Xanthippe in Fiction

“Another solution for those suspicious of abstractions and metaphysics is to concentrate on other characters in Socrates’ story, setting rational male philosophy against feminine intuition. Xanthippe by the Viennese writer Fritz Mauthner (1884; translated as Mrs Socrates by Jacob Hartmann, 1926), is a surprisingly successful novelistic account of the effect of Socrates’ life and death of his wife. Mauthner’s Xanthippe is an honest, intelligent but uneducated lame peasant woman who suspects, quite rightly, that her husband’s philosophy will get him into trouble. Socrates cannot restrain himself from delivering a lecture in which he acknowledges his doubts about the mythological gods of the city, and his fate is sealed. Socrates himself does not seem particularly upset about dying; his last words, according to Mauthner, are, ‘Recovery at last! If the gods exist, I should like to thanks them for my recovery!’

But for Xanthippe, things do not look so rosy. Left a single parent with a young child (Lamprocles), she settles as a country village farmer and makes a life for herself and her son. But she refuses to allow her boy to learn to read or to daydream. She retained her husband’s philosophical works, but eventually burns then after Plato and Xenophon try to buy them from her. Pure metaphysics, ‘pure sunlight’, is fatal, she believes. Socrates chose perfection of the work, not perfection of the life. His calm, philosophical death condemn Xanthippe and her child to a life of poverty and struggle. Whereas Socrates dies for his own belief in reason, she dies trying to rescue her fellow peasants from an accidental fire in a granary. Xanthippe’s death is the more admirable of the two.”

—Emily Wilson, The Death of Socrates.

I’d like to find a copy of Mauthner’s novel one day. Xanthippe is more often presented as the caricature of the scolding wife, mentioned in The Taming of the Shrew: “Be she . . . as curst and shrewd/ As Socrates’ Xanthippe, or a worse / She moves me not.” I like that Mauthner gives a glimpse, albeit fictional, of a more substantial person.

In Phaedo, her sole appearance in Plato’s dialogues (the only ‘live’ appearance by a woman in the Platonic corpus), I’ve aways thought her reaction to Socrates’ death sentence sympathetic and sensitive. Socrates’ dismissal of Xanthippe is brutally cold, at least from a modern perspective.

I wrote previously on the influence of Mauthner’s Beiträge zu einer Kritik der Sprache in Samuel Beckett’s early work.

Bits of Pipe

“To say exactly what one means, even to one’s own private satisfaction , is difficult.” Not for Virginia Woolf, “the Chinese Wall of a private language”. “There is no a single sentence in The Waves that you would be likely to overhear on the street.” Yet the language is intelligible. “The experience of reading The Waves can be like listening to a piece of classical music that seems at first to have neither narrative nor structure.” This is good, what I am so often drawn to in fiction. “There is not a single unfocused shot in the entire book. Every passage, every sentence, every word is hard and bright. Where Woolf wants to shade or fade for the sake of effect, she does so as a painter does so, by taking a strong line and manipulating it. This is quite different from a line unfixed or ill-drawn.”

It is the finest part of Jeanette Winterson’s zealous encomium to art and her literary passions, this chapter on The Waves. Hugh Kenner often makes a similar argument for the clarity of Beckett’s prose: “Beckett has never written an obscure sentence. He is the clearest, most limpid, most disciplined joiner of words in the English language today.” Aside, arguably from Woolf. Both wrote literature that is not possible to read quickly. In both writer’s novels there are literary allusions, though in Beckett these appear to become less literary after Watt; some rely on the memory and knowledge of the reader, some more demanding, almost rarified and private. In a letter of 1972, Beckett wrote, “They are just bits of pipe I happen to have with me. I suppose all is reminiscence from womb to tomb.”

Winterson compels a reader back to the subtlest of Woolf’s novels, as Kenner does to Beckett’s fiction. These in turn remind me to return soon to Maria Gabriela Llansol’s The Geography of Rebels trilogy. There is in Llansol’s compression of thought a perpetuation of the attempt to evolve prose beyond the nineteenth century novel, which as Winterson acknowledges, still provides the form and style of at least ninety-five percent of contemporary fiction.

