Pondering the palimpsest and panoply of the planet.

Archive for the tag “Simon Critchley”

Philosophy as the Art of Dying

"Skeleton pondering", a sketch from the Italian anatomist Vesalius and a typical "memento mori" image.

“Skeleton pondering”, a sketch from the Italian anatomist Vesalius and a typical “memento mori” image, and reminiscent of Hamlet pondering the skull of Yorick

“Who would Fardels bear, to grunt and sweat under a weary life, but that the dread of something after death, the undiscovered country, from whose bourn no traveller returns, puzzles the will, and makes us rather bear those ills we have, than fly to others that we know not of.”                                  Hamlet, Act III, Scene i

Hamlet is commonly considered the greatest achievement of that most superlative paragon of Western culture, William Shakespeare. What is greatest about the play is not its action, but its sublime lack of action. Hamlet’s dilemma is how to balance his desire for revenge with his fear of its consequences–namely, death. Hamlet’s fear of death paralyzes him and leads to much philosophizing throughout the play; indeed, perhaps it is no coincidence that Hamlet was a student of philosophy. Fear of death is an attribute common to all animals, but existential angst is a condition which seems to only affect mankind. The limits of philosophy are the limits of life itself, but at its heart it is a way to put our mortality into proper perspective and ward off the fear of death. As Montaigne said, channeling Cicero, “That to philosophize is to learn how to die.” Thus, in philosophizing we also learn how to live, and how to prepare for our own death and non-existence.

There are various ways to think about death, and one fruitful exercise is to look at what dead philosophers and writers of the past had to say about it. After all, we are alive and they are not, so are we not superior to them in one aspect? But they know something that we do not, which is the precise geography of that undiscovered country. A philosopher was “an apprentice to death” according to Montaigne, an author who is especially relevant because his Essays were begun after the death of a close friend and written as a way of meditating on death and his own life in order to find personal solace and happiness.

In the 6th century AD, the last Classical philosopher Boëthius’ Consolations of Philosophy, written from prison while awaiting execution for treason against the Gothic King of Italy Theoderic, is a dialogue between the author and the personified female form of Philosophy. One of the main arguments is the paradox that misfortune is better than good fortune because the former teaches us a lesson while the latter always deceives us about the illusory nature of all earthly happiness. This is reminiscent of the dialogue in Herodotus between Solon, one of the legendary Seven Sages of Greece, and Croesus, King of Lydia and the richest of men. Croesus beseeches Solon to tell him, from his wisdom and experience, who the happiest of men is (expecting himself to be named because of his great wealth and worldly success). Solon, instead, tells of a noble warrior who died on the battlefield; when pressed, he tells another story of two brothers who died in their sleep after carrying their mother to a temple. Croesus intervenes and asks why he has not been named, and Solon tells him that he can count no man happy until he is dead (that is, it is impossible to weigh the balance of a person’s happiness while he is still alive). Later, Croesus is defeated by the Persian King Cyrus and, just before being burned alive, cries out that Solon was right. Cyrus hears this and asks what he means, whereupon Croesus recounts the story to Cyrus and is subsequently released and made an advisor to the victorious king. The lesson, of course, is to take everything in stride–don’t be overly pleased in the good times, but don’t overly despair during the bad times. Things have a tendency to equal out over time as part of the normal vicissitudes of life. This basic lesson is similar to those taught by the Stoics, the Epicureans, and the Buddhists.

Hans Holbein, "The Dance of Death"

Hans Holbein, “The Dance of Death”

Contrary to the common use of the word today, the Stoics were not merely unemotional people, but practiced control of extreme emotions in the face of misfortune. For them, virtue was sufficient for human happiness, and freedom was to be used in the practice of constant virtue. It is interesting that the two most famous Stoic philosophers were a slave (Epictetus) and a Roman Emperor (Marcus Aurelius), both of whose writings show the tempering of emotions as a way to virtuous happiness despite their opposite positions in life. Like Platonism, it was a popular school in the Roman Empire that heavily influenced early Christianity, which is ironic considering that the Emperor Justinian closed the philosophical schools of Athens in 529 AD as being at odds with Christianity.

