How the practice of criticism can offer a way to rethink our assumptions about truth, history, and human nature

What exactly do we mean by the term ‘criticism’?

Catherine Belsey, Criticism (Profile Books, 2016)
Catherine Belsey, Criticism (Profile Books, 2016)

The publishers asked me that and I didn’t give them an answer! It’s a fair question but I’m uneasy about definitions. They’re a bit like written constitutions: they tie you down and exclude new possibilities. Definitions demarcate a legitimate area of activity – and close off other options.

In a general way, criticism is reflection on the stories, plays and poems we read (or see, or listen to). But in detail, it varies. For some people, it’s effectively a source of consumer advice: this film is worth going to; that novel is worth buying. Others might prefer to think about what differentiates genres, or the effects of different media. Does a play tell a story in the same way as a novel? Do novels tend to works as films, say?

Then there’s fiction as a record of the way we think about the world, or our ancestors once thought about it. Criticism offers access to cultural analysis and cultural history.

My own current preoccupation is pleasure. Why is fiction so enjoyable, even when the stories it tells are unhappy ones? Why does tragedy attract audiences? Other people have other concerns: it can all be criticism. (more…)

To celebrate the birthday of Fyodor Dostoevsky, I speak to film and television actress Vera Graziadei about her acclaimed one-woman performance of one of his most overlooked works

What first attracted you to Dostoevsky’s work?

Promotional image for Alexander Markov's production of Nameless Nobody, starring Vera Graziadei
Promotional image for Alexander Markov’s production of Nameless Nobody, starring Vera Graziadei

Nietzsche once said that Dostoevsky was “the only person who has ever taught me anything about psychology.” I became obsessed with Dostoevsky’s work during my early twenties when I read The Idiot, a masterpiece which became for me not only a source of psychological insight, but also of philosophical thought and spirituality – my other passions, aside from theatre and literature. He is one of those rare writers whose influence extends far beyond his immediate discipline.

It was fascinating for me as a student of Empiricist philosophy, who was dissatisfied with the rational positivist approach taught to me at LSE [London School of Economics and Political Science], to dwell on the “Shakespeare of the lunatic asylum”, and have a chance to explore the darker and more irrational sides of human nature. It was a revelation to realise that Dostoevsky’s philosophical thought is at the root of Existentialism, a branch of philosophy that resonates with me very strongly. And to find out that most existentialist thinkers, including Sarte and Camus, have at some stage addressed the issues raised by Fyodor Mihailovich. (more…)

Christopher John Müller on his new book and his English translation of Günther Anders, a contemporary of Adorno, Benjamin, and Arendt
Günther Anders
Günther Anders

How did you come to discover the work of Günther Anders?

I was alerted to a translated essay from the 1930s called the ‘Pathology of Freedom’, whilst writing my PhD thesis in 2012. I had never heard of its author, Günther Stern, and was captivated by the work, a brilliant existential analysis of the experience of freedom.

When looking up the author, I was surprised to learn that he was connected to canonical authors and thinkers I liked to study – Stern (who assumed the pseudonym Anders) was the first husband of Hannah Arendt, a cousin of Walter Benjamin, a student of Husserl and Heidegger, friends with Ernst Bloch and Herbert Marcuse, and connected to Berthold Brecht, Georg Lukács, Literary Modernists, the Frankfurt School thinkers – the list goes on and on and on. (more…)

The author talks about his new book, his influences, and his fascination with modern urban spaces

What made you choose the title “Imaginary Cities”?

Darran Anderson, Imaginary Cities
Darran Anderson, Imaginary Cities

I had more romantic or esoteric titles in mind but it had to be something simple to give, what is a fairly sprawling and extremely rambling text, a sense of coherence. I’ve always liked books with minimalist titles; The Castle, The Plague, Notes from Underground, The Tin Drum, The Lottery. They seem far more evocative to me than The Lighthouse-Keeper’s Daughter-type titles you see a lot. At the same time, my intention was to write something that isn’t self-contained; a book that somehow spills out of its pages and into the world. Reading Susan Sontag’s On Photography, I was initially frustrated that she hadn’t included the photographs she was writing about. Later I came to realise this was a godsend as it sends you out searching and you end up finding entire worlds you didn’t know about – Diane Arbus, Roman Vishniac, Weegee, Vivian Maier. I tried to do the same with Imaginary Cities. I wanted to send people out looking for Sant’Elia or Chernikhov or whoever. It would be as much a map as a book.   (more…)

