Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Tallis is dead (from the neck up)

There have been several misinterpretations of what I and other deconstructionists are trying to do. It is totally false to suggest that deconstruction is a suspension of reference. Deconstruction is always deeply concerned with the "other" of language. I never cease to be surprised by critics who see my work as a declaration that there is nothing beyond language, that we are imprisoned in language; it is, in fact, saying the exact opposite. The critique of logocentrism is above all else the search for the "other" and the "other of language." Every week I receive critical commentaries and studies on deconstruction which operate on the assumption that what they call "post-structuralism" amounts to saying that there is nothing beyond language, that we are submerged in words—and other stupidities of that sort. 
Jacques Derrida in an interview with Richard Kearney, printed in Dialogues with Contemporary Continental Thinkers published in 1984.
In the 1980s I came across post-structuralism, post-modernism, literary theory and the works of characters such as Jacques Derrida, and disillusionment was replaced with rage. These people wanted to tell us that ‘there is nothing outside of the text’ – that the linguistic representation of an extra-linguistic reality was an illusion. “Tell that to a junior doctor responding to the message ‘Cardiac arrest, Ward 6’” I thought.
Raymond Tallis in the August/September 2010 edition of Philosophy Now.

NB: The post title alludes to the final line of this song.

Friday, October 22, 2010

The beginning of something

To celebrate its fifteenth year, Spike Magazine has created a 600-page PDF book sampling its online output. You can download it for free from the website. Unfortunately, there are many contributions from me.

Reading Chris Mitchell's introduction, I was reminded of a work-related car journey to Luton in which we discussed possible names for the proposed ezine. "Spike" was not mentioned as I would have surely objected to its lack of gravitas. This was symptomatic because, despite my presence, I was always an outsider to the project of "picking the brains of popular culture", Spike's subsequent tagline. Unpopular culture is more my scene and raising the profile of an alternative book culture was always the aim.

In the mid-Nineties, Chris says, "there was very little about books or literature on the web" and so "it seemed like a chance to get in at the beginning of something". Looking back, we can see how online publication mimicked newspapers – reviews, features, interviews – and could only be in their shadow. My first contribution was a review of two Beckett biographies. I had not written like this before but the medium was public only in name; who was going to read it? Chris offered me freedom to write anything, so I bashed out essays on EM Cioran and Thomas Bernhard, both of which give me nightmares now but, at the time, gave a direction to writing it had previously lacked. The beginning had begun, so what came next?

Monday, October 11, 2010

Phantoms on the Bookshelves

Henderson, the Rain King has disappeared from my bookshelves. The sixties Penguin paperback with exposed binding and a dog-eared cover may have been thrown out, yet Humboldt's Gift remains despite the detached first 32 pages. Searching in boxes has yielded only two other neglected Bellows: The Actual and The Viking Portable Library collection. So where did Henderson go?

Perhaps it's no coincidence that my search began while I was reading Jacques Bonnet's Phantoms on the Bookshelves, a short, relaxing book about the author's library of 20,000 volumes. The phantoms of the title are not missing books but "sheets or cards inserted to mark the place of a book removed from a library shelf". So the book is about the reading of his books and the practical problems of owning so many - storages, organisation, protection - as well as the more abstract, biographical issues of ownership; why, for instance, this bibliomania? Bonnet's response is deflected by anecdotes and light-heartedness: even if a book on his shelves has not been read and, like the essay on Slovenian grammar he possesses, may not be quite essential, it still may come in useful one day. The inevitable breaking of the promise of a possible future is perhaps Bonnet's blindspot and there is no anxiety in the shadow of no more time to read.

The very first is (unfortunately) my favourite anecdote because it proves immediately that Bonnet is no dilettante. He tells the wistful story of Fernando Pessoa's failed application of 1932 to become the librarian of a museum outside Lisbon; a story that emerges from a reproduction of the poet's stiffly impersonal letter in a 1981 Portuguese book of photographs Bonnet found in a bookshop two years later. Bonnet compares it to two other editions of the book before reprinting the letter in translation. We can then begin to appreciate why Pessoa was not given the museum post and perhaps also why he died three years later, still stuck in a boring, low-paid job in the capital: shelves of bottles attracted when shelves of books retreated.

Reading the letter, I am reminded of how moving it is to look at the cover of Pessoa's 1918 collection 35 Sonnets. What is it about the paratext, the colouring, the spots and the stamps that provokes the need to hold, examine and read? While I don't share Bonnet's bibliomania, I do feel something. In fact, I have the opposite urge to Bonnet. Removing books, giving them away, is often a relief if only because it means there is room for new books. In comparison, Bonnet's acquisitions are on an imperial scale: "Every region on earth is represented there somewhere," he says, "the continents with all their landscapes, their climates and their ways of life". His library is "a concentrate of space" which gives him "the feeling of being all-powerful". While it's clear his remains a working library rather than a collector's, it does seem to have a pathological aspect: "The library protects us from external enemies," he says, it "filters the noise of the world, tempers the cold winds around us".

