In the digital frame of Heidegger

Basic Writings: Ten Key Essays, plus the Introduction to Being and Time by Martin Heidegger, David Farrell Krell (Editor)Paperback, Revised & Expanded Edition, 464 pages Published February 26th 1993 by HarperCollins (first published 1964)
Basic Writings: Ten Key Essays, plus the Introduction to Being and Time
by Martin Heidegger, David Farrell Krell (Editor) Paperback, Revised & Expanded Edition, 464 pages
Published February 26th 1993 by HarperCollins (first published 1964)

The philosopher Martin Heidegger understood technology (Technik) as a “Gestell” or roughly a “frame”. It was written in the last century but it still reveals something for our digital present.

Martin Heidegger
The Philosopher Martin Heidegger forwarded some ideas on technology that are even more relevant to today’s world. Following his thoughts, even before a Selfie is put online, the smartphone user already lives in the digital frame. (Picture: Martin Heidegger at home in Freiburg/ Wikicommons)

Martin Heidegger speaks of technology as a “Gestell” or a “frame”. This is not a finished construction, but an activity of “ordering”. Modern technology, for him, is the culmination of the “conquest of the world as a picture”. For Heidegger, the word “image” means “the structure of imaginative creation” – an activity “of the calculation, the planning and the cultivation of all things.” The totality of this representational production, the framework, is itself not technical, but a fateful relationship of man to his world and to himself. In the placing and ordering of nature, according to Heidegger, man makes it a “standing-reserve “. Forests, coal seams, oil wells, ore mines belong to the  earth, materials and energies that man has turned into “standing-reserve” in the attempt to make a more efficient output.

The network of transformation

An idea that used to be the domain of science fiction has become more apparent in current reality: human beings are increasingly transformed into data. And the fact that we put ourselves – or what we hold to be true about ourselves – into the networks of information that make up the Internet, our reality is emblematic of our time. Around a third of the world’s population have uploaded their personal details on social media. In 1949, Heidegger pre-figured this idea using the example of the radio: “People are not incidentally a constituent piece of the radio. In their essence, they are already committed to this character of being a constituent piece.” Insofar as our personal information is scattered across, and stored within, various online databases, we are constituent parts of the digital framework. In the frame, all pieces are available, consumable and interchangeable.

This inevitably reminds us of the world of today’s consumer culture, to which Heidegger’s position marks the sharpest possible contrast. Heidegger introduces a seemingly banal object lesson: “Das Ding”. Heidegger’s “Ding” or “Thing” is used in the old meaning: after the meeting, a court meeting (Old High German: “thing”), in which something is negotiated. Heidegger brings the example of the pitcher. The pitcher is “chasing” us. That is, when we drink wine from it, it brings not only people together, but a fourfold: heaven and earth, divine and mortal. To be able to attend such a celebration of the pitcher may seem a bit stiff today.

Nevertheless, Heidegger addresses the contrast between two attitudes, which turns out to be quite contemporary: the contrast of collecting and dispelling. On the “consecration” of the pitcher, it could be emphasized that in certain moments it serves as a vehicle of the collection – not just of the wine, but of our attention to the wine. In this way he sharpened the contrast to the dispelling character of another vessel, the disposable cup. Meanwhile, “dispersion” now means the all-pervasive tendency to disassemble our daily work, tasks, problem solving, need satisfaction in procedures and modules and thus to separate life in a technical context more and more into maintenance, operation, repair functions, and discarding.

Heidegger’s standing-reserve seems muddled in the modern world of life. The total network in which new “body parts” such as smartphones, Google glasses or Oculus headsets entangle us can be viewed as the latest version of Heidegger’s “Gestell”.

A more practical version of Heidegger’s philosophy of technology comes from the American philosopher Albert Borgmann, who is far too little known in German-speaking countries. Born in Freiburg im Breisgau, he listened to lectures by Heidegger and did his doctorate with Max Müller, whose thinking was strongly influenced by Heidegger. For Borgmann, the role of the frame is taken over by the “paradigm of the device” (Paradigma des Geräts). Connected with this is an attitude which subordinates the world to the point of view of what is easily usable, available, and consumable. Device can be anything, and Heidegger calls it “Zeug” or “Equipment”.

In this sense, Equipment not only refers to technical devices, but also to houses, food, landscapes, animals, our own body, other persons. A house can be an Equipment for living and wine for drinking, The self can serve for his own. Such a consumptive attitude towards a device tends to distract us from ourselves, confuse our attention, stifle our everyday skills and abilities.

Borgmann confronts us with a “focal” attitude. Focal practices define literally flocks – the Latin “focus” is the “fire site”, a flock of a different, non-technical handling of things, especially with technical objects. Focal practices always involve the body, such as making music, gardening, eating and drinking, running and walking, but also motorcycling. They can be conceived as the “arts” of everyday life, as a dealings with things, which reverts to the one who cultivates them.

Learning and unlearning humanity

Take, for example, the modern handling of distances (Heidegger points to this). Today, distances are mainly “Equipment” to the journey. There is a departure and an arrival place, in between, there is literally nothing. We are closer to each other by the means of faster transportation. We measure distances in the abstract metric of numbers, and not in the physical metric of steps. This also speaks of the irony of displacement of our body from the distance between us. To develop a focal relationship to the distance, therefore, means that we measure it with our feet. In this way, if we really want to, we can recover an intimacy with the distance, which is actually familiar to every walker and hiker. A closeness to places and things, has been removed via the framework of the technical means of transportation.

The same could be said of the means of communication, generally of all the techniques that “order” us. In spite of this, we should not explicitly interpret Heidegger’s ideas as  hostile toward technology. Contrary to a current criticism, which concentrates on the risks posed by technical objects to humans, Heidegger and Borgmann give us a sense of a completely different kind of risk with their currently antique philosophy on technology. It is not in the use of technology, but in technology as a custom—as a way of life that always “had” us. In the “hopeless frenzy of the unfettered technique” (Heidegger), we learn to conceive of technology as an option: as a choice between “Equipment” (Das Zeug) and “thing” (Das Ding). We can still choose which way we will take, how we want to move forward. If we follow this argument on the human condition, then we can conclude that being human is something that can be unlearned.