“Another aspect of Beckett’s figurative language is its tendency to resist absolutes. Specifying too much when speaking about indistinct mental constructs heightens the risk of settling on inauthentic facsimiles. Beckett’s language is therefore characterised by equivocation and ambivalence; his heroes continually posit and question, affirm and negate. This ambiguity prevents the crystallisation of spurious images of the self or of the world and counters the tendency of language to transform what is imperfectly apprehended into a caricature of its remote original.

If Beckett seems habitually to question every hypothesis, it is not because he is a perpetual naysayer who denies all positive ideas or values. Nihilism is itself an assertive position that, like other dogma, must be tested. Beckett’s heroes therefore challenge the validity even of the methods they use for testing and questioning; it would be simplistic to report to an extreme like negating every proposition.

Implicit in Beckett’s skeptical method is a prohibition against the predictability and easy cynicism of absolute negation. This sometimes leads to a wary endorsement of positive ideas or an unexpected glimmer of affirmation at the end of the via dolorosa. The antitheses Beckett used are related to paradoxes, litotes, oxymorons—figurative elements that in their syntheses of contraries sometimes lead to positive concepts. Such syntheses occur in many of Beckett’s works; after the process of chopping away, subtle, complex ideas begin to emerge, their profundity enhanced by the beauty of Beckett’s spare prose.

Thus, along with demonstrating how logical constructs and reasoned explanations can prove fruitless, Beckett shows how the act of abandoning conventional modes of thought can lead to more promising alternatives. This is hinted at in a conversation Celia has with Murphy: “she began to understand,” the narrator wryly observes, “as soon as he gave up trying to explain” (p. 67).”

—Rubin Rabinovitz, Innovation in Samuel Beckett’s Fiction

 

Fanny Howe, The Wedding Dress

J. M. W. Turner
Landscape with a river and a bay in the distance c.1835–40

“I grew increasingly comfortable sitting at Mass and participating in everything but the Eucharist, for many years. The skepticism that was like a splash of iodine in the milk of my childhood home began to work its way out of my system.” p.XII

“What I have been thinking about, lately, is bewilderment as a way of entering the day as much as the work.
Bewilderment as a poetics and a politics.” p.5

“There is a Muslim prayer that says, ‘Lord, increase my bewilderment,’ and this prayer belongs both to me and to the strange Whoever who goes under the name of ‘I’ in my poems––and under multiple names in my fiction––where error, errancy, and bewilderment are the main forces that signal a story.” p.6

“The maze and the spiral have aesthetic value since they are constructed for others––places to learn about perplexity and loss of bearing.” p.15

“There is a new relationship to time and narrative, when the approach through events and observations is not sequential but dizzying and repetitive. The dance of the dervish is all about this experience.” p.18

“After all, the point of art––like war–– is to show people that life is worth living by showing that it isn’t.” p.23

“At what point, this kind of writing [Edith Stein’s] makes me ask, does the renaming of things actually transform the world around you? Can it? Can you build a vocabulary of faith out of a rhetoric first made of dread and then stand behind this new language? Is faith created by a shift in rhetoric, one that can be consciously constructed, or must there be a shattering experience, one that trashes the wold worlds for things? The difference between her two rhetorics––one hardcore philosophy, one dogmatic-spiritual––makes one wonder how they can coexist, when each one is (seemingly) unbelievable in relation to the other. Only in some of her poems (and her life( do they become indivisible.” p.59

“The importance of [Ilona] Karmel’s novel––its bitter inheritance of memory––lies in its depiction of the camp as the condition of the Western world in mid-century. The labour camp is not an aberration but a continuation of humanity’s increasing contempt for itself. Weary history is a one-way street with no U-turns, no exits.” p.64 [cf., Agamben, and news this week of further child deaths in American border camps.]

