Posts Tagged ‘Friedrich Nietzsche’

Morgan Meis’s “The Drunken Silenus” and the way the mind works – and sometimes doesn’t

Monday, July 20th, 2020
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To understand Silenus, Rubens first had to make a moral of him.

A review of Morgan Meis‘s The Drunken Silenus appeared in Art in America, and it’s so much fun – lively and insulting and laudatory at once (in the spirit of the book) – that I thought it would be a great way to wind up a very long Monday. Here’s how Jackson Arn’s piece ends, by comparing Morgan Meis with Nietzsche: 

If there’s a progenitor for this kind of writing, it’s Nietzsche. This is a strange thing to point out, since Meis spends much of The Drunken Silenus insulting Nietzsche. He says The Birth of Tragedy was the only totally worthwhile book Nietzsche ever wrote. He says Nietzsche was full of shit. Mostly, he says Nietzsche was crazy. He calls Nietzsche crazy, or insane, or stark-raving mad at least a dozen times in the book, until it becomes a kind of gangster nickname, like Fat Tony or One-Ball Riley, at once a put-down and a term of endearment.

Name-calling, of course, was a Nietzsche trademark, and Meis is never more Nietzschean than when he’s slinging mud at a dead man. He has Nietzsche’s skepticism of progress, on both a historical and an expository level, as well as Nietzsche’s gift for making arguments in brief, brilliant flashes. His ideal form is the compressed, Nietzschean aphorism. Some of these will change your perception of Rubens so utterly that they are likely to seem perfectly obvious in hindsight, like Meis’s observation that in order to understand Silenus, Rubens first had to make a mortal out of him. Other aphorisms work the opposite way, flirting with obviousness from the outset—for instance, “A terrible father can produce a great son or daughter. A great father will produce terrible offspring just as often as not.” To borrow from the comedian John Mulaney, someone else who tells stories in spirals, “Well . . . yeah, that’s how all of life works.”

He specialized in name-calling.

Loose, strange, essayistic books live or die on a single question: are their various parts connected because they actually have something to say to each other, or because the author has forced them together? The clutter of ideas and subjects doesn’t necessarily have to cohere into a thesis, but at some point it should gain enough momentum to turn of its own accord, suggesting something more than what the author uses it to show. Meis achieves this tricky feat, and does so in large part because his book is really about, per Mulaney, how all of life works.

How humiliating, to write that last sentence—how pretentious, how arrogant! I can’t even imagine writing a whole book like The Drunken Silenus, but I’m glad Meis did. He’s willing to risk redundancy and pretentiousness, because he knows he has something worth risking them for. For all his casual displays of brilliance, his goal isn’t to introduce readers to stunning new ideas but to remind them of a depressing old idea: existence is long, painful, and pointless, and while art can do a lot to lessen the load, it can’t carry all of it. An unsexy point, which he makes very sexily.

Read the whole thing here. It’s fun.

Greek tragedy is a nasty, bawdy business

Thursday, June 4th, 2020
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The paunchy Silenus, “part hostage, part acolyte” of Dionysus, in Rubens’s painting

Peter Paul Rubens had a minor obsession with Silenus, and plucked him from a bit player in Titian’s painting and made him a sordid star in his own right. Now Morgan Meis (we’ve written about him here and here) has just published The Drunken Silenus: On Gods, Goats, and the Cracks in Reality with Slant Books. The book’s genesis: Morgan, a contributor to The New Yorker, found himself living in Antwerp, Rubens’s town. He had absolutely no interest in him at all. “I didn’t even care about him enough to dislike him. My next thought was, ‘I’ll write a book about Rubens.'” From there he spirals into a meditation on Silenus (“part hostage, part acolyte” of Dionysus), Nietzsche, God, life and death.

