Nov 122013
 

Stambolova

Everything_Happens_as_It_Does

 

Everything Happens As It Does
Albena Stambolova
Translated by Olga Nikolova from Bulgarian
Open Letter Books
120 Pages, $10.16
ISBN 978-1934824849

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Everything Happens As It Does by Albena Stambolova is a 120-page novel broken into 54 short, individually-titled chapters. The title of the novel comes from a quotation from Wittgenstein that Stambolova uses as an epigraph: “All propositions are of equal value. The sense of the world must lie outside the world. In the world everything is as it is, and everything happens as it does: in it no value exists—and if it did exist, it would have no value” (Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, 6.41). Though the novel is not simply an exploration of this utterly Wittgensteinian sentiment, we ought to take note of this idea as we dive into this rich and intellectually dense world Stambolova has created.

In a way, Stambolova invites us to begin her novel by not ascribing value to anything, or by ascribing equal value to everything. She suggests: “This story considers itself the story of everyone… It is simply the story of women and men who are mothers and fathers, sisters and brothers, loved ones and friends… or, in a nutshell, of people who are tigers and lions, oranges and lemons. This story is neither funny, nor sad. It is simply a story that takes place somewhere on the border between the world we know and the world we are no longer very sure about”

Most importantly, this novel is a story. Structurally speaking Stambolova has no less than eight major characters from whose perspective we get a glimpse of the world. Or, put differently: she presents us with eight different worlds contained by individual, yet occasionally overlapping, perspectives. The story of the novel seems to exist somewhere in the midst of these eight characters. In a way, the meat of this story or narrative comes out of the concatenated life-worlds Stambolova presents us with. I’m tempted to use the word weave here, but really the suggestion that Stambolova “wove X with Y” detracts from the real artistry of her play with presence. She is presenting us with these lives, which happen, as any two or three lives will do, to be mingled, mixed, or articulated together. The narrative begotten out of this articulation renders but a snapshot of these lives proper, yet it is only within the articulated whole that we find our story.

Now: What story? We begin and end with Boris, but Boris is by no means the main character or the protagonist. He is a strange child with a predilection toward what smacks of existentialism but often comes out as boredom. We stay with Boris until he is a young adult just delving into the world of computers. Then, Stambolova switches gears and introduces Philip, Maria and their twins Margarita and Valentin. We get a glimpse of this family for a few chapters until Philip leaves, and Valentin begins to date Raya and gets her pregnant. Then Valentin gets himself kicked out of Raya’s house. He goes back to his mother Maria’s home only to find Boris there and Maria pregnant with Boris’ baby. It turns out that Maria is getting divorced—from Philip. The lawyer is named Mr. V., and we now begin to follow his life and meet his family. Fanny is his wife’s daughter, but not necessarily his daughter.

By the time we meet Mr. V’s family, all of the characters have been introduced. What follows is a series of descriptions of the same Christmas Eve from different perspectives (all third-person limited). It is possible to say this series of descriptions constitute the climax of the narrative, however it would be a slippery argument because it is only in retrospect that this appellation would make sense. We get a description of three or four or five even Christmas Eves—depending on how you count them. Fanny, Valentin, and Margarita are all together, but Mr. V joins them. Boris is unaccounted for. Philip is depressed and drinking. Maria and her baby are driving to Boris’ parents’ home in the country. And Mrs. V is home alone waiting for Mr. V. These Christmas Eve scenes are quite beautiful and, I think, set out important ideas in the novel. They are about human interaction and the way we live together.

Fanny’s kitchen was busting with life. The spell was lifted from the appliances, pots and pans chittered on the hot stove, cabbage was being chopped on thick wooden boards and sprinkled with paprika, platters were being arranged with pickles and dips, glasses were being passed hand to hand, drinks were being poured generously. All guests, feeling truly welcome, had an air of devotion, regardless if their work was contributing to the common good.

After Christmas Eve, there is a lull of sorts, but we are aware that something has happened to Maria. Christmas morning she walks into the woods in the deep snow, but we are not sure if she makes it back. By New Year’s Eve forces have assembled, and it is confirmed within a couple of days that Maria is dead. This death which just barely happens on-screen is the climactic point of the novel.

The rest of the novel seems to resolve in some way after Maria dies, but it is important that we notice how much of the resolution is not directly related to Maria dying. Valentin, Fanny, Mr. V and Mrs. V, Philip, and Boris all in some way have a resolution prior to the discovery of Maria’s death. But in the chapter Philip tells Valentin that Maria is dead, we get this exquisite passage:

While [Maria] was still with them, her absence, which kept everyone at a distance and made her different, used to scare them.

Now, when she was no longer with them, they had to somehow domesticate her absence. Now the three of them had to make it — Maria’s life.

And maybe there were other lives to make, too.

So Valentin and Margarita and the baby have to learn to live without the oddness of Maria, which somehow grounded their worlds for them. Stambolova plays with this Derridean idea of presence and absence more than just in relation to Maria’s death. And it seems telling that Maria is often emotionally inaccessible, yet she remains defined fully in her presence or in her absence. There is a sense in which Stambolova’s novel is an experiment in presence vs. cognition/conceptualization. Even objects remain mysterious and enigmatic, e.g. Boris’ tapes, Margarita’s bag, even the baby.

Maria is somehow central, but she is also the character we know least. One is tempted to compare Maria to God. Possibly this is ingenuous or reductive or both, but Maria is intentionally complex, and her similarities to the divine are narratologically relevant. And this characterization of the divine Maria over-flows with a beautiful sort of mystico-biblical reference.

It was impossible to say “no” to this voice, which was now calling to him [Philip] from the receiver. Why him, and not someone else, he never understood. Here I am, Lord.

We first meet Maria on the day of Boris’ christening, though we don’t really know it’s her til later. Boris walks into the chapel as a young boy and sees “a tiny woman in black, whose eyes he was to meet again years later.” This is a fascinating moment for us as readers because it is explicit foreshadowing. But of what? Maria’s eyes, her gaze, become a motif throughout the novel. Boris doesn’t encounter Maria in the chapel as a person but as her awareness of him; he encounters her only as her gaze upon him. This image comes up again later when we read Philip’s first encounter with Maria:

Philip met Maria at a friend’s house. Although he never liked to admit it, he failed to notice her at first. She had been sitting in some part of the room, watching him. He had felt her gaze, though without being able to identify where it came from.

Maria’s name, of course, echoes both the mother of Jesus and the temptress-turned-apostle Mary Magdalene. And, in the language of the novel, she seems to conceive the twins immaculately: “She became pregnant almost by magic.” Her very presence seems to explode experience and stop time.

But [Philip] could remember situations in which her presence or her voice obliterated everything else.

And:

[Philip] proposed to her almost immediately, not knowing what he was doing. He knew only that he could not have done otherwise. [Maria] nodded, as if she had foreseen long ago that this was bound to happen.

And yet again:

The woman, having emerged from the numbing cold, sleeping baby in her arms, simply sat next to [Mr. V] as if her place had always been there. [Maria’s] presence, impossible to reference or classify, transfixed him.

Maria resists worldly definition because her presence is only determined in her absence. That is, only after Maria dies do we clearly see just how she wove meaning and cohesiveness into the stories of the other characters. In the chapter of Maria’s death, the only chapter from her perspective (again, third person limited), we get this revealing line: “Maria was not thinking about it, she was watching it. She was watching the world, and it was watching her.” Maria represents a way of relating to the world that neither assigns value nor conceptualizes (thinks), a way perceiving that simply happens without the distinction of subject and object (and thus, in the discourse of religion, is an analogue of the divine).

Everything Happens as It Does is a novel which operates under the maxim: “The world allows descriptions. And resists thought.” We should remember that in this world of happenings, we are part of that happening; we occur alongside every other occurrence; and our value and significance only comes out of these happy moments when on Christmas Eve, for example, we happen to be happening together.

 —Jacob Glover

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Jacob Glover

Jacob Glover is a pursuing an MA in Classics at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia.

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May 162013
 

Jacob Glover

Just a nice piece of news to share with everyone. NC Contributor Jacob Glover graduated with a BA in Combined Honours in Contemporary Studies and Classics from the University of King’s College, Halifax, Nova Scotia, this afternoon. The ceremony took place in the Great Hall of All Saints Cathedral (Anglican) and concluded with the singing of “God Save the Queen” as is surely fitting on all such occasions. It is safe to say that the young man’s father was proud; he had a lump the size of a wheelbarrow in his throat.  Jacob is working on a new piece for NC (though probably not tonight.)

dg

Apr 132013
 

Jacob Glover

In Plato’s Timaeus, Timaeus offers a cosmogony. He holds that there are two original principles in the cosmos, namely, intelligence and necessity. The beginning of the cosmos, Timaeus claims, depends on a particular event, the persuasion of necessity by intelligence. He says:

For mixed indeed was the birth of this cosmos here, and begotten from a standing-together of necessity and intellect; and as intellect was ruling over necessity by persuading her to lead most of what comes to be toward what’s best, in this way accordingly was this all constructed at the beginning: through necessity worsted by thoughtful persuasion. (Timaeus, 48a).

This is a dense passage because it contains the entire first moment of creation. But what is most interesting to me is the way Plato uses the verb “persuade.” By using “persuade” Plato immediately moves from scientific or philosophical discourse into poetry. Even the idea that necessity has desire or will is poetic, i.e. the suggestion that necessity and intelligence have intention and interact with another creates the metaphorical image of two people debating. Plato suggests that necessity wants to do one thing, but intelligence persuades it do another. He is personifying absolute principles of the cosmos as desiring entities.

Why does Plato need to rely on this metaphor of this cosmic persuasion in order to explain the moment in which necessity and intelligence stand together to create the cosmos? I think that Plato here conceives dialogue itself as containing a certain element of creativity. Then he transfers the creativity inherent in dialogue metaphorically to the creation of the cosmos.  Necessity is pure potential for movement toward some end, while intelligence functions as a conditioning or triangulating principle. And persuasion is the third element or mediator that makes it all possible.

This cosmic conversation, which Plato refers to as a σύστασις or a standing-together, depends on persuasion or πειθώ.  Persuasion is characteristically human because it deals in desire and belief. To persuade means to change someone’s mind, to convince him by talking, not by force. In The Republic Polemarchus points out that “you can’t persuade people who won’t listen” (Republic, 327c) because persuasion is the movement of one mind from disagreement to agreement, a change in will.

Necessity is, as Plato describes it, an absolute condition of things which come into being. Necessity is a sub-surface condition, a cause of causes, an axiom of existence. “Everything that comes to be, of necessity comes to be from some cause; for apart from a cause, it’s impossible for anything to have a coming to be” (Timeaus, 28a). Necessity is the condition upon which cause can cause, or it is a condition of existence: everything that exists must have a cause. But, for Plato, necessity isn’t an autonomously creative principle. Rather necessity must come into some sort of communication (standing-together) with intelligence in order to produce. The Greek word we translate as intelligence is νους which also means mind. Frequently in ancient philosophy these two translations seem to be interchangeable. The word νους implies that the universe has some sort of thinking component akin to the human mind. Intelligence deals in thought; necessity in causality.

In order to explain persuasion’s mediating function I want to take a close look at the Greek lines: ταύτῃ κατὰ ταῦτά τε δι᾽ ἀνάγκης ἡττωμένησ ὑπὸ πειθοῦς ἔμφρονος οὕτω κατ᾽ ἀρχὰς συνίστατο τόδε τὸ πᾶν. (As above: “in this way accordingly was this all constructed at the beginning: through necessity worsted by thoughtful persuasion.And here is my own translation following a more literal word order: “Thus in this way, and accordingly, through necessity bested by thoughtful persuasion as the beginning, this all was constructed.”)  The first thing to notice is that neither intellect nor necessity is the subject of the sentence. Plato tags the subject “the all” at the end with the verb almost as an after-thought. Both intelligence and necessity are in phrases which make them logical conditions for the subject and the verb, but the two principles themselves are not active in this sentence. The sentence seems to imply that their action (standing together) has already taken place.

