Monday, January 16, 2006

The Closing of the Western Mind — it made me appreciate Aristotle; his worldliness and even humility. Not that I'm about to go back and read him, but at least now I understand why he's important. It was a shock to find out how quickly Christians changed, from a harshly persecuted minority, into a powerful, power-hungry, greedy engine of oppression. (I was going to say "instrument," but that would be an understatement.) It hardly took twenty years! The Closing of the Western Mind reminded me of another anti-Platonist polemic, From Plato to Derrida, Literature against Philosophy, A Defense of Poetry, by Mark Edmundson. (An excellent book!) Plato to Derrida is about critical theory in universities, Freeman's book is about a state religion that imposed itself by fire and by the sword, but, well, there are similarities. ("Once as tragedy, then again as farce.")
I'm especially interested in intelligent defenses of paganism by people like Symmachus. (Aren't they like defenses of poetry?) There was a very short chapter on Symmachus in Freeman, but he mentions another book entirely devoted to the subject.

Another excellent book was Austerlitz. In fact I can't praise it highly enough; I read it in one gulp, like a diver, and when I lifted my eyes from the page felt disoriented and uncomfortable.
One small point: the owner of the Antikos Bazaar in Terezin, which Austerlitz visits toward the end of the book, is Augustyn Nemecek. (I don't know how to do Czech diacritical marks.) "Nemetzki" means "German" in Russian, so "Nemecek" must mean the same in Czech.

My father nearly got blown up in the 1980 terrorist attack on the Bologna train station. My mother takes credit for saving his life, because she insisted that he leave the city to join us a day before the bombing, which was their wedding anniversary. My father couldn't understand her insistence (he has a terrible memory), and would have liked to stay in the city a day longer to work, but she won him over in the end. Anyway, a few weeks later we were in the station café. I was sitting at a table, and my parents had gone to the counter to get coffees and pastries. Behind me was a red velvet curtain, and I peeked through an opening. I saw a vast, unlit hall, filled with dust and rubble. I let the curtain fall and never said a word about it to my parents. I was convinced that I had seen the bombed waiting room. I know it seems unlikely that it would be separated from the café just by drapery, and that it would ever be neglected by workers or guards, but it seems even less likely that I would have imagined something like that, and the café (which doesn't exist any more) was right next to the waiting room (which does). So it must have been that.
It was such a contrast: on this side the flourescent lights, the clatter of teaspoons on saucers; stillness, dust, and death on the other.

Journey by Moonlight: a turning point in the novel takes place in the train station of Terontola, a train station I know well! (It's a place I never in a million years expected to come across in a book.)

A conversation:
Friend of a friend: "I never read just for pleasure."
Me: "Really? I always read for pleasure."
We soon figured out that we read for the same reasons, and were saying the same thing; different definitions of pleasure.

I spent much of December dragging myself through Carlyle's Sartor Resartus, which counts as a magnificent failure. At first I really liked it, but it goes nowhere and is avowedly about nothing, so I soon got impatient (and it's over 300 pages long). The prose style is its great virtue. It's a parody of (nineteenth-century German) academic pedantry that somehow magically turns turgid into baroque; and it was often very very funny. It reminded me of Moby Dick. I think Melville was a fan of Carlyle.
The 1898 illustrations by Edmund J. Sullivan are wonderful.

No comments: