Some Well-Intentioned Reading Ideas for 2018

A month shy of this blog’s anniversary and it strikes me how subtly but incessantly my reading tastes have morphed over these nine years. It is both a strength and weakness of relatively long-term blogging that one’s earlier inclinations and opinions are maintained for public viewing. As WordPress’ statistics show, readers frequently access earlier posts that now make me wince. Opinions, perceptions, comparisons are perpetually recast. They are also metamorphic. That is not to say today’s impressions are more discerning or refined, but there is little guarantee that the ‘this is’ of today will not change to the ‘this is not’ of next month.

Since starting the blog, I’ve unsystematically read hundreds of books. I am selfish about what I read, driven by serendipity. Where the books lead, I follow. Without checking the lists I keep, I’ve forgotten more of the books that I’ve read than I could recall, but they are nevertheless connected in some vast storehouse of memory, each book connected with the one preceding it and the one that followed. A book read nine years ago may spark a decision today to pull another book off my shelf today.

Next year, my reading will take a different tack. This might last for months. It might take all year, but I plan only to read one book for quite a long time. T. S. Eliot wrote, “Dante and Shakespeare divide the modern world between them; there is no third.” My inclination has always been towards Dante, but unlike Shakespeare (arguably), to read The Divine Comedy slowly, attentively and patiently, one needs to be willing for submersion in what is outside the text. So, one book but requiring one to read around, behind and between Dante’s strange poem.

This isn’t my first time making this journey. I’ve read Inferno several times, Purgatorio twice, but have yet to make my way to Paradiso. Dozens of other texts, stories and histories are alluded to within those 100 cantos. Many more were influenced by Dante’s sublime poem. I don’t know how long this project will last. Until I get bored or, more likely, get led down another rabbit hole.

Aside from several translations of Dante, my initial guides will be Virgil (naturally), Prue Shaw, Dorothy Sayers, Erich Auerbach, Graham Harman and Peter Hawkins.

I do intend to come up for air from time to time, with other plans to read more Jan Zwicky, Dorothy Richardson and Peter Handke during the year.

NB: Long term readers of this blog will know how fickle are my reading intentions.

A Contribution to Seagull Books’s Annual Catalogue

Seagull Annual Catalogue 2017-2018

Regular readers of this blog will know of my profound respect for publisher, Seagull Books. One of the year’s thrills is receiving Seagull Books’s elegant annual catalogue. The beautiful 2017-2018 edition includes my brief response to Naveen Kishore’s “provocation” (in italics):

It begins slowly. Always in slow motion. With just the right pink and gold that the light designer ordered for the occasion. The script as perfect as can be. The director’s genius about to be rewarded. The performance about to, yes, begin. The curtain to rise. An audience seated. Resigned to what they know will unfold. Without change. Like having seen it happen before. Not here. Not at this particular venue. Or at this play. In their lives. They know the drama. The realism. The script. The dance. The moves. They know. Everything.

Drop a bomb. Set off a device. Blow to smithereens. Unless you do. The image that springs to mind when you see a ruin is gentle. Floating into the mind. Sideways. Almost horizontal. A sense of having fallen into something slowly. Over time. Perhaps what you labeled love. Like leaves. The kind that autumn sheds. Those. Very. Leaves. I guess things fall into gentle ruin. They do. That is the phrase I seek. The familiarity of the tragic. The kind that is foretold in every gesture you create. For yes. It is creative. This ruination. How else would it ever have got to the stage it has. One of utter helplessness. Descending into an aesthetically designed. Even overwhelming. Futility.

Embraces like coagulated clots growing. Thickening. Clinging walls. Solidifying layers settling. In an intense and congealed setting for decay to blossom. Into? Dare I say it? Decay. Decay yet to be born so unborn decay. The kind that waits. Waiting to grow. Flourish. Thrive. Open. Unfolding decay. One that matures into full blown decay. Without containment or known boundaries. Therefore spreading. This decay. Decay as epidemic. A decay of ruination. Utter and complete. Defeated decay. Gnawing at the foundations. Of what? Of what once. Was. Eroding decay. Relentless and unceasing. And yes. A committed decay.

