Thursday, 26 July 2012

Pembroke College Library, Cambridge

Tuesday, 24 July 2012

Leszek Kolakowski and the anatomy of totalitarianism


It’s possible that I shall make an ass of myself. But in that case one can always get out of it with a little dialectic. I have, of course, so worded my proposition as to be right either way.
—Marx to Engels, 1857 

What socialism implies above all is keeping account ofeverything.
—V. I. Lenin, 1917 

Le coeur a ses raisons que la raison ne connaît point.
—Pascal, Pensées 

Born in Radom, in eastern Poland, in 1927, the philosopher Leszek Kolakowski is closing in on his eightieth year. He has come a long way. He was a boy of twelve when the Nazis stormed into Poland. “I remember the destruction of the Warsaw Ghetto,” he writes in “Genocide and Ideology” (1978),“which I saw from outside; I lived among Poles who were active in helping Jews and who risked their lives every day trying to save those few who could be saved from the inferno.” In 1945, the war over, he joined the Communist Party: the Communists were anti-fascist, weren’t they? (Were they?) He studied and then taught philosophy in Warsaw, where he also edited a scholarly journal.

Maturity brought forth doubts; doubts brought forth criticism; criticism was a dangerous commodity in Soviet-controlled Poland. In 1954, Kolakowski was accused of “straying from Marxist-Leninist ideology.” (True, all too true.) In 1966, after delivering a speech commemorating the tenth anniversary of the “October thaw,” he was expelled from the Party with all the usual ceremony. The state-controlled press launched a series of attacks on the renegade. He was removed from his university chair for “forming the views of the youth in a manner contrary to the official tendency of the country.” In 1968, he went into exile. His works were promptly enrolled in the Index of forbidden authors and, until 1981, could be neither referred to nor cited officially. After leaving Poland, Kolakowski taught at several Western universities, including McGill, Yale, the University of Chicago (for more than a decade he was part of the Committee on Social Thought), and Oxford, where he now lives in semi-retirement. Throughout the 1980s, he aided and abetted the Solidarity movement, which was instrumental in ridding Poland of its Communist oppressors.

Jacques Barzun once said of Walter Bagehot that he was “‘well-known’ without being known well.” Something similar can be said of Kolakowski. No academic is more distinguished than Leszek Kolakowski. He boasts a string of glittering honors and prizes that includes—I confine myself to a few A-list American awards—a MacArthur Fellowship (the so-called “genius” award, justified for once), the Jefferson Award, and, in 2003, the first Kluge Prize for “lifetime achievement in the humanities,” a commendation that carries a purse of $1 million.

Kolakowski’s bibliography is equally long and distinguished. It includes plays, moral and theological tales, and a long shelf of books and articles on the Church Fathers, on Pascal, on Henri Bergson, on English empiricism and the tradition of positivism, on the fate of religion in a secular age and the prospects of secularism in the hands of an animal as obstinately given to religious preoccupationas homo sapiens sapiens. Above all, perhaps, Kolakowski is known as a keen anatomist of totalitarianism. His patient investigations into the origins and the murderous legacy of Marxism—culminating in his magnum opus, Main Currents of Marxism (English translation, 1978)—occupy pride of place in the precious library of philosophical and political disenchantment.

More here.

Sunday, 22 July 2012

"Soul at the White Heat": The Romance of Emily Dickinson's Poetry


by Joyce Carol Oates


Emily Dickinson is the most paradoxical of poets: the very poet of paradox. By way of voluminous biographical material, not to mention the extraordinary intimacy of her poetry, it would seem that we know everything about her: yet the common experience of reading her work, particularly if the poems are read sequentially, is that we come away seeming to know nothing. We would recognize her inimitable voice anywhere—in the "prose" of her letters no less than in her poetry—yet it is a voice of the most deliberate, the most teasing anonymity. "I'm Nobody!" is a proclamation to be interpreted in the most literal of ways. Like no other poet before her and like very few after her—Rilke comes most readily to mind, and, perhaps, Yeats and Lawrence— Dickinson exposes her heart's most subtle secrets; she confesses the very sentiments that, in society, would have embarrassed her dog (to paraphrase a remark of Dickinson's to Thomas Wentworth Higginson, explaining her aversion for the company of most people, whose prattle of "Hallowed things" offended her). Yet who is this "I" at the center of experience? In her astonishing body of 1,775 poems Dickinson records what is surely one of the most meticulous examinations of the phenomenon of human "consciousness" ever undertaken. The poet's persona—the tantalizing "I"—seems, in nearly every poem, to be addressing us directly with perceptions that are ours as well as hers. (Or his: these "Representatives of the Verse," though speaking in Dickinson's voice, are not restricted to the female gender.) The poems' refusal to be rhetorical, their daunting intimacy, suggests the self-evident in the way that certain Zen koans and riddles suggest the self-evident while being indecipherable. But what is challenged is, perhaps, "meaning" itself:
Wonder—is not precisely Knowing
And not precisely Knowing not —
A beautiful but bleak condition
He has not lived who has not felt —

