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Saturday, June 26, 2021

The opposite direction

The arrival of Douglas Robertson’s new translation of Thomas Bernhard’s Die Billigesser in a compact paperback from Spurl Editions came just as I had given up hope of ever discussing what I believed had long fascinated me about a feature of Bernhard's prose-texts. A fascination intensified because, from what I could tell, it had never been discussed by anyone, but regularly postponed because I had no idea what it might mean in regard of what Bernhard called his prose-texts. However, after reading The Cheap-Eaters, I re-read several other prose-texts and wrote a long introduction summarising each example of what fascinated me. I assumed I would then become able to say something new and interesting about his prose-texts, a rare thing I believed at the time, having first read Bernhard in 1990, long before he became well known in English-speaking countries, and having become very bored since reading articles invariably repeating the same lines about misanthropy, ranting and hilarity, and for Bernhard being known as a Nestbeschmutzer, which invariably nudges the innocent reader toward the familiar figure of the enfant terrible, which is probably all the same reader needs to know before returning to the latest genre package "taking the book world by storm". None of this has much to do with what has long fascinated me about his work. So, to get to the point: what I believed had long fascinated me is that which propels a great many of his prose-texts into existence, with the latest translation being a prime example. 

The narrator reports that his friend the scientist Koller had told him how he became reacquainted with four men who every day eat cheaply at the same table in the Vienna Public Kitchen after sixteen years because, instead of his ending his daily walk at the old ash tree in the Wertheimsteinpark, he had walked on to the old oak tree in the Türkenschanzpark in order to follow a scientific train of thought, which happened to be the same day that Weller the glassmaker walked his dog in the Türkenschanzpark and he, the dog, had broken free of its lead and bit Koller, which led to the amputation of his, Koller's, leg. This was, he says, the “great misfortune of his life”. And yet:
What at first he had been bound to regard as an impermissable interruption of his train of thought, which for days had again been concentrated on physiognomy, his memory of the cheap-eaters whom he had forgotten about for so many years, and the thoughts resulting from this memory, his suddenly all-consuming preoccupation with Einzig and Goldschmidt, Grill and Weninger had suddenly and effectively unforeseeably proved to be not only useful for his Physiognomy, but even decisive for this work that he had been pursuing without interruption and intensively for nearly sixteen years, and possibly even proved fundamentally explicative of the essential points of this work in an unprecedented way.
So the novel comes into existence with the narration of a change in routine and a chance event which often leads to a change of direction in life and, of course, though easily neglected, the prose-text we're reading. These are surprisingly common in Bernhard’s work. The short story Two Tutors from 1967 begins when, also on a walk, a tutor who had until then remained silent starts to speak. The first sentence of Walking from 1971, recognised as the breakthrough work for Bernhard’s famous style, translated by Kenneth Northcott, also begins with a change in routine:
Whereas, before Karrer went mad, I used to go walking with Oehler only on Wednesday, now I go walking—now that Karrer has gone mad—with Oehler on Monday as well.

There are variations: on the first page of Yes, the narrator is interrupted by strangers just has he’s beginning to break his silence about his ailments to the local estate agent, and Woodcutters begins with the narrator’s regret for accepting an invitation to an artistic dinner from long lost friends who he had bumped into earlier that day. One can even go into Bernhard's life and note that he began to write because he passed the long hours in the tuberculosis death-ward by reading and was impressed by the elemental force of Dostoevsky's Devils. He had been in training to become a singer until the TB ruined his lungs. And then there’s the waltz into a brick wall that begins Extinction, quoted here in David McLintock’s translation:

On the twenty-ninth, having returned from Wolfsegg, I met my pupil Gambetti on the Pincio to discuss arrangements for the lessons he was to receive in May, writes Franz-Josef Murau, and impressed once again by his high intelligence, I was so refreshed and exhilarated, so glad to be living in Rome and not in Austria, that instead of walking home along the Via Condotti, as I usually do, I crossed the Flaminia and the Piazza del Popolo and walked the whole length of the Corso before returning to my apartment in the Piazza Minerva, where at about two o’clock I received the telegram informing me that my parents and my brother, Johannes, had died. Parents and Johannes killed in accident. Caecilia, Amalia, it read.

The implicit suggestion here is that Murau’s parents' and brother's death is somehow connected to Murau's happy mood and subsequent decision to change the routine of his walk home. I wondered if this could this account for what makes Bernhard's work so uncomfortable, obscured by the more overt features; something to do with the comedy and horror of the determinism that constitutes all novels, all stories, where chance has no chance, with everything is preordained by the puppetmaster, even where there are attempts to disrupt it, such as in BS Johnson's The Unfortunates or Jacques Roubaud's The Great Fire of London.

However, just as I had revived hope of discussing what I believed had long fascinated me about Bernhard's prose-texts, I read Nathan Knapp essay in Review 31 prompted by Douglas Robertson's new translation of The Cheap-Eaters.

We must forgive him when, so often, we find him making too much of chance events or seemingly innocuous decisions. [...] His narrators spend page after page belaboring the impossibility of chance in events and situations attributable to nothing else, as when the narrator of Wittgenstein’s Nephew devotes half the book to considering the fortuity of his presence in the chest clinic while his friend Paul Wittgenstein, the nephew of the philosopher is in the lunatic clinic next door. What seems like a stylistic tic, and is a stylistic tic in certain of his lesser works, such Yes or The Cheap-Eaters, is also one of the truest things about the man: his life—and by his life I mean his suffering — was the product of the cruelest chance.

This shook me. So it wasn't something only I had noticed and was in fact a feature so common that it was worth only our forgiveness. Everything I had written until then taunted me with its naivete. How pathetic, I thought, to spend so much time preparing to discuss something that was only a stylistic tic. Of course, I told myself, every life is determined by chance – the oxymoron revealing only the ubiquity of the paradox that is necessary to making our lives uniquely, randomly meaningful and meaningless – so why make such a big deal of it? 