All things are in time, transient, and subject to change. Is it possible to conceive an entity without the potential for change? Is not the capacity for change a definitive element of a thing’s existence? For a thing to be incapable of change it surely must lie outside of time, what Samuel Beckett’s Molloy describes as the ‘indestructible chaos of timeless things”. To be in time is to be defined by terms like ‘past,’ ‘present,’ ‘future,’ ‘before,’ ‘after,’ and more nuanced terms like ‘simultaneous,’ ‘later,’ ‘always,’ and ‘forever,’ etc. Thus, for instance, if the Christian God is outside of time, to say that God existed before Moses is either false or meaningless. Does this suggest that time is illusory, unreal perhaps?

Whatever terms we use to cope with this sense of the unreal, all that is available to us is a succession of temporal moments; a progression of nows that comprise our immediate experience. To register our transience we reduce time to a series of clock or calendar measurements. Eliot’s Four Quartets draw together the poet’s reading of both eastern and western traditions to explore the ‘timeless moment’–assuming such a concept is not too problematic–when consciousness rubs up against deeper arrangements of meaning and order rooted in the substance of existence. In the final part of poem, Little Gidding, Eliot writes ‘A people without history / Is not redeemed from time, for history is a pattern / Of timeless moments.’ By indicating a way beyond the chaos of historical process as we normally receive it, Eliot suggests conditions that might make possible a redemptive transfiguration of self.

As we survey the ruins of self that is the aftermath of the modern consumerist obsession with finding a true identity, usually requiring some notion of fulfilment with consumption. Are we perhaps finally turning inward, away from self-absorbed individualism, a counter-reaction to an accelerated external world in which time has become ephemeral and fleeting?

Virginia Woolf, ahead of time in so many ways, wrote a haunting and intense story, The Fascination of the Pool, in which she uses a pond as metaphor for our consciousness. Its central theme is the interplay of water, light, past and future; its action invokes the submergence of our consciousness in its timeless reality. Modern science and its conception of water’s information structure as capable of possessing memories for the longest of times offers the tantalising possibility that human thought and emotion from the oldest times are both transient and timeless.

Sometimes I like to conceive of time as like water flowing in a river that always flows in the same direction. I can dream myself onto the river bank, outside of time’s flow, watching the whole span of earthly time as its memorised sequence of events flows by.

Literary Studies 1920 – 1970 – An Aspirational Reading List

‘Anglophone literary studies between about 1920 and 1970 are to be understood, I think, as one of the twentieth-century’s most significant and original intellectual accomplishments.’ Simon During’s argument is worth reading for anyone interested, as I am, in this most formative period of literary criticism. During lists the ‘path-breaking and exciting’ works, which establish an aspirational reading list, many which I’ve yet to read.

