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Rosshalde by Hermann Hesse

God what a relief after drudging through that awful Heidegger crap.

Hesse writes in two voices. One is the almost medieval voice of Siddhartha, Narcissus and Goldmund, and Peter Camenzind — and the other is the more contemporary voice of Steppenwolf, Magister Ludi and Rosshalde. Rosshalde is not really a novel so much as a gesture — it should almost be a painting, and in it a painter contemplates a single fact — which is his inability to have a normal life. I say normal, but I should say mundane — the gesture is that of recognition of the state of being an artist. An ordinary man is allowed certain things, and certain things are expected of him. An artist, or saint — more to the point — a philosopher in the sense in which Nietzsche uses the word when he does not use it with scorn, is not capable of those things.

At the beginning of Rosshalde we have a manor house novel, where the lord of the manor has become estranged from his family who neither understand nor appreciate him. We see him first as desperate and scorned, and later as strong and distant — but what he is not is a capable husband and father. And what his wife and children are not are significant friends. Through the intervention of his friend, and fate, he recognizes the futility of his situation and leaves it. It is a single gesture — there is no struggle, which is why it is really a painting and not a novel. It must be a confusing book to read for someone who does not already understand it, because it makes no argument.

I have heard it said that ‘just because something has happened does not make it a fit subject for art’ — but this novel feels as if this is exactly what happened — I suspect that Hesse lived through the truth of these emotions (if not the actual events) and wrote this down as a way of explaining it to himself. You could see either Siddhartha or Harry Haller writing this in their notebook as a way of dealing with the pain of losing their earthly attachments before coming to their different philosophical positions on it. This book would make a good companion piece to “The Awakening” by Kate Chopin — as it deals with the inadequate environment of social convention to satisfy an awakening human soul.

This is not a book which should be meaningful to an ordinary man who wishes to remain ordinary and find meaning in his family and profession. This is a book about the ruthlessness required of those who are called on to a different kind of life.

While I deeply love it, I don’t know that I would recommend it as easily as I would recommend Demian, or Steppenwolf — even though it speaks to that same transformation. I think that if someone has read Demian and Steppanwolf, and has been moved by them — if the character of Harry Haller particularly moves you — if you can see why he is the way he is, then Rosshalde is a further meaningful meditation on the subject which you might find to be bracing — something to give you courage.


November 15, 2008 Posted by | 40th Birthday Project | Leave a comment

Nietzsche Volume One by Martin Heidegger

This book has a bad smell. I am 30 pages in and I see much Heidegger and little Nietzsche. Heidegger’s main thesis so far seems to be that we must not be confused by previous readers of Nietzsche — so far so good — but then the reason for that is that Nietzsche seems to have stumbled upon Heidegger’s main idea. To justify this we will look at a work which Nietzsche did not complete — didn’t even edit. And by the way have you heard of the book Being and Time (product placement on like the 10th page.) This is all the worse as Heidegger seems to be a philosophy teacher. He speaks as if he has tenure — as if you need to count on him for a grade. I would never finish 4 pages of him if he didn’t have a reputation. I think he’s blowing smoke. Nietzsche, on the other hand is so lucid, so clear. One would read him even if his name was not attached. His words speak for themselves — and here Heidegger seems to want to use the occasion of Nietzsche’s name to talk about his own bullshit.

I cruised along for a couple more chapters thinking I had been unfair while crafty Heidegger recycled material from his Aristotle lectures, engaged in shallow etymological observations (providing a number of rich loci for multiple choice and fill in the blank questions in undergraduate philosophy quizzes) referenced Aquinas and Hegel and passionately defended German Idealism — which I suspect Nietzsche would loathe — and finally I came upon this statement:

“That is what Nietzsche’s thought wants to achieve: it wants to give things weight and importance again.” Could you imagine a more ludicrous passage to be written about Nietzsche? This was true of Kant, certainly, and likely of Heidegger himself — it is nostalgic and sentimental — even effeminate. Only someone who is unsure of himself requires “things” to posses weight and importance. If Nietzsche was concerned about “things” at all it was their lightness. Heidegger is the misty eyed closet-romantic nationalist reactionary — not Nietzsche.

