Books

Tyll

by Daniel Kehlmann (trans. Ross Benjamin)



On the stage people were themselves, completely true, fully transparent.

Daniel Kehlmann (trans. Ross Benjamin)

This is a very clever book, a very mischievous book (appropriately) and a very mythic book (somewhat appropriately). The title implies that the book is about Till Eulenspiegel, a semi-mythical ideal-jester figure who may or may not have lived in the 14th century or so. He was a mixture of a kind of Shakespearean fool, slapstick comic, acrobat, circus performer, ribald pervert and shock jock. If you read the 16th century English translation of the German chapbook, it’s often difficult to work out where the gag actually lies, and how it is in anyway particularly notable, as opposed to just mean, nasty, brutish and shortly savage.

You belong to the travelling people, no one protects you, and when it rains, you have no roof. No home. No friends but others like you, who will not like you very much, because food is scarce. That is the price you pay to be free.

Daniel Kehlmann (trans. Ross Benjamin)

Kehlmann points toward a disruption immediately by setting the book in the 17th century during the Thirty Years War (around a hundred years after the chapbook publication). He doesn’t care for the history of the figure, but more for the mythos. However, he begins the novel in a very traditional manner. He lulls you in. We get a described history, that crashes from view; followed by another described history that also slowly unravels…

And I can see what he’s doing here, and I can see his purpose … and it’s interesting, certainly. And his writing is powerful and often highly effective.

But…

I really wanted more Tyll. The parts of the novel that were more specifically about him (about 20% of the story) were when I was excited as a reader, as opposed to simply interested. When we got into long asides with the Princess Elizabeth (despite the lovely little bit with Shakespeare) and various other figures who encounter Tyll along the way (or maybe they didn’t) I must admit I would glance ahead to see when it was going to end, and if Tyll was going to show up again soon.

“To save time I have already written the chapter in Rome.”

Daniel Kehlmann (trans. Ross Benjamin)

And he does show up (at least in some form) regularly enough to keep you interested. And yes, he’s a mythic figure and so he’s being treated in this mythic clever way etc etc… And there’s a strong dare-I-say postmodern theme throughout the novel of how stories are all stories within stories etc and yes, that’s all been done before, but Kehlmann doesn’t push it on you in an unpleasant way at all. At one point, a person who witnesses a battle uses another account he read of a different battle to describe it, who used another account of a different battle again to describe that battle, by a man who had never witnessed a battle. And of course, we the reader know that Kehlmann has just described the original battle in the usual way we are used to having battles described to us in our era, about the horror and blood and fear and death … and he too has never witnessed one either etc etc. And this all smacks very nicely of Tyll-like trickery and chicanery etc etc.

But…

… I walked away dissatisfied. Is Kehlmann playing me for a fool? As the Reader, am I the King he has the right to mock? Again maybe…

But…

“In front of distinguished lords and ladies I always miss. Then they give more money.”

Daniel Kehlmann (trans. Ross Benjamin)

I gave it three stars on Amazon. It’s a 5 star story with a 1 star focus.

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Books

Beauty: A Very Short Introduction

by Roger Scruton

The Necessity of Beauty: a book review


Beauty, I argue, is a real and universal value, one anchored in our rational nature, and the sense of beauty has an indispensable part to play in shaping the human world.

Roger Scruton

While the book is short, it is quite broad. Scruton has spent much more time on the notion of beauty than any other contemporary philosopher I know of. Beauty is not so admired, at least in the Academy. The study of aesthetics, beauty’s ugly sister, holds a little more attention, but not so much as it relates to beauty … more so as something to negate beauty, and to judge it an unnecessary extravagance of the privileged. And whereas it might be a privilege to be here, the state of being privileged is not a privilege to be anywhere; and part of the atonement probably has something to do with embracing ugliness.

Why is beauty so important to Scruton, in an age of opposition to it?

Partly because of the opposition, of course. But there’s certainly more to it than that. The burden of beauty is something essentially human, so to turn our back on it is to turn our back on humanity, what makes us human; and he doesn’t want this battle to be considered as simply a matter of taste, but he wants to fight this on the field of rational enquiry.

Nevertheless, you want the table, the room or the web-site to look right, and looking right matters in the way that beauty generally matters—not by pleasing the eye only, but by conveying meanings and values which have weight for you and which you are consciously putting on display.