Contrary to the common idea today, the Epicureans did not merely seek pleasure as the ultimate happiness. Rather, such pleasure is achieved through modest living and the limits of one’s desires (and so the limits of one’s needs), and the search for knowledge of the world. This led eventually to a state of tranquillity and freedom from fear, which constitute the highest form of happiness. Very little of the writings of Epicurus survive, but the sublime “On the Nature of Things”, by the Roman poet Lucretius, is an encapsulation of Epicurean thought. On death, Epicurus was the author of the famous maxim, “Death is nothing to us: for that which is dissolved is without sensation, and that which lacks sensation is nothing to us” (or more simply “when death is, I am not; when I am, death is not”).

Just as the Stoics knew that “we should not complain of life, for the door of the prison is open”, Camus claimed that suicide is the fundamental problem of philosophy. As much as they may discuss the act, philosophers do not kill themselves at a higher rate than other people (one of several notable exceptions was the cynic Diogenes, who reportedly died by holding his breath). Rather than lamenting or killing oneself, there are other recourses for finding a meaning to life. According to Schopenhauer, there are four “avenues of escape”: aesthetic contemplation; cultivation of sympathy for one’s fellow beings; music; lose the ‘will to live’. Nietzsche, also a great admirer of music, found that struggle was the key to transcendence into some type of being above that which is all too human. Marx said that “Philosophers have sought to understand the world; the point, however, is to change it.” That is, to make the world better than it currently is, though your idea of better will be different from mine. Sometimes, then, the collective spirit of community and sympathy with others gives purpose in life, but for the most part this is just a remedy and not the cause. The search for meaning is always an individual one, just as one’s life and death are always one person’s alone. Wittgenstein expressed his thoughts as, “Just improve yourself, that is all you can do to improve the world.” Solipsistic perhaps, but there is a lot of leeway to the injunction of “improve yourself”.

As Camus describes in The Myth of Sisyphus, sometimes it is the struggle to live that gives life its meaning, especially in opposition to some great burden. Thus, opposing death can be seen as an end in itself. I am reminded of Ingmar Bergman’s great film The Seventh Seal, in which a knight plays chess with Death. The film is a metaphor for coming to terms with death in general, and the great struggle is ended with a sort of satisfaction of the resignation to one’s fate despite doing one’s best. Living with a sense of humor and irony helps gives this satisfaction. One of the countless epigrams of the great skeptic philosopher George Santayana is, “There is no cure for birth and death save to enjoy the interval.” Compare a line of Milan Kundera in the novel Immortality, “You make a common error: namely, considering death a tragedy”, or the famous humor of Mark Twain in the following bon mots which strikes an almost Epicurean tone: “I do not fear death. I had been dead for billions and billions of years before I was born, and had not suffered the slightest inconvenience from it.” Such irreverence is contrasted with high-minded seriousness as written by the Italian novelist Italo Svevo, “The image of death is enough to occupy the entire intellect. The efforts needed to restrain and repel it is titanic”. (L’immagine della morte è bastevole ad occupare tutto un intelletto. Gli sforzi per trattenerla o per respingerla sono titanici.) Another modernist writer, Vladimir Nabokov had this to say, “Life is a great surprise. I do not see why death should not be an even greater one.” I find this line by the philosophical writer Jorge Luis Borges telling: “I have noticed that in spite of religion, the conviction as to one’s own immortality is extraordinarily rare.  Jews, Christians, and Muslims all profess belief in immortality, but the veneration paid to the first century of life is proof that they truly believe only in those hundred years, for they destine all the rest, throughout eternity, to rewarding or punishing what one did when alive.” Like almost all writers, Borges’ main theme was human mortality, which drew him often to the concept of infinity (a relevant example is his short story “A Weary Man’s Utopia”).

