Idées Fixes of the Week

St. Thomas Aquinas Confounding Averroes (1445-50), Giovanni di Paolo

“Any number of autonomous intelligences traced their fate on the books she made and which were secondary, primal was the documentation of a thinking vibration reflected in a perfectly unknown place and material. Her effectiveness did not depend on memory, but on knowledge. Looking at the writers sitting around the table, she found that this term was empty, and that their images were defined, more than anything, by the position of their gaze, and their abandonment of the old way of reading and writing. Meditating on their fates she saw that nothingness was approaching, but it was powerless. The long narrative that was going to take place did not come from the interpreted description of the lives, but from the evolution of their interior transitions, which might converge, at some points, with the universal adventure, their experimentation and flight.”

—Maria Gabriela Llansol, In the House of July and August

(My impressions of Llansol—to date—mostly posted here and here.)

”                    Again is the sacred
word, the profane sequence suddenly graced, by
coming back. More & more as we go deeper
I realise this aspect of hope, in the sense of
the future cashed in, the letter returned to sender.
How can I straighten the sure fact that
we do not do it, as we regret, trust, look
forward to etc? Since each time what
we have is increasingly the recall, not
the subject to which we have come. […]

I know I will go back
down & that it will not be the same though
I shall be sure it is so. and I shall be even
deeper by rhyme and cadence, more held
to what isn’t mine. […] [W]e
trifle with rhyme and again is the
sound of immortality.”

—J.H. Prynne

Idées Fixes of the Week

“Intellectual nihilism becomes boring in the end because it just seems to be an expression of unresolved adolescence. Moreover, in practise it is tied to a substantive conservatism: all attempts at serious analytical explanation are derided, leaving force and established mores in possession.”

Stefan Collini’s essays on the literary and intellectual culture of Britain from, roughly, the early twentieth century to the present, from which the above fragment comes, are stimulating and thought provoking. I’ve been reading the essays in Common Reading and intend to read his latest Common Writing, before taking in his earlier Absent Minds.

Discovery of Collini’s work is timely as I have little appetite for fiction at present. I found David Bellos’s Is That a Fish in Your Ear? rewarding. Its humour is endurable; lurking beneath is a decent study of the art and ethics of translation along the lines of Edith Grossman’s Why Translation Matters.

Last night, on my way back from listening to Alexander Kniazev & Nikolai Lugansky perform at Wigmore Hall, I listened to a Craig Raine interview on Radio 4. I find Raine’s work puerile but he quoted a letter of Henrich Heine’s that I found both unusual and beautiful. The “macaroni” is a good touch.

“There is nothing new to tell you, my dear Robert, except that I am alive and still love you. The last will endure as long as the first, for the duration of my life is very uncertain. Beyond life I promise nothing. With the last breath all is done: joy, love, sorrow, macaroni, the normal theatre, lime-trees, raspberry drops, the power of human relations, gossip, the barking of dogs, champagne.”

Idées Fixes of the Week

Girl in a Blanket (1953) Lucian Freud

Freud’s captivating Girl in a Blanket appears on the front cover of Henrietta Moraes’ memoir, Henrietta, which I have sampled in small doses alongside Colin Wilson’s Adrift in Soho. I’m fascinated with the louche, hedonistic Soho that stretched between the beat and post-hippie eras. (Moraes called the unfinished sequel to her memoir Fuck Off Darling, which is of course just perfect) Nothing of the Bohemian lifestyle that Moraes and her milieu lived could be tolerated in our age of surveillance, net curtain twitching and consumerism as economic ideology.

I suspect that Michel Houellebecq would’ve fitted neatly in with Morae’s crowd. They would have appreciated his Beckettian mirthless humour, the finest, or at least healthiest, antidote to nihilism. My rereading of Houellebecq’s oeuvre continues, impeded only by my return to wage-orientated labour after four blissful months of reading, travel, navel gazing and walking.

Briefly but intensely compelled to dip into Angela Carter’s work last week, nagged during an insomniac night with echoes of her highly wrought style in the depiction of sexuality in Houellebecq. There are surely broad similarities in the caustic and subversive humour of both writers. I am overdue an immersion once again in Carter’s work.

Idées Fixes of the Week

Caspar David Friedrich – On the Sailing-Vessel (1818)

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*****

Anselm Kiefer: Heaven and Earth. SFMOMA

There is no history. Each human being makes his own history, has his own thoughts and his own world but everyone is alone with his own illusions, with his own methods…I think each human being tries to put themselves in a bigger context. You always create an illusion that you stay longer on earth than you do…That’s what a religion is…This reassures you in a sense in the work because in this world there is no sense. So the scientific process…doesn’t lead to any key to the work….the more we know, more we don’t know. It’s always like this only mythology…tries to explain the world in a logical sense.