Secondly, πειθοῦ, the word for persuasion, is in the exact middle of the sentence with eight words on either side. In English this would not be as interesting because word order means more grammatically and syntactically and less in terms of theme. But, in Greek, word order can affect the theme of the sentence. Placing πειθοῦ in the middle of the sentence gives it a sort of bridging function, or it pulls either end of the sentence together. I think that the word placement and the grammatical constructions Plato uses here are crucially diagrammatic of the way he understands (or at least Timaeus understands) the interaction between intelligence and necessity. At the level of sentence structure Plato seems to suggest that persuasion is a causeway of sorts. It brings together the two conditions which constitute the creation of the cosmos.

Another way of  explaining persuasion in this context might be to see how the cosmic conversation compares to the actual conversation which begins the Plato’s dialogue Timaeus. Socrates and his interlocutors start by discussing the interlocutors’ duty to give speeches to honour their host. Timaeus says: “It wouldn’t be at all just for those of us who are left, after being entertained by you yesterday with gifts so befitting to a guest, not to host you heartily in return” (Timaeus, 17b). So Timaeus and his friends make speeches because they owe them to Socrates, not out of an agreement made between them but on account of the traditional courtesies between guest and host. There is, in other words, a necessity for them to make speeches, a necessity driven by tradition. But tradition itself only requires a speech; it does not suggest the content of the speech. And this is the way Plato wants us to understand necessity, i.e. it provides a motion (or form)—make a speech–without giving it or purpose.

Then Socrates himself suggests the content of the speeches. He briefly summarizes the account of the just state in The Republic. Then he suggests that Timaeus and his friends make a “full account” (Timaeus, 19c) of a city founded on those principles, i.e. describe the city as if it were real and not just a “word-picture of an ideal state” (Republic, 472e); their speeches should create this city. As Critias says, it is as if they are to reveal “by the oracular voice of the sacred texts, and, in what remains, to make speeches as though about men who are already citizens” (Timaeus, 27b). Socrates stands in for the cosmological “intelligence” at this creative moment. The conversation among the friends and guests is at a critical point; it could either fizzle into nothing or create something new and real. Again, Socrates offers the content; the desire to speak comes from outside of Socrates, i.e. from tradition. To revert to the cosmological creation story, necessity is like a person coming out of a tradition and who must perform actions for no reason other than the imperatives of custom and habit, and intelligence is the philosopher from The Republic looking toward the good. If there is no persuasion then the result is the moment in The Republic when Cephalus walks away to continue sacrificing.

But where is the precise moment of persuasion in the conversation between Socrates and Timaeus? Socrates’ suggestion is technically the moment of persuasion. This is not perhaps a moment of pure persuasion because Timaeus, Critias and Hermocrates do not need much convincing. But persuasion is inherent in the way Socrates rationalizes why they should speak about the city. Persuasion is in the moment when both parties agree on the goal. The precise turn is hard to pinpoint because before someone is persuaded he is being convinced and afterwards he is only persuaded in retrospect. Persuasion is this moment in creation when an object is rationalized to a desire which until then had no object. This results in a reason to move and thus begins the act of creation.

—Jacob Glover

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Plato. The Timaeus. Trans. Peter Kalkavage. Newbury Port: Focus Publishing, 2001.

Plato. The Republic. Trans. Desmond Lee. New York: Penguin Classics, 2007.

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Jacob Glover is in his senior year in the Contemporary Studies Programme at the University of King’s College in Halifax, Nova Scotia.

Apr 012013
 

Donald Barthelme’s writing is often regarded as part of the postmodernism movement in fiction alongside Pynchon, Coover and Gass, but I think it is really hard to nail Barthelme to an era or a movement. Surely, he is doing an important commentary on the way we interact with a literary work. His whole writing style is a commentary on how to read. I don’t think we should relegate or constrain him to postmodernism whatever that is. Rather we ought to notice that his writing echoes Laurence Stern and Cervantes along with Joyce. He is not writing toward a new genre. Barthelme is offering an alternative way of reading. And more than that he is demonstrating the changing nature of reading itself—how it makes the literary object other and absurd. Barthelme tells us: we ought not to allow Heidegger to tell us what nothing is, or allow Kierkegaard’s guilt trips to keep us down. We ought to use these philosophers as we read them, as we use our readers while they read us.

This interview with Paris Review is particularly revealing about the way Barthelme sees fiction and writing. One of my favorite aspects is the conversation he is having with phenomenology and questions of presence as a way of encountering literary objects. In a terrific essay called “After Joyce,” Barthelme proclaims: “The reader reconstitutes the work by his active participation, by approaching the object, tapping it, shaking it, holding it to his ear and roaring into it.”

Click here to read: The Paris Review Interview with Donald Barthelme

— Jacob Glover

Feb 072013
 

Jacob Glover

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Jacques Derrida’s book The Gift of Death contains a particularly playful and complex chapter entitled “Tout autre est tout autre” or “Every Other is Entirely Other.” The underlying theme of the chapter is the relationship between humans and other humans (what I will call ethical) and humans and God (what I will call religious). Derrida uses the phrase tout autre est tout autre to deconstruct the relationship humans have with God according to the Bible (specifically in the Gospel of Matthew). He demonstrates that the phrase “tout autre est tout autre,” which is foundational to ethics, also undercuts and obscures the biblical characterization of the relationship between God and humans. What Derrida is doing in this argument is showing the incommensurability of Christian doctrine with a more contemporary articulation of ethical theory.

To begin with we need to address the dual meaning of the phrase tout autre est tout autre. Derrida frequently says that this phrase trembles. It cannot be said to mean one thing or another but must mean two things simultaneously. Derrida says that we can understand it either tautologically or heterologically which means that either this phrase is just saying that every other is every other, or it is saying that every other is all, completely, or entirely other (different).[1] The translator David Willis construes the phrase as: “Every other (one) is every (bit) other”.[2] Willis is trying to allow for the double meaning while maintaining a sensible translation. He includes the words “one” and “bit” in parentheses to suggest that they need not be read as an explicit part of the sentence. In this way Willis preserves the tautology of the phrase: every other is every other, but he also includes the secondary meaning: every other one is every bit other. The only problem with this translation is that it seems to prioritize the tautological reading over the heterological. This is, of course, the way the phrase appears at first glance, but we need to be careful not to say that one version is more true than the other.

The double-meaning of this phrase is not the problem for Derrida. The problem arises out of the implications of one of the possible versions. Derrida says: “One of the [versions] keeps in reserve the possibility of reserving the quality of the wholly other, in other words the infinitely other, for God alone, or in any case for the single other. The other attributes this infinite alterity of the wholly other to every other, in other words, recognizes it in each, each one, for example each man and woman, indeed each living thing, human or not.”[3] So, on the one hand, the phrase suggests the distance between humans and God; God is wholly other and a singular other. This version is in line with the biblical characterization of God. While, on the other hand, this phrase seems to imply that anything which is other to me is wholly other, therefore, nothing is more other than anything else. The phrase implies that the alterity of God is indistinguishable from the alterity between one human and another. Furthermore, as Derrida says, “if every human is wholly other, if everyone else, or every other one, is every bit other, then one can no longer distinguish between a claimed generality of ethics that would need to be sacrificed in sacrifice, and the faith that turns toward God alone, as wholly other, turning away from human duties.”[4] Derrida is saying that if God is just as other as every other other, then there is no way to distinguish between religion and ethics.

Now it might be too strong to say that Derrida has a problem with this conflation of the ethical and religious spheres, but, religiously speaking, it is problematic to posit that God and humans have a relationship that is indistinguishable from the relationships humans have with one another. God is no longer God (i.e. as he is characterized in the Bible) if He could also, just as easily, be a human. In a sense “tout autre  est tout autre equivocates between humans and God.

Derrida brilliantly continues his deconstruction of God-man and man-man relations with a discussion of the Gospel of Mathew. Mathew contains two famous stories which deal in the relationships between humans and God and humans and other humans, namely, the Sermon on the Mount and Jesus’s temptation in the desert. Taken together, these two stories separate the inherited nature of ethical rules from the textually authoritative imperatives of religion. But Derrida doesn’t focus on these stories as a whole; his discussion concentrates on one specific line from the end of the Sermon on the Mount, “The Father who sees in secret.”

In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus teaches his disciples proper relations between humans, relations that will ensure a ticket to heaven, e.g. “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”[5] But he is quick to add: “Think not that I have come to abolish the law and the prophets; I have come not to abolish them but to fulfill them.”[6] The word for law in this quotation is νόμον which may also be translated as traditional custom or inherited habit. Jesus is referring to ethical life among humans here and not religious law. In part, the ethical life of a person dictates admission to heaven, but this is separate and distinct from the religious life described in the Temptation of Jesus.

In the story of the temptation, God leads Jesus into the desert “to be tempted by the devil.”[7] The devil asks Jesus to turn stones into bread, jump from the top of a temple, and offers him the chance to rule over the entire world.[8] Jesus answers each of these temptations with a rule of action for how humans are to relate to God, beginning each rule with the prefix: “It is written.” There are three such rules: “Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God,” “You shall not tempt the Lord your God,” and “You shall worship the Lord your God, and him only shall you serve.”[9] According to Jesus and his undisclosed written source, God’s words are as necessary as physical sustenance. Moreover, God’s authority is beyond dispute. And, finally, God is the only divinity humans will serve or worship. Essentially, Matthew here articulates the radical power and authority God has over humans which does not come from an inherited tradition but from a mysterious source.

As I said, Derrida’s discussion of the Gospel of Matthew focuses mostly on the line, “The Father who sees in secret,” which Kierkegaard quotes in Fear and Trembling. And I think it is important to note that the line “the Father who sees in secret,” when taken in context, contains a synthetic quality; the meaning of this line coagulates the ethics of the Sermon on the Mount and the religion of the Temptation of Jesus. Derrida says of Kierkegaard’s allusion that “[it] describes a relation to the wholly other, hence an absolute dissymmetry.”[10] This line parallels the version of tout autre est tout autre which reserves absolute alterity for God, i.e. God is wholly other and radically different from humanity. What we should remember is that for Derrida the titular phrase for chapter four, i.e. tout autre est tout autre, seriously problematizes the ethics that this scriptural quotation sets up.

The first time Jesus says “The father who sees in secret” he is telling his disciples not to display their piety or alms-giving publicly. He says: “Beware of practicing your piety before men in order to be seen by them…But when you give alms do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your alms may be in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.[11] In this moment Jesus concatenates ethics and religion. He sets the boundaries of what is to be within the realm of person-to-person and what is in the realm of human-to-God, but these two spheres, however bounded from one another, share the unseen gaze of God. All this is to show that, in the Bible, the relationship of humans to other humans is divided from and radically different from the relationship humans have with God. And contrary to Derrida’s formulation tout autre est tout autre religion is not soluble in ethics.

It should now be clear that, as I said above, that the characterization of God and His relationship to humans in the Gospel of Matthew is not in line with the phrase: toute autre est tout autre. God, in the Bible, remains wholly outside yet “conditions” human interaction and existence. But tout autre est tout autre implies that the ethical and the religious are indistinguishable spheres or relationships. This indistinguishability, according to Derrida, should render us at some level “paralyzed by what can be called an aporia or an antinomy”.[12] But in fact society “operates so much better to the extent that it serves to obscure the abyss or fill in its absence of foundation, stabilizing a chaotic becoming in what are called conventions”.[13] For Derrida, this indistinguishability is a hole in the logic of society; ethical interaction should not be possible because it lacks a clear articulation. Nevertheless, due to “a lexicon concerning responsibility that can be said to hover vaguely about a concept that is nowhere to be found,” we beat on.  Society, it seems, manages to obfuscate the lack of foundation with those very νόμοι, which Jesus claims he is not here to abolish. The customs and conventions of society conceal the fact that the reason for ethical interaction, whether it be for one another or for God, is unclear, yet out of habit and tradition we remain blindly ethical and secretly religious.

—Jacob Glover

Bibliography

  • The Bible, Revised Standard Edition. Meridian Books, New York: 1974.
  • Derrida, Jacques. The Gift of Death. Trans. David Willis. The University of Chicago Press, Chicago: 2008.

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Jacob Glover is in his senior year in the Contemporary Studies Programme at the University of King’s College in Halifax, Nova Scotia. He is a frequent contributor of book reviews and essays.

