The Voice of the Book

“A man who has read Book XXIV of the Iliad–the night meeting of Priam and Achilles–or the chapter in which Alyosha Karamazov kneels to the stars, who has read Montaigne’s chapter XX (Que philosopher c’est apprendre à mourir) and Hamlet’s use of it–and who is not altered, whose apprehension of his own life is unchanged, who does not, in some subtle yet radical manner, look on the room in which he moves, on those that knock at the door, differently–has read only with the blindness of physical sight. Can one read Anna Karenina or Proust without experiencing a new infirmity or occasion in the very core of one’s sexual feelings? To read well is to take great risks. It is to make vulnerable our identity, our self-possession.”

George Steiner, from the essay Humane Literacy in Language and Silence

We have gained reality and lost dreams . . .

There was a moment while reading Robert Musil’s The Man Without Qualities when, like in the careful balance of piano and strings in a late Brahms’ piece, the immense breadth of Musil’s conception became briefly visible.

It is a book that merits slow reading, inevitable as one writes entire passages into one’s notebook. Often I wish there was as little to read as must have been the case in Montaigne’s day, when it was still possible to read everything. In 1571, when Montaigne retired to his tower to study, the printing press was still a novelty. How he must have treasured his Rabelais, Chaucer and Calvin. This extended fragment of The Man Without Qualities captured my attention.

“If it is the fulfilment of man’s primordial dreams to be able to fly, travel with the fish, drill our way beneath the bodies of towering mountains, send messages with godlike speed, see the invisible and hear the distant speak, hear the voices of the dead, be miraculously cured while asleep, see with our own eyes how we will look twenty years after our death, learn in flickering nights thousands of things above and below this earth no one ever knew before; of light, warmth, power, pleasure, comforts, are man’s primordial dreams, then present-day research is not only science but sorcery, spells woven from the highest powers of heart and brain, forcing God to open one fold after another of his cloak; a religion whose dogma is permeated and sustained by the hard, courageous, flexible, razor-cold, razor-keen logic of mathematics.
Of course there is no denying that all these primordial dreams appear, in the opinion of nonmathematicians, to have been suddenly realised in a form quite different from the original fantasy. Baron Munchausen’s post horn was more beautiful than our canned music, the Seven-League Boots more beautiful than a car, Oberon’s kingdom lovelier than a railway tunnel, the magic root of the mandrake better than a telegraphed image, eating of one’s mother’s heart and then understanding birds more beautiful than an ethological study of a bird’s vocalising. We have gained reality and lost dreams. No more lounging under a tree and peering at the sky between one’s big and second toes; there’s work to be done. To be efficient, one cannot be hungry and dreamy but must eat steak and keep moving. It is exactly though the old, inefficient breed of humanity had fallen asleep on an anthill and found, when the new breed awoke, that the ants had crept into its bloodstream, making it move frantically ever since, unable to shake off that rotten feeling of antlike industry.”

Pascal Quignard’s Work

Pascal Quignard’s work belongs in a no-mans-land between what is long since past and what is still to come, reeling on the edges between literature, antiquarianism and philosophy. Texts like The Roving Shadows and Abysses seem so fresh yet also inevitable in terrain carved by writers like Calasso, Sebald, John Berger and Cixous. To find Quignard’s precursors you could go further back to Montaigne, Bacon, even Erasmus.

I have such hunger for these works that find new ways of questioning and expressing knowledge. Quignard’s work demands and refuses easy interpretation in the way that older essayists used the form to test ideas, where cognition proceeds through flashes and rereading (I read The Roving Shadows once before). Structured as a mixture of fragments and lengthier, more structured essays Quignard reflects on the philosophers of Greece and Rome (mostly but not exclusively) interwoven with touches of autobiography and outrage.

I also read Sex and Terror which uses visual arts to explore the edges where Greek civilisation and Roman civilisation overlapped with seismic reverberations that are still being felt in the present day. It is less demanding than the other two, but equally enlightening.

Chris Turner’s translation of all three books (once again from the wonderful Seagull Books) is so beautiful that I intend to collect a couple in the original French to see what I am missing. Quignard’s work is important, moving and powerful in equal measure and deserves to leave a significant trace. He is one of those writers who will divide my life (not just reading) into a before discovery and after.

