Adam Phillips, In Writing

‪Adam Phillips: “Writing needn’t be a world domination project… but just the attempt to find enough people who are interested in what matters to you‬”

This quotation comes from Adam Phillips’ latest collection, In Writing.

I sourced it from the review in The Guardian.

How timely I should stumble on this remark – I have begun to ask: what values guide my writing and what matters to me in writing? These questions came to me in therapy, and Phillips’ practice of writing is a model for my own. It appears I can find company by going sane writing.

Thank you for being interested in what matters to me.

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Waste books and epigrams

Waste books and epigrams

“The excuses we make to ourselves when we want to do something are excellent material for soliloquies, for they are rarely made except when we are alone, and are very often made aloud.”

George Lichtenberg (1742-99), The Waste Books, #22, p 8

I collected from the local library The Notebooks of Robert Frost, which features on its cover an emblematic photograph of the aged poet writing in his Vermont home in 1958, as if he were painting at an easel.

Robert Frost.jpg

Image Source: Alfred Eisenstaedt via Prospect magazine

The notebooks stretch from the 1890s to the 1970s, spanning a life’s adventure in writing that is surely both too majestic and too humble to be known as a career, and contain all manner of writing, reflection, experiment and, as suits their form, annotations. Notebook 20 dates from 1929, and begins

“These are not monologues but my part in a conversation in which the other part is more or less implied.” (The Notebooks of Robert Frost, p 267)

The thought reminds me of Maurice Blanchot’s idea of the infinite conversation, which I imagine as the eternal, if enigmatic, survival of the solitary murmuring of the great words that sustain the connection between the dead and the living. To be part of this infinite conversation is why I write. To attend to the dying murmurings of this conversation, the words that are at risk of ashen destruction in the burning archive, is why I write, and why I devote so much time, despite no show of social success or fame or even much of an audience, to this life in literature.

It comes with a moral imperative, an ordinary virtue of dignity and grace in defeat, evoked in Herbert’s “Envoy of Mr Cogito”

repeat old incantations of humanity fables and legends
because this is how you will attain the good you will not attain
repeat great words repeat them stubbornly
like those crossing the desert who perished in the sand
To be an old, grey, wizened and solitary man, like Frost in his Vermont home, and still to repeat these old incantations is my path of redemption.
Strange, though, that all we write is so perishable, so vulnerable to fire and neglect, and yet these impermanent notebooks endure. It is a paradox that these words survive beyond death when they are ephemeral, a temporary incantation against the chaos of the world, in which the poet-priest marks the lost place of truth and beauty in the world as if in a disappearing rite. These are words consigned to “waste books,” the flames and the mould, and not inscribed defiantly in stone like the original epigrams.

 

The introduction  to Frost’s Notebooks compares them to the “Waste Books” of George Lichtenberg.  Out of these scraps of notes, ideas, drafts, quotations, the ordinary observations of life emerged, after death, Lichtenberg, the great aphorist. The temporary words of waste books become in time monuments of soul-making.

Is the blog the new waste book? It is somewhere else surely. It does not have the  privacy of personal experiment, but nor does it have the polish and mirage of publication. Still it seeks to endure beyond its act of writing, just as Frost kept and preserved his notebooks. He dated them. He organised them. He secured them against loss and destruction, and bequeathed them to those who wish to take part in the infinite conversation.

So too this blog finds its way to endure, even if it is always written in a first draft, with little plan or attempt to impress, to manufacture a brand. I pen the words, and cast them adrift on the digital ocean. It is one of the ordinary things that give me the accomplishment of form without the drag of organisation. It is one of the lesser forms that endure.

“Fortunately too no forms are more engrossing, gratifying, comforting, staying than those lesser ones we throw off, like vortex rings of smoke, all our individual enterprise and needing nobody’s cooperation; a basket, a garden, a room, an idea, a picture, a poem.” Robert Frost, Letter to The Amherst Student, quoted in Notebooks, p xv

And a blog. Even if, or perhaps especially if, that blog has few readers, no great name.