My humiliation was compounded when I read Thomas Bernhard's Afterlives, a collection of essays on Bernhard's presence in European and American literature, but for different reasons. It was because, in 1990, I felt alone in my enthusiasm for Bernhard's writing, a solitude renewed each time I read even the so-called lesser works, as if that time sitting in a park reading a copy of Concrete with its stiff cardboard covers was an ever repeating revelation. I still wonder how anyone reading Bernhard for the first time can then go back without gagging to novels stuffed full of descriptions. So it was also a shock to read the roll-call of names in the French, Spanish and Austrian literary scenes going back to the 1970s who admired, loved, promoted and engaged with Bernhard's prose-texts. I knew already about WG Sebald and László Krasznahorkai, but there are many others famous authors discussed here: Susan Sontag, Imre Kertész, Italo Calvino, Elena Ferrante, Claudio Magris, and then several German, Spanish, French and Austria authors many of whom are yet to feature in English translation. There are also discrete essays on his relation to certain works by Geoff Dyer, Gabriel Josipovici and William Gaddis, and a more general discussion of cultural inheritence in comparison to the work of Philip Roth. It was embarrassing to realise I was very much a Johnny-come-lately in my Bernhard admiration journey rather than an intrepid literary radical. But, I told myself, it is no wonder I was such an enthusiast when the English literary scene is dominated by leaden novels. Bernhard's prose is to English literature what the light d'un altro sole is in Dante's paradise. And I'm not alone in that either: Michael Hofmann has said he craves an English Bernhard. 


"I profit from a philosopher only insofar as he can be an example" – Nietzsche

Not that we would necessarily recognise such a writer. As the illustrious careers of the names above should suggest, this collection does not expose imitators but examines instead how writers profited from Bernhard as an example. Stephen Dowden's essay shows how Sontag discovered in Bernhard a style could also have an ethical force. This gives nuance to the regular notion of influence. When a review of a recent novel said to be Bernhardian begins with Geoff Dyer's comment that "all writers go through a Thomas Bernhard phase" it implies that there is a base style from which the phase-goer departs in youthful protest only to return with his pen between his legs to write in description-heavy novels for ever more (in a discussion on BBC radio, Martin Amis and Ian McEwan said writers of their generation all went through a Borges phase, and I imagine many younger writers go through an Amis phase). But this base style is itself only a phase prolonged until it produces the morbid symptoms of Booker Prize fiction. Style is noticeable only when it is true to experience: Bernhard said that whenever he visited a particular street in Salzburg he could still see the limbs of bodies, smell the burnt flesh and hear the desperate voices of survivors clearing the rubble of shattered buildings following an air raid he witnessed as boy, yet nobody he questioned still saw or heard them: "Time makes its witnesses forget." And what had happened to bodies and buildings happened to writing, and yet writers carried on as if the war only supplied new material. Bernhard wrote against the style that makes its readers forget. 

His novels do not describe these events firsthand. Dowden's cliché-busting introduction to the collection quotes WG Sebald's observation that Bernhard's "periscopic form of narrative" brought a radicality to postwar German literature whose forms he says were morally compromised and aesthetically insufficient to what Europe had experienced, and adds:

If a novel is to have a claim on truth-telling about that experience, then the sleight of hand whereby a conventional writer creates the illusion of reality must be alienated or "framed", so to speak. Bernhard refuses to engage in the illusionism's parlor tricks. He may not be able to nail down a final truth either, but his way of writing embodies the nature of the failure that is inevitable.

While others writers continue to respond to insufficiency by packing novels with ever more descriptions of incidents within elegantly modulated narratives, Bernhard elevates insufficiency to a principle to the point at which, because it has become impossible, telling the truth in writing becomes the most important act, hence the character's deranged frustration in The Lime Works and Concrete, the unsorted stash of Roithamer's notes in Correction, and the indefinitely deferred monographs in The Loser and The Cheap-Eaters. Kata Gellen's admirably self-conscious contribution looks at Geoff Dyer's book about the failture to write a book about DH Lawrence that channels Bernhard's "rhetoric, mood, and style" and asks whether the failure to write itself produces a kind of writing. If there is, it is the kind of writing that is most distinctive about Bernhard's work once one gets beyond the headlines, part of what Dowden calls its "irreconcilable otherness" governed by a refusal to offer a "merry wink of the authorial eye to signal ironic intent". For the anxious reader worried about the opinions coming through the periscope, there is never any easing of the pressure imposed by failure: its comedy, its horror, its melody and dissonance, its mania and misery, and how all six are indistinguishable. It never offers peace just as Glenn Gould's versions of the Goldberg Variations never sends one to sleep. Dowden makes a point relevant to this about the "much-remarked, little-understood musical character" of Bernhard's prose: 

[The novels] do not primarily communicate the subjective thoughts and ideas of his demented protagonists and vouch for their veracity. Rather, they express the nature of a spiritual situation that is neither subjective nor objective.
It's wise then not to get caught up in the details. Gellen's essay takes encouragement from Susan Sontag's critique of critical distance by questioning her own attachment to Bernhard's work: "why am I so drawn to him? And why, in turn, am I drawn to writers who are explicitly and implicitly drawn to him, too?". Her answer is that Bernhard and those drawn to his example offer a way out of the purely negative model of failing to write. When I asked myself this question, I realised that my attempts to write something about the chance events in Bernhard's work had always failed to begin because it isn't what had long fascinated me at all. It was that the chance events always happened at the beginning of a prose-text. Beginning is what had long fascinated me, or, rather, how Bernhard's novels continue to begin and don't stop beginning until they end.

It appears to be because twists in the tale, that a staple of storytelling, always appear at the beginning of Bernhard's work, with walking playing a role in them all. He began his adult life by refusing to return to the TB clinic for life-saving treatment. He walked in the opposite direction to what was wise and never went back, and began his life as a writer by going in the opposite direction to singing. He explains in the film monologue Drei Tage that:

the thing I find most terrifying is writing prose…it’s pretty much the most difficult thing for me…And the moment I realized this and became conscious of it, I swore to myself that from then on I would do nothing but write prose.

