Archive for the 'Literature' Category

The 12+12 Books of Christmas #21


When you think of Christmas and books, studies of Renaissance demonology are not the first things that come to mind. If you have friends or relatives into black metal or the occult, Satan’s Rhetoric by Armando Maggi might be a good stocking stuffer. Otherwise, I would steer clear of this one this time of the year. It’s nevertheless a very interesting book for anyone interested in the darker side of western thought during the Renaissance. In terms of the history of ideas, it’s a brilliant romp through a vein of thought that runs across western philosophy. If you want to know why you were absolutely terrified by The Exorcist even though you are not religious, here’s your explanation. Magical thinking of the kind Maggi unearths in the book runs very deep in our culture.

One of the things we learn from the book is that before the fifteenth century, the techniques of exorcism were more or less improvised. The grand Catholic church with its dogmas and rituals and pomp was pretty much making it up as it went along. Nobody really knew what to do with people who were possessed by demons. We get a number of interesting versions of exorcism techniques in Maggi’s study and although things began to coalesce into a coherent ritual, it still reads like the Keystone Cops in ecclesiastical robes.

One of the things the demonologists noticed was that possession always occurred with melancholia, an excess of yellow bile. Not all melancholics were in cahoots with the Devil, but all those who were were also melancholics. In a chapter on one Manuel do Valle de Moura and his De incantantionibus seu ensalmis (1620), Maggi writes:

It is well known, de Moura states, that the devil can exert an enormous power on a human being’s internal representations. As he will state in a later passage of De ensalmis, “the devil can influence our intellect only through phantasms.” In other words, every time a human being rationally or spontaneously formulates a linguistic expression in his or her mind, his or her sentences may be engaged in a dialogic exchange with an interlocutor (God, angels, devils) who is at once internal and external to the thinker’s mind. […] According to Renaissance demonologists, melancholics have a fluctuating identity, ranging from individuals prone to solitary musings to people who, suffering from hallucinations, believe that they have been turned into animals. Thus, it is extremely difficult to determine whether a melancholic is naturally sick or is affected by a devilish perversion.

It is comforting to know that even in de Moura’s time there was a distinction made between natural mental illness and possession. What is more disturbing is the notion that we are all beacons for devils when we form a thought. Our thinking sounds out like radio waves into the unseen world where it is picked up by the denizens of the ether. This is the kind of magical thinking that died at the onset of modernity and the Enlightenment. We had a notion in the West that there was something mysterious about our thoughts and words. They were being listened to. Somebody was at the other end of the line. Some, like the devils de Moura writes about, were even eavesdropping! Although the line has been dead for a long time, we still sometimes think we hear a crackling at the other end and shudder.

The 12+12 Books of Christmas #20


Naked Lunch by William Burroughs is an important and fascinating book. You can read it as a prophecy from the fifties that predicted the texture of modern life. It predicted new drugs, liposuction and the AIDS epidemic, among other things. It really depends on how much tin foil you are ready wrap around your head when you read Burroughs: he will tell you everything you need to know about electronic mass surveillance, absolute corporate power, mass migration, turning the planet into a Manichean hobbyhorse for the elites, global prison camps, the Internet, whatever you want. He is the quintessential author of the post-postmodern world. If you have not read his mad work, you have probably missed something essential about the world in which you live.

During his adventures our hero, William Lee, travels across the world and imagination to a bizarre facility run by Dr. Benway:

Dr. Benway had been called in as advisor to the Freeland Republic, a place given over to free love and continual bathing. The citizens are well adjusted, cooperative, honest, tolerant and above all clean. But the invoking of Benway indicates all is not well behind that hygienic facade: Benway is a manipulator and coordinator of symbol systems, an expert on all phases of interrogation, brainwashing and control. I have not seen Benway since his precipitate departure from Annexia, where his assignment had been T.D. — Total Demoralization. Benway’s first act was to abolish concentration camps, mass arrest and, except under certain limited and special circumstances, the use of torture.

Total demoralization accomplished, Benway turns his attention to other projects in Annexia and elsewhere. What Burroughs goes on to describe is a Foucauldian society of internalized bureaucratic discipline in satire so delicious it has not been written since Swift:

Every citizen of Annexia was required to apply for and carry on his person at all times a whole portfolio of documents. Citizens were subject to be stopped in the street at any time; and the Examiner, who might be in plain clothes, in various uniforms, often in a bathing suit or pyjamas, sometimes stark naked except for a badge pinned to his left nipple, after checking each paper, would stamp it. On subsequent inspection the citizen was required to show the properly entered stamps of the last inspection. The Examiner, when he stopped a large group, would only examine and stamp the cards of a few. The others were then subject to arrest because their cards were not properly stamped. Arrest meant “provisional detention”; that is, the prisoner would be released if and when his Affidavit of Explanation, properly signed and stamped, was approved by the Assistant Arbiter of Explanations. Since this official hardly ever came to his office, and the Affidavit of Explanation had to be presented in person, the explainers spent weeks and months waiting around in unheated offices with no chairs and no toilet facilities. Documents issued in vanishing ink faded into old pawn tickets. New documents were constantly required. The citizens rushed from one bureau to another in a frenzied attempt to meet impossible deadlines.

This is a hellhole few survive and the survivors are absolutely paranoid: “No one ever looked at anyone else because of the strict law against importuning, with or without verbal approach, anyone for any purpose, sexual or otherwise. […] After a few months of this the citizens cowered in corners like neurotic cats.” I believe Naked Lunch should be mandatory reading for everyone because of passages like the above. It lays out the paranoid, fearful and miserable society we have become. But it also tells you how you are being swindled out loving your neighbor by monsters like Dr. Benway, manipulators of symbol systems who shove their propaganda down our throats like it’s candy. Burroughs’s world is our world. You should pick up his book and study it until you know it by heart.

The 12+12 Books of Christmas #19


If you are new to reading poetry, I would recommend you start with something like Reading Poetry by Tom Furniss and Michael Bath. Not many people read poetry anymore, which is a shame, so you might want to start with the basics. There are few things better for your language skills, thinking and just pure enjoyment than poetry. Furniss and Bath argue that

the debate over poetic form has to be seen in terms of […] a long-standing debate in philosophy and linguistics over the nature of language itself. […] Whereas Locke and others assume that ideas pre-exist language (for Locke they are derived from sensory impressions) and are simply named by language, Saussure argues that ideas are shaped or even produced by the language system itself.

The above quotation distills the history of the philosophy of language into a few lines and covers a lot of ground, from John Locke (1632-1704) to Ferdinand de Saussure (1857-1913), but it makes an important point. You are not in complete control of your words and thoughts. You have been infected by a virus that guides some of the things you say and do. That virus is the language spoken in your surrounding culture. You use it to think and speak even though it is not of you in any true sense. Poetry forces you to think about this fact of life from different angles. Even if that was the only thing poetry did, it would be worth your time.

If you don’t know where to begin and you read English, start with Shakespeare. From there you can go on to different places in the English canon. I would probably go for Romantic poets like Wordsworth, Coleridge, Keats and Shelley next. When you come across interesting but difficult poets, you will need some help from theorists and critics. You will have to study, but that’s a good thing. The more you deepen your knowledge of poetry, the more poetry will give you. Very much like if you know even a little bit of music theory, listening to Bach is a vastly more enjoyable experience than listening to him without any knowledge of music. As you move along, you will bump into many incomprehensible poets and even those who seem to write as if their poetry is not written to be understood. This is normal.

