Posts in category: Philosophy

“After experience had taught me the hollowness and futility of everything that is ordinarily encountered in daily life, and I realised that all the things which were the source and object of my anxiety held nothing of good or evil in themselves save in so far as the mind was influenced by them, I resolved at length to enquire whether there existed a true good, one which was capable of communicating itself and could alone affect the mind to the exclusion of all else, whether, in fact, there was something whose discovery and acquisition would afford me a continuous and supreme joy to all eternity.”

First paragraph of the Treatise on the Emendation of the Intellect by Spinoza.

Listen up

What if there was a massive not-for-profit archive of free audiobooks of works in the public domain, i.e., the CLASSICS?

Librivox, you mean? If you don’t know it, now is the time. Founded in Montreal by Hugh McGuire, almost a decade ago. A warm encomium by Carlo Rotella here.

William Gass online exhibition

William H. Gass’s writing is so good, it’s overwhelming, almost too much. Metaphor is like junk food to this man, so he says. If you’re slightly more of a Gass fan than I am, you would find the following of great interest: three previously published essay collections are being re-issued this year: On Being Blue, Tests of Time and The World within the Word all coming back into print, that’s pretty amazing (NYRB, Dalkey). And last year the online exhibit “William H. Gass: The Soul inside the Sentence” went online (and in gallery).

Over at the online gallery you can

explore drafts of published and unpublished writings, recordings of his interviews and readings, photographs and scans of important documents and objects that have shaped his life.

Update: Also of note is this 2013 interview.

An experiment in self-publishing

Responses to the Threat of Technological Distraction,’ the paper I wrote for the philosophy of technology seminar in which I was enrolled this semester, is now complete. I’ve assigned a Creative Commons license to the work and am self-publishing it here. If you read it, I would appreciate any impressions or feedback.

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Heidegger on philosophy

For the philosophy of technology seminar I’m taking, I summarised and presented a ‘lecture course’ of German philosopher Martin Heidegger,’The Fundamental Question of Metaphysics’ (published originally in 1935; from Introduction to Metaphysics, translated by G. Fried and R. Polt; New Haven: Yale, 2000; 1-54.)

Heidegger is known for the difficulty of his style. But I found much lucidity in ‘The Fundamental Question of Metaphysics.’ Without going into the rant-like and Spenglerian aspects of this piece of writing (diagnosing the spiritual decline of the West, Heidegger rails against, I quote, the darkening of the world, the flight of the gods, the destruction of the earth, the reduction of human beings to a mass, the hatred and mistrust of everything creative and free, and the preeminence of the mediocre);–and also without actually summarising what the essay is about (Heidegger begins the essay by saying that the fundamental question of metaphysics is

Why are there beings at all instead of nothing? 

;–and he then proceeds to modulate the question in such a way that it begets a teeming horde of other questions), I want to represent what I left out of my presentation in the interest of time because it doesn’t concern technology at all, but philosophy itself.

According to H., philosophy is extremely unpopular; it is a ‘leading that has no following.’ Philosophy’s essence, which is questioning, ‘questioning-ahead,’–is never embraced by the public or the masses. In fact, when philosophy becomes popular (think of Sartre’s popularity mid-century, the popularity of ‘existentialism’ on both sides of the Atlantic), it’s no longer philosophy–it’s fashion.

One would think that philosophy ought to achieve something, perhaps make aspects of existence more intelligible, render the making of choices easier. To the contrary, Heidegger informs one that: ‘philosophy never makes things easier, but only more difficult’; ‘Nothing comes of philosophy, you can’t do anything with it.’

In these formulations, Heidegger’s view of philosophy seems opposite that of American pragmatist philosophers like John Dewey and William James. There is something positively continentally decadent about this high-headedness.

And Heidegger quotes Nietzsche, where Nietzsche writes that

Philosophy means living voluntarily amid ice and mountain ranges.

The accumulation of these deadpan, clarifying remarks about philosophy’s domain and role led me to wonder whether or not some humour or irony might be intended on Heidegger’s part. I think not. I think not.

What is the point of philosophy according to Heidegger, if ‘you can’t do anything with it’?

The point of philosophy–of questioning-ahead– is that it acts on us; on our thought; on our thinking. On our Being, if you prefer. 

