Year in Reading

A Year in Reading: Paul Murray

By posted at 7:00 am on December 8, 2010 0

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coverI read so much great fiction this year – David Bezmogis’s story collection Natasha, Mischa Berlinski’s Fieldwork, Chris Binchy’s Five Days Apart – but the book of the year for me was without doubt The Rehearsal, by the preternaturally gifted New Zealand author Eleanor Catton.  She apparently wrote it when she was twenty, which suggests a childhood spent reading Henry Miller and the Marquis de Sade.  It centers on an affair between a teacher and pupil, and the drama-academy setting allows all kinds of opportunities for narrative games, which Catton takes full advantage of.  At the same time, the characters are intensely real, and the cruelties, joys and disappointments of growing older are handled with striking empathy and intelligence.  Perverse, erotic, complex, funny, experimental, and written with the confidence and courage of a true artist.

coverI’d been interested in the French philosopher Gilles Deleuze for a long time, but I found Anti-Oedipus, written with Felix Guattari, hard going.  A friend recommended that an earlier work might be a better way of getting a handle on him.  Nietzsche and Philosophy is regarded as one of Deleuze’s most approachable and also his best books, especially by people who regard Guattari as a bad influence (in Deleuze and Guattari: The Movie, Guattari would be the louche hippie who introduces the brilliant but unquestionably nerdy Deleuze to paisley shirts, sitar music, the argument that if you stop washing your hair it eventually “starts cleaning itself”).  First published in 1962, it transformed thinking about Nietzsche, who prior to that had been dismissed as at best a fragmentary mystic, at worst a slavering anti-Semite.

While accessible compared to Deleuze’s other work, I suspected it wouldn’t be a walk in the park, so before attempting it I checked out a few of Nietzsche’s own books.  I had read or at least carried around a couple of these as a teenager but forgotten most of them, and was astonished on revisiting him to discover just how radical a thinker he is.  With a linguistic elan that as a former student I can confirm is exceedingly rare in philosophy books, he attacks every form of received opinion of his day.  Religion, morality, science, the pursuit of truth, the concept of the self, German nationalism, British cooking – it’s striking just how ahead of his time he was.  What’s even more astonishing is how potent many of the regressive, repressive forces he identifies remain today.  Religion, for instance, he regarded as too benighted to survive far beyond the end of the nineteenth century.  (For the record, he’s as scathing about anti-Semitism as he is about every other form of human stupidity and “baseness.”)

Nietzsche compared the thinker to an arrow, which when it falls can be picked up by another thinker and fired somewhere else.  Deleuze’s project is to show that Nietzsche’s aphoristic thought is in fact one coherent philosopy, and that while he’s often regarded as a purely critical and therefore negative thinker, his work is ultimately about affirmation and creation.  “Philosophy” literally means “friend of wisdom,” but as Deleuze says, a true friend doesn’t simply agree with everything you say; instead she challenges you, pushes you, in order to help you get the best of yourself.  Nietzsche wanted people to think for themselves, to take control of their own destinies, and most importantly of all, to love life.

Some of the ontological stuff (the becoming of being, the affirmation of affirmation) can be tricky, but at the heart of the book is a breathtaking exposition and development of Nietzsche’s concepts of resentment and bad faith – the tropes of thinking that encourage us, respectively, to blame others for our own situation, or to blame ourselves for our situation as opposed to doing anything about it.  We’re encouraged, by religion, by science, to focus our attention, efforts and hopes, on worlds that don’t exist – the afterworld, the future, ourselves but with ten million dollars – and to regard our own situation, and life itself, as inherently fallen, toxic, evil.  This is pretty sweet for us, because we get to do nothing and also to feel good about it.  But this world, our own lives, are all that we know, and rejecting them is not, in the end, of much succour.  Instead, Nietzsche wants us to think, to feel, to laugh, to go to the limit of our potential.  Creating for ourselves, letting ourselves be affected by other people are what he considers to be the true meaning of power – not amassing empty wealth signifiers and tyrannising waiting staff in expensive restaurants.  Deleuze’s book not only illustrates this brilliantly but is itself genuinely inspiring: that rarest of things, a philosophy book that wakes you up.

More from a Year in Reading 2010

Don’t miss: A Year in Reading 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005

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