Alejandra de Argos by Elena Cué

Leïla Slimani, born in 1981, is a French-Morrocan author and the 2016 winner of France's most prestigious award for literature, The Goncourt Prize, for her second novel, "Lullaby". In a distinctly French style, with a tone reminiscent of her compatriot Emmanuel Carrère, Slimani narrates, with both lightning rhythm and a sluggishness typical of day-to-day routine, a dizzying plot that leaves the reader in the uncomfortable position of being able to identify with these easily-relatable incidents. The reading of the novel is accelerated by the flow of her narrative in its search for what is hidden behind what we know to be fact from page one.

Contributing Author: Maira Herrero, 

Maira

 

 

 

 

 

 LEILA SLIMANI 

 Leïla Slimani. Photo @ Heike Huslage-Koch 

Leïla Slimani, born in 1981, is a French-Morrocan author and the 2016 winner of France's most prestigious award for literature, The Goncourt Prize, for her second novel, "Lullaby". In a distinctly French style, with a tone reminiscent of her compatriot Emmanuel Carrère, Slimani narrates, with both lightning rhythm and a sluggishness typical of day-to-day routine, a dizzying plot that leaves the reader in the uncomfortable position of being able to identify with these easily-relatable incidents. The reading of the novel is accelerated by the flow of her narrative in its search for what is hidden behind what we know to be fact from page one. Fiction and non-fiction intermingle in such a way that it becomes difficult to distinguish one from the other. The characters dance around the protagonist, a strange and unfathomable woman who lets only parts of her personality show so that the reader only forms an idea of her character gradually as the book progresses. Nothing is left to chance here. The characters are all intertwined up until their phobias and weaknesses are seen or perceived by others. With painstaking precision, she describes the atmosphere in the house, where most of the action develops, as if it were a discomfited witness to the suffocating reality within it. 

Although having nothing in common with each other, the novel's "perfect nanny" Louise does bring to mind the figure of Vivian Maier, widely known as The Nanny Photographer - an enigmatic and solitary figure who spent her adolescence in France, returning to her American birthplace in the 50's, first New York and later Chicago, to work in childcare but never forgetting her true vocation - photography - and whose body of work, today internationally renowned, went undiscovered until after her death in 2009. She managed to the find a source of inspiration and gratification in the mundanity of her daily life, which she captured in thousands of photographic images that also served to alleviate whatever frustration she may have felt in an otherwise unrewarding job. The streets, with or without people, the children she took care of and her many ingenious self-portraits were captured in over 100,000 negatives, almost all of them recovered by the collector John Maloof. Some Super-8 films were also found along with audio recordings, all of which made Vivian Maier an exceptional chronicler of two American metropolises. 

This digression helps us understand how little we know about the human condition and what remains hidden behind seemingly normal gestures and acts. Slimani shows us the enigma that underlies our subconscious and how, when one least expects it, it leaps ferociously into the wrong scenarios, thereby provoking incompehensible actions and reactions. The narrative manages to confuse the reader who is trying to make sense of what is irrational, what simple appearances don't reveal, what escapes our observation, the small details that describe to perfection the atmosphere breathed inside and outside the place of events. And it's a book that is hard to recommend to those mothers obliged to leave their children in a stranger's hands for many hours without really knowing what is going on in their home. 

The novel pulls no punches when dealing with issues such as the female condition and the debate around motherhood versus career. The dilemma that exists between child-rearing and/or a professional life highlights the complexity of that choice. Parents justifying themselves and their dereliction of duty or priorities at any given time reflects the difficulty in deciding how to confront the situations we often find ourselves caught up in.  

The novel was inspired by real-life events that took place in New York City in 2012. 

 

 

(Translated from the Spanish by Shauna Devlin)

 

 

- Leïla Slimani: Lullaby (Chanson Douce) -                        - Alejandra de Argos -

Both among those who, by reason of their religion and culture, consider themselves to be Jews and for those living as Jews whilst also considering themselves an integral part of the secular and cosmoplitan mindset prevalent today, the question of a Jewish identity and the main issues involved in defining it is a recurrent one: for instance, the Jewish take on history and time, Jewish persepectives as regards individuality and collectivity, and, of course, anti-Semitism to name but a few. With the sole aim of contributing to the dialogue this type of reflection invites, I would dare to posit the two-way character, at once ambiguous and conflictual, of the Jewish estate that this conversation, broadly speaking, might well end up concluding.

Contributor: Dr. Diego Sánchez Meca,
Lecturer in History of Contemporary Philosophy,
Universidad de Madrid (UNED), Spain

Diego Sanchez Meca small 

 

 

 

 

 Judios 

 

Both among those who, by reason of their religion and culture, consider themselves to be Jews and for those living as Jews whilst also considering themselves an integral part of the secular and cosmoplitan mindset prevalent today, the question of a Jewish identity and the main issues involved in defining it is a recurrent one: for instance, the Jewish take on history and time, Jewish persepectives as regards individuality and collectivity, and, of course, anti-Semitism to name but a few. With the sole aim of contributing to the dialogue this type of reflection invites, I would dare to posit the two-way character, at once ambiguous and conflictual, of the Jewish estate that this conversation, broadly speaking, might well end up concluding.

  

I am referring, in particular, to that indeterminate oscillation, as yet unresolved but still so characteristic of the Jewish people, between the temptations of sectarianism and the impulse to participate in the dynamics of society on equal terms with the rest of its members. This seeming duplicity, this conflict or ambiguity in their position would be incomprehensible were we not to take into account the tenets of Judaism as a religion and the vicissitudes of concrete Jewish history up to the present. It will be a lay understanding of the specificity of religious tendencies and the mystical orientations of Judaism - which rewrite Judaistic history from a deep understanding of the reciprocal influences of religious, social and political factors - which can, to a large extent, shed light on the problems surrounding the situation of Jews in today's world.

Gershom Scholem, one of the greatest scholars of Abrahamic spirituality, pointed to messianism and redemption at the core of earliest Jewish belief as its defining elements, albeit as undertood very differently to the Christian view of them. Christianity sees redemption as an event that happens within the spiritual domain, invisible, inside the soul, in an individual's personal universe and one that refers, essentially, to an inner transformation that doesn't necessarily change the course of history, while for Judaism, the coming of the Messiah and the ultimate redemption are, essentially, an historic event that must needs take place both in the public arena and within the bosom of Jewish society. In other words, it is a visible, temporal happening that would be inconceivable without that outward manifestation. An internalised redemption interpretation has always seemed to Judaism a get-out clause, a loophole, an escape from the scrutiny and challenge that Messianism represents in terms of actively hoping for and, therefore, contributing to the restoration of creation to its original perfection.    

But this state of active hoping and waiting is often at odds with a centuries-long evolution that spans everything from an optimism that fomented even large-scale socio-political revolutionary movements to an attitude of disillusionment - in no small measure determined by the failure of those very movements - in the midst of which the merely spiritual tends to prevail over the need for social and political action. It is at this moment that "the Hebraic political body stops functioning and its people withdraw from public life and history".

Scholem himself recognised, in this deep disillusionment with messianic hope, one of the major causes of the Jewish community's retreat inside itself, of its tendency to cloister and isolate and limit itself to just the conservation of its threatened identity and, perforce, of its political dismemberment. It is this situation that makes the Jew - and not just in the metaphysical sense of the clichéd "Wandering Jew" - a true symbol of the condition of every modern man and woman, as an individual deprived of community bonds, oblivious to true solidarity and dispossessed of a common homeland, as explained a few years ago by the French scholar and philosopher André Neher. According to Neher, the Jew is a voluntarily disenfranchised pariah who does not consent to being subjected to the worldly conventions that constitute a collective identity, but rather accepts their condition of marginality and becomes a conscientious pariah, even though this means renouncing the advantages of social success.

 

It is, perhaps, from this point of view of social marginalisation that one might best understand the Jewish approach to history, their exodus, their wandering, displacement and diasphora over the centuries. Judaism, according to Franz Rosenzweig, in so far as it positions itself outside both the course of history and the modern concept of history, imposes itself as the voice advocating the notion of itself as the measure and judge of all things. This does not mean to say that, in order to judge history, one has to be Jewish. However, it is the Jewish people who have demonstrated how it is possible to liberate not only themselves but Gentiles also from the weight of history, in as much as they do not wish to be part of it but, rather, to look at it in its entirety from the outside.  

But if social marginalisation can result in an aptitude for historical critique, it can likewise induce behavioural patterns dominated by a desire to distinguish itself or to display qualities that speak to a, supposed or actual, Jewish superiority. This is what led figures such as Benjamin Disraeli to claim it a strategic virtuosity or an almost occult power over non-Jewish society which, both effectively and lamentably, served in its day to reinforce an anti-Jewish sentiment and anti-semitic prejudice. Instead of an objective judgement on the difference between Jew and Gentile, this attitude paved the way for simplistic, mytho-religious counterpositions and a manichaeism of good and evil. According to Hannah Arendt's detailed analysis of the social situation of Jews in pre-Nazi Europe in the first section of her The Origins Of Totalitarianism, it is the apoliticalism of Hebrew communities, together with the depoliticisation of the bourgeois masses, that contributed most to the rise of anti-semitism. Following on from Scholem, Arendt explains this illusory pretension to superiority felt by some emancipated Jews as one of the consequences of the bankruptcy of Messianic hopes and the Jewish secularisation that ensued. Judaism, once its spiritual and religious essence is diluted down, tends to transform itself into the mere fact of ethnic and linguistic belonging. Too "enlightened" to show any religious convictions, the emancipated Jew maintains, nonetheless, their links to the claim of belonging to the "chosen people" which places them outside both Jewish society proper and that of the Gentiles.  The condition of this European Jew, within the vanishing framework of a bourgeoisie increasingly distant from its revolutionary origins, becomes almost elusive.

One way or another, the Jewish condition then takes on the aspect of a worldlessness or uprootedness. Lost in the secularised dream of heaven on earth, European Jews allow their political history to depend on external, casual and even sinister factors. And so ... does this not come to confirm the failure of the notion of politics not just in the Jewish world but in the modern world in general?  Social particularism, obsession with prestige and the dissociation between citizenry and institutions are taken-as-read characteristics of contemporary Western society. However, all things considered, something positive has also come out of this failure, namely, that the distinction between a community's religious and political practices be built on the defence of a necessary distinction between the private and public spheres. Cultural traditions, ethnic and linguistic belonging or religious faith are what constitute the uniqueness of the actors on the world stage. But the chance for each of them to act freely in this world common to us all, whilst maintaining their differences from it, require an ability to transcend their unicity and singularity. 

 

That is why a nation state like Israel, founded after the Holocaust in order for Jews to have their own political space, may seem regressive in the light of these modern world achievements and to the extent that it is based on strong confessional connotations. Perhaps the right direction to go in is not that of a search for a strictly nationalistic solution but rather, conversely, one that attempts to reconcile the specifically Jewish situation with that of society as a whole, one that tries to unite Jewish aspirations to emancipation with the right of all peoples to self-determination.  In order for Jews to be liberated form their status as excluded and persecuted, it is necessary that they be themselves, in any public sphere, and that they be equal to non-Jews, assuming and themselves demanding equality with all others. They will, of course, still need to maintain their own historical, religious and cultural identity. As Emmanuel Levinas rightly observed, Judaism is the face of an exteriority that cannot be engulfed in an undifferentiated entirety. But they must also transcend this identity and move towards a structure of universal relations. Only by acting independently of their ethnic origin or religious faith can Jews acquire the right of access to that common public domain in which the status of plurality becomes reality, or, in other words, where they can live as distinct and unique beings among their equals.

