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Sunday, June 23, 2024

Kafka's great fire

The centenary of Kafka's death was marked twelve years late. His diary records it in September 1912:

This story, The Judgment, I wrote at one sitting during the night of the 22nd-23rd, from ten o'clock at night to six o'clock in the morning. I was hardly able to pull my legs out from under the desk, they had got so stiff from sitting. The fearful strain and joy, how the story developed before me, as if I were advancing over water. Several times during this night I heaved my own weight on my back. How everything can be said, how for everything, for the strangest fancies, there waits a great fire in which they perish and rise up again. How it turned blue outside the window. A wagon rolled by. Two men walked across the bridge. At two I looked at the clock for the last time. As the maid walked through the anteroom for the first time I wrote the last sentence. Turning out the light and the light of day. The slight pains around my heart. The weariness that disappeared in the middle of the night. The trembling entrance into my sisters' room. Reading aloud. Before that, stretching in the presence of the maid and saying, I've been writing until now. The appearance of the undisturbed bed, as though it had just been brought in. The conviction verified that with my novel-writing I am in the shameful lowlands of writing. Only in this way can writing be done, only with such coherence, with such a complete opening out of the body and the soul.   [Translated by Joseph Kresh]

The story and its importance for Kafka has always intrigued me because its mundane setting and the petty concerns of the protagonists are hardly earth shattering, with the Freudian red flags, the extremity of the father's sentence and Georg's immediate self-execution suggesting a drama overdetermined in its compression: social realism and absurdity squash up and cancel each other out. What is left?

Gabriel Josipovici's review of the recent book collecting Kafka's drawings offers an understanding of what distinguishes The Judgment from what came before. He shows that the drawings are in keeping with his writing of the time such as in Betrachtung/Contemplation in which "what happens is governed not by the conventions of fin-de-siècle storytelling but simply by the feelings of the protagonist". In the drawings it takes for the form of "ludicrously tall or squat people stretching, twisting, leaning from or away from one another". What's notable for Josipovici is that Kafka more or less stopped drawing after that September night. Until then both writing and drawing came relatively easily, but it was precisely such ease that was the problem: 

Writing [dependent on feelings] may initially feel promising, but it soon palls. If I have simply to write something down to summon it into being, if everything depends entirely on my mood as I write, then what is the point of writing anything at all?

The point of writing for many is to win the world's favour, to be admired, fêted at literary festivals. Kafka had recognised it himself when as a child he tried to impress his family by writing a story in front of them, which, after some overt attention seeking, was dismissed by an uncle as "the usual stuff".

It is one of the clichés of our time that we all have our stories to tell. But Kafka tells us here that such stories are always self-serving, created by us to protect ourselves from reality and out of the desire to "shine"...
Kafka wanted something less tangible, as his reticence to follow the paths of his celebrated writers among his friends suggests:

What he is after in his writing, he notes in January 1911, is "a description in which every word would be linked to my life, which I would draw to my heart and which would transport me out of myself."

If Kafka was "made of literature" as he told Felice, then the story and Georg's suicide is Kafka's transport out of literature:

He has discovered that while words are far more recalcitrant than drawing, it is only in the art of words that narrative can be produced and can then turn against itself and uncover its corrupt origins and motivations. By so doing it reveals its beneficent and healing power: the power to speak the truth about our desires and the world of others. By writing stories that dramatize writing and the fantasies of the imagination and then dramatizing their destruction, he escapes the realm of fantasy, of solipsism.

The final sentence here compresses a question that has preoccupied me for a long time: how does one escape genre? In Kafka's terms, how does one turn out the light of the self for the light of day?

Four years ago I wrote that JM Coetzee's The Death of Jesus might be characterised as the last novel, as it took form and content into a limbo of indeterminate clarity. It dramatises the fantasties of genre fiction in which otherwise we find freedom and safety, and does so to the point of sabotaging both, hence the consternation of professional critics. Could it be in its own way a three-volume decompression of The Judgment? The trilogy leaves us exposed to the open much as Kafka's story does; a kind of metaphysical exile, as Robert Pippin's calls it. It may also follow Josipovici's description of The Judgment as "a ritual of exorcism", reinforced by the name in each title. This potential to strip literature of its layers of protection from the outside is invariably missed, repressed or misunderstood because it is soon absorbed into the process of literary evaluation. We can see it in the celebrations of the belated centenary in collections such as this one subtitled Ten Kafkaesque Stories.