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.”

Laconia: 1,200 Tweets on Film by Masha Tupitsyn

There was a time when the Duc de La Rochefoucauld’s book of Reflections or Sentences and Moral Maxims accompanied me wherever I went. If the Duc were alive today, there is a very high likelihood he would be tweeting, his maxims anticipate Twitter:

If we had no faults we should not take so much pleasure in noting those of others.

And, of course, there are at present four Twitter accounts just tweeting  La Rochefoucauld’s maxims.

Other proto-twitterers: Twitter may have constrained the prolixity of Montaigne and Lord Chesterfield, but they may have been tempted, Pascal’s (‘We only consult the ear because the heart is wanting.’) uber-nerd genius would have been unable to resist, Tacitus would have tried but abandoned the attempt. Twitter is a natural home for those that can capture, haiku-like, the aphorism or opinion in 140 letters.

I’ve read a couple of books consisting of email exchanges, both were dire, and I expected little from a collection of tweets published in book form. Masha Tupitsyn’s Laconia: 1200 Tweets on Film is remarkable. Ostensibly a series of condensed thoughts on film and gender, Tupitsyn’s ‘literary experiment’ expands into extended cultural commentary and diary. As she explains in the introduction:

[..] each tweet in LACONIA is a miniature exegesis; an appraisal of the world through film and media since our understanding of the world has become increasingly, if not entirely, shaped and mediated by both.

Masha Tupitsyn, like Geoff Dyer, writes with that tender attentiveness, and perceptive humour, that reveals truths. Here are a couple that made me laugh and had me whispering, ‘Yes, yes, that’s exactly how it is!’

103. I just can’t bring myself to watch Changeling or Wanted because looking at Angelina Jolie’s already-dead face is like looking at [2:19 PM July 27th]

104. Damien Hirst’s diamond encrusted skull. [2:20 PM July 27th]

And:

141. I think what happened to Christian Bale happened to Mel Gibson. Both actors lost their talent (and their sanity) when they turned into [2:03 PM Aug 18th]

142. “Americans.” [2:04 PM Aug 18th]

Writing and the Body by Gabriel Josipovici

I quickly reach the limits of language trying to summarise how Gabriel Josipovici’s literary criticism resonates within me. The fourth, and final, chapter in Writing and the Body uses a few of Kafka’s deathbed notes to express some profound truths about why we read and write. (Or maybe just why I read and write.)

Each of us hears his voice in Stevens’s, and this means that we hear ourselves saying what we did not know we could say, in a tone we didn’t know was ours, but which, hearing, we recognise as the actualising of what had always been latent. The same thing happens, I would suggest, when we read, at the end of the volume of Kafka’s letters: ‘A bird was in the room.’ Saying it, we are Kafka in that room, in that loneliness. And so that loneliness is something shared.

A while ago I noted Emerson’s comment of Montaigne’s Essays that: “It seemed to me as if I had written the book myself in some former life.” I feel the same way about the fourth lecture in Writing and the Body.

Kafka had jotted down in his journal: ‘My life a hesitation before birth.’ And he had called Milena ‘Mother Milena’, half begging her to bring him to birth. Of course she could not do this. In a strange way, though, as we read him, we bring him to life within us. But we can only do this because as he writes he is about to die. And as we read we too are about to die, and so can experience what it is he experiences.

Part of the power of this book, particularly the final essay, is the material that Josipovici interprets: the excerpts used of Kafka and Wallace Stevens are especially potent. Josipovici’s reading is as broad as it is deep, he makes no apology for, “employing the vocabulary or concepts of other disciplines.” His criticism is all the better for his ability to synthesise the thinking of a diversity of writers. As Geoff Dyer says in the afterword to But Beautiful.

This is most clearly so when a writer or composer quotes or reworks material from another writer or composer. All literature, music, and art [says George Steiner] ‘embody an expository reflection on, a value judgment of, the inheritance and context to which they pertain.’ In other words it is not only in their letters, essays, or conversation that writers like Henry James reveal themselves also to be the best critics; rather, The Portrait of a Lady is itself, among other things, a commentary on and a critique of Middlemarch. ‘The best readings of art are art.’