Selfies, Contemporary Literature, and the Presumption of Interest

Epidemiology offers a fruitful perspective to consider the malignancies evident in much contemporary writing. My perceptions here are far from universal, first because no one can get a proper grasp on what is happening in literature everywhere, and second because I am not an especially voracious reader. Yet more and more I am seeing not just the usual badness, but a particular and I think new kind of badness in the books I come across, which I doubt can be divorced from the documented rise in narcissistic traits in so-called Western countries – a real trend, even if most of the writing about it is vague, tawdry, and alarmist –  and from the peculiar distortions effected on subjectivity, not only by social media, but by the compulsion to identity that appears a part of our Zeitgeist.

The cardinal feature of the badness in question appears to be the presumption either of inherent interest or of a claim on others’ interest independent of the aesthetic virtues of the text in question (the word aesthetic is marked off here because in certain cases, other putative virtues appear to displace, substitute for, or supersede aesthetic value). Dividing the two is a thorny task: in general, one might say that exemplars of the first tend to enjoy the favor of some already extant mediator of regard or privilege, while those of the second seek to exploit some aspect of their alienation from said mediators as evidence of a reprehensible exclusion from consideration.

In books of this kind, though the author may believe himself to have produced something of value, the actual burden of generating interest is passed off onto the reader, who, if he fails in this task, is subject to one of two sorts of opprobrium: the age-old charge of philistinism, if the author is established, or that of bigotry, if the author is excluded, subaltern, or what have you. In either case, the predominant feeling for the reader who is aware of, but has not succumbed to, advance praise, browbeating, or the obligation to enjoy, is boredom, exasperation, and vague, persistent irritation.

Such writing finds its analogue in the perplexing phenomena of social media: the selfie and particularly the status update. In an essay on Ben Lerner and Teju Cole for Uwe Schütte’s Über W.G. Sebald, I used the term “literary selfie” to describe these writers’ work, which is less concerned with the places, circumstances, or persons described therein than with the authors’ prominent visibility against the backdrop they provide. A recent study in Toronto by Dr. Daniel Re, et al. concluded that “Selfies may therefore produce the photographic equivalent of a meta-perceptual blind spot,” and found that “Selfie-takers generally overperceived the positive attributes purveyed by their selfies.” I have the sense that similar illusions obtain in the literary selfie: that authors who believe they are conveying probity, sagacity, and acumen in general manifest obtuseness, inconsideration, and intolerable self-regard.

As these traits come to predominate, writing suffers in interesting ways. Plotting, traditionally the source of tension, becomes slipshod and piecemeal, because the presumption that the reader is always already interested strips it of urgency, and the rationale for a given incident’s presence in the text is often vague. Repetitions abound, because the author, like a friend who insistently posts photographs of his meals or of drunken nights out with friends, has lost sight of the possibility that he might be boring. In Leaving the Atocha Station, for example, there are forty-seven references to the narrator’s fluency in Spanish, or lack thereof, eighteen to taking pills, thirty-five to drinking coffee, fifty-three to cannabis, twenty-three to the narrator’s “project,” and fifty-eight instances of the word “whatever.” Less than plotting, in the traditional sense, or character development, such iterations privilege a view of the subject as an accumulation of self-perceptions or “status updates.” This may account as well for the preponderance of adverbs in many books of this sort, which qualify non-falsifiable gradations of emotion.

The trouble with such writing, beyond its obvious complicity with the self-commodification increasingly requisite for literary success, and the abominable nature of a world in which the enticement of embodying an image or a product eclipses the temptation to be, is its vast incuriosity, its retrograde supposition of the fixity of the self. Even at its most brooding, it seems affected, more concerned with the lineaments of meditation than with its mechanics or the strange shores it might lead to, as though its representatives, starting to cramp from the unnatural posture, are already rankling, ready to post their update and move on.

