11 Mar 2014

All writing is autobiography. My blog, I discovered today, comprises almost 300,000 written words of autobiography, a meandering through my library. There are sufficient words for three good-sized books. There are more words than make up Middlemarch, which I’m reading, and at that familiar stage when I don’t want a book to end. This is not to draw any comparisons between Middlemarch–or any other novel–than my unedited stream of consciousness. I write this blog in order to retain more of what I read, and to participate in a conversation about literature. It surprises me that so many of my blog’s readers live in the U.S., more than double the number from U.K. I read mostly European novels, few American ones. I never expected to write so much on my blog, to be writing here for over nine years. The novel I’d like to write is spread over seven notebooks and will probably never come together into a single form. I am firstly a reader, living my life through living so many lives in addition to my own. As Paul Valéry observed, “If each man were not able to live a number of lives beside his own, he would not be able to live his own.”

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.

Between the clarity of life and the simplicity of death . . .

After reading Elizabeth Sewell’s Valéry, reading one of Valéry’s essays, which Sewell writes of so lucidly, was inevitable. With its uncompelling title, an allusion to Descartes, despite Sewell’s preparation, I was ill prepared for its fireworks.

Since mind has found no limit to its activity, and since no idea marks the end of the business of consciousness, it must most likely perish in some incomprehensible climax foreshadowed and prayed by those terrors and odd sensations of which I have spoken; they give us glimpses of worlds that are unstable and incompatible with fullness of life: inhuman worlds, feeble worlds, worlds comparable to those that the mathematician calls forth when he plays with axioms, the physicist when he postulates constants, other than those admitted. Between the clarity of life and the simplicity of death, dreams, anxieties, ecstasies, all the semi-impossible values and transcendental or irrational solutions into the equation of knowledge, all these form curious stages, variations, phases that it is beyond words to describe—for there are no names for those things amongst which one is completely alone.

Paul Valéry, Introduction to the Method of Leonardo Da Vinci

Characteristic Activity of the Mind of God (Elizabeth Sewell)

It is promising that the first of Studies in Modern Literature and Thought that I started is Elizabeth Sewell’s Paul Valery. In a letter, Wallace Stevens thought it truly wonderful and recommended accompanying it with a Rhine wine or Moselle.

After a single chapter, I want to track down all Sewell wrote, in love with both her elegant prose and her brilliant mind.

“It is a curious and interesting fact that mirrors become increasingly frequent in literature toward the end of the nineteenth century.”

“Then there is Mallarmé himself, sitting, as he admitted in a letter to a close friend, in front of a mirror as he wrote, to make sure that he would not disappear into that nothingness which during the writing of Hérodiade his soul had seen and shuddered at.”

“It is as if, during the second half of the nineteenth century, literature were turning itself into a Galerie des Glaces—the French word being so much more expressive than the English one, conveying as it does the suggestion of ice as well as glass, the ‘froid féroce’ which Valery’s Faust discovers at the highest point of abstract thought in the mind, ‘essential solitude, the extreme of the rarefaction of Being’.

“It is useless to try to interpret any poet’s work, by symbols or any other literary technique; all we can do is to attempt to build something and hope that in doing so we may a little conform our minds to he shape of his.”

“He was a poet and a precise and rigorous thinker, but at the same time he was always watching himself making poetry, watching his mind thinking and making a form and structure out of its thoughts. Valery’s mind watches itself in the mirror.”

“It is like Mallarmé, whose poetry is so pure that it is about poetry and nothing else at all, a form commenting on a form, the content irrelevant.”

“The Schoolmen of the Middle Ages knew about it, but we lost it with the Renaissance and the Reformation, and by 1850 nobody was being taught to play the game of thought, any more than they are nowadays, and poets and thinkers were taking themselves seriously and separately.”