What happens when some of the most original literary minds of today take an idea, a mood or a line from his work and use it to spark something new?

How about a great fire for the vanities of fiction in a complete opening out of body and soul?

From a future society who ask their AI servants to construct a giant tower to reach God; to a flat hunt that descends into a comically absurd bureaucratic nightmare; to a population experiencing a wave of unbearable, contagious panic attacks, these ten specially commissioned stories are by turns mind-bending, funny, unsettling and haunting.

Oh right, the usual stuff.

Sunday, June 02, 2024

39 Books in one

For anyone interested (you there in the phone box), here's a PDF of the 39 Books series.

As the introduction explained, the books were chosen from those on my books-read lists that I hadn't written about before. I thought it might be instructive to contrast the books I did write about for each year. Before 2007, I wrote elsewhere and almost all reviews are now behind paywalls or offline due to webzines becoming defunct. After 2006, I wrote exclusively on this blog, barring Tao Lin's first novel which I found on Wayback Machine; included because I like the review's title. 

JM Coetzee – Diary of a Bad Year
Tao Lin – Eeeee Eee Eeee

Jeanette Winterson – The Stone Gods
Thomas Glavinic – Night Work

Dag Solstad – Novel 11, Book 18
Jonathan Littel – The Kindly Ones
Jean Echenoz – Ravel
Nick Cave – The Death of Bunny Munro
JM Coetzee – Summertime

Gabriel Josipovici – What Ever Happened to Modernism?
Paul Celan / Ingeborg Bachmann – Correspondence
Mathias Énard – Zone
Thomas Bernhard – My Prizes

Peter Handke – Across, Repetition, and The Afternoon of a Writer
Judith Hermann – Alice
Pascal Quignard – The Roving Shadows
Geoff Nicholson – The Lost Art of Walking
Jeffrey Lewis – The Meritocracy Quartet
Thomas Bernhard – Victor Halfwit
Samuel Beckett – Letters 1941-1956

Lars Iyer – Dogma
Gabriel Josipovici – Infinity
Edouard Levé – Suicide
Karl Ove Knausgaard – My Struggle vol. 1
Sinéad Murphy – The Art Kettle
Enrique Vila-Matas – Dublinesque
Karl Ove Knausgaard – A Time to Every Purpose Under Heaven
Nicolas Cauwe – Easter Island: The Great Taboo
Paul Auster – Winter Journal

Lars Iyer – Exodus
Karl Ove Knausgaard – My Struggle vol. 2
Miguel de Beistegui – Proust as Philosopher
Michel Laub – Diary of the Fall
Reiner Stach – Kafka: The Years of Insight

Ágota Kristóf – The illiterate
Karl Ove Knausgaard – My Struggle vol. 3
Lars Iyer – Wittgenstein Jr
Tao Lin – Taipai
Georges Bataille – Prehistoric Painting: Lascaux or the Birth of Art

Jen Craig – Panthers and the Museum of Fire
Jeff Fort – The Imperative to Write
Gabriel Josipovici – Migrations
Ellis Sharp – Lamees Najim
Jill Stauffer – Ethical Loneliness

Thomas Bernhard – Goethe Dies
Charlie Hill – Stuff
Karl Ove Knausgaard – My Struggle vol. 5

Enrique Vila-Matas – Vampire in Love
Mathias Énard – Compass
Gabriel Josipovici – In a Hotel Garden
Rainer J. Hanshe and Federico Gori – Shattering the Muses
Karl Ove Knausgaard – Autumn
Peter Handke – To Duration

JM Coetzee – The Childhood and Schooldays of Jesus
Sarah Kofman – Smothered Words
Gabriel Josipovici – The Cemetery in Barnes
Dante – Vita Nuova
TJ Clark – Heaven on Earth: Painting and the Life to Come

Josef Czapski – Lost Time: Lectures on Proust
Kirsty Gunn – Caroline's Bikini
Ágota Kristóf – Yesterday
Mary Costello – The River Capture
Lars Iyer – Nietzsche and the Burbs