A Visual Key to Pere Gimferrer’s Fortuny

The highly abstract and poetic idiom of Pere Gimferrer’s Fortuny can easily obscure its documentary basis: virtually every episode in the novel is based on some historical or visual record. Painting and photography are particularly important to decoding it. Gimferrer has stressed that the reader need not track down all his references, that what is important is the writing’s poetic force. As a reader, that was sufficient for me, but as a translator, I felt a need to better know the text’s background. My editor at Godine and I considered illustrating my translation; in the end, it didn’t happen; but since I still have a folder of images relating to the text, which not only aided my understanding of it, but also gave me an appreciation for the Fortunys and their artistry, I thought I would put this up here, in case anyone else were interested.

Chapter One: The Man in the Turban

Chapter 1 Fortuny Man with Turban.jpg

Mariano Fortuny y Marsal – The Man With the Turban

Fortuny - The Battle of Tétouan.jpg

Mariano Fortuny y Marsal – The Battle of Tétouan

Fortuny - Contino.jpg

Mariano Fortuny y Marsal – The Contino

Mariano Fortuny y Madrazo.jpg

Mariano Fortuny y Madrazo – Self Portrait

Chapter Two: The Outsiders

Chapter 2 Henry James by John Singer Sargent.jpg

Henry James by John Singer Sargent

Chapter 3: The Flower Maidens

Chapter 3 Fortuny Flower Maidens.jpg

Mariano Fortuny y Madrazo – The Flower Maidens

Chapter Four: The Tragedienne

Chapter 4 Eleonora Duse by Corcos.jpg

Eleonora Duse by Vittorio Corcos

Chapter Five: At Palazzo Martinengo

Chapter 5 Portrait of Cecilia de Madrazo.jpg

Portrait of Cecilia de Madrazo by Luis de Madrazo

Chapter Six: Villa Pisani

Chapter 6 Amores in Villa Pisani.jpg

The Amores statues in Villa Pisani

Chapter Seven: Interlude

Chapter 7 Emilienne d'Alencon.jpg

Émilienne d’Alençon

Chapter Eight: Eros’s Mirror

Chapter 8 John Singer Sargent Study of a Nude.jpg

Study of a Nude by John Singer Sargent

Chapter Nine: A Visit

Chapter 9 Proust.jpg

Marcel Proust as a Young Man

Chapter Ten: Latitudes

Chapter 10 Condé Nast in a Fortuny gown.jpg

Condé Nast in a Fortuny Gown

Chapter Eleven: Ornithology

Chapter 11 Carpaccio Two Venetian Ladies.jpg

Carpaccio, Two Venetian Ladies

Chapter Twelve: The Traveler

Chapter 12 Hugo von Hofmannsthal.jpg

Hugo von Hofmannsthal

Chapter Thirteen: Embellishment

Chapter 13 sketch of Fortuny Dome.jpg

Sketch for a Fortuny Retractable Dome

Chapter Fourteen: Visions

Chapter 14 Paul-Cèsar Helleu, G. Boldini and L. Casati in the Palazzo Leoni by Mariano Fortuny.jpg

Paul-Cèsar Helleu, G. Boldini, and L. Casati at the Palazzo Fortuny, by Mariano Fortuny y Madrazo

