Hardly a Person at all . . .

‘Just as [Walter] Benjamin’s thinking constitutes the antithesis of the existential concept of the person, he seems empirically, despite extreme individuation, hardly to have been a person at all, but rather an arena of movement in which a certain content forced its way, through him, to language.’

‘It is doubtful whether anyone else ever succeeded in making his own neurosis–if indeed it was a neurosis–so productive.’

‘In himself and his relations with others he insisted unreservedly upon the primacy of the mind; which, in lieu of immediacy, became for him immediate.’

‘In the letters this ritual element extends to the graphic image, indeed even to the selection of writing paper, about which he was uncommonly particular . . .’

‘Benjamin experienced the present moment in the “prismatic splendour” of reflection; but he was granted power over the past.’

‘The letter form is an anachronism and was already becoming one in Benjamin’s lifetime; his own letters are not thereby impugned.’

‘In a total constitution of society that demotes every individual to a function, no one is now entitled to give an account of himself in a letter as though he were still the uncomprehended individual, which is what the letter claims; the “I” in a letter has something about it of the merely apparent.’

‘His own letters, by virtue of not at all resembling the ephemeral utterances of life, develop their objective force: that of formulation and nuance indeed worthy of a human being. Here the eye, grieving for the losses about to overtake it, still lingers over things with a patient intensity that itself needs to be restored as a possibility.’

Gershom Scholem and Theodor W. Adorno, editors, The Correspondence of Walter Benjamin, 1910 – 1940, Translated by Manfred R. Jacobson and Evelyn M. Jacobson

Theodor Adorno’s opening essay, Benjamin the Letter Writer, five pages of it, is by far the best of this 651 page book. It is no surprise to read Michael Rosen’s comment that, “the Jacobsons’ translation is stiff and unidiomatic to the point of unintelligibility at times.” The Benjamin/Scholem correspondence, translated by Gary Smith and Andre Lefevere is altogether more rewarding, in large part because it provides both parts of the exchange of letters.

Thoughts on Joe Kennedy’s Authentocrats

We live in economic uncertainty, Western nations are gradually drifting into the direction of fascism, divided by social fragmentation, trapped by lowest-common denominator mass cultures that seek only to fulfil our desires for the latest technologies, so is it any surprise that there has been what Joe Kennedy calls a “quixotic cultural lurch away from what is taken to be postmodern flippancy” to a new seriousness?

Now and then it becomes possible to observe our cultural life revising itself. In Authentocrats, (a snappy title despite my innate mistrust of neologisms), Kennedy takes on the cult of authenticity. He looks back to the postmodernists’ suspicion of authenticity and how it emerged in the new millennium as a degraded, secular religion that came to dominate our cultural landscape. The intensity and potency of this cultural lurch is evident throughout contemporary thought and life.

Kennedy’s argument and sources used are personally satisfying in that he traps under the microscope so many subjects that I intuitively mistrust, but have never considered part of the same cultural malaise: ‘gritty’ Bond and The Lord of the Rings films, Game of Thrones and Scandic-Noir on television, the seemingly endless sprawl of melancholic nature writing and narcissistic, pseudo-subversive psychogeography in literature.

In Authentocrats, Kennedy not only pursues this nihilistic thread of western culture, but also confronts the pervasive argument that our social realm is split along class lines, between ‘authentic’ provincials and urban ‘elites’ living in cultural and political bubbles. He shows how such an identity framework is overly simplified, a convenient way of packaging a system in distress. Although suspicion about authenticity is nothing new, and Kennedy acknowledges his debt to Adorno in particular, his cogent analysis offers readers a profound way to engage with our current cultural and political perspective.

There is Life No Longer

“What philosophy once called life, has turned into the sphere of the private and then merely of consumption, which is dragged along as an addendum of the material production-process, without autonomy and without its own substance. Whoever wishes to experience the truth of immediate life, must investigate its alienated form, the objective powers, which determine the individual existence into its innermost recesses…The gaze at life has passed over into ideology, which conceals the fact that it no longer exists.” (Trans. Dennis Redmond, 2005)

“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. He who wishes to know the truth about life in its immediacy must scrutinize its estranged form, the objective powers that determine individual existence even in its most hidden recesses..Our perspective of life has passed into an ideology which conceals the fact that there is life no longer.” (Trans. E. F. N Jephcott, 1974)

Theodor Adorno, Minima Moralia, 1951

I’ve been spending some time with Adorno’s Minima Moralia, not something I do lightly as it is too easy to be taken over by its melancholy tone. It isn’t undiluted pessimism, despite Adorno’s reputation, but it depends, like anything we ingest, on what filters are in place at the time. It has more to offer. The 153 apparently sealed aporias offer up some fragile hope, a way to see beyond his assertion above that life, from a historical perspective, has ended.

I’ve also been reading J. M. Coetzee recently, his exchange of letters with Paul Auster, and The Childhood of Jesus, which I found very interesting but perplexing. It was the latter that made me look once again into Minima Moralia. Coetzee also appears to contend in this novel that our inner lives are no longer a necessary part of continued ‘progress’; that philosophy and art have been rendered redundant. This thought also occurs in Annie Ernaux’s The Years, this idea that those things that shape and feed our inner subjectivity have been appropriated by what Adorno would call ‘the culture industry.’ Ernaux writes, “I’m a petite bourgeoise who has arrived,” that she is “no longer entitled to an inner life.”

With no ability to decipher how good are the translations of Adorno, I include both above. It is useful I find to read them both side by side.

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.