JM Coetzee – The Death of Jesus
Sam Pink – The Ice Cream Man and other stories
Gert Hofmann – Veilchenfeld
Willem Styfhals – No Spiritual Investment in the World

Peter Holm Jensen – The Moment
Sam Riviere – Dead Souls
Darren Allen – Drowning is Fine
Karl Ove Knausgaard – The Morning Star

Jerry Z. Muller – Professor of Apocalypse
Jean-Luc Champerret – The Lascaux Notebooks
Franz Kafka – The Aphorisms

Ellis Sharp – Month of the Drowned Dog
Lars Iyer – My Weil
Jen Craig – Wall
Kevin Hart – Maurice Blanchot on Poetry and Narrative
Richard Ford – Be Mine

Saturday, June 01, 2024

39 Books: 2023

This is the 39th and final post of this series. As the introduction explains, I began seeking a return to the short-form of the early days of blogging. And it started off well, with each entry written in no time, sometimes stirring up the sediment of initial enchantment. As I got to the later stages, however, questions arose, answers were inadequate, and freedom became confinement. In effect, 39 Books compresses twenty years of this blog into five weeks. There was also a secret hope that on completion I could put an end to this kind of writing, to escape the fortress that became a prison cell. Into what?

"Perhaps there are other forms of writing," writes Kafka to Max Brod, "but I know only this kind."

Except Kafka was talking about night writing:

This descent to the dark powers, this unshackling of spirits bound by nature, these dubious embraces and whatever else may take place in the nether parts which the higher parts no longer know, when one writes one’s stories in the sunshine.

The letter was written after a night in which Kafka had lain sleepless in the spa town of Planá during which he says it became clear to him "on what frail ground or rather altogether nonexistent ground I live". 

In 2023 I read Kari Hukkila's One Thousand and One translated from the Finnish by David Hackston, a novel written over such frail or nonexistent ground. The narrator is also in a spa. The cabin in the countryside in which he planned to escape finally to write what he needs to write had been damaged by fallen trees, so he sleeps in the sauna. What he writes from an uncertain elsewhere is patterned by such interruption. There are several in the first quarter of the book only: he visits Mara, a philosopher friend who has interrupted his life in Helsinki to live in Rome and who shares his ideas about Wittgenstein's life and work, itself full of self-imposed interruptions, a discourse interrupted by an irrational quest to find an Ethiopian illegal immigrant who had introduced lice into his bed after a one-night stand, both of which lead to a discussion of the poet Gunnar Björling who lost his life's work in a wartime bombing raid.

Readers may recognise that meandering between diverse and often melancholic stories of outsiders is a key technique of WG Sebald's novels, especially in The Rings of Saturn, as is the telescopic framing of the telling, notably in Austerlitz, itself a key technique of Thomas Bernhard's novels, as Sebald admitted with some concern, as is the displaced writer, such as Franz-Josef Murau also in Rome, so for those who revere Sebald's novels and reflect on what might have been had his life not been interrupted, One Thousand and One may provide the consolation of continuity. 

But for all of the pleasure of reading this novel and admiring Hukkila's weaving of the narrative strands, I couldn't help wonder what might interrupt the elegant spirals of the novel, or indeed if anything could.

Mara's talk of Wittgenstein reminds the narrator of how for the latter "the ideal and the self-destructive are irreparably intertwined". During his composition of the Tractatus, he deliberately put himself in extreme danger on the eastern front during the first world war:

And it was over the course of those days and nights, Mara believed, that the Tractatus started to change, though its exact wording only burst onto the page a month or two later. As though it had a life of its own, Wittgenstein's work had expanded from the foundations of logic to the very essence of the world...As if the foundation of logic itself had been the target of nocturnal enemy fire and was transfigured by something that helped it survive. There were things in the world that simply made themselves manifest, they could not be put into words. Life is the world, and the meaning of life is the meaning of the world.

A novel is neither life nor world, so what does it make manifest? Perhaps an ideal that, despite the descent to the dark powers, despite the many violent stories and stories of violence, can neither interrupt nor destroy itself. What helps it to survive?

Friday, May 31, 2024

39 Books: 2022

"Hölderlin...asked only that we accept silence as the one meaningful syllable in the universe."

This line from Paul Stubbs' remarkable essay collection The Return to Silence is not an epigram to Marjorie Perloff's Infrathin: An Experiment in Micropoetics, but it might have been.

After being invited to talk about Eliot's Four Quartets, about which she is not overly keen except for parts of 'Little Gidding', Perloff wonders what accounts for their continuing popularity. She rejects their 'musical' structure as the reason because other modernist poets wrote fugues and quartets without such acclaim, and she rejects the Christian symbolism as not being especially original or memorable. Instead:

It is, I would submit, at the microlevel that the brilliance of ‘Little Gidding’ manifests itself. As an examination of the revisions bears out, every phoneme, every morpheme, word, phrase, rhythm, and syntactic contour has been chosen with an eye to creating a brilliant verbal, visual, and sound structure.

She asks us to consider the famous opening line "April is the cruellest month":

Suppose it were ‘April is the darkest month’ or the ‘harshest month’ or the ‘worst month of the year’? Would the effect be the same? And if not, why not?
The questions are disconcerting because while we can answer the second with ease, the third is impossible, and impossibility of definition leads to the title of the book. It comes from Marcel Duchamp's neologism he said can be defined only by example. Here is a handful:
  • The warmth of a seat (which has just been left) is infrathin.
  • Sliding doors of the Metro—the people who pass through at the very last moment/infrathin.

Others, Perloff says, "raise larger issues about time, space, and especially language": 

  • In time the same object is not the same after a one-second interval.
  • The difference (dimensional) between two objects in a series (made from the same mould) is an infrathin one when the maximum (?) of precision is attained. [sic]

In each case Perloff says "the case is made for difference, however minute". So the difference of 'cruellest' is another example of infrathin. This may sound like a variation of New Criticism's close reading, but Perloff distinguishes micropoetics from that practice because for the most part New Criticism concentrates on a larger meaning conveyed by "metaphor, irony, and paradox" and ignores "rhythm, sound structure, visual patterning, etymology". Eliot is relevant here again as he criticised Matthew Arnold "for being insufficiently sensitive to the 'auditory imagination,' namely,"

the feeling for syllable and rhythm, penetrating far below the conscious levels of thought and feeling, invigorating every word; sinking to the most primitive and forgotten, returning to the origin and bringing something back.

In the same passage Perloff quotes Eliot in a letter to Stephen Spender: "My theory of writing verse is that one gets a rhythm, and a movement first, and fills it in with some approximation to sense later."

Rather than go any further and address more of the content, which in addition to Eliot includes exceptional studies of Gertrude Stein, Ezra Pound, Wallace Stevens, Beckett, and John Ashbery, I wonder if infrathin goes some way to help me understand the uncertainty in my experience not of poetry, which as mentioned in the entry for 1992 I tend not to read anyway, but prose works. Why is there a profound distinction between my experience of some works that are nominally the same, in the same genre, as others that leave me indifferent, wondering whether I should give up reading novels? Is it the rhythm and movement of a long prose work that connects those writers I return to despite differences in overt form and content, because they penetrate "far below the conscious levels of thought and feeling", that is if rhythm and movement of micropoetics can be applied to the macro level, a level that Perloff says cannot explain what makes Four Quartets so "intensely memorable", in which repetition and echoes invigorate a constrained and relentless attention across hundreds of pages, and which demand to be reread, as Perloff says of poetry that "can’t just be read and deleted like the most recent Instagram"? 

In my personal canon, Proust, Beckett and Bernhard, obviously, but also Gabriel Josipovici, in Migrations among many others, Rosalind Belben already cited in this series, and in Aharon Appelfeld's novels, which survives translation. A micropoetics then of sentence and paragraph, and more;* works that sink below the surface of habit, of genre, enabling us to hear one meaningful syllable.


*If so, this would also explain why those works described as poetic, promising a narrative seasoned with meticulous nuance, are invariably unreadable, clogged with arcane and fussy word choices.

Thursday, May 30, 2024

39 Books: 2021

I lived in Brighton for 30 years. One of the many painful aspects of leaving in 2021 was losing the many second-hand bookshops, all within walking distance. Many have closed over the years, such as Sandpiper, a remaindered bookshop in Kensington Gardens. It had a backroom in which every book was £1 and was where I found as-new hardbacks of Yaakov Shabtai's Past Continuous and SY Agnon's Only Yesterday, as well as the slim paperback of Sarah Kofman's Rue Orderner, Rue Labat. There was even a volume from Karl Barth's Church Dogmatics, but it was only the index. There are also cheerless memories of books seen but not bought that would cheer me up now to see: Jean Améry's On Suicide in Tall Storeys on St James' Street, and, back in Sandpiper, a four-volume selection of Luther's writings. Sometimes the price was prohibitive: in one of my last visits to Snooper's Paradise, there were the four small hardbacks comprising Heidegger's Nietzsche priced at £25 each.

For nostalgic Brightonians, here's a 2015 article* on closed Brighton bookshops, including Colin Page's, a shop I wrote about in my End of Literature series.

The nearest second-hand bookshop to me now is several miles away across a stretch of water and with a turnover of stock that can be measured by geological epoch. This situation is what makes reading Nicholas Royle's White Spines: Confessions of a Book Collector both a great pleasure and bitterly sad.

Royle travels the country in search of white-spined Picador paperbacks to add to his collection, which his Instagram account confirms is a long-standing and serious affliction. Like me, his eye must be trained like a bird of prey's to pick out particular spines among the mass-market paperbacks, coffee-table cookbooks and celebrity biographies. The vicarious thrill of anticipation is aroused on every page. On page two, he finds the Picador edition of Nomad by Mary Anne Fitzgerald that he thinks he doesn't have but says the pleasure he gets from finding it has no direct link to the book's contents, as he's unlikely to read it. For me there is always a direct link. In Bow Windows in Lewes, I found Charles Singleton's commentary on Dante's Purgatorio in the Bollingen Series only to discover that, like Royle with Nomad, I had one already. But I bought it to read. I don't search for various editions and have no urge to complete sets.

My pleasure and envy in reading White Spines may indicate the difference is an illusion. Mine is a collecting urge for the mind, perhaps even the soul, and concealed there, whereas Royle's is on display, described in nerdy detail according to cover design and industry formats as I might fuss over the singularity of one book or another. Both seek to shore against the incoming tide. A single book is on its own an example of collecting, of containing within defined limits a totality to which we have no access otherwise. To fill a white bookshelf with white spines facing out is only an extension of this, as is my folder of book lists. Walter Benjamin diagnosed the condition in 1938:

Since the days of Louis Philippe, the bourgeoisie has endeavored to compensate itself for the fact that private life leaves no traces in the big city. It seeks such compensation within its four walls – as if it were striving, as a matter of honor, to prevent the traces, if not of its days on earth then at least of its possessions and requisites of daily life, from disappearing forever.
            From 'The Paris of the Second Empire in Baudelaire', Selected Writings, volume 4

For reasons Benjamin describes in The Storyteller, the novel appears as a cultural force as the presence of death retreats:

In the course of modern times dying has been pushed further and further out of the perceptual world of the living. Today people live in rooms that have never been touched by death, dry dwellers of eternity, and when their end approaches they are stowed away in sanatoria or hospitals by their heirs. It is, however, characteristic that not only a man’s knowledge or wisdom, but above all his real life – and this is the stuff that stories are made of – first assumes transmissible form at the moment of his death. Just as a sequence of images is set in motion inside a man as his life comes to an end – unfolding the views of himself under which he has encountered himself without being aware of it — suddenly in his expressions and looks the unforgettable emerges and imparts to everything that concerned him that authority which even the poorest wretch in dying possesses for the living around him. This authority is at the very source of the story.

In one of the charity shops now the only source of book-browsing, I found the Picador edition of Umberto Eco's The Name of the Rose, and bought it because I thought it might be good to be immersed in medieval Europe and its theology. Instead, it was a bore. Nicholas happened to see a photo I posted of the four Picadors I own (five, actually, as I forgot Beckett's Mercier and Camier) and said he didn't have that particular edition. If you don't have it Nicholas, I'll be happy to send it on.

You can listen to Nicholas Royle discuss White Spines on the Rippling Pages podcast.


* It lives my head rent-free that this columnist also wrote that the BBC was "anti-Israel" and "pro-Palestinian". A closed shop of the mind.