“Although logic and mathematics and chess flourish, poetry and hard thinking are in danger of becoming separated again. Mallarmé and Valery are dead, with no visible heirs; in England the only one who took this tradition over from Carroll was G. K. Chesterton, but he lacked the intellectual discipline to carry it through to perfection, either in thought or poetry, and since then the game has lapsed. But it is essential that it be revived, for poetry and thought will sicken if they cannot go on playing with one another. We no longer, alas, study the Scholastics, and so have forgotten how to think, forgotten that science and art belong together, that art is an intellectual virtue and that wisdom and games are to be pursued for their own sake. With heads untrained and idle we are too solemn to appreciate transcendental games such as Mallarmé plays, or too lazy to join in. We think comfortably that hard thought i.e. beyond our powers, and forget that mathematics and logic produced the Alices, to confound us.”

“If Valery was thinking about thinking, that is what we are going to have to do. It is perhaps worth noticing at this stage that Aristotle says in his Metaphysics that thinking about thinking must be the characteristic activity of the mind of God.”

Reading Lately …

I’m much more familiar with Iliad than The Odyssey. As a teenager, with the help of a magnifying glass and Liddell and Scott’s ancient Greek lexicon, I learnt to write the first line of Iliad in Greek from memory, a silly party trick.


Robert Fagles’ verse translation of Odyssey succeeds at turning the poem into fathomable vernacular, though there are times when one feels he must have strayed reasonably far from the nuances of the original Greek. On balance I probably prefer the prose translation of E. V. Rieu, revised by D. C. H. Rieu, philistine though that might appear. I intend to read George Chapman’s Homer sometime soon. Fagles‘ Odyssey has been a fine companion though and despite knowing the story am still not immune to the heightening tension as it progresses toward the slaughter of the suitors.

This summer I plan a second attempt at Robert Musil’s The Man Without Qualities, joining Richard and Francis for the 1130 pages—or 1770 with From the Posthumous Papers edition—translated by Sophie Wilkins and Burton Pike. I am hoping this more modern translation keeps my interest longer than that of Eithne Wilkins and Ernst Kaiser.

As a side project I’m slowly collecting and reading a series of little books on modern European literary figures, published in the fifties by Bowes and Bowes of Cambridge. The first four I have are on Sartre, Kleist, Jacques Riviere and Valery. They caught my eye when watching the video of Duncan Fallowell’s library. They look wonderful and may number fifty or so in number.

Other reading plans, always subjects to whimsy, include dipping into Anita Brookner’s oeuvre, exploring whether William Gerhardie’s work still stands up, undoubtedly more Schmidt and Redonnet, and more ancient Greeks.

All-Powerful Masters

I read Valéry’s Notebooks very slowly, often just a page a day. I find myself chewing over the fragments in the notebooks. They need time to ferment. Often they serve literature’s most valued function, that of clarifying the way another person understands or observes some aspect of himself or another. Or they offer that icy cold shock that another person shares a way of encountering people or situations, those aspects of self we never voice for fear of exposure or ridicule. This fragment has me stuck in recognition and contemplation:

The strongest of my feelings is the very hatred of my feelings, those absurd, inexplicable, transcendent and all-powerful masters whose elementary force catches you sideways and dismantles the finely-tuned apparatus of precise thinking – or carries it away from its own climate and era, imposing upon it an invasive matter, or a distorting rapidity.

Decompression Zone

After several days living in the dappled shade of a forest comprised mostly of ancient giant redwoods, I’m unable, or unwilling, to return to London. I find myself in need of a decompression zone, so have elected to stay for a few days a flat in a small cathedral city. Once a bishop’s wardrobe, this small and moderately cosy flat is in a peaceful close next to the cathedral. These unusually sultry days are spent reading, writing and walking by the river at the end of the large garden. In the still evenings I listen to the choir’s evensong and am accompanied by regular tolling of church bells.

I’m under the spell of Reiner Stach’s Kafka: The Years of Insight, which I finished late last night, and so unable to settle with another book at the moment. While staying at his sister’s farm, Kafka wrote fragmentary notes that have become known to Kafka readers as the Zürau octavo notebooks. Stach writes that these fragments “consist mainly of compactly formulated notes that focus on religious and philosophical questions on good and evil, truth and falsehood, and alienation and redemption.” Stach also writes that “there a few comparable examples of this form in world literature: Valéry’s notebooks (a mother lode of this type of writing, which, however became accessible only after 1945 [and therefore not to Kafka] and, of course, Pascal’s Pensees.”

