Tuesday, July 17, 2018

My Dostoyevsky Problem - A Confession

For me, Dostoyevsky is Notes from Underground and Crime and Punishment, two of the most impressive works of fiction I've ever read, the former a formally and stylistically original novel written in a voice that reverberates through the next 150 years of world literature, and the latter a hallucinatory, proto-Expressionist, proto-Freudian, proto-Kafkaesque fever dream of guilt, paranoia and murder. These two books, and maybe The Double, are the Dostoyevskys that impress me most. The later, longer Dostoyevsky I find considerably less compelling. The unquestionably canonical Big Late Three--The Idiot, The Possessed and The Brothers Karamazov--have never successfully captured my reading mind. Oh, I've read parts of them, of course. Over the years, I've begun each novel multiple times and have read the first quarter of The Idiot, the first 150 pages and the "Stavrogin's Confession" chapter from The Possessed/The Devils/Demons, and from The Brothers K the opening chapters, "One Onion" and, of course, "The Grand Inquisitor." But none of these--sometimes impressive, sometimes intriguing, sometimes annoying--excerpts has appealed to me with sufficient force to send me plowing through the whole ponderous, reactionary, Russian Orthodox shebang. Maybe Notes from Underground and Crime and Punishment is Dostoyevsky enough for me. As for the other three, maybe I'll finish them next year, maybe the year after, maybe...

Sunday, July 15, 2018

Rushdie's Top Ten: A Video Lecture

Here's a video of a lecture in which Salman Rushdie introduces a classroom of apparently catatonic students to ten of his favorite books: the soi-disant Arabian Nights, Tristram Shandy, Ulysses, Gulliver's Travels, Great Expectations, the tales of Borges, One Hundred Years of Solitude, The Tin Drum, Calvino's Our Ancestors trilogy (The Baron in the Trees, The Nonexistent Knight, The Cloven Viscount), and The Master and Margarita. One heavenly hell of a reading list. (No word on whether the spirit of Oliver Sacks was summoned to 'awaken' the students...)

Friday, July 13, 2018

A Thought on Jung, Freud, and Oneiric Hermeneutics

Jungian dream interpretation, as evidenced by the doctor's long essay on dream symbolism and alchemy ("Individual Dream Symbolism in Relation to Alchemy" in The Portable Jung, Joseph Campbell, ed.), seems more a tribute to Jung's cleverness as hermeneut than to the validity of his hermeneutic. All the presented dream fragments could be interpreted by Freudians, according to their hermeneutic, with equal validity and likely greater material interest.


A distinction: Jung's mysticism leads him into a kind of dogmatism which Freud's scientism serves to counteract. Freud, whom Jung rejected as too dogmatic, turns out to be the less dogmatic thinker, likely due to his grounding in empirical, self-corrective, falsifiable science.


Also, Jung's hermeneutic is given a false air of validity by his suppression of the dreaming subject. Having no information about the dreamer, no material facts to act as a check on Jung's interpretations, we are given the false choice of either accepting Jung's obsessive, repetitive pronouncements or not reading the essay. Compare the rich contextualization of Freud's dream analyses and case histories, which sometimes compare favorably to tales by Balzac and/or Kafka, and which provide more than enough information for later readers to radically reinterpret Freud's evidence. Compared to Sigmund, Carl Gustav looks like a quaint Victorian spiritualist riding his bouncing table.

Wednesday, July 11, 2018

Xenophilia

George Steiner, proud diasporist, once lamented (in an interview conducted, unfortunately, by a woman who seemed intent on pressing into Steiner's hand a one-way ticket to a settlement on the West Bank; Steiner, courtly old-world gentleman he is, politely and repeatedly (and thus rather comically) demurred) that although the Greek word xenos means both 'foreigner' and  'guest'  (elsewhere in the interview, he quotes Heidegger, "We are the guests of life."), it survives in English only as 'xenophobia,' not 'xenophilia.' The latter is an idea the world desperately needs right now. Speaking as a narcissistic xenophile, one who loves being a foreigner, who has never felt more heimlich, more 'at home,' than when traveling in a foreign country, blurring the 'other' line among all the other lines, I think it would be an excellent idea to counter Trump's fascist xenophobia not with the tepid, wishy-washy corporatist liberal xenophobia of "We must secure our borders, but..." but with the xenophilia of "Hello, refugee from Central American terrorism. Welcome to the richest country in the history of the world. How many IHOP pancakes would you like?....No, no, of course we're not going to rip your children out of your arms and put them in cages. What do you think we are, a bunch of crazy fascist assholes!?"