There is nothing wise in Thomas Bernhard's life and work: he caught tuberculosis also by going in the opposite direction. In the third part of his autobiography, he says that as a fifteen-year-old he chose to work in a bitterly cold grocery store in "the roughest and most dangerous district" of Salzburg after rejecting all the jobs in the safer, wealthier areas, telling the official he "wanted to go in the opposition direction". He uses the phrase thirteen times over two pages: "she offered me a number of apprenticeships, but none of them was in the opposite direction", I did not just want to go in a different direction – it had to be the opposite direction".

I kept on telling her this, but she was not to be put off and went on taking what she regarded as good addresses out of her card-index. I was unable to explain to her what I meant by the opposite direction.   (Tr. David McLintock)

He must have known at some level. It may well be a physical equivalent of Paul Celan's Gegenwort, the "counterword" he spoke about in his Meridian speech, which Dowden compares to in literary terms to Bernhard's "speaking against: against exhausted narrative ploys and forms" and "against Austria's complicity in the horrors of the twentieth century". And given that Celan's example of a counterword is spoken before an execution, Bernhard's life decisions might be compared to the Persian woman's answer to the narrator's question at the end of Yes, or perhaps Roithamer's self-destruction in the forest clearing: in Celan's own words the counterword is "an act of freedom. It is a step." The step is always forward and wilful, reminding me of the character in a film who clings to the edge of a balcony, asking why he shouldn't jump, and jumps, and CK Williams' poem This Happened.

All of which leads me to understand why, despite admiration and envy, Bernhard's recent accommodation into English literary culture in several superb overviews and reviews in mainstream press, notably those by Chris Power, Dustin Illingsworth and Missouri Williams, nevertheless discomfort me. This is also the translation of words Bernhard uses in Drei Tage when responding to critical plaudits. The form tends to leave the reader in a state of knowledge and acceptance as one might following the dissection of a corpse; forgetful of what is absent. I want to appreciate what going in the opposite direction might mean for living writers. What would it mean for writing to step into the clearing?

An answer may be present in my ignorance of the meaning of what sets Bernhard's prose-texts into existence. "The difficult thing is getting started" he says in Drei Tage. "There are brute resistances right from the start, probably always have been. Resistance is material. The brain requires resistance. While it’s accumulating resistances, it has material". 

Resistance when you look out the window, resistance when you’ve got a letter to write—you don’t want any of this, you receive a letter, again a resistance. [...] You read books—resistances. You don’t want to have anything to do with books, you don’t want have anything to do even with thoughts, you don’t want to have anything to do with language or words, or sentences, you don’t want to have anything to do with stories—you pretty much don’t want to have anything to do with anything. Nevertheless, you go to sleep, you wake up. The consequence of going to sleep is waking up, the consequence of waking up is getting up. You must get up, stand up, take a stand against all resistances. You must step out of your bedroom, the paper rises to the surface, sentences rise to the surface, really only the same sentences over and over…you have no idea where from…uniformity, right? Out of which new resistances emerge, while you’re noticing all that. You want nothing but to go to sleep, to know nothing more about it. Then suddenly pleasure drops back in… [Translated by Douglas Robertson]

The repetitions of opposite direction and resistance may appear at first to be a stylistic tic but, as the phrases assert themselves, and as we assume Bernhard asserts himself, assertion is undone, opening a void in language, just as a gaping void opens to Franz-Josef Murau as he thinks of his childhood in Wolfsegg – a phrase also used thirteen times over two pages. This may be the reason why Bernhard was unable to explain what he meant to the official at the labour exchange. The words become a void in which the infinite drops into the finite, at least something other drops into life, creating a propulsive force from the coincidence of opposites: of silence and speech, of madness and sanity, of joy and grief, of life and death, and, if we include Bernhard's work in such a list, of brute existence and the irreconcilable otherness of art. It's no coincidence that Stephen Dowden says Bernhard's work offers a "backhanded affirmation by way of total negation". 

Going in the opposite direction then isn't necessarily as rebellious or revolutionary as one might assume, just as negative theology is not atheism; it was Nicholas of Cusa who defined God as the "coincidence of opposites". Bernhard may be the least theological of novelists but, if Dowden is right that Bernhard is "fundamentally an ironist and a moralist", there may not be so much between him to the poet for whom the lion, leopard and wolf were resistances driving him towards total negation in hell.

Earlier I referred to Michael Hofmann craving an English Bernhard because, he says, the nation needs a "bard for its unmanaged or mismanaged decline". I realise now that I crave one less for that, which could be done in journalism by an English Chris Hedges, than for one who goes in the opposition direction to the literature of finitude. The finite is present everywhere in contemporary literature; what I have called 'about' novels tackling issues aligned to a market defined and managed by newspapers. This does not mean a rejection of the world; Dante's example should be enough to refute that. Maurice Blanchot says that all of Nicholas of Cusa's work presupposes a twofold truth: "total immanence and real transcendence"; a phrase that perfectly captures the experience of reading Thomas Bernhard's prose-texts. This is why they remain an ever repeating revelation.

Thursday, April 29, 2021

At home he’s a tourist: The Moment by Peter Holm Jensen

Such a modest, self-effacing title, barely relieved by the blanched map on the cover. In everyday speech, a word or two is usually added to supplement the weedy noun: people say “At this moment in time”, which is when I ask: can a moment be in anything else; a moment in lampposts perhaps? Their absence here suggests a wish to let the word’s delicacy remain unsupported, even at the risk of becoming its own camouflage in the literary landscape, a suggestion reaffirmed by its form as a journal of life in the marshy flatlands of rural Norfolk, with names reduced to initials. The form draws back from headlong narrative to pay attention to what passes without pause. Such a concern is not without precedent. 

