Some Well-Intentioned Reading Ideas for 2015 (updated)

These are not reading resolutions. Writers promising literary gifts lead me astray too easily for these ideas to be fixed in any way.

This year I read widely covering fifty or so writers, concentrating my reading more deeply only twice on Houellebecq and Anne Carson’s work. In 2015 I’d like to read more deeply into the work of some of my favourite authors: alternative Dante and Homer translations (and Adam Nicholson’s The Mighty Dead: Why Homer Matters) ,  more Ballard’s short stories, always more Beckett, John Berger, Roberto Calasso, more Anne Carson, the new Tom McCarthy, Robert Musil’s diaries, Hélène Cixous, Coetzee, Jenny Diski, Dostoevsky, Marguerite Duras, Pierre Hadot, Houellebecq’s new one if translated next year, Kafka’s short stories, László Krasznahorkai, Clarice Lispector, Bourdieu, Doris Lessing, Nabokov, Alice Oswald, Robert Macfarlane, Nietzsche, Atiq Rahimi, WG Sebald, Thomas Mann, Christa Wolf and Virginia Woolf.

Beyond these ‘old chestnuts’ (as Beckett called his favourite authors) I’m looking forward to unexpected surprises within the pages of the following new books, either missed in 2014 or due in 2015, by authors I have not read before:

  1. Kirmin Uribe – Bilbao – New York – Bilbao
  2. Claudia Rankine – Citizen: An American Lyric
  3. Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor – Dust
  4. Ceridwen Dovey – Only the Animals
  5. Karin Wieland (trans. Shelley Frisch) – Dietrich & Riefenstahl: The dream of the new woman
  6. Can Xue – The Last Lover
  7. Anna Smaill – The Chimes
  8. Han Kang (trans. Deborah Smith) – The Vegetarian
  9. Paul Celan – Breathturn Into Timestead
  10. David Winters – Infinite Fictions: Essays on Literature and Theory

There are several other writers whose older works I’d like to get around to exploring sometime soon including Jens Bjørneboe, Martin Shaw, Ivan Illich, Eva Hoffman, Ivan Goncharov, David Abram, Ágota Kristóf, Rebecca Solnit, Tomas Espedal and Elfriede Jelinek.

As always, distractions are greater than my ambition, but if I manage to take in a decent selection of the above I’m expecting a good year in reading. There are several other titles I have my eye on but I’m mindful of your patience and Molloy’s admission that ‘if you set out to mention everything you would never be done.’

Reading Marcus Aurelius

What I like about Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations is their immediacy. My well-thumbed Gregory Hays translation serves a spiritual function. If perplexed I can open a page, and usually find a suitable meditation to contemplate, to think through a particular problem. If nothing else, Marcus (I’ve known the emperor-philosopher long enough that we are on first name terms) is good company when I’m too tired to concentrate on a new book.

When I allow my copy to fall open it is to the following list of eight kephalaia, or points, which serve as a broad announcement of all Marcus’ themes, and function as a reminder of the essential core of Stoicism:

To be angry at something means you’ve forgotten:

  1. That everything that happens is natural.
  2. That the responsibility is theirs, not yours.
  3. And further … that whatever happens has always happened, and always will, and is happening at this very moment, everywhere. Just like this.
  4. What links one human being to all humans: not blood, or birth, but mind [intellect].

And …

  1. That an individual’s mind is God and of God.
  2. That nothing belongs to anyone. Children, body, life itself-all of them come from that same source.
  3. That it’s all how you choose to see things.
  4. That the present is all we have to live in. Or to lose.

In his book on Aurelius, Pierre Hadot connects these to the fundamental dogmas of Stoicism:

From the absolute primary principle according to which the only good is moral good and the only evil is moral evil, it follows that neither pleasure nor pain are evils; that the only thing shameful is moral evil; that faults committed against us cannot touch us; that he who commits a fault hurts only himself; and that the fault cannot be found elsewhere than within oneself. It further follows that I can suffer no harm from the actions of anyone else.

December: Extended Reading Notes

Reading wildly all over the place, but with those converging lines I’ve written about providing more direction to my reading than I prefer to concede. To end my reading for 2013, a few thoughts on those books I finished over the last month.

