Some weeks my reading ends up in unexpected places. I thought that I’d spend this week reading André Gide’s diaries of the period when Paris was under Nazi occupation. But I’ve been reading Byung-Chul Han. A couple of years ago I read The Burnout Society and last year, The Scent of Time (and would recommend both). Han I like because he diagnoses better than any contemporary thinker what it is to live in this age of hypercommunication and hyperactivity.
Add Michel Houellebecq’s fiction to the brew, with his identification of twenty-first century masculine bitterness, and you’ve got a decent set of windows to view the condition of our age. But I like Han better than Houellebecq. The latter’s reactionary nostalgia overshadows his understanding of the world to a great extent. In both cases I like to see the world through their eyes, especially when they don’t confirm my own perceptions. I’ve been reading Han’s snappily-titled Capitalism and the death drive, and The disappearance of rituals, the latter perhaps his strongest work since The Burnout Society.
A couple of additions this week: Steve Hanson’s A Shaken Bible and Complicities: British Poetry 1945-2007, purchase of the latter evidence of a further attempt to indirectly approach J.H. Prynne’s work, before reading an annotated edition of The Oval Window.
Today, the arts are increasingly rendered profane and disenchanted. Magic and enchantment – the true sources of art – disappear from culture, to be replaced by discourse. The enchanting exterior is replaced with the true interior, the magic signifier with the profane signified. The place of compelling, captivating forms is taken by discursive content, Magic gives way to transparency. The imperative of transparency fosters an animosity to form. Art becomes transparent with regard to its meaning. It no longer seduces. The magic veil is cast off. The forms do not themselves talk. The language of forms, of signifiers, is characterised by compression, complexity, equivocation, exaggeration, a high degree of ambiguity that even reaches the level of contradiction. These suggest meaningfulness without immediately being reducible to meaning. All these now disappear, and instead we are confronted with simplified claims and messages that are artificially imposed on the work of art.
Byung-Chul Han, The disappearance of rituals, translated by Daniel Steuer
Finding a writer and book that you never knew existed is a pleasing serendipity. Steve Mitchelmore listed with his favourite books of 2021, Gabriel Josipovici’s 100 Days and Ellis Sharp’s Twenty-Twenty.
Steve’s description of Sharp’s book was compelling. I have some resistance to the term ‘autofiction’, but Twenty-Twenty sits in that mode of life-writing that acknowledges the impossible sincerity of autobiography, but invokes the genre at the same time as addressing its fictional nature. The constraint of both this and Josipovici’s book is time, to record daily for a year. Both struggle against the compulsion to write, but succeed in reshaping the autobiographical genre to their needs, in Sharp’s case to rail against the treatment of Palestinians, Zionism and the way in which the Labour Party dealt with the largely unproven accusations of anti-Semitism. Framing his polemic is an elusive listing of books read, films and television programmes watched, meals eaten, and daily appearances of his daughter. Twenty-Twenty is as mesmerising as Jacques Roubaud’s The Great Fire of London, which also addresses the question of how language can be coerced to give an adequate expression of lived experience.
I’ve not returned to Caroline Alexander’s translation of The Iliad. Instead I started reading a collection of Ellis Sharp’s essays: Sharply Critical. I went to the bookshop this week to pick up a copy of Byung-Chul Han’s latest book, Hyperculture, Antonio Scurati’s M : Son of the Century, and Emily Wilson’s translation of The Odyssey. In the post yesterday was a copy of George Eliot’s translation of Spinoza’s Ethics.
The picture at the top is a pastel by Chantal Joffe, which has been much in my mind this week.
“The general de-temporalization leads to the disappearance of temporal sections and caesurae, the thresholds and transitions which create meaning. The feeling that time passes more quickly now than before is also due to the absence of a pronounced articulation of time. This feeling is intensified by the fact that events follow each other in quick succession without leaving lasting traces, without becoming experiences. Because of the missing gravitation, things are encountered only fleetingly. Nothing carries weight. Nothing is incisive, nothing final. There are no incisions. When it is no longer possible to decide what is of importance, then everything loses importance. Doe to the excessive number of possible connections, i.e. possible directions, things are rarely ever completed, Completion requires a structured, organic time. Within an open and endless process, by contrast, nothing is ever completed. Incompletion becomes a permanent condition.”
— Byung-Chul Han, The Scent of Time, (trans. Daniel Steuer)
“Promising, commitment and fidelity, for instance, are genuinely temporal practices. They bind the future by continuing the present into the future and linking the two, thus creating a temporal continuity that has a stabilising effect. This continuity protects the future against the violence of non-time. Where the practice of long-term commitment (which is also a form of conclusion) gives way to increasing short-termism, non-timeliness also increases, and is reflected at the psychological level in the form of anxiety and restlessness. Growing discontinuity, the atomisation of time, destroys the experience of continuity. The world becomes non-timely.”
Byung-Chul Han, Non-Time, from The scent of time (trans. Daniel Steuer)