Battles Against Windmills

Quote

“To clarify thought, to discredit the intrinsically meaningless words, and to define the use of others by precise analysis – to do this, strange though it may appear, might be a way of saving human lives.

Our age seems almost entirely unfitted for such a task. The glossy surface of our civilisation hides a real intellectual decadence. There is no area in our minds reserved for superstition, such as the Greeks had in their mythology; and superstition, under cover of an abstract vocabulary, has revenged itself by invading the entire realm of thought. Our science is like a store filled with with the most subtle intellectual devices for solving the most complex problems, and yet we are almost incapable of applying the elementary principles of rational thought. In every sphere, we seem to have lost the very elements of intelligence: the ideas of limit, measure, degree, proportion, relation, comparison, contingency, interdependence, interrelation of means and ends. To keep to the social level, our political universe is peopled exclusively by myths and monsters; all it contains is absolutes and abstract entities. This is illustrated by all the words of our political and social vocabulary: nation, security, capitalism, communism, fascism, order, authority, property, democracy. We never use them in phrases such as: There is democracy to the extent that   . . . or: There is capitalism in so far as . . . The use of expressions like ‘to the extent that’ is beyond our intellectual capacity. Each of these words seems to represent for us an absolute reality, unaffected by conditions, or an absolute objective, independent of methods of action, or an absolute evil; and at the same time we make all these words mean, successively or simultaneously, anything whatsoever. Our lives are lived, in actual fact, among changing, varying realities, subject to the casual play of external necessities, and modifying themselves according to specific conditions within specific limits; and yet we act and strive and sacrifice ourselves and others by reference to fixed and isolated abstractions which cannot possibly be related either to one another or to any concrete facts. In this so-called age of technicians, the only battles we know how to fight are battles against windmills.”

From The Power of Words, by Simone Weil, translated by Richard Rees.

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

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.

 

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.”

That Feeling of Collusion With Eternity

This is good. I couldn’t resist posting the opening of Christian Wiman’s latest memoir. I’ve been unable to sleep and stuck on this first page. Old oatmeal is near perfect. By coincidence, but unsurprisingly, Wiman is devoted and frustrated in equal parts by the work of Simone Weil.

“I stayed up late last night reading the letters of A. R. Ammons, who for years sowed and savored his loneliness in lonely Ithaca. “Keep Ithaka always in your mind,” wrote Constantin Cavafy, ‘Arriving there is what you’re destined for.” And he did, Ammons, keep that mythical Ithaka in his mind, which is to say in his poems, decade after decade of diaristic ramblings that are as flavorless as old oatmeal this morning, as null and undifferentiated as deep space—then lit up suddenly by a meteoric masterpiece that must have surprised the workaday writer as much as it does the fatigued reader. It is heroic and it is pathetic, like the life of any real writer, I suppose, all the waste space one fills as one can, some with silence, which is often excruciating for the writer, some with noise, which passes that agony along to the reader. And all for what? Those moments of mysterious intrusion, that feeling of collusion with eternity, of life and language riled to the one wild charge:

THE CITY LIMITS

When you consider the radiance, that it does not withhold

itself but pours its abundance without selection into every

nook and cranny not overhung or hidden; when you consider

that birds’ bones make no awful noise against the light but

lie low in the light as in a high testimony; when you consider

the radiance, that it will look into the guiltiest

swervings of the weaving heart and bear itself upon them,

not flinching into disguise or darkening; when you consider

the abundance of such resource as illuminates the glow-blue

bodies and gold-skeined wings of flies swarming the dumped

guts of a natural slaughter or the coil of shit and in no

way winces from its storms of generosity; when you consider

that air or vacuum, snow or shale, squid or wolf, rose or lichen,

each is accepted into as much light as it will take, thenk

the heart moves roomier, the man stands and looks about, the

leaf does not increase itself above the grass, and the dark

work of the deepest cells is of a tune with May bushes

and fear lit by the breadth of such calmly turns to praise.”

Christian Wiman, He Held Radical Light