An excerpt from Chapter 5:

Nietzsche did something very simple when he wrote The Birth of Tragedy. He asked himself a clear question, “What is the Dionysian?” and then he attempted to answer that question. His answer was that the Dionysian is a feeling of ecstatic oneness with the surrounding universe. That is why it is drunken and orgiastic. It is a losing of oneself. With Dionysus, you merge with the one pure life force. This is ecstasy. It is also a source of profound depression when you come back. You realize, after an orgiastic ecstasy, that your particular individuality does not matter. You would rather be erased in the complete cosmic overabundance. That’s what happened with Silenus. He had a taste of this drunken dissolution in the One. It made him stop caring. It made him say to King Midas that the best thing for any man is not to have been born at all. The second best thing would be to die quickly. Never living at at all means never facing the profound disappointment of being. It means never experiencing the pain of being an individual when all that matters is the whole.

Titian gave Silenus a bit part (at left, with ass)

The Greeks gave an entire art form to that thought, to that feeling of root despair that comes along with the embrace of real life. That’s the way Nietzsche saw it. Tragedy – the particular form of Greek tragedy – starts with the bleating of the goats and the wild shit going on in the Dionysian forest.

It’s all there in the satyr plays. Jaunty numbers, the satyr plays were like festival entertainment. People would dress up like goats and tell dirty stories and run around the stage making lewd jokes. These festivals go back to the beginning, the harvest, the celebrations around another season of life. The Greek tragedies go back there. The satyr plays were part of the overall entertainment. The Greeks would set up scenarios where everybody was screwing everybody else and the whole lot of them would be very drunk.

There’s no point putting a fine veneer on any of this. It was rough and it was nasty. It all came from the secret rites and the cultic behavior around Dionysus. These were harvest celebrations and they smelled of the earth. If you want to get a sense of what the satyr plays were all about the first thing you should do is take off all your clothes and then go outside into the country somewhere and roll around in the dirt screaming and crying. Then you’ll be getting into the proper mood. Drink a liter of rot-gut whisky, foul stuff, the stuff that comes in plastic containers and has the word “OI” in its brand name. Drink a liter of that while you are rolling around in the dirt and then get a few of your friends to punch you in the face while everyone chants the same phrase, whatever phrase you like, over and over again for about an hour. Then drink some more whisky and piss on yourself. Now you are ready to to fuck the bare earth. Just hump away in the dirt. Try to fuck the actual earth, the core of her.

Now you’re in the mood to understand a satyr play. Now you’re in the mood to hang around with Silenus. Indeed, if you actually go through with this whole plan he may show up. If anything could actually bring Silenus, today, out of his hiding and into the fields of Pennsylvania, or wherever you are going to do this, it would be the above-described behavior. I do believe you’d have a chance at meeting the man/demigod in the flesh, the illustrious and wretched Silenus.

Read more here.

Author Morgan Meis was footloose in Antwerp … this book is what happened.

 

Who is the last man? Peter Sloterdijk on Nietzsche

Tuesday, July 16th, 2019
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Peter Sloterdijk is one of the most controversial thinkers in the world. In many ways, he is the heir of Friedrich Nietzsche, who is sometimes said to have inaugurated the 20th century. A year ago, the Book Haven published a summary of Sloterdijk’s Entitled Opinions conversation with radio host Robert Harrison. The podcast and summary was also posted at the Los Angeles Review of Books here. In December, we published a full transcript in German at Berlin’s Die Welt. You can read it here. Last week, the Los Angeles Review of Books published the full transcript, in English, here

A few excerpts below:

Harrison: I find that when it comes to Nietzsche being a prophet, in some ways he was blind about what would be the most dominant feature of the coming century, though many people consider him the inaugurator of the 20th century. He has almost nothing to say about the dominance of modern technology in the era to come. Okay, you can say that this was a blind spot in his thinking. In Zarathustra, especially in part four, however, he has a prophetic vision that has to do with our own time. He thinks of the last men. Who is the last man? In what way are the parameters of that last man contained within … for example, the consumerist of our own society, who is complacent?

We’re no longer dealing with the petite bourgeoisie or those 19th-century categories. It’s very much the contemporary citizen as a global citizen, a kind of capitalist of consumerism who does not think beyond the creaturely comforts of this day and the next day. There’s something in his thinking that promises to show us a way to transcend this fatality. European civilization after all these centuries and millennia cannot end in the last men. Or will it?

Sloterdijk: Here, in Nietzsche, appears a major problem that will occupy humanity in the centuries to come: the question of how to maintain what I call the vertical tension inside the human being. For everything that has to do with verticality, Nietzsche is the specialist coming from the tradition. He discovered this new type of problem — how to maintain the vertical tension if the higher region has been removed. As if Jacob’s Ladder, over which the angel can march up and down should still stand upright without having the support on the upper level. So there is still height, but no support from above. Everything has to be erected from below. The vertical tension has a rocket-like dynamic, a will to growth, and that can be easily expressed in biological terms. You can go back to Goethe, who said that all life is movement and extension, and from here you get to a less megalomaniac conception of growth.

World’s most controversial thinker? (Photo: Rainer Lück)

Harrison: Well, in fact, in Nietzsche Apostle, you speak about his extraordinary genius as a marketer of his own brand. You don’t merely invent a brand that then takes off in the market. What you do is create the market for the very brand that you’re promoting. And Nietzsche created a market for a brand of … I think it’s related to what you’re talking about, the ladder of having realized that — in the regime of the last man, a regime of egalitarianism — there will always be a drive for distinction. He marketed his philosophy as a promise, as a way to understand a need before it even became apparent to the world itself, that there was going to be a need for distinction in this world.

But you also say, somewhat prophetically, that he was promising losers a formula by which they could be on the side of winners. This was also part of his brand. Can you say something about this? When you speak about verticality, are you speaking about this need for distinction in this particular regime?

Sloterdijk: I think Nietzsche was among the very rare thinkers who had a feeling for the deep connection between moral philosophy and public relations. This can be shown by the subtitle of Zarathustra: Ein Buch für Alle und Keinen — “A Book for All and Nobody.” And I’m convinced that this is Nietzsche’s genius. This subtitle betrays something of his innermost drive. His way of polemics, as Heidegger would put it, was not really polemics. It was teaching, and so it was a kind of “action teaching” — action teaching like Joseph Beuys would call his performances. Nietzsche was a kind of action teacher writing a book for all and nobody, and discovering in so doing the very structure of higher morality.

PR man?

This kind of morality creates a field of behavior that is not applicable to living populations but traces the horizon for new generations to inhabit. This necessarily has to be a challenge, just as Buddhism was before it was brought out as an Indian form of gospel, as a way of salvation, just as the Christian Gospel was a pure challenge to the pagan environment of the former world. And so Nietzsche designs a horizon for those who in the morality markets of the future will distinguish themselves as individuals who show how the path of humanity can be continued. And in that context, you read this most provocative sentence from the introduction, the so-called prologue to Zarathustra: “Man is a rope between the animal and the Superman,” and you decide if you want to be a successful rope-walker or not. And if you are not successful as a rope-walker — you have nevertheless tried it.

That is the meaning of this philosophical pantomime that concludes the prologue of Zarathustra. He sees the rope-walker who has fallen down, and he says, “You made the danger. Out of danger you made your profession. There is nothing to despise in that, and for that reason I am going to bury you with my own hands.” That is Zarathustra’s message. It’s not success that decides everything. It is the will to remain within the movement and to walk on the rope, if you do not want to remain a part of the masses that are looking up and admiring people doing crazy things.

Read the whole thing here.

Dropping acid with Michel Foucault

Tuesday, June 18th, 2019
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What is it like to drop acid with Michel Foucault? Now there’s a whole book to tell you about the renowned French theorist’s rendezvous with LSD in 1975. From Los Angeles Review of Books‘ review of Simeon Wade’s Foucault in California (Heyday). The location, of all places, is Death Valley:

After picking up Foucault at the airport, Wade drives to his house, where the philosopher is treated to Tequila Sunrises and a small bowl of hashish. After a light dinner, [Wade’s friend Michael] Stoneman “sat down at the Yamaha grand and gave us a spirited reading of Scriabin’s Tenth Sonata, a work of pure sorcery.” The evening’s activities break the ice, making the French guest feel at home. After a few hours of slumber, the trio rise at dawn in order to reach the high desert before midday.

