Archive for the ‘ Bookshelf ’ Category

The Immoralist by André Gide

  • Discussing the decline of Latin civilization, I described artistic culture as rising like a secretion to the surface of a people, at a first a symptom of plethora, the superabundance of health, then immediately hardening, calcifying, opposing any true contact of the mind with nature, concealing beneath the persistent appearance of life the diminution of life, forming a rind in which the hindered spirit languishes, withers and dies. Finally, carrying my notion to its conclusion, I said that Culture, born of life, ultimately kills life.
  • ‘You have to let other people be right,’ was his answer to their insults. ‘It consoles them for not being anything else.’
  • ‘You’re burning what you once worshipped,’ he said. “which is a good thing. You’re catching fire late, but that means there’s all the more to feed the flames with. I’m not yet sure I understand you completely; you interest me. It isn’t easy for me to talk, but I’d like to talk to you. Have dinner with me tonight.’
  • ‘Are you afraid of getting drunk?’

    ‘Oh, quite the contrary! I happen to regard sobriety as a more powerful intoxication – in which I keep my lucidity.’

    ‘While you serve drinks to others?’

    He smiled. ‘I can’t ask everyone to reflect my virtues. It’s enough to discover my vices in them.’

  • ‘If only these people around us could be convinced. But most of them believe they get nothing good out of themselves except by constraint; they’re only pleased with themselves when they’re under duress. If there’s one thing each of them claims not to resemble it’s…himself. Instead he sets up a model, then imitates it; he doesn’t even choose the model – he accepts it ready-made. Yet I’m sure there’s something more to be read in a man. People dare not – they dare not turn the page. The laws of mimicry – I call them the laws of fear. People are afraid to find themselves alone, and don’t find themselves at all. I hate all this moral agoraphobia – it’s the worst kind of cowardice. You can’t create something without being alone. But who’s trying to create here? What seems different in yourself: that’s the one rare thing that you possess, the one thing which gives each of us his worth; and that’s just what we try to suppress. We imitate. And we claim to love life.’
  • ‘Why,’ I asked, ‘ since you live your wisdom, why don’t you write your memoirs? – or simply,’ I went on, seeing him smile, ‘what you remember of your travels?’

    ‘Because I don’t want to remember,’ he answered. ‘If I did, I might keep the future from happening by letting the past encroach upon it. I create each hour’s newness by forgetting yesterday completely. Having been happy is never enough for me. I don’t believe in dead things. What’s the difference between no longer being and never having been?’

  • ‘If only our wretched brains could really embalm memories! But memories don’t keep well. The delicate ones wither, the voluptuous ones rot, the most delicious ones are the most dangerous later on. The things you repent were delicious once…’

    Another long silence, and then he went on: ‘Regret, remorse, repentance – they’re all former joys, reversed. I don’t like looking back, and I leave my past behind me the way a bird leaves its shady tree in order to fly away. I tell you, Michel, each joy still awaits us, but must find the bed empty, must be the only one, so that we come to it like a widower. Oh Michel, each joy is like manna in the desert, which spoils from one day to the next; or like water from the fountain of Ameles which Plato says no pitcher could preserve. Let each moment carry away whatever it has brought.’

  • …I was filled with a hideous melancholy, with hatred of Menalque’s cynical joy; I wanted it to be false, – I tried to deny it. I grew angry at having been unable to answer him; angry at having spoken words that made him doubt my love, my happiness. And I clung to my doubtful happiness, my ‘fireside happiness’ as he called it; I could not protect it from my anxiety, but I told myself that anxiety was the food of love.

