Crossroads of the Paths of my Thinking

Simone Weil wrote, “Our personality seems to us a sort of limit, and we love to figure that some day in an undetermined future we can get around it in one direction or another, or in many. But it also appears to us as a support and we wish to believe there are things we would never be capable of doing or saying or thinking because it is not in our character. That often proves false.” The stoic lesson: life lives us.

We often think that signposts carry meaning. My inner skeptic always questions how I can be sure that I arrive at the correct interpretation of a signpost. Recently all my reading is providing signposts to Simone Weil. Her work. Her self. Fanny Howe quotes a friend who called Weil “a secular monastic”. People will begin to consider me religious, buried in the work of yet another mystic. Some things I read nod forward to Weil: St. John of the Cross, Plato, in whom Weil detected foreshadows of Christianity; a bridge between Greek tragedy and Christian mysticism.

In Fanny Howe, like Christian Wiman, I discover the work of another tutelary spirit. Their books like Agamben’s, Wittgenstein’s blow more or less vigorously in the direction of Simone Weil, what Walter Benjamin, in a letter to Gershom Scholem about Kafka, described as “crossroads of the paths of my thinking.”

Howe in The Needle’s Eye, reflects on personality and our self-representing masks through a series of associative thoughts about the Boston marathon bombers, Francis and Clare of Assisi, folk philosophies and social norms.

My daughter is reading an old favourite book from when I was seventeen, Erving Goffman’s The Presentation of Everyday Life. He argues that the self adapts our personality to suit the setting, donning a different mask as necessary, but that these masks are not permanent. Weil wrote, “The thing we believe to be our self is as ephemeral and automatic a product of external circumstances as the form of a sea wave.”

Recent Arrivals: Notebooks, Copernicus and Research

My attraction to Simone Weil’s work is deepening the more I read. I couldn’t resist the notebooks. Her reading of Plato is sending me back to his work, which I haven’t revisited much since my twenties. I’ve written a rather dodgy post on Weil and Plato. I may or may not post it here, but am fascinated by her argument that Plato was deeply influential on the medieval Christian mystics.

I am not especially religious (though not an atheist), but alongside Weil I am enjoying an exploration of much earlier Christian mystics (is Weil a mystic?) like St John of the Cross. So much we simply cannot know; as Heidegger said somewhere, it is quite possible that human thought is at only a rudimentary level.

The other two are continuations of my tumbling headlong down a rabbit-hole propelled by Maria Gabriela Llansol’s Book of Communities. Emily Dickinson’s influence on Llansol is clear.

An Empty Gesture

The universe is a unity
making itself manifest
through an infinite number
of relative phenomena
in part accessible to our senses
(in their relativity).
Only through things
do we sense the unity.

Wols. Aphorisms and Pictures (1971)

It is quite possible to hold literature in high regard and recognise its dangers. You remember Plato’s Republic denies writers a place. Rightly, for in the perfect community they are superfluous and hazardous.

Why read? Transformation. The characteristic feature of literature is the way it transforms. Is it possible to imagine oneself without literature, a person who had never read transformative literature? I have tried to make separate reading as an act of transformation, and reading as consumption.

To avoid writing that is expression for the sake of expression. Is this the nature of blogging? Expression mattering more than what is expressed. As Richter wrote, “As a record of reality, the thing I have to represent is unimportant and devoid of meaning, though I make it just as visible as if it were important”.

Why blog? To think. The demand to think about what I read, to reflect upon my position in a collaboration between writer and reader. Even if I fail to write about what I am reading, the act of blogging here for so long is sure to make me think as though I am to write about what I read. To tell the truth, these days I write in my notebooks more. The more I’ve written about literature, the less I understand. The less I have to say.

With the misery and suffering in the world, reading, writing sometimes feels ridiculous, contemptible. There is one ally only against barbarism – friends. Why blog? For the people I’ve met through blogging. A small handful but they are dear to me. A blog lives by companionship.

We want to understand literature. Why not try to understand birdsong? There are so many things I love, the night, trees, waves, everything around, but I don’t feel I must understand them. I read autobiographies as though this might help to understand literature, but understanding writers is of no more use to understanding literature than understanding birdsong. Perhaps less.

To read as an adventure into unknown worlds. To blog as a simple expression of complex thoughts. An attempt to destroy illusion and reveal truth.

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.

Gillian Rose as Implacable Educator

“By its very nature all philosophy may be said to be a devising of strategies for intellectual transcendence, an attempt to rise above the mere clash of opposing partial truths at the level of ‘opinion’. Thinking at the level of ‘opinion’ is thinking entirely trapped within a given viewpoint, belonging to a particular historic time and place. Philosophy by contrast seeks to penetrate to the eternal: the most comprehensive possible overview. For Plato’s Socrates this is essentially a process of ‘recollection; a turning backwards, to uncover what one’s experience has already, in fact, potentially taught one, but what, for lack of questioning, one has not yet understood.”

