Mathias Enard’s Compass

James Joyce wrote of “an ideal reader suffering from an ideal insomnia”, exhibiting characteristic Joycean contempt for a reader of limited duration of attention. In this sense, Mathias Enard’s Compass, while eminently accessible, is likely to be best appreciated by those with insomniac intensities, and an equivalent propensity to pursue homologous trains of thought. Franz Ritter, the insomniac musicologist whose consciousness is our sole companion in Compass, as all insomniacs is accustomed to wholly phenomenal interpretation which, as Terry Eagleton wrote, “refuses to be duped by the habitual experience of things, searching instead for the invisible mechanisms which gives birth to them”.

While Compass is greater than its themes, it is essentially a novel of digressions, during which Franz learns that the pursuit of love may demand acts of abnegation. Schubert, Magris, Balzac, Beethoven, Proust, and Mendelssohn are only the lighter cavalry. Enard writes, “Sarah had mentioned the Great Name, the wolf had appeared in the midst of the flock, in the freezing desert: Edward Said. It was like invoking the Devil in a Carmelite convent.” Without becoming moralistic, Compass is a political novel that gently analyses Said’s characterisation of Orientalism, not just as a secondary expression of the wonders and apparent evils of the East, but as a form of imperialistic domination that concerns itself with the control of real people and real geographical territories. Enard, like Said, writes to oppose power structures, but unlike, say, Foucault, is at heart hopeful that through discourse such structures can be confronted and dismantled.

In a world that has become afraid of intelligence, Compass – slowly, I imagine, and carefully translated by Charlotte Mandell – is a deeply intelligent novel, a book that I could vanish into forever. In Barcelona, Robert Hughes quotes the Catalan writer Josep Ferrater Mora, “The man with seny [an untranslatable term meaning something like common sense, perhaps also wisdom and intelligence] renounces neither salvation nor experience, and is always trying to set up a fruitful integration between both opposed, warring extremes.” Mathias Enard, on the strength of Compass, but also Zone and Street of Thieves is indisputably a man with seny.

Michel Foucault, ‘a kind of criticism’

I can’t help but dream about a kind of criticism that would try not to judge but to bring an oeuvre, a book, a sentence, an idea to life; it would light fires, watch the grass grow, listen to the wind, and catch the sea foam in the breeze and scatter it. It would multiply not judgments but signs of existence; it would summon them, drag them from their sleep. Perhaps it would invent them sometimes-all the better. All the better. Criticism that hands down sentences sends me to sleep; I’d like a criticism of scintillating leaps of the imagination. It would not be sovereign or dressed in red. It would bear the lightning of possible storms.

Michel Foucault, The Masked Philosopher, The Essential Works of Foucault 1954-1984, Volume 1, New Press, 1997 (1994)

First We Write, Then We Fail

Plato Watching Socrates Read. From Prognostica Socratis Basilei by Matthew Parris

  1. “Any serious student of serious realities will shrink from making truth the helpless object of men’s ill-will by committing it to writing.” Plato, Seventh Letter
  2. “Until writing, most kinds of thoughts we are used to thinking today simply could not be thought”. Walter J. Ong, Rhetoric, Romance, and Technology
  3. “Writing is in no way an instrument for communication, it is not an open route through which there passes only the intention to speak.” Barthes, Writing Degree Zero
  4. “Why write? One important reason is that unless we do there are mental acts we cannot perform, thoughts we cannot think, inquiries we cannot engage in.” Richard Young and Patricia Sullivan, Why Write?
  5. “You write so that the life you have around you, and outside, far from the sheet of paper, this life which is not much fun, but annoying and full of worries, exposed to others, can melt into the little rectangle before you and of which you are the master. But this absorption of swarming life into the immobile swarming of letters never happens.” Foucault, Interview with Claude Bonnefoy
  6. “Every bit of writing is imagined as mass which occupies space. It is the duty of writing, therefore, to admit no other, to keep all other writing out.” Edward Said, Beginnings
  7. “Form fascinates when one no longer has the force to understand force from within itself. That is, to create.” Derrida, Writing and Difference
  8. “Endings then, are faked, as are all other parts of a narrative structure that impose metaphor on the metonymic sequence.” Frank Kermode, “Sensing Endings
  9. “. . . I was sweet when I came down out of me mother. My great blue bedroom, the air so quiet, scarce a cloud. In peace and silence, I could have stayed up there for always only. It’s something fails us. First we feel. Then we fail.” Joyce, Finnegans Wake