Wade, who has not yet mentioned the idea of taking LSD, finally decides to broach the delicate subject during the drive: “[W]e brought a powerful elixir, a kind of philosopher’s stone Michael happened upon. We thought you might enjoy a visionary quest in Death Valley.” Given that Foucault was not fluent in English, it is unclear if he really knew what Wade was talking about. Wade’s account of the events leading up to the trip has the air of a “kiss and tell” memoir, but in this case the act described is not sex with a celebrity but taking psychedelic drugs in an exotic locale. Every moment leading up to the hallucinogenic climax is described in lavish detail.

Author and subject.

When the trio finally reach Death Valley, they hike down to the Artists’ Palette, an alluvial fan at the base of a canyon. The moment of truth occurs when Stoneman produces the LSD and Foucault uncharacteristically freaks out: “Foucault appeared troubled and with grim countenance […] walked away.” Wade is forced to admit that his elaborate plan might be ruined; the last thing he and Stoneman wanted was a bad trip under the hot Death Valley sun. “We both knew that the potion taken under any kind of duress can discompose the unwilling. We certainly would not wish to force anything upon Michel.” When Foucault finally returns, he declares “with quizzical eyes that he wishe[s] to take only half as much, since this is his first experience with a potion so powerful.”

This was the response that Wade had feared the most: although Foucault had described the effects of LSD in one of his essays, he had never actually taken the drug. Wade and Stoneman were surprised because Foucault was a follower of Nietzsche who had always expressed a keen interest in all things Dionysian. Perhaps to save face, the philosopher, after a lengthy bout of indecision, asks Stoneman about the proper way of ingesting it. Much to Wade’s delight, the LSD plot is on again.

Read the whole thing here.

“When Nietzsche Wept” – Irv Yalom’s book is still a fascinating read. The 2007 movie? Not so much.

Monday, March 18th, 2019
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In Vienna ten years ago: Irvin Yalom with Mayor Michael Häupl for “Ein Stadt. Ein Buch.”

The stack of books I mean to read gets taller by the day. One of the volumes that has been there for quite some time is a book by a friend – Irvin Yalom‘s celebrated When Nietzsche Wept. It was the toast of Vienna for its annual Ein Stadt. Ein Buch event a decade ago – and also the subject of the second Book Haven post ever. (I discuss the retrospective on his career as a psychiatrist, Yalom’s Cure, here.) Yet the book itself remains right there, stubbornly atop of one of the precarious ziggurats that surround my desk.

Fun and games with Salomé in 1882: she had rejected proposals from both Rees and Nietzsche.

So, on a cheerless weekend night, imagine my surprise to find out the 1992 book has already been made into a 2007 film, starring Armand Assante and Ben Cross. Let me dissemble no more, gentle reader, I put aside my pressing deadlines to watch it online – and that returns me to Friedrich Nietzsche, Sigmund Freud, and the book. I didn’t know the beginnings of psychoanalysis with the “talk treatment” of Dr. Josef Breuer, nor the details of the overlapping lines of thought in fin-de-siècle Vienna.

The Stanford professor offers this disclaimer in his author’s note: “In 1882, psychotherapy had not yet been born; and Nietzsche, of course, never formally turned his attention in that direction. Yet in my reading of Nietzsche, he was deeply and significantly concerned with self-understanding and personal change.”

But history is a series of close calls and what-might-have-beens. This book was born in the discovery of a letter: an 1878 message where a friend tries to get Nietzsche to come to Vienna to see Dr. Breuer for treatment.

Author Yalom continues:

Friedrich Nietzsche and Josef Breuer never met. And, of course, psychotherapy was not invented as a result of their encounter.

Nonetheless, the life situation of the major characters is grounded in fact, and the essential components of this novel—Breuer’s mental anguish, Nietzsche’s despair, Anna O., Lou Salomé, Freud’s relationship with Breuer, the ticking embryo of psychotherapy—were all historically in place in 1882.

