What Are These Words For? A History Boy, 06/09/2014

Another one of those memes about the books most influential in your life has been going around my Facebook friends, and I thought I’d spell out the list more clearly on the blog, because I think it would be interesting. It’s also a good way for me to get a sense of my own influences as my own writing career finally picks up a little. But the reason these books were each influential on me kind of overlaps. So I thought I’d make several sub-lists of factors and group the books under them.

The Whole List, in chronological order of my discovering them
- Herman Melville, Moby-Dick
- Kurt Vonnegut, Cat's Cradle 
- Fyodor Dostoyevsky, The Idiot 
- Isaac Asimov, The Foundation Series
- James Joyce, Ulysses 
- Immanuel Kant, The Critique of Pure Reason 
- Gao Xingjian, Soul Mountain 
- Friedrich Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil
- Graham Greene, The Quiet American 
- Roberto Bolaño, The Savage Detectives
- Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, What Is Philosophy?
- Philip K Dick, Ubik
- Benedict Spinoza, Ethics
- Kojo Laing, Search Sweet Country
- Alan Moore, Swamp Thing Vols. 1 & 2

Amazing Worlds
• Cat’s Cradle, Foundation, Ulysses, The Savage Detectives, Ubik, Search Sweet Country, Swamp Thing

The many are modifications of the one, but are no less
individual for that. Swamp Thing is something of a Spinozist.
These books opened my mind to the possibility of worlds that were very different from my own, threading narratives of a few particular people through a setting that was so complex to be an actual ecology. Foundation saw this enormously complicated galactic human civilization that was so much more than a simple metaphor applying to a single story, which too much science-fiction in the Golden Age was like. It also helped that I was maybe 13 years old. 

Ubik did the same thing, but escaped the epic register of which Asimov was so fond, and rooted a strange story in a humanity very much like our own, with shysters, criminals, nagging bosses, and loveable schlubs. The film version of Ubik in my head will always feature Seth Rogen as the protagonist Joe Chip. It was the first Philip K Dick I’d ever read.

Cat’s Cradle and Swamp Thing found strange corners within our own world to build their fantastic settings. Ulysses made the ordinary fantastic, and once again, brought the epic to the scale of ordinary folks and their personal and political struggles. Bolaño and Laing brought foreign lands that I’d never visited before to my own mind, and made them feel so familiar, it was almost as if they had physically taken me there.

Yearning for Justice
• The Idiot, Soul Mountain, The Quiet American, Swamp Thing

I felt in these stories a powerful force straining against and overcoming political and social oppression. Alan Moore used fantasy and horror to explore the struggles of humanity with the ecology where we developed, and the paradoxes that our fear of nature’s power and yearning to protect ourselves from its wrath may destroy us.

The Idiot is a profound story of one person whose basic kindness struggles against the more heartless perspectives of the people around him; the tragedy is that his virtue ultimately lacks the strength to combat the worst that humanity can offer. Soul Mountain is the story of one such person who succeeded, despite the violence and backwardness around him and in his own heart.

Graham Greene taught me never to trust the conclusions of anyone who looks at the world and says, “I know exactly what’s going on. It’s quite simple!” Ruin and death lie in these words.

New Ways to Think
• Cat’s Cradle, The Critique of Pure Reason, Soul Mountain, Beyond Good and Evil, What Is Philosophy?, Ethics

Philosophy isn’t just a matter of searching for the truth, and it isn’t just a matter of criticizing the ideas of others. It’s also about developing new ways to understand the world. Studying Kant first taught me how to explore a system so complex that it’s literally like rewiring your mind as you understand it. After my old philosophical mentor, Jim Bradley, walked me through the Critique of Pure Reason, I felt like I understood not just how to read philosophy, but how to philosophize.

When he was young, Vonnegut could still
laugh without crying.
Nietzsche, Deleuze, and Spinoza ended up doing the same thing for me, and taking me to places where I wanted to go anyway. I’ve read other philosophers than these three, but concepts at the forefront of their works are the biggest concrete influences on how I do philosophy myself. Beyond Good and Evil introduced me to the strongest critiques of morality, and I never took another moral philosopher or preacher (even an atheist one) as an authority again. Deleuze introduced me to an entire new paradigm of doing philosophy, geological or ecological philosophy, and What Is Philosophy? was the first of his large books I’d read. Spinoza was the ethicist of immanence that started it all, and was the first to make explicit the inter-relation of all the domains of philosophy, which common academic practice keeps separate.

Gao wrote a literal exploration of the multiplicity inside each of us as individuals. Vonnegut developed a playfulness to his own voice that was so utterly unique that the world is richer for its existence. And Cat's Cradle, his first book that I read, came early enough in his life that it had not grown too cynical to inspire.

Excitement for Writing
• Moby-Dick, Ulysses, Soul Mountain, The Savage Detectives, Search Sweet Country, Ethics

Moby-Dick was one of the first novels I ever remember reading. I first had an illustrated copy for children when I was maybe eight years old, and it fascinated me. I don’t know how many times I read it. I ended up having to buy multiple copies. That illustrated edition I left in a box in my grandmother’s house when I moved out and it was destroyed in a fire over a decade later. Then I bought an old second-hand copy, but that was too badly water damaged after loaning it to a friend. Then I found a cheap edition at a Coles in Hamilton and have had that on my shelf ever since.

Ulysses, Soul Mountain, and The Ethics were three books I read that redefined for me the limits of what language was capable of. I’m now leaning toward a definition of those limits as limitless. Bolaño taught me a way to express a character that was wholly new to me. Most importantly, reading The Savage Detectives inspired me to start writing fiction seriously myself. And reading Search Sweet Country two years ago nearly made me stop because I don’t think I’ll ever be able to write such beautiful, poetic sentences as Kojo Laing.

Singularity in Art
• Cat’s Cradle, The Idiot, Ulysses, Soul Mountain, The Savage Detectives, What Is Philosophy?, Ubik, Search Sweet Country

Gao spent many years in rural China, on
the run from the oppression of the Deng
government and the Communist Party. So
did I, you, and she, as well as he.
They used to teach me in high school literature class that a good character is consistent. What a load of shit. A character that’s true to what a person is will be paradoxical, self-contradictory, and utterly inexplicable. This isn’t the same as randomness, which is genuine sloppiness. A character truly adequate to human nature will contain genuine multitudes, and there will always be new complexities to discover. No one explanation for their behaviour will ever suffice to complete them. A person is impossible to complete. 

Characters who genuinely embody this impossibility of completion are Prince Myshkin and Rogozhin (and Stepan Verkhovensky, and Nikolai Stavrogin, and the Karamazov brothers), the narrator(s) of Soul Mountain, and Joe Chip. Vonnegut’s very narrative voice embodies this singularity. Laing did this for the entire city of Accra, as did Joyce for Dublin and our culture's most popular Greek epic.

The Savage Detectives showed me something different: the impossibility of, no matter the depth of your research and how many different angles you find to view a person, ever truly understanding them to the depths of their souls. After 54 narrators, we understand so much about Ulises Lima and Arturo Belano, but in all that multiplicity, there is no essence. Of course, that’s the point.

Deleuze and Guattari’s work did this for the authors themselves, channelling their ideas and styles of expression and argument through so many different prisms and contexts the philosophy seemed adequate to the world if only because it approached a similar complexity (not in the dismissive sense of a reader’s confusion, but in the ecological sense of new details emerging from every new examination). The freaky thing is, Guattari wasn't even involved in writing the book; he was too sick with depression and heart failure. Deleuze writes as if he’s channelling his old friend, and when you read it, it seems that he’s really there. All of him. All of them.

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