November 14, 2019

"Do I again go in search of lost time with Marcel Proust, or am I to attempt yet another rereading of Alice Walker’s stirring denunciation of all males, black and white?"

"My former students, many of them now stars of the School of Resentment, proclaim that they teach social selflessness, which begins in learning how to read selflessly. The author has no self, the literary character has no self, and the reader has no self. Shall we gather at the river with these generous ghosts, free of the guilt of past self-assertions, and be baptized in the waters of Lethe? What shall we do to be saved? The study of literature, however it is conducted, will not save any individual, any more than it will improve any society. Shakespeare will not make us better, and he will not make us worse, but he may teach us how to overhear ourselves when we talk to ourselves."

Wrote Harold Bloom, in "The Western Canon."

That jumped out at me this morning, because I've been thinking about the idea of forgetting oneself.

Last night, I was reading the story, "Kleist in Thun" (from this collection by Robert Walser), and I was struck by this passage:
The whole countryside down to the water is sheer garden, it seems to seethe and sag in the bluish air with bridges full of flowers and terraces full of fragrance. Birds sing so faintly under all the sun, all the light. They are blissful, and full of sleep. His elbow on the windowsill, Kleist props his head on his hand, stares and stares and wants to forget himself. The image of his distant northern home enters his mind, his mother’s face he can see clearly, old voices, damn it all—he has leapt up and run out into the garden. There he gets into a skiff and rows out over the clear morning lake. The kiss of the sun is indivisible, unabating. Not a breath. Hardly a stir. The mountains are the artifice of a clever scene painter, or look like it; it is as if the whole region were an album, the mountains drawn on a blank page by an adroit dilettante for the lady who owns the album, as a souvenir, with a line of verse.
I'm reading Robert Walser because I was massively impressed by "What the Eye Can’t See," the third act of "Small Things Considered," last Sunday's episode of "This American Life." Excerpt:
[In one of his novels, Walser] wrote, "In one thing, we pupils are all similar. We are small, small all the way down the scale to utter worthlessness. One thing I do know for certain-- in later life, I shall be a charming, utterly spherical zero."...

He'd poke fun at himself for being small, but there was always an edge to it. Worse than being weak, were the people deluded enough to think they're great. It's so pompous. He wasn't mean, exactly, more just entertained by their foolishness. I started to see the world that way, too. But then one day... I saw... Walser had spent the last third of his life in a mental hospital...
I was out walking when I heard the Bloom paragraph and remembered the Walser, so I had a lot of thoughts about what people mean when they speak of forgetting oneself. It can be positive or negative. I thought of the Joni Mitchell song:
I am on a lonely road and I am traveling
Traveling, traveling, traveling
Looking for something, what can it be?
Oh, I hate you some, I hate you some, I love you some
Oh, I love you when I forget about me
Is she oppressed or ecstatic?

So... the topic is: forgetting oneself.

51 comments:

Michael K said...

I'm reading a biography of Samuel Insull, one of the most misunderstood men in American history.

buwaya said...

Sounds like the Zen of problem solving very familiar to less literary persons, mechanics, engineers, programmers and all sorts of other makers and doers. You disappear in the problem space. The Japanese Zen concept describe it well. There is a depersonalization if things are going well/being done right.

DrSquid said...

C'mon Althouse. Up your game. Jeez.

buwaya said...

You can be broken out of the space, which can be very annoying.
Coleridge’s “Person from Porlock” gets it.

Karen said...

From C. S. Lewis on forgetting oneself: “I think all Christians would agree with me if I said that though Christianity seems at first to be all about morality, all about duties and rules and guilt and virtue, yet it leads you on, out of all that, into something beyond. One has a glimpse of a country where they do not talk of those things, except perhaps as a joke. Everyone there is filled full with what we should call goodness as a mirror is filled with light. But they do not call it goodness. They do not call it anything. They are not thinking of it. They are too busy looking at the source from which it comes. But this is near the stage where the road passes over the rim of our world. No one's eyes can see very far beyond that: lots of people's eyes can see further than mine.”
― C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity

Skylark said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
PM said...

