Saturday, 31 December 2011

2012: Some Notes on the Dark Cusp of It

Blake-Jaspers: is there a Christian existentialist connection to be made here?

Related ideas of transcendental anthropology, individual human transformation, even of will/decisionism and of devotional work (as in The Spiritual Condition of the Age). There's something deeply hidden in their nexus about the idea of personal formation (Christian Bildung) as a struggling-through: bands, bonds - compare Sinclair in Blake's London - and limit-situations?

Pietism (Kant), Moravianism would be their shared subcurrents, perhaps? There's also the Blake-Kierkegaard interface I approached in 'Reading with Vision'. I should read Lorraine Clark's Blake, Kierkegaard and the Spectre of Dialectic.

The more text messages I receive from my friend Tolu, helping me through what is always a difficult holiday period, and the more I discuss our social exclusion with other vulnerable adults, the more I sense that faith, and a less fearful - even welcoming - relation to (a notion of) fate, could well be important enablers of our survival.

I will return to Jaspers' transcendental anthropology on this blog in coming weeks.

Wednesday, 21 December 2011

Disabled or Vulnerable?

‘…a philosopher whose total formal education consisted of seven years in the New York public school system, and during its most feral period. Strange, he thought, how character shows itself. The old man was in touch with some level of knowledge which told him how to behave, not in the social sense, but in a deeper, more permanent way. He’ll adjust to this world here, Jack decided.’
                                                P. K. Dick, Martian Time-Slip

Is disability no more than an economic category now – a means of classification for purely economic purposes?

Take one case study: the minefield that is UK higher education. When I applied from school to Lincoln College, Oxford to read English back in 1989, I was rejected specifically on the grounds of the interviewers’ worry that my stammer would prevent me from keeping up with the social life in the college. So I read English at Edinburgh instead, couldn’t make any friends in that icy city (frozen between gentility and deprivation, rather as I was), and developed depression along with a serious alcohol problem that it took me five years to shake off. By the time I stopped drinking (early 1997) I was trapped in an inappropriate PhD course, at a university (Cambridge) where, as my supervisor Simon Jarvis told me very early on, I would ‘never fit in’. I had been told on the telephone in Edinburgh that three members of the Cambridge English Faculty had all expressed an interest in supervising my originally proposed thesis; when I arrived in Cambridge these people had vanished, and I went through three random supervisors in my first term, before Jarvis – who again was no specialist in my proposed area of study – approached  me early in the new year. After two supervisions he had rejected my theoretical model and we came to a decision to radically narrow the subject of my thesis to a single-author study. This was to be undertaken in accordance with his theoretical interests.

Jarvis told me that I would use Adorno (that most intimidating of philosophers), or he would not supervise me – i.e. I would have to leave the university. For one thing this was a betrayal of Adorno’s work, directed as it is against the dominative instrumental application of concepts to culture. I considered a complete change of tack, a transfer to the Courtauld Institute, but Jarvis threatened me again, saying that if I moved I would be known as a quitter and would never get a job anywhere. So I was trapped, in a thesis which I knew was itself almost certainly making me unemployable: in an advisers’ meeting (the only one we had) with Jarvis and I, Jeremy Prynne had expressed his worry that my thesis was risky: what would I work on after it? (The layers of irony in the strange medieval world of Cambridge English studies: I was allocated Mr Prynne, the one Faculty member without a doctorate, as an additional adviser for my own doctorate; he then turns out to be the only senior figure at all concerned about my postdoctoral prospects!). Though I survived the whole assault course and completed the thesis, this seven-year nightmare did probably definitively wreck my chances of ever earning a living. I found myself lacking a support network, and unprepared for teaching courses in any other university. I felt, and still feel, exhausted, bullied and exploited.

In the end, after being kept waiting nine months for my half-hour viva, in this oral exam the ‘internal examiner’, Drew Milne, only deigned to say two or three sentences to me. The message: we will never accept a freak like you in the club, even after all these years of work. At least Rod Mengham had kindly volunteered to meet me in the pub afterwards, because he feared I might get a proper mauling. (In American universities the examiners coach you through all the years of producing the thesis; my viva was the only time I have met either of my examiners). Then, as abuse finally modulated into farce, the admin office sent out the wrong confirmation letter, announcing that I needed to re-submit the thesis. When I requested to be sent the ‘pass’ letter, they apologized and said that they send the re-submission letter out as a matter of course now, ‘because none of the students can spell any more’.

I feel that, essentially, in the higher education world I was steamrollered by an impersonal bureaucratic system which reduced me to the status of a mere economic unit (a source of funding for the university), and enabled certain unsavoury individuals to take advantage of my vulnerability. Of course in recent years higher education institutions have started employing Disability Support Officers: to attempt to ease the student-consumer’s experience of an institution otherwise still largely indifferent to the needs of those with ‘difficult’ lives. After I was informed that I have such a life, by the course leader interviewing me for a place on the last degree course I attempted, in 2010, I decided – for the first time in my life – to label myself ‘disabled’ (on account of my stammer), in order to become eligible for a DCSF ‘Diversity Bursary’ funding my fees.

In the event this taxpayer’s money was wasted after all (just as my four years of British Academy funding had been), because the lecturers couldn’t get it together to organize one of the two required placements for me, and I was forced to leave the course midway through. Ironically, I was re-training to be a careers adviser – so it’s not just me who was helped in no way at all. This degree was total chaos; but effectively managed chaos. By the beginning of the second semester the course leader had refused a pay cut and left, her replacement had stolen my digital recorder and stopped responding to my emails, and the other students’ multifarious complaints had been successfully brushed aside by the Rector: the normalization of despair.

Those who battled through to the end of the course – two soul-destroying years of playing at bureaucracy, CRB checks and being refused access to real interviewing experience, crammed into one dizzying year for financial reasons – were confronted by the imminent collapse of public sector career guidance. Those with any residual care ethos would have stuck with the remnants of the Connexions service for which we had been ‘trained’, perhaps to be rewarded with two months of employment before receiving the sack in the latest bout of restructuring. This actually happened to my friend from the course, Tolu, in Brent. The real careers advisers, the streetwise ex-youth workers who understood that the job is more about keeping vulnerable youth out of prison – for example through an Activity Agreement – than launching impossible ‘careers’, were already in place and qualifying via the NVQ route instead. I get the feeling that the majority of the ‘professionally qualified’ careers advisers, the more self-motivated, 20-somethings from the degree course, went private. You could return to corporate HR work – in which case the degree was unnecessary, no more than a weird status symbol – or perhaps strike out independently in ‘education management’.

This sounds like the usual ruse: make money out of other people’s misfortune, by erecting just one more level of bureaucracy between the staff class and the client class. All that matters is the maintenance of that boundary, staff member vs service user, adviser vs benefit recipient, worker vs sick person, intrepid commuter vs stay-at-home: this began to seem to me to be the whole purpose of the youth services/guidance industry. I was becoming embittered once more; attempting to project the Hobbesian combat model of social relations which I had experienced in our universities, so as to explain the entire workings of society.

