Cindytalk got me through... much of my youth, and most of my twenties. This is an unreleased demo track recorded in 1982. It was, as Gordon Sharp says in the YouTube comments, one of the first ever Cindytalk recordings...
I'm not sure I understand the concept of 'closeness' in Tomas Tranströmer's poems, but in attempting to get near I am confronted by the distance between what I gather in and what they offer up. The gap between the gift and my receptivity – how far I find myself from what is being said, so limpidly, and what I understand – is a paradoxical limitlessness. I'm being shown simplicity but it looks, to me, like illimitable complexity. In that way, a poem is like a smile or a shrug, a beckoning or a barrier: how you take the gesture makes of it the certainty it never had when it was proffered. Retroactive causation, perhaps: the moment you decide that you know something about ambiguity that it doesn't know about itself is the moment it becomes what it might never have been.
"The sick boy," in After the Attack (in Robert Bly's translated collection The Half-finished Heaven) sits "with his back toward the painting of a wheatfield... At the far end of the field a man." And what of him? "... his face in shadow... / He seems to look at the dark shape in the room here". Is the dark shape in the reader's room, the narrator's, or the boy's? Or is it the reader, narrator or boy themselves? Regardless, the man "has come nearer" ("as / though to help"). Tranströmer says "No one notices it." But everyone who reads notices. Indeed, every reader has been told. Perhaps just the boy doesn't notice, but he is not everyone. The man in the field, the stranger, is close, closer now than at the start of the poem (and the poem, we presume, commences after the titular attack) – he moves as the poem moves, he moves through it. Always closer, now the poem is over.
How does this proximity play out in The Couple? "They turn the light off... and they sleep... It is dark and silent." But in their beds, in a hotel, in a city, in the dark, the surrounding houses "come nearer... They stand packed and waiting very near, / a mob of people with blank faces." This is threatening – mobs always are. And we can't begin to know what this mob is thinking, what it wants. Its proximity is no aid to understanding, indeed its closeness is what is so threatening; the closeness makes thinking about what they are thinking about more troubling than if they were a less exigent threat. The mob presses close, but we don't know why; and always closer, as the poem closes.
I'm not sure I understand the concept of 'closeness' in Tranströmer's poems, but I'm threatened by it. Threatened that the man whose "broad hat leaves his face in shadow", or the houses that might steal closer to mine in the middle of the night, know more about my sickness than I do. Like "a man [who] goes so deep into his dream / he will never remember he was there / when he returns again to his room" (Track).
In Kyrie Tranströmer writes "At times my life suddenly opens its eyes in the dark." When this happens, what do you see? Darkness. A darkness, perhaps, not as jet as when your eyes are closed. If you are lucky. What, then, do you know? That you are not alone; that what you see is not all there is. That you are not alone and that the knowledge is no comfort. Knowledge, it would seem, is simply knowing that the threat has come just that little bit closer.
Simone Weil's life is fascinating. Left-wing activist with a critique of both Orthodox Marxism and Trotskyism she moves ever leftwards, soon finding herself arguing for a radical syndicalism. She then finds herself at – or, better, in need of – theology. She writes herself to self-understanding coming to a heterodox Christianity which sees in Greek thought, especially The Iliad, one of the highest expressions of human wisdom. (For more on the life see McLellan's Utopian Pessimist: The Life and Thought of Simone Weil, Pétrement's Simone Weil: A Life, and Cabaud's Simone Weil: A Fellowship in Love.)
In her life and work politics, literature and philosophy, and theology are each tested – and found wanting. Nothing of this earth (hence accusations of her Manichaeism) quite lives up to her demand for Truth, but the Truth which Weil finds in Christ can, to some extent, be found in attention and, by extension, neighbourliness. She writes: "Not only does the love of God have attention for its substance; the love of our neighbor which we know to be the same love, is made of this same substance... The capacity to give ones attention... is a very rare and difficult thing; it is almost a miracle; it is a miracle."
So, these two concepts (attention and neighbourliness) can be brought together under the concept of love. Weil's god is not an apophatic abstraction (although her mysticism sometimes feels like apophaticism, for sure) but rather radically approachable, perhaps even attainable, through attention. Attention's neighbourliness brings Weil's late thought back into contact with her earlier radical syndicalism. Neighbourliness might just be another word for solidarity. Solidarity is certainly another word for love. It is a love that has to be radically honest about its object. It has to be able to critique ideology. It has to pay the closest of attention...
