You who in earnest ignorance
Would check the deeds of lawless men,
And in the clash of spear on spear
Gain honour—you are all stark mad!
If men, to settle each dispute,
Must needs compete in bloodshed, when
Shall violence vanish, hate be soothed,
Or men and cities live in peace?”—Euripides, Helen (trans. Philip Vellacott)
I remember my introduction to conceptual art. We were in the tenth grade, and our art class had a student teacher, a feminist raver (this was 1997 or so) from Penn State named Ms. Ziggler or something similar. One day she showed us a slide of Duchamp’s readymade, In Advance of the Broken Arm…
An extended rumination on Knausgaard (also featuring Duchamp, Hegel, and almost every literary modernist you can think of), mainly about why I won’t be finishing his book…
“(Art, to state it beforehand, for I will come back to it sometime in greater length—art, in which precisely the lie hallows itself, in which the will to deception has good conscience on its side, is much more fundamentally opposed to the ascetic ideal than is science: this was sensed instinctively by Plato, this greatest enemy of art that Europe has yet produced. Plato contra Homer: that is the complete, the genuine antagonism—there the “otherworldly one” with the best of wills, the great slanderer of life; here its involuntary deifier, golden nature. An artist’s subservience in the service of the ascetic ideal is therefore the truest corruption of the artist there can be, unfortunately one of the most common: for nothing is more corruptible than an artist.)”—Nietzsche, On the Genealogy of Morality (trans. Clark and Swensen)
“When Heraclitus retreated into the courtyards and colonnades of the enormous temple of Artemis, this “desert” was more dignified, I concede: why are we lacking such temples? (—perhaps we are not lacking them: I was just thinking of my most beautiful study, of the Piazza di San Marco, assuming it is spring, likewise forenoon, the time between 10 and 12.) That which Heraclitus was evading, however, is still the same thing we steer clear of: the noise and the democratic chatter of the Ephesians, their politics, their news from the “empire” (Persia, you understand me), their market stuff of “today”—for we philosophers need rest from one thing before all else: from all “today.” We venerate what is silent, cold, noble, distant, past, in general every kind of thing at whose sight the soul does not have to defend itself and lace itself shut—something with which one can talk without talking out loud.”—Nietzsche, On the Genealogy of Morality (trans. Clark and Swensen)
“…one certainly does best to separate an artist from his work to the extent of not taking him as seriously as his work. He is the end only the precondition of his work, the womb, the ground, the fertilizer and manure on which, out of which, it grows,—and thus in most cases something one must forget if one wants to enjoy the work itself. Looking into the origins of a work is the business of physiologists and vivisectors of the spirit: never ever of the aesthetic human being, the artist!”—Nietzsche, On the Genealogy of Morality (trans. Clark and Swensen)
Maybe Shakespeare sucks because — and to the extent that — life sucks.
You may enjoy my wide-ranging historical and philosophical (crypt-Schopenhauerean, you might say) commentary on the recent quality-of-Shakespeare controversy over The Millions. Figures making guest appearances in my essay, besides the esteemed Ms. Del Rey, include lesser-known complainers-about-Shakespeare Virginia Woolf, James Joyce, and George Steiner, as well as the disturbing defender of the Bard, G. Wilson Knight, and probably more I’m forgetting. Hope you enjoy.
“It seems to me that it is repugnant to the delicacy, even more to the Tartuffery of tame domestic animals (which is to say modern humans, which is to say us) to imagine in all its force the degree to which cruelty constitutes the great festival joy of earlier humanity, indeed is an ingredient mixed in with almost all of their joys; how naïvely, on the other hand, how innocently its need for cruelty manifests itself, how universally they rank precisely “disinterested malice” (or, to speak with Spinoza, sympathia malevolens) as a normal quality of man—: thus as something to which the conscience heartily says “yes”! Perhaps even today there is enough of this oldest and most pervasive festival joy of man for a more profound eye to perceive; in Beyond Good and Evil 229 (even earlier in Daybreak 18, 77, 113), I pointed with a cautious finger to the ever growing spiritualization and “deification” of cruelty that runs through the entire history of higher culture (and in a significant sense even constitutes it). In any case it has not been all that long since one could not imagine royal marriages and folk festivals in the grandest style without executions, torturings, or perhaps an auto-da-fé, likewise no noble household without beings on whom one could vent one’s malice and cruel teasing without a second thought (—think for example of Don Quixote at the court of the Duchess; today we read the entire Don Quixote with a bitter taste on our tongue, almost with anguish, and would as a result appear very strange, very puzzling to its author and his contemporaries—they read it with the very clearest conscience as the most lighthearted of books, they practically laughed themselves to death over it). Seeing-suffer feels good, making-suffer even more so—that is a hard proposition, but a central one, an old powerful human-all-too-human proposition, to which, by the way, even the apes might subscribe: for it is said that in thinking up bizarre cruelties they already abundantly herald and, as it were, “prelude” man. Without cruelty, no festival…”—Nietzsche, On the Genealogy of Morality (trans. Clark and Swensen)
“One must even admit to oneself something still more problematic: that, from the highest biological standpoint, conditions of justice can never be anything but exceptional conditions, as partial restrictions of the true will of life—which is out after power—and subordinating themselves as individual means to its overall end: that is, as means for creating greater units of power. A legal system conceived of as sovereign and universal, not as a means in the battle of power complexes, but rather as a means against all battle generally, say in accordance with Dühring’s communist cliché that every will must accept every other will as equal, would be a principle hostile to life, a destroyer and dissolver of man, an attempt to kill the future of man, a sign of weariness, a secret pathway to nothingness.—”—
