The Pythagorean Genre

This weekend I continued reading George Steiner, a Faber and Faber paperback (1985) edition of his Language and Silence, first published in 1967. Few living writers inspire me to acquire and read all their books. Reading Steiner somehow makes the world feel more understandable. His work merits concentrated, slow reading and note taking. With an average of twenty pages, the essays are perfectly paced to allow time for reflection between each.

Steiner is one those great readers, on a list with Nabokov, Empson and Woolf, who seem to have read everything worth reading. He’s also a terrific prose stylist. In a field (the literary essayist) filled with overinflated reputations and accompanying egos, his literary criticism is erudite, smart and always reaching toward larger themes.

A favourite essay so far is The Pythagorean Genre, ostensibly about the decline of the novel:

“But there are other possibilities of form, other shapes of expression dimly at work. In the disorder of our affairs–a disorder made worse by the seeming coherence of kitsch–new modes of statement , new grammars of poetics for insight, are becoming visible. They are tentative and isolated. But they exist like those packets of radiant energy around which matter is said to gather in turbulent space. They exist, if only in a number of rather solitary, little understood books.

It is not the actual list that matters. Anyone can add to it or take away under the impulse of his own recognitions, It is the common factor in these works–the reaching out of language towards new relations (what we call logic), and in a wider sense towards a new syntax by which to tempt reality into the momentary but living order of words. There are books, though not many, in which the old divisions between prose and verse, between dramatic and narrative voice, between imaginary and documentary, are beautifully irrelevant or false. Just as criteria of conventional verisimilitude and common perspective were beginning to be irrelevant to the new focus on Impressionism. Starting in the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, books have appeared which allow no ready answer to the question: what species of literature am I, to what genre do I belong? Works so organised–we tend to forget the imperative of life in that word–that their expressive form is integral only to themselves, they modify, by the very fact of their existence, our sense of how meaning may be communicated.”

Steiner gives some examples of an ‘apparently discontinuous, idiosyncratic series’ that he calls the ‘Pythagorean genre’, beginning with Blake and Kierkegaard, embracing Nietzsche, Péguy, Karl Kraus, possibly Walter Benjamin ‘had he not died early’, Broch, Lévi-Strauss, Wittgenstein, and ending with Ernst Bloch, ‘the foremost living writer in the ‘Pythagorean genre’.

The Wound of Negativity

The Ladder of Divine Ascent, Monastery of St Catherine.

“But the genuine subjective existing thinker is always just as negative as he is positive and vice versa: he is always that as long as he exists, not once and for all in a chimerical meditation…..He is cognizant of the negativity of the infinite in existence; he always keeps open the wound of negativity, which at all times is a saving factor (the others let the wound close and become positive–deceived)…..He is, therefore, never a teacher, but a learner, and if he is continually just as negative as positive, he is continually striving.”

– Kierkegaard, Postscript

“Look, reader, though I do not know you, I love you so much that if I could hold you in my hands, I would open up your breast and in the centre of your heart I would make a wound and into it I would put vinegar and salt, so that you might never rest again, and would live in continual anxiety and endless longing.”

– Unamuno, Life of Don Quixote and Sancho

“The unhealed wound pressures the individual into seeking a cure, to be in constant, passionate pursuit of authentic existence. Climacus’ “continual striving” is Unamuno’s “endless longing.”

– Jon B. Stewart, Kierkegaard and Existentialism

Kierkegaard, Like the Interjection

“The life of mankind could very well be conceived as a speech in which different men represented the various parts of speech (that might also be applied to the nations in the relations to one another). How many people are mere adjectives, interjections, conjunctions, adverbs; and how few are substantives, verbs etc.; how many are copula?
In relation to each other men are like irregular verbs in different languages; nearly all verbs are slightly irregular.

There are people whose position in life is like that of the interjection, without influence on the sentence– They are the hermits of life, and at the very most take a case, e.g., O me miserum.

Our politicians are like Greek reciprocals (alleeloin) which are wanting in the nominative singular and all subjective cases. They can only be thought of in the plural and possessive cases.

The sad thing about me is that my life (the condition of my soul) changes according to the declensions where not only the endings change but the whole word is altered.”

Søren Kierkegaard, Journals (trans. A Dru)

Some Well-Intentioned Reading Ideas for 2015 (updated)

These are not reading resolutions. Writers promising literary gifts lead me astray too easily for these ideas to be fixed in any way.

