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.”

Reading Lately …

I’m much more familiar with Iliad than The Odyssey. As a teenager, with the help of a magnifying glass and Liddell and Scott’s ancient Greek lexicon, I learnt to write the first line of Iliad in Greek from memory, a silly party trick.

51MmeRgcCyL._SX346_BO1,204,203,200_

Robert Fagles’ verse translation of Odyssey succeeds at turning the poem into fathomable vernacular, though there are times when one feels he must have strayed reasonably far from the nuances of the original Greek. On balance I probably prefer the prose translation of E. V. Rieu, revised by D. C. H. Rieu, philistine though that might appear. I intend to read George Chapman’s Homer sometime soon. Fagles‘ Odyssey has been a fine companion though and despite knowing the story am still not immune to the heightening tension as it progresses toward the slaughter of the suitors.

This summer I plan a second attempt at Robert Musil’s The Man Without Qualities, joining Richard and Francis for the 1130 pages—or 1770 with From the Posthumous Papers edition—translated by Sophie Wilkins and Burton Pike. I am hoping this more modern translation keeps my interest longer than that of Eithne Wilkins and Ernst Kaiser.

As a side project I’m slowly collecting and reading a series of little books on modern European literary figures, published in the fifties by Bowes and Bowes of Cambridge. The first four I have are on Sartre, Kleist, Jacques Riviere and Valery. They caught my eye when watching the video of Duncan Fallowell’s library. They look wonderful and may number fifty or so in number.

Other reading plans, always subjects to whimsy, include dipping into Anita Brookner’s oeuvre, exploring whether William Gerhardie’s work still stands up, undoubtedly more Schmidt and Redonnet, and more ancient Greeks.

The more love unfolds, the more it touches its limit …

As I have been expending my strength with success during the time of the Growth, I have in fact already started to wear myself out, because the more I display my capabilities, the more fragile they become, the more ground I occupy, the more I must toll to conserve it; the Roman Empire had pushed its lines too far not to collapse.

In a certain way, could the same thing not be said about love? The more it unfolds, the more it touches its limit. The more it culminates, becomes absolute, to the point of absorbing everything, the more it places itself in danger: feverish and intimate afternoons turn into despair to the point of suffocation. For if it is not ‘me’ who passes from love to abhorrence or indifference ‘afterwards’, is it not rather that, the more it concentrates intensity, indeed the more it puts the impossible to the test, then the closer love comes to being inverted? And so it tends to become, literally, ‘catastrophic’. Moreover, it is then not a matter of ‘hatred’, as a feeling in the affective or psychological sense that is the opposite of love, but of the same love swinging into its negative. We know that one lover can kill the other one, due not to impulsive anger or delirium, as is too anecdotally claimed, but in a logical way—or may the amorous anger which one day arose not already have been a preliminary outline of this looming reversal?

François Julien. The Silent Transformations. trans. Krzysztof Fijalkowski and Michael Richardson

Marie Redonnet’s Hôtel Splendid

Two aspects struck me on my first reading of Marie Redonnet’s Hôtel Splendid. Pared back sentences flow unexpectedly, not quite a bricolage, but also not quite where one expects them to be. Take the opening paragraph:

The Splendid is not what it used to be since grandmother died. The lavatories always need unblocking. The wallpaper is peeling off the walls because of the damp. The Hôtel Splendid is built over an underground lake. It’s grandmothers fault. No one had ever built a hotel on the edge of the swamp. Having her own hotel had always been her dream. She wanted to do things properly.

The more one interrogates the paragraph, the more the causal connections between the sentences seem erratic. The narration continues in that style, until one realises that Redonnet is also compressing time and space in unusual ways. Situations and emotions change polarity within a few paragraphs. On one page she writes, “The Hôtel Splendid has come back to life.” Two pages on she reports, “There are not many guests.” The reversals in the hotel’s fortunes and those of its guests and hosts are relentless.

On a second reading, it was easier to appreciate the narrative voice, old-fashioned in a sense, but one that maintains, even reinforces, a distance from the narrator and her two similarly named sisters. Redonnet subverts the first person perspective by adopting a voyeur-eye view. The effect is alienating but without dampening any curiosity to see how far, and where, Redonnet plans to take the story.

Hôtel Splendid is part of a triptych of novels, translated by Jordan Stump. I intend to read all three out of curiosity for Redonnet’s stylistic development and to see what binds the three novels together.