In a nutshell, the Jewish condition, having now become a symbol of modern exile and rootlessness, would then assume the fundamental significance of a struggle for the conquest not just of a physical or a social space but, more importantly, of a political one. A space where the irreductable, entrenched differences between people based on their origins no longer constitute a factor in discrimination but become, rather, the foundation for the equal and pluralistic participation of all in the practice of politics.

 

(Translated from the Spanish by Shauna Devlin)

 

 

- But just who are the Jewish people? -                        - Alejandra de Argos -

It is highly likely that, for many people, philosophy ultimately amounts to nothing more than an ambiguous word, used as it is in very varied contexts to refer to different things. As a common linguistic expression, the word "philosophy" doesn't have a precise substance to it and nor does it allow for a generally accepted or acceptable brief definition. We hear repeatedly about the philosophy of an electoral programme in politics or the philosophy of a marketing strategy for a product in the fields of commerce or industry. We also hear it said, in our everyday language, that it is best to look at life philosophically or that each person has their own philosophy on life. Lastly, it is said that philosophy is also a type of knowledge, somewhat vague or even obscure for some, engaged in or indulged in by certain individuals not unknown for a certain smugness and distinguishable by their aura of esotericism and mystery.

Contributor: Dr. Diego Sánchez Meca,
Lecturer in History of Contemporary Philosophy,
Universidad de Madrid (UNED), Spain

Diego Sanchez Meca small 

 

 

 

 

 La escuela de Atenas ilustrando el artículo Filosofía por Diego Sanchez Meca 

 

It is highly likely that, for many people, philosophy ultimately amounts to nothing more than an ambiguous word, used as it is in very varied contexts to refer to different things. As a common linguistic expression, the word "philosophy" doesn't have a precise substance to it and nor does it allow for a generally accepted or acceptable brief definition. We hear repeatedly about the philosophy of an electoral programme in politics or the philosophy of a marketing strategy for a product in the fields of commerce or industry. We also hear it said, in our everyday language, that it is best to look at life philosophically or that each person has their own philosophy on life. Lastly, it is said that philosophy is also a type of knowledge, somewhat vague or even obscure for some, engaged in or indulged in by certain individuals not unknown for a certain smugness and distinguishable by their aura of esotericism and mystery. 

The fact of the matter is, especially for those who have not yet taken a serious, personal interest in philosophy as an intellectual discipline, that whatever common denominator, if any, there might be amongst the multiplicity of applications of the term "philosophy" and its concepts, this has not made itself widely known. Even granting that differentiating between philosophy as a vital attitude and philosophy as theoretical knowledge, let me focus, for now, on the latter meaning whilst acknowledging that the complexity and difficulties in reaching a clear and precise concept of what philosophy actually is will persist. One might be able to see things more clearly by making a comparison.

If we ask ourselves what biology, mathematics and history are as intellectual disciplines and what they are used for or why they exist, defining them is not an insoluble problem. Thus, biology is essentially the study of living matter and organic phenomena, using the observational method. Its results are useful in the fields of medicine, industry, agriculture, etc. There is no special difficulty in answering the question "What is biology?" But is it the same in the case of philosophy, even when understood as just an intellectual discipline? Even after 27 centuries in existence, anyone would be hard pushed to provide such a clear answer to the questions: "What is the purpose of philosophy?" or "What is the reasoning behind this age-old intellectual pursuit?"

Perhaps someone reading this might be expecting me to reveal the "right" concept of what philosophy is, to resolve all the confusion and to provide a magical answer that would eliminate any doubt. Forgive me for telling you that I don't intend to even try. And not just on the hackneyed pretext that it's not possible to solve such a complex and thorny issue in the short space of an article but because I consider myself highly unlikely to succeed at an endeavour where many illustrious teachers have failed before me.  

Given the changes that the concept of philosophy has undergone throughout history, along with the breadth and variety of cultural products that have designated themselves "philosophy", it becomes very difficult and risky to construct or to coin a univocal, definitive and universal concept of what philosophy is.  The formulation of its tasks and objectives has been modified according to historical circumstances and as each particular science has appeared and evolved. Which is why, from a systematic point of view, it isn't entirely possible to determine philosophy's scope of study, objectives and methods with any set know-how or science and in the established way, from the word go. The defining characteristic of philosophy as an intellectual discipline is, therefore, going to be the crux of its task in having to "critically" justify itself in the selfsame way that reason develops in its attempt to understand the world.    

In very general terms, the vast majority of the great philosophers of the past constructed their philosophies from a specific "modus operandi", or rather from a certain "method" that distinguished philosophy from other fields of knowledge, particularly the sciences. Thus, while each individual science was concerned with one given and fixed objective or with the one specific problem that constituted its speciality, be it organic phenomena in the case of biology for instance, or the study of fossils in that of paleontology, or atmospheric phenomena in that of meteorology, philosophy's "speciality" was, one could say, "the totality of what is", or in other words, the sense of the whole, the being of the universe, taking universe to mean the whole, integral ensemble of everything that is, of the universals that exist within it and their mutual relationships.  

