Heidegger Reframed by Barbara Bolt

Martin Heidegger (September 26, 1889 – May 26, 1976 is renowned for the complexity and subtlety with which his thoughts on the philosophy of being (ontology) is expressed. His ideas are inspired by numerous sources from the pre-Socratics, Plato, Aristotle and much of his thought dependent upon his early training as a Jesuit. He read and imbibed St Augustine and Duns Scotus. He trained under the phenomenologist, Edmund Husserl at Freiburg and his approach is deeply engaged with German philosophers like Kant, Schopenhauer and Nietzsche. He also read Kierkegaard with close attention.

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His ideas about the nature of being are in stark contrast with those of Descartes which involve a split between consciousness and the external world. This Cartesian framework or dualism is embedded in modern science and Western thought generally. One result of Descartes philosophy is that Nature is subject by the mind to measurement and calculation and also to manipulation. This borders on what is termed instrumentalism and indeed the consequent exploitation of the environment. This, Heidegger with his alternative view of the direction of philosophy, he deeply and radically opposed. The implication of Heidegger’s thought for the creative artist and the making and meaning of art forms the thrust of Barbara Bolt’s text. His project is illustrated with specific reference to international artists like Sophie Calle, Anish Kapoor and Anselm Kiefer.

 

Generally considered as a great classic of Twentieth Century philosophy Sein und Zeit, 1927 is not an easy book to read even if you are thoroughly fluent in German. Concerned with existence and the nature of being, it is equally interested in associated questions about time. This central text focuses on the nature of reality and the being-right-there of existence for which Heidegger uses the term Dasein. Part of the difficulty of understanding this central work is that language almost seems to break down under the pressure of difficulty in communicating the awesome nature of human existence, which many would see as essentially spiritual. Barbara Bolt provides a thoroughly useful glossary to such terms in support of her guide.

 

This glossary contains some eighty terms; it is relatively clear but illustrates some of the difficulties in expounding Heidegger’s collected work,Gesamtausgabe, which itself runs to more than eighty volumes. Barbara Bolt explains in her early chapters concepts associated with Dasein which involvecare for the self and other beings, Sorge, and in the face of personal and certain knowledge of death, the termination of existence on Earth, anxiety or Angst. For Heidegger there are two possibilities, it seems either falling into immersion in the day to day, which he terms ontic existence or striving with resoluteness for authenticity. This bears upon artistic endeavour in several ways; the acceptance of strife when faced with unsettling artworks, the necessity of praxis in art education and research which hopefully produces a practical and respectful understanding of materials by a heuristic approach. Bolt is interesting and thought-provoking in her exposition on this.

 

A perhaps greater difficulty in appreciating Heidegger, which Bolt mentions, perhaps too briefly, continues in current debate. This was his active involvement with Nazism and his eulogy of Hitler involving praise for his moral regeneration of the Fatherland. This has been, not surprisingly, a sticking point in the appreciation of the Heidegger canon. A discussion of this may be found inInauthenticity: Theory and Practice, contained in JP Stern’s essays on literature and ideology, The Heart of Europe. There is particular concern over his treatment of his German-Jewish teacher, a Christian convert and former colleague, the proponent of phenomenology Husserl, to whom Sein und Zeithad initially been dedicated. He also took a renowned student, Hannah Arendt as his mistress and she it was who later to testified on his behalf at a denazification hearing in opposition to Karl Jaspers.

 

In a key chapter, Barbara Bolt uses two central concepts of Heidegger to evaluate particular art works. These are ‘enframing’ (Gestellung) and ‘poiesis’-a Greek term for making from which the word poetry is derived. Enframing, according to Heidegger, has negative connotations and is applied to methods like those of modern technology which treats nature solely as a means to an end and shows Heidegger to be an early proponent of environmentalism and certainly a critic of agribusiness. This seems to be echoed by concerns about the manner in which the business of art has been cheapened and debased by commercialisation and celebrity culture. There is, she explains an unholy alliance developing between advertising in late capitalism as evidenced, for instance, by Tracey Emin selling Bombay Sapphire Gin. Enframement also appears to include a criticism of managerialism; disapproval of the manner in which humans are treated often with statistical techniques as mere available resources. Before examining the concept of ‘poesis’, it is worth noting that this book is actually entitled ‘Heidegger Reframed’ and is one in a general series. This tends to give framing a different, presumably positive connotation that sits uneasily with the particular use of the term by Heidegger. Unfortunately, there appears to be no general series editor that could add guidance and cohesion to this demanding project of applying the thought of modern philosophers to art.h1