  1. T.S. Eliot, The Sacred Wood (1921)
  2. Percy Lubbock, The Craft of Fiction (1921)
  3. J. Middleton Murry, Problems of Style (1922)
  4. I.A. Richards, Principles of Literary Criticism (1924)
  5. T.S. Eliot, Homage to John Dryden (1924)
  6. I.A. Richards, Science and Poetry (1926)
  7. John Livingstone Lowes, The Road to Xanadu (1927)
  8. Laura Riding and Robert Graves, A Survey of Modernist Poetry (1927)
  9. T.S. Eliot, For Launcelot Andrewes (1928)
  10. William Empson, Seven Types of Ambiguity (1930)
  11. George Wilson Knight, The Wheel of Fire (1930)
  12. F.R. Leavis, Mass Civilization and Minority Culture (1930)
  13. Edmund Wilson, Axel’s Castle (1931)
  14. Q.D. Leavis, Fiction and the Reading Public (1932)
  15. Ezra Pound, ABC of Reading (1934)
  16. William Empson, Some Versions of the Pastoral (1935)
  17. Samuel Holt Monk, The Sublime (1935)
  18. Richard Blackmur, The Double Agent (1935)
  19. Caroline Spurgeon, Shakespeare’s Imagery (1935)
  20. C.S. Lewis, The Allegory of Love (1936)
  21. Allen Tate, Reactionary Essays (1936)
  22. L.C. Knights, Drama and Society in the Age of Jonson (1937)
  23. John Crowe Ransom, The World’s Body (1938)
  24. Yvor Winter, Maule’s Curse (1938)
  25. Derek Traversi, An Approach to Shakespeare (1938)
  26. Mary Lascelles, Jane Austen and her Art (1939)
  27. Lionel Trilling, Matthew Arnold (1939)
  28. Kenneth Burke, The Philosophy of Literary Form (1941)
  29. F.O. Matthiessen, American Renaissance (1941)
  30. Alfred Kazin, On Native Grounds (1942)
  31. Cleanth Brooks, The Well Wrought Urn (1947)
  32. Northrop Frye, Fearful Symmetry (1947)
  33. Rosamond Tuve, Elizabethan and Metaphysical Imagery (1947)
  34. F.R. Leavis, The Great Tradition (1948)
  35. T.S. Eliot, Notes towards a definition of Culture (1948)
  36. Leo Spitzer, Linguistics and Literary History (1948)
  37. Rene Wellek and Austin Warren, The Theory of Literature (1949)
  38. Helen Gardner, The Art of T.S. Eliot (1949)
  39. Lionel Trilling, The Liberal Imagination (1950)
  40. Marshall McLuhan, The Mechanical Bride (1951)
  41. Reuben Brower, Fields of Light (1951)
  42. W.K. Wimsatt, The Verbal Icon (1951)
  43. R.S. Crane, Critics and Criticism, Ancient and Modern (1952)
  44. Donald Davie, Purity of Diction (1952)
  45. F.R. Leavis, The Common Pursuit (1952)
  46. M. H. Abrams, The Mirror and the Lamp (1953)
  47. Dorothy van Ghent, The English Novel: Form and Function (1953)
  48. Randall Jarrell, Poetry and the Age (1953)
  49. John Holloway, The Victorian Sage (1953)
  50. Leo Marx, The Machine in the Garden: technology and the pastoral ideal (1954)
  51. W.J. Harvey, Character and the Novel (1955)
  52. Allen Tate, The Man of Letters in the Modern World (1955)
  53. R.W. B. Lewis, American Adam (1955)
  54. Frank Kermode, Romantic Image (1957)
  55. Ian Watt, The Rise of the Novel (1957)
  56. Richard Chase, The American Novel and its Tradition (1957)
  57. Northrop Frye, The Anatomy of Criticism (1957)
  58. Irving Howe, Politics and the Novel (1957)
  59. Robert Langbaum, Poetry of Experience (1957)
  60. Yvor Winter, The Function of Criticism (1957)
  61. Raymond Williams, Culture and Society (1958)
  62. Harry Levin, The Power of Blackness (1958)
  63. Earl Wasserman, The Subtler Language (1959)
  64. Harold Bloom, Shelley’s Mythmaking (1959)
  65. Vincent Buckley, Poetry and Morality (1959)
  66. Leslie Fiedler, Love and Death in the American Novel (1960)
  67. Graham Hough, Image and Experience (1960)
  68. Wayne Booth, The Rhetoric of Fiction (1961)
  69. S.J. Goldberg, The Classical Temper (1961)
  70. Fredric Jameson, Sartre: the Origins of a Style (1961)
  71. Hugh Kenner, Samuel Beckett; a critical study (1961)
  72. Raymond Williams, The Long Revolution (1961)
  73. William Empson, Milton’s God (1961)
  74. Louis L. Martz, The Poetry of Meditation (1962)
  75. John Bayley, The Characters of Love (1962)
  76. Winifred Nowottny, The Language Poets Use (1962)
  77. Reuben Brower and Richard Poirier, In Defense of Reading (1962)
  78. Morse Peckham, Beyond the Tragic Vision (1962)
  79. D.W. Harding, Experience into Words (1963)
  80. Stanley Fish, Surprised by Sin (1963)
  81. J. Hillis Miller, The Disappearance of God (1963)
  82. Christopher Ricks, Milton’s Grand Style (1963)
  83. Harry Levin, Gates of Horn (1963)
  84. Geoffrey Hartman, Wordsworth’s Poetry, 1787-1814 (1964)
  85. C.K. Stead, The New Poetic (1964)
  86. Angus Fletcher, Allegory (1964)
  87. Barbara Hardy, The Appropriate Form (1964)
  88. Paul Fussell, The Rhetorical World of Augustan Humanism (1965)
  89. Tony Tanner, The Reign of Wonder (1965)
  90. Rosalie Colie, Paradoxia Epidemica (1966)
  91. Richard Poirer, A World Elsewhere (1966)
  92. Edward Said, Joseph Conrad and the Fiction of Autobiography (1966)
  93. George Steiner, Language and Silence (1967)
  94. E.D. Hirsch, Validity in Interpretation (1967)
  95. Frank Kermode, The Sense of an Ending (1967)
  96. Barbara Herrnstein Smith, Poetic Closure (1968)
  97. Hugh Kenner, The Counterfeiters (1968)
  98. Mark Schorer, The World we Imagine (1968)
  99. J. Hillis Miller, The Form of Victorian Fiction (1968)
  100. Helen Vendler, On Extended Wings (1969)
  101. Raymond Williams, The English Novel from Dickens to Lawrence (1970)
  102. Rosalie Colie, My Echoing Grove (1970)