Chapter Fifteen: Henriette

Chapter 15 alt. Portrait of Henriette Fortuny.jpg

Portrait of Henriette Fortuny by Mariano Fortuny y Madrazo

Chapter Sixteen: Nocturne

Chapter 16 Liane de Pougy.jpg

Liane de Pougy

Chapter Seventeen: Return to Villa Pisani

Villa Pisani

Chapter Eighteen: Theaters

Chapter 18 Martine_de_Béhague Comtesse de Bearn.jpg

Portrait of the Comtesse de Béarn

Chapter Nineteen: Intermission

Chapter 19 Enrico Caruso.jpg

Enrico Caruso

Chapter Twenty: The Wax Figures

Chapter 20 Mariano Fortuny y Marsal.jpg

Mariano Fortuny y Marsal

Chapter Twenty-One: Instants

Chapter 21 Marc Pourpe, son of Liane de Pougy, in aviator costume.jpg

Marc Pourpe, son of Liane de Pougy

Chapter Twenty-Two: The Lovers

Chapter 22 Theater Design for Tristan by Fortuny.jpg

Theater Design for Tristan by Fortuny

Chapter Twenty-Three: The Sphinx

Chapter 23 Dolores del Rio from Journey Into Fear.jpg

Dolores del Rio, from Journey Into Fear

Chapter Twenty-Four: Encounters

Chapter 24 Charles and Oona Chaplin.jpg

Charles and Oona Chaplin

Chapter Twenty-Five: Episode

Chapter 25 Natacha Rambova with Rodolfo Valentino.jpg

Natacha Rambova with Rodolfo Valentino

Chapter Twenty-Six: Sisterly

Chapter 26 Lilian Gish in a Fortuny Gown.jpg

Lillian Gish in a Fortuny Gown

Chapter Twenty-Seven: Table Talk

Chapter 27 Mariano Fortuny y Marsal Window Granada.jpg

A window in Granada, by Mariano Fortuny y Marsal

Chapter Twenty-Eight: Portrait

Chapter 28 portrait of Mariano Fortuny y Madrazo.jpg

A portrait of Mariano Fortuny y Madrazo

Chapter Twenty-Nine: The Business

Chapter 29 Fortuny logo.jpg

The Fortuny Venise Logo

Chapter Thirty: The Dwelling

Chapter 30 Fortuny pattern modify.jpg

A Fortuny Pattern

Chapter Thirty-One: The Resolution

Mary McCarthy as a young woman. Kay wears a Fortuny gown in her novel The Group.

Chapter 31 Julie Christie in Fortuny need permission

Julie Christie in Fortuny tunic and leggings.

Chapter Thirty-Two: Incursions

Chapter 32 Orson Welles Othello needs permission.jpg

Orson Welles in Othello

Chapter 32 Orson Welles NYT.jpg

Orson Welles in the New York Times

Chapter Thirty-Three: The Second of May

Chapter 33 Goya el 2 de mayo 1808 or the Charge of the Mamelukes.jpg

Goya: The Second of May, or the Charge of the Mamelukes

Goya, The Second of May, 1808

Chapter Thirty-Four: The Bell

Chapter 34 Fortuny inidrect light needs permission.jpg

Fortuny’s system of indirect lighting

Chapter Thirty-Five: The Japanese Salon

Chapter 35 Mariano Fortuny y Marsal The Artists Children in the Japanese Salon.jpg

Mariano Fortuny y Marsal: The Artist’s Children in the Japanese Salon

Peter Weiss, Again

This morning Michael Orthofer posted a link to an article in the FAZ about the history of a self-portrait by Peter Weiss, and bemoaned the relative obscurity into which Weiss had fallen. These things are hard to quantify, but it is true, at least anecdotally, that one hears less about his theater than, say, twenty years ago; and translations of his prose into European languages seem never to have appeared in sufficient frequency or abundance to establish him as a novelist worthy of canonical status. Much of his work remains unavailable to those who don’t read German, the majority of what is translated is now out of print, and his current publishers are mostly small outfits specializing in leftist literature, theater, or (in the case of the French translation of Aesthetics of Resistance) sociology and cultural criticism.

This is unfortunate for many reasons, among them the degree to which Weiss anticipated, in his novels, many stylistic innovations that have now become common currency (the question of Weiss’s influence, particularly outside of German-speaking countries, is not one I am knowledgeable enough to address). To my mind, Weiss’s early narratives represent a sort of fictional equivalent of the phenomenological investigations of memory, embodiment, and selfhood carried out by those imminently humane and attentive thinkers, Merleau-Ponty and Paul Ricoeur. Weiss’s early fiction practices a sustained, deliberate observation of what Antonio Damasio has called “the feeling of what happens,” and produced a novel type of autobiographical writing as distant as possible from the grand European tradition that extends from Chateaubriand and Rousseau through Dichtung und Wahrheit to Jean-Paul Sartre’s The Words. The result produces a kind of dislocation similar to Robbe-Grillet’s better-known works; but the humane seriousness of Weiss’s writing prevents it from lapsing into the gimmickiness that exasperates me in Robbe-Grillet.