But what an idea in the first place, that I could ever work as a careers adviser. I had simply been reduced to desperation by my inability to develop an academic career. Which, as I have indicated, is another story, a narrative of institutional abuse coupled with my own incapacity which eventually traversed five universities before my final ejection from academia. When I was relieved of some of the dreadful weight of having to impress, build those social boundaries.

Think too of another example, other than my doomed Diversity Bursary, of what we could call the economizing, or the economization of disability today; the reduction of disabled people to the status of economic units. Vulnerable adults – sometimes after having been discriminated against in the workplace, or failed by the education system – are often recipients of Disability Living Allowance. Here the term ‘disability’ is often just a bureaucratic cloak for the words ‘mental illness’, referring as they do to ‘the last taboo’ in our regimented consumer society. Perhaps it is easier to herd people together under the abstract economic label ‘disabled’, than to recognize that we are human individuals suffering from diverse illnesses – and that it is in fact the conditions of this society that have made us depressed, or schizophrenic, or agoraphobic? And now, having been reduced – just as back in the asylums – to the status of a crowd of nondescript nonentities, mentally ill people are being deprived of their DLA left, right and centre. With or without being sent to a barbaric Work Capability Assessment centre first.

Stammerers, to refer finally to a third example of today’s economizing logic, only tend to have recourse to disability legislation if we are involved in an employment tribunal (say concerning an unfair dismissal), when – in very rare cases – we can appeal to the terms of the Disability Discrimination Act. Again, disability status appears to be all about money.

Partly for all these reasons, because it seems to me that the word ‘disability’ is only ever used in an economic context nowadays, I have decided to use the term ‘vulnerability’ instead, in the title of this blog [: the blog was originally called Downcast Lids, but subtitled 'reflections on philosophy and vulnerability' - RB 13.12.12]. And after all, everyone can be classed as a vulnerable adult, at some time in – or on some level of – their lives.

The subjects I want to write about in this blog concern us all, and none of us should be regarded simply as economic units. Whether or not we are to be so regarded is a question which was posed by Karl Jaspers, in his 1931 work The Spiritual Condition of the Age .

‘The realisation of the existence of economic forces, of masses, of apparatus, of mechanisation, has, through research, led to the growth of a science which claims universal validity. In actual fact the reality embodied in it is a mighty one. It has become a new, and at length a spiritual force. Nevertheless, insofar as it claims to be anything more than the rational control of purposive activity, insofar as it puts forward a claim to absolute status as a picture of life in its entirety, it has become, so to say, a creed or a faith which the spirit must either accept or resist. Whilst scientific research in particular (as far as this field is concerned) is occupied in the study of the qualities and quantities of economic forces, what is decisive in our consciousness of the mental situation is the answer we give to the question whether these economic forces and their results are the only and the universally dominant realities for mankind.’

Jaspers’ concepts of vulnerability (of failure, of ‘foundering’) are so attractive now because they enable us to identify the anti-economizing activity of the ‘spirit’, or of our ‘consciousness of the mental situation’ – the transcendental life which exceeds objective sciences such as economizing social science, or what Chris Thornhill calls ‘transcendent ways of questioning which are actually beyond its [empirical sociology’s] own inner means and limits’ – with the lives of the chronically economically unproductive: the lives of those of us in the global population who will never be able to earn a living. We can suggest that radically failing transcendental life (as theorized by Jaspers), and radically foundering vulnerable lives alike interrogate the limits of economic objectivity.

Sunday, 18 December 2011

Václav Havel, 1936-2011

My mother has just told me on the 'phone that Václav Havel has died.

Havel, like my mother, was born on 5 October 1936.

My mum fled Leipzig with her family in 1947 following the Soviet takeover of the eastern part of Germany.

Havel was her hero.

I know very little about his life myself, but I have gleaned the following interesting remarks from Žižek's review [LRB 21.21 (28 October 1999)] of John Keane's Václav Havel: A Political Tragedy in Six Acts, here:

'What is of special interest here is the lack of understanding between the Western Left and dissidents such as Havel. In the eyes of the Western Left, Eastern dissidents were too naive in their belief in liberal democracy – in rejecting socialism, they threw out the baby with the bath water. In the eyes of the dissidents, the Western Left played patronising games with them, disavowing the true harshness of totalitarianism. The idea that the dissidents were somehow guilty for not seizing the unique opportunity provided by the disintegration of socialism to invent an authentic alternative to capitalism was pure hypocrisy.

In dissecting Late Socialism, Havel was always aware that Western liberal democracy was far from meeting the ideals of authentic community and ‘living in truth’ on behalf of which he and other dissidents opposed Communism. He was faced, then, with the problem of combining a rejection of ‘totalitarianism’ with the need to offer critical insight into Western democracy. His solution was to follow Heidegger and to see in the technological hubris of capitalism, its mad dance of self-enhancing productivity, the expression of a more fundamental transcendental-ontological principle – ‘will to power’, ‘instrumental reason’ – equally evident in the Communist attempt to overcome capitalism. This was the argument of Adorno’s and Horkheimer’s Dialectic of Enlightenment, which first engineered the fateful shift from concrete socio-political analysis to philosophico-anthropological generalisation, by means of which ‘instrumental reason’ is no longer grounded in concrete capitalist social relations, but is instead posited as their quasi-transcendental ‘foundation’. The moment that Havel endorsed Heidegger’s recourse to quasi-anthropological or philosophical principle, Stalinism lost its specificity, its specific political dynamic, and turned into just another example of this principle (as exemplified by Heidegger’s remark, in his Introduction to Metaphysics, that, in the long run, Russian Communism and Americanism were ‘metaphysically one and the same’).

Keane tries to save Havel from this predicament by emphasising the ambiguous nature of his intellectual debt to Heidegger. Like Heidegger, Havel conceived of Communism as a thoroughly modern regime, an inflated caricature of modern life, with many tendencies shared by Western society – technological hubris and the crushing of human individuality attendant on it. However, in contrast to Heidegger, who excluded any active resistance to the social-technological framework (‘only God can save us,’ as he put it in an interview, published after his death), Havel put faith in a challenge ‘from below’ – in the independent life of ‘civil society’ outside the frame of state power. The ‘power of the powerless’, he argued, resides in the self-organisation of civil society that defies the ‘instrumental reason’ embodied in the state and the technological apparatuses of control and domination.

I find the idea of civil society doubly problematic. First, the opposition between state and civil society works against as well as for liberty and democracy. For example, in the United States, the Moral Majority presents itself (and is effectively organised as) the resistance of local civil society to the regulatory interventions of the liberal state – the recent exclusion of Darwinism from the school curriculum in Kansas is in this sense exemplary. So while in the specific case of Late Socialism the idea of civil society refers to the opening up of a space of resistance to ‘totalitarian’ power, there is no essential reason why it cannot provide space for all the politico-ideological antagonisms that plagued Communism, including nationalism and opposition movements of an anti-democratic nature. These are authentic expressions of civil society – civil society designates the terrain of open struggle, the terrain in which antagonisms can articulate themselves, without any guarantee that the ‘progressive’ side will win.

Second, civil society as Havel conceived it is not, in fact, a development of Heidegger’s thinking. The essence of modern technology for Heidegger was not a set of institutions, practices and ideological attitudes that can be opposed, but the very ontological horizon that determines how we experience Being today, how reality discloses itself to us. For that reason, Heidegger would have found the concept of ‘the power of the powerless’ suspect, caught in the logic of the Will to Power that it endeavours to denounce.'

Next post: disability think-piece

Friday, 16 December 2011

Kirkbright's Life of Jaspers, part 2

Kirkbright observes that Jaspers’ letters home to his parents when he was an undergraduate ‘recorded how his mother was the ideal partner with whom from the start he rehearsed a process to which he was later to give the name “existential communication”’. The first part of the second volume of Jaspers’ Philosophy, titled Existential Elucidation, addresses such intersubjectivity in terms of Jaspers’ idea of ‘loving contest’. In his early essay ‘Solitude’, he had already formulated this idea as ‘the contest in the state of love’ (‘der Kampf in der Liebe’), so as to evoke (in Kirkbright’s words) ‘a new possibility of overcoming potential inequality between individuals through the intensity of communication’. Likewise, Jaspers’ work on the late lectures of Schelling articulated his interest in ‘communication as something more intense than dialogue, as something moving beyond the Platonic dialogue’; something which can foreground the disharmony attendant upon recognition of the relativity of truth. ‘No one who is in definitive possession of the truth, can speak properly with someone else – he breaks off authentic communication in favour of the belief that he holds’ [The Perennial Scope of Philosophy].

In statements which are chillingly prophetic of today’s stultifyingly careerist, ‘best practice’, academic bureaucracies, Jaspers’ 1946 lecture ‘About the Living Spirit of the University’ reflected on the sort of false, conciliatory communication which characterized Nazi times: a communication ultimately dedicated to self-preservation in an unreflective climate of nihilist drift. This is the communicative false harmony imposed by an authoritarian society.

‘Instead of an intellectual community in loving contest, what emerged, on the one hand, was a wariness of the common ground of social camaraderie, and on the other hand, endless rounds of discussion consisting of chance opinions, vain self-promotion and sophistry. Everywhere, a secret code of behaviour was valid: everything is still undecided; things are not to be taken so seriously. Conciliatory behaviour was the condition for being regarded as a decent human being.’

Kirkbright’s biography demonstrates how the opposition between a ‘secret code of behaviour’ and open, contestatory communication, was implicit already in Jaspers’ early Husserlian contributions to thinking about psychiatric therapy. As Kirkbright notes, Jaspers’ understanding of the task of therapy was centred on the patient-doctor relationship, and a concomitant awareness of the limitations of formal professional or disciplinary codes. She explains how Jaspers’ 1912 essay on ‘The Phenomenological Approach in Psychopathology’, a dry run for his classic textbook General Psychopathology, understood phenomenology both as ‘a descriptive practice by means of which a psychiatrist could assess patients’ communications, as derived through interviews or scrutiny of their biographies’, and as ‘a process of understanding the patient-doctor relationship’. ‘To investigate that perception of the confidential context of clinical practice was to clarify the repertoire of tools available for connecting a psychiatrist’s perception of the causes of patients’ afflictions and the patients’ need for understanding and an open exchange of information.’

Jaspers’ early involvement with Husserl’s thinking, as Kirkbright suggests, thus generated a conception of a hermeneutic, reflexive psychiatric method, which can enable what we could call reciprocal therapy. Jaspers, Kirkbright writes, focussed in on the limits of diagnostic technique: ‘the psychiatrist’s problem was essentially his craving for knowledge in his claim to understand another’s words’. Authoritarian definition of diagnostic truths is to be replaced by an opening to clinical communicative relativity: approaching both clinicians’ and patients’ statements on the same level. This is something that was still being called for by service users in a recent meeting at Hammersmith & Fulham Mind, almost a hundred years after Jaspers’ essay; that they be worked with , and not be regarded simply as the passive recipients of medication. ‘What Jaspers extracted from Husserl’s notion of “intentionality” was a principle that words and meanings are all, on some level, subjected to transposition by individual preference.’ This means that – once a divergence between the psychiatrist’s and the patient’s intentions is recognized – phenomenology can be taken as a reflexive, therapeutic hermeneutic. ‘The doctor was to be trained to apply interpretational methods to his cases, on condition that he might turn the tables upon himself. Hence, the psychiatrist is not only the subject in control of the process, but a legitimate target for self-reflection.’ As Jaspers puts it in the General Psychopathology:

‘The most vital part of the psychopathologist’s knowledge is drawn from his contact with people. What he gains from this depends upon the particular way he gives himself and as therapist partakes in events, whether he illuminates himself as well as his patients. The process is not only one of simple observation, like reading off a measurement, but the exercise of a self-involving vision in which the psyche itself is glimpsed.’

Kirkbright documents how Gertrud’s own experiences of caring for the mentally ill ‘marked out her capacity to understand Jaspers’ distinction between those used to suffering and those apparently indifferent’. Her sister Ida had suffered a nervous breakdown around 1904, and had been institutionalized in a sanatorium at Königstein im Taunus, where Gertrud nursed her along with other patients. Whilst working as an unpaid assistant at the Heidelberg Clinic of Psychiatry, Jaspers himself, as Kirkbright notes, bitterly regretted his inability to develop his career as a psychiatrist, owing to his physical incapacity to complete the rounds of patients. ‘In silent frustration, Jaspers’ imagination reinforced his impression that he was required to work twice as hard just to be accepted by his peers and his immediate superiors.’ But he was also attending Lask’s lectures, and already engaging with the ideas of Kant, Husserl and Weber. This meant that, as Kirkbright points out, ‘he was already working within the terms of philosophy, even during his training at the clinic.’ Indeed – Kirkbright maintains – it was precisely Kant who ‘introduced the element of humanity into Jaspers’ work as a scientist and thinker’. Kirkbright’s book stresses how Jaspers’ contact with Heidelberg’s philosophers taught him that ‘the clearest treatment of his study of the doctor-patient bond was not to be gleaned from psychology’. Instead, ‘his main aim was to preserve a calm atmosphere that might equally have derived from his study of Kant’s philosophy’. The General Psychopathology holds Kant to be the ‘true point of orientation’ (‘wahrer Orientierungspunkt’) for empirical psychiatric research.

Kirkbright’s life often refers to the importance, for Jaspers, of the attainment of a state of balance or harmony; or of ‘the calmness and clarity’, as he put it in a 1919 letter to his father, ‘which has been acquired in long, inner battles that have little to do with knowledge or reasoning but that traditionally is and deserves to be called wisdom’. Jaspers’ schooldays included a time of ‘almost abject misery’ precisely because then he was involved in ‘perpetual conflict’. The timelessness of meditative calm, by contrast, is associated in Jaspers’ thought with a communicative intensity moving towards intersubjective harmony. ‘One of the fascinations of Jaspers’ definition of communication remains […] an intimation of striving for harmony between two individuals so that the harmony achieves a timeless, eternal aspect.’ The Kantian and Platonist qualities of Jaspers’ thinking, intimated here, could be one reason why Arendt was concerned that he was – in Kirkbright’s words – ‘uninterested in politics because of his generation’s education in the humanities’. Yet, as this biography fully demonstrates, in fact Jaspers was deeply interested in politics: Kirkbright refers in particular to the ‘acute awareness of political affairs that is typical of his personal correspondence’. This is the philosopher who could remind his readers, prefacing the second edition of his Nietzsche in 1946, that ‘in the years 1934 and 1935, I […] intended to marshal against the National Socialists the world of thought of the man whom they had proclaimed as their own philosopher’.