Mallarmé and the Art of Being Difficult by Malcolm Bowie is a fascinating study about what it means to read poetry when you don’t stress meaning too much. That is, when the question “What does the poem mean?” isn’t that important. Poetry isn’t a puzzle to be solved–there are poems like this, but they are the exception. Poetry is more like a space where you can observe ideas fly by and interact. Sometimes you really have to let go of the human need to understand to see this. Bowie writes of Mallarmé:

Mallarmé makes us think again about the directions in which artistic coherence may be pursued and the verbal methods by which it may be articulated. He invites us to take risks. He exposes us to a special kind of anxiety by making it extremely hard for us to extract an idea from a text in a simple, manageable form: we are forced to leave it where it was, hedged about and baffled by its cognates, collaterals and contraries. What at one moment can seem a compressed and richly interfused set of meanings can the next seem a frightening turmoil of disconnected scraps.

You can read poets like Mallarmé and think he’s not being very  nice to the reader by bogarting his meaning. On the other hand, if you don’t attack poetic language as a problem to be solved, you will actually gain some pleasure out of his poetry. Besides, there are more ways of reading than one. Learning to read poets like him is yet another weapon in your arsenal.

The 12+12 Books of Christmas #18


Samuel Beckett’s novel trilogy is widely considered his greatest masterpiece. The three novels are quietly revolutionary. There is less and less plot as the trilogy progresses, but it becomes ever more difficult to put the books down the longer you read. At the end of it all, you get a payoff in Beckett’s famous “I can’t go on, I’ll go on.” Then you are done and can begin again.

I bought my copy of the book in Cyprus. We had a professor who told us that it is a good idea to start building a library in your undergraduate years. We thought about explaining to the professor that there were certain pecuniary constraints that university students must take into consideration, but decided against it. Instead of being sensible with my money, I headed to the book shop near the old town and bought a bunch of books. I still have most of them.

I also have The Unnamable as an audiobook. If there are those who sneer at audiobooks or books on tape, let me remind you that Beckett himself said his work “was a matter of fundamental sounds.” Initially I got the audiobook because it was really arduous to read a single paragraph of text that goes on for 200 pages. After listening to it, I found the work opened up in a completely new way. I have listened through the book too many times to count. It is indeed a case of fundamental sounds, the music of language, the harsh yet pleasant pitter-patter of Beckett’s prose. You can rest with it. There is no real plot to care about, few characters and not a lot to think about. My favorite kind of book.

The 12+12 Books of Christmas #17


On the Sublime by Longinus is one of the fundamental works of rhetoric and literary theory. It was a fairly simple book that showed rhetoricians how to use stylistically elevated language when addressing audiences. There are times when it is important to capture the audience’s attention more forcefully than usual and Longinus’ bag of tricks will help any reader to do it gracefully. The edition you see pictured here is in the original Greek with a preface in Latin. This is an old-fashioned but charming way to do it.

In a well-known essay called “A Reading of Longinus” in a 1983 edition of Critical Inquiry, Neil Hertz writes about certain passages of Longinus’s great work:

These are pages where, challenged by an aspect of his theme or by the strength of a quotation, Longinus seems to be working harder at locating his discourse close in to the energies of his authors. At those moments, he too is drawn into the sublime turning, and what he is moved to produce is not merely an analysis illustrative of the sublime but further figures for it.

He refers to parts of the text where there is, in his wonderful term, “a thickening of texture”. In these parts, Longinus puts the object of his analysis to work and instead of giving us the dirt on  rhetoricians who use sublime rhetoric, he becomes one of them. In this case it works despite the shift in register to the literary, odd for a theoretical text. It’s not like we could, following Longinus, begin to write criticism of Shakespeare’s sonnets in sonnet form, or write long rambling novels to examine long rambling novels.

Paul De Man said that Hertz’s essay “ironized, though not finally exorcised” the long tradition of the Longinian sublime. It is a short text, its authorship is uncertain and I remember feeling unimpressed reading it for the first time. Its reputation had naturally preceded it. But because the tradition is long and people have read and discussed the text for a long time, there is always something to be found in the interpretations if not the text itself.

The 12+12 Books of Christmas #16


Because I’m a grumpy middle-aged man, few books change my opinions about anything anymore. So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed (2015) by Jon Ronson actually did. The gist of the book is in Ronson’s TED Talk, in case you’re interested. The central narrative of the book is that of Justine Sacco, although there are many more. She was the woman who wrote that silly AIDS joke before boarding a plane to South Africa. During her flight, the joke went viral and she became very famous.