Disturbing Fiction

It must have been at thirteen, fourteen at most that I found a piece of fiction both repugnant and riveting in equal measure. I remember the fiction. It was Kafka’s The Metamorphosis. Perhaps I was too young to read Kafka, or maybe already too old. The word repugnance is fitting with its late Middle English sense of offering resistance, from the Latin repugnant opposing.

After the horror of Gregor Samsa’s transformation and death in The Metamorphosis comes the chillingly cold final pages when the mood lightens and the family head out for a stroll, equally transformed and full of joy. I still recall the terrible loneliness and vague anxiety that came over me as I read those pages and threw the book aside, resisting to the end its abominable conclusion. Then, the same day I picked it up and read from the beginning again. And again; each time the same feeling of terrible anxiousness.

It fascinates me, how these twenty-six squiggles on a page can induce such sensation. Thomas Bernhard’s fiction does the same thing, and, more recently Jens Bjørneboe’s Moment of Freedom, which I set aside six days ago, more repelled than compelled. But it has been on my mind all week, and last night I submitted, allowing its moments of acute brilliance to overcome my opposition.

In Rita Felski’s Uses of Literature, she writes of being transfixed by Sartre’s Nausea, a text I read annually for its intellectual and visceral force, like an assault. Felski writes, “Here, indisputably, was the literature of extremity, of what Foucault and others call “the limit experience,” a bracing blend of solipsism, paranoia, brutality, and despair, where the standard supports and consolation of everyday life are ruthlessly ripped away.”

Moving Toward Muteness

  1. Forgive, please, this muddled post, more a dialogue with myself than intended for general readership but ‘published’ as a sort of Foucauldian attempt to overcome internal resistance.
  2. In Being and Nothingness, Sartre wrote, “…. the ‘meaning’ of my expressions always escapes me. I never know if I signify what I wish to signify….As soon as I express myself, I can only guess of the meaning of what I express-i.e. the meaning of what I am.”
  3. Lately I binged on Sontag’s essays. Central to her work are themes of alienation, negation, and a term she uses that I particularly embrace, disburdenment, in the sense of intellectual, or cultural disburdenment. How to refine one’s filters, to jar one’s pre-conceived narratives? Can it be done solely using cultural and intellectual expedients?
  4. Foucault in The Use of Pleasure talks of ‘technologies of the self’ as “models proposed for setting up and developing relationships with the self, for self-reflection, self-knowledge, self-examination, for deciphering the self by oneself, for the transformation one seeks to accomplish with oneself as object”.
  5. Lately I find myself moving toward muteness, different from silence; refraining from personal expression, not due to a failing of language, but out of a fundamental boredom with myself, not entirely rooted in self-absorption, more with what I signify as a heterosexual, white male (the lowest difficulty setting there is). If I am profoundly bored with much of the cultural outpourings of university-educated, middle-class, straight white men, what more should I add to the discourse but muteness?
  6. Remember the arm-wrestling match in The Old Man and the Sea? Mano a mano, in which the compulsion to settle into muteness struggles with a deep rooted urge to (re)create, to narratively recreate oneself.
  7. One of the fundamental claims Foucault makes of confession is that the confessor does not know the truth. “…silence, …. the things one declines to say or is forbidden to name, functions alongside the things said …. There is no binary division to be made between what one says and what one does not say.”

