Contagion

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‘Their skin had touched and it was worth all the troubles in the world.’

Apocalypse Baby (Serpent’s Tail, 2013) is Virginie Despentes’ sixth novel. Originally published in 2010, it’s been translated from the French by Sian Reynolds. Touching on a series of key contemporary concerns, the novel negotiates a truncated, atrophied, but nevertheless caressive and affective, language of touch as a grounding for its exploration of contemporary violence, an exploration in a fictional language mediated by frequent allusions to cinematic style and gothic tropes (the novel is prefaced by a quote from Beatriz Preciado’s Testo Junkie). These referential sets coalesce into different configurations of contemporary female experience (or, for some readers, cliches of femininity) as the text develops. One character raises her eyes, ‘quite slowly, a very elegant movement, like in a black and white film’; another experiences a ‘burning’ face, ‘her fine skin irritated and painful’ after a few nights with her new male partner (the sex of partners is important here); a central character has shockingly ‘metamorphic’ abilities in which she becomes violently other to herself, a symbol of the social violence in which she’s deeply implicated:  ‘she could be in a horror film’, we’re told, ‘just like she is, no need for special effects, torn-off limbs, nothing’. After one such moment, the same character tells Valentine, the teenaged victim-perpetrator around whom the plot revolves, ‘No hard feelings. Just a little injection of reality. Just like when a vampire bites an innocent victim. Crunch! It’s over.’

Heterosexual sex is at one point described as a kind of friction, an affectless contactual / contractual performance: ‘He rubbed the parts of his body he thought relevant up against her, giving the impression of taking advantage of what she let him do.’ Moments of violence are marked by sharp, unexpected contact, tiny mises-en-abyme of the entire conceit of the plot: ‘Wallop! Not an ordinary slap with the flat of the hand, a brutal blow, using the edge of her palm, and the deaths-head ring makes a long red scratch on his cheek. I didn’t see it coming. I don’t think he did, either.’

As might be expected from the author of Baise-Moi, the insistent trope of contact – sexual, intimate, and violent – mutates, just as caressing sometimes mutates into beating and stroking into striking, as the narrative progresses to develop an abiding preoccupation with some of the ‘failures’ of contact that orchestrate and interrupt social relations in the age of ‘social’ media. Apocalypse Baby, generically a crime novel, examines how an entire civilisation becomes contaminated by the ‘corruption’ (moral, political, ideological, religious – the novel wants them all) of certain vulnerable and susceptible but (crucial ambiguity) dangerously complicit and control-needy elements in a society. In a dramatically telescoped final section (which, along with some of the character-narratives earlier on, is one of the more effective parts of the novel), it considers how all aspects of the social might become disastrously contaminated by the paranoid narratives and their consequent technological enforcements that society nurtures.

All these tropes effect a general sense that the novel’s superficial concern with the tactile, with the effects of touching and of (making, losing, re-establishing, sustaining) contact between characters, masks its inability to resist the fictional allure of a deeper set of anxieties, about not simply touching, but the consequences of the touch – the risk of contamination. In this anxiety, commonplace social niceties become fraught with ambiguities that divide the generations (a division that’s another key theme here): the narrator wonders, offered a handshake by her collaborator, ‘whether she thinks I’m going to give her some infectious disease or whether at her age she doesn’t know that these days between girls we kiss.’

‘Fear of contagion’ becomes the central concern and structuring metaphor, as the novel sketches a violently dystopian future state response to the viral threat of terrorism, clearly (too transparently: ‘the Ground Zero of the City of Light’ doesn’t reimagine Paris as the new locus of terrorist outrage so much as fail to imagine whatever the next form of terrorist outrage will be – one of several false notes in the novel) reading off the ‘War on Terror’ and its sickening transformations of notions of freedom, democracy, liberty, equality, fraternity. And this ‘fear of contagion’ becomes the ‘contagion of fear’, a web-like process of disastrously ramifying interconnections – the new and menacing neoliberal Real that would enmesh us all – that the detective-genre structure of Apocalypse Baby mobilises. Fredric Jameson argues that the genre enables the detective to operate as social geographer, cognitively mapping social realms otherwise inaccessible to the reader in order, ultimately, to reassure us that some kind of order (the order, perhaps, that we remember from ‘not so long ago’) exists, even if Law is necessary to enforce it. Despentes’ detectives, driven more by individual desires than by the logics of plot resolution, work as versions of us all; the ‘contagion of fear’ embeds us all as objects of impersonal power, seeking escape both in (the novel’s last words) ‘a story I can be satisfied with’ – in the satisfaction of personal desire – and in the potential reassurance of the (nevertheless infectious) nostalgia evoked by its opening clause: ‘Not so long ago …’.