 

Bolt sometimes writes convoluted sentences in a somewhat orotund style which may be an understandable effect of propounding the concepts of this demanding, intriguing philosopher. Nevertheless, the style invites the reader to question some of the propositions expounded. There is no doubt that Heidegger had a particular view about the dominance of the scientific method as he conceives it. Also mathematics seems deemed uncongenial, whereas language, and also history with its different conception of time and certainly etymology are viewed by Heidegger as more relevant to his project. It is interesting to speculate how much he might have responded to philosophers of science like Thomas Kuhn whose views on paradigm shift, and those too of Paul Karl Feyerabend, might have influenced him had he been fully aware of them. Heisenburg, a contemporary and also a controversial figure, might have influenced Heidegger on his notion of how preconceived theories operate in science.

 

Heidegger as Bolt explains was inspired by poetry and must have been sensitive to its lyricism. This makes the reader question his apparent failure to respond to the beauty of mathematics which is in a sense a universal language. In general he was at pains to oppose certain notions of aesthetics associated particularly with the Enlightenment and Romanticism and the artist as an inflated, self-dramatising subject. In his conception of poesis, Heidegger approaches another mode of artistic appreciation and indeed gratitude which is guided by sympathy. The term, as Bolt makes clear is Greek in origin and involves openness to the bringing-forth or unconcealment of being. It is, for example, the sense of wonder when a butterfly emerges from a chrysalis or in the transformation when a flower blossoms from a bud. Heidegger spent a year in 1942 lecturing on Hölderlin’s Hymn “The Ister” which relates to the Danube and examined the limitations of a metaphysical interpretation of art and appears to argue the case for spiritual values in art together with a feeling for place attained by intimate journeying. George Steiner emphasises elsewhere how Heidegger’s titles are those of peregrination and comments, “He has been an indefatigable walker in unlit places”.

 

Barbara Bolt has written an interesting book on a difficult topic. The publishers might have supported her with somewhat better illustrations than the few disappointing images provided. However, she has shown how Heidegger can illuminate the work of prominent international artists. She has provided an introduction to a highly influential and controversial thinker supported with a sound biography. This work encourages the reader to bravely question art and promote radically innovative ways of observing and researching related issues.

 

 

 

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Monday was Washday- a review of “Women of West Cornwall”

Monday was washday. For many Cornish women, the busiest day of the week. The first day of the week one of strenuous activity after a long, quiet and for many a Methodist Sunday. The thought of washday recalls images of raw, red hands, buckets of “blue” whitener and the dangerous possibility of fingers getting crushed in the mangle. In this book from the Penwith Local History Group, “Women of West Cornwall”, all the of the back breaking effort of domestic routine, to which women were tied, is vividly recalled. In earlier days before washing machines and even hot water, it might involve catching and hauling buckets of rainwater. For women in large Victorian families catering for brothers fishing or sons toiling on the land it meant restoring heavily soiled work clothes. It was truly hard labour.WWC

This fascinating 100 page book gives the impression that many women’s lives were run along pre-determined tracks. Who you married decided rigidly the pattern of your future life. Also according to medieval laws, up until the late 19th century your property and dowry became your husband’s. It recalls the lines of Joan Baez’s “Waggoner’s Lad” – a folk song that was much heard around Penwith in the sixties:-

“Oh, hard is the fortune of all womankind
She’s always controlled, she’s always confined
Controlled by her parents until she’s a wife
A slave to her husband the rest of her life”DREADNOUGHTSW-620x452

Yet, in spite of destiny, which sometimes included injury or loss of a husband, perhaps in war, womenfolk were determined not just to survive. “Women in West Cornwall” shows how they were intent upon improving their lot and also that of their sisters, real and metaphorical. Even in small villages like Ludgvan there were successful attempts to create a Friendly Society by means of which women might alleviate difficult times or dire emergencies. In a similar manner, women who managed large families, adapted their skills to run businesses in larger towns like Penzance. Despite educational discrimination and rigid stereotyping, these ladies showed an enterprising spirit, determination and courage. They pursued their rights to preserve their privacy, dignity and reputation through the complexities of Church Court system.

