I recently finished re-reading Merton’s The Seven Storey Mountain, one of my favourite books. Now, I am dipping into the multi-volume edition of his letters. All of the books are secondhand copies, and I am sure that some of them have their own stories to tell. My copy of the first volume once sat on the shelves of a branch of The New York Public Library at 455 Fifth Avenue in Mid-Manhattan.
The letters are collected according to theme. There’s a volume of correspondence covering Merton‘s close friendships; there’s one devoted to poetry, literature, and the vocation of writing; and yet another two that deal with religious experience. The fifth and final volume collects together his letters on “Times of Crisis”. I think I might start with that one.
Sad to hear that Deirdre Bair, who wrote the first major biography of Samuel Beckett, has died at the age of 84. Her work continues to exert an influence on contemporary Beckett scholarship, to say nothing of its inspiration to modern practitioners and performers of his writing. She also wrote a biographies of Simone deBeauvoir, Anaïs Nin, Carl Jung, Saul Steinberg and Al Capone. Most recently, she was the author of Parisian Lives: Samuel Beckett, Simone de Beauvoir and Me – a Memoir. She will be sorely missed.
The coronavirus has sparked a widespread cultural revaluation of writers who touched on themes of solitude in their work. Holland Carter takes a look at Henry David Thoreau’s WALDEN, and suggests that “there’s plenty to learn from standing still”. Source: The New York Times.
“Evidently salvation is not to be found by increasing the comforts and pleasures of life, medical treatments, artificial teeth and hair, breathing exercises, massage, and so forth; […] It is impossible to remedy this by any amusements, comforts, or powders – it can only be remedied by a change of life.”
— Leo Tolstoy, ‘What then must we do?’ (trans. Aylmer Maude)
“The most important thing in life is not happiness but meaning.”
— John M. Hull, Notes on Blindness
Set in the summer of 1983, Notes on Blindness
is a beautiful 2016 documentary that explores the life of
writer and theologian John M. Hull.
Based on his memoir, Touching the Rock,
the film offers a deeply personal account
of an academic who permanently loses his vision
while anticipating the birth of his son.
Filmmakers Peter Middleton and James Spinney
draw from audio cassettes recorded by Hull at the time,
which attempt to explain and understand
the experience of blindness
through vivid philosophical reflections
on everyday events and experiences. (more…)
“[W]hen he first arrived in Skjolden, Wittgenstein wasn’t exactly alone. He lodged in the village with the family of the local postmaster in one of the distinctive two-storey clapboard houses that huddle together where a fast-flowing river empties into the fjord. Skjolden today looks pretty much as it did in 1913, save for the village’s only hotel, a later arrival, where I stayed in a room with spectacular views down the V-shaped valley of Lustrafjord.
While he was not entirely free of human company in the village, Wittgenstein was at least able to eschew the sort of sophisticated society that tormented him in Cambridge (and his native Vienna, for that matter). In Skjolden, he wrote, “my day passes between logic, whistling, going for walks, and being depressed”. I suspect the highly convivial evening I spent eating a burger and drinking locally brewed craft beer in the hotel bar while guests watched English Premier League football would not have been to the philosopher’s taste.
It was during this first visit to Skjolden that Wittgenstein engaged a local builder to construct the house on Eidsvatnet, a little lake at the end of the fjord. It had three rooms: a small living room, a kitchen and bedroom. There was also an attic with a balcony. When Wittgenstein spent nine months at the house in 1936-37, working on what would become his second, posthumous masterpiece, Philosophical Investigations, villagers would see him in the distance pacing back and forth, pondering the complete overhaul of his views about the nature of logic and language.
Alois Pichler, who runs the Wittgenstein Archives at the University of Bergen, says Wittgenstein was “suffering a lot” during this sojourn — suffering that was partly philosophical (how, he wondered, do we unravel the confusions in which many of the discipline’s traditional problems consist?) and partly spiritual (how do we reckon with our own sins?). There was a meteorological dimension to this too. I was there in the mild, slightly damp Nordic summer. Wittgenstein endured an autumn and winter on the lake. By October of 1936, he was writing to a friend: “The weather has changed from marvellous to rotten. It rains like hell now.” The friend responded by sending Wittgenstein a sou’wester.
The only suffering I endured on my visit to “Austria” was caused by trying to keep up with Vatne as he powered up the narrow path with the aid of hiking poles. Once we reached the top, he showed me round the reconstructed house. There, I sat at a facsimile of Wittgenstein’s writing table by the living room window as I made an entry in the visitors’ book.
“We have tried to bring the house back to what it was,” Vatne says. He and his colleagues have succeeded spectacularly. Now that the house has been rebuilt on its glorious original site, the Wittgenstein Foundation plans to make it available to study groups and individual visitors. The foundation also has more ambitious plans to develop Skjolden as a destination for philosophically themed travel.”
This week, it was my great privilege to visit the John Muir National Historic Site in Martinez, California. The beautiful Muir family home was restored from dereliction by the National Park Service, and pays tribute to the father of modern environmental conservation.
“At some point in life the world’s beauty becomes enough. You don’t need to photograph, paint or even remember it. It is enough. No record of it needs to be kept and you don’t need someone to share it with or tell it to.”
“In 1983, the publisher Einaudi asked [Primo] Levi to translate Kafka’s The Trial. Infinite interpretations of The Trial have been offered; some underline the novel’s prophetic political character (modern bureaucracy as absolute evil) or its theological dimension (the court as the unknown God) or its biographical meaning (condemnation as the illness from which Kafka believed himself to suffer). It has been rarely noted that this book, in which law appears solely in the form of trial, contains a profound insight into the nature of law, which, contrary to common belief, is not so much rule as it is judgment and, therefore, trial. But if the essence of the law – of every law – is the trial, if all right (and morality that is contaminated by it) is only tribunal right, then execution and transgression, innocence and guilt, obedience and disobedience all become indistinct and lose their importance. “The court wants nothing from you. It welcomes you when you come; it releases you when you go.” The ultimate end of the juridical regulation is to produce judgment; but judgment aims neither to punish not to extol, nether to establish justice nor to prove the truth. Judgment is in itself the end and this, it has been said, constitutes its mystery, the mystery of the trial.”
— Giorgio Agamben, Remnants of Auschwitz: The Witness and the Archive.