He very strongly reminds me of Kant, particularly in that he tells us over and over again what he is going to do, but he never actually does it. He gives us a structure where he says he is going to unveil Nietzsche’s thought, that we must listen to Nietzsche, that we must be sensitive to what he is saying — and then he goes off on long unrelated tangents projecting and misreading fragments and creating arguments on the fly. Like Kant — his fans accept it when he says “We will do thus and so.” — perhaps because these are the only clear thoughts in the soup. So we read him and walk away saying “Well whatever else I know he said he did thus-and-so.” — so that is what goes in the essay. He reads like someone free-associating, and remembering every once in a while what it is that he is writing about and putting down a couple words about it. His proclamations are homilies — we cannot disagree with them, they are too vague. But after asserting them he does not live up to their demands.

I cannot imagine that the book would be worth reading even for a fan of Heidegger. It has nothing to offer on the subject of Nietzsche — Heidegger never understood Nietzsche because Nietzsche undertook a practice of honesty with himself, and Heidegger lived constrained contentedly within the bounds of a comfortable conceit which wants nothing more than to convince others of it’s good grounding. To read Heidegger on the subject of Nietzsche is as absurd as reading an apology of Socrates written by Gorgias. I am not going to read the remaining volumes.

I am suddenly suspicious of Derrida — who I have always liked. He refers so much and so often to this buffoon — was I reading him naively?

November 14, 2008 Posted by | 40th Birthday Project | 2 Comments

40th Birthday Project — First Quarter Update

A couple of things — I am still using LibraryThing, but I am posting my progress as I go on Visual Bookshelf on Facebook. I like LibraryThing better but it doesn’t interact with Facebook — so I’m split for now.

My progress is not fast enough to make my goal. Going straight by the numbers, I would need to read 250 books this year — so I would need to have read 40 books by now to be up to date. I have finished about 10 — the reviews and associated material (including prior projects that were similar in tone) are listed under the 40th Birthday Project category tab.

I was anticipating a slow start, so since my progress has been at least steady, I’m not going to sweat the lag. I have really enjoyed having focused reading be a part of my life again — it is providing a welcome counter to the increasingly technical nature of my work and education. I anticipate that my first quarter will end with me being at least 30 books behind.

I have not been reading every day — and when I let even one day slip I am likely to let a week slip, so I think that keeping in mind that this is a loose daily project (as opposed to a strict daily project) is going to help.

I am using the original post and updating to track my project on a book by book basis — and when I complete a book I move the review off onto its own post. If you want to root for me you can keep track of the project here.

November 3, 2008 Posted by | 40th Birthday Project | Leave a comment

Autobiography by John Oxenford Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

this book is amazing — it is clear where Nietzsche developed some of his ideas. Goethe stands as a clear example of the strong, creative nature which Nietzsche so often extols. It was fun to read through Goethe’s discussion of his alchemical experiments, and his very neo-platonic views on Christianity. His take on atheism is interesting and is something which modern religious thinkers could really get a hold of. He is utterly unafraid of science — he is fascinated with the world and one can easily imagine him drinking in modern physics, and Darwinism and anything else without blinking. He rejects out of hand and with good humor philosophy which is used as an armature for despair.  Contemporary thinkers are much more vain than he was, and in the manner predicted by Nietzsche, because science has failed to give them the certainty which superstition once did, have rejected concepts such as meaning and significance and produced a series of gloomy books about why this is necessary. Goethe rejects this move with good humor, and without thereby falling into anything which might be equated with creation science.

Goethe’s personality is also grand, and his writing is delicious. Of course I am reading him in translation so I don’t get his sense of the sound of German, but his sentences are wonderful and complex, and his manner of developing his thoughts over pages is a theater of concepts which is entertaining on it’s own entirely independent of what concepts he happens to be discussing. I wonder if that is related to intelligence — does a highly intelligent persons mind just craft complex thoughts like that (as Simone Wiel has suggested) or is it a stylistic choice — could anyone learn to do it?

The reflection on the public reception of Werter in Book XIII is magnificent, and the whole book should be read just to understand this passage. It would not be enough to just read the passage — I think his comments would come across as snide if you hadn’t been introduced to his tone in the preceding chapters. His honest chagrin at the public’s inability to understand the work, and the insistent curiosity as to, for example, the true identity of Lotte is wonderful to read. As is his comment, which is deeply interesting in a writer, that the gulf between writer and audience is total. I don’t think he makes that comment in hyperbole — so then who is he writing for? Other writers? Himself? He trolls the observation out in the middle of a chapter where he has dealt with his own suicidal feelings, and then draws it back again and says no more about it.

The passage on the failed eye surgery, performed as a study of a decent man in an unfortunate circumstance is brilliant.  We see a good man who is performing what must have been almost a miraculous cure. Then something goes wrong, and he almost knows it ahead of time. It turns out to be the case, and we consider in detail how he reproaches himself. The image of Nietzsche’s higher man is so clear here — this is the man we are talking about. He goes above and beyond — yet he is still mired in his humanity. He is his own toughest critic, and in a sense he is so exaulted that he exites nothing but suspicion from others — and his work itself is held to an impossibly high standard. That shame that he feels on having been less then perfect, when he has already been more than human — what is that? It is a remarkable passage.

What is most amazing about this book, besides the lovely full sentences, is that scattered thoughout it are utter gems of thought. Small, almost accidental observations which leap out and almost make you put the book down. I would like to go through it again with a butterfly net, and capture some of these quotations — maybe for a future post.

October 27, 2008 Posted by | 40th Birthday Project | Leave a comment

Ovid’s Metamorphoses

I was totally unprepared for what a relevant and inspiring piece of literature this was. I have always thought of it as a collection of Greek stories, which it is not. Not essentially — essentially it is a warning to Augustus and to Rome generally about the stupidity of the passions and the importance of the intellect. This point is subtle in the book, and of course it is a collection of stories, but they are chosen with a purpose in mind — the book builds towards it’s end. In the final chapters we are presented with the story of Hercules (with its strange and wonderful echoes of the Christian story), of the argument between Ajax and Ulysses about who is fit to wear Achilles’ armor, and a long philosophical chapter on change, with a discussion of the “eternal” Roman empire afterward. I refuse to believe that this does not add up to a single warning statement.

A second source of great joy in reading The Metamorphoses is the astonishing number of scenes which were clearly inspirational to Shakespeare. Not just Shakespeare of course — the whole of Western History echoes with ideas from these pages, but particularly Shakespeare. If you have read the plays you will recognize not just plot elements, but themes and nuance. Shakespeare was clearly formed in the womb of Ovid.

Finally there is, in several passages, the presentation of a conflicted internal monologue which is far far ahead of it’s time. A psychologically realistic portrayal of self-deception and rationalization which easily could be modern. It is not on every page of the book — but there are a number of long monologues throughout the book which are striking.

The book is so strange — in a way the translation feels uninspired — the quality of the English is just sub-par. But the images are so vital — the stories are so much more interesting than the alternate versions I’ve encountered in books on mythology through the years. Everything in the book is familiar, but Ovid himself so seems to be present in this book. Did the translator do that? What kind of choices did Gregory make? Did he forgo the feeling of poetry so that the tone and sass of Ovid would come through. He seems (from the introduction) to have as strong feeling for the man. Of course how accurate that feeling is, is a whole other question.

The most striking thing reading this is how much of it is already familiar from movies and paintings and other books. But more striking than that are how powerful individual moments of the text are. It is almost like it was made to be represented in a series of paintings. I want to go through it and write sonnets capturing the single moments — they leap out with such vividness. I wonder if that is because Ovid himself received many of these stories from sculptures, paintings, reliefs and such? Or was that just his chosen style? It is such a pronounced effect that I almost think it has to be the former rather than the later — it almost has to be an artifact of the process of creation.

What an injustice that this book is taught in pieces — it is so clearly a single work with a single point. One cannot appreciate it by reading chapters — it has to be read whole and will be both rewarding and entertaining for those who dare it.

October 20, 2008 Posted by | 40th Birthday Project | Leave a comment

Goethe and True Will

One of the beautiful things about a reading project is, of course, the incredible things you get to read.