Friedrich Nietzsche had been introduced by Paul Rée to the young Lou Salomé in the spring of 1882 and, over the next months, had had a brief, intense, and chaste love affair with her. She would go on to have a distinguished career as both a brilliant woman of letters and a practicing psychoanalyst; she would also be known for her close friendship with Freud and for her romantic liaisons, especially with the German poet Rainer Maria Rilke.

On to better things…

Read more from Irv here.

As for the film, I don’t recommend it, but I do point it out. (The excellent youtube clip below is one of the films best moments.) In general, accents and orchestration are obtrusive (Brahms‘s Requiem, bits of Wagner here and there, and I can’t remember what else), the dream sequences clownish. The females are badly miscast and underfed, given the curvacious standards of the period. The casting is made with a modern eye to beauty, so the hairstyles and makeup concede too much to our own times and so are jarring. We shake what we’ve got: the women have no internal qualities, but are happy to roll their eyes and their hips. Someone should have looked at a real-life portrait of the time – Salomé’s, for example. If she could hold Rilke’s attention, I suspect that there was more to her than this manicured floozy. The exception to this rule is Breuer’s stiff, estranged wife, played by Joanna Pacula, who has a great final scene where a flicker of hope rekindles beneath the years of mistrust.

One of the best parts of the film are in the credits afterwards: we learn that Crazy Berthe, Beuer’s patient and Freud’s “Anna O.”, in fact becomes a groundbreaking social worker, while Salomé becomes an important early psychoanalyst. Breuer gives up his “talk therapy” – but Freud picks it up. Nietzsche takes the train to Switzerland where he will write Thus Spake Zarathustra. And Lou Salomé… well, we’ve all read Rilke’s letters…

“Who was the most fateful person in the history of Western mankind?” Nietzsche answers.

Wednesday, December 26th, 2018
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Sloterdijk wrote “Nietzsche Apostle.”

The Berlin national daily Die Welt has published Robert Pogue Harrison‘s recent Entitled Opinions radio/podcast interview with philosopher Peter Sloterdijk in time for the holidays here. You can listen to the interview (recorded in English) over at the Los Angeles Review of Books here

It’s kind of a Christmastime message, in a backhanded sort of way.

It begins:

Robert Harrison: I have just finished reading your splendid little book called Nietzsche Apostle, which was published in English in 2013 but first came out in Germany in the year 2000, on the hundredth anniversary of Nietzsche‘s death. What exactly you mean when you speak of Nietzsche as an apostle?

Peter Sloterdijk: he answer is quite simple. Nietzsche had very high ambitions, and he asked an elementary question, “Who was the most fateful person in the history of Western mankind?” And the answer he gave by himself, to himself, was that this person was obviously Saint Paul, whom he took for the real founder of Christianity – only apostle Saint Paul, who invented the apostolic role as such.

Saint Paul was the most fateful person in history, according to Nietzsche. If it were possible to undo the effects that Saint Paul had created, it would change the course of history. According to Nietzsche, Saint Paul brought genius into resentment. He elevated resentment to a level from which it could became a gospel.

Harrison: Do you believe that the figure of Jesus is secondary, in Nietzsche’s mind, to Paul?

He thought rather highly of himself.

Sloterdijk: In a certain way, yes. It’s absolutely not clear if Jesus had a universalist message. Jesus seems to be an elitist. He talks to those who can understand. Eventually there’s an encounter between the Gospels and the evangelical messages and Greek philosophy. The meeting began in Paul’s writings and were taken up in the fourth Gospel, which was written later. This meeting between Hellenism and the unruly Jewish method made possible what we call Christianity.

Harrison: Of course, the word gospel means “good news” or “glad tidings.” You make a point of Nietzsche’s claim that he wrote the fifth gospel in his book Zarathustra. Can you speak a little bit about this fifth gospel and the paradoxes at the heart of it? You claim Nietzsche made a great effort to convince himself of the “good news” and to continue believing that he was actually a bearer of good news. He was tormented by the fact that before you get to any good news, there’s terrible news – dreadful, awful news that he has to bring to humankind.

