Phi Fic #21 “Foe” by J. M. Coetzee

We discuss the novel about an origin story of ‘Robinson Crusoe’ by Daniel Defoe. Coetzee writes about Susan Barton, a woman cast away at sea who discovers an island inhabited by two men, Robinson Crusoe and Friday. Once rescued, Crusoe dies and Barton goes on a journey with Friday to tell her story. She seeks the renowned author Daniel Defoe but struggles with telling her story through the author.

“We therefore have five parts in all: the loss of the daughter; the quest for the daughter in Brazil; abandonment of the quest, and the adventure of the island; assumption of the quest by the daughter; and the union of the daughter with her mother. It is thus that we make up a book: loss, then quest, then recovery; beggining, then middle, then end. As to novelty, this is lent by the island episode- which is properly the second part of the middle – and by the reversal in which the daughter takes up the quest abandoned by the mother.”

‘All the joy I had felt in finding my way to Foe fled me.’

Reality also becomes blurry for Barton and the narrative builds to a metaphysical break in the structure which explores Authorship. What do stories matter? What gets left out? Who gets to speak? We also mention a work of non-fiction from a favorite thought-provoking author, ‘The Kekul Problem’ by Cormac McCarthy.

‘But this is not a place of words. Each syllable, as it comes out, is caught and filled with water and diffused. This is a place where bodies are their own signs. It is the home of Friday.

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Phi Fic #20 “Lord Jim” by Joseph Conrad

It is when we try to grapple with another man’s intimate need that we perceive how incomprehensible, wavering and misty are the beings that share with us the sight of the stars and the warmth of the sun. It is as if loneliness were a hard and absolute condition of existence; the envelope of flesh and blood on which our eyes are fixed melts before the outstretched hand, and there remains only the capricious, inconsolable and elusive spirit that no eye can follow, no hand can grasp. –Lord Jim

It’s within the loneliness of guilt that Jim, the titular character of this episode’s reading by Joseph Conrad, struggles.

Young Jim leaves a relatively comfortable life on land to follow his dream of a life at sea. He quickly ascends the ranks and is hired on as first mate on the Patna, a steamer set to cross the Red Sea with a “cargo” of 800 religious pilgrims, far exceeding the ship’s capacity. On one of the first nights of the voyage, the ship hits an underwater obstruction and begins taking on water. Fearing that the ship will sink, Jim urges preparation of the lifeboats for what pilgrims could be saved, but the captain and a few crewman instead quietly lower a lifeboat for themselves and abandon ship, saving only themselves. In a pivotal moment, Jim jumps into the lifeboat with the captain. Back at port, the four men are brought up before the magistrate’s council but the others flee, leaving only Jim to face the music. All four are publicly censured and lose the right to sail.

At the trial, Jim meets Captain Marlow (a recurring character in Conrad’s books, and Lord Jim’s narrator), and as they become acquainted, confesses his guilt to him. Marlow is intrigued by Jim and tries to help him recover from his fall from grace. After a few false starts, Marlow eventually helps arrange for him to find work on a remote island across the sea, as Jim desperately tries to save himself.

It is my belief no man ever understands quite his own artful dodges to escape from the grim shadow of self-knowledge. –Lord Jim

Join us as Nathan finds that Conrad seems, in this complex, nonlinear, far-reaching work, to be struggling with the soul of humanity, and Daniel notes the poignant contradiction of Jim having contempt for the captain but then following him into the lifeboat. Cezary points out that almost immediately when they’re in the boat they talk about what their story’s going to be, and Jim says he’s going to just say the truth. Laura discusses Conrad’s sharp questioning of the value of life with the decision the captain, and Jim, made of whether to save the smaller amount of people because they couldn’t save the larger amount, and Mary notes that ultimately, you’re supposed to go down with your ship.

Watch the trailer for the 1965 film starring Peter O’Toole.

Thanks to Christopher Nolen for the music.

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Phi Fic #19 “Death in Venice” by Thomas Mann

In 1911, the great writer Thomas Mann (1875–1955) went on vacation with his family to a seaside resort in Venice, Italy. There, he came across a beautiful 14-year-old boy and it inspired his great novella Death in Venice. This experience sets up the central struggle in the story: where eros—or erotic love as seen in Plato’s dialogue Symposium—can lead one to recognize beauty in its “pure” or “ideal” form and toward an understanding of truth.

To rest in the arms of perfection is the desire of any man intent upon creating excellence… –Death in Venice

The story’s main character is Gustav von Aschenbach, a famous writer in his fifties. Suffering from writer’s block, he resolves to take a vacation in Venice, where he crosses paths with a 14-year-old Polish boy—Tadzio—and his family. Aschenbach soon becomes obsessed with the exquisite Tadzio. As Aschenbach follows his muse through the streets of Venice and finally to the beach, struggling all the while to master his creeping infatuation, the city itself is overtaken by a mysterious plague. Ultimately, Aschenbach is overcome by the plague as he watches Tadzio playing in the surf.