For Peter Holm Jensen’s fellow Dane, Søren Kierkegaard, what comes into existence comes from the eternal, from outside of time and so, we can say, apart from narrative, concurring with Plato’s Parmenides which calls the moment “this strange entity” between one state and another that is “in no time at all”. St Paul’s epistle to the Corinthians says the state of being dead will become one of eternal life “In a moment, in the twinkling of an eye” with the second coming of Christ, while Meister Eckhart in his turn counselled “the traditional schools of knowledge” to remain silent and recognise themselves as unknowing before God’s light, which would arrive like “a powerful flash”. Again for Kierkegaard, whose journal was also written for publication and whose Works of Love is alluded to in this one, it is His incarnation that gives the moment access to eternity, but the eternal is not present in the moment because that remains in the future. Christ Himself is the moment of transition from past to future, from actuality to possibility, but Kierkegaard qualifies possibility as a duality offering “the possibility of advance or of retrogression, of rising or falling, of good or of evil”. So which will it be for our writer?

The answer is important for P. (there is good reason for following the book’s propriety and using the initial) as he admits to having spent years sunk in the sense of life’s pointlessness, aware without knowledge of “something neutral and indifferent that hovered over things and levelled all the events of life”. He wondered how those around him continued to endure tedious days in the office without ending it all in the evening. He would lie in bed thinking of ways to die, which may be read as a wish to submit to the neutral and indifferent, to what is outside of time. P. says he mistrusts writing because as he writes, he becomes his own double, watching on as the words remove themselves from the undifferentiated connection he desires. In seeking a way back, he finds “a strange hope” outside of writing when, sitting in a church as light streams through a stained-glass window, he senses “an overfacing power...something wholly other”. A strange hope manifest in the hesitant, open form of The Moment.

It is appropriate then that the novel begins in Spring, when flowers are blooming and animals give birth to new life. P.'s girlfriend S. asks the neighbouring farmer T. to wait while she picks the wildflowers before he can mow them down, and then to hand over the feral kittens he intends to drown. It’s even more appropriate because Spring is also the time of Easter, when what dies is resurrected: flowers in a vase, kittens from a bucket, and P. himself, resurrected in writing. His mistrust of writing then becomes entirely in keeping with exposure to the overfacing presence. How, he asks, can we live in the face of the impersonal? The strange hope takes form with that strange word, overfacing, uncommon in everyday English, which is ideal in suggesting the incommensurability of P.'s experience.

The same applies to his observations of the bucolic landscape and the people and wildlife in it. This should not appeal to the audience for nature writing, which tends towards coffee-table kitsch. Standing before the "dark cold coast" at Southwold – notable of course for featuring in WG Sebald's generically compromised novel The Rings of Saturn – P. resists any antropomorphic projection and regards it as "neither hostile nor benign".

If writing takes one closer only to one's impersonal doppelgänger and nature places the observer at an irreducible distance, it explains the publisher's definition of The Moment as a novel when otherwise it is P.’s straightforward private journal and commonplace book. If he’s not at home in writing, as a Dane raised in Canada, he’s also not at home in his England, in Norfolk, in his cottage, or even, because he works as a translator, in language, and so too not at home in this book. This reminds me of how Gabriel Josipovici responded when someone expressed surprise at how much he reveals about himself in writing: “I can ‘reveal’ precisely because it does not seem to be part of me, it seems to belong to someone else.” 

To ask again, how can we live in the face of the impersonal? This book is its own answer. If there is no advance or retrogression, no rise or fall, no good or evil here, by paying attention to the silence of its obscure presence, The Moment seeks a modest, self-effacing place within the intersection of time and eternity, between the low-rise marshy landscape overfaced by a giant, apparently empty sky. 

Friday, February 05, 2021

The withdrawal of the novel


We are subjected to that which does not exist
       Simone Weil

When an old friend who has drunk deep from the puddle of the New Atheism complained on social media that religious people believe things that are “inventions, fairy stories, not real, made up", I was impressed by how a string of synonyms can expose the anxiety in the expression of conviction, and then intrigued by how it stood in relation to the same friend's fervid geekchat about superhero comics, science-fiction novels and horror movies that are no less invented, not real, made up. Is it basic cognitive dissonance, I wondered, or something else? Of course I realised that the latter does not arrange an ethics and metaphysics for its adherents to organise soul and society, and ‘belief’ maybe overstating the reader’s attachment to characters, their stories and fancy costumes, but it does provide a similar form of consolation in face of a cold and apparently meaningless universe, which must be why, despite the call for rationality and science to replace religion and superstition, fantasy is admitted and even celebrated. And while such exceptions are not obviously responsible for war, persecution, torture and murder, and probably not damnation or eternal joy in heaven either, they do rely on a determined identification with the not real. It is evident that the promise and authority of another world maintains a hold over even those who proclaim reason über alles. The world is not enough.

I have to include myself in this condition because, despite having grown up in an almost entirely secular environment, having never attended church and never having had any sense of or concern for, let alone belief in transcendence, spirituality or the divine, I have dedicated many years to reading and writing about literature with an even greater intensity than my old friend. Except, over the last few years, probably since the New Atheism rose to such prominence, but also because of what I have read in that time, I have begun to question if this has been the purely humanist pursuit of knowledge, social engagement and self-advancement that I had assumed it was, and is perhaps instead “a passion striving beyond all objects”, which is how Jeff Fort describes how literary space inhabits a life (this being one example of what I have read in that time).

The problem is, I don’t know what this could mean. How does one begin to address this condition from an inevitably atheist starting point and having had no grounding in anything obviously religious? I have made tentative efforts to read books by Christian and Jewish theologians, and though impressed by the personal investment of the writers in the fundamental questions of the meaning of life, which was oddly moving after so much philosophy and literary criticism in which the writers appeared to be invested only in the rhetoric of the subject, rarely acknowledging let alone investigating its own presence in relation to its subject, as if asking fundamental questions might knock down a house of index cards, there was none of the inwardness that enabled me to engage with philosophy and literary criticism in a practical manner, in which, say, I would read a book about Kafka having read everything by Kafka and having felt that the experience mattered enough to investigate further. I could not relate to the terminology of theology let alone its transcendent subject. The words had only a rhetorical power, stimulating like possibility without content or movement. A proper engagement would require a relation to the ‘Kafka’ of its studies, which, I assumed, would require either years of study, a leap of faith, or, more handily, a revelation of some kind, which, even if it happened, I may not recognise as such because it would likely be understood in secular terms, such as a mental-health issue. It appeared significant then that one of the Jewish thinkers I read refers to Kafka’s writings as representing “the world of revelation … in which it is returned to its own nothingness”.

