It is probably impossible to understand Coetzee without understanding Weil. It is probably impossible to understand Weil, I mean for you and me. Well, it is possible that Weil understood nothing, or not much, I mean for you and me. So it is possible that Weil understood the truth, impossible for you and me. Well, here comes Coetzee, does he understand Weil? Perhaps not. Then, can we understand how he misunderstands Weil, who understood nothing, and misunderstood nothing, simply impossible for you and me?
some door to open
They say one always ends up failing, doing the wrong kind of penance, so that one’s suffering always, each time, amounts to nothing.
Stevie Smith, she was generous. And she wanted to die but oh, she wrote, that is nothing, that death feeling, it is nothing at all.
There is nothing what will walk upon the ceaseless earth, but for a little mirth. Isn’t there? I think to myself, I want to die, I want to die, it is that old Robert Lowell deathly selfish feeling.
What am I afraid of, I am afraid of nothing. Which is of course a lie, it is merely the case that I have not yet found that which I fear, nothing yet. Still the wrong kind of penance, again.
Again and again. It is like Bishop’s insistence on objects; why yearn for the gaze of a knife, why speak of a teakettle’s tears? Pathetic fallacy? No, it is the other way around; objects inscribe us with their emotions, spuriously.
Well, we do it to them too. But this too, the wrong kind of penance.
It is not that life is so awful, but that I am, there is no end to the pain and fear, and to the general shiftiness of my character. What one admires in Smith: shiftiness, fausse-naivete (as Larkin would have it), also courage.
And love; you know, I tell C., S. gives us so much love, and the world will never give her enough love in return. There is not one thing in the whole of life to make it bearable.
Penance is only a word, it is said. It is something stolen, and amounts to nothing.
But, you know, I am afraid of nothing yet. I grit my teeth, as they say, and I am afraid of nothing.
Let us posit that a forest exists for itself, that is to say, even independently of the trees of which it is composed, though if it continues to lose its trees, then certainly it will, at some point, cease to be a forest, the question being, of course, at what point? And do trees exist independently of the oxygen that they breathe? Which is another way of asking if a dead tree is still a tree. Is a mother still a mother without her child? Is a daughter still a daughter without parents? Do daughters exist for themselves, that is to say, in mourning?
valediction: forbidding mourning
What we need is not conferences, seminars, discussions, debates, meetings, understandings, no, none of these, aren’t you sick of it at all, these people telling you that, without literature, life is hell, no, indeed life is hell because of literature, and everyone who knows anything about literature knows this, that literature is at once the origin and the site of our suffering, all of us know that the world is a paradise and that it is literature which damns us all. I know what you will say, that the world is not a paradise, ah, but you are a utopian, and all utopians have poor ideas of what paradise looks like, which is why they are invariably bad writers and bad philosophers as well, so look to it, rid yourself of your utopianism, this is paradise as such, it is because of your literary mind that you fail to see it as it is. We should burn every book, every library, and, while we’re at it, burn all readers of good literature as well, then finally humanity will cease to ask the question: what is the use of poetry?, and discover paradise, for it is poetry that uses us, some poet or another said it once, and once we are rid of it, then we are unbastilled, free forever from the yoke of poetry. Perhaps you will tell me that there are greater yokes, and of course there are, hunger, slavery, indeed all these are greater, systemic yokes, while literature is a decadent, luxurious yoke, to admit this is to cease lying to yourself, to stop pacing around the room wondering how you can render this scene without verbs, or grammatical agency, or as little as possible of each, maybe you will succeed, no better than failing, which is the proper way to inhabit hell, or else you could kill yourself, and let them have their paradise, for the world deserves better than poetry, than literature, too much better, it deserves so much more than words, especially your words.
In the spring of 1837, a 24-year-old Søren Kierkegaard met Regine Olsen and the pair fell passionately in love. Over the next four years, which were the happiest ones of Kierkegaard’s life, their love blossomed, though not entirely without anguish, and Kierkegaard proposed to Regine on 8 September 1841. A remarkable sense of promise surrounded the pair, who were so desperately and joyfully in love, until Kierkegaard abruptly called off the engagement, which concluded, formally, on 11 October 1843. The reason why I far prefer the autumn to the spring is because in the autumn one looks up to heaven—in the spring at the earth, Kierkegaard had written in October 1837.