Robert Fagle’s exceptional translation of the Iliad has superseded Richard Lattimore’s as my personal favourite. It is bright, powerful and pulls you relentlessly through the narrative without sacrificing Homeric style. Fagles has found the balance between loyalty to Homer’s language and the need to remove the cobwebs and find a fresh modern voice. I have his Odyssey to read soon. A conversation with a reader in the Comments to my post on reading the old dead Greeks has convinced me to read both George Chapman’s and Christopher Logue’s Homer, the latter first. At Max’s suggestion I also read Alice Oswald’s Memorial this month and was taken aback at the brilliance of her portrayal of the Iliad, in which she brings to the foreground the minor characters of the Iliad, introduced briefly by Homer merely to die horrid deaths. In doing so, Oswald evokes fresh revulsion for the senselessness but inevitability of slaughter and warfare.

After my thrill of discovering Clarice Lispector’s work with Água Viva, as is often the case I waited a considerable time to read another of her books. In this case, my reticence was misplaced as Near to the Wild Heart and A Breath of Life were no less dazzling. I’m less convinced of the inevitable comparison with Virginia Woolf, but see more resonance with Beckett. I need to think more about this, but there is something of the same apprehension about literature’s inability to express anything, and instead falling away towards silence. In each book, including her phenomenal first, written while in her early twenties (which is astounding), Lispector rises above fiction’s banal conventions. She compels every word to hard labour, extracting every drop of meaning from the fewest words, though she, like Beckett, is not a minimalist in that overworked sense. Like Beckett, Woolf or Duras, Lispector’s work make delicious demands of her readers, though with sentences that are completely available. I’ve lined up The Passion According to G.H. and The Hour of the Star to read in the next few weeks.

I mentioned briefly the personally transformative role that Pierre Hadot continues to have, which deepens with my reading of his Plotinus or the Simplicity of Vision. This is part of a self-reflective journey that I feel is to a great extent outside the reaches of language, as in Hadot’s reflection on Plotinus: “… the spiritual world was not for him…a supercosmic place from which he was separated….Neither was it an original state…lost….Rather [it] was nothing other than the self at its deepest level….It could be reached immediately, by returning within oneself.” My contemplation of the relationship between theory and practise of ancient and modern philosophies is taking me back to old dead Greeks with Plotinus and Heraclitus, and further back towards Vedic texts.

What else in December? David Markson’s Reader’s Block kept me curious enough to get to the end, but it felt like style over substance. I’d rather read John Berger for more accomplished minimalism. I came to Micheline Aharonian Marcom’s A Brief History of Yes eagerly, and finished with thanks for its brevity. My first Ryszard Kapuściński book, which I approached with trepidation (because it appears that Kapuściński might have been one hell of a shitty human being), was better than expected: Travels with Herodotus is clunky written (or translated), and I could pick all sorts of holes as a piece of ‘literary reportage’, but I left with a warmth for the voice of the narrator, and expect to read another Kapuściński one day. Finally, Hélène Cixous never disappoints, and Three Steps on the Ladder of Writing in which she writes of her literary loves is one of those books I shall return to regularly for its radiance.

Remembering Heraclitus: Convergences

Some notes from starting to read Richard Geldard’s Remembering Heraclitus, which picks up on some of the converging themes in my recent reading (Hadot, Plotinus, Heraclitus, Aurobindo, Beckett, Lispector, Woolf and Nietzsche in particular, also others). These originally were solely for my notebook but pick up on themes I am likely to refer to again in future posts.

“The mythopoetic influence of the Great Mother Goddess was pervasive even in the rich multi-cultural mix of Ephesean culture. By the Classical period, Artemis was still dominant and was worshipped as goddess of the Moon, and her cult was celebrated in her own festival in the month of Munychion (April-May). This strong feminine influence is important to Heraclitus because rather than the masculine sky gods being dominant as they were in Attic Greek religion and culture, the Ephesian religious ethos always had a strong feminine influence and would have been a strong influence on his vision. As we shall see, rather than the idea of “soul” being a weak, feline characteristic compared to masculine “spirit” in later Western philosophy and religion, soul for Heraclitus was powerful and possessed both generative and transformative powers.” Richard Geldard, Remembering Heraclitus

Do we forget that our earliest divinity was a goddess, who assumed the form of an egg, from which tumbled all things that exist?