The work is solitary: that does not mean that it remains incommunicable, that it lacks a reader. But the person who reads it enters into that affirmation of the solitude of the work, just as the one who writes it belongs to the risk of solitude.” (Maurice Blanchot, “The Essential Solitude” in The Gaze of Orpheus, p 64)

 

Hannah Arendt and remembering thought

Hannah Arendt and remembering thought

After listening to an episode of the On Being podcast, titled Thinking and Friendship in Dark Times, I took up the invitation to remember the impact on my own thought of Hannah Arendt.

The podcast featured a literary critic who used the mantle of Arendt’s thought to criticise approaches to refugees, global capitalism and the evils of bureaucracy. Yet still the grounding of Arendt’s thought in the dappled things of ordinary experiences, friendship, neighbourliness, the freedom to make a new beginning shone through. The piously radical lecturer, speaking from her holiday home in Southern France, may be surprised to learn that Arendt remains an inspiration for a benighted lowly under-castellan at the far end of the world.

I took up an old faded copy of The Human Condition, which was published first in 1958, and read its profound ironic beginning that described the attempt to land a man on the moon, and so flee the bounds of the one gift that we all share, the one and only known world of ours that we may choose to love. Arendt subtly notes that this trope of escaping to other worlds shows that men are not slow to take up the dreams of science, but have outsped them by decades, notably in the genres of science fiction.

This dream of the flight to the moon, like the dreams to overcome our limits through technology or to outreach mortality itself, becomes for Arendt a symbol for modern world alienation – “its twofold flight from the earth into the universe and from the world into the self” (Human Condition, p. 6).

Amor Mundi. That was the dreamt title for Arendt’s book that became The Human Condition. To love the world as it is, and not to seek revenge against reality in utopias of technology, totalitarianism or utopias. This was the lesson that I absorbed most from Arendt when I read her works assiduously in my 20s and early 30s.

She also spoke to me as an outcast. Where our podcast literary critic embraced Arendt’s status as a refugee to castigate the world; I saw in her a determination to love the world as an outcast, to see it clearly, and yet to make new beginnings and to disclose your self to the world. That is what human freedom is for Arendt. Not to remake the world; but to give birth to new things in a world that is precious, bounded, beyond our control and yet the only one we can ever know.

It is this stance that shines through in an interview between Arendt and Günter Grass, filmed in the 1950s, complete with on-screen smoking. This interview is a remarkable survivor in itself. It begins with Grass challenging Arendt’s role as a philosopher in a male profession; to which she replies, I am no philosopher, and certainly belong to no circle of philosophers.

Then it proceeds to Günter Grass questioning Arendt on her absence of political commitment, such as joining a party, to oppose the Nazi party on its rise to power. Such dramatic irony: we know now both the intimate betrayal of Arendt by the crude political beliefs of her one-time lover, the awkward heir to Nietzsche’s tradition of poetic philosophy, Martin Heidegger;  and the secret, which Günter Grass himself held close during this interview, that Grass served in the Waffen-SS during the war.

Heidegger’s philosophy is a melancholy meditation on being thrown into time and being, anxiously anticipating death. For him remembrance discloses the miracle of Being, and all that we will lose in death. So thinking should not seek to analyse, but to memorate. So I find in one of the old index cards on which I recorded my thinking, this gloss by George Steiner on Heidegger‘s Letter on Humanism on the distinction between logos and legein:

The latter, claims Heidegger, does not signify a discursive, sequential saying, but an ingathering, a harvesting, a collecting and re-collecting (re-membering) of the dispersed, vestiges of Being. To think fundamentally is not to analyse but to memorate (Danken ist Andanken), to remember Being so as to bring it into radiant disclosure (George Steiner, Heidegger, p. 124)

Arendt, by contrast, thinks deeply about memory, but together with what she calls natality, the “capacity to begin, to start something new, to do the unexpected, with which all human beings are endowed by virtue of being born” (Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy). And natality brings her thought closer to action and the love of the world. After all, we love our children, and do not seek to remake them as more perfect humans.