Reading WH Auden’s Prose

“Throughout life our existence is profoundly influenced by names, names of persons we meet and love, names of characters, whether in history or fiction, who embody for us what we mean by goodness, justice, courage, names of artists and scientists who have helped us form our conception of life and the world. Indeed one might say, ‘Give me a list of the names in your life and I will tell you who you are.’ ”

It so happens that, when I was a schoolboy, the first poets that made up the role-call of my adolescence were Emily Dickinson, Sylvia Plath, E. E. Cummings, T. S. Eliot and W. H. Auden. It now seems odd that I was attracted to such a heterogeneous collection of poets, but their work surely helped shape my  early conception of life.

Youthful literary passions don’t always bear revisiting. It seems unlikely that I will return to Plath, Dickinson or Cummings though by objective standards they are good poets. They make up a litany of writers I once enjoyed that I haven’t found to sustain rereading.

Eliot and Auden, Tom and Wystan as I somewhat absurdly think of them having read many memoirs and accounts of their contemporaries, are, if not quite constants, writers I dip into annually to refresh my memory of a particular line or poem. Both poets peaked in one of those infrequent intervals when the British decided to almost cherish their intellectuals. They were recognised, frequently on the radio and television, difficult to imagine in these times when our culture is infantilised and debased in precisely the way Auden foretold; last bulwarks as both poets were against a seemingly endless surge of neatly packaged, crude content to be voraciously consumed and forgotten.

Reading Auden’s prose for the first time is to be startled by its originality and by the sharpness of his insights. Michael Wood reviewed a volume of the prose, part of a complete edition of Auden’s works by Princeton University Press, consequently I’m reading volume V and would be content to read little else for quite some time.

His prose inevitably returns you to his poetry. A quite brilliant essay, The Fall of Rome, is a companion piece for his poem of the same name. For any writer of Auden’s acuity, all the writing forms a single body of work. There was a time when all my reading was of poetry, to engage with a gifted poet’s work after a thirty year absence is to discover a lush exquisiteness that only experience and the transformative nature of time can bring about. It also reminds me with some urgency to make much more time for poetry, whether revisiting barely recalled chestnuts or exploring newer work.

Antonio Tabucchi: Pereira Maintains

To come across Antonio Tabucchi’s Pereira in Pereira Maintains is to be visited by an old acquaintance. I’m travelling at the moment, without access to my Poems of T. S. Eliot Volume I: Collected and Uncollected Poems, but on returning home will disinter T. S. Eliot’s Sweeney Agonistes, a piece of drama that, in many ways, shaped the rhythm of Eliot’s writing in The Hollow Men and The Wasteland. In this elegant piece, Tabucchi confirms Eliot’s inspiration: “But there was another reason, literary in origin, which led me to this name: a brief interlude by TS Eliot entitled “What About Pereira?” in which a fragmentary conversation between two friends evokes a mysterious Portuguese man named Pereira, about whom nothing can ever be known.”

