“Reading as a cultural act – and especially as a philosophical practice – culminates in study. Study is a learned set of techniques and strategies implemented in order to acquire and master a given knowledge in a given discipline, and is a highly defined and regulated practice. But it is also an ‘idea’ and ‘ideal’, which has defined for centuries the aims and scope of Western culture, so much so that in the Middle Ages the term studium defined the university itself.”

“. . . Agamben refers then to the etymology of studium – from the root st- or sp-, indicating an impact or collision and the deriving shock – which it shares with ‘stupefy’ but also with ‘stupid’: lost, stupefied and stunned, the studioso remains unable to grasp and absorb the amazing amount of stimuli striking him, and is at the same time unwilling to take leave of them. On the other hand, the messianic nature of study incessantly drives it towards completion, towards parousia, and this polarity between interminability and completion constitutes the ‘rhythm’ of study: a succession of stupor and lucidity, discovery and bewilderment, passion and action.”

“Unlike the classical figure of the ‘saintly scholar’ lionised by tradition, these students [as found in Kafka, Walser and Melville’s Bartleby] are ‘failures’, and as such they undermine the whole construct of cultural transmission and legitimacy. In Bartleby, however, there occurs the messianic reversal, whereby the messianic polarity of study is surpassed, or better deactivated: Bartleby, who for Agamben represents ‘pure potentiality’, is a scrivener who has ceased to write, and thus his gesture represents a potential that does not precede but follows its act. This ‘liberated’ potential frees study of its melancholy and returns it to its truest nature, which is not the work, but rather inspiration, ‘the self-nourishment of the soul’.”

Agamben’s Philosophical Lineage, edited by Adam Kotsko and Carlo Salzani.

A Form of Attunement

Image from the series “The double and the half” – Slow Panic by Hanan Kazma

In Lyrical Philosophy, Jan Zwicky writes:

“Resonance is a function of the integration of various components in a whole. (Integration, not fusion. Resonance occurs in the spaces between.)

In pure, schematic argument, ‘content’ is of no interest. The form does not arise from it. The form itself is unidimensional. Only the most minimal resonance is possible, the most rudimentary of non-algebraic meanings. The spaces in analysis are necessarily discontinuities, not chambers.–Integrity is a form of attunement.”

Echoes and resonances are central to Zwicky’s writing on Wittgenstein, her suggestion that you might take a number of randomly selected propositions, say half a dozen, from the Tractatus and see them not only as self-sufficient utterances, but also appreciate their bell-like resonant interconnectedness.

As Zwicky remarks, “Imagine doing a similar thing with randomly selected sentences from one of the standard treatises of systematic philosophy.” To what extent I understand Zwicky on Wittgenstein I find her account insightful enough to tackle the Tractatus directly, aided from to time by Michael Morris’ elegant Routledge ‘guidebook’.

I am struck by this idea of resonance to the point of waking up at three o’clock in the morning buzzing with associations. Many of the utterances in Tractatus appear bland, even unoriginal, taken as single entities, but the cumulative effect and patterns start to appear, if only flickeringly.

The resonances work a little like memories, which, for me, arrive primarily in image form; the associations between memory images being deeply resonant. Resonance is spatial, occurring as Zwicky writes “in the spaces in-between”, not unidimensional, and these associations do not arrive in linear form.

To drag another analogy into this raggedy post, I could compare it with my library where, for me, it makes sense to shelve my newly acquired Zwicky and Wittgenstein beside Rilke, Walser and Akhmatova, my library organised by resonance and not by alphabetisation. Wittgenstein wrote that philosophy should only be written as poetry, so these shelf companions somehow seem more fitting.

With Wittgenstein, and in the same sense Zwicky, I read slowly, retracing my steps often to push against the resistance to comprehension. I recall Wittgenstein acting as the benefactor to the poet, Georg Trakl. When he first read Trakl’s poems, he confessed, “I don’t understand them. But their tone delights me. It is the tone of … genius.”

Enrique Vila-Matas’s Bartleby & Co.

After spending most of November with the resolute voice of Brigid Brophy, my inclination was for something more wavering. Enrique Vila-Matas’s Barleby & Co., eighty-six footnotes commenting on an invisible text, satisfied this urge despite a sense that it doesn’t quite succeed as a novel.

Has everything been written? Can language and fiction capture life in any meaningful way? The works of writers like Beckett, Kafka, Musil, Celan, Walser, Duras circle around these questions. In Bartleby & Co., Vila-Matas’s narrator asks “What is writing and where is it?”

For some time now I have been investigating the frequent examples of Bartleby’s syndrome in literature, for some time I have studied the illness, the disease endemic to contemporary letters, the native impulse or attraction towards nothingness that means that certain creators, while possessing a very demanding literary conscience (or perhaps precisely because of this), never manage to write; either they write one or two books and then stop altogether or, working on a project, seemingly without problems, one day they become literally paralysed for good.

