Michelle Boulous Walker on the difficulty of practicing philosophy in modern institutions, and an alternative approach that might encourage a more careful and attentive relation with the world
Could you tell me a little bit about yourself, and what inspired you to write Slow Philosophy?
I’m a philosopher who works in the European tradition. I have a background in political theory and an ongoing commitment to feminist politics. I’ve been teaching for some years now, and this has provided me with the opportunity to re-read key texts with my students.
For example, I’ve read Plato’s Symposium and Phaedrus countless times with both undergraduate and graduate students. The joy of re-reading is what first alerted me to the power of slow reading because for me slow philosophy is partly about the quality of attention that comes through repeated engagements with a work or text. Each time I’d return to Plato’s dialogues I’d uncover new possibilities – new meanings that were possible partly because of the new frames I was bringing to his work. (more…)
Lorraine Sim discusses how the women of modernism allow us to reimagine the ordinary and the everyday
What inspired you to write Ordinary Matters?
The idea developed from my first book, Virginia Woolf: the Patterns of Ordinary Experience. Towards the end of that project I realised there was much more that I wanted to explore, both in terms of the concept of the everyday and its applications to modernism and cultural histories of early twentieth-century modernity. I remember reading H.D.’s fascinating wartime memoir, The Gift, while I was working on my book on Woolf, and seeing some of Lee Miller’s photographs of London during the Blitz around the same time, and I felt I needed to extend my exploration of the ordinary to a broader range of women writers, artists and contexts. The final chapter of Virginia Woolf looked at what I termed the ‘ethics of the ordinary’ in her oeuvre. This idea, of the ways in which the ordinary functions as a site of value (be it personal, social, moral or political), really fascinated me, and I wanted to explore it in a more comprehensive way. Also, many canonical and contemporary theories on the topic view the everyday negatively, or as requiring radical transformation, and I felt that this was a critical habit or commonplace that itself required interrogation. (more…)
Kathryn Simpson discusses the life and work of one of literary modernism’s most distinguished innovators
What motivated you to write Woolf: A Guide for the Perplexed?
I feel very passionate about the work of Virginia Woolf because of the ways it engages with some of the ‘big’ questions about self and identity, experience and relationships, politics, cultural pressures and the impact of a changing world. She, like other modernist writers and artists, attempted to convey what it meant and felt like to live through a period of dramatic change (politically, socially, economically and in terms of technological developments) and to find new forms and techniques to represent a new sense of modernity.
How did you discover Virginia Woolf’s writing?
I discovered her writing as part of my undergraduate degree at the University of Birmingham and then chose to write on her work for my PhD alongside other early twentieth-century women writers (Gertrude Stein, H.D, Radclyffe Hall and Djuna Barnes). (more…)
Michael Lackey on the popularity of the biographical novel, and what it can tell us about the relationship between literature, history and truth
What motivated you to write The American Biographical Novel?
Through my reading of biographical novels, I noticed a shift in the nature of literary truth. In Heart of Darkness, Joseph Conrad illuminates the colonial mentality that enabled Europeans to plunder Africa and to abuse Africans with impunity. Conrad represents that mentality through Kurtz, and as the narrator says, “all Europe contributed to the making of Kurtz.” In essence, if we want to understand the European mentality that justified colonization and its horrific outcomes, we can look to Kurtz for some answers. But with the rise of postmodernism, there has been growing skepticism about the traditional literary symbol.
Put simply, postmodernists question the value of an overarching truth claim, because they realize that someone constructed that truth for an ideological or political reason. This approach to truth impacted the traditional literary symbol, so a postmodernist could easily say: “Look, Joe, you constructed the character of Kurtz in order to promote your own ideological agenda. Therefore, I don’t see any reason why I should consider a character like Kurtz as symbolic of the European mind.”It is my contention that biographical novelists were becoming increasingly aware of the problems with the traditional literary symbol, but they also did not want to get rid of the literary symbol, because they realized that it could be effectively used to expose the structures and conditions of oppression. (more…)
Victor Brombert discusses how literature reflects changing ideas about life, death, and the condition of mortality
What motivated you to write the book?
