Here are some remarks on some of my January reading.
Anne Carson. I received, as a holiday gift, Anne Carson’s Nox. I’ve previous read Plainwater (which I don’t remember well) and Autobiography of Red (which I loved). Nox is a different beast than either, a replica of a memorial volume Carson made for her brother upon his death. Two storylines are interwoven here: first, the story of Carson’s enigmatic brother, who disappeared to Europe at a fairly young age and, second, the “story” of Carson’s attempt to translate Catullus’ poem for his dead brother. Strange and moving resonances emerge from this. For the translation, Carson presented the Latin, then a series (spread throughout the book) of guides to translating each individual word, then, at last, her translation. The translator’s task was thus presented as one of selection, of taming the myriad possibilities the words offered into a single coherent English poem. In contrast, Carson attempted to portray a full portrait of her brother using only sporadic and oddly distributed information—nearly the opposite task. It is a wonderful, beautiful book.
Peter Reading. I read the first (of three) volumes of Peter Reading’s collected poems, published by Bloodaxe. As I explained in a recent post, I did not care for the book. Happily, however, I read it as part of a local poetry reading group, and I came away from our discussion with a bit more sympathy for Reading’s project. Not that I like it, but I was able to see more compassion in his work than I had previously, and less jadedness. To be sure, jaded inhumanity dominates the book, but I did come to see efforts of a struggle against it, on Reading’s part, and an element of admiration for those who don’t succumb to it.
Kurtis Hagen. Hagen is a philosopher, not a poet, and I had the pleasure of reading his excellent study of Xunzi’s philosophy, straightforwardly titled The Philosophy of Xunzi: A Reconstruction. Hagen argues for a constructionist reading of Xunzi, according to which Xunzi does not see the Way as a fixed inheritance from the ancient sage kings, but inheritance it is our job to actively re-fashion to fit the world as we find it. On this reading, Xunzi fully digested Zhuangzi’s skeptical and relativistic insights about the nature of language and value, but saw how they could be used to promote Confucian ends. Hagen not only makes a compelling case for his interpretation of Xunzi, he makes Xunzi’s philosophy itself compelling. (A friend and I wrote about Xunzi and the logical empiricists here, largely basing our interpretation of Xunzi on Hagen’s work.)
C.L.R. James. On the recommendation of a friend, I read James’ The Black Jacobins, a magnificent history of the slave revolt in Haiti in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Beyond being a riveting (if often horrific) story, James is concerned to support a few general points. First, he offers a reading of history according to which structural (especially economic) forces dominate, but in which there is limited room for individual agents to shape the course of history at key points. Second, he suggests that racial prejudice is fairly superficial. What really matters are economic interests: if the interests of two races align, racial prejudices can be forgotten rather quickly. It is an interesting thesis, of obvious importance today in thinking about the proper role for identity politics. James makes a compelling case in this instance; whether the more general thesis is right, I do not know.
In addition to the above, all of which I’ve completed, I’m also in the middle of a few other books, about which I hope to have more to say later. After Peter Reading, the local reading group is doing Jack Gilbert’s collected poems. So far, I love his work. I’ve also picked up John Ashbery again, picking up where I left off with As We Know. Lastly, I’ve begun Tsong Khapa’s massive Ocean of Reasoning, a thorough commentary on Nāgārjuna’s Mulamadhyamakakārikā. It is scholastic as hell, expanding Nāgārjuna’s taut verses into extended, labored arguments. None of this is a criticism—the Buddhist doctrine of emptiness is a fascinating (and I would say eminently plausible) metaphysical view, and it deserves this sort of thorough treatment.