Suspense — is his maturer Sister —
Whether Adult Delight is Pain
Or of itself a new misgiving —
This is the Gnat that mangles men
(1331, ca. 1874)
In this wonder there is a tone of the purest anonymity, as if the poet, speaking out of her "beautiful but bleak condition," were speaking of our condition as well. Dickinson's idiom has the startling ring of contemporaneity, like much of Shakespeare's; she speaks from the interior of a life as we might imagine ourselves speaking, gifted with genius's audacity and shorn of the merely local and time-bound. If anonymity is the soul's essential voice—its seductive, mesmerizing, fatal voice—then Emily Dickinson is our poet of the soul: our most endlessly fascinating American poet. As Whitman so powerfully addresses the exterior of American life, so Dickinson addresses—or has she helped create?—its unknowable interior.

No one who has read even a few of Dickinson's extraordinary poems can fail to sense the heroic nature of this poet's quest. It is riddlesome, obsessive, haunting, very often frustrating (to the poet no less than to the reader), but above all heroic; a romance of epic proportions. For the "poetic enterprise" is nothing less than the attempt to realize the soul. And the attempt to realize the soul (in its muteness, its perfection) is nothing less than the attempt to create a poetry of transcendence—the kind that outlives its human habitation and its name.
Dare you see a Soul at the White Heat?
Then crouch within the door —
Red — is the Fire's common tint —
But when the vivid Ore
Has vanquished Flame's conditions,
It quivers from the Forge
Without a color, but the light
Of unanointed Blaze.
Least Village has its Blacksmith
Whose Anvil's even ring
Stands symbol for the finger Forge
That soundless tags — within —
Refining these impatient Ores
With Hammer, and with Blaze
Until the Designated Light Repudiate the Forge —
(365, ca. 1862)
Only the soul "at the white heat" achieves the light of "unanointed Blaze"—colorless, soundless, transcendent. This is the triumph of art as well as the triumph of personality, but it is not readily achieved.

Very often the "self" is set in opposition to the soul. The personality is mysteriously split, warring: "Of Consciousness, her awful Mate/ The Soul cannot be rid —" And: "Me from Myself — to banish —/ Had I Art —" A successful work of art is a consequence of the integration of conscious and unconscious elements; a balance of what is known and not quite known held in an exquisite tension. Art is tension, and poetry of the kind Emily Dickinson wrote is an art of strain, of nerves strung brilliantly tight. It is compact, dense, coiled in upon itself very nearly to the point of pain: like one of those stellar bodies whose gravity is so condensed it is on the point of disappearing altogether. How tight, how violent, this syntax!—making the reader's heart beat quickly, at times, in sympathy with the poet's heart. By way of Dickinson's radically experimental verse—and, not least, her employment of dashes as punctuation—the drama of the split self is made palpable. One is not merely told of it, one is made to experience it.

Anything less demanding would not be poetry, but prose the kind of prose written by other people. Though Dickinson was an assured writer of prose herself, "prose" for her assumes a pejorative tone: see the famously rebellious poem in which the predicament of the female (artist? or simply "female"?) is dramatized—
They shut me up in Prose —
As when a little Girl
They put me in the Closet —
Because they liked me "still" —

Still! Could themself have peeped —
And seen my Brain — go round—
They might as wise have lodged a Bird
For Treason — in the Pound —

Himself has but to will
And easy as a Star
Abolish his Captivity —
And laugh — No more have I —
(613, ca. 1862)
Prose it might be speculated—is discourse; poetry ellipsis. Prose is spoken aloud; poetry overheard. The one is presumably articulate and social, a shared language, the voice of "communication"; the other is private, allusive, teasing, sly, idiosyncratic as the spider's delicate web, a kind of witchcraft unfathomable to ordinary minds. Poetry, paraphrased, is something other than poetry, while prose is paraphrase. Consequently the difficulty of much of Dickinson's poetry, its necessary strategies, for the act of writing is invariably an act of rebellion, a way of (secretly, subversively) "abolishing" captivity:
Tell all the Truth but tell it slant —
Success in Circuit lies
Too bright for our infirm Delight
The Truth's superb surprise
As Lightning to the Children eased
With expression kind
The Truth must dazzle gradually
Or every man be blind—
(1129, ca. 1868)
Surely there is a witty irony behind the notion that lightning can be domesticated by way of "kind explanations" told to children; that the dazzle of Truth might be gradual and not blinding. The "superb surprise" of which the poet speaks is too much for mankind to bear head-on—like the Medusa it can be glimpsed only indirectly, through the subtly distorting mirror of art.