So many things I come across that I want to share, but this one plain stopped me in my tracks:

“When, namely, the youth of a man falls into a pregnant time, when production outweighs destruction, and in him the presentiment is early awakened as to what such an epoch demands and promises, he will then, forced by outward inducements into an active interest, take hold, now here, now there, and the wish to be active on many sides will become lively within him. But now human limitation is associated with so many accidental hindrances, that here a thing once begun remains unfinished, there a thing once grasped falls from the hand, and one wish crumbles away after another. But if these wishes had sprung out of a pure heart, suited to the requirements of the time, one could quietly let them fall right and left, and be assured that not only must this be found out and picked up again, but also that many kindred things, which one has never touched, yes, and never even thought of, will come to light. If now we see during our lifetime that performed by others, to which we ourselves felt an earlier call, which we had been obliged to give up with much besides, then the beautiful feeling enters the mind that only mankind taken together is the true man, and that the individual can only be joyful and happy when he has the courage to feel himself in the whole.”
(Autobiography; Book IX)

And that is, I think, one of the best expressions of a mature concept of “True Will” that I have ever encountered. One sees themselves in a local perspective and with clear boundaries, but one actually exists in continuance of everything else that also is. If you are honest and engaged with your world, then your innermost desires come from and go out into that world — expressions which begin with you are concluded by other hands far from you. And your innermost secrets are actually thoughts you picked up from others.

October 9, 2008 Posted by | 40th Birthday Project, People who fucking Rock | Leave a comment

Mary by Vladimir Nabokov

An exquisite novella — a perfect first work in that it is the key to all of Nabokov’s later themes. The gap between the mortal and the immortal. The primacy of memory, and thus of art. Subjectivity and deception. The book can most profitably be read with Glory. It is astonishing what a fully formed artist he already was at the penning of his first long work.

What is most satisfying and revealing in both Mary and Glory is the lack of resolution of the primary plot element — the lost past is irresolvable. In Glory we do not know if the ending is tragic or heroic, in Mary it is both.

October 6, 2008 Posted by | 40th Birthday Project | 1 Comment

Peter Camenzind: A Novel by Hermann Hesse

A wonderful story which outlines a series of events where a man (Peter Camenzind) confronts a situation where he can see the pretension and the reality of the situation, and chooses the reality. In this way the book is surprisingly anti-romantic — situation after situation — nature, family, love and charity are addressed and in each case a simple human resolution is discovered after a kind of mental or intellectual struggle between an egoist and a transcendentalist perspective. The simplicity and significance of ordinary life is in every way affirmed — in once sense the story is highly Taoist, but in a more important way the book is profoundly Nietzscheian — in that what we see is the arc of Peter Camenzind becoming who he is.

Only a careless reader could mistake Hesse for a romantic.

October 6, 2008 Posted by | 40th Birthday Project | Leave a comment

None So Blind by Joe Haldeman

Excellent book of short stories — it feels like Haldeman is pulling away from Science Fiction with these. He keeps at least one element — almost like anti-naturalism, but the naturalistic elements of the prose predominate. I think my favorite actual writing (aside from the Forever War) of his is in this collection – particularly the Hemingway Hoax — which is brilliant and almost postmodern in the way that it is a performance of itself (he actually makes money writing a story about an idea for how to create a fraudulent Hemingway manuscript.)

October 6, 2008 Posted by | 40th Birthday Project | Leave a comment

Buying Time by Joe Haldeman

I started this long ago but I am not sure if I finished it. It’s funny — I think Haldeman’s less SF works are better written. I think when he limits himself to a single (or even less) divergent element as in Magical Realism, and then simply writes naturalisticly the effect is more profound. I wonder if that observation is idiosyncratic to me or if others have noticed that? Feedback welcome. There were some interesting ideas that he was playing with but it was just a failure as a novel. I especially thought that the deus ex machina of an unexpected drug interaction leading to the conclusion was weak, the whole last 50 pages seemed really rushed and forced.

October 6, 2008 Posted by | 40th Birthday Project | Leave a comment