This Space

Monday, September 19, 2022

Ultimate things: The Aphorisms of Franz Kafka

Although we are unmusical, we have a tradition of singing
    Josephine the Singer, or the Mouse Folk

The first reason to celebrate Shelley Frisch’s new translation into English of Kafka’s short prose written in the village of Zürau, now Siřem in the Czech Republic, is that this is the first time they have been presented in book form alongside the German. The original is lacking from previously published translations into English: the Muirs’ in 1946, Kaiser’s and Wilkins’ in 1954, Malcolm Pasley’s in 1994, and Michael Hofmann’s in 2006. The second reason is that it is the first time they have been accompanied by a commentary, in this case by Kafka’s esteemed biographer Reiner Stach.

An exception to both is Michael Cisco’s blog and subsequent 260-page PDF made available in 2013, which is perhaps more faithful to the original as Kafka also never published them as a book. 

All this should remind us of the disorder in which Kafka’s work has been otherwise presented in English: multiple editions in multiple translations with only the occasional a sniff of scholarship. Germany has had a critical edition for over thirty years and in France this year a two-volume Pléiade boxed set was published in a new translation with everything Kafka wrote presented in chronological order. It is a minor scandal that an equivalent is lacking in English. Ross Benjamin's new translation of the diaries will provide some mitigation when it's published in January next year.

It is a disorder, however, that was there from the start: disordered chapters of unfinished novels, stories published and unpublished, sketches and parables, letters, doodles, the diaries of course, and, in the case of the aphorisms – Stach describes them as a "chaotic set of notes" – covered in corrections and crossings out. Or, rather, disorder was there from the end – of Kafka's life that is, although he didn't see it quite that way, as the aphorisms reveal. 

No doubt the disorder is why the Zürau aphorisms are nowhere near as well known as the novels and stories, though their brevity and generic uncertainty must be the main factor. In his preface to the Penguin Syrens edition pictured below, Gabriel Josipovici says the notes aren't really aphorisms, and while they may remind readers of "maxims, or parables, or reflections...or tiny stories", they aren't quite any of these either. Such labels, he adds, imply authority and control while the disorder in which they have come down to us and the biographical conditions under which they were written imply the opposite of both. This led to Maurice Blanchot's suggestion that Kafka instructed Brod to destroy his manuscripts because he saw his work “condemned to increase universal misunderstanding”. Destruction is itself a form of order and explains why our fascination with the instruction and its betrayal runs parallel to our fascination with finding order in the work.

The aphorisms were written in the aftermath of the bloody eruption of TB, the breaking off of his engagement to Felice Bauer, and in the shadow of a negligible literary career. On a visit back to Prague, Kafka told Max Brod that his task in Zürau was to "Become clear about ultimate things". Stach says this is an allusion to Otto Weiningers 1904 book Über die letzen Dinge "with which he was definitely acquainted" and which approaches "the pinnacles that defined western metaphysics", listed here as evil, truth, belief and the world of the spirit, and which he did by seeking, as Stach says, "the pithiest linguistic formulation".

Not that this creates an order, as many of the aphorisms don't obviously fit a metaphysical category. Here's Aphorism 2 in Kaiser's and Wilkins' translation:

All human errors are impatience, the premature breaking off of what is methodical, an apparent fencing in of the apparent thing.

I was very taken with this when I copied it into an exercise book during the excited naivete of youth. I don't know why it meant so much then, nor where I read it, as I had access only to the novels, stories and a disintegrating copy of the diaries. While the enchantment of those days has dissipated, the repetition of "apparent" has an appeal I recognise from my later discovery of Thomas Bernhard; a repetition acting, I suspect now, as a reflexive delay to interrupt impatience. Read in isolation like this, an aphorism can lodge in one's memory. Here's another, this time in Frisch's translation:

How can one take pleasure in the world other than when fleeing to it?

Wie kann man sich über die Welt freuen, ausser wenn man zu ihr flüchtet?

Which I need to compare to Pasley's:

How can one take delight in the world unless one flees to it for refuge?

The first translation is more accurate because the German for 'refuge' (Zuflucht) is not in the original. The second I had already memorised and without the extra words I have a curious sense of loss. I borrowed that part for the title of a post on re-reading Blanchot's The Space of Literature, as it challenged the rote understanding of literature as an unproblematic escape, thereby offering a renewed appreciation of the relation of book and world.

Here are the previous translations of Aphorism 2:

Michael Hofmann's:

All human errors stem from impatience, a premature breaking off of a methodical approach, an ostensible pinning down of an ostensible object.

The Muirs':

All human error is impatience, a premature renunciation of method, a delusive pinning down of a delusion.

And Malcolm Pasley's:

All human errors are impatience, a premature breaking-off of methodical procedure, an apparent fencing-in of what is apparently at issue. 

Perhaps instead multiple translations condemn a work to universal disenchantment.

Kafka in Zürau

What's new with Shelley Frisch's translation and Reiner Stach commentary is that the aphorism is given a precise context:

Alle menschlichen Fehler sind Ungeduld, ein vorzeitiges Abbrechen des Methodischen, ein scheinbares Einpfählen der scheinbaren Sache.   

All human errors are impatience, a premature breaking-off of a methodical approach, an apparent use of posts to prop up the apparent objective.

In this case, market gardening in Zürau, which Kafka had witnessed and taken part in during his eight months there. Einpfählen we're told is a word used in horticulture and means "to prop up and stablize young fruit trees ... or as posts to enclose a pasture". (Note the faint repetition of Fehler in Einpfählen in addition to the other one.) As a blogger, I'm well aware that a series of posts may well be an error as they likely prop up a tree of misunderstanding and misappropriation. Such facetiousness is meant not only in jest, as the appropriation of the double meaning leads back to ultimate things

When a historical category loses its meaning and threatens to disappear, an opportunity arises that has a strange consequence.

The first sentence of The Yield, Paul North's book on the Zürau aphorisms, to which he gives order by calling the notes a "treatise", refers to the category "Jew" in Kafka's time as "becoming too diverse to signify one thing" and prompted Kafka and others such as Franz Rosenzweig to rethink it. The general observation is not new: in 1938 Walter Benjamin told Gershom Scholem that "Kafka's work represents a sickening of tradition" and "Only the products of its decomposition are left", both of which echo Weber's notion of modernity's disenchantment of the world. The lack of metaphysical overtones in Aphorism 2 would explain my excited connection as it can be applied to any "apparent thing" of the moment, with the new context giving it a specific action. Aphorism 3, however, takes the theme to a pinnacle:

There are two cardinal human sins, from which all other derive: impatience and laxity. Impatience got them expelled from paradise; indolence keeps them from returning. Perhaps, though, there is only one cardinal sin: impatience. Impatience got them expelled; impatience keeps them from returning.

This is certainly worthy of a commentary, but what can the category Paradise and those listed above mean to readers now if decomposition is complete and the presence of what constituted ultimate things in Kafka's time has disappeared in ours? We may imagine paradise via the old masters, but a tropical beach is more likely to be to the fore in our minds than the Garden of Eden. Reading Aphorisms 2 and 3 thereby encapsulates the experience of reading the 109 aphorisms together, oscillating between intimacy and rejection. 

In recalling my first reading Aphorism 2, I associated it with Josipovici's essay An Art for the Wilderness written to mark the fiftieth anniversary of Kafka's death (and published in The Lessons of Modernism). But it isn't there. Instead, decades after first reading it, I rediscovered his experience of such an oscillation. The essay begins by discussing the discovery of the books we love and those that pass us by because they came at the wrong time. With those we love, "there is always the sense of an instinctive understanding, an awareness that what is lacking is really only the ability to make such understanding fully conscious":

Kafka is the only author I know to whom this does not apply. My own experience may be special in this respect, but I have found that, from the moment I began to read him, I felt at once infinitely close to him and infinitely distant. And ever since that time, as I have read and reread his novels and stories and diaries and notebooks and more and more of the voluminous correspondence that is slowly being made available, I have never had any sense of a gradual growth in understanding.

