Sunday Notes (Wittgenstein, Kishik, Szentkuthy)

“Be sure not to be dependent on the external world, then you don’t need to be afraid of what takes place in it . . . It is easier to detach oneself from things than from people. But even that is something one must master.”

In Wittgenstein’s Private Notebooks 1914-1916, translated by Marjorie Perloff, we encounter diverse threads that eventually merge in the Tractatus. These notebooks contain early speculations on how Wittgenstein could express his inner life and reveal ideas rooted in an older philosophical tradition. Though encoded, the notebooks oscillate between his work and introspective self-examination.

Wittgenstein’s scope extends beyond critiquing logic and language. His thoughts offer a blueprint for living rightly, a kind of therapy perhaps, echoing David Kishik’s Self Study, where he develops his illuminating concept of autophilosophy. Both thinkers challenge academic philosophy and employ a rich mode of expression, where “philosophie dürfte man eigentlich nur dichten,” usually translated as “philosophy could only be written as a form of poetry.” As Perloff notes, the German verb “dichten” encompasses all imaginative writing, including fiction, drama, and lyric poetry. Kishik’s book aligns with a larger project, To Imagine a Form of Life, which I intend to trace through the four earlier books.

I also read Miklós Szentkuthy’s Towards the One & Only Metaphor, my first exposure to his work, hoping to gain insight into his style of thinking and writing before exploring more of his oeuvre. I read this text with great enthusiasm as Szentkuthy keenly observes and describes the world, intertwining language and thought, merging pragmatic and symbolic elements to create a way of perceiving that irresistibly drew me into his world.

This week, I added a few books to my library: Don DeLillo’s Cosmopolis, Mário de Andrade’s Macunaíma, a couple of Andrea Zanzotto’s works, and Bataille’s Critical Essays 1944-1948.

Uncommon Readers

A genuine interest in criticism is an achievement in creation.

Marianne Moore

In selecting the title for this post, I should point out that it in no way refers to that dreadful Alan Bennett novel, but is a term that Christopher Knight uses to single out three especially perceptive readers: Denis Donoghue, Frank Kermode, and George Steiner. In his book Uncommon Readers, Knight describes these as critics “who bring to their reviews less a position (though positions they have) than an acute intelligence, prepared to be provoked by the last book they have read and to place it at the centre of a discussion that ripples outward.”

Donoghue, Kermode, and Steiner are generally considered rather conservative, anti-theory critics, but such labels are unnecessarily reductive. James Wood is the contemporary public critic placed in a similar pigeon-hole. All three of the former are touchstone critics that I’ll read for their insight into literature, but also because of the lucidity and elegance of their work.

Virginia Woolf in How It Strikes a Contemporary wrote that any common reader possesses the capacity to interpret a text, providing they are willing to be intellectually challenged. Her goal was to create a system in which a common reader is also a common critic. My Links list on the right of this blog connects to several common readers and critics who would fit into Knight’s definition as uncommonly perceptive readers.

Criticism is rewarding when it confirms my perspective, but thrilling when it changes the way I see a book (or film or whatever). These are the critics I turn to repeatedly, not just for their insight into literature, but also for the sheer headiness of their writing: Christopher Ricks, Virginia Woolf, Hugh Kenner, Susan Sontag, Joseph Brodsky, Martha Nussbaum, Gabriel Josipovici, Edward Said, Harold Bloom, Cynthia Ozick, Guy Davenport, Marjorie Perloff, Zadie Smith, and Helen Vendler.

No doubt there is someone significant that I’ve forgotten from this list. Please feel free to remind me, or let me know of the critics you read for sheer pleasure.