“I know that knowledge can transform us, that truth is not only a way of deciphering the world (and maybe what we call truth doesn’t decipher anything) but that if I know the truth I will be changed. . . . Or maybe I’ll die but I think that is the same anyway for me. . . . You see, that’s why I really work like a dog and I worked like a dog all my life. I am not interested in the academic status of what I am doing because my problem is my own transformation. . . . This transformation of one’s self by one’s knowledge is, I think, something rather close to the aesthetic experience.”

—Michel Foucault, The Minimalist Self, 1982 interview by Stephen Riggins, in Politics, Philosophy, Culture: Interviews and Other Writings, 1977-1984

Rereading The Waves

This is what she does so well: “what is the use of painfully elaborating these consecutive sentences when what one needs is nothing consecutive but a bark, a groan?” Conventional narratives fail to give any genuine sense of life itself, with its flow of associations, impressions, memories, its subliminal, discordant orchestration that pierces our moment to moment existence.  Woolf gets close in The Waves, maybe the closest of any writer to capturing the intersection of sensation, thought and other people. Imposing artificially coherent structure is part of our myth-making, our fear of apparent chaos. In place of complexity and mutation, we seek simplification and artificial beauty. “How tired I am of stories, how tired I am of phrases that come down beautifully with all their feet on the ground!”

Part of the lie of rational narrative is this falsified sense of identity. As Bernard argues in The Waves, he is expected to be a “certain kind of man”, but of course there are “many Bernards . . . I am not one person; I am many people; I do not altogether know who I am – Jinny, Susan, Neville, Rhoda or Louis; or how to distinguish my life from theirs.”

Give me rupture, fragmentation, allow me to perform in the sense that I use my own interpretive failure to finish making a story, to fully appreciate the “mystery of things”.

I listened also to the Foucault episodes of Philosophize This! The third (episode 123) is very good, especially in its discussion of Bentham’s panopticon as a model for how we internalize constant surveillance. This seems also true of popular fiction with its apparent unique access to character’s private thoughts and lives, a superior position that enables us to identify with the watcher or narrator. Woolf denies her reader this superiority by not offering readers this higher perspective.

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.”