“Since early adolescence I have wanted to live the life of a poet. What this meant to me was a life outside the law; it would include disobedience and uprootedness. I would be at liberty to observe, drift, read, travel, take notes, converse with friends, and struggle with form.” p.5
“The child poised on the threshold of a door is also the ghost going the other way; they are one action immortalised by a single position toward the world: not there.” p.23
“The struggle to foster a culture informed by art and literature was soon to be stifled by the military, scientific, and monetary complex. Some people knew this and found the loss unbearable; most didn’t notice.” p.31
Fanny Howe, The Winter Sun
“The unformed mind at play is the most interior, half-submerged, and elusive figure we have, expunged and redrawn.” p.15
“I have to say I never got over my shock that there is a world and it is living.” p.117
Fanny Howe, The Needle’s Eye
Many and special thanks to flowerville for the discovery of Fanny Howe, who combines intellectual coherence with a use of language that can stab, soothe or tickle as the occasion requires.
“I once believed in some notion of a pure ambition, which I defined as an ambition for the work rather than for oneself. But now? If a poet’s ambition were truly for the work and nothing else, he would write under a pseudonym, which would not only preserve that pure space of making but free him from the distractions of trying to forge a name for himself in the world. No, all ambition has the reek of disease about it, the relentless smell of the self–except for that terrible, blissful feeling at the heart of creation itself, when all thought of your name is obliterated and all you want is the poem, to be the means wherein something of reality, perhaps even something of eternity realises itself. That is noble ambition. But all that comes after–the need for approval, publication, self-promotion–isn’t this what usually goes under the name of “ambition”? The effort is to make ourselves more real to ourselves, to feel that we have selves, though the deepest moments of creation tell us that, in some fundamental way, we don’t. (Souls are what those moments reveal, which are both inside and outside, both us and other.) So long as your ambition is to stamp your existence upon existence, your nature on nature, then your ambition is corrupt and you are pursuing a ghost.”
Christian Wiman, My Bright Abyss
In some times, such a sentiment is broadly shared. It is almost unbearable how alien it is in this time.
It is of great importance to my life that I spend time in contemplative thought. Usually this takes place through paying attention to what I’m reading and capturing perceptions in my notebooks, occasionally here on my personal blog and, less often these days, on social media. Paying attention in this way increases my capacity to retain information and appears to give me greater ability to recall knowledge to my thoughts when there is occasion to apply it in some way, either in writing or in conversation. This blog is coming up to its tenth anniversary. Blogging about my reading life changed the way I read, what I read, what I retain from the books I read, and through blogging I’ve made some deep and enduring friendships.
As social media usage, Twitter in particular, became more prevalent, comments in reply to blog posts became less common. In its early days Twitter was a good way to converse with friends, often in the privacy of one-to-one conversations (direct messages), but every now and again there was a sharp reminder that it is a highly public space. It was nevertheless still a good place to make friends that wouldn’t have been made elsewhere. It is also a form of commonplace book where I save and share short form quotations from the books I’m reading.
These days I spend much less time on Twitter. I’ve tried to make it less frustrating by disabling everyone’s retweets and following fewer people, but it is still harder, especially with the loathsome ‘quoted with comment tweets’, to filter out the mock outrage or the fatuous ‘tweet storms’ that accompany a celebrity death, the latest Trump sound bite, or the bandwagon that builds around well-marketed books. It is also impossible to filter out the sometimes stupid, but often not, just merely pointless snarky replies to tweets from people who must make their Opinion known. If using a public Twitter account, this is the price you pay for being in that vast public arena. I de-activate from time to time but I am pathetically irresolute and end up coming back after a week or two, missing some of the book talk from my Twitter feed. I keep hoping for a Twitter alternative but none seem to gain much traction.
I thought briefly about the symbolism of closing this blog on 25th January 2019, ten years after its birth, but it still plays a critical part in my life of contemplation. It is also still instrumental in its way in building friendships with people around the world that share a broadly similar taste in books. It is unquestionably harder to cope with the signal-to-noise ratio on Twitter, but for now I persist there while trying to ignore outraged Twitter. For the first time in several years I have a Facebook presence, primarily to keep loosely in contact with family and friends.
“Reading as a cultural act – and especially as a philosophical practice – culminates in study. Study is a learned set of techniques and strategies implemented in order to acquire and master a given knowledge in a given discipline, and is a highly defined and regulated practice. But it is also an ‘idea’ and ‘ideal’, which has defined for centuries the aims and scope of Western culture, so much so that in the Middle Ages the term studium defined the university itself.”
“. . . Agamben refers then to the etymology of studium – from the root st- or sp-, indicating an impact or collision and the deriving shock – which it shares with ‘stupefy’ but also with ‘stupid’: lost, stupefied and stunned, the studioso remains unable to grasp and absorb the amazing amount of stimuli striking him, and is at the same time unwilling to take leave of them. On the other hand, the messianic nature of study incessantly drives it towards completion, towards parousia, and this polarity between interminability and completion constitutes the ‘rhythm’ of study: a succession of stupor and lucidity, discovery and bewilderment, passion and action.”
“Unlike the classical figure of the ‘saintly scholar’ lionised by tradition, these students [as found in Kafka, Walser and Melville’s Bartleby] are ‘failures’, and as such they undermine the whole construct of cultural transmission and legitimacy. In Bartleby, however, there occurs the messianic reversal, whereby the messianic polarity of study is surpassed, or better deactivated: Bartleby, who for Agamben represents ‘pure potentiality’, is a scrivener who has ceased to write, and thus his gesture represents a potential that does not precede but follows its act. This ‘liberated’ potential frees study of its melancholy and returns it to its truest nature, which is not the work, but rather inspiration, ‘the self-nourishment of the soul’.”
Agamben’s Philosophical Lineage, edited by Adam Kotsko and Carlo Salzani.
Of all the many reasons to read Philip Larkin, this collection includes Aubade, an abysmally bleak yet sublime poem that I think I must now learn by heart. The edition includes an introduction by Martin Amis, a novelist of the second-order but a sophisticated critic.
After the exemplary prose of Fanny Howe’s The Needle’s Eye, this time a work that contains autobiography and reflective meditations.
The Life of Ibn ‘Arabi continues my exploration of mystics inspired by Maria Gabriela Llansol’s Book of Communities.
Agamben’s work fascinates me for its range of references and its enigmatic nature. I’ve been slowly making my way through Homo Sacer and was pleased to stumble across this book that explores many of the figures he engages with.
“A critic for whom literature is not rooted deeply in life, whose ideas seem to have no relation to lived experience, doesn’t hold much interest for me. By the same token, any writing that’s personal, that does not manage to say something critical about life in general, is equally inert. Our own experiences matter only insofar as they reveal something of experience itself. They are often the clearest lens that we can find, but they are a lens.”
–Christian Wiman, Ambition and Survival.