ReadySteadyBook a literary site ReadySteadyBlog en-gb Copyright 2002-2016 All rights reserved. (Mark Thwaite) (Lee Kelleher) RSS.NET: Stop Here

In the September 1874 Atlantic Monthly George Parsons Lathrop wrote in his essay, The Novel and its Future:

Realism sets itself at work to consider characters and events which are apparently the most ordinary and uninteresting, in order to extract from these their full value and true meaning. It would apprehend in all particulars the connection between the familiar and the extraordinary, and the seen and unseen of human nature. Beneath the deceptive cloak of outwardly uneventful days, it detects and endeavors to trace the outlines of the spirits that are hidden there; to measure the changes in their growth, to watch the symptoms of moral decay or regeneration, to fathom their histories of passionate or intellectual problems. In short, realism reveals. Where we thought nothing worth of notice, it shows everything to be rife with significance.

Beverly Gologorsky’s Stop Here is a poignant novel of contemporary realism. Her primary emotional themes are loneliness, a yearning to change the past, small town ennui, and resignation that this is the irrevocable life one has to sort out and put to rest. What is masterful in this work is how she weaves characters lives through a desolate and lonely atmospheric Long Island town.

Gologorsky’s prose is much like an Edward Hopper painting. She stays true to the stark nature of her themes and characters without a “drop of color… yet they shimmer”. (A quote from a painter on the beach in the novel describing his own painting.)

The narration is told with simple words and the intense emotions underneath the narrative are not played up stylistically but left there on the page for the reader to read without linguistic trimmings. The power of the narration is an achievement that enters the reader’s consciousness slowly, like a cautious guest who has been invited into a place, which is, in part, forbidding. She takes on the ordinary and removes the “deceptive cloak, showing what is trembling below It.” as Lathrop wrote of realism. Though we might otherwise not actually notice these characters because they are so familiar to us, and the dialogue is so real, they could be sitting at the same lunch counter with us.

The novel illuminates the lives of a handful of characters, but one feels that the Gulf War is also a haunting lurking character. The lives of the characters are all connected to a Long Island Diner called Murray’s a twenty-four hour dive and the perfect frame for the telling of their difficult lives.

For example there’s Sylvie, the new wife of the successful diner-owner Murray, who is a Neoconservative, bullish man.

There’s Sylvia, a former actress, getting on in age and worried about a future without stability, she gives up a lot of who she is to gain the same. Left at home, as her husband goes to run his diner, she is bored, restless, and empty. Sylvie discovers an elderly artist appearing to be on the verge of death, living in a seaside lean-to on the beach. Their conversations, though sounding at first a bit meandering and strange, give us one of the most moving examples of Gologorsky’s realism, and how she, as an unobtrusive narrator pulls off what Laphor had said was ”the deceptive cloak of outwardly uneventful days, trace[ing] the outlines of the spirits that are hidden there.”

From a section of the novel we find the character, Sylvie, meeting up with the elderly painter on the beach:

He hands [Sylvie] a bunch of paintings as easily as if they were sandwiches at a picnic. Winter beach scenes. White, gray, silver without a drop of color, yet they shimmer. Could these be the landscape she finds so forbidding, cold, and untouchable?
She catches him staring at her. “Too bleak for you?” he asks.
“No. The opposite. Is that how you really see what you see out there?”
“There’s no metaphor for the ocean, only how I feel when I try to capture it.”
“In this one the waves are ferocious. They’re filled with warning...” “Because my fingers were stiff and my knees hurting, the waves spoke to me of what’s impending.”
“Was that depressing?” Is she probing?
“At my age death is a comrade, a way of leaving, an exit.”
“I don’t believe everyone your age feels like that.”
Nothing about him seems tired or worn, though he must be near eighty. “Maybe not. But there isn’t much I’ll miss. I love the beach, but I’m alone now. Do you have children?”
“I had a son killed in 1970, in that dirty war.”
The sea, the sky, his death, his son’s. He says it all in the same matter-of-fact way.
“How awful,” she (Sylvie) finally says.
“It was worse than that.”

With Sylvie’s story there are alternating stories of three other women. Each character is presented in alternating chapters but they also mingle inside all the chapters.

Ava, a woman who has been so devastated by her young husband’s death in Iraq is trying to find a new hold on life, one that will include some security for her son.  She meets a man whom she initially attracts her and she is quite taken by him but then discovers he had betrayed her, at the same time had bonded as father with her son.

Mila, whose husband is in prison, is very worried about making ends meet because her daughter, Darla, is ambitious and Mila wants Darla to make something of her life, which includes a good college. But Darla wants to enlist in the army to escape her mother and the claustrophobic town.

And there’s Rosalyn, who believes she can shape her own life, although she, too, comes from a poor background. She does so until she becomes ill. She was, also, augmenting her inadequate income from the diner by moonlighting as an escort.

These four women and their everyday lives make up for most of the book, but they’re other characters there too. Each daily life struggle, though understated by Gologorsky’s simple telling feels like an epic. Interestingly, Gologorsky modernizes the concept of realism proposed as far back as 1874, by Lathrop. Another, more contemporary critic, William Harmon wrote: "Where romanticists transcend the immediate to find the ideal, and naturalists plumb the actual or superficial to find the scientific laws that control its actions, realists center their attention to a remarkable degree on the immediate, the here and now, the specific action, and the verifiable consequence"

In a literary environment of post modernistic fancy and very little realism, it is rewarding to find a book that shows us the “here and now, the specific action, and the verifiable consequences” In this case I believe the Gulf War to be that action and the lives depicted its “verifiable consequence.” Even the sense of an impoverishment of spirit and money, is indirectly connected to the Gulf War and its impact on ordinary Americans.

Done artfully and authentically, Stop Here is a remarkable novel. (Leora Skolkin-Smith) Sat, 28 Feb 2015 03:10:20 GMT
An interview with TJ Clark: Picasso and Truth

Timothy James Clark, often known as TJ Clark, is an art historian and writer, born in Bristol in 1943. He has taught art history in a number of universities in England and the United States, including Harvard and the University of California, Berkeley. He has been influential in developing the field of art history, examining modern paintings as an articulation of the social and political conditions of modern life. His orientation is distinctly leftist, and he has often referred to himself as a Marxist (this cribbed from wikipedia, of course.)

Clark is George C. and Helen N. Pardee Professor of Art History Emeritus at the University of California, Berkeley. He is the author of The Painting of Modern Life (Princeton), The Sight of Death, and Farewell to an Idea, and the coauthor of (with Retort) Afflicted Powers.

Daniel Fraser is a writer and critic based in London.


Daniel Fraser: I wanted to ask you about Picasso’s relationship to blue, a colour whose application certainly seems to shift in his post-Cubist paintings. What and how do you think blue functioned for Picasso throughout his painting, and how did it change?

TJ Clark: I would still consider the question on blue worth asking as the book does, particularly in the sections relating to The Blue Room and Three Dancers, discuss how Picasso's use of blue is important to what he is trying to express, but I thought it would be good to expand on the marked difference between its use in these paintings and those of 'the blue period' and his more overtly Cubist works.

I can’t remember which theorist of colour it was who talked about blue as the least ‘organic’ colour on the spectrum: the least associated with living things, with growth. Whether or not we agree with the idea in general, I think that blue is a colour whose ‘strangeness’ – its coldness, its ‘emptiness’, its distance from the world of persons and things – seems to have fascinated Picasso, and been a pole towards which his painting was constantly drawn. In the Blue Period it is exploited, clearly, for its emotional potential: it is the colour of emotional bleakness, melancholy, poverty, ‘bare life’.

During the years of high Cubism, blue doesn’t play a central role. Colour is vital, but the Cubist ‘monochrome’ works essentially within a range of browns and greys: its coolness and ‘detachment’ isn’t meant to carry (I feel) an emotional weight. Blue returns with a vengeance in the 1920s. The Three Dancers, or Figure by the Edge of the Sea (and many other canvases from the period), lean heavily on blue’s uncanny force and distance. But it isn’t, I think, a distance meant to carry ‘emotion’, exactly: blue seems more the sign of an invading or pervasive Otherness: a non-humanness, a dis-placement, a world robbed of familiarity or closeness. In the book I argue that the best overall term for this may be Untruth. Maybe – but at least I’m sure that it no longer stands for a state of mind or feeling, or even for an ‘analytic’ detachment.

Daniel Fraser: In terms of Picasso’s monstrosity, I always found in the post-Cubist ‘studio’ works (though had not seen the Tehran one previously) with their wire frame painters an almost mocking tone, a challenge to cubism and the space of the artist’s studio, like Manet’s deformed foot on the Dead Christ: but also as a withering of Cubism. I was wondering whether not you saw anything in this and furthermore if there was a difference for you in Picasso’s paintings between ‘room space’ and ‘studio space’?

TJ Clark: Two questions here. Yes, the monster paintings are often sardonic and cartoonish, seemingly trying for a kind of comedy; and certainly making fun of high Cubist seriousness. (This must have been more pointed a move in the context of the post-war Cubist academy in Paris, and the general portentousness of ‘rappel a l’ordre’.) But of course, as usual with Picasso, the capering, jesting, leering side of things leads back towards a strange form of gravity. The bone pictures of 1929 and 1930 swerve between weird erotic comedy and a celebration (I feel) of true simple solid stoic endurance, in the ‘alone-ness’ at the edge of the sea.

For me, what matters in Picasso is always the intimacy and proximity and ‘inhabitedness’ of the room. A lot of the time the room is a studio, since that is one kind of room Picasso is deeply familiar with. But I don’t feel that he makes a distinction between the place he paints in and the place he eats in, or makes love in, or sits in watching the sun through the window.

Daniel Fraser: When he did allow his figures outside, his monstrous creatures were so often depicted on the beach. I always got the sense of the beach being a 'place where flesh is shown' in a very real sense. It too provides an outlet for blue but I wonder what else is it about the beach? Is there an element of the slippage of the binary oppositions of true/false into 'play' being expressed? Is it even ‘the beach beneath the studio’?

