One of the best things about summer is that everybody goes on holiday. This is something that I do not like to do, and do my best not to. When at my most embittered I will tell you that travelling is expensive, irritating, time-consuming, boring, overrated and very often ethically compromised as well. Getting on an airplane is pretty much tantamount to shooting the environment in the face. Instead, I like to read. It is at once cheaper, more available and more pleasurable to travel by text—especially to places which do not otherwise exist. Precisely because everybody is away, I have more time to do this. I can also do it in bed. At my most self-indulgent I will take six or seven books to bed simultaneously, which I will pick up and drop, then pick up again in a random whirligig of attentiveness. Because I also still have lots of work to do, however, some of these books are things I have to review or I’m rereading for one reason or another. These will commingle promiscuously with various books I’ve been given for Christmas, borrowed on the basis of friends’ recommendations, or otherwise acquired. And because so much stuff is now online, I’ll have my iPhone in bed with me too, scrolling through the tiny flickering words before discarding it for a real book. I really don’t care whether what I read is poetry, philosophy, fictional or factual prose, whatever. In a word, it’s a mess. It can be quite disturbing to wake up with so many books strewn across the bed, contorted in different postures of incompletion, some bent back on their own spines, others coughing out improvised bookmarks, yet others smugly and tightly closed upon themselves.
This hazardous bed-bound reading carousel can sometimes come a cropper due to the claims of the book itself. One of the tracts I was revisiting this summer was Benedict de Spinoza’s Theological-Political Treatise, in the Cambridge edition of Jonathan Israel. First published anonymously in Amsterdam in 1669—with the fake date and place of publication of ‘Hamburg, 1670’—the TPT is one of the most offensive books in the entire history of Bible criticism. Taking up the challenge of the new sciences, and notably the work of Rene Descartes, Spinoza attends to the text of both Old and New Testaments with an absolutely unprecedented eye for detail. In doing so, he not only offers propositions about religion that remain provocative even today for jaded post-religionists of every stripe, but creates an entirely new method of criticism. The book begins with the utterly contemporary recognition that:
If men were always able to regulate their affairs with sure judgment, or if fortune always smiled upon them, they would not get caught up in any superstition. But since people are often reduced to such desperate straits that they cannot arrive at any solid judgment and as the good things of fortune for which they have a boundless desire are quite uncertain, they fluctuate wretchedly between hope and fear…
Spinoza proceeds to a truly astonishing deconstruction of the unity of the Bible, enumerating all kinds of internal inconsistencies, bizarre editorial errors, linguistic misreadings, and structural flaws. At one point, he exposes some simple arithmetical blunders in the sacred text: ‘At 1 Kings 6 it is said that Solomon built the Temple 480 years after the exodus from Egypt, but from the chronicles themselves we extrapolate a larger number…’ No beautiful set of numbers here, pace Paul Keating, and Spinoza is scathing of those who try to wish away such mistakes as if there were any more of a mystery than human error at stake. It’s easy to see how Spinoza was abhorred as an abomination in his own time: excommunicated by the local Jewish community, you couldn’t even mention his name among Christians without raising suspicion.
Spinoza’s ultimate aim was to force a separation between faith and reason, obedience and knowledge, along essentially proto-democratic lines. With the great Roman historian Tacitus as guide—‘that everyone be allowed to think what they wish and to say what they think’—Spinoza, in making this strenuous separation, nonetheless does not exhibit the contempt for simple religious believers nor for scientific sophisticates that we see only too often today. On the contrary, what must ultimately unify both faith and reason is love for God (or Nature, if you prefer). Everyone just gets there differently. One only wishes that Richard Dawkins, for instance, might take a leaf from Spinoza’s book, not to mention every US Republican still refusing the patency of climate change on the basis of some alleged Biblically-ratified belief.
