The Real Question

This passage from Gabriel Josipovici’s introduction to his The Mirror of Criticism seems to me to pin down the most real but least well understood question and challenge of literature, any writing that aspires to be literary:

“. . . confirms Kafka in his feelings that the well-written work [Gerhard Hauptmann’s Anna], however well it is written, holds no interest for him. It makes him realise once more (the remark comes in a letter written towards the end of his life) that for him the real question has never been: How can I write as well as this? but: Why should I write this kind of thing at all? And, if not this, then what? The encounter with [Hans] Arp’s work reveals to [Wallace] Stevens, through what it lacks, that the greatest art is an affront as well as a pleasure; that there is an art which is good, intelligent, aesthetically pleasing, but which we will never feel to be really important because it never quite dares to be more than that, to recognise its dangerous power.”

— Gabriel Jospovici, The Mirror of Criticism

The House Was Quiet and The World Was Calm

The house was quiet and the world was calm.
The reader became the book; and summer night

Was like the conscious being of the book.
The house was quiet and the world was calm.

The words were spoken as if there was no book,
Except that the reader leaned above the page,

Wanted to lean, wanted much most to be
The scholar to whom his book is true, to whom

The summer night is like a perfection of thought.
The house was quiet because it had to be.

The quiet was part of the meaning, part of the mind:
The access of perfection to the page.

And the world was calm. The truth in a calm world,
In which there is no other meaning, itself

Is calm, itself is summer and night, itself
Is the reader leaning late and reading there.

Wallace Stevens, The House Was Quiet and the World Was Calm from The Collected Poems of Wallace Stevens.

I find this poem exceptionally moving and keep returning to it when I cannot sleep. As one of the commenters writes here, where I came across this poem, the immense volume of Wallace Steven’s poetry has served as an obstacle and I’ve never known quite where to begin exploring his work. I’ve got a Collected Poetry and Prose around that I think Steve wrote about years ago. This might be something to explore next year.

Characteristic Activity of the Mind of God (Elizabeth Sewell)

It is promising that the first of Studies in Modern Literature and Thought that I started is Elizabeth Sewell’s Paul Valery. In a letter, Wallace Stevens thought it truly wonderful and recommended accompanying it with a Rhine wine or Moselle.

After a single chapter, I want to track down all Sewell wrote, in love with both her elegant prose and her brilliant mind.

“It is a curious and interesting fact that mirrors become increasingly frequent in literature toward the end of the nineteenth century.”

“Then there is Mallarmé himself, sitting, as he admitted in a letter to a close friend, in front of a mirror as he wrote, to make sure that he would not disappear into that nothingness which during the writing of Hérodiade his soul had seen and shuddered at.”

“It is as if, during the second half of the nineteenth century, literature were turning itself into a Galerie des Glaces—the French word being so much more expressive than the English one, conveying as it does the suggestion of ice as well as glass, the ‘froid féroce’ which Valery’s Faust discovers at the highest point of abstract thought in the mind, ‘essential solitude, the extreme of the rarefaction of Being’.

“It is useless to try to interpret any poet’s work, by symbols or any other literary technique; all we can do is to attempt to build something and hope that in doing so we may a little conform our minds to he shape of his.”

“He was a poet and a precise and rigorous thinker, but at the same time he was always watching himself making poetry, watching his mind thinking and making a form and structure out of its thoughts. Valery’s mind watches itself in the mirror.”

“It is like Mallarmé, whose poetry is so pure that it is about poetry and nothing else at all, a form commenting on a form, the content irrelevant.”

“The Schoolmen of the Middle Ages knew about it, but we lost it with the Renaissance and the Reformation, and by 1850 nobody was being taught to play the game of thought, any more than they are nowadays, and poets and thinkers were taking themselves seriously and separately.”