Cronopios y Famas (Julio Cortazar, 1962)

Cronopios and Famas by Julio Cortázar, Paul Blackburn (Translator), Paperback, 162 pages, Published April 17th 1999 by New Directions (first published 1962)

The Argentinian Julio Cortázar (1914-1984) is one of the most dazzling cult figures of Latin American literature.

“I was someone who lived the way he wanted to live, the life of a loner.” – Julio Cortázar.  (Photo Ulf Andersen / Getty Images)

When Cronopios and Famas was published, fifty years ago, Julio Cortázar was already an author admired and praised by critics thanks to his early books of short stories and also his novel “The Winners”. He had not yet published “Rayuela” or “Hopscotch”, the novel that would give him universal fame and would catapult him into the center of a formidable wave of Latin American literature that would be known later as the “Boom.”

Cortázar, an Argentine born in Brussels, had lived in Paris for many years working as a teacher, critic and translator. Before that, he was working as a journalist in Buenos Aires. As a young man, he published a book of poems (that is said to be as rare as the Guttenberg Bible) and a strange manuscript under the name of Los Reyes. Notwithstanding these early forays into literature, Cortazar can be considered a late bloomer. When Rayuela was published, a year after the publication of Cronopios, he was close to turning fifty. The literary circles in which he moved praised his Spanish translation of the works by Poe, which appears in all the anthologies as the best translation into Castilian of the American author.

It seemed, however, as if cosmopolitanism and Cortázar’s extensive literary erudition—an Argentine transplanted to the heart of European culture—that exuded from his Latin American status—threatened to alienate him from the sensibility and appreciation of his linguistic compatriots. Their word games and ideas used the Spanish language as a raw material and they  drank from the same cup with Dadaists. They drew their breath from Parisian life and from a universal Borgesian legacy; lurking in the existentialist cellars of the Latin Quarter. In other words, Cortázar was anything but a literary writer, and even if he could relate to the intellectual elitism of Borges or Bioy Casares, or with surrealism or the surrealist concept of literary fiction, his origins and destiny related more to the recent Central European tradition than with the great narrators of South America.

Homage to intellectualism

Cronopios and Famas was the first book by Julio Cortázar that I read while studying Latin American literature in an undergraduate class in UP. Back then I had the observation that literary criticism in Manila was largely based on reproducing the dialogues done over bottles of beer.

I recently read through the 1999 edition published by New Directions, currently available in Manila bookstores. This edition revives the original structure of the index which is introduced with a surprising phrase, enveloping the mood and the intention of the pages ahead: ‘This book contains the following assortment …’. In editions following the original by Minotaur Books (1962), this notice disappeared. Even in the complete works released by Alfaguara that was used for later editions. I suppose this was caused not only by an oversight, but to the lack of comprehension of the importance of winks and jokes in the works of Julio Cortazar.

Once I started scanning on the advertised assortment, I stumbled upon  “Instructions to climb a ladder” at the beginning of the reading and was absolutely delighted with the text. Later, the chapters “Rare Occupations” and “The Loss and Recovery of Hair” made my jaw drop. I felt so ecstatic that I began to forgive Cortázar for making me wait until the end of the volume before learning of the adventures of the Cronopios, the Famas and the Esperanzas.

These stories, of course, are the culmination of that little symphony of the pleasures for the mind which make up the book: an absolute homage to intelligence, irony and even sarcasm, a melancholic account of human existence, patterned after taxonomy; like a catalog of applied entomology.

I am probably more desperate than most readers to find a precise and concrete description of the classifications (Cronopios and Famas) that lend the title to the book, but certainly the world of definitions fits badly in the world of ghosts, revelations and daydreams which Cortázar is most capable of eliciting. In the end, no one is capable of being indifferent to the short list. As complex as the universe that he proposes, hardly anyone can resist succumbing to the temptation of wanting to be a Cronopio, even if one does not know exactly what it is.

Those who suggested in Cortazar’s time that this was a minor work of a great artist probably do not realize the immensity of the poetic and creative world of Cortázar that resides in these short stories. They are capable of mixing everyday reality with the most dreamlike of contemplations.

One ends up succumbing to the formidable impact that causes, for example, the first of the sentences of his brief instructions for winding up a clock (‘Death is deep down there, but do not be afraid’), perhaps warning us of how useless and perishable our habit of measuring the hours. Like Kafka, like Proust, like very few, Cortázar was able to create a world at once his own and universal that we discover at every step, in every line, in every literary breath granted by him. He is a writer of intimacy and restlessness, whom he himself alone can contradict based on his humor and ironic wisdom.

Life of a loner

Cortázar was born in Brussels in 1914, just as he said. At the age of four, the family returned to Buenos Aires, two years later his father left the house, Cortázar never saw him again. He grew up with his mother, sister, aunt, and grandmother. He took an early refuge in the literature by writing nine sonnets, whom he recalls as “excellent in form, but miserable.” He studied literature and worked for several years as a teacher in the province. Then he passed the examination to become a translator for French and English but more than that, it was an excuse to leave Argentina because he was averse to Peronism. In 1951 he came to Paris with a scholarship.

“I was someone who lived life as he wanted to live it, the life of a loner. Half of the day I study to provide myself the necessary knowledge to for translate at the UNESCO; the rest of the day was spent on reading and writing, ” Cortázar said in 1975.

Cortazar translated Margerite Yourcenar, Edgar Allan Poe, G.K. Chesterton, Walter de la Mare, and wrote essays on John Keats, the novel, the short story, or Octavio Paz, Jose Lezama Lima, Roberto Arlt, and others.

His musical skills were exceptional in classical, jazz and tango. Carlos Fuentes and García Márquez liked to talk about a journey from Paris to Prague, when Cortázar explained the history of jazz in detail, and how they had a hard time sleeping after. He admired Louis Armstrong and wrote a review about a concert in Geneva (“Louis, a tremendous Cronopio”), he lavishly portrayed “Thelonius Monk’s Journey to the Piano”, and Charlie Parker becomes the anonymous protagonist of the grandiose story “The Persecutor”. His love for the tango was reflected in the “Les trottoirs de Buenos Aires” in 1979, in which the quartet Cedrón composed his poems. His music revolved around Carlos Gardel, the Nightingale of the Pampa, Susana Rinaldi and Astor Piazzola. Cortazar notably played the trumpet, which he said was merely a “wonderful exercise”. Of course, with his tremendous skill in the instrument, that was an understatement.