The questioning is not just autotelic, an end in itself. Its purpose is, rather, to alter subjectivity, change life, change lives. Like my post on Albert Borgmann of last week, this post is jagged in comparison to some other of my postings. To make no concession, I’ll leave off with a hyperbolically-inflected ponderous snippet of Heidegger’s ‘Traditional and Technological Language,’ a quote I try to understand:

Technological language is the severest and most menacing attack on what is peculiar to language:

saying as showing and as the letting-appear of what is present and what is absent, of reality in the widest sense;

The attack of the technological language on what is peculiar to language is at the same time the threat to the human being’s ownmost essence

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Sage advice from Albert Borgmann

“A reform [of technology] is the recognition and restraint of the pattern of technology so as to give focal concerns a central place in our lives.” – Albert Borgmann

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Joseph McElroy’s bookshelf

In my devotion to McElroy’s projects I went far, to obsession some would say. But who can say what’s normal, insane? I read all the interviews and essays I found referenced. In these interviews, I found myself crossing numerous references to texts and authors that were totally unknown to me. I had to know more, had to read more. Tom LeClair’s interview with McElroy and the essay ‘Neural Neighborhoods…’ are both rife with mentions of marginal works, which I chronicle here. The list appears below, the source key follows.

IMG_9850

Avid readers of McElroy will find the following a handy resource for tracking the literary background against which McElroy sees himself. Where I can, I provide a few notes about the work in question.

Source key

NN=“Neural Neighborhoods and Other Concrete Abstracts” (1974 essay by McElroy)

JC=Joshua Cohen’s audio conversation with McElroy for a Triple Canopy event

SS=”Socrates on the Shore” (2002 essay by McElroy in Substances, Revue Francaise d’Études Américaines 93: 7-20.)

ACH=Tom LeClair’s interview (in Anything Can Happen: Interviews with Contemporary American Novelists; This book includes interviews with Stanley Elkin, William Gass, Don Delillo, E.L. Doctorow, Toni Morrison, etc.)

BM=Bradford Morrow’s interview in Conjunctions (1987)

MC=Marc Chénetier, Flore Chevaililer, and Antoine Cazé’s 2001 interview, “Some Bridge of Meaning,” in Sources, fall 2001

The Bookshelf

Prose fiction

Bill Wilson, Why I Don’t Write Like Franz Kafka (1977; 133 ps.)

This collection of stories, written using language and viewpoints partly medical and scientific in nature, shows certain similarities to J.G. Ballard’s The Atrocity Exhibition (1970), at least in its concern with pathological and modified human bodies. Accordingly, Wilson’s prose’s register of bio/medical terminology reflects his concern with pathology: entelechy; neoteny; seriatim; naevus; pelagic; tunicates; enuresis; cortisone; hypospadias; pemmican; adrenergics; sigmoidoscopy; saprozoic. These are not stories for everyone. They are brutal and detached from human intimacy, incisive as a surgeon’s scalpel’s cuts. Think, if you have read it, of J.M. Coetzee’s short fiction The Vietnam Project, comprising the first half of Dusklands (1974).

Charles Newman, New Axis: or the ‘Little Ed’ Stories (1966; 175 ps.) (NN)

Tales from a small MidWestern community that interlock, intertwine, interlace. Each story conveys the experience and POV of a single character who is glimpsed obliquely by others in other stories. This ‘interlocking points-of-view’ technique, while it forms an integral part of many, many novels, stands out particularly in The Sound and the Fury (1929) by Faulkner, Impossible Object by Mosley, and in A Smuggler’s Bible by McElroy. Charles Newman was the founding editor of TriQuarterly where some of William S. Wilson’s and Joseph McElroy’s short work first appeared.

Nicolas Mosley, Impossible Object (1968; 219 ps.) (NN)

‘One of the most fascinating novels of the last generation,’ according to McElroy. No brief summary could do this book, which consists of eight short stories alternating with intensely bewildering three-page intercalary chapters, justice, successfully characterize the paradoxical wager at the heart of the book. ‘Words were a vulgarity. One’s duty was to love those whom one loves’ (175).

If you don’t know Mosley at all but are curious, you might find this website of John Banks, with interviews with Mosley, to be a useful resource.

After Impossible Object I quickly read Catastrophe Practice (1979), itself a triumph of hope and positivity, despite its ‘theatre of the absurd’ qualities which exist alongside Mosley’s incisive critical essays describing his vision and ambitions; and alongside a novella which concludes the book. American literature scholar Tom LeClair: ‘N. Mosley is a throwback, a modernist mastodon whose project for fiction surpasses in grandiosity that of any American writer I know.’ Dalkey has a large selection of Mosley’s books in print; recommended to explore them a little here.

Heinrich Wilhelm von Kleist, Michael Kohlhaas (1811) (NN) (free text here)

Thrilling, fantastic, and awesome. A two-hundred-year-old text that is just as modern and entertaining now as ever. It’s about one upright citizen’s insistence on justice in the face of corrupt officials. I’ve heard that for Ragtime (1974) E.L. Doctorow borrowed  some situational elements from this short novella.