One part of that attention, for Weil, was directed at George Herbert's poem LOVE (III) (on George Herbert (1593-1633), John Drury's recent, lovely biography Music at Midnight: The Life and Poetry of George Herbert is recommended). I almost think it is paradigmatic for her. Weil: "it played a big role in my life, for I was busy reciting it to myself at the moment when, for the first time, Christ came to take me. I believed I was merely resaying a beautiful poem, and unbeknownst to myself, it was a prayer."
Close reading, attention, moves here in two seemingly opposing but actually complementary directions: paying absolute attention is at the same time opening oneself up entirely. Attention on the object initially breaks it down (perhaps this is the move we see in deconstruction) but attention then allows the object wholly to be itself, allows the deconstruction to loop back from the object to the subject itself, in a move like a transference/counter-transference that we see in psychoanalysis. Transference, "the phenomenon whereby we unconsciously transfer feelings and attitudes from a person or situation in the past on to a person or situation in the present", from analysand to analyst, is met with feelings transferring back from analyst to analysand. The process of analysis works through the transference stage to get to the real relationship. It pays attention, and pushes past first, second, third impressions to something that is true, but a truth that has been created only after the hard work of attention. And this is work, in truth, that we all want to shy away from:
Love bade me welcome, yet my soul drew back,
Guilty of dust and sin.
In Simone Weil: An Introduction to her Thought, John Hellman shows that Weil's concept of attention is not simply some kind of effortful application of concentration (Weil: "Most often attention is confused with a kind of muscular effort ... [a] kind of frowning application") but rather "the link between several aspects of her thought: her ascetic intellectualism, her love for mathematics, her concern for the poor and oppressed, her innovatively focussed politics, and her unusually empathetic sensitivity." Attention, then, is a complex, compound term with several overlapping concerns. Whilst singularity of focus and uncluttered thought are obviously part of the definition of attention, Weil also says, "Attention consists of suspending our thought, leaving it detached, empty and ready to be penetrated by the object." Our thought, she says, "should be empty, waiting, not seeking anything." So too for prayer, of course ("prayer consists of attention. It is the orientation of all the attention of which the soul is capable toward God.")
In Robert Pippin's After the Beautiful: Hegel and the Philosophy of Pictorial Modernism, Pippin writes: "in the case of pictorial art, the ability of painting to arrest time and thereby to 'make present' can render aspects of human action available" to us like nothing else. Life rushes past, but art pays attention. In the same footnote, Pippin goes on to write: "Hegel can also be summarized by saying that art has the task of the 'Vergegenwärtigung des Absolutes', the bringing of the Absolute to presentness."
Art – and Pippin is arguing about pictorial art here, but I'm applying this more loosely and broadly – pays attention, and gifts to us the complexity of a present moment (and the present, of course, is doused, drowned, in God; the Absolute in German Idealism is a term that is not simply a synonym for God, but that can comfortably stand in for the divine, amongst other things.) We need to be fully open to art to attend to it completely in order to hear all that it is saying. It is, perhaps, Eliot's still point in a turning world: where the dance is, where past and future are gathered, where our attention has to lay if we are ever to find the wisdom appropriate to our own confusions.
Eliot and Weil are, of course, profoundly religious writers. Hegel formulated his system within the explosion of theological debate at the beginning of the 19th Century. (And it is noteworthy that the post-Kantian aesthetics of German Idealism flower at this particular moment of theological crisis.) Using any of these thinkers to help one articulate something, anything, about aesthetics leaves its traces, of course. Or, more positively, reveals a truth: aesthetics are undergirded by the human truths contested in ethics and theology. Aesthetics isn't masquerading as something it is not, but if we pay attention it turns out to be more than we often think it is. It feels, actually, like an ethical demand. Like Levinas's call of the Other - something finally unknowable, but exigent. It cannot be ignored. Reading closely, then, is perhaps a paradigm of engaged engagement. It is about paying attention to paying attention and realising that such can take us well beyond the words on the page.
This all leads me to want to discuss Blanchot, Levinas, Object Oriented Ontology-inspired ideas about "withdrawal" and a host of other things because all of them nourish and inform how and why I read, and how and why I respond to what I read in the way that I do. But before I address such, I want to say a little more about Weil, Pippin and modernism...