Satin Island by Tom McCarthy

  • People need foundation myths, some imprint of year zero, a bolt that secures the scaffolding that in turn holds fast the entire architecture of reality, of time: memory-chambers and oblivion cellars, walls between eras, hallways that sweep us on towards the end-days and the coming whatever-it-is. We see things shroudedly, as through a veil, an over-pixellated screen. When the shapeless plasma takes on form and resolution, like a fish approaching us through murky waters or an image looming into view from noxious liquid in a darkroom, when it begins to coalesce into a figure that’s discernible, if ciphered, we can say: This is it, stirring, looming, even if it isn’t really, if it’s all just ink-blots.
  • Claude Levi-Stauss, Tristes Tropiques, This leads him to identify a ‘double-bind’ to which all anthropologists, and anthropology itself, are, by their very nature, prey: the ‘purity’ they crave is no more than a state in which all frames of comprehension, of interpretation and analysis, are lacking; once these are all brought to bear, the mystery that drew the anthropologist towards his subject in the first place vanishes.
  • If it was a video-file that I was trying to watch, then at the bottom of the screen there’d be that line, that bar that slowly fills itself in – twice: once in bold red and, at the same time, running ahead of that, in fainter grey; the fainter section, of course, has to remain in advance of the bold section, and od the cursor showing which part of the video you’re actually watching at a given moment; if the cursor and the red section catch up, then the buffering sets in again. Staring at this bar, losing myself in it just as with the circle, I was granted a small revelation: it dawned on me that what I was actually watching was nothing less than the skeleton, laid bare, of time or memory itself. Not our computers’ time and memory, but our own. This was its structure. We require experience to stay ahead, if only by a nose, of our consciousness of experience – if for no other reason than that the latter needs to make sense of the former, to (as Peyman would say) narrate it both to others and ourselves, and, for this purpose, has to be fed with constant, unsorted supply of fresh sensations and events. But when the narrating cursor catches right up with the rendering one, when occurrences and situations don’t replenish themselves quickly enough for the awareness they sustain, when, no matter how fast they regenerate, they’re instantly devoured by a mouth too voracious to let anything gather or accrue unconsumed before it, then we find ourselves jammed, stuck in limbo: we can enjoy neither experience nor consciousness of it. Everything becomes buffering, and buffering becomes everything.
  • I started by saying that the Contemporary was a suspect term. Better to speak, I proposed, of a moving ratio of modernity: as we straddle the dual territories of a present that, despite its directional drive, is slipping backwards into past, and a future that will always remain notional, we’re carried through a constantly mutating space in which modernity itself is no more than a credo in the process of becoming ‘dated’, or at least historical. The term epoch, I informed my listeners, originally meant ‘point of view’, as in the practice of astronomy; only later, I said, did it start being used to organize the world into fixed periods. This latter use, I argued, was misguided. Instead of making periodic claims which, since they can’t be empirically justified, only produce an infinite regress of detail and futile quibbling over boundaries and definitions, we should return to understanding epoch as a place from which one looks at things. From that perspective, I went on – the perspective of shifting perspectives – we can still pose the question of the difference introduced by one day, one year, one decade, in relation to another. To understand that question fully, though (I concluded), what we require is not contemporary anthropology but rather an anthropology of The Contemporary.

The Woman Destroyed by Simone de Beauvoir

The Age of Discretion

  • André. He was growing more and more morose. Vatrin was the only friend he would see, and yet he was cross when I asked him to lunch. ‘He bores me.’ Everyone bores him. And what about me? A great while ago he said to me, ‘So long as I have you I can never be unhappy.’ And he does not look happy. He no longer loves me as he did. What does love mean to him, these days? He clings to me as he might cling to anything he has been used to for a long while, but I no longer bring him any kind of happiness. Perhaps it is unfair, but I resent it: he accepts this indifference – he has settled down into it.
  • I continually called his face, his voice, to mind, and I blew on the fire of the furious resentment that was burning me up. It was like one of those illnesses in which you manufacture your own suffering – every breath tears your lungs to pieces, an yet you are forced to breathe.

 The Woman Destroyed

  • I reddened. I felt ill. Maurice has never sat in judgment against me: he was my refuge. And here I was before him, pleading guilty. What utter misery!
  • When I am with Maurice I cannot prevent myself from feeling I am in front of a judge. He thinks things about me that he does not tell me: it makes my head swim. I used to see myself so clearly through his eyes. Indeed I saw myself only through his eyes – too flattering a picture, perhaps, but one in which I recognized myself. Now I ask myself, Whom does he see? Does he think me mean-minded, jealous, blabbing and even disloyal because I make enquiries behind his back? It’s unfair.
  • Calculated frankness