This experience is one that deserves more attention, and not just in Kafka. The furthest we may find ourselves is in Aphorisms 6 and 54, incidentally closer to the traditional form of aphorism:

The decisive moment of human development is everlasting. That is why the revolutionary movements grounded in intellect, which deem invalid everything that has gone before, are correct, for as yet nothing has happened.

There is nothing other than a world of the spirit; what we call the world of the senses is the Evil in the spiritual realm, and what we call Evil is only a momentary necessity in our eternal development.

As with Paradise, we are far removed from Evil with a leading capital and that of an everlasting spirit, let alone the latter taking precedence over the world of the senses. The ultimate things present to us as literature only; echoes from words become hollow. We may move closer to Kafka if we follow what he expressed in Kafka's famous letter to Brod post-Zürau that writing is "the reward for serving the devil", which then becomes a lament about having spent so much of his life writing and not living: "I died my whole life long and now I will really die." What, we wonder, albeit silently, off the literary stage, is the point of writing in respect of living and dying? Our impatience to answer has become literary appreciation, commentary, interpretation, blogging indeed; a frantic search for labels to prop up what has long since withered. For Kafka, at the end, at the apparent end, writing is an engagement with the sickening categories, their meaning and lack of meaning. The "pithiest linguistic formulation" is then not so much a genre choice as an undoing of authority and control, his words and theirs. Benjamin highlights the form of when criticising hasty theological readings of Kafka's work, such as the castle in The Castle being the seat of grace: 

it is the fact that his books are incomplete which shows the true working of grace in his writings. The fact that the Law never finds expression as such – this and nothing else is the gracious dispensation of the fragment.

Reading the aphorisms and the commentary prompted me to wonder if this oscillation between infinite closeness and infinite distance, an oscillation that is a single experience, explains the comparatively immobile experience of reading much of contemporary literature. When I think of the new publications that have meant most to me over the years, those that prompted a need to speak in response, to understand what the experience meant for me, and by extension for writing, I recognise, despite my confusion about this need – embarrassment even – a pattern of opening onto "ultimate things" albeit in variously indirect and necessarily incomplete manner – Knausgaard's books are the prime example – when I was unmoved by those I supposed I ought to be given how similar they are in many ways (curiously, another author whose surname begins with K may be the prime example here). As modern readers, we are like the mouse folk in the final story Kafka prepared for publication gathering to listen to Josefine sing or, rather, apparently sing, because the narration tells us it may not be singing at all but a "piping" expressing nothing distinct from the common piping of the populace who nevertheless gather to listen in silence (Kafka is almost as explicit about questioning the value of art in his work as in his letters). We seek order and understanding to convince ourselves that the song is real and ongoing, even if both are proof of the opposite. In the aphorisms, nevertheless, we can sense something in the distance, not only in the otherwise decomposed nouns and in the play of images and ideas, but perhaps more deeply in the delay of impatience produced by apparent and apparentscheinbares and scheinbaren – and in the quiet echo of Fehler in Einpfählen, now in an English edition for the time.

Friday, July 15, 2022

A modern heretic

Literature can be defined by the sense of the imminence of a revelation which does not in fact occur.
I used this line, apparently from Borges, as an epigram to an essay in the early days of online writing. I can't remember what book it came from and after searching I found a line from an essay in Selected Non-Fictions that only comes close. Not long before that, I used an entry from Kierkegaard’s journals in the same way:
It is part of my nature to hide my inwardness, and this is part of inwardness.
While this one is at least accurate, I wince now at the ease and innocence with which I plucked lines like these to claim authority for what lacks it without appreciating let alone understanding the background of the key words. I may have half-known that one alluded to the rupture of a profound religious experience and the other to a search within oneself for the divine, but probably not even half. If I had contempt for religious faith, it was from a position of an equivalent faith in secular groupthink that unwittingly appropriates religious experiences and practices, hollowing them out to become baubles on a plastic Christmas tree. In mitigation, I used Borges’ supposed line to suggest what it's like to read the anti-narrative of a Thomas Bernhard novel as it propels itself towards its own fulminating void, while Kierkegaard’s line exemplifies my fascination with the performance of a secret or paradox that reveals and resolves nothing, which I suppose amounts to the same thing.

Perhaps such appropriations are early indicators of a subsequent inward revelation whose occurrence depends on how persistent one is in following the telos of one's buried needs as expressed and concealed by apparently superficial pursuits (reading novels, writing about novels). At least, I like to think this explains why I have been drawn to reading books with theological themes, specifically Gnosticism, such as Willem Styfhals’ book that I wrote about last year. Perhaps it’s due partly to the romance of the noun distinguished by its superfluous double consonant at the start and mix of know, no, and non-stick – the latter leading to one scholar to complain that the word accommodates too many contexts and different meanings – and partly because of Robert Minto's review of my book. (Incidentally, what ever happened to Robert Minto?)

However, Gnosticism attracts me for a specific reason: the idea of tsimtsum, of creation as an act of abandonment by God; an idea that I first encountered in Blanchot's chapter on Simone Weil:

In creating the world God does not set forth something more, but, first of all, something less. Infinite Being is necessarily everything. In order that there be the world, he would have to cease being the whole and make a place for it through a movement of withdrawal, of retreat, and in "abandoning a kind of region within himself, a sort of mystical space" [Gershom Scholem]. In other words, the essential problem of creation is the problem of nothingness. Not how something can be created out of nothing, but how nothing can be created in order that, on the basis of nothing, something can take place[Translated by Susan Hanson]
This may explain that the sense of absence or sense of a revelation withheld remains even as one accepts the psychological and scientific explanations of its presentiment as an epiphenomenon to the evolution of the human brain; an imminence that becomes more pressing when one suspects that such explanations are themselves dependent on such an epiphenomenon. No wonder Van Morrison spits out empiricism in the song. 

Even if I struggle to follow the scholarly discourse on Gnosticism, and have no inclination towards deeper engagement, I have read books with titles like Flight of the Gods, The Religious Philosophy of Simone Weil (highly recommended by the way), and God Interrupted, and am drawn to others such as Tsimtsum and Modernity in a way that I used to be attracted to novels, the latter attraction now painfully diminished as new, much-touted publications have almost without exception led to disappointment or indifference (a novel should only ever be an exception).

It is also why I was keen to read Jerry Z. Muller's biography of Jacob Taubes, a prominent and notorious figure in the revival of interest in Gnosticism in the 20th century and whose quip gives Styfhals' book its title. As a biography, it promises a less demanding introduction to the scholarly landscape, and Muller excels in summarising ideas, such as Taubes' interpretation of tsimtsum (in one of its variant spellings) and why it remains relevant to secular thought:

[He took] God’s self-imposed withdrawal...and turns it from a cosmological image into a process within man himself. Zimzum becomes a divine concealment within human reason, such that doubt about God is part of God’s creation. Doubt and heresy are the natural way of human reason. Reason and faith are thus truly irreconcilable...