Everyone was furious, morally outraged, livid, pitchfork-wielding mad. For a stupid joke made by a silly PR woman who was making a silly comment on her white privilege and, to be fair, that of most of the people who were angry at her tweet. They delighted in her demise, they felt great satisfaction seeing this woman’s life ruined by social media, many of them probably wanted her dead. Some wanted her raped, and then dead. Ronson’s point is that we wanted her to suffer. We watched her go down, mouths salivating like a bunch of hyenas. This was not the doing of some abstract they, some other people somewhere else. This was you, me and us. We loved her pain.

Ronson’s book is a reminder that decent human beings can quickly turn into vicious beasts. We can be better, but it’s mostly bad news, I’m afraid. More people should read his book, have a look at their own behavior online, and they will probably feel nauseous at whatever they are doing on social media. The Internet is a wonderful thing, I think. It has produced far more good in the world than most modern inventions. But there is a dark side to it. I don’t mean the Dark Web or Deep Web or whatever people call it. The dark side of the Internet is what it has revealed about human nature.

The English author and thinker Anthony Ashley-Cooper, 3rd Earl of Shaftesbury (1671-1713), had a dream about a society where free speech was the norm. It was to be a transparent liberal haven for free expression of all sorts. He was optimistic enough to think that this would produce a better society than had ever been before, better government, better people. Well, here we are. The Internet is all and more than Shaftesbury could ever dream of, but it’s a cesspool. The technology is wonderful, the science is wonderful. Email, journals, instant communication, file transfers: all these things are most excellent. But I think we have lost Shaftesbury’s optimism about the people. Sometimes it rears its fuzzy head as it does in Ronson’s book and some of us think that maybe we still have a chance.

The 12+12 Books of Christmas #15


I once heard a male comic say: “I’m not a lesbian, but I can see their point.” The same could be said for nihilists. It’s been a really rough day, so I’ll just get right to it. Ligotti writes:

Simply put: We are not from here. If we vanished tomorrow, no organism on this planet would miss us. Nothing in nature needs us […] We have no business being in this world.

Ligotti thinks life is not alright, even though most people insist it is. Instead, life is “malignantly useless”. Consciousness forces us to think that there is something intrinsically good about our lives when there really isn’t. It takes a lot to shake a person awake from this Pollyanna fantasy:

Being alive is all right, or so most of us say. But when death walks through the door, nothing is all right. As some believe that life is that which should not be, the bulk of the rest of us believe the same of death.

Life is a horror show from beginning to end. There is no hope that your life will get better before it ends. The best you can expect is a peaceful death, but it will probably be something way more gruesome. Unspeakable pain and suffering before life puts you out of your misery. And once you’re gone, you will probably be forgotten in two generations. Your life will amount to nothing in the grand scheme of things and this is yet another fact of life that will cause you pain. If you have children, they will go through the same mayhem and you will have to bear the guilt of bringing them into this world.

Is there anything in life worth saving, anything that redeems it? Ligotti and other nihilists would say no, there really isn’t. Reading them is a gorefest of violent ideas that will leave you raw. Nevertheless, I did buy the book. I actually bought the Kindle edition as well. Not only that, I designed a university course on nihilism that was deeply inspired by Ligotti’s book. The course was a great experience and all the students were really into it. Watching this as someone who isn’t a nihilist–none of my students were nihilists either–was really rewarding. Ligotti’s brutal message seems to be the one we want to hear these days. We’re done with the endless bullshit of postmodernism, the jargon of philosophers, religion and pretty much everything else that does not tell the story as it is. I think it’s because we see that after we have spoken sincerely about the dark side of the human condition, we can finally get some actual work done. Nihilism is a starting point, a foundation on which to build. Even though Ligotti does not say this out loud, that’s what many thoughtful people I have met have taken away from his book.