Unforbidden Pleasures by Adam Phillips


  • All our ideals for ourselves – all our aims and aspirations and beliefs – are by definition restrictive. And that is their point and purpose.
  • We may do what we do because of what we have to give up in order to do it.
  • To forbid something is to make it unforgettable.
  • At its best and and at its worst to forbid is to coerce attention and to guarantee interest.
  • Doing forbidden things ≠ no control
    Doing unforbidden things ≠ no control;
    IT IS the idea of being in control that we have created.
  • Socialism ≠ Sociability
    The retreat of the individual into the common man; narrowed minds, stunted growth; sanitisation; taught to remember everything except our pleasures, this is where art comes in.
  • Wilde, ‘All art is immoral’; it is in art that we recover our real pleasures, everything that morality forces us to renounce.
  • Some pleasures are forbidden because otherwise our lives will be intolerable.
  • We need to find out if we can replace what we should enjoy with what we do
  • Ethics is prophetic; by telling us what our lives should be like, morality often claims to be telling us that our lives are really like (even though we are often left feeling that we are failing to live our lives as they really are).
  • Walter Pater, ‘Hard and abstract moralities are yielding to a more exact estimate of the subtlety and complexity of our life.’ (The subtlety and complexity of our [modern] lives are not suitable to hard and abstract moralities.)
  • Aesthetic Movement, late 19th century, David DeLaura: ‘…system of institutions, established facts, accredited dogmas, customs, rules’ fail to correspond to the wants of modern life.
  • LANGUAGE; forget certain worlds and use less familiar ones and see what happens.
  • Particular ways of performing our language have held us captive (habit can be a great deadener of pleasures, forbidden or otherwise).
  • Living for others vs. living with others
  • Oscar Wilde in ‘The Soul of Man under Socialism’; ‘Whenever a community or a powerful section of a community, or a government of any kind, attempts to dictate to the artist what he is to do, Art either entirely vanishes, or becomes stereotyped, or degenerates into a low and ignoble craft. A work of art is the unique result of a unique temperament. Its beauty comes from the fact that the author is what he is. It has nothing to do with the fact that other people want what they want. Indeed, the moment that an artist takes notice of what other people want, and tries to supply the demand, he ceases to be an artist, and becomes a dull or an amusing craftsman, an honest or dishonest tradesman. He has no further claim to be considered as an artist. Art is the most intense mode of Individualism that the world has known. I am inclined to say that it is the only real mode of Individualism that the world has known…alone, without any reference to his neighbours, without any interference, the artist can fashion a beautiful thing; and if he does not do it solely for his own pleasure, he is not an artist at all.

    He Wilde does not ask the contemporary question ‘How can I make myself worth investing in?’, but asks instead, ‘What do I really want to make?’

    [the market that is commodifying art at an unprecedented rate]

  • Wilde, The Decay of Lying, 1891, ‘healthy natural vanity is the secret of existence’
  • In this purity-and-danger version of art and individualism, the artist is always endangered by other people. He is in danger of forgetting himself; and endangered by the kind of pleasure – the masochistic pleasure – compliance can bring.
  • The whole idea of the forbidden, of course, gives us an apparently coherent set of rules and prohibitions, all of which need to be sufficiently understandable to guarantee our obedience. The language of prohibition is the dream of a language of straightforward influence, not strange influence; a language of orders, not impressions. Language as effective propaganda. And yet, of course, as Wilde would reveal again and again – would indeed relish exposing – to forbid something is to make it desirable. The forbidden coerces desire. It makes something strangely alluring. It may make us obedient, but it also makes us dream (often at the same time). To abide by a rule you have to have in mind what it would be to break it.
  • Who is doing the forbidding, and who is consenting, and what kind of pleasure does it give them?
  • To forbid can be both protective and intimidating, superstitious and realistic, sadistic and masochistic, vengeful and comforting, imaginative and narrow-minded, optimistic and pessimistic, terrified, arrogant, kind, omniscient and humble.
  • Wilde and Nietzsche, and later Freud (among others), allowed us to wonder, in an interestingly secular way, what it was that the forbidders wanted, and why we had needed to deify them in order to take them seriously.
  • In Exodus 20:3 – 5, God introduces the Ten Commandments by saying, ‘Thou shalt have no other gods before me…For I the Lord thy God am a jealous God.’ This is what makes them the commandments that they are supposed to be; not guidelines, or suggestions, or talking points, but a list of unarguably forbidden things. This is the canonical formulation of the idea of living for others prescribed by what we might call our most significant other. In the Ten Commandments it is made explicit both what and who we are living for. It is the idea of there being one law that is clearly anathema, so to speak, to Nietzsche and his pagan gods. But the idea of the only God as a jealous god is itself something of a giveaway; as though the joke was on God without His realizing it. If God was really omniscient and omnipotent He would have nothing to be jealous about, so the qualification seems unnecessary. Jealousy, one could say, is the real acknowledgment that there are other gods; and that if there are other gods one may not be the God that one thought one was.
  • …this declaration by God of His unique omniscience and omnipotence makes a mockery of the whole notion of deity. It exposes the ambitions of deity and therefore exposes the worst ambitions of men. [Why, then, does God still have so many believers?]