Getting to such passages, however, means riding the rollercoaster of Taubes' personal and academic life through 600 pages (including bizarre facts such as that he knew Noam Chomsky and EM Cioran). Many will know already of his first wife Susan Taubes and her novel Divorcing in particular, in which Jacob appears in fictionalised form, and her suicide soon after publication, which Muller says was long planned and not a direct result of Hugh Kenner's harsh review of the novel. You can read more gossip from the biography in Mark Lilla's NYT review and a more in-depth appraisal of his thought by Adam Kotsko

What sets Taubes apart is that he challenged the very notion of theology, only not from the angle we have become used to in the dürftiger Zeit of Richard Dawkins. Theology arises, he says, out of a religious crisis brought on by "a change in circumstances and consciousness [that] rendered the central doctrines, symbols, and myths of a faith less plausible" and a need to make them plausible again. Such a crisis occurred in Christianity when the expected second coming of Christ failed to happen, so what had begun as an "a small group of people awaiting the imminent coming of the Messiah and the end of days" was transformed. Taubes again:

Jacob Burckhardt once remarked that all relation to external reality breaks down if you take certain passages of the New Testament in dead earnest; in these, a spirit is reflected that considers the world to be a strange and alien place. Church and theology have done their best, however, to mitigate and obscure this original Christian experience of total alienation from the world; in nineteen centuries they have transformed an originally ‘nihilistic’ impulse into positive ‘social’ or ‘political’ action.

Christianity in its original form becomes a forgotten heresy as the transformation proceeds, and Taubes wanted to recover the original: "to be truly religious was to be on the verge of heresy." If I am to continue misusing ideas and quotations, we might see this process of crisis and transformation in the individual and collective experience of contemporary literature, I mean novels, in which the sense of an imminent revelation is there in its essence as a book, a narrative to come, in the object itself in the near distance and the linearity of sentence upon sentence we read with varying degrees of expectation; an essence that is also a crisis. Most novels render the crisis as part of the story, which may be why crime fiction is so popular as it elevates and erases the crisis in the pure movement of genre, while what is called literary fiction seeks purity itself, attempting to partake in the unique crisis-value of literature, but which now lacks any sense of crisis in itself, which may also be why we see social and political issues brought to the fore in literary prizes. The transformation of the crisis is thereby complete and has become the preserve of critics and reviewers, a secular priesthood who turn towards worldly concerns to protect themselves from apparent irrelevance – think of Beckett's Molloy using copies of the TLS to keep warm in Winter as it has "a never-failing toughness and impermeability. Even farts made no impression on it". When I said that a novel should only ever be an exception, perhaps that means they should be heretical. Thomas Bernhard's writing, for example, if his name and his work is allowed to stand for all outlying writers, is heretical less in its apparent misanthropy, which is a superficial feature anyway, than in its disturbing and exhilerating alienation from the world, albeit without any adventist hope.

What might heretical mean in a more general literary sense? Bernhard's alienation has often been labelled nihilistic or life-denying, but nihilism needs to be clarified to refute and reverse the label. In his book, The Flame of Eternity, Krzysztof Michalski writes of the threat that "in every moment of our lives all meaning may become suspended". These moments are intervals in regular life but occur so rarely that habit takes over (which links back to my two most recent posts on Proust's In Search of Lost Time). "In this interval," Michalski says, "briefer than any moment one can measure, in this crack, this fissure, this tear—in the blink of an eye—everything is left to question, and a chance for a new beginning arises." This, he says, is the presence of eternity.

From the perspective of life as a sequence of interlinked moments—from birth to death, from breakfast to dinner—this interval, this fracture, this momentary breathlessness is naturally a threat, a sickness, a pathology. We’re sick with eternity: its chronic state is time, its crisis—love and death. But, on the other hand, isn’t it also pathological that we see sickness in the very thing that constitutes the meaning of life, that determines what it means to live? That we take the essential discontinuity of our lives—the fact that life "passes away," "becomes," "flows"—for a sickness to be treated? That we try to fill this gap with concepts, to patch the fracture of every moment with some piece of knowledge, to remove that internal diversification of life with the help of some truth underlying it, and thus to render our lives consistent and comprehensible? It is precisely this pathology that Nietzsche calls "nihilism."

Nietzsche recognises this pathology in the study of history, in science and in Christianity, which contrasts with Bernhard's novels as they go in the opposite direction to concepts and continuity and invariably begin in fractures and fissures. Each novel is an exception. In this understanding, regular fiction is nihilistic as it seeks to render our lives consistent and comprehensible, and with the help of critics, to patch our lives with labels. It's not such a stretch then to compare Bernhard's formal dissidence of modern-day Austria to the ancient gnostic rebellion against the prevailing morality. "The Gnostic spirit that described the cosmos as the place of all evil" Taubes writes "also discovered the limit of the cosmos".

The cosmos is like a prison, but there is a chance to escape from it: there is an exit, there is a way of redemption. The deprivation of all the positive attributes of the cosmos was not simply pessimistic lamentation about a general state of affairs, but a revolutionary act permitting the existence of a beyond: Gnosis was a way to salvation.

What Bernhard presents is something against, even beyond, the limits the world has set, even if his novels do not offer salvation or the inward knowledge of spiritual mysteries. They are instead intervals in Michalski's terms, fascinating in their unwavering committment to fascination, revolutionary acts permitting the existence of something other than the cosmos that engulfs us, sick with habit. And it's not just Bernhard: in another novel by another Austrian (Peter Handke), WG Sebald recognised a "peculiar light which illuminates the space under a leafy canopy or a tent canvas to glisten between words". What glistens, what seems incomprehensible but is there, despite habit, despite all the explanations, is what novels can present to us as intervals, and yet they also "mutely resist what we project on them", as Peter Sloterdijk says of the gnostic gospels, hence the attempts to transform them into utilities for action. 

It is because of such resistance Sloterdijk says the "two towering works" of modern scholarship in Gnosticism that enabled some sense of the "foreignness we are [otherwise] scarcely in a position to appreciate" did so via modern continental philosophy. Hans Jonas, for example, "was able to find the structures of Heideggerian fundamental ontology in the documents of Hellenistic and eastern Gnosticism". I want to suggest something similar: that in order to appreciate the crisis of contemporary literature – the transformation of a crisis – it may help to recognise first that it retains however faintly "the traces of metaphysical revolt" found in the gnostic gospels and to have patience before what is mute rather than allowing the projections of a secular priesthood to transform it. Sloterdijk says Gnosticism presents a "revolutionary new formula for localizing human existence: 'in the world, but not of the world'":

[It] can take place only after the discovery of a 'place' that would not be of 'this world' – still 'here' and yet already 'there,' still in the world and yet already at the non-place.

All of which sounds oddly familiar to what has been transformed into booklovers' escapism.

Quoting or misquoting like this appears to be a long way from the secular groupthink that once possessed my thinking. But perhaps not so far. Muller's biography shows in sometimes shocking detail how Jacob Taubes spent more time stirring things up in his personal and academic life than producing a coherent body of work. He was preoccupied by the writings of St Paul, aspiring to do for his thought "what Heidegger had done for Kierkegaard", but his book on the subject is very short and was recovered only after his death as transcriptions of a lecture series. 

What surprised me to read about Taubes was that, for all his focus on St Paul's thought, he was not interested its theological claims: '"I do not think theologically," he pronounced. "I work with theological materials, but I think of them in terms of intellectual history and actual history. I inquire into the political potential of theological metaphors."' This might be why I am drawn to such books despite having no great interest in religion. And, as an amateur whose work is produced haphazardly and exists on a free-to-air platform, I related to Taubes' failure or refusal to produce of a coherent body of work let alone a Major Work. It was self-destructive, but as he said: "I have no spiritual investment in the world". Willem Styfhals says that when he began studying less canonical German thinkers such as Taubes at a Catholic university, he felt "like some kind of a modern heretic". This is certainly how I felt writing this, and I'm quite happy that burning stakes have been replaced by a deafening silence. On the basis of this nothing, perhaps something can indeed take place.

Monday, July 04, 2022

“Can there be a pure narrative?”

The question opening Maurice Blanchot’s essay The Experience of Proust* has always drawn me back, not to secure a yes or a no, but to keep the question of pure narrative open in its initial uncertainty, perhaps, rather, in its impossibility, as it appears to make reading and writing more vital, more promising, to me at least, than the forms and issues that keep book reviewers and literary critics spinning like whirling Dervishes before a God long since disappeared. This is an attempt to understand why.

First of all, what could pure mean this context? In the very next sentence, Blanchot writes "Every narrative seeks to hide itself in novelistic density, even if only out of discretion", which implies that pure narrative is narrative in itself – perhaps its Platonic form – but that would mean every narrative is pure until the writer begins to write; a form without content, which doesn't make much sense. Gérard Genette's study quoted at length in my previous post, itself seeking answers via Proust, may help here, as it begins by offering three definitions of narrative: 

  • A statement telling of an event or series of events 
  • The totality of actions and situations subject to such a statement 
  • The act of narrating taken in itself

Two are familiar in regular novel reviews (We are taken from Europe to Persia during the political upheavals of the interwar years) while the third prompts the image of an orator reciting the Iliad before an audience, which is why Genette notes that this is the oldest definition and, we might assume, the purest. But there can be no degrees of purity here, and 'act' is a verb rather than an adjective, so the question remains open.

Blanchot essays seeks to understand why the possibility of a pure narrative led Proust, otherwise “so desirous of making books and of being thought of as a writer”, to put a 750-page novel in the drawer and yet hurry to publish Les plaisirs et les jours, a comparatively insubstantial volume of short pieces not likely to make much of an impression – an apparent perversity similar to Kafka publishing Betrachtung that alone would never have led to the word Kafkaesque; a decision all the more curious because Jean Santeuil has so much in common with the novel that gave us the word Proustian: a long and detailed account of the life of a fin-de-siècle upper-class Frenchman that not only begins with the seven-year-old Jean anxiously seeking his mother's goodnight kiss but also descriptions of the famous instants and what they suggest:

Could it be that beauty and joy for the poet resides in an invisible substance which may perhaps be called imagination, which cannot work direct on immediate reality, nor yet on past reality deliberately remembered, but hovers only over past reality caught up and enshrined in the reality now present? It is as though before the eye which sees it now and saw it long ago, there floats divine imagination, which is perhaps the source of all our joy, something that we find in books, but only with the utmost difficulty in things around us. [...]
And is it not more beautiful we wonder, that the imagination, which neither the present nor the past could put into communication with life and so save from oblivion and the misinterpretation of thought and unhappy memories, the varied, individual essences of life—trains and hotel rooms, the fragrance of roses, the taste of stewed fruit, washrooms and roads from which we can look at the sea while, as it were, travelling elegantly in a carriage—is it not more beautiful that in the sudden leap which follows on the impact between an identical past and present, the imagination should thus be freed from time? For the pleasure of that experience is a sure sign of its superiority, and in it I have always put such trust that I write nothing of what I see, nothing at which I arrive by a process of reasoning, or of what I have remembered in the ordinary sense of remembering, but only of what the past brings suddenly to life in a smell, in a sight, in what has, as it were, exploded within me and set the imagination quivering, so that the accompanying joy stirs me to inspiration.
                                                                                               [Translated by Gerard Hopkins]

Pure narrative then would be the divine imagination. But, as these passages show, the problem for Proust is that these transports are presented as moments of reflection and speculation alongside the narrative rather than its divinely guided principle. The instants are neutralised, set beyond the linear progress of Jean Santeuil's life, betraying its inspiration. This is one side of the "experience" referred to in Blanchot's title: the disappointment in writing by a process of reasoning outside of divine imagination – the other side, I presume, being the experience of the instants. If published, he says, "Proust would have been lost". A disconcerting thought given how easy it would have been for Proust to have settled on what he had produced. Jean Santeuil would have become only another grain of sand in the desert of regular novels, with the events of Jean's life comprising "ordinary novelistic material" with the occasional philosophical interlude we have just read; events that are certainly beautifully written and moving to read but soon indistinguishable from other novels with yet more beautiful writing, more interludes, and more moving events borne on the desert winds. A desert may have its own majesty, but it relies on death for its power, which in terms of biographies and regular novels is its submission to a conclusion towards which we as readers hurry, invariably construing the compulsion as pure pleasure rather than as despair.

Instead, Proust needed to write a novel in which death is suspended and neutralised. As Jean Santeuil suggests above, this demanded a novel "without any other matter than the essential"; a novel, in Blanchot's desert-contrasting simile, "made only of those points from which it is formed, like the sky where apart from the stars there is only emptiness". What form might such a novel take?

Blanchot notes that Impressionism, a movement Proust admired in the visual arts, gave him a model. If had he followed the example, however, he would likely have produced a short novel we might now call poetic; appealing for its potential for cystalline beauty and the shining of something intangible absent in more garrulous novels, but one that soon palls as one stalls over yet another fussily worded sentence (see much-lauded "very experimental" writers). Instead, of course, he produced one the longest novels ever published. Pure narrative as Proust conceived it had to be abandoned. But he found a way to justify the abandonment:

He discovered something about the space of the work that had to carry all the powers of duration at once, that had also to be nothing but the movement of the work toward itself and the authentic search for its origin, that had, finally, to be the place of the imagination.

Pure narrative would then be the origin of narrative – the experience of pure time in Proust's case, accessible in the space of the imagination. Blanchot says that Proust came to think of this space as having the essence of a sphere engorged with the impurities of "novelistic density", with the instants passing from buried centre to the bright surface, revealing the origin in "joyful flashes of lightning". By filling the emptiness of the sphere with the material we're familiar with from this and other novels, Proust created a turning world in which what on the surface appears settled only for the instants to disrupt and rewrite memory. We can see this from the very beginning as Marcel emerges from sleep and struggles to recall where he is. Everything around him that was immobile in wakeful hours revolves around him in the darkness – "things, places, years" – so that he has to form and re-evaluate his reality each morning, creating "a song of possibilities" suppressed by habit. It differs from "the unreality of a scintillating space" of purely imagined novels because it is a world very close to Proust's own life, except this is not a roman à clef requiring a biographer to tease out the connections to give us the truth behind the novel but one in which the narrative "happens as if it were fortunately superimposed onto the journey of his actual life". This is the best way to appreciate In Search of Lost Time as a novel: a form in which every apparent truth and every event is subject to re-evaluation as the sphere revolves. By superimposing its revolutions onto the movement of an actual life, it implicates the reader's own life and the potential for uncovering possibilities otherwise buried in their life.

In the one life there are many lives. Alternative lives. Some are lived and others imagined. That is the absurdity of biographies, he would say, of novels. They never take account of the alternative lives casting their shadows over us as we move slowly, as though in a dream, from birth to maturity to death. 

This passage from Gabriel Josipovici's 120-page novel The Cemetery in Barnes is, despite its length, very much in the Proustian tradition of countering the habits into which novels can fall. Our "actual life" can often become a worn-out genre.

Blanchot ends his essay on what Proust produced to erase the memory of Jean Santeuil with another passage that also draws me back to ponder its implications:

There is...something indescribably wonderful in this piece of writing, which has been brought back to daylight and which shows us how the greatest writers are threatened and how much energy, inertia, inactivity, attention, and distraction are needed to go to the end of what proposes itself to them.

Does Proust count as one of Blanchot's "greatest writers" not because (or not only because) of his uniquely beautiful style – "this style of slow curves, of fluid heaviness, of transparent density, always in movement, wonderfully made to express the infinitely varied rhythm of voluminous gyration" – but because he was able to resist generic form despite being a master of it and, instead, in a combination of contradictions, follow the truth and logic of his inspiration – that which interrupts regular narrative and appears, bizarrely, to redeem a life otherwise wasted or lost – in contrast to those who build a foundation on habit and expectation, thereby finding an all-purpose literary alibi?