For courage in facing death, philosophers give many examples. Most obviously, Socrates refused to fight against the injustice of his death sentence or to escape, and spent the last hours of his life in carefree conversation with his closest friends. Georg Hegel said, “Dialectics (or Philosophy) does not run from death and devastation. But it tarries with it a while, and looks it in the face.” Spinoza’s outlook is intended to liberate men from the tyranny of fear: “A free man thinks of nothing less than of death; and his wisdom is a meditation not of death, but of life.” Spinoza lived up to this precept very completely, as Bertrand Russell comments in his A History of Western Philosophy. Russell himself penned these singularly eloquent lines, “I believe that when I die I shall rot, and nothing of my ego will survive. I’m not young and I love life, but I should scorn to shiver with terror at the thought of annihilation. Happiness is nonetheless true happiness because it must come to an end. Nor do thought and love lose their value because they are not everlasting. Many a man has borne himself proudly on the scaffold. Surely the same pride should teach us to think truly about man’s place in the world. Even if the open windows of science at first make us shiver after the cozy indoor warmth of traditional humanizing myths, in the end the fresh air brings vigor, and the great spaces have a splendor of their own.”

Michel de Montaigne (1533-1592)

Michel de Montaigne (1533-1592)

Philosophy, especially as understood by the ancients after Socrates, is not merely its intellectual content and doctrines, but rather an art of living that can transform our lives and help us develop ourselves day by day. This is shown once again by Montaigne, whose friend’s death caused him to write his Essays and to seek a good and fully realized life, which led him to quit his job, travel widely, get into and then out of politics, and deal with a disease and then death with dignity.

There have been a number of recent books by both academic philosophers and popular thinkers which directly confront these issues of philosophy as a way of living and dying, including but not limited to: The Consolations of Philosophy, by Alain de Botton; How to Live, or A Life of Montaigne, by Sarah Bakewell; Examined Lives: From Socrates to Nietzsche, by James Miller; All Things Shining: Reading the Western Classics to Find Meaning in a Secular Age, by Hubert Dreyfus and Sean Kelly; Dying for Ideas: The Dangerous Lives of the Philosophers, by Costica Bradatan; The Book of Dead Philosophers, by Simon Critchley. All of these seem like worthy and fruitful reads, but I can only personally attest to the first and the last. De Botton’s book does well by the original version by Boëthius. He uses six historical philosophers’ ideas (Socrates, Epicurus, Seneca, Montaigne, Schopenhauer, Nietzsche) as ways to potentially deal with six different everyday problems everyone encounters in life at some time or other. He gives funny and easy to understand examples and generally tries to make philosophy more useful and accessible to normal readers, part of his on-going life project.

Simon Critchley’s 2008 The Book of Dead Philosophers is what he calls a “romp” through how 190 or so philosophers’ deaths related to their ideas. Nearly every entry is full of funny and irreverent quips about the protagonists’ lives and deaths, and is not a bad survey of a wide range of philosophers from around the world, men and women. Some examples of short summaries given in the intro are: “Pythagoras allowed himself to be slaughtered rather than cross a field of beans”; “Bacon died after stuffing a chicken with snow in the streets of London to assess the effects of refrigeration”; “Diderot choked to death on an apricot, presumably to show that pleasure could be had until the very last breath.” One of the book’s strengths (besides the excellent bibliography) lies in its long introductory essay thoughtfully preparing us for how to use the examples given, which is to begin to think clearly about what death is and how to face it. It does not provide any solutions, for there are none to be had, but raises some of the questions that we all must ask ourselves of our place in the world. Since to be a philosopher is to learn how to die, it is first necessary to have a proper attitude towards death. Critchley quotes Marcus Aurelius as writing “it is one of the noblest functions of reason to know whether it is time to walk out of the world or not.” “Unknowing and uncertain,” Critchley comments, “the philosopher walks.” Indeed, in this case we must all be philosophers, not crawling, and not running away, but walking upright towards our fate while looking it squarely in the eye. Only when we confront our own mortality can be be truly human, and truly free to live our lives. The Greek writer Kazantzakis chose for his epitaph these lines, “I hope for nothing. I fear nothing. I am free.” That is the goal not only of the philosopher, but of mankind.

