Holden Battles the Summer Doldrums: Post 10 - Abahn Sabana David, The Waves, and Being and Nothingness: Introduction

This week I actually read two books and started one other, which sounds more impressive than it is.

Abahn Sabana David by Marguerite Duras is a very short, experimental work of fiction. It is about 106 pages, but there are very few paragraphs that last more than three lines, so 106 is misleading as a number. It’s about three people, but it might be about four people, I’m still not sure. Their names are Sabana, David, and Abahn; there are two people named Abahn but I’m not sure they are actually two different people. It’s confusing. It takes place in the early days of Stalin’s rule over the U.S.S.R. Sabana and David work for the local communist party and are tasked with placing a Jewish man, Abahn, under house arrest. Abahn has been stirring up trouble by suggesting that the Party’s current labor camp initiative is not truly communist. He is a “communist who does not believe in communism,” or so says the other Abahn, whose appearance is sudden and jarring. I take this to mean that in the U.S.S.R. what qualifies as communism does not match the first Abahn’s understanding of the philosophy.

The characters also talk about Abahn’s dogs a lot. These dogs obviously represent something, but the symbolism is muddled and a bit clumsy.

This book is not very good. I read it in two hours and I’m glad it was so short. The premise is promising but the execution is wanting. But maybe I was too hasty; maybe you can find more in-between the lines than I did.

Since I finished that book so quickly I picked up another to read during the week. The Waves by Virginia Woolf is another experimental novel, but a far more enjoyable one. When I started I contemplated putting it down and picking a different book, but I’m glad I didn’t. The Waves follows six close friends from childhood to the end of their lives. The book is divided up into sections.

Each section begins with a third-person description of an English coastal setting at different times of day; they parallel the stages of life the characters’ experience; thus early morning corresponds to the first section where our protagonists are very young children, while midday corresponds to their mid-twenties when they’ve just finished their higher education and are beginning their lives in full. The character’s narrate their stories in first-person, present tense. We hardly ever read typical dialogues or narrations, though. The style verges on stream-of-consciousness where we’re told about what happens as it happens, but the characters also narrate their thoughts and feelings.

It’s a bit like an epic poem, actually. I think Woolf has an amazing ability to distill the particular dilemmas that present themselves across different peoples’ lives. She is able to write as: a young mother who at once admires, envies, and dislikes her friends; a queer poet hopelessly in love; a socially-awkward introvert who dreams of sailing far away; a mediocre writer who resents his home life and is on a lifelong search for the perfect phrase; a sensual socialite who wants to meet as many people as she can; and an Australian businessman who wants the world to be neat orderly. That’s one mark of a talented writer: faithfully reconstructing the experience of a diverse group of people. It’s very enjoyable.

After reading two books by authors who are women, I realized that very few women have been featured on my blog and I became concerned. Why this concern, and what was it about exactly? I became concerned that I was repeating the mistakes of history by, unconsciously or not, undervaluing women's’ writing.

Why should this matter in this context? What does my summer reading have to do with the historical prevalence and vindictive strategies of patriarchy? In short, what does my blog, or anything I do really, have to do with historical injustices? I adopted my view on a person’s responsibility for and to past atrocities from Walter Benjamin’s “These on a Philosophy of History” (published now in a collection of essays called Illuminations). In his ninth aphoristic thesis, Benjamin writes:

A Klee painting named “Angelus Novus” shows an angel looking as though he is about to move away from something he is fixedly contemplating. His eyes are staring, his mouth is open, his wings are spread. This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing in from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such a violence that the angel can no longer close them. The storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress.

There’s a lot to unpack here, but the main take-away for my present concern is that by ignoring the past, as the angel caught in the storm of progress, one allows wreckage to go on piling up, eventually turning a blind-eye to those crushed under this inanimate behemoth’s weight. It’s important to understand that Benjamin does not mean “progress” in it’s usual sense. By “progress” he means a mindset that only looks forward to something; whether it is apocalypse, coming of a messiah, the realization of utopia, or revolution, a historical telos distracts us from the past and what we are presently living with, i.e. the repercussions of the historical censorship and repression of women's’ writing. Benjamin’s thesis is that one needs to think about the past in order to live in the present and create a better future. Laser-focus on building the future will be meaningless without some attention to the consequences of our forebears’ projects. In fact, one might end up adding from debris to the wreckage, leaving a larger mess for those later down the line.

