Voice of Mourning

Christ's Descent into Limbo (c. 1470) - Andrea Mantegna

Christ’s Descent into Limbo (c. 1470) – Andrea Mantegna

Like King Charles’ head, Friedrich Nietzsche is always intruding in Thomas Mann’s Doctor Faustus. Nietzsche functions as a talisman in Doctor Faustus, a deeply Romantic novel suffused with parodic twists. A talisman acts as a battery for some type of force or energy, or what David Winters  describes as ‘a charm that we clasp to our hearts’. At risk of overextending the metaphor, that’s not a bad description of how I feel about Mann’s Doctor Faustus, which has rarely left my side for the last month.

‘Recognition,’ writes Rita Felski, ‘comes without guarantees; it takes place in the messy and mundane world of human action, not divine revelation.’ Doctor Faustus is by no means a perfect novel (whatever that might resemble). Its narrative frequently drags, sometimes almost intolerably. But there is also a deep intoxication at being absorbed in a novel that reveals, or at least tries to reveal, the rhythm of life.

As I read the last few highly charged chapters, set aside the finished book, and spent an hour gazing into the woods, I sense almost imperceptibly that my perspective is altered. The very best of fiction has this talismanic effect. Doctor Faustus, like Mann’s The Magic Mountain is one of the most intense, powerful reading experiences of my life. I am thrilled that it is over. I am mourning that it is over.

Disturbing Fiction

It must have been at thirteen, fourteen at most that I found a piece of fiction both repugnant and riveting in equal measure. I remember the fiction. It was Kafka’s The Metamorphosis. Perhaps I was too young to read Kafka, or maybe already too old. The word repugnance is fitting with its late Middle English sense of offering resistance, from the Latin repugnant opposing.

After the horror of Gregor Samsa’s transformation and death in The Metamorphosis comes the chillingly cold final pages when the mood lightens and the family head out for a stroll, equally transformed and full of joy. I still recall the terrible loneliness and vague anxiety that came over me as I read those pages and threw the book aside, resisting to the end its abominable conclusion. Then, the same day I picked it up and read from the beginning again. And again; each time the same feeling of terrible anxiousness.

It fascinates me, how these twenty-six squiggles on a page can induce such sensation. Thomas Bernhard’s fiction does the same thing, and, more recently Jens Bjørneboe’s Moment of Freedom, which I set aside six days ago, more repelled than compelled. But it has been on my mind all week, and last night I submitted, allowing its moments of acute brilliance to overcome my opposition.

In Rita Felski’s Uses of Literature, she writes of being transfixed by Sartre’s Nausea, a text I read annually for its intellectual and visceral force, like an assault. Felski writes, “Here, indisputably, was the literature of extremity, of what Foucault and others call “the limit experience,” a bracing blend of solipsism, paranoia, brutality, and despair, where the standard supports and consolation of everyday life are ruthlessly ripped away.”

Solace Through Reading

It seems to me that literary critics fall into two groups. There are probably more, but for the sake of this post, two will do.

Most aspire to emulate nineteenth century men of letters, bloviating endlessly, mostly, it seems to me, to force some tendentious idea of fiction down readers’ throats. (Think James Wood, with his obsession for a form of realism.) They write the same review over and over. Read one, you’ve read them all. Why do the exist in their legions? Perhaps for those timorous readers that don’t have an opinion until they’ve been told what to think. When I read their reviews I think of a bad-tempered, constipated man (they are always men) hunched, muttering as they two-fingerly punch the keyboard, before sitting back to bask in applause (and their payment).

Then there are those rare creatures like David Winters and Rita Felski who simply must read, for whom reading, and thinking about literature, and writing about the books they love, is as necessary as breathing. To quote a line from David Winters’s superb introduction to Infinite Fictions, “I’ve tried to rationalise my critical practice, but finally it’s about something basic and frail: art as solace.” Or as Rita Felski writes in her brilliant Uses of Literature, “Reading may offer a solace and relief not to be found elsewhere, confirming that I am not entirely alone, that there are others who think and feel like me. Through this experience of affiliation, I feel myself acknowledged; I am rescued from the fear of invisibility, from the terror of not being seen.”

In my last post I wrote about the part literature plays in my life as a project of disburdenment. Of near equal importance is this act of solace. We exist but did not choose existence. Existence transcends reason. It is inexplicable, absurd. What to do but seek the refuge of another mind, in the only way we can attempt to inhabit another mind: through literature.

As David Winters writes, “I’ve never known who I am [..] Reading is really a dual movement: books allow us to withdraw from the world, while bringing us back toward it. In reading we disappear, and yet we resurface.”

Disburdenment Through Reading

This recent piece in the LA Review of Books seized my attention, and as a consequence I’m reading Uses of Literature. It is one of those rare books of literary criticism, if you are fascinated as I am by the phenomenon of reading, that thrills quite as much as the books under its consideration. 

Of all the reasons I read, Rita Felski captures, in the following fragment, possibly the most important-to me anyway-reason to read, that of disburdening ourselves of those blind spots that come to us through birth, class, gender, colour, sexuality, or any other of the many ways we arrive at who we are.

The Lacanian picture of the child gazing entranced at its own idealized self-image thus falls notably short as a schema for capturing how literature represents selves. The experience of reading is often akin to seeing an unattractive, scowling, middle-aged person coming into a restaurant, only to suddenly realise that that you have been looking into a mirror behind the counter and that this unappealing-looking person is you. Mirrors do not always flatter; they can take us off our guard, pull us up short, reflect our image I. Unexpected ways and from unfamiliar angles. Many of the works we call tragic, for example, relentlessly pound home the refractoriness of human subjectivity, the often disastrous gap between intentions and outcomes, the ways in which persons commonly misjudge themselves and others. We can value literary works precisely because they force us – in often unforgiving ways – to confront our failings and blind spots rather than shoring up our self-esteem

Rita Felski, Uses of Literature. Blackwell Publishing, 2008