What I Read in 2014

Despite those metaphysicians who hold that time is circular, the end of the year and the forward march of time is an opportune time for stepping outside of time, so to speak, and looking backward and forward in time to assess one’s life, what one has done well in the past, and what can be improved or attempted in the future. Like every other year, 2014 was a big year for me personally for various reasons. In this post, I will limit my discussion to books I have read, recapitulating and epitomizing each one, throwing in some digressions for good measure. The list is what it is–part of the past now, and part of my personal history and development. This year’s total of 30 or so books is not the most I have ever read in one year–I read over 40 solid books during my second deployment to Afghanistan which was 15 months, and I surely read much more during my Master’s study–but I don’t remember an overall assemblage of tomes from which I took so much enjoyment of reading itself, and not from research or other worldly duties and responsibilities. The books on this list were uniquely received and understood by me in a way that will be different for every other potential reader, owing to our mutual uniqueness of character and experience. If the list leads you to find a single good book you may not have otherwise read, I will consider myself happy (happier, rather, since my reading of these books was the original instantiation of my happiness). Unless otherwise stated, the list only includes books that I finished and not ones that I abandoned due to sudden change  of interest (Lawrence’s Seven Pillars of Wisdom, for example), dislike (one of the books of George Saunders, for example), or other various stories and volumes that I randomly perused or forgot I even started.

Postwar by Tony Judt

This was the only work of history I read this year, unusually for me, and was the longest of the year as well (835 pages). It covers the entirety of European history from the last years of World War Two until 2005. Considered the very best broad survey of this segment of world history. I learned many things about the nooks and crannies of Europe of which I know next to nothing (Romania and Yugoslavia, for example) and much more about the places where I supposedly know something (Italy and America, for example). The book also links together the pieces of the puzzle, including economy, culture, American foreign policy, and many other things, that led directly to the state of Europe as it currently stands.

Zorba the Greek and parts of Odyssey: A Modern Sequel by Nikos Kazantzakis

I had seen the film twice and started the book a few years ago, but I finally got around to reading the whole tale of Alexis Zorba. As is obligatory to say in such contexts, it is better than the film. Kazantzakis’ epic sequel of Odysseus’ wanderings would have ranked as the longest book of the year, but I did not finish it, and do not plan to in any hurry. It is one to be savored intermittently and at a leisurely pace. If you want to find out more about this author, I have already written a longer article called Nikos Kazantzakis the Greek. He is truly one of the great writers of the 20th century.

Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity and Philosophy and Social Hope by Richard Rorty

These are two accessible works (that is to say, not technical or jargony) of philosophy by the American pragmatist and political activist. They are quite engaging, though I have not actually made up my mind yet which parts of his thinking I disagree with. In the first book, there is a very interesting discussion and comparison between Orwell and Nabokov, not just as writers but as philosophical thinkers. Recommended for these final two chapters alone. The second book is basically Rorty explaining his same ideas in different ways, which is not necessarily a bad thing. As the most important American philosopher since Dewey, he deserves a longer explanation which I cannot give at this time. Here is one interesting quote from the latter book: “So, for pragmatists there is no sharp break between natural science and social science, nor between social science and politics, nor between politics, philosophy and literature. All areas of culture are parts of the same endeavor to make life better. There is no deep split between theory and practice, because on a pragmatist view all so-called ‘theory’ which is not wordplay is always already practice.” It is worth mentioning that these books are partly responsible for my decision (unconscious at first but very clear now) to change my reading habits largely back to fiction after a long time of focusing about exclusively on non-fiction (history, philosophy, and other theoretical pursuits).

Hadji Murad; assorted short stories by Lev Tolstoy

Tolstoy is in the literary pantheon, so it is never difficult to read or reread anything by the Count. Hadji Murad was his last completed novel (technically a novella), and was the inspiration for a short story of mine that is to be published in an anthology of veteran authors next year. One of only two pieces that I reread this year was the short story “How Much Land Does a Man Need?”, which uses its 10 pages to their maximum story-telling potential. James Joyce considered it the best short story ever written (which obviously means the best that Joyce himself had ever read).

Anxiety of Influence and The Book of J by Harold Bloom

Bloom is the foremost American literary critic, and in the first work he describes how all literature is written with an “anxiety of influence” about drawing inspiration from and trying to surpass one’s literary forebears. Most of the book focuses on English poetry, but the ideas he puts forth are relevant to any field of study. The second book is more accessible but also more speculative. Bloom posits that the Hebrew Torah was originally the work of a single creative mind during the Enlightenment period of King Solomon, and further that this author was a woman. In his introduction to another book, The Western Canon, Bloom takes this idea a step further and claims the author was none other than Bathsheba. It is very well thought out and sound hypothesis, to the point that he includes the entire original version of the story of Yahweh supposedly created by Bathsheba in a long poem imagined by David Rosenberg. According to Bloom, Joseph would have been the heroic literary counterpart to the historical King David, whose reign would have been witnessed by the author and seen as a golden age compared to that of his incompetent grandson Rehoboam.