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Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)

  1. The Gift of Death, 83
  2. Ibid., 82
  3. Ibid., 83
  4. Gift, 84
  5. Matthew 5:10
  6. Matthew 5:17
  7. Matthew 4:1
  8. Matthew 4:1-10
  9. Mathew 4:4, 7, 10
  10. Gift, 91
  11. Matthew 6:1
  12. Gift, 84
  13. Gift, 84
Nov 022012
 

Marcuse2

Jacob Glover contributes a short essay on the mightily influential philosopher Herbert Marcuse whose books were once required reading on the barricades of the counter-cultural movement in America and Europe. The frame of Marcuse’s argument is slightly dated; the positivist slant of academic philosophy in those days lent itself to linguistic analysis which as Ludwig Wittgenstein said should only deal with the world as we find it and the language we use to describe it. The ancient concepts of God, the Good, Truth and Beauty, the universals and absolutes of an earlier era have become mere ghosts[1]. But the fact that linguistic analysis has largely been swept away by other academic trends doesn’t mean the problem disappeared. Marcuse spoke of ghosts; Derrida coined the pun “hauntology.” The great God Pan is dead, and the miraculous wonder of existence is subdued by the mundane clutter and noise of contemporary fetishistic capitalism and the message loops of the media. And  yet we remain haunted; there always seems to be more to what we see than we can say. Jacob Glover has contributed poems, songs, essays and translations to Numéro Cinq from the very beginning of things — including essays on Montaigne, Kierkegaard, and Spinoza.

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Herbert Marcuse (1898-1979) was a major figure in the Frankfurt School, the fountainhead of critical theory and neo-Marxist culture criticism. He left Germany in 1933 and became a citizen of the United States in 1940. His work in social criticism and social research generated the foundations of American Marxist movements and fueled a good deal of the counter-culture rhetoric of the 1960s student revolt and black power movement (Angela Davis was one of his more famous students).

His book One-Dimensional Man (1964) is brimming with a frothy mixture of ressentiment, intelligence, pity and hope. Just take, for example, the chapter entitled “The Triumph of Positive Thinking: One Dimensional Philosophy” — a complex statement about the state of the thinking world. Marcuse examines intellectual life and academia and sees a group of people who have successfully deluded and precluded themselves and the rest of the world from any sense of reality. The problem, as Marcuse sees it, is a radical hyperanalyzation of the commonplace. This hyperanalyzation coupled with a refusal of metaphysics creates a sort of pseudo-cure for the trauma of reality.

So what is reality? What are we missing?

The larger context of experience when Marcuse wrote his book was still that of the gas chambers and concentration camps, of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, of American Cadillacs and German Mercedes, of the Pentagon and the Kremlin, of the nuclear cities and the Chinese communes, of Cuba, of brainwashing and massacres.

All of these examples correspond to conflict and unrest. The concentration camps evoke direct images of suffering. But even American Cadillacs together with the German Mercedes remind of us the strife between the America and Germany—perhaps not by killing one another anymore; international economic competition seems to be the new trench warfare these days. (This is especially true when we consider that wars are being fought today in order to ensure gas and oil prices, or, in the words of American politicians, freedom.)

Marcuse writes in reference to the long list of traumatic conflicts that “the empirical world is also that in which all these things are taken for granted or forgotten or repressed or unknown, in which people are free” (180). For Marcuse the real world is traumatic but the trauma is “taken for granted” or “repressed.” Or he is offering two definitions of reality, i.e. there is the actual traumatic reality and there is the filtered and padded reality. The way academia analyzes the world and spits its demythologized version of reality at the non-academic world creates a barrier in which images which should evoke ideas are, at times, merely attached to a definition and forced into a rote-memorization machine known as a high-school student.

The juxtaposition of traumatic reality with a filtered and padded reality creates an interesting conflict.  It is as if Marcuse is presenting you with an ethical choice: there are two ways of looking at the world—now choose. But to me this is similar to looking at a picture of a refugee about to be shot by a soldier and asking: who would you rather be? There is no right answer of course because either you’re a monster for wanting to be the soldier or you are lying because you claim you want to be the refugee. Marcuse sets this distinction up so you can’t answer; his point is not to choose a definition—the point is to escape the delusion.

The question is: How? For Marcuse the problem is hyperanalyzation.  He writes:

Thought is on the level with reality when it is cured from transgression beyond a conceptual framework which is either purely axiomatic (logic, mathematics) or coextensive with the established universe of discourse and behavior. Thus, linguistic analysis claims to cure thought and speech from confusing metaphysical notions—from “ghosts” of a less mature and less scientific past which still haunt the mind although they neither designate nor explain (170).

In this passage Marcuse presents two theoretical options. On one hand there is linguistic analysis while on the other there are “metaphysical notions,” or my new favourite word for the traditional ideas of the Good and God, “ghosts.” Marcuse thinks that in response to world trauma (e.g. WWII and the Cold War) people could no longer handle the faith-requirement of metaphysics, that is, he diagnoses current philosophical movements psychologically. This is why he uses the words “cure” and “therapeutic.” To Marcuse, philosophy has turned toward the “removal of obscurities, illusions and oddities” (170) as a cure or as a form of therapy in the face of the trauma of the real. But also, in this passage Marcuse is explaining that linguistic analysts avoid transcendence. To intellectuals of this kind the world and language are what should be studied not concepts which have no empirical correlate.

Marcuse’s use of the word “transgression” is important because it points to the multiple layers in his discussion. For the most part Marcuse is talking about two competing modes of philosophical thought, but philosophy is also political. The word “transgression” captures this distinction perfectly. To intellectuals who work within a rigid conceptual framework any thought which transcends this framework is transgressive. Thoughts that point outside the framework are not only impossible to explain within the framework but point out the framework’s finitude; they expose the limits of that particular analyzing discourse. I think that is what Marcuse means by his use of the word “haunt.”

Academic philosophers, according to Marcuse, have tended toward linguistic analysis which “identifies as its chief concern the debunking of transcendent concepts” (171).  In other words, linguistic analysis sets itself up directly opposed to metaphysics. Or as Marcuse says, “…philosophical thought turns into affirmative thought; philosophical critique criticizes within the societal framework and stigmatizes non-positive notions as mere speculation, dreams or fantasies” (172).  And what he means is that after the linguistic turn in philosophy, i.e. the move away from metaphysics proper, philosophy begins to focus on direct affirmation of a certain version of reality that leaves no room for those pesky ghosts like God, Love or Truth. These sorts of metaphysical ideas do not offer any empirical manifestation, that is: they cannot be confirmed empirically. Moreover, linguistic philosophy is a bully; any thinker who does not conform to the framework in which the linguistic analysis works is not doing philosophy. Rather, he is, according to the linguistic analysts, dreaming.

But let’s go a little deeper. What exactly do these philosophers do, if not metaphysics? These are the philosophers who demand to control nature which now “appears within the reaches of scientific and technical progress” (172). This is a philosophy toward an end of philosophy. This is what we looked at in chapter 5 when Marcuse says that Eros is eclipsed by Logos. Marcuse uses Wittgenstein’s obsession with the phrase “my broom is in the corner” to point out that this sort of philosophy does indeed free us. It frees us from hard questions: like what is justice? And it replaces them with banalities about empirical location and sensation (e.g. the taste of a pineapple). Marcuse also quotes at length a passage from J.L. Austin in which the British linguist strips down to its most bare essentials and particularities the “two rather different ways of being hesitant” (Austin, Logic an Language, 137). Marcuse lauds this passage for its clarity and exactitude but then swiftly pronounces that “not only [are clarity and exactness] not enough, but [they are] destructive of philosophic thought, and of critical thought as such” (176). Now Marcuse is not saying that philosophers should not write clearly but that Austin’s attempt to understand what it means to be hesitant is so constraining to the idea of hesitation that it destroys it. Marcuse thinks that the way linguists treat language voids it of its referential nature and strips it of content.  To my mind, this is a lot like saying a word until it loses meaning.

To Marcuse the way that linguistic philosophers control language and therefore discourse is what hamstrings philosophy. He quotes Wittgenstein who wrote in Philosophical Investigations that “philosophy may in no way interfere with the actual use of language” (178).  But for Marcuse there are two kinds of discourse at work and so there need not be any interference.  To Marcuse “everyday language” uses sentences which have an immediate function by “causing behavioral results” (179). On the other hand, in philosophical discourse “the word remains, as it were, unfulfilled” (179), i.e., words in philosophical discourse do not imply or suggest a response which could be given in the empirical world. Rather philosophical discourse is meant to evoke and “give rise to other thoughts” (179). To Marcuse, the hyperanalyzation of linguistic analysis in academia has cut us off from the philosophical discourse which conjures “ghosts.” (I wonder if perhaps, it is not that philosophy shouldn’t interfere with the use of language but that normal language should not interfere with philosophy.)

What is the nature of this veil which occludes philosophy from metaphysics? What does linguistic analysis do that makes metaphysics inaccessible? Marcuse claims that the linguistic turn in philosophy manages to establish “a self-sufficient world of its own, closed and well protected against the ingression of disturbing external factors” (182). To explain this quote we need to return briefly to the therapy metaphor. Remember that to Marcuse hyperanalyzation is essentially the psychological defense mechanism of the academic culture in response to the trauma of WWII, i.e., in this traumatic world it is better to deal with empirical data than with spectral metaphysical ideas. And this is where the phrase “self-sufficient” becomes so important. Linguistic philosophers tend to see metaphysicians as so dissatisfied with the empirical world that they need to go beyond it and conjure ghosts to explain it to themselves. According to Marcuse, by focusing on the empirical world and emphasizing the use of the everyday language, linguistic philosophers enclose themselves within a framework that seems to dispense with need for metaphysics to produce answers. To paraphrase Wittgenstein: it just needs a little rearranging.

Linguistic philosophers turn the focus of philosophy away from metaphysics because they are searching for empirical certainty in light of the disaster and suffering brought on by war and international strife. They sequester themselves in a bubble of safety which avoids the trauma of the real world and disavows the importance of metaphysical notions. They do all this so that, within the safe confines of hyperanalyzation, there can be answers.

But in the end the world is not explained by simple and clear language. Instead, Marcuse says, “We understand each other only through whole areas of misunderstanding and contradiction. The real universe of ordinary language is that of the struggle for existence. It is indeed an ambiguous, vague, obscure universe, and it is certainly in need of clarification” (198-9). He talks about the way that poetry and literature cannot fully function in a world in which “the explosive historical dimension of meaning is silenced” (198). The linguistic philosophers of modern academia magnify the immediate world to the point that nothing has meaning anymore, and, in their wake, as Marcuse puts it, they leave “a ghost more ghostly than those which the analysis combats” (194).

The real task of philosophy, Marcuse suggests, is to “make the established language itself speak what it conceals or excludes” (195). In other words, the mission of philosophers is not to try to make what’s immediate and empirical say more but to make what’s hidden behind language come to light.

Marcuse is probably thinking of Heidegger’s aletheia here, a truth achieved through ontological revealing rather than empirical confirmation. But it is important that Marcuse encourages a philosophy which does not shy away from reality. The trauma is there, but hidden beneath it is the cure. Heidegger quotes Holderlin: “But where the danger is, grows/ the saving power also.” (The Question Concerning Technology, 28).  And I think that this is close to what Marcuse himself wants to say. We should not attempt to escape the traumatic reality behind hyperanalysis. Rather we must remain critical of establishment thinking by embracing the trauma and by believing in ghosts.

— Jacob Glover

BIBLIOGRAPHY

  • Heidegger, Martin. The Question Concerning Technology. Trans. William Lovitt. New York: Harper Perennial, 1977.
  • Marcuse, Herbert. One-Dimensional Man. Boston: Beacon Press, 1964

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Jacob Glover

Jacob Glover is in his senior year in the Contemporary Studies Programme at the University of King’s College in Halifax, Nova Scotia. He is a frequent contributor of book reviews and essays.

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Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)

  1. See Mappa Mundi: The Structure of Western Thought
Aug 132012
 

 

This is a hoot, a little light music on a summer’s day. Jonah is going to university in the fall; it is the hour of remembering; my mind keeps harking back to the wonderful times we’ve had over the past eighteen years. I was listening to his music the other night and rediscovered this gem, what we always used to call, simply, “The French Song.” He wrote it as a class assignment for 9th Grade French. His teacher was speechless. Jonah composed the music. He recorded the percussion tracks and background synth on an Electribe, then played the lead synth on a MicroKORG (Electribes and MicroKORGs are synthesizers made by Korg), and loaded both onto his computer. Jacob, the family linguist, co-wrote the lyrics and provided the French grammar and vocabulary expertise. The violet ox was a class meme. Jonah sang the words, but Jacob assisted with the deeper, spoken parts. The whole thing has a European lilt and a lovely irony and it lifts my heart. It came out of nowhere.

dg

Jul 262012
 

The novel begins exactly where it will end: with Miss Frost. Miss Frost is the moral core of the novel. She lives as a woman though she has a penis and breasts. She is sexually and romantically attracted to men but does not have a lover. In a world in which almost everybody is either hiding or unaware of his sexual eccentricities, Miss Frost is confident and stable as herself.

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In One Person
By John Irving
Simon & Schuster.
425 pages. $28.

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John Irving’s new novel, In One Person, is about the life of a bisexual man from his early teens till his middle-age. It’s not so much a coming-out or a coming-of-age story but the story of coming home. The hero/narrator Billy Abbot begins his sexual life confused and feeling alone, but he finds himself, at the end of the novel, surrounded by people who love him as he is and are willing to defend him as he is.

The novel begins exactly where it will end: with Miss Frost. Miss Frost is the moral core of the novel. She lives as a woman though she has a penis and breasts. She is sexually and romantically attracted to men but does not have a lover. In a world in which almost everybody is either hiding or unaware of his sexual eccentricities, Miss Frost is confident and stable as herself. Billy says of her: “At the time, Miss Frost struck me as the most genuine person I knew.”

In One Person divides into three parts: high school, life after high school before AIDS, and the AIDS epidemic and assorted deaths. In boarding school Billy has a friend named Elaine who will stay his friend his whole life. Billy and Elaine share a crush on Jacques Kittredge who is the quintessential jock-bully. (In the ultimate moment of poetic justice, Kittredge grows up and has sex-change surgery — it turns out he was probably abused by his mother). Kittredge gets Elaine pregnant and harasses Billy about being effeminate. The reader also learns that Billy’s father was probably gay but not out of the closet. After Billy’s birth he ran off with a man he’d met in the Navy. But his whereabouts are unknown.

Billy’s stepfather, Richard, directs Shakespeare plays at the boarding school, and Billy is in most of them, along with Kittredge. Shakespeare becomes a grand motif throughout the novel. The novel’s title itself is from a line in Richard II: “Thus play I in one person many people/and none contented.” The idea of living as yourself as opposed to acting for the world is important throughout the novel. And the parallels between the plays and the characters in the novel rarely go unremarked. Consider that Richard casts Billy as Ariel in The Tempest with Elaine as Miranda and Kittredge as Ferdinand. Irving often treats us to mini-essays about the literary works he mentions. Richard, for example, talks about the way he understands the “the continuum from Caliban through Prospero to Ariel — a kind of spiritual evolution.”

During this period, Billy has intercrural (between thighs) sex with Miss Frost. Just before Billy graduates Miss Frost reveals that she earlier attended the same high school under the name Albert Frost, or Big Al, one of the best wrestlers the school ever had.  Though they only spend a couple of nights together and Miss Frost never explicitly reciprocates the emotion, Billy will love Miss Frost with the most romantic fervor of anyone in his life.

After high school Billy spends the summer in Europe with his first boyfriend, Tom Atkins, but the two are not meant for one another, and they drift apart. Billy moves to New York City to study German before spending a year in Vienna at the Insitut Für Europӓische Studien. In Vienna he hooks up with his first girlfriend, Esmeralda, an American and an aspiring opera singer, and Lawrence Upton, a lover and one of his lifelong friends. Larry is a poet who teaches at the institute. Like the Shakespearean director, Richard, Larry is one of the novel’s commentators, a voice of literary evaluation or criticism. Both play a paternal part in Billy’s life though, in Larry’s case, only after he and Billy are no longer lovers.

After college, Billy moves to L.A. with a woman, breaks up and moves back to New York to be with Elaine and Larry who are both living in the city. His mother and aunt die in a car accident, and Elaine and Billy return to their hometown of Second Sister, Vermont, for the funeral where Billy’s uncle, who is terribly intoxicated, lets slip that Billy’s father is living in Spain.  (Ironically, the father and his lover seem to have the most stable romantic relationship in the novel.)

We move now into the death and AIDS section of the novel. This part includes some of the most poignant scenes. Irving describes the dying men with a chilling accuracy. But he tamps down the melodrama by including a lot of medical jargon. Tom Atkins, the young man with whom Billy traveled in Europe after high school, ends up married with children. But like many of the characters in the novel, Atkins has kept his homosexuality a secret and contracts AIDS during an affair. Larry’s lover dies of AIDS in his arms. Billy’s Grandpa Harry shoots himself in the bathtub. (Grandpa Harry is a wonderful character. He participates in many of the local plays and almost always takes the role of a woman. It’s unclear if Grandpa Harry is gay, but it’s probable that he is just a straight man who likes to dress in women’s clothing. He is among the kindest and sweetest people Billy knows.) Larry eventually dies cradled in Elaine’s and Billy’s arms. Miss Frost is beaten to death by a group of rowdy sailors at a bar — but not before sending several of them to the hospital. Kittredge dies of natural causes at fifty-four, but, as Billy says, “What ‘natural causes’ can kill you when you’re fifty-four?.”

Billy moves back to Second Sister and into the house he grew up in. He becomes a teacher at the high school where he went as a boy. It is now co-ed and there is a large LGBT community. Billy’s books are all about sexual identity and confusion, and he begins to mentor a young student who is a boy becoming a girl. Billy assumes the role of teaching and directing Shakespeare. The book ends when Kittredge’s son comes to the school to confront Billy. The scene is slightly ridiculous but somehow apt. The boy accuses of Billy of contributing to his father’s gender issues by publicly trying to normalize alternate sexualities. More importantly, he tries to categorize Billy by calling him bisexual. Billy retorts by quoting Miss Frost and thus encases the novel in her morality.

The skeletal story structure which I just described is in chronological order; this is the major narrative arc of the book. But the novel is not set up in chronological sequence. Irving uses a reminiscent first person narrator which means this novel is a memory being fleshed out not a story being told toward an ending.  This is an important distinction. The ending, though crucial, is not the point of the novel because the ending is just another moment in Billy’s life. The ending of the novel isn’t even the end of Billy’s life; there’s actually more to the story. What is going on here then? What drives this novel?

Irving does not drive his narrative toward a conclusion. He bobs and weaves his way through a web of thematic and semantic memory association (loosely guided by linear movement of time but not constrained to it) until he lands at a moment in which we have come full circle. The novel begins with Billy saying he is going to tell the reader about Miss Frost and ends with him quoting something she once said to him. “My dear boy, please don’t put a label on me—don’t make me a category before you get to know me!” This ending is not so much circular as a constant presence. The novel itself has a constant awareness of the ending. In fact, the narrator (Billy) says to the reader very early in the novel: “But I’m getting ahead of myself; alas it’s what a writer who knows the end of the story tends to do.”

Thus we have a Billy-of-the-main-narrative, who is unaware of the ending, and the Billy-as-the-narrator, who is wholly aware of the ending, and the way Irving constructs the novel leaves the reader in between the two.

One of the temporal disruption techniques Irving uses is what I call the side-story. He inserts little side-stories throughout the novel which interrupt the main narrative and are always out of their chronological place. Usually the stories are future events (that is future relative to the present of the main narrative). Billy uses something from the main narrative as an associative link or springboard and then launches into the side-story after which he settles back into the main narrative as if nothing had happened. These side-stories serve to give the readers glimpses of the future which the Billy-of-the-main-narrative doesn’t know about yet. They create tension between the three perspectives, the three levels of knowledge at work; Young Billy knows the least and the reader knows more than Billy does but less than the narrator.

The chapter “Leaving Esmeralda” is a good example of the side-story technique. The chapter begins in 1960 with Billy in high school. A few pages in, Billy is talking to a woman whom he feels is rather dominant, but he likes that. Then there is a line a break, and Irving jumps ahead to when Billy and Larry are lovers and living together. Irving ties these two sections together with thematic material about Billy being dominant or submissive in relationships. As in, the first time Larry picks Billy up he shocks him with the question: “Are you a top or bottom, beautiful Bill?” Irving floats forward in time to the seventies in New York to another conversation between Billy and Larry “still seeing each other but no longer living together” which is followed by a flashback to rehearsal for The Tempest when there was a conversation about Ariel’s gender and then a time reference bringing us back to Billy in high school.

Irving makes an interesting move now. There is a line break and then Billy calls himself out: “It’s revealing how I have skipped ahead to my junior year abroad in Vienna, choosing to begin that interlude in my future life by telling you about Larry.” The narrative here is conscious of its erratic movement but only in an analytical way. Billy remarks that he probably skipped ahead and didn’t start with the story of his first girlfriend because he wanted to tell the readers that it is hard to come out as a teenager. Either way, what follows is a miniature essay about being bisexual and dealing with confusing feelings. Right after that there is another line break and then we get the story of Esmeralda which is also the story of Billy’s year abroad. Keep in mind, the main narrative is paused somewhere in high school while Irving wanders down this detour of the future.

But let’s examine more closely the movement here. What we should notice is the intersecting themes, i.e. the way these disparate parts relate to one another. This is all outside the plot, the chronological narrative arc, of the story, but it has to do with Billy’s eventual coming-to-terms with his sexuality. So the chapter begins with the dominant/ submissive dyad; then we have Larry who mistypes Billy for a bottom (submissive) when he is a top; and then Billy remarks on the difficulty of coming out. The paragraph before the Esmeralda story is about Billy not feeling ashamed of being bisexual, of being attracted to women, but he notices that many of his gay friends find this “suspicious.” These thoughts and sentiments are all playing on the theme of a man trying to understand his sexuality, i.e. what he likes; what he doesn’t like; how what he likes makes him and others feel.

This progression of self-analysis is logical and Irving tracks it by telling stories which relate to each step in the analysis until landing on the longer story of Billy’s time with Esmeralda. Curiously, though the chapter is mostly about being with Esmeralda, the title of the chapter is about leaving her. It is interesting that before we are even aware who Esmeralda is, we know that Billy will leave her. The ending of the chapter is in its title. It is as if the ending of this chapter or story is the story itself.

What stands out is that Irving structures the narrative as of Billy were working through memories based on association. Billy is looking back on his life (reminiscing) and picking out idea lines and following them until they lead back the story of his life. The side-story is not meant to press the plot forward but to take a break from the progression. The side-story exemplifies through experience and memory the idea is Billy is thinking about, i.e. when he thinks about being attracted to women he tells the story of his first girlfriend. In this instance, the narrative progresses thematically rather than along a plot line or time line. It creates a novel founded more on the organic nature of thought and memory than the strict linear movement of cause and effect or chronology.

Irving plays with time in other ways besides using side-stories. He quotes snippets of dialogue from disparate times in the novel thus further squishing together the two time-perspectives. For example: “Miss Frost was always making me move to a chair or a couch or a table where there was better light. ‘Don’t ruin your eyes, William. You’ll need your eyes for the rest of your life, if you’re going to be a reader’” (42). This is an interesting example because not only is Irving quoting dialogue that never occurs in a scene in the book, he also implies a number of scenes that did take place. The reader’s understanding of Billy and Miss Frost’s relationship is exponentially richer, deeper and quicker than if Irving had tried to deliver whole scenes.

Irving uses the imperfect tense here which means that the action was never completed, i.e. never perfected. There is this sense then that Miss Frost is always and continuously looking out for Billy. In this off-hand description of an imperfect scene that “always” happened, there is the implication that Miss Frost said these words multiple times and that she will continue to say them.

Sometimes there is no lead-in to the implied scene. Irving drops a quote into the text as its own paragraph. On page 57 there is an example of this:

“Nymph,” Kittredge’s nickname for me, would stick. I had two years to go at Favorite River Academy; a Nymph I would be.