From the rational elucubrations of the courageous, truth-loving Spinoza, I fell upon Reinhard Mehring’s freshly-translated biography of the twentieth century German jurist and political philosopher Carl Schmitt. Or, rather, it fell upon me. This monumental production, which runs to 749 pages of small print in English (including apparatus and index), is so well done it’s almost a parody of good scholarship. In being so, it poses serious problems for any prospective reader, not least in bulk. Since I was foolishly trying to stay in bed to read it, I suffered several minor injuries: neck strain, a wrist pain, and Carl once plunged onto my face, almost breaking my nose. These materialist difficulties were exponentiated by the political ones: if Schmitt was undeniably a great political thinker, he was also a genuinely craven and contemptible fellow who became, for a brief moment, the so-called ‘Crown Jurist’ of National Socialism. As Mehring cites, ‘On New Year’s Eve he received a “friendly telegram from Göring, who thanked me for my loyal cooperation.”’ Given, however, their own fundamental contempt for law (not to mention thought more generally), the Nazis discarded Schmitt immediately that he had served their purposes. Despite his own bitterness at such short-sightedness, there was no way that Schmitt was going to let his disappointment curb his abiding anti-Semitism. My friend Oliver Feltham said of a recent gargantuan Thomas Pynchon novel that he would have thrown it across the room if only he’d had the strength; I feel similarly about this book, if for very different reasons. Instead, I simply let it slip from the bed to the floor, which it hit with a satisfying thud.
By some hazard of fate, biography seemed to be the genre dominating my summer. One of my students had lent me Joseph Warren Dauben’s Georg Cantor: His Mathematics and Philosophy of the Infinite, and I was feeling guilty about not returning it. This is a biography of an entirely different kind from Mehring’s, one which focuses almost exclusively on its subject’s extraordinary mathematical achievements and their immediate technical context. In the late nineteenth century Cantor was basically the inventor (or discoverer) of transfinite set-theory, perhaps one of the greatest intellectual achievements in world history. On the basis of work on special point sets by predecessors such as Gustav Dirichlet, Georg Riemann, Rudolph Lipschitz, Hermann Hankel—all superbly summarised and explained by Dauben—Cantor proved a number of still-hallucinatory results, including that, loosely speaking, there is an infinite number of infinitely different infinities. There are more numbers between 0 and 1 than there are integers from 0 to, well, infinity. After Cantor, mathematics would never be the same again. It’s no wonder that his proofs wreaked havoc among the mathematical community, inspiring vituperative polemics. And it’s probably no wonder either that the deeply-religious, ambitious and hard-working Cantor suffered a number of serious mental breakdowns in the course of his radical work. One minor but suggestive (and non-mathematical) aspect of his thought was the fact that Cantor was convinced that Francis Bacon wrote the plays attributed to William Shakespeare, a preposterous idea that has nonetheless captivated the most brilliant minds. I suspect the Looney hypothesis is never going to die.
Summer wasn’t all brain-melting non-fiction. My partner had given me a Denis Johnson collection Jesus’ Son, originally published in 1992. These short stories are contributions to that great American genre of sub-criminal junky loser fiction globally beloved today, but stand out from the pack for their light macabre humour: ‘McInnes said nothing. Because he was dead.’ I continued to struggle with the terrifying Satantango of László Krasznahorkai, first published in Hungarian in 1985. The name, as they say, says it all. I also had a bundle of poetry books to review, including two quite different book-length Australian productions,Axis Book I: ‘Areal’ by A.J. Carruthers and 3 Painters: Marquet Bonnard Beckmann by John Watson. (These books are actually longer than the size that they are, but it’s too complicated to explain here.) But probably the most pleasing surprise came from a chapbook of Li Shangyin poems titled Derangements of My Contemporaries: Miscellaneous Notes, passed onto me by Ali Alizadeh. If Li was a not-terribly-successful civil servant of the late Tang Dynasty, he was a truly great poet. Chloe Garcia Roberts has done a pretty good job of selection and translation. Here’s one of the poems in its entirety, titled ‘Definitely Not Coming’:
A courtesan being called at by poor aspiring scholars
A drunk guest trying to escape a banquet
A dog being called by someone holding a cudgel
An employee on leave who has stolen something
The servant of an aristocrat when one is seeking them out
To which I would want to add: a guy reading in bed over summer.
Justin Clemens teaches at the University of Melbourne. His recent books include The Mundiad (Hunter 2013), shortlisted for the Kenneth Slessor Poetry Prize; and, with A.J. Bartlett and Jon Roffe,Lacan Deleuze Badiou (Edinburgh UP 2014). He is currently an Australian Research Council Future Fellow, working on contemporary Australian poetry.
26 Feb 15 at 3:36