Probably it was an early childhood and adolescent awareness of our mortal condition, of human vulnerability in general: the death in infancy of my younger sister (I was seven years old), the assault on human life and dignity by totalitarian regimes that forced families like mine into multiple exiles, and later the experience of war and the Nazi occupation of France, our escape to the United States on an overcrowded freighter zigzagging for six weeks across the Atlantic to elude German U-boats, my joining the American army and surviving the Omaha Beach landing and the Battle of the Bulge — perhaps above all the growing belief that all valuable human achievements, especially in literature and the arts, were a defiance of death.
Your subtitle traces a history between Leo Tolstoy and Primo Levi. What is significant about these two writers?
It is a long trajectory between Tolstoy and Primo Levi. The distance and the contrast tell a story. Whereas Tolstoy in The Death of Ivan Ilych is concerned with an exemplary individual, his morally and spiritually empty life, and his ultimate salvational epiphany at the hour of death, Primo Levi by contrast is dealing with a collective moral and political context in which private salvation is no longer thinkable. The trajectory as well as the authors along the way tell the story of the 20th century as that of a growing awareness of a collective tragedy. (more…)
Francis O’Gorman describes how his tendency to worry led him to investigate its cultural and literary origins. We talk about Shakespeare, Sherlock Holmes stories, and the prominence of ‘worry’ in everyday life
What motivated you to write the book?
There’s a very short answer to that: I’m a worrier and I wanted to think about what that meant. Several people have asked me why a literary critic would write such a book, and whether I am merely using literature as a kind of case study, as representation. But for me being a literary critic means reading as intently and alertly as possible. And that includes, where necessary, reading the patterns of one’s own mind.
What exactly is ‘worry’, and why is it so difficult to pin down?
I don’t think that there is an ‘exactly’ in relation to worry. In the book, my topic is being fearful about the turn of ordinary things. Worry—those questions in the mind that mostly start with ‘what if …’—is a way of trying to take some control over a future that we don’t know but would like to. Worrying isn’t a ‘mental health’ book in that it doesn’t concern conditions of mind that would even vaguely interest a clinician. And I don’t write about grave worries—including worries about the grave. I’m interested, rather, in the mundane, in the meaning of low level bothers about what might happen next. (more…)
I speak to author and academic Lauren Elkin about women walking in the city, and the pioneering writers who influenced her
I wonder if you could say a little bit about your title. What exactly is a “Flâneuse”? And what motivated you to write the book?
A flâneuse is quite basically the female conjugation of a “flâneur,” or a kind of idly curious stroller in the city, a man-about-town. As Baudelaire wrote: “The crowd is his domain, just as the air is the bird’s, and water that of the fish. His passion and his profession is to merge with the crowd.”
The flâneur is this really resonant archetype in our culture; you come across it really frequently when magazines or other brands (most recently Hermès) want to lend a kind of worldly, nonchalant, urban intellectualism to their enterprise, or to whatever it is they’re selling. However – and this is going to answer your second question as well – this figure is usually male, or male-identified; only men have historically (and this is arguably still true today) had that kind of access to the city, where they could walk around observing and “merge with the crowd”; women have been, or are, generally too conspicuous in the city, we’re viewed either as a threat or as someone who needs protection; we’re told to smile, our appearances are commented on. Or, for women who don’t conform to some idea of youth or beauty, made to feel functionally invisible. In neither case do we have the kind of neutrality the flâneur needs to have. So the “flâneuse” is a figure who’s kind of impossible to conjugate. (more…)
“As a literary structure, the recounted walk encourages digression and association, in contrast to the stricter form of a discourse or the chronological progression of a biographical or historical narrative. A century and a half later, James Joyce and Virginia Woolf would, in trying to descrive the workings of the mind, develop the style called stream of consciousness. In their novels Ulysses and Mrs. Dalloway, the jumble of thoughts and recollections of their protagonists unfolds best during walks. This kind of unstructured, associative thinking is the kind most often connected to walking, and it suggests walking as not an analytical but an improvisational act. Rousseau’s Reveries [of the Solitary Walker] are one of the first portraits of this relationship between thinking and walking.”
— From Rebecca Solnit, Wanderlust: A History of Walking