a state in which revelation appears to be without meaning, in which it still asserts itself, in which it has validity but no significance.
It struck me reading this that the revelation might be an everyday condition, recognised until now as an “experience mattering enough to investigate further” without otherwise having anywhere to go except into the kind of intellectual research currently on offer: cultural, linguistic, historical, stylistic, psychological, political, each a part of the given world of the professional or the hobbyist, which only detracts from this vertigo of reading, this almost-experience at which an apparently humanist pursuit reaches a limit, the edge of its flat earth, which it is unable to accommodate let alone investigate, and yet which seems to be the reason for reading novels to such an extent rather than ‘living life to the full’.

The quotation is from a letter sent to Walter Benjamin by Gershom Scholem. Neither were theologians with a capital T, and nor was Kafka of course, which suggests not only how little such designations mean when one touches on the most intangible of subjects, but also the value of bypassing boundaries when doing so. Willem Styfhals’ 2019 study No Spiritual Investment in the World: Gnosticism and Postwar German Philosophy emboldens the suggestion, as the philosophers whose thought he discusses – Hans Jonas, Jacob Taubes, Hans Blumenberg, Odo Marquard, Eric Voegelin, as well as Scholem himself – are not the 20th century German philosophers I would expect from such a title (Husserl, Heidegger, Wittgenstein, Adorno) and some may not be regarded by many as philosophers at all, at least in the academic arena. Nor would you expect the ancient Christian heresy of Gnosticism to have anything to do with postwar German philosophy, and yet here, to my great surprise, is a book that has helped me appreciate that my lack of inwardness with and difficulty in accommodating the edge of the flat earth has a history deeper than any regular philosophy book has ever suggested; how words like apocalypse, messianism, finitude and eternity, and the dynamic of transcendence and immanence, which I had thought meant very little to me, were those that give a charge of significance to dedicating an inordinate amount of time to reading and writing.

Gnosticism is a term applied retrospectively to ancient Christians and Jewish sects that believed God is entirely withdrawn from the world, which was created by a malevolent spirit and is thereby, as Styfhals puts it, “an evil, fallen, godless, demonic, meaningless place”. The only hope was a dissolution of self in the mystical knowledge of God – gnosis being ancient Greek for knowledge – or in an apocalypse – the Greek apokalypsis means disclosure in an everyday sense, revelation in the theological – in which the true God will appear and everything revealed, which would also mean the end of time, hence the word’s off-putting modern definition. “All these thinkers shared the conviction,” Styfhals says “that modern thought was lacking spiritual investment in the world as it is” and so made use of the concept of gnosticism to make sense of modernity in which the divine has withdrawn.

The curious title comes from Jacob Taubes’ note favouring the apocalyptic route to salvation: “Let it all come down. I have no spiritual investment in the world as it is”. To which we may ask in all innocence, why would anyone in the modern liberal west wish for an apocalypse? Why is the world not enough to be going on with when words like evil and demonic have lost any depth of meaning and metaphysical threat? An answer may come upon learning that the note was sent to Carl Schmitt, a critic of modern liberalism, who was also a member of the Nazi Party. Like others discussed in the book, Schmitt saw secular modern progress as secularised Christian eschatology (“the ultimate destiny of humanity”), except the modern world excluded the divine aspect, or conflated divine truth with the humanist values of the Enlightenment, making Christianity a dangerously fragile religion in that not only is God absent from the immanent world but so is the hope of a transcendent life to come, and is replaced by the pursuit of the material comforts of life and the injunction to 'live life to the full', which leads to the obscure despair with which most of us are all familiar, often soothed by reading novels. Eric Voegelin argued that such secularisation is essentially gnosticism reborn, except that it replaced the mystery of a religious God with the impossible pursuit of heaven on earth. And while this might be OK for a time, we remain haunted by the threat of obscure despair erupting into something dark when the legitimacy of humanist values comes under question, and of course this generation of thinkers experienced more than one crisis of Enlightenment values in the twentieth century. They used the metaphor of gnosticism to give such crises a form so it could be recognised for what it is in terms of deep history, given that the absence of the divine meant conceptual language lacked meaningful terms to discuss it. Schmitt believed the apocalypitic tendencies could be contained by the state and channelled into worldly salvation, and we only have to recall the messianic fervour surrounding Hitler to recognise how that worked out. Despite the hyperbolic edge of the comparison, this helped to justify my suspicion that my friend’s conviction in the truth of New Atheism is a mutant repetition of what it claimed to oppose, sublimating a need for apocalyptic truth in secular form, and may never recognise this precisely for reasons of faith.

I realise that the idea that the tensions within modernity have theological origins is nothing new – Michael Gillespie’s recent book, for example, which ranges more widely across history and practice, is another book on the subject – but what surprised me was how the debates between Styfhals’ thinkers parallel those I have engaged with in literature for many years. For example, the central task of Styfhals’ philosophers was to determine the meaning of the world now that the divine has withdrawn aligns with that of Weber’s concept of the disenchantment of the world and the rise of literary modernism as a means of dealing with its causes and symptoms, notably in the loss of confidence in dominant literary forms, much of which is still marginalised by critics and readers as, at best, the integration of classical myth into the modern age (Joyce), a local transcendence (Proust) or, at worst, nihilistic and absurd (Bernhard, Beckett). This is echoed in Styfhals’ question of the attitude behind Taubes’ note:

Did [he] claim to be a modern atheistic materialist, a nihilist perhaps, who denied the world any spiritual value? Or was this actually a deeply religious statement from someone who rejected his attachment to this world in favor of another world to come?
His answer – “Paradoxically, both can be the case” – is immediately appreciated by someone immersed in what appears to emerge in the writing of those cited above, what Maurice Blanchot calls “not another world, but the other of all worlds”.