TJ Clark: Yes, the beach is the edge of the ‘serious’ world (the world of practical life, of a True-and-False established constantly by ‘common sense’). It’s the place of play and display. Clothes come off. The sun is God. And yet ‘play’, on Picasso’s beach, doesn’t turn out to be exactly ‘playful’, does it? Play takes on monstrous form. ‘Let’s play at hurting ourselves’, as the Little Girl says in Picasso’s ‘play’ a few years later. The ultimate beach colour is blue – not the yellow of sunshine or even the pink of flesh. If the beach IS a wonderful ‘beneath’ or ‘beyond’, it is one still full of a Homeric barrenness.

Daniel Fraser: The focus the book has on a particular concept of space, a space which is not only depicted but inhabited, and particularly your use of the word ‘dwelling’ and being-in-the-world reminded me of Heidegger particularly ‘Building, Dwelling, Thinking’. And the conception of space which has a readiness-to-hand also implies a Heideggerian sensibility of sorts. But he is not mentioned. I just wanted to know if there is an analogous thought for you there or if his exclusion was a deliberate distancing from, or opposition to, those comparable concepts?

TJ Clark: Yes, I know that my line of thought intersects with Heidegger. But I know this ‘at a distance’, and I want (maybe wisely, maybe unwisely) to keep that distance. As I understand it – and again, I may be wrong, just because of the distance I’m keeping from the detail of Heidegger’s texts – the concepts you point to cannot be dissociated in Heidegger from notions of rootedness, of profound and enduring ‘familiarity’, of a ‘world’ made (essentially by hand) always in the image of an older one. That I have nil sympathy with the politics informing such notions is obvious; and that I think it possible to maintain a notion of being-and inhabiting, of ‘grounded’ experience, without such a politcs, ditto. But more important, I believe Picasso thought much the same (in practice, in his painting). One simple way of putting it would be: Picasso was a Bohemian. His ideas of intimacy and ‘belonging’ are always entwined with ideas of liberating impermanence and fecklessness. He sure wasn’t a ‘dweller’ in the world of the ‘age-old’ and tried-and-true. A guitar is different from a spade or a sabot.

Daniel Fraser: One of the major conclusions you draw in the book is that despite the definite Nietzschean struggle with the concept of truth, Picasso’s art even at its most monstrous does not go beyond good and evil, it has a grounding in truth. Do you think this abandonment of truth has now fully come to pass? If so how for you has it manifested itself pictorially?

TJ Clark: A huge question, Daniel – which I don’t think can be answered without the kind of big ‘culture gesture’ that the Picasso book tries not to make (tries to provide an alternative to). I guess if I were going to work on your question, I’d begin by thinking about recent photography, and in particular the effect of easily available digital ‘manipulation’ (even the word here, with its roots in handicraft, may be wrong) on photography’s notions of, and ways of producing or admitting, ‘immediacy’, ‘reference’, ‘objectivity’. Gursky would be an obvious case to take up. But his interest for me would lie, I think, in the continuing tension in his work between a concern to show us a world that he seems to consider ‘imaginary’ now ‘all the way down’ – fully captured, fully ‘made’ by a machinery of mediation – and a stubborn survival in his actual work of an aesthetic of the lens, the recording machine, the ‘world appearing on the plate’.

That would lead to the question of his debt to his teachers the Bechers – to their commitment to camera ‘objectivity’, and their profound immersion in an older (distinctly UN-postmodern) world of production. The Bechers, if you like, are the Truth-tellers of high industrialism. Gursky may (or may not) feel that the world we now live in has ‘bracketed’ Truth. But his means of showing the bracketing – of giving his ‘showing’ any real authority – still depends utterly on the Bechers’ belief that the camera, as the child of the machine age, has a privileged access not just to the look of things, but to their ontology. And I suppose I’d say (or do I mean hope?) that any serious art will go on being caught in – animated by – just such a to-and-fro between solipsism/scepticism and ‘exposure’ to the facts. (Dan Fraser) Mon, 26 Jan 2015 16:22:28 GMT
Red Button Publishing

Karen Ings has worked as an editor in trade publishing for sixteen years, commissioning books for the last twelve. Developing projects on a freelance basis for clients such as Quercus and Penguin gave her the freedom to explore new avenues, and in 2012 she founded Red Button Publishing with her friend and former colleague Caroline Goldsmith. Red Button published their fourth novel last summer.

Mark Thwaite: Please tell us why and when (and how) you set up Red Button Publishing?

Karen Ings: Caroline and I worked together at Aurum Press in the early 2000s, and often over drinks after work we’d talk about setting up our own company one day. Back then it was just a pipe dream. Ten years later, we both found ourselves with more time on our hands – Caroline had moved to the country and I was freelancing – and we thought: why not? We’re both passionate about fiction, and if we worked for ourselves we’d have the independence to acquire the kinds of books we like to read, plus advances in digital publishing meant we didn’t need a huge amount of capital to start our own business. Handily our skills complement each other extremely well: Caroline designs and formats all our books and I look after the editing side. We set up Red Button in the summer of 2012 and published our first books the following spring.

MT: What gap in the market do you see it filling? Or what, as they say, is your USP?

KI:We’ve both worked for big publishers and know from experience that new authors, especially those who want to take risks in their writing, can slip through the net, as the pressure to make a profit often leads established imprints to stick mostly to the tried-and-tested. As a small start-up we have the freedom to take a chance on new authors we feel passionate about without having to justify our choices to shareholders. Our mission is to find books that are simply crying out to be published.

MT: You and your partner Caroline (Goldsmith) have a lot of experience behind you – what made you want to become digital publishers?

KI: Most of our experience has been in traditional publishing, where the process of bringing a book to market usually takes months – maybe even years. Publishing digitally means we have fewer overheads, of course, and it enables us to bring a new author to the attention of the public in a matter of weeks. It doesn’t mean we cut corners – it’s really important to us to maintain high standards in editing and production – but being able to make a book available without months of preamble is extremely exciting.

MT: Self-publishing and disintermediation are a threat to all publishers -- if I just want to publish an ebook can't I just do that via Amazon? Isn't this precisely the format that doesn't require a publisher / gatekeeper? Aren't you both too small to add much value and yet "too big", despite being so small, because you mediate between an author and direct access to readers either via Amazon or just, say, via a website like Lulu/WritersCafe/Scribophile and the like?

KI: Yes, of course it’s possible for any writer to publish entirely independently these days – be that in digital or paper. But I think the fact that many writers, including our own, choose to work with professionals speaks for itself. Editing, production, marketing: these things all take time and energy and some writers would prefer to be channelling that time and energy into their writing. It can also be very tricky to market your own books convincingly. Having a publisher to act as a kind of cheerleader for your work can be a real bonus. Because we’re a small outfit, we work very closely with our writers, and that’s an experience that sometimes gets lost within larger companies.

From a reader’s point of view, Red Button can play the role of curator. There’s a vast morass of reading material available online and we act as a filter: readers can trust that we would only give our stamp of approval to something that’s really worth reading.

MT: How do you market your titles?

KI: Of course it’s tough for a new, unknown publisher to get noticed, especially on a limited budget! It’s been important for us to think creatively about how we can work with our own contacts as well as those of our authors in order to create word of mouth. As well as approaching mainstream media outlets, we’ve worked hard to build up relationships with influential book bloggers. We’ve had a great response, particularly from Steve Cromerford ( People seem to like what we’re trying to do.

We’re also keen to ensure that our marketing doesn’t become too frontlist oriented. A lot of books take time to become embedded in the public consciousness – look at Stoner, for instance. And we’re always trying out different ideas: our next title will offer up a lot more opportunities for cross-media marketing, so that’s a new avenue to explore.

MT: Now is probably a good time for me to ask you a little bit about each of the books that you've published so far...

KI: We launched Red Button in April 2013 with The Human Script, the first novel from Johnny Rich, which is really the perfect example of what Red Button is all about. Johnny enrolled in the Creative Writing MA at UEA in 1999 and the first draft of The Human Script was highly praised by Ian McEwan, Malcolm Bradbury and WG Sebald. He signed up with Curtis Brown and a number of commissioning editors expressed interest – but marketing departments vetoed the book as insufficiently commercial. We read it, loved it and made the author an offer the next day. It’s at once a mind-expanding adventure through genetics, philosophy, theology and literary theory and a poignant modern love story. Tom McCarthy has read it and said: ‘It’s one of the most intelligent novels about science I’ve ever read.’

We followed up The Human Script with The Anchoress, an exquisite novella by Paul Blaney, who’s writer in residence at Rutgers University in New Jersey. The Anchoress is the story of Maggie, a fortysomething woman who shuts herself in her closet and refuses to come out despite the entreaties of friends and neighbours. As the days go on we discover what has driven her to hide away from the world. It’s a deeply moving book that’s full of quirky characters and flashes of offbeat humour.

Our third title is Home by Rebekah Lattin-Rawstrone. It’s a dark, chilling novel about a caretaker at an old people’s home who discovers that something horribly disturbing is going on in his workplace. We’ve been blown away by the generous support Rebekah’s book has received from Joseph D’Lacey (author of Meat): not only did he give us a fulsome endorsement, but also he’s tweeted endlessly about how much he loved the book and urged all his followers to read it.

MT: We've talked a lot about you as a digital publisher, but a little bird tells me I may well be able to hold one of your books in my hand in the not too distant future – that true?

KI:Yes: we’ve recently signed up with a print-on-demand platform and hope to make all our titles available in paper format later this year. Print was always part of our long-term plan once we’d established ourselves in the digital sphere, but we needed to be able to invest more time and money to make it happen. Digital provides an instant hit – but we know that many readers still prefer to hold a physical book in their hands. Moreover, some literary prizes still won’t consider digital-only titles (the Costa Book Awards and the new Goldsmiths Prize, for example) and we don’t want our authors to miss out.

MT: Is the future bright for publishing?

KI: We believe it is. Having worked in the industry for a number of years, we’ve lived through various crises that doommongers predicted would spell the end for publishing; but our impression is that people are still reading in vast numbers and there is a voracious appetite for great fiction that we are keen to fulfil.

MT: What are you working on now?

KI: We're working on an enhanced edition of our most recent title: Mockstars by Christopher Russell, which has been described as Spinal Tap meets The Inbetweeners. It’s about two boys from a tiny village in Surrey trying to make it as a rock band, and it’s genuinely laugh-out-loud funny. The story is inspired by the real-life tour diaries of Chris’s band the Lightyears, and the enhanced iBook edition will feature exclusive new tracks from the band..

MT: And, finally, what's the best book you read last year?