Poetic non-conformism

During a concert in Paris the idea of “cronopios” came to him: they are bristly, untidy and casual, dreamy and intuitive, poetic nonconformists, trusting optimists, humorous life artists, best friends, philosophical nonsense dialogues can be achieved. Many see in them the vital alter ego of the author. Cronopies never use lined paper to write, do not press the toothpaste tube from the bottom up. For all fans the cronopia became the quintessence of Cortázar, his view of the world.

Cortazar himself is the greatest Cronopio. He always looked like a lanky young man, despite his height (almost two meters), and he never seemed to age. His blue eyes were wide apart, registering everything, while he listened modestly, carefully concealing his encyclopedic knowledge. He speaks with a s guttural “r”, a legacy of Brussels,  he once said.

What makes the author’s “fantastic” narrations so distinctive? In an interview (1976) the author explained: “I react to the story with a feeling of fatality and inevitability, (in my case it is always a kind of being hit by lightning. Many of my stories are dreams or daydreams. They are quite common when you are stuck in a metro or streetcar, (suddenly there is a kind of atmosphere, a general situation, and I feel there is a story is there. Normally, I do not know how it ends, but very well, as it begins.”

Readers recognize themselves in many of his situations:  If you are standing in front of a staircase, you may start to think of “instructions before a staircase”. They are emblematic stories that bury themselves in memory, because they describe mystery and fantasy at high noon. According to Mario Vargas Llosa, Cortázar found “the unusual in the ordinary, the absurd in the logic, the exception in general and the wonderful in the banal.”

Many of Cortazar’s stories are classics: “House Taken Over”, “Circe”, “Torito”, “End of the Game”, “Devil’s Drool” (which became the film “Blow-up” by Michelangelo Antonioni). But Cortazar once said: “You say I’m a classic, but you’re wrong. No one is a classic, if he does not want. Teachers can stick this label to you, but he (and his books) spit on it. I am always the same scattered Cronopio, looking for the devil’s zeal, and only after 20,000 kilometers that it has not loosened the handbrake. ”

Gabriel García Márquez commented on the death of his friend: “Idols inspire respect, admiration, affection and, of course, great envy. Cortázar awakened these feelings more than any other writer, but he also aroused a feeling that is less frequent: devoted love. He was, perhaps without wanting to, the Argentinian, who managed to make everyone love him.”

Man Tiger (Eka Kurniawan, 2015)

Eka Kurniawan tells a story of a great rage

Man Tiger by Eka Kurniawan, translated by Labodalih Sembiring Verso Books, $18.95 Published September 15, 2015
Man Tiger by Eka Kurniawan, translated by Labodalih Sembiring Verso Books, $18.95 Published September 15, 2015

The Indonesian author Eka Kurniawan reverts to old folk beliefs in the novel ‘Man Tiger’. It covers not only a psychological drama but also many layers of his native culture.

One day the young Margio jumps to his neighbor Anwar Sadat and bites him in his throat. The victim is quickly bled. When one finds Anwar Sadat in south Java, a Batik cloth is spread over him.

Chronology of a crime

The act of violence, which is at the end of a long process, is already known from the first sentence. But how did it happen? How did Margio, who was considered to be quiet and polite, had let himself be carried away to such an act? This is what the Indonesian author Eka Kurniawan explains in his two hundred high-voltage pages: It is the story of an anger that has grown over the years and  can no longer to be overcome. The author spews the rage through the narrator, who knows the thoughts and feelings of all involved figures and therefore understands the motives for their actions. Or is it perhaps a narrator – Ma Maah, the village councilor who knows all the stories of the environment? She has a short appearance in the novel, and the realistic, precise and sensitive portrayal of an especially female inner world in the novel that seems to comes uncontrollably from the narrator. All of this is ultimately attributable to the 40-year-old Eka Kurniawan, whose psychological perception and linguistic expressiveness is quite extraordinary.

As pointedly as he describes the thinking and experience of his characters, he also so confidently structures his story, which approaches Margio’s violence  circularly and inconspicuously. He describes how, over the years, Margio developed a great hatred for his violent father. Like his once beautiful mother, who after only a few years of marriage, became a shadow of old herself. How she becomes pregnant in the house of Anwar Sadat, but the baby is lost shortly after birth. In a choreographed step by step sequence, the circumstances under which Anwar Sadat came to his death are clarified. In doing so, the author succeeds in revealing the crucial impulse for Margio’s attack forcefully in the very last sentences of the novel.

Margio declares that he has not committed the murder on his own, but the tiger who lives in him.

Kurniawan based his character on Man Tigers who are still alive in his Western Javanese homeland. In Margio’s family, for example, many men were married to an imaginary tiger next to their bourgeois marriage. Margio accepts him from his grandfather and gives his name for the first time in the prayer house. There the animal lays next to him and then slips into his body. This union can be read as folk mythology, but also as a metaphor for a psychological process. It is the depiction of an incarnation which canot be divorced from danger: what if a man cannot restrain the wild power of his tiger?

Almost as blasphemous is the fact that Kurniawan wrote how Margio and the Tiger were merged inside an Islamic prayer house. In fact, the author often underscores the Islamic village day, which not only covers the muezzins’ call and regular prayers, but also beer at the snack bar and sex in the cocoa shop. However, these injections by Kurniawan are not only simple provocations. Rather, he tries to free up cultural depths, which celebrate joyful life under the Islamic surface.

Tigers, ghosts, Hindu gods

For example, the statue of the Sunda King Siliwangi, who once retired with his people into the forest because his son had converted to Islam, is prominent in the village. They all turned into tigers when they lived in the forest. There are also are pagan spirits roaming the minarets in the village, on the land and on the water, which are as familiar to Margo as the figures of Hindu mythology. Hinduism had existed in Java for a thousand years before Islam entered during the fifteenth century. Although a Muslim, Margio compares himself through his inner tiger to the Hindu God Krishna, who could also turn from anger into the giant Brahala.

Fortunately, there have been more translations for Eka Kurniawan’s debut novel, “Beauty Is a Wound”, this 2017. “Man Tiger” will no doubt follow suit. It is strongly recommended for reading: The novel has historical depth, is cleverly composed and also grotesquely funny. The English translation conveys this adeptly. The novel is a masterpiece.  Imagine, how this used to be hidden in a small publishing house!