  • The child who is at first caught and held in the mother’s vocabulary can up be being trapped in it (leaving home means learning to talk differently from your parents). And in this sense obedience always takes the form of obedience to a specific vocabulary. It can be comforting to be trapped in other people’s descriptions of oneself – and the infant is more or less his parents’ descriptions of him – but it is also exceedingly frustrating. Or rather, exceedingly frustrating if you are brought up in a culture that also encourages self-definition and distrusts excessive adaptation; that promotes certain individualistic versions of the flourishing self; or that even talks about something called a ‘self’, that a person both is and can become even more of. In these cultures the individual is always left wondering, what are the pleasures I have been deprived of? How have I failed to develop? Have I lived by the wrong rules, the wrong picture of what a life ought to be? Who is having more or better pleasures than I am? How have they got it and how do they do it? What would my life have been like if I had been a different person with different parents? Or, to put it in Frank Bidart’s more curious terms, do all forms of recognition end up as forms of obedience? As if to be seen is always and only to have a picture of oneself to live up to.
  • Obedience is the unforbidden pleasure that gives us something by forbidding us something else – something often of ultimate value.
  • Unforbidden pleasures, therefore, have nothing to do with intimidation (nothing to do with it in both senses; they are neither intimidating, nor do they require intimidation to sustain them). Whereas intimidation has everything to do with forbidden pleasure. So the questions become: when and why, in any given situation, is intimidation required? And, what are the very real pleasures of being intimidated? And the complement to each of these questions respectively is: what does it say about any belief if it requires menace to enforce it? And what is it about the pleasure of being intimidated that makes it so often our preferred pleasure? Intimidation is necessary when collaboration is despaired of. We have all, of course, tried to master the fears of childhood, and we may want to go on proving to ourselves that we can survive our terrors; this is itself both addictive and the root of that addiction (addiction is always the ongoing attempt to survive what was experienced as maligned mothering, the mothering to which one had to submit). Making the case for unforbidden pleasures must involve being able to answer these questions – questions about pleasure and intimidation; it must involve giving good reasons for being so impressed by the forbidden. Because it is conceivable that we might learn to enjoy the pleasures other than the pleasures of being terrorized.
  • It could be construed that Adam and Eve had, for example, been fobbed off with the all too available, all too accessible, unforbidden pleasures before the so-called Fall; as though the unforbidden was something you could fall out of, and the forbidden was what you fell into; or as though the unforbidden couldn’t hold them, couldn’t hold their attention. And as though the forbidden was a terminal distraction. Once it was named it couldn’t be renamed or unnamed (it was something, we now might say, that couldn’t be repressed: it was in a different category from all those things that can be repressed). And it couldn’t be merely endlessly thought about or imagined; it had to be, as we say, acted upon. So something was sacrificed, or at least given up, and something else was gained. Indeed, what actually happened is an ironic commentary on Hamshire’s appropriately entitled essay ‘Morality and Pessimism’: in learning about morality, Adam and Eve learned about pessimism. By doing what they must not do at any cost, they discovered morality. They may have had a morality beforehand – or at least a way of life – but it was organized around what they must not do at any cost or, as they might have imagined, at almost any cost. After they had done what they must not do at any cost do, they switched it for a new kind of morality – and pessimism was at the heart of it. It cost Adam and Eve their previous life. But now, at least, they had done the worst, and they could discover, for better or for worse, what their life was like in the aftermath of the Fall, instead of what it was like in anticipation of eating the fruit. Real morality for them could begin only after the worst thing had happened, or rather, after they had done the worst thing. And so it might be for us. If it turned out that you were capable of even worse things, you would then have reason to doubt your God. Unless, of course, all of the worse things are deemed to be the consequence of the Fall, which they were. People, even then, were capable of far worse things than anything Adam and Eve did in the Garden of Eden; but in this story there could be no worse thing than this particular disobedience, which made people monstrous. So disobedience – this particular disobedience – was once and for ever the worst thing people can do. This could make people prize obedience above everything else.
  • When we live in a state of unconscious obedience we don’t think of ourselves as being obedient, we think of ourselves as being realistic, or normal, or reasonable. We live as if we know what live is really like. The most pernicious obedience is the obedience we are unaware of.


  • Tragedy, one could say, is the cultural form in which we have been trying to reveal something not about the real horror of life, but about the horror of life lived under the aegis of a certain kind of conscience. Self-criticism is nothing if not the defining, and usually the overdefining, of the limits of being.
  • As Hamlet famously tells us, sometimes conscience torments us by stopping us killing ourselves when our lives are actually unbearable. [Conscience is a sadist!]
  • Hamlet,
    ‘Thus conscience does make cowards –
    And thus the native hue of resolution
    Is sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought,’
  • Guilt is not necessarily a good clue to what one values; it is only a good clue to what (or whom) one fears. Not doing something because one will feel guilty if one does it is not necessarily a good reason not to do it. Morality born of intimidation is immoral.