But now, as he mused idly on such profound matters, the horizontal line of the sea’s shore was suddenly intersected by a human figure, and when he had retrieved his gaze from limitless immensity and concentrated it again, he beheld the beautiful boy, coming from the left and walking past him across the sand. –Death in Venice

Join our heated discussion about Mann’s intentions in this complex and remarkable story. Laura was immediately distressed by Aschenbach’s behavior given the Socratic ideal of beauty as pure and reverent as discussed by Mann; Nathan takes note of Aschenbach’s internal struggle, and wonders what he’s searching for; Mary questions how we approach manners, and how we experience beauty; Cezary insists that Socratic love is too neat, and that real love is an unruly, unraveling experience; and Daniel sums up the struggle in the book for Aschenbach and Mann as one of tensions between the ways we perceive and interact with beauty.

Watch Luchino Visconti’s search for the right boy to play the character of Tadzio in 1970 for his 1971 film based on Mann’s novella.

Thanks to Christopher Nolen for the music.

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Phi Fic #18 “The Trouble with Being Born” by E.M. Cioran

It is not worth the bother of killing yourself, since you always kill yourself too late. –The Trouble with Being Born (1973)

In this volume of aphorisms, Emil Cioran (1911–1995) strips the human condition down to its nub to defend his proposition that the true disaster in life is not death, but birth. Cioran was considered a brilliant mind, heralded by many as belonging to the same realm as Nietzsche and Kierkegaard. He wrote extensive ruminations that were often metaphysical in nature and whose recurrent themes were death, despair, solitude, history, music, decay, and nihilism. Yet the beauty of his writing belies his famed overarching philosophical pessimism.

Join us as Mary insists that Cioran’s writing is a “joyful noise… despite everything that you might pull out of this that is concerned with despair, there is such an incredible enthusiasm… you could never convince me that he didn’t love life,” and Daniel asserts that he doesn’t think “Cioran would be one to passionately argue for free will but [that] he seemed to… believe strongly in the necessity of feeling free.” Laura is convinced his struggle comes from an early episode in which Cioran’s mother told him that if she knew he was going to be as sad as he was, she would have aborted him, and Nathan observes that Cioran “brings you to the edge… he puts you in the realm of an idea and its up to you to play in the space.”

*Note: Cezary couldn’t join us for this recording as he was traveling through the Sahara on a camel that wouldn’t share its wi-fi password.

Watch Cioran’s discussion on suicide.

Thanks to Christopher Nolen for the music.

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Phi Fic #17 “Invisible Cities” by Italo Calvino

The inferno of the living is not something that will be; if there is one, it is what is already here, the inferno where we live every day, that we form by being together. There are two ways to escape suffering it. The first is easy for many: accept the inferno and become such a part of it that you can no longer see it. The second is risky and demands constant vigilance and apprehension: seek and learn to recognize who and what, in the midst of inferno, are not inferno, then make them endure, give them space. –Invisible Cities

Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino is a novel about a conversation between Marco Polo and Kublai Khan. Calvino’s fragmentary study of urban images is composed of brief prose poems, structured as the traveler’s report on the emperor’s expanding empire. And even deeper than that, it becomes a question of whether Polo is creating his reports from his imagination or merely describing his native city, Venice. A tapestry of discussion weaves throughout Polo’s poems tying in ruminations on stories, linguistics, and human nature.

…the people who move through the streets are all strangers. At each encounter, they imagine a thousand things about one another; meetings which could take place between them, conversations, surprises, caresses, bites. But no one greets anyone; eyes lock for a second, then dart away, seeking other eyes, never stopping… something runs among them, an exchange of glances like lines that connect one figure with another and draw arrows, stars, triangles, until all combinations are used up in a moment, and other characters come on to the scene…. –Invisible Cities

Join us as we discuss this beautiful novel, as Cezary notes of Calvino’s distortions, “that in an exact description there is a destruction of the thing described…[that] in leaving space for the reader to chart out what they’re thinking is [his] goal In a work like this,” and Nathan’s reflection that “there’s a reality here but it’s also something spiritual or emotional… I love this style of writing because of what it makes you feel and understand,” while Mary observes that “in describing the relationship with a city as a love affair, it gives it a sense of urgency and closeness,” and Laura wonders if this novel falls into the postmodern construct of eliminating the artist from the work.

*Note: Mary had to leave early to fight a cold and Daniel was absent this time, reprogramming the internet.

Thanks to Christopher Nolen for the music.

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