Very Little, Almost Nothing by Simon Critchley

The only real technical philosophy I read this year discusses the problematic idea of nihilism and how it can be overcome. A difficult read, punctuated by many interesting and inspiring quotes. One of the things that moved me was Critchley discussing the quote by Adorno about Auschwitz: “The only philosophy which can be responsibly practised in face of despair is the attempt to contemplate all things as they would present themselves from the standpoint of redemption.” Critchley then notes, “After Auschwitz, the Kantian epistemological question ‘How is metaphysics possible?’ yields to a historical question ‘Is it still possible to have a metaphysical experience?’ For Adorno, this is because actual events–the Holocaust–have shattered the basis upon which metaphysical speculation might be reconciled with experience.” It has quite a bit of value from the point of view of contemporary metaphysics and for those interested in existentialism.

Shakespeare: The World as Stage by Bill Bryson; Beethoven: The Universal Composer by Edmund Morris

These are two of a series of short and lively biographies for a popular audience called “Eminent Lives,” each of which I read in a couple sittings. Though I already knew quite a bit about the world’s greatest playwright and composer, respectively, the authors have a flair for story-telling, and I now have more perspective about the world these two literary and musical luminaries moved in. About Shakespeare, it was just as interesting to learn about the historical reception and scholarship of the Bard as about the few real facts that exist on the man. About Ludwig van, Morris probably captures the man, if not the music, in this quote: “His talent amazed me. However, unfortunately, he is an utterly untamed personality, not at all wrong if he finds the world detestable, but he thereby does not make it more enjoyable either for himself or others.”

Afghan Post by Adrian Bonenberger; Fire and Forget: Short Stories from the Long War by Various Authors

The first book is a war memoirs about the author’s time before, during, and after entering the Army and spending two years in Afghanistan. It is written in epistolary form and delves into a series of interesting dialogues, of which we only read one side but can infer the rest (or imagine our own responses), with old friends and relatives as his life changes dramatically through his experiences in war. I happen to be friends with the author since we served together in the same battalion for one year in Afghanistan. This shared experience allowed me to relive and rethink some of my own ideas about the war from a different perspective, now several years removed from action, and in the end I found my own personal catharsis.

The second is a collection of short stories by veteran authors written about the war experience in Iraq or Afghanistan, or as a military person in general upon returning home. Coming from many different backgrounds and experiences, the authors obviously use a variety of styles, and the stories are a mixed bag. These two books are the only contemporary war literature I have read since finishing my own time in the army, though I have been learning about some other intriguing and well-received books on that theme, and have already mentioned an upcoming collection vaguely inspired by Fire and Forget that will consist of 20 veteran authors’ stories set in the context of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.

Assorted Russian Short Stories

I find the Russians to be a great inspiration not only for writing but for living life with a wider understanding of the world and the people who populate it. I have already mentioned Tolstoy as the greatest of them. This year I read Gogol (The Inspector-General, The Overcoat, The Nose–which is second of two pieces this year that I reread), Pushkin (The Queen of Spades), Chekhov (many stories from a seemingly limitless short story writer), and Babel (The History of My Dovecote), and a few others I am forgetting.

The Words by Jean Paul Sartre

This is Sartre’s literary autobiography and one of his last works, I believe. It was somewhat interesting at the beginning while he leisurely lays out his family history and early years, but I struggled through most of it. It turns out that when I looked into it a bit later that Sartre was apparently attempting to disavow his literary career with this memoirs, and to discredit the act of writing itself, as opposed to direct action in the world. Whatever. Probably my least favorite book of the year.

Waiting for the Barbarians and The Life and Times of Michael K by J.M. Coetzee

These are considered the two best books from the South African Nobel laureate. I found them both to be quite excellent, with a very understated and seemingly simple story-telling style that nevertheless is totally compelling from start to finish. Both take place is generic nations (or empires) run by generic functionaries and military men (though I couldn’t help but imagine both the setting as apartheid-era South Africa). Both works have a deep moral force that keeps them afloat and invite the reader to think for himself.

