Wednesday, October 7, 2015

That Within Us


Without Anesthesia: New and Selected Poems by Aleš Debeljak

                                              With all, that within them finds Room,
                                              even without
                                                                               Paul Celan

“According to German translator and poet Paul Celan, one of Debeljak’s major influences,” writes translator Andrew Zawacki in his introduction to this intriguing collection, “a poem is always en route, moving ceaselessly toward a possible reception by someone else.” I thought about this idea as I read each of Debeljak’s poems, impressed both by the poems themselves and by the simple fact that I was reading them at all, given that they were originally written in Slovenian by a man whose life experience, whose frame of reference, could hardly be more different than my own. Of course what his poems insist, what all poems (even the cryptic scribblings of his hero Celan) insist, is that we—all of us—have more in common than we know. This is no mere platitude, for we, as humans beings, are also profoundly, even irreconcilably different, depending on our culture, nationality, politics, race, faith, class, creed, education, and particular fate. In my travels around the world, and in my wide-ranging hunger for books, nothing has been made clearer to me than the fact that people, people with the same number of limbs, with the same number of fingers and toes that I have, men and women who fall in love, work hard, raise children, watch television, pray to their god(s), and die, are often radically different in their essential conception of the world—of truth, of beauty, of the nature of reality itself. What the best writers in every language tap are the links within those very real, not-be-neutered  distinctions that make us who we are. See how the content of this poem is both familiar and decidedly, enticingly strange:


You see everything: the breath flies, a teapot
whistling, a cartridge recklessly shot off at daybreak, a pattern
on the wallpaper, the gloom of a concert hall, dusty violins left
in haste on the floor, an inscription in the language of the two

prophets who came to the Slavs, things drowning in infinite
light, a scream tearing suddenly across the sky, gleaming metal,
a column of children and women carrying newborn babies, the scent
of basil in a garden, a trickle of plum juice oozing into the rutted

tracks left by retreating armies. Everything. You see graveyards.
And metastases of white-hot pyres. Here the world we know lets out
Its final gasp. The ancient order of violence is returning to the hearths.
The magic of words is dying out. And a girls’ choir stands in silence.
A trail points east, across a snowy pass. Nothing erases it.
Now you know the bell tolls for you and us.
One feels the weight of history here, a history at once general and localized, discrete. An no wonder: in Debeljak’s homeland the wounds of history are deep:

Debeljak’s earlier poems, composed when his homeland of Slovenia had just emerged form Josep Broz Tito’s reign as Marshal of Yugoslavia, are marked by solitude and acute metaphysical anxiety—not fear per se, but worry that knows no object. This anguish, a fracturing of identity as global as it was personal, seemed to eerily presage the Third Balkan war… The traumas of that conflict’s  ethnic cleansing and sniper-fire, international pussyfooting and eventual disintegration, erupted on the edges of Slovenia in 1991. After centuries of dominance by foreign powers (Hapsburg, Austro-Hungarian, Napoleonic, Axis) and subsequent autonomy within the Socialist Federal republic of Yugoslavia, Slovenia finally gained independence after a Ten Day War…

 Here, too, the weight and illumination of the past:


Banks, flags, ships, holidays, cock fights, epaulets,
copper engravings of English horses, dead guards
and elite divisions. All this slides by. Disappears
like talk during an afternoon slumber.—

Face it. Arrival and desolate scenes are the same thing.
Instead of a planted tree an d pages of a will only a name
remains, which someone enters in a dictionary. Nothing
more. Oh, perhaps someone for a moment remembers

the metamorphosis from pale to purple: like old times with
lords. Otherwise it is really nothing.—Rip the crumpled
carnation off the chest, lean over the geometric granite
cubes, exhale. Now. Like those in the Stammheim Prison.

