Haunted by literature

To the Lighthouse – once again.

It won’t leave me alone. It’s the dinner-scene, it keeps coming back to me, asking to be investigated, scrutinised, analysed … dissected?

I have posted on it before, but I can see there is more to explore. I will try to write an essay on it, this autumn, just to get it out of my mind …

The lighthouse on Godrevy Island

I think Emily Colette Wilkinson have some really good points in her short note on the novel:

In its intermingling of separate consciousnesses, To the Lighthouse is both intellectually and psychically difficult. Not only is it hard to tell who’s who and who’s saying or thinking what, it is also disconcerting—even queasy-making—to be set adrift in other minds, with their private rhythms and associative patterns. It feels, at times, like being occupied by an alien consciousness. Some readers don’t ever find their sea-legs with Woolf.  The trick is to surrender yourself (true with other high modernists too), to let the prose wash over you and take you where it will—not to worry too much about understanding a dogmatic way.

It’s easy to lose track of whose mind you’re listening to, whose words you’re hearing, who’s being spoken about. But in this is also something ghostly and god-like: you drift, as if disembodied, into the minds of others, through the rooms of the Ramsay family’s summer house on the Isle of Skye; you hear snatches of conversation from the drawing room, wisps of another conversation on the lawn. The plot of the novel, such as it is, is diffuse and amorphous; By the standards of most 18th and 19th century novels, it’s not really a plot at all.

it is a great art to saunter

If I were to describe Olivia Laing’s To the River: A Journey Beneath the Surface in one word, I would call it slentrendewhich is a Norwegia word for saunting:

A verb of unconfirmed origin, saunter means to “walk with a leisurely gait.” As a noun, saunter describes that leisurely gait. Henry David Thoreau once said “it is a great art to saunter.” 

In To the River Laing walks & writes along the river Ouse from its source to the sea, keeping company with Virginia Woolf as she strolls along. Laing is developing the art of sauntering beautifully, as she let historical facts and anecdotes mix in with her own story.

I’ve not yet finished reading the book, really its the kind of book you don’t want to end – it stitches together nature writing, cultural history & literature in a poetic and mindfull way…


Men are all brothers … ?!

Yesterday I read a bit about Oulipo. While reading I discovered this beautifully arranged picture of a part of the group, but couldn’t help noticing that there weren’t any women around … (I am, after all, on a quest  for literary foremothers).

In A Room of One’s Own Virginia Woolf writes: “we think back through our mothers if we are women. It is useless to go to the great men writers for help, however much one may go to them for pleasure.”

Definitely the Opera hinted to this party of men not being a case of accident, but more of a cultural tendency, or – to be honest: a classic case of historical phallocentrism. A concept Derrida can tell us more about, as he also can about friendship.

The following text is snatched from a great paper by Joanne Winning

Derrida recounts the three models of friendship proposed by Aristotle:

  1. the higher friendship’ which is ‘based on virtue’ and which has ‘nothing to do with politics. It is a friendship between two virtuous men’;
  2. ‘friendship grounded on utility and usefulness, and this is political friendship’;
  3. ‘On the lower level, friendship grounded on pleasure’.

These different concepts of friendship, Derrida argues, move across different registers. Some are political and some are not. Derrida notes, as he works through the Aristotelian models, that ‘political friendship’ is fundamentally inflected by gender. It is, to quote from him directly, ‘a phallocentric, or phallogocentric, concept’. From an Aristolean construction onwards, the parameters of friendship and friendship bonds exclude women and the notion of female friendship.

Whilst Derrida himself doesn’t cite the example of the sixteenth-century essayist Michel de Montaigne, we might well use him as an example. In his essay ‘On Friendship’, Montaigne argues: ‘the normal capacity of women is, in fact, unequal to the demands of that communion and intercourse on which the sacred bond is fed; their souls do not seem firm enough to bear the strain of so hard and lasting a tie’.

Derrida argues that the canonical model of friendship is archetypally ‘a friendship between two young men’. Such a canonical model, Derrida notes immediately, excludes several possible permutations: ‘first of all friendship between a man and a woman, or between women, so women are totally excluded from this model of friendship: woman as the friend of a man or women as friends between themselves’. 

Derrida identifies the guiding principle that underlies the model of canonical friendship as ‘brotherhood’ or ‘fraternity’. Such a principle finds its roots in various dominant cultural discourses; Derrida identifies it in Greece, as well as Christian ideology in which ‘Men are all brothers because they are sons of God’.

“we think back through our mothers if we are women”!

W. G. Sebald

For a long time I’ve been wanting to read W. G. Sebald, thoroughly, like I’m currently reading the work of Virginia Woolf. Actually I planned Sebald to be my next project – in a year or so – .

BUT … it seems I’m no longer the captain of this ship – Sebald won’t wait! So here I go, diving into Sebald in my year with Woolf, who knows what will happen next???

Stuffing his pillow

with sand he wishes

the deluge would begin

Until now I have just read bits and pieces of Sebald. What has been fascinating me the most is his use of the visual in his writing; of photos, art etc. But I really don’t know Sebald at all. I just have this intense & strong feeling that I have to read him.