In this splendid little volume, it is truly encouraging to read of the maternal care that one Mousehole women showed in wartime to a number of Jewish children entrusted to her care, showering them with love and understanding. Bearing in mind the current refugee crisis, this story moves the reader to meditate upon the nature of human progress and the transformative power of kindness.

Aste Nielsen- Die Suffragette (1913)
Aste Nielsen- Die Suffragette (1913)

In a short review it is difficult to mention all the useful studies in this fascinating and moderately priced book. It is delightfully illustrated with informative diagrams and background material. It is worth mentioning that it contains passages of humour, like the surreal yet socially revealing clash between Penzance carnival queens in the 1930s. There is an informative chapter on the vicissitudes of being the model of a famous artist and her later experiences. These ten chapters all written by women show, in a variety of styles, empathy and imagination, much systematic and painstaking research into primary sources. Such materials, wills and deeds, being hand written are challenging to decipher. There is in addition a productive use of personal recollection and family memories. This is a great contribution both to Cornish and Women’s Studies. Equality, sadly, is still a work in progress but this neat volume marks, in a touching manner, the distance travelled towards that goal.

“Bin ich ein Tier, dass Musik mich beruehrt?”

Although perhaps reminiscent of Caliban in The Tempest, the quote comes from Gregor Samsa in Kafka’s “Die Verwandandlung”-or Metamorphosis as it is known in English translation. However I found the quote on an interesting and intriguing video about Nietzsche’s categories of the Apollonian and the Dionysian by Claudia Simone Dorchain.

My interest in Nietzsche has been re-awakened by seeing the new film about “Lou Andreas Salome” in Berlin-actually at Eva Lichtspiele at Blissestraße 18-which is a great old-fashioned cinema.  It reminds me of another old filmhouse in Vienna-(The Bellaria Kino) which is situated behind the Volkstheatre and in turn years ago to “The Scala” in the High Street in St Ives -which is where Boots Chemist is situated today. Anyway, for those who are interested this is what it says on the Eva Lichtspiele website:-

Die ‘Eva Lichtspiele’ gelten mit der Eröffnung 1913 unter dem Namen ‘Roland Lichtspiele’ als ältestes Filmtheater im Bezirk Wilmersdorf. In den 20er Jahren, nach einem Umbau und der gleichzeitigen Umbenennung des Kinos in den heutigen Namen, wurden hier die Filme auf Vorschlag des Betreibers mit Musikbegleitung präsentiert – zuerst durch eine Violinistin und später durch ein ganzes Orchester, das durch den Einbau eines zweiten Vorführapparates pausenlos im Einsatz war. Glücklicherweise blieb das Kino während des Zweiten Weltkrieges nahezu unbeschadet, so dass der Kinobetrieb durchgehend aufrechterhalten werden konnte und noch heute viele Einzelheiten des Gebäudes (wie z.B. der schöne elegante Neonschriftzug an der Fassade) auf die lange Kinogeschichte der ‘Eva Lichtspiele’ hinweisen.

Nietzsche I find difficult to come to grips with. Probably, I have read about him rather than reading him directly. Steeped in German classical studies and Schopenhauer, he has had a huge influence on his time but like Heidegger no friend of rationalism or socialist thinking. Although both not only raised interesting questions but demonstrate the continuity of philosophical history. Neo-Thomism and Catholicism in the case of the latter, Plato and Schopenhauer-and both of course were influenced by the Jena poet, Hölderlin.

As to Salome’s influence on Rilke; here is one view relating to her Russian origin:-

“In 1899 Rilke made the first of two pivotal trips to Russia with Salome, discovering what he termed his “spiritual fatherland” in both the people and the landscape. There Rilke met Leo Tolstoy, L. O. Pasternak (father of Boris Pasternak), and the peasant poet Spiridon Droschin, whose works Rilke translated into German. These trips provided Rilke with the poetic material and inspiration essential to his developing philosophy of existential materialism and art as religion. Inspired by the lives of the Russian people, whom the poet considered more devoutly spiritual than other Europeans, Rilke’s work during this period often featured traditional Christian imagery and concepts, but presented art as the sole redeemer of humanity.” This comes from https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems-and-poets/poets/detail/rainer-maria-rilke

In any event this film-not the first on her -see the link below to Calvini’s version- is visually appealling making fascinating use of old picture postcards and raises questions over the many radical ideas, poetry music and of course, psychoanalysis. There is a very revealing chapter on her in Lisa Appignanesi and John Forrester’s “Freud’s Women”. I do hope this becomes available soon on DVD with English subtitles just like the Stefan Zweig film currently also playing in Berlin. Zweig too has written interestingly on Nietzsche-the book below is available in English translation. Reading about her and her circle, their poetry and music certainly has a calming effect on me.

