All That is Difficult Because it is Excellent

“It happens to be blindingly obvious to me that study, theological-philosophic argument, classical music, poetry, art, all that is ‘difficult because it is excellent’ (Spinoza, patron-saint of the possessed) are the excuse for life. I am convinced that one is infinitely privileged to be even a secondary attendant, commentator, instructor or custodian in some reach of these high places. I cannot, I must not negotiate this passion. Such negotiation, of which ‘political correctness’ is an infantile, deeply mendacious tactic, is the treason of the cleric. It is as in the unreason of love, a lie.”

George Steiner, Errata

Ah, George Steiner. Thank you.

The ‘Motion of Spirit’ in Translation

“If the vast majority of translations fall short of the source-texts, there are those which surpass them, whose autonomous strength obscures and marginalises the humbler ‘self’ of the original. I call this betrayal ‘transfiguration’…..What a truly inspired (very rare) act of translation offers in reparation is something new that was already there. This is not mysticism. Any thoughtful translator will know precisely what I mean…..Where it is wholly achieved, great translations being much rare than great literature, translation is no less than felt disc rouse between two human beings, ethics in action”.

– George Steiner, Errata

Most Anticipated New Books for 2018

In the first few months of last year I sampled rather more contemporary fiction than is usual for me. Frankly much of it wasn’t to my taste and ended up abandoned. Contemporary literature in any period tends toward mediocre, so it wasn’t too surprising.

This year, my new book purchasing will be much more restrained. These are those I am most looking forward to.

It isn’t any surprise that Seagull Books dominates the list as they have impeccable taste in bringing forth newly translated treasures. I also expect to make some new discoveries through my subscription to the always intriguing Fitzcarraldo Editions.

Giorgio Agamben, Pulcinella: Or Entertainment for Children (trans. Kevin Attell)
Giorgio Agamben, The Adventure (trans. Lorenzo Chiesa)
Friederike Mayröcker, Requiem for Ernst Jandl (trans. Rosalyn Theobald)
Ilse Aichinger, Bad Words (trans. Uljana Wolf and Christian Hawkey)
Pascal Quignard, Villa Amalia (trans. Chris Turner)
Rachel Cusk, Kudos
Claudio Magris, Journeying (trans. Anne Milano Appel)
Dag Solstad, Armand V (trans. Steven T. Murray)
Dag Solstad, T Singer (trans. Tiina Nunnally)
Peter Handke, The Great Fall (trans. Krishna Winston)
Jon Fosse, Scenes from a Childhood
Esther Kinsky, River (trans. Iain Galbraith)
Clarice Lispector, The Chandelier (trans. Benjamin Moser and Magdalena Edwards)
Cesare Pavese, The Beautiful Summer
Alberto Manguel, Packing My Library: An Elegy and Ten Digressions
Joanna Walsh, Break.up
Kate Zambreno, Drifts (since confirmed for early 2019)
Ismail Kadare, Essays on World Literature Shakespeare, Aeschylus, Dante

The Wound of Negativity

The Ladder of Divine Ascent, Monastery of St Catherine.

“But the genuine subjective existing thinker is always just as negative as he is positive and vice versa: he is always that as long as he exists, not once and for all in a chimerical meditation…..He is cognizant of the negativity of the infinite in existence; he always keeps open the wound of negativity, which at all times is a saving factor (the others let the wound close and become positive–deceived)…..He is, therefore, never a teacher, but a learner, and if he is continually just as negative as positive, he is continually striving.”

– Kierkegaard, Postscript

“Look, reader, though I do not know you, I love you so much that if I could hold you in my hands, I would open up your breast and in the centre of your heart I would make a wound and into it I would put vinegar and salt, so that you might never rest again, and would live in continual anxiety and endless longing.”

– Unamuno, Life of Don Quixote and Sancho

“The unhealed wound pressures the individual into seeking a cure, to be in constant, passionate pursuit of authentic existence. Climacus’ “continual striving” is Unamuno’s “endless longing.”

– Jon B. Stewart, Kierkegaard and Existentialism

The Power of the Key

“Creation, infinitely rarer [than invention], can, indeed must, open on to “the terra incognita of the soul” (Coleridge). Its avenues are those of the trackless. It can, as Walter Benjamin argues, wait for us to follow, to catch up with it, although it is implausible to suppose that we will do so.”

– George Steiner, Grammars of Creation

This reminds me of Kafka’s letter to Oskar Pollak: “Some books seem like a key to unfamiliar rooms in one’s own castle.” (There is of course his more often quoted passage about the ‘axe for the frozen sea’.) Steiner’s paragraph above, and in expanded detail in his book, is as good a description of the spirit of extreme seriousness that ought accompany the splendour of reading.

‘Draw breath with me, and go past, go beyond that breath’

“All that authentic poetry and what is most absolute in art and in music can accomplish is to say: “komm it mir zu Atem/und drüber hinaus”, ‘Draw breath with me, and go past, go beyond that breath’. This going beyond, this literal transcendence being that which I am seeking to define: the motion in progress towards realisation and the incompletion which this motion must make sensible. Incompletion as the denial of ‘finish’, with its connotations of ‘polish’, of ‘veneer’, of high gloss.”

– George Steiner, Grammars of Creation

George Steiner’s Grammars of Creation

Martin Heidegger, Philosopher (1988) by Jean Tinguely

Grammars of Creation is extraordinary. I’ve not given George Steiner much attention beyond reading his TLS reviews from time to time. He is somewhat controversial and perhaps this dissuaded me from exploring his work, an omission I intend to rectify. If Grammars of Creation is typical of his passionate eloquence and immense level of erudition and culture, I have some thrills ahead.

In Grammars, Steiner ranges discursively across philosophy, literature, painting, mathematics and science and looks at what comes before, during and after the act of creation, invention or discovery. His intellectual curiosity is brilliantly on display; page after page offers sensitive and illuminating readings.

There’s a section I read this morning on the nature and enduring reality of characters created in fiction that is among the finest writing about literature I’ve ever read. I’ve posted a few fragments of this book recently but here’s a taste of what I read this morning:

“It is the actual process of this import into ourselves of imagined beings, of landscapes, situations, objects more various. often more memorable than those in the external world, it is the psychology (the neurophysiology?) of reception, which elude us. How do we ‘make flesh’ – the eucharist-metaphor is obviously kindred – semantic suggestions? By what recognitions or concessions  do we ascribe to them truth-values, a mode of existentiality so credible as to make ghostly so many of the women and men and empirical facts we come across ‘out there’?”

Literary Incompletion

“Shown at Oxford, the draft for Milton’s Lycidas, Charles Lamb felt terror at the thought that that poem could have been otherwise. At the other end, so to speak, the poem as we have it will induce an apprehension, more or less substantial, of what it could be if it was to achieve the full measure of its intentionality, which is the surpassing of its medium. We recall Liebniz again, when he alludes to the enigma of that which ‘will never be’ though it lies so near. The richer, the more enduring the text, the more vivid, the more palpably circumstantial, will be this sense of a potential self-surpassing into a sphere of absolute freedom. ‘Read me, look at me, listen to me’, says the significant work of literature, art and music, ‘and you will share in the joyous sadness, in the constantly renewed wonder, of my incompletion. You will derive from this incompletion in action what evidence is given to the human spirit of that which lies beyond, just beyond, my highest reach.’ (Once more, it is the Paradiso which most incisively articulates this proximity.)”

– George Steiner, Grammars of Creation

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.