Category Archives: Philosophy

A Lover’s Discourse—Fragments by Roland Barthes

I had a couple of very intense discussions recently with two people closest to me about the complicated, enigmatic, confusing concept of love—both filial and passionate.

There were two comments, each from a different person, that didn’t sit well with me and that I keep returning to over and over in my mind:

“You can dislike someone but still love that person.”

And

“You can love someone but feel no affection for that person.”

I did what I always do when I am struggling with something:  I read a book.  Roland Barthes A Lover’s Discourse is what jumped out at me from my shelves.  Divided into fragments, each chapter of sorts deals with different terms related to love—absence, affirmation, body, languor, tenderness, etc.  The author’s thoughts come from reading Goethe, Plato and Nietzsche, from conversations with friends and from his own life experiences.  Wayne Kostenbaum in the introduction to the translation describes Barthes writing: “Barthes never dissertates.  Barthes never stops to explain.  He is happy to make the lightest of allusions—a lodestone such as “Nietzsche” or “Descartes” in the margins—but to leave the reference unplumbed.”

I will share a few passages that were especially striking to me:

From the fragment entitled “Atopos”:

The atopia of Socrates is linked to Eros (Socrates is courted by Alcibiades) and to the numbfish (Socrates electrifies and benumbs Meno).  The other whom I love and who fascinates me is atopos.  I cannot classify the other, for the other is, precisely, Unique, the singular Image which has miraculously come to correspond to the specialty of my desire.  The other is the figure of my truth, and cannot be imprisoned in any stereotype (which is the truth of others).

Yet I have loved or will love several times in my life.  Does this mean, then, that my desire, quite special as it may be, is linked to a type?  Does this mean that my desire is classifiable?  Is there, among all the beings that I have loved, a common characteristic, just one, however tenuous (a nose, a skin, a look), which allows me to say: that’s my type!

From the fragment entitled “At Fault”—fautes/faults

Any fissure within Devotion is a fault: that is the rule of Cortezia.  This fault occurs whenever I make any gesture of independence with regard to the loved object; each time I attempt, in order to break my servitude, to “think for myself” (the world’s unanimous advice), I feel guilty.  What am I guilty of, then, is paradoxically lightening the burdern, reducing the exorbitant load of my devotion—in short, “managing” (according to the world); in fact, it is being strong which frightens me, it is control (or its gesticulation) which makes me guilty.

From the fragment entitled “The Ghost Ship”—errance/errantry:

How does a love end?—Then it does end?  To tell the truth, no one—except for the others—ever knows anything about it; a kind of innocence conceals the end of this thing conceived, asserted, lived, according to eternity.  Whatever the loved being becomes, whether he vanishes or moves into the realm of Friendship, in any case I never see him disappear: the love which is over and done with passes into another world like a ship into space, lights no longer winking: the loved being once echoed loudly, now that being is entirely without resonance (the other never disappears when and how we expect).  This phenomenon results from a constraint in the lover’s discourse: I myself cannot (as an enamored subject) construct my love story to the end: I am its poet (its bard) only for the beginning; the end, like my own death, belongs to others; it is up to them to write the fiction, the external, mythic narrative.

From the fragment entitled “Special Days”—fete/festivity:

The Festivity is what is waited for, what is expected.  What I expect of the promised presence is an unheard-of totality of pleasures, a banquet; I rejoice like the child laughing at the sight of the mother whose mere presence heralds and signifies a plenitude of satisfactions: I am about to have before me, and for myself, the “source of all good things.”

For the Lover, the Man-in-the-Moon, the Festivity is a jubilation, not an explosion: I delight in the dinner, the conversation, the tenderness, the secure promise of pleasure: “an ars vivendi over the abyss.”

Barthes’ book of fragments is one that I will dip into over and over again and find something new, fresh, and thought-provoking each time.

Finally, Books, Yo has written a fabulous personal reflection about love in his review of Thérèse and Isabelle by Violette Leduc.  Please do take a look at his blog and his fantastic writing.

 

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Post-truth, Post-structuralism, and now Post-Pleasure?: My Review of Jean-Luc Nancy’s Coming

coming-coverIn this age of addiction and excessive consumption where massive modes of pleasure are readily available, have we completely fucked ourselves into oblivion? Do we give a fuck about fucking anymore? And now that we have come to the point of post-structuralism, post-modernism, post-privacy and post-truth, have we also arrived at the era of post-pleasure? There are just a few of the provocative questions that French philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy raises in his book Coming as he explores the tricky, elusive and titillating French word jouissance and its various associations with orgasm, sex, coming, pleasure, joy, property and consumption.

Coming, which is the English translation of the French title la jouissance, takes the form of an interview, divided into five part as Adèle Van Reeth, the producer and host of France Cultural Radio’s daily program on philosophy, asks Nancy a series of questions about the idea of jouissance.  Through the course of this dialogue, Nancy lays out the original meaning of jouissance, which was used solely as a legal term, and he takes us on a fascinating linguistic journey to discover how this word evolved to become associated with sexual pleasure and orgasm and from consummation is now associated with the modern idea of consumption. This book is an excellent introduction for those who are new to Nancy or for those who are familiar with his prolific writings as it contains some of his most favored topics: community, modern psychology, linguistics, Christianity, the body, sex and Platonism, just to name a few. Continue reading my review in the February issue of Numero Cinq

You can also read an excerpt from the book translated by Charlotte Mandell here

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My Literary jouissance of 2016

This year has been a tough one for many reasons.  It is hard to believe that there could be a “best of” list for anything related to 2016 and I really wasn’t going to bother making a book list.  But Grant from 1st Reading  twisted my arm a bit and I was reminded that if there is one thing that kept me moving forward in 2016 it was the plethora of fantastic books I came across this year.

The French philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy, in his most recent book entitled Coming, explores the French word jouissance (pleasure) and the similarities between sexual pleasure and artistic pleasure.  Sexual jouissance and orgasm are irresistible desires for humans which we can never fully satisfy and thus we are constantly coming back and reaching for The Other.  Nancy argues that even when an artist produces a jouissance in his or her viewers, there is always a constantly renewed dissatisfaction that keeps the artist working again and again.  I would extend Nancy’s argument about renewed desire and satisfaction to include Bibliophiles such as myself who wallow in the aftermath of a great piece of literature.  We, as avid readers, are always attempting to renew that high, that euphoria, that bliss which slowly creeps up on us when we close the last page of a great book.  Some of us, after a good read, might even have the same expression on our faces as Caravaggio’s Ecstasy of Mary Magdalene which is depicted on the cover of Nancy’s book.  So the list of books below were the ones that brought me jouissance this year; or if I may be so bold as to say they were the standout books that caused me to experience a literary orgasm.

coming

Two Lines 25 is published by Two Lines Press and this 192-page volume contains fascinating literature translated from Bulgarian, Chinese, French, German, Hebrew, Japanese, Korean, Norwegian, Russian and Spanish.  What excited me most about this collection is that it introduced me to the philosophy and writings of Jean-Luc Nancy.

The writing of Jean-Luc Nancy is one of my favorite literary and philosophical discoveries this year.  I have read three of his books: Corpus, Listening and Coming.  His philosophy explores what it means to be human and he deals with subjects of touching, listening, desiring and loving.  My review of Coming will be out next month and I have so many thoughts about this slim volume that is only 168 pages.

Oblivion by Sergei Lebedev is a haunting reflection on what life was like for the author during the years of the Soviet Union.  Lebedev’s prose is dense and poetic and so thoughtful that I found myself rereading entire sections of the book multiple times.  I am very excited that Lebedev has another novel forthcoming from New Vessel Press entitled The Year of the Comet.