I have had to let go of my master-plan, he can’t wait. Here is a short account of my reading on Sebald’s work an early friday morning in May 2012:

Winfried Georg Sebald was born in 1944 in Wertach, a village in the Allgäu region of southern Germany. He studied in Germany, Switzerland and England, and in 1966 took up a post as lecturer at the University of Manchester. In 1970 he settled permanently in Britain, and was professor of European literature at the University of East Anglia until his death. His fiction began to appear in English in the 80s, including The Emigrants – probably the book that readers new to Sebald should begin with – The Rings of Saturn and Vertigo. Austerlitz brought him wide and belated recognition from influential critics such as Susan Sontag. He died in a car crash shortly before Christmas in 2001.

According to John Banville:

Sebald’s importance – and for once the word is justified – lay in the fact that, uniquely among contemporary fiction writers, he had found a way through what Lionel Trilling called the “bloody crossroads” where literature and politics meet. The four novels and one volume of prose-poetry that he published all engage, however indirectly and subtly, with the catastrophic history of his time, specifically the second world war and the Shoah, and their aftermath. They do so in the most delicate, anti-dramatic and moving fashion. Where others shout, Sebald murmurs. Has there ever been a more devastating and yet wholly undemonstrative account of the mid-20th century European horrors as Austerlitz, Sebald’s final novel; his masterpiece, and one of the supreme works of art of our time? In the past few decades we have become suspicious, rightly, of claims for literary greatness, but in Sebald’s case the claim was triumphantly justified. He was, he is, the real thing.

Geoff Dyer, in an essay on Sebald and Thomas Bernhard, comments:

The first thing to be said about W. G. Sebald’s books is that they always had a posthumous quality to them. He wrote—as was often remarked—like a ghost. He was one of the most innovative writers of the late twentieth century, and yet part of this originality derived from the way his prose felt exhumed from the nineteenth.

The psychoanalyst Adam Phillips’s claim that “Sebald is more like a new kind of historian than a new kind of novelist”

A world of relative inaccessibility

I’m spending days in Spain doing a bit of reading on Woolf, but also gradually focusing on my own writing. And this time I mean fiction & poetry, not the kind of pre-given jobs & assignments I usually do.

For some time now I have been working on a hybrid-text, mixing scientific observations and natural phenomenon with human emotions. Place names play an important role in my writing, and are mainly used in a poetical way – symbolic & metaphorical (+ metonymy, simile, synecdoche…).

A central question is what form I am to give my writing. I am not yet ready to answer – but the concept of form is being scrutinized.

At the moment I’m calling my text a fugue. Mainly because I’m very interested in motion & rhythm. But I might end up needing a more strict structure, to compensate for free-flowing thoughts.

I love the way Inger Christensen built up her book of poems called Alphabet. The number of lines in each poem is based on Fibonacci numbers: poem ‘A’ has one line, while poem ‘N’ has 600.

Didn’t someone say that art is all about stealing from the best … ?

alphabet [excerpt]

by Inger Christensen
translated by Susanna Nied
cicadas exist; chicory, chromium 
citrus trees; cicadas exist; 
cicadas, cedars, cypresses, the cere-

doves exist, dreamers, and dolls; 
killers exist, and doves, and doves; 
haze, dioxin, and days; days 
exist, days and death; and poems 
exist; poems, days, death

I have not studied Dr Freud

Alessio had this comment to my post Woolf & the Ramsay’s:

Thank you for sharing this. It is what I believe to be ‘writing as therapy’ as I recently suggested in one of my posts. Virginia Woolf is no exception.

The comment, which I believe to be to the point, made me want to have a quick look on Woolf’s view on Freud. (I deliberately say quick look, because I know this theme could easily become a subject for a thesis of considerable length …)

But my quick look first led me to a text by Julia Briggs (2006)

In her text Briggs points to both similarities and differences between Freud & Woolf.

Alix Strachey, a practising psychoanalyst and an old friend of the Woolfs, discussing why Leonard had not persuaded Virginia to see a psychoanalyst about her mental breakdowns, concluded ‘Virginia’s imagination, apart from her artistic creativeness, was so interwoven with her fantasies – and indeed with her madness – that if you had stopped the madness you might have stopped the creativeness too…

It may be preferable to be mad and be creative than to be treated by analysis and become ordinary.’ So whether art is regarded as transcendental and impersonal or as autobiographical in its genesis, the artist’s integrity seemed threatened by psychoanalysis.

What Woolf did in her literature, say for example in To the Lighthouse,  is very similar to the things Freud did in therapy – but Woolf is on several occasions stressing that she has no knowledge of psychoanalysis.

A way to understand this then, is to see these two writers as developing similar comprehensions on personality and inner life – explored from different point of views.

Commenting on the composition of To the Lighthouse, Woolf observed that, before writing it, she had been obsessed with her mother. She had written the novel ‘very quickly; and when it was written:

I ceased to be obsessed by my mother. I no longer hear her voice; I do not see her. … I suppose that I did for myself what psycho-analysts do for their patients. I expressed some very long felt and deeply felt emotion. And in expressing it I explained it and then laid it to rest.

According to her diary Woolf began reading Freud in 1939, after his death. But his thoughts had of course reached her long before, through Leonard & the Bloomsburys.

Between them, Freud and Woolf create an ongoing dialogue about the relations between thought, art, and life – a dialogue which can be read into all Woolf’s work …