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Unused

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But he was strange and unused. So suddenly, everything that had been before was shed away and gone. One day, he was a bachelor, living with the world. The next day, he was with her, as remote from the world as if the two of them were buried like a seed in darkness. Suddenly, like a chestnut falling out of a burr, he was shed naked and glistening on to a soft, fecund earth, leaving behind him the hard rind of worldly knowledge and experience. He heard it in the huckster’s cries, the noise of carts, the calling of children. And it was all like the hard, shed rind, discarded. Inside, in the softness and stillness of the room, was the naked kernel, that palpitated in silent activity, absorbed in reality. (Lawrence, The Rainbow)

Will Brangwen’s marriage is a transformative moment in which his world is recast anew. It’s a making-strange of the world that takes place amid the mundane, used-up day-to-dayness of the real (‘One day … The next day’) and the banal noise of the social world, the ‘shouts in the street’ with which Joyce’s Stephen Daedalus dismisses talk of God). But it’s also a rejuvenating transformation, a kind of reincarnating of Will (and, in the novel’s apocalyptic rhetoric, of [his] will, both his testament and his headstrongness) as no longer singular, but rendered singularly new – ‘with her’, as the text puts it, but also somehow ‘remote from the world’ – and as (confirming and completing the tense implicit in his name) having become. This becoming and remoteness are combined in the strange word (coupled here with ‘strange’), ‘unused’ – a negation that implies freshness but also a sense of being remaindered, somehow surplus. In this remoteness what Will becomes, it seems, is a figure of unused innocence, a kind of extreme Blakean innocent peeled of worldliness and use-value. The singularity is crucial for Lawrence’s ideology of sexual union: ‘the two of them’ seem, in early marriage, ‘buried like a seed in darkness’. And yet it’s Will who is clearly the seed: the text insists that he, not her nor the pair of them, is ‘shed naked’ ‘like a chestnut out of a burr’. An ‘unused’ seed: unplanted, unrooted, ungrown.

Lawrence’s recurrent figure for such drastic, intense character-recasting involves this image of a seed or fruit with a rind; sometimes this is a nut in a shell, or perhaps (as here) a ‘chestnut’ in a ‘burr’, ‘shed’ (a thrice-repeated word in the passage above) like a skin or fur. These mixed but insistently natural, fertile, or reproductive, images reproduce themselves across the text (there are dozens of examples in the pages following the passage above). They create a sense of potentiality within the character and his context – his innocently new experience of the immediacy of the world (of ‘worldness’) is a kind of thrownness, the disturbing insistence of repetition and reiteration that organizes Lawrence’s prose at its most effective. Joseph Hillis Miller writes (in 1998, in a paper published by Aarhus University), of different forms of what used to be called ‘literariness’ in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. One way, he argues, that

Heart of Darkness presents itself as literature is in the elaborate tissue of figures and other rhetorical devices that make up, so to speak, the texture of the text. The simplest and most obvious of these devices is the use of similes, signalled by “like” or “as.” These similes displace things that are named by one or the other of the narrators and assert that they are like something else. This something else forms a consistent subtext or counterpoint defining everything that can be seen as a veil hiding something more truthful or essential behind. The first use of the figure of screens that are lifted to reveal more screens behind, in a structure that is apocalyptic in the etymological sense of “unveiling,” as well as in the sense of having to do with death, judgment, and other last things, comes when the frame narrator, describing the evening scene just before sunset, when the sky is “a benign immensity of unstained light” (4) as it looks from the Nellie at anchor in the Thames estuary, says: “the very mist on the Essex marshes was like [my emphasis: JHM] a gauzy and radiant fabric, hung from the wooded rises inland, and draping the low shores in diaphanous folds” (4). These similes, as they follow in a line punctuating the text at rhythmic intervals, are not casual or fortuitous. They form a system, a powerful undertext beneath the first-level descriptive language. (J Hillis Miller, ‘Should we read Heart of Darkness?’, at http://dac.au.dk/fileadmin/www.litteraturhistorie.au.dk/ forskningforskningspublikationer/arbejdspapirer/arbejdspapir17.pdf).

