Monthly Archives: May 2010

Italo Calvino’s If On A Winter’s Night A Traveler –  This is a novel for readers who take an interest in what it means to be a reader as such.  It forces the reader, directly, in the second person, to reflect on the role that readers plays in the creation of a novel, in the creation of a literary experience, and in the creation of literature as such.  Reading it was not always a comfortable experience for me.  There were several times, especially later in the novel, when I grew tired of being so directly manipulated, where I wished for the return of a more traditional kind of narrative.  Even so, the novel accomplishes something quite unique, and the narrative fragments that are woven in among the sections directed to the reader contain some wonderful examples of the gorgeous prose that has always captivated me in Calvino.  It is not an easy book, and I would not recommend it for the beach.  It requires too much from its readers for that.  On the other hand, it is very much a book worth reading with the proper time and attention, so I suggest that you set aside enough of both to do it justice.

Somerset Maugham’s The Razor’s Edge – This was my second Maugham novel.  I read the first, Of Human Bondage, almost two years ago now, when a friend was outraged to hear that I had not included it among the several hundred novels approved for my novel course.  I almost wish, however, that I had read them in the opposite order, because The Razor’s Edge is quite good, but it suffers in comparison to Of Human Bondage.  Both have the compelling characterizations that I am coming to regard as Maugham’s genius, and both follow the complexities of a young man’s search for truth and meaning, but Of Human Bondage is narrated by the voice of its protagonist, which creates a greater sympathy between reader and hero, while The Razor’s Edge is ostensibly narrated by Maugham himself and includes large portions that deal with several other lives as well, all of which creates a sense of detached observation that does not always allow for the reader to engage in the hero’s situation.  I found myself disliking Maugham’s voice by the end of the novel, wishing that it would suspend its cool detachment, even if only for a moment.  It is this coolness of tone, however, that ends the novel, and I would sincerely have wished it otherwise.

Irving Layton’s A Red Carpet For The Sun – I am a little dumbfounded by Irving Layton’s poetry.  Some of it, including almost all of his love poems, seem nothing short of puerile to me, as if they were written by a boy still young enough to believe that he will be manly if only he talks often enough and familiarly enough about a woman’s sexual organs.  These poems rarely have more to say than, “Here is what this woman looked like, and this is what I did to her.”  At the same time, some of his more reflective poems are quite powerful.  They have something of the same bravado about them, perhaps, but it seems better founded, like in “Boys Bathing”, where he says,

The sun is bleeding to death,
covering the lake
with its luxuriant blood;
the sun is dying on their shoulders

or like in “For Mao Tse-Tung,” the from which the book’s title draws its name, where he writes,

They dance best who dance with desire,
Who lifting feet of fire from fire
Weave before they lie down
A red carpet for the sun.

These poems, along with others like “Reconciliation”, “The Birth of Tragedy”, and “Metamorphasis”, have a sureness and a depth to them that justifies their aggression and arrogance of tone and that make them more than mere poetic playground talk.

John Gardner’s On Moral Fiction –  I have too much to say about this book.  It deserves and may yet be granted a post or two unto itself, but I will have to start by saying what I can in this more limited space.  It is, to be very simplistic, a book about how to write, but not at all in a technical sense.  Though Gardner was a famous teacher of creative writing, and though he has also published on the more technical aspects of the craft, this book is dedicated to the question of how the writing of fiction should be approached as a moral act.  To recapitulate his stance on this question would take too long and would probably spoil the read for those of you who bother to read it for yourselves, but it is the very fact that he is willing even to take such a stance that makes the book worth reading.  He does not, as so many critics now do, simply throw his hands up at ideas like truth and beauty because they cannot be made to stand as absolutes. Rather, he reasserts that the task of art is constantly to reiterate the true and the beautiful as best it can, precisely because these ideas cannot be approached as absolutes.  “Art asserts,” he says, “an ultimate rightness of things which it does not pretend to understand in the philosopher’s way but which it nevertheless can understand.”  While this way of talking runs counter to much of the critical writing now being produced, and while it is a position that is most difficult to defend from any vantage point beyond art itself, it is Gardner’s willingness to occupy a firm position on the moral place of fiction that is interesting in itself, and I would love it if some of you would do me the service of reading it as well, so that we can begin discussing it between us more closely.

