Readings selected by Paul De Jong, cellist and former member of the awe-inspiring, recently disbanded duo, The Books. 

Daniil Kharms - Incidences 

This is one of the few volumes in English written by Kharms. Along with Maiakowski, Vvedenski and Kazakow, Kharms was at the forefront of modernist writers around the time of the communist revolution in Russia in 1917.  Radical, idealistic, experimental, absurd, many of these writers quickly fell victim to the rigidity of the regime and either took their own life in despair and disappointment, died in the Gulag, or ended up dancing to big brother’s tune. Tightly controlled and under constant watch, Kharms ended up as an editor of children’s magazines and writing children’s stories, which are worthwhile enough to read to your children. He died under ‘mysterious circumstances.’ But before all that, he already had written a bizarre opus of absurdist vignettes , each one more perplexing in its depth and originality than the next one. Here humor truly proves to be the backdoor to the profound.

August Strindberg - Getting Married

Strindberg no doubt drew liberally from his own extensive experience when writing this collection of short stories. Here we witness the romance and idealism of early marriage methodically deteriorate and end in utter misery in every which way. Great expectations and deep disappointment, spendthrift and bankruptcy, sexism, overbearing egos, atrophied principles, control issues and co-dependence - this is a fictive encyclopedia of human failure and a good read to boot. Don’t let it keep you from trying! I am happily married myself. Again.

The German Legends of the Brothers Grimm

Beware, these are not the Household Tales! They do NOT live happily ever after! Some of the Household Tales may end somewhat badly, but the majority still would safely make the ‘G’ rating. Wilhelm and Jacob Grimm were indefatigable researchers who recorded several collections of German folk tales and legends during the 19th century. Most of these tales had been existing in the Germanic oral tradition for many centuries and were written down for the very first time in the age of enlightenment. In modern versions of the Household Tales the sharp (and ever so human) edges of the stories are often dulled, and morals have been attached where there were none intended. The German Legends present folk tales in their raw and unencumbered form: the supernatural and mystical  intertwine with the complexities of human character in a very inspiring way.

David Mamet - Make-Believe Town

This is the first volume of essays by playwright and director Mamet that I read. Shortly after I moved to the United States (about twenty years ago) I watched his Glengarry Glen Ross and was befuddled by its dialogues; there was such an overwhelming amount of  understatement that I was lost for about 90% of the movie.  I subsequently read Mamet’s screenplay and was left in even greater bewilderment. It took me about a decade to grow into the American idiom deep enough to come to understand, appreciate and admire Mamet’s characteristic writing. I was amazed at how close the spirit of his essays stands to his work for stage and screen, containing not the merest trace of contrivance. This volume is a selection of professional, personal and political reflections and memoirs; they stand out through what I would call a ‘practical philosophy’. No matter what decade they were written in, every one retains an immediacy of insight that can be readily applied to the present day. They exhibit the particular independence of mind that identifies a true American original, if, as a relative outsider, I may call it that.

Max Jacob - Selected Poems 

Not much of Max Jacob’s opus has been published in English or in any other language than its original French. I know of two small American editions, one translated by William Kulik and published in Oberlin in the 1990’s. Jacob, poet and painter, was one of the main group of Cubist painters and writers in Paris during the 1910’s and ‘20’s. His friends included Picasso, Modigliani, Apolliniare and Braque. Jacob’s prose poems marry the mystical and absurd, the symbolic and surreal. His texts always give me the strange sensation of reading something that appears to have been written a few millennia back with a 20th century fountain pen. Jacob never made much of anything from his writings or paintings, and remained equally poor after turning Christian, having had a vision of Christ on the wall of his room in 1909. He entered a monastery which did not keep the Nazis from seeking him out because of his Jewish origin. He died in a concentration camp in 1944.

Charles Simic - The World Doesn’t End

Yugoslavian-American writer Charles Simic seems to me a true representative of the living and breathing heritage of the particular craft of prose poetry. Simic’s prose poetry (like the vignettes of Kharms, the work of Jacob, and of their early predecessor Giacomo Leopardi) often has an appearance of being almost accidental, like a found object, a hint of something much larger and vaguely imaginable, inviting an archeological quest of one’s mind. What is very fulfilling to me as a reader is that if these seemingly fragmentary components are bundled wisely, the resulting collection tends to be far greater than the sum of its parts.

