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Showing posts from October 15, 2023

Why read the classics? On Calvino's answer

Calvino begins his essay, Why read the Classics, by defining them in terms of a characteristic phrase: “I am re-reading x” The classics are haunted, as it were, by re-reading. We re-read in the classroom to answer questions (a site Calvino, I think mistakenly, throws out of consideration – an awful lot of reading is tied to the classroom, and it often seems that when we re-read on our own, the ghost of a classroom desk trails behind us, with its pencil groove and its slight, metallic smell – mixed in my case with the smell of a brown bag and a peanut butter and jelly sandwich in wax paper ). We re-read outside of the classroom because, a, we are defensive about not having read,and want to make it known that we, too, have already read, and b, (the meat of Calvino’s theme), even when reading the first time, the classic imposes it scale on us, one that suggests an infinity of re-readings. When reading a classic, we cannot “escape” its design. In this sense, the classic is the opposite of

The character puzzle

  While doing her fieldwork among the Makassar, a people living on the peninsula of   Sulawesi, Indonesia who are ‘renowned” for their seafaring and fishing skill, Birgit Roettger-Roessler noticed that her informants were uneasy when asked to tell about themselves, and when they did, they told her narratively thin stories about what they did – not why they did it, or what they felt. On the other hand, she found that the Makassar enjoyed gossiping about each other. Roettger-Roessler was disappointed by this state of affairs at first, as the standard notion in the eighties, when she did her fieldwork, was that first person accounts were   more reliable –more authentic. Gossip, however, is, she presumes, the stock that fills up many an ethnographer’s notebook. However, as she reflected on this curious situation (reflections she goes over in her article, Autobiography in Question. On Self Presentation and Life Description in an Indonesian Society) she noticed that other anthropologists a

Borges and the Total Library

  One of Borges’ sweetest traits is his fidelity to the reading of his adolescence        When a writer like Umberto Eco, who is a scholar of the highest level as well, references, say, Leibniz, one can take that reference for the visible mark left by Eco going through the master’s texts, G.I. Gerhardt’s edition of the Philosophische Schriften, pursued in Latin, French and German as far as need be.       When Borges, in the famous essay, The Total Library, refers to Leibniz, however, you know the reference was sifted through a book of popular science and philosophy: Dr. Theodor Wolff’s Der Wettlauf mit der Schildkröte. Gelöste und ungelöste Probleme – The race with the Tortoise. Wolff was a journalist, a writer on culture – although mostly at a journalistic distance. He is distantly of the same kind, although less systematic, as for instance Egon Friedell, or in the American context, Isaac Asimov, or the great Will and Ariel Durant. Another German writer, surely from Borges’s teen year

From a notebook entry about Kafka

  When Josef K. was around twenty two, his last year at the university, he discovered the existence of a secret society which counted certain students and even professors among its adherents. In fact, it didn’t resemble other secret societies. It was very difficult for certain people to become members. Many, who ardently wanted to become a member, never succeeded. Others, by contrast, became members without trying, or even knowing that they had become members of this society. One was never, besides, totally sure of being a member. There were many who believed they belonged to it and weren’t, in fact, members at all, or were members in name only. However much they had been initiated, they were less part of the society than many who didn’t even have the slightest knowledge of the existence of the society. In fact, the former had undergone the tests of a false initiation , the rituals of which were as codified as those of a true initiation: the false initiation was designed to put off t