Kirkbright’s book valuably shows how Jaspers’ understanding of the political context of Nazism attracted him to the sort of Eastern cultures which evolved ideas of meditative calm similar to his own. Jaspers’ relation to Eastern thought is a subject not covered by Thornhill’s study. Here it is shown to be rooted in his disgust at the barbarity of Western civilization. ‘Averting his gaze from the European continent, he ceased to believe that Germany automatically deserved a place amongst Europe’s civilized nations.’ Some weeks before Kristallnacht, Jaspers wrote to his sister, ‘For some time, I have felt such a strong need for humanity from faraway, if the source shares our roots and is indeed related to us – and I always have the globe in front of me on my desk.’ In the end Gertrud escaped deportation to the camps only by a personal intervention, at the last minute. Confined with her in internal exile at home in Heidelberg, but assisted by the Indologist Heinrich Zimmer, Jaspers started researching Indian and Chinese philosophies.

Kirkbright wonders whether his ‘perception of global landscapes was born only of silent yearning to be anywhere except in Hitler’s Germany’, recalling the later fascination of postwar, working-class German youth (and Krautrock musicians) with science fiction and outer space: anywhere ‘out there’. In releases such as Kraftwerk’s ‘Autobahn’ and ‘Trans Europe Express’ electronic musicians dialecticized contemporary techno-futurism and European cultural tradition (even Hitler’s motorways); on Kraftwerk’s ‘Europe Endless’, the continent itself becomes out there, infinite. Similarly Jaspers, in seeking deeper and more open communication amongst world religions, was seeking to re-ground modern European cultural identity in the transnational spiritualities of what he called the ‘axial age’, and create a new present out of the resources of the past. Speaking at the Geneva Rencontres, Jaspers argued that, ‘If we wish to live on a European basis, then we must allow a deeper origin to take effect.’ Located in the axial age c.800-200BC, this deeper origin spanned (as Jaspers wrote in The European Spirit), ‘the time from Homer to Archimedes, the time of the great Old Testament prophets and of Zarathustra, the time of the Upanishads and of Buddha, the time from the Songs of Shiking to Laotse, Confucius, and Tschuang-tse’.

Jaspers’ lifelong project of the cultivation of meditative calm and intersubjective harmony thus emerges from this biography as being far from otherworldly. Particularly in his later thinking, as Kirkbright notes, Jaspers theorized the inherent interdependence of philosophy, science and technology, and argued that ‘the task was to incorporate modern technological advancements into a supranational framework of civilized existence’. Many would say that the electronic rhythms released by musicians like Kraftwerk and Pantha du Prince have enabled us to hear intimations of what this task might sound like. Kirkbright reminds us that it is now our global challenge to continue to bring such harmonies into actuality.

‘After experiencing totalitarianism in Germany, Jaspers’ emphasis on the ancient sources of mankind’s civilization was an attempt to discover in the dim and nebulous past an ever deeper revival of the original openness that he applauded during the “axial” period when tolerance seemed to be captured in a kind of Golden Age, with the parallel awakening of the world’s religions. To promote […] an increasing sense of common links between Europe, China and India was no longer an exclusively European task.’

Next post: disability think-piece

Friday, 9 December 2011

Suzanne Kirkbright's Life of Karl Jaspers

In his ‘World History of Philosophy’, Karl Jaspers underlined the potential of genuine thinking to create a dialogue with the transcendental capacities of the singular human who thinks. ‘If we hear true philosophy, we enter into communication with human Existenz of the philosophical personality. Philosophy is, in essence, always personal in form. The thoughts that are released and freely floating only gain blood and energy if an Existenz accepts them and, in that way, they again become a motive of an entire philosophy’. If communicated  to another striving human, Jaspers intimates, true philosophy can make a philosopher of the one who receives. This sort of fluidly reciprocal or intersubjective experience of philosophy of course itself demands a particularly sensitive biographical account of the genuine philosopher, Karl Jaspers, who theorized it. In this pair of posts I want to point to ways in which I think Kirkbright succeeds in the biographical task of relaying the intersubjectivity of philosophical activity, in her Karl Jaspers, A Biography: Navigations in Truth.

Kirkbright does not set out to offer an intensive exposition of Jaspers’ philosophical ideas, and I would recommend Chris Thornhill’s Karl Jaspers: Politics and Metaphysics in this connection. She in fact explicitly draws attention to the ambiguities inherent in any biographically based interpretation of a philosopher’s work, arguing in her introduction that ‘there is no single or prescribed approach to the stated aim of illuminating aspects of Jaspers’ published works of philosophy within the context of his life’. Yet she does sometimes consider the aesthetic quality of Jaspers’ presentation of his concepts, and this treatment of the shifting aesthetics of his philosophical writing can itself help us to understand the shifts in his thinking. For example, Kirkbright notes Ernst Mayer’s interesting assessment, in 1953, of the aesthetic terms of a general progress on Jaspers’ part from existential to religious concerns. Aesthetically, Jaspers moved from a practice of direct illumination, or a sort of visionary definition of everyday life, to the deployment of cipher-language, of symbols of transcendence. ‘In the later period of his work, his task had been one of creating a language of ciphers through intuitivism, whereas his earlier illumination of Existenz illustrated what Mayer called a way to explore reality in ever closer approximation of truth.’ Kirkbright directs us to Jaspers’ use of metaphors, which can ‘allude to possibilities of a cipher language’: these are keywords, such as Erhellung (Schelling’s ‘illumination’) and Lichtpunkte (Hegel’s ‘light points’), which become for Jaspers signs (signa) of Existenz, ‘replete with further meaning leading on from the direction of his thought trails’.

Jaspers’ poetic language of light – of light in space – introduces an architectural quality to his bringing of the reader to Existenz (Hannah Arendt said that his ‘deepest aim is to “create space” in which the humanitas of man can appear pure and luminous’).  The airy, ‘pictorial or spatial’ dimension of Jaspers’ thinking also reminds us –  Kirkbright insightfully notes – of Jaspers’ chronic, intermittently life-threatening lung illness, and so of the necessary vulnerability and potential evanescence of his project: ‘concepts become intangible, perhaps as fragile as the high-pitched tone of his voice that was distorted in later years by the worsening of the illness’.  