Philip K. Dick’s Counter-Clock World – I have been under substantial pressure for some time by some of my friends to read Philip K. Dick, whose work I have managed to avoid until now.  Unfortunately, I disliked the premise of  Counter-Clock World so much that I will likely have to read another of Dick’s books just to give him a fair chance.  The central idea of the novel is that time has reversed itself, so that the dead are being returned to life, and people are growing younger, and stomachs are regurgitating the food they ate long ago.  The problem is, for me, that the premise cannot possibly be held consistently.  It is not that the premise is strange or impossible per se that bothers me, because I delight in the strange and the impossible when they are well accomplished.  I just object to the fact that the novel cannot even maintain its own premise internally, falling into all kinds of absurdities.  Though I certainly recognize that Dick is merely employing a plot device, and that he is probably not terribly interested in the question of consistency, I cannot abide a literary world that falls foul of its own logic.  So, I will give Dick the benefit of the doubt, and I will try to find one of his novels that I can read in fairness.

I finished Ivan Illich’s In The Vineyard Of The Text some time last fall, and I wrote about it once at that time, warning that I might write several times more because I had found so much in it that provoked me to reflection.  I never did get the chance to write what I had planned, but I was recently reminded of one of its ideas, so I will take the opportunity now to make good, at least in small part, on what I promised those several months ago.

At one point in the book, Illich describes a kind of utopian space where those who have learned to approach reading as a kind of spiritual discipline can gather in community.  “I dream,” he says, “that outside the educational system there might be something like houses of reading, where the few who discover their passion for a life centered on reading would find the necessary guidance, silence, and complicity of disciplined companionship needed for the long invitation into one or the other of several spiritualities or styles of celebrating the book.”  The kind of reader that he imagines for this place is “one who has made himself into an exile in order to concentrate his entire attention and desire on wisdom, which thus becomes the hoped-for home.”  There are thus two kinds of places being described here: the physical houses where readers might come together, and the hoped-for home of wisdom that such readers seek, and I think that these two places come to inform each other, creating between them an image of homes that are characterized by a love of wisdom and an image of wisdom that is characterized by a love of the home.

I am powerfully drawn to this utopian vision.  Though I cannot imagine the conditions under which it might be accomplished in its entirety, not for me, not at this time, not given the ways that my priorities of family and community currently constrain me, I nevertheless find it a beautiful ideal, one of many often incompatible ideals, to be sure, but no less beautiful for that reason.

Illich’s vision attracts me so strongly because it implies an approach to reading that I find myself insisting upon more and more as time goes by, one that I hope to outline more fully at some later time, one that is characterized by a threefold discipline: close and attentive reading; thoughtful and patient reflection; and learned and leisurely conversation.

What is common in these three things is time.  The text is treated, not as a task to be completed, not as an item to be checked, but as a site through which an intellectual and spiritual discipline can be exercised.  It becomes, to use the dominant metaphor of Illich’s text, a vineyard, a garden, a forest, in which the reader walks and lingers and then shares with other readers.  This approach to the text takes time.  It requires that we make a time, that we create or shape a time that is suitable and respectful of the text and of our fellow readers.

Illich’s utopian vision, therefore, is less about reserving a space for its own sake than it is about reserving a space where time can be dedicated to the needs of a convivial community of reading.  The hoped-for home, in other words, is not primarily a matter of a physical space, though certain physical spaces may be more or less conducive to it.  Rather, it is the opportunity, the time, the discipline to read well and to do so in community, to read in the pursuit of wisdom.

If this is the case, and I believe that it is, then it may be that the hoped-for home is closer to us than it first seemed.  All it would require would be readers committed enough to reading well that they would make the proper space and the proper time for their texts and for each other.  All it would require is for these readers to form intentional community with one another, to go along with one another, to spur each other along the road to reading.

This kind of community probably even exists among us already, at least in part, at least in rudimentary and provisional ways, in the times that we already reserve to reading well, though they be sporadic and uncertain, and in the times that we give our fellow readers around our tables, even if they be infrequent and unpredictable. We must begin by cherishing and nourishing these times of the hoped-for home that we have already been able to fashion in our lives.  These times, however small, however tenuous, are precious.  They must be carefully maintained.

