1. i’ve started teaching at a large, German car company. An interesting atmosphere – casually elitist, a real sense that if you work here, you are a cut above the rest. My brief is general – to improve their English – and i find the students highly amenable to the idea of going outside and having the lesson in the sun, over coffee. On Tuesday i have a 5-hour long class, for which i am instructed to take them on expeditions around Munich, to beergardens, the cinema, zoo, etc. i’ve also decided, if they seem interested, to take them to the art galleries to look at the paintings. i think it would be interesting to show them a picture such as this:

and ask questions, e.g., does she look happy, given she’s about to get married, what do you think of the way she holds her hands, then, what do you think her marriage was like? i’m also considering showing them films like The Insider and having a kind of film seminar afterwards, though it depends how rad and happening the students are, daddio. If they’re stiffs we’ll just do some grammar then get drunk in a beergarden.

i collected two amusing anecdotes from this company:

i) In places like Mexico and Columbia you can get models with flamethrowers – someone approaches your car at the traffic lights, so you press a button and watch your would-be kidnapper light up.

ii) One student, an architect, had studied Ancient Greek, and tried to use it in Greece. He addressed a group of Greeks, asking when the next ferry was leaving. They fell about laughing for some time, then explained (in English, i guess) that he had said “Hello, slaves! When does the war galley sail the wine dark sea?”

2. Some Wittgenstein links:

i) Wittgenstein’s cane and deathhankerchief donated to the University of Helsinki. They can keep the hanky but that cane could be put to better use on the streets of Leeds, Bradford, Huddersfield, Manchester, thrashing chavs and Guardian-readers.

ii) Yet more of the man’s enormous corpus has turned up.

iii) Great reviews of his work. A rather amusing sample:

This book is deliberately obscure pretentious drivel. If anyone tells you how profound it is–run quickly in the opposite direction. It is simply behaviorism (Ryle’s concept of mind is a much better book embodying similar ideas) with a pseudo-hip patina of bad coffee-house poetry pasted on.

Academic philosophy is only now beginning to recover from this wooly-headed bit of nonsense.

Buy it for the laughs you can get by contemplating how much academic ink was spilled over the latter half of the twentieth century trying to make sense out of this peurile [sic] idiocy.

3. Via Dave Lull, i found this interview with George Steiner, and have been reading it with pleasure. i think one reason i like Steiner is for the “atmosphere” of his works; he seems to me the last great European; as he says:

[…] I am absolutely fascinated by history, by the ancientness of European cities and landscapes. I have never been able, never been intelligent enough, to respond to the vast spaces of the American situation. Put me down anywhere in Europe, and I can tell you within a few kilometers where I am by odor, accent, names, the light on the trees, on the walls of the houses. This magnificent and tragic density of being, this pressure of felt being, is simply an instinct for me; one doesn’t reason on it. It seems to be absolutely integral to the way I am.

i have a similar sense, that i am disorientated, uneasy, in places of no history, or where the marks of history have been erased (in Kiel and Kassel, for example). Munich was obliterated in the war but, in the German way, reconstructed to look, i guess, more or less as it once did. So one has a sense of precedence, of anterior event and action and life, and it is this i require, to feel at home.

Steiner also comments on his inability to write really good fiction. He writes very good prose, and has very good ideas, but he is too definite, too orderly and careful, to write fiction, i think. His best is a short story about a German officer returning to his post in France after the war – i can’t find the title on the internet – it’s perfect up to the last page, where it ends in exactly the way i expected, with a heavy-handed, mechanistic rigidity, as if to say “the plot requires that this happen”.

Of the relation between culture and violence, he says:

Nazism, communism, Stalinism have convinced me of this central paradox: bookishness — bookishness, that old English word, it’s a good one — bookishness, highest literacy, every technique of cultural propaganda and training not only can accompany bestiality and oppression and despotism but at certain points foster it. We are trained our whole life long in abstraction, in the fictive, and we develop a certain power— allegedly a power—to identify with the fictive, to teach it, to deepen it (how many children has Lady Macbeth?). Then we go into the street and there’s a scream and it has a strange unreality. The image I want to use is this: I’ve been to a very good movie early in the afternoon. It’s a bright sunny day. When I walk out of the movie into the sunshine of the city afternoon, I have very often a feeling of nausea, of a disequilibrium which is nauseating. It takes seconds, minutes, sometimes longer for me to focus again on reality.

i wonder at Steiner’s insistence, that one can, for example, torture people all day long, then go home and read Goethe and listen to Schubert. Of course one can but it must be rare, and it also seems to me unlikely that literary study, fictive identification, could actively foster savagery or indifference. It is true that many academics are worthless human beings, who can weep for Cordelia in the morning, and whore themselves for advancement in the afternoon, really vile creatures, intellectually negligible but nonetheless capable of wholly fictive sympathies. But i don’t think literature made them base; they would always have been ignoble, it’s just that literature offers them a safe form of sympathy, costing nothing (or very little).

However, i suppose Steiner is talking of himself, and is sufficiently self-aware to offer accurate self-diagnosis. i wonder if there is a psychological connection between his inability to write good fiction, and his apparent tendency to feel more sympathy for the fictive than the real; that is, one can only do good fiction if one responds acutely to the real; so the fictive is drawn from the primary engagement, with living human beings, and if one lacks that contact, one’s fiction will only go so far.

4. On my last class with Carla, she asked for my email address, saying she wants to invite me to see the Vermeer exhibition with her next week. i don’t expect her to write, but it was a nice gesture, and who knows, perhaps she will.

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