War Music by Christopher Logue is a book that I dismissed as soon as I saw it in the FS&G catalog because I don’t usually read any time of modern retellings of Ancient myths.  But Anthony at Times Flow Stemmed had such great things to say about it that I decided to give it a try and I am so glad that I did.  I have so many things to say just about the first 50 pages of this book that I am not sure how I am going to handle a review.  I am thinking of doing several short pieces on each section of Logue’s poem.  As far as retellings are concerned, I also discovered Christa Wolf based on his suggestion and I thoroughly enjoyed her Medea and Cassandra.

Seagull Books Catalog.  It’s unusual to find a catalog on a best of list, but the one that Seagull publishes each year is very special.  It includes writing from authors, translators and even bloggers from all over the world.  This year I was invited to contribute to the catalog and some of my favorite literary bloggers also have pieces in the catalog.  Selections from Roughghosts, Times Flow Stemmed,   Tony’s Reading List and of shoes ‘n ships can all be found in this fabulous collection of art and literature.

The Brother by Rein Raud is a fast-paced, hard-hitting, short book that uses the plot structure of a western as an allegory for demonstrating the balance of good and evil in the world. It my favorite title from Open Letters this year whose books are fantastic.

The Noise of Time by Julian Barnes is a skillfully written and poetic novel which serves as a fictional biography of the Russian composer Dmitri Shostakovich. The ways in which he must navigate his life and his art around the Soviet regime are heartbreaking.

The Parable Book by Per Olov Enquist is a true literary book that reads like philosophy, meditation, autobiography and parable. Sometimes we are given a very specific story from the author’s life, other times we are given an unclear stream-of-consciousness narrative, and still at other times we encounter a list of questions that the author poses on an entire page of the book. Enquist gives us the totality of a life that includes pivotal childhood memories, a bout of alcoholism that nearly destroys him, and the reflection of his elderly days during which he is waiting by the river to be taken to the other side. For anyone who enjoys serious literary fiction this book is a must-read. So far the English translation has only been published in the U.K. I am hoping it will also be available here in the U.S. This is a book that I look forward to reading multiple times.

A Lady and Her Husband by Amber Reeves from Persephone Books is a charming and entertaining look into the life of a middle-aged British couple that has been married for twenty-seven years. This book was written in 1914 so it brings up many political and social issues that were relevant at the turn of the last century and which continue to be discussed into the 21st Century. Debates that have taken place during the recent elections in the U.S. have reminded us that women are still paid less than their male counterparts, the minimum wage for workers continues to be too low, and millions of Americans still do not have access to proper healthcare.

Berlin-Hamlet: Poems by Szilárd Borbély is my favorite collection of poetry this year published by NYRB Poetry.  The layers of imagery, references and allusions to great figures like Kafka, Walter Benjamin, Attila József and Erno Szép are stunning. I find it so sad and tragic that the author succumbed to his deep sense of sadness and took his own life.

American Philosophy: A Love Story by John Kaag is another work of non-fiction that was one of my favorites this year.  Kaag’s journey from Hell to Redemption in his own personal life via the 10,000 books in Ernest Hocking’s personal library gave me an entirely new appreciation for American philosophers. Kaag also reminds us of the amazing resiliency of the human spirit and that no matter what we might suffer we must keep moving forward.

 

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Sacrificed on the Altar of Truth: My Review of American Philosophy—A Love Story by John Kaag

laocoon_and_his_sons_vatican

Laocoon and His Sons, Vatican Museum

In Book 2 of Vergil’s Aeneid, the poet relates the story of the Trojan Horse and the sack of Troy in vivid and horrifying detail.  The Trojans are standing on the beach which was recently deserted by the Greeks and debating whether or not to bring the massive wooden horse they find into their city.  Laocoön, a priest of Apollo, warns the Trojans about accepting any gift from the Greeks and utters one of Vergil’s most famous lines:

equo ne credite, Teucri.
Quidquid id est, timeo Danaos et dona ferentis.

