February 8, 2011
The A to Z of SPURIOUS: From Jordan to Moment of Illumination
by Melville House
Linus Urgo, reviewing Lars Iyers‘s Spurious at The KGB Lit Magazine, makes the excellent point that the noveldespite all its intellectual wrangling, vicious insults, paranoid esoterica, and apocalyptic comedy is essentially about… friendship. Urgo writes:
Literature has known no better friends than Vladimir and Estragon – or, not until Lars and W. All the brow-beating, all the insults, all the expressions of existential despair – W. wouldn’t deliver this, and Lars wouldn’t put up with it, unless W. and Lars needed it, unless they were inseparable. We know they’re close not because they say it, but because we can’t doubt it. How could you question the honesty, and trust, of someone who told you your attempts to change your life remind him of “the cartoon mouse who hits the walls and then slides down it…It’s painful to see, but also funny”? “‘Conversation!’, exclaims W. That’s what friendship’s all about.” And this is a novel made up almost entirely of conversations.
The philosophical topics of the novel are secondary to the bond between the philosophers. They could just as easily be debating Australian-rule rugby or Faberge eggs as Rosenzweig and Kafka—they point isn’t the subject of their talks, the point is that the things they care about most in the world, they can only talk about with each other. Which is true with only the finest friendships.
As Iyer puts it:
I hope Spurious can be enjoyed by a reader entirely unfamiliar with the names and ideas mentioned in its pages. In large measure, I think, it is the way W. and Lars enthuse about a scholarly project or a specific thinker that makes the novel entertaining (if indeed it is entertaining). On the other hand, perhaps there is something to be gained from focusing in a little more depth on some of the recurring ideas, names and objects in Spurious, since they are not entirely arbitrary. That is the aim of this A to Z.
And so, having clarified that these terms are mostly irrelevant to appreciating Iyer’s book, let us continue to explain the people and ideas that populate the text. (To read all of the previous entries, please click here.)
J is for …
British celebrity and TV personality. Former glamour model.
The main philosophical source for the ideas discussed in Spurious is the thought of those German speaking Jews who sought, early in the twentieth century, to address a crisis of traditional values.
Rosenzweig, Scholem, Benjamin and others share the view that the human suffering caused by World War I spelled the end of a simple faith in historical progress and the meaningfulness of history. More generally, they concur with Nietzsche that our time is marked by the ‘death of God’, a collapse of those traditions that made sense of the world, although they do not draw the same conclusions from this as Nietzsche did.
It is primarily with the thought of Rosenzweig that Spurious is concerned. In response to Nietzsche’s challenge, and under the influence of Cohen, Rosenzweig attempts to unfold a hidden, utopian dimension of Jewish messianism that creatively interrupts linear history. Scholem and Benjamin have similar ambitions. In his letters to Rosenstock, a Christian convert, Rosenzweig argues that Judaism is exemplary for the rest of humankind in its preservation in liturgy of its peoples’ relation to God.
Scholem and Benjamin follow some aspects of Rosenzweig’s thought in this regard. Levinas and, in his own way, Blanchot do the same in the second half of the twentieth century.
W. has a Jewish ancestry, although his family are converts. He is, among other things, a scholar of ancient Hebrew.
K is for …
Franz Kafka, 1883-1924
Prague born Jewish writer. Kafka’s unfinished, posthumously published novels The Trial and The Castle and Kafka’s many stories, notebook fragments, aphorisms and letters, are marked by a sense of a vanished religious authority. Many of his fictions, as Benjamin noted, are similar to parables: they seem to have a code, pointing to some meaning hidden to the reader. Alas, they are not truly allegorical – there is no Truth behind the fable. If Kafka’s work, as Scholem argues in his correspondence with Benjamin, ‘belongs to the genealogy of Jewish mysticism’, if, like that mysticism, it seeks to present a revelation, it is a revelation of the impossibility of revelation, an allegory of the absence of Truth.
Kafka’s life was marked by a faith in his vocation as a writer and a perpetual disappointment with the fruits of that vocation. He has been held up by many critics as a model of writerly integrity and an exemplar of the modern predicament of living in the wake of settled traditions.
W. and Lars immensely admire Kafka’s work. W. describes his life as having been marked by a sense of falling short of Kafka, which, given Kafka’s own sense of consistently fallen short of his own vocation – indeed, falling short because of that vocation – is a double banishment. W. has even attempted, but without success, to write literature in imitation of Kafka.
Kant, Immanuel, 1724-1804
Enlightenment philosopher, mentioned in Spurious solely for his condemnation of Schwärmerei.
L is for …
Narrator of Spurious, Lars lives in a damp-ridden flat in Newcastle. He is a friend and collaborator of W., who he visits in his hometown of Plymouth, as well as travelling with him to Freiburg and Dundee, among other places, to attend academic conferences and give presentations.
What we know of Lars is almost entirely refracted through W., conversations with whom, as recorded by Lars, form the substance of Spurious. He is, we can presume, employed in some kind of academic job, probably as a lecturer in philosophy, has published at least two books (according to W., they’re very bad), and has a role in the college where W. teaches, at one point inspecting W.’s teaching. He is also prone to making desperate bids to escape from his current position, attempting and failing over the years to become a scholar of Hinduism and of music. W. notes that because Lars has suffered periods of unemployment, he is ingratiating towards authority.
Like W., Lars cannot drive and has a penchant for flowery shirts. Lars is a Hindu by origin, but is, like W., an atheist.