It was Arendt’s political thought – and in the video interview, she denies being a philosopher in favour of being a political theorist -that moulded me deeply. From Arendt and others I absorbed a refusal to fall into oppositional categories, dualisms of left and right, conservative and progressive. The works I read most closely were Past and Present and On Revolution, which especially seemed to carry the paradox I myself experienced of wanting to love the world as an outcast. On a card I have written down from On Revolution:

To the extent that the greatest event in every revolution is the act of foundation, the spirit of revolution contains two elements which to us seem irreconcilable and even contradictory. The act of founding the new body politic, of devising the new form of government involves the grave concern with the stability and durability of the new structure; the experience, on the other hand, which those who are engaged in this grave business are bound to have is the exhilarating awareness of the human capacity of beginning, the high spirits which have always attended the birth of something new on earth. (Arendt, On Revolution)

From the irreconcilable emotions we find in beginning and enduring spring our opposites of political thought – conservatism and progressive liberalism. But, Arendt says, this centuries-old tradition of political thought “must be recognised to be among the symptoms of our loss.”

The deeper lesson of enduring through dark times that I find in Arendt’s writings is the responsibility to bring together as friends or at least as neighbours our human plurality – thought and action, enduring and beginning, conservative and progressive dispositions, aggression and passivity, vita activa and vita contemplativa. Not remaking of the world through technological or bureaucratic utopias, but poetic thought is an essential pathway to this imagined coexistence.

She closes The Human Condition with the remarks that thought remains possible “wherever men live under conditions of political freedom.” But Arendt notes that “no other human capacity is so vulnerable, and it is in fact far easier to act under conditions of tyranny than it is to think” ( p 324). This duty for poetic thought in destitute times rests on all of us, not a few ivory tower academics. We can create such thoughts each in our own public samizdat. So the last words of the book that should have been titled Amor Mundi retreat rightly from the noisy marketplace, and repeat the great words of Cato the Elder, the conservative Roman senator and historian:

“Never is he more active than when he does nothing, never is he less alone than when he is by himself.”

 

 

 

The hope of none

The hope of none

In reading Austerlitz last night, I stumbled on the passage in which the relayed memories of Austerlitz tell of his ambling into the strangely desolate town in which lie the ruins from which he has averted his attention for four decades. Here he finds the reason for his long avoidance of his personal and national history. Here he recovers the fate from which he fled as a Jewish child on a train. Here he knows again the loss, the unbearable trauma, that none of his family survived.

There he sees the gate of Theresienstadt, with its slogan in wrought iron decorating its upper border.

Arbeit Mach Frei.

None who entered believed this slogan of the powerful, this siren song of productivity.

Only the eerie freedom of death, if it can be known, was delivered here.

But we have forgotten. Again, we are led to believe that work will set us free.

We need to remember, like Austerlitz, and to turn and face the great destructiveness at the heart of our modern society – this turning of the necessity of work first into a compulsion, and then into a vocation.

Creative destruction? Innovative disruption? None truly believe that surely?

It is not work, but simpler perceptions that can give us all hope, that may set us free.

So says Zbigniew Herbert in “The Envoy of Mr Cogito”:

Beware of dryness of heart love the morning spring the bird with an unknown name the winter oak 

light on a wall the splendour of the sky 

they don’t need your warm breath 

they are there to say: none will console you

 

Image: The gate of Theresienstadt in the Czech Republic, former German concentration camp

Sponges, metamorphoses and psyche

Sponges, metamorphoses and psyche

After a morning during which I searched my ravaged memory for the concealed door to my troubles, I opened an old box which contained five old, forgotten notebooks of mine. Their black covers and red spines revealed nothing to me of when I last used them to gather observations, thoughts, fragments of lines, like a dark sponge wiping up the mess of my mental life.

I opened the first notebook of the pile, and flicked through the pages. Quickly I dated it to the months or years around 1999.  There I have noted the words spoken by Steve Bracks on election night in 1999, when he defeated the apparently invincible, more despised, but more enduring figure of Jeff Kennett. Bracks: “a victory for decency, honour, compassion.” Beside it, I have scrawled thoughts that record my state of mind – “the joy of seeing a tyrant brought to his knees. The reminder that government is not execution. A child’s eyes pleading for mercy in the midst of horror. A reminder that there can be a reward for waiting and persistence. The heroism of enduring.”