Do not put your trust in the horse, Trojans.
Whatever it is, I fear Greeks even when they are bearing gifts.*

After Laocoön warns the Trojans about the dangers of the horse and launches his spear at the monstrous structure, two deadly serpents slither out of the sea and grab not only Laocoön but also his two sons that are standing nearby.  The Trojans assume that Laocoön is being punished by the Gods for defiling the horse.  But the opposite is true: Laocoön is right in his fears about the horse and the gods are trying to silence him with this horrific punishment. The Trojans stand on the beach in terror as they watch Laocoön and his sons being swallowed up by the sea serpents:

Tum vero tremefacta novus per pectora cunctis
insinuat pavor, et scelus expendisse merentem
Laocoonta ferunt, sacrum qui cuspide robur
laeserit et tergo sceleratam intorserit hastam.

Then indeed a new terror made the hearts of all the Trojans
tremble and they say that Laocoon had paid the price for
his deserved crime, Laocoon who struck the sacred wood
with his spear and hurled his wicked weapon against
the horse’s back.

John Kaag, author of the book American Philosophy: A Love Story stumbles upon the library of Ernest Hocking in New Hampshire, a priceless collection of over 10,000 books, many of which are rare first editions.  When Kaag finds Hocking’s library, he is in the midst of a personal crisis as his first marriage is crumbling and has been for many years.  As Kaag takes on the task of attempting to catalog and to save some of Hocking’s most valuable books, he finds a large bronze bust in Hocking’s library that was a replica of the famous Laocoön and His Sons statue from the Vatican Museum.  Kaag reflects on the story of  Laocoön and the tragedy of being punished for attempting to do the right thing:

This is what happens to people who have the bad luck of being painfully honest.  Maybe being less honest and alive was better than being self-righteously dead, I thought.  My recent experiment with honesty had been rather brutal.  I’d harbored secret doubts about my marriage for years, but as I edged toward thirty, it had become harder and harder to remain silent.

Days before his birthday Kaag sold his wedding ring and this resulted in an epic fight during his birthday party which their families and friends witnessed.  Kaag remarks that in the end he didn’t die, but there were many occasions during the dissolution of his marriage that he wished he had died..

Kaag concludes about the Laocoön story: “Being punished for telling a lie made sense, but being sacrificed on the altar of truth seemed cruel.”

To learn more about Kaag’s journey from hell to redemption in his personal life, his discovery and cataloguing of Hocking’s collection, and his reflection on American philosophy read my full review in the December issue of Numero Cinq.

*All translations of Latin in this post are my own. My translation style is very literal which can be viewed by some as awkward and clunky, but that’s how I roll with my Latin.

american-philosophy-a-love-story-book-cover

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Reflections on Jean Luc Nancy’s Listening

listeningFor those who are especially interested in music and music theory this book will be of great interest.  The title was published in the original French in 2002 and this English version has been translated by Charlotte Mandell.  This is in no way an attempt at any time of a review or a summary of Nancy’s ideas about Listening.  His writing  in this book defies any sort of comprehensive analysis or review.  The best way for me to approach this particular piece of writing is to glean a few words of wisdom here or there and see where his thoughts take me.  Many might disagree with me and be downright annoyed and/or angry at my approach.  But this is what I’ve got.

Nancy begins his discussion of language with an analysis of the verbs we use for listening and hearing.  In English we tend to used the verbs to hear and to listen interchangeably.  When we say, “Did you hear me?”  what we oftentimes really mean is “Did you listen to me?”  “Are you understanding me?”  The verb écouter, to listen, is derived from the Latin verb auscultare (to listen) and the Latin noun auris (ear), so écouter, which is derived from these words means “to lend and ear,” “to listen attentively.”   Nancy states:

We listen to someone who is giving a speech we want to understand, or else we listen to what can arise from silence and provide a signal or sign, or else we listen to what is called “music.”