Roger Scruton

Getting something right, making something fit in—the fitting-ness of something—this is a cornerstone of Beauty for Scruton, as he drills down to some kind of objective essence, and also manages to highlight something from everyday lived experience, as opposed to the experience of what we might call High Art, for example.

When you pause to study the perfect form of a wildflower or the blended feathers of a bird, you experience an enhanced sense of belonging. A world that makes room for such things makes room for you.

Roger Scruton

Belonging-ness is a cornerstone of Scrutonian conservatism; wanting to position the things to conserve as the things that conserve us; and what conserves us has much to do with a sense of belonging. When articles of endeavour and observation become noticeable enough for our consideration to hold them up as singular and worthy of being held up, then we have a model for beauty.

…the look of something, when it becomes the object of intrinsic interest, accumulates meaning.

Roger Scruton

Naturally, Scruton’s two key concerns of architecture and music come into play, but he also covers such things as the silent experience of the novel. He moves through some historical models of how beauty has been appreciated, from the Platonic on, and he often returns to Kant’s lesser known works. Through this he contrasts natural beauty with presented beauty. There is beauty that appears to be un-learned, such as admiring a landscape, but this admiration still comes from a conscious human place. Just as there are degrees in beauty, there are degrees in our capacity to appreciate beauty in its varied forms.

Nevertheless, if stories and novels were simply reducible to the information contained in them, it would be inexplicable that we should be constantly returning to the words, reading over favourite passages, allowing the sentences to percolate through our thoughts, long after we have assimilated the plot.

Roger Scruton

Beauty, when we encounter it, draws upon connections within us, and without us, with the others around us. That’s not to mean that everyone has the same taste, or that everyone maybe is capable of experiencing a particular article of beauty. Scruton uses the example of classical music and talks about the importance of aesthetic education in order to develop our senses in order to progress from the fitting-ness of a well-laid table setting to, maybe … eventually, someone like Bach. To be human is to be social, but, likewise, part of our becoming human is a socialisation process, a learning to be social, from birth.

But dissonance and conflict may also be fitting

Roger Scruton

Scruton wants to develop a fundamental difference between ugliness and beauty in terms of how beauty might be championed. As he points out, ugly is the new ‘beauty’—particularly in art, post-Duchamp. The problem for a Bohemian conservative, the tension, is that we want open expression and a lively avant-garde in the arts to live alongside the importance of examining and creatively preserving the canon of beauty in the field that has gone before: the après-garde.

Rules and precepts are there to be transcended, and because originality and the challenging of orthodoxies are fundamental to the aesthetic enterprise, an element of freedom is built into the pursuit of beauty, whether the minimal beauty of everyday arrangements, or the higher beauties of art.

Roger Scruton

So a place must be made for challenging without repudiating. Dissonance and conflict can drive beauty, but it cannot overcome it. To overcome it is to become ugly; to under-come it is to fall into kitsch. And while 98% of the avant-garde might fall into these categories, we need it to happen so that the 2% that doesn’t can happen, which maybe wouldn’t otherwise. That is not to say that the 98% should be lauded … as they currently generally are.

Beauty reaches to the underlying truth of a human experience, by showing it under the aspect of necessity.

Roger Scruton

Our need for beauty is not something that we could lack and still be fulfilled as people.

Roger Scruton

Finally, beauty is not just an add-on for Scruton, something for rich educated people to understand and experience. It’s communal. Which is part of the reason Scruton was so concerned with architecture, I imagine. I mean, I can avoid seeing the 98% by not going to modern art galleries, but I can’t avoid seeing the concrete and faded-green office block (and I mean ‘block’) on Komödienstraße after walking out mesmerised by the cathedral in Cologne.

Beauty gives us something to cling to among the general entropy of living. It does not have to be of the transcendental kind, but can equally be of the incidental kind. This is a rational and practical means by which to drive being inclusive (and actually using the word as a means of inclusion, as opposed to its more common antithetical meaning discursively). There is common ground in the truly beautiful. There is a ‘we’ in aesthetic delight.