Nietzsche, On the Genealogy of Morality (trans. Clark and Swensen)
“For myself, I cannot live without my art. But I have never placed it above everything. If, on the other hand, I need it, it is because it cannot be separated from my fellow men, and it allows me to live, such as I am, on one level with them. It is a means of stirring the greatest number of people by offering them a privileged picture of common joys and sufferings. It obliges the artist not to keep himself apart; it subjects him to the most humble and the most universal truth. And often he who has chosen the fate of the artist because he felt himself to be different soon realizes that he can maintain neither his art nor his difference unless he admits that he is like the others. The artist forges himself to the others, midway between the beauty he cannot do without and the community he cannot tear himself away from. That is why true artists scorn nothing: they are obliged to understand rather than to judge. And if they have to take sides in this world, they can perhaps side only with that society in which, according to Nietzsche’s great words, not the judge but the creator will rule, whether he be a worker or an intellectual.”—Albert Camus, from his Nobel Prize speech in 1957 (via sisyphean-revolt)
“The study of the Classics … teaches us to believe that there is something really great and excellent in the world, surviving all the shocks of accident and fluctuations of opinion, and raises us above that low and servile fear, which bows only to present power and upstart authority … We feel the presence of that power which gives immortality to human thoughts and actions, and catch the flame of enthusiasm from all nations and ages.”—William Hazlitt, From The Round Table (1817)
But was the dilemma of the realistic novel (and naturalism is merely its most radical aspect) wholly a consequence of the political and social embourgeoisement of the mid-nineteenth century? Unlike the Marxist critics, I think the roots lie deeper. The problem was inseparable from the assumptions on which the central tradition of the European novel had been founded. In committing itself to a secular interpretation of life and to a realistic portrayal of ordinary experience, eighteenth- and nineteenth-century fiction had predetermined its own limitations. This commitment had been no less operative in the fiction of Fielding than in that of Zola. The difference was the Zola had made of it a deliberate and rigorous method and that the spirit of the age had grown less susceptible to the ironic gallantry and drama with which Fielding had tempered the realism of Tom Jones.
In rejecting the mythical and the preternatural, all those things undreamt of in Horatio’s philosophy, the modern novel had broken with the essential world view of the epic and the tragedy. It had claimed for its own what we might call the kingdom of this world. It is the vast kingdom of human psychology perceived through reason and of human behaviour in a social context. The Goncouts surveyed it when they defined fiction as ethics in action. But, for all its comprehensiveness (and there are those who would maintain that it is the only kingdom subject to our understanding), it has frontiers and they are recognizably limiting. We cross them when we pass from the world of Bleak House to that of The Castle (while noting at the same time that Kafka’s principle symbol is related to Dickens’s Chancery). We cross them with unmistakable enlargement when we pass from Le Père Goriot—Balzac’s poem of father and daughters—to King Lear. We pass them again when we move from Zola’s program for novelists to the letter of D. H. Lawrence’s which I have cited earlier:
I always feel as if I stood naked before the fire of Almighty God to go through me—and it’s rather an awful feeling. One has to be so terrible religious, to be an artist. I often think of my dear St. Lawrence on his gridiron, when he said, “Turn me over, brothers, I am done enough on this side.”
"One has to be so terribly religious"—there is a revolution in that phrase. For above all else, the great tradition of the realistic novel had implied that religious feeling was not a necessary adjunct to a mature and comprehensive account of human affairs.
This revolution, which led to the achievements of Kafka and of Thomas Mann, of Joyce and of Lawrence himself, began not in Europe but in America and in Russia. Lawrence declared: “Two bodies of modern literature seem to me to have come to a real verge: the Russian and the American.” Beyond it lay the possibility of Moby Dick and that of the novels of Tolstoy and Dostoevsky.”—George Steiner, Tolstoy or Dostoevsky: An Essay in the Old Criticism
Doesn’t that phrase just fill you with eagerness? Anyway: in my ongoing quest to insinuate myself into the heart of our literature, I have decided to go where the readers are: I plan to be more active over at Goodreads, writing brief, well, not “reviews” exactly, though that’s what they call them—it would be stupid to “review” Dante, for instance—but, let’s say, accounts of my response to my reading. So if you 1. are on Goodreads (the low hurdle) and 2. care even a little about what I have to say (the high hurdle), feel free to friend or follow me over there. Here, for the curious, are my first three attempts—on Sayers’s Dante’s Purgatorio, on Dostoevsky’s Demons, and on Steiner’s Tolstoy or Dostoevsky.
“Mythology is not simply willed into existence, and the peoples of the earth quickly ensured they would no longer understand their own myths. It is at this very moment literature begins. Literature is the attempt to interpret, in an ingenious way, the myths we no longer understand, at the moment we no longer understand them, since we no longer know how to dream them or reproduce them.”—Gilles Deleuze, Desert Islands (via hierarchical-aestheticism)