Tuesday, July 10, 2018

Harold Bloom on the death of Philip Roth

As far as I know, Harold Bloom's sole public statement on the death of his friend Philip Roth is this paragraph posted on the Library of America's website:


"Philip Roth’s departure is a dark day for me and for many others. His two greatest novels, American Pastoral and Sabbath’s Theater, have a controlled frenzy, a high imaginative ferocity, and a deep perception of America in the days of its decline. The Zuckerman tetralogy remains fully alive and relevant, and I should mention too the extraordinary invention of Operation Shylock, the astonishing achievement of The Counterlife, and the pungency of The Plot Against America. His My Life as a Man still haunts me. In one sense Philip Roth is the culmination of the unsolved riddle of Jewish literature in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. The complex influences of Kafka and Freud and the malaise of American Jewish life produced in Philip a new kind of synthesis. Pynchon aside, he must be estimated as the major American novelist since Faulkner." -- Harold Bloom

Sunday, July 1, 2018

Philip Roth, American Atheist

Here's a quote from Philip Roth that I don't recall reading in the last month's crop of obituaries and memorial essays:

"When the whole world doesn't believe in God, it will be a great place."

Roth said this in a 2010 interview on CBS Sunday Morning:

Here and elsewhere, Roth also remarks that he doesn't have a religious bone in his body.

Note the self-evident, matter-of-fact quality of Roth's atheism. He's neither an angry, embattled atheist raging against gods nor a backwards preacher sermonizing the deity's nonexistence. He comes across as someone for whom religion does not matter. He is secular and personally indifferent to it. He has matured out of it and put away its childish things and wishes the rest of the world would do likewise. I find this position wholly admirable.

The Cycladic Harpist


Harpist. Marble. Late 2000s BCE. Height: 8.5 in.
From the island of Amorgos in the Cyclades.
National Archaeological Museum, Athens.

The Cycladic Harpist transfixes me. It may or may not be a figure of Orpheus, but its soundless song nonetheless holds me spellbound. A sublime, ecstatic image of artistic inspiration (remember the breathy etymology of that word and look at the harpist's head, upturned to the enlightening glare of the seabright sun, inhaling the breezy Aegean air through that geometric nose (and inhaling with it the mysterious, Orphic, god-like power of artistic creation (a meaning that calls out to be hidden, like a mystical secret, inside a parenthesis within a parenthesis within a...))), the figure is rendered even more mysterious and poignant by the loss of its hands. The object becomes an image of time's dissolution and imaginative man's necessarily incomplete attempts at reconstitution, recovery. Just as the missing head of Rilke's "Archaic Torso of Apollo" energizes the poet's imagination to fill the void (and Rilke promptly fills it with an image ("...sein unerhortes Haupt, / darin die Augenapfel reiften."; "his legendary head / where the eye-apples ripen.") inspired by an Arcimboldo painting hanging in another gallery of the Louvre), the harpist's timelost hands, like his unseeable harp strings, become absent images of his unheard music, negative spaces powerfully charged with potential meaning, like that masterful space between the Virgin's dramatically foreshortened hand and the Christ child's head in the London National Gallery's Virgin of the Rocks:
Leonardo da Vinci. Virgin of the Rocks. Ca. 1500.
National Gallery, London.
(This space is cluttered in the more rhetorical Paris canvas by the inclusion of the angel's unnecessarily pointing hand:
Leonardo da Vinci. Virgin of the Rocks (detail). Late 1400s.
Musee du Louvre, Paris.)
The harpist's missing hands engage the viewer's imagination in an almost Modernist way (the greatest works of art are always already Modernist: Homer is packed with Joyce-style allusions to mythologies even more ancient), permitting/allowing/forcing the viewer to complete the artwork, to hear its unimaginable music. The harpist's mystery licenses our imagination. It is an image of inspiration that inspires us. Breathe it in.