This year I read widely covering fifty or so writers, concentrating my reading more deeply only twice on Houellebecq and Anne Carson’s work. In 2015 I’d like to read more deeply into the work of some of my favourite authors: alternative Dante and Homer translations (and Adam Nicholson’s The Mighty Dead: Why Homer Matters) ,  more Ballard’s short stories, always more Beckett, John Berger, Roberto Calasso, more Anne Carson, the new Tom McCarthy, Robert Musil’s diaries, Hélène Cixous, Coetzee, Jenny Diski, Dostoevsky, Marguerite Duras, Pierre Hadot, Houellebecq’s new one if translated next year, Kafka’s short stories, László Krasznahorkai, Clarice Lispector, Bourdieu, Doris Lessing, Nabokov, Alice Oswald, Robert Macfarlane, Nietzsche, Atiq Rahimi, WG Sebald, Thomas Mann, Christa Wolf and Virginia Woolf.

Beyond these ‘old chestnuts’ (as Beckett called his favourite authors) I’m looking forward to unexpected surprises within the pages of the following new books, either missed in 2014 or due in 2015, by authors I have not read before:

  1. Kirmin Uribe – Bilbao – New York – Bilbao
  2. Claudia Rankine – Citizen: An American Lyric
  3. Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor – Dust
  4. Ceridwen Dovey – Only the Animals
  5. Karin Wieland (trans. Shelley Frisch) – Dietrich & Riefenstahl: The dream of the new woman
  6. Can Xue – The Last Lover
  7. Anna Smaill – The Chimes
  8. Han Kang (trans. Deborah Smith) – The Vegetarian
  9. Paul Celan – Breathturn Into Timestead
  10. David Winters – Infinite Fictions: Essays on Literature and Theory

There are several other writers whose older works I’d like to get around to exploring sometime soon including Jens Bjørneboe, Martin Shaw, Ivan Illich, Eva Hoffman, Ivan Goncharov, David Abram, Ágota Kristóf, Rebecca Solnit, Tomas Espedal and Elfriede Jelinek.

As always, distractions are greater than my ambition, but if I manage to take in a decent selection of the above I’m expecting a good year in reading. There are several other titles I have my eye on but I’m mindful of your patience and Molloy’s admission that ‘if you set out to mention everything you would never be done.’

Heraclitus at the Edge of Language

“The truth is that Heraclitus attracts exegetes as an empty jam pot wasps; and each new wasp discerns traces of his own favourite flavour.” Jonathan Barnes, from The Presocratic Philosophers. He goes on to say, “The existence of such diverse interpretations of Heraclitus’ philosophy will sow seeds of despair in the mind of any honest scholar …”

I posted a few excerpts of Richard Geldard’s Remembering Heraclitus, and thought it a lucid exposition, but with a strong personal flavour, portraying Heraclitus as a mystic, likely influenced by the Vedics and a forerunner of Marcilio Ficino, the Gnostics, up to and including the American Transcendentalists. With Barnes’ caution in mind I’ll admit to seeds of despair (as much as I’d like to follow Geldard wholeheartedly with his arguments), preferring to side with Nietzsche that Heraclitus was neither mystic nor materialist. Geldard’s parallels in the epilogue between Heraclitus, Roger Penrose, and the quantum consciousness hypothesis probably whistled way over my head but didn’t strengthen Geldard’s broader contentions.

Next I’m reading Charles Kahn’s drier (more sober) interpretation of Heraclitus’ fragments that interest me by treating Heraclitus not only as a first-rate philosophical thinker but also as a brilliant literary artist. This is the Heraclitus of George Steiner, who wrote so beautifully:

It is the most “stylish’ of philosophers, those most alert to the expressive constraints and resources of stated thought, to its implicit cadence, such as Kierkegaard and Nietzsche, who look to Heraclitus. It is Novalis, practitioner of the Orphic fragment, and Heidegger the neologist, the craftsman of tautology. Rhapsodic and oracular intellects recognise in Heraclitus the fundamental, generative collision between the elusive opacity of the word and the equally elusive but compelling clarity and evidence of things. Immediate or hurried apprehension, the colloquial, misses this decisive tension, that, in Heraclitus’s celebrated duality, of the bow and the lyre. To listen closely-Nietzsche defined philology as “reading slowly”-is to experience, always imperfectly, the possibility that the order of words, notably in metrics and the metrical nerve-structure within good prose, reflects, perhaps sustains the hidden yet manifest coherence of the cosmos.