Man’s Search for Meaning by Victor Frankl

The author was a psychoanalyst who spent years in Nazi concentration camp, survived, and wrote this amazing book and many others. He founded his own school of existentialist psychoanalysis, called logotherapy, which states that finding meaning in one’s own life is the primary driving force in humans. The story he tells of his experience is probably the most intense story of human understanding that a person can ever tell, and I would recommend everyone to read it. Frankl was already a practicing psychiatrist and psychotherapist when he was taken to the concentration camps, and through a super-human act of human will, he was able not only to survive but to treat and inspire his fellow prisoners, and to keep keen observations of the extremes of human behavior he was witnessing everyday in order to write about it later. If Frankl could find meaning in life while in Auschwitz, how can we complain about our lesser quotidian cares and worries? Here is one representative quote: “Life ultimately means taking the responsibility to find the right answer to its problems and to fulfill the tasks which it constantly sets for each individual.”

A Time of Gifts, Between the Woods and the Water, and Mani: Travels in the Southern Peloponnesus by Patrick Leigh Fermor

These are the first among several literary travel books I read within a few months of each other and that all date from between the two world wars. The first two books are parts one and two of a trilogy, though the third installment was published unfinished in 2013 after the author’s death. They recount a walk across Europe, leaving England and debarking in the Netherlands with Istanbul as the final destination, by way of the Rhine, the Danube, and several other meanderings and tangents. This trip began in 1933 when the author was 19, and finished a couple years later. The background of the tale is itself quite significant–here was a young and idealistic Englishman (half-Irish, actually) embarking on a walking tour through old Europe–cosmopolitan, feudal, aristocratic, ethnically mixed up–before its last remains were blown away by the Second World War. His long first section walking across southern Germany took place just after the Nazis had come to power. Though he does not mention the political situation much, it is always present between the lines. This is because Fermor masterfully combines a sense of his youthful attitude with commentary from his much older authorial self–the book was written over 40 years after the trip, when Fermor was in his 60s and already long established as a war hero (he led the British-Greek resistance on Crete and abducted a German general and took him to Egypt) and travel writer (he had already published six full-length travel books, including Mani). The first book finishes with Fermor standing on a bridge on the border of Hungary and the second continues to the trip through Hungary and Romania to the border with Serbia at the so-called Iron Gates. The third presumably takes us across the last bit of the Balkans to Constantinople and thence to Greece, where Fermor would make his home later (here is a great article in The New Republic on the background behind  Fermor’s last unfinished installment). Along the way, we come to learn of the incredible amount of hospitality he received during the long sojourn, often and increasingly from old feudal lords and aristocrats of Germany and the Habsburg Empire. He sometimes stayed for weeks at a time in various castles of these learned and idle counts and barons. While the story itself stands on its own, what makes this a classic, and has led to Fermor being repeatedly named as the best English language travel writer, is his use of language. It is masterful and inimitable, and paints a wonderful picture in the reader’s mind.

The third book I read by Fermor this year was written after WWII and recounts in great detail a walking trip by the author and some friends through single long peninsula of the Peloponnesus called Mani. Fermor, who lived in Greece for decades and knew every part of Greece and its inhabitants, uses this singularly isolated and independent strip of land to describe the customs, culture, and history of its people and how they compare to other Greeks.

The Road to Oxiana by Robert Byron

This is another travel book that tells of the author’s trip from Venice through Palestine and Syria to Persia and Afghanistan in 1933. His purpose was ostensibly to study the origins of Islamic art and architecture, and he spends a lot of time describing the mosques and other buildings he encounters. It is also exceedingly well-written, and contains countless little short comical theatrical set pieces of dialogue that show Byron’s strong personality, sense of humor, and gifts as a writer. After finishing the trip he spent three years crafting this work, which has been called his masterpiece, and then he died on board a British vessel sunk by German torpedo whilst on his way to work for British intelligence in Egypt (and possibly Greece, as the name Byron would still carry weight there).

