Category Archives: Literature

Proust on cars

Proust’s In Search of Lost Time is a work of self through memory. The search is conducted through memory with the aid and hindrance of phenomena and habit, but done for the authentically expressing self. Or at least so I read it from my vantage point, a few hundred pages into The Captive.

One of the more interesting moves Proust makes in this great search of recollection is that time is not neutral: the wager of the search is that time can be lost and regained. In the course of his search the author comes face to face with the different natures of time, and how each of these differently impacts our self, world, and memory.

Part of the reason for this is that Proust is figuring out how to be an authentic self in a world in which time (and our entire being) has been so uprooted from the natural and tradition-based rhythms in the world around us. In a similar vein as Heidegger, Proust observes that modern technology confronts our world in “the character of a setting-upon, in the sense of a challenging forth.” And because this setting upon “expedites in that it unlocks and exposes…driving on to the maximum yield at the minimum expense,” our time and the world’s time changes, taking on different modes depending on which techniques of revealing and bringing forth are at work. Continue reading Proust on cars

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Toni Morrison on (not) writing a memoir

From a recent interview on her latest book, God Help the Child. The entire interview is worth listening to.

Contemporary writing is very, very different from say 20 years ago. It’s very self-referential and very inward you know. It might be a consequence of creative writing classes where you’re told “write what you know.” And people know their lives and their friends and their family, so they write very self-referential texts. You know, I always force my students: immediately I say do not write what you know because you don’t know anything. I want you to write about someone you invent. So if you get to the point, say in 2010-2015, where you’re being asked to eliminate every other point of view except yours – when you write your novel, when you write your poems – nothing in the world impacts on you except your personal experience and the way in which you might be able to extrapolate that into something else – I mean it’s like that in the movies, everywhere. It’s really boring. I was asked by my publisher before I published this book to do a two-book contract and write a memoir and I said okay. And then I thought about it and I thought, “oh dear, I can’t do that.” First of all, it’s boring. I know all of that. I know every bit of it. So, there’s nothing new there. I want something new. [Laughs.] Not going to re-tell some old stories, uh! I would fall asleep in the act of it! Maybe someone else wants to go and do that. I cannot do that, you know.

Proust and Merleau-Ponty on memory, naming, and perception

Memory, naming, and perception: three daily aspects of human life. One cannot collapse them to each other, but they are closely linked. Our memories – who we are, what we know, how we have experienced things previously – shape our perception, give us the ability to name old things, and anticipate our future expression. Naming draws things, people, and categories out of an undefined generality and thereby gives birth to and sustains much of our perception and memory; the moment of naming often coincides with the moment of seeing or of memory. At the same time, we seek for our naming to coincide with what we perceive, and a good memory must bear a close relationship to what we have perceived in the past. Memory, naming, and perception are inseparable and persistently separate.

How we remember, name, and perceive matters quite a bit. It is often rightly observed that how we see the world bears a close relationship to our ability to act well in the world. Only if we can see and name violence, goodness, where God is working in the world, the potential for human flourishing, and so on, can we act ethically. And because the world is made up of stories, our ability for such sight and naming will come largely from the stories we receive and encounter, and whether we receive them with the grace to remember them well. Continue reading Proust and Merleau-Ponty on memory, naming, and perception

Woolf on “genius”

The rhetoric of Genius is a tricky thing. What constitutes genius? Some kind of transcendence where authorial context  need not be considered? What kind of spaces are required for someone create a work of genius? On this blog, I’ve read about the genius according to Proust and Madmen. All this is to say, the language of genius doesn’t sit neutral with me and it appears to carry some weight with both Joel and Gerald.

On the silliness and sadness of genius Virginia Woolf writes this piece describing what it might have looked like if a woman in Shakespeare’s day had had Shakespeare’s genius:

Let me imagine, since facts are so hard to come by, what would have happened had Shakespeare had a wonderfully gifted sister, called Judith, let us say. Shakespeare himself went, very probably — his mother was an heiress — to the grammar school, where he may have learnt Latin — Ovid, Virgil and Horace — and the elements of grammar and logic. He was, it is well known, a wild boy who poached rabbits, perhaps shot a deer, and had, rather sooner than he should have done, to marry a woman in the neighbourhood, who bore him a child rather quicker than was right. That escapade sent him to seek his fortune in London. He had, it seemed, a taste for the theatre; he began by holding horses at the stage door. Very soon he got work in the theatre, became a successful actor, and lived at the hub of the universe, meeting everybody, knowing everybody, practising his art on the boards, exercising his wits in the streets, and even getting access to the palace of the queen. Meanwhile his extraordinarily gifted sister, let us suppose, remained at home. She was as adventurous, as imaginative, as agog to see the world as he was. But she was not sent to school. She had no chance of learning grammar and logic, let alone of reading Horace and Virgil. She picked up a book now and then, one of her brother’s perhaps, and read a few pages. But then her parents came in and told her to mend the stockings or mind the stew and not moon about with books and papers. They would have spoken sharply but kindly, for they were substantial people who knew the conditions of life for a woman and loved their daughter — indeed, more likely than not she was the apple of her father’s eye. Perhaps she scribbled some pages up in an apple loft on the sly but was careful to hide them or set fire to them. Soon, however, before she was out of her teens, she was to be betrothed to the son of a neighbouring woolstapler. She cried out that marriage was hateful to her, and for that she was severely beaten by her father. Then he ceased to scold her. He begged her instead not to hurt him, not to shame him in this matter of her marriage. He would give her a chain of beads or a fine petticoat, he said; and there were tears in his eyes. How could she disobey him? How could she break his heart? The force of her own gift alone drove her to it. She made up a small parcel of her belongings, let herself down by a rope one summer’s night and took the road to London. She was not seventeen. The birds that sang in the hedge were not more musical than she was. She had the quickest fancy, a gift like her brother’s, for the tune of words. Like him, she had a taste for the theatre. She stood at the stage door; she wanted to act, she said. Men laughed in her face. The manager — a fat, loose-lipped man — guffawed. He bellowed something about poodles dancing and women acting — no woman, he said, could possibly be an actress. He hinted — you can imagine what. She could get no training in her craft. Could she even seek her dinner in a tavern or roam the streets at midnight? Yet her genius was for fiction and lusted to feed abundantly upon the lives of men and women and the study of their ways. At last — for she was very young, oddly like Shakespeare the poet in her face, with the same grey eyes and rounded brows — at last Nick Greene the actor-manager took pity on her; she found herself with child by that gentleman and so — who shall measure the heat and violence of the poet’s heart when caught and tangled in a woman’s body? — killed herself one winter’s night and lies buried at some cross-roads where the omnibuses now stop outside the Elephant and Castle.

That, more or less, is how the story would run, I think, if a woman in Shakespeare’s day had had Shakespeare’s genius.

From Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own, Chapter 3.

Proust on art and genius

Over the last month we’ve had a few discussions on art and genius. One theme has been the question of whether art can reach outside of its context to speak truth, what such art might look like, and whether such art (if possible) would be recognizable to people. I thought we couldn’t do worse than get some of Proust’s ideas on the subject.

In the paragraph I’m about to quote, the narrator is looking at some paintings by his favourite painter, Elstir. He is reflecting, also, on the fact that ‘society people’ despise Elstir’s work. The argument is that genius is never appreciated in its own time, precisely because genius breaks with its own time in its ongoing effort at expression. It’s an open question as to whether this is because art naturally progresses (and people are a step behind) or because the genius creates the foundations for future epochs of art (which are disturbing to those who assume different foundations), though I would tend to favour the latter interpretation. Continue reading Proust on art and genius

The Christian’s Destination as Ongoing Work that is Good

I often find it helpful to think of the Christian life in terms of journey and Good work. And I also find that we best think of this journey or work as ongoing. In this way the destination of the Christian’s journey is journeying in friendship with God. God does not call us to something that is other to Godself, and God does not give us hard work prior to a reward in abstraction from this work. Certainly God promises rewards to the faithful, but these rewards are in fulfillment of the good towards which our faithful actions gesture. Martyrdom, for example, is a confessional embodiment of the Kingdom reality of “living together in love,” which is promised the reward of the loving communion of the resurrection.

This approach has the advantage of not separating God’s gifts to us from our reception of (and participation in) these gifts. Grace and discipleship are brought together rather than severed. Such an approach also holds the potential of dispossessing us of any pretentious to absolute truth. We may be called by God, but this calling does not mean that we know in advance where and how God’s truth may be found. In fact, it actively calls us to a certain openness towards unexpected discoveries of God’s grace. For if our goal is ongoing work, then perfection involves continued growth and learning, not “having it all together.” And finally, seeing the Christian journey as ongoing removes any separation between God’s being and God’s act. God both is love and gives love; resting in God’s love is not different than living a life of love. Continue reading The Christian’s Destination as Ongoing Work that is Good