Man Tiger by Eka Kurniawan, translated by Labodalih Sembiring Verso Books, $18.95 Published September 15, 2015

Proletarian Nights (Jacques Ranciere, 2012)

The Workers’ Dream in Nineteenth-Century France

Proletarian Nights The Workers' Dream in Nineteenth-Century France by Jacques Rancière 478 pages, April 2012, 9781844677788, Verso
Proletarian Nights The Workers’ Dream in Nineteenth-Century France by Jacques Rancière, 478 pages, April 2012, 9781844677788, Verso

Politics occurs when those who do not have the time, take the necessary time to live as a resident of a common space, proving that their mouths do not only speak with a voice but with a language, which signifies the pain. […] Politics consists in the division of the sensible, the ‘commons’ where a community defines new subjects and objects.  Within this, we make visible what is not visible. Speakers who make those voices heard are perceived as noisy animals. – From The Politics of Aesthetics: The Distribution of the Sensible (page 75)
A glamorous Neo-Communism has conquered the thinkers of the world in recent years. This proves that radical political philosophy can have its quasi-celebrities.  Aside from this, we noticed a trend in the Neo-Marxist re-theorisation of old and new protest movements, as well as a revival of the “utopia” quality of the political.

This is a rather practical development in the the radical-chic jet set of continental philosophy. Slavoj Žižek lectures on social class; Alain Badiou is the metaphysical- religious savior; and in the Italian faction, we have Antonio Negri and Giorgio Agamben, who have become more Catholic than the pope. Jacques Rancière plays the role of meticulous and strict philologist. With his book “Proletarian Nights ” he now enters into intellectual light beyond postmodern political philosophy and aesthetics.

The common belief is that Rancière is mainly a historian. Anyone who asks about the content of his political utopia, will most likely find the answers in this historical work. Rancière reports on “a few dozen, a few hundred proletarians, who were twenty years old around 1830 and who, during this time, have decided not to bear the unbearable” (p. 7). The “night” in the poetically beautiful title of the book is not to be taken literally.  It refers to the nights when Rancière’s heroes do not sleep to reproduce their labor (the ruling order for them), but instead assemble to discuss their ideas.

Rancière’s book is devoted to workers, artisans and small-scale craftsmen, the 1830 June revolution and Saint-Simonism. He reflects on the teachings of Charles Fourier and Étienne Cabet’s travels to Ikaria. He pores through mostly short-lived workers’ magazines by literary and philosophical circles. The book tells the tale of intellectual adventures and reconstructs a situation in which a (political) self-awareness forms among those who had been excluded from social participation until now. Rancières proletarians are the “anteilloses”, which now demand their share in the company s society—a theme which is expressed in later works when Rancière becomes more prominent.

He describes the non-representative ways of life of tailors and writers through the minutely drawn sketches they left behind. He presents mini-biographies of working-class philosophers and worker- writers, whose fate had been, “to become workers but to speak like the bourgeois “(p. 9). The book is devoted to the articulation of the labor force as a collective but not as homogeneous subject.  He asks: what is the relationship between “the extravagances of these ‘artisans’ and ‘bourgeois’ and the solid realities of exploitation and class struggle?”(p. 37).

“The Night of the Proletarians” does not provide a decoupled idea of ​​early socialism. More than that, it traces the formation of concrete utopias ‘such as the workers’ association. In the center of working life during the first half of the 19th century, Rancière writes, there wasn’t so much poverty and misery as one would assume, but precarity. Some craftsmen or small-businessmen proved that it was quite possible to achieve a certain standard of living. “The smallest chances together with irregular work and the off-season were enough to [allow these workers to] live (or create) from these fragile positions” (page 51).

Rancière reconstructs a world in which physical strength, dexterity or professional qualifications “are worth as much as a lottery ticket” (p. 56) and are therefore of little use, for the workers to find their (own) dignity”. Rancières Workers’ Movement is not a professional skilled workforce, not a movement in which “work” and “diligence” are mythically exaggerated. On the contrary: “The word taken in the name of the working class presupposes an internal revolution, the reversal of the hierarchies of power and dexterity. For these hierarchies, which ultimately point to the coincidence of birth or the arbitrariness of social distinction, represent in the heart of the world of the workers, the law of castes, which establishes their subordinate position: “Therefore, the privileged role of the strange avant-garde stems from the mastery of the needle and the small soldering lead”(p. 64).

Rancière brings the work of the early and middle nineteenth century on the formula of “common experience of precarity with heterogeneous origins”. Theirs is a “working class,” which provides “in each stage the impression that is temporary in which the conscious eye loses its focus in wanting to distinguish the true proletarian from the backward craftsman or the unqualified service provider” (page 47). Only, and here lies Rancières pointe: This temporary stage is permanent, it is the ‘real’ feature of the workforce.

A central topic of the book is the analysis of the ‘concrete utopias’ of economic and social self-help. Both their organizational forms as well as their intellectual foundation conceive Rancière as a reflex and intervention in a specific social and economic situation. According to Rancière, Saint-Simonism appealed because it did not preach “the material and moral omnipotence of labor,” but “on the contrary, because of the practical perspective of the association,” which gathered workers, their qualifications, resources, and ways of life that are connected by the same feeling of precariousness and the same will to try out a form of social relations which at the same time offers to the individual a  way out and a model for a solution to collective precariousness “(p. 182).

Jacques Rancières “The Night of the Proletarians” is a pleasure to read. It is a book of literary splendor, not in the least thanks to the excellent translation. The insights that might be expected come in at least three directions. First, there is a need to rediscover the history of labor, which is based on the heterogeneity of historical living and working environments as well as on the plurality of political ideas and forms of organization. In the 1980s and 1990s, this has been done several times, but was not sustained. Second, the challenge of reevaluating the history of the nineteenth century from the point of view of a contemporary social history, for example along the idea of ‘precarity’ (the analytical potential of which has already been suggested some 20 years ago in works on the history of prehistoric craftsmanship). What seems possible here is a renewal of the once-productive alliance of social history and social theory. Thirdly, Rancière’s book can serve as an exemplary case study for an innovative approach for the present: for a social history of (utopian-political) thinking, which conceives ideas as ‘processing’ and ‘appropriation’ of socio-historical situations (and not, Ideas, only as their ‘image’). Rancière’s social history is always a history of experiences and emotions, specifically, a genealogy of the “(worker’s) brotherly camarderie”. Rancière, however, knows that in the sources he finds no ‘real’ feelings, but only their articulation. This articulation, rather than the supposedly ‘authentic’ emotions, is where Rancière declares his position to take on social relations and political programs; such as in the report of a Saint-Simonian missionary, who wrote on April 22, 1837, about a German tailor living in Paris: “A vague nagger who loses himself in a multitude of hypotheses which he spices with old philosophical biographies. Another one who is bored to death. […] I still like him very much, perhaps more, if he listens, which does not happen often” (page 34).

