Today is the birthday of American singer, composer and civil rights activist Nina Simone, who was born in 1933. No matter how many times I hear her recording of the Anthony Newley and Leslie Bricusse song ‘Feeling Good’ (recorded as ‘Feelin’ Good’), I never fail to be moved by the way she sings ‘Sleep in peace when day is done, that’s what I mean’.
Spent yesterday evening reading Thomas Merton‘s autobiography, The Seven Storey Mountain. Still a young man, he has lost his mother and his father to illness. With no fixed home, he moved from his birthplace in France to America, then back to France, then to England, and now to America. His attention to detail is wonderful, whether describing middle-class English life or American cinemagoers enjoying Charlie Chaplin‘s Modern Times. He is becoming increasingly disillusioned with his literary career, and there are early signs that he will consider monastic life. I’m looking forward to returning to the book as soon as I can: rich in everyday details, it’s a remarkable document of early-twentieth-century life.
I am becoming increasingly fascinated with life writing for its potential to blend historical record, philosophical observation, and literary style. I’m thinking here not only of Merton, but figures like St Augustine, Henri Amiel, and one of my all-time favourites, Jules Renard. Samuel Beckett‘s poignant and dryly humorous letters have a similar quality.
In a recent interview with Neil Badmington, I was reminded of the profound power and solace that that life writing can provide. Badmington reveals that ‘The Mourning Diary is the posthumous text by Barthes to which I return more than any other. Every time I revisit it, I’m struck by the desperate, impossible tension in its brief sighs of sorrow’.
Overcast, but bright. The marine layer has moved in over the city. Watching political commentators reflect on the unfolding of the Trump administration—particularly impressed by the insights of MSNBC reporters Rachel Maddow, Katie Tur, Joy Reid, Chris Hayes, Kasie Hunt and Chuck Todd.
Robert Cohen has written Franz Kafka‘s ‘Budget Guide to Florence’, filed under The Paris Review‘s ‘Department of Tomfoolery’. It includes a vital piece of Kafkaesque advice: ‘In the struggle between one’s self and the world, bet on the world.’
Meeting friends for coffee, and hoping to find some time to read Thomas Merton.
Beautiful light today. Went running along the water’s edge.
Karl Marx‘s life has always fascinated me. When I hear his name, I imagine him restlessly working in the reading rooms of the British Museum, juggling his money problems and worrying about his family. While Marx is acknowledged as a titan of philosophical thought, it’s the relatable, everyday details that transfix me. Aware of this interest, my good friend Anindya Raychaudhuri has sent me an article by Benjamin Kunkel for The Nation.
Kunkel points out a fundamental problem for Marx biographers: “Biographies are typically narratives of the lives of important figures who loom large against the backdrop of history. Yet Marxism […] warned from the start against reading the past as the affair of solitary individuals rather than antagonistic classes.” In an essay that comprises biography, commentary, and analysis, Kunkel traces a history of Marx biographies through the decades. I won’t be giving up my romantic, and perhaps sentimental, image of Marx anytime soon, but Kunkel’s piece is an important reminder of the political and ideological roles that biographical writing can play.
Bright morning. Watching American news broadcasts. Currently reading Thomas Merton‘s journals, and was reminded that he entered the monastic order during the Second World War (c. 1941).
Attended a fascinating talk by Professor Chris Weedon yesterday evening at the Centre for Critical and Cultural Theory at Cardiff University. The talk was entitled ‘The Cultural Politics of Memory: the Case of GDR’, and explored what often gets forgotten in accounts of the German Democratic Republic.
In an insightful piece for The New Yorker, Jia Tolentino revisits Ivanka Trump‘s 2009 self-help book The Trump Card. Tolentino observes: ‘Ivanka’s aesthetic differences from her father are often parsed as political differences, and she has made the most of such misperceptions.’
Michiko Kakutani has listed George Orwell‘s Nineteen Eighty-Four as a must-read for 2017.