Styfhals moderates my haste in appropriating a correlation between gnosticism and modern literature by quoting a passage by the Romanian scholar Ioan Couliano: “Once I believed that Gnosticism was a well-defined phenomenon belonging to the religious history of late antiquity.”:

I was to learn soon, however, that I was naïf indeed. [...] Reformation was gnostic, Communism was gnostic, Nazism was gnostic, liberalism, existentialism and psychoanalysis were gnostic too, modern biology was gnostic, Blake, Yeats, Kafka, Rilke, Proust, Joyce, Musil, Hesse and Thomas Mann were Gnostic.
Gnosticism is then “a sick sign” because it can “accommodate with different contexts, in which it acquires different meanings.” However, I was encouraged to continue because Scholem believed gnosis is “a constantly self-repeating structure within religious thinking”, which could suggest literature marks the place where religious thinking recurs in a culture where it has otherwise withdrawn, in this case as anachronistic, and yet cannot be repressed. Again, it seemed significant that Hans Jonas told Couliano that an attraction to gnosticism is “existentially rooted”, which may explain my dissent of current literary culture practised here in limited light over the years, even if all those words listed above mean very little to me. Perhaps I’m following Saul Bellow who described himself in later life as “backing up towards the monastery”.

If gnosticism-as-structure marks the withdrawal of transcendence in modern thought, it doesn’t mean an end to transcendence as an idea pulling on us like the moon on tidal seas. For Styfhals’ thinkers, gnosticism is a category of crisis because “the idea of transcendence questions by its very nature the legitimacy of immanent being and mere human life”. My suggestion is then that literature as we experience it, especially in what can be loosely and unhappily called creative writing, implicitly contains and presents to us the gravity of the idea of transcendence, and the expressions of the critic and booklover alike are drawn from its gravitational effects.

It is an idea embedded in our ambivalent relation to literary modernism: in public we feel the need to highlight and valorise its fight against the repression of “voices” (Woolf), its stylistic innovation (Joyce), its intellectual grandeur (Proust), its existential horror (Kafka), its humour and minimalist beauty (Beckett), and we strain to seek equivalent cultural weight in contemporary artists who thereby appear only as sad epigones because they lack the pressure placed on their predecessors by the felt absence of transcendence, revealing how the question posed by its withdrawal has been replaced by ones of current affairs, identity, fashion and genre appreciation, in which doubt and anxiety present as hasty comparison (“already being compared to Proust and Nabokov”) and as synonyms of appraisal. 

To apply this angle to Styfhals’ study: it appears that if Taubes and Schmitt are at the apocalyptic/modernist end of the gnostic spectrum, with its unappealing means of salvation, Hans Blumenberg is at the other, humanist/realist end, rejecting the inevitability of the repetition of theological structures, arguing that God’s withdrawal can enable human beings to recognise their finitude, assert themselves as free to explore their “worldly potential”, which we see reiterated in Martin Hägglund’s recent book with the subtitle “Why Mortality Make Us Free” (or Secular Faith and Spiritual Freedom in the UK – the link goes to Dan Fraser’s excellent review). This has clear echoes of the conservative resistance to literary modernism in its promotion of literature as a utilitarian tool for knowledge and palliative escapism, and, as we have seen more clearly recently, for liberation and emancipation, initially for the bourgeois individual, then for the working classes, the subjects of colonialism and racism, and now for so many minority groups each individual might claim to be a group in themself and demand that the process all start over again. (This may explain the popularity of Joseph Campbell's Hero with a Thousand Faces theory in which everything is centred on the individual's “journey” (to where?) and the generic mold it offers, leading to cynically nostalgic and anachronistic cultural products like the Harry Potter series.)

What this serves to emphasise is the remaining presence of a reverence for the aura surrounding literature, for the obscure power it wields beyond that of the utilitarian containment of its emancipatory gifts, without the aura ever being identified let alone examined. Gnostic dualism might then be useful as a concept to appreciate why we are so confused in our relation to literature in a world that doesn't quite know what to do with it; a confusion most notable in the aggressive appeal to the aura in the disguise of literature’s value as a vehicle of “worldly potential”, and yet whose repressed presence is the guarantor of its value.

Kafka’s novels take place in infinity…defined as the ideal point where two parallels meet 
              Erich Heller

The aura is the ideal point, but this needs the second parallel, which has disappeared. Instead, we follow the first line into an infinity with no ideal point in prospect. The other line is invisible, and yet, even in this lack of recognition, the governance maintaining its separation is how we might understand contemporary literary culture: the book review pages in newspapers, ostensibly there as evaluators of generic conformity and consumer guidance are in effect keeping readers focused on one of the parallel lines, which may also explain the division of literature into various genre silos: go here for Realism, go there for Fantasy; follow the line into meaningless infinity. You have only to sense the discomfort of those using the reviewing cliché “blurring the boundaries” to see how governance works to accommodate everything within its fiercely limited understanding. While this may seem a trivial observation, it’s worth looking at where the common gestures of literary appreciation have their origins. Reading novels in particular is such a familiar activity that we neglect to register how strange the presence of a book is; not as an object so much as what that object represents: an addition to the existing world which itself doesn’t seem to exist in the way everything else exists, almost to the point where it is nothing; “a gap in the universe” as Maurice Blanchot imagined the first time writing was experienced. (It may be significant that in God Interrupted, a companion to Styfhals' study, Benjamin Lazier writes: "Some kabbalists...thought that God manifested himself in the world as nothingness, albeit of a special kind.")