KI: I have to say The Goldfinch. Too long, self-indulgent – I’ve heard all the criticisms levelled at it, but I loved every single sentence. (Mark Thwaite) Fri, 09 Jan 2015 12:57:09 GMT
Daphne Hampson on Kierkegaard

Daphne Hampson holds doctorates in history from Oxford, in theology from Harvard, and a master's in Continental Philosophy from Warwick. The author of Christian Contradictions: The Structures of Lutheran and Catholic Thought, she has for many years engaged with the Lutheran tradition, in particular the work of Kierkegaard.

Daphne has lectured widely, in the UK, Continental Europe, North America and Australia. She is Professor Emerita of Divinity at the University of St Andrews where she held a chair in Post Christian Thought, and a life member of Clare Hall, Cambridge. She lives and works in Oxford where she is an Associate of the Faculty of Theology and Religion. Daphne’s Kierkegaard: Exposition & Critique (OUP, 2013) is out now in paperback.

Mark Thwaite: Your book does a wonderful job of taking us through very many of Kierkegaard's works. It begins by reminding us of Kierkegaard's intellectual context. Would you like to sketch that context for us here Daphne?

Daphne Hampson: That’s a tall order!

Kierkegaard is an immediate post-Enlightenment thinker. The Enlightenment of the eighteenth and into the nineteenth century, particularly in the German tradition and particularly post-Kant, had thrown up quite fundamental questions for Christianity. Further back than that – and foundational to Kant – Newton had shown that nature is an inter-related causal nexus, predictable and conforming to laws. Thus it became impossible for educated men to think that history could be ‘interrupted’ by miracles, and furthermore that there could be one-off example of a human being who was an incarnation of God.

The response was either atheism, as in the case of Hume and the French philosophes; or, like Kant, to suggest that it was we who chose to see Jesus as the archetype of a perfect human being; or, in the case of the theologian Friedrich Schleiermacher, to come to think simply theistically rather than Christocentrically, finding in the figure of Jesus a man who had a unique awareness of and openness to God. Furthermore, the onslaught of biblical scholarship, setting those documents in the historical context of the early church, was bound to upset the apple-cart.

Kierkegaard was well aware of all these developments. But he thinks that all the work in biblical scholarship, or the belief that Jesus was a good teacher of humankind (akin to Socrates) is quite beside the point. Kierkegaard will reinstantiate what he takes to be classical Christian faith. What one must recognize – and Kierkegaard in part recognized, in part denied – is that Christianity was in a very different position after the Enlightenment than it had previously been. Whether to say the same thing in a different age is essentially to say something different is however a different matter.

MT: And why did Kierkegaard dislike Hegel so much?

DH: Particularly important for Kierkegaard – as you surmise - was the work of Hegel, which dominated the theological scene in Denmark when he was a young man. The point was that Hegel refused to accept the incompatibility of the Enlightenment and Christian belief, as was the case for example in Kant (‘honest Kant’ as Kierkegaard refers to him). The young Hegel’s scathing ‘theological’ writings lay unpublished, Hegel having either changed his mind (which seems unlikely) or else having decided that to publish this work would be unpropitious if he wanted promotion and security.

Kierkegaard saw through the farce. Hegel’s talk of Geist was not the transcendent God of the Judaeo-Christian tradition. He thought Hegel dishonest, muddying the water. In the face of the Enlightenment and Hegel, Kierkegaard must insist that Christianity claims that God took on humanity in the person of one particular human being. Moreover that to be a Christian is to credit this; or rather to hold in faith that this is the case, for it is, Kierkegaard believes, a contradiction in terms (a paradox) to think that the changeless God entered time.

In other respects however Kierkegaard draws heavily on Hegel. For example his complex definition of the self (in The Sickness Unto Death) is unthinkable without Hegel. It is Hegel who had first seen the self as essentially relational, a relation which relates to itself. Kierkegaard, precisely, has such a non-Aristotelian model of the self as a self relating relation; while at the same time understanding the self crucially differently in saying that such a self cannot come to itself unless it is grounded in the relation to God.

So, like most original thinkers, one might say of Kierkegaard that he is both deeply indebted to his background and context and also makes radical moves in relation to that background. In either case Kierkegaard is not context-less.

MT: Would it be too strong to say that your book is an attempt to rescue Kierkegaard back for theology?

DH: It had never occurred to me that Kierkegaard required rescuing for theology! There is a huge volume of theological writing on Kierkegaard and he is widely taught in university theology departments. He himself describes himself as a ‘religious' writer. If you mean is he not an existentialist, or have I rescued him from being seen ‘purely’ as an existentialist, I am left slightly puzzled.

It is true, of course, that Kierkegaard writes about what it is like to live, particularly what it is to live as a religious person with the ‘idea’ of God constantly in mind. And it is true also that he has wonderful descriptions of all manner of people and their life-styles: he is really at his most edifying as he holds us, and our follies, up before our eyes. That he may have contributed to a certain style of writing – personal, and to the point – is without doubt the case. But I’m not quite sure what ‘existential’ writing is, if Heidegger, Sartre and Camus are all supposed to be ‘existentialists’ (and each in their own way might well be unhappy with the term).

‘Existentialist’ he may be, but this is not to preclude that Kierkegaard, well schooled in classical theology, as well as the Lutheran tradition, and also the philosophy of the Enlightenment period, and not least in the thought of the ancient world, addresses himself to issues of substance, not just of style. It really doesn’t help if for example a commentator on Kierkegaard casts him as only interested in the issue of ‘becoming’. Kierkegaard wants to ask how, in a post-Enlightenment world, one might relate to the Christian proposition that Christ is one person in two natures, human and divine.

Another way of answering this question might well be to comment that it is the Lutheran tradition which is somehow ‘existential’ (so one cannot divide the theology from any purported ‘existentialism’). Now such a statement can be misunderstood, as when Catholics are wont to say that a Lutheran writer is ‘existential’, intending thereby ‘simply subjective’, or ‘writing out of their life experience’, because they haven’t a clue about the structure of Lutheran thought and cannot make head or tail of it. This has not been uncommon. Faith is for the Lutheran tradition a kind of leap, an entrusting of oneself to another (or as Philip Watson so well put it, a transfer of centre of gravity). But it doesn’t follow that that structure of thought is not an ordered whole. One could well say that what, crucially, lies behind Luther’s thought is his break with medieval Aristotelian modes of thought, in which persons are conceive of as derived substance to which properties can be accredited. In as much as he thinks of selves as acting, as a bundle of forces or as relational Luther is the first modern man. (I’ve always thought it no chance that Hegel comes out of the Lutheran tradition.) So Kierkegaard might well be held to be ‘existential’ in that he is Lutheran. And unlike Hegel he thinks in terms of the particular individual.

MT: What do you think philosophers miss about Kierkegaard if they don't give full due to his Lutheranism?

DH: This is a question that it’s difficult to know where to start to answer! Philosophers in general are deeply ignorant of Luther, let alone recognizing that Kierkegaard is a Lutheran. But perhaps more surprisingly many theologians, particularly Anglican and Catholic, and particularly British theologians, are ignorant of Lutheran thought. There is far more awareness of Lutheran thought in the States.

Yes of course: one cannot grasp Kierkegaard if one is ignorant of Lutheran thought. How would one understand that faith is a kind of wager, that it is future orientated, that the Christian has a double sense of self as living ‘from the future’ while present in the world? Or that for Kierkegaard sin is a position (a setting of oneself up in the face of God, a refusal of dependence) and not an act: as Kierkegaard says ‘very often … it is overlooked that the opposite of sin is by no means virtue. … No, the opposite of sin is faith’? Again, epistemologically, that Christian ‘truth’ is other than what one would expect to be the case, that it does not build on but rather overturns human ways of thought? In all these ways Kierkegaard is deeply imbued with his tradition.

None of this implies of course that Kierkegaard is some kind of rigid Lutheran. Just as any great tradition, the Lutheran tradition has spawned the greatest variety thinkers as they have picked up different strands. No more than that all Catholics think alike do Lutherans. Thus Kierkegaard notably – and this is something I have pointed to in my work – has a much more rounded and integrated notion of the self as it stands in relation to God than does many a Lutheran thinker. Kierkegaard sounds almost Catholic as he speaks of love of God. But there are crucial differences: for Kierkegaard we are of ourselves nothing coram deo, before God; it is God who allows the human to ‘be’ something in relation to him.

So yes, in short, philosophers badly need to know something about the Lutheran tradition! They would comprehend Hegel better too, and even Kant. Even Heidegger, who was a Catholic but well versed in Luther. Luther is quite fundamental to the German philosophical as well as theological tradition (of which Kierkegaard is a part) in a way that is rarely comprehended.

MT: How important are Kierkegaard's Journals and Notebooks in understanding his work and thought?

DH: Certainly one finds remarks in Kierkegaard’s journals which give added insight into a position that he’s taking. And - quite apart from considering Kierkegaard as a theologian or philosopher - they are a delight to read. Kierkegaard was such a very human person in his range of emotions and so observant and often witty in his commenting on the world around him. An abbreviated version of these Journals was one of the first Kierkegaard books I owned as a teenager (it cost me 3/6) and I notice how well worn that is!

MT: Boldly, you claim, Philosophical Fragments is the most important text published in theology since the Enlightenment" -- why and how so?

DH: Yes I think it is – and that one doesn’t need to be particularly bold to come to this conclusion! If people grasped that book and thought through its implications (understood, however, within a somewhat different context than that to which Kierkegaard himself seems to have held), then they would see with clarity the situation in which Christianity is placed today. By ‘today’ I mean in the post-Enlightenment world. Let me explain.

Kierkegaard well realizes that Christian claims are not compatible with Enlightenment thought. That’s what the book is about. ‘Socrates’, in the book, could well be replaced by Kant. Or one might well say with modern thought in general. It is assumed that ‘truth’ is available to us through the thinking individual. Or, by extension, one might say through considering the world around us. Consider Einstein on a desert island. He can think out mathematical truth. He can also discover empirical truth – he can measure and observe the world. He can also consider moral truth and come to a conclusion. But to be a Christian our man on a desert island needs a missionary to arrive on a boat. That is to say Christian ‘truth’ is the contention that there lived a man who in a second nature in one persona was God. Other Christians might of course express the Christian claim slightly differently.

