Monday, May 31, 2010

The portrait of a realist

Philosophy and Animal Life is spearheaded by Cora Diamond's essay, "The Difficulty of Life and the Difficulty of Philosophy," in which she reads [JM Coetzee's] The Lives of Animals, not as a kind of argument in favor of animal rights, but as a study of "a woman haunted by the horror of what we do to animals. We see her as wounded by this knowledge, this horror, and by the knowledge of how unhaunted others are. The wound marks and isolates her". What kind of knowledge is this, and what can philosophy say about it? Not much, it appears. The difficulty, Diamond says, is that such knowledge "pushes us beyond what we can think. To attempt to think it is to feel one's thinking come unhinged. Our concepts, our ordinary life with our concepts, pass by this difficulty as if it were not there; the difficulty, if we try to see it, shoulders us out of life, is deadly chilling". Diamond notes that neither the philosophers inside Coetzee's story, nor those in real life who responded to the Tanner lectures, see any difficulty here. Instead they convert the difficulty of Costello's experience into a philosophical problem about the moral status of animals – a problem that arguments can allegedly resolve. Diamond, however, seems to take Costello's side against philosophy as a practice of moral evasion. At all events, for her Costello is a portrait of someone in a condition of undeflected exposure to the world and to others in it – a true realist.
From Gerald Bruns' review of Philosophy and Animal Life and Stephen Mulhall's The Wounded Animal.

Sunday, May 30, 2010

The book to come in 2666

Roberto Bolaño’s 2666 is an obsessive and world-shifting epic. When I read it, I will be completely absorbed by it. It will be all I think about. It will affect my daily life in ways I can’t fully understand, and when I finish it I will have come to profound revelations about the nature of existence.
There's a reason for Kirsty Logan's future tense: she's describing the joy of a certain kind of book, one that: 
contains all possible characters, styles, genres, turns of phrase, metaphors, speech patterns, and profound life-changing revelations. An unread book exists only in the primordial soup of your imagination, and there it can evolve into any story you like. An unread book – any unread book – could change your life.
She goes on to imagine the possibilities of a handful of other novels she hasn't read. Apart from 2666, I haven't read them either. Yet, even though I have read all 893 pages of the British Picador edition and was absorbed enough to believe I would not forget each highway and byway of the long journey, I find that now, looking back from beyond the final page, all the roads have concertinaed to form an impenetrable block.

Roberto Bolaño's 2666 has not affected my daily life, it has not caused any profound revelations, and the world remains unshifted. But for the complete absorption, everything of which Kirsty Logan dreams about 2666 didn't come pass, unless, that is, for all of its characters, adventures, ideas and slow-burning narrative tension, for all of its richness of colour and texture, the revelation is that the nature of existence will remain unclear and will never be resolved into coherence, not even in the most lengthy work of literature with all of its innumerable interconnections and possible all-embracing overall design.

Of course, if this is the revelation, it is certainly not profound. As well as the encyclopaedic power to capture life, the aura of modern literature is borne on the promise of such revelatory exegesis in which something more will emerge, so one is bound to be disappointed. The persisting presence of an aura explains the range of readerly reactions from obsessive dedication of those who see revelation in the mathematical system underpinning Dante's Commedia to Book Groups chatting about "issues" in the latest Jodi Picoult unit.

A banal point perhaps: the reader is always seeking more than the book itself. After all, it is a form of information storage and retrieval. With the incommensurability of modern literature, the violence of interpretation becomes necessary if it is to mean something other than an increasingly minor branch of the entertainment industry. It certainly needs to be forgotten in order to read. If we begin reading knowing incompletion will be the ultimate experience – perhaps even disharmony and disunity – then what are we reading for? We begin with the idea, as Kirsty Logan suggests, of the novel we are about to read as the Platonic Form of its kind, an ethereal presence in which all stories coalesce and conclude. Here it is, in our hands! So, when I say: "I've read Roberto Bolaño's 2666", do I know or care what I am referring to other than the same possible book Kirsty Logan has imagined? As I announce my reading, a whiff of cultural-oneupmanship begins to circulate. It alludes to secret knowledge, new power over those who have not read it and potentially over those who have read but have not comprehended its message. But I don't have that knowledge or power. What have I missed?

Nabokov said that the second reading of a book is always the first. The first is a blind reading. You have to read the book a second time in order to have read it once. So perhaps I should re-read Roberto Bolaño's 2666 in search of a subtler experience in which the disparate details begin to reach out to one another more clearly and the revelations become more profound. However, if Heraclitus is right, then that second reading is impossible. The second reading will always be the first and therefore blind. The second reading will always be the book to come. I have not read Roberto Bolaño's 2666. I will never read Roberto Bolaño's 2666.

Monday, May 03, 2010

Bernhard begins

While the new tutor has until now remained silent during our lunchtime walk, which to me has already become a habit, today from the start he had a need to talk to me.
This is the first line from Thomas Bernhard's story Two Tutors as it appears in Martin Chalmer's translation in the imminent volume Prose. The extra good news is that we can read it in full right now at Little Star, a new magazine of poetry and prose.

Two Tutors is from 1967, early in Bernhard's career, yet in this beginning we can also see the end. As with the sublime first sentence of his valedictory novel Extinction, a pattern is broken, a new direction taken right from the start. In this story, the narrator repeats the necessity later in the story when describing how, on the regular walk, one of the tutors reaches a point and always goes to the right. "It is up to me," the narrator says, "one day to turn left". Franz-Josef Murau does it himself in Extinction when, out of exuberance after a good day, he takes a different route home and, once there, receives some news that will change his life. It's also present at the beginning, middle and end of Bernhard's autobiography Gathering Evidence: first in that famous childhood bicycle ride, then his determination to work in a grocery store rather than go to grammar school ("I found the other people by going in the opposite direction") and, finally, as a teenager dying of TB, when he refused further treatment, walked out of the clinic and never went back. Perhaps there is more to be said.


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