The experience of impermanence, of failure, of foundering is integral to Jaspers’ philosophical activity. This was a reclamation and assertion of life’s imperfection in the face of the judgementalism of the healthy and strong. Kirkbright records how, when Jaspers was about to leave school, his headmaster told him ‘Nothing can become of you anyway, because your illness is an organic fact of life!’ Jaspers’ incurable bronchiectasis was finally diagnosed when he was eighteen, at which point he was not expected to live much longer than his early thirties. At about the age of seventeen he had already turned to philosophical thinking in order to revivify himself against the depressing influence of educators such as his headmaster. ‘With the view across the pastureland and the windmill – already feeling my life’s possibilities threatened and fallen victim to a melancholy with the cares of the world – I read, to gain strength, Spinoza.’ Philosophy was aligned with claiming the confidence to fight on as well as with refuge and rest. Of course, as Kirkbright writes, the ‘quiet life of contemplation[…] was so advantageous to Jaspers’ health’. But she is also correct to point out that ‘an early, unconscious rebellion against the circumstances of his illness appeared to have heightened his awareness of a need to find the meaning of life’.

By drawing attention to Jaspers’ awareness of the insecurity of rational activity, Kirkbright illuminates key aspects of his intellectual relationships with other major twentieth-century thinkers. Our understanding of his focus on Max Weber as ‘the key representative of modern life in all its fragility’, is deepened by Kirkbright’s citation of a comment on his mentor’s health from a 1910 letter of Jaspers’ to his parents: ‘It is as though a mighty will is constantly wrestling to control a nervous system that is going to become agitated.’ Jaspers’ important argument with Georg Lukács’ Marxism – which is expounded brilliantly in Thornhill’s study – is contextualized by Kirkbright’s account of their encounter in 1946 at the International Rencontres in Geneva. Jaspers and Lukács had enjoyed cordial relations before the First World War, and Jaspers acted as psychiatrist to Lukács’ first wife. Yet at the 1946 conference Lukács’ socialist-realist position led him to label Jaspers a ‘broken man’ representing – in the words of Stephen Spender’s report – ‘the point of view of a bankrupt individualism’. Lukács, as Kirkbright notes, would go on in The Destruction of Reason to attack Jaspers’ and Heidegger’s adoption of Kierkegaard’s conception of Existenz, which he impugned as ‘Romantic and individualistic cat’s wail’. In Geneva Lukács seems to be linking Jaspers’ personal weakness, his supposedly broken thinking, to the failures of capitalist economics. Yet as Thornhill’s study suggests, Jaspers’ thinking of failure in fact itself intimates, through its imbrication with his interrogation of the limits of objective orders of life, a very potent critique of capitalist economism.

Kirkbright quotes a 1907 letter to Jaspers from his brother Enno, in which the latter – in Kirkbright’s words – ‘struck a nerve when he called Jaspers’ existence an artificial shell, an alibi to conceal from others the true nature of his experiences’. The charge was that Jaspers’ awareness of his disability inhibited his acceptance of his existential life. ‘Your body prevents you from doing a lot of things, but to conclude a lack of personal experiences from that does not seem justified to me.’ Kirkbright, however, usefully shows how Jaspers’ trip to Italy in 1902 had already demonstrated his capacity to claim ‘independence from his illness and his family in a way that motivated him to embark on a different way of living’. The journey was a ‘watershed’ for Jaspers, in that it launched his route towards existentialism through an increasing acceptance of sensual experience. ‘Italy was, for me, the start of winning the world – while before Italy, I lived almost wholly in an abstract sense without the world.’ Though his time in Rome remained solitary and overshadowed by his illness, his letters home – as Kirkbright notes – testify to a shift from youthful Schopenhauerian gloom (an immersion in Sehnsucht [longing] and Weltschmerz [pain of the world]), to ‘a new understanding of the effect of beauty on an individual’s senses’. Jaspers found Italian girls more attractive than girls back home in Oldenburg ‘by ten to one’.

Throughout this biography Kirkbright emphasizes how his wife, Gertrud (née Mayer), represented ‘the life and soul of Jaspers’ intellectual life’. In Kirkbright’s presentation Gertrud brought Jaspers to existentialism, in the sense that insofar as their friendship originally ‘released Jaspers from his solitary lifestyle’, Gertrud ‘made visible the beauty of life’s possibilities’. Jaspers understood this beauty of existence in terms of harmony. ‘From the very first hour there was between us an inconceivable harmony, something never expected to be possible.’ The philosophical activity which was stimulated by awareness of this harmony would of course go on to draw in disharmony: for example when it foregrounds speech which is necessarily insufficient, uncertain, foundering. In the same way, as Kirkbright writes, the Jaspers’ marriage ‘evolved into a paradigm of communication as a “loving contest” that was a focal point of his perception of his philosophical achievement’.

Kirkbright quotes from Jaspers’ eulogy to his wife, which was delivered at her funeral in 1974. ‘We have lived this life philosophizing. If there is any substance in what I have presented to the world as philosophy, then it is her I have to thank for it.’ Gertrud, Kirkbright records, had attended the neo-Kantian Heinrich Rickert’s lectures in Freiburg, where she made the acquaintance of Rickert’s pupil Emil Lask. ‘Her acquaintance with Lask, who followed Rickert as an unpaid lecturer to Heidelberg, was instrumental in Jaspers’ introduction to Heidelberg’s Philosophical Seminar.’ Whilst training in the Clinic of Psychiatry at Heidelberg, Jaspers was taught Kant by Lask – and rebelled. Just as Gertrud Mayer would decide to discontinue reading philosophy altogether after presenting a résumé at one of Wilhelm Windelband’s seminars, Jaspers – as Thornhill notes – ‘sets himself emphatically against the prevailing orthodoxies in the neo-Kantianism of early twentieth-century Germany. In his attempt to deploy Kant as the basis for an existential metaphysic of possible lived unity, he seeks to wrest Kant from his epistemological assimilation into the philosophy of value (Wertphilosophie), which was pioneered by Wilhelm Windelband and Heinrich Rickert.’

Another way in which Gertrud helped Jaspers to orientate himself intellectually, when he was still an unpaid voluntary assistant at the psychiatric clinic, uncertain whether to go on to work in the field of psychology or philosophy, was by encouraging him to socialize with the Webers. Kirkbright notes how, whenever Jaspers sought an appointment with Max Weber, he was encouraged by Gertrud’s friendship with Weber’s wife Marianne; and when he did find the courage to call upon Weber, he usually went along with Gertrud. Jaspers wrote to his parents, ‘I doubt whether I belong in that circle. The people are too clever.’ But, Kirkbright also records, the Jaspers did after all manage to mix with figures such as Georg Simmel at Weber’s Sunday afternoon gatherings, and from the end of 1914 onwards Jaspers regularly attended ‘cultural philosophical’ evenings with the likes of Ernst Bloch, Max Scheler and Lukács. ‘It may be assumed that Jaspers drew encouragement from his participation in the discussions, from which he appeared to have derived confirmation of the philosophical direction of his future work.’ Kirkbright writes of ‘the indispensability of Jaspers’ bond of trust with Weber’; indeed Weber ‘convinced Windelband to open the doors of Heidelberg’s philosophy faculty to Jaspers’.       