Finally, a mediation:

        The Émigré Writer on the Dragon Bridge

An open suitcase, they used to say,
hides destinies unknown out here:
from hotel to the central station and farther,
through the many years of wind, the passengers
touch Orion above, looking for comfort
in rituals down here, in a sleep countryside,
a consolation  they no longer get
from photographs and books about
the lives their ancestors led. The everyday
favor could now be a prayer, a cup of herbal tea,
patience with endless explanations,
and a silent handshake when language will not obey,
like scattered coins, or a ceiling so low
it suffocates, big things putting fear
in little souls. From the the south,
an alluring heat brings whiffs of memory,
for everyone, of course, is guiltiest
when love’s at stake.
The one thing they still hunger for
rises without a sound from the waiting-rooms
and chairs too stiff for mercy,
and hangs, deceptively, like haze above
a fence which groans and splits beneath him
and allows him, for a second only, to rise—
why would he be an exception?—
before he vanishes in the river’s waves
which swell against the banks and over,
taking with them the suitcases, carrying off
the books, toward a delta,  a false reprieve,
a song that’s poorly sung.

                                           Ljubljana, summer 1994

Aleš Debeljak is a poet, literary essayist, cultural critic, and translator. Without Anesthesia: New and Selected Poems is published by Persea Books.

Peter Adam Nash

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

The Handshake

James H. Cone, The Cross and the Lynching Tree

W. H. Auden, "September 1, 1939"

Immanuel Wallerstein, Centrist Liberalism Triumphant


Since the French Revolution, as Immanuel Wallerstein demonstrates in volume IV of his history of the modern world system, the central ideological concern of the liberal classes--never mind  their party affiliation or nation--has been to silence voices of dissent from the left and to preclude significant democratic movements; to hold power by doling out token economic benefits to the working and disenfranchised classes; to push their nations into wars that underwrite a form of atavistic national unity, and to unleash the propaganda powers of the modern media in defense of the status quo. Stated this blandly, Wallerstein's vision of modernity looks a bit like crude Marxism or a paranoid delusion (some of his right-wing critics have thought as much), but the argument as a whole, supported by a lifetime of reading, is convincing. I demur on the point of working-class ineptitude; it was never that easy for the liberal classes to dupe the workers, as the history of labor in the late 19th and early 20th centuries demonstrates. State-sanctioned violence, rather than propaganda or economic carrots begrudgingly doled out (Ford's $5 daily wage) preserved power for the ruling classes, and if there were any genuine risk of working-class solidarity, then a pointless Great War would focus the minds of the masses, provide a smoke-screen for rounding up the radicals, and provide a tidy profit for the corporate sector as a bonus.

I bring up this bit of esoteric political history only to frame what I want to say about Pope Francis, the picture above, and a passage from one of my favorite poems--one worth rereading just now.

I confess to being deeply moved by that Jesuit hand bearing the ring of Peter, by the glimpse of white cassock and pellegrina, the pectoral cross, the fascia--medieval symbols of transcendent power, weighted with traditions of infallibility, celibacy (a man forever betrothed to God), and sanctity--grasping the outstretched hand of an inmate in Philadelphia's Curran-Fromhold prison. An honest and sad and achingly moving reaching across social roles and moral boundaries in a moment of simple humanity.

The history of liberalism found in Wallerstein's books is largely a history of fear--fear of the loss of authority, fear of the loss of the material prerogatives--deference, wealth, and permissible cruelty--that have accompanied worldly power since the first bully arose to be primus inter pares. The notion of freedom, so central to the liberal creed, could only be freedom for some and of only a very particular kind. An anonymous arm reaching (as I imagine it) through a cell door--an ironic symbol of the prisons built for us by a politics that has promised freedom and delivered, for most, only servitude.

Here's Auden, lines on the day the Second World War began:

All I have is a voice
To undo the folded lie,
The romantic lie in the brain
Of the sensual man-in-the-street
And the lie of Authority
Whose buildings grope the sky:
There is no such thing as the State
And no one exists alone;
Hunger allows no choice
To the citizen or the police;
We must love one another or die.

My students, with their unlined faces (so unlike Wystan's!), prefer the "realism" of Machiavelli and Hobbes to the "romantic notions" of Rousseau and Rawls. Maybe they're right. But there's still that handshake, a simple gesture made more powerful by the absence of faces: a man of God and a man perhaps not. If we can't love one another--and it appears we cannot--we can at least learn that ideas seem empty when in fact they are empty.

Our world in stupor lies;
Yet, dotted everywhere,
Ironic points of light
Flash out wherever the Just
Exchange their messages...