Nancy’s discussion of timbre in music is particularly fascinating.   We cannot, through the use of musical notation, indicate timbre, so it is more subjective than other musical characteristics such as pitch, duration, and intensity.   The literal meaning of the word timbre comes from the Greek tympanon, which is the tambourine of orgiastic cults.  So Nancy concludes,

Timber can be represented as the resonance of a stretched skin (possibly sprinkled with alcohol, the way certain shamans do), and as the expansion of this resonance in the hollowed column of a drum.  Isn’t the space of the listening body, in turn, just such a hollow column over which a skin is stretched, but also from which the opening of a mouth can resume and revive resonance?  A blow from outside, clamor from within, this sonorous, sonorized body undertakes a simultaneous listening to a “self” and to a “world” that are both in resonance.  It becomes distressed (tightens) and it rejoices (dilates.)  It listens to itself becoming distressed and rejoicing, it enjoys and is distressed at this very listening where the distant resounds in the closest.

There is a short essay at the conclusion of the book which poses the question of whether or not someone who knows nothing about music can listen to and appreciate music.  Can a novice, without knowledge of timbre, pitch, tone, intensity, etc. comprehend or understand the masterpieces of Beethoven or Wagner?  This made me think about Julian Barnes’s book The Noise of Time in which the great Russian composer Shostakovich is constantly under attack and scrutiny for writing subversive music.  Lenin attended a performance of Shostakovich’s opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk and he absolutely hated it.  The next day a bad review which labeled the performance as “muddle instead of music” appeared in Pravda and the composer became terrified that this would not only be the end of his music career but also the end of his existence.  What did Lenin hear in that music that so repulsed him?  Was it the timbre, the pitch, or the intensity of the music that was so offensive to him?  How was Lenin’s listening to the music different from others who listened to the piece before him and declared it a masterpiece?

The questions that Nancy poses about listening can be applied, I think, to other aspects of listening besides music.  As a teacher I am constantly thinking about listening and hearing and how my students receive, understand, process and react to what I say.  If my timbre or rhythm in delivering a lesson are not quite right then I see the results when my questions are met with blank stares or class assessments are poor.  I also have to understand that some students are extremely sensitive to sound so when I approach them with the sound of my voice I must regulate my tone, my pitch, even my volume.

And in return I am dealing with an age group that is full of angst but who is not quite capable of properly expressing or communicating that angst or asking for help.  I have learned over many years that more than anything else, more than mastering an ancient language or learning anything about the Ancient World from me, they want to know that I am listening to them.  At the beginning of every year on the first day of class I ask them what qualities they think a good teacher should have and without fail every year almost every student writes “a good teacher should be a good listener.”   But they are so used to expressing themselves in the briefest terms via text and twitter that oftentimes I am left with the smallest scraps of communication by means of which I must somehow be that “good listener.”  Nancy’s passage about listening in relation to the self especially resonated with me:

When one is listening, one is on the lookout for a subject, something (itself) that identifies itself by resonating from self to self, in itself and for itself, hence outside of itself, at once the same as the other than itself, one is the echo of the other, and this echo is like the very sound of its sense.  But the sound of sense is how it refers to itself or how it sends back to itself [s’envoie] or addresses itself, and thus how it makes sense.

The more means of communication that we have—text, email, social media, Skype—the less inclined we are to actually listen to one another.  I see this in my students every day.  Not only do their phones and i-Pads distract them from listening to what is going on in class, but these so-called communication devices distract them from interacting with one another, on a human and personal level.  I’ve noticed that when they are fighting or disagreeing with one another it is often the result of something that started as a text or a Tweet.  And because they are so accustomed to electronic means of communication I fear that their ability to listen, to truly listen will be more and more diminished over time.  This thought makes me feel bewildered, overwhelmed and maybe even a little depressed.  But the only choice I have is to keep listening.

 

About the Author:
nancyJean-Luc Nancy is Distinguished Professor of Philosophy at the Université Marc Bloch, Strasbourg. His wide-ranging thought is developed in many books, including The Banality of Heidegger, The Disavowed Community, Ego Sum, Corpus, Anima, Fabula, and, with Adèle Van Reeth, Coming.
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