Recent reading: Angel, Nehamas

Banksy

Banksy

There are several reviews around of Katherine Angel’s Unmastered: A Book on Desire, Most Difficult to Tell ranging from bizarre to intriguing. Each offers an idiosyncratic reading that reveals as much about the reviewer as about the book. As Rumi said, “We are the mirror as well as the face in it.” The Unmastered effect is insidious. What begins as an energetically explicit sexual autobiography subverts itself to become tragic, though this may just be its curious mirror-like effect. The aphoristic style and generosity of white-space in the UK edition invites projection, so perhaps it says more about me than Angel’s beautiful and thought-provoking book that I saw more tragedy than sex.

I’ve written before of my interest in philosophy in its Greek context as a way to live life, rather than as empty discourse. Though I found much that was insightful in Alexander Nehamas’ The Art of Living: Socratic Reflections from Plato to Foucault, I took less from it than from Hadot’s Philosophy as a way of life. Nehamas writes highly perceptively about Plato, Nietzsche, less convincingly about Kierkegaard and Foucault, but gets bogged down occasionally in nuances of definition. Nevertheless it is an engaging and lucid work that complements Hadot superbly.

On to Rachel Kushner’s The Flamethrowers if I can get beyond dispiriting blurbage from bloody Franzen and Colm Tóibín (“American novel”).

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?

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”.

Technologies of the Self

On Twitter yesterday I posted a link to Michael Foucault: Ethics, Subjectivity and Truth (Essential Works 1954-1984 Volume 1). In the book are important interviews and lectures that Foucault gave, often not covered directly in his major works. I went through a Foucault phase about fifteen years ago when I immersed myself deeply in his work, particularly these pieces on ethics.

At the time I was reaching for an ethical code. There were parts of my self I knew I should relinquish, characteristics that required reforming. What I understood of Kantian morality failed to appeal; its over emphasis on reason and divinity sent me first toward Schiller. Though there was much about Schiller’s “ethics with aesthetics” that I liked, ultimately I found his thought insubstantial. Foucault’s ethical approach appealed, partly because I sensed he retained a belief in aesthetics, partly because his approach to ethics is deeply grounded in Greek and Greco-Roman antiquity, particularly the stance taken by the Epicureans (which I come back to time after time for sustenance and inspiration).

What also appealed of Foucault’s approach to ethics was his discourse on technologies of the self, a means for humans to effect “a certain number of operations on their own bodies and souls, thoughts, conducts, and way of being, so as to transform themselves in order to attain a certain state of happiness, purity, wisdom, perfection or immortality”. That sentence is open to wide interpretation, but to me has always been about modification of the self through reflection, reading and writing.

This idea of self-conscious modification appealed to me deeply (and still does). What  is lacking, to my mind, in Foucault’s lectures and writing on ethics is his own statement of what ethical principles and ideal that he pursued. During a discussion on Twitter, it was suggested that, unlike Kant, he simply ran out of time to do so. A central part of my own technological modification was developing an affective ethical code. Without describing, at least to myself, a set of ideals and understanding how they motivate, I would have failed, to  successfully (how successful is ever arguable) install the ethical codes into my body.

There is so much in that volume of Foucault worth reading. I’m intending to reread the chapters on Self Writing, that speak to what I’ve written above and on what the Epicureans and Foucault called “the arts of oneself”.

Ethnocentric Criticism

Before (or after) reading my scattered musings in this post I’d urge you, if you haven’t read it before, to give your attention to Aijaz Ahmad’s essay entitled Jameson’s Rhetoric of Otherness and the “National Allegory”. Written in 1987 it is somewhat dated, and bears a tedious title. That aside, it is a surgical and incisive demolition of the concept of ‘third-world literature,’ and much of academic postcolonial theory.

I shall argue, therefore, that there is no such thing as a “third-world literature” which can be constructed as an internally coherent object of theoretical knowledge. There are fundamental issues-of periodisation, social and linguistic formations, political and ideological struggles within the field of literary production, and so on-which simply cannot be resolved at this level of generality without an altogether positivist reductionism.