I have always tended to work obsessively on one topic at a time to the exclusion of everything else. I don’t consider this a virtue. For the past 6 months, that topic has been ancient tragedy: its nature, its savage and troubling beauty, its conflict with and superiority to philosophy, and its massive and unacknowledged relevance to the contemporary psychical and political situation. This is why my cultural ingestion has been a little Cyclopean of late, with one or two exceptions, like belatedly watching all five seasons of The Wire for hours at a time over the holidays. Of course, I turned that into a Greek tragedy too. The book I’ve read most in the last months is A Lexicon, Abridged from Liddel and Scott’s Greek-English Lexicon (Clarendon Press, 1980), which I bought in 1983 and which meant I couldn’t afford to go to the pub for two weeks. - Simon Critchley
1. Myth and Tragedy in Ancient Greece, Jean-Pierre Vernant and Pierre Vidal-Naquet: the most brilliant and detailed account of ancient tragedy, which the authors understand as an aesthetic invention, whose subject is not the tragic hero, but the city itself. The tragic hero is a problem, not the solution to any problem. Tragedy is the rendering spectacular of the political situation of the city. 
2. Aristotle on Comedy, Richard Janko: for all you fans of speculative philology out there. Was there a second book to Aristotle’s Poetics? It would appear so. Why was it lost? Was it because it was unseemly for ‘The Philosopher’, as Umberto Eco put it in The Name of the Rose, to be seen to dignify laughter with a theory? We don’t know. But the questions raised are fascinating: if tragic catharsis proceeds through pity and fear, then how might comic catharsis work? In the words of the obscure Byzantine text, Tractatus Coislinianus, comedy ‘has laughter for its mother’. The latter tractate also contains a wonderful discussion of the comic effect of diminutives, where the example given is ‘Socratiddles’.
3. Six Tragedies, Seneca: forget his vapid, Hollywoodized (viz. Gladiator) Stoicism, the imperial self-help dogma of the First Century, his theatre is intensely gruesome and makes Tarantino look tepid. Seneca’s world is dark, paranoid, intense and claustrophobic; a world where forgiveness and redemption are impossible and where monstrous passions consume individuals. ‘What can reason do? Passion, passion rules’, say Phaedra. It’s a lot of fun. It’s a world where blind Tiresias disembowels an Ox and Theseus tries to rebuild his son’s smashed body from its dismembered parts, ‘What can this be, so ugly? I do not know what part it is, but I know it belongs to you’.
4. Grief Lessons, Euripides, trans. Anne Carson. There is an unpleasantness about Euripides and a relentlessness that differentiates him from the other tragedians. Where Aeschylus looks at the story of the House of Atreus and sees a story of familial violence leading through bloodshed to the legitimate political order of Athens, Euripides looks at the same story and sees ‘smeared makeup’. After all her kids have been slaughtered, Hekabe finds out that destiny will transform her into a dog. Imagine an afterlife of dog biscuits.
5. Frames of War, Judith Butler. I share a passion for the moral ambiguity of Greek tragedy with Judith Butler and we are teaching a course together at the New School on the subject. My admiration for her work – its rigor, its honesty, its relentless self-questioning - increases with the years. The frame for tragedy is war and its centre is the experience of grief. The centre of Judith’s book is grief as a political category, of who counts (and who doesn’t) as a grievable population. Whatever we call what happened in North Africa last winter, at its centre is the politics of grief, for example in Benghazi this February, when guns were turned on mourners at a funeral in for people murdered at a protest. 
6. Fanged Nuomena: Collected Writings 1987-2007, Nick Land, eds. Ray Brassier and Robin Mackay.
Nick and I were students together during the wild years at Essex University in the late 1980s. He had the most brilliantly seductive and meteoric mind, endlessly imaginative and capable of adopting, inhabiting and discarding any philosophical position. With Nick - and rightly so - philosophy infected every area of life and sheer vitality of life reverberated in his thinking. I heard some of the texts in this book as talks and many of the others I read in draft. I’m really delighted that they are being published because I see this book as a kind of righteous revenge. Nick was dismissed by professional philosophers because they simply didn’t want to think and preferred their turgid academic complacency. Although Nick and I ended up - for stupid reasons that are best forgotten - as public enemies, I always privately admired him for his unwavering desire to take thought to its absolute limit and then see how much harder one could push. I wish I’d pushed harder.
Read Jill Stauffer’s interview with Critchley from our August 2003 issue