*****

Jorie Graham – Untitled (2010)

Of the two dogs the car hit, one, two, while we were talking, and thinking about
how to change each
other’s
mind, the other people’s
survived – dark spot near the front
fender just hair blowing in low wind, a spot all wind’s, then
a stir in the ribs and everything’s rising slow-motion up from the tight small shoulders, the
chest, the
dragging hind end of itself on the dirt
road as if sewing a new strap
back
on, dragging, a long
moment, then the
division occurs and the wide perishing shrinks and the legs
are four again and
up. Not ours. Ours
is placed by gravity on the far bank, as if an as yet unbuilt unimagined house on the
empty field into which
one peers past mist
wondering how will or
concentration or want alone will bring the as-yet-not thing into view. What will it take to
build the
thing? The not yet, not anymore, not
again? That. Wouldn’t the beautiful field be best left
alone? unfilled? No. Now the children are folding
over it and sound
is restored and it is the only human
world, something perished on the road, it was its turn, you have your turn says the road I
stare blankly
at, white dust,
thinking there are words now
that must take the
place of this
creature, and I
am at the point in the road where I, who will have lived, no matter how many thousands
of years in the future come, if they come,
even if there are no more humans then or they have become unrecognisable, I,
even when no rain will have come down
in the memory of generations
so they think the story of such an element is one of the myths, the empty
myths, I still will have
lived this day and all the preceding ones of my
person, mine, as I rise now
to the moment when right words
are needed – Dear moon
this morning I woke up, I thought the room for an instant was a blossoming, then a
burning cell, then a thing
changing its clothes, huge transparent clothes, the ceiling part of the neck, where is
the head I thought, of the year, this
year, where are the eyes of
the years – the years, can we stay human, will we slow the end
down, how much, what do we have to promise, how think our way
from here to
there – and human life survived – and its world – ah, room, the
words – has it been just
luck, the room now wild with winds of centuries swirling floods tectonic plates like wide
bones shifting round me – elephants flow through, all gone, volcanoes emerging and
disappearing just like that, didn’t even really get to see them, pestilence, there, it took its
people, hurricane, there, it took its – ‘you’re a
martian’ I heard the angry child cry out on the street
below to the other
child, and the door slams, and the only story I know, my head, my century, the one where
187 million perished in wars, massacre, persecution, famine – all policy induced – is the
one out of which
I must find the reason
for the loved still-young creature being carried now onto the family lawn as they try
everything, and all murmurs shroud hum cry instruct, and all the
six arms gleam, firm, limp, all over it, caresses, tentacular
surround of the never-again, rush of blood and words, although look, you out there
peering in, listening, to see who we were: here: this was history:
their turn
is all they actually have
flowing in them.

******

Christa Wolf, City of Angels or Overcoat of Dr. Freud

Night thoughts have a different color than day thoughts, a different slant, more than anything else they know all the secret paths and chinks in the armor they can take advantage of to force their way into consciousness.

*****

Ovid – Metamorphoses

No species remains constant: that great renovator of matter
Nature, endlessly fashions new forms from old: there’s nothing
in the whole universe that perishes, believe me; rather
it renews and varies its substance. What we describe as birth
is no more than incipient change from a prior state, while dying
is merely to quit it. Though the parts may be transported
hither and thither, the sum of all matter is constant.

*****

I’ve posted Ginevra before, but she haunts me …

Leonardo da Vinci
Ginevra de’ Benci (1474)

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This Year’s Idées Fixes

My reading orbits an accretion of preoccupations. So far, this year’s idées fixes are the influence of the East on Greco-Roman thought (and by extension, modern thought), Epicureanism, the neo-vitalist/transcendental materialist movement in contemporary philosophy, and asceticism. It may be that the interrelation between these themes are personal, but they appear deeply connected.

Following a question on Twitter I thought I’d compile a list of some of the texts that I’ve recently read and that I’ll be reading over the next few months. Please feel free to make further suggestions of titles that speak urgently to these concerns. These are all complementary to the Urtexts  of Epicurus, Lucretius, and Diogenes Laertius, and to this superb companion.

  • Jane Bennett – Vibrant Matter: a political ecology of things [PDF]
  • Pierre Hadot – Philosophy as a way of life
  • Jane Bennett – The Enchantment of Modern Life
  • Pierre Hadot – The Present Alone is Our Happiness
  • Alexander Nehamas – The Art of Living
  • David Jasper – The Sacred Desert
  • Pierre Hadot – The Veil of Isis
  • Randall Collins – The Sociology of Philosophers
  • David Jasper – The Sacred Body
  • Pierre Hadot – What is Ancient Philosophy?