Minima Moralia: Reflections From Damaged Life (Radical Thinkers)

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A Year in Reading: Patrick Nathan


On January 1st, I wrote in my notebook that it was “time to renew my usual promises and take artificial, arbitrary steps toward bettering myself and living a different life.” I made a list of aspirations, which included things like “Return writing to its centerpiece in your life,” and “Reduce temptations for distraction.” Fortunately, aspirations always take place in the future tense. I did, however, “read widely and daily,” and came close to learning “constantly.” Despite—or perhaps because of—2017’s relentlessness, I’ve read more books this year than any previous, and I do feel changed, somewhat, because of it.

Seeing—a subject I’ve been circling for years—seemed especially important after the simplistic, stupid, and reproducible narratives that followed the 2016 presidential election, and so I read more Susan Sontag (AIDS and Its Metaphors and Where the Stress Falls, but also: David Schreiber’s Susan Sontag; Sigrid Nunez’s brilliant and comforting Sempre Susan; and Phillip Lopate’s callow, insensitive Notes on Sontag—itself an accidental defense of mediocrity). I read more John Berger (About Looking), and more Teju Cole (the diaphanous Blind Spot as well as every “On Photography” column in The New York Times Magazine). Cole’s work led me to Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s Phenomenology of Perception, which might be the most fun I’ve ever had not understanding a book, and Gaston Bachelard’s The Poetics of Space. I read Peter Buse’s engaging history of the Polaroid, The Camera Does the Rest. (Funny story: Polaroid Corporation specifically discouraged the use of Polaroid as a noun, i.e. “check out this Polaroid.”) I read Patricia Morrisroe’s terrifying biography of Robert Mapplethorpe and Roland Barthes’s Camera Lucida; in both, the photographer is an agent of death.

In my reading and in my essays on the technologies of seeing, I’ve been looking for the places at which perception and politics intersect. The renewed popularity of fascism, which propagates and governs by aesthetics, has made these intersections much more obvious. Of course there’s Hannah Arendt’s Origins of Totalitarianism, which, in contemporary America, has made me feel like Cassandra, whose warnings of Troy’s destruction meet nothing but derision. Even more enthrallingly pessimistic is Theodor Adorno’s Minima Moralia, which I’d tried to read several times in years past, but didn’t quite “connect” with until this year. But then there was Kevin Young’s The Grey Album, a history of American culture as black culture, ever renewed and reinvented and repeatedly appropriated—and one of the best books on art I’ve ever read. There was Ibram X. Kendi’s Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America, which really is definitive. This, more than any other book I’ve read in 2017, is the one book I would hand to everyone, that I wish the entire nation would read. I read Michael Eric Dyson’s Tears We Cannot Stop: A Sermon to White America and Valeria Luiselli’s Tell Me How it Ends, both brilliant missives that beg the reader to understand a particular and overwhelming political pain. And then there was Nato Thompson’s Culture as Weapon and David Graeber’s The Utopia of Rules, which both, in their detailed, patient ways, reveal the sinister sophistication behind structural inequality in the United States, and how fear and confusion destroy democracy in favor of profit. This is evident, too, in Peter Moskowitz’s rage-inducing study of gentrification, How to Kill a City, which led me to Sarah Schulman’s The Gentrification of the Mind—right behind Kendi’s Stamped as “that book everyone should read.”

