I’ve always found gratification in my fanatical faith in exaggeration […] On occasion I transform this fanatical faith in exaggeration into an art, when it offers the only way out of my mental misery, my spiritual malaise. I’ve cultivated the art of exaggeration to such a pitch that I can call myself the greatest exponent of the art that I know of. I know of none greater. No one has carried the art of exaggeration to such extremes […] and if I were suddenly asked to say what I really was, secretly, I’d have to say that I was the greatest artist I knew in the field of exaggeration. The art of exaggeration […] is the art of tiding oneself over existence, of making one’s existence endurable, even possible.
— Thomas Bernhard, Extinction (trans. D. McLintock). New York: Knopf, 1998, p. 307.
Why should a lobster be any more ridiculous than a dog? …or a cat, or a gazelle, or a lion, or any other animal that one chooses to take for a walk? I have a liking for lobsters. They are peaceful, serious creatures. They know the secrets of the sea, they don’t bark, and they don’t gnaw upon one’s monadic privacy like dogs do. And Goethe had an aversion to dogs, and he wasn’t mad.
We were then living in a strange period, such as usually succeeds revolutions or the decline of great reigns. It was no longer the gallant heroism of the Fronde, the elegant, dressed-up vice of the Regency, or the scepticism and insane orgies of the Directoire. It was an age in which activity, hesitation and indolence were mixed up, together with dazzling Utopias, philosophies and religious aspirations, vague enthusiasms, mild ideas of a Renaissance, weariness with past struggles, insecure optimisms—somewhat like the period of Peregrinus and Apuleius. Material man longed for the bouquet of roses which would regenerate him from the hands of the divine Isis; the goddess in her eternal youth and purity appeared to us by night and made us ashamed of our wasted days. We had not reached the age of ambition, and the greedy scramble for honors and positions caused us to stay away from all possible spheres of activity. The only refuge left to us was the poet’s ivory tower, which we climbed, ever higher, to isolate ourselves from the mob. Led by our masters to those high places we breathed at last the pure air of solitude, we drank oblivion in the legendary golden cup, and we got drunk on poetry and love. Love, however, of vague forms, of blue and rosy hues, of metaphysical phantoms! Seen at close quarters, the real woman revolted our ingenuous souls. She had to be a queen or a goddess; above all, she had to be unapproachable.
— Gérard de Nerval, ‘Sylvie’ (trans. G. Wagner) in Aurélia & Other Writings. Boston: Exact Change, 1996, p. 74-5.
Tolstoy’s great estate. The Guardian — It’s 100 years since Leo Tolstoy’s death, and considering how awed I was after reading The Death of Ivan Ilych, I thought I’d take the trip with British writer James Meek to Tolstoy’s estate for the centenary (via his article in The Guardian). It captures a few interesting details, particularly here in terms of the difference in Tolstoy’s legacy between the Russian and English-speaking worlds.
As the Russian writers begin to deliver their talks it begins to seem that there is a Russian Tolstoy and an Anglo-American Tolstoy – that to the Anglophones he is a writer, an artist, and to the Russians he is a prophet, a mystic, a sage. “Was he a heretic?” they ask. “Was he a Protestant?” Tolstoy – the dissident, the vegetarian, the pacifist, the proponent of universal love and minimal sex, the preacher (if not practitioner) of asceticism, the excommunicated Christian – is still active in Russian politics. Last year a court in Rostov region officially categorised Tolstoy as an “extremist” for having called the teachings of the Orthodox church “a harmful and treacherous lie”.
Eric de Maré’s secret country. The Guardian — The beautiful architectural photography of British Eric de Maré is having something of a web driven revival after an exhibition at RIBA, London. The warehouses in this picture in particular, “Skyscrapers” in Hastings, look like they’re about to come alive and eat me.