Did the twentieth century produce a more radical novel than the Aesthetics of Resistance? This kind of question is always absurd: who has read enough to answer? Especially when, as Tim Parks suggests in several recent essays, the presumptions on which the occidental canon was founded are irreparably damaged, and any intelligent person must admit that not all values are transmissible through translation and indeed, that an aptitude for translation may necessarily imply a degree of departure from what is essential in a book’s original culture (a favorite example of mine is Los ilusos by Rafael Azcona, a beautiful, moving little book that would hold no charm whatsoever for a reader unacquainted with Madrid, with the tribulations of the postwar years, with a kind of partly gallant, partly childish eroticism peculiar to a certain generation of Spanish men, or with a particularly Castilian brand of literary mediocrity). But if one thinks of the big names, of Hunger, Ulysses, The Waves, The Death of Virgil, and so on –– it seems to me that, for all their singularity, they remain concerned with the traditional problems of storytelling and Weiss’s novel is the first I know of to point toward a kind of novel in which the primacy of narrative is cast aside and the possibility of doing something completely different arises.

That Weiss chose to frame his novel around the preoccupations of left-wing politics undoubtedly prejudiced its reception. The argument for the exclusion of politics from literature has never been rigorous, but the sloganeering readers, critics, and teachers who propound it have also never been inclined to thinking deeply. Perhaps, as his political concerns come further toward the forefront, Weiss’s openly partisan, openly accusatory approach will be vindicated; but the fact that the most indisputable tenets of Marxism remain in ill odor even now, when technocracy is dismantling Europe’s social democracies and the American right and center are bent on rolling back the Great Society, gives little hope. It must be stressed though that Aesthetics of Resistance remains a work of art, and has little in common with the ham-handed morality tales of socialist realism in its vulgar permutations.

Juan Benet

Juan Benet in watercolor, by his wife Blanca Andreu

Juan Benet in watercolor, by his wife Blanca Andreu

A tendency characteristic of much literature that might be subsumed under some awful moniker like “postmodern” has been the adoption of formal or stylistic tics that once served for the creation of written artifacts consciously destined for a canon still viewed in a positivist light, and their deviation into something resembling a form of madness. What begins as a characteristic adornment grows like a tumor, bursts the bounds of restraint and order, and makes a monster of the book in question. Beckett’s logorrhea in Not I and How It Is, Virginia Woolf’s lush synesthesia veering into catastrophe, or the stereotyped obsessions and demented aphorisms of Bernhard are good examples. The syntax of Juan Benet, the most complex and nuanced in twentieth-century Spanish prose, must be considered in a similar light: subtlety, by dint of innumerable shadings and qualifications, is rarefied into a verbal vapor lying at the very border of meaning and its absence; at the same time, the capacity of an individual phrase to shore up the semantic burdens it is freighted with is stretched to the point of collapse.

Evidence, perhaps, against the charge, frequently leveled against the author, of deliberate obscurantism, is his own apparent bafflement at the aesthetic dictated by his particular genius. In response to a critic who stated he was sure Benet was a great writer, but could not say so from experience, being himself incapable of reading past page fifteen, Benet wrote:

If my work is so entangled that the average reader needs a mentor in order to penetrate it, why didn’t I, at the time of writing it, draw upon that mentor or, better yet, with a bit more effort, embark on the path of clarifying it and making it accessible to the average reader and, at the same time, try to preserve its value as much as possible?