Abroad: British Literary Travel Writing beween the Wars by Paul Fussell

Fussell here attempts to make travel writing into a more reputable and rigorous topic of study in literary and historical circles with this book, and if he did not succeed, it is through no fault of his but of his academic colleagues. The book generally describes how the British (and, to a lesser degree, American) travel writing boom came about directly as a result of World War One–both life in the cold, muddy trenches for soldiers and scarcity and belt-tightening at home led the society in search of warmer places. Those who could not travel were still highly ready to read almost any type of travel book that did not involve England. Each chapter is on a different writer (Greene, Lawrence, Waugh, Douglass, Durrell, Auden and Isherwood, with especial praise for Byron) or aspect of the new travel industry (the British invention of the passport, for example). It was very educational for me to learn about another side of a period of history and literature I thought I had a decent grasp on, but to see with a completely new perspective.

The Colossus of Maroussi by Henry Miller

The American expat Miller forces his way into the travel writing craze against his will. This book is on the author’s 1938 trip from Paris, where he had made his home, to Greece, where he had never been. He came on the suggestion of Lawrence Durrell, who had made his new home in Corfu and maintained decades of correspondence with Miller. Miller makes a big show about his lack of classical or formal education in regards to ancient Greece, but it becomes clear throughout the book that he know a thing or two about life. It is written in his typical (and influential) colloquial and fearless style. There are long passages of internal monologue that are both poetic and inspired. Miller held this to be his best book, and many critics agree. One person said that Miller had raised solipsism to an art form. The colossus of the title is a certain prominent man of letters and outsized personality named Katsimbalis. In fact, the main character is Miller himself, and his enthusiastic reawakening to some type of life spirit in Greece (one critic said that Miller, in this book, had raised solipsism into an art form). While visiting Crete, Miller was greeted and looked after by someone named Tsoutsou whom Miller describes as being the biggest literary figure of Crete and a man who spoke 10 languages and knew everybody. I cannot find any other references to this theory, but I found myself imagining this as a fictionalized version of Kazantzakis. Another interesting fact is that Ghika, the famous Greek artist, was a member of the circle of friends of Katsimbalis that Miller frequented. Ghika illustrated Kazantzakis’ Odyssey: A Modern Sequel, and his house on the isle of Hydra was also where Patrick Fermor wrote Mani. The Colossus of Maroussi, on the other hand, was written in America after Miller had to unwillingly return there to escape World War Two, and his panegyric on all things Greek is openly stated to also represent his distaste for all things American. It is a must-read for anyone who loves Greece, traveling, or great writing.

Justine and Prospero’s Cell by Lawrence Durrell

Justine is the first of a larger four-part work called The Alexandria Quartet. Each of the four books is written from a different character’s point of view, and the first three take place simultaneously while the last one is set six years later. Justine is a lushly stylistic novel whose every sentence is a work of literary art. The entire quartet was a bit long for me to finish this year but I will gradually finish it over time, as I am prone to bounce between many different books at the same time, sometimes putting one down for several years before finishing it. The variety is what is important for me, and the same book reread years later would be received differently–the words were the same but I had changed. I think my short digression here does something to represent the spirit of Durrell’s masterpiece. Alas, Durrell’s setting of the cosmopolitan, cultured, and romantic Alexandria which lasted for 23 centuries is now long gone, as this article in Foreign Policy magazine shows. The second book I read by him was his fictionalized travel story of his year spent in Corfu in 1938. I have visited that largest of the Ionian islands as well, and this book did more than make me want to return as soon as possible. It was rich and interesting and entertaining.

Goodbye to All That by Robert Graves

This is the first book I read by Graves outside of the two Claudius books I had enjoyed several years back (after randomly finding the first one in a French hostel before starting the Camino de Santiago and finishing it within a few days). Goodbye to All That is a fictionalized (funny how many books of supposed non-fiction qualify for that adjective–that’s why it’s called literature and not documentary) memoirs of the author’s early life through trench life in World War One and his traumatic break with England and move to Majorca. It can be classified as another post-war travel book as I described earlier. I have written a much longer review of this book on my other blog in a post called Goodbye to Christmas Truces.