For W., Lars is characterised by idiocy, obesity, over-exercised thighs and arms, continual illness, apocalypticism, administrative facility, emotional reticence, an inability to converse, Schwärmerei, whining, a sense of persecution, a victim mentality and general hysteria.
Leibniz, Gottfried, 1646-1716
Philosopher mentioned briefly in connection with Cohen, presumably since Leibniz invented the infinitesimal calculus so important to the Jewish thinker.
Levinas, Emmanuel, 1906-1995
Lithuanian born philosopher who spent his working life in France. Levinas is best known for his account of the relational genesis of the self. It is in our address to the presence of the other person, he argues, that we awaken to ourselves as individuals. In speaking to the other human, we become properly ethical. Levinas is distinctive in attempting to provide a phenomenological justification for this claim, and giving a new twist to what W. calls the logic of relations.
W. and Lars have decided that their true role is to promote and serve the thought of others. This might in some measure redeem their own idiocy.
W. and Lars have picked out three leaders over the years, each of whom refused to accept that role. The first was characterised by his seriousness. The second was a man of faith and an expert in financial matters, who predicted economic collapse within the next few years. The third, apparently the greatest of them all, spoke with such profundity that he almost convinced W. and Lars that they could think.
The spiritual leader of W. and Lars is Kafka. They would like Tarr to lead them, too, if they could persuade him, which is unlikely.
The Talmud reports a conversation between Rabbi Joshua ben Levi and the prophet Elijah. ‘When will the Messiah come, and by what sign may I recognise him?’, asks the rabbi. Elijah tells the rabbi is already here, sitting among the poor lepers at the gates of the city. The Messiah binds his sores one by one, instead of bandaging them all at once, Elijah says, because he might be needed urgently, at any time.
The downfall of both W. and Lars, they agree, is that their literary enthusiasm has compromised their philosophical investigations. Reading Kafka’s The Castle set both of them off on the wrong path, W. spending years attempting to imitate Kafka in his own literary writing before giving up, and Lars, according to W., still thinking that he might be Kafka.
Logic of Relations, The
A synonym for the interhuman relation as explored in the German Jewish tradition exemplified by Rosenzweig and Scholem, as well as by Levinas and Blanchot.
M is for …
Form of receptacle that W. finds vastly superior to the rucksack, which Lars favours. W.’s man bag is the perfect home for his notebook, he claims, and for his wipes.
Cocktail made with gin and vermouth, and garnished with an olive or lemon rind. W. and Lars find the Martinis at the members-only cocktail bar at the Plymouth Gin distillery to be particularly noteworthy.
Under the influence of Cohen and Rosenzweig, W. wonders whether mathematics might be the royal road to God. W. is a poor student of mathematics, however, having tried and failed to understand the infinitesimal calculus.
Mascolo, Dionys 1916-1997
Political activist and philosopher. Mascolo is best known now as a member of the Rue Saint-Benoit group, which gathered informally at the flat of Marguerite Duras. Mascolo met Duras, Bataille, Blanchot and others through his job as a reader for the French publishers, Gallimard.
Mascolo joined Duras in the Resistance in 1943, and followed her into the French Communist Party a few years later, before leaving it in 1949 with the aim of developing another institutional form for the left. With Blanchot, he drafted the so-called ‘Manifesto of 121’, and was also active in the Students and Writers Committee during the Events of May 1968.
W. sends Lars a quotation from Mascolo’s book, Communism, which reflects many of the views of the friends who gathered at Rue Saint-Benoit.
The Messiah/ Messianism
A restorative figure found in the Bible. Biblical prophets look forward to his coming, which will transform the world, punishing the sinful and rewarding the righteous. The figure of the Messiah gains particular importance in times of instability and persecution. It is also possible to speak of messianism, which is not simply a belief in a coming Messiah, but the sense that a new epoch is approaching.
Cohen gives the notion of the Messiah a new significance in his work, arguing that prophetic messianism names the defeat of injustice in the movement of humanity as a whole towards the realisation of universal ethical laws. The thinkers who followed him, Rosenzweig and Scholem among them, had, by contrast, lost their faith in such a movement. For them, messianism would intervene, if it did, by interrupting history, by showing that official history, the linear account of events, contains within it a utopian promise.
It is the relation to this messianism, this source of hope, to which Rosenzweig and Scholem, and thinkers who emerge from the same tradition (Levinas, and to some extent, Blanchot), link their reflections on ethics, politics and religion. They share a common sense that messianism is associated with the capacity to speak, to dialogue between human beings. For W., likewise, conversation can be said to be messianic, if approached in the right way.
In Spurious, W. and Lars are researching the topic of messianism with the aim of writing two parallel essays on the topic. They discuss the apostate Messiah, Sabbatai Zevi, as well as the story of the Leper Messiah, and consider the doubling of the figure of the Messiah that Scholem writes about, which sees the Messiah of the old world duplicated by the Messiah of the new one. Their reflections are animated by a vivid sense of what W. calls the logic of relations.
Liberation from the cycle of birth, life, death and rebirth (reincarnation) in Hinduism. Through moksha, the soul attains ultimate peace and enlightenment in the union with God. It is only through moksha, W. says, that Lars will really accept the damp spreading through his flat.
Moment of Illumination
Rare event when Lars actually has an idea, according to W. Sometimes they involve using terminology from ancient Greek. W. mentions two moments of illumination in Spurious: once in a pub garden in Oxford, and another time on the long pier at Mount Batten.