Tuesday, July 06, 2010

Without exception

I suspected once that any human life, however intricate and full it might be, consisted in reality of one moment: the moment when a man knows for all time who he is.
Borges in Other Inquisitions.
On June 29th, when I posted similar quotations from Beckett and Blanchot, I had a sense of déjà vu. Hadn't I raised the coincidence before? As it happens, yes, on December 29th, 2003 at In Writing, a short-lived shared blog that no longer exists.
There is one aspect of Kierkegaard's work that can never be taken over and carried forward, either by philosophers or theologians, and that is his incommunicable existence.               Paul Riceour, in Kierkegaard: A Critical Reader
Perhaps the moment is the moment one knows that moment can never be communicated.
Everyone would agree that the story of [Kierkegaard's] existence continues something quite unique in the history of thought: the dandy from Copenhagen, with his bizarre engagement to Regine, the devastating critique of Bishop Mynster, the unfortunate victim of the Corsair, the sick man dying in the public hospital – none of these characters can be repeated, or even correctly understood. But of course the same applies to any other existence as well. But the case of Kierkegaard is exceptional all the same: no one else has ever transposed autobiography into personal myth as he did. By means of his identifications with Abraham, Job, Ahasuerus and several other fantastical characters, he elaborated a kind of fictive personality which conceals and dissimulates his real existence. And this poetic character – like a character in fiction, or the hero of a Shakespearean tragedy – can never be situated with the framework or landscape of ordinary communication.
Looking at the In Writing archive, I note with surprise the 69,000 words attributed to me were written in a single year. Looking a little closer I notice quotations I have reused since with the same violence of appropriation. To try to resist this, I've copied quotations as they occur to me, taken from desultory scanning of my notebooks.
Of course, what is offered to our philosophical understanding, and withheld as well, is a character, a hero, created by his own writings; an author, the creature of his works, an existing individual who has de-realized himself and thus avoided capture by any known discipline. He does not even fit in with his own 'stages on life's way'. He was not enough of a seducer, a Don Juan, to be an aesthete. Nor did he succeed with his life of ethics: he was unmarried and childless, and he did not earn his living his profession, so he was excluded from the ethical existence described by Judge Wilhelm in Either/Or. But if Kierkegaard failed to live either an aesthetic or an ethical life, what then of religion, in this sense? Surely the Christianity he described is so extreme that no one could possibly practise it. The subjective thinker before God, the pure contemporary of Christ, suffering crucifixion with Him, without church, without tradition, and without ritual, can only exist outside of history.
To refer then to Kierkegaard as "the father of Existentialism" is a means of entering history and avoiding what makes his work exceptional.
We remained in the station on a wooden bench. We spent the night, and I left before him. Even now I find it really astonishing and very moving. It was a kind of madness, idiocy, to travel from Munich to the Jura to pass a few hours of the night with me. It was utterly inhuman to sit next to a being whom you sense desires you so much and not even to have been touched. Above all, I thought, I must be very careful with everything I say to him because he understands things in quite an alarming way, in an absolute way.           Gabrielle Buffet-Picabia in Calvin Tomkins' Duchamp
Since that year, my two fellow In Writing bloggers have published five books, with two more forthcoming.
You cannot refute Kierkegaard: you must simply read him, consider, and then get on with your work – but with your eyes fixed upon the exception.
From blog to book suggests progress; from Hell to Purgatory. A book promises a system in its unity as a book between two covers. In contrast, literary blogging is a frenetic, damnable repetition. Each week, the same stories are raised by the same people:
  • Is the novel dead?
  • Why don't they write page-turners anymore?
  • Is non-fiction now more relevant?
  • Where is the Dickens of the Credit Crunch?
  • Has Theory destroyed literary criticism?
  • Who was God before Ian McEwan?
The same people are compelled to reply with the same futile points and refutations.
[There are] considerable similarities between Glenn Gould's musical views and Thomas Bernhard's prose style. [Both] artists appreciated the fugal nature of Baroque music, which mixes without dissolving the differences between two, three and even four distinct voices.           Mark Anderson, afterword to The Loser
It has to be said that the avalanche of new books is also a crushing repetition; a hell of sorts. This isn't simply a hysterical comparison. Teodolinda Barolini has explained how, as in the experience of life, Dante's Inferno is narrative journey "predicated on a principle of sequentiality, on encounters that occur one by one ... in which each new event displaces the one that precedes it" and indeed that the entire Commedia is "informed by a poetics of the new". A poetics of the new is different from the new itself in that Dante seeks to untangle himself from the unseen loop. The pursuance of the new is, however, and as Dante discovered after leaving his dark wood, a form of despair.