Ahmad develops his argument to challenge the Three Worlds Theory, or at least Jameson’s conception of the theory. (It is here that the outdated part of the essay is most obvious, in the use of ‘Second World’ to mean socialist countries.) Nevertheless his argument is illuminating.

Elsewhere Ahmad has written (and hints in this essay), about the tendency of the élite or relatively upper class writers and philosophers from developing nations to be raised to canonical status in the West, simply as they are afforded more opportunity and access. Those from a working class background tend to go untranslated or unpublished.

Not, of course, that this is problem only for developing nations. Pierre Bourdieu is his “not-autobiography” Sketch for Self-Analysis contrasts the status (and volume of published work, secondary criticism etc.) of Jean-Paul Sartre and Michel Foucault, both from wealthy and privileged backgrounds, with Georges Canguilhem (as a young boarder he didn’t know what wash-basins were for) and by insinuation himself.

The Madness of Reason

I can still reason-I studied mathematics, which is the madness of reason-but now I want the plasma-I want to eat straight from the placenta.

The other day I posted some thoughts about Clarice Lispector’s brilliant Água Viva. Often when I complete a book, particularly one as rich as this one, I’ll spend some time on a second close-reading, looking for patterns and motifs I may have missed on my first reading.

I became ensnared by the sentence quoted above, specifically the phrase, ‘the madness of reason’. The phrase links two words that could almost be binary opposites. Madness, aside from its use to define mental illness, is linked to extreme foolishness, wildness, chaos. Reason, however, is identified with logic, practicality, common sense.

I decided the answer lay in Foucault and spent three pleasant hours immersed in his texts, specifically his argument that, at a specific period, madness was isolated from reason as unreason. Madness reached a symbolic peak during the Renaissance, depicted in the art, philosophy and literature of the time as innate in man. You only have to recall Shakespeare’s fools, my favourites are the gravediggers in Hamlet, whose role is to undermine reason with folly, demonstrating the madness of reason.

Though I haven’t yet bought Benjamin Moser’s Why This World: A Biography of Clarice Lispector I found an excerpt, which made more of the phrase, “mathematics, which is the madness of reason,” and Lispector’s mystical use of numbers. In this lay an answer of sorts.

“My passion for the essence of numbers, wherein I foretell the core of their own rigid and fatal destiny,” was, like her meditations on the neutral pronoun “it,” a desire for the pure truth, neutral,unclassifiable and beyond language, that was the ultimate mystical reality. In her late works, bare numbers themselves are conflated with God, now without the mathematics that binds them, one to another, to lend them a syntactical meaning. On their own, numbers like the paintings she created at the end of her life, were pure abstractions, and as such connected to the random mystery of life itself. In her late abstract masterpiece Água Viva she rejects “the meaning that her father’s mathematics provide and elects instead the sheer “it” of the unadorned number: “I still have the power of reason-I studied mathematics which is the madness of reason-but now I want the plasma-I want to feed directly from the placenta.”

I rarely read secondary literature until exhausting a writer’s own oeuvre, though I am wondering whether I ought to reverse  that custom.

London’s Best Bookshop

It’s a close-run competition but London’s finest bookshop is John Sandoe in Chelsea. Tucked away on a side street to the ghastly blandness that is the Kings Road, this is literary heaven. The stock is impeccable, featuring a fine and serious selection including a spread imported books from the US. The staff are erudite and immensely helpful. The ethos is to recommend and suggest books based upon an acquired knowledge of your literary taste.

The spoils of today’s raid on Sandoes:

Michael Foucault – The Order of Things
Cyril Connolly – Enemies of Promise
Terry Eagleton – Literary Theory
J.M.G. Le Clézio – The Flood
Fernando Pessoa – A Centenary Pessoa
Thomas Pynchon – Against The Day