This is why I am drawn back. The essay on Proust confirms Timothy Clark's statement that Blanchot "offers what is surely the fullest, least idealizing and most detail theory of inspiration in Western literature" in which the "Romantic tradition of attempting to appropriate inspiration as form of human power may be said to come to an end", as "inspiration finds its provenance outside or beyond the consciousness of the writer"; the outside or beyond coming from "both the emerging work itself and, literally, nowhere".

"Nowhere" may be pure narrative, the centre of the sphere; a less joyful version Proust's experience of pure time; "the giant murmuring upon which language opens" as Blanchot characterises it in The Space of Literature, "and thus becomes image, becomes imaginary, becomes a speaking depth, an indistinct plenitude which is empty". This alternative rendering of pure narrative helps me to understand my ambivalent relationship with narrative content, or at least with the sphere of contemporary literature as it bloats into an ever-expanding universe of love and loss so large no privileged instant can penetrate its happy and virtuous surface, and yearn instead for an acultural, ahistorical writing that puts everything into question, including itself. Except Blanchot's Proust confirms my undue haste, as this may require a paradoxical indulgence in both culture and history (which may also justify my advocacy for Knausgaard's struggle). Clark again:

The demand made by the work on the writer is...less to instrumentalize language in a certain way, than, suppressing the urge to personal expression, to impose a certain silence, form or limit upon that 'giant murmuring'.

If I have written my own Jean Santeuil, I have at least the ability to abandon it, although I did hurry to publish my own Les plaisirs et les jour. Yes, it has its moments, I think, and then realise that of course Proust’s novel has its moments too, and look what he made of them. 


*The Experience of Proust can be found in The Book to Come translated by Charlotte Mandell

Wednesday, April 13, 2022

"When now?"

Out of curiosity, I read a few novels that over the last year have received the highest praise on social media and literary podcasts, and have appeared multiple times in newspaper Books of the Year choices and on prize shortlists, and one that even won a prize. I wanted to see what industry and independent opinion considers the very best of contemporary literature written in English, and was surprised to discover there was nothing special or distinct about them; nothing at all. What, I wondered, had thrilled others while, after thirty or so pages of patient reading, my eyes began to drift over words, sentences, and then whole pages? Once again, eleven years on, I asked myself: do you really have an interest in novels?

I soon recognised it had nothing to do with the stories or the humour, passion, skill and intelligence with which they were told, each of which appears to be what draws the high praise, and no doubt deserved for these reasons, but instead the relentless temporal stability in the clear, taken-as-axiomatic delineation between the narration and what is narrated. It helped me to recognise that the foregrounding of the relation between the two is a key factor in what stirs me when reading novels: Dante in the Vita Nuova, for example, if we can overlook the generic uncertainty for a moment, moving between the time of writing and the lost time of a living Beatrice "so mercury jumps like a spark" (as Charles Singleton describes it), or simply the clause in "A quarter of a century, or a day, has passed since I arrived in Jesenice on the trail of my missing brother", the opening line of Peter Handke's Repetition. While this may appear to be a small point, a matter of taste like a demand for realistic dialogue or "relatable" characters, I think it has implications for what fiction can offer and why so many contemporary novels written in English, whether the content relates to current affairs and thereby becomes "as real-time as novels get" (a line used in a recent review), suggesting urgency and the potential for real-world awareness, or is deemed experimental and worthy of our attention and admiration because of the unfortunate cultural prestige this term has developed, nevertheless remain, to me, inert.

To explain why, it may to help to look at an excessive example from Narrative Discourse, Gérard Genette's analysis of the temporal structure of Proust's Remembrance of Things Past which, in Scott Moncrieff’s translation of the title, has become an alibi for wistful nostalgia in the simple delineation of event and its confident narration. Instead, in a single passage, labelled alphabetically in this passage from Sodom and Gomorrah, he finds fifteen narrative sections:

(A) Swann now found equally intelligent anybody who was of his opinion, his old friend the Prince de Guermantes and my schoolfellow Bloch, (B) whom previously he had avoided (C) and whom he now invited to luncheon. (D) Swann interested Bloch greatly by telling him that the Prince de Guermantes was a Dreyfusard. "We must ask him to sign our appeal for Picquart; a name like his would have a tremendous effect." But Swann, blending with his ardent conviction as an Israelite the diplomatic moderation of a man of the world, (E) whose habits he had too thoroughly acquired (F) to be able to shed them at this late hour, refused to allow Bloch to send the Prince a circular to sign, even on his own initiative. "He cannot do such a thing, we must not expect the impossible," Swann repeated. "There you have a charming man who has travelled thousands of miles to come over to our side. He can be very useful to us. If he were to sign your list, he would simply be compromising himself with his own people, would be made to suffer on our account, might even repent of his confidences and not confide in us again." Nor was this all, Swann refused his own signature. He felt that his name was too Hebraic not to create a bad effect. Besides, even if he approved of all the attempts to secure a fresh trial, he did not wish to be mixed up in any way in the antimilitarist campaign. He wore, (G) a thing he had never done previously, the decoration (H) he had won as a young militiaman, in '70, (I) and added a codicil to his will asking that, (J) contrary to his previous dispositions, (K) he might be buried with the military honours due to his rank as Chevalier of the Legion of Honour. A request which assembled round the church of Combray a whole squadron of (L) those troopers over whose fate Françoise used to weep in days gone by, when she envisaged (M) the prospect of a war. (N) In short, Swann refused to sign Bloch's circular, with the result that, if he passed in the eyes of many people as a fanatical Dreyfusard, my friend found him lukewarm, infected with Nationalism, and a militarist. (O) Swann left me without shaking hands so as not to be forced into a general leave-taking.
Which he then aligns with nine temporal positions labelled this time with numbers:
(1) the war of 1870; (2) Marcel's childhood in Combray; (3) a time before the Guermantes soirée; (4) the Guermantes soirée, which we can place in 1898; (5) the invitation to Bloch (necessarily later than this soirée, from which Bloch is absent); (6) the Swann-Bloch luncheon; (7) the addition of the codicil; (8) Swann's funeral; (9) the war whose prospect Françoise envisaged and which, strictly speaking, occupies no definite position, since it is purely hypothetical, but which—in order to place it in time and simplify things—we may identify with the war of 1914-18. The formula of positions is then the following: 

While this provides riches for those wishing to analyse the technical features of narration, such as the separation between an event and its narration, it obscures what presents itself in the separation, whose presence intrigues and stirs me especially when it is becomes a factor in narration, as it does across the expanse of In Search of Lost Time. The presence of the first is very familiar to readers and is indeed what we long for when opening a novel and reading the first line, yet is invariably camouflaged by all kinds of alibis, excuses and mitigations of which Proust's is an ideal example, as it contains the density of detail in its storytelling we expect from any great novel of society, enabling the reader seeking to instrumentalise the purely superfluous pleasure of reading for technical, cultural and sociological advantage. And yet it is also the poorest example, as we can also find in Proust that which Walter Benjamin recognised as "the rudiments of an enduring idealism". The reason why it is more than any great novel of society is its revelation of time, the famous instants in which time is erased, or, rather, in which time is transfigured in its erasure. 

What presents itself then is the question of the time in which the narration of the novel takes place, and which the example above begs an answer. It's a deceptively simple question with an equally deceptive answer: the time the writer is writing on the page. But in taking this answer for granted, we reveal to ourselves that what we demand of a book is an effacement of this time, which also means an effacement of the author. The regular fussing we see in reviews and social media over genre designations and features is a classic example of how narration is not in possession of the author but partakes of something shared; something outside of the jurisdiction of any single reader or writer no matter how much we try to anchor this outside by celebrating a particular author for their "genius". This is why writers prefer to dislodge such praise because they recognise more than anyone that the work is not their own. 