Beauty? I’m not so sure of that, anymore. It’s hard to look for beauty in 2017 without it feeling narcotic, or even violent. But feeling? There is so much to be felt, and I feel like I felt a great deal through reading, this year. Most recently, Alexander Chee’s novel Edinburgh left me shattered and quiet for days. It may have been a mistake to read it in November, when everyone I know seemed to be reliving, after Harvey Weinstein et. al., one form of trauma or another. More Sontag: The Volcano Lover, Debriefing, and In America. Many people dismiss her fiction outright, preferring her to have been one kind of writer and not several, but her latter novels and a handful of her stories are incredible contributions to literature, especially if we’re to remember that literature rarely offers itself in familiar forms. I read Hanya Yanagihara’s first novel, The People in the Trees, which rivals Gabriel García Márquez in its creation and destruction of a separate, unique, and precious world. For the first time, I read Frank O’Hara—so I read everything he wrote. Danez Smith’s Don’t Call Us Dead; Daniel Borzutzky’s The Performance of Becoming Human; 50 years of Louise Glück; Layli Long Soldier’s Whereas; Alex Dimitrov’s Together and By Ourselves: I fell in love with so many new ways of seeing. I’d forgotten, for a while, how to read novels, but then Shirley Hazzard died and I learned, a few months later, that The Transit of Venus takes your breath away on almost every page, an incomparable masterpiece. I learned that Agota Kristof, in her triptych of novels—The Notebook, The Proof, and The Third Lie—could carry a decade in one sentence. I learned that Irène Némirovsky’s Suite Française was a war novel that made Ernest Hemingway’s look like Twitter activism.

If nothing else, my convalescence after last year’s psychological injuries has only been possible, bearable, through books. This is something writers say all the time, usually with an Instagram photo of #coffee or a cat. This is who I’d like to be, our shared photos often say, and it’s in books that I find it easiest to realize those aspirations. Despite everything, I won’t complain that this year’s difficulties have pushed me toward becoming that other version of myself. I don’t regret that I’ve grown closer to books, to their voices.

And they do have so much to say. In Compass, Mathias Énard reminded me that you could build an entire life—a gorgeous life—out of longing. And in his monograph of Polaroids, Fire Island Pines, Tom Bianchi assured me that queer utopias can exist, at least as long as we remember that a utopia is a moment in time—either an aspiration, out there in the future, or a snapshot we carry of the past, before things got so hard.

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A Year in Reading (And Not): Mark O’Connell

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For me, 2012 has been at least as much a Year in Not Reading as a Year in Reading. Like a lot of members of the book-based community, I’m prone to making aspirational purchases, as though buying a book were somehow the first link in an unbroken chain of causation that ends, inevitably, with having read it. For me, it’s become increasingly clear that this is a form of magical thinking, but there’s no sign of my changing my ways just because I’ve had this realization. I’m always buying books on the basis that they are exactly the books I should be reading, while knowing that the likelihood of my ever starting them, let alone finishing them, is vanishingly small. I am, as we say in Ireland, a divil for it. I have no idea how many works of academic literary criticism I have bought on this basis, but it is, I fear, a number approaching shitloads.

There’s one book in particular that I have spent much of this year not reading, and that’s Adorno: A Biography by Stefan Müller-Doohm. I’m pretty sure that my relationship with this book is a lot more intimate and emotionally fraught than it would be if I’d actually read it. For the past nine months or so it has been squatting on my desk, in all its arrogant bulk and imperious disdain — like Ray Winstone in scholarly-volume form — taunting me with the fact of my not having read it. The thing about Adorno: A Biography is that it couldn’t care less that I haven’t read it; in fact, it seems to derive a kind of smug enjoyment from my continuing failure to do so. It knows all about the life and writings of Theodor Adorno, and will continue knowing all about them regardless of whether I read it. It also knows me better than I know myself, this book; it knows that I’m the type of person who will buy a 648-page biography of Theodor Adorno, but not, crucially, the type of person who will read it.