We must then seek diligently to expand the compass of the hoped-for home, to discipline ourselves to a slow and careful reading, to a thoughtful and patient reflection, to a learned and leisurely conversation.  We must make of these things a kind of all-informing passion, a passion that comes to order the life of the mind in such a way that it opens onto worship.  I am much concerned lately with how I might begin to accomplish this in my own hoped-for home.

The four of them are sitting at the table, round and wooden, covered with plain, white coffee cups and plates and crumpled napkins and discarded creamers and torn sugar packets, a coffee table, and they are talking to each other, passionately, about things not worth much passion, not to anyone else, perhaps not even to them, and they are saying things like,

“…preexisting networks…”

“…create a critical mass…”

“…secondary market…”

“…access to development systems…”

“…leveraging our assets…”.

At least, the three men are saying these kinds of things, again and again, saying nothing very interesting, but still nodding to each other and sipping their coffees very seriously.  The fatter man, with the vertical stripes of his shirt visibly widening over his belly, is doing most of the talking.  “We need to leverage our assets,” he says, “to create a critical mass that will open secondary markets.”  The man to his left, the one who looks a little bit Asian but who is certainly not Asian but who maybe has an Asian hairdresser, bobs his head affirmingly, while the third man, fairly fat himself, but without vertical stripes or stripes of any kind, makes little guttural noises in his throat, noises that mean something like, “Yes, exactly.  If we can get the preexisting network access to a development system…” or some other such random combination of the magic phrases that the three of them are exchanging with one another.

The woman, though, she is not saying anything much, and she is not nodding either, and she is certainly not making little noises in her throat, only sitting back in her seat with her legs crossed, the top leg sitting very high on the lower one, higher even than the table, because her thighs are large and round, and because her jeans, worn as business attire with a turtleneck and jacket, are very tight, which makes her upper body, slim and small-breasted, seem even more petite in comparison, perhaps too petite, as if she has been assembled from two different bodies, has borrowed her legs, say, from a neighbour or a friend, because she is bored with her own.  Her lips are pursed, brightly red, unnaturally coral red, and her hair is cut short and close in what some people might call a pixie cut, leaving her jaw bare, which is only right, because her jaw and her neck are her beauty, the beauty of a mathematically impossible curve that nature nevertheless produces in some rare women.

This woman, whose jaw is perfectly and impossible curved, who is neither speaking nor nodding but only sitting with her crossed legs and her pursed lips  and her pixied hair, this woman glances across the room at me, darting her eyes, now, and again, and once more, watching me watching her, and I wonder whether she can feel me looking at her, or whether she glances like this at anyone who happens to be in the room with her, or whether, perhaps most likely, she is just bored with the conversation of her companions and is looking for distraction, even such a poor distraction as I can assure you that I am.

These True Things

Of these true things God made the North:
Of rock and water, trees and sky;
All else comes falsely, even earth,
And like the earth we thinly lie
Upon its face, constrained by birth
To cling in wonder til we die.

The garden marks the space of the cultivated between the spaces of the home and the world, between the spaces of the domestic and the natural.  This cultivated space lies beyond the home, but it is nevertheless a part of the home, an extension of the home into the world.  It is the space that marks the transition from the domestic to the natural.  It signals that the door to the home is near but has not yet been entered, that the threshold of the home is close at hand but has not yet been crossed. It bears the marks of both the domestic and the natural, and so it is less a border between them than it is a borderland, a place of transition, where they are brought into a relation.

It is the space in which the domestic orders the natural so that it might be more aesthetic or more productive, but it is also a space that is always open, by necessity, to some degree or another, to the natural.  This is true even in the most urban situations, even where the natural has been most disrupted and displaced, even where the natural has been reduced only to the weather and to whatever remnant plants and animals have learned to survive in the midst of human development.  Even in these places, so long as the home is bordered by a garden, though it be only a hanging planter or a window box, the cultivated space marks the transition between the home and whatever remains of the natural, and it comes to offer itself as a space where the natural and the domestic both might better live and grow.