Speaking of C. S. Lewis who, from the confines of heaven, is still reading the NYT:
"Of all tyrannies, a tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive. It would be better to live under robber barons than under omnipotent moral busybodies. The robber baron's cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity may at some point be satiated; but those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end for they do so with the approval of their own conscience."


robother said...

So, a self is thing you have to remember. But you can forget. We do forget ourselves, every day, this is what absorbing activity or reading seems to offer. And, at the end of each day, in deep sleep we forget ourselves too.

And if a self is just a remembered thing how reliable, how real, is it?

n.n said...

feminists deeply hate men

There is also overwhelming evidence that one or more waves of female chauvinists hate women, too. Or perhaps they were merely acceptable collateral damage in the war on men and babies. A "noble cause" corruption in progress.

Otto said...

Babble from atheists.

FWBuff said...

@Karen, thanks for posting that C.S. Lewis quote.

buwaya said...

Bloom is obsolete.
His complaint is about a then-modern attitude towards reading.
The modern condition is that the successors to his subjects of the 70's-80's do not really read at all.
They are ignorant.

Skeptical Voter said...

Michael K--spot on about Samuel Insull. First he was a public hero, then he was a public villain. What he was was a builder of electric utility infrastructure, and a pretty good corporate finance organizer.

Now as for Kleist in Thun. I spent a month on the shores of Lake Thun in an American Field Service language training program almost sixty years go (I was a high school exchange student). The clear lake, the beautiful gardens--all of that was there then. Just as it was more than 100 years ago when Robert Walser was writing the short story. He sounds like an interesting writer to pursue, and my hat is off to Ms. Althouse for bringing another interesting author to our attention.

Tom T. said...

Just go watch TV instead. House Hunters is on.

FullMoon said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
n.n said...

Denunciation of all males, black, white, brown, yellow, and orange, too? And trans/homo, bi, and neo-masculine spectrum?

tcrosse said...

And if a self is just a remembered thing how reliable, how real, is it?

Who wants to know?

traditionalguy said...

We have a full life span. The self is formed by parents and siblings telling us who we are. Then in adolescence we try to be various people. Then in fatherhood we put ourselves on hold and only see our selves as recreated in our sons and daughters. Then in our mid 40s through our mid 60s we compete against the social groups around us for survival and for the prize, keeping score by money and romantic conquests (See, Trump, Donald John.)

Finally as old age comes, we retire from the wars and then we see the big picture all fitting together into an Odyssey of immense enjoyments remembered.The bad times are only remembered as the tests that proved us. Each age of a man has its tasks predestined by Eternal God. And then come the amazing grandchildren.

Why would anyone want to forget themselves? Better ask Jordan Peterson for some advice.

rcocean said...

Why would any male be stirred by a female denunciation of all males? Sounds weird.

rcocean said...
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rcocean said...

I can't READ Proust, I can only listen to him on audiobook. Somehow driving a car or walking while listening makes it bearable. Just sitting there, reading him go on and on about his Pillow, or the the smell of his Grandfather - I can't take it.

Rusty said...

Buwaya has it right. The act of creation is to lose yourself in creating. It is to become selfless.

Lurker21 said...

I don't understand what Harold is talking about here. Deconstruction may have sought to empty or dissolve or deny or deconstruct the author - and by extension the reader and every one else - into language codes, but most of what's replaced deconstruction seems to have been obsessively concerned with the identity of the reader and the writer: race, gender, sexuality, and sometimes class.

Today readers are expected to be very much concrete selves with specific characteristics. Nobody says "As an expression of language codes, this site of intersecting codes can't help but say ..." It's always "As an African-American woman, I think ..." or "As a gay man, I feel ...."

Or is that the Rachel Dolezal solution? Can you be really Black because of cultural codes, even though your actual ancestry is White or European? You still have to make some choice that other Whites who listened to rap music and took an Afro-Am lit course didn't make, so your self is still involved.

Sorry if I got deconstruction wrong. It's been a long time since college. I didn't understand it back then and haven't heard about it in years.

daskol said...

