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

Reading Nietzsche Through Walter Kaufmann

Since I was seventeen I’ve read Nietzsche. I can no longer recall what I read first, probably the yellowing Thus Spake Zarathustra, annotated in two different pens, that still sits on my bookshelf. Nietzsche understands teenagers. He speaks to their complexity and anguish, and they approve of his desire to shatter the tenets of their culture. Nietzsche faced down the nihilism of his age with style, humour and strength. Though Nietzsche’s thinking only partially penetrated my younger self, he left me fortified with the necessity of going deeply into myself to fully experience life.

Over the years I read all of Nietzsche’s published books, though undoubtedly in less reliable translations and editions than are now starting to become available. Nietzsche’s aphoristic style lends itself to dipping into a few lines. Though this achieves little, it is a thought-provoking compass for how one has changed during all the years of reading the same lines. My reading of Nietzsche is changed with all the later reading and thinking I’ve done.

At the moment I’m reading Nietzsche through Walter Kaufmann, only a hundred pages or so in but enjoying his thoughts and observations. Kaufmann untangles Nietzsche’s relations with his anti-Semitic sister Elizabeth Förster-Nietzsche and the intriguing Lou Andreas-Salomé to clarify how both women set out to distort how Nietzsche’s thoughts were later interpreted. Kaufmann then proceeds to show with some elegance how the contradictions in Nietzsche’s arguments are merely superficial. He argues that Socrates is Nietzsche’s ideal, that he is not a ‘system thinker [unlike Kant or Spinoza] but a problem thinker.’

The result is less a solution of the initial problem than a realisation of its limitations: typically the problem is not solved but ‘outgrown’.

Though first published in 1950, Kaufmann’s interpretations are an inspiration for more contemporary readings of Nietzsche, one of which I also wish to read is Alexander Nehamas’ NIETZSCHE Life as Literature (1985). If you know of other Nietzsche secondary literature (not biography) worth reading please let me know.

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.

The Highest Laugh

Officer and Laughing Girl (1657) - Johannes Vermeer

Officer and Laughing Girl (1657) – Johannes Vermeer

Laughter evolved not for its health benefits but because of its impact on others, and therefore positive benefits should most reliably occur within interpersonal contexts. Evolutionary accounts of laughter exists because of the generally accepted view that laughter is a homologue of the primate relaxed open-mouth display, known less formally as the play face.

For at least two hours in the London Library I was absorbed in Psychophysiological Approaches to the Study of Laughter in the Oxford Handbook on positive psychology. (I’m ambivalent about the positive psychology movement, sympathetic to its Stoic roots, but repelled by its corporate manifestation.) There was much of interest in the chapter, but mostly it brought to mind Beckett, Critchley and Bergson.

In Simon Critchley’s essay superb  On Humour he writes,

For me, it is this smile – deriding the having and the not having, the pleasure and the pain, the sublimity and suffering of the human situation – that is the essence of humour. This is the risus purus, the highest laugh, the laugh that laughs at the laugh, that laughs at that which is unhappy, the mirthless laugh of the epigraph to this book. Yet, this smile does not bring unhappiness, but rather elevation and liberation, the lucidity of consolation. This is why, melancholy animals that we are, human beings are also the most cheerful. We smile and find ourselves ridiculous. Our wretchedness is our greatness.

I’ve always viewed with a mixture of envy and unease those with hearty, big belly laughs. From time to time I try them out for size, but they don’t fit. I laugh often but my laughs are quieter, sounds, whether major or minor, from the interior. Bataille identified “major laughter” which requires “two conditions: (1) that it’s sudden; and (2) that no inhibition is involved.”

Critchley’s argument, if I understand it correctly, is developed from Plato’s theory (in Philebus, Socrates explains his suspicion of laughter) that humour comes from a place of superiority, that laughter has its roots in disparaging others. Not Bataille’s unpredictable laughter of release, but one of mockery, closer to what Beckett calls the intellectual or dianoetic laugh.

The bitter laugh laughs at that which is not good, it is the ethical laugh. The hollow laugh laughs at that which is not true, it is the intellectual laugh. Not good! Not true! Well well. But the mirthless laugh is the dianoetic laugh, down the snout — Haw! – so. It is the laugh of laughs, the risus purus, the laugh laughing at the laugh, the beholding, saluting of the highest joke, in a word the laugh that laughs – silence please — at that which is unhappy.

This theory of a superiority of humour  fits with Bergson’s idea that laughter is a corrective to foolish behaviour, what he calls, “a constant striving after reciprocal adaptation, ” concluding, “We may therefore admit, as a general rule, that it is the faults of others that make us laugh by reason of their unsociability rather than of their immorality.

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”).