The ‘as’ in Lawrence doubles as comparator and simile – ‘as remote from the world as if’ – signalling a potentially double simile, a double displacement, Will’s new condition as both a kind of  ‘unused’ / useless extra-worldly ‘remoteness’ and a kind of burial (‘buried like a seed in darkness’) – a ‘burial’, not a planting. The double simile tells us something of how we’re meant to read the literary rendition of Will’s experience of marriage as represented in this chapter (its title, after all, is ‘Anna Victrix’). Lawrence’s language ‘unveils’, just as the experience of marriage peels from Will ‘the hard, worldly rind of knowledge and experience’, rendering him as if ‘unused’. The ‘elaborate tissue’ of nut and seed (and their near-anagrammatisation of ‘unused’) and burr and rind and kernel similes works throughout the novel to embed a similarly apocalyptic process of unveiling, reveiling, and unveiling again as the structure through which Lawrence’s (mainly male) characters encounter and ‘unuse’ themselves within their worlds.

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TORSO / TORSION: AISTHESIS II

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Dresden, 1764: Rancière’s first aesthetic scene presents Winckelmann’s elevation ‘above nature’ of the headless and limbless Belvedere Torso as the scene within which a new configuration is performed of art and its relations to thought and to notions of social freedom. Rancière reads a lot into, and out of, Winckelmann’s elevating description of the Torso. Art history, in its modern form, becomes possible, thinkable, in this elevation; ‘Art’ invents a new category of creativity distinct from the old separation of the aesthetic and the artisanal; and the Torso’s aesthetic redefinition repudiates the key elements of classical conceptions of the aesthetic – namely the harmonious relations of parts and whole, and the expressive relation between ‘a visible form and a character’ (4).

‘Beauty’, Rancière declares, is henceforth ‘defined by indeterminacy and the absence of expressivity’ (6). Lines are drawn here, to be subsequently blurred: it’s the ‘melting’ of the Torso’s muscles into each other, ‘like waves in the sea’ (8), that embodies (literally) its perfection, a perfection emblematised in notions the fixing in sculptural form of flow and movement and metamorphosis. Rancière characterizes this shift of aesthetic-perception as, again, a redefinition of the beautiful: ‘The tension of many surfaces on one surface, of many kinds of corporality in one body’ (9) – or, the insistent presence of the experience and thought of the many, the multitude, in the illusion (the construction, the valorisation) of the one.

This is Rancière’s key point in this opening chapter: the new, post-Winckelmann conception of ‘Art’ enacts a series of shifts in political consciousness characterized in part by the term ‘movements’, enabling ‘an art of the plural compositions of movements freed by the dissociation of form, function and expression’ (9). The notion of the ‘scene’ (which is distinct from, but haunted by, Baudrillardian or Derridean or Lacanian connotations) comes into play here – it’s figured in the ‘Prelude’ to Aisthesis as the ‘little optical machine’ (another echo, now of Deleuze) that momentarily captures connections between sensations, perceptions, concepts, names, and the communities of thought they combine to create. The ‘scene’ offers intellectual and ideological processes in a moment of fixity. If movement (motion, and tendency, and political drift – Rancière’s project is, after all, a contemporary politicisation of aesthetics) redefines and ‘frees’ art, this redefinition occurs most significantly in the consequences for thought of the new perception of the given object – such as a mutilated statue – now invested, within and by the operation of the ‘scene’ Rancière seeks to sketch out, with the values of the ‘work’. The lines of such movements of thought, perception, and intellectual apprehension delineate, and, like ‘nature’s sinuous lines that were opposed to the right angles imposed by the minds of artists and princes’ (9), insinuate their ways into, Rancière’s argument. They mark points of torsion and distortion – like the distortional relation, with all its political implications, between ‘opposition’ and ‘imposition’ – around which he develops his elaborate and sinuous critical history of concepts.

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AISTHESIS I

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Jacques Rancière’s Aisthesis: Scenes from the Aesthetic Regime of Art (Verso, 2013; translated by Zakir Paul) presents fourteen scenes through which to map new configurations of the history of modernism, understood as the variety of cultural responses to the various experiences of modernity.