So, what does attending to the past or thinking about the past mean? What does it look like and what does it do? It might mean “atoning” for the past, but that depends on what one means by “atonement,” I suppose. If by atonement one means to take some pain in the place of another, then one is deluded by self-righteousness. Taking someone else's’ pain deprives them of life, denies them the chance to succeed, fail, or perhaps more aptly put, it would deprive them of what living life meaningfully. But if by atonement one means to make reparations, material and ideal, and furthermore act in a manner that does not recapitulate the injustices of history, then one might be said to be atoning for the cataclysm of the past. This I believe is what Benjamin has in mind when he goes on from Aphorism IX to develop a new philosophy of history, what he calls “messianic without messianism.”

Against the background of my specific concern, ignoring, again unconsciously or not, women’s writing may be akin to trashing the place further as it were. But, ultimately I concluded otherwise. Does my reading list pile atop the heap? No, because in this situation what diversity means and what qualifies as identity is a bit different than what it means in our broader political climate. Furthermore, what will likely add up to 25 books this summer surely isn’t representative of everything I’ve read and will read.

To that first point: To say that a 20th-century French philosopher and a 19th-century Irish playwright are the same kind of white is overly general when it comes to evaluating their literary productions. Perhaps, even, we cannot call them the same type of man in this instance. The Irishman living under colonial rule and working theatre has a different experience than the Frenchman who works in academia and lived through post-war reconstruction. In other instances, we might correctly lump them together, but as stand-alone authors and thinkers, I think this might would be overly simple.

To that second point I will only pose this series of questions, intentionally aiming for bemusing reflection. Do you, reader, know what I have read before this summer? Do you, reader, know what I will read beyond this summer? Is it you, reader, imaginary yet real as you are, who demanded that I justify myself? Or is it I, reader, imaginary yet real as I am, that invented you and used you to justify my actions to myself?

Families, communities, nations, and infinitely large superstructures impose identities upon us. None of us chose to be here; none of us choose our various appellations. Certainly, one should be conscious of identity--self-identity and identity of others’--because it determines much of our situations. The work of justice, though, is to transcend to these identities, to stop imposing them on ourselves and others. In this way, and I claim this with full knowledge that my mind may change in a few months or years time, one may learn how to sift through the wreckage and prevent the pile from getting larger. Just thinking about these issues is sometimes enough; sometimes it’s more than enough. (One should act on these well-considered thoughts, of course.)

One might ask, “Who does this thinking? What consciousness possesses these ideas as objects of apprehension?” If one did so, they would probably be transitioning to a discussion of the introduction section of Being and Nothingness by Jean-Paul Sartre.

I was hoping for a systematic introduction of what questions Sartre would be considering. I was spoiled by Simone de Beauvoir, I think, because she is an immensely clearer writer than Sartre. That being said, I’m excited about this long journey I’ve embarked on.

In the introduction Sartre is simultaneously summarizing and questioning the history of philosophers’ positions on being, its meaning, and how humans think about being. Sartre points out a few problems with Descartes’ famous formulation: “cogito ergo sum,” or “I think, therefore I am.” (Philosophers often refer to this the cogito or Descartes’ cogito.) Sartre’s main concern is that it isn’t clear how I can know about this “I” that thinks reflectively. In other words, how do I know it is I who am I think, or who this “I” is. Sartre asserts that this is a question of Being; what is Being, i.e. the status of existing, and what does it mean?

Sartre goes on to consider Edmund Husserl’s epoché or “bracketing,” which is a method that always moves from first-person observations in considering any question. Sartre adopts this same method, but in the introduction I only got a snippet of how he’s going to adapt or change Husserl’s version of phenomenology.

Overall, the introduction is a bit choppy. Sartre seems to slide back and forth between issues and questions in a way that makes it hard to follow him. Initially, I planned on reading the introduction and part one, but I found I needed to take this very slowly. Part one seems promising though. I hope he’ll dive more clearly into what it is he’s concerned about. So far, he and I have been dancing around the question of Being, which is bearable for forty pages maximum.

Maybe then I will have more interesting thoughts and ideas sprung from Sartre.

This coming week I’ll be reading part of Being and Nothingness, as I said, and The Intuitionist by Colson Whitehead.

Until then, happy reading!