Joseph Anderton’s compelling new study explores the role of creaturely life in Beckett’s post-war prose and drama

Joseph Anderton, Beckett's Creatures: Art of Failure After the Holocaust (Bloomsbury, 2016)
Joseph Anderton, Beckett’s Creatures: Art of Failure After the Holocaust (Bloomsbury, 2016)
In the immediate aftermath of the Second World War, Samuel Beckett volunteered with the Irish Red Cross on the European continent. With a strong grasp several languages, the writer was assigned the role of driver and translator in the devastated Normandy city of Saint-Lô. During this time, while still stationed in the city, Beckett submitted a record of his experiences to Ireland’s national broadcaster, Radio Telefis Éireann (RTÉ). It was entitled ‘The Capital of the Ruins’. This unaired report on a landscape of wounded civilian casualties and collapsed buildings is the starting point for Joseph Anderton’s compelling new study, Beckett’s Creatures: Art of Failure After the Holocaust. [Read More]

This is an excerpt from a review of Joseph Anderton’s Beckett’s Creatures: Art of Failure After the Holocaust (Bloomsbury, 2016), published in Studies in Theatre and Performance(October, 2016).

A new title refines and condenses more than a decade of Jean-Michel Rabaté’s thinking on Beckett

Jean-Michel Rabaté , Think, Pig! Beckett at the Limit of the Human (Fordham University Press, 2016)
Jean-Michel Rabaté , Think, Pig! Beckett at the Limit of the Human (Fordham University Press, 2016)
Glancing at the title of Jean-Michel Rabaté’s excellent new book, you might be forgiven for thinking it was some kind of self-help manual from the shelf of tough love. The author clears up any confusion: “This is not a self-help book”, he writes; rather it undermines such projects of affirmation by “questioning the humanism that we take for granted”. Through the motif of the “animal”, Samuel Beckett’s prose and drama re-examines what it means to be human in the aftermath of the Second World War. Think, Pig! (Pozzo’s demoralizing order to Lucky in Waiting for Godot) refines and condenses more than a decade of Rabaté’s thinking on Beckett. The book’s focus is ethical and interrogative, but is peppered with a lively and inventive sense of humour. [Read More]

This extract is from my review of Jean-Michel Rabaté’s Think, Pig! Beckett at the Limit of the Human, published in the Times Literary Supplement, 14 October 2016.

Verso publishes a new anniversary edition of Thomas More’s radical vision

This year marks the 500th anniversary of Thomas More’s Utopia. Despite its advanced age, More’s compelling vision of a perfect society remains a quintessentially modern aspiration. Utopia is hailed as ‘astonishingly radical’ by contemporary political thinkers, and the text continues to offer inspiration and renewal for writers, artists, and filmmakers.

The perfect island of Utopia is a dream of societal harmony and order, not unlike the Biblical garden paradise or Plato’s Republic. More’s early modern work is considered a canonical text of Western literature and culture, providing a template to which we might one day aspire. But Utopia is also a perplexing and troubling text. More’s explorer protagonist, Raphael Hythloday, is presented as a companion of Vespucci on his voyage to the New World, which binds the utopian dream to the European invasion and colonization of America. It is no coincidence that there are slaves on the island of Utopia. Despite its associations with liberal thought and communal happiness, the island of Utopia has a rigid societal hierarchy and strictly-regulated communal laws. (more…)

I talk to Jan Wilm about the Nobel winner. He shares his approach to Coetzee’s writing, and the first two novels that sparked his enthusiasm
J. M. Coetzee
J. M. Coetzee

When did you first encounter the works of J. M. Coetzee?

There seem to me to exist two very common encounters with the literary texts that change one’s life in one’s salad days. Encounter one is raw, perhaps pure, immediate and emotional, when one feels the literary text entering very deeply into what used to be called one’s soul. There, it seizes one, lifts one up and sets one on a course that will retrospectively seem like the right path. Encounter two is marked by bewilderment, lack of understanding, a sense of loss even, being shaken at the feeling that one has failed to taste from the greatness one was sure to find. (more…)