They are not surprising thoughts, except I am struck today with the sense then that the dramas of even minor provincial politics still held for me this fascination to find ordinary virtues – “the heroism of enduring” – in my struggles as a lowly under-castellan.

But these residues of reactions to old news are not the most surprising finding in this notebook. There in the early pages I have written:

Francis Ponge wrote this (or something like this) “an artist has one duty to set up a workshop and to bring in the world for repair as he finds it in pieces.” So the experience, day to day, is transcribed and out of intuition, some poetry found.

Ponge was one of the many French writers who I came to know through my strange search for an artistic identity through the works of Jacques Derrida and Michel Foucault. I was in my 20s and at university, and my first sally into the world of adult identity had failed dismally, when I had sought election as a student politician and failed. I never really belonged to that world in any case, and my true affiliation was with the worlds of dream, madness, transgression and outlandish thought. It was this world that welcomed me as an outcast from reason, familial life and all practical careers, which I believed myself then to be.

Through them, and the ultimately futile attempt to think like them and not like myself, I discovered Ponge, and Leiris, Blanchot, Bataille, Rene Char, Beckett in a new way, Artaud, and the truly enigmatic Raymond Roussel. I tried but could not really understand the philosophy, but I completely absorbed the idea of consecrating my life through an unique and idiosyncratic practice of writing. Just now I picked up Leiris’ Manhood from my shelf, with its frightening, disturbing image of a naked Judith holding a knife and the severed head of Holofernes,

Leiris.jpg

and read from the prologue these words, which spoke to me then and still do today:

My chief activity is literature, a term greatly disparaged today. I do not hesitate to use it, however, for it is a question of fact: one is a literary man as one is a botanist, a philosopher, an astronomer, a physicist, a doctor. There is no point inventing other terms, other excuses to justify one’s predilection for writing: anyone who likes to think with a pen in his hand is a writer. The few books I have published have won me no fame. I do not complain of this, any more than I brag of it, for I feel the same distaste for the “popular author’ genre as for that of the “neglected poet.” (Michel Leiris, Manhood, p 4)

Unlike Leiris or Bataille, to whom Leiris dedicated his self-inquiry, or Bataille’s friend Blanchot, I never gathered on my shelves the works of Francis Ponge. Where I learnt of the quotation that the artist brings into his workshop items of the world to repair one at a time, I do not know, and a cursory google search cannot conceal the sloppiness of my literary scholarship in that notebook, penned at a time of desperation, when I did not know how to continue being what I was, a literary man, and still succeed in the world.

All I remember of reading Ponge is struggling to find my way through Derrida’s essay Signponge – and wondering what it was that provoked such an extraordinary text. I think now, as I read more of Ponge’s attention to the thing itself, simple things, ordinary things, reimagined with puns, dad jokes, word play, that it was simplicity itself that so infuriated Derrida, and made him turn the pun of Ponge’s name into an attack on any aspiration to find meaning in things themselves, outside the endless commentary of differance.

At the same time I would deliberately set aside the too difficult question announced by this word; it escapes any frontal approach, and the thing [Ponge’s name, the thing that is not a thing, and yet is declared in Derrida’s sentence] that I am going to talk about obliges me to reconsider mimesis through and through, as an open-ended question, but also as a miniscule vanishing point at the already sunlit abyssal depths of the mimosa. (Derrida, Signponge, (1976, trans 1984) p. 4

The aggressive brio of the scholar. Shots fired a the podium. Words as weapons.

Derrida’s words no longer fascinate me. But through Ponge I discover things that can renew poetry. I read also that Ponge became a recluse in his later life. In this fate he shared with Blanchot, I see my own. The writer who is a recluse looks like Narcissus into the pool and hopes to see his psyche’s echo.

It reminds me of the poem I published in ars poetica IV in May 1997, a couple of years before I penned my thoughts in this notebook, at a time when I hoped to escape the dreariness of a life in servitude as a lowly under-castellan to a minor provincial government, an escape which I have never been able to effect.