The effect of reading Benet is comparable, perhaps, to De Quincey at his most ornate, though whereas De Quincey’s involuted periods, with their inevitable peppering of fancy words, eventually wind their way around to an elegant and satisfying end, Benet’s have an almost aggressive aspect:

They came in exhausted, doubtlessly saddled with a sensation of futility and stagnation provoked by the indecisions of the cyclist or the mass of inhibitions imposed by decency, and in the shadows of the sitting room, thick with the scent of pavement and the aspidistras that had been watered at midday, they collapsed without gasping into the old wicker armchairs to concentrate on the child a unanimous gaze in which was distilled all the fury, the deferred hope, and the resentment of an unresolved conclusion to unite with the man for fear of losing his money: here is the ray that the child’s mind will aim forever into the horrendous negative –– a ring of mute and admonitory gazes in the depths of the summer penumbra, with the whisk of the fans and the quivering breath of the breasts rising and falling in mourning –– the indelible sign of his own formation: he will reveal it again, years later, in the moments of combat; before the gaming table, throwing himself down over a pile of nacre gambling chips, foreign, always foreign, to the face of the woman who retreats through the empty rooms while the public races to the table where his hand has been run through with the knife; on the haunches of the laggard mule, the mind (spurred onward by the vengeful and rancorous echo of the fans) concerned only with the weight of the coin that he never managed to clutch in his hand.

Juan Benet's infinite typewriter, used to compose the novel A Meditation.

Juan Benet’s infinite typewriter, used to compose the novel A Meditation.

Benet was an engineer by profession (and built the dam that would flood the birth village of writer Julio Llamazares, as recounted in this article), and his descriptions of landscape and structure reflect his formation. Nabokov has spoken eloquently of the importance of spatial imagination in the appreciation of fictional worlds, and Martin Amis, among countless others, has stressed that good writing consists in the annulment of clichés: but Benet’s descriptions of settings, often more prominent than the actions they foreground, make one wonder at which point the substitution of the precise for the approximate leads literature to stray from its vocation:

…the Hercynian efforts of the Westphalian momentum have taken form (it seems) in the Asturo-Leonese region along a geosyncline the axis of which ought to have passed through some point in Galicia, where it would terminate in a family of anticlines running parallel in an east-west direction, drawing to a close in the west of Asturias as they run up against the resistance of the massif and displaying a marked convexity on the Galician side.

For some time, I have made halfhearted attempts to convince publishers of Benet’s importance. I should have tried harder, but his writing is very difficult, translating it is slow going, and he is not the kind of author who shines in the ten-to-twenty page samples most often used to assay a writer’s suitability. This past week, I finally translated something complete: his book The Construction of the Tower of Babel. In its erudition, its refinement, its capacity to weave from the threads of history and observation a parable of doom, it seems to herald, in miniature, Sebald’s Austerlitz, which would appear almost two decades after Benet’s death. Here are the first few paragraphs:

The Construction of the Tower of Babel, by Pieter Brueghel the Elder

The Construction of the Tower of Babel, by Pieter Brueghel the Elder

Even when overcome by the recollection of other more troubling and dramatic paintings, what visitor to the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna can forget the impression produced by Brueghel’s Construction of the Tower of Babel? In the company of such important works as The Peasant Wedding and the autumn and winter landscapes –– in the description of which art’s treatisers have spilled so much ink –– the sight of the great tower under construction surprises, no doubt by its simplicity; as it is, in appearance, the representation of an inanimate object –– and in spite of the great curiosity the tower has aroused in all eras –– there is reason to suspect that the master wished, in this case, to relinquish his talent for the dramatic to the end of arriving at, and bequeathing, a painstaking description of the building itself, in an atmosphere of frontal serenity. In this painting, there are none of the axial deviations, whether geometric or chromatic, that Wölfflin has indicated as one of the master’s great resources for forcing the attention of the spectator toward certain points; there are no severe contrasts of light and shadow; nor is there that diffusion of dynamic elements throughout the landscape that so often makes of the rectangle of vision an image bereft of linear constraints. The building is represented in conical perspective, its vertical axis coincident with the perpendicular bisector in the lower half of the canvas, while the line of the horizon is situated approximately two thirds of the way up from its base, in such a way that the vanishing point ––if the painting is hung correctly, as is the case in the museum in Vienna –– it is at eye-height for a viewer of ordinary stature, who is thereby confronted with the doubled arch, like two eyes with red sockets, with which the tower responds to his curiosity, in order, equivocally, to lay bare its unfathomable mystery. It is here, more or less in the center of the balcony under construction on the third floor, that the focal center of the painting is located. A greater degree of frontality is impossible.

