A trip to San Francisco.

About to give a conference paper on William Carlos Williams, Robert Lowell and the Puritans. Wish me luck? I have some free time. if you happen to be in town, I would love to meet you. I’m flying to SF tomorrow.

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Grymmyger Tilger

Grymmyger tilger aller landt, schedlicher ächter aller welte, freyssamer mörder aller lewte, jr Tot, euch sey verfluchet! got, ewer tremer, hass euch, vnselden merung wone euch bey, vngluck hause gewaltigclich zu euch: zumal geschannt seyt ymmer! Angst, not vnd jamer verlassen euch nit, wo ir wanndert; layt, betrubnüß vnd kummer, die laytten euch allenthalben; leidige anfechtung, schentliche zuversicht vnd schemliche verserung die betwingen euch groblich an aller stat; himel, erde, sunne, mone, gestirne, mer, wag, berg, gefilde, tal, awe, der helle abgrunt, auch alles, das leben vnd wesen hat, sei euch vnholt, vngunstig vnd fluchend ewiglichen! In bosheit versinket, in jamerigem ellende verswindet vnd in der vnwiderbringenden swersten achte gotes, aller leute vnd ieglicher schepfung alle zukunftige zeit beleibet! Vnuerschampter bosewicht, ewer bose gedechtnuß lebe vnd tauere hin on ende; grawe vnd forchte scheiden von euch nicht, wo ir wandert vnd wonet: Von mir vnd aller menniglich sei stetiglichen vber euch ernstlich zeter geschriren mit gewundenen henden!

Johannes von Tepl, Der Ackermann

The Box : a brief essay on suicide and depression

This is a brief essay about three to four years in my life that I have managed to put behind me, but will carry around with me at all times. I am haunted by a death I didn’t achieve and a future that slipped away in the meantime.

I live with a black Box of terror.

The full text is at ric journalThe Box : a brief essay on suicide and depression

Walter Kaufmann and American readers of Nietzsche

Long title, short post. I understand that this is mostly for me to vent, and probably not of larger interest, but beyond the parochial matter at hand which caused me to get upset, there’s a broader issue that has annoyed me for a while. So what happened was I wanted to write something about an argument offered by Richard Wolin, a philosopher from New York, in an essay published in 2016. It was given at a conference and collected in the German book Martin Heidegger’s “Schwarze Hefte”: Eine philosophisch-politische Debatte, edited by Prof. Marion Heinz from the University of Siegen and her assistant Dr. Sidonie Kellerer. I was interested in how what Wolin very correctly notes about rationality and some debates dating back to enlightenment, how this ties into some Frankfurt School ideas. So I sat down to write a few hundred words on it, probably for this blog since I didn’t think anyone else would be interested. Anyway, while I might still do that, I got sidelined by something else. As it happens, today, in order to write the thing, I took a look at the essay again and noticed something that irked me greatly. It’s something that has bothered me for years and years. It’s the edition anglophone readers usually use of Nietzsche’s work.

Look, sometimes, discussing Nietzsche with Anglophone readers can be difficult – regardless of their skill and reading. And the reason for that is that the Nietzsche I know and the Nietzsche they know are two different people. The Nietzsche I know exists in the lovely, important, authoritative German edition by Colli and Montinari. It presents all of Nietzsche’s works, including multiple volumes of unpublished fragments. However, most Anglophone readers I know have read Nietzsche in Walter Kaufmann’s edition. And therein lies the problem.

Nietzsche’s published books, particularly in the middle period, after the first book, and before the mildly nutty late books, are extremely well constructed. Wolfgang Müller-Lauter has given excellent insights into the way Nietzsche uses paradoxes and structure as a way to give additional and sometimes contradictory meaning to his aphorisms. That makes him very hard to quote, and despite this, Kaufmann’s Portable Nietzsche stitches up the original books to fit Kaufmann’s own reading. It also, confusingly, contains three of the late books in full, but only selections from, say, Beyond Good and Evil, inarguably one of his most central books. But that’s not the main sin. The main sin is related to the “book” called The Will to Power.