Herman Melville, ‘Bartleby the Scrivener’ (1853) (JC) (free e-book)

If you’ve read this story, you know how unforgettable, eloquent, and bewildering it is–among the best stories ever written. If you are unfamiliar with this story, read or listen to it this week. Free audio version available from Librivox.

Michel Butor, Degrees (1960) (NN; 351 ps.)

This nouveau roman centers on a Paris school teacher who devises a project to meticulously record the totality of what happens to certain of his colleagues and pupils. Because his project attempts totality, it fails and he loses his psychic stability. Apparently an inspiration for A Smuggler’s Bible (1966), McElroy’s first novel.

Michel Butor, Mobile (1962; 319 ps.)

Not your typical travel book! Highly idiosyncratic and elliptical in its form, Mobile represents Butor’s experience of traveling in the U.S.A. when Eisenhower’s highway project was not yet old. This book makes extreme demands on the attention of the reader and provides singular rewards.

Knut Hamsun, Mysteries (1892; 340 ps.) (ACH)

Early modernist, experimental text that was praised early on by Henry Miller. About a man named Nagel who turns up one day in a small Norwegian village and stirs things up a bit.

Norman Mailer

Mailer is a somewhat neglected author today, but he was a public intellectual and a strong voice in the time of his celebrity. But what of Mailer ought one read?; not all Mailer is good Mailer, there is too much Mailer. Why Are We in Vietnam?Of a Fire on the Moon, and parts of An American Dream are written with an incandescence that very few writers can equal. ‘The Man Who Studied Yoga?’ is a very good short story (in Advertisements for Myself).

William H. Gass, ‘In the Heart of the Heart of the Country’ (c. 1960, 1964 ?) (NN)

Gass said once that he self-consciously composed this story on the structure of a musical composition. It attempts to convey the monotony of living in a small MidWestern town through repetitions, the very lack of action, lack of plot. Sound interesting? Gass’s language makes this, and the short story collection of which it is a part, a masterpiece of American literature.

Paul Metcalf, Patagoni (1971)

In ‘Neural Neighborhoods’ McElroy describes Patagoni as ‘a short history of North American Henry Ford and River Rouge… coupled with a rambling trip into South America under a weird metaphor of brain and body.’ The Jargon Press publication is an unusually beautiful, and somewhat rare, book-object. Coffee House’s 3 volume Collected Works of Metcalf has it, of course, in the 1st volume. (Note from 2016: I have since read nearly all of Metcalf’s work, and found it truly awesome. Here are some more posts tagging or discussing Metcalf.)

Harold Brodkey

The story ‘State of Grace,’ Brodkey’s first published story, available in the collection First Love and Other Sorrows, is beautiful, eloquent, and touching; it even involves some plausible time travel, a real kick-in-the-pants. I have not read any of Stories in an Almost Classical Mode, but this beautiful appreciation of Brodkey surely makes me want to.

Jerome Charyn, A Child’s History of the Bronx (NN)

An excerpt from this unpublished novel was published in Statements 1, edited by Ronald Suzenick, of the Fiction Collective. From what I can tell it’s a playful, ribald colonial historiography (17th, 18th century) of Manhattan. Not something I recommend going the extra mile to consult.

Italo Calvino, “Priscilla,” from t zero

Imagine a cell thinking through how it feels to divide into or to combine with another cell, as in meiosis and mitosis. Calvino has done just that.

D.H. Lawrence, Selected Stories: (BM)

‘The Horse-Dealer’s Daughter’; ‘The Rocking-Horse Winner’; ‘The Woman Who Rode Away’; ‘The Prussian Officer’

Aidan Higgins, Langrishe, Go Down (1966) (NN)

Cormac McCarthy, The Orchard Keeper and Suttree

Uwe Johnson, The Third Book about Achim (NN)

Von Dodderer, The Demons (ACH)

Henry James, What Maisie Knew (free here)

Henry Miller, Colossus of Maroussi (1958)(ACH)

Doris Lessing, The Golden Notebook (1962) (ACH)

Dow Mossman, The Stones of Summer (1973)

Mark Smith, The Death of the Detective (1973)

Günter Grass, Dog Years (ACH)

William Golding, The Inheritors (ACH)

J.G. Ballard, Crash (NN)

Hortense Callisher (NN)

Leonard Michaels (NN)

Donald Barthelme (numerous)

Poetry

Galway Kinnell, The Book of Nightmares (1971; 75 ps.) (ACH)

Dedicated to the children of the author (‘Maud and Fergus’), this collection of ten poems deploys an inventiveness of language and evokes an intensity of pathos that are rarely attained by even the best poets. The first printing by Houghton Mifflin includes amazing illustrations as frontispieces to each of the poems. This tiny book might be said to constitute some of the finest American poetry from the latter half of the 20th century.

