Omissions are not Accidents

Omissions are not Accidents: Modern Apophaticism from Henry James to Jacques Derrida

CHRISTOPHER J. KNIGHT
Copyright Date: 2010
Pages: 272
https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.3138/9781442685710
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  • Book Info
    Omissions are not Accidents
    Book Description:

    InOmissions Are Not Accidents, Christopher J. Knight analyzes the widespread apophaticism in texts from the late nineteenth to the late twentieth century.

    eISBN: 978-1-4426-8571-0
    Subjects: Philosophy, Religion

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-2)
  4. I. Preface
    (pp. 3-20)
  5. II. Henry James (‘The Middle Years’)
    (pp. 20-27)

    In his 1909 preface to ‘The Middle Years’ (1893), Henry James speaks of the story as an experiment in compression, an attempt to make a little say a lot. The effort required numerous revisions so as ‘to make sure of it’¹: ‘To get it right was to squeeze my subject into the five or six thousand words I had been invited to make it consist of … and I scarce perhaps recall another case …. in which my struggle to keep compression rich, if not, better still, to keep accretions compressed, betrayed for me such community with the anxious effort...

  6. III. Ludwig Wittgenstein (Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus)
    (pp. 27-40)

    Like James’s Dencombe, with his desire for ‘a revelation,’ ‘a theory which should not be exposed to refutation,’¹ Ludwig Wittgenstein’s longings struck many an acquaintance as quasi-religious in nature. Rudolf Carnap, the logical positivist, speaking for himself and the members of the Vienna Circle more generally, observed:

    When he started to formulate his view on some specific philosophical problem, we often felt the internal struggle that occurred in him at that moment, a struggle by which he tried to penetrate from darkness to light under an intense and painful strain, which was even visible on his most expressive face. When...

  7. IV. Gertrude Stein (Tender Buttons)
    (pp. 40-44)

    ‘It is obvious,’ Wittgenstein writes, ‘that we must be able to describe the structure of the world without mentioning anynames.’¹ It is a notion that would have appealed to Gertrude Stein, one of the modernist movement’s most adept practitioners of apophaticism, though in the instance of Stein, the gesture is less reflective of religious or metaphysical longings than it is simply a reflection of an author who finds herself dismayed by a sense that a staleness has overtaken the English language. About a world elsewhere, Stein herself had no interest, saying, for instance, of eternity that it ‘is not...

  8. V. Paul Cézanne and Rainer Maria Rilke (Letters on Cézanne)
    (pp. 44-52)

    Among the painters who inspired Gertrude Stein was Paul Cézanne. In fact, inThe Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, Stein says that she wroteThree Liveswhile ‘looking and looking at this picture’ of Cézanne’s that she had placed above her desk. It was portrait of Cézanne’s wife, but it first left Stein a bit confused due to the fact that it appeared to her unfinished, even as ‘Alfy Maurer used to explain [that it] was finished and that you could tell that it was finished because it had a frame.’¹ More to the point was that ‘Cézanne had had...

  9. VI. Ernest Hemingway (In Our Time)
    (pp. 52-63)

    If Cézanne found himself living out the imagining of a writer of fiction, one of the twentieth-century’s most notable writers of fiction, Ernest Hemingway, consciously sought to live out the lessons provided by the painter. As he, late in life, told theNew Yorkerwriter Lillian Ross, while standing in front of Cézanne’sRocks – Forest of Fontainebleau, in the Metropolitan Museum, ‘This is what we try to do in writing, this and this, and the woods, and the rocks we have to climb over … Cézanne is my painter.’¹ And further, ‘I learned how to make a landscape from Mr....

  10. VII. Martin Heidegger (‘What Is Metaphysics?’)
    (pp. 63-73)

    In converting to Roman Catholicism, Hemingway, writes Michael Reynolds, left behind him the Congregationalist faith of his youth, ‘which he associated with Oak Park hypocrisy, his father’s unbearable piety and his mother’s church politics of who would rule the choir loft. In Italy during the first war, he experienced a country where religion was woven into every facet of the culture … [T]he ritual, ceremony and mystery of the Catholic Church were a strong attraction for a man who needed all three.’¹ I mention this, for it serves as something like a bridge to a brief discussion of Martin Heidegger,...

  11. VIII. T.S. Eliot
    (pp. 73-81)

    ‘During his early years at Freiburg, Heidegger once said, “One cannot lose God as one loses his pocket knife.” But in fact,’ writes Gadamer, ‘one cannot simply lose a pocket knife in such a fashion that it is no longer “there.” When one has lost a long familiar implement such as a pocket knife, it demonstrates its existence [Dasein] by the fact that one continually misses it. Hölderlin’s “Fehl der Götter” or Eliot’s silence of the Chinese vase are not nonexistence, but “Being” in the thickest sense because they are silent.’¹ As for Heidegger, so often was the case for...

  12. IX. Virginia Woolf
    (pp. 81-96)

    ‘What she,’ wrote W.H. Auden, speaking of Virginia Woolf, ‘felt and expressed with the most intense passion was a mystical, religious vision of life.’¹ It is a view furthered by Julia Briggs, who, writing aboutThe Waves, says, ‘Though Woolf shared her father’s impatience with conventional religion, her novel took up the challenge thrown down in the concluding sentences of [Roger] Fry’sVision and Design, where the attempt to explain aesthetic emotion threatened to land its author “in the depths of mysticism. On the edge of that gulf I stop.”’² Briggs goes further to say that Woolf’s vexed relation ‘to...

  13. X. Samuel Beckett (Watt)
    (pp. 96-107)

    Like Woolf’s, Samuel Beckett’s work does not initially strike the reader as one of the varieties of religious experience. There are again the blasphemies – such as the eating of the consecrated communion host by the rat inWatt, which, in turn, leads to such mocking questions as ‘1) Does he ingest the Real Body, or does he not?; 2) If he does not, what has become of it?; and 3) If he does, what is to be done with him?’¹ Yet here they come more often and insistently, leading Benjamin Kunkel to write that Beckett ‘can probably condense more cackling...

  14. XI. Mark Rothko
    (pp. 107-124)

    ‘The question has often been raised: was [Mark] Rothko religious?’ So writes Dore Ashton in her seminal studyAbout Rothko.¹ In answer, she offers various, almost contradictory, responses (e.g., ‘Rothko’s vision, at least in its religious dimension, if there were one’),² but here, in response to her own question, she answers, ‘I don’t think he was religious in any conventional sense. More likely he was religious in the way Matisse was religious when he undertook the Vence chapel,’ by which she means that just as the work provided the French artist with the opportunity ‘of realizing all his life’s researches...

  15. XII. William Gaddis (The Recognitions)
    (pp. 124-136)

    The hero, or anti-hero, of William Gaddis’s extraordinary 1955 novelThe Recognitions, Wyatt Gwyon, is, like Mark Rothko, a painter working in New York at mid-century. And like Rothko, Wyatt feels less connected to the painting being done in his day than to that of the Old Masters, especially the Flemish Masters. Expressing his frustration, early in the novel, to the Luciferian principle of reality, the businessman Recktall Brown, Wyatt says, ‘It’s as though … there’s no direction to act in now.’¹ To which he adds, ‘–People react. That’s all they do now, react, they’ve reacted until it’s the...

  16. XIII. Vladimir Nabokov (Speak, Memory)
    (pp. 136-146)

    InThe Recognitions, Wyatt, fretful regarding his own existence, says to his wife, ‘–There’s only one thing, somehow […] –that … one dilemma, proving one’s own existence, it … there’s no ruse people will disdain for it, and … or Descartes “retiring to prove his own existence,” his “cogito ergo sum,” why … no wonder he advanced masked. Kept a salamander, no wonder. Something snaps, and … when every solution becomes an evasion … it’s frightening, trying to stay awake.’¹ The passage is relevant to a discussion of Vladimir Nabokov’sSpeak, Memory(1966), for the memoir’s earlier rendition, when...