The tower is shown on a calm day, the sky furrowed with the odd innocuous cloud that serves to sieve the light of morning and evade, thereby, a profusion of scattered shadows; judging by those cast, albeit timidly, by the counterforts, one may assume the hour is near to midday. At this moment, the King of Babylon casts a gaze over his works (contemplating them, like Philip II in the Escorial, from the elevation of a nearby hill), in the company of the master builder who introduces him to a number of stone masons who kneel, paying him homage. Here the incident concludes; both by its setting in the foreground, in perfect obedience to the rule of repoussoir, as well as by the size of the figures, the group composed of the royal entourage and the stone masons is employed by the artist to minimize the anecdotal and place all the emphasis on the sovereign edifice that occupies nearly the whole of the landscape, from the earth to the sky, the seaside to the ramparts.

This may be said to be the first painting in European art that takes a building in the role of protagonist. The appearance of architecture in painting, assigned customarily to the Proto-Renaissance, will certainly evolve, with the building progressing further into the foreground until what lies behind it is abandoned and it comes to occupy the center of attention. And yet this movement is not, in general, accompanied by a greater emphasis on the protagonism of the building itself, which rarely serves as more than a framing device for the scene at hand; when the painter does accord it a leading role, this is generally done through interiorization, as in the Dutch views of churches and synagogues from the XVI and XVII centuries; as if facades and apses wanted for the virtues requisite to the fulfillment of such a calling. It merits mention that for centuries, the plain and simple representation of buildings was restricted to the art of engraving, as if to evade the potential of color, and the artist had preferred to subject it to those canons governing an elevation; this is the tradition maintained from Giulio Romano to the publication of Piranesi’s famous album, the influence of which, first of all in England, will be translated into the Romantic suspension of the prohibition, beginning with the cathedral views of Constable or the fantasias of Schinkel. Only rarely –– in keeping with this thesis –– did the urban landscapes of the XVIII century Venetians, so meticulously faithful to architectural composition, for the execution of which the artists made use of artisanal camerae obscurae and a precursor technique to photographic film, focus on a single building, greatly preferring the animation procured by a group of them –– set back from the perspective of a canal, a street, a plaza, or a dock –– to the stern solitude of one standing alone, even when it presented a variety of styles and shapes, as is the case of the basilica of Saint Mark’s.

A documentary on Juan Benet, in Spanish, produced by the College of Engineers of Roads, Canals, and Ports

Writing and artifice

With a certain frequency I read complaints about assorted aspects of contemporary writing and am embittered to recall that I and probably a number of persons like myself have written things that address the lacunae indicted in these complaints and that nonetheless have failed to provoke the interest, perhaps not of the very people who have uttered these complaints, but at the least of people of similar outlook. Undoubtedly there is something comely about disaffection and cynicism tel quel, and the demands they levy upon independent thought are fairly low. Lately I have read a number of critiques of the artificiality of fiction calling for a greater degree of self-consciousness with relation to artifice and have recalled ruefully the number of replies I have received from publishers who have alleged to be in search of so-called writing that slips through the cracks in which I have read that this is unfortunately not what we’re looking for. I don’t mind because there are so many things in my life that make me happy. It is merely an irritation. If anything, for my own amusement, and for that of a few friends who will read this, I am posting two short sections from my novel The Philosophy of a Visit about process and narrative. 

(Incidentally, this all came into my mind thanks to the reading of an interesting poem  I read thanks to a person who is as far as possible from the flippancy I am referring to above.)