“It doesn’t matter what costume and makeup do to you, Nymph,” Kittredge had said to me privately. “You’ll never be as hot as your mother.”

I was conscious that my mom was pretty and—at seventeen— I was increasingly conscious of how other students at an all boys’ academy like Favorite River regarded her.

These dropped-in-quotes imply scenes that must have happened without giving full descriptions of them. Thus, like the earlier example and like the side-stories, they create a more complete picture of Billy’s life without delving into each specific moment. Interestingly, we don’t arrive at these quotations in a sequential way but the connection is always associative, like memory.

Irving’s use of the reminiscent narrator offers up an interesting way to explore how memory can drive a novel. The reminiscent narrator is not a new structure, but the way Irving leaps from moment to moment semantically (i.e. relating events out of chronological order through ideas) is closer to a memory than just a simple re-telling. We store memories in webs of idea-relationships. And the reminiscent narrative Irving uses to tell the story of Billy Abbot coming to terms with himself is an unwrapping of the idea that is Miss Frost. Miss Frost is an ideal; the person in the novel most at home with herself. Irving begins with her as the kernel idea and then the rest of the book is meant to unpack her, that is: what it means to be her.

We finally land, at the end of the novel, back where we started, and Billy repeats something Miss Frost had said to him, the line: “My dear boy, please don’t put a label on me—don’t make me a category before you get to know me!” We have come full circle and Billy now understands more clearly who Miss Frost was and what she had meant by this line. In One Person is about remembering and understanding. Irving jumps from one time to another taking advantage of the fact that memory has a fluidity in association that breeches temporal boundaries. While remembering we are not constrained by chronological ordering. We have, as the author does, the entire story in front of us at every turn.

— Jacob Glover

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Jacob Glover is a Philosophy & Classics student at the University of King’s College in Halifax, Nova Scotia. He is a frequent NC contributor of essays, reviews and poems.

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Jun 172011
 

WinterbachAuthor Photo by Val Adamson

book_happenstance_large

The Book of Happenstance
Ingrid Winterbach
Open Letter Books
Paperback, 254 pages, $11.95
978-1-934824-33-7

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Though Ingrid Winterbach sets her novel, The Book of Happenstance, in contemporary South Africa, a country dominated by a history of racial oppression, the book is not about race or the inheritance of Apartheid. The Book of Happenstance is about memory and death, yet paradoxically so, for the novel is ebulliently alive, ironic and smart. The characters seem hyper-linked to Google and Wikipedia; the book is full of spontaneous eruptions of intelligence, and that is fun to read.

Winterbach (who wrote earlier works under the pseudonym Lettie Viljoen) lives in South Africa with her husband and two daughters. She has a degree in Afrikaans—one of the main characters of the novel is an expert in Afrikaans. She is also a visual artist and has won all kinds of awards for her work in her native land including the W. A. Hofmeyr Prize, the M-Net Book Prize (for the book in hand), the University of Johannesburg Award, and the Hertzog Prize. The new English version of The Book of Happenstance, just out with Open Letter Books, was co-translated by Winterbach herself and Dirk Winterbach (I checked but was unable to pin down the relationship).

The novel is about a middle-aged woman, Helena Verbloem, hired on a research grant to help compile a dictionary with the scholar Theo Verwey. One night thieves break into Helena’s house, steal her sentimentally priceless sea shell collection, and shit on the floor. When the police appear uninterested in helping her recover the shells, Helena starts investigating the robbery herself. Some of the missing shells have turned up at the feet of a recent suicide, a man who killed himself by hanging.

The shell investigation trajectory involves two visits to a town a day’s drive away where the suicide (and his family) lived. Helen and her girlfriend Sof meet the locals in bars, disguise themselves as members of a Bible group delivering pamphlets, take pictures of the suicide house, question family and friends and come up with precisely nothing. In fact, what they learn is that the shells are gone, who knows where, and that her house had been broken into by accident by men looking for drugs. At one point Sof quotes the opening lines of Kafka’s The Castle: K has just arrived, the Castle is hidden in mist and fog, the village shrouded in snow, gazes up into “seeming emptiness.” Of course, the passage is even more enigmatic because it’s quoted in Afrikaans.

The shell plot is comic and Kafkaesque and ends in apparent inconsequence. The novel’s parallel plot belongs to Theo and Helena in the museum—less action than the quasi-investigation plot but many delightful scenes. The work scenes go like this: Theo and Helena sit in an office organizing words into alphabetical order, Helena fantasizes, talks about books, sometimes she asks Theo about a word and he—a human dictionary—answers with comic completeness in little essays like entries in an etymological database. Helena is obviously attracted to Theo, but the attraction is an intellectual crush not so much a romantic longing and certainly not lust.

Slotted between the interwoven main plots are a series of recurring but unplotted scenes in a tea room, more often than not Helen and another museum friend drinking, yes, tea and discussing the origin of life and evolution. These scenes are comic, exasperating—Helena’s naïve and ingenuous questions prompting lengthy, erudite answers which she seems to ignore half the time (inserting lengthy parenthetical scene commentary in the middle of the explanations). Helena’s interest in life no doubt evolves out of the context of death that surrounds her. Already, as novel begins, Helena’s parents and sister are dead, her brother estranged, she herself is divorced, her daughter is out of touch.

The novel is written in the first-person present tense. The present tense conveys immediacy and a kind of spontaneous propulsion that more conventional past tense Freitag-ular narratives don’t. In other words, Winterbach’s novel didn’t happen it keeps happening, throwing itself forward with a kind of whimsical blind hopefulness, a summoning of eternity.

In the first two sentences Winterbach announces the time frame of the novel: March to October—in March Helena starts working on the Afrikans dictionary with Theo Verwey, and by October Theo is dead. At the outset, we know the parameters, we know the course of the novel; Winterbach seems to splice the story out of the larger reel of time and in the same act warrant its significance, as Walter Benjamin suggests in his essay “The Storyteller.” “Death is the sanction of everything that the storyteller can tell. He has borrowed his authority from death.”

Much of the novel consists of memories and reflections. When writing the memories Winterbach steps in and makes a stylistic choice. She writes a number of the memories in the past tense and some in the present and, a few times, seems to mix the two. The weaving of tenses together seems to add to the eternal bracket around the novel. Winterbach wants Happenstance to break out of linear time and rest securely in the present. Therefore, even the memories, past events, occasionally happen in the present. There is, I think, an ironized search for the eternal in the novel. The shells in their way seems to represent something beyond time to Helena, considering “their beauty restored [her] trust in all of creation” (59). At one point Helena’s friend Sof  says, “I’ve just read and interesting article… All writers are actually pursuing a single ideal, namely the universal.” To which Helena replies dryly, “I’ve always thought the universal to be suspect.” (130). But her denial rings with irony.

Happenstance is a terrific read. It is consciously intellectual without being pretentious or didactic. It is smart and knows it but the irony runs deep. Against the etymology, we have Helena obsessing over the shit on her carpet; she associates the lingering smell of aftershave in her apartment with crime, so that she qualifies every clean-shaven man with the thought: Could he have shat on my rug and stolen my shells? And then there is the whole Sof/husband subplot: Sof’s hatred for her husband and her desire to have an affair with a crippled pediatrician. Even Theo’s funeral has a comic aspect: a member of the museum staff, nicknamed Sailor, shows up drunk, wearing a natty white suit, and tries to jump into the grave with the coffin.

Finally: Why happenstance? The title of the English translation seems to refer the coincidental nature of the crime, the shell-robbery, perhaps the Kafkaesque and coincidental nature of all life. The novel forces the death of Theo Verwey and the loss of Helena’s shells together, but their juncture is conditional, fleeting and evanescent, means almost nothing except in the pleasurable connection of words, obsession, human affection, and our ultimate end (itself likely to be comic). It is all happenstance.

(Read an excerpt from the novel here.)

—Jacob Glover

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Jacob Glover1

Jacob Glover is studying Classics & Philosophy at the University of King’s College in Halifax, Nova Scotia. His work has been published previously on Numéro Cinq: essays (on Kierkegard, Montaigne, and Spinoza), translations, and poems.

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Jan 162011
 

First thing this lovely sunny morning, my son Jacob sends me this email.

dg

I am listening to a lecture about the historical Jesus right now and the lecturer was talking about St. John the Baptist jumping in his mother’s womb for joy because Mary, pregnant with Jesus, was there. The lecturer called him St. John, The (are you ready for this?) Prophetus!


Jan 132011
 

Polar Bear Swim, Blackrock Beach, Halifax, January 2011


Last weekend, Jacob and friends from the University of King’s College ran across the city to the ocean and went for a swim. (Yes, Canadians swim in the ocean year-round. It’s a hard country. You find pleasure where you can.) Then they ran miles back. I looked at the photo on the right and complained that there wasn’t any snow. This could be mid-summer! Here’s what he wrote back.

dg

A Letter from Halifax
By Jacob Glover

Dad,

There isn’t any snow because it’s a beach in Halifax. The snow is only the sidewalks and roads… you’re just going to have to trust me because there aren’t any pictures of us running in it. Also, Evey Hornbeck took the pictures. People weren’t really saying anything other than either it was cold or they’d been in colder, so not really interesting things.

This is the picture of me post-polar dip. Twenty of us (3 girls and 17 boys) had run down to Blackrock Beach in Point Pleasant Park near the harbour on January 8th afternoon so that we could strip down and then submerge ourselves into the freezing North Atlantic to embrace more fully our Polar Selves. The run was more a slog than anything else, since in Halifax when it snows any byway paved with cement or asphalt is immediately covered in slush. The air wasn’t that cold, about 32 ̊ F, and the wind calmed slightly to allow us safe passage, it seemed. The run took 25 minutes, but dressed in sweatpants, two fleeces and your green winter coat, I was quite toasty by the time we arrived at the beach.

Before the swim. Jacob is front row right in the green coat.

As soon as we hit sand, people began to strip down to underwear or shorts, baring as much skin as possible. After pulling off all 12 layers of clothes, I walked slowly through the cold sand, so cold in fact that it actually hurt a little, and at the water’s edge, this is the ocean, let me repeat, I put my foot in to test the water which was about 41 ̊ F. To put this temperature in perspective for you, Wikipedia says that someone in 50 ̊ F water will die in an hour. Needless to say at the first touch of the water my whole foot was numb, so I pulled it out and reconsidered my position. It was decided though, by some far off Fate-source, that my destiny was to swim in the ocean that rather bleak day in January. So I took a few steps back and reached out for Fate’s hand in the form of white caps and salty-sea spray, as I berserkered off the edge of the continent.

The water was cold. It was really cold. And after diving under and coming back up I opened my mouth to roar something barbaric and Yawp-like, but the extreme temperature had robbed my lungs of air and movement; the paralytic cold had leeched into my diaphragm and sapped my yawping strength. I fled from this evil violent cold to my towel and dry clothes on the beach. But as I stood toweling off, surfing my eyes over the gray lonely water to McNabs Island in the distance, it occurred to me that, yes, I had just swum in the ocean in January, and, honestly, it had been unbearably cold but  extremely fun.

Love you

Jake

—Jacob Glover. Photos by Evey Hornbeck.

Nov 082010
 

DG realizes that this may be a stretch for some of you. A couple of weeks ago NC published Jacob’s poem “After Reading Heidegger and Seeing a Dead Rat” which has proved amazingly popular, partly because it’s a witty poem and partly because it gets a certain number of hits every day from people searching “dead rats” on Google (who would have thought this was an underground hot topic?). DG took off the “rat” tag, but that hasn’t stopped the deluge. In any case, this is neither here nor there to Jacob who wrote the poem for fun and who has since translated it into Latin for fun. The fact that he has a mind for this is a continual delight to his father.

dg

After Reading Heidegger and Seeing a Dead Rat

Vidi id in bestiolam via
Secundo die autumno
Bestiola, quae bestiolae fuit, sed
Nunc nihil non fuit, sed
Aliqua non Ens
Bestiola habuerat, sed nunc
Tenebras firigidas rigidarumque habet.
In via, secondo die autumno
Enti cinctus est, in Ente,
Idquod bestiola, non iam ens, fuit
Olim, Ens in Bestiola fuit
Olim Ens fuit hac bestiola, quando ea
Fuit ens.
Sed nunc, Ens nihil non est, abfuit,
Ex hac bestiola, utique, ergo abisset.
—Jacob Glover

Oct 272010
 

 

 

ENTRIES ARE OFFICIALLY CLOSED

Entries close midnight Sunday, November 21.

 

The First Annual Numéro Cinq Rondeau Writing Contest opens for entries November 1 (midnight tonight as of this writing). The rondeau is a slightly intricate little form (see preamble and definitions below). You should not attempt to write one under the influence of intoxicants or while using a cell phone (unless you are writing it on your cell phone). Also do not attempt to operate heavy machinery while composing your rondeau. Don’t shy away from trying a rondeau just because you consider yourself a rhyme & rhythm-challenged prose-writer. Fiction and nonfiction writers always need a dash of form in their lives, something to make them sit up straight (or just to jar the gears loose). As with all the NC contests, there is a method behind the madness. Beyond the discipline of form, we discover the freedom of aesthetic space. Every contest is a teaching moment, a formal lesson, and a moment of unleashing (paradoxical as that seems). Also, if you look at our previous contests, you will see that they are fun. Submit entries by typing them into the comment box beneath this post.

Continue reading »

Oct 192010
 



After Reading Heidegger and Seeing a Dead Rat

By Jacob Glover

 

Being is not naught, but will be.
I saw it in a rat on a driveway
A few days into fall,
A rat, what had been a rat, but
Now was not naught, but
Something not being.
The rat had had being but now it
Had cold and stiff darkness
On a driveway a few days into fall.
Surrounded by Being, in Being,
That which was rat, was no longer being.
Time was, being was in that Rat.
Time was, Being was that rat, as that rat
Was being.
But now, Being is not naught, it is gone,
From this rat, anyway, so it might as well be.

Sep 282010
 

Here is Jacob’s translation of a passage from Caesar’s The Gallic Wars. Caesar is exposed as possibly a competent general and politician but a total loss in the area of animal identification. I missed this passage when we were reading Latin in high school (and it didn’t make it into the much more interesting Classic Comics version either).

dg




From Julius Caesar’s The Gallic Wars

Translated by Jacob Glover

 

Sunt item quae apellantur alces. Harum est consimilis capris figura et varietas pellium, sed magnitudine paulo antecedent mutilaeque sunt cornibus et crura sine nodis articulisque habent; neque quietis causa procumbunt neque, si quo afflictae casu conciderunt, erigere sese aut sublevare possunt. His sunt arbores pro cubilibus ; ad eas se applicant atque ita paulum modo reclinate quietem capiunt. Quarum ex vestigiis cum est animadversum a venatoribus quo se recipere consuerint, omnes eo loco aut a radicibus subruunt aut accidunt arbores, tantum ut summa species earum stantium reliquantur. Huc cum se consuetudine reclinaverunt, infirmas arbores pondere affligunt atque una ipsae concidunt.

—Excerpta e Commentariis C. Iulii Caesaris de Bello Gallico (VI.25-28)

There are also those which are called elk, the shape of which resembles a goat and whose coat varies in color. Their size somewhat surpasses [the animals mentioned earlier on in the passage], their horns are chopped off, and they have legs without joints–so neither can they lie down for the sake of a rest, and if, by unfortunate happenstance, they are caused to fall over, the poor jointless elk are unable to stand up. The trees are their beds, onto which they lean themselves, and in this reclining position they seek quiescence. When a hunter comes upon the trail of these creatures, he makes it a practice to take all of the trees in the area and either uproot them or cut them just enough so that they are left standing. When the elk lean, out of habit, against the unstable trees, the weight of the elk knocks over the tree which, in due course, kills the elk.

—Excerpt from Julius Caesar’s Commentary on The Gallic Wars, translated by Jacob Glover

Jul 272010
 

rats

This is mini-essay I wrote to accompany a photograph in a lovely book of Canadian author pics by the Israeli photographer Danielle Schaub. (The photograph in the book is dg reading under an awning at the Eden Mills Literary Festival and should not be confused with the photo on the right, which is a picture of rat.) The full reference is Reading Writers Reading, Danielle Schaub, editor and photographer, University of Alberta Press, Edmonton, 2006. The essay was subsequently reprinted in Geist 62, Fall 2006. I post it because there is a rat theme developing (see the post below as well as the villanelle contest where one of the entrants has linked in a photo of a rat, some kind of performance art, one assumes). There is also a reading to your children thread following the Steven Heighton poem posted an issue or so ago. The convergence of vectors forces me to take desperate measures.

dg

§

My mother read to me, and now I read to my boys. They are twelve and nine. Their mother and I are divorced; they spend half the time with me. We live in shabby upstate New York suburbia with a variable menagerie of pets: dogs, squirrels, rats, cats and, once, an opossum. (Some things an innocent parent should never be exposed to: Walking into the boys’ bedroom one evening, I was greeted by Jonah shouting, “Look, Dad! Bungee rat.” Poor rat.) Last year we read David Copperfield, mostly in the evenings before the boys went to sleep. We read in my bed because we can all get in it together (along with the dogs and the cat). The boys still shout, “Donkeys!  Janet! Donkeys!” when they’re in a good mood and want to remember the pleasure we shared over David’s aunt and her front yard obsession about donkeys. Or Jacob will look at me slyly and say, “Barkis is willin'” or “I’m a lone lorn creature.” And I still remember the aching sadness of David’s realization that he had married a child wife and not an adult companion of his heart. One day, the last of the rats, a beige female the boys had christened Rex (don’t ask why) collapsed in her cage, eyes shut, her breath coming in quick, shallow pants. We’d been through this before. We knew she was dying. I made a nest for her in a shoe box and kept her beside me in my study all day. And when the boys came home from school, they took up the death watch. Rex never regained consciousness but did manage to breathe into the evening. As usual we climbed into bed with tea and David Copperfield and began to read. We had reached the tempest chapter, that terrific moment of convergence when David watches Ham throw himself into the surf to swim to a sinking ship and simultaneously realizes that the nefarious Steerforth, who has seduced Ham’s little Emily and ruined her, is a passenger on the ship. Ham swims; Steerforth dashes about on deck; the storm rages. Suddenly the ship, Ham and Steerforth disappear beneath a huge wave. Simultaneously, a desperate little sigh burst from Rex’s shoe box deathbed. The boys and I jumped up to look. Rex kicked her back legs once, trembled and died in what struck us immediately as a Dickensian coincidence of life and literature. (As I write this, Jonah reminds me of the other great Dickens moment in our house: when the boys discovered the character in Oliver Twist known as Master Bates.)

—Douglas Glover

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Jul 052010
 

First Light (click on the photo for more information)

The judges have sent a message. Their minion, the ineffable Kaplovsky, tapped obsequiously on my door last night (he is always cowering, shying from the blow he knows must fall) and delivered a list of finalists culled from the official entry list. For three days they have laboured without food or water (with the exception of a freezer full of lime vodka, a bag or two of whole wheat crackers and a wheel of Vermont cheddar). The task has been difficult, fraught with violence and recrimination. The first aid kit was needed more than once. Here is their short list of finalists in no particular order. Honours and laurels to these well known and sometimes anonymous contributors.

And over and above these illustrious authors of insane and melodramatic versions of a false truth who can forget Claire Wilkshire’s heart-rending cry “Behold, what a toe!!!” and her “master of whoop-whoop” or this sentence from Vivian Dorsel “What behooved me to! That linen and silk charm, the shoes and silken veils, the ring on her finger, that was for Frank” and her gorgeous “wordy as an eggplant” simile? Or this riff from Steve Axelrod, master of the startling and outré comparison “…laugh through their misery like farting crippled geese, trampled by toddlers … it degrades these nihilists of the Veldt, rope-throated troglodytes…”? Or Natasha Sarkissian’s cool psycho-sexual spaghetti-eating scene: “Frank squeezes my hand while we wait. ‘You can have a bite of mine,’ he says…”? And the anonymous X’s triple XXX, sultry version: “What behooved him to! He kneeling and sin licking, my shining sins devoted, my ring turned to vinegar by sin, but he was my Frank.” Or Sheila Stuewe’s talking wombat and Gwen Mullins’ (winner of the 2010 Numéro Cinq Villanelle Contest) horrific chase/birth scene “…even as I finally find moisture; running down my thighs in streams, salty, dripping wet against dry heat, signaling a taste of pain and torture that is birth. I feel my legs buckle, weak, failing: the mission was doomed from the start, but, even as the sun consumes both of us, I know the mission that was doomed was my own birth, calm in our adobe hut while my mother screamed and my father paced the floor”?

And others…

But here, as I say, are the five finalists, two with the original text (has anyone figured out where it’s from?). (And remember to vote for the People’s Choice Award here.)

Continue reading »

Jun 102010
 

FIRST EVER NUMÉRO CINQ TRANSLATION CONTEST

Submissions June 12-30, 2010.

Enter by translating the sample passage below and submitting it as a comment on this post.

The competition is open to anyone. Just sign onto WordPress.com for free and contribute your translation.

Rule #1: Do not submit an entry if you actually speak the language in the sample below. It doesn’t help if you can read the sample and render an accurate translation because the judge can’t read the sample himself. (It goes without saying that you shouldn’t bother using a translation dictionary either.)

That’s the only rule.

Rule #2: Translations must be submitted in English. (Gary Garvin already submitted an entry in Chinese characters via email. This will not fly with the judge.)

Rule #3: Given the confusions we had during the last contest, the judge wishes to specify that there will be an open, ageless category (the Numéro Cinq Shark Class) and an under-16 category (the Numéro Cinq Barracuda Class).

Rule #4: Birth certificate and two pieces of photo ID required to qualify for the Barracuda Class competition (last time certain adult members of the Numéro Cinq community—a disreputable, rebellious, disaffected, and outlaw crowd of ne’er-do-wells and agitators—attempted to have their entries switched to the under-16 category).

Let go of your bourgeois yearning after sense and meaning. Forget certainty. (The judge is returning to his Sufi roots.) Think only of the sound of the words, their rhythms, and what you can invent from them.

As usual with Numéro Cinq contests, wit and arrogance will be appreciated. In fact, wit and arrogance are the only qualities the judge cares about.

Contest open to everyone including employees of Numéro Cinq, their significant others, children, and small pets (mammals only, up to 50 lbs).

First Prize — Instant Worldwide (e)Publication w/ commentary.

Plus honours & laurels.

A single malt Scotch at 9 Maple Avenue with dg or a hot chocolate at Virgil’s with Jonah if you’re in the under-16 Barracuda Class. (You have to get to Saratoga Springs on your own and dg will not put you up.)

Each entry must purport to be a translation of the following passage. Feel free to submit more than one translation.

Ja, er dreigde iets. En hij bleef daar zitten, ziek van angst, làf, zonder geestkracht, zonder moed…. Er dreigde iets en hij voelde het naderen, hem overvallen, met hem strijden op leven en dood, in eene overspanning van wanhoop: hij voelde zich wankelen, nederzinken, hij voelde zich gerukt worden uit de fluweelen zachtheid van zijn leven, neergesmakt worden op straat, zonder dak, zonder iets … Wat behoorde hem toe! Het linnen aan zijn lichaam, de schoenen aan zijne voeten, de ring aan zijn vinger, het was van Frank. Het souper daarginds, zijn bed boven, het was van Frank. Zoo was het geweest een vol jaar lang en als hij ooit weg zoû moeten gaan met alleen het zijne, dan zou hij moeten gaan … naakt, in den winter. En hij kón niet meer zijn, als hij geweest was in Amerika, dienstbaar scharrelend van den eenen dag op den anderen. Zijn lijf en zijne ziel waren beide als geweekt in een bad van lauwe weelde; hij was geworden als eene kasplant, die, gewend aan de vochte warmte der serres, vreest in de open lucht te worden gezet. Want het dreigde, gruwzaam, onbarmhartig: geen seconde was die bedreiging van hem af, en, in de lafheid zijner verweeking, wrong hij er zachtjes zijne witte handen om, en drupten er twee tranen langs zijn strak masker van wanhoop.

Apr 242010
 

ENTRIES ARE OFFICIALLY CLOSED. COMMENTS STILL WELCOME.

Herewith the first ever (annual) Numéro Cinq villanelle writing contest. I am announcing it early so that you can work on your entries. Entries will be accepted between May 1 and May 15. Entries, as with the aphorism contest, should be posted as comments on this page. Entries are open to anyone in the world, but only if they are written in  English, French, Latin, or classical Greek (the only languages anyone can speak in this house). As with the aphorism contest, I encourage you to familiarize yourselves with the form. See the craft and technique page for help. Roughly speaking, we’re talking about a 19-line poem written in tercets (except for the last stanza which has four lines). The first and last line of the first stanza become the last lines of the following stanzas and also turn into a couplet at the end of the last stanza. These are fun to write and can actually turn out surprisingly well if you arm yourselves with strong refrain lines (think: panache, drama, obsession, schizophrenia). You need not be a poet to enter. And it’s always a good thing for prose writers to extend themselves; it makes their prose more interesting. One lesson to be drawn from writing a poem like this is the way form drives content instead of the other way around.

Continue reading »

Apr 232010
 

Raphael’s School of Athens

The University of King’s College Middle Bay version of the School of Athens. Jacob Glover is Parmenides, holding the book, talking to a young woman named Hypatia, centre left.

Mar 242010
 

The world of literary translation knows no boundaries. David Helwig sent me the following, a piece of graffiti found on the wall of a brothel in Pompeii.

Arphocras hic cum Drauca bene futuit denario.

I looked it up on the web. The more or less accepted translation goes like this: Here Harpocras has had a good fuck with Drauca for a denarius.

But I sent the line to Jacob to see what he thought. He wrote back: Something along the lines of…Here Arphocras laid well with Drauca (my dictionary says this means sodomite, but it is a capital D so I made it a name. I think it is a pun.) for a silver coin. Basically… “Arphocras fucked the shit out of some male hooker right here for like no money.”

Then I looked up the quotation in Craig A. Williams Roman Homosexuality. Apparently, the price paid to Drauca was eight times the going rate (according to other notations on the wall).

The plot thickens.

dg

Mar 202010
 

kierkegaard

Jacob Glover1Jacob Glover

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The first sentence of Søren Kierkegaard’s The Present Age is: “Our age is essentially one of understanding and reflection, without passion, momentarily bursting into enthusiasm, and shrewdly relapsing into repose”. I will argue that underlying this quote is the Platonic premise, continuous throughout Western philosophy, that there are two worlds, the world of existence (the material or phenomenal world, the world of empirical science) and the intelligible (the world of Forms, universals, God, and the Good).[1] Kierkegaard says that man in the present age finds himself no longer rationally able to conceive a relationship between himself and God or the Good (the intelligible world). (Kierkegaard’s present age was the 1840’s, but his ideas seem applicable now because they describe what was the beginning of modern industrial capitalism that exists today.) Earlier philosophical claims for interaction between the two worlds such as mediation (Hermes Trismegistus), emanations (Plotinus), or imminence (Spinoza) are no longer possible. In the present age, man cannot know anything about the intelligible world, God, or the Good. The intelligible world is radically separate from the material world. So Kierkegaard’s question is: What can or do we know? Reflection, Kierkegaard seems to be saying, is a form of thought, characteristic of this new age, which re-conceptualizes the material world without God. Kierkegaard contrasts reflection with idea of passion which seems to be a desire to know or engage with something radically unknowable. Passion, this desire, is linked to Kierkegaard’s idea of the leap of faith. Since in the present age we cannot know anything beyond the material world, the only way to live an authentic, ethical, or individual life is to passionately embrace a radical uncertainty about God or the Good. We must take a leap of faith, a leap into uncertainty.

Reflection, this process of thinking in the material world separated from the intelligible world, changes our motives and the way we value things and actions. Reflection suggests a new sort of rationality grounded solely on the material world and without regard for an intelligible world. This new rationality changes the objective and subjective value system for actions and decisions. For Kierkegaard, “eternal responsibility, and the religious singling out of the individual before God, is ignored.” Kierkegaard is referring to two effects, or characteristics, of reflection. In the present age two things are ignored: “eternal responsibility” (the drama of sin, salvation, and grace) and the “singling out of the individual” (the creation of individuals in relation to God or the Good). In other words, people in the present age, the age of reflection, now cut off from the intelligible world (and God and the Good), no longer have an “eternal” telos, or purpose; man in the present age can only perceive a purpose for himself that is dependent on, or related to, the material world. Without this “eternal” telos there is no reason to act or make decisions as if the actions or decisions have “eternal” importance, which is to say, in the age of reflection, there is no “eternal responsibility.”

People lose a sense of individual eternity as they lose or, “ignore,” this idea of “eternal responsibility” and further separate, metaphysically, from the intelligible world, God, or a greater Good. Kierkegaard calls this the “leveling process” or “the victory of abstraction over the individual.” That is to say that people in the present age, the age of reflection, lose a sense of eternal importance in what they do or think because essentially all people are so radically equal no one can capture any uniqueness, no one can conceive of themselves or what he does or thinks as eternal. People in the age of reflection are all entirely dependent on and, in a sense, enslaved to an obscure form of community. Not a community based, as I say, on anything eternal, but on pragmatic values derived from the new rationality of the age of reflection. It is a community of slaves whose master is their own interdependence. In Kierkegaard’s words, “The individual no longer belongs to God, to himself, to his beloved to his art or to his science, he is conscious of belonging in all things to an abstraction to which he is subjected by reflection, just as a serf belongs to an estate.” In the present age, the age of reflection, a person is so radically separated from anything that he can derive lasting, eternal, importance from individually that he loses his individuality and is swallowed into obscurity and dependency.

In the original quote Kierkegaard contrasts reflection with passion. According to Kierkegaard, the present age is passionless. But what is passion? The word “passion” derives from the Latin verb patior which means to suffer. I think this crucial in the discussion of what passion is to Kierkegaard because it emphasizes the inherent struggle that defines passion. Also the word probably refers to the Passion of Christ. Christ at the end of his life does not know, with any certainty, that God exists, but he wants to believe and does so anyway. Christ on the cross demonstrates what passion is: a desire to know, believe, or engage with, something you cannot rationally conclude exists, or even establish a metaphysical connection with. Passion, as Kierkegaard seems to imply, can only really exist in relation to reflection. Reflective thought occurs when people try to understand the material world, now that it is radically separated from the intelligible world, and passion is the desire to believe in an intelligible world, God or a greater Good even though you have no reason to. What’s crucial is the idea of reasons for something, something’s rationality. Like I said above, with reflection there is new rationality grounded in the material world, so of course there is no “reason” to believe in an intelligible world. But crucially this situation only exists in the age of reflection. Before Kierkegaard philosophers thought that the intelligible world was accessible in some form, knowable, and, in fact, based their rationality “in” it, thus they had “reason” to believe in its existence. So passion, to Kierkegaard, is the desire to believe in something that, rationally, you cannot, and, according to the word’s etymology, is a sort of internal suffering. To Kierkegaard, in the present age it seems unlikely that, “there is a single man left ready, for once, to commit an outrageous folly.” For Kierkegaard this “outrageous folly” is passion. It would seem outrageous, ridiculous, or foolish to want to believe in, or know, something that you cannot.

Kierkegaard gives the example of a skater on a lake. This example, to me, best demonstrates the differences between passionate and reflective thought. In a passionate age “the courage of the man” to skate out near the middle where the ice is thin, “would be applaud[ed],” but in the present age “people would think each other clever in agreeing that it was unreasonable and not even worthwhile to venture out so far.” In the present age, the age of reflection, the people don’t admire the skater at all, in fact, they admire each other as members of a group; they show dependence upon one another. The value judgments the people in the age of reflection do make are of the act of skating out so far, “an outrageous folly.” They conclude it to be unreasonable and not worthwhile. This is another example of the different rationality created by reflection that makes acts, such as are done by brave people, seem “unreasonable.” That is to say that in the age of reflection the people have no rational grounding for these sorts of actions; to them they have no purpose in the material world and are, therefore, purposeless. Furthermore these acts designate an individual and allow him, if only for a moment, not to be dependent on the others. He has found some purpose outside of the material world that is inconceivable in the age of reflection when the material is radically separate from the intelligible. Contrariwise a passionate age appreciates the individual and his attributes. The act itself seems to just demonstrate that which the man already possessed i.e. his courage. Essentially the differences stem from reflection and the lack of reflection, which is to say the separation of the intelligible world from one (the present age) and not from the other (a hypothetical passionate age).

The Present Age is essentially a thought experiment. Kierkegaard starts by describing the age of reflection when man has no rational connection to the intelligible world and finds himself radically subsumed in an abstraction of interdependence. Before the age of reflection people would derive their ways of life from ideas founded in the intelligible world. So now the question for Kierkegaard is: How do we live authentically? What do we base things like morals and ethics on, if our old fundamental principles are no longer rationally accessible? Moreover, how do we maintain any sense of self, or individuality, when we exist as eternally purposeless? Kierkegaard writes, “If you are capable of being a man, then danger and harsh judgment of existence on your thoughtlessness will help you to become one.” That is to say that, to live authentically, to have morals, to be an individual, you must do something that seems an “outrageous folly.” And in the age of reflection nothing seems more “outrageous” than assuming a connection with the intelligible world because in the age of reflection it is unknowable. But Kierkegaard insists, “Come on leap, leap cheerfully, even if it means a light hearted leap, so long as it is decisive.” In other words to live as an individual with morals, we must “leap” into belief. That is to say we must believe in something we have no reason, in the age of reflection, to believe in. We must contradict ourselves as rational beings and behave irrationally, we must embody passion, and “[our] thoughtlessness will help [us] to become” an individual.

—Jacob Glover

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Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)

  1. See Mappa Mundi: The Structure of Western Thought
Mar 152010
 

THE FIRST EVER NUMÉRO CINQ APHORISM CONTEST

Submissions March 15-31, 2010

Submit by commenting on this post

Submissions must be no more than 150 words in length

Do not enter a submission unless you have figured out what an aphorism is first

Wit and arrogance appreciated

Contest open to everyone including employees of Numéro Cinq, their significant others, children, and small pets

First Prize — Instant Worldwide (e)Publication w/ commentary

Plus honours & laurels

Feb 242010
 

spinoza

Jacob Glover1Jacob Glover

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In Proposition 15 in Part One of his Ethics Spinoza declares, “Whatever is, is in God, and nothing can be or be conceived without God.” For Spinoza, everything that exists is in God. Spinoza’s use of the preposition “in” is ambiguous because it doesn’t clarify whether he means physically encapsulated within God or metaphysically in God as a non-physical something pervasive in existence. Nonetheless the second half of Spinoza’s proposition implies that, though he used “in,” which implies an “out,” nothing can exist in the “out,” because everything that exists, exists in this relationship to God described by the word “in.”  Spinoza proposes a monistic, as opposed to a dualistic, universe[1]. Instead of the universe existing with a transcendent God outside of it; God, according to Spinoza, must be present in existence because “nothing can be or be conceived” without Him. This brings the argument once again back to the word “in” which seems to mean that somehow all things exist within God and simultaneously there is some part or element of God in all things that exist. In Proposition 15 Spinoza describes an immanent universe where God both contains and flows throughout all things, the world of existence. There are three fundamental parts to Spinoza’s universal structure: substance, attributes, and modes.

Substance “is in itself and is conceived through itself”(1).  In other words substance is an ethereal material; it is somehow imperceptible as itself, perhaps as the idea of substance, but perceptible by means of what it contains which also happens to be itself. To Spinoza substance and God are synonymous. He writes, “There can be, or be conceived, no other substance but God.”  Substance or God is a singular immaterial material that is wholly containing and wholly invasive throughout the universe, according to Proposition 15. Substance or God is eternal, an uncaused cause of everything. Spinoza writes, “if anyone asserts that substance is created, he at the same time asserts that a false idea has become true.” There is no separation between existence and God for Spinoza and that is what makes his universe monistic.

Humans do not perceive substance or God directly, rather they perceive an aspect or part, for want of a better word, of God—what Spinoza calls an attribute. (Of course to say “part” is ambiguous because it suggests divisibility in God, however the ambiguity exists in that substance, to Spinoza, must exist indivisibly but at the same time exist within even the smallest “part” of the universe.)   Attributes are not the particular things perceived but the property of perceptibility. They are “that which the intellect perceives of substance as constituting its essence” and furthermore  “each entity must be conceived under some attribute.” It seems that attributes work in two ways. In one way they are what appear to be the essences, basics, or fundamentals of substance. But in the same way they are property of perceptibility in particular instances of existence within substance. Although, I suppose, to Spinoza those are not two separate qualities because substance is all things. In other words, according to Spinoza, it would be enough to simply state that attributes make substance perceptible i.e. attributes make all things perceptible.

Humans have access to only two attributes of God or substance; objects of thought and objects of solid matter with dimensionality or extension (takes up space). But the attributes are distinct, that is they exist “one without the help of the other.” According to Spinoza the attribute of thought has no effect on the attribute of extension; they exist wholly separate as themselves but nonetheless they are both the essence of substance or God. Like the active intellects of the Neo-Platonists, attributes are intermediary properties between substance (God) and humans, but attributes are not like active intellects of the Neo-Platonists in the sense that they are passive properties of substance, which human intellect or the senses can act upon. To Spinoza the attribute of thought can only be perceived by thinking. And the attribute of extension, physical matter, can only be perceived by the senses. He writes that an attribute “must be conceived through itself.” The attributes exist within substance (God) but only as a means to perceive or intellectualize the universe.

The third part of Spinoza’s system is the mode. Modes are actually in the mind of the experiencing person or subject. The perception or thought within the mind of a human. But what exactly is a mode? There are two kinds of modes: modes of thought or ideas and modes of extension or physical objects. Speaking of physical matter Spinoza writes, “matter is everywhere the same and there are no distinct parts in it except in so far as we conceive matter as modified in various ways.” Spinoza here stresses the point that the attribute of extension exists the same and indivisibly throughout the universe, but for humans to sense it or conceptualize it the attribute must be modified; it must be a particularized instance of extension. A particular book is a mode of extension, but the ability of that book to take up space and be sensed is the attribute of extension. In another passage Spinoza writes: “we conceive water to be divisible and to have separate parts in so far as it is water, but not in so far as it is a corporeal substance.”  In other words water is like the attribute of extension. As matter, or a mode, water can be divided, as a concept, or for lack of a better term, “waterness” it is indivisible. As a mode the attribute of extension exists as an individual thing but as the attribute proper it exists in its entirety indivisible. Modes are particular; they involve substance but are not directly it.

The universe Spinoza describes in Proposition 15 is made of three parts: substance, attributes and modes. The major problem then is that Spinoza appears to want this system to be immanent, yet at the same time exist as somehow divided in these three parts. It seems as if there is some sort of understood cohesiveness that contradicts this division. To me the best way to conceptualize this cohesive force is to me, is to think of substance as the text of a story. The actual physical text, alone, is not perceivable. But with, the property of readability, analogous to Spinoza’s attributes, the text becomes readable. But this property of readability works in two ways like the attributes. It not only makes the physical text legible and not gibberish, but also gives the story continuity which allows the reader to experience the smallest details and episodes within the story. These small details, therefore, are analogous to what Spinoza would call modes. To me, it seems that the organic evolving continuity that makes a story understandable is analogous to the cohesion that counter acts the apparent division within Spinoza’s monistic universe.

Spinoza’s system revolves around the ideas that substance is the basic ethereal material; substance and God are the same thing; all natural objects and thoughts “come” from, and inhere in, substance; substance has attributes (properties of perceptibility) of extension and thoughts; particular instances of substance are perceivable or intelligible because of the attributes and these instances are modes. Of course what’s truly crucial to Spinoza’s philosophy is its monism. That is to say that there is no second world, or realm, or transcendence, all things exist within existence and are part of substance (God). Spinoza writes, “For in the universe there exists nothing but substances and their affectations.” In other words nothing is but that which exists within substance. To Spinoza all these parts (substance, attributes and modes) are separate only in their accessibility by the intellect. There is no separation of levels or realms for Spinoza, but a constant existence of substance or God, attributes, and modes simultaneously, inherently and infinitely.

Jacob Glover

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Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)

  1. See Mappa Mundi: The Structure of Western Thought
Feb 062010
 

Montaigne

Jacob Glover1Jacob Glover/

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In the essay “On Experience” Michel de Montaigne writes, “I study myself more than any other subject. That is my metaphysics[1]; that is my physics.”  At first glance this statement seems generally narcissistic, even flamboyantly so. Essentially, Montaigne disregards the entire study of philosophy up until his own time and replaces it with his own idea of philosophy. He uses the word “me” to both express the idea of ownership of the philosophy but also to emphasize his philosophy is based on examination of the self. It is obvious that Montaigne studied many others, in addition to himself, and clearly understood their importance because he quotes them throughout the essay. Montaigne’s words, therefore, are not narcissistic: he is not saying he is self-obsessed. Rather Montaigne is trying to emphasize the human, not as a thinking animal, nor as a philosopher, but as someone who, while thinking and reasoning also lives in and is affected by the world. A human who, to borrow a term from Montaigne, “shits.” I will argue, in other words, that what Montaigne emphasizes is that humans are a composite and it is our full composition that makes us human; to deny our sensuousness is to deny our humanity, but at the same time to deny our rationality is also to deny our humanity. Montaigne’s essay is about how these two halves of the human must be used in conjunction to gain knowledge, understanding, or truth.

Montaigne begins the essay with a line borrowed from Aristotle’s Metaphysics: “No desire is more natural than the desire for knowledge.” The quote announces that the essay is going to be about the acquisition of knowledge. It is as if Montaigne is pointing out that he is doing the same thing Aristotle tried to; starting from the same basic platform of thought, how to gain knowledge and understanding, and writing about it in a new way. The interesting thing about Montaigne opening “On Experience” with a quote by an ancient is that it seems to both mimic the ancients and to name the people who will be the opponents in the essay. The ancients believed that the pathway to knowledge was in the mind alone, and that is what Montaigne would like to refute. In the body of his essay he discusses by way of implicative and digressive examples the importance of a composite human (both thinking and experiencing). First he points out failings in reason and then points out failings in experience. Montaigne comes to the conclusion that the only way to acquire knowledge, truth or understanding lies within the composite human — a thinking, and sensuous being.

First Montaigne discusses the failures of reason or contemplative thinking-a thing implied to be purely of the mind, and to have direct connection to the senses. What’s crucially different about Montaigne’s thinking, and what distinguishes him from the ancients, is that first reason is not perfect and second that senses can help to make up for reason’s imperfections. Montaigne writes, “We assay all the means that can lead us to [knowledge]. When reason fails us we make use of experience.” These lines can be read on two levels. On one level, they suggest that humans will naturally try to contemplate things first to gain knowledge. But on a second level, the line seems to claim that “we”, meaning epistemological theorists, have tried everything possible to find knowledge and now it seems that just thinking about forms or God is not enough: “we” now need to examine our own experiences. Montaigne’s gives examples of reason failing during his discussion on laws. He declares that “the most desirable laws are those which are fewest, simplest and most general.”  This line describes a desire to reduce the number of laws, in order to find a more general set. The law makers “have so weighed down every syllable and every species of conjunction that they end up entangled and bogged down in an infinitude of grammatical functions and tiny sub-clauses which defy all rule and order and any definite interpretation.” Montaigne thinks that laws are a demonstrative example of reason failing because the amount, complexity, and particularization are all due to an over thinking by the law makers. To Montaigne the laws are a downfall of reason because they move away from a general interpretation of, in this case, justice to multiple interpretations. And “you can feel from experience that so many interpretations dissipate the truth and break it up.” This quote is crucial to Montaigne’s argument because he is pointing out that where reason fails experience points to the mistake. So to Montaigne laws are best made by someone who uses reason to create the law but experience to measure its applicability. And that is to say that a composite human is best suited for making laws, understanding justice, or more generally, grasping the truth.

Montaigne’s emphasis on a new composite human thinking process is, it seems, developed from the skeptical viewpoint that “reason has so many forms that we do not know which to resort to: [and] experience has no fewer.”  In other words, there are so many ways to experience that “induction which we wish to draw from the likeness between events is unsure since they all show unlikeness.” And that is to say that in any similarity we can find between two forms of experience, any “likeness”, there is inherently difference because according to Montaigne “Nature has bound herself to make nothing “other” which is not unlike.” In other words nothing can be a separate thing and be completely identical to another thing. This pervasive difference makes experience an inherently faulty way of examining the world. As an example of experience failing Montaigne writes, “Scientific investigations and inquiries serve merely to feed our curiosity. They have nothing to do with knowledge so sublime.” Here where experience, in this case scientific observation, fails to gather the deepest truth; reason can provide support. The crucial idea to understand is that to Montaigne truth cannot be grasped by experience alone. Experience needs to be filtered by the mind in order for it to elucidate any truths or knowledge. This filtering process is what a composite human, both a thinking and sensing, would intuitively do, and which is what Montaigne believes is the way to truth, knowledge or understanding.

Montaigne concludes “On Experience” with a description of himself. The point of this section is to demonstrate the human as a composite. What Montaigne does here is take something he calls his metaphysics, thereby comparing it with The Metaphysics, and then writes about his “mortal fear of smells.” Montaigne wants to show the examination of the self can be a philosophical act. That is to say that experience can be a philosophical act. And this emphasis on self-examination is another example of Montaigne’s argument to find certainty within a world saturated with difference. Montaigne brings together the two halves of the composite human with the sentence “things are sensed through the understanding [and] understood through the senses.” In other words the halves are dependent upon the other to function. For someone to sense something he needs to know they are sensing it; for someone to understand something it must pass first through the senses. To Montaigne the human is body and mind and for a human to have understanding, or know truth he must use both parts of his duality.

To Montaigne difference and uncertainty pervade the world and make it impossible to glean any knowledge through the application of either reason or experience alone. But, as I have argued, these two tools used in conjunction are the key to understanding the world and gathering any truth. Montaigne writes, “All things are connected by some similarity; yet every example limps and any correspondence which we draw from experience is feeble and imperfect; we can nevertheless find some corner or other by which to link our comparisons.” That is to say that there are indeed similarities or certainties in the world, but we cannot purely sense them nor purely contemplate upon them. To Montaigne we can examine ourselves and therefore our sensual experience with, and along side of, our reason to find that subtle certainty and similarity in the very difference that subsists throughout the world. Montaigne finds a most basic certainty in the embrace of our composite selves as a necessity to glean knowledge, truth or understanding.

— Jacob Glover

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Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)

  1. See Mappa Mundi: The Structure of Western Thought
Jan 142010
 

So Jacob read Madame de Lafayette’s novel The Princess of Cleves yesterday and noted how it clearly influenced Madame Bovary (a sort of instruction-book idealized version of love set against the real thing). Then his lecturer this morning mentioned that a precursor of  The Princess of Cleves was Marguerite de Navarre’s 16th century short story collection Heptameron which contains, coincidentally, the first account of how a young French woman was marooned on an island in the Gulf of St. Lawrence–which is, yes, the story on which my novel Elle is based. A sample title from the Heptameron: “The wife of a saddler of Amboise is saved on her deathbed through a fit of anger at seeing her husband fondle a servant-maid.”

I will stop mentioning Jake (well, probably not). It’s just that he’s reading more than I am (myself I am grinding slowly through Theodor Adorno’s essay “Cultural Criticism and Society”) and we have these fascinating conversations that get my brain going. This was a surprising little loop of a conversation.

dg

Jan 132010
 

My son Jacob is writing an essay on Montaigne’s “Of Experience” and so I was skimming that and then skimming some secondary sources–all the reading I could manage today. In graduate school I wrote an essay on “On Cannibals” and that had an echo later on in my interest in natives that came out in The Life and Times of Captain N and Elle. Montaigne is such a character in his essays, weaving the abstract and the personal, and by “personal” I mean really personal. In “Of Experience” he goes on about his bowel habits. And he says, in my translation, “Kings and philosophers go to stool, and ladies too” which in Jacob’s translation comes out as “and women shit.”

dg