The Enchantress of Florence (Salman Rushdie, 2008)

The Enchantress of Florence, by Salman Rushied, Cape ___ Php, 349 pages, Available in Fully Booked-BGC
The Enchantress of Florence, by Salman Rushied, Cape ___ Php, 349 pages, Available in Manila Bookstores

The female figure in the cover of Salman Rushdie’s eighth novel, the “Enchantress of Florence”  hints on the action that will unfold in the text. But before any of the action occurs, Rushdie loses himself in meandering narrative streams and meticulous details.

The story begins at the end of the fifteenth century where we meet a young blond Italian who succeeds in reaching the legendary Mughal kingdom of Emperor Akbar and his golden city Fatehpur Sikri after after some adventures at sea. The blonde stranger quickly catapults herself into the inner circle of the Emperor and enjoys his favor in exchange for stories about the legendary city of Florence. The contrasting cities stand for two different relationships to reality. In the emperor’s oriental city, the boundaries between reality and desire are fluid and there is no absolute guarantor of reality. Rushdie illustrates this in great detail through a sequence in which Akbar’s mother and his sister visit Akbar’s imaginary other wife, Jodha. They are plunged into a paradoxi wherein they begin to feel their existence more in the vast emptiness.

Rushdie, however, does not succumb to the stereotype of rationality and mysticism between the Occident and the Orient. The reports of the stranger from Florence tells of a city torn by civil war, a city that had just been released from the clutches of the Church and the Medicis. The novel moves us to ponder on the nature of authoritarianism through the discussion of Italy under Niccolo Machiavelli during a short-lived period when it became a republic. It is precisely this Florence that is a place of religious fanaticism and church-led irrationality, that is being painted as opposed to the city of Akbar, the doubter, whose own authority as well as firmness in faith seem to quiver.

Fascinated by the story of a young woman who speaks of legends and her companion, and tales of their adventurous journey to the West, how they finally found royal hospitality, and the attractions of Florence, the legendary ruler lets his imaginations run wild while fantasizing about the enchantress in his palace ,

What Salman Rushdie wants to tell us, though, remains unanswered. He certainly presents a good story of an encounter between agnostics both in the East and in the West; he also touches on the male fascination for femininity as well as of female strength and how they are objectified but in the end, there is remains something perplexing about this splendid and sprawling story that seems to have a peculiar way of getting lost in its own narrative streams.

The Enchantress of Florence, by Salman Rushied, Cape ___ Php, 349 pages, Available in Manila Bookstores

Wilhelm Tell in Manila (Annette Hug, 2016)

Annette Hug’s novel “Wilhelm Tell in Manila” follows the life of the Philippine national hero, Jose Rizal through the jungle of words and languages.

Annette Hug: William Tell in Manila. Novel. Wunderhorn, Heidelberg 2016. 198 pages, 19.80 euros.

The ambitious novel essentially attempts to tell the story about how literature changes the world. For Jose Rizal, his attempt to change the world with literature ends in his own death.

Rizal is written as someone coming from an aristocratic house before travelling to Europe in 1886 as a medical doctor and writer. He studied in Madrid, practiced eye surgery in Heidelberg and had his novel “Noli me tangere” printed in Berlin. Along the way he translated Schiller’s play about the Swiss patriot William Tell into his mother tongue: Tagalog. When he returns to Manila, he is caught in the middle of an uprising against Spanish colonizers. Rizal at 35 years old, is treated as the leader and chief agitator of this uprising.

There are dozens of biographies and several films about the Philippine national hero but only a few of them ever discuss his writings, much less his translations and other prose which are equally important. In her novel “Wilhelm Tell in Manila”, Swiss author Annette Hug plunges deep into Rizal’s lonely struggle for the right words. He is in a foreign country and is lost between several languages.The dialect-speaking waitress in the beer garden adds another voice to the confusion.

Rizal relates the struggle of the Swiss against the Habsburg tyrants to the plight of his colonized homeland. In the process of translation, he invokes Swiss history from long ago into his Philippine present.

“Translation”parallels an overseas journey from one culture to another. It’s about how one remains sober when the “sentences start to circle” and the syllables get out of hand.

As in Fieberrausch, (deliriums/ deliryo) which is common in bitter-cold Berlin (a plaque commemorates Rizal in Jägerstraße 71), the tropics intermingle with the Alps, Küssnacht becomes Calamba, the Lake of Lucerne becomes the Pacific Ocean. His surroundings seeth under the snow-capped mountains. The Moors become Laguna de bai, the Rütlischwür turn into phonetic rhymes, and the litanies of the women into homerian songs.

Rizal’s „Anstrengungen des Begriffs“ (Definition of terms?) is a treat to the linguistically inspired author’s excuse for linguistic excursions into the  jungle of the Filipino language. It can be recalled that Wilhelm von Humboldt alone has already listed 17 different forms of the Tagalog saying: „Überall über das Bedürfnis überschießende Fülle” (“Kahit saan naghahari ang pangangailangan sa labis na kayamanan”).

Behind a heartbreaking reminiscence of Tell’s life story, the eulogy is also veiled by the richness of a culture that developed well before the arrival of the Spaniards.


José Rizal came to Germany in 1886 as a young ophthalmologist and novelist. During this time it was not yet apparent that he will become the national hero of the Philippines. The archipelago at the edge of the Pacific was still a colony of the Spanish empire.

Rizal contracted liberal ideas while he was studying in Madrid and he was warned by his brother Paciano, against returning to Manila. Paciano recommended that he instead retreat to safety in Germany. But both of them agreed that he could do something for his people while abroad so in Heidelberg and Leipzig, Rizal translated Friedrich Schiller’s “Wilhelm Tell” into his mother language: Tagalog.