The following clip is also revealing:-

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Stefan Zweig’s last days in exile in America -“Vor Der Morgenroete”

Stefan Zweig has been the subject of new interest in recent years. Two new biographies have appeared quite recently and in addition his friendship with Joseph Roth has been the subject of fierce debate after an article in The London Review of Books by Michael Hoffmann. “Ostende. 1936, Sommer Der Freundschaft” by Volker Weidermann is a magnificent read on this relationship and the plight of exiles from Nazi Germany was published just last year and has been translated into English as “Summer before the Dark, Ostend Stefan Zweig and Joseph Roth;Ostend 1936“(Reviews may be read at https://www.amazon.co.uk/Summer-Before-Dark-Stefan-Joseph/dp/1782272038/ref=pd_bxgy_14_2?ie=UTF8&psc=1&refRID=JA0N7E4NR05FFN2CAHF9 )It was also Radio4’s Book of the week. The Sunday Times, for instance, said of this book;
‘For such a slim book to convey with such poignancy the extinction of a generation of “Great Europeans” is a triumph’.SZ However Zweig’s life experiences also formed the background and leitmotif for the zany film and also a book by Wes Anderson, The Grand Budapest Hotel. One reader comments, “I also feel like I owe this movie a great deal, in that it turned me on to the works of Stefan Zweig, master Austrian storyteller, and my new favorite author”

The new film just screening in Germany is called “Vor der Morgenroete” and features Josef Hader as Stefan Zweig and is produced by the actress, Maria Schrader who recently played a prominent role in the Channel 4 series, Deutschland 83.SZ2Vor der Morgenröte Plakat web_1

The film consists of  episodes from the life of the Austrian writer Stefan Zweig in exile. At the height of his worldwide fame, he is driven to emigrate and grows desperate in the face of knowledge of the downfall of Europe, which like Roth he already attempts to forsworn his fellow European intellectuals. This then is the story of a refugee, the story of the loss of the old world of the Hapsburg K und K and the search for a new home in America.SZ3

Stefan Zweig was a renowned  author German together with Thomas Mann the most translated in his time. Already in 1934, Zweig left his native Austria to go into exile from which he did not return. In her compelling and sensual opulent film Maria Schrader shows the world-famous author in six episodes from his life; his first stay in Brazil and the participation in the P.E.N.-Congress in Buenos Aires in 1936 about visiting New York City and his first wife Friderike in 1941 until his death in 1942 in Petrópolis. There, Zweig wrote his famous work “The Chess Game“. Josef Hader shines in the title role of the famous Austrian writer and pacifist Stefan Zweig. Barbara Sukowa as his first wife Friderike, also gave a convincing performance. Another strong impression was given by Aenne Schwarz as Zweig’s delicate and alluring second wife.http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3wLiyFyfuB4

The film impressed me on several different levels. In 2015,I had visited in Munich, the following exhibition which showed much of the material, Zweig had collected and details of his first trips to America-http://www.literaturhaus-muenchen.de/ausstellung/items/141/vars/id-2015-stefanzweigausstellung.html It is clear that despite the recognition of his fame, Zweig found it difficult to settle in America;either in New York or in Yale or later in Brazil. (Verloren war die Welt von Gestern.) Yesterday’s world had disappeared, the Hotel Metropole in Vienna was now a Gestapo headquarters. Notably in Die Welt von Gestern, he noted how money came so readily to the Brownshirts and living in Salzberg he knew just how the racist menace grew. Sadly there are parallels with today and as Zweig remarked, Wer die Vergangenheit nicht versteht, versteht nichts wirklich. 

 

Letters to Poseidon by Cees Nooteboom

A serviette, a glass of champagne taken outside a fish restaurant in the open-air Viktualienmarkt in Munich, all taken to celebrate the first day of spring, prompt Cees Nooteboom into Proustian reverie. Upon the paper napkin is written in blue capitals the word POSEIDON, the Greek god who has preoccupied Nooteboom’s thoughts for several summers. The blue colour reminds him of the sea viewed from Mediterranean garden of his villa in Menorca. Taking this prompting as a moment of benign synchronicity, he later begins a correspondence with this sea-deity. He seeks to inquire how this somewhat unreliable ancient Greek Olympian sees aeons of time and sends him letters and legenda; meditations and stories to be read, both poetic and tragic, from the arts and the contemporary world. He is not expecting a reply.