The Will to Power is a posthumous “collection” of fragments, assembled by Nietzsche’s antisemitic sister, a horrible “collection” which Colli and Montinari call, accurately, a “historical forgery” – it is a book assembled from various, often re-assembled fragments Nietzsche never put into an order and never intended to be part of one book or argument. Walter Kaufmann not only translated it, but he also included it in his Portable Nietzsche, a book, let me remind you, that only contains a selection from Beyond Good and Evil. And having it there, as one of Nietzsche’s comparatively few books, severely distorts Nietzsche’s political and philosophical intentions. This would be ok, if the edition was old (it is) and Viking (now Penguin) had corrected itself and removed the historical forgery from reprints. However, you can still find the book listed by Penguin, Will to Power and all.

And thus, Will to Power continues living, even in German academic publications, despite the authoritative edition having expunged it as a book, and re-sorted the fragments as fragments into chronological order. Why? Because American academics are involved and Walter Kaufmann’s poisonous little edition continues to exist. This brings me back to Richard Wolin and his essay on Heidegger I mentioned at the outset. A few pages into his genuinely interesting argument, Wolin goes off on a tangent and offers a spurious argument about Nietzsche. That’s ok, it’s not uncommon. But then, in support, he offers a quotation from The Will to Power. The book, mostly edited, I suspect, by Dr. Kellerer, is very well edited, and naturally all its citations of Nietzsche come from the Colli/Montinari, the authoritative edition of Nietzsche. But of course you cannot cite this edition as Wolin’s source because, as a book, Will to Power doesn’t exist in this edition. So what do you do?

Now, there would be two honest ways of dealing with this. Option one: leave Wolin’s text alone and in the footnote citation, cite the volume in the Colli/Montinari edition and use the footnote of the citation to explain the fact that what’s cited as part of a “book” in the text is actually merely a fragment of little canonical value; this would of course somewhat undercut the authority of Wolin who uses a “well known” book as evidence, evidence that would be much weaker coming from a random fragment. Option number two would be to write Wolin and have him change it in the text itself, and then cite the Colli/Montinari volume in the footnote.

The editors picked option three: Wolin changes nothing, and the editors cite the 1906 edition, edited by Nietzsche’s sister, the avowed antisemite Elisabeth Förster-Nietzsche, as source. I would bet a large amount of money that that was not Wolin’s source: I am pretty sure Wolin drew his opinion of Nietzsche, and this source specifically, from Walter Kaufmann. But you have to cite some German source, so the editors picked the Förster-Nietzsche edition, published 110 years ago. To not make this look like the outdated antiquity it is, they actually don’t cite the original text, they cite most recent reprint from 1980, but it’s not a modern edition, it’s a straight reprint of the turn-of-the-century edition by Nietzsche’s sister. And then, to sorta kinda satisfy editorial ethics, they add, after a semicolon, where the fragment can be found in the Colli/Montinari edition. This way you allow Wolin to cite the forgery like it’s a real book, and pretend his argument about Nietzsche has substance (it doesn’t) and you help him by providing a footnote that pretends to offer a supporting citation, but mostly offers cover. It also shows awareness that the editors know that the Will To Power book they cite is not the correct/authoritative source, but keep it in the footnote to allow Wolin to keep it in the text.

And so Walter Kaufmann’s poisonous little edition lives on in German, closing a curious little circle. It’s like Frankenstein’s monster, only this one has two sets of parents. There’s Elisabeth Förster-Nietzsche, and then, as the book was fading out of circulation and use in its original language, there’s Walter Kaufmann, who sends a jolt of electricity through the tired antisemitic body of that strange assemblage of a text, and keeps it alive for a few more decades, albeit in English. And now it has come back, in a German-language academic essay, albeit as a translation, masquerading as the real thing, and not the creation of two Dr. Frankensteins.

That’s it. If you made it all the way to here: I apologize. I had to vent. That dishonest footnote made me very upset.

Object Lessons

My little shelf of books in my apartment is not full of all kinds of weird editions – I prefer to collect books in larger volumes and will replace many individual copies with Library of America editions, say, or in the case of comics, with one of those trade omnibus editions or with poetry with a poet’s collected works. Sometimes as I stare at the shelf, I wonder how much I am losing. Is my reading of comic books in any way accurate, reading them in trades first, and then in a thick omnibus edition? How much does the understanding of comics depend on reading it issue by issue?