I allowed that domineering bastard into my life in the first place after reading — as opposed to merely purchasing — Adorno’s Minima Moralia: Reflections from Damaged Life (which, ironically, I wrote about here in the context of its bucking the trend of my failures of readerly steadfastness). It’s an amazing book of short essays and elegant aphorisms on a vast array of topics — love, capitalism, war, fascism, children’s toys, architecture, psychoanalysis — that contains some of the most beautiful accumulations of sentences I’ve ever come across. Like this, for instance:
Waking in the middle of a dream, even the worst, one feels disappointed, cheated of the best in life. But pleasant, fulfilled dreams are actually as rare, to use Schubert’s words, as happy music. Even the loveliest dream bears like a blemish its difference from reality, the awareness that what it grants is mere illusion. This is why precisely the loveliest dreams are as if blighted.
I also sat down and properly read a couple of books by Susan Sontag — Against Interpretation and Where the Stress Falls — and loved more or less every word of both, especially the stuff I vehemently disagreed with. I also dipped in and out of the first volume of her journals. As with so many of the best cultural commentators, Sontag’s critical persona was itself a kind of ongoing work of art. I love the spectacle of her hawkish aestheticism; for its own sake, certainly, but also for the way it forced me to think more clearly about my own cultural values. (Right now, I couldn’t tell you exactly what these are, but I do remember having a sense of them at the time).

The most fun I had with a book all year was definitely the Sunday I spent reading David Rees’s How to Sharpen Pencils: A Practical and Theoretical Treatise on the Artisanal Craft of Pencil Sharpening, for Writers, Artists, Contractors, Flange Turners, Anglesmiths, and Civil Servants, with Illustrations Showing Current Practice. (With a title like that, it’s basically immoral to shorten it to its first four words.) It’s a deeply funny and fascinating exercise in sustaining a rarified tone in the face of an apparently absurd subject matter, and it’s also a covert quasi-memoir about obsession and coming to terms with difficulties and disappointment in life and art. Primarily, though, it’s a very, very detailed guide to sharpening the bejesus out of a pencil, and it’s stood me in good stead in that regard. The second most fun I had with a book all year was the second time I read it, about three weeks later.

As for fiction, I spent quite a lot of time this year harassing friends, acquaintances and perfect strangers to read the Portuguese writer Gonçalo M. Tavares, who I feel confident is lurking somewhere in the general vicinity of genius. I read his “Kingdom” series of novels — Jerusalem, Learning to Pray in the Age of Technique, and Joseph Walser’s Machine — straight through, one after the other, and the experience was a full-on revelation. He’s one of those writers (like, say, Kafka or Beckett) who makes almost all other writers seem not fully serious, as if they are, on some crucial level, just messing about. Not everyone I bullied into reading him was as impressed as I told them they would be; a couple of people said they found his fictional world too cold and inhuman, but this is, I think, exactly what so enthralls me about him. In the best possible way, he writes like an alien.

Chris Ware’s Building Stories was also a rich and remarkable experience. I don’t really know what else to say about it, except that it’s definitely a masterpiece.

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“Why So Serious?” Batman and the Intellectuals