Locating these responses idiosyncratically (no mention here, for example, of hitherto paradigmatic modernist artifacts like Manet’s Olympia, except to note in the ‘Prelude’ their absence), Rancière aims to reinvigorate conceptions of modernism. We might initially query quantity and selection here, as, for example, Barthes was critiqued for selecting five codes to examine in S/Z: why fourteen, and why these fourteen? But Ranciere is more concerned with ‘a number of overlapping points and elaborations’ (xiii) between his fourteen scenes, without any encyclopedic or teleological object.

Each scene offers, and all combine to effect, he argues, ‘a moving constellation in which modes of perception and affect, and forms of interpretation defining a paradigm of art, take shape’ (xi). These are the recurrent and central terms of Rancière’s argument: movement (pace Baudelaire and Simmel – who is later cited by Rancière in discussing ‘ornamentalization of style’ [149]), constellatory combinations and their reflective and refractive effects, and the intersections of perception, emotional affect, and interpretive strategies working together to construct the possibility of modernity’s notions of ‘art’ and the discursive, ideological, and institutional spaces in which they can be discerned.

A key focus is on metamorphosis – both ‘the multiple metamorphoses of the ancient that the modern feeds upon’ (xiv) and the metamorphic ‘fragmentation of gestures’ (xiv) Rancière traces in Vertov and elsewhere – but not, interestingly, in the grotesque corps morceles caused by the First Word War, as traced with horrific honesty in the writings of Sassoon, for example, or, more pertinently, as we’ll see, in lines like Pound’s ‘There died a myriad’ for ‘two gross of broken statues’. Sassoon, Pound, and, indeed, the War, are all absent from Aisthesis.

The selection and number of scenes work to develop Rancière’s wider theses (his Aisthesis-theses, one might say) about art and aesthetics: that the plurality of arts is (wrongly) subsumed in modernity to a singular or generalising conception of  ‘(great) art’ – ‘there is’, he insists in 2009’s Aesthetics and its Discontents, ‘no such thing as art in general’ (6); and that aesthetics functions to frame the thinking of how art is understood, constructed, and identified – what he calls (also in Aesthetics and its Discontents) ‘the name of a specific regime for the identification of art’ (8).

Rancière’s first scene of the experience of modernity is the Belvedere Torso (which might be one of Pound’s ‘broken statues’). More specifically, Rancière examines Winckelmann’s 1764 evaluation of the Torso. 1764 is also the year of publication of Kant’s early Romantic analysis of the aesthetic in Beobachtungen über das Gefühl des Schönen und Erhabenen, and of Walpole’s inauguration of a new Gothic aesthetic in The Castle of Otranto. A key year, then, in the development of Western theories of aesthetics of feeling and experience.

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Unliving

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A bit later in The Rainbow, Tom and Lydia are about to be married. Their relationship in these last pre-marital days is unsurprisingly presented by Lawrence as one of elemental struggle – between male and female ‘principles’, of course, but also as an intense wrestling of words (as the text struggles to express its meaning), and between the conditions of living and‘unliving’ (p. 55). An odd word: not ‘dead’, but perhaps working in relation to ‘living’ (and to ‘the blue, steady, livingness’ of Tom’s eyes, p. 54) as ‘undead’ does to ‘dead’.

It’s one of several ‘un-‘ words in this section of the novel: Lydia has ‘lapsed into the old unconsciousness, indifference’, while Tom is ‘held back by ‘uncouth fear’. She (in a typical Lawrence image) ‘was as new as a flower that unsheathes itself’, and is, later, ‘unfolded, ready to receive him’. He, held back by ‘honour’ (the Penguin edition Americanises this to ‘honor’), fails to respond, and, Lawrence writes, ‘went about unliving’. The ambiguity here is telling; he goes about in the condition of ‘unlivingness’, and he sets about the process of ‘unliving’, of undoing his life. Condition and process collide; Tom lost his ‘understanding’ and becomes ‘Inarticulate’ in a ‘wordless passion’; mirroring him, she ‘did not understand’ her foreignness to him. These intricate negations bind Tom to Lydia and to a conception of human intimacy that Lawrence presents as constrictive: ‘he was tied up as with cords, and could not move to her’, he writes, and, at the wedding, ‘The suspense only tightened at his heart. The jesting and joviality and jolly, broad insinuation of the guests only coiled him more. […] He could not get free’ (pp. 54-5).