By definition, to be a Christian is to believe that there was a ‘uniqueness’ in the events surrounding Jesus of Nazareth, in whatever terms one may wish to cast that uniqueness. This is a historical claim, and differs from ordinary historical claims, such as that Caesar crossed the Rubicon. For, whether or not it is the case that Caesar crossed the Rubicon, it is perfectly possible that he should have done so (in that ‘crossing rivers’ belongs to a repeatable category of things that take place within the causal nexus; you get your horse to put one foot in front of the other till it reaches the other side). Unlike this the Christian claim is a claim to uniqueness; that Truth came into being in history at a certain point in time, such that Christianity can never lose that reference point in history. By contrast one could understand Marxism as an ideology while knowing nothing of Marx. Christians lay claim to revelation, an intervention in history.

What is so interesting is that Kierkegaard apparently (and this is something I’ve only come to realize in recent years) holds to a pre-Enlightenment understanding of how the world works. That is to say he thinks there are all sorts of interventions or revelations, for example he credits miracles. So he has a whole different understanding of God’s relation to history than most people would credit today (or than post-Enlightenment, educated, people had since at least the eighteenth century). For Kierkegaard, God is bringing his purposes to fruition in history, such that the claim to Incarnation stands in a peopled field. Given this context it is a lot more ‘thinkable’ for him than for one who doesn’t think in this way.

So what Kierkegaard does in this book brings to our attention the incompatibility of Christian claims with what we now know and how we think about reality. With part of himself Kierkegaard recognizes this, which is why he says that we must relate to Christ through faith not reason. But it is also the case, as I hope I’ve shown (and this has been too little considered in Kierkegaard scholarship), that the Incarnation is ‘possible’ for him because he continues to hold to what one must name pre-Enlightenment epistemological suppositions. It is in thinking this one through that I would judge that most people today would think Christian claims to be simply untenable. Or else, if they want to be Christians, they need to recognize that they are taking a ‘leap of faith’ in a very different sense than in a pre-Enlightenment world in which all sorts of strange one-off things are occurring.

Thus I think that this book faces us, in a nutshell, with what it is that Christianity is claiming. When we think about Kierkegaard’s argument and place it in the context of our own world I think we shall recognize that Christianity makes claims that we cannot allow.

MT: Could you sketch for us why you call the Works of Love ‘Love's Deeds’ and open out a little the argument that you are advancing with this translation...

DH: The Danish reads Love’s Deeds: that is a direct translation, what it is that love does. I’m not sure that Works of Love conveys this; that could mean works that are loving as compared with some other kind of works. Here again Kierkegaard’s book is cast within a Lutheran context. For Luther, it is God’s acceptance and love of us (for Luther, in Christ) irrespective of any particular merit on our part, which in turn sets us free in like manner to love our neighbour, with a love which is irrespective of any particular merits on the his or her part. This goes to the heart of the Christian message; that God loves sinners, or those who are far from perfect. Such love is to be contrasted with which for example Plato describes in which I love something because I find a good in it for me; or indeed that brotherly love which Aristotle describes in saying that I see in my friend another ‘I’. The Christian understanding of agape is a revelation as to what love truly is.

This is precisely what Kierkegaard’s book is about: what it actually entails to love one’s neighbour. He describes such love in moving terms. It must imply an uncommon openness to others, a being ‘present’, irrespective for example of class, or of whether I happen to like them, or most crucially whether they behave lovingly towards me. It is a dramatic and dynamic kind of love, which Kierkegaard thinks changes the world. Furthermore it makes for a radical equality between people in the eyes of God, and thus should lead us to treat each with dignity. I think Kierkegaard is perfectly right that this is what Christian discipleship is about (though obviously it is not only Christians who can take it upon themselves to think and behave in this way). I believe the book is a classic, a beautiful text, and were it not so unwieldy it would surely be much better known. I try to bring out the best in this book – and to wrestle with what is not so good about it, Kierkegaard’s regressive views on democracy, or his evident sexism.

MT: Kierkegaard wrote using many different pseudonyms -- how seriously should we take those "authors" and how should we read them and the points of view they are advancing? Where is Kierkegaard when e.g. Victor Eremita, Johannes de Silentio and say Constantin Constantius are addressing us?

DH: I don’t think Kierkegaard’s employing of pseudonyms is of deep consequence (though it is a faux pas in some circles to say this). We should consider the following. (i) It is not that Kierkegaard says something different in his pseudonymous work than he does in his signed work and his Journals. (ii) It was common in his society to publish pseudonymously; Bishop Mynster, his great opponent at least for part of his career, did the likewise. (iii) Evidence has come to light, in relation to a number of books, that Kierkegaard decided to publish under a pseudonym only at the last moment. What I think is important, and why Kierkegaard published pseudonymously, is that he wants to be able to present his work ‘objectively’, so that people are able to think out for themselves whether what he is saying is true. He can do this better if it is placed at arm’s length.

MT: In your Preface you movingly acknowledge your personal debt to Kierkegaard, saying how important he has been for your own intellectual journey ("a source of delight and edification"). If, God forbid, Kierkegaard hadn't existed who would you turn to fill (some of) the gaps?

DH: This is a lovely question but I absolutely don’t know how to answer it! I simply cannot imagine who I should be or what conclusions I should have come to had Kierkegaard not been on the scene. I have read him, as I said, since a teenager – and I am now 70. He has been inextricably wound into my life in that he has been a constant dialogue partner as I have engaged with his thought. That is exactly what desired his readers should do.

For myself, Kierkegaard allowed me, at an earlier stage and with far greater clarity than might otherwise have been the case, to arrive at an understanding as to what it is that Christianity implies and claims. I may have come down on the other side of the fence than he; but it has been important to think this out - and at least we should have understood each other as to what the issues are. So I’m grateful. I’ve also thought a lot about what is the difference in historical context between us: what is it that has changed more generally?

But also in other subtle ways – as I’ve indicated – he has been endlessly edifying. Kierkegaard has enabled me to think out what my values are or confirmed me in what I already thought. Last but not least I think it has sometimes encouraged me that Kierkegaard could keep going, all those hours working on his own, while receiving little recognition. Kierkegaard speaks to one as an individual in a way that few authors do. That is why one comes to care about him – however much one might think differently.

MT: Why and how is Kierkegaard still relevant? Why should we read him?

DH: I think I may have answered this question. Or perhaps Kierkegaard can best answer it when he writes: ‘I know what Christianity is. And to get this properly recognized must be, I should think, to every person’s interest, whether he be a Christian or not, whether his intention is to accept Christianity or to reject it.’ People need to stop faffing about and to consider the validity of what it is that Christianity maintains. Anything else won’t do.

But others will surely read Kierkegaard for the sheer joy of the beauty of his prose (which comes through even in translation), for his insights into human life (including its pain), and not least for his wicked humour and his joy. At the end of the day I have to say of Kierkegaard that read him on account of his tender love of God, which I in some sense and in some moments share, even though I may have come to judge Christianity otherwise.

MT: What are you working on now Daphne?

DH: I have various projects afoot.

In the first place I am writing a book about the whole period of the Enlightenment and after which I love so much. It may be called exactly that, Enlightenment and After. I have wondered about a subtitle like ‘The Unraveling of Christianity’ but I think that may be too wicked. It will have chapters on Hume, Kant, Schleiermacher, Hegel, Feuerbach, and lastly Kierkegaard – as a reaction to the Enlightenment, but whose work would have been quite other had it not been for the Enlightenment, in that he writes an apologetic for Christianity in the face of the Enlightenment. This is the period in which all the crucial questions for Christianity in the modern world come to the fore. Moreover I have to say that the answers or responses which were given, whether in the hands of say Schleiermacher and Hegel (so very different, and different again from Kant or Kierkegaard), are so imaginative and various. I seem to be good at explaining texts to others and getting at what the issues are and this book will attempt to do that again.

Then I might get around (I do hope so) to writing a small explanatory book on Luther and Lutheran theology. 2017 will be 500 years since the outbreak of the Reformation. I was horrified in 1983, with the celebration of 500 years since Luther’s birth, to find that people seemed not to have a clue about his theology. The Reformation apparently simply broke out because the church was corrupt, not because Luther had a different understanding of Christianity, a different structuring of Christian faith. I’ve discussed this subject matter at length at a scholarly level in my Christian Contradictions: The Structures of Lutheran and Catholic Thought (2001), but it would be good to try to put over some of this material and to discuss and critique Lutheran thought more generally at a comprehensible level for an intelligent reading public. It is after all thought-provoking. The Reformation caused the major split, after a thousand years, in Western Christian thought and it has not healed.

Finally I surely have to write a big feminist book before I die, but that always seems to be put on hold while I prepare ground work, such as the present Enlightenment project. I have wondered whether to call that Christianity as Fascism, but that may be just off-putting until people can recognize and understand what I mean. I’ve moved a whole step beyond my After Christianity (1997/2002) in coming to conclude that it’s not simply that Christianity has been an ideology which has harmed half of humanity (as it were as an unfortunate spin off), but that the very raison d’être of the Christian myth has in part been to make it look ‘only natural’ that men should be superordinate and women subordinate. That, I think, is a good definition of fascism: an ideology the raison d’être of which it is to make it look only natural that one part of humanity is normative, while those who don’t belong to the norm are cast as ‘the other’. I gave an invited lecture in which I spoke about these questions at the European Society for the Philosophy of Religion meeting in Germany this summer and it seemed to go down well, which is encouraging.

God grant me a life and a half to do what I know I need to do. But as Kierkegaard well knew, one can only live a day at a time. (Mark Thwaite) Fri, 14 Nov 2014 09:53:07 GMT
Diving for Pearls: A Thinking Journey with Hannah Arendt

Recently an author and scholar, Kathleen B. Jones, gave me her book. Jones is a professor emeritas of women’s studies at San Diego State University, and her book, Diving For Pearls: A Thinking Journey with Hannah Arendt, alternates between fascinating biographical snippets and quotes from Arendt’s controversial career to Jones’ own autobiographical pieces which parallel Arendt’s.

