Michael Hamburger In Conversation

Michael Hamburger 1974 R.B. Kitaj 1932-2007 Presented by Rose and Chris Prater through the Institute of Contemporary Prints 1975 http://www.tate.org.uk/art/work/P04542

‘Some of the poems I wrote in the USA are responses to my discoveries of wilderness and wild life, on the walks that were my main compensation for enforced absence from home, others to the civilisation that has become ours, since American monetarist and free market ideology were imported by Margaret Thatcher.’ p.16

‘Paradox has been at the root of my life, as a poet and otherwise. That may be why it’s been as difficult for me to make sense of what I’ve been or done as it’s proved for other people.’ p. 19

‘All I can say now is that I’ve made peace with parts of both Pound’s and Eliot’s works, in the teeth of their opinions and stances, because good poetry is always more and other than the opinions that went into it or can be read out of it.’ p. 20

‘[English literary] snobbery has diminished, replaced by sensationalism about ‘celebrities’ and the cult of publicity for publicity’s sake, measured in figures not quality, and the political prejudice has been replaced either by tolerance or by indifference. Now it’s indifference to all good writing that isn’t sensational my translations are up against; and it makes little difference whether they are from the German or another language, when the same indifference meets even the work of English poets who happen to have won no competitions nor attracted publicity for something other than the merit of their work. The nearest things to general assessments of a writer’s work now appears in obituary columns. If the better newspapers were interested in extending that privilege to writers who have withstood neglect and are still kicking, they would have given that amount of space and care to people who are only candidates for death; not as a boost to those writers but as a service to readers.’ p. 44

‘It’s the disappearance of criticism, not notice, that is fatal to the continuation not of imaginative writing, but of its reception; and the substitution of irrelevances for criticism …’ p. 44

‘No one but Michael Hofmann has ever seriously set up the Aunt Sally he pretends to knock down. It is true that readers of Celan’s last poems have been exasperated by them beyond the bounds of deciding that he went too far, driving his language beyond the bounds of what poetry can do. I have no quarrel with such readers who are free to give up and look elsewhere.’ p. 47 [Hofmann argued in his review of Felstiner’s book on Celan that ‘there is even a case for saying there is no point in translating’ Celan.]

‘I’m sure I’ve been as irascible  as the rest of the tribe [‘literati’], but although I can always be relied upon to moan about something – and my friend Christopher Middleton used to call me ‘Gloomburger’ – I’ve done my best not to squabble in my own interest, but about matters I feel strongly about. I must say, too, that in a world always imperfect I find nothing more boring than an obligatory cheerfulness; or the pretence of it that’s expected of one. It doesn’t make for interchange of any kind.’ p. 64

Michael Hamburger: In Conversation with Peter Dale (1998)

Seagull Books / My Sense of Soul

Regular readers of Time’s Flow Stemmed will know of my profound admiration of Seagull Books. In a time of sweeping intellectual nihilism, Seagull publish books that change the possibilities of art, perpetuating the work of serious publishers like Adelphi and Suhrkamp.

Seagull Books’s annual catalogue combines enticing prose and elegant production. The beautiful 2016-2017 edition includes contributions from some favourite lit bloggers, and also my brief response which follows Naveen Kishore’s “provocation”:

“Soul he said. Soul as the prison of the body. Soul I asked? What about the ones who don’t believe? In soul. Or God. Or religion. The ones that understand the body for what it is. Accept its one-way journey towards the inevitable. The body as decay. Gradual ruin. Eventual crumbling. We all know this. Or those that think the ‘inner core’, or what I presume is a ‘substitute’ for the notion of ‘soul’, is actually just an ever changing, evolving, fermenting mass of literature that grows. And grows. And knows freedom. And fear. And emotion. And love. And death. And every kind of existential angst that any soul worth its weight in gold would know! What about me? I asked. Or you for that matter. We who write and read and write and continue to both read and write while our bodies grow old and tired. But the mind. The mind remains in a state of excitement. Constantly radiant. Its brilliance grows with every new thought. What if we substitute ‘literature’ for ‘soul’ in your proud statement so that it now reads ‘Literature as the prison of the body’. Thing is that this doesn’t hold. Literature cannot be a space that restricts movement. Or freedom. At least it shouldn’t be. It is meant to be a liberating presence. Like its close companion. The dark. For me the dark is important. The dark as a substitute for soul? Maybe. Darkness is essential for literature of meaning to grow and take root.”