‘Insinuation’ again: the creeping / thrown experience of intrusion and invasion. The ‘un-‘s and ‘in-‘s of unconsciousness and intimacy are veiled figures of the creeping movement of insinuation. Marianna Torgovnick writes, in 1980, of another kind of ‘insinuation’ in discussing pictorial imagery in Lawrence’s Women in Love:

‘Insinuation’ refers to conscious or unconscious dwelling upon an art object or pictorial image over a period of time, with a gradual clarification of meaning. Art objects and pictorial images insinuate themselves into the minds of characters in the novel and into the consciousness of the reader as well. Examples of such objects or images in Women in Love include the African statues in Halliday’s flat, Lawrence’s descriptions of women’s clothing, and certain moments in the text, such as Gudrun and Ursula’s sketching trip to Willey Water. One can usefully appropriate Lawrence’s own words to define the process: insinuation is the life of ‘the image as it lives in the consciousness, alive like a bird, but unknown’. At the moment when the visual image becomes ‘known’, its meaning crystallizes and is rendered in words. We know that insinuation has occurred when the process is essentially over. In its essence, then, insinuation is a form of visual memory or visual contemplation; as such, the process of insinuation proper is absent from the novel. Insinuation enters the novel directly only as the visual yields to the verbal, though its presence may be assumed for much of the novel.

(‘Pictorial Elements in Women in Love: The Uses of Insinuation and Visual Rhyme’, Marianna Torgovnick, Contemporary Literature, Vol. 21, No. 3, (Summer, 1980), pp. 420-434: pp. 421-2)

‘Insinuation’, in The Rainbow, seems an altogether different process to this elaboration of what I think is effectively an intense kind of ‘contemplation’. Lydia and Tom repeatedly experience insinuation as a ‘joining-together’, a commingling – to be either desired or resisted in a kind of rhythmic pulsing cycle as the narrative progresses – that exploits the word’s etymological links to related terms like ‘sinuous’, and even to homophonic and semantically suggestive but unconnected words like ‘sinister’. There is, after all, something faintly sinister about the ‘jolly insinuations’ of the wedding guests: a lewd implication, something implicitly debasing (like the simplistic alliteration and disordered incremento of ‘jesting / joviality / jolly’) of the spiritual and physical intensities Tom and Lydia experience, whether ‘unliving’ or in their full ‘livingness’.

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Lawrence’s insinuations

Re-reading Lawrence’s The Rainbow, I’m struck by the complexity of his prose movements between the historical and natural worlds, and between those crucial Lawrentian coordinates, the external perceptions and internal emotions of his characters. A passage early in the novel – where Tom Brangwen has proposed marriage to Lydia Lensky – exemplifies something of what strikes me:

‘Yes I want to,’ she said, impersonally, looking at him with wide, candid, newly-opened eyes, opened now with supreme truth. He went very white as he stood, and did not move, only his eyes were held by hers, and he suffered. She seemed to see him with her newly-opened, wide eyes, almost of a child, and with a strange movement, that was agony to him, she reached slowly forward her dark face and her breast to him, with a slow insinuation of a kiss that made something break in his brain, and it was darkness over him for a few moments.

He had her in his arms, and, obliterated, was kissing her. And it was sheer, blenched agony to him, to break away from himself. She was there so small and light and accepting in his arms, like a child, and yet with such an insinuation of embrace, of infinite embrace, that he could not bear it, he could not stand.

(DH Lawrence, The Rainbow, London: Penguin 2000, p. 44)

He is proposing to her; she is, with some momentary confusion, accepting. Lawrence constructs the process and the experience mainly from Tom’s perspective, offering us Lydia’s acceptance as a kind of  ‘insinuation’ into Tom’s life-space. The word ‘insinuation’ is one of many repetitions in this oddly circular passage, working, along with echoing words and phrases like ‘newly-opened’, ‘kiss’ / ‘kissing’, ‘agony to him’, ‘slow’ / ‘slowly’, ‘dark’ / ‘darkened’, ‘like a child’ / ‘of a child’, ‘embrace’, to develop and intensify the emotional closeness – even claustrophobia – of the moment, its physical intimacy.

What does Lawrence mean by ‘insinuation’? The online etymological dictionary gives us some clues:

insinuate (v.)

1520s, from Latin insinuatus, past participle of insinuare “to throw in, push in, make a way; creep in, intrude, bring in by windings and curvings, wind one’s way into,” from in- “in” + sinuare “to wind, bend, curve,” from sinus “a curve, winding.” Sense of “to introduce tortuously or indirectly” is from 1640s. Related: Insinuated; insinuating; insinuatingly.

Through such windings and curvings – themselves seemingly active and passive, thrown (geworfen?) and creeping, Lawrence’s prose insinuates itself into the reader’s consciousness. Through its exaggerated, rhythmic emphasis on repetition and near-repetition, it enacts something of the intensity of the experience it describes. Lydia is rendered simultaneously passive – an object of Tom’s desire, almost literally thrown by his proposal – and, from his perspective, strangely active, an agent working her entry into his life, creeping into his physical world which is also the world of The Rainbow. This world has, from the very first words of the novel, been altogether Tom’s in terms of inheritance, possession, territory – but it’s also been one structured and destructured by other insinuations, natural ones like the action of the river that ‘twisted sluggishly’ (p. 9) in the book’s first sentence, and historical ones like the ‘invasion’ of canal and collieries (p. 13) that marks the arrival of modernity to Marsh Farm.

Lawrence’s prose insinuates as it insists – it bends and curves, reflexively folding back on itself, repeating and reiterating, folding into itself the movements of selves, worlds, contexts, and natural forces, performing repeatedly and insistently through its oddly flexible syntax the actions and emotions it seeks to represent.

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Frederik Pohl, 1919-2013.

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Frederik Pohl died yesterday, aged 93. In a 1980 interview he said: “I like to talk to people and get them to change their views when I think their views are wrong. Why else would anyone write a book?”

Here’s an extract from his 1951 collaborative novel with C M Kornbluth, The Space Merchants, a fantastic satire on American consumerism:

He explained how the government – it’s odd how we still think and talk of that clearinghouse for pressures as though it were an entity with a will of its own – how the government wanted Venus to be an American planet and how they had selected the peculiarly American talent of advertising to make it possible. As he spoke we all caught some of his fire. I envied the man who would head the Venus Section; any one of us would have been proud to take the job.

He spoke of trouble with the Senator from Du Pont Chemicals with his forty-five votes, and of an easy triumph over the Senator from Nash-Kelvinator with his six. He spoke proudly of a faked Consie demonstration against Fowler Schocken, which had lined up the fanatically anti-Consie Secretary of the Interior. Visual Aids had done a beautiful job of briefing the information, but we were there nearly an hour looking at the charts and listening to Fowler’s achievements and plans.

But finally he clicked off the projector and said: “There you have it. That’s our new campaign. And it starts right away – now. I have only one more announcement to make and then we can all get to work.”

Fowler Schocken is a good showman.

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Nietzsche: Daybreak – Thoughts on the Prejudices of Morality

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Above all let us say it slowly . . . This preface is late but not too late –  what, after all, do five or six years matter? A book like this, a problem like this, is in no hurry; we both, I just as much as my book, are friends of lento. It is not for nothing that I have been a philologist, perhaps I am a philologist still, that is to say, a teacher of slow reading:  in the end I also write slowly. Nowadays it is not only my habit, it is also to my taste – a malicious taste, perhaps? – no longer to write anything which does not reduce to despair every sort of man who is ‘in a hurry’. For philology is that venerable art which demands of its votaries one thing above all: to go aside, to take time, to become still, to become slow;  it is a goldsmith’s art and connoisseurship of the word which has nothing but delicate, cautious work to do and achieves nothing if it does not achieve it lento. But for precisely this reason it is more necessary than ever today, by precisely this means does it entice and enchant us the most, in the midst of an age of ‘work’, that is to say, of hurry, of indecent and perspiring haste, which wants to ‘get everything done’ at once, including every old or new book:  this art does not so easily get anything done, it teaches to read well, that is to say, to read slowly, deeply, looking cautiously before and aft, with reservations, with doors left open, with delicate eyes and fingers . . . My patient friends, this book desires for itself only perfect readers and philologists: learn to read me well!

(1881, translation by R.J. Hollingdale, Cambridge University Press, 1982, p.5.)

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