Gary Snyder, “Good Things That Can Be Said for the Iron Age” (1970) (NN)

Retrieved from the vast Internet, here, the poem itself:

A ringing tire iron dropped on the pavement
Whang of a saw brusht on limbs
the taste of rust

A.R. Ammons, Collected Poems (ACH)

Philosophy and other

John Custance, Wisdom, Madness, and Folly (1952)

This book is referenced numerous times in McElroy’s first novel A Smuggler’s Bible. It’s a first-person account of madness and delusional revelations, and of a hospital stay. The book is really quite extraordinary, and also hard to find.

James Henry Breasted, Ancient History (1916)

A titular precedent for McElroy’s novel of the same name. The narrator, Cy, frequently digresses on ancient history (Egypt, Mesopotamia, Sumeria, Babylon, etc.) during the course of his book-length monologue. Ancient History is his school textbook, it seems.

E.F. Schumacher, Small Is Beautiful: Economics as if People Mattered (1973) (ACH)

An awesome book written with strong and pragmatic convictions. As an economist Schumacher worked with Britain’s National Coal Board for twenty years. On the one hand, Schumacher’s book is a vehement critique of econometrics, and on the other it’s a re-definition of what economists and human beings ought to use to evaluate, understand, and (from a policy perspective) guide behavior. Schumacher’s assertion that ‘We must learn to think in terms of an articulated structure that can cope with a multiplicity of small-scale units’ (80) informed the writing of Women and Men. Perhaps this is the only book I know whose back cover identifies its proper classification as ‘Economics / New Age.’

John Ruskin (ACH)

J.M. Keynes (ACH)

Carlos Castaneda, The Teachings of Don Juan: A Yaqui Way of Knowledge (1968)

Martin Heidegger, ‘Building, Thinking, Dwelling’ (1950 or ’54; mentioned on KCRW’s Bookworm)

Eugène Marais, The Soul of the White Ant and The Soul of the Ape (ACH)

Paul Kammerer, The Law of Seriality (ACH)

(This text is to my knowledge not available in English translation. Read detailed summaries in English of it here and here.)

Paul Valéry, Eupalinos, or the Architect (SS)

Stanley Crawford, Mayordomo

Biology/neuroanatomy

The following books provided a research basis in the development of Plus, as acknowledged on the book’s copyright page

Lehninger, Bioenergetics: The Molecular Basis of Energy Transformations (1973, 2nd ed.)

Noback, The Human Nervous System (1967)

Weiss, Principles of Development (1969)

*

All posts on this site about Joseph McElroy are archived here.

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Aldous Huxley in NDG

aldous huxley graffiti mural

Turns out my friend’s right: the subject of the mural isn’t Pasolini, it’s the author of Brave New World, Ape and Essence, Heaven and Hell, Chrome Yellow, and The Doors of Perception. The graffiti is surely based on a photograph of Huxley that’s freely available on the web.

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Thoughts on Internet distraction, pt. 2

There’s a lot of dystopic-sounding studies of computers and networks out there, and it’s hardly a new trend: Trapped in the Net; Life on the Screen; The Pearly Gates of Cyberspace; Silicon Shock; The Net Effect: Romanticism, Capitalism, and the Internet; Technobabble; Digital Diaspora; Cyburbia; Slaves of the Machine; Moths to the Flame; High Noon on the Electronic Frontier; Monster or Messiah?; Digerati; War of the Worlds.

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Thoughts on Internet distraction, pt. 1

Nicholas Carr believes — and shows, using lots of evidence drawn from research in neuroscience and cognitive science (the book is shelved in McGill’s Osler medical library) — that our interlinked computing technologies pose a serious challenge to deep thought, hampering our capacity to reflect and contemplate in meaningful ways. This isn’t exactly a groundbreaking claim; at least, not for anyone who has had the experience of, while piloting a web browser, being unable to focus for any length of time on the task at hand, or who has found their attention increasingly diverted and distributed through a web of hyperlinks. Figures of speech to describe our computerized, information-saturated mental state abound: popcorn brainmental obesity are among the most apt. Forget information overload.

Four books

Also pictured: Information Anxiety (Richard Saul Wurman); Within the Context of No Context (George W.S. Trow); and Future Shock (Alvin Toffler).

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Aby Warburg’s tale

Now I will recount the true and tragic tale of Aby Warburg (1886-1929), whose bibliomaniacal obsession with myth, icon, symbol, and meaning across cultures and through the ages led to his pyschic disintegration.

Aby Warburg reading

Warburg concentrating, looking a shade like Proust.

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