The World as I Found It by Bruce Duffy

This is more than a fictionalized version of history–it is a pure novel that happens to follow the real lives of eminent philosophers Ludwig Wittgenstein, Bertrand Russell, and, to a lesser extent, G.E. Moore. As a novel, it is wonderful and beautifully written. Since I happen to know quite a bit about these men and their work, I was not disappointed in any regard and found the book totally compelling. The author gave a lecture in 1991–three years after the book’s publication–in which he explains his rationale for changing and inventing facts about real people for the sake of a novel: “Was it moral, what I did? Was it moral of Max Brod not to burn Kafka’s manuscripts and papers as Kafka had instructed? I can’t really answer this question except to say there are different forms of homage. As I saw it thirty years after his death, Wittgenstein was nobody’s moral property. Like a man buried at sea , he was rightfully consigned to history.” And again here Duffy says: “In Shakespeare’s time to write plays about Julius Caesar or Prince Hamlet was not a bothersome thing, but today it is, I’m afraid. In an era of experts and unprecedented specialization–in a time when I should say we cripple ourselves by ceding far too much to the wisdom of experts–a book like mine is bothersome, for some to the point of being disorienting. For all our self-conscious poses, for all our irony and formal sophistication , not to mention our exposure to the strategies of modernism and postmodernism, many of us still like our categories straight. We are greatly bothered by confusions of fact and fiction. We are bothered by a novel that, say, in its prologue adopts the seemingly trustworthy voice of a biography only to monkey with the facts: This is unsportsmanlike, like impersonating a rightful officer of the law. Be more radical and experimental! says one camp. Be more conventional! says the other. When they rap my knuckles, critics seem to hold out these two shining alternatives, often seemingly at the same time. But again, their advice enshrines what too many naively expect nowadays. Straight categories. Fiction as some literary substitute for the old Classic Comics. Above all, the epic, churn-em-out complacency of that form I almost uniformly detest: ‘historical fiction.’ These by now are old tactics that do not trouble anyone.” In other words, long live the novel (and do not worry if its characters are real people–Shakespeare and Tolstoy didn’t). Whether you are interested in the lives of its characters or not, I can recommend this as an excellent and well-written novel that stands on its own merits.

The Collected Poems by Constantine P. Cavafy

This is the only work of poetry I read this year, which is something I would obviously like to rectify in future years. Cavafy was a Greek poet who lived and wrote about his home city of Alexandria, Egypt. He was a major inspiration for Durrell’s quartet above, and his poem “The City” was especially relevant to the latter work. His poems are a combination of historical, philosophical, and aesthetic, and are thus quite accessible and intriguing even for a poetry laggard like me. One of his poems, “The God Forsakes Antony”, was the inspiration for the Leonard Cohen song “Alexandra Leaving.” Another random (or not) connection is that Cohen also has a house on the island of Hydra and was heavily influenced by Henry Miller. Overall, Cavafy’s poems are evocative and inspirational for me, especially because I share a love of classical history and Mediterranean settings.

Runaway by Alice Munro

This collection of short stories is considered one of the best by the recent Nobel laureate. Most of her stories take place in rural Canada, where she is from. They are heavily focused on female characters and delve deep into their psyche and motivations. Munro has been called a modern, or a Canadian, Chekhov. I think this is great praise for her, and I see the resemblance but do not feel she is quite on the level of the Russian master of the short story. Time will tell, though. She does share with Chekhov a disregard for traditional plot devices and more focus on psychological aspects of the characters, especially involving sudden realizations that changes the characters’ lives in some way. Most of these stories have a deep underlying sense of humanity, and pathos. I was most moved by one called “Silence” (and not only because it contained the first cultural reference I have ever seen to ancient Greek romances by Achilles Tatius and Heliodorus). This is the most contemporary of the books I read this year, and the only one by a woman. It has helped me continue to try and expand my boundaries as a reader and explore new writers and different styles.

According to Borges, “reading is an activity subsequent to writing: more resigned, more civil, more intellectual.” Just as Borges considered himself, first and foremost, a professional reader rather than writer, I also hope to improve my reading skills and knowledge of the world each year. At a certain point, the issue becomes time and how to choose and prioritize what to read out of the infinite options–how to satisfy what Nabokov called the “Orphic thirst” of reading and rereading. I already have a long list of books to read next year and in coming years and which will lead to even more books that I have not even heard of yet. I hope to do better next year.

Post Navigation

%d bloggers like this: