About the arts and ideas - on my novels and literature, music, and art

A new book about Beethoven gathers together (and completely rewrites and supplements) my blog posts on Beethoven into a short introduction to the composer, Ways of Hearing Beethoven, which I hope to see published. My novel The Fall of the Berlin Wall, completed a year ago, is about musicians and particularly the intense, irrepressible daughter of the legendary pianist featured in my previous novel Hungry Generations, now fifteen years after those events. Five years ago, my 2015 novel, The Ash Tree, was published by West of West Books in conjunction with the April 24, 2015 centenary of the Armenian genocide; it's about an Armenian-American family and the sweep of their history in the twentieth century - particularly from the points of view of two women in the family.
There are three other novels of mine, which I would love to see published. One is Pathological States, about a physician's family in L.A. in 1962. Another is Hungry Generations, about a young composer's friendship in L.A. with the family of a virtuoso pianist, published on demand by iUniverse, which I think would be of value to a conventional publisher. A Burnt Offering - a fable (a full rewriting and expansion of my earlier Acts of Terror and Contrition - a nuclear fable) is my political novella about Israel and its reactions to the possibility of a war with Iran (with the fear that it will be a nuclear war).
[My blog posts are, of course, copyrighted.]

Sunday, September 16, 2012

an essay on "responsibility" by Adam Thurschwell

Adam Thurschwell was a wonderful member of our Cleveland reading group for some years in the late 1990s and 2000s, before moving to Washington D.C. His extraordinary contributions are evident from what his brilliant essays offer – for example, one on Derrida and law, or the fine essay entitled “Cutting the Branches for Akiba – Agamben’s critique of Derrida.”

I’ll not attempt to summarize the essay – or its response to Agamben’s use of the Haggadah’s Talmudic parable about Rabbi Akiba, who succeeds in contemplating the transcendent whole, in contrast to Aher, who analytically isolates the separate qualities of the whole, thus “cutting the branches for Akiba.”
Instead, I’ll just mention some of what I found particularly stimulating about the larger themes at work in Adam’s essay.
The potential to achieve the highest meanings can be thwarted by isolating and separating meaning into the constituent parts that can be communicated – that can be said. As a result, “saying” the separate parts can “occlude” that larger potential to posit and sustain transcendent meaning, what can be termed “sayability.”
In a sense, Akiba’s attainment of the embrace of transcendent wholeness is an example of the Paradisal state Walter Benjamin identifies in the Edenic Adam’s naming of the contents of the world, a state of being in which the name and the named, the word and the thing, sustain an organic connection and embody a transcendent meaning, proclaiming an ideal world where the symbol conjures up the spirit, where to say is to be.
We live in a world in which that organic connection is broken, in which the edifice of power and of images is fractured in a wide range of ways. Allegory replaces symbol and is a symptom of the break, embodying a recognition of that breakdown of connection between language and reality or sign and signified, “leaving language in an arbitrary and ‘autonomous’ relationship to reference” (page 177 in Adam’s essay).
What sort of ethics can emerge in the face of the broken connections? Here’s a rough summary of the logic Adam Thurschwell presents (though all distortions in this representation of his pages 192-6 of his essay are mine alone):
There is the ethical challenge to identify the showing forth of transcendent possibilities as if through cracks in the edifice of speech and acts, of the here and now. Derrida’s exploration of Benjamin’s thinking explores this challenge to resurrect the broken, abandoned, discarded hopes of human beings – what Benjamin calls a second order of messianic possibilities.
Yet the search through the perpetually collapsing edifice can be misguided. Another possibility is to call for an end to it, a sort of death of law, the state, and history itself – to follow Agamben in comprehending death as an opening-up or unfolding of being, “an eschatological ontology.” But even for Agamben, a sort of messianic ethics can apply in “the time that remains” before the end of history.
Agamben finally builds on the ideas of Benjamin and Derrida (and finally also Levinas) by developing the notion of “responsibility” – almost in the sense of ‘responsability’ or the ability to respond, and the obligation. For responsibility is presupposed by the urgency even of posing a question, of speaking itself, of saying. Language itself emerges finally from the ability and necessity to respond. Such at least is the hope.