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Uncategorized

The Outsider

by Albert Camus (trans. Sandra Smith)

I wrote this review in 2013. I am now in a German city, but at the moment it lacks a sun. I might squint, but only for the figurative effect. I am a lot closer to reading L’Etranger by Albert Camus (sans translation) now, in that I can read through it, and get the gist when I lack meaning; but it is still hard work, and lacks the experience of reading literature, as opposed to reading a street sign. Literary fluency is still something to achieve.

Writing about the most influential single book of your life (not that that means anything) is a little like staring into the sun, the same sun here in an Australian suburb as that of an Algerian beach: so I shall squint, if you don’t mind.

Firstly, Sandra Smith’s work is excellent. I have read all four English translations of L’Etranger that I am aware of at least once over the years (Stuart Gilbert, Joseph Laredo, and Matthew Ward being the other three. If you know of another, please let me know). Each has its own life, appropriately; which could be just as much to do with me as it does with the translation itself. I am learning French, starting this year, with the express intention of one day reading this book as the author wrote it. It’s a five year plan.

 I have particular imaginings related to Camus writing this story. He wrote it between 1939-40, but it was not published until the Spring of 1942 in occupied Paris. This is a story about how someone lives. Meursault is an ordinary enough office clerk, with a strange kind of anti-social sincerity that the reader immediately encounters in the first two sentences, one of the most famous opening couplets in literature. Meursault talks to us in a candid manner, as if he’s talking to himself. As if, sometimes, he’s trying to re-assure or convince himself of what he’s saying. He’s worried about something foundational, and tries to own his retreat back to first principles.

Some have accused him of being a sociopath. Perhaps there’s a spectrum there, but he is aware of how people react to him, and he genuinely wants people to not be upset. But he also wants to engage with people clearly and openly. He is disinterested in that kind of scientific manner, but not uncaring. His manner of caring is to be honest. Most of all, it is to experience that he leans. He is a caring hedonist, a hedonist who wishes to experience pleasure, but doesn’t wish any more meaning be ascribed to it than the universe offers. Which is none.

When Marie asks him if he loves her:

She asked me if I loved her. I told her that didn’t mean anything, but I didn’t think so.

When Meursault sees her pain in reaction to his response, he softens his honesty as best he can. It surprises him when he answers genuinely and others are so surprised. He is capable of lying, and he does so several times, when someone is bothering him and he realises what they want to hear and so he says it so they will go away and leave him alone. But to people he cares for, as for himself, he is more himself. And that’s the self we are privy to. When he looks at the world his descriptions of a plain Sunday afternoon are almost like a striking impressionist work of art.

He likes smoking. He likes chocolate. He likes swimming and women. He tells the Judge in Part II: One of the characteristics of my personality was that physical sensations often get in the way of my emotions. He shoots and kills a knife-wielding Arab on a beach. Later, in the courtroom, he says it was because of the sun. The ever present heat overhead, the inevitability of life, that-which-cannot-be-avoided-and-beats-down-on-us-all. This was not before he stopped his friend from doing the same thing earlier.

The sky seemed to split apart from end to end to pour its fire down upon me. My whole body tensed as I gripped the gun. It set off the trigger.

…and it was then, with that sharp, deafening sound, that it all began.

Until he is on the way to the guillotine and:

…it might be finished.

That journey is Meursault’s journey towards an acceptance of the Absurd: to put simply, Camus’ notion that human beings live in an essentially meaningless universe where they are compelled as part of that living to search for (and often demand) some sort of essential meaning. It is not until his last outburst at a chaplain purges him of evil, and empties him of hope, that he can finally, for the first time, open himself up:

…to the tender indifference of the world.

This indifference, a tender indifference, is an understanding of how to live in that gap, to be happy, to allow for happiness, within that Absurd gap. He is happy on the path to death, and he is willing the participation of others in it, even if they are hateful. Meursault becomes the ‘…only Christ we deserve.’

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People, Uncategorized

In Their Death They Were Not Divided

2 Samuel 1:23 Saul and Jonathan were lovely and pleasant in their lives, and in their death they were not divided: they were swifter than eagles, they were stronger than lions.