Jones’ rendering of Arendt is unabashedly personal, and her way is my way, too, of reading and identifying with the main character so to speak. Through a tunnel of empathy and identification we can journey with even one of the densest philosophic thinkers of our time, making her accessible and part of our own lives. The personal connection, this identification is so often missing in biographies and it provides textures and nuances I never thought possible in non-fiction. It is the more honest representation of how we all read – to make ideas, and pieces of human life, even famous lives, ours too. Dissolving those barriers which keep us too much of at distance, identification, as in fiction, provides that classical sense of catharsis – even when it’s a complex author like Hannah Arendt and a complicated work of biography.

What sprang into my mind instantly reading A Thinking Journey was that when I was twelve years old, I watched the Eichmann Trial on television and saw and read Ms. Arendt’s provocative statement about the banality of evil. Controversial at the time, Arendt believed Adolf Eichmann typified the horror of the holocaust. She did not buy the defense’s position that all Eichmann was doing was “following orders” and she rejected this position as an excuse for the crime. Though she characterized him as a bureaucrat, and an anti-Semitic bureaucrat, those attributes didn't excuse him in Arendt’s mind, or even explain why he could do what he did. Arendt believed he knew what he was doing, she wrote, but he never stopped to think and examine it, or consider that what he was doing was morally obscene. The shocking truth for Arendt was that Eichmann never bothered to question whether following an order (from Hitler, the only true source of law at the time) was sufficient as an "ethical' action. She saw Eichmann not entirely as a sadistic monster but as an example of the banality of evil. Arendt also asked why some Jews were complicit with the Nazis, and why this fact had not been brought into focus and consciousness in the media. She created a fierce storm in the Jewish world for both these ideas. For her bold contentions and questions, she was ostracized in the Jewish community and confronted with statements like “You (Hannah Arendt) do not love the Jewish people, you do not believe in them. What kind of Jew are you?”

The real problem with Eichmann, for Arendt, Jones tell us, was that he wasn’t able to reflect on what he was doing. He was a man who couldn’t and wouldn’t think, a “thoughtless” man, “a leaf in the whirlwind of time” and he therefore couldn’t distinguish between sending people to gas chambers and doing his job as instructed by some authority. The real horror “wasn’t just Eichmann but how many others were like him,” Jones tells us, reiterating Arendt’s views, (Eichmann was a) ” terrifying normal, banal perpetrator of evil.” What had happened, both Arendt and Jones ask, to make people “so thoughtless”?

To me, as a young Jewish girl, Hannah Arendt seemed more Jewish than anyone else I knew, simply for asking those questions and presenting other philosophical, pressing questions, illuminating the holocaust as a set of paradoxes. Like Spinoza, she was the Jew who believed thinking was the difference not only of knowing and not knowing, but also of being capable of diagnosing “evil” and freeing oneself from stock assumptions. Adolf Eichmann was both a mass murderer and a banal clerk with no mind of his own, Arendt contended, and to me that felt achingly true. The participation of some Jews in aiding the Nazis revealed a complexity of paradoxes as well. It was a recognition that the propensity of all human beings no matter what race or religion, is to try to belong, to not be not a victim. but a member, and throughout history, traitors have held center stage. They elicit our disgust and outrage, but also our sense of common human weakness. To see Jews as a part of common humanity was, to me, not a betrayal but a confirmation that we, as Jews, can be both culpable and innocent, broadening a sense of Jews belonging to the family of man. Arendt forcefully restated she was a Jew and none of her ideas meant anything otherwise. Many tried to silence and condemn her ideas.

During the Hamas/Gaza war, my second cousin in Israel posted photos of innocent babies in Gaza playing by the waterside as Israel ordered airstrikes against them. As human shields for the Hamas, they were, nonetheless, innocent, he proposed. He was trying to protest what he saw as the use of excessive force by Israel. He was not saying that Israel didn’t have the right to defend itself, but that the causalities were, on a purely human level of perception, unimaginably high and we were caught in a kind of Arendt paradox. Israel had to defend itself, yes – that was clear as day – and yet the damages Israel causing were of the innocent and that is ethically unacceptable. We, as Jews, were trapped in a war where conscience was beginning to show its thorny presence, haunting us with images of these innocents who were slaughtered by our airstrikes. I agreed with my second cousin and said so on Facebook. Soon my Facebook thread was flooded with ugly comments, everything from calling me names I don’t want to repeat (out of pure taste), to someone actually posting a photo of a man vomiting on my thread. When I read Jones’ presentation of Arendt’s controversial statements about Eichmann, I couldn’t help but find some affinity and support for voicing potentially explosive alternate views. However grandiose on my part that sounds!

All this is to say Kathleen Jones, by writing about Arendt from a personal place (the book mixes Jones’ own autobiography with her smart and fascinating biography of Arendt herself), allows the reader to feel Arendt as a partner, a traveler in the same chaos of modern life we are facing now. Jones includes her own dreams, her lovers, and her struggle to mitigate ideas about feminism and when suddenly she switches back to Arendt’s biography, we are given a way into an understanding of this larger-than-life woman philosopher, as if Arendt is at our dining room table. If only more non-fiction biographies could combine the personal with the facts of a “great” person otherwise unreachable to us, I thought, as reading for me is always this process of identification and catharsis, a blending of the personal and hardcore factual world.

It’s an extraordinary book and I recommend it to anyone interested in how the mind of a brilliant woman can illuminate our own passageway into serious thinking, and not just “following orders”.

It is a testament of how fine this book is that my mind also reflected on how in my novel, Edges, ambiguity and paradox also formed my narrative. It brought me to a passage in “Edges” where my main character, a young girl of fourteen is in Jerusalem in 1963, is trying to understand the early beginnings of the Arab/Jewish modern wars.

In the drizzling rain, the Jordanian Hills seemed closer than when I tried to see them from the bedroom upstairs. They lay to the east, though named The West Bank. The boundary between Arab and Jewish regions were drawn by a fountain pen years ago when some British engineers came to canvas the rough land in the 1930’s, my aunt told me. The ink they used was green and so the border was called the “green line”. The border remained vague and uncertain, my aunt said, subject to weather and other forces. No one ever seemed to know where it started or ended, the barbed wire often arbitrarily strewn to make up for the lack of clearness. A little more than a hazy, outline in the distance there were thick layers of barbed wire on both sides of the border.

In Edges, Arendt’s concepts of paradox and ambiguity were profound to me, and tools for a deeper understanding of the Israel/Palestine conflict.

The lively free association possible in one’s mind that Jones’ book invites was a gateway into a vital, emotional landscape of possibilities.

“The world is full of stories, events, and occurrences, and strange happenings,” Arendt wrote. “Only if you can imagine what has happened anyhow and repeat it in the imagination, and only if you have the patience to tell and retell them will you be able to tell them well.”

This wonderful book taught me to be less afraid to find the personal in the in the political, and by doing so, to discover a connective artery to the heart of this beating world. (Leora Skolkin-Smith) Wed, 05 Nov 2014 12:50:45 GMT
Panhandling the ocean with Bukowski’s double

I have always read poetry, since I began reading poetry in any notable volume, in a manner analogous in my mind to the panhandling prospectors of old. Reading swiftly, not holding on to the sediment of words too tightly, often turning the pages to give the phrases a shake in order to see what might be dislodged and waiting, for gold, waiting for a title, a word, an image to really take hold, to sink in the pan and invite me to touch it. After it has sunk in, I focus and read that particular poem several hundred times, turning the raw metal of the words over and over in my brain pan, often to the detriment of the rest of the book, always beginning by thinking about why it was that the poem stuck out.

I have no idea whether this is a good way of reading poetry, or if it is really reading at all in some sense but I think it came about for me for two reasons: the first being that reading poetry is hard, almost without exception, and reading in this manner, though it came about in an entirely natural way, is a reflection of my own ability to manage this difficulty, to allow the efforts of my attempt at understanding, however misguided it might turn out to be, to be something whose surface, whose pool of words, had already sought my attention. The second reason I would attribute to the development of this approach to reading is that when, in my teens, I began to read poetry regularly, the first poet I read in any great volume was Bukowski.

Bukowski’s poetry was something I devoured. His restricted vocabulary and ‘loose’ poetic style were the perfect complement to my burgeoning adulthood and the subject matter is, of course, something which can enthral any adolescent. I was transfixed by the oscillating emotional states, the juxtaposition of the lust for rebellion and the pure light of dropping out, and the raw vitality that seeped out from his collections in a mire of classical music, sex, women, alcohol, writing and gambling.

Transfixed is a good way to describe the state of reading his work. It induces a soft, trance-like state, a soft glassy look resembling nothing so much as someone deciphering a magic eye puzzle, keeping the reader at a distance from the words as they are and trying to view a glinting grain that moves between them. One feels as though the words are a porous membrane, allowing the direct passage of the sediment of knowledge between writer and reader.

But what always struck me most was the almost uncontrollable desire for speed his work contained. Bukowski’s words wanted to be read quickly. Each stylistic element: the open spaces and stunted narcotic lines slipping away down the page, the repetitious actions, the sense of a body functioning behind the words, all work to enhance this effect but every once in a while a lump of text would stick, catch me completely off guard, the mud would fall away and I would not be able to go any further. I had struck gold. This dualist oscillation between velocity and slowness became its own pattern.

The first poem of Bukowski’s which had this effect on me, and which remains one of my favourite poems, is this one from Burning in Water, Drowning in Flame :

i met a genius

I met a genius on the train
about 6 years old,
he sat beside me
and as the train
ran down along the coast
we came to the ocean
and then he looked at me
and said,
it’s not pretty.

it was the first time I’d

From the very first reading this poem sticks out from those around it, with its overtones of nostalgia and the cliché of the honesty and lack of artistry of children, and its obvious lack of any of the more ‘commonly identifiable’ Bukowski traits for the reader to latch on to: women, writing, alcohol etc. However I believe this poem offers a great deal of insight into Bukowski’s writing process, his enduring appeal and his talent as a poet. This is a poem which is unafraid of cliché. It takes the stark honesty of children, the ability of the young to reveal things to the old, to provide them with knowledge, and lays it bare.