So if in repeating the first two questions opening The Unnamable, Maurice Blanchot asks of the narrator of Samuel Beckett's books "Where now? Who now?", we can ask the third of the narrator of In Search of Lost Time: "When now?". And if Blanchot answers the second question with the neutral, we can answer the third with eternity, if we understand the eternal not as the absence of time but time in its pure state, which is how Nietzsche's eternal recurrence has also been interpreted, a conception which itself presents an intriguing parallel to what is most familiar to us in the effacement of the separation of event and its narration. Indeed, it is what we long for when opening a novel: the unchanging, consoling content, stories recurring each time they are read, perhaps even without being read but recognised as recurring inside the covers lined up before us on a shelf, the awareness of which excites and inspires us with the promise of an escape from the ravages of real time while, at the same time, threatening a profound melancholy in the awareness of the remove of pure time, hence throwing anchors into the deep.

The ability to arouse excitement and alleviate despair forgives the recent novels, their writers and those who believe they are very best of our time and following a great tradition, as they maintain trust in the dissimulation necessary for novels to keep writers writing and for publishers to keep publishing. Despite this, I think of Erich Heller's description of Kafka's The Castle as "a terminus of soul and mind, a non plus ultra of existence" and compare it with Jean Cocteau's recognition that Proust, writing at the same time as Kafka, was on a "blind, senseless, obsessive quest for happiness", and wonder if there are novels being written and published now subject to what presents itself in the time of narrative, whether understood as a terminus or as the possibility of happiness. Is such literature still possible?

Monday, December 27, 2021

Favourite books 2021

If such things matter, and they don't, my book of the year is Peter Holm Jensen’s The Moment. As I wrote in April, it’s one in which the writer seeks “a modest, self-effacing place within the intersection of time and eternity” and can be read again and again for this reason, as one's deepest concerns, otherwise diluted by public pantomimes, take form in the patience of attention. To recognise this again is always a surprise.


Before and after such recognition, I'm often confused by how much Karl Ove Knausgaard’s writing stirs me, embarrassed even, because his books are unremarkable in many ways (the public ways); not remotely what others misunderstand as modernist or, that horrible word, experimental. But I can't deny the same recognition, and it's the intersection taking form in the otherwise straightforward narrative that explains my response to The Morning Star, which stands out among the novels I've read this year.

Time is a constraint on two other of my books of the year: Gabriel Josipovici's 100 Days, the result of a plan to write 100 essays in the 100 days of the first lockdown of 2020 (reaching 83 in the end), on subjects prompted by each letter of the alphabet, and Ellis Sharp's Twenty-Twenty, which presents itself as an autofictional chronicle of each day of the year, following Uwe Johnson's Anniversaries from which 'Ellis' quotes in the early months of the year. Apart from the calendar constraint, the two couldn't be more different: one "deceptively slight, disarmingly circumstantial...a joy to read" as Ben Hutchinson says in his review, the other bitter, unforgiving, bordering on monomaniacal.

They do have one more thing in common: opinions which will upset or confound many. A key understanding of Josipovici's work in general comes when he asks "Why does my heart leap when I see a sculpture (Giacometti) or a painting (Bonnard, Hammershøi) of a figure in a closed room?" And answers that what they have in common is the depiction of limits. He cites other works by Beckett, Sterne, Stravinsky and Stockhausen that affect him in the same way:

So that my equally visceral dislike of the piano music of Schumann and Chopin and the symphonies of Mahler may be explained by the feeling they evoke in me that they are trying to lull my spirits rather than awaken them. And the same with so many novels and realistic paintings and sculptures. But also with abstract art like Pollock’s and Rothko’s, however different they may be, and with purely OULIPIan creations like the novels of Harry Mathews.
What moves me then is the depiction of the outside world, of human beings, which at the same time recognises that it is depiction and not ‘life itself’ and is prepared to press hard to see how far that brings freedom and how far enslavement.

By coincidence, Twenty-Twenty begins with an epigram in which a prisoner in darkness touches the wall of his cell so that "his fingers may tell him what his eyes cannot", which happens to be from Josipovici's 1996 book Touch. So rather than art being, as is commonly presented and understood, a brief and illusory release from the closed room, it is for both in their own way, an enquiry into the possibility of freedom. In Ellis Sharp's case, it is freedom from the prison of British political and cultural life in which local escapism is fine but political possibility is not, hence the culture's elevation of middlebrow epigones to greatness, while those in the great tradition of dissent and art are marginalised. In an entry for February the first, Ellis is reading Ian McEwan's Guardian article on Brexit which, Ellis says, "oozed with the complacency of the globetrotting liberal intellectual". Later, he reads John le Carré's speech accepting the Olof Palme Prize: "Another smug, narcisstic writer, Ellis thought":

'Palme loved being the irritant. Relished it. Relished being the outsider voice,' Le Carré remarked, adding 'And now and then, I have to say, it does the same for me.' David Cornwell an outsider? St Andrew's Preparatory School, Sherborne School and Lincoln College, Oxford. And what could be more banal and conformist than Cornwell's politics? Dutiful mention of North Korea, ISIS, Iran, Russia, China and talk of nuclear threats but complete silence about Israel's armoury, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, events in Yemen. A dutiful assault on 'Jeremy Corbyn's Labour Party' which, had it been elected, would have meant David Cornwell paying a great deal more in tax. The usual generalised reference to Labour anti-Semitism without a shred of evidence. Agreeable reflections about his privileged life as a globetrotter. No mention of carbon footprints or climate catastrophe. A fabulously wealthy old man and potboiler king wallowing in self-satisfaction.

There are 400 more pages like this. It reminds me of Journey to the End of Night when Bardamu says "Every virtue has its own indecent literature". We need more of such indecency in virtuous English literary culture.

Le Carré of course was a prominent signatory of this letter saying he couldn't vote for Corbyn's Labour party because it would be "to surrender in the fight against anti-Jewish prejudice". Note the other signatories and see if you can find any complaints from them about who runs the party now and its treatment of its Jewish members like Diana Neslen and Riva Joffe:

Click on the image to see the tweet

Look at the names again and you'll notice what else they have in common, which brings me to my final book of the year: Didier Eribon's Returning to Reims, a sociological yet often hair-raising memoir of how his sexuality alienated him from the working-class family and community in which he grew up, and how that background alienated him from the privileged intellectual community he moved into. It was published in translation several years ago but I read it alongside Cynthia Cruz's The Melancholia of Class and Catherine Liu's Virtue Hoarders, both published this year. The former is a study of artists who also move away from their working-class backgrounds to find success but find the past casts a long shadow (including Jason Molina, whose songs are also part of Emil's playlist for The Morning Star), the latter an analysis of the class who sign such letters to the Guardian.

What stood out for me in Eribon's book was his account of the "vast offensive" begun in France "to facilitate an organized shift to the right of the politico-intellectual field". Eribon's career at Libération, the daily newspaper founded with the support of Sartre and Foucault, came to end as a result. This process has been happening to the British left, becoming blatant and successful after the election of Jeremy Corbyn, and is something Ellis Sharp reflects in his extensive quotation of dissent from regular civilians and independent journalists using social media and websites, which has been relatively free from this offensive, but now appears to be facing a similar threat. Eribon's memories of his family's Communism are especially poignant in this regard, as he says of his mother: "her dreams in life were not of becoming rich, but rather of light and of freedom". When I read the names of those who signed such letters and promoted the scam, I see them smashing lightbulbs and slamming prison doors. I hope one day they recognise what suffering and injustice they have enabled. As it is, these books are only small cracks in the wall my fingers found in 2021.

