Autobiography and Community

In what I am currently writing I have become quite interested in the way autobiographies and autobiographical work constructs an imagined community, obviously Benedict Anderson doesn’t quite apply here, but he also doesn’t NOT apply, you know? Instead of looking at the way autobiography explores the self, and applying various ideas of selfhood and truth etc. to it, I have become more interested in how reception theories shape what we understand of autobiography – if we shouldn’t read them in relationship to the self and ideas of the self, Freudian self-analysis and whatnot, and instead read them as texts written to be read by an audience. Written to interact with a specific literary field. Autobiography is a public act, and I think some interactions between writer and audience can be described by using Marcel Mauss and the gift. And now I have been thinking – and I’m sure this is not true for every autobiography. Say, Robert Lowell, a tall, white, straight man. But, say, you look at Mary McCarthy (because that’s my topic) and the situation turns. Or the tradition of Jewish autobiography. This is two steps. One, looking at the outside effect of autobiography and entirely excluding the self-exploratory aspect of it. Two, see in what way this works to construct a sense of (a) community, or a pole within a literary field. So that’s where I am. Any comments?


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.