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Reading Nikil Saval (my Stanford friend and colleague)’s review of The Dark Knight at n+1 today, I found myself of two minds about his take. I too had exclaimed angrily about the impossible bustiness of the whole troupe of Russian ballerinas Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) kidnaps on his yacht, and the befuddling reappearance of Cillian Murphy (villain psychiatrist from Batman Begins), as well as the almost unwatchable chaos that was most of the action scenes, and the manipulative gotcha “black criminals are human too!” scene. I had exclaimed about other things Nikil hadn’t mentioned – like why bother getting the wonderful Maggie Gyllenhaal to play just another insipid damsel in distress (albeit, weakly disguised as a “strong, independent woman”: she’s a DA! and she kicks the Joker in the balls while wearing an evening dress!)But the meat of Nikil’s review was his reading of the Dark Knight’s plot as political allegory. I am a rather bad reader of allegorical plots and having been told in vague terms by many people that the political implications of this Batman were intense, I hoped my symbolic reading skills were up to the task. My reading of the plot as allegory went something like this: our country has been taken over by a demented clown who burns money and oil and whose motives are incomprehensible. As you can imagine, I was very disappointed reading thus – I thought that this was not a very useful or provocative take on the current state of the union. I had also been told that Batman “goes over to the dark side” in this movie, but as far as I could see, except for wearing the black he always had, he was still the good guy (we knew his motives remained pure). Never, not once, did he seem taken in by the thrilling chaos that the Joker was peddling. (I had had a vague image of Batman and the Joker a la Danny Aiello and Bruce Willis in the under-appreciated Hudson Hawk synchronizing a heist by both singing “Swinging on a Star” in the same tempo. Holding hands while causing mayhem together! What fun! Try pulling that plot off next time, Christopher Nolan!) Again, I was disappointed.As Nikil’s review will show you, I missed rather a lot. The crux of the allegory and the moral ambiguity lies in Batman’s recourse to criminal methods to get the job of crime fighting done: his creation of a god-like surveillance system that violates the privacy of every resident of Gotham to find the Joker, and his beating information out of the Joker about the location of hostages and ticking bombs. In this, we can see the spectral reenactment of our own political situation: The US, which imagines itself as the world’s superhero, the champion of good, betraying its ideals (civil rights, the sovereignty of law, peace, justice) to defend these same ideals. Here was the genuine ambiguity and the interesting symbolic plot I had missed. As Nikil puts it “to fight anarchy is to lose one’s bearings, and move one’s own soul dangerously close to evil.” And this anarchy, of course, is terrorism and terrorists embodied in the Joker.No matter what you might, in the end, think of Batman’s (or the United States’) ultimate moral affiliation after these adventures, Nikil’s plot reading holds. My being of two minds takes issue more with Nikil’s idea that The Dark Knight is somehow a propaganda classroom, manufacturing citizenly consent for US policy and reinforcing in even its youngest viewers “every conceit that this childishly self-regarding nation has about its mission in the world”:And so the Joker, like other criminals in the film, is treated by Batman the way America treats terrorists: he is tortured. Intellectuals who favor the use of torture in the United States often reduce the ethical question to a hypothetical “ticking bomb” scenario, in which a terrorist reveals he has a plot to blow up thousands of people in one hour, and the only way for officials to extract information from the lunatic in time is through ruthless physical violence. “Ethics 101,” Charles Krauthammer calls it. “Hang this miscreant by his thumbs. It is a moral duty.” It doesn’t matter that, in a real Ethics 101 class, one would learn that legal ethics is not reducible to a childish theoretical picture; that there is not a shred of historical or present evidence on which to base such hypotheticals. (There are bombs in the real world, but they never tick.) Yet the real-world debate over torture is frequently reduced to this argument, because it has a terrifying simplicity to it. As in the scenario itself, the argument doesn’t even give you time to think: you are simply asked to decide, and your decision then becomes actual policy. When it is presented in something like real time, as it is in The Dark Knight, it actually functions as “Ethics 101” for the children who see the film.And I take issue with this not only because, dunderhead that I am, the only childishly self-regarding conceit I came away from the movie with on my own was “our president is a psychopathic jester who is burning down our economy and must be stopped at any cost – damn the law.” No, I take issue with this because it means that there is no difference between art and life – that the moral and social rules and actions we observe and tolerate in comic books and novels foist