Britain's first book blogger (November 2000)

Sunday, December 28, 2008

"Blanchot at 100" tribute on video

In November 2007, members of the Blanchot community gathered at Bard College to celebrate, in words and music, the hundredth anniversary of Maurice Blanchot’s birth.
You can now watch the proceedings (in English) at Espace Maurice Blanchot. They include Éric Trudel providing a brief introduction and overview of Blanchot's work, George Quasha of Station Hill Press talking about how he first encountered Blanchot’s work, Pierre Joris reading from The Unavowable Community, Robert Kelly reading a tribute to Blanchot written by P. Adams Sitney, and Charlotte Mandell reading from her translation of The Voice from Elsewhere.

Monday, December 22, 2008

700th post, on Coetzee and the question of philosophy and fiction

I hope the recent flurry created by Two Paths for the Novel, Zadie Smith's landmark NYRB review-essay, is a promise of more to come. More from Zadie Smith and more from the critical ferment her apparent Kehre has begun. Not, of course, that it would be anything new. As Stephen Mulhall explains in The Wounded Animal, subtitled J. M. Coetzee and the Difficulty of Reality in Literature and Philosophy - another must-read due in the early days of 2009 - the difficulty is as old as Western thought.

The formidable extract from Mulhall's book offered by Princeton UP begins with Plato's expulsion of the poets from "the just city, the philosophical republic". The rule was made because, among other things, the poets "engage and incite our emotions while bypassing our rational faculties". Of course, that's why we tend to read poets and novelists rather than philosophers. What's welcome here is that rather than arguing for or against either side of the ancient quarrel, Mulhall (a Post-Analytic philosopher at Oxford) examines the significance of Plato's use of "striking quasi-poetic imagery" and dramatic dialogues "in conveying his message of the superiority of philosophy to literature". He asks:
Is this best understood as an essentially dispensable or ornamental feature of his enterprise? Or as an adroit attempt to turn the resources of poetry against itself, addressing philosophy’s audience in the terms most likely to motivate them in their presently benighted, cave-dwelling state, but in such a way as to bring about their emergence from it, to effect a species of self-overcoming that leaves the literary definitively behind us? Or as a revealing indication that poetry is always already internal to the precincts of philosophy’s republic, incapable of being excised without depriving philosophy of resources without which it cannot achieve its goals?
The same questions, turned around, might be asked of Coetzee's recent novels. Coetzee has upset many, including those who should know better, by engaging in overt dramatising of philosophical (or, more specifically, ethical) questions. In Elizabeth Costello in particular, he seems to be moving towards Plato's relegation of reverie because the work appears to be concerned with these questions and not with providing consumers with the customary daydream of storytelling. Why then, in the most traditional literary way, have I been most moved and thrilled by Elizabeth Costello, and left relatively indifferent (though still moved and thrilled) by the earlier, more traditional novels such as Disgrace?

Mulhall's new book might help me to find a fuller and clearer answer than I am inclined to give here (that, as much as any other, critical and philosophical exigencies can and must be part of a new breed of fiction). "How far" he wonders "is Plato's deeply determining way of understanding the relations between philosophy and literature itself determined by certain ideas ... that any genuine philosopher must recognize as themselves open to philosophical question?". Again, the question can be rewritten for the writer: how far is our understanding of the mesmeric shadows flickering on the corporate publisher's cave determined by certain ideas that any genuine novelist must recognise? What Coetzee has begun seems to be continued by philosophy:
The wager motivating this study is that Coetzee's Elizabeth Costello gives us good reason, as philosophers, to open just these ideas and assumptions to question; but that she does so in ways that can properly be understood only if we understand that our primary relation to her is as a literary creation. The Lives of Animals is an attempt by a master of literature to put philosophy in question; and whatever philosophers ultimately come to think is the right way to answer the questions this text poses, they will have failed altogether to meet that challenge if they fail to take seriously the fact that the questions themselves are at once possessed of a recognizable philosophical warrant, and yet irreducibly posed by and through literature.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Meine Preise update

Suhrkamp has more thrilling information (in German) on its new Bernhard prose work (his own term for his books) due next month. It is a complete work in nine chapters and an appendix.
"According to Thomas Bernhard, the art of exaggeration can also take the form of understatement. In the sense of such understatement, the publication of My Prizes is a sensation."
And talking of Bernhard, don't miss The Chagall Position's excellent post on Bernhard's speech attribution tags. I wonder if Lionel Shriver would approve.