Sloterdijk: First of all, the category of “news” is problematic because news, in modern terms, is actuality, whereas for those who used it as a term ἄγγελμα in former times simply meant “message,” or in German, botschaft. The ἄγγελος is just a messenger. That is important. The connection with time is not yet so clear.

Read the rest here – but if you don’t know German, you’ll have to have a go with Google Translate. Or wait for English publication.

“I Am Not a Man, I Am Dynamite” : Peter Sloterdijk on Nietzsche

Thursday, May 17th, 2018
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He saw a deep connection between moral philosophy and public relations.

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“IT’S VERY HARD TO CONCEIVE OF A SANE GOD.”

Peter Sloterdijk is one of the most controversial thinkers in the world. In many ways, he is the heir of Friedrich Nietzsche, who is sometimes said to have inaugurated the 20th century. On Entitled Opinions, host Robert Harrison opens his discussion with Sloterdijk with the sound of an explosion, and Nietzsche’s words, “I am not a man, I am dynamite.” The podcast is up today at the Los Angeles Review of Books here.

Sloterdijk says the words had helvetic echoes, since Switzerland was the first to blast a passageway through the Alps to tunnel new passages to Greece: “That is the metaphysical question for all these northern peoples. How can we win back an easier access to the Mediterranean truth, the really big dream-essence?”

The enfant terrible of philosophy (Photo: Rainer Lück)

Yet Nietzsche had his own access to the Greeks — and had the dynamite within him. In particular, he was the first to ask what meaning Dionysius might have for us. Nietzsche’s whole life work was an effort to uncover the meaning of the non-Olympic god who is “something to come, and something already present.” Nietzsche sought to discover how “the dismembering of Dionysus and his suffering recreates the world and makes a new form of social synthesis possible,” according to Sloterdijk (who was bravely battling a cold during the conversation).

“Nietzsche was right, to certain extent, when says ‘my soul should have been a singer rather than a writer.’ What he did in his later days was exactly that. That’s why Nietzsche later became, especially in Zarathustra, ‘the singer of a metaphysics of high noon.’” Sloterdijk calls that passage a European answer to the enlightenment of Buddha under the bodhi tree: “He describes the messenger as a person sleeping in the grass under tree and tied to life only with a very thin thread. You must not move. Dionysus is there. Don’t even breathe. The world has become perfect. He’s looking for the moments when he was even able to bear the burden of his divine predicament.”

“Nietzsche was among the very rare thinkers who had a feeling that there is a deep connection moral philosophy and public relations. This can be shown in the subtitle of Zarathustra — a book for all and nobody. Ein buch für alle und keinen.” It’s a mark of Nietzsche’s genius. He was acting as a kind of “action teacher,” and discovered a higher morality in writing a book for everyone and no one, a path between animal and the superman. Nietzsche likens it to a rope-walker.

More than a party guy.

“He sees the ropewalker, he has fallen down. He says, out of danger you made your profession. There is nothing despisable in that. And for that reason I am going to bury you with my own hands. It’s not success that decides everything, it is the will to remain within the movement and to walk on the rope.”

***

Philosopher and cultural theorist Peter Sloterdijk has been called a “celebrity philosopher,” and is one of Germany’s foremost thinkers. From 2001 to 2015, he was the rector of the State Academy of Design at Karlsruhe, where he has been a professor of philosophy and media theory since 1992. From 1989 to 2008 he was director of the Institute for Cultural Philosophy at the Academy of Fine Arts Vienna. He co-hosted the German television show Im Glashaus: Das Philosophische Quartettfrom 2002 to 2012.

His books include: Critique of Cynical Reason (1983), Thinker on Stage: Nietzsche’s Materialism (1986), The Spheres Trilogy (1998, 1999, 2004), Rage and Time (2010), Nietzsche Apostle (2013), You Must Change Your Life (2013), and Not Saved: Essays after Heidegger (2016).