On 11 October 1913, Ludwig Wittgenstein set off from Cambridge to Skjolden, a small village northeast of Bergen in Norway where, his biographer Ray Monk writes, he enjoyed the most fruitful period of work he ever experienced in his life. It was also here that the 24-year-old Wittgenstein read for the first time the works of the Kierkegaard, whom he admired greatly, and would later describe as by far the most profound thinker of the nineteenth century. Four days before his departure, Wittgenstein had, at a train station in Birmingham, said goodbye to David Pinsent for the last time, even though neither of them could possibly have known this at the time. In May 1918, Pinsent, who had been found unfit for military duty, was killed in a flying accident at Farnborough Airfield, even as Wittgenstein was at the front lines, determinedly volunteering himself for the most dangerous duties available and, when he could, writing what would eventually become the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus. Wittgenstein received news of Pinsent’s death while on military leave in Vienna. During this stay, in August 1918, he completed the Tractatus, which he dedicated to Pinsent’s memory.
Wittgenstein had told Pinsent that Cambridge was too distracting, too full of superficial chatter, for the serious philosophical work that he needed to do. Today it seems beyond doubt that Wittgenstein counted Pinsent as chief among Cambridge’s distractions, just as it seems beyond doubt that, even though she had made writing possible for him, his oeuvre being nothing more than a longing echo of his love for her, Kierkegaard believed that he could not be a writer in Regine’s presence. Kierkegaard graduated from the University of Copenhagen on 20 October 1841; on 25 October, he departed for Berlin, in order to study philosophy there, but also so that he could escape Regine, for after all, as it is readily apparent, the study of philosophy and the letting go of Regine were for him inextricable from each other. On 25 October 1918, Wittgenstein was notified that Jahoda & Siegel had declined to publish the Tractatus. On the same day in 1946, Wittgenstein famously entered into an argument with Karl Popper over the purpose of philosophy, with Wittgenstein undoubtedly arguing that the clarity that we are aiming at is indeed complete clarity, but this simply means that the philosophical problems should completely disappear, as he writes in the Philosophical Investigations.
On the steamer to Germany, Kierkegaard wrote in his journal:
But, alas, could you ever come to know or to understand what I have lost? When this is considered, you would do better to remain silent: who could know it better than I?
It was in Berlin that Kierkegaard began to compose Either/Or, just as it was in Norway that Wittgenstein first began to write his Logik, the basis for the Tractatus, whose final proposition reads:
Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.
Therefore, having lost you, I do not speak of you, speak to you, speak for you. Words light up and then vanish, and every utterance, even if the same sequence of words is pronounced, shoulders a different meaning, carries a different glow. Speaking to another who is not you, I address my words to her, speaking of some matter that concerns us both, sometimes I might even dare to guess her thoughts; she does the same for me, and this is what we call dialogue. It is also what we might call love. But the silence that comes between our utterances, into which our language falls, and which my language is always in search of, remains a silence of you, to you, for you. This is perhaps not love, which, I have come to believe, requires or demands presence, and I am so little present to you, even here, even now. If it is not love, then it is something else: but, you ask me, what is this else you speak of?
Since Pope and Swift modeled their friendship on Erasmus and More’s, why should Z. not be the one to continue the tradition, however unsuccessfully, of a true friendship devoted above all to an ethics of laughter? Of course Z. has no friends and when he does get them he cannot keep them for long. Not his fault at all, people tend to disappoint, how they disappoint. The friends we invent for ourselves are too good, too grand, Z. thinks, and the friends we have are so bad, too bad. Even you, Z. tells me, you are not my friend, no, not at all, because for me, as I know it is for you, friendship is a utopian ideal. Therefore in practice it will always be a folly. To call this friendship is to insult friendship; no, let us not speak of friendship, let us speak of something else.
Matter is what exists. What it is however will always remain mysterious to us. It is, and it is incommensurable to our discourse. There are those who will be concerned by this. But concern is not of much use when it comes to matter. Leave it aside. Leave it again. Then look.
When seeking to redeem the past one should always be wary of the temptation to seek the past to redeem the present. The past cries out to be redeemed, but there is no redemption in it; redemption is to be found always with the present, which is nevertheless itself irredeemable. It is not possible to redeem the past for the present; redemption is precisely that which will sever the past from the present forever and, at last, that which will sever presence from the present. A new set of problems will arise from this, but these are the problems of redemption itself, of which we may not speak of yet. This is another temptation to avoid. If redemption is as yet impossible to imagine, then one should still one’s imagination. Ask nothing of redemption, then it will come. Flee those who would preach of it.