Just as the landscape shifts in the novel (the Alps rise on a tropical island), the protest against the opressive rule of Gessler, become an attack against the intrigue of the Catholic Church. The mountains break out as volcanoes.

Rizal’s stay in Germany is written as a journey of translation. Words must be found in Tagalog, or analogies, if ideas do not correspond to a single word. Translation becomes a song of hope for the insurrection to rise up against the colonial lords. The chaos of translation is the chaos of the revolution: it also becomes an analogy of the discovery of the fear that violence destroys all order.

The José Rizal of history does what the Jose Rizal of Anette Hug’s fiction left out to do. He returns home. The insurrection takes place and Rizal is condemned and executed in Manila in 1896 for inciting to sedition and treason.

Translated with some addition from the original review by Sabine Vogel published in the Frankfurter Rundschau

The masks of Frantz Fanon

Écrits sur l'aliénation et la liberté by Frantz Fanon, edited by Robert Young and Jean Khalfa La Découverte, 688pp, £22.00, October 2015, ...
Écrits sur l’aliénation et la liberté by Frantz Fanon, edited by Robert Young and Jean Khalfa La Découverte, 688pp, £22.00, October 2015, …

As a psychiatrist and revolutionary, Frantz Fanon took part in the fight against French colonialism in the fifties. Today numerous publications are devoted to him. Is Fanon more relevant today?

At the end of 1956, Frantz Fanon joined the FLN (Front de Libération Nationale) in the Algerian liberation struggle. The distance between the present world order and the vision of the future, which Fanon combined with the process of decolonization, is enormous. Fanon is considered one of the founders of the Third World ideology (tiers-mondisme).

Revolutionaries in Africa, Ché Guevara, the Black Panthers, and the tricolor movement of solidarity among the capitalist metropolises, which were still in their infancy, appealed to him in the sixties, in particular to his book Les Damnés de la Terre of 1961 (The Damned Earth, 1966). On the other side, Fanon was a nationalist and irrationalist, a black racist and a violinist. Hannah Arendt attributed to him a thought in “organic-biological categories” in On Violence (1969). Orthodox party Communists saw in Fanon a spontaneity and populist who had glorified the colonized country population and the urban rag-proletariat. The current discussions about his writings, especially in Britain and the USA, have little to do with such attributions and falsifications.

Fanon in postmoderne

Stuart Hall and Homi K. Bhabha, most prominent representatives of Postcolonial Studies, a subdivision of Cultural Studies, which have existed for decades, have provided a new justification for their rediscovery of Fanon. They emphasize the postmodern ambivalence of his argument, in particular as regards the tension between the “free subject” and “foreign determinism” in his subject theory. Yes, they emphasize the ambivalent identity of the author himself and thus slip into a strange biography that gives Fanon a life history of hybrid identity formation. The book, Fanon, Peau noire, Masques blancs (black skin, white masks, 1980), published in the Paris publishing house Editions du Seuil in 1952, make it a predecessor. Fanon’s life, Fanon’s texts – a terra incognita of Postmodernism and Postcolonialism?

The shift in the interest of The Damned Earth back to black skin, white masks is, however, remarkable, especially since the talking titles of a twist seem to be countered by modern social critics with their rhetoric from oppression and liberation to a postmodern ironic pastiche of socially assigned identity patterns. Anyone who reads Black Skin, White Masks today, will be astonished to find out how subtly Fanon was able to analyze and criticize racist mystifications as early as 1952. From everyday occurrences and linguistic forms of communication to literary texts to psychological diagnoses, he shows how the blacks under the “white gaze” become the stigma of one’s own existence. With his first book, Fanon is at the beginning of a critical theory of racism, in which the “race” is not assumed to be an “actual entity” (Arendt), but as a construct of a particular social situation.

A phenomenology of racism

The basic experience for Fanon is that his own “body scheme” collapses and places an “epidermal racial schema”. What is meant is a situation in which the perception of the immediate environment is solved by the experience of stigma due to one’s own physical condition. Fanon explains it with the simple example of a railroad journey, on which a child says to his mother the triggering sentence: “Mama, look, the negro there, I’m afraid.” The second perceptual scheme undergoes its expansions by convicting them to the symbolic order , Which dominates the “collective unconscious”. “In Europe,” writes Fanon, “evil is portrayed by the black.” When Bhabha pointed out in 1986, in his preface to the English new edition of “Black Skin, White Masks,” the urgency of a resumption of Fanon’s theses, and something like that Founder of the “Postcolonial Studies,” he simply turned his argument. A further reading of Fanon was urgent, because the groups “gathering themselves under the banner” blackness “lacked a” public image of the identity of the other. ” Fanon is intended to help mark the “decisive engagement between mask and identity, between image and identification,” from which Bhabha derives its own freedom and self as the socially different one. Bhabha designs a new identity of “people of color,” whereas Fanon is a phenomenology of racism.

This is followed by the phenomenology of anti-Semitism by Jean-Paul Sartre. In his remarks on the Jewish question of 1945, Fanon continually approaches comparisons, notes parallels and differences in discrimination. It is about visible and invisible, physical and cultural stigmata, also about power or impotence, about differences and hierarchies, which organize perceptions and phantasmagoria under the “white gaze”. To be sure, Fanon also shares Sartre’s inadequacy. Since Sartre has obviously shied away from the analysis of the logic of discrimination to the “logic of terror” in order to take up a formulation by Leo Löwenthal, the dimensions of the NS exterminating practice remain largely unaffected. From the point of view of terror, Fanon is mistaken when he thinks that anti-Semitism is aimed at the Jews in their spiritual and civilizing, not primarily as racism and “negrophobia” on immediate physical existence.

However, Fanon’s approach does not appear in the analogy to Sartre’s phenomenology. David Macey, author of an extensive biography (Frantz Fanon, A Life, 2000), characterized black skin, white masks following Claude Lévi-Strauss as “bricolage”. Fanon took individual aspects of Hegelianism, Marxism, the philosophy of existence from Soren Kierkegaard to Karl Jaspers, the phenomenology of Maurice Merleau-Ponty and the existentialist humanism of Sartre, as well as the psychoanalytic theory of Sigmund Freud himself and Alfred Adler and Jacques Lacan And put them together as an instrument for explaining and analyzing the “own situation and experience”. If, however, this is a true description, the number of different interpretations that may be confused by readers of the recent literature on Fanon is easily found. His text invites to form a Fanon mask, a Lacanian, as Bhabha does, or like a Hegelian, an Existentialist, a Humanist, a Marxist.

The problem of recognition

After the Second World War, French intellectual circles were central to Hegel’s Herr-Knecht dialectic, the problem of the recognition of the other, which precedes a struggle for life and death. “In Hegel, everything has begun to happen in philosophy for a century,” wrote Merleau-Ponty in 1946 in Les Temps modern. The influence of the body phenomenologist on Fanon is still largely underestimated. In black skin, white masks, Fanon then responds mainly to this Hegel reception, pointing to the asymmetry of the social power between colonizers and colonized. Even if the “slave” is released into freedom, this does not mean its recognition as a different self-consciousness. “At Hegel it is about reciprocity,” says Fanon, “here the Lord whistles to the slave’s consciousness. He does not want his recognition, but his work. “The work can therefore not be the abolition of the struggle for recognition.” At Hegel, the slave turns away from the Lord and toward the object. Here, the slave turns to the Lord and reveals the object. “Fanon wants to show how the elaboration of a phenomenology of racism, the Eurocentrism in modern,
Also leftist theory and philosophy. Hence his attacks on the surrealist André Breton and the existentialist Sartre, when they claim the literature of “négritude”, for example, the texts of Aimé Cesaire or Léopold Sédar Senghor for their “Weltanschauung”. On the other hand, he cites the ethnographers Michel Leiris in a consistent manner. For Leiris as for Fanon, the “négritude” is a temporary attitude which allows the black poets to assert the “integrity of their own person” against the “arrogance of the white colonizers” (Leiris). But Fanon was not far off to become his advocate. In his eyes, “négritude” is a mystifying replica of racist mystification. In the context of postcolonial studies, on the other hand, it reverts, as Hall expresses it, an “extremely powerful and creative force for the evolving forms of representation of marginalized peoples today.” Fanon pushed beyond such forms of representation because he suspected a fixation to the stigmatized body. He wanted recognition as a thinking man, as an intelligent body: “O my body, make sure I am always a man who asks!” This is the end of the book of 1952.Fanon today It was Fanon’s hope that the opponents would be in the anticolonial liberation struggle Finally recognize that it is in their interest “to end this struggle and recognize the sovereignty of the colonized people.” He thought that this could only be achieved by the state natio in the liberation struggle. His paradoxical formulations of “national consciousness, which is not nationalism” and “international consciousness” developed and aroused, show early on the tension between the real dangers of nationalization and its vision of international emancipation. And so he comes back to the problem of recognition when he ascertains in The Damned of this Earth in view of national culture: “Self-consciousness is not a self-confrontation against communication.” Whoever wants to read Fanon’s theory of classes and violence in this perspective, Will hardly look for finished answers.

In his book Frantz Fanon, published this year in the Hamburg edition of Nautilus in German, Cherice Cherki has carefully given a hint under the heading of Fanon. Fanon, he says, had carried out a “semiotic infiltration of language” to counter French colonialism. After decolonization, the question arises again about a language that is capable of grasping power and rule in the present world order and allows a new communication between the south and the north. Perhaps even today an infiltration of the language of neoliberal globalization could begin. For the time being, the “real inventions and discoveries”, which Fanon regarded as essential in the overcoming of Eurocentric politics, would be brought up again.

Traces of Jorge Borges in Roberto Bolaño

Roberto Bolano channels the many characteristics that made Jorge Borges a great writer in his book, “The Insufferable Gaucho”

Roberto Bolano
Roberto Bolano

Borges died in 1986. At about the same time Roberto Bolaño was rising to become the most interesting author of emerging Spanish-language literature. Jorge Borges shares his inexhaustible imagination with Roberto Bolano, which allows him to invent new, surprising, hyperrealist or absurd texts. The variety of places, actions and sounds in the five stories of Bolano’s “Insufferable Gaucho” is impressive. He makes reading pleasurable.

With Borges, Bolaño also shares his astonishing discipline. In the book, one can admire them in two brilliant literary-theoretical essays and also in the witty intertextual allusions of the narrations. Bolaño is distiguished from Borges by the fact that he is also an author of erotic obsessions alongside the leitmotivs of traveling, writing and violence (especially in his forays into the thriller genre).

Borges is also distinguished by his biography and his political attitude. While Borges at least initially welcomed the Argentine military dictatorship, the Bolaño, born in Santiago in 1953, fled to Spain after the Chilean military coup. Before that, he spent many years of his youth in Mexico. He had just returned to Chile when the army launched a putsch and immediately imprisoned him for a week. In Spain, the land of his grandparents, he then became a port worker and night watchman and began publishing in the 1980s.

His work includes more than a dozen books; From 1997 to the year of his death, in 2003, he wrote one every year. About two-thirds of these are novels, the remaining  are collections of short stories. Only half of his works are available in English. Among them is the narrative collection, “Telephone Calls”. Among his protagonists in this collection is a former porn star, who recalls her suffering from AIDS inside a clinic – or a talentless author, who seems to turn anything into to collaboration, and who rescues writers threatened with deportation.

Another book, I have read is the collection of more than 30 portraits of authors from both Americas, “The Nazi Literature in the Americas,” which, in the mode of a fantastic hyperrealism, invented a genuinely fictional manual of right-wing writers. This parody is an abysmal literary play, which with its many too credible details is also a poignant criticism of mainly South American realities.

Of the novels are translated, I have read “The Savage Detectives.” This artful polyphonic novel was compared to Pynchon and Cortazar. In addition to these books, I have also read Bolano’s gloomy novel about evil, ‘Distant Star’ and also ‘Amulet’ – a novel about memories and hopes of a literature lover, who hides from a backdrop of political violence for 13 days inside a university stadium.

I am infinitely curious about Bolaño’s great novel, 2666, which is as dense as it appears and as obscure as the title suggests.