Wednesday, May 29, 2024

39 Books: 2020

It may be a sign of something that I read Louis-René des Forêts's Poems of Samuel Wood several years after reading A Voice from Elsewhere in which Maurice Blanchot dedicates three unusually personal (and often bewildering) essays to them. The book's title is adapted from a line on the final page:

If making a voice heard from somewhere
Inaccessible to time and erosion
Proves no less illusory than a dream
There is nonetheless something in it that endures
Even after it has lost its meaning
Its timbre still resonates in the distance like a storm
No one can tell is approaching or passing.
                        [Translated by Anthony Barnett]

The daytime sign displays the vagaries of publishing in that the essays where published in translation by a university press in 2007, four years before the poems were published by Allardyce, Barnett, a small press based in Lewes, just a few miles from where I sat reading them. It was only in 2020 that I discovered the translation existed.

The poems form a sequence similar to Four Quartets if one reads them as Gabriel Josipovici suggests one reads that sequence "not as a philosophical examination ... but as the narrative of a person talking to himself at four o‘clock in the morning". If Eliot's poem is about time then des Forêts's is about the outside of time, the other sides of life, dream and death. The narrator is haunted by a child figure seen in a dream, a mysterious presence Blanchot compares to the effect L'Inconnue de la Seine had on Giacometti.

There she is again standing smiling
Amid the asters and the roses
In the full light of her gracefulness
As proud as she always was
She is never seen except in dreams
Too beautiful to lull to sleep the pain
With such false changes of heart
Attesting to her absence.

No, she is here, really here
No matter that sleep deceives us
We must sear our eyes
Endure such sweet suffering,
Unhinge, even lose our minds
Destroy what would destroy
This marvellous apparition
Received as one would tremble
At the sight of a face seized by death
In the final glow of flowering.

"Thus the dream and the rational day pursue an unceasing battle", writes Blanchot.

Blanchot says that while he wrote his commentary "I closed my eyes to my fault, which lies in transforming the poem (the poems) into a prose approximation. There is no alteration graver than that".

These poems by Samuel Wood have their voice, which one must hear before thinking one understands them. [...] How I would like to be able to express the rhythm that…gives it a somber, sometimes solar glory–the sublime within simplicity–yet here, by these epithets, I stifle the voices that summon us and draw us toward the ultimate point.
                            [Translated by Charlotte Mandell]
This is the nighttime sign: the dream's revelation of purity becomes the impossibility of poetry, of which the poem is the account.

Tuesday, May 28, 2024

39 Books: 2019

So much for this blog being labelled "the best resource in English on European modernist literature": this year's choice is a collection of lectures delivered in the early 1960s at the University of Zürich, published in English translation in 1970, with this edition being reissued in 1975 in the Fontana Library of Theology and Philosophy, at the time costing 65p, around £6 in today's money. What has this to do with modernist literature?

An answer may come but, in the meantime, it's notable that inexpensive mass-market paperbacks written by leading scholars in their field aimed at the general reader have since been replaced by expensive coffee-table hardbacks about science and history (and only science and history) written by TV personalities. The scholarly works that may be appreciated by today's general reader tend to be published with limited distribution by university presses, such as Cornell UP's Heidegger: An Introduction by Richard Polt, or by desperado publishers like Urbanomic with its superb compact edition of Quentin Meillassoux's The Number and the Siren, which I wrote about in the entry for 2012.

Why has this happened? Strangely, it may be explained in Luther by Gerhard Ebeling.

Before getting to the reason, it has to be admitted that series such as Fontana's have not always been welcomed. While allowing that George Holmes' Dante in OUP's Past Masters series is a "serious and sensible piece of work", Gabriel Josipovici added "in another sense it is a scandal":

No one reading it would ever imagine that Dante might be for him what he was for Eliot, what Virgil was for Donne. [T]his new series has never really asked itself what a past master might be.

Holme’s method is to try and trace the changes in Dante’s ‘ideas’ in the course of his writing the Comedy, showing how different the three cantiche are in their assumptions and interests, and how closely the changes coincide with the changing political situation. This is quite interesting to the person who already knows and loves the poem, but what it does is break it up and destroy the complex set of relations Dante has established within it, to reduce it, in the end, to little more than an ill-organised encyclopedia. [...] What it does is to ensure that hardly anyone will ever go from the essay to the poem, though quite a few will no doubt feel, having read it, that they now know what Dante is ‘about’.

