Engaging with a Book

There are, I suppose, two ways to read a book. Perhaps many more. I tend to inhabit a book, giving rein to a flight of imagination that affords me the opportunity to see through the eyes of a character. Others, I imagine, spectate from afar like viewers at a puppet show.

I read Christa Wolf’s No Place on Earth twice recently, a kind of double reading on the first occasion, when I read it straight through and started again at the beginning and read it straight through again without a break. It is the sort of book that I’ll read five or six times, and still be ready to read again.

Observing a writer’s world through their eyes, or sometimes, just the eyes of a particular character, can be so ineffable, so very fertile, that I wish to prolong the encounter for as long as is possible. Another time, reading a book like Max Frisch’s Homo Faber, the view is unsettling, discordant even, which is fecund in a different way, but still worth drawing out, only to emerge after a double reading, anguished but purged

There are writers I wish to engage with to the greatest extent, seeking out all they write: stories, letters, diaries, everything. They offer a rare chance to disturb in some small but permanent way how I conceptualise the world. It is the very best form of escapism, a boundary crossing, a chance to step over a threshold from one self to the other, not just intellectually but on a deep, emotional level. These writers that I set out to read to completion disengage me from myself, silently and profoundly. Who would I be, I wonder, without the alchemical transformation caused by writers like Dante, Christa Wolf, Denton Welch, Virginia Woolf, Mathias Énard, Roberto Calasso, Doris Lessing, Samuel Beckett, Kate Zambreno, Homer.

It isn’t only fiction that provides voluptuous literary encounters. When reading nonfiction, without that distinction between a writer and a writer’s voice, it is possible to develop what feels uncannily like a friendship. Such friends are Gilbert Highet, Walter Kaufmann, Plato, Hélène Cixous, Marcus Aurelius, who have each influenced my life for the better. This intellectual endowment, this gift that is reading, is transformative. Sometimes enchanting, not always comfortable or easy, but that is the nature of friendship.

Wittgenstein and Dostoyevsky

A great many, perhaps most, of the books I choose to read are a consequence of something I’ve just read, or an intriguing comment on social media. Kaufmann’s The Faith of a Heretic led me to Norman Malcolm’s delightful Wittgenstein memoir, which in turn fixed my resolve to read The Brothers Karamazov. Malcolm’s contention that Wittgenstein considered The House of the Dead Dostoyevsky’s greatest work is unusual in that it is not one of his ‘big four’ novels.

Once when we were conversing Wittgenstein was delighted to learn that I knew Tolstoy’s Twenty-three Tales. He’d had an extremely high opinion of these stories. He questioned me closely to find out whether I had understood the moral of the one entitled ‘How Much Land Does A Man Need?’ Wittgenstein had been stiff with me at the beginning of the conversation because he was displeased with me for a reason I have forgotten. But when he discovered that I had read, understood, and valued Tolstoy’s stories, he became friendly and animated. Wittgenstein also admired the writings of Dostoevsky. He read The Brothers Karamazov and extraordinary number of times, but he once said that The House of the Dead was Dostoevsky’s greatest work.

Memoirs from the House of the Dead is therefore what I’ll read next, in the Jesse Coulson translation.

I Will Despair, and be at Enmity With Cozening Hope

Our attitude toward death is influenced by hope as much as it is by fear. If fear is the mother of cowardice, hope is the father. p372

The Greeks considered hope the final evil in Pandora’s box. They also gave us an image of perfect nobility: a human being lovingly doing her duty to another human being despite all threats, and going to her death with pride and courage, not deterred by hope—Antigone. p374

In honesty, what is there to hope for? Small hopes remain but do not truly matter. I may hope that the sunset will be clear, that the night will be cool and still, that my work will turn out well, and yet know that nine hopes out of ten are not even remembered a year later. p374

Let people who do not know what to do with themselves in this life, but fritter away their time reading magazines and watching television, hope for eternal life. If one lives intensely, the time comes when sleep seems bliss. If one loves intensely, the time comes when death seems bliss. p374

If I ask myself who in history I might like to have been, I find that all the men I most admire were by most standards deeply unhappy. They knew despair. But their lives were worthwhile—I only wish mine equaled theirs in this respect—and I have no doubt that they were glad to die. p375

Not only love can be deepened and made more intense and impassioned by the expectation of impending death; all of life is enriched by it. Why deceive myself to the last moment, and hungrily devour sights, sounds, and smells only when it is almost too late? p375