Tuesday, December 07, 2021

"Every day I have to invoke the absent god again"*


I really enjoy this YouTube channel despite my general lack of interest in films. The presenter’s restrained voice-over is ideal for one approaching its concerns; imagine a lullaby sung by Werner Herzog. I envy him the medium for its music, its visuals, even its potential for income, but, above all, for the critic's ability to watch a film within a few hours. It often takes me several weeks to read and re-read a book and then another several to excavate something worth saying about it. I wish there were more literary critics (one, even) who asked questions of books as Like Stories of Old asks of films – in this case, why films about a character's crisis of faith resonates so deeply with someone who does not consider themselves religious – and produced something as graceful and moving as this.

Vlogging about books, by contrast, is an abomination. I stare at the talking head and pity the book as its cover is flashed up to the camera like a packet of biscuits. Why do spoken words incline me to think nothing is further from the written word?

Such distance, however, is key. Like Stories of Old’s latest video quotes a critic’s statement that Terrence Malick’s A Hidden Life is a film “you don’t just watch; it’s a movie you enter”. No doubt this is true, as Malick's films tends to be exceptions to my negative opinions about cinema, but it does highlight the critic's instinct to mitigate the primary attraction of film: the passivity of the viewer.

In the shot of Liam Neesom's character crying out into the void (from which film, I'm not sure), I recognise the attraction of the form, and my doubts. We watch in a relaxed silence similar to that of the silence into which he is pleading. We are impressed by his talent for transformation, but we are not beside him; the anguish burning his face is rhetorical hyperbole to mitigate the necessary failure of the form. Contrast this with Javier Bardem's recitation of the old Irish prayer St. Patrick’s Breastplate in Malick's To the Wonder. We watch there too, yes, but, as we are held at a distance from the character, seeing what he sees, we join his search and wonder (which is closer to the experience of reading). The sequence can stand for the entire film, its central relationship in particular, in which intimacy and distance are as one. Meanwhile, the BBC's cheerful film reviewer wants things spelled out like in the press release.

*Hölderlin in a letter to Susette Gontard, June 1799

Sunday, November 07, 2021

The Morning Star by Karl Ove Knausgaard

I began reading The Morning Star without any prior knowledge of the contents, just as I had begun reading every other book of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s since receiving an ARC of the first volume of My Struggle long before he shone above us like the morning star in this novel. This time, however, after having read the most of the opening chapter, a friend happened to mention Knausgaard had claimed it is a horror novel, following the example of Stephen King’s The Stand in which multiple characters narrate their experience of an apocalyptic event. I was then resigned to expect drama to enter the familiar world of everyday Norwegian lives narrated here much like the everyday Norwegian life in My Struggle, which until then I was enjoying in the same way. 


However, now that I’ve read all 666 pages, I can say I continued to enjoy it in the same way, perhaps because no apocalypse occurs, at least in the sense we understand it. What drama appears is not vast destruction but closer to the Greek meaning of apokalypsis: disclosure in the everyday sense and revelation in the theological. In The Morning Star there are only uncanny events in the corner of each individual’s everyday narrative: from excessively warm weather and wild animals appearing in great number, to characters who are apparently alive when they're dead, and, of course, the appearance of a new star in the sky. So comparisons to the horror genre are deceptive, as The Morning Star more closely follows volumes one and two of My Struggle in which the apparent banality of a human life presents itself against a background of absent meaning which is nevertheless forever impending, never quite arriving, no matter how many events promise resolution of the questions they present, which is why it’s surprising that Sam Byers’ very negative review reckons Knausgaard has “enriched” the My Struggle project “with a new and welcome undertow: unnamed dread”. But Unnamed Dread could be My Struggle’s alternative title! It's unname is there in the face in the sea young Karl Ove sees in TV footage in volume one and the sky in Constable's painting in volume two over which he weeps in the realisation that it can be depicted, if not named.

Naming what is unnamed in the novel – attaching public meaning where private meaning lacks – is not only expected by the reader and demanded by the reviewer but inevitable, as a book is defined by its submission to unity, from its title and all the way down through its sentences to its final full stop. The book differs from an everyday human life because the latter's meaning becomes a question only when it becomes a narrative, when something happens: a great love, a break-up, an illness, a bereavement, the loss of a football match; when what happens becomes something outside oneself; a genre narrative. This is why applying labels such as autofiction and horror by writer, reader or reviewer is an avoidance tactic, as it provides a name for the outside where its meaning is otherwise withheld. Byers is inadvertently on the right track when he calls The Morning Star “a literary supernova", which he uses as a metaphor for "the entire Knausgårdian project entering spectacular, all-consuming heat death”.

This is not an idea that has fallen apart in the execution, it’s a novel that dreams of having an idea, a novel that, over hundreds of pages, seeks meaning in everything from the boiling of an egg to the passing of a soul into the afterlife, only to come back empty-handed. [Translated by Martin Aitkin]

Indeed, what comes back is not an idea but the uncanny presence of the novel itself, emphasised here by what Byers calls its "bloated and inconsequential" content. That is, the novel and the Novel (if there is really any difference), an object of obscure fascination, an obscurity named to obscure it; the novel as the morning star, appearing in our heavens where heaven had previously retreated, further brightening what was otherwise already bright but which we could not see until it appeared, under whose blaze we sweat because nothing dies, hence the multiplication of animals and characters who remain alive despite their death, and an artist character whose most distressing symptom of mental illness involves resisting this fact, and in the final chapter an essay "On death and the dead" which nevertheless turns into a ghost story, as if the novel seeks its own end in vain, becoming the ghost of itself.

In 1969, Maurice Blanchot observed that:

Essays, novels, poems seem only to be there, and to be written in order to allow the labor of literature … to accomplish itself, and through this labor to allow formulation of the question "What would be at stake in the fact that something like art or literature exists?" (Translated by Susan Hanson)
The question is unintelligible to us because it is one, Blanchot says, the "secular tradition of aestheticism has concealed, and continues to conceal". Perhaps if we pay closer attention to the relentless, indeed interminable, presentation and inevitable evasion of the question, which Karl Ove Knausgaard fails to evade better than most, we may begin to hear what the ghost has to say.

Sunday, October 31, 2021

The end of literature, part four

This tweet has been seen thousands of times since it was posted on the 82nd anniversary of Britain and France declaring war on Germany. Not that the coincidence means much. At least, no more than what the general population, interest and powerful mean here, or indeed what poetry means. As the hundreds of responses attest, they are generalities enabling a culture to oversee the remnants of what escapes it; that which it either reveres, ignores or dismisses, with an equal lack of consequence. One response is from the Editor-in-Chief of the magazine where Danielle Rose is Poetry Editor. Or was. 

If Paul Celan saw no difference between a poem and a handshake, this is the sucker punch.  

Celebrate, community, passion, vision: words desiccated by a thousand corporate press releases. The magazine's website even refers to world-class volunteers. Words and phrases like this became so notorious under the New Labour administration that robust is now included under W in the UK's Civil Service style guide of words to avoid.

But why should I lump an arts magazine in with neoliberal technocrats? Isn't this an admirable project to spread the value of art as far as possible in society? Well, yes, it is, on first glance. 

Catherine Liu writes about another project admirable on first glance. After Barack Obama became US president, To Kill a Mockingbird returned to the school curriculum. Here is the definition of literature we can accept as having genuine power, as it teaches readers "a critical lesson about literature and empathy". Obama was keen for the return because, he said, reading allowed him to put himself in "someone else’s shoes" and as such was paraphrasing the novel's hero Atticus Finch who despite the anger and hatred directed at him defends a black man accused of raping a white woman. The novel has become a document of the postwar progression towards a fairer society culminating in the election of a black man as president. The New York Times' chief book reviewer even called Obama the reader-in-chief: "He was liberalism’s dream come true", Liu writes, with the return of To Kill a Mockingbird to the curriculum emblematic of a return to progress: "Atticus was not just genteel and antiracist but he was the most virtuous member of his community...the ethical center of a barbaric and racist world." And so Obama. 

Except, Liu observes, there was no "massive reinvestment in public schools and public universities" to match that of the past because the Obama administration "wanted to revive the early 1960s era of high liberalism, but in style only". And style, like Barren Magazine's managerial vocabulary, is everything. During Obama's presidency, he deported more undocumented immigrants than any other president before him, dropped over 100,000 bombs on eight different countries, including white phosphorus and depleted uranium, ramped up drone executions and the persecution of whistleblowers, bailed out Wall Street while thousands of his supporters lost their homes, overthrew the elected goverment of Honduras, put white helmets on the terrorists destroying Syria, and continued military and financial backing of the apartheid state to the south. So while he outdid the crimes and brutal policies of his graceless Republican predecessor, his elegance and literary sensitivity enabled liberals to see only a reflection of their admirable intentions, just as the female secretary of state reflected their proud feminist principles despite her decisive role in the Honduran coup, as called out by indigenous activist Berta Cáceres, who was assassinated soon after.

So, while there was the impression that the value of art was being used to uplift society, Liu says Harper Lee's novel fits in perfectly with the superficial stylings of liberalism as it "is filled with hatred of the angry, defiant, pleasure-seeking poor white people represented by the awful Ewells", promoting "the idea of the deserving poor and the undeserving poor". Obama's educational reform in which literature played its part was instead "a euphemism for an ongoing war against unionized workers and the lower ranks of white-collar professionals."

With more than half of American children having experienced public assistance at some point or another in their short lives, it seems sadistic to make them read a novel about a noble, virtuous lawyer and the evil public assistance–abusing poor people trying to kill his family. If poor ninth graders pay attention in their language arts classes, they must feel humiliated by their family’s willingness to take what the worthy poor of Harper Lee’s novel refuse.
The perception of this administration's virtue is a classic case of vertical solidarity: a black man and a woman in positions of power received PMC backing because they were examples of enormous social progress that also enables them to unsee the profound suffering caused by their policies, or, no better, to blame the victims. Liu notes a truth obvious to everyone outside the liberal bubble that the electorate's subsequent disillusionment with Mr Hopey-Changey "hardened into reactionary antiauthoritarianism" soon exploited by Donald Trump and, in the UK fed up with the neoliberal consensus, the campaign to leave the EU.

The connection between this and the question of whether poetry has any power is that the literary arm of the PMC has slowly taken over online literary coverage to instrumentalise it for professional and virtuous purposes. Hence the title of Catherline Liu's book:

The PMC as a proxy for today’s ruling class is shameless about hoarding all forms of secularized virtue: whenever it addresses a political and economic crisis produced by capitalism itself, the PMC reworks political struggles for policy change and redistribution into individual passion plays, focusing its efforts on individual acts of “giving back” or reified forms of self-transformation. It finds in its particular tastes and cultural proclivities the justification for its unshakable sense of superiority to ordinary working-class people. If its politics amount to little more than virtue signaling, it loves nothing more than moral panics to incite its members to ever more pointless forms of pseudo-politics and hypervigilance.

This might be the job description of the editor of the Guardian's book pages, whose agenda, summed up by the final sentence, influences so many as they search for authority in an otherwise marginal medium (a white male announced not long ago that for the next twelve months he would "read only books by women of color". Catherine Liu again: 'Liberal members of the credentialed classes love to use the word empower when they talk about "people," but the use of that verb objectifies the recipients of their help while implying that the people have no access to power without them.')

I've written before about the takeover but have hesitated to approach the subject again partly because it is a game lost in advance in a culture that is passionate about celebrating a diversity of voices guiding readers toward the rhetoric of humanism in which literature is vehicle for all the hyphenated selves: definition, expression, assertion; ideal for a form in search of a certain kind of power or a mirror, mirror on the wall


The other reason for hesitation is because it appears to be impossible to discuss the alternative. In an essay on the rise of paperback culture in the 1960s, Maurice Blanchot notes that a culture always requires a limit leaving "an outside in relation to which and in opposition to which we come together and take refuge in our apparently limitless freedom". He summarises the outside as that which is resistant to universal comprehensibility, something "we reject without knowing it" but whose exclusion is necessary for assimilation to take place, enabling communal self-congratulation on an historic victory over elitism. The emergence of affordable paperbacks enabled the circulation of all kinds of ideas new and old. On first glance, this also appears to be a progressive move, but, as Will Large explains in more detail, it might not be so straightforward: 

Today we feel that we can comprehend, debate and discuss everything. There is nothing that we could not publish, no idea that cannot be explained and made digestible to the public, from quantum mechanics to the late thought of Heidegger. Have we not thought more than ever before? Is not our culture a great thinking engine, and are not our heads simply bursting with ideas? But the more we know, the more everything has become ‘clearly and accessibly written’, the less what really matters is thought. For everything that is difficult has to be stripped out by necessity. ‘Difficult’ here does not just mean complicated, so that all the mathematical equations have to be taken out of the introductions to modern physics, but what cannot be thought, or what is not allowed to be thought. This is not a question of censorship, for there is no censorship on the great conveyor belt of books, but something much worse. The more we understand the less we understand what cannot be understood.

Culture is thereby a "powerful collective machinery that silently and imperceptively, day and night, pursues its task" of assimilation, even of the most unlikely work. Blanchot's topical example is the "happy surprise" of the top literary commentators when they reviewed a translation of a book by Trotsky. They discovered not a dangerous revolutionary but a "true man of letters" like themselves and whose statement that "everything is permitted in art" could be used against the "communist exigency", which, Blanchot notes, thereby reduces the meaning of such freedom to nothing. A work's power becomes indistinguishable from the building blocks of genre fiction.

In recent years, the sense of what not being able to understand what cannot be understood has preoccupied my experience of reading and so the focus of posts such as A walk in the park and The withdrawal of the novel. It might be conveniently called the outside, but this is a miserable cliché and better defined by Joseph Kuzma in his summary of Blanchot's characterisation of the Freudian unconscious "as a radical exteriority":

something that is not only indeterminate and unknowable, but that pulls man outside himself, outside everything he believes himself to be, outside everything that would comprise for him a center irreducible otherness that precedes any installation of identity – an obscurity more ancient than even the most primitive form of outside that is neither another world nor a hidden world. 

While we may recoil from such hyperbole as it is a long way from the everyday experience of reading, it does suggest that the literary pages' fixation on the social identity of an author and how a work tackles current affairs in its subject matter is a sublimated accommodation of the pull of the outside, with the subsequent proliferation of virtuous reading plans proving them right. The blurb for a forthcoming book expresses this reserve in terms of assimilating world events:

Durs Grünbein argues that we are faced with the powerlessness of writing and the realization, valid to this day, that comes from confronting history. As he muses, “There is something beyond literature that questions all writing.” 

For Blanchot, that something beyond is literature itself: a work's "irreducible distance" is that which the culture of assimilation can grasp "only as a lack – a lack in ourselves, a lack in the work, and a void of language". We can see this in the anxious and patronising jurisdiction provoked by Danielle Rose's tweet. Blanchot suggests an alternative follows from Trotsky's claim that "the new art will be an atheistic art" but in which the God under whose protected we remain is Humanism. He wonders "(by which improbably heresy?)" we may leave "the enchanted knowledge of culture". Perhaps the parentheses around the question as much as the question itself is where Blanchot opens a space for us to continue.


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