My sense of soul is rooted in Aristotle who also used the term psyche in a time before we rooted psychology in the brain, rather as a form or a forming of the whole body. Wax and imprint, like Ovid’s Pygmalion, are one, but this begs the question of how we become one. Identity is a precondition for unity of self, awareness of our selves. The eye is for sight, the ear for hearing but there is no organ of memory, no place in the body where identity can be seen to reside.

In my imagination I venture deep into the caves of Lascaux where humans, sometime between 15,000 and 10,000 BC painted falling horses into the cracks in the rocks. If I imagine carefully I can catch obliquely a shimmering of half-recalled moving images that was perhaps in the mind of a human in this time before language. It seems to me that we retain a sense of this inner life during our dreams, when sound, smells, gestures have primacy over the spoken or written word. Language seems a less direct, less rich way of interrelating with the world around us.

Chimpanzees are thought to have the ability to understand other’s behaviour by inferring from unobservable signs, such as desires, feelings, beliefs and thoughts. If this is true it casts powerful light on fundamental aspects of human nature, of what life might of been like for languageless humans.

Pascal Quignard, indebted to Lacan, likens the acquisition of verbal language to loss, a second death, when an infant’s worldview is transfigured into a system of commonplace signs. Quignard insists that ears are the earliest organs to develop in our prenatal state, that our time in the womb is a long maternal symphony. We lie around, increasingly cramped in non-verbal life until we are torn from our self-contained kingdom into a place of language and identity. Everything we gain is haunted by our loss. Celan captured fully the nature of this tragedy when he wrote, “Whichever word you speak—/you owe/to destruction.”

“Perception,” wrote Bergson, “is completely impregnated by memory-images which, in interpreting it, complete it.” I was only eighteen months old when my mother died. My memory-image of her is of a shadowy nature, based wholly on a small selection of photographs and anecdotes. In memory, my mother is without voice, of which I have no recollection, though she was musical and must have sung to me often. Depersonalisation, characterised by an inescapable sense of strangeness and unreality, is a not uncommon response to sudden loss. My earliest memories are of retreating into a fantasy world where books and drawings soon became more real than the estranged, not-right world around me.

Identity, in the way that Quignard appears to use the term, is a slippery concept. In the case of depersonalisation, identity is extraordinarily elusive. Our unique selves, for the sake of stability, rely on a sense of continuity. The most useful definition for me, is that of William James, who identified the hallmark of personal identity as the “consciousness of personal sameness.” A secure sense of identity is undermined when our concept of self is variable. A state of depersonalisation is often characterised by the appearance of images and sensations from the preconscious, not unlike our non-verbal dream worlds.

Though words are the tools of literature, I think, in some sense, we take for granted the way our identities are transformed by all that literature embodies. While reading, our mind is forming image concepts in the same way it does when using other sensory systems, such as hearing, touch and gesture. The mediation of memory through the vivid images that literature provides, in all their vicarious delicacy, can be redemptive. Didn’t Orwell exhort us to use invigoratingly fresh metaphors to evoke a powerful visual imagery?

Enrique Vila-Matas’s Bartleby & Co.

After spending most of November with the resolute voice of Brigid Brophy, my inclination was for something more wavering. Enrique Vila-Matas’s Barleby & Co., eighty-six footnotes commenting on an invisible text, satisfied this urge despite a sense that it doesn’t quite succeed as a novel.

Has everything been written? Can language and fiction capture life in any meaningful way? The works of writers like Beckett, Kafka, Musil, Celan, Walser, Duras circle around these questions. In Bartleby & Co., Vila-Matas’s narrator asks “What is writing and where is it?”

For some time now I have been investigating the frequent examples of Bartleby’s syndrome in literature, for some time I have studied the illness, the disease endemic to contemporary letters, the native impulse or attraction towards nothingness that means that certain creators, while possessing a very demanding literary conscience (or perhaps precisely because of this), never manage to write; either they write one or two books and then stop altogether or, working on a project, seemingly without problems, one day they become literally paralysed for good.

Had this introduction been to a work of literary criticism by a particularly perceptive critic, I can imagine few more exciting themes for scrutiny. As a work of fiction and limited to some extent by choosing to structure the novel as a series of footnotes, generally marked by brevity and concision, the investigation of Bartleby’s syndrome is comprised of a superficial recounting, mostly anecdotal, of what Vilas-Matas calls ‘writers of the No’.