"Ironic points of light." In his moving work The Cross and the Lynching Tree, James H. Cone quotes Emile Durkheim:  "The believer who has communicated with his god is not merely a man who sees new truths of which the unbeliever is ignorant; he is a person who is stronger. He feels within himself more force, either to endure the trials of existence, or to conquer them."

A little awkward, this sort of talk. Since religion has been co-opted by the resentful (does any Christian actually read the New Testament anymore?) it has become unfashionable to quote anything from Durkheim or even the bits of M.L. King that remind us he was a Baptist minister first and an activist second. But what Cone puts at the center of his theological book isn't God or the Cross--the very same one worn by Francis in that Philly jail--but the struggle for empowerment in a world that has been tidily arranged to convince us that we have no power, except maybe in our choice of smartphone and wardrobe. "In stupor." Yes, that feels right. And yet, there's that handshake--a gesture, but not only that: a reaching across a great divide of power and powerlessness.  Look at it.

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

The Sorry Scheme of Things

The Heart’s Desire by Nahid Rachlin

                                                             Ah, Love! Could thou and I with Fate conspire
                                                             To grasp this sorry Scheme of Things entire,
                                                             Would not we shatter to bits—and then
                                                             Re-mould it nearer to the Heart’s Desire!

                                                                                    Omar Khayyám

The Iran-Iraq War lasted from September of 1980 to August of 1988, making it the longest conventional war of the 2oth Century. The death toll was staggering: more than a half a million Iranian and Iraqi soldiers were killed, and at least that many civilians, not to mention the millions of dollars in economic and structural damage incurred by both sides—and for what? Not only was there no winner in the war, and thereby no reparations, but there was no appreciable change in either the much-disputed national borders or the regional status quo. Yet the war was significant—gravely, even monstrously, so. In fact, of all the consequences of that bitter and miserable little war, arguably the most important, at least the most far-reaching in it implications, was the aggressive, nakedly mercenary role of the United States in staking its claim in the region. If you remember, long before we toppled Saddam Hussein in the name of Justice and Democracy, in the name of Women’s Rights and World Peace, he was one of our closest allies and friends. Indeed it is likely that he would never have attacked the newly minted Islamic Republic of Iran in the first place had it not been for his assurance of U.S. economic and military support, support only recently transferred to him and his megalomaniacal vision for the Middle East after the U.S.’s former henchman and regional toady, the Shah of Iran, was violently overthrown by his own people. While I risk of overstating the case, it is hard for me not to trace the bulk of the region’s current instability (the rise of Al Queda, the bombing of the World Trade Center, the U.S invasion of Afghanistan, the U.S invasion of Iraq, the rise of ISIS, the Syrian Civil War, and the desperate flight of Syrian refugees) to this, this iniquitous and barefaced ploy.

Nahid Rachlin’s novel, The Heart’s Desire, is set in Iran, in Teheran, immediately following the Iran-Iraq war when the country lies in ruins, the people are despondent, and anti-American sentiment runs high. 

everything in Iran  was touched by the tragedy of the prolonged eight-year war between Iran and its neighbor Iraq, which had ended only months ago. Though the fighting had gone on mainly around the western border, bombs had left their marks everywhere—you couldn’t miss the charred window frames and boarded-up doors, the families camping in quiet backstreets, soldiers passing by on crutches. Hundreds of thousands of Iranians, many of them mere teenage boys…had been killed and wounded in the war. Black flags hanging on almost every door designated that someone in the household had been martyred. On the main square was a fountain with dark red water surging up from it.

Filtered principally through the life and intelligence of an American woman, Jennifer Sahary, who has traveled to the newly opened Iran with her Iranian husband and their young son to visit his family and friends, as well as to give her husband the chance to take stock of himself in own beleaguered land. While partly the story of her husband’s struggles to come to terms with his guilt and longing for having left his homeland for a life in the United States, the novel is first and foremost about Jennifer’s own disillusionment as an American about Iran, about the husband she loves, and about the deep-seeded differences that divide them.      

Nahid Rachlin is an Iranian-American who had written numerous works of fiction and non-fiction, including Crowd of Sorrows, Foreigner: A Novel, Veils: Short Stories, Married To a Stranger, Jumping over Fire, and Persian Girls: A Memoir.