Housewives of God. NYT Magazine — Future scholar Molly Worthen profiled a growing leader in the evangelical Christian community of southern USA in last week’s NYT Magazine, moving through the complicated realm of fundamentalist Christianity’s treatment of women, one that is fraught with a lot of contradiction. Worthern’s stake in things makes this article, and others I read afterwards, especially interesting: she seems to want to chronicle the intersection between secular America and the growing conservative Christian establishment from the Christian perspective. Yet she willingly highlights a lot of errors and inconsistency in theology behind many of these Christian leaders, and doesn’t spare to detail some of their truly radical aspirations (on this note, this article is quite long, but worthwhile. It traces the historical development of ‘Christian reconstructionism’—a theocratic movement that aims to reinstate Mosaic law (see: banishment of homosexuals, execution of disobedient children) that apparently has more traction than it really should, The Chalcedon problem: Rousas John Rushdoony and the origins of Christian reconstructionism, Church History). She can wade into various apologetics for ideas that are really too extreme, but does so in a frantic kind of “I know this sounds ridiculous but there’s something in this worth talking about!” way, which I think is valid. As to say, there’s a contingency of people out there who think this way, and they should be dealt with before they splash into the mainstream, rather than after. Their overwhelming focus is on education, so it is probably not the individuals in question who’ll make waves, but their children. Worthen’s Onward Christian Scholars (also in NYT Magazine) looks at a new theological college that has reverted to a medieval-era centre of classical learning in sharp response to the current, secularised landscape of tertiary education. Its dean has noble aims: to equip his students to think critically about how their theology can interact with the world, the drawback being that the theology in question is never critically examined, because the dean, is actually a nutcase: “There are circumstances in which I’d be in favor of execution for adultery… . I’m not proposing legislation. We’re saying, Let’s set up the Christian worldview, and our descendants 500 years from now can work out the knotty problems.”
Modern Times: Exit the Tramp. Criterion Collection — Charlie Chaplin’s take on modernism is a pretty damn good movie, and now Criterion have put a new DVD set out it is being praised all round. This wordy essay is worth the read even if you haven’t seen the film, particularly for its history and host of amusing descriptions. I remember the WTF moment I had when The Tramp “speaks” the first time I watched the film, I can imagine Blanchot would have been amused.
To see the Tramp strapped into an auto-feeding machine, being shoveled a steady diet of metal nuts, or emerging from a shift on the factory line still adjusting phantom screws (even attempting to tighten the buttons on a woman’s dress), is to witness Chaplin’s alchemical gift for transforming anxiety into humor.
Riz Khan asks Zizek, are we living in the end times? AlJazeera — It’s great (hilarious) to watch Zizek go, more fun (sometimes) than reading him. His comments about tolerance, or as he dubs it, “the decaffeinated other,” are good quality, and his rejection of “the media” as a homogenous entity is something I’ve been harping on about for a while. I was charmed by his enthusiastic revision of his own ideas, where he refuses his old belief in the teleological progression of capitalism to democracy (capitalism’s only saving grace, he roughly says) in the weight of China’s thriving capitalism, where it seems democracy is nowhere in sight. (He also pronounces the word “guts” better than anyone else).
The passage from the presence of the signified to its representation in the signifier is, upon Derrida’s reading, a ‘fall’ from the intelligible to the sensible. That is, the story of Adam’s Fall is not merely a religious myth, when demythologised, by Hegel or by Derrida, it yields a plain statement of a philosophical state of affairs: that the intelligible is valued over the sensible, presence over representation, the simple over the complex, immediacy over meditation, and so forth. In each case, Derrida insists, the latter is implicitly taken as the fall from the former.
— Kevin Hart, ‘Interpretation, signs, and God’ in The Trespass of the Sign: Deconstruction, theology and philosophy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989, p. 17.
What we can learn from procrastination. The New Yorker — Finance writer James Surowiecki put together a half book review on new compilation of essays from contemporary philosophers on procrastination, half trivia-history about the thought behind the madness, which made my week.
The idea of the divided self, though discomfiting to some, can be liberating in practical terms, because it encourages you to stop thinking about procrastination as something you can beat by just trying harder. Instead, we should rely on what Joseph Heath and Joel Anderson, in their essay in “The Thief of Time,” call “the extended will”—external tools and techniques to help the parts of our selves that want to work. A classic illustration of the extended will at work is Ulysses’ decision to have his men bind him to the mast of his ship. Ulysses knows that when he hears the Sirens he will be too weak to resist steering the ship onto the rocks in pursuit of them, so he has his men bind him, thereby forcing him to adhere to his long-term aims. Similarly, Thomas Schelling once said that he would be willing to pay extra in advance for a hotel room without a television in it.
Interviewer: your favorite story about another author… Auster: It is, I believe, a true story: Kafka and his last lover, Dora, were walking in a Berlin park together and came upon a little girl crying because she had lost her doll. Kafka told her that he knew for a fact that the doll was fine, because he had had a letter from her. When the girl asked to see it, he told her he had not brought it with him but would return the next day with the letter. Thus began a series of elaborate letters from the doll posted from various locations. It’s a wonderful story, not least because it shows such compassion on Kafka’s part.