– from Andrew Shanks, Against Innocence

I’m amused how Shanks, in his way, attempts to deter a naive reader from tackling his subject, Gillian Rose’s work, writing, “. . . she abandons all pretence of seamless argument. The argument of [her most momentous book] The Broken Middle jumps, in mind-boggling-fashion, from topic to topic. Fragments of philosophy, theology, political theory, historiography and biography, anthropology, literary criticism and theory of architecture are thrown all higgledy-piggledy together. The underlying coherence of her thought is systematically covered by a surface show of randomness.” Shanks goes on to say, “This is difficult writing, not at all because it is inept, but because it is an attempt, in the most direct way possible to enact the intrinsic difficulty of ‘absolute knowing’.”

Furthermore, Shanks adds, ” . . . as an educator she is implacable. Her ambition for us knows no limits. In The Broken Middle, for instance, she discusses Hegel, Adorno again, Kierkegaard, Maurice Blanchot, Franz Kafka, Sigmund Freud, Thomas Mann, René Girard, Rahel Varnhagen, Rosa Luxembourg, Hannah Arendt, Emmanual Levinas, Franz Rosenzweig, Emil Fackenheim and various others”, and further, “Her book reads like an accumulation of marginal notes compiled originally for herself alone, on these texts – abstruse musings, studded with arcane witticisms.”

For a naive reader, sufficiently curious about Rose and her work, to buy and read Shanks’ excellent book and his elegant warnings–as he is of course all too aware– just serve to take one deeper down the Gillian Rose rabbit hole. His admonitions serve as the sign above another forbidding portal–”All hope abandon ye who enter here.”

Arno Schmidt’s Enthymesis

This is a brief post on a short and complex story. Where does one begin with as singular a writer as Arno Schmidt? I chose to start with M. A. Orthofer’s very good dialogic introduction. Thus primed, I was ready to invest in Schmidt’s Collected Novellas, specifically the first of the collection, Enthymesis or H.I.H.Y.A. Schmidt’s story is twenty-one pages long. My notes run to six pages.

“Not by virtue of wisdom do poets create what they create,” write Plato in his Apology, “but by a sort of genius and inspiration; they are like diviners or soothsayers , who also say many fine things but do not understand their meanings.”

Plato thought poets of all sorts inspired, not skilled, capable of little more than rousing empty emotions. Aristotle agreed that poetry arouses emotions but argued that poetry represents objects and actions in the world precisely as language represents ideas.

I suspect Schmidt was in Aristotle’s camp. In Enthymesis his narrator writes in his diary, “I have never understood what is supposed to so great about Plato; true, he does write elegantly at times, but his books are often page upon page of stylistic and philosophical banalities that one would hardly excuse from a schoolboy.” Schmidt’s narrator argues that Plato’s Republic is a proto-fascist state in which the masses are compelled to fight unjust wars that serve the interest of a ruling class.

It would be easy to glide through a surface-reading of Enthymesis but to do so would be to miss a richness of imagery and allusion so great that even DFW’s footnotes would scarcely do justice to all its complexity. Reading of Schmidt’s narrator denouncing Rome via Plato’s Republic, it is also useful to know that Enthymesis was the first story he wrote after the Second World War. The allusion is inescapable when writing of his narrator Philostratos leaving home for this expedition: “I’ll never forget that, how I stood before my books for the last time and looked through all the rooms, lost in thought; luckily there was still some schnapps in the locker, and my body did not torment me, I didn’t feel it, nor my light burden, and even the inferior part of my mind, the one that gives orders to this body draped shabbily over it, was separate from me.”

The NYT refers to the “obscurely entitled” Enthymesis: Or H.I.H.Y.A. and I can offer no accounting for a term that appears to refer to a Pauline doctrine taken from a passage in his Epistle to the Colossians.

Enthymesis is the diary of a disciple of Eratosthenes of Cyrene (276-195 BC), one of a team of bematists sent out to calculate the distance between Syene and Alexandria in order to determine the circumference of the Earth. Tensions develop within the expeditionary team leaving the delirious narrator diarist Philostratos following a vision to a silver city in the African desert. Schmidt overlays that simple story with a layer of myth and dream, a condemnation of expansionist ideologies that undoubtedly references both the Roman Empire and Nazi Germany (and speaks to our present times), using exceedingly rich and beautiful language that will have the curious reader diving deeply into dictionaries, and reference books and sites.

Beyond that surface description of Enthymesis and my precursory rambling I’ll say no more. This story, though short, is too broad for an adequate treatment, to say nothing of my limitations. I cannot think of no better initiation to this powerfully erudite writer. I consider myself a neophyte of the cult.

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