Peter Adam Nash

Monday, September 14, 2015

Ghost Writers and New Lives

Summer in Baden-Baden, Leonid Tsypkin

Vita Nuova, Dante Alighieri 

Like many other readers, I enjoy novels about writers--Flaubert's Parrot comes to mind, as well as Philip Roth's Ghost Writer--and also non-fiction works that take as their subject not the quotidian lives of those who scribble but the ineffable magic of making art from language: Olivia Laing's The Trip to Echo Springs: On Writers and Drinking is one such, as is Geoff Dyer's Out of Sheer Rage: Wrestling with D. H. Lawrence. Sarah Bakewell's How to Live is not so much a life of Montaigne as an exploration of his ideas; Sebald writes about Stendhal in a similarly oblique way in Vertigo, and Jay Parini's Benjamin's Crossing is about the last days of Walter Benjamin and is rich in psychological detail (ditto Parini's The Last Station). And then there are the books that aren't directly about writers but about the authors of the books as they reflect on the lives of authors--a little meta- I admit, but a brilliant form of literary expression if you can pull it off. Alain de Botton's How Proust Can Change Your Life and Nicholson Baker's U and I are examples, as is Tsypkin's wonderful Summer in Baden-Baden, a novel about both Tsypkin and the Dostoevskys (Fyodor and Anna Grigoryevna). Tsypkin has used the Master's sojourn in Germany--his gambling, his tempestuous relations with his wife, his obsession with and revulsion toward literature--as a mirror reflecting his own life and, in particular, his journey to Petersburg that culminates in a visit to the house in which Dostoevsky died. The novel doesn't move from one story to another, from Baden-Baden to Petersburg, but folds two narratives into one another--Tsypkin's life as a dissident within the USSR overlaps and embraces Dostoyevsky's exile in Germany, an exile that is as much spiritual as physical. The brilliance of the novel lies in its seamless entangling of two literary lives, in Tsypkin's reprising the life of the Master as if it were a facet of his own. Joseph Frank's great biography of Dostoevsky (I've read only the one-volume abridgment) makes plain enough the pain out of which Dostoevsky fashioned his art--his time in the house of the dead, his epilepsy, his addictions--to writing and gambling, or perhaps to writing as gambling--his ambivalent passion for Anna Grigoryevna, his self-imposed exile. What Tsypkin does admirably is to reassemble in coherent fashion the fragments of Dostoevsky's outer and inner lives in such a way as to make his genius seem a function of his biography rather than a triumph over it.

It occurred to me a few months ago that I had better get started on my long-postponed project of rereading those books that have meant the most to me--not all of them classics, but each one significant in marking out a period of my life, or, if that's too grandiose, then let's leave it at this: books I've carried with me through a lifetime of being the sort of person who carries around books and throws away everything else. Carried them because I meant to read them again "someday." And, at last, "someday" has arrived. For no special reason I've started this project with Dante's beautiful Vita Nuova--a hymn to his muse Beatrice Portinari and to the making of poems--and C.S. Lewis's The Discarded Image, one of the half-dozen works of literary criticism that isn't a chore to read and which is a perfect companion to Dante. Lewis's book teaches us how to read medieval and Renaissance poets; Dante teaches us how to read Dante--or perhaps how to misread him.  I reread my 1973 Mark Musa edition, with its no-nonsense literal versions both of the canzoni and the prose excursuses through which Dante not only prepares us with scanty biographical tidbits for his poems, but in which he explains, as a coy philosopher might, the progress of his Platonic-Christian love for the maiden Beatrice, on whom he laid eyes (if at all) exactly three times, and yet "she seemed to be the daughter not of a mortal but of a god,"as Dante describes her, reworking Homer. It was Boccaccio who identified the married (to one of the banking Bardis, according to my old guidebook to Florence's churches) Beatrice with Dante's sacred muse, his companion from Purgatory to Paradise, and the inspiration for his "book of memory," as Dante called the Vita Nuova. Thoroughly "medieval," that is, rooted in the neo-Platonic and Augustinian epistemology of the fourteenth century, Dante's love poems in the VN surely remind one of Symposium, with its yearning for erotic transcendence, but also of the medieval romans (of Chretien de Troyes) or, more intimately, of the Lais of Marie de France. But Dante is an original, and no comparison can do justice to the richness of his imagery, his mastery of the rhetorical tropes that defined late medieval poetry, or the alternating repression/confinement and overflowing of his emotions.