There it was

December has not been blog-friendly to me. The year began with hospitals and has now ended with them. 2009 should offer time for more than linking, perhaps even more book reviews. In the first few months, I'm looking forward to reissues of Peter Handke's early novels (the Slow Homecoming trilogy and Short Letter, Long Farewell), to the heroic translations of Jonathan Littell's The Kindly Ones and Jacques Roubaud's The Loop (part two of The Great Fire of London sequence) and ... and ... to volume one of The Letters of Samuel Beckett.

Such happy wonder leads me back to Fall Day, the first of Robert Kelly's three poems in Conjunctions' Winter 2009 Poetry Festival.
This is the meaning of childhood:
you do not exist. The Count of Monte Cristo
is waiting to become you
he has a sword he has a girl at either elbow
offering him green wine and hashish paste.
You have read about the world now here it is.

Sunday, December 07, 2008

"Sometimes the writer's never there"

The BBC News site has an audio slideshow of Eamonn McCabe's Writers' Rooms series.

(Link via Oliver Gili)

Friday, December 05, 2008

Raw, unmediated Bacon

"There is an area of the nervous system", Bacon believed, "to which the texture of [oil] paint communicates more violently than anything else." Paintings (some paintings anyway) could mysteriously "unlock the valves of sensation" or of "intuition and perception about the human situation"; could, by seemingly subliminal means, evoke a memory trace of raw, unmediated existence. Somewhere behind this lay Baudelaire and Proust, with their different ideas of involuntary memory. But for Bacon (who also liked to cite Paul Valéry: "modern man wants the sensation without the boredom of its conveyance"), to unlock the valves of his own subconscious was to bring up onto the canvas and "onto the [viewer's] nervous system" an apprehension of life or "being-aliveness" as violent, primordial struggle, redeemed only by an instinctive grace, or a stroke of luck.
From Alan Jenkins' review of the Bacon show at Tate Britain. Thinking against the impulse to assume from this that content or subject matter is a guarantor of such apprehension (what we might call The Illusion at 3AM), I'm reminded of Beckett's quarter essay on Joyce: "His writing is not about something; it is that something itself."

Tuesday, December 02, 2008

Linking as away of life

Political
This is not déjà-vu. This is déjà double-vu. And it gets worse.
Robert Fisk remembers the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan and asks Have we learned nothing?

One thing at least: it's best to avoid terminally boring neo-Wieseltier ideologues. Perverse Egalitarianism doesn't however, and discusses Adam Kirsch's review of two books by Slavoj Zizek.

To further confound such people, post a public tribute to Chomsky to mark his 80th birthday on Sunday.

Philosophical
Nearby, Larval Subjects finds a Sony Reader-tastic link to a PDF of Terry Pinkard's new translation of Hegel's Phenomenology of Spirit.

Literary
What is fictional, what actually experienced? What difference does it make when the actual experience is told, and in the telling is given structure and meaning in the manner of fiction? Each of Handke’s previous works have asked these questions in various ways; but of them all, Die morawische Nacht may be the most self-reflexive.
Scott Abbott writes about Peter Handke's most recent novel (though most is behind a paywall).

Following Lionel Shriver's nonsense about punctuation in literary fiction, yet in other ways preceding it, Helen DeWitt wonders how Cormac McCarthy, one target of Shriver's complaints, managed to get his style of punctuation into the published work in the first place, and then tells a hair-raising story of her own experience.

Literary, political, philosophical
Why would someone who has devoted so much of his adult life to the study of politics write a book about loneliness? Isn't it a radical departure from the concerns of polity to focus on a subject that on the face of it has nothing to do with our political condition?
Thomas Dumm writes about Loneliness as a Way of Life. See the PDF extract. Writing?

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