On Language - ‘Homage’. New York Times Magazine — Ben Zimmer’s regular on word use and etymology is often hilarious, this one doesn’t disappoint, especially considering how I reflexively wince every time I hear homage pronounced “hom-idg” despite its probable validity.
The oh-MAZH [French-ish] pronunciation [of ‘homage’] is gaining a foothold beyond the arts world, and for some that’s a cause for alarm. In his book “The Accidents of Style,” Charles Harrington Elster calls this a “preposterous de-Anglicization” that is “becoming fashionable among the literati.” Elster had previously complained that good old HOM-ij was losing out to OM-ij “in havens for the better-educated like National Public Radio,” and for defenders of the “h” pronunciation oh-MAZH just adds insult to injury.
Daddy, Sylvia Plath. The Casual Optimist — Stark typographic rendering of Plath’s poem on printed on hand-cut wooden blocks, now put together in a book.
Souvenirs d’une année à Marienbad. La Règle du jeu — New documentary put together from old material on the making of Last Year at Marienbad for free to stream, very cool.
An extraordinarily illuminating detail emerges, in the course of the documentary, at the one point that the action departs from the set of Resnais’s film: Spira filmed an excursion by the cast and crew to the Munich suburb of Dachau. There, they visited the remains of the concentration camp (which Spira didn’t film); they also walked through the nearby center of the town (where, Schlöndorff commented, the residents he spoke with had little interest in talking about the camp). I’ve always thought that the film is noteworthy for the pre-war atmosphere it conjures, with no actual calendar reference. “Marienbad” is, of course, a German name (“Bad” means “bath,” referring to a spa), and the title of the film could (with a tiny tweak of the French) mean the last year at Marienbad—as in, this is how life was in Germany before all hell broke loose, or even, this is the sort of passionately decadent frivolity—and the sort of breakdown of memory—that results in disaster on a historical scale. It struck me that Resnais’s film, about love in a castle before the war, is a rueful retrospective gloss on Jean Renoir’s “Rules of the Game” (“La Règle du jeu”).
The Making of Samuel Beckett by J. M. Coetzee. The New York Review of Books — This is a bit old, but a second volume of Beckett’s letters from Cambridge UP has been announced, so this long review of the first covering Beckett’s early years from 1929 to 1940 from the great JM Coetzee is worth a look. Great details of Beckett’s reading history, his relationship to Paris, and his often strained friendship with James Joyce (among many other details).
By the time [Beckett] was reenlisted, in 1937, to help with the proofreading of Work in Progress (later Finnegans Wake), his attitude toward the master had become less fraught, more charitable.
“Joyce paid me 250 fr. for about 15 hrs. work on his proofs…. He then supplemented it with an old overcoat and 5 ties! I did not refuse. It is so much simpler to be hurt than to hurt.”
Hey gang, I have finished university for the session, which was the reason for the slowdown, but now I can read again I’ve got lots of good stuff to come, alongside material I’ve had for a while. I have a bunch from Kevin Hart on Derrida and theology, some English language classic fiction from Fitzgerald, Conrad, and a bit more Joyce. I thought I’d do a wrap-up of a few of the best Blanchot books and essays I read over the past month. Awaiting some Gerard de Nerval short fiction in the mail before I begin in earnest through Beckett’s prose. And behind it all will be a slow burn effort at Don Delillo’s Underworld, that I’ve ignored for too long!
The fictitious is never in things or in people, but in the impossible verisimilitude of what lies between them: encounters, the proximity of what is most distant, the absolute dissimulation of what is in our midst. Therefore, fiction consists in not showing the invisible, but in showing the extent to which the invisibility of the visible is invisible.
— Michel Foucault, ‘Maurice Blanchot: The Thought from Outside’ (trans. B. Massumi) in Foucault / Blanchot, 1987, Zone Books, 23-4
When language arrives at its own edge, what it finds is not a positivity that contradicts it, but the void that will efface it. Into that void it must go, consenting to come undone in the rumbling, in the immediate negation of what it says, in a silence that is not the intimacy of a secret but a pure outside where words endlessly unravel.