1. I have a favorite memory of my sister:  her hair is still blond, her frame lanky, the bones still too long for the flesh.  She has yet to buy her first car.  She has walked to the daycare center to pick me up because my mother is coming home late.  It has been concluded that love in general is founded on mother-infant love and that love is moreover progressive, so that the failure to establish affectional bonds with the mother, or some mother-like figure, renders the attainment of secondary and tertiary forms of love impossible; still, it is true that later forms of love add something and are not mere recapitulations of infantile yearnings.  The sight of my sister at this time gave me a special frisson—I feel compelled, rather than to cut out this pompous Gallicism, to attribute its appearance here to my reading this morning, in a quarter hour’s respite from my time with my father, Frank Kermode’s essay—his last—in the London Review of Books, about the use of the word frisson in Eliot’s criticism, which the author translates as shudder, because it seems to me all this may have some bearing on what I have to say here, although I confess to having no idea what the phrase to have bearing might denote.  The sight of my sister gave me a kind of frisson—the word suggests for me less the quiver of the uncanny than that tingling in the forelimbs attendant on being torn out from one’s thoughts and cast into the sensual—amid the clamminess of a held hand and the sweet scent of exhaust fumes, which themselves recall David Geary’s assertion that consciousness arises primarily in response to problems for which the routines of involuntary memory are inadequate.  I had thought to ascribe this frisson to repressed incestuous longings, but the phrase repressed incestuous longings is merely risible.  We evoke these stale Freudianisms because we can lie back upon them, a stale Freudianism, like any popular wisdom, plugs up those perforations which are our lone access to our hearts.  To state a stale Freudianism is to feign self-understanding, with this gesture we relieve ourselves of the duty of self-understanding, and we resume, apparently impenitently, that series of rites and acquisitions for which self-understanding is a mere obstacle, as though these rites and acquisitions have evicted us from our lives…


2. It is presumption to act as though I have any idea what is passing through my father’s mind as he manipulates this copy of the London Review of Books, especially as his back is to me and all I can see of him is the slope of his brown sweater over his shoulder and the bird’s nest of sparse, dry hair spun around the almost orange crest of his head; but we are condemned not only to attribute, but to overattribute motives and thoughts to the people in our lives, and we cannot release ourselves from this constant and tormenting attribution and overattribution except through the sort of perverse meditative “letting-go” that is utterly contrary to our philosophical natures.

            At length, I accustom myself to ignoring my father’s page-turning and my own conjectures about his intellectual vacuity and I absorb myself, as one says, in the book of essays by Coetzee, a writer of whom I do not have the highest opinion.  Now, nearly a year after, having taken the book from my shelf, I look for passages I have marked, thinking I will analyze one of them here and give the impression that it impressed me in such a way as to linger in my thoughts, indissociable from the moments I passed with my father on the bus, and I see that I must have skipped most of its second half.  The last passage I have annotated is an acute but pedestrian comment comparing the respective maturation of Dostoevsky and Tolstoy, and after that, I have underlined the title of a book on Borges that interested me, but that I will probably never buy.  The only piece I read attentively, it seems, pertains to Richardson, an author I know only second-hand and to repeatable opinions about whom I am thus overly susceptible.  I interrupt my reading of Coetzee to look at Facebook on my phone.

            When we can see the city from the window, I touch my father’s shoulder and say, “That’s the city over there.”  We round a curve and it disappears, and in its stead is an obsolete swivel bridge on a shattered pylon surrounded by schools of ducks.  I ask myself whether such geographical and putatively lyrical details are desirable or necessary in such a narration as the present one.  I think of how much of our time is wasted watching movies with their endless, pointless shots of landscapes or faces or furnished rooms, and about Shklovsky’s thesis that narrative is, essentially, an accumulation of dreamed deferrals, of stalling tactics, before a climax of which we were conscious all along….



A fragment on love

For the past year, I have been working, though with less constancy than I would like, on an essay — the word should be taken as it was meant, and ought not merely connote the often-stale genre so contrary to its etymology — about love, a subject about which I was surprised to find, when I first wished to know more of it, sadly little has been written. Like everything to which one’s mind earnestly turns, it threatens to vanish into a coil of collapsing prolegomena, its object escapes the grasp, in this way it parallels the experience of yearning.