Often we mourn the death of others because it leaves us lonely. But we do not hate sleep because we are sometimes lonely when others have gone to sleep and we lie awake. Death, like sleep, can mean separation; it usually does. We rarely have the honesty to remember how alone we are. The death of those we loved reminds us what dishonesty had concealed from us: our profound solitude and our impending death. In the quest for honesty, death is a cruel but excellent teacher. p378

There is nothing morbid about thinking and speaking of death. Those who disparage honesty do not know its joys. The apostles of hope do not know the liberation of emergence from hope. p375

Walter Kaufmann, The Faith of a Heretic

When it’s Nasty Then it’s Most Important

Yet another sighting of E. R. Dodds’ The Greeks and the Irrational in Walter Kaufmann’s The Faith of a Heretic. Coming across a mention of Dodd’s book has a talismanic aspect; though I’ve never read what Kaufmann refers to as a ‘splendid book’ its presence always implies a text that transcends traditional categories.

Kaufmann’s book is misleadingly titled. Rather than another contribution to that ocean of gibberish in which boorish windbags peddle atheism with all the charm of pavement charity chuggers, Kaufmann’s beautifully elegant, witty book is his very personal critique of philosophy and religion. As with any Kaufmann study, you follow as he discourses freely, peppering his work with anecdotes like this of Wittgenstein, a writer whose voluptuously textured philosophy I’ve failed to understand for three decades:

[..]in his very interesting and moving little book, Ludwig Wittgenstein: A Memoir, Norman Malcolm tells us how a casual remark he once made in a conversation in the fall of 1939 about the British “national character” vexed Wittgenstein; and he quotes a letter Wittgenstein wrote to him five years later: “Whenever I thought of you I couldn’t help thinking of a particular incident which seemed to me very important. You & I were walking along the river towards the railway bridge & we had a heated discussion in which you made a remark about ‘national character’ that shocked me by its primitiveness. I then thought: what is the use of studying philosophy if all that it does for you is to enable you to talk with some plausibility about some abstruse questions in logic, etc., & if it does not improve your thinking about the important questions of everyday life, if it does not make you more conscientious . . . . You see, I know that its difficult to think well about ‘certainty,’ ‘probability,’ ‘perception,’ etc. But it is, if possible, still more difficult to think, or try to think, really honestly about your life & other people’s lives. And the trouble is that thinking about these things is not thrilling, but often downright nasty. And when it’s nasty then it’s most important.

Married Hell

Finding the need for some respite from the brilliant intensity of Anna Kavan’s fiction I turned to last year’s reissue of Walter Kaufmann’s The Faith of a Heretic. If Kaufmann, in his all too brief life, had written advertising copy, I’d be rather tempted to buy his collected blurbs. Whatever the subject, Kaufmann writes with lucidity but also a rare wit. He writes of the Mormon religion:

Mormons believe that couples joined in holy matrimony in a Mormon Temple will enjoy each other’s company in all eternity, while those married elsewhere are married for this life only. What strikes them as enviable would be more likely, in most cases, to be hell itself.

Great Secondary Philosophical Work

Walter Kaufmann’s Nietzsche is pleasing in several different ways. A great start to a new year’s reading, as it’s got me reading, writing and thinking like a man on fire.

I’ve always been stubborn about tackling the major thinkers directly, head on. Stubborn and in cases like Derrida, likely to end in tears. Kaufmann’s Nietzsche is a first-rate work of literature, as good as Thus Spoke Zarathustra, which Nietzsche felt, probably correctly, was his finest moment. I’ve lined up other secondary material on Nietzsche by Nehemas, Safranski and Malcolm Bull.

But I’m wondering what other books on the major thinkers stand up as works of literature in their own right? Is there someone I ought to be reading that will open up Bourdieu’s philosophy/sociology in the way Kaufmann has for Nietzsche’s work? Or Deleuze’s work, which I almost read as poetry, allowing meaning to sink in where it can?

It isn’t just Kaufmann that has me thinking along these lines. Richard Geldard’s Remembering Heraclitus was enlightening. I also became aware from Samuel Beckett’s Library, one of my all-time favourite pieces of secondary literature, how much Beckett approached the major thinkers indirectly before, if ever, launching a direct assault on their major works.

If you have any suggestions please reply in Comments (so other readers can share) rather than Twitter, where everything just gets lost or buried in Favourites.