Arno Schmidt’s Leviathan

Last weekend I read the second of Arno Schmidt’s stories from the Collected Novellas. Entitled Leviathan or The Best of Worlds, this is a claustrophobic short story set during the Fall of Berlin. Presented as the diary of a dead German officer, the story recounts the attempted escape of a motley crew of soldiers and civilians on a steam train.

This being Schmidt, there is a lot more to the story than the high drama and love story that make up the surface reading. Read after Enthymesis, which I now gather (from poring over a Google-translated version of Arno Schmidt Stiftung) was issued with Leviathan and the following story, Gadir, as part of a triptych, the two stories assume a different texture, which I’m sure to reconsider after I read the last of the triptych.

In both cases what I’ve enjoyed most is trying to understand what Schmidt is attempting to say. Two reasonably short stories have sent me delving through reference books and web sites, and, autodidact that I am, taking some satisfaction from what I am learning and remembering along the way. I quite accept that this type of reading is a marginal taste. As Joyce wrote in The Dubliners: ““He would never be popular: he saw that. He could not sway the crowd, but he might appeal to a little circle of kindred minds.”

In Leviathan, as the train hurtles across Berlin, Schmidt’s narrator debates with an old man whether the universe is infinite or merely boundless. Without a working knowledge of Euclidean geometry, some of the nuances were lost on me, but I enjoyed picking through the philosophical and cosmological argument. If you’d care to recommend a decent layman’s book on the geometry of the universe, I’d be appreciative. Schmidt soon makes me aware of gaping holes in my understanding of cosmology.

Knowing that the two Schmidt stories are of a family makes it easier, to the extent anything is easy with Schmidt’s work, to grasp the references to the Book of Job; the argument that God is the creator of Leviathan and therefore responsible directly and indirectly for all moral evils. Enthymesis is then the projection of some or all of those evil attributes onto some person or thing below on earth, in this case within the Roman Empire or Nazi Germany. This reminds me that I’d like to read a decent translation of the Book of Job. Alfred Lord Tennyson called it “the greatest poem of ancient or modern times.” If you can recommend one that stands on its literary merits I’d be appreciative.

Arno Schmidt’s Enthymesis

This is a brief post on a short and complex story. Where does one begin with as singular a writer as Arno Schmidt? I chose to start with M. A. Orthofer’s very good dialogic introduction. Thus primed, I was ready to invest in Schmidt’s Collected Novellas, specifically the first of the collection, Enthymesis or H.I.H.Y.A. Schmidt’s story is twenty-one pages long. My notes run to six pages.

“Not by virtue of wisdom do poets create what they create,” write Plato in his Apology, “but by a sort of genius and inspiration; they are like diviners or soothsayers , who also say many fine things but do not understand their meanings.”

Plato thought poets of all sorts inspired, not skilled, capable of little more than rousing empty emotions. Aristotle agreed that poetry arouses emotions but argued that poetry represents objects and actions in the world precisely as language represents ideas.

I suspect Schmidt was in Aristotle’s camp. In Enthymesis his narrator writes in his diary, “I have never understood what is supposed to so great about Plato; true, he does write elegantly at times, but his books are often page upon page of stylistic and philosophical banalities that one would hardly excuse from a schoolboy.” Schmidt’s narrator argues that Plato’s Republic is a proto-fascist state in which the masses are compelled to fight unjust wars that serve the interest of a ruling class.

It would be easy to glide through a surface-reading of Enthymesis but to do so would be to miss a richness of imagery and allusion so great that even DFW’s footnotes would scarcely do justice to all its complexity. Reading of Schmidt’s narrator denouncing Rome via Plato’s Republic, it is also useful to know that Enthymesis was the first story he wrote after the Second World War. The allusion is inescapable when writing of his narrator Philostratos leaving home for this expedition: “I’ll never forget that, how I stood before my books for the last time and looked through all the rooms, lost in thought; luckily there was still some schnapps in the locker, and my body did not torment me, I didn’t feel it, nor my light burden, and even the inferior part of my mind, the one that gives orders to this body draped shabbily over it, was separate from me.”

The NYT refers to the “obscurely entitled” Enthymesis: Or H.I.H.Y.A. and I can offer no accounting for a term that appears to refer to a Pauline doctrine taken from a passage in his Epistle to the Colossians.