 

Methodologically, our philosopher was not (strictly speaking) interested as such in each and every object or problem that makes up the universe in themselves, in their separateness and specificity but rather in the sense of their interrelationships, what each thing "is" together with or in opposition to the rest, its position, role and rank in the grand scheme of things and what each thing represents in the entirety of universal existence. The scientist, bound by the self-imposed constraints of his method, has always positioned himself within the universe, marking off a portion of it with what he has made the object of his study. But, in so doing, he automatically broke the web of interdependencies in which every object cannot help but find itself, blocking out the integrity of our lived world as it appears to us inside our natural and spontaneous mindset. This is precisely what the philosopher was therefore looking for: a totality, an idea, an all-encompassing conception of the whole or of this innately-sensed universe in which we go about our daily lives, not as a jumbled, bitty mess of things but as something complete and unified. 

Perhaps at first glance, these aspirations and attempts by past philosophers to think of the sense of the whole as a systematic and unified conception of all reality might seem, to those of us in the 21st century, to have something of the megalomaniac about them. In fact, these days, such an undertaking is still considered to be an illusory task of impossible and unbridled pretensions even though, granted that it seeks to find a sense of the whole of the universe and of life, philosophy is just a discipline that is neither more nor less modest than any other. Because that Whole, so sought-after by philosophy, was not thought of as a numerical set of existing things, nor was it made up of the sum of all knowledge from all the sciences. Rather, it would confine itself to pursuing the universal in each and every thing, its essence, the factor that makes every object connect with and fit into a totality, thus acquiring a fullness of meaning.

Hegel - surely the last of the great systematic and metaphysical philosophers - said that only philosophy made us see the world as it is, as a whole, and not illusively as the separate things that might appear in it; isolated, autonomous, unrelated, meaningless. As opposed to the sciences, philosophy would thus have a role of the highest order to fulfil and that would be none other than to offer a concept of the whole, a "metaphysical" notion of the beingness of the world and the meaning of life.  

 

One of the arguments put forward by contemporary critics of this metaphysical philosophy of the past has been that, if the validity of a knowledge is measured by the effective results obtained in whatever subject it addresses, then philosophy's progress over its 27 centuries of existence and endeavour does not seem to have achieved anything at all effective and almost nothing close to what it claimed to be researching. Because, where is this progress? Who today possesses this unified and universal concept of the sense of the whole of the Universe that is more or less commonly accepted? What is this concept of the world itself that philosophy presents to humanity today? What are the core values that philosophy proposes in order to morally orient the actions and lives of men and women today?

 

The answers to these questions do not allow for any one consensus of opinion on the systematic achievements  of past philosophers regarding philosophy as the "science of knowledge", or an intellectual discipline. For precisely this reason, the only possible answer today to the question "What is philosophy" should start with a refusal to distinguish philosophy as intellectual discipline from philosophy as an attitude to life. Philosophy is and remains, first and foremost, that - an attitude, an outlook, man's way of existing as he confronts the world. But it is an attitude that takes the form of aspiration, desire, restlessness, anxiety, and a "desire to know", to understand, to appropriate wisdom. And this is precisely what the term "philosophy" means in ancient Greek - "the love of knowledge". However, as a quest for a general sense of the world and for reasons that guide our behaviour and our expectations, it cannot, strictly-speaking, claim any definitive theory of anything. Instead, it probes and analyses in an exhausting search for itself and in the continual pursuit of the multiple, changing meanings of things. And even more so given that the world, society, human behaviour and life taken altogether are not static. They are, rather, living entities in a progressive and integral state of flux covering an infinity of dynamic interrelations.

Even so, there will still be someone asking, and they would be perfectly in keeping with the pragmatic and utilitarian spirit of our times: "What is philosophy for?"; "Which of our needs does it satisfy?"; "Why all this searching for meanings and the value of phenomena and processes that the sciences are already dealing with better and more rigorously?"; "Why not just do what the vast majority of people do which is just live their lives in peace, ignoring all the vagueness and ambiguity that philosophers tell us about?"; or "Perhaps there's more to all that searching than just a subtle way of complicating our lives and most definitely everyone else's as well?" 


Kant said that whoever philosophises does so at the insistence of his own reasoning's dynamism. In other words, his mind will not be pacified with any old explanation, aspiring, rather, onwards and upwards in search of supreme syntheses and the most penetrating, all-encompassing meanings. Aristotle, for his part, thought that every human being, in one way or other, is a philosopher by nature because, in his view, every human being wants to know. And Plato asserted that when this desire for knowledge and this love of wisdom (which are the essences of philosophy) happen to someone, stirring and awakening in them, then it is usually as a result of that person's painful, prior realisation that they don't know, that they don't understand and that they "need" to know in order to be. It would, therefore, be in that perception of one's own ignorance and "lackingness" that the root of knowledge, and hence philosophy, lies. 

And it is because of this deficiency and fundamental powerlessness that every man and woman, in order to be a human being, is forced into repeated attempts to ascend from their innate ignorance towards wisdom, an effort that can only be beneficial and productive when it is as a result of a love of knowing. Or, put differently, when it comes from an outlook on life that can be described unequivocally as philosophy, a probing attitude arising from the human need to understand and express itself. It can thus be seen how this vital attitude underlying philosophical activity comes to symbolise and essencialize its educational and autodidactic function since, due to its methodological stance, philosophy insists on the absolute requirement to always go above and beyond the mere accumulation and superimposing of specialised, partial or disjointed information, like that provided by each of the individual sciences. In other words, it advocates, as its most defining feature, the need to arrive at a meaning that somehow includes the interrelationships between and the places that different partial and specialised knowledges should occupy in an ideal universal synthesis, something that would be neither attainable nor formulatable in a closed system, of the type of knowing that would reflect, in an achievable way, the totality of all that it is possible to know.