In Fragment of a Prologue, part of the Agonistes, Eliot introduces an enigmatic Portuguese gentleman called Pereira, one of the visitors to prostitutes, Dusty and Doris. If I recall correctly, the two women question his trustworthiness, which opens up a fascinating aspect to how Pereira structures Pereira Maintains as a testimony, only revealing what Pereira chooses to reveal in cross-examination.

The energy and direction of Tabucchi’s novel lies in the transition between passivity and action. As such, there are deep resonances with the current political situation in the U.K. and elsewhere. How is one to respond to authoritarianism, from an ethical or political stance? In Pereira Maintains, Tabucchi chooses not to reveal the nature or outcome of the investigation leaving wide open space for a reader to interpret Pereira’s responses and outcome.

Fifty Works of English Literature We Could Do Without by Brophy, Levey and Osborne

The value we ascribe to a literary work is as much an effect of its continued circulation in contemporary culture as its artistry. I wish books like Fifty Works of English Literature We Could Do Without were more common, providing productive criticism of works whose value may be overstated. Negative criticism can be destructive but done with discernment contributes much that is useful.

Brigid Brophy, Michael Levey and Charles Osborne are not in the least bit awed by the ‘greatness’ of any writer and for the most part don’t fall into the object-subject confusion that devils a lot of criticism of canonical writers. No living writers were chosen for their scrutiny (back when the book was published in 1967) so they can also be forgiven for the cold-bloodedness and insensitivity of the criticism. It is perhaps only readers at risk of being torn away from favourite works by cool and intelligent appraisal that risk hurt feelings.

I laughed aloud at the suggestion that Hemingway be recognised only as “a footnote to the minor art of Gertrude Stein, an appendix to the biography of the great novelist Scott Fitzgerald,” as posterity seems to be granting The Big Man that status anyway. I enjoyed the butchery of Melville as “an annotator and labeller” and agreed wholeheartedly that, ” we could easily do without the entire oeuvre of William Faulkner”.

Delicately I agreed with much of the TS Eliot appraisal, even chuckling at this footnote:

General Note. It may be that the means whereby T. S. Eliot prevailed upon the world to mistake him for a major poet was the simple but efficient confidence trick of deliberately entitling one or two of his verses, as though thereby to differentiate them from the rest, ‘Minor Poems’.

I saved until the end witnessing Woolf’s To the Lighthouse being dragged to the abattoir:

But what is the artistic achievement of reducing human experience to the gossipy level of the shallowest layer of consciousness? We are all conducting Virginia Woolf novels inside ourselves all day long, thinking how the sunset clouds look like crumbling cheese, wondering why the dinner party guests don’t go, puzzling about children growing up, noticing for the first time the colour of a bus ticket. This famed sensitivity is everyone’s birthright; and probably Virginia Woolf was applauded by those who were delighted to find literary expression of their own commonplace associations. To have those put in a book and called a novel . . . Only dots can do justice to their delight.

I’ll argue that Woolf’s method of immersing us in her character’s minds went further than gossip. There are nuances that the critics here seem to miss or ignore; Woolf’s voice offers a fluidity that gives a seamless quality to the stitching together of many different perspectives. The same argument is made of jazz, that it is pure ornamentation without any inward beauty. Nevertheless there are limitations to Woolf’s method and the argument sends me back to To The Lighthouse to think further, which is the value of such a book (even when almost 50 years old). In today’s sensitive environment though it ought to come with a health warning.

Doomed by Egotism

Ugolino Surrounded by his Three Children

Ugolino Surrounded by his Three Children

I have heard the key
Turn in the door once and turn once only
We think of the key, each in his own prison
Thinking of the key, each confirms a prison
Only at nightfall, ethereal rumours
Revive for a moment a broken Coriolanus.

TS Eliot, The Wasteland

…it is fatal for anyone who writes to think of their sex. It is fatal to be a man or woman pure and simple; one must be woman-manly or man-womanly.