Enthymesis is the diary of a disciple of Eratosthenes of Cyrene (276-195 BC), one of a team of bematists sent out to calculate the distance between Syene and Alexandria in order to determine the circumference of the Earth. Tensions develop within the expeditionary team leaving the delirious narrator diarist Philostratos following a vision to a silver city in the African desert. Schmidt overlays that simple story with a layer of myth and dream, a condemnation of expansionist ideologies that undoubtedly references both the Roman Empire and Nazi Germany (and speaks to our present times), using exceedingly rich and beautiful language that will have the curious reader diving deeply into dictionaries, and reference books and sites.

Beyond that surface description of Enthymesis and my precursory rambling I’ll say no more. This story, though short, is too broad for an adequate treatment, to say nothing of my limitations. I cannot think of no better initiation to this powerfully erudite writer. I consider myself a neophyte of the cult.

Literature and Memory

“Narrative psychologists have pointed out that novels, with their conventionalised plot-lines and highly suggestive myths, provide powerful, often normative models for our own self-narration and interpretation of the past. Apparently, when interpreting our own experience, we constantly, and often unconsciously, draw on pre-existing narrative patterns as supplied by literature. Thus, by disseminating new interpretations of the past and new models of identity, fictions of memory may also influence how we, as readers, narrate our pasts and ourselves into existence.”

Birgit Neumann, The Literary Representation of Memory

M. A. Orthofer’s Arno Schmidt Introduction

MAOs_ArSch“If I have led one new reader to his work, I have done well.”

M. A. Orthofer fulfils his purpose and does not glory in what he has done in his introduction to Arno Schmidt and his work. I’m aware of Schmidt’s work from the Zetta Traum reading diary on one of my favourite blogs, and have been patiently awaiting an English translation.

Dialogue as a literary form has its genesis in the 5th and 4th century BCE culture of Athens. I gather it is a form often adopted by Schmidt, so no surprise that Orthofer choses to structure his introduction to Schmidt’s work in this form of discourse. Socrates chatted around the gyms and market-places of Athens.

In Orthofer’s case the literary dialogue takes place in an old-school pub with whiskey (‘wine: look elsewhere’). It is reflective, witty and superbly articulated, just the type of dialogue one always imagines but rarely discovers, but perhaps that is just in England. Although authoritative, the dialogue retains a slippery and playful tension, casual and erudite.

Orthofer, founder of the essential Complete Review blog has done well to lead this reader to Schmidt’s work. I’ll be dipping into Schmidt’s Collected Novellas, but that will be after sampling Julián Ríos’s work, a writer apparently influenced by Schmidt.

Hidden Art and Enchantment

Ovid is an excellent travelling companion; he endured, with good humour, my occasional lack of attention, but with wit and ferocity drew my concentration back to the page. His curiosity is a vital component of the sensibility required to compose a  long poem without a central hero or even a single topic beyond the idea of metamorphosis.

Truth and illusion are Ovid’s medium. But truth and illusion are ever slippery, especially in a world where the usual laws of nature are suspended. Illusion is always implicated in desire, with the risk of misunderstanding but in that risk there is the possibility of revealing truths.

At school we were required to learn the opening lines of the Second book of The Metamorphoses. I haven’t been able to source the particular translation but it’s likely that time has made different those lines I still recall. It is worth memorizing again those lines in which Ovid depicts the dazzling palace of Sol, the sun god:

“The soaring palace of the Sun, with all
its giant columns, was ablaze with gold
and bronze, as if aflame; its pediments
were crowned on high with polished ivory;
and glowing silver graced the double doors.”

Ivory’s beauty and value is recognised in the earliest Greek texts and mentioned in the Iliad and Odyssey to symbolise royal abundance. Ovid draws out its magical qualities in his highly metaphorical conception of the Pygmalion myth:

“Meanwhile, Pygmalion began to carve
in snow-white ivory, with wondrous art,
a female figure more exquisite than
a woman who was born could ever match.
That done, he falls in love with his own work.”

The Pygmalion story may be the finest Ovid wove in The Metamorphoses, a fable of truth and illusion as implicated in desire. In his story, the sensitive, lonely artist, unable to face the world becomes a recluse and falls in love with his own creation.

“The image seems, in truth, to be a girl;
one could have thought she was alive and keen
to stir, to move her limbs, had she not been
too timid: with his art, he’d hidden art.
He’s enchanted and, within his heart,
the likeness of a body now ignites
a flame.”