Serendipitously this sends me back to Valéry’s Notebooks. I bought the first volume with me, together with Calvino’s letters, though I am finding the latter inaccessible, perhaps because such a passage of time has passed since my Calvino obsession.

Rustling Leaves

The Hand (2011) - Ellen Altfest

The Hand (2011) – Ellen Altfest

Valéry’s Cahiers/Notebooks cannot be hurried. His meticulously worded thoughts are often original and unsettling. Every few pages I go to my shelves (or the internet) to track down a reference or to follow an astonishing reflection that cannot be simply read in passing. I read with Pelikan M200 in hand and Moleskine on the desk beside me, scribbling furiously. Though I often annotate my books, these editions resist such behaviour.

This morning’s reading of the Cahiers is over. This following fragment is enough for hours of post-breakfast rumination. (I don’t know if I have characteristic thoughts or if I am anybody all the time.)

Certain ways of looking at things seem to be my hallmark. Sometimes I recognise my own mind. Not all thoughts seem to me to be characteristic or fundamental, but certain ones which, if they were lacking, I’d be different. But there aren’t many of them. So I’m particularly myself at certain times; and anybody the rest of the time. Alongside these characteristic thoughts, we should put the sorrows and intense feelings. Everything else is rustling leaves, vague ‘noises off’, superficiality

A Work of Translation

A five-volume edition of Paul Valéry’s Cahiers/Notebooks have awaited my attention for a while now. Beyond inattentively flicking through some random entries, I have waited for some curious alignment of the planets to begin a reading adventure I’ve anticipated with excitement. I’ve allowed the books to rest, like an aged Bordeaux, after their separate journeys from Germany, but this morning I shall start.

Valéry writes, “In these pages I’m not out to enchant anyone.”

Paul Valéry in 1935 by Charles Leirens

Paul Valéry in 1935 by Charles Leirens

To write anything whatsoever, once this act of writing demands thought, and is not a mechanical, uninterrupted transcription of spontaneous speech, is a work of translation which can be precisely compared to one involving the transmutation of a text from one language to another.

Paul Valéry

The Marquise Went Out at Five O’Clock

The temperature is just below zero, freezing fog outside since this morning. I’m drinking tea and selectively rereading Julien Gracq’s outstanding, personal meditation Reading Writing (En Lisant en écrivant).

Gracq, pictured above, calls into question Valéry’s complaint about the arbitrariness of fiction. When I was reminded of the argument in Josipovici’s What Ever Happened to Modernism, in a chapter called “The Marquise Went out at Five,” my position was closer to Valéry. If the marquise goes out at five, I assume that the marquise is as critical to the story as his departure at five o’clock. Josipovici argues:

The problem, as always with the novel, is more complicated than either party quite realises. For when we talk about anecdotes, when we talk about what is arbitrary and what is necessary, we are not just talking about art, we are also talking about life. Kierkegaard and Sartre were right: we cannot hive off these problems as being merely problems of narrative. Narrative is so potent because telling stories is part of what being human is about.

Josipovici proceeds to argue, using Borges, that, “What Modernism does is to drive [these] contradictions out into the open.”

Valéry’s objection to “The marquise went out at five o’clock” is not only its arbitrariness, but also the “multiplicity of possible variation” and that it is “all fairly devoid of consequence.” Gracq responds:

What is truly irritating about the novel to minds obsessed with precision—Valéry’s, for example—is not what they say it is (and what it is not), it is the imposing delay in elucidating its methods, in comparison to poetry, which is more finely dissected. It is not naïveté or the vulgarity of its procedures and pretensions, it is the unequalled complexity of interferences and interactions, premeditated delays and modulated anticipations that work toward its final effectiveness—a complexity and entanglement such that they seem to add a dimension to the literary space, and, in the current state of “the science of letters,” allow only instinctive piloting and the hazards of navigation with no visibility. Everything counts in a novel, just as in a poem: Flaubert knows this (though Valéry thinks him stupid), and he does not cross out any less, or any less meticulously, than Mallarmé. But the field of combined forces that the novel represents is still too vast and too complex today for any sort of precise intellectual seizure, and the calculus it would require has yet to be invented.