Dissociative identity disorder, aka multiple personalities, includes as a diagnostic criteria memory gaps between the different personalities: they forget each other, or what the other has experienced. Amnesia is also a form of forgetting one’s self, a scary notion but not as scary as having multiple distinct personalities. I hear say that the drug ketamine can induce a more pleasant dissociative state in which one shrinks into nothingness, a dot.

buwaya said...

Whatever it is, that creative zone is very pleasant.
That is the real reason people have hobbies. That state explains what Rod Stewart is up to (from yesterday). That's why my wife knits. It may explain why women's work in the textile crafts, spinning and weaving and sewing, were tolerable.

rcocean said...

I appreciate the fact that Harold Bloom is on the right side. Good for him. But he's like Sean Hannity. I like the fact that Hannity is out there fighting for what's right. But i don't find Sean interesting. And I don't find Harold Bloom interesting. Wish I did. But i don't.

That's what's so great about the Left and why they win. They don't care, if people on their side are dull, stupid, crooks, or anything else. Just be on their side and they will praise you to the skies. Go against them and they hate you. We center-right types aren't built like that.

rcocean said...

I have no idea why my wife likes what she likes. But she liked me, so I don't question it.

Susan said...

I think one can make the case that the current feminists hate every human that is not themselves.

How very DARE a child of any gender expect to be born? Men are beyond the pale, however women who "only" want to be wives and mothers are letting down the sisterhood. Female style roles for females are demeaning but changing a formerly male role to a female role is somehow empowering.

Forget themselves? They never knew themselves.

YoungHegelian said...

Shall we gather at the river with these generous ghosts, free of the guilt of past self-assertions, and be baptized in the waters of Lethe? What shall we do to be saved?

Bloom here is messing with us. Remember, the book is called "The Western Canon". He is, in this one sentence, pulling in the full guns of "Athens & Jerusalem". First, comes Jerusalem, with his "what shall we do to be saved" & before that Baptism in the river. But, the river is not the Jordan River, but rather the River Lethe. And what is the Greek word for Truth? Why, it's ἀλήθεια (aletheia), truth as the negation of forgetting or concealment (the privative particle a- before Lethe,forgetfulness). The Truth out of Athens is the opposite of forgetting.

And, yes, I talk to my mother with this mouth.

rcocean said...

The Left is now into identify politics in every sense of the word, even in culture. We all know that if Alice Walker had been Joel white guy shitmocker from Ames Iowa, he wouldn't known. But make the same writer a black woman, and its Nobel Prize time. Of course, the Nobel Prize has always been given based on politics and people's identities. An astounding number of communists ( and ex-communists) have gotten the literary prize. So why not give it based on race and gender?

Sebastian said...

"stars of the School of Resentment" do not "teach social selflessness"

Phidippus said...

I agree with buwaya at 1:33 PM: A big part of the joy of engineering for me was to lose myself in a problem, thinking about it while working, cycling, driving, even sleeping. I dreamed the circuits in parallel, sometimes asynchronous action. Answers would appear out of nowhere, it seemed, unbidden.

A good day photographing can be like that too. The conscious mind is called upon to decide on exposure and development, or if a filter is needed; the rest is done by the empty mind (shoshin).

The ego is an angry toddler that behaves worse the more one pays attention and tries to appease it. These attempts are often annoying to others, as well as being harmful to the self.

HoodlumDoodlum said...

This is the subtlest advertisement for microdosing LSD I have seen yet.

Available through the Althouse Amazon portal when??

n.n said...

any male be stirred by a female denunciation of all males

Ah, diversity or color judgment (e.g. inference). Sadomasochistic fantasy, fetish? A form of self-flagellation. A transgender orientation: not a male-male.

Lurker21 said...

rcocean said...
I can't READ Proust, I can only listen to him on audiobook. Somehow driving a car or walking while listening makes it bearable. Just sitting there, reading him go on and on about his Pillow, or the the smell of his Grandfather - I can't take it.


I had to laugh at that. There's an abridged audiobook of the whole seven novel series. I don't think I could stand the unabridged version.

Lurker21 said...

I thought of the Joni Mitchell song ...

All together now, on the count of three ...

one ... two ... three ...

...

OK, Boomer!

Wince said...

Last night, I was reading the story, "Kleist in Thun" (from this collection by Robert Walser), and I was struck by this passage...