How much Ovid portrays within just a few lines. An absolute work of art displays no vestiges of art but is genuine and enchanting in its own right. Once a work of art is completed, its future is independent of its maker. In the alternative universe of The Metamorphoses, Pygmalion gets his girl:

At once, Pygmalion, at home again,
seeks out the image of the girl; he bends
over his couch; he kisses her. And when
it seems her lips are warm, he leans again
to kiss her; and he reaches with his hands
to touch her breasts. The ivory has lost
its hardness; now his fingers problem; grown soft,
the statue yields beneath his sculptors’s touch,
just as Hymettian wax beneath the sun
grows soft and, moulded by the thumb, takes on
so many varied shapes—in fact, becomes
more pliant as one plies it.”

I’m reminded of Ryszard Kapuściński’s Travels with Herodotus in which he writes “People sit around the fire and tell stories.” He continues:

“Later, these will be called legends and myths, but in the instant when they are first being related and heard, the tellers and the listeners believe in them as the holiest of truths, absolute reality.

They listen, the fire burns, someone adds more wood, the flames’ renewed warmth quickens thought, awakens the imagination. The spinning of tales is almost unimaginable without a fire crackling somewhere nearby, or without the darkness of a house illuminated by an oil lamp or a candle. The fire’s light attracts, unites, galvanizes attentions. The flame and community. The flame and history. The flame and memory.”

This is how I read Ovid and I like this drawing back to sit around the camp fire with such a bookish and witty story teller. Book Eleven will be my evening’s reading, no longer travelling but no less in need of such an excellent companion.

Ovid’s Envy

Ovid’s personification of Envy is powerfully vivid, animated with gesture, diet, sounds and colour. It is a remarkable portrait, painterly, even filmic. Its depiction of Envy evokes its malignant nature. This is from Allen Mandelbaum’s rather beautiful translation.

..There within,
she saw that Envy was intent upon
a meal of viper flesh, the meat that fed
her vice. Minerva turned aside her eyes.
But Envy sluggishly rose from the ground,
leaving the half-chewed dregs of serpents’ flesh
and coming forward with her faltering steps.
And when she saw the splendid goddess dressed
in gleaming armor, Envy moaned: her face
Contracted as she sighed. That face is wan,
that body shriveled; and her gaze is not
direct; her teeth are filled with filth and rot;
her breast is green with gall, and poison coats
her tongue. She never smiles except when some
sad sight brings her delight; she is denied
sweet sleep, for she is too preoccupied,
forever vigilant; when men succeed,
she is displeased – success means her defeat.
she gnaws at others and at her own self—
her never-ending, self-inflicted hell.

Not Destined to Dispel the Cloud

This weekend I was fortunate to find, and unable to resist, a two-volume Robert Riviere edition of Boswell’s Life of Johnson, which I once read, but so long ago that all I recall is an atmosphere. I have a suspicion that Johnson is more read about than read, so I intend to take an opportunity to read my tercentenary edition of The Selected Writings of Samuel Johnson introduced and edited by his most recent biographer Peter Martin. 

It’s likely that I’ll read Martin’s Johnson, which presents Johnson as ‘”one of the most advanced liberals of his time”: a harsh critic of imperialism, a lifelong defender of the poor, a protofeminist and a scourge of aristocratic effrontery.’ Some time ago I read Walter Jackson Bate’s great biography of Johnson, so loved by Beckett that he implored Anne Atik to keep her copy. I’ve read a few of Johnson’s primary texts including his novel Rasseslas, and it takes no time at all to be swept up in the embrace of his wit and keen intelligence.

The following passage is extracted from his essay entitled The necessity and danger of looking into futurity, and should be framed and mounted above the desk of aspirant writers:

It may not be unfit for him who makes a new entrance into the lettered world, so far to suspect his own powers, as to believe that he may possibly deserve neglect; that nature may not have qualified him much to enlarge or embellish knowledge, nor sent him forth entitled by indisputable superiority to regulate the conduct of the rest of mankind; that, though, the world must be granted to be yet in ignorance, he is not destined to dispel the cloud, nor to shine out as one of the luminaries of life. For this suspicion, every catalogue of a library will furnish sufficient reason; as he will find it crowded with names of men who, though now forgotten, were once no less enterprising or confident than himself, equally pleased with their own productions, equally caressed by their patrons, and flattered by their friends.

Jane Bowles’s Plain Pleasures

Curiosity about Jane Bowles compelled me to track down a selection of her letters, which I intend to read in parallel with the short stories in the Collected Works.