I shall liken Harold Bloom unto Saul, and Roger Scruton unto Jonathan. As far as I know, they never met. When I Google the names together I get an old Guardian hit piece that includes them both on the same hit-list of ‘Jeremiah’s of History’ moaning about cultural decline; so, moaning about moaning. Then there’s a blurb Scruton has done for Bloom’s book Ruin the Sacred Truths:

“The wit, the eclecticism and the gripping paradoxes…the force of [Bloom’s] intellect carries the reader from pinnacle to pinnacle, showing a new spiritual landscape from each.”—Roger Scruton, The Washington Times

There’s a reference to Bloom on figurative language in Scruton’s piece ‘Against Deconstruction’ in 1993. But otherwise, no evidence of a physical meeting I can divine. But that’s fine. They met in me. And they they died within ninety days of each other with the turn of a decade between them, like Saul and Jonathan, in their death they will not be divided. In me, at least.

Other than my father, these two men were my biggest living influences. I first ‘met’ Bloom as a foil in the contemporary academy of 2003-2006. Sometimes they would throw up a kind of straw-man to show the contemporary student how-not-to-think about something. In this case, it was how-not-to-think about Shakespeare. It’s a dangerous tactic, of course, because those students feeling something of the cultural climate control mechanisms around them are ready to hold on to something that might prove to be a counterpoint. Which it did for me. A counterpoint that proved more further to be THE point.

No such luck with Scruton, unfortunately. I did not come upon him until 2018, as a YouTube suggestion maybe attached to my interest in Jordan Peterson. If I had come across him, I now like to fantasise, I might well have finished my Ph. D. I was enjoying many of the thinkers my Supervisors were putting me in touch with, the usual suspects of 20th century post-Freudians and deconstructionists, but I was enjoying them as interesting intellectual exercises, and philosophical riddles. I found beauty in their writing, but not in their ideas. I wanted to pursue aesthetics in my work, but I was not being given anything of substance, there was no traction. If I could have had Scruton put in front of me, even as a foil to all the Eagleton…

I was, however, I admit, a lazy student; easily distracted. It might not have made any difference.

They were lovely and pleasant in their lives

But their affect has been profound. It’s easy to be defined by your enemies. To be an infidel of negation. I am against this… But what am I for? As I responded to the direction of my culture, it’s movement progressive for the sake of progression, no matter where or toward what end, and lent away from traditional anarchism into conservatism, I found nothing around me to move through. Neo-conservatism wasn’t even a system of thought, but an economic series of planned jerks of the knees. And religious and paleo-conservatism had too much hand in the rejection of the celebration of art, the beauty in demanding movement within a cultural vector of permissiveness that is essential for our culture to thrive. The necessity of the Bohemian edge.

Harold Bloom had paved the way for my own sense of the Bohemian with his heartfelt spiritual joy for great literature, just as he wrestled with it and made demands of it; his intellectual spine never bowed down to the purely transcendental and romantic. The beauty lived in the world, as much as out of it. He was a perfect realist on an unreal stage. I could love things I despised. It was a terrific terrible freedom, manifestly bohemian in its outlook, but focused fully in the art. So he was Saul, the anointed one, and the eventually rejected one. He was perhaps to close too God, instead of being after His own heart.

Like Jonathan to Saul, Scruton takes the step away, and makes it a lived world. Most importantly, when he talks about the necessity of having a creative approach to conservation; to understanding that things need to be kept, but that things need to change. He was a prince but could never be a King. The King finds it hard to move behind the curtain of power. Look at Shakespeare’s Henry. The Bohemian falters.

But Scruton could make it seem so. This is how important he is. He makes room for conservatism to enlarge into something that isn’t just about conservation of what WAS and maybe IS, but conservation of the bohemian spirit that has made what WAS and IS … what it was and is. And WILL make something greater to conserve further. Let’s have something worth fighting for, yes; but it’s only worth fighting for if you hold on to what is great you have won, hard-fought from from the enemy. The enemy being that of formal regression, in all its guises: regressive leftism, regressive rightism. And if you conserve un-creatively, you regress just as quickly … maybe more.

How are the mighty fallen?

The mighty fall just like the weak, in the same way, in the same sad solitary way. In ninety days. In three minutes. In a hundred years. We all fall. But it is heartening that some stood. And that some are mighty, and encouraging, and making some kind of mark, even on those they never met. There’s still a voice in them, like the silent voice you hear when your reading alone. It’s not just you, reading. And it’s not just the author, writing. It’s a silent sound that makes sense even more than the sensible.

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