 

(Translated from the Spanish by Shauna Devlin)

 


- What I understand by philosophy -                                                           - Alejandra de Argos -

"The most intelligent and most important poet our country has produced this century has died, in hospital in Rome, as a result of the burns she suffered, apparently, at home in her bath according to the Italian authorities' investigations. I have travelled with her and during our travels, she shared many of her philosophical opinions as well as her concerns about the way the world was heading and about the course of history, both of which frightened her throughout her whole life." With these words, Thomas Bernhard summed up the death of his dear friend, Ingeborg Bachmann. Bachmann died on the 5th May 1973 of burns sustained during a fire at her house in Rome. She had chosen to settle there definitively in 1969 for its Southern European warmth and sunlight.

Author: Maira Herrero, 
MA in Philosophy.

Maira

 

 

 

 

   Ingeborg Bachmann  

 

"The most intelligent and most important poet our country has produced this century has died, in hospital in Rome, as a result of the burns she suffered, apparently, at home in her bath according to the Italian authorities' investigations. I have travelled with her and during our travels, she shared many of her philosophical opinions as well as her concerns about the way the world was heading and about the course of history, both of which frightened her throughout her whole life." With these words, Thomas Bernhard summed up the death of his dear friend, Ingeborg Bachmann.

Bachmann died on the 5th May 1973 of burns sustained during a fire at her house in Rome. She had chosen to settle there definitively in 1969 for its Southern European warmth and sunlight. She was known to drink and use drugs and fire was a recurring metaphor in much of her writing. Her friends were not altogether surprised at this tragic ending to an eventful life full of successes, suffering and sadness. She was 47.

 

Philosophy, literature and language make up the poetic and narrative work  of this highly intelligent, academically accomplished, elegant and tremendously attractive Austrian, born in 1926 in Klagenfurt, in the Austrian state of Carinthia, near the Slovenian border. The Second World War forced her to abandon her home and embark on a kind of pilgrimage to escape the destruction and barbarity that was ravishing her country. Those events marked her life and her work and would always serve as a literary resource for her to speak of the identity of a world where borders simultaneously make divisions and blur them, leaving in limbo all that she had previously believed in.

 

Her heightened sensitivity to the world enabled her to mould images or reflections in very few words and to move from the grandest ideas to the tiniest of details. Always faithful to her intellectual convictions, she sought out the most authentic form of expression through language. As she herself said: Poetry comes with the words. I seek language in its purest form and reject "worn-out" words to pinpoint the truth. Once again, it is the language that scaffolds the text.

 

 Ingeborg Bachmann 1971 

 

Despite being one of the most important, cult authors of the second half of 20th century Europe, an icon of German literature and the "first lady" of the Group 47 movement, her work has yet to enjoy the renown it deserves in Spain. Three Paths To The Lake is, therefore, an excellent opportunity to get to know this exceptional author who excelled in all the literary genres including poetry, novel, essay. The story forms part of a 1972 book of five stories collectively titled Simultan.

 

It is one of those short stories that can be re-read with renewed pleasure time and time again and, on each occasion, previously unseen meanings are always to be found. In closed, topographic and autobiographical prose, Bachmann's story features the protagonist's annual visit to her elderly father's house. There, the successful photojournalist Elisabeth Matrei comes face to face with "yesterday's world", the routines of simple, small town life and the passing of time, all  within an atmosphere of claustrophobia in which Elisabeth's thoughts become gradually more and more entangled and only ever interrupted by her frustrated attempts to reach the lake by means of some long-since disapperared paths.  Bachmann uses the novel as a search through space and time of her own existence, like a map full of lost references that gradually return to the present. The "I" that used to be, and had disappeared long ago, is brought back and up-close in order to reflect on the role of women in current society as well as others' perceptions of this new status seeminglygranted to the female sex in their struggle for equality.  Love, lovers, family relationships and all that the surname Trotta suggests with regard to Austrian history and literature round off the story in an explicit reference to Josep Roth. 

 

 

 Ingeborg Bachmann y Kurt Saucke1962 

 

Ingeborg Bachmann was deeply committed to engagement with her times and the novel echoes the end of colonialism, referencing The Algerian and Vietnam Wars in an attempt to reach an understanding of the complexities of the world she and we live in. It is also worth mentioning the artist Anselm Kiefer who incorporated many passages from Bachmann's writing into his paintings as a means of drawing attention to the horror of conflict.

 

It is only by dint of having lived her life to the full and being a genius at language that Bachmann was able to condense into such a short novel so many questions about the constant contradictions inherent in our very existence and to perturb us enough not to remain impassive when faced with so much falsehood.

 

 

 Tres Senderos Hacia el Lago Ingeborg Bachmann 



(Translated from the Spanish by Shauna Devlin)

 

- Three Paths To The Lake by Ingeborg Bachmann -                     - Alejandra de Argos -

Author: Maira Herrero, 
MA in Philosophy.

Maira

 

 

 

 

 Archive of Svetlana Alexievich

Photo from the archives of Svetlana Alexievich

 


Svetlana Alexievich (1948, The Ukraine) was last year’s winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature on one of the very few occasions it has been awarded for a work of non-fiction or in her native language, Russian. Only Theodor Mommsen, Winston Churchill and Solzhenitsyn have ever been likewise honoured for historical research in prose.

 

 La guerra no tiene rostro de mujer
 
  Front covers of the English and Spanish translations of Svetlana Alexievich’s Nobel Prize-winning book

 

It is throughout her book, War’s Unwomanly Face, that the characters’ transcribed voices denounce some of the worst crises of the twentieth century, as experienced by the then Soviet Union: the Second World War, the Afghan conflict, the Chernobyl nuclear disaster and the collapse of the Soviet Union itself. Alexievich has invented a new literary genre in which the reader inadvertently comes face to face with gritty truths spoken from the deepest wells of pain in the human soul.