themselves upon us as we read and work their way into our real lives. Saying that children who watch Batman are being primed to condone their country’s use of torture is like saying that reading Patricia Highsmith’s Ripley novels will make us kill our rich friends and assume their identities – or, at least, that we’ll approve of those who do.This just gets what movie-going and novel-reading is about all wrong. I think most people go to the movies for escape – we get out of our own heads, away from our own worries, we suspend the real world for a while to move into a variety of different, often joyfully impossible, worlds. Here we find respite from our own lives. I also think the rules of genre are comforting. Real life-plots are unpredictable: We never know in real life when we’re walking into a chapter of personal tragedy, when things might take a romantic turn, when they’ll go Beckett-y or Kafkaesque, but if I rent, say, 27 Dresses or The Holiday, I have the comfort of knowing how it will go, even though I have the pleasure of not knowing quite how it will go. It’s soothing. And I don’t, unless I’m Don Quixote, get up from either movie and expect life to yield up to me the personalities or plots I just watched. Just as I don’t get up from Batman thinking that I wouldn’t mind seeing more terrorists water-boarded, even if, obedient student of the comic book genre that I am, I accepted whatever “the good guy” had to do to get the job done as “good” – which is probably why I missed identifying Batman’s “criminal activities” as such (“Yeah, but it’s Batman who’s spying on everyone. Now if the Joker, it’d be another story”).Admittedly, this is part of a larger resentment and even anger I harbor against intellectuals at the movies – and indeed part of my somewhat perverse occasional campaign against taste and connoisseurship generally. Should Batman induce such anguish and demand such moral seriousness at it does at n+1? (“Why so serious?” as the Joker puts it.)Although I agree with much of Nikil’s reading, I find in it something repellent (morbid, paranoid, despair-inducing) that I associate with the Leftist intellectual temperament. I have written before about Theodor Adorno’s Minima Moralia, Reflections on a Damaged Life and it is from Minima Moralia that I find the purest expression of this attitude that troubles and repels me:There is nothing innocuous left. The little pleasures, expressions of life that seemed exempt from the responsibility of thought, not only have an element of defiant silliness, of callous refusal to see, but directly serve their diametrical opposite. Even the blossoming tree lies the moment its bloom is seen without the shadow of terror; even the innocent “How lovely!” becomes an excuse for an existence outrageously unlovely, and there is no longer beauty or consolation except in the gaze falling on horror, withstanding it, and in unalleviated consciousness of negativity holding fast to the possibility of what is better… The malignant deeper meaning of ease, once confined to the toasts of conviviality, has long since spread to more appealing impulses… Every visit to the cinema leaves me, against all my vigilance, stupider and worse.Adorno’s book is a long collection of fragmentary meditations in the same inconsolable tone as this one. And while I have moments of deep sympathy for his tragic worldview, his sense that everything in our world is broken and sinister and corrupting, I think, for myself, that to linger in this mindset for long would be devastating. I would kill myself. I continue to marvel that the anguished consciousness on display here managed to survive itself for 250 pages. There is something of Adorno in Nikil’s take on the Dark Night – that watching this movie – maybe movies generally? – can be dangerous and morally suspect: That we Americans are watching our crappy, multi-million dollar nation-affirming movies while the world we set on fire burns. We retreat into movies (becoming ever easier in this era of Netflix, iTunes, and pay-per-view), neglect the world, and become dumber for our retreats into escapism, thus less capable of fixing the world we fled in the first place. “History will record,” Nikil writes, “that, while a monumental catastrophe overtook the world financial markets and a new colonialism destroyed the lives of nations, the United States still found time and money to resolve in its films what it could not, for the life of it, perform in the world.”Maybe History will. And maybe my logic is disgraceful and maybe I am deluded – or just weak (a junkie). The number of head pats, cheek pinches, and chin chucks I continue to get even now that I am almost 30 suggests that intellectual seriousness continues to elude me: but I love movies. And I defend them. They allow me to go into worlds that are more beautiful and make more sense than ours. Going to the movies, reading novels, is a kind of idealism for me, a longing for order and beauty that I will never find in this world. Maybe this isn’t morally justifiable, but it’s psychically necessary. Even Batman, flawed as it was, gave me a much needed respite from myself.Is Batman the problem? Is Batman a bigger problem than is an impenetrable seriousness, than a relentless critical certainty that would seem sometimes to insist that despair is the moral highground?