Book List

In no particular order, this is a list of my favourite writers/books. Of course, it is incomplete.

Vladimir Nabokov’s Ada or Ardor: A Family Chronicle, Pale Fire and Speak, Memory and literary lectures
Franz Kafka
Geoff Dyer
JG Ballard
Simone de Beauvoir
Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook
Hélène Cixous
Judith Butler
Peter Handke’s The Weight of the World
Søren Kierkegaard
Marguerite Duras
JM Coetzee
Robert Walser
Roland Barthes
Nadine Gordimer’s The Pickup
Rilke’s Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge
Pascal Quignard’s The Roving Shadows
John William’s Stoner
Jean-Paul Sartre’s Nausea
AM Homes
Patrick Leigh Fermor
Jay Griffith’s Wild: An Elemental Journey
Laszlo Krasznahorkai’s War and War
Mahmoud Darwish’s Memory for Forgetfulness
Samuel Beckett
Simon Critchley
Noam Chomsky
Roger Deakin
Carlos Fuentes’s Diana: The Goddess Who Hunts Alone
Ruth Reichl’s Endless Feast
Teju Cole’s Open City
Jenny Erpenbeck’s The Visitation
Gabriel Josipovici’s What Ever Happened to Modernism? and The Lessons of Modernism
Virginia Woolf’s later novels and diaries
Jospeh Heller’s Something Happened
WG Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn
Don DeLillo’s Underworld
Theodor Adorno’s Minima Moralia
Kate Chopin’s The Awakening
Marcel Proust
Clarice Lispector’s Água Viva
Dante’s Divine Comedy
Kate Zambreno’s Heroines
Leo Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilych
James Joyce’s Ulysses
Richard Power’s The Time of our Singing
Will Ferguson’s Hokkaido Highway Blues

The Artist as Mystic: Conversations with Yahia Lababidi by Alex Stein

Alex Stein, essayist and aphorist, is the author of Made-Up Interviews With Imaginary Artists. In The Artist as Mystic, Stein interviews Yahia Lababidi, essayist, aphorist and poet. Does Lababidi exist? Is the interviewer imaginary? In these post-postmodern (or neo-modern) times, do such distinctions matter? As David Shields wrote in his manifesto, “Once upon a time there will be readers who won’t care what imaginative writing is called and will read it for its passion, its force of intellect, and for its formal originality.”

Sol LeWitt, Wall Drawing #565: On three walls, continuous forms with alternating… (1988)

As Sol Lewitt said, “Conceptual artists are mystics rather than rationalists. They leap to conclusions that logic cannot reach.” Or as Alex Stein puts it, they “hold something more dear than one’s own happiness.” With one exception, the artists chosen as subjects for these literary interviews are those that have accompanied me from early on: Kafka, Baudelaire, Nietzsche, Rilke and Kierkegaard.

Beyond Stein’s introductory essay the book is structured, as the title suggests, as a series of interviews with Yahia Lababidi. Stein fades away, as Lababidi discourses about literature. Lababidi wears his erudition lightly during these interviews with a discursive style that is undemanding but whose allusions circle a fraternity of Modernist thinkers. Of Kafka, Lababidi says:

Kafka is us, without lying.

Shouldn’t that change the way I read him? It should. And it does. It ups the volume on everything. Even if he only clears his throat, it rings like thunder. Because the fact of the matter is he has something thunderous in him to say, and the fact of the matter is we know that he does. That is the point. Some of this stuff, sure, it can be more navel gazing, more convolutions, but what we cannot fail to recognise in Kafka is that this is a guy who is wrestling with his angel, and that commands our attention. What he is up against, so are we up against.

The passion that Lababidi brings to his reflections on what he terms The Exquisites revitalizes and never fails to offer some fresh perspective. This is a short text, that I read in a single sitting, which I hope generates a sequel.

Vilhelm Ekelund

I left hanging above the exception, Vilhelm Ekelund, of whom Lababidi says:

He practised a kind of literary soul-gazing. “Books must be lived to be read,” he writes. He saw into the writers he read in ways that others don’t. He composed essays and aphorisms.

Another essayist and aphorist? Having verified that Ekelund is not imaginary I shall seek out his work.