You know what they say about silence and speech, that they are essential to one another and yet incompatible. Who is this you? It is not you, never believe them when they say that. You have your name; keep it close. And call me by mine, which you astonishingly know.
To be sure I walked behind him, sighing as he went. Sometimes I would smile, sometimes pout, sometimes wear a troubled expression, but I walked behind him, and he would not see. He would run and run sometimes, how he would run! Myself barely keeping up, but what else is one to do with one’s guilt and resentment, except for follow him? He who would preach to the birds! And speak to wolves! How wonderful it would have been to reach out and touch the listless hem of his robe, but I had no desire to be noticed, or to be preached to. Caution suggested itself, I could smell it then. It smelt of wonderment. He would hate me, I believed, he who hates no one and nothing would hate me, and one day I will take up this hatred, which I fully and unquestionably deserve, as my own, but not yet. For now it is enough to note the graceful tension in his wondrous limbs, keep pace with his quickening breath, watch how the sky refracts in each singular drop of perspiration, and watch his laughter. How he would laugh! The road before him would laugh too. To be sure all creation between him and the horizon laughed; and in the wake of his laughter I would walk, without suffering, without peace, dreaming of a pillar of salt.
the secret steals away always
But it is Kierkegaard to whom I have been most faithful and who interests me most: absolute existence, the meaning he gives to the word subjectivity, the resistance of existence to the concept of the system – this is something I attach great importance to and feel very deeply, something I am always ready to stand up for, said Jacques Derrida. Ultimately, even that which some people thought they could interpret as a reduction of philosophy to literature, as a way of reducing the philosophical to the literary, stems from that gesture. It is not that I find literature desirable for its own sake, but that for me it also represents this singularity of experience and of existence in its link to language. In literature, Derrida continues, what always interests me is essentially the autobiographical – not what is called the ‘autobiographical genre’, but rather the autobiographicity that greatly overflows the ‘genre’ of autobiography. Indeed, I find the vast majority of autobiographical novels not nearly autobiographical enough.
How strange, that when our eyes meet, I see you seeing me, without seeing myself (seeing what you see), and you see me seeing you, without seeing yourself (seeing what I see), Z. said to me once. How pathetic. Yet you see me as I am, which can only mean that I am other than myself. And that my self is a gift from you to me. The antithesis of solipsism, the rejection of the cogito: I am only insofar as I am for another. I know I exist because you are.
Did you know, Z. tells me, that Anne Carson once wrote, I suppose you do love me, in your way, I said to him one night close to dawn when we lay on the narrow bed. And how else should I love you - in your way? he asked. I am still thinking about that.
But what now, Z. whispers, when everything has become a sign of my abandonment, of which I am no longer sure if I am being abandoned or doing the abandoning, or if there is any difference at all between the two?
To write of oneself would be to exile the self from the self. And this exile from the self is in the first place necessary for writing to be possible. It is necessary not to be ‘myself’, still less to be ‘ourselves’, as Simone Weil writes. The city gives us the feeling of being at home. We must take the feeling of being at home into exile. We must be rooted in the absence of a place. Presence is imaginary, but absence is very real. If writing asserts only that which is absent, then loss is the first principle of writing. The present is lost to writing, in writing. The present nevertheless addresses itself to writing (when else does one write, except in the present?); a gift unasked for, unacceptable, unanswerable. The gift of loss, of death; the gift of writing, of writing’s possibility. To lose someone: we suffer because the departed, the absent, has become something imaginary and unreal. But our desire for him is not imaginary, Weil writes. We have to go down into ourselves to the abode of the desire which is not imaginary. In arguing the necessity of this downward movement, Weil contradicts her prior assertion that obedience to the force of gravity is the greatest sin. Thus we corrupt the function of language, which is to express the relationship between things. But Weil also writes that contradiction alone is the proof that we are not everything. Contradiction is our wretchedness, and the sense of our wretchedness is the sense of reality. For we do not invent our wretchedness. It is true, Weil writes. That is why we have to value it. All the rest is imaginary.