In 2016, he taught a four week seminar at Stanford University on the philosophical implications of cynicism, with particular focus on his book Critique of Cynical Reason, a thousand-page book that sold more copies than any other postwar book on German philosophy.

“THERE IS A DEEP HILARITY IN WISDOM.”

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More potent quotes:

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“Modernity is all about disillusionment.”

“We rarely meet a person who such a high opinion of himself.”

“We live in the dust of deconstruction of metaphysical traditions.”

“In my ordinary voice I’m a baritone, but in my writing I’m a tenor. That is absolutely the case with Nietzsche.”

 

Ismail Kadare: “There is real literature, and then there is the rest.”

Friday, February 23rd, 2018
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My review is online at The New York Times Book Review today here, and in the print edition this weekend.  The book under discussion: the Albanian maestro Ismail Kadare‘s A Girl in Exile. Every year, the Nobel committee seems to look the other way while a matchless collection of novels, plays, essays pours out from Paris and Tirana, his dual homes.

An excerpt from my review:

Kadare is still mapping out the boundaries of Albanian, a relatively recent literary language, where everything is new and newly sayable. He is the first of its writers to achieve an international standing. But how to describe something beyond words? “Better if you don’t know” is a repeated phrase in the book, along with variations of “it’s complicated.”

The two girls, “daughters of socialism, as the phrase went,” resolve their eternal love triangle with a stunning metaphysical selflessness. And they reply to injustice and repression not by resistance or retaliation, but with an utterly new, unconditioned response that leaves the reader lightheaded, transcending even that which we value as “freedom.” In Kadare’s words, they move “beyond the laws of this world.”

Read the whole shebang here.

Are you listening, Stockholm? (Photo: Lars Haefner)

Kadare’s relationship to his mother tongue intrigued me, especially given its affinities with classical Greek. I googled the language. I reached out to a Albanian Facebook group. I tried phoning the consulate. No joy anywhere. Who could tell me more? The most informative source turned out to be … Kadare himself. So I read more about it over at The Paris Review. “For me as a writer, Albanian is simply an extraordinary means of expression—rich, malleable, adaptable,” he explained to his interviewer, Shusha Guppy, in 1997. “As I have said in my latest novel, Spiritus, it has modalities that exist only in classical Greek, which puts one in touch with the mentality of antiquity. For example, there are Albanian verbs that can have both a beneficent or a malevolent meaning, just as in ancient Greek, and this facilitates the translation of Greek tragedies, as well as of Shakespeare, the latter being the closest European author to the Greek tragedians. When Nietzsche says that Greek tragedy committed suicide young because it only lived one hundred years, he is right. But in a global vision it has endured up to Shakespeare and continues to this day. On the other hand, I believe that the era of epic poetry is over. As for the novel, it is still very young. It has hardly begun.” 

He’s just warming up:

“Listen, I think that in the history of literature there has been only one decisive change: the passage from orality to writing. For a long time literature was only spoken, and then suddenly with the Babylonians and the Greeks came writing. That changed everything.” It’s a bracing interview because of the unexpected turns the conversation takes. He never takes the predictable position, the weathered road.

Faster than a speeding bullet

“For example, they say that contemporary literature is very dynamic because it is influenced by the cinema, the television, the speed of communication. But the opposite is true! If you compare the texts of the Greek antiquity with today’s literature, you’ll notice that the classics operated in a far larger terrain, painted on a much broader canvas, and had an infinitely greater dimension: a character moves between sky and earth, from a god to a mortal, and back again, in no time at all! The speed of the Iliad is impossible to find in the modern author. The story is simple: Agamemnon has done something that has displeased Zeus, who decides to punish him. He calls a messenger and tells him to fly to earth, find the Greek general called Agamemnon and put a false dream into his head. The messenger arrives in Troy, finds Agamemnon asleep and pours a false dream into his head like a liquid, and goes back to Zeus. In the morning Agamemnon calls his officers and tells them that he has had a beautiful dream, and that they should attack the Trojans. He suffers a crushing defeat. All that in a page and a half! One passes from Zeus’s brain to Agamemnon’s, from the sky to earth. Which writer today could invent that? Ballistic missiles are not as fast!”

