Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Thirty years of reading

This year marks thirty years since I started reading. Below is my first and only handwritten book list of all the books I read that year in the order I read them. Yes, I am embarrassed. In 1985, I had read a short book about the miners' strike and Twice Shy, a Dick Francis crime novel, but it was not until my birthday in January 1986 when I borrowed from the library Kundera's The Unbearable Lightness of Being that everything changed. I'm pretty sure it was mentioned on a TV show and the pretentious and hyperbolic title had attracted me. What ever it was, from then on I never stopped looking for more to read. It's clear now that I had assumed every novel would have the same seriousness and philosophical weight, especially if it was published by Faber & Faber, so it was with some dismay and confusion that I continued for the next two or three years. Even as I enjoyed mainstream literary novels the way most people still enjoy mainstream literary novels, I also wanted something else.

'People' spelled that way deliberately; I was a crazy rebel in those days

All I remember of Kundera's next book, which I bought new in a £2.95 paperback, is Salman Rushdie's blurb on the back cover: "A masterpiece, full of angels, terror, ostriches and love", my reaction to which prefigures my current loathing for newspaper interviews with famous authors in which we're told they will talk about "climate change, living with depression and the perfect cup of tea". Books are full of words – get over it.

Koestler's sudden appearance among the novels indicates the want of something else. In those days, my local library had a limited selection; just a few narrow shelves of non-fiction dating from the 60s and 70s: Sartre's What is Literature? for example, so it was difficult to read widely and difficult to realise one wasn't reading widely. I had little guidance and had to follow my nose, hence the appalling prevalence of Colin Wilson books the following year.

A clipping from the New Musical Express
A couple of years earlier I had discovered John Peel's radio show and had begun to buy the NME every week. I don't recall many book reviews and this clipping has no date, but Handke's Slow Homecoming and Bernhard's The Lime Works were both published in 1986, so I assume it coincides with my first year of reading. The description of Blanchot's Madness of the Day really excited me; not the 'urban ruin' sop to social realism but a '14-page micro-novel' and the loss of the facility to tell the story even as it is told. I would get excited about such a book even now. However, at that time I had no idea how to get hold of them. My library was too small and provincial ever to stock such books and I wouldn't have known how to order them.

Soon after, in somewhat lovelorn manner, searching where I could, I crossed the harbour and walked the short distance to Portsmouth Polytechnic's library. In the catalogue I discovered a copy of Blanchot's The Sirens' Song, at that time one of only two translations of his essays (the other being Lydia Davis' translation The Gaze of Orpheus and other literary essays, published in the US) and found the edition on its shelf with its dust jacket removed. I carried it to one of the built-in plastic desks and leafed through what seemed like sacred pages. But I felt so furtive and out of place (I had left school with two 'o' levels and was on the dole) that I left without reading very much. Here's a picture of a rare secondhand copy I found years later with the cover removed for authenticity.

Kevin the Brontosaurus admiring the grain of the cloth

Thirty years on, I have many books of Blanchot's in translation, so no more sad visits to enchanted libraries. And while the dreamlike state of those times hasn't been entirely dispelled, there is regret that it is more or less over and the possibilities for discovery apparently very limited. In response there's the temptation to pursue the mirage of systematic reading like the autodidact in Nausea, until that is I re-read the book lists from 1986 to 1989 and recognise the value of chance and following one's nose.

In my previous post, I wrote about Knausgaard's youthful fear that Hölderlin's poetry would not open to him even as he enjoyed a successful writing career, which now leads me to wonder if keeping one's distance from such a respectable position is necessary to retain access to what attracted me to books in the first place, rather than, say, becoming a group-thunk middle-class professional churning out social comedies while sneering at lower class amateurs.