Competitive Aesthetics

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Reading our recent graduate’s response to our book question #59 post, I’ve been thinking about taste and literature. Why is it, with bookish people especially, that taste (in books and film, and music, and other variables like visual art, food, wine, beer, architecture, interior design), is such a sensitive matter?Our reader seemed somewhat aghast at having his reading list exposed – as aghast as I might have been, some time ago, had someone inventoried in public the contents of my kitchen while I was studying for my university orals (gin, red wine, coffee, Equal, macaroni and cheese, chocolate pudding, soy burritos, cigarettes, Xanax, multivitamins), or my video rental history from the summer I took my qualifying exam (Mandy Moore’s A Walk to Remember – oh, how I wept – Britney Spears’ Crossroads, Blue Crush, How High, The Skulls). Granted, my response to the culture of aesthetic oneupsmanship in which I live is to wallow in what many of my peers would call – with a slight grimace of distaste or a shiver of disquiet – mass culture. I think it’s alright, myself. Some of it. (There’s plenty of shit too.) And I think a diet of only “great books” and auteurs – Wagner, Goddard, von Trier, Proust, Marx… pick your poison… leaves one a bit milquetoast-y.I’ve read Theodor Adorno’s Minima Moralia, subtitled “Notes from Damaged Life”, in which he, a German Marxist intellectual living, at the time, in Los Angeles, reflects with pungent horror on modern popular culture and the deceptive comforts and conveniences of modern life. Adorno’s fragmentary pensées are one of the most visceral, moving portraits of alienation you’ll ever encounter. I look at the book sparingly and seldom because its sense of horror and melancholy is infectious. It’s also insane: how could anyone so full of despair and repulsion not have shot himself four or five fragments in? The wonder of the book is that the consciousness that produced it was able to survive itself for several hundred pages. While the book moves me, it is also a cautionary tale about psychic price of absolutist snobbism.Since Milton’s epic invocation to the muse in Paradise LostOf Man’s first disobedience, and the FruitOf that Forbidden Tree, whose mortal tasteBrought Death into the World, and all our woe,With loss of EdenTaste has come to mean much more to us than what we like to eat. For Milton, salvation hangs in the balance. As Denise Gigante, the author of Taste: A Literary History (and my advisor), has written, Milton’s sense of “taste is more than a physical sensation or appetite (though that is critically implicated too): it is a highly freighted philosophical concept with serious consequences for the creation of selves in society.” Eve’s eating of the apple was more than metaphor, and since her – or at least since Milton’s description of her – we have all been a little uneasy about what we consume. What if we are what we eat – and what we read? What if my watching all of the “O.C.” (not the fourth season – I do have some standards) has had moral – and mortal – effects? And has it just had its way with my aesthetic soul or my immortal one as well?An 18th century moral philosopher whom I’m quite fond of – Anthony Ashley Cooper, Third Earl of Shaftesbury – believed that our capacity for morality is like aesthetic taste, and that beauty in nature and art is aligned with goodness. He believed that goodness is beauty of a moral sort, and that in the same way we recognize beauty in the proportions of a statue, or harmony in the colors of a painting, we recognize moral goodness in human actions. While he claimed that this faculty was innate in human beings, he hedged his bets a bit in insisting on the need for a good education. And the troubling suggestion he leaves us with is that those who aren’t properly educated in art and the classics and history, might be a little morally iffy as well.If you’re around people with babies, it’s sometimes easier to notice this conflation of food for the body and food for the mind and soul. Only organic home-made baby food, no TV, carefully selected books and toys. The underlying idea is that the care the parents take in maintaining the quality of what the baby consumes will ultimately make it a better person. Smarter, stronger, more coordinated. Sadly, David Shipler’s The Working Poor suggests that this caution is well-founded. The lack of micro-nutrients in the diets of children raised in poverty often affects cognitive development. A child who starts life malnourished can become a child who’s behind in math and reading several years later; just as a child who suffers from emotional neglect in infancy is more likely to suffer from emotional and behavioral problems in later life.I am far afield from my original point, I fear. Having meant to soothe our reader with a meditation on the universality of his anxiety about taste, I find myself in baby food, by way of Milton and Adorno. My own feeling is that the game of competitive aesthetics is a wicked one. One I have played – one I will likely play again – I cannot help myself – but an unwholesome one nonetheless. It can give an electrifying surge of self-satisfaction, when you know the good things better than anyone else. But it won’t save your soul:A now-lost friend of mine, when he visited San Francisco a few years ago, went straight for my CDs. “You’ve got some good stuff here,” he said (pointing specifically to some Cat Power and Chet Baker), and he seemed to relax once he’d seen that, taste-wise, I hadn’t “lapsed.” His attitude towards people had always seemed to suggest that the people worth knowing were exquisite objets, and I was still up to snuff. (I’m not exempting myself – It takes a snob to know a snob: Or, at least, when you’ve known one too many aesthetic moralists, you, if not become one, often develop an inner one and don’t mind praise from an outer one.) The thing that made this visit more interesting as a case study for an aesthetics vs. morals debate is that my friend had just been excruciating rude to my roommates (one of whom was letting him sleep on her couch; the other of whom had just offered him a glass of whiskey). My visitor, while my roommates were watching “Will and Grace” had described its stupidity in detail: The word “crap” was used a lot and there was a sort of sneer employed in his disquisition on its crappiness. Many people, I think, would keep their mouth shut in such a situation: So, “Will and Grace” is dreadful: these people are putting me up for the night, I can keep my opinions to myself. But he couldn’t – as though there was, in the religious sense of the word, a moral imperative to condemn the damnable.A bigger lie was never written than this: De gustibus non est disputandem.
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Notebooks Elevated: On The Unquiet Grave: A Word Cycle by Palinurus (Cyril Connolly)

