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

Recent Arrivals: Notebooks, Copernicus and Research

My attraction to Simone Weil’s work is deepening the more I read. I couldn’t resist the notebooks. Her reading of Plato is sending me back to his work, which I haven’t revisited much since my twenties. I’ve written a rather dodgy post on Weil and Plato. I may or may not post it here, but am fascinated by her argument that Plato was deeply influential on the medieval Christian mystics.

I am not especially religious (though not an atheist), but alongside Weil I am enjoying an exploration of much earlier Christian mystics (is Weil a mystic?) like St John of the Cross. So much we simply cannot know; as Heidegger said somewhere, it is quite possible that human thought is at only a rudimentary level.

The other two are continuations of my tumbling headlong down a rabbit-hole propelled by Maria Gabriela Llansol’s Book of Communities. Emily Dickinson’s influence on Llansol is clear.

Rabbit-Holes and Mystics

You know that rabbit-hole? At the moment I’m reading Saint John of the Cross’ The Ascent of Mount Carmel, to be followed by these, grounding for continuing to read Maria Gabriela Llansol’s Geography of Rebels trilogy.

There’s a longer list I’m contemplating that includes social histories by Hartmut Kaelble and Béla Tomka, Henry Suso’s The Exemplar and Thomas Müntzer’s writing.

Indirectly I’ve also become drawn to Simone Weil recently, a strange and astonishing woman who seems to be almost the quintessential twentieth century mystic, comparable with Thomas Merton. If you can recommend a good biography (there are so many) please do so in comments. Or have any recommendations of medieval mystics and/or good social histories that are worth reading.

An Instrument’s Sound

From Jan Zwicky’s Lyric Philosophy:

“Dealers in fine musical instruments almost never play the instruments they appraise. Their assessments are based on externally measurable proportions, antique value, the visual appearance of the varnish, the reputation of the luthier, and so on. An understanding of the Tractatus’s arguments might be compared to a violin’s market value; an understanding of its thought, to a musician’s appreciation of the instrument’s sound.

Simone Weil [The Notebooks of Simone Weil, trans. Arthur Wills]

Infinite difference between three hours spent at a machine on piece-work, and three hours spent in front of a fresco of Giotto’s. The relationship between time and me is the stuff of which my life is woven, and it is possible to establish an infinite difference therein. A Bach fugue is a model.”

Giotto’s Legend of St Francis – Renunciation of Wordly Goods

Schumann’s glorious sonata played on Isserlis’ Stradivarius, accompanied by pianist Dénes Várjon, for no other reason but that it accompanies the Giotto so exquisitely. This is the stuff of which my life is woven.

Logue’s Homer

Robert Fagle’s Iliad is bright and powerful. Without sacrificing Homeric style, Fagles brings a modern voice to the Iliad. I also love Alice Oswald’s Memorial, an idiosyncratic and gorgeous account of the Iliad that puts force at the centre of the poem, without any of what Simone Weil calls “moments of grace,” those rare glimpses of love and friendship that serve to contrast the force and violence. I’ve eyed George Chapman’s translation, by all accounts pyrotechnic in parts. Instead I turned to the late Christopher Logue’s War Music: An Account of Homer’s Iliad.

Logue breaks the rules. He is unable to read a word of Ancient Greek, relying rather on existing translations. He ignores Homeric style, introducing contemporary poetic techniques, and as if that isn’t sufficiently iconoclastic he creates new episodes and fashions a narrative of his own. Logue’s Homer has been dribbled out incrementally since 1959 and he still hadn’t finished when he died in 2011. It shouldn’t work but the sublime of Homer in the hands of Logue becomes exquisite and exalted. This edition brings all of Logue’s Homer into one book, including various unplaceable fragments.

Homer’s resonance rings out over millennia. His story is both ancient and modern. In the following passage it is possible to see how Logue helps us to see the Iliad through fresh eyes:

They passed so close that hub skinned hub.
Ahead, Patroclus braked a shade, and then,
And as gracefully as men in oilskins cast
Fake insects over trout, he speared the boy,
And with his hip, his pivot, prised Thestor up and out
As easily as later men detach
A sardine from an open tin.

Oilskins? “Braked a shade”? And that licentious “later men”? Logue’s Homer, in a single edition, is a work of utter brilliance.

A Life With the Greeks

My first encounter with the story of Troy happened as a child while reading one of those juvenile collected tales of Ancient Greek and Rome. It kindled an enchantment for that vanished golden age that has never waned. Those gods, goddesses, and heroes have accompanied me as proxy siblings, with that admixture of fierce love and gentle hostility typical to such relationships. Achilles, the truculent and distant older brother, admired and loathed in equal measure. Paris, the craven cousin, who gossips behind closed doors. Beautiful, unpredictable Cassandra who became the model for at least one of the important women in my life.

Although I own Homer in the original Greek I cannot claim to know Homer that way, though, from time to time, I crudely decode stretches, word by word, like a detective. Any classical scholar in his first year possesses more competence in Greek than I’ve achieved. As a teenager I learnt to write the first line of Homer’s Iliad in Greek from memory, but it was artifice, a party trick. Classical Greek studies remain an ambition, to sit beside my formal training in Latin. As Joyce once wrote to Harriet Shaw Weaver, “I [..] have spent a great deal of time with Greeks of all kinds from noblemen down to onionsellers, chiefly the latter. I am superstitious about them. They bring me luck.”

Without classical Greek I am compelled to rely on translations into English, though at school we dabbled a bit with a Latin translation of Homer. Pope’s translation was my first, of which Robert Fagles, while acknowledging its greatness, said, “Pope’s Homer is really an English poem.” Of Pope’s translation (hat-tip to Douglas Robertson), Samuel Johnson wrote:

I suppose many readers of the English “Iliad,” when they have been touched with some unexpected beauty of the lighter kind, have tried to enjoy it in the original, where, alas! it was not to be found. Homer doubtless owes to his translator many Ovidian graces not exactly suitable to his character; but to have added can be no great crime, if nothing be taken away. Elegance is surely to be desired, if it be not gained at the expense of dignity. A hero would wish to be loved, as well as to be reverenced.

To a thousand cavils one answer is sufficient; the purpose of a writer is to be read, and the criticism which would destroy the power of pleasing must be blown aside. Pope wrote for his own age and his own nation: he knew that it was necessary to colour the images and point the sentiments of his author; he therefore made him graceful, but lost him some of his sublimity.

Besides Pope, I’ve read translations of the Iliad by Richard Lattimore, Robert Fitzgerald and William Cowper, as well as much of Stephen Mitchell’s truncated version. I’m reading Robert Fagles admirably lucid translation. Each of these translations tackle the Iliad differently, and I struggle to recommend one over the other, though Mitchell’s version impressed me least.

I do urge those interested in Homer to read Simone Weil’s essay, The Iliad, or The Poem of Force [PDF]. For the nerdy I also recommend Malcolm M. Willcock’s A Companion to the Iliad (based on Richard Lattimore’s translation).