Elsewhere, in a later poem, the poet suggests a radical distinction between two species of consciousness. Two species of human being?—
Best Witchcraft is Geometry
To the magician's mind —
His ordinary acts are feats
To thinking of mankind.
(1158, ca. 1870) ...

Saturday, 21 July 2012

Lord Byron: Maid of Athens, ere we part



Maid of Athens, ere we part,
Give, oh, give back my heart!
Or, since that has left my breast,
Keep it now, and take the rest!
Hear my vow before I go,
Ζωή μου, σᾶς ἀγαπῶ.

By those tresses unconfined,
Wooed by each Aegean wind;
By those lids whose jetty fringe
Kiss thy soft cheeks' blooming tinge;
By those wild eyes like the roe,
Ζωή μου, σᾶς ἀγαπῶ.

By that lip I long to taste;
By that zone-encircled waist;
By all the token-flowers that tell
What words can never speak so well;
By love's alternate joy and woe,
Ζωή μου, σᾶς ἀγαπῶ.

Maid of Athens! I am gone:
Think of me, sweet! when alone.
Though I fly to Istambol,
Athens holds my heart and soul:
Can I cease to love thee?
No! Ζωή μου, σᾶς ἀγαπῶ.

Monday, 16 July 2012

Virginia Woolf: How Should One Read a Book?

In the first place, I want to emphasise the note of interrogation at the end of my title. Even if I could answer the question for myself, the answer would apply only to me and not to you. The only advice, indeed, that one person can give another about reading is to take no advice, to follow your own instincts, to use your own reason, to come to your own conclusions. If this is agreed between us, then I feel at liberty to put forward a few ideas and suggestions because you will not allow them to fetter that independence which is the most important quality that a reader can possess. After all, what laws can be laid down about books? The battle of Waterloo was certainly fought on a certain day; but is Hamlet a better play than Lear? Nobody can say. Each must decide that question for himself. To admit authorities, however heavily furred and gowned, into our libraries and let them tell us how to read, what to read, what value to place upon what we read, is to destroy the spirit of freedom which is the breath of those sanctuaries. Everywhere else we may be bound by laws and conventions — there we have none.

But to enjoy freedom, if the platitude is pardonable, we have of course to control ourselves. We must not squander our powers, helplessly and ignorantly, squirting half the house in order to water a single rose-bush; we must train them, exactly and powerfully, here on the very spot. This, it may be, is one of the first difficulties that faces us in a library. What is “the very spot”? There may well seem to be nothing but a conglomeration and huddle of confusion. Poems and novels, histories and memoirs, dictionaries and blue-books; books written in all languages by men and women of all tempers, races, and ages jostle each other on the shelf. And outside the donkey brays, the women gossip at the pump, the colts gallop across the fields. Where are we to begin? How are we to bring order into this multitudinous chaos and so get the deepest and widest pleasure from what we read?

It is simple enough to say that since books have classes — fiction, biography, poetry — we should separate them and take from each what it is right that each should give us. Yet few people ask from books what books can give us. Most commonly we come to books with blurred and divided minds, asking of fiction that it shall be true, of poetry that it shall be false, of biography that it shall be flattering, of history that it shall enforce our own prejudices. If we could banish all such preconceptions when we read, that would be an admirable beginning. Do not dictate to your author; try to become him. Be his fellow-worker and accomplice. If you hang back, and reserve and criticise at first, you are preventing yourself from getting the fullest possible value from what you read. But if you open your mind as widely as possible, then signs and hints of almost imperceptible fineness, from the twist and turn of the first sentences, will bring you into the presence of a human being unlike any other. Steep yourself in this, acquaint yourself with this, and soon you will find that your author is giving you, or attempting to give you, something far more definite. The thirty-two chapters of a novel — if we consider how to read a novel first — are an attempt to make something as formed and controlled as a building: but words are more impalpable than bricks; reading is a longer and more complicated process than seeing. Perhaps the quickest way to understand the elements of what a novelist is doing is not to read, but to write; to make your own experiment with the dangers and difficulties of words. Recall, then, some event that has left a distinct impression on you — how at the corner of the street, perhaps, you passed two people talking. A tree shook; an electric light danced; the tone of the talk was comic, but also tragic; a whole vision, an entire conception, seemed contained in that moment. But when you attempt to reconstruct it in words, you will find that it breaks into a thousand conflicting impressions. Some must be subdued; others emphasised; in the process you will lose, probably, all grasp upon the emotion itself. Then turn from your blurred and littered pages to the opening pages of some great novelist — Defoe, Jane Austen, Hardy. Now you will be better able to appreciate their mastery. It is not merely that we are in the presence of a different person — Defoe, Jane Austen, or Thomas Hardy — but that we are living in a different world. Here, in Robinson Crusoe, we are trudging a plain high road; one thing happens after another; the fact and the order of the fact is enough. But if the open air and adventure mean everything to Defoe they mean nothing to Jane Austen. Hers is the drawing-room, and people talking, and by the many mirrors of their talk revealing their characters. And if, when we have accustomed ourselves to the drawing-room and its reflections, we turn to Hardy, we are once more spun round. The moors are round us and the stars are above our heads. The other side of the mind is now exposed — the dark side that comes uppermost in solitude, not the light side that shows in company. Our relations are not towards people, but towards Nature and destiny. Yet different as these worlds are, each is consistent with itself. The maker of each is careful to observe the laws of his own perspective, and however great a strain they may put upon us they will never confuse us, as lesser writers so frequently do, by introducing two different kinds of reality into the same book. Thus to go from one great novelist to another — from Jane Austen to Hardy, from Peacock to Trollope, from Scott to Meredith — is to be wrenched and uprooted; to be thrown this way and then that. To read a novel is a difficult and complex art. You must be capable not only of great fineness of perception, but of great boldness of imagination if you are going to make use of all that the novelist — the great artist — gives you.