The author handed the manuscript to the publisher just shortly before he went to the hospital to wait for a liver transplant. The transplant never happened. Reflections on disease and literature are discussed in his essay, Literature + Disease = Disease. The lecture is devoted to the relationship between illness, travel and writing with black humor. He combines his own observations from the hospital with pointed remarks on Baudelaire, Rimbaud, Mallarmé and Kafka. The motto of the book is also the motto of the volume (possibly prophetic of his own death): “Perhaps we will not be without much.”

“The only thing that impatient people want is to be fucked,” he said, “the worst of his life,” he said Philosopher of the twentieth century, wanted nothing else but to fuck, even the dead, I’ve read somewhere, just want to fuck. ” These convulsive interjections, of course, lead to a melancholy conclusion: “All this cosmic explosion, all these cumulus and cirrus clouds, which populate our imaginary geography, leave a sad ending. But it can also be a nightmare. ”

The second literary-critical text of this mixed collection, is an angry and at the same time elegant and witty calculation with the rules of the literature business. He describes poets as eccentric functionaries who produce media-fair, globally marketable folklore instead of poetry. Of the five short stories, the shortest is “Jim,” an American Vietnam veteran, who became a murderous writer. He travels to Peru and Mexico, preferring to be robbed rather than struggle against it. He looks for “an exceptional thing and translate it into common, familiar words.” The narrator preserves Jim from burning in the flames of a firefighter, but gets tired of life immediately afterwards. The title “The Insufferable Gaucho” refers to Manuel Pereda, a faultless lawyer and father, who said that: “To not be happy  is  difficult in Buenos Aires, a perfect blend of Paris and Berlin, as he found, although, if you take a closer look, it is a perfect mix between Lyon and Prague.”

During the Argentine economic crisis, happiness crumbles. Pereda retreats to the mythical land of the Pampas. But he finds that the Gauchos no longer tend to cows. They also avoid ritualistic machinations. They feed on rabbits who have mutated into dangerous bloodthirsty assailants.

The encounter of the old man with a psychiatrist is just as strange as the visit of his son, a writer who comes to the country with other authors and his publisher. The old man returns once more to his former bourgeois sphere of influence in the city, but then retreats back to the desert land. His unreal form of existence as an ‘Insufferable Gaucho’ can be read as a parable on the uprooting of Argentine society. Both the city and the country life conjured up by a long literary tradition are transformed into surrealistic ciphers of expropriation in Bolaño.

It is unclear who is more delirious: the old man or the world. Two Catholic stories tell of religious sacrificial fantasies irritatingly in first person. The narrative of “José, the rat policeman” also revolves around bloody violence. He is the nephew of the singer Josefine. Bolaño’s homage to Kafka unfolds in the sober, precise tone from the cosmos of a sympathetic people living in underground corridors, which must defend themselves against martens and other enemies. José, the brave policeman, becomes a lonely hero, who looks heroically at the dangers and unpleasant truths. Against the repression of his colleagues, who do not want to do this, he realizes that some dead rats are obviously the victims of a killer and not their enemies. The discovery that rats kill rats is equivalent to a fall from innocence. “The journey of Alvaro Rousselot” is a splendid parody of the Latin-European literature relations. The fictitious Argentine author Rousselot is looking for the filmmaker in Paris, who penned two of his novels as a plagiarist (and, at the same time, the most loyal reader). The laconic tone with which Bolaño tells the various books of the imaginary authors and their fate in the market, is as captivating as his amorous and detective experiences in French capitals.

The encounter of how the author fails to change from brave husband in Paris to becoming a Latin lover with his love-hate of plagiarism is not revealed here.

On the other hand, the small book offers a thoroughly recommendable entry into the œuvre of Bolaño, whose fame since his Death in 2003 still seems to rise steadily. These stories are gorgeously sculptured and formulated in a gorgeously polished prose. The translation in English has presented the book in a handsomely made envelope. A quotation from Bolaños philippic, which is slightly misleading in its irony, is plaguing the literary enterprise. Instead of the being confined to the Pampa of gaucho, the space of his literature extends all over the world and opens up imaginatively parallel worlds. The insufferable in the title also points to Milan Kundera’s masterpiece. With him, the Chilean-Spanish author shares melancholy as a side-effect of eroticism and politics. And, fortunately for the reader: the elegance of form.

Two Lives (Vikram Seth, 2005)

6014463In 1969, Vikram Seth moved from India to London to study. He finds accommodation with his uncle Shanti and his German wife Henny, a Jewish woman. Both got to know each other during Shanti’s studies in Berlin in the 1930s. The relationship of his Uncle and Aunt, which was at first rather distant, gradually deviates into an intimate connection.

When Henny dies in the 80s, Vikram Seth stays with Shanti and through this encounter he decides to write a moving account of the great lives of these two ordinary people in a biography.

His approach involved detailed interviews with his uncle, investigation of other witnesses and his review of the letters and personal documents. He describes the life of Shantis and his family in India and how he ended up in London. He shows the difficulties the Jewish woman Henny dealt with under to Nazi Germany. She managed to flee to the United Kingdom six weeks before the start of the war.

Closely connected with the life of Shanti and Henny, the author skillfully digests and narrates the historical facts. Thus the biography created an impressive 20th-century landscape. Seth, however, did not confine himself to the listing of historical events alone, he analyzed and drew extremely interesting conclusions that enriched his book. The basis for this can only be drawn from an extremely meticulous research.

It was not always easy to find a way out in the wide circle of friends of Shanti and Henny, or to look into Indian family conditions immediately, because I sometimes saw the thread blur in the detailed stories of Vikram Seth.

With this biography he places the two on a pedestal. I was very impressed by this book, I have access to the lives of two completely strange people. While reading them, they became as familiar as friends. “Two Lives” is the most impressive biography I have read so far, perhaps because the life of famous artists or politicians was not described, but the focus was on “normal” fellow human beings.

I found the only copy of this book at Popular Bookstore along Tomas Morato and have read this book time and again. The author’s view of Germany’s role in the course of the last century is always worth revisiting. His thoughts continue to pull me into contemplation about the kind of world we live in today. Vikram Seth has written a heartrending true story of a friendship, a marriage, and a century. Weaving together the strands of two extraordinary lives,– Two Lives is both a history of a violent era seen through the eyes of two survivors and an intimate, unforgettable portrait of a complex, enduring love.

Two Lives, by Vikram Seth, Harper-Perennial 975 Php (Popular Bookstore), 544 pages