— Michel Foucault, ‘Maurice Blanchot: The Thought from Outside’ (trans. B. Massumi) in Foucault / Blanchot, 1987, Zone Books, 22
More than something that brushes against characters in [Blanchot’s] narratives, the Outside is also what enables a récit to be written in the first place, and what enables us to distinguish between a roman [novel] and a récit. A roman [novel] consists of events that take place in time, that we follow one after the other, interested in how situations develop, get complicated, and are then more or less resolved for characters. A récit addresses itself to just the one event that has taken place, if it has taken place, and there is no moment in principle when it must end… A récit begins, then, not by the act of an author expressing himself or herself, being in control of a content and a style, but by being drawn toward the point where being and image pass endlessly into one another, a point that is real only while the narrative is being written or read. From the first word of the narrative, language has been detached from the world and the author; it seems to go on as though by itself—an experience familiar to any writer of prose fiction or poetry, commonly known as “inspiration.” The attraction of the Outside is Blanchot’s revision of this old idea. Whereas Plato in Phaedrus 244 thought that the artist was taken into a higher world when in the throes of creation. Blanchot suggests that in fact he or she descends to what flows beneath being, namely, the Outside.
— Kevin Hart, ‘Introduction’ in Clandestine Encounters (ed. K. Hart), 2010, University of Notre Dame Press, 17-8
To say that I understand these words would not be to explain to myself the dangerous peculiarity of my relations with them. Do I understand them? I do not understand them, properly speaking, and they too who partake of the depth of concealment remain without understanding. But they don’t need that understanding in order to be uttered, they do not speak, they are not interior, they are, on the contrary, without intimacy, being altogether outside, and what they designate engages me in this “outside” of all speech, apparently more secret and more interior than the speech of the innermost heart, but, here, the outside is empty, the secret is without depth, what is repeated is the emptiness of repetition, it doesn’t speak and yet it has always been said already. I couldn’t compare them to an echo, or rather, in this place, the echo repeated in advance: it was prophetic in the absence of time.
— Maurice Blanchot, The One Who Was Standing Apart from Me (trans. L. Davis), 1993, Station Hill Press, 72
[Blanchot] affirms the Outside, the non-place where being perpetually empties itself as image and in which possibility finds no traction and which eternally returns in writing and in the recognition of the human relation. Attuned to the Outside, ‘I’ am divided, lose all my possibilities, and experience time differently, as though it were a stagnant pool rather than a stream.
— Kevin Hart, ‘From the Star to the Disaster’, Paragraph, 30: 3 (Blanchot’s Epoch), 2007, Edinburg University Press, 93
[The Writing of the Disaster] is a book of experience, of what ‘experience’ of the disaster might be: first of all, experience par excellence, exposure to peril, yet also, since it is not a lived event, non-experience, an attunement to the Outside that is suffered in a state of radical passivity in which one loses the power to say ‘I’. When Levinas reflects on the book, he underlines his friend’s concern with ‘an event which is neither being nor nothingness’ which Blanchot calls ‘disaster’ and which ‘signifies neither death nor an accident, but as a piece of being which would be detached from its fixity of being, from its reference to a star, from all cosmological existence, a dis-aster.’
— Kevin Hart, ‘From the Star to the Disaster’, Paragraph, 30: 3 (Blanchot’s Epoch), 2007, Edinburg University Press, 92
The cosmos, as conceived by the Greeks, is ‘securus adversus deos’ [heedless/free from gods] (Franz Rosenzweig, The Star of Redemption, 22), insulated from the gods, and this is not because the Greeks turned away from their divinities but because Olympus was always a world unto itself, without any need to refer to the villages and fields below. For all the Greeks’ talk of the gods, and for all our talk of classical mythology, the Greeks in fact developed ‘a world without gods’ (S, 42), even when the gods ruled the whole world. The Greeks lived without Apollo and Zeus having to establish concrete relationships with mortals. Similarly, Christian theology has also been set against God to the extent that it has construed God as existing a se [in himself], eternal, immutable, omniscient, omnipotent, and not needing to form any relations with human beings. No matter when and where it takes place, thinking is safe from the disturbance of the divine whenever it believes that it can explain the whole from within its limits. For the Greeks, the gods are the highest beings of the cosmos. For Islam, God is unconditioned and perfect, utterly apart from the world. And for those Christians whose theology depends on Plato and Aristotle (presumably without the adjustments made by Aquinas), God is the highest ground of being. In all these cases, divinity is not beyond the cosmos as its Creator.
— Kevin Hart, ‘From the Star to the Disaster’, Paragraph, 30: 3 (Blanchot’s Epoch), 2007, Edinburg University Press, 86