I have always tended to work obsessively on one topic at a time to the exclusion of everything else. I don’t consider this a virtue. For the past 6 months, that topic has been ancient tragedy: its nature, its savage and troubling beauty, its conflict with and superiority to philosophy, and its massive and unacknowledged relevance to the contemporary psychical and political situation. This is why my cultural ingestion has been a little Cyclopean of late, with one or two exceptions, like belatedly watching all five seasons of The Wire for hours at a time over the holidays. Of course, I turned that into a Greek tragedy too. The book I’ve read most in the last months is A Lexicon, Abridged from Liddel and Scott’s Greek-English Lexicon (Clarendon Press, 1980), which I bought in 1983 and which meant I couldn’t afford to go to the pub for two weeks. - Simon Critchley

1. Myth and Tragedy in Ancient Greece, Jean-Pierre Vernant and Pierre Vidal-Naquet: the most brilliant and detailed account of ancient tragedy, which the authors understand as an aesthetic invention, whose subject is not the tragic hero, but the city itself. The tragic hero is a problem, not the solution to any problem. Tragedy is the rendering spectacular of the political situation of the city. 

2. Aristotle on Comedy, Richard Janko: for all you fans of speculative philology out there. Was there a second book to Aristotle’s Poetics? It would appear so. Why was it lost? Was it because it was unseemly for ‘The Philosopher’, as Umberto Eco put it in The Name of the Rose, to be seen to dignify laughter with a theory? We don’t know. But the questions raised are fascinating: if tragic catharsis proceeds through pity and fear, then how might comic catharsis work? In the words of the obscure Byzantine text, Tractatus Coislinianus, comedy ‘has laughter for its mother’. The latter tractate also contains a wonderful discussion of the comic effect of diminutives, where the example given is ‘Socratiddles’.

3. Six Tragedies, Seneca: forget his vapid, Hollywoodized (viz. Gladiator) Stoicism, the imperial self-help dogma of the First Century, his theatre is intensely gruesome and makes Tarantino look tepid. Seneca’s world is dark, paranoid, intense and claustrophobic; a world where forgiveness and redemption are impossible and where monstrous passions consume individuals. ‘What can reason do? Passion, passion rules’, say Phaedra. It’s a lot of fun. It’s a world where blind Tiresias disembowels an Ox and Theseus tries to rebuild his son’s smashed body from its dismembered parts, ‘What can this be, so ugly? I do not know what part it is, but I know it belongs to you’.

4. Grief Lessons, Euripides, trans. Anne Carson. There is an unpleasantness about Euripides and a relentlessness that differentiates him from the other tragedians. Where Aeschylus looks at the story of the House of Atreus and sees a story of familial violence leading through bloodshed to the legitimate political order of Athens, Euripides looks at the same story and sees ‘smeared makeup’. After all her kids have been slaughtered, Hekabe finds out that destiny will transform her into a dog. Imagine an afterlife of dog biscuits.

5. Frames of War, Judith Butler. I share a passion for the moral ambiguity of Greek tragedy with Judith Butler and we are teaching a course together at the New School on the subject. My admiration for her work – its rigor, its honesty, its relentless self-questioning - increases with the years. The frame for tragedy is war and its centre is the experience of grief. The centre of Judith’s book is grief as a political category, of who counts (and who doesn’t) as a grievable population. Whatever we call what happened in North Africa last winter, at its centre is the politics of grief, for example in Benghazi this February, when guns were turned on mourners at a funeral in for people murdered at a protest. 

6. Fanged Nuomena: Collected Writings 1987-2007, Nick Land, eds. Ray Brassier and Robin Mackay.

Nick and I were students together during the wild years at Essex University in the late 1980s. He had the most brilliantly seductive and meteoric mind, endlessly imaginative and capable of adopting, inhabiting and discarding any philosophical position. With Nick - and rightly so - philosophy infected every area of life and sheer vitality of life reverberated in his thinking. I heard some of the texts in this book as talks and many of the others I read in draft. I’m really delighted that they are being published because I see this book as a kind of righteous revenge. Nick was dismissed by professional philosophers because they simply didn’t want to think and preferred their turgid academic complacency. Although Nick and I ended up - for stupid reasons that are best forgotten - as public enemies, I always privately admired him for his unwavering desire to take thought to its absolute limit and then see how much harder one could push. I wish I’d pushed harder.

Read Jill Stauffer’s interview with Critchley from our August 2003 issue