In sum: “All this noise about innovations, new genres, is idle. There is real literature, and then there is the rest.”

After a few paragraphs to lure you in, the Paris Review interview is behind a paywall … well, I’ve effectively done the same, haven’t I? But my review is free. It’s here.

Postscript on 3/2: Guess what new offering made the top seven books of the week over at the New York Times Book Review? That’s right. Kadare’s Girl in Exile. It’s here.

A New Year’s resolution from Nietzsche: “I do not even want to accuse those who accuse…”

Sunday, December 31st, 2017
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~ From “Sanctus Januarius” in Friedrich Nietzsche‘s Joyful Wisdom (1882). (Krzysztof Michalski‘s interpretation of Nietzsche is here, in “Krzysztof Michalski: Without Death – there is no me.”)

Hat tip to our friend and colleague from the New York Public Library, Paul Holdengraber.

And a very Happy New Year to all Book Haven readers!

 

Remembering Umberto Eco, and a meeting of great minds in Cambridge

Monday, February 22nd, 2016
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apostolides

He remembers. (Photo: L.A. Cicero)

I didn’t know Umberto Eco, and I read Name of the Rose so many years ago that I had nothing to add to the news of his death on Feb. 19. One friend did, however: Stanford’s Jean-Marie Apostolidès posted his memories of the great Italian author in a short Facebook post. With his permission, I repost a translation of his single encounter with the maestro:

Remembrances of an intimate dinner party in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in 1984 (if memory serves me). Those present included the great American logician Willard Quine; Umberto Eco, wreathed in the glory of his novel The Name of the Rose, which had just appeared in English; and yours truly, the youngest of the table.

Eco

Maestro (Photo: Rob Bogaerts, Creative Commons)

All three of us were invited by Dante Della Terza, who taught Italian literature at Harvard for many years. Dante and Umberto had known each other for ages, hence the casual nature of the dinner. Dante’s wife had concocted her best Italian specialties, accompanied by a Montepulciano wine, which I will say more about. This friendly communion allowed us to reconstruct the world on a new basis, no doubt we were a little shameless.The four men were, after dining, a little tipsy, treated like pashas by the only woman in attendance that evening. Dante’s wife had indeed spent most of her time at the stove, and I do not believe in our project, changing the status of women had been on our agenda: we were too happy with the situation as it was!

To give our drinking a little intellectual cast, I proposed to my comrades that we compile a list of the ten most important philosophers in the history of thought, those that allowed us to make today’s world a little better. Each had to list their personal choices before we arrived at a common list. Mrs. Della Terza passed pen and paper to each of us. A silence of three or four minutes fell upon the table, despite the grappa that crowned the feast and redoubled our jokes. And then each in turn read his list.

Dante Della Terza

The host for the evening

But when the time came to make the collective list, we were unable to come to agreement, our choices so diverged. Umberto and I had quite a few names in common (Aristotle among the ancients, among modern Nietzsche) but Quine – who had the most clout as an authority in philosophy – brutally rejected all our proposals. A reserved man when sober, the wine had worked wickedly on him. When I advanced the name of Marx, he had a sarcastic smile, then said dismissively: “For me, he’s not even a philosopher.”

When Quine had asked Umberto to read us his own personal list, I discovered the logical basis for my ignorance: with the exception of Henri Poincaré, I did not know any of the thinkers he considered essential for the future of thought.

quine

The great logician

In short, our attempt to improve the world failed miserably. Yet were we not, all four of us, great enlightened ones? This failure did not prevent us from finishing off the evening in good spirits and, with the help of the grappa, we were all perfectly happy and pleased with ourselves when leaving the Della Terza home.

Today when I think back to that memorable evening, I regret not having taken note of names we had chosen. I particularly regret that we, the sage ones, could not come to agreement. If we had, might today’s world be in better shape?