WH Auden recognised the possibility that the gates of Hell are always standing wide open and that the damned are perfectly free to leave whenever they like, only they don't because it would mean admitting that the gates are indeed open and that another life is possible. They are addicted to their present existence in which suffering defines who they are and each moment of agony is a new event (necessarily so). Except, it isn't so straightforward. Barolini points out that the angels in Heaven remember nothing and nothing new ever occludes their sight. They remember nothing because they can see everything: "they have no need of memory / since they do not possess divided thought". Heaven can be hellishly boring.
It would be very unjust to say that you deserted me, but that I was deserted and sometimes terribly so, is true.                   Kafka, Diaries 1922.
What I notice in the quotations so far is their focus on an escape from history, from change: Borges' moment, Kierkegaard's existence without; his ineffable exception, Duchamp's "madness" and absolute understanding; the condition of the angels. I'm reminded of Cioran on Beckett: "He does not live in time but parallel to time". Then there's Kafka's sentence which does not seem to fit.

So would Paradise be the book with no memory, with a vision uninterrupted, unable to be distracted by the infernally new? Perhaps. But such a book is already the outside, an exception to the book. The same problem of writing remains.
After my death no one will find even the least information in my papers (this is my consolation) about what has really filled my life; find the inscription in my innermost being which explains everything and what, more often than not, makes what the world would call trifles into, for me, events of immense importance, and which I too consider of no significance once I take away the secret note which explains it.
Kierkegaard, Papers & Journals.
 And yes, I've posted this quotation before.


  1. Are the archives for In Writing still online?

  2. No, they're not. I have a Word document. Wish Blogger enabled such a download.

  3. Kierkegaard? Thank God for Marcus Aurelius, that's all I can say.

  4. If that's all you can say, please don't bother.

  5. Stephen,

    I'm sorry if my opening gambit upset you or lowered the tone of "This Space" in some way. It was not meant to do so.

    I deliberately chose the expression "that's all I can say" as it is an everyday phrase which serves to highlight, as many see it, as I thought, the silent sigh of despair that is often raised at the outset of any discussion about Kierkegaard's infernally complicated and obtuse philosophy. My direct reference to Marcus Aurelius and God (perhaps I should have said "the gods") is his idea that "Philosophy is a modest profession, all simplicity and plain dealing," and that is the other side of the debate if you like.

    I thought I was contributing to an opening round of remarks regarding the topic titled: "Without exception". Obviously I was wrong.

    The gap in the universe is perhaps in my head.

  6. Thanks for explaining. I'll stick with Kierkegaard. As Ricoeur says, one should just read him rather than expect plain dealing a.k.a the landscape of ordinary communication.

    As it happens, Kierkegaard was one of Bernhard's biggest influences.

  7. And Wittgenstein. I've just started reading Bernhard's "Corrections".

  8. Korrektur is Correction singular isn't it? That's how it was translated too.

    The Wittgensteinian influence is superficial compared to Kierkegaard. As Mark Anderson says, he was fascinated by impersonation, quotation and artistic doublings; not things one finds in Wittgenstein.

  9. Korrektur is correction (pl is -en), revision, (Typ.) proof (sheet).

    Yes, I see the influence of Kiergaard when I read 'Fear & Trembling': "Thanks to you, great Shakespeare!, you who can say everything, everything, everything, exactly as it is - and yet why was this torment one you never gave voice to?"

    But in Correction, "a correction of corrections of corrections of corrections"*, the character is Roithamer (Wittgenstein). George Steiner, in his introduction to "one of the pre-eminent novels of our century" says: "Two figures haunt the philosophic fictions of Thomas Bernhard...Glenn Gould enacted mastery and meaning of music...and...Wittgenstein."

    *hence my typo blunder

  10. Steiner is wrong of course – or overstates until anything worthwhile is lost in hyperbole. Correction is – as I've said often – one of the least enjoyable of Bernhard's novels. Its heaviness and connection to Wittgenstein attracts the Brits and Americans who think anything like that must be important. Extinction is the one. The academics and intellectuals look down their noses at it (as I discovered when among them).

  11. Guilt is the penalty: to be robbed of all desire to life, to be brought to the highest degree of being weary of life.

    The above (my own translation as I only have the German) is how Alte Ameister begins. It is, as you know, a quote from Kierkegaard.

    Alte Meister is, for me, the most enjoyable of Bernhard's novels, closely followed by Holzfällen. I have read Extinction but it was some years ago. It's in the library (and in English!) so maybe I'll try it again.



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