Realism as a literary genre is a good example of how the ideal is policed out of the culture. Why is the sense of a narrative being true to life so valued in public appreciation? Why do we need the sensuous or gritty details of the world returned to us in the form of writing? When it was suggested to Thomas Bernhard that his writing displayed “universal indifference” to the world because there is almost no empirical description, he answered that he was only interested in perfecting his art, as “getting to know the world happens anyway”. Perhaps the answer is that literature exposes us to that which withdraws from description, the place in which we are ourselves withdrawn, and we recognise this in the experience of reading a novel or, rather, as the experience of reading a novel, which we seek to mitigate with appeals to the getting to know the world or the guilty pleasures of an imagination run wild, when, really, neither have much to do with why we are drawn to novels. Realism and Fantasy thereby become indistinguishable, as all genres become one in resistance to the ideal. This may also explain the exulting iconoclasm of the art Thomas Bernhard was trying to perfect:

I’m no storyteller, I basically loathe stories. I am a story-destroyer, I am the epitome of a story-destroyer. In my work, whenever any sort of portent of a story appears, or I see any sort of suspicion of a story surfacing from behind a massif of prose, I shoot it down.

The massif of prose and what it reveals aligns with what I detected as an incipient gnosis in the excess of Karl Ove Knausgaard's My Struggle, but my advocacy was bound to fail given the reception culture's obsession with gossip and genre. As I learned, this has been going on for some time.

In his great essay on Kafka, Erich Heller expresses astonishment at the “pathetic plight” of learned and well-meaning critics trying to accommodate The Castle within familiar genres – a fairy tale or religious allegory like Pilgrim’s Progress – when instead he says it is “a terminus of soul and mind, a non plus ultra of existence”, hence Kafka's inclusion in Couliano’s list. Heller goes on to define what he believes is the correct genre and in doing so offers a clue as to why the question of genre has become such a force in modern literature. He says The Castle is a symbolic novel, which he defines in opposition to the allegorical:

The symbol is what it represents; the allegory represents what, in itself, it is not. The terms of reference of an allegory are abstractions; a symbol refers to something specific and concrete. The statue of a blindfolded woman, holding a pair of scales, is an allegory of Justice; bread and wine are, for the Christian communicant, symbols of the Body and Blood of Christ. Thus an allegory must always be rationally translatable; whether a symbol is translatable or not depends on the fundamental agreement of society on the question of what kind of experience it regards as significant. The possibility of allegorizing will only vanish with the last man capable of thinking in abstractions, and of forming images of them; yet the validity of symbols depends not on rational operations, but on complex experiences in which thought and feeling merge in the act of spiritual comprehension. The sacramental symbols, for instance, would become incommunicable among a race of men who no longer regard the life, death, and resurrection of Christ as spiritually relevant facts. An allegory, being the imaginary representation of something abstract, is, as it were, doubly unreal; whereas the symbol, in being what it represents, possesses a double reality.
The issue for our response to The Castle is that, even if it is allegorical rather than symbolic, both meanings are lost to us because “there is no more any commonly accepted symbolic or transcendent order of things. What the modern mind perceives as order is established through the tidy relationship between things themselves. In one word: the only conceivable order is positivist-scientific”. This is why even literary modernism has withdrawn.

Time is the allegory of its own unintelligibility

This wonderfully confounding line from Pat Bigelow’s Kierkegaard and the Problem of Writing follows from this and returns us to the epigram from Simone Weil’s notebooks quoted at the very beginning, which happens not to be referring to the non-existence of a deity: “Time, itself unreal, covers everything, ourselves included, with a veil of unreality. Such is our condition. We are subjected to that which does not exist.” While it would be natural for us to resist the ideas behind each statement, we can move closer to appreciating them by recalling that in reading a novel we are similarly subjected to “that which does not exist”. If time is an allegory, a genre, not real, it threatens to become doubly unreal to us in the same way as Heller describes despite it being an embedded and vital force in our lives. In reading novels, we experience a world without time, or, perhaps more accurately, the eternal recurrence of time, in which time thereby withdraws. So while the meaning of genre is accommodated in public for its worldly potential, it correlates to the effect of liberal Christianity as described by Eric Voegelin: that, despite the modern removal of the divine from the world, there is a heretical desire for re-divinisation. This desire, a virus in the morgue of space, finds a host in the novel. The novel is the heresy of our positivist-scientific order; an unwitting gnosis. We might see the form renewed if it authors, critics and reviewers set aside the 'about' novel to approach the significance of this other of all worlds, of that which does not exist, of what is otherwise unintelligible, to see what emerges in the withdrawal of the novel.

Friday, December 11, 2020

Favourite books 2020

Every time Dennis Cooper posts his favorite (sic) fiction and non-fiction of the year, it alone exceeds the number of books I'm able to read in a year let alone the number from which it was presumably narrowed down. This is why I suggested a couple of years ago such pages choose only "axe books", if only to give us a chance. Those below aren't necessarily axe books, but I'll limit myself to three works of fiction published this year, and three non-fiction, only one of which was published this year. The links go to my reviews, so called.

Novels, etc.
Lars Iyer – Nietzsche and the Burbs
Rob Doyle – Threshold
Sam Pink – The Ice Cream Man and other stories

Lissa McCullough – The Religious Philosophy of Simone Weil

"Most of the unorthodox or anti-orthodox elements in Weil’s religious thought stem from her unusual conception of the creation of the world as a withdrawal of God....This means that the act of creation, for Weil, is a radical act of self-transfiguration of God by God: creation is already the crucifixion or passion of God."
Willem Styfhals – No Spiritual Investment in the World: Gnosticism and Postwar German Philosophy
"Kafka’s nihilistic experience, paradigmatic for modernity in general, was not the atheistic realization that there is nothing beyond this world; it was ultimately a religious experience of divine nothingness."
Joseph Kuzma – Maurice Blanchot and Psychoanalysis
"Blanchot proposes to read the Freudian unconscious as a radical exteriority, something that is not only indeterminate and unknowable, but that pulls man outside himself, outside everything he believes himself to be, outside everything that would comprise for him a center point.…an irreducible otherness that precedes any installation of identity – an obscurity more ancient than even the most primitive form of outside that is neither another world nor a hidden world."

Thursday, November 12, 2020

The disappearance of criticism, part two

A friend mentioned to me that he felt alienated by the articulacy of a literary critical book he was reading; by its neutrality of tone, by its calm. Unruffled was another word he used. We all might recognise this feeling while assuming it is admiration, respect, perhaps even envy. We become convinced without noticing that command over what one has read defines the value of criticism, and that the object serves a purpose only the critic may determine.