This poem is, itself, a memory. It contains the sentiment and nostalgia for the past which are so often the features of remembrance. It is meant to glitter in the dirt: the poem which precedes it and the poem which follows it are called ‘shot of red-eye’ and ‘poverty’ respectively and contain subject matter much more in keeping with the commonly identified image of Bukowski as a writer. This poem actively undermines this image whilst concurrently supporting it: knowingly presenting the misty-eyed moment of sentimentality from the life-long drunk. This doubling pokes fun at Bukowski’s body of work as a whole, a body of work whose initial appeal and whose conveyance of a desire to devour it, to read as much as possible, is so closely tied to the idea of a particular body behind the work: that of the author himself. That an authentic portrayal of Bukowski himself seems so clearly to be functioning to behind the words: the drunk, the imposing savage, the womaniser and gambler, the violent outcast is both necessary for the work and, of course, entirely fictional at the same time.

One sees the doubling again in the image of the ocean, which here functions a manner resembling Bataille’s in his essay ’Rotten Sun’. Bataille conceives of the sun as double: one is the highest conception of elevation for humanity, impossible to look at and connected to the highest spiritual elevation and serenity, the other, the one which is scrutinised and focussed on fixedly, implies madness, blindness and violence. Bataille cites the myth of Icarus as exemplary of this double relationship: the first sun being the shining object at the beginning of his elevation, the other which melts the wax and causes a violent fall when Icarus gets too close.

The sea here too is double. It is an object which has held human attention for millennia: it flows through human history and poetry more strongly than almost anything else. It is the focus of dreams and memories, one of the principal sites of the formation of nostalgia. The oceans, the sea, have been described for aeons in a multitude of fashions: sometimes terrible, violent, other times sexual, exquisite, other times calming, nullifying, but always dominant, thought of in absolutes. But there are two oceans, just as there are two suns, the obliqueness employed in holding the sea as this all-encompassing ideal is not to prevent, as in the case of the sun, the blind madness of staring into it directly, but its ordinariness. In essence Bukowski’s sea subverts the previous doubling, critiquing the two absolutes as being tied up in the same intensity which threatens to distort the far more disturbing notion of its banality. Once this has been revealed it can shift the sea’s power: those hypnotic, trance-like states it seems capable of inducing, those moments where, if one stares too long, as Monica Vitti’s character in Deserto Rosso (Michelangelo Antonioni, 1971) asserts: ‘you forget what’s happening on the land’, may be a result of the ocean being ordinary rather than all-powerful.

The effect of this is ultimately to both support and undermine the method of reading I outlined above. Bukowski is a writer, one whose work would not be so enduring if it did not contain something universal and this poem functions as a coda, a rupture in the fabric of the authors presence which both understands the pace at which the reader might skim across the poems and, in its exposure of its falsehood, demands that attention be given back to that which seems merely to be a continuation of the pulsating ‘Bukowski adventure’. In ironising his presence then Bukowski only serves to highlight his absence and recasts the attention to where it should be: on his words. This life the reader is presented with may be composed from mostly filth, rejection, death, illness, violence, and there may be moments, brief flickers, glittering like gold in the pan to break this cycle but this gold must cast new light on all the dirt that was initially rejected: these nuggets are there to remind the reader that what these works are really composed of, what makes them ‘live’ is not the author’s lifestyle but his language.

In the dualism of speed and slowness that pulses rhythmically in Bukowski’s work, the dualism of gold and dirt, of writer and written, a complex pattern establishes itself which lends this dislocated approach to reading a powerful glimmer all of its own. (Dan Fraser) Sun, 28 Sep 2014 10:23:10 GMT
Stephen Mitchelmore Stephen Mitchelmore was Britain's first book blogger. Since September 2004 he has maintained an independent blog This Space.

Mark Thwaite: When, why and where did you first start blogging?

Stephen Mitchelmore: Late in the year 2000 Chris Mitchell of Spike Magazine, one of the first 'ezines', appended a blog to the site called Splinters and invited me to contribute. I had written a few reviews and essays for Spike and had complained that the essay format demanded more attention than many subjects deserve. I had much to say because Britain is afflicted with a serious case of philistinism, especially in the highest reaches of its literary culture. Blogging was the ideal vehicle for literary fire-fighting while also drawing attention to the more substantial content – a kind of reverse scarecrow.

MT: When did you start This Space?

SM: After a few years, Splinters had become well established (I was told that internet sensation Jessa Crispin of Bookslut named it her favourite) and was far more active than the host magazine. Despite this I had began to feel uncomfortable with writing in the shadow of content in keeping with Spike's tagline "Picking the brains of popular culture" (it was also dying, leaving the blog pinned like a bright red parasite to the side of a grey hippo). By then blogs were unique sites, no longer adjuncts to magazines, so, after getting to know Lars Iyer through our mutual interest in the writing of Maurice Blanchot, we started a group blog called In Writing. But there were crossed wires. Lars Iyer began to dominate with long, oracular posts that seemed to me inappropriate to the form and assumed purpose. After some awkward discussions, Lars left and created the legend that is Spurious; a masterstroke of misjudgement for which I am happy to take the credit. I continued with In Writing but, once again, after another difference of opinion, I moved away and, in September 2004, began This Space, an unfortunately bland title truncating a line of Blanchot’s: "Critical discourse is this space of resonance within which the unspoken, indefinite reality of the work is momentarily transformed and circumscribed into words". The point is that the blog is concerned with the presence of writing and how it changes our relation to the world, rather than discussing its overt subject matter.

MT: What difference did you find having your 'own' space from blogging on Spike's pages?

SM: Almost immediately I recognised This Space as my true home, a miraculous release into a limitless expanse in which writing could be explored in the direction demanded by the work under discussion. The editorial identity was soon established and gave me what I had lacked until then. My only responsibility was to sustain that exploration. So the difference is that blogging became the means of writing rather than as a parasite on the larger work. However, as it is an individual pursuit, persistence is everything. The form is a constraint that enables a million liberations, but one must persist. There is no destination, no end to blogging.

MT: You've been blogging for over a decade... what's changed over that period of time?

SM: The big change is that blogs are now read. As a result, they have become more uniform and less exciting. Newspapers had provided the only means of discussing books and had many book pages: big critics wrote big reviews of big novels by big authors. Since blogging became commonplace, review space has been decimated and reviewers have followed the tendency toward gossip and saying the right thing before their mates – the equivalent of talking loudly in bars – rather than opening themselves to the silence of reading. This has always been the drawback of newspaper criticism and blogging has enabled it to reassert the social rather than personal reception of literature. That is, some things can't be written about in public without being drowned by guffaws from the bar. Blogging is an essentially private and solitary undertaking and thereby has the virtue of allowing silence to approach. But now those who maintain the trivial bookchat model predominate. It shocks me how few really good, regularly updated literary blogs there are. However, one can soon tell who is worth reading and who not, unlike online magazines, which often have a brantub miscellany in which the best writing is often swamped. I think the single blog is therefore a great way to think about literature, as the blogger has responsibility only to his audience and gains an audience by writing well.

MT: What have been the highlights and the low points?

SM: They are difficult to separate. Getting emails from strangers who say nice things is always a pleasant surprise, but these are countered by attacks by those riding high on the Dunning-Kruger Effect.

Another example: after a few years of writing, I was asked to write a review for various print publications, including the TLS. This seemed to be a natural progression: from floor to stage, from amateur to professional, from darkness to light. And I wrote about a dozen reviews. But it was distressingly unsatisfying. Everything that generated a need in me to write was removed and I felt like a ventriloquist's doll. Since then I have turned down offers to write elsewhere. For that reason, the highlight was rediscovering the futility of blogging: my fortress, my prison cell.

MT: How has Twitter affected things?

SM: It has had the beneficial effect of siphoning trivia from blogs and starving them of comments. Before, blog posts often comprised brief asides and hyperlinks, with longer pieces saved for a grand parade. Now that the form is more suited to essays and reviews, fewer people are willing to read let alone write them, so Twitter has emphasised a serious challenge to blog as a form.

MT: Where next for blogging do you think?

SM: More of the same. This isn't a prediction but a statement of necessity. Blogging is a singular project because it goes nowhere and can only keep going in that direction. The challenge is to focus on this inevitablity, to ask what it means for literature, and to keep asking. It begins and ends with each book, which also partakes of the same inevitability (which is perhaps why there are so many). A review then becomes the space in which the distance opened by the book resonates beyond its covers. The revelation of writing is only ever revealed in the book itself, an experience we invariably dismiss or disguise as soon as we begin to speak about it. The next blog post is where this can be exposed at last.

MT: Where next for you and and your own writing then...?

SM: The inevitable answer is more of the same. I have been asked if This Space might provide enough material for a book and for sure there are more than enough words. I would like to think it was possible, if only for a change. But the blogging form is probably irreconcilable with the book form, if not antithetical. I often wonder if a change is possible only by disappearing, by becoming anonymous again so that one writes in an apparent void. Lars Iyer's Spurious has now been relegated by his novels that emerged by chance on his blog (the new one, Wittgenstein Jr, is a joy), but I can't see that happening with mine.

MT: Looking back, do you have a few favourite pieces?

SM: While blog posts are standalone, each one has the undercurrent of personal striving to articulate a certain vision of literature, and the long essay The Shadow Cast by Writing and a review of Miguel de Beistegui's Proust as Philosopher are good examples of this. I regard both as step-changes, which makes the blog worth writing. But there are also expressions of frustration with popular literary culture and my send-up of The Guardian's Writers' Rooms series is a particular favourite (mainly for the paper "Enlarge Image" icon stuck to the chair) as is the rewriting of a Books of the Year piece. I hope there are more to come. (Mark Thwaite) Thu, 25 Sep 2014 09:04:55 GMT
poetry is vertical On a été trop horizontal, j'ai envie d'étre vertical.
— Léon Paul Fargue

   In a world ruled by the hypnosis of positivism, we proclaim the autonomy of the poetic vision, the hegemony of the inner life over the outer life.

   We reject the postulate that the creative personality is a mere factor in the pragmatic conception of progress, and that its function is the delineation of a vitalistic world.

   We are against the renewal of the classical ideal, because it inevitably leads to a decorative reactionary conformity to a factitious sense of harmony, to the sterilisation of the living imagination.

   We believe that the orphic forces should be guarded from deterioration, no matter what social system ultimately is triumphant.

   Esthetic will is not the first law. It is in the immediacy of the ecstatic revelation, in the a-logical movement of the psyche, in the organic rhythm of the vision that the creative art occurs.

   The reality of depth can be conquered by a voluntary mediumistic conjuration, by a stupor which proceeds from the irrational to a world beyond a world.

   The transcendental 'I' with its multiple stratifications reaching back millions of years is related to the entire history of mankind, past and present, and is brought to the surface with the hallucinatory irruption of images in the dream, the daydream, the mystic-gnostic trance, and even the psychiatric condition.

   The final disintegration of the 'I' in the creative act is made possible by the use of a language which is a mantic instrument, and which does not hesitate to adopt a revolutionary attitude toward word and syntax, going even so far as to invent a hermetic language, if necessary.

   Poetry builds a nexus between the 'I' and the 'you' by leading the emotions of the sunken, telluric depths upward toward the illumination of a collective reality and a totalistic universe.

   The synthesis of a true collectivism is made possible by a community of spirits who aim at the construction of a new mythological reality.

Hans Arp, Samuel Beckett,
Carl Einstein, Eugene Jolas,
Thomas McGreevy, Georges Pelorson,
Theo Rutra, James J. Sweeney,
Ronald Symond

Poetry Is Vertical appeared in transition no 21, edited by Eugene Jolas, published in 1932. (This version via (Mark Thwaite) Sun, 15 Jun 2014 15:17:28 GMT
Wreckage of Reason II: Back To The Drawing Board

Wreckage of Reason II: Back to the Drawing Board, edited by Nava Renek and Natalie Nuzzo and recently published by Spuyten Duyvil Publishing, is a collection of thirty-three experimental pieces written by women. It stands on its literary merits alone, but it also elicits questions that point far beyond its own physical presence in the publishing arena—questions primarily to do with the threatened future of experimental and literary writing itself, with the questionable health and well-being of our current literary culture and its openness or lack thereof to work that isn’t consumerist in intent. As if the standing of experimental writing in our literary culture weren’t enough of a problem, the troubling statistics testifying to the glaring inequality in attention given to women writers in comparison to their male counterparts present a serious crisis in writing, as both problems conflate to confront us with several critical questions we seem unable to table away: for instance, how does our current literary culture make room or recognize experimental writers, not as marginal guests at the buffet but as essential contributors? How do experimental literary writers continue to foster their literary legacy, to offer up profound depths, language, and soul, to grow as writers willing to risk and to toss up, around, and about meanings and connections in ways that rise above entertainment? In other words: to do this thing we still call “prose” and “story” as it evolved during the decades before it was oppressed by the omnipresent forces now censoring writing and writers?

Anthologies such as Wreckage of Reason II provide us with some soulful answers and examples. Nava Renek, co-editor of the anthology, is a writer, editor, and educator. Her published works include the two novels Spiritland and No Perfect Words, as well as a collection of short stories titled Mating In Captivity. In 2009, she conceived and edited the first volume of Wreckage of Reason: An Anthology of XXperimental Prose by Contemporary Women Writers. She works as program coordinator at the Women’s Center at Brooklyn College/CUNY. Natalie Nuzzo, also co-editor of the anthology, is a writer and teacher from Brooklyn, NY whose poetry has been published in Overpass Books, Having a Whiskey Coke with You, NAP, and The Medical Chronicles. She is the author of two chapbooks, Birdland and the forthcoming Reconstruction.

About the second edition of this anthology, Wreckage of Reason II, Nava Renek writes: “Using form and language, our tools at hand, women in this collection leave the literal chronicling to others. Instead, they are genre benders, syntax grinders, consciously and unconsciously chipping away at language and construct to capture a dimension that is familiar, yet also unrecognizable. These stories illustrate moments of conflict, amusement, bafflement and joy that make up a day, a year, a life, a collective history.” While the writing here is far more concerned with life’s moments as captured by words and voices than with linguistic dexterity for its own sake, many of the stories deftly weave formal ideas and abstract theories into scenes and character portrayals to achieve a different kind of immediacy in their sweeps of poetic fancy and explorations of interior states of being.

In a 2000 interview titled “Against Postmodernism, etcetera—A Conversation with Susan Sontag,” the interviewer, Evans Chan, asked Sontag about the beginning rise of commercial literary books bundled together under the label “postmodernism.” Chan posed his question poignantly, summing up the burgeoning trend in publishing that was just starting to take over the literary landscape. “We’ve seen high culture or the so-called canon besieged by popular culture and multiculturalism,” Chan’s question to Sontag began. “We now live in an age of total eclecticism and global interpenetration, which many people, including myself, call the postmodern. So far, your reaction to postmodernism seems largely inimical. And you refused to allow the Camp sensibility that you helped make famous to be co-opted by the postmodernists because ‘Camp taste... still presupposes the older, high standards of discrimination’ (Writing Itself, 439).”

Sontag’s answer was equally pointed and powerful, and it included a foreboding of what was on the horizon for a literary culture that was clearly coming under increasing threat. For two decades, and in defiance of occasional adversaries and naysayers, she had served as one of its most vocal critical voices and visionaries. “I never thought I was bridging the gap between high and low cultures,” Sontag began in response to Chan’s question. “I am unquestioningly, without any ambiguity or irony, loyal to the canon of high culture... the way writers are being relabeled as postmodern (now) is at times baffling... That’s when I get off the bus. In my view, what’s called postmodernism—that is, the making everything equivalent—is the perfect ideology for consumerist capitalism. It is an idea of accumulation, of preparing people for their shopping expeditions. These are not critical ideas...”

What, then, is modernism in literature and writing and what is postmodernism? In The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Literary Terms (New York: Oxford University Press, 1991, s.v.), Chris Baldick provides a useful definition of literary modernism: “A general term applied retrospectively to the wide range of experimental and avant-garde trends in the literature (and other arts) of the early 20th century... Modernist literature is characterized chiefly by a rejection of 19th-century traditions and of their consensus between author and reader, conventions of realism... or traditional meter." Modernism grew from a dissatisfaction with the bourgeois values which, the Modernists believed, stifled the novel, forcing a linear structure and an overly moralistic, limited sense of human nature onto it. Literary Modernism was influenced in no small part by the new psychological theories of Freud, William James, and others. Rather than seeing literature as telling a moral tale of manners with a beginning, middle, and end, a new kind of novel was being born where characters had interior lives compelled by unconscious forces. Writers such as Virginia Woolf, Marcel Proust, William Faulkner, and James Joyce explored ways of expressing the flow of characters’ thoughts in their stream-of-consciousness styles. Fragmentary images, complex allusions, and multiple points of views changed the novel as we were to know it, forever.

Postmodernism, on the other hand, is an eclectic literary form, one that uses a multiplicity of techniques including those weaned from public media sources including TV, pop music, movies, and popular comic books. The Oxford Dictionary defines postmodernism as “a late-20th-century style and concept in the arts criticism that represents a departure from modernism and has at its heart a general distrust of grand theories and ideologies as well as a problematical relationship with any notion of ‘art.’” Typical features include a deliberate mixing of different artistic styles and media, the self-conscious use of earlier styles and conventions, and often the incorporation of images relating to the consumerism and mass communication of late-20th-century postindustrial society. It is often a literature of fragmentation, unreliable narrators, and is often defined as a style or trend which emerged in the post–World War II era.”

To a certain degree, and in retrospect, Sontag’s words from 2000 can be taken as prophetic. For fourteen years later, it feels that the possibilities available to an anthology of experimental literary works for finding visibility and favor in our current “literary” environment is slimmer than it was at the end of Sontag’s life. For so many of our current mainstream publishers, reviewers, reading public, and bookstores, experimental writing falls into both contemptible categories: it is both modernist and postmodernist. Expressing and incorporating some ideas and ideologies of contemporary psychology, philosophy, politics and history, it also can fall into the dreaded category of difficult, inaccessible, avant-garde writing, condemned for not having entertaining plots in the drugstore paperback sense of the word. Experimental writers are heirs to the writing of the last generations’ formidable work who left a legacy of depth and experiment and courage, and included postmodernist writers such as Marguerite Duras, Anaïs Nin, William Burroughs, Toni Morrison, Jorge Luis Borges, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, William Gaddis, John Hawkes, Gunther Grass, Christa Wolf, Doris Lessing, John Barth, Susan Sontag, James Purdy, Donald Barthelme, and William Gass (the distinguished list is too long to include all of them here) as well as recent Noble Prize-winning authors of their tradition, such as Herta Muller and Efriede Jelinek, both of whom are largely abandoned in our wider literary culture, as if irrelevant.

What, then, can one rightly call experimental or genuinely “literary” work in these contemporary murky waters? It would seem to me, first and foremost, that the work and writer would have rejected the entertainment values that have become so pervasive in the reviewing culture, and would not have indicted, as the known reviewer, Lev Grossman, did in his 2007 article in The Wall Street Journal, Good Books Don’t Have to Be Hard, the concept and practice of modernism itself. The article, through an inaccurate depiction of modernism, tries to make a case against a literary heritage that simply cannot be pulled so flippantly and irresponsibly from its roots; it is a disturbing call to arms to undo an entire legacy that has served as a foundation for generations of history’s most important and compelling writers. One could easily believe, perhaps, that the emotional and pained reactions to the question of whether and under what circumstances serious writing can survive these perilously contrary conditions are due to a generational fault line of sorts. After all, the generation of writers influenced by postmodernist and modernist writers is aging, approaching their fifties, sixties, and seventies. Perhaps, it can be reasoned, feeling exiled from the scene comes with age and inevitable obsolescence. Nonetheless, there is abundant indication that something else is at work in the publishing/reviewing world. For example, here a very young, Granta-selected writer involved with the current scene confronts the problem: In the January 2014 issue of Granta, Xiaolu Guo asks: Why Do We Still Pretend We Are Free? “The writer and filmmaker on her encounters with commercial censorship,” Granta reporter Reed Cooley writes, “Xiaolu Guo doesn’t hide her qualms about Western publishing. Last week the London-based novelist and filmmaker made book-world news when she told Jonathan Franzen and the rest of a panel at the Jaipur Literature Festival that American lit is ‘massively overrated.’ She took issue in particular with a simplistic brand of narrative realism that she says has been foisted upon readers worldwide, saying that, in Asia, ‘our reading habit has been stolen and changed.’ Conservatism with regard to form, she told me in an interview, is just one piece of the ‘commercial censorship’ that pervades New York publishing houses. ‘I couldn’t believe it. I had lived most of my life in China, and I didn’t know that political and commercial censorship for fiction existed in the United States.’” Xiaolu Guo herself told Cooley in the interview that “Self-censorship happens not only in China, or Iran, or ex-Soviet places. It can happen anywhere. If an artist penetrates a certain taboo or a certain power through their work, he or she will face this problem. I’m always saying that commercial censorship is our foremost censorship globally today.”

The growing hostility expressed by mainstream reviewers for anything written in a manner or style that isn’t consumer-friendly has largely been typified by Lev Grossman’s aforementioned WSJ piece. In this article from 2007, Grossman declared that modernism is dead and it’s a good thing, for modernism was responsible for the plotless, meandering prose that brought down so-called real novels of plot and good old-fashioned narrative. For Grossman and his contemporary generation of reviewers, modernist and postmodernist work attracts a small audience and offers an unpleasant, snobby reading experience, chiefly designed for “prigs” (a term loosely thrown around in articles I have since read at

Modernism is and was a negative force, Grossman argues in his article as he conjures up the avant-garde as a Nietzschean anti-Christ: hermetic, unnecessarily difficult, effete, elitist, inaccessible, likely to attract only a small audience (a small audience being of course completely undemocratic and “elitist”). Oddly, in this provocative and controversial article, Grossman has no difficulty in wrongly (or, at best, loosely) referencing modernism to make his points. He erroneously cites F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby and Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms as modernist works, though both novels are plot-driven, tightly woven narrative works. Grossman goes on to state that the Modernists actually had a “conspiracy against plot,” asking: “Where did this conspiracy come from in the first place—the plot against plot? I blame the Modernists.” He continues: “from a hieratic, hermetic art object the novel is blooming into something more casual and open: a literature of pleasure. The critics will have to catch up. This new breed of novel resists interpretation, but not the way the Modernists did. These books require a different set of tools, and a basic belief that plot and literary intelligence aren’t mutually exclusive.” According to Grossman, “In fact the true postmodern novel is here, hiding in plain sight. We just haven’t noticed it because we’re looking in the wrong aisle. We were trained—by the Modernists, who else—to expect a literary revolution to be a revolution of the avant-garde: typographically altered, grammatically shattered, rhetorically obscure. Difficult, in a word. This is different. It’s a revolution from below, up from the supermarket racks. ” Whether we are really prepared to believe this is another matter entirely.


The range of the stories in this volume of Wreckage of Reason II is vast and far-reaching. There are thirty-three selections, among which are playfully reconstituted myths and fairy tales, experimental flash fiction, and sexually pungent satires that are presented alongside powerful stories about violence and loss, mothers and daughters, lovers and spouses, political horrors and existential loneliness, erotic visions and happenings. Each of them seemed to come from a commitment to literary risk, exploration, and playfulness and a tacit disregard of marketability. For that, the selections are unusually wrought, evincing precisely articulated literary intentions. Space will not allow me to include each and every one of them, yet each was unusual and lively, a truth on it own twirling axis. Hence, I decided to highlight the diversity and magic of the collection through four that work together well.

Lynda Shor is a brilliant, well-known satirist, painfully astute and sexually pungent in language and imagery. Colonel Sanders Does It Right, a story about a woman not quite in love, is among her best, with descriptions of food and eating and even Colonel Sanders taking on erotic contours and meaning, leaving ambiguity and nuance at play:

I watch him as he bites into the drumstick he holds between both forefingers and thumbs. A bit of the crust stays in the corner of his mouth. When a small piece drops into his lap, he somewhat self-consciously hunts for it. Colonel Sanders has invented a special method of quick-frying chicken, so all the flavor and juices are locked inside. He has also created a blend of eleven herbs and spices that make up his fried chickens’ enticing and unforgettable flavor. Before I met Charlie I ate crab salad every day, carefully cracking the red shells with my teeth and pulling out the meat, gently but firmly—just the right tension…

In all about love, nearly, Andrea Scrima, known for her extraordinary novel A Lesser Day, expresses the discomfort she experiences at the dissolution of an affair, circling in a series of penetrating questions that ask where to even begin to understand what went wrong, how to even begin to understand:

And afterwards, for months, an agony of absence: running my tongue along my own flesh to recapture some sliver of that day, the way it zoomed out in all directions at once like a bomb exploding in slow motion, creating not a cloud of hurtling debris, but a perfect reality unfurling in some other dimension. Odd how disembodied the carnal instincts can be. And afterwards, my mind careening back to that day again and again: the floating stillness, the quiet, carnivorous inhalation of one another’s being. Incomprehensible to live in a world where I couldn’t close my eyes and transport myself back to that hotel room, at will, instantly.

Margarita Meklina brilliantly shows us the lives Russian immigrants live in her story The Jump:

Each document he would send her made her feel closer to her maternal relatives killed in Ukraine in a decrepit ravine: she was half-Jewish, and he was half-joking, she hoped, when telling her about his fantasies. When she would fail to respond, he would force a new suggestion on her: “Why should it be that you are on the sunny West Coast and I’m on the sexless East Coast; couldn’t we meet in between?”

And in Frankly Fucked Up in E-Town, Lyndee Yamshon takes on the family dynamics of an American Midwest dysfunctional family with much éclat and power:

I was living in my parent’s attic in Evanston after leaving New York where I had giving up acting and a full-time reporting gig. This panopticonic existence on the highest floor was a sort of punishment during the purgatory of my life. I had encouraged my father to believe I was mentally deficient, but I was unable to live up to frail Anne Frank’s persona in the attic, and would soon be forced to work. Female upper middle class leisure without any actual leisure = mental absurdity. Without World War II or the threat of anti-Semitism, especially in the neo-liberal Evanston college town of hippie yippies, I was shit out of luck. … I’m swimming in a vast, infinite ocean. The current is wild, and the waves surge into my pores and begin to suffocate me.

In this anthology, there is some good news for literature—in fact there is some wonderful news. Or as Andrea Scrima, one of its contributors, told me: “It reminds me that I’m not the only person who expects something else from writing, something essential and true. What strikes me is that, contrary to the accusations often leveled at ‘experimental’ writing (that there is no concern for or interest in the reader, or in story etc.), these pieces aren’t nearly as self-indulgent as a lot of the fiction out there—instead, they are spare, economic, serious and playful and mischievous, tightly woven with an awareness of the weight of each word; they find simple, remarkable ways to match the unwieldiness of language to the fleeting ephemera of inner experience, memory, ordinary occurrences. …What I mean is, it is possible to pare language down and leave only the essential, and this is what writing can be—again. I have no idea why American fiction has become so uniform in voice and tone, so alike in message, so predictable. There are amazing exceptions, there always are.”

I hope for many more anthologies like this one. My hope is with the cost-effective publishing possible now with ebooks, we can look both forward and backward again—not through the biased glasses of consumerist publishers that have stunted the freedom of independent writers and presses, but through the corrective lenses of a braver group of innovators like these that have refused, against all odds, to surrender their vision. (Leora Skolkin-Smith) Sun, 15 Jun 2014 02:39:43 GMT
On two recent Kierkegaard titles At the most obvious level The Quotable Kierkegaard is a collection of quotations from the Danish philosopher arranged under various categories: Observation, Death, Time, Passion etc. However, from the outset, the book seeks to be something more: a valuable primer for Kierkegaard’s thought. Gordon Marino, professor of philosophy and director of the Hong Kierkegaard Library at St. Olaf College in Minnesota, provides a clear, precise and useful introduction, highlighting the Dane’s vital connection to Luther and helping to unpack the notions of self-deception, faith and life-view.

The quotations themselves are superbly selected in order not only to be eminently quotable, but also to furnish the reader with a series of tenets which provide insight to Kierkegaard’s thought on each subject. All too often introductory texts present the author’s view of the thinker in question but little primary quotation for the reader to engage with, a situation which this book is the antidote to. In collecting these quotations and organising them in this way The Quotable Kierkegaard has sought to construct, fragmentary though it may be, an introduction to Kierkegaard’s thought using only the philosopher’s own words. The resultant book reads, then ,almost like a series of theses (in the manner of Benjamin or Kierkegaard’s own muse Martin Luther).

As always, one is struck both by the force of Kierkegaard’s thinking and his humour:

‘I am so unhappy right now that I am indescribably happy in my dreams’


‘Take the riches away, then I can no longer be called rich; but take tomorrow away – alas, then I can no longer be called rich either.’

Everything here from Kierkegaard sparkles with heat and wit. This is a lively collection of aphoristic thought which punches well above its weight, resulting in one of the most immediate and vital introductions to an eminent thinker imaginable.

Early Polemical WritingsKierkegaard’s Early Polemical Writings is a an entirely different breed of text. The book gathers together a number of Kierkegaard’s earliest pieces, including some which he wrote whilst still a student. One might easily dismiss these works as juvenilia, the first pieces being of interest on a mostly historical level, providing an insight into the workings out of the young Kierkegaard’s mind, exemplifying, albeit in an underdeveloped form, the humour and playfulness on show in The Quotable Kierkegaard.

However the final piece in the collection, Kierkegaard’s thoughts on Hans Christian Andersen, From the Papers of One Still Living, offers a perfect chance to engage with Kierkegaard’s aesthetics, his struggle with nihilism and ‘life-view’.

The review of Andersen’s Only a Fiddler criticises Andersen for there being a lack of the ‘transubstantiation of experience… an unshakable certainty in oneself won from all experience’. In essence, that by referring back to one’s own views of existence, an authentic life-view can emerge where the individual, unlike the hero of Only a Fiddler, does not rely on external events to survive.

Andersen’s hero is portrayed as a genius who succumbs to circumstance, genius needing warmth and nurture in Andersen’s view. Whereas Kierkegaard believes, like Athena bursting from the head of Zeus, genius demands attention whilst for him Andersen’s passive genius is just a projection of the author’s own dissatisfaction and deficiency. Without a life-view the novel descends into a juxtaposition of accidental moods and beyond, into nihilism. One of the most potent and enjoyable of Kerkegaard’s early works, From the Papers of One Still Living (and the excellent supplementary material provided in the book to go alongside it) is a perfect entry point for reading Kierkegaard. With many of his complex ideas present in their larval form one can start to see the power of expression and force of the notion of life-view beginning to take shape. In exposing the grappling of the young Kierkegaard’s mind with his own thoughts, this volume challenges the reader to do the same. (Dan Fraser) Wed, 19 Feb 2014 13:16:33 GMT