Care of the Self

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‘Raulff: As I understand it, almost every philosopher has had a vision of the good and the right or of a philosophical life as well. What does yours look like?

Agamben: The idea that one should make his life a work of art is attributed mostly today to Foucault and to his idea of the care of the self. Pierre Hadot, the great historian of ancient philosophy, reproached Foucault that the care of the self of the ancient philosophers did not mean the construction of life as a work of art, but on the contrary a sort of dispossession of the self. What Hadot could not understand is that for Foucault, the two things coincide. You must remember Foucault’s criticism of the notion of author, his radical dismissal of authorship. In this sense, a philosophical life, a good and beautiful life, is something else: when your life becomes a work of art, you are not the cause of it. I mean that at this point you feel your own life and yourself as something “thought,” but the subject, the author, is no longer there. The construction of life coincides with what Foucault referred to as “se deprendre de soi.” And this is also Nietzsche’s idea of a work of art without the artist.’

From this 2004 interview.

Something Beyond Ourselves

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“Philosophy has lost (or repressed) it’s transformative urge. It has become, instead, a forensic practice of searching out flaws in arguments, rather than a slow engagement with the ‘strangeness’ or otherness of the world—an engagement that transforms and moves us beyond ourselves.”

— Michelle Boulous Walker, Slow Philosophy

Much that is glorious in Walker’s book. The central argument that “it is timely for the love of wisdom, the instituting moment of Western philosophy, to retrieve its pre-eminent place in philosophical work” also draws me back to Pierre Hadot’s work.

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.