Virginia Woolf, A Room of One’s Own

Shored Against My Ruins

The entrance to the Zendo (meditation hall) of a Zen Buddhist temple on the Japanese west coast. (2009) - Pepijn Sauer

The entrance to the Zendo (meditation hall) of a Zen Buddhist temple on the Japanese west coast. (2009) – Pepijn Sauer

Susan Sontag’s wrote, “The wisdom that becomes available over a profound, lifelong engagement with the aesthetic cannot, I venture to say, be duplicated by any other kind of seriousness.” I don’t know if Sontag was right, but I like to think so. I live as though it is a statement of truth.

This photograph, borrowed from a deeply impressive archive, reminds me of a visit to Nara, a city that brought great aesthetic delight, as much for the woodwork of the temples as the proportions of architecture.

The Womb of World Civilisation

It amuses me greatly when a degree of unconscious direction behind seemingly arbitrary reading choices becomes clear. What is intended to be patternless drifting from one book to the next, loosely following very broad themes, takes on the form of a literary centripetal force pulling towards a single area of study. Even a year ago I felt the pull towards the study of the Vedas, but resisted the tension, mainly because I couldn’t quite grasp where to begin. As Paul Deussen, a friend of Nietzsche’s, wrote in his old (1907) Outlines in Indian Philosophy, “European idleness tries to escape the study of Indian philosophy.” I still feel that inertia, intimidated by the immensity of the task. But, but …

Rereading Virginia Woolf’s The Waves one night, I came across Bernard’s monologue:

I am not one person, I am many people. I do not know who I am – Jinny, Susan, Rhoda, Neville or Louis – or how to distinguish my life from theirs – ‘we are bound not only to our friends but to the long-long history that began in Egypt in the time of the Pharaos when women carried pitchers to the Nile.’

I started going through The Waves and scribbling notes of instances where Woolf uses metaphors to indicate the relation of one to the many, that Nature is ‘one form in diverse mirrors.’ Both currents of thought were heavily present in my recent readings of Clarice Lispector, Pierre Hadot’s Plotinus and various interpretations of Heraclitus’ Fragments.

For instance, there is the following paragraph from Hadot’s superb Plotinus book:

Since we look towards the outside, away from the point at which we are joined together, we are unaware of the facts that we are one. We are like faces turned towards the outside, but attached on the inside to one single head. If we could turn around – either spontaneously or if we were lucky enough to ‘have Athena pull us by the hair’ [Homer], then all at once, we would see God, ourselves, and the All.

(Incidentally, not that I’ll dwell on the topic here, Plotinus’s notion of deification means the destroying of man, not the modern day religious notion of man living and working in God.)

The philosophical and historical worth of the Vedas has been acknowledged from Voltaire onwards, their influence of Greek culture is certain,  also on most of the major mystical and philosophical traditions, and from there to poets and story-tellers. “The Greeks may have been the cradle of Western civilisation, but the Vedas are the womb of world civilisation.” The more I read on the subject the more I see the influence on writers are diverse as Heraclitus, Plato, Plotinus, Kant, Vico, Woolf, Eliot (clearly), Lispector, Iris Murdoch, Nietzsche, and Emerson.

Please feel free to suggest essential or helpful texts that deal with the influence of the Vedas on Greek culture, or texts that help a curious amateur with the Vedas. This is likely to give some shape to my otherwise arbitrary reading over the next 6-12 months.

The Correct Incantations

In Thom Gunn’s The Occasions of Poetry I came across this paragraph, which expresses that same incoherence that Eliot was grasping toward when he wrote of  ‘a raid on the inarticulate’ in his exquisite East Coker:

For me the act of writing is an exploration, a reaching out, an act of trusting search for the correct incantation that will return me certain feelings whenever I want them. And of course I have never completely succeeded in finding the correct incantations.

‘Incantation’ is very good, literally ‘singing spells.’ It calls to mind those rare occasions while reading when we come across an unerring incantation, a particularly resonant sentence or phrase that enchants us forever. Gunn writes of seeking transparency, of words being the glass to his mind, as though observing an object through that glass.