In the Odyssey, Poseidon is renowned for hating Odysseus who had blinded the Cyclops, Polyphemus who happened to be the god’s son. This is Homer’s view. Ovid would have known the god as Neptune and wrote about him in the ‘’Metamorphoses’’. Kafka wrote an essay in which he imagines Poseidon constantly submerged. So, Nooteboom wonders, in a notably poetic passage, how would he have viewed the first passage of the first boat on the surface above him. How does he feel about the decline of those very Greeks who worshipped him? Is he melancholy about his timeless vigil already an old man beneath the sea with only occasional excursions pulled about by tiny sea-horses, nature’s experiment in trans-gender parturition? Fascinated by the rhythms of animal behaviour and curious plants, Nooteboom’s meditative writing is enlivened by his close observation of the natural world.

Letters to Poseidon juxtaposes thoughts which are essentially theological with ponderings on inexplicable tragedies in the contemporary world from the Challenger disaster to the Arab spring. Uncomfortable topics of puzzling cruelty are subject to persistent interrogation which is addressed to an ancient deity- often depicted in statuary with his face turned away. However, there is also an interesting wrestle between belief and doubt beneath the surface. Here is an attempt to figure the Christian deity in relation to the ancient gods. It is almost that the averted gaze of the sea-god makes him more accessible to questioning. Dante and the early-German Christian mystic, Seuse are invoked and discussed whilst the reader is provided with routes to his own investigations from Nootebbom’s well-stocked mind.

The author is prominent as a novelist, art historian and as a traveller. Successive pieces are situated in, for example, in Seoul Museum of Art, a Zen garden in Kyoto, back in his study in Menorca, an island of the Dutch East Indian company in Nagasaki and back once more to Menorca to watch a blood moon. This continuous movement appears to have given rise to a certain Weltschmerz  and in particular to a fascination with time and memory. This connection between time and space fascinates him as do geological aeons. He uses the Poseidon figure as a means to attempt to grasp the manner in which rocks are metamorphosed and ground to sediment over aeons. This is done in a leisurely discursive style that produces its own poetry. It requires that the reader find the patience to enjoy such digressions.

Here is a small example:-

‘’The curlews begin to call. I know they are close to the sea, but I have not yet seen them. Their Dutch name ‘’griel’’ is a much better match than ‘’curlew’’ for that drawn out, pleading sound they make. The owl I can hear nearby is another member of the secret service; it wears the darkness like a uniform and makes itself invisible.’’

The relaxed and tentative tone of the writing is at times penetrated by an image carrying anxiety which frequently refers to contemporary concerns. This is shown above where even an owl might appear as a Stasi interrogator. Despite its metaphysical tone, the prose mostly remains vivid. The issues addressed are the concerns of a man, possibly an elderly man, in search of a soul.Cees

An unexpected feature of this book is the fifty or so pages at the end which provide photographs and reference material. I was some 30 pages into the book before I discovered these. This brought to mind the work of W.G.Seebald whose elegiac tone, Nooteboom’s travel memoir sometimes resembles. There are touches which reminded me of Lawrence Durrell’s ‘’The Alexandrian Quartet’’ and of the mysterious symmetries of Anne Michael’s ‘’Fugitive Pieces’’. This book will not be to everyone’s taste, as by nature, it is inconclusive but thought provoking. It asks fundamental questions about human behaviour ‘’’sub specie aeternitatis’’’-Baruch Spinoza’s term for the eternal perspective.

Nooteboom’s previous book on the fall of the wall can be found at Roads to Berlin by Cees Nooteboom and Laura Watkinson (Translator) and another discussion of a fruitful Greek myth is discussed at Orpheus, The Song Of Life by Ann Wroe.

Nooteboom’s own website is at http://www.ceesnooteboom.com/?lang=en

Jonathan Franzen’s Rage -Reviewing Philip Weinstein

Jonathan Franzen: The Comedy of Rage makes frequent mention of Franzen’s attendance at Swathmore College in Pennsylvania, where he graduated in 1977 and where the author, Philip Weinstein was, until last year Professor of English. An earlier graduate, the novelist James A. Michner left his entire estate of some 10 million dollars to the college and the proceeds from his works, including the one on which South Pacific was founded. It was at Swarthmore that Franzen met his wife, where she had been a gifted classmate. Weinstein, the author who teaches there, has personally known Franzen for over two decades and the latter has given him a personal interview and been otherwise in contact with him for some considerable time. If this all seems just a little blurred in its boundaries, not to say incestuous, then that might not matter. However, Franzen’s work closely concern itself with shame, guilt, incest, rage and humiliation.