“Beyond that, I am at the end of a generation that began with existentialism; that still prefers irritation to irony; and that shares a political position sickened by the fatal incompatibilities between freedom and equality.” p.68

“Thomas Aquinas was an itinerant thinker. His thinking rolled like a reel.
It went forwards as a movement backwards. His thoughts may have been placed on the side like the eyes of any intelligent animals.
To mitigate pain he recommended weeping, condolence by friends, bathing, sleep, and the contemplation of the truth.” p.108

“Probably people should go Sannyasa as soon as they retire, and become wanderers, contemplatives, ones who act charitably all the day long.” p.111

Fanny Howe, The Wedding Dress: Meditations on Word and Life

I don’t have anything to say about this dazzling, precious book. I’m a reader, not a book reviewer, and this one is too close. I’ll be reading this for a long time

Why I Read Adorno …

The Adorno mystique. Geoff Dyer, whose work I no longer read, quotes Karl Ove Knausgaard, a writer I preferred not to read, but in whose work I’ve recently developed a grudging curiosity: “‘What enriched me while reading Adorno,’ writes Knausgaard in A Death in the Family, ‘lay not in what I read, but the perception of myself while I was reading. I was someone who read Adorno.'” It seems characteristic of Knausgaard to admit that Adorno is for him a badge writer and for Dyer to admire his declaration.

I question, during a long jet-lagged night in Tokyo, whether I read Adorno for the badge. The issue of mass culture is never far from mind in Tokyo, more so than in the southern California from which Adorno’s Minima Moralia was born. It wasn’t this loose collection of interconnected fragments that endeared Adorno to me, but a life-changing reading of Adorno and Max Horkheimer’s The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception (from the Dialectic of Enlightenment).

What they had to say about mass culture (I wrote about it once), turned me from a naive condescension towards its consumers, to a fascination for its pervasive effectiveness and systemic beauty. I may not like it, but like Adorno and his contemporaries, it is easier to subject it to critique than destroy or subvert it in any meaningful way.

I’ve come to dislike the term ‘mass culture’ for its intimation that such a culture arises instinctively from the masses, preferring Adorno’s ‘culture industry’. The Japanese have a term ‘taishū’, which, I believe, refers to an aggregate of consumers for which a commodified culture is produced, pre-targeted and administered. This seems more precise and deals with the difficulty of the concept of ‘masses’.

On Twitter, for a long, time my bio stated ‘Adorno to Zwicky.’ This blog post is the first in a series reflecting on why I read those writers I consider in some way tutelary spirits, or as Beckett would have it, ‘old chestnuts’. It isn’t a fixed canon and is subject to frequent revision.

I came to Adorno initially curious to read his thoughts on Beckett’s Endgame, having read somewhere else that Beckett considered them a perverse and deliberate over-reading. From there to his illuminating writing on music, particularly the Beethoven essays (another old, old friend). There still Adorno to read and reread and I’ve no intention of reading all he wrote.

Why do I read Adorno? Beckett was undoubtedly right about wilful over-reading. I often struggle with Adorno’s writing. I lack the philosophical-sociological grounding to understand much of it. It’s also said that much of Adorno’s complex, circumlocutory arguments are difficult to translate. But my reading of Adorno often follows a similar pattern: lack of understanding-persist-glimmer of understanding-persist-some understanding, but a sense that he must be over-reading-awakening at four in the morning with a flash of comprehension and recognition. I read Adorno for those flashes. Cognitive fireworks.

A Short Shelf of Writers Writing on Writers

In Oranges and Peanuts for Sale, Eliot Weinberger writes, “The writing of writers tends to last longer than standard literary criticism, and not only because it is better written. Critics explain their subjects; in writer’s books, the subject is explaining the author.”

A short shelf of writers writing on writers that forever changed how I read those writers:

  1. Simone Weil’s The Iliad, or the Poem of Force
  2. Robert Duncan’s The H. D. Book
  3. André Gide’s Dostoevsky
  4. Colm Tóibín’s On Elizabeth Bishop
  5. Hélène Cixous’ Reading with Clarice Lispector
  6. John Cowper Powys’ Dorothy Richardson
  7. Susan Howe’s My Emily Dickinson
  8. H. D.’s Tribute to Freud
  9. T. S. Eliot’s Dante
  10. Hélène Cixous’s Zero’s Neighbour: Sam Beckett
  11. Dorothy L. Sayers’ Papers on Dante

I’ve been particular with definition here, choosing only single study books written by writers  with an accomplished body of their own work. Michael Wood’s On Empson didn’t quite make the cut, nor any of Cynthia Ozick’s writing on Henry James, nor André Bernold’s delightfully odd memoir Beckett’s Friendship. It’s a very personal list; please let me know in the Comments section of any of your favourites.