Armand Schwerner is an interesting exacmple. As readers of Schwerner’s enormous The Tablets we are naturally aware of the multi-level fiction, and Schwerner has found interesting ways to engage us. As McHale has pointed out, unlike other postmodern ‘archeological’ poems like Geoffrey Hill’s Mercian Hymns, Schwerner’s unreliable scholar/translator shoulders all the blame for anachronisms, jokes and other breaks with the solemnity of imitating the poetry of a (much) earlier age. And unlike books with similar narrators, like Nabokov’s Pale Fire, the doubtful material nature of the poetry under examination undercuts too glib a reading of that narrator.

The Tablets is a book about translating fragments that is itself made up of fragments, in more than one way. As we near the end of the book, the commentary and annotations become longer and more revealing, and eventually allow us to have a much fuller view of the character of the scholar/translator – but for all of Schwerner’s life, The Tablets weren’t available in book form at all. The first eight tablets were published in 1968 – and the collected posthumous edition wasn’t available until 1999, 31 years later. For us, who have access to the full book, it’s hard to imagine the interpretative process of earlier readers. Acquiring all the segments of the poem must have been a task similar to the one undertaken by the scholar/translator. Thus, the book itself is an object lesson in the sometimes arduous task of reading and understanding a text as a whole, in order to be able to contextualize and read smaller portions of it.

I know there’s quite a bit of literature about what constitutes a “text,” but the material aspect of it, of readers being also collectors by necessity, I find extremely fascinating. I have an unpublished longer academic essay on Schwerner in my desk somewhere, and recently I keep taking notes in it on materiality, seriality and the way materiality impacts reader reception theories.

Werner Hamacher (1948 – 2017)

 

When Werner Hamacher died this year, there was an outpouring of grief that surprised many: Hamacher’s name is not as widely known as that of many of his peers, although he had a significant impact on philosophy and literary criticism. As an editor Stanford’s Millennium Crossing: Aesthetics series of translations, which introduced anglophone readers to Giorgio Agamben, Jean-Luc Nancy and others, his influence went beyond his own work and teaching. Despite knowing multiple students of his, it had taken me years to pick up and seriously engage with Hamacher’s work.

My interest in Hamacher is, in part, due to a personal preoccupation with a specific kind of thinking. I’ve always been fascinated by – and working on – the connection between the various ideas about close reading coming from the German tradition (Schleiermacher, Dilthey, Szondi) and the French deconstruction, so often maligned by critics, with Derrida and De Man as their most notable examples. Schleiermacher, one of the inventors of modern hermeneutics, laid the groundwork for a tradition, in which simple assumptions about the author, the text and its reader are destabilized. There is no sense of dogmatism as to what a text is and how it should be read.

In his description of the vagaries of literary criticism, Szondi’s declarations share a frame of mind with Derrida and especially Paul De Man, whose literary criticism often considers reading a text for its faultlines. There are other similarities, as well. Take autobiography: Dilthey posited a relational understanding of autobiography and suggested that plain autobiographical declarations are part of the textual situation. At the same time, there is a complex discourse about the subject of the text (das Innewerden) between the author and the reader. Dilthey’s comments are similar to Derrida’s conception of autobiography as well as De Man’s declaration that “the autobiographical project may itself produce and determine the life.” And yet, despite all the similarities, critics often associate one school of thinking with an inherent seriousness and the other with textual frivolity. I have always felt there to be an unacknowledged link between these traditions. Only last year have I encountered the work of Werner Hamacher, who worked exactly in the area that I am so interested in. Hamacher focused both on Szondi’s concept that literary criticism means perpetual work on the text, as well as on Dilthey’s complex ideas about the subject and how it is both alienated from and still connected to the symbolic forms. There is an almost Levinasian sense of ethics in the way Hamacher writes about how people relate to each other through and despite language. In his opus magnum, he refers to language as a long goodbye to sense and the subject, but in other places he’s written about the consequences of language for human rights, for example.