The style of War’s Unwomanly Face is arguably and essentially that of a doctoral thesis documenting the behaviour of Soviet women on and off the battlefield during the Second World War. The book is made up of the not-so-fond reminiscences and short personal stories told to the author by women who risked their lives for their country but were never credited, or even remembered, by history until now. Alexievich remembers how, as a child, she would listen enthralled to the women in her village swap tales about the war. They and their stories had a huge impact on her young mind that only increased over time and led to her wanting to find out more. After moving to Belarus in the late 1960’s to study journalism and forging a highly successful career there, Alexievich embarked on a journey to interview hundreds upon hundreds of women who had served in the Red Army. Those monologues became the initial stages of what would turn out to be a rich and detailed tapestry of testimonials concerning the role and vision of women during this terrible period of time in modern-day history. Women who survived and lived to tell the tale of circumstances so extreme, tragic and painful that it is difficult for us to hear, let alone imagine, them in today’s world. All of these lived experiences, recounted from the most intimate memories of the female protagonists, make up a choral narrative with a unique perspective – what the war to combat a German invasion meant for Russian women at that time and what they understood by patriotism. The author, whilst remaining true to the serious revelations contained in every memory she records, does also grant the reader frequent respite from the severity of her subject matter by the inclusion of seemingly frivolous little anecdotes from the humdrum everyday lives, even during wartime, of otherwise unremarkable human beings. Her prose is concise and without artifice, thereby brilliantly resolving the difficulties inherent in dealing with feelings. It also transmits the author’s empathy with her interviewees who leave us in no doubt as to the veracity of their testimonies and who imbibe the entire book with their palpable strength of will.

 

 World War II Soviet female snipers unknown author
   
World War II female Soviet snipers. Photographer unknown.

 

The publication in 1985 of War’s Unwomanly Face, written two years earlier, coincided with the welcome arrival of the perestroika/glasnost era and was met with spectacular critical acclaim and commercial success. Its 2015 publication in Spain came in the same year it was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature.

This is evidently not, therefore, just another book about war or the barbarity of war in our time. It is, rather, a reflexion on the hopes invested in and frustrated by the events that constitute our recent history. When, in 1979, Lyotard described a crisis facing longer novels versus the proliferation of shorter books whose infinite varieties are unforgiving of them, he could have been describing exactly what Alexievich does on a daily basis, namely: she maintains the individual identity of each of her speakers without compromising their credibility or that of the narrative.
For me to recommend that you read it smacks almost of a dare because, as Franz Kafka once said, this is a book that deserves your attention and one that will strike you down with the aim of an ice-pick, chipping away at the coldness in your heart, mind and very spirit itself.
 

 

 World War II sniper Roza Shanina with her rifle 1944. Photo by A. N. Fridlyanski
  
World War II sniper Roza Shanina with her rifle, 1944. Photo by A. N. Fridlyanski 

 

 

(Translated from the Spanish by Shauna Devlin)      

 

 

- “War’s Unwomanly Face”. Svetlana Alexievich -                     - Alejandra de Argos -

Contributor: Dr. Diego Sánchez Meca,
Lecturer in History of Contemporary Philosophy,
Universidad de Madrid (UNED), Spain

Diego Sanchez Meca small 

 

 

 

 

   nietzsche06b40dcd

 

She got out of her car, knees together, showing off her elegant high-heel shoes, her skirt cut and her printed silk blouse with a cleavage that left the smooth skin of her neck in full view. This image of Isabelle merged with the other images that were still in my memory, jumping around and crashing into one another over and over again, obstructing the truth and pulling me towards that world of memories previously alive, idealized or simply made up. It was getting dark outside and I was about to reach Sils Maria, in the Swiss High Engadin, to take part in a congress on Nietzschean philosophy, together with a high-level international group of experts.

Her weightless, ethereal hair in the wind and her big blue eyes were the hallmarks of this free and modern woman, someone who moves with independence and who knows how to get the most out of life. At the same time, though, she enjoyed an elevated philosophical and intellectual reputation which inspired admiration in students and teachers alike. It’s impossible to reach the levels of understanding of the difficult topics she has written about without some kind of rigorous asceticism, and her academic career was a testament to her courage and self-discipline. Nonetheless, and in contrast to this, she was also well-known for her desire for fun, for her girl-about-town attitude, and for her ability to mix smoothly with the shadows of the night where, together with all the luxury and glamour, one also finds touches of the banal, the frivolous and, yes, the obscure.

Although this wasn’t the first time she was visiting this incredible location in the Swiss Alps, the landscape of the valley and the sublime mountains made an impression on her once again, to the point where she was naming the peaks to me one by one. On the Northern side, Lagrev and Gravasalna, and to the South, Rosatsch, Corvatsch and Chapütschin. And then of course the lakes: the Campfer, Silvaplana and the Sils, its waters shifting between sapphire blue and turquoise. The colours varied between the light green of the meadows at the base, to the darker green of the great woody masses on the sides of the valley, to the grey of the peaks and the white at the very top, the colours morphing from one to another with magical fluidity: within an hour they would go from the joy of the sunny brightness to the severity of the greyish fog and mist. Among that deep silence, one had the impression of witnessing the birth of the world, since neither the grass nor the earth nor the water seemed to have grown old at all.

 

shoulderssswitzerland2

 

Isabelle remembered that during the summers that Nietzsche spent there, between 1881 and 1888, he lived in a rustic lodging that was part of a small group of houses on the valley-side, with balconies full of flowers. After some time, the original village had become a place of luxury for affluent holiday-makers. “Nietzsche”, she would tell me, “would come here to think and to write. He would work in the mornings, take a stroll during the day, and return in the evening with his notebooks full of notes, only to resume working after dinner until well into the night. According to his journals, the strolls he most enjoyed among the many that he took (through the woods, along the shores of the lakes, in the mountains, etc.) were the ones that took him up towards the lookout point, from where one can contemplate the solitary Surlej, lying among the meadows; or even when he went up until he reached the throat of the Fex from where, to the right of Platta, it is possible to view the entire amphitheatre of peaks. How about we go on these strolls ourselves today?”

The congress’ first talk was given by a veteran Italian professor who read out the content of a letter by Nietzsche to his friend Peter Gast from August 1881, in which he wrote, “Here in Sils Maria the most unexpected thoughts strike me. My dear friend! Sometimes I get this strange feeling that I’m one of these machines that explodes. The depth of my emotions makes me shiver and laugh. Sometimes I can’t leave my bedroom simply because my eyes are all red. Why are they so red? Because the previous day, while I was strolling, I had cried too much, not with sadness but with joy. I was singing, I was talking nonsense, I felt full of life again, a feeling I now treasure in myself as others seem to lack it”. It was obvious, the speaker was adding, that Nietzsche needed solitude. He would arrive here full of work projects, only to find his trunks full of books sent to him by his loyal friend Overbeck from Basilea. Here he read Spinoza,and was surprised by the proximity he felt towards him; he dabbled in mechanics, political economy, cosmology, biology and psychology. A great transformation was growing inside of him, and for it to bear fruits he vitally needed solitude. He was fond of saying that he came here to “disappear forever” (der auf ewig Abhandengekommene). But the most important reason was, in fact, that in Sils Maria he could take long strolls and seek out inspiration, because to him — and so he mentions explicitly on more than occasion — his best ideas would come to him when he was climbing the mountain.

 

 sils maria 1889 

 

Another speaker referred to the inspiration that Nietzsche confessed to have had in Sils Maria that led to his more decisive thought, his most enigmatic and difficult. While taking a walk near the huge monolithic block of the Surlej, a vision came to him, making him shiver and write in his journal: “This was written at 6,000 feet above the rest of men, and in the present time.” What had he seen in this ecstasy, and what was this note hiding?”, the speaker was wondering. From what he told us later, in Ecce Homo, in this vision that had divinely exalted his soul, he thought that he had suddenly grasped the law of the worlds, their eternal return, in a kind of Heraclitean or Pythagorean reminiscence. A very old thought, suddenly uncovered from its oldest most forgotten recesses, just glimpsed in a kind of trance far beyond our daily experiences and the limits of our senses. Some have been quick to point out, “This is proof of the beginning of his madness”. Nonetheless, ended the professor, Nietzsche converted this intuition into a liberating thought with the power to transform us all into superhuman beings.

By the time it was Isabelle’s turn to speak, there was already much anticipation in the room. She began somewhat abruptly, raising her head rhythmically throughout her talk, and smiling indifferently at the end of each small pause: “Totalitarianism,” she began, “is the most successful figure of the solemnity of our faith in being… We could say that it is the exacerbation of the profoundly human tendency to compensate for the wants of being with an overdose of being. We don’t just see this in totalitarianism, however. The fullness of being is affirmed and reaffirmed in all official debates on politics, art, culture, religion, etc., also in our democratic societies. We need an idealized, idealist world, perhaps deified and adorned by a native happiness. And for this reason, those who have ironically insisted in the system’s discordant aspects have been expelled from the circle that is being closed with the same lively enthusiasm with which one attempts to exorcize the devil’s laughter. Nietzsche, lover of these avenues, inspired by these heights, suffered this exclusion, and is still being excluded to this day.

She continued developing her argument, referring to an irrepressible fight between things and their meanings, between human beings and themselves, calling it the best definition of reality. “For this reason”, she concluded, “this fight is unleashed, and is always accompanied by the desire for lost, unrecoverable harmony, which is the desire that dominates in that construction of worlds in which the inessential takes on the appearance of the essential, and where a false harmony covers up a reality full of noise, dirt and cruelty. Only when it is transfigured in the beauty of an artistic illusion, wrapped in the dream of a myth and of Apollonian measure, can the absurd and terrible character of existence be contemplated, only then can it seduce one to live it.

The auditorium, now more full of people than in previous talks, showed its satisfaction at the end of the conference with a resounding applause, and the other speakers made complimentary remarks and thought up various questions that Isabelle answered with brilliance and elegance.

“Take me away from here”, she whispered to me, approaching me when the next talk was about to begin. “I need a drink. It’s a matter of life and death”.

We went to a pub and she asked for a large gin and tonic with Citadelle. I complimented her on her success, although I noted that she wasn’t really enjoying it. She seemed indifferent, quickly changed the subject and began pondering the virtues of the botrytis cinerea, a bitter-tasting fungus used to sweeten Santernes wines. Then she added that what she really fancied for dinner were crépinettes scented with Piedmont truffle and ox carpaccio washed down with a good Burgundy or Moselle. And to end the evening tasting a good Krug Millésimé in an ice-cold glass while we gazed at the stars’ reflections on the surface of the lake. “Oh darling!, there’s no place like Paris to live life to the full, there’s no place like Paris to dream of a full life”.

The waiter returned and served her another round, this time pouring blue Bombay Sapphire in a wide glass full of crushed ice, while I stood there looking at her, intrigued by her mystery, an oracle of the occult that I attempted to decipher to sense what it was that she was hiding behind her face, behind her words.

“In love with Nietzsche, perhaps?”, I asked her.