  17. XIV. Theodor Adorno (Negative Dialectics)
    (pp. 146-156)

    In his preface toNegative Dialectics, Theodor Adorno, like Nabokov, invokes the notion of game, paradoxically at first, for he tells the reader that it is his intention to ‘put his cards on the table – which is by no means the same as playing the game.’¹ Less paradoxically, inAesthetic Theory, he equates art with ‘the enigmatic quality of nature’s language,’² wherein it is understood that what especially distinguishes them is their readiness, in the spirit of riddle, both to speak and conceal a truth, or as Adorno, speaking to the point of art, writes: ‘What has irritated the theory...

  18. XV. Susan Sontag (‘The Aesthetics of Silence’)
    (pp. 156-162)

    Adorno’sAesthetic Theorywas published posthumously in 1970, a year after his death by a heart attack. It had been his intention to dedicate the book to Samuel Beckett, whose work he much admired and repeatedly referenced. One of the more intriguing references to Beckett occurs in the chapter ‘Enigmatic quality, truth content, metaphysics,’ wherein Adorno quotes Beckett as follows: ‘Every work is a “desecration of silence” (Beckett), wishing it were possible to restore that silence.’¹ Of course, the draw of silence was experienced as especially acute for those studied here, as well as their contemporaries. One has heard it...

  19. XVI. Penelope Fitzgerald (The Blue Flower)
    (pp. 162-176)

    In ‘The Aesthetics of Silence,’ Sontag quotes the German Romantic philosopher and poet Novalis to the effect that there is a strangeness, a quality of silence, in language itself, even as people mistakenly confuse its nominalist character with the intention of saying something about the real world and its objects: ‘“There is something strange in the acts of writing and speaking,” Novalis wrote in 1799. “The ridiculous and amazing mistake people make is to believe they use words in relation to things. They are unaware of the nature of language – which is to be its own and only concern, making...

  20. XVII. Krzysztof Kieślowski (The Double Life of Véronique)
    (pp. 176-184)

    In describing Penelope Fitzgerald’s method, Jo Durden-Smith thoughtfully draws an analogy with that of the film ‘director with a tight schedule, [always moving on] to the next scene.’¹ And addressing herself specifically toThe Blue Flower, Durden-Smith observes that ‘the novel unfolds – almost as a film does, in a series of brilliantly illuminated “shots,”’ wherein ‘the blue flower (as Fritz and others contemplate its meaning) appears and disappears, along with what feels like a huge cast of characters, each with his or her own concerns and visions and hoped-for futures.’² She is right, I believe, about the montage-like character of...

  21. XVIII. Frank Kermode (The Genesis of Secrecy)
    (pp. 185-191)

    Like Kieślowski, who, while professing his agnosticism, made a series of films (The Decalogue) based upon the Ten Commandments, and who described his ambition as a filmmaker as a searching for the soul, Frank Kermode has repeatedly spoken of himself as ‘a secular critic’¹ whose demonstrated interest in sacred scripture is first and foremost literary in nature. In the introduction toThe Literary Guide to the Bible, he and his co-editor Robert Alter write:

    If we were asked to state more positively why we have approached the subject as we have done, we should reply as follows. First of all,...

  22. XIX. Jacques Derrida (‘How to Avoid Speaking: Denials’)
    (pp. 191-199)

    InA Taste for the Secret, Jacques Derrida says not only, apropos of the title, ‘I have a taste for the secret,’¹ but also that ‘this secret that wespeakbut are unable tosayis, paradoxically, like good sense in Descartes, the best shared thing in the world.’² And while he cannot speak the secret, it does ground both his thought and actions: ‘Fundamentally, everything I attempt to do, think, teach and write has its raison d’être, spur, calling and appeal in this secret, which interminably disqualifies any effort one can make to determine it.’³ That it is indeterminable...

  23. XX. Epilogue
    (pp. 199-204)

    Part of me should be content to leave things here – with ‘the triumph of the unsaid’ – but as this is intended as much a history as a survey, I think it necessary to remind the reader that this particular history – of approximately a century, spotlighting both American and European artists and thinkers – will, in time, be conceived as not only following upon a prior history (in thumbnail, Western, Judaeo-Christian, philosophical, aesthetic) but also as seguing into a latter history. What shall this be? Well, one has one’s guesses, but here I should like to keep matters as grounded as possible,...

  24. Notes
    (pp. 205-260)
  25. Index
    (pp. 261-267)