Wait a minute. You mean to tell me you weren't watching TV with some blowhard yelling at you through the screen?

You're a sicko.

tcrosse said...

À la recherche du temps perdu, parlez-vous ?
À la recherche du temps perdu, parlez-vous ?
I'm all for giving Proust a boost
As long as my French vocab is goosed.
Inky dinky parlez-vous.

Rabel said...

Shorter Bloom:

"You kids get outta my yard!"

The pull quote doesn't capture his meaning absent the preceding paragraphs.

Richard Dolan said...

"So... the topic is: forgetting oneself."

Sounds important, but what does "forgetting oneself" mean? In many contexts, it just a way of talking about putting someone else's interests or concerns ahead of one's own. That's the usual meaning of "selfless." Sometimes it's used to suggest a feeling or emotion, as in a pantheist's feeling of being united with the natural world -- but it's a feeling or emotion that is being described, not a state of affairs about oneself (the person who remains the locus of whatever feelings or emotions are being experienced). That "waters of Lethe" bit from Bloom come with the sound and fury of profundity, but its mostly just a function of its opacity. Author, reader and character having "no self" leaves everything pretty much at sea: there is no point of view possible to make sense of whatever the text, any text, is talking about.

Reading this post, I tried to imagine what Descartes (he of the cogito) would say. I think he would echo Wittgenstein's quip about philosophical conundrums being rooted in a misuse of words. Not that the whole "waters of Lethe" bit isn't an occasion for some fun with words. But best not to push it too far.

Michael K said...

À la recherche du temps perdu, parlez-vous ?

It is the literary version of "Friends." Goes on forever and is about nothing.

Clyde said...

The self is the lens through which we see the world.

Wikipedia tells us: "Solipsism is the philosophical idea that only one's mind is sure to exist. As an epistemological position, solipsism holds that knowledge of anything outside one's own mind is unsure; the external world and other minds cannot be known and might not exist outside the mind."

A solipsist would say that forgetting one's self could cause the entire universe to cease to exist. A dangerous concept, indeed.

narciso said...

thats' why it was the subject of a python sketch, there's a new translation of the last of prousts work,

Rabel said...

"It is the literary version of "Friends." Goes on forever and is about nothing."

I think that was Seinfeld.

I could see Costanza as Nietzsche.

It was not wrong. Nothing can be wrong.

Or right.

narciso said...

this last one, it seems short as compared to henry fieldings tom jones,


https://www.readingproust.com/prisoner.htm

Michael said...

Bloom would go w/ Proust, as would I. Walker not so much.

traditionalguy said...

My wife was messaging back and forth with a grand child who lives in Tampa as we drove home. And she turned to me and asked what does "OK Boomer" mean. Like the question "does this dress make me look fat?"that was a problem.

Should I have told her she had just been insulted by her favorite grandchild? No. Instead I told her that it means she did not live inside the social media bubble like the young teens do, but that she should reply to Maddie that her grandmother must be called THE BIG BOOMER.

All is quiet on the western front of the war on Boomers.

m stone said...

We don't see the world as it is. We see it as we are. - The Talmud

Will Cate said...

HoodlumDoodlum said...
This is the subtlest advertisement for microdosing LSD I have seen yet.


That's funny right there... the late, great Jerry Garcia once remarked "to get high is merely to get beyond one's self."

Drugs or not, getting beyond one's self every once-in-a-while seems a perfectly healthy thing to do. As I've gotten older, I tend to enjoy doing things that anonymize myself -- could be going out into the woods alone, or going to a huge sporting event or concert. Driving across several state lines to some place I've never been before. There's many way to do it.

Will Cate said...

"In The Crowd" -- The Jam (1978)

D 2 said...

I preferred reading Anthony Powell to Proust. Could be historical context and Anglo bias.

In any case, maybe you got to keep asking yourself why you are the way you are. Things change, as Dwight Yoakam says.
From that perspective, when tomorrow comes, you can always choose (again) for yourself who you are going to be, especially if the milk gets spilled.
I wouldn't want my sister in law's ex to think he didn't have agency to drink far less and work far more, starting tomorrow.