As the subject here is not poetry, this should less of a danger, except the existential pressure of the subject for Luther was the same for Dante, so the stakes are still high. Ebeling aims to avoid releasing the pressure by drawing the reader "into a process in which we ourselves must share if we intend not merely to repeat his words, but to respond to them". It helps, he says, to recognise that Luther's thought always contains an antithesis, a "tension between strongly opposed but related polarities", for example between:

  • theology and philosophy
  • the letter and the Spirit
  • the law and the gospel
  • person and works
  • faith and love
  • God hidden and God revealed

Each polarity is given a separate chapter, but the idea of polarity itself is the one to which I respond, as these appear to be absent today, or rather unimportant, ignored, repressed, perhaps hidden under other labels. Ebeling wants us to encounter Luther as a linguistic innovator and says the polarised phrases he coined – theologia crucis and theologia gloriae (theology of the cross and theology of glory) – accurately express his understanding of theology. These are discussed in more detail in the chapter on the final polarity. Theologia gloriae is the "attempt to perceive the invisible nature of God from his works of creation" by which we can know only that belonging to the purely spiritual sphere. The God perceived by reason is a glorification of the world, but this knowledge is ultimately as atheism as it establishes "a harmony between God and the world...placing them on the same level and establishing a correspondence between them". Scholasticism and Neoplatonism are the main culprits for Luther, but for us we may see it as the coffee-table science writers, having taken reason to its ultimate destination, have no other recourse than to celebrate the natural world while alluding to the old polarities with titles containing Biblical metaphors. But polarity disappears, the words disappear. 

In contrast, the principle of knowlege of God in the cross is based on contradiction, the paradoxical revelation of God in its opposite form: "the infinite cloaks itself in finitude" with the "eternal, immaterial God dying as man of flesh and bone and oozing blood, in time, on a Roman cross" as Samuel Loncar puts it. For Luther, as the revelation takes place in darkness rather than in the light of knowledge, "everything depends upon the word and upon faith". If theologia gloriae equates in our time to the dominance of a humanistic, technical mindset (Holly Langstaff's recent book is a profound investigation of this in relation to the work of Maurice Blanchot), then theologia crucis may explain why contemporary literary criticism is trapped in a frantic oscillation between the purely technical and the purely cultural, both of which ignore the potential for a revelation otherwise. Ebeling says Luther was a linguistic innovator because "he had no other concern than to give proper utterance to the word". This should be the working definition for writers in our time.

Monday, May 27, 2024

39 Books: 2018

In spite of what I said yesterday about the decline in the number of novels I read each year, this year was packed with a variety: Australian, Korean, Austrian, Egyptian, German, Argentinian and, today's choice, Norwegian; that is, if variety depends on the country of origin. But they are all one thing, novels; diversity funnelling into an abyss of prose. No doubt we maintain such distinctions to avoid funnelling ourselves. 

And yet what I said yesterday remains true, as I don't recall anything, or at least very little, about these novels, as if I'd never read them, or that they were read without memory. Neither remembering nor forgetting, this may be the pleasure of reading novels.

Translated by Tiina Nunnally

T Singer is this pleasure entirely. His first name is never given, so the reader remains at a formal distance, his inner life and daily routine reported carefully, without judgement or apparent purpose. His life is without apparent purpose. He daydreams of being an author but cannot get beyond the first sentence. Elaborating on its simplicity, turning it into a story, opens too many questions of truth and necessity. Aged 34, with the story stalled, he becomes a librarian in a town called Notodden, hoping to remove himself from this life: "the feeling of being present in purely routine operations fascinated him". This is our fascination with the novel: disappearance, routine, another life. Even the town's name embodies the novel we're reading, and so all novels, conflating the English No and the German Tod, Notodden, the negative of death. And without death, no life either. This is why T Singer is a peculiar pleasure and curiously similar in effect to the first volume of Knausgaard's My Struggle in that nothing happens, or at least not what we assume must happen, so in effect nothing happens, but in that nothing happening what impends demands the turning of the page. It is both boring and exhilarating, unfunny and hilarious, horrifying and uplifting. Perhaps Norwegian novels are set apart.


Please email me at steve dot mitchelmore at gmail dot com.

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