The Poetry of Thought

Aristotle with a Bust of Homer (1653)

“When God sings to Himself, he sings algebra, opined Liebniz.” p.18

“Sentences, oral and written (the mute can be taught to read and write), are the enabling organ of our being, of that dialogue with the self and with others which assembles and stabilises our identity. Words, imprecise, time-bound as they are, construct remembrance and articulative futurity. Hope is the future tense.” p.21

This dialogue, Steiner’s The Poetry of Thought, a dialogic embrace of metaphysics and literature, thrilling as any novel, a book of life, a book for life, one I have no desire to leave. Pencil in hand, note-taking. Lashings of tea.

A reading list that is ever-swelling, transforming.

“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.” p.34

One wants to read everything. To reread everything, better. Did one ever understand anything?

“Does difficulty in the Phenomenology and the Enzyklopadie prepare that in Mallarmé, Joyce or Paul Celan, the displacement of language from the axis of immediate or paraphrasable meaning as we find it in Lacan or Derrida (an annotator of Hegel.)” p.88

“Is it possible to reconcile the hermetic with the didactic?” p.88

“What was, lazily, deemed fixed, eternal in the conceptual–that Platonic legacy–is made actual and fluid by the breaking open of words.” p.89

“The muteness of animals remains vestigial in us.” p.90

Stricto sensu consciousness should revert to silence. Beckett is not far off. Yet only language can reveal being.” p.91

“Philosophy, however, outranks even great literature.” p.91

“Human labour both manual and spiritual defines the realisation of the conceptual. This insight translates into the fabric of a Hegelian treatise. The reader must work his way through it. Only the laborious in the root-sense can activate understanding. Passive reception is futile. Via the hard labour of concentrated intake “disquiet is made order” in our consciousness.” p.93

“Hegel produces ‘anti-texts’ aiming at collision with the inert matter of the commonplace. They are, says Adorno, ‘films of thought’ calling for experience rather than comprehension.” p.96

“There was darkness also in Bergson’s outlook, notably toward its close. But he did not wish to extend such darkness to his readers.” p.127

There’s a lifetime’s reading here just tracing the patterns of Steiner’s thought. More than one lifetime.

No End to Reading

The problem is that novels, great novels–whatever that means–are excessive. Reading, by nature, is excessive. How is one ever done with reading? We never quite finish reading great fiction. By the time we finish a book, by the time we have picked a novel to the bones, it renews itself, like that bottle filled with magical waters that never empties.

We might remember plot, or character–the parts that don’t matter–but close the book and its pages fill with more nuance, further intellectual delicacies to be discerned on rereading. What is read is never read, but, to draw on Nabokov, one can only reread a book. Something is always missed, something left to be read.

Great writers are deceivers. They fool us into thinking we have done with their book. As Adorno wrote in Minima Moralia (another book we can only endlessly reread), “it is Proust’s courtesy to spare the reader the embarrassment of believing himself cleverer than the author”.

We forget that ur-moment when we first read, no less sensory and traumatic than the primal scene, when words on a page called forth an absent voice, a hermeneutical dialogue that changed us irrevocably. What we read is transformed into ourselves. From this time on our sensory receptiveness to the world is never the same, the moment when, to quote Peter Boxall, we realise it “might be possible to meet with the mind of another with an intimacy and intensity that is unmixed with baser matter”.

 

Privileges of Fiction (Kundera)

The space defined by Milan Kundera’s The Curtain is one that privileges the novel to an extraordinary degree, attributing it to a position distinct from not only other forms of art, but also as a reflection on existence that informs philosophical thought. As Kundera says, “… for me, the founder of the Modern Era is not only Descartes but also Cervantes.”

By using novels to reflect on human existence as opposed to portraying reality, novelists dissect new existential categories and refashion our perception of those we are familiar with. Kundera writes, “Indeed, all the great existential themes Heidegger analyses in Being and Time – considering them to have been neglected by all earlier European philosophy – had been unveiled, displayed, illuminated by four centuries of the European novel.”

Kundera, like Edward Said – in turn influenced by Adorno’s essay on Beethoven – is also much preoccupied by ‘late style’:

What interests me in this piece [a text of Cioran’s] is the amazement of the man who cannot find any link between his present “self” and the past one, who is stupefied before the enigma of his identity. But, you’ll say, is that amazement sincere? Certainly it is! How in the world could I ever have taken seriously that philosophical (or religious, artistic, political) trend? or else (more banally): How could I have fallen in love with such a silly woman (stupid man)? Well, whereas for most people, your life goes by fast and its mistakes evaporate without leaving much trace, Cioran’s turned to stone; one cannot laugh off a ridiculous sweetheart and fascism with the same condescending smile.

[Any blog that continues for long enough knows this amazement when one stupidly decides to reread old posts written by another “self”.]

The force and richness of Kundera’s perceptions in this book and in Testaments Betrayed, which I read previously, puts him in good company with Nabokov and Brodsky. That all three were bilingual exile writers who reworked their own texts and worried endlessly about translation perhaps also made them ideal readers, enacting Derrida’s argument that writing is itself an act of translation.

Drowsy Rambling about Kundera and Adorno

Man on a Rope (c. 1858), Honoré DaumierIt might be that Milan Kundera’s Testaments Betrayed: An Essay in Nine Parts is one of the best books I have read on the art of the novel. I pause at the word “read,” which feels inadequate because I immerse myself. I devour. I use the term “might” as I will follow with Kundera’s other explorations The Art of the Novel, The Curtain and Encounter, and perhaps these will be even better, surely better than similar investigations by David Lodge, EM Forster or James Wood, and at home with Rita Felski’s unforgettable Uses of Literature.

A fortnight’s medication has imbued my reading of Testaments Betrayed with a somnolent quality, a few pages separated from the others by the necessity of a few moment’s sleep. Testaments Betrayed can be read this way without loss of understanding. As Kundera writes of Nietzsche, his is a composition that is “maximally articulated” and “maximally  unified” without filler or weak passages.

Testaments Betrayed is also one of the better books I’ve read on the art of musical composition, not a match for Adorno’s essays on modern music, but stimulating nevertheless. I read a few pages and then feel compelled to listen to the piece of Janacek or Stravinsky that Kundera is addressing. It has also sent me back to Adorno’s essays.

A friend asked this week why I still read Adorno, what relevance I still find in his work. I hadn’t even thought that people might no longer read Adorno. I’ve mentioned him reasonably often on this blog, especially in my post about his cultural criticism. Minima Moralia is a supremely important work to me, to the extent that my friend nox.rpm and I talked seriously about devoting a blog just to its exploration.

I might devote a separate post, or several to Adorno (or might not: I lack the grounding in either philosophy or sociology), but two aspects struck me most immediately when asked this question: across an extraordinary range of subjects, Adorno always wrote with such coherence. He was one of the few thinkers of his age, or ours, that retreated from Marxism-socialism, and yet still considered lucidly the nature of a post-capitalist society. But he also understood the poison that lies at the core of humanity, that potential within any one us to either destroy others, or ignore their destruction. And yet, somehow, most of us, we go on.

Taste Follows the Line of Least Resistance

I don’t recall why I ordered David Carl’s Heraclitus in Sacramento, which particular reference in a footnote or suggestion on Twitter led to its arrival on my shelves a year or so ago. So far, it comprises fragments of thought, what the narrator terms lucubrations, a word I like a lot for its definition as compositions or studies that smell of the lamp.

Perhaps it is just what I need to pull me out of the reading funk that set in after finishing Doctor Faustus. I’m also reading Woolf’s diaries, intermittently, possibly the finest way to read them, also fragments of course.

I’m taking notes from most pages of Heraclitus in Sacramento. Here follows a lucubration that shall be my evening’s meditation:

When she hears a person say, “I don’t know what art is, but I know what I like,” she can’t help but think that the very courage of this affirmation (the courage of one’s taste rather than one’s convictions) belies its force. For this is not an aesthetic claim but a rather naive assertion of individuality and freedom from ideology which ignores exactly what art is; an attempt to open up perception as an awareness of just how pervasive, invasive, and insidious such ideologies are. Even granted one does know what one likes (ignoring, for the moment, how limited and ultimately irrelevant a standard this is by which to evaluate or judge works of art), has it ever occurred to the bold individual to inquire into the source of these likes (and by extension dislikes)? A genealogy of taste which any artworks of the modern period might serve as excellent starting points, reveals how socialised, how dependent, precisely how unfree such radical claims of individual freedom are. “I know what I like,” may as well be a confession of which fashion magazines one subscribes to, what one watches on TV, and what movies one has been to recently; for the idea of beauty is more often imposed from without than it is sensed from within.

Ten Stories of Beethoven’s Ninth

  1. Adorno thought that Beethoven had gone too far with his Ninth Symphony, that he had made the work all too intelligible.
  2. Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony is woven into the fabric of life in Japan with the finale available as a karaoke disc.
  3. The demonic composer Leverkühn in Thomas Mann’s Doktor Faustus aspires only to unwrite Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony.
  4. Speaking about the nature of evil, Anthony Burgess said that evil is tantamount to farting during a performance of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony.
  5. Twenty-one year old contralto Carolina Unger, who sang the contralto part at the first performance of this first major symphony to use voice, is credited with turning Beethoven to face his applauding audience.
  6. In Stanley Kubrick’s interpretation of A Clockwork Orange, Mr Alexander plays Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony repeatedly in the hope of driving Alex De Large to suicide.
  7. In The Lost Steps, Alejo Carpentier replaces a madeleine with Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony as the trigger for a memory of his father that sends the narrator-protagonist on a quest to war-torn Europe.
  8. It is little known today that the source of the ‘Turkish music’ (seventh variation) of the ‘Ode to Joy’ theme of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony was not Turkish drummers, but more likely the ‘African drum corps’, who were highly popular and active in European military and court bands in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.
  9. In Adrienne Rich’s poem The Ninth Symphony of Beethoven Understood at last as a Sexual Message, Rich attributes to the symphony the rage of sexual impotence.
  10. On Joseph Goebbel’s initiative, Hitler’s birthday in 1937 was celebrated with a performance of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, a performance repeated in 1942 when Hitler assumed command of the Wehrmacht on the Eastern front.

Sebald, Benjamin – Life-Bio-Mapping

In Walter Benjamin’s Berlin Chronicle,  he wrote, “Memories, even when they go into great breadth, do not always represent an autobiography.” Memories may appear as text in Benjamin’s fragmentary reminiscences of Berlin, but his explorations go deeper than memoir, in a form that dissolves genre, and widens its reach to embrace philosophical and political concerns.

Adorno wrote, it “was as if [Benjamin] had paid a horrible price for the metaphysical power of what he saw and what he attempted to express in infallible words; as if he spoke as a dead man in return for his ability to recognise, with sobriety and calm, things which the living are not normally capable of recognising.” The same observation could so easily have been made of Sebald. Both Adorno and Benjamin were important influences on Sebald’s thought and writing, their books filled his library more than any other writers.

Since reading Rings of Saturn and Austerlitz six years ago I’ve been accumulating Sebald’s other published works. I’d mentally categorised the four ‘prose fictions’ (Sebald’s preferred term) as the great works, and fully expected the poems and literary essays to be minor augmentations. After reading After Nature and A Place in the Country, I now see that Sebald defies this sort of canonical classification.

His books, regardless of form, are one vast symbiotic composition; the form changes but the labyrinth assembly of memory, places, personalities, images and recollections is undeviating across all the work. In Berlin Chronicle, Benjamin wrote, “I have long, indeed for years, played with the idea of setting out the sphere of life-bios-graphically on a map.” In his mapping of subjective histories, Sebald completes what Benjamin began.

One Too Many Eyes

Coming across Clément Rosset’s work is akin to discovering a close new friend in adulthood; Rosset is an ally to add to that small list of thinkers, philosophers, writers (call them what you will) that do not feel the need to contest, mask or avoid reality, but from time to time stare at it for moments at a time with curiosity and terror.

On the strength of Joyful Cruelty: Toward a Philosophy of the Real, Rosset’s work takes it place alongside that of Beckett, Epicurus, Adorno, Lucretius, Nietzsche, Jane Bennett, Emil Cioran, Schopenhauer, Montaigne, perhaps Spinoza and Wittgenstein. I’ve been back and forth through this book, scribbling notes, underlining passages and dipping into large passages of all the other writers just listed, chasing down philosophical references, some chimerical, some actual. Here is an extended passage to give you a flavour of the work:

The acceptance of the real presupposes, then, either pure unconsciousness-like Epicurus’ pig, who is the only one at ease on board as the storm rages and fills the passengers and crew with anguish-or a consciousness which would be capable both of knowing the worst and of not being mortally affected by this knowledge of the worst. It must be noted that this last faculty-to know without receiving mortal damage-is situated absolutely out of reach of human faculties, unless of course some extraordinary assistance appears, what Pascal calls grace and I call for my part joy. Indeed, knowledge constitutes for humankind a fatality and a sort of curse recognised in Genesis (“You shall not eat from the tree of knowledge”). Since it is both inevitable (impossible to ignore completely what one knows) and inadmissible (equally impossible to admit it), it condemns humanity. Man is the being who has ventured into the recognition of a truth that he is incapable of facing (like a foolhardy general who throws himself into the assault without being assured of the state of the forces at play and the possibilities of retreat) and which is a contradictory and tragic destiny-tragic in the sense that Vladimir Jankélévitch understands it (“the alliance of the necessary and the impossible”). What is most crucial and most notable in what is called the human condition seems to me to reside precisely in this: to be equipped with a knowledge-contrary to what is true of animals and inanimate objects-but simultaneously to be stripped of sufficient psychological resources to confront one’s own wisdom, to be furnished with a surplus of knowledge or “one too many eyes,” as André Green would say, which indiscriminately is our privilege and our ruin, in short, to know but to be completely incapable. Thus, man, is the sole creature to be conscious of his own death (and of the death promised for all things), but also the only one to reject without appeal the idea of death. He knows that he is living but knows not how he lives; he knows he must die but knows not how he will die. In other words, man is the being capable of knowing what he is incapable of knowing, of being able in principle to do what he is incapable of doing in reality, of finding himself confronted precisely with that which he is incapable of confronting. Equally incapable of knowing and of ignoring, he demonstrates contradictory capacities which prevent the formulation of all plausible definitions of him, as Pascal insists in the Pensées. One could say that a divine and universal programmer (unless it is just a chance combination of things, as Epicurus suggests) committed in this instance a basic error, sending confidential information to a terminal which was not in a state to receive it, to master it, and to integrate it into its own program, revealing to humanity a truth that we are incapable of admitting but also, unhappily, very capable of understanding. This is why Lucretius’ poem, which sets out to cure human anguish by revealing the truth, can only have as its principal result to increase that very anguish. To administer the truth to one who suffers precisely from the truth is worthless. In the same manner, the forced perception of reality to which Lucretius invites us is without benefit for someone who fears above all reality taken in itself, in its unadorned and cruel state. The cure is worse than the disease here. Exceeding the powers of the afflicted person, it can only treat a cadaver which has already succumbed to the test of a real which was beyond its capacities-or occasionally comfort someone who is well and in no need of comfort. In a passage from his Zibaldone,Leopardi analyses this inadequacy and necessary contradiction which opposes the exercise of life to the knowledge of life: “One can hardly better expose the horrible mystery of things and universal existence … than by declaring insufficient and even false not only the extension, the influence, and the force, but the fundamental principles of our reason themselves. The principle for example-without which every proposition, every discourse, every argument, and the capacity to be able to establish and conceive the truth collapses-the principle, as I was saying, according to which a thing cannot simultaneously both be and not be seems absolutely false when one considers the palpable contradictions which exist in nature. To exist in fact and to be unable in any way to be happy, by virtue of an innate impotence inseparable from existence, or rather, to be and to be unable nor to be unhappy, are two truths as proven and as certain with respect to man and o every living being as any truth can be according to our principles and our experience. Now, a being united with unhappiness, and united with it necessarily and by its essence, is something which is in direct contradiction with itself, with perfection and its very goal which is happiness alone, a things which ravages itself, which it its own enemy. Thus the being of living beings is in a natural, essential, and necessary contradiction with itself.” Cioran briefly summarises the same thought in an aphorism from The Temptation to Exist: “To exist is to protest against the truth.”

What We Once Knew As Life

I suspect that Houellebecq and Adorno would’ve enjoyed a bottle of wine together, grumbling together about the invasion of market relations into every corner of human existence.

What the philosophers once knew as life has become the sphere of private existence and now of mere consumption, dragged along as an appendage of the process of material production, without autonomy or substance of its own.

Theodor Adorno
Minima Moralia

Not Touched By The World

My unique relation with my work – and it is a tenuous one – is the making relation. I am with it a little in the dark and fumbling of making, as long as that lasts, then no more. I have no light to throw on it myself and it seems a stranger in the light that others throw.

This quote, that opens the first volume of Beckett’s letters (1929-1940), brings to mind an incident James Knowlson covers in his superb biography Damned to Fame: The Life of Samuel Beckett. (Read Knowlson’s book if you have any interest in Beckett. It is nectar.)

Adorno met Beckett on several occasions. Despite Beckett’s insistence to Adorno that the character “Hamm” in Endgame contained no allusion to Hamlet, Adorno’s subsequent essay Trying to understand Endgame further developed Adorno’s Hamlet theory. This undoubtedly triggered a reference Beckett made a few years later when questioned about Endgame: “Endgame will be just play. Nothing Less. Don’t worry about enigmas and solutions. For these we have well-equipped universities, churches, cafés du commerce and so on”.

Adorno, incidentally, at the time preceding his death, was working on a series of marginalia to the novel Unnamable, which he considered Beckett’s masterpiece. The motto of Adorno’s marginalia was, “The path of the novel: reduction if the reduced”.

Beckett continues to preoccupy me into the late summer, and, most likely, autumn season. I read Anne Atik’s How it Was: A Memoir of Samuel Beckett, a deeply personal, moving memoir of what Beckett meant to Atik and her family as a close family friend.

Last night I reread this Quarterly Conversation interview about the publication of Beckett’s letters. It is excellent on several levels but especially for this summation by artist and art historian Avigdor Arikha about why Beckett meant so much to him:

When I asked Avigdor Arikha, on one of the last times I met him shortly before his death, if he could tell me why it was that Beckett had mattered so much to him—he had told me he missed him more and more every day—he explained to me that he was the one person he had ever met—in such a full and dramatic life—who in some part of him “n’était pas touché par le monde” (was not touched by the world). By “the world” he intended, as he went on to explain, all that is low and dirty and nasty. Every time I sit at my desk to work on the letters, or almost every time, I feel I am experiencing the truth of what Avigdor told me that day.

Even as a reader of Beckett I recognise this quality as what draws me not only to his prose but to the man, his life, letters and library. Kafka matters in precisely the same way.