 

Dream Life

I

In that small moment dream takes

to fly from memory and become

the nagging image of forgetfulness

the muted clank of psyche’s hold

I can turn too well in bed

and learn the pains of comfort.

II

Whenever these rivers of the night

Dry hard into red scorched beds

Depression takes over my daily self

Like the avenging angel of time.

Scouring winds rub out the image

Leaving behind the carcase of summer.

III

Suppose thought gave way to dream.

Bridges would collapse. Our simple talk

Would become a spree of metaphor

Not even poets could afford.

Self would reign over all meaning

And again the tower would fall.

IV

But why do these solitary creations

reveal their meaning first to others

as if the dreaming tongue betrayed

its beloved solipsism? Eyes wrapped

in fabrics of truth and lies,

the dream asks its interlocutor: who?

V

A tree springs from my stomach.

Nebuchadnezzar’s madness overcomes time and reason

to plant itself in my soil

to come alive again as if

all history is compressed by night

into an image none can forget.

VI

This drowning boat, this fish river,

this medusa returning as a bowl

of squirming snakes which I eat:

these dreams lie like abandoned gifts

but still share their secret being

with listeners to my night’s echo

 

Jeff Rich (1997)

boyd nebuchadnezzar

(Image: Arthur Boyd, Nebuchadnezzar’s Dream of a Tree)

The first line of Derrida’s Psyche: Inventions of the other: “What else am I going to be able to invent?”

Metamorphosis

You can twist at the foot of the stems
The elastic of your heart
It is not like chenille
That you will know the flowers
When more than one sign
Your Rush to Happiness

He shuddered and jumped
Joined the butterflies …

Francis Ponge

Sebald’s sentences

Sebald’s sentences

I have spent the afternoon, as if in retreat from a world that does not welcome me, lying in bed and reading, much as I did as a teenage boy when I fled a family that tormented me into the world that I conjured from the novels of Trollope, Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy, a world which came to wrap my senses in muslin cloth and made me into a walking apparition of a no longer living sensibility; and the book that I have read, itself composed in a modern ghostly form of nineteenth century style, is Austerlitz by the great German emigrant writer, Winfried G. “Max” Sebald.

Sebald enjoys a renown that comes in part from the unclassifiable genre of writing that he practised; he combined personal memoir, fiction, travelogue and history into a cabinet of human curiosities, lined with a dark soft cloth of sadness: yet underneath all the strangeness of his forms, there is an ornate, stately, otherworldly beauty of his sentences.

The story is told of some writer who once was asked by a budding practitioner of the art what might sustain them on a journey to fame. “Do you like sentences?” the writer replied. So, to dwell on Sebald’s sentences seems the best way to honour his memory, and to hope to emulate his art, which found a way to speak of human destruction outside the boundaries of our own time and through a style schooled in the writing of German naturalist description of the nineteenth century.

Throughout Austerlitz, there fall these delicate strings, which also provide some kind of clue to the seemingly undirected perambulations of his melancholy mind. So from early in Austerlitz, Sebald writes, as if inscribing the fractal pattern of his intention deeply in the enigmatic curls and twists of his maze,:

From the first I was astonished by the way Austerlitz put his ideas together as he talked, forming perfectly balanced sentences out of whatever occurred to him, so to speak, and the way in which, in his mind, the passing on of his knowledge seemed to become a gradual approach to a kind of historical metaphysic, bringing remembered events back to life.” (Sebald, Austerlitz p 14)

There is too this graceful concatenation of, on the one hand, the precisely descriptive details of the outer world, of memories, of photographs, of the minor details of fortifications, and the forgotten stories of ambition behind the construction of the Central Railway Station of Antwerp, and, on the other hand, an ethereal uncertainty about our minds’ ability to grasp the experiences that beset them and to stop the torrent of emotions with which we perceive the world. Sebald’s enigmatic prose is born from this coupling of a strangely meticulous prose with the constant evocation that much of our lives are spent in mirages of our own conception.  The very first sentence of Austerlitz contains this quality of a dream, dreamt through the miscegenation of a gentlemanly scholarship with the perplexity of a mind that knows its own madness.

