished these two levels of the self: the self that remains at the level of what Heidegger calls the “they,” and the one that rises to the level of what he calls the “authentic.”

Pierre Hadot
The Present Alone is Our Happiness

A Philosophy of Boredom by Lars Svendsen

Using  more literary than philosophical sources, though there is a section on Heidegger’s idea that boredom was the ideal state for metaphysics to begin, Lars Svendsen provides a series of sketches on the theme of boredom.

Svendsen argues that boredom is significant because it involves a loss of personal meaning. Boredom is a modern condition, though there were similar historical states (the acedie of monks). With the advent of Romanticism, man began to see himself as an individual. At the end of the eighteenth century the word ‘boring,’ linked with the word ‘interesting,’ became widespread. Shortly afterwards, boredom is also linked with nihilism, which converge in the death of God. There is a kinship or overlap between boredom, melancholy (but without its charm) and insomnia.

[..] deep boredom is related, phenomenologically speaking, to insomnia, where the I loses its identity in the dark, caught in an apparently infinite void.

There are no reliable studies but evidence suggests that boredom is increasing. Its increase implies a serious fault in a society or culture. Neither leisure, nor work offer a respite from boredom because neither give any real meaning. We seek distraction and differences. The advertising industry flourishes to create these qualitative differences where there are none. In my favourite parts of the book, Svendsen uses Bret Easton Ellis’s American Psycho and Ballard’s Crash to build his argument of a profoundly bored late capitalist society.

Desperately seeking external distraction we turn to television:

But are not the extent of the entertainments industry and the consumption of intoxicants, for example, clear indications of the prevalence of boredom? People who watch TV four hours a day will not necessarily feel or admit that they are bored, but why else should they spend 25 percent of their waking hours in such a way.

Or build an ‘extended family’ of celebrities:

That boredom is probably more widespread than ever before can be established by noting that the number of ‘social placebos’ is greater than it has ever been. If there are more substitutes for meaning, there must be more meaning that needs to be substituted for. Where there is a lack of personal meaning, all sorts of diversions have to create a substitute – an ersatz meaning. Or the cult of celebrities, where one gets completely engrossed in the lives of others beaches one’s own life lacks meaning.

Or like Bateman in American Psycho obsess about fashion:

As Georg Simmel points out, dependence on fashion indicates the insignificance of the own personality, that a person is incapable of individuating himself.

Svendsen suggests only one possible cure for boredom: to relinquish personal meaning. He uses Beckett and Warhol as examples of people who have tried to embrace meaninglessness.

There is possibly one sure cure for boredom – to leave Romanticism behind and renounce all personal meaning in life. In a sense this was what Beckett did, but his work concerns itself mostly with the vacuum that is left.