I thought I might be an academic. I read PPE at Oxford and was very interested in Marx, Wittgenstein, Habermas – theories of knowledge and praxis. I applied to do an MPhil, but unfortunately I was busted for drugs before I sat my finals and went into something of a tailspin. I would’ve been a crap academic anyway – like most novelists I’m only really interested in being interested. When I left university I took a job as a driver/labourer for a builder in Stoke Newington. I lasted about six months and was about to get a raise when – feeling my Tolstoyan Pierre moment ending – I threw it over. A succession of deadend jobs followed, strung together by the cartoons I published in the New Statesman and other small left-wing periodicals. The only proper suit-and-tie job I’ve had in my life was the two years in the late 1980s when I ran a small corporate publishing company. I even had a Ford Sierra! Actually, I quite enjoyed it, and learned about every element of the publishing process, from copy editing to layout to print. I wrote my first book, The Quantity Theory of Insanity, in the early mornings before the rest of the staff came in for the day. [Read More]
Among all twentieth-century thinkers, Ludwig Wittgenstein stands out as the one whose life fascinates almost as much as his work does. Even the life of Martin Heidegger, with his controversial Nazi connections and his later attempt to live the authentic life of a peasant, looks dull and suburban by comparison. Wittgenstein was born in 1889 into one of Austria’s richest families. His father was a self-made industrialist who built his fortune in iron and steel; his mother came from a Prague Jewish family. Ludwig was the youngest of eight siblings – he had three sisters and four brothers. Tragedy hit the family again and again. Three of Ludwig’s brothers committed suicide. The fourth, Paul, was a concert pianist who lost his right arm in the First World War and later commissioned works for the left hand from Ravel, Prokofiev, Paul Hindemith and Erich Korngold. (Music figured significantly in the family’s life: Brahms, Mahler and Richard Strauss were among the composers who heard their works performed at the Wittgenstein house in Vienna.) Ludwig originally studied engineering, first in Berlin and then in Manchester, where he became interested in the design of aeroplane propellors. At this time he developed a deep interest in mathematics and its foundations. Having studied the ground-breaking works of philosophy of mathematics by Bertrand Russell and Gottlob Frege, he visited Frege in Jena who advised him to study with Russell in Cambridge. Wittgenstein turned up, unannounced, at Russell’s rooms in Trinity College in October 1911, and discussed philosophy with Russell regularly over the next few months. Russell wrote to Ottoline Morrell that his “Austrian engineer” was “rather good” but “very argumentative and tiresome”. But Russell was sufficiently impressed to accept Wittgenstein as a student at Cambridge in 1912. Wittgenstein had a huge impact on the intellectual scene there, but throughout his life he claimed to dislike Cambridge and preferred to spend time writing and thinking in remote, isolated places (Norway and Ireland were favourites).
Thomas Bernhard is a kind of figurehead for many authors, I think. I’m reminded of what Henry Rollins said of Mark E Smith in a documentary about The Fall:
He really is that guy you really hoped you could be. If you were in a band, you really don’t want to care what people think, but you do. And you really want to crank out a record every nine months, but you can’t. And you’d love to keep surprising people and baffling your critics by every third album turning out your best music.
Bernhard’s reclusiveness from the literary scene, his intransigence, the barbed acceptance speeches he gave for literary prizes, make him an exemplar. He just doesn’t care what the literary world thinks. At the same time, he writes and writes, one masterpiece following on the heels of another. (more…)
“In Turin on 3rd January, 1889, Friedrich Nietzsche steps out of the doorway of number six, Via Carlo Alberto. Not far from him, the driver of a hansom cab is having trouble with a stubborn horse. Despite all his urging, the horse refuses to move, whereupon the driver loses his patience and takes his whip to it. Nietzsche comes up to the throng and puts an end to the brutal scene, throwing his arms around the horse’s neck, sobbing. His landlord takes him home, he lies motionless and silent for two days on a divan until he mutters the obligatory last words, and lives for another ten years, silent and demented, cared for by his mother and sisters. We do not know what happened to the horse.” (more…)
I’m very excited to share a beautiful and concise ‘graphic essay’ on the work of Austrian writer Thomas Bernhard. The essay was written, drawn, and designed by Espen Terjesen, an illustrator, cartoonist, pixel artist, teacher/lecturer, and writer working in Bergen, Norway. In addition to the original essay, Terjesen has also been kind enough to provide me with an English translation.
Terjesen’s work not only presents themes from Bernhard’s writing with striking, icy accompaniments, but offers a playful approach to the traditional academic essay. By combining elements of literary criticism with the graphic novel, Terjesen’s reading of Bernhard becomes, in itself, a creative act. What we are left with is something both thought-provoking and accessible.
To see the strip in its original format, please find links to Terjesen’s essay at the bottom of this post. In its complete form, the essay includes a number of footnotes and recommended reading. You can click any of the images to enlarge them. Enjoy! (more…)
About the Conference
Beckett and Modernism
The Second Annual Conference of the Samuel Beckett Society
The year 2016 will mark the 40th anniversary of the Journal of Beckett Studies (JOBS), founded in 1976 by James Knowlson and John Pilling. To celebrate this occasion, we are proud to announce both of them as keynote speakers at the second conference of the Samuel Beckett Society, dedicated to Beckett and Modernism. Sometimes referred to as ‘The Last Modernist’, Beckett has also been situated within the postmodern canon. After a long critical debate, the term ‘modernism’ has recently been reframed by a vibrant field of what is sometimes called the ‘new modernist studies’, and the term ‘Late Modernism’ seems to be gaining currency in Beckett studies. (more…)
“I first saw Wittgenstein in the Michaelmas term of 1938, my first term at Cambridge. At a meeting of the Moral Science Club, after the paper for the evening was read and the discussion started, someone began to stammer a remark. He had extreme difficulty in expressing himself and his words were unintelligible to me. I whispered to my neighbor: ‘Who is that?’: he replied, ‘Wittgenstein.’”
So begins Ludwig Wittgenstein: A Memoir, by Norman Malcolm, a student of Wittgenstein’s at Cambridge and his lifelong friend. It is a small book, published over half a century ago, but its influence would be hard to overstate. Not many philosophical books have created as many disciples. If philosophers were evangelists (and some are), Malcolm’s memoir would be the Gospel of John, a strange, beautiful little book that you leave in hotel rooms and hand out door to door. I read it again this week for the first time in many years, and it was still as gripping as I remembered it. What accounts for its lasting appeal? (more…)