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.

Writing and the Body by Gabriel Josipovici

I quickly reach the limits of language trying to summarise how Gabriel Josipovici’s literary criticism resonates within me. The fourth, and final, chapter in Writing and the Body uses a few of Kafka’s deathbed notes to express some profound truths about why we read and write. (Or maybe just why I read and write.)

Each of us hears his voice in Stevens’s, and this means that we hear ourselves saying what we did not know we could say, in a tone we didn’t know was ours, but which, hearing, we recognise as the actualising of what had always been latent. The same thing happens, I would suggest, when we read, at the end of the volume of Kafka’s letters: ‘A bird was in the room.’ Saying it, we are Kafka in that room, in that loneliness. And so that loneliness is something shared.

A while ago I noted Emerson’s comment of Montaigne’s Essays that: “It seemed to me as if I had written the book myself in some former life.” I feel the same way about the fourth lecture in Writing and the Body.

Kafka had jotted down in his journal: ‘My life a hesitation before birth.’ And he had called Milena ‘Mother Milena’, half begging her to bring him to birth. Of course she could not do this. In a strange way, though, as we read him, we bring him to life within us. But we can only do this because as he writes he is about to die. And as we read we too are about to die, and so can experience what it is he experiences.

Part of the power of this book, particularly the final essay, is the material that Josipovici interprets: the excerpts used of Kafka and Wallace Stevens are especially potent. Josipovici’s reading is as broad as it is deep, he makes no apology for, “employing the vocabulary or concepts of other disciplines.” His criticism is all the better for his ability to synthesise the thinking of a diversity of writers. As Geoff Dyer says in the afterword to But Beautiful.

This is most clearly so when a writer or composer quotes or reworks material from another writer or composer. All literature, music, and art [says George Steiner] ‘embody an expository reflection on, a value judgment of, the inheritance and context to which they pertain.’ In other words it is not only in their letters, essays, or conversation that writers like Henry James reveal themselves also to be the best critics; rather, The Portrait of a Lady is itself, among other things, a commentary on and a critique of Middlemarch. ‘The best readings of art are art.’