“In this archaic religious system there were, as yet, neither gods nor priests, but only a universal goddess and her priestesses, women being the dominant sex and man her frightened victim? Fatherhood was not honoured, conception being attributed to the wind, the eating of beans, or the accidental swallowing of an insect; inheritance was matrilineal and snakes were regarded ad incarnations of the dead. Eurynome (“wide wandering”) was the goddess’s title as the visible moon; her Sumerian name was Iahu (“exalted dove”), a title which later passed to Jehovah as the Creator. It was as a dove that Marduk symbolically sliced her in two at the Babylonian Spring Festival, when he inaugurated the new world order.” Robert Graves, The Greek Myths

Eurynome reappears in Milton’s Genesis story as “the wide/Encroaching Eve perhaps,” though she no longer dances.

“The special significance of the years around 500 BC when Heraclitus was in his prime, was the cultural infusion of new thought characteristic of Ephesus must have reached an apex.[..] At this point in world history the culture of myth had sufficiently weakened in its influence to permit new visions of cosmic order and meaning, and what took the place of myth was a wholly new thing in nature. Although Hegel referred in his work to the birth of Christ as the pivotal moment in Western culture, we can say that 500 BC was the axis around which world culture really turns.” Richard Geldard, Remembering Heraclitus

In 500 BC the Buddha, possibly Lao Tse, Confucius and Zoroaster (Zarathustra) were spreading their investigations through teaching.

Karl Jaspers coined the term “Axial Age” to describe this period in the middle of the first millennium BC when the central texts of Chinese, Indian, Buddhist and Hebrew traditions were composed. I use the term texts with some caution as many were communicated orally and were not written for some time.

“Of particular importance at the end of the sixth century BC was the emergence in India of Advaita Vedanta, the non-dualistic religion based on the Hindu Vedas … which emphasised the individual’s autonomous role in transcending the superficial dualism of ordinary existence. Advaita teaches that the human self (atman in Sanskrit) is identical to the soul of things (Brahman). In our own time the foremost philosopher of Vedanta was Sri Aurobindo (Aurobindo Ghose, 1872-1950), whose useful essay on the similarities between Heraclitus and Vedanta was written in 1916-17. It is certainly possible that the main tenets of Vedanta found their way to Ephesus in the sixth century BC. If not, the similarities between the [Heraclitus] fragments and Vedanta suggest a strong argument for the emergence of similar thought over a wide are of the civilised world.” Richard Geldard, Remembering Heraclitus

“Heraclitus does deserve to rank high among the important figures of a crucial era of religious and philosophical development. He is central to the long line of thinkers who trace the thread of Unity through Western culture, including Pythagoras, Empedocles, Plato, Epicurus, Plotinus, St. Augustine, Meister Eckhart, Marcilio Ficino, Jacob Boehme and on to the Romantic and Transcendental idealists of the modern era.” Richard Geldard, Remembering Heraclitus

“In Plotinus the thought of Heraclitus found a new understanding [beyond its deep influence on both Plato and Aristotle]. In his hierarchy of being and theory of emanations [cross reference: Lucretius and Jane Bennett], Plotinus established an intellectual principle having clear correspondences with the Heraclitean Logos.” Richard Geldard, Remembering Heraclitus

The Womb of World Civilisation

It amuses me greatly when a degree of unconscious direction behind seemingly arbitrary reading choices becomes clear. What is intended to be patternless drifting from one book to the next, loosely following very broad themes, takes on the form of a literary centripetal force pulling towards a single area of study. Even a year ago I felt the pull towards the study of the Vedas, but resisted the tension, mainly because I couldn’t quite grasp where to begin. As Paul Deussen, a friend of Nietzsche’s, wrote in his old (1907) Outlines in Indian Philosophy, “European idleness tries to escape the study of Indian philosophy.” I still feel that inertia, intimidated by the immensity of the task. But, but …

Rereading Virginia Woolf’s The Waves one night, I came across Bernard’s monologue:

I am not one person, I am many people. I do not know who I am – Jinny, Susan, Rhoda, Neville or Louis – or how to distinguish my life from theirs – ‘we are bound not only to our friends but to the long-long history that began in Egypt in the time of the Pharaos when women carried pitchers to the Nile.’

I started going through The Waves and scribbling notes of instances where Woolf uses metaphors to indicate the relation of one to the many, that Nature is ‘one form in diverse mirrors.’ Both currents of thought were heavily present in my recent readings of Clarice Lispector, Pierre Hadot’s Plotinus and various interpretations of Heraclitus’ Fragments.