As Kirkbright notes, Martin Heidegger did not visit the Jaspers again after June 1933, due to Gertrud’s ‘deep mistrust’ of Heidegger’s activities as a Nazi party member. Gertrud was Jewish, and was also someone with whom Jaspers found it easier to be honest and open than in his friendship with Heidegger. Kirkbright quotes from Jaspers’ ‘Philosophical Autobiography’: ‘I had failed with regard to Heidegger, who himself had been seized by an intoxication. I had not told him that he had chosen the wrong road.’ Kirkbright records how already during the late 1920s, at the time of Jaspers and Heidegger’s discussions on Schelling, Jaspers had found that he ‘preferred to talk to Gertrud, whom he knew he could trust to contest his thinking, and to judge their conversations in the light of what they both believed in as the necessary questioning of the other’s position in a process of communication’. The importance for Jaspers of the potential for ‘open communication among free individuals’, is again underscored by Kirkbright when she documents how, after the Second World War, ‘Arendt understood that Jaspers’ belief in the power of communication was one reason why she had failed to broker a reunion between Heidegger and Jaspers, and that Heidegger’s complicity in the Nazis’ control of the university was not something Jaspers could forgive.’

Second part to be posted next week.

Monday, 5 December 2011

Reading with Vision, part 4

& here is the fourth, final part of my 2007 commentary on Vernon Watkins' poetry.

A Pioneer’s Log

‘The Bloodhound’, which is probably Watkins’s major extended poetic statement on the subject of visionary hermeneutics, identifies a slow resolution of readerly understanding with a process of self-abnegatory pilgrimage – a walk of penitence. The sacred cognitive hunt is necessarily impeded:

Delay may reward me, even evasion
Bring me at last to truth, to the martyr’s posture,
By many paths to a tree transfixed by nails,
Or on to a field of remorse, to a fallen bough,
To footprints under the bridge, and a folded vesture. [391]

The interpreter’s disparate paths of faith are marked by an abdication of self-righteousness; their flighty, mad relentlessness matched by divine relief.

Unresting I follow the trail, a lugubrious attorney
To joy’s keeper, the sleepless giver of rest,
Great judge of the unforgiving. To find his word
An exuberant calm lends meaning to every journey. [392]

‘The Bloodhound’ hints that so long as a record is made, even the most indirect interpretative process can remain guided by a sort of investigative magnetism, or turn out ‘true to [divine] judgment’:

However devious the path through inconstant water,
I keep the log: my account of the trail I render,
Bringing to light what ferns or the scrub had hidden,
Had I gone the direct way. But, as filings quiver,
I turn, as needle to star, with insistent feet. [391]

Watkins’s poetic likening of visionary hermeneutics to the collation of a log-book of quivering filings – shifting sands that nonetheless are providentially ordered – is borne out by some statements of Dora Polk’s in the introduction to her Vernon Watkins and the Spring of Vision. Polk points out that, though published eventually in 1977, her academic study was written between 1967 and 1970, when Watkins studies was (already) no industry. This was why ‘I had to win access to Watkins’s work by the fumbling methods of the explorer who lacks maps or accounts to help him, and must rely principally on his own ingenuity and the tools he carries on his back. And, to continue the metaphor, my findings are recorded rather in the manner of a pioneer’s log – a tentative account of the personal process of discovery of Watkins’s vision’. Polk’s work on Watkins was a vocation, if one long delayed by her need to earn a living. It was a genuine personal spiritual exploration: she writes of becoming ‘the beneficiary of Watkins’s vision, which, after all, is what the study of poetry is all about’. A reader’s visionary hermeneutic is thus, Polk lets us see, part of an ongoing, developing process of spiritual re-birth; her log-book anti-method is in keeping with the shifting ‘flux of debate’ surrounding the poetry, and ‘the cumulative nature of literary criticism’. A reader’s visionary log-book also perpetuates what Norvig calls the poet’s own ‘dynamic concept of the imagination’.

Such magical transformations can emerge out of the social marginality of visionary poetry, for instance out of its resistance to the self-promotional procedures of academic career-building. Watkins studies, for instance, is no career option within today’s entirely secularized English departments. But the spiritual aptitudes, ‘the tools’, required for genuinely vocational study, can often be more fine, quiet, deep-grained and personal, than those required for developing a successful CV.

Notebook method: the method of the ‘failed’/private/underground (upper-)middle-class repressed/suppressed outsider. Benjamin (Arcades), Kierkegaard, Kafka-diaries, Weil. Compare Stephanie Strickland on the way Weil’s family constricted her - & hence the relevance of her work to the women’s, and men’s, issues of ‘hunger, violence, exclusion, betrayal of the body, inability to be heard, and self-hate’. Unpublished remains. ‘Unpublishable’: Kierkegaard, ‘backstage practice’. Exiled from life: ‘can’t find a way in’, a way of expressing one’s gifts in the real world (versus MES: working-class popstar). Cf too Newton, in Tristram Hunt’s film: research as sacred, private knowledges.

The reason why others my age aren’t wanting to write (eg diary/documentary essay form) like their adolescent literary heroes (for me, Kafka’s diaries, & D H Lawrence impulse-reproduction; for IS, massive influence of Beats on his London journalistic writing mode), is that younger literary academics simply weren’t formed by literature – they didn’t read it as teenagers (one ex-colleague only reading NME, another reading nothing even as a student). Hence why should they rebel against the subsumption of literature by (cultural theoretical) concepts? And today’s ‘novelists’/ ’poets’ never read fiction or poetry as kids either. At least I was reading DHL, Ginsberg, Blake – as well as being groomed for professional specialization in academic lit. crit. by Leavisite/ pre-Oxbridge school essay lit. crit. Never forming a personal relationship with the writing in this way – explains the widespread incomprehension of IS’s work amongst literary critics now (cf Alex M.: ‘field of contemporary literary studies has found the task of analyzing Sinclair’s writing problematic’, in City Visions). [Traherne: ‘It acts not from a centre to/ Its object as remote,/ But present is when it doth view,/ Being with the being it doth note.’] Post-Brass Prynne is popular (!), more approachable (!) and written about precisely because his sheer modernist textual games prevent attachment, there is little recognizable human presence there to feel implicated with: or the residual sense of a spectral personality behind the writing is effectively ironized out of existence by its submersion within his surrounding range of depersonalizing modernist (textual/poetic) strategies [Ian Hunt, praising JHP’s lacuna mode to Catling in Parataxis, takes this as a virtue]. This so even with the ‘uh Pandora’ comic-erotic interfusions in Triodes.

Sean Bonney on hearing of my notes on Radon Daughters: ‘You should just publish the notebook.’