“In the second half of the 1960s I travelled repeatedly from England to Belgium, partly for study, partly for other reasons that were never entirely clear to me, staying sometimes for just one or two days, sometimes for several weeks” (Sebald, Austerlitz, p 1) my emphasis

The phrase that I have underlined (“partly for other reasons…) disrupts the reasoned preoccupations of the apparent narrative, and opens the reader to the disordered world of Sebald’s deeper meditations, which come to him with many qualifications, always with a question of whether he has been deceived. Many states of mind “seem” to be in this prose. They visit the narrator uninvited, unexplained, and lead from the seemingly solid into the always uncertain mists of our own minds.

This theme is conveyed in a passage in which Sebald finds in the image of a captive raccoon in the Nocturama of Antwerp, an image of the longing we have, those of us who sit and polish our words like the raccoon, to reach beyond the darkness that we see all around us.

“The only animal which has remained lingering in my memory is the raccoon. I watched it for a long time as it sat beside a little stream with a serious expression on its face, washing the same piece of apple over and over again, as if it hoped that all this washing, which went far beyond any reasonable thoroughness, would help it escape the unreal world in which it had arrived, so to speak, through no fault of its own. Otherwise, all I remember of the denizens of the Nocturama is that several of them had striking large eyes, and the fixed, inquiring gaze found in certain painters and philosophers who seek to penetrate the darkness which surrounds us purely by means of looking and thinking. (Austerlitz pp 2-3)

Thoughts on the Unnameable

Thoughts on the Unnameable

It was some time in my early 20s that I listened, with fitful attention on a Sunday afternoon, to a literary arts documentary maybe about Joyce, maybe about Dublin, but certainly with a fragment, read by a fine British actor, of Samuel Beckett’s prose works. Keep going, going on – I remember in a lilting slow Irish voice that seemed to linger on all the irony of each and every word – call that going, call that on.

 

It has stayed with me all of these years, as a watchword of a kind of ironic literary mindfulness. But the work from which it was detached thirty or more years ago, back when you could still occasionally watch quality literary arts documentaries on television, has long eluded me. Until this morning, with the ubiquitous solutions of google – that anti-mystery machine – I established that these phrases came from the opening sentence of The Unnameable, which has long sat on my shelves unread, forgotten, an isolated fictional narrator lost to time and culture.

 

“Where now? Who now? When now? Unquestioning. I , say I. Unbelieving. Questions.hypotheses, call them that. Keep going, going on. Call that going, call that on.

Samuel Beckett, The Unnameable

 

 

As I read on this morning, I wondered why this great drama of the compulsion to speak, or worstward ho, to write, had not captured my attention before. In all the fragments, in all the destitution of these times, still there is this compulsion to speak, to write, to leave the words we share in our breath, and cast them to the winds that will destroy us. Is this not the same dilemma I have wrestled with. Nothing to say except the weak and fading Malones of my imagination – skeletons only, caricatures, ghosts in some uncontrolled machine – still I must say something.

 

“At the same time I am obliged to speak. I shall never be silent. Never.”

Beckett, The Unnameable

 

It is surely a cruel joke that Beckett, that stylist of epic failure, that artist of impoverishment, Kafka’s hunger artist put on stage in fizzles and events of no, should have become the source of motivational images on the internet. His Fail better lines, on this page inscribed on an ascending stair, have even found their way into speeches by sportsmen, spurring on their Olympic striving.

 

And who can dispute the value of that? If I can drift my life towards the spirit I heard that long forgotten Sunday afternoon, in the steady renaming of each of our failures as going and as on, why cannot others take his words and accent better, not fail. We writers after all do not control our words, don not control how we are forgotten and ignored.

 

Failure and futility have their sorrows, but also their comforts. They are after all the great defiance of the rulers of the world, all those who believe in systems, in logical prose, in the rationality of our errant minds.

 

The thing to avoid, I don’t know why, is the spirit of system.

Beckett, The Unnameable