How to describe Cyril Connolly’s The Unquiet Grave: It is one of those books – like The Anatomy of Melancholy, The Compleat Angler, Minima Moralia, A Tale of a Tub, Urne Buriall – that defies all conventions of genre and, thereby, easy description. Though I have concerned myself much with the academic question of what it means to defy genre classification, I have no easy or convincing answer. By my reckoning, genreless literary works take into themselves aspects of various different disciplines (aesthetic criticism, philosophy, memoir and recollection, in the case of The Unquiet Grave) or genres (Moby-Dick is part “straight” narrative, part allegory, part encyclopedia (the Cetology chapter), part common-place book (the extended collection of quotations concerning whales at the beginning), part drama (the chapters that are laid out like acts in a play, complete with stage directions), part impressionistic quasi-philosophic meditation (“The Masthead” and “The Whiteness of the Whale” chapters)).The difference between a book like Moby-Dick and a book like The Unquiet Grave, is that Melville’s book has a master genre (it is still, at the end of the day, in spite of all of its formal experimentation, unquestionably a novel), whereas Connolly’s book, along the lines of Burton’s Anatomy, Adorno’s Minima Moralia, Wittgenstein’s Culture and Value, Sir Thomas Browne’s Urne Buriall – is, as a reading experience, something more akin to being submerged in the psyche and/or intellect of its author. These books are odd mixes of opinion, quotation, recollection, personal philosophy, and meditation, and all have – some more than others – a fragmentary or aphoristic style of composition that can at times verge on the hallucinatory. And perhaps ‘hallucinatory’ is the wrong word – the sensation that the reading of Connolly’s book induces is (and here I speculate) something more like being possessed for a while by the thoughts, the thought-patterns, rhythms, and favorite authors of someone else. The closest approximation of this sensation that I have found elsewhere is in the reading of private notebooks and unbound papers: Here, a fragmentary transcription of a conversation at a party; there, a formal letter to a parent; there, again, a diaristic meditation on the fear of marriage. All is produced of the same brain, in the same hand, and this common origin is the sole tie that binds the disparate sheaf.And yet, however similar the sensation of rifling through an author’s private papers may at times be to the reading of a book like The Unquiet Grave, a crucial difference remains: A book like Connolly’s performs what manuscript papers actually do. Connolly and his ilk turn the casual essay-istic style of the notebook into art. They refine, polish, and uplift the fragmentary, meandering private style: They make it palatable, even beautiful. Private writing, when it is really and truly private, is not necessarily charmingly haphazard: Almost inevitably, it slips into the unendurably dull, the defeatingly self-obsessed, the clumsy, sloppy, and rough. It is hard going. There are occasional pleasures to be had, gems of wit and observation here and there, to be sure, but these are the exception and not the rule.The beauty, the strange beauty, of The Unquiet Grave and its cousins lies in its elevation of notebook style – that quirky yet potentially enchanting melange of squib, meditation, quotation, anecdote, and philosophical monologue – to high art. The casual, associative meandering that stands in place of traditional chronology- and logic-driven narrative techniques creates the illusion that what we read was actually just dashed off casually in snatches of free time, while the quality of the thought, and the quality of the prose belies this informal, nonchalance of organization.Below are a few choice excerpts from The Unquiet Grave, by Palinurus (Connolly’s authorial pseudonym for this “experiment in self-dismantling”; the pilot of Aeneas’ boat who fell asleep at the rudder, fell into the sea, and was drowned; Palinurus