So why, with this, does the author become a stranger? If it can be said, for me books offer unexpected, often ineffable transformations, far from protection, and, after a certain time, one begins to discern the signs of promise. Those that signal nothing can go; must go. I am foreign to a certain kind of ownership. For example, watching this video of Nicholas Basbanes showing a film crew around his enviable library – handling the books, flipping through the thousands of pages and returning them to the company of hundreds of other, unopened books still in pristine condition – triggers an unexpected melancholy in me. Certainly there's discomfort in the company of ageing hands in amongst all those young glossy jackets, but it is the same melancholy I experience when, in Derrida: the movie, the great man reaches for two vampire novels by Anne Rice given to him by a student: specifically, the noise as they clunk against the wooden shelving and then Derrida's response when asked if he has read or will ever read them. Is it only from this perspective that one recognises the cruel remove of books; when they become silent masters of their own prison?

Henderson remains elusive. Now I see the latest Penguin Modern Classic edition is £14.99; a cruel price for a great novel. England needs a Reclam Verlag.

Sunday, October 03, 2010

Nobody home

My entire life seems to have disappeared in a movement of seeking that is perhaps the experience of writing, the responsibility for which I try to bear, poorly but absolutely.
Maurice Blanchot, letter to Elio Vittorini, 1963.
The 'scandal' and the importance of the [Berlin] wall is that, in the concrete oppression that it embodies, it is essentially abstract and that it thus reminds us – we who forget this constantly – that abstraction is not simply a faulty mode of thought or an apparently impoverished form of language but rather our world, the one we live and think in on a daily basis.
"Berlin", 1964.

Both in Political Writings (1953-1993).

Saturday, October 02, 2010

Rainbow shatterings: What Ever Happened to Modernism? by Gabriel Josipovici

The title of this book is a question asked by a professor of English and answered by a practising novelist. Apart from Milan Kundera, no other living writer has engaged with modern fiction with such depth of learning and lightness of touch. I have been reading Gabriel Josipovici's fiction and non-fiction for over twenty years but little prepared me for the sustained focus and force of this remarkable book. Until now his literary critical works have been collections of essays, even his book on the bible, The Book of God, is a series of discrete essays. Given this back catalogue which includes the lectures given at UCL and Oxford University, it's predictable that the new book has been characterised by some as an academic treatise rather than an accessible essay in the classic sense. The deceit needs to be countered not only because it is wrong but because it also confirms Josipovici's verdict on English literary culture as "narrow, provincial and smug". This can be demonstrated by bitter and dishonest reactions, as well as some more respectful if condescending assessments.

However, there are rational reasons for resistance to the book's argument, even if they are expressed from the corner of the mouth. For Josipovici, Modernism reanimates the doubts and confusions about the authority of art that have been with us since the Enlightenment; doubts and confusion that he shows are present as dynamic forces in the great, paradigmatic works of western literature and essential to the reasons why they became great. For cultural gatekeepers, accommodating doubt and confusion rather than quelling their disruptive presence is anachronistic, the stuff of romantic legend or, worse, against the spirited positivity of modern culture. Peter Aspden says Modernism has "found its dancing shoes and lightened up". Surely literature is here to bring clarity and sense, to reveal the world in all its variety, intensity and, above all, reality?

Perhaps. But this is an understanding from a watchtower, from outside of writing. When a novel, good or bad, is complete, it creates and embodies unity – even if it relies for this impression on stories of the ultimate rupture of terror, violence and death – and gratitude is expressed by the reader. For someone then to come along to point out that it is an artificial and constructed unity, we are bound to be irritated; yes, we know it is only a novel. Except, however commonsensical this statement may be, it has always to elide the uncanny experience of reading; the sense that it is only within the ideal space of the greatest novels that we feel most engaged with the world, where the doubts and confusions of our lives abate and we become able, for the time of reading at least, to maintain understanding and equilibrium. This is our gratitude but also our guilty secret. We know it is only a novel and the world has thereby been distorted and we need more art to maintain the illusion. Bad faith kindles doublethink.

The problem for the critic is that this essential experience of reading cannot be easily discussed outside the special conditions bestowed by reading itself, removed from the pressures of commerce and fashion. The concealed problem explains why literary debate is dominated by personalities and political issues rather than an engagement with books themselves and why, as a consequence, attention turns to forms more congenial to disposable debate. Perhaps only a practising artist willing to analyse what's hidden can elaborate on the enduring presence of the forces of doubt and confusion. Josipovici's book certainly suggests this is the case and that only by recognising and embracing their urgency for each one of us – and not just as artists but as readers – can literary fiction renew itself both on the public and personal level.

So, the book's purblind reception in England is really a symptom of an institutionalised instinct to repress and deny doubt and confusion. This is why in what follows I intend to address occasional misrepresentations of the book. Anyone who has read What Ever Happened to Modernism? cannot but be amazed at how some reviewers have deceived their readers in summarising the book as an attack on contemporary English novelists in favour of difficult, joyless avant-garde texts, while failing to mention the central theme of the book: the disenchantment of the world. For this reason, as best I can I shall summarise Josipovici's definition of Modernism before ending with a description of the quality or qualities of the art it seeks to encourage.


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