For the most part this is quite satisfying to someone absorbed by stories of writers and their milieu but by the time the footnotes hit the high sixties I was craving more depth. Of course, Vilas-Matas is sufficiently astute to recognise the potential fatigue.

. . . I am going to have to fall sooner or later, like it or not, since it would be naive of me to ignore the fact that these footnotes are beginning to look more and more like Mondrian’s surfaces, full of squares which give the viewer the impression that they extend beyond the canvas and see – of course! – to encapsulate infinity, and, if this is the way I am heading, as I think I am, I shall be forced into the paradox of eclipsing myself by a single gesture.

This of course is a novel and not to be judged as a work of literary criticism. The difficulty is that the shadow of the narrator is so muted that it is all to easy to forget it is a fictional treatment. It has precisely the wavering quality I hungered for after so much Brigid Brophy but like Never Any End to Paris the overall impression is of something slight. In the end I shall treat it more like a work of non-fiction and follow some of the very many literary trails that Vila-Matas lays down in pursuit of his Bartlebys.

Josh Cohen’s The Private Life

Josh Cohen introduces The Private Life by explaining the links between psychoanalysis and literature: “I read books obsessively, and eventually chose to teach them, because they hinted at the miraculous possibility of experiencing inner lives other than my own.” Freud borrowed as heavily from Greek myth as Jung did from folklore; stories are at the heart of both literature and psychoanalysis. As I spoke of once before, my avid consumption of literature is rooted in a similar attraction, so I developed early an affinity with Cohen’s description of his relationship with literature.

I was fourteen or maybe fifteen years old when I discovered Freud, initially through the case histories, and then in the very readable The Psychopathology of Everyday Life. Somewhere I still have the paperback Penguin Freud that I read avidly at boarding school, but the annotations would embarrass me too much to even think of rereading that edition.

These days I am less convinced by Freud’s conception of the extent of the unconscious or psychoanalysis’s totems and taboos, and Cohen’s book did little to convince me otherwise. There is nevertheless much in The Private Life that is fascinating, particularly the way that Cohen brings his literary influences to bear on his argument that our modern culture is endangering our psychic health by eroding the value of privacy.

The penultimate chapter in particular which begins with a look at babyhood and the inevitability of anxiety, develops into a probing of the nature of torture and its psychological effects, and ends with our compulsion to scare ourselves with horror films, is both brilliant and haunting. Cohen’s deployment of Blanchot, Jean Améry, Primo Levi and Paul Celan’s work to underpin his argument is profound and elegant.

Here’s a brief description, perhaps as Cohen concedes, overly simplistic, of intra-uterine life, that Cohen uses to contrast the shock of birth:

Sentient life began for you in a vessel precisely adapted to your needs, in which food, warm and shelter were provided from the first with unbroken reliability and constancy, ensuring you registered neither the need of them nor the possibility of their loss. If you expanded, space expanded with you. You were God, to all intents and purposes, the centre of an integral, self-sufficient universe without beginning or end. Profoundly attuned to the syncopated flow of the world’s blood and breath, you took the endlessly variegated transmissions of one voice, and even the more tinny and sporadic emanations of other voices, for discrete parts of the music you alone composed, played and conducted.

Inner Workings by J. M. Coetzee

Literary essays by novelists are rarely worth reading. Coetzee, like Woolf and Kundera, is an exception. Inner Workings is compiled from five introductions by Coetzee to contemporary editions of works by Graham Greene, Arthur Miller, Robert Musil, Samuel Beckett and Hugo Claus, together with 15 essays for The New York Review of Books.

Two-thirds of the book deals with the literary achievement of the generation of cultured Jewish writers that emerged from the wreckage of the House of Hapsburg (with Walser, Musil and Celan my high-points). The last third is primarily post Second World War British and American writers, and a few contemporaries.

Unlike some novelist-turned-critics, Martin Amis leaps to mind, Coetzee’s reviews are courteous and balanced, no histrionic name calling, but with the wit to place a writer firmly under scrutiny. I mostly concur with his implication that Walter Benjamin was a political poseur who frequently reached beyond his ability to sustain a project, but I cannot claim any deep reading of Benjamin.

To add depth to his criticism, Coetzee provides historical context. As an adept in the English, Afrikaans, Dutch and German languages he is also uniquely able to comment on the translators’ craft. Although praising Michael Hofmann for the expression, poise and precision of his English, he has concerns about his translations of Joseph Roth.

A rewarding set of essays from one of the major writers of our day – I’ve already ordered the set of essays that precedes this collection.