I started ReadySteadyBook because I wanted to record my reading and to review books. I had reviewed for Amazon (where I had worked for a time) and was beginning to review in the TLS and for the broadsheets. RSB was to be a continuation and extension of all that. Perhaps a place where I could write at greater length, and certainly where I could engage with books that the papers showed no particular interest in. For many years it (more or less) served this purpose. Increasingly, however, over the course of the past decade, and particularly over the last four or five years, I've found reviewing books to be – well, for sure, a non-optimal way for me to respond to them...
Reviewing concentrates the mind. One reads more carefully than one might otherwise, pencil in hand, taking notes along the way - and then one makes one's evaluation. But such an evaluation always struck me as crude and incomplete. Not worthless, certainly – book reviews very often offer a fine service to the would-be reader and the rare really good book review can be a delight to read. So, I'm speaking very personally here. Book reviewing wasn't – isn't – an adequate response, for me, to the books that I read.
Certain friends – Stephen Mitchelmore, David Winters – offer a solution. Both these enviably talented, incisive and intelligent writers seem to be able to respond, diligently and inspirationally, to the particular book under review whilst, at the same time, contributing to their wider project (each essay seems to reveal yet more of their weltanschaung). Both seem to be able to see the trees in all their glory and yet simultaneously cultivate their wood; I only ever seemed to misapprehend the tree and build nothing beyond it. I found myself alone, feeling foolish, looking in dismay at the blunted axe I'd just been wielding: destruction that was anything but creative.
My own failure in this regard is particularly upsetting because I do see each book I read as being both sui generis and yet part of a... call it "ethical whole" that I'm trying to deal with. Each and every book is a challenge. The first challenge is: how do I respond fully, properly, carefully to this? I think the answer has to be in writing. But for me it is not via something called "reviewing". I think Simone Weil's concept of the primacy of attention may help me explain this a little better...
In October last year, ReadySteadyBook had its tenth anniversary. I let the date pass without comment not only because the anniversary was not particularly noteworthy – plenty of websites have been around for as long or longer – but also because RSB has been pretty quiet for a long time now and so the anniversary didn't quite feel earned.
Regardless, time has passed. And what I conceived of ten years ago as a "book review website" has come to mean much more to me than that. What exactly it means, though, I'm still not quite sure. And that is because what is means is so intimately interwoven with what reading means to me and how reading or, rather, my relationship to it, has altered over the last decade.
I will, then, over the next coming weeks, attempt to write about those shifts and the (re-)engagement with philosophy they have occasioned, and try to indicate what those shifts and twists in my thinking mean for my ongoing engagement with reading and writing, and my despair at much of the "culture of response" I see (and read) around me.
Some details on the contents of the long-awaited volume 8 of Collapse are up on the Urbanomic site. Includes such delights as Quentin Meillassoux's Mallarmé's Materialist Divinization of the Hypothesis, Nick Land's Transcendental Risk and Suhail Malik's The Ontology of Finance: Price, Power, and the Arkhé-Derivative. Could be me, but I'm not seeing an actual publication date...
"This new interdisciplinary network – launched in 2013 – gathers together researchers at northern universities who work in the field of critical and cultural theory. It will promote new collaborative research in critical theory via a range of initiatives including annual symposia, workshops, reading groups and other events MORE..."
Edmund Wilson (1895-1972) was the most influential of twentieth-century literary and social critics in America, a journalist in the biographical tradition of Johnson, Arnold and Sainte-Beuve, who energised the magazine columns until the 1960s. A Princeton graduate and friend of F. Scott Fitzgerald, the much-published Wilson was editor at Vanity Fair (1920- 21) and then The New Republic. He also reviewed for The New Yorker and The New York Review of Books.
Wilson's blind spot is said to have been poetry. Worse, in an infamous essay from 1934 he wrote of it as a 'dying technique'. At the same time, he wrote occasional poetry himself and contributed some necessary and judicious work on the Modernists in Axel's Castle (1931) and on Civil War poetry in Patriotic Gore (1962), a monumental study of the literature and character of that time, as well as some significant essays in his collections The Shores of Light (1952), Classics and Commercials (1950) and The Bit Between My Teeth (1966). These are the books his reputation lives by and where his contribution to the poetry of his time is remembered. MORE...