. . . I have long admired dialectical thinkers, the incorrigible optimism of dialectical thought as regards its resourcefulness, it is like watching the Herculean exertions of an athlete whose destiny cannot but be the helpless misery of frail old age; the sheer vigor displayed by Benjamin, Panofsky, Marx in the marshaling of evidence; in broad strokes they have magnificent suasive force (and in a sense, the more prodigious the detail, the more preposterous the claim) but I wonder whether they really believed, whether we really believe, their fine points. It is a favored pastime among writers of this stamp to speculate as to problematization: why what was stable comes to seem suspicious, how a once-shadowy phenomenological field is brought to light, the conditions under which thought posits novel objects, why a question occurs to us. Often the accounts given of problematization are dazzling in their erudition and ingenuity, but are they true? Do they not rather represent — let us not say arrogance, because even a meek person may be possessed of a corrosive curiosity that apathy cannot sate, and will begin to find answers, just as an explorer lost in a cave will begin to hear voices and see phantoms — a ham-fistedness, then, with the inscrutable delicate filaments of the individual lives in which problematizations have come to fruit? The necessary, but not sufficient, conditions of genius are the most to which one might aspire.

Those who weary of the philosophy of the present day and find consolation in Schopenhauer and Montaigne have tired of the stentorian tone of the philosophical technician and long for a good table-mate. The grating, pedantic voice is the most lamentable apportation, not of Marx or Hegel themselves, who were both subject to lyrical transports occasionally of great beauty, but of the Denkstil they ushered into being. Schopenhauer is far from humble but his eloquence is a generosity and an invitation to follow down the path of his thoughts and to stop and ask questions if we wish. With Marx and Hegel we see the beginning of ideology proper, the impulse to philosophy as an autocratic knowledge system clothed in the idiom of science and divested of the Socratic, of the spirit of the banquet.

This shift in idiom, it strikes me, owes its existence to a change in the character of intuitions regarding what it is to be right, which, bitter it is to confess, can never be anything more than a feeling. In saying this, I am sure (but this is also only a feeling!) of laboring under the same historical conditions, thanks to which a suspicion of the merely human and a denial of auctoritas is a default position, as those heritors of Marx and Hegel who relinquish the seductions of rhetoric in favor of a style at least in its appearance evidentiary.

That the attainment of the aforementioned feeling is this idiom’s true end is illuminated by its proponents’ wonted hostility to the applied science from which it is in great part derived. The historicist critique of ideology, if totalizing, either admits to its self-invalidating recursive implications or retreats into a deeply suspicious obscurantism. Otherwise we are left with positivism. And if this is so, the critique of science as an ideology is misplaced. Science is fundamentally procedure and gives rise to theory as though casting a shadow; thus engineering is an aftereffect of building, anatomy an outgrowth of dissection. The belief that the reverse is the case, more than any ideological bias on the part of scientists, is likely the result of the ever-increasing specialization of professions and their discursive arenas according to which, after the end of the nineteenth century, a simultaneous competency in philosophy and science became nearly impossible.

I recall as an adolescent and bitter atheist having read that before the eighteenth century, atheism was epistemologically impossible, that blasphemy was the most radical renunciation of which the medieval and renaissance mind was capable. It was tempting to believe this, and consequently to feign comprehension of the determining conditions of thought and, by extension, of its opportunities for liberation. But this is vanity. Just as I cannot accept, when I lie awake in horror at the thought of my own annihilation, that before d’Holbach all slept well in assurance of the indestructability of their immortal souls — for even in Hell we have our memories, otherwise our subjectivity would want for the intactness requisite to render it apt for punishment, and with a lone memory of you, my love, my happiness would perdure indefinitely — so it seems to me unforgivable egotism, when I imagine the long-dead masses in their mud-brick homes conversing in incomprehensible tongues, to lay claim to the inclinations that arose in their impenetrably specific hearts.