I keep mentioning his work, but as it turns out, Werner Hamacher has written a sizeable number of articles, but not much in the way of books A forthcoming publication next year will be only the third major monograph to appear in German. The previous one was Premises. Essays on Philosophy and Literature from Kant to Celan, which appeared in English in 1996 and in German in 1998. The sequence of publication reflects the fact that he taught at American universities for years. Unlike Hannah Arendt, who also published in English first, he didn’t write the English version himself, but instead was translated (very well, incidentally). Indeed, Hamacher wasn’t, first and foremost, a writer, but primarily a passionate thinker and speaker who developed his ideas in the lectures themselves. He would come to the lectern with rough outlines and then talk and think his way through the material.

As Alexandru Bulucz, poet, scholar and translator, wrote in his own personal appreciation, Hamacher was a teacher who allowed students to see them think through a text or a problem rather than a teacher who turned up with a finished product that merely needed to be presented. He challenged students in class, maintaining a personal distance, but asked for his thinking to be critiqued as he critiqued others. Thinking was his prime objective. Then again, this reflects Werner Hamacher’s attitude to the institution of the university. In a flaming appeal, published in 2010 as “Freistätte,” Hamacher discusses universities as a place of absolute intellectual freedom, or at least that’s the way he thought they should be. Free of not just economic pressures, but also free of expectations and the tyranny of tradition. In a true place of free science, scientific pursuit has to be free of everything that is not itself and that includes its own traditional forms (Formtradition). For Hamacher, the pursuit of science is sacred, and that includes teaching.What must be clarified here is that the German tradition Hamacher works in sees the humanities as a science. This is more than just a question of terms. Yes, it is true that the German term for humanities is Geisteswissenschaften – and what the anglophone world calls science, we call Naturwissenschaften, the natural sciences. But Hamacher works from a specific tradition that stresses the scientific aspect of the humanities way beyond the bare bones meaning of the term itself. There is a line leading from Wilhelm Dilthey, 19th century hermeneutics scholar, to Peter Szondi, teacher, holocaust survivor and academic literary critic and finally to Werner Hamacher. They all shared an absolute seriousness about the task of teaching and writing about language and literature.

Never having heard Werner Hamacher teach myself, never having known him in a university context, I can only resort his book, which shows him to be a refulgent thinker and writer. His work on Kant, Kleist, Celan and others is insightful and is carried, at the same time, by an exceptional talent for synthesis. In Hamacher’s thinking, several traditions connect in sometimes startling and surprising ways. He opened clear, new paths to already well-known texts. Hamacher’s is that rare and lovely brilliance – the kind you admire even as you may occasionally disagree – and he brought to bear his immense mind on building a theory of how to understand not just the world – but the structure of understanding itself. At a time when the subject has slowly crept back into serious criticism, Hamacher’s careful work on the way language and understanding interact with each other, and dispossess the subject of its assumed powers, seems particularly timely.
Hamacher was important in other ways as well. His international stature rests not just on English translations of his work or his teaching at Stanford, NYU, and other American universities. He has had a significant impact even on people who have not read him or his students, as the force behind (and series editor of) Stanford UP’s Meridian: Crossing Aesthetics, which is maybe best known for being the main English-language publisher of Giorgio Agamben, another thinker whose work synthesizes different traditions. Hamacher also translated poetry and criticism into German, most notably, Paul De Man’s Allegories of Reading.

For many, he was the kind of philosopher whose name is not as well-known as it could be, but whose impact has been felt for a while. That’s certainly true for me –I hadn’t seriously considered Hamacher’s work until last year and hadn’t directly engaged with it until this year – so his death represents the sudden loss of a great writer I was looking forward to discovering in-depth in the months and years to come. I did not know him personally, but from his former students on Facebook, a clear picture of another Hamacher emerges: a teacher, kind mentor and friend. His bridge-building exceeded his work as editor and translator, and reading personal tributes to him this past week has been lovely and moving. I’m sure we – not just those who know him, but we as readers and intellectuals – will grapple with his death for years. For now, all we have is the texts, and his greatest legacy, his thinking and his teaching. At any rate, I urge you to read Premises, which I have been carrying around in my bag for months now. It is an enormous achievement by an enormous mind. He will be sorely missed.