For instance, there is the following paragraph from Hadot’s superb Plotinus book:

Since we look towards the outside, away from the point at which we are joined together, we are unaware of the facts that we are one. We are like faces turned towards the outside, but attached on the inside to one single head. If we could turn around – either spontaneously or if we were lucky enough to ‘have Athena pull us by the hair’ [Homer], then all at once, we would see God, ourselves, and the All.

(Incidentally, not that I’ll dwell on the topic here, Plotinus’s notion of deification means the destroying of man, not the modern day religious notion of man living and working in God.)

The philosophical and historical worth of the Vedas has been acknowledged from Voltaire onwards, their influence of Greek culture is certain,  also on most of the major mystical and philosophical traditions, and from there to poets and story-tellers. “The Greeks may have been the cradle of Western civilisation, but the Vedas are the womb of world civilisation.” The more I read on the subject the more I see the influence on writers are diverse as Heraclitus, Plato, Plotinus, Kant, Vico, Woolf, Eliot (clearly), Lispector, Iris Murdoch, Nietzsche, and Emerson.

Please feel free to suggest essential or helpful texts that deal with the influence of the Vedas on Greek culture, or texts that help a curious amateur with the Vedas. This is likely to give some shape to my otherwise arbitrary reading over the next 6-12 months.

A Year of Reading: 2013

It was an exceptional year of reading that began with Benoît Peeters’ prodigious Derrida biography. I also finally got around to Knowlson’s respectful but no less captivating Beckett biography.

2013 was a year for new encounters: notably Jane Bennett, Pierre Hadot and Christa Wolf, each of whose work I intend to continue exploring. Christa Wolf’s Cassandra and Medea linger long as intriguing reinterpretations of myths. Jane Bennett and Pierre Hadot’s philosophical work is transformative, and leads me back to Ancient Greece; expect to see a concentration on old Greeks next year. Robert Fagles’ lucid Iliad has surpassed Lattimore to become my favourite. On translations, until I left my much annotated copy, together with a fourteen-month old sketch/note-book, in an Indian temple, I was luxuriating in the Hollander Dante like a hippo in a mud bath.

Of books published this year (or late in 2012) my favourite non-fiction was Robert Calasso’s La Folie Baudelaire, or Shelley Frisch’s translation of Reiner Stach’s Kafka: The Years of Insight. I didn’t read much contemporary fiction but lapped up Rachel Kushner’s enjoyable The Flamethrowers.

I continued to read Clarice Lispector. A Breath of Life and Near to the Wild Heart were as remarkable as Água Vida. Over the next twelve months I’ll read all the Lispector I can lay my hands on.

As is traditional, for me anyway, serendipity lead me up totally different paths than my intentions of a year ago. All I can say with any certainty of the next twelve months is more Coetzee, Cixous, Lispector and Beckett.

I read pretty much the same number of books as 2012, but still worry about Twitter as a distracting time-sink.

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”).

Intellectual Hubris

For reading alongside Pierre Hadot’s texts, I recommend Alexander Nehamas’ The Art of Living, which has similar concerns about how to practise a philosophical life, rather than casually reading philosophy for intellectual pleasure or posture. In a brilliant pair of chapters about Platonic and Socratic irony, he quotes Muecke (below), a couple of sentences that capture so concisely the hubris of many (contemporary) politicians and intellectuals (pseudo):

The typical victim of an ironic situation is essentially an innocent. Irony regards assumptions as presumption and therefore innocence as guilt. Simple ignorance is safe from irony, but ignorance compounded with the least degree of confidence counts as intellectual hubris and is a punishable offence.

DC Muecke
The Compass of Irony

A Philosophical Attitude

Gill001

Like Einstein I disassociate myself from the atheist tag, partly because I prefer an “attitude of humility corresponding to the weakness of our intellectual understanding of nature and of our own being.” But also to distance myself completely from the fundamental atheists (Dawkins, Dennett, Hitchens et al.) who declaim their untestable (on both sides) hypothesis at very opportunity.

