The time I didn’t read Faust

Le Ventre de ParisEmile Zola1873
The Dehumanisation of Art and other EssaysJosé Gasset y Ortega1925
Books I read (or didn’t) in February 2021

Faust – Goethe

Now, before you start to think it’s impressive that I read Goethe’s Faust, arguably one of the most hermetic and powerful of plays, and in the original German, please don’t get too excited – I gave up somewhere in the first ‘Nacht’… I had to – my language skills weren’t up for it and there’s only so many words you can look up in the dictionary before you admit that you’re not quite there yet.

And maybe that’s the lesson of Faust – be humble, human.

Le Ventre de Paris – Emile Zola

Il n’y a personne qui soit resté trois jours sans manger. Quand on dit: «Un tel crève de faim», c’est une façon de parler. On mange toujours plus ou moins.

Another book I probably should have read earlier in my life, as it would appear I am trying to do at the moment. It is a race between the past and the future, with the circus maximus being the present: read the books I bought in the past in order to make me what I should have been, while trying to keep an eye on future releases that will make what I should be. Is that the kernel of our very existence?

‘Le Ventre de Paris’ (The Belly of Paris, not to be confused with my Parisian paunch) is a classic Zola novel. By that, I mean it is critical of the Second Empire; it is filled with literally pages of naturalist descriptions; and its characters blend in with the surroundings and represent an almost Manichean world order.

Above is a shot taken from this website which shows more of what Les Halles look like, but we won’t know what it felt like.

The story takes place in the mid 1850s, a decade which saw the Empire strike back with economic and public prosperity, and a sleight of hand regarding freedoms. If you need to refresh yourself on 1848 and its consequences, I wrote about it here. The story of the protagonist, Florent Quenu, who is an outsider to the Rougon-Macquart community, revolves around the madness of the 1851 coup d’état; he is condemned for a crime he supposedly did not commit – the murder of several police officers on the barricade, betrayed by the blood stains of a young woman who died in his arms, mortally wounded by the government’s soldiers.

He is sent to the Cayenne galleys (le bagne de Cayenne), where for eight years, as far as I could tell, he doesn’t eat a thing – and then manages to escape back to France. He is then plunged into the belly of Paris, Les Halles, a great monster like construction such as Zola likes to create (along with department stores, drinking dens and locomotives in other novels). This building would have been constructed while Florent was in prison and thus he finds himself a thin man in a fattening society. Combined with his own revolutionary Republican ideas, he is the target of suspicion on the part of those for whom the Second Empire means prosperity and security.

I liked this novel chiefly because I live not five minutes away from where the action happens. Rue Montmartre, Fontaine des Innocents, Eglise St-Eustache are all very familiar to me and I enjoyed seeing, or tryin to see, the almost photographic detail that Zola employs for his narrative.

Not the most rarefied of writing, but one that will put you in that 19th century mood.

The Dehumanisation of Art – José Gasset y Ortega

“What a delight to humanity an insecure Goethe would have been, a Goethe distressed by his surroundings, forced to realise his fabulous inner potentialities!”

I read somewhere recently that great works are like a storm that pass through the rooms of our perception and once it has gone and our internal harmony has been wrecked, we must “put our shaken house in its new order”. I could cite several books that have had such an impact: L’Existentialisme est un humanisme, I know why the caged bird sings, Les Pensées de Pascal, Différence et Répétition and so forth.

But what made this series of essays strike a chord with me is that if there are some books that take away the foundations of everything we thought to be firm, then there are others that help establish order. It may be some exaggeration, yet reading these essays has helped my understand better art, society, and existence, among no doubt a litany of realisations.

An enthusiastic explanation of Gasset y Ortega’s philosophical viewpoints

Whether it’s a insightful dissection of art and modern art, an analysis of the purpose of the novel, a succinct history of distance in Western art, a critique of sycophancy surrounding Goethe, or an affirmation of what it means to be the owner of a self, Gasset y Ortega’s direct style dissimulates years of learning. To quote the Foreword, ‘Indeed, one might be inclined to think of the essays gathered in this volume as the work of a “soft thinker” or casual philosopher, rather than as the effort of a rigorous intellectual or as the products of systematic reasoning’. For me, it was like finding the friend I am looking for to tell me some simple, yet crucial truths about what it means to be human.

For, we know that a lion roars, birds fly and fish swim – but what does a human do? Therein lies our ultimate irony: as the Greeks said, count nobody happy until they are dead.

I would recommend this book for anyone looking for a clear understanding of the movements of 20th century thought. I will be looking out for others of his, when the time comes, and working on a longer post about the five essays in the work.

If you have enjoyed reading this, you might like to follow me on Twitter. Until the next time!

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