The nature of the cultivated space, therefore, marks the nature of the relation between the domestic and the natural in any given place, whether it be the unrelieved concrete of an urban neighbourhood, or the vast and ordered lawns of suburbia, or the fields of the farmhouse.  In each case, the garden reveals how the domestic relates to the natural.  For this reason, the creation of a garden is more than a merely aesthetic or a merely productive act.  It is also a political and a social act, and the choices that are made in its construction are not without their political and social significance.  The choice of whether to make the garden organic or edible or native; the choice of whether to make it hospitable to whatever might enter it, whether it be human or animal or vegetable; the choice of whether to keep only carefully maintained lawns and a few well pruned shrubs or to have a whole range of plants and trees: these all become significant, because they reveal how we cultivate our relation to the natural.

Words are like stones.  You must work with them.  You must heft them, turn them in your hands, feel their weight and their shape, know each one for what it is before you can find its proper place, not its perfect place, for no stone and no word ever fits perfectly, and each word and each stone must be held in place by other stones and words, by earth or by mortar, but each will have its proper place, a place that fits it, a place for which it might have been fitted if it had been fitted, though it has not been fitted for any place at all, and what these words and these stones become is precisely this, a proper place that is the sum of their proper places, where they come to be something that they always could have come to be, one of the many things that they could have come to be, and perhaps, oh, let us rest in this perhaps, they will come to be something beautiful.  This is the work of the mason and the writer, both.  It is what makes words like stones.

In What Is Called Thinking? Heidegger says, “What must be thought about turns away from man.  It withdraws from him….  But – withdrawing is not nothing.  Withdrawal is an event.  In fact, what withdraws may even concern and claim man more essentially than anything present that strikes and touches him….  What withdraws from us draws us along by its very withdrawal, whether or not we become aware of it immediately, or at all…. To the extent that man is drawing that way, he points to what withdraws.”

In my last post on this book, I was asking about what it is in us that recognizes that we are still not thinking.   The above quotation relates to this question, I think, in that it gives agency to what must be thought, to the question of why we are not yet thinking, rather than to we who would think it.  The reason that we are not yet thinking is not solely because we fail to reach out to what must be thought, but also because what must be thought turns itself away from us, withdraws from us.

This withdrawal, however, is not nothing, and Heidegger is insistent on this point.  Though the withdrawal of what needs to be thought means that we never encounter it as something present that strikes us or touches us, it nevertheless draws us along, makes us follow after it, pulls us in its wake, and we therefore point to it through our own motion in relation to it.  We may not recognize that we are drawn in this way, but we are nevertheless drawn, and we point towards what draws us, for ourselves and for each other.

In a sense, this answers the questions of my previous post, because we are no longer required to recognize that we are not yet thinking despite the fact that we are not yet thinking.  Rather, what must be thought, the question of why we are not yet thinking, is itself actively drawing us, and we need only to recognize that we are being drawn.  Even so, at least this much is required of us: that we realize that we are being drawn, that this drawing must point toward something that withdraws, and Heidegger himself acknowledges that some do not ever make this realization.    So what is it, to reformulate my previous question slightly, that causes some to make this realization and not others?

There is also the question of the agency that Heidegger ascribes to what must be thought.  After all, in what sense can we speak of something to be thought as active, as withdrawing, as drawing us after it?  What kind of agency can an object of thought actually exercise, especially when it is really only an object of thought in relation to the human capacity for thinking?  If it is the question of why we are not yet thinking, and if it is what must be thought by us, then it is what it is only in relation to us.  How, then, can it act upon us?  How can it draw us after it?

Can we speak, perhaps, of a structure of human being in the world that itself produces what must be thought as an essential by-product of its being in the world, whether consciously or otherwise?  Does the human mode of being in the world, in other words, somehow essentially and structurally presuppose the question of why we are not yet thinking?   If so, do we cast this question ahead of ourselves, so to speak, setting in motion the very thing that will withdraw from us, that will draw us after it?  Are we simultaneously driving this question before us and being drawn after its withdrawal?

How then would we understand thinking?  What would our relation to it be?  Is it this question itself that puts us on the way to thinking?