During the Middle Ages everything changes, because philosophy is no longer merely religion’s servant. As soon as philosophy frees itself from a theology, it becomes a critique, either purifying or destroying, of religion. Philosophers-Spinoza no less than Kant, for example-have always had a tendency to purify the idea of God and detach it from properly religious representations. It seems to me that what has been called natural religion is merely a theistic philosophy. As such, it lacks what is essential in religion: rites. Now, I recognise that by defining religion in this way, I oppose a rather general use of the word, namely, to speak of God, transcendence, or mystery. I have observed the fact in Thomas Mann, who in a letter remarks, “We live and we die in mystery, and one can, if one wishes, qualify the consciousness we have of it as religious.” Similarly, Einstein spoke of the scientific religiosity and the cosmic religion of his own position, which he expresses by reporting, “I have the strongest emotion in front of the mystery of life,” while refusing a God who rewards and punishes. In his inaugural lecture, Merleau-Ponty said roughly the same thing as Thomas Mann and Einstein, but was careful to specify that this is a philosophical attitude: “Philosophy awakens us to what is problematic in itself in the existence of the world and our own existence, to the point that we are never healed from searching, as Bergson would say, for a solution ‘in the master’s book.” This is a philosophical attitude that Merleau-Ponty refuses to qualify as atheist, because it merely consists of displacing the sacred or defining it in another way.

Pierre Hadot
The Present Alone is Our Happiness

Authenticity and Semiconsciousness

Three Worlds - MC Escher (1955)

Three Worlds – MC Escher (1955)

This “authenticity,” also tackled by Derrida, inspired by Aristotle and Heidegger, is a central preoccupation. Is it possible to stay in this state always? If so, how?

[..] I have been strongly impressed by the radical opposition between everyday life-which is lived in semiconsciousness and in which we are guided by automatisms and habits without being aware of our existence in the world-and of the privileged states in which we live intensely and are aware of our being in the world. Bergson as well as Heidegger clearly distinguished these two levels of the self: the self that remains at the level of what Heidegger calls the “they,” and the one that rises to the level of what he calls the “authentic.”

Pierre Hadot
The Present Alone is Our Happiness

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?

Discovering Pierre Hadot

Aside

Discovering Pierre Hadot feels important to me. Too often with philosophy I feel these writers and thinkers are engaged in discourse for the sake of discourse, empty posturing. With Hadot there is a purpose to the philosophy, beyond the love of wisdom, a sense that one can and should use philosophy to change life, to seek out a life with less anxiety, more contentment. It is strange how when reading, though one drifts languidly this way and that, when viewed from sufficient perspective, a definite and deliberate trajectory can be seen.

The Erotic Dimension of Pedagogy

As Bertram has shown in some splendid pages, we encounter the tradition of Socratic Eros and the educative daimon in Nietzsche. According to Bertram, the sayings sum up perfectly this erotic dimension of pedagogy. One is Nietzsche himself: “The deepest insights spring from love alone.” Another is by Goethe: “We learn only from those we love.” Finally, there is Hölderlin’s dictum: “Mortal man gives his best when he loves.” These three maxims go to show that it is only through reciprocal love that we can accede to genuine consciousness.

Pierre Hadot
The Figure of Socrates
Philosophy as a way of life

This Year’s Idées Fixes

My reading orbits an accretion of preoccupations. So far, this year’s idées fixes are the influence of the East on Greco-Roman thought (and by extension, modern thought), Epicureanism, the neo-vitalist/transcendental materialist movement in contemporary philosophy, and asceticism. It may be that the interrelation between these themes are personal, but they appear deeply connected.

Following a question on Twitter I thought I’d compile a list of some of the texts that I’ve recently read and that I’ll be reading over the next few months. Please feel free to make further suggestions of titles that speak urgently to these concerns. These are all complementary to the Urtexts  of Epicurus, Lucretius, and Diogenes Laertius, and to this superb companion.

  • Jane Bennett – Vibrant Matter: a political ecology of things [PDF]
  • Pierre Hadot – Philosophy as a way of life
  • Jane Bennett – The Enchantment of Modern Life
  • Pierre Hadot – The Present Alone is Our Happiness
  • Alexander Nehamas – The Art of Living
  • David Jasper – The Sacred Desert
  • Pierre Hadot – The Veil of Isis
  • Randall Collins – The Sociology of Philosophers
  • David Jasper – The Sacred Body
  • Pierre Hadot – What is Ancient Philosophy?

“Unclassfiable”

By the time of the Platonic dialogues Socrates was called atopos, that is, “unclassifiable.” What makes him atopos is precisely the fact that he is a “philo-sopher” in the etymological sense of the word; that is, he is in love with wisdom. For wisdom, says Diotima in Plato’s Symposium, is not a human state, it is a state of perfection of being and knowledges that can only be divine. It is the love of wisdom, which is foreign to the world, that makes the philosopher a stranger in it.

Pierre Hadot
Forms of Life and Forms of Discourse
Philosophy as a way of life