My private moon voyages [Lud] into Kafka’s diaries, age c.15 – a bid for the sacred which had been pushed – by my entirely secular daily routine – into 3AM nightspace. (Alongside hearing the pirate radio broadcasts). And which then disqualified me, since exhausted, from participating effectively in the worldly educational community the next day. Alienation, and misery – estranged as John Lydon in the King’s Road [on The Filth and the Fury], provoked by the absence of a sacred element to view everyday capitalist life as just a rat-race – stumbling bleary-eyed across Blackfriars Bridge. Fighting against the commuter crowd, like Karen Armstrong c.17 on ‘release’ from her convent, & like me still (yesterday at Moorgate station). Urban Panic Attack. And, from then on in, study as a refuge from the secular world. Immersion. Which, of course, the university didn’t actually turn out to be. [Bond, Workshy journal]            

Insofar as the anti-methodical processes of visionary hermeneutics generate the form of a pioneer’s log-book, which records the pilgrim-path of insight as it passes through shifting cognitive sands – ‘and then it is footpad, footpad, nose to the ground,/ Ear and eye to the trail’ – they also recall the essay form as described (and promoted) by Theodor Adorno. Both types of writing rely on self-abdication and faith: Watkins’s log-keeping bloodhound is ‘trusting the scent to discover my destination’ [391], whilst for Adorno ‘the word Versuch, attempt or essay’ recalls ‘an intention groping its way’. But a loss of self-righteousness and subsumptive processing does not rule out intelligence or self-consciousness: ‘the slight elasticity of the essayist’s train of thought forces him to greater intensity than discursive thought, because the essay does not proceed blindly and automatically, as the latter does, but must reflect on itself at every moment.’

The trail’s elasticity is only ‘slight’, because of the unresolved tension between stasis and dynamism – for example, between fixed and unfixed cognition, or between a neat commensurability of concepts to the object and the lack of such – which characterizes the essay form. Adorno wrote of the essay’s privileging of the incommensurate, of how it is ‘concerned with what is blind in its objects. It wants to use concepts to pry open the aspect of its objects that cannot be accommodated by concepts, the aspect that reveals, through the contradictions in which concepts become entangled, that the net of their objectivity is a merely subjective arrangement. It wants to polarize the opaque element and release the latent forces in it.’ Sinclair’s ‘Before I Left the Rue Grimoire’ ironically comments on our fear of this ambition.

light darts from out there not so very far
strikes the inner sea we hope
precise equivalent soundless & scaled down

This sort of reception of light – of truth, of the meaning of an object – represents the contrary of how a visionary hermeneutic aims to receive light. In a way, visionary hermeneutics hopes to read an illuminated poem imprecisely, so as to liberate its incommensurability – its miraculous, formless and transforming, shifty aspects – and release, not some ‘soundless & scaled down’ echo, but one (to return to ‘Beckton Alp’) ‘raw and absolute and unappeased’.

Sinclair’s thinking about pedagogy, and about visionary experience – when that thinking is filtered through the diary form of his 1971 book The Kodak Mantra Diaries – again suggests an emphasis on the release of incommensurability. These diaries relay a dialogue between Paul Goodman and Sinclair in which Goodman accuses Ginsberg, his poetry, of a lack of ‘religious depth’:

He has no theological feeling at all. He doesn’t know what real faith is. He understands on the other hand that religion is the crucial thing. He knows this in some deep way and so he picks up some eclectic eastern stuff which he understands in an external pedantic way – but with no feeling of faith, miracle, communion, sacrament, all the things which make for religious life in a way that I would conceive it. He cops-out into notions of union, ecstasy etc etc – which are all sentiments. They’re very nice sentiments but they are merely aesthetic and have nothing to do with the springs, in terms of which heaven and hell are determined, or in terms of which the Messiah will come.

Goodman’s view of Christianity, vaunting ‘the springs’ – deep structures, whether practical (such as Communion), or conceptual (such as the terms in terms of which heaven and hell are determined) – over mystical emotional effects, recalls Watkins’s poetics: much of Watkins’s poetry is reducing itself to a thematic demonstration of Christian conceptual structures, for instance, such as the generation of resurrection from suffering or a pain/life dialectic. Sinclair, however, responds to the accusation of a lack of formal Christian ‘religious depth’ with the question: ‘Is that a bad thing?’. Sinclair seems to be hinting here at an interest in how miracle or sacrament can be an incommensurable, everyday, more superficial phenomenon, one not reliant on being determined by deep structures – whether practical structures of organized religion such as the liturgy, or pre-set, rigid conceptual structures. In ‘The Return of Spring’ Watkins wrote of how ‘what first I feared as a rite I love as a sacrament.’ [117] Rather as Adorno saw the essay seeking to release ‘what is blind’ in its material, in The Kodak Mantra Diaries we can see Sinclair seeking out the opaque element in our religious experience, and in pedagogy:

Can’t you throw out the old pupil / teacher relationship anyway, and approach any subject mutually, both looking for insights, get rid of the formal structure?

We could think towards a religious-exploratory experience which is more free-form – one which is fluid, provisional, shifting, as if transformed by kick-starts of cognitive shocks. Moments of incommensurability, crystallized by visionary perception, re-organize the trail itself, as we pass through them.

Arrested Glory

In this wild eve’s thunder-rain, at the batement of it, the night-shades now much more come on: when’s the cool, even, after-light. [David Jones]

Perhaps writing itself is not only kick-started by perception, but is also enabled precisely by its collapse, when it is going too fast: when a translation has occurred. In ‘The Childhood of Hölderlin’, Watkins identified the intensity of Hölderlin’s poetry to be grounded in the extreme reciprocity between his visionary perception and the natural vision herself: when the poet has become her medium.

[…] The courses of rivers
Remained a compelling mystery; yet when he wrote
Of these, he no longer watched, he became the river.
So swift his thought, so close to the life he saw,
He knew the rose as the rose is known to herself,
Fell with the cataract’s fall, or became that eagle
Of piercing sight, or learnt the time of the fig-tree,
Not by time, but by breast-feather and leaf. [309]

‘The Cave-Drawing’ reveals Watkins’s view that the artist’s visionary understanding, learning, hermeneutic can be not only as speedy as its object, but also as fugitive and fortuitous. A ‘luck’ enables a singing of the light; so that precisely an arrested ‘mine/ Of mineral wonder’, a frozen crystallization, re-energizes art.

For us he made light sing in the dark of his line,
Arrested motion, all animals pierced and crystalline:
He, he alone had found it, his look trained down
By luck their lightning emergence. This was his mine
Of mineral wonder, making the skilled hand run,
A hunter, spearlike, outspeeding all ages begun,
At which we marvel. [149]

The arrest or training-down performed by visionary hermeneutics involves an act of celebration and compression, which is also an act of eternalization, as the resulting obscure crystal is rescued from time. In ‘Taliesin in Gower’:

Rhinoceros, bear and reindeer haunt the crawling glaciers of age
Beheld in the eye of the rock, where a javelin’d arm held stiff,
Withdrawn from the vision of flying colours, reveals, like script on a page,
The unpassing moment’s arrested glory, a life locked fast in the cliff. [185]

‘A life locked fast’: there is the emphasis on the crystallization of an organic unity, as in Jerusalem when Blake remarks that ‘he who wishes to see a Vision; a perfect Whole/ Must see it in its Minute Particulars; Organized’. Sinclair has spoken of the ‘brief glyph-notes’ from which the prose sections of his Lud Heat evolved; to Acker he commented: ‘for a long time you must train yourself to write in ways that are fast and accurate. You test yourself to see if you can make mental notes that mean something, represent something.’ The goal of crystallizing definition is really simplicity: ‘none so intellectual/ As the simplest truth of all.’ [401] Smith told Middles: ‘My problem’s knowing when to shut up on a song. I can’t put that bleeding pen down, so I hone it, try to get it as simple as possible. That is something I have learned over the years. I know how to edit.’ Academic practice – the administrative-bureaucratic method of cognition – can instead necessitate purposeless complexification, in line with a melancholy Puritan work ethic. Jerusalem foretold the reign of false activity:

And in their stead. intricate wheels invented. wheel without wheel:
To perplex youth in their outgoings, & to bind to labours in Albion
Of day & night the myriads of eternity that they may grind
And polish brass & iron hour after hour laborious task!
Kept ignorant of its use, that they might spend the days of wisdom
In sorrowful drudgery, to obtain a scanty pittance of bread:
In ignorance to view a small portion & think that All,
And call it Demonstration: blind to all the simple rules of life.