The first time Dante is addressed by Beatrice he nearly swoons. He records the event in detail: "It was precisely the ninth hour of that day, three o'clock in the afternoon, when her sweet voice came to me. Since this was the first time her words had ever been directed to me, I became so ecstatic that, like a drunken man, I turned away from everyone and sought the loneliness of my room, where I began thinking of this most gracious lady, and, thinking of her, I fell into a sweet sleep, and a marvelous vision appeared to me."

This is conventional. Boethius's Consolation of Philosophy, allegedly written while its author was in prison, awaiting execution, also falls into a dream, but his "Lady" isn't a teenage beauty but Philosophy/Wisdom herself, summoned to bolster Boethius's justifiably waning faith in God's sense of fair play.  (Still the best book on the theodicy question btw).

Dante, who has only just now "taught himself the art of writing poetry"--as if!--sets out to write a sonnet for his lady, the first of thirty-two sonnets, canzoni, and a single ballad that make up the poetic matter of the Vita Nuova. The first sonnet has always been one of my favorites, especially the arresting image of stanza two:

Joyous, Love seemed to me, holding my heart
within his hand, and in his arms he had
my lady, loosely wrapped in folds, asleep.
He woke her then, and gently fed to her
the burning heart; she ate it, terrified.
And then I saw him disappear in tears.

[Poi la svegliava, e d'esto core ardendo
lei paventosa umilmente pascea. 
Appresso gir lo ne vedea piangendo.]

"Ardent," is right, but "burning" is better; and she ate his heart, not in terror, but with humility (umilmente pascea) as if, let's face it, she were eating sacramental bread and wine. In his gloss Dante mentions how the meaning of this poem was not clear to anyone at first, but is now clear even to the unlearned. The Vita Nuova isn't only about a rebirth in love, but about death--including, in the final sections, the death and transfiguration of Beatrice. This Beatrice, real or no, turned out to be a gold mine for Romantic and Pre-Raphaelite painters and poets--swirling clouds of dust and soul-stuff, eternal love, chaste longing. Gustave Dore does a fine job of capturing the overwrought frenzy of pure love, in the same vein as Bernini's St. Theresa.

"After I wrote this sonnet there came to me a miraculous vision in which I saw things that made me resolve to say no more about this blessed one until I would be capable of writing about her in a nobler way."

Poems and glosses, prayer and prophecy.

George Ovitt (9/14/15)

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

“Soul Swallower”

Götz and Meyer by David Albahari

How Götz, or was it Meyer, loved children!

The photograph above features one of the converted buses that the Nazis used in their initial  experiments in the large-scale asphyxiation of prisoners, of Ukrainians, Poles, and Russians, mostly of the handicapped and Jews. As carbon monoxide canisters quickly proved too expensive for the job, the developers soon settled upon a simpler, more cost-effective method, requiring only that bus driver get out of the tightly sealed cab and reconnect the exhaust hose to a special outlet in the bottom of the bus. After about 15-20 minutes of idle driving about the countryside all of the prisoners would be dead. Not long thereafter, such jury-rigged buses were replaced by custom manufactured vans, the compact Diamond and Opelblitz, as well as the 5-ton Saurer, the most efficient of them all.   

It is a 5-ton Saurer that looms at the heart of this spare, if devastating novel by the Jewish Serbian writer, David Albahari. Based on an actual Saurer van that operated in and around the city of Belgrade during WWII, a van in which—so the narrator discovers—many of his relatives had perished. Through his research he learns in addition that the drivers of this van were two young men, two actual SS non-commissioned officers, identified plainly in the records as “Wilhelm Götz” and “Erwin Meyer”:

I never saw them, Götz and Meyer, so I can only imagine them. My interest in the two of them came at a time when I was trying to fill in the empty slots in my family tree. I had just turned fifty, I knew where I was going with my life, so that all that was left was to figure out where I came from. I went round the archives, visited museums, brought books home from the library. That is how Götz and Meyer came into my life.