  • We are inevitably exercised about where we draw the line, the kind of lines we draw, and to whom we delegate the drawing of lines. In certain circumstances killing people is not forbidden, but killing certain people is; torture is not forbidden, but torturing certain people, and sometimes how we torture them, is; sex is not forbidden, but certain kinds of sexual activity with certain people is; and so on. Virtually no one sanctions and supports incest or paedophilia. But in every other case, when it comes to the forbidden – when we mustn’t do as opposed to what we shouldn’t do – there are always exceptions, mitigating circumstances; good reasons found and given for redescribing forbidden acts as newly acceptable, or for having to do forbidden things (from banning sexism and racism, say, to suspending civil liberties, to killing ‘civilian’ children). Apart from the incest taboo, and its displacement in paedophilia, all the rules seem to be made to be breakable. This is the familiar legacy of the Enlightment; this is what a certain kind of modern person believes. Everything forbidden can be redescribed as ultimately desirable. Everything sacred can be rendered secular. But attending to the rules can mean inattention elsewhere. Rules are supposed to both attract and organize our attention, and to be taken for granted. As playing any game makes clear, the rules have to be wholly absorbing, and automatically abided by; a second nature to deal with the first. Rules – and particularly absolute rules, the guradians of the forbidden – are not supposed to be forgettable. Indeed, when it comes to the forbidden we are not supposed to let our minds wander; we are supposed to be utterly gripped, and in the grip of the law. The forbidden is by definition defined, is always already defined, so one cannot be ignorant of it, or causal about it; whether one is conscious or unconscious of the definition, it is in principle knowable (knowing what is forbidden may be one of the main things that knowing is for). Acculturation, adaption, means living as if one knows what is forbidden. Psychoanalysis – the theory and therapy that organizes itself around forbidden desire – adds that we can be both conscious and unconscious of what is forbidden; and that being able to redescribe forbidden pleasures as unforbidden pleasures is the only way to find out what it is possible to say about them, and what we might want to argue about.
  • In Monderman’s traffic experiment – which is not about revising a fundamental law, but it is nevertheless suggestive – there are fewer accidents because people are more attentive to what they are doing, more alert, as if the rules make people less sentient; s if something is handed over to the rules, and implicitly to the rule-makers, making people behave automatically, or as sleepwalkers, or as people less inventively competent than they in fact are (‘an excess of signage led drivers to take their eyes off the road, and actually contributed to making jucntions less safe’). There is more flow than congestion – ‘traffic moves more briskly’ – but this cuts both ways; it is both more ‘efficient’, and it increases mobility. Once movement is no longer forbidden by a red light, the unforbidden pleasures of cooperation and its attendant talents reveal themselves. And it is perhaps worth remembering Deleuze and Guattari’s use of a similar analogy in their anti-psychoanalytic book Anti-Oedipus: ‘The prime function incumbent upon the socius [society] has always beenbeen to codify the flows of desire, to inscribe them, to record them, to see to it that no flow exists that is not properly dammed up, channeled, regulated.’ The forbidden is pictured here as a controlled flow. Whatever it is that flows threatens to get anywhere and everywhere.
  • …the forbidden is not apparently what we begin with, or where we begin. Babies do not commit forbidden acts, nor do they have, from their own point of view, as it were, forbidden desires. They acquire them – they learn them – through acculturation because their parents, by the time they become parents, have been thoroughly initiated into the forbidden. Little does the very young child know what will be said about what he wants.
  • The tyranny of the forbidden is not that it forbids, but that it tells us what we want – to do the forbidden thing. The unforbidden gives no orders.


  • Is life – even the apparently perfect life of the ancient Greeks – worth the suffering, the contingencies and determinisms and choices we are heir to? A life that can be better may never good enough, may never give us true satisfaction. We may want more from life, more from ourselves and other people, that can be given. And it may be impossible for us to want less.

Alibis (Essays on Elsewhere) by Andre Aciman

  • It wasn’t Rome itself that I was seeing; it was the film, the filter I’d placed on the old city that finally made me love it, the film I went to seek each time I’d go to a bookstore and would come out late in the evening to stroll down my Nevsky Prospekt in search of vague smiles and fellowship in a city I wasn’t even sure existed on the sidewalks. It is the film I can no longer lift off the many books I read back then, the film that reverberates over time and continues to make Rome mine long after I’ve lost it. And perhaps it is the film I go in search of each time I’m back in Rome – not Rome. We seldom ever see, or read, or love things as they in themselves really are, nor, for that matter, do we even know our impressions of them as they really are. What matters is knowing what we see when we see other than what lies before us. It is the film we see, the film that breathes essence into otherwise lifeless objects, the film we crave to share with others. What we reach for and what ultimately touches us is the radiance we’ve projected onto things, not the things themselves – the envelope, not the letter, the wrapping, not the gift.