was a sacrifice taken by Neptune; he died – though he didn’t know it – so the rest could arrive safely at Avernus).In their variety and strangeness, these passages (I hope) will give something of an introduction to the book:”Cowardice in living: without health and courage we cannot face the present or the germ of the future in the present, and we take refuge in evasion. Evasion through comfort, through society, through acquisitiveness, through the book-bed-bath defense system, above all through the past, the flight to the romantic womb of history, into primitive myth-making. The refusal to include the great mass-movements of the twentieth century in our art or our myth will drive us to take refuge in the past; in surrealism, magic, primitive religions, or eighteenth-century wonderlands. We fly to Mediterranean womb-pockets and dream-islands, into dead controversies and ancient hermetic bric-a-brac, like a child who sits hugging his toys and who screams with rage when told to put on his boots.””The Vegetable Conspiracy: Man is now on his guard against insect parasites; against liver-flukes, termites, Colorado beetles, but has he given thought to the possibility that he has been selected as the target of vegetable attack, marked down by the vine, hop, juniper, and tobacco plant, tea-leaf and coffee-berry for destruction? What converts these Jesuits of the gastric juices make, – and how cleverly they retain them. Which smoker considers the menace of the weed spreading in his garden, which drunkard reads the warning of the ivy round the oak?”From a brief set of descriptions of pets entitled “Graves of the Lemurs”:”Polyp. Most gifted of lemurs, who hated aeroplanes in the sky, on the screen, and even on the wireless. How he would have hated this war! He could play in the snow or swim in a river or conduct himself in a night-club; he judged human beings by their voices; biting some, purring over others, while for one or two well-seasoned old ladies he would brandish a black prickle-studded penis, shaped like a eucalyptus seed. Using his tail as an aerial, he would lollop through long grass to welcome his owners, embracing them with little cries and offering them a lustration from his purple tongue and currycomb teeth. His manners were of some spoiled young Maharajah, his intelligence not inferior, his heart all delicacy, – women, gin and muscats were his only weaknesses. Alas, he died of pneumonia while we scolded him for coughing, and with him vanished the sea-purple cicada kingdom of calanque and stone-pine and the concept of life as an arrogant private dream shared by two.””When once we have discovered how pain and suffering diminish the personality, and how joy alone increases it, then the morbid attraction which is felt for evil, pain, and abnormality will have lost its power. Why do we reward our men of genius, our suicides, our madmen, and the generally maladjusted with the melancholy honours of a posthumous curiosity? Because we know that it is our society which has condemned these men to death, and which is guilty because out of its own ignorance and malformation it has persecuted those who were potential saviours; smiters of the rock who might have touched the spring of healing and brought us back into harmony with ourselves.Somehow, then, and without going mad, we must learn from these madmen to reconcile fanaticism with serenity. Each one, taken alone, is disastrous, yet except through the integration of these two opposites there is no great art and no profound happiness – and what else is worth having? For nothing can be accomplished without fanaticism, and without serenity nothing can be enjoyed. Perfection of form or increase of knowledge, pursuit of fame or service to the community, love of God or god of Love, – we must select the Illusion which appeals to our temperament, and embrace it with passion, if we want to be happy. This is the farewell autumn precept with which Palinurus takes leave of his fast-fading nightmare.”

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