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This book strives to relate Franzen’s fraught personal life with his novels and his journalism for the New Yorker. Weinstein has recently published an acclaimed work, Becoming Faulkner which may be loosely termed a psycho-biography connecting that writer’s life with his work. The tone of this work, is reminiscent of the films; Tom and Viv about T.S.Eliot’s disastrous marriage and also Sylvia, about the difficult relationship between Plath and Ted Hughes. Brought up in Webster Groves in St Louis, Franzen appears to have lived in fear of his earnest and ambitious parents. His father was taciturn and averse to expressing feelings. Franzen also had difficulties with his mother, who was engulfing, over-demanding and inappropriately needy of her son. The suicide of a close friend and literary rival, David Foster Wallace was later to add to Franzen’s sense of alienation.

However, it appears that the sensitive Franzen immersed himself in his studies in German, finding his tutor a supportive and friendly figure. However, travelling to Munich and Berlin, the latter on a Fulbright scholarship, he became focussed on two complex writers; Kafka and Kraus. In accordance with Weinstein’s general thesis on his subject’s struggles with father figures, Franzen became fascinated with Kraus and also with the latter’s literary struggles with Heinrich Heine. According to Krauss who was Jewish but later converted, Heine, another cosmopolitan Jew was responsible for downgrading journalism with fancy French inventions like the popular newspaper supplement or Feuilleton. In a characteristic leap, these products of a superficial Viennese scribbling around a hundred years ago are compared, by Franzen, with the dumb-down products of social networking.  Franzen is concerned to re-educate his public with hard reading. His latest novel at 563 pages-shorter than those of say, Robert Musil or Thomas Mann-but scarcely a snip!JF2

Weinstein is most concerned with explaining Franzen’s development as a novelist. His first novel, The Twenty-Seventh City concerned itself with the decline and corruption in his home city, St Louis and his next novel about earthquakes in north-eastern Massachusetts. It appears that Franzen held somewhat overblown expectations that were perhaps based on an unmoderated and explosive rage now exacerbated by a failed marriage. Interestingly and simultaneously, another of his self-stylisations was as a kind of Charlie Schultz figure. His writing appears to have undergone a change upon the death of his father, his distressing relationship and also as his recognition that his own inappropriate literary role models, particularly Thomas Pynchon were unsuited to what he discovered he was best at writing. It also might be true to say, although Weinstein does not appear to explicitly say it, Franzen was publicly analysing his writing, almost as John Clare put it in lines-also taken by T.S.Eliot, “the self-consumer of my woes”. In any event, with the use of humour sometimes manic, Franzen was able to focus more productively on the anger within the family, generated from the past, and to enrich his narrative. There then follows an increased concern to involve the reader, to keep him interested and to keep him reading.

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In his next book, The Corrections, Franzen dealt with the impact on his family of Alfred’s irreversible dementia. Alfred is essentially a personification of Franzen’s father. The book’s title is therefore ironic. However, Weinstein insists, that in this and later books greater recognition is given to his character’s identities and to allow them some freedom to develop. Weinstein goes on to discuss Franzen’s recently published book, Purity. Reviews of this book which praise both its entertainment value and its seriousness. They also mention that it makes allusions to Great Expectations. It also concerns itself with the Occupy Movement, state secrets and whistle-blowing.

Reading this book, I found myself wondering who might find it useful. Possibly students of American literature. However, the writing lacks clarity in places and sometimes sentences are so gnomic as to lack any sense. The account is repetitious and somewhat forlorn. Much reference has been made to Freud but little to the insights of his followers. I am sorry to say that I am unsure that Franzen’s popularity will benefit greatly from Weinstein’s book. Nonetheless, this is a brave attempt to address the work of a writer of considerable contemporary relevance.