    Lucretius says that all objects release films, or ‘peeled skins’ of themselves. These imitations travel from the objects and beings around us and eventually reach our senses. But the opposite is also true: we radiate films of what we have within us and project them onto everything we see – which is how we become aware of the world and, ultimately, why we come to love it. Without these films, these fictions, which are both our alibis and the archives of our innermost life, we have no way to connect to or touch anything.

  • It never occurred to me then that insight and intuition, which are the essence, the genius, of all criticism, are born from this intimate fusion of self with something or someone else. To everything – books, places, people – I brought a desire to steal into and intuit something undisclosed, perhaps because I mistrusted all appearances, or because I was so withdrawn that I needed to believe others were as dissembled and withdrawn as I feared I was. Perhaps I loved prying. Perhaps insight was like touching – but without asking, without risk. Perhaps spying was my way of reaching out to the Roman life that was all around me. In the words of Emmanuele Tesauro: ‘We enjoy seeing our own thoughts blossom in someone’s mind, while that someone is equally pleased to spy what our own mind furtively conceals’. I was a cipher. But, like me, everyone else was a cipher as well. Ultimately, I wanted to peer into books, places, and people because wherever I looked I was always looking for myself, or for traces of myself, or better yet, for a world out there filled with people and characters who could be made to be like me, because being like me and being me and liking the things I liked was nothing more than their roundabout way of being as close to, as open to, and as bound to me as I wished to be to them. The world in my image. All I cared for were streets that bore my name and the trace of my passage there; and all I wanted were novels in which everyone’s soul was laid bare and anatomized, because nothing interested me more than the nether, undisclosed aspects of people and things that were identical to mine. Exposed, everyone would turn out to be just like me. They understood me, I understood them, we were no longer strangers. I dissembled, they dissembled. The more they were like me, the more I’d learn to accept and perhaps grow to like who I was. My hunches, my insights were nothing more than furtive ways of bridging the insuperable distance between me and the world. (Intimacy)

Andre Aciman, Alibis – Essays on Elsewhere, 2011, Picador USA

A Woman Looking at Men Looking at Women: Essays on Art, Sex, and the Mind by Siri Hustvedt

  • … the experience of art is made only in the encounter between spectator and the art object. The perceptual experience of art is literally embodied by and in the viewer. We are not the passive recipients of some factual external reality but rather actively creating what we see through the established patterns of the past, learned patterns so automatic they have become unconscious. In other  words, we bring ourselves with our pasts to artworks, selves and pasts, which include not just our sensitivity and brilliance but our biases and blind spots as well. (My Louise Bourgeois, pp. 25)


  • Emotion, then, is no guarantee that a book is good. If the reader is left in exactly the same place she was when she began reading, why read? A person who weeps over the death of Anna Karenina may also shed tears over a sentimental television commercial. To argue that the tears shed for one are superior to the tears shed for the other is silly. Nevertheless, judgment of a work of art cannot be decided exclusively by tears or laughs or sexual arousal or any other feeling. As Sontag maintained, knowledge is dependent on the consciousness that receives it. I have repeatedly argued that the reader and the text act in collaboration. Your past reading affects your present reading. If you live on a diet od best-selling thrillers, will you be able to feel the suspense in Henry James? (Sontag on Smut: Fifty Years Later, pp. 76)


  • …writing from the inside out, not the outside in. Many books are written from the outside in. Most books, built of external rules and regulations, are far more conventional that Sontag’s first novel. Some of them are extolled and sell hundreds and thousands of copies. This fact, however, does not make them any better.

    There is an irony, of course. The outside becomes the inside. Every book that changes me becomes me. Its foreign music, rhythms, thoughts, and story settles into my body and may reappear in my own writing, but then I no longer know they are there.  (Sontag on Smut: Fifty Years Later, pp. 78)


  • Whether one thinks of our continually revised autobiographical memories as produced through Freud’s ‘deferred action’ or through the neurobiological term ‘reconsolidating’ doesn’t matter. What has not been well studied, but which should be, is the role that language plays in conscious memory over time, how once it is retrieved, a memory is reconfigured through both emotion and the words one uses to retell it aloud to others or to one’s self.  (The Writing Self and the Psychiatric Patient, pp. 112)


  • Ideas and solutions rise from interactions and dialogues. The outside moves inside, so the inside can move outside.