But a glance at the heterogeneous company on the shelf will show you that writers are very seldom “great artists”; far more often a book makes no claim to be a work of art at all. These biographies and autobiographies, for example, lives of great men, of men long dead and forgotten, that stand cheek by jowl with the novels and poems, are we to refuse to read them because they are not “art”? Or shall we read them, but read them in a different way, with a different aim? Shall we read them in the first place to satisfy that curiosity which possesses us sometimes when in the evening we linger in front of a house where the lights are lit and the blinds not yet drawn, and each floor of the house shows us a different section of human life in being? Then we are consumed with curiosity about the lives of these people — the servants gossiping, the gentlemen dining, the girl dressing for a party, the old woman at the window with her knitting. Who are they, what are they, what are their names, their occupations, their thoughts, and adventures?

Biographies and memoirs answer such questions, light up innumerable such houses; they show us people going about their daily affairs, toiling, failing, succeeding, eating, hating, loving, until they die. And sometimes as we watch, the house fades and the iron railings vanish and we are out at sea; we are hunting, sailing, fighting; we are among savages and soldiers; we are taking part in great campaigns. Or if we like to stay here in England, in London, still the scene changes; the street narrows; the house becomes small, cramped, diamond-paned, and malodorous. We see a poet, Donne, driven from such a house because the walls were so thin that when the children cried their voices cut through them. We can follow him, through the paths that lie in the pages of books, to Twickenham; to Lady Bedford’s Park, a famous meeting-ground for nobles and poets; and then turn our steps to Wilton, the great house under the downs, and hear Sidney read the Arcadia to his sister; and ramble among the very marshes and see the very herons that figure in that famous romance; and then again travel north with that other Lady Pembroke, Anne Clifford, to her wild moors, or plunge into the city and control our merriment at the sight of Gabriel Harvey in his black velvet suit arguing about poetry with Spenser. Nothing is more fascinating than to grope and stumble in the alternate darkness and splendour of Elizabethan London. But there is no staying there. The Temples and the Swifts, the Harleys and the St. Johns beckon us on; hour upon hour can be spent disentangling their quarrels and deciphering their characters; and when we tire of them we can stroll on, past a lady in black wearing diamonds, to Samuel Johnson and Goldsmith and Garrick; or cross the channel, if we like, and meet Voltaire and Diderot, Madame du Deffand; and so back to England and Twickenham — how certain places repeat themselves and certain names! — where Lady Bedford had her Park once and Pope lived later, to Walpole’s home at Strawberry Hill. But Walpole introduces us to such a swarm of new acquaintances, there are so many houses to visit and bells to ring that we may well hesitate for a moment, on the Miss Berrys’ doorstep, for example, when behold, up comes Thackeray; he is the friend of the woman whom Walpole loved; so that merely by going from friend to friend, from garden to garden, from house to house, we have passed from one end of English literature to another and wake to find ourselves here again in the present, if we can so differentiate this moment from all that have gone before. This, then, is one of the ways in which we can read these lives and letters; we can make them light up the many windows of the past; we can watch the famous dead in their familiar habits and fancy sometimes that we are very close and can surprise their secrets, and sometimes we may pull out a play or a poem that they have written and see whether it reads differently in the presence of the author. But this again rouses other questions. How far, we must ask ourselves, is a book influenced by its writer’s life — how far is it safe to let the man interpret the writer? How far shall we resist or give way to the sympathies and antipathies that the man himself rouses in us — so sensitive are words, so receptive of the character of the author? These are questions that press upon us when we read lives and letters, and we must answer them for ourselves, for nothing can be more fatal than to be guided by the preferences of others in a matter so personal.

More here.