Dare to Be Wise

“Enlightenment is the human being’s emergence from his self-incurred minority. Minority is inability to make use of one’s own understanding without direction from another. This minority is self-incurred when its cause lies not in lack of understanding but in lack of resolution and courage to use it without direction from another. Sapere aude! [dare to be wise] . . .

It is because of laziness and cowardice that so great a part of humankind, after nature has long since emancipated them from other people’s direction, nevertheless gladly remains minors for life, and that it becomes so easy for others to set themselves up as their guardians. It is so comfortable to be a minor! If I have a book that understands for me, a spiritual advisor who has a conscience for me, a doctor who decides upon a regimen for me, and so forth, I need not trouble myself at all. I need not think, if only I can pay; others will readily undertake the irksome business for me.”

—Immanuel Kant. Practical Philosophy. (trans. Mary J. Gregor)

It is worth seeking out Kant’s answer to the question, “What is Enlightenment?” which appeared in the December 1784 issue of Berlinische Monatsschrift. It also brings to mind Primo Levi’s warning that “our personality . . . it is in much more danger than our life.”

Josh Cohen’s The Private Life

Josh Cohen introduces The Private Life by explaining the links between psychoanalysis and literature: “I read books obsessively, and eventually chose to teach them, because they hinted at the miraculous possibility of experiencing inner lives other than my own.” Freud borrowed as heavily from Greek myth as Jung did from folklore; stories are at the heart of both literature and psychoanalysis. As I spoke of once before, my avid consumption of literature is rooted in a similar attraction, so I developed early an affinity with Cohen’s description of his relationship with literature.

I was fourteen or maybe fifteen years old when I discovered Freud, initially through the case histories, and then in the very readable The Psychopathology of Everyday Life. Somewhere I still have the paperback Penguin Freud that I read avidly at boarding school, but the annotations would embarrass me too much to even think of rereading that edition.

These days I am less convinced by Freud’s conception of the extent of the unconscious or psychoanalysis’s totems and taboos, and Cohen’s book did little to convince me otherwise. There is nevertheless much in The Private Life that is fascinating, particularly the way that Cohen brings his literary influences to bear on his argument that our modern culture is endangering our psychic health by eroding the value of privacy.

The penultimate chapter in particular which begins with a look at babyhood and the inevitability of anxiety, develops into a probing of the nature of torture and its psychological effects, and ends with our compulsion to scare ourselves with horror films, is both brilliant and haunting. Cohen’s deployment of Blanchot, Jean Améry, Primo Levi and Paul Celan’s work to underpin his argument is profound and elegant.

Here’s a brief description, perhaps as Cohen concedes, overly simplistic, of intra-uterine life, that Cohen uses to contrast the shock of birth:

Sentient life began for you in a vessel precisely adapted to your needs, in which food, warm and shelter were provided from the first with unbroken reliability and constancy, ensuring you registered neither the need of them nor the possibility of their loss. If you expanded, space expanded with you. You were God, to all intents and purposes, the centre of an integral, self-sufficient universe without beginning or end. Profoundly attuned to the syncopated flow of the world’s blood and breath, you took the endlessly variegated transmissions of one voice, and even the more tinny and sporadic emanations of other voices, for discrete parts of the music you alone composed, played and conducted.

Back to Calvino

Italo Calvino: Letters 1941-1985

Italo Calvino: Letters 1941-1985

I know Michael Wood as the author of Literature and the Taste of Knowledge and Yeats and Violence, both works of literary criticism that I liked very much. Wood both selected the letters in this edition and writes the introduction, saying that the letters reveal not Calvino’s “real self” but his “plain self”: “We eavesdrop not on his secrets but on his devotion to clarity.” (Jonathan Galassi recently reviewed this book for NYRB).

Along with the second volume of Reiner Stach’s Kafka biography, this collection of Calvino’s letters is one of my two most eagerly anticipated books of 2013. Leafing through the index I can see fairly extensive referencing of Barthes, Borges, Kafka, Primo Levi, and Elsa Morante, but also that pretty much every writer I have time for gets at least one mention.

Pursuing a reference to Dante, I came across a lengthy letter addressed to literary critic Mario Motta. I quote a tantalising section below which precedes comments about Kafka, Dante, Conrad, Chekhov and Hemingway

[..] I notice that I’ve started classifying historical figures, writers, cultural movements into “paradisiacal” or not, As happens with these juxtapositions invented on the spot (which also have their own auxiliary usefulness, as long as one doesn’t dwell too long on them), the system always works out: the “paradisiacal” ones are all those I systematically distrust, the “non-paradisiacal” are those from whom I believe I’ve gathered some concrete teaching.

How many paradises there are, for instance, in recent literature! What can be more “paradisiacal” than Surrealism? And psychoanalysis? And Gidean irresponsibility? But even more significant, it seems to me, is the fact that the most coveted myth in modern literature is a regressive paradise: memory. And what can one say about the gelid paradise of the Hermeticists: absence?

Of course, the letters have disarmed me and demand my immediate attention.