“It’s difficult to be in love and be productive at the same time”, she answered. Her gaze returned towards an undetermined place, she became quiet and after a pause she added:

“To stand out professionally is difficult. The best thing to do to get attention is to say or do extravagant things.”

The only thing separating us was the glass with ice, which was slowly melting and sticking to the slice of lemon. With a sweet, serene gesture and a look from within, she continued: “The best lovers, if they really are in love, are in a rush to end their torment, and they do everything they can to liberate themselves from it. In order for the relationship to last, one should never swear to be in love. What love does not end up telling itself the little totalitarian story of its harmony, rebuilding a past in line with its aspirations, from which are excluded all doubts, all emptiness, all disappointments and infidelities? I think that, because of this, love — and not knowledge — is where human beings sign their most solemn pact with being. A pact which must be inseparable from parody, because there are no loves in which there is no adaptation to being, in which the misunderstood is not the most important person (the illusion of a full alignment with the other, right there with incommunication, tension and discordance), in which the only existing link is not that of jealousy of compassion, and in which the very idea of love is not continually betrayed by its figures. What I like about Nietzsche’s criticism is that it is still as hurtful and intolerable for many because it unmasks the mystifiers who manipulate and decorate this “reality” with fictions and absolute and totalitarian masks. These impostors don’t care about the truth that all authentic faiths always go hand in hand with doubt, and that the important things in life, like love, are never protected from the erosion of expiration, mistreated because of what we do to them.

 

 postal-de-amor-rosa-roja 

 

On Saturday, at the end of the congress, we spent a day out to Surlej. The birds flew across the sky at the start of the day while we began our trek up the mountainside. The daylight had a delicate, imperious quality to it, while the lake reflected in its stillness the blue of the sky, a few grey butts that crossed it and the vegetation of its shores. The beauty of the place gave the morning a sort of false euphoria that imposed itself on my imagination, as I remembered the words and conversations with Isabelle. “What beauty!”, she exclaimed, placing the back of her hand on her eyes to cover herself from the sun. Suddenly the sky began to darken and the day started turning into a strange night, bathed in a livid light that seemed to grow from the surface of the lake. An inverted light that was being projected back onto the black butts.

“What inexplicable means is this, do you think”, she said to me, “that converts white into black, the interesting into boring, the risible into essential or the fascinating into fearful? It escapes us. Meaning occupies, and encroaches on, the space of the absurd, the anxious confirmation of nothingness is soon alleviated by the firm weight of what is. This is our most common experience. But then, doubt and skepticism must always remain like the hidden face of our faith and of our original assent to meaning. Nothingness is not the absence of being, but its double interior, its inseparable opposite.”

Once we arrived at the top, the air mixed the fresh outpours of rain with the smells of the woods and the breath of the grass, its humidity quickly evaporating under the sun. From that height, the torsos of the mountains, as if rising up from nothingness, formed delicate, fantastic, imaginary scenes. Small pockets of vegetation floated on the blue mirror of a lake, slightly pushed by the wind, while the trajectory of my butts, reflected on the surface, created the illusion of a world which seems to be endlessly sliding by, but which, in reality, always stays the same, motionless.

 

 

- The Spirit of Sils Maria -                                   - Alejandra de Argos - 

Contributor: Dr. Diego Sánchez Meca,
Lecturer in the History of Contemporary Philosophy,
University of Madrid (UNED), Spain

Diego Sanchez Meca small

 

 

 

 

Hesse

It was Hermann Hesse, together with a few other authors, who showed me from a very early age that literature is the refinement and perfectioning of life that is achieved through the kind of internalization often found in fine art. Internalizing does not mean reducing narratable external events to their minimum; rather, it means combining a series of events with a specific narrative message, within that apparent stopping of time that, again, we often encounter in fine art.

 

Hesse’s novels and short stories do not simply reconstruct events; they explore a wide range of existential and spiritual meanings through allegorical mediations and myths.

Many of his works show us entire new worlds and periods of time that seem to have never existed. His anti-heroes are symbols of misfortune, thrown out and left to rot in the ignominy of history from where they linger and stare back at us until our eyes hurt. It seems like Hesse wants to escape from the metaphysical-rhetorical optimism of classic European and Western humanism in order to defend the insoluble, inexorable union between pessimism and humanity. The way I see it, this is precisely what many of his allegories try to express — they are aimed at the source of a kind of happiness that is not quite of this world, but only because to achieve it requires a kind of inner transformation that intensifies the experience of the spirit. This is one way of extracting from Hesse’s books the spiritual richness within them, and of interpreting the self-reflexive, expressive mediations of his writings as new ways of understanding and practicing art.

 

Libros Hesse

 

It’s true that, today, many of Hesse’s novels feel rather distanced from our modern sensibilities: they almost feel like symbols whose role is to “represent”, at least in the Schopenhauerian sense of the word. The poetic distance of novels such as Demian, Beneath the Wheel, Narcissus and Goldmund, Rosshalde, Steppenwolf or Siddharta is, in fact, an ironic one, one which expresses a worthy critique of that unquestioned dogma: that there should be no pain in the world of representation.

In other words, the irony that is the anachronism of Hesse in our contemporary world is due to his positioning himself halfway between an allegorical short story about the soul of the modern European and a phenomenology of the disgraced conscience of the generic Human Being, who appeals to the highest, most seductive form of art as a parody secretly turned against itself. In this sense, detailing the exaggeration and the extremism so characteristic of Hesse’s spiritualism, this notion has a long history, because it reflects the intellectual disposition of those who grind their teeth in proud modesty while passionately seeking truth in beauty, as many philosophers and artists have done and will continue doing.

 

 

 
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