For those who are interested in the Kraus Project and Vienna (again!) will enjoy the discussion at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=O5SPtKK2NPk

This Newsnight interview is also worth viewing; amongst other issues he discusses his latest novel https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nGIrNN0k7iU

 

 

Review of Jonathan Lethem’s “Dissident Gardens”

Rose Zimmer, a feisty American communist radical, takes on many good and great causes. These include everything from feminism and racism to the changing course of Stalinism in the American C.P. but most of all; her biggest causes are the people around her. The effects upon them are diverse and devastating. She often propels them to success but at the same time they feel battered and must escape in order according to their own needs. Her affections are real but invasive. Rose keeps a shrine to Abraham Lincoln. Rose’s self-assertion within the perimeters of the German-designed 20th Century New York suburb of Queens, a multi-cultural suburb and a planned housing development similar to Hampstead Garden City provide the setting for Jonathan Lethem’s Tour de Force.JL

Reading Dissident Gardens is rather like taking a plane to New York and perhaps linked into a time-machine to peruse 80 years of political tensions that stress three generations. Lethem, who trained as an artist, is quite superb at visually rendering the city brown brick tenements, elevated railways, grand bridges and squares and together with their uses. Some of the latter, for instance, under the influence of socially concerned denizens like Rose, have been commandeered into communal gardens. Additionally, you even get a taste of the food from iced bear-claws, milkshakes and salt-beef sandwiches. His ear is at least as strong as his eye and the salty, saucy language carries the vigorous impact of Italian, Irish, Hispanic and Yiddish all gemischt. The reader will benefit from access to a good dictionary of urban slang to navigate this environment as much as his or her GPS so as not to lose your way in this city jungle.

As with a city break, the most interesting aspect of any visit is meeting the locals. Here Lethem provides panoply of fabulous characters. His technique is such that you he reveals not just the stream of consciousness but also the fractured and sometimes damaged nature of their sudden preoccupations. There is Cicero Lookins, the brilliant, angry, black, gay and overweight college lecturer. He has the dubious privilege of becoming Ross’s protégé and carries the burden of growing up the son of a nurse who is suffering from chronic lupus and a conventional heroic policeman from the NYPD who has become Rose’s lover. Cicero is a volatile mixture of intelligence, cynicism and compulsive sexuality. His lecturing style challenges the young and indolent yawning student audience that attend his social philosophy lectures. He is reading Robert Musil’s grand scarcely completed novel, The Man Without Qualities. He has become imprisoned by his own psychological defences and just how this developed is lucidly, believably and eloquently explained with a certain ironic sympathy.JL1

Each chapter can almost be taken as a story within itself. This is a satisfying approach as there is little in the way of a page-turning narrative to speed the story forward. Indeed, this is a novel that casts light upon what has happened in previous chapters as well as links with other persons. It jumps around and resonates in time. This backward linking is intriguing in itself and gradually makes the relationships between the characters memorable. Dissident Gardens is not always easy to read but the detail, texture and breadth of the writing weaves a brisk believable magic as the story progresses. Idealism is often exposed in its naivety in this novel. The characters, as in real life, are often deeply wounded by losses but remain authentic in their striving.

This is a novel which spreads itself over the globe whilst embracing wide belief systems. Nicaraguan armed resistance, passive resistance, the Occupy movement, East German authoritarian Marxism are but a few of the topics encompassed. However, this is not in the usual sense a novel of ideas. It is critical of grand narratives in a manner that the renowned American pragmatic philosopher, Richard Rorty might have approved. It is the individual enclosed within the fascinating psycho-geography of New York that keeps the reader interested. For instance, there is Rose’s daughter who cannot possibly meet her mother’s expectations. Miriam Zimmer survives her mother’s physical attack and seeks an alternative belief within Hippie Greenwich Village of the 1960s. She is pursued by her hustler cousin Lenny whose interests also include chess and numismatics. She falls for an Irish protest singer who is attracted by prospects of living in a commune and attending meetings with the Society of Friends. However, in certain ways Miriam cannot easily escape her mother or her authoritarian distant father.

Reading about Lethem’s writing methods- said to be on an exercise machine using a voice operated word processor- accounts for the energy of the writing. The style is sometimes abrasive but also beguiling. This novel can be described as both tragic and comic. Tragic in the sense that the characters often seem isolated and comic because the reader will recognise some of his own impulses and be encouraged to laugh at them. I am left reminded by the words of a song from the musical Hair: – “Do you only care about the bleeding crowd? How about a needing friend? I need a friend” If there is a message from this novel, it is about our need for human closeness and how the grand systems we erect prevent us getting in touch with each other.