Sunday, August 07, 2016

The virtue of a prayer

I'm still bothered by Karl Ove Knausgaard's fear that the poetry of Hölderlin would not open to him even while he carried on to have a successful literary career. It's worth quoting at length:
You could write a whole dissertation about Hölderlin, for example, by describing the poems, discussing what they dealt with and in what ways the themes found expression, through the syntax, the choice of words, the use of imagery, you could write about the relationship between Hellenic and Christian modes, about the role of the countryside in his poems, about the role of the weather, or how the poems relate to the actual politico-historical reality in which they had arisen, independent of whether the main emphasis was on the biographical, for example, his German Protestant background, or on the enormous influence of the French revolution. You could write about his relationship to other German idealists, Goethe, Schiller, Hegel, Novalis, or the relationship to Pindar in the late poems. You could write about his unorthodox translations of Sophocles, or read the poems in light of what he says about writing in his letters. You could also read Hölderlin’s poetry with reference to Heidegger’s understanding of it, or go one step further and write about the clash between Heidegger and Adorno over Hölderlin. You could also write about the whole history of his work’s reception, or of his works in translation. It was possible to do all of this without Hölderlin’s poems ever opening themselves up.
I'm still bothered because I don't know what it means. How would you know when poetry has opened up to you? If the intensity and patience of scholarly attention does not guarantee its opening, then what withdraws itself? Knausgaard sidesteps an answer by telescoping the question through the anxiety of his younger self that if poetry did not open to him he was destined for "a life on a lower plane". But what are the profound insights of poetry if not those unpacked in the library of close readings?

The presence of My Struggle suggests that Knausgaard expected poetry to open up empirically rather than as an idea, and the six volumes of empirical data is necessary to evoke this painful absence. For instance, his experience of looking at a reproduction of painting by Constable is the expression of an opening that allows no apparent worldly meaning. Compare this with Simone Weil who, despite being raised in a secular Jewish household and with no history of religious devotion, told a friend how, as she recited a poem by George Herbert, "Christ himself came down and took possession of me":
It is called Love. I learned it by heart. Often, at the culminating point of a violent headache, I make myself say it over, concentrating all my attention upon it and clinging with all my soul to the tenderness it enshrines. I used to think I was merely reciting it as a beautiful poem, but without my knowing it the recitation had the virtue of a prayer.
Poetry as the revelation and presence of divinity. A difficult idea. But, if we seek the origin of language, such difficulty might not be so alien to atheistic secular thought. In March, 2015 Noam Chomsky discussed his study of language with the physicist Lawrence Krauss. He was asked to explain why he believes that what is important about language from an evolutionary perspective has nothing to do with external communication but what is internal. "The core property of language", he says, "is its use in creating and formulating thought" and contrasts this with the idea that language evolved as an instrument of communication. Animal communication systems and human language "differ radically in every respect", as the former consists of signals connected to external events, while:
human language is a free, creative activity … and primarily it's just used for thinking. If you simply introspect, almost all of your use of language is internally creating and interpreting thought. [...] If you actually look carefully at the design of language, it turns out that the externalisation, the articulation, what comes out of your mouth, is kind of peripheral to language. The core principles of language are those that determine how you construct and interpret thoughts. And the way it’s externalised doesn’t enter into that. [...] This reinforces the traditional view that language is fundamentally what is sometimes called 'audible thought'.
So from where does language and thought come? Chomsky says we know no more than Descartes. While we don't accept his dualism, what we don't understand about language is what he didn’t understand about language:
Same mystery. And this holds for voluntary action altogether, not just language. There’s a recent review by a very good scientist about what’s known about how voluntary action takes place, [such as] my reaching for this drink. Then he goes through what is known about the neurology, muscles, what the neurons are doing and so on. But he ends up by saying we’re now beginning to understand the puppet and the strings but we don’t know anything about the mind of the puppeteer. Nothing. So what is making me pick this [drink] up rather than take that and throw it on the floor? About that nothing is known. So we have to be very humble. That’s hundreds of years and we’re exactly as ignorant as before, and we don’t even know how to investigate it.
In line with Knausgaard's muted mistrust of scholarship, Chomsky jokes about the "huge literature" on the evolution of language when "the subject doesn't exist". There is evolution only in the capacity for language. Krauss adds that the key development that produced the capacity was apparently simple and arrived quickly, and, much like Weil's conversion, something to which we have no access. Perhaps then reading literature, and poetry in particular, is an uncanny encounter with the mind of the puppeteer, an encounter with both our most intimate self and our most intimate non-self, and one that opens only within this space.


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