The first of the short stories I read was Plain Pleasures, which escalates from a subtle tale of social reserve to what appears to be a story about rape. Like Kleist’s The Marquise of O, the rape is not represented directly. Bowles suggests it with a single sentence, immediately transforming a seemingly simple tale into what becomes a barbed, disturbing story.

Bowles takes the story from that single sentence not to a dark place, but to one of emotional and possibly sexual fulfilment. It is a sly work of considerable psychological complexity that, like Bowles’s novel Two Serious Ladies reveals a silence at its core.

Reading Plain Pleasures immediately makes sense of Joy Williams’s comment in the preface to this collection: ‘Reading Jane Bowles is making the acquaintance not with dread but with dread’s sister, perhaps—a grave, absurd disquietude.’

In The Art of Cruelty, Maggie Nelson describes this story as a ‘quietly brutal, fourteen-page masterpiece’, a verdict to which I can only agree. Nelson adds of Bowles:

It isn’t so much that Bowles is out to tell us that the world is a cruel and cold place, and isn’t it a pity. Like many artists of cruelty, she is no philosopher. She is roaming a world of balloons, armed with a pin.

Jane Bowles’s Two Serious Ladies

In a letter to her husband, Jane Bowles wrote, ‘Men are all outside, not interesting. They have no mystery. Women are profound and mysterious—and obscene.’ This conception of the world is the orbit of Jane Bowles’s only novel Two Serious Ladies.

It is a decidedly odd story, one that seduced me almost immediately as I fell under the spell of its highly mannered vocal inflections. Bowles’s two serious ladies refuse to settle for a life in which all is reduced to a state of acquiescence and uniformity. Bowles suggests two possible responses to a world her characters find profoundly alienating, to seek redemption through generosity and sacrifice, or withdrawal into happiness and sensual pleasure.

Written in 1943, Bowles’s story feels ahead of its time, bold in its treatment of sex as a calculated gesture rather than an erotic response or a significant human connection. I don’t know much about Bowles’s life, but that it is her only completed novel, and the striking similitude between the two serious ladies, suggests a distinctly autobiographical novel. To quote Julien Gracq, “I’m always happy when I have the impression of surprising the author hot in her tracks and as though about to move out.”

Obscure books—for some—are a kind of crossword puzzle

I loathe the day a manuscript is sent to the publisher, because on that day the people one has loved die; they become what they are—petrified, fossil organisms for others to study and collect. I get asked what I mean by this and that. But what I wrote is what I meant. If I wasn’t clear in the book, it shouldn’t be clear now.

I find that Americans, especially the kind of people who write and ask questions, have a strangely pragmatic view of what books are. Perhaps because of the miserable heresy that creative writing can be taught (‘creative’ is here a euphemism for ‘initiative’), they seem to believe that a writer always knows exactly what he’s doing. Obscure books, for them, are a kind of crossword puzzle. Somewhere, they feel, in some number of a paper they missed, all the answers have been given to all the clues.

They believe, in short, that a book is like a machine; that if you have the knack, you can take it to bits.

John Fowles, writing in 1966, an essay from Wormholes, written just before releasing The French Lieutenant’s Woman for fossilisation publication.

Man finds it easier to imitate

“Habit is everything, even in love,” says Vauvenargues, and you remember La Rochefoucauld’s maxim? “How many men would never have known love if they had never heard of love?” Are we not justified in asking: How many would never be jealous, if they did not hear jealousy spoken about, and had not persuaded themselves that it was imperative to be jealous?
Yes, convention is the great breeder of falsehood. How many are forced to play their life long a part strangely foreign to themselves? And how difficult it is to discern in ourselves a feeling not previously described, labelled, and present before us as a model! Man finds it easier to imitate everything than to invent anything. How many are content to live their lives warped by untruth, and find, none the less, in the very falsity of convention more comfort and less need for effort than in straightforward affirmation of their personal feelings! Such affirmation would require of them an effort of invention utterly beyond them.

Reading André Gide’s Dostoevsky I am reminded again to read Gide’s journals that I bought after reading of Sontag’s admiration. Like his subject, Gide possesses acute psychological insight.

Gide’s novel, Strait Is the Gate, which I read twice, is full of subtle truth. I still recall the mood the novel evoked in me. Incidentally, my edition of Strait Is the Gate was translated by Dorothy Bussy, sister of Lytton Strachey, whose letters to Gide are also rather amusing.