His comments made me realise that I am often similarly alienated by book reviews: “We know everything,” they say, “nothing can surprise us”. The critic may be disturbed by the content, offended, made angry, impressed, amused, surprised or delighted, but these result only in the language of reproach or approval, in hachet jobs or raves, each accommodated under the alibi of industrial evaluation. Literature is again subordinated to its public uses, so that for the critic to experience a separation from that regular accommodation is to experience self-doubt and the suspicion of incompetence. Asking fundamental questions is not advisable.

Alienation is the residue of those unasked fundamental questions. Their repression is only one of many symptoms of the despair of contemporary culture in its dealing with literature; a despair that manifests in newspaper book pages desperately seeking an aura for what we must call post-literary novels. The fierce policing of despair is manifest in this newspaper's report of the stern rebuking of Barry Pierce for his appropriately tongue-in-cheek review of some generic ephemera.

For the critic to become ruffled, it would be necessary for them to become aware of that which makes it possible for a work to become a work of art, and for their criticism to be subject to that experience. When art is completely absent, or used as a keyword for elegance and good taste, the only thing left to say is said by Barry Pierce.

By “makes it possible”, I’m thinking not of the conditions of a literary work’s production, the biography of its author, or the poetic or experimental quality of the prose, but of what Maurice Blanchot’s writes paraphrasing Rilke’s lament for a dismembered Orpheus: “The work is Orpheus, but it is also the adverse power which tears it and divides Orpheus.” The work is that of mastery and of mastery’s undoing, which means, he adds, that the work belongs to an order that we do not associate with achievement. Articulacy would then risk betraying the work by ignoring, dismissing or, more likely, remaining completely unaware of the part that distinguishes art from other human creative activity; the part taken by fire, to adapt Blanchot’s title for a collection of his essays; that which is non-essential, useless, even destructive. Instead, articulacy emerges in firm judgments on technique and the utilitarian aspects of the work. As the 2020 Booker shortlist also reveals, this tendency also now dominates the production of novels.

While this domination is perhaps inevitable, as the work itself draws attention to such uses, the reason why art has such an aura, and why the review pages regard literature with such uncomprehending reverence even as they abuse it, is as much to do with its adverse power, the part taken by fire, as its demonstrable uses. Criticism might reappear as a means of approaching the clearing taken by fire even as it is appropriated by reportage or self-expression.

In the same essay (from The Space of Literature), Blanchot pursues the aspects of art that define its remove from what he calls “daytime clarity”. When we know nothing of the history of a work’s creation, he says, “the work comes closest to itself”. It’s a curious phrase, as we tend to think of works of art as moving towards us in order to give. Why should it go in that direction? And what is a work’s ‘itself’ anyway? A timely explanation comes in The Magnetic Fields, newly translated by Charlotte Mandell, obstensibly by André Breton and Philippe Soupault, but written in such a way as to distance the writer from masterful agency. As the publisher describes it:

They would write for a week on every day of the week and they would write fast, as fast as possible, in complete secrecy. When the week was over, the writing would be done. No touching up.
From a page chosen as fast as possible:
Vegetable gardens are surrounded by various fences and trees of May or October which let the wind wander through. What are the dingy houses that open their shutters only to broad daylight? The major chimneys and iron doors of monotonous buildings allow shouts and the whir of machines to run freely. You still have to turn your back.
The sentences are grammatically correct and the words make sense as words, but context withdraws as the sentences proceed. There no destination for meaning. While we know the conditions of the production of The Magnetic Fields and the biographies of the authors, we cannot use them to trace a route back to daytime clarity. The work comes closest to itself then by exposing to the reader to what Blanchot calls our “bilingualism in a single language” – everyday “raw” language and “essential” language, or language in itself. The closeness of a work to itself is the appearance of that essential language, an impersonal reality that is “far more or still less than any reality” with which we are familiar. The words become their appearance and begin to become “the elemental depth upon which this appearance is opened while at the same time it closes”. 

Mention of ‘elemental depths’ is enough to raise concerns about the direction this is going – those pesky fundamental questions, such as Jacob Taubes’ question about the sur in surrealism: “What meaning can this prefix have in the context of a purely profane, immanent, and materialist experience?”. This is the question of life itself I detected in volumes one and two of Knausgaard's My Struggle, whose mainstream reviews are the ideal example of criticism's alienating force. We can answer at least that it means literature’s utile correspondence to the immanent world is not enough for a satisfactory definition. 

Perhaps those of us patronised as booklovers appreciate this even as we misunderstand it. Industry influencers speak of another world opened up by a novel and celebrate the escapism it affords us, but we sense it is more than that and cannot condescend to our experience and deepest needs. Is it only an empty transcendence, local redemption, or a secularised excuse for an impossible salvation, publicly mitigated or misunderstood as gaining instrumental knowledge of the world, an empathy for others and, of course, escapism? It should be an open question.

There is much more to write about this, which I hope will emerge over the coming months.

Blanchot describes poetry as a temple from which the gods have departed. When the temple was in use, the poem named the sacred, only it was the sacred that was heard, not the poem. And yet, now that the sacred has departed and we have forgotten even that it has departed, the poem remains as the imposing obscurity of a stone ruin. The poem, the novel, the work of art, is the “abode of the gods’ absence”. In regarding the ruin as our own, the home of our own meaning, we have fallen into a narcissism that cannot recognise what Krzysztof Michalski calls revelations of eternity – "irremediable fissures or intervals … interrupting the continuity of lived time” but which are now unintelligible without the control of science and the coercion of politics. But each time we read, our meaning is exposed to the 'sur' in surrealism. Jacob Taubes answers his own question:

Poetry is the only beyond, not because it bridges 'this world' and the one 'beyond'. It is the beyond itself. The word does not bear testimony, rather it is itself transcendence.

This was clear to the San people of southern Africa whose ancient cave paintings “were not representations of spirits but the spirits themselves”. 

This is why we are alienated. 


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

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