What ensues in the novel is the narrator’s determined, finally desperate attempt to imagine these two men, to slip into their minds, their skins, to understand—as so many have sought to understand—what Hannah Arendt famously called, “the banality of evil,” the fact that such cruelty and violence, as was perpetrated by the Nazis, was less the product of a handful of psychotic, diabolical freaks (whom we could safely dismiss as aberrational) than the logical, rational, even inexorable outcome of an abiding ideological faith, a cultural, national creed embraced and embodied, not by monsters, but by average, often expressly “normal” men. Writes Albahari, the two young officers were altogether indifferent as killers, with no apparent stake in the matter at all:

Once you become a part of the mechanism, you assume the same responsibility as every other part. Götz and Meyer didn’t know about that. The truck was theirs to drive, and they drove, always smiling, even when the wind blew dust in their faces, and they couldn’t care less what was going on in the back, whether the load was Jews or sugar beets.

Führerprinzip, the foundation of political authority upon which the Third Reich was based, consisted essentially of the simple, incontestable belief that Hitler’s word was law. Everything followed from that. It was a principle to which Hitler’s chief henchman, SS-Obergruppenführer, Adolph Eichmann, made frequent reference during his trial in Jerusalem when defending himself and his comrades against the charges of genocide and mass murder, insisting, as he had, that they had only been “following orders.” While by now an argument that has been thoroughly discredited, and while Arendt’s assessment of Eichmann himself as “banal” has been shaken to its core, and while some violence and cruelty is indeed aberrational, the central mystery of this novel remains: How does one explain the methodical, bureaucratic murder of six million Jews?

David Albahari is a Serbian writer of Sephardic Jewish origin. He lives in Canada. Translated by Ellen Elias-Bursać, Götz and Meyer is published by Dalkey Archive.

Peter Adam Nash

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Falling In (and out) of Love

Alain de Botton, Essays in Love (a novel)

You see him (her) in a crowded room, on a plane, at a meeting, in a restaurant--someplace you weren't prepared to see anyone, all of your paltry defenses down, a neutral or even a meaningless encounter, a simple hello, a brushing of hands--nothing weighty, no ulterior motive at all. You went on a plane ride and sat next to (in this case) a woman. It was her.

Alain de Botton has the sort of talent I most admire--he can be brilliant anyplace, with any topic, and not only brilliant, but original--he thinks about things that you and I have thought about but never understood--he explains what we are reading or seeing or feeling. Architecture or Proust or, here, love. Not "explains" exactly: teases, probes, uncovers. You've thought about something one way and then, blissfully, you realize that you weren't wrong, just not paying sufficient attention.

In Chicago this summer, browsing in Powell's (yes, the Portland Powell's began in the City With Big Shoulders), I came upon a strange Picador paperback: Essays in Love by Alain de Botton, thick newsprint paper, the cover depicting a woman sitting on the floor in a library, seemingly in the ranges holding tedious government reports, reading a book.

De Botton once wrote this: "Booksellers are the most valuable destination for the lonely, given the numbers of books that were written because authors couldn't find anyone to talk to."

The narrator of Essays in Love--a novel that is a work of philosophy, a work of philosophy that is, ostensibly, a fiction--feels to me like a lonely man, someone who falls in love by accident and falls out by design. I didn't understand until the last page the meaning of the cover photograph or the structure of the novel. Everything in the book is simple on the surface, yet studded with mystery. Like love itself.

De Botton has read Proust and written brilliantly about the experience. My feeling is that the inspiration for Essays in Love is the story of Swann and Odette in volume one of Proust's masterpiece. De Botton, playing both roles, analyses the coming into love that is always so surprising and uplifting, and meditates in painful detail on the unraveling of feeling, the loss of love and the unbearable aftermath of that loss. But de Botton's book isn't Proustian--it's something else, something entirely new.

"By accident," the narrator sits with Chloe on a flight from Paris to London.  "Chloe later told me that she had intended to take the ten thirty Air France flight, but a bottle of shampoo in her bag had happened to leak as she was checking out of her room, which had meant repacking her bag and wasting a valuable ten minutes." I wondered if she had said "wasted" in narrating the bit of happenstance that put her on a British Airways flight instead of her Air France plane, in the seat next to our (I can't help but think) lonely narrator? She might have. Chloe is an honest woman, and one of the marvels of Essays on Love is the truth telling--the strangers, then lovers, speak plainly with one another. Often this hurts. In matters of the heart, truth, I think, might be overrated.

The chapter headings are those of a philosophical work rather than of a novel. "Romantic Fatalism," "Authenticity," "False Notes," "Love or Liberalism," "Intermittences of the Heart" (my special favorite), and so forth. The style is mixed--not unlike Menippian satire, though in this case the satire is directed at all of the conventions of romantic love rather than at politics. De Botton imitates Wittgenstein in the scrupulousness of his dissection of his own and his beloved's feelings. From the courtship ("Subtexts of Seduction"): "We talked abstractly of love, ignoring that lying on the table was not the nature of love per se but the burning question of who we were and would be to one another. Or was there in fact nothing on the table other than a half-eaten carrot cake and two cups of tea? Was Chloe being as abstract as she wished, meaning precisely what she said, the diametrical opposite of the first rule of flirtation, where what is said is never what is meant?" A little shuffle here: the narrator semi-accuses Chloe of precisely his own inclination--to cover up his feelings with abstractions and small talk. De Botton gets this perfectly: we ascribe to the beloved exactly the feelings and motives that we have and convince ourselves of our own objectivity. See Swann's Way.

It's a funny book, especially if you've ever been in love. Early on our hero, an architect, provokes a fight over the sorts of jam that Chloe has to offer at breakfast. It's their first sleep-over, and the idea that one would be put off, angered even, by a lack of strawberry jam ("I hate having breakfast without any decent jam") is farcical. But then this scene appears in the "Marxism" chapter, and the point is clear enough: "...the origins of a certain kind of love lie in an impulse to escape ourselves and our weaknesses by an alliance with the beautiful and the noble. But if the loved one loves us back, we are forced to return to ourselves, and are hence reminded of the things that have driven us into love in the first place. Perhaps it was not love we wanted after all, perhaps it was simply someone in whom to believe, but how can we continue to believe in the beloved now that [she] believes in us."? So, it isn't Karl but Groucho Marx at play here--if she loves me, who am so unworthy, there must be some mistake. How could she?

I won't spoil the ending, but it isn't happy. But a happy ending would have precluded any philosophical meditation on loss. Our hero is cerebral, an over-thinker: "Few things are as antithetical to sex as thought." It is his brooding propensity to over-think every conversation, every act of his beloved that drives her away. In some things instinct should prevail. The road from intellect to instinct is impossible to traverse--better to start with the heart and inch toward the head then to make the futile attempt to move in the other direction.

I was left not only admiring the deft way in which de Botton had alternately skewered and caressed his love affair (it has to be his story), but I was left wondering what, exactly, love might be. One line of Essays in Love travels along the road traversed by Plato's Symposium--love is not a single thing but an individual's journey toward self-knowledge and, eventually, transcendence of this world. Physical love and human desire are self-negating and, like Wittgenstein's famous ladder out of the Tractatus, lead the lovers to a realm of being in which love no longer has meaning; love leads, in this view, to Love. But this isn't what de Botton was up to--I couldn't quite grasp what he wanted me to see until the final pages.

Love is sadness: in de Botton's account infatuation and desire provide the charm of attraction, but habit and familiarity lead a couple to weariness and even disgust. What must endure isn't "love" but friendship and trust. Our narrator and Chloe tire of one another quickly, not because of a lack of desire or a failure to share themselves with the other, but because their love as we see it (through the narrator's eyes) was never about them, it was only about him: "I did not simply love Chloe and then she left me. I loved Chloe in order that she would leave me." Chloe is "merely" an instrument designed to inflict punishment on the narrator for his naive faith in the existence of love. I chaffed a bit at what seemed to me a cheapened psychoanalytic resolution of the plot--after all, it is more difficult to understand the end of love then its beginning. And who believes, really, in love as self-flagellation? No, what I was reading, I thought, was a rationalization: Chloe fell out of love with the narrator because of his egotism and her capriciousness. Very tidy, and if the author weren't de Botton, a plausible enough plot (despite the philosophical asides) to render the book worthy of the Times best-seller list.

But on second reading it seemed to me that I needed above all to take the philosophical nature of Essays in Love seriously--the meditations on love aren't ancillary to the plot, they are the plot. De Botton has written a novel about love that recapitulates the history of philosophy, from Plato to Freud, with chapters that subtly invoke Aristotle, Descartes (on the mind-body problem), Hume, Rousseau (a section on pastoral romance in the spirit of his Nouvelle Heloise), Hegel, Schopenhauer, Marx, Nietzsche, and ending with ideas taken right out of The Ego and the Id.  Yes, this was it--a love story that is actually a work of philosophy, or, perhaps, a work of philosophy imbued with the idea that the truth resides in loving. Loving a person, yes, but also, more so, loving knowledge. Our hero doesn't live happily ever after but--just barely--he lives. Sadder, as they say, but wiser.

Published by Picador, Essays in Love was de Botton's first book.

George Ovitt 8/25/2015

Thursday, August 20, 2015

The Ways of Pain

A Bend in the River by V.S. Naipaul

The world is what it is.

In rereading this fine, remarkably undemonstrative novel, I was struck, more profoundly than ever this time, by the notion (surely not an original one) that the story is a smart, often deeply ironic retelling of Conrad's famous Heart of Darkness, in this case from the jaded, fatalistic, sometimes painfully enervated perspective of a once-colonial subject, a fractious, headstrong young Indian named Salim.

When the novel opens, Salim, the narrator, has left his ancestral home on the coast to strike out on his own, and is living as a petty shopkeeper in a ruined town deep in the African bush, a region recently laid waste by the latest wars of independence. Ever since arriving, he has sensed his essential vulnerability there, for he is not only a man from the coast but an ethnic outsider, a 'bloody Asian,' a muhindi. "Ruins had been left as ruins; no attempt had been made to tidy up. The names of all the main streets had been changed. Rough boards carried the new, roughly lettered names. No one used the new names, because no one particularly cared about them. The wish had only been to get rid of the old, to wipe out the memory of the intruder. It was unnerving, the depth of that African rage, the wish to destroy, regardless of the consequences."   

It is out of this precariousness that the narrator's bleak, often scarifying vision of the modern world unfolds. For, while Naipaul is clearly writing about East Africa, about what he viewed as the post-colonial catastrophe that is Africa today, he is also writing about the ravages of European colonialism writ large, so that, for all of the particularity of the novel's setting (a region which Naipaul got to know quite well), there is something of the allegory to this complex and bewildering tale. As writer Neel Muhkerjee put it in his incisive 2011 reassessment of the novel, "At times, it is a book about the tension between being and becoming, played out on the bass and treble clefs of the individual and the global; at others, about the silent, patient rage of history; about how free, if at all, one can be of history and its burdens."

It is no secret to Naipaul's fans, that he, an Indian born and raised as a colonial subject in Trinidad, the precocious grandson of indentured servants, spent the better part of his life, as a man and writer, and finally as a naturalized English citizen and knight of the realm, locked in a twisted, often brilliant, finally deeply bitter struggle to find place for himself in this world. As with Naipaul himself, Salim, the narrator of this superb re-imagining of Conrad's darkest vision, is both Marlow and Kurtz, at once the innocent, the acolyte, and the one who has seen too much.

Peter Adam Nash

Saturday, July 25, 2015

A Wish to Eye God

Some years ago, when my wife and I were travelling in southern Africa, we had the chance to hear a reading in Swaziland by the South African writers, Nadine Gordimer and her longtime friend and fellow activist, Mongane Wally Serote. While Gordimer read her story "The Ultimate Safari", Serote followed with a number of his poems, including (if I remember it correctly) the anguished "A Wish to Eye God".

A Wish to Eye God

May it happen that one day
When the sun wipes its face
and the moon shakes its sweat like a dog removing flies
I will no longer write about people
dying in the street and bleeding through the ears and eyes
and babies suffocating in suitcases in muddy dongas;
I am not pleading or praying
I am just polite
choking my shout from rushing out
I am calm
Since that other day when I saw that mother shout at you
     at the grave
and I knew
even her dead silent scream won't help
and I was not wrong
Since I have been to the graveyard to lay down a stabbed
You know that
I think
and think
about you and all they say about you
and what I see and hear and live
I have never had a life
but maybe I won't live for you
I feel like shouting.

Peter Adam Nash