    When I look at you, I see something like myself. Your face supplants mine while we are talking. I cannot see my own face.

    The French philosopher Emmanuel Levinas points out that our faces are naked. He calls it ‘a decent nudity’. He is right that we do not clothe our  faces the way we cover other parts of our bodies. Face-to-face, we are exposed to each other. (The Writing Self and the Psychiatric Patient, pp. 126)


  • In his introduction to The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1962), Thomas Kuhn asserted that group of scientists could work without ‘some set of received beliefs’ about what the world is like. He argued that before any research can be done, every scientific community must have agreed on the answers to a number of fundamental questions about the world and that these answers are embedded in the institutions that train scientists for their work. Kuhn, who began his career as a physicist, continues to distress his fellow scientists because the notion that the foundations of scientific work may be shaky remains a subversive position.

    Like Whitehead, Kuhn understood that science rests on a foundation that is assumed and does not begin at the beginning. If every graduate student in biology were printed with Descartes’s first question and asked to confirm her own existence of the world beyond her, she would be stopped in her tracks. ‘normal science’, for Kuhn, consisted of a ‘strenuous and devoted attempt to force nature into the conceptual boxes supplied by professional education’. He went on to wonder ‘whether research could proceed without such boxes, whatever the element of arbitrariness in their historic origins and, occasionally, in their subsequent development’. Whitehead, Goethe, and Kuhn agree that there are received beliefs in science. Whitehead challenges the received truths about materials reality established in the seventeenth century and the tendency in science for misplaced concreteness, mistaking the mathematical abstraction for the actuality it represents. The danger for Goethe is that an enduring hypothesis become truth and therefore goes unquestioned. For Kuhn, normal science floats along the consensual, often unexamined beliefs he called paradigms until some discovery, some intractable problem, explodes those same foundational convictions. He sees paradigm change as the upheaval that causes scientific revolutions. (The Delusions of Certainty, pp. 160)


  • Husserl’s intersubjectivity: our knowing and relating to other people in the world, our being with and understanding them, one subject or person to another, and how we make a shared world through these relations. Involves empathy, which Husserl believed was an avenue into another person.


  • Nagel is right that subjective conscious experience, the mine-ness or ipseity of being, remains a problem in much scientific thought. Even if we could explicate every aspect of the physical brain in all its complexity, the first-person point of view, the experience of being awake and aware and thinking or asleep and dreaming, will be missing from that account. Consciousness has become a philosophical and scientific monster.


  • Dreyfus: ‘the common sense knowledge problem’ in AI,the seemingly intractable problems researcher had in trying to get machines to be more like human beings, was not a problem of representing common sense symbolically, but rather a problem of what Dreyfus calls human ‘know-how’, a know-how that does not lend itself to being computed because it involves an implicit bodily relation to our environments.

    ‘The problem precisely was that this know-how, along with all the interests, feelings, motivations, and bodily capacities that of to make a human being, would have had to be conveyed to the computer as knowledge – as a huge and complex belief system – and making our inarticulate, pre-conceptual background understanding of what it is like to be a human being explicit in a symbolic representation seemed to me a hopeless task’.


  • Is the eagerness for transcendent man a horror or fear of universal early dependence on someone else’s body, a mother’s bodkin term and a subsequent need for that body’s milk or the body of someone else for food and comfort? isn’t it true that without another body, all of us mammals would be dead? Is Moravec also indulging in a fantasy of the eternal grown-up, the wish never to have been subservient to big people, perhaps especially big women? Won’t his machine kids throw infancy away forever once they become smart enough to avoid it, even though at the moment he is acting as proud father to his supernatural offspring? Moravec’s optimism is untouched by time. In 2009, while acknowledging the failures of AI’s early predictions, he makes another one himself: ‘By 2040, I believe, we will finally achieve the original goal of robotics and a thematic mainstay of science fiction: a freely moving machine with the intellectual capabilities of a human being’.


  • Humberto Maturana and Francisco Varela in Autopoiesis and Cognition; An autopoietic system is dynamic and self-organising and continually adjusts itself in order to maintain its physiological equilibrium or homeostasis. An organism’s interaction with and perception of its environment is determined by its own autonomous structure. Autopoiesis draws on cybernetics and its emphasis on dynamic interacting systems that are not reducible to its parts. The authors also maintain that any autopoietic system, whatever it is made of (it could theoretically be metal, wires, and plastic) is sufficient for life. Further the two argue, ‘No description of an absolute reality is possible’. Although this is hardly a shocking thought in the history of philosophy, it still makes many contemporary scientists uneasy. Despite the fact that autopoiesis remains outside mainstream science, the theory has generate a huge literature of commentary, inside and outside biology.

    Maturana and Varela’s biology directly addressed epistemology – the study of how we know what we know – which shaped their views of scientific research and the nature of perception, but Varela developed and expanded these ideas. Varela, Evan Thompson, and Eleanor Rosch state plainly in their book, The Embodied Mind: Cognitive Science and Human Experience, that their work is a continuation and elaboration of Merleau-Ponty’s philosophy. For them, ‘organism and environment enfold into each other and unfold from one another in the fundamental circularity that is life itself’. Varela called these interactions ‘couplings’ with the environment. Commenting on Varela’s work after his death, a group of scientists note , ‘If …the environment doesn’t contain predefined information that is independent of the ‘domain of coupling’ the the autonomous system defines, it literally in-forms the system’s coping’. There is no objective independent information out there in the world, but what is out there affects the closed internal systems.

    So what is the mind for Varela? It is not just in our heads. ‘The mind’, Varela argued, ‘cannot be separated from the entire organism. We tend to think that the mind is in the brain, in the head but the fact is that the environment also includes the rest of the organism; the brain is intimately connected to all of the muscles, the skeletal system, the guts, and the immune system, the hormonal balances and so on and so on… In other words, the organism as a meshwork of entirely co-determining elements makes it so that our minds are, literally, inseparable – not only from the external environment but also from what Claude Bernard already called the milieu interieur, the fact that we have not only a brain by an entire body. For Varela, the mind and consciousness are an embodied reality of interdependent systems that cannot simply by reduced to neural correlates.

    I have to say my reading in autopoietic theory has often left me with a claustrophobic feeling. Despite an organism’s couplings with the environment, it seems to be largely trapped in its own inescapable circling reality. I think interactions are more open, that the internal and the external are in a kind of continual, mutual, rhythmic engagement, which can also be disrupted and irregular. Although human embryology is rarely, if ever, mentioned in these writings, there is no question that a mother’s heartbeat, respiration, voice, bodily movements establish a rhythmic relation with the developing fetes, which lies inside the amniotic sac, attached the umbilical cord to the placenta, with in turn is attached to the uterine wall. But when does a self appear in the story of development?

  • George Layoff and Mark Johnson’s book Metaphors we Live By (1980) became an important work for many people inside and outside of science for thinking about the role of the body in thought. They took the corporeal turn but were not influenced, as far as I can tell, by phenomenology. Their first paragraph is worth quoting: ‘Metaphor is for most people a device of the poetic imagination and the rhetorical flourish – a matter of extraordinary rather than ordinary language.  Forever, metaphor is typically viewed as characteristic of language alone, a matter of words rather than thought or action. For this reason, most people think they can get along perfectly well without metaphor. We have found, on the contrary, that metaphor is pervasive in everyday life, not just in language but in thought and action.’
  • Metaphor is more than a mental dance; it emerges from embodied experience, which is at one biological and cultural. Looking at a paining, reading a poem or novel, listening to music requires a natural loosening of sense boundaries, a blur that invigorates artistic experience. A character is round or flat. A musical passage can burn, an d a line may taste bitter. These transpositions open avenues into the otherness of the artistic work, which is more than a thing; it is always also the traces of a life.


Siri Hustvedt, A Woman Looking at Men Looking at Women: Essays on Art, Sex, and the Mind, 2016, Simon & Schuster 

The Young Bride by Alessandro Baricco

  • …it’s bodies that dictate life: the rest is a result. I couldn’t believe it, at that moment, because, like every young person, I expected something more complex, or sophisticated. But now I don’t know any story, mine or anyone else’s, that did not begin in the animal movement of a body – an inclination, a wound, an obliqueness, at times a brilliant move, often obscene instincts that came from far away. It’s all written there already. The thoughts come afterwards, and are always a belated map, to which, out of convention and weariness, we attribute to some precision.
  • We have an incredible force with which we give meaning to things, to places, to everything: and yet we can’t secure anything, it all go back to neutral right away – borrowed objects, fleeting ideas, feelings as fragile as crystals. Even bodies, the desire of bodies: unpredictable. We can bombard the world with all the intensity we’re capable of and, an hour later, it’s newly reborn. You can understand something, know it thoroughly, an it has already shifted, it knows nothing of you, it has its own mysterious life, which takes no account of what you’ve made of it. Those who love us betray us, and we betray those we love. We can’ secure anything, believe me.

Alessandro Baricco, The Young Bride, translated from the Italian by Ann Goldstein, 2016, Europa Editions