“Although logic and mathematics and chess flourish, poetry and hard thinking are in danger of becoming separated again. Mallarmé and Valery are dead, with no visible heirs; in England the only one who took this tradition over from Carroll was G. K. Chesterton, but he lacked the intellectual discipline to carry it through to perfection, either in thought or poetry, and since then the game has lapsed. But it is essential that it be revived, for poetry and thought will sicken if they cannot go on playing with one another. We no longer, alas, study the Scholastics, and so have forgotten how to think, forgotten that science and art belong together, that art is an intellectual virtue and that wisdom and games are to be pursued for their own sake. With heads untrained and idle we are too solemn to appreciate transcendental games such as Mallarmé plays, or too lazy to join in. We think comfortably that hard thought i.e. beyond our powers, and forget that mathematics and logic produced the Alices, to confound us.”

“If Valery was thinking about thinking, that is what we are going to have to do. It is perhaps worth noticing at this stage that Aristotle says in his Metaphysics that thinking about thinking must be the characteristic activity of the mind of God.”

Music is Feeling

Clerkly Peter Quince, inept playwright of A Midsummer Night’s Dream is (loosely) the narrator of Wallace Steven’s early poem Peter Quince at the Clavier. I enjoy the poem for its “music is feeling, then, not sound.”

Music has expressive power, an ability to articulate that goes beyond language. Musicians and composers that sacrifice expressive meaning for superficial beauty might offer sensuality but can leave you frozen, the source, I suspect, of Beckett’s distaste for Bach, criticised for the ‘inexorable purposefulness’ of his music.

Attempting to describe how music can express a feeling or state of mind leads to inarticulacy, to the limit of language. Roger Scruton (I enjoy his writing on music far more than his politics) argues that concepts of pitch, melody, harmony and rhythm can only be described by recourse to metaphor:

It does not seem strained that Smetana’s music expresses the shining and silken qualities that we hear in it. Smetana’s music is not literally shining or silken. But its expressive power is revealed in its ability to compel these metaphors from us, and to persuade us that they fit exactly. Of course, it is a mystery that they fit. But the mystery is immovable. Every metaphor both demands an explanation and also refuses it, since an explanation  would change it from a metaphor to a literal truth, and thereby destroys its meaning.

Unplugged

Northerns - Moriyama

Northerns – Moriyama

It is time for a holiday, to a cabin in a forest with a lake. I have books and a canoe. I am unplugging from the grid. See you on the other side.

The Hermitage at the Center

 

The leaves on the macadam make a noise-
How soft the grass on which the desired
Reclines in the temperature of heaven-

 

Like tales that were told the day before yesterday-
Sleek in a natural nakedness
She attends the tintinnabula-

 

And the wind sways like a great thing tottering-
Of birds called up more than the sun,
Birds of more wit, that substitute-

 

Which suddenly is all dissolved and gone-
Their intelligible twittering
For unintelligible thought.

 

And yet this end and this beginning are one,
And one last look at the ducks is a look
At lucent children round her in a ring.

Wallace Stevens

Simon Critchley’s Impossible Objects

As I wrote in my last post, Simon Critchley is a philosopher eager to communicate his ideas to people outside the academy. He considers philosophy ‘a way of relearning to look at the world’. I read Critchley’s books because they offer insight and  a way to read philosophers I find more opaque (for example Derrida, Blanchot, Levinas). He encourages me to explore more deeply the recurrent themes that have exorcised thinkers since Plato.

This book, Impossible Objects, if you haven’t read Critchley, is a primer to his dominant themes (to date): mortality and nihilism, the ethics of deconstruction, neo-anarchism, humour and tragedy and secular faith. During the course of the nine interviews that make up the book, Critchley riffs on Wallace Stevens, Beckett, Kafka and the epiphanic discovery of Can’s song ‘Halleluhwah‘. If you have read Critchley I imagine you need no encouragement to obtain this book by whatever means are your habit.

Wallace Stevens

Wallace Stevens, a poet admired by Josipovici, is described by Simon Critchley, in Things Merely Are, as the philosophically most interesting poet to have written in English in the twentieth century.

Critchley’s book quotes Stevens’ description of T. S. Eliot as ‘an upright ascetic in an exceedingly floppy world,’ one of finest depictions of Eliot that I have read. Critchley goes on to describe Stevens as ‘somewhat floppier, gaudier.’

All of which tells me that I need to dip deeper into Steven’s oeuvre; Critchley particularly rates his later work.