Had this introduction been to a work of literary criticism by a particularly perceptive critic, I can imagine few more exciting themes for scrutiny. As a work of fiction and limited to some extent by choosing to structure the novel as a series of footnotes, generally marked by brevity and concision, the investigation of Bartleby’s syndrome is comprised of a superficial recounting, mostly anecdotal, of what Vilas-Matas calls ‘writers of the No’.

For the most part this is quite satisfying to someone absorbed by stories of writers and their milieu but by the time the footnotes hit the high sixties I was craving more depth. Of course, Vilas-Matas is sufficiently astute to recognise the potential fatigue.

. . . I am going to have to fall sooner or later, like it or not, since it would be naive of me to ignore the fact that these footnotes are beginning to look more and more like Mondrian’s surfaces, full of squares which give the viewer the impression that they extend beyond the canvas and see – of course! – to encapsulate infinity, and, if this is the way I am heading, as I think I am, I shall be forced into the paradox of eclipsing myself by a single gesture.

This of course is a novel and not to be judged as a work of literary criticism. The difficulty is that the shadow of the narrator is so muted that it is all to easy to forget it is a fictional treatment. It has precisely the wavering quality I hungered for after so much Brigid Brophy but like Never Any End to Paris the overall impression is of something slight. In the end I shall treat it more like a work of non-fiction and follow some of the very many literary trails that Vila-Matas lays down in pursuit of his Bartlebys.

Literary Phantoms

Frequently after reading a book I am left with what I have come to think of as mental images, particular sentences that linger and freely associate with other thoughts. They hang around a while as vestiges of language, haunting echoes. Only, they aren’t really images. Not quite pictures, more shadowy impressions, phantoms of text that play incessantly on my mind for days, sometimes weeks.

Sentences from Elfriede Jelinke’s Her Not All Her have left a temporary (I hope) memory phantom. It is those that follow the opening line:

Your soul is peeping out of your body as though a work lay there inside you like a slumbering goddess, wanting to get out, even in her sleep. That’s how it seems to me at least. Things that peep forth often annoy people who want to be forthright themselves. This soul, then, has a nice stretch inside you, as though what it wanted was to become language but then never have anything to do with itself again.

In this text, Jelinek’s voice is interwoven with Robert Walser’s voice. The question Who speaks? is implicit throughout. We know that Walser spent the last thirty years of his life in a mental hospital. During that time he wrote almost nothing. Though suffering from depression Walser acted normally. When pressed by a visitor about whether he was writing he responded, ‘I’m not here to write, I’m here to be mad.’ It is tempting to romanticise Walser and his illness, to imagine that under that melancholy, misdiagnosed as schizophrenia, lay a definitive work, more wonderful even than the masterpieces Walser left. It is what I see in the sentences above. During those thirty years what does Walser think? What thoughts failed to be recorded, turned into language, converted into another masterpiece? Or where there no thoughts, just the dullness of depression interspersed with cocktails of drugs?

Her Not All Her by Elfriede Jelinek

For reasons I can’t really explain there’s a fusing of Ludwig Wittgenstein and Robert Walser in my mind. I’m unable to think of one without the other. I suppose they were contemporaries and both shared a passion, even obsession, with the way that language can be used to show, or obscure, the world. That aside, their paths could not be more different. Walser’s journey ended in a mental hospital, unable, or unwilling to write.

It is from this point that Her Not All Her loosely resuscitates Robert Walser. Elfriede Jelinek, in a beautiful Cahiers Series publication, uses Walser’s voice as the starting point for a prose-poem about language, memory and artistic creation. I’ve read it twice and am very taken with the beauty of Jelinek’s prose (as translated by Damon Searls). It is written to be performed on stage and not intended as a short story, a performance I’d love to see one day.

Alongside the prose are a series of reproductions of Thomas Newbolt’s ‘Head’ paintings. Newbolt’s work is new to me, but I am as stunned by his powerful paintings as by Jelinek’s prose.

This is a cryptic work that I am nowhere near the end of unpicking and contemplating. If you have read this edition, I’d love to have a conversation to see what you make of it.

Walser’s Response to a Request

Robert Walser’s Response to a Request ends with the chilling lines,”Only one of your hands is to be seen, reaching up from the smoking ruins. The hand is still moving a little, then the curtain descends.” Walser’s curious short story takes the form of an experienced thespian offering advice to an aspiring actor. The mental image of the reaching hands bring to mind Keat’s disturbing poem This Living Hand:

This living hand, now warm and capable
Of earnest grasping, would, if it were cold
And in the icy silence of the tomb,
So haunt thy days and chill thy dreaming nights
That thou wouldst wish thine own heart dry of blood
So in my veins red life might stream again,
And thou be conscience-calmed—see here it is—
I hold it towards you.

My version of Walser’s Response to a Request is the first story in Serpent’s Tail edition of The Walk collection. The picture above shows the more recent Paul North translation titled Answer to an Inquiry which comes in a numbered and signed edition, with a limited edition letterpress print from Friese Undine’s Walser series.