The Most European of all Qualities

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‘. . . Sontag believes that “the need to be alone, together with the discontent of being alone,” is a characteristic of the melancholic, and she arrives at the conclusion that “irony is the positive description with which the melancholic equips his loneliness, his asocial choices,” before she points to the Benjamin who in One-Way Street celebrates the irony, as he calls it, that allows the individual to claim his right or her right to live outside the fellowship, and this, Benjamin writes, is “the most European of all qualities.”‘

Jon Fosse, An Angel Walks Through the Stage and Other Essays (trans. May-Brit Akerholt)

The Latent Possibility of Pure Language

In The Order of Things, Michel Foucault suggests that around the time of what is now known as the Enlightenment, a great divide, illusory maybe but no less powerful for that, took place. In Western culture before that age there was a ‘reciprocal kinship between knowledge and language. The nineteenth century was to dissolve that link, and leave behind it, in confrontation, a knowledge closed in upon itself and a pure language that had become, in nature and function, enigmatic — something that has been called since that time, Literature.’

It isn’t easy or even possible to project back to a time when readers thought Job or Achilles existed, when foundation stories were read as faithful renditions of events or people. This was the emergence of fiction, when literature was set a higher task. At the moment when literature became disassociated from reality, it became essential, a way through another consciousness to glimpse a possibility of truth. This project was in a way always doomed, a failure to translate the untranslatable, but it is the latent and revelatory nature of the search that is the measure of accomplishment.

This failure is constantly visible in the act of translation, whose task is to unearth the buried fragments of pure language. Walter Benjamin wrote, ‘It is the task of the translator to release in his own language that pure language which is under the spell of another, to liberate the language imprisoned in a work in his recreation of that work. For the sake of pure language, he breaks through decayed barriers of his own language.”

Virginie Despentes’ Vernon Subutex One

It’s only four years old but has the texture of cyberpunk science fiction, Stephenson’s Snow Crash, that sort of thing, that I read in the nineties. It’s partly the gritty urban realism that provides that cyberpunk taste, though Despentes’ Vernon Subutex I isn’t set in some near future, but navigates the joys and terrors of emerging culture in the present day. There is also the ironic social commentary channeled through the hustlers and alienated street people who exist side-by-side in this grim, violent world.

Style is central, a cynical even paranoid perspective, but without sacrificing completely the characters’ humanity. It is a narrative that is perfectly in tune with our post-war awareness that advanced societies do not by default become more humane or civilised, quite the reverse in fact.

Despentes’ Paris is not the city of Benjamin’s bourgeois flaneur, but more in tune with the concrete jungle of Baudelaire. It also contrasts with Cusk’s confined, rather claustrophobic trilogy of middle-class life, offering an alternative set of keys to understanding the ethical dilemmas of human experience in the late-capitalist modern city.

The Aura and Assurance of my Dreams

Self-portrait (Van Gogh, 1887).

There are times when my reading goes into a self-cancelling tail-spin, most often when a book sends me off tracking allusions and word origins. A single word can lead me to multiple volumes in the grip of excited etymologising.

Many curious words turn out be rather dull etymologically, but occasionally there are the thrills of the exotic. Fernando Pessoa writes, “After I’ve slept many dreams, I go out to the street with eyes wide open but still with the aura and assurance of my dreams.”

Although the etymology of aura is quite diverse, it commonly refers to the perceived halo surrounding an object or figure. Russian occultist, Madame Blavatsky, whose disciples included William Yeats, defined aura as a “subtle invisible essence or fluid that emanates from human and animal bodies and even things,” or, “a psychic effluvium.” Walter Benjamin used the word differently in his essays on Dostoevsky’s The Idiot, writing of its protagonist, Prince Mishkin, “he is surrounded in a quite unobtrusive way by an aura of complete isolation.”

Surprisingly its origin is not from the Latin auris, from which we get aural, even though a less common use of aura is to describe the premonitory sensations that come before an epileptic fit, with occasional auditory hallucinations such as hearing music of words. Dostoevsky wrote of “ecstatic aurae” preceding his first epileptic seizure and recurring verbal and nonverbal auditory hallucinations, including the sound of someone snoring. (Freud controversially argued that Dostoevsky suffered not from epilepsy, but neurosis.) My OED asserts that aura is from Greek and Latin for breath and breeze. We could be said to breathe aura, to absorb it into our body, which is how Pessoa appears to embark on his walk, sustained by his dream aura.

Crossroads of the Paths of my Thinking

Simone Weil wrote, “Our personality seems to us a sort of limit, and we love to figure that some day in an undetermined future we can get around it in one direction or another, or in many. But it also appears to us as a support and we wish to believe there are things we would never be capable of doing or saying or thinking because it is not in our character. That often proves false.” The stoic lesson: life lives us.

We often think that signposts carry meaning. My inner skeptic always questions how I can be sure that I arrive at the correct interpretation of a signpost. Recently all my reading is providing signposts to Simone Weil. Her work. Her self. Fanny Howe quotes a friend who called Weil “a secular monastic”. People will begin to consider me religious, buried in the work of yet another mystic. Some things I read nod forward to Weil: St. John of the Cross, Plato, in whom Weil detected foreshadows of Christianity; a bridge between Greek tragedy and Christian mysticism.

In Fanny Howe, like Christian Wiman, I discover the work of another tutelary spirit. Their books like Agamben’s, Wittgenstein’s blow more or less vigorously in the direction of Simone Weil, what Walter Benjamin, in a letter to Gershom Scholem about Kafka, described as “crossroads of the paths of my thinking.”

Howe in The Needle’s Eye, reflects on personality and our self-representing masks through a series of associative thoughts about the Boston marathon bombers, Francis and Clare of Assisi, folk philosophies and social norms.

My daughter is reading an old favourite book from when I was seventeen, Erving Goffman’s The Presentation of Everyday Life. He argues that the self adapts our personality to suit the setting, donning a different mask as necessary, but that these masks are not permanent. Weil wrote, “The thing we believe to be our self is as ephemeral and automatic a product of external circumstances as the form of a sea wave.”