‘The Childhood of Hölderlin’ proposes, ‘What might the gift not bring to their holy light/ Who ask love only?’ [309]. Similarly, Kierkegaard’s distrust of his day’s professional and quasi-professional hermeneutics – ‘Christendom has got itself stuck in cleverness’ – made him see how ‘someone more than its match in cleverness’ could continue to work for wisdom: with an aim to ‘restore simplicity’. ‘The world has become just far too clever. The person who is to work effectively for the religious must get behind them – else he won’t be of much use.’

Nine years before, in 1839, Kierkegaard’s notes had drawn attention to the celebratory, even redemptive function of a backstage practice of crystallizing simplification. ‘All poetry is life’s glorification [Forklarelse] (i.e. transfiguration) through its clarification [Forklarelse] (through being clarified, illuminated, “unfolded”, etc.). It is really remarkable that language has this ambiguity.’ The perception held by Kierkegaard’s ‘poetry’ aims at the visionary register of Watkins’s ‘arrested glory’, or the radically strange, post-real ‘transfiguring after-clarity’ of The Anathemata, when life ‘looms up curiously exact and clear, more real by half than in the busy light as noses everywhere at stare-faced noon – more real…but more of Faëry by a long chalk’. This moonlit visionary perception or hermeneutic recalls the radically passive, detached attention proposed and practiced by Weil, which Finch likened to ‘”description”’, ‘when this word has lost all of its overtones of complete logical mapping. We are looking not for exactness but for description so detached, so penetrating, so obvious that it has the character of revelation.’ This ‘kind of seeing in which the ordinary becomes translucent’, is suggestive of the revelatory ‘holy light’ of ‘The Childhood of Hölderlin’.

What might the gift not bring to their holy light
Who ask love only? Sacrifice willed by the heavenly ones
Raises our god-pierced eyes. Our selves are nothing;
That which we seek is all. [309]

The lights over the ‘world-flats’ hover uncertainly, by fits & starts, ‘Wills-of-wisp’ so to say, anyway, thats the idea, - uncertainly & only now and again. Is that O.K.? [Jones to Watkins, 26 June 1960]   


Parenthetical numbering in this exposé relates to The Collected Poems of Vernon Watkins (Ipswich: Golgonooza Press, 2000). Other, source, texts:

Acker, Kathy, ‘Writing as Magic in London in Its Summer’ (1997)

Adams, Sam and Gwilym Rees Hughes, eds, Triskel Two: Essays on Welsh and Anglo-Welsh Literature (Llandybie: Davies, 1973)

Adorno, Theodor W., Notes to Literature: Volume One, ed. by Rolf Tiedemann (New York: Columbia University Press, 1991)

Allen, Diogenes, Three Outsiders: Pascal, Kierkegaard, Simone Weil (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 2006)

Blake, William, Complete Writings, ed. by Geoffrey Keynes (Oxford: OUP, 1972)
______.Jerusalem: The Emanation of the Giant Albion, ed. by Morton D. Paley (London: Tate Gallery, 1998)

Bond, Robert, ‘More than Museums: No Traveller Returns, by Vahni Capildeo’, Jacket, 26 (October 2004), here
______. Iain Sinclair (Cambridge: Salt, 2005)

Boulton, James T., ed., The Selected Letters of D. H. Lawrence (Cambridge: CUP, 1997)

Buber, Martin, Ecstatic Confessions: The Heart of Mysticism, ed. by Paul Mendes-Flohr (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1985)

Finch, Henry Leroy, Simone Weil and the Intellect of Grace, ed. by Martin Andic (New York: Continuum, 1999)

Ford, Simon, Hip Priest: The Story of Mark E. Smith and The Fall (London: Quartet, 2003)

Jones, David, The Anathemata: Fragments of an Attempted Writing (London: Faber and Faber, 1952)
______. Letters to Vernon Watkins, ed. by Ruth Pryor (Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 1976)

Kierkegaard, Søren, Papers and Journals: A Selection, trans. by Alastair Hannay (London: Penguin, 1996)

McLellan, David, Simone Weil: Utopian Pessimist (Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1989)

Middles, Mick & Mark E. Smith, The Fall (London: Omnibus, 2003)

Norris, Leslie, ed., Vernon Watkins: 1906-1967 (London: Faber and Faber, 1970)

Norvig, Gerda S., Dark Figures in the Desired Country: Blake’s Illustrations to The Pilgrim’s Progress (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1993)

Polk, Dora, Vernon Watkins and the Spring of Vision (Swansea: Davies, 1977)
Scholem, Gershom, Walter Benjamin: The Story of a Friendship, trans. by Harry Zohn (New York: New York Review Books, 2003)

Sinclair, Iain, Lud Heat/ Suicide Bridge (London: Vintage, 1995)
______. Lights Out for the Territory: 9 Excursions in the Secret History of London (London: Granta Books, 1997)
______. Landor’s Tower: or The Imaginary Conversations (London: Granta Books, 2001)
______. and Emma Matthews, White Goods (Uppingham: Goldmark, 2002)
______. The Firewall: Selected Poems 1979-2006 (Buckfastleigh: Etruscan Books, 2006)
______. The Kodak Mantra Diaries: October 1966 to June 1971, Beat Scene special issue, December 2006 [orig. publ. London: Albion Village Press, 1971]

Thomas, Dylan, Collected Poems: 1934-1953, ed. by Walford Davies and Ralph Maud (London: Phoenix, 2000)

Traherne, Thomas, Selected Writings, ed. by Dick Davis (Manchester: Carcanet, 1988)

Weil, Simone, Gravity and Grace, trans. by Emma Craufurd (London: Routledge, 1997)

Williams, Rowan, ‘Swansea’s Other Poet: Vernon Watkins and the Threshold between Worlds’, Welsh Writing in English, 8 (2003), 107-20


The Fall, Psykick Dance Hall (Eagle Records, 2000)
______. The Complete Peel Sessions 1978-2004 (Sanctuary Records, 2005) 
______. Reformation Post TLC (Slogan Records, 2007)

Next post: Karl Jaspers