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At Home in Exile - Czesław Miłosz

As his own death approached, Czesław Miłosz wrote in moving tribute to his then long-deceased uncle Oskar:

The biography of this man is, in my opinion, as important
As the lives of saints and prophets are,
For it goes well beyond mere literary interest.
“Czeladnik” (“An Apprentice”)

In the poem, Miłosz is referencing Oskar’s mysticism as something that was both foundational and transcendent to his uncle’s writing. But seen in another light, Miłosz could just as well have been describing his own work, in which art was nearly always the servant of life and a way of cultivating the courage to stare directly into “the face of great subjects”, as Seamus Heaney phrased it. In one of the many paradoxes associated with Czesław Miłosz, this foregrounding of the “great subjects” never diminishes his poetic achievements, but enriches and nourishes them by keeping within the tight orbit of a shared reality.

Miłosz notoriously bore witness to the most cataclysmic events of twentieth century Europe. It …

Arthur Schopenhauer: the first European Buddhist

With its stunning advances in science and technology, the nineteenth century was a century of optimism. Hegel’s presentation of the history of the West as a Bildungsroman, a story of the ever-increasing realization of “reason” in human affairs, captured the spirit of the times. Schopenhauer, however – the only major philosopher to declare himself a pessimist – regarded Hegel’s story as a heartless fiction. Progress, he held, is a delusion: life was, is, and always will be, suffering: “the ceaseless efforts to banish suffering achieve nothing but a change in its form”. Far, then, from being the creation of a benevolent God, or of his surrogate, Hegelian “reason”, the world is something that “ought not to exist”.

Born in Danzig (Gdansk) in 1788, Arthur Schopenhauer was brought up in Hamburg, the son of a cosmopolitan businessman and a literary mother. Independently wealthy, he never held a paid academic post, and had indeed nothing but scorn for those who live “from rather than for philo…

Hampering Threadlike Pressure: A New Biography of George Eliot

“GREAT LITERATURE has always been the […] Forgiveness of Sin,” W.B. Yeats wrote in 1901, “and when we find it becoming the Accusation of Sin, as in George Eliot […] literature has begun to change into something else.” Eliot’s problem, as Yeats recognized, lay in finding a balance between her conflicting instincts: to sympathize with people and to judge them. Eliot felt it her duty to cultivate “direct fellow-feeling” and be generous toward the little people, even though, as she well knew, they had often failed to be generous to her.

The Eliot problem helps to explain why some 15 biographies of her have appeared over the past 30 years or so. (There doesn’t seem to be any Dickens problem or Trollope problem that requires such obsessive attention.) Philip Davis’s The Transferred Life of George Eliot is the latest entry in this series, and it is a brief for the greatness of George Eliot as a thinker, a novelist, and a person, and thus a justification of literature as she chose to write it.…

Jean-Jacques Rousseau and enforced freedom

Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712–78) is, perhaps more than any other philosopher, a contradictory figure. He is a predecessor of liberalism and a theorist of fascism; a champion of the Enlightenment and its most severe critic; a Classicist critic of Romanticism and vice versa; and an advocate of humane, child-centred education, despite giving up his own five children to an orphanage and almost certain death. His reputation these days rests primarily on his political philosophy (in particular, On the Social Contract), his autobiography (The Confessions), and a part novel, part philosophical treatise, and part syllabus for progressive education (Émile).

Rousseau is very quotable – never more so than at the beginning of Book One, Chapter One of the Social Contract: “Man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains”. This appears to capture the view with which he is most famously associated: that man is born naturally good only to be corrupted by society. Another quotable opening sentence, this…

Fairytales Punish the Curious - Angela Carter

In the spring of 1977, Angela Carter met the Canadian writer Elizabeth Smart in London at the launch of Bananas, a new literary magazine. A prolific writer at the age of 37, Carter was already the author of eight novels, two collections of poetry, and one collection of short stories—“profane pieces,” as the book’s subtitle proclaimed. Her story in the issue, titled “The Company of Wolves,” was a feminist retelling of “Red Riding Hood,” in which the adolescent girl, unafraid of her foe, ends up sleeping sweetly “between the paws of the tender wolf.” Smart’s 1945 novella By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept, the story of a disconsolate, abandoned woman, was about to be reissued by Virago press, where Carter was on the editorial board.

Carter admired Smart’s “exquisite prose,” but she was scornful of the book’s wrenching, self-punishing descriptions of erotic love. (A representative line: “But what except morphine can weave bearable nets around the tigershark that tears my mind to…

Jane Austen, on the money

“Anyone”, wrote Virginia Woolf in A Room of One’s Own, though of course she didn’t mean “anyone” but “me”, “who has the temerity to write about Jane Austen is aware of [two] facts: first, that of all great writers she is the most difficult to catch in the act of greatness; second, that there are twenty-five elderly gentlemen living in the neighbourhood of London who resent any slight upon her genius as if it were an insult to the chastity of their aunts.”

Times have certainly changed: chaste aunts these days are about as rare as a Bob’s your uncle and the twenty-five elderly gentlemen living in the neighbourhood of London who might resent you are now millions worldwide who will happily abuse you on Twitter. We’re all Janeites now: and if you’re not, look out. In a world – to use a phrase that might usefully serve as the introductory voice-over to the trailer for any recent Austen adaptation/biopic/retelling – in which the mute are always inglorious and fame is the only guarantee of val…

The Mysterious Music of Georg Trakl

Stanley Cavell liked to talk about the two myths of reading subscribed to by Western philosophers. “According to one myth the philosopher must have read virtually everything, at least the whole of Western philosophy, broadly conceived,” he wrote in his memoir, Little Did I Know (2010). The other myth specified that philosophers, pure thinkers that they are, should read virtually nothing. “Heidegger is an obvious exemplar of the former myth,” Cavell observed, “Wittgenstein of the latter.”

And yet, both philosophers, the voracious reader and the seemingly reluctant one, found themselves, at pivotal moments in their careers, turning to the arresting work of the early twentieth-century Austrian poet Georg Trakl (1887–1914). Not surprisingly, Wittgenstein and Heidegger responded to Trakl’s striking and still mysterious poems in sharply divergent—one might almost say opposite—ways. James Reidel’s recently completed three-volume translation of Trakl’s major work, timed to coincide with the ce…

Robinson Crusoe - Essay by Virginia Woolf

There are many ways of approaching this classical volume; but which shall we choose? Shall we begin by saying that, since Sidney died at Zutphen leaving the Arcadia unfinished, great changes had come over English life, and the novel had chosen, or had been forced to choose, its direction? A middle class had come into existence, able to read and anxious to read not only about the loves of princes and princesses, but about themselves and the details of their humdrum lives. Stretched upon a thousand pens, prose had accommodated itself to the demand; it had fitted itself to express the facts of life rather than the poetry. That is certainly one way of approaching Robinson Crusoe–through the development of the novel; but another immediately suggests itself–through the life of the author. Here too, in the heavenly pastures of biography, we may spend many more hours than are needed to read the book itself from cover to cover. The date of Defoe’s birth, to begin with, is doubtful–was it 1660 …